Category Archives: Family

“The Farewell” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if this sort of thing happened in my family, I would completely understand it. To quote one of the character’s in this film, “You’ll just ruin her good mood.” This independent comedy-drama premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, A24 acquired the distribution rights for $7 million. It was theatrically released on July 12th, 2019, gradually expanding into more theaters in the following weeks. Produced for the budget of $3 million, the film has thus far managed to exceed expectations for the specialty box office, grossing over $17.8 million worldwide. It currently has the best per-screen average of any movie this year, even beating Avengers: Endgame. This comes in addition to highly positive reviews from critics and audiences, accumulating a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is based on her own personal experiences with her family. She had spent years trying to make the film, but numerous financiers from both Hollywood and China rejected the idea unless she wrote in a part for a prominent white character. She eventually turned her story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which immediately caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz. The director also turned down a large 7-figure distribution offer from a streaming service so that it could be seen in theaters. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a headstrong woman from New York who is a first-generation Chinese-American. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Zhao Shuzhen, has terminal Stage IV lung cancer. However, the family deliberately manipulates her medical records and plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time without actually disclosing her illness to her. Although her parents are worried that she might tell the truth due to their close relationship, Billi joins the family in China and struggles between the world she grew up in and the world she was born in. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first reviews poured out of Sundance back in January. It sounded like an absolutely fascinating premise to me, especially since it was based on the writer-director’s own life. And I always love seeing Awkwafina onscreen and this seemed like a great role for her to branch out into. Hearing stories that this sort of thing is actually extremely common among Chinese and Chinese-American families made it seem even more intriguing. I was hopeful that it would highlight the distinct cultural differences between the East and the West while staying focused on character. And The Farewell exceeded my expectations, providing a remarkable showcase for both the lead actress and writer-director. It’s clear from the very first scene that this is a deeply personal film for Lulu Wang, as she channels her own experiences and anxieties so eloquently. We get to see Billi struggling to reconcile her relationship with her family with her own personal anguish of having to keep such a secret. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where she and various relatives argue about whether her being raised and educated in America was a good thing, as her cultural beliefs are clearly different from theirs. Part of what makes The Farewell such a unique crowdpleaser is its ability to balance these moments of tension and genuinely touching emotion with laugh-out-loud humor. Nai-Nai’s obliviousness to her own diagnosis creates some truly amusing irony, as is the family’s tough attempt to hide their emotions. All of this, plus the fact that over half of the dialogue is spoken in the Mandarin language, proves why this is one of the most well-written films of the year. Awkwafina has been on a role in the last two years, and with this film, she shows off her true range as an actress. As Billi, she is fiercely independent and proud, which puts her at odds with the more traditional nature of her extended family. The internal struggle to maintain the secret of her grandmother’s illness while also keeping their sacred bond intact is very poignant. Opposite her is Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother Nai Nai, completely unaware of what her family’s actually doing in her home. One of the most respected actresses in China, it’s truly fascinating to see her go about her daily life without the knowledge of her diagnosis looming over. The scenes she shares with Billi are some of the best, as we get to see the deep connection between the two despite their cultural differences. Tzi Ma and Diane Lin also deserve to be mentioned as Billi’s mother and father, respectively. The cultural divide at the heart of the film is most evident in these characters, as they have fully adapted to American life but still hold to the traditions of their family. And unlike Billi, they internalize many of their emotions during their stay with Nai Nai, which takes a clear toll on their mental health. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, and Li Xiang round out the rest of the family here. Each is dealing with Nai Nai’s condition in their own way, some in more subtle ways than others. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, The Farewell shows Lulu Wang has a distinctive voice that needs to be heard. Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is very deliberate and precise, with most scenes told from a static angle. The muted color palette is perfect for the morally gray nature of the story, although there are some gorgeous neon shots in the streets of Changchun, where the film was shot. Often, entire scenes play out in long takes from one position, providing the actors freedom to act in large space. Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor’s editing job works quite nicely with this, creating enough cuts between shots to make things interesting. One powerful example is during a dinner scene when all of the family members are eating at the table and it cuts between different members arguing about what’s best for their children. There are also a handful of slow-motion shots peppered throughout, especially when a character is walking down the street. It’s almost as if these are moments meant for us  to slow down and contemplate what’s in their headspace. Alex Weston provides the instrumental film score, and it’s both a doozy and appropriately minimalist. While there are great sequences without any real music, most of the tracks consist of plucking low strings for dramatic or emotional effect. The tension created from this and the more melancholy strings reflects the tension and melancholy of keeping the secret. But a handful also incorporate the vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore. His angelic voice and perfect melody adds to the ominous shadow looming over this faux wedding. The soundtrack also includes a memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” done by Elayna Boynton. It plays near the end of the film, and fits so well with the themes of the story being told here. In fact, I dare say it’s the rare cover that’s actually better than the original. With assured direction, an amazing screenplay, and a great sense of authenticity, The Farewell is a hauntingly beautiful and personal account of cultural differences. Bringing her own experiences to the big screen in a universal way, Lulu Wang shows us a world too rarely seen in cinema. We’re also treated to what is easily Awkwafina’s best performance to date, and I will be shocked if she doesn’t get even more work in the future. Wang proved all of her naysayers wrong in the best way possible with this film, and it makes me so excited to see whatever else she has to offer cinema.

