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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THE MUMMY (2017): Dark Universe Ain’t Lit

The Universal Monsters were the original cinematic universe. Long before DC & Marvel got their chance Dracula, Frankenstein and indeed The Mummy crossed over. Whether it be to fight or bumble around Abbott and Costello, the popular monsters met each other on multiple occasions. Now, Universal is calling back to this with their newly branded “Dark Universe.” A lot of The Mummy sets up this connected universe. Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) is our Nick Fury, the leader of a secret organization set on collecting and studying these supernatural creatures. Well, studying and killing them. Which upsets the people who were being chased by The Mummy (Sofia Boutella). Who is trying to bring back an evil Egyptian god in human form. Are you losing track? Don’t worry. It’ll be exposited to you every twenty minutes.

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The Mummy is a pretty frustrating experience. It’s the ultimate example of putting the cart before the horse in terms of trying to start up a massive franchise without laying solid groundwork. The Marvel Cinematic Universe focused on making a good Iron Man movie without heavily bombarding the audience with teases for a new universe. Hell, even DC tried to do that with Man of Steel. Here, the titular villain becomes much more of a means to an end rather than an intimidating presence to fight against. Boutella tries her best, attempting to give her undead goddess a slinky confidence that’s more than the script could give her. Especially when her ultimate purpose is to unleash dull CG windstorm/rats/shambling corpses upon the world. Still, she and a rather game Russell Crowe as intellectual Dr. Jekyll/cockney tumbler Mr. Hyde are at least trying to give this some life. Though we don’t focus on them nearly enough.

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Instead, most of our time is spent with Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a two faced thief and liar that’s supposed to be our hero. While attempting to have some kind of redemption arc, Nick helps his generic love interest/damsel in distress Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) once. Then, after said saving, Nick consistently leaves her to die, disrespects her knowledge and treats any kind of supernatural force without an ounce of gravity. While not Tom Cruise’s worst film in recent memory, The Mummy features a rare Cruise in pilot mode. No, that’s not a Top Gun joke. The type of effortless charm Cruise usually displays is represented as an empty shadow. The chemistry with Annabelle Wallis’ non-character is non-existent. Every attempt at roguish charm framed to make us become endeared to Nick Morton comes off as petty and ignorant. Even the stunts are unconvincing and listless.

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Nick Morton is the type of insecure dumbass that no one would want to follow or – more importantly – have any kind of sympathy for. With the original Universal Monsters, a tragic empathy was crucial to the general characters. The Wolfman contemplated suicide. Frankenstein was a being brought back from death to scorn and outrage. Imhotep – OG The Mummy as played by Boris Karloff – merely wanted to find his love again in a new life. It’s something co-writer/director Alex Kurtzman tries to strive for with Nick Morton, with his internal make up being severely affected by his encounters with The Mummy. The audience is meant to extend tragic feeling towards Nick as his mind is under the control of our titular beast. Yet, there’s nothing there. A soulless vapid entity that feels incredibly close to a woman who he constantly doesn’t seem to care about after only having a one night stand with her. It’s the most hollow thing this entire affair could hang its coat on.

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Morton’s encounters with the supernatural elements of The Mummy are rather unimpressive. The elaborate sandstorms amounts to little excitement, only making one recall the amazing Dubai sandstorm chase scene in Cruise’s Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol. His constant visualization of a decaying Jake Johnson calling him to do things that will obviously end up killing him with attempted comedic frankness. So, the worst impression of Griffin Dunne’s character in American Werewolf in London. The methods in which Boutella even brings people back from the dead only serve as lingering reminders of the earlier Brendan Fraser mummies from the dawn of the new millennium, a reminder that makes those films look far better in retrospect. Especially since the 1999 originator of that incarnation of the series knew to at least do one thing right; keep the plot simple.

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Here, Alex Kurtzman and his five other credited writers do the worst possible job of taking the basic premise and repeating it over and over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over again. Yet, they’ll further convolute the entire throughline by giving the macguffin of the dagger multiple parts that need to be found and a rather confusing climactic twist that shows a triumph based on… literally nothing inherent to our main character. It’s the type of writing that Alex Kurtzman has contributed to modern blockbusters with his work on the first few Transformers films, where drama and conflict is confused with plodding narrative. And most of that comes from the decision to build up this Dark Universe concept rather than an engaging individual story with The Mummy.

