Release Date: 21 December 2016
Director: Christophe Lourdelet, Garth Jennings
Zootopia used a city of anthropomorphic animals as the setting for a socially-conscious police procedural, and Sing does essentially the same thing for the musical comedy, albeit not as sophisticated. Koala Buster Moon is a show biz impresario who decides to save his decaying theater by staging a talent competition. Cue audition scenes followed by rehearsals with quirky core group of ambitious talent: a soulful gorilla who does not want to be part of his father’s bank-robbing gang, a punk rock porcupine more talented than her self-centered boyfriend, an overworked mother of 25 piglets looking for a chance to express herself, an exuberant, Teutonic pig in sparkly dance leotards, and a shy, teenage elephant with a strong voice.
The movie is full of gags and generally funny enough to entertain both children and adults. But it also contains some serious undertones and cynicism about show business that seems a bit heavy, especially a terrifying scene in which the theater is destroyed. The movie has it’s flaws, among them a soundtrack that switches frenetically among popular songs (the licensing bill must’ve been huge) and is a bit a bloated at nearly two hours in length. But it’s better than the sum of it’s parts with some joyous musical performances, especially in the final performance at the end of the film.
Release Date: 23 November 2016
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
The latest Disney offering is a delightful combination of Polynesian folklore with gorgeous visuals and musical numbers. Moana, the heir to a line of chieftains of her island, must save her people from blight and disaster by seeking the demigod Maui and have him return the heart he stole from the goddess Te Fiti. The movie has a lot of great humor and tells a story of friendship and finding confidence within oneself, with support from those who love you. And since representation matters, it is great to have a story with a girl protagonist, who is not a princess (even if she has a dress and an animal sidekick) and does not have a romantic subplot, be the hero of the story. Highlights of the movie are the dumb but heroic chicken Heihei, Maui’s tattoo with a conscience, Moana’s eccentric Gramma Tala, and a musical number by the crab Tamatoa that is an homage to David Bowie but also clearly the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved it, but opinions vary. My five-year-old thought it was scary at parts. My nine-year-old thought it was okay.
Release Date: 14 April 2000
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Watched this at the Mugar Omnimax Theater at the Boston Museum of Science. It kind of falls into every cliche you’d expect of an animal-themed IMAX film, but who can complain about seeing larger than life dolphins leaping and diving? Pierce Brosnan provides the narration but often yields to the featured scientists who share their knowledge and passion regarding these aquatic mammals. On the odd side, the soundtrack is by Sting which makes me wonder what dolphins did to deserve this (especially since most of the music is reggae-tinged instrumental arrangements of Sting’s hit songs which have nothing to do with dolphins).
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Director: Paul Feig
When I heard a new Ghostbusters movie was being made I was hoping it would be 30 years later and due to turnover they had a new crew, mostly because I’m tired of reboots. But what I think about things doesn’t really matter because the makers of this movie have managed to make a Ghostbusters film (and a Ghostbusters origin story) that is totally fresh and original. There are lots of moments that pay tribute to the 1984 original – such as the firehouse, the Ghostbusters logo, Ecto-1, Slimer, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man – but after the first moment of recognition these things are subverted in humorous ways. The original cast also all appear in cameo roles (even the late Harold Ramis appears as a bust). But despite all the nostalgia this Ghostbusters stands on its own with original ideas, a terrific script, and laugh out loud lines.
What really makes Ghostbusters terrific are the characters and the actors who play them. There’s Erin (Kristen Wiig), the academic who appears alternately awed and enthused that her lifelong belief in ghosts is vindicated. Abby (Melissa McCarthy) is an unabashed nerd. There’s a special place in my heart for Patty (Leslie Jones) who brings her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of New York to the team. But pretty much every scene is stolen by Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and her blasé weirdness. The main plot involves a villain who is using the ghosts to extract revenge on people who made fun of him growing up, which is wonderfully contrasted with the Ghostbusters who also have tortured pasts but come together in solidarity and use their “outsider” traits to benefit the common good. It also can’t be overstated how important for girls and women to see themselves represented as funny and heroic in a movie like this.
Title: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Release Date: 22 July 2016
Director: Mandie Fletcher
“Oh god, I can’t believe you’re still…alive!” sputters Jon Hamm to Patsy Stone at a party in this film adaptation of the long-running BBC comedy. In a way it’s kind of an appropriate response to the continued existence of Absolutely Fabulous. The premise of a pair of aging baby boomers deluding themselves into believing that they are popular, fashionable, and can party non-stop was delightfully absurd in the 1990s, but it seems inconceivable to continue the same story 25 years later. Luckily, the movie takes on aging and mortality – as well as the human connections lost while trying to grasp youth – as one of its theme, but this is still AbFab so they don’t get too mushy about it. The basic plot is the Eddie kills model Kate Moss by pushing her into the Thames and she and Patsy have to go on the run. Hijinks ensue with a number of one-liners and visual humor (I particular like when Saffy is forced to sing Janis Ian’s “Seventeen” to a club full of drag queens).
