Power Rangers

Five teenagers turned heroes learn of the impending doom upon their town of Angel Grove, forcing the group to become the ‘Power Rangers’. Five teens with attitude are inexplicably brought together by coincidence or destiny to become the newest generation in a line of warriors known as the Power Rangers. The world rests in their hands as Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a powerful witch and former Green Power Ranger, launches an assault seeking the Zeo Crystal with an army of stone golems called Putty Patrollers and a giant golden monster called Goldar. Based upon the popular American television series, ‘Power Rangers’ is directed by Dean Israelite, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, minor adult language, and for some crude humor.

There are times in my writing career when I take honor for being correct in my assumptions. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for all of my doubters, ‘Power Rangers’ will not go down in history as being one of these times. When I first heard that they were producing a big budget silver-screen version of the popular 90’s kids show, I thought about how negatively some of these properties like ‘Jem and the Holograms’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ have been treated along the way. Thankfully, Saban Productions knows the kind of property that they have on their hands, one that speaks to generations younger and older who adore this folklore. For my own personal grade, I view two important aspects to this movie; does it do damage to the original offerings? and does the film present enough of a fresh perspective to justify its re-imagining? Both of these answers play hand-in-hand with one another, but I can gladly say that this 2017 version should pleasantly please audiences of every timeline. Whether you were a 3-season fan like me, or you followed this evolving group of kids through every manifestation, there will be plenty of positives to instill that fun in you that you felt as a child, as well as have you anxiously awaiting the inevitable sequel that is hinted at in a mid-credits scene that is carefully orchestrated.

First of all is this fresh cast that a lot of this film rides on. The movie immediately introduces us to three valuable characters who are equally built among their respective angles and storylines. These are Jason, Kimberly, and Billy. Oddly enough, Billy was my least favorite character in the original ‘Power Rangers’, but here R.J Cyler combines nerdy intelligence with teenage awkwardness that places him in the spotlight of this adolescent who I just couldn’t get enough of. Likewise, Naomi Scott and Dacre Montgomery (Winner of the Zac Efron look-alike contest) too live up to their important characters as Kimberly and Jason respectively, and what I dig about both of them is that they feel like they come from two different worlds, and would otherwise never frequent one another, but this adventurous secret between them and everyone else, crafts a ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of arrangement that hits on that classic 80’s film setup on more than one coincidence. There are two other Power Rangers played by Becki G and Ludi Lin, as Trini and Zack, but sadly neither are given the valuable screen time or smooth transitions to their story that would otherwise build them equally with their other three protagonists. In fact, the film kind of forgets about the two of them until about midway through, when we are told vital information about one character’s sexual orientation, as well as the other one fearful to go home for their own personal dealings. These could’ve used more emphasis in a two hour run time, and regretfully character building is something that this film does feel jarring with all of its picking and choosing. Even still, I thought it was cool how they kept the names the same from all of the original rangers, and yet switching their heritage around with the color of their uniforms.

If there is one MAJOR flaw to the casting, it’s in Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I definitely admit that I got my prediction for the finished product of this movie wrong, but I was absolutely correct about this being an immense miscasting for the rangers biggest villain. Not that it’s completely Banks fault. She is given a very miniscule amount of on-screen time not only to build the backstory of her character, but also put her in any scene that doesn’t jumble the teenage drama kind of tone that the film surprisingly hit on wonderfully. Any time that Repulsa is on-screen, we return to the hokey kind of atmosphere that the original series dabbed in, and while this may satisfy some, I can humbly tell you that I never once believed that Banks fully immersed herself in this character. For the most part, it feels like she is playing dress-up and spouting off some cheesy lines that make it difficult to ever take serious. Banks is a decent actress, but this kind of action movie is anything but her forte, and the absence of a strong antagonist keeps this film as consistently predictable.

I mentioned the tone, and what works in its dramatic regards is that a lot of these teenagers in the movie are dealing with issues that mirror that of what our current youth entail. Sexual orientation, high school identity, and loneliness are just a few of the depictions that ‘Power Rangers’ hits on, and the portrayals consistently feel honest and not at all like a gimmick used for plot convenience. To watch this group of kids merge into a family is one that does a lot for the moral integrity of the film, and adds a dramatic layer of depth to your investment in those characters and their well-being. What’s smart about this is that this is an origin story, so the film feels it vitally important to build the men and women inside of the suit before it shows us the goods, a point that pays off soundly. At the end of the day, this is still a group of teenage superheroes who form a gigantic dinosaur, so there is some humor to boot, but the sprouts of it inserted throughout are used wisely and accordingly so as not to jumble the increasing tension within these inexperienced rangers and the impending doom that awaits them.

The action is given a nice big budget presentation in CGI destruction value. It’s kind of funny to watch this once little engine that could be transformed (Poor choice of words?) into a Michael Bay kind of depiction in crumbling buildings practically falling from the sky. The fight choreography pays homage faithfully to the kung-fu kind of brawling that engaged in the original series, even so much as turning the amps to eleven, with fast-paced movements that always feel tightly in-sync with one another. The camera work could definitely be stronger however, as there’s either often too much going on within each frame, or the direction of each shot is negatively compromised because of experimental camera work that reaches a little too much in aspirational pull. Some of what I mean for instance is when a character or machine will get knocked upside down, and the camera has to follow the flip all the way in the same vain that said object does. I certainly do not need this kind of accuracy to understand the pain associated with being knocked on your head, but if feeling the brutality was the intended purpose, then I most certainly did with some of the most visually sickening camera work of 2017.

The only other two things that bothered me was that of some viciously disgusting product placement, as well as an ending that could’ve lasted slightly longer in resolving Repulsa’s immense army. On the latter, this movie does touch on the familiar cliche that if you defeat the biggest one, the rest will fall. If you’ve seen ‘The Avengers’ you know what I’m talking about. On the former, there is a local donut business that gets the most repetitive two hour commercial that money could’ve bought them. Once or twice is OK, but to keep showing, and even having a character feast on a donut during the big climax, angered me to the days of Adam Sandler and all of his cheap usage to put some more change into his pocket. It feels as desperate here as ever before, and the intended purpose for this building could’ve been any other abandoned building or otherwise to get its point across.

‘Power Rangers’ was a brace for the worst kind of modern-day adaptation, but the marriage between 90’s cheesy kids shows and big budget productions is a gift-wrapped delight to fans who have been waiting for this kind of rangers movie for over two decades. With a better casting for the antagonist, as well as some modest step-taking when it comes to shooting action sequences, and Israelite could etch his name as a premiere filmmaker. Even still, the pacing never slows down for two solid hours of nostalgic insanity that will remind you of a simpler place and time.

6/10

Beauty and the Beast

One of Disney’s most infamously cherished classics gets the live action adaptation treatment, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Twenty-six years after Belle and Beast warmed our hearts with a romantic tale of song and dance, this re-imagining introduces us to Belle (Emma Watson), a young woman who is taken prisoner by a Beast (Dan Stevens) in his castle in exchange for the freedom of her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Despite her fears, she befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and she learns to look beyond the Beast’s exterior to recognize the true heart and soul of the human Prince within. Meanwhile, a hunter named Gaston (Luke Evans) is on the loose to take Belle for himself and later intends to hunt down the Beast at any cost. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is directed by Bill Condon, and is rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.

The unfortunate aspect with watching any movie is that you can only watch it once to be surprised or in awe at the very majestic aura of one’s material. That is the problem that I find with the 2017 version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It’s not a terrible or even bad film. I found it to be aesthetically pleasing, as well as musically sound for the new variations on timeless classics. When I first heard that they were remaking possibly the most notorious Disney animation movie of all time, my heart did kind of skip a beat. This is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ after all, a movie that was nominated for best picture at that year’s Oscars. The first thing that I look for is how the film stands on its own two feet without relying too heavily on the details of the original offering, a problem that 2015’s ‘Cinderella’ went to the well on one time too many. This movie too is unfortunately cursed to accept the same fate, as there’s very little originality to this script that does at least offer a faithful homage to its predecessor. Sure, there’s an informative scene that relates to Belle’s absent Mother from the original story, but it’s a quick glance into a story that should’ve had more weight on the finished product. These differences are too few and far between, and that lack of fresh perspective unfortunately doesn’t vary much from the 90% of this film that mimics scene-for-scene of the original. The remake feels like it has a lot of respect for that 1991 original. Almost TOO much respect, and because of that, this is one remake that will offer a fruitful trip down nostalgia lane, but won’t provide a lot of sound logic for the concept of breaking the remake spell.