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None of this helps the fact that The Mummy is merely Kurtzman’s second film, following the long forgotten romantic drama People Like Us. The inexperience shows in spades with Kurtzman’s attempts at creating dynamic action scenes or horrific atmosphere. He relies so much on dodgy CG and over editing to give our titular monster any kind of threat and the action sequences a sense of propulsive kinetic excitement. But neither help in any fashion. Every decision feels like Kurtzman wanted to emulate directors he’s written for like Michael Bay or JJ Abrams, but without an ounce of ability in terms of selecting angles or creating dynamic flow to the action moments that they have. Yet, even a Michael Bay Transformers film has better moments of action than this.

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The Mummy is a disaster. That should be pretty obvious after all of this. An attempt to bring these monsters together, only to drive them off the screen with a complete dud of a first outing. The sad thing is these characters could work in a modern universe context, but not this way. As a tribute to its horror source material, it fails to capture the basic integrity of tragedy or scares. As an attempted action film, it fails to generate much excitement in that fashion. What results is an identity crisis for this supposed universe that notes a lot of voices trying to stir this pot, only for the meal to be a failure pile of a stew. The Mummy is everything that’s wrong with modern universe building in Hollywood franchises. It’s the equivalent of if Marvel started their universe with Iron Man 2 instead of Iron Man. But that’s an insult to Iron Man 2.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Horridly CG Rats

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“Wonder Woman” (2017): Wonderful Rises From Rubble

The DC Extended Universe films have had a rocky start. Man of SteelBatman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad each had massive problems. All of them ambitious to some degree, but underwhelming in execution for varying reason. However, the most common connection between them simply is a lacking development of character. Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, Joker or any other number of characters weren’t given room to breathe amongst the muddled themes and intensely overstuffed world building. Unable to find the type of balance that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made effortless. With so many great characters in their roster, one would hope that DC could find a film that gets them back on track and gives these timeless heroes their time to shine. Luckily, Wonder Woman manages to crash through the piles of ash like an ember soaring into the sky and burning your cheek with a rush of excitement.

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Wonder Woman was introduced in Batman V. Superman as an inconsequential yet welcome personality to spar with the male heroes. Here, we get a full-scale introduction to what made Princess Diana that badass. A full look into the varying tug and pull of her upbringing. Sometimes this can be a bit too exposition heavy, but director Patty Jenkins and main writer Allan Heinberg manage to alleviate the clumsiness by displaying Diana’s gumption and her mother’s fear in equal measure. With an island of female warriors wanting to train her for battle, Diana’s still suppressed by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wanting to save her from the wars of the world of men. It’s an understandable motivation, particularly as men eventually invade their shores and impede the peaceful existence they’ve had for centuries. The conflict is one based in a human connective tissue of not wanting to see those we love be harmed. A recurring theme that enriches Diana’s struggles as a protector further down the line.

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There’s an earnestness in that idea that gives Wonder Woman such wonderful legs. Gal Gadot gives her a curiosity and audacious sense of righteousness that instantly endears us to the character. As she learns more about the disconnected bureaucracy of man in war, her lack of tolerance for such bully makes her a true hero fighting against something bigger than a giant villain. She wants to save everyone. Live up to her status of a massive warrior and stop all war from happening by living up to the stories she grew up on. Even when we do get big battle sequences, they’re still steeped deeply in Diana’s desire to save the humanity that both ignites a flame of endearment within her while constantly trying to destroy their own beauty with brutish force. Something that Man of Steel utterly fumbled on, while Wonder Woman does in an effortless fashion.

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Wonder Woman truly is a superhero based in the concept of compassion. She has a love for the people around her that isn’t simply a feminine motherly instinct. It’s a compassion instilled into her by everyone from her mother who instill compassion to her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who trains her in secret to defend herself to even Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) showing her the full scope of humanity’s strength and faults. Trevor in particular is fascinating character. Chris Pine’s charm is incredibly nuanced, having all the confidence of a human spy yet being confused and eventually humbled by Diana’s abilities. There’s an attraction between the two, but it isn’t a flat typical Hollywood romance. It’s based in mutual respect for their abilities, yet still allows for barbs and fish out of water humor that never feels too forced.

