Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Mary Poppins Returns

“Off we go!” with the new Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt)

 

“So long, Mary Poppins. Don’t stay away too long.”

So was one of the last lines of the 1964 classic that, 54 years later, is still arguably the best Disney live action film. Well, it has been over half a century since she graced our screens, and now we have Mary Poppins Returns, which does not live up completely to the original, but still is a delight to behold.

 

The sequel takes place about two decades after the first, during the great depression. It has been a year since the sudden death of the wife of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw). He still is a loving kind father to his three children Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still trying to help him out, even when it is discovered that Michael has to repay a loan or they will lose their house on Cherry Tree Lane. Things obviously do take a nice turn when Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, more on her in a bit) swoops back into their lives.

As in the original, there is a plethora of characters. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a light keeper named Jack, who takes on the counter-part to Blunt. Colin Firth is effective as the villainous banker Wilkins, and David Warner has fun as Admiral Boom, who still keeps the time on the hour.

There are some points where the movie does have faults. The action scene toward the end does seem a little far-fetched, and there is one scene involving Meryl Streep that, although a blast, does seemed a little tacked on. It does not completely add to the story.

The key to the movie is Emily Blunt. The original film made a star out of Julie Andrews (and won her an Oscar): It is an immortal performance. That being said, if there was any pressure for Blunt stepping into the role, she does not show an ounce of it. She is so effortless in her performance it is hard to remember we had worries about her being cast in the first place. Simply put, Blunt is practically perfect in every way.

Parents, there are some thematic elements, but as long as your kids have seen the first one, they are fine.

I have yet to mention the cameos at the end. It may be known to you who they are, but I won’t say in case you don’t. What I will say is that these two (undoubtably) legends still have gas in the tank at their ages.

Apparently, there are much more people out there than I thought that don’t like this movie. After you see it, you response will be along the lines of “Can you imagine that?”

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

Ralph Breaks the Internet

The mysteries of the internet await Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman)

When we first met the titular character in 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph, the atmosphere revolved mainly around that of the retro gaming world. Six years later, Ralph Breaks the Internet has jumped into the modern world. Thankfully, Ralph and his friends have remembered to bring along the warmth, charm, pathos, and humor back as well.

Still friends after the events of the first film, Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) have a mishap in Vanellope’s racing game which causes the player to break the wheel. They discover that the owner of the arcade Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) will have to shut the game down since the company of the game shut down and only one wheel is available for sale on Ebay (or the “Eboy”, as Ralph calls it). Thankfully, Litwak has also recently installed the arcade’s new WiFi, so Ralph and Vanellope take it upon themselves to travel to Ebay and get the wheel to save her game.

There are still some wonderful returning characters such as Felix (Jack McBrayer) and his wife Calhoun (Jane Lynch), but plenty of new characters to boot. Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) is the go to guy for answers (aka the search engine). The two key new standouts are Yess (Taraji P. Henson) and Shank (Wonder Woman‘s Gal Gadot). Yess is the diva who knows what is what when it comes to popularity on the internet, and Shank may be the only racer who can challenge Vanellope.

One of the best things an animated film can have is what I would call “rewatchability”. As in the first film, there are easter eggs a plenty to discover here. Perhaps the best part of the movie is when Vanellope has to travel to the Disney part of the internet (you will see why), and meets the Disney princesses. It is safe to say you may never look at the idea of a Disney Princess the same ever again.

Parents, if your kids saw the first film, they are fine with this one. The only thing they might feel confused of is about why adults are laughing as well.

Is it better than the first? My first response would be no (I admit it started off a little slow and does not have the freshness of the original), but it should not detract from how good the second film is. As was the case in the first, one of the best things about this film is that it actually has a message for kids. Even if you take away the humor, this is one of the better movies about friendship I have seen in some time, animated or otherwise. Disney has always been the best at bringing out the kid in all of us, and they did it again.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave no Trace

There is no trace of any falseness in this father/daughter relationship.

With only a few minutes before the start of Leave No Trace, the only thing I knew about the film was that it starred Ben Foster. Then I realized it was directed by Debra Granik, who made my favorite movie of 2010, Winter’s Bone. This got me excited and eager to watch her newest flick, and I am happy to say it did not let me down at all.

