Movie Review: Pandas (2018)


Title: Pandas
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Director: David Douglas and Drew Fellman
Production Company: IMAX
Summary/Review:

The world’s cutest animals get the IMAX 3D treatment so audiences can enjoy seeing the big balls of fluff from China larger than life and right there in front of you.  The documentary is narrated by Kristen Bell, herself and icon of cuteness, and has cheerful soundtrack composed by Mark Mothersbaugh.  That is when there aren’t pop songs playing, such as the musical cue when a trio of panda cubs toddle around to ZZ Top’s “Sharped Dressed Man” (I guess because their black & white patterns resemble a tuxedo?).

But beneath all of this cuteness there is a more serious story here.  The habitat of the giant panda is shrinking and the species is endangered.  At the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding we meet the scientist Rong Hou, known as the Panda Mother, who has lead efforts to successfully breed giant pandas with over 200 cubs born. The next step is reintroducing pandas to the wild so Rong Hou visits New Hampshire where Ben Kilham takes in orphaned black bears and cares for them until they can survive in the wild on their own.

Adapting Kilham’s methods to the panda cubs at Chengdu involves bringing in another American, Jacob Owens, and Chinese scientist Wen Lei Bi to work with the cubs.  One cub named Qian Qian is determined to be a good candidate for introduction the wild, and Owens forms a close bond with her over a year spend in a 50-acre, protected reserve.  Finally, Qian Qian is ready, and a small gate is opened to allow her into the true wilderness.

A dramatic moment occurs when Owens is visiting family in America and the signal from Qian Qian’s collar shows that she hasn’t moved in 24 hours.  Wen Lei Bi leads a team that hikes deep into the forest where they find Qian Qian trapped in a tree, and they have to spend several days giving her food and water until she’s healthy enough to return to the reserve for care.  The film ends on a moment of uncertainty as a lot of effort went into introducing Qian Qian into the wild but it’s unclear if she will ever be able to survive there or if this approach will work with other great panda cubs.  But it’s good to know that there are people trying.

Rating: ***1/2

 

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Podcasts of the Week Ending August 18


This is a particularly fruitful week for podcasts with a bumper crop of excellent episodes!

Afropop Worldwide :: Skippy White: A Vinyl Life

Checking in with a legendary soul & R&B record shop owner and entrepreneur, Skippy White.  His shop is located in Boston’s Egleston Square, not far from where I live, but this is the first I’ve heard of him!

Code Switch :: Behind the Lies My Teacher Told Me

An interview with James Loewen, author of the seminal critique of American history education, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Hub History :: Folk Magic and Mysteries at the Fairbanks House

Daniel Neff, curator of the Fairbanks House museum in Dedham, talks about the house build by Puritan colonists that contains hidden charms and hex marks meant to ward off evil.

99% Invisible :: It’s Chinatown

The stories behind the origins of the distinctive architectural styles of American Chinatowns and the fortune cookie, neither of which actually originated in China.

Snap Judgment :: Talk of the Town

A local salesman, a fixture of his Oakland neighborhood, goes missing and is believed dead leading to an outpouring of remembrance in the community.  But one journalist digs deeper to find out what actually happened to the mystery man.

Tiny Desk Concerts :: Yo-Yo Ma

The famed cellist performs pieces of Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, and talks about learning to play the instrument.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Loop Groups

The work of the hidden actors who perform the background sounds of crowd scenes in movies.

 

Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)


TitleEighth Grade
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
Production Company: A24
Summary/Review:

More than any movie I’ve seen before, Eighth Grade captures the reality of the insecurities and search for identity of a young teacher.  Set in the last week of 8th grade, 13-year-old Kayla records advice videos to post online which act as narration as we see her attempt to build her confidence and try new things. Kayla is voted “most quiet” in her class and doesn’t have any close friends. With high school looming she has to navigate going to a popular girl’s pool party (only because she was invited by the girl’s mother) and trying to talk to her crush, awkwardly during an active shooter drill.  Shadowing a genuinely kind high school girl boosts her confidence but then she endures an awkward come-on from a creepy high school boy.