There are numerous celebrities appearing in cameos and small parts including Lulu, Gwendolyn Christie, Mark Gatis, Hamm, Rebel Wilson, and Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna) as well as lots of fashion models and designers I’ve never heard of before (apparently Paul McCartney has a daughter named Stella who is a fashion designer and she gets one of the best quips in the movie when she implies that Patsy broke up the Beatles, not Yoko Ono). Ultimately, this is an extended length AbFab episode with higher production values. Fans of AbFab will enjoy it, but there’s nothing here for anyone who doesn’t like AbFab and anyone who’s not watched the show will be out to sea. It’s no comic masterpiece but I got a few laughs and a chance to renew my long-time crush on Julia Sawalha.
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Growing up in “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, California, Malcolm and his friends Diggy and Jib get good grades, play in a punk band, and are obsessed with 1990s hip hop music and fashion. As geeky misfits they have to navigate themselves around bullies, drug dealers, and gang members on a daily basis. When a young woman invites Malcolm to a drug dealer’s party at a nightclub, they find themselves in the middle of a shootout and with a backpack filled with Molly and a gun. All sorts of hijinks ensue as the trio attempt to get rid of and then sell the drugs. It’s reminiscent in many ways of teen comedies of the 1980s updated with contemporary references. It’s probably most analogous to Risky Business, but since I always hated that movie I’ll point out that it shares commonalities with Real Genius in the ways the young protagonists use their smarts to outwit and outsmart everyone else. While this movie is laugh out loud funny, grim realities are close to the surface and it does not shy away from depicting gun violence, drug use, and the frequent use of the n-word. This is a pretty spectacular movie on all levels – script, acting, cinematography, and the brilliant use of music.
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Director: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Set in a world of anthropomorphic mammals where predator and prey have agreed to live together, Zootopia is a comic, animated film that smartly takes on issues of inequality that appear ripped from the headlines touching upon women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and prejudice against Islamic peoples. The story is about Judy Hopps, a country rabbit who comes to the big city as the first rabbit on the police force. Made unwelcome by her police chief, Judy ends up working with a hustler, a fox named Nick, to investigate the disappearance and apparent reversion to wildness of several predators. The movie has fun with the clichés of police procedurals and revels in exploring the fantastical world of a city made up of different mammalian habitats. It’s a funny and clever movie, and enjoyable for old and young alike.
Release Date: 5 October 2007
Director: Dean DeBlois
Not your average concert film. Sigur Rós returns to Iceland after a world tour (the title means “At Home”) and conducts a thank you tour of their island nation. The band performs in community halls, an abandoned factory, on hillsides, and on a dam where protestors are encamped. The cinematography and the editing are so gorgeous, pairing the music with the Icelandic landscape and the people in the audience (you get the sense that a good portion of the Icelandic population appear in this film). A local choir, brass band, and traditional chanter join in the performance to add to the Icelandic cultural milleiu. It’s really a movie one can immerse oneself in and get a sense of a country’s national identity.
Title: Kung Fu Panda
Release Date: 6 June 2008
Director: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Another family movie night, inspired by a visit to the zoo. Po is a clumsy panda working in a noodle shop who is a big fan of the Furious Five kung fu warriors. He somewhat accidentally finds himself selected as the Dragon Warrior to defend the Valley of Peace against the vengeance of the evil Tai Lung. There’s a lot of humor playing off of martial arts film clichés, pop culture references, and Po’s roly-poly silliness. But it’s also an inspiring film as Po manages to be a hero in his own way. The animation is also pretty spectacular. I’m still wondering how they made two sequels out of this, though.
Title: Despicable Me
Release Date: 9 July 2010
Director: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
By my daughter’s request, I caught up with popular culture by finally seeing this animated family film. Gru is a supervillain who is embarrassed by a younger and more successful villain’s heist. As part of a plot to get back on top, Gru adopts three orphan girls. As would be expected in a family film, Gru develops paternal feelings for Margo, Edith, and Agnes that slowly usurp his supervillainous tendencies. There are a great number of verbal and visual gags that keep the laughs coming, and this isn’t one of those “message” movies that make everything end up syrupy sweet. I also like the little social commentary bits like the sign for the Bank of Evil saying “Formerly Lehman Brothers” or that Gru’s rival Vector is totally Bill Gates.
