Star Wars: The Last Jedi (B-). Okay, Episode VIII in the ongoing space/soap opera about the Skywalker family is here, and the critics are generally loving it. Put me down with the small band of dissenting critics. On the plus side, it is better than the last installment, The Force Awakens, if only because it is not a slavish remake of an earlier movie. On the down side, it is still somewhat derivative of its predecessor The Empire Strikes Back, with an evil empire on the march, a rebellion on the run, and a would-be Jedi seeking training from a wise mentor. Worse still, it is a solid two-and-a-half hours long, with as many false endings as The Return of the King from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Still, I appreciated that writer–director Rian Johnson did try to throw some new wrinkles at us. Mark Hamill (Star Wars: A New Hope) is a surprisingly crotchety Luke Skywalker. The late Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally) presents a stoic Rebel leader but doesn’t really have that much to do. And our quartet of new main characters (Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron) gets split up for most of the movie, which means a lot of jumping back and forth. I think the movie would have been much better if the first half had been trimmed a bunch, and the exciting stuff at the end stretched out a bit. But it’s already made almost a billion dollars worldwide, so what do I know?
Coco (C+). This new Pixar feature is getting a lot of critical acclaim, but I must say it left me fairly cold. The setting is interesting: Mexico on the Day of the Dead. A boy named Miguel comes from a long line of successful shoemakers, but he yearns to become a musician. Unfortunately, his great-great-grandpa was a musician who walked out on his wife and small daughter to pursue his dream, and the family has banned all music ever since. But Miguel persists in pursing his dream on the sly, and through a series of unlikely events he gets catapulted into the land of the dead. He then rushes from place to place, meeting various deceased ancestors and trying to get back to the real world before the sun rises again. The visuals are pretty cool, but I thought the songs were unmemorable and the plot was tiresome. I didn’t recognize any of the voice actors, but they included Gael García Bernal (Letters to Juliet) and Edward James Olmos (Blade Runner 2049).
Born in China (B-). I don’t think I have seen one of these “Disneynature” Earth Day releases in a while. This one focuses on several species indigenous to China. Cranes and a certain kind of antelope get brief coverage, but the movie focuses on the giant panda, the snow leopard, and some kind of snub-nosed monkey I had never heard of before. The photography is exceptionally good, as you would expect, but the narration (provided by John Krasinski, Leatherheads) is way too sentimentalized and occasionally downright goofy. There’s very little gore, but there is still a death that might trouble the little ones and the exceptionally tenderhearted. Personally, based on the previews, I’m hoping for more from Disneynature’s 2018 release Dolphins.
Moana (B). First we have a short–a cute little story that dramatizes the battle between an office drudge’s fearful brain on the one hand and his excitable heart and stomach on the other. It’s kind of like a radically shortened and simplified Inside Out. The main feature is set in a Polynesian South Seas-type milieu. Moana is the high-spirited daughter of an island chief, and she thrills to her grandmother’s ancient stories of Maui, a trickster demigod who stole a gemstone from an island goddess, only to lose it in a battle with a lava demon. Could the tales be true? Lo! The Ocean itself brings the gemstone to Moana, and she must go on a quest to find Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas) and force him to return the gemstone to its rightful place, lest a looming wave of darkness overwhelm her people. I give Moana high marks for beautiful visuals, enjoyable musical numbers in the early going, and an appealing heroine. The adventure plot is a little pedestrian, so I wouldn’t put this movie in the same category as first-tier Disney like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, or Zootopia. Nevertheless, it’s a solid, family-friendly effort.
Captain America: Civil War (B+). Wouldn’t you know: every time I start to wonder if the superhero genre is played out, the next superhero movie I see turns out to be entertaining and enjoyable. The plot of CACW was reasonably clear, and the fight scenes were exciting without being too ridiculous. Most of the Avengers seemed to show up for this one, including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, Ant-Man), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). There were also a couple of people I didn’t recognize: Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Liberal Arts) and Vision (Paul Bettany, Dogville). They must have joined the club in a movie I missed. Vision was a little troubling to me; he seemed so powerful as to kind of upset the balance of power. I mean, he can shoot lasers and dematerialize at will? But I still enjoyed it, and it didn’t really feel like two and half hours. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) and Marisa Tomei (The Big Short) pop up in small parts, which was kind of fun. The same directors (Anthony and Joe Russo, of Community fame) also directed Captain America: Winter Soldier, which left me cold, so I’m glad to see they’ve upped their game.
Zootopia (A-). The latest animated offering from Disney is a delight. In a world with no humans, all the other mammals have evolved a technological (and very human-seeming) civilization. Miraculously, predators and prey now live together in peace and harmony. But species-based stereotyping is still a problem, and when rabbit Judy Hopps decides that she wants to become the first rabbit police officer in the great city of Zootopia, she sends cultural shockwaves throughout the department. The visuals of the city and its many citizens are great, and Judy herself is completely adorable. Outstanding voicework by Ginnifer Goodwin (He’s Just Not That Into You) as Judy and by Jason Bateman (Couples Retreat) as a shifty fox on the make also contribute greatly to the success of the movie. Plenty of other celebrities also contribute vocals, including Idris Elba (Thor) and Shakira. Check it out!
Cinderella (B+). I managed to catch this latest live-action fairy tale before it disappeared from the theaters, and I’m glad I did. It was charming. But first I should mention that there’s a new Frozen animated short before the show. It was cute. Elsa (that’s the sister with the snow magic, right?) is trying to throw her red-headed sister the perfect birthday party–but she has a head cold that threatens to unleash all sorts of magical mayhem! Then there was the main feature. It felt very faithful to the animated original–so much so that summary is probably superfluous. Lily James (Wrath of the Titans) is a beautiful, kind, and humble Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) is fine as the nasty stepmother. Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) makes for an eccentric fairy godmother. Of course, it’s a fairy tale, so the characters are a little two-dimensional. But director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) delivers lots of gorgeous visuals, and those plus James’s winning performance were enough to make the movie a winner in my book.