Finding 2016

2016 was an unusual year in the real world: one of political change, tragic losses, and confounding times. The world of cinema mirrored this in many ways, from rebels confronting an overpowering empire, an empowering feminist Puritan horror movie, and a blue fish trying to make sense of the ocean around her.

I haven’t been watching as many movies this year as last year, due to some personal changes on my side. I cut my cable cord and later Hulu, so less stuff was just “on” to kill time. What has also changed, and for the better, is watching fewer movies but with more meaning and getting share that experience with others.

Early in the year, in my quest to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, I saw Brooklyn in theaters with someone new in my life, who has long been a US citizen and immigrated here about 25 years ago. We didn’t speak at all during the movie, but afterwards wandered the quiet streets of Pasadena talking about our own family histories, the feeling of “newness,” and learning to find home in a new environment.

The experience of sharing love of movies, and our personal ties to them, continued on through the year, particularly with throwback screening events. At the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I got to see Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Hercules, Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled – and that’s not including the first-run movies that premiered there. Getting to see such long-beloved films in packed theaters, with devoted audiences both young and old, is a wonderful opportunity of living in Los Angeles.

Speaking of Los Angeles, my city has probably never looked better than it does in La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is shot in warm oranges and lush purples, with thrilling musical sequences as vibrant as anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m eager to see how this one does come awards season.

It would also be tremendous for Zootopia to get some love, especially in the Best Original Screenplay category. There was probably no smarter movie in 2016 than this fast-talking comedy/mystery/thriller that tackled issues of gender, race, and class (to name a few) better than most movies for grown-ups, without coming across as preachy or with a set agenda. In today’s hyper-PC culture, it’s incredibly daring for a major film from a major studio to make a film saying we are not equal, the world is not colorblind, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better. The rainbow palette landscape of the Zootopia metropolis gradually fades away into bleaker greys and browns as our optimistic heroine Judy Hopps gets deeper into a mystery, revealing the darker underbelly of the world she thought she loved.

The other triumph from Walt Disney Animation Studios was Moana, which took my heart like no other film this year. The epic scale of this Polynesian story about a princess who has to save her people has a mythic sense of destiny and importance, in a similar vein as Brave and even The Lion King. Its spectacular musical score is the most varied and consistently strong in years, with brilliant lyrics from the mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This year also had its share of disappointments – I left Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feeling lackluster, despite their critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. Still, I appreciate getting to see different takes on existing franchises, and stories of people who frankly aren’t often portrayed onscreen, and the new ways of thinking they might inspire.

Here’s a look back at my 2016 in film:

  • 248 films seen (0.68 movies per day, down from last year’s run rate of 0.73 movies per day)
  • First movie seen: In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Last movie seen: Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Most-watched:

    • Zootopia (4 times)
    • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (3 times)
    • Brooklyn (3 times)
    • Looking: The Movie (3 times)
    • The Witch (3 times)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2016? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The first time I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens about a year ago, I left the theater enthralled by the dynamic new characters, imprinted by the instantly-iconic new planets, and superbly entertained by an overall great film.

I felt none of these during Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As the first stand-alone Star Wars film (rather than an “Episode,” a specific piece of the lineage), it has plenty of room to experiment and redefine what a Star Wars movie means. If they continue to go the route of Rogue One, however, the standalone anthology films might not be for me.

Rogue One explores just how the Rebellion got the plans to the Death Star, without which the victory in Star Wars: A New Hope could never have happened – certainly an important moment in the Star Wars saga. A quirky band of rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked first with finding Jyn’s father, a designer of the Death Star, and then learn it was designed with a core weakness, and then task themselves with procuring the plans so the Rebellion can destroy it.

Everything requires a lot of steps, it turns out. I found myself irritated by a climactic battle scene, where the Rebels first had to disguise themselves as Imperial officers (a moment reminiscent of That’s So Raven), then get the plans, then radio-signal them up to Rebel ships, but first clear the air lock, and fix the broken satellite, and also fix the comms tower while they’re at it. It felt like the unending climax of Finding Dory, where trivial conflicts would pop up only to accumulate another 5 minutes running time, rather than build up any real tension.

What made it all worse was that these characters weren’t any fun. Jyn and Cassian had no personalities to speak of, and even the deadpan humor from new robot K-2SO fell flat. It’s already hard to be engaged in a movie where we all know the ending, and it’s even harder when you don’t particularly like anyone onscreen.

