The OTHER Potter England is famous for: Miss Potter

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There are two vitally important attributes that great artists in any form must have. First is an imagination, the tool to picture the art and all that it encompasses. The second is the ability and talent to tangibly produce it through a medium, be it words or watercolors. Beatrix Potter certainly had both of these, and more. The Victorian era children’s author, conservationist and biologist is most well known for the beautifully illustrated set of stories starring animals. Peter Rabbit, Peter Cottontail, Samuel Whiskers and Jemima Puddleduck are just a handful of the characters that she brought life to not only with words on a page but beautiful pictures that drove the imagination of the reader. Miss Potter takes on the difficult task of summing up the life and major events surrounding Beatrix Potter by showcasing her loves, losses and triumphs.

 

The primary focus of the film is set squarely on the imagination of its titular character. From the get-go we watch as a young Beatrix interacts with her drawings as though they were her friends. We listen as she creates stories out of nothing to tell to her younger brother before bed. What is not anticipated by her mother or father is that this desire to paint and create stories should become anything more than a hobby. However, Beatrix persists and manages to convince a publishing house to print the story of Peter Rabbit. The owners of the publishing house give the book to their youngest brother, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) to guide through the publishing process. They fully expect the book to fail, but had promised to allow him to help. As Beatrix and Norman take on what becomes a wildly successful franchise of books, the two fall in love and must navigate the difficulties associated with a stringent class system. While the last bit of the movie focuses on Beatrix’ natural conservation efforts, it never strays from the heart of what made Potter so well known, and that was her incredible imagination and ability to breath life into it.

 

Beatrix Potter is an absolutely fascinating individual. Just reading through the wikipedia page on her is entertaining and points out that, while ambitious, this movie didn’t give her story the justice it deserved. Now you can’t expect an entire autobiography out of a 92 minute movie, and I wouldn’t want something from this light and almost whimsical telling of her life. What I would have liked, however, was for her not to be made out to be absolutely insane. She treated her drawings and paintings as her friends in the film, something she didn’t do in real life. Fine, artistic license. The truly jarring bit was when she would argue with and talk to her drawings in front of people. Renee Zellweger did a fine job portraying Potter, despite being 20 years older than the character, but when given a script that has you arguing with inanimate paper while others are around does little to cause me to sympathise with her situation. The movie, without that would have been a better film. The characters were portrayed in a believable way and were, for the most part likeable. Ewan McGregor in particular did a fantastic job as Mr. Warne. The soundtrack was appropriate and the nostalgia for those familiar with Beatrix Potter is a major draw.

 

The movie could have been better with some simple omissions. The above mentioned weirdness of having your main character argue with drawings was the biggest problem. Other minor offenses were few and far between, but there was a tendency to bring up oppressive social themes of the time and kind of just drop them. Again, I wasn’t expecting a ton from a 92 minute movie, but some follow through would have been nice. For all it’s flaws, it was enjoyable. This movie saw very little time in theaters (if any) and I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime and gave it a shot. I was glad to have done so. As a family film it’s well rounded and will potentially introduce the uninitiated to one of the greatest children’s authors of all time.

 

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How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a Terribly Long Name For Such A Good Movie.

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Animators have it rough. The amount of detail that goes into every frame of a modern animated film is astonishing, absolutely amazing. Often times that detail only exists for seconds, if that. With the misconception that animated films with low MPAA ratings are mostly for children, that level of detail can be lost. I’ll be the first to admit, I often times overlook animated films when deciding what to pay money to see in theaters. While on vacation, I went to a local discount theater and caught a showing of how To Train Your Dragon 2 and coincidentally watched one of my favorite movies of the year.

 

I need to rewatch How To Train your Dragon because when I rented it I wasn’t blown away. I know this franchise is loved by many, and it’s even revered above certain Pixar offerings. It was fun, but something that I was ok just watching once and calling it good. Not so with the sequel. How To Train Your Dragon 2 shows the inhabitants of Berk in a whole new light. Their entire society now revolves around dragons rather than fears them. Hiccup is reluctantly being primed to take over responsibility as the new chieftain, when he discovers a group of dragon catchers that are supplying a mad man with forces for his army of dragons that will be used as weapons to conquer the world. You can guess what the remainder of the film is about from there.

