Friday, December 15, 2017

A Reel Review: STAR WARS - THE LAST JEDI


Myths and legends are the elemental forces of all storytelling; building worlds, characters, and journeys that become so large they communicate with us on an internal level, and ultimately effect who we are. For the past 40 years, STAR WARS has thrived on the building of legends, and in the 8th episode of the saga, THE LAST JEDI, writer and director Rian Johnson takes it all a step further, and beyond.

After the events of THE FORCE AWAKENS, new Force-user Rey (Daisy Ridley), travels to the remote planet where self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is hiding from the galaxy. Meanwhile, the evil First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), pursues the remnants of the Resistance across the galaxy; led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

THE LAST JEDI is split into two distinct storylines, with Rey trying to pull Luke off his remote island, and the Resistance fleet being relentlessly bombarded by the First Order. The storyline with the Fleet brings up the stakes considerably; these are the last true leaders of the good guys, and as their fates go, so goes the fate of the galaxy. This narrative eventually splinters off into a sub-plot with Finn (John Boyega) and ship-mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) heading off on a side-quest to enlist the help of a codebreaker (Benicio Del Toro) to help save the fleet. A lot of ground is explored here in the simple line of saving the Fleet, with characters coming to vehement and even violent disagreements over how exactly to survive. Right away, heroics are called into question which is new ground for STAR WARS.

The heart of the story lies with Rey and Luke. Rey is young and eager, and earnestly wants to help her friends and a galaxy in peril. Luke in the meantime is a broken man, wracked with guilt over his past failures. Writer and director Rian Johnson uses this time to completely deconstruct the idea of a legend and to explore the nature of what a hero really is. There is some deep work going on here, with a lot of digging into character and the lore of the Jedi. This is a film that explores what happens after the happy ending, and the self-reflection that the characters take on is a stunning move for a STAR WARS film.

Johnson has a thousand balls in the air all throughout THE LAST JEDI. He boldly explores themes that were established years ago in previous films, tearing them down to nothing and then building them back up again. Items and storylines from THE FORCE AWAKENS are picked up and taken to some brave new places, with a few cleverly saved for Episode IX. There are some major revelations made, a few well-timed twists, and film’s hefty running time is well-spent with each major character getting their due.

Pacing for the most part is brisk and the momentum is ever moving forward. Finn and Rose’s side-quest to a casino initially feels like a distraction from the bigger things going on, but those concerns are later disposed of by the time the finale rolls around and the trip is more-than justified. The film is beautiful to look at, with the on-location filming at Luke’s remote island breathtaking in every frame. There is a heavy amount of CGI work done here, perhaps the most in any STAR WARS film. Most of the effects look great, while a handful of them look rough and fake. The comic-relief bits and gags come in the most unexpected places, and the emotional touches are perfectly timed. The action sequences are a thrill, with a space battle or two done with the perfect amount of tension. John Williams returns to score his 8th STAR WARS film and resurrects many themes from the past, but THE LAST JEDI doesn’t seem to have a new theme to call its own.

Acting is outstanding. Mark Hamill as Luke is fascinating, and he conveys more emotion in a single glance than most actors can in 60 minutes of work. Daisy Ridley is once again wonderful, as is John Boyega. Benicio Del Toro nearly steals the show as a stuttering oddball, Laura Dern gets some heavy lifting to do as Leia’s second-in-command, and the late great Carrie Fisher gets many moments to shine. Kelly Marie Tran is a blast and a welcome addition to the galaxy. Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver are also excellent.

Nearly all of us were introduced to STAR WARS as children, when the galaxy before us was wide open with possibility; fueled by imagination and dreams. By the time the smoke from the final battles clear, Johnson magically brings those old feelings back around for an emotional exclamation point and a nod towards the past and future of STAR WARS. By the end of this episode characters are in new territory, and whatever comes next is anyone’s guess. Rian Johnson has crafted a balance of thrills and character in THE LAST JEDI, and for the first time in a long time, makes myths and legends seen in a new light. That’s what great storytelling does, and most of all...shows that STAR WARS can still surprise us. 


BOTTOM LINE: See it 




Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About THE LAST JEDI



This week, the most anticipated film of the year arrives in the form of the 8th episode in the STAR WARS saga, entitled THE LAST JEDI. Here is everything you need to know before returning to that famed, far away galaxy…

What is this about? – THE LAST JEDI picks up right after the events of THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), which was the first film in a new trilogy, directed by JJ Abrams. The new trilogy begins 30 years after the events of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), which was the final film in the Original STAR WARS trilogy. In THE LAST JEDI, the Resistance struggles to survive against the sinister First Order, while Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi in the galaxy, continues his self-exile.

