Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Annie (2014) review


Originally, this new adaptation of the 1977 musical ‘Annie’ by Thomas Meehan (which in turn was based on the comic strip ‘Little Orphan Annie’ by Harold Gray) was to star Will Smith’s daughter Willow in the title role of Annie (Smith himself serves a producer on this film alongside his wife Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z). However, Willow ultimately dropped out of the role due to the fact that she was now too old for it. She ended up getting replaced by Quvenzhane Wallis, who was fresh off of becoming the youngest actress in history to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her work in 2012’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. This film hasn’t been getting a lot of good press recently, though, mainly due to the fact that on November 27th the film ended up getting leaked online along with a few other unreleased Sony films and the already released ‘Fury’. Thankfully though, because this is a kids film (and with that said hopefully most kids don’t pirate movies off of the internet), it probably won’t impact the film’s performance at the box office too much, especially compared to what happened when ‘The Expendables 3’ got leaked earlier this year. But what of the film itself? Well, I’ve heard some people say that it’s one of the ‘worst of the year’ but after seeing it for myself, I’m not really one of those people. For the record, I’m not saying that this is ‘that good’ of a movie either but ultimately I think that for kids it’s pretty harmless.

Like in the previous adaptations of the story, this film centers on the titular Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis), a young orphan girl living in a foster home in Harlem with her fellow foster sisters under the care of the bitter and cruel alcoholic Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). While the other foster girls aren’t very optimistic about their chances of getting adopted, Annie is hopeful that one day her parents will return for her. While this is going on, cell phone mogul Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) is in the middle of trying to run for mayor. However, due to his generally dissenting attitude, he finds that he is unable to maintain a good public image amongst the people of New York. That changes, however, when one day he rescues Annie from getting hit by oncoming traffic. Not only does it go viral but it also boosts his ratings. With the encouragement of his campaign adviser Guy (Bobby Cannavale), Stacks invites Annie to lunch in order to capitalize on the whole situation. But then Annie suggests that Stacks become her temporary guardian as a way to boost his ratings even more. So Stacks agrees and Annie moves into his penthouse and as the two of them start to spend more time together, they start to bond and grow closer.

First, I want to note that at the time I’m writing this, I haven’t seen the original 1982 ‘Annie’ in quite some time (I think I saw the 1999 version as well, but I’m not as sure) so I won’t be comparing this film with its predecessors, which I wouldn’t have done anyway had I recently seen the other films. What I will say about this film is that if you’re not a fan of modern references and overly cheesy ‘family film’ moments, then you’re really going to like this movie as it is chock full of both of those. Still, despite the fact that the film does try a bit too hard in trying to be hip and appeal to newer audiences, there are some legitimately good things about this movie. For one thing, and you can call me sentimental all you want, I do feel that are some genuinely heartwarming moments in this film, primarily due to the relationship between Annie and Stacks which of course is the heart of the story. As for the songs, while I can’t say that all of the new renditions of the classic musical numbers are good, some of them are actually not that bad, namely ‘Maybe’, ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’, and of course what is arguably the musical’s most iconic song, ‘Tomorrow’.

As far as the cast goes, the two biggest standouts are easily Wallis and Foxx. I haven’t seen ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ but it is very much clear that Wallis is definitely a genuine screen talent for her age, as she has great amounts of charisma and likability, proving that she really was a good choice for the role of Annie in this new adaptation of the story. Her chemistry with Foxx is really good and you really do see that they are bonding in a ‘father-daughter’ sort of way as Foxx also exhibits a lot of charisma in the ‘Daddy Warbucks’ role. The other main members of the cast, unfortunately, aren’t so lucky. I wouldn’t say it’s their faults as to why this is the way it is as it’s more a case where they didn’t really have much to work with, namely Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale. And then there’s Cameron Diaz and I’m just going to put it out there… I have no idea what is up with her performance in this movie. I mean, I know that the role of Miss Hannigan is supposed to be over-the-top but Diaz tries way too hard to reach those levels of camp, especially in the beginning of the film. Thankfully, this isn’t the case throughout the entire movie as she does dial back the camp factor in the latter half of the film but that doesn’t really excuse what we saw in the first half of the film. Thankfully in the scenes where she’s with Stacks, Jamie Foxx perfectly personifies our own thoughts on what is going on with her performance.  

All in all, I’ll say this about this new version of ‘Annie’. I’m not saying that it’s technically a ‘good’ film as there are some noticeable big problems with it, namely that it does try too hard to appeal to modern audiences (that and Cameron Diaz’ questionable choices in her performance as Miss Hannigan). Still, despite all of that, I do feel that there are some truly good things about this movie. Some of the new renditions of the songs are pretty good, Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx both do pretty good jobs and work off each other well, and there are some genuinely touching and emotionally poignant moments in regards to the relationship between Annie and Stacks. Ultimately, I’m not the target audience for this film as it is geared towards kids and as such, I don’t think that there’s really anything in this film that’s necessarily bad for kids. And really, considering that this year has been rather lacking in terms of ‘family films’, this is a nice little bit of fresh air after all of the much more mature films that we’ve seen this year. I have the feeling that kids will like this new take on this famous story okay. But as for the parents, there really isn’t much for you here. Still, as far as family films go, I’ve seen worse.


Rating: 2.5/5

Monday, December 15, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) review


Easily one of the most famous sections of the Hebrew Bible is the Book of Exodus, the story of how the Israelites, who were slaves of Egypt, escaped captivity and left for what they called ‘The Promised Land’, the land of Canaan, led by their leader Moses. Moses himself had originally been born Hebrew but when the King of Egypt demanded that all newborn male Hebrew babies were to be killed, Moses’ mother saved him from that fate by setting him adrift on the Nile, where he was ultimately picked up by the Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him into the Royal Family. There have been multiple adaptations of Exodus, including not one but two films of the same name; ‘The Ten Commandments’, both of which were directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He first directed a silent version of the story in 1923 and then ‘partially remade’ it in 1956, this one starring Charlton Heston in the role of Moses and is commonly regarded as one of the greatest film epics of all time. There’s also the 1998 animated, and in some cases fairly underrated, adaptation titled ‘The Prince of Egypt’, which was made by DreamWorks. This year, director Ridley Scott takes on the story with ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, a film that has received quite a bit of controversy these past few months in regards to its casting. As for the film itself, it’s a pretty decent take on this iconic story, even though there are certain things it could’ve done better.

The film begins as Moses (Christian Bale) is already a part of the Royal Family, serving as a general in the Egyptian Army working alongside his ‘brother’, Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). One day, Moses travels to the city of Pithom to see into the current situation with Egypt’s slaves and while there, one of the slaves, Nun (Ben Kingsley), tells him about his true lineage as a Hebrew man who was raised by Pharaoh Seti’s (John Turturro) daughter after he was saved from being executed as a result of Seti ordering that all Hebrew newborn males were to be killed. Moses eventually reveals his true identity to Ramesses, who becomes Pharaoh after Seti’s death, and is exiled because of it. He soon begins a new life as a shepherd living in the town of Midian with his wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde) but one day, after getting caught in a rockslide, he comes across the famous ‘burning bush’ and is told by God, represented in this film by a young boy named Malak, to return to Egypt to demand that the Hebrews be set free. Moses does end up returning to Egypt, but Ramesses refuses to free the Hebrews. As a result, God inflicts the ‘Ten Plagues’ upon Egypt in order to try and change Ramesses’ mind, even if Moses isn’t exactly on board with some of the things God does to the people of Egypt.  

