Category Archives: Family

“Magnolia” Movie Review

I speak absolutely no hyperbole when I say that that might have been one of the quickest 3-hour movies I’ve ever seen. As someone who lives and breathes off of long films like The Lord of the Rings and Lawrence of Arabia, take that as high praise.

This epic ensemble drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by New Line Cinema on December 17th, 1999. It got a much wider release about two weeks later on January 7th when it expanded to more cities. Although it managed to gross over $48.5 million at the global box office, it struggled to keep up with stiff competition, not to mention its production budget of $37 million. Even so, it garnered some extremely positive responses from critics and audiences, including a glowing reaction from filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. It also went on to win the top prize at the 50th Berlin International Film Festival the following year and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, but didn’t win any.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film came along almost fully formed after the success of Anderson’s sophomore feature Boogie Nights. New Line Cinema and Michel De Luca told him he could make whatever he wanted next, and gave him final cut rights without even hearing a pitch. The director reportedly wrote several roles with their actors in mind, and even visited the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to pitch it to one of them in person. Anderson also strongly disapproved of the studio’s marketing campaign, allegedly designing his own poster and cut together a brand new trailer for it.

Set in the then-present-day San Fernando Valley, the film is more of an ensemble piece rather than a focused narrative. Over the course of one day, we encounter the lives of over a dozen different characters- including a pick-up artist, a lonely police officer, a quiz show T.V. host and contestant, an ailing producer, and the kind nurse caring for him -who are interrelated in some ways. As strange and inexplicable things happen to all of them throughout the day, these men and women try to find a chance at love, forgiveness, and happiness, even if they may not deserve it.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director whom I’ve run hot and cold on in the past, but overall I like his style. There Will Be Blood, The Master, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights show that he has a unique view on human nature and behavior. From the extremely detailed characters he paints to the believable performances he draws out of his actors, he’s often overlooked in his generation of filmmakers.

Despite this, I had yet to watch his third feature, which many people I know consider to be his magnum opus. It being finally available on Netflix gave me an opportunity to watch it in no more than two sittings and see how it holds up against the rest of his filmography. Fortunately, Magnolia proves not only to be one of Anderson’s strongest directorial offerings yet but quite possibly one of the best films of the 1990s, period.

It’s quite clear from the history-heavy cold open of montages that Anderson has very sprawling yet specific plans of what to explore here. In another, less distinctive director’s hands, the synopsis given above could easily devolve into an overlong slog of schmaltz and syrupy sentimentality. And while there are a handful of sentimental moments here and there, there’s never a second of the film that feels cheesy or heavy-handed; it’s a fundamentally human story.

Perhaps the best compliment that I can give Magnolia is that while there are many characters to follow here, you become equally invested in almost all of them. They’re all broken in one way or another and want a chance at reconciliation and happiness, even if they don’t openly acknowledge it or even deserve it. And unlike Love, Actually or any of those stupid, overblown holiday movies with star-studded casts, each of them being connected by the slightest threads only makes revelations about their past all the more tragic and engaging.

In a massive ensemble stacked with talent one either side, perhaps the most underrated performer is Jeremy Blackman as Stanley Spector, a child prodigy competing on a popular quiz show. A precocious and extremely insightful young boy, he desperately wants the respect and approval of his adult peers, particularly his father. He appears to be wiser than many of the people surrounding him but feels eternally trapped in his position and doesn’t feel like he’ll amount to anything more than a has-been.

John C. Reilly is also completely brilliant and natural as Jim Kurring, a bumbling but well-meaning police officer. A sharp departure from his future roles in irreverent comedies, he tries to hide his crippling loneliness and apparent ineptitude as an officer to make it appear as though he is control of his life. When an opportunity arise for him to potentially finally find someone who loves him, he tries to put on his best show and even briefly forgets his own shortcomings.

Anderson works with an enormous troupe of actors in varying roles but manages to get the most out of them. Including *DEEP BREATH* Melora Walters, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, Alfred Molina, Philip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay, April Grace, Luiz Guzman, and Jason Robards in his final role before his death.

The most talked-about performer, though, is Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a popular and in-demand pickup artist for unconfident men. This might just be one of his best performances ever, as he uses his typical boyish charisma and charm to give way to a self-obsessed hypocrite. It soon becomes abundantly clear that he uses all of his sexist “self-help” methods and self-aggrandizing monologues as a tool to mask unresolved resentment towards his parents. The sheer range that Cruise demonstrates is a true antithesis to all of his haters, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

And from a pure filmmaking perspective, Paul Thomas Anderson uses Magnolia to further define his cinematic voice. Shot by longtime collaborator Robert Elswit, the cinematography is almost always roving around from character to character, even using whip pans as a sneaky transition. Comparisons to Scorsese in the camerawork are apt, but it always keeps the action rolling during tense scenes. There are a number of push-ins and slow zooms for more dramatic moments, and even a brilliant tracking shot early on to capture the chaos of a show behind the scenes. A handful of primary colors such as red and blue are also used to help further establish the tone of each storyline.

This goes hand-in-hand with the editing job by Dylan Tichenor, which manages to seamlessly weave together each storyline. Often times, it’ll cute between multiple characters many times whenever it feels thematically appropriate. What’s even more impressive is how despite carrying the weight of multiple different characters and story threads, the tone is completely consistent with each scene. Some are darkly funny, some are sad, some are so uniquely emotional that it’s hard to describe in words.

Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann heavily contributes to the soundtrack of the film, both with recordings of old songs or her own batch of new ones. After the cold-open montage, a revamped version of the song “One” plays over the introduction to all of the main characters and their situations. It perfectly captures the tone of their loneliness and uncertainty while still being fast-paced. Another notable example is the song “Wise Up,” which manages to be sung by many of the actors at once, even though they’re all in different places. It’s a mesmerizing scene where most of them are at their rock-bottoms and try to cling on to anything to keep going on.

Also, Mann wrote and performed an Oscar-nominated original song called “Save Me,” which is saved for the very end. It’s just as melancholy and empathetic as the rest of her soundtrack and manages to bring nearly all of the storylines to a close. The lowkey instrumentation matches the longing of the lyrics and Mann’s supreme vocals and is arguably one of the most underrated songs ever written for a film.

Carrying the weight of multiple characters and story threads but never once feeling overblown in its ambitions, Magnolia is an emotionally resonant ballet of empathy and humanity. After careful consideration of his whole filmography, I feel comfortable enough to say that this might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. Because not only does he handle a sprawling tale with such care and delicacy, but he also wrings incredible performances out of his massive ensemble cast.

Happiness and forgiveness are extremely difficult virtues to come by for many, especially in these scary times. And while there might not be raining frogs anytime soon, it is the humble opinion of this writer that everyone at least deserves a chance for the two.

“Tron: Legacy” Movie Review

Imagine being trapped inside a computer programming of your own creation for the better part of 30 years. With absolutely no knowledge of any of the politics, crimes, misery, or troubles of the real world. I kind of envy that.

This techno-influenced science-fiction action drama initially had its world premiere in Tokyo on November 30th, 2010. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Disney over two weeks later on December 17th to high anticipation. Made for the budget of $170 million, it went on to gross just over $400 million at the global box office. Although it managed to break even, it didn’t meet the studio’s big expectations for the long-awaited sequel. The financial disappointment and mixed critical reception put plans for a new franchise on hold, with talks of a new installment coming and going with each passing year.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski in his feature debut, rumors of a sequel to the 1982 original had been in circulation for a long time. Although Pixar was supposedly interested in continuing the story in 1999, it was only around 2005 that Disney began serious development of the project. Kosinski rejected the studio’s idea of drawing visual and narrative inspiration from The Matrix, and instead used money that producer Sean Bailey lent him for concept footage of the style and tone. An architecture student, he also used chroma keying and various other unconventional techniques to give as much creative room for the effects as possible.

Picking up 27 years after the original, Garret Hedlund stars as Sam Flynn, the primary shareholder of the tech company ENCOM International. For the past two decades, he has been investigating the disappearance of his father Kevin, played by original star Jeff Bridges. One night, Sam’s investigation leads him to an arcade that unintentionally transports him to The Grid, an independent virtual reality system. While he reunites with his father, he must contend with a corrupted version of him named Clu and figure out a way to get back to the real world.

It has been many years since I last watched this film, and I only had vague memories of liking it. On the off chance that I would miss something, I made sure to watch the original Tron first to try and understand the lore a little better. And it was a highly impressive and stylistic technical achievement, but was extremely confusing from a story standpoint.

I was hopeful to see what, if any, lessons this long-belated sequel could take from the first go-around. It’s supposed to be so different from almost all of Disney’s other live-action films recently and I wondered if this was as much of a cult hit as a lot of people have made it out to be. And Tron: Legacy is undeniably entertaining and aesthetically unique, but the story at the center is rather simplistic.

This is exactly the kind of film I think Disney should try investing more stock in making. No “live-action” remakes of animated classics, but something that looks and feels totally different than what’s usually on the market. The film is always at its best when its pushing the boundaries of family-friendly entertainment and ponders if it’s worth sacrificing fatherhood for something truly revolutionary.

But beyond the gorgeous visuals (Which still hold up quite nicely) and these brief moments of contemplation, Tron: Legacy falters to create a very meaningful or engaging story. While there is some pretty cool worldbuilding throughout and the majority of the film’s 2-hour and 5-minute runtime are spent inside The Grid, there’s not much of an emotional pull beyond the father-son thread. Still, it’s cool to watch and this is one IP I hope Disney considers revisiting in the future.

Garret Hedlund has always been a “good-not-great” actor and his performance here epitomizes that pretty well. As Sam Flynn, he constantly does immature and rash things in the real world, likely to cope with the lack of a real father figure for the past 20 years. It’s apparent that The Grid gives him an opportunity not only to make up for lost time with his father but to thrive in a world that doesn’t even exist.

In a dual role as both Kevin Flynn and his evil counterpart Clu, Jeff Bridges returns to the franchise with lots of gusto. With Flynn, he feels much more mature and wise than the previous film, optimistic for the future of humanity but still feeling guilty about his lackluster job as a father. On the opposite end, he’s intimidating and relentless as the villain Clu, even though the then-burgeoning effort of de-aging technology doesn’t quite work for him.

Olivia Wilde is also worth mentioning as Quorra, a uniquely programmed warrior who serve’s as Kevin’s only ally in The Grid. She’s extremely adept at fighting and even steals the show in a handful of action scenes because of her wicked skills. However, she’s also deeply curious about what the real world is like, as reading endless amounts of literature and asking questions isn’t enough to quench her thirst to witness a real sunrise.