I will leave very little room for what happens, because it is one of those great films that you need to see with little knowledge going into. Therefore, I will just give the basics. Will (Ben Foster) is living on his own with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) after returning from military service and suffering from PTSD. The best way to cope for Will is to be as far away from culture as possible, with the exception of his daughter.

Like great film artists, Granik paints with the finest of brushes for characters. Events happen, and they are introduced to people in the world but father and daughter don’t react the same way. The same can also be said for the look of the film, which is luscious to say the least (it had me thinking if any other film had used natural light with negative results, which is not the case here).

Something else about the film I truly enjoyed was the rating of PG. I don’t recall any swearing, but the most is the thematic elements and some thematic material (involving injuries that are bad but not gruesomely so). A friend of mine took his preteen daughter, who I hear is now obsessed with survival skills.

The only two movies I know for sure I have seen Ben Foster in for sure was 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Hell or High Water (2017). In both films, he was the character we loved to hate on. That is far from the current case. He gives us a damaged guy beyond repair, with only his daughter to possibly help fight his personal demons.

This brings us to Thomasin McKenzie. It is admittedly hard to say how great her performance is, only since I have yet to see her in anything else. It is far easier to say how affective her performance is. We see a character arc in Tom that is so relatable we can almost touch it.  She may not get awards consideration, but Granik did direct Jennifer Lawrence to an Oscar nod in Winter’s Bone. So if anything, it will surely launch her career.

This is one of the year’s very best films.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Teen Titans GO! To the Movies (2018)

Teen Titans Go to the movies

The Teen Titans won’t be the only ones surprised at their first movie…

There are a lot of fans of the original Teen Titans TV show that are adamant haters of the show Teen Titans GO. I mean true haters. The first show came on the air just a few years after I was done with cartoons, but managed to see a few shows thanks to my little brother. When Teen Titans Go came out, the legion of die-hard fans became die hard haters. The show did not give life lessons as before, but it did give lots of humor for adults as well as kids. Enter Teen Titans Go! To the Movie, one of the years most surprising (and hilarious) films.

Sick of not being noticed, the Titan’s leader Robin (voice of Scott Menville) is determined to have a movie made about him (with or without the titans). It is this conundrum that is the basis of the film, but the side adventures of Robin, Cyborg (Khary Payton), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), and Raven (Tara Strong) that bring the best parts out, very few of which I will mention (even poking fun at Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice). All that is to say is that kids may be confused why their parents are laughing harder than they are at times.

Others who lend their vocal talents include Will Arnett (also one of the producers) as the team’s nemesis Slade (“SLAAAADE!”), Kristen Bell as film director Jade Wilson, Nicholas Cage as Superman, and great minor comic roles for (minor spoiler) Michael Bolton and Stan Lee.

Parents, there are some movies that you drop your kids off at the theater and pick them up at later. Don’t do it here. See it with them. It will be worth it (and yes, all ages are okay).

There are times when the action (which does look good for the type of animation  being used) does go on a bit too long, and the last act does drag on a bit. Still, this is one of those comedies that will require multiple viewings in order to find all the jokes and “Easter eggs”.

Meaning I have at least ten or more viewings to attend, which I would gladly do.

Overall: Four Stars

****

Incredibles 2 (2018)

Incredibles 2

Fighting crime is hard enough without having a baby to watch over.

It should come as very little surprise that it took fourteen years to bring the Parr family back to the big screen in Incredibles 2. Director and writer Brad Bird knew he had characters that are rivaled by few in the Disney Universe (not just Pixar), so he took his time. The result is a sequel that, while it does not live up to the original, still is passable as family fun for all ages.

The movie picks up right where we left off in the first film. The Parr family is chasing after the Underminer (Pixar voice man John Ratzenberger). After his escape, the family is under legal trouble again, and must go back into hiding. That all changes when they are approached by super hero enthusiast Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). They tell of a plan of how Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) can wear hidden cameras to show the hero point of view, not the point of view from the politicians. The choice is eventually made that Elastigirl will be the best bet for the public since she destroys the least amount of property.

This leaves Bob alone with his kids as a stay at home dad (though Deavor has given them a new house with amazing features). This is the plot where the film adds the most laughs, as Bob is unaware at first of his kids’ individual problems. Dash (Huck Milner) needs help with homework (“Why would they change math?!”). Violet (Sarah Vowell) is upset because her crush from the first film Tony (Michael Bird, son of Brad Bird) had his memory erased of her and does not know who she is. Then of course, there is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is discovering his new powers along with his family. It is so desperate that Bob even has to go to Edna (Brad Bird) for help (while in his monster form, Jack-Jack is also voiced by Nicholas Bird, the other son of Brad Bird).

