Thursday, June 8, 2017

Films of 2017: "Power Rangers"

Trailers for Lionsgate's update of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" earlier this year had the six-year-old in me geeking out. I remember the original series when it premiered on the Fox Kids' Network in the early-Nineties, and thought it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen on T.V. (aside from the Batman animated series and pretty much anything on Nickelodeon back then). And while this gritty and exciting update has some of that same nostalgic vibe in the final cut (the suits and Zords are super cool), it does lack depth and cuts at a mildly-rushing pace, particularly in its first two-thirds.

Most of the film is spent with its engaging though rebellious cast of teenage characters, who come from different backgrounds, even which some of them question. Topics amongst them range from familial conflict, relationships, athletic disappointment, and even sexual identity--some deep stuff for what is essentially a kids' action series. The plot follows them as the come across an old land mine and find five mysterious coins that eventually give them superpowers. (Okay, you know where this is going.) And while the story is mostly predictable, the diversity in the main cast is an added bonus, as eccentric robot Alpha 5 implies, "Different colored coins. Different colored kids."

Speaking of the cast, RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, 2015) steals the movie as Billy the Blue Ranger, along with the perfect casting of Bryan Cranston as Zordon, Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, and a surprising new spin on Alpha 5 from Bill Hader. Overall, while the six-year-old in me did root at moments (such as during surprise cameos from some of the original "Rangers"), the final cut follows in the same cinematic footsteps as Transformers and Batman Begins before it. If there's a sequel, hopefully there's more "morphin' time" in its script than in its style.

(l-r) RJ Cryer (Billy), Naomi Scott (Kimberly), Ludi Lin (Zach),
Becky G. (Trini), and Dacre Montgomery (Jason) 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Films of 2017: "The Lego Batman Movie"

In the opening minutes of The Lego Batman Movie, star and lead voice-actor Will Arnet's impression of Christian Bale provides hilarious commentary ("Black. All great movies begin in black") over what could be an alternate and humorous prologue to The Dark Knight (2008). Along with the moment where butler Alfred practically recaps the Caped Crusader's live-action cinematic history--including "that weird one in 1966"--the humor in this film is so self-aware and meta, it gives Deadpool a run for his money.

According to one resource, Batman is regarded as one of the most adaptable fictional characters in any media and art form. Whether as as campy 1960s cartoon, a dark and brooding vigilante, or a mysterious hero, he's made his mark on almost every medium in history. This time around, he's given a slight twist. Batman may be the biggest hero in Gotham City, but at home he's a loner. (Although he wouldn't be the first to admit that.) As Alfred tells him, "Your biggest fear is being part of a family again."

"I've seen you go through similar phases, Master Bruce."
And then, the Joker--out of humiliation that Batman doesn't consider him his "greatest enemy"--hatches a plan that unleashes chaos on Gotham (though not as we expect). And then, newly appointed police commissioner Barbara Gordon makes a deal with Batman to save the city on the sole condition that they (along with Alfred and newly-adoptive kid Dick Grayson/Robin) do it together.

While The Lego Movie (2014) really tapped into the mindset of childlike imagination and creativity when it comes to playing with toys (and it did so with art, style and substance), this sophomoric outing and spin-off seems to have been made by filmmakers and comedy writers having a ball by aiming more for pure satire, silliness, and commentary on the Dark Knight's legacy and mythology. Nevertheless, they still manage to tell a surprising, in-depth story, even though the film seems to abandon, at times, the charm of Lego figurines.

The voice cast is clever, with Zach Galifinakis as the Joker, Michael Cera as Robin, Rosario Dawson as Barbara/Batgirl, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, and just about every member of Batman's rogue's gallery on display. I did also enjoy the clever homages to classic movie villains from Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and even "Doctor Who." All of these elements give the film a colorful charm that would fit right at home at a Cosplay event. On the other hand, this film could arguably serve as an antidote for the retrospectively-depressing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), as well as a lead-in to this fall's highly-anticipated Justice League (which, according to the trailers, promises to be an entertaining and rocking thrill ride). With that in mind, Lego Batman, perhaps, is truly the first film that bridges the gap between the campy Batman and the dark and brooding version.

Adults will probably enjoy this one more than kids, which is both a plus and sort of a minus, in terms of subtle references that will easily fly over the latter's heads (like clips from the R-rated Jerry McGuire, as well as the aforementioned movie-villain homages in the Phantom Zone sequence). The same goes for an arguably subtle nod to Suicide Squad's original treatment ("What am I gonna do? Get a bunch of criminals to fight criminals?") Nevertheless, Lego Batman is still a fun ride for any and every Batman fan, with messages of family, self-doubt, and teamwork over individualism ("It takes a village, not a Batman"), as well as the theme of losing loved ones and yet honoring those still in our lives. Now, that's something you don't see every day in the form of colorful toy bricks.

