An Assessment that is Summer 2016 at the Movies

I certainly didn’t see every movie that came out this summer but I certainly tried to see every movie of note that was released. To say that the films released between the period of mid-May to the twilight of August and speaking of the twilight of August: we’re in it! The Rio Olympics, which I did not bother watching at all, came and passed, NFL preseason is halfway through, the back-to-school advertisements are out in full force, and even though the final official day of summer arrives in early September, I’m ready to call it: summer’s over. That being said, I’d like to take a look at some of the highlights and lowlights of the last few months at the movies!

Summer 2016’s biggest surprise: Hell or High Water

Man, I’m still aglow over this knockout comtemporary Western gifted to us by director David McKenzie and rising star screenwriter Taylor Sheridan! In case you missed my review, Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two bandit brothers determined to keep a bank from foreclosing on their family farm by elaborately robbing various branches throughout Texas. Jeff Bridges plays the grizzled long-in-the-tooth lawman nipping at their heels as they tear through the Lone Star State and with a solid 3-man leading ensemble, excellent writing and superb execution, Hell or High Water came out of nowhere and scored a vintage cinematic homerun!

Summer 2016’s biggest disappointment: Now You See Me 2

I can’t remember if I cried when I saw this sequel come untied, but something touched me deep inside, the day Now You See Me 2 proved, the magic had died. The magic, being the magic, fun and the unexpected twists and turns from the original Now You See Me, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and others about a team of magician thieves who pull off criminal feats of awe-inspiring dexterity. Now You See Me 2 is merely one of the many unnecessary sequels of this summer no one asked for and honestly, director Jon M. Chu should have kept this rabbit in its hat.

The superhero movie of the summer: Captain America: Civil War

This decision was not even close! X-Men: Apocalypse failed to live up to the hype, and Suicide Squad was doomed by its own shortcomings, but even if this wasn’t by default, Captain America: Civil War had it all! This star-studded Marvel grand showcase pitted Avenger against Avenger is a thoroughly well-thought out execution of philosophy, orchestrated by powers beyond the Avengers’ field of vision and started Phase Three of the Avengers Initiative with a bang!

Summer 2016’s best animated film: (tie) Finding Dory & Kubo and the Two Strings

2016 was a year to celebrate animated features and two of my most anticipated animated films of this summer did not disappoint at all! Disney & Pixar should probably take home a prize for actually making a sequel that was done right for audiences everywhere were taken back to the sea to check in on Marlyn, Nemo and Dory who set out on a grand adventure to realize who she was and where she came from. Finding Dory was absolutely precious and it should be celebrated not only as one of this summer’s best films but one of the best films of this year, but not so fast!

The latest animated adventure from Laika and Focus Features is a genuine marvel in itself. Kubo and the Two Strings follows the tale of a boy with a magical knack for origami and storytelling and he embarks on a quest to inherit his father’s legacy while supernatural forces are hunting him and his companions down. I’ve always respected the work of Laika and Focus Features’ stop-motion animated adventures but Kubo and the Two Strings is a genuine treasure and a highlight of this summer.

Summer 2016’s best visual effects: Captain America: Civil War

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Image by Marvel

Again, this is another competition the super soldier won without much difficulty and that’s saying something considering the summer is the season where visual effects run rampant throughout movie theaters. Whether it was the fight between Team Cap and Team Iron Man or the final battle between Iron Man and Captain America, this movie was a feast for the eyes.

The best movie of the summer: Hell or High Water

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Image by CBS Films

I should really proclaim this as one of the best film’s I’ve seen this year. Oh wait. I think I did!

The worst movie of the summer: The Legend of Tarzan

There were many to choose from over the past few months. To narrow my choice down, I thought about a movie that I had no high expectations for going in whatsoever and a movie that attempted to or didn’t even try to meet those shallow expectations and what I was left with is The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skaarsgard, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Djimon Hounsou, in David Yates’ take on the legendary character crafted by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This movie was like watching a snake crawl back into its old skin after shedding it and it was rather unnatural to digest.

