Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 9, 2020

OSCARS 2020 LIVE BLOG


7:45 - Welcome to Film Thoughts' eleventh annual live blog of the Oscars ceremony!

As I posted earlier today, I managed to see every single movie nominated this year. So, needless to say, I am very excited for this year's ceremony. No host again, so hopefully this will be as smooth and well-paced as last year. Who will win? Who will be snubbed? Will I drink too much tonight? All will be revealed soon enough! If you've followed along before, remember to reload often to see my meandering, bullshit thoughts tonight.

7:59 - And here we go!

8:00 - This is the surprise guest they were just talking up. I'm old and don't know who she is.

8:01 - Well, she's a good singer whoever she is! And this is a pretty cute opening.

Lots of good, not-nominated film represented in those back-up dancers.

8:03 - I don't know who this guy is either! I am a fucking dinosaur!

8:05 - Celebrating black artists and women by... Not nominating many of them.

8:06 - Welcoming back some former host, to celebrate the fact that we don't have to hear any of their stupid jokes tonight.

Whooa, topical humor.

8:08 - Why the fuck is Jeff Bezos here?

8:09 - Lots of swings and misses in this opening monologue.

Lol, they couldn't find Eddie Murphy in the audience.

8:11 - Alight, a few jokes and right into the categories. Good.

Heading into Best Supporting Actor. Looks like Brad Pitt will be our first winner of the night.

8:13 - The montage editor is working hard this year.

8:15 - Joe Pesci couldn't be here tonight, I guess. And a well-deserved first win of the night.

The first of what will be, I'm sure, many jabs at the Impeachment fiasco.

8:16 - Yes! Give Stunt Coordinators an Oscar category! Awesome speech, Brad.

8:20 - Of course, as much as I want a Stunt category at the Oscars, it's not like the Academy would actually nominate the films that deserve it the most. What are the odds of something like "John Wick: Chapter 3" or "Triple Threat" getting nominated? The Academy would just nominate all the same shit they always nominate. "Joker" and "The Two Popes" would've been nominated if that category existed.

8:22 - Yeah, Animated Features! Mindy repping for cartoons tonight in a nice speech.

"I Lost My Body" was fine but I'm still annoyed Netflix stole GKIDS' token slot. "Klaus" sound like it'll win.

8:23 - Or they could just do another year where they give it to whatever Disney/Pixar put out. To be fair, "Toy Story 4" probably was my favorite of the nominated movies. It was a weak category this year. So many good films the Academy could've nominated instead.

8:25 - And now Animated Shorts! I hope Pixar wins this one too. "Kitbull" was frigign' cute.

"Hair Love" was cute, so This is Fine.JPG. Does this mean the director of "Bebe's Kids" has an Oscar now?

8:27 - The first of what will probably be several Kobe shout-outs tonight. Josh Gad repping for dub actors out there. I was really hoping we'd get an Adele Manzel call-back tonight.

8:30 - The Castilian Elsa has a nice voice. You can tell these lyrics do not translate the smoothest into some of these languages.

8:32 - That was an interesting performance. Kind of worked better in theory than execution.

8:34 - These M&M commercials are mildly annoying.

8:36 - Kelly Marie Tran's enthusiasm is infectious. And here comes Keanu to double-down on those chill vibes.

Is Diane Keaton okay? She seems nervous.

8:38 - I have no idea what will win Best Original Screenplay but I'm hoping "Parasite" gets it. I love Tarantino but he has two of these already.

8:39 - Loved Diane Keaton's little pratfall there. Bong!!! Please let this be a start of a wave of wins for "Parasite."

8:42 - Wait, they haven't played a single person off yet this year? Good lord, I'm shocked.

Best Adapted Screenplay is a really weak category this year. Christ, I hope "Joker" doesn't win, considering it's barely adapted from the comic books. I guess I'm rooting for Greta.

8:44 - "The Two Popes," for some reason. I didn't know it was based on a play but I am not shocked.

I think I called this one. I'm glad Taika Waititi won an Oscar but I wish it was for one of his better movies. Did the camera guy just have a stroke?

8:45 - A few minutes in and Taika's speech is already utterly delightful.

8:46 - "Please welcome Actual Cannibal Shia LeBouf!"

In Best Live Action Short, I rooting for "Nefta Football Club" but I'm betting one of the sappy ones win.

8:48 - That wasn't awkward at all. "The Neighbor's Window" wasn't very good but the best shorts almost never actually win.

8:52 - Oh fun, a Oscar-specifics "The Conners" ad. Apparently they are doing a live episode?

8:53 - My Mom just said "One is wearing a shower curtain and the other is wearing drapes." What the fuck is this bit they are doing?

8:55 - I'm glad the audience is loving these jokes because they are physically hurting me.

The Production Design in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" was so amazing.

8:56 - And it just won! "Parasite" also would've been an acceptable answer, Oscar.

8:58 - Oh god, they are gonna sing. I loved Billie Eillish's reaction there.

8:59 - Humor is so subjective. Congrats to everyone who enjoys the comedic stylings of Kristen Wigg and Maya Rudolph. As for Costume Design, I have no opinion on who wins. I'm just glad "Joker" didn't win.

9:01 - Oh wow, that was a short speech.

I love how they just go randomly into the song from that random Christian movie that was nominated for some damn reason. (Apparently, the Academy has a hard-on for Diane Warren.)

9:03 - It's a mediocre song from a bad movie. But at least Chrissy Mitz is singing her heart out. Good for her.

9:06 - Can Google tell me where the Jean Rollin beach is?

9:07 - I'm assuming we are headed into Best Documentary now? "American Factory" is my pick, though everyone else seems likelier to get it.

9:10 - Oh nice, I'm glad "American Factory" won! My favorite of the bunch.

9:12 - The co-director swooping in there to get his speech in. Which lead us to our first play-off of the night!

9:13 - The Documentary Shorts was a much stronger slate. "Walk Run Cha-Cha" was my fave of the bunch but I'm betting "In the Absence" or "Learning to Skateboard" win it.

9:15 - "Learning to Skateboard" was probably my second favorite of the slate, so I'm okay with it winning. Good speech.

9:16 - Best Supporting Actress! It's almost definitely Laura Dern's night but I honestly wish ScarJo would get it. She was the best part of "Jojo Rabbit." "Richard Jewell" and "Bombshell" were middlebrow movies but I genuinely thought Kathy Bates and Margot Robbie were great.

