Wonder Park

Directed By Dylan Brown

Starring – Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Kenan Thompson

The Plot – June (Denski), an optimistic, imaginative girl, discovers an incredible amusement park called Wonderland hidden in the woods. The park is full of fantastical rides and talking, funny animals , only the park is in disarray. June soon discovers the park came from her imagination and she’s the only one who can fix it, so she bands together with the animals to save this magical place and bring back the wonder in Wonderland.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and action

POSITIVES

– Eye fetching detail in animation. While there were some flaws with the character detailing, which left things like mouth movements and reactionary impulses feeling a bit delayed, the set designs and coloring pallet instill a vibrant sense of imagination to the product that puts the wonder in “Wonder Park”. Particularly in the dynamic between the grey undertones of the deceased park, which give it a decayed look, and the rich tapestry of it when it lives and thrives, we get a visual rendering of the atmosphere that the film has trouble translating into personal feelings. Likewise, the immense set designs and creativity behind some of the rides made it feel experimental like a Sims game brought to the big screen, all the while leaving valued minutes to devote to the mechanics of such unorthodox inventions.

– A positive message earned. As to where most kids movies these days harvest a personal message that often feels tacked on or contradictive to what is transpiring in the movie, the film’s desire to inspire and celebrate creativity is something that burns translucently throughout, and gives the film such honorable intentions that should echo with every member of the family. The film crafts the ideals of dreams as this sort of physical presence in our lives that breathe with the kind of energy that we put into them, and if those ambitions are shelved, Wonder Park represents that on a grand scale. Visual metaphors combined with heart in message, gives this story something deeper to reach for than the conventional kids movie we have come to expect.

– Filmed in 2.39:1 scope aspect ratio. This is only the fifth time that Paramount has attempted this with an animated property, but I think it pays off not only in capturing the immensity of the park itself, but also the madness associated with the mood inside. These establishing shots do so much more for the movie than the meandered script ever does, and it’s proof that camera stylings deserve consideration even in an animated setting, if only for the way it hooks the audience in to its mayhem before it breaks their trust. Read on.

NEGATIVES

– One problem ties to everything. When I look back on all of the things wrong with “Wonder Park”, the one common motive is because of a barely 78 minute run time that condenses every possible theme and subplot that the film tries to harvest. On top of it, the pacing is horrendously erratic, feeling like the movie is constantly on fast forward through skewered lines of dialogue that are constantly rushed, as well as the antsy setting that changes every thirty seconds. After a while, this film gave me a headache to even concentrate on it, and it establishes firmly the argument against easy time sits for the sake of an antsy audience.

– The dropped ball of dramatic pulse. One subplot in the film revolves around grieving, and actually intrigued me as to what the film could do with such heavy levity that develops depth for a movie like this. But it never materializes because the film and our central protagonist put it in the back of their minds to never be mentioned or touched upon again, and it wastes what could’ve been this movie’s “A Monster Calls” moment, complete with character maturity and epiphany that really allowed you to relate to the anything-but-engaging June character. Even worse than this, the film neatly tucks away this angle in the closing minutes, proving that if it did have any balls, they were left behind on one of the rides because this movie, like others, feels that kids are too stupid to grasp with loss.

– Undercooked material. The worst kind of kids movies are the ones where there are no redeeming laughs or material to at least you entertained while you sit through the rest of the movie that doesn’t measure up, and this is the case with “Wonder Park”, a movie so devoid of emotional response that it made me wonder if I was sedated. The humor not only fails in this movie, but it fails so bad that even the kids weren’t buying it in my theater. Even the cute noises and loud sounds that animated movies go to when they refuse to write anything clever weren’t working, and it just sort of makes every scene a chore to sit through when it’s reaching for something that so evidently isn’t there in the slightest.

– Zero character exposition. This is a strange one for me, because I didn’t feel like a movie could omit even its lead character from any kind of build that properly fleshes out her personality and moral character. When you think of June, you must ask yourself what you learned about her in the movie. For me, it’s that she loves theme parks, she loves her mother, and that she’s mechanically inclined. That’s it. These are things that you would probably pick up on if you spent ten minutes with the character in real life, but after spending this much time, the juice simply doesn’t warrant the squeeze. Aside from June, the other characters are just personalities instead of people. The film has so little desire to include them in anything meaningful or rendering that it just kind of reserves them to being these voices that never materialize as living, being things, and completes the underwhelming layer of character development that the script doesn’t waste time on.

– Obvious copyright ducking. The movie never says Wonder Park once in the film. Instead, it says Wonder World repeatedly. So why call it Wonder Park in the first place? Perhaps it’s because Disney owns the rights to Wonder World, and that the mention of it would cease the production of this film faster than you can say frozen Walt. Or here’s an idea, just refer to it as Wonder Park in the lines of dialogue, because ya know, IT IS THE TITLE OF THE MOVIE. This kind of sloppy execution is something that you would expect from an unknown studio, but for Nickelodeon Pictures to bring forth this cowardice, only reminds you of the bigger, better studio that is producing more meaningful pictures than this in its sleep.

– Production troubles. The movie is a chaotic mess, which may have been inevitable given its troubled production history. Paramount reportedly fired the original director in January 2018, when he was accused of “inappropriate and unwanted contact” with women. (Through his lawyer, he denied the charge.) He was replaced by a trio of filmmakers, none of whom getting directing credit. Five months later, the actor who voiced one of the park mascots, a narcoleptic bear named Boomer, also was replaced after sexual-misconduct allegations. Somewhere between those two events, the movie’s title was changed. One could write this off as a string of bad luck that occasionally catches up to film crew’s, but I call it a sign from a higher power telling them when it’s time to pack it in.

– Floundered voice work. Outside of the animated complexity of John Oliver voicing a romance riddled porcupine, the entirety of this heralded well known cast is wasted by a string of poorly directed and energetically lacking deliveries that highlight this as a paycheck only job. I probably shouldn’t say this about kid actors, but the 14-year-old Denski’s monotonous inspiration of this animated property lulls it down to a sense of dreary hypnotism that is anything but a compliment. As a protagonist, she lacks the kind of excitement associated with a character of her particular skillset, and gives us nothing to look forward to since this is where the movie spends the entirety of its time. Jennifer Garner also underwhelms again, bringing nothing of dimension or difference to her usual familiarity. Her and Thompson are probably the only two you can easily make out in the cast, and it’s a testament to the lack of experimentalism that they bring to the role that could otherwise open some new doors for the longevity of their shelf lives as stars.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

The Princess Bride

Directed By Rob Reiner

Starring – Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright

The Plot – A kindly grandfather (Peter Falk) sits down with his ill grandson (Fred Savage) and reads him a story. The story is one that has been passed down from father to son for generations. As the grandfather reads the story, the action comes alive. The story is a classic tale of love and adventure as the beautiful Buttercup (Wright), engaged to the odious Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), is kidnapped and held against her will in order to start a war, It is up to Westley (Elwes), her childhood beau, now returned as the Dread Pirate Roberts, to save her. On the way he meets a thief and his hired helpers, an accomplished swordsman and a huge, super strong giant, both of whom become Westley’s companions in his quest.

Rated PG for adult situations and language.

POSITIVES

– Practicality all around. A refreshing aspect in watching a film that is 32 years old is the collection of set designs and special effects that speak levels about a now forgotten age of creativity. Most of the set visuals in the film authenticate that stage presence, in that everything sticks out especially, giving each prop sufficient weight in the movement and influence of each scene. Likewise, all creature special effects are done with animatronics, and while this decision looks obvious by today’s standards, there’s no substitute for time devoted to craft. It gives focus to distinct features of each creature that would easily be glossed over with computer animation, as well as gives the actor something lively to interact with during scenes of tension.

– The magic of the lens. Many of the establishing shots here are GORGEOUS and full of wide angle immensity that would make you think much of it was shot on location, but in reality pay homage to the immersion of studio filmmaking that suspends disbelief. In particular, it’s the shots on the water, with a sprinkle of moonlight used to illuminate the ships in focus that peaked my interest and outlined a layer of focus to the importance of this storybook tale that is established in each capture. None of these scenes lack believability in scale, but are made that much more impressive when you consider they were done inside of a backlot studio, instilling distance in a stage with only water and a single light to inspire believability.

– One legendary line. While everyone has a favorite line of dialogue for the movie, my personal favorite has always been Inigo’s threatening menace behind “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die”, and as I’ve recently learned there’s quite a story behind it. Patankin, who played Inigo, had just recently lost his father to cancer in real life, and used the dramatic pull of the loss to channel the vengeance in delivering the line. What I love about this line is that it repeats throughout the film and manages to feel more focused the closer Inigo gets to his enemy, all the while standing out in a way tonally that feels other-worldly to the rest of the romantic comedy taking place around it.

