Category Archives: Animation

Oscar Schmoscar 2017

Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.

arrivalArrival

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay

A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).

lalaland-featureLa La Land

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay

On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)

andrew-garfield-hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing

This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

florence_bFlorence Foster Jenkins

Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design

I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.

amancalledove_trailer1A Man Called Ove

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair

Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)

zootopiaZootopia

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans  — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).

New Year, New TV 2017

Streaming has really changed the way we watch TV, and what would have (over the last few years) been considered “midseason” — I.e. the time when networks bring out new/returning shows to replace the ones that have already been cancelled or taken an early break — is now a bit more free-flowing. Netflix (and other streaming sites) have no real concept of “seasons”, but perhaps for competitive reasons they are releasing a bunch of new series at midseason. While there was barely enough time to fit a bunch of new pilot episodes, now I can barely catch my breath when 13 or so episodes per show are being dropped in my lap at a time. All that is just to excuse myself for only having watched one or two episodes of many of these new shows even when they look promising and exciting. Too much of a good thing, y’know?

sherlock-s4

Sherlock, season 4

This is the only returning show in this post (though given how infrequently the episodes come out, it might as well be new — Am I right?) Nevertheless, it is always great to get new episodes of this amazing detective show (for those of you who don’t know, this is a modern take on the original Arthur Conan Doyle literary creation, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes — now hurry up and watch all the back episodes!). I’ve only watched the first episode of this season (even though by now all 3 episodes will have aired). In this episode (“The Six Thatchers”) the case in question, which concerns a mysterious body found incinerated in a car fire, is only the stepping stone to another mystery around why someone is breaking into homes and stealing plaster busts of Margaret Thatcher. Cumberbatch shines as usual in the title role. There’s more exploration of the story behind John Watson’s wife, Mary, who had previously been revealed as a kind of super-agent. The episode was really good, and hit its usual marks with an unfortunate twist at the end that will affect the relationships on the show. Apparently they are also introducing a new villain to the series, even though Sherlock is constantly looking for clues that Moriarty is back somehow. I really can’t decide whether I wish there were more episodes of this show, or if I savour the few that we get even more because they are so rare. Well, it’s not as if I get a say either way. I’ll just have to really enjoy the remaining episodes.

emerald-1482142290-screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-101127

Emerald City

This show is based on the original novels by L. Frank Baum but puts an even more epic fantasy spin on the story than ever. Think of it as Wizard of Oz by way of Game of Thrones. Directed by Tarsem Singh (who also directed the feature films Immortals, The Cell, and Mirror Mirror, with a similar flamboyance and flair). The scenery is breathtaking, with amazing mountains and old castles. The interiors are decadent and luxurious, and the costumes are lavish and beautiful. The visuals give the fantastical world a much grander scope (and it doesn’t hurt to have colossal statutes guarding the city ports). Other reviews have commented on how this series is great to look at but the story is nothing special. I have to kind of agree so far — I’ve watched only the first two episodes. Dorothy (who is a strong-willed adult nurse) has landed in this enchanted land courtesy of a tornado, and she’s already been joined by a dog called Toto, and met a straw-covered man hanging by the roadside (who she’s calling Lucas, but we all know he’s the Scarecrow). She accidentally collided with the witch of the east when she arrived (the cop car that Dorothy hijacked plowed into her, but that’s not actually how she died). In reinventions like this series, we viewers like to keep an eye out for how classic characters and story elements have been modified, and we judge their cleverness. I’d say this version gets a high score for cleverness (the yellow brick road is a cobblestone path through the mountains whose colour is caused by the poppy pollen that falls on it), but I also don’t find that it really matters that this was based on The Wizard of Oz. Surprisingly I have often lost myself in the details and forgotten about that part. I’m just enjoying it as an epic fantasy tale that’s great to watch.

one-day-at-a-time

One Day At A Time

With this show, Netflix is doing a reinvention of a 70s sitcom rather than a classic fantasy novel. It follows the original premise of a divorced mom trying to make a life for her family (I didn’t really watch the 70s version, so I don’t know how much has been carried over). In this version, the mom, Penelope, is a Cuban-American (played by Justina Machado) who had been an army nurse in Afghanistan. She works in a small clinic and lives in an apartment with her teenage daughter and son, along with her mother Lydia (played by Rita Moreno). I think the main characters are all well written and well acted, and Moreno as Lydia steals every scene — she’s just amazing. As far as clever reinventions go, the theme song is also great. It’s a reworking of the original “This Is It” infused with an energetic dose of salsa (courtesy of Gloria Estefan) — I’m humming it my head right now! Like the original show, the new version deals with some pretty serious socio-cultural issues in a heartfelt and humorous way. It’s got a bit of that old-school, optimistic, family sitcom flavour, but a fresh perspective as well (I even learned a bit about Cuban culture). Thanks to Netflix, I’ve binge-watched this whole series of 13 episodes already (and I’m going for round 2).

