Friday, January 17, 2020

Pixar's SparkShort "Loop" is uncomfortable, unique, and amazing!

Oh the tears!

Pixar has become a master at telling heartfelt, touching stories that still remain compelling, authentic, and sometimes even funny. And somehow their stories have reached the widest of audiences, generally appealing to all. Their latest SparkShort, Loop, is no exception. Released January 10, this short seems to be the most experimental, the most different, the most important of all the Pixar shorts.

In just a few minutes, Loop tells the story of Renee (a non-verbal girl with autism) and her canoe trip with Marcus (a teenager who is less than excited to ride in a canoe with somebody who makes odd noises and sits funny). On the short loop around the lake, both teens learn something about each other -- and more importantly, about themselves. And so it is with the audience -- we learn about others and ourselves.

Pixar's last SparkShort, Float (see our review here), dealt with the similar topic of autism and the unique challenges that arise from that condition. Only Float was subtle, allegorical, and more along the lines of fantasy than reality. Loop is different, much like autism itself. Loop gets to the point right away, tells the story directly and in your face, and never shies away from some of the harsh realities -- and beautiful truths -- about a person living with autism.

As a father of a son with autism, and as a middle school teacher in a public school where I have students with autism in almost every class, Float hit me hard. Like, I think about it a lot and I literally have flashes of Float when I interact with those who have autism. But Loop hits home on a deeper level. It feels different, and that’s a good thing. At times Loop is uncomfortable to watch. At time it melted me to a puddle of love and understanding. I felt for the individually different struggles Marcus and Renee are going through, and I yearned for them to each make a connection. And the genius of Loop is that in making me feel all the feels, I yearn to make connections in the real world and to bring a little more light and understanding to my community.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Unpopular Opinions: Disney

Disney Plus has been out for two months, giving us all plenty of time to binge Disney classics, Disney Channel series, and some classic Marvel cartoons. Disney might have become the overlord of almost all popular media, now owning Fox, Marvel, and Star Wars (among other franchises), but at least they’re a benevolent overlord. That being said, I have some grievances about Disney (or at least about Disney fans). So here are a few of my thoughts.

Frozen Wasn’t Groundbreaking
Back in 2013 when Frozen was released, it became this big phenomenon seemingly overnight. I’m not going to bash on Frozen, because it was a genuinely good movie. However, it didn’t deserve the over-hype that it got… never mind how it’s basically become its own franchise in the 6 years since. I can think of countless Disney movies that are equal to Frozen or even better. Big Hero 6, Princess and the Frog, and Tangled are among the animated features that deserve more credit than they were given. To be fair, I could also just be really tired of “Let It Go”.

Tarzan is NOT Elsa's brother
After Frozen came out back in 2013, the internet began overthinking the movie and tying other Disney movies together with it. Part of it probably came from a shot of Rapunzel and Flynn on their way to Elsa’s coronation. So people started theorizing her relation to Anna and Elsa, that their parents shipwrecked on the way to Rapunzel’s wedding, and Ariel’s capsized boat is really the King and Queen’s ship. The icing on the cake was the theory that the king and queen survived and had a baby, Tarzan. Despite it being “confirmed” by a Disney writer, it doesn’t make any sense. Tarzan is from a completely different time period and his parents don’t look like Anna and Elsa’s parents. So I can’t accept it, no matter how popular the theory was.

Disney Princesses Aren’t Passive
A huge critique of Disney Princess movies is how passive they are. This is especially the case with older Disney Princesses, like Snow White and Cinderella. Yeah, they weren’t out there fighting sea demons (like Moana), shooting ice out of their hands (like Elsa), or swinging a sword or frying pan (like Mulan or Rapunzel), but they were tough. Snow White and Cinderella endured abuse from their step-mothers and even did it with optimism. Especially with the awareness brought to abuse nowadays, this is a big deal.

Too Much Live-Action Too Fast
To be clear, I have zero problem with Disney’s live-action remakes. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin (just to name a few). The problem is that instead of getting one remake every year or every other year, we’ve been getting them released faster than I can keep track. Just this year we had Aladdin, The Lion King, and Dumbo (not to mention Lady and the Tramp, if we include Disney Plus originals). They’re just losing their impact on me. Maybe if we could just slow it down a little?

