Archive | Uncategorized RSS for this section

Show Review: Stranger Things, Season 4 (Part 2)

After three years, I did wonder if there was enough fandom left to still drum up enthusiasm for the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

As it turned out, there apparently is.

From breaking a number of viewing records to giving a song from the 80’s a second life on music charts around the world, the first part of the latest season ran seven episodes long, and reintroduced us to a number of familiar faces, a few new ones, and a villain the likes of which the series hadn’t encountered before.

Now with it’s final two episodes, the latest season draws to a close.

__________

With additional information revealed about the creature from the Upside-Down known as Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke), Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb Mclaughlin), and his sister Erica (Priah Ferguson), hatch a plan to end the nightmarish entity that has been plaguing the town of Hawkins, Indiana.

Over in Russia, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is reunited with Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder). The reunion leads to some startling revelations, as well as a struggle to get back to the US to save their children.

Eleven (Mille Bobby Brown), Martin “Papa” Brenner (Matthew Modine)

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has gotten her powers back and has regained her knowledge of a traumatic event in her past, but now once again in the presence of Martin “Papa” Brenner (Matthew Modine), she finds herself struggling with the emotional sway he has over her.

Meanwhile, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wllfhard), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), and their friend Argyle (Eduardo Franco) attempt to figure out just where Eleven is.

__________

With part two of the season containing only two episodes, they serve almost like a yin-yang effect. Episode 8 (Papa) is almost 1 1/2 hours of setting us up, before Episode 9 (The Piggyback), pushes its characters into battle with the series’ longest runtime for an episode, at 2 1/2 hours.

Past battles have usually resulted in everyone converging into one central area, but this season, the battle takes place across multiple locations. Miraculously, all events are taking place at the same time (with one party not even in-the-know regarding what their efforts are doing).

L to R: Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke), Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb Mclaughlin)

One of the more fascinating things about the season for me, has been Vecna. The tail-end of part 1 revealed revelations about him, and part 2 carries on with more reveals, including connections to previous seasons of the show.

Speaking of newer characters, Eddie Munson continues to get better with every episode, while Argyle still kind of meanders along (he almost becomes to this season, what Suzie Bingham was to the last one).

Surprisingly, some of the storylines that I felt were rather slow in the first part of the season, get a little extra “oomph” in the second part.

For the final episode in Part 2 (The Piggyback), it does feel like the showrunners really did find themselves in a bind: one of the longest episodes in the show’s history, but one that they claimed they couldn’t figure out how to shorten, or find a proper way to split it into two episodes. In a sense, it almost becomes their equivalent of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (though in one instance, the Duffers do something that Peter Jackson seemed unable to do).

L to R: Argyle (Eduardo Franco), Wll Byers (Noah Schnapp), Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton)

This could very well lead to an issue that I feel is quite apparent in the show, which is that it seems to juggle a very large cast of characters. There is some thinning of the ranks that is to be had in this season, but it still feels like it is not enough.

Part 2 also has some issues with pacing in some cases, and it feels like that is also due to how many characters have to be juggled here as we move across the different groups.

Much like previous seasons, there are still a few mysteries left unsolved, but surprisingly, this season ends on a cliffhanger.

The Duffer Brothers had said in previous interviews that they could see the series lasting up to five seasons, and by the sounds of how well this one was received and has been talked about over the last month, Netflix will probably give them whatever they need to conclude this series in the right way.

L to R: Yuri Ismaylov (Nikola Duricko), Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Jim Hopper (David Harbour)

It still feels surprising that this season was able to weave together the story that it did. I felt there were some pacing hiccups and story issues with Season 3 of the series, making it feel somewhat like an over-bloated Summer movie in places. Season 4 has a somewhat better focus storywise, but does struggle with the juggling act of keeping them all active and interesting for the audience (though I am hoping that one of the subplots that was part of seasons 3 and 4, is now successfully closed).

I was very entertained by this season moreso than season 3, despite some of the storylines faltering at times. At least there is still a decent amount of enthusiasm built up for anticipating what may come next.

Final Grade for Season 4, Part 2: B

Final Grade for Season 4 overall: B+

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.