And while there are some familiar faces that pop up in the supporting cast, it’s Michael Sheen’s turn as Castor, a flamboyant nightclub owner. Although he doesn’t appear until the second act, he absolutely steals the show from under the protagonists and clearly relishes the role. Sheen’s bright personality and fantastic wardrobe are also heavily reminiscent of David Bowie’s early years, which makes him by far the most interesting character in the whole movie.

And from a purely technical point of view, Tron: Legacy is a major step forward for the studio and shows Kosinski knows what he’s doing. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is extremely noteworthy for its smooth movements and slick framing. The Grid heavily relies on the opposing colors of orange and blue while scenes in the real world are relatively muted. This is one of the best examples of 3D filmmaking as the cameras capture everything, from light cycle battles to one-on-one duels, with great precision.

James Haygood’s editing job goes hand-in-hand with the visuals, knowing when to leave a shot lingering or keep the action flowing. There are enough cuts during action sequences to keep the momentum up and never makes it confusing or hard to follow. It’s a testament to the editing crew that the flow between CGI shots and practical actors or sets is mostly seamless. Plus, the sound design is stellar, ensuring that every scene can be heard just as well as seen. It’s actually one of the most satisfying sound designs of the last decade.

Speaking of sound, French music duo Daft Punk provide their first and thus far only score for a film. I hope they decide to do more soundtracks because it’s an absolute thing of beauty and innovation. Like the rest of their work, the score is heavy on electronics across the board, which is appropriate for the unique world here. However, much of the soundtrack avoids being just dubstep and uses synthesizers, low strings, and percussion beats to create an emotional connection to the storyline. At times, it’s warm, harsh, and always attention-grabbing, making for one of the most underrated film scores in recent years.

Pushing the boundaries of filmmaking technology in exciting ways but lacking a real human pull for it, Tron: Legacy is a visually and audibly stunning adventure with a rather unaffecting story. At the end of the day Joseph Kosinski and Disney have made a really impressive tech demo that’s more like candy for the eyes and ears than anything else. It’s fun to see Jeff Bridges return to the saga and his new cast members are welcome as well, but their characters aren’t the most compelling to watch.

I think there’s a lot of potential in this franchise for Disney to explore, and this film seems to indicate they have an idea of where it would go. I just wish Kosinski was just as good with his actors as he was with her camera and effects.

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“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” Movie Review

For the time being, I want to do nothing but find the casting director for this movie and shake their hand. Avy Kaufman, if you’re somehow reading this review right now, thank you for this pitch perfect casting choice. I hope that you have a long and storied career ahead of you.

This touching biographical drama premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Sony and TriStar Pictures on November 22nd, 2019. Made for the budget of around $25 million, it has thus far grossed over $61.2 million at the worldwide box office. This means it will most likely break even for the studio, but doesn’t really meet their expectations. Despite this, it has garnered incredible reviews from critics and huge adoration from audiences the world over.

Directed by Marielle Heller, the film had originally been developed by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster under the original title You Are My Friend. The script had originally appeared on the 2013 Black List, which compiles the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. One of the main stars had long thought to be untouchable, until a happenstance connection between him and the director allowed it to happen. During production, sound mixer James Emswiller sadly suffered a heart attack on set and died shortly afterwards.

Set in 1998, Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, an extremely cynical journalist working for Esquire Magazine. Tired of his abrasive behavior towards co-workers and subjects, his boss assigns him a new piece to write about “heroes.” Much to his chagrin, the primary subject of the story turns out to be popular children’s T.V. host Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. Although it seems like a straightforward interview at first, these two men come to change each other’s lives in ways they could have never expected.

Last year, we got the sorely needed and underseen documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from Morgan Neville. Even though I hadn’t really grown up watching Mister Roger’s Neighborhood as a child, watching that documentary deepened my respect for the man and made me see why he’s still relevant today. Why the Academy completely overlooked it in consideration that year is beyond my comprehension.

When I read that Tom Hanks would be playing the man in a biographical movie, my heart almost melted at the near-perfect casting. I had also been really impressed with Marielle Heller’s work in Can You Ever Forgive Me? last year and was eager to see the two collaborate together on this project. And as it turns out, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just as whimsical and emotional as you might expect it to be.

Contrary to what the marketing may have told you, this is not an actual straightforward biopic of Mister Fred Rogers. Rather, it wisely makes Lloyd Vogel the main protagonist so that it becomes more like a parable on a time when adults and children alike the world over have become so cynical about life. It utilizes Mister Rogers as a way for Lloyd to reckon with the mistakes he’s made in the past, including disowning his absentee father, and for audiences to learn his lessons in an organic way.

Thankfully, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stops just short of putting the beloved man on a pedestal as a true saint. He also has his own worries and frustrations, but he always tries to find a way to channel that negativity into something genuinely helpful to other people around him. This allows the film to be rather mature and flexible in the scope of its themes and makes it standout much more than your typical historical film.

After a healthy run on The Americans, Matthew Rhys gets to shine as the lead actor to excellent results. As Lloyd Vogel, he is deeply jaded with life and puts his own personal bitterness and dissatisfaction onto everyone around him, including his loved ones. He gradually becomes more sympathetic as the film goes along as he starts seriously considering the advice he’s been given.

