Onward

Genre: Animation

Director: Dan Scanlon

Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Buin

Voice Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus,, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez

Running Length:  103 minutes

Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, go on an journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Review: It’s hard to imagine, but it has been 25 years since Pixar released Toy Story into the wild, forever changing the face of animation and storytelling. Over the quarter century, Pixar has managed to hammer out unforgettable films and solid family entertainment, and so far (in my opinion at least) the studio has not had a single dud, a fairly impressive achievement given that there has been 22 feature films since we first got introduced to Woody and Buzz Lightyear all those years ago.

Onward, the first of two Pixar titles to be released this year and its 22nd feature, doesn’t manage to hit the high watermark of being an instant classic, but nevertheless the film is a sweet, touching ode to life and loss, to brotherly love, and to an era of purer, wide-eyed storytelling that is very often lacking even in animated films these days. Nothing that happens in Onward can be considered groundbreaking, but at least it is a retread done right.

After the initial setup that gets siblings Ian and Barley onto a quest cum road trip, in order to locate a Phoenix Gem to summon the top half of their deceased father for a day, the film falls into a familiar hum of the buddy road movie, even though the proceedings are infused with some old school magic and wizardry. While this doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the production values of the movie certainly are as what we have come to expect of Pixar – not only is every scene stunningly animated, there are also many small quirky Pixar-esque details – a biker gang that consists of tough-talking pink colored pixies riding full-sized Harleys, for example – that help make Onward more visually arresting than what the premise suggests. It helps that there is a sense of genuine chemistry between Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, aided undoubtedly by their crossing paths previously in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While much of this reads like faint praise for the film, where Onward truly excels is in its relatability – while it’s set in a fantasy universe that’s filled with magical creatures like elves, centaurs and unicorns, the core emotions that Onward taps into are universal. It’s no surprise to find out that the basis of the film’s story is a deeply personal one – Dan Scanlon’s father was killed in an auto accident when he was just a year old, and his older brother was just three. Parental loss is a classic Disney trope (see films from Bambi to Frozen), but Onward still manages to handle the theme very well – there will assuredly not be many dry eyes left in the cinema when the credits to the film rolls. While Onward’s emotional machinations are unabashed, it’s well-done enough that I didn’t mind going along for the ride.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Oscars Predictions 2020

What a difference a year makes – not only does 2020 herald the return of an Oscarcast to local free-to-air TV after ten years, it’s also the first time I am doing this on the inside looking out (so to speak). With the new job comes an actual Oscar pool this year, which means I will be predicting all award categories for once. It is a relatively “easy” year for predictions given the clear paths many of the potential winners have enjoyed on the road to the Oscars, but the big question is if Parasite will buck tradition by clinching any awards outside of Best Foreign Film. It’s literally the only dark horse amongst the major categories, and I am keeping it safe by betting on the surer horses in the predictions below – hope this doesn’t come back and bite me in the proverbial ass.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Should win: Parasite

Prediction: 1917

1917 has been winning every possible award thrown its way and it’s hard to see the Academy voting otherwise. However, Parasite has seen what seems like a pretty major uptick in noise level over the past month plus, and could potential be the big upset of the night. Parasite is my favourite movie of 2019 and I would not be sad if it stole the award from 1917.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Prediction: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

This is a shoo-in for Joaquin, and like or dislike the film, it cannot be denied that he put in a powerful, memorable performance.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Should win: Renee Zellweger, Judy

Prediction: Renee Zellweger, Judy

While her portrayal of the late Judy Garland is occasionally too on-the-nose and too forced an impression, there’s again no denying that it’s definitely the most memorable performance amongst those nominated. The Academy loves these roles, and Renee has been winning every award along the way as well.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Prediction: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

It’s a hugely enjoyable performance, and his various acceptance speeches along the way have been nothing short of inspired. This one is about as hard a lock as the other main categories.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Florence Pugh, Little Women

Prediction: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Florence Pugh’s performance in Little Women outshone Saoirse Ronan’s despite being a supporting role, and was easily the best thing in the film. Unfortunately, Laura Dern has again had a clear runway from the start of awards season and there’s no reason the Academy would vote otherwise.

Best Achievement in Directing

Should win: Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Prediction: Sam Mendes, 1917

While 1917 is a great concept piece, Bong Joon Ho’s sublime direction of Parasite really should take top honours. However, even if Parasite wins best picture, it’s hard to see Sam Mendes not getting the “consolation” prize of Best Director. I feel that this is quite the lock but will again be happy to be proven wrong.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Should win: Parasite

Prediction: Parasite

It’s hard not to root for Parasite in this category, even though I also dearly loved what Tarantino did in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. QT seems to have lost some steam in this category but it will be a close fight for sure.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Should win: Jojo Rabbit

Prediction: Jojo Rabbit

I enjoyed all 5 screenplays very much but I think Taika’s star status will improve his odds immensely here.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Should Win: 1917

Prediction: 1917

Roger Deakins has to win this for the amazing work in 1917. If not for the immaculately planned camerawork throughout the film, the incredibly lit night scene in the middle of the movie would clinch this award on its own.

