Star Wars: The Last Jedi


In any Star Wars film sparks will fly and stuff will burn.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney) Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Frank Oz, Benicio Del Toro, Justin Theroux, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotomo, Amanda Lawrence, Jimmy Vee, Veronica Ngo. Directed by Rian Johnson

In the annals of all things cinematic, no film franchise has ever elicited as much anticipation as the Star Wars franchise has with every film that’s come out since the first one. Say what you want about their fandom, they are among the most loyal of any fanbase for just about anything anywhere; many of its fans go back to the first 1977 film forty years before the latest one came out.

And there are no signs of the franchise slowing down anytime soon. Not only is there a standalone Han Solo film coming out this summer, but earlier this year it was announced that another trilogy has been approved by Disney (to nobody’s surprise) after the current trilogy concludes next year. Rian Johnson, director of this episode, will be overseeing it although whether that means he will be directing all three of the films, writing them or acting more like a kind of Yoda for the filmmakers who will be involved with the fourth trilogy remains to be seen.

While this is the longest of the films to date, for the most part it doesn’t seem that way thanks to incredible special effects which have become and remained the norm for the series. Like The Force Awakens there seems like a lot of story lines that were cobbled from other films in the series (a last stand on an ice planet? C’mon, guys) and elsewhere. On top of that there are all sorts of threads going on here and while they seem to reach a conclusion, it still feels like we’re slogging through story more than we should be.

But there is a whole lot to like about the movie as well. One of the main things is Mark Hamill. He has delivered one of his best performances ever and certainly his best Luke Skywalker ever. I worried early on that he would be curmudgeonly “get off my lawn” Luke for the whole movie but thankfully he shows some growth, particularly in the final act. The film ends on a grace note that is as magical a moment as you’ll find in the entire series.

There are other fine performances and storylines here but Ridley as Rey was not as compelling as she was previously. Boyega also seems to be written as kind of a one-note character. Laura Dern is a welcome addition to the Star Wars Universe, giving a performance that matches some of the veteran cast members note for note. Oscar Isaac seems to be developing into a very interesting character and the storyline with Rose (Tran) was one of the best in the film. However, I think the movie will be long-remembered for being Carrie Fisher’s last appearance as Princess Lea (Episode IX director J.J. Abrams has stated that Fisher won’t be appearing in any form in that movie).

On the other hand, there’s Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order who is played via motion capture by the great Andy Serkis. When you have maybe the best motion capture performer of all time to utilize it seems a bloody shame to use so little of him. He is almost casually dispatched early in the movie which may end up being a tactical error or not. The Emperor surrogate role now falls to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren who may not be wholly evil after all as Anakin Skywalker was. But can anyone be both Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine at once? That remains to be seen.

This is superior entertainment and helped 2017 end on a record-breaking note. While many fans sniped over some of the story points (even Hamill reportedly wasn’t happy about the direction his charcter was taking) there’s no doubt that the franchise is as healthy as it ever was. Most people reading this have likely already seen the film multiple times in the theaters and await with varying degrees of eagerness for it to become available for their home collections. Well, so is this critic.

REASONS TO GO: As always, the special effects are as breathtaking as any in the movies. The action sequences are also top of the line. Hamill delivers his best performance of the series.
REASONS TO STAY: The buildup for Snoke led to somewhat of a letdown. The story is unnecessarily convoluted and once again feels like it was borrowed from other episodes..
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect from a film of this franchise there is all sorts of action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing Luke Skywalker, Hamill also played a CGI character who can be seen putting money into BB-8 during the casino scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Scorched Earth

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An American Werewolf in London


Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

sixdays2016-5

In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace


The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

(1999) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed (voice), Lewis Macleod (voice), Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley. Directed by George Lucas

 

sci-fi-spectacle

The Star Wars franchise has been a cultural touchstone for many since the film series debuted in 1977 and remains a beloved cinematic collection for most. However, none of the films in the series has been reviled by its fanbase as much as this one.

It starts with a breakdown in negotiations between the Republic and the Trade Federation (think Ferengi) to end a blockade around the planet Naboo, resulting in an assassination attempt on Jedi Knight negotiators Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor). The Trade Federation ends up invading Naboo and the two Jedi, aided by a Gungan (one of two sentient species on the planet) named Jar-Jar Binks (Best) rescue Queen Amidala (Portman) and flee the planet in her starship, sustaining damage and forcing them to land on a faraway desert planet with their hyper drive out of commission.

The desert planet they are stranded on ends up being Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a young boy who was born a slave and lives with his mother (August). Jinn notices that the boy is incredibly strong in the force; so much so that he has the potential to become the most powerful Jedi in history. As most fans know, what he actually ends up being is Darth Vader. They enter the precocious boy in a violent and dangerous pod race to not only get the parts they need to repair their ship but to win the boy’s freedom as well.

