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Holiday Special Review: Rapsittie Street Kids – Believe in Santa

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Back in December of 2002, I recall going on the messageboards for Animationnation (where a number of industry people hung out), and hearing about a special that had just premiered on The WB television network.

The posts told of a show that had many aghast. Bad animation, horrible dialogue, and this was being touted as a Holiday Classic by the network!

Of course, by the time I heard about it, it had already come and gone, with the network covering up all traces of it’s existence.

A few people like myself wrote about the short, using the scant amount of knowledge we could find. Sources included the poorly-made webpage telling how the Rapsittie Kids were going to become just as endearing as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, and a short clip that ended up on Youtube, looking like a middle-school project on learning how motion graphics work.

Then, in September 2015, I was informed that a copy of the special (all 45 minutes of it!), had been obtained by The Lost Media Wiki. And with that information, I soon found myself sitting down to watch Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, made by the creative geniuses at Wolf Tracer Studios (makers of that other hit animated short, Dinosaur Island!).

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Rick E (Walter Jones) has a crush on one of the most popular girls in his class, named Nicole (Paige O’Hara). However, Rick E doesn’t have enough money to give her a Christmas gift.

He then decides to give her his teddy bear, which was given to him by his mother. However, Nicole is not impressed by Rick E’s gift ‘from the heart,’ and throws it away.

It is only afterwards does she realize the significance of the teddy bear, and with a few of her friends, attempts to get it back.

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So, after watching this Holiday Special, is it truly as bad as those messageboard posts I read back in 2002 made it out to be?

Yes…yes, it is!

The images in this review are no joke: they are actual screen-captures from the ‘finished product!’

Since it’s release, noone from the production has ever stepped forward to give their side of the story, on why the special looks the way it does. Word was that the show was completed in 4 months. And frankly, I can believe it.

rap-2Most of the backgrounds look like they were rendered on-the-cheap, and we see a number of clipart images rubber-stamped over-and-over in certain places.

Plus, just look at the fine craftsmanship on the sign outside of Rick E’s school (see right).

Characters also move around like they’ve been pasted onto background plates. Some shots linger too long on nothing, and the faces…their horrible, horrible faces!

Most of the characters look like their eyes are in serious danger of popping out of their sockets, and the computer-generated characters, almost make me wish the creators would have attempted something closer to the flat, 2-D look of South Park. At least if they went in that direction, I assume the characters wouldn’t look quite as grotesque.

Rick E is meant to be our main lead, giving off hip-hop vibes with every other line he says. Once we get to his school, we meet a number of other characters and their subplots…most of which can barely hold our interest.

It also doesn’t help that most of the other kids, are little more than one-dimensional bullies. Even Nicole is quite condescending, putting down her friend Lenee’s talk about Santa Claus, leading to a minuscule subplot of Lenee questioning her beliefs.

Even the adults are largely useless. The kid’s teacher comes across as constantly annoyed, and does nothing to keep order in her class. We see her letting kids throw things at other kids, and even dismissing sexual harassment by students (“that means he likes you,” the teacher tells one girl, who is annoyed at one boy touching her!).

rap-3And then, there’s Rick E’s Great Grandma.

It’s crazy enough that we see her wandering around outside without a coat in one scene, but when she starts talking…well…it sounds like Rick E is just trying to ignore that his caretaker might need some medical attention.

Maybe this was some strange way of trying to make Great Grandma reminiscent of the unseen adults talking in the Peanuts specials, but if so, why is it that she is the only adult who sounds like her audio is getting eaten by the tape player?

Speaking of voices, what may make some people do a double-take, are the list of known voice-actors they got for this. Some of the big ones include Mark Hamill, Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara, and Nancy Cartwright. My guess is someone just offered them a quick pay-day, they read through their lines in a few hours, and then never had a second thought about what they had done voice-work for.

Paige O’Hara and Jodie Benson each get a chance to sing, but their songs are hindered by bad lyrics and stilted animation. It doesn’t help when most of the songs are largely based on repeating a number of the same words over and over again.

rap-4Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, shows that there are plenty of badly-made Holiday specials, that most have never heard of. The story contained here, makes the animated Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer actually look like a Holiday Classic! Heck, the $60 million atrocity known as Food Fight, even looks competent next to this thing!

The production values look like one of my college’s Team Animation groups, trying to stretch out their 3-minute project to feature-length, but without the necessary talent or tools to do so.

