Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Wolfwalkers – Review

What are some of the benefits that may come from the shift to online streaming as the dominant form of content distribution in the film industry?  The pandemic year of 2020 has given Hollywood a reckoning with where it’s future will lie.  There is no doubt that the closure of theaters has put streaming into a more central role, though it’s still too early to say if that is sustainable.  Even still, it has given the industry itself pause as to what it needs to do to return to a sense of normalcy, and it probably involves changing their way of thinking about what kind of movies that need to be made and what is the best way to bring those movies to a wide audience.  That’s something that the world of streaming has shown us, even before the pandemic hit.  The last decade saw a glut of big budget blockbuster movies dominating the screens, and while these movies were successful in bringing people out of their homes and into a theater, it also lead to a significant lack of variety in the kinds of movies that were being made.  Meanwhile, the kinds of movies that used to be found regularly on the big screen, but had over time disappeared (rom coms, screwball comedies, intimate thrillers), but were now suddenly thriving on places like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  With big budget movies left waiting due to the pandemic, it’s these often forgotten movies that are having their day in the sun right now thanks to streaming, and it’s making the studios reconsider suddenly where their priorities are.  In many ways, part of the story of 2020 is the revival of these often neglected sub genres, which are helping to fill the void left by the absence of the silver screen.  And this includes a renewed appreciation for things that have often been treated as not commercially viable enough anymore, like animated movies that are sticking to traditional hand drawn styles instead of jumping on the CGI bandwagon.

One of the areas that streaming has thankfully been able to do is give more creative freedom to independent producers who operate outside of the shadow of Hollywood.  After all, places like Netflix and Amazon want to distinguish themselves from the “big five” Hollywood studios, so they are eagerly seeking out production companies that are themselves unique and original.  This has been especially fortuitous for animation companies, especially those who are not working with computer animation, which has been the dominant format in the last 20 years.  One such studio that has carved out it’s own niche has been the Kilkenny, Ireland based studio Cartoon Saloon.  The studio, co-founded by animators Tomm Moore, Paul Young, and Nora Twomey, began as a small animation farm outfit that provided services for clients such as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, and the BBC for various cartoon series on the networks.  But in the late 2000’s, Cartoon Saloon decided to expand their reach as a production company by embarking on their first full length feature.  What they planned to do was to create movies with a distinctive Irish character to them, drawn from the national folklore and ancient Celtic mythology, helping to put their country on the map cinematically in the field of animation. Their first film was The Secret of Kells (2009), a fictionalized telling of the creation of the legendary Book of Kells; an illuminated manuscript printing of the Bible that is one of Ireland’s most sacred national treasures.  The film was a modest success, and it led to more well received animated features, including Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017).  Though not yet achieving the same kind of success as big studios like Disney and Dreamworks yet, each of their three movies so far have been Oscar nominated for Best Animated feature, and Cartoon has been affectionately dubbed by many in the film and animation industry as the Studio Ghibli of Ireland.  Now, with the aid of a streaming giant backer (Apple in this case), Cartoon Saloon is releasing what may be their most ambitious feature yet, and one that may hopefully propel them further into the mainstream; their epic scale adventure, Wolfwalkers (2020).

In the late 17th century, the town of Kilkenny has been put under the thumb of the occupying army of English invaders.  The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) has squashed all rebellion in the area, and means to tame the resistant Irish population to bend to his rule.  He does so by stoking fear amongst the citizens of Kilkenny of a dangerous pack of wolves that live on the outskirts of the town, and that only he and his army are the ones that can protect the village.  He enlists his chief wolf hunter, Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) to set traps around the town.  Goodfellowe is loyal to his master’s commands, but he also has to balance being a devoted father to his restless daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who desperately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a fearless wolf hunter herself.  Despite her father’s demands to stay home, Robyn sneaks out of the town and follow after him.  She carelessly ends up being caught in one of her father’s traps, and soon encounters a young wolf cub who helps her out of the trap.  Robyn, confused by the nature of this unusual wolf cub, ends up following after her and discovers a secret den where there is a human mother and daughter sleeping.  It turns out, the wolf cub is actually the little girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who can assume a wolf form while she is asleep.  She helps Robyn return safely to her village, while also convincing her that the wolves are not a threat and are merely just trying to survive the loss of their forest due to the expansion of the Lord Protector’s plans for more farming.  Robyn returns to her home and hopes to convince her father of what she discovered, but her father doesn’t believe the story.  Meanwhile, while having to serve as a scullery maid in the Lord Protector’s manor, she makes the horrifying discovery that the Lord is holding Mebh’s mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) captive.  What follows is an attempt by the two girls to free the captive wolf mother, which leads to many magical twists and turns, which ends up defining what it really means to be a Wolfwalker.

You can see very clearly that this is a movie deeply infused with an Irish identity.  Not only does it touch upon Irish folklore and myth with the idea of the Wolfwalkers themselves, but it also draws upon real Irish history, with the conquest of the Ireland under the brutal tyranny of Oliver Cromwell as it’s backdrop.  But the pleasing thing is that you don’t have to be a scholar in Irish society and tradition in order to have a good time watching this movie, because it is just an all around triumph of storytelling.  The movie, directed by studio founder Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon newcomer Ross Stewart (who came from an equally beloved independent animation studio called Laika), definitely feels like a big step forward for the burgeoning studio.  Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner were all modest productions, despite featuring some truly breathtaking and imaginative imagery.  Wolfwalkers strives to be bigger and grander in every way, in both scale and story, and it definitely succeeds at that.  To me, this movie had the feel of Disney at their height in the Renaissance period, minus the musical numbers.  Though the main characters are still an intimate and uncrowded number, they are surrounded by a supporting cast of thousands and a much larger canvas overall.  The settings of this movie, from the town of Kilkenny to the enchanted forest dwelling of the wolves just feels grander than anything we’ve seen from Cartoon Saloon before, and yet it still maintains their very distinct style.  Director Tomm Moore has said in interviews that Wolfwalkers is their attempt to do everything they could do but haven’t been able to so far due to either budget restraints or it not servicing the story.  With Apple’s deep pockets helping to back them this time, they are finally able to make a movie with more ambition to it, but with the same kind of care and detail that they devoted to their more modest films.

One thing that will really take your breath away while watching the movie is just the stunning beauty of the film all around.  This is definitely one of those “every frame is a painting” kind of movies, reminiscent of films like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Cartoon Saloon has worked with this very Celtic inspired motif through many of their films before, but they turn it up to 11 with Wolfwalkers.  Pretty much every single scene features a new creative idea that you didn’t expect, and it keeps you captivated from beginning to the end.  At the same time, it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the movie either, as the story is still able to find it’s way.  I was amazed just how well the visuals of the movie doesn’t distract from the story-telling, but rather elevates it, in the way that the best animated movies do.  In many ways, this is something that has been lacking in animation for a while, as Computer Animation has in many way homogenized the industry.  While there are still many good CGI animated movies out there, the sheer dominance of the format has unfortunately made so many of the movies look the same; to the point where you can’t tell one studio’s style from the other.  The same cannot be said about hand drawn animation.  Every studio has their unique in-house style, even if some try to copycat the likes of Disney.  This is also true of international animation, with Japan defining it’s identity through their creation of the Anime style.  That’s what’s so pleasing about what Cartoon Saloon is doing.  Their animation style is all their own, and it is unapologetically Irish.  I especially love the lushness of the woods, which intertwines and loops around in a way that evokes Celtic design in a very strong way.  The rigidness of Kilkenny in the movie also has it’s own story-book like feel; something that only hand drawn animation can capture.  It is possible to make Computer Animation capture this same feel, as Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018) brilliantly illustrated, but what Wolfwalkers really exposes is the fact that very few animated movies today really take full advantage of what the medium is capable of because of all that homogeny, and that it is essential for movies like it to remind us of what we are missing.

One of the things that I think really helps to carry the movie through is the wonderful cast of colorful characters in the film.  Robyn Goodfellowe certainly follows in a long line of strong independent female heroines in animated movies, but the animators and voice actress Honor Kneafsey do a great job of making her more than one note.  She is a character that actually goes through a lot of growth in the movie, both naturally and supernaturally.  She also manages to balance well off the performance of Eva Whittaker as Mebh, who is just as wild and unpredictable as her character should be.  I especially like the design of the character Mebh, whose billowing red hair becomes almost a character in her own right.  She also has these wild looking, massive eyes that really connects her to her Wolf persona.  Whether she’s in fur or in human skin, she is easily identifiable.  The characters also make a really good balance between being cartoonishly funny and heartbreakingly sincere, which is a real testament to the talents of the animators.  I also like the way they portray the stoicism of Bill Goodfellowe, making him strong but also sympathetic, helping to define the divisions and the connections that he shares with his daughter.  Certainly animating to Sean Bean’s voice can’t be easy, due to his often understated acting style, but they make it work.  I was also especially pleased that this is an animated movie with a very strong villain at it’s center.  The Lord Protector, though not specifically stated to be based on Oliver Cromwell, certainly borrows many visual connections to the notorious dictator, and like most animated villains, he is visualized as dark and shadowy.  He’s a nice throwback to the classic Disney villains of the Renaissance period, specifically reminding me of Frollo from Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and actor Simon McBurney does a great job of bringing effective menace to the character.

I should point out that Wolfwalkers only invokes the same feeling that we get from the classic Disney animated films, and is not just a copycat.  This is an animated movie that really carves out it’s own identity.  What worked for Disney so well during it’s Renaissance period was the fact that they were embracing what they were capable of in their medium and using it to tell stories that appealed to a wide audience.  But, at the same time, they too began to fall back on playing it safe and making each movie just like the one before it.  This has been true of an industry that over time has favored marketability over artistry.  The era of Computer Animation has held a firm grip on what kinds of animated movies get greenlit, because for the most part, they are the ones that can reliably bring people back to the theaters week in and week out.  Disney tried to revive hand drawn animation briefly with The Princess and the Frog (2009), but it’s modest returns were not enough to turn the tide.  The 2020 pandemic may however be the thing that gives the studios pause.  We are already seeing a variety of different animated films popping up on Netflix, mostly as acquired assets though a few other have been spear-headed by the streamer directly.  Cartoon Saloon’s next film in fact, My Father’s Dragon (2021) will be a Netflix exclusive.  Disney has also been forced by the conditions of the pandemic to premiere their new Pixar film, Soul (2020) exclusively on their streaming platform Disney+.  We are seeing playing out right now a real test of what the future of animation will be like.  Can computer animation survive without the movie theaters, or will more independent fare like Wolfwalkers become more of what we see in the years ahead.  Certainly, the fact that everyone is tuning in to streaming platforms instead of going out to the movies is putting a spotlight on movies like Wolfwalkers that it otherwise wouldn’t have had, and that may be something that really ends up being a game changer in the end.  AppleTV+ certainly isn’t in the realm of Netflix, Amazon, or even Disney+ yet, but with a quality must see film like Wolfwalkers made exclusively for it, it certainly will draw more positive attention their way.

Regardless of how we are able to watch it, I strongly recommend that you check out Wolfwalkers if you can.  Thus far, it is the best animated movie that I have seen this year, and that includes a film released in the Spring from Pixar (Onward).  Just the fact that it shows that there is still life in the medium of hand drawn animation, and that the market has been desperately lacking such a movie within the mainstream for a long time,  is enough to make any of you interested in seeing it.  It has the ambition and grandeur of Disney at their best, while at the same time maintaining it’s distinctive Irish character.  Cartoon Saloon has a bright future ahead of it if they continue to make movies of this caliber.  Though all of their movies thus far have been exceptional, this one takes it to the next level and really shows what they are capable of.  I highly expect that they are going to be 4-4 in Oscar nominations when Awards season kicks into gear next spring, and they may have their best case yet for taking home Oscar gold finally.  Right now the movie is having a limited theatrical run in the United States, which may be even more limited now because of the increased lock downs across the country that are re-shutting down many movie theaters.  If it’s important for you to see something like this on the big screen, I highly recommend it, but with the caveat that you should only go if you can do so safely.  I lucked out in seeing it at a local Drive-In, so there’s that option if available.  Starting December 11, it will then be available for AppleTV+ subscribers, as well as available to buy exclusively on iTunes.  Like all the best animated movies, it is perfect for audiences of all ages, although I do commend the filmmakers for not shying away from darker themes, which really serves the movie well and earn it a PG rating.  Time will tell if these are the kinds of movie that change animation in this period of flux.  Will Wolfwalkers create a new Renaissance of hand drawn animation, or is it just a fleeting but nevertheless worthwhile reminder of what animation used to be like?

Rating: 9/10

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Review

Jak sie masz?  His name is Borat.  Fourteen years ago, movie goers were introduced to this grey-suit wearing, moustache ornamented journalist from glorious nation of Kazakhstan.  Unbeknownst to many, Borat Sagdiyev’s big screen debut would not only find an audience in both America and across the world, but it would become a phenomenal hit as well.  And perhaps the most surprised of all with regards to Borat’s success was the creator of this oddball character; Sasha Baron Cohen.  Borat had been a fixture on Cohen’s hit comedy series Da Ali G Show, which featured Cohen’s unique brand of prank comedy where he would portray different characters and interview unsuspecting people in order to catch them in an ridiculously uncomfortable moment.  Of those characters, they included titular Ali G, fashion critic Bruno, and of course Borat.  The success of the show led to Cohen getting the chance to bring his characters to the big screen.  He started with the pretty straight-forward comedy Ali G: Indahouse (2002), but when it came time for a follow-up, Cohen decided to go in a different direction.  Deciding to center his next film on the character Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen opted for a documentary style similar to what he had used on the show, with himself staying in character while speaking to various different people and drawing the comedy from their reactions to his outlandish behavior.  In the movie, Borat’s mission is to document “cultural learnings” of America for his country’s educational “benefit,” and along the way, he becomes enraptured by the country, especially when he discovers a beautiful blonde on TV named Pamela Anderson.  Thus Borat leapt off of the small screen and became a movie star, and how.  The movie was a monster box office hit, and suddenly it became impossible to escape for a while, becoming one of the most heavily quotable movies at the time.  There’s only one problem though when your movie becomes that big of a success; where do you go next?

Sasha Baron Cohen’s career post Borat (2006) has been in many ways an experiment in answering that question.  The movie did give him valuable exposure that helped to land him in some prestigious movies from big time directors, like Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd (2007), Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and more recently Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020).  However, his own projects have yet to reach that mighty Borat high bar that he set for himself.  A film adaptation of the character Bruno (2009) came and went and was not as well received; often described as being too close in style to Borat.  In the 2010’s, he tried his hand at creating new characters, and ditching the documentary style of Borat and Bruno.  This resulted in the movies The Dictator (2012) and The Brother’s Grimsby (2016), both of which also failed to ignite the same way that Borat had.  It seemed like Cohen’s magic touch was short lived and that he would not be able to make lightning strike twice.  In a way, he became a victim of his own success.  Because he made Borat such a popular character around the world, he likewise made it impossible to repeat the same conditions that made Borat work in the first place.  Borat became too well known, and now it was harder to prank people, because once they saw him in his Borat character, people would be aware that they were about to be pranked on film.  So, it became quite a surprise to many that new broke this year that not only was Sasha Baron Cohen going to be returning to the character once again, but that he had secretly managed to film a new movie and have it ready to premiere on Amazon Prime before Election Day.  This was a shocking revelation to find out, but in a way it’s within Cohen’s character to stealthily surprise the world with a Borat sequel in a time when we weren’t expecting to have one.  The only question is, did Sasha Baron Cohen manage to make lightning strike twice, or was he better off leaving Borat one and done.