– Stellar cast performances all around. Elwes is every little girl’s prince charming, exuberating a combination of confidence in swordplay and cool demeanor that make him irresistible as a protagonist. Patankin also commands the attention, riding this story arc of redemption that is equally as intriguing as the central plot rescuing of Robin Wright’s Buttercup. Patankin’s transformation throughout teaches us a lot about his tortured past, all the while never diminishing the intensity of Patankin’s roguish appeal. Aside from the two leading men, there are charming appearances from Billy Crystal, Andre The Giant, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, and of course Wallace Shawn, who gives my single favorite laugh of the film when laughing gets the best of him. Overall, it cements an ensemble effort that fires on every cylinder, giving ample time for each of the big names to shine with each character introduction.

– Management of dual narrative. Considering there are two stories running simultaneously throughout the film, it’s the incredible pacing and structure of each that astounded me in ways that other dual narratives today don’t equally balance out. While a majority of the film is set in the fantasy world itself, the three instances of Savage and Falk’s family characters are placed in a way that gives outline to the three act structure, and really pauses our interest in the fantasy when progression is at its peak. We, like Savage’s grandson character, can’t wait to jump right back into it, and in this regard the film transcends screen, in that we too are held at the mercy of Falk’s luring storytelling, giving us the audience a presence in this fairytale that feels like it’s being told to us exclusively.

– Stunning sword choreography. There’s much to give praise to here, but it all comes at the respect of Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson, who between them had been in the Olympics, Indiana Jones films, and eventually Lord of the Rings films. What’s so impressive is that not only is the swordplay fast between oppositions, but the foot work of the actors engaged manages to evade a barrage of branches, bricks, and rocks that we’re just waiting to see have an influence in this conflict. It never comes, and it’s a testament to the handling that was taken in preserving hand-to-hand authenticity, made even more impressive considering Elwes broke his toe on a four wheeler only hours before the scene was shot. Diamond and Anderson work magic on these big name actors, and because of such juggle enough testosterone and urgency to constantly raise the stakes.

– Constant 80’s nostalgia. One of my favorite aspects in watching a classic movie is the hints of dated pasts that could only reside in a particular decade, and there’s plenty to admire and even pause the film over here. I love the extra props like the all red and white Cheetos bag, as well as Fred Savage playing the Commodore 64 computer game “Hardball”. Each of these items add important perspective into Savage’s close-minded personality at the beginning of the film, coming off as a generation X slacker of sorts, who will eventually become more captivated into material that he condemned before it started. It’s a perk that is totally irrelevant to the film, but something that I like to mention because its objects and focuses have almost become time-stamped in the same way that the medieval age has in the story that Grandfather and Grandson are moving through.

– Meticulous in the humor. While juggling the content of romance, action, and family elements alike, this movie features plenty of hearty laughs in the form of modestly gentle and subordinate deliveries that never step on the straight story evolving around it. Similar to the structure of Mel Brooks (Who is in fact in the film) or Monty Python, the material doesn’t halt the progression of the narrative, an aspect that many modern comedy films could take a lesson from, in that improv humor is used as fluff for a two hour run time designation. Instead, “The Princess Bride” still values these moments of release, but does so in a way that never holds the story hostage, nor does it over-indulge in allowance, proving to us how comedy can work hand-in-hand with fantasy if the two can work as partners instead of adversaries over the screen.

NEGATIVES

– Horrendous sound mixing. One of the things that became obvious with this watch was the sloppy sound manipulation that the film tries to pass off onto the audience as synthetic. Several scenes throughout the film feature overheard dialogue that is said without any of the lips of characters moving, but none more prominent than that of Elwes back-riding scene of Andre The Giant. In just this scene alone, there are a few instances where the mixing takes advantage of a majority of Elwes head being shielded during long winded dialogue, but it flounders because the mouth is still as obvious as any close angle shot, and serves as one of two major problems that I had with the production of this picture.

– The other one. It’s not often that the production is the biggest hurdle for a film that I watch, but once again post-editing brings to light some disastrous decisions as to what’s left in the film. Several instances of production crew’s shadows being in a shot, boom microphones moving in and out of the tops of shots, and a landing pad during the first fight scene which is as obvious as a fart in church. I get that it’s the 80’s, so there’s some room for forgiveness in this respect, but if you’re going to ever deem a film as “A Timeless Classic”, then the production has to stand up to the forth-coming decades that it stands tall through, and sadly amateur mistakes like these keep the film from ever reaching its potential as one of the best films of the decade.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Directed By Mike Mitchell

Starring – Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett

The Plot – Reunites the heroes of Bricksburg in an all new action-packed adventure to save their beloved city. It’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are now facing a huge new threat: LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than it can be rebuilt. The battle to defeat the invaders and restore harmony to the LEGO universe will take Emmet (Pratt), Lucy (Banks), Batman (Will Arnett) and their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds, including a strange galaxy where everything is a musical. It will test their courage, creativity and Master Building skills, and reveal just how special they really are.

Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Endless imaginative animation. Since this is a sequel, the stakes and production should be twice as strong, and thanks to a collection of immensely detailed Lego structures and a variety of ever-changing landscapes and scenery, the film’s digitalization refuses to ever grow stale, all the while raising the bar respectively between two different worlds, real life and Lego, that offer enough contrast in character movements to flesh out the rules and engagements of each atmosphere. The color scheme is vibrant in depiction, offering a cornicopia of colorful explosion to constantly hold the attention and amazement of each respective age group.

– Character cameos. The first Lego Movie brought us the introduction to one of my favorite Batman’s of all time, but it’s nothing compared to the intelligence instilled in how the sequel incorporates some familiar faces into the Lego Universe. I won’t spoil anything, but the one that steals the show easily for me is a 90’s action icon who pops up twice in extremely creative and humorous ways, that may or may not be his best performance in years. Aside from him, there are appearances with everyone from superheroes, to sports stars, to teen heartthrobs, and even an easily recognizable actress to play Will Ferrell’s wife, that is just too perfect not to capitalize on.

– A completely brand new earworm of a soundtrack. While nothing reaches the replay value or adventurous spirit of something like “Everything is Awesome”, the musical numbers in the film offer plenty of balance and eclectic instrument progression that will surely craft a favorite for everyone. For my money, it’s definitely the appropriately titled “This Song Will Get Stuck In Your Head”, a building stadium anthem that not only pokes fun at the repetition of chorus used in most modern day pop music, but also speaks volumes to the way a track will inflict pain no matter how bad we try to fight it. It’s the perfect cap on another collection of surefire favorites that won’t relent until they have been played in every family minivan cruising the world.

– The progression of the script. When the film started, the first act felt like a chore to get through, mainly because every scene during this time was given away in the overly-revealing trailer, leaving nothing but predictability in the way, but thankfully the rest of the film builds an intriguing triple-tiered narrative, all the while harvesting something truly conveying for our particular time in history for its heartfelt message. For the last hour of this film, this very much reached the level of the satire and sharp delivery of the first movie, allowing it to serve as that rare example where a movie progresses instead of regresses.

– What a cast. There is simply too much to cover here, but the double duty work of Chris Pratt, the brawn edginess of Elizabeth Banks, the sinister personality of Tiffany Haddish, and of course the dry narcissism of Will Arnett fire on all cylinders, giving us no shortage of vibrant personalities to bounce off of one another. This is an ensemble-first kind of film, in that the sum of its parts equally help boil the pot, and while no one truly loses the familiarity of their one-of-a-kind tones, the infectious energy delivered by some of the most hip actors working today is simply too enticing to ignore.

– Not afraid to get dark with its material. I love a movie that can grow with its following chapters, because this keeps things from getting stale or even far too similar to its predecessors, and in that regard we have a third act psyche-out that was every bit as terrifying for our favorite characters as it was transcendent in capturing the dire dread of the situation. Did I know what was coming during the psyche-out? Absolutely, but I commend a movie greatly for capturing the magnitude of the antagonist’s plan, even rivaling that of “Avengers: Infinity War” in terms of inescapable weight that registers hard with us the audience effectively.

– Actually feels like a sequel. Aside from the film connecting the events of Taco Tuesday to the now weathered and decay look inside of Bricksburg, the very twist associated with the ending of the first Lego Movie more than sets the ground for what we’re seeing transpire before us in this film. Because we know who and what is behind the miniature movements, we feel a need to better trace how all of this is possible, and while I do have more than a few problems with the logic design inside of the gimmick, which I will get to later, I will say that establishing this film as a compendium piece to its original chapter gives the series continuity that is sadly missing from a majority of episodic kids movies.

NEGATIVES

– The percentage of humor. The first Lego Movie was near perfect in this regard. In fact, it was so good with its comedy that the rapid fire delivery of hearty laughter forced me to miss some jokes because I was still laughing from the previous delivery. With this sequel, that sadly isn’t the case, as probably only 40% of the jokes pulled a chuckle out of me, and this is because the film so obviously caters more to a child demographic with this sequel. That is to be expected with a kids-first movie, but part of what I enjoyed so much about the first film is that it was something that kids and adults could take in and equally indulge in, as to where this film left me with a feeling that lacks the consistency or confidence of material that was literally everywhere in its previous chapter.

