“Wish” stars Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Angelique Cabral, Victor Garber, Natasha Rothwell, Jennifer Kumiyama, Evan Peters, Harvey Guillén, Ramy Youssef, Niko Vargas, Della Saba, and Jon Rudnitsky. Released on November 22, 2023, the film has a young woman attempting to protect a kingdom and the star she discovered.
The film was directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn (in her feature directorial debut). Buck is known for directing "Tarzan," "Surf's Up," "Frozen," and "Frozen II." It is the 62nd feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Throughout its centennial, Disney has crafted a boatload of stories that are breathtaking, inspiring, influential, and endearing. While some of them aren't as well-received as others, most of them remain a place in our hearts and the animation hall of fame, like "Snow White," "Pinocchio," and even "The Princess and the Frog." What these movies and many others have in common is that they follow the studio's traditional theme of wishing upon a star, which became the go-to motto for the company regarding the products and its audience. For its 100th anniversary, Disney found the perfect opportunity to answer a couple of century-old questions that left us wondering. Where does a wishing star come from, and how is it significant in making our dreams a reality? Those answers were found in the studio's latest animated feature that puts a new meaning to "when you wish upon a star". Not only that, but it also seeks to capitalize on the studio's legacy through its style, narrative, and a bunch of Easter Eggs. Were they enough to deliver a return to form for the House of Mouse? Let's find out.
The story follows Asha (DeBose), a 17-year-old enthusiastic girl living in the Kingdom of Rosas. The kingdom is ruled by King Magnifico (Pine), a self-centered ruler who is also the sole keeper of people's wishes. However, what the villagers don't know is that Magnifico keeps most of their wishes inside his wish bubbles and uses only those that benefit the kingdom and even himself. When Asha uncovers his nefarious secret, she passionately pleads to the stars to help her save her home. In response, a unique star named Star appears from the sky and is revealed to have magical powers. With the help of her pet goat, Valentino (Tudyk), and her friends, Asha attempts to save her people's wishes and protect Star from Magnifico, who seeks to use the magic star to gain control over his kingdom.
I know I said this a lot, but Disney has been a part of my life since I was born in the 90s. If it weren't for the studio's Renaissance movies and many others before them, I wouldn't have learned to communicate with people, including my family. More importantly, I wouldn't have developed a strong passion for film, especially animated ones. Sure, the people running the studio have been making many dumb decisions, especially with Disney+ and their recent attempts at "impressing" everybody. Still, I'll never forget what their animated treasures have done to help me become…well, me. So, if you're still wondering why I'm still watching anything Disney-related, that's why. Of course, "Wish" is no different, especially since it has the studio going back to the basics with its storytelling and animation style that made its old-school fairy tale movies fantastic. Unfortunately, that strategy doesn't seem to be working well in its favor regarding the mixed reviews, sour audience reviews on social media, and box office performance. It's enough to keep my expectations in check, but the only question that matters is whether the film is fun and magical enough to be watchable.
As mentioned earlier, "Wish" has Disney returning to its traditional storytelling roots with its simplicity and fairy-tale-like vibes, similar to ones like "Snow White" and "Cinderella", but still retains its modern elements of today. It also incorporated plenty of references resembling the studio's legacy. This approach of combining Easter eggs and story isn't anything new for the mega-billion company, as it has done that in "Enchanted", "Wreck-It Ralph" and its sequel, and even its recently-released short film, "Once Upon a Studio". By the way, "Once Upon a Studio" is worth a watch if you haven't, especially if you're a Disney fan. If there's one thing I know from watching plenty of animated movies for families, it's that simplistic storytelling is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's safe and harmless for children and maybe their parents to enjoy without worrying about the outside world. On the other hand, it risks losing numerous opportunities to explore its themes and characters further in its surprises and depth. Nowadays, it's one of the battles in the movie business that seems impossible to win because, as usual, we can't impress everybody.
Unsurprisingly, "Wish" is another part of that struggle, with its plot having its share of strengths and weaknesses. For the former, the movie offers a back-to-basic formula from Disney's "golden days" that's as simple as wishing upon a star, along with the usual elements that made us fall in love with the brand. More importantly, it reflects that wishes are a part of ourselves, which helped Disney provide some of the most beloved characters ever. They're the driving force that makes us human, and they help us strive to make them come true without anyone daring to crush them. Part of Disney's legacy isn't just through its movies. It's also inspiring people to keep their dreams alive in their hearts. Without them, we'd become as cranky as Grumpy from "Snow White" or the Disney haters on social media. Was the film groundbreaking enough to emphasize its thematic intention? Storytelling-wise, no. However, it's tolerable, humorous, and cute enough in its message and entertaining plot to forgive the studio's decision to temporarily retire its modern tropes, including the villain twists.
