Review – Black Panther

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If one needed any further evidence that Marvel Studios has its fingers firmly on the pulse of modern audiences, look no further than the fervor surrounding the newest entry in the vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.  While the Black Panther has been well-known to comic fans for over fifty years after being created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for FANTASTIC FOUR #52 in 1966, he has remained a relatively unknown bit of trivia for the general public, much like the Guardians of the Galaxy once were.  Yet, there is practically every bit the excitement surrounding this film as there has been for any of Marvel’s other recent releases, with box office records expected to not only fall but be obliterated over the weekend.

Without question, Marvel and Disney know how to market their properties, but they’ve also built up good will with audiences and critics alike (every single MCU entry has garnered positive reviews, overall), so audiences feel safe in “risking” their money on a ticket to see the latest MCU effort.  But in addition to all of that, Black Panther is tapping into the same vein that both of last year’s hits Get Out and Wonder Woman tapped into.  The film is very appealing to an audience that has been underserved by the genre of comic book films.  There have been black superheroes before, but – as far as leading roles go – it’s been a while and little to none of them have been presented with the same sense of prestige and scale as the Black Panther is being presented.  Just as Wonder Woman was a superhero who happened to be a female, rather than a “female superhero” (“Look!  A superhero who keeps reminding you she’s female!  Yay!”), the Panther isn’t a “black superhero” but rather a superhero (and king) who is also black.  Don’t overlook the difference, because it’s all-important.

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So, after being introduced to audiences in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we finally have the Black Panther’s formal debut.  I’ve had much about how the film isn’t a “typical Marvel movie”, and that would be true if there were such a thing.  But Marvel Studios has given us action films, comedies, espionage stories, heist films, mysteries, dramas, coming of age movies, space operas, period pieces, and virtually everything else (except for horror).  And now, in the form of Black Panther, Marvel and Coogler have given us a bombastic social commentary, though not necessarily of the kind one might presume.

What Coogler has delivered is a film about equality in all of its forms.  The goal is not to spread a message of “black power”.  In fact, the narrative goes out of its way to make the point that power should be wielded responsibly and benevolently.  Rather than being about any sort of “power”, the film preaches empathy, tolerance, and understanding.  Chadwick Boseman’s title character bears the birth name of T’Challa, with the Black Panther being a mantle that is passed down from one king to the next.  How that power is wielded is the primary focus of the story and is represented by multiple points of view, all with a component of validity.

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Many people in the past have drawn a comparison between the dichotomous dynamic of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and that of the X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto due to their similar respective ideologies regarding discrimination and race relations, though a more direct comparison can now be made from the real-world civil rights-era figureheads to T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.  Ultimately, the message in the film is that nothing should matter less than skin color.  For T’Challa, it’s completely irrelevant.  He won’t even entertain that discussion.  All that truly matters are ideals.  One can choose inclusion or exclusion.  It’s a choice we each make every day.  We make it in small ways and we make it in large ways.  But we all do it, without exception, every single day.  And that is the choice that truly defines us, both as individuals and as a culture.

Coogler and Marvel have assembled a stellar cast and crew to help them to tell this story.  In addition to Boseman’s T’Challa (who is complex, layered, and majestic) and Jordan’s Killmonger (who is technically a villain but will likely have many viewers wondering if his basic beliefs are really that off-kilter), audiences will enjoy a memorable supporting cast of authentically complicated characters portrayed by talented performers.  The biggest crowd-pleaser of the bunch will likely be Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister.  We can’t know if her character will eventually follow the same path as her comic book counterpart (comic fans know what I’m talking about.  The rest of you can look it up if you want to risk being spoiled down the line.), but either way, she is a welcome addition to the proceedings and Wright plays her with unbridled joy and enthusiasm.

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I could nitpick.  The action is solid (with a grand finale) but not overly groundbreaking, though Shuri designs some extremely ingenious tech.  It’s guilty of one trope that the MCU is often guilty of in that the villain becomes a super-powered clone of the hero (we’ve seen it before in Iron ManThe Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain America: The First AvengerAnt-Man, and Doctor Strange).  And, while it’s a good time, it’s not quite as much pure fun as many other recent spectacle films, both Marvel and otherwise.  But it doesn’t necessarily need to be as it offers a certain kind of substance that many of those other films did not.  The film breaks ground by taking the high road and refusing to indulge those who are waiting for it to in some way – any way – stick its foot in its mouth.  Using this film as a provocative conversation starter would have been easy.  But, instead, Coogler and Marvel take a much more difficult and admirable route: they deliver a film that is a poignant, powerful, and punctuated conversation ender.

