Lebeau and Daffy on Holiday Movies 2016
Merry Festivus, elves of LeBlog!
Each year is made up of a series of movie “seasons,” with every production company vying for box office dominance during these peak portions of the cinema calendar. Although there are 12 months in every year, movie theater attendance is, of course, way up during those times of the year when kids of all ages are out of school. Because of this, you’ll see most of the big event movies released in time for extended holiday periods.
Earlier this year, Lebeau and I sat down for a chat about the important releases and trends of the summer movie season, and this time we’ll be covering the same topic as it applies to what we’ve seen in November and December. Come along as we discuss the relative value of this holiday’s offerings and what it might mean for audiences and filmmakers long-term.
Daffy Stardust: Obviously a lot of what we’ve seen over the last couple of months has been from firmly established crowd-pleasing genres and properties. This has meant a lot of popular sci-fi and fantasy properties, and kids’ movies, and I’ve seen a little bit of each. These movies have been predictably strong at the box office and Disney’s dominance of 2016 has continued. But are audiences getting really top-notch mainstream entertainments which will stick with them for years to come? Or are they just getting something to distract them while they’ve got a few spare moments and will be forgotten sooner or later?
What do you think, Lebeau?
Lebeau: When we looked back at the summer movie season, it was kind of depressing. Five months worth of movies and most of them were utterly forgettable. There were no home runs and lots of missed opportunities. The holiday movie season is shorter and is made up of a lot of the same kinds of movies. We had another Marvel superhero flick and several animated features. But for my money, the execution was much better for the winter offerings.
Anything stand out to you?
DS: Unfortunately, I think most of what I’ve seen will be more memorable than it is great. I will look back on some of these movies fondly, but whenever I watch them in the future I will be continuing to pick them apart. Hopefully the movies will stand up to that and hold a positive identification for me. Moana in particular is a movie that I’m very aware of being not as good as my experience of it in the theater was, and the songs from the film that I like will probably hold a big role in helping me maintain a fondness for the movie as a whole. I almost feel like I would have to go through each movie and point out the weaknesses that keep them from being great while admitting that I have really liked them anyway. I’m defining the holiday season for myself as starting with Doctor Strange, which I saw on opening weekend at the beginning of November and currently ending with Rogue One, which I saw…last night.
We could clearly fill a lot of lines just discussing that last one (and probably will). Did you feel like the big movies of the season really paid off for you and your family?
L: Over the last two months, by my count, I have seen four movies mostly with the kids. Like you, I bookended the season with Dr Strange and Rogue One. I wouldn’t say any of the movies I saw were great, but I enjoyed them all. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Moana, but that’s not a strong preference. I feel like all four movies I saw were somewhere in the B/B+ range which isn’t a bad place to be.
The kids saw one movie without me. Mindy took them to see Trolls which they all really liked. The girls did not like Moana at all, though I am not clear as to why. Kids don’t always make the best critics. Our 15-year-old niece did like Moana, so maybe it skews older? I’m beginning to think my kids just don’t like Disney movies.
We all went to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I wasn’t itching to see that one, but Kara was a little afraid and we thought it would be easier for her if we were all there. It was dark and a bit intense, but we all liked it. Fantastic Beasts was probably the closest thing I had to a pleasant surprise this season.
DS: Unfortunately, it seems like the big event movies we’re getting are going to keep on being based on established properties like Marvel and Star Wars or on firmly entrenched forms such as the Disney musical princess films. Of course since I’m continuing to go see those movies, then I’m part of the problem. I like these movies and I do want to keep seeing them, but there’s also part of me that is very ready for Oscars season, which is just starting to fade into view. Obviously I’ll be diving into that material in the coming weeks in hopes of offering good coverage on it here at the site. And any great new mainstream film will likely be made into a franchise after the fact if it isn’t perceived that way by the studio already.
I’ll agree that Moana was probably the movie that I enjoyed the most while I was watching it and only started picking it apart once I had some distance from it. Some of that might have been a confirmation bias on my part. I was really looking forward to it, and when I saw it on opening day with my Brother’s family I was fully invested in the characters and entranced with the quality of the animation and the world in which it was set. When other people rank it firmly behind some other Disney musicals, I can’t necessarily argue with them. I just know I have an affection for it right now that is beyond what I have initially had for any Disney musical since maybe The Lion King more than twenty years ago. I actually find myself wishing that some of the songs were longer than they are. They have taken their rightful place in my twelve hour playlist of Disney music and I’m still finding myself searching them out and skipping some of the stuff that has been there for a while. The harmonies and layered sounds they provide are very appealing and emotional despite the melodies not being as strong as you night expect from the pinnacle of the form. I even dream of an E ticket Moana boat ride in one of the parks, but that’s maybe veering off topic.