– Too many musical numbers. As I mentioned earlier, the musical force behind this film does remain faithful in giving audiences at least one more earworm in unlimited listens, but the pacing of the inclusions themselves could’ve used more restrain, particularly during that of the late second act, which fires off three different tracks in a matter of ten minutes. What’s even more discouraging is that not all of these songs are winners in progressing the plot, nor tickling the tummy of its audience, and instead the failures just feel like unnecessary padding in stretching this run time beyond where it needs to be.

– Twist inconsistencies. There’s many problems that I had with the twist revealed late in the first film that definitely doesn’t make sense here. SPOILERS AHEAD – For one, where do all of these character voices come from if they’re being moved and played for by children? If you don’t have a problem with this aspect, you should consider that Will Ferrell, who plays the father in this family, voices a Lego character in this universe, but apparently the other kids do not. Another problem takes place when the protagonist and antagonist have a fight under the washing machine minutes after the kids have put away their toys. The movements of these Lego characters would make us think that someone must be playing with them if they are moving during this confrontation, so I ask how this is possible in the first place?? If you think this was the only time that an inconsistency like this reared its ugly head, think again, as there were many scenes that simply don’t add up with the rules we’ve been told and run through. If this doesn’t bother you, fine, but you have to at least acknowledge that this movie doesn’t follow the rules that it has taken two movies to establish.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Kid Who Would Be King

Directed By Joe Cornish

Starring – Rebecca Ferguson, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Patrick Stewart

The Plot – Old school magic meets the modern world in this epic adventure. Alex (Serkis) thinks he’s just another nobody, until he stumbles upon the mythical sword in the stone, Excalibur. Now, he must unite his friends and enemies into a band of knights and, together with the legendary wizard Merlin (Stewart), take on the wicked enchantress Morgana (Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader he never dreamed he could be.

Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Respects the source material. Any time you make a modern day adaptation to something of historical significance, the translation is usually less than stellar. However, what is sure to surprise a few people is that this film is actually a sequel to the Merlin saga we’ve come to understand, therefore it still abides by the same rules and history that we’ve come to enjoy. In addition to this, the film does successfully serve as a welcoming introduction to anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the ages old folk tale, taking valued screen time not only in filling us in about these character’s defining conflicts, but also in the traveled road of the sword itself, which gives whoever holds it a preservation of power that helps bring along their transformation.

– The modern spin. I loved how the very outline of the story, characters, and moments from the tale are translated in a way that makes them feel relatable to modern times. I won’t spoil much, but take for instance Alex’s estranged father, who we’re told heroically fought off many demons in his life before he was able to be an influence in Alex’s life. However, as we come to learn, demons in this context represent personal demons, and the man was anything but heroic because of such. It’s things like these that really gave the film a clever backbone of creativity, all the while grounding the fairy tale in the kind of realities that tell the audience this is anything but make believe. Likewise, the decision to not date this film numerically is one that keeps it from feeling dated, all the while harvesting an air of familiarity to our own world with how the movie frequently highlights the world feeling worse than ever before because of its leaders. I’d make an America joke here, but frankly I’m too depressed.

– Fresh faced cast that I couldn’t get enough of. I didn’t recognize a single one of the five youths that make up these new knights of the round table, but each of them have bright futures ahead because of the way their confidence harvests in each of their performances. For my money, the show-stealers are Serkis (Andy’s son) as the title character, and especially Angus Imrie as young Merlin. Serkis shows a ton of dramatic depth to the unveiling psychological fragility of his character, and Imrie rivets with a combination of finely-timed comedy and energetic hand movements that lead to beneficial spells. Both of them are stars in the making, and captivate the attention of every scene of long-winded dialogue delivery that hints that this film is the first step in bigger, bolder careers.

– Rides the waves of tonal change smoothly. I was expecting a comedy after seeing the trailers for this film, and for the most part that is correct. What surprised me however, was the consistency of each joke landing for a kids movie. Especially during the first act, when the lunacy of this legendary sword shows up for some hilariously awkward situations. In addition to the humor however, the film succeeds in adventure, science fiction, and especially drama, harvesting some gut-punch scenes of character development once the truth comes to light. A film will usually fall apart when it tries to attempt too many changes in tone, but “The Kid Who Would Be King” reigns in royalty because it takes enough time to fully flesh out the directions of where it’s heading, and ultimately it leads to a roller-coaster of mixed emotions that will have you pulling back so much more than you were expecting.

– Electric Wave Bureau’s beautifully immersive musical score. This group have had success with films such as “Lucy”, “Broken”, and the Paddington series, to name a few, but the work done in this film is easily my favorite from them because of the control in sound mixing that makes us the audience reach for something faint in the distance. In my interpretation, the eclectic tones channel a lot of 80’s coming of age flicks, like “Stand By Me” or “The Goonies”, in that they exert enough danger in the wonderment of adventure that you sadly don’t hear much in today’s child movie landscapes. The music fits on the ideals of war and blossoming adolescence that aren’t two of the easiest things to blend together, but E.W.B’s complete score is a taste test of rich flavors and layers that will have you putting your ears before eyes to see what hints become prevalent to you.

– Passion of filmmaking instilled to a kids movie. It would be easy for this film to fail for the fact that it’s released in January, but the combination of shot selection, gorgeous cinematography from the mastermind Bill Pope, and intriguing character arcs, render this one a rare gem to the days when kids movies could be films that looked and felt like award worthy presentations. The detail here to its themes and inspiring message is something that I feel will leave a lasting imprint on the rapid fire list of releases that they endure each year. It’s the perfect introduction for any kid wanting to learn more about film, and seeing the kinds of artistic integrities that expands their horizons, and it’s in bringing along that adult filmmaking mentality to a kids genre where I have the deepest respect for this picture.

– Feels like there is actually weight and stakes to the movie. Part of what I miss in the movies from my childhood are those instances of fright or daring imagery that supply a ball of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach, and this film is an homage to exactly what I’m talking about. Aside from an antagonist who is visually and personally sinister, there’s much to the idea surrounding school bullying and where the evolves with the progression of the story. It’s one of those films where the kids feel alone and legitimately responsible for what transpires, proving age is only a number in the inspiration and ambition to grow into what you’re destined to become.

NEGATIVES

– Misuse of the antagonist character. I have been a fan of Rebecca Ferguson for a few years now, so when I heard she was cast as the film’s central evil enchantress, I looked forward to seeing a side to her acting that I haven’t been privy to before. First of all, Ferguson is NOT the problem. She gives her all in these deliciously devilish takes when she is front-and-center. The problem comes from the lack of energy and time dedicated to her character that make her motivation nothing more than just another villain. Even the confrontation itself comes and goes with very little struggle or psychology to its movements, and it ultimately drops the ball on a character who deserved to have more influence on this group banding together to stop her.

– A bit too long. Clocking in at nearly two hours long, the film does begin to test patience during the third act, in which there are two different final battles. The second confrontation that rendered the first completely pointless and worthy of being edited out, feels like the real ending. This is really the only script disagreement that I had during the film, as the second conflict is bigger, more visually indulgent, and goes on a bit longer. I think without that first battle, the film could’ve trimmed fifteen light and inconsequential minutes that would’ve done wonders in carrying audiences through the home stretch.

– Computer generated saturation. While the generated effects in the film do supplant enough weight and believable color filtering to where they stand out, the percentage of its use becomes too much by film’s end, ridding itself of what simplicity made the movie sweet in the first place. Even for the fantasy genre of film, its imaginary properties don’t theoretically blend well with the whole Arthur folklore, and felt like too much was being thrown at the screen during the most impactful of sequences.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Directed By Dean Deblois

Starring – Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler

The Plot – As Hiccup (Baruchel) fulfills his dream of creating a peaceful dragon utopia, Toothless’ discovery of an untamed, elusive mate draws the Night Fury away. When danger mounts at home and Hiccup’s reign as village chief is tested, both dragon and rider must make impossible decisions to save their kind.

Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

POSITIVES

– Consistency in animation amazement. Considering this is a film series that has been released by three different studios, it’s the prestige associated with Dreamworks Animations that have allowed it to thrive by remaining true to itself. There’s a fine combination of wonder and beauty associated with the adventurous movements of the camera, as well as the detailed illustrations of costume and character trait that gives definition to appearances, and these are only further impactful when you consider that the legendary Roger Deakins is once again behind the movie’s cinematography. Deakins prescribes us a dose of fantasy immersion that almost allows us to feel the wind in our hair from these vibrant showcases of airtime, and the scenes of the hidden world itself are among my favorite setting for an animation film in quite a long time.

– Adds value to the previous chapters. For my money, the best kind of films give us a desire to re-visit previous installments to see if later narratives consistently hold up, and this is one trilogy that moves and breathes as one cohesive property because of Deblois’ continued interest in adding prestigious layers to kids films. There is one such subplot about the Night Fury’s that helps clear up some plot holes that I had for the first movie clear up. It’s not the only instance of this powerful capability, and only instills in me an air of respect for Dean and his vision in building each chapter simultaneously, even after its shelf life has expired.

