Saturday, September 24, 2016

OVP: Brother Bear (2003)

Film: Brother Bear (2003)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Suarez, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Jason Raize
Director: Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Animated Feature)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

It's hard to remember this right now, but in the mid-Aughts the Disney brand was suffering pretty severely.  Competition in the animated sector, after a gigantic monopoly of quality entertainment in the 1990's, was fierce.  Dreamworks had the Shrek franchise blasting through record-after-record, and Disney's kid sister Pixar had officially usurped it as the coolest kid on the block.  In fact, from 2004-2007, Disney had three consecutive films fail to land in the Animated Feature Oscar race, the only time since the category's inception that that has happened.  The film directly preceding this drought, Brother Bear, I remember thinking only made it at the time due to a complete dearth of competitors-2003 was arguably the thinnest year for animated contenders I've seen since the Oscars created a category for this sub-genre.  That being said, a nomination is a nomination, and we have an OVP to consider, so during my recent vacation, I set about finally seeing the flick.

(Spoilers Ahead) The thing to remember about Disney in this era is that they were slowly moving out of the animated films that had made them so much money (mimicking Dreamworks and Pixar), but hadn't entirely abandoned it.  So there are songs a-few in this film, perhaps trying to gun for an Oscar nomination in the aural categories as well (they failed there, even with Tina Turner and Phil Collins providing vocals to original ditties), but that isn't the central focus.  Here the central focus is on Kenai (Phoenix, and I will admit fully I had no idea he was providing the vocal track until I read it earlier this morning), a young Inuit man who is upset about his totem (he gets the bear of love), and then goes off and needlessly attacks and kills a bear.  In the process of killing the bear, however, his eldest brother dies and Kenai is transformed into a bear (because, you know, Disney), and has to learn to walk in the shoes of another before the spell can be broken.

The film is pretty indicative of where Disney went wrong post about Mulan.  The films of this era couldn't find the right balance between classic and modernizing, a blend I'm still not 100% certain they've really achieved (note that we don't have Rapunzel or The White Queen, but instead Tangled and Frozen), but they've definitely come closer to accomplishing.  The film has darker moments, the ones that sort of catapulted Disney to high-brow, but they feel much less mindful than the sacrifices of Mufasa or Bambi's mother in the past, as Kenai's older brother is basically alive as a spirit for most of the movie, becoming more of a Grandmother Willow situation than anything else.  The film has a strong message, and it shouldn't be completely discarded, but the movie itself has too many side characters that just seem strange and have comedy that relies on accents and not really on actual jokes (Moranis and Thomas, both quintessentially Canadian comedians, voice moose that take on the bulk of comic relief).  There's clearly a racial metaphor at work here as well, but it feels too obvious at times, and there's not enough actual character focus on Kenai (what does he do other than be a cocky blowhard prior to becoming a bear?).  All in all, it's a pretty blasé entry from Disney, and even if it looks like the sort of film that made the studio successful, it never remotely hits the level of great that we'd come to expect during that era.

Those are my thoughts on a long-forgotten entry in the Disney canon-how about yours?  Am I underestimating this film, or do you agree that this got nominated sheerly out of a lack of obvious contenders?  Are any of the subsequent Disney films (Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons) worth looking into or should I just leave these where they lay?  The comments are below for you to let me know!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Emmy Predictions: The Comedies

We continue on from yesterday with a look at this year's Emmy Awards.  Tuesday we went through all of the Drama predictions (spoiler alert: Game of Thrones does well), but today it's all about making us laugh, and honestly, I'm a little bit wondering if we might see the ends of some streaks, as even the Emmy Awards have their limits on how often you can win a trophy.  Let's head right into the categories, shall we?

Best Comedy Series

Master of None
Modern Family
Silicon Valley
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The Lowdown: Last year, after five consecutive victories for Modern Family, Veep finally found a way into the conversation, thus stopping MF from making Emmy history.  With there finally being a show to focus on in a battle between the two series, I suspect that win repeats; part of why Modern Family kept winning (my theory, at least) is it was with a plurality, but no other show really screamed "Best Series!" in a way that felt obvious so it won with probably 35-40% of the vote.  Even new nominees Black-ish and Master of None seem like they're more here because there's not a lot of standout comedy on television these days rather than out of "we must honor this!"  As a result, expect Veep to win a second term (I'm sorry, I had to do it at least once).

