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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

Movie Review: Frozen II

Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements

I remember 6 years ago being hyped for Frozen, after the 2013 D23 Expo gave us some exciting sneaks and imagery beyond the hackneyed American marketing campaign.

Next thing we knew, Elsa dolls were flying off the shelves, Idina Menzel’s Let It Go drove parents insane, and it looked like Walt Disney Feature Animation was back on top.

While the studio’s micro-managers during the “Eisner Era” sequelized as much as they could with cheaply-done animation, sequels made within the big-budget Burbank Disney Studios were few-and-far-between. The company recently embraced big-screen sequels again with Ralph Breaks the Internet, and now are hoping it’s icy cash-cow still has what it takes to fill seats and sell merchandise.

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When the kingdom of Arendelle is threatened by magical forces beyond their borders, Anna (Kristin Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Olaf (Josh Gad), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and Sven set off to find out what is going on.

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L to R: Sven, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna (Kristin Bell), and Elsa (Idina Menzel)

Their journey leads them into an enchanted forest, cut off from the rest of the countryside. Within it’s shrouded wilderness, the group finds new creatures, humans, and the chance to learn a little more about Anna and Elsa’s royal heritage.

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Frozen II attempts to do what most sequels do, which is send it’s characters off on a bigger and more eye-popping journey than the first foray. Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck return to the director’s chairs, while caught in a quandary: how to continue telling the story, when they can’t seem to escape the shadow of the first film.

The filmmakers try to utilize some connective tissue to the Arendelle royal family and expand our knowledge of them, but we get a few too many winks to the audience’s knowledge of Frozen (even Toy Story 2 was able to reference it’s predecessor more sparingly than what we see here).

After 6 years (and two animated shorts), we see that there have been a few changes to our main cast of characters. There’s still a small wedge between the two sisters on how to handle certain situations, with Elsa wanting to do things by herself, and Anna still wanting to be there for her older sister.

Most of the film’s humor comes from Olaf, who seems to be entering the “motor-mouthed kid” portion of his being alive. This time around, Kristoff is pushed to the back, with a running-gag “proposition” narrative that seems to be a continuation from what we saw in the 2015 animated short, Frozen Fever.

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L to R: Destin Mattias (Sterling K Brown), Anna (Kristin Bell)

The film does expand on it’s cast once we get to the enchanted forest. From the introduction of a native tribe, to Arendelle Lieutenant Destin Mattias (Sterling K Brown), it at first seems like we’re going to get a larger cast of characters to go on this new journey. In the end however, they feel like minor bumps in the road.

While the first film focused on Anna learning more about life and coming into her own, this film gives over much of it’s character development time to Elsa. There also is the added mystery as to how the enchanted forest came to be, but it never feels like we really get a concrete understanding about this new location. Still, the visuals do show that Disney’s R&D team have taken some amazing leaps when it comes to real-world environments and lighting.

What also doesn’t help the film, is it’s pacing. From the beginning, the film feels like it’s in a hurry to get us to Elsa’s story. There are some moments where the film could take the time to slow down and allow us to catch our breath, but by the end of it all, you feel like stuff has happened…but how much of what you experienced do you actually comprehend, or care about?

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Elsa (Idina Menzel)

Songwriters Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez are back, with plenty of new music that hits the big Broadway sound, while also dipping into the power ballad arena. Idina Menzel delivers the two big show-stopper pieces, while Kristin Bell and Josh Gad are given songs that just don’t hold much water. I don’t see any of the music becoming the new “Let it Go,” though a song sung by Jonathan Groff will either have you in stitches, or leave you scratching your head.

Frozen II gives us a chance to catch up with old friends, but it feels a little too invested in connecting itself to the first film, and too eager to give us more time with Elsa than to focus on keeping us just as emotionally invested in the rest of it’s cast, both old and new. We’re fortunate that it’s not just a “re-skinned” sequel like Mary Poppins Returns, but it just comes off as a good story, that could have been something far greater (like The Incredibles 2!).

