“The Incredibles 2” Review

The screening of Incredibles 2 began with an apologetic thank you from the cast. Yes, it has taken 14 years for Pixar to construct a sequel for their fan-favorite of a film that perfectly blended the family dynamic with superhero theatrics. But as Samuel L. Jackson assures us, it will be worth the wait. He’s not just tooting the Disney horn, nor is the cantankerous writer/director Brad Bird, who returns to the franchise with fresh ideas to flex those old animated filmmaking muscles. And it is every bit as brilliant, exciting, and dazzling as its predecessor.
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“A Wrinkle in Time” Review

A Wrinkle in Time encourages for children to succeed with the same embarrassment of parents getting too into your school sporting event. It is a film where multiple times the preteen girl protagonist must be reminded that she is special and can change the world. How she can do this is never made clear, making the inspiration in the picture about as effective as a “Hang in there” cat poster. Well, if that poster had fantastical worlds and magic.
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“Peter Rabbit” Review

I know the story of Peter Rabbit, the blue-jacket wearing rabbit that didn’t listen to his mother and was almost killed by Mr. McGregor for entering his garden. Ah, but this isn’t that same Beatrix Potter tale. Some executive or producer thought that classic book was too old and lame to be hip with today’s kids. Today’s Peter Rabbit needs to be a character that is rude, crude, and condescendingly snarky with his slapstick battles against McGregor set to the tune of today’s top radio music. Also, he kills people.
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“The Greatest Showman” Review

Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been hailed for their amazing lyrical work on last year’s musical hit La La Land, a film with a stunningly invigorating soundtrack of jazz and orchestral wonder. They’re touted on the poster of The Greatest Showman as being hired to breathe that same amount of energy and toe-tapping to the tale of showman P.T. Barnum. Much like Barnum, they do a stellar job at hoodwinking audiences into attending this spectacle for the promise of an entertaining musical. And while director Michael Gracey certainly delivers music and sequences of grand design, there’s an aroma of a machine to its assembly as opposed to the heartfelt biopic of amazing feats this production was going for.
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“Cars 3” Review

The further this Cars franchise goes, the more creepy and bizarre questions arise, going unanswered. What happens when the cars of this world die? Are they buried in concrete, scrapped in a junkyard or harvested for parts at a hospital? Are there hospitals in this world of cars? Yes, these are all very stupid questions to be asking about a rather silly and simple story about sentient racing cars, but I expect more from Pixar. They’re a studio that usually puts a lot of effort into building their worlds so that I don’t find myself asking how fish talk and why a rat controls a human.
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“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” Review

This is the black hole of cliche comedy that every road trip movie swirls around but rarely dares to enter. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul doesn’t just kamikaze into this abyss of laziness; it does so with almost suicidal tendencies. There is no desire here to be original or clever, relying more on the gross humor and slapstick gags that should have been retired decades ago. I can only fathom the filmmakers figured that today’s kids would be too young to have seen the old pee-in-the-bottle gag from Dumb and Dumber and too simple to not find anything foul about poop, vomit, and urine.
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“A Dog’s Purpose” Review

I would like to preference this review by stating that I’ve seen dozens of these cute dog movies wherein a dog is cast as the hero that saves Christmas, foils a crime or brings a family together. I’ve seen dogs do everything: karate, become ghosts, go into space, play basketball, play soccer and too many stunts to count. I write this to let you know that I’m coming from years of experience before you decry my slightly negative review of the cute doggie movie.

I will give the movie credit in that it does aim for a higher goal than most dog-centric movie, seeking a more philosophical angle. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the dog Toby and, surprisingly, his thoughts are not all about food and fetch. One of his very first thoughts, voiced by Josh Gad, seems to be about contemplating his purpose in life. That’s quite the question for a puppy to pose. I thought all dogs pondered about was where the food was and which smell is where. Could this dog really be more of a philosopher than another brainless pup? Don’t worry, kids; Toby’s not above knocking over dinner tables, eating hot dogs off the ground and farting loudly in the car.

Despite a stumbling start to life, Toby falls for his child owner Ethan instantly, forming the basis for the classic tale of a boy and his dog. Based in a 1950s rural community, it’s that familiar flavor of midwest mundanity where racial concerns and space race are mere background elements to the more immediate issues of Ethan making the football team and Toby causing a mess of a dinner with the boss. I will give the dinner scene some credit for its unfunny aftermath. The scene itself is portrayed with the expected amount of slapstick and silly music, but follows with the father becoming a bitter alcoholic about not being able to work closer to home. It isn’t long before dad goes bad and starts beating his wife, leaving Ethan to defend himself while Toby barks at the wife beater. But was it Toby who drove him to this point? Something to ponder for the obligatory noble segment where the dog pulls Ethan out of a burning building.