9:18 - I love Laura Dern and I know a lot of other people who do. But she's given so many better performances than "Marriage Story." It was such a self-consciously showy part. Dern was better in "Little Women," honestly.

9:20 - All of that aside, Laura Dern's speech is fantastic. Of course it is. Laura Dern is amazing.

9:25 - Hello, Anthony Ramos! I don't know who you are!

9:26 - HOLY COW, A "T.U.R.T.L.E. POWER" SHOUT-OUT AT THE OSCARS!

9:27 - I know I'm always hard on the Oscar montages but they are genuinely good this year. Shrugs

9:29 - I am unironically adoring this Songs montage. God, I like Oscar montages now. I must be old now. And here's Eminem for some reason!

MOM'S SPAGHETTI!

9:31 - I don't know why Eminem is performing but it is admittedly enlivening the evening some. Is this an anniversary year for "8 Mile" or something? Or is this to make up for him not being there to accept his win for this song?

9:32 - Martin Scorsese does not look like he's appreciating this, lol.


9:37 - Salma's pun game is strong.

I would love "Ford V. Ferrari" to win some technical awards but I fully expect "1917" to sweep these.

9:38 - ...or not! I'm glad so many of my picks are winning tonight.

And some shout-outs to the late, great 20th Century Fox. Yes, let's not accept Disney's erasure of film history.

9:40 - I'm surprised this is only "1917's" first win tonight. Have we just not gotten to that many technical categories yet?

9:42 - It is a little weird that they are just going directly into the musical performances with no announcements tonight. But I did like that slow zoom-in on the Buzz and Woody toys.

But let's be honest: Randy Newman was totally phoning this song in. The Academy just loves him so much though! It's sort of adorable.

9:44 - It was a decent performance though.

9:48 - Goddamn, it's someone else I do not recognize! When did I get so incredibly old?

9:50 - A Wild Rapper Appears!

9:51 - I think this Best Cinematographer joke is the first one to make me laugh really hard tonight.

9:52 - Rooting for "The Lighthouse" but this seems like Deakins' night. And, to be fair, "1917" did have amazing cinematography. It's not like he doesn't deserve this one.

"I'm a pretty good cook, actually." Deakins is awesome.

9:55 - "I hate this award." Okay, that made me chuckle.

I really want "Parasite" to win.

9:56 - But "Ford V. Ferrari" got it instead, which I don't mind.

9:59 - "Mr. Excitement!" I love myself a good museum but I'm kind of wondering why they are taking up time in the broadcast for this. Hanks is killin' though.

10:00 - No, Tom, I'm Spartacus! And, alright, that museum does look cool.

10:03 - Awww, Zazie Beetz is just like us. She forgets things too!

10:04 - Cynthia Enviro's dress has a very large collar. This is one of the better Best Song nominations tonight. But I still hope Elton wins.

10:07 - I'm not sure I understand the costume themeing here.

10:12 - Oh joy, I was hoping there'd be some "Cats" jokes tonight.

10:13 - Listen, I thought "The Irishman" was great but the de-aging effects were awkward, at best.

10:14 - As for "1917's" totally expected win... I loved the movie but was anything in it seriously more impressive than creating entire alien races in "Avengers: Endgame" or a whole cast of talking animals in "The Lion King?" The AMPAS' logic behind this category frequently baffles me.

10:16 - Hair and Make-up! I've got to tell you, I honestly think "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" had the best practical effects in this category but it's also, unfortunately, a terrible movie.

Also, holy shit, what did Ray say that prompted a six minute long bleep?

10:17 - The make-up in "Bombshell" was good. John Lithgow's jowls looked excellent. But I still feel like there must've been more impressive practical make-up effects last year.

10:23 - Sounds like Best International Feature is next. If "Parasite" wins here, does that mean it won't win Best Picture? I guess we'll find out soon enough.

10:24 - That final fist fight in "Corpus Christi" was fucking amazing.

If "Pain & Glory" could get Best International Feature and "Parasite" could get Best Picture, that would be great.

10:25 - But this is fine too. Also, this is the first Korean film to win an Oscar? Insane. So much good cinema has come out of Korea in the last decade!

10:27 - "I'm ready to drink tonight!" Bong is so pure, so good. Also, his translator deserves an Oscar too for being such a good sport.

10:28 - Elton's purple suit is bitchin'. I genuinely love this song but I've always had a soft-spot for John's music. I was hoping Taron would perform with him though...

10:30 - I love how much Antonio Banderas is loving this song.

10:36 - Apparently Wes Studi got an Honorary Oscar this year. I knew David Lynch and Geena Davis got them. Either way, very cool.

10:38 - I would legit watch a movie about Gal Gadot, Brie Larson, and Sigourney Weaver forming a fight club.

10:39 - The only thing about "Joker" I really loved was its score. "Little Women" and "1917" both had great scores though. Any of those three would be fine winners.

10:42 - Sigourney bumping that mic stand. I enjoyed watching her attempt to pronounce the composer's name.

10:44 - Hildur's speech was super wholesome. She seems super sincere.

10:45 - Nice aluminum foil jacket, Diane Warren.

10:46 - I'm honestly glad Elton won. Best Song of a pretty weak lot.

"Well, this didn't suck!" Haha, you rock, Bernie.

10:48 - Elton and Bernie's bro-mance is utterly inspiring.

Elton was rambling there at the end of it was completely adorable so I can't even complain.

10:51 - Spike Lee presenting a category they've never given a damn win in.

And if fucking Todd Philips wins, I swear to god...

10:52 - FUCK YES, BONG!

"I thought I was ready to relax!" Haha, you are the man now, Bong.

10:54 - What a class act is this man. He wins an Oscar and commands everyone to give someone else a standing ovation.

10:55 - Tarantino signing "I love you" to Bong. I would like to "Texas Chainsaw" the Oscar into five pieces! "I will drink until next morning!" This boi... So pure.

10:56 - Alright, so who gets left out of the In Memorium montage this year?

10:58 - I genuinely love Billie Eillish's voice. Is that okay?

10:59 - Rutger Hauer. That one hurt.

11:03 - I think the show might actually be wrapped up before midnight? What a miracle.

Olivia Coulman is just an absolute delight.