As for its weaknesses, "Wish" doesn't offer much else in its formulaic and straightforward narrative and characters to reach the magical heights of Disney's other classics. There's nothing wrong with simple storytelling in movies made for kids and their parents as long as it has something casual adult moviegoers can also enjoy. While it may have a few elements I found amusing, such as Star, the film's spark periodically faltered with its desire to make itself safe for kids and provide nostalgic vibes with its Easter eggs. Thankfully, they're not as abundant as what Warner Brothers did with "Space Jam 2". Part of that is due to its pacing. It goes by smoothly to fit its brief 95-minute runtime, especially for younger audiences. Sadly, it also caused the movie to leave out some vital character developments that could've benefited enormously from its themes and character relationships, with the primary example being Simon (Evan Peters), one of Asha's friends who wishes to become a knight. There's also the dynamic between Asha and Magnifico, who share different beliefs in wish granting, causing the latter's obsession with control and power to increase gradually as the film progresses. I thought that could use some tweaks as well.
Another reason for the movie's misfortune is the side characters. Disney is always known for delivering sidekicks that are as memorable and endearing as its protagonists. So, I find it disappointing that the side characters in "Wish" are just…okay. They're not great, and they're not terrible, either. They're just fine. Asha's friends, who resemble the seven dwarfs, are likable yet bare-bones, and Star is another adorable character that'll likely be the talk of the merchandising town. The only side character I thought was the weakest part of the movie was Valentino, Asha's pet goat who gained the ability to talk like Clayface from "Harley Quinn". I have no disrespect toward Alan Tudyk, especially since he's got a good vocal range, but Valentino felt emptier than the rest of the characters, mainly for his bland humor and forgettable personality. Regarding the narrative, "Wish" is admirable for paying tribute to the straightforward, old-school Disney trend through its magic and charm. Unfortunately, that can only take it so far regarding its lack of thematic depth and harmless plot, especially with today's critical standards.
Along with its story, "Wish" also compensated for its understandable flaws by making its wish of a talented voice cast come true. Ariana DeBose, who recently won an Oscar for her performance in 2021's "West Side Story", takes center stage as the voice of Asha, and she unsurprisingly nails it. Despite Asha's quirky personality feeling equivalent to Anna from "Frozen", DeBose's voice delivers a satisfying vibe to her determined, energetic, and kind-hearted spirit. Plus, her singing was spot on, especially during the "This Wish" sequence. Chris Pine also did a good job voicing Magnifico, a straight-up villain thirsty for dark magic. While I'm not entirely convinced Magnifico would join the other classic Disney villains like Scar, Jafar, and Dr. Facilier, I was nonetheless entertained by Pine hammering it up as the devious and malicious king. I already mentioned Alan Tudyk as Valentino, but I'm going to repeat it anyway because why not? Tudyk is fine in the role, but his character is pretty mundane.
Then, we have the animation, which has been getting a lot of mixed reactions from everyone who saw it. With the combination of CGI and hand-drawn animation, the presentation in "Wish" resembles a classic storybook brought to life, similar to what "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" accomplished in its art style. However, it's also supposed to resemble Disney's watercolor animation from the studio's earlier works regarding its settings. It would've helped if it was 100% traditional animation to further emphasize the product as a 100-year tribute as initially planned, but what can you do? While it's far from revolutionary like the "Puss in Boots" sequel, the animation in "Wish" is admirable in the animators's efforts to blend the studio's past and present on the movie's canvas. There were a few moments when the animation's lighting looked a tad unfinished, but they hardly detract from the vibrancy and magic the remaining movie delivered.
Finally, we have another crucial piece of the Disney formula puzzle: the songs. The tunes in "Wish" were produced by singer/songwriter Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice, with the score composed by Disney Animation veteran Dave Metzger. Like the supporting characters, the music is acceptable in capturing the beauty, emotion, and color of the film's presentation. However, I don't see its songs becoming instant classics as time progresses. "This Wish" and "Knowing What I Know Now" were my favorites of the bunch, while "This Is the Thanks I Get" by Chris Pine was surprisingly out-of-place regarding its tone and Magnifico's vile personality. They're not memorable, but I enjoyed listening to them regardless.
Overall, "Wish" is admirable in providing kid-friendly entertainment values and paying respectable tribute to Disney's legacy, even though it struggled to grant our wishes for a much stronger narrative. It checks off almost all of the boxes from the studio's traditional formula of years past, for better or worse, and its message appropriately resembles Disney's iconic history. The problem is that its story needs more fresh ideas to further capitalize on the studio's victory lap on an emotional and creative level. It'll satisfy most people who want a more traditional and straightforward film from Disney, especially when it benefits from its voice cast, diverting yet basic plot, and decent animation. However, people who prefer the studio's modern works involving bold storytelling, mature themes, and surprising twists won't get their wish granted from "Wish". Its simplistic storytelling, weak side characters, and passable songs might not be enough to win over all of the studio's detractors, but based on my experience with it, it doesn't deserve the drama it's getting.