The remake is forty minutes longer than the original animation film. For that very investment in run time, we’re not left with a lot that can pace it along accordingly for the two hour mark. There are some new musical numbers and some longer additions to certain classic scenes that we know and love, but it’s easy to remove this and have it hold no weight against the cherished screenplay. What I did commend the film’s script for is the emphasis on catering not only to its youthful audience, but also to that of the adults who have grown up around these pictures. There’s been a lot of controversy about a certain character’s sexual orientation in the film, but never did I feel the story was threatened or overtaken by pointless exposition in him. Where it does acceptably tiptoe that wink-and-nod response to the mature audiences is in the nature that it spoofs itself on more than one occasion. One such mention is during the snowball fight between Belle and the beast in the courtyard, and beast nails Belle with the biggest snowball that you’ve ever seen, knocking her off of her feet. It’s one of those harmless moments that shows the screenwriters accordingly knew where to command the strings of variation in emotional response from the audience, reminding them of the light-hearted nature of this story in between this story of romantic tragedy.

As I mentioned earlier, the aesthetics and artistic merit for the movie are leagues ahead of everything else. The biggest argument for this release is seeing the vibrantly radiant colors splash against the luxurious backdrops in shooting locations, and on that aspect alone this film would be a 10/10. One thing that movie does better than its predecessor in this subject is immersing the audience in the very immensity of the castle, and that cold, isolated feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world around our two protagonists. It’s only in this live action aspect that you can truly soak in the symbolism of how cold and damp that this home is in relation to the beast’s dwindling chances at breaking the spell. The live object CGI achieves and disappoints on many fronts. I did enjoy the designs on the clock and candelabra for their attention to detail in how the facial features of these respective characters felt authentic with the structure of their clock and candlestick design. One such example of not doing this well is with the designs of Chip the tea cup, whom feels like his design was skimmed over quickly, painting a face onto his tea cup. It’s examples like these where the CGI concepts feel like they were trying for something daring, like in ‘The Jungle Book’, but it isn’t sewed up entirely to make it a complete passing grade. Finally, the musical visuals capture the childhood imagination on more than one occasion. It should be no surprise that ‘Be Our Guest’ was my favorite performance, but not so much for the intricately clever lyrics that the song entails, more on the side of entrancing presentation that explodes in your face like an eruption of confetti. I didn’t see this movie in 3D, but I can recommend checking it out in that offering if only for the over abundance of in-your-face objects that fly in your face, nearly captivating you enough to soak in the tastes and smells of this fairytale world.

The costume designs also nail a possible Oscar worthy nomination on grounds of perfectly capturing the transition from animation to live action. Belle’s elegant golden gown shimmers a dazzling glow, and the tuxedo gown for the beast transports us to a bohemian era that really focuses on this French setting. Far beyond the script that plays it safe, it’s clear that the wardrobe department too wanted fans of the film to know that they were determined in bringing such rich fashions to life, emulating upper class fantasy for audiences who invest in these scenes much further than a delightful soundtrack and romantic material.

The overall cast excites and stimulates this fresh chance to try to make their characters their own, with very few negatives along the way. Lets get it out of the way; Josh Gad’s Le Fou steals the show from this decorated cast, because he chooses to add on to the legacy of a character that was nothing more than throwaway in the original. Gad knows who this character is, therefore he chooses not to quiet or hide that fact. He plays Le Fou with memorable flamboyance and debonair that reaches into your gut to pull out laughter each and every time. As for the rest of the cast, none of them ever rise to the occasion to unseat their original casting shadows. Emma Watson proves that she was the only choice for one of Disney’s most cherished princesses. She can sing, act, and most importantly radiate a warm and caring smile that makes it easy to fall under her spell, leaving little doubt that the casting agent hit a home run with this big name steal. As for negatives, I didn’t like anything about the beast, let alone Dan Stevens turn as the heralded figure. The design in concept is terrible, considering the film pulls on more of the human side and less about the beast. He never once treads like a beast, instead walking like a human on hind legs that never cause him to stumble or stutter. There’s a great lack of emphasis on the impact that his movements make that the original capitalized on so much more accordingly, and Stevens range never convinced me once that he BECAME the Beast. Luke Evans as Gaston is the worst though. Evans just doesn’t radiate enough charisma and bravado to channel this macho pig. We are told how great Gaston is, but never given proof of this praise in the form of physical strength or cunning intellect, with the exception of a five second lift of Le Fou. He’s as typical as a jerk antagonist can be, and pales in comparison to an animated counterpart that out-acted and out-charmed him on every capacity.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ is strong enough as a throwaway remake, but does little to convince fans to leave its predecessor in the dust. The lack of character from this lively cast, as well as a screenplay that plays it far too safely in conventional creativity, hinder what breakthrough possibilities that this movie had. Even still, the pagentry is mesmerizing, and the collection of classic musical favorites, as well as a few new additions, give Condon’s presentation a big screen feel. I’d place this one leagues above the ‘Cinderella’ remake, but just below ‘The Jungle Book’ in terms of fresh perspectives. Either way, The enchantment is still there for fans who seek whimsical nostalgia, and Disney is happy to oblige by opening their hearts….and wallets

7/10

Rock Dog

One musically infused canine uses his love of music to save the day, in Summit Premiere’s Rock Dog. For the Tibetan Mastiffs living on Snow Mountain, a dog’s life has a simple riff: Guard a peaceful village of wool-making sheep from the thuggish wolf Linnux (Lewis Black) and his rabid pack. To avoid distractions, Mastiff leader Khampa (J.K. Simmons) forbids all music from the mountain. But when Khampa’s son Bodi (Luke Wilson) discovers a radio dropped by a passing airplane, it takes just a few guitar licks for his fate to be sealed: Bodi wants to be a rock-n-roll star. Yet that means defying his father’s wishes, heading to the city, and locating the legendary and reclusive – musician Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard), who needs to write a new song and fast. If Bodi can put a band together, help Angus with his song, and defeat the wolves’ plot to take Snow Mountain, his life will be in tune. Bodi will become what he’s always dreamed of being: A Rock Dog. The movie is written and directed by Ash Brannon, and is rated PG for action and some adult language.

Blending the different worlds of Asian and American animation companies seemed like a great idea. Rock Dog is sadly another failed attempt by amateur animation studios to cash in on a children’s movie without a lot of energy or patience to go into the project. There are some positives that keep it from being an early favorite on 2017’s worst films of the year list, but a majority of its lackluster presentation feels like a passable thirty minute movie that falls short of producing fifty more valuable minutes to push it even futher. This is a movie and character that simply never find the appropriate footing in terms of entertainment value or synthetic pacing to grab and hook children to its original take on music and canine characters alike. It’s too bland to be effective, and too void of anything fresh or compelling to offer any positives with word of mouth from anybody desperate enough to see this Frankenstein mess of careless offerings. There’s nothing terribly offensive about Rock Dog, it’s just a movie that is easily forgettable twenty minutes after you leave the theater, and I’ve nailed down a few reasons for that.

First of all, there’s the animation and art direction for the movie that strums to some gorgeous backdrop detail before snapping a creative chord on character motion detection. When I watched the trailer for this film, I felt that it was the backgrounds that weren’t in-sync with the movements of the characters, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gorgeous landscapes and effective shading palates to go for the changing locations throughout the movie, shine the brightest in a list of positives that are very moot. You’ll never get the kind of detail like a Pixar or Dreamworks film, but my hats off to Summit Premiere for some noteworthy eye-catching enhancements to make this foreign setting pop, giving children an first-class presentation on European cultures. With the character designs, they felt jarringly rendered to needing another two or three months of edits for finishing. The mouth movements line up accordingly to the vocal work of our A-list cast, but it’s in the lack of fluidity on their body motions that leave a little more to be desired. For the entirety of this movie, it’s obvious that Summit is trying to make the movements in scenes as minimal as necessary, mainly because it constantly feels like our characters are moving in slow motion. I compare it to that of a Playstation 1 Crash Bandicoot video game, in which you can nearly see the lines in design for what minimal effort went into their color schemes and movements. It’s a tough sell immediately when even the animation doesn’t live up to the rich textures that kids are used to seeing from much better movies in 2017.

The script is also full of problems that hinder it from moving forward at nearly every possibility. Considering this film revolves around this dog trying to succeed as a musician, it’s easy to see that the two other subplots that the film entails were kind of left out in the cold in terms of the attention that they received. One such subplot involving a shoe-horned Wolf villain (Voiced by Lewis Black), not only feels unnecessary to the film, but also one that slows down each and every time that we get a little closer to understanding what music means to our central protagonist. This subplot was forgotten about during the second act, and brought back for the third. The final subplot involving Bodi’s father (Voiced by J.K Simmons), shows him holding down the fort against the wolves. This subplot is forgotten about completely during the third act, and brought back for the closing minutes. You start to understand how little any of this matters when Bodi is faced with conflict on three separate occasions in the movie, only to defeat and conquer it in a matter of seconds. If an 80 minute run time didn’t feel rushed, a quick slice of unimpressive conflict should settle the debate. Another concerning aspect is the lack of comedy that the script possesses. It’s one thing to fail miserably at your comedic stick, but it’s completely a new low when that movie doesn’t even try. I didn’t laugh one time at Rock Dog, and that’s certainly not for lack of listening. The writers to this movie left out that ability to laugh, leaving it almost a certainty that kids will suffer great attention defecit in a movie that fails to keep them properly entertained.

