Annabelle: Creation (2017): Life from Rotting Sources

The Conjuring was a massive surprise smash when it opened in 2013. After all, you don’t make a $20 million film and make 16 times your budget back without anticipating franchise potential. Since then, we’ve had a sequel and a spin off Annabelle, based on the possessed doll that The Warrens found in the first ConjuringAnnabelle – despite being significantly worse than the masterful two Conjuring films – did well enough to warrant the existence of Annabelle: Creation. This unnecessary prequel to the unnecessary prequel to The Conjuring is probably at its worst when attempting to connect itself too much to the overall “universe” being developed here. There’s allusions to an upcoming The Nun spin off based on one of the central ghost characters in The Conjuring 2 and even a bit of connection to the first Annabelle films that has to contort some things around to set that up. While not as offensive as certain other franchises attempting to be a cinematic universe, these moments of world building ultimately come across as shoehorned, especially when the central story of Annabelle: Creation is pretty solid ground for a stand alone horror movie.

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Yes, despite the awkward clunkiness established in the rather bland Annabelle from 2014, Annabelle: Creation manages to rise out of those ashes and create an effective little horror film enclosed within this house. The mythology of the first Annabelle is carried over here, mainly with a demon that uses the titular doll as a conduit from which it can come into the world and search for a new body to inhabit. While the initial film made all of that feel so underwhelming, Annabelle: Creation actually takes advantage of the imagery. Directed by David F. Sandberg – who made a big splash last year with the horror film Light’s Out – one can see why he’s been a sought after director.

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Sandberg takes advantage of every shot to build up atmosphere, mainly with an incredibly measured lighting style. There are traditional horror shots in Annabelle: Creation where a character looks into a dark abyss and sees nothing. Yet, Sandberg and his team know just how much to show of the young girl the Annabelle doll is named after or the demon possessing the doll in the dark hallway to terrify without teasing too much. It’s just bright enough for your eyes to adjust and look genuinely frightening. Truly, a stark upgrade on the style of lighting influenced by James Wan much of horror has had in the last few years.

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This all was present in Sandberg’s direction from Lights Out. Hell, there’s still plenty of jump scares to be had. People tend to be silent followed by someone sneaking up on them. To its credit, the jump scares in Annabelle: Creation aren’t “edit followed by BOOM sound effect.” They’re used to help create the unease of being caught by Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) without resorting to the much more obvious jump scares immediately. There’s a tension that mounts as we see more and more corners of this creeping decaying house and are petrified our investigation will alert danger. Even using wonderful props, like the toy gun that gives us a fishing horror scene in a house. It’s a great example of using curiosity of the dark for horror antics without feeling too much like “stupid character syndrome.” I mean, there’s a bit of that occasionally, but not nearly as much as one would expect for a modern studio horror movie.

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It helps that these characters are actually given a bit of thought. Mr. and Mrs. Mullins (Miranda Otto) have this creepy aesthetic that masks a real tragedy and loss that emanates through the empty house. Seeing their daughter die early on may give more than a few early clues to what is masking our demon, but it provides a solid emotional grounding for the exposition ladened reveals an inherent tragedy. There’s also a nice little core in the friendship between Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson). Both orphans who dream of being adopted as sisters is simple, but sturdy set up for their friendship. Giving us appropriate stakes so the bigger reveals mean something. Same with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), who gives Janice a true glance at an ultimatum. One that presents a docile acceptance of ghosts or being separate from those you love.

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Yes, Annabelle: Creation actually cares about its characters and stakes. It’s just as shocking for me as it is for you. Much like last October’s Ouija: Origin of Evil (which also featured Lulu Wilson), this sequel to an unnecessary property cash grab actually works as its own self contained horror movie. Which is especially impressive for a horror movie with a doll where the doll isn’t really seen moving. It’s all about the manipulation of that doll to elicit inherent terror, especially for these girls stuck in a creepy old house. We care about the characters and give the scares more authenticity in the process. While the future of this whole Conjuring universe may be up in the air – personally  I’m not totally convinced about that Nun spin off idea – this is a clever studio horror film stuck within those constraints. Always nice to see solid craft in a cash grab.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dangling Doll Parts

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THE DARK TOWER (2017): Exposition Ft. Stephen King References

The Dark Tower has so many elements I’d love to embrace. Never read the novels, but was intrigued by the concept. That of a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) doomed to walk the Universe in pursuit of the man who wronged him. The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey), a charming demon out to destroy the titular literal skyscraper and bring forth monsters. Some of which come from The Dark Tower author Stephen King‘s other books. That right there sounds like just the type of weird yet familiar genre storytelling that could kick us out of the generic blockbuster funk we’re in. Yet, it ironically just ends up being the blandest type of blockbuster we’re familiar with. As is explained numerous times.

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Yes, let’s get this right out the way. The Dark Tower is very much an exposition dump of a movie. Understandable to some degree. We’re being introduced to a whole new world. Exposition is bound to be clunky. But it doesn’t need to be plentiful, as it is here. So much of The Dark Tower is telling you about the importance of its universe. What a “Gunslinger” is, but how our specific one Roland is the best of them. Why does this make him better? Because he can shoot super fast. What is the comparison with the Gunslinger? His dad (Dennis Haysbert) was also a gunslinger. Where to the guns get their power? They’re made from the metal of excalibur. What is his mission? To kill The Man In Black for killing his Dad. Who is The Man in Black? A dude who wears black and scowls at people.

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Which pretty much describes the amount of character stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are given. Two of the better actors working today are saddled with exposition and moody brooding that gives neither of them any room for a real personality. Elba especially doesn’t lift much of an eyebrow to do anything but grimace and point is gun. He got the backstory, but not the pathos because of how rushed everything feels. We just know he’s some dude who wants revenge yet won’t save the universe too because… screw it I’m a cowboy lone wolf?

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Matthew McConaughey is the more interesting case. He doesn’t seem all that enthused, but not completely uncommitted. His performance gives the aire that The Dark Tower editors Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman used takes of McConaughey that were either the fourth “let’s have fun, fellas” take and the ninth “I’m tired of this” take. So either in a relaxed mood or just plain tensed up. There’s little room for his character to grow, but there are isolated moments of McConaughey charm that ooze through, often resulting in the more unintentionally funny sides of the film. Which to be fair… are more interesting than anything else here.

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This goes for our audience surrogate of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young boy in search of help. He hears voices. Sees horrible visions in his dreams. Has a stepdad who lacks empathy. Gets bullied in school. Draws weird images in his notebook. I’m sorry, was I describing Jake Chambers or EVERY OTHER STEPHEN KING PROTAGONIST? Yes, when we aren’t in the other world messing with all sorts of monsters and interdimensional western stuff, we get a lot of the typical archetypes that Stephen King developed, minus a few awful Christians and drunks. Jake is our surrogate, but we never care enough about him over the course of this journey. There’s no chemistry with Idris Elba in a mentor-mentee fashion they’re striving for. He’s just a vehicle for everyone to exposit things about The Dark Tower to.

