Wrapping Up the Holiday Season: Sing Review

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Illumination as an animation studio has solidified itself this year as makers of cute and harmless children’s cinema. If Disney/Pixar is the gold standard in terms of animation quality and compelling content whether it be emotionally gripping stories or innovative worlds, Illumination falls a tear above Dreamworks who took a nose dive with the more raunchy Shrek and Madagascar franchises. It’s summer fare Secret Life of Pets had some interesting sequences with a sausage party dream sequence and underground sewers of unwanted animals but was a traditional Toy Story plot. Sing has a save the (fill in the blank) narrative but exploiting the popularity of talent competition programs like The Voice, America’s Got Talent and other shows your parents watch. The anthropomorphic animals that inhabit this world from afar look like Zootopia as predators and prey coexist in leather jacket, Converse attire but immediately you realize there’s no logic to this universe so no use overthinking it.

 

If you’re watching Sing it’s because you enjoy Top 40 covers of songs that will be very dated in 10 years and yes, I’m one of those people. There’s also part of me that realizes Shrek annoyingly popularized the use of contemporary hits in children’s films and feels like a cheap appeal to kids with recognizable songs. The film relies more heavily on your emotional response to songs than having to do any work of their own. They even use Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, notably covered by Rufus Wainwright in Shrek as a pivotal beat. If you want the most proof that it’s a humiliating endeavor, having to hear Matthew McConaughey as a Koala sing the chorus of “Call Me Maybe” made me slump in my seat.

 

That being said, the voice performances are one of the film’s strengths. McConaughey gives a surprisingly lively performance as the theater owner down on his luck. Seth McFarland, who VO is old hat for him, is obviously over the moon to play the Frank Sinatra-style crooning mouse. It’s an expansive cast as the film is made up of these mammalian performers that converge for the competition. All the principals which includes a gangster gorilla (Taron Egerton), pig housewife (Reese Witherspoon) and an angsty porcupine teenager (Scarlett Johansson) get enough screen time to complete their arcs which are often difficult when cramming in so many characters. They all felt developed enough to have their own movie but also work in these small doses. The animators have fun with how animals of all different shapes and sizes would interact, giving each many quirks that make up the comic relief more than verbal jokes. The koala’s absentminded assistant is an elderly iguana with a glass eye and is the most delightful as a reptile in existence for pure comedy. Nick Kroll’s Austrian dancing pig serves a similar purpose yet they criminally underuse him.

 

This kind of movie exists as a fluff piece for families to take all the rowdy kids to during the holiday season especially those too young for Rogue One. Illumination probably makes enough money off of Minions that they can fund any project they want that will have a big opening weekend and a mediocre response by critics. Like many others, I saw this with friends who didn’t want to sit through the heaviness of Fences and the more indie Oscar films like La La Land hasn’t expanded to the mainstream theaters of the mid-Atlantic towns in which I spend my holiday vacation. This movie thrives because people like me have little to choose from. I don’t fault it for that and as I said I’d describe it as harmless. I found the giggling Japanese Akitas and spandex clad frogs adorable. I’ve sat through much worse films geared to a variety demographics and sure this is a calculated studio effort to tap into what the masses respond to which is Katy Perry and piglets it’s at least less obnoxious than Minions.

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In Case You Missed The Invite: Office Christmas Party Review

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I should love Office Christmas Party as I’ve established myself as a woman enamored with living vicariously through on-screen spectacles of people dancing while getting wasted. Because I know I will never have an epic party experience in my own life because I a) don’t drink and b) can’t recreate slow motion dance moves scored by Drake, I rather watch attractive actors and the magic of editing supply me with this artifice. Take Me Home Tonight is my favorite movie of all time because it allows me to experience a bomb ass party with Chris Pratt and cocaine while also being set in the 80’s, something that I can never achieve. 2015 provide us with two dope ragers with the “surprise this whole movie is a party” enjoyment of Sisters and the Seth Rogen Holiday Special that is The Night Before. OCP is trying its hardest to be a combination of the two and misses the mark at every turn whether it’s being funny, sentimental or seasonal. Though it opens strong, it’s not able to immerse me in the wild night experience or cinematically conveys it of being as great as promised.

