“Spotlight” a solid film

The premise of “Spotlight” is simple. It’s “All the President’s Men” only the institution being investigated is the cover-up of the child abuse in the Catholic Church. But whereas newspapers were arguably the dominant form of information for the average individual at the time of Nixon’s Watergate, newspapers today are losing prestige as digital media has taken over the world. “Spotlight” then is not only an excellent film, it is also a powerful reminder of the value of good investigative journalism.

The film follows the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, a committed set of journalists who slowly uncover not one, not two, but 87 priests in the Boston area alone who have abused children throughout the years. Led by ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team of Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), buoyed by incoming editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), must come to grips with the dark underbelly of their city of Boston and one of its most powerful institutions.

The film does not try to make heroes of its journalist protagonists. It presents them as human beings first, full of flaws with different backgrounds and histories, committed to uncovering the truth. What is important above all to the characters is the story and getting it published correctly, for if any detail is incorrect, the church can cover the whole investigation up for another generation.

The cast are all at the top of their game, showing both care and urgency as they deal with the survivors, the lawyers and the church. They are able to elevate the true thrill of the film: the uncovering of vital information that will confirm their story. As they attempt to seek justice for the survivors in the way they can, the audience roots for them in a very compelling manner. The fact that we know what has happened in real life only increases our desire for the team to learn and report the truth.

The style of the film is also very subdued and not very flashy, which works towards the film’s benefit. The focus is on the story, on the script, on the actors, and they are given plenty of room to breathe, to pull the viewer into the narrative and to let them experience the joys and hardships of working as a reporter. That connection gives real power to the film.

The movie does seem to end before the story is ultimately over, a decision probably based on needing to find some sort of closure for a case that is in some ways still unraveling. One can only imagine that what happens after the credits start to roll is just as fascinating and poignant, the sex abuse scandals still a relevant issue for a church that is trying to repair itself.

Newspapers have seen their share of public influence drop dramatically in the past few years, but their ability to elevate the hopeless, to bring light to important subjects and to topple the towers of industry should not be underestimated. “Spotlight” gives us an important glimpse into that world once again, a peek into a community of reporters and what they can do for justice.

“The Good Dinosaur” disappointing

“The Good Dinosaur” was the most plagued production in Pixar’s history. Due for exhibition in the summer of 2014, the release was pushed back twice to November 2015 and the original director, Bob Peterson, was replaced in 2013 by Peter Sohn. After several major script changes (characters dropped, themes changed), most of the original cast was dumped for new audio recordings. There were staff layoffs and the production went over budget.

It is a disappointment therefore to say that the finished film is just not up to par.

“The Good Dinosaur” tells the story of Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a young Apatosaurus. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs has missed, leading to dinosaurs still roaming the earth in our present day. Arlo is scared of everything and finds himself stranded with no way to get home. He befriends a young human boy he names Spot (Jack Bright) and journey back.

Some of the visuals of the film are breathtaking, the water looking so real it’s hard to believe it’s CG. The mountains are majestic, the river gorgeous. It’s just a shame the characters look like cartoons from Scooby Doo. To have such detail in the environment mixed with cutesy animals disconnects the audience from the story right from the get-go. Realistic animals or a less realistic environment would have helped immensely.

There are a few tender scenes, such as the moment where Spot comforts Arlo about missing his family, but as a whole, the entire film is missing high dramatic stakes. Nature is the antagonist, but there are few moments of conflict, and it is never as scary as it should be for Arlo’s character development. A few gags fall short, and there are not a lot of laughs either. The film feels off and the rewrites, change of directors, shifting themes and tone all leave the viewer feeling detached. There is just something missing.