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Oh, but don’t you fret! If you’re sick of the general cliches from Stephen King’s work, just wait until all the references pop up! Look, there’s the Christine car! Oh, Jake has ‘The Shine!’ There’s Pennywise’s name over a carnival! These are really the only moments where The Dark Tower shows off any resemblance of being interesting. And it’s by merely implying a connection to King’s other stories. Stories that were adapted to popular culture with some kind of memorable quality. Surely, this at least feels better in context of a series of novels that actually expounded more upon the universe this connected to. Hell, it just gets people to remember that the upcoming It film from a completely different studio looks so much better than this one. Great universe building once again, Sony!

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The worst thing about The Dark Tower is that despite the fantastical setting and earth shattering stakes, the entire thing comes off as so slight. Such a small scale for any of these major moments to really take impact. Director Nikolaj Arcel shows no real hand or personality. Though, this likely has to do with the multitude of production problems and voices here. It seems as if all of this was truly neutered to this bland whitebread version of an epic fantasy parable. Instead, it feels like a lesser version of a 90s kids fantasy movie. Special effects and all. Especially when our climax is rocks vs guns. Woof.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Gunslinger Bullets

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A GHOST STORY (2017): The Horror of Observation

Horror cinema as of late has been going through a bit of a diverse phase right now. Mainly thanks to companies like A24 who put out challenging films that defy what tends to be put out into theaters. Stuff like It Comes At Night,  The Lobster and Tusk. Who take the horror conceits and give us something… distinct, if not always good. A Ghost Story is one such oddity. A film about loneliness, the nature of supernatural immortality and someone eating a pie for five straight minutes in an unbroken shot. It’s not like much of anything one could be seeing in a theater. That’s commendable, but not always consistently popular. Yet… I couldn’t help but fall in love with this weird little time piece.

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Director/writer David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has been a fan of genre explorations. His films take basic tenants of their genres and turn them into gripping emotional tethers to get us past the initial appearance. Saints was a wistful yet authentic twist on a crime romance and Peter’s Dragon took an awful Disney film and turned it into a soulful journey of one boy growing up after intense tragedy. Now with A Ghost Story, Lowery takes the concepts of a horror film and gives the entire thing an existential point of dread. One where we see just how ultimately insignificant we are as people in the grand scheme of things. And how that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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A Ghost Story handles a type of existential horror and dread that few others would go through. It’s a wonderful example of exploring the genre from the perspective of the ghost. But not on a mere spooky haunt level. We see a bit of that in a sequence that shows Lowery loves horror, but it’s framed in a cruel dramatic tragedy. That our ghost (Casey Affleck) says so much with so little dialogue or direct body language. After seeing him as a live man alongside his wife (Rooney Mara), we don’t need him to express human concerns. There’s a subtle but wonderful build up to all this that shows Lowery loves the horror genre. But, taken from a different perspective.

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In a scene where two young kids and their mother are frightened by a ghost, we sympathize with the ghost as much as the humans. There’s this ongoing endless waiting for the ghost that shows us the enormity of time. The vast endless nature of time and how it swallows up many a human in its wake. A Ghost Story isn’t about the horror of dying as a means of leaving our loved ones. It’s about the horror of being immortal and seeing our loved ones go through horror we can’t help them through. Being absent in real life only to not be able to be distracted by something else. To just witness for hours on end what they’re going through from the distance. All the grief, regret and – most terrifying of all – acceptance & moving on from us they go through.

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It’s a chilling idea, which is presented in long uncomfortable shots by A Ghost Story. There’s an extended sequence where Rooney Mara eats a pie. It’s about five minutes long, in about one interrupted shot. The type of sequences that’ll drive people mad with impatience as they have to sit there and watch this elongated & unsettling scene of a woman stress eating to the point of tears. It’s uncompromised and brutal in a way that might deter people. But it’s a brilliant way of putting us into the mood of realizing what this is. How time plays a crucial part in the understanding of the world this film builds. One where we are doomed to hover over what we love most as it goes through the best and worst of times.

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Through scenes like this, we see how our titular spectre goes through generations of advancements. How the house he loved in life goes through varying phases. Ones that leave him a cold spectator as life goes on and withers without his presence ever being known. A Ghost Story directly tackles topics of human legacy and futility in a way that may just be a bummer. And in truth it sort of is. Confronting the feelings of meaninglessness and sadness are the cornerstones of this story and they don’t leave you on the highest note to think about. Especially when so much of the film is dialogue free, allowing the visuals to really sink into your brain.

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David Lowery plays with the concept of time visually in simple yet touching fashion. A Ghost Story is shot with 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with the corners rounded. The entire film feels like a faded photograph, one that’s been in a photo book for ages. It’s a feeling that gives further credence to the themes of loss and lingering dread of this afterlife. We get a few hints that this isn’t the only time this has happened. We see another ghost next door, waiting in vain for someone who never shows up. We see the history of this land both current and past in ways that blow our perceptions of linear storytelling out the window. It’s a cute image, given they’re two Charlie Brown style sheet covered ghosts. Still, those vacant eyes say so much about living and the human condition and being obsessed over the smaller details. The tunes hummed that last enough to keep us going. The books we read to lighten our imaginations. Our ghost slams those things into our senses through his limited yet impactful powers can get to people, if only briefly.

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A Ghost Story isn’t really a movie about how life is pointless. If anything, it’s saying that the idea of The Afterlife is pointless. Even if we do gravitate towards another plane of existence, what does that mean for us? What do we gain from existing in another plane and seeing life go on? Not much. It’s a film about showing us the most simple form of another world within our own and realizing how empty that is. How elongated and cruel a concept like that can be. It encourages us to be like Rooney Mara and not hold history or the future in higher stock than we do the present. What our actions do now and how vital they are to how we will eventually look back on them. A Ghost Story is the type of cinema we need more of. The type that genuinely pause to contemplate humanity in ways few other bigger films right now even come an inch towards. Mind bending, soul destroying and kind of beautiful all at the same time.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Spooky Sheets

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Dunkirk (2017): Simple Efficiency In Chaos

Christopher Nolan is one of the most celebrated directors of the moment. After the highly beloved The Dark Knight, Nolan has become one of the few auteurs who is given carte blanche to do whatever they want. Following the disappointing if unfairly maligned Dark Knight Rises and the over convoluted space epic Interstellar, Nolan is going for something smaller scale with Dunkirk. Rather than depict an event with over conflated stakes that are less operatic or intergalactic and more confined. A beach in France with thousands of soldiers held up for 11 days who try at every turn to escape death by leaving. Or use death as a way out of this situation.

