Archive | May 2015

Movie Review: I Am Big Bird – The Caroll Spinney Story

5 years ago, I was visiting a friend in New Jersey, but took a day-and-a-half to wander around a city that I had often heard of my entire life: New York!

While I did have the chance to finally see FAO Schwarz’s flagship store (where I chatted with a Muppet What-Not craft-person, via another Muppet What-Not!), and the Henson Alternative’s adult-puppet/variety show Stuffed and Unstrung (where I met Jim Henson’s son Brian in the audience!), I did find myself making a little detour to The West Side on Manhattan. The reason? I was hoping to maybe see just where The Children’s Television Workshop was located. Sadly, I never did find out “how to get to Sesame Street,” but I think it proves just how much the show still is a part of me.

I was allowed to watch Sesame Street at a young age, and had a number of Sesame Street Book Club books on the shelf as a kid. I also recall that my local J.C. Penney’s in the early 80’s, had life-size figures of several of the characters up on a high ledge in the children’s department. One of those figures, was Big Bird.

Though I was a fan of the more weird characters like Ernie and Grover, Big Bird was always a welcome character on Sesame Street. He also became the subject of the 1985 film Follow that Bird, which I still remember being taken to by my Dad on Summer Vacation, and watching the film with one of my cousins.

Deep within the yellow feathers of that 8-foot tall bird, is a man by the name of Caroll Spinney, and I Am Big Bird sets out to show us more about the man inside the bird.

Of all the characters on Sesame Street, Big Bird is the one that is a one-man show, but also the most demanding of Spinney, who often has to multi-task when performing. Something that seems so simple, as Big Bird roller-skating up to someone and having a conversation, is actually a combination of at least 4 different things.

After watching the documentary, I felt like I could relate to Carroll. It seems he is a person who often wears his emotions on his sleeve, but it is also that quality that makes him really stand out in my mind. His remembrances of some of the darker times in his life (after his first wife divorced him, he contemplated suicide), really make your heart go out to this man. Though even in his darker moments, deep down, he always seemed to harbor a want to entertain, and put his puppetry skills to good use.

Along with Caroll, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker glean commentary from many different people. We get to hear Jane Henson (via audio tape), and even former Muppeteers Frank Oz, and the late Jerry Nelson. We even get some commentary by Sonia Manzano (Maria), Bob McGrath (Bob), Emilio Delgado (Luis), and Loretta Long (Susan), the human cast who I remembered from those days watching Sesame Street in the 1980’s!

Debra & Caroll Spinney

Debra & Caroll Spinney

Watching the film, one surprising person I didn’t expect to be amazed by, was Caroll’s wife, Debra. The story of how they met is so cute, but it also seems the two compliment each other perfectly. Debra supported Caroll’s artistic side (something Caroll’s first wife didn’t do), and also ended up being a secret weapon for the documentary. It turned out she recorded almost everything she and Caroll did, and it provides some of the most fun and insightful videos.

Some could easily say the film gets a little saccharine at times (even Carroll’s kids tell how he and his wife’s love is so genuine that many people think they’re faking it), but it seems hard to fault a film that to me, seems genuinely sincere.

Though the film does delve largely into Caroll’s role as Big Bird, it also touches on his role as Oscar the Grouch, the yang to Big Bird’s ying. If Big Bird is the more innocent side of things, Oscar is the more ‘grouchy’ side of some people, but that largely covers a good-hearted individual (almost like Grumpy in Snow White).

I did get a little excited when the film finally got around to talking about Follow That Bird, but it becomes little more than a blip on the radar, as other stories are told. Even so, there are plenty of other milestones that Spinney took part in. Big Bird ended up being one of the first celebrities to go to China (with Bob Hope!), and almost went into outer space (it was only at the last-minute did they find out there wasn’t enough room to bring the Big Bird costume).

Caroll Spinney (left) and Kermit Love (right) on the set of "The Muppet Movie."

Caroll Spinney (left) and Kermit Love (right) on the set of “The Muppet Movie.”

One story that gets a little sad, is when the crew went over to Asia to film the 1983 special, Big Bird in China. During the film, Big Bird and Barkley the Dog befriend a little girl named Xiao Foo (portrayed by Lisa Ouyang). Sadly, on the day the crew was to leave China after filming the special, they were not able to say a proper goodbye to Lisa, whom Caroll, Debra, and the crew had almost become a second-family to…however, this leads to one of the best moments in the documentary.

Of course, a film regarding one of Jim Henson’s creations, would be remiss if we didn’t hear a little about Jim himself. Though not as active with Jim as other Muppeteers, Caroll and Debra do share some wonderful memories about him, and we even get to hear the story of how Jim and Caroll first met (courtesy of some Sesame Street-looking animation from Chris Siemasko!).

Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker, have crafted a documentary that does what I love best: give us an insightful journey into a wonderful human being: a person whose had his ups and down, but deep down, has a resolve and kindness that has touched millions of lives, even if we have never met him in person.

When it all comes down to it, I feel one of Big Bird’s lines from Follow That Bird best sums up Caroll’s life:

“Aw gee, I sure am a lucky bird!”

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Final Grade: A- (Final Thoughts: “I Am Big Bird”  gives us insight through the high’s and low’s of Caroll Spinney’s life,  and opens up the world a little more to some of the most inspiring creative individuals out there. I dare anyone to walk away and not feel touched by what Caroll has accomplished)

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Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Let’s face it: when it comes to talking about the future, the majority of humanity is extremely pessimistic.These days, with war, politics, famine, global warming, and several more items too numerous to mention…we’re more willing to accept a future world like that in Terminator 2, than say, Back to the Future Part II (and it is 2015, after all!).