Fare the well Summer 2016. I did my best to see your best and I certainly will try to forget your worst, if indeed I did bother seeing them. Anyway, I’m on to fall. Check on my blog for any updates or news or my next film and I’ll see you at the movies.

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see. No matter how unusual it may seem. If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.

Gather round, gather round for a great story is yearning to be told. It’s a story about a storyteller, crafted by true visionaries and storytellers, who have spun many vivid and colorful yarns before. This is the story of Kubo.

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Image by LAIKA and Focus Features

Kubo is an 11-year-old boy with an exceptional flare for storytelling, bolstered by his magic, which he channels into his instrument to bring his characters and quests to life in the form of animated origami. Every day, Kubo ventures into his nearby village performing his amazing feats for petty coins, to care for himself and his mentally ailing mother, who is more than meets the eye.

In the hopes to commune with his departed father, a distinguished samurai named Hanzo who died defending Kubo and his mother from a terrifying evil, Kubo did not heed his mother’s pleas not to stay out past and two powerful entities called “The Sisters” emerge from the shadows to claim Kubo. Kubo’s mother kept the sisters at bay, but at the cost of her own life.

Before Kubo’s mother’s final sacrifice, she brought a charm to life in the form of a monkey to protect him from The Sisters and their master, The Moon King, as Kubo, accompanied by Monkey and a cursed samurai dubbed Beetle, set out on a journey to find components of his late father’s armor, a sword unbreakable, a breastplate impermeable and a helmet impenetrable, and together, they provide Kubo a vital defense against the dreaded Moon King.

The story of Kubo and the Two Strings is a tale of adventure, magic and family and this latest feature from Laika and Focus Features is undoubtedly, one of the finest animated achievements of the year. Personally, I had high hopes for this film since I was very impressed by Laika and Focus Features’ previous works: Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls but Kubo and the Two Strings struck a harmonious and resounding chord, distinguishing itself as the best Laika and Focus Features have accomplished to date!

No doubt the stop-motion animation is a signature staple of Laika’s legacy and this movie took, at least, five years to produce but as I was watching the tale of Kubo unfold, I was assured that I was looking at a labor of love; whether I was watching Kubo, Beetle and Monkey fend off a beast of bones with a crown of swords, or Monkey and one of the Sisters waging war against a sinking leaf ship, or Kubo entranced and ensnared by ocular entities from the depths of the endless sea, I could feel the love and dedication from the animators and creative team to bring this story to life and it was a genuine aesthetic to witness.

What made this movie so special though, was that it was a story about a storyteller who had a story to tell, but kinda lost on how it ended and the story, courtesy of Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Butler, was as resplendent as the animation. From a creative perspective I empathized with Kubo’s character, particularly how he had difficulty finishing stories he started and as his story progressed, I was more and more invested in all of the twists and turns of his journey and how balanced it was; one of the characters Kameyo, voiced by Brenda Vaccaro, explained to Kubo that a great story needs the right balance of humor and levity to balance out the dramatic nature of the main character’s quest and that is exactly what Kubo and the Two Strings had and I was so amazed that this film had a balance between visual splendor and a grounded and compelling tale that complimented each other beautifully.

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Image by LAIKA and Focus Features

Travis Knight should be proud of the accomplishment he directed. This movie was balanced, it had a story that could appeal to both children and adults, it’s a movie like Kubo and the Two Strings that makes me happy that there is an alternative to Disney in terms of amazing animated feature films because Laika and Focus Features make movies like this to truly push the envelope and break new ground and Kubo and the Two Strings is certifiably a groundbreaking achievement for all those involved.

The film is pretty main-character driven but that is by no stretch a bad thing. The vocal talents of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes and George Takei were ideal.

From all of the films that I have seen and reviewed this year, I can certainly attest that this year was a high mark for animated spectacles; two of the best films that I have seen this year have been animated features and now Kubo and the Two Strings joins the ranks of Zootopia and Finding Dory and at this point the Oscar for Best Animated Feature is wide-open and could go to any one of these three films and I would not be disappointed.