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There’s a lot of archetypes at the heart of Dunkirk. It’s not a movie based in incredibly dense character development. There’s a lot of visual shorthand used to give us moments with these characters in the middle of this horrific battle. Which is forgivable, given we’re in the middle of a grounded war zone. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is admittedly someone you could easily lose in a crowd, but Nolan’s focus on him and contrasted casting with Gibson (Damien Bonnard) makes for a solidly engaging backbone. Two desperate shoulders who meet under intense circumstances. The subtleties are there, if not especially noticeable. This can hurt some of the actors’ chances to show off nuances, mainly with Tom Hardy‘s pilot character. He’s more there for the sake of the dogfight. Which is wonderfully put together, but often cuts to Hardy being tactical rather than human.

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That story is in total contrast with Peter Dawson (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his father (Mark Rylance). Two civilians who have the tools to help and risk so much in doing so. The story of Dunkirk hinges on the kindness of strangers. Their sacrifice to help those in dire need. Rylance and Carney have a believable father-son chemistry, but with the clear lack of vocal communication. Enough communication to get that Carney knows the importance of this. All to show he fully cares so the presence of a shaken soldier (Cillian Murphy) is all the more emotionally taxing. Nolan’s integration of the PTSD this soldier is experiencing shows an adjustment that Carney has real trouble with and Rylance is more willing to accept. It shows a side of WWII that wasn’t a factor at the time, especially this early into the war.

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Christopher Nolan is the modern James Cameron. Well, James Cameron is the modern James Cameron, but Nolan is taking a lot from his playbook and is having a similar career trajectory. An auteur who is being given the massive budget to do whatever they want after a series of successful genre efforts. All I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if Christopher Nolan becomes a hermit hiding technology any time soon. Usually though, Nolan doesn’t tend to make great use of visual shorthand. He’s more a fan of long winded speeches and elaborate ways of conveying how characters feel. What they’re thinking about. How they’re thematically driven. Which was honestly becoming grating in his more recent films. Dunkirk on the other hand takes more of Cameron’s visual shorthand, though without the over inflated run time. At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest and all the better for it. We all get what we need about the characters to service the individual scenes at hand. Effective, but efficient.

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Beyond that, Nolan also takes his sense of spectacle from the spirit of Cameron. Dunkirk is a pretty harrowing journey to go on, following three perspectives of the battle. It’s as if the opening horror show of Saving Private Ryan was an entire movie. Yet, there’s not an ounce of blood squirted. We see the carnage play out in bigger explosions and keep the gravity of the situation firmly in hand, but the gore isn’t the important factor. Every aspect of the filmmaking fills in the holes for that destruction. The harsh sound mixing of boats crashing. Heart pounding practical explosions. Even just simple shots of bodies floating in the grey murky water show the hopelessness of this battle.

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Dunkirk is such a refreshing move for Christopher Nolan. Without his usual crutches and a bit of restraint, Nolan has been able to create some iconic sequences, but hasn’t been able to match that up with a consistent story as of recent. Luckily, Dunkirk strips down the artifice and kicks its boots deep into the sand for an authentic cinematic account of this historic event. In many ways, it feels like the best version of an IMAX exclusive feature one can ever hope to have. That’s not an insult. It’s praise for something that’s a genuine cinematic experience. Nolan usually strives for this and – while not all the characters are consistently engaging – the story of this battle never misses a beat in terms of pure unadulterated tension.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Lost Helmets

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Valerian And the City of a Thousand Planets (2017): Unbridled Besson

Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets opens by giving us a pretty nifty standard to hold up to. In times of great turmoil such as now, the idea of humanity progressing to the point of achieving interstellar travel and finding peace with other culture and alien beings is pretty intriguing. The montage set to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie of us progressing is a wonderful one. It also leads into a dialogue/subtitle-less sequence of us seeing a prosperous alien society go about their daily lives… before their planet is destroyed. This 10 or so minutes of Valerian are so visually astounding, telling us about this world and these people with such gorgeous imagery. So, it’s a real shame that the rest of the film goes so downhill.

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It all starts to tumble when we’re introduced to our leads Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). They’re time and space traveling agents for human governments. They’re also in love. Kind of? DeHaan and Delevingne are attempting to have a screwball back and forth throughout that never really works. And it’s really the crux of their scenes as characters. Right from their initial holodeck beach encounter, the chemistry doesn’t land. Each bit of dialogue between the two of them is honestly horrendous. They’re not charismatic or endearing enough as people to get behind, especially as DeHaan delivers a vocal inflection I can only assume is “bad Keanu.” And Delevingne’s character is hauled back and forth between being a one dimensional damsel and a one dimensional badass within the span of a scene.

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They aren’t believable as agents. Neither seem genuinely interested in each other emotionally. Even worse, at no point do they convincingly interact with what’s around them. Valerian hinges on the reality of this world feeling authentic. That we are stepping into this world and following these two on their journey. Trouble is… that journey feels so scatter shot. There’s a vague through line, but nothing that truly keeps us grounded in this elaborate environment. With Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, there never seemed like an artifice because he felt entrenched in this world. A citizen of this neo future punk world with butt ugly aliens and Chris Tucker radio announcers, even if he was jaded by all of this. There’s no point where either DeHaan or Delevigne do the same here.

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The story also feels so convoluted. Valerian is based on a 1960s graphic novel. I haven’t read it, but much of what I’ve heard makes it feel like a 60s spy movie flip on a sci-fi premise. That’s a style that clearly appeals to a French auteur like Luc Besson. So – much in the same why 2012’s John Carter felt lagging behind thanks to production woes and 100 years of sci-fi – there doesn’t seem like much of a modern update beyond the effects work. Down to the crazy plot mechanics that honestly seem like they’ve been taken by other sci-fi franchises… and done far better. Even down to the character archetypes, like the three informative small aliens or the blobbing gangster villain from the opening. The tropes are there, but the detail in character or motivation beyond plot points isn’t there at all.

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Valerian is the key example of how far down a CG imagery treated film can go down. Besson clearly cares about the wide expanse of this world. We see bits and pieces of these varying cultures during these action moments. The most intriguing sci-fi concept is that of the interdimensional market, which people have to use VR glasses to see and pick up things as a hologram of sorts. This is such a fun conceit and a cleverly edited sequence of Valerian and Laureline. Yet, their interaction and the ultimate conceits from there are over convoluted and predictable, to the point of being brightly colored mind numbing doldrums. We know their characters, we know their lack of drive and their ultimate moments of sacrifice feel as artificial as anything about them. Especially as the film doesn’t seem to know which one they undervalue more. Though Laureline is more likely, which is such a shame given Besson’s better work with female leads.

