Movie Review ~ Strange World

The Facts:

Synopsis: A legendary family of explorers attempts to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog, and a slew of ravenous creatures.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Director: Don Hall Co-Director: Qui Nguyen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Before PIXAR became the new gold standard for animation, the artists at Disney had the market nicely cornered on creating magical adventures inspired by works of the fairy tales we grew up with. Original storylines were few and far between because the story department never seemed to be coming up empty for inspiration. However, as children’s tastes (and attention spans) changed and the way they absorbed media shifted, so did the origins of ideas for animated features. Seen as the yearly jewels in the Disney crown, it became more difficult to predict a year (or more) in advance when production began what would still work when the film was released. By the mid-2000s, when Home on the Range and, ooof, Chicken Little arrived in theaters, rumors that Walt Disney Animation Studios might shutter were becoming more than flimsy gossip.

Thankfully, new leadership guided this specialized branch of the filmmaking wing of Disney in the right direction, and soon hits like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana were raking in big bucks and new fans. In 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon was terrific but opened softer than it should have, while Encanto came in at the end of the year with a brilliant strategy. It would open in November around Thanksgiving to attract family audiences’ home for the holidays, then be available on the streaming service Disney+ by Christmas when everyone has time off.   

For Walt Disney Pictures’ 61st animated film, Strange World, the studio is trying to recapture Encanto’s success by launching it a few days before Turkey Day with rumors that it will turn up on Disney+ so viewers can flip it on after opening their holiday gifts. That shortens the theatrical window for Strange World and might weaken its overall box office, but it didn’t stop Encanto from being a more massive hit at home. Then again, Encanto was a different beast to manage entirely. While both admirably deal with varying predicaments of family, it’s Strange World that ultimately feels like it could benefit from the most attention it can receive.

Drawing inspiration from dime-store pulp magazines that send their iconic heroes on sensational adventures, screenwriter (and co-director) Qui Nguyen imagines a father-son team of explorers who are separated while trying to find sustainable resources for Avalonia, the land they call home. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid, Blue Miracle) is your dictionary definition of an alpha male, from his burly physique to his bushy mustache. He’s a dive-in-first, ask questions of the sharks that may be in the sea later kind of guy, but his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty) is a little more calculated than his dad. Searcher, brave in his own way, is the brains to Jaeger’s brawn. When a disagreement sends the two in opposite directions, it leads to Jaeger disappearing on his leg of the mission for 25 years.

Searcher tries to walk in his father’s giant footsteps during this time but still creates his own path. Now married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union, Breaking In) with a 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, C’mon, C’mon), Searcher is a farmer of Pando. This crop looks like a bunch of grapes but is the power source for all of Avalonia’s resources. It was an argument over investigating this plant further which drove the rift between the older Clade men. Still, the Pando is suffering from decay, threatening the entire community. 

Recruited by Avalonian leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu, Charlie’s Angels) because of his knowledge of the power of Pando, Searcher is taken along on a new journey to discover the origin of the disease that is killing off this resource. Traveling further than he’s ever gone from home but closer to where the mystery of his father’s whereabouts might be solved, Searcher will get assistance from his own family and a host of unusual discoveries in this strange world the crew finds themselves in. Once they discover the truth, they’ll have to decide what’s worth saving. Does a legacy outweigh (or outlive) the daily ups and downs of being a part of a family?

The buzz surrounding Strange World has to do with Ethan being the first fully “out” Disney character but, honestly, why the buzz? The normalcy on display here is so admirable. While I kept holding my breath for “The Discussion” (all LGBTQ+ people know what I’m referring to), that Nguyen handles all of these moments so smoothly and truthfully was impressive. In the past, Disney has made a big stink about debuting gay characters, only to have them be nothing more than a raised eyebrow or two shoulders brushing together to indicate deep passion. There’s no need to define anyone here because all those conversations have happened before we’ve stopped by – we’re meeting a happy family that’s been there, done that, and worked that out on their own.   

The look of the film is highly pleasing; it’s all so rounded and soft. To borrow from Frozen, it’s Hygge through and through. From Avalonia’s lush landscapes to the marshmallow squishiness of the world being explored, the whole film has the calming visual effect of an ASMR bedtime session.   I can’t say too much more about things in the latter half of Strange World without giving a left-field twist away, but a hint I’ll pass on is that one of the voice actors in the film has been in a movie from the ’80s with a similar sci-fi/fantasy storyline. (Another hint: Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot Center had a ride that also reminded me of it.)