The fully titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020) brings Borat up to present day.  The international success of Borat’s first movie has put him at odds with his home country’s government, who believe that he shamed them by making Kazakhstan look so backwards to the world.  For this, Borat has been imprisoned and force to work in a gulag for fourteen years.  However, he is brought back to the capitol city to participate in a new mission.  The Premier of Kazakhstan orders Borat to deliver a peace offering to President Trump, care of his Vice President Mike Pence.  That peace offering is the head of Kazakhstan’s cultural ministry and #1 porno star in all the country, Johnny the Monkey.  Tasked with this mission, Borat leaves Kazakhstan for a return trip to America.  The only problem is, once he arrives there, he is instantly recognized by fans of his previous film, so he puts on disguises to hide his identity.  He manages to retrieve the crate that was sent from Kazakhstan with Johnny the Monkey inside, but finds an unwelcome surprise instead.  Stowing away in the crate is Borat’s fifteen year old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova) who wants to follow after her father on his mission.  Her dream is to be like her idol Melania Trump and have her privates grabbed by another fat, rich American who will put her in a golden cage.  After the mishap with the monkey, Borat gets the idea to substitute his daughter as the gift to Mike Pence.  After failing to get his attention at the CPAC conference, Borat then decides to pursue Rudy Giuliani as a possible alternative to getting close to the president.  He decides to help get his daughter a make-over, but while she is by herself, she begins to see how things are different for women in America, and it breaks down many of the lies that she’s been hearing from her father.  So, a rift between Borat and Tutar erupts, which endangers his mission, of which Borat could be executed for if he fails.

So, very much like the original Borat, there is a thinly laid bit of plot connecting all the different sketches together.  For the original movie, it was Borat’s pursuit of finding Pamela Anderson and bringing her back home with him to become his wife.  In Subsequent Moviefilm, the focus changes to Borat as a father figure, which is refreshingly different, as it does add a new layer to the character.  But, after over a decade of trying to reach the heights of the first movie and failing, did Sasha Baron Cohen manage to justify making a sequel to his greatest hit.  On the whole, I would say that he fell short once again, but it’s definitely one hell of a try though.  In many ways, making a sequel to Borat that hit exactly the same way was an almost impossible errand.  Once you do it once, the novelty is gone.  Indeed, the character is too recognizable to ever pull a fast one on anyone the same way ever again.  And yet, I have to commend Cohen’s attempt at trying.  Without a doubt, this is far and away the best film Sasha Baron Cohen has made based on his own original characters since Borat.  The movie balances the story and the outrageous humor much better here than say The Brothers Grimsby, which was just gross out humor with none of the fun attached.  There are fewer pranks that land with the same level of hilarity in Subsequent Moviefilm nor with the same regularity, but the ones that do land are right up there with those from the original.  I think that Cohen knew that he was going to have to put more effort into those big moments to make them work, and that meant filling up the rest of the run time with only minor laughs.  Another problem with the movie is that the shock factor of the original movie no longer exists fourteen years later.  It’s a sad consequence of the Trump Era in American Politics, where hearing public figures say horribly racist things has just become so normalized and no longer shocking.

But there is one thing for sure; a whole lot of skill had to go into making the film’s most shocking moments work.  What will undoubtedly become the most talked about moment in the movie is the encounter with Rudy Giuliani that serves as the film’s climax.  I’m not giving anything away here, as the story has already broken into the headlines and now even people who haven’t seen the movie have become aware of it.  But, I will say the way that the moment happens in the movie must have required an unprecedented amount of secrecy, coordination, and just flat out luck to happen the way it does in the movie.  And the fact that it still works it’s way perfectly into the narrative thread of the movie is really quite an impressive feat.  That in a way helps the movie come very close to reaching the heights of it’s predecessor.  Cohen is a master of manipulation and the fact that he can still coax public figures like Giuliani into a compromising situation like he does here is just as impressive today as it was in 2006.  In many ways, it’s even more impressive, because he had to pull a prank of this level off in a world that is fully aware of who Borat is.  There are similarly impressive pranks pulled throughout the movie, and though most of them don’t rise up to the level of the Giuliani encounter in terms of sheer boldness, they are nevertheless hilariously realized.  These include a visit to a debutante ball in Georgia, the interruption of Mike Pence’s speech at the CPAC conference, and of course the infamous trolling of a Far Right rally in Olympia, Washington that made the headlines a few weeks ago.  What’s even more impressive though is that he crafted most of this movie over the last year, in the middle of a pandemic.  And the introduction of COVID-19 into the movie doesn’t even detract from the main story, and in fact adds to it; especially at the end in one of the most hilarious final codas I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

There is one thing, however, that I think people are going to be praising for a long time from this movie, and that’s the performance of Maria Bakalova as Tutar Sagdiyev.  Maria has been active in her native Bulgarian film scene for several years, but she was won the role of Tutar out of hundreds of actresses who auditioned, and she is quite the revelation.  Surprisingly, her background is not in comedy,  and yet she not only manages to go toe to toe with Sasha Baron Cohen in this movie, she even outshines him.  Much of the movie hinges around the believability of the father daughter relationship between Borat and Tutar, as dysfunctional as it is, and Maria Bakalova is 100% committed in this role.  Often, the movie even deviates away from Borat as the central focus, and features Tutar being the one making the unsuspecting marks uncomfortable in a scene.  Indeed, as a performer, she was in the thick of it as much as Cohen was, including some of those highly dangerous situations.  The fact that she manages to pull through all of it without breaking character shows that she is indeed just as much a master of this deception as Cohen.  And given that Sasha Baron Cohen’s objective is to create the same level of shocking results that he did from the last film, well it helps to have someone who can stealthily pull it off without being recognized.  A lot of what make the movie works is all because of her, and how well her chemistry with Sasha Baron Cohen lifts the movie.  To be fair, Cohen is at his best here too, showing that he hasn’t lost the ability to play the character so many years later.  I am definitely interested in seeing where Maria Bakalova goes from here.  Is she going to use this as a springboard for an mainstream international movie career, or will she follow Cohen’s lead and launch her own off shoot of gotcha comedy, since she clearly demonstrated how good she is at it.  Whatever happens, she has definitely left an impression and managed to steal the spotlight from her more famous co-star.  I have no doubt that what we see in this movie is the makings of a future star.

In addition to the great work of the actors, the movie benefits from it’s tightly knit story.  Sure, the novelty of the first movie is worn out, and there is not much more that can be explored with Borat as a character.  He is a lovable oaf with a very backwards, dark ages view of the world, and he primarily is the same here as well.  But, the father and daughter relationship angle is a great substitution for centering a sequel around.  And as I said before, it is impressive how Sasha Baron Cohen has managed to tie it all together in the end and never lose sight of the narrative.  I don’t know how much of it was thought up on the fly, or was designed that way, but it does connect together and that is pretty impressive.  Even working through a pandemic didn’t even throw them off.  I think what helps are the clearly scripted moments of Borat and Tutar that fill in between the big pranks, where we get to watch them build their relationship.  In some ways, this is actually done better than the original, where it was mainly up to Cohen to carry the narrative arc through.  Here, the arc is carried through in the duality of their relationship.  Tutar coming into her own, Borat at first becoming an obstacle and then ultimately finding their common ground.  What is surprising is the fact that so much of the movie manages to blend so well into this narrative.  You have to imagine that in order to get things like the Far Right Wing rally and the Giuliani interview to work as part of the film’s story that the filmmakers had to plan things out perfectly in order for it to go exactly as planned.  I imagine that there is a lot of unused footage out there of multiple pranks that didn’t go as planned.  If you look at the raw footage captured of the Washington rally itself, you’ll see that there was a lot of that event that didn’t make it into the final film, and most of it is even crazier than what did make it in.  These kinds of movies are extremely difficult to pull of, and the remarkable thing is that Sasha Baron Cohen not only managed to do it again, but he did so with a surprisingly cohesive story at it’s center.

So, in the end, the movie is not quite at the level that the original managed to pull off, but it was still a commendable try.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has moments in it that certainly rise to the same level of hilarity that the original movie managed to hit, even if the frequency is a bit lagging.  For one thing, the inclusion of Borat’s daughter Tutar really lifts this movie up, and Maria Bakalova is a real discovery that should be taken seriously in Hollywood.  I certainly would say that it may fall short of the original, but Subsequent Moviefilm works quite well as a companion piece.  It certainly confirms that Sasha Baron Cohen still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and can even bring surprising new layers to a character like Borat, even after the novelty has long worn off.  If anything, the movie is just a fun romp, with plenty of great laugh out loud moments that are among the best that we have seen from Cohen.  I don’t know if he’ll bring Borat back in another film; I almost feel that any more would be overkill.  This movie gives us just enough to not spoil the fun that can still be had with the character.  In a way, this moment in our history really called for a return of the character, as the United States has become a far more dysfunctional nation.  Sure, the movie does feel like a retread at times, but the essence of what made Borat such a likable character in the first place is still there.  Underneath the vulgarity and the bigotry is a charming curiosity from a simple man who wants to embrace new things.  And the addition of a daughter to the storyline helps to give this movie a surprising amount of heart as well.  So, if you loved the original, you’ll likely find this one a lot of fun too.  Borat may no longer be an original who is going to take the world by storm, but seeing him again in a new adventure is still a welcome surprise in this tumultuous year.  If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, I’d say you owe it to yourself to at least check it out.  It’s a gift to make benefit our glorious nation.  Dziekuje!

Rating: 7.5/10

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Review

You know the old saying; that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Living through the pandemic year of 2020 is giving us a daily reminder of why it’s important to know our history in order to avoid the pitfalls that have dragged us down before.  The experience of a botched pandemic response is making us look back at the mistakes made during the 1918 pandemic, and how so much of it has fallen in line the same way.  The social unrest related to the misuse of force from law enforcement and the government is also making us look again at a similar time in America when people were having to reckon with the state of our country.  Like today, protests and riots were gripping cities across the country.  The difference was that civil unrest in that time was due to the unpopular Vietnam War.  Though the war was a major catalyst of protest, the decade before had seen a lot of civil unrest due to the fight for justice and equal rights for many the African American community.  The year of 1968 was a particular turning point for America and it’s shifting culture.  Both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other, and the American Left, which had been fighting hard for Civil Rights and an end to the War for years, was now demoralized and splintered, and facing a tough future in an election year.  This led to the infamous Chicago Riot outside the Democratic National Convention, where many of the anti-war protestors clashed with police officers and caused havoc within the city.  These events, along with the over zealous response of Mayor Daley’s police force, were largely observed as what brought victory to President Richard Nixon in that 1968 election, and of course, all the progress that the American Left had hoped to have gotten accomplished out of their protests only ended up leading to a backwards slide in their cause.  And the Nixon administration would in turn break the law within the White House and further engage in Vietnam for many years more.

This pivotal point in the history of American resistance would be most exemplified by the infamous Trial of the Chicago 7.  In what has since been observed as a politically motivated move to make an example of “dangerous” left-wing agitators by the Nixon Administration, seven of the most high profile participants were put on trail in Chicago for what was described as “crossing state-lines to incite a riot” which is a federal offense.  Though the men were found guilty, their imprisonment had the opposite effect, and they became heroes of resistance to a new generation of Anti-Establishment protestors.  The story of the 7 has carried on as a monumental moment of defiance in the face of oppression, and it still inspires people today to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in.  The story has been especially popular to filmmakers in Hollywood, who have tried many times to bring the story of the 7 to the big screen.  Aaron Sorkin wrote his treatment for a dramatization of the the infamous trial shortly after leaving his show, The West Wing, in the mid-2000’s.  For a while, it looked like Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the film, eyeing it as a possible next project after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and with actor Heath Ledger in a lead role.  However, the writer’s strike of 2007 put the project on hold and Ledger’s untimely death also dealt the movie another blow, which led to Spielberg moving on shortly after.  After a while, Paul Greengrass began to circle around Sorkin’s screenplay, with Ben Stiller in tow to help produce and star.  But further delays led them to leave as well, and eventually Amblin studios, which held the rights, decided to let the project go.  Once it landed at Paramount, a slew of other directors and actors came and went.  Then Netflix stepped in to bring in the final needed funding the movie needed, and more importantly, Sorkin himself stepped in to direct the movie himself.  And the timing for this kind of movie could not be more perfect given what’s been going on this year.  The only question is, was the delay worth it and is it the movie we need right now in our own turbulent time.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 introduces us right away to the men who would go on to define the movement, observing their moments before they made their way to Chicago.  We meet straight laced, grass roots anti-war activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the flashy, irreverent founders of the Yippie Movement Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and two protestors caught up in the middle, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty).  In addition, to these seven, another defendant is put on trial, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who rightly points out that he has no connection to the other defendants and is only being tried there as a means of connecting his radical group with the others, and he’s there without proper counsel.  The trial is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who has little tolerance for disruption in his court.  Defending the Chicago 7 are two lawyers, the more reserved Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankmen) and the seasoned and confrontational William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).  On the other side, representing the Justice Department of the United States, are US attorneys Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), under the direction of new Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman), who is still sore about a perceived insult from out-going AG, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton).  Through testimony and flash backs, the events of the infamous DNC riots are presented to us, piecing together how each individual played their part in what happened, and allowing us to see if any of their actions did indeed cross the line.  When not in the courtroom, we see the many different personality types begin to clash, particularly between the more pragmatic Hayden and the show-boaty flash of Hoffman.  All in all, it shows us that there is more at stake than just their innocence in the face of the law when it comes to this trial.  It’s about whether or not this trial is going to imprison their voices as well.

It is amazing how long it actually took for this movie to get made, and how it’s eventual timing proved to be more spot on than perhaps anyone realized.  Aaron Sorkin certainly hasn’t been hurting for success since he wrote his first draft for The Trail of the Chicago 7 back in the aughts.  He won an Academy Award for his monumental screenplay for The Social Network (2010), was nominated for another for Moneyball (2011), and even went on to direct his first feature, Molly’s Game (2017).  Having gotten that first directorial effort out of the way was probably the best thing for Sorkin to finally make Chicago 7 a reality, because it gave him the confidence to tackle a story with as much weight as this one, with all the lessons learned about how to actually do it properly.  When some writers move into directing, it can often lead to mixed results, as some writers grow too attached to their writing and leave too much in.  That was honestly the one problem with Molly’s Game as a film; Sorkin’s reluctance to trim stuff down and streamline the plot, thereby leaving the film bloated.  Given that Chicago 7 had been passed around between several different directors before, all helping him to parse the story down to all the essentials, it helped to give Sorkin the much needed fine tuning that the script called for before he could start rolling camera.  All Sorkin needed to do as a director was not mess it up, and thankfully he didn’t.  The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a major step up for the legendary writer turned director, and it proves that he is now as much of a force behind the camera as he is in drafting a screenplay.  And to be very honest, it’s probably a good thing that this movie waited for the moment when Sorkin himself could step into that role, because I can’t think of any other filmmaker who would’ve fulfilled what the script needed.

