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All Three of Pixar’s Billion-Dollar Movies Are Sequels. Now What?

Pixar

From Animation World Network:

Incredibles 2 became just the seventh animated film to cross the $1 billion mark at the global box office. It is Disney’s fifth animated and 18th-ever billion-dollar release and joins Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War as Disney’s third release to reach the $1 billion milestone this year.

Egregious success for Disney in 2018 aside, Pixar is now the first animated studio to release three films with $1 billion worldwide box office. And all three of these films are sequels: Toy Story 3Finding Dory, and now Incredibles 2. And yet people wonder why Pixar continues to make sequels in the first place. Money speaks louder than critics, I suppose.

Go on…All Three of Pixar’s Billion-Dollar Movies Are Sequels. Now What?

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Second Opinion: Seriously, ‘Interstellar’ Is Worth Another Watch

interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious sci-fi space epic Interstellar has proven itself to be a very contentious topic of discussion among hardcore moviegoers (and Nolan fans). And in the three years since its release and after Nolan’s newest film Dunkirk, the debate has only gotten more divisive.

Some liked it, some (including Jon Negroni himself) didn’t, some were indifferent, etc. Despite all this debate, Interstellar has managed to gain a surprisingly devoted following, many of them (like myself) even more impressed the second time watching it.

As the title of this article suggests, I remain a staunch defender of Interstellar. Yes, it definitely has flaws, but there’s still a lot to love. When I first saw the movie, however, I was sad to say that I didn’t like it much. I found it boring and confusing, and it just kind of left me disappointed. It wasn’t until the recent release of Dunkirk that I decided to give it another shot, along with some other Nolan movies, to gain a fresher perspective.

I was amazed by how much I loved Interstellar the second time.

I almost didn’t think I was watching the same movie, and I eventually came to the conclusion that time was the key factor here. It had been over two years since I first saw the film, so I had actually forgotten a lot of what had happened, weirdly enough. I did remember most of the actual plot thanks to a combination of my disjointed memory and some of the online discussions I had observed over the years, so I pretty much knew the basic premise going in, which I think made for a much more complete experience. An emotional one.

In fact, the emotion of it all is what surprised me the most watching Interstellar the second time. The personal story of the characters, the beautiful imagery, and the score by Hans Zimmer all worked together to sell me on humanity being at stake. I truly felt like time was running out and that every second was important. The relativity scene and the docking sequence stick out as being especially tense and heavy, making for some decent thrills among the more conceptual material.

On top of all that, I was impressed by how Nolan balanced all this heaviness with a very unique story about a father and his daughter. Although Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain) don’t have a lot of screen time together, the connection between them managed to be as potent as it needed to be, even across time and space (a point the movie directly addresses, of course).

interstellar

That said, I attribute this successful character relationship to the editing by Lee Smith. He cut these scarce scenes together in just the right way for them to display the mutual care between Cooper and Murph and how they can’t seem to move on, even though it may be in their best interest to do so. The performances by McConaughey, Foy, and Chastain obviously help too. They’re able to convey the pain of leaving a loved one behind in a very convincing way, and I was excited to see where the story was going even though I already knew the ending. That’s not easy to pull off.

But what I liked the most while rewatching Interstellar was the overall message I must have missed the first time around. It might be a hackneyed thing to say, but I was impressed by what I think Nolan was getting at with a recurring motif in the movie in the form of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) repeating these lines from a Dylan Thomas poem:

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

First, recall the premise of the movie: humanity is on the verge of extinction and/or famine as a result of a second dust bowl destroying the world’s resources. You get the sense early on that most people have basically accepted their fate and are just trying to have as good a time as possible before it all slowly ends.

What I think Professor Brand, and by extension Christopher Nolan, is getting at with the poem is that we shouldn’t just give up on life. We possess the intelligence, the potential, and the technology to resist the natural order of things, and we should use our humanity wisely. Just because we can. Why not fulfill our potential as intelligent beings?

It’s this kind of compelling philosophy that makes me love science fiction as a genre.

Despite all of the praise I’ve given it, I still don’t think Interstellar is a perfect movie. Most of my flaws stem from pure filmmaking aspects. For instance, I think the shifts in tone between intellect and emotion can be very jarring at times, and some scenes can be a little too wordy and bogged down in exposition.

interstellar

I think there are numerous wasted characters, as well, most notably Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Dr. Mann (Matt Damon). They’re both a bit underwritten and don’t have as clear motivations as you’d expect from the rest of the script. Plus, Dr. Mann is a little on-the-nose in that one scene I don’t think I have to spell out.

