When I tell people that my favorite director is Steven Spielberg, I tend to get a lot of eye rolls from fellow movie buffs. He’s considered too popular or mainstream, he plays it too safe and isn’t edgy or artistic enough, he’s too sentimental and melodramatic, his only interest is in spectacle, etc. Cinephiles love to hate on the man who is probably the most successful (critically and commercially) filmmaker of the last fifty years, and are often quick to point out alternative artists who they feel has a similar career but does everything better (Christopher Nolan frequently pops up in these discussions). But from now on when anyone brings up these hackneyed Spielberg criticisms I will simply point them to one scene from The Post and ask them to show me another filmmaker who could make that scene any better.
I’ve always loved the phrase “more than the sum of its parts,” particularly when it comes to film. Like any view on movies it’s an entirely subjective opinion, but it’s a phrase I’ve been known to use. I appreciate the fact that it so easily communicates a quality that can be unique to film, that sometimes a movie rises above the potentially mediocre pieces from which it is assembled to become something more. We all have movies that feel this way to us, that have poor acting, an uninspired story, or other faults, yet still manages to capture our hearts. However, there is of course another side to this coin. Some movies have wonderful individual moments, whether great acting, an engaging story, or beautiful production design, yet they leave you feeling disappointed, as though they’re wasting the enjoyable bits. So despite loving much of The Greatest Showman, including its performances, many of its musical numbers, and its message, I was left feeling like it was less than the sum of its parts.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the film that finally allowed me to be at peace with the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There was a lot that I loved about The Force Awakens two years ago. I thought the new cast of characters were all compelling, particularly Rey and Finn. I enjoyed seeing the old favorites back, I appreciated the way it tried to honor the films that came before, and generally found it to be both a fun ride and an emotional experience. At the same time, there were a number of things in The Force Awakens that did not sit well with me, which ultimately served as distractions from the experience. I felt its tone was inconsistent and its humor occasionally felt forced or like it didn’t fit stylistically within the greater Star Wars saga. It occasionally felt too much like fan fiction (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it tried too hard to try to distance itself from the prequels. It also was far too much of a remake of A New Hope, which is not a huge deal for me the way it is for other people but which felt kind of lazy. Most of all, it bothered me that they were continuing the main series of films without George Lucas, and in fact intentionally disregarding any plans he might have had for them. I understand why they did it, but The Force Awakens did not justify these new uncharted waters they were sailing. (On the other hand, I 100% love Rogue One, even if its characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in The Force Awakens.)
In an effort to cut through the backlog of movies left to review after everything that’s happened the last couple of years, I’m going back to movies I skipped and giving them each 5 Things. These can be things I loved, things I hated, or anything in between, they’re just 5 thoughts I had about the movie. Today I’m tackling Moana, one of my favorite movies of 2016, and probably my favorite Disney animated film since Tangled. I gave it an A+ in my movie log at the time I saw it, and I probably love it even more today than I did then. It’s gorgeous, has fantastic music, and characters I find immensely relatable and compelling. So without further ado, here are 5 Things I Love about Moana!
I’ve never liked the phrase “so bad, it’s good” when it comes to movies, even though I’ve used it myself. The truth is it can occasionally be the perfect description for a movie that is enjoyable not in spite of its badness but because of it. But I don’t subscribe to the notion of film quality as something quantitative that can be numerically measured, even though we all give grades to movies. I especially don’t think that there’s some hypothetical badness line where once you cross it a movie suddenly becomes good again. There are plenty of bad movies that I genuinely like, but also plenty of “equally” bad movies that are just torture to watch with no possibility of enjoyment whatsoever. But beyond this philosophical disagreement with the idea of a “so bad, it’s good” movie, I’m not a fan of movies that intentionally strive to be terrible with the hopes of crossing that imaginary barrier into the “so bad, it’s good” realm. The Sharknado series comes to mind, which works very hard to be bad in order to try to capture an audience that might be out there looking for the next sublime failure. That sort of thing holds no interest to me. “So bad, it’s good” movies are ultimately a very personal thing, just like all movies are. What I might love in an awful movie someone else might find insufferable, and simply having a bad story, bad acting, bad writing, or bad directing isn’t necessarily going to make something likable. Making a great, bad movie is much more difficult than that, but it also requires a very subjective reaction. So when I say that Geostorm is dumb, loud, clumsy, and ridiculous, know that it’s an objectively poor film. But when I also say that watching it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in many years, know also that I enjoyed it both because of its badness and because of my own personal preferences when it comes to bad entertainment.
Note: I’m changing the way I write movie reviews. Longtime readers have probably noticed that I haven’t written nearly as much here on the site as I used to. There are a host of reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that my wife and I are expecting a baby later this month. I’d like to get back to writing more often, and one of the ways I want to do that is to be a little less structured in what I write. I’ve always felt a need to adhere to a certain formula with my movie reviews, but I’ve realized that I’ve grown a bit weary of the routine. I always have many thoughts about movies I see, but I’m more likely to share those thoughts if I allow myself to be freer. So in my reviews from now on I’m not going to feel the need to talk about aspects of the film that don’t interest me. I’m not going to go out of my way to recap the plot, point out all of the major cast members, or comment on aspects of the production that didn’t provoke a reaction. Also, since I’m a lot slower to write reviews than I used to be, I’m not going to shy away from some minor spoilers. Anything major I want to talk about will still go below a spoiler warning, but I’m going to assume that major spoilerphobes will have seen the film by the time I get around to writing about it. I may also post reviews in a wider variety of lengths, letting myself ramble on when I have more to say but not forcing myself to write more than I want. Hopefully this will all allow for more frequent updates and a more pleasant and interesting reading experience. As always, thanks for reading!
