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Mamma Mia!

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***

Typical isn’t it? You wait 20 years for a dad and then three come along at once.

For those like me who were unfamiliar with the play on which this movie is based, it is about a wedding where the bride invites her three potential fathers without telling her mother. Also, they sing songs by the 1970s Swedish pop group Abba. I will admit that this is a deeply flawed movie, which if one wanted to tear apart, one certainly could. It is silly and the acting is a mixture between melodrama and light slapstick.

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Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried, as Sky and Sophie, singing Abba’s “Lay All Your Love on Me”, which was the surprising high point of the movie, Mamma Mia © 2008 Universal Pics.

Yet for all of the movie’s flaws I cared about the characters. Amanda Seyfried—Cosette, Les Misérables—strikes just the right balance of ingenuity and naivete to lead the story, while in the hands of a lesser actress her plan would have driven me mad. Fortunately, she is the one who interacts with all the other characters. Through her I became invested in the story and wanted to find out the payoff of the premise. Who is her father? Will the potential dads talk to her mom–Meryl Streep? Will one of them wind up with the mom in the end?

But by far the biggest question that this movie left me with was, does Abba exist in this universe? I mean, let’s examine the facts. All the main characters break into songs from Abba’s catalog. It is not just one, or one group, it is all of them. These songs are sung in the first person and they apply to the circumstances these characters face. At no point in the movie are the voices of the band Abba heard. I see this as leaving two possible circumstances. The first is that Abba exists, as a band from the 1970s, and people know their music to a greater or lesser extent. These people, by their own volition, use the most appropriate Abba song for their situation every so often. The second is that there never was an Abba in this universe, but their music and lyrics are so potent that they manifest themselves through this certain collection of people at this point in time. Perhaps it goes farther than that and this phenomenon occurs around the world, much like how the alien ships in Independence Day communicated synchronously. Let’s take my favorite song in the movie, “Lay All Your Love on Me1, that song begins with Sky looking for his missing fiancée, Sophie, and as she runs to him he starts to sing that song. They sing to each other, which can be explained in either Abbaverse. Then a squad of men swim ashore and carry Sky off, so that they can synchronized dance to the song before hopping into the water, which abruptly leads to Sky departing on a mystery jetski. This is absurd in a world with Abba songs, and a little less odd in that second world where Abba songs erupt from people. But the song continues on with Sophie finishing the song that night. The song never stops, so, did time pass? Does she know that time has passed? Is she supposedly singing this same song for a second time? If so, did someone else sing the male vocals? For every conclusion I make I have three more questions! Movies are supposed to make us think, and that is especially true in excellent art and unintentional comedies.

1 I hope this YouTube link works forever. I do not even know how to download videos from YouTube, plus, what is the payoff for me to do? It would generally be illegal anyways.

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Star Trek Beyond

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***½

Dammit Jim, I’m a human being not a Vulcan!

Totally boned.

The Swarm attacking the Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond, © 2016 Paramount Pics.

I thought that Krall—”The Wire”, Idris Elba—was a good villain, but he was very reminiscent of Nero (Star Trek) and Khan (Star Trek Into Darkness). I think that is why this movie received the reaction that it did, because it was more of the same. It just so happens that those first two were excellent so getting more of a good thing still feels fun. The non-crew member addition to the cast, Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, worked, although Boutella had to act despite extensive makeup and having to speak with an alien affectation. As for the regular cast of the Enterprise, they continued to be an enjoyable lot with excellent chemistry.

I do not know if this is a criticism, or a compliment, but that feeling of more of the same comes from a new director, Justin Lin–Fasts 5 & 6–and a new writers Simon Pegg—who reprised his role as Scotty—and Doug Jung. Perhaps if I looked at the first two with a more critical eye—excluding the sexism critique I provided for Into the Darkness—I would have found more plotholes, but here there are several jumps that we are expected to make as an audience. For instance, they show a ship on fire in a way that is illogical, but looked cool and looking cool appears to be the side of the scale that had more weight in this movie. And, at the risk of revealing my lifelong Trekkie status, how do photon torpedos not work against clusters of small fighters? They don’t even have to hit to have an effect! They are like depth charges despite the vacuum of space. Just detonate them at a certain distance, or when they reach a cluster of fighters.

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Sofia Boutella as Jaylah in Stark Trek Beyond.

So this movie was cute and a little less sexist! Let us celebrate how Spock and Uhura’s relationship helped the plot, instead of getting shoehorned in to inject comedic tension and accidentally undermine Uhura’s character. Lastly, in the reveal at the end of film I legitimately teared up. In contrast, my wife could not understand why this sterile scene had this effect and when I explained it, she demonstrated such a lack of Star Trek foundational knowledge that it made me question if she could tell Deep Space 9 from the Enterprise NCC-1701-D! Oh no, I did that exposing myself as a Trekkie thing again, didn’t I?

