Coco

The striking chords of music separate a boy and his deceased family to The Land of the Dead, in Pixar Animation’s newest ‘Coco’. Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Through daily viewings of video tapes and a shrine dedicated to Cruz, Miguel puts in the hours to becoming a signature guitar player with very little luck along the way. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. ‘Coco’ is written and directed by Adrian Molina, and is rated PG for thematic elements.

Music can serve and narrate the link between the past and present in ways that can tenderly preserve our memories. This was my biggest takeaway from ‘Coco’, the newest grand slam strike from a company that continues to amaze and raise the bar with each passing year; Disney Pixar. Once again, this company strikes gold in emulating the very traditions and lifestyles of a foreign land in a way that is not only educational for youths with a thirst for exploration, but also intelligent for the way that it carefully juggles the tone of every scene. Like only a couple of films before it, ‘Coco’ took me on a high speed rush of emotional versatility that made me feel bi-polar because of how much can resonate from within in a single 100 minute sitting. Besides the moral of the story that I took away, there’s so much more to this film that provides the perfect family gathering this Thanksgiving weekend, harvesting an urgency for life, as well as a celebration for the deceased that vibrantly decodes the link between these two entirely vast worlds. This is very much a movie that makes you feel enlightened when you leave the theater, and that’s a feat that I feel a lot of films (especially kids movies) are missing from this current day and age. This proves that Pixar isn’t just crafting kids films, but films that cater to every age spectrum that never limits their profound voice.

This is very much a script that takes its time in getting to know our characters pasts respectively, but it moves along so sharp that I never felt bored or dragged down by the endless exposition. The first half Molina’s script follows near the casual setups of a protagonist who is searching to find his voice in more ways than one, but what evolved proves that the information in the trailers is only table dressing to the much tastier main course. The film is a mystery at times, and crosses into the theme of needing to invest in our pasts if we are to continue forth with our futures. This provides plenty of surprises along the way, including a plot twist midway through that takes its cues from the ‘Blade Runner 2049’ school of storytelling that this film even did slightly better. There’s also great thought and imagination invested into the very world building that Molina confidently casts upon his shoulders. The kinds of themes and rules are a throwback to the very legends of Mexican tradition that are past down from one generation to the next, feeding into the finely tuned engine of intelligence that ‘Coco’ carves out for itself. Believe me when I say that this is a screenplay that will at the very least touch your heart, but for the select few, it will resonate in a way that transfixes you with the music that serenades your soul.

On that topic, we have a spirited contender for best musical soundtrack of 2017. At this point, Disney is turning out earworms that live and breed inside of our heads, and the best decision is not to fight it, but go with irresistible melodies that get your toes tapping. Michael Giacchnino’s collection of songs moves at many tempos fast and slow, highlighting the many moments that require an essence of song in the air, but what impressed me most was the insertion of these inevitable hits that built their deliveries. As to where most musicals insert songs every five minutes of the movie, often creating scenes of song that don’t feel authentic in their dissertation, ‘Coco’ carefully reserves the proper moment in time to deliver these numbers. The most important thing here is that the music is working hand-in-hand with the story, firing on double cylinders that brings out the most in terms of confidence for both aspects. Songs have been important in films, but in this movie it feels like breathing for this family of personalities that have either thrived or been left to rot because of it. Either way, I see a lot of Itunes purchases being made for Giacchino’s stirring audible revelation that struck more than just a chord with my heart and ensuing tears that followed.

The performances were all around incredible by this big name group of actors young and old that carve out something far beyond the one-dimensional protagonists that we’ve come to sadly expect. My favorite is definitely Bernal as Hector, the antsy wild card of the film that steers a bit to close to ever be forgotten. What makes Bernal’s voicing so memorable here is that he allows himself to get lost in the character, channeling a sadness and longing because of being forgotten that has paralyzed his time in the afterlife. The chemistry between the tag team of he and Gonzalez leaves nothing to be desired in the very way that it establishes two characters who we yearn to spend more time with, and soon it becomes evident how desperately they need each other. Speaking of which, the little boy himself commands the film with such innocence and wonder that make him feel years ahead of his young age in real life. Anthony himself is certainly no rookie when it comes to acting or singing, but his grasp of both firmly exceeded my wildest expectations for how a child can command a crowd both on and off of screen. Benjamin Bratt also leaves a lasting impression as charmingly arrogant De La Cruz. Behind every immense pop star, there’s a personality a mile long, and Bratt is happy to oblige with such suave debonair that makes it easy to fall to his musical seduction.

Without question though, my single favorite aspect of the film is in the endlessly intense attention to detail that fronts an artistic flow that crushes any other animated film this year in its path. When I see an animated film, I always speak of rendering, shading, and color palate, and this film hits the mark with precision on all of them. The backdrops and landscapes in this Land of the Dead provided so many awestruck moments when it feels like their luminous lights and high-stacked houses stretch further than the eye can see, but how is the character detail? My answer is PERFECTLY. It’s getting to the point where it is truly scary how much Pixar is mastering every small detail to make a character stand out. What I mean by this is just how many differences in bone structure that the film goes through for its hundreds of the dead that get even a second of screen time, as well as spots or moles on skin for those in the living. The hair threads themselves on character heads feel like you can reach out and touch them at any time, only to be topped by the design of Grandma Coco that better win the production an Oscar or I will scream my lungs out in anger. The wrinkle patterns and rendering of this aging woman confined to a chair had me demanding to pause the film just to soak in how fluently she moved to that of her respective age and situation, and I’ve never seen anything so jaw-dropping illustration when it comes to matching that of a live action counterpart.

What small problems I had with the film were so miniscule that it barely requires mentioning, but two things stand-out like a cancer in an overall production that is nearly perfect. The first is the one roadblock in the animation from a group of flying beast characters (they look like tigers) that alienated the consistency of every person or property around them. The beasts have a strange color design to their characters, but my concern is more in the outline of their designs that screams computer animation. If it were up to me, I wish they weren’t even in the film, as their inclusion even feels like it stretches the rules that were carefully constructed in this other world. The other (and much bigger) problem involved the rules provided in the exposition that doesn’t make sense later on. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that a character in the Land of the Dead is slowly deteriorating because his loved ones can’t remember him. This of course makes no sense because one of his loved ones is indeed with him throughout the film walking, talking, and all else communicating with him. If I spoke to my Mother directly, IT MEANS I DID NOT FORGET ABOUT HER. My point is that this character should never be deteriorating, and it otherwise feels like an obvious ploy to dramatic pulse in a film that was otherwise dealing with death and its themes maturely.

THE VERDICT – Coco will remind you that you have a pulse, in all of its heartwarming family pleasantries and endless ambition to follow your dreams that will provide inspiration aplenty to those who seek it. The animation feels three-dimensional without the need for eye-cramping glasses, and an energetically spirited musical score by Giacchino brings it all home with a tempo-building final performance that concludes with electricity. It’s a responsibly refreshing story that bridges the worlds of the living and the dead impeccably, bringing to light the importance of family that can’t be diminished by either.

9/10

The Star

A collection of animals follow ‘The Star’ as a map in their quest to get to Bethlehem before it’s too late. In Sony Pictures Animation’s newest feature film, a small but brave donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun) yearns for a life beyond his daily grind of repetition at the village mill. One day he finds the courage to break free, and finally goes on the adventure of his dreams. On his journey, he teams up with Ruth (Aidy Bryant), a lovable sheep who has lost her flock, and Dave (Keegan Michael-Key), a dove with lofty aspirations. Along with three wisecracking camels and some eccentric stable animals with electric personalities, Bo and his new friends follow the Star and become unlikely heroes in the greatest story ever told; the first Christmas. ‘The Star’ is directed by Timothy Reckart, and is rated PG for some thematic elements.

Releasing a story about the birth of Jesus around the holiday season seemed like a good idea in theory, but the dulled down execution of ‘The Star’ hints that your time would be much better served doing literally anything else than this. The film isn’t truly awful, just awfully boring, and a great lack of detail paralyzes this one from ever breaking free from the pack of religious films that bring out the groaning in all of us. Thankfully, this one at least isn’t insulting or shaming the non-believing crowds for their respective beliefs, choosing instead to focus loosely on the greatest origin story of all time in Jesus Christ. From a theatrical perspective, this one lacks any clear defining trait in releasing this on the silver screen. From its minimal run time (78 Minutes), to its narrow screenplay or jarringly disappointing animated stylings, Reckart’s honorable tale falls along the way of this aridly dry journey in giving us anything memorably pleasing about the investment made towards wanting to see an original version of the classic telling.