a-series-of-unfortunate-1766_xl

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Another reinvention, this time a series of kids books (which had been made into a movie featuring Jim Carrey) is now a new Netflix show starring Neil Patrick Harris. The story is told of three orphan children whose parents are killed when their home burns down. Violet Beaudelaire, her brother Klaus, and infant sister Sunny are sent to live with their guardian, Count Olaf (played by Harris) who hatches villainous schemes to get his hands on the Beaudelaire family fortune. Just like in the books, the stories are far-fetched but enjoyable, with a definite tongue-in-cheek tone. The tone is one of the best things about the show. Similar to the short-lived TV series Pushing Daisies, and many a Wes Anderson film (like The Grand Budapest Hotel), there’s a kind of turn-of-the-century (20th century, that is), Victorian-dollhouse kind of aesthetic, along with a prim and wordy style of narration — sorry if this isn’t clear, but you’ll definitely know what I mean when you see or hear it. The series has a lot of fun, as these clever orphans try to get themselves out of all kinds of predicaments, mostly concocted by the villainous Count Olaf. Harris is dastardly delightful in the role, and he even sings a theme song with different lyrics each episode to recap the plot so far. I’m not sure which part I enjoy more: the clever tricks, the quirky characters, the look and feel of the visuals, or the mysterious conspiracy and subplots that are brewing beneath the main story. That’s not to mention a sardonically dry narration given on-screen by the resonant voice of David Puddy from Seinfeld, Patrick Warburton — who here plays Lemony Snicket, the ostensible yet mysterious author of these stories. I think this show is great, and another all-ages winner for Netflix.

trollhunters-1x01-guillermo-del-toro-sbarca-netflix-first-look-v4-31948-1280x16

Troll Hunters

Netflix is on a roll in the kids department, also having debuted Troll Hunters in December. This animated series comes from nerd-visionary director Guillermo Del Toro (who also directed Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim). It’s set in what appears to be a modern suburb, where your average school kids attend classes complete with chubby best friends, tough guy bullies, dreamy potential girlfriends, plus school plays and gym locker rooms. However, previously unnoticed in the shadows, is a world of trolls (no, not the ugly dolls with the crazy hair) but gargoyle-like creatures with multiple eyes, arms, and fangs. They may all look scary, but some are actually good (while others definitely aren’t). One night when a heroic troll hunter battles an evil troll, he gets destroyed, leaving behind a magical amulet which seeks out a new troll hunter and instead finds a young human kid named Jim. Being the new chosen, Jim (voiced by Anton Yelchin, RIP) is now hunted himself by an evil troll named Bular (voiced by Ron Perlman). Jim doesn’t really know what’s going on, and he’s busy just trying to grow up and get on with his life, but he gets help from a couple of other friendly trolls, including Blinky (voiced by Kelsey Grammar). Two episodes in, I wouldn’t say that Troll Hunters is not ground-breaking kids fantasy, but it’s pretty well-animated, and the voice talent is top-notch. However, I suspect that the story is going to pick up; and kids can always use more fantastical shows.

oa_101_02878rc-the-little-girl1-1

The OA

Speaking of fantastical shows, one new Netflix show that is not for kids (probably more because they wouldn’t understand what is going on than any other reason) is The OA. This series came out of nowhere to unexpectedly surprise Netflix subscribers. I’ve only watched the first episode but (even though I’ve read that there’s a disappointing ending) I am hooked. Partially it’s all the mysterious questions about this woman who is caught on video jumping off a bridge only to survive and be identified as Prairie, a woman from a small suburban town who went missing seven years prior. She also used to be blind, but somehow is able to see now. What’s more, she calls herself “the OA” (whatever that means). Her behaviour and the clues about her just keep getting stranger (She’s kind of like a grown up version of Eleven from Stranger Things) as she gets a bunch of local teens to help her perform some kind of ritual. That’s when things really change. While I love a good, quasi-sci-fi mystery, I also love the crazy way this show played with the story line in the first episode. We spend about 40 minutes in this kind of suburban wasteland where we think the story is going to be about Prairie trying to reintegrate and remember what happened to her, and where she starts to bond with a psychopathic delinquent named Steve, then “Wham!” we take a narrative left turn and the opening credits begin on a very different type of episode. I don’t want to spoil much for anyone who has not yet watched, but that switch really caught me off guard and made me want to watch all the more. The show has a strong indie-film vibe, and Britt Marling (who is one of the show’s creator and plays the OA) is also known for roles in those kinds of films. I’m hoping that the rest of the series won’t be too disappointing, but the opening is a lot to live up to.

