We Bare Bears: The Movie


★★★1/2

Full length movies based on animated TV series are usually somewhat of a letdown. Often, they feel like just long episodes of the TV show and don’t warrant a trip to the movie theater unless you’re dying to get your kids out of the house.

TV series like “Rugrats,” “Hey Arnold,” “Doug,” “Teen Titans,” “Spongebob Squarepants,” “My Little Pony,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “The Simpsons” and more have all debuted in movies theaters and none of them were particularly special. “South Park” might be one of the few to actually break new ground with a feature length debut.

“We Bare Bears” has had a nice four-season run on Cartoon Network, telling the endearing and zany tales of three bear roommates in the San Francisco Bay area: a panda, a grizzly bear and a polar bear. It’s filled with jokes that children wouldn’t get about food trucks, hipster culture, viral videos and obscure movie references. It’s built up a cult following among adults who enjoy cartoons but it’s never inappropriate for young children. There’s nothing vulgar or obscene hinted at in this sweet natured TV series that actually shows up under kids’ choices in the Netflix categories.

Creator Daniel Chong has directed a 70-minute feature to serve as the series finale of the beloved show, which was released as a rental option during the pandemic and is now free to stream on HBO Max. The plan is to launch is spinoff series about the three bears as young children, which we’ve seen in the series before during flashback episodes.

The feature-length movie doesn’t fall under “must watch” territory and owning a DVD/Blu-Ray copy would only be needed for huge fans of the show, but given that there are so many terrible kids movies that bore parents to tears while entertaining only the littlest children, this is a welcome respite from the “Trolls: World Tour”s of the world.

While you don’t have to have seen the series to enjoy this movie, there a few minor references to recurring characters from the show, such as Nom Nom, the arrogant koala who is Internet famous and voiced by Patton Oswalt, and Charlie, the Bigfoot-like creature voiced by Jason Lee.

The plot of this movie is pretty simple. The entire town has grown weary of the three bears’ antics and an overzealous wildlife officer (voiced by Mark Evan Jackson, who you might know as Shawn from “The Good Place” or Kevin on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) decides to lock them up in a bear sanctuary. The three escape and go on a high speed road trip as they try to find refuge in Canada. Hijinks ensue along the way, including a hilarious detour as the stumble upon a viral video animal rave, featuring such luminaries as pizza rat, Doge the Shiba Inu, Grumpy Cat and Lil’ Bub.

The three bears are voiced by comedians Eric Edelstein, Bobby Moynihan and Demetri Martin. For those that haven’t seen the show, you’ll enjoy the distinct personalities of each one and likely will want to watch the series after checking out this movie.

I have to knock a few points off because a few jokes don’t land, such as the road trip song they sing. And yes there are episodes that a lot funnier than this movie.

But the movie really distills the themes of the TV series. It’s about friendship and acceptance and being there for people.

I probably laughed more at this silly cartoon than many comedies aimed at adults. If you already subscribe to HBO Max, it’s worth a watch.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar


★★★★

Good comedy isn’t meant for everyone.

It’s nearly impossible to create an incredibly funny movie or TV show that is universally loved by everyone. That’s because if you focus-test something to death and make it easily accessible with jokes that everyone can get, you lose a lot of the humor.

That’s been the issue with “Saturday Night Live” sometimes. They focus so much on characters with catch phrases and easy-to-predict punchlines that there’s no daring or risk. It often just boils down to a funny voice.

I’ve always been more of a fan of edgier sketch comedy like “Mr. Show,” “Kids in the Hall,” “Human Giant” and “Upright Citizens Brigade.” When I do like “Saturday Night Live,” my favorites are the sketches that air right before 1 a.m. The throwaway, weird, bizarre stuff that makes you say, “What the heck was that?!”

Kristen Wiig became a household name on “Saturday Night Live” doing funny voices and repeating characters again and again.

In 2011, Wiig, along with comedian Annie Mumolo, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Bridesmaids.” Now she reteams with her co-writer (who also stars alongside her this time) in the female-friendship comedy “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”

The trailers for this movie told us virtually nothing except that it was a comedy about two middle-aged women with strong Midwestern accents who go on a trip to Florida. They’re adorned with seashell necklaces. They wear culottes and have hairdos that make you think their names might be “Karen.”

At first, you might think these are the same broad, irritating characters that “Saturday Night Live” would repeat to death. Like Target Lady or Coffee Talk.

But what we discover is the screenwriting duo has veered into more adventurous territory and this movie’s DNA is more aligned with the last 30 minutes of an episode of SNL rather than the first few sketches. It’s a strange and silly movie with bizarre moments that make it destined to find cult comedy status in the near future. It’s the kind of movie you watch by yourself on cable late one night after a few drinks and you laugh your butt off alone. You run out and buy a copy to show a sibling or a friend, only to see them sit there in silence wondering why you found this so funny.

This is the definition of niche comedy. It is not for everyone.

Personally, I immensely enjoyed this scatterbrained romp because it surprised me at times. Maybe I had low expectations, but when a talking blue crab has the voice of Morgan Freeman, I can’t help but laugh.