Films of 2017: "Get Out"

The goal of comedy is to get people to laugh, whereas the goal of horror is to get people to be scared. As a filmgoer, those who know me well know that I generally try to avoid horror films, as a large majority of them arguably focus on nihilistic and mean-spirited gore and violence, which makes them very maddening and even palpable. (Read here for my review of the Scream series, despite its clever meta aspects). It's rare, though, that a "horror" film actually has something provocative to say, in spite of its excess in said gore and/or fright factors. With that in mind, I did find "Cabin in the Woods" (2012) interesting to an extent, due to its meta elements.

Get Out, the directorial debut from Jordan Peele (one half of the famous comedy duo Key & Peele), is another rare case of a horror-thriller with such social commentary--in this case, racial fears in America. Having read many reviews of this film (without spoilers), not to mention its 99 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I was intrigued to view it--with discretion and discernment, of course.

Director Jordan Peele behind the scenes
The premise is simple. A young Caucasian woman named Rose (Girls star Allison Williams) brings her black boyfriend Chris (Sicario's Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford as a neurosurgeon and Catherine Keener as a hypnotist-psychiatrist) for the weekend, and things take a shocking turn for the worse. The objective isn't so much a lesson in morals or values, but really (as most films of this genre go) a fight for survival.

One of Peele's influences was reportedly George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, which features a black protagonist, with perhaps a little Guess Who's Coming to Dinner-meets-Stepford Wives thrown in. (Isn't it just creepy the way the house servants talk?!?) Peele also balances elements of comedy (especially Chris's TSA friend Rod, played by LilRel Howery) with clichéd jump scares.

Daniel Kaluuya
The result, though a brilliantly-made film that would easily fit alongside the filmographies of Romero and John Carpenter, is creepy. The opening scene, for instance, shows a young black man walking down a quiet and lonely street at night, until he's quietly followed. (The song playing in the car following him is the 1930s classic "Run Rabbit Run".) Along with subtle themes of abduction, brainwashing (mental paralysis), and power, Peele reportedly provides an expression of the black experience via an effective, often comedic, and downright frightening horror-thriller. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Franchises and series have had a long history--particularly in books--prior to the motion picture industry in the 1900s onward, from Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan adventures to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes investigations to the Grimm Brothers' countless interpretations of classic fairy tales. The novels of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) carry an equal baggage of adventure, mystery, and fantasy. Despite the author's dislike for allegory (unlike friend C.S. Lewis's use of the form in his beloved "Chronicles of Narnia" series), his admiration for history, linguistics, and applicable themes and characters is evident throughout his most famous works that comprise his world of "Middle-earth"--"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". (The same goes for his posthumous work, "The Silmarrilion," which chronicles the history of elves in this universe.)

Only previously adapted into several audio versions and a 1978 animated feature directed by Ralph Bakshi, the thought of adapting what was long considered (even by Tolkien himself) an "unfilmable" work was risky, let alone daunting. Nevertheless, acclaimed filmmaker and New Zealand-native Peter Jackson (whose previous credits at the time included low-budget, gross-out horror movies, as well as the true-story crime-thriller Heavenly Creatures [1994] and the Michael J. Fox-led horror-comedy The Frighteners [1996]), wife and screenwriting partner Fran Walsh, co-writer Phillipa Boyens, creative director Richard Taylor and the folks at Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital and the Weta Workshop, embarked on a seven year odyssey to bring The Lord of the Rings (which celebrated fifteen years last year since it first premiered in theaters) to the big screen. The results were unprecedented at the time, considering a motion picture trilogy had never been released within the span of three years (predating the two-part finales of fantasy novels Harry Potter and Twilight, and, of course, almost all the films in the Marvel Studios canon), and they remain phenomenal.

The story, which begins with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), centers on the One Ring of power that the evil lord Sauron plans to use to destroy Middle-earth, and the quest made by hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who was entrusted with said Ring from his cousin Bilbo Baggins (the hero of "The Hobbit"), to the fires of Mount Doom, the one place where it can be destroyed. Accompanying Frodo on his journey are the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan); loyal friends Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd); ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); soldier Boromir (Sean Bean); elf and archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), each representing distinct cultures. Those that stand in Frodo's way include, of course, Sauron (represented in the shape of a giant eye), the corrupted wizard Saruman (the legendary Christopher Lee), armies of orcs and trolls and other frightening creatures as wolf-like Wargs and a giant spider, and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), once a simple individual who had, long ago, tragically fallen captive to the Ring's power).

The main reason the films hold up is that Tolkien's themes remain in tact. Multiculturalism. Power. Deception. Fellowship. Courage. Heroism. Heritage. Legacy. Myth. Environmentalism. History. It's all there. Having served in both World Wars, Tolkien, like many of his comrades, had traumatic experiences and would express them through literature. In "The Two Towers" (part two of this series), for instance, the scenes involving the Dead Marshes represent fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, Aragorn (who is revealed to be the lost heir of a fallen kingdom) fears that he will fall into the same weaknesses as his ancestors, whereas Boromir (the son of a misguided and maddening steward of said kingdom) feels equally misguided and conflicted in his quest to do what he believes is right for his people, considering the loss of hope in the process.