“The Wizard of Oz” Movie Review

So this August officially marks the 80th (Yes, EIGHTIETH) anniversary of this classic movie. If that still isn’t enough reason for me to review it now, than I honestly don’t know what is. This musical fantasy film was originally released in theaters by MGM on August 25th, 1939. Budgeted at $2.8 million, the studio’s most expensive produciton at the time, it failed to make a real profit and only garnered around $3.01 million at the box office at the time, likely due to Gone With the Wind being released at the same time. However, the film became a massive success on home video and television re-runs starting in 1956, becoming an annual tradition on CBS. According to the Library of Congress, it is actually the most watched motion picture in film history. In addition, it was one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry, one of the few films included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, and is considered one of the most influential films in history. Directed by Victor Fleming, (Who also helmed Gone With the Wind) the film is (quite loosely) adapted from L. Frank Baum’s wildly popular novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, whose rights had been in Samuel Goldwyn’s possession for some time. Throughout pre-production and production, numerous writers, actors, and even directors were swapped as the script constantly changed, including an early attempt to pander to young audiences. Producer Melvin LeRoy consistently toyed with the runtime and content of the picture, including almost cutting “Over the Rainbow” and abandoning a stencil-printed transition from sepia-tone to color. It’s also the source of an infamous urban legend regarding the alleged on-set suicide of a Munchkin actor, which multiple people have denied is true. The iconic story follows Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a poor farm girl from Kansas living a dreary, seemingly unhappy life. After a major tornado strikes, she and her dog Toto leave their home to realize that they have been transported to Munchkinland, one of several provinces in the magical Land of Oz. However, she immediately draws the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton, who vows revenge on Dorothy for killing her sister with the falling house. Picking up ruby slippers off of the Wicked Witch of the East’s body, she sets off on the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City, where the mysterious and all-powerful Oz can potentially send her home- and along the way she meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion. Do I really need to emphasize how important this film is to both the medium and American pop culture as a whole? All of the aforementioned honors above should already be enough to convince anyone of its significance, but the fact that it’s turned 80 years old is just remarkable. One couldn’t throw a stone very far without seeing its influence to this very day, both for better and for worse. Even though most people have already seen it in their childhood, there is a bit of worry that it won’t quite hold up watching it all grown up. Whether it turned out to hold some fairly offensive imagery or subtext or simply because of its old age, that’s always a concern for films like this. And while that fear seems true initially, The Wizard of Oz is still as magical and joyous and fun as you remember it being. Sure, the dialogue and its delivery is cheesy, some of the effects are dated, the songs are clearly written with younger audiences in mind, and a number of other things have noticeably aged. But measure it up against most other family films from the era, and it still holds up remarkably well because of its universality. The idea of home and belonging somewhere is something anyone can relate to. Granted, The Wizard of Oz removes a lot of the darker elements from L Frank Baum’s novel, but that arguably makes it more accessible. It’s not everyday that a film from 80 years ago can still be just as meaningful to kids of this era as it was to children of the time when it was released. I can only hope films of today will have a similar impact decades from now. Judy Garland is a silver screen legend who had a deeply tragic life and, for better and worse, this is the role she will always be remembered for. Her performance as Dorothy is iconic as ever, portraying an innocence and childlike wonder that’s desperate to see more of the world. She’s kind and courteous but never afraid to stand up for herself or the people she cares about, and has such a golden singing voice. She is joined by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. Their own songs are memorable in their own way, providing individual motivations and dance numbers. All of them have their own little traits that make them impossible to forget, and each has a reason to getting to the titular Wizard of Oz. Speaking of which, Frank Morgan is also memorable as the Wizard himself, even if he’s not in the movie much. He initially appears as a very intimidating figure but later turns out to be a lot more human and understanding. And while Billie Burke, Charles Grapewin, and Clara Blandick leave impressions as well, Margaret Hamilton is easily the most iconic as the Wicked Witch of the West. Covered in green makeup and carrying a terrifying screeching voice, she absolutely chews the scenery every time she’s on-screen. Her utter commitment to the role ensures her place among the most iconic movie villains of all time. And technically speaking, The Wizard of Oz had many innovations that are still impressive today. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography by Harold Rosson is still just as stunning as it was back then. Utilizing a lot of long-takes, we get the full scope of the unique fantasy world presented to us. And considering it was 1939, many of the in-camera special effects still hold up pretty well. The editing by Blanche Sewell is almost on the level of the camera work. The transitions between scenes is masterful and clean, keeping the pacing aloof for the whole 101 minute-long runtime. And while it does include the aforementioned “oners” quite often, it also includes enough cuts in each scene to keep things interesting. The first 20-30 minutes of the film are in a sepia-toned, black-and-white world. However, when we are transported to Munchkinland, we become immersed in the bright delights of Technicolor, one of the first features to be done is such a way. The shot transitioning from inside Dorothy’s house into Munchkinland is one of the greatest shots in the history of film. And the songs; oh Lord, the songs in this film. Harold Arlen and Edgar “Yip” Harburg are responsible for the soundtrack, easily ranking among the best in the industry. Ranging from “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” to “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to “If I Only Had a Brain,” each one is instantly recognizable, even if you’ve never seen the movie itself. Many of them have reprisals throughout, ensuring a sing-along with families for generations. But the clear winner is “Over the Rainbow,” sung by none other than Garland herself. Somber yet hopeful, the composition combined with her amazing voice make it a truly timeless song. It’s also sadly prescient for the singer-actress’ tumultuous life off-screen and the  With endlessly memorable songs, iconic imagery, immortal characters, and quotable lines, The Wizard of Oz is an unquestionable watershed moment for cinema in every conceivable way. Even with its troubled production, Victor Fleming and MGM managed to completely change the game of moviemaking forever. It’s nearly impossible to imagine American pop culture today without this film; its influence and reach can be seen everywhere. There may exist another film as influential as this to come, but it’s probably far away from here, laying somewhere over the rainbow.

“Toy Story 4” Movie Review

Who could have predicted that an antique store could be so intimidating? I’ve only been to a couple in my lifetime, and they never seemed nearly this frightening or creepy. This computer-animated comedy was released in theaters around the world on June 21st, 2019, making it the 21st feature from Pixar Animation Studios. In its opening weekend alone, it managed to gross nearly $250 million, shattering records for an animated feature’s opening. It has gone on so far to gross over $917 million at the worldwide box office and could continue well into the $1 billion marker. Directed by Inside Out co-writer Josh Cooley, the sequel was originally announced back in 2014, much to the dismay of many fans and critics. John Lasseter, helmer of the first Toy Story movie, was originally set for the director’s chair with Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, but all parties eventually left due to creative differences. From there, the Pixar team started from scratch and the story came organically, evolving from a planned romantic comedy to a full-on adventure. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the few Pixar films without a short that plays at the beginning, and the two main stars have publicly said how difficult it was to finish recording their lines. Taking place two years after the events of the third film, we once again find Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, trying to lead the gang to take care of their new kid Bonnie. One day in kindergarten, Bonnie uses leftover materials in the trash to create a brand new toy named Forky, voiced by Tony Hale. While on a road trip with Bonnie and her family, Forky begins to have an existential crisis, which leads him and Woody to an old antique store where they find Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. Bo, who’s found solace in being nobody’s toy, agrees to help Forky get home, while Woody still has feelings for her. For all intents and purposes, this movie has no right to exist. None, at all. Toy Story 3 had already wrapped up the story in such a perfect bow back in 2010, so there was no possible way Pixar and CO. could continue it without milking it. Granted, many people had said the exact same thing about Toy Story 3 back in the day, so it could go either way. From the first trailer, I was worried that my fears had been confirmed and Pixar