‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ or Turning Kraken Surprisingly Works

One of my more controversial reviews of recent memory is my thoughts on Pixar’s Turning Red which I liked in concept but thought was executed poorly. I particularly really disliked the Mother character in the film but it wasn’t just that. The panda metaphor fell apart on careful analysis and required audience members to fill in too many gaps when it came to how the embrace of the panda worked and what it meant for teens who can’t choose to experience puberty. It just happens whether they like it or not. It was a film surprisingly unhelpful to teens giving them a catchphrase and nothing more.

Now we have from DreamWorks a very similar story but given the execution I wanted from Turning Red: It’s called Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken. Does it have its flaws? Sure but at its core is a carefully told story that teens will actually be able to relate with, a non-messy metaphor and story with humor at every turn.

Ruby is a kraken who tries to assimilate with her high school environment. She wants to fit in and go to prom but it is being held on a boat on the ocean and her mother (Toni Collette) forbids her from going on or near the ocean. Unlike the Mom being unreasonable in Turning Red, this makes sense and is logical. The Mother character is trying to protect her daughter but she’s not hiding anything from her. Ruby can see that but she still wants to do the activities of her peers- also reasonable. What mother/daughter relationship can’t relate to that? She also has a crush on a boy (and isn’t shamed for it like Mei is in Turning Red) she tutors (it’s actually really sweet and I like that the boy isn’t weirded out at all by her being a kraken. What a great diversity message of true natural acceptance), and she deals with a new friend named Chelsea who may have a secret motive that is spoiled in the trailer. Friendship is such a tricky thing at those ages so I appreciated what they did with that relationship and her other friends as well even if the plot turn was predictable.

I do think Ruby Gillman is less successful when it gets bogged down in the goings-on of Ruby’s Grandmamah (Jane Fonda) who rules over the sea. It’s less successful narrative-wise and animation-wise but it’s still narratively consistent and while generic it at least makes sense for the characters (unlike much of recent Pixar where they are all about concepts over narrative.)

The voice cast is all excellent here with Lana Condor providing a bright voice for Ruby, and I loved the claymation aesthetic to the character designs out of the water (again less successful in the water.) Evidently one of the writers Pam Brady also wrote for South Park and you can feel the sharp comic timing (not in grown-up content of South Park but the smart writing), and again I appreciate that the conflict and story all made sense for our characters. Even though Ruby is a kraken we can all relate to feeling out of place, confused, frustrated, without it becoming all of who we are. She is a nuanced, easy to relate with character that boys and girls, teens of any gender (or non-binary) anybody will connect with and understand. We’ve all been there trying to fit in and trying to obey our parents and be true to ourselves all at the same time.

It’s a shame Ruby Gillman is being buried by DreamWorks and Universal because I think they have something special here, and I really enjoyed it. This is well done storytelling with good characters, a charming script, and a story that tackles the challenges of adolescence with just the right touch. The more I’ve thought about it the more I admire it. Give it a chance. Take your family. You just might love it.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Hi friends! I really wanted to post longer reviews on each of these films (I’ve been doing pretty good with that recently!) but I just ran out of time and wanted to get the reviews in. Overall it’s been a pretty uneven summer particularly for blockbusters, but there are some hidden gems worth seeking out.  So here goes:

Flamin’ Hot

Directed by Eva Longoria Flamin’ Hot tells the story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) who invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos spice. Montañez works as a janitor for Frito-Lay but dreams of getting out of the factory and building more for his family and community.

One day he gets the idea for the hot spice and pushes until we have have the product many enjoy today. I know many have said this film plays fast and lose with the truth but my job is to review the movie presented not to become a research consultant on every ‘based on a true story’ I watch.

On the level of a sweet inspirational family story this fills the bill; although, I wish the script had gone through a few more passes. The dialogue is clunky and people talk more in inspirational quips than actual realistic dialogue. Still, all the performances are good and if you are looking for a quick pick-me up it’s serviceable and only 99 minutes. Available on hulu. (It’s too bad it didn’t go to theaters because we would have sold a lot of hot snacks at concessions.)