Following World War II, there was the thought that the future would consist of elaborate plastic houses, and pristine-white towers that stretched into the sky. There was optimistic talk of the push-button era, and one thing that still fascinated the young and young-at-heart since the pulp comics of the 1930’s: jetpacks!

Today, that world of optimism seems little more than something one finds in reruns of episodes of Star Trek or The Jetsons…but what if?

That’s what director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and writer Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) are attempting with one of the most quizzical releases from Walt Disney Pictures in some time: Tomorrowland. Though the film borrows the moniker from the Disneyland realm of the same name, it handles its concepts of Tomorrow in a different way.

Key among the film’s characters, are a former boy-genius named Frank Walker (George Clooney), an optimistic teenager named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), and a bright-eyed girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy).

Clooney plays Frank with a grouchy aplomb when we first encounter him, but then again, he seems very much like I imagine some young dreamers who become adults: that magic may still be inside (somewhere), but the world has hardened him on the outside.

Casey Newton is a new take on the “young genius” characters we’ve seen in the last few decades. Instead of being one of those ‘angsty child prodigies,’ she does some of the most dangerous things a young person can do: she asks questions! Casey is one of those people that is thirsting for knowledge, wanting to actually do something in this world that tells you there’s no hope, which definitely throws a wrench into some people’s thoughts.

Usually in a Brad Bird film, there’s one character that seems to stand out, and here, it feels like Raffey’s Athena will be the one most remembered. What seems like a relatively minor role quickly snowballs into something a little more. Given her wide-eyed innocence and British accent, Athena almost reminded me of Kathryn Beaumont at times…in fact, it was a little fun to imagine Beaumont doing half of what Athena does in this film.

One item marketing seems to almost be ashamed of (at least stateside), is making this world a little more welcome to Disney fans (for those who saw the Japan trailer for the film, you’ll know what I mean). This film at times feels like one of the first that I can recall, that seems to almost speak to those of us who were fans of Walt Disney, telling us about flights of imaginative fancy. Tomorrowland is also the first time I’ve ever heard anyone properly use the phrase “Audio-Animatronics” in a film (sorry Jurassic Park, you missed it by “that much”).

As well, the grand vistas of Tomorrowland really make one wish such a place existed: a world where you do feel that anything is possible, and people have put aside their petty differences, all in an attempt to make a better place. If anything, one hopes that maybe what we see will inspire a new generation of dreamers.

Much like an episode of Lost, you might find yourself disoriented after a few minutes watching the film. A number of ‘pieces’ of the film’s puzzle are thrown at us, and it doesn’t really feel that we have a decent grasp of the world, until maybe 1/4 of the way in. It almost put me in mind of the disorientation first-timers must have felt watching Back to the Future, or Spirited Away.

Writer Damon Lindelof’s work with JJ Abrams helped usher in the ‘mystery box’ style of writing to 21st century entertainment, but it feels that at times, Tomorrowland tries to get a little too deep into how many mystery boxes we unearth. I feel that some people may get a little tired of the mysteries, and just demand that some characters get to the point!

As well, a major revelation in the third act almost feels like you might need to take shorthand in order to understand what someone is proposing.

It’s sad that the cohesiveness of the film doesn’t hold together so well, but even so, the film has little jewels of interesting moments. One that stands out is when young Frank (Thomas Robinson) eagerly shows a jetpack he made out of a vacuum cleaner, to Mr Nix (Hugh Laurie). Nix is not-at-all satisfied with Frank’s thought that a jetpack should just be “fun.” But Frank tells how if he saw someone flying overhead on a jetpack, he’d be excited at what the future of innovation could bring. That seems to be the goal of the film: trying to balance out the pessimism of what the future could be, with the optimism of what it can be.

At times, Tomorrowland did remind me of another rather “cold” film: Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  One might have a little trouble trying to properly make an emotional connection with the characters…though at least here, the human characters seem a little more “human.” As well, don’t be surprised if you find some parallels to Tron: Legacy interspersed throughout.

Probably the most exciting moment from the geek/nerd perspective, was when Casey finds herself in a science-fiction collectibles shop. Though a fun little scene, it almost feels like the audience’s attention will be torn between listening to the conversations, and looking for hidden images in the shop. As well, a certain science-fiction series may seem to overwhelm the moment.

Composer Michael Giacchino returns to be the ‘ears’ to Bird’s ‘eyes,’ scoring the film with his typical retro-bravado. There are a few times, where some of his musical work almost seems a little reminiscent of his retro-future themes laid down for the recent Star Trek films. it even sounds like he borrows a little from John Williams’ Last Crusade score, with a brass melody that sounds a little like the theme for Henry Jones, Sr.

Brad Bird made Ghost Protocol a pretty tight film given the story it told, but Tomorrowland feels like it gets flimsy at times, trying to be mysterious. I can’t help but wonder if given the mystery and clues to met out, if it might have made a better television series than a film. Or maybe, if it had an extra 30 minutes, it might have been a little better. It’s rather surprising that given the story being told, it clocks in just under 2 hours!

One interview had Bird and Lindelof talk about how they had a number of interesting thoughts and theories they wanted to put into the film, but in this case, it feels like they may have gotten a little in over their heads.

Even with its shortcomings, Tomorrowland is a film I cannot easily dismiss. Even a good Brad Bird film is something one should see.  Though the big question I think will be, how the film will “speak” to viewers when it is released?

Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: Much like the thought of a World of Tomorrow, the film gives forth a valiant attempt to be something different on the face of our movie landscape, but at times, may be a little too smart for its own good. There’s some wonderful ideas and visuals at work within the film, but it feels like all the pieces don’t fit together so well in the end)

An Animated Dissection: Easter Eggs and References within Star vs the Forces of Evil

Why do you do this to me, Disney? Just when I had signed myself over to being a full-time fan of your new series, you go and leave me and thousands more hanging for a month!

And so, I’ve had no choice but to come up with odd postings and topics such as this one…then again, the series is so new, that this might be one of the first rundowns regarding some of these things. I may be on the ground floor of a new animation phenomenon (doot-doo-do-do-doo!).

*Warning: the following post contains spoilers and episodic story information from the series. If you are wanting to view the show without knowing some of what is coming up, you might want to turn back now.*

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When we first encounter Star Butterfly, we see that she has blush-marks on her cheeks, in the form of hearts. While I and many assumed they were some form of make-up, it seems they are moreso an emotional extension of her character. We’ve seen them turn into hourglasses when she gets bored, and in worrying over her wand dying, they fracture, and turn to skulls.

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When I first watched the show, I didn’t realize an interesting artistic touch regarding the dimensional portals: each one is themed around its destination! For example, The Bounce Lounge dimension’s portal, has a blobby light ring, very similar to the cloud-like atmosphere. Regarding the Quest Buy store’s light ring, it looks like a shield, which is similar to the shield-like logo on one of their shopping carts.

My favorite though, is the one that goes to The Amethyst Arcade, with its phasing, cube light ring.

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We seem to be living in an era where there are all sorts of hidden secrets in some of the shows we watch. 5 episodes into SvtFoE, I have grown curious regarding a certain, little blue creature. We first see him hovering near Star’s parents as they see how she “can’t handle” her wand responsibilities on Mewni.


The next time we see him is in Monster Arm, when he quickly appears from between some pages of the wand’s instruction manual.


Just who he is, I haven’t the faintest clue…but he also figures into the pause screen (below) for the DisneyXD app’s game, Star vs The Dungeon of Evil. However, even here, there’s no name or ID.

Is he Star’s guardian angel, a magically-transformed Grandfather, or maybe like Aladdin’s Genie is to his lamp, this guy is tied to the wand in some way? I did pose this question to Daron Nefcy on Twitter, and got the following response:

starrefs6

So as it stands, I’m hoping as the season gets further along, we’ll learn more.

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A fun-yet-crazy moment came in the segment titled Brittney’s Party. One girl at school is such a fan of Star, that she wallpapered her locker with pictures of her (including one of Star in her nightgown!).


It seems weird…until it’s revealed that Star has done the same for her fangirl (who happens to be voiced by Star’s creator, Daron Nefcy).


Take note of the little unicorn-monster doll in that locker. Does it look familiar? Well, it’s the same one we saw in Star’s flashback to her youth, in the School Spirit episode.


Though by the looks of it, the stuffed toy had some repair work after its neck was ‘snapped’ by this lug of a royal guard.

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It seems the Echo Creek area is most likely being plagued by a few more missing persons reports than they’ve had in awhile. So far, Star’s presence has caused the disappearance of one student at Echo Creek Academy, 3+ football players from Silver Hill Prep, and a car load of persons (number: unknown) getting sent to another dimension, courtesy of Ludo’s goons.

Where did they go? Was the one student horribly savaged by the butterfly-monster-thingy Star created? In truth…we may never know.

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Being an ‘old person’ (well, considering I was born in 1980, I’m considered ‘old’ by the target demographic of the show), I was somewhat surprised that not many people got the references when Star accidentally turned their teacher Ms Skullnick into a troll. Some questioned the wild hair, let alone the gem in her belly-button.

 

Unknown to some, this is a direct nod to one of the big marketing trends in the last 50 years: The Troll Doll! There was a time when these things were everywhere (even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ‘mutated’ into them in one iteration of their action-figure line!). Word is, Dreamworks is currently working on a film based around the toys. And if you think I’m old…some sleuthing around the internet, tells that the Troll Doll craze first started in 1959!

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Watching cartoons growing up, it was sometimes fun to see extra little things the animators or artists did to push character emotions. On the US Acres segment of the Garfield and Friends cartoon, Wade Duck wore an inner-tube, with a little duck-head on it. The funny thing was, the head’s eye expressions almost always copied Wade’s! One assumes this was a fun little gag added by the series creator, Jim Davis. Even the comic strip versions of Wade had this feature.

A similar series of “attire expressions” happens in Cheer Up, Star. Star wears one of her standard outfits, an aquamarine dress, with a little “squid ghost” on the front. However, instead of the neutral look on the squid’s face as always, the animators have some fun with it, mimicking Star’s reactions. When Oskar Greeson finally calls her, it reflects her happiness… StarRefs23

…but, when Ludo’s Bearicorn minion interrupts her call, her anger comes out…and the little guy also gets a little cross.

These are some fun blink-or-you’ll miss them expressions, and a few more of them pop up during the episode.

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To someone who’s a little obsessed with California, some of the strange names in the show can be deciphered into their real-world meanings from The Golden State.

 

Take this sign. These are obviously nods to three known Boulevards around the more famous parts of Los Angeles: Cahooga is a reference to Caheunga (pronounced kah-wang-ah) Blvd, Holliwood to the famous Hollywood Blvd, and Setsun,to Sunset Blvd.

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Cities often put signs in certain areas for a reason. Star really should have read this one to the right.

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In the episode Cheer Up, Star, Marco attempts to do a crazy stunt to cheer her up…but largely just causes a giant mess…which included the sound of breaking glass, and a small waterfall of water pooling down around Star’s bed.

