BOX OFFICE ROUNDUP: THE SUMMER 0F 2016

FROM BOX OFFICE SURPRISES TO BOX OFFICE BOMBS TO NEW LEVELS OFF ONLINE VITRIOL, THIS SUMMER HAD A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING

With Labour Day right around the corner, another movie summer season is officially in the books. So with that in mind, lets take a look back at this summer’s winners and losers at the box office. 2016 was considered a down year for the annual summer spectacle, but among the disappointments and the controversies there were a handful of bright spots.

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BOX OFFICE ROUNDUP: SUICIDE RUN

THERE WAS NEVER ANY DOUBT SUICIDE SQUAD WAS GOING TO OWN THE BOX OFFICE THIS WEEKEND DESPITE POOR REVIEWS. NOW THE QUESTION IS HOW FAR WILL THIS GRAVY TRAIN RUN?

There was never any doubt that DC/Warner Bros. Suicide Squad was going to open huge. After weeks of tracking and speculative monitoring, there was no question it was going to open number one this weekend, laying waste to every record in its path and forcing every other movie on the planet to scramble in it’s colossal wake. So Suicide Squad’s record-breaking success came as absolutely no surprise to anyone anywhere.

Now is when it gets interesting.

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THE SECRET’S OUT

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS MAY NOT BE IN THE SAME LEAGUE AS DISNEY OR PIXAR, BUT THERE’S STILL PLENTY TO ENJOY

Director: Chris Renault

Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress and Steve Coogan

Studio: Illumination/Universal

Rated: G

Running Time: 1 Hr, 30 Mins

A handful of heavyweights have risen to the top of the animation world over the years. Disney’s in house studio as well as their Pixar brand are easily the top dog (refer to the box office numbers of Zootopia and Finding Dory if you have any doubts) while studios like Dreamworks and Sony’s Blue Sky vie for second place. Universal’s animation division-Illumination Entertainment-is looking to challenge the status quo by building off the enormous success of their Despicable Me/Minions franchise and challenge Disney’s place on top of the animated food chain with the much-hyped Secret Life of Pets. While Pets falls a little short of that lofty goal, it’s still an amusing romp that’s more than worth the price of admission.

Video: Illumination Entertainment

Max (Louis C.K.) and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) live the perfect life in New York. Katie adores Max and Max pretty much worships the ground Katie walks on. When Katie leaves everyday for work (her daily disappearance remains a complete mystery to Max, who tries every day to convince her to stay) Max dutifully waits by the door, eager for her return. While the other pets of the city spend their days partying, watching TV and raiding the refrigerator, Max pines away the hours until his beloved owner returns home.

But one day Katie returns with a new addition to their family-Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a hulking brute of a dog that’s all slobber and fur. Max’s exclusive place in Katie’s life is challenged and he immediately resolves to do everything in his power to get Duke out of their lives and back in the pound where Katie found him. Understandably Duke isn’t a fan of this and becomes determined to get Max out of the picture (strictly as self defense of course). As a result they both find themselves on the streets, trying to get home while on the run from New York Animal Control and Snowball (Kevin Hart), a psychotic rabbit that leads an army of abandoned pets called The Flushed that seek revenge on the human world.

Pets takes some time to get going, spending a good chunk establishing the characters, back story and premise. But when it does get going, it’s a roller coaster of laughs, sight gags and inside jokes. The animators perfectly captured the spirit of the characters and embedded them into their animal likenesses. Whether through body language or facial expressions, the visual imagery sells the character side of story.

Unlike some other animation studios, Illumination cast its voice actors from TV, keeping the budget reasonable (Pets estimated budget is around 75 million compared to the average Pixar budget, which easily surpass the 100 million dollar mark). But that doesn’t subtract from the impact the voices have at all. Albert Brooks is fantastic as Tiberius, the domesticated hawk that constantly wrestles with his predatory instincts while trying to make friends. Louis C.K. does a more then decent job as Max, really selling the conviction of the little terrier’s love for his master and his contempt for his new rival. You can truly tell that Kevin Hart had a blast as Snowball, the sociopathic, murder crazed bunny out for blood. But Jenny Slater steals the show as Gidget, the demur, polished toy poodle with eyes for Max and an addiction to Mexican soap operas. Gidget is the real star of the movie, going from prim and proper, long distance admirer to a pet-of-action, leading the search party for Max who eventually becomes a fierce engine of hand-to-hand combat. And Slater brings her to life with nothing short of perfection.