__________

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.

__________

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+

Episode Review: The Owl House (Season 2, Episode 15) – Them’s the Breaks, Kid

In the first season of The Owl House, Eda made it clear on a number of occasions that she was not at all enamored with The Emperor’s Coven, let alone the idea of Luz taking an interest in studying at Hexside School of Magic and Demonics. However, Eda softened on her feelings when she saw how the school might be good for Luz in some respects.

Eda already had a reputation at the school, but we never did see much about her during those days…until now.

__________

To get Luz’s mind off of what Emperor Belos has planned for The Day of Unity, Eda offers to tell her a story.

Soon, she is reminiscing about her days at Hexside, and how a deal with the former Principal Faust, pushed her and then Vice-Principal Bump, to attend an academic event presided over by Plant Coven head, Terra Snapdragon.

Eda finds the entire event a waste of time, until she meets a student from St Epiderm, named Raine Whispers.

__________

When it comes to flashback episodes, I can be a bit judgmental, unless they have something to add to a character’s backstory. And in that respect, this episode opens up some doors in regards to Eda, as well as Raine.

What really helps this episode succeed, is that much like the episode Hunting Palismen, this story focuses on just one event, and is stronger for going this route (it feels like they could have cheapened out and had something where Eda’s sister Lily kept attempting to prove her worth to being in this event, but the narrowed focus really helps this story).

We’ve heard actress Natalie Palamides previously voicing teenage Eda, but it feels with this episode, she really gets the chance to own the role. There are certain little inflections she does that really makes it feel like she is channeling Wendie Malick.

A little element that I wished there had been more of, was Eda and her sister Lily interacting. The episode gives us a few examples here-and-there, but alas, Lily is quickly sidelined.

I think this might also be the most invested I’ve felt in regards to Raine. The character really gets a chance to feel more grounded, and there are some areas where it feels like one can totally see why Eda became enchanted by them.

The episode also includes some fun little easter eggs showing a number of the show’s adult cast as kids, let alone how even back then, Bump seemed to try and be a voice of reason and order, as the less-abrasive Vice-Principal.

There are some areas where I felt certain story elements were a bit flimsy. Notable is how Bump seems rather oblivious to knowing of Eda’s trouble-making reputation, given in a season 1 episode, he was witness to some of her handiwork. One would assume with the evidence Principal Faust has, Bump would definitely be more informed.

Even the appearance of Terra Snapdragon has some faults too. It is nice to see some additional elements to her character, but how they resolve her tests at the academic event, feels like the writers trying to wriggle out of a corner they wrote themselves into.

Episodes of the show that have one definite focus just push my buttons, and this story so far is one of the season’s highlights. It’s informative and fun, and tells a full story about Eda and Raine that makes me wish there was more about their time growing up.

The story does get a little flimsy near the end as it tries to resolve some things, but there’s enough good stuff here to push through to a satisfying conclusion, let alone a coda on the end that ties into the larger story for Season 2.

Best line in episode (said by squeak toy): “SQUEEEEEEEE-”

Final Grade: B+

Episode Review: The Owl House (Season 2, Episode 13) – Any Sport in a Storm

When he was announced as a cast addition for Season 2, The Golden Guard gained quite a bit of fan-gushing from the online Owl House community.

While there has been scant information learned about Hunter (aka The Golden Guard), it has usually been while in his service to Emperor Belos. This latest episode release, looks to throw him into an area that he hasn’t had much experience with: other persons around his own age.

_____

After being questioned by the Abomination Coven head Darius on his strength of character, Hunter sets out to prove himself worthy of the Golden Guard title. At Hexside, he attempts to recruit students into the Emperor’s coven and happens to come across Willow starting up a Flyer Derby club, which he decides to use as a cover for recruiting “the best and the brightest.”

Meanwhile, Amity informs Luz that the author of The Good Witch Azura books is holding a signing in town, and the two eagerly go off to meet her.

_____

After her interactions with Amity in episode 11, it was nice to see Willow getting some additional character development in this story. We’ve seen her grow into a competent witch with her plant magic, but it is nice to see her stepping up to take on a leadership position in a school program.