was officially losing their magical touch. Some sequels of theirs have proven worthwhile, but that still didn’t dissuade me from thinking that they would go down the same path as Cars 2. And thankfully, as soon as the movie started, all of my fears were unfounded because Toy Story 4 is an amazing follow-up and an even better conclusion than last time. After this installment, I’m now thoroughly convinced that the story of these sentient toys could not possibly continue any further.Andy’s tale is far done, but while Bonnie is an endearing new kid, I’m not sure that her story can carry much farther than here. If anything, this film is more about finality and moving on than getting new adventures with a younger kid. What I appreciate most about Toy Story 4 is that every single beat taken towards the finale feels natural and organic. Most of the voice cast from the previous movies return here, once again headed up by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Without these two, the journey of Buzz and Woody wouldn’t be nearly as involving as their vocal chemistry is so incredibly natural. Watching these two coming to terms with their age and growing irrelevance is both gripping heartbreaking, as they want to always stay attached to a kid. Returning to the series for the first time in nearly 20 years, Annie Potts hasn’t missed a beat as Bo Peep. With far more independence and agency than she’s ever had before, her story was really fascinating to see how she’s ended up after all this time. She still genuinely cares about Woody and the gang but has seen and done too much to want to go back to a life of ownership. The returning cast (Including archival recordings of Don Rickles) is joined and quite frankly outshined by the batch of newcomers. Chief among them are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as fluffy duck and bunny toys from a sprawling carnival, Tony Hale as the existentially confused and trash-loving Forky, Christina Hendricks as the deceptive doll who runs, and Keanu Reeves as a deeply insecure Canadian stuntman of a toy. Key and Peele are easily my favorite ones, with such amazing and hilarious lines that it often feels as though they improvised most of them. And technically speaking, Toy Story 4 might be the most visually impressive Pixar film to date, which is really saying something. Even though the style has become the norm nowadays, the computer animation in this film is hands down the most stunning and jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen. Just compare the animation in this film to that of Toy Story 2 20 years ago, and see how far both the studio and the medium have come; it’s not even close. Seriously, there were numerous shots and scenes throughout the film where it looked almost photoreal. Everything in the frame is filled with so much detail and so much color and personality, you’d swear they spent 10 years working on this. Even tiny little details like the fabric for Bo’s new purple cape or the fur on Forky’s clumsily built arms look so stupidly lifelike. It’s also able to capture more subtle aspects such as characters’ facial expressions and lighting beautifully. And the landscapes are all wide-ranging; the stuffy and archaic antique store is just as visually interesting as the highly colorful carnival outside. As with all three previous installments, the musical score is provided here by Randy Newman, who explores new avenues for the characters. Whereas in years past, he used more jazzy motifs for the aloof adventure, here it’s more melancholy. As the film is all about saying goodbye in many ways, the use of strings and oboes perfectly punctuates the sense of time passed with these characters. You can hear little leitmotifs of his old scores in various tracks, including a redone version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in the beginning. He also produces two new songs, the first one being “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy” performed by country singer Chris Stapleton. The use of twangy guitars and Stapleton’s soulful voice make it a great lament for Woody’s aging. The other new song is “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” performed by Newman himself. With an upbeat tempo and universal lyrics that work perfectly in the context of the film, it’s an excellent way to close out the film. In a year chock full of final installments and series finales, I wasn’t expecting to be nearly as satisfied as I was here. I keep saying this over and over, but there’s literally no further avenue that they can take this story. The studio has already confirmed they’re gonna be committed to original projects for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be happier about it. Bringing the studio’s oldest property to its natural conclusion, Toy Story 4 is a funny and poignant adventure with immense resolution to its characters. Despite the bumpy road to being made and the lingering feeling that it wasn’t necessary, Josh Cooley did the impossible here. He somehow managed to upend the seemingly perfect ending to Toy Story 3 and gives the franchise the ending it deserves. To infinity… and beyond.

“Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” Movie Review

If I had to make a choice, I would definitely want to live the rest of my life as a Bulbasaur. They’re cute, plump, can survive for days without eating, and absorb energy from the Sun. Of all the Pokémon, (At least the ones that I’m most familiar with) they seem the most docile and carefree, which make them ideal. This urban fantasy mystery film was released in theaters around the world on May 10th, 2019, a full week after it’s premiere in Japan. Made for the budget of $150 million, it made just over $20 million on its opening day alone, the highest ever for a live-action video game adaptation. Over the course of its theatrical run it has thus far grossed over $429.4 million at the box office, snatching the top spot in its opening weekend. It also managed to get pretty good reviews and is the highest rated video game adaptation ever according to numerous sources- which is already a pretty low bar to clear. Directed by Rob Letterman, the film began development immediately after the release of the 2016 game of the same name. The filmmakers primarily desired to tell a Pokémon story that wasn’t focused on franchise star Ash Ketchum, and spent nearly a year designing all the creatures to be as accurate as possible. While Toho was always in charge of distribution in Japan, Universal Pictures initially held the worldwide rights before eventually giving reigns over to Warner Bros., making it their first theatrical involvement with the series since 2000. It’s also the first film the franchise to receive an MPAA rating higher than G. Justice Smith star as Tim Goodman, an insurance salesman and former trainer. When his veteran detective father Harry apparently dies, he goes to Ryme City to collect his things, a metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side-by-side and bans underground fights. One night, he comes across an amnesiac deerstalker-wearing Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who speaks. Tim is the only one who can understand him and since this Pikachu was with Harry as his partner, they decide to reopen the case and find out what really happened. No lie, when I first heard that Ryan Reynolds would be headlining this film, I legitimately thought they were joking. The Merc With a Mouth voicing one of the most iconic characters in pop culture for a family-friendly video game movie? Truth be told, I really only have a casual knowledge and history with Pokémon, so my expectations were never really high. But lo and behold, the marketing for this movie seemed absolutely tonally and stylistically perfect. It seemed like such a far cry from so many other self-serious video game movies from the past that it was so refreshing to see what this one could do. Make no mistake, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of many family-friendly blockbusters today. Unlike most adaptations in the medium, it seems clear that the creators here have at least put forth some effort to honor the world of Pokémon. There’s a whole lot of clever worldbuilding in the film as we see how the various creatures fit into our society, such as Squirtles working as firefighters. Some of the best bits of humor come from little inspired moments like this or references to the franchise as a whole, such as a dejected Pikachu singing the iconic theme song. What’s holding Detective Pikachu back from actually being really good is its overreliance on a cliché mystery plot- which, if I understand, is the fault of the titular game itself. The twists and turns feel so convoluted, and certain creatures only feel like they were put in the movie as plot devices. Oh well, maybe the inevitable sequel will really get all of this down next time around. Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu was a casting choice that I never knew I needed in this day and age. His voice is absolutely perfect for the role of a confused, self-made detective who constantly is torn between two worlds. Justice Smith has been deserving of better roles lately and his turn as Tim Goodman here is… just fine. Not bad at all and you can clearly see he’s having fun with the material but he’s not quite great either. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable and highly watchable and is undoubtedly the bedrock of the whole movie. Kathryn Newton puts in a supporting role as Lucy Stevens, an aspiring and plucky reporter with a psyduck partner. She puts in some decent effort, but the character feels two-dimensional and we never really know her real motives beyond simply wanting the next scoop. Bill Nighy, Rita Ora, Suki Waterhouse, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Karan Soni and Omar Chapparo round out the rest of the supporting cast in various roles. Some of them definitely fell more fleshed out than others, but for the most part are able to provide different aspects of  this unique world. And from a technical perspective, Detective Pikachu is pretty impressive and distinctive from other summer blockbusters. Cinematographer John Mathieson makes the bod decision to shoot this on traditional 