The story of Rick E’s bear is a decent jumping off point for a story, but the special’s ‘good intentions’ are quickly buried in a landslide of bad animation, one-dimensional characters, and a production that was mainly interested in making their final product ‘faster,’ and ‘cheaper.’

At the end of Believe in Santa, a cutesy voice tells how the Rapsittie Street Kids would be back, in A Bunny’s Tale. As it stands now, we’re still left wondering just what horrors would have awaited the Easter Bunny, from Wolf Tracer Studios.

Final Grade: D

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Movie Review: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story

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It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

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Those were some of the first words, that introduced millions of people to George Lucas’ Star Wars universe. While they offered a small backstory as to this ongoing war raging across the galaxy, there were some over the years who wondered, if they could be expanded upon.

That’s what The Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm Ltd have done with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Set between the events of Episodes III & IV, we follow that small group of “rebel spies,” and find out how they got those secret plans, into the hands of Princess Leia Organa.

The team consists of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed).

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Jyn Erso (Felicia Day) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), walk through the Rebellion’s secret base.

Jyn and Cassian are our main leads in this story, with both having had their fair share of troubles, thanks to the machinations of the Empire. However, it largely feels like we’re supposed to care about them, because they’re the main characters. Most of the time, it feels like they’re simply the driving force in the story, to propel us from one location, to another.

When it comes to director Gareth Edwards, I will admit that I am not a huge fan of his work. Having seen his films Monsters and Godzilla (2014), I can’t help but feel he likes to focus more on the atmosphere and supporting characters, that revolve around his main ones.

Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s tag-team of Chirrut and Baze, was a bit of yin-yang characterization that held my attention when they were on-screen. While Chirrut seems to be strongly willing to believe in the power of the Force, Baze relies on his wits and weaponry.

Two other characters that I think will also stick in most people’s minds, are pilot Bodhi Rook, and K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid.

Bodhi is almost like our ‘Finn’ of the piece, and it seemed whenever he was on-screen, I was very much enamored with what he was doing. It feels like out of all the supporting characters, he gets the most development.

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K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) takes the controls.

Much like BB-8, K-2SO proves to be another entertaining droid for people to smile about. The filmmakers manage to find the sweet-spot between making him both informative and humorous, and it was one of the droid’s first lines, that made many in the audience give some of their first applause of the evening.

Also on hand as a new face in the Empire’s cadre of suited figures, is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). This (previously unseen) mastermind behind the Death Star’s construction, almost seems written in, to give us a taste of how credit and bureaucracy, often don’t see eye-to-eye.

The Force Awakens last year, definitely touched off plenty of similarities to the films we remembered from our past. Rogue One does some of the same, but moreso feels like a less-pandering  extension of those worlds we were first introduced to. We get plenty of new set-pieces, and some familiar ones, expanding on our past knowledge. Plus, for those of you that are die-hard fans of George Lucas, it appears that there’s a subtle reference to another of his early works.

Of course, the time-frame of the film, also gives us a chance for a few cameos. These can often bounce around from good, to bad (though I will admit there were a couple that made my face light up like a Christmas tree!).

Composer Michael Giacchino fills our ears with a score that sounds like a ‘distant cousin’ to the works of John Williams. While a few familiar musical strains are heard, he is able to walk into the universe, and add his own inspired touch to a number of scenes.

Some of the battle sequences, also feel like they are a bit ‘scattershot’ in the way they are put together. While I like a good action sequence in a Star Wars film as much as the next person, it felt like they carry on too long in certain places. This almost made me pine for the tighter editing of battle scenes in some past films. Say what you will about the prequels, but it felt like even the act of juggling multiple scenes at the end of The Phantom Menace was handled better.

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Work is almost complete on the Death Star.

That isn’t to say Rogue One is a bad film. I walked into it just like I did Episode VII last year, asking only that it entertain me, and it did just that.

Like any film that attempts to rewrite something we’re already familiar with, there are certain elements that are embellished and expanded upon. Given the way the series’ fandom functions, it will be entertaining to see if some of the ret-conned items, end up becoming as ‘scandalous’ as some of the items that Lucas wrote about in the prequels.

The film proves that Star Wars can build an expanded universe on film, and should probably give plenty out there hope, for additional Star Wars Stories in the coming years.