Meanwhile, Elastigirl is on the hunt for a new villain named Screenslaver, who does have secrets of his own (I did guess at who the identity of the Screenslaver was, but I will still not reveal it). His powers are able technical in that he can entrance people on the TV screen. Eventually, this tech is transmitted to goggles.

There are other minor characters that don’t get as much screen time, but are fun to have around anyway. These are the super heroes who have also been in hiding, such as Voyd (Sophia Bush), Helectrix (Phil LaMarr), and others with their own unique powers.

Parents, the film may be the first time I have heard some swearing in a Disney/Pixar film (very minor ones like Hell and Crap). Aside from that, it is safe to say that any kid would be fine with this film if they saw the original.

The movie is fun, but far from the (pardon the pun) incredible first film. It does lack the originality and uniqueness from the first film, and does not nearly have as good a villain (though few can compare to Syndrome). Still, that should not stop you from having a great time with your family.

Though I would advise you to tell your kids that fighting a racoon may not be the best idea.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars ***1/2

 

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Cinema Paradiso

Young Toto (Salvatore Cascio) blooming into his love for film.

Recently, a good friend (and film critic) mentioned how every film goer has blind spots. In other words, certain movies just escape us and we miss them one way or another, unless we seek them out. That being said, I am still furious with my past self for not having seen the masterpiece Cinema Paradiso sooner. I can’t fathom how anyone would call themselves a movie lover and not want to see this film.

Set in present day (the movie came out in 1988, winning the Oscar for Foreign film), we meet Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), who has just been informed that a man he knows, Alfredo, has died. The funeral is tomorrow in his hometown, where he has not been for thirty years. In a series of flashbacks, the movie shows his life up to his decision to leave his home town and pursue his true passion: film.

As a child during World War two, young Salvatore (“Toto”) has one escape in his life of school: the local cinema. He soon befriends Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the protectionist, thought it is not easy. Toto learns the ins and outs, and then some.

Ok, you can get mad at me if you want, but I don’t want to give anything else away. All I knew about the movie (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore) going in was that it was about movies and was in subtitles. Sure, I felt I would get a lot of references, see some romance, and maybe even laugh a little. What I did not know was how moved I would be. Those who know me best know that it takes something special to make me cry (not just during movies). There was nothing to prepare me for the emotional impact that I was going to have at the end of this film, and what an impact! After spending so much time with Salvatore, seeing him grow up, learning life lessons, I guess the tears were inevitable. (It also does help when you have a majestic sweeping score by the hugely talented Ennio Morricone).

Parents, the version I saw was the PG version (a later, more mature version was released, unseen by me). The PG one had some swearing, thematic material, and sexual material (one movie being shown shows a woman’s bare back, and boys in the audience are clearly masturbating, though nothing is shown). I would say High School and above.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso is one of the very best movies about movies. It shows one of the key elements of magic that movies have always possessed: the element of escapism.

Molto bello.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

The Greatest Showman (2017)

The Greatest Showman

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and the birth of show business.

It should come as no surprise that The Greatest Showman has been a passion project of Hugh Jackman’s since 2009. He gives an all out performance that is the back bone of the film, which is more style than substance. Thankfully, the style more than makes up for it.

Jackman plays Barnum, the man who went through one of America’s first (if not the first) rags to riches story, from robbing street vendors as a kid to creating what is now known as the circus (though it did shut down for good in 2017). With his wife and childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) and his two daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), Barnum gathers up the outcasts of society to perform a spectacle that changes history.

Such outcasts are the bearded lady (Keala Settle), with a voice that could blow the tent over, Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the “general” and the Wheeler siblings, W.D. (Yahya-Abdul-Mateen II) and Anne (Zendaya, who is making her name known after years on the Disney Channel). Helping on the business side of things is Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).

For me, I had wished the film would have more musical numbers in the circus setting, not just in the real world. I understand they are telling the story of PT Barnum, but couldn’t just a few numbers be used with the spectacle and visuals he was known for?

Another issue I had with the film was that it spent a little too much time on the famous European singer Jenni Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). It is true that she has some stellar vocal numbers (though Ferguson is dubbed over), but it is too much time away that I wanted spent at the circus.