Like the start of every movie before we can get to the juicy main event, we begin with the introduction in this case to our lead, sad sack Josh (Jason Bateman) who has just finalized his divorce. Bateman plays his usual smart alec, straight man persona which if you’re me you’ll take it but I realize others would be happy to leave it. Things ramp up once we get the grand introduction to the many characters that make up the titular office. Everyone gets their moment to shine up top and establish what larger than life personality they are, highlights being the uptight head of HR Mary (Kate McKinnon), struggling single mother Allison (Vanessa Bayer) and baller rich man-child Clay (TJ Miller) who runs the Chicago branch of the software business passed down by his father. Jennifer Aniston busts in as boss ass bitch Carol, Clay’s sister and threatens to shut down the branch if they don’t land a major deal by the next day. The believable sibling rivalry is a nice added touch to the archetype of Scrooge CEO who wants to ruin everyone’s Christmas. As a not festive person myself who also is physically strong and respects someone who doesn’t put up with shit, Aniston ruled and characters like her are crucial when Bateman and romantic interest/hacker Tracey (Olivia Munn) are so vanilla.

What a wild night of debauchery and mishaps should be is hilarious and so outrageous and exciting that you wish you could be there. The lead up is for sure fun with boardroom bickering between Clay and Carol then the party planning montage which includes Clay exhausting his contacts to try to invite Kanye (sadly no pay off on that). Laughs became fewer and far between as the lame employees get turnt on cocaine and egg nog. This is due to as the film progresses it becomes increasingly plot heavy, adding on more road blocks and caveats to the “save the company” storyline. Half the characters are too side tracked to even be at the party and we’re stuck watching random extras photocopy their butts. Sisters really exceeded at this grandiose party with the overflowing bubbly washing machine, drugged Bobby Moynihan doing Scarface impressions and bad yet brilliant choreography by Fey and Poehler. There’s nothing unique about this party and the raunchy dick jokes fall flaccid. The B plot that takes over the third act which includes 22 Jump Street stand out Jillian Bell as a pimp who takes Clay hostage, sounds amazing based on the talent alone but the script gets too involved with its action set pieces. By the end, the movie has thrown so much at you that it incorrectly assumes that we care an ounce about the imperative technical solution to saving this company. For a movie so confidently stating its premise, it finds so many ways to stray to the far reaches of the city so they don’t have to be at said party.

As much as I’ve just trampled over OCP I’ll at least say it’s trying. There is diversity in both race and gender, often something you’d be hard pressed to find in the straight white man dominated narratives of big budget comedies. As much as the jokes are crass, at least they’re not racist which I realize is a low bar I’m setting but case in point Dirty Grandpa. There’s an attempt at progressive female characters with the pimp gender swap and Tracey being the mastermind of the finale but still Carol is the stereotypically “cunty” female boss and the stale bit of a nerd hiring a prostitute as his fake girlfriend gives Neon Demon’s Abbey Lee little to work with. Even with its mini-strides Office Christmas Party fails at its attempted purpose, it is neither a new holiday classic nor a raucous hour and a half that I want to get on up in. I’m not saying it would be more time to go to an actual office Christmas party but at least there would be cake.

The Vintage Revisits: Mulan

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Like every girl from the 90’s, I grew up with Mulan. Though not having seen it in maybe a decade, I still could recite many of the lines and of course sing along to all the songs. Disney post renaissance is often known as a subpar period. I categorize Mulan as still in a sweet spot before things really went south with Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Sandwiched between Hercules and Tarzan, there’s still remnants of similar animation from the former (lots of swirly cloud designs) and the music that would show up in the latter (Mulan’s run away sequence is scored with synth that evokes Genesis). It very much comes off as a product of other products, building from tropes they know that work which is often why that if you didn’t grow up with this movie, it gets lost in the sea of pre-CGI animation. I realize there’s some nostalgic talking here but it’s got that Disney magic with gorgeous animation, catchy songs and some attempt at diversity that makes it more than worthwhile.

