Before Christmas Review (Short Film)

This week I’ve been requested to review a 2016 film titled Before Christmas.

Independently written and directed by Chuyao He, the film follows a small, low income Chinese family as they relocate to the big city as a means to find work. The father (Lao Lee), along with his 18-year-old son Xiao Lee (Deyang Hou), find employment in a factory producing Christmas decorations. As the family endears the difficulties of sweatshop labor, Xiao must come to the harsh reality that his dream career may be just a fantasy.

Before Christmas displays undeniably professional camerawork, with fresh and interesting angles that still feel natural without coming off as pretentious. The film also utilizes minimal amounts of dialogue, allowing the actions of the small but talented cast to tell the story.

All throughout the film, our protagonist struggles with the underlying theme of loss of innocence, though not in a conventional Hollywood sense. Through hard work and dedication, you’d expect the main character to finally achieve his goal of becoming a professional musician. Before Christmas gives no such closure. Instead, Xiao learns the harsh reality many must ultimately face, that dreams of luxury are often just that. Dreams.

This is a message I find to be harsh and critical, but nonetheless necessary. Not everyone gets to be a coveted musician, a famous actor, or a wealthy writer. And sometimes our life situations dictate the possibilities of occupation.

Before Christmas is an incredibly well-thought-out film with a very unique message, one that’s seldom told. It impacted me emotionally in a way that was both profound and provocative. It made me contemplate the unfortunate manufacturing of Christmas, the tribulations many families face, and the unrealistic nature of stardom.

 

Check out the Before Christmas IMDB page here!

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Rarely do films have the capacity to tackle social issues with such intelligence and insight as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Set in a small, quaint country town, a local woman (Frances McDormand) rents out three decaying billboards along a deserted road. With these billboards, she creates a controversial message directed at the revered police chief of Ebbing, Missouri, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). What follows is a moving drama about both hate and forgiveness, all while balancing a dark sense of humor.

Led by the incredible talents of Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell, the acting felt as human as a film could get. With a script as powerful, down-to-earth, and moving as the performers, Three Billboards manages to impress on both a practical and emotional level.

Three Billboards hits all the right beats at precisely the right moments, with plenty of dramatic and heart wrenching moments to keep the audience engrossed in the story. Any lesser film would’ve created a black and white scenario for itself, with the police portrayed solely as incompetent racists and our female protagonist as a virtuous everyman.

And while at first glance that seems to be the case, Three Billboards instead prefers to operate in various shades of grey. Each and every character has their ups and downs, moments when they act irrationally and selfish, racist and sexist, but also sensible and just, compassionate and forgiving. As the story evolves, we the viewer are given insight into each character, and come to understand them all a little more deeply.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of my favorite kind of films to see.  It leaves the viewer to contemplate the morals and meanings, as well as fill in the blanks, but not in a way that makes you feel gypped or cheated. I believe there’s a lot to be learned from films like Three Billboards. And given the opportunity, I’d watch it again in a heartbeat.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Coco Review

Following the lukewarm critical and public reception to numerous of their recent films (particularly The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3), Pixar hits home with their musical tale titled Coco. Based on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Coco features a variety of enjoyable characters, exciting moments, and an overall light mood.

Coco follows the character of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), despite his family’s multi-generational hatred of music. However, through a series of unfortunate and inconvenient events, Miguel finds himself stuck in the Land of the Dead. Among the colorful people of the dead is a mischievous yet delightful man named Hector, who befriends Miguel and promises to help him return home. Together they embark on a fantastic journey that may unlock secrets to Miguel’s family.

After what I felt to be an underwhelming start, Coco really picked up around the halfway point, at a scene involving a big musical contest. Here, a variety of interesting and rousing musicians come together for a competition of sorts. This is when Pixar fully began to display their talent for entertaining animation, with a distinct visual style and plenty of heartwarming charm. This scene and beyond is when the storytelling and imagination really escalated into the Pixar methodology that people know and love.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Mexican culture or the Day of the Dead, but I can presume that we got the watered-down Disney version of the whole thing. Nonetheless, I think Coco serves as a great stepping stone for those curious in learning about another culture, especially young children.

The film even has a few nice little twists at the climax, ones that parents may see coming but kids will definitely respect. And while I was hoping the end resolve would’ve taken a morally grey direction, the message is well-crafted and communicated brilliantly.

