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‘Better Than Us’: And they speak Russian!

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

A family on the verge of breaking apart becomes embroiled in the cutthroat domestic robot business when a brand new super-bot escapes and imprints on the youngest of them.

Who hasn’t seen ‘I, Robot’ or any number of other robotic works based on the writings of legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov? The show begins by detailing out the three main laws of robotics as set down by Asimov himself: robots may not harm humans, robots must obey human orders, and yes, robots have a right to protect their own existence so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two laws. These 3 Laws present no end of conflict in both the existences of said robots, and the humans trying to take advantage of and keep a firm reign on robots they themselves are building.

In present-day Russia, the cybernetics company known as Cronos is the main contender for all robotic concerns in Moscow and beyond. Head of the company Victor Toropov (Aleksandr Ustyugov), is beset on all sides by serious issues – his wife teeters on the edge of insanity after the death of their only child Boris, and even the secret replacement Victor provided her isn’t really cutting it anymore. Vic’s father-in-law Alexei Losev (Sergey Sosnovskiy) is a strong shareholder in Cronos and makes no bones about barking orders at Vic for everything, including the best way to fix his wife, Losev’s daughter Svetlana (Irina Tarannik), by making her pregnant so they can have another child and solve everything wrong in their marriage that way. Vic’s partner and best engineer Maslovsky (Pavel Vorozhtsov) happens to be dipping his wick in the company ink, as it were, and disapproves of a great many things Vic does, but he doggedly continues to share his concerns aloud, take his verbal abuse in return and follow orders – until he doesn’t. And to top it all off, the brand new state-of-the-art top secret Chinese-made robot that Toropov had smuggled into the city for all kinds of nefarious purposes, has gone missing.

But that is far from all. That self-same one-of-a-kind robot Arisa (Paulina Andreeva), in the space of being left alone with the wrong users for a short period of time, managed to protect her own existence by committing a murder, escape her confines smoothly and without further incidents, and imprint indelibly on a little girl. This vivacious and unabashed daughter of George Safronov, Sonya (Vitalyia Kornienko), takes to Arisa like girls have done to pets, to friends, and friends that became family, since time immemorial. And so from the first flush of independence, Arisa the top secret next-gen bot everyone is after, knows love and compassion, from a little girl who is loved by all around her, even as her family wounds each-other with their dramas and pride.

Elder son Egor (Eldar Kalimulin) is a little teenage rebel, or likes to think he is. He certainly wants Jeanne, the cocky street girl he wants desperately to hook up with, to think so. Jeanne (Vera Panfilova) has concerns of her own, mainly the ones involving her brother Bars and his gang of would-be revolutionaries, the ones against the robots taking over their jobs and especially against the Early Retirement Act, they call themselves Liquidators, for that is what they do to bots. Gangs of aimless teenage thugs and miscreants, the lost searching for a cause, gather and storm unsuspecting bots, any model they can get their hands on really, and despoil and destroy them in a rather ‘Lord of the Flies’ fashion. And brother Bars (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) is their leader. This means, at least initially, Bars is the one Egor needs to impress if he wants to be with Jeanne.

Poor Safronov (Kirill Karo) is off trying to deal with his devious plotter of an ex-wife Lara and her attempt to take both children and her new husband off to Australia from under his very nose, when the final, a bit anticlimactic but certainly relevant, meeting and final imprint happens between Georgy and Arisa.

Having a bot who sees your ex-wife as a rival and is trying to convince you to go on dates with her between you and your past enemies who are now rearing their ugly heads again in the search for Arisa, has to be strange for Safronov. Georgy does manage to keep his cool a fair amount of the time, but then he starts yelling and even Arisa lets him finish. The hunt for Arisa begins to intensify as the people are trying to push through the government the Early Retirement Act and a contest of finest bot between China and Russia will go down, with Arisa slated for the main star of Moscow’s finest. The cops and especially Major Varlamov (Jonathon Fahn), are cracking down hard in the search too – for whatever they can use to prove, finally, that Victor Toropov is a murderer.