It is puzzling why such a good concept was given such poor treatment. The hook alone deserves better. “What if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs never hit the earth?” There are dozens of different narrative threads from that question that could have been explored. Perhaps man existed alongside dinosaur in society and both needed to coexist peacefully (as in the recently released “Zootopia”). Perhaps there were wars between dinosaurs and man (as in old B-movie science fiction) and the last remnants of such conflicts must learn to work together. Perhaps there are no humans at all, just advanced dinosaurs and the plot involves a segment relating to their world (similar to Monstropolis in “Monsters Inc”). Why then do we have this flimsy semi-Western coming-of-age story that really doesn’t even need to have dinosaurs in it?

Simply, whatever problems plagued the production resulted in a mediocre film despite the time and effort taken to fix it. A great concept went sour. After the critical and commercial success of “Inside Out”, “The Good Dinosaur” indeed looks meek in comparison. The few strong emotional elements and the luscious visuals keep it from being a complete wreck, but, in hindsight, perhaps it would have been best to have scrapped the production altogether.

Dear Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

Hello. If you are reading this, I am surprised. It means the world has not ended. Right now, we all expect that it will.

You have lived through the Trump presidency and I just want to say, as one of the millions of people who voted, I am sorry. If it’s any consolation, I voted for the other candidate. So did the majority of people, but for some reason, the idiot racist won.

Blame the Founding Fathers. Yes, those Founding Fathers you have been taught to idolize. The same guys who thought women weren’t citizens, Native Americans were savages and that blacks were only three-fifths of a person. Who could have imagined that they screwed up the voting process too.

Still, I just feel the need to apologize for all of us here in the present. We fought hard against this. We really didn’t want this to happen. So many of us treated it like a joke. I mean, we had just elected the first African-American to the White House, a man who spoke eloquently, a man who was smart and dedicated, someone who pushed forward so many accomplishments in the environment, LGBT rights, women’s rights, economic growth, world peace and health care. I bet you miss President Obama.

So of course the country’s natural inclination was to vote for the polar opposite: a racist idiot who seemed like he had no idea what he was doing. I get not liking Hillary Clinton, but when you’re alternative is Satan, I still voted for wheat bread.

So I’m sorry you’ve lived through the past few years. I wonder how it’s going for you. Has there been a major terrorist attack because at the moment, he refuses to read his security memos? Has the bill to build a wall along Mexico been laughed out of the Senate? Has the Supreme Court full of right-wing nuts destroyed all the rights of the 99%? How about the environment? I bet it’s been the warmest year on record for so many consecutive years. I bet all those people who had their health care taken away are still waiting for that right-wing alternative to materialize. I’m sure it’s coming any day now.

Can you still get an abortion or are all women confined to the kitchen now? How many mass shootings have taken place? How many unarmed black men have been killed by police who face no consequences? How are all those white supremacists doing in the west wing? What about all those guppy Trump supporters who thought their manufacturing jobs were coming back? Has reality sunk in yet? I wish I could see their faces when the inevitable happens.

I don’t mean to bother you with questions. You can’t possibly answer them. We are just so nervous at the moment. Gosh, we’re sorry.

Hey, if there is a world out there after this- Dear History Books, don’t judge us too harshly. I know you’ll try and say that the people really screwed up and voted for hate and bigotry and started a new era of ineptitude, but hey, some of us tried to stop it. Just like the Romans who really thought we should do something about the barbarians next door. Some of us tried to do the right thing.

Again, I can’t stop saying how sorry we are that we let this happen. I’m sorry that you women out there don’t have control of your own bodies. I’m sorry the air you breath and the water you drink is tainted and that there is no snow anymore. I’m sorry we let racists and bigots and fearmongers run loose in the White House. I’m sorry that those delicate situations with Iran, Syria, Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Palestine and Egypt are probably all blown to hell. I’m sorry LGBT citizens have to feel that there’s something wrong with them rather than with the world they live in. I’m sorry more and more people die of shootings because nobody has the guts to take on the NRA. I’m sorry to all those people out there who came to this country with hope for a better life and are being cast out because they’re Asian or Latino or Arabic. I’m sorry Wall Street will be let loose again to destroy the economy and then just get bailed out by the taxpayers with no consequences. And I’m sorry all those politicians out there have no spine and lack the credibility to stand up and say, “This is wrong.”

