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Movie Review: Jurassic World – Dominion

Since Steven Spielberg adapted Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park novel over three decades ago, several generations have grown up with tales of a world in which dinosaurs and man walked the earth (with the help of computer-generated imagery, and full-size robotics).

In 2015, Colin Trevorrow took the helm of a new series based on Crichton and Spielberg’s work. However, the last entry in the series (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) attempted to take the dinosaur experience beyond a confined island, and let the creatures loose in our world.

And now after 4 years, Trevorrow returns to conclude his trilogy, with Jurassic World: Dominion.

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Since the events of Fallen Kingdom, dinosaurs have become part of the human world. While some like former Jurassic World employees Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) try to help them, dinosaurs are soon being treated like other animals in our world. From illegal breeding to underground fighting matches, humanity has found a way to profit off these creations.

On a corporate level, the company Biosyn led by Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) announces that they have created a sanctuary in Italy, where numerous captured dinosaurs can live in peace, and be studied for future medical advancements.

A Dreadnoughtus in Biosyn’s sanctuary

However, a new threat to humanity arises, when giant locusts suddenly begin to decimate crops across the Midwestern United States. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is studying these events, and feels the key to understanding what is going on may lie within the walls of Biosyn. She then enlists the help of Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to further investigate.

Meanwhile, Owen and Claire also have their hands full protecting Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), an illegally-created human clone made by John Hammond’s former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). The teenage girl feels stifled by their rules, but also is struggling with the feeling that she is simply a “copy” of someone else.

The three also get an unexpected surprise, when the raptor Owen trained named Blue, shows up near their residence, with a young raptor of her own.

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Was that summary a lot to take in? Well, welcome to Jurassic World: Dominion.

There’s no doubt that audiences are a lot more sophisticated than they were three decades ago, but Trevorrow along with screenwriter Emily Carmichael seem determined to fill the film with as much stuff as possible (maybe out of fear that audiences will get bored?).

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) encounters some Parasaurolophuses

After the end of the last film, along with a short called Battle at Big Rock, it felt like we were really going to plunge into what a world with dinosaurs would be like. The film does give us some of this imagery…for about 10 minutes, before it then pulls it’s characters into other subplots to occupy their (and our) time!

The locust subplot that sends Ellie to Biosyn feels like it could have come from an unproduced Crichton script, but it just feels like the filmmakers’ way to get Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm back together, let alone send several of them sneaking around in a Mission: Impossible-style way.

While Malcolm has a slightly more substantial role here, the film seems to love teasing the audience with Grant and Sattler (who is separated from the husband we saw in Jurassic Park III!). Of the two, it feels like the writers also really wanted to give Dern more to do here than in her first appearance.

In terms of World characters, Pratt just feels like the film is having him do more of what we know him for from the previous films. For Howard as Dearing, I was very surprised when the film really tried to push her into action territory during the last 2/3rds of the film. We’ve seen her do some stuff previously, but several moves definitely surprised me.

In terms of new characters, probably the most interesting is a pilot named Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise). I could have seen this role written for a man, but Wise plays her character like a smuggler who has come to a questionable crossroads in her life.

A dinosaur fighting ring in Malta

Where the film somewhat manages to do something unexpected, is when Owen and Claire find themselves in Malta. We get everything from poachers, along with a femme fatale and fghting rings, and even a dino black marketplace that feels almost like something out of a Star Wars film. One almost wonders why the film couldn’t have pulled more focus around this part of the storyline, rather than making it’s inclusion feel a bit like the Canto Bight casino scene from The Last Jedi.

In the case of the company Biosyn, it is basically Apple for the genetics industry. From it’s facility that resembles the circular Apple Campus, to Dodgson eerily resembling current CEO Tim Cook, it really feels like how they figure into the story was almost like an afterthought.

And when it comes to the dinosaurs…well…there are dinosaurs in our dinosaur movie. The downside is that they don’t really do much to really stand out in our minds. Even when it comes to the Giganotosaurus who is supposed to be the film’s big T-Rex adversary, I almost pined for what was done with the Spinosaur in Jurassic Park III!

Strangely, the film seems to have a very “Raptors R Us” style when it comes to dinosaurs in this film. Along with Blue, we get a few different types of raptors, from some Indoraptor-like hybrids, to one with feathers. However, they don’t do much more than fulfill the Raptor time-quotient for the film.

Even how Blue and her baby figure into the plot, it feels like they could have just been written it out completely.

Of course, this isn’t the only trilogy continuation we’ve had over the last decade. George Lucas’ Star Wars films also were given a new lease on life, continuing on in a world that seemed familiar but shiny-and-new given more recent advancements. But the Jurassic World trilogy seemed to share some of the same thought processes as that series, such as building your first entry on a template of that previous trilogy’s audience-awing first film, and then…just not really seeming to have much of a plan on where the whole thing will go, but making sure to throw plenty of nostalgia at the audience in hopes you can lull them into a state of nostalgic bliss (even the recent sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife utilized this technique).

Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), encounter one of Biosyn’s newly-created genetic marvels

Dominion doesn’t get quite as reverent towards its past as The Rise of Skywalker. The callbacks are somewhat tempered, but it does get a bit ridiculous when it seems every other person in the main cast seems to know who everyone else is. There’s also a very odd item cameo that had me asking more questions than it should (for those well-versed in Jurassic films, you’ll probably know what it is).