The Christmas Bunny

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****

We need a passenger.

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Sophie Bolen as Julia, holding “Rumple” with an appropriate look of happiness, © 2010 Honey Creek Pics.

This movie unsubtly tries to teach its viewers how to care for rabbits. What a noble goal for a Christmas movie, for any movie really. As it was just a Christmas movie I had pretty low hopes for this, but from the acting, to the dialogue, to the story this was a more than solid movie. While it does involve Christianity and Christian values, this does not have prayer being rewarded in the way you might expect. Not everything just magically gets fixed.

The story is about a mentally disturbed foster child who will not speak until she come across a rabbit whom he foster brother and cousin shoot with their brand new BB guns. A difficult moment to be sure, but thankfully that violence occurs offscreen. The foster parents, played excellently by Madeline Vail and Colby French, are flawed people trying to do the right things and struggling. Since this came out in 2010 their financial problems are all too familiar to Americans who were looking for jobs at around that time. Their son, played by Derek Brandon, is a mediocre human being, but what can you expect from a 12 year old? To not use a rabbit as a “passenger” when sending a baby carriage down a sled ramp! That is a reasonable expectation. Julia, the foster child played by Sophie Bolen, reacts strongly to this, screaming and running out, too late to stop it. She attacks her brother and bites him and I approve of this behavior, while the adults did not. Simply put, cruelty to animals deserves a cruel receipt, especially at a young age. I am not saying that negligence deserves cruelty, just cruelty does. If an adult is cruel to an animal then, let’s face it, they deserve whatever it takes to register that such behavior unacceptable. Instead of me explicitly saying what I would do to someone I found wantonly hurting my rabbits1 it would be more productive to provide some rabbit care tips, like this film provides through the director’s voice, as portrayed by Florence Henderson—”The Brady Bunch.”

  1. Rabbits need hay for their digestive system to function properly. Constipation can be lethal to rabbits, so feed them appropriately.
  2. Rabbits’ teeth never stop growing, so having wood to chew on is important for them.
  3. Rabbits eat their own poop. The film did not explain that there are two kinds of rabbit poop and that the kind they eat is a small percentage of their bowel movements and clearly different from the majority of it, which closely resembles Cocoa Puffs™.
  4. Rabbits are social animals, so playing with them is important, or you can get them a pal.2

Writer/director Tom Seidman got his first shot to do both in this movie and it is too bad that it probably made no money, since it was only released locally in Grand Rapids, MI. I was continuously impressed with how professional the movie looked compared to its obviously tiny budget. It is also disappointing because there should be a larger market for movies that show dozens of adorable bunnies. But then again I can always hang out with my rabbits and so can anyone else who takes the time to adopt a couple rabbits, but remember, they are a commitment and buying pets on a whim because it is near a holiday just so that they can be neglected is a sin that out to be punishable by the same fate you inflict on some cute bunny. Maybe, at least for now, it is safer to start with watching this movie instead, which is currently available on Netflix.

1 They are Da Capo and Melody. I never talked on this site about the passing of our (mine and my wife Megan’s) rabbit Vivace, but it was so traumatizing (she died in my arms) that I only watched one movie for two months. Remembering this actually brings tears to my eyes. I legitimately teared up five times during the movie, which has not happened since The Fault in Our Stars.

2 Bonding rabbits is not easy and can sometimes fail. Da Capo was too old and set in his ways and Melody was too young and energetic so they live next to each other instead of together.

Rogue One

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Do we hold previews against the films themselves when rating them? I remember reading, probably in Entertainment Weekly, about a decade ago that audiences did not hold dishonest trailers against the films themselves. As such, movie producers have incentives to make movies look good, even if they are not representative of the actual movies people are going to go watch. Before I knew this trend, I was an outlier and did hold it against the films. When I became aware of this, it cemented my distaste for that practice. The first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story got me so excited that I decided to make one of my fun lists, calling it Favorite Trailers: Part 1—do not bother looking for it, since it is still just a rough draft. And you know what? That trailer has great lines that were not included in the final film. Shenanigans I say! I wanted to hear Felicity Jones, as the main character Jyn Erso, say “This is a Rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.” And I really wanted to hear Forest Whitaker, Saw Gerrera, say “What will you do when the catch you? What will you do if they break you? If you continue to fight, what will you become?” Those lines with the Death Star’s iconic alarm sirens underneath them and with footage like a force savvy warrior taking out stormtroopers made me wish I could watch the movie right then.