Pets plot is essentially Toy Story recycled. But instead of toys coming to life when their owners aren’t around, household pets reveal their true selves once their humans have departed for the day. The former favourite has to deal with the strange newcomer but soon they have to join forces to get home safe. Pets succeeds because while the writers borrowed the storyline from another movie, they heavily invested in creating a world of talking pets and vengeful bunnies, and then allowed their characters to explore the comedic boundaries. The jokes (and there lots of them) write themselves.

Unlike Pixar though, Pets doesn’t yank on any heartstrings, though considering the subject matter that’s probably a wise decision (few things are more devastating, especially for a child, then the loss of a pet). It flirts with a little genuine emotion before quickly returning to the jokes. That’s why it fails to reach the same territory as Pixar. Make no mistake, there’s pretty much the same amount of laughs for both kids and adults, but Pixar has perfected the recipe of brilliant visuals, comedy and just the right amount of pathos, while Pets prefers to focus on the laughs.

Pets even opens with an animated short-a new Minions adventure-but it doesn’t have the same presence that Pixar or Disney animated shorts do. It was amusing but not really memorable.

The Secret Life of Pets is a great family movie nonetheless. The kids will love it and the parents will love taking them. It’s a visual roller coaster ride full of laughs and you may never look at a poodle or a bunny the same way ever again. It’s the fun family movie that reminds us why summer is movie season. And while it falls a little short of Pixar, don’t be surprised if Illumination is soon challenging the creators of Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Dory for animation’s top spot soon (they’re already hyping their Christmas release Sing). Pets may even have a sequel in it too. If Max and company get into this much hijinks just welcoming a new dog, imagine what could result if one day Katie brought home a husband?

Shayne Kempton

 

NO QUITE LOST, NOT QUITE FOUND

FINDING DORY IS A FUN THROWBACK TO AN EARLY CLASSIC, BUT LIKE OTHER SEQUELS, PIXAR’S LATEST EFFORT DOESN’T EQUAL THE ORIGINAL

Director: Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Kaitlin Olson, Ed O’Neil, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, Ty Burrell and Sigourney Weaver

Studio: Disney/Pixar

Rated: G

Running Time: 1 Hr, 37 Mins

Pixar’s recent habit of mining some of their older material for new releases has met with varying degrees of success. While the two Toy Story sequels were well received by both audiences and critics alike, sequels to Cars and Monsters Inc. met with lukewarm receptions. They were well liked by audiences (success that was reflected by their strong box office) but it was also widely accepted that they fell short of the original movies that inspired them. While there is a lot to like about Pixar’s newest release, Finding Dory (a sequel to the 2003 blockbuster Finding Nemo), it falls into the same trap. It’s good but it also fails to grow beyond the shadow of its predecessor.

Finding Dory opens with a quick look at a painfully adorable baby Dory and her family. Dory’s parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) are dealing with her memory problems with patience and care and it’s obvious how much love and happiness the fish family shared before they were separated, most likely as a result of Dory’s inability to remember anything. Fast-forward a year after the events of Finding Nemo and Dory (Ellen Degeneres), Marvin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) have formed an informal little family on their corner of the reef. But Dory is soon haunted by memories of her parents and as the fragments of her childhood memories persist, Dory grows increasingly obsessed with finding her family. She soon sets off on a quest across the ocean to find her missing parents, a supportive Nemo and reluctant Marvin in tow.

Armed only with her companions and vague memories, Dory faces not only new dangers and an uncertain future, but self-doubt and insecurity as well. Dory soon realizes that if she wants to be reunited with her family, she has to rise above the challenges that face her and the limitations she’s always accepted. She stumbles across no shortage of forgotten friends along the way as well as plenty of new ones, and all of them turn out to be instrumental in helping Dory reach her goal.