Some might find this a little strange, and maybe seem odd that water would be pouring down into the main floor of Star’s room…but it actually does make sense!

Here’s a screen-shot from part of the interior shot of Star’s 3-story room, from the first episode, Star Comes to Earth:

As we can see, she actually has a large aquarium! Which would explain the water…though what happened to the puffer-fish and other creatures?…I have no clue.

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In Match Maker, we get to see Star’s test-taking results…which shows that she doesn’t quite understand human mathematics. Her F- paper just largely consists of scribblings.

Along with a happy dragon, it looks like she attempted to try and solve two problems…though it looks like “Love+Hugs=Bandaids.”

This isn’t the last time we see this paper, as it shows up in Star’s room in the episode Cheer Up, Star (see screencap below).

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Speaking of test-taking, Match Maker also gives us another bit of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it information about Marco Diaz. When he shows Star his A+ (with a smiley-face) test paper, we get to see that he has a middle name: Ubaldo!

So his full name is Marco Ubaldo Diaz…or, M.U.D. if you want to talk acronyms.

One thing that’s noted is when Ms Skullnick hands back the tests, Marco’s is the only one in the front row to get a positive grade…so I assume he’s at the top of his class.

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In Cheer Up, Star, Marco Diaz recounted one of his worst days ever. When someone makes fun of his Karate-Con shirt (“You kissed a ninja!”), Marco angrily grabs a newspaper to cover himself with.

Thanks to the magic of frame-by-frame viewing, I was able to see a little more of what was on that paper. Most interesting, is the name of it: Las Cebollas Times, which translates into, “The Onion Times.” Which makes one wonder…is this a little inside-joke towards the humor newspaper, The Onion?

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More fun with words! Guess the “mew” in Mewni, is a lot like the use of the word “Smurf” in The Smurfs. Given her age, I guess it’s a no-brainer that Star would have a book like this.

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Unlike standard license plates, the one on Brittney Wong’s party bus just has an emoticon smiley face. I guess we can assume her rich parents paid enough to make the thing possible.

However, the license plate does change to actual words for a few seconds.

When Brittney gets the driver to pull over and kick Star and Marco off, one can see the words “WOOHOO!” on the front plate.

 

For the majority of the segment, the smiley face hangs on through thick-and-thin during the night…until the bus meets a crumpled end.

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When it comes to Ludo and his army of monsters, he seems to gain and lose them every other episode.

Case in point:

– Green pig guy: last seen picked up by a purple bull-thingy in Quest Buy.

– Lobster guy: last seen falling into a black hole, in Quest Buy.

– Two-headed red guy: last seen in the passenger seat of this elderly man’s convertible, in Brittney’s Party.

The two-headed red guy has been a major part of Ludo’s gang since the start of the show, so it does make one wonder, if after the Brittney’s Party episode, he made it back to Ludo’s castle or not.

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And that’s all I have for now. Maybe in a few months (when the show starts giving us more episodes), I’ll have some more things to point out…and maybe, some of the questions posed in this post will be answered.

In the meantime, kudos to the staff and persons who have worked on this series. Word is that Season 2 is currently in production, and we can hope that the continued adventures of Star Butterfly and Marco Diaz, will yield further weird and wacky fun (both up-front, and hidden within).

Movie Review: Mad Max – Fury Road

(Rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images)

I’ll just get this out of the way first: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen any of the original Mad Max films. The last time I can recall seeing one, was stumbling into a Sci-Fi marathon at the Music Box Theatre 5-7 years ago, and catching the last half of the first Mad Max film

So, as one might expect, I went into Mad Max: Fury Road without any preconceptions, other than Max being a loner, tooling around in his supercharged Ford Falcon.

In this latest iteration, Tom Hardy takes on the role of Max Rockatansky, a man running away from a tragic past, who is soon caught by a group of War Boys working for the warlord, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).

Even with Hardy getting top-billing, I feel that many will be moreso captivated by Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. It is Imperator that gets the ball rolling in this story, when she takes Immortan’s iconic tanker truck off-course, with a daring plan of her own.

It doesn’t take long for Max to get caught up in Imperator’s affairs, and what forms is an unlikely truce…but in a way that is very rarely ever seen onscreen. There’s no romantic spark, no “my mental scars are worse than yours” moments…pretty soon, it all boils down to one thing: “getting the job done!”

This reminded me very much of a similar mentality of films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Children of Men. Both of those films deal with characters that are in a world that seems to shun hope, yet they desperately cling to the notion that it could very well exist, pushing themselves to their limits to achieve a goal.

Another strength I liked about the story, was that it never really felt like anyone overstayed their welcome on camera. The characters and their roles move through the story in a very efficient way, always trying to stay one-step ahead of Max and Imperator’s pursuers…whom director George Miller often captures as an ominous presence off in the distance. We even get to see some of Max’s trauma manifest itself, but just what happened to him is never fully explained.

Speaking of Max, I did like how even though his name is on the title, he is not constantly the center of attention. In a sense, his role in this film reminded me of Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean: a character who through a series of circumstances, ends up falling into an adventure, of which he himself manages to tie much of it together.

That’s not to say the film is incredibly serious. After all, how serious can your movie really be if one semi truck is rigged with a 20 foot speaker array, with a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar in front of it?

I will admit that one of my ‘poisons’ when it comes to some films, are cool-looking vehicles. Many have pressed my buttons ever since I was a child (along with vehicular mayhem), and what was done here with numerous vehicles is rather compelling. One that is rather eye-catching, has the body of a Chrysler Valiant, welded atop some heavy-duty tank treads.