I’ve seen some people complain about the lack of a romantic subplot or a traditional central villain, but I don’t agree with those as necessarily valid criticisms. They look like the complaints of those who just want to see the same movie over and over rather than truly meaningful deficits in the storytelling. I would agree with some who think that the movie was missing one more hurdle for our heroes on their journey and that some of the modern touches over the course of its running time are momentarily jarring. It is also true that Moana’s animal sidekicks do not appear to add much to the narrative, even if they are cute and funny. Perhaps the most substantial criticism is that the story beats are maybe a bit too predictable. The crisis of confidence and triumphant return of a character could be cynically attributed to pre-determined screenwriting 101 decisions.
Do you have any disconnect between your experience in the theater and what you think of a movie once you’re sitting in your car on the way home? Was it any more significant for the movies we’ve been presented this holiday season?
L: For the most part, my opinion on these movies didn’t change all that much after the closing credits. With Moana, I was sitting next to my youngest who was getting anxious. The kids grew impatient with the musical numbers. So for me, that was bringing my enjoyment down. I actually had to force myself to acknowledge what the movie got right instead of focusing on the fact my kids were bored. If anything, my estimation of Moana went up upon reflection.
The movies I saw didn’t require much processing. That will come in early 2017 when we get to the Oscar movies. (Looking forward to La La Land!) Dr Strange was another Marvel origin story. Moana followed the Disney formula. Rogue One had to work within some pretty strict story constraints in that it is set in an established universe and we all know how it ends. But like you, I look forward to these movies. They aren’t going anywhere.
Having said that, Rogue One is the movie I was most conflicted about. Before I start complaining about a movie most of our readers probably loved, what are your thoughts?
DS: Oh, SPOILERS by the way.
I felt like Rogue One made a lot of errors while it was in the middle of trying to get things right. Not long ago the fan community responded to news about some re-shoots with cynical assumptions that Disney was forcing the filmmakers to lighten the movie up and make it more family friendly. As it turns out, Disney was actually very supportive of the resulting film being as dark as it was in the end. Unfortunately there were a lot of unnecessary fan service moments and some head scratchers along the way. We really didn’t get to know some of the characters we were following nearly well enough and I would have been happy to have had a longer movie to fix that problem.
One of the elements that I found really distracting was the same thing that I praised in Captain America: Civil War. The use of CGI in restoring an active Grand Moff Tarkin who looked like Peter Cushing completely took me out of the scenes he was in. All I could think was what this means for the future of cinema. Did Cushing’s family sign over the rights to his likeness to the degree that Disney can basically extend his career as an actor in any old piece of bunk they see fit, but with another performer getting the credit? I’m very interested in finding out what the legalities involved are. When Robert Downey’s younger version showed up in Civil War it didn’t seem weird to me because, you know, he was alive and in the movie, but this was very unsettling. And he didn’t even look that great. He was too tall, for one thing.
In a movie in which the deaths of the entire core cast made absolute sense, the demise of Saw, the character played by Forrest Whitaker, was completely senseless and meaningless, and made his very presence in the film a questionable plot point. There has got to be more story there, and it was entirely wasted.
L: Yeah the CGI recreations of actors who are no longer with us or who are now four decades older (may the Force be with Carrie Fisher) were odd. My mind drifted to some of the same questions about what this means for movies. I recall a long time ago (in this galaxy) Fisher complained that one day technology would reach a point where her gold bikini could be digitally removed. We haven’t quite reached that point, but clearly we are getting there and it raises some disturbing questions.
Last year, while I had fun with The Force Awakens, I was pretty critical of it. I tried watching it a second time and didn’t make it halfway through. It’s a very safe movie and not very interesting once you get past the initial wave of nostalgia.
Rogue One is still pretty safe and it definitely trades heavily in nostalgia. But I give it credit for being a better and more interesting movie than TFA was. It probably helps that Rogue One was allowed to have an ending even if that ending was to set up a sequel that was released in 1977.
I may be in the minority on this, but I like my Star Wars to be more space fantasy than actual war movie. There have always been elements of that to be sure. George Lucas studied footage of WWII dogfights for the final scenes in Star Wars. But Rogue One puts the focus on the soldiers in a way I am not entirely comfortable with. It feels to me less like a Star Wars movie than an adaptation of one of those Star Wars video games.
DS: I’ve heard other people compare it to a Dirty Dozen type flick, but if that was the intention, it didn’t quite hit the mark. We basically had six crew members to get to know, but I can’y say that I got attached to more than two of them at most. Some of that was because I was pretty sure most of them were not going to survive the movie, but it’s also a defect of the storytelling. Nobody involved appeared to be over their heads or unprepared for military action. The audience surrogate was supposed to be Jyn, but she was apparently pretty kick butt from the beginning. I ended up a little more invested in the defecting pilot, but since he had “toast” written on his forehead I didn’t get attached at all. Other films of this type have done a much better job of getting the audience empathizing with rough folks.