Best Actor in a Comedy Series

Anthony Anderson, Black-ish
Aziz Ansari, Master of None
Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth
William H. Macy, Shameless
Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

The Lowdown: Yikes.  Anyone else think this looks pretty weak?  I honestly hadn't really thought about the sorry state of comedy on television (mostly because I tend to think TV has hit a bit of a nadir compared to the previous decade in general), but man if you take drama out of the equation this becomes even more problematic.  I think that Tambor is probably going to win a second trophy since that feels like the right answer, but I wouldn't be stunned if Anderson or even William H. Macy (whose never won for this role) managed a mild surprise.  Still, with the Best Series citation it's likely going to be Tambor.

Best Actress in a Comedy Series

Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Laurie Metcalf, Getting On
Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie

The Lowdown: Not remembering who the nominees were, I kind of thought I'd go for an upset here and dethrone Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  I mean, after all, she's won five Emmys in this category, including the last four for Veep, but looking at these nominees it seems hard to imagine anyone getting it over an Emmy titan like JLD.  None of the returning nominees seem to have had the same impact this season, and the new nominees all got in based on a weak field.  I might buy an argument for Tomlin or Metcalf, both of whom are big enough Emmy favorites that they could rival Louis-Dreyfus on that front, but not for such underseen shows.  Props once again go to Selina Meyer.

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

Louise Anderson, Baskets
Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Tony Hale, Veep
Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele
Matt Walsh, Veep

The Lowdown: Honestly, this may be the first Emmy race we've encountered where I genuinely have no idea.  Let's walk it back: Key, Walsh, and Braugher all seem to be here mostly out of love of show or name, but aren't actually a threat.  Part of me wonders in a seven-wide field, where the bar will be lower, if Ty Burrell is still an option, but I'm going to count him out as well.  That leaves Hale, who has won this twice, against the newcomers Burgess and Anderson.  I know the smart money is on Anderson, a longtime stalwart who got nominated somewhat out of nowhere, but will the Emmy voters go for a show that most hadn't even heard of prior to the nominations announcement?  My guess is no, and so I'm going with another trophy for Hale, who has a fantastic submission episode (if those still matter, he'll win).

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Anna Chlumsky, Veep
Gaby Hoffmann, Transparent
Allison Janney, Mom
Judith Light, Transparent
Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live
Niecy Nash, Getting On

The Lowdown: Part of me wonders if McKinnon might do what no other SNL cast member seems capable of lately-winning in this category, if only for the Television Academy to get tacitly political (you just know she'd get out an "I hope I get to keep playing this part after November" to thunderous applause).  Part of me wonders if the Academy will realize that Judith Light hasn't won since her days as Karen Wolek on One Life to Live, and give her another trophy.  And part of me wonders if Anna Chlumsky is just doomed to be nominated again and again without ever taking that trophy.  But most of me wonders whether it will be Hale, Louis-Dreyfus, Tambor, or Allison Janney that makes the "let's mix it up a little" joke in the press room after winning yet another statue.

And there we go-we'll head into Miniseries tomorrow, but I have to say I'm a little disappointed.  I anticipated being adventurous (and still feel like Hale is vulnerable), but went with a full repeat of last year's winners.  Do you think there's any upset potential?  Anyone in particular you're hoping will take it?  Share in the comments below!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Emmy Predictions: The Dramas

Egads!  The Emmys are this weekend, and we're actually already done with a bunch of the categories already (well done, Game of Thrones, and kudos to Amy Poehler even though I'm a little concerned about the precedence you set by co-winning for no apparent reason with Tina Fey).  Though I don't talk about television quite as much on this blog as I do film and politics, I do partake quite a bit, and wanted to be on the record over who I think is taking home the golden lady this Sunday.  Let's start with the dramas, shall we?