The screenplay is so dry and free of laughs in its material that I found myself fighting off sleep throughout. In fact, my experience with ‘The Star’ makes me feel like the film had some good ideas for the night of the immaculate birth, and then decided to fill in the rest around it as they went along. I say this because the third act of the film is by far the most exciting and the most urgent in terms of my investment as a whole with the movie. It’s nothing amazing by any stretch of original storytelling, but when you consider how mind-numbingly dull the first hour of this movie truly is, you can appreciate a finale that throws as much at the screen as it can to getting audiences back into this thing. The humor inside of this script feels virtually non-existent. That’s not to just say that it is bad in delivery, but that it feels like it is never there to begin with. Considering this is basically a kids-first dominated audience, I feel like screenwriters Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin cater more to the side of bible enthusiasts instead of the ones that will pile into the theater in droves to see an up-roaring good time. Evidence of this exists throughout the first two acts that feel like you’re being subjected to a Sunday School Hallmark offering that is posing as a Hollywood film in sheep’s clothing. I could forgive Sony Animated Studios if this was the first or second time that I have been annoyed with them, but the sour taste of ‘Nine Lives’ from 2015 still lasts to remind me of the horrors that I’ve been through with this company.

Sony’s brand of animation continues to get better in certain aspects, but still struggles in artist rendering that has it falling by the wayside of Dreamworks or Pixar for top dog. The background illustrations are beautiful here, establishing a patented desire for even the most minute detail in landscapes and buildings that sets a lively stage for our characters. The sky and clouds as well breathe a strong artistic stroke that tiptoes the fourth wall of live action rendering. Where my problem lies is still with the character depictions, especially during the day time scenes that highlight their lumbering movements and facial definitions accordingly. The mouth movements of characters are still trailing behind where they rightfully should be with their appropriate speech patterns, and there’s a great lack of life or energy behind the walking and reaching of both human and animal properties. As to where Pixar gets the little things like facial acne or wrinkles to strong detail in their films, Sony Animation is still leagues behind in this regard, giving their characters the most basic of approaches to what make them standout amongst one another.

My distaste doesn’t just end with the visuals however, it also rang persistent with the collective musical soundtrack by a collection of popular artists like Mariah Carey and Jake Owen. I should first say that the musical score by composer John Paesano is nowhere at fault here, as his accompaniment of orchestral influence gave the film the big feeling that I felt it was sadly missing for the rest of the tonal atmosphere. But with the soundtrack, I feel like this is another example of popstars trying to hip up these classic religious songs with a dose of modern swagger to appeal to a broader audience. Anytime this happens in films, I can’t help but taste the feeling of desperation that sacrifices the pitch and feeling of the story at heart. This kind of thing is nice for a kids movie, but a story about Jesus probably doesn’t require a hip hop influence to its scenes and sequences for the sheer fact that this style of music was thousands of years away. I compare it to hearing hip hop during the 2012 version of ‘The Great Gatsby’. It’s jarring to the point of ruined immersion into the film, and does nothing but play as a distraction on the whole piece.

This wide range of cast are also quite a feat to see under the same roof, even if a majority of their deliveries lack the kind of energy needed in reaching the youthful audience. With the exception of Keegan Michael-Key as Dave the sidekick dove and best friend of Bo, not one of these actors get lost in their vocal versatilities, and choose instead to play everything at face value. What makes Keegan work so well in this role besides his animated vocal tones, is that he truly samples a pitch that sounds completely different from his familiar patterns. Michael-Key’s endless energy goes a long way anytime he’s on screen, and I couldn’t thank Dave enough for waking me from a coma each time he wasn’t present. Besides him, Aidy Bryant isn’t terrible as Ruth, but her character’s one-dimension purpose limits her abilities in breaking out of the Saturday Night Live diamond that she finds herself in. Steven Yeun was very disappointing, sounding off Bo as a protagonist who is simply collecting a paycheck. Whether it’s poor writing or poor dissertation, Yeun’s turn as the lead of this film can’t quite get a grasp of what is needed from the material, and because of such, Bo makes for arguably the worst of animal leads in a year that has John Cena voicing a four hundred pound bull.

THE VERDICT – Few things shine bright with ‘The Star’, but those that do are doing so because of the limited spectrum being displayed by uneven animation, as well as a boring story that alienates quickly. Already with ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ and ‘A Bad Mom’s Christmas’, this has been a holiday movie season to forget, but Timothy Reckart’s animated telling gives us one final blunt blow with a nativity story that incorporates butt jokes and slapstick humor to its senseless direction. If this truly is the greatest story ever told, I’ll opt for fiction.

4/10

Wonder

‘Wonder’ tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a warm-hearted little boy born with facial differences that have kept him in and out of hospitals his whole life. Up until now, his appearance has prevented him from going to a mainstream school, so Auggie becomes the most unlikely of heroes when he enters the local fifth grade. As his family (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson), his new classmates, and the larger community all struggle to discover their compassion and acceptance, Auggie’s extraordinary journey will unite them all and prove you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out, proving that the things that make us different also make us special. ‘Wonder’ is directed by Stephen Chbosky, and is rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild adult language.

If a theater auditorium full of crying people doesn’t restore my faith in mankind, nothing probably will. The tears are ones of joy more often than not in ‘Wonder’, channeling an inspiring tear-jerker that moved me miles in ways that it tugged at the heartstrings with a resounding message of clarity. To be different is not to be unequal, but rather extraordinary, and we should welcome those extraordinary people with forthright actions that will define us. The film more than lives up to its ambitious name by implementing the softer side to cinema that usually more times than not leaves me rolling my eyes. The meandering side to dramas involving characters that are deemed as ‘Different’ comes across in the thinnest of representations, leading to films like ‘Simon Birch’ or ‘Radio’ that often play to the predictability of each respective story. ‘Wonder’ is above all of that, mainly because it tells an honest story first-and-foremost, depicting the very actions and consequences of children with such accuracy that makes them entertaining, but above all else human. This was a very entertaining sit to me, and most of the credit goes to the same filmmaking genius who helmed ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, perhaps the most poignant teenage film of the last twenty years.

That magician is Stephen Chbosky, and if one thing is clear about the circles that he runs around in endless direction, it’s that he understands youths and their unfolding situations accordingly. In weaker hands, this film could easily fall by the wayside corny while reaching for the right degree of sentimentality, but Stephen, as well as his all around perfectly cast ensemble, harbor such surrealism that comes with living with something as challenging as physical appearance and the kind of psychological harm that it can cause to that innocent youth. As a filmmaker, Chbosky infuses a lot of warm color that represents the rich, vibrancy of this movie that removes any doubt of this feeling like a bigger budgeted Lifetime movie of the week. On top of this, the cinematography is gorgeous, harboring a finer appreciation of versatility in shots far and near that play to the drama in each scene without needing the slow close-up that forces us to pay attention to a heavy handed message. Stephen lets his audience come to him, and because of such the wondrous influence that he commands over this movie is one that always feels firmly in his grip without reaching for the sure things when it comes to what will resonate with his audience.

What I came to appreciate about this story is that it isn’t just told from Auggie’s point of view, but rather a healthy offering of characters who each play great value into the peeling of this small boy. For the first half of the film, the narration is done by four different characters of Auggie, his Sister Via, his best friend Jack, and Via’s former best friend Miranda. Not all of them hit as strongly emotionally as others do, and some even come and go without much reasoning for their delve into that particular character. But what I found so enticing about this direction is that the storytelling shows its depth by proving that there’s so much more that meets the eye with this boy and his situation that touches a lot of people for better or worse. To me, his sister’s side of things is one that I valued most, depicting a side of temporary abandonment that doesn’t always get a thorough representation in films like this one. Nothing ever feels rushed or even sloppy by its expanding levels, using the most of 108 precious minutes of screen time that constantly held my attention because there’s something new around every corner.

The few problems that the film’s screenplay by Chbosky does have are few and far between, but there were some things that bothered me. For one, the film’s multiple narration does sometimes stray too far from Auggie before much resolution with his character has taken place. It does make up for it during the later part of the third act with some more time devoted to him, but unfortunately what transpires during a field trip does feel terribly tacked on to the story to offer some last minute drama that the film doesn’t feel confident in what few edge-of-the-seat moments it gave us. The overall final twenty minutes of the film is definitely the weakness of the movie, but it isn’t enough to ever take it down more than a grade for its lack of involvement to the star character. I’ll get to the performances in a second, but the one thing that makes Tremblay just miss from possible Academy recognition during awards season is that the film is noticeably missing that one long-winded moment of dialogue from him to bring it all together, and that reminder to the townspeople of the journey that this strong force has taken.