 

The strongest aspect that differentiates it from past Disney films is that Mulan is not a princess. I appreciate the message of subverting gender norms especially as a seven-year-old tomboy in ’98 although as unfeminine as I was/am, I wanted to be Meg from Hercules more than Mulan. Because it’s a kids movie, it hammers home Mulan’s “otherness” pretty hard in the first act. That becomes more laborious and on top of that the movie is trying to inform the young audience with a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese culture specifically the notion of honor which is repeated ad nauseum in the exposition. I can forgive the clunky set up because you still get to spend most of it with the main character and actress Ming-Na Wen who brings such life to the protagonist. She balances sweetness, innocence and vitality as the character progresses. Also in this introduction we get Mushu which is a very obvious rip-off of Aladdin’s Genie. While Eddie Murphy does a decent job as the dragon scamp, it’s in no way as hysterical as Robin William’s iconic ad-libs that make the Genie one of the greatest Disney characters of all time. The efforts pale in comparison of what the filmmakers were going for but I like the ways in which they work Mushu into the journey through basecamp and the battlefield both helping and hurting Mulan’s situation. The supporting cast once in the Imperial Army is the most spirited with the trio of Ling, Yao and Chien-Poa who I guess are added comic relief on top of Mushu. Harvey Fierstein as Yao, the least Asian of them all, still makes me smile.

 

In a more woke era almost twenty years later there’s more to question about the accurate representation of the Chinese in this movie. I’m the last person who should have any say in this as a white person but it’s a predicament for me of do you choose to appreciate that Disney made some effort into telling a non-white story or do you criticize that they didn’t try harder in diversifying the behind the scenes creators (majority of the creative team is caucasian). It takes a very simplistic view of China i.e. its decision to put so much emphasis that it’s a culture of honor and women hating but it’s 500 AD when all cultures devalued women. It’s also a simplistic depiction of the nomadic Hun people that fight the Imperial Army. The choice to make the villains noticeably Mongolian but with black eyes and a gray skin pigmentation is quite bold. The central villain Shan Yu is voiced by Miguel Ferrer which immediately disassociates that character from feeling anything close to Asian, maybe for the better.

 

PC-guilt aside, there’s still so many things to appreciate. I’m a sucker for traditional animation and this film is filled with some fantastic designs. It’s really elevated by the blending of CGI and animation for the sequences such as the mountainside battle with the Huns with sweeping ariels of stampeding soldiers, also the wider shots of the Emporer’s palace in which the extra dimensions emphasizes its grandness. I can’t hammer home enough how much I love the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel. “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” is a bonafide training montage song worth being listed next to the greats of “Circle of Life” and “Whole New World” and for real, Donny Osmond does a perfect BD Wong impression. I also find the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” not only fun but extremely emotionally effective when the lyrics are cut off by the destroyed of a village. Mulan is often an underestimated movie much like the main character herself. By appearance or reputation, it may seem light or harmless but when given a chance it packs one hell of a punch.

Roaring Through India with Lion

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I have a special affinity for travel movies or any instance where the setting is a country I’m dying to explore. Queen of Katwe was a favorite this year because of its depiction of Kampala with colorful fashion and lively marketplaces. Garth Davis’ feature film debut Lion whisks the viewer away to the vast landscape of India beginning in the tiny rural town of Ganesh Tilai to the bustling streets of Calcutta as he chronicles the journey of Saroo, a five-year-old boy whose accidental nap on a train lands him a thousand miles from home and seemingly orphaned. This true story continues further as he is adopted by an Australian couple and once an adult uses Google Earth to retrace his steps back home. While I expected this to be a cliche, flashback-laden film as Saroo (Dev Patel) remembers his harrowing past, instead finds its own artistry by a straightforward, chronological telling. It begins with young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) leading up to that dreadful night and lets us follow the boy for what became a difficult and death-defying year till his adoption and relocation. This may appear like an easier way to present a narrative but it becomes quite a bold choice to not have your bonafide lead actor show up until roughly halfway through the film. It also places a lot of Patel’s shoulders as we are fully informed of his past by the time he arrives and we expect to see all that reflected in the mannerisms and choices of adult Saroo.