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Final Grade: B+ (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” is the first attempt to expand the film universe of the world’s most famous space saga beyond it’s typical ‘episodes,’ and succeeds in being an entertaining prequel to the events of “A New Hope.” While our main cast of characters doesn’t prove as overall satisfying as the ragtag band of rogues in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there’s still enough here that should please “Star Wars” fans, both old and new.)

Movie Review: Moana (with short: Inner Workings)

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(Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)

 

Earlier this year, Walt Disney Feature Animation surprised many of us, with its Spring release of Zootopia. The story and visuals, showed that the company’s animation division was continuing to “keep moving forward,” honoring the studio’s artistic legacy.

This year is also the first since 2002, that the studio has released two animated features from its Feature Animation division in the same year.

My anticipation for the fall release of Moana was high, given its main directors are John Musker, and Ron Clements. The two have directed over 7 animated features together over the last 30 years, including The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. And now, 7 years after The Princess and the Frog, they have returned, with Moana.

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On the island of Motunui, resides Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the village Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), and his wife Sina (Nicole Scherzinger). Though her parents try to make her see that their island has plenty to offer, the young girl can’t help but wonder what lies beyond it’s familiar shores.

As Moana grows up, hardships begin to affect the island’s people , and she decides to make a daring attempt to save them. Leaving home, she sets out to find the ancient demigod named Maui, who may be their only hope.

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From the very start, Moana quickly reminded me of several other Disney animated films, but soon began to head down its own path.

Though many media and marketing materials claim Moana to be a Princess, she’s simply just the daughter of the island’s chief, and as such, certain royal titles are never brought up (well, only in a few jokes in the film). Not actually having a ‘title,’ actually helped make Moana more of an ordinary girl to me, though one who has a secret or two that makes her a little…extraordinary.

Moana has a spunkiness about her that may remind some of Rapunzel, or Anna (from Frozen). Of course, where she shines most, is in her determination as she takes on a journey that most would probably caution against.

We do get a bit of animosity between her and her father, Chief Tui, who keeps trying to keep his daughter focused on leading the islanders. Tui also shows a stubborness to break free of the old ways, which leads to a small bit of friction with his daughter.

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Gramma Tala (Rachel House) has a few words with Moana (Auli’i Cravalho)

The film may also be one of the first, in which we really see less of a connection with the lead’s parents, and moreso with a grandparent. Moana seems to get along well with Gramma Tala (Rachel House), who for being considered the village’s ‘crazy lady,’ still has a few life lessons to instill, and a few secrets to be told (to those who will listen).

Of course, one of the biggest selling points for the film, has been Dwayne Johnson (aka ‘The Rock’), playing the demigod, Maui. The way he’s portrayed, Maui comes across almost like a former rockstar, with a bit of an ego problem.

A small staff of hand-drawn animators also inject some humor into Maui, as they bring several of his many tattoos to life (with one acting almost like Maui’s conscience at times).

And then, there’s the music.

Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda has teamed up with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, to produce a a soundtrack that manages to keep one foot in the Polynesian world, and the other foot amid the likes of Broadway musicians Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken.

Tracks like We Know the Way, give us a taste of the culture the film hails from, while Maui’s song You’re Welcome, almost sounds like a combination of the songs Friend Like Me, and Gaston.

For me, one of the most enjoyable songs, is sung by Jermaine Clement, who sounds like he’s channeling David Bowie, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid (trust me, it works!).

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Maui (Dwayne Johnson) encounters Mowana (Auli’i Cravalho)

And as we’ve come to expect, the talented artisans at the studios in Burbank, craft a world so believable, you’ll want to get your feet wet on the shores of Montunui, or explore more of the eerie Realm of Monsters. The film also manages to do for water, what Frozen did for ice. One can only imagine how many sleepless nights were had, to make the ocean waters appear as believable (and unbelievable!) as they do.

One of the biggest hurdles I had while watching the film, was that some of the action sequences felt like a massive blur of color and motion. One scene I was really looking forward to, sadly seemed to barely give me much of a chance to really get a handle on what was going on.

There’s also a few modern-day references that didn’t work for me (and for most of the audience, judging by the silence), but overall, Moana proved to be one of the first Walt Disney Feature Animation releases since Wreck-it-Ralph, that seemed to really engage me on an emotional level. I feel that if it could entrance me as well as it did, it will surely do the same for you.

