Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


A new hero rises.

(2021) Superhero (Disney) Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Yuen Wah, Andy Le, Paul He, Jayden Zhang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Stephanie Hsu, Kunal Dudheker, Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, Ronny Chieng, Stella Ye, Ben Kingsley, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Zach Cherry, Raymond Ma, Benedict Wong, Harmonie He. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

 

There are a number of firsts going on in the latest entry into the MCU. The first Asian-American superhero. The first Marvel feature to introduce a new hero into the mix since Captain Marvel. The first MCU film with a director of Asian descent. The first villainous role for Chinese action legend Tony Leung (and also his first English-language film). The first to debut on Labor Day weekend. The first Disney film to resume production after the initial pandemic shutdown.

But is that all there is to a movie? Ground-breaking alone doesn’t make for a great, entertaining film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the bill and then some.

A prologue tells us of Wenwu (Leung), a villain who found (or stole) ten magic arm rings that rendered him invincible as well as virtually immortal. Over a thousand years, he conquered everything there was to conquer, but he wanted more. The “more” was a village called Ta Lo, a hidden village that sits in a neighboring dimension where dwell legendary magical creatures and contains magical power of immense proportions. Wenwu – who would later be used as the blueprint to create the fictional terrorist known as the Mandarin – already led a criminal enterprise and commanded an army of ninjas, including killers Death Dealer (Le) and Razor Fist (Munteanu), but comes by a map that helps him arrive at the village, although the bamboo forest it is located in seemed to be a living guardian of the peaceful village. There is also a human guardian – the beautiful Li (Chen) who bests Wenwu in a fight. The criminal overlord promptly falls in love and, improbably, ends up marrying her.

Because of Wenwu’s criminal past, the couple is denied residence in Ta Lo so Macau is where they end up living. Li gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies, and Wenwu, who had softened into a family man, hardens right back up, training his young son, Shang-Chi, to be a killer while mostly ignoring his daughter, Xiang.

Shang-Chi (Liu) eventually runs away from his father, choosing not to become like him, and ends up in San Francisco, using the name Shaun. He has a bestie named Katy (Awkwafina) who, like him, parks cars at a swanky SF hotel. While Katy’s mom (Long) and grandma (Chin) wonder when the two are going to get married, but they’re just friends (without benefits – this is a PG-13 film after all). However, on a bus ride to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of thugs including Razor Fist and turns out that he has extraordinary martial arts abilities, much to the shock of Katy who is unaware of his past. He manages to beat the thugs, but they steal a pendant that his mother had given him, but let slip that they are going after his sister next. So Shang-Chi boards a plane for Macau, having received a cryptic postcard from his sister which apparently reveals her address and Katy insists on going with.

There they find a bitter Xiang (Zhang) who had resented her brother for leaving her behind with their father. She, too, had eventually run away from home and began an empire of her own with a high-tech fight club on top of a skyscraper. That’s when the goons arrive and so does dear old dad. You see, it seems he needs the pendants to reveal a map that will navigate a safe passage through the bamboo forest to Ta Lo. Wenwu has been hearing his wife’s voice, begging him to set her free from imprisonment in her former home. But he also intends to destroy that home, much to Shang-Chi’s horror. They must find a way to get there first if they are going to stop their dad, who is unwittingly going to release a horrible, Apocalypse-bringing monster onto the earth if he succeeds.

First of all, the good news: this is one of the best Marvel movies yet, right up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. It is beautifully shot, the fight sequences are phenomenal (particularly the first one on the bus) and the CGI without peer. Simu Liu, who was previously best known for the Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, is going to be a huge star, following the example of Chris Hemsworth who was a little-known actor before being cast as Thor. Add to that the lustrous Michelle Yeoh as Auntie Nan, Leung who gets to show American filmgoers what Asian audiences have known for decades, and Awkwafina who continues to become a major A-list star with her performance here.

weaves all the elements together pretty well. I will admit that during the middle the movie becomes necessarily exposition-heavy and drags somewhat, but other than that, he shows a sure hand on the big stage even though he comes from an indie background (Short Term 12) and this is really his first big budget major tentpole release. Undoubtedly he’ll get a lot more like this, in all likelihood including Shang-Chi 2 which is almost a certainty to make it onto Marvel’s schedule eventually.