At the same time, Tolkien believed that there were things worth fighting for--friendship, family, and above all good triumphing over evil. The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring provides an understanding of the history and mythology of Middle-earth, as if it were a real world with real and fantastical places. Therefore, the "War of the Ring" in his fantasy epic represents a war that had to be fought. The epilogue of The Two Towers (2002), as spoken by Sam, assures this point. With that in mind, the central heart of the story is the journey of Frodo and Sam (representing the role of English officers and their loyal and accountable batmen).

Other themes include the role of technology, specifically in Saruman's role of greed and power (a la the Industrial Revolution) against the forces of nature, and vice versa. Then there's the role of fear, not only in the form of a giant fiery eye (Sauron, representing monoism and true evil), but also that of a giant diseased and decaying spider. And there is the theme of leadership and heritage, illustrated in the White Tree of Gondor (as seen in The Return of the King [2003]), which reportedly represents a line of kings.

From Page To Screen
The script process started out as a 90-page treatment in the mid-Nineties, followed by a two-film promotion, at almost every major studio. Finally, it was the Time Warner-owned New Line Cinema that insisted there be three films--since there were three books. (Decades before George Lucas had initially intended with Star Wars, Tolkien had intended "The Lord of the Rings" as one whole book, and it reportedly took him eleven-to-twelve years, between 1937 and 1948, to write and complete it before it was first published in 1954-1955.)

As with most films adapted from novels or plays or books, there are certainly many elements that purists would likely argue over. In this case, the absence of the popular character Tom Bombadil and the "Scourging of the Shire" climax, as well as the restructuring of different stories being intersected or told simultaneously rather than separately. (Tolkien's purpose in doing this, particularly with the second and third volumes, was to create "realism from not knowing what's going on," therefore providing tension and anticipation in the overall narrative.) Jackson and company also turned to the Appendix sources found at the end of the text for "The Return of the King" for certain ideas and materials.

The overall structure of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, compared with Fellowship, is different and complex, with the former being the middle chapter, of course. Various story lines alternate or are juxtaposed, from Frodo and Sam's unlikely guidance by Gollum to Mordor, to the journey to the kingdom of Rohan by Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf; to Merry & Pippin's encounter with the age-old Ent Treebeard; and to Saruman's dominion over the land of Isengard. Both this film and King use careful chronology of events in the book while maintaining the essence of the overall story. The Two Towers improves on the first film with an even more engaging and progressive story about holding on to hope, regardless of the world and its circumstances. (There's a great moment where Aragorn encourages a young boy readying for battle.) It even emphasizes the importance of tales and storytelling (as in the scene where Sam wonders if he and Frodo will be remembered by such means). But it's The Return of the King that culminates all of the technological and emotional sophistication that Jackson and company had carried through the seven-year odyssey in creating and completing this story for the screen. Here, they pull out all the stops, as never before seen in film, with the darkest, most grim, and most emotional of the films. Is it any wonder this final film won Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars?

The advancements in computer-generated effects at the turn of the 21st century bring Tolkien's work to visual life, including improvements and reshoots (and "pick-ups") made in each subsequent film. An interesting fact: principal photography finished in December 2000 (with a scene at Minas Tirith), and the last "pick-up" reshoot took place in July 2003, five months before Return of the King was released. The fact that these films were made in New Zealand, for one thing, has made the country not only synonymous with Middle-earth but also an acclaimed and popular tourist attraction in recent years.

In addition, the growth of Weta Digital over the years has been staggering. For instance, Fellowship has 540 VFX shots, The Two Towers has 799, and Return of the King has 1488. The development and revolution of motion-capture technology (or, "mo-cap"), especially with Andy Serkis's dedicated and unforgettable performance as Gollum, is equally impressive. Serkis has practically become a legend in the "mo-cap" community, with his subsequent work on Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and the reboots of Planet of the Apes (2011, 2014). Again, the detail is not just there for its own sake, but to represent and illustrate culture and history (putting aside that it's all fantasy). Howard Shore's score is epic, adventurous, emotional, and "culturally significant."

Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) on the set of The Return of the King (2003)
The work of the entire cast and crew not only paid off commercially and critically, but also led to an unprecedented and deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with a total of eleven Oscars (tying with 1959's Ben-Hur and 1997's Titanic) in every category it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Not bad for a fantasy epic long considered "unfilmable," not to mention a once low-budget filmmaker soon on his way to returning another "King."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Films of 2017: "Kong: Skull Island"

When it comes to movie monsters, King Kong is the quintessential example that comes to mind, up there with Godzilla. (Heck, I'd even vouch for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghost Busters.)

