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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Retro Recaps: Amazing Stories – The Pumpkin Competition

Retro Recaps is where we will look back at old television episodes from the past, and analyze their story, content, and much more.

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Though only lasting two seasons, Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories, left an impression on my young mind many years later. While I didn’t have fond memories of the two episodes he directed, there were others that left little bits of residue in my youthful brain.

One of them, was a tale of the saintly and the selfish, that seemed to have a little bit of author Roald Dahl thrown into it’s storyline.

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The 32nd Yarborough County Fair is about to end another successful year. This time, the judges for the annual pumpkin contest have chosen Mildred McMinamin (June Lockhart) as 1st place winner!

However, the announcement is met by a sharp ‘NO’ from the audience, as wealthy local Elma Dinnock (Poly Holiday), cuts through the crowd and storms onto the stage. Elma claims that since she has not won in the 21 years she’s been entering the contest, it must be fixed (even though we see in one moment, that Mildred’s pumpkin is bigger than Elma’s).

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Her tirade is interrupted by Mildred, who claims her failure to win is due to the angry woman’s stingy nature. Elma owns half the county and has foreclosed on a number of people’s properties, and Mildred has decided to have her say in the matter.

“To be rewarded in life, Elma,” lectures Mildred, “one must give. Whether you’re raising vegetables or raising children.”

The words do nothing to change the old woman’s feelings, and she storms off the stage.ASTPC-1

Returning home, Elma is perturbed when a man named Bertram Carver (J.A. Preston) shows up at her doorstep. She quickly demands this ‘salesman’ leave, but allows him in when he says he can help her win next year’s competition.

Mr Carver claims he’s a professor of agriculture, and is working on finding a way to help end world hunger. Naturally, Elma cares nothing about the plight of the hungry, and wants him to get to the point.

It is then that Mr Carver pulls out a large green object the size of bowling ball. Cutting off a piece of it, he gives it to Elma to eat. When she claims that it ‘tastes like a pea,’ he confirms her observation.

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Bertram has created a formula to enlarge fruits and vegetables, but needs $10,000 to finish his research. He is willing to give some of his formula to help Elma, if she will give him the money he needs.

Elma’s desire to win gets the better of her, and she goes to her secret safe. However, she retrieves only $5,000, claiming it is all she can spare Mr Carver. The cash-starved botanist reluctantly takes the money, and gives the miserly woman a flask and some instructions.

As growing season begins, Elma plants a pumpkin seed with the formula, but over a period of days, nothing happens. Just when she is ready to sue Mr Carver for false advertising, she awakens one morning to the sounds of breaking wood! Rushing out to her backyard, she finds that an enormous pumpkin has sprouted in her garden!ASTPC-3

Shortly afterward, she goes to sign up for the 33rd annual pumpkin competition, and runs into Mildred.

Mildred claims her pumpkin is bigger than last year’s, and says she is telling Elma this to not only save her from disappointment, but also paying the entry fee (since the miserly woman hates to part with money).

This concern causes Elma to laugh and she proposes a wager: everything she has (her estate and savings) against everything Mildred has (a small trailer-home and meager finances). Her goading gets Mildred to consider, and she smiles at the nervous expression that washes over her opponent’s face.

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“Mildred,” she says, “do your friends really believe all that about, ‘blessed be the givers?'”

“I’m sure they do,” says a shaken Mildred.

“Good,” smiles Elma, “since you’ll be asking them to give you a place to stay!”

Elma then attempts to hire a local moving service to transport her pumpkin to the fair, but finds they are unavailable. Forced to get creative with time running out, she uses railroad spikes and rope to attach the pumpkin to her car, before driving off.ASTPC-5

However, the friction of the pumpkin against the road soon causes chunks of it to tear off over the course of the trip, leaving a sloppy trail behind the car.

By the time Elma has reached the fair, the pumpkin is 1/3 it’s original size…and Mildred has won for the second year in a row! Naturally, Elma throws a fit, claiming that hers is the biggest pumpkin there.

“Obviously, you haven’t seen this year’s entries,” chuckles the judge.