This movie is carried by Elsie Fisher, who as a young actor has the unenviable task of having the camera on her at almost all times. Even when other people are talking, the audience sees the small but telling reactions in Fisher’s eyes and face, which is actually a really good representation of how a shy person experiences a lot of social situations.  When using social media – which Kayla does often – the camera catches the reflection of her face on the screen. And while Hollywood loves to have “perfect” people in the movies, Fisher looks like a real kid with pimples and crooked teeth. Kayla’s description of having the scared feeling of waiting to go on a roller coaster without ever getting the good feeling of getting off a roller coaster is the best analogy for constant anxiety I’ve ever heard.

I see a lot of my younger self in Kayla, but all the more so, I get a glimpse of my future self in Kayla’s dad, Mark, portrayed by Josh Hamilton.  Hamilton captures all the dorky awkwardness, anxiety, and pride of being a dad when one doesn’t quite know how to connect with the child changing before one’s eyes.  This is brilliant movie and it honestly captures life experiences that many people will relate too, albeit not without cringing, because it cuts so close.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Up in the Air (2009)


TitleUp in the Air
Release Date: December 4, 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Dreamworks Pictures
Summary/Review:

Ryan Cunningham (George Clooney) is a frequent business traveler who has become an expert in the ins and outs of air travel and enjoys the perks of loyalty reward programs [NOTE: this means lots of product placement for air carriers, hotel chains, and rental car companies]. His job is to work as a consultant who does the face to face work of firing employees and preparing them for their new job search, a job that is unspeakably awful although Ryan has a strong ethic for doing it as sympathetically as possible. Along his travels he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flier, and they agree to meet up for casual romance when their itineraries cross.

Back at the home office in Omaha, Ryan’s boss informs him that a new young hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has come up with an idea to fire people through videoconferencing thus eliminating travel costs.  Before the transition, Ryan takes Natalie out on the road to mentor her in his way of doing things.  Having to travel together makes each of them begin to question their life choices.  Ryan also goes to his sister’s wedding despite being distant from his family, and brings Alex along as his guest and begins considering a more committed lifestyle.

This movie goes to pains to show that Ryan’s live as a frequent traveler is bad, although I’m not quite convinced that someone could not be happy enjoying that life if they chose to.  Obviously they make it bad by having Ryan doing a terrible job, never keeping in touch with his sisters, and when he finally realizes he has feelings for Alex, making her a philanderer (the most unbelievable part of this movie is that any woman would agree to go as a date to a family wedding and not mention that she has a husband and children).  Despite this central flaw, this is still an entertaining movie with some funny bits and some touching bits.  Cooney, Farmiga, and Kendrick are all talented and charming actors, so they really make the movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)


TitleDeadpool
Release Date: February 12, 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Production Company: Marvel Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Deadpool is the eighth movie in the X-Men series and the first one (and possibly the last one) I’ve watched.  The titular characters, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, is a former special forces operative who becomes a mercenary.  His shtick is to constantly make crude jokes while carrying out his vengeance for hire.  He meets Vanessa, and they fall in love over their shared outsider status and crude sense of humor.  But when he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer he leaves Vanessa under the mistaken belief he’d be a burden to her.

Wilson is recruited to undergo treatment with a serum designed to activate mutant genes and also cure his cancer.  The secret lab is run by the sadistic Francis who tortures the test subjects to trigger the mutations, and plans to use the mutated humans as a slave army.  Wilson’s mutations give him super healing but also disfigure his body. He escapes and becomes Deadpool to avenge himself against Francis and his cronies.

All of this back story is told in flashbacks after an opening scene with Deadpool attacking Francis’ motorcade on a freeway. The effects of a car crashing in the midst of a gun battle in slow motion makes for a stunning opening.  Deadpool’s wisecracks and breaking the fourth wall do a great job at sending up superhero story conventions and Marvel movies in particular.  The characters of the overly sincere Collosus and the moody Negasonic Teenage Warhead are particularly hilarious (I’d pay to see a Negasonic Teenage Warhead solo film).

But the crude wisecracks lose their effect after a while, much like Howard Stern or South Park, it’s just stops being funny.  And after the great opening, Deadpool becomes more of a run-of-the-mill action/adventure superhero story with a lot of unquestioned macho BS to boot.  I’m also not much of one for excessive gore and violence.  So, I’ll give this a nice effort, but not for me.