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Review – Black Panther

#ThrowbackThursday – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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Original US release date: July 28. 1951
Production budget: $3,000,000
Worldwide gross: $5,200,000

Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  The first feature-length animated film in movie history?  The one that grossed $185 million on a $1.5 million budget, simply by virtue of being the first of its kind?  Well, that was almost Alice in Wonderland.  Walt Disney had been a lifetime fan of Lewis Carroll’s works and had plans to make this film before Snow White.  He was initially unable to procure a treatment for the film that he was satisfied with and the project stalled, falling by the wayside in favor of Snow White.  It wasn’t until after World War II – over a decade later – that Disney finally found the approach that he liked and Alice in Wonderland was released, eventually becoming a legendary all-time classic in the world of animated cinema.

I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that this is going to be a positive review.  Disney’s adaptation of this story is still my favorite version and actually made me a fan of the Alice story, in general.  I have read Carroll’s original books (though it’s been a while) and seen many adaptations, both live action and animated, over the years.  And this one is still the best.

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Disney’s version adapts material from both of Carroll’s Alice books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Disney doesn’t squeeze everything from both books into their version but they manage to get a lot of it in there.  And with a very brisk running time of 75 minutes, they don’t waste any time getting right to it.  As Alice lounges around while being read to by her older sister, she desperately wishes to have a more exciting life.  As she begins to drift to sleep, her cat Dinah runs off, necessitating a chase by Alice.  As she follows Dinah, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, plunging an untold depth as she calmly shouts a goodbye to her beloved cat, sure that her wish for a more exciting existence is about to bear fruit.

The structure of the film results in the narrative playing out almost as if it’s designed as an anthology of short stories centering around Alice’s adventures, rather than one continuous tale.  In a way, that’s exactly what it is, as Alice bounces from one whimsical land to the next, meeting a cornucopia of colorful – both literally and figuratively – characters with each transition.  Each character she meets makes their mark and leaves a lasting impression on both Alice and the audience.  They either have their own minor adventure going on, a story to tell, or a song to sing.  Or, perhaps, they have a question.  There are lots of questions for Alice, ranging from the existential (“Whhhhhhhoooo r u?”) to the enigmatic (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”).  Eventually, they are all brought together to form a singular, cohesive narrative.

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The story and characters are brought to life by Disney’s traditional and classic animation style.  As always, it’s smooth, clean, and extremely pleasing to the eye.  The character designs are brilliant as are the voice talents who bring them to life.  The vast majority of these characters have also withstood the test of time and gone on to become pillars of the Disney brand.  In addition to Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Queen of Hearts have all had tremendous staying power within the pop culture zeitgeist and it’s all because of this Disney adaptation.  If only the Jabberwocky had been included, as well.

Thematically speaking, each challenge that Alice encounters requires her to look for the solution within herself.  Absolutely no one that she comes across is of any help to her.  She develops a resourcefulness and an ability to assert herself in order to survive and find her way home.  And eventually, that’s exactly what she wants, as she comes to the conclusion that she should have been careful what she wished for, because she certainly got it.  Boring isn’t always so bad.

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Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a short, but supremely entertaining grass-is-greener story.  It prioritizes entertainment over education (and certainly does nothing to discourage children from eating wild mushrooms) but that’s okay.  The lessons are there as subtext and could invite a good conversation between children and their parents, should the parents desire to have one.  If not, it’s not a loss, because the film is an all-time classic from the days when hand-drawn animation was the height of cartoon technology, rather than being considered an archaic relic, as it is today.  These older films should still be appreciated by people of all ages and Alice in Wonderland makes that easy to do with its eclectic mix of art, music, eccentricity, and a timeless tale of one little girl who should have been out of her league but was strong enough to not only survive, but triumph and stand tall.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Review – Paddington 2

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I had absolutely no interest in seeing Paddington 2.  None.  I saw the first film, just a week or two ago, and didn’t love it.  It wasn’t poorly made, or anything.  It just wasn’t made for me.  The humor and presentation were squarely aimed at kids, with little for adults to enjoy.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it didn’t exactly fill me with excitement for seeing another installment by the same filmmakers, including director Paul King who returns to helm this sequel.  To be fair, though, most critics and audiences, alike, enjoyed that first film, so I decided that I could be willing to give the series another chance and check out the new one – especially after its crazy reviews.