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Animated Short Review: Inner Workings (Rated G)

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Lungs, heart, and stomach start off a brand new day.

After Zootopia was released earlier this year without an animated short in front of it, I was afraid that Disney had abandoned the idea completely. Fortunately, Inner Workings proves that the tradition is still alive.

Taking its cue from textbooks that diagram the inner parts of the human body, the short functions almost like Inside Out, except with internal organs. The two main ones, are a man’s brain, and his heart. One wants to be sensible, while the other wants to be more spontaneous.

Director Leonardo Matsuda has some fun with the concept, giving identities to the organs, let alone exaggerating the world around our main character. The world outside of the man’s workplace, is full of curves, while he and his co-workers, are in a confined ‘square space.’

It’s a fun concept that Matsuda plays with, though I couldn’t help but feel that the short Paperman from a few years ago, really did a more entertaining job with its message of ‘follow your heart.’ Then again, maybe the short could just be telling us introverts, that sometimes, it can be okay to break out of our shells, and throw caution to the wind.

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Final Grade for “Moana”: B+ (Final Thoughts: This “Princess” film that isn’t, proves to be a pleasant and entertaining surprise. Moana’s journey leads her on a tale of self-discovery, in which the past and present collide, as she looks towards the future. Dwayne Johnson as Maui, adds some fun with his supporting role, and the music helps bring something new to the studio’s filmography. Some jokes don’t work so well, and a few action scenes come off as muddled, but the emotional resonance of the film helps keep it on course.)

Final Grade for “Inner Workings”: B (Final Thoughts: This animated short from the “Walt Disney Studios” shows that the studio is willing to experiment with new shorts and ideas. However, even with some wonderfully stylized characters and settings, the story feels rather average, as it attempts to encourage us to try something new.)

Movie Review: Equestria Girls – Legend of Everfree

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When it was first launched in 2013, the My Little Pony: Equestria Girls concept was quickly poo-poohed by fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, who saw this direct-to-video spinoff as little more than a vehicle for selling toys (why does that sound hypocritical?). Surprisingly, the first Equestria Girls film wasn’t as bad as some had imagined!

After its sequel Rainbow Rocks managed to improve some story areas (along with having a very catchy soundtrack album!), many were now aboard the train ride, but felt the tracks got bumpy in the last go-round, with the 2015 release of Friendship Games.

Though Hasbro is still making toys around the Equestria Girls series, they seem to have settled into a pattern of one movie a year for this property. This year, Netflix obtained the rights to stream the latest film, Legend of Everfree, a month in advance of its home video release. After its streaming release on October 1st, I decided to take a peek.

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The students of Canterlot High find themselves at Camp Everfree for a week, under the supervision of Camp Director Gloriosa Daisy, and her brother, Timber Spruce.

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Our ‘mane’ girls have plenty of activities they want to do, but Twilight Sparkle secretly fears that the demoness Midnight Sparkle, is lurking inside her, waiting to resurface.

As camp gets underway, strange things begin to occur, leading some to believe the happenings to be the work of Gaea Everfree, a forest spirit who is rumored to exist in the surrounding wilderness.

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Unlike the previous Equestria Girls films, Legend brings in a new group of writers to the series. Johanna Lewis and Kristine Songco, who have co-written four episodes of the Friendship is Magic TV series together, take the reins from EqG veterans Meghan McCarthy, and Josh Haber.

The two actually have a semi-decent story at hand with Legend of Everfree, but it’s just a pity that it becomes overloaded with subplots. The writers even throw in a few too many camp cliches, with one that just feels totally unneeded to drive the overall story.

When it comes to music, Daniel Ingram returns to pen 6 new songs, but I found this to be the first Equestria Girls film where I couldn’t even think of one that I could easily put on repeat after the film was over.

Ingram’s music is often a treat to many fans, but sad to say, most of the songs sound like they don’t actually fit together properly. Some have lyrics that sound incomplete, and one song, sounds like it could be a major character lament…but it’s over before it feels like it even gets the chance to build into something memorable!

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Much like the last few Equestria Girls films, Sunset Shimmer takes the spotlight, as one of the more interesting characters in the story. Most of the doubts she was working through seem to have gone away, and she ends up acting as a mentor figure to Twilight Sparkle, who is still uneasy after the events from the end of Friendship Games.