11:04 - I hope Antonio gets it. Even if Joaquin is definitely going to win.

10:06 - Yeah, that was totally expected. And it's certainly a titanic performance, I just wish it was in a better movie.

11:07 - So it was obvious that Joaquin was going to use his time to make some sort of political statement. Here we gooooo...

Okay... Going to bat for cows. Alright. This is weird.

11:10 - Is this an anti-"Cancel Culture" thing? That speech was fucking somethin', man.

11:11 - Saorsie is my dark horse pick for Best Actress but Renee was amazing, so I'm fine if she gets it.

11:13 - I hope this means we'll be seeing more of Zellweger in more stuff again.

11:15 - Everybody thank Renee's big brother Drew.

I'm starting to miss the play-off music, you guys. Lots of rambling tonight.

11:17 - The stage managers looking at their watches, thinking "We gave Joaquin fifteen minutes, we have to give Renee fifteen too."

11:20 - And here we are, going into the last category of the night. I don't want to say the show has zipped by this year but at least it's been very... Orderly.

11:22 - It's been a great night for "Parasite." Can it pull off Best Picture? That would be amazing.

11:24 - They very awkwardly edited the "fuck" out of that "Joker" clip.

11:26 - Alright, here we go. Can "Parasite" do it?

YES! FUCKING YES! THEY ACTUALLY PICK THE BEST PICTURE FOR BEST PICTURE FOR ONCE!

11:28 - My Mom: "A whole stage full of Korean people... And Jane Fonda."

11:29 - The audience insisting Jeong-eun Lee stand up is delightful.

11:31 - When they panned over to Jane Fonda, my first thought was "Oh god, did they read the wrong name again?"

11:34 - As far as Oscar broadcast goes, this one was very straight-forward. Nothing egregiously bad. Most of the winners were fine, even great choices. Just enough crazy bullshit in the speeches to entertain. The show was somewhat slow but it also got everything out of the way without too much complication. I guess this is how Oscar broadcast probably should be.

11:36 - And that's the night! It was a great Oscar season! Thanks to the twenty people who read this. Good night!

OSCARS 2020: Final Reviews Round-Up


I've cared about the Oscars for years now, as I've always been a movie-obsessed nerd that loved to arbitrarily rank and judge things. Yet it's only been since 2012 that I've been actively writing about the nominated films and live-blogging the ceremony. In all that time, I've never seen all the nominated films. Usually, I top out at just over half or so. I came the closest to completing the Oscar Death Race, as some call it, last year when I saw 50 of the 59 nominated films. Of that number, I manage to review even less.

I went into this year's Oscar season expecting about the same outcome. Yet, somehow, as the day came closer and closer, I realized I actually had a chance of seeing everything. Of hitting 100% on the Letterboxd list of all the nominees. With the help of some new friends, I was able to grab the two rarest of this year's slate. (That would be “Les Miserables” and “St. Louis Superman.”) After I saw those two, I realized there was no good reason not to watch the shit I promised myself I wouldn't bother with. The taste of victory was too much. I had to go for it, even if it meant watching some truly mediocre nonsense.

So, I did it. I saw all 53 of the 53 nominated films. I really wanted to review more of them though. Last year, I posted 28 reviews. This year I topped out with 25. (I did write long reviews of “Star War: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Klaus” back in December, so technically I was just one shy of last year's number.) I guess I should be glad I managed to get that much done, considering the Academy moved the ceremony up almost a whole month from its usual airdate.

I figured I needed to commemorate this successful marathon in some way. Just to prove I did in fact see all of the nominees this year, here are capsule reviews of everything remaining that I didn't get to write long reviews of. Yes, some of these are recycled from my end-of-the-year retrospective. Thanks to the handful of people reading this. The Live Blog will begin at 8:00PM EST.


Ad Astra

“Daddy Issues... IN SPACE!” The film, heavy-handed in its themes as it is, sure knows how to engineer some thrilling sequences. The moon buggy shoot-out and the space baboon attacks are both highlights. A convincing not-too-distant future world is created here, with a lot of well utilized little hints and details. Brad Pitt is excellent, even if his narration is totally unnecessary. [7/10]


Avengers: Endgame

From a narrative perspective, this is an incredible juggling act that somehow never looses you. While definitely not as bold as “Infinity War,” the pure joy with which the film approaches its many cheer-inducing, fanboy moments is infectiously gleeful. Marvel spent a decade building up to this, so they probably deserve the victory lap. And it's sweeter in its focus on the characters and their relationships than it had to be. [9/10]


Breakthrough

Let's welcome this to the list of Random Bullshit That Got Somehow An Oscar Nomination. Obviously, this is anti-science propaganda for the “Christians Are So Persecuted!” crowd. But that's not even the worst thing about it. It's so ridiculously overwrought, from Chrissy Metz' screamed-to-the-rafters performance to an actual candlelight singalong. It's also unforgivably boring, graceless, and maudlin. Topher Grace seems so uncomfortable, I hope they paid him well. [3/10]


Corpus Christi

Interesting how this gravitates between themes of brutality – apparent in that incredible final scene – and forgiveness. Bartosz Bielenia gives a compelling performance, as someone torn between his best and worst instincts. The sermon scenes are genuinely powerful and inspiring. The direction is a little dreary and it meanders a bit in the last third. [7/10]




Documentary Short Films:

In the Absence
A chilling depiction of a senseless tragedy, frequently captured by the cameras and cell phones that were actually there. It takes the clueless authorities responsible for so many deaths to task directly.... And it's a controversy that is still ongoing, as the ending demonstrates. Not an easy watch but fantastically assembled. [7/10]

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)
Becomes a sweet and frequently touching depiction of women's rights slowly getting a grip in a troubled country by focusing on the young kids simply having fun. The real people interviewed here are all so charming and likable. The documentary bracket is so focused on the atrocities in the Middle East this year, it's not to see some hope coming out of that area. [8/10]

Life Overtakes Me
Probably my least favorite of the Documentary Shorts this year, just because it's such a dispiriting watch. The plight of the refugees in these bleak situtions are certainly natural human drama. You truly feel for the children with this horrible Resignation Syndrome. However, I do wish the film focused more on the scientific reasons behind the bizarre condition. [7/10]

