TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

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TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery (2020)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 3
Episodes:13
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review:

Picking up from the cliffhanger end of Season 2, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the crew of the USS Discovery successfully travel 930 years into the future.  Their mission to save the universe is a success, but they find new troubles in the future.  Specifically, sources of dilithium for warp travel through space have dried up and an event called The Burn additionally destroyed many starships.  Unable to travel long distances, the Federation has dwindled in size while pirates and mercenaries operate freely in many systems.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Star Trek:Discovery and continue to do so.  Season 3 is definitely the best of the three seasons thus far, and I continue to like the cast and the characters they play.  Sending Discovery to the future helps in that the show can finally shake off being overshadowed by the original series and can feature more futuristic technology without it looking anachronistic.

Some other highlights of Season 3:

  • introduction of Book (David Ajala), a courier or smuggler from the 32nd century who becomes a love interest for Michael Burnham
  • introduction of Adira Tal (Blu del Barrio), a teenage human who is bonded with a Trill symbiont. They have a Wesley Crusher teen genius flair to them (NOTE: I know in some quarters of Star Trek fandom, Wesley is hated, but I’ve always liked the character so this is a compliment)
  • there feels to be a lot more exploring of “strange new worlds” in this series although it is tied to the season-long arc.  Seeing this far into the future of the Star Trek universe is fascinating in of itself
  • a completely bonkers call back to the Guardian of Forever
  • fleshing out of the bridge crew characters that we learned little about in the first two seasons, especially Keyla Detmer (Emily Coutts) and Joan Owesekun (Oyin Oladejo)
  • Grudge the cat
  • the final three episodes are a highwater mark for story, action, and direction.  These episodes are the first the really feel like they are made in the same spirit as the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. We even get to see Doug Jones in a rare performance as Saru without prosthetics

There are also a few downsides:

  • the continued presence of the evil Mirror Universe Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) is a drag.  Yeoh is a great actor but she’s saddled with two much air time that could be dedicated to more interesting things. Georgiou does finally depart the show (for a planned spinoff series), but not before we have to sit through a two-parter that brings us back to the Mirror Universe for gratuitous nastiness. The other characters fawning over her at her memorial service seems more like a tribute to Yeoh than to Georgiou who everyone rightly would’ve hated
  • while the show has gradually shed being grimdark for grimdark’s sake over the course of three season, it’s still baked into the show with crazy plot twists often substituted for good storytelling.  And there’s too much gratuitous violence, even in the good episodes where Burnham chokes a person to death with her legs.
  • while I generally like Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance as Michael Burnham, I feel that the writers are overdoing it by having her be central to every story in every episode.  Even Kirk and Picard were left out of smattering of episodes in the old shows. As the series ends, Saru is apparently leaving the show and Burnham takes over as captain. The loss of one of the best characters and the further centering of Burnham makes me a bit uneasy about the future of the show.

But as I said earlier, this is the best season of Discovery so far and with it finishing so strongly, I do have high hopes that the show will continue to improve and earn a place in Star Trek lore.  My subscription to Paramount+ runs out before season 4 premieres and I don’t know if and when I will re-subscribe, but I expect somewhere down the road I will watch future seasons of the show.  In the meantime, I’m inspired to go back and rewatch Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation and finally work my way through Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.  This will take some time, for sure.

 

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TV Review: Star Trek: Picard (2020)


TitleStar Trek: Picard
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 1
Episodes:10
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Weed Road Pictures | Escapist Fare
Roddenberry Entertainment | CBS Studios
Summary/Review:

Beloved character Jean-Luc Picard, played by the even more beloved actor Patrick Stewart, returns to the small screen nearly 20 years after his last appearance in Star Trek: Nemesis (the only one of the 10 films in the original Star Trek film series that I’ve never watched). The premise of the series is that 14 years before it begins, Admiral Picard was active in relocating the Romulan people before the star near their home planet went supernova. After synthetic life forms carry out a devastating act of sabotage on the Federation’s facilities on Mars, the Federation calls off the relocation project and ban all synthetic life.  Angry at these two betrayals, Picard resigns from Starfleet.

