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La La Land

La La Land ticketstubAs the credits started rolling, the elderly woman on my left (there was another on my right) turned to me and asked if I enjoyed the movie. She said, at her age, it's really wonderful to see a good old-fashioned musical. Now, I don't really have any experience with old movies, including musicals, but if I had, this is what they would be. A young woman goes to Hollywood to live her dream of being an actress meets a young man in Hollywood to (attempt to) open a jazz club. Classic. There are some very slight pokes at the movie industry and what it's like to live in LA (50% of those gags come in the form of titles on the screen that announce "Winter," "Spring," etc, when, of course, all the seasons in LA look the same), but this is no LA Story. We start of with a few fun song and dance numbers, and then a long lull in the middle till we get a few less happy songs toward the end. Not to say this movie doesn't have a happy ending, it's just not THE happy ending, and I think that's swell. I get the idea of doing an old-timey romantic comedy musical and La La Land works really well, I'm just sad to say that isn't the sort of musical that really excites me.

The characters are fun and feel mostly real, but still kind of like slightly cartooney versions of romantic leads because being in a movie where people randomly engage in song-and-dance is a bit cartooney. I did like the message at the core, about following your dreams and not letting that voice in your head that's always telling you you aren't good enough to drive you away from what you've always wanted. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling can sing and had wonderful chemistry with each other. My personal issue with the movie is probably the persistence of jazz music, which I simply have no tolerance for, but that really shouldn't detract from the really excellent movie-making on display.

4/5

Passengers

Passengers ticketstubAn accident on-board an interstellar colony ship causes mechanic Jim to be awakened from hibernation. In a fit of lonely desperation, Jim awakens another passenger and things sorta get complicated. This is a pretty simple plot involving the ethical questions around deciding the fate of another person to satisfy your own interests. This is not an action-packed adventure, it's largely just Jim by himself, accompanied only by the android that tends bar. The addition of Aurora introduces the romantic story, but otherwise we're simply watching these two characters go on dates. The last act involves problems with the ship and that feels more like a big action-ey adventure, but in the end, that's not the point.

I won't say I had a problem with this movie's slow burn, it's vitally important to understanding these two characters and what their hopes and dreams were before their lives took a turn. Chris Pratt is funny and charming and Jennifer Lawrence brings the emotions, but I could have used a little something more to juice the interaction between the characters. I really loved the art direction, the ship was clearly very advanced technology, but it was also clearly recognizable as a cruise ship. For example, in order to do anything on a cruise ship, you have to show or swipe your ID badge, in Passengers, this was replaced by a wrist band. Even in the far future you still need the Gold Package to get the good meals.

Perhaps my issue is that there isn't any antagonist. The only enemy here is loneliness and the drive for human interaction, everything else is just a giant overblown case of life problems that are out of the protagonists' control that they have to deal with. It's a fine movie, but it's not exceptional.

3/5

Rogue One

Rogue One ticketstubHeroes and villains and spaceships and sacrifice and revenge and droids with no filters and did I mention spaceships? It's fun and tense and feels more like a two-hour episode of Star Wars Rebels than the traditional Star Wars movie. This movie is stand-alone, you won't need previous Star Wars experience to understand what's happening, but if you are a fan, you'll be treated to some fun nods to the other movies (mostly A New Hope). Have fun storming the castle!

