For those that know me, it is no secret that I love to go to the movies. This year, I was lucky enough to watch about 24 movies (mostly) in theaters. In these last few days before the new year, I will be sharing my thoughts on these films, from the good, to the bad, to the mediocre. To keep things manageable, I will be breaking things up into a few different posts based on the original release dates for the films. I do have to be up front about one thing, most of the films on this list are popular releases, unfortunately I didn’t have as many opportunities to see “indie” and “art house” films as I would have liked, and I have only seen a handful of films that would actually be nominated for awards.
In terms of structure for looking at these films, given that these are the films that I have seen most recently, I will only be sharing the synopsis as well as my thoughts on these films so far, using external videos and links if needed to further articulate my thoughts.
November and December saw different types of spells cast on the big screen, a rebellious princess-type saving her people, a down and dirty look at the Rebel Alliance, and the powerful effect the actions and deed of a man can have on his family.
Fair warning, I will try not to get into story details but there may be some spoilers ahead.
Released: November 4th, 2016 | Director: Scott Derrickson
Synopsis: A gifted physician is forced to seek a mystical treatment after an accident causes him to lose the use his hands and finds his mind’s eye open to possibilities he could have never imagined before.
Thoughts: Not to be reductive, but this felt like Iron Man with a gifted sorcerer instead of a brilliant technologist. Look, a lot of people have said it already, Strange is just the magical Tony Stark in this film. Here are four points that stood out to me:
- Strange was a fast talker and seemed to have a joke or quip for everything, just like Stark
- He was stubborn and thinks he knows better than everyone else, just like Stark
- He doesn’t understand how the use of his power jeopardizes all of humanity, just like Stark
- He had a black friend who he is clearly going to need to fight in the next movie because of his wanton disregard for authority and abuse of that power, just like Stark
Some of the visual choices were cool, and I loved some of the stylistic accents and homages, but it is the Marvel formula that we’ve seen time and time again already. Had this come out in Phase 1, I might feel differently, but where Marvel movies, and superhero films in general, are now, there was a lot more room to make this a more weird, funny, and impactful journey. Looking at films like Guardians of the Galaxy and, to a lesser extent, Deadpool gives you a sense of how we can make both compelling original and fully realized worlds and characters in comic book movies.
Doctor Strange is not a bad movie. Performances from all cast members were good, it had some good nods, magic and other dimensions were visualized well, and some of the set pieces were really well realized. Outside of that, the story was bland, characters were mostly one-dimensional, and it lacked any real X-factor that would have helped it stand out amongst the crowded of other films featuring powered people.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Released: November 18, 2016 | Director: David Yates
Synopsis: A wizard who fancies himself a zoologist accidently lets a case full of magical creatures loose in New York city, stumbling into more nefarious dealings as he works to recapture the beasts.
Thoughts: Following the end of the Harry Potter franchise, this prequel film kept the more mature theming from the later movies. Embracing the darkness while still having some fun, Fantastic Beasts strikes a balance that the last few Harry Potter films couldn’t. I found myself equally delighted and scared throughout different points in the story. The creatures were amazingly realized and some were truly fantastic, but that was only part of the story. Honestly, this film was sold as something a bit different than it actually is. What you would think is an animal collect-a-thon, Pokemon with wands, was actually a glimpse at some of the moments leading to a great wizarding conflict.
I can’t say too much about the actual story because I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that I think they did try to do just a little too much. There were a few too many story threads and too little time spent with each. The antagonist’s agenda was a bit unclear, and though some characters were a part of great moments, they hardly felt necessary to the overall narrative. In many ways, it felt like this was going to be a very different movie before it was decided that it should fit in with the stories of Grindewald and Dumbledore. I am satisfied with the direction the film series will go in, but I feel like it did steal some of the steam from what could have been a light and fun return to this magical world.
Fantastic Beasts is a fun ride, though not perfect. Harry Potter fans may find themselves split between loving this film and hating it because of the way it handles certain background characters and elements whose lore they have been pouring over for years. The performances are fine, the world is fully realized, the magic packs a punch, and it gives us a very different look at the world of witches and wizards than we got in previous Harry Potter films.
