2019 Summer Box Office Predictions

2019 Box Office

I’ve been (wrongly) predicting the biggest box office hits of the summer ever since this blog started, and for the last three years, the predictions have been accompanied by a podcast recording with my friend Rachel, in which she joins me in trying to figure out what movies will make the most money. You’ll find my predictions below, and if you want to find out what Rachel thinks will be a hit, then listen to our conversation (also below). Being wrong is part of the fun, keep that in mind.

A note on what “summer” means: Box Office Mojo considers May 1-Aug 31 to be the summer movie season, and that’s what we are going with. That means Avengers: Edgame, which comes out the last week of April, is not eligible for our lists. Whether or not you consider it a summer movie is up to you, we just have to draw the line at some point. Never mind the fact that “actual summer” doesn’t start until June 21.

A second note: These predictions are for the domestic box office (U.S. and Canada), by the way, mainly because keeping track of when movies open in foreign markets is too much work.

1. The Lion King
Release Date: July 19
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 800 Million
Are you good at math? Hear me out. If you adjust for inflation, the live action Beauty and the Beast did 1.87 times as much money as the animated version. If you apply the same logic to The Lion King, then the live action remake would make $996 million, making it the highest grossing movie of all time. Given that we’re dealing with one of the most beloved properties out there, I think such a massive haul is a possibility. Still, a Disney remake being the highest grossing movie of all time doesn’t seem quite right, so I’m going on a half-assed limb at 800 million (which would still make this second highest grossing after The Force Awakens). In any case, I will go out on a limb to predict this makes more than Avengers: Endgame. 

[Update: In the time since writing this, and posting the podcast, Avengers: Endgame had by far the biggest opening weekend of all time, making upwards of 300 million. The likelihood of The Lion King outgrossing it seems quite unlikely, though I stand by what I said.]

2. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Release Date: May 10
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 400 Million
This is my big bet. When it was announced, Detective Pikachu seemed like a joke. But if  the summer of Pokémon Go taught us anything, is not to underestimate this franchise. The trailers have been a total success, pushing the nostalgia buttons so perfectly that even I -who, sure, grew up with Pokémon but hasn’t thought about the creatures in a long ass time- excited for this movie. Kids will go. Young adults will go. There is something in the air about this one. I can feel it.

3. Toy Story 4
Release Date: June 21
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 375 Million
The Toy Story movies are big money-makers, but I don’t see a lot of excitement for this one. Toy Story 3 was such a perfect cap to the series, a lot of people (myself included) are wondering what’s the point of yet another sequel. Unless the reviews are ecstatic and this ends up being some sort of unexpected masterpiece, I can’t imagine it surpassing Finding Dory and/or Incredibles 2 in the pantheon of Pixar sequels.

4. Spider-Man: Far From Home
Release Date: July 5
Studio: Sony
Predicted Box Office: 340 Million
The MCU is a safe bet, people seem to be into this new version of Spider-Man. Spider-Verse and Endgame should be able to gather enthusiasm for this sequel, which should make about as well as its predecessor (330M.)

5. Aladdin
Release Date: May 24
Studio: Disney
Predicted Box Office: 230 Million
This one could go any other way. People really don’t like the look of the trailers, especially the blue CGI work done on Will Smith’s genie. However, this is a nostalgic property so it should be able to make enough bank to not be a complete disaster.

6. The Secret Life of Pets 2
Release Date: June 7
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 225 Million
The numbers Rachel pulled out while recording the podcast made me think I’m terribly underrating this one. People love their pets, they need things to take children to, and they do love those Illumination Studios movies, no matter how bad they look to me. I’m sticking with a number 6 spot, hoping that the release of Toy Story 4 a couple weeks after will take some of this movie’s momentum.

7. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Release Date: August 2
Studio: Universal
Predicted Box Office: 190 Million
The Rock and Jason Stathan in an action extravaganza. Their movies don’t always make as much as they’re supposed to, but attachment to the Fast and Furious franchise should provide enough money to come close to 200 million.

8. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Release Date: May 31
Studio: Warner Bros.
Predicted Box Office: 180 Million
I see a lot of people online excited for this movie, but out in the real world? I could be totally wrong, but I think a crowded summer might make this an underperformer.

9. Men in Black: International
Release Date: June 14
Studio: Sony
Predicted Box Office: 175 Million
I thought the idea of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in a Men in Black reboot was a winning ticket, but the buzz around the movie is apparently really bad. Like most comedies, this will live or die on whether it is funny, and there’s really no way of knowing until the movie actually opens.

10. Dark Phoenix
Release Date: June 7
Studio: 20th Century Fox Disney
Predicted Box Office: 
150 Million
Disney seems to be dropping this one now that they’ve acquired 20th Century Fox. They want to do their own version of the X-Men, one that can interact with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so they just need the current series to wrap up as soon as possible. The buzz online is really bad, the trailers look bad, and most people are excited for the series to end than for this new movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t even crack a hundred, but superhero movies are insanely popular. At least enough for a top ten finish.

Advertisements

Dumbo, or Fear of the Big D

dumbo2019

The new version of Dumbo, based on the 1941 animated classic, is an anti-capitalist story. In this live action update, director Tim Burton presents Dumbo -the flying elephant!- as a uniquely talented creature, one that boosts the ticket sales at a crumbling circus and ends up attracting the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michale Keaton), the biggest entertainment magnate in the country. Vandevere, believe it or not, turns out to be evil. In order to get Dumbo into his fold, he buys the raggedy old circus, not caring about all the circus workers who will lose their jobs in the process. Even worse, he doesn’t care about Dumbo reuniting with his long-lost mother (she’s an inconvenience he’d rather shoot dead). But this being a children’s movie, the ragtag group of now unemployed circus performers (led by Colin Farrell) comes up with a plan to get Dumbo and his mom reunited, and give Vandevere a taste of his own medicine.

How ridiculous is it for a company like Disney to make such a movie? Disney, a company that last week finalized its purchase of 20th Century Fox -one of the “big six” Hollywood studios- creating massive layoffs as it inches slowly into total domination of the entertainment industry. Isn’t this some sort of deep hypocrisy- a giant corporation warning us about the dangers of giant corporations? Vandevere, who owns an amusement park called Dreamland full with massive parades and a “world of tomorrow” exhibit, couldn’t be a more obvious parallel for uncle Walt himself. How can this be a coincidence? Is this some sort of sick joke? In the time of Late Capitalism, Disney is here to sell our ideals back to us, as long as investors get rich. And we’re buying it. It’s hard not to when the same company owns Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, ESPN, the Muppets, Avatar, Titanic, The Simpsons, Disneyland, ABC, FX, and holds a majority stake in Hulu. How could you possibly escape that? 

Who is Dumbo in this analogy? The cute little elephant could be standing for an artist like Tim Burton, who has had his talent and originality drained by the franchise machine (and in no small part by Disney, who makes millions off of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise). Although at this point in the game, he might as well be standing for any talented young person trying to break into a creative field. Directors, writers, actors spend years trying to get a low budget off the ground, and if that movie breaks through in any noticeable way, the reward is being hired by a big corporation to write/star/direct their latest franchise entry. Independent voices such as Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao, Alex Ross Perry, even Argentinian arthouse staple Lucrecia Martel have gone through this process in one way or another. Is Disney’s plan to soak every talented person into its orbit? Is the ability to spend as much money as they can to attract talent what will allow to build a monopoly on culture. Here’s a once ridiculous question that now seems only appropriate: What would pop culture look like in a world where everybody works for Disney?