In recent years, cinema has seen its share of onscreen creatures, from the giant beast in Cloverfield (2008) to the Kraken in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) to the 50-foot Kaiju in Pacific Rim (2013). Three years ago, Warner Brothers began a so-called cinematic "Monster-Verse" with Godzilla (2014), an impressive (not to mention grounded) update of Japanese company Toho's giant lizard, directed by a pre-Rogue One Gareth Edwards.

This franchise's sophomoric effort, Kong: Skull Island, is something of a reimagining of the mythological figure, who is brought from an unknown island to New York City, where he meets his match atop the iconic Empire State Building. Only this film is set during the Vietnam days of the early-1970s as various soldiers (headed by who else but Samuel L. Jackson), scientists, and crew members including an expert navigator (Tom Hiddleston), an antiwar photographer (Brie Larson), and a persistent explorer (the versatile John Goodman) embark to a mysterious island of uncharted territory. What they encounter, even before they land, is a giant gorilla and a host of other enormous creatures in a fight for survival. They even encounter an ancient tribe, as well as a lost WWII hero (a scene-stealing John C. Reilly) who's been on the island since the 1940s.

John C. Reilly
John Goodman
Samuel L. Jackson and Toby Kebbell
Exceeding the mind-numbing CGI action and mayhem that the trailers suggested, the movie itself is an exciting and nostalgic throwback to the days when adventure films like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park had quality. In other words, they were films with substance and not just action and tension. More specifically, this film is a throwback to what makes an adventure pick exciting: an opportunity to explore, to be astounded, and to be terrified by a world unseen and unheard of. (Although, anybody who's seen the 1933 black-and-white original, and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, will recognize this fictional location.)

What sets this film apart from the conventional creature feature (and this is something Godzilla did real well) is how it showcases characters that are as interesting and compelling as Kong and the other mysterious and dangerous creatures that roam the island. (Even the great character actors and film icons Jackson and Goodman have at least one great on-screen moment together.) Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (who's only other feature film effort was the 2013 coming-of-age drama The King's of Summer) even shot at real locations, including Hawaii and (for reportedly the first time in Hollywood history) Vietnam. As for the creatures, Kong is incredibly big, while the "Skull Crawlers" (amphibious monsters with two limbs and long tails), water buffaloes and insects are intricately detailed and massive.

If the film has a weakness, it's that it wastes no time showing it's title character from the first sequence, rather than showing a big reveal halfway through (a la Jaws or Jurassic Park). This is something the trailers (save for the one that debuted at the San Diego ComiCon last year) unfortunately ruined as well, and what makes the trailers and film of Godzilla that much more nerve-wracking and exciting.

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston
In spite of this, it's thematically amazing that, amidst the Vietnam-era setting, the Creedence Clearwater Revival soundtrack, and cast of characters, Kong (who appears villainous and menacing) is not the real villain here, but the protector and defender of the island. And he's a pretty awesome one at that. It's enough to set him apart from the tragic "Beauty-killed-the-Beast" conclusions of the original story. This Kong aims for full-blown popcorn thrills and vibes on the same par as Apocalypse Now (1979).

Stay through the credits on this one, for as every cinephile knows, "Kong is not the only king."

Films of 2017: "Logan"

It's easy to forget (and most people may not be aware) that before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, and before Sam Raimi's personal take on Spider-Man, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, 1995) really changed the face of superhero/comic book films at the turn of the century with X-Men (2000) and set the stage for the aforementioned films we have today.

Singer also made a breakout star in Hugh Jackman, a relative unknown Australian actor at the time. Much like Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Terminator, and Robert Downey, Jr., and Tony Stark/Iron Man, Jackman has become synonymous with the claw-fisted mutant that is Wolverine for the past seventeen years, thanks to nine feature-film appearances--ten if you count his image appearing in one (read below). And his range and progression as an actor in this role (not to mention biceps he's gained) has really shown, whether as a relatively new pupil at Professor X's famed school (2000's X-Men), as an over-the-top avenger in a scathing "origin" story (2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine), as a lost man who journeys to Japan (2013's The Wolverine), or as an ageless character sent back in time to stop an assassination and change the future (2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past).

X-Men Cinematic Universe Filmography:
X-Men (2000)
X2: X-Men United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
The Wolverine (2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Deadpool (2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Logan (2017)

Hugh Jackman
Jackman's reported final outing in this franchise appears in the violent R-rated Logan, set in a bleak and hopeless future where mutants and "heroes" have become largely extinct (save for a bruised and broken Wolverine, an ailing Charles Xavier, and a sun-phobic albino known as Caliban). From the opening frame, it's obvious that Logan (drunken and washed up) is at the end of his rope, as his healing powers don't work as they used to. Meanwhile, Xavier suffers from dementia and seizures that greatly impact those around him, which Logan constantly tries to keep in check.

Then, one day, an old acquaintance of Logan's begs him to take a little girl to the border of Canada to ensure her safety, as there is a safe haven there known as "Eden". And when the girl (named Laura) sprouts claws from her fists, just like Wolverine, it's revealed she's a mutant, and there are others across the border just like her, leading Logan and Charles on an unlikely road trip.

The film runs more like an action-western than a full-blown comic book movie, much the same way The Dark Knight (2008) worked as a crime drama. And it's a deadly serious one at that; one that perhaps gives Jackman his most compelling, gripping, and profane opportunity with the character. The same for Patrick Stewart, who takes Xavier in a completely different and strangely poignant direction. The way both actors (as well as newcomer Dafne Keen, who plays Laura) handle the sentimentality and emotional core of the film is superb and unexpected.

Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman
Director James Mangold (who worked with Jackman on The Wolverine, as well as 2001's Kate & Leopold) ends Wolverine's swan song not only with a riveting and intimate character-driven story, but also by pulling out all the stops that an R-rating would allow. The opening scene, for instance, wastes no time slicing its adversaries and unfortunate baddies who cross Wolverine's path. One review described the film's violence this way: "It's doubtful you'd see so much sliced meat in a beef packing plant" (read here).

With that in mind (as gripping and compelling and unconventional as the film is), it's a question of how far it was really necessary to take the level of violence that it went. It would be easy to compare this film to the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, or Mel Gibson, in terms of graphic on-screen brutality, or even to R-rated action films from the Eighties and Nineties like Robocop, Total Recall, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, all of which were critically- and commercially-successful.

Even so, I pity parents who let their Wolverine-/X-Men-fan children see this. Sure, it's fair to say that, like last year's equally-hard-R Deadpool, Logan was never marketed as a child- or family-friendly movie. (Both films didn't even spawn kids' toys in the process.)

Laura, the mutant girl who was (it's implied) created in a testing facility with Logan's DNA and exhibits the same healing powers he does, is subjected to and overcomes numerous moments of peril throughout the film (like a kid version of Linda Hamilton, or, according to some critics, Natalie Portman from Leon: The Professional), including a disturbing instance where she's impaled with an arrow. I am personally bothered by seeing children involved in such situations. Sure, Laura is a not literally a human character, but the idea of a child being exposed to such atmospheres is very troubling, and one that parents should think more than twice about, as if the R-rating wasn't enough.

On the other hand (and this is a thought, not an endorsement), maybe that's what the filmmakers were aiming at, as the theme of the film revolves around characters who are lost (or were born) in darkness and discover life; some for the first time (Laura), and others once again (Logan, Charles). "This is what life is," a voice-of-reason Charles tells Logan. "You should take a moment and feel it. . . . You still have time." It even impacts Laura, who was born and raised to be a weapon for the government, and is moved by what it means to live.

Yet, I question how this film and its success (along with Deadpool's) will effect the genre in the future. Marvel and DC, for one, are reportedly open to more R-rated comic book movies (read here). Director Zack Snyder, after all, has already made adaptations of the graphic novels 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), and the "Ultimate Edition" of Batman v Superman (2016), released on Bluray. In addition, both studios have been having successful T.V. series in the forms of Gotham (The CW), Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage (all Netflix). The Hollywood Reporter also wrote an interesting article on the subject recently, with the implication of whether the future of comic-book movies being R-rated is necessary.

I hope that this doesn't become a trend. The good thing, though, is that these R-rated versions of comic-book characters aren't the only versions out there. And kids and families can still encounter various cinematic adventures in less bloody and violent ways (look at The Incredibles, Batman: The Animated Series, Big Hero 6, and most of the PG-13 Marvel films), recalling the universal thrills that set the genre in motion many times before.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Standout Films of the Decade: 2016

WRITER'S NOTE: This post is Part 2 of my list of films from 2016 (you can read Part 1 here). Also, while there were some films I regretted not seeing in theaters last year (particularly A Monster CallsPaterson, and Silence), I will more than likely be updating my lists for "Films of the Decade" for the 2010s in the months to come.

As I've said before, the following selections and reviews aren't necessarily a means of recommendation nor an endorsement for the worldviews in these films. Rather, they are selected based on their artistic and thematic qualities, their worthy critique, and their universal appeal.

And lastly, not all of the films on this list received full reviews by yours truly. (No excuses.) Wherever mentioned, click the links below to read my reviews for the respected films.

Before I reveal my top picks for 2016, here are some "Notable Mentions":

Hidden Figures
A remarkable untold true story of African-American mathematicians involved in NASA's space program in the 1960s, and their determination and willingness to persevere in a time of racial and civil divide. Backed by top-notch performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, and Kevin Costner, and music by Pharrell Williams, this is a story for inspiring figures who don't ordinarily get the recognition they deserve. (Read my review here.)

The Jungle Book
Disney continues its streak of successful live-action adaptations of classic stories (and their own animated versions of said stories) with this new take on Rudyard Kipling's classic book. A visual marvel with a stellar voice cast, worthwhile themes, and emotional resonance--the "bare necessities" of such a worthy film.

