Movie review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ returns to Tinseltown’s golden age

Film_Review___Once_Upon_a_Time_in_Hollywood.0Up until about five years ago, I’d never seen a Quentin Tarantino film. Other films fans would lovingly give me grief about this, and so I finally decided to sit down and watch one.

I popped his first movie — “Reservoir Dogs” — into my DVD player and then hit “play,” not really sure what to expect. As a film, it was often violent and disturbing, and after I finished, my first thought was that I kinda hated it.

However, I kept mulling it over, and the film slowly grew on me, and I ultimately decided it was a masterpiece. And I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino ever since.

Tarantino is one of Hollywood’s most distinctive directors. If you’re watching a Tarantino film, you know it’s a Tarantino film. While his films cover wildly different settings — a heist, a revisionist Western, World War II, and so on — they all share a certain style that is unmistakably Tarantino’s.

My favorite Tarantino film is probably “Django Unchained” (though it definitely could have been edited down to a shorter runtime). I’m not sure where his latest — “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — will ultimately rank, but like most Tarantino films, I need a little time to mull it over.

Set in late 1960s Hollywood, the film centers on two friends: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose starpower is fading, and easygoing stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). While Booth seems fairly content with whatever life sends his way, Dalton fears for the future of his career, which he knows is languishing. As he gets progressively less meaningful roles, he fears his legacy will come to nothing.

Simultaneously, the film shows us anecdotes from the life of Sharon Tate, Dalton’s neighbor. While Dalton is fictional, Tate is a real actress, who was cruelly murdered by members of the Manson family cult in 1969.

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Drenched in style and sun, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is both a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and a somewhat melancholic reflection on the fleeting nature of stardom. For every star that people remember fondly today — Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, etc. — there are plenty like Dalton whose names have been lost in time, captured only on unwatched reels of film now collecting dust.

One of my favorite parts of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” were the “films” within the film; you get to see clips of fake movies and TV shows from Dalton’s career. For better or worse, you don’t see those types of movies being made anymore in Hollywood. While I don’t necessarily have much nostalgia for that period and the ones preceding it (I tend to prefer films from the 1970s and on), I do respect the history. And it’s hard not to feel sad as you watch Dalton’s relevancy slowly slipping away.

One thing I was a little worried about was how the film might handle the real-life history it touches on. I did not want to see the murder of Sharon Tate sensationalized or exploited, especially since Tarantino is known for his scenes of over-the-top violence.

Thankfully, Tarantino handles this real-life character respectfully, and the footage of Margot Robbie as Tate is shot with a surprising love and tenderness. I have seen some criticize the fact Tate has minimal dialogue in this movie, but even though she doesn’t have a large number of lines, her warmth and spirit fill the screen.

I’m still not sure what to think of the final act, and I can’t really comment on that without giving away spoilers. But I was touched by the very final scene and thought it was a good way to end the movie.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” can, at times, come across as a little rambling and indulgent, but maybe that’s okay. It’s probably Tarantino’s most emotional film, and I walked away feeling bittersweet.

This film captures the ending of an era, and it’s possible we’re seeing the ending of another era right now in Hollywood.

I’m reading more articles about the so-called decline of “traditional film,” about how people are less willing to go to the theater, and even if they are, they’re less likely to spend money on an original work like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Will theaters and films like Tarantino’s eventually become like Dalton himself, less relevant in a world of streaming services and blockbuster franchises?

I honestly don’t know, and as a longtime lover of the movie theater experience, that makes me sad. However, I like to think that, as it always has, the film industry will continue to evolve, and people will keep finding ways to tell meaningful stories that can stand the test of time.

For now, I’m content to sit in the darkness of my local theater, watching the magic happen on the big screen for as long as I can.

Superheroes at Christmastime: Christmas in July Blogathon 2019

Thanks to Drew’s Movie Reviews for letting me participate in the annual Christmas in July blogathon!

Drew's Movie Reviews

Hello, friends!

Winding down day two of the sixth annual Christmas in July Blogathon is the MCU and Star Wars mega fan known as Ashley from Box Office Buzz, If you are unfamiliar with her site, I highly recommend you go over and give it a look. She reviews all kinds of movies and writes a variety of other posts. As I said, she is a big MCU fan, and superhero film fan in general, and she brings that passion to this blogathon as she looks at two superhero Christmas films.


Superheroes at Christmastime: Taking a closer look at two of my favorite (unofficial) holiday films

Did you know that both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe have technically included Christmas films in their respective franchises?

When people put together lists of favorite Christmas movies, “Iron Man 3” and “Shazam” probably aren’t the films that first…

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A blog of ice and fire: Thoughts on Game of Thrones seasons 2 & 3

1200“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

If there’s one bit of dialogue you should keep in mind while watching Game of Thrones, it’s probably that one. While I’ve only just now finished season 3, multiple characters have already met untimely/unfair ends. There’s no telling who will actually make it to the end, and who will come out as a winner or a loser in the fight for the Iron Throne.