It’s been thirteen years since we last saw Dory, Nemo and Pixar’s vibrant underwater world and you can tell that the animated juggernaut hasn’t rested on its laurels. In 2003, the quality of animation was definitely top shelf but looks a touch antiquated now. With a new coat of paint and some new tricks, Pixar continues to remind movie goers why they’re at the top of animation’s quality food chain. Dory and company continue to look fantastic today and marine landscapes really allow Pixar to stretch its creative legs. And as usual, the voice casting is a perfect compliment to the beautiful animation. Idris Elba and Dominic Cooper as a pair of lazy yet territorial sea lions are Finding Dory’s comedic stars and are this movie’s version of Nemo’s greedy sea gulls. Ed O’Neil voicing Hank, a cranky octopus who is afraid of the ocean is equally inspired and Katilin Olson as the near sighted whale shark Destiny and Ty Burrell as the hypochondriac beluga Bailey round out a great new supporting cast.

There are a lot of laughs in Finding Dory, it looks great and your kids will instantly fall in love with baby Dory during the flashbacks (expect lots of Finding Dory themed merchandise on Christmas lists in a few months). And it is well worth the price of admission (especially if you catch it in 3D), but like many of the sequels Pixar has done, it falls noticeably short of the original. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except it seems to happen with all of Pixar’s sequels with the possible exception of the Toy Story movies (and let’s be honest, the nostalgia hurt from Toy Story 3 is what makes it stand out in our emotional memory). This should probably inspire some concern considering that sequels make up nearly everything Pixar has on their scheduled slate over the next few years (Cars 3 next year, Toy Story 4 in 2018 and The Incredibles 2 in 2019, with one lone original property, Coco, scheduled for release in November of 2017). Even the pre film short Piper, while cute in its own way, feels a little less then many of the other shorts Pixar is renown for.

Now might be the best time for parent company Disney to ask what’s preventing their coveted animation brand from returning to the drawing board to pursue original ideas, especially while Pixar is raking in mad cash. As it stands now, many (myself included) would argue that Disney’s own in house animation studio, which gave us the billion dollar mega hit Zootopia a few months ago, may have passed the house that Toy Story built in terms of fresh, bold ideas (Zootopia tackled ideas of discrimination while Disney’s November scheduled Moana will be the first animated feature to concentrate on Hawaiian culture).

Regardless, Finding Dory is an entertaining spectacle for movie fans of all ages. If you can, catch in 3D to really appreciate the quality of the animation, which really lends itself to underwater environments. And you definitely want to stick around for the post credit scene. Even though it doesn’t live up to the original, its full of laughs and the story was reasonably well done. It’s the perfect summer movie for families.

Shayne Kempton

SHINY BUT EMPTY GLASS

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS IS BRIGHT AND PRETTY BUT LACKS EVERYTHING THAT MADE THE ORIGINAL MEMORABLE WHILE FAILING TO BRING ANYTHING NEW TO THE FRANCHISE

Director: James Bobin

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Stephen Fry and Lindsay Duncan

Rated: PG

Studio: Walt Disney

Running Time: 1 Hr, 53 Mins

There was a lot to like about 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Disney and director Tim Burton successfully brought Lewis Carroll’s fairy tale land and the characters that inhabited it to vibrant, brilliant life. Then there was Johnny Depp’s quirky, occasionally scary portrayal of the Mad Hatter (who occasionally deviated from his trademark benign lunacy to become a fearsome fighter with a deep Scottish brogue). But perhaps the most likeable element was Alice herself, who over the course of the movie grew from an uncertain, grief stricken teenager who was on the verge of being pimped off by her well meaning mother (destined to spend her remaining years in a loveless marriage, tending her husband’s digestive “blockage”), to an armour wearing, sword wielding warrior who saved Wonderland by slaying the terrifying and all powerful Jabberwocky.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for its sequel, Alice Through The Looking Glass.