This film’s greatest strength is easily its visuals, which do a phenomenal job of recreating key moments in the story of Exodus, from the ten plagues of Egypt (e.g. the water in the River Nile turning into blood, the swarms of frogs and locusts, etc.) to the parting of the Red Sea, even if the sequence itself is admittedly a little lackluster. Still, this is easily one of the biggest takes on the story of Exodus on film to date in regards to its overall scale and scope, perhaps even more so than the Heston version. However, the film does lack a bit in terms of character development, namely in regards to the relationship between Moses and Ramesses. I don’t want to compare this film too much with other adaptations of Exodus, but one of the biggest strengths of ‘Prince of Egypt’ was that it really did a good job in conveying the relationship of these two men in that, despite the fact that they ended up being enemies, they were still brothers (not actual brothers, but you get the idea). This film states that these two had grown up as ‘brothers’ but in the film itself, they don’t spend that much time together before they become enemies. While I’m not saying that this film should’ve 100% copied what ‘Prince of Egypt’ did in terms of the ‘Moses-Ramesses’ relationship, it could’ve really benefitted from more scenes between the two.

As noted earlier, there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this film, not over the film’s take on the story of Exodus like the controversy surrounding the other major biblical film of the year, ‘Noah’, but in regards to its casting. Namely, the thing that made a lot of people angry about this film is that while the supporting cast of the film was probably cast in terms of race, four of the main roles (Moses, Ramesses, Queen Tuya, and Joshua) were all played by white actors (Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, and Aaron Paul, respectively). Because I never like to talk about the subject of race in film, I won’t go into too much detail about it but I do want to point out some recent comments made by Scott in regards to this whole debacle. He said that the main reason as to why this film was cast the way it was is due to the fact that if he had cast a lesser-name actor of proper race in the lead role of Moses, then he would’ve been unable to get a movie of this scale (on a budget of $140 million, for the record) financed. So ultimately, regardless of what your stance is on this whole ordeal, Scott’s words are pretty true, showcasing a prime example of the recent controversy surrounding the idea of ‘whitewashing’ in Hollywood. Though like I said earlier, I won’t go any further into this matter.

But I will say that from a performance-perspective, the acting in this movie is pretty good, even with the whole ‘race’ controversy in mind. The two biggest standouts are easily Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in the lead roles. Bale provides a pretty interesting take on Moses, who he referred to as ‘schizophrenic’ (another controversial statement that I won’t be going much into). This is definitely shown in scenes where Moses is talking to God where, from the perspective on an onlooker, it looks like he’s talking to himself. At the same time, Bale also does a great job at conveying both Moses’ leader-ship qualities and his humanity, the latter of which is highly emphasized in scenes where Moses disagrees with some of God’s decisions. Edgerton, as Ramesses, is a bit over-the-top at times but other times he also gives a very subdued and emotionally powerful performance, like in a key scene near the end where Ramesses experiences a personal tragedy. As I noted earlier, while the film could’ve benefitted from having more scenes between the two before they became enemies, Bale and Edgerton do work off each other really well. The rest of the cast is solid too, but some don’t get as much to do as Bale and Edgerton. Despite being one of the main characters in the film, Aaron Paul has arguably only a few lines in the entire movie. The same can be said for Sigourney Weaver, who has a very limited amount of screen-time.

This might end up being a case similar to Scott’s film ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, which was mainly panned when it was initially released in theaters but then got more recognition when the film’s ‘Director’s Cut’ was released. Scott has stated that there is a ‘four-hour’ cut of the film so I won’t be surprised if that version ends up getting released sometime in the near future. As is, ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ isn’t a bad movie. It did hold my interest from beginning to end and the film certainly delivers in terms of its visuals and its overall scale and scope. However, the film can sort of be argued as being a case of ‘style over substance’ as it is lacking a bit in terms of character development. I wouldn’t say that the film is completely devoid of ‘substance’ but it really could’ve been better had certain things been done, like spending more time developing the relationship between Moses and Ramesses and giving some characters more to do. Still, the film definitely benefits from two strong performances from Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton so as is, it’s a decent take on the story of Exodus. I can’t say it’s the absolute best adaptation of the story but I am interested in seeing the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film to see if it will fix any of the problems with the theatrical cut.


Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Top 10 Favorite Christmas Specials (Christmas Post Part 1)


The Christmas season is now upon us, the best time of the year. A time for family and friends and of course for many of us, this is also the time where we watch numerous Christmas specials and Christmas-themed movies. They’ve become such an iconic part of the season and we have had plenty of great specials and movies, both timeless classics and recent hits. So this month on Rhode Island Movie Corner, I’ll be listing both my Top 10 personal favorite Christmas specials and my Top 10 personal favorite Christmas movies. This will be a two-part post and today I’m delving into my Top 10 favorite Christmas specials of all time. There have been many, many Christmas specials over the years so if one of your favorites is on this list, the reason for it will mostly likely be because I haven’t seen it yet. And for the record, this is not a ‘Best of’ list; these are just my Top 10 favorite Christmas specials, the majority of whom I’ve seen on an annual basis ever since I was a kid. Finally, I want to note that in regards to the Christmas post I did last year on most of the Rankin-Bass specials, I assure you that this list will not be entirely dominated by those specials; in fact, only three of them made the Top 10. So without further ado, grab a seat in your favorite chair with your hot chocolate and/or eggnog as I give you my Top 10 all-time favorite Christmas specials. But first, some honorable mentions…

HONORABLE MENTIONS


As I just noted a few seconds ago, I didn’t want this list to be dominated by Rankin-Bass specials. So with that in mind, I’ll be starting off the Honorable Mentions sections with the three Rankin-Bass ‘runner-ups’ that missed the final cut. First up is one of the most iconic entries in the company’s filmography, ‘Frosty the Snowman’. I’ll personally admit that of the three most famous Rankin-Bass specials (SPOILERS: You’ll see both of them somewhere on this list) this is probably my least favorite of the three (not that there’s anything wrong with the special itself) but regardless of that it is still a Rankin-Bass classic. Then there’s ‘Jack Frost’, one of the funniest (if not the funniest) specials in the Rankin-Bass filmography highlighted by the hilarious villain Kubla Kraus, the wicked Cossack King. And finally there’s ‘The Year Without a Santa Claus’, which is actually remembered more for two of its side characters, the Miser brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser, than the actual special itself. Still, it’s another solid entry in the Rankin-Bass lineup thanks to the company’s usual top-notch stop motion animation, the great writing and strong themes of Christmas spirit and the spirit of giving, and of course the Miser brothers, who are undeniably the biggest standouts of the entire special.