4/5

The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen ticketstubHigh school girls dealing with high school issues is a common theme in movies, so when it comes to differentiating the good from the bad, I think it's either about humor or sincerity, and The Edge of Seventeen has both. While they don't use the term, I would say the character Nadine is a solid introvert. She has a small number of good friends (or just the one friend) and does not manage well in crowds, but does better one-on-one. She sees herself as the outsider, as weird and awkward and doomed. She doesn't believe she has anything to offer the world. To top it off, her only friend starts dating her perfect brother leaving her feeling betrayed and alone. I don't think I'm alone in being able to identify with that. Many high school dramedies utilize over-the-top scenarios to build humor around, while this movie's humor comes from some pretty real situations and snappy dialog that feels appropriate for the age of the characters (both the teenagers and the adults). I really enjoyed Nadine's progression and the realizations her behavior bring about, as well as the characters who float in her orbit. I particularly liked Woody Harrelson as her history teacher and Hayden Szeto as Erwin, the awkward classmate who seems to have a crush on Nadine. My only criticism may be the same issue I have with just about any major movie, all the characters are so darned good looking! It's difficult for me to buy into the suggestion that no one notices Nadine or Erwin given they're not at all subtle attractiveness. The R rating seems to be mostly for language and a little bit of sexual situations, but nothing graphic. I'd say if you like these sorts of high school movies with well written and very not perfect characters, then you'll probably enjoy The Edge of Seventeen.

4/5

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ticketstubBack to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, only this time, the story takes place in the 1930's (approximately) and features adults as the main characters, and I have to say, it works rather well. Basically, there are magical beasts and they're on the loose in New York City, only there's more going on under the surface. Politics and plots, it's a dangerous world. I found the core themes both more interesting and more timely. I haven't verified this, but my impression is that the magical beasts, that have been banned from entry into NYC, are a metaphor for foreign refugees. Our protagonist Newt makes it clear that these beasts aren't a danger to anyone, that in fact we can learn from them. But fear and ignorance causes the wizards of New York to demonize them. Instead, the real threat comes from within the government, reminding us that domestic threats are much worse and more nefarious that perceived foreign threats. Or, that's my take, anyway.

I thought the story worked well and featured a bit more nuance and timeliness than other Harry Potter stories. Script and acting were decent, though I'm still frustrated by Eddie Redmayne's frequent lack of enunciation. I expect the kids will like all the fantastic beasts and the grown-ups might find the adult characters more relatable, this could be an interesting new franchise in a familiar universe.

4/5

Arrival

Arrival ticketstubThere was very little buzz about this movie approaching its release, and therefore, not a lot of talk about its themes and plot points. This is good. With that in mind, I won't be saying much about that here, for this is a movie that must be experienced to understand. No description I give here will do it justice. What I can talk about is the quality of the movie. Arrival is sumptuously deliberate and notably sparse. The way shots are framed, there is typically only one thing happening in each. Even when there is background activity, it's muted, either out of focus or the audio is tamped down so your attention is on the character(s) in this scene. This is not Independence Day despite the presence of alien spacecraft hovering over many parts of the planet simultaneously. This is a complex puzzle that slowly and deliberately unfolds in front of you with a sort of Zen simplicity that gives you space to roll it around in your mouth after every step. As the movie progresses, the ideas layer on top of each other and combine like the flavors of a perfectly seasoned meal. While there are dozens of nuanced flavors to experience, the dish is exquisite when taken as a whole. The sparse presentation tugs you through a journey of discovery both external and internal and you come out the other end both knowing exactly what just happened, and seeking out all the fascinating little bits that lead to this conclusion. It's basically a very complicated stew made up of very simple ingredients. Grab yourself a bowl and savor every morsel.

5/5

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange ticketstubDoctor Strange is a brilliant and egotistical, pompous, know-it-all (literally) brain surgeon who, through his own carelessness, had his hands severely damaged in an accident. When modern medical science fails him, he searches for a more spiritual solution, and through this, gets introduced to the world of sorcerers. So yeah, another origin story. Are you excited? The main story is about a bad guy who wants to hand the earth over to some extra-dimensional god in exchange for eternal life, but the sorcerers, like Strange, are here to stop such mystical events. The movie is populated by entertaining fight sequences that feature (finally) more than just kicking and punching, there's the element of magic and spells to make it all a bit more interesting than what we've gotten used to seeing. I think it works well and I found the fights entertaining and one sequence involving time moving backwards to be particularly fresh and interesting. Beyond that, I thought the movie was a little on the shallow side, lacking meaningful relationships, and in the end, after all of Strange's learnings, he still ends up a bit of a pompous ass, but now he's saving the world!