The chase scenes in this film are definitely a highlight, and I came away from watching this film, greatly impressed at the stunt-work on display. Needless to say, when 100+ names filled the screen under “stunts” during the credits, I applauded. And, even when there are stunts that have to be achieved by visual effects, it was hard to tell most of the time.

In regards to the film’s music, the score for the piece is provided by Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL. That driving rhythm you’ve heard in the latest trailers? That’s part of Junkie’s score, and he manages to capture the gamut of emotions so well within Fury Road! Everything from the quieter moments, to the heart-pounding scenes of vehicles tearing across the plains. In fact, much of this review was written with the soundtrack blaring from my speakers.

Though I have been pretty positive about Fury Road, the film is far from perfect. There are some times where it feels like some of the chase and fight scenes get a little too long, and I could sense the audience getting restless at times.

In regards to George Miller’s filmography, one can easily see that in many of his works, he can’t just give you a straight-forward story of good-vs-evil. He does like to layer his work with multiple themes, and Fury Road can get a little overloaded in places…though luckily, Miller doesn’t muck up his films as thickly as director Gore Verbinski likes to do.

At the preview screening I attended, the film was projected in 3D. While it did highlight some scenes like flares going off in the sky, and the amazing dust storm sequence, I really didn’t see much of a need to use it for this film. In the end, there was one gratuitous 3D shot that did make me chuckle.

Even so, I have to give Miller and his guys kudos for actually filming action scenes like many of us remember: shot in a way where we actually know what we’re looking at, and who is where, doing what! The camera work definitely feels like we’ve gone back 30 years into the past, where the filmmakers at least attempted to put some control over where to focus our attention. At least it helped the 3D shots to actually feel less like they composited flying colored blobs on the screen. The cinematography also takes its time, providing some nice establishing shots.

I held out some hope that Mad Max: Fury Road would be entertaining, and it definitely surprised me. It didn’t get gratuitous for the sake of gratuity (like many R-rated films). Even with possible hints of nudity, it’s rather amazing that Miller doesn’t give in to temptation. I did enjoy that he showed restraint in some areas, even if he may have gone a tad long in others.

This is one of those films that did awaken a hunger deep within me as well: a hunger for as much making-of material as possible! I can only hope that George Miller can convince Warner Brothers to jam-pack the home video release with all sorts of material on the vehicles, character profiles, along with the stunt work…which I feel could probably warrant an hour-long special of its own!

Final Grade: B+ (Final Thoughts: George Miller’s resurrection of Mad Max, brings about an apocalyptic story betwixt hope, and madness. It introduces a strong new character in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, and gives us an action-packed film that has a lot to say, but may be trying a little too hard at times to say everything it wants to )

Episode Review: Star vs The Forces of Evil (Season 1, Episode 3 ) – Monster Arm / The Other Exchange Student

The second episode of Star vs the Forces of Evil, attempted to focus on the microcosm of Star Butterfly’s life amid the students of Echo Creek Academy. With Episode 3, we get some more character insight, along with plenty of magical shenanigans.

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– Monster Arm –

– Monster Arm –

Marco’s karate dojo has an upcoming tournament, in which Marco will face off with a rich combatant named Jeremy Birnbaum. However, Marco gets carried away while training, and breaks his right hand.

Marco convinces Star to use her magic wand to heal his hand, but her spell-casting goes horribly wrong, and leaves Marco with a tentacle instead of his right arm!

Monster Arm differs from the earlier episodes, in that it moreso focuses on Marco, with Star taking on more of a supporting role. It’s nice to see Marco react to the situations he has found himself in, but we also get to see him almost become a different person when he realizes this new appendage can give him an advantage (and even impresses the students at school when it beats back a bully!).

We even get some additional lore regarding Star’s family wand, given that it comes with a tome of an instruction manual. The episode also provides examples of how specific one’s verbiage has to be while using the wand. Apparently, being off in your pronunciation by a smidgen, can be both a good and a bad thing (but most of the time, a bad thing!).

Voice actor Corey Burton also provides a fun, deep-voiced role that is a nice little surprise. I can’t help but think that this segment will be the first introduction of the word “bowels” to many young people, given his character’s role.

It doesn’t get as dramatic as I prefer, but Monster Arm is probably one of the most fun segments I’ve seen so far, which pushes it above the normal B-territory most of these segments have fallen into. Also notable, is that the episode ends with an intriguing-yet-unsettling coda, that one wonders if we’ll see resolved in future episodes.

Final Segment Grade: A-

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Then I gotta come here, and watch him-Kah-Rah-TEY!

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Then I gotta come here, and watch him, Kah-RAH-Tey!”

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– The Other Exchange Student –

– The Other Exchange Student –

Ever since Star arrived on Earth, Marco’s family has celebrated each and every day that she has been with them. Prior to Star’s arrival, the Diaz family has been taking in exchange students for quite some time, and everyone is surprised when a former Scandinavian exchange student named Gustav, shows up on the Diaz’s doorstep with souvenirs, and plans to stay with them for a few weeks.

Needless to say, Star is a little jealous about being bumped to ‘exchange student #2’ status in the Diaz household, but soon, she begins to wonder if there’s more to Gustav than he’s letting on…

Probably not since the first episode, have we gotten this much time with Marco Diaz’s parents. However, there isn’t really that much to them, except being very happy-go-lucky in their demeanor. Even Marco seems to adopt this attitude for much of the episode.

Those who have seen cartoons, can probably see the “something’s not right” angle towards Gustav and his ways, which is a given in some cartoon plots when a new character arrives on someone’s doorstep. The writers do manage to tweak the formula a bit, but it’s a little predictable regarding the outcome of the episode. Though just łike Monster Arm, there are some things that are not resolved by the end.