Best Achievement in Editing

Should Win: Ford v Ferrari

Prediction: Ford v Ferrari

Editing is everything in a racing film, and since 1917 didn’t get a nomination here, FvF would most assuredly take home the trophy instead.

Best Achievement in Production Design

Prediction: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

There’s a lot of thought put into the production design of Once Upon A Time, and the period details in every scene are spot-on. While Parasite has equally impressive production values, I am doubtful of the number of statues Hollywood would cede to essentially a foreign film.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Prediction: Little Women

When in doubt, vote for the period drama with the most period gowns and frocks.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Bombshell

It would be a bombshell (hur hur) if Bombshell did not clinch the award for disappearing Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Prediction: Joker

The score for 1917 is too spare to really be in consideration for the award, even if it’s by Thomas Newman (his cousin Randy is also nominated this year for Marriage Story). So Joker it is.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Prediction: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, Rocketman

Given the lukewarm awards season Frozen 2 has seen this year, it’s highly unlikely the statuette would end up with the Lopez duo this time. It seems that all signs point to Elton and Bermie bringing this one home, capping a successful awards run.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Prediction: 1917

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Prediction: 1917

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Prediction: 1917

The camera and the sound are the main actors in 1917, and I believe the Academy will not think otherwise.

Best Animated Feature of the Year

Prediction: Toy Story 4

It’s a surprisingly wide category this year and Toy Story 4 could easily be upset by Klaus or even Missing Link. I would like to think that the Academy still gives a Pixar film more leeway than usual so Toy Story 4 seems like a safe(r) choice.

Best Animated Short of the Year

Prediction: Hair Love

It just seems like the type of short film that would win the award, even though I really liked Kitbull as well.

Best Documentary Feature of the Year

Prediction: American Factory

For Sama is a very powerful documentary and stands a good chance to be the black horse winner, but given that the Obamas have a hand in American Factory, plus it’s a pretty universal theme, it’s hard to place my prediction elsewhere.

Best Documentary Short Subject of the Year

Prediction: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

It’s a pretty good documentary with an excellent title, which means it should stand a pretty high chance here.

Best Live Action Short Film of the Year

Prediction: The Neighbors’ Window

While there are some very strong contenders here (Brotherhood and A Sister are both masterful short films), The Neighbors’ Window is the most accessible and also a great short.

Best International Feature Film of the Year

Prediction: Parasite

This really cannot possibly go to another film in contention and is probably one of the most locked categories of the night. Unless (and possibly even if) the film goes on to win Best Picture, I would be extremely surprised if the Academy voted any other way.

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Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: Cathy Yan

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Running Length:  109 minutes

Synopsis: After splitting up with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and three other female superheroes – Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez)- come together to save the life of a little girl, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) from an evil crime lord.

Review: It was not difficult to tell that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the lone bright spot in the frankly rather disastrous Suicide Squad in 2016, and it was only natural for her to get a movie of her own, especially after the success that Warner Bros and DC saw with Wonder Woman. Best described as something along the lines of Deadpool meets John Wick meets Kill Bill, at its best Birds of Prey is a kinetic action film with great action choreography, topped by the excellent, mesmerizing performance of Margot Robbie (and to a lesser extent, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary). At its worst, the movie is a glorified mess, with a narrative structure that tries to be a little too smart for its own good; visuals, sound and music cranked all the way up to a migraine-inducing 11, and having a bunch of characters be nothing more than glorified plot devices while being onscreen.

Credit has to be given where it’s due, and Harley Quinn in her second outing has managed to cement her position as one of the most interesting characters in the (admittedly smallish) cast of characters thus far in the DCEU. Margot Robbie puts 110% into the role and absolutely nails all facets of Harley Quinn’s character, from the sadistic, psychotic, ass-kicking killer babe to the “girl next door” who’s looking for some kinship and bonding amongst birds of a similar feather. It’s a great, memorable character, and the expanded screen time that Robbie has been given for headlining this film pays off in spades.

Unfortunately, none of the other female characters manage to fare as well, and while the film is named Birds of Prey, nothing here suggests that the actual members of the Birds of Prey would be interesting enough to hold their own in a movie. It’s also rather disappointing that after the extended amount of time that was devoted in the film to putting the five female characters together in one room, the resultant denouement is such an underwhelming one, ending the film with an action sequence that is easily the least impressive of all the action scenes that preceded it. Also, the less that is said of the men in this film the better – Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina stick out like sore thumbs with their scenery chewing, and the whole campy angry white male shtick they adopt simply fails to take off entirely.

Christina Hodson makes some strange decisions with the screenplay, regularly breaking up the narrative timeline for no reason whatsoever, and while it sometimes works (Harley Quinn is mentally disturbed after all), there are other times where the movie feels very choppy and unfocused. There are some great scenes – Harley’s ode to the perfect egg sandwich almost rivals the iconic grilled cheese sandwich sequence in Chef, and an early fight scene where Harley beats out a bunch of mercenaries to rescue Cassandra Cain is hard-hitting in the best way possible. Yet, these are few and far between, and while there is enough to keep most audiences entertained, Birds of Prey feels too much like a chore to sit through for a good chunk of its runtime that it can’t earn an unequivocal recommendation.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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