What makes this real life scenario different from the movie is that there is no ragtag group of circus performers that can save us. There is no Colin Farrell here to lead the charge. How could there be, when we don’t have to take on one bad individual, but an enormous conglomerate who nobody can escape. Because nobody can resits Disney. Not the artist who is presented with a massive, once-in-a-lifetime paycheck. Not the children who are advertised to from the minute they are born. Not the adults who grew up with Disney movies and have a visceral reaction when they hear the opening notes of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, or “Circle of Life”, or the Star Wars theme. How do you fight that?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for a while. Earlier this year I took inspiration from Alternate Ending editor Tim Brayton and decided that, like him, I will no longer go to see any Disney movie on its opening weekend. But what will that measly moral stance do other than make me feel a little better about my choices? Why does cutting Disney from my media diet feel as if I was becoming a Vegan (something I would never do)? How has a company been so effective at commodifying our pleasure, at owning our childhood, at selling it back to us? Why, if I understand that Dumbo’s anti-capitalist message is absolutely hollow, do I still find the little elephant so damn cute? Why do I get excited when I hear “Casey Junior” and “Baby Mine” on the soundtrack?

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do. I will continue with my “no opening weekend” rule, but Disney cannot be stopped. I do not know what a world in which culture is monopolized by one company will look like, but I am now convinced we’ll find out sooner rather than later.

Disney Has a Villain Problem (for Alternate Ending)

zootopia-sheep

This month over at Alternate Ending, I tackle something that’s been bothering me for a while: Disney’s inability to produce any memorable villains in the past ten or so years, which led me to talking about bigger frustrations I have with the way things are going over at Disney/Pixar. Excerpt below, or you can go ahead and read the whole thing Here.


What’s your favorite Disney villain? When answering this question, most people will be able to rattle off a number of possibilities within seconds. MaleficentJafarCaptain HookScarUrsulaCruella De Vil. There are so many options you’ll have a hard time narrowing your list to just one. The responses are totally different, however, when we tweak the question just a bit: What’s you favorite Disney villain of the past ten years? Suddenly the pool dries up and you’re left with Tangled‘s Mother Gothel (a superb villain in her own right) as the only reasonable option. These days, most Disney movies are saddled with utterly forgettable adversaries, and that’s if they feature a villain at all. Can you even remember the name of the main villain in Zootopia, Big Hero 6, or The Princess and the Frog? Villains have disappeared from Disney movies, and that’s a problem. Not because villains are essential to good cinema (although who doesn’t love a great villain?), but because the studio’s new approach to villainous characters points toward bigger problems in the way they make movies.

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL ARTICLE

Plot of the Dead: A Review of Pixar’s Coco

cocomx

Original movies. Once upon a time, we could rely on Pixar Animation Studios to deliver a movie that was not only original, but very good practically every year. Those days are gone. Now, like every other heavy-hitter in Hollywood, Pixar is most interested in making sequels to its older hits. Coco is the last original Pixar production we will see until, at least, the year 2020. On paper, Coco is an oasis, by far the most exciting project on Pixar’s list. A lot of time and research went into crafting this story about the Mexican tradition of Día de los muertos, and a lot of excitement built around the idea of Pixar depicting Mexican culture on a big canvas (and in a respectful way, for a change). Having finally seen Coco, I must say the results are mixed. The depiction of Mexican culture is detailed, but leaves some questionable gaps. The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is an overwhelming reliance on plot, a flaw that seems endemic to the way the Pixar team approaches filmmaking.

While watching Coco, the focus of anyone who, like me, was born and raised in Latin America is going to be in Pixar’s depiction of Mexico. On the one hand it’s a bit frustrating that the only Latin American (or Mexican) tradition Hollywood seems interested in is Day of the Dead. On the other, it’s easy to recognize that the iconography that comes with the Day of the Dead -colorful skeletons, orange flowers everywhere- is incredibly striking. One can only imagine all the things Pixar’s computer geniuses could do with the traditional visuals. A psychedelic extravaganza, perhaps? A beautiful rendering, at least.