At times, Coco tries too hard with its overly childish humor (like the comic relief dog sidekick, which was a huge misfire), and at other times it wasn’t confident enough to take the story to the next level. However, with its shortcomings easily forgivable, Coco developed into an emotionally heartwarming and visually pleasant film. A worthy entry into the Pixar canon.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure Review

Moviegoers around the world hoping to see a cute, five-minute short with their viewing of Pixar’s Coco, are instead being kidnapped for over twenty minutes to see Disney’s Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. A Christmas special starring the cast of Frozen, this short is full of forgettable music, beautiful animation, and a runtime that seems to go on forever.

With nobody to celebrate Christmas with in the Kingdom of Arendelle, Anna and Elsa become sad when they realize they have no holiday traditions to share. That’s when their snowman friend Olaf (Josh Gad) decides to travel to the local community and find other people’s Christmas traditions to share with them.

The story, for being a Disney short, was surprisingly all over the place and had no real focus. I know that Frozen is geared towards younger audiences (who don’t care so much about focus), but even the kids in the theater seemed quite bored.

Olaf’s Frozen Christmas served more as a pointless distraction from the main event (that being Pixar’s Coco) rather than a cohesive, self-contained story. Sitting at over twenty minutes long, I became irritated with just how much time this “short” occupied. It begs the question of, “Why they didn’t just make an entire film?”. With all the hard work and effort but into the animation, why not just put the resources into making Frozen 2 at this point?

After numerous films with underwhelming box office performances, I have a feeling that Disney was a little self-conscious with Pixar’s newest venture. Therefore, they felt the need to include a Frozen Christmas special to bolster ticket sales. A bold (and sly) move.

At least, that’s the idea I’m running with.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint

Justice League Review

The Justice League film finally makes its debut into theaters, featuring plenty of hollow performances, bad camera work, and one rushed incredibly story.

With signs of a great evil upon them, Batman (Ben Affleck) decides to assemble a team of individuals with superhuman powers. This includes the likes of The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). They together must learn to work together to stop the evil Steppenwolf (no, not the band, but I wish it was) from taking over the world.

Our extensive cast of superheroes are given very little time to build chemistry and learn to work together, which was oddly the whole message of the movie. One second they will genuinely dislike one another, then suddenly for no reason at all (other than for the convenience of the screenwriter) they were working as a team and cracking jokes. It was almost as if there were scenes missing from the movie that involved the bonding of the Justice League. But what we were left with was the sloppy edit version.

This aspect was sadly compounded by the hollow characterization, as the audience really has little point in caring for characters like Cyborg and Aquaman. Both had hastily rushed introductions that didn’t really fit the story. Even the introductions of Wonder Woman and The Flash were disappointing and drab.

One of the most abysmally embarrassing topics surrounding this flick was the comic relief, mostly provided to us by The Flash (a character I found to be revolting). The entire theater remained dead silent for the whole film. Occasionally there’d be a light chuckle or a halfhearted laugh, but the majority of the crowd was unamused.

And at the conclusion of the film, about five or so individuals stood up and applauded enthusiastically, with a few others who reluctantly joined in on the celebration. The rest of us sat there, quietly mourning what could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve been.

While some moviegoers may prefer this over perhaps Man of Steel or Batman V. Superman, I believe Justice League to be the worst out of the bunch. The story is a messy, rushed, paint-by-numbers version of the Avengers. Many of the action sequences were as incompetently filmed as Batman V. Superman, only the characters were twice as bored while doing it. Even Batman, my favorite in the series thus far, looked about as tired and disinterested as the audience I saw Justice League with.

The Verdict: D

-Zachary Flint

Daddy’s Home 2: A Ho Ho Horrible Holiday ‘Comedy’

Daddys Home 2 follows the occasionally used formula of turning a comedy sequel into a holiday escapade. An almost always disastrous decision (just look at A Bad Moms Christmas), it will surprise no one to hear that Daddy’s Home 2 is a comedic flop. With the first Daddy’s Home being a mediocre and forgettable comedy, this installment had no intentions whatsoever in surpassing it.

Will Ferrell plays his usual man-child schtick, and Mark Wahlberg plays a tough guy. Together they co-parent a set of forgettable child actors, who are disappointed they always must do two Christmases. That’s when Ferrell and Wahlberg get the bright idea to do a joint Christmas, as well as invite both of their dads in on the excitement. Their dads unfortunately consist of Mel Gibson (a stereotypical racist) and John Lithgow (a mirror image of Will Ferrell). From here, wacky and predictable hijinks ensue.