There’s no doubt about it upon watching this film; this is a Sorkin movie through and through.  Aaron Sorkin is one of those rare screenwriters today whose rhythm in dialogue is instantly recognizable.  The only other writers who I would say come close to having that stature would be either Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Charlie Kaufman.  What sets Sorkin apart is the rapid fire nature of his writing.  The man is exceptionally good at writing back and forth arguments between his characters, which does fit perfectly in a courtroom setting.  If anything, it’s the screenwriting in this movie that is the main attraction.  Like with Social Network and many of his other standout screenplays throughout his career, Sorkin balances back and forth between so many different tones in his writing, and does so with incredible finesse.  Within the span of a couple minutes, he could have as many as five different characters shouting off, delivering anything from important facts to non-sequiturs, to flagrant insults, to even just a bad joke.  The incredible way he writes is that so many elements come at you from so many directions, and yet it all manages to hit the mark.  Court room dramas can often drift into the mundane, but Sorkin manages to engage the viewer through every moment, making sure you hang on every word, even if it’s just a throw-away punchline.  Given that he’s working with a narrative focused on 7 different individuals, and the people surrounding them, and that he has to make them all distinctive from one another, and make the weight of their moment in time relevant to the viewer, Aaron Sorkin is certainly putting together what may be his most complex film yet.  And the end result is an exceptional achievement not only in measured direction, but also in complex story-telling.  Sorkin could have been a show off here, which he sometimes can be (especially in his television shows), but with Chicago 7, he displays a level of maturity as a filmmaker that rises to the challenge of his own distinctive writing.

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s put together a stellar cast as well.  There were so many big names that have circled their wagons around this project, including the previously mentioned Ledger.  Will Smith, Seth Rogan, William Hurt,  and Jonathan Majors were all at some points attach to this film, before the delays began to change plans.  The cast that did end up in the movie all do their jobs very well, especially those in the courtroom itself.  The role of Tom Hayden is a nice departure for Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who manages to hide his British accent surprisingly well in the role.  He’s also the character who experiences the most growth through the movie, which he handles pretty well.  Sacha Baron Cohen of course gets the flashiest role in the movie as Abbie Hoffman, and while I do think he perfectly captured the cadence of the notorious Yippie leader, he doesn’t quite master the American accent as well as Redmayne, often letting his British accent slip a couple times.  Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deliver solid supporting performances throughout the movie.  However, the two stand outs that I think steal the movie away from the others are Yahya Abdul Mateen and Frank Langella as Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman respectively.  Mateen’s Seale is an exceptional characterization that really underlines the frustration of African American people who are unfairly treated by the Justice system, and his performance really captures that passionate defiance in a compelling way.  On the opposite end, Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a perfect portrayal of a dispassionate judge who is completely out of his element proceeding over a trial of this nature.  His judge Hoffman in the end makes an effect antagonistic representation of the forces working against the 7 and the futility of the system trying to use the courtroom as a means of controlling speech.  There’s no doubt that Sorkin could find plenty of eager actors willing to bring his words to life.  It’s just fortunate that each and every one fills their respective roles to perfection.

It’s also interesting that Sorkin, for the first time, is working entirely within a different period.  Social Network, Moneyball, and Molly’s Game were all recent history, torn from the headlines.  Here, Sorkin is working in a time period dating over 50 years ago.  In doing so, he has to work his dialogue in a way that doesn’t feel out of step with the time period, and thankfully it doesn’t.  You do buy into this being a flash of time within the late 1960’s, when Vietnam was still raging and political upheaval was happening all around.  I think it says more about our time that so much of this movie feels so current to today.  What I like best about what Sorkin has done here as a director is the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much as a director.  He lets the screenplay and the performances carry the film, and just lets the camera observe.  If the movie had been done by a different director, I think a lot of Sorkin’s rhythm would have been lost in translation.  Spielberg would have gotten good performances to be sure, but he might have been too manipulative as well, if he tried to underscore several scenes with a sweeping John Williams crescendo.  And Paul Greengrass would’ve had the camera shaking needlessly with his hand held style.  Sorkin on the other hand just holds the camera steady and uses the power of editing to match the rhythm of his words.  The movie is devoid of big, operatic moments, and instead just allows the scenes to flow naturally.  I especially like how the flash backs are used in conjunction with what is said in court.  He’s used this technique before in movies like Steve Jobs (2015), Social Network, and even going as far back as his script for A Few Good Men (1992).  There’s a fantastic scene late in the film when Eddie Redmayne is cross-examined with a tape recording being used as evidence, and it intercuts with the incident in question, and it’s edited together in a perfectly tuned way to rev up the tension of the moment.  Like I said, over the course of writing so many films, and having already directed a feature before, The Trial of the Chicago 7 marks a bold step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a force in the director’s chair.

With the way the world is right now, there definitely needs to be a film that puts history and it’s effect on the present into perspective, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is exactly what we need right now.  It is a important reminder of where we have been as a nation, and how some problems go unsolved and end up repeating themselves over time.  In the trial of the Chicago 7, America saw for the first time people put on public trail not for the crimes that they committed, but for the threat that their message could mean to the establishment.  Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale were put on trial for what Hoffman described as “their thoughts’ which were deemed dangerous by the then Nixon Administration.  But the attempt to silence the Chicago 7 only added to their legend and their act of defiance through their activism and trial still inspires activists to this very day.  As we face a pivotal election day in the middle of a still raging pandemic, the stakes could not be made more clear about where we stand as a nation, and the example of the Chicago 7 feels more relevant than ever.  In the end, it probably was for the best that Aaron Sorkin’s re-telling of the Chicago 7 trial took this long to  become a reality, because it eventually came out at the most important time that it could.  We are at yet another tipping point in our nations history, where the rights of citizens from every walk of life is at stake in this election, as are the fundamental pillars of our democracy.  The real gift of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that it reminds us of the fact that it is hard to kill an idea, and that people will always fight for the things that they value.  We have been in this position before, and though finding justice is hard, it will always in some way find a way to become a reality.  We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for our freedoms; let’s not make their sacrifice go in vain, and continue the fight for the things that we value.

Rating: 9/10

Tenet – Review

The Summer season of 2020 came and went, and for the first time in a century, movie theaters remained silent.  There have been a few individual theaters open here and there across the country where the COVID-19 pandemic has been less virulent, but for the major chains across the country, it has been anything but a normal year for them.  With the major studios either moving all their major tent-poles to next year or dropping them off onto streaming services, there has been no reason for the theaters to reopen and return to normal business.  The next year or so is going to be a long, slow return to normalcy for the theater industry, and the feats they had to go through over this Summer just to keep themselves afloat may have made the marker for normalcy far different from what it used to be.  At this point, we don’t know where the end game of all of this will land, and that is making everyone worried.  Hollywood is facing it’s most existential crisis since the advent of television, and they are being increasingly confronted with the hard choice of what they must do in order to survive this pandemic year.  Do they sacrifice the theatrical market in order to secure financial stability for the year ahead, or do they assist the theatrical market with new releases, at the risk of receiving less than normal returns.  After a Summer that made it impossible to do any business normally in the movie theaters, Hollywood is now trying some new experiments with their upcoming releases.  As we head into Labor Day weekend, two of the year’s biggest new films are making their debut, but with entirely different roll outs.  Disney’s long delayed Mulan (2020) is skipping a theatrical release in favor of a premium streaming debut on Disney+.  At the same time, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which was originally set for mid-July, is also coming out this weekend, but exclusively on the big screen, and only in areas of the country where it is allowed.  Whoever prevails out of these experiments may in fact be the one that ultimately determines the future of movie theaters as we know it.

For the movie Tenet, it’s clear that a theatrical premiere was the only logical choice for it’s debut.  Christopher Nolan has built his reputation as a filmmaker on being the master of grandiose, cinematic spectacles that can only be fully appreciated on a big screen.  Ever since The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan has utilized the large format IMAX process as his favorite cinematic tool.  With every new movie he makes, he has incorporated more and more scenes shot with those very big and very expensive cameras.  Nearly 80% of his last feature in fact, the World War II epic Dunkirk (2017), had been filmed in IMAX.  So, even considering taking his newest film Tenet, which purportedly is his first entirely IMAX movie, and dumping it off on Warner Brothers’ new streamer, HBO Max, would be sacrilege to both Nolan and his fan-base.  So, a theatrical run of this movie needed to happen at some point.  The only question is, why now?  Why put this movie out while the country has yet to clear itself of this pandemic.  I understand wanting to assist the struggling theatrical industry, but with social distancing protocols still in place in theaters across the world, theaters aren’t exactly going to be a full house for quite a while.  Universal, Sony, and Paramount all moved their big tent-poles to next Summer, while Disney opted to push everything they could to November and December.  For some reason, Warner Brothers’ is making a gamble here, and they are betting high on Nolan to help bail them and the theatrical industry out.  The only question is, will Tenet indeed be that movie that will save the theatrical experience?  Can Christopher Nolan deliver a spectacle that lives up to it’s important status, or will it have proved that we were far from ready from returning back to normal?

Tenet, probably more than any other movie in the director’s oeuvre, plays around with Nolan’s fascination with the element of Time.  A reoccurring trope in all of his movies, the flow of time and it’s many different branches of theory, is clearly something that Nolan loves to explore in his stories.  Whether it’s in the nonlinear way he can tell a chronological story, like with Memento (2000) and Dunkirk, or the way he can manipulate time as a plot device, like in Inception (2010) or Interstellar (2014), he’s always looked at the flow of time as an interesting cinematic device.  Tenet places time front and center within it’s narrative, but adds a new flavor to Nolan’s use of the gimmick; inversion.  The movie follows an unnamed, highly-trained mercenary known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who finds himself recruited into a secret underworld squad of spies tasked with stopping a world-ending event that is making use of inverted technology.  He learns that objects are being transported from the future to the past through a process of Inversion; meaning that they are moving backwards in time while everything else in moving forward.  A Russian crime lord named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is the one smuggling all the future objects and has intentions of using them to create a nuclear bomb.  The Protagonist embarks on his mission towards stopping Sator’s plot by infiltrating his organization through a relationship with Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Dibicki).  Along the way, The Protagonist also receives assistance from a resourceful but mysterious British operative named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who helps him uncover the heart of Sator’s organization, as well as the technology he’s using to actually created the Inversion effect on both objects, and people.  With time literally in the balance, can the Protagonist manage to stop Sator from enacting his evil plan, and can he also end up making sense of what which way through time is the right course.

For me personally, just being able to see this movie was an adventure in itself.  I am un-apologetically an ardent fan of Christopher Nolan’s work; especially with not one but two of his movies making my best of the 2010’s list right hereInception and Dunkirk respectively.  I have been eagerly anticipating Tenet ever since it was announced back in 2018, and was hoping that it would continue his track record of success.  When the pandemic began closing theaters, my hope was that things would get back to normal sooner rather than later, so that Tenet could still premiere on time.  With every new push back of the date, it became clear that this was just wishful thinking.  Now, some theaters are beginning to reopen, and Tenet is the movie being touted as the first big blockbuster to usher in this return to business.  Unfortunately, movie theaters are still not ready to reopen in all parts of the country where hot spots still exist, and sadly, I just happen to live in one of those hot spots.  Movie theaters in the Los Angeles metro area are still closed as of this writing, which made me worry that I would be having to wait weeks and maybe even months before I could see this movie while the rest of the country had already had their opportunity.  But, there has been a silver lining, which is that although LA remains a hot spot, it’s neighboring metropolis to the south, San Diego, is in the process of reopening, including it’s many movie theaters.  For some film enthusiasts, there is a limit to how far one will travel in order to see a movie, and for me, a 130 mile drive falls under that ceiling.  I decided that it was worth the long trip and I made my way down to sunny San Diego just so I could finally see Tenet at the same time that most of the rest of the country was.  So, did it live up to my lofty expectations and justify the long road trip that I took.  Well, yes and no.

I will say that my overall reaction to the movie is a positive one.  I would say that I don’t feel like I wasted my time and effort to travel down to  San Diego just to watch this movie.  At the same time, I do acknowledge that as far as movies within Christopher Nolan’s filmography go, I would’ve felt more satisfied with the risks if it had been for Inception, The Dark Knight, or DunkirkTenet is a massive spectacle that certainly needs to be experienced on the big screen to be fully appreciated.  At the same time, it also is probably the flimsiest story that Nolan has ever constructed for any of his movies.  Tenet is very plot heavy, and as a result, it has to rely upon excessive amounts of exposition just to make everything make sense for the viewer.  In the process, it sacrifices other important narrative elements like character development and emotional resonance.  It’s like Nolan spent so much time trying to make all the pieces of his intricate puzzle of a movie fall into place in a way that made sense while writing the screenplay that he forgot to add all the other important things that should belong in the story.  As a result, there is a bit of coldness to the story that may alienate the film from some viewers.  But, that being said, what Nolan lacks in emotional resonance he makes up for in daring visual extravagance.  Sometimes he has fallen in the trap of doing the exact opposite and relying too heavily on emotion to carry the story.  That’s why I liked Tenet over Interstellar for example.  Nolan injected too much emotion into that story to the point where it became sappy and inauthentic, despite delivering some incredible visual complexity at the same time.  Tenet is cold, but it’s also a thrilling adrenaline rush that kept me engaged all the way through.  It does pick up in the second half of the movie, where all the pieces do come into place and things start to make more sense.  But, I can see the slow burn of the first half as a being a make or break point for many viewers, and Tenet will likely be the most polarizing film he’s made to date.

One thing that helped me get through some of the more lackluster parts of the movie was in recognizing what Nolan was actually trying to accomplish with this movie.  Though Nolan is working with some very heavy, philosophical themes and out-of-this-world concepts, he’s also making what is essentially a very standard genre film too.  In particular, he’s making an espionage thriller, bearing the marks of a lot of tropes within the genre.  There is a very not so uncanny resemblance between Tenet and the likes of films from the James Bond franchise; much less a parody as a homage of sorts.  If you’re going to borrow inspiration, borrow from the gold standard I say.  Tenet has all the makings of a Bond film, but through Nolan’s unique vision.  As a result, I was able to go along with the movie in it’s more languid first act, because I anticipated that it was all going to lead to something pretty grand by the end, which it did.  And Nolan certainly makes his movies with an eye for what will look best through the lenses of the IMAX cameras.  Whether it something on a grand scale like a 747 airplane crashing into a storage warehouse, or something more intimate like a hallway fight scene between two characters, one moving through inverted time, he captures it with an incredible cinematic flair that is unparalleled in Hollywood.  And like the Bond movies he’s emulating, Nolan also does some incredible globe-trotting photography for his many locations.  The way that he crafted the inverted time environments are also pretty incredible, especially considering that much of it was done with very little digital touch-up.  Once the characters do enter inverted time, it does take the movie into surreal territory, which changes the whole dynamic of the movie in a positive way from it’s more straightforward set-up.  Working again with with the same cinematographer of Interstellar and Dunkirk (Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan has managed to craft a movie that still feels akin to his previous work, but also unique enough in it’s own right to stand out.