Rating: **

TV Review: American Experience: Walt Disney


TitleAmerican Experience: Walt Disney
Release Date: September 14, 2015
Director: Sarah Colt
Production Company: WGBH Educational Foundation
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary attempts to unravel the man behind the myth of Walt Disney.  It begins rather ominously with a series of quotes showing people who knew Disney describing him as autocratic.  Yet, the first half is largely a positive appraisal of Disney as a man with a great imagination who found ways to make his dreams come true and share them with an appreciative audience.  Time and again, Disney makes a daring risk – to move to Los Angeles to start an animation studio, to create a feature-length animated film, to build a large & state of the art new studio, and later on to invent a theme park where guests could enter into stories. Walt’s brother Roy is the financial wizard who generally disapproves of Walt’s ambitious dreams but knowing he can’t stop his brother from pursuing his dreams finds the means of funding them.

Despite Disney’s belief that his company is like a family – and insisting on his employees calling him Walt instead of Mr. Disney – he seems to have an inability to see the negative effect he has by micromanaging and seemingly taking credit for all the studio’s work.  In the 1920s, almost all his animators leave him for another company and in 1941, the Disney Studio goes on strike due to low pay and inequitable conditions for many of the employees.  Disney seems totally blindsided by each of these events and years later testifies before HUAC that the strike was motivated by Communist infiltrators rather than recognize that his management had failed in any way.

Another theme of the movie is how much of an innovator and outlier Disney was in Hollywood in the 20s to 40s, but by the 50s & 60s, Disney had become a representation of conservative, middle-class white values (or a source of those values by some estimations). A story about The Song of the South is telling, as the studio sought advice from Black leaders on how to adapt the Uncle Remus tales, but Walt chose to ignore it.  Disney also hosted the premier in the same Atlanta movie theater where Gone With the Wind debuted a few years earlier, meaning that the star of the movie James Baskett could not attend the premier due to segregation.

Peeling back the layers of the real Disney is hard to do, and I don’t think that this documentary is able to achieve it. Disney may be a tyrant but he also was an innovator and entertainer.  Even Walt admitted that charming, avuncular individual hosting the Disneyland program was a character rather than a real expression of himself, but in many ways that is who Disney wanted to be, which also says a lot.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (2001)


TitleThe Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Release Date: July 11, 2001
Director: ?
Production Company: HBO Sports
Summary/Review:

This documentary goes back in time to when New York City was the capital of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers fans hated the New York Giants, and the Giants fans hated the Dodgers, and they both hated the Yankees.  The 1951 season was pivotal in that the Dodgers took a huge lead in the National League and went on cruise control.  Late in the season the Giants went on a hot streak and tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season, leading to a best-of-three playoff.

In addition to the heated rivalry among players and fans of the teams, the documentary focuses on the Giants’ elaborate plot to steal signs during home games in the latter half of the season.  The jury is still out on how much this gamesmanship helped them catch the Dodgers since statistics show that their batting average dropped, pitching improved, and they won more games on the road than at home after it began.

The three game playoff is analyzed from several angles.  Many involved seem to point to Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen as the real goat for his poor decisions in game.  Special attention is given to the life stories and game experiences of the two pivotal figures of the final playoff game, Bobby Thompson who hit the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Ralph Branca, the Dodgers’ relief pitcher who surrendered the home run on his second pitch in the game.

Interviewees include ballplayers like Branca, Thompson, Willie Mays and Duke Snider as well as a number of fans including celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Larry King.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)


TitleWon’t You Be My Neighbor?
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Director: Morgan Neville
Production Company: Tremolo Productions
Summary/Review:

I was born into the first generation of children who got to know the friendly, calm, and soothing presence of Mister Rogers through our television sets. As a teenager, I grew to find the show cheezy and a bit trippy.  As an adult, I learned more and more that Fred Rogers was one of the most genuinely good and kind human beings ever to grace the earth.  This documentary reinforces that notion (in case you were worried that this is a “tell-all” documentary that would expose Mister Rogers’ dark side, it can’t because it doesn’t exist) by showing that the Mister Rogers we saw on tv was an authentic expression of the man himself.

The documentary only touches upon Rogers’ personal life, with hints of his childhood explored through dreamlike animated segments featuring his alter ego Daniel Striped Tiger.  The bulk of the movie is interviews with Rogers’ family and work colleagues and lots of spectacular archival film.  We see clips from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” behind the scenes footage, public appearances, and interviews.