A powerful and remarkable true story of Saroo Bierkly, an Indian boy adopted into an Australian family after wandering from home, who sets out on a journey, as a young man, to find his biological family. Moments of sensuality aside, this is a moving story of adoption, memory, and family. Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman give two of the year's best performances. (Read my review here.)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
A standalone feature that works on its own (while fitting itself into the Star Wars canon). Set prior to the events of the 1977 original film, a group of rebel fighters (including a scene-stealing K-2 droid) seek to steal the plans for the Death Star and restore hope to the galaxy. Unlike anything seen in the franchise before. (Read my review here.)

While not as deep as Zootopia or Kubo, this crowd-pleasing music romp with anthropomorphic animals in a singing competition is a lot of fun. It also ends a year full of many unexpected celebrity passings on a high (and subtly, if unintentionally, commemorative) note. Favorite characters: porcupine punk-rocker Ash (Scarlet Johansson), shy-and-soulful elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), and gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton). (Read my review here.)

And now, here are my picks for the ten standout films of 2016:

10. Fences
Denzel Washington directs and headlines this big screen adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play set in 1950s Pittsburgh, as family patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington) struggles against the times he's living in, those behind him, and those closest to him. A riveting and provocative film, with Washington and Viola Davis (as Troy's devastated wife, Rose) delivering powerful and well-deserved performances. (Read my review here.)

9. Jackie 
Natalie Portman shines in this vivid and complex portrait (and dramatization) of American icon Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of an unexpected tragedy (the assassination of JFK), while also chronicling her week-long transition into a new chapter in American history. Unconventional in its filmmaking approach yet emotional and meditative in its resonance. (Read my review here.)

8. Hacksaw Ridge
Director Mel Gibson makes an unexpected comeback with this graphic and incredible true story of real-life WWII private Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector at the frontline of battle who refused to carry or fire a weapon in one of the bloodiest battles in world history. A character study that honors its hero's legacy and those who've served, while challenging and inspiring the notion of what it means to be a hero. (Read my review here.)

7. Sully
Director Clint Eastwood and star Tom Hanks team up to tell the story of American pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and the Miracle on the Hudson, and the untold story of the investigation that followed. Filmed with IMAX cameras that brilliantly recreate the now-famous landing, this is another film this year that evokes and challenges the definition of what a hero is. Hanks is every bit the everyman he's great at playing, and yet still delivers a performance of subtlety, conflict, and quiet determination. (Read my review here.)

6. Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika Animation delivers their magnum opus in their repertoire of stop-motion animated features. Only instead of angst-ridden teenagers crawling through doors to alternate realities (Coraline), or kids seeing zombies and ghosts (ParaNorman), or a steampunk Victorian setting (The Boxtrolls), Kubo features a boy warrior in fugal Japan on a journey to find the armor of his late Samurai father. Accompanied by a monkey and beetle (Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, respectfully), this film delivers breathtaking visuals and unexpected depth and drama that mark it as one of the year's most amazing achievements.

5. Captain America: Civil War
The Marvel Cinematic Universe takes the beginning of its third phase in a different route as the worldviews of various Avengers (particularly Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man) turn against each other while world leaders try to keep them in check after a series of catastrophic global events. The Russo brothers strike a balance here in making this third Captain America story (or, more appropriately, Avengers 2.5) both a conflicting character study as well as a summer popcorn muncher. I mean, it features one of the best action sequences in the history of comic book movies, for crying out loud! Plus, Black Panther and Spider-Man steal the show. (Read my review here.)

4. Arrival
What seems like another alien invasion epic a la Independence Day or District 9 is actually an unconventional science-fiction drama about first contact and human connection. Amy Adams gives perhaps her best performance to date as a linguist who makes contact with alien beings and who goes through a realm of time and memory. With excellent acting support from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, as well as the striking imagery of egg-like ships hovering around the world, this is a remarkable and thought-provoking achievement that redefines the whole genre.

3. Zootopia
Disney Animation delivers their most original story in years. Set in the anthropomorphic animal kingdom (an unprecedented visual achievement in and of itself!), an ambitious bunny cop named Judy Hopps tries to solve a case with the help of a sly fox, Nick Wilde. Clever gags (the scene with the sloths at the DMV is a riot), deep thematic storytelling, societal undertones (prey vs. predator) and winning characters take Disney Animation to a whole other level. Zootopia is terrific.

2. Midnight Special 
Director Jeff Nichols' sci-fi drama about a young boy with extraterrestrial powers pursued by FBI agents and religious extremists (you could say it's a feature length version of M83's "Wait" music video) is another exceptional and redefining entry (though an underappreciated one) in the science-fiction genre. Superb acting from Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shephard, and a very human and provocative story of faith, family, and the unknown. (Read my combined review for this film and Arrival here.)