Opening a door behind the main stage, Elma is shocked to see numerous pumpkins…each as large as the one she grew!

“Quite amazing, really,” says Mildred. “A professor asked us for $5,000 to complete his research to end hunger. Of course, we all gave, and in return, he gave us his growth formula!”

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We then see Elma shaking on the ground, realizing that her greed has not only cost her the contest, but also the bet she made with Mildred…all because she couldn’t truly “give.”

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And that was The Pumpkin Competition.

This was one of those episodes that I only saw once, but remembered in bits and pieces. Most of my memories had to do with the enormous pumpkin of Elma’s, from it being dragged behind her car to it’s final ‘ruined state’ (though in my mind, the drive was longer, and there was less of the pumpkin when she arrived).

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There was also a scene I recalled, where Elma drives past a family changing a flat tire on their car. A boy in the car starts freaking out about ‘the great pumpkin,’ to which his Mom claims he’s “too old for fairy tales.”

When it comes to the characters in the episode, Elma Dinnock is our main focus. Played by actress Poly Holiday, many had already seen her play a somewhat similar character, in Joe Dante’s Gremlins…which also seemed to be an offshoot of Miss Gulch from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film. Just like Gulch, Holiday’s character roles were wealthy people who sneered down their noses at being “insulted” by those they felt below them. Though in the case of her character in this episode, she lived to be tormented by her decisions.

Strangely, Holiday’s portrayal of Elma feels a little less abrasive than one would assume. It almost feels like they hold back from making her too much of a caricature, though they do hammer over our heads just how obsessed she is with money in a few scenes.

There even comes a minor character moment when Mildred is lecturing Elma. When she mentions ‘raising vegetables or children,’ this causes the old woman to gasp. It could be possible that due to unforeseen circumstances in her life, Elma may have wanted to have a family and children, but being denied such things, turned her attention to more ‘monetary pursuits.’

June Lockhart’s Mildred is the straight-arrow of the piece, taking us back to her roles as the mother figure in the TV series Lassie, and Lost in Space. Her character isn’t wealthy like Elma, but she gets by well enough on her beliefs, and has a grandmotherly quality to her line deliveries.

Just like in episodes of The Twilight ZoneThe Pumpkin Competition is a story that shows someone being a greedy jerk, and getting their comeuppance.

Elma’s stinginess ends up being her downfall, when we find out she could have won the contest had she just paid Mr Carver the full $10,000 he asked for.

Of course, one has to wonder if he offered the formula to the rest of the locals as a way to get back at Elma. Or, maybe Mildred didn’t have enough money, but was able to convince her friends to chip in, thus why they were able to “share the wealth” of the formula.

Plus, given the local moving company was unavailable when Elma called, maybe they were busy moving the other contestant’s pumpkins to the fairgrounds?

Writer Peter Z Orton depicts a place that seems somewhat unstuck in time. The vehicles are decidedly retro, and we only have the fair location and Elma’s home to go off of. Orton was the story editor on half of the Amazing Stories episodes that were made, but this episode marks the only time he is credited as the sole writer for a story.

Directing duties fell to Norman Reynolds. This would be one of two Stories episodes he directed…the only directorial credits in his career. Many may know his name from doing production and art design in the 80’s and 90’s, contributing to films like Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark (to name a few).

Yes, The Pumpkin Competition doesn’t rank as highly as others, but it definitely into the methodology that would be a part of many Steven Spielberg-related projects: the ability for extraordinary things to happen to ordinary people, and maybe throw in a little morality tale into the mix.

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Movie Review: Parasite

Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content

In one of Parasite’s most memorable scenes, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho visually shows the discrepancies between the upper and lower-class families of his film.

As one family sleeps peacefully in their luxury home high on a hill during a thundering rainstorm, another family descends down winding streets and stairways, soaked to the bone…only to find their basement apartment (and the street it’s on) flooded. There will be no peace for this family tonight: only the struggle to salvage what belongings they can, and find a dry shelter soon afterwards.