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Joy Ride

Every once in a while I try to go out of my comfort zone for movies and am rewarded with a hidden gem. The new raunchy comedy (and it is raunchy!) Joy Ride is such a film. It definitely won’t be for everyone but I found it to be hilarious and at its core a sweet story of friendship most will be able to relate with (particularly women and anyone who is adopted.)

Ashley Park shines in the lead as Audrey a business woman who was adopted from China by her parents as a baby. She was basically forced to be friends with the other Chinese girl in her school Lolo (Sherry Cola) and they love each other but also resent the fact they have to be friends. Then you have actress and diva Kat (Stephanie Hsu) and the awkward but wonderful DeadEye (Sabrina Wu.)

I’ve said it many times before but when it comes to comedies all that really matters is if I am laughing and this movie got me going loudly and frequently. I also loved the comradery between the women and how their relationships evolved. If you like a movie like Bridesmaids I bet you’d like this. (I know many of you are probably shocked I liked this, but I can’t tell a lie! It was just that funny!)

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

What’s Love Got to Do With It technically came out last year but I had never heard of it until my recent plane flight to Christmas Con in Kansas. Intrigued by the cast and premise I put it on and was delighted by a thoroughly entertaining little rom-com.

Lily James plays a documentarian who decides to follow her Pakistani neighbor as he pursues an arranged marriage put together by his parents. Sure this is all predictable but I enjoy a sweet rom-com (check out my work on Hallmarkies Podcast) and I appreciate it tried to have some nuanced conversations about marriage, religion, cultural and parental expectations and romance. The cast is also great with James having lovely chemistry with costar Shazad Latif and Emma Thompson grounding the entire production as James’ mother. If you like this genre I bet this one will be a winner!

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

No Hard Feelings

With how much I enjoyed Joy Ride I was hopeful I would be on board for another R rated raunchy comedy with No Hard Feelings. Unfortunately this one didn’t do it for me and feels like a major missed opportunity.

My major problem with the film is I didn’t buy any of the characters choices and the script isn’t funny enough for me to ignore how illogical (and often mean-spirited they are). For example, Jennifer Lawrence (who does give a very brave performance, giving it her all) gets maced by Andrew Barth Feldman when she first tries to come on to him (she is hired by his parents to get him out of his shell.) Then just minutes after thinking she’s attacking him, he asks her out on a date. This makes no sense.

Like I said, this is the problem throughout the script, which would have been fine if I was laughing more but I wasn’t. The screenplay does try to tackle bigger issues of gentrification and modern friendship but I just didn’t buy the characters so none of that worked for me. I do appreciate they never break Feldman’s agency. His consent is always respected by Lawrence but it still feels more icky than funny and I grew tired of the tit-for-tat between the actors that went nowhere. I would definitely see Joy Ride if you are looking for a raunchy comedy this July.

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’ or Paging Dr Jones From Your Meh Movie…

The Summer 2023 movie season started with a lot of surprises. I enjoyed The Little Mermaid way more than I thought I would. Fast X was entertaining with Jason Momoa’s performance. Guardians vol 3 was better than its predecessor. However, since then with the exception of Across the Spider-verse and Joyride I’ve seen nothing but a bunch of meh movies. A few I’ve gone smile-worthy on like The Flash or Transformers: Rise of the Beasts but just barely so. Now unfortunately we have another mixed entry to add to this summer of mehness- it’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. It’s another film that’s not bad. You can go and have a decent time with some of the action and spectacle but much of it feels as tired as its beleaguered lead character.

Dial of Destiny is the first in this series to not be directed by Steven Spielberg. James Mangold takes the helm here and I’m mixed on his work. There are some impressive sequences particularly the opening act on a train. Some will complain about a de-aged Harrison Ford, but I personally thought it looked incredible. I suppose your mileage with the technology will vary. Still especially with the John Williams theme it’s a great sequence.

Then our embattled professor gets involved in the main part of the story when his god-daughter Helena shows up looking for an ancient dial of destiny from Archimedes. Mads Mikkelsen and Boyd Holbrook play serviceable Nazis and antagonist to Dr Jones but Antonio Banderas is completely wasted as his longtime friend.

One problem the film has is it fails to capture a sense of mystery about the dial making most of the action feel more perfunctory than exciting. I particularly was baffled by how much time is spent in car chases and races here. I don’t think of Indiana Jones as a chase heavy franchise (there’s the memorable sequence in Raiders but that feels more one-on-one fighting that happens to be on a vehicle rather than zipping around the city racing each other.)

Even if you like the car chases it can’t be denied that they go on for way too long, and we start to lose our investment as an audience. We are also given a young boy named Teddy (Ethann Isidore) who never really builds much of a bond with Indy (they are separated for a portion) so I’m not really sure why he was needed in the movie except to provide motivation for the plot and to give the villains someone to kidnap.

The previous entry, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Scull, was one of the most disappointing movies of my lifetime with its failed attempt to bring Indy into the 1950s pulp storytelling. This is more successful than that film as far as tone and style but it is less memorable so pick your poison as far as which is worse. Dial of Destiny does get pretty silly, which again your mileage with the choices will vary.  I didn’t hate it but it just felt really long, and I was ready for it to be done as the plot kept piling more contrivances for poor Indy to deal with.

In a way it reminds me of the Jurassic World movies- all the iconography and production values of the original film but none of the memorable stories or characters that made them special. It feels like we are checking off boxes rather than making something truly memorable. Sometimes that can work like with Star Wars: The Force Awakens but that had the hope of new characters and what they could mean. This is like they had an Indiana Jones kit and made something vaguely looking and sounding like what we know and love. In the end, it should have been better even though I’m sure many will be entertained by it.

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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ELEMENTAL or How Pixar Currently Makes Concepts Not Stories (Pixar 48)

I am sure the folks at Pixar could probably care less what a former super-fan  and fledgling film critic thinks of their recent films but on the off chance that someone reading is interested I have something to say. For years what made Pixar special was not only the incredible animation but the tightly crafted emotional stories they told. They took a concept of toys coming to life or monsters being real and crafted a story around this idea with emotion and some of the most memorable characters in the history of film.

Unfortunately in the last 10 years the studio has abandoned their storytelling finesse in favor of artistic visions and overall concepts. While in theory I love the idea of individual artistic visions and cultures being showcased this only makes a lasting impression if the stories and characters around these concepts are memorable and well told. Sadly this has not been the case. I don’t know if they are too scared of disrupting a creator’s vision or don’t want to appear culturally insensitive but clearly the tough cuts and storybuilding process has been abandoned in favor of messy scripts that pitch cultures and values without the narrative to back them up.

For example, last year’s Turning Red had a compelling concept of a girl turning into a panda while experiencing puberty but it was executed with a muddled metaphor that was more about catch-phrases than an effective earned character journey for our protagonist. The same thing goes for Soul where a compelling world of the after-life and a man facing a mid-life crisis is left to flail about as our protagonist baffling becomes a cat for a long section. The recent Lightyear was all concept and a bizarre concept at that, which practically nobody wanted or frankly understood (if you have to make up whole videos explaining the idea behind your franchise film maybe it’s not a great idea to begin with?) Regardless, the story they gave for whatever Buzz that was is weak at best.

Honestly the only recent Pixar film that has a clean well-executed story is Luca. They have the artistic vision of director Enrico Casarosa but it is married with a simple and sweet story of friendship  that largely works.

Now we have their latest film Elemental and is perhaps their greatest example of concept over story. As a result, I left underwhelmed and frankly bored. There are things to enjoy, particularly the stunning animation, but the story is just not compelling nor are the characters.

The concept for this film is a city of elements where earth, water, fire and air all exist as sentient beings that interact with each other. It’s never really explained what makes something a walking creature verses the land used to build the city (in this world are there talking trees and actual trees as separate entities? Are there normal clouds and talking clouds?) None of that matters. We are presented with a fire person named Ember and a water person named Wade and asked the question can they fall in love?

Again this is a concept that could be compelling. Anything can be good with good writing. Unfortunately what we are presented with is long sections where they try to change permits and fiddle with the zoning of Ember’s parents store.

I also didn’t think either Wade or Ember were very well written characters. Ember has a temper but it’s kind of portrayed in a positive way as if she is a passionate person who needs to express her soul. It’s similar to Mei needing to unleash her panda in Turning Red but ambition and enthusiasm is different than anger and rage.

Wade on the other hand seems completely influenced by other people in terms of what he wants and desires out of life. I was never really sure why he is attracted to Ember. She’s not particularly nice to him and we are never given any reasons but a vague notion of he see’s the real her. What?

The immigrant story in Elemental is also a good concept with Ember’s parents being rejected by the city so they start their own store that becomes a landmark in the town. It’s weird because Ember seems perfectly happy to be running her parents store at the beginning of the film, yet she has this random rage dealing with customers, and then in the middle of the movie she decides she hates the idea of running the store and hates her parents for making her do it. No wonder they are confused! I was confused.

This is what I’m saying- the concept is there, the narrative around that concept is muddled and weak. These problems make it harder to connect with the characters and us as viewers filling in the blanks in the story in order for it to make sense and flow smoothly. We shouldn’t have to do such heavy lifting in our films. We shouldn’t leave the theater saying “I see what they were trying to do…”

In the end, despite loving the 2D inspired animation and world-building I left Elemental thinking “why was so much of that about permits and why do the fire people have so many pipes to begin with? Why do they need water in their store at all?” I shouldn’t be thinking such questions but when the narrative isn’t compelling that’s where the mind goes. It’s not just enough to make a romance- you have to give reasons why the characters are attracted to each other and what makes them a compelling couple I’m rooting for. I keep using that word compelling but that’s the element that was missing in Elemental- a compelling story!

Unfortunately with Elemental I was left cold (Element City cold but still cold). A concept without a story does not a memorable film make…

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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‘The Flash’ or Everything DC All At Once is Surprisingly Meh

I know the internet doesn’t like to hear this but sometimes as critics we walk away from a film feeling a certain degree of ambivalence. We aren’t moved one way or another. These mixed reviews are honestly often the hardest to write especially in a world of rottentomatoes where we must pick a side, pro or con, fresh or rotten. This is definitely the situation I am finding myself in with DC Studios’ latest film The Flash. It’s an uneven film that I’m very torn whether to recommend or not. Even as I write this review I’m debating whether the positives outweigh the negatives.

Let’s talk about those positives. First, the biggest plus for the film is the heart that motivates all the action. Ezra Miller plays 2 versions of Barry Allen and with both, the character is motivated by love and kindness. This was much better than the bland one-note motivation in last year’s The Batman movie, which I found underwhelming. I was particularly moved by anything involving Barry’s mother, Nora Allen, played by Maribel Verdú. The final scenes with her made me genuinely tear up (who can’t relate to missing someone so profoundly and wishing you could spend just one more moment with them?)

I also found the use of Michael Keaton’s version of Batman to be well done. I am not a big fan of Batman 89 (I know shocking) but I didn’t grow up with it and watched it for the first time in 2016 before Batman v Superman. I particularly found anything with Vicki Vale to be annoying and Jack Nicholson’s Joker to be quite vanilla for a supposedly legendary villain.

All that said, Keaton is personable and charming as as eccentric, off-his-meds version of Bruce Wayne and they used him a lot more than I thought they would. This isn’t just a glorified cameo but an actual role with an arc and story to his character. His bond with both Barrys is sweet to see and feels earned.

They also do the set-up of the multiverse in a pretty convincing way. Many have compared The Flash to No Way Home, and I suppose that is natural but No Way Home had the advantage of being the 9th Spider-Man movie where The Flash is essentially his origin story (I realize he is in Justice League but only briefly). It’s easier to call back to favorite memories when there are actually movies to call back to. This pays homage to lots of DC films but it feels clunkier when they are all part of such wildly divergent franchise entries. Still, the actual plot machinations to get Barry in the multiverse was well done.

And now on to the negative. The main problem with The Flash is it took so long to be made that it feels derivative of a barrage of similar superhero movies we’ve gotten recently. I realize many of those films like No Way Home, Doctor Strange 2, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Across the Spider-Verse and others are based off the Flashpoint comics this is based off, but it doesn’t feel like this movie version is adding anything new to the conversation. It leaves the viewer with a feeling of ‘that was fine but bland…”

This is particularly true towards the end when the multi-verse world is fully embraced and we get a long video game inspired sequence of ‘remember this…’ from the past. Sure we get a lot of cameos and reminders of favorite characters but unlike Keaton nothing interesting is done with them so it’s like looking through someone else’s old yearbook rather than a compelling story. (Also I thought one of the legacy cameos was in poor taste but I won’t spoil it for readers.)

I know some people don’t want to see the film because of Ezra Miller’s criminal history over the last few years. That’s fair and we aren’t required to see any movies so make your choices but as someone who loved them in The Perks of Being a Wallflower I enjoyed both their performances here and it’s refreshing to have an awkward, physically non-perfect human as a lead in a film like this. I certainly like The Flash much better than either of the Shazam movies and they both strive for similar tones.

Without any spoilers I do find the use of General Zod to be very strangely done in this film. It’s like they want us to feel warm and cozy about the throwback to Man of Steel but also completely change the narrative of that film. I am not a fan of Man of Steel but honestly the way they handle Superman in general in The Flash is very strange and Henry Cavill being missed and Zod being defeated in a very different kind of way is a choice I’m sure Snyder fans will be upset with. It was weird.

It is a little baffling how a movie with over $200 million budget could look as cheap and underwhelming VFX-wise as The Flash. Especially with how much time they had it’s hard to believe they went with some of the fake babies and CGI blur-fests they go with. In that sense, The Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and even the Snyder DC films look much better than this entry.

In the end, the emotion of The Flash wins the day and certainly people who have more nostalgia for the Keaton Batman films will probably enjoy it more than I did. It’s no comic book masterpiece like we recently got with Spider-verse but if you’ve seen that a couple times it’s fine. Barry and his Mom gave me enough emotion to say I’m glad I saw this (maybe final or is Aquaman 2 the last?) entry in the DCEU.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Also can someone make a superhero movie that’s not 30 minutes longer than it needs to be? They are ALL bloated and are testing my patience!

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Blind Spot 90: TOKYO STORY

Last year as part of my Criterion Project I was introduced to the famed Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and his film Late Spring. It was one of my favorite episodes of the podcast as we had Dave Fiore and Elise Moore from the There’s Sometimes a Buggy podcast. They are experts on classic film, Ozu, and actress Setsuko Hara who stars in Late Spring and other Ozu films. I enjoyed our discussion so much that it inspired me to pick another Ozu film for Blind Spot this month: Tokyo Story and it proves to be another winner.

There are some people who will find Tokyo Story to be boring and I can understand that as not much happens plot-wise. However, not all movies are about the plot. Some are about the characters and giving us a chance to walk in the shoes of other humans for a couple of hours. That’s what Ozu does here in Tokyo Story. I defy any viewer to not relate to these characters- even when they are being petty and frustrating (maybe especially when they are so?)

Tokyo Story tells the story of an elderly couple who come to Tokyo to see their grown up children including a daughter-in law Noriko who was married to a son killed in World War II. None of the couple’s children have time for their parents but their busyness is understandable and most of us have been annoyed by family even if we don’t want to admit it. At one point the Father says “losing your children is hard but living with them isn’t easy either.” I don’t have any children myself but isn’t that the case with family? We love them fiercely but also wish we could be alone away from them at the same time. Who can’t relate to such feelings?

The daughter-in-law played by Hara is the kindest and most welcoming to the couple and a lot of that comes from the natural warmth and kindness the actress embodies in all her roles. I also think every family has the person who keeps everyone together and happy (I am not that person…) just like Noriko does for her adopted family.

Ozu and his cinematographer Yūharu Atsuta have crafted a beautiful, intimate film with Tokyo Story that feels like it could have been made today instead of 1953. In fact, if it was remade today I don’t know if anything would be different with this family except there would be more ways to communicate and as a result more ways to forget each other. It’s a very sad story but oddly comforting to know that flawed families exist in every society, in every era, and maybe we can all be more like Noriko and be kinder to our loved ones?

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Current Mini Reviews (Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, The Country Club, Asteroid City)

Hey everyone! I hope you are all doing well. I thought I would give you a quick update on what I’ve been watching lately at the theaters before I head to Kansas for Christmas Con (make sure you are following me on social media to get updates on all the fun.)

So here goes!

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

There are some movies that are just ok blockbusters- nothing more, nothing less and that’s what I would say about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Anthony Ramos is a big step up as far as leads in this series and I loved the relationship between him and his little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez.) Dominique Fishback is under-used as an exposition dump museum curator character (her whole role is to explain stuff to Autobots and dudes.)

Speaking of the Autobots they are enjoyable here particularly Pete Davidson as Mirage and Peter Cullen as the beloved leader Optimus Prime (I think every Transformers movie has to have a scene where Optimus plays a Messianic role and this is no exception.) These movies always take themselves too seriously but at least this film saves us from the racist and sexist jokes of the Bay movies (and it’s mercifully short at 127 minutes.) The ending will probably be divisive (it honestly made me groan) but overall this is a serviceable blockbuster and I’ll take that all day from this normally dismal franchise.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

The Country Club

It’s hard to find a winning comedy these days but fortunately sister-duo Fiona and Sophia Robert have made a pretty fun one with The Country Club. It might not be the next Caddyshack but it is inspired by the broad comedies of the 80s and I had a lot of fun with it.

The film tells the story of a young female golfer who is working at a posh country club and gets invited by mistake to participate in a big golf tournament. As she and her sister keep telling lies the screwball antics grow bigger and broader and they are helped by comedic veterans like Elaine Hendrix and Steve Higgins.

If you are ready for some silly shenanigans than The Country Club will fill the bill. It will be available June 23rd on VOD so turn it on for a hole in one of comedy.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Asteroid City

I know a lot of people are huge Wes Anderson hive members but I’d consider myself more of a casual fan. He’s more hit and miss for me but when he hits I find his films to be charming and enjoyable in all their quirkiness. Unfortunately I can’t put his latest, Asteroid City, on that level. While it looks absoloutely amazing with an incredible attention to period detail the story felt completely random and all-over-the-place with nothing to bring the various scenes together in a satisfying way.

The cast is of course unbelievable with the likes of Tom Hanks and Steve Carrell joining Anderson’s usual players like Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright and more. They all do a good job with what they are given but again every scene felt random like they were making it up each day when they got to set. The structure of it being a play also made no sense and actually added to the randomness instead of providing a coherent story.

Honestly if I wasn’t a critic I probably would have left because it the longer it went on the more annoyed the randomness became. I believe instead I’ll just watch Moonrise Kingdom– a movie with an actual plot and charming characters- over whatever this is.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

If you get to see any of these films let me know what you think!

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