As for performances, there is nothing lacking in this department. The duo of Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson worked spectacularly, emoting two cool parents who know how to relate to their children, but also know when to turn on the discipline of a stern approach. Jacob Tremblay is a wonder of acting science with his role of Auggie. In him, Tremblay finally capitalizes on his dramatic circumference that was evident in 2015’s ‘Room’, playing him with enough sadness and spunk to appropriately balance them capably without feeling like a drag. My favorite performance of the film however, was from sixteen-year-old Izabela Vidovic who opened my eyes to such a presence in the same vein that she does to the townspeople at a school play in the film. Via feels just as cursed by Auggie predicament, and because of such we get a tender performance by Vidovic that reminds us of the very complexities of finding an identity as a teenager without coming right out and spoon-feeding it down our throats. The scenes with Vidovic and Roberts are definitely my favorite of the film because you feel such invisible angst and depravation being explored in ways that feel every bit as deserving of exploration as they do becoming of each respective character’s direction for the remainder of the film. Subtle visual storytelling at its finest.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wonder’ doesn’t require familiar paths on its journey to compelling drama, it blazes a trail of its own by an informatively versatile approach the pushes this to the front of the line of tear-jerking favorites. Chbosky once again puts the lump in all of our throats with such compassion and vulnerability in the unapologetic circumstance of childish audacity, and this more than capable ensemble cast turn the gears of tears accordingly for nearly two hours. A name means everything to a film, and because of such, the double duty of Chbosky put the ‘Wonder’ in wonderful.

8/10

Daddy’s Home 2

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg go another round, this time with three additional fathers in tow to their adventures of mayhem. In ‘Daddy’s Home 2’, Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and Brad (Will Ferrell) have joined forces to provide their kids with the perfect Christmas. Through their newly found union of being best friends, the duo have the father game on lockdown, offering the best of both respective worlds to the children they love. However, their newfound partnership is put to the test when Dusty’s old-school, macho Dad (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s ultra-affectionate and emotional Dad (John Lithgow) arrive just in time to throw the holiday into complete chaos. On top of it all is the macho Roger (John Cena) who pushes Dusty through the pools of embarrassment with his own macho stature. If father knows best, these kids are truly in trouble. ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ is written and directed by Sean Anders, and is rated PG-13 for suggestive material and some adult language.

It was only a week ago that I saw ‘A Bad Moms Christmas’, but the disheartening memory of that film has stuck with me for a new film based on similarities that more than ring a bell of coincidence in ‘Daddy’s Home 2’. I can’t nail down for certain why ‘A Bad Moms Christmas’ decided to move their release date up from the December debut that it was supposed to receive, but my shot in the dark is that someone on their production team got an early word or screening or ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ and concluded that it was the same movie, leaving the two films fighting for who would see the light of day of originality first. Besides the fact that this is a film about burdening parents coming to visit these extreme parents themselves, both films take place on Christmas, both feature scenes involving the theft of a Christmas tree, both diminish the return of the opposite sex in their films, and both even have the same ending in direction with the elder parents. One could write this off as ironic, but there’s something that stinks terribly within two movies that are only a week apart. A formula for a wrong that must be righted for two films that will inevitably stand side-by-side in my end of the year countdown because those glaring similarities can never separate as to which mirror image is better.

For every root that finds its way back to the central plot, this is very much Gibson’s movie. The arrival of this once prominent A-lister who has decided to join the ranks of slapstick humor does a great value to the movie, playing Kurt with enough rabid testosterone to field his own Expendables sequel. Considering the original film left us off with John Cena’s Roger coming into play, it seems strange that this film shutters him until the final half hour of the movie, leaving Gibson with the majority of screen time to hold down the fort. In fact, it’s easy to see where a re-write could’ve substituted Cena for Gibson as both imitate similar character attitudes and structures that thrust them into the light of temporary antagonists. As for progression, there’s very little of it with wacky experiences basically blazing the trail for what is to come over 95 hanging minutes. It feels like the writers got together a bunch of family ideas during Christmas and decided on which direction was the lowest possible hanging fruit to make them cater to the Ferrell school of humor. The film makes no attempt to hide or subdue its obvious intention into making this a male first movie. The females of the film offer very little substance or subplot that makes their place worthy in this sequel, leaving them biding their time until one of the male co-stars remembers that they are in frame, leading to a worst case scenario in a world that is building equality in film for the first time ever.

As for humor, nothing should surprise you from the adolescent mind of man-child Anders who wrote such timeless classics as ‘Dumb and Dumber To’, ‘That’s My Boy’, and of course the original film in this series that has already overstayed its welcome. Most of this slapstick offering misses its mark on setting some kind of precedent for consistency in its physical sequences, and its predictable timing can now be related to something like horror movie jump scares when the sound lowers just before something is about to pop out. The instances of witty dialogue far outweigh the value of returns to that of something that offers an elaborate stunt of flashes and pain to get its point across, as those were the only points during the film where I garnered a chuckle or two for the way these constant professionals carry the material. As like any movie (Especially ‘A Bad Moms Christmas), the film also tries the predictably cliched heartfelt center towards the end of the movie that reaches and fails like most comedies to cash in on that dramatic impulse that could instill a valuable message to those leaving the theater. I don’t buy it, and it never works for a second because these characters as people feel damned from the get-go. The final fifteen minutes even override this direction with a bat-shit finale where it feels like all hell and logic break loose in a sequence that casts more concern than care.

Like any Will Ferrell movie, it’s status quo that the child characters are more mature than the adults, but this film took things to new heights of defined endangerment that wouldn’t stand in any household. As parents, these six units are every bit as ignorant as they are promoting to the kinds of actions that kids should be punished for, bringing to life the demonic intuitions that impressionable minds are known for. A few of the examples for this film involve the younger kids playing with the thermostat during sleeping hours, the kids getting drunk on eggnog, firing off guns in the woods, and of course incest. Thankfully I was alone in the theater because anyone who laughs at this kind of material would really make me feel sorry for them, and while this kind of thing might’ve been provocative during the 90’s, comedies today require more intelligence and less barbaric in getting that coveted reaction that comic writers so desperately crave anymore. That desperation certainly rings true here, but always for the wrong reasons, and because of such ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ feels like being witness to a child destroying property in a supermarket. We want to say something to the parents, but it feels like those kids are who they are because their grown counterparts set the stage for them to shine.

As for performances, the chemistry is still very much there for Wahlberg and Ferrell even if the film feels slightly more focused on their parental units. A majority of this as I already mentioned is in Gibson who at first feels obvious in his villainous rage, but later won me over as the seams that tear this family apart from the inside. John Lithgow is also a welcome addition, reveling as Brad’s Dad (He has no actual name in the movie) with the kind of softie innocence that accurately depicts how Ferrell’s character has come to be. I’ve never really been a huge Will Ferrell fan, and nothing in this film won me over for his brand of humor. Wahlberg continues to show a versatility for comedy to work hand-in-hand with his dramatic thrillers, and I honestly could’ve used a little more screen time devoted to his rivalry with Cena to watch these two bulls collide at the horns. The sacrifice here is definitely Linda Cardellini’s character who played basically the trophy for the two males in the first film, and is now nothing more than a side note to chime in any time an unraveling humorous sequence needs further establishing reactions. It’s a noticeably bitter pill to swallow for any females watching who would like to see a single motherly instinct reflected on screen. To that I say, well, at least there’s ‘A Bad Moms Christmas’.

THE VERDICT – ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ gave me a holiday hangover seven weeks before Christmas. With juvenile humor and the slimmest of scripts creatively to boot, Anders second chapter in this series relies far too heavily on the same inept concepts in malicious intents that overstuffed the stockings of the first movie, leaving a second film that doesn’t work overtime to get the heart beating to either of its horrific characters or benign traditions. More fathers means less time for mothers, a true representation of the male psyche that has been plaguing Hollywood for decades.

4/10

Goodbye Christopher Robin

The colorful characters inside the mind of critically acclaimed post war writer Alan Milne are brought to life in this biopic that opens eyes to their traumatic origins. In ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, we get a rare glimpse into the relationship between beloved children’s author A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), whose toys inspired the magical world of Winnie the Pooh. Along with his mother Daphne (Margot Robbie), and his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), Christopher Robin and his family are swept up in the international success of the books; the enchanting tales bringing hope and comfort to England after the First World War. But with the eyes of the world on Christopher Robin, what will the cost of fame be to the family who are just starting to grow together again? ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ is directed by Simon Curtis, and is rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief adult language.

This isn’t the kind of bear seeking honey kind of story that you’re used to, nor is it a conventional dramatic biopic with all of the positive feelings of a warm and wholesome good time. ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ tugs at the tear ducts of its moviegoers, depicting a family at war with the perils of fame and seclusion from each other, and at the heart of it all is a little boy whose childhood is literally ripped from him unfairly. It is surprisingly in these elements that cast a kind of dark and unorthodox style of a real life story being played out here that is anything but inspirational, warranting the release of the most loved children’s book of all time and the consequences that came with such a gift. To this degree, Winnie and friends kind of have their own Grimm fairytales kind of origin, creating a kind of manufactured degree of happiness that resides within the books considering so much angst and abandonment was taking place behind the scenes. This is a story that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, and that’s the sign of any strong biopic that doesn’t have its own reservations going into the script.