The movie tells the story of two unmarried middle aged friends, Star (Wiig) and Barb (Mumolo, who you might remember as the dim-witted housewife in “Bad Moms”),  who spend every waking moment together. When they lose their job at Jennifer Convertibles, they decide to shake up their routine and try to rediscover that “shimmer” that’s been lost since they’ve aged and lost their husbands. So they go on a trip to this fictional resort town to drink cocktails with tiny umbrellas, ride on a banana boat and get matching friendship bracelets.

Their plans are upended by a spy subplot that is so ridiculous that it makes “Zoolander” look ultra realistic. Wiig doubles up her acting credit by also playing the albino-skinned cartoonish super villain who orders her man-slave, played by Jamie Dornan, of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” to implement her ridiculously silly terrorist attack on the quiet beachside town.

What you end up with is an uneven comedy with lots of jokes that don’t land particularly well. But given the rapid fire succession of gags, there are quite a few chuckles though. I’m sure movie producers would have loved this screenwriting duo to create another massive hit like “Bridesmaids” but what they’ve churned out instead is more like “MacGruber,” “Hot Rod,” “Pop Star” or “Wet Hot American Summer.” Even if COVID didn’t exist, this one would likely be discovered more on rental than in the theaters.

Some characters are unnecessary, such as Damon Wayans Jr.  playing a not-so-secret agent or Andy Garcia as the literal embodiment of Tommy Bahama. Some jokes are so stupid your eyes will roll, such as riffing on how great the name Trish is. And the runtime is probably too long at nearly two hours.

Despite all of its flaws, it’s hard to not like a movie that’s so insanely positive. These two might have “Karen” haircuts, but they never ask for an manager. They’re loving and supportive and enthusiastic. This PG-13 comedy never relies on gross out humor, political jabs or racist stereotypes for shock factor. Besides a few subtle sex jokes, it’s pretty wholesome.

It’s the kind of “girls night” movie that would be perfect for a Galentine’s Day celebration. Like a middle-aged, less fashionable version of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”

Judas and the Black Messiah


★★★★

The story of the Black Panther Party is a perfect example of how our high school history books don’t always tell the whole story.

Vilified by white audiences and portrayed as militant, radical and violent — especially compared to the more peaceful civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. — the Black Panther Party doesn’t always come off great in historical accounts.

Shaka King’s new feature film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (available in theaters and on HBO MAX on Feb. 12) attempts to show the other side of the Black Panther Party that wasn’t known to many people, especially white audiences. They show the political leaders uniting hispanics and poor whites to create a “rainbow coalition.” They show free lunches and educational seminars.

And yes, the movie portrays the Black Panthers taking it too far and committing violence against the police.

The honest “warts and all” depiction is led with masterful sincerity by former Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya playing Fred Hampton (recently portrayed by a different actor in “Trial of the Chicago 7.”

Kaluuya shines with oratorical brava but it’s really an ensemble film that touches on a variety of perspectives. Underrated actor Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a thief turned FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers. Jesse Plemons (also underrated) melts into his character as Agent Mitchell, a conflicted soul who’s somewhat prejudice but not full of the hate spewing from his boss J. Edger Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, who unfortunately has too much makeup and prosthetics on).

One scene in particular between Plemons and Sheen is quite powerful, exemplifying how the government wasn’t content with just locking up Hampton in jail to silence them, they were going to turn him into a martyr with actions that can’t really described any other way rather than assassination.

Given all we know about Hoover, it’s shocking that we still have government buildings named after him.

The only downside to this film is it often feels like a collections of sketches rather than a cohesive narrative flowing from one scene into another. But when you have powerhouse acting from three of the most underrated young talents in Hollywood, any minor quibbles can be overlooked.

Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director who serves as a producer on this movie, said “Judas and the Black Messiah” can be greater appreciated when you consider the context of today’s events.

“The people that were responsible for this, a lot of them are still alive,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “These ideas are still ever-present, these systems that Chairman was fighting for to be demolished — the constant attacks on poor people, on black people — those systems are still here. We’re still fighting the same beast, we’re still fighting the same monsters, we are still fighting the same system, you know, and they haven’t gone anywhere.”

Which brings up the question: who is the monster here? Who is the villain of the movie?

Is it the undercover rat betraying the Panthers? Is it the FBI agent? Or is it the system itself that seems to perpetuate?

This intense drama brings up a lot of bigger themes about racism and government overreach but what I was most fascinated with is the relationship and conflict between these imperfect souls doing what they think is best. Nobody is 100 percent evil or 100 percent good in this tale and that makes it interesting and real. Despite the title referring to religious overtones, this movie isn’t an allegory. It’s more complicated than dealing with broad archetypes.

It’s a story about the late 1960s but it’s also a story about today. About struggle, both societal and internal. I suspect only those with truly closed minds will fail to get at least something from Shaka King’s electrifyingly suspenseful drama.

The Last Blockbuster

★★1/2

If you’re older than 25, you probably have fond memories of visiting your local video rental store on a Friday night. Spending 45 minutes browsing the aisles to find the perfect movie to rent and then picking up a pizza to head home. Maybe it was a first date in high school. Maybe it was a father and his kids bonding while mom had to work late. Maybe you just got dumped and you were going to drown your sorrows in romantic comedies.

Going to a video store was a fond memory for many, many people.

And for most people, it was often a Blockbuster Video.

That’s because Blockbuster — once purchased for $9.5 billion by Viacom — was everywhere. It ran mom and pop video stores out of business by negotiating deals directly with movie studios that made it unable for the little guy to compete. It was said at one point that a new Blockbuster location opened every 17 hours.

And something that huge and everywhere is no more. The company went bankrupt when it was unable to compete with streaming companies (more on that in a minute) and stores closed nationwide.

But there’s still one location — just one — left in the United States in Bend, Oregon. You might have read about them in The New York Times or saw a profile on CNN or Fox News. It’s the kind of quirky news that media love to report on.

The new documentary “The Last Blockbuster” (ironically available by streaming) gives an up close look at the rise and fall of the video company, complete with talking head celebrities who once worked at Blockbuster locations themselves (like comedians Doug Benson and Ron Funches and actors Adam Brody and Jamie Kennedy). But the real heart of the documentary is the focus on the manager of the last location, a woman named Sandi Harding who isn’t a massive film buff but instead is a hard working, customer-service-oriented “mom” who won’t give up even when the writing is on the wall. She’s kind of an inspiration, in many ways.

Director Taylor Morden and writer Zeke Kamm do a great job of putting the human emotion into this story, following Sandi as she purchases DVDs at Target when a customer requests something, stocking up on boxes of Airhead candies at Sams Club and physically opening up the 1990s Blockbuster computer system (still loaded with floppy discs) to repair the check-in/check-out system. She grills burgers for her longtime patrons and has employed nearly every teenager in their small Pacific-Northwest town.

The documentary itself sometimes over-romanticizes the days of video rental and relies too much on talking heads. At 88 minutes, it feels overly long and there are inconsequential sequences that probably should have been cut but were likely left in to beef up the running time, including a long scene with comedian Doug Benson browsing the store and texting his fellow comedian friends.

The nostalgia well starts to run dry way before the credits start to roll. It’s a feel good movie but even movie lovers like myself will feel like it was spinning its wheels a bit much.

But there are two big things I took away from this movie (and a good documentary either teaches me something or makes me think about life in a different way).

First is a business lesson. Blockbuster didn’t just simply die because Netflix came around. If you remember, Blockbuster tried to launch its own service similar to Netflix, with movies available by mail and you could pick them up at kiosks or in stores too. They even had streaming available (through Cable companies not smartphone apps) before Netflix did. But the reason Blockbuster died is because they didn’t have any capital to expand their streaming options. They borrowed and borrowed and when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the traditional financial leaders weren’t interested in investing in a declining corporation saddled with debt. Netflix — which offered to sell to Blockbuster for $50 million early on but was turned down — was the darling of West Coast investors and had money to get them through several years in the red (the company wasn’t profitable for a long time since costs were so high).  Now Netflix’s profits have tripled in the last three years and their margins look good, even as they continue to invest hundreds of millions in buying or creating new content. Blockbuster could have easily buried Netflix but they didn’t have the capital. They waited too long to adjust to the future.

Second thing I thought long and hard about after watching this documentary is how an abundance of options doesn’t make us any happier. We have every movie available at our fingertips. We don’t have to drive to a store and pay late fees. We can watch whatever we want. But we don’t appreciate movies as much as we used to. When we only were able to watch a movie every once and a while, it was a treat and even a bad movie was fun.

This is detailed by many psychological studies, most notably by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More.” He notes that when given a million options, we take longer to decide and we end up less satisfied with the choice we eventually make, ultimately nit-picking and looking for negatives because we keep thinking about the other options that could have been available.

I would also add that the effort that it takes to go to a movie theater or a Blockbuster video make the joy of watching a movie feel like more of an event compared to streaming something on Netflix on your phone. You’re more likely to watch the movie all of the way through even if it’s not great because of the time and money you put into it.

Video stores aren’t the only things we might see become scarce or non-existent. Younger audiences go to movie theaters less and less and would prefer watching something at home, even though us old farts still say it’s better to watch it on a big screen surrounded by people (home TVs are pretty big now though). During the pandemic, more movies went immediately to streaming and that might be the future, with movie theaters becoming a niche thing for certain audiences. You might see restaurants decrease their dine-in space as more and more people choose DoorDash or GrubHub even when the pandemic ends. Keep in mind that these services didn’t really exist about a decade or more ago. Things change quickly. Will there always be a few fancy restaurants and neighborhood pubs to provide social gatherings? Absolutely. But you’ll find that restaurants will have smaller dine-in spaces and might even move to lower rent areas with less visibility if the bulk of their money is coming from delivery. And the physical DVD/Blu-Ray? I’m already mocked by younger consumers for still purchasing physical movies since everything is eventually available to stream. They will probably end up like CD’s and be on their way to extinction.

Do I want to cling to the past? Maybe a little but I understand these changes.