Disney Didn’t Ruin Star Wars
I don’t understand the hate that the new Star Wars movies get. Maybe I’m not cinema savvy, but I’ve enjoyed the Star Wars movies I’ve seen thus far (I’ve yet to see Solo or The Rise of Skywalker). In my possibly uneducated opinion, I’m just glad there’s more Star Wars to be seen. If it weren’t for Disney “ruining” Star Wars, the last we’d have seen of Star Wars on the big screen would have been Revenge of the Sith. Instead, because of Disney, the legacy of Star Wars gets to continue for generations to come.

Check out some more unpopular opinions for Harry Potter

Friday, January 10, 2020

Sorting Arrow into Hogwarts Houses

After eight years, Arrow is drawing to a close. I’ll admit that it wasn’t my favorite of the Arrowverse shows (I’ve been more partial to The Flash or Legends), but it deserves its credit; if it weren’t for Arrow, we wouldn’t have the expanded Arrowverse with The Flash, Supergirl, Legends, and Batwoman (not to mention so many others that were recently retroactively incorporated with Crisis on Infinite Earths). So with Crisis concluding this week (and the last two episodes of Arrow coming shortly after), I wanted to a little Hogwarts sorting for a few of our Team Arrow favorites.

Oliver Queen/Green Arrow - Slytherin
It was a bit of a toss-up for me between Gryffindor and Slytherin, but since his ambition and determination often outweighs his daring and chivalry, I figured I’d put Oliver in Slytherin. Especially in early seasons of Arrow, he didn’t might bending the rules and cutting corners to make sure justice was served. That’s a very Slytherin thing to me.

John Diggle/Spartan - Gryffindor
While Oliver was a Slytherin, his best friend was a daring and chivalrous Gryffindor. His determination to do what’s right always drove Diggle. In many ways his courage and his stalwart nature is what kept Oliver in check over the eight years they worked together. He was the first addition to Team Arrow and he always helped to keep Oliver on the straight and narrow (to use a cliche).

Felicity Smoak/Overwatch - Ravenclaw
If Felicity isn’t a Ravenclaw, I don’t know who is. She’s daring and brave as well, so I briefly considered Gryffindor. But over the seven years that she worked with Oliver, it was her wit, creativity, and ingenuity that got them out of jams. In the end, her brilliant intellect is what puts her into Ravenclaw

Malcolm Merlyn/Dark Archer - Slytherin
Just as much as Felicity is a Ravenclaw, it’s obvious to me that Merlyn is a Slytherin. From the moment he started the Undertaking, until he (presumably) died on Lian Yu, everything was a long con with him. His cunning and ambition make him an obvious choice for the snakes down in Slytherin.

Laurel Lance/Black Siren - Slytherin
I debated which Laurel to include. Earth-1, Earth-2, or both. I went with Earth-2, because I honestly enjoyed her more. She is a Slytherin through and through. Even when she became a good guy, she was a Slytherin. Whatever she set her mind to, she went for it. It started with fooling Team Arrow and then scheming with Diaz. And then when she joined the good guys, it was about getting Oliver out of prison and avenging Quentin. Nothing was more important than her ambitions (to the point that she had to be talked down multiple times).

Thea Queen/Speedy - Hufflepuff
She started out as a mild-mannered (relatively speaking) teenager, but as her life began to fall apart she turned into one of the most skilled fighters in the early stages of Team Arrow. Despite her ambition to protect herself and learning from Merlyn after her mother’s death, it’s her loyal and honest nature that puts her in Hufflepuff. She was willing to risk everything for Oliver, Roy, or whoever was in trouble. It even went to the point when she left Star City to destroy the Lazarus Pits, all because of her integrity.

There are many other members of Team Arrow that I could have sorted: Dinah, Rene, Curtis, Roy, etc. Where do you think they’d go? And bringing things back to the crossover, what predictions do you have for the last two episodes? Who will live? Who will die?