I haven't read the comics, so I don't know how much has been altered from the source material and I can't comment on some concerns with the character whitewashing that happened. I didn't find it too distracting and there was still a fair bit of diversity in the cast, but those who know the comics might find the changes distracting (whatever they were).

3/5

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children ticketstubThis movie appears to make the case for celebrating each individual's skills and abilities. Seems like a noble endeavor and it should fit in with the Harry Potters and after-school specials we're all familiar with, so that's a wonderful thing, right? Well, it would be, if so little attention weren't paid to the children, some of which don't speak or have any notable abilities, and instead we spend much of the movie explaining and dealing with the situation created by the time loops the peculiar children live within. You see, in order to protect the children, caretaker adults (always female) create time loops which is a single day that loops over and over. Only peculiar people can enter the time loop. This keeps out the normal people who never know anything is happening, but ironically, the evil people hunting the children (for their eyes), are peculiar and can therefore enter the time loops. Then there's the extremely questionable mechanics of these loops and the several continuity issues they generate... it all amounts to a very complicated exercise in trying to track the many rules (many of which don't fit with rational time theory) and trying to puzzle out how and when the various parts of this story are taking place. What this equates to, for me, is a movie targeted toward children that is probably too complicated for children (and probably most adults) to follow. Throw in some well designed, but very creepy monsters and graphic scenes of eyes being ripped from people's heads and eaten and you have a movie that might not be the best choice for children. I'll admit, there are some delightful scenes of wonder and oddity that we might commonly associate with director Tim Burton, but much of that fizzles when most of the kids never get a chance to do anything until the final battle. The leads were all good, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Asa Butterfield, though Jackson and Green were playing way over-the-top. I assume that's how they are portrayed in the book? Seemed like a lot, though, no subtlety there. I was entertained, but certainly wasn't expecting to need a degree in time travel to figure out what's happening.

3/5

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings ticketstubKubo is another stunningly animated film by Laika, the studio known for movies such as The Boxtrolls, Coraline, and ParaNorman. Kubo is a young boy with a mysterious family history who goes on a perilous quest accompanied by a monkey, a beetle samurai, and a small origami samurai. The writing is well done and should be easily understood by young children and won't be boring for the adults. It's not jokey and multi-leveled like a Pixar movie might be, just, a quality, well written script. The voice acting is quite good, though, the combination of a deadpan Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey being Matthew McConaughey seemed a little awkward to me, it worked well. The music had Japanese qualities, but felt clearly arranged to appeal to a western audience. Most impressive, as you might expect, would be the animation that featured complex scenes on water and amazing set pieces of all types. I've heard people comment that the animation is so good they forgot it was animated and I completely agree. I'm not sure that's a good thing, if you can't tell they're using stop motion animation, why not just make it full-on CG? I guess because they're animation style is pretty awesome and we should appreciate that. So basically, if you have kids, they'll probably love it. If you like fantastical adventures, you'll probably enjoy it. If you have a heart, you'll definitely enjoy it. Enjoy!

4/5

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad ticketstubThe Suicide Squad is a ragtag team of super criminals and meta-humans who have been compelled by the government to undertake extremely dangerous missions. This takes place in the DC universe, so you have characters like Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Croc, and so on. My expectations were low given the bad press this movie has been receiving. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The action was quite good, the writing wasn't bad, and the story, though predictable, worked quite well. I don't really know much about the Suicide Squad from comics, but I expect part of the allure is in seeing a more human side of the criminals, and that's what I thought this movie did well. They present these characters as people with families and hopes and hurts and it didn't feel all that cheesy. We also see minor appearances by The Joker and Batman that I think work out well. It's fan service, but again, not cheesy. In an unusual twist, the music you hear in the trailers actually appears in the final movie, I thought that was fun. And beyond that, I can't come up with any serious complaints. It was a genuinely entertaining movie that I would recommend to anyone looking for a bit of comic book action.

3/5