35mm film as opposed to digital photography. This is surprising considering all of the CGI, but it does make the Pokémon look more believable. It also makes a lot of primary colors pop out more, such as blue and yellow, which helps develop the personality for the film. Also, Mark Sanger and James Thomas’ editing work manages to move from scene to scene in a consistent way. It manages to cut between shots in action scenes fairly often but manages to keep things clear with the conflict. And during scenes where the main duo is investigating the mystery, it melds scenes with the present with scenes from the past to create more mystery. The most impressive part is, although the mystery itself is kind of predictable, it stays committed to not giving it away. Henry Jackman, one of the industry’s most prolific yet underrated composers, is in charge of the instrumental film score. It’s a surprisingly memorable score, using multiple different instruments for appropriate tracks. This includes the use of synths and chimes to introduce us to Ryme City or even during the final showdown scene. Other times, it uses lowkey brass and strings to help undercut the mystery at the center of it all. There are even little motifs where songs from the old cartoons are worked into the score, which is probably a delight for longtime fans. In addition to appearing in the film, Rita Ora also wrote and performs an original song called “Carry On,” which plays during the end credits. The lyrics are appropriate as they speak to the main duo learning to work together as the film goes along. It has a nice upbeat pop sound to it and Ora’s voice is a beauty, but I can’t say I would pick it up on Apple Music. I know this review sounds like I’ve been too nice to this film, but the truth is I really didn’t hate it. Granted, not everyone is going to respond to it as well, and I can’t speak for longtime fans of the Pokémon franchise. There are definitely a lot of problems to be found with pacing and the story and is by no means a great movie at all. Even so, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a solidly enjoyable diversion with fun visuals and a disappointing plot. I don’t know how, but Rob Letterman took what should be a terrible concept for a movie and somehow made it watchable. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the film’s overall quality, I need more Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu in my life. Case closed.

Image result for detective pikachu poster

“The Lion King” Movie Review

Okay, yes, I am writing a review for this movie because of the impending “live-action” remake next month. However, it also turns out that this movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. This beloved animated musical was originally released in theaters on June 15th, 1994, to overwhelming success. In its initial run, it managed to gross over $766 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful film of that year. It was later re-released in 3D in 2011, which brought its total intake to around $968 million. In addition, it remains the best-selling film of all time on home video and the highest-grossing film made from traditional animation. Co-directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the story was first conceived in 1988 while Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney were in Europe promoting Oliver and Company. With no less than 17 people credited for the story, original director and producer George Scribner and Thomas Schumacher left the project after constantly clashing visions with Disney. Their departure led to the story being greatly rewritten and reimagined as a musical. Although William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a big inspiration for the story, it’s also worth noting that this was the first animated film under the Mouse House to be an entirely original property with no pre-existing source material. The classic story follows a young lion named Simba, voiced by Matthew Broderick, who’s destined to rule as King of the Pride Lands in Africa. After his father Mufasa is murdered by Simba’s paternal uncle Scar, he is manipulated and shamed into thinking that the death was his fault and runs away. Years later, Simba is all grownup, living with meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, and is completely divorced from any sort of responsibility. But when he gets word of the horrible conditions under Scar’s tyranny, he must rise up to the challenge and reclaim his rightful place as King. This is a film that has been ingratiated into the minds of so many childhoods over the last two-and-a-half decades. If you grew up in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, there is virtually no way that this movie wasn’t involved in your life. It’s very hard for me to remember a time in my early childhood when it wasn’t around; it just seemed like the movie was always being played in the house. All of that nostalgia initially had me a little hesitant to review the movie now as a fully grown adult. I was worried that it would cloud my judgement on seeing the film purely for its own