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When it comes to film criticism, I tend more toward populism. That isn’t to say that I fail to appreciate truly great cinematic art, but that I’m not a particularly snobbish moviegoer. Basically, my attitude is that aiming a film at a wide audience shouldn’t necessarily mean that it is somehow less-than as a creative endeavor.

But we all have our limits.

Unlike some of my critical peers, I won’t dismiss an animated kids’ movie out of hand. Even if the intended viewership might not be particularly worldly or sophisticated, the film in question might still have something to offer. It might not be great art, but there is value to be found in almost any children’s movie.

But then you see something like “Marmaduke” and are confronted with the reality of that “almost.”

The new Netflix animated offering is one of the laziest, lowest-common-denominator kids’ movies that I have ever encountered outside a convenience store’s VHS bargain bin. The animation is choppy and aesthetically unpleasant, the narrative is nonsensical and incoherent and the tone is all over the place. If the intent was to make a film that allowed four-year-olds to feel intellectually superior to those who made it, then bravo. Well done. If the intent was literally anything else, then we’re looking at a spectacular failure.

My money is on the latter.

Published in Movies
Monday, 25 April 2022 15:12

‘The Bad Guys’ is really good

One of the biggest obstacles faced by animated filmmakers – specifically, those making family-friendly features – is finding ways to make their work appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Those efforts don’t always work out – we’ve all seen animated fare that tries to pack in a bit too much winking and nodding for the adults in the room, to the detriment of the experience of the actual target audience. Even Pixar, whose work is easily the best at walking that line, occasionally loses the thread.

Other times, the powers that be don’t even bother, instead choosing to pack their film with low-hanging fruit and banking on the fact that, in the end, their bottom line isn’t going to change appreciably whether grown-ups like their movie or not.

Like I said – it’s hard. But it can be done.

“The Bad Guys,” the new film from the folks at DreamWorks, largely manages to walk that fine line. Directed by longtime animator and first-time feature director Pierre Perifel from an Etan Cohen screenplay loosely adapted on the Aaron Blabey-penned children’s book series of the same name, the film captures that broad appeal, providing plenty of kid-friendly gags and jokes while also offering adults a few winks and a surprisingly solid heist movie framework to enjoy.

I’ll confess that I had lowish expectations for this one, if only because of the marketing deluge of the past few weeks; I tend to equate those massive pushes with a publicity team that doesn’t have a lot of faith in their film. Instead, what I got was a funny, charming film that managed to provide moments both sophisticated and sophomoric while, yes, appealing to all ages.

Published in Movies

Childhood is rife with milestones. The journey toward adulthood has loads of highlights and lowlights (that are sometimes the same thing, depending on the day) and features more than a few obstacles.

The folks at Pixar have long shown a propensity for capturing those transitional times in a manner that is both hilarious and heartfelt, evoking the magical moments with beautifully realized animation and meticulously crafted stories.

Their latest – “Turning Red,” currently streaming on Disney+ – is no exception. Directed by Domee Shi from a script she co-wrote with Julia Cho, it’s the story of an Asian-Canadian girl who is confronted with a very peculiar family secret just as she’s coming into her own as a young teenager – a secret that coincides rather neatly with other changes that she’s going through.

It’s a smart and funny film, a period piece of sorts (set in the year 2002) that is a celebration of what it means to become your own person even as those around you might prefer you stay the same (or at least not change quite so fast). There’s an empowering undercurrent to it all, as well as a thoughtful degree of Asian representation that we don’t get to see nearly often enough. The importance of family and of friendship – it’s all here, presented in an absolutely lovely visual package.

Published in Style
Monday, 20 December 2021 15:47

Not ready to ‘Rumble’

Sometimes, the elevator pitch is enough. You hear the basic description of the movie and you’re in. This isn’t to say that you know this movie will be great or even good, just that the boiled-down fundamental concept is enough to intrigue.

So it is with “Rumble,” the new animated film streaming exclusively on Paramount+. In essence, this film is basically “Professional wrestling, only with massive kaiju-style monsters.” It’s an idea that certainly appeals to the 14-year-old boy in me.

The film was initially intended for a theatrical release, but the powers that be ultimately decided (after pushing the date a couple of times) to send it straight to the streamer. It is a decision that, upon watching the movie, makes one wonder why that wasn’t the plan all along.

It’s not that “Rumble” is bad so much as that it is … boring. One can squint and see the pieces of a better movie scattered here and there, but the truth is that the film never quite manages to take advantage of the various and sundry cartoonish elements – figurative and literal alike – that the conceit invites. Instead, we get a film that offers up watered-down versions of familiar themes – underdog sports story, familial legacy, etc. – and never really manages to go anywhere with them.

Look – if I’m dozing off during a movie about wrestling kaiju, someone somewhere has made some pretty significant errors.

Published in Movies
Monday, 29 November 2021 15:44

‘Encanto’ offers magical family fun

Sixty films.

That’s the number reached by Disney Animation Studios with the release of their latest film “Encanto.” It’s a staggering figure, even when you take into consideration how long they’ve been in the business of making movies. From 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” until now, Disney has been creating animated wonder.

It’s literally generational – for over eight decades, families have been coming together to experience the magic of Disney animation. Kids who grew up on these movies have in turn shared them with their kids, who in turn would grow up to share them with their kids.

And so it’s appropriate that this latest entry would focus so thoroughly on those notions. Magic and family and the magic of family. That’s “Encanto.”

The film – directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard from a screenplay co-written by Bush and Charise Castro Smith, with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda – is a captivating exploration of what it means to be a family and the importance of maintaining those connections no matter what obstacles might arise, all refracted through a lens of magical realism.