Earlier this year, I started watching Game of Thrones after years of hearing all the buzz about it. I purposely waited for the final episode to air before I began, so that I could experience the series as one complete arc. I also decided to blog my thoughts along the way. I’m not normally much of a binge-watcher, so I’ll probably be working on this project for a while, but it’s been a fascinating journey so far.

While I enjoyed the first season and meeting all the characters, the second season is where this show really started drawing me in. All the political maneuvering is captivating to watch, and even though I’ve already heard a decent amount of spoilers regarding the show’s ending, I quickly found out that, much like poor Jon Snow, there’s still a lot I don’t know.

(Fair warning, spoilers abound!)

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Pawns and players

Our heroes and villains have been scattered across Westeros (and beyond), every person working towards his or her own goal (some more altruistic than others). Robb continues to lead the war between the Starks and the Lannisters; Joffrey continues to be an utterly awful human being; Arya grows into a toughened survivor; Dany is nurturing her dragons and building an army; and Jon Snow is…well…doing whatever the heck he’s trying to do beyond the Wall. (I’m not totally sure what his ultimate plan is, but I don’t think he necessarily knows either. Jon is sometimes what I’d call “lovably clueless.” You know I still adore you, though, Jon!)

I just keep finding myself amazed at the scope of this show; the sets and costumes are even higher quality than some big-budget films I’ve seen. It’s also impressive the amount of depth the actors are able to add to their characters. There are some characters I didn’t really like when I first met them, but thanks to some subtle details added by the actors and/or the script, I actually pity them now. Many of these characters haven’t really led happy lives thus far, and they’re trying to survive in the only way they know how.

One of the main characters who really stands out to me after watching the first three seasons is Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. What an interesting character, and what a great performance. Tyrion can be both ruthless and compassionate, and he’s obviously one of the smartest players in the game of thrones going on around him. He cares more than he’s willing to let on, and he’s definitely the best of the Lannisters (though to be fair, that’s not really a high bar to clear).

Tyrion is treated cruelly by both his family and the people around him, simply because he is shorter than the average height. His father, Tywin, treats Tyrion and his other children as mere pawns to be used in building the family’s reputation. One of the hardest scenes to watch is the forced wedding between Tyrion and Ned Stark’s daughter, Sansa, because these are two people who are utterly miserable yet also utterly powerless. Tyrion is also one of the few people in King’s Landing who shows kindness to Sansa. I’m really hoping both of these two will be okay!

Another character whose arc really intrigues me is Tyrion’s brother, Jaime. I really hated Jaime at first, but the past several seasons have marked a rather intense period of personal growth for him. He loses his hand — and therefore, part of his identity as a warrior — and his interactions with Brienne of Tarth show that he does have a sense of nobility and decency buried deep within him. I also love how Brienne puts up with zero percent of his nonsense.

Speaking of Brienne, she has quickly become one of my favorite characters. Even in a society that’s prejudiced against her, she’s managed to become a female warrior and demands the respect of those who get to know her.

And I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Olenna Tyrell. She is to Game of Thrones what the Dowager Countess is to Downton Abbey. Olenna has a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, and she always has the best lines. She’s not intimidated by the Lannisters, and she is never afraid to speak her mind. If this was a democracy, she’d definitely have my vote to sit on the Iron Throne.

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Themes in the narrative

I love digging deeper into stories and pondering what they’re trying to say, both about the world they’re depicting and the real world beyond the fantasy. And Game of Thrones has plenty to dig into.

In my first Game of Thrones blog, I mentioned that I was frustrated by how the show portrayed some of the female characters, and I hoped that future seasons would give them more of a voice. Although the show still could use some improvement in this department (female characters are still objectified far more than their male co-stars), I really love some of the arcs that are developing. Female characters also are being allowed to voice some of their frustrations about the system that is inherently biased against them.

And even though the society depicted here is set up to give men more power, the show’s oppressive system of government really isn’t doing anyone any favors. The monarchy based on birthright has resulted in some truly terrible rulers (looking at you, Joffrey), and only a few people really have the power to make significant decisions. Everyone else has to scheme behind the scenes and simply hope they can survive.

I’ll be curious to see if, in later seasons, characters are able to succeed in their quest to break the cycle of violence and abuse, or if they simply become part of the system, unable to diverge from the traditions of past generations.

It’s easy to look at the harsh world of Game of Thrones and think, “Oh yeah, we’re better than that!” But are we really? For example, even now, in 2019, issues like racism and misogyny rear their ugly heads. You don’t even have to dive that deeply into social media to find examples of this. And even though politicians may not be literally stabbing each other in the back, as they are in Game of Thrones, we’ve seen too many examples of power’s corrupting influence.

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It’s time to talk about THAT scene

Finally, before I watched Game of Thrones, I’d heard about an infamous “red wedding” but I didn’t know what it was or when it was going to occur. Well, now I know what it is AND I HATE IT.