Oh, right – the reviews for Paddington 2 . . ..  For those who are unaware, Paddington 2 is officially the highest rated film in Rotten Tomatoes history (though, as I illustrate here, you’re probably using Rotten Tomatoes incorrectly).  It is one of only a handful of films to ever earn a 100% score on the review aggregation site and it’s done so with more reviews than any of the others that managed to achieve that milestone.  So, really . . . I kind of had to see it, right?  Even if I’m a couple of weeks behind, I just had to see it.  In spite of those reviews, I still expected to dislike it at worst and be bored at best.  I was straight up wrong.

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In the film, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) sets his sights on a rare and expensive birthday present for the aunt who raised him and he left behind in the woods, so long ago.  As he assumes the responsibility of earning the money for it all on his own by taking odd jobs, the intended gift is stolen and things quickly spiral out of control for Paddington and his adoptive family, the Browns.

The first item I want to touch on is what I mostly disliked about the first film: the humor.  It’s definitely better in the sequel, with subtlety and a traditional British dryness about it that, while not uproarious, certainly works.  The humor sneaks in there without feeling the need to announce itself as humor.  You either catch it or you don’t.  And, thankfully, there are enough instances of comedy aimed at adults – through sophistication, not any sort of inappropriateness – that parents (or film geeks who just want to see what all the fuss is about) will be amused.

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But what surprised me the most was how many elements of other films and shows – films and shows that wouldn’t be expected – I found in Paddington 2.  For example, part of the film takes place in a prison and while that on its own isn’t enough to draw any sort of insightful comparison to “Orange is the New Black”, Brendan Gleeson’s Knuckle McGinty character is.  His arc is evocative of one of the Netflix series’s more memorable character arcs.

Also, as Hugh Grant’s Phoenix Buchanan searches for his own treasure, his path is reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code.  Buchanan is also an actor in the twilight of his career, being relegated to doing dog food commercials.  I couldn’t help but think of Birdman but, more than that, Grant’s own star isn’t what it once was and, similar to Buchanan’s reputation taking a hit for appearing in a dog food commercial (which is one of the highlights of the film), Grant took some flak in certain circles for appearing in this very film.  That adds another more meta aspect to his role and performance and it certainly seems like Grant is getting the last laugh, right about now.

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But there was one other comparison I kept making and it had to do with Paddington’s characterization.  Paddington is irresistibly lovable and, as I watched, I made a concerted effort to put my finger on why.  Yes, he’s a cuddly little bear with an English accent, but so is James Corden, and he can be divisive.  No, it’s something beyond that.  And then it hit me.  Paddington is likeable for the exact same reason that Deadpool was likeable in his 2016 film: authenticity.  It was here (in one of my more popular columns) where I pointed out that people love Deadpool not because he’s violent, not because he’s funny, and not because of the foul mouth that the film version has and the comic version usually doesn’t, but because he’s earnest.

In that way, Paddington is the same.  When Paddington is funny, it’s not because he’s trying to be funny; it’s because he’s just being himself.  When Paddington is helpful, it’s not because he’s looking to get something in return; he’s just being himself.  When Paddington is angry, he’s not worried about how the target of his anger will react or feel; he’s just being himself.  And when Paddington is being loving towards his family and friends, it’s not because he’s trying to selfishly retain them to satisfy his own needs; it’s because he genuinely loves them.

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This idea is the cornerstone of the film.  Ultimately, the message of Paddington 2 is that love and kindness have ripple effects that make life better for both the giver and the receiver, first in little ways and then compounding into more significant, long-term aftereffects that can change a person’s life for the better.  The word that keeps coming up in reference to Paddington 2 is “charming” and I’m going to have to use it, too.  Because, amidst its charismatic characters, heartwarming story, downplayed humor, creative shot framing, and majestic English setting, the film has an undeniable charm that is missing from most movies, these days.  Paddington 2 is a throwback to the days when simplicity was king and high ethics and morals as well as family values were considered boons, not banes.

Maybe I’ll give the first film another chance, once I get through watching some other movies and shows I have on deck at home.  Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for it, the first time around.  Regardless, I’m glad I took my own advice, listened to the critics, and saw Paddington 2.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll try marmalade soon, too.