One issue I had with Friendship Games, was that most of the girls quickly became little more than stereotypes of their basic personalities, and that seems to almost carry over here. A prime example is Rarity, who just won’t shut up about wanting to put on a fashion show for the camp.

I’m also growing tired of every single film in the series, adding more and more ‘accessories’ to the girls’ ‘Pony-up’ powers (yes, I am aware that this film is meant to sell toys!). Some of the powers here make a little sense, but one wonders how they could affect the girls’ everyday lives outside of camp.

For example, Rainbow Dash gains super-speed, but couldn’t this very well lead to an end to her sports career, given she is now even more super-human, and some could see that as a form of cheating? Most disturbing to me, is Pinkie Pie’s ability to make anything she flings around (when she’s ‘magically-charged’), turn into an explosive…making her a walking Weapon of Mass-Destruction! I kid you not…one wrong move, and she could very well blow up Canterlot High!

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When it comes to the addition of new characters for the series, Gloriosa Daisy and Timber Spruce are our main focus as supporting characters this time around.

Enid Raye-Adams voices Gloriosa with a perkiness that feels very similar to actress Edie McClurg, but overall, it never really feels like Gloriosa’s main role solidifies into a wholly memorable character. The writers even give Gloriosa her own catchphrase, and if you thought Principal Abacus Cinch got a bit carried away with the use of the word “reputation” in the last film, Gloriosa’s catchphrase quickly enters drinking game territory!

Gloriosa’s animation model also looks like she benefited from some advancements, as the DHX animation staff really seem to have fun with her numerous facial expressions.

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Timber Spruce becomes our “nice guy” for the picture, who seems to quickly set his sights on Twilight. Though they try to give him a personality, most will probably think of him as little more than “Flash Sentry II.”

Looking back over the Equestria Girls film line-up, Rainbow Rocks still feels like the high-point in the series. Taking the kids out into the wilderness in this film, felt like it could have led to a new direction to take the series, but the overall structure felt like they had to stick within a rather rigid frame-work.

Fourth films in a series can often get ‘flimsy,’ and that’s what Legend of Everfree feels like. In the end, I think I could go back and watch Friendship Games a few more times, and still get something out of it. Sadly, there just doesn’t feel like there’s enough memorable stuff here, to make one consider repeat viewings.

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Final Grade: C+ (Legend of Everfree moves our ‘mane’ cast of characters out into nature, but turns what should be an exciting adventure, into something that just seems to meander along, on its way to a ‘by the book’ ending. While the character interactions between Sunset Shimmer and Twilight Sparkle are entertaining, the shoehorning in of another encounter with “Equestrian Magic” and more powers for our girls, feels like a missed opportunity to try something new. )

Movie Review: Blair Witch

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1999 was a year that stands out in a number of ways, when it comes to film. Not only did we get a new Star Wars episode, and an amazing sequel to PIXAR’s first animated feature, but a little indie company by the name of Artisan Entertainment, took us by surprise that summer, with The Blair Witch Project.

Claimed to be the edited footage of a lost expedition to explore the legends of a haunted area of The Black Hills forest in Maryland, a clever internet marketing campaign, had some believing that the film’s found-footage was real.

The economically-budgeted hand-held film, would go on to become Artisan‘s most successful release, grossing more than $140 million that summer.

The studio quickly started work on a sequel, and a year after the first film, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released. However, Shadows tanked, and talk of a third Blair Witch film, quickly evaporated.

Then, at Comic-Con this year, many were surprised when a new film being touted as The Woods, was actually revealed to be a new continuation of the film series.

The news was greeted with some excitement, rekindling memories of the first film for many, including myself.

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20 years after the group in the first Blair Witch film disappeared, a mysterious DV recording pops up on Youtube, claiming to be recently-found footage, possibly revealing more clues about the Blair Witch mystery.

One viewer of the footage, is a man named James (James Allen McCune), who is convinced that it contains visual proof that his sister Heather (who was with the group that disappeared in the first film), is still alive.

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The film’s cast. L to R: Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry, and Wes Reid.

Gathering some of his friends, they head off to the Black Hills forest, equipped with all sorts of cameras and recording items (including a mini-drone). Along the way, they pick up two Burkittsville residents who found the DV tape, and are also fans of the Blair Witch legend.