Although he’s relegated to a supporting role, Tom Hanks is absolutely perfect as Mister Fred Rogers. Soft-spoken, jovial, and filled with enormous energy, he fits right into the comfy shoes of the iconic star without missing a beat. He wants to spread love and positivity wherever he goes, including the public subway or a small restaurant, and always thinks about the needs of those he cares about.

Chris Cooper is also extremely impressive as Jerry, Lloyd’s estranged father who wants to make amends. Although he’s very brash and abrasive initially, it soon becomes clear that he deeply regrets abandoning his children and cheating on his wife years prior. He spends a large portion of the film begging Lloyd for forgiveness, even though he believes he doesn’t deserve it, and tries to cherish the limited time he has left with his newborn grandson.

Susan Kelchi Watson, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard, and Christine Lahti round out the stellar supporting cast here. All of them are connected to Lloyd and Fred’s struggles in some way or another and try to find a way to change themselves for the better. None of them act showy in any scene, which helps bring an even bigger sense of emotional realism to the film.

And from a technical point of view, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Heller sidestepping artistic flourishes for something straightforward. Shot by Jody Lee Pipes, the cinematography is largely unpretentious as it keeps things focused on all of the subjects throughout the story. The contrast in color and exposure is also worth mentioning, as the WQED studio for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood is full of vibrant colors while the outside world is largely cold in its palette.

It works well with Anne McCabe’s editing, which is also largely devoid of pretension. The whole film is framed by Hanks as Rogers making an episode of his show explaining Lloyd’s struggles to the viewer, and then it transitions into the proper moment of the story. There’s even a dream sequence when many of Lloyd’s loved ones take on persona’s of different characters on the show. It’s a brilliant way of acquainting us with the world without fully getting invested in nostalgia. The film also knows when to keep the frame still and leave out sound when necessary.

The most noteworthy example of this is in the third act, when Fred takes Lloyd out f to a restaurant and asks him to take a minute “to think of all the people who loved us into being.” The camera only remains on the two men while all other sound and the rest of the world drown out. It’s a truly great moment of cinema, and one where it almost feels like Mister Rogers is asking the audience to do the same. And if the silent, sniffling reaction from the people in my theater is any indication, it worked.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wise, deeply felt movie about having empathy in a harsh world. With humble direction and maturity, Marielle Heller brings to life one of the kindest humans to ever grace the Earth without exploiting his legacy in the slightest. Bolstered by some of the best casting choices in the last few years, this film is sure to bring even the most hardened of viewers to being misty-eyed.

Although I still prefer the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it’s hard denying that we need to listen to the man’s words and lessons today. To quote Mister Rogers himself, “Sometimes, we have to ask for help, and that’s okay.”

“Frozen II” Movie Review

The lengths I would go to protect my sister.

This computer-animated family fantasy film was released in theaters worldwide by Disney on November 22nd, 2019. Following the biggest opening weekend of all time for an animated feature, it has gone on to gross over $1.268 billion at the global box office thus far. This almost puts it financially up to par with its predecessor in a shorter amount of time. With a little more time, it has managed to become the most successful animated film ever released, in addition to the positive attention it’s gotten from fans and critics.

Once again co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the filmmakers and studio had constantly talked about a sequel to the 2013 hit for a couple years before officially moving forward. Lee worked on several different drafts alongside Allison Schroeder, although the latter ended up not getting a real credit for the screenplay. The actors’ recording for dialogue and songs supposedly began as early as late 2016, though the veracity of these claims is disputable. The studio also worked in close collaboration with various experts and representatives of the Saami people to get some story elements culturally accurate.

Set 3 years after the first film, Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell return as Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, who have managed to keep the kingdom of Arendelle in prosperity. One night, Elsa begins hearing a strange voice singing repetitive notes to her and drawing her away into a mystical forest. There, the two of them alongside Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven- voiced respectively by Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad -travel there and discover a deeply rooted conflict between their kingdom and the natives of the land. Wanting to mend things before it’s too late, they also find that their journey may bring them closer to what happened to their parents.

The original Frozen, when it first came out in 2013, was a hugely pleasant surprise for me. It had all of the elements of a classic Disney movie (Memorable songs and heartwarming characters) while also finding interesting ways to invert the traditional format of the past. It was also an indisputably gorgeous movie with some of the best animation of its time and still looks stunning to this day.

It being far more successful than anyone had anticipated, a sequel to the film was pretty much inevitable. I was extremely curious to see how Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee would be able to continue the story, especially since Lee has been made the new head of Disney Animation following John Lasseter’s unfortunate exit. And while Frozen II is certainly a step down from the first installment, it’s still a great time at the movies with the whole family.

Just like last time, this movie is at its best when its questioning the usual tropes of a typical adventure story. Despite what the people around her seem to think, Elsa is neither a villain nor a damsel in distress; she’s just unsure of how to rule a kingdom and manage her mysterious powers at the same time. Similarly, Anna wants to be the princess who falls in love and gets married, but she also learns how to retain her own agency and doesn’t want to be defined either by her sister’s status or her romantic relationship with Kristoff.