Bong Joon-Ho is no stranger to class struggles. His 2013 science-fiction film Snowpiercer, showed a number of people at the rear of a futuristic train pushed into action, when the wealthier patrons from the front take several of their children away against their will. With Parasite, the director moves the examinations of class distinction to modern-day South Korea, in a story that is more subtle, but still quite intriguing to the senses.

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The Kim family. L to R: Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), Ki-jung (So-dam Park)

Our main focus is on the Kim family, who currently eek out a meager existence being paid to fold pizza boxes, and struggling to find a stray wi-fi signal in their area. Opportunity comes knocking when the family’s son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) finds that his friend wants him to continue tutoring a wealthy high school student, while he goes abroad.

Thanks to the friend’s recommendation and some forged documents Photoshopped by Ki-woo’s sister Ki-Jung (So-Dam Park), he enters into the gated, upper-class world of the Park family. After winning the trust of the family’s naive matriarch Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), he hatches a bold plan. Soon, the rest of the Kim family have assumed alternate identities, taking on roles that support the Park family in their daily lives.

Unlike most films that would probably have one family “good” and the other “evil,” the two families here (while caricatured at times) exist in a very real “grey area.” Of the two, the Kim family is definitely the more “cunning,” with the skills they’ve acquired over the years helping them in a big way. The Park family on the other hand, seems to live comfortably without a care in the world, and seemingly oblivious to the world outside their narrow scope.

Most of Joon-Ho’s films have stories that don’t fit into a standard formula, and Parasite is no different. Just when you think you may know just where he’s taking us, he swerves down a side-path that takes the audience completely by surprise. It is this way of storytelling that often makes his films interesting conversation pieces once the lights come up.

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Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) arrives for his tutoring lessons.

Much like the director’s 2006 film The Host, we find ourselves bemused by the comedic antics of the main family, including Joon-Ho alumni, Kang-ho Song. Song has played the father-figure in a number of the filmmaker’s stories, though here he takes more of a supporting (but still important) role. It is the younger family members Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung who we follow through most of the film, as we see them speak with a confidence that easily subdues Yeon-kyo Park to give in to their requests.

This year has given us several films about people in the lower echelons of society, wanting respect or acknowledgement in a world that seems to think they are invisible. Some films are made as a reflection of the times we are in, and along with Jordan Peele’s recent film UsParasite feels like a story that has something important to say, even if it is a work of fiction.

To tell more about the film would be to spoil many of the surprises Joon-ho has hidden within it’s walls. While it seems to struggle to find it’s ending, the rest of the film leads us on a journey that truly has to be seen to be believed. Be prepared to run through a number of emotions while watching Parasite…and possibly question some of the people you yourself work with on a daily basis.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review: The Addams Family

Many of us have encountered Charles Addams’ creepy-and-kooky family in some form or another over the years, and now they have found themselves in the world of computer animation, courtesy of MGM and Cinesite Studios.

After moving to their dream residence and living in seclusion for 13 years, the Addams find the community of Assimilation has been built close by. While Gomez (Oscar Issacs) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) are a little apprehensive about their new neighbors, their daughter Wednesday (Chloe Grace-Moretz) grows curious about the world beyond the house she’s known all her life.

A highlight of the Addams family has often been their twisted take on family and society, and when the film focuses on those areas, it can get rather fun. The designs follow the original comic imagery pretty closely, and we even see a number of additional Addams characters brought to life.

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When it comes to the film’s storyline, it feels like it borrows from “the best of the mediocre” in recent years. If you’ve seen Hotel Transylvania or a number of Illumination Entertainment films, there are a number of similarities to be found here.

From an overly-colorful town presided over by a smiling-but-controlling figure, and the blatantly-obvious “it’s okay to be different” theme, there’s nothing really new the film has to offer regarding messages or storylines.

The film is also quite busy juggling a number of storylines (which pushes it’s run-time past the standard 90-minute average for animated features). When the film strives to find a focal point, it zeroes in on Wednesday, who soon finds herself hanging out with an ostracized teenager named Parker (Elsie Fisher). Sadly, just when it seems things might be getting interesting with this story thread, we are zipped back to a number of less-interesting ones.