The only clever bit in the film involved a below the belt jab at Liam Neeson and his typical style of movies. Apparently in this universe, Neeson starred in a terribly bloated action film called Missile Tow (Get it!). From my guess, this is some kind of holiday version of Taken or Non-Stop. Pretty humorous nonetheless.

Daddy’s Home 2 suffers from the same ailment as every other bad comedy. That being, it’s not funny. It’s constantly caught between trying way too hard to be comedic and not trying at all. Sometimes there are moments of slapstick humor that are painfully long, and at other times there are scenes where I’m waiting for a punchline that never comes.

And by the end of Daddy’s Home 2, few of the characters went through any sort of change or revelation. They’re all still horrible people, yet the film accepts this and just decides to end on a poor note. Nothing is gained from watching it. In fact, all Daddy’s Home 2 really did was shine a spotlight on the limitations of these actors and actresses.

There was one particular scene in the film that really rubbed me the wrong way, and I think it really captures the mentality of Daddy’s Home 2. It’s when the entire cast gathers at a movie theater towards the conclusion of the movie. Will Ferrell’s character stands up in front of a crowd and makes a comment on how everyone came to the theater with someone they love. Except, of course, one man in the back, who came to the movie alone on Christmas. Will Ferrell then makes a passing remark on how this man is sad, and somewhat pathetic.

Well, movie, Christmas for some isn’t so joyful, and is quite lonely and depressing. So, when you make a shoddy, low-quality, unfunny, sloppy joke such as that, you come off as a huge dick.

Bottom line, this movie sucks.

The Verdict: F

-Zachary Flint

Murder on the Orient Express Review

Based on the beloved Agatha Christie novel by the same name, Murder on the Orient Express follows world-renowned detective Hercule Poirot (played Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the film) on a trip from Istanbul to London. What was supposed to be a relaxing break from his rigorous investigative work turns out to be one of his most difficult cases yet, as one of the passengers on the train is mysteriously murdered. It is now up to Poirot interrogate all passengers and gather clues so that he may uncover the murderer before the train arrives to its destination.

Going in with very little previous knowledge on the subject, I had high hopes for Murder on the Orient Express, which were quickly dashed within the first twenty minutes of the movie. What I hoped would be an exciting, engaging mystery with great performances turned out to be almost the exact opposite.

Most of the characters felt very flat and intensely boring, all except for our main protagonist Poirot. Though restricted by some melodramatic and tedious dialogue, Kenneth Branagh gave a mighty strong performance. His compulsions and extreme orderliness gave this drab film some much needed levity. Even some of his more serious moments, when not bogged down by overly emotional dialogue, were very convincing and entertaining.

As for our line-up of potential suspects, I was shockingly surprised by the lack of charisma put into the performances. So many big, talented names were tied to this production (such as Willem Dafoe, Daisey Ridley, and Johnny Depp), yet it was acted and filmed so unimaginatively. Take Johnny Depp for example, who is known for playing many extravagant, wild characters. He is reduced to playing a mundane, uninteresting fellow that made me tired just watching him.

I was quite a fan of the set pieces and costume designs, which fit the overall look of the 1930’s very well. The soundtrack was also quite fitting, fusing whimsical, adventurous composition with melodic music that fit the times.

Unfortunately where the film finally lost me was in the semi-climactic end, where an already convoluted mystery wrapped up into an ultimately inconsequential resolve. I do respect the angle that they attempted to go at with the ending, but the hole was already dug too deep.

The real issue at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express is in the mystery itself. More specifically, the actual murder that is the central focus of the film takes place in the past. This kind of a setup is fine in a book, where the reader can be described, in detail, the murder through flashbacks. In the film however, the viewer is only dished out vague, out of order pieces of information as Poirot continues in his investigation. This makes the mystery incredibly inconvenient to follow along with, especially when most of the actors are about as compelling as a piece of burnt toast. Even after having just watched the film, I can’t remember a single character’s name, aside from Poirot.

Those with a love of Poirot and a patience for this kind of mystery may get their money’s worth, so long as they’re willing to look past the somewhat poor filmmaking and dreadful characters.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint