[REVIEW] ‘Turning Red’: Pixar’s Puberty Metaphor Turns Sour (Maybe Mild Spoilers)

Going into 2022 one of my most anticipated movies of the year was the latest Pixar film Turning Red. In fact, when it was first announced at the Disney investor presentation I made the promotional image of Mei Lee and her panda my wallpaper on my phone because I thought it looked so charming.

Unfortunately now I have seen Turning Red I must own to being very disappointed by the film and in fact it is the first Pixar film I’ve outright disliked (yes even Cars 2 has a bonkers sensibility I mildly enjoy). I even watched it a second time just to make sure of my response and yep this one isn’t for me.

Let’s talk about the positives. First, I like the idea of a family film trying to tackle puberty and anxiety in an honest and straight-forward way. How they succeeded at that is another question but I am sure there will be a lot of people who will connect with Mei Lee and her family’s journey. I also love the representation and seeing not only a Chinese-Canadian family but also Mei’s diverse friend group.

Also the animation is outstanding as is usually the case with Pixar. I know its received lots of chatter online, but I enjoyed the anime feel especially with the eyes and transformation of the characters from human to animal. The fur on panda Mei is so lush and cuddly that I’m sure it will be the source of many plush Disney toys to come.

Part of my problem with Turning Red I must own to my aversion for whiney teen coming of age movies to begin with. Movies that others love like The Edge of Seventeen I find insufferable and annoying. If you love those kind of stories you’ll probably enjoy Turning Red more than I did.

But my personal taste aside, while bold, the whole metaphor Turning Red uses didn’t really work. The idea is Mei Lee comes from a family where upon her first period the girls turn into a red panda when they are upset. While the concept of a period making someone ‘turn red’ is a bit on the nose it could have been effective but the story has problems.

First of all, the mother, Ming, is unhinged and unreasonable. For example, in one scene she lambasts a convenience store clerk Mei has a crush on because Mei has drawings of him in her sketchbook. Not only would this be incredibly embarrassing it doesn’t make sense. Why should he be responsible for her drawings/crush and is her liking someone a character flaw? How could she possibly feel this is a correct response to a basic life experience? Also if you knew this was going to happen wouldn’t you try to prepare your daughter a little bit?

Mei is also a lot of personality and what some will find endearing I often found grating.

Such strange behavior made me annoyed with the characters and then the fighting between Mom and daughter got old real fast. But beyond that the metaphor doesn’t really work. So she turns into a panda when she starts her period but there’s a whole ritual that makes the panda go away? I realize this is a magical realism story but just inventing rituals for cultures and religion (Mei’s family owns and operates a temple) is a strange choice and then the plot of her becoming a party attraction for a bully’s birthday mixed in with the family drama fell flat.

The thing is none of the inspirations for the panda are within Mei’s control. She gets her period- can’t control. She deals with anxiety and emotions- can’t control. She goes through puberty- can’t control. Teens will relate to this but unfortunately they don’t have a ritual that will stop all of these tough things. Mei decides to embrace the panda but all of us normal people don’t get that choice. It’s happening whether we like it or not. Evidently Mei’s mother has been suppressing her panda for years but then why was the ritual necessary? The ritual allows her to bring it back when she wants to? But then again how does that connect with actual teen struggles who can’t make their ‘pandas’ come and go when they want?

It seems like most critics didn’t mind this murky metaphor but it bothered me and kept me from fully embracing the film. I also didn’t connect with the humor of Turning Red or the focus on 2002 boy band called 4*TOWN. It’s a shame they set the movie in 2002 because an Asian KPOP type band like BTS would have been a fun way to bring in the culture rather than just generic boy band.

At the end of the day, I admire what director Domee Shi was going for with Turning Red but the script lets down that ambitious premise making for more of a mess than a masterpiece.  I hope you all enjoy it more than I did but this puberty metaphor gets a pass from me.

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

PS- Turning Red should still have been played in theaters!

TIFF Day 5 Log: Jagged, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Hi friends! I hope you are all doing well. For Day 5 of TIFF I only saw 2 movies at the festival because I spent most of my day at a critics double screening of Blue Bayou and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Reviews of both of those films are to come, but the 2 films I did see at TIFF were very enjoyable and particularly in terms of documentaries the selections have been outstanding this year.

So here are my thoughts on today’s movies:

Jagged

If you were in high school in 1995 like I was there was no escaping the album Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, It was everywhere and rightfully so as it is a well written, raw, honest album with tons of great songs. The documentary Jagged explores the making of that album and Morissette’s career.

I must own I had no idea she was a child singer and had her first album at 11. Then at 14-16 she was a pop singer similar to Tiffany or Debbie Gibson. When MCA dropped her she retooled and at 19 put out Jagged Little Pill. There are some upsetting revelations in the documentary about Morissette time as a teen star including allegations of abuse that may be triggering for some viewers.

What I liked most about Jagged is its narrow scope. It went through each notable song on the album and explained what it meant to Morissette and the influence it had on fans and the music scene of that time. It’s definitely a talking heads piece but everyone had something interesting to say and Morissette makes a terrific interviewee in her segment. She’s likeable and funny, which makes you more invested in her story.

Jagged doesn’t break the bio-doc music mold but as a fan of the album and her music I had a great time watching it.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Addendum- Alanis has come out saying this isn’t the story she wanted to tell. I find this confusing as it was predominantly her words so I’m not sure what story she wanted told instead? Either way it puts a shade on the documentary and I suppose it should all be taken with a grain of salt. It all seemed quite worshipful in tone to me so this is all very perplexing and surprising

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Cats often have a rough time in the movies. For every millionth positive dog movies there is 1 cat movie. Usually they are the villains in most stories (think Babe or Fievel Goes West). Well, now cat lovers rejoice because you have your movie! The Electrical Life of Louis Wain tells the story of the patron saint of cats, artist Louis Wain.

If you didn’t know Louis Wain was a painter who came from a high brow family and became famous with his whimsical paintings of cats. Before his influence cats weren’t domesticated like they are now. You could say his paintings were the catalyst for people keeping cats as pets, which is kind of amazing (I had no idea).

Benedict Cumberbatch is strong, as he always is, playing Louis throughout the highs and lows of his life. The film tackles a lot including art, commerce, mental health, marriage and more and for the most part it does it all well. I also really liked Claire Foy as Louis’ wife and Andrea Riseborough as his feisty sister Caroline. The production values are also impressive showing they did a lot on a small budget.

My only complaint is I don’t think the movie needed to cover all of Wain’s life. It drags at times and certain time periods could have been skipped.

Other than that I think The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a charming film about an eclectic and unusual man who happened to love cats!

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

[REVIEW] ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ or That’s How You Tell an Origin Story!

After the successful conclusion of the Marvel Infinity Saga a lot of skeptics wondered if the best days of the MCU were behind the studio. Indeed with the weak entry of Spider-man: Far From Home it was easy to start asking those questions. Fortunately Marvel has not only produced some incredible television with Wandavision and Loki in 2021 but their latest origin story movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of their best yet!

Shang-Chi stars Simu Liu of Kim’s Convenience fame (a show I adored) as a young man who has a secret identity as a martial arts fighter having been trained by his father from an early age. As the movie starts he is working as a parking attendant with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) when he gets a message from his father and goes to warn his sister (Meng’er Zhang) of impending peril.

There are a number of reasons this movie works so well but the biggest is its focus on a family and their complicated relationships with each other. Tony Leung is absolutely fantastic as Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father and leader of the Ten Rings clan. He is handsome and charismatic, not to mention great with the action scenes (of course).

I also loved the dynamic between Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing. It’s a relationship with some pain as all the relationships are in this movie. Awkwafina is fantastic as Katy and her and Shang-Chi have one of the sweetest, most understated relationships in the MCU. The villain is also one of the best in the series.

As expected, the action throughout the film is outstanding. Marvel hired Andy Cheng, the fight choreographer behind many Jackie Chan films like Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour and it shows! It’s a cliche to say but it really is a pulse-pounding great time at the movies. Not only is it exciting action but it is shot with a flair that allows you to appreciate what is happening to the characters.

Simu Liu is charming as Shang-Chi and the whole cast has great chemistry together. The script reminded me of a cross between an Iron Man and Thor film. There is fantasy and mythical lore that you’d see in Thor and the cheeky, likable performance we see in Iron Man. It’s the kind of movie I walk away thinking ‘who won’t have fun at that movie?’. Of course some will but the vast majority will have a great time.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has it all. It’s got great characters with meaningful relationships. It has a cracking script loaded with witty banter, well-choreographed action and a cast with wonderful charisma and personality. It’s one of the best origin stories in the MCU in many years and I look forward to seeing the characters in future entries.

I even liked the winks at Iron Man 3, which is an MCU film I don’t care for.. It also has a terrific mid-credits scene so make sure to stay around.

8.5 out of 10

Smile worthy

[REVIEW] ‘The Little Things’ or Average Isn’t Good Enough for 3 Oscar Winners

Hey everyone! I have a quick review for you today of the new film from Warner Bros entitled The Little Things. This is a new police crime thriller directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto. With such an all-star cast you’d think The Little Things would be a slam dunk but it ends up being thoroughly average and bland.

Washington plays Duke a small town sheriff who returns to the big city to get some evidence for his boss only to be brought back into a serial killer investigation by Malek’s young officer Jimmy Baxter. Duke is known as a legendary detective but something in his past made him give up on the career. I wonder if this new case will unearth some of his daemons from the past? No spoilers but it might just happen.

Jared Leto plays the serial killer of the film and he’s a  little over-the-top but for the most part he’s fine. Malek does a good job with what he is given but his character doesn’t always make sense. Especially towards the end I was puzzled by his character’s choices.

Again, with no spoilers, the ending, is difficult to predict  so some people will like that but it didn’t all come together or feel believable. In fairness, this type of police procedural is not my favorite to begin with but it didn’t win me over. Even Denzel’s performance, while decent, feels a little phoned in compared to what we know he can do in films like Hurricane, Glory or Malcolm X

However, the biggest problem with The Lille Things is its pacing at 127 minutes the story really drags and I struggled to stay engaged. I actually think edited for TV it might work better and be a little snappier. That’s the only way I’d recommend it is as a filler movie on a Saturday night on TBS. It’s fine for that but nothing to go to the theater in covid to see or to watch on HBO Max right away.

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy

 

[REVIEW] ‘SPARK: A BURNING MAN STORY’

It’s interesting in 2020 I find myself feeling nostalgic for things I didn’t even participate in. For example, when professional hockey and tennis came back I felt it a triumph of the human spirit, despite my nearly never watching a game of either sport. It’s the same way with events I didn’t attend or performances I didn’t care about. Most of them are still canceled but when they do come back I will shed a tear that people are gathering again no matter the reason.

This is basically how I feel about the Burning Man Festival, which I have no interest in attending but watching the documentary Spark: A Burning Man which was made in 2012 made me hopeful for the day when those who enjoy it will be able to do it again in safety. I hope we do not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear forever when safe solutions and adaptations are implemented. It’s a scary time to be a human. That’s for sure.

Anyway, I was asked to review the documentary Spark: A Burning Man and it is a very interesting film. On the surface it’s a by-the-numbers documentary about the effort which goes into putting on the massive Burning Man Festival each year in Nevada. Every year a city is constructed in the Black Rock Desert out of nothing and a blissful existence of commerce free life lasts for 2 artistic fueled weeks.

However, when you dig beneath the effigies and hippies there are 50 full time employees and thousands of hours of labor which go into making the seemingly anarchistic even happen in the wilderness. It was this duality of themes which fascinated me in Spark: A Burning Man. They literally have an art installation called ‘Burn Wall Street’ with a building ‘Goldman Sucks’ that takes months to build and lots of time in board rooms to coordinate and plan. If that’s not irony I don’t know what is!

It’s also very ironic that the Burning Man Festival is an activity for the rich and well off who want to pretend to be artists for a few weeks. One article I read said a basic estimate for a 4 day trip to the festival will cost $2218 with it going as high as $20,000. The film Spark: A Burning Man dives into this irony particularly talking about the groups attempt to institute a ticket lottery and the resulting backlash but they could have dived even more. Do these Silicon Valley glamping camps fit into Burning Man’s guiding principals?

Either way, if you like seeing how things come together, and seeing some escapism from a simpler time I recommend Spark: A Burning Man. It could dive in deeper into the irony of the situation, but I still found it interesting, and am glad I took the time to watch it.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

[REVIEW] ‘High on Heels’ or Is Beauty Pain?

Due to the effects of COVID 19 and quarantine lockdowns most of us have let fashion fall to the wayside. Or at the very least fashion below the waist go. As long as we look good for the zoom or skype chat that is all that matters! This means most women have stopped wearing high heeled shoes that can make a bold fashion statement but also cause loads of pain. A new documentary short (44 minutes) entitled High on Heels looks at high heeled shoe phenomenon and asks: are they good for women or not? The answer might be more complicated than you think.

On one side you have women who love wearing heels. They feel the posture and shape the heel gives them boosts their self-image and makes them feel more confident. In the documentary we go through the history of heels and why additional height came to be seen as empowering and beautiful.

 

On the other hand you have doctors who see the impact of the shoes on women and the pain they can cause. My problem is I have a high arch so I can’t walk well in heels. They just don’t fit my feet well. Heels can cause all kinds of problems like plantar fasciiitis, bunions, blisters and more. Ask any  woman and they will tell you the pain-stories of her feet.

High on Heels has a small budget and it does show from time to time but I still thought it was very informative and entertaining. If you like consumer reports style documentaries you will enjoy this one.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

[REVIEW] ‘Over the Moon’: in a Word Enchanting!

So I don’t know if you knew, but I love animated films. LOL. Obviously not all animated films but I love the medium and all it can offer the filmgoer. I love being swept away by the artistry and characters and it is even better when it is also a musical! So, I was primed to love the new animated musical Over the Moon, and fortunately it did not disappoint. What a beautiful hope-filled animated musical. I loved it and can’t wait to watch it again!

Over the Moon is the first feature film from famed animator Glen Keane who created such memorable characters like Ariel, Aladdin, and Beast. Here he is taking us to China with the help of China’s Pearl Studio (who did last year’s Abominable with DreamWorks, which I also really enjoyed). It is a retelling of the classic Chinese myth of the mysterious moon goddess Chang’e.

Chang’e is voiced by Phillipa Soo of Hamilton fame and our young heroine Fei Fei goes after her on a quest to find her Mother who has passed away. Voiced by Cathy Ang, Fei Fei sings about her desire to find answers for her grief:

The music is written by Steven Price, and while I could have used even more songs, what we get is enchanting. I loved Fei Fei as a character and ‘Rocket to the Moon’ is probably the best ‘I want’ song we’ve gotten from a studio since ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen.

I also really enjoyed the sense of family in Over the Moon. Fei Fei’s mother makes mooncakes, which are then sold at the market. When the family has meals together it feels warm and authentic, all sitting together talking. Eventually Fei Fei must learn to get along with a new energetic step-brother Chin (Robert G Chiu) and that is sweet and challenging. A lot of kids will be able to relate to these family dynamics as they felt real and authentic.

When Fei Fei gets to the moon things get a little convoluted, but I still found it charming. I really liked the characters and the heart. It’s the kind of film the entire family can watch together and enjoy. Plus, the animation is completely stunning. What a treat to watch! We even get some 2D animation in sequences!!

I still think Tomm Moore’s Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of the year but Over the Moon is a complete delight. If you are an animation fan and/or a musical fan you will love it!

What do you think of Over the Moon? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section

8.5 out of 10

[REVIEW] ‘Tenet’: Complex or Convoluted Piece from Nolan? (Spoiler Free)

2020 has been such a strange year it’s probably in fitting that 2 of the strangest blockbusters of recent memory end up opening theaters back up with The New Mutants and Tenet. The New Mutants feels strange because it was delayed so long that its entire franchise feels dated and Tenet because it is from the auteur-meets-mainstream filmmaker that is Christopher Nolan. Going into the weekend I was sure I’d prefer Nolan’s film over The New Mutants but having seen them both I don’t know if that is the case? Their flaws are different, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching the simple superhero origin movie over the convoluted enterprise that was Tenet.

tenet2

Without giving any spoilers away Tenet stars John David Washington as the Protagonist (literally that’s his name). He is a CIA agent who becomes involved in a secret organization that is studying inverted energy- or moving backward through time. As part of their investigations they become involved with Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who for a number of reasons is trying to star World War III and destroy the entire world with his technology. He is also manipulating his ex-wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) in a complicated case of blackmail involving their son and art.

Robert Pattinson’s Neil is the best character in the film because his job is to inform the Protagonist of what is going on through long exposition dumps. We like him because he is the only one helping us get some kind of baring into the story. Everything and everyone else is muddled and messy.

The truth is at 150 minutes of this sustained confusion I struggled to stay invested and found myself nodding off more than I should have, especially for how much action is in the film. It goes to show all the splashy action in the world does not get you anywhere, for this critic at least, if the characters aren’t engaging and the story isn’t interesting. And I didn’t go into the movie tired or weary. I was ready to be entertained but I mostly wasn’t.

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Some will probably compare Tenet to Nolan’s Inception but to me there is no comparison. I was so much more invested in the characters in the former compared to the latter. I really cared about Inception’s Cobb and have always felt that his relationship with his wife Mal was the emotional core of the movie. Also Inception set up the clues for its puzzle well, piece by piece, so it earned the ambiguous ending. Part of the fun of Inception was walking out debating with my friends what the spinning top means for the characters?

Tenet, on the other hand, doesn’t develop characters we care about. Branagh’s villain, in particular, falls flat in a very one-note performance. Likewise, the clues aren’t laid out in an enticing or interesting way. It ends up feeling like 2.5 hours of characters we don’t care about experiencing cool looking stuff. This can only entertain you for so long. It’s also hard to get invested in characters and story clues when Nolan chooses to have the sound design almost incomprehensible for most of the dialogue. A friend of mine has a hearing aid and got to watch the film with closed-captions, and I’m honestly jealous. I don’t think I’m being ungenerous when saying 2/3rds of Tenet is unintelligible, to my ears at least.

tenet-runtime

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does tremendous work here and the visual effects should all be praised. Hans Zimmer couldn’t do this film because of his work on the upcoming Dune (we got a trailer to a trailer for that film and even though I hate the book what I saw is intriguing) but Ludwig Göransson does a good imitation. Unfortunately the sound mixing is so off and the music so loud the score becomes distracting to the overall narrative.

I’m not going to tell you to avoid Tenet. Maybe it’s too smart for me and you’ll get what Nolan is trying to do? Maybe I will watch it 2 or 3 more times and eventually it will all make sense? It’s possible but I doubt it. Go see it and make up your mind for yourself (as would be my advice for all films). I appreciate that Nolan is pushing mainstream audiences and is not satisfied with the ordinary movie-going experience. Unfortunately sometimes he forgets that the basics of good cinema are important too- characters, story, intelligible dialogue, emotion etc. We need it all for the pretty images to mean something and make an impact. Sorry Nolan! Try again!

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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[REVIEW] ‘The New Mutants’: Satisfying Teenage Angst 3 Years in the Making

Very few films have the rocky journey to the box office that this week’s new film The New Mutants had. Originally slated for a 2018 release it was delayed for reshoots and then got washed up in all the problems with the Disney acquisition of Fox in 2019 with it getting 2 more delays in 2020 because of COVID19. Now we finally have it and is it worth the wait? I might be in the minority on this one but I think so. It’s not perfect but I enjoyed this little teenage superhero origin story film.

I should start out by saying I am completely unfamiliar with this run of comicbooks and I did not use the 3 years to read up on them. Sorry! If you are a fan please let me know how they did in an adaptation in the comments section. I would love to find out. I also should warn horror fans who are hoping for a scary take on superhero storytelling they are likely to be disappointed. There is one character I found scary but the rest wasn’t scary in the slightest- so let go of that expectation and you’ll enjoy the movie more.

There are also messy parts of The New Mutants. It starts very small and can’t quite bear the weight of its ending. In addition, some of the cinematography and visual effects felt more of the CW variety than a major superhero property. Nevertheless, I still had a good time watching this film!

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The best way I can think to describe The New Mutants is a combination of X:Men Dark Phoenix and the movie GLASS. The beginning is more like the latter and the ending is more like the former. To begin the film our group of mutants are held in a psychiatric hospital (similar to the one in GLASS) and are told they are there to learn to control their powers. This is led by Dr Cecilla Reyes (Alice Braga in a very one-note performance). Dr Reyes is particularly trying to get to the bottom of a the skills of a new patient named Dani played by Blu Hunt. She is surrounded by other mutant teens played by Charlie Heaton, Henry Zaga, Anya Taylor-Joy and Maisie Williams.

The beginning therapy sessions asks a lot of the actors but they all worked for me and the ending while messy was better than a bunch of other X-Men movies like X-Men Apocalypse (which I hated) and X-Men Dark Phoenix. I was way more invested in the survival and growth of these characters than anybody in either of those films and it’s certainly leaps better than something like X-Men Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

the-director-of-marvels-new-mutants-says-the-original-cut-of-the-film-is-the-one-being-released-social

In a world of bloated superhero movies The New Mutants is also a blessed 94 minutes. This is just long enough to keep me engaged with the characters and have a lot of fun with the small-scale action towards the end. I won’t spoil it but I particularly liked the relationship we get between 2 of our teen characters. They had chemistry and I wanted them to be free from this hospital/prison so they could be together.

I have a feeling The New Mutants is going to be slaughtered by my fellow critics and it does have its flaws. For me I liked the coming of age approach to a superhero origin story. I liked The Breakfast Club for mutants feel to the screenplay. The likable young cast (not so young any more! LOL) worked well together and it clipped along nicely. I don’t know if you need to watch it in a theater but when it comes to streaming I’d recommend seeing it. If you do let me know what you think.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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