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Wonder Woman‘s compassion continues to the other soldiers in her rag-tag battalion. The trio of Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) each give Diana further perspective on man’s world. One where mortals take from each other or lose confidence in themselves, but also try to hold up their own even when facing impossible odds. This crew manages to show how Wonder Woman manages to one up its Marvel competition, as this crew manages to be a far more improved version of The Howling Commandos from Captain America: The First Avenger. Some of them don’t get full closure, but their character moments with Diana gives us further insight into her struggles in dealing with humanity.

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The conflicting motivations of man challenge Diana’s perceptions of humanity, allowing for a stronger conflict for when she starts to kick major ass. The villains Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) represent both the comic book supervillainy and the truly demented evil at hand. There’s a few comic book moments of destruction with them and the hints of Aries, but the ultimate form of evil in Wonder Woman is one that’s far more sinister and chilling than expected. One engrained in allowing the self-destructive nature of humanity to feed on itself. Something that Diana is tempted towards in a way that makes her relate to man’s plight. Especially as the story goes along with some genuinely surprising turns.

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Patty Jenkins’ direction for Wonder Woman is a triumph over the previous entries in the DC Extended Universe. Sure, there’s some of producer/story writer Zack Snyder‘s speed-up slow mo style action, but it isn’t as navel gazing. There’s a purpose to the slow-mo, showing off Diana’s grace and direct line of sight as she clobbers those in her wake before brutally displaying her strength in regular motion. Admittedly, there are points where the CG is rather uneven. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous recreation of human features. Other times it’s about as uncanny valley as a Robert Zemeckis motion capture film. Though the lesser CG is more during the first half anyway, allowing the finale climax to have far more consistent graphics that don’t distract from the emotional stakes or action choreography.

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Jenkins really shines during the more intimate moments. When Diana shares a conversation with Trevor, there’s a genuine charm and grace that’s displayed during the close ups. There’s a sort of Billy Wilder-esque inspiration to the use of close ups and the back-and-forth editing style during these scenes, allowing Wonder Woman the luxury of authentic human interaction that these DC movies have been missing. This is something Jenkins carries over from her previous feature Monster, though with less psychotic murder at play. With Wonder Woman, the admiration comes off in equal measure between Diana and her allies from Man’s World. The type of comradery that allows her to both respect their views and question them when someone like Trevor allows protocol to get in the way of people’s lives.

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Sure, Wonder Woman is ultimately an origin story. Something the superhero genre has often played like a sour fiddle of a note. There’s not a huge amount of complexity to the narrative structure here, though it’s necessary to give Diana a full back story. Really, the complexity arrives in the emotional turmoil of her character. One who can kick ass, but can often feel helpless when the full potential of depravity with humanity hits her in the face. The murky waters of morality in this world confuse and frighten her, but they never break her spirit. They deconstruct her world view, but allow her to think on her feet and discover what matters more. That intriguing dimension instantly sets Wonder Woman apart as not only the best DC movie in years, but one of the best recent offerings for comic book films in general. It’s a crowd pleaser with intelligence and understanding as to its themes of war and human morality that don’t get bogged down in ethics. There’s color, fun and brain all working together here. Let’s hope Warner Bros can keep it up.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Impractical Battle Outfits

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“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” (2017): No Waves Made

Pirates of the Caribbean was a surprise franchise. The idea of a “movie based on a theme park attraction” sounded like the death of cinema at the time. Yet, Curse of the Black Pearl wowed audiences in 2003, setting Johnny Depp on the path of mega stardom and island ownership. It helps that it still holds up as a highly entertaining and well constructed blockbuster to this day. The subsequent three sequels ranged from ambitious messes (Dead Man’s Chest, At World’s End) to uninspired garbage (On Stranger Tides). Yet, they still made Disney massive amounts of cash, mainly through overseas dollars that depend more on elaborate set pieces rather than dialogue or character. So, a decade and a half after the original entry surprised people, how could Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – the fifth entry in the franchise – sufficiently wow audiences of today? Especially in a world where Depp has lost the consistency of his box office pull?

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Well, they definitely decided to air more on the side of elaborate set pieces. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) certainly want to return to the type of elaborate madness in the various action scenes that helped Gore Verbinski put his stamp on blockbusters back in the days of Black Pearl. The creativity of how elaborate some of the earlier ones in particular are is incredibly commendable. The opening bank heist has Buster Keaton levels of insane stunt work and the attempted execution scene has some incredibly inventive camera angles. This initially teases the type of fresh direction that this franchise desperately needs and shows that these two Swedes could be a force to recon with in Hollywood. As things devolve further, we quickly see just how recycled all of this really is from previous Pirates of the Caribbean films. Giant gaping holes in the water for a climax, a witch… for some reason and a cameo from an aging rock star (Paul McCartney this time… for some reason) shows the fumes this ship of a franchise is riding on.