 

First off, the movie looks incredible. I don’t think I’ve had a movie appeal to my primal sense of adventure this way in years. The scenes of Toothless and hiccup flying over pristine landscapes, crystal oceans and through open sky were all it took to get me caught up in the movie. Add to that a heavy dose of accurate emotional weight and a hefty dose of dragons and you’ve got HTTYD2. Everything about the movie looked like familiar in the sense that we’ve been seeing dragons on film for decades, but it built on the uniqueness of the first film in just how different someone could interpret the beasts. It was fun just seeing how many variations of the fire breathing reptiles the animators could present. The environment only added to the aesthetic appeal and sense of adventure. Berk is a fairly wild city, but it pales in comparison to the harshness beyond it’s borders.

 

While a movie can be pretty to look at, if it falls flat it the story telling or in the character department then you’ve got a major problem. Fortunately this was not the case. Dreamworks hit a homerun with how they advanced their characters. We’re not dealing with the same set of problems or issues already dealt with in the first film, we’re dealing with new challenges, harder ones that carry more consequences and change the franchise in bolder ways than I anticipated. It was more than I had anticipated, and I found myself far more emotionally involved with the humans and dragons alike.


How To Train Your Dragon 2 manages to take the audience on a ride to another world filled with adventure, danger and unexpected beauty. The characters are flawed and believable, it packs an emotional wallop while still being appropriate and entertaining for a young audience. Despite the many offerings this year, I would rank this among the top in terms of just sheer fun adventure. Also, Toothless is still adorable.

 

Warming the Bench with the Battered Bastards of Baseball

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“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.” this one line stuck with me after watching 2011s Moneyball. It stuck because it was wrapped in a universal truth. Baseball has been responsible for a good number of emotionally charged films. Sports movies in general are easy targets for that feel good camaraderie loving demographic that contains the vast majority of people in America. While I personally don’t follow any sports teams actively, I completely get why it’s such a universal phenomenon. Especially with an underdog story where the team in question ends up coming out on top. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a documentary with as much heart as Miracle, Moneyball and Angels in the Outfield combined, offering a look into a lesser known chapter of sports history.

 

The Netflix Original documentary tells, from beginning to end, the unusual tale of the Portland Mavericks. The foul mouthed, irreverent minor league ball team was thrown together by former ball player and hollywood veteran Bing Russell. The film is primarily about the Mavericks, but uses Bing as a constant focal point. Starting with his love for baseball at a young age all the way to his running of the Maverick’s franchise. Bing Russell used the Mavericks to bring privately owned clubs back to baseball. Whereas most minor league teams were simply farms for the major leagues, Bing wanted the Mavericks to be the best they could be offering a chance for both players and fans to experience a minor league game that went to it’s full potential. What that meant was offering open tryouts to anyone that showed up; essentially the rejects of the baseball world. The documentary highlights the short career of the team. It seeks to showcase the heart of the team by interviewing players, fans and sports writers. Through this process we glean a good picture of what made them an anomaly in the sports world. They weren’t just the underdogs, they were rebels, they fought against the norm and were both rewarded and punished for it.

 

The film is short and energetic, it uses the power of nostalgia to fuel the interviews and thought process of each participant. Bing’s son, Kurt Russell, (Wyatt Earp himself) who played for the Mavericks, knew Bing as a father as well as the owner offers an inside look into what home life was like and what drove the man behind the Mav’s. The film utilizes an electrifyingly charged score that’s as simple as it is effective. The runtime is relatively short, at under 90 minutes, but it’s enough. The story is small and personal, so much so that it probably couldn’t have sustained a longer screen time. It’s an interesting look into the business of baseball and what happens when the stars align enough to create something truly unique.