Maybe some of you have stood up and demanded something better. Maybe enough of you have that things are not so bad. Maybe Trump is shaking in his boots over how many of you have stood up. I hope so. That sounds nice. A nice little anti-bigotry movement. We haven’t had one of those for awhile. If it hasn’t started, please consider it. It might help somewhat.

But for the moment, we dropped the ball on this one. We let you down big time. So if you’re out there, dear future generation, just know, whatever it’s worth, that some of us tried to stop this from happening. We failed. It’s probably not worth anything to you now.

Sincerely,

December 2016

The series that will never end

We now live in an era when TV and movie sagas really have no ending. Even when you look at a final film, listed as the last installment, hyped as the end of an era, fans start asking as soon as the credits roll, “Okay, when’s the next one?”

Sequels are endless. Great movies get sequels (X-Men: Apocalypse). Terrible movies get sequels (TMNT: Out of the Shadows, Ice Age: Collision Course). Movies that don’t need sequels get sequels (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Magic Mike 2). Popular movies from ten years ago get sequels (Zoolander 2, Jurassic World). Unpopular movies from ten years ago get sequels (Bridget Jones’ Baby). Movie franchises are brought back from the dead (Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters (2016)). Everything gets a sequel.

And TV is not any different now either. TV shows long dormant are rebooted. Just look at recent attempts at rebooting “The X-Files”, “Gilmore Girls”, “Full House”, “Arrested Development”, “24”, and “Heroes” to name a few. Those shows all ended years ago, but here are they, back again. Thankfully, these shows really just seem to be one-offs as none of them have really caught on with the fire that they once did, but that hasn’t stopped studios from making them.

One just has to wonder, will anything ever end anymore? Let’s look at some of the seemingly never-ending properties and come up with an expiration date, starting from soonest to latest.

X-Men (End Date: 2017)

The current iteration of X-Men movies, spanning from 2000 to the present, have given us 9 films, ten with “Logan” next year. But with Hugh Jackman saying that “Logan” will be his last go with the character of Wolverine, time seems to be closing on the heyday of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender. Now, having said that, there will be another “Deadpool” movie, but he doesn’t really fit into the X-Men mythos. And there will be more X-Men movies, but they will be rebooted with new casts and new characters. So take this one with a grain of salt.

PREDICTED ENDING: Wolverine and Charles Xavier have an emotional sendoff that culminates with Wolverine finding his humanity, completing his journey. The next film opens with an entirely new cast and a female Wolverine.

DCEU (End Date: 2022)

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Batman V. Superman was supposed to be the DC Extended Universe’s big, blockbuster hit. It did okay commercially and was pretty much a bomb critically. The same with “Suicide Squad.” Now “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League” will debut next year and that will be the true test for Warner Bros. If either or both of them bombs, it could spell the end for their hopes of taking on Disney’s MCU. They simply need to perform better. If next year is a dud, they may seriously have to reconsider their plans. Maybe this is just me being optimistic, but I see two more critical failures, two more box office mehs, and an early end to this colossal mistake.

PREDICTED ENDING: The entire Justice League takes on an army of aliens bent on destroying the Earth at all costs, probably with a giant blue laser that shoots into the sky, a gigantic hour-long fight ensues that levels a city, blah, blah, blah… There’s a teaser for a future film at the end of the credits that is never filmed.

Toy Story (End Date: 2025)

The “Toy Story” series should have ended with “Toy Store 3” in 2010. But now we have “Toy Story 4” coming in just about two years. Will there be anymore? I think there’ll be one more, but with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen certainly getting up there in years, that’s it. Without Woody and Buzz, I don’t think Disney makes anymore “Toy Story” films. But I’ve been wrong before.

PREDICTED ENDING: Buzz and Woody and the gang engage in a colorful journey through the scary world that tests their friendship and involves them coming to grips with maturation and inevitability. There are an equal number of tears as laughs.