beyond

Beyond

This series is slightly not as weird as The OA, but it also features a main character trying to reintegrate with the community after a long mysterious absence. Holden Matthews wakes up from a 12 year com, returns to his family and tries to recover a normal life. Unfortunately, there are many things that are odd about his situation, not the least of which are the shadowy men who are after him, his very surreal dreams of people he may have known during his coma (yep, you read that right) and not to mention his thunderous super-powers. This show is released on Freeform in the US, so it’s meant for young adults or teens. That target demographic kind of shows in the way the episodes are written. Poor Holden is confused and lost in a crowd of adults and family who keep telling him what to think and do. The people who may have some answers may not be trustworthy (including his best friend Kevin) and people who have answers never find the time to explain things to him. Unfortunately, a lot of the dramatic tension and suspense would probably unravel if the characters actually reacted like normal people. One example that struck me as odd: when Holden’s brother takes him to a college party, he loses control of his powers while unconscious in the bathroom. He causes the place to burn down and they escape without anyone suspecting Holden’s involvement. However, the next morning, after she hears about the incident on the news, Holden’s mother asks him if any of his friends were involved with the incident. Besides the fact that he just woke from a long coma and has no friends, why would she ask him about this completely unrelated incident for no reason if it were not just some kind of plot device to try to build a little suspense (“Does Mom know it was me?” wonders Holden. Whatever.) To top it all off, the plot moves in fits and starts, with a lot of action, then tons of slow moving scenes of interaction where we don’t really learn anything about the characters or the plot. I thought this show had some promise, but after two episodes, I’m already getting tired of it.

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Taboo

Lastly, this is a show that I cannot really make sense of, but which has totally grabbed me by its style, its tone and its uniqueness (and which I will attempt to describe). Tom Hardy (movie actor from films such as Inception, and many others where he plays a brooding English bruiser) again plays to type as James Delaney, a man thought dead by his family and friends, who actually went to Africa during the turn of the 19th century. When his father dies, he returns to England to claim his inheritance — a small, worthless strip of land in on the west coast of North America called Nootka Sound. Apparently not every mystery is revealed because the East India Company is also very interested in this land and had made a deal with Delaney’s half-sister and her husband to acquire it before he returned from the dead. Oh, and by the way, he claims to be in love with her (I know! Lannister much?!), but thankfully the two of them did not do the deed next to their father’s casket like a couple of (yup) Lannisters. (One more little GOT connection is that Delaney’s sister is played by Oona Chaplin, last seen getting killed along with her unborn child, King-in-the-North husband, and mother-in-law at the famously ill-fated Red Wedding.) The visual style of Taboo is really interesting. It’s clearly not set in Jane Austen’s England, but rather one that is full of mud and dirt and where everyone wears black all the time (not to mention the many stove-pipe hats). The characters, especially Delaney, speak in a kind of epic melodrama kind of way. Also the characters are all very clever and scheming and baring their teeth behind their smiles (or frowns). I don’t know where this series will go (Are we headed to Nootka Sound?) but I’m keen to find out.

Streaming TV (especially Netflix) has dwarfed the networks at midseason in keeping TV fresh by bringing out a whole bunch of interesting series. There are a few more coming that I’m excited for, including APB, about a tech billionaire who uses his money to supe-up the local police with hi-tech gadgetry, and I might try The Young Pope, where Jude Law apparently plays a power-hungry and corrupt young pontiff.

So much to watch, so little time!

Moana – Movie review

moana57c47666d55dd1For a simple animated kids film about a Polynesian princess (technically, she’s only the daughter of a chief, but you know what Disney’s marketing department will say — there is even a line in the movie about the criteria for princess-hood) who seeks her own destiny to help save her people, there are a lot of expectations around this movie. For starters, this movie follows in the tradition of mega-hit Frozen, taking a legend/folktale and giving it new, animated, musical life. The animation has a similar style (most notably with those giant eyes!), and the story is once again full of female empowerment and animal sidekicks (a little pig and a ridiculously stupid rooster, along with “the ocean” as a kind of ally or pet — bet no one’s ever tried that before). Along for the ride is a demi-god named Maui: a thick-chested, tattoo-covered, shape-changing trickster, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Together, they quest to restore a magical jewel to the heart of a dormant island goddess.

While there are many similarities between this movie and its other Disney predecessors, story-wise the most recent analogue is actually the marvellous Kubo and the Two Strings. Again, there’s a kind of folktale context in which a young person sets off on a quest with some magical allies. In fact, there’s even a very similar scene in both movies where a magic object is stuck in the back of a large monster and our heroes need to retrieve it. I love that Disney and other animation studios are still telling folktales to kids. Animation is one of the best media for capturing the magic and wonder of those kinds of stories. It’s also great that Disney continues to tour the world to bring different cultures to its young audiences. I know that it is often probably more trouble than it’s worth given that there’s always a controversy or two and there’s a lot of political correctness to be maintained, but I really hope that they don’t give up on this goal. The good definitely outweighs the bad, in my opinion.