Well, there are two sides to this story. After a beautiful papery introduction, Coco introduces us to a fairly realistic (if idillic) portrait of contemporary Mexico. Miguel is a young boy who lives in the fictitious village of Santa Cecilia. He dreams of being a musician in the image of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. There’s only one problem: his family hates music. Turns out his great-great-grandmother’s husband was a musician who ran away and left her and her young daughter to fend for themselves. After swearing off music, the woman managed to make a living as a cobbler. Years later, the whole family works in the shoe business, and music was never heard in the family again.

Until Miguel comes around, of course. He wants to show his family wrong by performing at a talent show that takes place on día de los muertos, but through a series of complications, Miguel ends up stranded in the Land of the Dead. This is the truly fantastic and colorful part. Or so it seems. First, we meet Miguel’s ancestors, who are all talking skeletons. Then, we travel through a long and beautiful bridge made of floating flower petals. Finally, we arrive in the Land of the Dead and our first glimpse of this wonderful world is… immigration?

Yup, there is immigration protocol in the Land of the Dead. In order to move from one plane to the other, you must go through customs and see if your face pops up in a little screen. You know, just like you do when you cross the border into a different country. This is the first big eyebrow-raising moment in the movie. The Land of the Dead sequences are the moments in which the movie can be as creative as it wants, isn’t this place supposed to represent the essence of Mexican identity and traditions? Is the movie suggesting that this is the essence of being Mexican? Crossing the border, being an immigrant?

The whole depiction of the Land of the Dead is a huge wasted opportunity. It is presented as essentially a prettier version of the “real” Mexico we have seen in the first part of the movie. The buildings, the ways to get around, the class structure, they’re all basically the same. There are concerts, and elevators, and pools, and fire escapes, and of course, immigration agents and customs. Except for a few details, it’s all practically the same, just with a bunch of skeletons. Where is the magic? Where is the creativity? This is what, I think, has become the problem with Pixar. They are too focused on having the plot make sense, at the expense of everything else around it.

Pixar’s motto has always been that the “story comes first.” You can find countless interviews, videos, TEDtalks in which a Pixar creative talks about the way in which they craft stories. At the time when Pixar first burst into the scene, their extremely logical way of looking at every angle of a story and crafting it to its full potential was practically unique in American animation. Years later, they are the most powerful animation house in the country. Not only have there been countless imitators of their style, but Pixar itself has bought into its own legend, following its protocol without questioning it.

Coco is all plot. In a way, it is an extremely tight story. There is not a wasted moment, every scene not only leads perfectly into the next scene, but sets up a bit of information that will be paid off in a later scene. In theory, this is how you want to craft a story. You want to make it as much of a perfect puzzle as you can. But are there other things you’re missing by doing this? What is being lost? The big irony of this approach is that by focusing so tightly on plot, the guys of Pixar have crafted a story so perfect that it’s all but guaranteed you’ll predict every beat. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I could have told you exactly how everything is going to play out.

A predictable plot is not always a death sentence (pardon the pun). Many movies work around lame plots by focusing on character, visuals, or set pieces. The best musicals of classic Hollywood actually thrive on generic plotting. But what can you turn to when plot is your biggest obsession? There are some nice songs in Coco, and some pretty visuals. But the plot doesn’t allow for the design to truly take flight. The character animation is boringly realistic, and the comedy repetitive. You won’t believe how many times a skeleton loses its head as the punchline to a joke.

It’s a shame Coco feels so much like a wasted opportunity. Hopefully the strength of the Disney-Pixar machine paired with the Thanksgiving weekend will make it into a big hit. Because, if nothing else, Coco being a success would guarantee future Hollywood productions dealing with Latino characters and subjects. This might not be the masterpiece we wanted it to be, but the only way to make one is to keep trying.

What’s the Point? A Review of Beauty and the Beast

beauty and the beast

Why would you make a live action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? Other than to make a hell of a lot of money, that is. The 1991 musical is one of the crown jewels in Disney’s history, the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and a family classic whose popularity endures to this day. The fact that everybody already agrees that the original is great is both the reason this movie got made, and the reason why it should’ve never been made in the first place. When you’re working with such a beloved property, it doesn’t make sense to make any big changes that could potentially anger the fans. But if you’re not going to make anything new to the material, well, then what’s the point of remaking the movie in the first place?