I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to ordering carryout or watching “Wonder Woman 1984” at time rather than a theater. It’s just easier. But easier isn’t always better and I guess my point is to remember those “event experiences” we used to have and try to seek them out in places where they still exist. Maybe it isn’t going to a movie theater or renting a movie in person, but live theater and live concerts should still be sought out. And even if you’re streaming a movie at home with carryout food, you can still make it feel special. You can set up your dining room table and put the cell phones in a drawer. I guess my point is instead of just consume, consume, consume, we need to take the time to stop and savor sometimes. That’s what this documentary made me reflect on.

Earwig and the Witch

Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli is one of the most celebrated animation studios in the world, having produced such beloved films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the Oscar-winning classic “Spirited Away,” all directed by co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.

My two-year-old daughter is a big fan of three of Miyazaki’s movies in particular: “Ponyo,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” also all directed by Miyazaki. The other night she was running around with her play broom, pretending to be flying like Kiki, the young witch.

As a parent, I’m always looking for quality-made animated films and shows that I can watch with my daughter and I won’t be bored out of my mind. Studio Ghibli films can vary in quality when it comes to plot/story but the animation is always gorgeous to look at and the score, often composed by Joe Hisaishi, is consistently beautiful. Sometimes we even tell Alexa to play songs by him in order to relax us to sleep.

Now, the famed studio has its newest feature film available on HBO MAX, called “Earwig and the Witch.” It premiered on Japanese TV in late December and is just now available for North American audiences with an English dub. It’s directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of the acclaimed co-founder, and it is the studio’s first attempt at a three-dimensional computer animated film as opposed to flat hand drawn animation.

The newest offering is a complete swing and miss for older viewers. Some younger kids might like it but even my daughter started asking me to put on a different cartoon.

Simply put, it’s not up to the standards established by Studio Ghibli.

It’s the story of a young girl witch, left on the door step of an orphanage as a newborn, only to later be adopted by a strange magical couple. Oh, and there’s a talking black cat too. Sounds awfully like “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

It’s based on a novel by Diana Wynn Jones, who also wrote the book for “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and it seems like Goro is trying hard to copy his father’s previous efforts but seems to miss the magic and charm of his dad’s movies.

The biggest sin of “Earwig and the Witch” is that it’s ugly to look at. The cheap-looking computer animation looks more like “Cocomelon” than anything done by Pixar (or even Dreamworks for that matter…).

Some people have argued that “Earwig and the Witch” makes a case that hand-drawn animation is superior than working solely with computers but I disagree. Films like “Soul” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” prove otherwise.

The expressionless faces in “Earwig and the Witch” actually look a lot like the generic avatars you created when the Nintendo Wii was launched in 2006.

I understand that the budget might have been smaller because it’s a TV movie, but the animation seems to lack creativity.

Studio Ghibli recently created candy for the eye with the interesting rough sketches in “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” in 2013 or the simplistic figures in “The Red Turtle” in 2016, both nominated for Oscars. To release this newest effort under the studio’s name feels more like a favor to the founder’s son rather than a production to be proud of.

I hate to sound like a snob when it comes to the look of animation, but it does matter. Animation can be an art form. My wife laughs when I complain about the cheap animation in the PBS cartoon “Dinosaur Train.”

But it’s important to have something interesting to look at. My daughter and I love watching “Hilda” or “Puffin Rock” on Netflix, the latter of which was created by the same people who directed the amazing-looking animated films “The Song of the Sea” and “Wolfwalkers.”

Maybe Goro just isn’t as good as his father. His previous two films, “Tales from Earthsea” in 2006 and “From Up on Poppy Hill” in 2011 are often panned by Studio Ghibli fan who sometimes bring up his strained relationship with his father.

For loves of Studio Ghibli there is good news on the horizon though: Hayao Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he was coming out of retirement to direct the film “How Do You Live,” which is currently under production and is expected to come out in 2021 or 2022 (no date yet).

I guess we’ll just have to wait for daddy to restore the glory.

Soul

★★★★★

Probably the biggest question one could answer is: “What is the meaning of life?”

It’s a riddle that all forms of artwork have attempted to solve. The novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” joked that the answer is 42, as if it were like solving a math problem.

But should we be surprised that Pixar, the animation giant behind “Up,” “Inside Out, “Toy Story” and “WALL-E,” is the movie studio that actually comes closest to answering this question?

Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” was released on Disney+ on Christmas Day after being delayed from its summer release due to COVID-19.

In that time during the delay, hundreds of thousands of people have died. Many have lost their jobs or their businesses and have spent the past few months contemplating what their purpose is on this Earth. And the movie came out on a day — Christmas — in which people would usually gather with dozens of relatives to exchange gifts. This year, many didn’t travel to see their families at all.

It seems fitting that “Soul” was not just released on Christmas, but this Christmas, the year of this horrible pandemic. It’s a movie that not only deals with death and the afterlife (similar to “Coco”) but it also deals with what makes us who we are (similar to “Inside out.”)

The end result might be Pixar’s boldest, most experimental and most artistic output. It might be the best movie released in 2020. It certainly was the one we needed and it left me and my wife in tears for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.