The journey of child Saroo is by far the most compelling because of the world of 1980’s India from the poor townships to the corrupt city filled with both friendly strangers and nefarious predators. Saroo meets many and narrowly escapes more dire fates. The film doesn’t explore the luck that landed him with wealthy white parents but like other instances to come, a lot is based on chance. Once we fast forward to Dev Patel, the pace slows down, almost padding its runtime as Saroo’s crisis of identity and disconnect from his past become his obsession. Relationships are a thematic cornerstone in the narrative with Saroo being ripped from his brother and mother in India and having them replaced with upper class adopted parents as well as a less adjusted adopted younger brother. While you do feel his deep connection with his biological family considering he calls out their names every five minutes when lost, you don’t see enough interactions with his Australian parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) to feel the strength of their bond. This missed opportunity is partially due to I believe the movie’s need to have the plot move on to him being an adult though I would have been satisfied with an entire movie starring Pawar. There’s also the addition of the girlfriend character here played by Rooney Mara who can’t handle her emotionally tormented boyfriend as he searches the internet aimlessly. Her character adds little to his quest and rather detracts from the valuable time that could be spent developing the mother who Saroo is afraid to admit his hunt to or his drug addicted, mentally challenged brother that seemed to have lasting damage on the diverse family. Kidman delivers a stirring monologue about how she thought it to be destiny that she adopted these boys but this confession isn’t earned because she merely drifts in and out of the narrative. I wanted to get to know her better and not just because she looked frighteningly similar to my mom with her red hair and 80’s style.

Even with its narrative pitfalls, the film is much deeper and genuinely convincing than most of the crisis of identity plots. Because we’re presented with Saroo’s entire history to start, the resolution is so fulfilling and deserving of the tears it pulled out of me. Other movies make those elating endings come off manipulative but thanks to strong performances and efficient storytelling, Lion stands out as a memorable odyssey. I will say though, they should have workshopped that title more, or at least take the name of the book “A Long Way Home.” You spend the whole time wondering why this movie is called Lion when there are no such animals in the movie, nor is there mention of it, nor does any character lend themselves to the theme of courage often associated with lions. It comes as an afterthought in postscript that Saroo’s name means lion which is treated like some grand reveal but is actually completely underwhelming. Sometimes bad titles happen to good movies so while it doesn’t feel like a Lion, I’ll let it pretend it’s as majestic as one.

The Hell On Earth That Is Incarnate

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Very few movies have I left so angered. The Devil Inside takes the cake by having an ending that literally is a link telling you to go find out what happens, but Incarnate sure gives it a run for its money in terms of stupidity and unsatisfactory resolution. I’m angry that Blumhouse, a production company I trust in this new era of horror would betray me with this half-baked plot that isn’t even worth being dignified with the categorization of “horror.” Somehow this is a script that only contains the boring parts of every other B grade exorcist movie, teasing you with morsels of goodness that it immediately chucks out the window, uninterested in presenting anything that could be considered scary, engaging or well made.