After captaining her late father’s merchant ship The Wonder for three adventure filled years at sea, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns home to discover that, in her absence, her mother’s been forced into a compromising financial situation. She soon finds herself facing a dreary life, barren of adventure and courage, at the same hands of the digestively challenged boor she was almost married to in the first film. All of that is pushed to the back burner when she’s summoned back to Wonderland, this time to save the Hatter (Johnny Depp), whose grief over his family (killed by the Jabberwocky years prior) has poisoned his mind and soul. Alice soon finds herself literally racing Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) to discover the fate of the Hatter’s family.

Along the way she learns a number of secrets (some of them uncomfortable) about her closest friends and the history of Wonderland. And in the midst of all this, the swollen headed, execution happy Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has returned from her exile to take revenge on her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), Alice and everyone else responsible for her defeat.

The visual effects and world building in Looking Glass easily live up to those of its predecessor and even surpass them on a number of occasions. Depp’s performance remains the best in the movie (though he’s more subdued and given less opportunity to try and salvage the film this time around) though Bonham Carter chews up more then her fair share of scenery reprising her role as the Red Queen. And hearing Alan Rickman’s voice-even for only for two lines-was a gentle but definite tug on the heartstrings (the movie was dedicated to his memory). There are even a few clever little wrinkles in the time hopping story, but unfortunately none of it is enough to elevate Looking Glass above a visually attractive but emotionally empty sequel.

One of the strengths of the original Alice was the sense of discovery. Not everything in Alice was new, but it was at least novel, and seeing Wonderland through an amnesiac Alice’s eyes (who had forgotten her first visit, made when she was a small girl years before) allowed a unique sense of wonder (pardon the pun). Telling the original fairly tale in hindsight and through flashbacks while also telling the new story was an inventive plot device that somehow worked. Alice in Wonderland was a successful exercise in unique movie storytelling, something rare for a live action adaptation of a fairy tale. The sequel lacks that inventiveness and it’s attempts to try and embrace larger concepts (particularly the bonds and demands of family and the need to sacrifice for and forgive our loved ones) fall flat.

Looking Glass is neither as ambitious nor fresh as Wonderland. It isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t a good one either and it’s certainly not on the same level as Wonderland. The best way to think of it is as an amusing diversion that will be forgotten shortly after you’ve seen it (unlike Wonderland, there’s very little that’s memorable about it). If anything, it’ll put you in the mood to watch the original again.

Shayne Kempton

 

SUMMER MOVIE TIME

My Final Words on Batman Vs. Superman, Why Marvel Is Doing Movies So Much Better Than DC and Why You Should Go See Ghostbusters Despite The Unbelievable Hate

Dr. Ted had me on his podcast last week to talk about some of the big movies coming out this summer season. Included are my (hopefully) final thoughts on Batman Vs. Superman, why the Ghostbusters remake is getting so much hate and why everyone should go see it anyway and a few other observations about some other movies hitting the big screen this summer season. Enjoy.

CIVIL UNREST

Captain America: Civil War Is What A Comic Book Movie Should Look Like

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johannsen, Sebastien Stan, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Martin Freeman, Marissa Tomei, William Hurt and Daniel Bruhl

Studio: Marvel/Disney

Rated: PG

Running Time: 2 Hrs, 28 Mins

I’ve made no secret of my feelings about the bleak, steaming hot mess that was Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I gave it a reluctant five out of ten because I have a huge soft spot for the source material, but the film demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of the characters (particularly Batman and Lex Luthor), was overlong, had scenes shoehorned into it that were commercials for future movies, had other scenes that were completely pointless altogether, wasted two classic villains (Lex Luthor and Doomsday) and the end had no emotional impact because it will be completely undone as soon as DC/Warner Bros. releases its next super hero film (it kind of has to be).

I began my review of BvS by saying that if DC/Warner Bros. wanted to compete with Marvel/Disney, they had a long way to go. Not only does Captain America: Civil War widen that already considerable gap by a few more miles, it may very well be the best movie in Marvel’s growing roster of films.