Kubo and the Two Strings will compel you not to blink because if you do, you will miss a second of beauty, thrills and heart. On that note, I would encourage the folks at Focus Features, Laika, the producers of this film and the creative team behind it to take a bow! Bravo!

 

Movie of the Week: Kubo and the Two Strings

2016 has been a marquis year for animated films. Two of this year’s best films, from my perspective, have been animated films courtesy of Disney and Disney-Pixar but another prominent animated picture player will submit their feature film to join the remarkable achievements of 2016 animated films. From the studio behind Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, comes a sweeping tale about a gifted youth on a journey to defend himself and his companions from an ancient evil harboring a grudge against his family. From Laika and Focus Features comes one of my most anticipated films of the year. This is Kubo and the Two Strings.

What am I expecting to see?: I have garnered tremendous respect for Laika and Focus Features’ animated films over the last few years because you don’t find stories as bold as the ones they have told and done with such beauty, beauty that you can only find in stop-motion animation. A lot is riding on director Travis Knight and screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler and I look forward to seeing the voices of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Rooney Mara and Minae Noji bring life into these vivid characters. High hopes for Kubo and the Two Strings!

Review: Hell or High Water

Who doesn’t love a good Western? A classic American tale set in the untamed frontier about a clash between a sheriff, a cowboy or a lawman against an outlaw, a Native, or a man looking to kick up a little trouble in a sleepy town holds mass appeal for film lovers but I’m not talking about a “vintage” Western ala High Noon, Unforgiven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit or Hang ’em High.

Set in modern day West Texas, Toby and Tanner Howard are venturing into a new enterprise: bank robbing. The brothers take it upon themselves to settle their late mother’s debt and prevent Texas Midland Bank from foreclosing on their family farm and they set out to rob branches of Texas Midland Bank and use the money they get from their heists to pay off their loans.

The activities of the Tanner Brothers don’t go unnoticed. Soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton and his partner Alberto Parker are on the trail of these mysterious bank robbers and are intent to deliver justice upon them.

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Image by CBS Films

This is the plot of the contemporary western Hell or High Water, directed by David McKenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, screenwriter of Sicario. My late father loved a good western but Hell or High Water is not a good western. Hell or High Water is one hell of a western!

This was what I’d like to call a “can’t miss movie” and this summer, a movie of Hell or High Water’s caliber has been far and few between. Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Dale Dickey lead this exemplary cops and outlaws film, featuring Jeff Bridges in rare form, Chris Pine who delivers his best performance that I’ve seen and a solid performance by Ben Foster.

The shining star of Hell or High Water isn’t any of the actors though. The man who steals the show is none other than screenwriter Taylor Sheridan.

There is no doubt that Sheridan planted his own personal stamp on this tale of family and justice and did so with cunning, wit, bravado and expert craftsmanship. The idea for the Howard Brothers to steal from the banks their family owes money to to repay them, is a stroke of genius; no doubt that Sheridan is still riding the wave of success he rode when he crafted the framework for Sicario and the writing for Hell or High Water is just as impactful.

There is no doubt that this is one of the most original films of the year, perhaps the best written film I’ve seen since Zootopia.

David McKenzie did a fine job directing this movie. I would argue that maybe the directing was good because he had an awesome screenplay to work with but the directing of this movie can certainly be regarded as top-class. This is certainly a high-point for McKenzie as well as films released in 2016 because the plot and how the plot unfolded on screen held your attention and doesn’t even bother to let go.

Does this mean that Hell or High Water is 2016’s Sicario? I can’t say for certain because even though the writing is similar they are different films with different tones but I am certain that this should be recognized as a sensational film as Sicario was.

The supporting cast including Buck Taylor, Paul Howard Smith, Kevin Rankin, Margaret Bowman, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, they’re essentially extras but they do their utmost to lift the core cast as possible and they are effective in their brief but significant roles.

Technically, this is a well put-together movie. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography is well-done; I specifically enjoyed the opening of the film with that intricate tracking shot of the parking lot, serving as a sort of scouting the area technique, for the brothers before they rob their first bank.