Check out our other Hogwarts sortings: Friends, Power Rangers (2017), Once Upon a Time, Avengers

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Genius of Jon Favreau

Most fans know him as Happy Hogan. Some might know him as Monica’s millionaire boyfriend on Friends. Maybe even as the guy from Swingers. But Jon Favreau is so much more than an actor. The genius of Jon Favreau lies in his writing and directing of some of the most memorable, successful, and transformational films of all time.

Favreau really made a name for himself when he directed Elf in 2003, which became an instant classic. Favreau took on a big comedic personality (Will Ferrell), and somehow managed to make a movie that was at once funny and charming, heartwarming and quotable, lovable and just a dang good story. Favreau knew when to let Will Ferrell be himself, and when to reign him in. And then along came Iron Man.

In 2008, Favreau took on another big personality (Robert Downey, Jr.) and once again knew when to let Downey be himself and let his personality shine, and when to hold back and let the story and geekiness and the worldbuilding take over. Not enough can be said about the importance of Favreau’s Iron Man. It set the stage for one of the biggest, most successful, ambitious, culturally relevant, critically acclaimed, and fun franchises in history. Favreau’s direction created a tone that would be echoed in every Marvel movie that followed. In addition to those successes, Favreau also directed Zathura (a fun sequel to the original Jumanji), Cowboys & Aliens (inventive and well-directed, even if it wasn’t a huge success), and several live-action (with tons of CG assistance) adaptations of classic Disney films.

2016’s Jungle Book was so much better than it was expected to be. The story was familiar, but just different enough to warrant a remake. Favreau will direct a sequel, due out later this year. 2019’s  Lion King adaptation won praise for its beauty and hyper-realistic style. Indeed, it felt like watching a National Geographic documentary where the animals were performing Hamlet.

And then came Star Wars. Favreau hasn’t written much, but he was given a chance to write and produce the first live-action television production in the Star Wars universe. What was created was a hugely successful, pop culture phenomenon that is being hailed as the new direction for Star Wars. (See our review here.) Frankly, it’s not easy to please Star Wars fans. But somehow Favreau managed to not only satisfy (but not pander to) fans, he also impressed critics, and made a huge dent in meme-dom with Baby Yoda!

So the big question is, since everything he touches turns to gold, what should Jon Favreau work on next?

Check out our review of one of his projects, "The Mandalorian".

Saturday, January 4, 2020

This is The Way: Why The Mandalorian is A New Hope for Star Wars

The Mandalorian Season Two Announced

"Star Wars live action TV? Ummm....ok" were my thoughts as I signed up for Disney+ and watched the pilot episode of The Mandalorian.

I casually watched the first episode fully expecting it to be some story about a bounty hunter who gets different jobs and does his thing and gets his money.

Then The Child changed everything.

Baby Yoda in “The Mandalorian”

Aside from being the greatest thing to hit the Internet since Baby Shark, The Mandalorian's brilliant incorporation of The Child (aka "Baby Yoda") immediately caught my interest, and memes of the little green goober now take up a solid portion of recent pictures on my iPhone.

Beyond just the cute factor, it was the perfect hook to start a television series. Because even at the end of season one I still am asking myself

Who is this creature
What is he?
How did he come to be there? 

Hush, and Jon Favreau will tell you. It is a tale. A tale of a bounty hunter, and the Internet Sensation of 2019
(#SorryNotSorry I love me some Hunchback)

Now at the end of Season 1, I'm super stoked for what The Mandalorian means for the future of Star Wars. With the nine films in the Skywalker Saga, stand-alone films, animated TV series, and a whole host of Expanded Universe books and comics (whether or not Disney deems them as canon), the Star Wars universe is rich, and there is literally a galaxy of storytelling opportunities. I'm glad Disney chose to go in a direction that isn't just trying to fit everything into the Skywalker Saga. 

What makes The Mandalorian work is what made Rogue One a good movie. Taking a familiar universe, telling a good story, and helping the audience love the ordinary characters - those who aren't a Jedi or Sith or a sidekick to a Skywalker.