I did appreciate how the ending (which I won’t spoil) was handled, as it was a pretty gutsy move from a major movie studio. Rogue One ends on a very dark note, appropriate for this time in Star Wars “history” and the broader film anthology.

I didn’t like Rogue One, with weak characters and a frustrating narrative that were simply not up to par with what we expect from the Star Wars saga. It was interesting to see this piece of the story fleshed out, but these are not people and places I care to revisit. At least (according to Kathleen Kennedy) there won’t be a sequel!

Moana (2016)

It opens with the familiar Disney castle logo, accompanied not by the orchestral fanfare we’ve grown accustomed to, but a solo female singing in Tokelauan (a Polynesian language), joined by a fuller choir, then the pounding of drums layering on deeper impact. Before the action even begins, we are immediately cued that this is a very different kind of Disney movie.

Moana, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If Zootopia is (and it is) a gift to the mind through snappy dialogue and complex social undertones, Moana is a gift to the heart, operating on more of an emotional plane than an intellectual one.

There are moments of almost-overwhelming beauty, such as the toddler Moana meeting the living, personified water. In a completely wordless scene, the waves reveal a shell in the shallow end of a beach. Moana happily trots toward it, and the ocean gradually retreats further and further back, welcoming her to come closer. It’s a spectacular moment of youth, discovery, and destiny – like something out of a Terrence Malick film, not a mainstream animation studio.

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This scene, and many others, are heightened by spectacular music. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, to name a few) are no strangers to crafting the animated musical, and Moana delivers moments as good as anything they’ve done. The songs are staged in very imaginative, artistic ways: “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” as a montage of Moana choosing to leave her home behind, “You’re Welcome” as a colorful mixed-media frenzy. The easy choice would have been to stage these numbers literally, and these veteran directors still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.

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What’s also notable about Moana, and possibly its strongest trait, is how it reshapes what a Disney Princess is. Early on in the film, her father trains her how to be Chief of the Motunui and she goes through the motions of being a functional leader. She advises her people on where to plant crops after the harvest fails. She assists in building projects. She even butts heads with her father on where the fishermen should sail. This is truly the first time we’ve seen a Disney heroine functioning as a ruler – not in passing broad strokes, but actually taking on the responsibility of a leader.

Moana is another great entry in the immensely strong contemporary Disney canon. Its innovative storytelling, rich music, and terrific heroine will cement it as a story to entertain families for generations to come.

2016 Check-In

2016 in film has been an interesting year to say the least.

This summer is all but cursed, with disappointing sequels and lackluster starts to would-be franchises opening nearly every weekend. The term “box office poison” was used to describe Hollywood stars of the 1930s, but one could almost apply it to the bizarro movie season we’ve had lately.

In between the weeds, however, several sequels and original stories are making an impact among audiences and critics alike. Some of my favorites from 2016, in order of release, are:

  • The Witch – An early American horror film with arthouse sensibilities. This wasn’t for all audiences (I recall a fella in my crowd declaring “This some bullshit!” as the house lights came back on), but The Witch is just the right pace for the set who prefers slow-cooking scares over a torrent of “jump” scares.
  • Zootopia – For a film buff, the best kind of movie-going experience is getting to revisit a classic and uncover layer upon layer with each additional viewing. Zootopia is one such film, and after four viewings (in less than one year, mind you) I always find something new in this remarkably mature, complicated take on inequality and prejudice in the animal kingdom (which isn’t too different from ours). I’m still amazed, but greatly pleased, that this dialogue-driven, morally challenging animated flick has been such a hit with audiences.
  • Finding Dory – I’m too in the “honeymoon phase” to say whether this sequel surpasses its classic predecessor, but Finding Dory offers a substantially different and more emotionally resonant story than Nemo did over ten years ago. Similar to Zootopia, this movie about talking sea life is an often upsetting look at how we treat nature and each other.

I’m also just now realizing that my three favorite films of 2016 all feature talking animals.

What are your favorite movies of 2016 (so far)? Reply below in the comments!