Reading at the Movies: World War Z

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Their presence in fiction mirrors the reality in which we reside; a reality that reflects the fact that zombies are everywhere. In fiction they’re a world wide threat bent on nothing in particular except eating people. In reality we just have an over saturated amount of TV shows, books, comic books and concept art that caters our cultures insatiable and weird appetite for these cannibalistic corpses. I’m part of the problem too, I love a good zombie movie and can appreciate the moral and logistical quandaries that they present to those attempting to survive in their world. World War Z is the best zombie story I have ever consumed. Let me be clear, I am currently talking about the novel by Max Brooks in which an unnamed (and certainly not Brad Pitt) UN worker travels around the world AFTER the big Zombie war interviewing survivors. Like anything that becomes remotely popular it demanded a cinematic representation! And so we got a film with the same title….and that’s about it.

 

World War Z (film) stars Brad Pitt as a UN worker by the name of Gerry Lane whose task it is to finds himself thrust into the center of a massive scale zombie epidemic. He is tasked with finding the origin of the disease with the hope of figuring out just what can be done to stop the spread of the infection. This takes him all around the world, where he observes a few different temporary solutions that various cultures have enacted to help protect themselves…all of which end up failing. It’s a sort of follow-the-bread-crumbs adventure in which Brad Pitt straps magazines to his forearms as a type of makeshift armor to prevent being bit. Honestly that was my favorite part.

 

World War Z (novel) is narrated by an unnamed UN worker that is tasked with traveling around the world to interview survivors of the zombie war. The novel starts out with the war being over. Humanity won the fight against the zombie threat, but just barely. Each chapter is an oral report of how a different culture or people group witnessed and consequently survived their particular encounter. The accounts range from a colony yuppie campers attempting to flee north in their caravan of luxury motorhomes to a Japanese teenage gamer who must figure out a way to escape from his skyscraper home. Major battles are discussed in great detail and the entire course of the fight is laid out in different styles and flavors for the reader to savor.

 

Brad Pitt’s starring vehicle hovered around the 200 million dollar mark to make. It was ok. It was an honest to goodness zombie fest in which millions of zombies ran very quickly towards the protagonist at almost every turn. The film managed to gloss over the intricate details laid out in the novel and replace them with faster enemies and bigger explosions. It was a visual effects feast that practically begged you to just switch off the part of your mind that yearns for a plot within a story. Sure there was a goal Gerry was trying to attain, and it had to be done quickly, but it is nestled safely under an enumerable amount of human corpses. It had it’s merits, and while the large scale attacks were impressive to look at, they had little effect on my emotional reaction to the film. It was the tight, claustrophobic scenes that amped up the suspense.

 

The Novel offered a large series of individual stories that, when combined painted a picture of the full scale that the fictional zombie plague had on a vast number of cultures and individuals. Each account has it’s own protagonist and their own setting. Some read like a pulp adventure novel while others are absolutely chilling in their dissection of human nature. While the zombie threat is ever present and the main focus of the novel, it isn’t the sole enemy. Some accounts take into account the psychological damage associated with seeing your loved ones turned into monsters, it looks at the depravity of humanity, at times allowing for very little room to distinguish between the real horrors of humanity and the fictional horror of the zombies. Unlike the film, the book uses the traditional “slow zombies” and manages to make them terrifying. The narrator of the book takes a back seat to the survivors, the everyday people that did what it took to survive.


The World War Z novel was so good it ought to have it’s own movie. As it stands it does not have that. Aside from a few, almost coincidental similarities, the novel and film that share a name are worlds apart (within the scope of the zombie genre). Where the film was your run-of-the-mill action film with a massive budget, the novel presents you with a great number of individual stories, each interesting and unique, but working together to form the most compelling Zombie story I’ve ever experienced.