As for the non-Rankin-Bass Honorable Mentions, I’ll start things off with the recent ‘Prep and Landing’ specials produced by Disney. This series focuses a special group of Santa’s Elves, more specifically the duo of Wayne and Lanny, whose job is to prep homes all over the world for Santa when he visits them every year on Christmas. There have two specials so far, the original ‘Prep and Landing’ from 2009 and ‘Naughty vs. Nice’ from 2011, along with a seven-minute short ‘Operation: Secret Santa’ that was released in 2010 with another special currently in the works. Both benefit from their solid premise and great animation and voice-acting and I am very eager to see what they do next with this franchise. Finally, there’s ‘Merry Christmas Drake and Josh!’ the series finale to one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, ‘Drake and Josh’, in which Drake Bell and Josh Peck starred as two boys who end up becoming brothers when their parents get married. In this special (technically a TV movie), the two of them get in trouble with the law resulting in them having to work to give a group of foster kids ‘the best Christmas ever’ in order to avoid going to jail. Fans of this sitcom will no doubt enjoy this special as it has everything that made the show great; humor, the great camaraderie between the two leads, and much more.

Starting things off at Number 10 are a pair of direct-to-video Christmas specials from Disney. Despite their ‘direct-to-video’ status, I do watch them every year because I really enjoy them both and I always love seeing the classic Disney characters.

10. MICKEY’S ONCE AND TWICE UPON A CHRISTMAS


These two films both feature a series of Christmas stories starring the classic Disney characters; Mickey Mouse and his friends. ‘Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas’ was released in 1999 and is a traditionally-animated special while 2004’s ‘Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas’ was computer-animated, basically serving as the first foray for Mickey and his friends into computer animation (along with the Mickey’s PhilharMagic attraction at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World). As far as the animation goes, both are solid (as far as direct-to-video projects are concerned) and feature just the right amount of Christmas spirit and heartwarming moments that one would normally expect in a Christmas special. Actually before I begin I just want to talk about something interesting that happened to me when I was younger. One of the first DVD’s I ever remember owning (that my parents bought for me) was ‘Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas’. But here’s the thing… while the DVD had the correct packaging and the front of the DVD itself was for ‘Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas’, that DVD was for a completely different movie; ‘Thomas and the Magic Railroad’. This is the only time this has ever happened to me and to this day I’m still baffled over why this happened. Sound off in the comments section below if something like this has ever happened to you as well.

Anyway, there are three stories in ‘Once Upon a Christmas’. In ‘Stuck on Christmas’, Huey, Dewey, and Louie make a wish that it would be Christmas every day. Their wish comes true but it just ends up being that the same events of that Christmas day end up repeating themselves over and over and over again a la ‘Groundhog Day’. In ‘A Very Goofy Christmas’, Goofy tries to prove to his son Max that Santa does exist when Max’s faith in Santa starts to falter when their neighbor Pete tells him that he isn’t real. Finally, there’s ‘Mickey and Minnie’s Gift of the Magi’, which follows the same general plot of the short story ‘Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry. Mickey and Minnie are looking to get each other Christmas gifts that go along with their prized possessions, Mickey’s harmonica and Minnie’s watch, respectively. But due to their financial troubles, both end up selling their prized possessions just to get each other their gifts but they realize that their love for each other is all that they ever need. The animation is really nice and while it admittedly can be a bit overly sentimental at times, that doesn’t bother me too much (I guess you can say I’m a fairly sentimental guy). My favorite segment of the three is probably the ‘Gift of the Magi’ story for its heart and emotionally poignant moments.


‘Twice Upon a Christmas’ ups the ante by having five stories, which are as follows. In ‘Belles on Ice’, Minnie and Daisy get into a fairly heated rivalry when the two perform in a local ice skating competition. ‘Christmas: Impossible’ centers on the trio of Huey, Dewey, and Louie who realize that due to their constant troublemaking, they are sure to end up on Santa’s naughty list this year. So with little time for them to clean up their act the old-fashioned way, they sneak up to the North Pole to try and put themselves on the Nice List. In ‘Christmas Maximus’, Max, now grown up after the ‘A Very Goofy Christmas’ story from ‘Once Upon a Christmas’, finds himself continually embarrassed by Goofy when he brings his girlfriend home for Christmas. ‘Donald’s Gift’, as the title suggests, focuses on Donald, of course, as he becomes more and more agitated by the holidays (specifically due to the constant playing of the song ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’), wishing only for peace and quiet and a good hot chocolate. ‘Mickey’s Dog-Gone Christmas’ closes out the group of stories with Mickey and Pluto, the latter of whom runs away to the North Pole after getting into trouble with Mickey while he was in the middle of decorating the house.

As far as the animation is concerned, I can’t really say it’s ‘as good’ as the animation in ‘Once Upon a Christmas’, which I mainly attribute to the fact that this is one of Disney’s first attempts at computer animation after taking a hiatus in regards to doing hand-drawn animation. I don’t think the animation is bad, for the record, it’s just that it’s more or less what you would expect from a direct-to-video release. As for the individual stories, ‘Belles on Ice’ was probably my least favorite as a kid (in fact, sometimes when I watched this, I skipped over it) and looking back on it, it still is. There’s not really anything wrong about it as it has some colorful animation/visuals but I realize that there’s not much about it related to Christmas unlike the other four segments. On the flipside, ‘Christmas: Impossible’ was my favorite growing up and it still very much is with its solid pacing and fun premise. One that is slowly becoming one of my favorites of the five is ‘Christmas Maximus’, which gets across a lot of heart and emotion which is impressive given that it might be the shortest of the five segments and is mostly non-dialogue as a song plays over the story. ‘Donald’s Gift’ and ‘Mickey’s Dog-Gone Christmas’ are also pretty solid too, with the former having many unique ways of playing the song ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ (watch the movie and you’ll know what I mean by that). Ultimately, I kind of prefer ‘Twice Upon a Christmas’ (mostly due to the fact I’ve watched it more times than ‘Once Upon a Christmas’ given the whole mislabeled DVD scenario I mentioned earlier) but I do feel that the first one is slightly better. Still, I do watch these two movies every year and I’m always a fan of watching stuff with the classic Disney characters.

Two Christmas specials from two of my favorite shows while I was growing up are on this list and the first comes in at Number 9 from one of my all-time favorites… SpongeBob SquarePants.

9. SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: CHRISTMAS WHO?


On paper, the idea of a SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas special seems a little preposterous given that this is a series about a group of sea creatures. But even with that in mind, SpongeBob delivered a really nice little special in ‘Christmas Who’ which really looked into the idea of what a Bikini Bottom Christmas would be like. In this special, SpongeBob first learns of Christmas and Santa Claus through his friend Sandy Cheeks, the only land creature living underwater. So then he tells everyone else about it and they all get excited for Christmas, all except Squidward who of course is his usual grouchy self as he feels that it’s all just ‘a scam’. But everyone else in Bikini Bottom ignores this and goes on with their celebration… that is until Christmas Day when Santa doesn’t appear. With their enthusiasm now gone, Squidward initially revels in being right for once but after seeing how depressed SpongeBob gets about the whole situation, Squidward finally sees the error of his ways and works to set things right. This special features a nice little arc for the usually bitter Squidward, who I think it’s safe to say has some similarities to another famous Christmas figure (who we’ll get to in a little while) and despite the strange notion of sea creatures celebrating Christmas, it is still pretty fun to see everyone in Bikini Bottom get into the holiday spirit. And that is why ‘Christmas Who’ is another solid Christmas special, coming from one of my favorite animated shows of all time.