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Though a lot of that is on a story level. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales doubles down on Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann type characters, with their son Henry (Brenton Thwaits) and astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) as well as… Will and Elizabeth. Scodelario and Thwaits try to pick up the reigns, with the former being far more consistent than the latter. Scodelario is at least independent in a more underdog fashion than Elizabeth was. Brenton just has the literal same motivation Will had in the second and third installments: trying to get his father back. Speaking of which, Orlando Bloom puts all the effort into his charisma as he had in The Hobbit trilogy. Take of that what you will. Oh, and Keira Knightley clearly only gave the crew an afternoon’s worth of her time. I’d say that’s a spoiler… but what’s to spoil?

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None of the character moments really matter in the grand scheme of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. There’s clearly a desire to make it seem like they care, though. Jack Sparrow starts off at rock bottom, with his crew abandoning him and a perception that’s he’s all washed up as a pirate. Except within minutes he’s got his crew back and he’s doing the same shit he always used to do. The drunken buffoonery, conveniently dodging death at every turn and making off with a bit of treasure. It’s all the same, only Depp has even less interest in coming off like he’s invested in any of this. This honestly wouldn’t be such a bother if they didn’t try to set up something that would be interesting! A way for Johnny Depp to show more dimension to his tired Keith Richards impression. But no. Save any of that for a vanity flashback of Depp de-aged to look like himself circa A Nightmare on Elm Street instead of having progression for this character.

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Unfortunately, this also affects the more consistent recurring character in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; Captain Barbossa. Geoffrey Rush has always been a delight in this part, putting so much relish into the traditional pirate accent and mannerisms. Here, they try to progress Barbossa in a more grounded emotional way, which Rush is desperately trying to sell. Unfortunately, there’s so little development to it. Within a 20 minute time span of a major revelation on his part, it gets resolved in a telegraphed hamfisted fashion that doesn’t feel fitting for the character. For all the troubles of Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, both at least were consistent at attempting to resolve and develop any number of the characters it was juggling over the course of its trilogy. On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales do neither, relying on some the most labored set up and casted off to the side pay off in the history of the series. Right down to a post-credit scene that shows just how out of ideas this series is were it to continue.

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Even at its worst, Pirates of the Caribbean still has some consistent effects work. Here, most of that is on display with our villain Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). While Bardem is forced into a mumbling goo-drooling cretin of a character that’s beneath him, the process used to bring him to life is rather extraordinary. Pirates of the Caribbean shows of its more horror tinges with its villain character, in this case reveling in the blown apart sights of Salazar’s crew. That above mentioned flashback might mainly be there to serve Depp’s vanity, but it also shows that every design for each crew member’s ghostly missing appendages have a connection to their fates. Particularly with Bardem’s wavy underwater hair and cracking facial structure. Even their ship has this expanding ribcage-style attack mode that’s truly unique to this series. It’s a technical marvel that’s just wasted on a rather bland villain role.

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Ultimately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an exercise in the familiar. We’ve seen Jack Sparrow do so many stunts like this before and – despite the initial promise of growth or change or any kind of twist in his narrative – he remains the same scoundrel with a few moments of “heart” we’ve seen before. If done right, this could have truly been a redemption arc not just for Jack, but for Depp’s own cinematic career as of late. Take the scarves and hat routine & give it genuine weight in between the elaborate action sequences. But that fizzles and dies like a flat soda in the hot caribbean sun. That combined with lackluster villains and further lacking character moments doesn’t make this the worst entry. The direction helps keep this from being On Stranger Tides levels of bland awfulness. However, this still feels like the last nail in the coffin for the Pirates of the Caribbean. Move on to some other ride-turned-movie concept, Disney. I’m pulling for an All That Jazz style Enchanted Tiki Room movie. Or at least a non-Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion movie.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Endless Johnny Depp Scarves

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Samurai Jack: Cultural Collage At Its Finest

This article contains spoilers for the entire series of Samurai Jack.