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Review – Paddington 2

#ThrowbackThursday – The Muppets Take Manhattan

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Original US release date: July 13, 1984
Production budget: $8,000,000
Worldwide gross: $25,534,703

Much to my surprise, my #ThrowbackThursday columns on the Muppet films have been surprisingly popular, so I’m back with another installment.  Following the original (and wildly successful) The Muppet Movie (#TBT column) and its sequel The Great Muppet Caper (#TBT column), The Muppets Take Manhattan is another twist on the versatile Muppet concept, as Kermit leads the group to New York in an effort to make it big on Broadway.

I was a fan of The Muppet Movie but found myself disappointed with its follow-up, The Great Muppet Caper.  In that one, the humor was contrived and lacked the wit and charm that the Muppets have been known for throughout their existence.  And it wasn’t just the humor that felt forced, but the entire film was molded around it in a way that just hampered the entire project.  It had been many years since I had seen the third film in the series, The Muppets Take Manhattan, so I was afraid that it would be more of the same.  Thankfully, those fears were unfounded and the franchise got back on track with this entry.  In fact, I may have even enjoyed it more than I did The Muppet Movie.

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The Muppets franchise frequently mixes up their theatrical efforts by switching between films that portray the characters as themselves and others that feature them putting on a performance as entertainers.  The first film was of the former nature with the second being of the latter.  I’m more of a fan of the films that feature the characters as themselves and that’s the route that Frank Oz takes the Muppets in as he directs The Muppets Take Manhattan.  That preference is just my personal taste, of course, but I think the films are helped by presenting the interactions between the characters that audiences have come to love and expect.  If we’re seeing the Muppets as actors putting on a performance, those hallmarks of the property are diluted at best and jettisoned at worst.  That’s not an issue here, as the expected character groupings (Kermit/Piggy, Gonzo/Camilla, etc.) are in tact and delivering what the viewer hopes to see.

Ultimately, though, the stories of these films aren’t very important.  They’re just there to provide a framework for what truly matters: the humor and entertainment value.  After a huge misfire in the previous film, The Muppets Take Manhattan returns the franchise to fine form.  The humor is relaxed and even elegant in a way, branching naturally from organic conversations and situations.  Almost all of it is delivered through witty dialogue or quirky character traits, with the occasional dalliance into slapstick.  The slapstick is used sparingly, however, making it all that much more effective while also not wearing out its welcome.

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The musical numbers are solid as well.  A Muppets favorite, “Together Again” makes its return.  There’s also “Saying Goodbye” which is a rather touching number about parting ways with friends.  And then, there’s also “I’m Gonna Always Love You”, which is featured in the extremely memorable – and overwhelmingly adorable – Muppet Babies dream sequence.  This was the debut of the Muppet Babies, as the film hit theaters a couple of months before the classic animated series debuted on Saturday mornings (I can still hear that opening theme song).  Kudos to that particular marketing coup and kudos, in general, to songwriter Jeff Moss for ensuring that the Muppets deliver in one of the arenas for which they are best known.

The Great Muppet Caper did not perform terribly well, which made sense seeing as how it wasn’t particularly good.  In response, the budget for The Muppets Take Manhattan was reportedly approximately halved and the Muppets were taken back to their roots.  Looking at raw data, Manhattan made less money than Caper but made much more of a profit (if Caper made a profit, at all, which is questionable).  Still, the brand had been somewhat tarnished and was also showing its age.  After this film, it would be eight years before the Muppets would return to movie theaters.  That’s indicative of a trend that occurs often today, in which a poorly-received film is followed up by a superior film that many people avoid because they didn’t like the previous installment.  As always, that’s a shame, but an understandable one.

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Still, The Muppets Take Manhattan shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of its father, so to speak.  It’s a sharp, enjoyable ride that delivers what fans have come to expect from the Muppets.  I’m glad to see that I shouldn’t expect all of these movies to be a disappointment as I continue to re-watch them down the line.  If you’re looking for a light, non-threatening movie night at home, allow the Muppets to take you with them to Manhattan.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Muppets Take Manhattan

Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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I have been trying my best to see (and therefore review) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and it has been far more difficult than it ever should have been.  I was slated to see the Amazon Prime screening, almost two weeks ago, and then my area got hit with a sizable snow storm that day and I couldn’t make the fifty-mile drive to the nearest theater that was holding a screening.  I then figured that I’d catch the pre-opening day preview screening, that virtually all major theatrical releases have, on the nineteenth (i.e. yesterday) before hitting the road for the holidays on the twentieth (today), the film’s official release date.  But, guess what?  There were NO preview screenings.  So, what I’ve done for you all is stopped halfway to my parents’ house for the holidays to catch the movie and then chosen to write this review after I arrived at their house.  So, thanks for the click.