Through the interviews Rogers narrates his own story.  He explains how he was called to use the new medium of television to minister to children (which he did for more than 30 years without ever mentioning God or Jesus).  One interviewee notes regarding his ministry, “He didn’t wear a collar he wore a sweater.” Rogers himself discusses the “holy ground between the tv and someone receiving it.” One of his sons notes that it was “Tough for me to have the second Christ as a dad.” He also talks about the influence of child psychologist Margaret McFarland on his work as well as other leaders in child development of the era such as Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton.

The history of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” shows how from the very beginning he addressed children directly on dealing with difficult subjects.  The very first week of the show talked about war by showing King Friday building a wall around his kingdom to keep people out (UM, THAT’S A LITTLE BIT TOO ON POINT!).  A few months later he created a special episode for children and their parents to deal with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. When segregationists poured acid into a swimming pool where black people were swimming, Rogers responded with a segment showing him soaking his feet in a wading pool with François Clemens.  By the 1980s the show would spend an entire week on topics such as divorce, bullying, and death. In one episode he finds that one of his fish has died and shows him gently removing the fish, wrapping it, and burying it in the yard behind his tv home.
In the real world, Rogers testified before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in favor of funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and through his gentle but persuasive explanation, encouraged tough guy Senator John Pastore to award the funding. The film also shows the parodies of  Mister Rogers – such as Eddie Murphy’s “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” – and what Rogers thought of them.  Starting in the 1990s, there was also right wing critique of Mister Rogers’ philosophy of recognizing children for the uniqueness and loving them for who they are as being a cause of children to grow up to be selfish and unmotivated.  Most heartbreaking is the appearance of “Christian” protesters at Rogers’ funeral, some of them bringing their own children to shout hatred at the man who lived a life based in love.  Even Rogers’ loses hope as seen in clips where PBS brought him in to make PSAs after the September 11th attacks and he questions whether anything he can say would make a difference.
There’s a lot of nostalgia for me in watching this documentary, and I’m particularly pleased to remember things I loved like Mister Rogers’ fish, the traffic light next to the aquarium, and characters like Trolley and Daniel Striped Tiger.  On the other hand, I have absolutely no recollection of Lady Aberlin, the only human character who interacts with the puppets in the Land of Make Believe, so it was nice to become reacquainted with her through clips from the show and interviews with Betty Aberlin.  This was a very emotional movie to watch for me, and I know I’m not alone, so if you do go see it I recommend bringing a box of tissues.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Incredibles (2004)


Title: The Incredibles
Release Date: November 5, 2004
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

On the flight home from our honeymoon in Italy, my bride and were separated by Alitalia and seated at opposite ends of the economy cabin.  My loss was assuaged a bit by being able to stretch my legs under the curtain into first class, dining on wine and cheese, and watching The Incredibles on tv.   With a sequel released this summer, I thought it worthwhile to watch again. Probably relaxation and wine were my chief accomplishments of that flight because I didn’t remember the movie all that well.

Set in a stylized 1960s, The Incredibles recreates the golden era of superhero comics, but asks the question of what it would be like if superheroes married, raised a family, and tried to live a normal life.  The drama of the movie is inaugurated by Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis which draws him back into the superhero game behind Elastigirls’ back.  When he gets in above his head, she has to come bail him out and their children Violet and Dash get to use their powers to fight crime for the first time.  It’s a great movie that works on many levels, and in typical Pixar fashion has a lot of humor and a lot of heart.

For all the retro design of The Incredibles, I find it interesting how much it presaged the boom of superhero comic movies of the past decade and a half. In the interim between The Incredibles and The Incredibles II there has been 3 Spider-Man films (one finishing a trilogy and two from a reboot), 3 Fantastic Four films (including a reboot), Superman Returns, Christoper Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 9 X-Men films, 5 DC Extended Universe films, the entire 19 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and others I’m forgetting.  The Incredibles‘ focus on interpersonal relationships within the family, a villain inadvertently created by the hero’s actions, and a society that seeks to reign in rather than celebrate people with powers are all facets that make it a forerunner of contemporary superhero movies.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)


TitleAvatar
Release Date: December 10, 2009
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment | Dune Entertainment | Ingenious Media
Summary/Review:

Avatar is a movie that has the unique distinction of being one of the top-grossing movies of all time while simultaneously being a movie that no one seems to like all that much.  I decided to finally watch it in small bits over five nights until I drifted off to sleep.  That I kept falling asleep during this movie is more of indication that I’m old and tired than that the movie is boring, but it should be noted that it is excessively long.