The voice performances are decent, mostly because the work of Black and Izzard offer complimentary personalities to the silly character designs visually that they are given. Black was made for voice work. His angry delivery is simply too delightful to not take advantage of in an antagonist offering, and even though I felt his character was pointless, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when he occasionally popped back up. Izzard gives his best Russell Brand impression, as an Aldous Snow of sorts as Angus. Eddie’s delivery feels like the only true rock stereotype in a movie named after it, and the mumblings of a musician searching for the next hit to keep him on top will remind you of icons like Ozzy Osbourne, even so much as having a robot servant named Ozzy. The only real disappointment that I had was that of Wilson vocalizing the title character. It’s not that Wilson underplays it, it’s that he underwhelms it with his vocal range. Luke is someone who would be better fitted as a supporting character rather than the central figure whose soul mission is to entertain. He simply does not, and Rock Dog falls behind as a supporting character of sorts in his own movie.

One thing that did surprise me was the tremendous soundtrack that this movie shelled out the bucks for. Is overspending on Top 40 hits perhaps the reason why everything else feels at half effort? You be the judge. Radiohead and Foo Fighters are among the bands musically narrating their way through Bodi’s journey to dreams, and their inclusion feels awkwardly satisfying for a kids movie that would usually produce some watered down B-side artists to conjure up an original lackluster song. The original soundtrack itself was also very pleasing, as Bodi’s two songs in the movie stayed in my head long after I left the theater. After having Illumination’s Sing last year, Rock Dog feels more my tempo with actual rock hits that always reach their targeted emotion during their appropriate dropping. This might be the only time I compliment Rock Dog over Sing, and that’s thankfully because the production of the movie didn’t skimp with artists who aren’t always the first call on an animation soundtrack.

Rock Dog strums along to its own original beat free of big name studios, but strikes a dull chord too many with generic animation and a flawed script that doesn’t scratch the surface of edgy or compelling entertainment. Perhaps the biggest flaw of this canine chord-striker are the risks that his story simply doesn’t take, leaving a dry offering that will have audiences of all ages battling narcolepsy.

4/10

The Lego Batman Movie

The streets of Gotham and its famed superhero get an updated and pixelated look courtesy of Warner Brothers Animation. In The Lego Batman Movie, In the irreverent spirit of fun that made “The LEGO Movie” a worldwide phenomenon, the self-described leading man of that ensemble, LEGO Batman, stars in his own big-screen adventure. After feeling the effects of loneliness in his jaded daily routine, Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett) adopts Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) to fill the void of a cold and fierce existence. But there are big changes brewing in Gotham, and if he wants to save the city from The Joker’s (Zach Galifanakis) hostile takeover, Batman may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up. The Lego Batman Movie is directed by Chris McKay, and is rated PG for rude humor and some action.

Warner Animation Group hits another ambitiously imaginative home run, this time with The Dark Knight himself at the forefront of the big screen treatment. The Lego Batman Movie, for all of its far-stretching material and vast array of characters both in and out of the Gotham Universe, is first and foremost the definitive Batman movie for every generation of this 70-plus year character. When you consider all of the many flavors and styles of Batman, there’s so much to get immersed into, and never once does this movie letdown fans of any decade by providing fan service that Bob Kane would gladly give a standing ovation too. And why shouldn’t he? He is after all the prime executive producer on this set. By its own comedic merits, this movie would be fine flying on its own two wings, but the impressive and detailed approaches not only to set pieces and overall color scheme, but also to diving deeper into the soul and personality of Bruce Wayne as a character is what gives this movie that seal of must-watch approval for fans longtime and new to share in one collective embrace. Batman hasn’t been fairing so well on the silver screen lately, but Chris McKay appeases the desire to please once again by giving us not only the story that we want, but the one that we deserve.

Through the many Easter eggs and surprises behind every corner of this movie, is a surprisingly light-hearted centerpiece that attempts to dissect the psyche of this army of one, and how pivotal the lack of relationships has played dearly to his life when the lights and cameras die down. What I commend is this movie’s desire to give kids something more than just the ability to laugh, it gives them something memorably somber on teaching the importance of family and how nobody can do anything alone. It feels like for the first time we are being given very valuably precious minutes dedicated to Bruce himself, and through the exterior of a community soldier who became the ultimate dream in orphan fantasies, we find a conflicted egomaniac who gets caught up in himself clearly far too often. It felt very surreal to finally watch a character embrace what so many people and media outlets are saying about him, and see the negative effects that resonate because of such praise. As the film goes on, it becomes less about the villains and more about the fight inside from that orphaned boy, screaming out to be heard and loved again. This heart weighs heavily on the presentation, and proves that teaching our youths is every bit as valuable even in a comedy.

On the subject of that humor, the Lego franchise once again goes above and beyond in ejecting several gut-busting laughs to my experience with it. From the very unorthodox intro that bares Wayne commentating over the studio screenshots, I knew I was in for a feel-good time that rarely ever let me down. The first act is paced so incredibly well, and it’s clear that this is the peak for comedic material for the entirety of the film because the introduction of Wayne and his nemesis alike set the tone for the kind of attitude that this movie is non-chalantly winking to its audience. There’s so much to mention in terms of praise, but some of my favorite moments were the rundown of this massive army of villains, the well-crafted usage of fourth wall breaking in poking fun at the very cliches of superhero films alike, and most importantly a rap by Batman that will require many rewinds to fully embrace every joke planted within its lyrics. The only time when the film lagged for me was during the second act when the transition from comedy to family film felt slightly jarring in the telegraphing. During this time, what few jokes there are felt repetitive and even long-winded in their setups, so a lot of them fall flat before the big climax finale, which produced so many surprises in character reveals that no one could ever see coming. The likeness price alone has me perplexed at how much this movie may or may not have had to spend in producing a big-budget feature for a children’s presentation.

Even though the comedy is intelligent and cerebral, the very designs and imaginative concepts for the movie reign supreme. I saw this movie in 2D, but I never felt like my showing lacked any of the definitive artistic qualities that you have to pay extra for. Gotham is beautifully crafted, embracing that kind of comic book animation with stop-motion practicality that creates a marriage of colorful candy. The hardest part of staying immersed within this story was that my mind constantly wandered to the many backdrops and details that constantly kept raising the bar on creativity. The Joker carnival alone blows anything out of the water that Zach Snyder has conjured up for this caped crusader, and the amazement that I was watching live action played out with tweaks and touches of CG appeal really has me thirsty for more offerings from this prosperous studio. The very movements and shadow work feels so in-sync with one another, and it’s those kind of little things that make something so simple so appealing when you see these decorative figurines coming to life before our very eyes. The best kind of animation is the ones that you can lose yourself in and forget that it isn’t live action, and The Lego Batman Movie took this feat to new heights in some truly breathtaking cinematography.

The casting for the movie works, even if I wasn’t fully pleased with all of the acting work in their vocal range. Will Arnett was born to voice Batman. The beautiful thing with animation is that you can forget the visual appearances for 100 minutes, and believe that he is this character because of this raspy delivery that throws back to Christopher Nolan’s days at the helm of this character. Arnett is a comedic actor, so his timing never flakes or misfires, despite the rollercoaster of dialogue pacing that they take his character on. Michael Cera was also very memorable, despite the movie being anything but a favor to Robin fans everywhere. The chemistry between Cera and Arnett is a callback to their days on Arrested Development, and this reunion packed many awkward tension-breaking scenarios for the duo that I just couldn’t get enough of. My lone disappointment for vocal work was that of Galifanakis as the Joker. It’s not that Joker isn’t written or designed well, but I feel like Zack never made the character his own, lacking a stamp like the work of Mark Hamill, who is arguably the best Joker of all time. Galifanakis isn’t disguised in the least, and feels like he phones home a lot of his performance. My laughs for the Joker character was mostly in his visual reactions, and less about his material, and it’s easy to see why he kind of gets lost in the fray of evolving backdrops and pop culture villains checklists that pick up the slack around him.

Warner Animation Group dips itself once again in imaginative waters for The Lego Batman Movie that serves as the perfect trivia to Batman fans thirsty for the fun to be put back into their favorite superhero. With a visual palate that bends and breaks the surrealism of animation, as well an irresistable arrogance from Arnett protecting Gotham, this one is that rare occasion where a family member from every age group will gladly embrace this awe-inspiring feature that refuses to ever slow, building a foundation for a saga of films to come one block at a time.