Apparently I was expressing my thoughts about this scene loudly enough that my husband (who was upstairs) could hear me complaining as I sat in front of the TV in the basement. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so mad about a fictional plot twist before, officially surpassing my feelings about “Mockingjay,” the final book in the Hunger Games series (and, to date, the only book I’ve ever thrown across the room after finishing it).

As I mentioned before, I’m definitely #TeamStark, and Robb and Catelyn were two of my favorite characters. I’m both mad that they died, and I’m mad about the way they died. I watched this episode Friday night and was haunted by it throughout the weekend. Game of Thrones, why????

All right — I could keep ranting for a while, but you get the idea. Even though I’m upset about saying goodbye to two of my favorite characters too soon (especially since Ned Stark already was on the show all-too-briefly), to be fair I did know going in that this show was going to kill off some major characters in upsetting ways.

This did get me to thinking about unexpected major character deaths in fiction as a narrative device, and how it’s not always my favorite type of plot twist.

Yes, it technically adds realism, because life doesn’t always follow a neatly plotted narrative. But personally, I’d rather sacrifice some realism to get more time with interesting characters. Ned, Catelyn, and Robb Stark, as well as Renly Baratheon (who died in season 2), are all characters I wanted to see more of.

This isn’t really a criticism of the show, because it’s not wrong to aim for more of a realistic style. It’s just a personal preference. Or maybe I’m just bitter because my favorite characters happen to be the ones targeted by these shocking plot twists. 😉

Anyway, despite my feelings about the red wedding, I now have season 4 of Game of Thrones on hold at the local library, and I’m planning to pick it up after work! Things are not looking good for the Starks, but I’m still rooting for them.

Cash-grab rehash or creative re-imagining? Thoughts on the Disney live action remakes

TheLionKing5cadf226d5164.0While not all of Disney’s live action remakes of their animated classics have been a hit with critics, they do appear (at least for the most part) to have found success at the box office.

The live action “Beauty and the Beast” earned a staggering $1.26 billion worldwide. “The Jungle Book” earned $966 million. “Aladdin” is at $961 million (and still counting), surprisingly turning into one of the summer’s leggiest movies.

This weekend, “The Lion King” hopes to join the trend of Disney live action successes with its star-studded voice cast and impressive CGI visuals, despite its somewhat so-so reviews.

I’ve heard a lot of mixed opinions from film fans on the Disney live action remakes. Some fans feel these remakes are shameless cash grabs, the result of Disney trying to make a quick buck by rehashing an already-told story. Others (myself included) feel they are harmless fun, refreshing a well-loved story for a new generation.

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I think it’s actually a bit tricky to determine when to label a film a “shameless cash grab,” because, at the end of the day, all blockbusters are designed to make money (preferably, a LOT of money). In the strictest sense, “Avengers: Endgame” was a cash grab. “The Force Awakens” was a cash grab. However, I dearly love both those movies, and I believe both have value as works of pop culture. Yes, they made a lot of cash at the box office, but they also tell a meaningful story and offer thoughtful themes.

The reason I’ve enjoyed most of the live action Disney remakes is that they do offer something new that wasn’t present in the original animated versions. “Maleficent” made us see a classic Disney villain in a new way. “Aladdin” gave us an authentically diverse cast of actors (while I love the animated original, it disappointingly did not have a very diverse voice cast). And judging by the trailer of the new “Mulan” remake, it will have some gorgeous action sequences and reportedly steer closer to the original legend from China.

There’s also a certain novelty in seeing your favorite Disney animated films in a new format. I grew up watching a lot of these films (“Aladdin” was the very first film I remember seeing in a theater), and seeing a new version just gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s not always bad to play to the audience’s nostalgia (although sometimes, nostalgia is a double-edged sword, but that’s another topic for another time).

I think it also matters which animated classics Disney targets for re-release. “Dumbo” comparatively under-performed; perhaps because the animated original isn’t one people are talking about as much, and director Tim Burton seems to be struggling at the box office in general lately. I’m also a little worried about “The Lion King,” because unlike “Aladdin” — which is a true live action retelling of an animated film — “The Lion King” is basically also an animated film, just with photo-realistic CGI.

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Disney’s princess movies have always been popular, so it makes sense to target those for remakes, especially since some of the older ones do have some features that feel a little dated. Maybe it’s controversial to say that? But that’s possibly why “Cinderella” is my favorite live-action remake thus far; it captures the charm of the original story but gives it a fresh coat of paint that makes the film feel both timeless and modern.

In the end, if the Disney live action remakes bring you joy, that’s great! I personally really enjoy seeing them and I’m excited for the new ones coming up in the future. And if they’re not your thing? That’s okay too! Regardless, it has been fun to see kids connecting with these live action movies and (I hope!) discovering the animated classics as well.