In the role of Gustav, voice actor Rob Paulsen manages to have some fun with his accented role, pitching around his voice for the various situations.

Star for the most part, spends most of the episode not being as happy as she normally is. It’s a little fun at times to see characters have to deal with unwelcome situations, allowing us to see how they handle something uncomfortable. It’s very similar to how I felt with Pinkie Pie in the My Little Pony episode, “Party of One,” where the character had to shut down from being a little scatter-brained, and became analytical.

In Monster Arm, we saw Star exasperated from lack of sleep as she attempted to help Marco. Here, we get a little more of that, along with a rather obsessive angle to her going on a fact-finding mission. I will admit, hearing Eden Sher voice Star as she unravels, is a fun little treat. It does seem a double-edged sword regarding how Star acts: on one hand, she seems jealous over the attention that Gustav is receiving, but on the other hand, she is also concerned for the well-being of Marco and his family.

The episode also serves as a nice little respite from Ludo and his minions (though one makes a brief cameo), by showing that even suburbia can house its own problems for Star Butterfly. Though intriguing at times, it never deviates far enough from the formulaic ‘stranger at the front door’ storyline, to really make me love it more.

Final Segment Grade: B-

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “YOU'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!”

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In conclusion, Episode 3 is probably the best full episode so far. I like how both segments focus mainly on Star and Marco on earth, with no dimensional villains like Ludo. Here, we get to see Star and Marco deal with problems in their own way in Monster Arm, and then get to see Star handle a human “outsider,” in The Other Exchange Student.

Of all the segments, Monster Arm is the one I’ve probably seen a few dozen times. The story and animated emotions just seem so entertaining to me. I personally feel that if you’re looking to get someone hooked on this series, it’s a must-show segment.

*Coming up in Episode 4, Marco works on cheering up Star when something doesn’t go as she would like. Following that, the two end up in a dimensional store, questing for a specific item for Star’s magic wand. What wonders/craziness will unfold? We’ll find out soon enough.*

Season 1, Episode 4 – *Cheer Up, Star/Quest Buy*

My Top 10 favorite tracks from the Star Wars Prequels soundtracks

Let’s face it: while many came down on the storyline and acting in the Star Wars prequels, I’ve never heard anyone say, “the music was terrible!”

I think when it comes to Star Wars, for most of us, the music is one of its key components. With the prequel trilogy, John Williams had to take on a new task regarding the series: reverse-engineer the themes and motifs that he had created almost 2 decades before. A few would remain, but Williams would instead create new themes, and material for the battles that happened before the days of the Empire, and the Rebellion.

One downside to the prequel music, is that much of what Williams composed, is often chopped up like confetti, and sprinkled over various parts of the films. It seems that The Phantom Menace is the only score of the prequels that one could consider “complete,” as many of the musical motifs from that film are interspersed into Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

Given that this is the month of May (a key month in the history of Star Wars), I decided to pick my top 10 tracks, across all three films. Some might wonder why I don’t focus on just one film, but I think back to when people consider the music from the original trilogy. There’s moreso a love of the music spread across all three of those films, and that is also the case here.

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10 – Battle of the Heroes (From Episode III)

Those who had heard the lore of Anakin becoming Darth Vader, had known for years that we’d end up seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, tiptoeing around some lava pits in Revenge of the Sith, and sure enough, we got it…albeit drawn out a bit.

Though there was the track Anakin vs Obi-Wan in the Sith soundtrack, I feel Battle of the Heroes moreso typifies the music for the epic clash between Master and Pupil.

The track definitely feels like a mash-up between the prequels and the original trilogy. During the music, we can hear themes related to Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Imperial March, and even part of Luke and Vader’s confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back.

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9 – Zam the Assassin and the Chase through Coruscant (From Episode II)

The first high-energy sequence in Attack of the Clones, comes when Anakin and Obi-wan pursue bounty hunter Zam Wesell through the cityscape of Coruscant. During the chase, Williams’ score is a driving force behind much of the action on screen, barely letting up during the high-speed pursuit.

The track is one of the longest on the soundtrack album, running a little over 11 minutes, with numerous staccato beats, from brass and percussion. A fun moment is around 4:20, when the main orchestra drops out for 30 seconds, and Williams turns it over to some tribal drums and whip-cracks.

One of the most unique things about this track, is the rather shocking use of electric guitar in a few areas. The first time I heard this instrument, I had hit repeat on my Discman to be sure my ears weren’t playing tricks on me. Zam’s speeder has a sound based on an electric guitar, so it may have inspired Williams to add in the little flourishes here and there.

This isn’t the first time Williams has used electronic instruments. For Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Williams added electronic beats to the track titled, “The Moon Rising.”

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8 – Anakin’s Betrayal (From Episode III)

Surely when it came to the extermination of the Jedi, not many could have fathomed the “Order 66” moment within Episode III, where Palpatine triggers the clone troopers to turn on their Jedi Generals.

The track’s mood is one of somberness, with some soaring brass in places…but none of it really meant to perk one up from the sad turn of events. Williams relies quite a bit on his french horns and strings, but also intersperses a choral melody throughout, making it sound like a lament for the demise of the Jedi.

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7 – On the Conveyor Belt (From Episode II)

This could almost be considered a “lost” track for Episode II.

The summer the film was released, this track could only be found on copies of the soundtrack being sold at Target Stores.

The piece covers the scene in the film, where Anakin, Padme, C-3PO, and R2-D2 end up in a droid factory on Geonosis.