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There’s a rich vibrant look to the world of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But those thousands of planets seem hollow. Soulless. Aside from the translucent aliens we see during the opening, there’s no societal foundation that really makes the world of Valerian real. No person interacting with the CG characters or backgrounds seems to have a grasp on where they are or what they’re doing. Not just the leads. Every other people that populates the cast seem lost. Rihanna is some kind of shapeshifter with a main purpose that’s mainly fetishistic. Ethan Hawke randomly pops up as a pimp and plays it like a weak Elton John impersonator. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock pops up to… badly give exposition. It’s so odd, but more in a confounding way than an interesting one.

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There’s something to encourage about Besson’s tact in getting Valerian together. Luc Besson worked for decades to adapt this comic he loved as a feature, getting $210 million to put the whole thing together. Valerian is a director driven, passion project that gives Besson total creative control. All of that is encouraging in a modern blockbuster landscape. That all being said, it’s also an awkward mess that shows the limited of such wide creative control. I can see a world where Valerian becomes well liked down the line for its daring. I’ll admit that’s commendable and could easily make this a cult hit. Like The Fifth Element. Which the central message of is ripped wholesale here and in a stunningly less thrilling fashion. Sometimes Besson reaches nirvana, but Valerian tries to go for more of a “more is more” style attitude. And it gets crushed by the megatons of weight of a thousand planets rapidly after the first ten or so minutes ware off.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Pooped Pearls

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The Whit of The Muppets’ Steve Whitmire

Kermit the Frog – much like Mickey Mouse – is an everlasting icon. The type of wonderfully simplistic creation that transcends eras. Jim Henson has received so much obviously deserved praise for creating something as long lasting as Kermit on every level. The design, the voice, the personality. Yet, there’s someone who often gets tossed to the side for keeping that character alive. Said someone is Steve Whitmire, a puppeteer who worked with the Henson Company for decades and continued the legacy of many personalities puppeteered by Henson himself after his untimely death in 1990.

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It’s weird thinking about that. Despite how crucial Jim Henson was to creating The Muppets, many of the productions that have been made in the lifetimes of more recent generations of fans – including myself – have been brought to life by Henson’s successor. Now, after nearly 40 years with The Muppets, it was recently revealed that Whitmire would be leaving The Muppets. One can speculate as to why this change happened, but what really matters here is celebrating Whitmire’s talents as a performer. Something that goes unsung given how often the Muppet characters are treated as identities on their own. We see so many interviews where The Muppets are treated as their characters rather than give credit to their performers. Which shows just how dedicated Whitmire and his contemporaries were and still are to these roles.

When Whitmire first took over for Kermit, like with any change, his voice was mercilessly judged for not being Henson’s. Admittedly, it is quite different. Whitmire has a more nasal approach, missing some of the natural gruffness that oozed out of Henson’s beard. The missing base was especially noticeable early on when Whitmire performed as Kermit. It didn’t help that his first performance in the role was The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, a massive tribute special to the beloved Muppets creator. Where everyone from Steven Spielberg to Harry Belafonte pay tribute to the fallen creator. Even his own felt creatures acknowledge his death and dealt with it through mutual song. So, it was just set up for Whitmire to fail by comparison even at this very early point.

Still, Whitmire proved his performing potential in The Muppet Christmas Carol, his first major production as Kermit. Despite a lack of that clear Henson voice, the earnest charm manages to shine through even in these early stages. The musical number “One More Sleep Til Christmas” doesn’t sound like someone doing a half hearted Kermit impression as much as a person with boundless love expressing it through a slightly more nasal voice than we’re used to. Part of the genius of The Muppet Christmas Carol really is in how it utilizes The Muppet characters for casting in Charles Dickens’ story. By having these lovable characters as important human characters while new pitch perfect puppets are used for the ghosts, we allow the audience to empathize far more. Kermit as Bob Cratchit is the prime example. Kermit as the public knew him was always a hard working fellow constrained by the situation he was in. Perfect casting for one of the archetypes of the underappreciated worker. Even if it is weird to see his and Mrs. “Piggy” Cratchit’s pig & frog children.

Muppet Kermit the Frog and his operator Steve Whitmire take questions from the audience at Barnes & Noble

From here, the uses of Kermit do vary, mostly due to an inability to fully grasp what The Muppets could be after Henson’s death. Between them adapting Robert Louis Stevenson and Gonzo revealing himself as an alien, the Henson company clearly were taking things in odd directions. Still, Whitmire’s turns as Kermit never felt underwhelming. The sword fighting scenes in Muppet Treasure Island are some of the best examples of Kermit’s physical comedy abilities. He even has a few funny moments of straight man style comedy in Muppets From Space. He even kept up the hosting duties that Henson had as Kermit for the original Muppet Show during Muppets Tonight for a brief point in the mid-90s.

As time continued, he grew even more accustomed to Kermit as a character. After years of obscurity, when The Muppets film from 2011 gave the characters a return to form, Whitmire gave the role of Kermit even more life than had ever been truly brewed into the character. His Kermit in that film is one that has seen much better days and acknowledges that the puppet characters we know and love have been undervalued by time, allowing Whitmire give Kermit a sense of regret and loss that weren’t available previously. Thus, when we get Whitmire’s rendition of “Rainbow Connection” to serve as part of the telethon climax, it means more for Kermit as a performer wanting to touch as many people as Jim did before. It helps that Whitmire served as an assistant operator for Henson during Kermit’s initial rendition of that song for 1979’s The Muppet Movie, giving life to the arms that plucked Kermit’s banjo strings.

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Of course, Kermit wasn’t the only character Whitmire ever played. Probably his most famous original role was Rizzo the Rat, a streetwise New Yorker rodent who often served as a wonderful comedic foil to Gonzo The Great. The chemistry between Whitmire and Gonzo performer Dave Goelz was quite palpable. In Muppet Christmas Carol, the two show a comedic duo styling that helped breathe life into the post-Jim years. Rizzo brought a genuine grounding to Gonzo’s usual insane antics. He had the perfect type of urban charm that may have been needed when he was introduced during Muppets Take Manhattan. Whitmire took what initially seemed like a parody of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and turned him into a hilarious full fledged comedic character of his own.