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review: Klaus

Rated PG for rude humor and mild action

As a former animation student, I like many was saddened at how the hand-drawn medium became sidelined in the early 21st century. While Disney would attempt to revive it stateside with The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011), the films did not make much money, and the studio let any further hand-drawn plans sink from sight.

One person who believed in the medium, was Sergio Pablos, who had actually worked for the Disney company on a number of past projects before striking out on his own.

For over a decade, Pablos tried to find investors to bring his film Klaus to life. Finally, Netflix came calling, and the animator’s vision was unleashed to the streaming service, and the world.

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After shirking his Postal Academy training, lazy and over-privileged Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman) is transferred to the isolated island town of Smeerensberg, with the caveat that he establish a postal service there within a year. However, the town is the home of two feuding families (the Ellingboes and the Krums), who would rather see the other side defeated than send each other a letter. Even the town’s lone school teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) sees little future in getting through to the citizenry.

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Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman)

Beyond the town, Jesper comes across a bearded man named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Seeing a large assortment of toys the man has made, Jesper feels that if the kids send letters to request toys from the lone woodcarver, it might be his ticket out of this crazy place.

However, as Jesper begins to put his plan into action, strange things begin to happen to the little island community.

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Like a number of productions in the last 20 years, Klaus comes off as another “you don’t know the whole story” story, but it manages to do things a lot more…”traditionally.”

Pablos’ take on the tale of Santa Claus, definitely feels like it borrows from the older Rankin-Bass Holiday specials (right down to the backwards-thinking jerks who want to quash anything happy). Unlike most films these days, this one treads very lightly into the pop-culture references or “music inspired by” graces of American-made productions. It is quite a feat when the story being put on the screen…is actually focused on telling you a story!

Character-wise, Jesper Johansen isn’t that different from the likes of Emperor Kuzco or Lightning McQueen when we first meet him. He’s your typical character who has it all, and then gets knocked down a few pegs. However, Jesper as a character is not quite as “abrasive” as I had feared.

He does have some work ethic, but he just needs to find a way to focus it. It also helps that we do see him doing quite a bit of action when it comes to helping deliver Klaus’ gifts. The fact that he is quite pro-active for much of the film, definitely helps make us start to feel for his character, even if he isn’t entirely truthful at times.

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Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) and Klaus (J.K. Simmons)

Speaking of Klaus himself, the film portrays him as an enigmatic character: a large figure who seems intimidating, but has a story of his own to tell. Much of his characterization is through little bits of action, and while J.K. Simmons does decent voice-work, it never feels like his voice truly belongs to the gentle giant.

There are also some additional subplots that just feel like overkill for the story.

The subplot regarding the town’s feuding families does get a little flimsy at times. While we do get some scenes regarding the heads of the family, their business within the film just never feels like they’re that much of a real threat.

The town’s school teacher also figures into the plot in a few areas, but it feels like they mainly put her in to give Jesper someone to talk to about the state of Smeerensberg from the inside. She is also given a small character arc, but it doesn’t really seem to be that strong.

The children in the film are what really makes the town seem more alive. As rules are established for the receiving of toys, the children begin to become the more responsible of the citizenry. It is rather fun to see in a few montages, the kids setting a good example to the more “childish adults” around them.

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The art style of the film is inspiring as well. The less-is-more approach to the snow-covered backgrounds, will probably put some people in mind of animation production artists like Mary Blair, or Evyind Earle. There is the use of computer-generated imagery for sure, but it blends in so well to the film, that my brain soon stopped analyzing the techniques and got pulled into the story!

Even so, there are moments that did take me back to what hand-drawn animation could do. From the elasticity of Jesper’s facial expressions, to the “heaviness” of Klaus’ overcoat, this is a film that feels magical in more ways than one.