The gist of the movie if you’re not aware is that corporate interests from Earth want to exploit the natural resources of a moon called Pandora, but they find that the indigenous peoples, the Na’vi, in the way.  A team of biologists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) negotiate with the Na’vi by genetically engineering Na’vi bodies which they control remotely through their minds.  The protagonist of the film is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine who is called into use the avatar of his deceased twin brother.

The story has Sully gradually question his role in exploiting the Na’vi as he comes to learn more of their culture and falls in love with a female Na’vi named Neytiri.  It’s a message movie, but one that fails to hold the conviction of it’s messages (exploitation of indigenous people, imperialism, environmental destruction), and instead falls into tropes of the “white savior” complex and “explosions are cool.”

This is a very militaristic movie, and curiously the technology and behavior of the military forces in the movie are so similar to those depicted in Cameron’s Aliens, that I wonder if the two stories are set in the same universe.  There’s no subtly at all in this story, and in addition to the other “messages” in the movie the military are depicted basically reenacting atrocities from Vietnam and Iraq.

What stands out from this movie are the stunning visuals of the world of Pandora.  The movie is probably a bit better if I saw it in 3-D on a big screen as intended.  The best parts of the movie are when the narrative slows down and we the audience get to just explore the environment and learn about the Na’vi, even if these scenes add a lot to the movies length.  There weren’t Netflix series in 2009, but I kind of wonder if the whole story would’ve been more interesting if they had time to develop the world and characters rather than falling back on tired cliches to accompany the special effects. On the other hand, I’m not sure if Worthington’s acting would improve any.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)


TitleThor: Ragnarok
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The third Thor movie (I haven’t seen the other two) and the 17th Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bonkers romp in superhero fantasy tropes. After Odin’s passing, Thor and Loki (kinda) need to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesied destruction of Asgard. They get sidetracked to a planet of garbage that is home to gladiatorial combat hosted by the Grandmaster. There they team up with Hulk and a drunken but still badass Valkyrie to finally make their way to Asgard to fight off Thor’s previously unknown sister Hela and her army of the dead.

This movie is defined by its bizarre tangents and the humor of the unexpected. The regulars – Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo – all dive into their parts, enjoying the opportunity to something more with their characters. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson is a terrific Valkyrie (I hope she’s a returning character), and Cate Blanchett is appropriately over the top in her evilness, and disarmingly sexy while doing so.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release Date: April 4, 2014
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

This is the second Captain America movie and the ninth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The MCU works best when it adapts it’s superhero movies to different genres, and this one attempts a political conspiracy thriller, as Steve Rogers and his cohort uncover Hydra’s long-term plot to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. With one of the more streamlined casts in the MCU oeuvre ,Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff  and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury get a whole lot more screentime, and thus more interesting things to do with their characters.  This movie also introduces Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson / Falcon, an interesting character who in retrospect doesn’t get enough attention in the following movies.  Sebastian Stan returns as the Winter Soldier (aka brainwashed Bucky Barnes) and doesn’t do much more than shoot and punch, but it does give a background to Bucky’s role in future movies. The plot of this movie is well done, but there’s a lot more firing machine guns and blowing stuff up than I find interesting. More isn’t always better even in an action movie, but the Russos have a workman-like approach that lacks the artistry of some other MCU directors.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)


TitleAnt-Man
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Ant-Man is the 12th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hank Pym (Michael Douglass), and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) into the MCU.  This may be the best “origin story” movie of the MCU and one of the funniest as well.  Lang is an idealistic cat burglar trying to stay clean after a stint in prison so he can reconnect with his young daughter.  Pym cleverly recruits him into putting his heist skills to work by introducing him to the Ant-Man suit and the ability to communicate with ants (this is not a movie for myrmecophobics!).  Pyms estranged daughter Hope helps with training Lang while also working with Pym’s rival Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

There’s some interesting digital manipulation in a flashback scene at the beginning of the movie that brings back the appearance Michael Douglass of the his 1980s peak.  Douglass is rather hammy in his acting though.  However, Stoll is far worse,  as even for a comic book villain there’s absolutely no nuance to his portrayal as anything other than an evil psychopath.  Rather unoriginally, Pym and Cross’s story is basically a recreation of the first Iron Man movie.