(P.S. I haven’t watched the other SpongeBob Christmas special, ‘It’s a SpongeBob Christmas’, at the time I’m writing this and, to be honest, given the current run of the show, I don’t really plan on checking it out, despite the fact that it was made in a style similar to Rankin-Bass with the stop-motion animation).

I’m going with a little more ‘mature’ Christmas special at Number 8. The best of this series’ Christmas specials for one primary reason that I don’t even want to spoil.

8. SOUTH PARK: WOODLAND CRITTER CHRISTMAS


There have been quite a lot of ‘South Park’ Christmas-themed episodes, a lot of which centered on the character Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo. But the episode that easily takes the cake for being the best of South Park’s Christmas specials is Season 8’s ‘Woodland Critter Christmas’, which is currently the most recent Christmas episode of the show… and it first aired a decade ago. Why is this one so great? Well, I can’t even tell you the main reason for this because I fear that doing so would spoil the episode. The plot involves Stan (referred to by the narrator (because it’s a Christmas special, of course and the reveal of who the narrator is truly is comedic gold) as the ‘boy in the red-poof-ball hat’) who comes across a group of talking woodland creatures who are celebrating the holidays. One of them is having a baby who the animals refer to as their ‘Savior’ but they reveal to Stan that they constantly come into conflict with a mountain lion who always eats the expecting mother so Stan tries to help them out. And really that’s as far as I can go with the plot without giving anything else away. The big twist revolving around the Woodland Critters is so hilarious showcasing how this special may seem like your average light-hearted Christmas special but in reality it isn’t and like with many of the other great South Park episodes, you really have to hand it to creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone for their writing. Sure, it gets incredibly dark and sick at times, something you really don’t see with most Christmas specials, but like many of the other ‘South Park’ episodes, it’s also incredibly funny, which is why it’s at the Number 8 spot on this list.

Going back to the shows of my childhood, we have Number 7, a special that offers a very unique take on the concept of a ‘time loop’ story like ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, or the ‘Stuck on Christmas’ story from the aforementioned ‘Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas’.

7. FAIRLY ODDPARENTS: CHRISTMAS EVERY DAY


Like the ‘Stuck on Christmas’ story from ‘Once Upon a Christmas’, the first Christmas special from ‘The Fairly Oddparents’ also had a plot centered around what it would be like if Christmas happened every day. For those who haven’t seen the show before, it’s about a ten-year old boy named Timmy Turner who is granted a pair of Fairy Godparents in Cosmo and Wanda, who are able to grant his every wish allowing him to deal with his everyday problems. In ‘Christmas Every Day’, Timmy is incredibly eager about Christmas given that it is one of the only times of the year where he can spend time with his parents, who are rather neglectful towards him most of the time leaving him with his ‘evil’ (literally) babysitter Vicky. So Timmy ends up wishing that it could be Christmas every day. But the key thing about this special is how it handles the whole ‘Christmas Every Day’ concept. In ‘Stuck on Christmas’, it was done in a way similar to ‘Groundhog Day’ in which the day kept repeating over and over again. But here the day doesn’t actually repeat; instead, it’s just that every single day is Christmas which as we see soon starts to take its toll on everybody. Schools, banks, and supermarkets remain closed, Christmas Carolers have to make up new lyrics for the song ’12 Days of Christmas’ once they go past 12 days, and everyone tries to prevent Santa from delivering presents to them. Even the military tries to take him out, which is easily one of the funniest moments in the entire special.

That’s the biggest strength of this special, as it offers a really unique spin on the whole ‘Christmas Every Day’ storyline, showing that although the idea of every day being Christmas might sound nice, it will start to get on your nerves. Not only that, but this special shows that even Santa can be pressured by this due to the fact that he constantly has to make new toys for kids to the point where he has to try and combine various objects when he starts to run out of ideas. The first day of Christmas, Timmy has an ‘ocean’ of presents to open but a few days later, that ocean becomes just a tiny ‘puddle’ of toys. Also, it’s worth noting that all of the fairy godparents in the world give most of their magic to Santa during this time of the year so Timmy just can’t wish things back to the way they were. And then to top it all off, the other holiday mascots, like the Easter Bunny and the April Fool, try to get rid of Santa by basically ‘banishing’ him to the imaginary date of ‘February 33rd’. Yeah this show can be pretty weird when you really think about it but as far as Christmas specials go this is another one of my personal favorites as it has the fun and imagination that made ‘Fairly Oddparents’ such a great show along with plenty of Christmas spirit.

Like I said before, I made sure that this list wasn’t going to be entirely dominated by Rankin-Bass specials. But at Number 6 we have the first of the three of their Specials that did make this list and while it may not be Number 1, I feel that this special is pretty much a masterpiece.

6. THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY


Growing up, I usually just watched the big 3 Rankin-Bass specials; ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, and ‘Frosty the Snowman’. It wasn’t until I got a little older when I really started to watch the other Rankin-Bass specials and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ is easily one of the best of the non-Big 3 specials of Rankin Bass, if not the best of that group. Pretty much everything about this special is terrific. The animation is solid (as usual) and the narration by Greer Garson is excellent as is the performance of the title song by the Vienna Boys Choir, which is easily the best rendition of this classic holiday melody. Also, as is typical with many Rankin-Bass productions, the characters are of course incredibly memorable, from the Three Wise Men (all voiced by the same actor, Paul Frees, who also voiced Kubla Kraus in ‘Jack Frost’) to the ‘villain’ Ben Haramad to the Little Drummer Boy himself, Aaron. One of the best things about this entire special is that Aaron has a nice little arc in this as he learns to trust all humans once again after bandits killed his parents some time ago. All in all, it’s a really touching story with a heartwarming finale where Aaron performs on his drum for baby Jesus, which is a truly mesmerizing moment. All in all, this results in one top-notch effort from Rankin-Bass. It was followed by a sequel 8 years later in ‘The Little Drummer Boy Book II’ and while I can’t say it’s as good as the original, it’s still a pretty solid special highlighted by a scene-stealing performance by Zero Mostel as the leader of a band of Roman soldiers.

Another Holiday Classic takes up the Number 5 spot. We’ve all seen it and it’s fairly impossible not to like it.

5. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS


In some ways it’s fascinating to see this special become one of the most iconic Christmas specials of all time given that on paper it seemed like it was going to be a disaster. It was produced on a fairly minimum budget of $76,000 (later going $20,000 over-budget) and made in a very short span of time in just six months. But as Doug Walker (AKA The Nostalgia Critic) rightfully put it, this may be the reason why it is so good; because it isn’t trying to be something it’s not. It’s a very straight-forward story but one with a lot of heart critiquing the whole commercialistic side of Christmas, like how most of Charlie Brown’s friends get angry at him because when he told to go get a big aluminum Christmas Tree (which by the way I must ask… was that ever really a thing?), he go gets a small fir tree. But of course it was the thought that counts and as Linus puts it at the end, ‘all it needed was a little love’. To paraphrase something Doug said, this is a ‘No BS’ special and because of this, it leaves quite a lasting impression on everyone and is quite timeless. What more can be said about this true Christmas classic?