Spending Quality Time with “Mama”

Mama

Thanks to the magic of the movies, we’ve become accustomed to all manner of spectres, ghouls and monsters. It takes far more to spook an audience today than it did in the golden age of the original Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and  Dracula. Blood is simply corn syrup or CGI, and we, the audience, know that. We understand there is no actual danger on the screen that can harm us, so we’ve required more to scare us. This has cheapened the genre into shocking the audience (which certainly has it’s place) or by using cheap “jump scares” to achieve that coveted cash cow genre tag that has become horror. The PG-13 horror movie has become a novelty. It has morphed into the stepping stone for young children to acquire a taste for the more gruesome offerings in the R rating. This wasn’t always the case, and while the things that scare each individual person are as polarizing as the comedy genre, there are some decent PG-13 movies that manage to elicit that icy tingle that crawls uninvited up your spine. Mama is a movie that remained solidly in it’s PG-13 rating, but still gave me that tinge of adrenaline and discomfort that I absolutely love while watching a movie that’s supposed to scare me.

 

Moma tells the story of a two sisters who survive a tragedy that leaves both parents dead. The two spend (off screen) five years in the woods, being cared for by an entity known as “Moma”. When they are found the two girls are almost completely feral. They have lived like animals through some very critical years of their development. Their uncle and his girlfriend take the two in to raise them as their own, with consequences far more dire than they anticipated.

 

Guillermo del Toro has a knack for seeking out spooky projects to fund. The Orphanage is one of my favorites in the genre, and was also produced by del Toro. For this film he hands the reigns to Andrés Muschietti allowing them to expand upon the short film he and his sister, Barbara Muschietti  (who co-wrote the film) created. For his first full length directorial movie he created a sleek, spooky and visually fulfilling little dark fantasy feature. Jessica Chastain plays the punk-rock girlfriend to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Lucas, the uncle to the two girls. Seeing Chastain as a “punk rocker” was kind of a strange role, but as the film progressed she made it work, and her character arch was probably the most compelling in the movie. Isabelle Nélisseplays Victoria, the younger of the two sisters and the one most attached to the entity that raised them. She is fantastically creepy. She’s not like your typical scary-movie-evil-child. She’s a little girl that was raised to have animal-like mannerisms and is devoutly attached to her mother figure…who just so happens to be a ghostly and violent apparition. Speaking of the titular monster; Javier Botet manages to pull off some of the freakiest movements since The Exorcist. He is capable of moving his body so dramatically that the only CG needed for the monster was to make the hair flow through the air. The movie employs a fantastic blend of CG and practical effects.

 

I alluded to the fact that I considered this movie more of a dark fantasy than a horror. I stick by that judgement. It’s an interesting movie, and it’s entertaining but it also manages to spook me at all the right times. It’s fantastically creepy and beautifully crafted. While not the crowning jewel of the horror genre, Moma manages to lend more credibility to the milder horror genre without compromising on it’s premise and execution.

 

Reading at the Movies: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest animator alive today. He has created some of the most intricately beautiful scenes and characters known to the art, and he makes it look effortless. He attends each of his films with masterful detail, placing each from under an artistic microscope and attending to the seemingly mundane details that he thinks are true to the nature of the characters he bestows life. Howl’s Moving Castle, while not my favorite Studio Ghibli production, boasts his signature animation, lovable and broken characters, and a soundtrack that is capable of sweeping the most dedicated realist into a land overflowing with wonder and magic. While it’s a very unique film, like many movies these days, it was first a book.

 

Diana Wynne Jones was an author of fantasy novels, and in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle possessed a dry wit that translated spectacularly on the page, but seems to have been watered down for the screen. The novel version of Howl is wrought with play-on-words, twists, this was something not entirely lost in the film, but was a much larger tone. Her usage of words was to the plot like the perfect amount of spices to your favorite dish. Jones’ craft shines through at each turn of the page, not as a heavy handed fantasy that pervades the market today, nor as a light and substanceless young adult novel. Rather she finds a happy medium where magic is neither silly nor cataclysmic. It is an element that is neither rare nor extremely prevalent

 