St. Louis Superman
Bruce Franks Jr. is certainly an inspiring figure. His speeches towards ex-cons shows the deeply personal passion he has, his honest desire to help the unfortunate and right wrongs. The scenes of his rap battles provide a nice, interesting contrast to his more professional side. The moments with his son further characterize his personal mission to seek justice. [7/10]

Walk Run Cha-Cha
My favorite of the Documentary Shorts, largely because of the wonderfully sweet and choreographed dance number it concludes with. I love how it captures the way real people love, connect, and overcome the difficulties of their lives. The couple at the center of the story are so damn cute together while this also gives us a snap-shot of real history. [8/10]


The Edge of Democracy

In documenting Brazil's downfall into authoritarianism, director Petra Costa is undoubtedly holding a mirror up to America's own situation. Only Brazil's long history of corruption and dictatorship separates us. This is a very personal story for the filmmaker, as she knows figures on both side, which explains her very passionate handling of the material. There's so much information in these two hours, so much double crosses in Brazilian politics, that it's easy to get a bit lost. [7/10]



How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Brings the series to a concise conclusion, in a way that's almost too neat to be satisfying. As the series veers towards a bigger scope, the comic relief is increasingly out of place. (Though Ruffnut gets some moment.) This undoubtedly has the best villain of the series. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless remains the cuddly heart and goes to some interesting places here. And the titular Hidden World sure is awfully pretty. [7/10]


Les Miserables
A film that makes the difficult decision to humanize the abusive cops, the criminals, and the normal citizens caught in the middle in the events leading up to a riot. Successfully captures a day-in-the-life feeling of an impoverish French suburb. Compelling throughout but starts to loose momentum once the riot actually starts, before taking us out on one hell of a ballsy ending. [7/10]




The Lighthouse

As you'd expect, this story of seaside madness is filled with ominous isolation, emphasized by the constricted aspect ratio, and increasingly unnerving episodes. (The use of seagulls is especially creepy.) What wasn't expected is how damn funny it is, as Eggers exploits old-time-y sea captain speak for as much absurdity as possible. Dafoe and Pattinson grow increasingly unhinged and blustery, as the film goes more mind-altering and perverse. [9/10]


The Lion King

For a movie that has no reason to exist, this was better than anticipated. Yes, the few new additions to the story are totally unnecessary. (Though I do like the tunnel scene in the Elephant Graveyard.) Most of the songs seem horribly out-of-place, though the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” singalong is cute. While Chiwetel Ejiofor is no Jeremy Irons, the casting is pretty inspired. It's not the original but the photorealistic animation is impressive in its own way. [6/10]



Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

A sequel to a movie I hated that manages to be an even more tedious experience. The plot is utterly incomprehensible, fantasy gobbledygook. How can anyone give a shit about this stuff? There's so much CGI eye-gouging and utterly dispassionate battle scenes. Angelina Jolie isn't even in a third of the film. The scenes of horned, winged humanoids having terse conversation reminds me of “Gargoyles” and Warwick Davis plays a goblin, so that's cool. [3/10]



Missing Link

As always, Laika's visuals are absolutely spellbinding in their detail, their quirky character designs, and inventive camera angles. The physical comedy gags are so wild and broad, they become impressive acts. Mr. Link is a delightful character: A sasquatch who is shy, socially awkward, but with a wholesome heart. The moral lesson – find true friends, not the social group society tells you to go with – is obvious but does produce at least one surprising plot twist. And the voice cast is having a ball. Definitely the best of the recent wave of Bigfoot-themed animation. [7/10]



Rocketman

Making this an actual singing-and-dancing musical with magical-realism elements does break-up the typical musician biopic tedium some. Taron Edgerton is fantastic and the film earns points by not sanitizing things too much. I've never seen a film that baits the Best Costume Design category so hard and it's kind of amazing. It does eventually fall into all the totally expected beats. It's a lot better than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” if nothing else. [7/10]


Toy Story 4

By far the most inessential of this series but certainly, by no means, a bad movie. The humor and heart is absolutely still there, as I laughed plenty of times and the movie still made me tear up. The new characters are all lovable, with Duke Kaboom being especially Keanu-licious. The film's villain, meanwhile, is so sympathetic and well realized that she really ceases to be a villain at all by the end. This seems to bring the franchise to a somehow more definitive end than part three did but Disney's shareholders will probably demand a “Toy Story 5” at some point anyway. [7/10]


Saturday, February 8, 2020

OSCARS 2020: Pain & Glory (2019)


I'll admit I'm not specially familiar with the films of Pedro Almodovar. It's a blind spot I should probably correct, seeing as the kinky melodramas he specializes in sound right up my alley. (The only one of his films I've seen previously is “The Skin I Live In,” which I didn't like very much.) I do know enough about Almodovar to know he helped turned Antonio Banderas into one of our greatest, most underrated movie stars. This partnership has led Banderas to what is, somehow, only his first Academy Award nomination. “Pain & Glory” has earned Banderas some of the best reviews of his career. While a win is uncertain, due to the 1000 pound clown in the room, it's great to see such a magnetic star finally get he recognition he deserves.

Salvador Mallo is a famous Spanish director who hasn't worked in several years. A number of physical and neurological conditions have made him a pill-dependent recluse. Memories of his impoverished childhood still haunt him. An anniversary screening of one of Mallo's movies has him reconnecting with Alberto Crespo, a former leading man of his that he last saw on bad terms. Crespo introduces Salvador to heroin, causing a chain reaction that brings the past back into Mallo's life.

“Pain & Glory” is a contemplative film intimately concerned with how memories reflect on our current lives. The very first scene has Salvador floating, almost dreaming, recalling an episode from his youth. It's not an event that seems especially important yet it sticks with Mallo none the less. That's how it is, sometimes. Almodovar doesn't show us the life-changing stuff – his father's disappearance, Salvador's filmmaking career, his mother's death – but instead focuses on a childhood summer that lingers in the mind. The small, inconsequential things are what stick with you the most. This theme is also apparent in the wooden egg Sal's mother used to mend his boyhood socks, which becomes a treasured possession when he rediscovers it as an adult. This is a more accurate depiction of memory than most film's attempt. Especially with how Salvador can drift into a recollection without much prompt. The past is never really done with us and that's something “Pain & Glory” understands.