Besides a brilliant setting, The Mandalorian incorporates elements that make good television great:

  • Moral Dilemma -- in the transition between the Empire and the New Republic, and living by a warrior's creed, Mandalorian treats us to a not-so-simple world of right and wrong in the travels  of Din Djarin.
  • Humor -- between two main characters, one who is an alien child and the other who wears a helmet, there's a perfect dynamic between Din Djarin and The Child. It's not overdone or cheesy; the humor is subtle, original, and doesn't even have to involve words
  • Easter Eggs -- instead of stooping low and engaging in petty fan service, Jon Favreau and his team incorporate a lot of really fun Easter eggs for the casual and hardcore Star Wars enthusiasts
  • Mystery -- I mean.....did Jedi Grand Master Yoda have a kid? I wanna know more about my new favorite green baby!
  • Cliffhanger Ending -- the final episode left me with just as many burning questions as the first one did. There's so many ways this story could unfold and suddenly I find myself counting down the days to Season 2!

The Mandalorian is one of the best recent shows to come to television. I'll fight you if you disagree with me. 😜

I have spoken.

baby yoda sips tea

Also check out our reviews for Star Wars Episode IX (Dark Side and Light Side)

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Runaways: A Retrospective

It’s been just about a month since Runaways season three aired on Hulu. With all of Marvel’s television shows moving to Disney+, this show, like the Netflix series, finally got its cancellation. Now, I don’t know where it was in production when everything started getting asked, but this season did seem to have a better resolution than previous seasons. But I’ll get to that in a moment. So since I will be discussing Runaways today, obviously be prepared for spoilers through season three.

Season 1: Kids vs. Parents
Season one followed a fairly simple premise: the six kids chanced upon the information and the secret that their parents were part of an evil organization. I’ve never read the comics, but from what I understand, the writers for the Hulu series text some artistic liberty with the source material. Instead of being straight up evil, the parents became more complex and gray as the series went on. I’m not sure what the writers would have decided to do if it hadn’t been picked up for season two, but season one definitely laid the groundwork for the series. It included origin story on all of our hero Runaways, backstory on some of the parents, and mystery to lead into season two. Because of how it was set up, with suspense dodging their parents every episode, and stuff like that, season one was easily my favorite. It was the only season to include a single story arc. And they executed it well.

Season 2, Part 1: Runaways vs Parents again
Season two was the longest of the three seasons, by three episodes. And it was the slowest season of the three. So it’s a good thing it was divided into two story arcs. The first one, involves a lot of similar conflicts to season one. Except that now, the kids had finally run away. Hence the name Runaways. The kids explored their powers and worked on how to thwart their parents. But as the arc went on, even the parents began to be skeptical of their associate Jonah. And eventually the arc culminated in a fight between Jonah and the kids and their parents.

Season 2, Part 2: Runaways vs. Aliens
From early on in season two, we knew that Jonah was an alien. And as a result, that meant that Karolina was part alien. So with his ship destroyed at the end of the first arc, Jonah and his family took new hosts. A lot of the major excitement of this arc was still the parents versus the kids. But on the side, we had three of the parents blacking out and soon discovering that they’ve become host to Jonas family. We also got introduced to a new alien, Xavin, a shape shifter who believed she was Karolina‘s soulmate. The end of season two left us with the second cliffhanger season finale, so thank goodness we got a season three. The Runaways and the parents were all split up. And some of them were in life or death situations.

Season 3, Part 1: Runaways vs. Aliens again
The first arc of season three didn’t last very long. With everyone split up at the end of season two, the first order of business was to get the gang back together. At the same time, they discovered Jonah’s family inhabiting four bodies, not just the three that we had seen in season two. So as the fourth host was revealed, things quickly turned to final battle. A little bit anti-climactic, but I found it fulfilling all the same.