So Rogue One lacked those lines. And on the whole it did not feel as amazing as The Force Awakens. But this was in a more classic Star Wars universe. Since it took place between Episodes III and IV it could have gone either way and it was a huge relief to see that director, Gareth Edwards, or perhaps executive producers John Knoll, who has been around since the 1997’s Special Edition of Star Wars as a visual effects supervisor, and Jason Gatlin, who was an EP on The Force Awakens, went in this direction. I have read that the film had a good deal of pickups1 and was re-edited to make for a more palatable sell to mass audiences. Who knows which version would have been better. What I do know is that the ending was not made less depressing, which is contrary to the entire history of Hollywood interference with films. And, this is the opposite of a spoiler — there are no Bothans, so do not look for them.

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Rogue One, © 2016 Disney.

****½

There were a lot of explosions for two people blending in.

The greatest compliment that I can give this film is that it feels like it really exists in the Star Wars universe. Had there been no prequels, this would have felt like the prequel that Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope deserved. In so many ways this could have been a sequel to the Episode III, but it really only fits that description in one way, and that way was a positive one. Timeline wise the Rebellion’s situation was desperate and this shows you just how desperate its position was.

Joining the Rebellion, and not particularly by choice, was Jyn Erso, whose father was a project leader on the Death Star. Through Jyn, Felicity Jones shows what such a great actress she is.  I have never recognized her between two films, which is an impressive feat. The first tie that I noticed to the prequels was Jimmy Smits as Senator Bail Organa. You may remember him as Princess Leia’s adopted father. An even cooler tie to the greater Star Wars films is the vocal choice of JAMES EARL JONES as Vader instead of Hayden Christensen. Contrast that to the DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy where Christensen replaced original Return of the Jedi Vader/Skywalker as a ghost.

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Director Krennic (caped) with two Death Troopers, in Disney’s Rogue One. 

In terms of screentime, Vader played a small role, but even so he makes the primary antagonist, Director Krennic, seem so underwhelming. Ben Mendehlson portrayed him and he was great,  even as he tried to not piss his pants in front of Vader. While Vader’s costume is iconic, Krennic’s white is great. Who pulls off a cape in 2016? Director Krennic and Batman, that is who. And, of course, Darth Vader. Below I have another photo showing Krennic, but it was a younger Krennic wearing a travel cape, so it lacks the authority his full Director status justified. And it was a wise decision to have Krennic as a less imposing villain, since an attempt to overshadow Vader would have been foolhardy, thus to make us hate or fear him the film had to make him a different kind of evil.

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Mads Mikkelsen in Rogue One.

The film starts with Krennic coming for a Republican/Imperial officer, named Galen Erso, who had quit. The Empire apparently does not accept resignations, and Krennic has come to bring the whole Erso family in with him so that Galen—an excellent Mads Mikkelsen, doing his best work since Casino Royale—can help build the Death Star. Galen tells his wife and daughter to run, and one of them listens. Thus Jyn Erso survives, functionally an orphan because of the Empire. The re-cut does the most harm here because there must have been a story about Jyn growing up with a fringe Rebel named Saw Gerrera—Forest Whitaker—where he makes that great speech from the teaser. Alas.

Saw Gerrera, and eventually Jyn, wind up on the planet Jeddha. Galen Erso has convinced an Imperial pilot Riz Ahmed–Jason Bourne–to defect and to seek Gerrara, the man he trusted to raise Jyn when Galen was kidnapped. Jeddha is where the action picks up, and on the streets of its holy city, Jyn, and her Rebel handler, Captain Cassian Andor—Diego Luna, Julio from Elysium—start to form the core of the true rebels in this story. I would be remiss to further omit the droid of the story! Cassian’s mate, K-2SO, is unique in several ways, and casting Alan Tudyk to voice him was an excellent choice—he crushed it as THE Robot in I, Robot.  He is a repurposed Imperial droid, so he can blend in with Imperials until he has to talk. As a Chewbacca/C-3PO hybrid he is great. Probably my favorite addition to their group is Chirrut Îmwe—Ip Man Donnie Yen—whom I almost did not recognize in his blind and English speaking state. I hope he gets treated as a real favorite. Is he a Jedi? As his pal Maze Malbus–Wen Jiang–says, there are no Jedi anymore. The two of them were an archetypical duo and that is what Star Wars did, and does, and they totally pulled it off again.

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Krennic arrives with Death Troopers to find Galen Urso, in the background their shuttle is visible, Rogue One.