The Jedi bring back their findings to the Jedi counsel, led by Master Yoda (Oz) and Master Mace Windu (Jackson), along with the boy whom Qui-Gon puts forward for training. Yoda and Windu, both concerned about the boy’s susceptibility to the dark side, turn down the request so of course Qui-Gon decides to train Anakin himself. In the meantime, things on Naboo are coming to a crucial point and Amidala, frustrated that the Galactic Senate is too corrupt to act, returns to Naboo to lead her people in a struggle against their oppressors. That corruption is being fanned by Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who is orchestrating these events with an eye to eventually cause the Republic to crumble and install an empire with a Sith Lord at its head.

The effects for the film were in 1999 absolutely breathtaking. Lucas and his technical crew created a number of wildly different environments, from the undersea world of the Gungan people to the Venice-like capital city of Naboo to the desert world of Tatooine to the massive skyscrapers of Coruscant, the capital of the Republic. Each of the environments is distinct and realistic and paved the way for the computer generated worlds that we take for granted today in modern blockbusters.

The Star Wars series has never been noted for its character development and for the most part there is almost none here. Yes, familiar faces are around in the film which takes place more than 30 years before the original, including Yoda and droids R2D2 (Baker) and C-3PO (Daniels) the latter of which is essentially a skeletal frame of a droid that Anakin is building. We kind of know who they are because we’ve grown up with them and it is pleasing to see some of their backstory.

Unfortunately, Lucas wanted to make the movie more family-friendly which was a wild misstep. Binks has become something of a symbol and for all the wrong reasons; he is so hated by the fanbase of the films that his role was greatly reduced in the following two films of the trilogy – who can forget the rap parody starring Binks “Me-ssa So Horny”? The character was meant to be comic relief but ended up being a tremendous irritant.

I don’t like criticizing child actors because they aren’t equipped to deal with the criticism as well as their adult counterparts so I’ll criticize Lucas instead – putting Jake Lloyd in the role of Anakin, a role that was so super critical to the film was absolutely irresponsible. Not only does Lloyd not have the acting ability to handle it, his flat line reading and irritating demeanor stop the film dead in its tracks. Lucas should never have put a kid – any kid – under so much pressure. Lloyd did the best he could under the circumstances but I’m not sure anyone could have handled the scrutiny that Lloyd was under. As much as I sympathize with the youngster, there is no getting away that his performance is detrimental to the film overall.

There are a lot of good things about the film – the duel between Qui-Gon and Sith warrior Darth Maul (Park) is absolutely spectacular, one of the best in cinematic history. Still, this has to rank among the most disappointing films ever. The anticipation for a new Star Wars film was so great that almost nothing could have lived up to the expectations of the fans, but this was so far below the bar that the series had nowhere to go but up, but it would take 16 years before fans got the satisfying sequel they were looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Seeing Yoda fight is a completely badass experience. Neeson lends some much-needed gravitas. Park very nearly steals the movie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jake Lloyd is absolutely wooden. Jar Jar Binks is an abomination. The whole thing is entirely too dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of action and violence of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keira Knightley’s first name was misspelled as “Kiera” in the credits.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a series of a dozen documentaries produced for the film’s website; some of the footage from these docs appear in the main “making-of” featurette. There are also plenty of stills and animatics from the pre-production as well as a featurette on the making of the videogame based on the movie.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes, Google Play (purchase only), Fandango Now (purchase only)
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.027B on a $115M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix Revolutions
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2

Monsters University


Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Nathan Fillion, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger, Frank Oz, Lori Alan. Directed by Dan Scanlon

College is a nifty place. While we’re there, we’re kind of in a neither-nor phase of life – our responsibilities are few but we get to hang out, goof off and drink beer at fairly unreasonable rates. Of course, we’re supposedly learning things as well but college often teaches us more about life than about the vocation we’re about to embark on.

Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has dreamed of being a scarer ever since he was a little eyeball. Now he’s a teenage eyeball with one eye on his future and one eye on his dreams which can be complicated when you only have one eye. Oh, in case you didn’t see Monsters Inc. which is the movie this is a prequel to, scarers are monsters who enter dimensional doorways into the rooms of children in the human world. Said monsters scare the little vermin into screaming and those screams are used to power the monster world. I say little vermin for a reason; to monsters, human children are toxic and to be avoided at all costs.

His roommate is James P. Sullivan (Goodman), an eight-feet tall furry blue Bigfoot who comes from a long line of scarers and as a legacy at Monsters University expects to sail through – he shows up at class without book, pen or paper. He is immediately snatched by the high and mighty ROR fraternity whose preppy devil of a leader, Johnny Worthington (Fillion) sees a kindred spirit in Sully.