A ‘Marvel-ous’ list: An updated ranking of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (July 2019)

Iron-Man-Infinity-WarHere’s my final ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, adding the three new ones from this year. I’m actually going to be retiring this list, since it’s tough to maintain a 20+ movie ranking that’s constantly shifting. But this phase of the MCU has been really great, and I’ll probably start a new list for whatever comes after “Endgame” and “Far From Home”!

A ‘Marvel-ous’ list: An updated ranking of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (July 2019)

Movie review: Is ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ a worthy follow-up to ‘Endgame’?

When-will-Spider-Man-Far-From-Home-be-on-Netflix“Avengers: Endgame” is, admittedly, a tough act to follow. How do you continue the franchise after an epic, three-hour film that wraps up a story arc spanning 10+ years and 20+ films?

Actually, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” doesn’t necessarily answer that question. The latest Spidey film serves as more of an epilogue to “Avengers: Endgame” than a harbinger of the new era of Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

And that’s perfectly fine with me. So much happened in the last Avengers movie, and so much about the MCU will be changing post-“Endgame,” that we all still need some time to adjust to what the new MCU is going to be like. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” reflects on the legacy of the past films with just a few teases as to what we might be seeing in the future.

Much like its predecessor “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” one of the best things about “Far From Home” is that it feels like a teenage comedy/coming of age tale first, and a superhero movie second. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love superhero movies, but one of my slight concerns about the MCU going forward is that the “formula” may start to feel a little stale. “Far From Home” works so well because it’s a smaller scale superhero flick that really focuses in on the characters, with plenty of delightfully awkward teenage charm.

The film starts with a great premise — a high school trip to Europe — that provides an interesting backdrop for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) to process the events of “Endgame.” He’s had to deal with a considerable amount of trauma — vanishing in the snap, fighting in an intergalactic war, and losing someone very close to him — and I appreciated that the film addressed Peter’s complex feelings and didn’t try to “move on” too quickly.

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***Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!***

Iron Man/Tony Stark is my favorite Avenger, and I’m still not over his death at the end of “Endgame,” especially since I didn’t think he’d be the one to die. I loved how the MCU positioned Tony as a mentor for Peter, and how both of them were able to learn from each other. Understandably, Peter is still grieving this loss in “Far From Home.”

Peter is afraid he won’t live up to Tony’s legacy, and in the end, he comes to peace with the fact that he doesn’t have to. He can take the lessons he learned from Tony and become his own superhero.

I really, really loved all the scenes with Tony’s former head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who is also grieving the loss of his friend. Normally AC/DC’s “Back in Black” isn’t a song that makes people teary-eyed, but hearing Happy play Tony’s signature song for Peter definitely got to me.

In a very different way, Peter also learns a lot from his interactions with Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). When he first arrives, Mysterio looks like the perfect candidate to join the new Avengers team. He’s got a cool set of Doctor Strange-esque powers, and he even seems like he would be a good mentor for Peter.

Of course, Marvel comics readers already know this is all an act — Mysterio uses effects and technology to make himself appear to have powers he actually doesn’t have. When he ultimately turns against S.H.I.E.L.D., Peter takes it personally, questioning his own abilities and judgement even more.

Mysterio was a great foil for Peter and an interesting contrast to Iron Man. Plus, it was really cool to see how he used technology to mimic superpowers and caused everybody to question what was actually real.

Overall, I don’t have a lot else to add about this film. It’s really fun (and funny), and Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) continues to be one of my favorite side characters in the MCU.

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My only criticisms about this film are actually found at the very beginning and the very end. I wasn’t a fan of the little joke tribute film that played at the beginning. I get what they were going for — a low budget “in memory” video made by kids at Peter’s high school, highlighting all the Avengers that were lost in the Infinity War.

I’m pretty sure it was intended to be funny, but it really rubbed me the wrong way, because it was awkwardly making light of a serious moment. I don’t want to have a laugh about the deaths in “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” Thankfully, the rest of the humor in the film is really great, but this one scene definitely fell flat and was mostly received with silence during the two showings I attended.

I also don’t know that I love the final post-credits sequence. The mid-credits clip was a great, gasp-inducing moment, and I love that they were brave enough to reveal Peter’s secret identity. But I’m not necessarily a fan of the fact that apparently Skrulls were pretending to be Nick Fury and Maria Hill throughout the entire film.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like backsliding after everything that happened in “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War.” Steve Rogers really wanted S.H.I.E.L.D. to be more open and transparent, and is using shapeshifters to trick people something he’d be comfortable with? Also, after Peter already got duped by Mysterio, he might have a hard time trusting S.H.I.E.L.D. when he learns they also tricked him.

Anyway, maybe I’m reading too much into this. I do think the Skrulls are interesting as a concept, and I want to see more of them in the MCU’s future. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what happens in the future.

Regardless of whatever the next phase of the MCU includes, I’m definitely on board for another Spidey film!