Also, and this is painful to say, the ending is…perfunctory. I think most people agree the story wraps up sappy and with little apparent thought put into the broader implications of the whole enterprise. I don’t want to accuse the studio of meddling, but it really seems like someone put something into the movie at the last minute in an attempt to make the film more accessible. Who knows?

Problems aside, I’m happy to say I finally got my money’s worth after almost three years. If there’s anything I would like you to take away from this belated review, it can be found right in the title. Maybe Interstellar is worth another try. Coming from the perspective of someone who came around after just one rewatch, I think there could be more to it than you originally imagined.

Second Opinion Grade: B+


 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Isn’t Really A Remake Of A New Hope

force awakens

Every so often, a fan theory comes along to remind us how good fan theories can actually be when the work and time is put into them. Less than a year ago, EC Henry composed what I believe to be a masterful breakdown of The Force Awakens that (dare I say it) makes the movie just a little bit better.

Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens a remake of the original Star Wars (A New Hope)? I’ve always considered the movie to borrow voraciously from that original film, while also lifting plenty from the other two parts of the trilogy. But many reviewers like myself have talked ourselves breathless about how TFA features yet another “droid on the run” story with Death Stars, cantinas, and a modest chosen one.

But in EC Henry’s video essay below, the case is made that TFA is really a “creative remix” of the original trilogy, and there’s a strikingly good reason for this that might shed light on the future of the entire franchise. I’ll unpack the theory below (with some of my own observations), but here’s the quick 3-minute breakdown.

As EC Henry points out, nearly all of the similarities between TFA and A New Hope occur in the first act of both movies. BB-8’s story is parallel to R2D2’s, and we’re on a barren planet that slowly reveals our hero, Rey, who is reminiscent of Luke in some ways.

The Millennium Falcon departing Jakku, followed by meeting Han Solo and Chewbacca, is where the first act in TFA ends (roughly), which mirrors the end of the first act in A New Hope, when Luke meets Han and departs Tatooine aboard the same ship. Henry also implies that Greedo and Han’s antagonism is mirrored with Han’s confrontation with the mercenaries aboard the freighter.

At this point, TFA’s second act starts to mirror the second half of The Empire Strikes Back. There’s a monster-in-space encounter (Rathtars in place of the asteroid worm) followed by Han deciding to visit an old friend (Maz Kanata as a fill-in for Lando Calrissian). We also see Kylo contacting Snoke in the same way Vader contacts Palpatine.

To save for time, TFA converges the Luke/Dagobah subplot with the Cloud City subplot. Rey goes to a mysterious planet and learns more about her origins and destiny with Maz pulling double duty as a fill-in for Yoda. And just like in Empire, the villains show up to wreck things. Rey is defeated by Kylo Ren (a la Luke and Vader’s first fight) and is captured, similar to how Han is taken away by Boba Fett.

force awakens

From here, TFA mirrors the third act of Return of the Jedi. The Rebels/Resistance meet to discuss their rescue plan and discover “another Deathstar.” The story breaks in two with ground forces on Starkiller Base trying to break down the shields and Rogue Squadron attacking from space, just as the Battle of Endor had two fronts. There’s an epic lightsaber battle happening as the space assault reaches its climax, with the Jedi using fury to overwhelm the Sith (Rey slicing Kylo is quite similar to Luke taking down Vader).

As Henry also points out, there are exceptions to this where small elements of the original trilogy are mirrored throughout (the catwalk scene, for example), but there certainly seems to be a primary structure in place that combines all of the movies in a coherent way. But what’s the point? Why would Lucasfilm do a creative remix like this at all?

The expectations for TFA were always going to be astronomically high, so the strategy here makes some sense. Add all of the nostalgic fan service to TFA as a tribute in order to gain credibility for this new trilogy, so the next two movies can unfold in more creatively bold ways that aren’t enslaved to the source material. Put more simply: they started with a look at the past and ended with a strong look toward the future.

And in one strange way, TFA is basically the movie George Lucas intended to make in the 1970s. Rather than a trilogy, he envisioned the entire arc of Star Wars to be told in a single movie. TFA essentially fulfills that vision and authorial intent, so as someone who had a lot of problems with the film, I’m finding myself appreciating it more for what it manages to accomplish in light of what couldn’t have been done 40 years ago.

Did I miss anything? Add some of your own observations below. And if you like this essay, be sure to subscribe to EC Henry’s channel, and consider supporting him on Patreon for more great videos.


Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

Or just say hello on Twitter: @@jonnegroni

Second Opinion: ‘Sing Street’ Proves Not all Crowd-Pleasers Are Created Equal

sing street

As of September, my favorite movie of 2016 is John Carney’s Sing Street, a musical throwback set during the 80s boom in the U.K. Consider this my (late) review, perhaps made better by the fact that I’ve had months to process Sing Street and even revisit it.

For that reason, this is a Second Opinion, in the sense that I’m also forced to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Sing Street against the critic community at large. And it’s not quite so clear where critics landed with this film.

At first glance, you’d think Sing Street is the indie darling of the year, maybe because of its high score on Rotten Tomatoes or if you’ve heard me gush about the film on Now Conspiring. But that’s not to say the film hasn’t received some tepid responses as well, with many critics both praising the film and undercutting it with the “low” side of positive scores.

From what I can tell, the main reason is because Sing Street commits a “sin” in the eyes of a lot of serious film critics: it’s a crowd-pleaser.

sing street

You’ve heard the term, but let’s be more specific. The idea of a movie being a crowd-pleaser is an underhanded compliment, meant to criticize the film for using familiar tropes to elicit a specific reaction from the audience. It’s also used to note a film that is essentially boring in its formula and afraid of taking risks. Relevant crowd-pleasers include the likes of Marvel superhero movies, nostalgic franchise sequels, and even Oscar-bait — those Fall films that seemed designed to do nothing more than win awards.

So yes, it’s pretty accurate to call Sing Street a crowd-pleaser, perhaps to an even heavier degree because the film it draws so much heart from is John Carney’s previous film, Once (we’ll just skip Begin Again for obvious reasons if you’ve seen it).

Yet Sing Street also makes the case for why some crowd-pleasers are far superior to others. At the end of the film, I did find myself realizing how loud Carney’s voice was throughout, and the heart of the movie couldn’t be clearer. It’s a film you discuss and analyze for its craft in filmmaking and how it made you feel. Lesser crowd-pleasers suffer from only having the latter.

sing street

Let’s talk about how the film is set up. Set in Dublin, the movie centers around the life and journey of Conor (played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a shy teenager who slowly cultivates a passion for music while attempting to win the heart of an older, beautiful girl (Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton). He starts a band in order to impress her, but the film splinters his motivations in a lot of surprising ways. Conor wants to break free of the rules of his claustrophobic prep school, suffer through his parents’ divorce, live up to his brother’s dreams, find success with his band…oh, and get the girl.

There’s real beauty in how simple the film appears, but it’s anything but straightforward. The film starts with a jumble of problems coming Conor’s way as he has to adjust to a new life at Synge Street, which is packed with bullies and a disturbing menace of a headmaster. But the moment he sees the girl, all those problems get thrown aside completely — a perfect capturing of what it’s like to fall in “love.”

That would be fine enough if the film didn’t also execute the rest of its content so fluidly and with so much endearing music (the soundtrack is sure to make an impression). There’s no crystallizing moment or raw talent in Conor that suggests movie magic. He starts like most other musicians and creatives: by ripping people off.

sing street

Eamon (Conor’s first recruit for the band, played by Mark McKenna) is the true prodigy, able to play multiple instruments and come up with the majority of the actual music. Conor’s brother (Brendan, played by Jack Reynor) mentors him on which music is worth mimicking, paving the way for Conor to gradually work his way to becoming a real musician. Even songwriting, Conor’s only apparent gift he’s discovered for himself, is only made possible because of, you guessed it, the girl.

Watching this creative process unfold as a love story is one of the most unique and charming experiences I’ve been entertained by in years. It’s a standout script with standout music and performances that makes it a crowd-pleaser for all of the right reasons, not the wrong ones. That’s not to say the film is perfect, and I could list several problems I have with the film, but at this point, they’re perfunctory and removed from what makes the film a keeper.

I think what makes Sing Street somewhat better than everything else I’ve seen this year has a lot to do with two reasons: for one thing, it transcends its genres (the comedy and romance never overshadow the darkness and melodrama). Second, the movie tackles a feeling that only movies can truly provide. And that’s creative spectacle unrestrained by a director’s heart.

Grade: A


Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Second Opinion: The Best Trick In ‘The Conjuring’ Was Its Marketing

the conjuring opinion

What would you rather see? A horror film with a “PG13” rating for violence, some nudity, and language? Or a horror film with an “R” rating for being too scary?

This was the main hook for James Wan’s The Conjuring, which served as his spiritual followup to Insidious and perhaps even Saw for sheer inventiveness with the genre. The care he put into crafting a horror film where the horror comes first is probably what set The Conjuring apart for its hit box office run in 2013.