Plus, after the last film talked about moving the dinosaurs to a special sanctuary before they were just let loose on humanity, what do we have with this film? A special sanctuary where Biosyn and several parties are moving dinosaurs to!

The film’s 2 1/2 hour running time just seems to plod on as Trevorrow seems to think we’re so taken by everything, but it feels like the film needed to cut out a few storylines, and tighten itself up by 30 minutes.

The latest entry feels like it could have gone somewhere with the “dinosaurs living among us” setup we got with Fallen Kingdom, but it feels like the film’s creators just got distracted with some new ideas while rehashing some familiar touchstones.

Basically in Dominion, a lot of stuff happens, some scenes may catch our attention, but in the end, it feels like a lot of hollow spectacle, with very little heart.

Final Grade: C+

Movie Review: Ghostbusters – Afterlife

Rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some suggestive references

Up until 2015, I knew that there were fans of the Ghostbusters films, but I never thought some could be on the same level of obsessive behavior like fans of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series.

Even though the original film’s cast seemed fine with director Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters film, (set in an alternate universe where four women go into the ghostbusting business) it was hounded as soon as it was announced, and the vitriol still hasn’t subsided after 5 years, with some still acting as if the film’s creation was a crime against humanity.

When it came to an actual sequel to the 1980’s films, rumors had swirled around for years, but with the death of Harold Ramis (aka Egon Spengler) in 2014, it looked like that was the end…until Jason Reitman announced in 2019 that a sequel was in the works.

After the Covid-19 pandemic delayed release of the film for over a year, Ghostbusters: Afterlife has finally been unleashed upon the world.

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When a woman named Callie (Carrie Coon) has learned that her reclusive father has died, she packs up her kids Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and heads to Summerville, Oklahoma.

While Callie finds nothing but a dilapidated old farm, her kids find a number of items, that begin to clue them into their unknown Grandfather’s past life.

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Right from the start, the mood of the film is different from the typical atmosphere of a Ghostbusters film. Summerville is a far cry from New York, with its expanses of farmland and small-town main street. Aside from Callie’s reclusive father, the only thing more mysterious are seismic tremors that rattle the town on a daily basis. The tone of most scenes almost seems to invoke the mood of retro fare like Stranger Things and Super 8, mixed in with the mise en scene of films made under Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production banner (like E.T. and The Goonies).

L to R: Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), Podcast (Logan Kim), Phoebe (McKenna Grace)

Once the family is situated, the focus of the film largely shifts over to Phoebe. Grace’s performance is the highlight of the film, as her character bounces between scientific interests, and trying to be more “normal” (usually in the form of her telling numerous hit-or-miss jokes).

Aside from Phoebe, the rest of the films characters barely register beyond just basic, one-note personality traits.

Callie just goes on and on about her hatred towards her absent father, while Trevor is the smart-mouthed, resident mechanic of the family who happens to find a familiar (to us) vehicle, and just decides to fix it. The film also attempts to shoehorn in a minor “thing” between him and a girl named Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), but the story never seems willing to properly develop anything resembling a relationship.

Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd)

A highlight for some is most likely going to be the inclusion of Paul Rudd as local teacher Mr Grooberson, but even his time in the film is fleeting. At the most, he’s the avatar for the major film fans, notably once some familiar technology begins to show up.

With the screenplay co-written by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan (director of Monster House and the 2015 Poltergeist remake), there are times it feels like the film is at odds with itself. It’s a tug-of-war situation between doing something different, and falling into repetition based around some major elements from the first film (in case you were wondering, the film quietly retcons the existence of Ghostbusters II).

There are times where I felt like I was watching someone’s adapted Ghostbusters fanfiction come to life. This was most prevalent when the film lingers on familiar iconography, or shoehorns in references that don’t make much sense. Jason Reitman has made films I’ve enjoyed before (such as Juno and Thank You For Smoking), but the overall tone of this film feels a bit amateurish at times. Some sequences feel like they were hacked down in an attempt to get to “the good stuff,” let alone the lack of much meaningful character development beyond just Phoebe.

That isn’t to say this film is bereft of involving scenes. I did find myself getting excited during a high-speed chase using the Ecto-1 vehicle. Seeing it skid around corners with the young actors working together, felt like the most exciting “new” thing in the film, but later scenes never quite captured the camaraderie of those few minutes.

Also rather odd, is the musical tone of the piece. Composer Rob Simonsen utilizes a number of musical flourishes from the 1984 film, but they don’t seem to fit naturally in a number of places. There’s some familiar tones that will surely cue some audience members into where this film is going, while a piano melody that sounds just perfect amidst bustling street traffic, seems an odd choice when it pops up several times in the film.

There also is a rather non-chalant way in which some people react to spirits. Not that one would expect someone to run off screaming, but when one event happens to Phoebe (and later her mother), they treat the happening with no emotion at all. Heck, when Phoebe begins having a chess game with a spectral opponent, she just keeps it to herself like this is just an everyday occurrence!

Aside from McKenna Grace’s performance and a few choice moments, Afterlife just ends up puttering along on nostalgia, willing to play it safe and please its fans, rather than go down new roads and take risks. My big question is in regards to those who are looking at this film as some sort of masterpiece: once the “nostalgic anesthetic” wears off, will they look back on this film in 5 years, and still feel the same?