Best Drama Series

The Americans
Better Call Saul
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mr. Robot

The Lowdown: First off, as I just mentioned, I don't watch as much TV as I do movies, so I am a little surprised (in a genuine, and not sarcastic) way that Homeland is still on the air-I thought that it had already ended.  As I have enough confidence in my predicting abilities to think that I would have heard of the winning show, I'll desist in predicting that series.

Honestly, this feels like a battle between last year's victor Game of Thrones and one of the uncrowned in the form of The Americans and I, Robot.  Both shows have been critically hosanna'd and it's nice to see them in the race, but Game of Thrones already took a bushel of Creative Arts Emmys, and won last year at an awards ceremony that loves to see shows repeat and repeat and repeat.  Expect the most popular drama of this bunch to take the throne once more.

Best Actor in a Drama Series

Kyle Chandler, Bloodline
Rami Malek, Mr. Robot
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

The Lowdown: While some of these men have won Emmy Awards previously, they have never been successful for these shows, as the last couple of years have produced actors who are on now cancelled programs (Jeff Daniels, Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm).  Part of me thinks that they will simply go with Kevin Spacey, who has to have been in the running previously and probably would have won at the House of Cards heyday had Bryan Cranston not been consistently cleaning up, but that show is so played out at this point and they're not wild about giving someone a trophy toward the end of their run even if they have long-nominated you (just ask Jane Kaczmarek and Steve Carell).  As a result, I'm going with the new kid on the block Rami Malek, being the representative from I, Robot who gets onstage.

Best Actress in a Drama Series

Claire Danes, Homeland
Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder
Taraji P. Henson, Empire
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
Keri Russell, The Americans
Robin Wright, House of Cards

The Lowdown: First off, congratulations to Keri Russell, the only woman in this bunch who isn't a rerun of the 2015 nominees (considering her long television career, this feels like a great addition to the "Emmy-nominated" club).  Here we do have the previous year's victor in the form of Viola Davis, and because the Emmys are oftentimes renewing contenders, I wonder if she might just do it again (and it would be a nice nod to the broadcast networks, who still foot the bill for the show and probably want to be honored somewhere).  Plus, the ceremony's on ABC this year.  I think her biggest competition is Robin Wright, who like Spacey has never won and apparently had a big season this year.  I'm going to guess that Wright just pulls it off because they'll want to mix it up a little bit (HTGAWM having just an okay second season), but if Davis wins again I wouldn't be remotely surprised.

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Kit Harington, Game of Thrones
Michael Kelly, House of Cards
Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan

The Lowdown: I will admit that of all of the acting categories at the Emmy Awards each year (much like the Oscars), the category I find least interesting is Supporting Actor.  It's usually just a roster of the same men, every single year, and the same set of shows, and that's a repeat again this year as all but one of this year's nominees (Kit Harington) is present for the first time.  Last year's victor Peter Dinklage could show up again in what looks to be a predictable bunch, but I think it's a battle between Jonathan Banks and newcomer Harington, who had an impressive story arch for a guy who started the season dead.  Last year I got burned for going with Banks, so I'm switching it up this year and guessing Harington will be part of a major Game of Thrones award stampede.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Maura Tierney, The Affair
Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones
Constance Zimmer, UnReal

The Lowdown: First off-congrats to the new names on this list (Williams and Zimmer being particularly surprising), as that's always tough for Emmy to pull off; they didn't even go with last year's victorious Uzo Aduba, meaning that we're guaranteed to have a newcomer...well, at least not a repeat as Maggie Smith has been a winner here before and sentiment could demand she take it again. However, as Smith is very unlikely to show up (she hasn't been to an American awards show since she was up for Gosford Park fourteen years ago), I think this is Headey's.  She's had a commanding story arch for a few years now (many figured she'd win last year), she's the most "actorly" choice on Game of Thrones (give or take Dinklage), and Emmy will probably want to have crowned her at least once.  Smith's my backup, but I'm thinking Cersei takes it.

Those are my guesses-we'll get into Comedy tomorrow, but in the meantime share your guesses (and hopes) in the drama categories for Sunday!