And yet another Holiday classic comes in at Number 4, this one from the minds of animator Chuck Jones and author Dr. Seuss.

4. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS


Animator Chuck Jones has quite an impressive filmography. He’s worked on multiple Looney Tunes shorts and was also responsible for the creation of iconic characters such as Marvin the Martian, Pepe Le Pew, and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. He also directed the first major TV special based on the works of author Theodor Geisel AKA Dr. Seuss with ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. It’s the tale of a surly curmudgeon known as the Grinch who lives on a mountain and hates Christmas, especially due to the fact that he has had to deal with the Whos living down in the town of Whoville, who, in contrast with him, absolutely love the holidays. Fed up with it all, he decides to ‘steal their Christmas’ by disguising himself as Santa Claus and sneaks down into the town stealing all of their presents, decorations, etc… There are plenty of good things about the special; the animation, the music, the writing of Dr. Seuss, and the dual performance of Boris Karloff in the roles of the Grinch and the narrator. Of course, I’m sure that many of us grew up with the works of Dr. Seuss so this might be one of the first specials most of you have ever seen and needless to say it’s another timeless Holiday Classic.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about my thoughts on the other major adaptation of this story… well… I’ll get into that next time… needless to say a lot of you are going to disagree with me when it comes to what I think about that one.

We’re heading back to Rankin-Bass for Number 3 and it’s a big one; after all, how can someone not love the one Christmas special that effectively made Rankin-Bass a household name.

3. RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER


You really can’t go wrong with this one now, can you? We’ve all seen it, we all remember the characters, the songs, the animation, the sad moments, the happy moments, etc. It was Rankin-Bass’ first major stop-motion animated Christmas special and even though it’s now been half a century since its original release, it is still an undeniable Christmas classic. It has a great message of non-conformity showing how it’s okay to be different than others, shown through Rudolph’s journey as he is initially teased by the other reindeer because of his glowing red nose (to quote his father Donner, ‘his beak blinks like a blinking beacon!!’) but soon finds his true purpose in life to guide Santa’s sleigh when it seems like the worst blizzard of all time might end up ruining Christmas. Of course, there’s the other great characters in the special, like Hermey the Elf, who just wants to be a dentist, and of course everyone’s favorite prospector, Yukon Cornelius, who’s on the search for gold (GOLD!!!!!!! YA-HOO!!!!... (licks pickaxe) Nothing!). Hopefully this special lives on for another 50 years and even longer after that because it truly is one of the all-time best Christmas specials of all time. But wait, you’re probably asking, then why is it only number 3 on this list? Well, that’s because while I do love Rudolph, there’s another Rankin-Bass special that I love even more.

There have been many adaptations of the classic story that my Number 2 pick is also adapted from, but quite frankly this is my personal favorite of them all.

2. MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL


‘A Christmas Carol’ has easily been one of the most adapted stories of all time when it comes to film. There have been many films and TV movies based on Charles Dickens’ classic story, some going the traditional route while others do some things different, like having the film be a musical or, in the case of something like ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’, have famous characters play the characters of the story. ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’ is perfectly cast in regards to who is playing who; Scrooge McDuck as Scrooge (obviously), Mickey as Bob Cratchit, Jiminy Cricket, the Giant from ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’, and Pete as the Three Ghosts, etc. Another great aspect of this special in particular is how it effectively condenses the whole story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ into a twenty-six minute short film. Sure, there are some elements of the story that aren’t in this version but it moves along at a solid pace and still has the emotional beats and heartwarming moments that show why this story is so iconic. Why else would it be adapted into either a film or a TV-movie so many times? I have a feeling this is possibly the first major adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’ that a lot of people saw when they were younger, hence why it’s so timeless and that’s why it’s my personal favorite take on ‘A Christmas Carol’.   

And finally we have Number 1, which is not only my all-time favorite Christmas special, but my personal favorite from the Rankin-Bass lineup (yes, even more so than Rudolph). To top the list, we have…

1. SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN


It can be argued over which is the absolute best Rankin-Bass Christmas special of all time and ultimately while I still very much love ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’, my absolute favorite Rankin-Bass special, as it has been ever since I was a kid, is 1970’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, narrated by Fred Astaire in the role of mailman S.D. Kluger. It’s the tale of Santa Claus back when he was known as Kris Kringle and how he became known as Santa Claus as we learn many things like how he got his famous red suit or where he got his flying reindeer from. This special is incredibly well-paced, features the usual great stop-motion animation that Rankin-Bass was known for, and a great cast of characters. There’s Kris Kringle/Santa Claus of course, perfectly voiced by Mickey Rooney who has the right amount of kindness and warmth for the role. There’s also Keenan Wynn as the initially evil Winter Warlock, who turns out to be a pretty swell guy when his frozen heart melts (no ‘Frozen’ pun intended) and the funny bad guy in Burgermeister Meisterburger, voiced by Rankin-Bass regular Paul Frees. And then there’s the iconic songs including ‘Put One Foot in Front of the Other’ and ‘First Toymaker to the King’. The bottom line is that I love pretty much every aspect of this special and I think the writing is superb giving us a really fun look at the origins of Santa Claus, which is actually a more traditional take in this special compared to the other ‘origins of Santa’ special from Rankin-Bass, ‘The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus’, which was more like something out of ‘Lord of the Rings’, which is fitting seeing how it was written by ‘Wizard of Oz’ author L. Frank Baum. Still, there’s no denying the timeless nature of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, hence why it is my all-time favorite Christmas special.


So those are my Top 10 all-time favorite Christmas specials. Check back in soon for part 2 of this post, in which I list my Top 10 favorite Christmas movies.

Monday, December 1, 2014

2014 Preview: December

And here we are; we’ve reached the end of 2014 as we now come to the last month of the year, a year full of big hits, big misses, and everything in between. And now it’s time to look at the last batch of new films of 2014 before we officially move on 2015. Welcome back to Rhode Island Movie Corner’s year-long preview of the films that are set to come out in 2014. This is the final part in an 11-part preview (previously 12 before I was unable to do the January post due to computer issues) and today we’ll be looking at the films that will be coming out this holiday season in December. So let’s get started…

DECEMBER 5- Okay remember back in September when I said that there wasn’t really anything noteworthy coming out the first week of the month? Well, I kind of lied because there was one wide release that week, ‘The Identical’, but I didn’t know anything about it so I decided not to cover it in that post (that’s usually what I do when it comes to wide releases I don’t know much about… I just don’t include them in these posts). This first week of December, however, there’s literally no new wide releases coming out. There’s only one notable limited release.


*Director Jean-Marc Vallee follows up on last year’s multiple award winning ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (which of course as we all know earned Matthew McConaughey an Oscar win for Best Actor) with ‘Wild’, which is based off of the memoir ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’ by Cheryl Strayed. Reese Witherspoon (who also produces the film) stars as Strayed, who goes on a long hike through the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada on her own in order for her to get over the recent stressful moments in her life, including the death of her mother (played by Laura Dern) and her recent divorce.