Final Grade: C

Movie Review: Last Night in Soho

Rated R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity

Since he came onto the scene with Shaun of the Dead in 2004, writer/director Edgar Wright has made films that hit us with genre and nostalgic touches. While not as popular as Spielberg or Tarantino, he can find ways to bring creative visions to the screen, that stick with us long after we’ve left the theaters.

With his latest film Last Night in Soho, the story focuses on Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a country girl who is very much taken by the styles and music of the 1960’s. Coming to London to study fashion design, Ellie rents a small flat, and soon begins to have dreams that take her back to the past. In these dreams, she finds herself following a striking blonde named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who wants to become a stage dancer. Ellie is enthralled by these visions of the past, until they begin to take a dark turn.

When it comes to atmosphere, Wright hasn’t lost his knack for enveloping us in the world of his story. When Ellie finds herself in the past, it isn’t hard to be just as excited as her, with the neon lights and vintage cars moving about. The neon in the darkness seems to even take on a life of its own, with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung bathing characters in rather unsettling tones. There are also some creative character setups, in how Ellie views and interacts with these visions of the past.

L to R: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin McKenzie

It also wouldn’t be an Edgar Wright film without a swingin’ soundtrack. Here music from the likes of Petula Clark, James Kirk, and Dusty Springfield weave their way through the story. Taylor-Joy also adds her own voice to the music, performing several period pieces as well.

While the world of Soho is one that pulls us in, it feels like the areas of character and story, where Wright’s latest film trips up.

Ellie is portrayed as a girl who feels out-of-place, with her quiet demeanor and retro feelings at odds with her more contemporary classmates. However, she may be the first character in Wright’s filmography that doesn’t really change, seeming to be little more than a witness to Sandie’s story, swept up in the events of what she sees (with a hint that they can possibly bleed over into her reality). One assumes there might be a little more done with how these dreams affect her schooling and personal life, but everything from her going to class to working a job at a pub, is shuffled to the side until it feels needed outside of her main bedroom environment.

Taylor-Joy’s Sandie also doesn’t fare much better. At times she acts as Wright’s example of young women coming to 1960’s London with big dreams, only for them to be tainted by the men who ran things.

This idea of pulling back the curtain on the pristine views of the past and showing its dark underbelly feels like it could have been much better explored. Instead, Wright soon begins to ratchet up the horror, as certain elements begin to invade Ellie’s world.

Thomasin McKenzie

The film also tries to give Ellie a companion in the form of John (Michael Ajao), another student at the design school who takes an interest in her. Unfortunately, John just seems to be here as Ellie’s support vehicle, never cross or condescending, and willing to stick with her no matter how crazy things seem to get.

The story definitely starts out strong, but begins to become unstable as it drifts into the third act. A number of things begin to intersect, leading to what seems a rather messy conclusion (making me pine for how well Wright handled the intricate story elements of his sophomore effort, Hot Fuzz), but often in ways that may make one question things in a logical manner. There’s still some elements that I’m not sure Wright made clear, including one bit that seems to ask for the audience’s sympathy, that doesn’t seem particularly warranted.

Compared to his previous films, Wright’s latest will surely draw people in with its ambience, but the characters and story elements feel greatly overpowered by his atmospheric vision. That isn’t to say it isn’t an entertaining film, but there are a number of areas where it feels like some extra time and effort was needed, in order to elevate Last Night in Soho into something that could be as memorable as his previous works.

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review: Luca

Rated PG for rude humor, language, some thematic elements and brief violence.

One name at PIXAR Animation Studios that has stuck in my mind over the years, is Enrico Cassarosa. Hailing from Italy, he has been a story artist at the studio for some time, and even directed their 2012 animated short, La Luna.

Cassarosa also has a distinctive drawing style that borrows from the designs of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, in numerous pencil and watercolor works he has done over the years.

Needless to say, when I heard he was going to be directing a film for the studio (in a style that seemed to shake things up from the norm), I was definitely looking forward to seeing what he had come up with.

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Close to the seaside community of Portorosso in Italy, liveS a small community of sea monsters. One of them is Luca, a well-behaved kid, who slowly grows enchanted with the world above when he befriends another young monster named Alberto.

Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (Jacob Tremblay) head off to the village of Portorosso.

Wanting to learn more about the world up above, the two head off on their own to find adventure in the nearby village, where they have to stay dry to appear human…lest the monster-wary villagers figure out what they are.

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After watching Luca, a thought went through my mind: “Given how we hold Pixar films to such a high standard, is it okay for a film of theirs to just be…good?”

Luca is a film that does not go as deep as past films such as Ratatouille or Soul. In some respects, it reminded me of a film I rather enjoy that a lot of people despise: Cars 2. That film was one that still tried to be entertaining, while also having some emotional content to it. In fact, One has to wonder if this style of filmmaking may be something we will see from the studio going forward (maybe “good” films can stave off more sequels like Toy Story 5 or The Incredibles 3?).