(I’ll also be doing my best to keep up with all of the new and expanding releases hitting theaters in the next couple of weeks but not only are the holidays making it difficult but I also have a nephew waiting to be born any day. Bear with me!)

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One of the (many, many) fun things about Welcome to the Jungle – an official sequel to, not remake of, 1995’s Robin Williams vehicle Jumanji – is that the real-life game has shifted from board game to video game.  That means that there are no rules.  Director Jake Kasdan is free to do whatever he wishes within the context of the game without having to concoct a ham-fisted explanation for how any of it is possible.  Literally anything can happen in a video game, and therefore anything can happen in this new Jumanji.  I suppose that was also true of the board game version, but converting into video game format opens up the possibilities even further, with plenty of structural assistance provided by the traditional video game framework.  Hardcore gamers will nitpick a couple of logistical fallacies in the setup of the game, but let’s not forget that this is a movie, first, and needs to work as such.  And it works.  Easily.

In addition to the light premise with endless prospects, Kasdan has also assembled a fun, crowd-pleasing principal cast in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black.  All four possess expert comedic timing with perfect delivery and a penchant for having fun with their work, so they were all excellent choices for their respective roles.  They are all given unique opportunities to shine and show off as they each play a video game avatar inhabited by the personality of a teenager who has been sucked into the Jumanji game.  For each character, there is a vast chasm of a difference between who they are on the outside and who they are on the inside.  This can be tough to play, as each actor must portray a teenager who is in turn portraying a video game character.  All four actors not only rise to the challenge but far exceed any expectations I had, despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed all four of them in various other roles.  They are clearly having the time of their lives and that enjoyment leaps out of the screen and completely infects the viewer.

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What I expected even less than the nuanced performances was how funny the film ends up being.  This might even be the funniest film of the year in my estimation and, even if that isn’t true as a whole, it certainly features the funniest single scene I’ve seen in a film in 2017.  The script is well-written, with lots of clever lines and situations designed to humorously exploit the discomfort that these teens feel in their new bodies, but it’s the performances that put it all over the top and make it truly special and memorable.  That one particular standout scene mostly belongs to Jack Black (the entire theater was howling.  Trust me; it’s fantastic.) but all four deliver constant and consistent laughs, chuckles, and smiles.

Amidst all of this, Welcome to the Jungle also sincerely and organically communicates a nice message for young and old, alike.  Said message is spelled out plainly for the viewer (think of when Rick Grimes said, “We are the walking dead!” and clued in the section of the viewing audience that hadn’t figured that out within the first six episodes) but I didn’t even mind because it’s done in such a sweet, heartwarming way.  The film is primarily an action-comedy, but it throws in a touch of poignancy, too, just for good measure.  If it was forced, I wouldn’t care for it.  But it effortlessly fits right in and it would frankly have been odd to ignore it.

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is simply one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of the year.  Conceptually, it’s a new Jumanji, but thematically, it actually shares a lot in common with my latest #ThrowbackThursday subject, The Breakfast Club.  I wouldn’t call it a “complex” movie, but it is unexpectedly layered.  But that’s secondary to the film’s true primary goal, which it achieves without question: to entertain.  Sony has succeeded in reviving a long-dormant property where many other studios have failed.  They did it by retaining the more memorable aspects of the earlier film(s) and then adding new elements to it that modern audiences desire to see.  I expect the film to be a huge hit, and it certainly deserves to be.  If all you’re looking for is a good, easy time with the family, then roll the dice (outdated, I know) on Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

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Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Review – Coco

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For the second time in 2017, Pixar is back with a new animated feature, this time in the form of Coco.  Earlier this summer, Cars 3 underperformed, at best, likely resulting in a rare financial loss for the studio.  Pixar’s reputation has seemingly been tarnished a bit in the eyes of audiences, as 2015’s The Good Dinosaur (a film with a very troubled production) also failed to earn a profit, making this two back-to-back disappointments for the once unstoppable juggernaut.  Pixar and Disney hope to turn things around with their newest release, Coco.