Samurai Jack is a true melting pot of a show. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, an animator/immigrant born from the Soviet Union, was clearly inspired by a multitude of influences. The world that Jack – our titular samurai warrior flung out of his  time into a future ruled by the evil Aku – inhabits is a mishmash of many cultural touchstones. This premise was born from limitations. Building a show around a sword wielding samurai had the obvious trouble of getting past killing humans on a program aimed at children. So, Tartakovsky decided upon the conceit of killing robots instead, eventually leading to the premise that sparked Samurai Jack into the show it is. This conceit not only got this concept past the Cartoon Network board of directors, but also allowed for the cultural mesh that enabled so much creativity to spring forth for the production staff behind Samurai Jack.

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Right from the first episode “The Beginning,” Jack is seen training under the guidance of an African tribe, Chinese Monks and even Robin Hood himself. This elaborate montage showing Jack crafting his fighting skills is not only meant to showcase the massive amount of skill Jack has obtained in order to vanquish his foe Aku. It also shows the major theme of the knowledge Jack learns across his travels. Presenting Jack as a man willing to learn and take the guidance of those around him manages to give him an endearing desire to learn, but also a varied set of skills to boost the legitimacy of his prowess as a fighter able to nearly defeat a demonic entity like Aku. The variety of influences that give a balance of the tone and much in this same way, Tartakovsky took a variety of influences from his youth through his career in animation up to that point.

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The easiest influences to spot are Japanese, given the titular character. Moments of quiet contemplation followed by extreme action having the pacing akin to the works of Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, Jack has the typical weakness of the more authentic heroes of those stories, in that he has a soft spot to help those in need. After all, his entire quest in spearheaded by a desire to help his father after he’s been captured by Aku in the opening moments of the show. The father who had a fight sequence that visually mirrors the iconic arrow death scene from Throne of Blood. There’s also some definite recall of grand scale anime like Akira, particularly during the future scenes of city leveling destruction. This type of influence helped Samurai Jack find a place on the Toonami block during its initial run. The subset of Cartoon Network known for playing anime programming like Dragonball Z or Big O. Yet, it also helped the show find an artistic identity with the use of red on black that mirrored Katushiro Otomo’s harsh dystopian layout. The combination of red, black and green serves as a motif for Aku’s presence, especially when considering episodes like Jack and the Warrior Woman where Aku’s manipulation haunts Jack into doubting many potential allies.

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Yet, those would be too obvious a turn for cultural tributes for Samurai Jack. The genius of Samurai Jack‘s premise is that it allows for so many different styles to take place in a world as uncertain and maddening as one ruled by Aku. Thematically, this fits the perception of Jack within the culture of Aku. Adults like the western themed bounty hunters of the episode The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful know that Jack is a force of much curiosity for the formidable ruler of this land. In The Princess and the Bounty Hunters, a wide variety of bounty hunters from different backgrounds – from a Russian brute to a southern gentleman to an intergalactic warrior princess – detail their alternate ways to defeat Jack. All of them present their individual concepts of Jack, giving the character further mystique in universe that helps mirror another clear influence on Tartakovsky’s: Sergio Leone. The Italian filmmaker’s love of quiet staredowns before sudden action and Man With No Name-style protagonist is clearly reflected upon with Jack’s various violent encounters. One can even hear a remix of the famous Ennio Morricone score track “Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good The Bad and the Ugly during the big fight that takes up so much of season 5’s second episode.

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There’s also a perception of doubt within this world, arousing the spirit of rebellion in those raised under Aku. The most notable example would probably John Dimaggio’s Scotsman character. A recurring tough brute who initially sees himself as the only great warrior of the land, his encounters with Samurai Jack transform from head butting confrontation into a mutual respect. This continues the trend of seemingly clashing cultures can come to a consideration of each other’s strengths. This continues into episodes where Jack helps to bring back the cultural reigns of a cursed people. Like saving a group of Frank Miller’s 300 type Spartans from an unending war against machines or rescuing a Bavarian, Germany-esque town’s children from the hypnotic influence of rave music. All these conflicts involve a conflict between older and newer styles of cultural influence, the latter usually the more sinister object based ideas of technology. They conflict with Jack’s anti-materialism stance in a way that constantly builds upon Jack’s desire to destroy the material wrongs of Aku’s robotic minions.