The simplicity of Luca is quite notable. Aside from being sea monsters, Luca and Alberto are pretty ordinary. Luca is the kid who is curious, but just needs someone to give him a shove, which (first) comes in the form of Alberto. Naturally, since Alberto has adapted to land for some time, it is a given that Luca believes almost everything that comes out of his mouth (like claiming the lights in the night sky are fish).

Alberto and Luca meet Giulia (Emma Berman)

Another influence on Luca comes in the form of Giulia Marcovaldo (Emma Berman) a chatty redhead who helps her father Massimo (Marco Barricelli) at the local pescaria. She recognizes that the two boys seem “out-of-place” in the village, and does her best to make them feel welcome. She also welcomes their interest in entering the local Portorosso Cup triathlon, when the boys feel it may win them the means to acquire a Vespa scooter to see more of the human world.

Naturally, any group of kids needs someone to rain on their parade, and this is where Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) comes in.

With Ercole, it feels like a long time since we have had a villain character that was just a bullying jerk in a Pixar film. He doesn’t play as prominent a role, but he’s somewhat like Portorosso’s Gaston, who seems to hold quite a bit of sway over the town, though we are never privy as to how or why (maybe his parents hold a prominent place in Portorosso’s social hierarchy?). He does have a few funny moments, but an attitude that will make many eager to see him get some of what he dishes out.

Ercole (Saverio Raimondo) encounters Giulia and her new friends.

Even with some storytelling areas that seem familiar, there are places in the film that surprised me by not going for the easy way out.

It does help that there is a simplicity to the storytelling that focuses mainly on the kid characters, but never makes their problems too insurmountable. At times, it feels like the film could have been adapted from a picture book in how the story is woven together. Even with so many people in the village, the film rarely strays from a set number of characters to focus on.

Where the film falters at times, seems to be as a result of some of the supporting cast, such as Luca’s parents. The film tries to mine some humor out of them, but it often feels like they don’t necessarily flow well with the rhythm of the story as it moves along.

There also is a theme of accepting others even if they are weird or strange, but it feels like this message gets somewhat buried in the storytelling. The film even attempts to shoehorn in a revelation around this train of thought, but it just doesn’t feel natural.

The seaside village of Portorosso.

One area that is never a place for criticism, is in the crafting of the environments of the film. There’s a rich coloration both below and above the sea. We get dazzling blue hues in the water, and bright sunny yellows throughout the hills and town, that feel warm and inviting.

There are also moments where the film dips into some flights of fancy that the boys have. From leaping Vespas to floating planets, the daydreams are cute little moments, but one could almost see them being put into a short-subject of their own.

Along with channeling Miyazaki-esque stylings, one can’t help but feel like Cassarosa has made something that feels akin to Studio Ghibli films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. Luca definitely won’t crack the top 5 for most peoples favorite Pixar films, but it’s got a charm to it that makes it hard to dismiss.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review: Earwig and the Witch

Rated PG for some scary images and rude material

In recent years, Japan’s world-famous Studio Ghibli (home to films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro), has quietly emerged back into the spotlight. While word circulated that co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to work on a new film, there have been a few other artists who are producing films under the company’s name. One in particular is Hayao’s son, Goro.

Needless to say, Goro’s work for the studio has been somewhat of a mixed bag. His adaptation of Urusla Le Guin’s Tales From Earthsea is often ignored by some (and led to some bitter words from his father), while his sophomore effort From Up on Poppy Hill proved to be a rather enjoyable story about young people living in post-WWII Japan.

Now after almost a decade, Goro has returned to direct Earwig and the Witch, based on a story by Diana Wynne Jones (the author of Howl’s Moving Castle). Most notable about this production, is that it is the studio’s first where computer-generated imagery has been utilized to bring familiar character designs to life.

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Cute and manipulative orphan Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa) enjoys her days at the St. Morwald’s Home for Children, where she revels in quietly lording over the place and a number of its people.

Things change when one day, she is adopted by a woman named Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima), and her lanky partner named Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa). Earwig soon finds out that these strange people are actually a witch and a demon, living in a house not far from the orphanage.

Earwig observes her new home

Though Bella simply wants Earwig to be a helper as she prepares spells and enchantments to pay the bills, the young girl is determined to learn magic and other powers from her new guardians, whether they like it or not.

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As soon as still images of the production were released, I was mildly apprehensive of the familiar Ghibli designs having been translated into the computer. Once I saw the characters in motion, it took some time to accept what was being done. There is definitely some care put into a rendering a lot of the familiar traits we’ve come to know for the studio’s character designs, but it feels like the animators tend to make some of the moves a bit more “floaty” than I would have expected, let alone the textures make the characters often look like plastic figurines. There are even a few areas where they had to compromise on translating some expressions, with one of the strangest being how they visualized the boisterous “Miyazaki laugh” many of us know.

Taking in the film as a whole, I found it hard at times to figure out just where the story was going. There are a number of times where it feels like we are getting little clues as to what may be coming down the pike, but they seldom seem to pan out.

Earwig, Mandrake, and Bella Yaga partake in a meal

A big element (and selling point of the ad materials), is that it seems Bella and Mandrake were once part of a band prior to the events in the film. One would have assumed that Earwig would have been pulled into this history lesson (she even shares the name of an album in Mandrake’s possession!), but the film doesn’t think this that important, making a few of the promo materials to feel misleading.