Salvador's fixation on his past might be why heroin is such an appealing drug to him. His first use of the drug triggers a long flashback. It kills his pain and lulls him into a relaxed state. From there, “Pain & Glory” becomes a compelling depiction of a “functional” drug addict. Salvador doesn't use every day, just a few times a week. He smokes the drug, instead of shooting up like most cinematic junkies do. We don't see the crashing, the vomiting, or the other unpleasant side effects of heroin. Don't think the film is glamorizing drug use though. Salvador still puts himself in danger to buy the drug. We see him slowly ceding control to his addiction, doing it more often, the next high always being on his mind. And it's not just heroin. Sal literally gulps painkillers, crushing them into powder and dissolving them in water. He casually snorts cocaine, unaware that it makes him a huge asshole. His drug use is understandable, considering his chronic pain. Yet Almodovar is making a point, that not all addicts look like the junkie shivering on the street.

“Pain & Glory” is obviously many things. But it's mostly a showcase for Antonio Banderas' acting skills. It's some of the most soulful performing of his career. He resist every showy impulse. Instead, Banderas plays things close to the chest. Yet a sea of secret emotion swirls behind his eyes. This is most evident when Salvador encounters an old boyfriend of his. There's so much he wants to say, so much he longs to do. But to act on these feelings would only make things more awkward. Banderas says all of that with just a glance or a sad smile. Almodavor's colorful direction often makes us privy to the thoughts in Mallo's head. In an early montage, against a slideshow of flashing images, the history of the character's career and illnesses are laid bare. What could have been blatant exposition becomes poetry, as Banderas' iconic, sensual voice explains one thing after another in rapid succession. It's overwhelming and that's exactly how Sal feels every day.

“Pain & Glory” could potentially be seen as a messy film. It doesn't give every aspect of Mallo's life equal time. The details of his directing career are only mentioned in passing. While the origins of his homosexuality are explored, more is implied than outright depicted. But who can complain when the rest of the film is so beautifully brought to life? “Pain & Glory” is, I suspect, somewhat autobiographical for Almodovar, if the meta ending is anything to go by. If the rest of his filmography is this graceful, touching, funny and fantastically acted, than I suppose I need to give more of his a shot. [8/10]

Friday, February 7, 2020

OSCARS 2020: The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts


A Sister

Our first short comes from Belgium. It begins with a woman traveling somewhere in a car, her face and the driver both unseen. She calls an emergency dispatch operator. After a minute of awkward conversation, it soon becomes apparent that the woman is in the car against her will. That she’s been kidnapped. The operator soon grasps what is happen. Now the two must communicate obliquely, not alerting the man as they try to determine where he is taking her.

“A Sister” creates a very tense situation. The particularities of this story, of having to communicate what is happening without revealing any real details, is a great set-up for a thriller. With little music, “A Sister” mines this set-up for as tension as possible, the man remaining unpredictable, his captive being very uncertain, and the woman on the line quietly talking along best as she can. The execution matches the terse premise, watching from the cramped interior of the car. We rarely get a good look at what’s happening and that only increases the tension. [7/10]


Brotherhood

“Brotherhood” follows Mohamed, a Muslim shepherd living in Tunisia. The oldest of his three sons, Malik, returns home unexpectedly... With his Syrian wife, pregnant and totally covered in a burka, in tow. It would seem Malik, against his father’s will, ran off to fight with ISIS. Though the mother tries to keep the peace, Mohamed is soon challenging his son’s extremist beliefs. Conflict inevitably arises within the family but all is not what it seems.

Here in the western world, we tend to think of ISIS and Islamic extremists as strictly a Middle Eastern problem. So it is interesting to see a Tunisian perspective — with a cast of largely red-headed, fair skinned actors — on this topic. If “Brotherhood” was content with just being about a father and son having different beliefs, and the conflict that arises, it probably would’ve been pretty compelling. The acting is strong and the direction is naturalistic. Instead, the short throws in a plot twist that completely changes the course of the story. Worst yet, a twist based in a character needlessly withholding information from another. There’s a confusingly hectic climax after that before an abrupt ending. In other words, this feels like a feature length story cut down to a twenty minute short. Despite a promising beginning, “Brotherhood” doesn’t hold together. [6/10]


The Neighbor’s Window

In “The Neighbor’s Window,” a busy middle-age couple raises three hyperactive kids in a crowded apartment. This leaves little time for anything else, the mom being especially exhausted. One night, they notice a new couple has moved into the apartment building across the street. They are young, constantly throwing exciting parties, and having enthusiastic sex in front of their open window. The married couple are envious of their neighbors’ youthful life style and soon become obsessed, watching them whenever they get a chance.

Though its premise seems more fitting for Hitchcockian thrills, “The Neighbor’s Window” is a rather sentimental drama. Yes, this is a story of married, middle-age malaise. The couple have the kind of arguments you’d expect, with the woman complaining that she is the only one raising the kids and the husband bitching that they don’t have sex more often. As you’d expect, something happens with the couple across the street that makes them appreciate the life they have together anew. Once that shift in the story starts, it’s really easy to figure out where this is going. The moral of “the grass is always greener” quickly comes to mind. While I can kind of appreciate the symmetry in the ending, “The Neighbor’s Window” is undeniably maudlin and heavy-handed. [5/10]


Saria

It wouldn’t be an Oscar season without an incredibly depressing, based-in-fact live action short! “Saria” is inspired by the 2017 Guatemala orphanage fire, in which 41 teenage girls died after a fire broke out in a “safe house” for orphaned and troubled youth. Abuse was common, including sexual assault and beatings. Following a protest by the teens, a large group of them escaped the building... Only to be caught and returned the next night. It was then that the fire started. “Saria” follows a young girl named Saria and her friend trapped in this hellish situation.

So yeah, this is a giant bummer. “Saria,” like so many of these nominated shorts, throws us right into misery and torment without much warning. Within minutes, the girls are being beaten and abused by authority figures. I want to say the adults are cartoonishly evil but, considering what really happened, I guess the film is being realistic. At least “Saria” attempts to provide some heart to this tragic, gruesome tale. The relationship between Saria and her friend is quite sweet. All the young actors are teens from an actual Guatemalan orphanage, so presumably they can relate. The final sequence, when the blaze begins, is chilling in how awful it is. I’m glad the filmmakers brought some attention to this overlooked, real life tragedy. Yet these “misery porn” shorts just tend to make me feel numb and slightly irritated. [5/10]


Nefta Football Club

We return to Tunisia for the last short of the night. “Nefta Football Club” begins with an unusual sight: A donkey, hulling a basket, wandering the desert with headphones over its ears. A pair of young boys, riding a dirt bike and arguing about their favorite soccer players, stop by the Algerian border and discover the strangely accessorized beast of burden. They also steal the bags of unidentified white powder on the animal’s back. Yes, the kids have stumbled upon a very strange drug smuggling ring.