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Steve Whitmire has also brought to life many other lasting Muppet characters. Whitmire continued the roles of other Muppets characters like Statler, Beaker and Link Hogthrob. He created the role of Bean Bunny, who was introduced to audiences in 1986 and continues to delight them in Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He also gave smaller yet notable characters life in Henson Company projects like The Dark CrystalLabyrinth and the TV series Dinosaurs. Whitmire also took over important roles on Sesame Street, mainly that of Ernie. He even had a technical plunge that put his mark on the creatures on a mechanical level, as he created the mechanism that allowed Rizzo the Rat the ability to move his mouth.

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It shows just how many technological and artistic achievements Steve Whitmire ultimately provided to The Muppets characters. While he wasn’t the most celebrated person within the company, Steve Whitmire deserves so much credit. And not just for being the man who took up the mantle of Kermit for nearly 30 years after someone who created the character passed on. No, Whitmire helped give so much new life to the character in the intervening years following Henson’s death. He allowed The Muppets to endure for children in the dawn of the new millennium, who sought comfort in the age of burgeoning technology. The Muppets can often seem like a relic of the past, trying to get through modern times with new gimmicks. Given there’s been moments like the recent 2015 sitcom or lesser webshows to prove weakened attempts to adapt to the times.

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Yet, Steve Whitmire always seemed to be willing to keep the characters alive. Even through obscurity and reality TV show appearances, Whitmire was instrumental in helping keep these characters from fading into the dust and deserves proper thanks for his actions. Though he wasn’t Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire was a puppeteer who knew that these characters transcended the hands that operated them. Without people like Whitmire or recent puppeteers like Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta and Matt Vogel (who will be taking up the role of Kermit following Whitmire), The Muppets wouldn’t be around to inspire children to laugh, love and sing for nearly 30 years.

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Jim Henson got this ball to start rolling. And that’s incredibly vital. Yet, it takes a determined and devoted person to keep things alive. That’s something Steve Whitmire helped provide to these evergreen characters at a time when they were most needed. He wasn’t necessarily Jim Henson, but he was a dedicated performer who helped keep the role alive. Now that he’s gone, it’s important to note the legacy he helped keep alive still stands to this day. Without Mr. Whitmire’s work, it’s safe to say I myself wouldn’t appreciate the lasting legacy of these characters as much as I do. They may be felt and lacking in human flesh, but The Muppets are eternal pop culture creations. Ones that may outlast Steve Whitmire, but shouldn’t keep his accomplishments in mind when looking back on their history. No matter why he decided to leave, Whitmire’s accomplishments deserve to be noted in history for all time. And they will, along the great Rainbow Connection of life.

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“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017): Solid Swinging

Spider-Man Homecoming is the culmination of a lot of cinematic drama. No, not with the current Peter Parker as played by Tom Holland facing baddies. We’ve only previously seen him as one of many supporting characters in Captain America: Civil War. The true drama is that around Sony Pictures and the Disney owned Marvel Entertainment’s battle of character rights! Sony helped usher in the modern superhero film landscape with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. However, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe developed for Disney, Sony struggled to get their own off the ground with the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man franchise. Now, the two have cooperated to bring Peter Parker into the fold and he’s got his own solo movie. Of course, that’s a lot of Spider-Man. To the point where this could easily confuse and disinterest folks. So, does this Spider-Man stand out?

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Definitely. The fact alone that Spider-Man Homecoming is in the MCU makes it stand out. Yet, it isn’t just tied by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) making a few appearances. He certainly does, with Downey giving a decent 3/4 level of the typical smug arrogance. The more intriguing MCU connections really lie within the smaller nuanced examples of world building. We see the impact of these superheroes on a cultural level more than a disaster level, changing the dynamics of how people interact. This includes how a low level contractor like Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) deals with the struggles of government contractors swooping in and stealing his livelihood. It honestly feels more interesting on a street level view of this universe than any of the limited connecting threads within the MCU Netflix shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones… though the opening set doesn’t feel too far off from that budget when compared the usual MCU film.

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It’s an intriguing motivation that sets Adrian apart from most of the dull villains of this universe, making him one of the better ones.  Yet… that’s not saying a lot. Aside from that amazing start of a motivation, Toomes just feels like a standard Marvel villain that’s only shaped a bit more rounded thanks to Michael Keaton’s traditional penchant for relatable evil in general. His motivation is left to the side for the sake of a twist that works in the moment, but ultimately falls victim to much of the problems of the typical Marvel villain. It doesn’t help that he spends most of his screentime in a grey design for his costume, which often gets lost in the shuffle of the lesser action sequences. He’s a far better villain for Spider-Man Homecoming in overview than execution.

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Really, the shining aspect of Spider-Man in the MCU is how average folks see this world of superheroes. That it’s a daily part of life, especially given they’re in New York where the attacks from the first Avengers film occurred. Yet, someone like Peter or his best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) can still feel giddy about being a superhero. Peter and Ned’s relationship really holds the film together, giving us the lower perspective on the food chain both within high school and the MCU in general. They’re scrappy, awkward and in over their heads, but they are just so enthusiastic. Even if Ned is just “the guy in the chair”, he feels like he’s a part of something bigger. Much like Peter wants to be part of The Avengers. Being a superhero is the equivalent of joining a rag tag group of misfits for this teen movie, which is where Spider-Man Homecoming honestly shines the most.

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There’s a bit of inspiration from the likes of John Hughes in how this high school operates, but there’s also a decent dose of relatable groundedness that co-writer/director Jon Watts shines at. Watts’ previous film Cop Car had very naturalistic child performances that kept its intense thriller a bit lighter when needed. With Spider-Man Homecoming, the teenagers have an authentic awkwardness and blind drive that’s realistic, yet not so much as to make them annoying. Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) has the right amount of douchebag ego that makes up for his lack in traditional size for the character. Michelle Jones (Zendaya) is such a hilarious intelligent character that you’re thrown off by the connection she has to the traditional Spider-Man universe. Even the smaller adult faculty member roles show off an authentic familiarity with their roles, whether it be the uncomfortable science teacher Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) or the aloof gym teacher Coach Wilson (Hannibal Buress).

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Of course, Holland is the main spark that keeps this youthful energy alive. The way he oozes gumption and enthusiasm at every turn makes Spider-Man Homecoming such an endearing exercise. One can’t help but smile during the opening montage as he attempts to keep New York safe… even if he ends up screwing it all up. That consistent character trait of Peter Parker being a self sabotager, either by lesser attempts at saving the day or going to save the day instead of be an average teenager. The way Peter looks longingly at others having fun as he dresses in his superhero suit says everything about his struggles. This all is present in both the meek regular Peter Parker form and the potentially amazing yet clearly still molding attempt at Spider-Man. This makes Holland the best version of the character, given Tobey Maguire had a great grasp of Peter Parker yet not his heroic alter ego and Andrew Garfield… was honestly just giving a crappy opportunity. Holland exemplifies everything that makes a young version of this character work, making him the best of both worlds. He honestly brings out the best in Robert Downey Jr, who intermittently shows a strangely genuine paternal care for Peter that’s packaged between Tony Stark B-material he sleepwalks through.