8/10

A Dog’s Purpose

Through many lives and owners, a canine searches for “A Dog’s Purpose”. Based on the beloved bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, “A Dog’s Purpose,” from director Lasse Hallström shares the soulful and surprising story of one devoted dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he teaches to laugh and love. Through his many adventures and life lessons, the furry friend inches one step closer to finding meaning for life’s many different roads of reincarnation. The family film told from the dog’s perspective also stars Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, Juilet Rylance, Luke Kirby, John Ortiz and Pooch Hall. It is rated PG for thematic elements and situational peril.

A Dog’s Purpose is a movie that has been getting beaten down in the media lately, after a TMZ story broke the news that dogs on the set were being suspiciously treated and even in danger for one specific stunt scene in the movie. When this broke, it didn’t surprise me because I view these animal movies more time than not as manipulative and dishonest. However, I’m a critic first, and I can accurately say that this movie surprised me in more ways than one for how maturely it handled its material. That’s not to say that A Dog’s Purpose won me over completely to the point of me giving it a pass, but as far as bad movies go, it’s quite harmless. There’s still that air of manipulation for what this movie entails to use its audience for something like animal deaths. This shouldn’t come as a spoiler to anyone, but there’s more than one dog death in this movie, considering it centers around reincarnation, and that fact alone opened my eyes slowly to the concept of Hallstrom’s film offering a mature circumference to equal that of the kid audience that this thing easily sinks its hooks into.

The story is very minimal for what transpires on screen. Although we are given some credible voice narration by Gad to narrate our way through the very thoughts and feels of our furry protagonist, there’s very little sense on how or where the dog is telling this story from to make sense of it. The film also plays everything pretty one-note on its cycle of repetition through four different stories in this movie. At 95 minutes in run time, this makes for a very pinched and confined script that does start to run out of gas midway through, when you realize you’re seeing the same formula being played out with interchangeable faces. The film’s opening story arc with Bailey the dog meeting little boy Ethan, is definitely given the most amount of screen time and character development to hammer home its importance in this picture. I would be lying if I said that this arc didn’t give me goosebumps through my investment within the characters of this first act. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, the opening half hour is as good as it will ever get. Through some abruptly fast-forwarded exposition, we are in and out of three different homes over the course of the second act, without ever solidifying the relevance or even building something as meaningful as the original. I found myself struggling to stay invested over this time, and while this is a movie about the many lives of this dog, it does start to weigh itself down vitally with repetition for formula that never changes its structure or ups the ante in the slightest.

On a note of positivity, this movie does attack some of the more risky material with children’s movies that I have seen in a long time. The very idea of reincarnation is one that can be considered in religious subtext, but thankfully the movie never preaches a gospel or hidden agenda within its walls. This is very much a “What you see is what you get” kind of offering, and that is something that I valued greatly in my overall experience. Besides reincarnation, the film is also very unapologetic with how it shoots and documents the treatment of animals by their human counterparts. This is one of those movies that really got under my skin for just how easy it is to forget about the most important member of a family, and its depiction for how these animals are literally plucked from birth to serve a purpose to a higher master is one that only conjured up great empathy from me, as sometimes the importance of animals in general is vastly overlooked. I was also happy that the movie didn’t try to relate to the audience that all dog owners are great dog owners, like other animal movies that paint a deceitful picture. One of the four owners represented in this movie is very unloving and selfish when it comes to what they seek from this canine, but it’s importantly informative to showcase that (like children) not every life is pleasant with these lovable creatures. Sometimes their drafting doesn’t work for the best, and it could hammer home the reality of a life wasted if reincarnation doesn’t exist like it does in this movie.

As for the overall production of the movie, there’s not a lot to gloat or talk about. This is very much a simplistic presentation that never overwhelms itself by style over substance in the most dramatic of methods. There are a lot of POV angles from the dog’s eye level, and thankfully it never gets dizzying or distasteful after an overabundance of it. The editing and framing are passable with very little risks taken, and a visual representation of each decade depicted is certainly a clever enough idea if this movie had the budget to go all the way with it. As representation, there really is the bare minimum of a song from that decade playing, even when the fashion trends and furniture stylings don’t quite level that concept up to par. It’s one of those things that you probably wouldn’t think about with a story that spans easily forty years, but I give kudos to Hallstrom for at least testing the waters for a concept whose bite never quite reaches its bark in cinematic capabilities.

A Dog’s Purpose is surprisingly poignant, sweet and occasionally honest in the very tribulations of man’s best friends. With some stronger storytelling elements, as well as relying less on puppeteering the heartstrings of audience members, and this could’ve been quite the adventurous sit. As it stands, sits and rolls over, A Dog’s Purpose appears to be cementing the bond between human and kleenex through an hour-and-a-half of watery eyes. Too cute to hate, but too stupid to ever quit running into the table of predictability.

5/10

Monster Trucks

A youthful mechanic changes truck racing for the stranger extraterrestrial, in Monster Trucks. Looking for any way to get away from the life and town he was born into, Tripp (Lucas Till), a high school senior and loner, builds a Monster Truck from bits and pieces of scrapped cars. After a freak accident at a nearby oil-drilling site displaces a strange and subterranean creature with a taste and a talent for speed, Tripp may have just found the key to getting out of his dead-end town and a most unlikely friend in a flexible alien who is able to bend and distort his body to fit into Tripp’s newest gas-fueled hog. Monster Trucks is directed by Chris Wedge, and is rated PG for action, peril, brief scary imagery, and some rude humor.

What kind of positive product can you design with 125 million dollars? Quite simply, a Masterpiece. When you look at some of the biggest action thrillers of the last few years, most of them don’t even come close to that ridiculous figure. So what does Monster Trucks have to restore our faith in the American dollar? It turns out not much at all. This is very much a wasted effort on nearly every end of the theatrical spectrum, despite a big name cast that somehow got roped into this charity project against their will. Could that be the answer to the big 125 million dollar question? Did Rob Lowe, Danny Glover or Barry Pepper make the biggest payday of their lives to sell their souls to a higher power? It would certainly justify the theory, because there’s very little positive or reaping reward to this laughably bad project that Chris Wedge has manifested. Monster Trucks feels like 90’s cheese at its piping hottest, and that predictable formula for subplots and animal co-stars that were the hit twenty years ago has managed to find a place again in modern cinema, despite waning interest in it. This was a movie that sat on the shelf for nearly four years after its production wrapped, and it’s clearly evident in nearly every area of the movie that can’t even hit a foul ball off of an underhanded pitch.

The cast is mind-blowing. I mentioned earlier about the trio of actors that got plucked from their respectable careers for something like this, and sadly the juice doesn’t justify the squeeze with any of them, because they are such a small part to this movie. One of the two positives that I had for this film is that it is a pretty solid, albeit terribly miscast ensemble, and there’s certainly some fun to be had for these actors figuratively hurling gas on the fire that was once their careers. When I think of miscasting, I think of actors who are in roles that they have no business being in. One fine example is Rob Lowe as a Southern accent oil tycoon who shows up when he wants to make a paycheck. Lowe is seriously in the movie for about ten total minutes, and the film decides to cast a new villain along the way because of his lack of involvement in the script. How about the other side of the conflict? Lucas Till (26) and Jane Levy (27) are the central protagonists for the movie. Both of them playing high-schoolers against a backdrop of young faces and children that had me laughing every time they cut to a school shot. Thankfully, the school is only shown twice in the movie, otherwise my laughter would’ve ruined a movie for a lot of people. To even try to suspend disbelief in thinking that these two are high-schoolers is absolutely unthinkable. I could see if Till’s character was a moron and maybe got held back ten years in a row, but his character is beyond intelligent with the things he does with automobiles. One of the tremendously awful lines of dialogue in the movie is Levy’s character reacting in shock, “Wow!! You are smart”. Levy looks like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. If this is feasible on this planet, then surely they could’ve cast Ellen Burstyn or Helen Mirren. Why not?