Much of the piece has a madcap romp to it with numerous staccato beats, along with a few harmon-muted trumpets to make it a little more light-hearted in the beginning.

The track gets props from me, as its finale builds into a major fanfare, with some punchy flourishes of action, almost akin to Williams’ “Forest Battle Suite” from The Return of the Jedi. When that fanfare takes off, it gives off a burst of fast-paced energy. The last 30 seconds of the piece was utilized in several television sports for Episode II, showing various characters, and their occupations.

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5 – The Sith Spacecraft and The Droid Battle (From Episode I)

During Episode I, John Williams developed an ominous orchestration for the Sith. Strangely, though the track does mention the music when Darth Maul pilots his Sith Infiltrator to Tatooine, the cue for this moment only lasts 20 seconds, before the music then segues straight into the major music during the Gungan/Droid battle, and the attack on the Trade Federation control ship.

The quick beats of the battle are rather infectious with the drum cadence, and even the trumpets chiming in with a rat-a-tat-tat sound of staccato “laser-fire.” It could be unintentional, but if you listen closely, it almost sounds like snippets of The Imperial March’s orchestrations are hidden in here.

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5 – Confrontation with Count Dooku, and Finale (From Episode II)

Of all the finale pieces for the prequels, I love the feeling of uncertainty this one gives us, though at under 11 minutes, it’s only the second-longest piece in the soundtrack.

The track is a veritable goulash of themes, as it wraps up the final moments of the film: a time that seems very much like the uncertain future in The Empire Strikes Back.

There’s the sound of an otherworldly chorus that accompanies Dooku on his journey away from Geonosis, followed by an eerily beautiful vocal solo upon his arrival on Coruscant.

Very soon, the piece segues into a a string and woodwind movement, that tells how unsure the Jedi are after the current events…before hitting us with a more “regal” representation of The Imperial March. There’s power in the music behind the images of hundreds of clone troopers, but it sounds almost “patriotic,” instead of the “dictatorial” feel we’re used to.

Williams then brings back the strains of Anakin and Padme’s love theme (“Across the Stars”), with a blast of brass instruments that seems to signify the life-altering moment between the two, who have chosen to live a lie, and give in to their passion.

The final half of the track gives us the typical Star Wars end credits fanfare, before giving us a full run of the “Across the Stars” theme. Williams definitely went for a medieval sound to the piece, though unlike the orchestrated version of “Across the Stars” that appears on the soundtrack, the track sounds “questioning” at the end. We hear a little of Anakin’s theme from Episode I (though slower), before some low strings give off a few notes of the Imperial March…hinting where Anakin might be heading.

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4 – The Immolation Scene (From Episode III)

Next to “Padme’s Ruminations,” this track I feel is also one of the more emotional pieces from Revenge of the Sith. The string section of the orchestra paints an emotional picture of Anakin’s painful “consequences,” before Obi-Wan takes leave of his former apprentice (and “brother-in-arms”).

In truth, the track sounds similar to another track of Williams’ from Schindler’s List, titled “Immolation (with our lives we give life).” However, unlike the track from Episode III, the one from Schindler included a chorus as the string section soared. Such a thing is not done with this track.

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3 – Anakin’s Theme (From Episode I)

Many tend to gloss over this track, as it mainly appeared half-way through The Phantom Menace’s credits. However, I think it’s one of Williams’ best works from the prequels.

The song sounds just right for an optimistic slave boy, who dreams of one day becoming a Jedi Knight. There’s something innocent, and rather stirring in how the music soars in places, but then…falters a bit, like something may not be completely perfect. Those places, Williams has worked in some up-and-down tempos similar to what we’ve heard in “The Imperial March,” just slower and a little off-balance.

In theaters, as the theme came to an end during Episode I’s credits, the sound of Vader’s breathing was heard, further enticing us to wonder what awaited us in 3 years, when Episode II would be released.

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2 – Padme’s Ruminations (From Episode III)

Much like the startling use of a rock guitar in the Zam Wessell track, “Padme’s Ruminations” contains musical motifs that seem largely new to Star Wars. An eerie synth piece plays over this scene, with a singer whose vocals sound like a wailing lament, as the music seems to hint that something is unstable, or amiss.

This music accompanied a moment that showed Anakin and Padme thinking of each other, across the sun-drenched tops of Coruscant. As Anakin makes his decision, a (slight) haunting refrain of “Across the Stars” catches one’s ears, a musical sign that he has made his decision…and changed the course of the Galaxy, forever.

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1 – Duel of the Fates (From Episode I)

As hard as I tried, there is simply no getting around it: Duel of the Fates is the one track out of the entire prequels that still holds up after all these years. The opening chorus almost demands that we listen, before plunging us into a mysterious mix of strings and french horns, before the chorus returns, guiding us into the the fast-moving excitement.

The song quickly came to prominence in early May of 1999. A making-of feature on 60 Minutes showed a few minutes of John Williams rehearsing with the chorus, and a music video for Episode I played on MTV, with clips and audio from the film mixed in with the song.

The song springs readily to mind whenever I’m on a project that requires quick-and-fast actions. If anyone sees me hunkered over a project with my earbuds wedged in, it’s most likely “Duel of the Fates” is guiding me along.

If the visuals and myriad toys got us hyped for the return of Star Wars, then “Duel of the Fates” pushed many of us over the edge into full-on drooling hound dogs, eager to see what all those clips of podracers, three-way lightsaber fights, and space battles would bring.

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And those are the 10 songs from the prequels that stand out to me. As I’ve recounted on other lists, this is just my opinion, as I’m sure some would question the rankings of some of the lower-rung placements on my list.