Who is behind this? – Abrams has stepped aside, and in his place is writer/director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for his sci-fi thriller LOOPER in 2012. This is the third film produced by Disney since they acquired the franchise in 2012.

Who is in this? – Reprising their roles that they started 40 years ago are Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, the late Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa, Anthony Daniels as C3P0, and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. Reprising their roles from THE FORCE AWAKENS are Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gwendoline Christie. Lupita Nyong’o once again provides voice-over and motion capture work for Maz Kanata, and Andy Serkis does the same for the mysterious and evil Snoke. Newcomers to the saga are Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro.

Random Facts – Carrie Fisher, who passed away last year, assisted Rian Johnson in the writing of the screenplay * This will be Fisher’s final screen role * Benicio del Toro was originally cast to play Darth Maul in STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), but dropped out when most of the character’s lines were cut * John Williams returns to score the film, his 8th in the series * This is the longest STAR WARS movie at 152 minutes * This is the first film in the series in which the late Kenny Baker was not involved in the portrayal of R2-D2. Baker passed away in 2016 *

What to expect? – The first thing to expect in THE LAST JEDI is the beauty of the film. As explored by Reel Speak in the review of the final trailer (HERE), all the footage we’ve seen looks gorgeous; perhaps the best-looking STAR WARS movie yet. Story-wise, we don’t know a lot of details about the plot, but considering the literal cliffhanger we were left with at the end of THE FORCE AWAKENS, we can assume that our characters, new and old, will be going through some hard times. Rian Johnson has proven himself to be a clever writer, and his knack for weaving characters around is excellent. Disney and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy have not made any major missteps with STAR WARS since day one, and this Blogger isn’t expecting one here.

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THE LAST JEDI opens with limited screenings on December 14th, and in wide release on the 15th. It will be available in 2D, 3D, and IMAX formats.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Reel Review: THE DISASTER ARTIST



In 2003, eccentric oddball Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, produced, and starred in THE ROOM…which since then has gone on to be labeled as one of the worst movies of all time. With its bizarre, unconventional storytelling, technical errors, and terrible acting, the film has moved into a cult-favorite status; so bad it’s great to enjoy, with midnight shows and drinking-party screenings reveling in its shittiness. The making of the film has been told in a book, and this is the basis for James Franco’s THE DISASTER ARTIST.

Greg (Dave Franco), is a struggling, wanna-be actor who meets Tommy (James Franco), who is an odd bird with quirky behavior, a hidden past, and a mysterious bottom-less pit of income. When the two fail to get their acting careers started, they set out to make a film on their own.

THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t focus on the making of THE ROOM as much as it does its two main characters; the baby-faced and new-to-the-world Greg, and the older yet on-his-own-planet Tommy. The film almost sets itself up as a veiled fairy tale, with Greg being guided though his journey by an otherworldly being in the form of Tommy. But the twist here is that the fairy godmother is as clueless as the child; Tommy has terrible social skills, speaks in broken English, and barely understands how the world works…let alone how to put a film together. Right away, the matchup between the two is a huge draw.

When the film moves into the production of THE GREEN ROOM, things get even weirder as Tommy, playing the role of lead actor and director, proves how far over his head he is with the venture. He shows up late, can’t remember lines, and frequently clashes with the crew. But beyond all that THE DISASTER ARTIST is really exploring the dreams of the dreamers; Tommy may be terrible at making movies but his efforts are very earnest and honest. The film explores the familiar question of what is art and who gets to say if it is or not…all while coming back to the area of the two best friends who have their ups and downs trying to make that art.

Director James Franco, who ironically is also wearing more than one hat here, keeps the pacing brisk and the humor in big doses. The film is extremely funny, but at the same time manages to really feel Tommy and Greg’s pain when the inevitable eventually happens. Dave Porter’s score is excellent.

James Franco is excellent in the role as Tommy, and it’s almost eerie just how much he looks and sounds like the man. When he acts like an ass, we hate him, and when he fails we suddenly feel sorry for him…and Franco sells it every time. By far this a role to remind us just how great Franco can be. His brother Dave is equally effective, and works well playing the fresh-faced newbie and showing frustration with Tommy’s wacky behavior. Seth Rogen drops in as a frustrated crew member who is just trying to keep the movie production going, and is very good, as is Alison Brie as Greg’s love interest.