I only wish we had more time to check out the wizardly speakeasies and learn more about the magical mafia…
Released: November 23, 2016 | Directors: John Musker & Ron Clements
Synopsis: When her village faces a food shortage, a young heroine is forced on a journey to find a demigod and force him to restore the power he stole from the gods.
Thoughts: I wanted to love this movie. Having brown people on screen is always a huge boost for me and seeing other cultures or ethnicities explored and celebrated is amazing. The casting was perfect with the unknown Auli’i Cravalho lending her voice to the titular headstrong and dynamic Moana, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the charismatic, and a bit full of himself, demigod Maui. These two played brilliantly off of one another and had this energy that you could feel with nearly every frame the two were together.
It was cool to see Moana’s village as a seemingly progressive place, preparing her to be their eventual chief, barring her from nothing male characters did. The arc of her pushing her village to re-embrace their history was also something inspiring to watch. One of the things that really stood out for me about this film was that there was no romantic subtext floating around Moana’s character, we didn’t need the “she don’t need a man” plotting of Frozen, but were instead treated to a story focusing specifically on the strength of a young woman and her ability to inspire her people and to make even a demigod bend to her will.
In classic Disney fashion, this movie is more beautiful than those before it, visualizing things like water, and fire and hair in a way that would have been incomprehensible just a few decades ago. Action and movements were fluid, faces had a charm to them that reflected their actors, and subtle choices, like the animation of Maui’s tattoos, reminiscent of the Muses in Hercules, felt right and wonderful.
I bet you’re asking why I didn’t like this movie, right? Maybe these will feel like small grievances, but they are all things that took me out of the movie. First of all, the pacing felt off. This movie was only an hour and thirty-seven minutes or so long, yet it felt like it drug on at points and left me feeling bored in moments. The fluidity in the animation or the water the characters were sailing on did not translate over to the story and, for me, it felt like the narrative get starting and stopping, as if someone started to pump the breaks when things finally started to get going.
The second thing that bothered me will definitely sound dumb but these are my thoughts and you are allowed to disagree. The chicken sidekick, Heihei, apparently voiced by Alan Tudyk, was one of the worst decisions ever made. How many dumb chicken jokes did this movie need? They just kept going back to him being too dumb to efficiently function and thinking it was funny enough to warrant him being around. Disney has such a rich tradition of sidekicks, animal and otherwise, that I can’t comprehend why they would do something like this.
Think about the funny and effective non-speaking animal sidekicks of the past like Abu from Aladdin, Pegasus from Hercules, Pascal from Tangled, hell, I’d eve take Meeko & Flit from Pocahontas over Heihei. The chicken was a cheap joke that was funny the first time and effectively beaten to death. It’s even more infuriating when there was a perfectly adorable pig that we could have had on this journey.
The final things that took away from my enjoyment of Moana were the music and lyrics. Now let me clarify, the music in Moana is not bad and I think that “How Far I’ll Go” is a beautiful and inspiring song, but I found that most of the songs were not memorable, nor were they effectively integrated into the film at some points taking you out of the flow of the film. Of particular note, “Shiny” was another generic villain song that slowed the movie to a crawl, and while I loved Maui’s listing of all of his heroic deeds, I felt that The Rock’s delivery on “You’re Welcome” felt a bit stilted and awkward. For me, much of this comes down to the lyrics.
Before you attack me, Lin-Manuel Miranda is great lyricist and I love the complexity of how he layers the words, storytelling, and character motivations into each verse he writes, but I think it may be this same complexity which helps prevents many of the tracks in Moana from feeling natural to the characters that are singing.I also may need to see the film again, but I also felt like the movies seemed unsure of if it was a musical or not at various points, and I would make the argument that the story could have effectively been told with the removal of the musical numbers…
Before you attack me, Lin-Manuel Miranda is great lyricist and I love the complexity of how he layers the words, storytelling, and character motivations into each verse he writes, but I think it may be this same complexity which helps prevents many of the tracks in Moana from feeling natural to the characters that are singing. In a musical, it is important for the songs to line up with the dialogue a character may have when they aren’t singing so that the flow from song to dialogue is seamless. This doesn’t happen here and, in some ways, it feels like Miranda is writing for a different production than screenwriter Jared Bush.