As a character, Earwig herself is one that is hard to really get behind, let alone see her as anything more than a little girl who is determined to make this new house bend to her will in a matter of time. Aside from her sneaking around the house and quietly griping at whatever Bella makes her do, there just aren’t a lot of quiet moments to really find much to make us care about her.

The same can be said for Bella Yaga and (the) Mandrake. They seem to have their own lives and things that they do, but the film just doesn’t want to take the time to explore this. We never do get to see Bella doing much outside of potion-making, and Mandrake just constantly gets fired up about one thing or another. It also stands to reason that Bella is not some wicked witch, given Earwig’s nice clothes and daily meals (though one could make a drinking game out of all the times Bella threatens to make Earwig “eat worms”).

Bella Yaga and Earwig at work

The inability for the film to really go anywhere is its biggest downfall. Goro presents all these elements that make the viewer ready to find out more than Earwig just being stuck in the house, but he doesn’t do anything really compelling with these characters to push them out of their mundane lives. We’ve seen Hayao do some intriguing things with witches and demons in some of his films, but this film feels like if Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle just never did much once she got to the castle.

The film also brings back a former collaborator, in the form of Satoshi Takebe. Unlike his more traditional score from Up On Poppy Hill, Satoshi adds some jazzy rock instrumentals at time that seem quite out-of-place from what we’ve had in the past. It adds an extra layer of darkness and intrigue to the film, but the music at times also slows down to the more familiar melodic tempos we’ve known from past films too.

At the start, I slowly began to get sucked into the story of Earwig and the Witch, as the character stylings began to seem palatable and the unusual use of rock music seemed to feel like this could be a grand experiment for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, the story just feels like there are a bunch of better plotlines that never go anywhere. As I looked back on the film, one of the most shocking things to me was just when the film felt like it might actually go somewhere interesting…it ended!

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Final Grade: C+

Movie Review: Soul

Rated PG for some language and thematic elements

Ever since they were founded back in 1986, PIXAR Animation Studios has often looked to utilize their animation and storytelling skills, in unexpected ways. 25 years ago, rather than adapt a fairy tale or do a musical like The Walt Disney Studios, they created an original film about toys that would surprise many of us.

Since then, they have often looked to do concepts most would never consider. From culinary rats to a dystopian romance between two automatons, they have (usually) sold us on their often unusual ideas.

Five years ago, writer/director Pete Doctor took one of the studio’s biggest conceptual leaps with his film tied into the human mind (2015’s Inside Out). And now at the tail-end of 2020, in a world where life-and-death seem balanced on a knife’s edge on a daily basis, he tackles another concept that no other studio would dare consider.

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Musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has spent his life longing to hit the big-time, and become a successful Jazz musician. However, just when his dream is poised to come true, an accident sends Joe into an out-of-body experience.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) takes a stroll through New York City.

Determined to get back to his body, Joe ends up in a place called The Great Before, where souls are prepared to be sent to Earth. Taking on the role of a mentor, Joe is assigned to the troublesome 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent a long time refusing to find anything worthwhile about living.

Even so, Joe is willing to try anything (and everything), if it can mean him getting back to make his big break.

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To most of us, Pete Doctor has created some of the studios’ most memorable films. His work on Monsters Inc paved the way for even greater success with Up in 2009. As I went over his films, I felt that Doctor tended to do quite well when it came to emotional beats (the relationship between Sully and Boo still stands out), but in regards to the connective tissue of his films, it often feels like he’s jamming together a lot of ideas and such, that get a little too cumbersome to achieve equilibrium (just how did Charles Muntz survive for so long in Up, anyways?).

While I did feel Doctor made strides in Inside Out to try and pull together a more cohesive storyline, I have felt that maybe in some cases, he gets a bit too enveloped into the worlds or concepts he wants to tackle, and that can cause little kinks in his stories in places.

As a character, Joe Gardner may put some in mind of Up’s Carl Fredericksen. Both are people who hold on deeply to a dream, and can come off as a bit obsessive when it comes to making that dream come true. Joe’s passion for Jazz and his own daily struggles were something I could latch onto though, but it did feel at times that Joe ends up maybe being used a bit more for comic relief than he should.

Joe (Jamie Fox) attempts to find something that will interest 22 (Tina Fey) to give living a chance.

In the case of 22, I feel Tina Fey does decent work with her character, but like Joe, it feels like maybe there could have been a bit more to her than what we get. 22 is portrayed almost like someone who has had the world explained to them through virtual reality, but is someone moreso able to learn-by-doing. There are some fun little moments of interaction she has with Joe on her journey, but it felt like she just needed something extra to really make her stick with me.

For most of the film, we alternate between the Real World environment of New York City, and the more abstract visuals of The Great Beyond/Before. Much like Doctor’s alternating environs for Inside Out, the artists and technicians at Pixar once again assault our senses in a number of ways that will inspire and amaze. Each place also has hyper-stylized figures, with New York filled with caricatured humans, and The Great Beyond/Before filled with flat/abstract beings (most of them named Jerry). A highlight is the soul-counter named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who is determined to find Joe.

Jerry (Alice Braga) and Terry (Rachel House) keep count over souls heading to The Great Beyond.