– Maturity of the dialogue. One thing that becomes clear about this movie almost instantly is the influence of more comedic-driven dialogue and material that easily makes it the most light-hearted of the series. This was something that worried me after seeing the trailer, for reasons that it would take away from the focus of the conflict, in turn diminishing the urgency of the atmosphere. But I must say I was wrong, as the material is not only positively tasteful, it also hits its mark effectively more times than not. I love an animated film that can make me laugh as well as keep my attention in the narrative, and if more films were like “The Hidden World”, the world of kids films would be a better place.

– Characters first. This third film in the series is proof of the major payoff that supplanted enough weight in emotional registry and audience investment, thanks to the evolution of this growing group of characters who bonded as a family. Thankfully, this film also supplies the strongest antagonist of the entire series, harvesting enough uncertainty in the unfolding of this long distance journey to prove why 3 is only a number. There’s a constant reminder of previous plots and predicaments each time you see a particular character, giving respect and reminder to the past, while building them closer to the future that has inevitably awaited them all this time. We, just like the characters, have grown with this series, and that reflection benefits us in ways that pays off tenfold to the story, structure, and the world that Deblois helped create.

– The equal balance of tonal territory from musical composer John Powell. The music itself in the film envelopes these tense scenes of action and expedition with an evening of dream and devastation that give the scenes it accompanies an audibly reflective roar that channels more emotion than words ever could. Deblois has such confidence in Powell that he removes any kind of distraction in the form of dialogue or on-set sound design from intruding. For a few exceptionally long takes on this wild ride, Powell’s orchestral influence is all that we the audience hear, and it almost makes every first line that follows after it release this air of disappointment that snaps us out of the impressive partnership of sight and sound that enhances the artistic merit for the film.

– A big name behind every corner. Aside from Baruchel’s captaining, which has been a star-making turn for the leading man, the work of big name presences like Blanchett, Butler, Jonah Hill, Kit Harrington, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson preserves a velvet rope where only the biggest are invited. I left out F. Murray Abraham for a reason, and that’s because as Grimmel, the film’s prime antagonist, the sun turns back and allows us to focus on the greatness that is Abraham one more time. Grimmel isn’t the villain you come to understand, but the one you fear for his sense of purpose that prove some dark days are ahead for these dragons. The film has no problem tapdancing on our devotion to Toothless, and it allows Abraham the ability to shine under his most sinister.

– Smooth fluidity in the pacing. At 97 minutes, this film is the quickest of the three movies in the series, but its runtime is only a metaphor for the movement through the three act structure that flows so breezy that I wouldn’t have been angry with another twenty minutes to better flesh out some of the supporting cast. Because of this light runtime and the benefit of watching a movie that knows and delivers to its audience, we get as easy of a sit as you’re going to find, and what’s more convincing is that it’s one that the whole family can enjoy.

– Finality with the ending. There is no hint at a fourth film, nor is there unanswered questions left that leave us searching for more breadcrumbs on the path to closure. What does emerge is an ending that is every bit satisfying as it is reflective, as sentimental as it is responsible, and as poignant as it is heartwarming. After three great films, it’s tough to say that I wouldn’t want to see more from this franchise, but for me there has never been a series that has had three near equally great films in its clutches, therefore the weight associated with goodbye has never felt as therapeutic as it has here. We can say that this is a film that never had a single bad installment. How often does that happen in any franchise?

NEGATIVES

– No arcs in the way of supporting characters. The biggest negative for me are these friends from Hiccup’s past, present, and future, who serve as nothing more than props to the focus of this particular narrative. There’s very little focus or mention of them in anything that doesn’t involve Hiccup or any of the other dragons, and that’s a bit of a letdown considering they all were pivotal pieces to the franchise at one point or another. This gives the film a reminder of it having too many characters and not enough for all of them to do, and if your favorite character is someone other than Hiccup, this will challenge you in ways that you weren’t expecting.

– While I enjoyed the structure and motivation for Grimmel as an antagonist, the film unfortunately falls into the hole of conventionalism, as every choice the character makes only hinders the ideas in his plan. For instance, there is an attack in the film by Grimmel’s army, where they more than make their presence felt, and despite this he refuses to land the crushing blow for any reason other than the convenience of plot. This doesn’t exactly spoil the ending of the movie, but it does meander some of the menace to Grimmel that made you believe in the power of his punch, and I wish there were better ways the film could’ve exploited prolonging the conflict for reasons that aren’t as obvious.

My Score: 8/10 or B+

A Dog’s Way Home

Directed By Charles Martin Smith

Starring – Bryce Dallas Howard, Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp

The Plot – Separated from her owner, a dog sets off on an 400-mile journey to get back to the safety and security of the place she calls home. Along the way, she meets a series of new friends and manages to bring a little bit of comfort and joy to their lives.

Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and adult language

POSITIVES

– For a light-hearted family atmospheric film, this one conquers some dark and challenging material. This is the area of the film that I wish had more time devoted to it, as prejudice against the Pitbull breed, canine abuse on the whole, and even human death are all touched upon in these surprisingly revealing ways, giving the film a bit of much-appreciated social commentary. These are the rare instances where the movie feels like it has something to talk about in addition to the cute and cuddly material that it saddles itself with a bit too comfortably, and with more of a push for the PG-13 rating, could’ve separated more widely from the rest of the pact of subgenre films that are easily forgettable because of their similarities.

– The best actor in the film. It feels strange to talk about this, but the kind of physical performance that Smith emits from his canine protagonist is something that gained an air of astonishment from me. In addition to being thrown in the way of constant danger and conflict, the dog limps his way through a third act that really hammers home the length of this impossible journey with a one legged approach of consistency that you’d have to be a cold-heart not to appreciate.

– Smooth and fluent pacing throughout. One accolade that I give the film is the lack of boredom that these kind of films often radiate with, but this exception works because of the decision to keep it limited to 91 meaningful minutes that never lets the story get away from focus. Because this journey is so expansive and ever-changing in its environmental challenges, it frees itself of repetition or redundancy that would test the patience of its younger audiences, making this as easy of a January watch as you’re going to find.

– Nuance to the passage of time. I can’t believe that I am going to give “A Dog’s Way Home” respect for depth in storytelling, but the use of background pictures to fill in the gaps of character separation is something the film does exceptionally well. One such scene near the end of the film has one character in his bedroom, and long before we see anything or anyone else, we focus on this picture that articulates not only how much time has passed, but where certain characters end up. I love a screenplay that doesn’t need to stop to explain these kind of things, especially when you consider that this is the dog’s story first, and everything else, quite literally and figuratively, are backdrops for the main course.

– Fine combination of engaging cinematography and gorgeous backdrops make for eye candy. Even though this film’s dedication to C.G properties often hinder the immersion of each situation in scene, the breathtaking vantage points of some of South California’s most beautiful landscapes made for a rich and ambitious presentation visually that kept the integrity of the big budget feel preserved. Especially when you consider this as a journey film, you would be doing a huge disservice if you didn’t depict the immensity of these jaw-dropping visuals to counteract the ferocity of the wild, and I give great credit to Smith for knowing constantly where to point the camera to get the most out of every shot.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired C.G animal properties. Simply put, in 2019, artificial animal renderings should not be so obvious to where the outline nor the texture of the animal matches the lighting of the environment that it’s put in. Even worse than that, these laughably bad mountain lions and cougars move so sluggishly in their attacks that the camera has to adjust to how fake everything comes across with interaction. This brings forth camera movements that are the worst I’ve seen since 2016’s “Jason Bourne”, echoing as close to a visual seizure as you’re going to find on camera.

– Minimal plot. I should receive an Academy Award for what I typed in the plot section above, as so much of this film instead feels like a series of events, instead of one cohesive narrative that bends and twists to the three act structure. Not only is this movie completely predictable, but it’s predictable in a way that feels content with walking the same path and pissing on the same trees as the films that came before it. Some people think a movie with a title that tells you everything you need to know about a film is a positive, but it also establishes early on just how empty the sum of its jumbled parts really are.

– Speaking of title. To say I hate the confusing title of this film is an understatement. Why is it confusing? “A Dog’s Purpose”, “A Dog’s Life”, “A Dog’s Tale”, “A Dog Year” Catching my drift? All of these movies have boring, unimaginative titles, and yet none of them are related in the slightest. I get that this film was a book before 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”, but couldn’t you have changed the title because of such similarities? So the next time a friend asks if you’ve seen the sequel to any of these films, called “A Dog’s Way Home”, you can remind them that studios have the imagination to include a line like “Snow do your business”, an actual line of dialogue from this tar pit of terrible.

– Familiarity rears its ugly head. When you really think about it, this movie isn’t anything like those other films I just mentioned, it’s instead a dead ringer for a “Homeward Bound” remake. Think about it: dog meets and falls in love with his adolescent owner, is left with a family member during a trying time, escapes said house, and begins a long distance trip to get home. Sniff what I’m conveying to you? Unfortunately this film has about a fifth of the charm of “Homeward Bound”, and not even that in the regards of narration. Oh the shame of this narration…..