Thankfully, each number is so awe-inspiring that the movie is worth seeing just for them. I am not sure which is my favorite yet (I have the soundtrack to go through still), but the ones that come to mind are the raw power of “This is Me”, the romantic duet “Rewrite the Stars” and the redemption of “From Now On”.

Parents, it is so wonderful that there is a movie musical (besides a Disney one) like this you can take the kids to. It is PG, and that is only for some mild thematic moments (maybe not mild, but not scary).

The Greatest Showman is not the best of musicals of recent years (certainly not better than La La Land, though the lyricists worked on this film), but it is still nice to know that there are some movies that are willing to risk a lot just to entertain us with originality and awe.

Basically, what Barnum would have done.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars *** 1/2

Coco (2017)

Coco

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) loves music, even when his family disapproves.

 

Up the stairs and to the left.

That is where my grandma keeps the photos of her past. One picture in particular came to my mind frequently while watching Disney/Pixar’s latest triumph, Coco. It is the photo of my great-grand father as a kid. My grandma always said I had his eyes, and the more I look at it, the more I agree.

Family and music are the two obvious elements of Coco. We learn that Coco is not the main character, but the main character’s great-grandmother. The main character’s name is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, giving a stunning breakout performance reminiscent of Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho). He is a young boy living with his family of shoemakers. The family is loving, but is strict on having no music whatsoever. Miguel’s great-great grandfather (Coco’s father) left the family to pursue a music career, and never returned. He was therefore rejected by the family, and his picture torn away.

Still,  the love of music is in Miguel’s bones (and he is no slouch either at the guitar). He idolizes his hero, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), yearning to play exactly like him. Even so, his family (especially his grandma, Coco’s daughter) strongly hate the idea, even breaking Miguel’s guitar. When he tries to steal the real Cruz’s guitar, he makes an unexpected trip to the land of the dead, trying to find out why he can’t bring his love of music into his home. On his trip, he meets (not surprisingly) a vast number of characters, including a lovable dog named Dante, many dead relatives, and a mysterious wanderer named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

The film has at least two plot twists, neither of which I will spoil, except that one of them was kind of a given and the other I was not expecting. What I can say of the movie is that it is, of course, visual eye candy. Before the film even began, there was a short two-minute intro by the makers of the film (which seemed odd to me), saying how thankful they were to the countless people who worked on the film. Just watching the film is proof enough that the film took a lot of time and care to make. The land of the dead never seemed so vibrant.

Parents, the movie is Disney/Pixar, so the kids will be fine. Yes, there are some thematic moments, but nothing too bad for a child.

Is Coco the best of Disney/Pixar? Probably not, but it is surely a great movie. It does have some plot points that seem easily covered up, and the villain is bad, but sub par. Still, the visuals are amazing, the music (by frequent Disney/Pixar composer Michael Giacchino) adds to the film’s love for music, and the ending emotional punch is one of the best the studio has ever offered (my eyes got a little wet).

Coco is a film that is not just one you will always remember, but one worth it as well.

Es Muy Excellente.

Overall: Four Stars ****

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who has Treacher Collins syndrome, starts his first day of school.

There are many reasons why Wonder hit home for me, but the biggest has to be because I am such a supporter of anything that has to do with anti-bullying. As a small, autistic child with a larger sized head (“Big head” was a huge nickname for me as a child), it is easy to see why I was picked on as a kid. If only Wonder had come out two decades earlier (Note: I did have friends as a child so don’t feel too sad for me or anything.)

Based off of the book by R.J. Palacio (which I highly recommend), the film centers on August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, from Room). After being home schooled by his mom  Isabel (Julia Roberts) and having 27 surgeries, the time has come for him to attend public school. It is the first year of middle school for all fifth graders, so Isabel thinks now is the best time, despite the doubts from her husband Nate (Owen Wilson). Both walk him to school on his first day, along with his older sister Olivia “Via” (Izabela Vidovic).

We have learned that Auggie has already met at least a few kids, as well as the principal Mr. Tushman (“I have heard all the jokes”), played perfectly by Mandy Patinkin. There are some who just revel in bullying poor Auggie, such as Julian (Bryce Gheisar), but others who eventually warm up to him, mainly Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Summer (Millie Davis). Both Davis and Jupe are rather sensational.