Even so, the issues Willow faces with starting her club at Hexside feels a little flimsy, given one of the school’s professors hangs the fate of the club on whether her team can beat his at a Flyer Derby match (feeling like a small callback to season 1’s Wing It Like Witches).

Getting to see Hunter out of his element is a nice touch, let alone reminds us that he’s around the same age as some of the school students, but doesn’t seem to know how to really interact with them. In a real world comparison, his recruitment methods feel like Armed Forces recruiters going to high schools, to convince kids that their skills can greatly benefit their country.

There also is some new information, that the title of The Golden Guard is older than Hunter himself. Up until this point, I had assumed this was a title Belos had bestowed exclusively on Hunter.

We also get the return of background characters Skara and Viney, and Gus even shows how supportive he can be towards Willow, though one scene makes it possible that maybe he harbors feelings for her.

The return of Darius is rather quick, but surprising. His last appearance in Eda’s Requiem went by like a blur to me, but recently we’ve been learning a bit more about the different Coven heads. With what we see here, it does make me wonder just how loyal most of the heads are to the Emperor.

While Willow and Hunter’s interaction is the “A” story of the episode, Luz and Amity encompass the “B” story, dealing with their love of the Azura books, and their attempt to meet author Mildred Featherwhyle.

We had a slight blip in the relationship arc between these two with the last episode, and it is nice to see a subplot about something that they share a common love over. Plus, we do get to see somewhat of a payoff from Luz in Season 1, wanting to start an Azura book club at Hexside.

Unfortunately, the “B” story starts out with an intriguing premise as the two question the author’s heritage (Luz purchased her books in the human realm, but is the author from the demon realm?), but feels like a bit of a “mystery box” distraction as the girls try to find answers for the questions they have.

The episode overall has some strong moments, but shows some flimsiness at times as the stories make their way to the end. Even one moment in the resolution of Hunter’s story arc made me question the “logic” that was used. However, after the last episode felt like a tease for things to come, getting an episode that brought about some character development for both Willow and Hunter was quite enjoyable, and some of these moments helped raise the rating on this episode just a bit more for me.

Luz and Amity’s plotline did feel a bit pointless, though a saving grace was getting to see the two off on a little quest, bouncing ideas and theories off of each other.

Best line in episode (said by Luz): “She’s had a name this whole time!?”

Final Grade: B

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.

_____

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.

_____

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: Raya and the Last Dragon

Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements

Over the years, Walt Disney Feature Animation has created a number of films that have shown Asian/Pacific Islanders on the big-screen. Coming from a partial-Asian heritage, I remember being excited for the release of Mulan in 1998, and seeing the kind of Japanese influence that was brought to the studios’ 2014 release, Big Hero 6. For their latest release, Raya and the Last Dragon borrows from Southeast Asian culture, with an eye to telling an original story of its own.

______

In the land of Kumandra, a sacred object known as the Dragons Gem is broken into pieces, and scattered across the five regions (Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail). The shattering of the sacred item, has led to entities called the Druun, rising up and destroying the people and their livelihoods in these regions.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) converses with Sisu (Awkwafina).

It is Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) from the Heart region, who seeks out the last dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina), in hopes that the creature can help restore the gem, and bring an end to the devastation.

______

Right off the bat, Raya as a film quickly sets up that it is going to tell its story in a much different light that what we have come to expect. It feels like It has been quite awhile since we had a new film break from the expected, and that was what quickly grabbed my attention.

Once the story gets going, Raya herself is our eyes and ears, as we make our way through each of the regions. Tran’s vocals give the character a few playful moments here-and-there, but Raya is probably one of the more serious lead heroines the studio has had in awhile.

Because of Raya’s demeanor, much of the humor is left to Sisu (aka the last dragon). When she first appears, it isn’t too hard to think that she seems like the love-child of Aladdin’s genie, and Mulan’s Mushu the dragon. Sisu cracks wise and acts quite aloof, but in quieter moments, can be a voice of reason to Raya. However, the character is rather hit-or-miss at times for me, along with some of what Awkwafina brings to the table.