What’s shocking is that even with all that stuff I mentioned…The Addams Family is still a pretty okay film!

While animation from the likes of Disney or Pixar may feel like a fine meal, Addams comes across like animated fast food. It’s okay and a little enjoyable, but a few hours later, it’s an experience that is only faintly remembered.

The voice cast does a decent-enough job, with Isaacs disappearing vocally into Gomez, and Theron vamping it up as Morticia. They can’t all be perfect however, as Finn Wolfhard sounds a little too old to play Pugsley, and…what was the point of hiring Snoop Dogg for Cousin It if he’s just going to be speaking in gibberish?

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Most films have some nods to pop-culture, and surprisingly, Addams keeps it on the down-low. They end up making a number of quips in relation to certain horror films, with a few references that will probably make the adults chuckle (aside from the It-related gag spoiled in the early previews).

The Addams Family could have really crashed-and-burned, but has enough life within it that it manages to eek by as a passable film experience. It’s doubtful this will get nominated for Best Animated Feature come awards season, but it’s enjoyable and harmless enough to take the family to on a weekend matinee.

Final Grade: B-

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TV Series Season Review: Stranger Things 3

I was originally dragged into the series Stranger Things, by some friends who claimed it was right up my alley. What I had thought was maybe some cheaply-made rip on Steven Spieberg’s Amblin Entertainment productions of the 1980’s, soon had me enamored with the mysterious story unfolding around it’s characters.

Four years later, the series is back for it’s third season, this time moving us out of the chill of late fall, and into the sun-drenched world of summer in Hawkins, Indiana.

As the Fourth of July approaches, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobbi Brown) are in the throes of young love, much to the ire of her adoptive father-figure, Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour).

Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) are also continuing their relationship, and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) has returned from camp, with news that he too has joined the dating scene (however, with no proof of this mystery girl to be had).

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) meanwhile, struggles to feel included in his friend’s activities, as they each seem to have grown beyond the simple pleasures of Dungeons and Dragons.

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L to R: Max (Sadie Sink), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown)

As for the older kids, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) are interning at The Hawkins Post, with Nancy struggling to prove her worth to the uncouth men in high places.

Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) has taken a job at the new Starcourt Mall, scooping ice cream while fending off snide remarks from his co-worker, Robin (Maya Hawke).

For this season, the Duffer Brothers seem to have decided that the two themes to focus on, are “relationships,” and “change.”

We see this in a big way with our younger cast, but not just in regards to romantic relationships. We also see relationships in regards to family and friends, and how sometimes it can be a struggle to keep connections with those close to you. This is also notable in regards to Dustin, who chooses to spend more time with Steve than his old friends.

For the adults, the theme of relationships snares Jim Hopper, and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder). With Joyce no longer frantically looking around for her son (though still mourning the loss of former boyfriend Bob Newby (Sean Astin)), she is given the chance to be more of a person this time around, as she tries to help Hopper with his fatherly ups-and-downs.

Hopper also gets the chance to move outside of his comfort zone, and we see him doing (and wearing) things that are quite unnatural. David Harbour really gets to chew the scenery in a number of scenes, and I was quite amused by some of his reactions.

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One of the stand-outs from the series, has been Millie Bobby-Brown’s character of Eleven. While she has slowly emerged into the world from her isolation, this season gives her the biggest shove yet.

This also comes in the form of  Max taking a sisterly-approach towards Eleven, and helping her expand her world-view. While Mike gives her plenty of attention and Hopper gives familial care and discipline, Eleven is still struggling to create her own identity, and it’s nice to see a character like Max help Eleven figure out who she is, and wants to be.

We also see the world of our characters expanded upon, with the addition of Starcourt Mall, along with the introduction of Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes).  It’s a big new world that we’re seeing, and in that sense, that enlarged atmosphere feels like it causes the story to trip up in places.