Transformers (End Date: 2032)

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“Transformers” has made so much money and been so bad for so long that it may be tempting to think it is on the same level as the cockroach and the twinkie in terms of evolutionary survival. But fear not. “Transformers” is mortal. It can be slain. It just won’t be for a few years. It’s U.S. business is falling. It’s making less money. It’s really just made for the Chinese at this point. They will learn too, once the euphoria of the explosions has passed, they will sober up.

PREDICTED ENDING: Boom! Wham! Clink! PFFFFFHHH! Crash! Boom! Clank!

Fast and Furious (End Date: 2040)

There have now been eight “Fast and Furious” movies dating all the way back to 2001. With another two planned, the franchise is still a continuous moneymaker, despite the death of star Paul Walker. The appeal of fast cars, cool action and hot women won’t diminish anytime soon, so the franchise will probably continue to soldier on for the next few years, even as its stars leave. But as usually happens, when the big names go, quality suffers and the box office will slowly start to reflect that. Then they’ll try and reboot it later on with a whole new cast and some cameos by Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez, but that won’t work.

PREDICTED ENDING: Ummmm…. I don’t know. I’ve never seen one of these movies. Car races?

Harry Potter (End Date: 2052)

Harry Potter seemed to be finished. All the books had been translated into movies and the story was complete. But that was so five years ago. Fast forward to the present and we now have a whole set of theme parks based on the stories, a new play about Harry and his son, Albus, and a new five-picture series set in the 1920s. So the wizarding world is back in full force and it shows no signs of stopping. “Fantastic Beasts” is doing well enough at the box office so plans should continue on their current course. Of course, the thing driving all of this is J.K. Rowling. By 2052, she will be in her 80s. She won’t have written for a few years, but once she leaves us, one of her kids or family members will publish some jotted notes about something to make some cash and that will be the last story… well, turned into a six-part movie series anyway.

PREDICTED ENDING: Harry is now 128 years old. He’s dumped Ginny and now shacks up with Hermione because that is the only sensible thing to do. Voldemort is back… again. It’s his clone or something so they have to fight, but never fear; there’s some convenient magic that helps Harry defeat him despite the fact that he is a far inferior wizard to the dark lord. Voldemort just can’t catch a break.

MCU (End Date: 2061)

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe just keeps going and going and going. It is now a behemoth of Hollywood. Even obscure characters like Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy produce hits. The name itself brings people to the theaters because they know an MCU movie is fun and easy to digest. Steven Spielberg has said that the superhero movie is like the Western and that it will come and go like that genre. Perhaps he’s right. This end date signifies pretty much the length of the Western’s popularity.

PREDICTED ENDING:All 134 superheroes fight a giant CGI army led by a generic villain whose name you won’t remember. The heroes beforehand will fight amongst themselves and disagree about… something. They’ll unite and fight the big baddie and defeat him with the power of teamwork. The movie will literally have so much awesomeness that all the supernerds who watch it die from euphoria, ending the superhero craze once and for all.

Star Trek (End Date: 2072)

Star Trek has endured through TV shows and movies and next generations and reboots. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. The only thing that will make Star Trek irrelevant is when humanity actually catches up to it, technology-wise and humanity-wise. Technology-wise is actually not that far off. Humanity-wise is still a ways away. Go figure.

PREDICTED ENDING: The Enterprise journeys to a distant planet where the crew must… zzzzzzzz. Whoops, sorry. They meet the Klingons and start a series of negotiations over…. zzzzzzz.

James Bond (End Date: 2104)

James Bond has had dozens of films, 6 actors play him (soon to be seven) and has become the top-grossing film series of all-time. Is there an end to his film series? I do see one, but not for a long, long time. I mean, eventually, society will start to decay as global warming, mass populations and nuclear holocaust take its toll. Perhaps humanity’s last breath before extinction will be the 124th James Bond film. He will still be very suave.