There are two post-credit sequences, incidentally, and the first one is maybe the best one in the franchise with a couple of cameos by Marvel superheroes and hints at what Shang-Chi’s place in the larger MCU is going to be. Given what I’ve seen here, he’s not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon. This is the must-see movie of the season and by all means go out and see it in a theater if you can.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully weaves Chinese culture, myths and legends into the MCU. Simu Liu is going to be a star and Awkwafina further cements her own reputation. Incredible action sequences and effects. One of the best Marvel movies ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, dragging a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of fantasy/superhero action and violence, as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stunt coordinator Bradley James Allen, who was the first (and only) non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, passed away on August 7 from an undisclosed illness. The film is dedicated to him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Triaphilia

Captain Marvel


Girl powerful.

(2019) Superhero (Disney) Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Rune Temte, Algenis Perez Soto, McKenna Grace, Akira Akbar, Matthew Maher, Chuku Modu, Vik Sahay, Colin Ford, Kenneth Mitchell, Stephen A. Chang, Diana Toshiko. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

 

Vers (Larson) is a warrior of the Kree, a noble race that is at war with the nefarious Skrulls, who are green-skinned pointed-eared shapeshifters. Can’t trust someone who can be anybody else, right? Vers has a problem; she’s lost most of her memories, so she doesn’t know who she is. Her commanding officer and trainer Yon-Rogg (Law) seems to spend most of his time trying to get her from using the energy bolts that she shoots from her hands, which would seem to be an advantage you’d want to develop in a warrior you were training, no?

During a skirmish with the Skrulls and their manipulative leader Talos (Mendelsohn), Vers winds up stranded on planet C-53, which we like to call Earth. And we discover that Vers is really Carol Danvers, a former Air Force test pilot who is One of Us. With her memories returning, Carol discovers that much of what she understood to be true was in fact a big lie and that there’s a monstrous secret that has been kept from her. Will these revelations break her, or mold her into the hero she was always meant to be?

Being that this is a Marvel movie, I’m sure you can guess which one it turns out to be. Sadly, this isn’t one of the better movies in the MCU library. It feels a bit flat and lifeless, even given the nifty special effects and the tireless efforts of a de-aged Jackson as a young Nick Fury (the movie takes place in the Year of Our Lord 1995) and a cantankerous cat. The plot is somewhat predictable and Larsen’s performance is a tad too laid back for my taste, but she still commands a great deal of presence and she’s utilized far better in Avengers: Endgame. It’s not a bad movie, you understand, but it doesn’t quite have the presence of the best movies in the Marvel pantheon.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets the Nineties right.
REASONS TO AVOID: Suffers by comparison to Wonder Woman.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is some mild profanity, as well as plenty of sci-fi action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stan Lee passed away during the film’s post-production. The filmmakers and Marvel Studios elected to insert a tribute to him at the beginning of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Disney Plus, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive review;; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fatherhood

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

Soul


There’s no doubt that Jamie Foxx has soul.

(2020) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger, Peggy Flood. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

 

Since its inception, Pixar has consistently turned out some of the most thought-provoking and imaginative animated features in history, winning multiple Oscars and changing the game forever. Once known for being one of the original computer-generated animation studios, they have completely redefined storytelling in the animated medium.

Not all of their films have been home runs, of course – no studio that has been around for nearly 30 years can be expected to be perfect every time out, but they have very few movies in their library that aren’t at least entertaining at worst and thought-provoking. Whether it is on the nature of toys and their relationship with our memories, to the emotions and how all of them are important to who we are, and including stories about a rat who longs to be a famous French chef and anthropomorphic cars, Pixar has something for everybody. Therefore, it is really saying something when I lead off a review of one of their pictures by saying it might be the best they’ve ever made.

 

Joe Gardner (Foxx) wants to be a jazz pianist with all his heart and soul. He has never gotten the big break he needs, though, and so has had to make ends meet by teaching music at a New York City high school. His mother (Rashad) wants him to give up on his dreams and deal with the reality that he needs to earn a living, and it looks like he might be doing that as his part-time gig at the school is aout to be turned full-time and permanent, complete with benefits and a pension, which is exactly what his mom wants for him.

But fate isn’t done with Joe. He gets and nails an audition with legendary saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Bassett). Finally, the big break he’s been praying for. As he makes an excited call home, he doesn’t notice the manhole cover that is ide open and falls in.