This film was a step forward for Star Wars by taking a step back into what it did well, but in a dark way. Episode VII was similar, but on a grander scale, with more important people. Now one major issue that people noted was the reprisal of Star Wars: Episode IV roles with the use of computer graphics. Many people were shocked by young Princess Leia, but earlier than that my biggest mark out moment was the first appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin with CGI Peter Cushing. My gasp made people look at me. The face was imperfect, but a huge improvement from Episode III Tarkin. I was shocked to learn that the voice was new, since Guy Henry’s impression sounded so accurate. Other highlights were Rebel Squadron leaders whom I recognized from the original (Episode IV). All told there were too many references for me to pick up on all of them and the obvious times when they opted to toss out references they cut off the lines you expect before they got cheesy. That is particularly important since the film gets so dark and well earned laughs were crucial to keeping the audience invested.

The final memory that I take from this film, even more than its message of hope and sacrifice, is the beauty of the Star Wars universe. Things look even sharper and better than in the incredible Episode VII. The battles and the scenery were beautiful and unforgiving, just like this film.

1 Pickups and reshooting are not a sign of weakness. For instance, The Lord of the Rings is arguably the second best film trilogy of all-time and for its extended editions they relied on pickups.

Annie

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**

I don’t like you in Harlem, why would I like you on Facebook?

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David Zayas as Lou in Annie.

In 2014 a charismatic New York businessman tries to run for Mayor of New York and his victory seems hopelessly unrealistic. Oh what a difference two years makes. To avoid this review devolving into depression, I will make the jump to a much darker movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

I believe that everyone knows the story of Little Orphan Annie and her benefactor Daddy Warbucks, who in this version is updated to be Will Stacks. Of lesser importance is Annie’s foster mom, Miss Hannigan, who gets played by Cameron Diaz this time. In this David Zayas—Batista on”Dexter”—flirts constantly at Miss Hannigan, who is, for the majority of the film, an irredeemable pool of dreck. Towards the end of the film Hannigan asks Lou (Zayas) why he keeps trying to ask her out, since she is such a bad person, and Lou says something about believing in her. In films we only know what we are shown. One thing that bothered audiences about The Dark Knight Rises was that Batman kept believing that there was something deeper within Selina Kyle/Catwoman, when she repeatedly opted to not do the right thing. Faith can be an interesting device in films, but it can also seem extremely lazy. It makes the viewer feel like they missed something when it was really the director who failed to show that something.

Besides that this was an okay movie. The great, mostly wasted cast does an adequate job and Quvenzhané Wallis’ Annie is pretty cute. They did bravely make the choice to have characters sometimes acknowledge that singing and dancing is not normal for the world they inhabit. If I had one final complaint it was the lack of a villain. Great movies, like Chef, can managed without a true antagonist, but a redeemed Cameron Diaz and a self-serving Bobby Cannavale just are not enough here.

Now You See Me

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**½

If by “has-been” you’re referring to me, I just wanna say I’m flattered, because I always considered myself a never-was.

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Henly Reeves (Isla Fisher), J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), & Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) in Now You See Me.

First and foremost, this is a cute movie. That is the most important thing and for many people that makes this a movie worth watching. Unfortunately from a critical standpoint it was a bit too slick. This led to an abundance of glossed over plot holes. Just like watching real magic, it works best when your attention is distracted. Oh yeah, the premise of the m0vie is that some magicians team up to rob banks and annoy the FBI. For being a plot heavy film, the plot is mostly irrelevant.

The cast is pretty great, but the characters are a bit too flirty to seem authentic. Playing one key flirter/flirtee was Isla Fisher–Wedding Crashers–who is an underutilized actress, so seeing her here was generally a good thing. Also, Mélanie Laurent—Shoshanna, Inglourious Basterds—did a good job as a young Interpol officer, and balanced well with a solid performance from Mark Ruffalo—the newest Hulk, Bruce Banner. On the other side the performances from Michael Caine and, especially, Morgan Freeman, seemed very blasés.

On the whole, it was actually a bit dumb and condescending, which is a dangerous combination. Yet it was still enjoyable, so perhaps director Louis Leterrier pulled off that trick anyways. For me though, the problem is that magic only works in real life. Movie magic is a part of so many films that showing tricks in movies does not, or at least should not, feel like any more of an illusion than the Enterprise using its warp drive, which is supposed to seem real. That could be why the few magical movies that do get made are the ones that go for “practical magic”1, which gets addressed and teased within this film. It did help that the movie presented what its magicians were doing as stage magic. Also, there was a cute white rabbit in the second act.

1 Practical Magic means the idea of real magic. Like Harry Potter and co. do practical magic, not just theoretical, or stage/theatrical magic.