Where Frozen II starts to falter is that, while it acknowledges change as something inevitable and even positive, it still doesn’t quite make enough narrative progress to be fully satisfying. It’s undeniably cool to see this world grow beyond the kingdom of Arendelle and even see the potential origins of magic in this universe. Still, by the end, you can’t help but feel that they played a little too safe for its own good, particularly because of how it teased something that could have been much more.

Idina Menzel is still just as iconic as she was in the first go-around, and cements Elsa as one of the most interesting monarchs in Disney’s library. Still unsure of her capability as a leader, she strives to find a balance between the powerful and humble, thinking distance is the safest option for her loved ones. Her voice is still a powerhouse as always and she releases all of her worries and troubles into song whenever possible.

Also, Kristen Bell is charming and delightful as ever as she returns to the role of Anna. Her own sense of confidence and self-worth have grown immensely since the previous film, but she still cares deeply about the fate of her sister, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her happy.

Josh Gad also makes a return as Olaf, the magical talking snowman. He proves to be much more fun and likable as a side character than a protagonist, and brings out some of the biggest laughs of the whole movie. He also has a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity in this film; although much of it proves to be him misunderstanding its true meaning for comic effect, it still creates an interesting dynamic with the others.

Jonathan Groff, Alan Tudyk, and CiarĂ¡n Hinds all reprise their respective roles from the first installment while Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Norwegian singer Aurora come in new ones. All of them bring different weight and while not all of them get a chance to sing, they’re memorable for the most part. Woods and Brown were particularly interesting and I was hoping to see more from their parts than we ultimately did.

And from a technical point of view, Frozen II proves that even after 58 animated features, Disney is still able to make some real surprises. The animation in this movie is somehow even more stunning and rich than the previous one, utilizing 3D animation to its full potential. The stupid amount of detail in everything in every frame, even the hair or fabric of a character’s wardrobe, is jaw-dropping. Not to mention the remarkable physics being displayed on-screen throughout.

There’s a heavy emphasis on the colors blue and orange. We see all different shades of blue in the film, from the ice emitting from Elsa’s powers to the deep blue of the ocean. For orange, it’s mainly an autumnal look from fall leaves and even Anna’s brunette hair has a bit of orange in it. It plays up a nice contrast in the visual composition, representing the contrast between the life the main characters want to live versus the adventure they’ve embarked on.

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez return from the first film to provide a whole new soundtrack here. And with the help of composer Christophe Beck, they’re able to create a bounty of memorable new songs. The big one is obviously “Into the Unknown,” a powerful ballad that allows Idina Menzel’s powerhouse vocals to work magic. It uses the motif of light and uncertainty to a great advantage as it builds and builds, much like Elsa’s confidence.

But for me, the best song of the film is “Show Yourself,” which comes in the latter half of the story. The natural culmination of all the elements that have come before it, it’s a true showstopper as Elsa finally comes to terms with her abilities and their implications. It also features the vocals of Evan Rachel Wood, who proves to a worthy song partner as their voices collide. The animation of the scene that song plays in is some of the best in the whole movie, and both come together to create something special.

More safe and fun than forward-thinking, Frozen II is a perfectly fine family-friendly romp with gorgeous animation and great music. While it doesn’t take as many risks as it probably should, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee are still able to deliver a fun sequel to its immensely successful predecessor. The vocals of the cast are all still excellent and the Lopez’ give them new tunes worthy of the gold voices singing them.

I think part of what made the first Frozen so surprising and special is that it defied expectations and subverted several of the classic Disney tropes. This sequel still understands those tropes exist, but is more content to coast on the comfort of the characters from last time. Even if it means it has to miss out on what could have been some truly exciting storytelling opportunities here.

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“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” Movie Review

**Out of respect for the fans and viewers who wish to go into this film as cold as possible, I’ll only be giving the baseline premise for everything. Read at your own discretion.**

2019, as a whole, really has been a year of ending for a lot of pop culture things. Avengers, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, Mr. Robot, Toy Story, How To Train Your Dragon all seeing their narratives come to a close. But perhaps none were quite as anticipated or high-profile as this one, so let’s dive right in.

This epic space opera was released in theaters worldwide by Disney and Lucasfilm on December 20th, 2019, having previously been scheduled for May. After making a cool $40 million from Thursday night previews, it has gone on to gross over $927.5 million worldwide against a budget of $275 million. While that’s undoubtedly impressive, it’s a dip down from the intake of its two mainline predecessors. Not to mention, it has managed to split both fans and critics down the middle on its overall quality and effect.

Directed by J.J. Abrams, the third and final installment in the sequel trilogy under Disney was originally meant to be helmed by Jurassic World director Collin Trevorrow. After he departed due to “creative differences,” Abrams came back with co-writer Chris Terrio in tow to basically start over from scratch. There was also an incident months after production wrapped where one of the actor’s scripts accidentally got put up on eBay and a studio employee spent at least 5 figures to take it back. And in addition to the main characters returning here, this film has repeatedly been stated by the cast and crew to definitively be the final installment of the Skywalker Saga.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of The Last Jedi, Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, a young woman training to become a Jedi. During her journey, she and The Resistance discover that The First Order is about to make their final move in an attempt to control the galaxy once and for all. With time running out, Rey and her friends Poe Dameron and Finn, played by Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, set out on a quest to figure out the enemy’s plan before they can enact it. And it proves difficult when the malicious and power-hungry Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, tries to beat them to the punch all the while coming to terms with his own sins.