Luckily, there’s Paul Rudd there to make things interesting and funny.  The concept of a “shrinking person” exploring a world where microscopic things are now giant is not new, but in this movie it’s filmed well with a lot of whimsy and attention to detail.  Pop culture artifacts such as Siri, Thomas the Tank Engine, and the classic Disneyland attraction Journey Thru Inner Space make interesting cameos. Michael Peña steals every scene he’s in as Lang’s former cellmate and member of his heist crew, Luis.

I look forward to seeing the sequel this summer, especially since it will rightfully be expanding Lilly’s role as an equal partner.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Coco (2017)


Title: Coco
Release Date: November 22, 2017
Director: Lee Unkrich
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Coco is a delightful animated film by Pixar that weaves in the traditions of Día de los Muertos to a celebration of family and music. Miguel is boy in a family of shoemakers who loves the music of the local legend Ernesto de la Cruz, and wishes to pursue making music of his own.  The problem is that his family has banned music for several generations after his great-great-grandmother and his great-grandmother Coco (then a child) were left behind by great-great-grandfather seeking a music career. What follows is a wonderful adventure where Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead (depicted humorously as a bureaucratic parallel to our own world). with the help of a  bumbling skeleton named Hector, Miguel seeks to return to his own world and get his family’s blessing to play music, learning a lot about his family in the process.  There are some unexpectedly dark parts to this film – maybe not what would scare a young child in a movie full of skeletons – but nonetheless very serious material for a family film.  Visually it’s splendorous and I enjoy the wide ranges of expressions given to the skeleton’s bony faces.  Definitely another terrific addition to the Pixar catalog.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Doctor Strange (2016)


TitleDoctor Strange
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Director:  Scott Derrickson
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Since I seem to be watching all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies lately, I may as well watch Doctor Strange even though the concept looks … unpromising.

Here is my liveblog of Doctor Strange.:

  • Hey! His  name is “Strange” and he’s a doctor!
  • And Benedict Cumberbatch has an American accent!
  • He still acts just like Sherlock though. I guess they couldn’t find an American actor who can do extremely arrogant and extremely talented.
  • That physical therapist who gave away information in his former patient totally violated HIPPA.
  • So Kamar-Taj is in Kathmandu, but there are no Asian people there?
  • On the other hand it’s quite believable that Tilda Swinton holds all of the ancient knowledge.
  • Dr. Strange deserved to be punched out of his body for touching a woman without consent .
  • This trippy sequence in the astral plane should totally be adapted as Instagram filters.
  • WiFi password, ha-ha!
  • Ah, here’s an Asian person in Kamar-Taj, and it’s a severe librarian named Wong. I think I have a favorite character.
  • The Cloak is the real hero.
  • Okay, those are pretty cool visuals in that fight scene in the Rubik Cube version of New York.
  • Could he really just walk of the street and straight into the surgery at the ER?
  • The Ancient One is pretty dang preachy in her death scene.
  • So Strange and Mordo completely swap their opinions of the Ancient One and her connection to the Dark Dimension in a matter of minutes.  Maybe she should have preached to Mordo as well.
  • Ooooh, a backwards fight!
  • And now Doctor Strange must fight off the Giant Pollen Monster.
  • So who first came up with the idea of a repeating time loop to resolve the crisis: Doctor Strange or the Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent?”
  • Nice Infinity Stone name drop there, Wong.  Always good to promote upcoming crossover spectaculars.
  • Ha ha, the credits contain a warning about distracted driving.

So, it was an entertaining bit of fluff, although I don’t think it can overcome the racial issues of it’s source material, and many of the tropes used are overly familiar.

Rating: **1/2

Previously Reviewed:

 

 

Movie Reviews: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


Title: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Director: John Watts
Production Company: Marvel Studio
Summary/Review:

The first Spider-Man solo film in the MCU dispenses with the origin story – praise be – especially since that was probably already covered in the 6 other Spider-Man movies this century. I can’t speak for those other movies since I never saw them, but I think Tom Holland does an excellent take on the dorky teen trying balance his every day life with exploring his new powers, and knowing that he’s capable of bigger things after being exposed to the Avengers.  Michael Keaton, decades after he was Batman, plays a compelling villain, a blue-collar worker who gets rich by illegally salvaging alien technology and is not too keen on Peter Parker getting in the way.  This movie has just the right balance of humor, heart, and action sequences, and I think it’s the best MCU movie alongside Black Panther. I hope in the next Spider-Man movie they further explore Peter’s Mets fandom and have him take on The Wall.