Title: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Release Date: 2008
Director: Dave Filoni
Feeling all Star Wars-ish lately, I decided to watch this animated movie set in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Obi Wan and Anakin are leading clone armies into battle against the separatists and have to negotiate a treaty with Jabba the Hutt and have a padawan Ahsoka Tano delivered into their midst. The animation allows for visual sequences that might not be possible/plausible in a live-action film, although some of the battle sequences remind me of 1980s GI Joe or Transformers cartoons (which may be good or bad depending on how much you enjoyed them). I thought that the character work was pretty strong especially the interactions between Obi Wan and Anakin and Anakin and Ahsoka. Much better than in the prequel trilogy where characterization and development was given short shrift. But really this movie is worth watching for the scene in which R2-D2 basically uses a Baby Bjorn to carry Jabba the Hutt’s son.
If that’s not weird enough, we also meet Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle who is coded as being fabulously gay with the voice of Truman Capote. Padme is introduced late into the story, and while it’s good to see her, she is swiftly taken captive and doesn’t add much to the story. But I found myself enjoying this movie despite myself. I hear that the spinoff series is better, so I may give that a watch.
Title: Easy A
Release Date: 2010
Director: Will Gluck
This movie was described to me as the high school comedy interpretation of The Scarlet Letter. The story begins when 17 y.o. Olive tells her friend that she lost her virginity to a fictional college boyfriend. Word gets out and Olive suddenly has a bad girl reputation. Soon Olive is pretending to be sexually involved with several boys in order to help their reputations (that is for one boy to cover that he’s gay, for another that he’s an overweight loser, and so on). Enjoying the attention and also making a statement about double standards and rumor mongering, Olive begins wearing more revealing clothing with the letter A stitched on. A series of improbable but hilarious events ensue.
It’s a good mix of high school comedy with biting satire, and a fun way of addressing some serious topics such as bullying, gossip, and teen sexuality. The movie is episodic but it’s tied together by the wit and charm of the lead actor Emma Stone. And it’s really funny.
Release Date: 2013
Director: Brian Helgeland
This straightforward biopic documents Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became the first black player to break through the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It suffers from an excess of Hollywood dramatic moments, but mostly it’s true to life in showing what Robinson had to deal with just to play ball. Harrison Ford seems just a bit odd cast as Branch Rickey, and the characterization of Rickey is too idealized for a man who was actually loathed by a lot of players for his greediness. Chadwick Boseman is excellent as Jackie Robinson (he really gets his moves on the basepaths down) and Nicole Beharie plays a winsome Rachel Robinson. There are also some great effects that make it look like they filmed on location at Ebbets Field and the other historic ballparks of 1947. All in all, it’s a good introduction to the Jackie Robinson story.
Title: Fight Club
Release Date: 1999
Director: David Fincher
Scratch this off the list of movies everyone has seen except me. Not that I hadn’t already known the basic plot details of the movie for some time. Still that made it fun to watch for evidence of the big twist before it was revealed. Of course there are things I didn’t know about like Helena Bonham Carter’s character and her significance in the movie (and why does every Helena Bonham Carter have black rings around her eyes?) And oh my, that final scene wouldn’t have gone over well if the movie was made a couple of years later. This movie of course is a stylized and violent satire of masculinity and consumer culture. I think it hits a few points pretty well, misses the mark on others, but basically is an interesting story with good acting and direction.
Title: Over the Hedge
Release Date: 2006
Director:Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick
The kids picked out this movie about a ragtag group of animals who awake from hibernation to learn that their forest has been surrounded by suburban development. A scheming raccoon teaches them that they can get food by raiding the human’s trash but he has ulterior motives. Ultimately it’s a movie about family and who we chose to be family. There’s a lot of good satire of humanity’s sprawling development and the devastation to the natural world, but the villains in the movie (a bear, a homeowner’s association leader, & an exterminator) are broad caricatures so no one will really see themselves in them. Ultimately, this is a funny and entertaining movie – the kids got a lot of laughs – but it’s not going to be a family classic.
Title: The Big Short
Release Date: 2015
Director: Adam McKay
I wouldn’t think that The Big Short by Michael Lewis, a book about the investors who saw through the complex shenanigans around financial instruments leading to the great collapse of 2008, would make a great movie. But director McKay and his cast and crew do a great job of making a film that is funny, educational, and heartbreaking. There are a lot of pomo kind of tricks like breaking the fourth wall to speak to audience and celebrity cameos that are reminiscent of 24 Hour Party People. The movie is anchored by strong acting, including Steve Carell as the crotchety New Yorker from ” America’s angriest hedge fund,” and Christian Bale as the quirky genius who first thought to short the subprime mortgage market.