Even the incredibly loose “based on a true story” gimmick is underplayed here, as the movie centers around a couple of the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were actual paranormal investigators for decades known best for the story that became another well-known film, The Amityville Horror (along with its 2005 remake).

Set in the 70s, The Conjuring goes back in forth between point of view characters. First with the Warren couple (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) during some introductory exposition concerning the “Annabelle doll” case file, which was intriguing enough to green-light a standalone to release just a year later. The film then pivots to a standard haunted house narrative centered around a family with Ron Livingston and Lilli Taylor as the parents.

the conjuring opinion

Its the typical horror film fare with sudden noises, creepy atmosphere, and near-misses between ghost and human. But Wan prevents some of this familiarity to feel like fatigue, offering some much needed surprises in the form of his technique, always shifting perspective on the rooms and preventing the specters from getting too much facetime. Instead, we study the reactions of the humans who witness the supernatural for themselves, allowing us to fill in the blanks according to their fine performances.

None of these filming techniques are new when it comes to classic horror, but they’re a breath of fresh, foggy air for modern scare films that have adapted perhaps a little too much to the inviting world of “anything can happen” visual effects that are purely built in a computer. Perhaps it’s easy to accept the throwback nature of Conjuring due to the fact that its set in the 70s and has a slight filter that softens the picture.

While every performance is above grade here, there are some instances of somewhat forced drama used to round out the Warren couple, with lots of added dialogue concerning God’s purpose in their lives and how that will play into their marriage and family. Some of it works to contrast nicely with the chaos that ensues once they decide to aid the central family of The Conjuring, but the nicest thing to say about it is the fact that James Wan does a far better job with atmosphere and pacing than he does with living, breathing characters.

the conjuring opinion

Still, The Conjuring is one of the best horror films in the last few years, and mostly because of its restraint. As a result, the marketing for said movie (while inundated with the annoying Twitter quotes from screenings) was successful because of what it said about the love put into the film’s creation, rather than a forced superlative that would have sounded like white noise for most audiences.

(Second Opinion) Grade: A-


I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Second Opinion: ‘Days of Future Past’ Is a Good, But Not Great X-Men Film

days of future past opinion

Days of Future Past was quite the success story when it finished its run in 2014, amid competition from Captain America: Winter Soldier and Amazing Spider-Man 2 in what was quite the crowded spring for comic-book movies, only to be upended by Guardians of the Galaxy that August.

Fans were divided on whether or not the film would actually work with time traveling in the mix, yet that very plot device is what enabled some of the film’s best moments, like seeing the previous generation of X-Men stars exist in the same universe as the fresher, more upbeat cast introduced in First Class. Because of this and a certain character named Quicksilver, DOFP was a huge hit with both audiences and critics, gaining almost double the average worldwide box office for X-Men films and getting the highest overall ratings.

And yet it’s probably not the best X-Men film, perhaps tying for second with First Class and submitting to the superior X2, if only because that film had the luxury of being a continuation of a solid pilot movie, as well as a more complete feature.

Like X2, DOFP’s biggest strength is its lack of having to tell another origin story. It’s a seamless continuation of two movies: X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine (or Last Stand, perhaps), making this the first X-Men sequel to feel like a comic-book movie, rather than a movie based on comic-book characters. It worked for Marvel’s slate of films, and it worked well here for X-Men, as well.

days of future past opinion

But also like Marvel, DOFP suffers from having a severe barrier to entry, preventing most newcomers from being able to jump in and start watching. Because of the complexity set forth by multiple soft reboots thanks to non-starters such as Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine, DOFP requires a full viewing of almost all of its films dating back to 2000 in order for viewers to have a complete picture of the “what” and “who” that makes up this film.

You can arguably get away with skipping the first X-Men, but then you wouldn’t understand the implication of Rogue’s actions in the subsequent two films. Skipping The Wolverine robs of you a crucial end-credits sequence that explains what goes completely unexplained in DOFP concerning the reappearance of two major characters presumed either dead or powerless. And even Origins: Wolverine lends some context to…well, never mind about that one.

Take a look at the complexity of the set up alone: In the future, Sentinels have all but rid the world of mutants, creating an apocalyptic wasteland in the process. So Shadowcat, reprised by Ellen Paige, uses a new power to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973 to prevent a series of events that leads to the creation of the murderous sentinels, starting with Mystique’s mission to assassinate their creator, Bolivar Trask.