– The shame. The narration is so annoying and pointlessly used in this film that I even still fail to understand why its inclusion was depended upon so frequently. Bryce Dallas Howard voices the inner thoughts of this dog, and when she isn’t piercing our eardrums with this screechy, human repellent voice, she’s intruding constantly on our perception of what’s transpiring. For instance, if this dog finds something to eat, we hear her say “I was so hungry”. Or if the dog is cuddling with her owner, we hear “I love you so much”. Really important stuff movie. I could’ve never interpreted that for myself, thank you. This film would’ve been a lot better if it didn’t go the voice route, and just let the heartfelt story play out for itself. So many of these tender scenes would’ve been much more effective if Howard didn’t articulate what Ray Charles could see about a particular scene, and it serves as the single worst aspect of this film.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Ben Is Back

Directed By Peter Hedges

Starring – Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance

The Plot – Follows the charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s downfall.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Stuart Dryburgh’s expressionist approach to the cold strokes of cinematography he’s painting. In setting this film in the countryside of New York, not only do we get the right kind of vibe and feel for the family atmosphere, complete with snowy and isolated setting, but we also get Stuart’s masterful greying color pallet that warms like a fog throughout the film. Beyond this presentation feeling unforgiving and shallow, you really conjure up the immense weight that lies on this family’s shoulders, and makes the past a very prominent character of its own for where the story currently stands.

– Detailed direction from Hedges that demands more of its audience. I appreciate any film where the small matters of a scene, or something that is taking place in the background, is more important than it comes across in real time, and that’s surely what we have here. Throughout the picture, we the audience are able to watch a scene play out and interpret it in our own ways, and it may be right or it may be wrong, but the point is that Hedges opens the door to discussion, periodically slipping you in further and further to the compelling nature of this slow-burn drama. Hedges has always been a director who refuses to spoon-fed his audience the details, and it’s more effective when the actors themselves can play out the intention of a scene without giving away the password that links it all together.

– Speaking of performances…. Roberts and Hedges give riveting and committed turns as their respective characters. Not that the supporting cast is particularly bad, but this is clearly a two person show, as the duo take us through enough fallen tears and repressed aggression about the torture they’ve endured to constantly command the stage. Roberts continues her legendary career without ever losing a step, and her greatest quality is in the undying love that she expresses constantly for the child who has given her no reason to. Hedges gives the best performance of his young career, serving as a very troubled and haunted protagonist by the decisions that have followed him repeatedly. The best parts of the film are definitely when these two share the screen with little distraction elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them are in the conversation for academy recognition.

– Mother/Son dynamic. The biggest positive for me in terms of my enjoyment from this movie is definitely the relationship between protector and cub that is tested endlessly. If anything, this is a testament to a Mother’s will, reminding us that no matter what her love will pursue, and as the film evolves into that search mystery in the second half, the bond is illustrated in such a way that brings them closer with each startling revelation she learns about him. It makes me almost wish that this film was released on Mother’s Day weekend, as the film colorfully illustrates this important job without hesitation, providing a surefire must-see for Mothers everywhere. On a side note, it’s interesting and extremely rare that Hedges cast his own son in the title role, and I feel like this allows him to feel those impacts and tender moments more exclusively when it’s his own kin experiencing them first-hand.

– A candid look inside of life as an addict. There have been a few films that cover the topic of addiction amongst adolescence this year, but none with the kind of conviction and focus as that of “Ben Is Back”. Far beyond this documenting the shame and mistrust that Ben endures in being re-introduced to society, it’s also the little things like the way people look at him and follow him to the oddest corners that offer insight into the uphill climb that they will face every day for the rest of their lives. This side of the material gave Peter Hedges as a screenwriter a very psychological sense, and puts us the viewer in the shoes of them frequently to taste the very bitter taste of alienation that only they must endure.

– My favorite scene. There’s an instance early on in the first act, where Roberts runs into the doctor who prescribed Ben painkillers, thus enabling him into the world of drugs that have torn her family apart. It is every bit as therapeutic as it is blunt with honesty, as Holly utters the line “I hope you die a horrible death”, leaving to a shock not only on the face of the man she’s talking to, but also to the delight of the audience, who are still seeing these new sides to Roberts personality. It’s rare that we ever get a face for the problem, and that’s why I found this scene rewarding. It allows Roberts the chance to be that unspoken majority who have been affected by mis-prescribing, and give us a scene to vent said frustrations. Funny, menacing, and even poignant.

– Conventional but unpredictable. Despite the fact that other films have touched on these familiar instances before, there are enough twists and turns in the material to constantly keep the audience engaged in what’s transpiring. More than anything, it’s in the genre twist of the second act that elevates this film from a family drama to a midnight search party. What follows is a barrage of uncertainty and cat-and-mouse leverage between Mother and Son that plays wonderfully with the pacing of this 98 minute gut-wrenching.

NEGATIVES

– Pedestrian photography. Despite the cinematography in the movie looking so beautifully haunting and anything but transparent, the movement of the camera, as well as camera lens used for the picture are constantly distracting to the unfolding narrative. One such instance of the former is in a fight sequence that is sloppily telegraphed and thoroughly out of frame. This is Resident Evil levels of photography, and it’s disappointing to say the least considering everything else is top notch on the production value. On the lens switch, there’s this obvious texture change for certain scenes, one such involving a cell phone rendering, that feels completely foreign from the rest of the depictions. If a film has a valuable reason for doing this, it’s acceptable, but a change this different makes the transitions lacking syntheticism, and I think it’s a mistake to include them three times during the film.

– Honest criminals? One of my biggest problems with the character outlines of this film is this constant manipulation that these criminals being questioned give up valuable information on their dealer without hesitation. Keep in mind that this is just a Mother and Son asking these people these questions, and they repeatedly provide them the honest, correct answer neatly gift-wrapped. It’s not a big problem, it just doesn’t feel honest considering other scenes of questioning in movies often involve a struggle or a backlash of some kind that is never present once during the many scenes in this movie.

– One major problem. Miscommunication is the constant plague in a film that is fighting for frequent urgency. What little it does manage to emit is in the form of these misunderstandings between characters that could easily be trimmed in a world other than film. One such example takes place when Ben repeatedly tells his Mother that he’s in trouble, only for her to overlook it every single time. The ending scene as well could easily be fixed and suffer no worry if a character just takes the time to return a certain matter of importance to the family’s house, instead of leaving their location cryptic for them to worry. I’m sorry I can’t explain that better because it will give away the scene, but you’ll understand what I mean when you watch it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Mary Poppins Returns

Directed By Rob Marshall

Starring – Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw

The Plot – In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (Whishaw), along with Michael’s three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins (Blunt) following a personal loss. Through her unique magical skills, and with the aid of her friend Jack (Miranda), she helps the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

POSITIVES

– A whimsical collection of new musical numbers that enchant the sight and sound of the picture. Like only Disney can, they repeatedly emit that magic that is so much of Mary Poppins and bring it to life in the form of no-rules lyrics and snappy dance choreography to make the presentation pop. So much of the film radiates when it is showing off to be a spectacle, and the rich, vibrant production value that harvests from within will transport you once again to being a kid watching “Mary Poppins” for the first time, regardless of age. Even more impressive, all of the singing is actually done by the actors themselves, opening up my eyes and ears to Emily’s expanding brilliance. Is there anything this woman can’t do?

– Off-the-page special effects. If there’s one justification for making a Mary Poppins sequel 56 years after the original (A new live action record for time between films), it’s in the addition of modern tools that make so much of the film glow. The blending of computer generated special effects to make the unbelievable believable, as well as the decision to consistently keep the animation hand-drawn are instances that go a long way in blending the respective time periods seamlessly. Nothing ever stands out as hollow or obvious, despite these characters doing things that we in our heads know isn’t possible in the human world. It’s a testament to the production’s ability to competently immerse us in this world of make believe, where the rules are left at the doorstep of naysayers.

– Perfect casting all around. Much of my enjoyment of the film came from this terrific cast who bring their A-game to the immense task of living up to the storied history of one of Disney’s biggest names. The kids are never over-zealous in terms of their directed responses, and the big name cast are each given chances to seduce us under a spell of ambiance. Emily Blunt seriously gives her single best performance to date in an already amazing career. Stepping into Mary’s immense shoes, Blunt charms us with a combination of sophistication and tasteful arrogance that makes her donning feel synthetic with that of Julie Andrews original turn. Likewise, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his first big dive to the silver screen with enough energy and charisma in a look than most actors have in a hundred lines of dialogue. The chemistry between Blunt and Miranda twinkles like a star that stays lit regardless of the shine that surrounds them, and for my money two stronger on-screen presences couldn’t have been chosen for their respective roles.