Learning to let go: Quick movie reviews for ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Toy Story 4’

YesterdayToyStory2.jpgHow do you let go of a dream that you’ve been holding onto for so long that it’s become a part of who you are? Even when that dream has turned into something toxic, you just can’t imagine your life without it.

I really wasn’t expecting to find parallels between the two movies I saw in theaters this weekend: “Yesterday” and “Toy Story 4.” One is about a man who wakes up in a world where only he remembers The Beatles, and the other is a continuation of an animated franchise about toys who come to life.

Both of these movies were entertaining, yet they also turned out to be way more thought-provoking than I had planned on. I wish I could write up full-length reviews on both of these, but alas, it’s summertime and difficult to keep up with all the new movies coming out. Here are my quick thoughts on each, and some of the interesting parallels between them.

Yesterday

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I was intrigued by “Yesterday” from the moment I saw the first preview. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter who is pondering giving up his dream of becoming a famous musician. Then, on the night of a strange power outage that takes place across the world, he gets in an accident.

When he wakes up, he appears to be the only one who remembers who The Beatles are. This presents him with an intriguing ethical conundrum: should he perform The Beatles’ music and market it as if it were his own? Technically he’s not hurting anybody or stealing from anyone in this reality, because The Beatles were never “a thing.” Yet deep down, he knows he’s being dishonest, and untrue to himself.

On a surface level, “Yesterday” is a quirky, entertaining romantic comedy. Overall, I felt like it was lacking the little extra push it needed to go from “good” to truly “great” but I would still definitely recommend it, especially to Beatles fans. It’s always a pleasure to hear these songs again.

(Spoilers ahead…)

I also really loved that they never explained how reality shifted and apparently erased the existence of The Beatles. I think including that would have bogged down the movie and detracted from its quirky charm. I do wish they hadn’t added in additional missing pop culture fixtures (like Coca-Cola and Harry Potter), because that kinda distracted from The Beatles premise.

I also appreciated the movie’s message about recognizing when it’s time to let go of a dream. It’s something we don’t talk a lot about, because we’re used to the message of “follow your dreams and don’t ever give up and you too can succeed!”

The truth is, not everyone is going to be famous. You can work really hard and never get recognized for that work. It’s terrifying to look a dream that is so precious to you and think about giving it up, but sometimes that is the healthiest thing you can do.

Jack eventually lets go of his dream of being a superstar (and confesses about stealing The Beatles’ music). Then he goes on to find incredible joy and meaning in an ordinary life.

As someone who had big dreams post-college and then my life ended up going a different way, the ending of this movie really resonated with me. Maybe I’ll never be famous, but I still find joy and fulfillment in being creative.

Toy Story 4

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I missed seeing “Toy Story 4” on opening weekend due to traveling for work, and I actually considered skipping it. “Toy Story 3” felt like such a perfect ending to the franchise, and the trailers for “Toy Story 4” didn’t necessarily grab me.

However, it was actually my husband who announced that he wanted to see it after hearing some glowing reviews, and I’m so glad he did.

“Toy Story 4” is so much more than a mere cash grab or tired, rehashed sequel. It’s a great film in its own right, and it stands with “Toy Story 3” as the best in the franchise, at least in my opinion. It’s been a while since I laughed so hard I cried in a theater, but “Toy Story 4” delivered (“plush rush” is all I’ll say and leave it at that, for those who haven’t seen the movie yet).

The standouts of the movie are actually some of the new characters: Forky (voiced by “Arrested Development’s” Tony Hale) and carnival plushes Bunny and Ducky (voiced by comedy duo Key and Peele). I never thought I would laugh so hard at the antics of a plastic spork, but Forky and his obsession with trash are hilarious. Bunny and Ducky also generated lots of laughter during the showing I went to, including the moment referenced in the previous paragraph.

Yet what impressed me most about this movie is that Pixar was able to present a new story with a meaningful message that doesn’t detract from previous films or borrow too heavily from them, either.

(Spoilers ahead…)

The heart of this movie is Woody’s personal journey to adapt to a new life after Andy has moved on. He isn’t connecting with his new kid, Bonnie, as much as he connected to Andy, and it’s hard for him, since so much of his identity is wrapped up in being a child’s beloved toy.

I was actually a little surprised that they ended the movie with Woody going off on his own adventure with Bo Peep, who is a proud “lost toy” without an owner. I’ll admit it, I definitely got a little teary-eyed as Woody watched Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the gang driving off in Bonnie’s family’s RV after an emotional goodbye.

But I really liked that ending, and it’s the reason why “Yesterday” and “Toy Story 4” play well together. Woody has a hard time letting go but eventually he realizes that he needs to let go of his past dreams and try something new.

There’s grief in letting go of his old life, but also joy in embracing a new adventure. And saying goodbye to your friends doesn’t mean you stop caring about them.