To that degree, the film does embrace the kind of imaginary aspect that is necessary from deep within the developing relationship of this father and son who barely know each other despite living together. The relationship between them isn’t perfect, nor is it ever meant to be, but the film’s rare moments of bliss are when the two are engaged within a forest of delightful wonderment that transforms them to a place where only they can touch. Sadly, these moments are incredibly rare as this dysfunctional family plays a towering adversity to them continuing to persevere and overcome the burden of distance between them that has been present since day one. The setting of this very big house is detailed accordingly, forcing us to feel the cold that resides from inside, leaving very little character or love within its storytelling walls. The film might not elaborate much on the process of the books themselves, but it does focus the error of its ways on the steep price associated with fame, particularly in jealousy, as well as this soiling feeling of innocence that eats away at the origins of this child’s fantasy. In that respect, the valued lesson of family first eats away at the material, carving out a hearty center that has you fighting a war of your own to reach that plateau.

The pacing is very difficult to get through in the opening act particularly, but once you pass the half hour mark, the film opens up its creative engine to the real meat and potatoes of the story. I am usually a sucker for background exposition early on in a film, but the length of time associated with Milne’s post-war trauma and inability to make a living while sounding off on the battlefield, left me bored to tears and begging for some familiarity within the characters or world of Pooh that gave me relief. It happens more frequently during the second act, but it’s never in a way that feels rushed or even overcooked, choosing instead to let the audience piece the inspirations together without ever beating them over the head with hints. The final act of the film ends somberly enough, bringing forth a mystery of sorts that admittedly did suck me in to the way it held this family in its grip and sucked the life from every single one of them. There is a time transition here that feels very rough in sequencing, and could’ve used more emphasis to the audience before jagged force took over. Even still, the profound loss of childhood innocence rings to its truest form here and struck a chord with me for the way we can never get it back once it is gone.

Child actors come and go but Tilston is so valued to this screenplay that his emotional register often represents the very roller-coaster of tone that the film goes through. This is the first time that I have seen Will act, and I must say that he is leagues above most child actors of the same age bracket if only for the way his big glassy eyes burn a hole through your soul that has you fighting back tears of your own. As for the adults, there are some hits and misses. Gleeson gives another heralding performance, performing Milne as a minefield of emotional uncertainty that requires anyone around him to tread lightly. Macdonald also gives a welcoming warm-hearted side to the older age bracket in the film, an aspect especially necessary for the sometimes appalling nature how the Milne’s operate under their roof. The chemistry between Macdonald and Tilston sometimes had me forgetting that they weren’t actually mother and son, despite this being the obvious closest that Christopher ever had to a parental unit. The only performance that I didn’t care for was Margot Robbie as Daphne. I supposed Robbie is doing her job since I couldn’t stand this character for even a minute because of her shallow and insensitive demeanor towards everyone and everything, but my problem with Robbie in this role rests firmly on her commitment to performance that lacked on nearly every turn. Her fake British accent is decent, but it’s so inconsistent that her real life Australian accent often gets in the way, creating a sort of hybrid between two accents that removed me from most scenes she acted in. Her performance is also entirely over the top, creating a lack of believability in her commitment to turn that definitely presented her as the weakest link here.

As for production value, there’s plenty to gush over in radiant fairytale-like qualities. The film has some beautiful photography within its range, depicting England’s finer countryside with a boosting color palate. Some of my personal favorite creative touches with the film’s artistic merit included some transitional sequence illustrations that look like they were lifted directly from the pages of one of Milne’s novels, complete with text below the page that reads like a bedtime story. The editing work could use some improvement, mainly because it feels a bit forceful from time-to-time particularly in the war transitions that occasionally felt inconsistent. Sometimes the transition from life to war blends together smoothly, blurring the similarities in physical properties within them, and then there are other times when the flashback happens for a reason that doesn’t feel synthetic to the movement prior, playing into the gimmick of momentary eclipse that frankly doesn’t ever go anywhere with the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ is a bittersweet brush of sentimentality for many different reasons than its literary counterparts. The film’s poignant approach in the blending of childhood fame and the overall loss of innocence is one that stuck with me strong, mainly because of the timely facials of the great Tilston in this title role. Curtis’s film isn’t perfect by any stretch, mainly suffering at the hands of a weak first act, as well as some rough edits that subdue the immersion of imagination. But this drama is above par for the sweet taste of wistfulness that flowed like honey throughout from the strong-rooted tree that this story stands on.

7/10

Same Kind of Different As Me

Appearances aren’t everything. That’s the message from the newest film from alias writer and director Michael Carney. The film is called ‘Same Kind of Different As Me’ and centers around international art dealer Ron Hall (Greg Kinnear), who meets and befriends a homeless man (Djimon Hounsou) in hopes of saving his struggling marriage to Debbie (Renée Zellweger) after Ron has been caught cheating with another woman. Debbie is a woman whose lucid dreams of the foretelling future will lead all three of them on the most remarkable journey of their lives, and challenge each other to see the good in those less fortunate. Additional cast includes Jon Voight who plays Hall’s father, with whom he reconciles thanks to the revelations and lifestyle changes of his new lease on life. ‘Same Kind of Different As Me’ is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some violence and adult language.

Another religious movie, another day. But what makes ‘Same Kind of Different As Me’ any (pardon the pun) different? Well, this film based on real life events harvests a strong positive message that moves miles in how we view those who we deem as different because of race, well-being, or even social predicament. It’s a valuable watch for anyone looking for a feel good kind of story that forces us to take a look at our own comfortable lifestyles and choose to give a little more, giving into the kind of heart that everyone needs. This kind of social commentary fits in appropriately with the ever-changing world of today and poverty rates reaching unprecedented new heights, but it stumbles its rich narrative with a forceful spoon-feeding of religious propaganda that at times feels unnecessary to the material. Why does this trend continue with these kind of films? Just because something is classified as a religious movie, a film will choose to rest on those low hanging pieces of fruit that jumble these films all together in the same grouping, wasting precious minutes of valued screen-time to satisfy an agenda within itself.

That agenda crumbles the more I think about it. The profit of sorts for this film is Zellweger’s Debbie whose own conscience desire to help out is valid, but when she gets husband Ron involved, you start to see the glaring holes in this narrative. For one, Ron is forced to be a better person because of his unfaithful deed against his wife that has left him sleeping on the couch. To get things back to normal, Ron is forced against his own free will to help out at the local church serving meals. I guess when all else fails, blackmail and see if they will profit on the valuable lessons that you are desperately trying to instill. The second problem that I have is a majority of this film is told in flashbacks for Hounsou’s flimsy exposition that feels like it has to fill in the gaps to understand his hatred against others. It’s a fine tool to use once or twice in a single movie, but to go back to this trick on four separate occasions really slowed down the progression of the story for me that was already sloppily being told through a flashback itself. That’s right, it’s a flashback within a flashback. The running narrative for the movie takes place two years prior to where the film starts off, and made even more confusing by Hounsou’s character needing to tell us a story about his rough past every ten minutes. It’s a convoluted track that goes off road in repetition, and because of such, it makes the film a sloppy sell to feel immersed in.

Then there’s the major glaring problem that takes out the authenticity of the message. So much of the story is based on giving back to others who are in need, but the film doesn’t feel bashful in showing us how this family is only really helping one person in the overall bigger picture, as well as their lavish lifestyles that involve holiday cabins in the woods and Mercedes automobiles at their disposals. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with enjoying nice gifts, but it seems phony when the very people preaching about what the less fortunate deserve are the same ones who are obviously living well above their means. The film kind of writes itself into a corner by understanding this jumbled intention, and about midway through the movie decides to pay less attention to what its characters are doing to help bridge the gap of divide, and focus solely on a surprising subplot that comes out of left field and gives the film the dramatic depth that it finally deserved to a somber finish.

At least the production value feels like feature length film quality for once, and not the kind of movie that seems ripe for a picking in a Hallmark Channel movie of the week. The film takes the time to construct some real beauty from within, garnering some artistic landscape shots that cast a beautiful parallel to the story’s heartfelt intention. In addition to this, The subtlety of the lighting feels warranted for the the interior shots, and never gives off that vibe of too much intrusion by a cinematographer trying to place beauty in scenes where it doesn’t feel natural. The editing isn’t amazing, but it’s certainly better than religious genre movies prior to this one that kept the camera running a bit too long for certain scenes. That same problem happens here a few times, but it’s more of the finished running time of 114 minutes that could certainly use a trimming for the final cut. That lengthy investment of sermon does start to wear itself thin during the second act, when there’s no shortage of exposition repetition that could be cut for the better of the fluidity of script.