In the present day a young woman, Dahj (Isia Briones), seeks out Picard’s help after realizing that she is an android created from the remains of Picard’s friend Data (Brent Spiner) .  Romulan spies kill Dahj, but not before Picard learns that she has an identical twin, Soji, working at a Romulan outpost on an abandoned Borg cube called The Artifact.

Picard puts together a crew to help find and help Soji.  This includes a friend and colleague who helped with Romulan relocation, Raffi (Michelle Hurd), who struggles with substance abuse. Raffi finds a captain with a ship, La Sirena, Chris (Santiago Cabrera) who has a traumatic background in Starfleet.  They are joined by Agnes (Alison Pill), a synthetic life expert who is naive about space travel.  Along the way they pick up Elnor (Evan Evagora), a samurai-like Romulan who  was raised by a sect of warrior nuns to provide protection. To please the fans, familiar characters from the Star Trek franchise make appearances, including former Borg Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), and Picard’s crewmates from Enterprise, Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi ( Marina Sirtis).  Brent Spiner also returns to play Data in dream sequences and Altan Inigo Soong, the son of Data’s creator.  One of the weird aspects of the show is that Picard not only quit Starfleet, but hasn’t kept in touch with any of his friends which is both out of character and used to create artificial tension.

In the early episodes, the show moves slowly, setting up Picard’s current situation and introducing the new characters.  There are elements of mystery and spy thriller with Picard thrust into the role of detective.  It was a refreshing change from the fast-paced action for action’s sake of Star Trek: Discovery.  By the end of episode 3 when we finally see Picard on the bridge of a starship and hear him say “Engage!,” it is a cheezy moment for the fans but one that is well-earned.  Unfortunately, during the second half of the season the show goes off the rails.  All the worst instincts of Discovery for shocking twists are indulged and a lot of drama is forced from the characters making bold choices to raise the stakes that seem irrelevant a few scenes later.

For a show called Picard, the title character seems lost in the crowded cast.  And yet, we don’t really get to know the new characters all that well either.  Sometimes they seem to do things that are out of character, but then their characters never seem to be developed well enough to know in the first place.  I loved Star Trek: Generation as a kid, but the level of graphic violence and profanity in Picard that makes it “gritty and dark,” makes me not want to share it with my kids. There was some promise in Picard, and maybe it will be fulfilled in the upcoming two seasons that are in production, but right now I don’t feel compelled at all to want to watch them.

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TV Review: Star Trek:Discovery (2019)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2019
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 2
Episodes:14
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review

While the first season of Star Trek: Discovery showed some promise, it suffered from the 21st-century television malady of using “grimdark” as the baseline for storytelling.  The season starts with a brutal war story and then takes a left turn into an evil mirror universe. Thankfully, the second season has more of the hopeful future of possibility that is the heart of Star Trek.  There’s definitely a lighter tone, humor, and a sense of a group of people who are working together for, well, discovery.

The season begins with a new captain, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), transferring from the Enterprise to take temporary command of Discovery.  Pike is a character from the pilot of the original Star Trek series who returned for a two-part episode called “The Menagerie.”  Being a prequel to the original series, Discovery has been guilty of playing up to fan nostalgia (and one episode in particular this season goes very deeply into going where Star Trek has gone before) by bringing in familiar people and things.  With Pike, though, I think it works, similar to Sarek and Amanda, as they are all familiar people in Star Trek lore but have had limited screen time.

A bigger challenge is the significant role of another familiar character, Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) foster brother Spock (Ethan Peck).  Not only is Spock one of the most important characters in Star Trek history but he is so entwined with Leonard Nimoy that it feels an act of arrogance to recast him.  Ultimately I can’t fault Peck, who does the best he can taking on an iconic role, and Spock’s presence in the series arc makes sense having established him as the family of our main character, Burnham.  I can’t help feeling though that this is a way of trying to gain Star Trek legitimacy for the series without really earning it.