“Nefta Football Club” stands out from the Pack by being the token light-hearted short. The logic behind why the donkey was wearing headphones is explained by the two clueless crooks, which goes in an amusingly absurd direction. Watching them bicker about pop stars is the comedic highlight of the short. I wish we spent a little more time in the kids’ world, as we barely get to know them before the trouble starts. Their banter is realistically childish and the actors do a good job. The film is leading up to a goofy final joke, which ends things on a fittingly funny note. However, this is a 17 minute short that easily could’ve been about ten-to-twenty minutes longer. [7/10]


Thursday, February 6, 2020

OSCARS 2020: The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts



Daughter (2019)

The dialogue-free “Daughter” comes to us from the Czech Republic. It concerns a grown woman, sitting by her ill father's hospital bed. She reflects upon her childhood, as an imaginative but shy girl raised by a withdrawn man. She in particular returns to a memory, of discovering a bird that flew into a glass window and then making a bird mask for herself. The fallout of this event haunts her still. And it seems she is not the only one still attempting to process the feelings that came before, during, and after that time.

What's immediately noticeable about “Daughter” is how it looks. The short is created with stop-motion animation using rough-hew, paper puppets. This creates a delightfully hand-made and gritty appearance for the film. I especially like the creativity on display during the more surreal moments, such as when the girl's bedroom becomes a bird's nest or her father transforms into the black bird flying through the city. (Or the way a pot boiling over is depicted by a clear plastic spilling out of a tiny pot.) The short doesn't lack emotion either. The simple tale of attempting to connect with a parent, when they don't always understand you, is universal. The film's quiet, melancholy atmosphere perfectly captures that sense of loneliness in a lyrical way. I wasn't a big fan of the sometimes shaky camera movement used throughout though, the only downside to an otherwise wonderful film. [8/10]


Sister (2018)

The shorts continue to be an international affair with the second entry of the bundle, “Sister.” At first, the story is about a man remembering his childhood with his bratty sister. As a baby, she would steal his toys. When they were a little older, they would bicker and fight. The brother was the one that usually took the punishment. Sometimes, they performed whimsical activities together, such as the time they took the idea of “growing an new tooth” rather literally. This is before “Sister” reveals itself as actually being about something totally different.

Yes, “Sister” has a rather annoying plot twist midway through. It turns out that this is an “issues” movie about China's one-child policy. (That, in an American context, can't help but come off as weirdly pro-life.) Up until that point, I was enjoying the short. This is another stop-motion production, brought to left with fuzzy, fabric-like dolls. There are numerous surreal flights of fancy, such as the baby sister growing to giant size – obviously symbolizing the giant role she now plays in the boy's life – and the rather direct way he deals with that. Or the unusual way the camera takes us inside the “tooth tree” that grows when the kids plant the missing tooth. If it wasn't for that blindsiding plot twist, this would probably be a visually inventive and interesting experience. [6/10]


Memorable (2019)

“Memorable” is our third international, stop-motion short of the evening. Louis is a painter that is slowly loosing his memories and sense of reality to some sort of neuro-degenerative disease. He frequently forgets things he has just done, or needs to do. He doesn't know what year it is. His recollection of the past and the present start to blend into each other. Simple concepts, like how to use a record player or a cellphone, escape him. This puts a considerable burden on his wife, Michelle, who isn't prepare to handle her husband's worsening state. Yet, even as he forgets his own face, he doesn't forget he loves her.

Once again, I feel like “Memorable' got a nomination more for its visual presentation than its story. The puppets are piled up with paint, given them an appropriately aged and rustic appearance. The short has many wonderfully surreal images. Such as Louis' therapist appearing as an abstract structure or the way he observes his grandchildren as half-finished sculptures. Yet the story here bugs me. Objects melt into paint all around him. “Memorable” can't seem to decide if its taking Louis' condition seriously or playing it for laughs. There are jokes here involving dead fish, handing his wife the wrong objects across the table, and an especially mean-spirited gag involving a blow-dryer. Yet the short's conclusion wants to play the situation for sentimental emotion. This is somewhat effective and there's some lovely visuals in that last part but the uncertain tone really bugs me. Commit to one or the other. [6/10]


Hair Love (2019)

Quite unexpectedly, American animation studios – so obsessed with CGI – provide the two shorts this year made with traditional animation. “Hair Love” comes to us from Sony Pictures Animation. Zuri is a young black girl with an unruly head of thick, curly hair. Getting ready for a special trip, she attempts to style her hair – by watching a Youtube instructional video on the topic – but doesn't have much help with it. Her dad attempts to help her out but he's utterly clueless how to de-tangle such a difficult hairdo.

“Hair Love” is pretty damn cute. Zuri's precocious attempts to master her own follicles lead to a few laughs, such as how ti's first revealed how unruly her hair truly is. While combing her hair, the dad imagines himself as a pro-wrestler tangle with a giant afro monster, a funny gag. The short ends on a more sentimental note, in a way that comes off as more mawkish than touching. Before that, it's a funny and beautifully animated bit of cartoon-y slapstick. It's not unsurprising to see director Bruce W. Smith, previously of “Bebe's Kids” and “The Proud Family,” continues to explore black identity through his work. I imagine this short will mean a lot to young girls of color. [7/10]


Kitbull (2019)

Once again, a studio known primarily for CGI animation – Pixar – provides us with the last traditionally animated short of the evening. “Kitbull” comes from Pixar's SparkShorts program, where animators are given a limited time and budget but are allowed to explore more adult themes. The shorts are then being released on Disney+ and Youtube. The short follows a tiny black stray kitten. The scrappy survivor ends up living in a box in a junkyard. The only other inhabitant of the area is a young pitbull. The two form a friendship of sorts but this is tested when the pitbull is trained to participate in a dog fighting ring.