The finale drives home the point of sticking with our dreams and with the people who help us get there. It’s a tad heavy-handed but it works, and THE DISASTER ARTIST turns into a very satisfying film experience. It may be based on something awful, but it lands as something wonderful.

BOTTOM LINE: See it



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Reel Opinion: Big Screen vs. Small



Earlier this week, the British Film Institute’s international magazine Sight and Sound released their annual critics’ list of the best films of the year, and one entry has not only raised eyebrows, but re-ignited a hot-burning debate over what exactly should be considered a film.

The list, which polls more than 180 critics, programmers, and academics from around the world, includes for the first time a TV series in the top ten; David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, which was ranked second, behind Jordan Peele’s GET OUT. The inclusion of a TV series has added fuel to the fire to the argument that there is a supposed eroding line between film and TV in the last few years; a fire that was given some extra flame when last year’s 7.5 hour TV documentary series OJ: MADE IN AMERICA won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

With Oscar season in full swing and entering its busiest time, the argument rages that productions from home-streaming services like Netflix and Showtime (which ran TWIN PEAKS), should be considered when the Academy starts voting in the next few weeks. It’s a point that was actually started in 2015, when Idris Elba’s role in Netflix’s BEASTS OF NO NATION was not recognized by the Academy…despite critical acclaim and many calls for his inclusion.

Why wasn’t BEASTS OF NO NATION considered for an Oscar, and should TWIN PEAKS be in the running? Why wouldn’t they (other than the obvious of both of them being made for TV), if the quality is there? The Academy will only pay attention to productions that actually play in a movie theatre; they’re old-school in that way, they want people to go to the movies, and seemingly believe that the big screen is the true home for a film. They probably think of themselves as the caretakers of the sanctity of cinema, and they would be right to do so; someone has to do it. Now, the Oscars have changed and evolved over the years; categories have been re-named, altered, and flat-out discontinued…but opening the door for a series that never saw the inside of a movie theatre is likely to never happen. Especially since a TV series is a completely different format than film; a series can take 10-12 hours to tell a story, where a film is confined to just 2-3 hours. And besides, the Emmys and the Golden Globes exist to honor TV shows.

The calls for Netflix productions like BEASTS OF NO NATION, and this year’s MUDBOUND to be honored by the Academy are getting louder, but this Blogger sees this as a trendy thing. Home streaming services are extremely popular, and rightfully so, but people need to quit acting like Netflix is the first home entertainment service to make their own movies; HBO has been doing it for decades without one goddamn Oscar nomination. Nothing has changed to make the line between TV and film disappear, with only popularity and easy accessibility as the driving force. Home-streaming is cool so therefore the thought is everything they do is better than anything else, and that’s not enough.

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See Sight and Sound’s complete list HERE




Monday, December 4, 2017

A Reel 25: A FEW GOOD MEN


“You can’t handle the truth!”





This month marks the 25th anniversary of Rob Reiner’s A FEW GOOD MEN



Adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin from his play of the same name, A FEW GOOD MEN was a genre-setting, military-courtroom drama with influence that can still be seen today. Centered around two U.S. Marines charged with murder and their reluctant lawyer who defends them, A FEW GOOD MEN explored issues of law and order and military ethics in a clever mash-up.



Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of his film MISERY (1990), put together an all-star cast. It’s headliners were Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, along with an excellent supporting cast of Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Noah Wyle…who would later go on to television fame in ER.



The film was a critical and commercial success, and would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s screen-time was limited to a handful of scenes, but his impact was immediate and memorable enough to rightfully earn that nomination, and also a ranking in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Villains. AFI would also rank the film in its Top Courtroom Dramas, and Top 100 Movie Quotes. Rob Reiner would go on to direct and produce the beloved THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), and Aaron Sorkin would become one of the most coveted screenwriters in the business; penning scripts for TV’s THE WEST WING, along with the feature films THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), and MONEYBALL (2011).



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As a former soldier and a sucker for court-room dramas, this Blogger has always had a high level of admiration for A FEW GOOD MEN. As a legal thriller it is tight and deep with the ability to explore the dusty old law books in a way that is interesting and engaging. The exploration of military ethics, from the age-old debate of soldiers following questionable orders, to the even older debate of what duty to country really means…raise questions that are still debated in classrooms, lecture halls, and Basic Training to this day. A FEW GOOD MEN is one of Aaron Sorkin’s best works, and Rob Reiner’s finest achievement in directing.