merits; or worse, that it wouldn’t hold up as well as I remember it. And yet, even without any childhood bias, I can still confidently say that The Lion King is still the peak of the so-called Disney Renaissance. For those who don’t know, the Disney Renaissance was a period of time in which Walt Disney Animation Studios churned out one high-quality movie after another. Other films released during this time included Aladdin, Tarzan, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid, all of which allowed the studio to further establish its worldwide brand. And even since its conclusion, fans such as myself have constantly debated over which one was the best of the all. For me, as you may or not have figured out, it’s no competition; this film contains everything those other films had and more. Memorable musical numbers, awesome characters, fantastic animation, a great sense of humor and heart. If there’s a certain criteria you have for a capital “G” Great animated feature, The Lion King probably has all of it. Matthew Broderick may be best known for Ferris Bueller in the titular movie, but there’s a lot to like about him as Simba. While probably not the most nuanced or complex protagonist in the studio’s arsenal, his struggle to step up and take on a tremendous task is something nearly all viewers can relate to. Also, James Earl Jones is fantastic as Mufasa, Simba’s wise and stern father. A completely different father figure from his turn as Darth Vader, his deep voice resonates with audiences of any age with many sage monologues filled with wisdom. Jeremy Irons also impresses as the voice of Scar, hands down one of the best animated villains ever, Disney or otherwise. His regal voice is one that is built for chewing the scenery and the way his character’s movements are animated makes it seem like he’s acting it out in the recording booth. And of course, we have Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s laidback mentors. The comedic timing and slight immaturity in their voices sounds completely naturalistic in their hands, and their timeless number, “Hakuna Matata,” is one for the ages. Moira Kelly, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson all provide their voices for various supporting roles. It’s quite hard to point out a real weak link in the cast here, as they all contribute something memorable. It’ll be interesting how the new version changes these characters, if at all. And as with most other films of its period, The Lion King still stands as a technical marvel in the genre. Like some of its peers, there are a handful of shots that seem to blend traditional animation with then-burgeoning CGI. And despite being released in 1994, this mixture is not obvious; quite the opposite. It makes for some truly cinematic shots in iconic scenes, such as the heart-stopping stampede scene relatively early on in the film. And even when it’s just purely traditional animation, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The use of colors like orange, yellow, and red is ingenious in creating the atmosphere for the Pride Lands. It helps to deepen the character of the setting and define the characters’ personalities. Every time I watch it, the visuals always pop out, right from the opening shot of the sunrise on the horizon. Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for a reason because his original score here is a true classic of cinema. The soundtrack is just as epic and exciting as the story, utilizing a wide range of instruments and vocals for different tracks. Whether it’s an exciting bit where characters are being chased by the hyenas or a moment where Simba realizes his destiny, Zimmer knows what to do. It goes from being filled with rapid percussion and strings to haunting vocals in an instant and somehow still feels organic. In addition, musician Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice composed several original songs together, many of which have earned a spot in the annals of Disney history. Whether it’s the attention-grabbing, nostalgia-inducing opening number “The Circle of Life” or the Oscar-winning ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” those two really know how to play it right. But who are we kidding? The best one is obviously the villain song, “Be Prepared,” in which Scar lavishly talks about his planned coup for the throne. There’s honestly WAY more that I could say about this film. About how it essentially defined a whole generation, how nearly every family had it playing in the house at some point growing up, and son on and so forth. But I have a feeling that everyone reading this already knows that and so, I’m gonna leave it off here. The Lion King remains the undisputed chief of traditional animation and the king of Disney proper. Even with a lean runtime of 88 minutes, there’s so much packed into this film that’s literally impossible to not fall in love with every viewing. I have limited expectations for Jon Favreau’s reimagining next month, but we’ll always have the original. If you ask me, this film was, is, and probably always will be the absolute pinnacle of animated cinema.