Another great thing about the movie is just how solid the cast is.  Albeit, their characters are written as pretty flimsy compared to those from other Nolan films, but the cast makes up for that with strong, engaging performances.  In particular, John David Washington carries the weight of the movie perfectly on his shoulders.  His character is such a blank slate on the script that Nolan didn’t even bother to give him a name, just merely calling him the Protagonist.  And yet, Washington stands out by giving a wonderfully charismatic performance.  He can be charming, authoritative, and even vulnerable throughout the film, and I get the feeling that Nolan left much of the development of the character up to the interpretation of the actor who plays him, and thankfully Washington brought a lot of talent into the role.  He’s also supported very well by Robert Pattinson in another departure for the heartthrob actor.  Pattinson’s performance feels like a throwback to the roles once played by Peter O’Toole, Robert Harris, or loyal Nolan stand-by Michael Caine (who cameos in Tenet) in the old espionage thrillers of the 1960’s, and he too does stand out as much more likable than he might have been originally written.  Kenneth Branagh gives the movie it’s most over the top performance as a growling, Russian thug, but this too feels at home in a movie like this, and he makes for an effective antagonist to John David Washington’s Protagonist.  There’s also solid work coming from Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Himesh Patel in their supporting roles.  What I also found rewarding was the pulse-pounding musical score for this film, which in itself marks a departure for Christopher Nolan.  For the first time in nearly 20 years, Nolan is working without his frequent composer Hans Zimmer, who actually turned this down to work on Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune (2020) instead.  So, in his place, Nolan turned to Ludwig Goransson; famous for his Oscar-winning score to Black Panther (2018).  And Goransson actually proved to be capable of filling Zimmer’s big shoes, and create a musical symphony that matches Nolan’s bold vision perfectly.

It may not be among my favorite of Christopher Nolan’s films, but a B-grade Nolan movie is still far better than most other movies out there.  Nolan may have become a victim of his own success, in that he has to hit one out of the park every time in order to maintain his reputation in Hollywood.  That’s why I think that many may end up being disappointed by Tenet.  It finds the director at his most uneven, particularly at the script level.  And yet at the same time, you can’t also say that he’s lost his touch when it comes to crafting mind-blowing scale within his movies either.  Though it may lack some narrative punch, Tenet may also be the director’s most ambitious movie to date, which is saying a lot.  He really is pushing the envelope in a way you see from few directors in the business, and I am happy to see that he’s continuing to build his artistic vision around more and more original concepts.  He’s working within a familiar genre, yes, but doing so in a way that you’ve never seen before.  Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever seen a movie that utilizes the different flows of time the same way we see here.  I think that Tenet is going to see a lot of repeat viewing from people wanting to see all the things they missed the first time around.  That could be the key to Tenet finding success on the big screen, but that’ll all depend on the kind of access audiences will have to endure during this ongoing pandemic.  For me, I may not have understood all of it, and may have found some of the movie lacking in certain aspects, but I am glad that I managed to see it at all, and in a movie theater setting no less.  Part of my enjoyment certainly came from being able to sit in a theater seat again, after having missed out on it for 6 months.  There really is no replacement for the theatrical experience, and I hope that it comes roaring back soon.  I would absolutely go see this movie again, if it were closer to home.  Hopefully I can see it in the even better 70mm IMAX format when it comes to LA finally.  When that happens, or if you are already near an open theater, obey the guidelines and wear a mask.  Tenet is flawed, but it is still an enjoyable ride nonetheless, and a great reminder of why we need to keep the theatrical experience going.

Rating: 8.5/10

The New Mutants – Review

Few movies have had the kind of roller coaster like roll out that The New Mutants has had.  After years of delays, cancellations, and speculation as to if it ever was going to be seen at all, Mutants has finally made it into theaters and on PVOD this weekend.  So, why did it take so long?  A lot of factors have led us here.  The movie is based on a spin-off comic from the X-Men franchise, created by comic writers Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod.  It was green-lit in 2015 by 20th Century Fox studios, with Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) attached to write and direct.  The production was intended to branch off from the main X-Men movie franchise, taking a decidedly darker and more horror like tone, which is in line with the comic itself.  The production wrapped filming in 2017, with an intended release date set for Summer 2018.  And then something happened that I’m sure no one involved with the film probably ever expected.  Fox was suddenly put up for sale, which caused a major disruption in the release calendar for the studio.   And when Disney emerged as the victor in the bidding war for the legendary studio, this made it extra awkward for The New Mutants, because it’s very existence conflicts with the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe plans.  Fox had been holding onto the rights to their Marvel properties throughout the 2010’s and were attempting to compete with Marvel Studios with their own franchise plans with the characters they had.  With Fox and Disney now part of the same company, Fox’s haphazard attempt at franchise building now seemed superfluous and pointless.  The X-Men franchise as we knew it was pretty much over, and whatever movies were left in the pipeline were basically just going to be epilogues to a now dead series, waiting for it’s inevitable re-imagining under Marvel’s guidance.

But, with The New Mutants already complete and ready to launch, some held out hope that it might still be given a chance to stand out on it’s own, separate from it’s place within Fox’s X-Men franchise.  Unfortunately for it, the last X-Men film, Dark Phoenix (2019), crashed and burned at the box office and was blasted by critics.  This came at a point where New Mutants was already pushed back by last minute re-shoots, presumably to film a new ending for the movie.  After Dark Phoenix‘s problems emerged, Mutants was pushed back again, going from a Summer 2019 to Spring of 2020, a full two years after the movie was originally supposed to be released.  Some were even speculating that Disney may have ended up deciding to dump the movie off on demand or on Disney+, instead of letting it play in theaters.  But, for a while earlier this year, it actually looked like the movie would finally see the light of day.  And then the pandemic happened.  New Mutants, like so many other films this year (big and small), was scuttled off of it’s April release date and was at one point not even on the calendar at all.  Without a set release date, many believed that this was indeed the final nail in the coffin for this horribly unlucky film.  But, to everyone’s surprise, Disney still committed to a theatrical release of the film.  Who know’s why, especially after deciding to put Mulan (2020) on Disney+.  Maybe it was a strange clause left in as part of the Fox merger, but there’s no definitive answer.  Despite many pockets of the pandemic still raging on in parts of the country, movie theaters are beginning to slowly re-open with strict social distancing protocols.  And to everyone’s surprise, The New Mutants is going to be one of the first movies to mark the return to theaters, with the potential of being the first box office hit of the reopening era.  The only question is, was it worth all the wait and trouble to get here?

The story begins with a young Native American girl named Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finding her reservation community under attack by a monster of unknown origin.  She looses her father (Adam Beach) in the attack and later is knocked unconscious.  When she wakes up, she finds herself in a gloomy looking hospital, where she meets Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga).  Dr. Reyes informs Dani that she has been brought to this hospital because when she was discovered after the attack, it was shown that she possessed mutant powers, similar to the X-Men.  However, Dani is told that her powers are far too powerful and dangerous at the moment, and that she’s been brought to the hospital for safety reasons and also to help her learn how to control it.  At first Dani is skeptical of her new home, but once she begins to interact with the other teenage mutants on the compound, she feels less afraid.  The other “new mutants” include Raine Sinclair (Maisie Williams) who can transform herself into a wolf; Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who is able to launch his body like a rocket, but hasn’t learned how to land; Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can teleport and also summon weapons from her own body; and also Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga) who can set his whole body on fire.  Each of them has had a traumatic experience involving their powers just like Dani, which has brought them to this facility in the hopes of improving or even “curing” their powers.  However, the forces behind Dr. Reyes’ research may have other plans for the new mutants, and it be far more sinister that previously thought.  And pretty soon, the silent tranquility of the compound is broken by the arrival of the same mysterious beast that attacked Dani’s reservation; a massive Demon Bear.

So, how is this movie going to fare during a pandemic?  It depends on where it’s playing.  It will almost certainly not perform as well as it normally would under normal circumstances, but at the same time, the movie has garnered attention for it’s troubled history, which may drive curiosity up for it that it otherwise would’ve not had.  The movie is playing on screens in theaters in as many as 44 states that have since lifted their shut downs and allowed theaters to reopen.  However, I unfortunately live in a state (California) that is still on lock-down and has yet to allow theater re-openings.  It’s still a situation that I can support, because health of the customer must come first and foremost, but also disappointing because I do miss going to a movie theater and enjoying movies the way they were meant to be seen, especially when other places are already making that possible.  Disney has made The New Mutants available on VOD rental services, but I felt that I still needed to watch it on a big screen in order to really judge it properly.  Thankfully, there was one screen in the whole of the Los Angeles metro area that had New Mutants playing on it; at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, CA, which I previously spotlighted here.   Drive-In theaters have been a godsend for me during this pandemic, as they have allowed me to still enjoy a big screen experience without having to suffer the health risks.  The choices of films have been slim, but when one I’m interested in comes available at these facilities, I will gladly choose it over video on demand any day.  I will say, watching the movie there was a great choice because there is something magical about watching a movie under the moon and stars.  The only question is, was the movie itself worth it.  Sad to say, not really.  My feelings overall about The New Mutants are a mixed bag, but the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s just generic and mediocre.

Overall, I would say that The New Mutants is not the worst thing I have seen from a super hero movie, and definitely no where near the worst that I’ve seen from the now defunct Fox X-Men franchise.  Dark Phoenix was just an embarrassment for the once proud franchise, and a terrible note to go out on.  The best thing that New Mutants does is that it closes the door on this version of the X-Men series with a less sour finale.  But apart from that, there isn’t much else to say that’s positive.  It’s more competently made than Dark Phoenix, but still unfocused when it comes to tone and character.  For a movie that was trying to put a horror spin on the X-Men universe, it’s not a particularly scary movie.  It’s clear that something went wrong during the production of the movie, whether it was studio interference or just a lack of vision on the director’s part.  Josh Boone emerged as a filmmaker with a surprise hit in the doomed romance movie that was The Fault in Our Stars.  For him to go from that to the pseudo-horror of New Mutants seemed like a bit of a stretch, and it turns out that ended up being the case.  Boone just borrows wholesale from other claustrophobic horror movies and just ends up making it feel cliche as a result.  I’ve seen many of these same tropes work better in other movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), IT (2017), and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) which this movie also borrows heavily from.  And it becomes very clear that the last minute re-shoots were done in part to dilute the horror elements and make the movie more like a standard Marvel action movie, particularly in it’s final act.  You’ll be spending most of the time watching this movie thinking about better films of it’s genre, and that’s never something you want a movie to be doing while you watch it.  That being said, it’s blandness in some ways shields it from being anything worse.  Like I said, Dark Phoenix not only failed, it failed on an almost legendarily bad way.  New Mutants doesn’t warrant the same kind of notorious reputation.  It’s just good enough to be passable and just bad enough to be forgettable.

One of the things that really defines the mixed results of the movie can definitely be found in it’s cast.  One thing that I do appreciate about the movie is that it keeps things very simple.  The cast in this movie is actually quite small for a franchise film, and it allows the movie to better use it’s time to establish each character without losing them within the shuffle.  The only problem is, the lack of direction on these actors is very apparent.  There is a ton of overacting clashing with under-acting between each performance, and it leads to a fairly uneven ensemble throughout the movie.  I’ll say that one of the bright spots of the movie is newcomer Blu Hunt in the role of Dani Moonstar.  She manages to keep the character engaging enough as the protagonist to keep us interested in her story.  I also like the performance of Alice Braga as Dr. Reyes, who manages to fill the antagonistic role well enough without taking it over the top.  The best performance overall I would say comes from Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton, who manages to perfect a believable Kentucky fried accent in his performance as Sam Guthrie, giving you no indication of his real British accent underneath.  The same can’t be said about the other Brits in the cast.  I believe that Maisie Williams is attempting to do a Scottish accent as Raine Sinclair, but it slips constantly throughout the film.  And Anya Taylor-Joy’s attempt at a Russian accent is just laughable.  And it’s a shame, because I’ve seen these two actresses do so much better in other roles; especially with Maisie Williams whose understated performance here is such a far cry from her beloved work on Game of Thrones.  For the most part, these distracting attempts at different accents take away from the potential character development that these actors might have been able to pull off.  And the movie doesn’t do them any favors either with some poorly edited scenes that are meant to build the characters’ relationships together.

The movie also is visually rather bland.  I’ll give the movie credit for keeping things simple, with a single location used for most of the movie.  But, when it gets to the point where the movie needs to bring out some visual effects, it becomes clear just how neglected this movie was overall.  The visual effects in this movie are pretty bad, and definitely not up to the standard that you’d expect from a movie of this genre.  Every creature that manifests in the movie looks like it jumped out of a video game, and doesn’t feel natural at all.  At other points, like when Sam Guthrie attempts to practice his rocket launching powers, the movie literally makes it look like a cartoon; like he’s spinning around like Wile E. Coyote on one of his failed contraptions.  The best effects are the ones that are kept either at a minimum or hidden in the shadows.  The Demon Bear works effectively when you see less of it, but once we finally see him in his full monstrous glory, oh boy does it deflate the tension fast.  The only thing that I think that Josh Boone and his team get close to right is the atmosphere of the film.  The movie is shot in a way that does convey an unsettling mood, even if it doesn’t entirely make it feel creepy.  There is some creativity in the way that the movie executes the feeling of a repressive atmosphere in which these characters live in, like the blank stone walls of each of their cell rooms, and the ever present cameras that stare down on the characters from above.  Indeed, the movie actually does an effective job in it’s first act of not revealing too much right away and allowing the atmosphere to convey to the audience the feeling of oppression and menace into the story.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to that potential, and the longer it goes on the less you feel the movie’s atmosphere working the way it should.

As poorly as the final product has turned out, there’s still a part of me that kind of admires what the movie has accomplished.  It reminds me of those times when you see a track runner either pull a muscle or break an ankle halfway through their race, and yet they pull themselves up and hobble their way to the finish line regardless, just so that they could say they finished it.  It’s those kinds of moments, adversity in a moment of complete disaster, that carry their own kind of inspiration with them.  The New Mutants was a movie that was probably always going to never live up to expectations and was going to be forgotten like so many other disappointments.  And yet, there is something inspiring in how it managed to defy the odds and still get a theatrical release.  The story about this movie’s troubled road to the big screen may far go down as far more legendary than the movie itself.  Despite being caught in the turbulent shuffle of a corporate merger and then once again placed back on the shelf due to a historic pandemic, The New Mutants still managed to make it to the big screen, and that in some way makes it a triumph of perseverance that we can all feel inspired by.  Unfortunately, the movie itself is a mess, and not really warranting of the hype that has surrounded it’s release.  But at the same time, it’s not an embarrassment either.  For a movie that is just a stray remnant of a now defunct franchise, it does work as a better final bow than Dark Phoenix.  Who knows, in time the movie may find a second life as a stand alone oddity, but I think that the movie is a little uneven to warrant that.  As it stands, I’m happy that the movie managed to escape it’s notoriously troubled shelf life and actually make it to the big screen.  A mediocre movie, that surprisingly carved out it’s own inspirational journey that’s far more intriguing than the movie itself.  Will it be the movie that saves movie-going overall?  I doubt it, since there is still a raging pandemic right now, and this is definitely not a movie to spark repeat viewing.  But, the fact that it’s made it to the big screen at all given all the circumstances makes me hopeful that the industry itself is still looking at the theatrical experience as an integral part of the business going forward.  If New Mutants can make it to the finish line, any movie can.