“You don’t need to have a patch on your arm to have honor.”


Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Reel Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI



The stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance…are the series of emotions people experience after losing a loved one. These stages can last days, months, or years at a time, and perhaps the one that is the most emotionally charged is anger. This is the basis for director Martin McDonagh’s black comedy drama THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI.

Seven months after the brutal rape, murder, and burning of her of daughter, Midred (Frances McDormand), is infuriated with the lack of arrests and erects three billboards outside her small town shaming Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards spark rage from the community, including officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), her ex-husband (John Hawkes), and also affects her depressed teenage son Robbie (Lucas Hedges).

Emotional rage is the name-of-the-game in THREE BILLBOARDS. Midred has entered the rage stage and doesn’t seem to be letting go of it anytime soon. Although she gets some support from friends, her decision to start a very public war with the police has immediate ripple effects. Dixon, who is an unstable alcoholic prone to violence, lashes out in the only way he knows how, and poor Sheriff Willoughby has his own health problems and is effected by the shaming in more ways than one.

McDonagh does great work in the early goings of the film to establish his characters; Mildred is angry, Willoughby is inept, and Dixon is an asshole, but as the narrative moves forward things change. Mildred is portrayed as angry to the point of being unlikeable, Willoughby and his health issues, along with his loving family, are brought up front, and even Dixon manages to show his true worth. The audience’s allegiances will change often in THREE BILLBOARDS, and the magic of the film is that it’s hard to figure out who is in the right, and who, if any of them, are in the wrong.

The story has plenty of twists and turns to keep the mystery of the murder under cover, and also in the background as McDonagh spends his time in THREE BILLBOARDS with the characters circling each other, seeing who blinks first. There is a ton of emotional hurt going on, and it’s a fascinating watch to see where it’s going. Pacing is brisk, the dialogue is sharp and funny, and the score by Carter Burwell gives an atmosphere that nearly makes the film feel like an Old West yarn. The film looks gorgeous, although a peaceful scene with Mildred and a fawn is ruined by shitty, cartoonish CGI.

Acting is top-notch. Frances McDormand mostly shows a gruff exterior, but we get hints of just how torn up she is inside. Woody Harrelson has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and the show is stolen by Sam Rockwell who goes from contender of the Asshole of the Year Award to Hero in a blink. The rest of the cast is excellent, including Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, and Peter Dinklage.

By movie’s end, not all of the characters come out of the situation unscathed, and the ones who do aren’t quite in the clear, but at the very least they armed with tools to get through the next stage of grief they are likely to go through. There a few moments towards the end where it seems like McDonagh was running out of things for his characters to do, and they wind up doing some head-scratching moves, but it’s a minor head-scratcher in what is a superb film. This is an emotional gut-punch boosted by outstanding performances and guided by a steady hand. These billboards stand tall.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Reel Opinion: The INFINITY WAR Trailer


“There was an idea…”

For the past decade, Marvel Studios and parent company Disney have taken on an unprecedented cinematic journey. It began with the release of their first film based on Marvel Comics, IRON MAN in May of 2008. It was the first building block towards their heralded INFINITY WAR storyline, with each one of their connected films building towards the ultimate showdown between our heroic Avengers and the “Mad Titan” Thanos in his quest for the mysterious and powerful Infinity Stones. After a decade of 17 films, $13.4 billion in box office revenue, and spinoffs into television, we’re finally nearing the climax of the long-form story…and today Marvel gave us our first look.



Today on Good Morning America, the first trailer for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR was released to the world, and minutes later online (HERE). Right away, something must be said about the extremely well thought-out strategy behind this unveiling. Timing is everything, and Marvel/Disney decided to release this first, much-anticipated look nearly a full week after Thanksgiving (no distractions), the day after their rival company DC finished up their epic (and very good) TV crossover series (no competition), and the day before their own AGENTS OF SHIELD starts up again on TV (cross-promotion). This was a perfectly executed, and beautifully thought-out plan.