PREDICTED ENDING: I mean, it’s the same movie every time. There’s women and cars and spy stuff and weapons and gadgets and catchy songs and opening stunt sequences and headline villains and on and on. It ends exactly as it started.

Star Wars (End Date: Infinity)

Was there ever any doubt? For a franchise that lasted through the 70s and 80s, through an incoherent special edition, through three absolutely horrendous prequel films and now with a new heavyweight company bankrolling a film a year, “Star Wars” is bigger today than when it first premiered. I don’t think anything can kill this franchise. Not the Great Recession. Not plagues and wars. Not George Lucas. It will be around forever and ever. Even when the human race is gone, it will be around. Small microscopic life forms right now are soaking up its cultural relevance and fan fetish, and it is influencing the genetic makeup of its DNA so that when it reaches evolutionary maturation in a few thousand years, it will continue the series.

PREDICTED ENDING: Luke’s great-great-great grandchild is an orphan on a desert planet. There’s a dark force rising. He or she is called forth by a droid who needs his help and then he or she discovers that it is imbued with the Force. Wait… that’s not an ending. That’s just another beginning.

 

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ a funny ride

Improv in movies can be both good and bad. Sometimes it weighs down the plot of the film. But it can also add a stronger element of comedy and originality than scripted films. “What We Do In the Shadows”, thankfully, is elevated by its improv to often hilarious results.

With over 120 hours shot, the film is condensed into a mockumentary narrative following vampires living together in New Zealand. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), Viago (Taika Waititi) and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) are hundreds of years old, living in a flat, trying to manage the new world around them. When a recently-turned vampire, Petyr (Ben Fransham), joins them and brings along his human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), things become rocky for the group.

Looking at vampires in a real life situation brings humor to a genre that has otherwise been done to death (pun intended). No one really thinks about how hard it is for a vampire to dress himself since he can’t see his reflection. Or how vampires can’t eat anything other than blood. The results are hilarious.

The film starts to peter out a bit near the second half of act two, but picks back up again for the finale. And as with most comedy films, some jokes work, some don’t. But overall, it is the kind of film that audiences will look back on fondly, a film created to be a cult classic; well made, but at the same time just so strange.

‘Fantastic Beasts’ a return to the magical world

J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world has a lot of room for further stories outside of the character of Harry Potter. That world is expanded with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, a story set in 1920s New York City.

The film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard from London with a suitcase full of illegal magical creatures. As tensions between the magical and no-maj community reach a boiling point, several of Scamander’s creatures escape into the city, setting off a series of events that lead to Scamander conflicting directly with the MACUSA, Magical Congress of the United States of America.

Not exactly a prequel, not exactly a standalone film, “Fantastic Beasts” both suffers and strengthens itself off its relationship with its predecessor. On the way hand, it is free from the constrictions of the books and can be its own entity. On the other, it is always in Harry Potter’s shadow, and the story is not as strong as any of the books.

The creatures are indeed fantastic and fun (though a bit over-reliant on CGI) and the interactions between them and Newt, in addition to the no-maj Jake Kowalski (Dan Fogler), are the true heart of the film. Other characters such as Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) are rather pointless, and that’s a shame. Tina is really just the added-on love interest which is a character that has never materialized in one of Rowling’s books (outside of Cho Chang). Hopefully in the sequels, they will become more integral parts of the plot.

While it is always a joy to be in the wizarding world, the film suffers with a plot that is not clearly focused. While Newt collecting the creatures who escaped him is the main part of the story, there is a subplot involving Graves (Colin Farrell), Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) and Creedence (Ezra Miller) that doesn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the story. Focusing on just Newt and his creatures would have given us a more cohesive story because the film feels distracted at times.

Those who enjoyed the Potter movies will find plenty to love in “Fantastic Beasts.” Those unfamiliar with them or disapproving of Rowling’s sometimes rambling plots and inactive characters will be left wanting, but the magic of Harry’s wondrous world is still with us.