First off, this movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, an aspiring jazz pianist who is stuck (at least in his mind) as a middle school band teacher. He wishes he could be touring and playing in night clubs and doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that he can help mold the minds of students. He’s singularly focused on what his purpose is in life and he’s convinced it is music.

He’s finally landed his career-changing gig when he quickly falls into a manhole and ends up as a pastel blob floating above an escalator to The Great Beyond. He’s fearful of death, not because he’s worried about Heaven or Hell, but because he isn’t satisfied with the life he left behind. He feels he never truly achieved his life’s goal and he has to go back. He has unfinished business.

The metaphysical animation depicting the escalator to the afterlife is dark and abstract with sharp white lines all shooting out of the sky. It’s the most daring piece of animation that Pixar has created and it’s scored by the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross. The former NIN frontman has impressed with film scores in the past, mostly with David Fincher, such as “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” and “Mank.” Instead of relying on his past collaborator in Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, co-director Pete Docter went the industrial route but still has emphasized the importance of a good soundtrack. The jazz music on Earth is composed by Jon Batiste, the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Batiste scores a stunning piano finale.

Joe Gardner finds himself in The Great Before, a land where souls are created before they are sent into newly born bodies. The multi-ethnic, accented leaders-in-charge are two-dimensional Picasso-like drawings that all call themselves Jerry. It’s very trippy and looks like it could have been conceived by Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick or Charlie Kaufman.

Gardner is teamed up with an unborn soul, simply named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who has yet to find her spark despite the guidance from hundreds of famous mentors including Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Carl Jung and more. Soul 22 worries that she might not actually be great at any one thing in life.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot, but the adventure eventually moves to Earth and the story moves quickly and with conviction. The movie never feels like it’s wandering or spinning its wheels. Pete Docter, the chief creative officer at Pixar, is at the helm and he knows what he’s doing (having previously directed “Monsters Inc,” “Up” and “Inside Out.”)

You can tell the team behind this movie has read a lot of books on philosophy and apparently the story had numerous drafts before they landed on this tale. It was originally a heist film set entirely in the metaphysical realm, but I think Pixar made the right decision to set some scenes on Earth to show that life is worth living.

Joining Docter for co-director and co-writer duties is Kemp Powers, an exciting new voice in cinema. This is actually only the second movie that Powers has worked on, the other being a 2020 Oscar contender with “One Night in Miami,” the drama he wrote based on his own play. That movie is only out in select cities, but it’s very good as well. Powers, a graduate of Howard University, is the first African American director of a Pixar movie and this movie that has Pixar’s first African American lead character. While this is historic, it never feels like forced diversity or pandering. They never hit you over the head with it and the producers brought in experts to make sure the African American experience is told authentically.

Powers is 48 years old but he’s a relative newcomer to Hollywood. He wrote a short film in 2012 and wrote a few episodes of the TV series “Star Trek Discovery,” but his IMDB profile is very slim. He’ll be a household name soon with at least one Oscar under his belt come 2021 (he will likely get nominated in both Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories and “Soul” is a lock to win Best Animated Feature and might get strong consideration for Best Picture too).

I think what I love most about “Soul” is the questions it asks and the unconventional viewpoints it takes. Most movies, especially those aimed at children, talk about finding your destiny or your purpose in life. They talk about if you really love something and have a dream that you should never give that dream up and pursue it to the bitter end. “Follow your dreams” is repeated over and over again. But what if you don’t actually achieve the dream you had as a child? Does that mean you had a failed life? What if you finally get to do your dream and it doesn’t make you happy? What if you don’t have any dreams? What if there’s not one big thing that you’re passionate about?

Just like Docter taught children in “Inside Out” that it was OK to feel sad at times, he’s teaching adults in “Soul” that it’s OK to feel lost at times, wondering what your purpose is in life.

In the end, the movie preaches appreciating the simple things in life, like eating a slice of pizza or looking up at the sky.

Pixar did something really risky with “Soul.” They aimed it more at adults than children.

There likely won’t be many action figures or merchandise from this movie. It won’t be the cash cow such as “Cars” or “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles.” There won’t be kids’ sleeping bags depicting Joe Gardner playing in a jazz club.

This movie isn’t a babysitter for your kids for two hours. They might get bored. Many certainly won’t understand it. It’s not as funny or lighthearted as Pixar’s other offerings.

But if you were moved to tears by the opening scene in “Up.” If you marveled at the artistic silence that was the first half of “WALL-E.” If you appreciated the deeper themes in “Inside Out” and “Coco,” then this movie is for you.

I’ve always been frustrated that Pixar was afraid to embrace the true artistry in their movies. “Up” is a genius movie at first. It makes you cry and tells a real story about loss and regret because embarking on a colorful adventure with balloons in the sky. But for me, the movie loses its appeal when it turns into a story about talking dogs and giant birds. The same for “WALL-E.” I loved the quiet storytelling between WALL-E and Eve, but when Jeff Garlin is running around the spaceship, I lose interest.

I get it. These are kids movies.

But maybe we’re underestimating children.