Namaari (Gemma Chan), with warriors from the Fang region.

One character whom crosses paths with Raya several times, is Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of the Fang region’s royal family, and someone who was instrumental in giving Raya trust issues in her past. There are times where it feels like the film wants to open up more in regards to Namaari (almost like it wants to really make the story about her and Raya’s viewpoints), but the film feels like it has to narrow its focus, and in doing so, Raya’s journey wins out.

That seems to be one of the big issues I had with the film. Much like Big Hero 6, it has a number of characters thrown into the mix, but they are mainly here for the action, and not to have us get too deep into whom they are. Much like how Big Hero chose to keep its main focus on Hiro and Baymax, the focus here stays mostly on Raya and Sisu, even as they gather new acquaintances along their journey.

It feels like the films editing at times even has some odd choices. Some scenes have some rather jarring fades, almost like the filmmakers were at a loss regarding where to go for some scenes. Given the film was made during the Pandemic in the last year (and sports 4 director credits and 8 writers credits!), I do wonder how precarious it was to keep balance on the film.

When it comes to focusing on particular story elements, it is in “trust and hope” that the film mostly concerns itself with. At times, it feels like the filmmakers are using the film as a mirror to our own world (much like how Zootopia tackled topics such as racism and prejudice), but it doesn’t feel like it manages to come through strong enough with what it wants to say.

This isn’t to say that the film is bad.

A scene from Raya’s journey through Kumandra.

I did find my attention perking up more as the film moved into its second act, and it was nice to see an animated feature that showcases some great artistry in bringing the worlds onscreen to life. I was very taken by the rendering of water in a number of scenes, feeling like what had been learned on Frozen II had been taken to a new level.

It is also nice to see the filmmakers forego the “loner who doesn’t need friends” cliche that we’ve seen in other films, or making Raya a character hellbent on revenge for what has happened to her and her family. The film even subtly hints at her royal heritage, but the film manages to spare us from giving her a royal moniker.

Raya and the Last Dragon is an action film from Disney that has heart, but to me, it needed some extra TLC to really stand toe-to-toe in the story department of some of the studio’s stronger films in the last decade.

Final Grade: B

__________

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.

__________

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.

__________

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

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 8) – The Rescue

These days, it can be nice when in a world rampant with spoilers, some things can still surprise you.

I remember wandering around Star Wars Celebration in 2019, and seeing people psyched up for The Mandalorian. Even with a prop speeder bike from the show on display, I just dismissed the show as some way to placate the Boba Fett fanboys.

Imagine my surprise later that fall, when I found out how series creator Jon Favreau had something a little different in mind: a series that tapped into the western and samurai tales that George Lucas sought inspiration from, and attempted to tell a live-action story outside the confines of The Skywalker Saga.

Pretty soon, I was drawn into the adventures of Din Djarin (aka the Mandalorian), and his unexpected charge Grogu, aka “The Child.” The show managed to hit me with just enough nostalgia, while taking us off into places that the films would not generally go to.

And now, we find ourselves at the end of the second season, and it’s much-anticipated finale.

_____

With the coordinates to Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito) cruiser now in his possession, The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) puts his plan into action to rescue Grogu.

Along with cohorts Cara Dune(Gina Carano), Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), Mando recruits fellow Mandalorians Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), and Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) to help them out.

_____

After episode 6 of this season, I did wonder if the season finale could do everything it needed to in just 45 minutes. Turns out, I didn’t have much to worry about.

One thing that has been clear over much of season 2, is how the show feels no guilt in reaching back into it’s cast of characters to pull some into the light for various missions. Characters like Mythrol and Miggs Mayfield were definitely a surprise to see play larger supporting roles this season, but I didn’t expect to see Bo-Katan and Koska return before the season ended.

For much of the episode, the action is split-up (with Boba taking a backseat to much of the action). While Mando goes in on his own, it was a nice touch seeing the women of the episode work together in infiltrating the ship. Each of them brings something useful to the fight, and getting to see them interact was a highlight. One highlight for me, was seeing a bit more action given to Fennec Shand, whom I have felt had been rather downplayed since her return to the series.

Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) infiltrate Moff Gideon’s ship.

Seen briefly in episode 6, we also get some of our first full glimpses of Moff Gideon’s nightmarish Darktrooper squad in action. The Terminator-like creations provide some nice tense moments, with an added musical cue from composer Ludwig Goransson to make things seem even more harrowing when our group encounters them on the cruiser.

Like a number of episodes this season, this one attempts to balance out action with emotion, and when it comes to emotions, this episode might hit viewers in ways they never imagined.

Certain revelations given in this episode did push a number of my emotional buttons, but once I had some time to recover and collect my thoughts, I had to judge the episode on it’s overall merits. In fact, one revelation would have probably pushed the episode to the top of my favorites of the season, if certain information hadn’t been given away a few times prior to this episode.

Mando (Pedro Pascal) encounters a cadre of Darktroopers

One of the things about the first season of The Mandalorian that I really enjoyed, was that Din Djarin seemed to be a part of the Star Wars galaxy, but quite removed from the previous “lore” that had been a major part of our lives. Seeing Mando encounter characters like Boba Fett and Ahsoka Tano I feel is okay, but I often felt that with Star Wars being such a large sandbox to play in, the show could have done a better job of carving out it’s own way in the universe. That to me seems to be the teeter-totter that the series rests on: it tries to make it’s own way, but has a “habit” of diving a little too often into “the familiar.”

The Rescue definitely feels like a turning-point for the series. It draws a curtain over the eight episodes we’ve invested in over the last few months, but much like The Empire Strikes Back, leaves us at a point where we don’t know just where its characters can go. While some mysteries have been solved, new ones have been revealed. It doesn’t feel like there are any easy answers regarding where most of our main characters can go, and that will surely have many of us guessing as we wait once again, for a new season to start up.

I will admit that season 2 of The Mandalorian didn’t win me over as much as the first season, but watching it there were moments where I wished I was watching these episodes with a theater audience. I saw scenes where I could imagine audiences being just as rowdy and enthusiastic as I recall from the opening night of some of the Star Wars films.

If anything, my one hope is when the series returns, we get a lessening of “guest stars,” and focus a little more on developing the cast of characters surrounding Din Djarin, and where his journeys will take him next.

Final Grade: B+

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 7) – The Believer

As we near the end of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, it’s been a bumpy-yet-enjoyable ride. There have been quite a few callbacks to Season 1, with some new revelations adding to the story of Mando and his young charge, Grogu. The show has also twisted in ways I didn’t expect, and still it has proven itself to be one of the most enjoyable things associated with the words Star Wars in quite some time for me.

______

Thanks to some help from Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Mando manages to spring a mercenary named Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr). A former Imperial, Migs is Mando’s key to finding Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), who is now in possession of Grogu.

With an assist from Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), the group head to the planet Morak, where Mayfield can hopefully put his former skills to good use.

__________

It feels like just when our momentum was building up in relation to the closing of Season 2, the series once again puts us in a “holding pattern.” The Believer is another “heist” storyline (directed by show alumni Rick Famuyiwa), but with a few tricks up it’s sleeves.

When it comes to Mayfield, I think like many of us who saw him in the season 1 episode The Prisoner, we figured he wasn’t ever going to be seen again. Much like the character of Mythrol a few episodes back, Mayfield is a reluctant part of the crew. While abrasive and a bit of a motormouth (he feels like the Joe Pantoliano of the episode!), the writers manage to give most of his ramblings a purpose to the story. A highlight comes during a transport scene, where he attempts to engage Mando in conversation.

Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Mando (Pedro Pascal), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr) plot their next moves

For much of the story, Mando’s companions take a backseat as he and Mayfield are front-and-center on their mission. It almost becomes an impromptu buddy storyline, and even gives us some further insight into just how strictly Mando is willing to stick to his Mandalorian code given where his journeys have taken him.