He hovers between life and death and his soul heads for the great beyond, but before he can head to his final destination, incensed at the thought of dying before he can make it, which he considers to be his destiny, he escapes the conveyer belt taking him to the great light and ends up in the great before – where souls go before they are born to adqure the personality traits that will stick with them after birth. Joe is given the stubborn soul-let 22 (Fey) to mentor. She is missing the spark that will fill out her check boxes and send her to Earth to become a person. The trouble is, 22 doesn’t want to leave. And Joe doesn’t want to stay – he needs to get back into his body before he misses the gig that he has been waiting his whole life to play.

As you can see, there are some pretty heavy concepts going on here. How do we become who we are? What happens to us when we die? Not exactly typical subjects for a kid flick, but Pixar regular Pete Docter (along with Kemp Powers, who wrote the acclaimed One Night in Miami which is just about to be released on Amazon Prime as I write this) makes it not only thought-provoking, but fun as well. In the Great Before, there are beings all named Jerry (voiced, by among others, by Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) that resemble concept drawings in Picasso’s sketchbook; one of the mentors there calls human beings “meat suits.”

This is a gorgeously rendered film, as nearly all Pixar films are. The New York City here is so real you can almost smell the garbage; a rat hauls away a slice of pizza with the grease glistening on the pepperoni. It’s the details that make the film; the jazz tunes are written by John Batiste whose performance on the keyboard was filmed so that the animators could match Joe’s fingering to that of Batiste exactly.

Speaking of music, the score – by Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is lustrous and mind-bending, in my opinion one of the best scores ever to grace an animated feature. The movie also celebrates African-American culture without pandering, which Hollywood productions sometimes do.

Foxx, an Oscar winner himself, is simply outstanding as Joe. His performance is full of pathos and humor as he gives Joe a unique personality; stubborn and at the same time, giving. You root for Joe without thinking he’s too good to be true; there are definitely warts there, but Foxx makes him all too relatable. Perhaps his experience bringing Ray Charles to the screen stood him in good stead here. In any case, it should rank among Foxx’s best performances ever, which is something to crow about.

In a year that has tested all of us, this is a lovely reward for making it this far. It is the kind of movie that we can watch together as a family, whether we are actual relations or not. It is a movie that explores what it is to be human, and what it is to be more than human – to explore the nature of what a soul is. It’s a brilliant work and one of the year’s best fims, if not THE best.

REASONS TO SEE: Wildly inventive and one of Pixar’s all-time best. The score is the best ever for an animated feature. Foxx is absolutely awesome. Doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Takes on some very difficult subjects without talking down.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American as the lead character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISONSHOPPING: Inside Out
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Queer Japan

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

Ralph Breaks the Internet


Welcome to the information superhighway.

(2018) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill, Sean Giambrone, Flula Borg, Timothy Simons, Ali Wong, Hamish Blake, GloZell Green, Horatio Sanz, Rebecca Wisocky, Sam Richardson, Jaboukie Young-White, Maurice LeMarche, Melissa Villaseñor. Directed by Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

 

When last we saw video game bad guy Wreck-It Ralph (Reilly) in the movie of the same name, he had reformed and become a good guy. He had also found a new bestie, Princess Vanellope van Schweetz (Silverman). Life for the 8-bit games in Litvak’s arcade is good.

Then Vanellope’s game breaks down and they need to find the spare part it needs or else Litvak (O’Neill) will pull the plug on the game permanently. Ralph and Vanellope utilize a new Wi-Fi connection to access the Internet and what a world wide web it is! They are like a couple of kids from a rural small town in West Virginia who had never left town their entire lives suddenly waking up in Tokyo.

The details of the plot really don’t matter here; this is actually a more visually brilliant film than the predecessor, and in many ways much more fun. Whereas adults were largely the only ones in on the jokes in the first film, much of the content here will sail over the heads of parents but Internet-savvy kids will get it.

One of the most fun things about the film is how it portrays the Disney princesses, nearly all of whom make at least an appearance. They’re bad to the bone and the kind of role models that are more fitting for modern girls than perhaps Snow White or Aurora might have been back in the day. They are absolutely delightful and to my surprise the best part of the movies. I had always seen them as the epitome of spoiled little girls – ask me about my “Eff you, I’m a Princess” story sometime – but when you really think about it, Princesses should be all about empowering little girls and here, they are.