 

Weekly Round-Up: June 12-18, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Finding Nemo (2003) – First time watching with Cine-Explore, a terrific commentary-esque feature with visual pop-ups including concept art and storyboards. The filmmaker’s insights on the parallels between father Marlin and son Nemo’s journeys were particularly compelling. REQUIRED.
  • Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) – This story of an aging actress and her dedicated assistant started off an an engaging foot, but I grew tired of these unlikable characters and scenes of wraparound dialogue that didn’t progress the story in a meaningful way. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) – I love a good Joan Crawford vs. the world flick as much as the next guy, but this quasi-noir was a tough Doll to swallow. Joan Crawford goes from complacent, impoverished housewife to confident, sizzling seductress seemingly overnight… really? NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Female Trouble (1974) – Wacky John Waters tale of a disturbed young lady who balances being a mother with a rise to stardom as a violent supermodel. Not sure if I like this as much as Pink Flamingos, but still an outrageously fun time. Special shout-out to the theme song, sung by Divine herself! RECOMMENDED.
  • Mommie Dearest (1981) – One of my absolute favorite, could-watch-this-everyday kind of movies, and finally got to see it on the big screen. Terrific audience, shrieking with laughter at all the right times and even reciting entire scenes of poetic dialogue back at the screen. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Finding Dory (2016) – This immensely worthy sequel is more painful, devastating, and emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. An absolute knockout. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

 

Finding Dory (2016)

I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family. At least, I think it does….where are they?…

Dory’s introduction in the 2003 classic Finding Nemo can be taken, at first, as a purely comic device. Dory, the bubbly and determined Regal Blue Tang, is a fish without a past who knocks into Marlin the clownfish, and helps find his missing son Nemo. She enters the picture solo, and at its conclusion, has become a member of the family, living alongside them in an idyllic reef.

The highly-anticipated sequel Finding Dory pivots the tone and story into a wildly, and admirably, different direction. The beauty and wonder of the ocean is diminished, replacing vivid colors with duller, paler greens and blues. The loving piano theme of the original is foiled by a pained, longing solo violin cue. Finding Dory takes us on a much darker journey, into more devastating emotional pitfalls, for all the more satisfying a climax.

We flash back to Dory’s childhood, and are introduced to her kind parents Charlie and Jenny. She finds herself separated from her family, and pleads for help from passerby fish. Some try to help, but none really follow through. A montage of this pattern through the years transpires, as Dory grows from child to adolescent to the adult version we know. This brief scene is a powerful and horrible reminder of how we often treat those less fortunate.

She’s still trying to find her parents when she crashes into Marlin – coming full circle to the events of Finding Nemo. Flash forward a year later, she’s a well-known member of the reef community – even “helping” Mr. Ray as an assistant teacher. During a lesson on migration and instinct, she has a flashback to her parents, and feels an urgent calling; Dory insists that Marlin and Nemo help her, and so the trio journeys out to find them.

Dory finds herself in quarantine, and meets the septopus (octopus missing a leg) Hank – arguably the breakout star of the film. Hank is grumpy, slinky, and isolationist – like any good octopus should be. He agrees to help Dory find her parents, if she gives him her quarantine tag, his “ticket” to a life in a glass tank away from the real ocean. It’s a visual treat to see him transport Dory in various modes (a coffee pot, sippee cup, among others), all while camouflaging himself to his surroundings, constricting himself into a ball, and even wheeling around a stroller.

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Of course mayhem ensues, including: Dory and Hank ending up in a toddler-friendly “touch” pool (recalling the daycare scenes of Toy Story 3), Marlin and Nemo befriending occasionally aggressive sea lions, and whale shark Destiny and beluga whale Bailey assist Dory’s search via echolocation. The zany cast of characters and outrageous situations make Dory an occasionally non-stop laugh-out-loud delight.

When it’s not, though, Finding Dory is a trying emotional journey on the level of BraveThe Good Dinosaur, and maybe even Inside Out. (For the record, it took less than five minutes for me to tear up in this one…) Its more muted, darker tone is an immediate cue that this journey is a heavier one than in Nemo. But going to those darker places and putting the characters in such dire situations, only make the happy endings that much sweeter. Finding Dory is a rich, complex story of the fish without a past carving out her own future.

 

Life is the Bubbles

Nobody loved The Little Mermaid as much as I did. The music, the adventure, the characters, and the high-stakes drama – it was all two-year-old me could ask for in a movie. He could watch it every day, so he did. As soon as his big sisters were off to school, the daily Little Mermaid ritual began: climbing into his VHS cabinet, shimmying out the bulky white plastic case between Lady and the Tramp and Mary Poppins, jamming the tape into the VCR, and immersing himself into the story of Ariel.