There's no doubt that “Kitbull” pulls at your heart strings. Like most people, nothing makes my eyes water up faster than seeing an innocent animal in distress. “Kitbull” so accurately portrays the playfulness of the pitbull breed. Not to mention the amount of character and personality the animators give the tiny kitten. The (largely implied) abuse the poor dog suffers  definitely pulls your heart out. Watching the acceptance the mistreated animal receives from his fuzzy friend is extremely touching. There's some mild suspense in an escape sequence and a beautifully sweet ending. The animation is gorgeously sketchy. This is the likely winner of the category and easily my favorite of the lot. [9/10]

OSCARS 2020: American Factory (2019)


Netflix has irrevocably changed the way we consume film. I still don't know if that's good or bad. (Most days I lean towards bad.) Still, I admire the streaming giant for one thing. Making a film instantly available across a world-wide platform is an excellent path of distribution. It's especially beneficial to independent films and niche genres that probably wouldn't get much attention otherwise. Such as the documentary. The people in power know this. That's why Barrack and Michelle Obama's new production company, High Grounds, teamed up with Netflix. Their debut production, “American Factory,” can be far more widely seen now than if it had been dropped into a few select theaters. Now, the Obamas and Netflix have gotten an Oscar nomination.

In 2008, a General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio closed. This left thousands of people unemployed. Nearly a decade later, a Chinese company by the name of Fuyao – a producer of automobile glass – buys the building. This is Fuyao's first factory in America. Many of the old GM workers are re-hired to work for the new company, in addition to about two hundred Chinese workers. Yet the Chinese runners of Fuyao soon discover that American workers are not the same as Chinese workers. As the factory workers attempt to unionize against the decidedly anti-union corporation, conflict emerges.

“American Factory” is essentially a culture clash story. Since the film's perspective is so very warm, it gets a lot of humor out of this set-up. Sometimes these laugh-producing moments are absurd in a rather sweet way. Such as when the Chinese workers go fishing and a Dayton local tries to explain to them what Wheaties are. One of my favorite moments has an American factory worker, a self described “good ol' boy,” showing the Chinese workers how to fire guns or ride his motorcycle. This goes both ways, of course. After an under-performing first year, several of the American Fuyao executives are sent to China. They are presented with a massive New year's celebration, where singers and dancers – all Fuyao employees, supposedly – perform elaborately choreographed numbers. Sometimes, this stuff is almost unbelievable. Such as when the Chinese workers rise ot sing a song about Fuyao. And here I thought “Rollerball” invented corporate anthems.

Sometimes, the behavior caught on camera in “American Factory” is so ridiculous, it seems like satire. Upon arriving in the American factory, the Chinese CEO of Fuyao immediately starts making the pettiest demands. Such as rotating a garage door, which costs thousands of dollars, or moving a fire alarm to a less intrusive place, which is against the law. While in China, the American execs sees the Chinese workers perfectly lined up in the morning, effortlessly delivering a chant of corporate lingo. When he tries this same tactic with American workers, it is less than effective.

Ultimately though, “American Factory” is about how the workers get screwed, regardless of what side of the ocean they are on. The former GM workers take a huge pay-cut to work at Hayou. They toil in unsafe conditions, which the corporation is reluctant to fix. (Much to the chagrin of aghast safety inspectors.) Troublesome workers are put in unfair conditions, intentionally to get them fired. Yet, somehow, the Chinese workers have it even harder. They work twelve hour days for months on end, rarely getting time off to see their families. They have to pick up broken glass without so much as goggles or the proper gloves. Unions are unheard of in China, which is why Fayuo fights the attempted unionization of the American factory so hard. The tactics they use, which include hiring a “union consultant” to intimidate the younger workers, are down right insidious. As the film ends, “American Factory” shows that the increasing rise of automation will only make things harder for blue collar workers everywhere.

“American Factory” touched me on a very personal level. I use to work in a warehouse, toiling on my feet for ridiculous hours while my employer – a billion dollar corporation – gave me barely enough to fulfill my rent. (This place also had a pretty strict anti-union policy.) So it's fair to say I relate a lot to the workers in “American Factory,” to the struggle their jobs impose on them. The movie might just be preaching tot he choir when it shows how fucking greedy and profit-obsessed the companies are. But that's reality, man. Thus, “American Factory” emerges as a vital document of our times. [9/10]

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2019)


57. Frozen II

As I noted the last time this happened, direct sequels used to be rare within the Disney Animated Features canon. Now, the Mouse Factory has produced two sequels in a row with the likelihood of more coming seeming strong. However, the first “Frozen” was such a cultural phenomenon that a sequel of some sort almost always seemed assured. The series of periodically released short films was simply not going to sate the public's demand for more Anna and Elsa. “Frozen II” was such a sure deal that, in an odd way, the finished project seemed to generate little hype. The film was a predictably huge box office success, grossing over a billion dollars, becoming the third highest grossing film of 2019 and currently sitting at the tenth highest grossing film of all time. Yet I never heard anyone talk about “Frozen II” the way they did the first. The level of sustained excitement didn't seem to be there. “Frozen II's” lack of a lasting pop culture presence is perhaps best represented by it not earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, practically unheard of for a tent pole Disney animated release.

Three years have passed since the events of the first “Frozen.” Elsa rules Arendelle as queen. Anna and Kristoff are happy together. Things seem fine... But Elsa is haunted by lingering questions from her childhood, of where her powers came from. Specifically, a fairy tale her mother told her about a magic forest haunts her. At this time, she begins to hear a strange siren song. She unwittingly unleashes the elemental spirits of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. This threatens Arendelle, forcing Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf to journey to the Magical Forest. There, they encounter a hidden society, the truth about their past, and the origins of Elsa's powers.

“Frozen” told a mostly complete story. While the question did remain of where exactly Elsa's super-powers came from, things ended on a fairly satisfying note last time. However, the demand for a sequel was based more in fans wanting to spend more time with these characters than to wrap up any lingering mysteries. Indeed, just getting to see these characters again is kind of fun. A stand-out moment in the film is a simple game of charades between the principal cast. Kristoff and Sven the reindeer's amusing way of communicating is revisited. There's a lot of heart already built into Anna and Elsa's relationship, giving a sequel plenty to build upon. We even see the rock trolls again, even if nobody was asking to.