Rating: 6/10

Hamilton: The Musical – Review

It’s the Fourth of July; the celebration of America’s founding that continues to be a unifying moment in time for Americans from all walks of life.  Traditionally we celebrate with parades, fireworks and outdoor activities and barbecues.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has put a halt to most of our traditional celebratory events, as social distancing remains crucial to stopping the spread of the disease.  Couple this with a political climate that is at it’s most divisive that we’ve seen in quite a while, and many people are questioning if such a celebration is worth it in this time in our history.  Though it won’t stop people from spending modest 4th of July caterings with their small collective family and friends, cooking on a barbecue and launching a few fireworks, some of the bigger expressions of American patriotism are going to be noticeably muted this year.  That’s not to say there isn’t a lot still out there to help boost the patriotic spirit of the national holiday.  There are literally dozens of films and television specials devoted to celebrating the Spirit of America, and they all come in a canvas of different shades that reflects the diverse character that is America today.  Whether it’s with watching a gritty war film like Patton (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), or an inspiring underdog story like Rocky (1976), or a passionate cry for justice like Selma (2014), you can find so many movies out there that shows us the soul of America, and it’s unique place in the world.  Even musical theater can grant us that special feeling of patriotic pride with the stories that it tells in song about the progress of America.  Much of the great American songbook takes it’s selections from the Broadway stage, including from shows that make it a point to tell the story of America itself.  The show 1776 did exactly that in another divisive period of time like right now, with Vietnam and Watergate dominating discourse, and told a compelling story of America’s independence.  In this time of division, we need another musical to again lift up our patriotic spirit, and thankfully, that has finally come straight into our living rooms.

Hamilton: The Musical premiered on the Broadway stage in 2015 to overwhelming acclaim and record-breaking box office.  The brainchild of musical virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  Miranda was inspired to write and produce the musical after reading a biography on the historical figure by historian and author Ron Chernow.  Within it, Miranda saw a story of an underdog immigrant who would go on to be one of the men who shaped America into what it is, a theme that resonated with the son of Puerto Rican-Americans who lived through their own immigrant experience.  What it compelling about Lin-Manuel’s adaptation is that he set out to tell the story of America’s founding with a cast and style of music that is reflective of America today.  Every role, with the exception of King George, is played by a person of color, which offers up a fascinating new perspective on figures enshrined in our history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and of course Hamilton himself.  Miranda would fill the title role himself, and the score was filled with the same Hip Hop and R&B melodies that he used to great effect in his Tony-Award winning debut, In the Heights.  Hamilton far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and was heralded as an instant classic, winning everything from Tony’s, to Grammy’s, to even a Pulitzer.  Naturally Hollywood would come a calling, but Lin-Manuel has resisted bringing the production to the silver screen just yet, stating that he wants to show to live on the stage for while.  However, he did give in to having a filmed version of the stage show, helping to bring the show to the masses without paying an arm and a leg for the ticket price.  But, what comes as a major chock to everyone is who he granted the rights to over everyone else: The Walt Disney Company.

Hamilton: The Film remains pretty much in tact from how it was first performed on Broadway when it opened.  Lin-Manuel Miranda and most of the original cast had moved on after nearly a year of performing, but they returned for a week long engagement in late 2016 for the purpose of filming this specific version.  An extra special treat for everyone who lucked out in getting a ticket to those exclusive shows, but having the show be filmed as it’s meant to be seen (performed on a stage in front of an audience) also grants the filmed version a level of authenticity that can’t be replicated in a movie studio.  The play covers the defining years of Alexander Hamilton’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) life.  We see him in his early years fresh out of school where he would meet several men who would leave an impact on his life; John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and most profoundly Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).  They all join the war for independence, serving under the command of General George Washington (Chris Jackson), who helps lead them and the new nation to victory;  much to the consternation of pompous King George of England (Jonathan Groff).  In the middle of service, Hamilton meets the wealthy Schuyler Sisters; Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  Though Angelica and Alexander develop a long standing bond, it’s ultimately Eliza who wins his heart and ends up wedding him.  After the Revolution, Washington is made President of the new nation and he asks Hamilton to join his cabinet.  However, Hamilton faces a new rivalry with Washington’s other cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Diggs and Onaodowan again, respectively).  All the while, Aaron Burr continues to advance politically, becoming ever more resentful of Hamilton along the way.

For a lot of people, having the chance to finally see the show in it’s entirety after so many years is a godsend, especially with it’s premiere falling on the 4th of July weekend where everyone is stuck at home.  During the show’s heyday, ticket prices would rise up into the hundreds and even thousands.  Not only that, but demand was so high, that waiting lists would stretch beyond a year for some people.  Even the touring version in select cities sold out well in advance, which just shows you how much of a cultural touchstone this musical was for many people.  Though many couldn’t get into the show, there was still the album that was made available around the same time, which gives the listener a piece of the experience as the entire show is sung through entirely.  And everyone, having watched the show or not, became familiar with it’s music.  Even still, demand remains high for watching the show as it’s intended to be seen, live on a stage, and I for one have tried to make that my own personal goal.  I struck out the first time that Hamilton came through Los Angeles on it’s first national tour in 2017.  Luckily, another tour quickly made it’s way back to So Cal, and I managed to snag a ticket for it, and at a reasonable price as well.  The musical was going to be staged at the legendary Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, right in the center of Tinseltown.  I made it my own personal mission to make my first exposure to this musical phenomenon as a live theater experience.  I never listened to the soundtrack, and I refrained from watching even the briefest of video teases.  I wanted to experience the play without any preconceived expectations and just let the show speak for itself in it’s intended venue.  Unfortunately, those plans did not pan out.  The Pantages closed its doors mere days before the show’s run was about to begin in accordance with social distancing guidelines.  Since my ticket was only a week or two later, it didn’t take long for that to get cancelled as well, for which I did receive a full refund.  So, when I learned that the show would be made available to watch on Disney+ this weekend, it came as a mixed blessing.  Yes, I could finally see the show in it’s entirety, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be getting that intimate live experience either.  Even still, I had to give it a watch to finally understand what all the hype has been about.

Believe me, this show comes with extremely high expectations, and a part of me worried that it may not live up to the hype that I’ve been hearing about for the last 5 years.  But, after now having watched Hamilton for the first time, I can definitely say that the hype is indeed justified.  No matter what format it’s presented in, on the stage or on the screen, Hamilton is a masterwork.  For one thing, it appeals greatly to my interest in History.  I always admire the way that filmmakers and stage directors can bring historical events to life and make us feel like we are witnessing them in action.  With Hamilton, the thing that struck me was just how incredibly well they are able to convey this epic story of the American Revolution and it’s founding fathers, with such a minimalist set.  There are no extravagant backdrops or flat-board set pieces that the actors interact with.  All that we see is a single wood scaffolding across the stage on which all the moments of the show are staged within.  Following the Brechtian style of minimalist theater, the lack of a literal set puts more emphasis on the performances, and through the actors, we are given the full breadth of the story.  I even admired how the show doesn’t even use a curtain to hide the stage between Acts or before and after the show.  It’s all up to the actors, the costume department, and the incredible lighting to deliver a sense of the story’s epic scope.  To the filmed version’s credit, it captures this craftsmanship perfectly, and gives the viewer at home a good sense of what they would see if this show was performed live in front of them.  Indeed, given that Lin-Manuel Miranda supervised this filmed version himself, he was granted the creative freedom to recreate the stage show nearly as complete as he possibly could.  Considering it went to Disney, however, he did have to make a compromise to bring it to a PG-13 rating.  As he put it himself, he literally gave Disney two F’s, as the four letter word can only be used once to retain that more family friendly rating.

Also, it’s interesting that Disney of all people won out in landing Hamilton.  In a way it does make sense; Lin-Manuel has had a strong working relationship with the studio since the premiere of Hamilton, having written songs for the movie Moana (2016), as well as performing a lead role in Mary Poppins Returns (2018).  He also has a yet to be fully detailed animated film in the works with the studio which he supposedly has a chief creative investment in.  So I guess it only made sense for him to give his blockbuster musical a home at Disney as well.  Originally, the musical was to screen in theaters nationwide this fall in a limited engagement, but with the pandemic changing everyone’s plans, Disney instead opted to move the premiere of Hamilton to Disney+, with a special 4th of July weekend launch.  It’s a shame that the theatrical experience had to be lost too, but even still, putting it on their streaming platform works to both build hype for the show as well as for Disney+ in general.  Really, for right now, it is the only venue on which the show can be seen, as Broadway has shut it’s doors for the remainder of the year, which the Pantages in Hollywood is likely going to follow in suit.  What I will say about watching the show for the first time in this way is that it hasn’t deterred me from wanting to see it staged live.  Sure, I have lost my chance of experiencing it for the first time as it was meant to be seen, but this comes as a fine alternative.  In fact, now I have something to contrast with once I do see the show live finally.  It’s kind of like how watching the movie version of something like Les Miserables or The Sound of Music differs greatly from how it’s performed on stage.  Sure those are movies, and Hamilton is a film of a stage performance, which is different.  But, you don’t see edits or crane shots on a stage.  Witnessing it in that respect may offer a different experience entirely once I finally attend a performance.

As far as the show itself as it appears on film, the experience is exhilarating.  You come in close to the actors in a way that you certainly wouldn’t get in the theater; even if you were sitting in the front row.  The subtleties that the actors work out in their performances really come through in their close-ups, and you have to marvel at just how much work they put into their facial gestures that probably wouldn’t register to all those people sitting up in the nosebleed sections of the theater.  Lin-Manuel of course is stellar as Hamilton himself, balancing all the complexities of this extremely complex man.  You have to wonder where he found the energy to write, orchestrate, and craft a performance all at the same time during the production of this musical.  Many of the other actors excel as well, especially the ones playing dual roles.  Daveed Diggs really shines in a Tony winning performance as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.  His flamboyant Jefferson may even be the highlight of the entire show.  I was also impressed with Phillipa Soo’s soulful portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, whose own story shines through in the narrative, giving her a historical spotlight that up until now has largely passed her by.  And of course the music is every bit as perfect as you’d expect.  It’s one thing to listen to it, but it’s another to see how it’s performed by the actors onstage.  The music is playful, heartbreaking, inspirational, and passionate, but above all else, it is daring.  You would’ve thought that telling the story of America’s founding with hip hop and rap was possibly sacrilege, but in the hands of a skilled artist like Lin-Maunel, it’s a perfect match.  The cabinet debates are perfectly re-framed as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, and it brings new life to the actual arguments that these great thinkers who built our nation put forth.  Whatever creative spark Lin-Manuel received when reading from Chernow’s book proved to be a stroke of genius captured in a bottle.  A hip hop musical about the most unlikely of founding fathers for this nation; it was a match made in heaven.

What is great now is that Hamilton is no longer an experience exclusive to the super rich or the super lucky; it belongs to anyone with access to a $7/month Disney+ subscription, where they can enjoy it for as many times as they desire.  For less than the value of the currency that Hamilton’s face currently is enshrined ($10 bill), the musical Hamilton is now available to be seen by literally millions across the globe.  And this film version also gives us the treat of seeing the show with it’s original complete cast.  Many of the performers have since moved on from the show; some following in Lin-Manuel’s footsteps and making it out to Hollywood to pursue a film career.  With this filmed version, their iconic performances will be forever enshrined.  I do give Disney a lot of credit for pursuing this for their platform, even with it’s more adult themed subject matter and language.  Even with some of the edits they made, the show remains around 99% in tact, and given the more family-friendly rating, it actually helps to make this more palatable for younger audiences.  We may even see this filmed version of the play shown in classrooms in the years ahead.  For right now, with the 4th celebrations being scaled down so much to keep families close to home this holiday, this premiere of the musical couldn’t be more welcome.  Hopefully, watching this show again may become a new tradition for many Americans.  I was really happy to have not been disappointed now that I’ve gotten my first taste of the musical itself.  I get all the hype now, and recognize that it was all very much justified.  I still wish that I had been able to see the show live in person first earlier this year, but that’s a choice that was completely out of my hands once the pandemic spiraled out of control.  I hope to revisit Hamilton again soon; both live and on the small screen.  For anyone with a Disney+ account right now, don’t miss your shot and watch it right now.  Happy Fourth everyone, and stay safe and healthy.

Rating: 8.5/10

Da 5 Bloods – Review

We definitely are living in a strange time right now.  The pandemic has kept us stuck at home for months now, with movie theaters remaining shuttered.  There is a light at the end of that tunnel, with theaters starting to be reopened this month, albeit at a much lower capacity.  But in the meantime, people have been turning to streaming services for fresh entertainment as an alternative, and that’s driving more attention to movies and shows premiering on those platforms than they might have had otherwise.  While this is all happening, America is also in the middle of a profound call for justice, with protests happening across the nation in response to killings at the hands of law enforcement.  The confluence of both the pandemic and the nationwide social unrest has shaken up the country in a way that we haven’t seen in several generations.  The fact that both are going on at the same time is making a lot of people broaden their perceptions about society, and that is reflecting greatly on the culture itself right now.  Just this week, we saw the newly launched HBO Max service pull Gone With the Wind off of it’s platform in a temporary move meant to re-deliver the film with more consideration to it’s historical context.  This of course led to an uproar about censorship, but it also led to a reckoning with the film industry about what kind of responsibility they hold with regards to the depictions and representations of people of color that extend throughout it’s history.  As I said, it’s a time of great turbulence both in society as a whole, but also with regards to the movie industry itself, and the media that we currently consume.  Now, if only a movie were to be released today that both deals head on with the social issues of the day while also bringing more of an audience to streaming content.  It would certainly be the right movie for this particular moment.

Enter the one and only Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of cinema’s most consistent provocative voices over the last four decades.  Though he started off strong in his career with the now iconic one-two punch of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), his movies in the years since have rarely reached that same lofty level.  His movies have either ranged from too mainstream (2006’s Inside Man) to too small to be recognized (2012’s Red Hook Summer).  But recently, Spike has seen something of a mid career resurgence.  This was due to a movie that clicked with audiences and also felt true to the director’s sensibilities that was apparent from his earliest work.  BlackKklansman (2018) was a real return to form for Spike Lee; provocative, biting, but also infused with a sense of humanity and a witty sense of humor.  It was Spike finding that fine line between making the movie that he wanted to make and having it match exactly what audiences wanted to see.  And the result gave him his biggest box office hit in decades, as well as his very first ever Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Certainly with the wind in his sails after BlackKklansman, Spike was ready to take on another project that satisfied his artistic and political sensibilities.  And thankfully, he found that avenue in a creative partnership with Netflix.  Not only would he be adapting one of his earliest films, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) into a series for the streamer, but he got Netflix to also bankroll what may be one of his most ambitious films to date; a Vietnam War epic called Da 5 Bloods.  This new film couldn’t have premiered at a more opportune time for Lee and Netflix, with race relations becoming such a hot button issue these last few weeks and the pandemic bringing a larger audience to streaming content.  It’s a movie that I think is perfect to review right now, and also because I don’t want to write a whole review on the disaster that is Artemis Fowl on Disney+.  So, does Da 5 Bloods continue Spike Lee’s hot streak or is the director losing his touch again.