While season 2 is a great improvement over season 1, I feel that Discovery is still missing something that I love about Star Trek.  What is missing is the whole exploring “strange new worlds” thing. All the plots and conflict of the original series involved “boldly going” somewhere new.  By the time of The Next Generation, the Enterprise seemed to be shuttling between places already discovered, but they still met “new life and civilizations” all the time  Discovery, by contrast, seemingly is just always in crisis and the conflict is within Starfleet (a big no-no under Gene Rodenberry, and obviously an artificial restraint to storytelling, but Discovery seems to be over-correcting). Even when they do visit places like Saru’s (Doug Jones) homeworld, we really don’t find out all too much about the planet beyond meeting Saru’s sister.

Past iterations of Star Trek have been accused of being boring, but the show did take time for world-building and character development. This season was good in fleshing out some of the secondary characters and giving a little more about the many familiar faces on the bridge.  On the downside, one episode finally fills in the background of one character only to have the episode end with their death. It’s an old trick in tv and not a good one. So much of this season is about plot twists and new threats that come so fast it’s hard to even make sense of them sometimes. It starts with a search for mysterious signals in the galaxy, then a search for Spock, and then a mysterious sphere with an archive of data.  The antagonists are the CIA-like Section 31 intelligence organization of the United Federation of Planets, and then suddenly a sentient artificial intelligence.  It all gets a bit exhausting.

Mind you, Discovery is a fun show and one I want to keep watching.  The characters and acting fill in a lot of gaps where the plotting and writing fail.  I just think it could be a great show and more true to its Star Trek lineage while also being more adventurous in storytelling. The season ends with a thrilling space battle and an all-hands-on-deck plot to save the universe where all the major characters contribute.  And it pretty much answers why we have never heard of Discovery or Michael Burnham or the spore drive in previous Star Trek series while also setting up a premise for Season 3 that could redefine the show in exciting ways.  I shall keep watching

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TV Review: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-2018)


Title: Star Trek: Discovery
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman
Season: 1
Episodes: 15
Production Company: Secret Hideout | Roddenberry Entertainment | Living Dead Guy Productions | CBS Studios
Summary/Review: As a long time fan of the Star Trek original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and all their spinoff films,  I’ve been eager to watch this newest Star Trek universe series. My feelings after viewing the first season are mixed.  The show veers away from the Gene Roddenberry rules into darker territory than previous series, but it also has a tendency toward ludicrous plot twists over effective storytelling. Keeping in line with 21st-century television, Discovery is a serialized program as opposed to the mostly stand-alone episodic approach of its predecessors.

Unlike other Star Trek shows which centered on the captain, the main character of this show is  Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green, who was great in The Walking Dead), a science specialist on the U.S.S. Enterprise.  She is a human who was orphaned in a Klingon attack as a child and raised as the ward of the Vulcan Sarek (James Frain), essentially making her Spock’s adopted sister. As the series begins, she is a first officer being groomed to be a captain, but convinced that the Federation must make a preemptive attack on the Klingon Empire, she attempts a mutiny and is busted down to the lowest levels.

The first half of the season deals with Burnhams attempted mutiny, the start of the Federation-Klingon War, and Burnham’s recruitment to the Discovery by the eccentric military captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs of Lucius Malfoy fame but with an American accent). The early episodes are hit and miss but I think do a good job of establishing Burnham and her regrets and hopes for redemption while also introducing the rest of the characters. It also shows some developments of an experimental technology on the Discovery,  the spore drive.  Basically it uses a galaxy-wide mycelial network (yes, space fungi!) to jump to different places in space.  It sounds weird, but then again, so were dilithium crystals.

The second half of the season is set primarily in the Mirror Universe, a plot device going back to the original series of an alternate universe where everyone has evil duplicates.  Unfortunately this half of the season is pretty much mediocre as the creators indulge their desire to make the show “gritty and dark.” There’s a definite influence of the 2000s Battlestar Galactica without that show’s gravitas. The second half of the season also has multiple characters being revealed as not who they were, but not in very effective ways.  It feels like the twists were thought up first and then the stories were filled in later.  Thankfully, the final episode builds on the hope on optimism that is the corner of Star Trek storytelling and gives me hope for future seasons.