If you have read the book, you know that it is divided into sections that are not just narrated by Auggie, but by other friends and family members. I was not sure how the film would have approached this, but it does so wonderfully (though some parts do seem a little jumbled). Some may think subplots like that of Via (who goes to her own school across town) and her time in the drama club would seem off base, but it is still essential to the film as a whole. Her potential romance with Justin (Nadji Jeter) is as sweet a budding relationship as they come.

All the cast is spot on. To start with, there were times I was watching Owen Wilson as the dad and forgetting we are looking at the same guy from movies with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. It is truly one of Wilson’s best performances. Of course, Julia Roberts is pitch perfect as the mom, as are all the rest of the adult cast (including Daveed Diggs as Mr. Browne).

Still, it is the young cast that shines the most. The kids don’t act over the top like you would expect in a Disney Channel show, but like real kids (though there is no swearing, so as to keep the movie at PG). Even small roles like that of Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), Via’s best friend, are played with depth and insight.

In the end though, it all goes down to Tremblay as Auggie. Ever since his huge breakout performance in 2015’s Room (which I still feel he was snubbed for at the Oscars), I knew he had a big career ahead of him. Now, more people will be able to see him in Wonder and jump on board. The kid is a born natural actor.

Parents, it has been quiet some time since I have seen a great, non-animated family film. It put a smile on my face that the majority of audience members were kids. There is no sex or nudity (some kissing), and next to no swearing (I think I heard “crap” only once). Basically, I would say ages 7 and up are not only okay with seeing this film, but should see the film.

In a nutshell, Wonder is a pure heart warmer, one that will inspire a lot of discussion in families long after the credits role (Note: I am not a parent, but I would assume a lot of parents will say there are some things the kids do that are not right, such as helping a friend cheat on a test, or fighting.) While Wonder is not my favorite movie of the year, I have a feeling that, when the time comes to make my top ten films of 2017, I will be fighting hard for Wonder to have a spot on the list.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Every frame of Spirited Away is a jewel, but this one of Chihiro is the most poetic…

Even though I have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s uncanny masterpiece Spirited Away countless times (there are only two or three other movies I think I have seen more), I only just recently finally saw it on the big screen, as well as in its original language. Still, it lost not one ounce of its magical effect: The experience only added to it.

As the first anime movie I ever saw, I can safely say that Spirited Away is the one anime movie for people who don’t think they like anime movies. Miyazaki has made countless classics, but this has to be his number one film (though My Neighbor Totoro is a close second).

The story of Spirited Away is like that of Alice in Wonderland. A ten year old girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase, who was also Lilo in Lilo & Stitch) is on her way to her new home when her parents stumble upon what looks to be an abandoned theme park. They see food that does not seem to be for anyone, so they eat it (well, chow down). Chihiro eventually realizes that the park is a place of unimaginable creatures and spirits. Her quest has her meet unforgettable characters including the tyrannical boss Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the boiler man Kamachi (David Odgen Stiers), the blunt yet kind Lin (Susan Egan), and the helpful friend Haku (Jason Marsden).

I will leave it at that, because this a movie that is not to be seen or heard, but experienced. Any artist out there would benefit to pause every frame, and spend five minutes looking at it. Miyazaki (who also wrote the script) gives such pin point detail to each inch of our screens that we are stunned. Even the animators at Disney and Pixar will tell you how much of a master this man is.

Upon watching the movie again, I also realized how much of a hero Chihiro really is. It is not just that she puts herself in harm’s way (the scene where she runs on a pipe is beyond bold for any person), but it is why she does it. Despite her puny appearance (she looks like she weighs no more than 50-60 pounds), she has a heart of purity and soundness, and it is perfectly reflected in the film’s closing line (which is very underrated).

Parents, this is a movie for any child. There are some scares, but nothing too bad. More so, it is one which you can sit down and watch with them (and even enjoy).

 

Recently, I did a poll on Instagram about whether Disney should keep making live action remakes of their films (most were for the idea). I am personally growing tired of it: Some of them did work, but now they are just overshadowing the far better originals. Spirited Away is one movie that, no matter how much money Disney (or any studio) has will ever be done well in live action. Heck, bring in James Cameron, and a live action version would still be terrible. Some movies are meant to stay the way they are.

I could go on and on about my love for Spirited Away, but it is better to experience for yourself if you haven’t already done so. It is impossible not to be moved by this film.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****