There was one solid performance amongst the sea of phoned-in deliveries that are simply collecting a paycheck until their next big project ship comes rolling in. That person is Hounsou’s emotionally triggered range as Denver, the homeless man whom we come to understand through some utter devastation from his past. So much of Djimon’s release feels against tone here because he doesn’t have much in the face of dedicated actors who he can bounce off of, but this man steals scenes endlessly every time he is on screen, engaging us with enough energetic passion that feels like it comes straight from the heart of an actor who tries to make something more of this chance. I should explain that Zellweger and Kinnear aren’t terrible, it’s just that their characters don’t have a lot of depth in this kind of story. They are pretty much left to play the plain types that are living out God’s plan without interruption, and while that may be great for the definition of a protagonist, it simply doesn’t give them anything challenging to commit themselves to in terms of noteworthy roles that they will come to be known for when their careers are winding down. Voight is decent as the alcoholic father of Kinnear’s character, but he’s written as quite one-note, as once you’ve seen one scene with him, you’ve seen them all.

THE VERDICT – There’s not a lot that makes ‘Same Kind of Different As Me’ standout as a worthy warrior for the genre that tries to play against stereotypes. The redundancy of problems like a heavy-handed script or lack of subtlety when it comes to the subject matter are still there, leaving Carney’s film the same kind of different crap that the genre has been known for. Hounsou’s enigmatic performance, as well as solid production quality are good starts, but we’re going to need more originality to see the light of these life-affirming messages that constantly miss their mark.

4/10

The Stray

The long distance move of a family on the mend, has them seeking help in the most unusual of places. ‘The Stray’ tells the true story of how a stray dog, named “Pluto,” comes out of nowhere and impacts the Davis family, who are struggling to find happiness within their home in many ways. In just a short time, Pluto the “wonderdog” manages quite an impact in saving a toddler, bringing comfort and companionship to a hurting 9-year-old boy, helping restore a marriage, and repairing a broken father-son relationship that remains on the rocks. Pluto is not only a guard dog; he’s a guardian angel. Sometimes help comes from the most unlikely places. Sometimes our prayers get answered in strange ways. Sometimes one dog can change everything. ‘The Stray’s is written and directed by Mitch Davis, and is rated PG for thematic elements including a scene involving peril.

The most credible of screenwriters can take a sour script and make it entertaining for all of the right reasons. They are master magicians at taking any kind of negative within the story and adapting it for proper comprehension at the viewer’s request. Even still though, there’s an even bigger problem when said writer is the real life father depicted in the movie, as it kind of becomes a conflict of interests, for what might be entertaining to him could be lagging to the audience who take it all in. That’s the biggest in a funnel of problems that overtakes a movie like ‘The Stray’, the latest sappy religious flick intended to tug at the heartstrings of its viewers without earning the dramatic pulse necessary in giving its biographical details merit. I don’t want to take the joy away from the Davis family, particularly Mitch, for him thinking this film was a surefire hit that just had to be made, but his film is as boring as changing the filter from a dryer. It’s 82 minutes of corny atmospheric sludge that feels disingenuous behind every turn and feels hollow in progression the closer that you get to it. I have been stuck with a few of these religious films every year, and ‘The Stray’ feels like it has the least to say or do to justify why its intended audience should be entertained by its story.

The film and real life setting is the early 90’s, and thankfully this designation makes it a little easier to swallow why some of the parents in the film are making some incredibly inhumane decisions. For one, there’s a scene when the youngest daughter of the Davis’s, 4-year-old Mackenzie manages to walk right off of their property with these two parents occupied elsewhere. I’m not going to say these are awful parents, but instead focus on the scene when she is found at the park with adults all around her. The father pulls up, grabs her, and brings her into the car. Did no one ask questions why this girl is missing in the first place? Does everyone believe that this is indeed the father of said child because he hugged her? Who cares though, right? Another convenience of this impeccable setting is the camping scene in which Mitch takes his son and two other boys he just met on a long-distance camping trip. Mitch meets their fathers and immediately asks to take them away for the weekend. This doesn’t seem strange to anyone, huh? Maybe my problem is that I’m stuck in 2017 and I can’t think outside of the box to reach the logical stem that is 90’s mentality.

Then there’s the padding of the screenplay that seems well determined to reach its timely goal by extending the necessities of every scene. Sometimes less is more when a scene has nothing of substance to add to the unfurling of the plot, but in Davis’s film we are treated a barrage of what has to be improv. I say that because I can’t believe for a second that any credible writer could extend a ‘Shit your pants’ gag for over two minutes. The focus as a whole for the film seems immensely in the wrong place, silencing or omitting out the title character from every scene except his first and last scene. I was waiting for something more to appear out of thin air for involvement, but the film just kind of forgets about him until it is required to bring him up for the emotionally stirring finale that this film shits the bed on. As for the lightning scene itself, it’s humorous to think even for a second that a studio would greenlight a scene visually depicting kids being fried by lightning, and even more laughable is its effect on them. These kids walk off lightning like it’s a bruised elbow, leaving little suspense or dramatic tension in the way of superman-like healing powers.

The production quality is very underwhelming, choosing some slightly risky avenues of filmmaking that never pay off because of its limited funding. For starters, the camera work is very agitating, taking the annoyances of handheld camera work to new lows with eye level heights that intend to put us in the shoes of our younger cast members. It’s clear that this cameraman had very little handle from a height that is much smaller that he or she is probably used to because there’s all of this shaking that feels like twitching that comes through in their sequencing. If this wasn’t enough, the editing would rather take the easy way out than do its part to help the bewildering decisions that came with crafting personal takes. These are the scenes that usually go back and forth between characters, establishing several cuts in editing that helps the free-flowing nature of a scene seamlessly. Unfortunately, the film leaves the camera on for some long takes in scenes, a fact that could work with better acting and even more importantly less extreme close-ups on the faces of every little boy. The camera work weaves its way in and out of every character like we are supposed to be intimate with them, a thought process that I would rather not approach with a majority of the ensemble being impressionable youths. When there’s adults and kids in a scene together? FORGET IT. The jarring movements of high-and-low will have you visually feeling like you are on a roller-coaster that doesn’t know when to quit, unfortunately I didn’t either.

What I did take positively from the film is at least the attempt to focus on the crumbling of this family and leaving the religion of the production to just passing mentions. I’m not someone who condemns religion in films, but it should at least serve a purpose. The use here is obvious, and thankfully we are never treated to a sermon of hymns that go overboard in hammering home their Jesus narrative. The pacing is decent enough, despite an easy twenty minutes that could easily be cut from this film in introducing one-off characters that never show up again. The acting for the film is far from anything award-worthy, and for the most part, the dialogue reads go by like a Ben Stein impression contest, but Sarah Lancaster has her grip firmly on the pulse of authenticity, emoting Michelle Davis like an actual human being and not a stereotype for the plot. She has great capability with the tears, and with a more firmly developed scene, her emotional release could warrant some goosebumps from the audience watching beyond.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Stray’ might not be the worst or most preaching of the religious exploitation films that I have seen, but it sticks to the tradition of undercooked narratives with a tedious experimental side to filmmaking that keeps that we’ve come to expect from these limited releases. Despite it being a true story, there’s so much about Davis’s reflections that feel manufactured for film, relenting to a side of family importance that takes the ridiculousness in continuing to search for a consistent direction in script and tone that it can (for lack of a better word) faithfully pursue.

3/10

My Little Pony: The Movie

The Mane 6 are back, this time to be given a big screen adaptation of the popular 80’s and 90’s animated show of the same name. In ‘My Little Pony: The Movie’, a new dark force threatens the inhabitants of Ponyville, and the Mane 6 ; Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rarity ; embark on an unforgettable journey beyond Equestria where they meet new friends, luxurious landscapes, and exciting mental and physical challenges on a quest to use the magic of friendship that will save their home. The “My Little Pony” movie will feature all new music with the Mane Six characters voiced by Tara Strong, Cathy Weseluck, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain and Ashleigh Ball. ‘My Little Pony: The Movie’ is directed by Jayson Thiessen, the director of three previous My Little Pony movie before, and is rated PG for mild action and scenes of peril.

Surprising or not, the ‘My Little Pony’ universe is a difficult sell to a teenage boy who was into horror movies and professional wrestling. It’s even more difficult of a sell to a 32 year old man required to sit through it in order to discuss and break it down with all of his readers. ‘My Little Pony: The Movie’ is 98 minutes of film that feels like an eternity. It’s this way because there hasn’t been a film this year that I was lesser interested in than this one, and it’s something that feels like a punishment to anyone who hasn’t before endured the world of Equestria and all of its colorful characters. This film isn’t just a bore to me, but it’s one that adds little to make it standout in the way of crossover power to those teenage boys who have now grown up to be fathers. A talented kids movie today can reel in its opposing audiences with a combination of intelligence and risky humor that can sometimes aim its intent well over the head of youthful audiences who don’t quite understand. But there was never a moment when my investment paid off in the ways that quieted my stereotypical attitude towards this franchise, making this one of the truly more insufferable sits that I have endured in 2017.