While the movie at right about two hours drags quite a bit in the middle and Ralph typically makes a mess of things despite his best intentions but while maybe not quite as subversive as the first movie was, it retains much of its heart. This is definitely a bit of an improvement and is likely to be a staple of any video game-obsessed kid for the foreseeable future.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique and wonderful environment is created. The Disney Princesses are Da Bomb!!!
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a bit in the middle with a few holes in logic confounding things.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of cartoon action as well as some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The only Princess not voiced by her original actress other than those that had passed away was Cinderella; Mary Costa was 88 years old and her voice not suitable to play a 16-year-old girl.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand,  AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tron
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Agatha and the Truth of Murder

Christopher Robin


The gang’s all here.

(2018) Family (DisneyEwan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Oliver Ford Davies, Ronke Adekoluejo, Adrian Scarborough, Jim Cummings (voice), Brad Garrett (voice), Peter Capaldi (voice), Sophie Okonedo (voice), Toby Jones (voice), Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ken Nwosu, John Dagleish, Amanda Lawrence, Orton O’Brien, Tristan Sturrock, Katy Carmichael. Directed by Marc Forster

 

Growing up is inevitable. We leave our childish things behind and become young adults, and then adults. It is the natural progression of things. It happens to us all.

It even happens to Christopher Robin (McGregor), the son of the famous author who invented Winnie the Pooh and was himself the inspiration for his namesake character. He works as an efficiency expert for a luggage firm in London (the real Christopher Robin owned a bookstore) and is miserable. He rarely sees his family anymore and wife Evelyn (Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Carmichael) have grown exasperated with their absentee husband/dad and have gone to the countryside to the house where Christopher Robin grew up. Their presence alerts Pooh (Cummings), who has discovered that his cohorts are all missing and needs Christopher Robin to come back to the Hundred Acre Wood to find them, but Christopher Robin – certain that he is cracking up under the pressure – has other fish to fry. Will he rediscover the things that are important before he loses everything?

This is very much a Disney movie and has a whole lot more in common with other Disney movies than it does with the life of the real Christopher Robin. Still, if you let the movie’s charm just envelop you, particularly if you grew up with Pooh, have a child growing up with Pooh or just like movies that are the cinematic equivalent of a grilled cheese and tomato soup, you might well find this a worthwhile investment of your time. Sure, the movie goes off the rails a bit during the climax and yes the clichés come thick and fast, but the Hundred Acre Wood is absolutely magical and the CGI creations, looking like the worn and beloved toys they once were, further that magic. This is perfect viewing for a rainy day or a summer night. Take your pick.

REASONS TO SEE: Remarkable CGI. Voice actors perfectly cast. A big warm down comforter of a movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard Disney clichés. Loses oodles of steam during the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of mild action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Legendary composer Richard B. Sherman makes a cameo appearance during the mid-credits scene. Also, much of the movie was filmed at Ashdown Woods, the original inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Woods.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney Plus, Fandango Now, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/123/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hook
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Aeronauts

Noelle


Passing Santa’s torch isn’t as easy as Tim Allen made it out to be.

(2019) Holiday Comedy (Disney PlusAnna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Hagerty, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Billy Eichner, Maceo Smedley, Diana Maria Riva, Anthony Konechny, Michael Gross, Billy Griffith, Aliza Vellani, Amital Marmorstein, Ron Funches, Gary Sekhon, Edwin Perez, Anna van Hooft, Sean Amsing, Steven Rudy, Jagen Johnson, Alvina August. Directed by Marc Lawrence

 

Whether you call him Santa Claus or Father Christmas, we have always had an idea of who and what St. Nicholas is. Jolly, red outfit, sleigh, mittens, a sack full of presents, generally a fun guy to be around.

In this new Christmas wannabe classic, the office of Santa has been handed down from father to son in the Kringle family for generations. Sadly, the old Santa has died, leaving his son Nick (Hader) as heir apparent. The problem is that Nick is much more suited to be a yoga instructor than Santa. He’s terrified of reindeer, claustrophobic in tight places (like chimneys) and can’t steer the sleigh to save his life. His sister Noelle (Kendrick) is much more adept at all these things; she also instantly understands every form of communication from American sign language to French. She also can tell by looking at any kid if they’ve been naughty or nice, and knows instinctively what present they want – in a bit of a running joke it’s usually an iPad.

With Christmas approaching, the pressure is on Nick to get his act together. When Noelle suggests he take a weekend trip to “somewhere sunny and warm,” he takes her up on it – only to decide he’s going to stay there and never return to the North Pole. Christmas is in serious jeopardy and everyone blames poor Noelle, going so far as to take away her Kringle family discount at the local hot chocolate bar and souvenir stores.