When it comes to Disney celebrating its 100th anniversary, I would say that "Once Upon a Studio" did a much better job handling this approach, making it the perfect way to cap off its flawed celebration. "Wish" is basically the dessert that comes with the recent short film. It's not as special as the main course that is "Once Upon a Studio", but it's delectable enough to satisfy my taste buds. Don't get me wrong, "Wish" is an enjoyable watch for what it is, but it could've been even better if it weren't for the studio's meddling. Despite its recent poor choices, I still appreciate the great things Disney has done throughout its 100-year history, mainly granting my wish to communicate through their classic movies, and I hope it fixes itself to regain that type of magic sooner rather than later. The brand has done it before, so here's hoping it can do that again. Until then, happy anniversary, Disney.
"Thanksgiving" stars Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque, Rick Hoffman, and Gina Gershon. Released on November 17, 2023, the film has a serial killer hunting people in Plymouth during Thanksgiving.
The film was directed by Eli Roth, who also directed films such as "Cabin Fever," "Hostel," "The Green Inferno," and "The House with a Clock in Its Walls." It is based on Eli Roth and Jeff Rendell's mock trailer from 2007's "Grindhouse". With Halloween out of the picture, we would assume that we'd celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends and family without any masked psychotic killers threatening us. Boy, were we wrong? With every joyful annual holiday we have celebrated for decades, a movie involving a killer arrives to spoil our festivities, notably "Halloween" and "Silent Night, Deadly Night". Now, we see Thanksgiving getting the horror slasher treatment courtesy of the master of splatter himself, Eli Roth, in his first adult-rated project since the 2018 "Death Wish" remake. I hope you didn't have a massive Thanksgiving meal beforehand because, as the marketing suggests, it'll ensure you won't be full for long. With that said, let's see if this turkey is worth carving.
The story centers on the townspeople of Plymouth, Massachusetts coping with the tragic end of the Black Friday event a year ago. One of them is Sheriff Eric Newlon (Dempsey), who strives to keep the town safe during the Thanksgiving holiday. The other is Jessica (Verlaque), the daughter of store owner Thomas Wright (Hoffman) and one of the survivors. The festivities are then interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious masked killer known as "The Carver", who terrorizes and kills victims involved in the Black Friday riot. With Thanksgiving at risk of being canceled, Jessica and her friends attempt to subdue The Carver and unmask its true identity before they wind up on dinner plates.
It's been a while since I watched "Grindhouse", but I remember enjoying it for its over-the-top splatter goodness and exploitation-esque presentations. Plus, it shows how Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and many others involved can pull off some sick and brutal kills and have fun with them. Besides the double features, "Grindhouse" is also known for providing fictional trailers between the feature films, with three of them becoming feature-length movies directed by the same people who created those trailers. Robert Rodriguez has "Machete," and Jason Eisener directed "Hobo with a Shotgun", which I haven't watched yet. Now, we have Eli Roth and Jeff Rendell taking advantage of this trend by bringing their fake trailer involving a murderous pilgrim to the big screen. A horror movie involving Thanksgiving isn't entirely new, but in this case, it's better than having another slasher film occur during Halloween or Christmas. Let's hope they decide to make an Easter horror movie soon.
If you've seen the "Thanksgiving" trailer in "Grindhouse" or Eli Roth's previous horror movies, you'll know that this film doesn't hold back on the violence and gore. While it has the usual elements of a regular slasher movie, "Thanksgiving" also attempts to provide a throwback to the 70s exploitation films regarding its kills and concept. I barely remember the "Thanksgiving" trailer from "Grindhouse", so I just went in expecting it to stand out from the horror crowd regarding its entertainment values. Fortunately, it didn't make me wish I was at home preparing for the holiday. Even though it doesn't do anything unique to its standard genre formula, "Thanksgiving" is one of the few occasions where an old-fashioned horror narrative can be fun and gleefully absurd with the proper execution and effort.
I haven't been impressed with some of Roth's previous works, save for the family-friendly "The House with a Clock in Its Walls". While I can credit him for honoring the old-school, gore-infested horror movies of years past, his recent films took those disgusting and often offensive brutalities for granted instead of making them entertaining for me. Thankfully, "Thanksgiving" sees Eli Roth back in top form with his delightful mixture of cheesy horror entertainment and over-the-top gore. Also, the tension-filled buildups and even the jump scares were executed effectively by Roth's direction, which is enough to accompany its familiar yet reasonably tolerable plot. I would even say they succeeded in making the Black Friday event more horrific than it already is, making it one of my favorite opening sequences of the genre. If that sequence isn't enough to make people have common sense during Black Friday, I don't know what will.