Just when I think the film has settled into its Homeward Bound style of soft drama, the plot reaches the moment early where Toby must pass on from this world. Surrounded by his family, including a college-bound Ethan, he passes away into the next life, which happens to be the life of another dog. Now reincarnated into a different dog, and a different movie, Toby becomes a German Shepherd police dog that works with a bitter cop. Shot on the job, Toby then becomes a Corgi and then helps a woman go from a binge-eating college student to wife/mother. One death later, Toby is a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd mix and abandoned by abusive owners.

And by now I’ve lost all interest in whether or not Toby will ever find his master Ethan. Sure, Ethan’s time on Earth is limited where as Toby receives apparently unlimited tries to reincarnate, but what will happen if Ethan dies before Toby serves his purpose? Will he continue to reincarnate and find someone else to bring joy towards? Or will he go to hell or purgatory or something? What is at stake here?

Why am I asking such questions? I shouldn’t be. This is mostly a soapy dog movie for the easily-weepy to push out some tears at dogs dying and giggle when they topple over tables. I could buy that just fine as meaningless fluff, but this whole element of a dog trying to find his purpose in life is too meaty of a plot for this picture to handle.

In the rather low expectations of the dog movie subgenre, A Dog’s Purpose tries to add in a Terrance Malik angle to its rather simple story of a dog that warms hearts. There’s no philosophical treat at the end of this furry journey, as Toby’s hypothesis for life is nothing all that special. I couldn’t help but think of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life’s ultimate answer to the big question: Be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. That answer was intended to be humorous for being so obvious and underwhelming, but Toby delivers this statement as if it is an emotionally-moving revelation. And I’m sure it would be, if I were a dog. Too bad I’m not as amazed by the simplicity of catching a ball, the easy sadness of spending a night in the shed or the fun of knocking over dinner tables. Maybe then I wouldn’t question why a dog needs to question existence itself, in between farting loudly and wrecking dad’s dinner party.

“Saving Christmas” Review

2014 saw its fair share of Christspoiltation pictures from the likes of the fallacy-filled God’s Not Dead and the mushy shlock of Heaven is for Real. But Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas blows them all out of the water. Here is a religious film director that instead of firing his rifle towards the war of Christmas decides to turn the barrel down and shoot his own foot. Whereas these pictures usually tend to force in the idea that God is great to the ignorant atheists, Kirk Cameron attempts to strengthen the Christmas spirit for the Christians who despise it. One might figure he’s treading on safe ground considering he’s preaching to the choir, but his rationalizing for the religious context of modern Christmas is considerably laughable.

Cameron lays his cards out on the table with a fireside introduction. His house festooned in far too much Christmas decorations, he bursts at the seams for his love of his Christmas. In particular, he seems to adore hot chocolate to an absurd degree. And then he reaches the moment where he mentions that some people just don’t like Christmas. Who are these blasphemers? Could it be the liberal media or the aggressive atheists that seek to silence the celebration? No, it is the sheep within the flock that are taken aim at in this picture – the Christians that find themselves annoyed with Christmas and merely need a few illogical nudges to get in the mood.

Kirk Cameron’s sister is throwing a big Christmas party at her massive house for her family. The whole gang seems to be having fun except for Cameron’s stubborn brother-in-law Christian White (what a name). He becomes so uneasy with the Christmas atmosphere that he retreats to his car. Eager to bring joy to all, Kirk follows Christian into the car to ask what’s wrong. Christian airs his frustrations with the Christmas decorations being so counter to that of Christian values. For the next hour, Cameron proceeds to convince Christian that celebrating Christmas is more religious via absurd correlations and symbolism. We sometimes cut back inside to the party, but not too long as there is a black character speaking with a fast cliche tongue and a conspiracy theorist babbling on about the war on Christmas.

While the majority of the movie takes place inside a car, there are visual bits to represent Cameron’s ramblings in relating Christmas to Christian history. Sometimes they’re assembled with class, as with the story of the original Santa Clause. Other times it appears cheap when the production swaps the Garden of Eden for a Christmas tree lot. Cameron’s narration at one point states that he’s going for more of a Lord of the Rings vibe in portraying Santa. I’m not sure what he was intending with the Christmas tree lot other than an inconsistent production.