In terms of new worlds on the show, Morak is one of the first jungle environments we’ve seen, and one that manages to give us callbacks to Rogue One in terms of the types of troopers we see. There’s also an action-scene involving a turbo tank-style transport vehicle, that definitely feels like it could have been plucked right out of a video game. The planet stop-off gives us another glimpse into the remnants of The Empire working to rebuild in the shadow of The New Republic, and offers a brief glimpse into Imperial ideologies, in the form of an officer named Valin Hess (Richard Brake)

Imperial officer Valin Hess (Richard Brake) shares a drink with some troopers

Unlike typical Imperials, Hess’ drawl seems a little out-of-place coming from the mouth of an officer. Even so, the character manages to be quite intriguing given his limited appearance. The show has done a commendable job so far making even the post-ROTJ Imperials interesting characters to watch.

Overall, The Believer feels like previous Season 2 episodes The Passenger and The Siege: it gives us a chance to catch our breath, before plunging us into what will hopefully be an even more exciting episode. Even so, it might be one of those episodes that may age better with time, given some of what is discussed and revealed regarding its characters, and their ideologies.

Final Grade: B-

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 6) – The Tragedy

We’ve now reached the 75% mark for Season 2 of The Mandalorian, and the episodes have tended to bounce back-and-forth between great and good. With the last several episodes delving into The Clone Wars series, the latest episode catches up on a real blast from the past.

_____

After their encounter with Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu (formerly known as The Child) head to Tython, where there exists a place that can possibly help them contact other Jedi who might help them give Grogu safe haven.

Shortly after touching down, things don’t go as planned when Mando finds himself facing off against stormtroopers, a foe he once thought dead, and a bounty hunter with a familiar ship.

_____

Following last week’s events, the opening moments show some further understanding between Mando and Grogu, though it is soon after this that their latest adventure becomes like a video game level. Ever play video games where you have to keep the enemy from advancing on a specific target? This is the episode-equivalent of that very game level!

One thing I was largely on the fence about as soon as it was announced, was hearing that Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones) would be appearing as Boba Fett this season. I’ve long been of the thought that while he looked cool, Boba had served his purpose and perished in Return of the Jedi. However, the reappearance of his armor and the final shot of the Season 2 premiere episode The Marshal, piqued my interest.

For this episode, Jon Favreau manages to write Boba as being much more interesting than just the cool-looking guy standing around in the original trilogy (even giving Boba a small callback to his father). We can believe Fett knows his way around blasters and jetpacks, but going into action without these things was most unexpected. A highlight was seeing Morrison wield a gaderffii stick like a Maori warrior, causing me to get drawn into the character for the first time watching him onscreen.

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) encounters Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison)

We also get the return of Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), whom we last saw on Tatooine in the first season. Much like that appearance however, she’s mainly just along for the ride, making me wonder if the show is just saving her for a much more interesting bit later on (maybe she’ll get her “moment” like IG-11 in the first season?).

When it comes to the arrival of the stormtroopers (coming in some pre-Episode VII troop-transports), this is where the video game-style feelings of the episode begin. Pretty soon, the standard white of the trooper armor gives way to several different varieties, making it feel like a group of online players are mounting an assault on the show. There’s even the appearance of some troopers that play into what was shown at the end of the last episode, making me develop some ideas regarding what the villainous Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) wants Grogu for.

Grogu encounters some dark visitors

The episode is short on revelations, and feels moreso like the kind of action-oriented fare we saw in The Siege. Director Robert Rodriguez (known for his El Mariachi trilogy) never keeps the action from getting dull, and there are some moments that really pushed my buttons emotionally (including one that made me sense a great disturbance in The Force). There are a few times where I did question some things he made Mando do that were somewhat repetitive. It might have been meant to make it seem humorous with each attempt he made, but it felt like it was merely a way to stretch the run-time out a little (this episode clocks in at just 33 minutes, the shortest chapter of the season so far).

The results of The Tragedy, feels like we are entering the Empire Strikes Back portion of Season 2. not that the first 5 episodes weren’t hard on Mando in their own right, but this episode ends in probably one of the most tense cliffhangers yet. It isn’t on the same high shelf that I place Season 2 episodes The Marshal and The Jedi, but it manages to make due with what it has to offer. I do hope that with the final episodes, we get a return to stories that have been longer than most of what we’ve encountered this season.

Final Grade: B