That doesn’t matter to the stockholders. For almost a decade now, Disney has been cranking out live action versions of its most popular movies.They started out with clever twists, like re-telling the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainous enchantress Maleficent, but somewhere between Cinderella and The Jungle Book all pretensions of originality were dropped, and so we are presented with a Beauty and the Beast that doesn’t pretend to be anything but a reenactment designed to feed on nostalgia and make lots of bank.

The biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is the conundrum I already mentioned, the fact that it must exist in this weird place of trying to update the story to our contemporary cultural moment, while not changing anything too much, so as to not anger the people who grew up loving the original. The second biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is that every time director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and his collaborators are presented with this conundrum, they settle in the worst possible decision.

For example, why would you cast Emma Watson, an actress who simply does not have the vocal power to star in a musical, as the star of a musical? I imagine Condon wanted to play off of Watson’s public persona as an outspoken feminist, trying to bring some 21st Century relevance to a character who was designed as a “strong female lead”, but still received criticism for falling in love with the talking buffalo who imprisoned her. Regardless of the motives, it was a bad decision. Watson can’t sign well enough to not need considerable auto-tune help on her tracks, and she isn’t completely comfortable spending most of her scenes acting against computer generated characters. Despite coming of age with the Harry Potter movies, Watson has always been better with contemporary material. Her one truly great performance remaining Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

Even if Watson was able to extract pathos out of having a conversation with a candlestick and her only set-back was the singing, there wouldn’t be a particularly good reason for her casting considering how lazy and half-baked Condon’s attempts at updating the material are. There is a scene in which the town’s people punish Belle for trying to teach a girl to read, a seriously clunky moment that tells us nothing we already didn’t know from listening to the lyrics of the opening number. The inclusion of a trip to Paris courtesy of a time-travelling book also goes nowhere, and doesn’t add any real value to the themes of the movie.

There are hundreds of similar little changes that don’t really have a reason to exist. Not only do they make the movie longer, but they muddy the plot and the message of the movie. One of the most admirable things about the animated version is how streamlined it is, how it doesn’t waste any of its 84 minutes and manages to tell a captivating and beautiful story. What’s the real reason why you would add an eleven o’clock number in which the Beast sings a ballad saying “I let her steal into my melancholy heart”, when we’ve already witnessed that happen on screen? We don’t need a CGI singing wilderbeast to recount the plot for us, especially since everyone in the audience will already be familiar with the story.

I know what you’re thinking. Is everything about this movie so bad? Isn’t there anything redeemable about it? The truth is the movie isn’t really all that bad, or all that horrible. It’s simply mediocre. I didn’t feel particularly bored or restless watching it, but the movie kept tripping on its own feet, reminding me that I had already seen this very story, told in a much better way. If there is a silver lining to this, it’s Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, who benefit not only from having extensive experience as musical theater performers, but from being able to play off each other and not having to constantly interact with computer generated characters. You know, acting.

This is particularly noticeable in Gaston’s show-stopping number, “Gaston”, which Condon stages like an old-fashioned musical, with a set of extras dancing around the tables and singing along. A good musical number will get you a long way, even if you decide to cut and re-arrange some of Howard Ashman’s magnificent lyrics for no valuable reason (I could go on a tirade about how incredibly stupid and disrespectful it is to change a score that is the crowning achievement of one of the great lyricists in the history of musical theatre but I don’t want to sound like too much of a maniac).

We are so familiar with the animated version that even the slightest change to a musical number feels like a betrayal, and every change made to the script feels like a deterioration of the original. The most successful parts of Beauty and the Beast are the ones that adhere closest to the animated classic. But if the best possible version of this movie is a frame-by-frame recreation of another movie -and if there are already remakes of Mulan, Aladdin, and The Lion King scheduled for the coming years- one can’t help but ask the question: is there any legitimate reason for this movie to exist?