My daughter is only two. She was already asleep when we put on “Soul,” but I don’t think she’ll understand what is going on. She mostly watches Peppa Pig. But for older children — I’d say seven years old and up — this movie could speak to them.

Fred Rogers said that children’s entertainment shouldn’t be just meant to babysit your kid. It should teach and inspire. Movies can say something in a way that you and I might not be able to. It can teach children lessons.

I once met an addiction counselor who was an alcoholic herself. She was telling me that she grew up in an abusive household and was in and out of the foster care system and never truly felt loved or accepted. When she was a young girl, she watched the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and saw the Island of Misfit Toys. She looked up at the TV screen and said, “Finally, there’s a place for me!” It broke my heart to imagine this young girl who felt so lost. But it spoke to me about the power that a cartoon can have to inspire a child.

“Soul” is a movie that might inspire a lost soul, someone who works 60 hours a week at a job they hate, someone who is so obsessed with their passion that they lose sight of the world around them, someone who doesn’t know what they’re good at. We just have to take the time to look around and enjoy a slice of pizza. Is there really anything more you need in life?

Usually, you need a few tissues handy when you watch a Pixar movie. This time, grab the whole box.

My wife and I hugged each other after watching this movie. We both had a tough year during this pandemic. We looked over at our daughter, slumped over asleep, and we knew that it doesn’t matter what we do for a job or if we make our mark on history.

On Christmas Eve, after I just spent a very long day working at the restaurant I co-own with my parents, I came home to watch a movie with my wife and daughter before bed. As we were struggling to put our daughter to sleep, the most gorgeous snow began to fall on the ground. My daughter stood up and went to the glass sliding door and pressed her hands up and looked outside at our dim backyard with white flakes catching the light as they fell. It was beautiful and it might be one of my favorite memories from this Christmas.

It doesn’t matter what we buy or what we do. It’s moments like snow falling on a beautiful night. That’s what life is about.

Wolfwalkers

★★★★★

Irish animator Tomm Moore has already been nominated for an Academy Award two other times for his two other movies 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2014’s “The Song of the Sea.” His newest effort, “Wolfwalkers,” which you can stream for free with an Apple+ subscription, will earn his third nomination.

While I anticipate Pixar’s “Soul” to be quite good, my guess is that the breathtakingly beautiful “Wolfwalkers” will end up being my favorite animated feature in 2020 and likely would end up in the top 10 for all movies made.

This truly is a gorgeous looking movie.

It tells the story of a young girl named Robyn from England who moves with her father, a hunter, to Kilkenny, Ireland. His job is to provide the village, set in 1650, from the wolves that lurk in the forest.

Robyn soon discovers that one of the wolves with green eyes is actually a little girl with a wild bush of red hair. She is a wolfwalker named Mebh, which is kind of like a werewolf, but somewhat different. When she falls asleep at night, her soul leaves her body and turns into a wolf that roams the forest. Her human body remain asleep until the wolf disappears into her body in the morning.

Mebh’s mother is comatose, forever asleep, due to her wolf form being captured in a cave by an evil ruler of the village who plans on burning down the forest to kill all the wolves.

The Celtic music is subtle but moving and the animation is top notch. The characters look like hand drawn ink sketches and the backgrounds look like oil paintings. There are stills from this movie you’d want to frame and put on your wall. It looks that good.

There’s a killer song, “Running with the Wolves” by Norwegian singer Aurora, that should get nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.

If you enjoyed Moore’s other works, this new film is no exception. Kids will be entertained and so will the parents. Highly recommended.

The Prom

★★★

Lovers of live theater hated 2020.

In New York City, Broadway has been closed since March 12 and the more than 97,000 workers were affected. It’s projected that more than a billion dollars in ticket revenue has been lost (More than $1.8 billion was sold during 2018-2019 season).

And that’s just in New York. Theaters have been closed around the country and besides some streaming options there have been very few opportunities to watch live musicals or plays.

Ryan Murphy, the powerhouse TV producer behind “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” and many, many more, has provided a joyful streaming distraction for hardcore fans of musical theater. His new feature length movie “The Prom” dropped on Netflix on Friday Dec. 11.

It’ll be a crowd pleaser for those that miss the theater. For those that are only so-so on musicals? You won’t be converted by this one.

“The Prom” is a big, bold, glitzy — at times, cheesy — musical. It doesn’t have the crossover appeal of “Hamilton.” You have to like show tunes to digest this one.

Hoosiers might be interested in this movie because of the Indiana connections. Murphy grew up in Indianapolis and attended Warren Central. His mother still lives in the Fishers/Geist area. The movie itself, based on a 2018 Broadway musical, tells the story of a Hoosier high school girl who wants to attend prom with her girlfriend but is opposed by a school board that doesn’t agree with LGBT life styles. It’s very loosely based on a true story that took place in Alabama, but this fictional version takes place in the made-up town of Edgewater, Ind. and there are quite a few shots taken at our state. In the first 20 minutes, there are multiple songs that portray Indiana as a redneck state devoid of culture. The protagonist, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, sings, “Not to self: don’t be gay in Indiana” in our introduction to her character.