Soul also marks the first time some new musicians and composers have been brought into the mix, with a soundtrack that tag-teams Jon Batiste doing Jazz arrangements for the film, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose using their electronic music skills to set the mood of the The Great Beyond, and some of the quieter moments. It’s an unusual mixture of sounds and instru,entals that is quite a lovely breath of fresh air from some of the more regular composers we’ve heard. A highlight is one track where all three men manage to combine their skills into a piece that is one of the more memorable musical pieces I’ve heard all year.

To me, Pete Doctor is not a bad director, but I just wish his storytelling and filmmaking skills would rise to the levels I’ve seen from other directors like Brad Bird (The Incredibles), and Lee Unkrich (Coco). Soul weaves a tale about how our experiences and movements through life tend to make us who we are, but stumbles on it’s way to greatness (in my eyes).

When Doctor hits us with the emotional moments here (like with Up), those will be what washes over most viewers. However, in the process of doing this, he manages to easily distract from the flimsiness and flaws that are often a part of his storytelling process. After 2 decades, I’m starting to think this may just be the way Doctor is “wired” into filmmaking.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review: Over The Moon

Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild action

In the last few years, Netflix has expanded its reach into the world of animation, offering an unexpected challenge to some of the big-name studios in Hollywood. Along with animated TV shows like Hilda and Bojack Horseman, they have also entered the arena of animated features, recently producing last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Klaus.

This fall sees the company’s release of the Pearl Studios feature film Over The Moon, directed by two men who once worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Glen Keane was part of the company’s character animation division (developing characters such as Ariel and The Beast), while John Kahrs is known for directing the studio’s Oscar-winning short Paperman.

With Over The Moon, they tell the story of a Chinese girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). Uncomfortable at the prospect of her widowed Father (John Cho) remarrying, the studious girl holds onto the story of Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) the immortal Moon Goddess who never forgot her one true love.

Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) and Bungee

Using her ingenuity, Fei Fei builds a rocket, hoping that if she meets Chang’e, she may provide her with the means to change her Father’s mind.

Glen Keane has often focused on characters that seem to be stuck between two worlds, and Fei Fei fits the bill. On one hand she inherits her father’s tendencies towards math and science, while embracing the Chinese legends her mother taught her. That mixture of combining logic with legends is intriguing, but it unfortunately feels like it gets lost as the film progresses.

On any serious journey like this, one needs all manner of sidekicks to help and/or irritate the lead. In Fei Fei’s case, we get a big-eyed bun-bun named Bungee, and on the moon we have a glowing green dog-creature named Gobi (Ken Jeong). There also is Chin (Robert G Chiu), Fei Fei’s overly-energetic stepbrother-to-be who never seems to run out of energy. While they prove helpful in some situations, most of the time they feel like they exist to distract the younger audiences.

In terms of secondary characters, Chang’e is one whom it feels like we could have gone deeper into regarding her emotions. We see her characterization being almost like a superstar with a diva-like persona, but also see that despite seeming to be loud-and-proud, there is something lurking beneath the surface that she may be trying to hide. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem willing to explore much in this regard, let alone her relationship with her pet rabbit named Jade. Even Jade himself feels shuffled into a corner, when he could have played a much larger role in us understanding how Chang’e has weathered the centuries being alone.

Chang’e (Phillipa Soo)

It’s also never explained how the “kingdom” of Luminaria Chang’e rules over came to be. Looking like a luminescent space Oz, we’re told nothing of its development, let alone more information on the luminescent beings whom inhabit it and the moon. It probably could have added an extra 10-15 minutes to the plot, but it mostly feels like what we see is just meant to enthrall us visually in the hopes that we’ll just end up totally enamored with the on-screen journey.

I was also surprised when the film led off with a song, and then piled on another one right after it. The songs in the film are okay, jumping into a number of different styles, but none of them really stuck with me once it was all over. One near the end had potential, but the structure and lyrics just don’t have the kind of memorable feel of songs from such popular fare like The Little Mermaid, or Frozen.

At times, Over The Moon’s story structure reminded me of Meet the Robinsons and Up, and while those films had flimsy subplots and sometimes annoying supporting characters, they were supported by decent storytelling to lift up the visuals, and support the lead character’s journey of self-discovery.

Fei Fei surveys the kingdom of Luminaria

In the case of Moon, the film surprised me with its hope that Fei Fei’s emotional journey and the flashy visuals will distract viewers from the fact that the foundations of the story are incredibly flimsy. It feels like Keane and Kahrs try to over-compensate too much in the areas of emotion and visuals, throwing the balance of the film out-of-whack in a most unexpected way (I’m used to the opposite in animated films, where mindless slapstick and pop-culture references hope to chase off pesky emotional stuff). Most films would have a solid story foundation, but I found that to be severely lacking once the film picked up momentum and got us to the moon.

The film was also one of the final projects for screenwriter Audrey Wells, who is said to have written the story as a gift to her husband and daughter as she lost her battle with cancer. Knowing full-well that same feeling of loss, it does feel sad that such a heartfelt gift sadly does not hold up to being something as powerful as it could be. The story gives us little pockets of emotional moments, but when strung together into the final product, the unevenness of the story really stands out.