Da 5 Bloods could be considered a Vietnam War movie, but only in the sense of looking at the long term after effects of the prolonged conflict.  Most of the movie takes place in the present day, as the last surviving members of an all black unit of soldiers called Da Bloods are reunited in a return trip to Vietnam.  Da Bloods have returned to the now peaceful country under the pretense of a vacation, but their real purpose for the trip is to retrieve something they left behind 50 years prior; a stash of solid gold bricks they found in the wreckage of a down plane in the Vietnam jungle.  Now, much older and having been haunted by their experiences over the years, Da Bloods must retrace their steps through the jungle in order to find the treasure they left behind.  Those soldiers include Otis (Clarke Peters), the mild-mannered orchestrator of the mission who finds out he left more behind in Vietnam than he realized; Eddie (Norm Lewis), the semi-successful troop veteran who is bankrolling their trip; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the group’s fun loving party animal; and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the MAGA-hat wearing, ultra conservative hot head who left Nam a changed person.  Before they go on their mission, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, having figured out what they are really up to.  In order to keep their mission a secret, the reluctantly have David accompany them, claiming an equal share.  As they make their way back to the gold, memories come flashing back to them about their years stuck in the jungle fighting in a war they never really believed in.  And many of their memories recall their beloved commander, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who made them all believe in themselves through hard times, and who they also had to leave behind in the jungle with the gold.  Once they find their treasure, and the remains of their commander, there is only one problem that remains, how do they make it back home in a country where the scars of war still run deep.

Da 5 Bloods is definitely not the kind of movie you’d expect right away.  Though it does show us glimpses of the Vietnam War in action throughout, it’s primarily about the aftermath of war and how some wounds never heal.  And in the hands of Spike Lee, it tackles even more far reaching issues with regards to race.  The movie was adapted by Spike Lee and his BlackKklansman collaborator Kevin Willmott from an earlier screenplay written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, and no doubt much of what was added to the script was a stronger examination of the racial factor within the story.  You can really feel the Spike Lee touch in this movie, and that in itself is what makes the movie work as well as it does.  To be honest, I for one believe Da 5 Bloods is one of Spike Lee’s best films ever; probably even the best he’s made since Malcolm X.  This movie is Spike working on all cylinders and it is magnificent.  It’s visually daring, it’s unapologetic in it’s messaging, and it is most importantly a compelling story of these diverse characters.  You can see his imprint all over the movie, whether it’s the way that he intercuts still photography into a scene, or the way he has his characters interact with each other in a shared humanity way, or with just the boldness of the way he frames and blocks his shots.  The movie starts out with a rundown of how both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were happening simultaneously in America, and how the two pivotal upheavals left their mark on black people who were fighting abroad.  This is a theme that Spike drives home throughout the movie, because we come to understand how each of these characters were shaped by the reality of fighting for a country that treated them as less than human and what in the long run they should be owed, both as people and as soldiers.

What I think is Spike Lee’s most interesting message in the film is the different ways that time has changed things since the war, and how some things never changed at all.  The men return to a Vietnam that is peaceful and serene, and welcoming to them despite all the killing they did there years before.  By contrast, it’s a country that seems to have moved on from the horrors of it’s past, while Da Bloods are living in a country where history keeps repeating itself; where black people are still struggling for equality despite some of the progress made.  The scars of the past are not right in front of them, but buried deep, like the land mines that still litter the land.  As Spike keeps reminding us throughout the movie, the split between what you owe your country and what the country owes you in return becomes this almost insurmountable divide.  Duty and Honor feels almost like making a pact with the devil.  And yet, through the memories that they share with each other about Stormin’ Norman, they keep their moral compass set towards staying true to their mission.  But, as Norman has become more distant as a memory, so is their bond to themselves.  The character of Paul in particular brings this theme out the most within the narrative.  I find it so interesting that Spike made Paul a Trump-supporting, ultra Patriot in his post Vietnam life.  That change seems so far removed from where the character should be, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of how far gone he has been post-war.  He’s turned so self-destructive that he’ll back the least likely politician to listen to his grievances, showing how much faith he has lost in the entire system.  The other Bloods have in their own ways have found some semblance of peace, but Paul never left the War behind; his whole life has been centered around finding more and more conflicts.  And that is the tragic element that Spike Lee perfectly encapsulates in the profound story of these characters.

And speaking more about the character of Paul, I feel that he is going to be the thing that most people are going to take away from this movie.  He is one of the most fascinating characters that I’ve seen brought to the screen in recent years.  Certainly the way he is written by Spike Lee is a big part of what makes him so captivating, but it’s actor Delroy Lindo who really makes Paul shine as a character.  Lindo has been a consistently reliable character actor for decades, but has never up to now been granted anything close to a leading man part.  This is a fantastic, tour-de-force performance from the veteran actor and should earn him a whole lot more attention after this.  He at the very least should be on everyone’s short list for an Academy Award nomination next year (if we do have the Oscars next year, hopefully).  One of my absolute favorite parts of the movie is a monologue delivered by Lindo as he treks his way through the jungle brush, with his face right in the camera staring directly at us.  It’s a powerful moment, and is something that only Spike Lee as a director can pull off, with Delroy giving it his all.  Though he is the stand-out character, the remaining ensemble cast are no slouches either.  Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Jonathan Majors all contribute stellar performances in the movie, and they are so believable as these characters, that you almost feel like they have indeed fight together in Vietnam.  It’s to Spike Lee’s credit that he didn’t go with A-List actors for these roles; any other studio might have pressured him to add Denzel Washington or Samuel L. Jackson to the roles.  The fact that these characters are played by relative unknowns is a great asset to the movie because it allows us to know the characters, and not be distracted by the fact that their played by a movie star.  The only blockbuster name in the movie is Chadwick Boseman, who works very well in his supporting role of Stormin’ Norman.  It might be jarring sometimes to see Black Panther in army fatigues, but whenever he’s on screen, he still commands his moments and gives you a good sense of why these old soldiers look back on their fallen comrade with such affection.

I also have to point out how artistically satisfying the movie is.  In an interesting move, Spike Lee lays around with aspect ratios in different parts of the film.  When we see Da Bloods first arriving in Vietnam and experiencing the contemporary changes that have happened since they were last there, the movie is framed cinematically in an anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  When we see flashbacks to the combat days, the movie shifts to a restrictive 4:3 ratio, as well as a grainy 16 mm look.  And then, in the last half of the movie, where the men enter the jungle to find the gold, the movie changes to a opened-up 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  It’s an interesting artistic choice that I felt really helped to separate the different parts of the movie in an interesting way.  It seems like when he wants to use the wider aspect ratio, it’s in the scenes that feel more cinematic, like a mainstream Hollywood movie.  When it’s in the Academy standard 4:3, it’s to emulate the feel of actual wartime footage taken in the midst of the conflict.  And when he uses the 1.85 ratio, it’s to make the movie feel more gritty, with more handheld, documentary style photography.  Naturally, like most other Spike Lee movies, Da 5 Bloods is awash with color.  He makes great use of the actual Vietnam locations that he was allowed to shoot within, although most of the jungle scenes were done in neighboring Thailand, due to the fact that the Vietnamese countryside is still a hot zone of un-triggered landmines.  Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, working with Spike for the first time, really captures a serene beauty to the Southeast Asian locations.  The color of the movie especially makes this film feel like Spike returning to form as a visual story-teller because I can’t recall a movie of his that used color this vividly since Do the Right Thing.  Even though it’s a Netflix movie, which means that you won’t find it playing on a big screen anytime soon, or ever, it’s still a bold, epic experience that you should seek out the biggest screen you can find to fully appreciate.

If you are already a Netflix subscriber, there’s really no reason why you should be passing this one over.  It is a remarkably profound story about race, war, trauma, and friendship that seems like the best possible movie we should be watching in this moment.  It’s pointed in it’s social messaging, but never preachy.  Spike knows first and foremost that this is a story about people, and it’s their story that drives the narrative, and not the larger issues at play.  What the movie represents most is Spike Lee transforming into the director he was always meant to be, but rarely was given the opportunity to achieve it.  I don’t think that he’s going to be a director that will only occasionally knock one out of the park, but will now have every one of his movies become an event worth celebrating; finally achieving the due recognition that his peers like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson always seem to receive.  He’s managed to deliver two masterpieces in a row with BlackKklansman and Da 5 Bloods, and I am eager to see what he has next in store.  The movie works so well not just as a reflection of one of the darkest conflicts in this country’s history, but also as a brilliant character study.  Delroy Lindo absolutely needs to remain in the conversation for an Oscar, and I’ll be very upset if he’s not given at least a nomination.  And for people right now looking for a film that examines the history of this country with regards to race, this movie will offer a valuable lesson on those who were tragically left behind in a war that should have brought them home honored for their service.  Even separated from this tumultuous moment in time, I think that this will be a movie well remembered in both Spike Lee’s larger body of work and as a compelling statement made within American cinema as a whole.  Bloods don’t die, they multiply.

Rating: 9/10

Scoob! – Review

It’s interesting how much change has been going on in Hollywood during a pandemic with regards to the way it’s able to roll out it’s new content.  With movie theaters remaining shuttered, at least up to now, Hollywood has had a revenue stream completely cut off, and it’s been leading them towards finding a different mode of distribution.  The streaming channels have provided one avenue, but it’s a area that hasn’t branched into the full market just yet as a sub-plant for the hole left behind by the closed theaters.  In the wake of the pandemic, some studios are trying out something different, which is Video On Demand rentals, where customers on video rental platforms like Amazon and Itunes can pay a full upfront price to rent or purchase the movie digitally.  Thus far, the studios have chosen to bypass the theaters altogether and opt for this VOD service instead to premiere a handful of new movies on.  This has caused great concern from the theater market, who see the move as a threat to their hopes of recovery after this pandemic.  AMC, the largest theater chain in the world and one of the hardest hit by the shutdown, even took action against Universal Studios for breaking from their distribution agreement by premiering Trolls World Tour (2020) on digital VOD without negotiating with them.  In retaliation, AMC is now banning all future Universal films from their theaters, with the Regal chain joining them in solidarity.  This spat between AMC and Universal however is not indicative of the industry as a whole.  Warner Brothers is likewise setting some of their movies for VOD distribution, but they took the extra measure of notifying the theater chains that this would be the case, and it’s helped to maintain their ongoing agreement in tact, which Warner will definitely need because they are the first ones up once the theaters reopen later this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 84 still scheduled for theatrical premieres.  But for now, they are in need of a boost on the VOD side, and they’re most hopeful bet this month is the animated film, Scoob!

The new movie is another in a long line of modern reboots of long-standing IP; in this case, the characters from Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo franchise.  Created by animation veterans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera during their successful run as producers of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s, Scooby Doo, Where are You? was an instant hit with the “flower power” generation, and it’s success would continue to propel a further blossoming of new shows from the Hanna Barbera studios for decades.  The only thing is, how do you make a product of it’s time resonate so many years later.  For Hanna Barbera, the key to success was always in maintaining a connection to the audience through the characters.  Thought the times would change, Scoody and his gang would remain true to their cores.  Scooby the lovable, mischievous talking dog, Shaggy his ever devoted clumsy friend, Fred the headstrong leader of their mystery solving gang, Daphne the empathetic optimist who would always lift everyone’s spirits, and Velma, who let’s face it, was honestly always too smart to be running around with all these goofballs, and solved most of the mysteries almost single-handedly.  The formula would remain the same throughout most of Scooby’s history, with the rag tag group discovering a super natural mystery involving ghost, monsters, or extra-terrestrials, and eventually uncovering the hoax behind them, usually with an unmasking on the real perpetrator.  The Scooby Doo cartoons have often been imitated and parodied, but the franchise itself has nevertheless maintained it’s popularity and has seen many updates throughout the years.  This year, they have made the jump to computer animation with Warner Brothers new film titled Scoob!  The only question remains is whether it’s a Scooby do or a Scooby don’t.

The story shows us the Scooby gang at it’s very beginnings, with Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker) meeting a young Shaggy (Iain Armitage) on the sandy shores of Venice Beach.  The two become instantly inseparable.   On the following Halloween, they meet three other children, Fred (Pierce Gagnon), Daphne (McKenna Grace) and Velma (Ariana Greenblatt), and venture into a supposed haunted house where they solve their first real mystery.  When they grow older, they decide to make their mystery solving business legit, but their investor has reservations about where Scooby and Shaggy (Will Forte) fit in, seeing them as a liability.  With Scooby and Shaggy sidelined, the gang of Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez) must continue their work on their own.  Shaggy and Scooby meanwhile are attacked by a mysterious horde of killer robots.  The duo are almost captured until a mysterious ship intercepts them.  They soon learn that it’s the Falcon Fury, the home base of Shaggy’s favorite super hero, the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his robotic canine companion Dynomutt (Ken Jeong).  They inform Shaggy and Scooby that the robot army had been sent by a villain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who is hunting down giant skulls belonging to the hell hound Cerberus in hopes of opening the gates to the Underworld, and Scooby it turns out is the key.  Scooby agrees to help out Blue Falcon and his crew, but his growing partnership with Falcon begins to put a strain on his friendship with Shaggy, who begins to feel unwanted and forgotten.  With Dick Dastardly’s sinister plan quickly taking form, and Scooby’s gang becoming increasingly splintered apart, the question remains if Scooby alone can be the hero everyone is telling him he should be.

Like I said earlier, this is not the first time Scooby has gone through an update to the present day.  A couple of live action films were made in the early 2000’s, written by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, of all people.  And there have been numerous new series revivals and direct to video movies made over the years as well.  This new version does the same as a lot of other recent animated adaptations of long dormant franchises have done, like Illumination’s Dr. Suess films and the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants CGI movie.  In the hopes of remaining relevant to an audience raised on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, Scooby inevitably was going to make the jump to 3D eventually, and that kind of transition certainly had the potential to work out.  Computer animation has certainly advanced to the point where you can create models of these characters that remain true to their original hand-drawn designs, and also still retain the Hanna Barbera style of simple, limited animation that made the original show so distinct.  There was never any doubt that a new Scooby Doo movie would look good in Computer Animation.  It’s just that, there needed to be care taken with the story in order to make it worth that effort.   Unfortunately, the movie falls well short in the story department.  There could have been two different directions that the filmmakers could have gone in updating Scooby Doo to the modern day; either making the story more sophisticated and reflective of our present day, or just throw in a lot of topical reference that will date the film horribly in a few years.  Unfortunately, Warner Brothers went with the latter and it really drags the movie down and in many ways kind of insults the legacy of the characters.

