Thursday, November 25, 2021

Movie Review: Encanto (2021)

Directed by
Jared Bush, Byron Howard, & Charise Castro Smith

As with any of the previous 59 Disney animated movies, Encanto shows a lot of heart, however this 60th film doesn't hit all the right notes as this movie you want to love falls just short.

Encanto tells the story of the Madrigal family, a family with extraordinary abilities that leads their small Colombian town.  At the heart of the family is the matriarch Abuela, who was given a magical candle as a young woman that has allowed for this magical family, and their magical house to exist.  She is stern and will do anything to protect her family's magic.  The main character of this story is Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), the one member of the Madrigal family that was not blessed with a special gift.  As she struggles to find her place in her family and her purpose for her life, there begins to be evidence that the family's exceptional gifts may be starting to fade.  Mirabel finds herself in a position to investigate and try to save her family and prove her worth.  The other star of the film is one that is never seen or heard directly as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote all the original songs that are featured throughout the movie.

The strength of this film is the story, developed by the three filmmakers also credited with directing.  It is original, creative, and explores themes we can all relate to.  Another strength is the vocal talent, which is always strong in every Disney animated film (well, really any animated film these days).  This is led by Beatriz, who gives a wonderful performance and makes you want to see her lead a live action film soon.

With music brought to us by one of the hottest names in the industry in Lin-Manuel Miranda, it's impossible not to compare Encanto with some of his other efforts composing the music for animated films, like 2016's Moana or even Vivo, which hit Netflix earlier this year.  I loved Moana and was also a big fan of Vivo, in which he also leant his voice to the titular character.  I think Encanto is probably Miranda's weakest effort of these three films.  The songs are fine and fun, but none of them are really that catchy.  There's no "How Far I'll Go" here, which earned Miranda his only Oscar nomination to date.  The songs in Vivo are even much more memorable.  (Personally, I am rooting for "My Own Drum" to sneak out an Original Song nomination this year.)  If you are comparing, Encanto's soundtrack probably most closely resembles In the Heights.  It works better for a full musical like In the Heights than it does for the few songs that pop up in Encanto.  The second issue I have with the music is it doesn't seem to fit.  More than any other musical I have seen, I thought the musical numbers distracted and took away from the rest of the story.  They felt forced, and I think the film would've been better if they just weren't there.

Even though the music was distracting, I really did enjoy most of the movie.  It is an engaging story, beautiful to look at ... it's really a movie you want to love.  I would probably be giving this a thumbs up despite these flaws if it had stuck the ending.  It had some great ideas and had the makings of a great conclusion to the story, but instead it felt rushed, not fully flushed out, and really unexplained in what it was going for.  I think I know what it was trying to say, but it needed to take a little more time saying it.

I wanted to like Encanto, I really did.  There were just a few too many misfires in the execution for me to fully sign off on it.  It might grow on me with a re-watch (probably will), but I'm not there yet.

Now a message for Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I appreciate what you are doing and I love your music, but I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I would rather see the next Hamilton than the next Moana.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Movie Review: Spencer (2021)

Directed by
Pablo Larrain

Every now and then, there is a portrayal of a real-life character that is so immersive and transcendent that it becomes impossible to separate the fact from the fiction; the person from the actor.  Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln are two prime examples of this so far in the 21st century.  Kristen Stewart in Spencer belongs in that category of brilliance.

As stated at the start, Spencer is a "Fable based on a true tragedy" brought to us by director Pablo Larrain, most known thus far for bringing us a similar female biopic 5 years ago in Jackie.  Just like his last profile, Spencer is also featuring one of the most prominent women of the last century in a moment of crisis.  Unlike Jackie, this new film features specific events that are nowhere near as public.  Kristen Stewart portrays Princess Diana as she spends three days with the royal family over Christmas at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England.  During these three days, she is fighting against tradition, expectations, a toxic marriage, and a prying public eye.  The is starting to affect her both mentally and physically, as she seems to constantly be on the verge of a breakdown while also fighting body image issues and an eating disorder.  Timothy Spall plays Major Alistar Gregory, a former soldier hired by the queen for "security" from the paparazzi, but seems more interested in making sure Diana stays in line.  The only characters that appear to be concerned for her are the head chef Darren (Sean Harris) and personal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins).  She only feels like herself when she is able to spend time with her two young boys, William and Harry.

The vibe of this film is not quite what you may expect.  It is very quiet, meditative, and introspective.  Not a lot happens in this film as you simply get an opportunity to experience life through the eyes of this very public and complicated woman.  With that said, Spencer finds a way to be engaging in almost a hypnotic way.  This is thanks to two things: Larrain's masterful direction and Stewart's monumental performance.  By prominently featuring the scenery and many long, uncut takes, Spencer at times feels like a relative of Gus Van Sant's death trilogy of the early 2000's (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days), especially when you consider Larrain's recent announcement that he plans to complete this trilogy of his with Jackie and Spencer being the first two installments.  The comparison works best with Last Days as you have the profile of a secluded, tragic character.  However, where Van Sant's profile of Kurt Cobain failed, Larrain's profile of Princess Diana hits on almost every level.

Then there is Kristen Stewart.  Never has she disappeared more into role.  I think her performance is heightened to another level when you see some of the parallels between the Diana story being told and her own personal story of fighting norms and what people expect of her.  Those that pay attention know Kristen Stewart is a good actress, but those that don't still see her as the moody Twilight teen.  Much like her Twilight costar Robert Pattinson, Stewart has had to rebuild her credibility and reputation through small, independent films like Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper.  Now she is ready to show the world how talented she really is, and what a talent she shows!  She is not one you think of as an obvious choice for the Princess of Wales, but now I can't think of anyone else.

More than just a showcase for Stewart, Spencer is a brilliantly crafted film featuring a tale of one of the most tragic figures and stories of our time.

Rating: 4 stars