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

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

The LEGO Ninjago Movie Review

It was obvious from the get-go that The LEGO Ninjago Movie would be the least inspired installment of the continuing LEGO Movie franchise. Based loosely off a children’s cartoon series (which in turn was based off a preexisting toyline), The LEGO Ninjago Movie tells the story of Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), who lives in a metropolitan city constantly threatened by the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Lloyd happens to be the most despised individual in the entire city, mostly because of his relation to Lord Garmadon.

Luckily, Garmadon never comes close to ruling over anything, because the LEGO city is protected by a secretive ninja force led by Master Wu (Jackie Chan). And, unbeknownst to just about everyone, Lloyd happens to be one of those very ninjas. He, along with the rest of his ninja friends, is about to embark on a dangerous quest to stop Lord Garmadon for good.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie features many bizarre creative choices that I found to be quite delightful. The tone and the genre of the film, for example, are ever-changing and seem to be a blend of many ideas.

This film should’ve come with a hyperactivity warning, as there are very few breathers for the audience. Not only are the scene transitions quick, but entire plot points fly by at a rapid pace. What felt like five minutes of watching LEGO Ninjago turned out to be an hours’ worth of the film.

Sadly, most of the characters didn’t have any depth or personality to them. Other than the lead antagonist Garmadon and Master Wu, none really stood out as being interesting. I noticed multiple talented voice actors behind the little brick figures, but I guess the script didn’t call for utilizing their full potential.

Probably the best aspect of the film was the clever humor poking fun at popular action/adventure genre tropes. In one scene, they mock the overuse of the popular sound effect dubbed the Wilhelm Scream (heard in Star Wars as well as Indiana Jones). In another hilarious scene, they comment on how the wise character in action/adventure movies always withhold incredibly important knowledge until they’re in the process of dying. Very funny.

The LEGO Ninjago Movie had plenty of comedic, fun-filled moments, yet unfortunately lacked the charm of its LEGO predecessors. There are a plethora of scenes attempting to teach kids very simple and valuable messages. But where these scenes came off as cute in LEGO Batman and The LEGO Movie, here they’re just sappy. Those looking for a fast-paced children’s comedy won’t need to search any further. However, if you were expecting anything more than that, you may find yourself disappointed.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

The Emoji Movie: The Death of Creativity

The Emoji Movie takes everything selfish and wrong with our technology-obsessed generation and wears it like a badge. The film, which revolves around smartphone emojis, exists for the sole purpose to appeal to the masses, with zero attempts at creativity made. Films like The Emoji Movie are my least favorite kind of film to watch, ones that indulge in overused tropes and treat the audience like brainless idiots.

The plot is the same boring animated adventure that you see in every sub-par kid’s film nowadays. An emoji named Gene (T.J. Miller) is sad because he is different from all of his colleagues, so he embarks on an adventure to become like everyone else. Along the way, Gene meets a couple other outcasts who show him that it’s okay to be unlike everyone else. From here, I’m sure you can easily deduce how the rest of The Emoji Movie plays out.

Rather than crafting well-timed jokes that fit into the plot, The Emoji Movie instead hits the audience with a never-ending barrage of one-off puns. Painfully bad emoji-related jokes that are fired in rapid succession throughout most of the flick. Within the first five minutes there were at least twenty emoji puns associated with Shrimp, Christmas trees, and yes, even poop.

Everything about The Emoji Movie is an animated atrocity. It’s unoriginal, uninspired, mediocre, boring, manipulative, and downright asinine. The few clever ideas that the film displays are blatantly stolen from movies like Wreck-it Ralph and Inside Out, which are both more intelligent, entertaining, and heartwarming to watch. With nonexistent characterization and absolutely no laughs, The Emoji Movie is a cynical, trendy product that I took no pleasure in viewing.

The Verdict: F

-Zachary Flint

Despicable Me 3 Review

The Despicable Me series returns with its fourth, and regrettably most tired, film in the franchise. Full of hackneyed protagonists and uneven writing, Despicable Me 3 struggles to rise above mediocrity.