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Samurai Jack‘s consistent stance against these robots even seeps into the youths of this world. In the episode Aku’s Fairy Tales, Aku attempts to curry the favor of Jack-obsessed youths with stories based on the folk tales like Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Bears. Despite his rather phony and half hearted tales of propaganda against Jack, the children question his stories and Aku disappears in a puff of anger. This leaves the children to think up their own more grounded tale of the heroic Jack vanquishing Aku. This shows Jack’s multi-cultural influence spreading amongst children of all races and species in a beautifully mythological fashion, giving him even more importance than just a warrior. He’s a symbol of what could be beyond the world that has existed for hundreds of years. A foreign force for good against the evil establishment that rules over all. Jack even demonstrated this with the initial series finale Jack and the Baby as the samurai tends to an abandoned child while telling the tale of Momotarō, a boy born from a peach.

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With the recent revival, Samurai Jack has continued to mix pop cultural ideas with relish. One of the more blatant examples is the robotic assassin Scaramouche the Merciless. His name comes from a stock commedia dell’arte, Tom Kenny’s speech patterns denote a Sammy Davis Jr. style speech pattern and his musical style of combat has shades of a Pied Piper style character. He even has a blade that has the properties of a tuning fork. The other fights Jack has – mainly with the daughters of Aku – have shades of the recent epic fights from wuxia films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero. There’s a ballet style precision to the choreography that gives every step that makes the animation still feel seamless.

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Season 5 has some of Samurai Jack‘s best examples of cultural recontextualization. Jack and Ashi – the Aku daughter who survives and accompanies Jack – journey through the belly of a whale-like being, much in the vein of The Book of Jonah… with more monsters, obviously. Jack is haunted by a warrior on a horse, an illusion to the German spectre Nuckelavee and the Japanese God of Death Shinigami. We even see the return of Odin, Ra and Rama, the three gods who we saw forge the mythological sword from the earlier episode The Birth of Evil. All of the historical context of Jack in this world becomes abundant as we see all the various people he has touched since the start of the series. That Jack has helped to bind all these people in a world that Aku has manipulated to separate them. The fruits of those labors pay off in a big fashion during the series finale, where all these people unite to help Jack in his time of need.

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Then again, Samurai Jack has occasionally had uses of cultural homage that feel cloying. The main example would actually be during this recent season. Jack and Ashi had an interesting relationship that built over the course of the initial seven episodes. One that went from adversarial to respectful. A chemistry built, but one that seemed more based on mutual admiration of skills and independent gumption. Which means a lot in a world ruled by Aku. Unfortunately, the eighth episode of the season turns this into a much more romantic connection. Which in a better built up scenario wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, the entire episode that leads to their romance suddenly blossoming feels so sudden and more for the sake of Tartakovsky making his own little action romantic comedy plot rather than paying off something he failed to build up properly. It’s not a deal breaker for an otherwise brilliant season, but it’s an instance of Tartakovsky’s desire to splice genres getting in the way of making his story seem more effective.

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Since it’s return, Samurai Jack has been accused of cultural misappropriation. That is, the idea of taking from varying cultures in a way that can be seen as disrespectful. Given this is a show about a Japanese samurai created by a Russian man, one can see the initial hesitance. Yet, what makes Samurai Jack as engaging an artistic achievement as it is is a true respect for all the sources it homages. So many different cultures ingrained into its DNA that it stretches beyond what some may argue to be cultural misappropriation. Samurai Jack is an immigrant story from an immigrant’s perspective. A “stranger in a strange land” trying to find his place in the world. Jack as a character has such respect for the people who helped train him. He learns more from them than just how to fight. He learns how to respect others who are different and respect their traditions as much as his own. A concept he carries over into the future. As we all should.

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“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017): Emotional Stakes > Interplanetary Destruction

Guardians of the Galaxy was a definitive point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a film entity. After making bank with somewhat recognizable names like Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, the studio took a big chance on a property few knew about. Yet, it resulted in the surprise hit of the year, making Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) household names. So… now what? How can Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 up the ante? When you have a film that odd and out of nowhere that truly surprise audiences like the first Guardians, it’s really tough to expand on that while also not repeating the same beats. There are points where Vol. 2 comes close to repeating beats, but never forgets to develop what matters; the characters.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a rare sequel that knows how to develop rather than repeat what worked the first time. Comedy sequels can be especially terrible at this practice. Yet, the jokes and the characters they come from clearly have progressed from where they initially were. Rocket is dealing with his tendency to push the few who care about him away. Groot is recuperating from his heroic sacrifice of last time to relearn life lessons while being an excited toddler again. Drax himself doesn’t have the hugest progression, but his chemistry with the anti-social Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is refreshing and consistently enjoyable as a running thread. Gamora and her adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) are dealing with the ripples of their mutual father Thanos concerning his treatment of them. Those last two in particular fight with splendidly scrappy choreography, but only because they were raised to do so. That motivation gives us the audience far more engrossing stakes to their brawling, while also setting another piece for the upcoming Avengers battle royale.