Then there’s the story. If there’s one positive that I have to say for this aspect, it’s that the movie does have personality. There were times where I forgot what I was watching and got some occurances where I could laugh AT the movie. This is still a negative of sorts because nobody likes their work to be laughed at, but the fact that I could get something out of a bad movie is what will always separate it from the worst of the worst. Other than this, there’s never a moment when you forget that this is a kids movie because implausible scenarios are everywhere. Lets forget for a moment that a monster who can barely move can command a car. Lets think more about the fact that he smashes through walls and cars by himself without any machine, then we are asked to believe that his siblings can be held prisoner by being stuffed in plastic hampers with very little structure or security. HUH? Lets follow that up by talking about how the trucks never fall apart despite jumping on buildings or off of mountains. Not to take away from the 90s aspect however, with a pointless subplot of a school bully who only shows up a few times to spout lines like “That truck looks like a truck took a dump……yeah, that’s what it looks like”. This kid isn’t a central antagonist or anything, it’s just to remind you that this is a high-school story even after you’ve already disbanded it as anything but. So what is the villain’s motivation you ask? Well it’s a big, bad oil company that has no motivation what so ever to see these monsters dead. They could just continue drilling oil and making a fortune, but the movie needs them to be bad and hunt these creatures down, so we can have some kind of conflict. I’ve got a headache.

I couldn’t possibly write this review though, without the visuals that scream 125 million dollars. The 3D is one of the most pointless additions that I have ever endured. There’s nothing of any eye-popping or visual beauty to justify its existence, so my theory is they added it to try to chip away at making back some more of that massive budget. This movie also has severe continuity constraints that proves even the production team couldn’t take this seriously. One fine example of the many is the introduction scene between Till’s character and the monster, where the latter is seconds away from being smashed by a junk yard grinder. The monster escapes, the grinder goes all the way down, and in the very next scene, the grinder is back up top to its starting position. Think that’s the kicker? think again. The next shot shows the grinder all the way down in crushing position paused, which means only a button press could launch it back up. What were they thinking? The CGI though, is perhaps my biggest flaw with the movie. I can give them a round of applause for at least rendering the color and shadow of the creatures accordingly to match the backdrops and human co-stars faithfully. It only took 125 million dollars, but what the hell. My problem is more about hit detection for these computer animated slugs. One thing that I like to do with CGI characters is see the reaction to the live action things they touch and interact with. Take the monster touching Till’s t-shirt, and how there’s no imprint or wrinkle to convey that it is being touched. Lets go bigger. Take the dirt surface of the junkyard when one of the tentacles of the monster is being dragged along it. Is there a line in the dirt to show his interaction? NO!!! of course not. Apparently this monster has no feel to it because its physicality is non existent amongst the things it touches. Treating kids like idiots since the early 20th century.

Monster Trucks isn’t the worst 90 minutes that I’ve spent over the last few months, but it does remind me why I shutter every time I think about January and the horrors that it beholds from effortless voids like this one. This monster clearly has no teeth to its material or production, and Wedge’s film was better left in the 2014 closet where it belonged, free from destroying the careers of Till and Levy who could do better work in their sleep. But as far as spending goes, Monster Trucks is a far better way to burn through 125 million dollars than say giving to a charity or building something great. I found thirty of it, but were still looking for the other ninety-five.

3/10

A Monster Calls

Heroes come in the unlikeliest of places when “A Monster Calls”. Based on the popular novel of the same name, and directed by J.A Bayona, the movie is about Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy who tries to deal with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones), as well as the attacks by local school bully Harry (James Melville). Through tireless repetition of the sadness that has overtaken his life, One night, Conor encounters a “monster” (Liam Neeson) in the form of a giant humanoid yew tree who has come to tell him stories and soon begins to help Conor fix his unhappy life by encountering the two aspects of his life that have clouded his otherwise sunny existence. “A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary imagery.

J.A Bayona’s newest feature film is an artistically expressive direction for grief and the importance of release when it comes to losing someone important to you, and being a doer instead of A thinker. These reflective themes are apparent throughout the entirety of this movie, most of which are delivered in cryptic offerings. Besides this style of refusing to force-feed the audience, Bayona’s somber, yet harrowing feature feels like a callback to the days of “James and the Giant Peach” or “The Iron Giant”, when kids movies made you dig a little deeper for the answer or intended purpose of a particular scene or saying. A Monster Calls joins those movies and so much more by presenting the unapologetic and haunting side of death, a theme that many children genre movies struggle with in today’s society. To treat the little audience like the big audience who will also undoubtedly comprehend and adore these visions, Bayona restores faith back to a genre that doesn’t need comedy to intrigue or speak to its youth, and that is what I found perhaps the most respectable with this movie and the numerous display of positives that it entails.

Considering this is a live action movie, I was pleasantly surprised at some of the beautifully illustrated water-color animation present for two sequences in the movie. These are used to illustrate the actions of tales being told to us by the monster, but we always know that something deeper is lying just beneath the surface of practicality. The art here reflects not only that of the drawings that the artistically gifted Mother and Son share alike, but also that of our own experiences with the real life novel, being readers of this material. It was breathtaking to see these splattering of ink-blots coming to life before our eyes, radiating a color scheme of dreary rainbows that only seem possible in the land of make believe. Not to be outdone by his animation, Bayona also aims and directs this movie with beautifully emotive backdrops that resemble the very theme and mood of this particular story. This is one of those places where it feels like the sun never shines, but anyone who told you there isn’t beauty in death is sadly mistaken, as J.A’s touches bring to life a forty-foot giant that feels very authentic and lively when compared side-by-side to the live action surroundings that he inhabits. This is solid structure in CGI performance, and the very details that goes into the monster with his roots and leaves left me spellbound when compared to the still tree he sprouts from.

The story takes us through a visual nightmare of sensible clarity seen through the eyes of a child far too young to fully grasp the immense consequences of inevitability that lies before him. I mentioned earlier that the movie uses metaphors to teach lessons one-by-one to Conor, and while we see the big picture far ahead of him, there is something constructively satisfying to him growing before our very eyes when saddled with this traumatic experience. Sometimes the themes do take slightly too long to reach, most notably in the three stories by Neeson’s monster, but it’s only a slight tap of the brake pedal on the fast road with coming-of-age. At 100 minutes, the story is soundly paced, and only has these slight bumps that sometimes take the long road in every lesson to halt momentum. Other than that though, I felt very invested and intrigued by the complexities of this youthful character and how his past came into play with shaping him into his actionary responses today. Nothing is too practical or obvious with the exposition, and there’s something tolerably charming for playing this with a wave of honest melancholy at face value every step of the way.

Something did off-set me during my experience with the movie, and that was in the musical editing of the film’s score. Early on in the movie, I noticed that there were very few accompanying tones to play off of the characters and their tragically changing scenarios. I took this as a negative until the final act when it all came clear and the volume of the music was pushed to coherent depths for the first time. This is just a critic’s interpretation and nothing more, so don’t take this as intentional on the part of composer Fernando Velazquez, but I believe this is intentional for two reasons. The first is more obvious. This was played to maximize the release of emotions not only with Conor, but also in the audience who finally have an audio hand on their backs telling them it’s Ok to finally let go. This certainly feels in-sync with Conor and his grasping of the importance on grieving before it’s too late. The second theory is that the lack of music during the first hour of the movie signals the mentality and absence of happiness in Conor’s psyche with each passing day. It’s clear that cancer is a slow process, so to hear these sounds off in the distance relates to that of his memory saying goodbye to everything he knew. Because of that, we understand the importance of the monster even further, for it is the one last wave to the person he knew and loved the most.

The cast is stacked with five top-notch actors giving it their all. Liam Neeson as the monster sounds menacing, yet protective over the boy he comes for, and there’s something endearing about Liam’s voice that while not does offer a side to his dramatic acting that we would only know if we shut out vision and just listened. Felicity Jones certainly proves that her 2016 roles in “Rogue One” and “Inferno” were just footnotes to proving once again that she is a dramatic force to be reckoned with. Considering she is in the movie for no more than thirty minutes, Jones emotes a range of mental strength and loving parent to combat her daily decreasing physical sense. Felicity facial features drive the dagger home for anyone thinking they would escape the theater with dry eyes. Sigourney Weaver was also great, despite it being hard at this stage to think of her as a grandmother. Initially, she is the antagonist to Conor’s life, but as we go on we learn from the monster that there are no good guys or bad guys in this story, only people, and that theme begins to break down the walls and boundaries of the relationship between she and Conor. She’s a character who has had more than enough loss in her life, and this isn’t just a change for Conor, it’s also one for her. Speaking of Conor, fourteen-year-old Lewis MacDougall is the perfect choice to lift the enigmatic emotions of Conor straight from the pages of the novel. In Conor, we feel the torture and the agony of his world psychologically and literally crumbling around him, and it’s in the chemistry with only a voice that comforts us through some of his more trying times. For barely a teenager, MacDougall is years above his age in dramatic depth and delivery, and I felt great empathy for his character despite some terrible things that he does along the way. The biggest surprise however was Toby Kebbell finally getting his chance to shine after the duds that were Fantastic Four and Ben-Hur. Kebbell provides so much more as Conor’s dad than just another two-dimensional throw-away character, and through his uncertainty on trying to deal with a child he barely knows, we suffer the lump-in-the-throat reality that Conor might be more alone than we thought. Toby proves that he can hang with the big boys, and his next role will be very important to my overall judgement on him.