Overseeing all of this is Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), a kind of cross between a dragon, a centipede, a scorpion and the demon of Bald Mountain with a patrician British accent. She herself is an ex-record breaking scarer and started a Greek games kind of competition to discover the best scarer on campus.

Mike and Sully take to each other like Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj, only more civilized. A rivalry forms between Mike, who is brilliant and hardworking but has no natural scariness, and Sully who has all the tools he needs but none of the drive or the work ethic. When their shenanigans get them expelled from the Scarer Program at MU, they realize that the only way back into the program is to win the Scare Games and in order to do that, they’ll have to join a frat. The only one that will have them are the misfits of Oozma Kappa, led by Squishy (Sohn) mainly because the frat house is his mom’s house; new student Don (Murray), an old school car salesman who after being laid off returns to college to get a better education and better life prospects, Art (Day) who looks a little bit like an I-Beam with legs and finally Terry (Foley) and Terri (Hayes), a two headed monster one of whom is a dance major and the other one isn’t. Leading these misfits to the title is going to involve making a team out of them but how can they when both Mike and Sully are way too involved in their own selves to create a team out of individuals?

First, this isn’t as good as Monsters Inc. although it really doesn’t need to be – in my opinion that is one of the best movies to come out of Pixar ever and it really never got the respect it deserves. This isn’t on that level but the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. This is a solidly entertaining effort with plenty of great visual gags and as is usually the case with Pixar movies, enough detail that the movie can be watched a whole lot of times without getting tired – while discovering something new each time you watch it.

Part of the secret to the first film’s success (and this one’s as well) is the chemistry between Crystal and Goodman. They make an excellent yin and yang and banter like they’ve been doing it forever which they kind of have. Both are naturally funny guys with Crystal the manic Borscht belt guy and Goodman the easygoing jock who throws off an occasional killer one-liner when you least expect it.

I have to say I’m not sure it was a good idea to do a prequel; I think that seeing the monster world after the events of Monsters Inc. would have made a far more interesting movie than this one was; the hoary old cliché of best friends starting off as worst enemies (and vice versa in the case of Randall Boggs, the chameleon-like creature voiced by Buscemi) – is there anyone in your life that you started out hating but then wound up as best buddies? Do you know anybody who has a friendship like that?

As their impressive weekend box office figures showed, a lot of families were just waiting on this film to come out and it’s likely to have a pretty strong two week run before Despicable Me opens up over the Independence Day holiday weekend. There has been a dearth of family films this year and it’s about time there was something moms and dads could go see with their kids to get out of the summer heat. Do be aware however that some of the littler kids in the screening at Downtown Disney that we attended had some problems with a couple of the scarier aspects of the monsters (Sully’s roar for example) and while most of the monsters are of the cute ‘n’ cuddly variety, if your child is extremely sensitive you might want to take that into account before going. After all, you can always get the Blu-Ray and let your progeny see the movie after they’re a little older. In any case, I think this is pretty much ideal summertime family entertainment so get your little rug rats dressed up and load up the station wag…err, minivan…and head out to the multiplex if you haven’t already. And maybe again if you already have.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Pixar – even their worst films are better than most animated features.

REASONS TO STAY: May disappoint those looking for something as good as Monsters Inc.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pizza Planet truck can be found parked outside the ROR frat house during the party (it has appeared in every Pixar film since Toy Story). Also, the Professor Knights’ scarer 101 course takes place in room A113, a reference to the room at CalArts where animation is taught and another item that appears in every Pixar film

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews, the critics definitely liked it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Accepted

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Sixth Sense

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo and Friend

(2011) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney, Martin P. Robinson, Bill Baretta, Jim Henson, Bob Keeshan, Kermit Love. Directed by Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

 

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some dream of being an artist, or an astronaut or a hero. Other dreams are smaller than that – some in fact downright pint-sized. Some dreams come covered in fur and foam.

Ever since he was a kid in Baltimore, Kevin Clash dreamed of being a puppeteer. One look at Sesame Street and he was hooked. So much so that he made his own puppet – out of the lining of his father’s overcoat. Rather than getting a spanking, he got encouragement which I believe qualifies his parents for instant admission to heaven right there.

While most kids in his working class neighborhood were playing sports, Kevin was putting on puppet shows. His early shows caught the eye of a children’s show host in the Baltimore area and before long Kevin was performing on television.

After graduating high school, he went to New York City to work on the old Captain Kangaroo show as an onscreen actor and puppeteer but his heart still belonged to Jim Henson and the Muppets which were just starting to take off. Kevin had learned everything he knew from watching Sesame Street but he needed to know more.

For that he needed a mentor and he couldn’t have asked for a better one than Kermit Love. Love was one of Henson’s go-to guys in terms of building and designing Muppets and although the name recalls one of Henson’s other creations, Kermit the Frog was actually created by Henson years before he met Love.