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Yet, this isn’t a Marvel movie too obsessed with that element of universe building. Rather, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 builds upon the more intimate. Mainly, with Peter Quill a.k.a Star-Lord finding his father Ego (Kurt Russell), a being who created a planet around himself and can form anything out of pure energy, including a human being vessel. That sounds like an incredibly dense sci-fi concept, but writer/director James Gunn wisely chooses to keep the dynamic between Pratt and Russell down to the basics. Pratt is the son struggling to trust the father who suddenly came into his life and Russell is the cool dad trying to make up for lost time. It’s a chemistry the two actors relish, but avoid settling into the more potentially maudlin traps of. The type of dynamic that Russell can charm the pants off of people with in his sleep, yet not seem to phone it in for the sake of a Disney paycheck. That effortlessness is inviting, to make his luscious paradise of a planet seem more illustrious. There are bigger reasonings behind these two meeting, but that base develops the emotional tug-and-pull which gives this massive sci-fi idea a grounding anyone can attach to.

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Even Yondu (Michael Rooker), the lead Ravager thief who abducted Star-Lord in the first place, becomes a more fully fleshed out character along the way. He and Rocket have some of the weirdest moments of comedy and genuine moments of heart throughout Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both share a gruff exterior that guards a rather fragile broken person inside. Both have a past that leaves them abandoned and unique to the point of alienation. So, when they find some kind of kinship in the mutual form of Peter Quill – whether it be as an adopted son or a genuine friend – the two try to disguise it for the sake of fitting into the box made for them by the roles they’ve grown into. The entire Ravager subplot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a hilarious examination of the type of overbearing tough guy toxic masculinity that Yondu and Rocket have carved for themselves, giving the minor character Kraglin (James’ brother Sean Gunn) more definition as one Ravager questioning his loyalty. While the others bicker and argue to the point of chaos, our heroes try to escape through scrappy cunning and a true sense of trust. Even if that trust involves desperately trying to get Groot to perform a simple task.

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James Gunn and his team really manage to step up their game in the visually arresting department. While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 carries over the character fueled space opera vibes of Star Wars from the first film, it also mixes that in with the societal world building of a Star Trek. There’s the previously mentioned planet being, but there’s so much more. A society of gold people obsessed with maintaining royal dignity while bubbling under the surface. The larger expansions of The Ravagers and their codes, enforced by Stakar (Sylvester Stallone) who judges Yondu for his actions connected to Ego. There’s even a space port full of robot prostitutes that serve every nook and cranny. Each society revels in the varying shapes, sizes and colors of the inhabitants visually. Yet, we also get a sense of hierarchy and of culture. That this universe is even bigger than the one we got last time. And that the creatures our heroes fight are larger, yet will have the piss taken out of them just as much as the average joe in the Guardians ranks.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 truly does up the ante. Sometimes this can be a bit detrimental, mainly in trying to squeeze as much action into the climax to the point of confusing momentum in the middle of the set pieces or a few arc seem a bit haulted. Yet, while the initial surprise may be gone after the first film, the characters are never forgotten about. This is probably best displayed in the title sequence, where Groot dances to the dulcet tunes of Electric Light Orchestra while the other Guardians fight a massive monster in the background. It’s a wonderfully comic illustration of what James Gunn aims for with these characters. Where everyone is a “dancer” who carries to their own rhythms, yet still enjoy the company of a dance floor full of people they love. While world destroying stakes are involved like so many other MCU films, the main focus is an personal one. In every step, the small comic foibles bubble to the surface and reign supreme over the chaos… mostly. The emotional core of these people being a family runs deep. Even if that deepness means filleting a giant alien to get a dear friend out of its stomach. That’s what family really is all about.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Awesome Mix Tracks

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