The thing that really stings is that the movie actually starts off strong, with the prologue showing the characters in their early years.  I actually thought the opening of this movie did a fine job of establishing the characters in a charming, heartfelt and quite funny way.  However, the movie quickly looses its footing once the characters grow into adults, and I think you can easily pinpoint the exact moment when the movie goes downhill, and that’s the moment an awkwardly shoehorned Simon Cowell cameo is thrown in.  From that moment on, the movie just becomes a steady stream of tired pop culture puns and break-neck pacing that gives the audience no time to settle.  I really wish that the remainder of the movie had maintained the easy-going pacing of the first 10 minutes or so.  I also think that the other big problem with the movie is that it completely abandons the Scooby Doo formula that has proven effective for over 50 years in favor of something that is more akin to a Marvel or DC superhero film.  And that just doesn’t fit with Scooby Doo.  There’s no mystery to uncover; we know who the bad guy is from the very beginning and there is no attempt at all to leave our heroes in the shadows.  We’ve honestly seen this story done a million times before and adding Scooby Doo to the mix gives us nothing new.  In fact, Scooby an the gang feel very out of place in this kind of story.  The lack of originality in the story is compounded even further by the tired use of pop culture references, which is basically animation’s emergency solution for covering-up the shortcomings of a lackluster script.  There are so many references thrown around to Netflix, Tinder, Hashtags, Harry Potter, and even dabbing.  And it doesn’t come off as funny; it just cries of desperation.  This is especially insulting for a movie adapting one of the more cleverly plotted series of it’s era.  It doesn’t help that one of the most notable marketing ploys used for the film was a cross promotion with the Tik Tok app, showing that the filmmakers was more interested in making this movie more pop culture savvy than narratively engaging.  Even the hip sounding abbreviated title Scoob! reeks of desperation.  Warner Brothers honestly shouldn’t have tried to reinvent the wheel on this one, because there is a reason why the formula for the show has been used for so many years; because it works, and abandoning it just takes away all the charm that it could have had.

The characters in the story particularly suffer because of this lack of identity.  I hate the fact that the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to split up the Scooby gang, because breaking them apart just robs the movie of all the character dynamics that could have been used to drive the humor in the movie.  I’m sorry, but Fred, Daphne and Velma on their own is not a terribly exciting bunch.  For some reason, they made Fred dumber than he ever was on the show as a way to fill in some of that missing comic relief that would have normally come from Shaggy and Scooby.  The voice acting from Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez is passable, but the movie always drags a bit more when it returns to their story-line.  Shaggy and Scooby do work out a bit better in their characterizations.  Veteran voice actor takes on the role of Scooby fairly well, filling in for the late Don Messick, and it’s kind of special that he is a part of this film, given that his career actually started on the original animated series.  Welker was the original voice of Fred Jones on the series, and that gig has since blossomed into a 50 year career in voice acting.  He even occasionally returns to the role of Fred for various projects, but more recently he has been the go to guy for Scooby Doo, and it’s good that Warner Brothers still honors that.  Will Forte, while not quite hitting that Casey Kasem tenor in the role of Shaggy, still manages to do an adequate job.  I did also get a couple chuckles out of Mark Wahlberg’s “aw shucks” performance as the dim witted Blue Falcon.  But, I definitely have to say that the movie is stolen by Jason Isaac’s over-the-top performance as Dick Dastardly.  He breathes much needed life into this film every time he is on screen, and is by far the best part of the movie.  It’s almost like Jason Isaacs was the only actor aware that he was making a cartoon and he gives a full camp performance worthy of the medium.  It’s just too bad that nothing else within the movie rises to that level.

The animation itself is also a mixed bag.  While the characters of Scooby and Shaggy do look on model compared to their original designs, the same does not hold up for most of the other characters.  The movie gives this strange plastic feel to the human characters that makes their models feel a little off.  This is especially noticeable in a character like Fred, who is the most visually different of all the original series characters in this movie.  It’s in that weird, uncanny valley area where the characters are slightly exaggerated to fit within the colorful cartoony world, but also grounded in a more life-like physicality that just doesn’t mix well together.  The worst example of this occurs when we meet Blue Falcon’s forgettable assistant Dee Dee (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), with her life like physicality clashing with her plastic-like skin.  It’s like she’s a living action figure, and I have no doubt that there is a toy line model that bears the same striking resemblance to this character.  It’s only when the movie exaggerates the character models that they come to life.  Dick Dastardly, again, represents the best of this, as his distinctive look does leave an impression.  I do recognize that the movie does still retain a high quality look throughout.  It’s not animated poorly at all; it just suffer from some poor choices in character modeling.  I like that the animators did include some nods to the slapstick bits done in the Hanna Barbera style that we all remember from the shows.  And also, credit to the sound effects team for throwing in the original Hanna Barbera sound clips in certain moments as well, like the famous twinkle toes bit used in everything from Scooby Doo to The Flintstones.  It’s something to help please the long time Hanna Barbera fans who are looking for something that does honor the legacy of these characters, which sadly is not in abundance in this movie.

So, is Scoob! worth the $20 rental for home viewing.  Honestly, if you just want something to distract your kids for an hour and a half, you may find some use out of the movie, but for those who were hoping for a satisfying reboot of a beloved old franchise, I’d say save your money.  Scoob! is little more than a cash grab, hoping to revitalize a known intellectual property and cynically mine it for some easy cash based in it’s nostalgia value.  The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to forget exactly what made Scooby Doo work so well as a franchise for so many years, and that’s the simple but effective formula that it’s maintained for 50 years.  It’s trying to be less of a Scooby Doo movie and more of a super hero movie, and it’s just dragging the Scooby gang along for the cliched, predictable ride.  Apart from an emotionally effective prologue and a entertaining villain, there really is nothing to make this movie stand out as a work of animation.  The only reason we are really talking about this movie at all is because of it’s unorthodox way of reaching audiences in the middle of this ongoing pandemic.  Trolls World Tour made headlines with it’s successful roll-out online, and Warner Brothers is hoping the same will happen with Scoob!  Releasing with this kind of notoriety will certainly garner more headlines for Scoob! than it otherwise might have had in a Summer season where it would’ve had to contend with another Pixar film.  But, believe me when I say that Scoob! is a forgettable waste of time that doesn’t nearly do justice to the long standing legacy of it’s characters.  It’s not going to be a game changer that will bring the theatrical market to it’s knees.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Brothers never releases a movie this way again.  If you want a satisfying Scooby snack, just re-watch the original series again, or any of it’s adequate spin-offs.  Scoob! is nothing to wag a dog’s tail at.

Rating: 5/10

Trolls World Tour – Review

As I wrote a couple weeks back, one of the biggest casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the movie theater industry, which as of this writing is pretty much on life support.  In this unimaginable domino effect that happened pretty much overnight, Hollywood pulled all of the remaining Spring season movies off of the schedule, in order to comply with all state and city ordinances to remain at home to slow the spread of the virus.  And this has resulted in a devastating disruption of the traditional movie theater business, which is in danger of not being able to survive the next few weeks, let alone months.  For Hollywood, the same disruption is also having ripple effects, with all productions shut down indefinitely.  We won’t see the effects of this for a while, as the delay in movie premieres still will give us a back log of all the movies that were at or near completion. But this has presented an interesting dilemma for Hollywood; how do you try to get your movie out there in a disrupted market like this one.  With movie theaters and film festivals out of the question, all that is left is home theater distribution.  Most studios have opted to give some space to allow for a return to normalcy in the market by pushing their movies back to later this year, or even further into the next one.  But there were other movies that were too far along in their marketing cycle to put off their premiere for another 6-12 months.  The movie either had to come out now, or otherwise it would lose money.  So, to salvage some of the market cost lost through the closures of the movie theaters, we have seen many early premieres of this year’s spring slate of movies on demand through streaming.  And among them is a big title that’s going to end up bypassing the theatrical experience altogether; Dreamworks Animation’s Trolls World Tour.

Trolls World Tour is a follow-up to the modestly successful animated feature from Dreamworks based on the popular toy line.  Being one of the premiere names in animation, Dreamworks was gearing their animated sequel as a major title for the spring season.  Animated movies always perform with strong legs, and the wide open Spring season would’ve given it the breathing room to do so.  With an Easter weekend premiere, and a month separating it from the premiere of Onward from rival studio Pixar, all that Trolls World Tour had to do was withstand counter-programming from the likes of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.  And then everything fell apart overnight.  Onward’s unfortunate timing led to a very short two week run in theaters before they had to close, and in the weeks after, they had to quickly bring their film onto their streaming platform, just to keep it in the public eye and not make all those marketing and merchandising expenses go to waste.  Trolls likewise ended up in the same position, with so many marketing tie-ins having made it into stores in the past few weeks, there was no way for them to put the cow back in the barn as it were.  So, parent company Universal decided to enact a bold experiment in order to make do with the situation that they have.  They would release Trolls World Tour on it’s scheduled premiere date as a premium rental on streaming sites across the web.  Normally, this would’ve been seen as a kiss of death, as movies getting dumped onto streaming was like the new straight-to-video; a marker of lower quality.  But, given the circumstances that we are in, with the future of movie theaters in doubt, the industry is looking at Trolls World Tour‘s premiere online as a possible harbinger of what the future of market may be.  The only question is, will it work or is it just a stop-gap before things can return to normal.

Trolls World Tour takes place more or less where the last film left off.  Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) has been given the title of Queen, and she is beloved by all her subjects, including the survivalist Branch (Justin Timeberlake).  One day, she receives notice that another troll queen named Barb (Rachel Bloom) has been attacking other troll kingdoms across the world, and is on her way to invading theirs as well.  Poppy learns of the history of the different troll tribes and how they all represent different kinds of music: Funk, Country, Classical, Techno, Rock and Pop, of which Poppy’s kingdom is representative of.  Each tribe are the protectors of an enchanted strings which if combined together and were brought under the control of any select tribe would allow for that type of music to dominate all others.  Barb is on a mission to collect all the strings at any cost and bring domination of all the other troll tribes under her own Rock music.  While Branch takes this threat as an indication for all of the Pop trolls to seek shelter immediately, Poppy hopes to find Barb herself and reason with her, with Branch reluctantly tagging along.  On their way, they receive assistance from a Country troll named Hickory (Sam Rockwell), who helps to guide them along their way.  However, Barb has sent different troll bounty hunters from some of the minor kingdoms like Smooth Jazz, Raggaeton, K-Pop, and Yodelling to stop Poppy from thwarting her plans.  Meanwhile, some of Poppy’s closest friends seek out to find out more about these other troll kingdoms that they knew nothing about before, including the four-legged Cooper (Ron Funches) and the overweight Biggie (James Corden).  All together, each and every troll is on their way towards destiny, and whoever succeeds will either force domination of one brand of music over all, or bring harmony with all music coming together.

I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to this movie, or even the first one to begin with.  I particularly rolled my eyes at the idea to begin with, because it looked like Dreamworks was just wasting their talents on what I thought was essentially a commercial, both for the toy line it was based off of and for the inevitable tie-in album that was going to be sold around the same time.  But, given the fact that I am unfortunately without many options of movies to review for the time being, and may have to wait until as far as July before I can even see the inside of a movie theater again (if at all), I decided that I had no other alternative than to take the plunge into the Troll franchise.  And, perhaps it’s maybe me being too judgmental at first based on first impressions based on the marketing for the movie, but quite like how The Lego Movie (2014) subverted my expectations and was way better than I thought it would ever be, I had a better than expected reaction to the movie Trolls (2016) than I thought.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as good as The Lego Movie, but for what it was, it was passable entertainment in the end which is better than the excruciating chore that I thought I was in store for.  There were still many problems that I had with it, but I admired it’s consistency with it’s story and the fact that it was a very well animated film with a talented cast performing some catchy songs.  But, how does Trolls World Tour stand up.  Well, while I can say that I have seen much worse animated features, and even worse animated sequels (Frozen II anyone?), World Tour unfortunately felt a little underwhelming in comparison to it’s already passable predecessor.  If anything, it lacks the consistency that I felt held the original film together, and everything that was flawed only felt amped up in this follow-up.  There are still some good things about it, but not enough to make me heap praise on the film.

I’d say where the movie falters is that it tries to do too much.  The titular “World Tour” allows for some creative settings to explore, but the break neck pace of the story doesn’t give us much time to soak it all in.  Just as we get settled in one of the new kingdoms, we suddenly jump into another, screeching to a halt any interesting developments that could have been further explored.  The Classical Troll kingdom in particular is given mere minutes of screen-time before it’s off to the next setting.  Sometimes one of the best things a sequel can do is to really explore the outside world more, helping to build it’s world, but I felt that this movie did too much of that.  There is enough world-building in this movie to fill maybe three movies worth, and what ends up being sacrificed in the process is other crucial things like character development and the raising of the stakes.  And that is where I feel that the movie falls apart.  The characters of Poppy and Branch really  don’t have not much to do in this film as all of their key character development happened in the previous film, so either their stories had to be regressed a bit to offer some extra tension in this movie, like the romantic subplot which for some reason seemed to be rebooted at the start of this movie.  Supporting characters really have nothing more to do than to just pop up and offer some comic relief.  One thing that I did miss about the original film is the streamlined plot of the Trolls learning to overcome the threat of their native enemy, the repulsive Bergens, and even find a way to live in harmony with them.  The Bergens, by the way, are completely side-lined in this movie, which is too bad because their development in the original, from monstrous menaces to fully dimensional characters, was one of the highlights of the first film.  Though World Tour has a lot more of the world to play around in, it unfortunately does so in an underwhelming way.

That’s not to say that everything about it is bad.  For one thing, the visuals in this movie, much like the original, are pretty spectacular.  You’ll probably never find a movie this year or any with such a vibrant color palette.  And though the different worlds are never effectively explored, they do still offer some imaginative visuals whenever they’re seen.  I especially love the craft materials texture that permeates the entire movie.  One of the most clever ideas I noticed was a waterfall being represented by ribbons of paper, like the kind we would make in school with construction paper rolled around a pencil.  Even the skin texture of the characters themselves are impressive, creating a look of felt cloth.  Though the story may be meandering, the look of the movie is likely going to impress even the most cynical of critics, which is a testament to the hard work done by the artists working at Dreamworks Animation.  These guys have become one of the most trusted names in the animation world for a reason, and the visuals here are proof of that.  Also, though I felt that the execution of the story was lacking, I did really appreciate the message that was buried at it’s center.  It’s actually even a more provocative one found in the original.  Remarkably, the movie takes a subtle jab at the music industry itself, and the way that it homogenizes so much music in order to make it what it considers “mainstream.”  There’s a strong message here about the need to retain the cultural and racial identities that are tied to various forms of music, because it’s an important aspect of retaining the diversity that keeps so much of the culture running.  It’s an especially potent message to have at a time like this where we are being driven more apart than ever, and it illustrates the need to have all voices be heard.  I didn’t expect a message like that to come from a movie like this, so I’m glad that they included it here.