However, sequels also bring with them a desire to create a bigger, more elaborate story. And that's  where “Frozen II” starts to falter. The first film's plot was a simple and straight-forward, of sisterly love and self-acceptance. “Frozen II” is often bogged down in its own mythology. Introducing magical Elemental creatures into the plot leads to a lot of awkward exposition, usually in form of stories told by other characters or entities.  Ultimately, it is revealed that a mystical force has been directing things from the very beginning. Eventually, a major character's life is threatened by some sort of magical set-up I don't even entirely understand. It's the kind of hooey-heavy storytelling that makes me dislike a lot of fantasy writing.

Yet “Frozen II” is an improvement over the first in one major way. The sequel has far more exciting action set pieces. An extended, very exciting sequence has Elsa teaming the temperamental Water Nokk, while running across the surface of the ocean. That's a dynamic and thrilling episode that the movie never quite tops. It tries, however, with a scene of Anna fleeing from a pair of angry rock giants. The animation does a good job of establishing just how massive the creatures are and just how perilous our heroine is in this moment. The sequel's focus on action scenes does betray it occasionally, such as in a scene where Elsa freezes a tornado somehow, which feels like a less-than-memorable moment from a Marvel film.

Perhaps that scene of Elsa utilizing her superpowers against an antagonistic force doesn't entirely work because “Frozen II” is another Disney Animated Feature that foregoes a proper villain. There's no bad guy, plotting things and motivating the story. Instead, Elsa and Anna seek out natural forces that are ostensibly neutral. They are sometimes destructive, such as when the fire entity sets a forest ablaze, but can be befriend and understood easily. The residents of the magic forest, Arendelle guards who were locked in years ago and aboriginal residents, are in conflict that is largely based in a misunderstanding. While it's admirable for “Frozen II” to have a more complex moral world, where few people are truly bad, I do sort of wish we had a neat villain in here somewhere.

The conflict in “Frozen II” is about something else too. A theme is repeatedly stated, frequently by the newly verbose Olaf. The sequel is about the unavoidable change that comes with maturity. Nearly everyone is content with life in Arendelle at story's beginning. However, change has to come if healthy grow is expected to happen. While “Frozen II” spends a lot of time talking about this stuff, it ultimately can't commit to it. The film has Elsa re-visiting her parent's legacy. Yet it never once acknowledges how cruelly they treated her by locking her away for most of her early life. The former king and queen are treated like beloved figures, the sequel never once grappling with the fact that they were pretty big assholes to their child.

This is not the only way the sequel seriously wimps out with its themes of change and maturity. Once the elemental forces reveal themselves, the city of Arendelle is threatened. Everyone is evacuated. Elsa and Anna's quest has them revealing the kingdom's imperialistic past, as their grandfather attempting to wipe out the native population. By acknowledging this and righting wrongs that happened decades ago, a huge tidal wave is sent careening towards Arendelle. If the city – which had no one in it by this point, mind you – was destroyed, that would have been a real example of change. Instead, “Frozen II” stops just shy of really shaking up the status quo. Presumably because Disney didn't want to tear down the cozy, merchandise-friendly fairy tale setting. The film is reluctant to commit to the ideas it repeatedly talks about.

Yet perhaps thematic consistency is not what most people are looking to get out of a Disney cartoon. Kids, after all, are still the primary target of these films. Yes, “Frozen II” does feature some amusing comedic gags. Throughout the film, Olaf is acting in a more mature manner... Though it's still Olaf's idea of maturity, so he's still fairly clownish. The best gag has the little snowman re-enacting the events of the original film, which is taken amusingly serious by the observers. Being a Disney film, “Frozen II” also introduces some cute new characters that can be made into toys. My favorite of which is a cuddly little fire salamander, though the film most also be praised for turning the literal wind into a cutesy side kick. That was pulled off surprisingly well.

Looking at “Frozen II” as strictly a work of animation, it is, of course, lovely. The environments in big budget cartoons like this are nearly photorealistic. Seeing the Scandinavian-inspired locations in the autumn provides lots of gorgeous visuals. The images of crashing waves, deep seas, and billowing mists are impressive. Yet “Frozen II's” animation impresses the most the more playful it becomes. During “Into the Unknown,” Elsa paints the night with flickering ice images of characters we'll meet soon enough. During another musical number, the Ice Queen continues to summon brightly colored snow sculptures all around her. This scenes nearly bend towards the expressionistic. I wish Disney experimented like this a little more but I guess that's not what audiences have come to expect.

The songs are obviously a big attraction with these films. Generally speaking, I'm not the biggest fan of the Lopez's songwriting. Their lyrics are conversational and frequently awkward. This is most evident in “Something's Never Change,” the first major musical number and among the movie's least memorable songs. “Into the Unknown,” despite being placed as the sequel's big showstopper, also suffers from weirdly uneven writing. “Frozen II” is desperately eager to create the next “Let It Go.” Every single song in the movie, practically, is straining to be the next big crowd pleaser, to have as much bombastic emotion and stirring music as possible. The only number that actually succeeds at being better than “Let It Go” is “Show Yourself,” Elsa's next self-actualization ballad. I don't know why Disney didn't push that one for the Oscar nomination.

Another problem with the songs in “Frozen II” is something the sequel shares with the original. Several of them commit the biggest sin a musical can be guilty of: They don't advance the plot any. Olaf's “When I Am Older” brings the pace to a halting stop and isn't even that funny or cute a number to begin with. Yet I guess I'm guilty of enjoying some of “Frozen II's” excesses. Kristoff's sole song, “Lost in the Woods,” does not move the story forward in anyway. Yet I love it anyway. It's a big goofy homage to Jim Steinman and eighties love ballads, even including the guitar power riffs. This is even reflected in the accompanying visuals, which moves and feels like an eighties music video. So I guess it's sometimes okay if not every song pushes the plot forward.

Speaking as someone who merely liked, not loved, the first “Frozen,” I'd rank the sequel on about the same level. It lacks the elegant plotting of the original, in favor of a much more bloated story. It lacks the proper convictions to back up the ideas it is presenting. Some of the songs blow. Yet the set pieces are exciting and beautifully brought to life. The songs that are good are extremely good. The cast is still having a good time. The sequel, if nothing else, should be applauded for not just being a retrend of the original. In some regards, it is better than the first. In others, it is weaker. Over all, I liked it though I definitely hope Disney takes a break from sequels for a while. [Grade: B]