As someone anxiously waiting for the next Indiana Jones movie and who never passes up a similarly-themed globe-trotting adventure, I found Strange World right up my alley. That it features such positive representation of not just LGBTQ+ youth but of allyship in their family/friends is the cherry on top. Henry Jackman’s (Cherry) score gives you John Williams vibes, and I think that’s entirely the point, so this is targeted at a more specific group. Like previous films released by Walt Disney Animation Studios, I’m hoping that a release focused on a particular group will find mass appeal in others that see similarities within. 

Movie Review ~ Blue Miracle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: To save their cash-strapped orphanage, a guardian and his kids partner with a washed-up boat captain for a chance to win a lucrative fishing competition.

Stars: Jimmy Gonzales, Dennis Quaid, Anthony Gonzalez, Bruce McGill, Raymond Cruz, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Fernanda Urrejola, Nathan Arenas, Chris Doubek

Director: Julio Quintana

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Let’s get something out of the way at the start of this review, shall we?  The poster for Blue Miracle, the new inspirational true life tale Netflix is premiering on May 27, stinks.  It’s just awful. What looks to be a hasty photoshop project done by a junior intern doesn’t tell you what this movie is about in the slightest (no tagline?), nor would it catch your eye amongst the throng of enticing options Netflix pushes out week after week.  This is too bad, because while ultimately it’s no game changer of a watch, Blue Miracle is blessedly low on the sugar you might expect to be puckering on and heavy on the good-natured charm that goes down much easier, reeling you in for a surprisingly brisk viewing.

The bones of this whale of a tale feel pretty familiar.  Sunny Cabo San Lucas, Mexico is a haven for tourists who soak up the sun and sand, but venture further into the city and you’ll find Casa Hogar, a orphanage run by Omar Venegas (Jimmy Gonzales, Happy Death Day) and his wife.  Dubbed Papá Omar by the children he has helped to get off the streets and provide the kind of safe environment to grow up in that he wasn’t afforded, Omar is finding it harder to make ends meet.  Facing bankruptcy but unwilling to give up on the kids he has made a commitment to, he attemps a last-ditch effort to win the money in a yearly fishing tournament that’s never been open to locals before.

There are one or two problems with this plan, naturally, the first being that Omar doesn’t know how to swim, the result of a childhood trauma he keeps reliving throughout the film.  Secondly, neither he nor a select group of older boys from Casa Hogar knows the first thing about fishing.  Wanting to help his cash-poor friend out, tournament director Wayne Bisbee (Bruce McGill, Lincoln) pairs Omar with grizzled boat captain Wade Malloy (Dennis Quaid, Midway), a former two-time winner who had previously come to Bisbee wanting to enter the contest solo.  Though neither man is happy about the prospect of splitting any winnings, both agree that something is better than nothing and it’s out to sea for a weekend that will change their hearts and minds…and possibly their futures.

Looking over screenwriter Chris Dowling’s listing on IMDb shows titles that reflect similar themes found in Blue Miracle.  Different world views colliding and eventually learning from one another, choosing between wrong and right, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes…all hearty stock that goes into Chicken Soup for the Netflix Film.  Yet Dowling and director Julio Quintana never let the movie get weighed down in its tripe, recycled though it may be.  Aside from a few spotlight performances, as I watched the film, I kept thinking how predictable the beats were while at the same time finding a true investment with these day trippers and honestly rooting for them. It’s a strange fence to find myself sitting on, admittedly, but expect to be perched there right along with me. If we’re nitpicking, and we must, I question why a movie set in Cabo featuring characters that were born and raised there would be speaking English to each other when they are alone but, hey, I guess that’s just the way these features have to be made.  Still, wouldn’t it have been nice to have it authentic, forcing audiences to either read the subtitles or admit defeat and watch it dubbed in their language of choice?

For a while there, I was beginning to think we’d lost Quaid as a dependable actor.  Turning up in roles that didn’t suit him or, worse, straining to make the broad circles of comedy fit into his square wheelhouse, gone was the fun Quaid that just had a looser screen presence.  In Blue Miracle, Quaid is clearly finding his way back to a comfortable place and he’s in fine (read: rare) form as the salty many of the sea that starts the film as a grump but, wouldn’t you know it, burns a little brighter once those boys from Casa Hogar spend a little time on his boat.  The boys all turn in pleasant, if unremarkable, performances of stock characters that every orphanage apparently needs to have (nerd, bully, loudmouth, clown, etc) but there’s no question Blue Miracle belongs to Gonzales.  Known for his TV work and small film roles, this is his chance to shine, and he does an admirable job with what he’s given.  The role is inherently written as good beyond measure, so he’s pretty much accompanied by a halo.  A lesser actor might go strong on the parts of the film where Omar battles his own inner demons while a bigger name might draw attention away from his costars in their scenes together.  Gonzales walks that fine line well, turning in his own solid performance while making room for Quaid and the boys, too.