What amazes me about each new feature from Disney and Pixar animators is how they just keep getting more skilled and masterful at the animation. In this movie, there are (as to be expected) many scenes of the beaches and oceans of the South Pacific. While I enjoyed all the fun, the songs, and the story, to me the most impressive feature of this movie was the incredible water animation (apparently they developed new technologies just for that aspect of this movie). The beaches, waves and water looked unbelievably realistic, and every time we looked out into the horizon over the endless ocean, I could not believe that none of it was real — it all existed only in the computer! If you’re waiting for home video, I would say that the ocean scenes alone are worth seeing on the big screen. Less worthy of bigness, but still pretty cool is how they have also seemed to master the computer generation of curly hair. I know it started in Pixar’s Brave, so maybe that tech is only being perfected in Moana and Maui’s hair, but I gotta say, they both have a lot of bouncy curly locks that any shampoo commercial would kill for.

So what about the story, you ask? It’s pretty good. As I mentioned, it’s an ocean-borne quest where Moana needs to set off to find Maui the demi-god and bring him to the island of Matanui to restore its jewelled heart (and thus restore the life power to the islands, which are dying). Of course, nothing goes without a hitch and a couple of side missions. There’s even a bit of a twist ending (which again reminded me of the twist ending in Kubo and the Two Strings).

The two main actors are pretty good. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho is youthful and spunky as Moana. I think the casting was perfect. Johnson was also excellent as Maui. He definitely has a more modern, humourous personality which reminded me a little of Eddie Murphy’s dragon character in Mulan in that it seemed anachronistic but it still worked and was quite funny. There are a few other guest roles (including Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei the rooster, which still perplexes me because the rooster does not talk) with a pretty fun cast. If he sounds familiar, but you can’t put your finger on the voice of Tamatoa (the crab monster), it’s the distinctive voice of Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement.

Last but not least, the music was  enjoyable as well. There are some rousing epic numbers as well as some funny ones. Moana has her own little anthem, which is not going to be “Let It Go” big (but how could any song hope to be that big?). Frankly, I can’t remember Moana’s song anymore, but during the movie it was nice. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the superstar creator of Broadway megahit Hamilton) also worked on some of the songs — I’m guessing it was Maui’s number, “You’re Welcome”.

Moana is a really fun movie and I am sure that it’s going to do really well at the box office and all the kids are going to want to get tattoos now (only to be disappointed when once they realize that tattoos don’t actually move animatedly). Despite all our expectations, I think Disney has lived up this time. (4.5 out of 5)

Fall TV 2016 Wave 1 – New Shows

Every year the networks seem to try different scheduling patterns for releasing fall premieres. This year seems to be waves. Many shows have started up already, and we’ve actually got a couple of episodes under our belts before the next wave of premieres come out. With so many shows in this first wave, I’m going to do the new shows first. That way you can hop on the bandwagon for the good ones, and just not bother with the bad.

son-of-zorn-fall-tv-preview-05Son of Zorn

From my preview, I had expected to really enjoy this show about a cartoon animated “He-Man” moving from his savage island home to southern California to re-establish relationships with his teenage son and ex-wife. It looked like the extreme “fish out of water” concept would be good for a bunch of laughs (especially since I grew up watching those kinds of Saturday morning cartoons — Yes, I was a big Thundarr fan!). Zorn’s cluelessness was funny at first, but it’s starting to wear thin. I enjoy that he actually has real feelings and wants to be closer to his son. The key to making the concept work (though it might limit the audience to us nerds) lies in what they did in the second episode. Zorn found a magical artifact in the garage called the Stone of Sight, which allows the user to watch someone remotely (clearly based on the Thundercats‘ Eye of Thundara — Yes, yes. Nerd alert!). Apart from the stalker-ish aspects (which is the easy joke), the Stone was also a comment on the desire to want to know and understand the people you care about. I think they need to keep taking crazy stuff from Zorn’s world and giving them meaning in ours. (3.5 out of 5)

kevin-can-wait-trailer-w1200-h630Kevin Can Wait

You might be surprised that I watched this show. It’s not my typical, but iTunes suckered me in with a free pilot episode — damn you iTunes! Starring Kevin James as yet another chubby hubby, this show is pretty much what you’d expect — especially from James. He’s a retired cop — and that has no real bearing on the show except that it justifies the scenes where he’s hanging around with a bunch of male friends. The show also includes a college-age daughter and her sensitive, British, hipster fiancee in the mix, but they don’t really add much. Surprisingly there’s already too many characters on the show after only two episodes. The scripts are very formulaic and the laughter is extremely meager. I genuinely like Kevin James as an actor, but I wish that he’d challenge himself a bit. (2 out of 5)