The editing flowed seamlessly between the brothers and the rangers. Jake Roberts did a fine job of balancing between the subplots between the lawmen and the outlaws without giving too much or too little to anyone. I also particularly liked how well-executed the shootout sequence was. Going back and forth between Tanner scoping and shooting the police while Marcus was getting into position to scope and take out Tanner was smooth.

Tom Duffield’s production design was sharp, Steve Cooper’s art direction was good, the costumes of Malgosia Turzanska added to the authenticity of the film, this movie certainly went the distance to deliver a vintage western level of authenticity and that authenticity was rich in my opinion.

I consider Hell or High Water a sleeper film for any awards, but hands down, this was an original movie that I wouldn’t hesitate to go to the theaters and see. Hell or High Water certainly is one of the best films of the year and a genuine western through and through.

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

I can recall a period in my life where me, my mother and my sister watched American Idol during it’s early years. We particularly enjoyed the start of the season where ordinary people auditioned before Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell to determine whether or not someone had the chops to make it big and I imagined America laughed and cringed when someone made a complete and utter fool of him or herself if he or she didn’t ha ve what some may call “dulcet tones.” I know I surely did, and millions of Americans may have laughed to from the comfort of their own homes.

American Idol didn’t exist back in 1944, but if it did, there is no doubt that Florence Foster Jenkins would have been laughed at because if you heard her sing, you would think that pancakes were flatter but no. She took lessons, she had a philandering husband as a benefactor, a pianist who couldn’t believe his ears at what he heard accompanying his piano but she had courage to live out her dream as an opera singer performing a sold out venue at Carnegie Hall and maybe that is what the movie Florence Foster Jenkins is ultimately about: a woman who wanted to share her gift for music during a dark period in American history and was driven by her passion, courage and the people who believe in her.

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Image By Neon Tommy, via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Frears’ latest biopic stars the national treasure known as Meryl Streep as the tone-deaf title character. Once again, audiences will rest assured knowing that Meryl Streep gives a stellar but ear-piercing performance. Though she has built a legendary acting career by putting her extraordinary versatility on display time and time again, the only constant is her commanding presence and her scintillating appeal and she brings both to the courageous yet fragile role of Florence Foster Jenkins.

Streep’s performance is supported by that of Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, cast in the roles of Florence’s doting husband St Clair Bayfield, and Cosmé McMoon an aspiring pianist who gets an earful when she encounters Madame Florence for the first time and much more when Bayfield encourages her short-lived stint as a concert performer.

Is Florence Foster Jenkins a movie with Oscar-credentials? The type of movie we’re going to hear about in the media for months on end as we head into awards season? More than likely not but I’d recommend seeing it if you enjoy a good Meryl Streep performance, or if you are a student of musical history, or if you need a break from the incessant summer blockbusters and just need a good laugh.

What is this movie outside of Meryl Streep though? Not much by my reckoning. Technically it is rather bland to behold with no outstanding achievements beyond the leading lady.

Stephen Frears directed a rather pedestrian picture that can come and go without a great degree of fanfare. The subject of his picture could assault the ears of her audience with a pitch capable of breaking glass or windows but the execution of Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t measure up to that amount of force. That’s to say, outside of Meryl Streep’s performance there is a serious lack of impact from this movie outside of a few key scenes.

Nicholas Martin’s screenplay is fairly easy to follow. The film follows Madame Foster’s progression from when she is awestruck and inspired by a Lily Pons concert to when she is on her deathbed, aware that the world knows of her “singing talents” yet proud of the fact that she lived her dream of bringing music and joy to others. There are a few filmic moments of Florence Foster Jenkins yet the writing left expertise to be desired.

The supporting cast, including Grant, Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, do their utmost to lift this movie and that in of itself is admirable.

Danny Cohen’s cinematography is banal, Alexandre Desplat’s music is always welcome in a film, Valerio Bonelli’s editing is fluid, Alan MacDonald’s production design is very well done, Consolata Boyle’s costumes are beautiful, the art direction is practical but effective but ultimately, I felt that all of the components that made this movie failed to measure up to the glow that Meryl Streep brought to the picture.