Struggling Broadway actors (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman) decide to descend upon the small town after seeing the girl’s story on Twitter. They plan to help out this lesbian teen in order to get some positive publicity and help their careers. The four of them sing (in one of the first songs) about, “Those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-loving, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, finger-wagging, Hoosier-humping losers and their homely wives. They’ll learn compassion, and better fashion, once we at last start changing lives.”

Broadway composer Matthew Sklar said he was not only inspired by the true prom incident in Alabama, but by then-Gov. Mike Pence’s RFRA fiasco in Indiana. Hence, the Hoosier setting.

The message is this movie is about as subtle as a piano falling on someone. It’s clearly preaching acceptance and denouncing homophobia but the movie itself seems to think a big song and dance number can melt hearts, transform minds and change the world. Issues that have existed forever are solved rather quickly. Characters who are cartoonish, hardline bigots are suddenly converted to full acceptance in a matter of minutes.

Far more entertaining is the message about arrogant celebrities who think what they say or do will actually change anyone’s mind. There’s some biting commentary about celebrities wading into the political pool. Personally I feel making fun of celebrities is too easy of a target, like trying to throw a water balloon at a house from five feet away. But it does garner some laughs in this broad comedy.

Much of what I’m criticizing about “The Prom” can been blamed on the original Broadway show rather than Murphy’s adaptation and his direction. Murphy does fill your TV screen with colorful dance sequences and joyful energy. At times it seems to border on excess, similar to later seasons of “Glee,” but it’s hard to hate something so insanely positive.

The one thing I might truly fault Murphy for is the casting. Meryl Streep is one of the world’s greatest actresses, but I’m getting Streep fatigue with this one. She’s great as always but that’s to be expected and she’s raised the bar so hight that I’m not sure she reaches it. She plays an aging Broadway star who has a romantic relationship with the school’s principal played by Keegan-Michael Key. The age difference is a minor issue and the chemistry between these two is really off. I didn’t really believe the romance between the two.

James Corden is definitely acting for the back row of the theater in this one. His effeminately gay Broadway actor is so over the top that you’ll see his performance in “Cats” as subtle. He does garner a few laughs with clever lines but your enjoyment of “The Prom” will rely heavily on how much you can stand Corden. If you find him to be unbearable, then you will cringe every time they put him into yet another scene in this two-hour film.

Nicole Kidman is actually decent but she’s given one of the most lazily written musical numbers with “Give Them Some Zazz,” an cheer-up song in the style of “Chicago” with lots of jazz hands.

Andrew Rannells, the Broadway powerhouse who originated the role of Elder Price in the 2011 Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” is given the least to do in this movie. In one musical number, he convinces popular teenagers to not be homophobic by delivering a not-subtle song about The Bible called “Love thy Neighbor.” It means well, but I rolled my eyes a little. It’s the kind of take that you’ve heard again and again in Internet memes. I guess we can’t hear enough a message of acceptance and love but I was kind of hoping for something more insightful.

While the big name celebrities fall a little flat, the lesser known actors really excel in “The Prom.” Pellman is excellent, as is Ariana DeBose, who will appear in Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Not only are both talented singers but the composers give them more modern pop music to sing as opposed to the traditional Broadway show tunes of the four celebrities.

Kerry Washington is also pretty good as the villainous school board president.

All of the songs are well sung. There’s nobody in this movie like Ryan Gosling in “La La Land” or Russell Crowe in “Les Misérables.” Although at times the songs sound a little over produced like “The Greatest Showman” or “Glee.” More than a touch of auto-tune.

Now I know it sounds like I’m dumping all over this movie. It’s true that “The Prom” might not be my personal cup of tea but I think it succeeds in what it set out to accomplish. The movie is what it is and if you love watching Broadway musicals then you’ll have a great time watching this one.

I was one of the movie critics that didn’t really enjoy “The Greatest Showman.” If you loved that movie (or 2007’s “Hairspray” film), you’ll love this one.

“The Prom” is much better than both of those movies, but it’s an enjoyable distraction rather than an all-time great movie.

The clever and funny lyrics really hold this one together and, in the end, “The Prom” isn’t trying to be more than it is.

Mank


★★★★

Hollywood loves watching movies about Hollywood.

Especially when it’s honoring the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Films like “The Artist,” “La La Land,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or “Hugo,” we see Oscar voters continually giving nominations or wins to movies about movies. And, yes, it gets old sometimes.

But rarely do we see movie about Old Hollywood done with some cynicism and style as “Mank,” the new Netflix exclusive by director David Fincher. Not only is it set in the 1930s, but it looks, sounds and feels like a movie from the 1930s era. Yes, it’s filmed in black and white but the lighting reminds you of films from those days. It reminds you of a great film noir classic but it’s made in 2020.

“Mank” tells the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the script for “Citizen Kane,” the classic film directed by Orson Welles in 1941. “Citizen Kane” is often rated as the greatest film ever made, even though it lost Best Picture at the Oscars to “How Green Was My Valley,” an incredibly boring movie I watched for the first time recently. And there’s been debate for years about who actually wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane”: was it Mankiewicz or Welles?