For invested fans, DOFP works on every level because there’s enough familiarity to fuel the drama that parallels between the past, with characters from First Class, and the dystopian future battled out with the cast of the first trilogy of movies. But most of the fun truly lies in the main plot occurring in 1973, as the movie feels most at home combining stunning special effects sequences with historical fiction, and doing it even better than First Class for that matter.

days of future past opinion

The main problem is that you spend more time trying to understand where everything exists in this movie than you do trying to analyze and think about the story. Little of the drama between characters is appreciated or slowed down to be appreciated, traded instead for a series of “big” moments compounding on each other in order to get to the finish line, which involves a sweeping retcon of previous X-Men flops.

Like First ClassDays of Future Past is certainly a good movie. It’s just not very great because it has to pave the way for something better, later. When it first came out, many fans were worried about getting their hopes up to high because director Bryan Singer had an almost impossible task set before him. But it’s clear that the task was to make a good film out of a complicated premise, rather than something amazing that manages to stand out and convert new fans into the X-Men universe.

Second Opinion Grade: B


I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

On Second Thought, Zemo Was One of the Best Things About ‘Civil War’

civil war zemo

My initial reaction to Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War was quite similar to the reactions fans and critics have had with most Marvel cinematic villains.

“Is that it?” we all tend to wonder.

The important thing to remember is that most Baron Zemo fans enjoy the more recent incarnations of the character. In his early run, Zemo was a fairly generic “bad guy” seeking revenge against the Avengers because his father died while fighting Captain America.

It wasn’t until the 80s that the character was involved in some more intriguing story arcs, including his formation of the Thunderbolts, which was a team of villains pretending to be heroes who ultimately become heroes for real because they like it so much.

In Civil War, I didn’t see much of this Zemo being played out by the talented Daniel Brühl. True, they both have a thirst for vengeance, and both have a genius-level intellect akin to D.C.’s Lex Luthor. But the characterization was a far cry from the more enigmatic villain we know and hate to love. In Civil War, he’s muted and seemingly interchangeable.

civil war zemo

(Plot spoilers from here on out, so if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War, read no further unless you don’t mind getting spoiled.)

You have to admit, though, that the villain in Civil War is also very different from most of the antagonists we’ve seen play out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For one thing, the film doesn’t kill him off, which is a typical death wish for villains unless your name is Loki. Also, the film seems very interested in developing Zemo further, likely offering this version of Zemo as more of an origin, foregoing the rest of his arc for future films.

Take a look at some of the other heavy-hitter villains in the MCU. We see the origin of Obadiah Stain in Iron Man as he betrays Tony and dons a bigger, badder suit, only to get killed in the end. Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk also goes through the same process when he becomes the Abomination, only to get killed in the end.

Red Skull? Becomes Red Skull before the movie even starts, and then he gets killed in the end. Ronan? Uses the infinity stone to gain power and gets killed (presumably) in the end. Ultron? He’s literally born and killed in the same running time. Yellowjacket? A copy and paste of Obadiah Stain.

Don’t even get me started on the Mandarin.

civil war zemo

But Zemo’s arc in Civil War isn’t quite as familiar. His evil turn happens entirely off-screen, and months before the movie begins. He doesn’t die by the time the credits roll. In fact, he actually wins in the end, accomplishing exactly what he set out to do. The “super soldiers” are dead. The Avengers have been split up. Their “empire,” as he calls it, has fallen.

The only thing he didn’t account for was Black Panther tagging along and preventing his suicide. The one thing he couldn’t predict was a person actually overcoming their thirst for vengeance.

For once, I’m actually intrigued by what happens next for this villain, even more so than Loki. I think my initial and frankly negative reaction was painted by a decade of getting used to Marvel’s rule book of three-act villains. Now it seems that Marvel (with some help from the Russo brothers and their dream team of screenwriters) is trying something new with its bad guys. They’re treating them like they would their protagonists.

The heroes of the MCU are arguably why we love these movies so much, faults and all. We love, know, and understand these characters. And I’m all for Marvel slowing down with stories for their villains, who should be just as important. Why does Zemo need to have a beginning, middle, and deadly end within the course of a movie that is already stuffed to the brim with major plot points? Why should he be any of the characters we already know doing battle in the scene depicted below?

ciivl war zemo

That means, of course, that we can’t get the full picture of Zemo until we see how the events of Civil War change him. Will he become what he hates the most (someone with a suit) in order to stop the Avengers once and for all? Or will he move on and become something more of an anti-anti-hero, possibly leading the Thunderbolts in his own movie?

I’d be fine with either or even both, and seeing these movies from the big picture one day, it could certainly be one of the best things we got out of Civil War, beyond a few stellar action scenes and a spot-on Peter Parker.


Did you like Zemo in Captain America: Civil War? Let me know in the comments below. 

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

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