The show is set ten years before the beginning of the original series making Discovery essentially a prequel. There’s wisdom in this as it appears the creators wanted to tell a war story and why not have the Klingons as antagonists rather than creating a new villain, albeit I don’t think they ultimately used the Klingons to their best storytelling potential. Despite the earlier time period, the crew of Discovery have access to more advanced technology than in earlier shows.  I’m mostly fine with this, because the 1960s Star Trek did their best to show future technology with the special effects available at the time, so there’s no reason the 2010s show shouldn’t do the same.  Ultimately, though, they are going to have to explain why the spore drive doesn’t replace the warp drive by the time of The Next Generation.

The best part of the show so far is its characters.  In addition Martin-Green, the show’s main cast includes:

  • Doug Jones (creature specialist of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water fame) as Saru, who is of a rare species known as Kelpien, serves as the first officer, and is the conscience of the ship. He’s my favorite character thus far.
  • Mary Wiseman plays Sylvia Tilly, Burnham’s roommate who is nerdy and socially awkward, but nonetheless highly-skilled and ambitious.  She’s my second favorite character.
  • Shazad Latif plays Ash Tyler, who is rescued from a Klingon jail by Captain Lorca, appointed security chief, and becomes a romantic interest of sorts for Burnham.
  • Anthony Rapp plays the sometimes crotchety/sometimes goofy chief engineer Paul Stamets who develops and maintains the spore drive.
  • Wilson Cruz plays Hugh Culber, the ship’s medical officer, and Stamets’ husband, and is the more sensible of the couple.
  • Michelle Yeoh has a recurring role as starship Captain Philippa Geourgiu who is Burnham’s mentor.

Due to the aforementioned twists, it appears that several of the characters will not be appearing in future seasons, although none of their endings are written in stone.  I’ll find out soon.

TV Review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)


Title: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Malcolm Spellman
Director: Kari Skogland
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, please don’t read.

Much like its predecessor WandaVision, this Marvel series on Disney+ is set shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame and uses recovering the traumatic events of “The Blip” as the background to series.  Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were both snapped out of existence for five years and both lost one of their closest friends with the passing of Steve Rogers.  As the series begins, Bucky is in therapy dealing with the murders he committed while brainwashed by Hydra.  Sam received the Captain America shield from Steve, but determines to place it in a museum rather than take up the mantle himself.  He also grows concerned about his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) being in a position where she needs to sell the family’s fishing business in Louisiana, but even as a superhero he can’t get credit from predatory banks.

The main antagonist in the series is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman playing a character very similar to her role as Enfys Nest in Solo), the leader of an organization called the Flag Smashers who are fighting for open borders in the post-Blip world.  Workers who were allowed to move to to more prosperous countries during the Blip are now being forced out.  This is an interesting concept that relates to real life issues of refugee crises, but the goals of the Flag Smashers  seem very muddled in practice, as if the show’s creators wanted to make them somewhat sympathetic but still keep the moral certainty needle pushed towards the shows “heroes.”  Another antagonist is John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a U.S. Army veteran appointed to be the new Captain America when Sam refuses it.  He’s an interesting morally-grey character because he’s arrogant, but also seems to be trying to do the best he can in the shadow of Steve Rogers.  He eventually does turn heel, but then is far too easily redeemed in the final episode.

The series focuses deeply on issues of race and how Black people are treated inequitably in America.  Sam’s reluctance to be Captain America is partially due to the fact that the colors of the American flag don’t represent Black Americans and that a Black Captain America would not be accepted by white Americans.  Issues such as police harassment of Black people and the revelation of super soldier experiments on Black prisoners are covered in the show.  The race issues are unnuanced and a bit simplistic, but on the other hand it’s a credit to Marvel for trying to address them.

The very busy six episodes also include appearances by anti-super soldier villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Avenger James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a fugitive Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and member of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje Ayo (Florence Kasumba).  The series serves as a transition for Sam and Bucky to set them up for future chapters in the ongoing MCU.  I found it entertaining with some good performances, but it bit scattered storywise with too many plot elements packed in.