Given how long we’ve been listening to John Williams score films, it is easy to get jaded, claiming we’ve heard many of his themes and motifs before. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to find gems in much of what he does, or when he shifts the music of certain pieces into new territory.

Williams did this in a major way in 2004, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The score he did for Alfonso Cuaron’s film feels more emotional, and not as bombastic as the first two Potter films. As well, Williams brings back his whacky, jazzy sounds in the track called The Knight Bus, putting one in mind of the jazzy beats of the Cantina Band’s numbers from A New Hope.

In the last decade, Williams has largely been privately composing, only coming out to do work with his friend Steven Spielberg, or score composing rarities such as The Book Thief.

Currently, many are wondering just what he will be cooking up for us this December, when a new Star Wars episode and new characters come our way…along with a few familiar faces, when The Force Awakens.

Episode Review: Star vs The Forces of Evil (Season 1, Episode 2 ) – Match Maker / School Spirit

After the Premiere episode of Star vs The Forces of Evil, I like many, was eager to see where the second episode would take its viewers. After all, given that large cast image during the opening scenes, we were sure to start getting to know more regarding the other characters that populated this strange new world. Well, episode 2’s segments give us quite a few, and then some.

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- Matchmaker -

– Match Maker –

Seeing how Marco gets tongue-tied when his crush Jackie Lynn Thomas skateboards by, Star gets the idea that she’d be the perfect person to play match maker around Echo Creek Academy.

Star offers to play match maker for their recently-dumped teacher Ms Skullnick, but her wand ends up turning Skullnick into a troll. During Star’s attempts to resolve the problem, Ludo drops by, in another attempt to get Star’s wand.

Match Maker starts out feeling like an open door to learning some more about the supporting teen cast. This is the first time we’ve had characters addressed by name like Jackie, and we also meet Marco’s friends, Alfonzo, and Ferguson. However, the story points revolving around Skullnick and Ludo’s minions quickly thrusts the story into a new (if somewhat erratic) direction. The segment even manages to squeeze in a brief cameo of Star’s ex-boyfriend Tom, as well as her Mom.

A positive regarding the segment, is that we get a little more insight into two areas of the overall world of the series. In less than 30 seconds, we do get a little more explanation regarding just why Ludo wants Star’s wand, and just what will (supposedly) happen once he gets his claws on it. We also get a little more (imaginative?) insight into Star’s fear of St Olga’s School for Wayward Princesses.

The plot veering from school to a backyard battle just makes this episode feel like the weakest one so far. The pacing of the segment reminded me of the hodge-podge nature of some episodes of My Life as a Teenage Robot, and The Fairly OddParents. It’s far from terrible, but it could have had a little more TLC applied to it, staving off the somewhat erratic ping-pong’ing of the story in multiple directions.

Final Segment Grade: C+

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “I got an 'F' for Fan-tas-tic!

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “I got an ‘F’ for Fan-tastic!”

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- School Spirit -

– School Spirit –

Star attends her first pep rally for the school’s football team, the Awesome Opossums. However, her enthusiasm turns to concern, when Marco tells how their arch-rivals “The Warriors,” are going to “slaughter” their team. Full of school spirit, and knowing a thing-or-two about combat, Star is willing to help in her own “special” way.

Meanwhile, Marco finds out that his friend Ferguson has taken on the role of the school’s mascot, and goes on the defensive, sure that the Warriors intend to steal Ferguson as part of a school prank.

The concept of Star misunderstanding Earth terms is something I figured would come about sooner or later. It happened in some anime series I watched (and in Teen Titans with the character, Starfire), and it’s fun to see it here. It doesn’t help that Star is so eager to help, but unable to fully grasp what Marco truly means (such as his use of the term, “kitty-cat offense”).

A notable scene is where Star attempts to join the Spirit Committee, but is denied by their head-cheerleader, Brittney Wong. One would assume Star would flaunt her Princess status upon being criticized, but the writers bypass this easy way out. Instead, Star simply figures she’ll need to take matters into her own hands regarding the upcoming game.

Unlike Match Maker, this episode actually does some good, in giving us more character-building regarding Alfonzo and Ferguson. Plus, much of the episode is split with both Star and Marco doing their own things to get ready, until their plans collide before the big game. Both storylines show fun examples of each character’s fanaticism getting out of hand, but in different ways.

Like the previous episode, this one also seems to suffer from story-overload, scrunched into an 11-minute window. Luckily, there’s enough structure to keep it entertaining. Plus, I’m sure many will love to see “Star Butterfly: Warrior Princess.”

Final Segment Grade: B

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Do you know nothing of combat!? No warrior is gonna be distracted by Chandelle's booty!

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Do you know nothing of combat!? No warrior is gonna be distracted by Chandelle’s booty!”

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In conclusion, Episode 2’s segments feel a little weaker than the first episode’s. Match Maker ends up derailing half-way in, while School Spirit has some nice moments, but needed some tightening up. Continuity-wise, Spirit shows that Ms Skullnick is still a troll since her transformation in Match Maker, which most likely is going to be her appearance for the rest of the show (she also shows up in the show-opener as a troll as well).

Best honorable mention line from episode: “You're alive! THIS IS WHY, YOU ONLY HAVE TWO FRIENDS!!!

Best honorable mention line from episode: “You’re alive! THIS IS WHY, YOU ONLY HAVE TWO FRIENDS!!!”

*Coming up in my review of Episode 3, Star’s attempt to heal Marco’s broken arm gives him a slimy tentacle, and a former exchange student the Diaz’s housed previously, shows up for a visit.*

Season 1, Episode 3 – *Monster Arm / The Other Exchange Student*