Additionally, the film also has a surprising amount of humor to coincide with its bleak and serious tone, and most of them are actually quite funny. Some of those comedy bits rely on its cheesy dialogue and some of the film's absurd moments, but they didn't appear as annoyingly parodic or tasteless. Periodically, it does risk its tone becoming uneven and misdirected, but Roth ensured that the humor is basted smoothly onto its terrifying tone. The result was a deliciously twisted turkey that delighted my tastebuds with its frightful and comedic seasonings. As mentioned earlier, its narrative doesn't break any new ground in its cliches. However, it provides tolerability in its characters and the theme of tragedy, which other recent horror movies have tried and failed to accomplish. The characters' tolerable presence benefited from its decent cast, including Patrick Dempsey as Newlon. Nell Verlaque is also a likable addition to the cast as Jessica regarding her performance. The movie also has a passable third-act twist that helps it avoid its predictable outcome.
But what about the film's gory kills, you ask? They're as gross and violent as I expected from an Eli Roth movie, which doesn't surprise me based on my experience with his works. However, they're also surprisingly entertaining to witness. The brutal kills are undoubtedly far-fetched and repulsive, but they also have a fair amount of restraint to avoid being disgustingly exhausting without sacrificing satisfaction. Regarding the execution and practical effects, the fatalities are delectable enough to satisfy splatter fans but may make those with weak stomachs wish they didn't fill themselves up with Thanksgiving dinner beforehand.
Overall, "Thanksgiving" is a wickedly entertaining and delightfully absurd turkey that'll make horror fans and splatter exploitation followers gobble for joy. It follows the play-by-play formula set by other slasher movies before it, especially ones involving holidays, and the storytelling may not have taken full advantage of its thematic depth. However, the film serves a good amount of fun, kills, and even laughs to avoid being overcooked. The cast made a decent effort to make their characters bearable, and Eli Roth delivered a satisfying mixture of humor, violence, and over-the-top gore. Along with its diverting plot, effective scares and tension, and suitable practical effects, the latest holiday gore-fest is respectfully served on a cinematic platter. If you enjoyed some of Roth's previous works, it's worth watching with an audience. However, I wouldn't recommend it to people who can't stomach splatter horror movies unless they want to make more room for leftovers.
"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, and Viola Davis. Released on November 17, 2023, the film has a young man mentoring a female tribute from District 12.
The film is directed by Francis Lawrence, who also directed films such as "Constantine," "I Am Legend," "Water for Elephants," and "Red Sparrow." It is based on the 2020 novel by Suzanne Collins and serves as a prequel to "The Hunger Games". It's been over a decade since the world experienced the most deadly competition, "The Hunger Games," unfolding on the big screen. It's as unsettling as watching a cute animal be tortured to death by its predators, but storytelling-wise, it's one of the better young adult film adaptations to date. If you count the sequels, "The Hunger Games" is a rare YA franchise that accomplishes what no other YA movie can do: invoke heart-wrenching emotion in its characters, themes, and cinematic quality. It was also responsible for establishing Jennifer Lawrence as a big-time movie star due to her superb portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, whose poignant journey ended with "Mockingjay Part 2".
However, that didn't mean the saga also concluded. Three years ago, during the harsh COVID-19 days, the franchise's author, Suzanne Collins, expanded the Hunger Games universe with a prequel novel centering on a young Coriolanus Snow. While reception was mixed at first, the book was successful enough to maintain the reputation of Collins and her beloved dystopian franchise. Of course, the book's success meant a film adaptation is soon to follow, giving us the perfect excuse to experience the heartbreaking and thematically disturbing world of the "Hunger Games" on the screen again. With Francis Lawrence returning to compete in the games alongside a new cast, does the prequel have the strength to survive its YA film trappings? Let's return to Panem and find out.
The story takes place in a post-war dystopia called Panem, 64 years before the events of "The Hunger Games". The film centers on a young Coriolanus Snow (Blyth) before he became the tyrannical president. Snow is determined to rebuild his family's fading lineage affected by the war by participating in the 10th annual Hunger Games. However, Snow gets more than he bargained for when he's tasked to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler), a tribute from District 12 and a member of a traveling musician group called the Covey. During the competition, Snow and Lucy Gray form a relationship that eventually defies the odds set by those around them, including Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Davis), the head Gamemaker. However, the revelation involving the two will reveal who is the songbird and who is the snake.