designated-survivorDesignated Survivor

This seemed to be another one of those movie concepts trying to be a series, but I guess if it worked for Quantico, why not here? Kiefer Sutherland plays some low-level cabinet-minister who quickly became acting president of the USA once an explosion took out the Capitol building and all the important people within. This reminded me a lot of Battlestar Galactica‘s plot line where the minister of education became the acting president after the Cylons destroyed the colonies. On that show, we got to see how Laura Roslin struggled with the authority and the burden until she became an incredible leader, but the whole show was not focused only on her and she had very little politics to deal with. Now with Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, all we seem to care about is how he’s going to handle the situation. I’m not interested in another terror-crisis-aftermath story. I’m especially not interested in ones that focus on the politics. By the second episode, one of the state governors decided to implement some racist policing policies in his state and when Kirkman ordered him to change, he basically said to Kirkman “You are not my president”. That’s when I turned off the TV. The premise situation was contrived enough, and I’m already not a fan of political drama. This show is just frustration waiting to happen. (3 out of 5)

the-good-placeThe Good Place

This sitcom, about a woman named Eleanor (played by a way under-utilized Kristen Bell) who’s only in Heaven due to mistaken identity, has had a bit of a slow build. Good thing they have already given us four episodes in two weeks to get into it. What originally seemed to be more of a mocking of goodness for laughs (Hey, look at all good people in Heaven who don’t know how to have fun!), now kind of reminds me of Lost in sitcom form. There are side characters showing up and we are learning their backstories (sometimes in flashback) and realizing that not everyone is who you first think. Not only are we gradually learning how this world works (people get lessons on how to fly, a gift between two people can change to reflect the quality of the relationship, and learning to be good may be the only way to stay if you’ve been let in under false pretenses), but there are also little mysteries at the end of each episode. It’s from the makers of Parks and Recreation, so I know they know how to build a good comedy ensemble around a central character. I am having a surprising degree of fun watching this show as it grows into that (4 out of 5).

this-is-us-28409This Is Us

My under-estimation of this season’s new shows is definitely a growing theme. At first, I thought it was just another one of those dramas where we get slices of lives who all share a common trait — in fact, I remember Milo Ventimiglia (who’s also starring in this show) was in a previous show about a random group of people who all won the same lottery. However, this show offers up a few pretty significant twists in the first two episodes. There are a few main characters who all have separate lives, but also intersect, and the show definitely plays with story structure between the past and the present. I don’t want to give away too much because that’s part of the fun. The writers are very conscious of what the audience knows and doesn’t know yet as they unveil the story of these characters in a gimmicky-but-genuinely-artful way. Mandy Moore plays wife to Ventimiglia’s character great as they are, they clearly have their ups and downs. Justin Hartley plays an actor trying to leave behind a shallow but successful sitcom to pursue a more meaningful life. Chrissy Metz plays an overweight woman trying to lose weight (which is a controversial topic for any show, but I think they’re handling it pretty well so far). Sterling K. Brown, plays a successful businessman reunited with his birth father who not only abandoned him, but is now dying of cancer. So they are all dealing with some heavy topics, but this show is well-written and full of surprises. (4 out of 5)

speechless10645Speechless

This family sitcom also takes a controversial bull by the horns in dealing with a special-needs child. Minnie Driver gives a great performance as the crazy, fierce mother, Maya DiMeo who everyone in the neighbourhood is already afraid of (in the pilot, she speeds to a donut shop before a coupon expires, and the experienced cop just tells the newbie to let her go because it’s not worth it to stop her). I think this show is really well written and the characters are all very likable (even Maya). Their portrayal of the son with cerebral palsy is very positive, and not in any way pitying. The only characters that still seem a little weak (though to be fair we’ve only had two episodes) are the younger kids — a middle son who has a strong will somewhere inside his mousey exterior, and a younger daughter who seems way too driven for this family (perhaps she takes after her mother). There are a lot of funny moments and also heartfelt ones. I didn’t think I’d like this show because its subject matter seemed too precious, but that’s not how it’s treated at all. (4 out of 5)

lethal-weaponLethal Weapon

Another show that I would not have watched if not for the beneficence of iTunes, I was never much of a fan of the original Lethal Weapon movies either. However, I think they leads do an excellent job of making this show enjoyable — so enjoyable that I don’t even care what each week’s case is about because that’s obviously not the point. Damon Wayans plays Murtaugh the ready-for-retirement veteran detective (the Danny Glover role — and yes, they have said his signature line already). He’s actually much funnier than Glover and that really adds to the show. Riggs is played by Clayne Crawford (who frankly, I didn’t know from any of the things he’d already done). He is pretty good with the crazy aspects of this character who lost his wife and in-utero child to a car accident and now feels like he has nothing left to lose. His Riggs seems perhaps a bit smarter than Mel Gibson’s version (though again I was not a big follower of the movies). On top of the buddy-cop banter, there are some pretty spectacular action and stunt sequences, as well as some good family scenes with Murtaugh’s clan. I really didn’t think I would like this show, but I am definitely going to give this more of a chance — it’s my only cop show (4 out of 5).