Grade: 4 out of 10

Going Out in Style – A Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one

Those of you who saw 2014’s Godzilla will recognize director Gareth Edwards as a man who knows how to shoot an action set piece. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story takes a line from the opening crawl of the original Star Wars -“Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon”- into a feature length adventure detailing precisely how these spies managed to acquire said plans. How much you enjoy this movie as a whole, and whether or not you find to be a “good” movie, will depend largely on your relationship to the ever growing Star Wars franchise. One thing is certain, though. The set pieces, particularly in the last third of the film, provide some of the best filmmaking this operatic saga has ever seen.

Edwards’s most fundamental asset as a bankable filmmaker is his ability to make things look cool. And I mean really cool. This was apparent in Godzilla, and it’s apparent in how he finds infinite ways to present Star Wars iconography from a point of view we haven’t seen before. Looking at spaceships, planets, and the ominously famous Death Star from up, down, and sideways perspectives I suspect fans had been dreaming about since they had their first encounter with these movies. That’s a good start in and on itself, but thankfully the director’s eye for visuals is put to use with more varied purposes than simply “making shit look dope.”

The commercial goal here is pretty transparently to keep the brand name high and make lots of money. The artistic goal, to somehow deepen the world of the original movies. To explicitly explore the “wars” aspect of the saga’s title. To consider how this Rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire would affect the lives of the people on the ground, to consider the sacrifice and the messiness of life during wartime. To make the Star Wars universe equivalent of The Battle of Algiers, to explore in more nuanced and realistic fashion what being at war in a galaxy far, far away would be like.

I’m not sure how to feel about this approach to introduce darkness and realism to these movies. I fell in love with Star Wars when I was a kid, and in my opinion, the franchise should respect its place as an epic adventure that manages to rule our culture the way it does thanks to the overwhelming response it elicits in children. Rogue One is very clearly trying to go for a more mature audience (as far as caring about spaceships and robots can be considered a mature activity). Whether or not I feel comfortable with this decision from a philosophical perspective, I must admit that I had a hell of a blast watching this movie.

There was definitely something satisfying about seeing a familiar (fictional) world be explored from a distinctively different perspective. This is another front in which Edwards and his team deserve to be praised. They reconstruct the world of Star Wars as a tactile, grounded environment. Leaving behind the sheen and computer-generated excess of most science fiction blockbusters (including the George Lucas directed prequels) in favor of real-world locals. The movie opens in a uniquely dewy desert landscape that I must assume is Iceland, then moves to a crowded desert city (which explicitly evokes recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria), and culminates in a tropical beach (which explicitly evokes the Pacific theater of World War II). Characters get to be part of these environments, and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), makes the most to make these places feel real.

Those are the sort of decisions that make Rogue One the most visually exciting and carefully considered Star Wars movie since the immaculately beautiful The Empire Strikes Back (give or take the mythical first act of last year’s The Force Awakens). On other fronts, however, the movie is less successful. As a piece of screenwriting, it cannot be described as anything but a mess. There were reports earlier this year that Disney ordered the production team to come back for reshoots after principal photography had wrapped. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the original cut of this movie was very, very different from what we got in theaters.

I assume, however, that most of the re-writing and re-editing were used to reshape the first and second acts of the movie, which are the most plot-heavy and not coincidentally least effective. As far as plot is concerned, the movie focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a tough young woman who is tapped by the Rebel Alliance to help them find her father (Mads Mikkelsen), the engineer responsible for building the Death Star. Even though she is joined by a ragtag group of racially diverse warriors (including Diego Luna and Donnie Yen), she remains the protagonist, and the one character with an arc. She goes from an uninvolved lone wolf who survives on the fringes of the Empire, to a dedicated hero willing to sacrifice her life for a cause bigger than herself.