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We’ve been no stranger to multiple story threads weaving their way through the show, but there are times season 3’s overall storyline feels a bit too cumbersome. From Dustin building a radio tower that intercepts a secret code, to some rather mysterious business-dealings happening around town, I found myself almost having to keep a scorecard regarding what was going on, let alone a number of new characters the show was trying to make me believe were important to the plot. Heck, the show even tries to cram in characters that I didn’t even think we’d need from previous seasons (though one does have a pretty fun introduction)!

This season is also the first time that the cameras feel like they’re angling for product-placement dollars. From Eleven and Max gallivanting around the mall, to almost everyone in Hawkins having jumped aboard the New Coke craze, I could easily have sided with Will Byers, longing for a return to the simpler times of the first season.

When it comes to the supernatural element of the show, the ante (and budget) has been upped significantly. The new menace in question, hearkens back to the likes of The Thing or The Blob, while also dealing with some elements from last season. It was definitely not what I expected, and ended up taking the “horror” tones of the show, into some areas that may make some viewers feel uncomfortable.

There is also an added human menace in the background for much of the show too, that almost comes off feeling a little…cliched. Then again, given we are dealing with the 1980’s, it was probably to be expected, but it really pushed against the believability factor for me…and that’s in a show with a girl that has psychic abilities.

Aside from an overstuffed story and my gripes here-and-there, I was happy to see that the handling of the evolution of our main characters, is still a key priority in the series.

The show creators have said they could see the show lasting for 4-5 seasons, and if it can continue to grow character-wise like we’ve seen in the last seasons, it makes one wonder what will become of our characters…and, how many of them will live to see the end of the series.

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Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review: Toy Story 4

Rated G

Nine years ago, PIXAR Animation Studios seemed to have wrapped up the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and their toy pals in a nice, emotionally-charged little package…or so we thought.

Toy Story 4 catches up with Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang shortly after the events of the last film. While Woody struggles to help his new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), things get weird when a craft project Bonnie dubs Forky (Tony Hale), suddenly comes to life!

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Forky (Tony Hale) and Woody (Tom Hanks)

It is during a road trip that the manic creation wanders off, leaving Woody to try and return the new “toy” back to it’s owner. During the journey, they encounter some new toys…and a familiar face or two.

In watching the Toy Story films over the years, it has felt like their plots mirror human life, but in “toy terms.” If the last film was about Woody learning to let go of his owner Andy, then this film is him dealing with his retirement years. In that sense, Woody’s part in the storyline will probably go over the heads of the younger crowd, but for those getting on in years, they will probably see something of themselves in the cowboy doll’s struggles.

Compared to it’s predecessors, this film definitely feels like it’s trying to pay homage to it’s past stories, but also trying to embrace these characters with new eyes. Much of the original crew that created the first film have moved on, making this an effort largely created by a newer generation.

For a portion of the film, the character of Forky becomes our Buzz Lightyear: a toy that can’t quite accept what it is, and thinks it is something else entirely. I had hoped there would be a bit more interaction between Woody and Forky, but while Forky’s antics are quite entertaining, he soon seems to become little more than our macguffin for the story.

For those expecting to see some of their favorite toys in action, most of them are shuffled to the sidelines. Even Buzz feels quite under-utilized here. At one point, the story “equips” him with a running gag, but it quickly peters out after the first few uses.

In this film, our attention is given over to a number of “new toys.” From an antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to a pair of carnival toys named Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), the film gives these characters (and several others) a chance to shine.

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Bo Peep (Annie Potts)

One thing the film’s advertising has not shied away from, is publicizing the return of a character that was sorely missed from the last film: Bo Peep (played once again by Annie Potts). Her appearance here may be one of the most radical re-imaginings for a character PIXAR has done, as the once soft-spoken porcelain doll, has become quite independent in her time away from the others. One of Woody’s greatest fears is to be a lost toy, but Bo seems to prove that one may not always need a kid to survive in the world.

For most film series, the fourth film is usually the one that ends up crashing-and-burning, leaving people wishing the filmmakers had walked away a long time ago. While Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite top the toys’ last adventure in my book, it proves that PIXAR is still a major talent to be reckoned with.