Over The Moon will surely entrance and entertain some, but to me, it is sadly a misfire from two filmmakers who were instrumental in making me realize the power of emotional storytelling in animation, and a mother who wanted to leave something emotionally beautiful for her family. Both Keane and Kahrs have shown their talents for doing emotional directorial projects in animated short format, but it feels like they attempted to translate those skills into a feature, and came up short. In conclusion, there are small bits here-and-there where things click for the film, but in judging it as a whole, it shoots for the moon and misses.

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review: Roald Dahl’s The Witches

Though Roald Dahl’s The Witches was adapted into a feature-length film in 1989, the famed author was heard to have greatly hated the direction the adaptation took (word was, he even found fault with the 1971 adaptation of his book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). One has to wonder if director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the author wouldn’t be slipping him notes on this latest adaptation.

Grandma (Octavia Spencer) and her Grandson (Jahzir Bruno) meet Mr Stringer (Stanley Tucci)

Moving the story’s setting to the American south in the late 60’s, the film’s lead boy (played by Jahzir Bruno) ends up in the care of his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after losing his parents. When the boy encounters a strange woman one day, grandma claims he encountered a witch, and takes him into hiding at a fancy resort hotel…not realizing it is the planned meeting place of numerous witches, and their leader: The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).

Bruno plays his role of the unnamed lead pretty well, showing a traumatized young boy who is coaxed back to life by his Grandma, but then must deal with a new problem in his life. Unfortunately, there seems to be a strange difference in attitude and energy once he becomes a mouse, as if he’s gotten an adrenaline rush from the change. Maybe if the film had shown him at these same energy levels as a boy, it might have worked better for me.

Octavia Spencer was one of the highlights of Pixar’s Onward earlier this year, and she does well playing a grandma that can be caring, but also doesn’t put up with much guff. There also is a strange malady the story afflicts her with that never feels like we fully get a payoff on, let alone her being referred to as a healer almost as an afterthought.

The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) arrives.

One role that I think many will be most curious about, is the latest iteration of The Grand High Witch. Unlike the more serious take in the 1989 adaptation, Hathaway’s characterization ping-pongs from creepy to campy at times, with enhancements that rely a little too heavily on Zemeckis’ computer-generated imagery. Even so, there are some images shown that I could see terrifying little kids (in much the same way Zemeckis terrorized us with Judge Doom in Roger Rabbit), let-alone some close-up shots that I feel were indicative of a possible 3-D theatrical release before COVID-19 happened.

The screenplay crafts a much different world than the book, one where the main target of witches are out-of-the-way minority children, while under the guise of wealthy, beautiful women. It feels like the story could have explored this social topic a little further, but the film seems to be in a rush to get us to the more memorable parts of the story. Throughout the film, “the bones” of Dahl’s story are pretty much intact, and I even saw a few things from the book that surprised me.

One of the things that the viewer may find rather annoying, is that the story is largely told with a narrator. It almost feels like the story was forced down this path to help along younger viewers, but it is probably the most “overkill” thing in the entire film.

There also is an over-reliance of computer-generated effects at times that can take the audience out of some scenes (did we need a CG cat, Bob?), let alone some effects scenes that feel like they needed a little more time to be perfected. It does seem odd that we have what seems like a real-looking mouse, and yet when the lead is turned into a mouse, he becomes a bit more, “cartoony” in appearance.

Much like with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one can just imagine a bunch of “1989 vs 2020” debates regarding which of the adaptations of this work is better. While I had my trepidations about Zemeckis making this film (his 2018 release Welcome to Marwen left me very nervous about his future), I was surprised by how entertaining it was for most of the time. It does manage to stick to the basics of the story, while never straying too far. And for those who are fans of Dahl’s work, don’t be surprised if you find a few little ‘easter eggs’ hidden within the film.

Even with the film being passable however, I still will wonder what the film could have been like, when Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, The Shape of Water) was attached to direct it as a stop-motion project over a decade ago.

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review: A Whisker Away

Over the years, transformation in animation has fascinated me. Whether they be whimsical or sometimes violent, just something about things being turned into other things just draws my attention.

Upon seeing a trailer for the Netflix release A Whisker Away in early-summer 2020, it’s story seemed a intriguing.

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After encountering a strange mask seller at a summer festival, Miyo Sasaki finds a cat mask she got from him, has the ability to temporarily turn her into a cat. When a boy at her school named Kento Hionde finds her in her cat-form and takes her in on the assumption that she’s a stray, Miyo begins to lead a double-life. By day she attends school with Kento, and for a few hours every evening, she visits him as a cat. As things in her human life begin to weigh heavily on her mind, Miyo begins to ponder if life as Kento’s pet may not be so bad after all.

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After watching the film, it felt like a better concept was shown in the minute-long trailer that had first intrigued me. Once I had thought about what I had watched, I couldn’t help but feel that much of the film was a beautiful mess.

Part of the mess happens to lie in how the characters are depicted.

After a rather confusing opening, we get to see Miyo in full-on “crush-mode,” loudly hip-checking Kento in the morning, and becoming a drooling lovesick wreck at times, while Kento himself just seems to quietly find her actions annoying.

Isami, Kento, Miyo, and Yoriko have lunch together.

The film slowly attempts to chalks up Miyo’s quirky behavior to problems within her family, as she struggles with being a child of divorce. One would expect we’d get some deep drama as she adjusts to life with a new stepmother, but the filmmakers jettison some much-needed introspection in favor of her “obsession” with Kento.