There are many stages to the game of grief. Through traits of denial, anger, and release, J.A Bayona artistically crafts a children’s tearjerker with adult tendencies, balancing dark themes and fantastical environments that never shies away from the center of the pain. It’s an inspirational voice to the often times forgotten mouths of youths, and that in every burning fire A Monster Calls.

8/10

Hidden Figures

Three against-type minds are responsible for finding the Hidden Figures in getting to the moon in a race against rivals. As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes. Hidden Figures is directed by Ted Melfi, and is rated PG for thematic elements and some adult language.

Hidden Figures is the first feel good hit of the year, balancing a force of positive energy and historical accuracy, and that emphasis on positivity brings something home for the whole family, not just the female and black aspect that the movie caters dearly to. This is very much a story about defying the odds over a situation that our three female protagonists were placed into because of society, and the kinds of burdens and handicaps that they have to overcome to achieve greatness in their career fields. That concept alone has always been one that I have clung so closely to, but it becomes a hell of a lot easier when an old idea is given a fresh take over a different backdrop. One thing that did worry me after seeing the trailers was that this movie would force-feed too much comedy into the script. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest, as this is very much a dramatic and honest presentation to this inspirational story that never settles for desperation to grab and hold its audience.

This is a story that pushes two themes equally. The last word being the key to any story allowed two hours to bridge what could be two evenly distributed and interesting movies during similar times. The first is of course the demeaning fashion of inequality among races. What’s refreshing about this particular example is that we’ve never seen it presented with the NASA foreground, and those lifestyle burdens more-than reared their ugly head in the work force of some of the highest branches of government offices. There’s something highly passionate about the ringing irony of one of America’s biggest institutions communicating aloud that one can be judged by their color, and that salty, bitter taste is what gives the movie a majority of its dramatic pulse. The second story is within the race itself that America had with Russia over the concept of space orbit. This is where the movie gets its urgency because we see the tension and the restlessness over IBM and the positives and negatives that such technology had on achieving their mission. The dawn of the computer pushed many people out of the door, so that essence of inevitability rings true in this gift. Perhaps a devil in the details sort of plot that solidifies how America paid the ultimate price to reign supreme.

Kudos to Ted Melfi for his vibrant, yet controlled style of shooting this movie and bringing back the dreamers age to the silver screen. It’s quite easy for biopics to feel hokey or wooden in their portrayals. A lot goes into performances, but the look is so much tougher to achieve in production. Visually, Hidden Figures is a film that looks like it very well could take place in modern day, and that direction in artistic design is something that is so much easier to relate to and compare it to the very negatives we still face in the race game. The budget is certainly there to communicate that this is the 60’s, but it never overlaps the real importance of the story or the characters, and that’s what gives Ted’s tribute to a high-stakes time a very selfless and honorable one. Melfi lets the developments be the true merit in his vision, without ever sacrificing one for the other with style and substance. I also greatly enjoyed the musical score produced by Pharell Williams that provided a vibrant energy for a movie that could easily be weighed down with such dark and disturbing themes. There’s always the promise of hope in the air, and that crisp air highlighted my experience tenfold because of the fun that transfers marvelously in his soft-spoken delivery in vocal range and musical tones.

The film does have its negatives, but it didn’t weigh too heavily on my final rating. For the first two acts, the movie is soundly paced in presenting its two stories in entertaining and somber lights that never dragged nor depleted. The problem with the final half hour is that the film sacrifices one, tying it up a little too carefully, to focus on the other that never gave us any surprises or elevation to add to the urgency that the first hour of the movie gave so carefully. That actually leads to my second and only other problem with the movie; the inevitability of predictability. Whether you know or don’t know much about these women, there’s never any surprises or kink in their directions to ever throw off the audience. There’s conflict in the movie, but I feel like as a screenwriter Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder don’t let it resonate long enough to feel the immense gravity of its disposition. This could very well be a Disney live action adults film for its heartwarming fashion, but the performances elevates it from being too safe during the climax.

What I love about this movie is that even though Henson is clearly the central protagonist, Spencer and Monae are given ample time to get their characters across, and they offer a triple threat of diverse offerings that engage the audience brilliantly. Taraji P Henson finally gets a film to shine her powerful delivery that builds up behind these foggy glasses. As Katherine, Henson is the brains of the group, omitting a side of confidence and intelligence that outshines the so-called experts in her field. Henson has an Oscar-worthy moment midway through the movie when her voice raises, and everything comes full circle with her rising pressures. This moment shook me in my auditorium seat, and only testified what we already knew about Henson; she’s a leading lady in any decade. Octavia Spencer is the brawns of the group, battling a snob boss in Kirsten Dunst’s character that limits her potential. Spencer’s soft-spoken Dorothy feels like she is the supervising figure for this race of women who are treated differently, and it’s in Octavia’s ability to demean the narrow-minded with such “A-matter-of-fact” retort that we don’t know whether to laugh or scream in solidarity. The biggest surprise of all continues to be Monae, who’s sass and determination made Mary my favorite character of the movie. Janelle’s performance does feel slightly a bit to modern for this age, but it doesn’t mean that her sarcastic delivery didn’t delight me behind every drop. Monae amazed me in last year’s Moonlight, but here she is given more time to hone her craft of witty persona and powerful feminism that make her the strong black woman that she shines on stage during musical performances today.

Hidden Figures adds up to something charming and appealing for all ends of the audience spectrum. Outlasting some biopic predictability and some spotty pacing that could’ve sliced ten minutes or so off of the finished product, Melfi’s entertaining and consistent reveal of this untold side of racism during the space age provides plenty of inspiration for women and African-Americans alike, that makes this drama an early treat in an otherwise usual January wasteland. Henson, Spencer and Monae are too magnetic to ever look away.

7/10

Lion

One train ride for a male youth turns into a life-altering event, in Garth Davis’s newest Oscar bait, Lion. Adapted from the non-fiction book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, Saroo’s (Dev Patel) unwavering determination, and assist from a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home. Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic materials and some sensuality.

For my first feature film experience in Garth Davis’s career, I have to say that he not only grasps the material, but swings the artistic pendulum effortlessly throughout the emotional roller-coaster that is Lion. This is very much a director who I believe will have a promising career because he delves into the psyche and the disposition of the central character here, shooting things faithfully from their respective point of views. This is a movie that is broken up into two age groups in the life of this lost youth, one being a five year old child, and the other being a grown man in his late 20’s. What I found so appealing and so rewarding to Davis’s style is that as a child, we see things from Saroo’s height level, complete with low-to-the-ground aiming and pointing, and what this does is offer situations that are that much easier to grasp for the audience. Something this tragic and even scary needs to be seen through the eyes of a child, and the direction that Garth yields transforms us back to that age when the world was immense and uncertain. This really is as rough of a coming-of-age story as it gets because Saroo is stepping outside of his backyard alone for the first time in his life, and that fear never leaves the overall attitude of this film. The second age bracket for the movie shoots everything like movies we’re used to. This is where everything feels as steady and assuring in Saroo’s confident demeanor, and it’s refreshing to see what kind of adult he has grown into.

Kudos also goes to Luke Davies and the actual Saroo Brierley himself for writing an efficient and harrowing story through the themes of finding your own place in the world. Because this is a real life story, and because Brierley offers his side of things, we are not only able to embark on a great adventure, but also able to step into the mind of the protagonist for those authentic telling’s that only he can do. Lion had me wrapped around the many fingers of its dramatic pulse throughout this movie, and never during the two hour sit did I ever feel poor pacing or dragging. The movie always keeps moving, and that’s a credit to the traumatic experience that this quiet little boy goes through. I do wish his romantic subplot with Rooney Mara was left off of the table in favor of more exposition on some of the brief time periods of his progression in his new home that felt really skimmed over. It’s not a major problem, and the movie’s changing themes do more than enough to bridge the gap in this barely obvious negative. As a kid, Saroo’s emotional release feels very reserved and hushed, but as an adult we get to see how one event can trigger a psychological backlash to everything that this man has been holding in about his past. I loved the feeling of Saroo’s dive into the internet being used as a kind of detective style of memory, complete with a new piece of the puzzle being revealed the further his foggy past becomes clearer. The finale even offered some unexpected surprises in past events that I wasn’t expecting, reminding people first and foremost that time isn’t always forgiving. To me, the best kind of dramas are the ones that might not always go your way in ideal climaxes, but yet you still demand future watches, and that is the case with this movie, as I can’t wait to see it again.