I'm not the person who thinks YA films are the next big thing for cinema regarding their qualities. However, "The Hunger Games" was one of the few occasions that made me think otherwise. The adaptations of Collins's "Hunger Games" novels are outstanding movies filled with incredible talents and emotional depth, showcasing that films based on books for teens can cater to both sides of their audience if the effort exists. Considering my respect toward the films, this left me hoping that "Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" would accomplish that similar feat, especially with the involvement of Francis Lawrence, who took over the franchise from the first film's director, Gary Ross. After experiencing the prequel, I can confirm that it did just that, much to my heartbreak.
For those who haven't read or even watched any installment of the "Hunger Games" series, the best way I can describe "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is that it's equivalent to losing your best friend in a tragic accident numerous times. It's haunting to witness the violence, but it's also very depressing. "The Hunger Games" isn't something you would want to bring your partner to during date night unless both of you are fans of the series. "The Hunger Games" and its successors may have some bright spots, but they also have depressing ones that chew up those pleasant moments and spit them out like pieces of gum. "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is no exception to this theory, as it provides a tragic backstory of a man's heartbreaking transformation from a believer to who he is in the main installments.
However, its depressing tone is what helps "The Hunger Games" become an emotionally compelling franchise regarding its themes of class discrimination, war, social inequality, and violence against children. Unsurprisingly, "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" understands this, resulting in a well-rounded and refreshingly emotional installment packed with quality and talent. Was it a perfect adaptation of Collins's prequel novel? Far from it, but it still packs a tearful punch that'll get most, if not all, of the fans feeling the blues. While it does focus on the Hunger Games competition like the previous installments, "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" is more about the decent of Snow's noble spirit amid the cultural clash between the Capitol and the district tributes. You'll immediately know what I'm talking about if you read the novel. If not, let's just say that this journey wasn't pleasant, which may alienate several non-fans of the book series regarding its narrative choices.
Then again, I haven't followed the books as much as others, yet I found the film poignant and majestically diverting. Based on my experience with the film adaptations, I knew how Coriolanus Snow would turn out in the end, but that doesn't make it less engaging. This is due to Francis Lawrence's direction, which provided a healthy amount of action and drama into the film's emotional stakes and characters, mostly the latter. Lawrence has a great eye for immersive yet sentimentally bleak cinematic quality, which is part of why I enjoyed the "Hunger Games" sequels and "I Am Legend". "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" further proves that the director hasn't missed a step in his vision, especially considering Jo Willems's cinematography. I also appreciate his approach to the film's intense action sequences, mainly in the Hunger Games competition, which were nicely shot and edited without relying on shaky camera work and unnecessary gore.
The screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt was also well-written regarding the franchise's faithfulness and themes. However, it also has some flaws that aren't in the film's favor. One of them is the runtime, which clocked in at more than two and a half hours, with most of its length spent on the character-driven drama. Despite its respectable pacing and engaging narrative, this latest game ran a bit longer than it should have, especially since the Hunger Games occurs in the second act. The other issue that I heard most critics talk about before watching the film was the ending. It's not as bad as they made it out to be, but I found a couple of moments I thought could've been told differently to maintain its emotional pull. Regardless, it's a good conclusion that emphasizes its distressing tone and Snow's development.
As for the film's cast, it's unsurprising to see them put a lot of effort into embodying their characters, with some being more humane than others. Tom Blyth, a face I haven't seen before until now, did a surprisingly great job making the young Coriolanus Snow sympathetic and wholesome through his sentimental performance. Yes, Snow was a heartless president in the main installments, but after watching this film, I surprisingly felt bad that he turned out that way. That's how I knew Blyth accomplished this task of providing a heart inside the franchise's antagonist. Rachel Zegler was also terrific as Lucy Gray Baird, further showcasing how far she has come since her musical and YouTube days. Plus, her singing was an absolute delight to my ears. Peter Dinklage and Jason Schwartzman also delivered some great moments as Casca Highbottom and Lucretius Flickerman, respectively. Finally, we have Viola Davis as the sinister Dr. Gaul. It bears repeating that Davis is an incredible actress who can play approachable and kindhearted characters and make her villainous ones uncomfortable and frightening. Her gratifying performance as Gaul is another example of the latter.
Besides the stories, themes, and characters, "The Hunger Games" is also known for its world-building, ranging from a futuristic dystopian ruled by the Capitol to the tranquil fields of Panem's districts. This is mainly due to its production designs, which brought this harsh and often fascinating reality to the screen. I'm glad to say that this immersive and visually stunning world of the "Hunger Games" remains intact regarding its settings. The costume designs were also outstanding, as they were in the previous installments, which left me baffled that it still wasn't recognized at the Oscars. Then, we have the musical score by James Newton Howard, who's been the franchise's lucky charm since the first film. If you like his sentimental music in the previous films, you'll feel the same way about his music in the prequel.