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Tom Holland really manages to do so much that distracts from the clunkiness here. But the clunkiness isn’t a sign of doom. If anything, Spider-Man: Homecoming is less a great individual tale and more a solid foundation for a series of films centered around the webslinger to follow. One from which an entire series could spring from. Hopefully they take more from the film’s best sequence involving the Washington Monument elevator. It’s small scale, features characters we’ve been decently endeared to and shows Peter up against the ropes thinking on his feet. None of the action before or after this moment really crystallizes this, not being helped by some clunky story contrivances that really make a solid thirty minutes or so of this feel very long winded. There’s a consistent charm to Spider-Man: Homecoming, but hopefully it can eventually lead to the type of powerful character work that still makes Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 one of the best examples of the superhero genre.

Rating: 3.5 Vats of Web Liquid Out of 5

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“Baby Driver” (2017): Music To My Earbuds

Comedies are so flatly directed these days. While many aim for the improvised laugh style of Judd Apatow, they hardly get the type of visual vibrancy that can really enhance a joke. While his latest isn’t a flat out comedy, writer/director Edgar Wright still displays his usual panache in both funny and brutal ways throughout Baby Driver. After a brief delay caused by production problems on Ant-Man, Wright shows off his skills as a true auteur with a vision as Baby Driver commits to the type of carefully crafted filmmaking Wright does best. There’s clearly inspiration all over the place, mainly for 60s/70s car chase films like Bullitt that show Wright is a fan of that era. Yet, the story has a modern digital sheen and colorful display of confidence that speaks to his specific abilities as a director.

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Given its premise of a getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) getting mixed up in his final-job-gone-wrong, the story of Baby Driver isn’t an unfamiliar one. The basic plot is more than a bit predictable, showing that Wright – who has a sole writing credit for the first time in his career – is far more focused on the details rather than building too elaborate a story. There aren’t as many of the perfectly set up and called back jokes or moments that he and Simon Pegg put into the scripts for Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. Yet, it’s not like the story built by Wright here is lazy or poorly plotted because it’s simple. The story provides solid terrain for the set pieces and moments of pure adrenaline to drive on as things become more chaotically visual along the way. A fable of searching for a better life that collides our characters into one another. We’re given enough to feel invested in our titular driver and his struggles with a life he’s grown accustomed to. His relationships with his boss/mentor (Kevin Spacey) or his newfound love interest (Lily James) are both simple on the surface, but have enough charm and grey morality to keep the drama going on when pedal isn’t being put to the metal.

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Besides, that pedal metaling is what Baby Driver aims to mainly sell and boy is that sold so damn well. Baby Driver has such meticulous craft to every single frame. Not just with how a car chase scene is shot, which is immaculate in every instance. It’s also in the flow of the editing, which gives us the type of brilliant beat-for-beat set up that has been missing from so many modern action films. Every single chase and action scene has this meticulous timing. Quick cuts to show impact, long takes to show the incredibly tense intricate stunt work.Not some chopped-to-oblivious exercise in headaches that passes for modern action film editing. All of this is shot with a poppy sense of lively adventure by Bill Pope. Each moment has pinpoint purpose that Wright lacks any delusion about.

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All of this is extenuated by the various other technical elements. The sound design hits a chord so deep that it penetrates the spine as one sits to watch. Every song on the soundtrack  gives the most propulsive slap to the eardrums that speaks wonderfully to the scene at hand. Wright has always had a great penchant for soundtrack choices, from Shaun of the Dead‘s iconic use of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World‘s hilarious use of The Door’s Alabama Song. In Baby Driver, the track list feels like a blistering rush of creative gumption. We see Baby planning actions to the beats, getting the audience firmly planted in his head space. We see how the music drives him, allowing us to ride in the backseat of his decision making in ways that elaborate dialogue would contrive us to connect to. It’s not just style over substance. The style IS the substance that connects us to the character, his journey and his motivations.

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Baby Driver also benefits from a pretty stellar cast. Elgort is a baby faced marvel of quiet brooding, showing an unflinching confidence that’s tempered by an adorable vulnerability. When he emphasizes his need for music, it feels like far more than just an impulsive tick. And so much of that is conveyed through small interactions and facial movements. Lily James is adorable, but not totally reliant on Baby to be investing. She’s a sweet hard working woman who just wants escape from the mundane. Something Baby gives her a peak at through his unconventional personality. They are circled by an impressive roster of a supporting cast. Kevin Spacey balancing sleaze with respectful action. Jamie Foxx exuding menace and charm with relative ease. Jon Hamm showing wide range of personality that extends far beyond his recent Mad Men hushed tones or Bridesmaids comedic wit.

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All of this provides the stew that makes Baby Driver a delicious treat. There’s not a single frame here that feels wasted. Much in the same way 2015’s Max Max: Fury Road took a simple story and used it as the core of a very visual way to connect us to it’s characters, Baby Driver is a technical marvel to behold. Yet, it doesn’t forget to use this stylish overlay to keep us invested in what’s going on. One could easily dismiss this as flashy pop nonsense that uses its actors as window dressing. Yet, that could all very easily be thrown out the side door. Modern blockbusters love to throw shiny things at the screen to distract us from their convoluted plots and underwhelming characters. While the characters in Baby Driver aren’t as detailed, their actions speak louder than conversations. They’re driven – heh – to their moments by the stylish roadways of A-to-B. Edgar Wright knows how to make every stylish moment matter. Every homage work within this new context. The use of songs mean something more than just “here’s what’s on my Spotify playlist, y’all!” In that way, Baby Driver is honestly taking the type of filmmaking Quentin Tarantino made famous and doing a far better job of capturing the pop culture splash of fun & tension than he has in about a decade.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 160GB iPods

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“The Book Of Henry” (2017): A Book Missing A Spine

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for The Book of Henry. Proceed at your own risk.

Director Colin Trevorrow is rising up in the world. In 2015, he made Jurassic World which managed to be one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was a job so lucrative that he managed to get a job directing Star Wars: Episode IX. Of course, his career didn’t start that way. Prior to this, he worked in TV and short documentaries before eventually making his feature film debut with Safety Not Guaranteed, a grounded sci-fi dramedy that mainly relied on character interaction. It’s a highly underrated film that quite honestly has far more heart in it than any second of Jurassic World. So, before he steps into space, Trevorrow decides to get back to his routes with the independent film The Book of Henry. Not an uncommon move for a director who started out in the indie scene, but would he be able to capture that same charm he got to bubble in the surface for Safety Not Guaranteed? Or did Jurassic World truly rip him of any sense of convincing emotional engagement?