Kento also isn’t very well-developed either. We only get a few faint bits of information about his personality, let alone his struggles to find an identity that may not be what his widowed mother wants him to be.

The film’s inability to work on developing the characters’ back stories, let alone give us some more time understanding Miyo’s struggles being both human and cat, prove to be some of the most frustrating parts of the film. The filmmakers want to take the easy way out, hoping these tiny-yet-unsatisfying glimpses into Miyo and Kento’s lives will allow us to connect-the-dots, and buy that these two kids belong together no matter what.

Miyo (in cat form) with Kento

It also doesn’t help that the film’s youthful characters and cat-like imagery, put me in mind of a few much better films from Studio Ghibli. At times, it feels like that studio’s feature films Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns served as major inspirations for this tale. Unfortunately, if there was inspiration taken from those two films, it was mainly the style of those films over the deeper substance of bettering yourself, or working to understand who you are.

If there’s something positive I can say about the film, it is that the background paintings are really eye-catching! There’s some top-notch artistry on display here, though it largely shines in the third act when the film finally throws us into a whole other world.

What is strange at times, is it feels like most of the scenes are set up to show us more of the world surrounding Miyo and the others. Camera angles most of the time tend to draw our focus to the environments, shoving characters to the side or into the background, as if the characters are more of an “afterthought” to what we are seeing.

Miyo explores a strange path.

In conclusion, A Whisker Away is a beautifully-rendered production, that attempts to tell a flimsy “young love story.” It’s attempts to make us care and root for Miyo never becomes engaging enough, and the characters around her barely register enough to get us fully-invested in the overall story. It also isn’t a good sign that as I watched the film, I kept thinking of numerous ways the story could have been improved. When I start trying to improve on what I’m seeing, it’s a good sign that the film has some problems.

Final Grade: C

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Movie Review: Tread

Currently available on Netflix. Rated TV-MA for Language and Smoking

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

On June 4th, 2004, an armored bulldozer rampaged through the small mountain town of Granby, Colorado. Heavily-fortified with steel and concrete, the dozer caused millions of dollars in property damage over a few hours, before it’s driver Marvin Heemeyer, took his life.

The story was national news for 24 hours, and then the newsfeed was taken over by the death of former President Ronald Reagan the next day. After that, there was no additional coverage or follow-up as to why Heemeyer had done what he did.

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Footage from the June 4th, 2004 rampage

Director Peter Solet and his brother, were two people that became interested in understanding more about what led up to that fateful day. Now after almost a decade, that research has been released in the form of the documentary, Tread.

A former Air Force pilot with a knack for welding, Marvin Heemeyer ended up owning a muffler shop in Granby. Some claimed he seemed friendly and reliable, and made enough to support his hobby as an avid snowmobiler.

Where things started to go downhill was when Marvin purchased several acres of land in town. According to audio cassettes he recorded months before his rampage, the purchase seemed to begin a chain reaction which led to a number of prominent people in the community deciding to make things difficult for him. Eventually, Marvin started believing that God was telling him what he could do to “level the playing field.”

Along with Marvin’s voice utilized via audio cassettes, there are a few people he knew that also give some additional insight into him. However, they are little more than local acquaintances, and only take up a very small amount of screen time.

Most of the interview time happens to go instead, to a number of people and prominent family members in Granby, whom Marvin claims “wronged” him. Most notable about the local people interviewed, is they seem relatively calm, with nary a harsh word towards Heemeyer, and some even contradicting his feelings and verbal tirades. Most seemed relatively unaware he was harboring such deep grudges towards them.

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Marvin (Robert Fleet) looks over his “creation”

Much of the film contains re-enactments of some scenes, with the more interesting ones occurring once Marvin decides to purchase a bulldozer from a California auction. This leads to the more action-oriented finale of the film, where parts of the rampage are recreated with a replica of the bulldozer (though thankfully, not filmed anywhere near Granby).

While the story of what led to the events that fateful summer day do make for a good story, it feels like Solet (who is also the writer), narrows his focus a little too much, deciding to only gather information on Marvin during his life in the town.

We do learn about Marvin having family and spending some time in Florida with friends, but none of them are interviewed or provide additional insight regarding him. We don’t know what he was like as a child, or if maybe something in his past or his time in the Air Force affected his thinking. There are points where we see pictures of him with weaponry as well as him speaking about God giving him his task. These are extra character avenues that had me wondering what others had to say regarding these circumstances.

Tread also perplexed me with how it ended. Once the rampage is over, the film just peters out. One would assume we’d get an epilogue exploring more of the town of Granby, and how what Marvin did affected it all these years later. We don’t even get to hear what the local citizenry have to say about Marvin, or even get eyewitness accounts from regular people who he may have serviced in his muffler shop, or who watched the rampage that day.

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Marvin Heemyer

That to me is the problem with Tread: it feels like it’s missing some extra material to flesh out the film and make it seem a little more “balanced.” While we do get some good insight about Marvin Heemeyer, it feels like the filmmaker is really just in a hurry to give us the cliff’s notes version of his life in the small town, and get us to “the money shot” as quickly as possible.

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Final Grade: B