Rating: ****

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)


Title: Avengers: Infinity War
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Avengers 3 or Marvel Cinematic Universe XIX is the big crossover spectacular you’d expect.  It brings together both factions of the Avengers with Doctor Strange, The Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of Wakanda (including Bucky, now known as The White Wolf) to attempt to prevent Thanos from acquiring all of the Infinity Stones and destroying half of all the life in the universe.

With 21 main protagonists plus villains and minor characters,  it’s impressive that filmmakers are able to streamline their overlapping storylines and give everyone adequate screentime (although this is not a movie you can watch with no previous knowledge of the MCU).  I particularly like how people from different groups are matched up to work together, such as Thor with Rocket and Groot, and Doctor Strange with Iron Man and Spider-Man (and latter those three work with the remaining Guardians and Nebula).  I feel there were moments in the movie where typically the camera would hold a shot for a heroic beat, but instead there’s a quick cut to another storyline, as if the editors are just trying to fit in everything possible.  And that’s okay, because it keeps the movie from feeling bloated.

The movie does a good job of showing a more tender side of Thanos, albeit I’m still unconvinced that he’s capable of love.  I also question if he’s really thought his plan through (see spoilerly thoughts below).  I’ve not seen Doctor Strange before, but I immediately loved him when he called Tony Stark a douchebag.  The character most poorly served in this movie is Vision, who I thought had terrific character development in Civil War, but seems to be reduced to a bland plot device here.  I love that they cast Peter Dinklage as a giant.  Thor, Spider-Man, and Groot steal every scene they’re in.  Despite the grim subject matter this movie is very funny. Except for the ending which is appropriately solemn.

Avengers: Infinity War is not a great movie, but it is a great action adventure blockbuster, which is all we can ask of it.

 

Some spoilerly thoughts and questions:

  • It’s convenient that the superheroes that survive Thanos’ plot are the same ones from the first Avengers movie. Presumably, Hawkeye also survives and will rejoin them. I suppose that will make that sequel a bit more focused, though.
  • Too bad Doctor Strange doesn’t survive since he choses to be vague about what he saw in the possible futures.  May have been better if he’d said nothing at all.
  • It’s kind of a cheap move that Thanos survives because first Peter Quill takes the bait and ruins the plan to take the gauntlet, and then Thor waits until it’s too late to use his Thanos’ killing ax.  Those kind of tricks don’t make for good storytelling.
  • Does Thanos really eradicate half of all the living things in the universe? Half of all the ducks, half of all the trees, half of all the paramecium? Or is it just half of all the bipedal, sentient humanoids?  The latter would make more sense because destroying half the food sources and disrupting ecosystems would be contrary to Thanos’ belief that he’s doing a mercy to stop starvation.  But where is the line drawn between species that are halved and those that are left untouched?
  • If the eradication is truly randomized, there’s a 50% chance that Thanos himself would be disintegrated.  For a moment, I thought that was actually going to happen, and Thanos, his mission accomplished,  would be content to see himself disappearing.  I think that would’ve been an amazing twist and would’ve set up the next movie to be less “Let’s fight Thanos for 2.5 hours” and more “OMG, Thanos is gone, how are we going to reverse this?”
  • Red Skull’s appearance seems kind of … random … but hey, when your squeezing in almost every character in the MCU, why hand out a bit part to an unknown?
  • If the heroes lost in Infinity War are brought back by Stark sacrificing himself, I’m good with that.
  • Are Natasha and Bruce going to be able to rekindle their romance?

Rating: ***

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Inside Out


TitleInside Out
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Director: Pete Docter
Production Company:

The premise of Inside Out is well-established from all the promotion for the movie.  Inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson are five personified emotions – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust.  When Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has to leave behind her home, friends, and hockey team, and deal with moving into a creaky, little house, a late moving van, and her parents’ distraction, Riley faces new stresses that throw the organized world of her emotions into disarray.

The story goes in places I didn’t expect.  Joy and Sadness are separated from the “control center” of the mind to the “memory banks” and have to find their way back in what is essentially a buddy film.  Joy – the self-appointed leader of the emotions – has never understood the purpose of Sadness and as Riley goes through what is essentially a depressive episode, Joy realizes that they can’t resolve the problem until she lets Sadness take control and allow Riley to express her feelings.