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Well, that accusation is a bit unfair, given Trevorrow doesn’t have a writing credit on The Book of Henry like he did on his two previous features. Comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz is the credited screenwriter and in many ways, the titular Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a superhero. He’s a child with an incredibly high IQ. He’s far beyond the intellectual thought of his fellow eleven year olds in school, making elaborate inventions and handling all the financial planning for his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) & brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay ). Plus, Henry is also planning a rather decisive plot against his neighbor Police Chief Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who he believes is abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). Henry is the Superman that keeps his world from tumbling, with his mother, brother and even many of his classmates relying on his genius to help them through life’s biggest troubles.

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This is all meant to be so precocious. The Book of Henry assumes we’ll be wildly charmed and endeared to this entire group because they rely on an eleven year old for so much. This makes sense for his younger brother Peter, who actually feels like a real child. Jacob Tremblay gives a believable childlike performance. When Jacob is disappointed in his life’s downturns, he has this authentic sadness on his face that carries us through moments of the film. His mixture of regret and youthful charm is infectiously cute yet emotionally honest enough to not be maudlin. It’s a shame literally NO ONE ELSE took Tremblay’s lead.

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The emotional manipulation on display in The Book of Henry is insulting. Every twenty minutes has a massive tonal shift. We go from this precocious family dramedy to a medical drama to a family grieving movie to a thriller within the span of an hour and forty five minutes. There is absolutely no smooth transition going on here and a juxtaposition that honestly feels flabbergasting on a story and directorial level. We cut between a children’s talent show and an elaborated attempted assassination like this is The Godfather, which completely distracts from any sort of emotional investment. The emotional whiplash is paralyzing here, making The Book of Henry feel like the disappointing spawn of the worst Lifetime Original Movie, the worst Amblin movie and the worst dark thriller film ever made. Any emotional tether we had to this story died the moment Henry spoke his first line, but only managed to rapidly decompose by the time he breaths his last breath.

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Jaeden Lieberher – despite his impressive work in last year’s Midnight Special with a more sci-fi style gifted character – is the type of far-too-smart genius/socially outcasted child that grates on the nerves. Every philosophical flight of fancy he spouts distances himself further from any sort of human behavior. He has the type of confidence that makes him feel more like the father of this family than the oldest son. Makes some sense, given that the father is written off as having left the boys and Susan. Still, so much is put on this kid’s plate that it honestly feels like some form of abuse for Susan to be so reliant on this kid to simply keep this household together. Even as he is dying from this tumor in his brain, Henry has little emotional contemplation, instead trying to work out everything before anyone else can say it. He manages to even be smug and unlikable as a child on his damn deathbed.

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Susan’s inability to decide makes this even worse. Especially given she literally can’t make the choice to give consent to allow her child to have surgery as he is having violent seizures without asking that very same child for his thoughts. The same woman who spends more time playing video games than doing any sort of tough decision making, even after Henry’s death. Now, while all of that behavior is awful, one could maybe forgive that if The Book of Henry gives her some sort of arc. And it sort of tries? “Sort of” is being very kind, given she spends the fallout of Henry’s death by brain tumor going with the meticulous plan he mapped out to catch the abuse going on next door for her step by step… until moments before she could commit the awful deed. Keeping in mind this involves:

  1. Completely accepting that any kind of outside help is out of the question
  2. Buying an illegal assault weapon
  3. Training herself to shoot this weapon instead of providing for her living son or even watching out for him
  4. Establishing an alibi of being at a talent show
  5. Setting up a trap by baiting the police chief neighbor with… a bird call via walkie talkie taped to a tree?
  6. Shooting that man from her sons’ clubhouse and discarding all evidence

She manages to go with five out of six of those steps, only stopping short because she realizes that Henry was “a child” via photos of him as a child that conveniently pop up there thanks to an invention he had in his clubhouse. It’s meant to be the big emotional crux of The Book of Henry, but it reads as hollow to a enraging degree. There’s so much talk of Henry not being a parent and that he didn’t teach her how to be a mom… but she’s a horrendously untrustworthy parent. No good mother would take so long to question this elaborate set up that is going on. No good mother would intensely play video games and dump all fiscal responsibility on her eleven year old son without any sort of fight. No good mother would THEN ask him to take things easy and not accept any responsibility for what’s going on. All of this makes Susan emotionally immature to the point of neglect… yet she ends up getting total custody of the abused girl next door at the end?!

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None of this is helped by the lack of any concrete adult character in The Book of Henry. Dean Norris just sort of scowls out the side of his face like a mad puppy without any kind of guidance. Sarah Silverman is here to have an implied alcohol problem, look pretty and kiss a dying child on the lips in an incredibly creepy fashion. Lee Pace is… just there to smile and be at least a foot taller than every other cast member. All are passing ships in the night to get our more prominent and horrendous lead characters from Point A to Point B. The other authority figures are dense to the point of being pretty much on level with Henry’s classmates, including the principal (Tonya Pinkins) who can’t seem to see the lack of emotion on Christina’s face.

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Then again, much of that has to do with Maddie Ziegler having little to no resemblance to human behavior. Of course, we also don’t have any real weight to the child abuse elements. The Book of Henry is willing to let us wade through a child dying from sudden brain tumor death and an elaborate plan to kill a corrupt cop, but not once show the true lasting consequences of the abuse. The child abuse here is magically hand waved as merely making Christina feel mopey. We get no context from her point of view or lingering effects beyond Ziegler sort of acting aloof. Henry even references bruises that we never see, perhaps to show the implied-but-never-developed Machiavellian brilliance of her stepfather to cover up this abuse. One might blame this young actress, but when even Naomi Watts can’t make any of this anywhere near authentic, there has to be something wrong with the direction.

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Colin Trevorrow does a decent job with all the technical aspects of The Booky Of Henry, but misses the character stuff at every single turn. Which is fatal. Any solid visual or moody bit of lighting falls flat when the characterization feels as emotionally hollow as most everyone is here. This is really where my worries come for him taking on Star Wars next. The way he handles the family dynamics here show a complete tone deafness for what is actually going on vs the foolhardy attempts at getting us to the end of all this. For all the big moments of spectacle, the thing that has kept us connected to Star Wars really has always been the familial level connection between the characters. Even if he didn’t write this, the fact that he was willing to sign on to this based on the very basic story beats shows a lack of self awareness. With Trevorrow handles this story, I am highly sceptical of how Episode IX will end the new trilogy. Hell, at least Jurassic World was more consistent.