Complete Unknown (2016)

Film: Complete Unknown (2016)
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, Danny Glover
Director: Joshua Marston
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

I've probably mentioned this a few times before, but Rachel Weisz has slowly become one of my favorite actresses at the movies (currently).  This is a weird evolution for me, as I have always liked her (I enjoyed her work even as early as The Mummy), but when she transitioned into the role of mainstream "serious" actress in 2005's The Constant Gardener, it caught me by surprise.  I felt a kind of pride for being a fan early on even if it felt like a one-time thing, but in the years since Weisz used her Oscar trophy less for franchise paycheck work like so many supporting players thrust into the spotlight (give or take Oz: The Great and Powerful), and instead used her newfound crossover fame to make a series of complicated, occasionally successful, movies where she mines the inner-workings of a deeply damaged woman, the best being The Deep Blue Sea, which in my opinion should have won her a second Oscar.  Looking at human beings and the elasticity of their emotions, along with the deep damage brought on by loneliness, is one of my favorite ideas at the movies, and as a result seeing Complete Unknown was a no-brainer for me: favorite actress combined with a topic I was interested in, even with almost no press it felt like the right decision.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film itself is a unique and brilliant idea, in my opinion.  The film follows Alice (Weisz), known by a number of different names in the film but we'll stick with Alice for now, as she encounters a man from her past named Tom (Shannon), who knew her back during her "first life."  She eventually, through a series of deep depressions or whatever would make a person do such a thing, gives up on her current identity and adopts an entirely new one, one where she is a completely different person she creates largely from thin air.  The film is fascinating in the way this unfolds, first getting initial reaction from Tom's friends, who are not interested in her for this reason, and then from Tom, who remembers the girl he fell in love with, perhaps the great love of his life, and as his birthday proceeds, we get a very interesting look at what it takes for Alice to essentially abandon all meaningful human interactions with people and forego lasting relationships in order to completely immerse herself in the different identities she keeps creating for herself.

The film is not a success, it's worth noting, if we're looking at the mile-high vantage.  The final third of the film doesn't really know how to end this story, with Marston stuck between wanting Tom to continue on with Alice, who has been so deeply shaken by her past for so many years and may want to quit but doesn't know how, and him returning to the humdrum of his regular life.  It hurts the film that we never really feel invested in any aspect of Tom other than his relationship with Alice.  His strange gender politicking with his wife, his stalling career, and the crises of middle age and realizing you've hit a "point of no return" on select dreams are all there, but they don't really come across because the side characters are underwritten and because we don't get enough background on Tom to really care, particularly with Alice in the picture.  In that way, the film fails.

But the acting is too good and the story too fascinating not to hold your complete attention.  Alice is really interesting, especially the way that Weisz draws her, and you're left wanting more and more, which may be the point; Alice cannot handle the pressures that society has thrown at her, and cannot deal with the fact that she dropped out so she abandons all of the pleasures of long-standing relationships in favor of a life where she doesn't have to deal with disappointment or hurt again, at least not in a traditional way.  Her going to Tom, the last person who "really knew her" is stunning because it's certainly her last chance at a normal life, and she has to throw it away by the end of the film because she's gone too far, and is too deep into this series of double lives to ever really be able to escape.  Weisz is so good at this type of role, and it works, and even if the film isn't very strong it's one of those rare cases where I'm so compelled by the plotting and the acting that it's kind of hard to care. It's the sort of movie I'd recommend to only the most cerebral and film-involved of my friends, but it's one that I would have to recommend even though I'm not convinced it's actually a good movie, so we'll go with three stars.

Those are my thoughts-this movie made very little money (I saw it on opening night in my theater and it was practically empty), so my gut says very few people actually caught it.  If you did, please discuss as I am dying to get a second opinion or a conversation going here as I found it a conundrum. Share below!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ranting On...the DFL's Foolish Play Against Trump/Pence

I am mad.  About a lot of things after the past weekend  And we'll be focusing on a couple of those things in the next few days (and we already tackled one of them, which became even more ludicrous this weekend).  But right now I need to get something off of my chest about my own team: the MN DFL, who is doing something ridiculously stupid that's 100% guaranteed to be a waste of time and receive an appropriate backlash.