Overall, "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" survives its YA trappings to deliver another emotionally compelling and well-acted spectacle that expands the franchise's dystopian universe. It can be a bit bloated regarding its length, and the ending may not have reached the same heights as the rest of the movie. Regardless, the film retains the series's reputation with the same amount of heartbreak and quality that made its predecessors effective YA adaptations. With its stunning cast, strong direction for its story and themes, thrilling action, and great uses of production and costume designs, the odds for this ballad are definitely in its favor. It's worth checking out if you're a fan of the "Hunger Games" franchise, whether from the books or the movies. However, if you're tired of films that make you feel depressed, you're better off watching the new "Trolls" movie to liven up your spirits.
"The Holdovers" stars Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Gillian Vigman, and Tate Donovan. Released on October 27, 2023, the film has a history teacher chaperoning students during Christmas break.
The film was directed by Alexander Payne, who also directed films such as "The Passion of Martin", "Sideways", "Nebraska", and "Downsizing". There's nothing like spending the holiday season at home with your loved ones, especially when you're off campus for a few weeks. However, there are some occasions when people are forced to spend Christmas at school, with this being one of them. It may not be a pleasant way to spread holiday cheer, but it can bring out some miracles if they look hard enough. Since everyone loves celebrating the holidays before the Thanksgiving feast, I decided to cave in and join the craze as well. Usually, I would watch a classic holiday film to get me in the festive mood, but today, I decided to watch the latest comedy-drama from Alexander Payne that's getting everyone into the Christmas spirit. Yes, even the grumpy and rebellious ones. Was it able to do the same thing for me? Let's find out.
The story takes place in 1970s New England, where Barton Academy is closing for the holiday break. The movie focuses on Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a disgruntled history teacher everybody hates due to his uptight attitude. When several students can't return home for the holidays, Paul is tasked with supervising them on school grounds. One of the students he's forced to watch over is Angus Tully (Sessa), a rebellious but troubled teen grieving the loss of his father. As the wintery days progress, Paul gradually builds a friendship with Angus while embarking on several scenarios that have them seeing the goodness in each other.
My experience with Alexander Payne's work is relatively minimal. I remembered seeing parts of "The Descendants", but the only movie that fully got me into his works was "Downsizing" six years ago. Not many people enjoyed that movie about a tiny Matt Damon when it first came out. However, I thought it was a solid depiction of its interesting yet divisive storytelling ideas, even though some didn't work as well as others. It was enough for me to see his latest project, which explores the topic of tragedy and grief. Of course, what better way to spread these depressing thoughts than during the holidays with some of the most bittersweet people to date? Usually, spending Christmas with some despicable people can be a massive humbug. However, "The Holdovers" proves to be an exception.
I expected myself to like it as much as "Downsizing", but I actually wound up adoring it, and it's not just because of the filmmaking craftsmanship by Alexander Payne. It also reminded me why I love watching holiday-related movies occasionally. Sure, we love to see films about families getting together for the holidays, but we also adore ones about the human soul during the Christmas season. "The Holdovers" is a wonderfully bittersweet portrayal of this topic that benefitted from Payne's profound execution of its concept, characters, and 1970s presentation. On paper, the story seems like an ordinary modern comedy about two disgruntled people surviving each other and getting into wacky scenarios. While that may be the case, it's actually much deeper than what we're led to believe, as it focuses on these characters and their personal problems that led them to become bitter people. It's about them overcoming their tragic pasts to have a brighter future and change themselves for the better.
This element was what got me interested in Payne in the first place. He has a unique way of turning straightforward concepts like tiny people and "holdover" students into something that's moving, poetic, and even hilarious. I'm happy to say that "The Holdovers" proves that Payne hasn't lost his footing in his vision. I would even say that it's a vast improvement over "Downsizing" regarding his direction. The story is focused and well-paced enough to excuse its two-hour-plus runtime, and the tone is engagingly down-to-earth and consistent without being a complete buzzkill. One reason for that is its mixture of comedy and drama. It has some downer moments to accompany its ill-mannered main characters. However, they're also not without the movie's levity and charm to make the experience satisfyingly tender and amusing without disrupting its intended tone. I also loved David Hemingson's screenplay for its simplistic yet thoughtfully bright story and hilarious dialogue between the characters. It's definitely got my vote in this year's Oscar race.