– A generational affair. Transcending the story and screen respectively, I couldn’t escape this feeling I got where the youth in the theater audience were enjoying a Mary Poppins story in the same way that their parents did. This is clearly evident during the film as well, as Michael’s children are introduced in the very same way to the charm of this woman’s nurturing touch, all the while being whisked away to world’s far from their home’s comfort zone. More than anything, I hope kids are able to take away that family films don’t have to be dumbed down or slapstick to gain their attention. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a film too classy to stoop to this level, instead garnering enough family element and imagination to cleanse their continuously evolving pallets, and offer something for generations of yesterday, now, and decades to come.

– The conflict is bigger. It’s rare that a sequel will double the stakes of the previous film, but that is the case here, as the Banks family are not only fighting for their home but also for the link that bonds them together after the untimely passing of the family’s mother. I didn’t expect a story this light-hearted to be as emotionally gripping as it was, and besides just constantly rooting for these characters throughout, you really feel an overwhelming sense of empathy for why they need Mary’s return now more than ever. It keeps the story grounded in real life consequences, despite the fact that so much of the film is enveloped in fantasy and teleportation.

– Visual storytelling. Pay very close attention to the progression of the sky patterns throughout the movie, as it represents the ever-changing atmosphere of the family’s dynamic. When the film begins, we are soiled by the darkness of greying skies, but as Mary pops into frame, we notice that she brings with her a change for England that isn’t always prominent in a country so negated by the rain. I always love when small aspects of the film like this are present, and it adds another layer to atmospheric establishment when the film’s geographical location plays into the very ups and downs of what’s taking place under this roof.

– A collection of set pieces and designs that adds a firm reminder of nostalgia to the film. The Banks house itself looks EXACTLY the same as it did in the original film, and that fine eye of attention to detail is also evident throughout the film. Likewise, during a sequence involving Meryl Streep playing a character whose whole world is literally upside down is great for the fact that expanding objects featured in each frame feed into the gimmick, and really give us genuine moments of intrigue, where we wonder how certain scenes were shot. And yes, this is a “Devil Wears Prada” reunion, BONUS POINTS. My favorite however, is definitely the street scenes, complete with actual gaslight street lights, that echo the limited frailty of props within a Broadway stage show. It proves that sometimes less is more when it comes to simple set designs.

– The cameos. Besides the charm of a well rounded cast that each give their all to their respective roles, it was the surprises of two established film veterans that warmed my heart and brought the generational gap that much closer with their inclusion. I won’t spoil who they are, but only going to say that one of them was in the first “Mary Poppins”, while the other actually auditioned to be Mary Poppins. Take from that what you will, but seeing them will instantly bring a smile of appreciation to your face, and prove that Marshall is well versed in the historical accuracies of this film, as well as the undeniable ambiance that each of these two actors bring with them when they sign on.

NEGATIVES

– Far too predictable. I get that there has rarely been a Disney movie that has surprised me in ways of a plot twist, but there is nothing in “Mary Poppins Returns” that I didn’t see coming from a mile away. In this regard, I could’ve used even more distancing from the original, as much of the same beats and instances of that original film come into play, and really water down the possibility of letting this stand on modern day storytelling. The closest example to this was a first act character swing that makes this well respected actor the film’s antagonist, but once you hear his job title and obvious sinister musical accompaniment, you will sniff it out with easiness.

– Sometimes the abundance of songs take away far too much from the unraveling narrative. This is evident more than ever during the late stages of the second act, as the story’s conflict is put on hold for such a long period of time that I nearly forgot about what these kids were striving for. In addition to this, a couple of the songs add nothing of lesson to Poppins’ teaching, rendering them remotely pointless in terms of their inclusion.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed By Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Starring – Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

The Plot – Miles Morales (Moore) comes across the long-dead Peter Parker (Johnson). This Peter Parker is not from his world though; he’s from somewhere else in the multiverse. With Parker’s guidance, Miles will become Spider-Man: and through that he will become part of the ever-expanding ‘Spider-Verse’.

Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild adult language

POSITIVES

– Comic book magazine come to life. There have been films classified as a comic book movie endlessly before, but “Into the Spider-Verse” is the rare exception that actually lives and breathes by this definition. Aside from the breathtaking cinematography that literally transfers the backdrops and landscapes of the comic book accordingly, the movie also brings with it some unique traits in personality that sets it above its kin of the genre. As an animator turned director, Persichetti instills on-screen text that reacts to sounds, on-screen text boxes that serve as the narrator inside of Morales’s mind, three-cut perspectives that radiate that side-by-side feel of a comic book dynamic, and of course the wind range of animation from each respective Spider-Man in the film, that cohesively bonds to feel smoothly in the same film or in this case universe.

– Entrancing visuals in animation. Everything from the variety of ever-changing set designs, including but not limited to a cyberpunk inspired 2018 New York, to the texture of the animation itself, feels every bit as authentic as it does transcendent of the screen, carving out that layer of comic book euphoria that takes precise expertise to competently master it. Sometimes the animation feels straining, like watching a 3D movie without the glasses, but it’s all intentional, as it echoes the vibes perfectly of comic book pages that sometimes lose a little bit of that focus in being the victim of a copy of a copy. But when it’s smooth in depiction, “Into the Spider-Verse” is not only the most beautiful comic book movie of all time, but easily the most beautifully textured film of the year for the knockout presentation that constantly raises the bar with each passing minute.

– Transformative voice acting from a well rounded cast. Shameik Moore is brilliant as the film’s central protagonist, vocalizing the combination of immaturity, fear, and daring nature that we’ve come to expect in the character, from Miles big screen debut. Moore himself is 23 years old, but excels because of a softer and gentler side to vocalizing that easily allows him to immerse himself in this teenage nerd of sorts. Likewise, Nicolas Cage is delightfully meditated as my favorite Spider-Man offering: Spider-Man Noir. His voice is unmistakable, but the smooth deliveries in the manner that only Cage can deliver makes him perfect for the role, and carves out a second animated role of the year (Teen Titans Go To The Movies) that should provide a rebirth for one of America’s most celebrated actors. Jake Johsnon steals the show as Peter Parker, and does so by giving us an older, depressed side to Peter that movie fans aren’t used to seeing. Johnson’s dry delivery and constant undercutting of Miles made for some of my favorite exchanges of the movie, and carved out a dynamic in chemistry between them that had me begging for more films between just these two characters.

– Like most Spider-Man movies, there is a twist midway through the film, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Between weak underwriting of the antagonists, as well as a story that was starting to lose steam, this reveal comes and sort of adds fuel to Miles’s fire, serving as the catalyst to motivate him to become who he’s destined to be. This twist actually did throw me off, and reminded me repeatedly of the one thing that comic books do better than telvision shows or movies, and that is the capability to make something so small feel so devastating to everyone enveloped in the unraveling narrative.

– Thunderous sound design. Although the narration deliveries are a bit mumbled and hard to hear throughout the film, the rumbling intensity of character perspectives allowed the audience several takes to investing themselves into the shoes of the character. One such example is early on in the film during a ride to school between Miles and his father, and we are treated to the faint sounds of cars whizzing by. Sounds small in effect, but I can’t tell you how many movies bumble this sound design repeatedly, taking something so honest as influence of environment and wiping it away to constantly remind us of studio interference. This of course isn’t the only aspect of this impactful sound scheme throughout, but just an example of how much time and effort went in to establishing an environment and seeing it all the way through to the finish line of the scene’s progression.

– Patience in storytelling. What I appreciate about the story inside is that it never feels rushed or forced to approach the same kind of familiar tropes that so many of these films are about. As much as this is a coming of age story for Miles, it’s also a family drama, and the elements of both of these slow cook, giving time to each to boil to the top once they’ve reached their respective intensities. Likewise, I also appreciated Miles growing into his capabilities as Spider-Man, instead of being great at them right away. This drives me nuts constantly in Spider-Man films because no one should be able to master these gifts without practice, and Morales’s story finally gives us insight, as well as concentration into the one who accepts these responsibilities.

– Doesn’t try to be something that it’s not with time allowance. So many superhero films are encroaching on that two-and-a-half hour mark with very little reason, but “Into the Spider-Verse” stays confidently firm at 108 minutes because that is how much story it has to tell. Because of this, the pacing feels smooth, never giving us an obvious moment of downtime or lag to the progression of the movie, nor the bottling of momentum that never manages to lose even a single drop. I was very much consistently invested in this story and characters, and this feeling gave off the impression that I was being re-introduced to the superhero genre all over again.

– The more you know. The film will appeal to fans young and old of Spider-Man all the same, but if you have followed this legendary character with more dedication, you will be rewarded for your years and dollars invested. Throughout the film, we are treated to an endless offering of inside character jokes, surprising cameo appearances, and a post credits scene that pokes fun at a certain meme that is all the talk of the comic book community. Aside from this, the humor is above average, and more importantly does so by providing observation at the honest, awkward moments of life, instead of catering to a set-up and delivery that can otherwise grow tiresome.

