written by David Steffen

Sing is a 2016 Illumination Entertainment animated musical comedy about an animal singing competition.  Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), owner of the Moon theater, is on the verge of bankruptcy, but makes one last try at success to save his lifelong dream of running a successful theater:  a singing competition with a prize of $1000, which is slightly more cash than he actually has in hand.  Except, due to a clerical error by his assistant, the posters for the competition indicate that the cash prize is actually $100,000, so the contest draws a lot more notice than he expected.

Among others it draws the attention of devoted mother and pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) who has always dreamed of a singing career but who has been busy raising her 25 children, jazz busking mouse Mike (Seth McFarlane), punk rock porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), British gang gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), expansive German dancing pig Gunther (Nick Kroll), and stage fright-crippled elephant Meena (Tori Kelly).  Buster doesn’t discover the clerical error in the posters until after the first round of auditions are over, but he decides to stick with the competition, despite having no plan to pay anyone.

The song list for the movie is very long, between full length songs and one-line clips from the first round of auditions (from characters who don’t make it through), lots of catchy stuff to tap your foot along to.  There are several really good character storylines from these singing dreamers who want to get the big break that will change their lives forever–I particularly liked Johnny, and also Ash, as far as the singers themselves go.  Johnny’s final song in particular I found really moving.

My favorite character wasn’t even a singer.  I quite liked the character of Ms. Crawly, the elderly iguana who is working as Buster’s assistant (the one who made the clerical error that started it all).  I feel like the movie treats her as comic relief, using her glass eye, slow gait, and other infirmities as a focus of comedy (I wanted to slap the scriptwriter whenever her eye randomly popped out and started causing trouble) but I found her a relatable character.  Throughout the movie she works hard to do her job, despite the obvious physical problems, she never complains and never gives up, one of those women who quietly labors behind the scenes to make a place of business work smoothly as possible with little attention from her employers.

My only real complaint (apart from the overplayed use of Ms. Crawly’s infirmities as comic relief) was that it was one of those movies where almost all of the best comedy material was in the preview.  If you saw the preview, thought it was hilarious, and want to see more, just keep in mind you’ve probably already seen the best stuff.  The rest of the movie is good, but not good on a level as the material in the preview.  If you didn’t think the preview was hilarious, then this movie’s probably not for you, at least in terms of comedy.  I really wish movies wouldn’t do that, that they would make an effort to make the preview representative rather than to use up all the good stuff in the preview, but I guess that’s the nature of Hollywood marketing.

Ray Bradbury Award Nominees 2015

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is not a Nebula, but nominations and voting and announcement are all tied up with the Nebula Awards, so its easy to bundle it in.  The Ray Bradbury award is for science fiction and fantasy movies and is voted on by the members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  There is often some overlap with the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form but because of the difference in the voting groups this one seems to veer a bit more toward movies that are heavy on craft while the Hugo tends to lean toward fun popcorn movies.

I tried to watch all the movies before the Nebula voting deadline on end of day March 31st, but I acquire them by renting from Redbox and the release date on Redbox for one of the nominees (Interstellar) isn’t until March 31st.  So that’s not enough time in my schedule to rent the movie and watch it.  I’ll watch that movie later and give it a separate review.

1.  Edge of Tomorrow
, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Earth is under attack from an alien force known only as mimics, viciously deadly enemies that humans have only one battle against.  Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) works in PR for the US military and has been ordered to the frontier of the war in France.  The general in charge of the war effort orders Cage to go to the front lines to cover the war.  When Cage attempts to blackmail his way out of the mission, he is taken under arrest and dropped at the front with the claim that he had tried to go AWOL and so is quickly forced into service, given only the most passing training in the mechsuits that are standard issue, and dropped into battle with everyone else.  This area was supposed to be fairly quiet, but the battle here is intense.  Cage manages to kill one of the mimics, but dies in the act, only to wake up earlier in the day when he’d woken on the base in handcuffs after the general had him arrested. He dies again, and again, and again.  No one else has any memory of reliving the day except for Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the super-soldier nicknamed “Full Metal Bitch” after she wreaked havoc against the mimics in the only battle against the mimics that the humans have won.  She confides that she had won that battle because she had gone through the same thing he had–as long as he dies he will always restart at the same time and place.

I avoided this movie in theaters, because I haven’t really gone to any Tom Cruise movies since he kindof went publicly nuts.  But I rented this one since it was nominated.  I thought Tom Cruise was back to old form in it, and even if you don’t like it, well you get to see him die literally dozens of times.  I thought Emily Blunt was especially good in her role as Rita, powerful but still affected by the PTSD of dying over and over and seeing so many die around her over.  The looping-after-death element makes for a cool dynamic when well-plotted and when placed against large enough obstacles, which was well done here.  Good spec FX, good casting all around, solidly entertaining.