The world has grown increasingly wary of its superheroes as the collateral damage from their battles has grown too severe to ignore. Entire cities have been reduced to smoldering ruins and too often untold civilians pay the price with their lives. After another Avengers operation goes sideways, resulting in more civilian death and suffering, the governments of the world come together to demand change. They want the Avengers supervised, their actions sanctioned and approved by the United Nations and the heroes are given a very clear choice; accept the new Sakovia Accords (named after the city that was destroyed in Avengers: Age of Ultron) or retire. If they continue to operate without official sanction they’ll become outlaws and hunted as criminals. Captain America (Chris Evans) opposes the accords while Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) champions them and the other heroes are forced to choose sides. The Avengers are soon split into opposing camps and find themselves staring each other down.

Complicating matters further is Cap’s long time friend turned brainwashed super assassin Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastien Stan). He’s still on the loose and may have been up to his old murderous hijinks, further ratcheting up the political heat on Cap and the other heroes. And to top it all off, a sinister presence is subtly pulling strings in the background, taking advantage of the heroes divide and orchestrating events to serve it’s own agenda. Long buried secrets are revealed, friendships are strained, alliances tested and broken, faith lost and new players are added to the game. And it’s all told amidst a brilliant spectacle.

The Russo Brothers (who also directed 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier) have crafted a masterpiece. They keep the accelerator going at all times, affording some down time to tell the story in between boundary pushing, logic defying action sequences. They let their key personalities breathe a little in between punch ups while not shoving the other characters to the side, affording everyone in this considerable ensemble cast more then just a few moments in the spot light. Civil War stars the most ambitious cast of heroes yet, collecting just about every hero we’ve seen in a Marvel movie save Thor and the Hulk. But they couldn’t go without adding a few new faces and we get to see Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) as well as Spider-Man’s long awaited debut in the Marvel cinematic universe (played by Tom Holland).

Enough can’t be said about the action. The Russo’s took the already ridiculous yet not absurd levels of action in Winter Soldier and turned it up a dozen notches. All of the actors deserve special recognition for the training they underwent, stunt doubles or no. Not only did Boseman own the physical demands of his role as Prince T’Challa/Black Panther, but he also learned the African language of Xhosa for some of his dialogue and the role of Panther appears to be in very safe hands moving forward (his solo movie is scheduled for February 2018). Tom Holland meanwhile looks like he could be the best Peter Parker/Spider-Man yet and his appearance has already generated huge demand for next year’s Spider-Man reboot (co-produced by Marvel and current rights holder Sony). When was the last time moviegoers were looking forward to the a Spider-Man movie? Go ahead, I’ll give you a moment to dig up a calendar.

Robert Downey Jr. continues to bring the affable Tony Stark to life better then any other performer could, but here he gets to show off some acting chops as the brilliant yet smug egotist Stark is confronted with the consequences of his actions and wrestles with the steep price of his attempted amends. Evans compliments him perfectly as Captain America, who is forced to oppose and battle friends and former allies while he tries to do what he thinks is right even while he doubts his own actions.

And did I mention the action? Because it all culminates into one incredible super hero battle royal where every one gets to show off their super powers and skills. Laced with plenty of rapid-fire jokes, it is pretty much the best action scene of the year so far (and will probably be impossible to beat). This scene alone proves how brilliant a decision it was by Marvel to hand control of the Avengers franchise over to the Russo Brothers. Imagining what they can do with even more characters on a cosmic scale boggles even the most vivid imagination.

In the end, this is what a comic book movie should look like. High octane, eyeball rupturing action injected with plenty of humour that tells a straight forward yet entertaining story at just the right speed. It has enough emotional gravity to keep it grounded (after all, you have to care about the characters), never takes itself too seriously (after all, it is a comic book movie) while, and this is most important part, being fun to watch. The true secret of this film’s success won’t be it’s enormous box office (Marvel may have yet another billion dollar blockbuster on its hands when everything is said and done) but that it has also electrified appetite for future Marvel movies (including next year’s Spider-Man). What more can a movie do?

DC, Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder should all be paying very close attention.

Shayne Kempton