However, once they make their way into the woods, things definitely start to get out-of-hand…

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Unlike the 1999 film, Blair Witch is put together by a new filmmaking team.Written by Simon Berrett, and directed by Adam Wingard, these two have run tag-team on a number of horror films in the last few years (including hand-held segments on the V/H/S/ film anthology). What they bring to the table with this film, almost feels like what I imagine some expected Book of Shadows to be.

One major problem I had while watching the film, is that it soon had my brain thinking of other found-footage films, which contained some familiar story points I’d seen before. A few of these films that came to mind, were Mr Jones, and Devil’s Pass. If you’ve seen those films, I’m pretty sure you’ll be seeing some similarities like I was.

An annoyance that Wingard seems to also delight in before the real ‘meat’ of the story, are constant loud sound effects, as we switch on and off certain cameras, and their footage. It feels like he’s trying to get in a few cheap jump scares, and it almost makes one wonder who (film-wise) edited this footage together.

Over the years, a number of persons have come up with theories as to what could have happened to the first film’s group, and one theory online intrigued me enough, that I wondered if the film would run with it…and, for the most part, it did! Once one character spouted one line, the film had me hooked to see where it would go.

Of course, the filmmakers don’t stray too far from the first film, and we are given some touchstones, that brought to mind certain remembrances I hadn’t been thinking of in years. For a few, there is a sense of the familiar…but with a twist!

While we do get a few comedy moments from James’ friend Peter (Brendan Scott), much of the cast is pretty ‘regular.’ Though in a surprising way, much like the cast of It Follows, they never develop the kind of traits that make you eager to see them killed off.

Storywise, I was disappointed that we didn’t get more focus on James’ predicament. One almost expects him to explain more about his sister’s disappearance and how it affected his life, but that’s largely left to our imagination. There’s so little talk about Heather after awhile, that you almost forget the search through the woods, is about her.

On a more positive note, the film gets the obligatory argument scenes out of the way quickly (it isn’t a found-footage film without at least a few of those).

In a way, Blair Witch seems to be to The Blair Witch Project, what Terminator: Genisys was to Terminator 2: Judgement Day: a modern reconfiguration of a film series, that attempts to excise some of the less popular ‘chapters,’ and mess with our familiarity of the series.

Seeing the film, I was reminded of a question I’ve often wondered regarding these found-footage films: who are the people in these worlds that find these pieces of film, and edit them together? Is there some secret group whose sole purpose is to uncover hidden footage, leak it to the public, then leave cryptic messages about how they are ‘exposing the truth?’

Now that could be a film idea worth exploring.

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Final Grade: B- (“Blair Witch” plays like a heightened version of the first film, but the added intricacies of what goes on in the Black Hills forest, is what kept the ‘mystery box’ appealing to me. The characters are relatively neutral, and the filmmakers’ constant attempts to keep jump-scaring us can get a little lame. However, where the film takes us, shows there could be enough to still keep us guessing, about what is going on out in the woods.)

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

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(Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril )

In the last 7 years, I was surprised to find my love for animation studios within the United States, taking a crazy detour.

Though I had been a huge fan of PIXAR Animation Studios during the early 2000’s, I soon became enamored by a smaller studio located in Oregon, by the name of Laika.

Founded in 2005 by Travis Knight (son of Nike CEO Phil Knight), the studio would soon attempt the impossible, when they decided to become a production house, specializing in stop-motion animated features.

2009 saw the release of the film Coraline, which became one of my favorite films of that year (sorry people, Up just didn’t feel as satisfyingly ‘whole’ as Coraline to me).

Since then, we’ve seen that Laika is a studio that isn’t afraid to scare people, or even delve into some of the darker sides of human nature. This was evident in their last feature films, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls.

Though the studio’s productions have not made the kinds of money that other big-name animation studios have, their methods of making a film based on quality work mixed with unique stories, has often made me eager to keep coming back for more.

When it was announced that Mr Knight (who had been a lead animator on previous Laika productions) was actually going to direct Kubo and the Two Strings, I was immediately on board (plus, how many times do you hear of a company’s CEO also directing a film for his company!?).

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The film centers around a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), who lives high above a small seaside village, with his mother.

One day, apparitions from his family’s past appear, causing Kubo to flee far away. It is then that he finds he must go on a quest to find an ancient suit of armor, that can possibly protect him from those that are pursuing him.