In a strange bit of timing, Netflix’s Blue Miracle was the second new film I screened in less than a week based on a true story that featured a group of orphan boys seen as underdogs overcoming inexperience on their path to success.  That other film is 12 Mighty Orphans and it’s not coming out until July but both movies share that common thread of underestimating determination.  I won’t say yet which film is more successful at tugging at the heartstrings, but both are winners when it comes to having the audience completely in their cheering section by the time the final moments draw near. As for those you considering casting a line toward Blue Miracle, I say go for it. It’s better to be see what you catch instead of having it be the one that got away.   

Movie Review ~ Midway (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis:  US soldiers and pilots change the course of World War II during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 when US and Imperial Japanese naval forces fought for four days.

Stars: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Darren Criss, Woody Harrelson, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Dennis Quaid,  Tadanobu Asano, Alexander Ludwig

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 138 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With the rise of the franchise action film, I’d forgotten what going to a Roland Emmerich movie was like.  The one-time master of the big event film made an impressive debut with Universal Solider in 1992 before going bigger with Stargate in 1994 and fully graduating to epic size with Independence Day in 1994.  In the years that followed, Emmerich struggled with maintaining the scale of his films and had trouble balancing the rising budgets with finding a strong narrative.  By 2013 he was directing White House Down which was similar in plot to Olympus Has Fallen and then he proceeded to go back for seconds on the critically reviled Independence Day: Resurgence.

It was a bit of a surprise for me, then, to see Emmerich’s name attached to Midway because I hadn’t thought the director would want to go for a historical film that would require him to stay within the lines a bit more than he was used to.  Turns out this was exactly the project he needed because aside from a handful of iffy performances and a walloping heap of bad dialogue, Midway emerges as the best effort from the director in years.  Yes, it has your standard roster of rousing speeches and that one impassioned pep talk that comes right before a character is unceremoniously killed off, but it also makes good use of its visual effects budget which helps to snare you into each high-flying fight scene that gets bigger with each battle.  I went in expecting a loud and obnoxious war movie along the lines of the loud and obnoxious Pearl Harbor from 2001, but I wasn’t anticipating coming out the other side having been fully engaged for the majority of Midway’s healthy running length.

Following the military action that took place between the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, first time feature screenwriter Wes Tooke mixes historical figures with composites of the men that participated in these battles on the ground and in the air.  From a history lesson perspective, Tooke’s script is fast moving and filled with the kind of military jargon war junkies will find enticing, yet it isn’t such a deep dive that others will be lost.  Most of the time it’s clear where we are and what’s happening, though when the movie goes into it’s hyper-kinetic final hour it does help to keep mental notes of what is transpiring.  Not being a huge history stickler, I can’t tell you how well-researched Tooke’s script is or if it’s aligns perfectly with the timeline of events but certain accomplishments that seems too coincidental to be true seem to be backed up by historical fact as evidenced in post-credit character wrap-ups.

Where Tooke’s screenplay is lacking is when the characters have to, you know, talk about normal everyday stuff.  It’s here that his newbie-ness shows and it didn’t surprise me to learn he got started writing for a serialized podcast – much of the dialogue is expository that, while directed toward someone on screen, could just as easily be spoken directly into the camera for all the weight it’s given in relation to the combat-zone speak.  Characters that come off as phony baloney talking about their lives outside of the service suddenly take on a tone of authority when discussing the plans for their next air strike.  With only one actress in the main cast, it isn’t surprising the female characters are barely there and what we do see of them are as supportive wives that just want their husbands to come home safely or are standing by ready to cook a late night sandwich.  It’s a bit embarrassing that Tooke couldn’t have given any female something to do in the film other than play a sturdy rock to their more verbose spouse.