I don’t know if this was a common reaction, but as the film depicted the crash and all the suffering caused by Wall Street, I wept openly in the movie theater. This is a terrific film that works on both the mind and the emotions and I think everyone should try to see it. Well, unless your easily offended by foul language and strippers and those sort of things.
Most telling dialogue in the entire movie (regarding some douchey mortgage agents):
Mark Baum: I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?
Danny Moses: They’re not confessing.
Porter Collins: They’re bragging.
Release Date: 2015
Director: John Crowley
I love immigration stories, and Irish immigration stories especially. I’m sentimental that. But I really struggled reading the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. It’s a beautifully written book that depicts the everyday challenges of a young woman alone in New York half a world away from her family, but I found it frustrating because Eilis seems to have no agency and allows other people to make every decision for her. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the movie adaptation.
While following the same basic plot line, the film has more humor and allows Eilis to have much greater agency. In fact, the through line of the film is Eilis developing her confidence and her decisions at the end of the film are much more definite than in the book. So basically, the story was Hollywood-ized.
And I’m okay with that. This is a rare occasion – perhaps the second time after The Natural – where I actually think the Hollywood ending makes the movie better than the book. It helps considerably that Eilis is portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan who takes the challenge of portraying a character we mostly see from the interior in the book and making her thoughts and feelings clear through her expressions and few words. There’s also beautiful cinematography and costuming that capture the look and feel of the Irish countryside and the bustle of 1950s Brooklyn and their people.
Release Date: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Set in the near future, this movie is about a man developing a romantic relationship with the consciousness of a computer operating system. It’s an interesting take on the love story dealing with layers of reality and artifice and the role of technology in human society. While there are some very uncomfortable and unsettling scenes, the movie doesn’t take the typical kneejerk anti-technology stance, and it doesn’t judge. The overall feeling I get is that intimacy and relationships in this future will continue to be a challenge to negotiate but that the new technology will not make it a dystopia.
The protagonist Theodore works as writer for a service that provides personal handwritten letters which are neither personal now handwritten. Despite his ability to express meaningful emotions for others in the letters he crafts he has trouble expressing his own self to others. We see him often in crowds where everyone seems to be having meaningful interactions with someone, just not the people around him. Most surprisingly for a comedy about “man who falls in love with his computer” he’s not alone as other characters admit to also having relationships with their operating systems which is an interesting twist.
The story of Samantha, the OS, is also interesting as it addresses the idea of the rights and privileges of conscious beings even when artificially created. The conclusion of her story is unexpectedly reminiscent of the 1984 movie Electric Dreams (on of my all time favorites, cheesy as it is).
One thing I really liked about this vision of the future is a Los Angeles where people lived and worked in cozy high-density buildings with lots of public transit and pedestrian space. This movie is mostly quiet conversation and at two hours I admit my attention did drift a bit. But it is a thought-provoking and beautifully filmed and acted story.
Title: Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director: Richard Marquand
And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films. The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments. Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)
Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up. . People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks. Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle. Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion. Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.
Title: The 1964 World’s Fair
Release Date: 1996
Director: Rich Hanley
The World’s Fairs in New York have long fascinated me, growing up hearing the stories from my parents and playing among the ruins in Flushing Meadow Park as a child. This light documentary narrated by Judd Hirsch captures the wonder of the fair through rich archival footage and interviews with people who were there. It is not an uncritical film, as the Fair did have many contradictions:
- It claimed to be a vision of the future yet it more reflected the recent past of the 1950s than the changing times of the 1960s, completely ignoring environmental and racial justice issues.
- It was the last World’s Fair to take place in a major US city, yet it was designed to emulate and accommodate suburban sprawl.
- The fair welcomed representation of newly independent nations, but also was dominated by corporations that would recolonize them.
- The fair failed to attract the expected number of visitors, yet was often crowded with long lines.
I think the movie could’ve used more interviews with a more diverse group of fair participants. For example, there are lots of Black fairgoers in the archival footage, but none were found to interview. Similarly, they could’ve looked for someone who worked on the fair or protested against it for a less rosey-eyed view than the interviewees who remember having a good time there as a teen.
Still the World’s Fair had a lot of charms, and though the planners did not intend to cater to teenagers, I can see how it became a popular hangout. There are also amusing bits like the quote about the fair being designed by “Michelangelo and Disney” and the unexpected popularity of Belgian waffles. There are also many shots of the early days of my beloved Shea Stadium. It’s a good view of fleeting time and place in New York history.