Although it hasn’t always been great, overall I’ve been happy with the Star Wars content Disney has been putting out in the last decade. I still and always will maintain that The Last Jedi is the best film in the saga in many, many years and I am eager to see what they do with The Mandalorian and season 7 of The Clone Wars. And hearing repeated vows that they would finally bring the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a big close made me excited.

As the hype built towards its release, I remained cautiously optimistic about what the results would be. I had hoped that there would be enough resolution for the characters and storyline to satisfy even fans who haven’t been on-board with the newer entries. And while The Rise of Skywalker is undeniably entertaining, there is so much it leaves to be desired from a thematic and story standpoint.

I don’t envy Abrams or Terrio because of the enormity of their task, (Concluding the mainline story for the biggest movie franchise of all time) but it can’t be denied they took the easiest possible route here. While it doesn’t completely retcon the choices made in The Last Jedi, it repurposes them into something that tries to bring all nine main films into play. But by trying to bring in a big picture, which can be admittedly admirable in concept, it’s unable to find enough satisfaction with the current narrative.

Despite this, there is still a lot of emotional weight that The Rise of Skywalker carries that, admittedly, can often be affecting. The character arcs of this new trilogy have arguably been some of the most interesting in the whole franchise and seeing them come to a head, regardless of the method, is a big event. And obviously, Disney and Lucasfilm have more films coming down the pipe, but it’s nice that they committed to wrapping up this particular narrative.

Daisy Ridley proves for the third time in a row why she was perfectly cast for the lead role of Rey. She has so much emotional baggage being carried, some of it for years on end, and the pressure of trying to bring back the Jedi is clearly weighing her down. All she wants to do is bring light and goodness to the galaxy, which is difficult with the consequences of the on-going war.

Opposite her, Adam Driver still proves why he’s one of the best actors of his generation thanks to his role as Kylo Ren. Still as deeply conflicted as always, his internal struggle comes to a dramatic head as his journey nears its end. He’s equal parts desperate, powerful, and pathetic here as he still struggles to figure out what exactly he desires and what path is he to take.

John Boyega also continues to be golden as Finn, one of the more interesting side characters of the franchise. His comedic timing is still impeccable as always and while he isn’t given as much to do as the last two films, his presence is always a welcome one. Seeing him come this far after having defected from the First Order is one of the more satisfying story threads in the film to be sure.

Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Domnhall Glesson, Joonas Suotamo, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, and the late great Carrie Fisher (Who appears through unused footage from the last two films) all reprise their respective iconic roles from previous installments. Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant, Dominic Monaghan, Shirley Henderson and Naomi Ackie also make impressions as new characters in this story. Everyone onscreen is reveling in the fact that they’re in a Star Wars movie.

Meanwhile, The Rise of Skywalker is nothing short of a technical marvel. Abrams’ regular cinematographer Dan Mindel handles the camerawork once again here and it’s just as energetic as their previous efforts. The widescreen camera constantly roves around the action to keep up the momentum, even in smaller dialogue-driven moments. The use of primary colors, especially red and blue, are frequently saturated to highlight the constant battle between good and evil.

Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube’s joint editing job is mostly a success, considering they had to edit some of it on-set. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, it’s one of the longest films in the saga, but this film really *moves.* Mile-a-minute pacing is the name of the game, as the main group of characters move around from one cool-looking world to the next as the adventure moves along. All of the action is cut together very well and comprehensively, even during some of the more extravagant sequences.

For his 9th and final Star Wars movie, the inimitable John Williams returns to provide the instrumental film score. It’s almost as magical as his previous efforts in the franchise, combining themes and motifs from all of the collective soundtracks into one while coming up with a couple of new ones. The woodwinds, brass, and strings all come together in the composer’s trademark sound of an emotional epic. He also brings in an ominous choir for the villain’s main theme, which encapsulates both the mystique of Kylo Ren’s morality and the somber road he’s taken thus far. The use of percussion like timpanis and bells also deserves to be noted, making it feel truly mysterious and adventurous.

Bringing the nine-film Skywalker Saga to a close and doing whatever it takes to get there, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but narratively frustrating end to a truly epic cinematic story. J.J. Abrams sets out to finish the trilogy that he started and while it’s far from being worthy of getting thrown in the trash compactor, it still shows that he’s looking too much towards the past. All of the cast members do a great job to bring their characters’ arcs to a close and Williams’ final score for the franchise is undeniably excellent, even when it’s retreading old territory.

A part of me almost admires Abrams to sticking with his gut and ending the story on his own terms, but the choices he makes along the way are often ill-advised. Regardless of what you may think of how the Star Wars saga under the Disney banner has gone, it’s hard to argue that this final chapter could have been so much more.