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Image by BBC Films & Pathé Pictures International

I found Florence Foster Jenkins to be a come-and-go motion picture. Come to see Meryl Streep add another fantastic performance to an already distinguished body of work, everything else isn’t much but it’s worth staying for, but once its done you can go home satisfied by a practically amusing feat at the movies.

Warner Bros. Wants to do Superman Justice With Sequel

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Image by Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment

The DC Cinematic Universe is not off to an ideal start. In fact, 2016 should be a year that DC and Warner Bros. would like to forget since their two highly anticipated films of the year, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, were not exactly welcomed critically and not-so-much economically. The film that initiated the DC Cinematic Universe, Man of Steel introduced the franchise’s cornerstone character, in a rather radical take on his origin story. Personally, I wasn’t thrilled by Man of Steel but I respected how different it was in terms of how the world saw Superman. For so long, Batman v. Superman has been described as the sequel to Man of Steel, serving as a bridge to the inevitable and upcoming Justice League movie, but news has broken regarding an official sequel to Man of Steel that has just been approved for development.

Despite Superman’s battle with Batman, DC has been silent on a sequel to “Man of Steel” featuring Superman solo, leading many frustrated fanboys to believe that another film wasn’t going to happen. But a person close to the project told TheWrap that Superman is a top priority for the studio and getting the character right for audiences is of tantamount importance.

When last audiences saw Henry Cavill’s Superman in Batman v. Superman, the Man of Steel was given a hero’s burial after the titanic bout with the monstrous Doomsday and the character has been confirmed to return in Justice League. I’m curious how the last son of Krypton will rise from the dead to aid Batman’s alliance of special individuals against the mysterious Steppenwolf and I’m all the more curious as to how this sequel will contribute to what the DC Cinematic Universe has to offer. A few months back, Oscar-nominated director George Miller was rumored to be a favorite for a project such as a Man of Steel sequel but after a brief period of speculation, he announced that he would rather pursue other ventures.

As of now, there is no word on who will write, direct, star (aside from Cavill presumably) in the picture or a release date. All we know is that it is happening and Warner Bros. wants to redeem themselves for how they have portrayed Superman in the previous films and considering that Man of Steel grossed $668 million globally in 2013, Batman v. Superman collected $872 million at the global box office, not to mention the money the studio will get from Suicide Squad, they have the funds to make it happen, they just need the right creative minds to actually make it happen.

Movies of the Week: Florence Foster Jenkins and Hell or High Water

I think I’ve seen enough films for kids and young adults for this summer, at least for now. I think it’s time I turn my attention toward films that are geared for more mature audiences and as it happens, there are two films of such nature. Based on the true story about an underdog with appeal, Florence Foster Jenkins stars the incredible Meryl Streep as an aspiring opera singer who dreams of making it big but there is just one problem: she can’t hold a quality note to save her skin yet audiences of her time can’t get enough of her.

What am I expecting to see?: At this point, you should be aware that I’m down for anything related to Meryl Streep and honestly this looks fascinating in of itself. Stephen Frears, director of Oscar-caliber features such as The Queen and Philomena, may have a film with substance worth seeing this summer and I could use anything substantive at this point. Rounding out the cast includes Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda and Christian McKay and I hope Florence Foster Jenkins strikes a different chord compared to most films I’ve seen the past few weeks.

The second half of my intended weekend double-feature is a western, of sorts from the writer Taylor Sheridan and director David McKenzie called Hell or High Water. This film made a name for itself at Cannes a while back, following a fraternal tandem of bank robbers determined to clear their mother’s medical debts and save their farm in Texas, but these brothers have a grizzled lawman nipping at their heels hell-bent on bringing the law to these outlaws.

What am I expecting to see: Sicario introduced Taylor Sheridan’s screenwriting and that movie’s writing was superb. I caught wind of Hell or High Water a few months ago and I was immediately interested in seeing it. Granted this movie may be flying under the radar but maybe that could be a good thing, I’m not seeing a so-called “blockbuster” for once. Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Buck Taylor, Kristen Berg make up the cast of this cops-and-robbers drama. I hope Hell or High Water, is a riveting change of pace.