There’s no logical reason for Logan to be as good as it is. Wolverine’s two previous solo outings have varied from mediocre and disappointing to flat-out horrible, and the most recent X-Men movies haven’t been substantially better. It’s been 14 years since the last movie in this disjointed series which I wholeheartedly loved, X2, which still stands as one of my favorite superhero films. Honestly at this point I would be more than happy to see the series die, to give these characters a much needed rest. Logan marks the 9th film in the X-Franchise (not counting Deadpool), and at this point there should be very little left to say about these characters. I know that Hollywood is a business, and FOX will continue exploiting this familiar territory for the brand recognition alone, but they’ve retread the same ground over and over again with nothing new to contribute so often that I’ve grown weary of the entire endeavor. I didn’t even really want to see Logan, I was wary of being burned again after The Wolverine started with such promise and ended up so disappointing. So when I say that Logan is a genuinely good film, and it even has moments of greatness, understand that while this is coming from a place of low expectations I’m not judging merely judging this on a curve. Logan is a fitting companion to the original X-Men films, good enough to almost make it worth slogging through some of the more recent movies in order to reach this point, and far better than it has any right to be.
Harry Potter is back in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! No, wait, this isn’t The Cursed Child, though it is filled all of your favorite Harry Potter characters! Ok, maybe not, but you might recognize a few names here or there. But it is set in the beloved world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series! Well alright, it’s actually set in the 1920s in New York, filled with unfamiliar magical slang and completely foreign to both our protagonist and to viewers. Still, this is the Harry Potter spinoff that everyone has yearned for since the series concluded! No, it’s not? So why should anyone care about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, when it seemingly lacks everything that audiences grew to love about the Harry Potter saga? For starters, it’s an exciting, dark, fun, funny, emotional, and immensely creative film set in a rich and fascinating world that is strong enough to stand on its own. It deepens and broadens the Harry Potter universe, showing us previously unexplored aspects, locations, and eras of the wizarding world providing new insights and a greater context for the events that shaped the life of the Boy Who Lived. And it kicks off a five film series in a way that’s far more topical, political, relevant, and just more interesting than any of the Harry Potter films that came before (matching the tone of the later books much more closely than the movies). And most importantly to me at least, this is the story that J.K. Rowling wanted to tell, that she thought would be the most compelling way to expand and explore the universe she created. As far as I’m concerned she was right, and I can’t wait to see more.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding, seemingly showing no signs of stopping. Each new film brings us new heroes to fight new villains, new locations or planets filled with people to save, and new clashes and conflicts to bring characters together or drive them apart. But while Doctor Strange certainly continues the trend, it broadens the universe in entirely new ways, pushing not only the boundaries of superhero storytelling but of visual craftsmanship. It’s a mind-bending head trip of a film, which attempts to introduce a spiritual aspect to an otherwise science fiction series, all while serving up some of the most creative and exhilarating action sequences in recent memory. Doctor Strange may stick to the tried and true Marvel origin story formula, but it’s a fun ride anchored by a strong cast and impressive effects, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into the potential future of this ever-expanding Universe.
The 1960 classic, The Magnificent Seven, has never been a film inconsideration for the title of “Greatest Western of All Time”. It isn’t as iconic and influential as Shane nor as intense or symbolic as High Noon. It lacks the epic expansiveness of The Searchers as well as the gritty, violent realism of The Wild Bunch. It failed to reinvent the genre or subvert expectations like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Unforgiven. Yet in spite of all that, I’ve long counted The Magnificent Seven among my favorite Western films, possibly my very favorite movie genre. The remake of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai combined a talented cast, solid direction from John Sturges, and one of the most memorable film scores of all time to create a fun, exciting adventure with a surprising amount of depth. The new remake of the 1960 remake, therefore, has a lot to live up to, and when it adheres to its predecessor’s formula it largely succeeds, even in spite of a few missteps along the way.
I’ve been a hardcore Disney fan for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I automatically love everything the Mouse has produced. Specifically, I’ve never been a fan of the original Pete’s Dragon, the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid. While I appreciated the design and animation of Elliott, the film’s titular dragon, I found the whole affair too silly for my tastes topped off with forgettable songs. So of Disney’s recent spate of modern, live-action remakes (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book so far, with Beauty and the Beast due next year), I was by far most enthusiastic about Pete’s Dragon, which I felt was most in need of an update. I’ve generally enjoyed all of the films in Disney’s latest trend so I’ve come to have high expectations, and Pete’s Dragon didn’t disappoint. But what I wasn’t prepared for was its beautiful simplicity, the stillness and subtlety with which it tells its story, or just what a breath of fresh air it is.