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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.
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.
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.
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.
I feel the need to mention this as the picture at one point was going to be directed by Mark Romanek as a much darker movie. I would have thought this is what Disney wanted the way Maleficent turned out to be a such a depressing and ill-fitting fairytale makeover that pulled in a ridiculous amount of money. But when director Kenneth Branagh was brought on to the project, he could see there was more to the story worth exploring without overhauling the entire narrative.
While Branagh mostly plays the fairytale straight, he does expand the characters just enough without damaging the wonder of the original codex. Lily James is given much more to do as the titular character who is given far more to work with as opposed to standing around as a pretty face. She does her best keep up a cheerful spirit despite the misfortune of being reduced to a maid by her stepmother after the death of her father. Character development favors songs as we get build up Cinderella as a girl we want to get the prince.
Here is where the picture really gets interesting as Cinderella and the prince have a pleasing chemistry. In their first meeting riding horses across a field, the two share their thoughts and ideas about hunting. Rather than just being shy kids who are thrown together by beauty, there’s a reason to hope they end up together. It’s as if Branagh took the original material and injected it with a much needed dose of character development. Even the royal ball – which was practically all dancing and beauty that won the prince’s heart – features the two characters dashing off to a private room to talk some more. It makes the prince’s quest to seek her out via glass slipper more understandable than fantastical.
But, of course, Cinderella still retains all the magic of the animated movie as well. The cooperative mice help out our future princess, the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) comically casts some spells and the ball is a beautiful sight of golden interiors and period clothing. Once again, Branagh polishes these familiar elements without retooling them. He finds the fun in it all without dumbing it down or amping it up. A lesser director may have taken the scene where the carriage transforms back into a pumpkin as an opportunity for an action-worthy race against time. It was my first thought as I saw the carriage swerve around a cliff side road. I braced myself for the moment where Cinderella dangles off the side of the carriage as her animal pals struggle to lift her to safety. Thankfully, Branagh narrowly avoids this moment that would have easily taken me out of the movie.
And, ultimately, the tone of Cinderella is just pleasing and enjoyable. The stepmother’s slaving of her daughter to chores is not treated with a drab palette and the romance of prince for his future wife is not overdone. While I still have a nostalgic spot in my heart for Disney’s original animated movie, it’s generally savaged by critics for its flat portrayals. In that sense, this live-action Cinderella is more of the adult version – not in content, but in writing. Now I can fully enjoy the magical splendor of fairy godmothers and helpful mice without noticing glaring issues with the script. It’s a real treat from beginning to end and rather old-fashioned for maintaining its graceful fantasy tone.
Because right as the plot is starting up – seemingly out of nowhere – Grace has to go to Paris for her extended family and to learn more about baking. This doesn’t become the central plot and is mostly treated as character building filler. It’s as if the writers had two scripts and couldn’t decide on just one. Or maybe their budget for shooting in Paris came midway through production of the Master Chef script. For whatever reason, the woes of Grace’s family struggling to make ends meet with their bakery is put on hold for 70% of the movie so that Grace can run off to Paris and learn to be the best baker.
This section of the film is entirely unneeded and practically defeats the purpose of real character growth. Most of the time it’s best to build up a character from zero to hero, but Grace doesn’t exactly start off as a bad chef. In fact, she’s a great chef. All she really does in Paris is step up her game from great to the best. What kind of a narrative is that? Perhaps if there were some more cockiness or doubt in her mind you might be able to sympathize with her more. But before Grace even went to Paris she was already starting her own cupcake business with her friends and having a great time. Sure, she learns some lessons from her trip in Paris such as how to be a team player, how to cook more creatively and how to better read people. But did you really have to go all the way to Paris for the second act just to learn all of that? Apparently we do because Paris makes for some great cinematography which you better believe the filmmakers milked.
Much like the Paris arc itself, the movie finds various subplots to busy itself. There’s subjects focusing on dealing with a new baby sister, trying to impress a hotel to serve your desserts and how to find your passion for baking. There’s also a cute dog included in these hi-jinks by the name of Bon Bon because cute dogs are almost a requirement with direct-to-video family movies. This is all filler and there’s little reason to care how any of this plays out as it is merely a means of keeping the running time above an hour. Most of these events are played up way too high for slapstick and goofy comedy that is better suited for a sitcom. Maybe it is at just the right level for a direct-to-video movie, but this is still a sharp contrast to the tone of previous American Girl movies.
By the time the movie actually gets around to the Master Chef Junior third act, I just didn’t care anymore. Grace needs the prize money to buy a new oven for the bakery? Of course. Grace’s competition is a snobby chef who was born with a silver spoon? Sure, why not. It’s not like there’s any logical development or flow to any of these events or characters. Why bother building up a nemesis for Grace throughout the picture when you can just slam him in the climax at the last act? To the movie’s credit, I will admit that Grace does a lot of baking and that there is a lot of good looking food in the movie. That is, when it’s not being splat in faces or slipped on across the floor for a meager attempt at a laugh.
As far as these American Girl movies go, Grace Stirs Up Success is a surprise for how flat it falls on its face. With uneven storytelling and a heavy reliance on slapstick, it’s baffling how such a script could be whipped up with two decent stories fused to become a lackluster combination. If it had just been Grace Goes To Paris or Grace Saves The Bakery, the movie would at least have a flow. Still, kids may get a few laughs from the hi-jinks and enjoy the shots of France. At it’s highest, this is a rental.