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TV Review: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021)


Title: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
Release Date: April 7, 2021
Creator : Colin Barnicle and Nick Barnicle
Director: Colin Barnicle
Episodes: 4
Production Company: TriBeCa Productions
Summary/Review:

I generally avoid True Crime media, but I am borderline obsessed with the theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.  I’ve read a book about it and listened to a podcast, and now I’ve watched this 4-part Netflix documentary. The documentary does a good job of reiterating the main points of what is known about the crime.  It’s good get the visuals to go with the story, such as diagrams of the museum that show where the thieves operated. And then there’s a mix of archival news footage with present-day interviews with many key figures, from museum guards to the museums director.

While being a very entertaining documentary it’s also highly sensationalist (which naturally adds to the entertainment value).  There’s a lot of building up of potential suspects before revealing that they couldn’t possibly have commited the crime.  The same footage is played over and over again, most hilariously a “dramatic reenactment” of a couple of high school students walking piggy back down Palace Road before the crime. The creators of the film are happy to rely on the false Hollywood image of Boston as a mobster-infested playground of vice. A lot of people commenting on the documentary are loving the Boston accents and characters which really don’t exist in present day Boston. In short, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours, but take it with a grain of salt.

My main takeaway from this series is that it is been way too long since I’ve been inside the glorious interiors of the Gardner Museum.  I will prioritize visiting there post-pandemic.  The series also gave us this tweet, which is a work of art of its own:

 

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Very Murray Christmas


Title: A Very Murray Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Director: Sofia Coppola
Production Company: American Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

How time flies! I thought to myself that I should finally watch that highly-regarded Bill Murray special on Netflix that came out, was it last year? No, it was five years ago. Five Christmases based and I neglected to watch this hour-long special. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but it is mildly entertaining.

The premise is that Bill Murray (playing himself, or at least the version of himself he plays all the time) is hosting a celebrity-studded live Christmas special in New York. But a blizzard means no one else can participate in the show and Murray is distraught. After wrangling Chris Rock into an awkward duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the power goes out and the show is canceled. Murray makes his way to the lounge where he basically starts a karaoke party with the other guests and staff stranded there (played by a bevy of celebrities including David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, and the band Phoenix). Finally Murray passes out drunk and dreams of an elaborate stage show with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney as guests.

I went into this thinking it was a parody of corny old Christmas variety specials and about a third of the way realized that it’s a homage to corny old Christmas variety specials. Really, it’s almost entirely musical performances tied together by a meager storyline. Murray is surprisingly a great vocalist in his own right and sings well with all his guest talent. The humor of the show is light and really the only time I bust a gut was when George Clooney popped out from behind a tree to sing the chorus of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”

Is it an all-time Christmas classic? Maybe not, but it was worth finally getting around to watching to get myself into the holiday spirit this year.


Rating:

Holiday Movie Marathon: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)


Title: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Release Date: December 18, 1966
Director: Chuck Jones | Ben Washam
Production Company: Cat in the Hat Productions | MGM Animation/Visual Arts
Summary/Review:

With all the remakes and the ever-growing Grinch Industrial Complex, it’s easy to forget how short and simple this original adaption of the Dr. Seuss’ book is. It does bring together some remarkable talent, including legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones. The animation is noticeably superior to A Charlie Brown Christmas of a year earlier. It also features the voice talents of Boris Karloff as the narrator and June Foray as Cindy Lou Who. And the golden voice of the awesomely-named Thurl Ravenscroft sings the original diss track, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The Grinch of course is relatable to anyone who gets a bit grumpy about the commercialism and trappings of Christmas, so this show holds up well.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)


Title: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 1977
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates
Summary/Review:

I’d heard about Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas when I was a child, but somehow I never caught it on tv and later in life I just couldn’t find. Being a lover of otters and Jim Henson, I’m glad that I finally was able to watch it this year. Henson and his associates created a charming Appalachian village populated with several down-home animals including the titular Emmet (Jerry Nelson) and his mother, Alice (Marilyn Sokol). In this “Gift of the Magi” inspired story, Emmet and Alice each hope to win the prize in a talent show so they can get one another the perfect gift. Emmet pokes a hole in his mother’s washtub to start the jug band, while Alice pawns Emmet’s tools to get fine clothing for her singing performance. It’s a sweet story with great music and fantastic set design and puppetry tricks that still hold up. I’m so glad I finally got to see this!

Rating: ****