To my recollection, this is the first Pixar film to not be theatrically preceded by a Pixar animated short.  Instead, playing before the film is the Disney animated short film “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”.  The film is good – and genuinely funny – but not exactly short, by most people’s definition of the word.  Running a full 21 minutes, the presentation confused several uninformed members of my audience, today.  One family got up and left, with one of them loudly and eloquently espousing, “I ain’t watchin’ no FROZEN!”.  They came back in a few moments later, obviously having been educated by a member of the staff.  Another lady sitting a couple of rows in front of me got up in the middle of it.  She came back a few minutes later and muttered to her family, “It’s on next,” obviously referring to Coco.  So, try to just enjoy it and not be somehow angry that you’re getting something extra for the same price you would have paid, anyway.

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Moving on to Coco, it’s nice to see Pixar doing something original, again, rather than a continuation of another of their previous franchises.  It hasn’t truly been all that long since their last non-sequel films, with both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur being released in 2015, but it feels longer than that – especially since The Good Dinosaur was not a particularly enthralling endeavor (though Inside Out was pure gold).  Coco is thankfully a return to artistic form for Pixar.

When young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) goes against his family’s wishes in an effort to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, his journey leads him on a search for his great-great grandfather in the Land of the Dead, who he believes will bless him with the support he has always desired from the family that stills surrounds him in the world of the living.  That journey leads him to many new discoveries about both himself and the rest of his family.

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There’s a lot going on in Coco, so it’s a little tough to decide where to start.  Narratively speaking, in the early going, I was reminded of the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings.  The two films share a few cultural (despite existing in Japanese vs. Mexican cultures), cosmetic, and thematic similarities, but fork into different paths pretty quickly.  Coco not only addresses the difficulty one often faces in the quest to live for oneself and not for others, but also the role that family can play in that quest – both positively and negatively.  When the film opens, Miguel feels like a black sheep – unappreciated and unloved by those who are supposed to appreciate and love him the most.  That is all too common in life (and I understand it more than I wish I did, myself) and will be relatable to many members of the viewing audience – mostly the older ones.

But that leads directly to his search for the one member of his family whom he believes will accept him for who he is.  Obviously, I’m not going to get into what happens from there, but the message of the film is ultimately one about the importance of family, not one of rebellion.  It’s a common theme in Pixar’s films but an effective one, nonetheless.  I was far more moved by the film than I expected to be and put the film near Wonder Woman in terms of emotional resonance – high praise if you’re familiar with my stance on that particular film.  The audience I shared the theater with clearly felt the same way, as they actually applauded when the film ended – a rarity in my neck of the woods.

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Another important note to make is that the film centers entirely around Mexican folklore with Mexican characters and a Mexican cast but is accessible and easy to relate to for anyone, regardless of heritage and ethnicity.  That’s an important and laudable achievement in today’s cultural climate.  As xenophobia (at best) and outright racism (at worst) continue make themselves felt throughout the world, a (hopefully) blockbuster animated film that successfully makes the point that we are all more alike than we are different can actually do a lot of good.  Children pay attention to their entertainment and can take good messages to heart, even if their parents stubbornly insist on keeping their own heads firmly buried in the sand.

Pixar has crafted a film that is not only visually stunning and entertaining, but emotionally and socially relevant.  There are even more levels to the film that are very much tied to a current hot-button topic that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers.  The specific story element I’m thinking of was an accident  because the timing and how long it takes to make a film like this wouldn’t allow it to be deliberate) but still poignant.  The movie isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as some of their others, but Coco is an unqualified success on all other levels and stands tall as a win for a studio who is desperately in need of a big one.

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Review – Coco

Review – Justice League

Justice League

It’s taken a very long time to get here, but we finally have a live-action Justice League movie.  The road to the film hasn’t been the smoothest, but DC and Warner Brothers got the job done, one way or another, and now it’s time to sit back and take it in.  The marketing has felt a little incomplete to me, however, without the presence of Superman, whose absence is explained by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman are the holy trinity of the Justice League as well as of DC Comics, in general, so seeing all of these advertisements for a Justice League film without the signature red and blue suit being featured has made the film feel like a watered down version to me, personally.  But, marketing aside, how does the actual film come off?

Right off the bat, I’m going to say that this is going to be a tough review to write.  I’m not sure how to talk about it without mentioning specifics – many of which would be spoilers.  I’m not going to do that, but have fun as you watch me dance around them.  That’s something else to be said for the marketing: unlike most major tentpole films, the trailers and television spots gave virtually nothing away.  That’s a great thing and I hope more studios go that route in the future.