It also could be that Emmerich hasn’t cast the strongest actors either, with British Ed Skrein (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) struggling to maintain his East Coast drawl as hotshot pilot Dick Best.  Try as he might, Skrein never can quite convincingly get through one of his anthemic speeches to his fellow brothers in arms, to say nothing of the complete lack of chemistry he has with his wife, played by an equally vacant Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down).  Yet when Skrein is flying his dive bomber and pushing the limits to victory, he totally had me cheering him on.  In similar boats, or planes, are Luke Evans (Ma), Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Darren Criss (Girl Most Likely), Aaron Eckhart (Sully), Luke Kleintank (The Goldfinch), and Keean Johnson (Alita: Battle Angel).  While I’d argue that few of these chiseled actors looks like they would have passed basic training (especially Criss…as a fighter pilot? I think not.) as a unit there is something that gels as the movie progresses.

If there’s one bit of non-action sequences work the best in spite of the thin dialogue, it’s the scenes between Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, Venom) and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson, Annabelle Comes Home).  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was assigned to take over command of the post and turned to Layton to use his expertise to help predict where the Japanese would attack next.  Layton then sought assistance from a codebreaker who had intercepted Japanese communications, helping them plan for the Battle of Midway.  While there are some hokey bits here and there, by and large these are the moments that land the best and it’s thanks to Harrelson and Wilson’s assured screen presence.  Coincidentally, these are also the passages of the film that are easy to get a bit turned around in — so best to stay alert when Wilson is laying out the game plan.

Where the movie really earns its stripes are the well-staged and skillfully rendered battle scenes featuring air strikes between the US and Japanese forces.  While I normally go a bit cross-eyed with excessive amount of green screen and CGI usage, it didn’t bother me as much in Midway as it wound up enhancing the experience, having the effect of putting the audience right into the middle of the action with alarming intensity.  Far from feeling like an overblown cartoon like previous Emmerich efforts, the visuals are nearly all expertly designed and beautifully executed, culminating in a deluxe finale that actually had me biting my nails.  Sure, it may be a bit chintzy at times but it’s the best kind of gobble-down-your-popcorn kind of fare.  Perhaps the editing could be tightened up a tiny smidge to assist in our tracking of the pilots and to avoid a few repetitive bits but there’s not a lot of the action that I’d want to see trimmed down.

Feeling like it was made with a great sense of honor and respect, I appreciated the gestures Tooke’s script made to Japanese customs as well.  Though dealing us a terrible blow and also being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Chinese that assisted American forces, the Japanese had a sense of nobility in their strategy as well.  It would have been easy (especially in the time we currently live in) to make this an All-American Apple Pie movie but taking a brief moment to acknowledge the losses on both sides doesn’t make any excuses, it simply recognizes the fallen.  If anything, Emmerich could have spent a little more time with the Japanese in the first half of the movie and I imagine he did but felt he could sacrifice those scenes when the movie was running long in his original cut.

Releasing just in time for Veterans Day, I’ll be interested to see how Midway plays with audiences during this quieter time before the busy Thanksgiving holiday draws near.  Though the Battle of Midway has been filmed before (check out 1976’s Midway starring Charlton Heston and Peter Fonda for a less visual effects heavy telling) and there’s more to the story than can be told in 138 minutes (again, there’s absolutely no stories involving women which was disappointing) I appreciated that Emmerich was restrained enough to save his big guns for when he needed it most and let the quieter moments play out.  Even if the quieter moments were clumsy, at least they were there.  For that, I give the movie a lot of credit for exceeding my expectations and providing more entertainment than I could have predicted at the outset.  Very much worth seeing on the big screen.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Jaws 3-D (1983)

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jaws_3d

I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

It had been five years since JAWS 2 was released to boffo box office so the time was probably right for Universal Studios to revisit its popular franchise.  What started as a second sequel intended to be more of a comedy, ala National Lampoon, turned into something different but no less silly.  I have a certain fondness for JAWS 3D with its ugly grainy picture and lame-o 3D effects…maybe it’s because it’s so earnestly goofy now or maybe it’s because JAWS: The Revenge was so much worse but the film has a certain (albeit resistible) charm.

I remember seeing this teaser trailer when YouTube first went up and thinking it was well done.  1983 was the year of the 3D resurgence and I’m sure audiences were unnerved not only about having another reminder about what dangers look in deep water but also wondering how the technique was going to bring that mean ‘ole great white shark into another dimension.   I’m not sure how well the movie played in theaters but having only ever seen it in 2D, I think the intended effect has been lost.

Bonus! 