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“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” Movie Review

Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has some unique family traditions they try to bring back every year. And if yours are anything like the shenanigans in this film, then you’re truly living a big life. This slapstick Christmas comedy was originally released in theater by Warner Bros. on December 1st, 1989. After coming in second its opening weekend, it went on to gross over $71.4 million at the worldwide box office. Against a budget of roughly $25 million, this made it the highest-grossing film in the Vacation franchise for about 25 years. Although it received mixed reviews during its initial run, it is now considered a modern Christmas classi among many film fans, this one included. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, the screenplay by John Hughes was originally written as a short story called “Christmas ’59” published in the National Lampoon magazine. He only agreed to do it for the studio because of the quality of the story and left the series for good afterwards. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone director Chris Columbus was originally set at the helm before leaving after clashing with its main star consistently. Columbus and Hughes would later try and work together again on the future holiday classic Home Alone. Chevy Chase stars as Clark Griswold, the energetic and enthusiastic patriarch of the oddball Griswold family. As the winter season progresses, he sets out to try and give his family the best Christmas of all time by any means necessary. As more members of his extended family arrive, more and more absurd problems arise as Clark attempts to save old traditions. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, I wanted to go ahead and close out my New Year’s Resolution with a pair of Christmas films that are considered classics. Sure, there’s a whole lot of cheese in places like Hallmark and Lifetime, but there are plenty of films that take the genre in great ways. And it’s nice to have a traditional rewatch every season, whether it’s a real decades-old classic or a recent gem. I decided to go ahead and look back on a film that’s renowned but not usually discussed in the pantheon along others like Miracle on 34th Street. My feelings on National Lampoon as a whole are kind of mixed, but their Vacation franchise provides some big laughs every now and then. And after all these years, Christmas Vacation still proves to be the best of them and a genuinely fun holiday regular. If you’re hoping for a strong narrative in your yuletide films, you’ll be disappointed because the plot and setup here are extremely simplistic. But that ultimately works to its advantage because it allows breathing room both for the hilarious jokes and the more heartwarming moments. It’s primary theme of trying to find what it means for a truly great Christmas season is really resonant and universal for audiences, no matter how dysfunctional your family may be. The one issue that keeps Christmas Vacation from being a complete classic for me is an unnecessary fantasy pool scene. It comes at around the beginning of the third act and just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film before or after. But if you can ignore that one scene, (I’ve begun just fast-forwarding through it on each rewatch) the rest of the film is pretty fun across multiple demographics. Although most people associate him with Community and his days on Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase was really at the top of his game here. As Clark Griswold, he’s extremely energetic and enthusiastic about bringing all of his family’s traditions into the fold this year. He tries to bottle up his frustration with failures and work but finally lets it all out in one of the best and funniest tirades in cinematic history. By his side, Beverly D’Angelo is amazing and endlessly funny as his confused and deadpan wife Ellen. She plays it more like the straight-laced partner who acts completely rational compared to her husband’s wild behavior. Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galicki play the Griswolds’ daughter and son, respectively, which continues the gag of their children always changing actors. They’re both earnest in their desire to make Christmas great but are constantly unsure about their father’s unorthodox methods to get to it. In a way, they act more as an audience surrogate as we witness the bizarre and absurd take hold in their household in gradual fashion. John Randolph, Randy Quaid, Diane Ladd, William Hickey, and Mae Questel round out the memorable members of the Griswold family while Sam McMurray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nicholas Guest, and Brian Doyle-Murray play some of their various acquaintances. With the exception of Quaid and Louis-Dreyfus, not many of the supporting cast really stand out or leave a huge impression. None of them really have big character arcs but they provide some decent laughs and contribute to the overall package. And from a technical point-of-view, Christmas Vacation has just enough flare to distinguish itself from other comedies of the decade. Thomas E. Ackerman’s cinematography here is, by and large, straightforward and pretentious. There aren’t really any clever movements, aside from a dramatic push-in on Clark when the house lights finally come on. It mostly places the camera in one or two different static positions during a scene and finds a way to make the humor more visually satisfying and timed well. The main colors associated with the holiday- blue, red, white, and green -are often seen throughout in many different ways and the frame captures them pretty decently. It’s really the editing, which is a joint effort from Jerry Greenberg and Michael A. Stevenson, that brings out the personality. The film often cuts between something really obscene with something more warmhearted for the holiday season, creating a very funny dichotomy. Each scene is nicely cut together to a tea and knows what to focus on for the specific moment. It also makes a wise decision of when to include a pause or when to cut away to the punchline. The aforementioned tirade is mostly shown in a long take of Clark in his living room and he kicks the furniture around him and gathers his breath. The fact that the camera doesn’t cut away during this moment makes it very hard not to break out in laughter as he pours out his true feelings for the first time. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a jolly good time with some really timeless jokes and heart. Excluding that unnecessary pool scene, Jeremiah S. Chechik and John Hughes have crafted a really nice classic in the already crowded pantheon of Christmas movies. Your mileage for the film as a whole may vary, but it’s Chevy Chase’s inimitably hilarious turn as Clark Griswold that makes it worth rewatching time and again. A fantastic way to close out the 1980’s, this comedy is sure to bring plenty of yuletide joy and laughter to the family.