I will confess that a whirlwind of emotions passed across my face through the course of the film, and while I was rarely ever bored, the flow of the film felt uneven at times. Still, when Toy Story 4 slowed down and took its time, that was where some of it’s most beautiful work “burned brightest,” and showed the company’s next generation of filmmakers may be quite capable of carrying the studios legacy to infinity, and beyond.

Final Grade: B+

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Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 21) – Cleaved

Well…here we are. After four seasons and over 76 episodes, it all comes down to this.

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With no way to fully take down the Solarian warriors under Mina Loveberry’s control, Star proposes a radical solution: destroy the magic power that controls them. Star reasons that if she can destroy the Realm of Magic, it will undo the spell her mother (Moon Butterfly) used to help Mina bring the warriors to life.

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However, such a decision comes with a heavy price: not only will Star and others who wield the magic lose their powers, but the dimensional portals the magic controls, will be closed forever, shutting off all access to the majority of Star’s inter-dimensional friends…including Marco Diaz.

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I don’t think any of us thought that when we first saw Star Comes to Earth four years ago, one of the biggest selling-points of the series would end up being the thing that had to be destroyed. At times, Cleaved almost feels on par with season 3’s episode Toffee, given that we’re dealing with the destruction of magic, but in a slightly different context.

While Eclipsa and Moon have parts to play in this story, Star and Marco are front-and-center for the majority of it. We do get to find out what happened to Tom from several episodes ago, though it feels like one of the weaker revelations in this story (almost like the writers needed to get themselves out of a corner, and keep him in the story somehow).

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We also get some fan-related callbacks, as well as some unexpected revelations before the end of the episode, including just what “the whispering spell” incantation is (though it’s true purpose still is unrevealed).

For me, these 22-minute episodes have often been a way for the series to give us more emotional stories, and there is plenty of emotion to be had here (with one moment regarding Moon really getting me ‘right in the feels’). However, I also had to focus my attention on this episode’s story as a whole…and in that sense, Cleaved comes across as a good-but-not-great final effort for Star vs the Forces of Evil.

Maybe if the large, final storyline of the series had been packaged as a 2-hour movie, it might have felt more satisfying. Given what we’re dealing with in the 22-minute time-frame here, things feel a tad uneven, like there’s a rushed attempt to tie up a few loose ends before we get drawn into the final conclusion.

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Speaking of conclusions, I had some ideas just where the story could end, and I was surprised to find I was…maybe, 35% on-the-nose? The other 65% was definitely something I couldn’t have foreseen, but I do feel that some of the stories following the season 4 Coronation episode, were hinting at what the conclusion would be.

In the end, it’s interesting to think how far Star Butterfly has come as a character after 77 episodes. From a hyperactive girl creating flaming rainbows, to a young woman who is willing to make a major sacrifice if it will help others, it has been quite a journey.

This wasn’t the ending I would have envisioned, but from an emotional and dramatic storypoint, Cleaved manages to do a decent job. It didn’t feel quite as satisfying an ending episode as Toffee from last season (or the conclusion to another great Disney animated series: Gravity Falls), but I doubt there will be many upset with how it all turned out.

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Best line from episode (said by Star Butterfly): “Ho-ho-ho, you don’t have any skin!”

Final Grade: B+

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Best line from episode (said by Marco Diaz): “O-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, down goes the zipper.”

When I first started watching Star vs the Forces of Evil over 4 years ago, I noticed a lack of people writing reviews after the first few episodes. That led me to start filling the hole I found online with these reviews of my own. Out of a number of things I’ve written about on this blog, this series is the only one I’ve reviewed from (near) it’s start, all the way to the end.

While Star has not had enough outstanding material to put it up with some of the best animated series I’ve seen, it’s weirdness and acknowledgments of “magical girl” anime, were what kept me watching, and to see what Daron Nefcy could bring to an American-made magical-girl series.

