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.
I really enjoyed Baby Driver. Edgar Wright delivered a tightly crafted, exquisitely choreographed thrill ride of a movie, with a killer soundtrack and some of the best action sequences of the year. I loved the eccentric characters, the chemistry between Ansel Elgort’s Baby and Lily James’ Debora in particular, although at times it felt like it was trying a little too hard to be a Tarantino film, particularly with bits of the dialogue. I’m still amazed by the intricacy of the filming and post production work required to make each moment of the film move in rhythm with whatever song happens to be playing on Baby’s iPod. Baby Driver was a solid A film for me, and I look forward to seeing it again as I know I’ll pick up on many details I missed the first time.
However, I find myself still hung up on Baby Driver’s ending. (Spoilers below, obviously!) Continue reading
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.
Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise for me. I went into the under-the-radar hit three years ago with no expectations and came out having thoroughly enjoyed myself. It combined a winning cast with a sense of visual flair to tell a fun, twisting story that that kept me engaged and guessing throughout. But while it ended with a surprising reveal and a cliffhanger, I never really felt that it needed a sequel. Nevertheless, Now You See Me 2 is now in theaters, and I went into it with much higher expectations based on my experience with the first. The sequel mostly succeeds, reuniting almost all of its talented cast and giving us a film that captures a lot of what made the original feel special while throwing in some new wrinkles to keep things feeling fresh. I may not have been clamoring for Now You See Me 2, but I’m generally pleased it’s here.
X-Men: Apocalypse is a mess. That can be ok sometimes, because some of the best movies of all time are a little messy, and even some of the biggest messes are captivating or interesting in spite of their flaws. But Apocalypse is just a mess with nothing to redeem it. The previous main film in the X-Men series (now 9 movies, depending on how you count), Days of Future Past, was also a mess, but that was partly by design. It went out of its way in an attempt to have it all, combining the original cast with the First Class reboot cast in one extravaganza, with the saga’s most popular character, Wolverine, at the center, and the result had its moments seemingly in spite of itself. This follow-up doesn’t attempt anything nearly as bold or ambitious, yet it fails to deliver on nearly every front. It’s flash and spectacle filled with no substance, yet even the flash and spectacle are generally uninteresting. It tells a story that isn’t worth telling that tries to pander both to comic-book geeks and to simple fans of the movies, yet none of those moments have any impact. It’s filled with actors who often very clearly would rather be in any other movie than this one. It tries to give us something new while retreading some of the same plotlines we’ve already seen in the last 16 years of X-Men movies, but disregards what made the X-Men so special in the first place, all while ignoring any of the basic logic or continuity required for mutli-film sagas in general or the history of this franchise in particular. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t necessarily aggressively or offensively bad, it’s just generally pointless, and, with the exception of two scenes, utterly forgettable.
I should have known. When a lady down in the front of my full theater pulled out her cell phone during the pre-show warning to turn off your cell phone in order to scroll through an email full of pictures with her husband, zooming in on each one and discussing it, and continued doing this into Eye in the Sky’s opening credits until I yelled for her to put her phone away, I should have known things were going to go badly. We’ve all had movies ruined by rude audience members, people who won’t put away their cell phones (or don’t know how to put them on silent), never stop talking, eat loud or foul-smelling food, kick your seat, etc. But far more rare is an experience where a movie is ruined because of the audience’s reaction to it, either because they simply did not get the movie’s intentions or because you had a very different emotional response than the people surrounding you in the dark. I endured just such an event while seeing Eye in the Sky, and it not only made it impossible to fully enjoy the film from that moment on but it also destroyed a good bit of my faith in humanity. I was disgusted.
(Stephen has been attempting to learn the Urdu language)
‘I was repeating phrases from this little book. It is all I could get, apart from the Fort William grammar, which is in my cabin. It is a phrase-book, and I believe it must have been compiled by a disappointed man: My horse has been eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear; I wish to hire a palanquin; there are no palanquins in this town, sir – all my money has been stolen; I wish to speak to the Collector: the Collector is dead, sir – I have been beaten by evil men. Yet salacious too, poor burning soul: Woman, wilt thou lie with me?’
HMS Surprise – Patrick O’Brian