The film takes place shortly after the events of the previous installment, as we see Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) attempt to foil the evil plot of Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). Upon failing this mission, Gru and Lucy are fired from their jobs at the Anti-Villain league. So instead of reverting back to a life of villainy, Gru decides to travel to the island of Freedonia to meet his long lost brother named Dru (who is also voiced by Steve Carell). After a somewhat rocky reunion, the two brothers embark on a mission together to take down an all new supervillain.

The plot itself is, overall, pretty predictable and typical for an animated movie this far along in its franchise. With no curveballs or deviations from a standard kid’s movie plot, I believe most adults and children could easily predict the entirety of this film.

The villain this time around, again named Balthazar Bratt, is a rather bizarre character stuck in eighties culture. Bratt enjoys playing cheesy music, using eighties themed gadgets (like deadly Rubik’s Cubes), and participating in dance fights, all of which is to the delight of the audience. Being voiced by Trey Parker (creator of the show South Park), his character gets a lot of laughs from his line deliveries alone. I think it’s safe to say that Trey Parker voicing Bratt was my favorite part of the whole film, and is easily the most memorable.

The rest of the cast, particularly the Minions, are sadly at their most tired in this flick. The humor involving the Minions just isn’t where it should be, and manages to be more annoying that it is funny. Scenes that should’ve been hilarious received almost no reaction from the audience.

The conclusion of the film, while fairly action-packed and engaging, leaves multiple loose ends that don’t really get addressed. Situations and characters that are clearly set up as important in the first half of the film are completely disregarded by the end. This leaves me to assume that either Illumination Entertainment forgot to add in a few scenes, or just got lazy.

Despicable Me 3 is lighthearted, upbeat, and will of course be adored by its usual fan base. So while the film is relatively harmless, its entertainment value is really only skin-deep, as the true purpose behind the production of these films feels as prevalent and cynical as ever. The creative aspects of Despicable Me 3 come across as “focus group approved” gimmicks. Utilizing by the numbers thinking as a cheap way to get viewers into the theater, instead of genuinely entertaining audiences with new, original material.

The Verdict: C-

-Zachary Flint

Cars 3 Review

In the past, I’ve made it no secret that I highly dislike Disney Pixar’s Cars and Cars 2. While most people either find the films passable or okay, I cannot stand watching even a second of them. Coming from the creative giant Pixar, we should’ve gotten a film much more imaginative and unique than something like Cars, which looks more like an idea Blue Sky Animation would conjure up. The first film is an unoriginal mess, with an all too predictable plot and lame characters. Unfortunately for audiences, Cars 2 was even worse, with an incredibly bizarre plot involving spies. So, when going in to see Cars 3, I had already established some pretty low expectations for what I was about to watch.

And to my honest amazement, I thought the film turned out pretty great. Not only did Pixar course correct some of the issues of past films, they managed to make an all-around quality movie people of all ages can enjoy.

The film follows the fleeting racing career of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), as a new generation of advanced racers begin replacing cars like himself. In a last ditch effort to continue racing, Lightning looks to his new coach named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) for help. And despite a rocky start, the two embark on a journey of self-discovery, learning a lot about themselves and each other.

Our main cast gets another major update for this picture, and this time for the better. All the characters, new and old, are written much stronger, with a lot more personality. Not only does Lightning McQueen get a fulfilling story arch, but Cruz Ramirez and a few other minor characters get good payoffs too. This time around I actually found myself invested in the story and the protagonists, and I wanted to see our characters succeed in their endeavors.

In the previous Cars films, most of the camera angles and shots are boring, with little variety. Cars 3 on the other hand does a complete one-eighty, constantly shaking things up with great new angles that really captured the excitement of the movie well.

The camerawork is complimented nicely by the fast-paced, crisp animation, making Cars 3 much more visually appealing than its previous installments.

The only major downside to the film is the villain, who is just your standard one dimensional bad guy with no redeeming qualities. I feel that with how strong the morals are in Cars 3, they could’ve had a better antagonist that really hit the messages home. Instead, we just get a young, generic hot-shot who occasionally hurls insults at McQueen.

While I believe the Cars movies are among Pixar’s worst, I’m happy to say that Cars 3 is a real winner. There are some fun characters, an exciting story that moves along quickly, and even a really good message about aging. Cars 3 doesn’t break new ground in any sense of the word, and it stills has its issues. However, it does excel at being a fast-paced, family-friendly adventure that is infinitely more enjoyable than its previous two installments.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint