Movie Review ~ Coco


The Facts
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Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil

Director: Lee Unkrich

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable.  Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.

Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises.  They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for.  Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.

Now along comes Coco.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too.  Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University).  Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire?  And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history.  His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.  Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation.  In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange).  Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.

When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed.  It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break.  Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.

The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors.  There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family.  Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled.  I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.

Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding.  The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight.  There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.

For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display.  It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level.  Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far.  In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage.  It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience.  Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Thoughts: Madeleine L’Engle’s celebrated 1963 novel has been on my bookshelf for years and holds a special place in my heart.  I’ve seen high school productions of it (and been in one myself) and made it through most of a 2003 made for television film that couldn’t capture the energy of its source material.  Now comes a new adaptation from one of the writers of Frozen directed by one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.  Ava DuVernay (Selma) has assembled a dynamite A-List cast and, from the look of things in this first teaser, a damn fine film.  Starring Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Reese Witherspoon (This Means War), Mindy Kaling (This is the End), Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty & the Beast), newcomer Storm Reid, and Zach Galifianakis (Keeping Up with the Joneses) as The Happy Medium, this is one page to screen adaptation I’m welcoming with open arms.

Movie Review ~ The Good Dinosaur

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend.

Stars: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright

Director: Peter Sohn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s usually never a good sign when a release date for a movie is changed once.  It’s an even worse sign when it changes twice.  Then when you hear that nearly all of the cast was replaced, the director removed from the project, and reshoots were required you can rest assured that when (if?) the movie is actually released you’ll have the critical vultures swarming around looking to feast on the carcass of the wounded cinematic animal.

In this case, the movie in question is Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, finally seeing a release date a full two years after its intended November 2013 opening.  Those expecting a misfire from the studio limping into the holiday movie season will be in for a surprise because for the second time in 2015 Disney/Pixar have a hit on their hands.  For all of its fabled troubles on its way to theaters (including replacing the voices of John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Bill Hader) it’s clear from the final product that whatever tinkering and tailoring was done was necessary and worth the wait.

Featuring what I feel is Pixar’s best animation to date, The Good Dinosaur may lack the overall complex creativity of June’s Inside Out (which ingeniously taught children and adults how to own and celebrate their emotions) but it’s not short on memorable characters and moments.  I went in expecting something along the lines of The Land Before Time but got a lovely family feature that’s generous with humor and heart.

Positing an alternate timeline where the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs missed the planet completely, The Good Dinosaur takes place in the present…albeit in a present where dinosaurs never went extinct and humans never became the dominant species.  This isn’t a dark vision of what might have been but a thoughtful pondering a future were these great beasts continued to thrive for millions of years, living off the rich bounty of a land uncorrupted by progress.

Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) are a brontosaurus couple spending their lives farming and plowing the fields.  Opening with the hatching of their three baby dinos, from their first moments we can see what each of their personalities will be like: Buck is the tough one, Libby is the playful one, and Arlo is…well…he still doesn’t quite know where he fits in.  The runt of the litter (arriving in the biggest egg), he’s a bundle of dino nerves that’s scared of everything from a tiny bug that lands on his nose to the raggedy chickens he’s tasked with feeding.

Borrowing a page from the old-fashioned Disney canon, a tragedy occurs for Arlo followed by a separation from his home that sends him on a journey of discovery to find his way back to his family.  Following the river through the gorgeous untouched landscapes of nature, he’s joined by Spot, a human child that acts like a feral dog that Arlo has a score to settle with.  Eventually the two come to need each other as they face the harsh realities of nature and meet a number of wildlife along the way like a cross-eyed Styracosaurus (hilariously voiced by director Peter Sohn), a pack of threatening Pterodactyls, and a family of cowboy T-Rexes (headed by splendid Sam Elliott, I’ll See You In My Dreams) on a cattle drive.

The material is more adult-oriented than previous Pixar films and I appreciated that the film doesn’t make any excuses for the dramatic (and often scary) turns it takes.  Parents should know that it’s PG for a reason, some kids at my screening had a rough go with the beasts and some of the subject matter.  Arlo is constantly threatened with danger whether it be falling off rocks, plunging into water, or fending off a host of creatures that see him and Spot as their next meal.  The supporting players are perhaps the most bizarre creations from Pixar yet, with the Pterodactyls being most troublesome for this critic thanks to their crazed rants and appetite for food of any kind.

Pixar is no stranger to tapping into emotions and there are several passages of The Good Dinosaur where you may find tears welling up behind your 3D glasses.  While the 3D isn’t revelatory, it goes well with the impressive vistas and animals that pass you by.  Though I tried my hardest to hold it in, I cried a few times over the course of the film thanks to some developments that I could relate to on a personal level.  It won’t give you the Sally Field Ugly Cry Face that Inside Out and Up did, but don’t be surprised if the tears come when you aren’t expecting it.  I also laughed a lot, especially at some unexpected frivolity in the form of a trippy tangent brought on by Arlo and Spot eating spoiled fruit.

The feature goes nicely with Sanjay’s Super Team, the father-son centered short that precedes it and while most will give the Best Pixar of 2015 edge to Inside Out, there’s a case to be made for The Good Dinosaur too.  It’s perhaps less original in conception but in execution it showcases the absolute best animation that Pixar has created so far.

Movie Review ~ Sanjay’s Super Team

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bored with his father’s meditation, a young Indian boy daydreams of Hindu gods as superheroes.

Director: Sanjay Patel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 7 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Each passing Pixar film becomes more and more of an event…and so does the animated short that precedes them.  Already this year we had Lava, screened before Inside Out, that warmed up your tear ducts for the feature film and now we have Sanjay’s Super Team arriving before showings of The Good Dinosaur.  Disney’s first animated short that features a Hindu American lead and inspired by the childhood of its director, Sanjay’s Super Team is a pleasant mixture of Pixar imagination and color.  Still, I found myself not engaging in the story of a boy that falls into a daydream mixing his Hindu culture with his love of American superheroes as much as I was supposed to.  For me, it’s one of the more down the middle shorts but there’s no denying it ends on an emotionally honest note.

The Silver Bullet ~ Finding Dory

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Synopsis: The friendly-but-forgetful blue tang fish reunites with her loved ones, and everyone learns a few things about the true meaning of family along the way.

Release Date: June 17. 2016

Thoughts: It’s hard to believe that Disney/PIXAR’s Finding Nemo is 12 years old.  And it’s equally hard to believe that for as successful as that film was, its sequel took so very long to get swimming. Perhaps the wait will be well worth it when Finding Dory is released next summer.  This first look showcases the same rich colors and vibrant animation that made the original such a sight to see…even more so when it was re-released in 3D a few years back.  Plot details are scarce but you can bet that considering the studio and players,  it will be an emotionally resonant underwater adventure.  With the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Diane Keaton (And So It Goes), Ed O’Neill (Entourage), Albert Brooks (A Most Violent Year), Idris Elba (Prometheus), Ty Burrell (The Skeleton Twins), & Dominic West (John Carter).

The Silver Bullet ~ The Good Dinosaur

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Synopsis: After a traumatic event unsettles a lively Apatosaurus named Arlo, he sets out on a remarkable journey, gaining an unlikely companion along the way – a human boy.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: With all eyes on PIXAR’s June offering Inside Out (already garnering rave reviews) it’s easy to forget that the studio has a second film due out in 2015. This nice little teaser for The Good Dinosaur doesn’t give much away in terms of plot and that’s perfectly OK with me because it won’t be long until a longer, more descriptive trailer arrives that shows more dino action. 2015 looks like it could be a good year for dinosaurs between this and June’s Jurassic World and with PIXAR’s history of tugging at that good ‘ole heartstrings I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the big “What If” question that’s posed in the preview. Here’s hoping this is another strong effort from PIXAR, a still aces studio that has seen some strong competition in recent years.

 

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!

The Silver Bullet ~ Inside Out & Lava

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Synopsis: Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters.

Release Date: June 19, 2015

Thoughts:  Disney and Pixar have been razzed a bit at their fondness for sequels as of late, straying from the type of new material-driven ideas that Pixar first came to fame with. That’s all stuff and bother in my book because even though each Pixar film hasn’t been a winner (I’m looking at you Cars…and Cars 2) each has been on the cutting edge of the advances in computer technology. Though I’ll always be a fan of hand-drawn animation, there’s little argument that Pixar has created some bona fide animated classics. With the Oscar winning director and composer of Up (Pete Docter & Michael Giacchino) back and a strong stable of voices on hand I’m eager to see what new emotions are stirred up when the film is released next summer.

 

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BONUS!

Here’s a first look at the new short, Lava, that will appear before Inside Out.

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: The anticipation is certainly building for the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods, with Disney carefully releasing nice bits and pieces in recent days.  After dropping some dreamy looking pictures earlier this week of the star heavy ensemble all fairy-tale-d up, the first preview is finally at hand and it’s a nifty little teaser that pleasantly keeps some of the bigger names in shadows while  predictably avoiding any musical cues hinting that the film is largely sung.  No matter, with Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Chris Pine (People Like Us) leading the cast the stage is set for a lovely transition from stage to screen.

Movie Review ~ Saving Mr. Banks

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Author P. L. Travers reflects on her difficult childhood while meeting with filmmaker Walt Disney during production for the adaptation of her novel, Mary Poppins.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I was probably pre-destined to enjoy Saving Mr. Banks.  As a huge fan of all things Disney (especially the early days) and growing up watching Mary Poppins I was looking forward to seeing how the studio that produced the classic film would handle a tell-all tale surrounding its creation.  Would it be a warts and all expose of the dark side of the House of Mouse or would it be a toothless feature length ad for the BluRay release of Mary Poppins?

While there are no warts to be found in the film and the sappy quotient is kept to a minimum, the overall effect of Saving Mr. Banks is one evoking a certain nostalgia for the golden age of filmmaking and Disney itself.  Who knows exactly how “honest” the script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is but I can tell you that as a viewer I was moved and as a fan I was impressed.

Saving Mr. Banks is really two films in one.  The first follows Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures) as she travels from England to California to attend working sessions during the pre-production stage of the film version of Mary Poppins.  It’s well documented that Travers flinched at the idea of her beloved novels being turned into childish films and when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano) finally got her to agree to a meeting after over a decade of trying to get the rights he found the writer’s demanding requests to go down more like ipecac than a spoonful of sugar.

The second film springs from the mind of Travers as she recalls her childhood in Australia and the interaction she has with a father she idealized (Colin Farrel, Dead Man Down).  An alcoholic, her father was the center of her world and even through his failures he remained on a pedestal for her entire life.  We see how elements of her upbringing inspired the Mary Poppins books and can see why she so kept her novels so fiercely protected from those that would sully the memory of not only her creations but her beloved father.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) weaves together both stories in a nicely seamless way, keeping the movie afloat through some rough waters near the end when the movie starts to lay it on thick.  Overall, I didn’t mind that extra dose of syrup because it brought me back to the salad days of the studio when they had contract players and churned out many live-action classics. 

The film provides an interesting peek into the studio system that existed on the Disney lot in the 50’s and 60’s and the period design from Michael Corenblith is right on the money.  It was nice to see the Disney park recreated in the way guests would have seen it back then and the film historian in me loved seeing early production sketches of Poppins essentials that have stood the test of time.

Performance wise, Hancock has assembled the right cast…many of whom turn in surprisingly effective turns.  That’s never truer than in Thompson’s commanding performance as the chilly Travers.  She’s so cross and mean-spirited at times that it takes an actress of Thompson’s class to keep her this side of biddy without making her cartoonishly mean.  There’s Oscar buzz around Thompson and it’s completely warranted for her steel jawed ice queen that may not ever totally melt but thaws nicely.

Tom Hanks proves a bit more troublesome in his role as Walt Disney. Perhaps it was too much to hope that someone could truly portray Uncle Walt as good as the real deal but still I just never felt like Hanks got the job done.  The actor is so good-natured and easy to like but I had a hard time warming up to his off the mark Missouri-cadence and squinty stare…though he does muster up that same twinkle Mr. Disney had when addressing an audience. 

With each passing film I become more impressed with how Farrell has turned his movie career around.  He’s gone from Next Big Thing to Yesterday’s News and has come back nicely with a string of roles that are unexpected and unexpectedly sincere.  He’s wonderful here as the trouble father of Travers and gets the right emotional oomph out of his final scenes.  There’s nice work from Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, The Lone Ranger) as Travers exhausted mother, Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding) as a late in the game familiar visitor, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom) as the songwriting team of The Sherman Brothers who suffer the most wrath from Travers red pen.  Not usually a fan of Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), I’ll say that his role as Travers’ chauffer has perhaps the most emotional payoff in the film and I enjoyed his performance quite a lot.

Though mysteriously rated PG-13 (for a few scary moments involving some blood), this is one film you can bring the whole family to.  Pair it with Mary Poppins when you get home and you’ll have a practically perfect double feature.