The beginnings of the trailer brilliantly hark back to the early days of the franchise, with a variation of the iconic monologue from Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), explaining why the Avengers were originally assembled. The monologue trades off lines between Fury, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Vision (Paul Bettany), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The familiar tunes of the theme from the first AVENGERS film (2012) is heard, which drives home the long history at work here. The tone is ominous, and a far cry from the zany fun that Marvel’s most recent film, THOR: RAGNORAK had. Marvel has always given us a great balance of seriousness and comedy, and that’s why fatigue or boredom has never set in with their films.


The trailer moves on with shots of our team slowly coming together, including Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), with dialogue picked up by the expected arrival of Thanos (Josh Brolin)…whom we’ve only seen in glimpses over the last 10 years.


Some other highlights include Thanos punching out Iron Man, a bearded and world-weary Captain America (Chris Evans) leading a charge, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) calling for a new shield for Cap, a new suit for Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and that bastard Loki (Tom Hiddleston) with one of the important pieces to the puzzle…


And finally, the closing shots…Thor meeting our beloved Guardians of the Galaxy!


Overall the trailer shows some epic shots, and seems more than worthy of the buildup we’ve been witnessing. It hypes up the film without giving away very much of the plot. When it comes to long-form franchise building, this is how it’s done.

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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR arrives May 4th, 2018. It is directed by the Russo Brothers, who recently directed the Marvel films CIVIL WAR (2016), and THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014).  






Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2017 - Episode XII



As it is with almost every December, the final month of the season opens the floodgates, with Oscar hopefuls and fan favorites finally arriving. Here are the notable releases for the month of December.

It all takes shape with…

THE SHAPE OF WATER – From director Guillermo del Toro (HELLBOY, PAN’S LABRYINTH), comes this fantasy/sci-fi tale in which a custodian at a secret facility befriends a captured sea creature. Stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer.

THE DISASTER ARTIST – James Franco plays the creator of the infamous film THE ROOM from 2003, considered to be one of the worst films ever made.

I, TONYA – Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) plays figure skater Tonya Harding in this sports drama. Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan (THE WINTER SOLDIER), co-star.

WONDER WHEEL – Director Woody Allen’s annual film is a crime drama in which the wife of a carousel operator and her husband’s estranged daughter pursue the same man. It stars Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, and Kate Winslet.

TITANIC – Speaking of Kate Winselt, James Cameron’s Oscar winning epic about the doomed ocean liner returns to theatres in a limited run for its 20th anniversary.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – The long-awaited, and much anticipated 8th episode of the STAR WARS saga. Rian Johnson (LOOPER) directs, and he is joined by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, and Benicio del Toro.

GOTTI – John Travolta plays famous gangster John Gotti of the Gambino Crime Family.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE – This adventure serves as a loose sequel to the 1995 films. Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black lead the cast.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN – Hugh Jackman (X-MEN), hangs up his claws and steps into the life of P.T. Barnum in this extravagant musical. It co-stars Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya.

DOWNSIZING – Alexander Payne (NEBRASKA), directs this sci-fi comedy in which people are miniaturized for a fresh start on life. It stars Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Kristen Wiig.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD – Sir Ridley Scott directs this crime drama based on actual kidnapping events. It stars Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, and Mark Wahlberg. 

PHANTOM THREAD – The last time director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis worked together, we got the magnificent THERE WILL BE BLOOD in 2007. This time around they explore the world of the fashion industry in the 1950’s.

MOLLY’S GAME – Based on the true story of the underground high-stakes poker ring in Hollywood. It stars Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and Michael Cera. It is the directorial debut of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A FEW GOOD MEN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK).

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME – This adaptation of the novel of the same name, which is one of the most acclaimed films out of Sundance this year, has a 17 year-old Italian boy (Timothee Chalamet), beginning a love affair with his father’s American assistant, played by Armie Hammer (THE SOCIAL NETWORK).

THE POST – Steven Spielberg directs this true-story adaptation about the role of the press in the revealing of the Pentagon Papers. The cast includes Tom Hanks, Meryl Steep, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, and Bruce Greenwood.

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Next month, Episode I previews the first month of 2018.


Monday, November 27, 2017

A Reel Review: COCO



For the past 20 years, the working relationship between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios have found success in the blending of traditional, human stories with fantastical elements and worlds; worlds populated by talking toys and cars, hairy monsters, and lovesick robots combined with classic stories of discovery and coming-of-age. For COCO, their 19th feature film, Pixar decides to challenge themselves by not just playing with fantasy, but with exploring culture, art, myth, and belief.

12-year old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), dreams to be a musician, but is banned from playing music by his family which has a soured past with musicians. On the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, Miguel stumbles into the Land of the Dead, where he tries to earn the blessings of his long-past family members to pursue his dream.

The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, is a three-day event in which family gatherings pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. In a bold move, directors Lee Unkirch and Adrian Molina use that celebration and culture as the basis for world-building; it’s a brave move right away as they are locked into following hundreds of years of tradition, as opposed to having the freedom to just create any fantasy world they want. Instead, the filmmakers use the many traditions associated with the celebration as important plot points and rules which makes the fantasy world work.

Once Miguel is transported to that fantasy world, he meets members of his family and a trickster named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who go back-and-forth in assisting him. The rules that are in place are used in great effect to drive the plot; when a person is forgotten in real life, they fade away from the Land of the Dead…and with Hector already beginning to fade, the clock is ticking to get Miguel back to the living where he can re-establish Hector’s memory. Miguel in the meantime has his own problems, having to navigate his family’s long-burning hatred for musicians. There are a few excellent twists and reversals to be had, and the many turns the plot takes keeps COCO fun and layered.

The animation from Pixar has never been better. The colorful landscapes are breathtaking with stunning detail, and the character design is excellent. The music is wonderful, the humor just right, and the entire cast performs their parts very well. The film also isn’t afraid to go into some dark territories; character deaths and murder…and the somewhat disturbing element of the dead fading away into nothingness.

Some may be able to see the finale coming from some ways off, but even those who do will be reaching for a hankie, because COCO wraps up with one of the most emotionally charged endings ever in cinema. It’s an emotional wallop that is well earned, and will have not just kids but adults talking about it for a long time. COCO offers great food for thought on family and tradition, and is Pixar’s bravest…and one of their very best.

BOTTOM LINE: See it




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Reel Review: LADY BIRD



One of the best types of tales to be told is the coming-of-age story; a tale which takes us along the journey of a young person as they go through an ordeal, which on the other side leads them to adulthood. Books, poems, plays, and cinema have been using that narrative for hundreds of years with great success, mostly because such a story is one that we can all relate to; it’s a very human and natural ordeal…and this is the root of Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who re-names herself Lady Bird, is a senior at a Catholic High School in California who wants to go to the east coast for college, despite the wishes of her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird goes behind her mom’s back to apply to east coast schools, while trying to catch a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), and jockeying for popularity with her classmates.

LADY BIRD is a film which doesn’t try to break new ground or re-write the manual on how to turn a girl into a woman. It’s basic storytelling which doesn’t have much of plot, and instead focuses on the events in Lady Bird’s life over a year’s time (or so), as she applies to schools, tries to get a prom date, breaks up with boys, fights with her mom and brother, and befriends popular girls in place of her tried-and-true best friend.

Teen angst is at front-and-center of this tale, as Lady Bird is shown as a young girl who seems to dislike everything. That’s an approach that could go horribly wrong, as no one wants to spend an entire movie with an unlikeable character, but Gerwig has a strong handle on things. Lady Bird isn’t unlikeable at all, and is more of a misunderstood character than just misbehaving. There is warmth and outright sincerity to it all, and there are very few moments that Lady Bird is going through that we haven’t felt towards the final months of our high school years.

Gerwig films a very plain looking movie, and it often feels documentary-like. Pacing is brisk, and even the quieter moments tend to move. Gerwig also directs some very well emotionally-charged scenes between Lady Bird and her parents, which is (again), familiar territory and hard to watch. The film is also brilliantly set in 2002, which is a ways from the social media age and allows the teen characters to be teens, and also has the lingering fear of 9/11 hanging over the characters. Pop music from the time is used in all the right places.

Saoirse Ronan is magnificent as Lady Bird. Her Irish accent vanishes, and an outsider would never guess that she isn’t really a California girl. Ronan goes through all sorts of emotions and sells them; when she’s happy, elated, sad, or downright furious…it always works. Lucas Hedges is great as always, and Laurie Metcalf has a lot of hefty lifting to do as Lady Bird’s always-annoyed mom.

LADY BIRD deals mostly with the main character’s want to escape and start her life, and by the time she gets there, we don’t quite feel that her journey is over, but that she now has the tools with her to move forward. Gerwig has written and directed a clever, simple, and effective coming-of-age story here, one that can generate plenty of laughs and tears…and find something for us all to remember.

BOTTOM LINE: See it