The plot is pretty atypical, in that if you have seen one 90’s animated adventure film, you’ve seen them all. This typically revolves around an antagonist character who shows up to wreak havoc on the backdrop of the film, expelling the central protagonists to go on a cross-country journey to return home bigger and better than before. There are so many outlines like this in kids movies that it feels like a waste of time to even run them all down, instead I will focus on what this movie proved to me. The ponies themselves have flying power, but never choose to use it to get them out of some pretty error-filled leaps in logic when it comes to imprisonment. I also learned that sometimes it’s better to cower or hide when it comes to building up characters that the film requires to grow by the final confrontation. Because so many of these characters blended together in terms of traits and overall personality, I looked forward to any and every time that the antagonist for the movie popped up to spice things up a bit. I’m grateful that I didn’t have to see this movie in the theater because it took me three different continuations to finish the film, and in summary I can say that this is a script in versatility that doesn’t move half as far as its characters do throughout it. Hammering this thought home is an overload of padding that comes in the form of song.

Much to the chagrin of music lovers everywhere, this film is no slouch when it comes to offering a multi-disc soundtrack that the kiddies will leave on repeat until their Ipods collapse. In the first act, there’s a song or two that doesn’t hinder the fluidity nor the continuity of the film’s pacing, but in the second act this becomes a chore to have to endure because the script stops every five minutes to launch a track that summarizes everything that we have learned over the last few minutes, in case kids are too stupid to keep up (The producer’s thoughts, not mine). The songs themselves don’t lend too much to creativity or imagination that studios like Pixar and Dreamworks have immersed themselves in, and after about ten of this abysmal tracks, I was moaning every time a new one came on. Songs like these should be used to further teach the backstories of some new characters to both fans and non-fans of the series, but it’s another in the long line of wasted opportunities that the film constantly drops the ball on.

Where the few positives do kick in is in the visually appealing animation for the movie that still feels like a faithful homage to the 90’s, in all of its pre-three dimensional days. Do I wish the film could’ve advanced and possibly joined the rest of animated civilization? YES, but the vibrancy of this rainbow coalition and the detail that went into illustrating some eye-catching backdrops are certainly more than enough to stay committed to what they’ve mastered in over two decades. The movements of the characters are still a little slow, a fact that has bothered me ever since I caught a few glimpses of this franchise as a teen, but I can forgive this artistic direction in favor of a film that offers a solid parallel of ever-changing landscapes that never limit itself to just one principal setting. It is refreshing to see a film that doesn’t feel pressured to joining the fray of computer-generated look-a-likes that are ever the fray anymore, and I will take this rare opportunity to commend this film for sticking to where it came from.

As far as performances go, the film does have a surprisingly unlimited amount of top-name celebrities that lend their voices to their animated counterparts. Kristin Chenoweth feels like she was born to be one of these ponies. As Princess Skystar, she omits the squeaky register that only until now has lacked real necessity in her roles, but here she feels right at home. Michael Pena is solid as the comic relief of the movie, Grubber, as he did give me a couple of laughs that while they weren’t the highest brow of intellectual material, did bring out the kid in me for those few split seconds. Emily Blunt is also noteworthy in the as Tempest Shadow, the very threat that has taken over the town by air. I mentioned earlier that Tempest is the breath of fresh air during some truly vapid leaps of screen time between the annoying ponies, and it feeds into more that she is the sole direction when the film breaks away from its squeaky clean image, a fact that required much more emphasis and focus not only to Blunt’s investment but also to Tempest’s importance in getting across the feeling of vulnerability that she casts upon her opponents.

THE VERDICT – ‘My Little Pony: The Movie’ can’t get over the broad bar of corny meandering and snail’s pacing that could add something resourceful to the potential of a visually stimulating two-dimensional classic style. Mainly, there’s nothing necessary about this film. It doesn’t hammer home a strong internal message, nor does it inspire its youthful audience into anything but an early bed time. This is the kind of film that parents hold a lasting grudge towards their children, for making them suffer through nearly 100 minutes of soul-crushing product placement. I too feel that anger, except I don’t have a child, and still had to endure it. You can imagine my boiling pot right now.

3/10

The Lego Ninjago Movie

The world of childhood imagination comes to life once again, this time in the art of the ninja underworld in ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’. the battle for NINJAGO City calls to action young Master Builder Lloyd, aka the Green Ninja (Dave Franco), along with his friends, who are all secret ninja warriors. Led by Master Wu (Jackie Chan), as wise-cracking as he is wise, they must defeat evil warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), the Worst Guy Ever, who also happens to be Lloyd’s dad. Pitting mech against mech and father against son, the epic showdown will test this fierce but undisciplined team of modern-day ninjas who must learn to check their egos and pull together to unleash their inner power of Spinjitzu respectfully. ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is directed by first-timer Charlie Bean, and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

The lively innocence of the lego world is back for a third helping of childlike storytelling and imagination like only they can provide. Over the last couple of years, the lego property has given us not just exciting kids pictures, but also something that even the oldest of family members can enjoy with timely humor and visual spectrums that are second to none. This time the property takes advantage of one of their most popular toy lines, in the Lego Ninjago Force. The line itself has a television show that currently airs, and while I don’t think it is imperative that you must watch that show to get the references here, the film more than feeds into the aspects of that show, offering plenty of winks and nods to the source material. The biggest problem that this film faces is not competition from a lackluster Summer of underwhelming kids movies, but within itself and how it fares to 2014’s ‘The Lego Movie’ and 2017’s ‘The Lego Batman Movie’. To have two of these films in the same year will offer likely comparisons, and while ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is still a fun dip in immersive waters, it fails to hold the consistency of its predecessors, making this the Iron Fist of the Lego film world.

Lets get the positives out of the way first, and focus on the visual presentations which once again thrill and awe us with flawless animation. A majority of this film is again used with the lego toy line, and it really never fails to amaze me just how detailed the backdrops and landscapes detail even the most minute of properties to get it all correct. What’s impressive to me here isn’t so much the visual features, which are oscar-worthy, but more in the camera work that feels like it is at its most experimental peak with the series. Considering there is so much going on with so many monsters and gigantic robots flying through the air, the camera work follows along cohesively without too much shaking camera effects to throw us off. Throughout the weaving of building and towers, you really get a sense of the urgency that carries itself in the atmospheres, and it all really just makes you wish these tiers in effects were able to be used more effectively in live action genre flicks. The color palate is also jaw-dropping, especially with the wardrobes of the characters who come across as a Power Rangers of sorts with their varying colors to represent their inner gifts.

With the setting, the setup is the same as ‘The Lego Movie’, and for anyone who saw that film you will understand the deeper intention of what is really going on here. My problem with it however, is that once you understand the real life setting of where this is all taking place and between what characters in the movie, it starts to add up how this wouldn’t be possible in such a limited amount of space. Even the widest suspension of disbelief doesn’t sync accordingly to the kind of pulled back practicality that the first film in this series showed us, and I would’ve been fine with this just being a stand alone animation film that doesn’t depend on human architects to tell its story. Aside from this, I never had a problem with anything included within this stage. Even the C.G additional work is used in such a practicality that it never overrides or feels jarringly artificial when compared to the practical properties of these toys. It proves once again that Lego is doing things with animation that serves them as the only consistent competition to Pixar at this point.

Where the film does go wrong for me is during the second act, in which we feel the sacrifice of humor for a more enveloping dramatic swing on the forefront. Up until this point, the first act was the very best intro in the series for my money, complete with smooth pacing and articulate exposition. But the second act makes us all feel the sharp turns that seven different screenwriters on the same set can push it. Too many cooks in the kitchen is one expression, but these cooks jerk this story harshly to a setting and direction in plot that make it feel like two opposing properties are being conjoined together. I certainly have no problem with a film giving us a heartfelt center, and the material for father and son is as real as anything could possibly get, but too much reliance upon that sentimentality spoils the atmosphere in which it once felt like anything could be discussed and dissected even in the name of harsh consequences. This period of the film feels so sharply dry and opposing that of whoever wrote the first forty minutes of the movie, and I wish it hadn’t tried to override so much of what made it a delightful sit early on. Does it get any better in the finale? Kind of. It’s at least back to the kind of tone that we felt in the first half of the movie, but this too makes the second act stick out even more for its jarringly compromising disposition towards the rest of the film.

On some of that comedy, there are some quick-cuts that burned deep within my enjoyment early on, but the handicaps of repetition can sometimes make this feel like a Seth Macfarlane production. If one thing is clear, it’s that this film doesn’t have the kind of endless material in satirical firepower that ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ did, but the decision to slow the jokes down to grant the viewer more time to soak everything in is much appreciated in not being rushed to the next scene. This is vital not only to the pacing of the overall storytelling, but also to the joke’s release, for when you have more time to omit the laughter that those jokes deserve, you don’t have to worry about missing the start of the next one. If you did miss a particular joke, fear not, the film will say it at least one or two more times to remind you how good it hit the first time. It feels like a friend who launched a zinger, but then burned it into the atmosphere of redundancy, each time it’s being told losing a little bit more of its offensive sting.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ might be the current black sheep in the trilogy of Lego offerings, but it’s only because the precedent set by the first two films was exceptionally high in bringing together the universes of kids and adults in the theater. The film’s biggest obstacle is overcoming too many minds coming together under the same script that can derive and contradict the film’s smooth beginning and ending, making a middle that is every bit as sentimental as it is comically dry. Even still, the artistic expression is still there, and the film’s scope in presentation snaps together like its miniature counterparts. Two films in one year might be too much for this property, and unfortunately this one takes the bite in head-to-head competition.