Season 3, Part 2: Runaways vs. Morgan
She was teased throughout the first arc of season three, but we didn’t get to actually see Morgan Le Fay in the flesh until the second arc of season three. This was the story arc that paid service to Marvel fans. It dropped Easter eggs from other Marvel series and tied it into the greater Marvel cinematic universe. Now, the finale left timeline issues involving Thanos’s snap, but so did Agents of SHIELD. So I’m willing to let that go even if I don’t like it. I feel like each of the Runaways got a fair shot at the spotlight during this arc. Even most of the parents did. It’s hard with a cast so big to give everyone decent screen time. But they did a good job.

As for MCU Connections, we got special guest appearances of Cloak and Dagger. That one was special, because it had been explicitly linked to the larger universe during its series before cancellation. In addition, seeing those two work together with the Runaways was amazing. It made me feel validated for re-watching their show again before Runaways season three came out. In addition to that, we also got appearances of the Dark Dimension from Doctor Strange, though it looked different this time, and the Darkhold from Agents of SHIELD. As much as I loved Runaways during seasons one and two, the big thing that was missing was the universe building. So this really made me happy.

In regards to how the series ended, I felt like it got a sufficient finale. However, it felt rushed. The last episode is a standalone story that was a bit convoluted. If Disney+ decides to do a season for later on, great. They can pick up some of these loose threads. But I’d honestly rather have the Runaways just appear in other series. They had their trilogy of seasons. They had a good run. They kicked butt. And now I think it should be done.

In the end, Runaways was what it promised: a teenage drama with superpowers. We definitely have the teenage angst and drama, but we also had the superheroics. I enjoyed the twists and turns and the distinct character development, despite having so many characters. I don’t know if we will ever see our Runaways again in the MCU, but I think it would be a waste just to let them sit and be forgotten. I would especially love to see Nico or Molly appear in some version of the Young Avengers or something. Can’t tell you how happy that would make me.

If you watched to the end of Runaways season three, I want your thoughts. Seriously, no one I know has kept up with it like I did. I need people to discuss it with. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Jumanji: The Next Level review

Ah, Jumanji. What started in 1981 as a really classy and artful picture book by Chris Van Allsburg (who also wrote The Polar Express), then turned into a decent 1995 movie starring Robin Williams, and was reinvented as a surprisingly funny and pretty darn good 2017 movie, is now being released as a popcorn sequel with some great moments and an insignificantly paltry plot. 

The only real spoiler I’ll give about Jumanji: The Next Level is the basic conceit of the movie, which is that many of the characters switch their avatars. This provides some really nice fresh takes on these characters. For example, it’s great fun to watch Kevin Hart (Franklin Finbar) slow down his speech considerably and channel Danny Glover. And then to switch to Martha’s character (normally played by Karen Gillan), well that was a stroke of genius. I could do without The Rock’s forced New Yawk accent, but he is really funny channeling Danny DeVito’s character: clueless, lost, and a bit senile. It’s neat to see The Rock poke fun at himself and play against character.

In addition to the great acting (Hart, Gillan, The Rock, and Jack Black make a great comedic team!), the jokes in Jumanji are nonstop. My family genuinely laughed throughout the movie -- and laughed loudly! There is good humor mined from the avatar switcheroos, but also from the action and some of the new “level up” aspects of the game. If you can walk away from a movie feeling like you did a bunch of crunches because your sides hurt from laughing so much, the film is worth the price of admission.

However, the movie suffers from a predictable plot, subpar character development, and just mediocre thematic concepts. Nobody expects Jumani to be particularly deep. Nobody is going to this movie expecting a deep character analysis, intricate themes, or even to be able to relate to the characters on a deep emotional level. The two new characters (old guys Eddie and Milo) have a side story that is hamfistedly explained, and equally hamfistedly solved. It’s unnecessary, and it’s kind of painful to watch. And maybe just a little disconcerting to watch the character development happen through no less than six different actors. That takes some skill that Jumanji just doesn’t have. Even though it’s the next level, it’s a step down from the surprisingly good Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from two years ago.

If you’re going to see Jumanji: The Next Level, expect popcorn and cotton candy: entertaining and enjoyable, but lacking depth and substance. The plot is not memorable, but it doesn’t really need to be. The characters are simple, and that’s okay. But the film is good fun and it’s got some great moments. And really, isn’t that enough from a simple movie about a video game fantasy?