As if the movie wasn’t already struggling to stretch its limited premise, the ending is padded out with an extended dance sequence and too many mid-credit bloopers. This format makes the 79 minute run time feel longer than it should be, most likely leading many viewers to making the wrap-it-up motion with their hands towards the end. Did Cameron really think Christians all across the nation would get a massive kick out of his family’s dance moves? Why not just show family home videos at that point? It’s just as relatable.

At a time when Christian movies seem to have a large appeal, Saving Christmas appears strangely niche. It only had a two-week limited engagement in movie theaters in 2014. That’s rather strange given how many Christian movies stuck around in the box office for a long time during that year. When the movie was savaged by critics – and I do mean EVERY critic – Cameron called on his legion of fans to offset online ratings by giving the movie a positive review. The plea was not met well and the ratings dropped further among users. Either there is some big Christmas hate going around or maybe, just maybe, Cameron made a bad movie.

Kirk Cameron then dubbed all those that delivered negative reviews as views of “haters and atheists” conspiring on the internet. I don’t exactly consider myself either, but I do find it funny how he slapped together a poorly executed Christmas defense movie with his friends and expected everyone in America to love it. Maybe I am a hater if I just don’t find any intelligence in comparing stacks of Christmas presents to the houses of Jerusalem. I don’t even want to know what he equates hot chocolate to in the Bible.

“Tomorrowland” Review

The overall message of Tomorrowland is that it’s easy to tear down, but more impressive to build something in its place. If only the movie could take its own advice about trying to look forward to a brighter future. Rather than actually build, we hear an awful lot about how hard it is to build with a culture of doom and gloom. It’s important to discuss problems, but it’s hard to be optimistic for a future when we spend so much time drowning in a future that is grim and dark. Keep in mind that this was intended as a family picture with futuristic robots and gadgets.

The perfect question for this movie is asked by a plucky young inventor in the first few minutes. After his idea for a jetpack is shot down for not having a practical use for the betterment of humanity, he asks “why can’t it just be fun?” I wanted Tomorrowland to be fun and it had every opportunity to be such a picture. Director Brad Bird certainly has an eye for staging action sequences with real thrill and excitement. His influence is indeed present with such incredible scenes as a laser-gun shootout in a geeky merchandise shop and an intense escape from a futuristic house being attacked by androids. All of that is pure fun. What drags it all down is a script by Damon Lindelof which actually stops the movie for a rather long rant about humanity being terrible for desiring destruction.

The movie exists in three timelines. The 1954 World’s Fair presents a glowing reveals a glowing vision of the future. The present day features a declining of faith in humanity. The future is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a few bits of future-tech survive in the gloomy setting. For most of the picture, we follow the plucky Casey (Britt Robertson) in the present as the daughter of an engineer who is smart enough to sneak into a NASA launch pad and sabotage its dismantling. She still believes she can do some good in a world that seems obsessed with doom and gloom as her teachers drone on endlessly about 1984 and the incurable effects of global warming. Her ingenuity is what makes her a target of great interest for preventing mankind’s own destruction.

But Earth’s destruction is never directly addressed with a cause. It just seems to happen – presumably from a combination of nukes, global warming and environmental mistakes. But how do you stop it? It’s not so much about the specifics – you just have to want to change first. It inflates the baby steps of wanting to better the planet and its future. Now, granted, this is a logical path for a family picture meant to inspire the young ones to be bolder and pursue world-changing paths. But it’s tough to embrace that message when it’s presented so bluntly amid such a bleak plot. By comparison, Wall-E was incredibly subtle with its message about consumerism.

When Tomorrowland isn’t trying to beat you over the head with scary futures, there is a genuine sense of adventure. Casey has an amazing experience when she discovers a hologram vision of the wondrous future with jetpacks and robots litter a lavishly designed city of tomorrow. When she seeks the help of Tomorrowland member Frank (George Clooney), the angry old man shows off with all his dynamic tricks of hidden tech in the modern age for getting back to the future. Doc Brown’s DeLorean doesn’t have anything on a time-traveling pod that launches from the Eiffel Tower. And any scene where they flee the human-disintegrating androids with those artificial smiles has a nail-biting level of action.

But for every scene that has some sense of fun and excitement, it follows with another that is either too preachy or too blunt. The villain of the picture is the cold David Nix (Hugh Laurie), the leader of Tomorrowland who doesn’t want to destroy the world – merely believing it cannot and should not be saved. But when Casey disagrees, the future flickers to a better tomorrow. And as if that weren’t blunt enough, the ending is so forced and ridiculous that it could have doubled as the ad for a community college.