1. La La Land
Writer-director Damien Chazelle follows up (and counters) his intense and nerve-wracking sophomore hit Whiplash (2014) with a musical for people who don't love musicals. Featuring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as two dreamers in modern-day Los Angeles, La La Land is an irresistible, song-and-dance extravaganza. A rare treat that balances a journey that reaches for the stars and yet grounds itself in reality brilliantly. A well-deserved award-winner with unforgettable vibes. (Read my review here.)

Films of 2016: The Disappointing and the Divisive

I know I'm late in getting this list (Part 1 of 2, to be exact) posted on here. But, I'm a firm believer in letting time tell how a work of art, whether film or music or story, is going to hold up or not. As far as the latter is concerned, there were a few movies that disappointed me last year (largely in terms of anticipation and expectation), and a couple of others that I thought were, for various reasons, very divisive.

First things first, here are my picks for the most disappointing films of 2016.

Independence Day: Resurgence
Here's a prime example of a trailer that's better than the movie. To paraphrase it's tagline, they had twenty years to make a sequel to the 1996 blockbuster hit--of which I was a fan, and which made Will Smith a household name and Fourth of July box-office superstar, for that matter. The problem here, in spite of its wait time and the presence of returning stars Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum, is that everything's so uneven you don't even care how big the new spaceship is. A poorly edited, lowly acted, and forgeable mind-numbing VFX bombast. One of the rare times I actually wanted my money back from a movie theater.

Suicide Squad
DC Comics rogue's gallery also turned up exciting trailers since premiering at San Diego's ComiCon a year prior to release. And the early clips promised a much darker and riskier tone than had been seen in previous comic book adaptations, what with Margot Robbie's take on Harley Quinn and especially Jared Leto's frightening take on the Joker. The film certainly had a stellar cast and a hit Twenty-One Pilots track. The finished product, whether a result of studio interference or reshoots or lack of clear direction, disappointingly diverts from what could have been an intriguing and provocative spin on "bad" villains vs "evil" villains into a conventional "save the world from total destruction" route seen many, many times in the last decade. They didn't even make the Joker a main villain here, which they should have. Here’s hoping DC will get it right in 2017 with Wonder Woman and the Justice League.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
I've never read Ransom Riggs' young adult books that this Tim Burton film is based on, but its visual imagery certainly fit Burton's sensibilities, so I decided to give the film the benefit of the doubt. It's a question of why Burton didn't balance out time with the other characters and their quirks and decided to focus on Asa Butterfield's less-than-compelling Jake and his journey to find out who he is. Even worse, the film goes from chilling and frightening (one that will give kids nightmares) to downright silly and ridiculous. Samuel L. Jackson feels wasted in a rare miscast role. Eva Green is the one true quirky delight here, as the headmistress of the titular "Home".

X-Men: Apocalypse
The X-Men films have been hit or miss for the last decade and a half. While the first two films from (X-Men, 2000; X2: X-Men United, 2003), and well as 2014's Days of Future Past (all directed by Bryan Singer), rank high in the franchise, this frankly-rushed sequel (also directed by Singer) joins the ranks of 2006's The Last Stand and 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in terms of quality and execution. Sure, its younger versions of fan favorites Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Quicksilver are standouts, and a tragic subplot involving Magneto could have been a central driving force. But its overall story (saving the world from an unstoppable force--and a skybeam), themes (power and control), and CGI destruction (cities and, again, skybeams) have been done countless times before, and the main villain (supposedly the first ever "mutant") is such a weakness. (Sorry, Poe Dameron.) At least Logan is taking the franchise in a more unconventional direction. (Not that I'm endorsing it, mind you.)

And the one movie I regret seeing in theaters this year?

Sausage Party
Now, I'm all for how animation should not just be limited to a kids' medium, and for how it can tell different kinds of stories and represent different genres. (Some great examples include 2007's Persepolis and 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox.) But when it comes to raunchy sex comedies in the form of unbelievably subliminal food products who discover their true fate (and have an all-out climactic orgy), really?!? The film does have some laughs (the Meatloaf and Stephen Hawking parodies, anybody?), and Seth Rogen and company certainly are funny people. But again, REALLY?!? As a whole, Sausage Party is, again, UNBELIEVABLY raunchy and offensive. Did I mention UNBELIEVABLE? (Read my review on examples of adult-oriented animation here.)

One film that's been on my watch-list from last year was Nate Parker's directorial debut The Birth of a Nation, a film about former slave and preacher Nat Turner who leads an uprising against slave owners in the early 1800s. Since it received raves at last year's Sundance Film Festival but later went under fire after allegations of a rape case in the late 90s involving Parker (which were reportedly acquitted then), this film would qualify in this next category. But otherwise, there were really two films that divided critics and audiences (and vice versa) for different reasons.