bull-michael-weathrlyBull

Another time where the free iTunes episode steered me wrong was Bull, which stars Michael Weatherly as a genius psychologist who provides jury analysis and selection services for high-end cases. So even from that description, you can see that it’s another one of those “ornery genius” shows in the same vein as House, Lie to Me, The Mentalist, and so many others that I don’t recall because I don’t watch. This show seemed extremely pointless to me because it doesn’t even win cases by legal arguments or investigating leads. In the end, it seems that Bull (yes, that’s the name of the character) intuits the answer from talking to the people in the case, reading some of the magical analysis that his firm does about the jurors, etc., and saves the day. I didn’t watch even the second episode. I predict that this show won’t last (2 out of 5).

So far, we’re off to a pretty good start. Some potentially good shows to watch. Stay tuned for the next installment when I review the returning shows in wave 1.

Kubo and the Two Strings – Movie Review

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There aren’t many animation studios left, but I’m really glad that there’s Laika (who also brought us Coraline and The Boxtrolls), the kind of studio willing to put a lot of craft into their movies (they’re still committed to stop-motion animation!), and tell imaginative tales rooted in folklore and fantasy. Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic quest, framed in an Asian/Japanese tradition. Our young hero/narrator Kubo lives in a cave, where he tends to his ailing mother and where they hide from his grandfather and aunts, who stole one of Kubo’s eyes — classic folk-tale, right? During the day he is safe from his evil family, and heads into town to tell stories to earn money for food. Kubo weaves captivating tales of the samurai Hanso, his banjo playing and his magical origami bringing the story to life. Unfortunately, one evening he does not make it back to the cave before dark, and his wicked aunt appears, flying after him. Kubo only survives when his mother uses up all her magic to save him. To defeat his family, Kubo sets out on a quest to find three pieces of mystical armour, once also sought by the samurai Hanso. Along the way he meets a Monkey, and a Beetle who become his protectors.

I could go on telling the story (I don’t want to spoil too much), but it just has that kind of age-old feel to it that I love. Magic is everywhere, and they don’t need to explain why a monkey can talk, why a samurai warrior is transformed into a beetle, or why a giant skeleton comes alive to defend a magical sword, or why they can sail on a boat made of leaves. I thought it was great how the animation really brought the storytelling to life, especially all the origami bits. I was amazed that the movie was done with stop-motion animation (though I guess I wouldn’t know if there had been some CG snuck in), especially the amazing water effects, with a huge tidal wave in the opening sequence. Everything was not only spectacular, but also very carefully detailed (down to the waves softly lapping onto the beach, and the feathery fur of the Monkey).

The characters may have had folk origins, but they definitely also had a contemporary flavour, being voiced by movie stars such as Charlize Theron (as the Monkey), Ralph Fiennes (as the Moon King) and Matthew McConaughey (as the Beetle). Art Parkinson (who many may not recognize as Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones) was also really good as Kubo. I liked almost everything about this movie, except that it was too short. For such an epic quest, they really needed more time to give the adventure some scope. Kubo seemed to find the second and third pieces of armour much too easily, and everything seemed to rush towards the ending once they hit the second half. Also, with all its cultural and folkloric flavour, the actual resolution to the story seemed very “western” and a little too modern — it seemed like the kind of ending that Disney might have come up with — something that could fit on a Hallmark card. Nevertheless, it’s still something pretty fresh and a pleasure to watch, that I would recommend to young and not-as-young alike. (4 out of 5)

2016 Fall TV Preview

Well, now that the TV season has ended, it’s time to enjoy the summer. But before we all head outside into the sun (Yah, right!), we can take a quick glimpse at what’s coming in the fall (and winter) to network TV. Granted, the sands of television are definitely shifting away from the networks towards streaming and cable. Also, I was fiercely unimpressed by this past season’s new shows. Unfortunately, I can’t say that next fall seems to offer much hope of change. Like in the movie industry, we seem to be suffering from a lack of creativity and innovation. Remakes and reboots continue to grow like weeds. Plus, there are a surprising number of TV series built on premises that would only make sense for a feature-length movie rather than an entire season (it’s like they don’t expect the show to last!).