6/10

Home Again

The trials and tribulations of A newly established single Mother prove that it is A necessity to go ‘Home Again’. The film proves to be A generational affair, with Hallie Meyers-Shyer writing and directing, while her Mother and critically acclaimed author Nancy Meyes is at the helm of producing. It stars Reese Witherspoon as Alice Kinney in a modern day romantic comedy. Recently separated from her husband Austen, (Michael Sheen), Alice decides to start over by moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles with her two young daughters. During a night out on her 40th birthday, Alice meets three aspiring filmmakers who happen to be in need of a place to live. Alice agrees to let the guys stay in her guest house temporarily, but the arrangement ends up unfolding in unexpected ways. Alice’s unlikely new family and new romance comes to a crashing halt when her ex-husband shows up, suitcase in hand, expecting to make things right with the love of his life. ‘Home Again’ is rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material.

Being A film critic has taught me to examine and appreciate the many aspects of film that go into making A finished product. Even in movies that I despise, I can usually garner A taste for A particular area of production that stands out strongly against the rest. It’s no secret that I have never been much of A fan of Nancy Meyers as A writer or filmmaker, and her daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, seems determined to keep the flame burning for lifeless cinema that sacrifices plot for bold and vibrant cinematography whose only strength is mimicking A Zoloft commercial. ‘Home Again’ is A paper ice cream cone. Sure, there are those flavors of ice cream that we love and that we stay away from when it comes to our favorite frozen treat, but the only kind of flavor response that I received from Hallie’s intro to the world of film is that from A tasteless bite that left me searching for anything to positively hang my taste buds on. This film obviously feels close to Hallie, in an art imitating life kind of way, with her (like Alice) having two famous parents and kind of articulating the circumstances that come with such an inheritance. In this instance, real life doesn’t make for that compelling of entertainment, and if home is truly where the heart is, this heart loses its beat almost immediately from the opening shot.

By the second act of this film, it’s pretty obvious where this all is headed; an endless array of untapped results and weightless consequences that do little to test the boundaries of compelling suspense. This screenplay is A strange one because to me it feels like Hallie almost forgets to translate real life drama into something for an audience first-and-foremost, and I found the entirety of this 92 minutes to be dry and lacking of anything manipulated for audience response. We just kind of watch these characters circle around themselves repeatedly in their rich and posh surroundings, appealing to A very minimal one percent who probably don’t go out to see movies anyway. The film throws all of its chips into this love triangle between Alice, Austen and Harry, but does little along the way to build up what each man means to Alice and her ever-changing life. Because the film gives us very little focus on Alice alone and by herself, we’re never given anything to hang the positives and negatives of each suitor on in terms of effect on her. I think Austen is supposed to be the antagonist but because the Hallie feels too timid to play it safe as A screenwriter, Alice is propelled to choose between two men who are essentially equal in underwritten exposition, instead choosing to focus on no shortage of musical montages to make up for how little this film actually progresses.

Everything that I just mentioned could probably be fixed with some chances that the film needed to take to exert some kind of drama in the ever-growing complacency that the film creates for itself. There are plenty of opportunities between the second and third acts that hint at something brewing beneath the surface of this trio of roommates that Alice houses, but their movements are for nothing and silenced without much purpose to the film alluding to them. When the film’s biggest dramatic pull and focus comes from one of the daughter’s upcoming school play, you know the kind of sleeper that you’re dealing with. The pacing of events within the plot isn’t half bad, but the decision to attack so many compelling possibilities at only face value is A mistake that makes this film feel like A forceful spoon-feeding around the one hour mark. It was at this point where ‘Home Again’ lost me for good, and I begged desperately for the kind of emotional clarity that the character of Alice simply never gets by an ending that is as forgettable as it is safe.

The production feels hollow and artificial in trying to capture the California sunny landscapes, but will only be deemed evident by someone like myself who studies A film’s visual specter first. One person might look at this film and be transfixed by its appeal visually in the rich and the famous lifestyles, but this overly-illuminated lighting used often in romantic comedies feel like they do more harm than good in their intention, and trespass the boundaries of what is visually tasteful. Because the lighting is so loud, it gives off that feeling of A television’s tint being turned all the way up, blending light colors of clothing and walls together in the least visually appealing of methods. The editing settles for the fade-to-black kind of style instead of sticking to what works in quick-cuts for scene-to-scene transitions. What this decision does is divide the anatomy of each scene, forcing them into these individual pieces instead of one cohesive movement that gel together to meet the same goal.

Even if they are all far better than the material that they are acting out, the collaborative cast of actors in the film are enjoyable enough to watch bounce figuratively and literally off of each other. Reese Witherspoon still holds the female audience firmly in her grasp, but the character of Alice feels like something that she is light years ahead of, for better or worse. You care for her character, but Witherspoon’s energy feels like she is doing A favor instead of pursuing A passion project, and she’s alright but nothing memorable for an Oscar winner. Jon Rudnitsky as George is far and away my favorite aspect of not only the cast, but the entire film. Rudnitsky plays George with patience, and that’s something that is gravely important in A film that feels desperate to play into the stereotype outlines of each and every character. He’s kind of established as the brains of this trio, but he’s also the very pulse of logic when it comes to attacking some laughably bad dialogue that he overcomes. If there is one thing that we should take away from this film, it’s that Jon has a future, and I would prefer that future happen immediately so that we can forget about the kind of paper flavor of depth that he was presented here.

THE VERDICT – I myself couldn’t wait to get home again from ‘Home Again’. Hallie Meyers-Shyer’s film breeds pretentious and upper class privilege, orchestrating such A wasteful opportunity of girls night cinema and an A-list leading lady. Overcoming the adversity of inanities or vanilla ramblings, this romantic comedy doesn’t have enough grip or pulse by the director to succeed in either genre, breeding an overabundance of artificiality with each passing moment. If this is A portrait to her parents, it’s clear that she remembers much, but learned so little.

3/10

Brigsby Bear

The happiness of a child lies in the weekly broadcast of his favorite furry animal named ‘Brigsby Bear’. First time filmmaker Dave McCary brings to us his film starring one of the film’s writers, Kyle Mooney as James, a thirty-something man-child who is obsessed with his favorite television show, owning every cassette, and several pieces of memorabilia. After the show’s untimely cancellation, James’s life takes a turn for the extreme, forcing the number one fan to now finish the show himself, for better or worse. Along the way, James must learn to cope with the realities of a new world that he knows nothing about because he has never stepped foot outside of his protective weekly bubble. ‘Brigsby Bear’ is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying, and teams up the acclaimed Saturday Night Live duo once more of Mooney and Beck Bennett.

Now that you’ve read my synopsis for ‘Brigsby Bear’, you should know that everything that you think you know about this movie is only an illusion. This is very much an independent dramedy that is more clever than what meets the eye. The plot and ensuing story surrounding it revolve around this surprising shock twist that takes place within the opening fifteen minutes of this film that completely blew my mind, changing the tone and material alike, and then proceeding on from there as A result of this big bang. This is a touch that is certainly nothing groundbreaking or original, but it does lend itself to the confidence that the duo of McCary and Mooney possess in their film to appeal to the audience that they have practically alienated themselves from, with anyone thinking this was going to be a goofball comedy similar to Mooney’s SNL stick. For Mooney, this is A Chance to breakout from a stereotype that has garnered him minimal time on that show, and to trade it in for a hearty performance that proves he is a force to be reckoned with when compared to the barrage of SNL greats that have and have not gone on to make a name for themselves when they no longer go live at 11:30 PM on Saturday night.

Once that plot twist that I mentioned happens early on during the first act, it feels very much like the film is playing into our nostalgia as an audience for the kinds of television show characters and worlds alike that we immersed ourselves in when we the young adolescent age, and pulled the wool from James eyes in the same manner that all of us ensued when we were forced to grow up. This is of course A story with A bit more devastation to it, and that mood layers itself with A screenplay that I never would’ve expected from the guys in The Lonely Island of all things. The film does stay a bit one note remedially, hinting at a bigger picture in reveal that those few possible subplots never pursue with much more persistence. There were a few aspects with the production of this television show that raised a few good questions in my mind, but it just felt like me making the direction into something that never became. This is a 92 minute brief engagement, so to say that this film sticks close to its three act structure, is putting it firmly. With that said, I can’t say that I was ever bored or disengaged from this film, and my fear of this man-child’s fragile psyche playing into this tight-rope of nerves between past and present that has brought him to this day, always kept me watching closely for the cause-and-effect that a sheltered life can leave on the mind of a dreamer with miles to travel creatively.