The main leads also did an incredible job making their seemingly dislikable characters engaging and wholesome. Paul Giamatti delivers one of the best performances of his career as Paul Hunham in his second collaboration with Payne after 2004's "Sideways". While I enjoyed Giamatti for his comedic roles, his portrayal of the sour yet complex history teacher showed me he could also pull off his dramatic side exceptionally well. He's hilarious to watch, as usual, but he also knows how to put a smile on my face when he's not cracking jokes. Da'Vine Joy Randolph was also terrific as Mary Lamb, the cafeteria administrator grieving the loss of her son, despite her arc feeling inconclusive. Finally, we have Dominic Sessa in his first film role as Angus Tully, whose family issues serve as part of the movie's soul. All I can say about him is that I was really impressed by his acting capabilities regarding his portrayal of the student.
I will also credit "The Holdovers" for its 1970s approach, not just for its authentic New England setting but also its presentation. Since the movie takes place in the 70s, Payne and the others thought it would be a great idea to have the film look and feel like it was made during that period. The marketing felt akin to the ones made in the 70s, which I thought was a gimmick to sell the product at first. However, that isn't the case. They actually followed through with this idea by making the movie look like it was made in the 1970s, regarding its grainy cinematography and sound editing. Heck, even the transitions and credits have that '70s vibe to make it a complete package. It may seem like a needless decoration for some people, but it does its job of resembling the aesthetic production design and providing some nostalgia regarding the art of cinema and its limitations.
Overall, "The Holdovers" doesn't hold back on delivering a bittersweet yet incredibly moving portrait of humanity amid the holiday season. It may seem like another comedy full of wacky situations involving a group of ill-mannered yet troubling people at first. But on the screen, it's a deep and rewarding reflection of tragedy and grief that's well-constructed by Alexander Payne, and it's better because of it. The lead actors were fantastic in their roles, Payne's direction was superb, and the screenplay delivered a thoughtful and refreshing take on its straightforward concept. The presentation and Mark Orton's score were also excellent for capturing the feel of watching a 1970s movie. It's not only an immensely heartfelt movie that'll likely gain "holiday classic" status in the future, but it's also one of the best films I've seen this year. If you love Payne's other works and holiday-related films, this film is worth watching, especially during the Christmas season.
"The Marvels" stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Park Seo-joom, and Samuel L. Jackson. Released on November 10, 2023, the film has Carol Danvers teaming up with new allies after beginning to swap places with them.
The film is directed by Nia DaCosta, who also directed "Little Woods" and 2021's "Candyman". It is the sequel to the 2019 film "Captain Marvel" and the 33rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's been a few months since we last revisited the intergalactic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While we have Loki's second venture through time and space on Disney+ to keep ourselves occupied, some of us still yearn to explore more of the universe's surreal galaxies. The Guardians of the Galaxy has disbanded, and Thor is busy being a single father to Gorr's child. So, I guess this leaves us with the most powerful Avenger to help us explore the cosmos again. However, she won't be alone in this latest galactic adventure. 2019's "Captain Marvel" introduced us to Carol Danvers, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot turned superhero who became integral to the game-changing fight between the Avengers and Thanos in "Endgame". It not only displayed how powerful she is with her strength and energy-based abilities but also provided a reasonably decent entry in the MCU via an origin story. After being absent from Earth for a few years, Captain Marvel finally returns to the action to kick intergalactic butt and prove the naysayers wrong with a dose of girl power. Does it have enough energy and charm to power through the MCU's recent issues? Let's find out.
The story follows Carol Danvers (Larson), who is spending her days settling intergalactic conflicts in space. Her latest mission has Carol confronting Dar-Benn (Ashton), a Kree warrior revolutionary seeking to restore her homeland with a mysterious bangle called the Quantum Band. When Dar-Benn activates the bangle, its magic comes into contact with Carol's energy-based abilities, causing her to switch places with two other people with similar powers whenever they use them. One of them is Monica Rambeau (Parris), the daughter of Carol's late friend, Maria Rambeau, who can manipulate electromagnetic wavelengths. The other is Kamala Khan (Vellani), a teenager from Jersey City who can harness cosmic energy through a bangle similar to Dar-Benn's. With the help of Nick Fury (Jackson), Carol must cooperate with Monica and Kamala to prevent Dar-Benn from wreaking havoc across the galaxy.
While "The Marvels" continues where "Captain Marvel" left off, most people may not realize that it's also a continuation of the two MCU shows on Disney+: "WandaVision" and "Ms. Marvel". So it left me curious about how they'll provide that much information into "The Marvels", especially since it's less than two hours long. This short runtime is a refreshing change of pace for those who are still annoyed by the excessive lengths of recent superhero blockbusters like "The Flash". At the same time, it gives Nia DaCosta and the crew the challenging task of explaining the streaming shows' backgrounds in that amount of time. After watching the movie, I can say they handled it pretty well. Some of those moments are brief, but they offer just enough for newcomers to understand Captain Marvel's new allies, especially Kamala. However, I would still recommend watching "WandaVision" and "Ms. Marvel" if you want the full context, as they're both great shows for different reasons.