Closing thoughts

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting either of these movies to touch me as deeply as they did, and I thought both were well worth catching in the theater. Letting go is a hard lesson to learn, and I loved how both of these movies communicated that without being too heavy-handed. I definitely want to see both of these movies again!

Will Ashley survive the Game of Thrones?: Thoughts on the series from a first-time viewer

1200At this point, it feels like I’m the last person in all of my social circles who hasn’t watched Game of Thrones.

I know that’s probably not true, but as a geek, it feels weird not being part of the discussion surrounding such a hugely popular fantasy TV series. However, by the time I started experiencing major “fear of missing out,” the show was almost over.

So, I decided to wait until the last episode had aired, and then watch the series in its entirety. I’ve already heard a number of spoilers for the show (I know how all the major character arcs end, and I know who ultimately ends up on the coveted Iron Throne).

While knowing these spoilers does take away from the suspense somewhat, I thought this prior knowledge might actually make for an interesting viewing experience. Since I know how the story ends, I can watch for clues along the way, to see how the writers get our characters from beginning to end. I won’t be worried about how certain character arcs wrap up; instead, I can watch this series more through the lens of wanting to see if the writers justify how we arrive at the ending.

I’ve heard the controversy surrounding the show’s final season, and I’m curious how knowing some of the criticisms ahead of time will impact my overall perception of the show. Also, after eight years of buildup, can this show live up to the hype?

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Political games

***Warning: From here on, there are tons of spoilers for the entire series!***

In terms of narrative scope and cinematography, Game of Thrones is probably the most impressive TV series I have ever watched. A lot of times, you can tell that TV shows have smaller budgets than big screen movies, but all the costumes, sets, and special effects here are top-notch. It really helps create an immersive world that can compete with the caliber of most any big-budget blockbuster.

One of the things that first intrigued me about Game of Thrones was its similarity to real-life history: the Wars of the Roses in medieval England. A couple years ago, I fell down what I’ll lovingly call a “historical rabbit hole” triggered by the BBC miniseries “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.” This miniseries covers several of Shakespeare’s historical plays depicting the Wars of the Roses, a brutal period in England’s history plagued by conspiracies, betrayal, backstabbing, and fierce competition for power. (Sound familiar?)

Anyway, I was so intrigued by this show that I immediately went searching for books on this time period, so I could learn more about it. During this time, my husband was forced to hear a LOT about the Wars of the Roses, and he very patiently listened to all the reasons I found this time period so fascinating. (Side note: “The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors” by Dan Jones is a great read, if you’re curious. And if you’re missing Game of Thrones, you should definitely watch “The Hollow Crown.”)

Apparently original Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin at least somewhat shares my obsession, as he reportedly used the Wars of the Roses as inspiration for his own series.

Despite the show’s fictional setting, there’s a sense of “realness” that grounds Game of Thrones, and I believe this in no small part contributes to the show’s popularity. Plus, even though we may no longer live in medieval times, political maneuvering and backstabbing are behaviors that are still going on today (just look at some of those political mailers that inevitably show up in your mailbox around election time).

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Who’s who in Westeros

There’s probably never been an ensemble cast quite like the distinguished crew of actors gathered for Game of Thrones, many of whom have gone on to successful careers outside the show. In terms of characters, if you’re looking for noble knights and benevolent rulers, you’ll have a hard time finding them here. However, there’s more nuance to be found than you might first suspect.

After the first couple of episodes, I felt pretty sure that ALL the Lannisters deserved to be pushed out a very high window. Yet as I kept watching, I could tell some of these characters were going to get a deeper, more layered character arc. I’m definitely #TeamStark all the way, but I am intrigued by pretty much all the major characters. And of course, you always need a few characters that you love to hate (looking at you, King Joffrey!).

This show is grittier and bleaker than a lot of the fantasy stories I’ve read or watched previously, and it took me a couple episodes to adjust to the tone. I would say there’s more villains than heroes, but again, I can see several characters that may wind up as anti-heroes or even heroes at the end. There’s a lot of tragedy to be found in Westeros, as well; I can see how some of the nastier characters, like Cersei, have been trapped by their circumstances. It’s an environment that doesn’t exactly allow them to flourish and become their best selves.

Sadly, one of my favorite characters is already gone (R.I.P. Eddard “Ned” Stark — Westeros was not worthy of you!). He’s noble, loyal, and genuinely trying to do the right thing and protect his family. Tragically, he’s outmaneuvered in the game of thrones going on around him, and the price he must pay is his life.

While I’d like to watch more of the show before commenting on what themes I think it’s trying to communicate, I have heard some say that Game of Thrones presents more of a nihilistic viewpoint, where it doesn’t matter if you try to be a moral person. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Ned Stark isn’t rewarded for doing the right thing, but I’d argue that you should do the right thing because it’s the right thing — whether you’re rewarded or not. Sometimes in life, bad things happen to good people. That doesn’t give you an excuse to just give up and be a bad person.