The sound editing and mixing is also precise, especially during some of the earlier scenes that embrace the volcanic panic going through everything being ripped from Saroo’s life. Composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran push the tension one step at a time, slowly lifting the sound to stronger levels that elevate just as our conflict becomes obvious to the realization of Saroo. The duo compose one riveting composition here that is there every step of the way through Saroo’s tortured past, and the musical numbers while he is out on the streets alone felt haunting and dismal to the kind of outlook that we’re feeling for this adorable little boy, while the adult themes felt warm and welcoming as you’re intrigued and embracing the complexity of a man who remembers literally very little about his home.

I’m hoping that this movie garners a lot of Oscar attention, and a lot of that comes from a cast too good to be ignored. Nicole Kidman makes the most out of minimal screen time with long-winded dialogue deliveries that chilled me to the bone in the dispositions of her character. As an adoptive Mother, movies tend to always skip over their side of the story, but I’m glad that Kidman’s Sue flourishes under confined circumstances. Because of Kidman, Sue is very much a woman who is generous and appealing, while holding on to a life that never truly feels ideal to her original plans. Nicole’s trajectory for tears never disappoints, and her somber delivery reminds us that the race for Best Supporting Actress just got A lot more interesting. Dev Patel is also brilliant as the adult version of Saroo. Patel has always been in these grand scale movies, but for the first time in the young actor’s career I genuinely feel like this is a performance that he gave his all for. Patel offers a candid look into the psyche of a child-turned-adult who has been through so much, yet progresses to try to save some semblance of a life for himself in Australia. Through painful flashbacks, Patel’s watery doors to the soul open vibrantly to offer pain and happiness in one instant, an attribute very difficult to accomplish. Without question though, stealing the show is Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar in his theatrical debut. Sunny’s precision with emotional delivery is well beyond his years, and the boy wonder offers as much in guarded fear as he does in admirable innocence. Last year Jacob Tremblay was my child pick for the Oscars, and this year Pawar should lead the youth class in Academy voting.

Lion is an uplifting tale of resiliency and determination that never falters under the pressure of obvious genre cliches. Garth Davis’s close up on the importance of home and family never feels forced or corny, settling instead for worthwhile performances from every age of the acting spectrum. Not many movies make this critic tear-up, but Lion stuck its somber paws into my heart, roaring with undeterred sincerity.

9/10

Sing

The animal inhabitants of a small town will never be the same again, when a prized contest inspires every one of them to “Sing”. The story stars Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a dapper Koala who presides over a once-grand theater that has fallen on hard times. Buster is an eternal optimist who loves his theater above all and will do anything to preserve it. Now facing the crumbling of his life’s ambition, he has one final chance to restore his fading jewel to its former glory by producing the world’s greatest singing competition. Five lead contestants emerge: A mouse (Seth MacFarlane) who croons as smoothly as he cons, a timid teenage elephant (Tori Kelly) with an enormous case of stage fright, an overtaxed mother (Reese Witherspoon) run ragged tending a litter of 25 piglets, a young gangster gorilla (Taron Egerton) looking to break free of his family’s felonies, and a punk-rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) struggling to shed her arrogant boyfriend and go solo. Each animal arrives under Buster’s marquee believing that this is their shot to change the course of their life. “Sing” is written and directed by Garth Jennings, and is rated PG for some crude humor and minor peril.

Illumination Studios has always held their own when it comes to gorgeous animation that holds its own among the best illustration studios in America. The compromise however, has been that their stories always fall short of producing something engaging in characters or materializing depth in their scripts. Everything is usually played at face or trailer value, and that is the case with their newest effort “Sing”. It’s not a bad movie at all, in fact, I had just enough fun to recommend something like this to anyone who enjoys television shows like American Idol or The Voice. Like those shows, this movie offers about five minutes of important exposition and 100 minutes of musical performances. I’m not shallow enough to ask for something more in a movie called Sing, but I feel that not enough of this extensive runtime is used wisely for anything other than karaoke hour on “Must-See TV nights”. The energy and positivity from this script is just enough to warrant a watch, but I would suggest that Illumination up the ante with the next bet, or Pixar will come along one more time and steal the reigns with innovative storytelling that rarely ever fails or underwhelms.

This is a movie that offers over eighty (Yes eighty) musical songs and sequences, and offers a surprisingly satisfying blend of classic and modern favorites that are sure to bring enjoyment to parents and kids alike. On more than one occasion, I found my toes tapping to the eclectic tastes in all genres of music, something that gave me great respect for Joby Talbot, the musical director for the movie’s song choices. Talbot appropriately times the variety in moods for each of the characters he is trying to depict in song, and while I mentioned that my biggest problem comes in this movie establishing its characters by anything more than one-note throwaway scenes, it is on stage where they open up and shine at their brightest. The concept in general of advertising a winner-take-all showdown is certainly enough even still to intrigue audiences, and while the ending falls flat on when the winner is revealed, there is enjoyment in watching each of them battle it out with a musical scrapbook of my favorite hits from over the last fifty years.

The mood of the movie was very surprising in its decision to feel more like a drama than a typical comedy. If this was the intended direction in mood, I give Jennings credit for playing a kids movie against type, but his biggest risk will come in what his light-hearted youthful audiences will garner from it. This is a film that sadly only gave me one real strong laugh in terms of material; a car wash scene that involved some creative methods from a main character using his unique animal traits to earn him the cash he needs. Overall, this is a film that angles these characters as surprisingly dramatic, most notably in a teenager who is cheated on by her boyfriend, as well as a married housewife who endures disrespect from her husband and kids against a light that they see her as. None of what I said is a spoiler since they are both revealed in the trailers, but it was eye-opening to see just how far they were willing to take this somber toll. This was never a problem with me because I feel great respect for a movie that treats kids like adults, showing them the many sides of emotional release, but I’m curious to see if that same risk will agitate children to the point of the movie losing their attention. This coupled with the overabundance in musical repetition setups, and this could be a tough sit for the ones begging to see this in the first place.

As far as the animation goes, this is another cherished effort from Illumination Studios, offering many vibrant set backgrounds, as well as character designs that always spring the palate. I got to see this movie in 3D, and while the eye-popping extras leave a little more to be desired, the energetic tones in color provide more than enough to explore the value of what went into this picture. One difficult aspect to pull off in animated singing is the mouth movements of characters and if the believability from that sequence feels organic in delivery. Thankfully, this is never a problem with Sing. The animation between throat throttling and facial expression nailed everything note-for-note, and I couldn’t signal one instant in depiction where any of the movements felt anything but richly layered in muscle movements. As for the landscapes, this unknown town in the movie is very relatable to our own suburbs. It’s nice to see a film that revolves around animal characters not taking place in a town that is silly or constructed by a madman, and this authentic touch holds its own against a script that sometimes lags or underwhelms on characters.

Sing does sometimes muddle in predictably familiar waters with its story, but the cheerfully exuberant musical numbers, as well as lively animated visual aspects are more than enough to lift it one note above forgettable. The film still could use ten minutes or so shaved off for young audience members who will already be exhausted with more than 80 songs, but thanks to a message that encourages them to follow their dreams, they too might feel inspired to write a song that will someday be adorned in an Illumination Studios picture.

6/10

Collateral Beauty

Retreating from life after a tragedy, a man questions the universe by writing to Love, Time and Death. Receiving unexpected answers within the “Collateral Beauty”. When successful New York advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) suffers a great tragedy in the loss of his daughter, he retreats from life, isolating himself from the relationships that he treasured so closely. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren), seeking the answers for his unfortunate spell. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty. “Collateral Beauty” is directed by David Frankel, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.

After watching the popular trailer to “Collateral Beauty”, I gathered a couple of aspects that made me even slightly intrigued to check out this film. First of all, there’s Will Smith’s emotional delivery to give us a glimpse at perhaps maybe one more poke at an Oscar nomination. Second, this story revolves around the recovery after a man loses his kids, and his friends are stuck trying to figure out what they can do to help him. Third, Smith is visited by spirits who identify as three different spirits of universal emotion, so there’s a supernatural element to it. And finally, the attitude of this film seems to be a roller-coaster of tear-jerking material that is sure to give audiences a warm feeling around the holidays. Now that I’ve told you all of my observations, I can happily explain to you why NONE of them hit their desired marks for this mess of a movie, and how a movie with so much potential crashed and burned so quickly in a 92 minute sit.

David Frankel isn’t someone who I would pretend to know or understand a lot about his directing, but after scanning through his filmography and seeing his latest big screen offering, I can clearly say that David was in over his head on this project. This is truly one of the poorest directed efforts in terms of creative and artistic expression that I have seen this year. This film lacks a great level of detail when it comes to stacking the emotional depositions for what goes into Howard’s grief. A lot of that can be blamed on the bland script (Which I will get to later), but I never felt inspired by any level of sadness in this movie. In fact, the tone for the film, at least for the first hour, feels like an awkward comedy. I literally had to stop for a moment and make sure that I was in the right movie because I waited and waited for a change in tone that didn’t come until a half hour left in the film, and even then it felt obviously constructed that way, instead of a fluent screenplay that feels authentically gifted at setting the pace.