It’s understandable that given such a keen focus this movie has on the element of music that the cast itself would be made up of many talented singers as well as actors.  And like the first film, this is movie full of songs tailor made for the actors performing them.  Anna Kendrick, of course, is a triple threat performer with numerous films to her credit that take advantage of her vocal range; most notably the Pitch Perfect series.  She brings a lot of energy to the role of Poppy which is an asset that helps to carry her even over some of the mediocre writing.  Even though her character is less interesting this time around, Kendrick still charms with her peppy performance.  The same unfortunately can’t be said about Justin Timberlake, who still feels miscast in this role.  He can certainly sing the songs with no problem, but his higher pitched voice just doesn’t feel right for the rustic, cynical character that he is playing.  In addition, the character Branch has little to nothing to do in this movie, so Timberlake just feels lost here in between songs.  What I do like in this cast is some of the tribute casting that the movie does for some legendary performers.  During the course of the movie, we meet some of the elders of the different kingdoms, including King Quincy (named after the legendary composer Quincy Jones) and is voiced by the godfather of funk himself, George Clinton.  There is also King Thrash of the Rock kingdom, who is voiced by none other than Ozzy Osbourne himself.  It’s a treat to hear these two legends participating in this tribute to music styles of all kinds, and the fact that they are there is a nod to their significant contributions to the musical landscape as a whole.  All the different musical covers are also spirited and well done.  Sure, it’s about selling a soundtrack album, but I could think of much more shameless uses of pop songs used in animated movies (see Illumination Animation’s entire catalog).  At least the actors here are performing their own singing, even in minor roles.  One particular new character that did given me a laugh every now and then was a raping baby troll with glitter skin voiced by SNL alum Kenan Thompson, who is very funny here.  A good cast goes a long way, and it helps this movie as a whole in general.

It’s hard to say if this is the future of movie distribution.  If the industry wanted to change the industry forever, they would’ve chosen a more compelling film than this to center the experiment around.  Trolls World Tour is passable entertainment, much like it’s predecessor, and is not really something that is demanding to be seen on any screen, big or small.  It certainly isn’t quite worth the premium asking price of $19.99 that you have to pay right now, although if you have young children that are interested, this might actually be a good value, rather than what the box office price would’ve been originally.  For children, it’s harmless enough entertainment, with a surprisingly potent message at it’s core.  But, otherwise, I’d say watch it only if you are a really big fan of the original.  If you are, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did.  It’s certainly far from the worst animation that I’ve ever seen, but no where near the best either; not even among Dreamworks animated films.  The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to me still is the gold standard for the studio, and a prime example of building upon something that was already great with even more worthwhile character and world building.  What I liked so much about those movies is that throughout all three movies, the filmmakers were never afraid of taking risks and trying new things, consistently raising the stakes.  Trolls World Tour is a safe sequel that tries to expand it’s world, but falls well short of achieving it’s lofty goals.  I for one am just hoping that it’s release on demand was just out of necessity and not a harbinger of the new normal in distribution.  We need the movie theaters back, and World Tour‘s terrible timing was just the result of things falling well out of control for everyone involved.  Who knows, I might have felt different about this movie had I seen it in a theater with an audience.  As it stands, it’s a noble effort of a sequel, but one that both in itself and in it’s venue of viewership, makes you long for something better.

Rating: 7/10

Onward – Review

In all it’s 25 years of making feature films, the one thing that Pixar has definitely figured out is it’s formula.  Through all their films, they seem to like returning to the same mode of story, which is taking their characters on a journey.  Whether it’s Woody venturing outside Andy’s room in Toy Story (1995), or Flik levaing the ant colony in A Bug’s Life (1998), or Wall-E leaving Earth for the cosmos, or Carl Fredrickson flying his house all the way to South America in Up (2009), or Miguel accidentally finding himself in the Land of the Dead in Coco (2017).  The studio loves to take their characters out of their comfort zones and bring them into a strange new world.  And why change a formula that has worked so well for them.  If anything, their movies suffer when they stray too far from the formula (Cars 2‘s pointless spy movie diversion for example).  It’s a formula that also works well with the other thing that defines most Pixar films, which is their ability to re-imagine the world through a different perspective.  This includes the microscopic world of insects in A Bug’s Life, or the one inhabited by monsters in Monsters Inc. (2001), or one inhabited entirely by sentient vehicles in Cars (2006), or one entirely within the mind of a twelve year old girl in Inside Out (2015).  Because of this, we certainly know a Pixar movie when we see one, and that allows the filmmakers who work at the studio to craft a whole variety of stories that fit well into that template.  While most other animation studios attempt to pick up that Pixar formula and run with it, they can never actually match it.  Pixar has refined their style over a quarter of a century now, and it really only works well because of the unique creative atmosphere that they have managed to cultivate at their Emeryville campus.  And that creative spark continues into this new decade, with the release of their 22nd feature; Onward.

Onward on the surface appears to be the prototypical Pixar film; carrying over all the same features that I mentioned above.  It’s a film that takes place in a world parallel to our own, but with a twist; in this case, a world of fantasy set in suburbia.  It’s also a film that takes it’s characters on a journey, which fittingly matches a society that has it’s origins in swords and sorcery.  In many ways, it’s almost too prototypical, like a parody of a Pixar movie that you would expect from another studio.  But, what makes the difference is not the world that Pixar sets it’s story in, but what’s at the center of the story itself.  And the origins of this story comes from a surprisingly personal place.  Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University (2013), based the story of Onward on something that actually happened in his own life.  In the movie, the two main characters have lived without their father for most of their life, with the younger brother having been born after his father’s passing.  This parallel’s the real life upbringing of Scanlon, who never met his own father either.  The scenario of the movie comes from a discovery he made many years later while searching through his father’s old things, and in there he found a tape recording his father had made many years ago.  Through this, he was able to hear his father’s voice for the first time, which had a profound effect on him.  Scanlon’s example is one of those things that really sets Pixar apart, considering how much personal emotion each of the filmmakers put into their own work.  The only question left is, how does Onward stack up within the extremely high standards of the Pixar canon, and does the personal story underneath manage to give studio’s formula that extra bit of new magic as well.

The story takes place in fantasy world where sorcery and enchantment reigned.  Creatures such as elves, centaurs, trolls and unicorns all coexisted and thrived thanks to the existence of magic in the world.  But since magic was difficult to master, the creatures sought out easier ways to earn a living, so they turned to modern conveniences like light bulbs, cars, and airplanes.  Eventually, magic faded from the world, all but forgotten in a modern, fast-paced society.  Living in this modern world is the elven Lightfoot family.  Raised by their single mom Laurel (Julia Loius-Dreyfus),  brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) navigate through the struggles of growing up into men, especially under the shadow of their beloved and long departed father.  Barley is a man child, impulsive and very much into fantasy role playing games.  Ian is a shy introvert who wants to be just like the Dad he never knew, but doesn’t quite know how to start.  On Ian’s 16th Birthday, he receives a surprise gift from their mom, which turns out to be a wizard staff left by his dad.  In addition, he gave Ian a visitation spell which can bring him back to life for one whole day.  With encouragement from Barley, Ian soon learns that the wizard staff responds to his commands, and he begins the visitation spell, only to have it short circuit halfway.  Right after, Ian and Barley find that their Dad has returned, but only from the feet to the waistline.  With this unfortunate result, the two brothers must search for another Phoenix Stone in order to complete the spell before the day runs out and their Dad disappears completely.   Taking advantage of Barley’s knowledge of ancient mystical lore, they set out to follow an ancient trail to find the lost stone, with their father’s legs in tow.  This includes seeking out the help of the mighty warrior, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) who now manages a family restaurant.  All the while, Laurel tries to find her boys before they get into trouble, aided by her centaur police officer boyfriend, Officer Colt (Mel Rodriquez).  With time against them, can the Lightfoot brothers escape the perils of this quest, both old and new.

With a fantasy world setting as it’s backdrop, you would think that this movie was set up for Pixar to just go all out and create the most imaginative world they’ve ever made in one of their movies.  Surprisingly, that’s not what they did at all.  While it does take advantage of it’s re-imagined world, Onward is actually one of the more grounded Pixar movies that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Far more focus was put onto the story and the characters than on filling out this fantasy world that they inhabit, which actually comes across as surprisingly small.  But, you know what, it actually works to the movie’s benefit.  Whereas most Pixar wannabe movies put too much focus on the world-building of their films, Pixar instead puts the focus exactly where it needs to be, which is on the characters and their story.  As a result, Onward is a shining example of the Pixar formula working to a “T”.  The characters first and foremost must be relatable and worthy of attention, and that would’ve been impossible if the eye was too often drawn into the background details of this world, which don’t get me wrong, are still impressively realized.  I get the feeling that the movie will probably benefit from repeat viewings, because I’m sure that people will want to see this multiple times in order to see all the details that they missed before.  All the while, Ian and Barley’s story takes the journey formula that Pixar has mastered and builds it towards a satisfying, and surprisingly heartwarming finale.  It’s easy to see the heart that Dan Scanlon brought to the movie, basing so much of it off of his own experience (minus the magical quest part).  It’s one of those stories that is not about the ultimate destination, but about the internal changes that the characters go through that make the movie resonate so well.  It also doesn’t take the easy route either, with characters sometimes revealing deep rooted flaws that often manifest in ways that they might not have expected.

The one downside to Onward‘s more grounded story is that it also kind of minimizes the ultimate impact as well.  Stakes remain very low in this movie.  The Lightfoot brothers go off on a quest, but never really leave their city limits that far behind, making their world remain relatively small.  There is no dark presence there to get in their way, no existential threat.  It’s just two boys on a treasure hunt.  And while the story that we get does have a lot of heart and is incredibly entertaining throughout, I also feel that this kind of character journey played out much more effectively in other Pixar films.  I didn’t really feel the emotional impact here as strongly as I did in say Coco, which had a real profound life and death struggle at it’s center.  By the end of that movie, Pixar had built up the stakes of the movie so much, that the simple act of a boy singing to his ailing great grandmother took on this profound importance.  I didn’t feel that same impact with Onward, and I don’t know quite why.  I believe that director Scanlon put as much heart into his underlying story as the filmmakers of Coco did; perhaps even more so.  Maybe it’s the fact that there was less of a lasting effect that the final denouement moment than what Coco had.  A similar effect happens with the movie Up, which even though it’s grounded in a realistic world like ours, it’s concluding chapter feels far more impactful, mainly because the stakes became higher by the end.  It may be that it’s not where the story ultimately concludes that didn’t resonate enough, but rather that the character’s journey didn’t leave as much of an impact.  Ian and Barley are closely tied as brothers in the beginning of the movie, and remain so to the very end, changing very little in their relationship.  Their journey is not a terrible one by any means, but it’s also one that may not have taken the full arc that it probably could have.

While the plot does have it’s shortcomings, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty more to love about this movie.  Chief among them is the voice cast, which is a top notch one even by Pixar standards.  Taking full advantage of their connection to Marvel through the big tent Disney connection they have, Pixar managed to bring in some big names to play the Lightfoot brothers, namely the two Peters of Marvel (Quill and Parker respectively, otherwise known as Star Lord and Spider-Man).  Chris Pratt in particular is especially well cast as the free-spirited, roleplay-obsessed Barley.  Between this and his work in the Lego Movies, Pratt has proven to be remarkably adept at voice acting, bringing an incredible amount of personality to each character he plays.  I especially love how well he balances the more goofball aspects of the character with the deeper, more sincere moments he has later on in the film.  At the same time, he finds a perfect match with Tom Holland playing the role of Ian.  Holland has pretty much become the master of awkward teenager roles in a way we haven’t seen since the days of Michael J. Fox in his prime, and he brings an incredible amount of heart to the character of Ian.  I wonder if he and Chris Pratt recorded some of their scenes together, because their chemistry comes across so strongly that you almost feel like their riffing off one another in real time.  At the same time, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings an extra amount of heart to the movie as Laurel, making it her second major role in a Pixar flick after giving voice to Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life twenty years ago.  Octavia Spencer also does a great job voicing the Manticore, perfectly imagining an overburdened creature who has long abandoned her wilder instincts.  The strengths of these characters no doubt benefited from a cast who worked so well together, especially with the two brothers at the center.  And much of the charm in the movie comes from the perfect casting that extends pretty much across the board throughout the movie.

While the world that’s been imagined for the film does come across as pretty scaled down for the most part, it is still beautifully realized.  Even in some of their lesser movies, Pixar still keeps the bar set high with regards to their visual aesthetic.  The movie looks just as beautiful on the big screen as say Toy Story 4 (2019) or Incredibles 2 (2018).  I especially like how it maintains this purplish hue throughout, which reinforces the sort of neon based color palette of a fantasy world that we probably most associate with the 1980’s, which was a decade where fantasy films flourished.  At the same time, like most Pixar movies, it’s the background details that will likely catch people’s eye while watching the movie, especially with all the Easter eggs and sight gags that are littered throughout.  A lot of it is subtle, and does disappear into the background, much in the same way you forget about the setting in an episode of The Flintstones, but it’s still effectively realized.  I especially like how much character is brought into all of these fantasy elements as well.  The beat up van that Barley drives, affectionately named Guinevere, is a perfect example of the subtle ways that the filmmakers imagined this contemporary style fantasy world.  On the outside, Guinevere has the appearance of a typical 80’s era van, complete with an airbrushed piece of art on it’s side, but inside it’s been made to look like a miniature viking hall, complete with wooden siding on the walls, and makeshift shields and tapestries hung throughout, like a roleplay obsessed person would add to their personal space.  Guinevere almost becomes a character itself, and whose sendoff in the movie is one of the absolute funniest moments.  It’s another example of the incredible animation that has always been the thing that has set Pixar apart, and continues to remain strong as shown in the beautiful work displayed in Onward.

It’s hard to make a fair assessment of where Onward places within the entire Pixar canon.  If it were made by a different studio, Onward would be a revelation and a new gold standard for quality.  But because this is Pixar we are talking about, a studio that has consistently performed at an incredibly high standard for 25 solid years, Onward has to face a higher bit of scrutiny.  And as a result, it does suffer a bit in comparison, especially when it comes to how effectively it plays out the tried and true Pixar formula.  While still incredibly fun and engaging, I did feel that it lacked that little bit of extra pathos that could send it into all-time territory for the studio.  It’s character journey just feels a bit more minor in the long run compared to similar plots found in Coco and Up.  Also the grounded aspect of it’s story does feel like it’s shackling the world building, which could have gone a little bit farther.  Even the non-Pixar animation classic from parent company Disney, the amazing Zootopia (2016), managed to fully flesh out it’s world and maintain a compelling narrative in the same amount of time that Onward had.  Even still, the movie is delightful romp through a beautifully realized world, even if that world is a bit smaller than you might expect.  It particularly gives us some fantastic characters worth rooting for, with a voice cast that is perfectly matched together, and their story is engaging enough to follow, with even some surprising twists and turns by the end.  Honestly, you’ll probably get a lot out of this movie just hearing Chris Pratt and Tom Holland working off each other, making you wish that this kind of pair may one day happen again (get on that Spider-Man/ Guardians crossover now Marvel).  In many ways, I’d put Onward somewhere in the center of Marvel’s incredible body of work, slightly leaning towards the upper half.  And considering how very few Pixar movies are actually considered bad, that’s saying something very positive about Onward.  It’s not going to become the newest high point of Pixar’s body of work, but it’s still a great representation of the fact that their formula is still going strong.  With a passionate enough story, incredibly likable characters, and an imaginative world, this is one movie that will no doubt leave it’s viewers enchanted.

Rating: 8/10