2.  The Lego Movie, Screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller  (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Emmett Brickowski is just a regular guy, pretty much the poster child for averageness in a world of Legos.  He does everything exactly the way he’s supposed to do, but no one pays much attention to him.  He meets a strange woman name WyldStyle who tells him he is the subject of a prophecy, the most interesting person in the world and the one who will save everyone from President Business who rules over all of Brickburg.  WyldStyle is a master builder, a rare class of lego person who can take random Lego parts and turn them into a variety of imaginative things.  She is part of an organized rebellion of master builders, and Emmett joins them in their fight.

I enjoyed this story thoroughly from beginning to end.  The voice acting is great all around (particularly that of Chris Pratt as Emmett, Nick Offerson as Metal Beard, Will Arnett as Batman, and Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop).  Lots of fun, weird imagination, and as they see out of the worlds they travel and into the real world there’s actually a relatable real life story tied into it.  Great stuff all around.

 3.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

I hadn’t heard of this Marvel franchise until this movie came out, one of the more obscure ones.  In 1988 a young Peter Quill is abducted by aliens by a band of space pirates and is raised as one of them.  In the present day he has his own ship and has grown up to be a bounty hunter (Starlord by name), taking whatever odd jobs he can find for money.  After taking what seems to be a pretty straightforward job to find and deliver an orb, he’s suddenly the focus of attention from the assassin Gamora as well as the bounty hunters Groot (a tree person) and Rocket (a one-of-a-kind genetically modified raccoon) who are all after the orb.  In the scuffle for the orb, they are all arrested and locked in a prison. Gamora tells them of her adoptive father Thanos who wants the orb for nefarious plans. They decide their only chance of escape is to work together, with help from another prisoner Drax the Destroyer, and stop Thanos.

Solidly fun, another Chris Pratt work, probably my favorite role that I have seen him in.  Great casting all around, with Bradley Cooper memorably voicing Rocket.  Action-packed, solidly fun popcorn movie.  Lots of memorable lines, memorable fights, really no complaints all around.

 4.  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is best known in his role as Birdman in multiple films in the early 90s, one of the earliest widely successful superhero franchises, but after that he has fallen into obscurity, not finding many widely acclaimed roles (sound familiar?).  He is taking his chance, putting everything on the line for one final chance at popularity again by writing and acting in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Short Story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.  The play is produced by his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), stars Riggan’s girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts).  His daughter, fresh out of rehab, is his assistant.  After an accident takes out the other actor, Ralph, Riggan replaces him at the last minute with talented but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).  Opening night is fast approaching, there are two preview nights to get through before that, and Broadway’s toughest critic has it out for the production.  To make it all worse, Riggan hears Birdman in his head, voicing the thoughts he doesn’t dare voice.

Generally I liked it.  Riggan was relatable, flaws and all.  The casting was solid (Emma Stone in particular I have yet to see play a role unconvincingly).  The situation was full of all kinds of tension.  Even though I generally don’t know a lot of things about filmmaking, I did notice that many of the scenes would’ve been very challenging because there were very long uncut segments which often included an actor walking from one room of the theater to another and then having a conversation–Sometimes they pass through a dark area that would’ve allowed a quick film cut, but there would still be very long segments that would be challenging to complete without making any mistake.  This movie did win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2014.  I found it very interesting that it got the Ray Bradbury nomination too, often there’s not a lot of overlap because the two awards.  In the end I thought it was great in a lot of ways, but as I often find with more artsy films, I thought that it didn’t really tie everything together very well in the end–there were a lot of components that while adding flavor, in retrospect seemed to just add length to the movie that it didn’t need.  We at least find out how the main thread of “how did the premier go?” happens, but there are a lot of momentous moments that seem to start their own major subplot and then are never mentioned again.

5.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Two years after the Battle of New York (depicted in The Avengers), Captain Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is working for Nick Fury at SHIELD, and trying to adjust to modern society.  SHIELD is on the brink of completing one of its most ambitious projects, a set of three helicarriers that fly in low orbit and link to a network of spy satellites that are meant to find and kill threats to society all over the globe.  Not long before the project comes to fruition, Nick Fury is hit with a large scale and no-holds-barred attack led by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier.  Despite all of Fury’s security measures, he barely escapes with his life to warn Rogers that SHIELD is compromised.  Rogers works together with Natalia Romanoff aka the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to get to the bottom of it.

This was one of my least favorite Marvel movies in the recent years of the franchise, which almost always produces movies I enjoy.  There was certainly a lot going on, but the movie was quite long and it seemed like the fight scenes were drawn out way way too long, as if the director thought the movie needed to be padded.  Neither the fight scenes nor the non-fight scenes did a lot to hold my attention.  It might just be because I’m more interested in the superheroes with more fun powers instead of just the shield.  For me the highlight of the movie was the platonic friendship between Rogers and Romanoff–a fun dynamic there.