Accompanying him on his journey, are a talking monkey (Charlize Theron), and a man/bug/warrior named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

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In a talk with Travis Knight following a screening of Kubo I attended, he told interviewer Steve Prokopy (aka “Capone” from Aintitcoolnews), that he hoped that the studio could make a stop-motion feature in each genre, and it looks like Kubo has filled the slot for a Samurai film.

Much of the film takes its visual cues from Japan, with a number of settings and scenes, stylized around classic Japanese art prints, and sword-and-sandal pictures. Travis Knight also adds in some intimidating monsters to the quest, with a few seeming to be inspired by the creations of Ray Harryhausen.

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For much of the film, Kubo mainly plays his three-stringed shamisen, which is soon shown to help unleash special powers he has. His first use of it to make origami figures come to life, is one of the most fun scenes I’ve seen all summer (almost making me wish that origami figures could spring to life so easily). Of course, the young man soon finds out that his powers can be utilized in other ways, too.

Laika films often have very memorable supporting characters, and Monkey and Beetle end up being two that surprised me greatly. Some claimed it was odd hearing Theron’s voice coming from the mouth of a Monkey, but the tone and seriousness that she brings to her character, works perfectly in tandem with this creature that has chosen to become Kubo’s guardian. She’s probably one of the most serious sidekicks I’ve seen in an animated feature so far this year.

Beetle on the other hand, is a little more aloof, and a bit scatterbrained. Though just how this person came to become a man/bug hybrid, I still had questions about after the film was over. Even so, he definitely has the kind of skills one would want on an epic quest.

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Just as impressive, was the back-and-forth bantering regarding the small group. I don’t know who is responsible, but they managed to make these moments work in regards to having the right amount of humor, and character development. While other animated films would have had someone overstay their welcome with some talking, it surprisingly never goes that far.

Where Kubo might lose some points with the audience, is in regards to its story. While it is not as overly-layered as The Boxtrolls, its overall tone and message never seems to get as strong as Coraline, or Paranorman. It’s a very simple story, with not a lot of layering, which might surely make it a little easier for most to follow. I did want a few extra twists and turns here or there (given it was an epic journey), though one revelation I enjoyed, might be a bit hard for most in the audience to fathom.

The screening I attended was in 3D, and though I rarely ever champion the use of it, the 3D in Laika’s films often works well (I still have fond memories of seeing Coraline in 3D!). Also a plus, was that unlike the dark 3D scenes I saw recently in Pete’s Dragon (that seemed to render the imagery into a black ‘mush’), the dark scenes within Kubo actually are lit with enough light, that the dimensional imagery still registers!

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Also like Pete’s Dragon, Kubo is a family film that doesn’t fall down the rabbit hole of ‘easy pandering’ like we’ve seen in many Hollywood productions. You’ll have quiet moments, and those where the audience is actually allowed to catch its breath. This is a film where not everyone watching is a winner, and will surely be a treat for those who crave the not-so-pedestrian in their entertainment.

Even though it is not as strong in the storytelling as the first of the studio’s films, I still strongly recommend seeing Kubo and the Two Strings. So much of what is shown on the screen, feels like it was meant to be seen ‘big.’ The fights, the artistic details, the communal experience of both children and adults getting something out of a rarely-seen art form…they all combine into something that I do hope many will partake in upon its release.

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Final Grade: B+ (“Kubo and the Two Strings” shows that Laika can still release amazing work, and show the beauty and wonder that stop-motion can achieve, massaged by subtle CGI. While Kubo himself is not as a strong of a lead character, he is buoyed on by a supporting ensemble cast, that manages to be entertaining, and thought-provoking. The story can get a little simplified at times in regards to Kubo’s quest, and a few revelations might not be so easy for the average audience member to wrap their brains around.)

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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(Rated PG for action, peril and brief language)

While I did grow up with animated shorts and feature films from the Walt Disney Studios, I was not raised on the myriad live-action features that the studio had made. Yes, my childhood was ‘dry’ when it came to titles like Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Pete’s Dragon.

Of those three musicals, Pete is the one film that has been somewhat touch-and-go within the Disney fandom. While some have fond memories of the film, others wince at Pete’s singing, as well as the pre-Roger Rabbit attempts to bring an animated character to life in the real world.

When word came that a new film bearing the name Pete’s Dragon was coming out, it was met with a miniscule cry of uproar, from those who thought the 1977 film should be left alone.