Gary Oldman, a recent Oscar winner for “The Darkest Hour,” gives maybe the best performance of his career in the lead role — and that’s saying something. Amanda Seyfried is wonderful in a small role as Marion Davies and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones” “The Crown”) kills it as William Randolph Hearst.

It’s a movie that’s heavy on dialogue and light on actually plot but that’s OK. The language is beautifully written and it explores interesting ideas about life, legacy, politics, power and more. The conversations about socialism feel very relevant to today’s conversations.

The movie was written in the 1990s by Jack Fincher, the father of David Fincher. He meant to direct the movie after he made “The Game” in 1997 with Kevin Spacey in the lead role but it never came to fruition and his father died in 2003.

Fincher finally produced and directed his late father’s screenplay which will end up being his only work that was made into a movie. And he might have a chance to win a posthumous Oscar. It’s really well written.

Ultimately “Mank” is a love letter to all writers out there the power of the written word. It’s about how writers can change the world.

And it feels especially personal for Fincher considering his father wrote it.

Fincher has not directed a movie sine 2014’s “Gone Girl,” focusing on TV shows instead, such as “Mindhunter.” But Fincher’s record as a director is nearly flawless.

In his nearly 30-year career, he’s directed only 11 films and the only bad one is his first movie ever, “Alien 3” in 1992.

After that he has: “Seven” (1995), “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999), “Panic Room” (2002), “Zodiac” (2007), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), “The Social Network” (2010), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), “Gone Girl” (2014) and now “Mank.”

Two of his movies (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network”) earned him Best Picture and Best Director nominations and several of his other movies are considered classics. Personally my favorite is “Zodiac.”

I fully expect Fincher to add another Best Picture and Director nomination to his resume with “Mank.”

Sound of Metal

★★★★1/2

I’ve had a little experience with the deaf community. My family’s restaurant has employed four different deaf employees in the 10 years we’ve been open and so I’ve learned a little quite a bit.

One story that stuck with me comes from an employee with partial hearing. He told me that when he was younger he received a cochlear implant to improve his hearing. He told me he didn’t like it and he would come home and plop down on his bed and remove his external processor and just lay there is silence.

The sound was too much. There was too much noise.

Many people incorrectly assume that anyone who is deaf would like to wave a magic wand and have their hearing back. But many don’t see it as disability. It actually can be a gift.

In Amazon Studios new award season contender, “The Sound of Metal,” Riz Ahmed portrays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing and has to adjust to a new way of life. It’s a thoughtful and nuanced performance that should earn him an Oscar nomination. If not, it will be a huge snub. Ahmed is best known for his breakthrough role in “Nightcrawler” and his Emmy-winning performance on “The Night Of,” but he’s also shown up in some commercial fare like “Jason Bourne,” “Venom” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” He gives a realistic, subtle, heart-breaking performance. He plays it with empathy and understanding.

It’s multi-layered performance. Ruben is full of anger and fear, all that can be seen on Ahmed’s face. He’s afraid of losing the one thing he loves in life, which is playing heavy metal, but he’s also afraid of continuing to lose his hearing for good. He feels accepted in his new life among the deaf community but he also doesn’t want to give up his old life and friends. He’s confused and feels lost by his new world of silence and the viewers feel it as well. On top of all of that, he’s also a recovering heroin addict who is afraid of going back to using again.

He’s trying to get the money needed for his cochlear implant to restore the life he once had but he soon realizes that there’s no going back to the way things were before.

(Side note: cochlear implants don’t provide the exact crisp audio that you and I hear and the movie beautifully portrays that with experimental sound design that puts you in his head and should win awards).

Ahmed is surrounded by solid supporting performances by Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”).

Paul Raci, a veteran, American Sign Language interpreter and the lead singer for the Hands of Doom ASL ROCK band, steals every scene that he’s in as Ruben’s new mentor in a boarding home for deaf people. He delivers some of the weightiest lines of the movie but never makes it seem corny. There’s never a flashing neon light saying, “Here’s the moral! Here are the themes!” It’s done with subtlety.

If you were annoyed by the over-the-top hammy performances in “Hillbilly Elegy,” then you will love “The Sound of Metal.”

This is director Darius Marder’s feature length debut and he will be a name to watch for years. He creates a film about struggle, grief and acceptance that avoids the various feel-good cliches about triumphing over adversity. He makes a film that will spark a conversation after and that’s what great films do.

And while this film has bigger themes and life lesson that can be extracted, it’s ultimately a great character study. Well drawn characters that are expertly played.

Right now I would consider “The Sound of Metal” to be my favorite movie of 2020. I know that’s not saying much since this has been a strange year for movies but it truly is a remarkable movie that stays with you long after it is finished. The pacing is perfect and the acting and directing are superb. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is personally I reserve five stars for films that are among the greatest ever made. I can’t go that far but it is among the best of the year.

The only downside is if you’re hoping for a movie about music, you will be very disappointed. The concert scenes are a very small part of the movie.

I highly recommend you don’t miss “The Sound of Metal.” You can stream it right now with an Amazon Prime subscription.