It is charming and sweet; warm, feel-good family fun of the sort that we’ve come to expect from Disney. And while it might be on the slighter side, there’s no denying that viewers young and old will be swept up into this wondrous world – there will be plenty of laughs and yes, perhaps a few tears as well.

Published in Movies

Nostalgia is big business when it comes to entertainment. And perhaps nowhere is that nostalgia as keenly felt as it is within the movie industry. Now more than ever, studios are seeking to cash in on our feelings about what has come before, monetizing our memories and generally profiting on the past.

That’s not to say that it’s always a bad thing. Some perfectly enjoyable works have sprung from that desire, even if those works themselves sprung from the pursuit of profit. It’s not ideal, perhaps, but there’s still joy to be found.

Take “8-Bit Christmas,” a new film currently streaming on HBO Max. Directed by Michael Dowse from a screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (who adapted his own novel of the same name), it’s the story of a young man in Chicago in the late 1980s and his all-consuming Christmastime quest to get his hands on the one thing that will make his life truly complete:

A Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s a film that will undeniably ring familiar – you’ve seen just about all of this before, in some way, shape or form – but when you’re talking about this kind of holiday fare, the familiarity is the point. There’s something warm and comforting about these readily recognizable beats – sure, you won’t be surprised, but you’ll probably be charmed.

Published in Tekk

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that intrigues me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate. These tend to be films that are very much not for me – stylistically, tonally, demographically, you name it. I am not the intended audience, and yet I find myself genuinely curious to see them.

So it is with “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

I have zero connection with the source material – a series of children’s books by Norman Bridwell – and the general look of the thing seemed kind of meh. The titular Big Red Dog’s CGI rendering looked a bit off. I’m no hater of kiddie flicks, but this one seemed a bit blasé. The director hadn’t made a feature since an “Alvin & the Chipmunks” sequel six years ago.

And yet, I still wanted to see it, for reasons that I myself still don’t quite understand.

As it turns out, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” – which did a simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming via Paramount+ – manages to be quite entertaining despite the fact that I was pretty much justified in my concerns. It does have a so-so look, with the occasional unsettling venture into the uncanny valley. The messaging is standard-issue kid movie stuff. The direction was workmanlike at best and the story makes very little sense if you think about it for even a moment.

I still had fun. Do I feel great about that fact? Not particularly. But I did. And while you may not, I’m betting your kids will.

Published in Movies

Remember when “Home Alone” was the biggest box office success of the early ‘90s?

It’s easy to forget, what with its nigh-ubiquity on the airwaves during the holiday season, but when the Chris Columbus-helmed, Macauley Culkin-led film hit screens back in mid-November of 1990, it was a massive hit. Like, nearly half-a-billion worldwide box office massive. It spawned a couple of sequels, etc. You know the drill.

So it only makes sense that, in this era of reboots and remakes, prequels and sequels, that we’d be revisiting that particular piece of intellectual property.

And so we get “Home Sweet Home Alone,” streaming exclusively on Disney+. Technically, the film – directed by Dan Mazer – is a sequel, with a couple of very deliberate nods to the original, but in terms of the way it feels, it’s more of a remake, with a slightly different set of circumstances overlaid atop the same story beats with which we are all familiar.

It doesn’t really work.

Now, it isn’t terrible – the sheer talent of the cast ensures a fairly high floor – but the film itself can’t really push beyond that baseline level of performance competency. The elements of the experience that aren’t utterly rehashed feel bloated and padded, a series of plot points intended to get us to the slapstick lunacy that also seem to meander toward their destination with little to no urgency. The end result is a movie that labors toward a payoff that ultimately isn’t really worth the time spend to get there.

Published in Movies

The relationship we as a society have with technology is a fraught one. Striking the balance between the digital and analog worlds is difficult – particularly for young people, whose relationship with tech and social media and all that those things entail is especially complex.

Complex enough that perhaps a well-meaning animated family film isn’t the best method of exploring it, perhaps?

Still, that’s what we get with “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the new computer-animated film from 20th Century Studios. The story of a young man and his burgeoning friendship with a ubiquitous piece of technology, tech whose malfunctions and idiosyncrasies make it more capable of meaningful engagement than any amount of careful planning.

In essence, the bugs become features.

With an excellent voice cast led by Jack Dylan Grazer, Zach Galifinakis and others, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” is a pleasant enough diversion, though it never delves as deep into the issues it purports to explore as you might like. It wants to be thoughtful and entertaining, but it ultimately proves more successful at the latter than the former.

Published in Movies

Anyone who’s paid even a little attention to popular culture in the past few years has a pretty good sense of what Lin-Manuel Miranda brings to the table. Between the filmed version of his musical triumph “Hamilton” last year and the movie adaptation of his previous work “In the Heights,” we’ve gotten a lot of Lin-Manuel.

But what if I told you you could have even more? Specifically, an animated musical about a singing kinkajou?

Yeah, I’m into it too.

“Vivo,” from Sony Animation, is currently streaming in Netflix. Directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords from a screenplay by DeMicco and Quiara Alegria Hudes – not to mention original songs by Miranda – it’s a charming and heartfelt story about the lengths to which we will go to do right by the people who mean the most to us.

The animation is lovely, with some wonderful stylistic flourishes, and the narrative is sweetly simple. The film also features a strong voice cast, led by Miranda as the titular Vivo, and you only need to hear a few bars of the opening number to be VERY aware of who wrote the songs. With themes of love – both romantic and familial – and the difficulty of loss, it is a movie that offers all-ages appeal.

Published in Movies
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