So now, here are my picks for the most divisive films of 2016.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
It's fair to say the DC Extended Universe (rival to the Marvel Cinematic Universe) has gotten off to a rough start, particularly with this critical-and-commercial divide that pits the Man of Steel against the Dark Knight for the first time. Many have argued that Batman v Superman (BvS) was just too bleak, grim, convoluted, and joyless to even praise. And there are moments that do go in different directions. (The "Ultimate Edition" has been praised more than the theatrical version.) Others, meanwhile, critiqued that not all comic-book movies have to be fun and colorful, yet can still be intriguing (read some IMDb user reviews here, or watch the 2000 film Unbreakable). While a couple of things most people agree on are the excellent performances of Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, only time will tell if Zack Snyder's take on the genre will hold up. (Read my review on the DC Extended Universe here.)

The opposite of what happened with BvS happened here. A female version of the 1984 classic comedy starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and the late Harold Ramis, was voted as the most hated movie trailer on YouTube last year. While nothing (not even a reboot) will agreeably ever top the original, I do, in a way, pity the stars and filmmakers of this new version for all the backlash they endured. Because this new version from director Paul Figg (Bridesmaids, Spy) does stand on its own and, while certainly not perfect, makes the most of what it is and what it's got. The latter involves a talented quartet of comedians in Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and scene-stealers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Even the original 1984 cast approved of the film, which puts a new spin on the trademark line. "Who you gonna call for approval? The original Ghostbusters." (Read my full review here.)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Films of 2016: "Jackie"

Jackie is very unconventional and experimental in its filmmaking approach. The score, for one, is very unexpected; perhaps a bit much. But maybe that's the point, since the film as a whole is, perhaps, a meditative experience. It's a complex and vivid portrait (as well as dramatization) of an iconic figure in the wake of a nationwide tragedy and the transition into a new chapter in American history.

Set during the week in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy (played radiantly by Natalie Portman), the film chronicles the week following the shocking assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, in 1963.
The interview Kennedy gave in Massachusetts apparently showcased not only the way others would perceive the aforementioned events, including what had happened in greater detail, but also an examination of the legacy she had hoped to leave for her husband and for herself. "How would you like him to be remembered, Mrs. Kennedy," the reporter asks.

The mythology and poetry of "Camelot" (not to mention the stage musical) came to represent the legacy of the Kennedys, whether as thematic parallels or as story elements. The same could be said for Mrs. Kennedy's wardrobe throughout the story, representing theatrical and societal fashion, scene changes, and character changes, as she was, in a sense, a storyteller. (Her famous "Tour of the White House," recreated shot-for-shot as vintage 1960s footage, can attest to that.) As the stage production's closing lyrics state, "Don't let it ever be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

Portman does a brilliant job illuminating Jackie's complex emotions, from the way she explains her husband's death to her children, to the references she makes to Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, to the conversations she has with the priest (John Hurt, in what became his final film role), to how she handles everything else the week after the assassination. "People need to know that real men lived her, not stories and legends," she tells us. Her point of view (or at least Portman's portrayal) gives us a glimpse of the grief and sorrows she went through not just as the former First Lady, but as a human being, and the effect (and hope) it will have on future generations. In the words of the reporter (Billy Crudup), "You left your mark on this country these last few days, Mrs. Kennedy. That's the story." She agrees on the ideals and progress that will potentially be made. However, recalling her and her husband's mark on history, "there will never be another Camelot."

Films of 2016: "Hidden Figures"

About twenty minutes into viewing Hidden Figures (the remarkable true story of female African-American mathematicians at NASA in the Fifties and Sixties), I realized the meaning of the film's title, as well as how effectively this film worked. It refers to unseen (and overlooked) elements that went into the success of the space program, and in subsequent missions following astronaut John Glenn's successful job in orbiting the earth in 1962. The rest, as they say, is history.

The story vaguely recalls the Cold War era, as the Russians launch Sputnik into space, leaving America with attempts to get astronauts there as well. On earth, during the Civil Rights era, tensions between White and African-American individuals were as relevant as they could be. The same goes for NASA, where there are buildings (as well as restrooms) for white individuals and for colored individuals, referred to as "computers" for their math skills. One of these individuals is Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson), who showed promising skills and knowledge in while in sixth grade. She's assigned to Space Task Group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), to figure out "math that doesn't yet exist" to send a rocket into space with an astronaut in it.

Her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (the always commanding Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), work through agendas and setbacks of their own. There's a great scene where Mary and a fellow scientist (a Jewish man) discuss being in such a work environment despite their backgrounds.

"I'm just a Negro woman, sir."
"And I'm a Polish Jew who's parents were killed in a concentration camp. I guess we are both living the impossible."

The title also refers to other ways said individuals dealt with or overcame such issues. Instead of using marches or protest speeches, these women used their skill, wits, and determination. An incredible and worthy message in this day and age.

The real-life Figures (pictured in black-and-white), and their on-screen doppelgängers (l-r): Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)