One of my biggest disappointments, was while Star did garner it’s own rampant fanbase online, it seemed that many did not share in a lot of the show’s mysteries that intrigued me. There were not hundreds of people trying to decipher the Mewni alphabet we saw, wonder about the backstory of obscure characters, or try to draw conclusions around the dozens of things we saw that were never given answers to. While the Gravity Falls fandom would have been analyzing everything being thrown at them, the majority of the fandom for Star, seemed more hung up on which of the fanships being shouted about online, was “the one, true faith.”

While I am sad I didn’t really find an all-inclusive community to discuss the show with during it’s run, I was happy that I did have the chance to meet some of the cast and crew.

Along with getting the chance to speak with Daron Nefcy and Dominic Bisignino at The D23 Expo a few years ago, a highlight was running into Adam McArthur outside the convention hall, and getting a one-on-one meeting with him (plus, Marco gave me a Birthday shout-out in one of the show’s livestreams a few years ago too!).

A lot of younger fans have expanded on the series in numerous ways, with all manner of fanart and comics that have shown up online. As for me, I took the ticket and rode the ride as far as the tracks would take me when it came to the series (and the un-finished Joe Books comic series and the two Disney book publications tied into it). Much like how the series Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2 I read in my teens/twenties ended, Star vs the Forces of Evil’s final episode assures us that the adventures will continue, but for us in the visual realms of animation, it seems that the portal has officially closed.

This may not be the end of Star articles for me, as I may do a few more introspection articles on the series, or another Top 10 episode list. For now however, it’s time to wrap up this last episode review for Star vs the Forces of Evil.

Good night, and good luck.

 

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 20) – Pizza Party / The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse

As we move into the final episodes of Star vs the Forces of Evil’s fourth (and final) season, it looks like Mina Loveberry is not going to make things easy.

With a massive army of Solarian warriors and major threats to the monsters of the kingdom, things may be taking a turn for the worse in this latest episode.

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– Pizza Party –

In a shocking revelation, Moon reveals that Mina is actually working for her, but promises she can quell Mina’s bloodlust, if Eclipsa surrenders the crown to her, and leaves Mewni, along with Globgor and Meteora.

This story is one where there’s quite a number of revelations and head-butting to be had. It could have easily spiraled out-of-control between several of our characters, and ended up becoming a major shouting match, but I was surprised at how the story managed to weave everything together in a satisfying way. There’s plenty of things going on in this segment, that kept me eager to see what would happen next.

Earlier in the season, I was wondering about Moon’s feelings towards Eclipsa after events in season 3. I had a feeling she might harbor some ill feelings towards Eclipsa, but I definitely didn’t think she was capable of doing what she did. We also see that the Magic High Commission may have also wished Mina to return things to “normalcy,” but it looks like it is more for their benefit, and not that of the kingdom. In a pop-culture sense, it feels like Moon and the Commission, acted like the Mob in The Dark Knight, hiring an unstable individual to take care of their problem…but not realizing just what they were getting themselves into!

One other major surprise is in the opening, where we get a little backstory into who Mina was, before she was drafted into Queen Solaria’s Solarian Warrior program a long time ago. We also get our first animated viewing of Solaria in the flashback as well.

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Best line from segment (said by Eclipsa): “Oh to be perfectly honest, at this point I-I’ll skip the speech and be on my way!”

Final Grade: B

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– The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse –

Before Mina can attack them, Star, Marco, Moon, and Eclipsa are magicked away by Hekapoo, to the Tavern at the End of the Multiverse. The tavern functions as a neutral zone, and Hekapoo feels she’s saved the group from certain death. However, Eclipsa, Moon, and Star do not want to just sit around doing nothing, while Mewni is in peril.

While Moon and Eclipsa have a heart-to-heart over a game of pool, Star is surprised to find Glossaryck at the tavern, and forces him to have a discussion with her.

We also get some “ticking-clock” imagery from Mewni, regarding the fate of the monsters there, as well as what being attacked by a Solarian warrior’s sword can do to a monster (which is so shocking, it even freaks Janna out!).

This segment continues the trend of shocking revelations that we’ve seen over the last few segments. We get some regarding Moon, and a few regarding Star. Star’s revelations though, might be the most emotionally-charged of this entire segment. We get a return to The Grandma Room as glimpsed all the way back in season 2, to discuss something we saw there…and what it may mean for the future of Mewni.