It’s a complicated concept, but it’s done well with a lot of humor and creative illustrations of the inner workings of the mind. It has the gags that will make the kids laugh, and the moments that will make the parents weep (as I did both when Riley’s imaginary friend fades away and at the climax when Riley finally tells her parents how she’s feeling, which lead to my son shouting “hey, you’re crying!).  My son also noted that the emotions display a lot of – well, emotions – leading him to conclude that there must by five smaller emotions within their minds, and so on.

Summary/Review: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)


TitleBlack Panther
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Black Panther is rightly celebrated for breaking ground in representation by depicting African and African Americans (and especially Black women) in a superhero/action adventure film.  That wouldn’t matter as much if also wasn’t an excellent superhero/action adventure film, certainly the best one I’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The all-star cast put in excellent performances that balances the challenge of providing great character development,  motivations, and relationships with butt-kicking, blowing stuff up, and witty dialogue. The world of Wakanda comes alive, providing a “what if” view of how an African country uninterrupted by colonialism could develop a technologically advanced society from architecture to clothing to rituals to freakin’ awesome battle rhinos.

Introducing T’Challa in Civil War means that Black Panther doesn’t get bogged down with “superhero origin story” tropes, even as it shows him facing the challenges of coming of age, ascending to kingship, and realizing the nuances of right and wrong in governance.  Chadwick Boseman does a great job at examining this uncertainty and loss of idealism. Michael B. Jordan steals the show as Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens whose character is so very American in contrast to the rest of the cast, and brings up uncomfortable questions about Wakanda’s responsibility to oppressed and colonized Black peoples worldwide. (SPOILER: I’m disappointed Kilmonger chooses to die because I think his character could make a great “frenemy” in future films, allying with T’Challa as Wakanda opens itself to the rest of the world.  But I suppose Marvel is already telling that kind of story with Wanda Maximof).  Like most everyone else, my favorite character is Shuri, the young tech wizard played Letitia Wright who needles her big brother T’Challa (while secretly hero-worshiping him) and says inappropriate things at formal occasions.

You probably don’t need me to say it, but this is an all around terrific movie and has something for everyone.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)


TitleCaptain America: Civil War
Release Date: May 6, 2016
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Captain America’s name is in the title but this film feels more like a third Avengers movie, or perhaps more generically Marvel Cinematic Universe XIII.  The movie starts with the Avengers team working in Lagos where new member Wanda Maximof attempts to deflect the explosion of a villain’s suicide bomb, but instead it accidentally detonates in a nearby building where it kills Wakandan humanitarian workers.  This latest mishap leads to the United Nations passing the Sokovia Accords (ironically named for the place where the Avengers first attempted to avoid collateral damage) which will allow the U.N. to oversee and control the Avengers.

And thus begins the Civil War where the team splits over whether they will accept outside control.  Frustratingly, the filmmakers have douchey Tony Stark take the side I agree with, while it’s Steve Rogers who goes rogue in opposition to the accords.  Honestly, these choices seem out of character for both Stark and Rogers and the film never really justifies their decision.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop Civil War from having a lot of dramatic tension as Rogers puts together a team to protect his friend Bucky Barnes and seek out Helmut Zemo who framed Barnes for bombing the U.N., while Stark puts together a team to stop Rogers from breaking the Accords.

If there wasn’t enough going on, Civil War also introduces two new major characters. T’Challa, the Black Panther, enters the fight as a wild card third party seeking revenge on Bucky Barnes because his father King T’Chaka is killed in the bombing.  Meanwhile, Stark decides it’s a good time to bring a new, young superhero into the fold, Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man).  You’ve probably seen what happens next, as the clips of the big battle scenes as Avengers fight Avengers at a German airport have saturated popular culture.

There are some interesting twists I won’t spoil, but I was impressed and surprised by Zemo’s end game and manipulation.  And despite the grim subject matter, the movie manages a lot of humor and entertainment.  Oh, and I haven’t mentioned Vision – who seemed to just be tossed in as another character in Age of Ultron – who emerges as both comic relief and the humanitarian heart of Civil War.  There’s a lot going on in this movie, but ultimately it succeeds because it does justice to characters, even though there’s a lot of them.

Rating: ***