TV Review: What If… (2021)


Title: What If…
Release Date: 2021
Creator: A.C. Bradley
Director: Bryan Andrews
Season: 1
Episodes: 9
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The animated Disney+ series does what it says on the tin, asking “What If?” things happened differently in various Marvel Cinematic Universe stories.  It helps to have a knowledge of the existing films to understand why the changes are significant, but I think plot changes are explained well enough to still be entertaining to a novice.  The series is narrated by The Watched (Jeffrey Wright), an alien being who observes the multiverse and is sworn not to interfere.  The animation is high-quality with a painterly quality that fits both the stories’ comic book origins and motion picture predecessors.  The voice cast also includes a lot of the actors who played the roles in the movies, including Chadwick Boseman in one of the final projects he worked on before his death.

The What If? propositions tend to go for comedy or to go really dark.  In the former category, Boseman’s T’Challa becomes Star Lord instead of Peter Quill and his competence makes everything go better for everyone involved, including Thanos (Josh Brolin) who is convinced to give up trying to kill half of all sentient beings and join the Ravagers.  The dark episodes show us what happens if all the Avengers were killed before they could work together and what happens if the world was overrun by zombies (including some of the superpowered).  My favorite episodes are “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes the serum instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) and fights HYDRA with a shield bearing the Union Jack.  The other classic “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” has Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) rising through the ranks of Stark Industries where Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) had no life-changing injury to create Iron Man.

While the show works as a series of stand alone episodes.  The penultimate episode leads into a cliffhanger with the final episode requiring The Watcher to be a more active character and bring together a team of characters from previous episodes to be The Guardians of the Multiverse.  The show also ties into some of the recent movies and shows where the Multiverse is figuring to play a big role in the overarching theme of Phase 4 of the MCU.  While not a vital series, it is a fun addition to the lore for fans of the MCU.

 

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Aardman Animation Short Film Festival


I felt like revisiting some of my favorite animated comfort food by watching a bunch of from Britain’s Aardman Animations studio. This will just be the shorts, not feature films like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

TitleCreature Comforts
Release Date: 15 July 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations.
Summary/Review:

“In Brazil you have the space.”

In my college years (1991-1995), I went to a lot of animation festivals at the local arthouse cinema.  I remember Creature Comforts being a big hit at one of the first festivals I attended. It’s a simple concept, in which various animals discuss their lives in a zoo.  It’s even better when you learn that the voices are from unscripted interviews with various everyday people.  They weren’t necessarily talking about zoo animals, yet it all fits.  I only just learned that Creature Comforts was spun off into a tv series in the UK in the 2000s.

Rating: ****


Title: A Grand Day Out
Release Date: 4 November 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: National Film and Television School | Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Gromit, that’s it! Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

This is the first Wallace & Gromit short, and the most absurdist of them all, and I probably saw it in the same animation festival as Creature Comforts.  Wallace wants somewhere to travel and they’re out of cheese. So he decides to go to the one place that combines both – the Moon.  They build a rocket and fly to the moon where they meet a coin-operated oven on wheels that issues parking tickets.  And you’ve never seen a coin-operated oven on wheels look so indignant!  This film is especially fun for all the little details you can pick out on repeated viewings.
Rating: ****


TitleThe Wrong Trousers
Release Date: 17 December 1993
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“It’s the wrong trousers Gromit! And they’ve gone wrong!”

Wallace & Gromit come into their own in this short which establishes their home setting as a kind of theme park nostalgic vision of a post-war village in the North of England.  In this case they deal with techno-trousers, a shortage of money, a paying houseguest, and a jewel heist!  You’ll never hear “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” the same way again.  The chase scene on the model railroad is one of the greatest things ever animated.

Rating: *****


TitleA Close Shave
Release Date: 24 December 1995
Director: Nick Park
Production Company:Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Aye, I’d better see to him. The bounce has gone from his bungee.”

Wallace & Gromit was such a big hit at animation festivals that by the time A Close Shave was released, we were pretty much going to see Wallace & Gromit.  Like, I think they may have put a couple of other animated shorts before it, but it was promoted as your chance to see the new Wallace & Gromit.  In this short, Wallace & Gromit deal with a wool shortage, sheep rustlers, and a new member of the household: Shaun the Sheep (who would spin off into his own media empire).  This is the first short where Wallace & Gromit have a business – in this case window washers.  It’s also the first time there’s a character other than Wallace who speaks, who becomes the first of Wallace’s love interests, Wendoline.  I go back and forth over whether I like The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave better, but together they are peak Wallace & Gromit.

Rating: *****


Title:  A Matter of Loaf and Death
Release Date: 3 December 2008
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Farewell, my angel cake. You’ll always be my Bake-O-Lite Girl.”

I didn’t know that this short existed until I saw it in the package with the other Wallace & Gromit shorts I was streaming.  It follows the same formula as A Close Shave and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit where Wallace is enchanted by a love interest and the duo run a business with a lot of Rube Goldberg devices.  In this case they are bakers and the love interest, Piella Bakewell, a former beauty queen for a bread company.  There’s also the mystery of 12 local bakers gone missing.  Will Wallace make a baker’s dozen?  It feels like the formula has gone a bit off in this short, and it feels a bit grim for a cozy comedy to have a story involving a serial killer.  And the villain’s motivation is basically a fat joke. Also, we get to see Wallace’s bare buttocks, which was not necessary.

Rating: ***1/2

Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews


In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:

 

Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2


Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2


TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***


Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****


Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director)
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners
Summary/Review:

I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts.  When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed.  I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.

Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done.  I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways.  The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.

This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art).  There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part.  And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.

I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger.  Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate.  I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)


Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Summary/Review:

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California.  She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests.  In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college.  While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity.  Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.

Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures.  The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog.  And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”  Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits.  The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation.  Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Tokyo Godfathers (2003)


Title: Tokyo Godfathers
Release Date: November 8, 2003
Director: Satoshi Kon
Production Company: Madhouse
Summary/Review:

It’s Christmas in Tokyo and the snow is falling.  A trio of homeless people find an abandoned baby in the trash and their attempts to care for her lead them into a fantastical adventure. Each segment of the movie leads to a spectacular coincidence, which is usually an annoying element in filmmaking to me, but in this movie it works because of the time put into developing the characters.  The leader of the trio is Gin (Tooru Emori), an aging alcoholic who left his wife and daughter decades earlier because he had run up too many debts.  Hana (Yoshiaki Umegami) is the heart of the trio, a transgender woman who sees the baby as a miracle and names her Kiyoko. The youngest member is Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) a teenager who ran away from her controlling father.

The movie is very sweet with the three homeless people and the baby making a pseudo-family in a story that reflects the Christian story of the first Christmas. Subtly and effectively the movie deals with themes of poverty and inequality, crime, and mental illness.  It also has great humor and scenes of adventure.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Luca (2021)


TitleLuca
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Pixar’s latest release is part Pixar formula, part innovation.  The story is a coming-of-age comedy mixed with fantasy elements that is similar to other Pixar films.  The animation veers away from the more photo-realistic style of recent Pixar releases with more cartoonish character designs and a fairy tale rendering of the Italian Riveria.  The biggest disappointment is that Disney chose not to give this movie a wide theatrical release because I expect it looks amazing on the big screen.

The story centers on Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young teenaged sea monster who is curious about the human “land monsters” and their artifacts that fall into the sea, but his strict parents warn him to keep away.  Before he can get all moody and start singing “Part of Your World,” he is accidentally scooped up onto land by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an older teenage sea monster who has made a home for himself in an abandoned tower. The sea monsters take human form on dry land, the transformations being a great visual effect used throughout the movie.

The boys bond in friendship, and dreaming of exploring the world on a Vespa, they go to the local town.  They meet Giulia (Emma Berman), an adventurous teenaged girl and misfit, and the trio work together to earn prize money in a triathlon of swimming, past eating, and bicycling.  The movie tells a story of young people forming friendships and finding a place where they feel like where they belong, while dealing with bullying and prejudice.  As you can expect from Pixar, there’s a lot of humor, charm, wonder, and tear-inducing heartfelt moments.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020)


TitleStar Trek: Lower Decks
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Mike McMahan
Season: 1
Episodes:10
Production Company: CBS Eye Animation Productions | Secret Hideout | Important Science | Roddenberry Entertainment | Titmouse, Inc.
Summary/Review:

Starfleet:  they’re just like us!  The animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks shows the perspective of low-ranking crew members aboard the starship U.S.S. Cerritos. The four main characters included Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) a wise-cracking rule-breaker who is the captain’s daughter, although neither of them publicly acknowledge their relationship. Mariner befriends the nerdy but ambitious Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) who is a stickler for the rules.  The cast is rounded out with D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), an Orion medical ensign who is very enthusiastic about everything Starfleet, and  Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), an engineering ensign adjusting to a new cyborg implant.

This show isn’t breaking any ground as joking about the tropes and conventions of Star Trek go back a long way. The adult animation style and humor are also nothing new as it’s pretty similar to your run-of-the-mill animated shows on The Cartoon Network/Adult Swim.  And yet, I found the show had a goofy charm I enjoyed.  Maybe Discovery and Picard set me up to have low expectations for the Paramount+ Star Trek Universe.  I definitely felt this show improved vastly as the season went along and I would be happy to watch more when season 2 is released.

 

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Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)


Title: Isle of Dogs
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Studio Babelsberg | Indian Paintbrush | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Wes Anderson’s second animated feature has a lot of the sames going for it as Fantastic Mr. Fox. It has stop-motion animation that is visually stunning.  It has clever storytelling.  It has a good mix of humor and adventure. It has a massive cast of celebrity voices.  It has dogs!

But for some reason I don’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor.  Perhaps because it is to long and has way to many subplots (they could’ve left out the Tracy Walker stuff and just focused on the dogs, for starters).  There has been some criticism of the film for cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Japanese people.  It felt more like a respectful homage to Japanese films to me but still, something felt off.

I’m not here to trash the film though.  I did enjoy it, just somewhat less than I had hoped.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)


Title: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Release Date: November 13, 2009
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Indian Paintbrush | Regency Enterprises | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Have you ever wanted to see animals stare deadpan into the camera while reciting quirky dialogue?  Wes Anderson’s brilliant stop-motion animation comedy/adventure fill will do that for you.

The titular Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist who has adopted a suburban dad life after promising his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) to give up stealing poultry when their son was born.  A few years later he’s yearning to get back into thievery and plots a heist of three farms on three nights with his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky).  The farmers respond with an all out war on the Fox family which puts all the local fauna under siege.  In a subplot, the Fox’s awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, of course) forms a rivalry with his cool and athletically-gifted visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

This is an enjoyable family film with a lot of visual treats in the animation, some clever gags, and maybe a few moments that might be scary for the kids.

Rating: ***1/2