Then there’s the part of the movie that made me angry; the manipulation. This movie and the trailers that accompany it are two different things. I set the creative ground earlier for what I was expecting from this movie, but what I got was something mind-baffling. The characters are deceitful and conniving, the script dooms Smith to a supporting character in his own movie, and the film dooms us in two twists during the movie that kind of null-in-voids the other one, making a waste of time for what is already a thin screenplay. These are people we are supposed to invest in and feel compassion for? It pains me because I want to spoil how bad every one of you have been fooled with this trailer, but I’m going to let you all have your day in the sun and bask in it yourselves. As for Howard, it’s a very mind-numbing choice to understand how a movie that centers around his actions following his daughter’s death casts him aside to tell these other supporting cast’s story arcs. It feels like this movie was made far too complex for a story that practically writes itself, but that’s what were dealing with here. Smith isn’t a prominent figure in the movie until there is about forty-five minutes left, and by then the game of insensitivity within this film’s characters and tone will leave you heartless when this movie depends on that the most. There doesn’t feel like any kind of transformation by the end of the movie for Howard, and the film’s final scenes feel like a scene or two was left on the editing room floor to diminish the expositional chemistry between Smith and Naomie Harris.

While I’m on the subject of characters, I can talk about the performances that collectively felt wooden in their emotionless deliveries. Albeit except for Smith who always gift-wraps some emotionally touching moments in even the worst of films, the entirety of this cast feel out of place in name value, as well as character motivations that always had me scratching my head. Because the movie takes the time to relate to us how important their character arcs are, we learn three equally taxing storylines that take up much more of the film than they rightfully deserve. There’s something authentic about Edward Norton being an asshole of sorts here, so when the movie wants us to feel empathy for a lack of relationship he has with his daughter, I couldn’t be more distant from the emotional center that this movie tries to enact. Kate Winslet and Michael Pena are phoning their performances in, Helen Mirren has zero versatility in what makes her character stand out, Keira Knightley’s arc is boring, and Jacob Lattimore feels forgettable to the point when it surprises you every time he pops up. As I mentioned, Smith is the only reason to partake in this bomb, and that is because the complexity of his character’s responses deserve to be seen closer and not from a distance like the movie telegraphs for the entirety of the film. The star of the movie who got lead bill on the posters is a supporting character instead, and that fact should tell you everything you should know about the movie you might be partaking in.

Overall, “Collateral Beauty” has no collateral or beauty with my investment in this heartless anti-seasonal manipulation. It’s a reminder to Smith that he must carefully choose his next project because it is the Winter season that is ruining his career, between this “Concussion” and “A Winter’s Tale”. Frankel and screenwriter Allen Loeb pull the wool over the eyes of the audience one too many times, and settle for pretentious pandering instead of uplifting heart. I felt the time, wished for death, and reserved my love for something better.

3/10

Moana

An adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people, in Walt Disney’s newest animation gem “Moana”. Three thousand years ago, the greatest sailors in the world voyaged across the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, for a millennium, their voyages stopped and no one knows exactly why. In comes Moana (Auli Cravalho) who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana meets the mighty demigod Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder and save her island of loved ones. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. “Moana” re-unites the acclaimed team of Ron Clements and John Musker, and is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.

Disney hits another home run, as “Moana” is the very best of an unusually exceptional year of animated cinema. A lot of that has to do with its luxurious stylings in breathtaking visuals and colorful palate that crafts one of the most beautiful experiences that you will have at the theater during Oscar season. There’s so much to mention in terms of detailing that goes into Clements and Musker’s picturesque visions and surreal offerings that they capture so effortlessly. The landscapes stretch out as far as the eye can see, creating a Hawaiian paradise that radiates the senses of visual delight. The water layering is precise, and had me questioning several times during the movie if we were actually watching a live action Disney offering. That’s pretty much what the game has come down to; Disney has captivated audiences by their advancements in technology that we never question what is next when we’re constantly raising the bar of animated nirvana. Some of my favorite scenes were those at night, where the physical features of our main protagonists tend to shine a little brighter against the backdrop of a sky full of stars. The physical traits of Maui and Moana get everything right not only in the human touches and feels of physical appearances, but also in that of the actors who voice them. Each is a light exaggeration on their human counterparts, and the design served as a wonderful introduction to two of my favorite animated protagonists ever.

What makes them both so delightful is the chemistry they exuberate with each passing moment. Maui and Moana start off as rivals upon their opening introductions, but it’s so fun to watch them grow as a team, complimenting what the other one lacks. Moana is the brains of the operation. For female moviegoers everywhere, this woman will feel the void left decades prior after some of Disney’s best princesses honed their voices for all to enjoy. What makes Moana so much more is that she isn’t just beautiful, her biggest strength is her ambition to live up to the person she was born to become, and it’s in that quest where her story feels naturally beneficial to the screenplay and smooth run time of 97 minutes. This is a coming out party for Cravalho, a pop star who dons her first acting gig. She inspires this character in ways that we actually witness a transformation physically in the character, despite Cravalho only lending her talents orally. She channels the excitement of being a youth, while harboring the consequences of adult responsibility. Maui is the brawn of the operation, if you couldn’t tell that from his massive physique. Dwayne Johnson is already the most charismatic actor on the planet, but to capture that essence in vocal form truly puts this role above most anything he has done in the past decade. Maui is practically an everyday superhero, but the scenes that brought me the most delight in laughs is when this demi-god lets his guard down and actually expresses cowardice towards the revolving antagonists that invade his comfort zone. Johnson and Cravalho believe in this story because it is a telling of their respective heritage, and therefore make the most sense in a casting agent’s decision.

The screenplay has some faults, mostly in the first act of the movie with some convenient plot devices. I didn’t fault it too much, but two of the problems I had in this area had to do with the curse of the island popping up out of nowhere after hundreds of years, and the diminishing health of a character that literally pops out of nowhere. These things are necessary to the story, but I feel they could’ve been worked in a little smoother with the fast pacing that dominates this movie. The rest of the story is a legitimate feel-good Hawaiian adventure that tells the relics of some of the island’s vast traditions. It’s also kind of great that this movie doesn’t have to waste time with a forced antagonist taking valuable minutes away from the energetic two main protagonists. That’s a surefire sign of confidence that the duo of filmmakers have for this story in heritage, and the creativity flows as smooth as the ocean waters beneath Moana. There’s a great slice for adventure in the revolving backdrops that the movie entails that greatly surprised me. In watching the trailers, I worried that a majority of this movie would take place on a boat, diminishing the possibility of much excitement. I couldn’t be further from the truth. The movie explores several themes and legends that takes our duo through a journey of different characters and landscapes, and it always keeps the intensity of the movie moving, free from settlement.

What Disney film would be legendary however without an amazing soundtrack? Certainly not this one. In addition to the magical duo that not only direct, write and produce this movie, Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda composes a satisfying blend of original songs that will stay in the heads of its audience for years to come. This movie is a mostly musical-dominated picture, so if songs aren’t your thing, you’ve been warned. What’s smart about the musical numbers in this instance is that they are used as exposition and background for our characters when a majority of the movie takes up that musical accompany. This is entertaining us while telling a story, and it echoes the tradition of Disney classics that came before it that hit on that same value. Too many modern musicals pause the flow of the continuity in a movie just to sing a song, but a valuable one will sing and speak at the same time. My personal favorite of the more than ten musical numbers found in the movie is definitely that of Cravalho singing “How Far I’ll Go”, a power ballad about the ocean speaking to Moana reminding her who she is and what she has to do. The lyrical metaphors are strong with this one, and I can see this not only staying in the minds of audiences, but at the very least getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song this March.

I did see this film in 3D, but I don’t think spending extra dollars is of much importance with this one. That’s not to say that the sharpening of 3D technology didn’t enhance the outlining work of characters, but there’s really nothing of noteworthy praise in eye-popping effects work that justifies this being a must-see in third-dimension. Even in 2D, the movie’s endless beauty will be more than enough to justify a theater engagement into this vibrant world.

“Moana” is beautifully structured, musically sound, and most importantly entertaining. Anchored by a duo of actors paying tribute to their heritage, this feels like an authentic slice of homegrown animated entertainment that Disney has captured in spades. It reminds us that to become the person we were destined to become, it only takes a little courage and a venture into a world that tingles the imagination. “Moana” will be a permanent fixture of the DVD and Blu-Ray replay button in parental homes from this point forward.

9/10