McCary’s film embraces the concepts of James past metaphorically through the eyes of the bear, so when the idea pops into his head to continue on with the show, it not only feels like A longing for his sheltered past, but also a halting of progress for his ability to move on, a concept that the film stands firmly at on the crossroads of repetition and influence. On the latter, this film becomes kind of this character study for James and how his interaction with other kids his age can feel can come across as mimicking. He’s only known this one thing for the entirety of his life, so it feels like the typical character from another world who is being taught our way of life for the first time, except here it warrants those concepts because we feel a great empathetic pull for James and the new experiences that he will never ever fully grasp for being late to the fold because of his limited past. That’s why the first half of the film was marginally better than the second half for me; its deranged nature comes across as the factor that gives it wings, and once that’s put away for good, the film’s moral framing hints that it’s OK for James to feel this reliant on Brigsby, A motion that I found difficult to cope with for the well being mentally of this nearly closed book.

The aesthetic touch is perhaps some of my favorite aspects of McCary’s film, as the television show within this movie feels like a callback to 80’s public access productions where the minimal money reaped the bigger monetary reward. Because so much of ‘Brigsby Bear’ feels cheap in design, it caters to the spandex generation of children who grew up knowing and loving shows with this kind of terribly under-utilized effects and dated synth-pop musical score to boost. The Lonely Island are known for this kind of thing, but while we as an audience might giggle from time-to-time, wondering what the appeal is to it, the film very much envelopes itself into every character that it comes into contact with, framing Brigsby as an irresistible hero just waiting to be believed in by all who take on his VHS challenge.

Kyle Mooney can rest assured that his performance as James will be the memorable role for him that turned the tide in his once one-dimensional career into A remarkable transformation as an acting darling. In James, we embrace a delivery from Mooney that is soft and gentle like a child, but rebellious and crass in the defiance of an expanding teen. With a lesser actor, this would come across as A condescending lead, playing more into a gimmick rather than an immersing, but Mooney’s shy and bashful delivery prove that he is the right man for the job, being not fully aware of the terrible things that have transpired in his early career. This makes him A character who is easy to get behind and embrace because we never like to see bad things happen to children, A thought that is ludicrous considering Mooney is 32 years old, but it’s A testament to how committed he embraced this cryptic adolescent. Handing in supporting turns are Clare Danes , Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear, and Matt Walsh, A usual one line cameo artist who finally gets A major helping in this script. Everyone plays a pivotal role in James life, but it’s great to see so many memorable faces committing to something off-screen as different for A supposed comedy like this.

THE VERDICT – Make no mistakes about it, this bear isn’t soft or cuddly, it’s an earnestly eye-opening look at the dangers of addiction that never needs drugs or alcohol to roar with other cautionary tales. Mooney’s performance is right on cue, balancing the sentimental with the synthetic, and McCary takes a huge leap in the director’s race in only his first feature film. The lack of comedy might alienate some of its audience, but if you stay patient, this unusually poignant melancholic plot will steal your heart and your respect. Everything you want with nothing you are expecting. The less you know going in, the better.

7/10

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

The gang of furry friends and lovable creatures are back, this time to do something much more urgent than cracking nuts, in ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’. Two years after the original movie, Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) and his friends, Buddy (Tom Kenny), Andie (Katherine Heigl) and Precious (Maya Rudolph) discover that the mayor (Bobby Moynihan) of Oakton City is cracking one big hustle to build a giant yet quite-shabby amusement park, which in turn will bulldoze their home, which is the city park, and it’s up to them and the rest of the park animals to stop the mayor, along with his daughter and a mad animal control officer from getting away with his scheme, and take back the park. ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’ is written and directed by Cal Brunker in his first big budget presentation, and is rated PG for action and some rude humor.

Considering it was three years ago and arguably the very worst animated film of the year, ‘The Nut Job’ offers very little that comes to memory when I think about it now, and while this same problem might suffer the same fate with its unnecessary sequel, I can happily say that this is an improvement for the series that nearly meets the requirements to be an enlightening and entertaining movie for kids. Make no mistakes about it, some of the same problems involving inferior animation, limited storytelling involving cliche plot, and of course plain Jane characters who have little or no exposition for their respective arcs. Those problems are still there, but what ‘The Nut Job 2’ has going for it is that it truly feels like the makers of this film threw away all of the rules and just didn’t care as long as it was memorable. It attains this status at least temporarily because of a third act that completely flew off of the rails, and serves as a hotbed of anarchy that doesn’t stop until the credits end. That could be where this franchise finds its voice, even if it as at the hands of another sort-of loss with the overall finished product. The positive is that it isn’t a devastating one, and at least gives me some hope that a third film could turn everything around for this tortured story and characters if they just throw out the tired formula of what makes a good kids movie.

Yes, the animation continues to underwhelm, despite some much needed improvements to the backdrops that speak to that French artistic visionary of animation designs. Where this positive sticks out like a sore thumb is in the character dimensions and outlines in design that make the pop to the eye for all of the wrong reasons. Open Road Films still struggle when it comes to the live action movements of its animated characters, with everything from their speech patterns being dramatically off from what is coming out of their mouths, to the expressions on faces that don’t feel as detailed when compared to the flock of kids movies that are setting precedents today. But what those landscapes do with precision in beauty is float a dreamscape full of colorful residence that really pop in front of the camera. I can remember the first film being an ugly one because its backgrounds weren’t used accordingly enough to immerse the audience in this particular world, but thankfully ‘Nutty By Nature’ doesn’t have this problem, as it leaves little to the imagination of what can be done with story when it has a beautiful canvas to play out on.

This is really where the film suffers the greatest for me, because the first two acts of this movie are really just throwing a bunch of tired ideas at the screen and seeing what sticks. As seen before, there is the evil mayor of the town who has somehow gotten voted in despite breaking every zoning code, as well as human right known to man, but none of that matters because every kids movie needs a villain right? The film knows how overblown and laughably bare this antagonist feels because it chooses to focus so little of its 80 minute run time on him and his evil child who had some real possibilities when laid out in material that could’ve laid into the effects that bad parenting have on their spawns. I mentioned that this film barely breaks an hour, and what little of material that the film does try to progress forward is often times slowed down to a grinding halt when a new character is introduced, and this film has no shortage of them. Instead of presenting their introductions in smooth detail, the film supplies us with no fewer than three exposition montages that bring their stories up to date to this moment, and whether or not you agree with me that this feels like sloppy character introductions, you can’t debate that this method feels redundant by the second time it is brought up. The last half hour is easily the climax for my interest in this movie because it turns into kind of a shit show firework that lights the longest fuse to keep the madness running. I did laugh quite a few times during this part not only for the breaking of logic that was being displayed so non-chalantly, but because there are winks to some pretty sinisterly occurances that feel like the appropriate bone thrown to adults who have had to endure this series up to this point. That is what I want to see more of, and I hope that if there is a Nut Job 3, that it takes the risks that will award it the single craziest scene that I have seen in a kids movie in quite a long time.

As for the performances, there is certainly no shortage of credible actors and actresses who lend their familiar tones to these characters. Will Arnett has a vocal range that was made for children’s movies, emoting Surly as a know-it-all who sometimes gets carried away with his brash personality. Arnett takes this film on his back and carries it when it feels like no one else is getting a chance to. On that direction, I point to Katherine Heigl and Jeff Dunham who despite their generous influence on this script, underplay every scene-stealing opportunity that the movie gives them. Dunham in particular is the surprise here because his whole stand-up stick is based around vocalizing dummies that he brings on stage, but his presence isn’t enough here with energy in delivery to ever compliment his talented male lead. Jackie Chan was a solid addition as a mouse who is anything but just cute, but his character is introduced almost to the point of insult stereotypes, with oriental music and Chinatown backdrop being present to his arrival. The character almost becomes a running joke of itself before we ever learn anything about him, and that’s truly unfortunate for Chan, as his career is kind of in a comeback mode with a lot of buzz surrounding the upcoming ‘Ninjago Lego Movie’ and ‘The Foreigner’. Arnett sets the table, but it often feels like others are afraid to eat off of it, a true disappointment to a cast of A-listers who could’ve made their presence felt immensely.

THE VERDICT – It couldn’t have gotten worse than 2014’s ‘The Nut Job’, and thankfully it didn’t. ‘The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature’ still lacks the kind of creative bite in consistency to ever compete with the smarter, more ambitious competition of the genre, but the nourishment of this nut wasn’t as far of a reach when presented with an improvement in aspects of animation, as well as a leaning on the values of friendship that make the hearty center something more with this sequel. Maybe it’s the fact that I just saw ‘The Emoji Movie’ two weeks ago, but this film didn’t upset me anywhere near to the point that I was expecting, and hopefully the next nut will fall even further from this tree of familiarity.

5/10