Even so, the previews did make me curious as to how the filmmakers would handle this new take on an old classic.

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In the Pacific Northwestern town of Millhaven, its residents live on the edge of a huge forested area.

One day while out in the woods, Park Ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) is surprised to find a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley), who appears to have been living in the wilderness for some time.

Grace is curious as to how he could have survived, but grows even more curious when he mentions he has a friend in the woods, named Elliot.

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From the start, it’s very easy to see that the world of this film, is much different than the one from the 1977 film.

Gone are the early 1900’s with their dirty hillbilly family and traveling salesmen. Instead, the environment has moved into the 1980’s, with dually pickup trucks, record players, and not a cellular phone in sight! Plus, for those who aren’t into musicals, you’ll be pleased to know there’s no show-stopping musical numbers to be found.

Oakes Fegley plays the role of Pete, who is soon torn between wanting to stay with his big green friend, and to also be a part of the new family that he is welcomed into. Fegley quickly caught my attention, as he romped and jumped  through a few scenes, with a nimbleness that reminded me of The Jungle Book’s Mowgli.

Given when he first entered the woods, I was surprised just how well Pete’s vocabulary was for a boy who had been away from people for so long (he and Elliot communicate as well, but the dragon doesn’t speak in words). It’s almost like the filmmakers made a compromise, in making Pete talk a bit more (and know more words!) than he should. It seems a shame, as one could easily imagine Pete being almost completely mute when Grace first discovers him, and opening up more as the story progresses.

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(l to r): Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), Pete (Oakes Fegley), Jack (Wes Bentley), Natalie (Oona Lawrence)

While the other characters have some charm, they don’t do a whole lot that really makes them stand out. Howard’s Grace wears a caring smile most of the time, and her fiance Jack (Wes Bentley) is just…there. Robert Redford also has a small role as Grace’s father, though it almost seems like he could have been excised from the story completely. It feels like the one exception to the supporting cast is Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence), who quickly shows what an extrovert she is, when she keeps trying to get Pete to come out of his shell.

The film also takes a rather neutral approach when it comes to ‘bad guys,’ with the closest we get being Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). A worker at his brother’s lumber mill, we see him overstepping boundaries on where the company can log, which irks Grace a few times (did I mention she’s also engaged to Gavin’s brother, Jack?). Soon after we meet him, Gavin pretty much becomes the equivalent of one of the adults in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., when it comes to Elliot.

Speaking of E.T., it almost feels like director David Lowery was trying to recapture a little of that 80’s magic, going with the “a boy and his ______” story, while in the midst of a nostalgic flashback to simpler times. However, the story has a long way to go to even come close to the emotional rollercoaster that that classic film was.

Even with a rather average story, the film does play almost like a lost 1980’s family film. Its semi-serious nature for most of the film, puts it a few heads above many other films that are considered ‘family films’ in this day and age (and it’s one of the few that doesn’t contain ‘mild rude humor’ for being a PG-rated production).

The screening I attended was in 3D, and I must say if you’re going to see the film, do so in the regular format. Several sequences take place at dusk or at night, and my friend and I found ourselves often straining to make out some things through the dimness of our 3D glasses. For example, there was one scene that seemed as if it was meant to draw our attention to something, but neither of us could make out what it was we were supposed to be entranced by.

Watching the credits, I was pleasantly surprised to see WETA Digital credited for the work on Elliot. The company seems to have a lock on big characters this summer (they handled The BFG‘s effects as well), and what they’ve brought to “the big furry dragon” for this film, seemed to please both children and adults alike in the theater.

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Young Pete (Levi Alexander) meets Elliot.

Elliot behaves almost like a huge dog at times, and quite a lot of care has been given to the expressions on his face. If anything, Elliot (for not being real) seems to be the character with the most emotional range in the film.

Overall, Pete’s Dragon hits almost all the right notes for being “a Disney film,” but in watching it, I couldn’t help but think, “this could have gone so much further!” From character development, to decisions that some persons make, it feels like we could have gotten a much stronger final product in the end.

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Final Grade: B (“Pete’s Dragon” gives us a new tale regarding a boy named Pete, and his dragon friend Elliot. With top-notch special effects, the film explores the realms of what friends and family can mean, but gives us little more than a decent family film, feeling at times like it could have soared to even loftier heights of greatness.)