 
You probably know nothing about Incarnate as it was buried so hard by the studio when they realized how big of a turd they had on their hands. The exposition which characters goes through multiple times, never finding a way to make it succinct, is that demon “evictor” Dr. Ember (Aaron Eckhart) has the ability to enter the minds of the possessed rescue their conscious from the parasitic entity. He has spent years chasing after the same demon that killed his wife and child and is now inhabiting the body of 11-year-old Cameron (David Mazouz). The opening of the film is very standard character development with the innocent child (in this case with daddy issues) being attacked by a superhuman homeless woman who then transfers the spirit into him. Then the “interesting” opener starts as Eckhart (I’m not calling him Ember, that sounds dumb) walks through a strobing nightclub which turns out to be the twisted dream a possessed man. This is our introduction to this Matrix style subconscious where one can have elevated abilities and make anything appear if they know how to free their thoughts. Instead of Agent Smiths, the evil is in the form of whatever the person desires most only their eyes turn black, the easiest sign of villainy. While this isn’t a new concept, it’s the hook of the movie, the way in which to distinguish itself from every other exorcism movie that Blumhouse has released in the last decade. Yet what is so baffling, is that Incarnate seems to find any way possible to prevent Eckhart from getting to use his unique ability. I don’t understand why, it’s not like it’s a budgetary restraint because the other plane isn’t a fantasy world, just a reflection of real life locations. I can only theorize that the filmmakers lacked any sense of creativity and thought that audiences much rather see characters argue in an apartment than go time jumping in a dream. The entire plot is essentially stalling for time as they find so many ways to derail Eckhart’s mission and to boot, he can only be in someone’s head for eight minutes. What is the point of such a brief time constraint? They even make the time literal, instead of 8 minutes in the real world translating to 2 days in the subconscious, it’s made to be a hard 8 minutes. You can’t do shit in that amount of time and the movie doesn’t want to even try.

 
This is a movie that is so completely out of touch with what the audience wants, with what the genre is, what the world is like. The members that make up Eckhart’s team are Oliver (Keir O’Donnell) who’s dressed like a reject extra from Green Room and Ilsa (Breanne Hill) a Madonna-Avril Lavigne hybrid, a style that no way informs the character or what decade she existed in. Their repartee is cringe worthy as they joke about their dating lives that are a shallow attempt at character development. Eckhart has gone full gravelly voice in place of having to do any acting. Much like he seems has to given up, so does this film when it comes to doing anything scary. It assumes that if you give a character black eyes and call them possessed then the job is done. There’s not even jump scares which means this movie is lazier than lazy movies. For the amount of explanatory detail it gives, because it’s padding out that 90 minute run time, we’re left not knowing what is this demon’s purpose aside from a vendetta against Eckhart. Cameron sits crossed legged in his vacant bedroom for the duration of the possession which is roughly a week. The common belief is that when a demon inhabits a person or a home they cause a lot of destruction as they try to spread their power yet “Maggie” is very content chilling on the floor, not really bothering anyone. It all adds up to the fact this movie has no drive or inspiration, merely going through the motions of what “this kind of movie” is supposed to me.

 
I apologize for the ranty-ness of this review but I really feel used as a horror fan. It’s such a shitty cash grab of a film that I wouldn’t expect from Blumhouse which usually prides itself on being at the forefront of the best new genre films. I was similarly vexed by Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch which fails in terms of pay off and plot direction but at least you know the filmmaker cared about what he was making and I can’t fault him for constantly defending his vision on social media. I don’t know much about director Brad Peyton but I can’t imagine him caring much at all about this material as he’s never directed horror and has more experience in the family friendly, Revenge of Kitty Galore realm. I wish Blumhouse had dumped this on VOD where I wouldn’t have given it a second thought but a big screen release means the studio felt they could trick enough of us into seeing this garbage with their mildly enticing trailer. The actual evil of Incarnate is it being thrust upon the world to see and it should just go to hell.