Klaus is definitely a rare film in this day-and-age, and not just because of the artistry on hand here. While some of the story points woven into it feel a little too much like overkill, the tale of how Jesper and Klaus come together really sticks in your mind long after it’s all over. When there’s an emotional scene to be had in the film, it comes across as genuine and sincere…something that often feels missing from a lot of animated features foisted upon the public these days.

Netflix has helped Sergio Pablos create a wonderful new film, that may surely gain a following of it’s own over the years.

Final Grade: B+

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Movie Review: Terminator – Dark Fate

Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity

In 1984, James Cameron’s tale about a killer cyborg from the future, became one of the year’s surprise hits. Cameron added a sequel (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and a theme park experience (T2-3D: Battle Across Time) to the series before he walked away, but Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone.

The 21st century brought about studio-produced sequels, meant to kick-start new trilogies/series related to the characters. Sadly, none of them could make us forget the earlier films.

While Cameron has become more enamored with his personally-created world of Avatar in the last two decades, he has allowed some directors to play in his sandbox. Director Robert Rodriguez resurrected Cameron’s abandoned Battle Angel Alita earlier this year, and now director Tim Miller looks to “finish” the Terminator story, with Terminator: Dark Fate.

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L to R: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), Grace (Mackenzie Davis)

The film breaks free of our regular cast of main characters, and focuses on a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who finds herself in the sights of a new Terminator, the REV-9 (Gabriel Luna). Help comes in the form of an augmented human protector named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), along with two familiar faces from the series’ past: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzennegger).

Story-wise, the characters in Dark Fate feel like new avatars of those we’ve seen before. Dani is the innocent whose life is turned upside-down, while Grace is our “Kyle Reese,” but with a few twists. Luna’s REV-9 proves to be a more deadly adversary, with the ability to split into a liquid-metal being, and a formidable endoskeleton, making him twice as deadly!

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REV-9 (Gabriel Luna)

Much has been touted publicly regarding Linda Hamilton’s return to one of her most famous roles, but it feels at times like a “caricature” of the Sarah we know and love, growling out her lines and dropping F-bombs. Mercifully, Arnold is relegated to a supporting role, but those moments definitely stand out, and even give us a few laughs in this very dark feature.

It’s also hard to ignore certain story elements that we’ve already seen in the last three sequels, that Dark Fate wants us to forget. Grace’s augmentation doesn’t feel that far from Marcus Wright’s in Terminator: Salvation, and the REV-9’s metal-over-metal form is eerily similar to the T-X’s in Rise of the Machines from 2003.

Director Tim Miller entertained many of us with his work on the film Deadpool a few years ago, but alas, his storytelling isn’t as strong trying to live up to Cameron’s legacy.

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L to R: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)

The film almost gives the viewer whiplash in it’s first act, propelling us from flashbacks into a truncated introduction to Dani and Grace, before slowing almost to a crawl in the second act. The film could have used this area to give us more time to develop stronger connections to these new characters, but instead decides to create a journey-filled quip-fest between Grace and Sarah, as they struggle to keep Dani safe.

The way Miller stages his action and night scenes also took away from much of my enjoyment. Some action shots are a blurry mess and cut together so quickly, that it took me awhile to comprehend just what I was looking at. The night scenes he works with don’t get much better, as the imagery is oftentimes so dark, you’re unable to read character emotions. It doesn’t seem good when some shots in this film, made me pine for the clarity of those from Genisys.

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L to R: Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

This latest film could have tried to steer us down a new path away from the characters and story beats we know by heart, but the film struggles with being a “bridging vehicle” between the older films, and the possibility of new stories with the characters we’re introduced to.

Sadly, we’ve been burned by repetition in this series so many times over the last 35 years (along with the continued knowledge that Judgment Day seems inevitable), that Dark Fate feels like it’s fighting a losing battle to win us over with the promises of greatness, many of us know the series just can’t keep.

Final Grade: C+

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