Check out the teaser for the final nail in the coffin of the Jaws franchise:

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

And check out my reviews of the full slate of Jaws films : JAWS, JAWS 2, JAWS 3-D, JAWS: The Revenge

Missed my previous teaser reviews?  Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, and Jurassic Park!

31 Days to Scare ~ Jaws 3-D

jaws_3d

The Facts:

Synopsis: The sons of police chief Brody must protect civilians at a Sea World theme park after a gigantic 35-foot shark becomes trapped in the park.

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, P.H. Moriarty

Director: Joe Alves

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s not that hard to see that this was originally intended to be a comedy in the National Lampoon vibe and titled Jaws 3, People 0.  The trouble is, when the producers got cold feet and went back to making a more serious-minded film, no one told the shark because it gets its fair share of laughs.

One of the first films in the early 80’s to employ the revitalization of 3D technology; I still wouldn’t mind seeing this second sequel in the Jaws franchise the way it was originally projected in the summer of 1983.  Maybe hiding behind some cardboard 3D glasses a more enjoyable film would have emerged because stripped of this gimmick, the movie sinks pretty fast as so many similarly released 3D films did in that era.

The one interesting thing about this entry is its setting.  Moving away from the fictional New England set Amity Island, Jaws 3D takes place at Sea World.  Yeah, you read that right…it’s not Sea Park or Ocean World or something that suggests the famous theme park but the big girl herself.  Nowadays, this kind of movie would never be allowed to film in a place that relies on benign tourism to stay afloat.   What goes on in this film would send a modern mom and dad from Utah running back to Dollywood for their summer vacation.

Directed by Joe Alves who served as the production designer on Jaws and Jaws 2, Jaws 3D once again follows members of the Brody family (sons Michael and Sean) as they happen to be in the very same place where a great white shark gets loose in and around the lagoons of Sea World.  Dennis Quaid (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) and Bess Armstrong are likable enough in their lead roles but it’s strange to see Oscar winner Louis Gossett, Jr. hemming and hawing as the blustery owner of the property.  He’s not required to do much and he does that just fine.  Lea Thompson and the late Simon MacCorkindale are also on board to add a few colorful touches…not that the film’s gaudy color palette needed them.

The way the movie was filmed with 3D cameras spells trouble when viewing the film in 2D because it’s a rather ugly looking movie that shows its age in nearly every frame.  It’s no wonder this was the first and last film Alves directed, but it’s not so much a failure on his end but rather on the studio itself for making the unwise decision to take the shark out of its familiar surroundings in the first place.

I’ve seen clips of the movie in 3D on YouTube and while some of the effects might have been nice projected 30 feet high, seen on the small screen in 2013 they are not that far removed from a school cut and paste project.  Won’t some local theater dig up a print of this and have a screening so fans of the series too young to  have seen it in theaters can experience it for themselves?  The film won’t magically get better just because the shark will come out of the screen in 3D…but there’s something to be said for seeing a movie as it was intended to be shown.

Until then…I’ll keep watching Jaws 3D and lamenting its poor choices, decent performances, corny effects, and serviceable shark.

The Silver Bullet ~ At Any Price

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Synopsis: A farming family’s business is threatened by an unexpected crisis, further testing the relationship between a father and his rebellious son.

Release Date: April 24, 2013 

Thoughts: When a film critic of such stature as Roger Ebert says that a movie has a performance that is a career high, that’s something I’m interested in seeing.  I enjoy that Ebert seems to take every film on its own merits, rather than go in with any strongly preconceived notions – which is why his request we take note of Dennis Quaid in At Any Price is notable.  As a farmer struggling to keep his family business thriving, Quaid heads a cast that also includes Zac Efron and Heather Graham.  I’m interested to see where this film ends up.

The Silver Bullet ~ Movie 43

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Synopsis: An ensemble comedy intertwining different tales.

Release Date:  January 25, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s a film I’ve been hearing about for a while now thanks to a word of mouth publicity campaign.  Though it reminds me a lot of the uneven semi-classic Kentucky Fried Movie, this particular entry sold me on the cast list alone.  You have Oscar nominated/winning females (Naomi Watts, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry) side by side with men that run the gamut from A-List (Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere) to has beens (sorry fellow MN Seann William Scott).  Many famous faces/names also wrote and directed the shorts so here’s hoping that the good stuff is great and the bad stuff is short.  I’ve laughed at this trailer (and its Not Safe For Work red band trailer here) and do anticipate liking this when it’s released later in January.