Ned Stark’s selflessness gets him killed, but, because I already know the ending, I find it fitting that one of his children (Bran) claims the throne and another is Queen in the North (Sansa); they become two of the most powerful players in the political games going on around them. Again, I’m curious to see how all these journeys are handled, but at least right now, I believe one very well could argue that Ned Stark does triumph in the end.

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Room for improvement

Well, you can probably tell by the fact that I’ve already written 1,000+ words in this article that I’m officially a fan of Game of Thrones now and I’m really glad I decided to start watching this series. But, I feel like I do have to address one of the most common criticisms I’ve seen about the show, because this issue did bother me while I was watching.

If you Google “Game of Throne and its portrayal of women,” you’ll find multiple articles on how the series has not always done right by its female characters. And it’s frustrating, because we live in an era with Wonder Woman, Rey, Katniss Everdeen, Captain Marvel, and so many other authentic and powerful female characters.

A number of the male characters in Game of Thrones don’t treat the female characters with a lot of respect (with the exception of the Stark family — again, I’m definitely #TeamStark all the way!). The writing and cinematography also seem to objectify and sexualize women to a much greater extent than their male counterparts.

On the one hand, yes, this series is based on medieval Europe, and women in that society probably were not treated very well. It’s important to remember that history, so we do not repeat it.

However, this is a fictional fantasy series written and filmed in the 2010s — if you’re going to do a period piece showing a society that is oppressive to women, you need to be responsible in how you showcase that oppression.

Case in point: although unlike Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey has practically no graphic violence, the women in that show are also held back by social constraints. The key difference is that in Downton Abbey, the female characters are given space (and a voice!) to communicate their frustrations and struggles with the limits that their society places on them.

In the first season, I desperately wanted more scenes with all of Games of Thrones’ rich female characters — Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, and Daenerys, to name a few — discussing their fears, thoughts, and feelings. Hopefully I’ll find more of this as the series goes on. I want the show to convince me it cares about its female characters as much as it cares about — and respects — the male ones.

Closing thoughts

Since I started drafting this blog post, I’m now about halfway through season 2, and I’m enjoying it even more than I enjoyed season 1. The show has also added several new female characters, which I’m excited about, and I think the portrayal of the female characters is improving.

I’m planning to keep blogging my way through Westeros as I watch through the stories, and I can’t wait to see more!

Movie review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ closes out the X-Men saga (for now)

wp4031137For better or worse, “Dark Phoenix” marks the end of the X-Men franchise as we know it.

It’s a little like a political lame duck; it’s being released after the Disney/Fox merger but does not tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reviews for the film haven’t been kind — it’s currently sitting at 24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — and with its $33 million opening weekend box office, it barely managed to beat out Disney’s live action “Aladdin,” which is in its third week. (As a side note, I actually went to see “Aladdin” again this past weekend, and I enjoyed it even more a second time. It looks like it may prove to be one of the summer’s leggiest movies.)

I went to see a Thursday night preview of “Dark Phoenix,” and my immediate reaction was, “this isn’t quite as bad as the reviews would lead you to believe.” Sure, the movie does have some significant flaws (we’ll get to those in a minute), but there were some things I did enjoy about this movie.

As someone who doesn’t have much familiarity with comics (it’s my geek Achilles’ heel, and I always feel guilty about that), the only knowledge I had about the Dark Phoenix storyline came from the “X-Men: The Last Stand” movie which I saw a long time ago and don’t remember a lot about.

Basically, Jean Grey, member of the X-Men team, gets some new cosmic powers that pull her towards the dark side, and the X-Men are torn between wanting to save her and having to stop her. Also, from this point on, I’m not sure what parts of my review may be spoiler-y or not for those who have read the comics, so if you don’t want spoilers of any kind, stop reading now.

By this point in the franchise, it’s best not to think too closely about how the timeline for these reboot films (“First Class,” “Days of Future Past,” “Apocalypse,” and “Dark Phoenix”) matches up with the original Hugh Jackman films. In “First Class,” Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Professor X appear to be 20/30 somethings in the 1960s. Fast forward 30-ish years to “Dark Phoenix,” and let’s just say these two have aged suspiciously well.

“First Class” is actually my favorite X-Men film, and I will never complain about seeing Fassbender and McAvoy return to these roles. They are, at least in my opinion, the best parts of these reboot films, and there’s a very nice moment at the end of “Dark Phoenix” that closes out their storyline.

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I did like Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, and I love the complexity of the character’s storyline. I’m a sucker for stories involving anti-heroes and nuanced villains, and I think we need more female characters who fit into these archetypes. Jean is a conflicted soul who is struggling with demons she can’t quite master, and if anything, the plot of this film moves too fast, instead of letting Jean’s conflict slowly build.