It’s also interesting comparing this film with Zootopia from earlier in the year, which featured one song integrated into the story as if it were a piece of the world that we were experiencing. In many of these films, I find that approach more effective because it doesn’t take you out of the world and tell you “hang on to that thought, we have to do a number!” I may need to see the film again, but I felt like the movies seemed unsure of if it was a musical or not at various points, and I would make the argument that the story could have effectively been told with the removal of the musical numbers…
Especially this one…
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Released: December 16, 2016 | Director: Gareth Edwards
Synopsis: A suicide squad of sorts comes together to steal the plans for the Death Star in order to stop the universe from completely falling to the diabolical Galactic Empire.
Thoughts: I am so tired of writing and thinking, but, luckily for me, I already wrote a full review for this film (with spoilers!) that you can read here! But, to give you some quick thoughts, Rogue One is an exciting addition to the Star Wars universe, darker in tone than some of the other installments, trading the fantasy, swashbuckling feel of the original for the grittiness of trench warfare and espionage. Some of the characters were a bit undercooked, some “choices” were definitely ill-advised, and the story was stale. That said, no movie is perfect, but many fans of Star Wars, both old and new, can HOPEfully find something in this film to enjoy.
Released: December 25, 2016 | Director: Denzel Washington
Synopsis: A black father struggles with the times and the events of his life, forcing his family to struggle along with him.
Thoughts: Shortly before writing this, my mother turned to me and said, “I really enjoyed that movie we saw yesterday.” I keyed in on the word “enjoyed” and responded, “I don’t know if that’s a film you enjoy.”
Fences is a hard journey through the experiences of a family haunted time and time again by the words and actions of their patriarch. It is a tale of taking the good with the bad, pushing down the heartache and still finding something to love, forgiving those who hurt you by remembering the best parts of them. I don’t want to ruin the narrative, but you will cry, you may cry through the whole film like I did. You will probably walk out of the theater emotionally drained. I do not want to overhype this film, but it is a heavy watch that weighs greatly on the heart and soul. This film forces us to re-examine our fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters, and really get to what things, what torment, they hold inside and hide away from us.
Outside of the heaviness of this film, all of the performances were fantastic. Russell Hornsby brought the musically inclined sly talking Lyons to life, pulling everyone’s freeloading but well-meaning uncle into a character. Jovan Adepo played the family’s youngest son Cory in a subdued but realistic way, successfully navigating his little screen time to make his every appearance worthwhile and illuminating. Saniyya Sidney’s Raynell, though in the film for only its epilogue, helped to round out Cory and played a young girl not fully aware of everything that has transpired perfectly.
Two more nuanced performances came from Stephen Henderson and Mykelti Williamson, who played Jim Bono and Gabriel respectively. Bono was our moral compass for the film, often challenging Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson to think about all of the good in his life and to do right by his family. In many ways, Bono serves as a surrogate for the audience, his desire to “get home to Lucille” and escape the Maxson home channeling our discomfort with some of the things we hear from Troy or the interactions he has with his family.
Gabriel provides a better glimpse into who Troy is, rounding out his edges and giving us insight into some of the things that trouble and challenge Troy. Gabriel is a character who survived the war but was severely mentally scarred by the ordeal, now running around the streets chasing “hellhounds” and wielding a trumpet for when he needs to signal the archangel Gabriel to “open the gates.” Williamson breathes a life into this character and makes him feel real, his ramblings reminding me of my own family member who faces similar delusions.
Finally, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are absolutely stunning as Troy and Rose. Denzel is an immense actor and brings a terrifying realism to his portrayal of Troy, yet Viola Davis is there to challenge him, beat for beat. Their relationship is filled with subtleties and nuance, and as we go through the film we get the whole picture of how they complete each other and the give and take between them. This film gives both actors the room to unleash their talents fully and shows why they are two of the best in the business.
Fences is definitely a must see, but you have to be prepared to see it. It is intense, it cuts deep, it bruises, it will shake you.
So there it is, the last one! Did Doctor Strange cast a better spell on you than the crew from Fantastic Beasts? Was Moana more striking than I give it credit for? Did Rogue One scratch your Star Wars itch? How hard was it not to cry during Fences? Let me know your thoughts!