The character transformation doesn’t work that well. Very few of the character bits do, honestly, thanks in large part to a structure that jumps from planet to planet, follows many different characters and seems only half-interested in fleshing out their inner lives and motivations. There are three credited editors in this movie, as well as a fourth person credited for “additional editing”, which is never a good sign. I suspect the movie might’ve been more effective with less time committed to exploring familial relationships and more time devoted to the process of pulling off an impossible mission. Less hero’s journey and more heist movie.

At this point I’ve talked too much about the movie that could’ve been and not enough about the movie that actually exists. And before I go on to the strongest part of the movie, I do have to address what is probably the most disappointing decision in the film, and the one element that seems to be in total contradiction to Edwards’s vision for a visceral, spies of war adventure. If you remember the original Star Wars movie, then you’ll know the Imperial Commander in charge of the Death Star was one Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing in what is probably the best performance in any Star Wars movie. Grand Moff Tarkin not only appears, but has a substantial and integral role in Rogue One. And the character is played (in a way) by the late Peter Cushing.

Instead of casting a contemporary actor who looks like Cushing, or try to make his role as small as possible, the filmmakers decide to “revive” Grand Moff Tarkin by creating a computer generated image of Peter Cushing. It’s a ghastly decision that strikes all sorts of wrong notes in all sorts of different ways. Not only does this show immense disrespect to the memory of Cushing, it shows a complete lack of respect for the concept of humanity on the part of the Disney Corporation who has deemed the value of Tarkin as a piece of intellectual property to be greater than the value of Peter Cushing as a professional, an artist, and a human being.

But it’s not only the extra-textual implications of the technique that are problematic. It is a technological gamble that simply doesn’t pay off. It is immensely distracting to see a creature right out of the uncanny valley interact with actual human beings. Our brains cannot pretend that this character is anything but a creepy-looking cartoon. Bring in everything else, and not only can you not think of anything else while watching the Tarkin sequences, you often find yourself still thinking about this misguided decision during whatever scene follows his appearances. If there ever was a thing that took me out of a movie, this was it.

And yet, despite slapdash screenplays and computerized resurrections, once Rogue One reaches its final act, and our heroes do go on their final mission to retrieve the plans to the Death Star from an Imperial base, the movie doesn’t just fly, it fucking soars.

This is when Gareth Edwards shows what he’s made of. This is one of the most satisfyingly climactic action sequences in a blockbuster film I have ever seen. The sense of scale, or space, of direction, it is all precise, and it is constantly moving forward without missing a beat. In the midst of the mayhem, Edwards finds moments to show us the dopest shit he can imagine. Taking the fantasies of every kid who played with Star Wars spaceships as a kid and making them a reality. You can call it a very expensive exercise in fan fiction, but what an exercise! What is even more impressive, is the final moments of the film, which connect directly to the opening moments of the 1977 feature film Star Wars, and somehow manage what almost every prequel fails to do. It imbues the original movie with a newly found sense of urgency, and depth.

I would go back to the theater just to watch that third act again. It was something.

Grade: 7 out of 10

 

Things I Thought About While Watching ‘Moana’

moana

It’s hard to think about anything else but the glum future of the United States of America after the total clusterfuck that was this election. I do understand that every movie that gets released for the next four years will be analyzed in terms of “what it says about Trump’s America”, and I do expect such analyses to get really old really quickly. But there is something fascinating about the deep sense of bittersweetness I experienced while watching Moana, Walt Disney Animation’s latest production. It’s a movie designed as an empowering tool for little girls everywhere that has inadvertently become a lament for all that could have been, and all that we progressive and liberal people fear will be lost in the face of this terrible election.

First of all, the movie takes place in a mythological version of the South Pacific. A beautiful region of the world that looks legitimately gorgeous in the movie. People who read this blog know I am not the biggest fan of computer generated animation, but this movie looks beautiful (which is a big plus when compared to Disney movies as recent as Frozen, which is a movie I really like, but quite frankly doesn’t look very good). It is, at the same time, particularly heartbreaking to look at all this Pacific Island beauty and realize that the real-life equivalent (which is equally if not even more breathtakingly gorgeous) faces a very real danger of being swallowed up by rising ocean levels as a result of human-influenced climate change. Thank God the U.S. just elected a President who doesn’t believe such a threat exists.