– Thrilling action sequences and set pieces that add to the intensity of the scene. Much of the fresh consistency comes from the variety of villains that adorn the film, but two sequences in particular stood out as fantasy in possibility that remind us why animated is the way to go for comic book lore. One such scene takes place with Peter and Miles swinging throughout the woods of what feels like an endless forest, giving us several intelligent uses of the web that a city setting just can’t accommodate, and the other is the film’s climax fight high above the city limits, at crossroads of the many universes we’ve been told about. Both of these scenes are great for their super quick arsenals of choreography that exchange like dance partners, but the true beauty and consequences of the latter gave us a finale with a familiar antagonist that fully realizes the Miles transformation.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, I could’ve used more development in the relationship between Uncle Aaron (Voiced by Mahershala Ali) and Miles. We’re constantly told what Aaron means to Miles, but rarely shown it, and I could’ve used a few more scenes to flesh out and truly feel the drama of something that goes down between them. Even if this is nit-picking at this point, this stands out like a sore thumb as the film’s most noticeable weakness, and I could’ve used a couple more scenes to magnify Aaron’s importance to the script and give the movie enough reason to reach for that two hour runtime.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Bumblebee

Directed By Travis Knight

Starring – Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr

The Plot – On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence

POSITIVES

– Most of the reason that this film works for me is in the dynamic between Charlie and Bumblebee that transcends the conventional film friendship. These are two outcasts who feel alone in the world they both inhabit, so when they do cross paths it allows each of them to open up and shine to their truest potential. Charlie in particular, is still reeling from the untimely death of her father, while B feels like a prisoner on his new home, so we invest in the friendship between them because in turn each one of them represents what the other is missing. Likewise, this dynamic is something that has been missing from this franchise for a long time, and Knight guides along a movie about relationships that just happen to be on the eve of this robotic day of justice.

– Personal touches on the bots. Knight’s beneficial detail is something that certainly didn’t go unnoticed by this critic, as he gives the robots a more relatable side to human emotion and interaction that sometimes felt strained in past editions. Bumblebee’s facial registries are more clearly defined in this film, emoting happiness, fear, sadness, and worry as well as any of the actors in the film. The fight scenes are also better choreographed and full of more hand-to-hand arsenal than we’ve seen, making for sequences when we telegraph the devastation in each and every blow.

– 80’s aesthetic. It makes sense that this film takes place in the 80’s because that is when the Transformers were brought to life, and its influence over this film is something that makes for some truly enjoyable occasions when it’s done right. One such example is in the subtleties of the housing designs, complete with shag carpet and wood paneling on the walls that remind audiences of the setting of their past accordingly. This angle did sometimes feel a bit too on the nose, like when the movie “The Breakfast Club” pops on the tube, or a box of Mr T cereal non-chalantly pops into frame, but overall I think it’s done with enough vibrancy that rarely takes the attention away from the characters and situations of the screenplay. Which leads to…..

– There’s actual consequences. People died in the other Transformers movies, but we rarely ever saw it. “Bumblebee”, despite its small scale on the number of bots that adorn the film, feels like the most dangerous of the series films because it’s never afraid to get its hands dirty. There are three human deaths in the movie that even I thought were a bit risky for youthful audiences, but I commend a movie for documenting the ferocity and dangerous demeanor of the Decepticons physically. Because of such, there’s a bit of uncertainty to a story that would otherwise be predictably cartoonish, and I welcomed this responsibly stern take on depicting the perils of war without flinching.

– Plenty of laughs for the whole family. In addition to the physical bodily humor that was depicted in the trailers for the film, there’s surprisingly no shortage of hearty laughs between the interaction of our two main characters. What’s even more important is that these instances of humor never soiled the heart or the integrity of the franchise, instead instilling these welcome moments of breath in between the carnage and devastation that were the majority of the movie. My favorite is definitely a car vandalization scene, in which B gets his first taste of revenge against an antagonist who clearly messed with the wrong girl.

– Appropriate run time. This might be the single most important aspect of the film, because the previous Transformers chapters felt like an eternity when I watched them. Clocking in at a respectable 109 minutes, “Bumblebee” carries with it the smooth pacing and frequent transitions to constantly keep the screenplay moving at a pleasurable stride, making it feel unlike anything before. There was never a moment in the film where it felt lagging or derivative of an earlier scene, and because of such, this will certainly be the first Transformers movie that I will have no problem watching again.

– My favorite soundtrack of 2018. This could easily fall into the category of 80’s touches, but I felt it required its own mention because of the impressive collection of assorted artists that will earn my first soundtrack purchase of the year. Some of my favorite tracks of the decade, like “Take on Me” by A-Ha, “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths, or “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” by Tears For Fears, are just a few of the tasty grooves that shine in their respectable moments, signaling the end of a decade of music that some still argue as the very best that ever graced our speakers. While it’s the 80’s that shines for a majority, stay during the artistic post-film credit sequence for an uplifting track called “Back To Life” from the film’s leading lady Hailee Steinfeld. It proves there’s nothing she can’t do.

NEGATIVES

– One character doesn’t fit. I will probably be in the minority here, and I certainly have nothing against this actor, but I felt Lendeborg Jr’s character didn’t work in the dynamic chemistry of B and Charlie. This is especially the case considering where this forced romance to the plot ends up by film’s end. Not only this, but it kind of takes away from the aspect of Charlie feeling like a loner until she meets this one-of-a-kind robot who completely transforms her world. Do me a favor if you don’t believe me: take every situation that Lendeborg’s character is in, remove him, and see if it changes anything at all.

– Choppy editing. This is sadly still a problem in the franchise, and frankly it’s not the soul reason to blame for some sloppy action sequences. The camera angles themselves are certainly far too close on the immense size of these dueling bots, but too many cuts in the sequencing itself is the most obvious enemy that these big budget battles spoil. The special effects themselves look great in the film, so there’s absolutely no reason why we should be using this ploy that hides negatives so frequently. Everyone wants to be “Saving Private Ryan”, but sometimes less pageantry of the visuals is more.

– Too many endings. There’s a shot on the Golden Gate Bridge that was the perfect conclusion to this film, but sadly it’s ruined by an additional three scenes that frankly don’t add anything more of substance, and doesn’t allow us to hit the credits during the most impactful moment. More than anything, it’s to link itself to the other movies in ways that should go without saying, but I would prefer if a movie this special demolishes any roads that leads it to the awful Michael Bay directed movies that kidnapped a lot of adult’s childhoods.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Directed By Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

Starring – John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot

The Plot – Taking place six years after saving the arcade from Turbo’s vengeance, the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet has broken, forcing Ralph (Reilly) and Vanellope (Silverman) to travel to the Internet via the newly-installed Wi-Fi router in Litwak’s Arcade to retrieve the piece capable of saving the game.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Artistic elevation of the new expanding world. As to where the first film riveted us with pixelated 8-bit goodness, with an air of modern rendering, this sequel as well captivates our imagination, depicting the internet as a creative backdrop to all of the world’s business. While probably not always true, the internet in the film is presented as this beautiful place that stretches as far as your vision can go, blending a strong combination of detailed layers and colorful textures, to make for a visual presentation that is second to none, in terms of animated properties this year. Likewise, the blending of old school hand-drawn animation for characters like Sonic the Hedgehog blend wonderfully with the modern day sheik of computer style animation, that make up a majority of characters within the film, and prove that this is a universe with all kind of shapes, colors, sizes, and even dimensions.

– That surprisingly responsible third act. While this film certainly isn’t stretching the boundaries of its PG rating of limitations, the script does take on enough dark and gritty themes to responsibly educate its youth demographic on the hazards of the internet, personal insecurities, and the rules of friendship. It’s in this poignant punch of material where the film’s tone ages gracefully, packing an unexpected psychological antagonist for the characters and film that I didn’t see coming, and one that proves Ralph can garner substance to go hand-in-hand with its captivating visual features.

– Strong ensemble voice work. Reilly and Silverman once again tap into a lot of raw energy and versatility in the stretching of their range capacity, but this time they’re asked to channel more of that impeccable rapport that made so much of the third act in the previous movie the film’s strong point. Thankfully, the consistency remains prominent, and the two pack a sweet punch combo of chemistry that will make you laugh, cry, or lose yourself to the way they live and breathe these animated properties. As for new additions, the work of Gadot as a badass street racer is one that carves out an unlikely outline for little girls who don’t fit into the Disney princess mold, and Taraji P Henson’s sassy familiarity is nearly unrecognizable as the blue-skinned, energetic Yes.

– Clever sight gags and dialogue quips that breathe intelligence. Where a film like this gets it right over a movie like “The Emoji Movie” is that it takes something as universal as the internet and carves out these ideas within the element that many can draw onto for how familiar it all feels. Some of the film’s best work in this regard engages in pop-up annoyances, auction bidding, and my personal favorite: the Disney expanding universe. On the latter, the interaction of superheroes and Star Wars characters makes for one of those once in a lifetime possibilities, but it’s the Disney princess’s themselves who steal the show, etching out a layer of social commentary for how outdated some of their ideals come across in 2018. It all makes for something that doesn’t settle for being just scenery for the narrative, and brings with it no shortage of witty material that tickled my funny bone more times than not.