DECEMBER 12- Things get back on track this week with two new wide releases along with one notable limited release.


*Ridley Scott takes on the Biblical story of the Exodus with ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, in which Christian Bale stars as Moses, the Hebrew man who became a prince of Egypt and then the leader of his people after learning the truth about who he really is as he leads them to freedom after years of slavery in defiance of his adoptive brother, the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The film also stars Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, and Ben Kingsley.


*Chris Rock writes and directs ‘Top Five’, in which he also stars as a comedian turned film star who seeks to become a ‘serious’ actor despite all of the expectations from his fan base. The film also stars Gabrielle Union, Rosario Dawson, and Kevin Hart.


*Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, ‘Inherent Vice’, opens in limited release this weekend and is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a private investigator who looks into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend. The large ensemble cast also includes Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, and Martin Short.

DECEMBER 19- The weekend before Christmas sees the release of three movies, one of which opens early on Wednesday December 17th.


*Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy finally comes to a close this month with ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ (previously ‘The Hobbit: There and Back Again’). In this film, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his Company of Dwarves, with the help of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), have reclaimed their home of Erebor in the Lonely Mountain but must now face the consequences of unleashing the fearsome dragon Smaug (portrayed through motion capture by Benedict Cumberbatch) upon the world along with the growing threat of the armies of the Dark Lord Sauron.


*Director Will Gluck (‘Easy A’) helms ‘Annie’, the third major film adaptation of the musical of the same name (following the 1982 theatrical version starring Carol Burnett and Tim Curry and the 1999 made-for-TV version with Kathy Bates) which in turn was based off of the comic strip ‘Little Orphan Annie’ by Harold Gray. This new version, produced by Will Smith and Jay-Z, stars Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie, an orphan who ends up getting taken in by tycoon/mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) so that she can boost his chances of becoming mayor. The film also stars Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan, Rose Byrne as Stacks’ personal assistant Grace, and Bobby Cannavale as Stacks’ political adviser Guy.


*The final film in the ‘Night at the Museum’ trilogy, ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’, hits theaters this week, again directed by Shawn Levy who helmed the first two films along with this year’s ‘This is Where I Leave You’. Ben Stiller reprises his role of Larry Daley, the night guard at the Museum of Natural History in New York where the exhibits there come to life at night through the powers of an ancient Egyptian tablet. In this film, the tablet’s powers start to fade resulting in Larry and the other exhibits traveling the globe in order to keep the magic from dying out. Also reprising their roles are the late Robin Williams, the late Mickey Rooney, Owen Wilson, and Steve Coogan (among others), joined in this one by Ben Kingsley and Rebel Wilson (among others).

DECEMBER 25- I’m finding that Christmas weekend is usually the weekend that sees the biggest number of notable releases and this Christmas is no exception. We got three wide releases and three notable limited releases all of which open in theaters on Christmas Day. Something also noteworthy is that three of them are biopics and one is an historical drama.

From North Korea With Love: Seth Rogen and James Franco Star in First Trailer for 'The Interview'

*First for the wide releases, we have ‘The Interview’, the new film from directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the directing duo behind last year’s smash hit ‘This is the End’). In this film, Rogen and James Franco star as a pair of celebrity journalists who land an exclusive interview with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un but then find themselves tasked with killing him by the CIA. That whole ‘assassination’ subplot has notably attracted quite a lot of controversy in North Korea, where the film has been condemned.


*Rob Marshall, director of 2002’s Oscar-winning musical ‘Chicago’, returns to the musical genre with ‘Into the Woods’, based on the Tony-Award winning Broadway musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. The story involves numerous characters from Grimm fairy tales, including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk. It primarily focuses on a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who embark ‘into the woods’ in order to have a curse removed that was set upon them by a witch (Meryl Streep) that has made them unable to have a child. The film also stars, among others, Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince Charming and Johnny Depp as the Wolf.


*Angelina Jolie takes on her second directorial effort after 2011’s ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ with ‘Unbroken’, based on the biographical book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand on World War II hero Louis Zamperini. Zamperini (played in the film by Jack O’Connell) was an Olympic track runner who later joined the military and then became a Prisoner of War in Japan under the watch of brutal sergeant Mutshiro ‘The Bird’ Watanabe (played by Japanese pop star Miyavi). The film also stars Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, and Domhnall Gleeson.


*The second major ‘biopic’ of this week, and the first of the noteworthy limited releases, is ‘American Sniper’, the second film of the year from director Clint Eastwood after June’s ‘Jersey Boys’. Based on the book of the same name, Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle, who was known for being the most lethal sniper in U.S. history with over 160 confirmed kills. The film also stars Sienna Miller as Chris’ wife Taya.


*Tim Burton takes on a much smaller project compared to the majority of his work from the past decade with ‘Big Eyes’, centered around Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the artist behind the famous ‘Big Eye’ paintings. The film also focuses on her relationship with her husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who claimed that he was the real artist of the paintings when they became popular, and the ensuing legal battle over the rightful ownership of the paintings. The film also stars Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, and Terrence Stamp.


*Finally, we have ‘Selma’, directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Brad Pitt’s production company ‘Plan B’. It centers on the marches made from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr. and is also joined by Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey, and Cuba Gooding Jr.


So that’s it… those are the films of 2014. Thanks for following along with me this year as I previewed all of the films that were coming out this year. At the moment I think I am planning on doing these again next year so stay tuned.

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) review


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; 2011, while not really the best year when it came to movies, did have both some surprises and some surprise hits. One that fell into the latter group was the comedy ‘Horrible Bosses’, in which Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day starred as a trio of friends who conspired to kill their titular ‘Horrible Bosses’ when they found that they were unsatisfied with their current job statuses. I didn’t see it when it first came out but I did end up getting it on Blu-Ray and I watched it before seeing the sequel. Overall I can’t say that it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies but it did have quite a good amount of laughs, which mostly stemmed from the fact that the three main characters were, to put it bluntly, a bunch of idiots. Korey Coleman from DoubleToasted.com (formerly Spill.com) said it best when he noted that this is pretty much the closest that we might ever get to a modern-day Three Stooges movie and sure enough that’s exactly what the first ‘Horrible Bosses’ was. So now we have ‘Horrible Bosses 2’, with the majority of the main cast from the first movie (save for one, whose identity I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the first film) returning albeit now under a different director, with Sean Anders taking over for Seth Gordon. And overall, while I can’t say that ‘Horrible Bosses 2’ is the absolute best comedy of this year, or that it’s even better than the first film, I will say that it does have a decent amount of laughs primarily thanks to the camaraderie of its cast.