For those who don't know, the MN DFL and Chairman Ken Martin has moved to remove Trump/Pence from the ballot in the upcoming presidential race.  You heard me right-they want to take the Republican ticket off of the ballot, claiming that the Secretary of State violated state election law by allowing Trump/Pence on the ticket since they chose their electors via executive committee rather than via a state convention.  That's it-the only reason that we are going to war over something like this is a matter of essentially semantics, as the executive committee had to correct a mistake made by the MN GOP by not following the minutia of the law.

I have several problems with this, but before I get there, I want to insulate myself a little bit here by proclaiming loud-and-proud that I am a strong backer of the MN DFL at the ballot box.  I've never voted for a Republican in a partisan election, and that streak will continue into this November.  So I don't want to hear any "DINO" or "secret Republican" sorts of attacks.  I've door-knocked, phone-rang, and pamphlet-dropped all over this state for a variety of candidates, and will probably doing the same in the next couple of weeks.  What makes me mad here is because this is bad politics, and because it's also taking away resources from us actually winning races.

Because that's what this is-bad politics-and I don't buy for one second that the state chair "had" to do this to make the process fairer.  The reality is that the MN Supreme Court, regardless of whether Trump and the MN GOP didn't fulfill their requirements under the law (it seems pretty obvious that that's the case), should be given a spot on the ballot at the risk of disenfranchising thousands and thousands of people.  In 2012, 45% of the state's ballots were cast for the Republican ticket; in 2008 it was 44% and in 2004 it was 48%.  While never a majority (no Republican has won the state of Minnesota since 1972 on a presidential level), a significant amount of the electorate has wanted to vote for the Republican ticket in the Gopher State as long as the party has been a major party.  That's how it should continue to be.

Now, Martin could have challenged the electors, stating that they were not legally selected and that they need to be decided at a state convention that was to be convened on the GOP's dime.  That would have met the idea of "try to take down your opponent" a bit, but to go to the top of the hill, trying to disenfranchise over a million people, is both stupid and wrong.  The courts aren't going to side with the DFL here.  They'll go with the idea that the Republicans, one of the two major parties in the country, are required to have their candidate on the ballot by virtue of getting 45% in the previous election.  They might chastise Trump/Pence a bit, but at the end of the day they aren't going to alienate so many voters, nor should they.  As Democrats, we should not be supporting a policy that makes it harder for people to vote, even if that means that they are voting for a Republican.  This is where principles come into play.  If we are to win, we should do so by convincing the Republicans to come to our side or by convincing people who wouldn't have voted to get out and vote for our team.  It's not by taking away the Republicans' spot on the ballot.

So it's a court case that we are destined to win, and one that most people will see as a purely partisan grab and may want to send a message to the DFL that it's wrong to play politics in such a way.  Minnesotans, especially the rural and swing voters we need to keep holds on majorities, don't like this sort of blatant political grab, and may be turned off by the DFL.  So we aren't gaining any tactical advantage over the GOP and we look petty in the process.

The reality is that every second and dime we waste on this endeavor is money that we should be spending on getting Hillary Clinton votes across the state, ensuring she wins our ten electoral ballots.  It should be spent on helping Rick Nolan, Angie Craig, and Terri Bonoff win their House elections.  It should be spent on taking back the State House and holding the State Senate, so that the final two years of Gov. Dayton's tenure can be as productive as possible.  Just because Hillary Clinton looks likely to win the state doesn't mean it's a guarantee, and certainly doesn't mean there aren't races in the state that will be decided by 1-2 percentage points, races where this lawsuit money could be better spent.  Martin should be focusing all of his attentions on November 8th, and how to take down Trump and the GOP through good old-fashioned voters, not by a quixotic quest in the courts.

OVP: Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Film: Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Stars: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Walker, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell
Director: Clint Eastwood
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I've been thinking this weekend a lot about Clint Eastwood.  Later this week we'll be doing a post as a tribute to him and his latest accomplishment (Sully, which I'm still on the fence about seeing but will probably succumb to later this week if I'm on vacation and I feel like I need to get out and catch a movie).  That being said, today the thinking about Eastwood is, because of this vacation and wanting a fresh batch of Netflix discs to bring with me on the plane, quite present to something I'm actually experiencing as I am attempting to see in the same day Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima as I move steadily through the remaining 2006 Oscar Viewing Project titles (wait-you're curious where the writeups for 2007 and 2014 are when I've got 2006 nearly wrapped up?  I'm getting there-and also you're mean).  Anyway, let's dive into this as it ain't gonna be pretty as you can clearly see from the ranking.