Tomorrowland has some segments of a great adventure, but it’s muddied up by a poor script. While its heart is in the right place, the movie just can’t bring itself to be entertainment before a message movie. I want to be there for this picture as it carries a much needed boost of optimism for a generation that could seriously use it. But rather than offer an inspirational allegory, it wallows too much in its horrifying omens that its ultimate message of  “go out and find answers” just doesn’t feel fulfilling. The special effects don’t have any strings, but the script certainly does the way it binds under its own unconvincing nature. The goal of the picture is that it ultimately wants the adults of tomorrow to become the innovators of today. Hopefully it will inspire a few filmmakers to make a better science fiction picture that can push through a message without the force of a wreaking ball.

“Home” Review

Dreamworks is an animation studio that usually aims to match the level of Pixar’s visual beauty, but rarely do they reach that level of storytelling. Home comes as a bit of a surprise in that it’s a bland dud in both categories. You need only compare the movie to Dreamworks’ projects of last year: the fantastical splendor of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the quick wit of Penguins of Madagascar. By comparison, Home feels so stock and simple that it is as though it were produced by a studio struggling to be a Dreamworks production.

The design is just a bore. The gummy-shaped aliens known as the Boov are squat and simple beings that all look alike. I sensed a channelling of the formula for Minions, but those banana-colored, pill-shaped guys at least had a few differentiating designs to tell them apart. These aliens all seem as though they were clones, differing only in voice and maybe a mustache. But for as doe-eyed and cute as Dreamworks aims to make the Boov, they grated on my nerves with their annoying stupidity and inability to find a proper home planet. They’re led by an idiot of a king voiced by Steve Martin that has no idea how to lead, but plenty of time to babble in Steve Martin lingo. Somehow they manage to conquer Earth by vacuuming all the humans and quarantine them to Australia. How this tactic differed from their earlier conquering methods – where the Boov couldn’t handle carnivorous beasts or giant robots – is never answered. Perhaps Earth decided to destroy all their weapons. It’s the only acceptable reason how this invasion went so flawlessly.

The Boov are such ridiculously uneducated creatures – invading a planet where they don’t even comprehend how a toilet works – that the runt of the litter has to be incredibly foolish. So unlikable is this character that he has been designated as Oh (Jim Parsons), named after the sigh induced by his presence. All the Boov make loads of mistakes, but Oh is singled out considering his mistakes mostly damage his entire race. You can almost smell the heartfelt message about being an outcast careening towards the second act.

When Oh causes one too many culture-destroying errors, he goes on the lam to find a new home in Antarctica. Along the way he picks up the only human girl outside capture – a plucky preteen named Tip (Rihanna). She’s not a very interesting character outside of seeking her mom and acting as the straight character to the goofy Oh. They go ahead on their little road trip to their locations of choice, becoming best of friends along the way while they learn valuable lessons about family, friendship and all that jazz.

I don’t like walking into a movie where I can predict its outcome and my opinion, but there was a little voice in the back of my head that just screamed this movie was a product of an assembly line. All promotional materials seemed to suggest that this movie was rushed from Dreamworks’ template where they forgot to remove the placeholder content. They designed cute aliens, but didn’t make them unique. They added in a kid-relatable character, but forgot to give her personality. They staged a large-scale chase across an iconic city, but forgot to make it thrilling. They made the story family friendly, but threw out a truckload of logic in its world to make it so. They even jump the gun by relying on the tired device of dancing to pop music far too early that the inevitable finale of a dance party fizzles out any entertainment.

Home may seem as a cute little animation for the kids, but it’s overly fluffed up with soft content that even the kids will grow weary of its artificial sweeteners. There’s no imminent threat to make it thrilling, no big challenges for the characters to conquer and no daring nature to the story or its comedy. It’s a passive movie that will not offend with any violence or scary scenes, but won’t be uniquely entertaining either. And this is precisely why I can’t recommend the picture in that there is hardly any excitement or risk. Animated films should inspire the imagination of children with characters they can identify with and visuals that stimulate wonder. They shouldn’t just distract with a few crude jokes about urine, add in a familiar song with dancing and send them on their way.

And as long as I’m coming down hard on the movie, I might as well admit it: I hated the Boov. I didn’t like their design, their character or the culture. By the end of the picture I was hoping a large alien armada would swoop in to zap these little guys into globs of gelatin. Are these the kinds of thoughts a grown man should be having during an animated children’s movie which just wanted to be sweet and silly? Chalk that up to one more reason not to see this picture.