After spending most of their careers working for terrible bosses, best friends Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudekis) decide to start up their own business so that they can be their own bosses. They come up with an idea for a car wash inspired shower product which they call the ‘Shower Buddy’ and they agree to a manufacturing deal with investor Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz). However, after the trio take out a business loan in order to produce the 500,000 units that were asked for in the deal, Burt suddenly backs out of their deal as he plans to take all of their inventory and sell it himself. Now facing a huge debt as a result of their loan, the trio look to find a way to save their company. After what they went through in the first movie trying to kill their old bosses, they decide to resort to kidnapping as they plan to kidnap Burt’s son Rex (Chris Pine) and hold him hostage for ransom. But after their first kidnap attempt, they suddenly find that Rex is very eager to help them get revenge on his dad because of the strained relationship they’ve currently been having. Though hesitant at first, they accept his help as they all plan to get back at Burt but as in the last movie, things really don’t end up going as well as they plan.

Now ‘Horrible Bosses 2’ does commit the same mistake that most comedy sequels do; instead of trying something different, it’s mostly just the same general beats from the first movie (what I’m guessing studios like to call what they think is a ‘tried and tested’ formula). There are some very, very minor differences like how in this one the trio is doing a kidnapping instead of murdering their adversaries and how one of their adversaries ends up helping them, but for the most part the film maintains a fairly similar structure to the first film in terms of its plot. Still, despite that, the film still has a fairly decent amount of laughs. I didn’t really think there was any major laugh-out-loud moment like there was in the first film (like when Dale tries to save one of the trio’s bosses when he is affected by a peanut allergy) but overall this sequel still had its fair share of laughs. Like the first film, it is due to the pure stupidity of the main characters of Nick, Kurt, and Dale. I mean when you really get down to it, these three just have no idea what they’re doing. And that’s really what makes these films so funny is how we see them constantly screw up in their plans, from forgetting to do something because they get distracted to revealing something that they didn’t want anyone else to know. As noted earlier, they’re the modern-day ‘Three Stooges’.

Once again, this film primarily succeeds thanks to the great camaraderie between the three leads; Bateman, Day, and Sudekis. They do work off each other incredibly well even if when these three characters are together you know they’re going to do a lot of really, really dumb things and also sometimes they ramble over each other to the point where sometimes you have no idea what they’re saying. Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey also reprise their roles as Dale and Nick’s former bosses Dr. Julia Harris and Dave Harken, respectively, as does Jamie Foxx as Motherf***er Jones and they all have their own memorable moments in their fairly brief bits of screen-time. Of the new cast additions, the biggest standout is easily Chris Pine. Pine showcases some excellent comedic chops (which I do think we saw bits and pieces of from his work in the recent ‘Star Trek’ films) and he also works well off of the three leads just as much as they do with each other. Still, some of the new additions to the cast unfortunately are wasted in this, namely Christoph Waltz and Jonathan Banks (AKA Breaking Bad’s Mike Ehrmantraut), the latter of whom plays the detective working the ‘case’ of Rex’s kidnapping. That’s basically due to the fact that because the film focuses so much on the lead trio and Pine, Waltz and Banks don’t get much to work with here.

Like with many comedy sequels, ‘Horrible Bosses 2’ doesn’t really do much new when compared to the first film. It’s basically the same plot just with a slight few differences. Still, as far as the comedy sequels that do copy the same plot of their predecessors go, this is one of the better ones of that group even if it isn’t self-aware of this fact like ‘22 Jump Street’ was earlier this year. No, it’s not the funniest film of the year and I can’t even say it’s better than the first film. Still, it does manage to get by thanks to the whole scenario of the stupid actions committed by the three lead characters and the excellent camaraderie amongst the three main leads in Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, and Charlie Day. Ultimately, I feel that whether or not you do like this movie may depend on what you thought of the first film, seeing how this is basically the same general movie. It was a solid hit commercially but I am aware of some criticizing it for some mean-spirited (racist, homophobic, etc.) jokes and yeah there are definitely some jokes of that nature in both of these movies. Despite this, I did like the first ‘Horrible Bosses’ and ultimately I did like ‘Horrible Bosses 2’ even if this film does rehash a lot of bits from the first film. So if you did like the first film, I bet you’ll like this one too.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014) review


Out of all of the famous scientists that have ever lived, from Albert Einstein to Kip Thorne (who just had a movie based around his scientific observations come out in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’) Stephen Hawking is no doubt one of the first that comes to mind. After all, he was one of the two leading minds, along with Roger Penrose, on ‘gravitational singularity theorems’, predicted the concept of black hole radiation, and perhaps most importantly explored the union of the ‘theory of relativity’ and ‘quantum mechanics’. But at the same time, Hawking’s own life is quite fascinating given the fact that in his 20’s he was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease connected to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease as well as being the main cause for awareness behind all of those Ice Bucket Challenges you no doubt saw a lot of this past summer) and that story is the focus of ‘The Theory of Everything’. More specifically, this film is based on the book ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’ by his first wife Jane Wilde as the film not only focuses on his life, but their relationship and how she stood by him as this disease slowly took over his life. And with some terrific and truly Oscar-worthy performances from leads Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, ‘The Theory of Everything’ is a well-directed and moving biopic on the lives of both one of the most famous men in the entire world and the woman who was always there for him in times of crisis.

The film begins in 1962 as Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) begins his tenure as a graduate student at Cambridge studying cosmology where he quickly makes quite the impression with his teachers, specifically physicist Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). While at a college party, he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an arts major, and soon after they fall in love. But both of their lives take a serious detour one day after Stephen, who begins to show signs of clumsiness, ends up taking a nasty fall at school. At the hospital, he learns that he has a motor neuron disease similar to ALS which affect his muscles, resulting in them slowly degrading away. Because there is nothing that the doctors can do about it, it is projected that he only has two years to live. However, Jane promises to help him get through it driven by their love for each other and they end up getting married. With her love and support, Stephen fights to overcome his disability as he also continues to make quite the impression amongst his fellow physicists in the field of cosmology even as the disease slowly but surely eats away at him to the point where, after a near-death experience with pneumonia, he ends up losing his voice due to a tracheotomy resulting in him having to use a computerized voice to speak.

So I’ll admit that while I am familiar with Stephen Hawking, I admittedly didn’t know that much about him (nor do I know anything about any of the science in most of his work but don’t worry that science isn’t the main focus of this film) before seeing this. Having now seen this film, I can say that his story was a truly intriguing tale. I mean, this was a man who was given only two years to live and yet he managed to fight on even though it ended up resulting in him losing many things, namely the abilities to walk and talk. But of course, there’s more to this story. It’s also a tale of romance from the perspective of both Stephen and his wife Jane and we really see her spirit and determination supporting Stephen through the toughest moments of his life. But even then she does have her limits as I’m sure many will probably have in situations like this. The film does a great job at balancing their roles in the overall story meaning that while this is technically about Stephen Hawking’s life, Jane is as big a part of the story as he is. From an emotional standpoint, you do find yourselves very much invested in their relationship and sympathize with them when they both hit their own low points. All in all, this is a very well-polished film. The direction from James Marsh is solid as is the cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and the score by Johann Johannsson, resulting in a very nice-looking film backed up by a nice musical score.