– One spectacular musical number. While the Wreck-It Ralph franchise isn’t like other Disney properties, in that it never has to sing about its emotions, there is one number in this movie that I thought fit wonderfully from Vanellope’s downtrodden disposition and Disney princess recommendations. What’s even more important is that it’s actually a good song that does a double service deed of authenticity, depending on how you choose to look at it. The first is for Disney’s usual sporadic lyrics, which sometimes are all over the place in terms of topical consistency, and the second is keeping with the tradition of catchy chorus lines, that will have you humming it long after you leave the theater. Silverman won’t be confused for a singer any time soon, but her infectious vocal deliveries combined with the absurdity of the lyrics, make for three delightful minutes that I greatly enjoyed.

– Perfect timing for a particular cameo. I won’t ruin anything for this person popping up, but when you consider what the entertainment media world has been through in the last two weeks, the appearance of a familiar face to the silver screen feels transcendent for how incredible it played hand-in-hand with this person’s real life passing. It’s only for around two seconds long, but only proves how much of a lasting memory and permanent stamp on pop culture this person made on us all. You truly couldn’t have timed this one any better, and its subtlety as being the only real life person in this world of fantasy proves that they will live on forever.

– I commend a movie where the setting itself is secondary to the characters, and it’s clear that the evolving and straineous friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is what plays front-and-center here. As the film progresses from internet arrival, to money-making campaigns, to a King Kong inspired final conflict, you come to understand that everything we’ve been shown ranges around the adventures of these two people, and I loved that the film, despite educating its youth on the internet, never strayed too far away from the unveiled layers of these two people. An example of this done wrong is in the National Lampoon’s Vacation sequels, in that the Griswolds became almost an experiment of the environments they were being introduced to. Here, Ralph and Vanellope constantly bring the focus home. If they didn’t, the moving closing moments of the third act wouldn’t register, and thankfully they did.

NEGATIVES

– Age boundaries with the humor. While the comedy worked around 70% of the time for me, I feel like it’s because of my age why I was able to grasp onto the clever material with so much success. I noticed in my theater that most of the quips were going over the kids heads, and I think that lack of crossover appeal between age groups may limit Ralph Breaks the Internet’s final judgement. Because of such, I would recommend this more as a home video kind of experience for kids, as the theater is designed to test their attention in ways that isn’t as easy as sitting in front of the tube.

– I hate the title of this movie. I know, it’s stupid to complain about something so minimally important, but in my eyes a title can tell you everything that’s clever and important about a movie, and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is in the shadows of a much more encapsulating title. “Ralph WRECKS the Internet” not only tells you everything that’s to be expected, but also keeps the consistency of its predecessor, that was short, sweet and simple. If you watch the first trailer, even Disney agrees, when Yes asks Ralph why they don’t just call it “Ralph Wrecks the Internet”, during a scene that isn’t even in the final cut of the film.

– Sloppiness during the first act. It’s strange to speak of a movie that gets better as it progresses, but that’s what you have here. The first thirty minutes of this movie not only feel very rushed to me, but also limit the kind of proper character exposition needed to pull you into its new conflict. This didn’t happen for me until about halfway into the film, once the focus drifts away from the internet and rests on its two central protagonists. As guilty is an out of place exposition line requiring a flashback, that felt completely out of place compared to the rest of the film. This to me is the definition of lazy writing, and there were certainly much more easier ways to work this into the script than halting the progression of our current day narrative.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Instant Family

Directed By Sean Anders

Starring – Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner

The Plot – When Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of foster care adoption. They hope to take in one small child but when they meet three siblings, including a rebellious 15 year old girl (Moner), they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must hilariously try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hopes of becoming a family.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, adult language and some drug references

POSITIVES

– Much of the humor works here, because it is grounded in reality, instead of the screenplay writing that is all but missing a laugh track to accompany its punchlines. The material is very much grounded in parental life experiences, often feeling like a collection of instances that feel like a right of passage for every parent who has ever taken care of children. This is because Anders himself adopted three children, so it’s a project that he feels very passionate about telling, and I found myself laughing frequently throughout the film, even when the consistency of the tone didn’t cater fully to a comedy genre film. More on that later.

– The chemistry bonds between these actors, making them feel authentic as this growing family. While Wahlberg and Byrne easily dominate the screen time as this remotely monotonous couple who are going through the motions, it is actually Moner who steals the screen, giving way to an adolescent who competently channels the ever-changing emotional range of teenage personality. Moner’s Lizzie is easily the glue that holds this family together, and when that glue is tested, it’s easy to see why the rest of the components fall apart. Moner has been in big films before, but this is easily a star-making turn that will earn her many future roles that she will undoubtedly captivate like she does in this film.

– There is very much this late 80’s John Hughes vibe that I get not only from the treading of dramatic content, but also in Michael Andrews presence on the film’s musical score, that channels vibes of a faithful homage. Lots of synth keyboards and gentle tones throughout, carving out a niche to movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “The Breakfast Club”, in which you can easily trace the similarities. When Andrews isn’t orchestrating the tempo of sound, we are given popular tracks like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship, or “What Is Life” by George Harrison to hold us over until the next throwback immersion.

– Entertaining as a stand alone film, but educating in its material. “Instant Family” seems intent on squashing the many perceptions, both good and bad, about adoption that our current environment currently has. Along the way, the film takes ample time to guide us through the many steps necessary not only in signing up, but also in raising said foster kids once they are inside of the home. As you can imagine, a lot transpires, and these adults lives are turned upside down, but through it all they, as well as us the audience, are presented an often ignored perspective of the children themselves, narrating a psychological volume to everything that they endure at such a young and character building time in their lives.

– Perfect occasion for the entire family to get together. It’s rare to see a film these days where families of every age demographic can feel entertained for nearly two hours of a film, but “Instant Family” bridges the diverse gap, providing plenty of examples along the way for why it might be the perfect holiday movie this year. Some of the light-hearted humor and brief bodily humor will engage youthful audiences enough into believing this is the typical Mark Wahlberg comedy that is par for the course, but the teasing of this PG-13 rating, involving some testy but tasteful material, will cater to parents who are the only ones in on the kind of jokes that I mentioned earlier regarding parental instances.

– The maturity of heartfelt moments that will have you reaching for the tissues. Many times during the film, my cold heart was on the verge of tears through the material by Anders, that does eventually mature and finds itself at the center of some internally stirring moments. This for me gave the film a lot of depth, acting against a trailer that had it feeling limited to being just another Wahlberg parental comedy, which the film is anything but. One such scene involving the combing of hair between mother and daughter feels every bit as sentimental for how it’s intimately shot, as it does therapeutic for the backstory behind it. This is one of many examples of how interested Anders is as a screenwriter to breaking down walls and healing the emotional scarring of these children by giving them a thought-provoking platform to air their side of things.

– Editing is rarely as important as it is when played towards repetition. As to be expected, the film does have a couple of musical montage sequences, but I feel that they work here because they highlight the tedious and often times overbearing nature of parenting that is often glossed over when described. One such scene is focused outside of the bathroom with a one angle take, and shows the frequency of each character moving in and out of frame to destroy and then clean up, and this gives the film an intelligent side of creativity that other films would use-and-abuse without much meaning behind it. If Anders is a magician at just one thing, it’s in his ability to focus on a particular area, and exploit it for all it is worth, and these instances of delight visually narrate the drastic change of environment that these two adults now find themselves in.

NEGATIVES

– Two hours might be a bit too much for this particular story. While the maturity of the material does evolve and refresh the tribulations inside of this family’s daily routine, the boundaries of repetition are a bit stretched, especially during the second act that feels like it is rehashing much of the same material that we already went over in the first forty minutes of the film. Overall, it’s easy to see what could be spared on the editors floor, and I would be far more supportive of a 100 minute film that keeps with the consistency of pacing that started to slug just before the film’s emotional climax.

– Tonal inconsistencies. Most of the film feels like it is engaged in a tug-of-war battle between this “Cheaper By the Dozen” style of family comedy, while playing against some adult themes in material that are played out as comedy, but should be anything but. For instance, there’s a pervert janitor who sends the oldest daughter (15) penis pictures, there’s physical agony for the little boy, who is the butt of constant jokes about him getting hurt around the house, and an overdone joke about “The Blind Side” that probably isn’t the most racially sensitive, in terms of depiction. “Instant Family” feels like there’s a struggle within itself to properly nail down what kind of film it wants to be, and with more consistency developed, the movie could feel more comfortable in how it attacks these important subplots.

– A bit formulaic and predictable. This is especially evident during the third act, when a series of easily telegraphed events distance the family for the same third act distance that we’ve come to expect. It never goes anywhere that is daring or conflicted, instead neatly packaging up the film’s remaining moments with a bit too much clarity in the form of a perfect existence. This felt like the lone betrayal to the otherwise honest side of adoption that the film takes, and I could’ve used some level of spontaneity to pull itself out of familiarity.

My Grade: 7/10 or B