I wasn’t a fan of the alien subplot in this movie, and I felt it distracted from the main, more interesting storyline (i.e. Jean’s inner struggle). I have heard the aliens are a part of the original comics, but I wish they had cut it out altogether, because the shape-shifting aliens in this movie reminded me too much of the Skrulls in “Captain Marvel.” I personally don’t think the giant space cloud that Jean derives her powers from needs a backstory; just give her the powers, and then focus on how she deals with them.

I wanted to see more interactions between Jean and Magneto, and Jean and Professor X. I thought Professor X and Jean’s relationship was fascinating, because you have Charles trying to do something good by messing with Jean’s memories and burying her past trauma, but in the long run he harms her more than he helps her. Misusing one’s powers in the name of good is a potential pitfall that all superheroes face, and I love seeing this explored.

I also wish Jean had been able to spend more time at Magneto’s compound for mutants, because based on his own past, he seems the most qualified to help Jean with her dark side temptations. He also knows what it’s like to live with an overwhelming sense of rage and a desire for revenge, though he’s eventually able to find some peace.

Some other, very spoiler-y quibbles: It definitely feels like Jennifer Lawrence was kinda phoning it in as a performer in this movie; however, Mystique’s death does make a powerful emotional impact. It’s a sad twist, but it gives the story more weight. I also felt like Jean’s turn back to the light came too soon in the film. I wished they had kept her fate in limbo until the very end, when she makes a final decision to sacrifice herself to save her friends.

In short, this film has some good features that needed more polishing, and it’s a shame that it’s the end of an era. I definitely believe we’ll see the X-Men on film again, but I’m still feeling a bit hesitant on whether I want them to join the MCU’s main storyline. I like having them as their own franchise, with their own tone and style.

Regardless of some misfires along the way, the X-Men films have offered some great performances and storytelling. Maybe all fans don’t feel the same way — and that’s completely okay — but I will personally be sad to see them go.

Return of the king(s): Quick movie reviews for ‘Rocketman’ and ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

Untitled-1What do “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and the new Elton John biopic “Rocketman” have in common? Well, not much, actually. But I saw both these movies this past week, and since I didn’t have time to do separate, full-length reviews, here are my quick thoughts on each.

It’s not often that I’ll see two different movies on opening weekend, but I was intrigued enough by the trailers that I wanted to see them both right away, especially since we’re now in the middle of summer blockbuster season and there’s a new movie I’d like to see pretty much every weekend.

First, let’s tackle “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” My response to its predecessor, “Godzilla,” back in 2014, was something along the lines of “meh.” Godzilla himself was awesome, but he wasn’t in the film nearly enough, and the human characters surrounding him weren’t super compelling.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” fixes one of those problems, but unfortunately still struggles in the other area.

Every time there were monsters on screen fighting, this movie was magnificent. It was gloriously over the top, and I watched all the scenes involving the monsters with a sense of childlike glee. The 2014 “Godzilla” had too few scenes of monsters fighting, but this movie has plenty. Watching Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah the three-headed dragon, and others was so much fun. I’m glad I decided to see this movie in IMAX, because the fights were amazing.

Sadly, the movie still suffers when it comes to the human characters. I really wish both of these Godzilla movies had featured Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishirō Serizawa as the main character, instead of relegating him to a more supporting role. They could have gone a lot deeper with this character and his reaction to the monsters. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the scene where he finally gets to come face to face with Godzilla is actually quite moving.

I’ll definitely watch more of these monster movies, but I hope they will work on adding more depth to the human characters. While it’s fair to say that the monsters are always going to be the main draw for these films, the humans around them don’t have to be two-dimensional. More nuanced characters would have made this film more memorable. As it stands now, it’s summer popcorn fun, but not much else.

Rocketman

I actually decided to see this movie based solely on the strength of the previews. I saw them multiple times while going to see other movies, and this film looked really interesting and fun.

While I’m not super familiar with Elton John or his music, I do enjoy listening to his songs. I’ll always stop for “Rocket Man” or “Tiny Dancer” when I’m scanning through radio stations in my car.

“Rocketman” is actually more of a big screen musical than a biopic, and I think that concept works really well, considering Elton John’s vibrant and creative stage persona. The musical format allows the filmmakers to work in all his famous songs, but in an unexpected way.

All the musical sequences are really fun, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how tragic this movie was going to be at times, and all the struggles Elton John went through early in his career.

Growing up, his family didn’t provide the emotional support he so desperately needed. He falls in love with his manager, John Reid, who later uses and betrays him. Elton uses drugs and alcohol to cope with his crushing loneliness, and he hides his true self behind the glitz and glamour of the world of stardom.

Elton John is played by Taron Egerton, who I’ve been a fan of since the Kingsman movies. While his voice may not sound exactly like Elton John’s, Egerton gives a heartfelt and committed performance. Although the movie has numerous fantasy sequences, the story it tells is moving and authentic.

In short, I’d definitely love to see more biopics like this one. Sure, some of the details might not be strictly historical, but the style of this movie fits with the subject it is portraying.