But the key to this film is the performances from its two leads and I can safely say that after seeing this film that Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are no doubt going to be front-runners for Best Actor and Best Actress at this year’s Oscars. Redmayne disappears into the role of Hawking perfectly and handles the transformation that Hawking went through incredibly well. Equally excellent here is Jones as Jane who does a phenomenal job at conveying both Jane’s strength and emotions in the key moments of the film. And as I noted earlier, because the film makes sure to balance out these two roles in the story, there’s never a time where one of them tries to outshine the other; they work off each other and are both superb. Of course, chemistry is key to making a film romance work and that is very much the case here. The two have excellent chemistry which really makes the relationship between Stephen and Jane feel very much genuine. The film does have a solid supporting cast as well, including Charlie Cox (AKA the new Daredevil for you Marvel fans) as Jonathan Jones, a musician who befriends Stephen and Jane, the latter of whom ended up marrying him after divorcing Stephen in 1995 (and no I don’t really consider that a spoiler given that this is a true story), and David Thewlis as Stephen’s physics professor at Cambridge but at the end of the day this film belongs to Redmayne and Jones.

‘The Theory of Everything’ is definitely one of the best films of this year as it offers a sometimes sad but also extremely uplifting look at how Stephen Hawking managed to overcome the disease that was predicted to take his life in just two years with the love of support of his wife Jane. It’s a well-crafted film that benefits greatly from its direction, writing, cinematography, and its score. And even if you don’t really understand a lot of the science that is talked about in this film… don’t worry you’re not alone and even then, that’s not actually the main focus of the film. Instead it’s about the relationship between Stephen and Jane. And at the end of the day, the best elements of this film are the Oscar-worthy performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the lead roles of Stephen and Jane, respectively. Their chemistry is superb and both do a fantastic job at portraying these two and the struggles that they both overcame in dealing with Stephen’s ALS. It’s been said that this year’s Oscars are going to be pretty packed in regards to the acting categories but I do hope that both Redmayne and Jones earn Oscar nominations for their work here. In fact, I’d say it would be a genuine travesty if they didn’t get nominated because these are easily two of the best performances I’ve seen this year.


Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014) Poster

When the Young Adult Book to Film Genre needed a new frontrunner to lead the pack after the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Twilight’ franchises came to a close, ‘The Hunger Games’ stepped in and has been both a commercial and critical success, thanks of course to great writing, great directing, and great acting from all involved. While I do understand the problems that some people have with the first film in regards to the cinematography and editing during the actual Hunger Games, I still stand by that film as being a well-made adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novels. But like many people, I do agree that ‘Catching Fire’ was a superior film, expanding on the whole universe of Panem and moving away from those aforementioned ‘issues’ from the first film. So now ‘Catching Fire’ director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence) is back to direct the final film in the series, ‘Mockingjay’… except it isn’t the final film… not yet. Instead, Lionsgate decided to go the route that Warner Bros. did with ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ and split the final book of the ‘Hunger Games’ series into two separate films. This has certainly attracted a lot of controversy considering that the length of the book doesn’t really justify the need for two films. However, I do feel that ‘Mockingjay Part 1’, even though it is technically the ‘set-up’ for ‘Part 2’ next year, is just as good as the two films that came before it.

At the end of ‘Catching Fire’, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), winner of the 74th Hunger Games and participant in the following year’s event AKA the ‘Quarter Quell’, escaped from the Hunger Games arena after she destroyed it and was brought to District 13, the district of Panem that was thought to have been destroyed 75 years ago during the original rebellion amongst its districts against the Capitol. However, at the same time, Katniss’ fellow Hunger Games champion and love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) ended up getting taken by the Capitol and their home, District 12, was destroyed. Now in District 13 under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), Katniss finds herself pressured into being the ‘face’ of the districts’ rebellion: the ‘Mockingjay’. She is at first hesitant to do so but finds new purpose when she learns that Peeta is still alive, albeit now under the control of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol. This inspires Katniss to spread her wings and become the Mockingjay as she now finds herself at the frontlines (in both a figurative and somewhat literal sense) along with her allies, including her best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), and her mentors Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as she looks to save Peeta before he ends up getting killed by the Capitol.

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ is a very different beast compared to its predecessors. This time, there aren’t any ‘Hunger Games’ and instead it’s more about the political side of the rebellion and how each side is trying to use propaganda to sway public opinion. And while this film technically is more focused on that than the action, it still results in a very compelling film. But of course, the big question still remains; was the decision to split this final book into two films a good idea? Well, so far that has attracted quite a mixed reaction from a lot of people but personally I felt that it did actually work from a story perspective. I’ve noted before that the reason behind this was so that the filmmakers could expand on the book whereas Collins was forced to condense a lot of stuff to meet publisher demands and because of this, it does actually feel justified. Never at any time during the course of this film did I feel that it felt ‘padded’ to stretch things out for two movies. This movie does have a proper beginning and end with a clear objective; rescue Peeta from the Capitol. Because of this, I was never bored and the film did on a pretty neat but also very tense cliffhanger to lead into ‘Part 2’, where I’m guessing most of the action from the book will occur.

Once again this film, like its immediate predecessor, benefits from great direction from Francis Lawrence, who handles the transition to a more politically driven storyline (compared to the last two films) quite well and does a great job at showcasing the large scale of this rebellion. And that’s backed up by the great cast, headlined once again by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. In the last two films, Katniss was a character who was basically dragged into these events, sort of against her own will but now she’s much more proactive this time as we truly see her become the face of the revolution. Josh Hutcherson also stands out here as well as the transformation that Peeta goes through in this movie is truly fascinating. One of the advantages that the films have over the books is that because it isn’t in the same first-person narrative from Katniss’ perspective, this allows for the other characters to stand out more than they did in the books, resulting in members of the cast like Liam Hemsworth and Elizabeth Banks (the latter of whom brings such much-needed levity to this rather bleak setting as Effie) getting more to do and with equally great turns from other members of the cast including Jeffrey Wright as tech wiz Beetee, newcomer Julianne Moore as President Coin, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as rebel leader Plutarch Heavensbee, the whole cast is superb from top to bottom. But something that I forgot to mention the last time is that not only are the protagonists great but also the villain as well. Donald Sutherland has been great in these movies as President Snow. They REALLY make you hate this guy; cold, evil, and emotionless but yet he still manages to be calm and collected during all of this.

Now I’m not saying that I’m 100% supportive of the decision to split ‘Mockingjay’ into two films and ‘Part 1’ will never escape the fact that it’s basically a ‘set up’ for the finale in ‘Part 2’. But you know what? The same can be said for ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1’, and this is very much the Hunger Games’ version of that movie as both films are very similar in regards to their structure and execution. Yes, there’s not really that much action in this compared to the first two films… but hey, so was ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1’. In other words, this film still manages to be incredibly compelling thanks of course to the great direction from Francis Lawrence, the great writing that gives us great characters, and of course the great cast portraying these characters. I went into this unsure about the whole ‘2-parter’ thing but ultimately I came out pretty satisfied as I felt that the film did end on a solid note with an incredibly suspense cliffhanger. Now of course I say this knowing that this is only ‘Part 1’ of the story. We still got one more film to go in this series but you know that I will be there November 2015 to see this great series officially come to an end with ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ and I’ll also be keen to see if that film can also feel as ‘complete’ as a film like ‘Part 1’ was… as the first half of a two-part story of course.


Rating: 5/5!