Love encouraged the young African-American puppeteer and gave him good career advice throughout Clash’s career. With Love’s encouragement, Clash got to work as a puppeteer on a Sesame Street Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float which led him to getting a gig on Sesame Street itself.

It was there when a frustrated senior puppeteer threw a furry red Muppet at Clash and said “See what you can do with him” that Elmo was born. With the piping high voice and the insatiable need for hugs, Clash immediately saw that Elmo represented love. Children all over the world responded to Elmo, realizing that he needed them as much as they needed him.

This would take a toll on Clash’s marriage and home life. Although his relationship with his daughter seems to be pretty good, he expresses regret that he missed a lot of her childhood. Unfortunately, not a lot of that is explored to any extent in the documentary. In fact, we don’t even learn when or why his marriage ended (although given the time demands on Clash and his insistence that he do everything Elmo-related himself the reasons seem somewhat clear).

In fact it could be said that the documentary doesn’t really deal with anything negative at all. We get a sense that Kevin had a difficult time in establishing his career, but it’s mostly glossed over. We are told he got teased as a child but we don’t get to hear what he thought about it.

Clash is an intensely private and shy person who doesn’t really like talking about himself which is awfully ironic because he plays a character who certainly isn’t shy about expressing his feelings and actually teaches kids how to express theirs. We never hear about how or even whether his ethnic background was an issue in his career – one thinks not, but his is the only African-American face we see among the puppeteers in the movie with the exception being an aspiring puppeteer – a young girl from Atlanta whom is looking for mentoring from Kevin the same way Kevin looked to Kermit Love.

The stories are heartwarming at times – enough so I probably rated the film a little bit higher than I would have normally. We see Kevin’s reaction to a dying child wanting to meet Elmo, or Kevin’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson – but there is little flesh added to the story. We hear the how, the who, the when, the what but rarely the why. It took the filmmakers six years to film this and it’s disheartening that I know little more about Kevin Clash than I could have read in his online bio.

On the surface, Kevin is a great subject for a documentary but this isn’t a great documentary. I would have liked to get inside Kevin’s head and heart a little bit more, find out more of the process that brought Elmo from felt and foam into flesh. In that sense, this film could have learned from Henson himself; the characters should be more than just what you see on the surface. They are made real by what animates them. I would have liked to have discovered more about what animates Kevin Clash.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely heartwarming. A few tugs at the heartstrings.

REASONS TO STAY: The documentary structure asked some questions I wanted answers to late in the film and bounced back and forth in the linear timeline a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a drug reference and a couple of mild swear words but okay for most Sesame Street-aged kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: Should probably be seen at home, although if it is playing in a local art house it wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit of support.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill begins!

New Releases for the Week of December 16, 2011


December 16, 2011

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Eddie Marsan, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine Hudson, Paul Anderson. Directed by Guy Ritchie

Holmes is pitted against his archrival, Professor Moriarty and the stakes couldn’t possibly get higher. When the Crown Prince of Austria is discovered dead, all signs point to suicide – but Holmes sees the signs nobody else can see and deduces that the Prince was in truth murdered and that murder is part of a larger plot, one that would plunge Europe into chaos and indeed change the course of history. Holmes must enlist his stalwart friend Dr. Watson and enlist the help of a gypsy to stop Moriarty’s fiendish plans and save Europe from catastrophe.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material)

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

(20th Century Fox) Jason Lee, David Cross, Jenny Slate, Justin Long. The lovable chipmunks turn what was supposed to be a relaxing cruise into their own brand of fun. The fun ends when they get stranded on a remote island. The furry rodents plot their escape to get back home but then it turns out the island isn’t as deserted as they thought.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: G

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

(Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Frank Oz.  A young man becomes enchanted with Sesame Street and resolves to become a Muppeteer. That this young man is an African American raises all sorts of different obstacles, but this young man will eventually become the voice and the soul of Elmo, arguably the most beloved Muppet of them all and certainly one of the most popular.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Dragonslayer

(Drag City) Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, Leslie. The winner of Best Documentary from the most recent SXSW Film Festival, Dragonslayer chronicles disaffected youth Josh “Skreech” Sandoval from Fullerton, California. Skreech lives the skate punk ethos, possessing as little as possible, staying high as much as possible and skating whenever possible, finding abandoned swimming pools to swoop and glide in.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Young Adult

(Paramount) Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser. A successful writer of teen literature returns to where she grew up for a class reunion, she plots to reclaim her high school sweetheart. Never mind that he is happily married with a baby on the way, that’s just petty distractions. Along the way she kindles a strange friendship with a misfit who also never got past high school. This reteams director Jason Reitman with writer Diablo Cody who together made Juno.

See the trailer, clips, promos and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Black Comedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)