The Little Mermaid was such an important part of his everyday routine. Nobody could love it as much as he did.

Except the thousands of fans who also attended a screening of the film at the Hollywood Bowl. Followers of Ariel of all shapes and sizes, from little princesses to full-grown adults cosplaying as Scuttle, the real show on display was the breadth and diversity of all the people this movie touched.

In the era of Netflix, it’s so easy to enjoy entertainment wherever and whenever we please – often from the comfort of home. But it’s another experience entirely to go out, get dressed up, buy an expensive ticket for a movie you’ve already seen, and take part in a collective, collaborative entertainment event. The film screening was enhanced by the presence and enthusiasm of a motley crew, cheering as Ursula gets defeated, stifling tears as King Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto, and whistling when Eric finally “kisses the girl.”

His childhood routine, of watching and re-watching The Little Mermaid, was a mostly solitairy one – with Mom stepping in every 80 minutes or so to rewind the tape. It was something else to experience this film with a crowd of thousands, authentic kids and kids at heart, who also watched it every day growing up, now no longer alone.

Weekly Round-Up: June 05-11, 2016

This week had a few jumbled viewings, as I fell asleep and had to resume no fewer than three films. I watched:

  • Tangerine (2015) – Outrageous, hysterical, and ultimately moving story of friendship between two prostitutes in a sun-bleached vision of Hollywood. Fully fleshed out characters and strong performances anchor what would otherwise be a camp-fest, into a well-grounded window into another world. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Little Mermaid (1989) – Special screening at the Hollywood Bowl, with the music performed live by an orchestra with singing by Jodi Benson (the real Ariel), Rebel Wilson (as Ursula), and Darren Criss (Prince Eric), among others. Another highlight was the opening acts, of Brad Kane (the real Aladdin) and Susan Egan (the real Megara). Here’s a post reflecting on my experience. REQUIRED.
  • Zootopia (2016) – I’ve seen this four times now, and each time I uncover something new in this wonderfully rich film. It’s a heavy one thematically, touching on racism, sexism, discrimination, politics – but it balances them all beautifully in a labyrinthine mystery. REQUIRED.
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Had a hard time getting through this one. A male outsider comes to a northwest mining town, followed by professional Madame, and they pair up to start a high-class whorehouse. I went into it with enthusiastically (I enjoy the other Altman films I’ve seen), but I cared little-to-nothing about these characters or their slow-moving plotlines. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Conjuring 2 (2016) – Spooky paranormal thriller combines standard “jump” moments with some creative scares, all enriched by a quality story and stylized visuals. The Warrens are back and taking ghost-hunting to an international level, traveling to London to help a desperate family rid their house of spirits. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Player (1992) – I’m still brewing about this one. I loved the first half of the film: a studio executive being pursued by a frustrated writer, all while balancing his paranoia with the chaos and cynicism of show business. I fell off during the second half, where it gets into an unnecessary love story, but it all circles around to a twisty ending I appreciated. So, opinion is still TBD…

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about McCabe & Mrs. Miller?

Weekly Round-Up: May 15-21, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Woman in the Dunes (1964) – At its best, this demented love story is an absolute thriller, chronicling the kidnapping and imprisonment of one man by a rural Japanese village. Unfortunately, this intriguing premise loses momentum and is all but buried by its 2 1/2 hour running time. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Descendants (2015) – I adore this movie, to the point where my friend Albert and I recorded an audio commentary this week (to be released soon) analyzing the film even further. The Disney villains’ kids go to high school together – what more could you want? RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Even better on home video than in theaters, thanks to subtitles! I even watched it with audio commentary which provided additional insights. Nearly six months in, this might be my pick of top movie of 2016. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Hawaii (1961) – Silly but enjoyable Elvis musical about a young man torn between his destiny as a pineapple heir and staying a beach bum with his friends. Great songs and Angela Lansbury are icing on the cake. RECOMMENDED.
  • The New World (2005) – Spectacular historical drama exploring the intertwining lives of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. From what I’ve seen, this is by far my favorite Malick film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Black Moon (1975) – Surrealist trashfest that is equal parts Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Godard’s Weekend, but with none of the wit or purpose. I get that there was something about a battle of the sexes, but couldn’t grasp how hordes of naked kids running about or old ladies talking to pet rats contributed to this idea. NOT RECOMMENDED.