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So . . . what can I say?  The narrative picks up as Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana of Themyscira/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are picking up the pieces after the fallout from their encounter with Lex Luthor and Doomsday in Dawn of Justice.  Bruce has evidence that the unknown and significant threat he has been nervous about has arrived on Earth, and he enlists Diana to help him recruit the other superpowered beings of which he is aware: Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

I don’t feel like I should comment on any more specifics outside of that.  Even the villain was shrouded in mystery until just recently, so I won’t reveal them in case you have managed to remain pure and would rather not know.  I’ll say that – though this particular character was created by one of the biggest legends in comic book history – I found them to be a bit underwhelming as the choice for the first movie to formally feature the Justice League.  Or, perhaps, it’s just the presentation of the protagonist that falls flat.  Justice League isn’t entirely unlike The Avengers in terms of structure and action set pieces, in the sense that there is one primary villain in control of an army of otherworldly creatures as they deign to conquer the planet.  But, in The Avengers, the villainous figurehead was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – a complex, charismatic, compelling character whose motivations were rooted in deeply personal issues involving the heroes.  Justice League‘s villain is a powerful enough physical threat, but that’s all this particular character has to offer.

HARWOOD

The heroes, on the other hand, are rather well-handled.  Wonder Woman is still the coolest part of the entire DC Extended Universe and Gal Gadot continues to command the screen anytime she appears upon it.  Batman is much closer to the Batman we know from the original comic book source material, if slightly cheekier.  I staunchly loathed Ezra Miller’s cameo as the Flash in Dawn of Justice, but I take it all back.  He shines in the role as the comedic relief and I was completely wrong about him.  He’s my second-favorite member of this Justice League five.  Aquaman – taking on the appearance established during the Peter David-helmed run on his comic in the mid-nineties – is presented in a way that helps the character make strides towards dispelling the perception that he’s a minor-leaguer who only “talks to fish”.  And Cyborg makes up for his lack of a personality (by design) by proving himself an invaluable asset to the team.

The film is funnier than most previous DCEU films (with the exception of Wonder Woman) which will anger Marvel fans who will claim that WB is only aping Marvel and will also anger DC fans who hate fun things.  Can’t please everyone, I guess.  Or, ofttimes . . . can’t please seemingly anyone for those in the business of making major studio films.  But I enjoyed the humor.  It’s done at appropriate times and works pretty well.  Most of the humor comes from the Flash and it’s not really “hilarious” in the way that Guardians of the GalaxySpider-Man: Homecoming, or Thor: Ragnarok is, but more highly amusing.  That’s not a criticism; that appears to have been the goal, and it’s met with solid results.

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There is plenty of action throughout the film.  As Bruce and Diana are assembling (Uh oh.  Can I say that?) the League, the pace slows a bit, hurt somewhat by the fact that we all know where this portion of the story is heading.  But the film has enough to offer beyond that to keep it fun.  Said action didn’t leave me quite as breathless as that in director Zack Snyder’s two previous DCEU outings (Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice), though there’s one particular battle around the middle of the movie that came pretty darn close.  Snyder famously departed Justice League when it was near completion after a horrific family tragedy and Joss Whedon stepped in to finish it.  Despite what that 13-year-old kid on Twitter you know with 35 followers thinks, it’s impossible to know exactly what Snyder and Whedon were each responsible for without having been a part of the film, itself, so maybe the switch had something to do with the slight downturn in spectacle.  Or . . . maybe it didn’t.  Still, even if the excitement isn’t quite up to the standards of those two earlier films, it’s still plenty worthy of the Justice League.

I mostly got what I wanted out of Justice League: iconic characters interacting for the first time in live action, more of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, some barnburning action scenes, snippy dialogue, and some surprises along the way (stay through the credits!).  I would have preferred a different approach towards the villain, but I can get over that.  I suppose the Internet will likely find something minor and innocuous to obsess over and use to define the entire film, like they did with the Martha scene in Dawn of Justice.  But let them refuse to enjoy life.  I had fun with this movie and am ready to see what’s next in the DCEU.  There is plenty of gold left to mine (Supergirl?  Hello?  Anyone listening out there?) and as long as the films stay above the quality of Suicide Squad from here on out (as this one easily does), then I’ll be more than satisfied.

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Review – Justice League