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“It’s a Wonderful Life” Movie Review

If you’re not in the mood for the sappy schmaltz of Hallmark movies or the action-heavy bravado of Die Hard, you can always look to the “Golden Age” for holiday favorites. This holiday romantic fantasy drama was originally released in theaters worldwide by RKO Pictures on December 20th, 1946. Despite being able to recoup its $3.18 million production budget, the film failed to break even due to stiff competition, and it wasn’t close. Many experts and historians attributed this as the start of the once-popular director’s decline in his favor with the major studios. Nowadays, it is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Frank Capra, the film was originally inspired by the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. The studio initially set it up as a starring vehicle for Cary Grant with Dalton Trumbo writing the screenplay before all of their ideas were scrapped. Capra came in and did extensive (And apparently strenuous) work on the new script with Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and auditioned several actors for all bu the main role. A few months after the release of the film, there was a memo sent out to the public by the FBI accusing the film of having Communist sympathies. Set in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a young man working as a building and loan banker. As the film goes along, we witness all the things in his life leading up to a series of particularly miserable decisions and bad luck. On Christmas Eve 1945, he becomes so depressed from his situation that he contemplates suicide, only to be saved by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers. In an effort to show him how different life would be, Clarence takes George to a version of the world where he was never born and the consequences therein. I’ve made it clear in the past that Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie of all time and I firmly stand by that. However, I also recognize that sometimes it’s nice to find something a little older and more family-friendly to watch over the holiday break. And although it could from household to household, more often than not, it comes down to this film and White Christmas. I had personally not seen this film for the better part of a decade, even though I distinctly remember loving it the first time. I finally got the chance to watch it again in the past few weeks, hoping that my older eyes would see it in a new light. And it’s with a brightened heart and a lifted spirit that I say It’s a Wonderful Life is still fabulous and even improves on repeat viewings. The central premise is a question we’ve all asked ourselves before; would the world be much different without me? This film paints Bedford Falls as a genuinely kind town and in the scenario without George Bailey around, it becomes a much darker and colder place called “Pottersville.” It does a fantastic job at showing how much the protagonist has made the lives of those around him better, even if he himself can’t realize it. Interestingly, something you may notice is that It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t really get to Clarence or the alternate world until over an hour into the film. The whole movie leading up to that moment is spent with the voices in Heaven recounting George’s whole life story from childhood to present day. It not only helps further establish context for him and his loved ones but also creates a big emotional payoff for the iconic and heartwarming ending. Jimmy Stewart has built his whole career playing the likable American everyman, and I’m convinced that this might be his best work outside of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. As George Bailey, he’s immensely compassionate and is able think on his feet rather quickly when financial situations come up. Although he’s clearly happy to help his fellow neighbors, seeing him sacrificing his dreams of leaving Bedford Falls time and again shows his growing frustration of wanting to live a bigger life but never getting to. In direct contrast to him, Lionel Barrymore is extremely memorable as Mr. Henry F. Potter, the richest man in town. Although he doesn’t move much outside of his wheelchair, he’s successfully able to make both Bedford Falls citizens and audience members despise him as he only cares about buying and owning everything. He prides himself on manipulating various businesspeople on deals and loans for his own gain and only seems to get angrier and greedier as the film goes along. Henry Travers also delights as the guardian angel in training Clarence Odbody, one of the best side characters in cinema. Despite his cheerful and optimistic attitude, he’s determined to show George why his life truly matters and isn’t afraid to show the darkness. It’s almost like a learning experience for both him and us as we learn everything about this town and its people right alongside Clarence and the value of human decency. The supporting cast includes Donna Reed as George’s loving and quick-witted wife, Thomas Mitchell as his caring but dim-witted uncle Billy, Todd Karns as his innocent yet honest younger brother, H.B. Warner as a well-meaning but oft-drunk druggist, and Frank Albertson as George’s wealth but absent old friend. Each one plays an important part in the story of the main character and it’s clear they all are impacted by him. Even if George himself can’t see it, their lives are much better with him around and radiate a genuine warmth and neighborly presence in each scene. And from a technical point of view, It’s a Wonderful Life showcases Capra’s real brilliance behind the camera. Because of the difficulty of production, three cinematographers were credited: Joseph Biroc, Victor Milner, and Joseph Walker. Despite this, the black-and-white cinematography is still timelessly great, filled with long takes for dialogue-heavy scenes between all of the characters. There are a surprising amount of close-up shots used, either used to capture an actor’s internalized emotions or highlight important information on a document. Although a colorized version does exist, the black-and-white original makes the frame feel much more natural and the smooth movements make it seem almost like a fairytale. The editing job by William Hornbeck is equally excellent, being able to showcase everything with great precision and timing. As previously stated, there are several long takes throughout the film. But there are also numerous scenes where it cuts back and forth between different points of view to provide variety and tension, especially during arguments. A handful of times, the frame will freeze so that Clarence and his superiors in Heaven can fill in some blanks on lost time. It’s a brilliant way to keep the audience engaged without trying to hold their hand the whole way through. Dimitri Tiomkin, who previously worked on the director’s prior films, provides the instrumental film score for what would be their last effort together. It has all the sweeping greatness of many old-school Hollywood films, with a full orchestra and more. The main suite is a grand theme that mixes multiple different sounds and instruments together in a great manner. The mixture of strings and brass help create an emotional environment as George moves from one thing in his life to another. It also utilizes both subtle and overt choral moments that highlight the ethereal nature of the story. And best of all, it also knows when to let their be no music whatsoever, making it land much more effectively. A true cinematic classic if ever there was one, It’s a Wonderful Life is a beautiful and humanistic tribute to all the small moments in our lives. Arguably Frank Capra’s masterpiece, the film shows us how much of an impact we all have on the people immediately around us, even if we don’t fully realize it. Jimmy Stewart has quite possibly never been better than here and George Bailey is undoubtedly one of the best heroes in movie history. There is perhaps nothing more true to the “Christmas spirit” than for us to appreciate the time and space we share with our loved ones, and this film shows that wonderfully.

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