Image result for the lion king poster 1994

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

“Shazam!” Movie Review

Alright, not going to lie here: After watching both this and last year’s Instant Family, I’m seriously considering adopting foster children. I had never even thought about it before, but now I would love to give it a try someday. I’m being totally serious. This superhero comedy film was released in theaters around the world by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema on April 5th, 2019. Made on a production budget of around $80 million, the film has managed to gross over $361.5 million at the worldwide box office. This partially came from a $3.3 million total made from advanced screenings setting up by Fandango two weeks earlier. It has also received some of the best reviews in the franchise and a sequel is already in the early stages of development at the studio. Directed by David F. Sandberg, maker of the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle Creation, the project had initially been in and out of development hell since the early 2000s. After many stops and starts throughout the decade, Warner Bros. finally put it on its release slate in 2014 with Dwayne Johnson attached as the potential villain Black Adam. He eventually departed the project for a future solo film, and remained credited as an executive producer. This also marks the seventh overall installment in the constantly evolving DC Extended Universe. The story follows a young orphan named Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, who’s been in and out of foster homes for most of his life. After moving into a group home that includes disabled comic book nerd brother Freddy Freeman, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, he later is visited by a mysterious wizard named Shazam. This wizard is looking for someone who is pure of heart to take his place and transfers his immense powers over to Billy, who transforms into an adult played by Zachary Levi. Quickly becoming an internet sensation, his powers and exploits gain the attention of Mark Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, who’s been tracking the wizard’s powers for decades. I’ll be honest here, for the longest time I didn’t actually think this movie was going to happen. Sure, there was the persistent news that The Rock was playing the main villain, but that is about as consistently supporting as saying Channing Tatum’s Gambit movie is actually going to happen now. In any case, the film is here in theaters now, and it’s here to stay for at least a little while. The trailers for this movie were very funny and lighthearted, but there was still a skepticism within me about it. Although I haven’t seen Sandberg’s debut Lights Out, I was legitimately creeped out by the short film that inspired it. And while horror directors in the past have adapted well to the superhero genre, such as James Wan or Scott Derrickson, since he only had two other movies under his belt, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would stick the landing. Shazam! is far and away one of the best films in the DCEU and perhaps one of the most fun entries in the genre as a whole. Like some of the best superhero movies, this one is primarily concerned about what it means to be a hero, rather than just big action spectacle. Billy is not pure of heart, so he has to learn how to use his powers responsibly and for the betterment of others. Since he’s only 14 years old, this is hard for him to realize, especially when Freddie helps him become a YouTube star and they initially use the powers for whatever they want. I was actually surprised by how much Shazam! had to say about masculinity and what it means to be a “man.” This is something that Dr. Sivana constantly struggles with understanding because of his very harsh upbringing, and also leads to some pretty terrifying imagery. The film occasionally strains with balancing this delicate tone, but for the most part it’s done pretty well. I can’t think of a living actor better fit to play the adult Shazam than Zachary Levi. As a big fan of his work on the show Chuck, his boyish charm and bumbling charisma make him perfect for the titular role. It star Jack Dylan Grazer is equally perfect as his foster brother Freddie Freeman, a massive comic book aficionado. It’s clear that while he sees the potential good that this can bring about, he also wants an opportunity to do something worthwhile and prove he’s not just a sad kid in crutches. The two of them have incredible chemistry together throughout the film, making for one of the most watchable duos in superhero movies recently. Mark Strong, consistently typecast as villains, is noticeable as the big baddy Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. He’s given a rather disturbing and dark prologue at the beginning, which sets up all of the confusion and obsession his character has to deal with in the story. I had partially expected him to be an intentionally over-the-top villain, but his backstory and characterization surprised me. Meanwhile, Billy’s foster family is filled with both new and familiar talent. Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans are warm and empathetic as the parents, Grace Fulton is caring yet conflicted as the college-bound older sister, Faithe Herman is extremely effusive and lovable as the youngest of the bunch, Ian Chen is honestly hilarious as the residential tech wizard, and Jovan Armand is shy and reserved as the middle child. Each one feels alive and brings a different aspect of the family to like. The technical aspects of Shazam! show that it’s a film which Sandberg has total fun working within. Maxim Alexandre, known mostly for shooting horror movies, handles the cinematography with a rather balanced aesthetic. Whether it’s highlighting the vibrant, popout colors of the titular hero’s suit or the more nightmarish look of the villain’s henchmen, the personality is always definite. It goes surprisingly well with Michel Aller’s editing, which manages to keep both the pacing and tone consistent throughout the 132 minute-long runtime. There’s one particularly amusing “training montage” set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” where Freddie takes videos of Billy testing his powers. The way it moves between first-person shots is quite funny and engaging. Benjamin Wallifisch, one of Warner Bros. and Hans Zimmer’s most promising proteges, provides the instrumental score. Much like the rest of the film, it feels like an appropriate throwback back to an era of blockbusters that weren’t afraid of their source material. With jovial bells and percussion, there’s a certain childlike wonder to the main theme. It also helps that horns and strings manage to come in and out of the melodies that makes it sound like a classic. The best way I can describe it is if John Williams decided to compose for his long-awaited Superman follow-up. Shazam! is a colorful and light-hearted dose of old-fashioned superhero fun. Despite his horror background, David F. Sandberg proves that he’s quite capable of making the genre his own. Not to mention the pitch perfect casting of Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer which makes the connection feel extremely tangible.