(Spoilers Ahead) I'm not entirely sure what it was in 2006 that kept me from seeing this film.  I know for Letters I actually relented because I was going to be doing my film reviews for the Oscars (I was a writer on my school paper at the time), but the projector at the movie theater burned out and so I somehow managed to miss seeing the most recent Best Picture I have yet to see.  But Flags, I'm not sure.  I was in the heat of seeing at least one movie a week, and on-paper it had a lot of things that appealed to me: prestige topic, cute guys, Oscar buzz.  But I'm guessing that was around the time that my eye-rolling toward Clint Eastwood's pictures hit its zenith which kept me on-the-fence about spending my very limited resources on such a film.

In the years preceding and in a couple of years since, I've had some about-faces on Eastwood's works, even some that I disliked at the time, but I am not what you'd call an obvious fan.  I like Eastwood just fine as an actor and I'm pretty much over what some of his political standings are (I think with entertainers you largely have to dismiss those that you disagree with and be lucky when there's ones you actually share political beliefs with, as it gets too arduous to always find those who vote the same way you do), but his directorial style always feels a bit hackneyed.  I've been scared for years to revisit something like Unforgiven, which I still think is his only unqualified masterpiece for fear that the years of under-edited biopics will have dulled my love of it, but while there are moments in his other films that have been strong (and I have high hopes for Letters), that western opus is his only truly great picture.

Flags indulges the things that I hate most about Eastwood's movies.  The camerawork, even in scenes of broad daylight, are coated in a rough darkness that is hard to watch and practically makes you squint (I shouldn't have to put on my glasses if your film doesn't have subtitles).  The characters are drawn in such broad strokes that morality can never really be a factor-who can cheer against even the worst of these men?  The battle scenes are compelling, but nothing we haven't seen in hundreds of other movies and quite frankly nothing here approaches what Spielberg was able to accomplish in Saving Private Ryan.  The film is at least twenty minutes too long, and doesn't establish any of the side characters enough, which is a pity considering he went to the point of hiring people who can, you know, actually act like Melanie Lynskey, Benjamin Walker, and Jamie Bell.

It's also a pity because what is usually the saving grace of an Eastwood picture, his role as a true actor's director, isn't found here as the acting is miserably bad.  While others in his films have had his directorial indulgences, they've been saved by world-class talent like Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and even Eastwood himself coming in and finding the humanity that he's attempting to achieve.  Here, though, the three male leads are all abysmal.  Jesse Bradford probably comes across the best since he  can find some charm in his character.  Ryan Phillippe, then still a relatively hot commodity, looks pretty but has nothing else but vacant emoting to contribute to the conversation (and what was with all of the guys getting half-naked and wrestling at the end of the film, as if Eastwood thought a nod to the hotness of his cast was going to save him from lusty critics).  Worst of all is Adam Beach, giving some of the worst acting I've seen in a major motion picture in a while.  Beach overplays every scene, badly, finding nothing but a hollowness in what is clearly the most interesting character in the film on-paper.  Beach has always had trouble with finding subtleties in his character (I know this from seeing pretty much every SVU he's ever starred in), but this is horrendously bad.  If there was any hope of saving this movie through acting, Eastwood cast the wrong guys in the lead.

All-iin-all, then, it was just an abysmal movie.  It scored two gimme nominations for the Oscars (the two sound categories), and while that is an understandable nomination, it isn't really necessary.  Even here the sounds aren't as clean as you'd expect from a war film (especially in the crowd scenes not on the battlefield), the music carries you in-and-out with too much regularity, and there's nothing special to warrant Oscar attention other than the Oscar-winner whose name is on the director's chair.  A pow is a pow is a pow, as it were.  I get it, but since the Academy was already headed toward Letters, was there really a need to go here too?  Well I'll find out in about twenty minutes when I start that picture.  In the meantime, share your thoughts-what did you think of Flags of Our Fathers?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Film: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)
Stars: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, JK Simmons, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Kate Hudson
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni
Oscar History: The first two installments both nabbed Best Animated Feature nominations-it's a fierce year, but could it go 3/3?
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