As much as I disliked some of the fan service present in Rogue One (did we really need that shot of C-3PO and R2-D2), there were also some inconsistencies with the original trilogy that bugged me. The AT-ATs (rhymes with cat-cat) were destroyed pretty easily this time around in comparison to what we saw in The Empire Strikes Back. Also, Leia actually tells Vader that she’s on a diplomatic mission when he catches up to her later. That seems like a pretty stupid lie considering that she has to be aware that he watched her ship escape the battle at the end of Rogue One.
L: The full title of the movie is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But I think a more accurate subtitle would have been An Unnecessary Story. Everything we needed to know about the Death Star plans was covered in one line of dialogue from the first movie. Are we now going to get a Rogue Two in which someone sabotages the second Death Star with the same exact design flaw and a bigger opening to fly through? And I still don’t know what a Bothan is.
I didn’t form any emotional attachments to any of the characters either. Part of that comes from knowing how the movie ends before it was even made. I knew in advance none of these characters have any impact on anything after this mission. That’s a problem inherent in prequels. They serve no purpose.
It’s pretty rare that a prequel can line everything up with an established movie that was made with no thought to follow ups that would try to fill in the blanks forty years after the fact. So when you show me a throw-away shot of the droids watching ships taking off, I spend the next several minutes trying to figure out how they end up on one of those ships.
DS: Yeah, it’s the same with Walrus man and his easily aggravated friend. I guess we’re meant to believe they went straight from the town on the planet where they bumped into Jyn to the cantina on Tatooine. That’s certainly not unreasonable, but it’s not particularly likely either. About as likely as there being a port that opens and closes constantly like the characters are living in a video game.
The more I think about Rogue One, the less I like it. I’m guessing that follow-up viewings of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may help it grow marginally in my estimation. The characters are more engaging and we’re getting more of them and the wizarding story down the line. The primary thing that bothered me on my first watch was that the “big bad” was basically a bloated cloud of evil…and also that Obscuris thing. The two characters who were hiding the bigger threats were more interesting. I’m a fan of JK Rowling’s wizarding world (while certainly not at the level of a bunch of other people), so as long as the films that are still coming don’t really drop the ball I’ll likely enjoy this installment a few more times over the years. There are Potter fans who will tell you that some of the beasts in Newt’s suitcase are extraordinarily dangerous, which puts the lie to his statements to the contrary during the movie. I’m comfortable with him being a mildly unreliable character, but what do I know? He was poor enough judge of character to be involved with one of the LeStrange girls and…okay, so maybe I’m more into the wizarding world than a man in his forties should be…
L: I’m a bit of a muggle. I have seen each Harry Potter movie once and never cracked a book. But I found myself really enjoying Fantastic Beasts much more than I expected to. As you mentioned, the characters were engaging. By the end of the movie, I was surprised how much I cared about the supporting characters.
Technically, Beasts is a Harry Potter prequel, but it wisely side steps the traps Rogue One falls into by setting the story in a different location years before the events of the original series. Aside from a couple of names dropped, there’s no connection other than the shared universe. And yet, it feels like it takes place in the same imaginative world as the Harry Potter stories. This is how Star Wars should be expanding its mythology.
So, it sounds like we saw the same four movies…
DS: Ha! Yes, but I also went to see Arrival last week, which was very artfully directed and kept me riveted throughout. I have quibbles with the story, but none that I can discuss here without venturing into spoiler territory. Arrival was clearly story boarded very carefully, and the soundtrack and sound design accompany the photography beautifully. Despite my slight misgivings about the plot I would definitely recommend it, especially if you can see it on the big screen. Audiences expecting an action sci-fi movie may be disappointed. For them, there is Rogue One.
I’m looking forward to seeing films like Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, Allied, La La Land, and Fences in the coming weeks, but yes I’ve pretty much gone with the crowds to the movies for the past couple of months. That’s what time of year it is, and this time around, like you, it has been a good, but not great, holiday season at the movies.
L: That’s about as good as summary as I can come up with. For the kinds of movies we get this time of year, my family and I were entertained. And that’s what you want from a holiday movie. After this past summer, good enough will have to do.
DS: I have just one more semi-spoilery thing to say: Despite what any other source might tell you – – I am Stardust.
L: That’s for sure. Merry Christmas, Daffy.
DS: And happy holidays to you too!
Whatever you readers are celebrating at this time of year, everyone here at Le Blog hopes you have a safe and enjoyable holiday season. If you haven’t already done so, please be sure to fill out our Holiday Movie Survey.