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Anyhoo, The Book of Henry is one of the absolute worst films of the year so far. It’s astonishing how inept this feels on the most basic story level. One wonders how this story got passed the outline stage, let alone script completion and green lighting. Despite the technical craft on display that’s tolerable, there’s no authentic emotional grounding beyond Jacob Tremblay’s character and performance. Everyone else is either a hollow husk of a character or a completely unrealistic perception of humanity. Nothing here gives us an emotional grounding worth following. All of this comes off as genuinely naive on a storytelling level, to the point where every decision is questionable on every layer. The few moments of self awareness are fleeting, more as a brief write off to attempt to dispel anyone’s questioning. Unfortunately, The Book of Henry writes itself into so many corners, providing solutions that merely boxes itself into another corner on the opposite side of the wall. It’s both excessive in its attempts to be cute and painful in how it attempts to deviate from that into genuine drama or tension.

Rating: 0.5 Out of 5 Pages from Henry’s Book

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“Cars 3” (2017): Rules of the Road (And This World) Don’t Apply

The ever popular incredibly unsettling universe of vehicles without humans is back, baby! Cars 3 features race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to find himself back on the track. Despite issues with the overall premise and execution of the universe created in 2006’s Cars, this plotline is at least a return to basics. In fairness, this is following the disastrously awful Cars 2, which took the simple premise of “race cars go vroom” and turned it into a subpar Austin Powers style spy parody. Leaving McQueen in the dust so his sidekick Mater the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy) could hog the spotlight obnoxiously. Now, McQueen’s racing foibles are back in the spotlight and Matter is used very sparingly… even though he gets to say “Git R Done” twice. Returning to the sports story is a far better route for Cars 3 to travel. The question is does Cars 3 have good enough Lightyear brand tires to run that terrain?

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Well… sure. Cars 3 is a very simple “comeback story”/”training the next generation” sports movie. A Rocky Balboa that transforms into Creed. There’s not much to it. Still, it’s a step up from Cars 2. Unfortunately, the passage of time really isn’t felt because of something like Cars 2. In the original film, McQueen is a rookie. A rebel who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, to the point of losing track of the journey rather than the destination. Now – after a stupid spy movie that used Lightning’s racing as the thinnest excuse for Matter to be an ass – he’s suddenly supposed to be an ancient car. Sure, there’s a montage that tries to emphasize this, but it feels underwhelming and rushed as a way of making up for lost time. We never really got the chance to see Lightning as the head honcho in his heyday, which deflates the power of seeing him crash and be accused of being past his prime.

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This is obviously a commentary on modern technology (vehicular or otherwise) and how quickly we leave the past in the dust. These newer more aggressive high tech cars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) don’t have an appreciation for the old style that McQueen managed to have, giving him the role reversal of the first film with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a high tech trainer who hasn’t had any real world experience. She is learning more than McQueen is at a certain point, turning from a reliance on tech to an appreciation for the real dirt in between your toes – er, I mean treads in tires. Cars 3 builds this chemistry solidly, particularly with a rather over the top demolition derby scene… even if thinking about that scene in context for even a moment makes one question the bloodsports going on in this universe. The high energy back and forth between Alonzo and Wilson is what keeps this boat afloat, especially when interacting with the likes of business tycoon Sterling (Nathan Fillion) or the crazed roller derby bus Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria).

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Much in the way that the Toy Story trilogy deals with the legacy and meaning of items, Cars 3 tries to inject some of this pathos into its universe. The relationship between McQueen and his mentor from the first film Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, who has a bit of new audio inserted into this) plays heavily into the themes here. As McQueen looks at his own failure, he remembers the wipeout that put out Doc so harshly. Both McQueen and Cruz are lost and need a shot to prove themselves, making them mutually grow to learn from their past greed or misguidedness in order to learn what it truly means to race. One does feel the impact in the rather brutal crash scene that sends him out of commission. It’s a noble idea, especially with the additional factor of the hand off being to a female & hispanic… car. Diversity models can come from anywhere, I suppose.

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Yet, the world of Cars 3 continues to crumble because these stories are so simple. With Toy Story or Monsters Inc, there are plenty of questions going on about this universe. Hell, sites like Cracked or Buzzfeed have made an industry out of over questioning these premises and packaging them into articles that “Ruin Your Childhood.” Yet, when watching those films, one never really questions what’s going on on that macro level because the micro character focused level matters so much more. With Cars 3 and the entire Cars franchise, those emotions don’t hit as high because the stories and characters are ultimately so simple. Like a mini-van with rather limited features.

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The animation is up to the usual Pixar standard, as it is rather immaculate on that level. The shine on these cars and the rustic vs high tech nature of the varying settings is grounded in a reality that gives this world some stability. This stands out especially well when we see old footage of Doc Hudson racing, with the projected film having just the right amount of grain to recreate the past. Yet, it’s not enough to keep the emotional investment that consistent. It’s lush style without much substance. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these films being more focused on broader childish appeal, but Cars 3 wants to have it both ways without doing the work. Paying lip service to the introspective themes of legacy while throwing in silly moments of vehicles doing pratfalls. Cars 3 is less a Pixar film and more like a lesser studio trying and failing to catch the right mojo to appealing to everyone consistently instead of one audience member age group at a time.

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Of course, a big part of the confusion here is mainly the fault of this world building. When the story doesn’t distract, this entire human-less vehicle driven universe falls apart. Cars 3 throws unfunny puns and visual gags at the screen to reference our modern culture… but the lack of a laugh just leaves us time to unravel the horrific what ifs at play. For example, at one point the cars go to a resturaunt referred to as a “bar and grill.” These personified vehicles do drink oil… but what do they grill? Is it the tractor cows we keep seeing? And if they do grill the tractor cows, does that make them cannibals? What makes a tractor less personified than a regular car, to the point of not being able to speak? Is it some form of car evolution? Did those tractors evolve into the regular cars our lead characters resemble? Does that mean Jackson Storm and the other new racing cars are the next link in the evolutionary chain? Is McQueen fighting the progression of his species by wanting to race? HOW IN THE HELL DOES ANY OF THIS WORK?!

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These are all questions that the story should be able to distract us from. Cars 3 does attempt to ground the story in its characters, though while servicing some of its least endearing elements like puns. McQueen’s line of “Life’s a Beach, Then Your Drive” is a low gut punch to those who respect their intelligence. It truly is lesser rate Pixar material, despite the gorgeous animation and a nudge towards developing the characters. A noble, but ultimately middling effort that’ll at least be appreciated for not referencing Matter’s past as a spy car. Still, Pixar’s bottom of the barrell is at least better than much of the animated material that gets tossed out there. A parent will likely be looking back fondly on this as they’re forced to sit through this summer’s Emoji Movie.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Pairs of Lightning McQueen Mudflaps

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