Here are some links for you to decide for yourself:
Fox | ABC | NBC | CBS | The CW

prisonbreakcdnsf-700x400So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. There are action-show reboots coming, including an extension of Prison Break, with the return of many characters; a reboot of 24, with completely new characters — Jack Bauer is gone, but the terrorists just keep coming after CTU. MacGyver is back as a reboot, casting Lucas Till as a young Mac. However, the one reboot that I would trade for all the other new shows combined is the new Star Trek series — it better be good, CBS!

exorcistOn top of rebooting past shows, a number of movie reboots are coming to the small screen, but I don’t think that either The Exorcist (despite casting Geena Davis), nor Lethal Weapon (casting Damon Wayans as the straight-man, seriously?) really seem to have legs as TV series.

fox-star-season-one-posterAlong with movie remakes, we are also going to get a lot of shows that seem like they should have been movies. Perhaps they couldn’t get made as features, but on tv I fear they will run out their concepts very quickly. Pitch is about the fictional struggles of the first female pitcher in the Majors. Shots Fired is about the racially-charged fallout from when a black cop kills a white kid. Finally, Star features Queen Latifah as a kind of godmother to a couple of hard-luck girls who are determined to make it as pop stars.

Another surprising theme this year is time-travel. There were already a number of time-themed shows in past seasons (e.g. 12 Monkeys, Continuum, Minority Report etc.) but now it seems like the every network is jumping on board. Fox looks the most promising, with a midseason comedy Making History, which starts Adam Pally as a guy who uses a time-travelling duffel bag to go back to the 18th century. Time After Time has a young, good-looking Jack the Ripper chased into the present day by a young, good-looking HG Wells. The premise seems like a ridiculous excuse for another show featuring young, good-looking characters–ABC just wants to steal some of The CW’s audience. On NBC, Timeless is a bit less clear: a crew of three go back in time to stop another time-traveller from causing the Hindenberg disaster. Since that disaster did happen, I’m not sure why they are going back, but whatever. CBS doesn’t have a time-travel show, but its sister network The CW has one that checks off two boxes. Frequency, is not only a series about how a detective discovers the ability to talk to her father in the past using a ham radio (and thus creates all kinds of causality paradoxes), but it’s also a remake of the Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel movie of the same name and premise. Since time travel is another one of those science-fiction concepts that are cheap to film, studios are happy to make use of it. I guess this year will put to test just how much depth that concept really has.

Son-Of-ZornSo which shows actually caught my eye? I’m glad you asked. I am not a fan of the spy-spoof series Archer. However, on Fox’s Son of Zorn, the idea of a Conan/He-Man style animated warlord working and living in suburban US seems to be a great send-up of both the sitcom and epic-fantasy genres. ABC’s American Housewife looks pretty funny. The show’s a spiritual descendent of Roseanne, and a child of Mike & Molly — featuring Katy Mixon, who played Molly’s younger sister, in the lead. Rounding out a rather meager selection of shows that I’m excited for is APB, about a police precinct that jumps to the leading edge once a tech mogul decides to invest millions of dollars in new gadgetry to help them solve the murder of his friend (again, kind of a movie premise, but may have potential to last).

If the fall tv slate is really as mediocre as it seems from these previews, I guess I’ll have a lot more viewing hours to spend on other stuff. Maybe I could watch some new cable shows or catch up on the many Marvel TV shows coming to Netflix. Who knows? This might be the season that wakes up the major networks to how they can’t be lazy anymore. A network TV renaissance might be just around the corner. But until then, we’ve got another ho-hum season to sit through (Man, I miss my lawyer shows!).

Seven Summer Movie Sequels 2016

Wow, it’s been a while since I made it out to the movie theatre! But now that we’re all gearing up for summer blockbuster season, I thought I’d pick out seven sequels that I’m looking forward to seeing. I know it’s a little sad that summer movie season is made up of so many sequels, but I guess that’s how Hollywood keeps itself in the billions — and it gives me some great alliteration for my title.

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Captain America: Civil War (6 May 2016)

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After the false start that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I guess this is the movie that is meant to kick off the summer blockbuster season. I confess that I am starting to lose track of what all these superhero movies are actually about, but they’re fun to look at. Of the recent bunch, I think I did enjoy Captain America: Winter Soldier quite a bit. It was more down-to-earth than the Avengers movies, and I’m finally getting used to Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson (both of whom I enjoy as actors, but I also feel were miscast into the roles of Captain America and the Black Widow). Apparently, in this movie some kind of political situation (the super-heroes are checking their consciences) causes the Avengers to split into sides (Captain America on one, Iron Man on the other). I never read the comic book storyline that this movie is based on, but I’m guessing it’s going to be another excuse to have hero fighting hero, to play out many “who would win” scenarios that are the stuff of childhood daydreams.

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X-Men: Apocalypse (27 May 2016)

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The X-Men have always been my favourite comic-book super-team, but it was mostly because they had such a great variety of members with some of the coolest abilities and backstories. I can’t say I’m very happy about how the rebooted series (starting from X-Men: First Class) has put side-characters like Mystique and Magneto into the spotlight, while shoving most of the classic X-Men to the fringes, but I guess maybe they are a good way to make mass-appeal stories. Apocalypse will probably continue that revisionist approach (they’ve already apparently changed who the “four horsemen” are, and it looks like they’ve kind of ruined my favourite X-Man, Storm, but whatever) and I don’t think that the Apocalypse character will be much like the comic-book one either. The story here is that the X-Men must defeat the ancient mutant known as Apocalypse, who has some dire plans for the world, I’m sure. Purists have pretty much given up their beliefs by going to comic book movies. We probably just want to see how cool they can make characters look on screen. For once I’d love it if they’d make two versions of these movies: one which serves the general viewer, and one for the fans — I’d pay for that digital download!