Stung, she heads to Phoenix where she thinks her brother might be, accompanied by an adorable CGI baby reindeer named Snowcone and a less adorable elf named Polly (MacLaine, who seems helplessly typecast in grouchy roles these days). Aided by a handsome private detective (Ben-Adir) who is spending his first Christmas as a single dad who is understandably not looking forward a Christmas separate from his son (Smedley) who is spending the holiday with his mom who has since remarried. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, a tech-oriented Kringle cousin (Eichner) is proposing changes that might just ruin Christmas forever if Noelle doesn’t find Nick and persuade him to put on the red coat and make his Christmas Eve run.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this. Most of the ideas it has have been horked from other films that are way better than this one (Da Queen characterized this as “a not funny Elf) like Arthur Christmas, f’rinstance. There is enough product placement in the movie to make an old capitalist’s heart warm and toasty, which might rub progressive sorts the wrong way but then again, when you think about it, Disney is essentially a massive product placement for itself.

That said, the movie isn’t without its high points. Kendrick is an engaging performer and nobody does adorable quite as well as she does except for maybe Amy Adams in her prime. On a personal note, I’m always up to see MacLaine in anything, even if I’d love to see her do something in which she doesn’t play a curmudgeon which seems to be all she’s cast as these days. Hader hits all the right comedy notes in his performance and the movie really hums along during his training sequence – had the movie continued more along those lines, this might have become the Christmas classic it so desperately wants to be.

The big problem here is that this feels very much like a Disney Channel film in all the most negative aspects of their programming. Insipid pop soundtrack, really groan-inducing Christmas-themed jokes (“Oh, my garland!”) and a plot that seems to be dumbed down so that even ten-year-olds are rolling their eyes. Of course, Noelle should be the replacement Santa; nobody who isn’t brain dead can figure that out.

The subplot of rethinking gender roles is probably not going to play well with the Fox News crowd (some of whom are already trolling reviews elsewhere) but it at least gives some food for thought in a meal otherwise full of empty calories.

REASONS TO SEE: Interesting subtext on gender roles.
REASONS TO AVOID: All the negatives of Disney Channel fare.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally intended for theatrical release, but Disney decided to put it on their brand-new streaming platform to give it additional value.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney+
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A New Christmas

The Incredibles 2


The Incredibles live in a bubble.

(2018) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Michael Bird, Sophia Bush, Brad Bird, Phil LaMarr, Isabella Rossellini, Jonathan Banks, Barry Bostwick, Adam Gates, John Ratzenberger, Bill Wise, Kimberly Adair Clark. Directed by Brad Bird

 

Pixar’s 2004 animated superhero movie The Incredibles is for many fans of comic books their favorite offering from the computer animated giant. After 14 years, director Brad Bird has finally found a story to tell that he thinks is worthy of the franchise, but is it?

Well, nearly. A telecommunications mogul (Odenkirk) and his whiz-kid sister (Keener) want very much to lift the superhero ban that has hamstrung the caped heroes of old but rather than choosing Mr. Incredible (Nelson) as their poster boy, instead they select his wife Elasti-Girl (Hunter) who is far less destructive and a role model for women. With new superheroes coming out of the woodwork, Mr. Incredible becomes something of a house-husband taking care of angsty teenager Violet (Vowell), hyperactive kid Dash (Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Fucile) who is developing some destructive powers of his own. However, there’s a villain (LaMarr) out there who is hypnotizing people through their computer/smartphone/tablet screens into acts of violence. Can Elasti-Girl stop the carnage?

Maybe it’s just the glut of superhero films talking but this feels kind of tired and old hat. The technical end is, as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, dazzling and the superhero battles (including one between Jack-Jack and a persistent raccoon) rival anything Marvel or DC have done. Hunter does a great job carrying the film largely but as with most team superhero movies, there are too many characters and that means many of them get little sunlight. Overall, the movie feels aimed more at a younger audience (despite the subtext that those devices that connect us to the Internet fail to connect us to life) but at just about two hours in running length, it seems a bit much to ask most kids to sit still for that much time.

REASONS TO SEE: The superhero battles are nicely done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very formulaic and predictable; it feels like it was aimed at a much younger audience than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic book action violence and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dash is shown eating Sugar Bombs, the chocolate frosted version of which is the favorite cereal of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Four
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Destination Dewsbury