Breaking the Rules with Warren Beatty

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There’s not a lot of spectacular biopics. It’s one of the hardest genres to pull off successful because films of that ilk either align with the category of being too Oscar bait-y or try too hard to cram in an entire life story and sacrifice creativity and nuance at that expense. There are the few exceptions to the rule (Malcolm X would be my pick) and the title of the most recent Warren Beatty feature may hope for the same type of mold breaking. Rules Don’t Apply is a late in life biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes’ loss of sanity in the 1950s to 1960s. Now we’ve already had a Howard Hughes movie with Martin Scorses’ The Aviator, solid but not really a stand out of the director’s career which gives a clear telling of the early, vivacious years of the millionaire’s life. With all that context in mind, I have to assume director, writer, producer and star Beatty wanted to make his telling as polar opposite as he could and for better or for worse, he sure did. As a jumping off point, assuming the audience saw the Leo interpretation, Rules rushes through backstory and kicks off with the old man who refuses to leave his room and probably still peeing in jars. Rules Don’t Apply is as crazy as the mentally deteriorating Hughes where the filmmaking is messy, confusing and hilarious all which I could only hope is on purpose by the equally unseen Beatty.

Why I don’t think this an instance of Beatty going senile and forgetting how to direct is that the film is diverted into two major storylines, the insanity of Hughes and a tale of young love depicted as if from a classic film of that Golden Age of Hollywood. Sadly the more competent romance subplot is the less interesting part and exists to offset the amount of crazy that amasses in every scene with Hughes (played by Beatty). It’s the traditional presenting of the larger than life man through the eyes of a youthful, naive protagonist who learns that all that glitters isn’t gold when their idol turns out to be just a man. You know the plot of the smash hit Me and Orson Welles. Here the two impressionable youths are limo driver Franks Forbes (Aiden Ehrenreich) with dreams of land developing and Virgina beauty queen Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), one of Hughes’ newest contract ingenues. Their romance which flourishes as innocently as they are is delivered with swelling scores and harbors these big emotional beats all which seem lifted from a Rock Hudson vehicle. Though it’s more self-aware playing up their Christian mores which would have been second-hand knowledge in the 1950s and not the explicit humorous text here. It’s mostly underwhelming partially because the actors never project that much chemistry, Ehrenreich has a much stronger screen presence than Collins but during their scenes of will-they-won’t-they, I just wanted to get back to the TV dinner eating creeper that is Howard Hughes.

My theory for the odd, almost amateur style in which this movie is compiled is intentional because you’re seeing it as if it were directed by the befuddled Hughes. The editing is extremely frantic, scenes are practically cut off mid-sentence as they quickly catalog Marla and Frank’s Hollywood adventures. The pacing normalizes during the more drawn out scenes with characters interacting with Hughes but it’s replaced with the off-kilter comedic sense as Hughes repeats, mishears and evades everyone around him. I didn’t expect the movie to be this absurd as a long take scene of Frank and Hughes walking down a dark peer ends with them arriving at a set table with precisely placed burgers and fries that they consume like it’s a regular Wednesday night. We as an audience are being introduced to this weirdness both narratively which affects the leads but cinematically through the jarring visual techniques. Howard Hughes only directed two films but Beatty equally having a short filmography and being out of the spotlight for so long, you’d expect this incoherentness from a grumpy old man. The fact that this was a passion project that took years to make has me assume that this is a calculated meta joke, while extremely flawed, I’m completely into. He’s playing with these expectations that we probably didn’t even know we had.

This isn’t your typical biopic. No one here is gunning for an Academy Award. It’s all big performances that we don’t get to see much of anymore. Annette Benning as the overbearing Baptist mother of Marla and Matthew Broderick’s Levar as Hughes’ assistant that’s in too deep are so much fun because they’re allowed to play these parts fast and loose. They add to the 50’s era Los Angeles aesthetic paired with one of the best uses of CGI which is the grainy, technicolor exteriors used as characters drive down Sunset Boulevard. I’d give this movie 5 stars if it was purely hinged on production design which really pops. Even if the film doesn’t work 100% as its two contrasting stories where the romantic leads aren’t worth the schmaltzy moments they’re given and that it’s overstuffed with cameos that are unsatisfying (what’s Paul Servino doing here?), it’s still fascinating by being full of such bold choices. It makes me realize we’ve missed out on years of Beatty and I wish he had given us more. Remember how strange Bulworth is? I don’t expect any kind of resurgence from him but I need to get on a retrospective ASAP.