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Now You See Me 2 (10 June 2016)

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I know that people didn’t love the first one, but I really did enjoy Now You See Me. I thought it was slick, clever, and fun, and I liked the cast, the one-upmanship, and the cat-and-mouse game. From the trailer, I can see that they’ve tried to recapture some of that, as well as turn the tables on the main characters as they have lost the upper hand since the previous movie. I’m glad that Jesse Eisenberg is back in his wheelhouse as a cocky wise-cracker; and Dave Franco takes up any slack in that department as well. I am far less excited that they’ve replaced Isla Fisher with Lizzy Caplan. She is probably a better actress, but Fisher was a nicer fit for the team, I think. However, the cherry on top of the casting cake is that this movie about magicians has cast none other than Harry Potter (aka actor Daniel Radcliffe) as their patron. I hope there will be a few tongue-in-cheek Potter references thrown into the mix.

Finding-Dory-Poster

Finding Dory (17 June 2016)

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I’m really looking forward to this sequel, not only because Pixar has kind of misfired a bit lately, but also because Finding Nemo was definitely one of my favourites. It’s wonderful that Ellen Degeneres is back as the memory-challenged fish who (after helping reunite father and son clown-fish in the first movie) is now on a quest for her own family reunion. Like most sequels, I think they’re going to try to bring back as many characters from the original as they can reasonably do, plus introduce a few new ones (the camouflaging octopus looks like fun). While I don’t expect this to be as good as the first, I predict it will be really enjoyable and the family hit of the summer.

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Independence Day: Resurgence (3 July 2016)

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This movie is kind of the sequel that no one asked for. ID4 was one of the first big, summer tent-pole blockbusters 20 years ago, so I guess it’s appropriate that its scion be counted as one now. Just like Jurassic World did last year, this movie does its best to acknowledge and pay homage to the original, bringing back some of the actors/characters (including Bill Pulman and Jeff Goldblum), and making some of new characters sons of some of the characters from the first as well (including Will Smith’s). Apparently, humanity also got pretty good at reverse-engineering alien tech because what they’ve got in the movie trailer sure doesn’t look like what we’ve got today. Apparently, the aliens are back with even better stuff, so once again humanity is in dire straits. Hopefully this movie will find its place among the many recent revival movies/shows on the good side of the curve. I do enjoy a good alien invasion battle movie.

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Star Trek Beyond (22 July 2016)

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While Star Trek is my favourite sci-fi franchise, I admit that the JJ Abrams reboot movies don’t really feel very Star-Trek-y to me. Now that the directing reins have been handed over to Justin Lin, let’s see if he hews more closely to the spirit of the series. From the trailer, I really have no idea what this movie is about, but it looks like it will sparkle as well as all the others do. I’m glad that all the new crew are back. I like Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Karl Urban as a stolid-yet-humorous Bones. I also like that they appear to be featuring Scotty (played by the always funny Simon Pegg) a bit more. They’ve got Idris Alba playing some kind of alien villain. I’m not sure if it’s going to matter in the end. I have a feeling he won’t become of the classic Trek baddies — people will probably only dress as him at conventions to test everyone’s trivia knowledge. I don’t know if the movie franchise will continue (especially now that a new TV series is on the way). Though I always think there’s room for more sci-fi on the big screen, I don’t know that I’d be sad to see these movies fade out.

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Jason Bourne (29 July 2016)

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When I heard that they were going to make this sequel with Matt Damon (rather than continue the franchise with Jeremy Renner) I was so relieved. Even better that they’ve got director Paul Greengrass back, who made the franchise as amazing as it was. Now that Jason Bourne has got his memories back, I’m not quite sure what the story of this movie will be about (though, as Julia Stiles character points out in the trailer, remembering is not the same as understanding). Although I didn’t see it in the trailer, I’m also hoping that there will be some off-the-hook fight scenes where Bourne will again show his super-human assassin skills in some very inventive ways. I am excited for this one and I hope it does not disappoint.

While sequels have become a box-office staple, the blockbuster-revival is a bit of a new phenomenon. The fact that so few of these have plots that can be summarized or teased in trailers does not bode well. So far, I think the successes have been mixed, but I look forward to seeing how we do this summer. If they work, I guess we’ve got ourselves a few more fun movies, but if they don’t, I hope there will be some lessons-learned so they can get back to making cool original stuff that might even be revivals twenty years from now.