It is very nice to see the writers didn’t waste their final 11-minute segment for the series. The talking that goes on here is quite revelatory, and it never feels like any of the time is being wasted.

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Best line from segment (said by Eclipsa): “My whole, entire life has been ‘a time like this,’ Moon. You learn to enjoy these moments.”

Final Grade: B+

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Eclipsa, in The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse): “That’s it! That’s it! You’re done-you’re all done! Game over!”

And then…there was one. One episode to go, and Star vs the Forces of Evil, comes to an end.

Join me soon, as I review the final episode: Cleaved. At the end of the first season, Glossaryck of Terms mentioned that something can be cleaved in two ways. It can be cleaved apart…or cleaved together.

Just what could this final title possibly mean?

Episode Review: Star vs the Forces of Evil (Season 4, Episode 19) – The Right Way / Here to Help

On the last episode of Star vs the Forces of Evil, our teenage gang returned to Mewni, and Mina Loveberry threw down the gauntlet, trying to take control of Mewni back from Queen Eclipsa.

It looks like a new Battle for Mewni…has begun.

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– The Right Way –

Things look bleak for Eclipsa and the monsters in her palace, until Star, several of her friends, and a number of Mewni warriors come to her aid.

If last episode’s segment was the wind-up, this one is the pitch, as we see Star and her cohorts attempt to do battle with Mina. Sadly, most just end up as little more than cannon-fodder when going up against her. However, there are a few surprises to be had. There also is a moment which might be Ponyhead’s most sincere declaration ever…but then again, she might just be playing it up big for her Ponyhead Show audience that’s watching the battle.

Star is the stand-out here, utilizing her magic in a way we haven’t seen before. Out of all these characters she is definitely the most powerful, and we see her wage a major fight that gets quite intense at times.

Eclipsa does come into play at one point, as well as one of her spells that was hinted at a few episodes ago. I had a feeling we’d see this used before the end of the season, though what the writers and artists conjure up for the damage the spell can do, definitely makes it quite shocking when we see it in action.

While the battle scenes definitely got my blood pumping, and Eclipsa’s use of a major spell was quite shocking, the up-and-down feeling of emotional momentum in this story kept me from really enjoying it like I was hoping to.

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Best line from segment (said by Star Butterfly): “RAINBOW KAIJU BATTLE-ARMOR!!!”

Final Grade: B-

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– Here to Help –

It turns out that the giant Solarian warrior that was thought to be Mina…wasn’t. Soon, Mina does show up at Monster Castle, leading a massive army of Solarian-warriors, and giving Eclipsa a time-frame to surrender…or be destroyed.

Things look bleak, until Moon Butterfly, and River Johansen arrive at Eclipsa’s palace, willing to help.

This segment seems to be rife with little ‘group-meetings.’ From Eclipsa and Moon, to Star and Marco, it seems to be a story rife with discussions. There’s even a little bit of discussion between River and Globgor. It’s not much, but it’s rather nice to see that River is still staying the course on giving respect and help to the new King of Mewni.

The writers also choose this segment, to mention some revelations between Star and Marco, from last episode’s Mama Star segment. It may seem a little out-of-place to thrown in such talk with a major battle about to take place, but it feels like this may be the last chance to have a conversation like this one (I won’t lie: my jaw dropped a few times during their conversation).

There also is another major revelation to be had, but like most stories we’ve seen in the series, this happens mere seconds before the story ends, leaving us on a cliffhanger ending.

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Best line from segment (said by Star Butterfly): “Okay, can we kiss?”

Final Grade: B

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Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Star Butterfly, in The Right Way): “Mewni has changed. And it’s NOT! CHANGING!! BACK!!!”

Well, it looks like the battle has begun. Next episode, some of the revelations we’ve seen here will be opened up a bit more, and we’ll see just where Mina is going to go with her threats to wipe out the monster population for good.

See you for my next review, on the second-to-last-episode for Star vs the Forces of Evil’s fourth season.