I actually reread a couple of old reviews of mine before deciding to tackle this installment of the Dreamworks' series Kung Fu Panda just to get a sense of the previous films.  Dreamworks (foolishly, in my opinion), decided to go with a Pixar-level tactic of waiting five years to come out with a new installment to one of their quintessential film franchises, hoping that overall devotion to the series could carry that long.  Considering the gross for the film was down over $100 million from the previous installment, this was probably a foolish decision (Dreamworks Animation has made several of those in the past decade), but I was also curious to read reviews because of my memory of the first two films.  I am not a fan of this animation house-despite 32 feature films, most of which I've seen, I have only really liked three of the movies they've produced, two of which of are in this series (the other being the first How to Train Your Dragon).  Revisiting what may well be the final film in the trilogy (at least I'm hoping that's the case considering how it closes) felt like a weird rush for a trio of films I initially wrote off before actually watching them and being impressed.

(Spoilers Ahead) I think there's a few reasons to really enjoy the Kung Fu Panda pictures, but one of the chief ones is that they're genuinely funny.  Jack Black is an actor of somewhat limited means, but he's a compelling onscreen presence and when he finds a role that suits him, like Po, he nails it against the wall.  Po is hilarious, albeit a character whose eventual journey to being the Dragon Master is a bit hard to follow if you hadn't immediately seen the two previous films.  I never quite know what the rules are for sequels in rehashing "scenes from the previous episode," but I will say that I felt a little lost for the first fifteen minutes or so trying to remember what had happened in the previous episode, and specifically if JK Simmons' Kai (an evil yak, because of course), was a new villain or a villain from a previous installment that I'd just misplaced in my memory.  He was, in fact, new, though here I feel like the franchise dropped the ball a bit, as no one was going to live up to Gary Oldman's evil peacock from the second installment of the series (that was a joyous creation).

The film does succeed in a number of great visual gags, though.  The fights here are some of the best I've seen in the series, and truly marvelous to behold.  The film also does a good job of balancing Po's increasing seriousness with his natural comic persona (this is, after all, still a children's movie and never had the gravitas to be able to pull off what Pixar did during it's 2007-10 Golden Age)-the scene where Po must decide whether to return to the mortal realm or not is one where the adults get what he's deciding, but for the kids it still has the playfulness where it's a panda talking to a turtle.

All-in-all, no new ground is broken here and I maintain that the second film is still the best part of the series, but there's a lot to love in this installment.  I genuinely liked most of the scenes, and felt like the movies continued to find a cultivated and strong supporting cast of players (something Dreamworks does well), except in one very obvious case: Kate Hudson's Mei Mei.  I know the story behind this part, clearly intended to be a love interest for Po that got lost in storyboarding, and originally Rebel Wilson, whose comic skills match Black's, was scheduled to play the part and then (due to scheduling conflicts) had to drop out and Hudson filled in at the last minute.  This ends up being a disaster, as her first scene feels strange (is she just a woman who is blinded by her lack of talent or is she just seducing Po-it's very hard to say?), and then she has almost no interactions onscreen with Po, but gets a ridiculously over-the-top line reading at a critically-emotional scene later on in the film where she said she was a "nunchuck chick" and yet we haven't hearkened back to her at all since her first blustery scene.  It's a badly edited choice by the directors, one where they probably should have cut her storyline entirely from the film but didn't know how to (and probably were trying to set up a potential sequel for the studio's sake), but Hudson is badly underwritten and miscast, and it wears on those scenes of the movie in a jarring way (it's the first thing I thought of wanting to write about prior to this review...never a good sign for a film I actually liked).

Those are my thoughts on (what I'm hoping, in terms of story structure) is the final Kung Fu Panda film, and by-and-large it was a successful trilogy in my opinion.  How about you?  Which is your favorite (as I mentioned above, mine's the second) and where does this rank on your Dreamworks' animation list?  Do you also feel like Rebel Wilson could have saved Mei Mei or was this simply a character without redemption?  Share your thoughts below!