So what about the film itself? Does the latest MCU sequel soar as high as Carol's first solo adventure? Well, let me ask you this. Do you want a superhero movie that's short and fun for the whole family without worrying too much about the bloated runtime? If so, then "The Marvels" will satisfy your comic book fan desires with its delightfully charming and humorous galactic adventure. However, if you want "The Marvels" to have the same emotional thematic storytelling as "Civil War" or "Guardians 3", you probably won't get that here. The film has some enticing ideas in its themes that could work in the plot's favor, such as Carol's struggle to maintain galactic peace and learning to put faith in others for help. There's also her relationship with Monica, whom she left behind when Monica was young. Unfortunately, the execution of those ideas didn't burn as bright as Carol's powers, as they were wasted on an uneven and muddling installment that's heavy on charisma but surprisingly light on emotion.
Going back to the film's runtime, I appreciate that they went back to making an MCU movie that's under two hours long. It would've given the audiences a much easier time sitting through a bombastic CGI festival without flying to the restroom during its climax. However, it also made me wish it was a bit longer regarding the story it wanted to tell. One reason is the pacing, which flew by for the right and wrong reasons. While it keeps things chugging along to keep specific audiences awake, it's also inconsistent to the point where it seems like the movie missed a few elements regarding the plot and character depth. The first half was rushed regarding the buildup, although the rest of the film got better with how it's paced, but not by much. I think if they figured out a solution to expand the characters and its narrative ideas further without going over the two-hour mark, it would've made its middling storytelling more excusable.
Aside from its narrative issues, "The Marvels" maintains the joyfulness and delight of riding a vibrant superhero roller coaster the franchise has been known for. Part of the reason is its refreshing concept involving characters swapping places. While its plot didn't take full advantage of this bizarre scenario, the film manages to find a way to maintain the lovable appeal of superheroes unintentionally switching to different locations. It's like "Freaky Friday" and "Your Name," but without the whole "body-swapping" thing. Then, there are the main leads: Larson, Parris, and Vellani. The MCU movies have been known for providing engaging chemistries between the cast due to the casting choices, heart, and charm, and "The Marvels" is unsurprisingly no exception. Brie Larson continues to shine as Carol Danvers, with her putting more charisma and wholesomeness into the powerful yet flawed and humane heroine. Teyonah Parris also did a good job with her performance as Monica, solidifying herself as another decent addition to the Marvel family.
However, the real shining star is Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, the teenage super fan of Captain Marvel. She's one of the reasons I adored "Ms. Marvel", along with the family dynamic and intriguing approach to her abilities. Vellani elevated "The Marvels" as she did with the Disney+ series, with her appealing brand of teenage humor and charm. She's another young actress I would love to see more of, whether in the Marvel universe or something else. I also want to mention that Kamala's family was just as entertaining as I expected them to be. Then, there's Dar-Benn, played by Zawe Ashton. Despite Ashton's efforts in her performance and the villain's understandable motives, she comes off as another comic book villain who doesn't quite reach the similar heights as the other great MCU antagonists. She's neither memorable nor terrible. She's just all right. As for Samuel L. Jackson, well, he's Samuel L. Jackson. What else do you expect from the guy?
Another reason for the film's enjoyment is Nia DaCosta's direction. My first exposure to the filmmaker was the 2021 adaptation of "Candyman", which I thought was a solid entry in the slasher franchise. Seeing DaCosta helm a Jordan Peele-produced horror movie with a sense of immersion and visual finesse made me hope she'll keep her streak going with "The Marvels", which is a different beast compared to a low-budget slasher movie. I'm glad to say that DaCosta did just that. She handled its imperfect tone well regarding its comical and heartfelt moments, but her approach to the action scenes is pure radiance. They deliver as much entertainment and intensity in the choreography as other MCU installments. More importantly, they're shot and edited suitably well through Sean Bobbitt's cinematography and the film's decent visual effects.
Overall, "The Marvels" soars high and far with its intergalactic spirit and charisma, even though its save-the-world plot doesn't shine as bright as I hoped. It's short and enjoyable enough to stand out above the recent bloated superhero blockbusters we encountered this year. Not to mention, the cast and Nia DaCosta's direction make for a sublime combination. However, it also comes with the cost of being one of the more middling entries the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer regarding its uneven pacing, average storytelling, and lack of strong character depth. It's fun enough to be watchable, especially with its cameos and jaw-dropping hints of what's to come in the future. But it's also not invigorating enough to stand alongside some of the franchise's greatest hits storytelling-wise. If you liked "Captain Marvel," "WandaVision," and "Ms. Marvel," you'll likely have a good time watching this new galaxy-saving team in action.