The novel boasted a whimsical, albeit odd, tone with memorable characters and something that made the fantastical workings of an eccentric young wizard feel almost ordinary and apart of everyday life. Miyazaki has proven to excel at portraying the whimsical on screen, but he’s also proven to be exceptional at finding the beauty in the ordinary. Howl was the perfect fit for an adaptation. The truest bond to the book that the animated feature has is in the two main protagonists. Sophie, a teenaged girl that finds herself cursed so she looks and feels like an old woman. And the titular wizard Howl; a young wizard feared by the locals as a ruthless evil warlock, but in actuality is no more than an adolescent teenager himself. The two characters in both novel and movie bring out the best and worst in each other. The two artifacts of literature and film stay amazingly true to each other until about halfway through. The book focuses on the witch of the waste as the main villain, while the film focuses on a war between kingdoms and the destructive power of Howl’s powers. This was a mistake. While I love the movie, the direction that the book takes is more fun, it’s more interesting and it’s far less confusing.

 

You’ve probably seen Howl’s Moving Castle, and if you haven’t you should. It’s beautiful and one of the best animated films to come out in the last 10 years. That being said, the source that it gleans it’s inspiration is an even tastier morsel to consume. My friend and fellow writer, Paul Boyne, creates posts in which he compares and contrasts two films into a “double feature” his most recent also focused on my favorite Miyazaki film : Spirited Away

“Dear Mr. Watterson” is a letter with no reply

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Art is a universal concept for expressing an innumerable amount of ideas. The mediums by which art is expressed are as far ranging as the imagination. Some are held in high esteem and others are only considered art by those that practice their particular medium. There is one form of art, that is cheap, inexpensive and loved by millions. Cartoons, referring to drawn comic strips that use a limited number of panels or space to connect a string of thoughts or a singular idea using a mixture of still images and text, has captured the attention of the world throughout generations. Bill Watterson gave us one of the best comic strips of all time with Calvin and Hobbes. The strip, for the two of you that aren’t familiar with it, follows the adventures of an overly imaginative six year old named Calvin and his pet Tiger named Hobbes. They embark on philosophical and imagination fueled treks across universes while rarely leaving their neighborhood. In the film Dear Mr. Watterson new filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder uses interviews and nostalgia to fuel his own adventure; one that seeks to summarize the emotions surrounding this iconic comic.

Funded on Kickstarter Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary in which Joel Allen Schroeder interviews Comic strip artists, fans and historians. He respects Bill Watterson’s thirst for privacy by not attempting to interview him, but digs into the mania surrounding Calvin and Hobbes. The documentary is served up in a number of segments ranging from topics about licensing and copywrite all the way to the decaying nature of the newspaper comic page. Mr. Watterson’s reclusive nature is absolutely evident throughout the film, and is noted by almost everyone that is interviewed. We’re introduced to a person with a rich philosophy on art and human nature, but he only speaks through his creation. We are served a tiny glimpse into a vast and interesting world, one that in some aspects is dying with the newspaper business and in others is striving in the digital age.

 

The movie itself is propelled primarily by a strong sense of nostalgia. Too much of the content was a nudge to audiences that sought to say “remember how good that one strip was?” when it could have been spent divulging further information on both the industry and the history surrounding comics and Calvin and Hobbes in general. It’s a phenomenal strip, to be certain, but we all know that and as fun as it is to see someone reminisce about cutting out sunday papers and tacking them to their wall, a documentary should be first and foremost informative, otherwise I would much rather simply discuss the comics with people that I know. That isn’t to say that the film completely squanders it’s opportunity; far from it. Though the transitions from segment to segment are largely self serving to Schroeder, he certainly includes some interview gems. In particular the ones that speak to the climate surrounding the comic industry shortly before Watterson retired.

 

While perhaps relying too heavily on nostalgia, Dear Mr. Watterson manages to take a beloved piece of art and puts it under a lens that allows us to view it more in depth than we might have otherwise done. Calvin and Hobbes is universally loved, and Schroeder does his best to let you know that he loves it just as much as the best of them. We’re given a rare glimpse into the mindset of cartoonists, and allowed to hear from those that worked right alongside one of the greatest comic artists of all time.