When to release your sequel

“The Lego Movie Sequel” just had its release pushed back another year to 2019, meaning that it will come out a full five years after “The Lego Movie.” So anyone who saw it as a five year old will be 10 when the sequel comes out. Anyone who was 12 will be 17. Is that too much time between sequels? Will the film do worse because of the five year difference or will it not matter? What is the ideal time to release a sequel?

Strictly looking at box office numbers and not the quality of sequels, time apart between movies does seem to acutely matter.

Take a look at the recently released “Independence Day: Resurgence”, a sequel to a movie that came out twenty years ago. The original “Independence Day” made $306 million in the United States, a huge amount at the time. “Resurgence” made $103 million. That is a major drop.

Another recently released sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Weeding 2”, completed its box office run with $59 million, a far cry from the $241 million its predecessor made 14 years ago.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” grossed $77 million this year, well below the original’s $314 million gross six years ago.

“Zoolander” grossed $45 million; its sequel, released 15 years later, grossed $28 million.

“300” grossed $210 million; its sequel, released 7 years later, grossed $106 million.

When looking at recent sequels released within just a few years of their predecessor, the numbers appear more similar:

– Ride Along (2014): $134 million/ Ride Along 2 (2016): $90 million

– X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) $233 million/ X-Men: Apocalypse (2016): $155 million

– Man of Steel (2013): $291 million/ Batman V Superman (2016): $333 million

– The Conjuring (2013): $137 million/ The Conjuring 2 (2016): $102 million

This is not to say that all sequels are as relatively successful as their predecessor. Sequels such as “Now You See Me 2”, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2”, and “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” all grossed significantly less than their predecessors even though they were released just a few years apart.

So it is not a given that a sequel will perform well if made soon after the first film, but it certainly helps. The exception would be the comedy sequel; “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2”, “Neighbors 2”, “Ted 2” and “Horrible Bosses 2” all grossed significantly less than the original despite not a lot of time between releases, further strengthening the theory that a comedy sequel is a terrific challenge for any studio.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and those exceptions are big name franchises that have not lost muster over time, specifically “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park.” Nostalgia and love for the original drove those films sequels to blockbuster grosses even though it has been decades since their releases.

Looking even closer at sequelitis, compare the original film to its second sequel.

– Divergent (2014): $150 million/ The Divergent Series: Allegiant (2016): $33 million

– Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007): $217 million/ Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011): $133 million

– Blade (1998): $70 million/ Blade: Trinity (2004): $52 million

– Taken (2009): $145 million/ Taken 3 (2015): $89 million

– The Hobbit (2012): $303 million/ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014): $255 million

So even if a film has a successful sequel, a third sequel rarely works unless again, you are working with one of the premier franchises with a built-in audience.

However, one of the common exceptions to the law of diminishing returns for box office receipts is the animated sequel. One need only look at the box office records of “Finding Dory” to see that an animated sequel, even if it is released 13 years after its predecessor, can still be highly profitable.

Sequels in the “Shrek” series, the “Despicable Me” series, the “Kung Fu Panda” series, the “Madagascar” series, the “Toy Story” series, “Monsters University”, “Rio 2” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” have all proven successful no matter the length of time between films. There are still sequel flops in the animated genre (The Smurfs 2), but in general, the family-friendly audience supports most of whatever is in theaters no matter quality and length of time between films.

So, if you are a studio, and you are contemplating a sequel, you should consider the following:

– If your film was released in the last three years, go ahead and make a sequel, but make sure it is of high quality.

– If it has been longer than three years, and it’s name is not “Jurassic Park” or “Star Wars”, don’t make it.

– If it is the third of an entry, don’t make it unless you have lady luck on your side.

– If it is an animated film, go ahead. It doesn’t particularly matter if the film is any good.

– If it is a comedy, don’t make it.

So “The Lego Movie Sequel” should be fine since it’s an animated film, not to mention the fact that “The Lego Batman Movie” comes out next year to tide fans over. But “Super Troopers 2” and “Bad Santa 2”? Probably not so much.

Understanding films from all angles