Seeing young Moana go on an epic quest to reverse the curse that is destroying her island paradise made me think of the hundreds of South Pacific people who blocked an Australian port to protest rising tides. The young heroine’s quest gained a level of sorrow in my mind as soon as I saw the beauty of the environment the animators created, and it only grew bigger as the movie developed its themes. See, the basic idea of the movie is that Moana’s people used to be travelers who explored the sea looking for new islands in which to settle. As the movie opens, Moana’s tribe has grown afraid of the dangers of the sea and they’ve closed off of all sorts of exploration. They have turned inward and forgotten that they used to be, essentially, immigrants. Sounds like any particular group of people to you?

Not to get too political, but the more I think about the movie, the more parallels I find to current events. There is, of course, the fact that Moana is groomed from the day she is born to become a rightful and trusted leader for her people, and that she fights long and hard to do what is best for them while challenging the views of her relatively close-minded father. Moana is fueled by responsibility, her father by fear. Of course, Moana triumphs at the end, unlike another woman leader who worked her whole life in public office and tried to become a great leader but was defeated by an experienced old man who largely fueled his supporters with fear. Listen, you might think I’m exaggerating with these parallels, but a key line repeated in the movie insists Moana remember “who she really is”, which made me immediately think of the phrase “this is not who we are”, which so many people used in order to fight against the xenophobic and divisive views that bubbles up during this election season.

I will stop with the parallels now. All I’m trying to say is that it was quite difficult for me to enjoy Moana for what it was and take the current political situation out of my brain. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it made have tinged my viewing experience in a way I wasn’t prepared for, but at the same time, it made me think of the young girls who will watch Moana and find in the central character a source of motivation. To also work hard to be the best person they can be, to become leaders, and to be ready to go in long and hard personal journeys in order to do what is best for the people that they love and the land they share with them.

While we’re on the topic, Moana herself strikes me as a particularly strong protagonist worth of serious unmitigated praise. It is yet another revisionist attempt on Disney’s part to fight against the more regressive aspects of their whole “Princess” brand (Moana even says “I’m not a princess” at some point in the movie), but one that really works. Two key factors help this point tremendously. First, Moana is a smart girl, who like I’ve said a hundred times now, works hard for what she wants to accomplish. Second, her quest is not a selfish one. I love The Little Mermaid (which was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind Moana), but Ariel’s quest is essentially a selfish one. It’s about doing things for herself and to make herself feel good. That’s a valid quest in itself, but I find it particularly endearing that Moana is doing something not necessarily for herself (there is an element of self-fulfillment of course because this is a Hollywood film after all), but to provide a better future for her people and become a righteous leader.

All of this is accomplished without giving her a love interest or defaulting to a stronger male character. Yes, there is Maui (the demigod voiced wonderfully by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who becomes an escort and sort of mentor for the girl, but by the end of the movie Moana and Maui are equals, stronger when they work together than when they are apart, and it’s Moana who drives the plot and must convince Maui to keep going when it seems like all is lost.

In terms of the movie itself, not everything is as tightly plotted and carefully executed as say, Tangled, which remains the best of the recent string of computer animated Disney movies. The songs (co-written by most popular person in the world and awards-magnet Lin-Manuel Miranda) are mostly just ok. “How Far I’ll Go” is the standout, and probably the best “I Want” song Disney has put on film since “Part of That World”. But then you have Jemaine Clement giving a hilarious voice performance as a giant crab who is saddled with a nothing of a song when hearing his clever line readings would’ve been more rewarding. The other songs are merely ok.

That being said Moana is still a really good movie, and one that I would be completely happy to see little girls all around the world obsess over. This “not a princess” could prove to be a great role model. Here’s hoping she inspires a generation of future leaders.

Grade: 8 out of 10