Excellent acting on all parts concerned, but of course main applause has to go to Paulina Andreeva, who played Arisa beautifully, in multiple believable bot-awakening-like displays of raw emotion. All good sci-fi dramas remember to layer mysteries in with emotional displays, and here again ‘Better Than Us’ does not disappoint, deftly leaving some answers right for the end, keeping you watching and fascinated. The question of robotic existence-cum-life versus the apparently declining value of human life is presented staggeringly well from every angle, including some unexpected ones. It is mildly strange to be listening to all of them speak Russian, but really, the production values were great and all the practical effects worked quite well.

In the finest Asimov tradition, give the show a chance to prove it truly is, ‘Better Than Us’!

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“Kung Fu Panda 4” — A Letdown for True Fans

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As a longtime fan of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, I eagerly anticipated the release of “Kung Fu Panda 4.” Unfortunately, this latest installment feels more like a blatant cash grab than a heartfelt continuation of Po’s journey. Despite its dazzling animation, the film falls short in delivering the magic that made us fall in love with the series in the first place.

A Recycled Plot

The storyline of “Kung Fu Panda 4” lacks originality. Po’s quest to save yet another endangered village from an ancient threat feels redundant and uninspired. Instead of the rich character development and emotional depth we’ve come to expect, we’re left with a series of disjointed action scenes and lackluster jokes. 

Neglecting the Furious Five

One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is its treatment of the beloved Furious Five. These characters, who played crucial roles in Po’s previous adventures, are now relegated to the background with minimal impact on the story. Their interactions with Po, once a highlight of the series, are reduced to mere cameos.

Stunning Yet Hollow Animation

While the animation in “Kung Fu Panda 4” is as visually stunning as ever, it can’t mask the film’s weak script. The vibrant landscapes and expertly choreographed fight scenes are impressive, but they feel empty and superficial without a compelling story. It’s as if the filmmakers hoped that impressive visuals alone could carry the film.

Flat Humor

The humor, which was a cornerstone of the earlier films, falls disappointingly flat in this installment. The jokes rely heavily on slapstick and recycled gags, lacking the wit and charm that made us laugh in previous movies. This reliance on tired humor only reinforces the sense that “Kung Fu Panda 4” is more interested in maintaining a profitable brand than in telling a meaningful story.

Final Verdict

In conclusion, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is a letdown for true franchise fans. It fails to capture the heart, creativity, and narrative depth that made its predecessors special. For those hoping for a return to form, this film may feel like a disappointing attempt to cash in on past successes rather than a genuine effort to continue Po’s journey. Let’s hope DreamWorks learns from this misstep and returns to what made “Kung Fu Panda” great in the first place.

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The Idea Man

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Disney’s latest documentary, “The Idea Man,” offers an enthralling and intimate portrait of Jim Henson, the mastermind behind the Muppets and a pioneer in the world of puppetry and children’s entertainment. This documentary not only honors Henson’s legacy but also delves deeply into the creative processes that made him a visionary in the entertainment industry.

“The Idea Man” begins by chronicling Henson’s early years, showcasing his initial forays into puppetry and television. The documentary paints a vivid picture of a young, ambitious Henson who dared to dream beyond conventional storytelling methods. Through rare footage and personal anecdotes from family, friends, and colleagues, viewers gain a comprehensive understanding of Henson’s innovative spirit.

One of the documentary’s strengths lies in its exploration of Henson’s multifaceted personality. Interviews with those who knew him best reveal a man driven by an insatiable curiosity and a profound desire to connect with audiences of all ages. The film highlights how Henson’s unique ability to infuse his creations with humor, heart, and a touch of whimsy made characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Big Bird beloved worldwide.

“The Idea Man” delves into the meticulous craftsmanship that went into Henson’s work. The documentary showcases behind-the-scenes footage of Henson at work, providing an insider’s look at the creative process behind iconic projects like “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” and “Fraggle Rock.” These glimpses into his workshop reveal the painstaking detail and boundless imagination that characterized Henson’s approach to puppetry and storytelling.

The documentary also emphasizes Henson’s contributions to the broader landscape of entertainment and technology. His pioneering work in animatronics and special effects, particularly in films like “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth,” is explored in depth. Interviews with contemporary filmmakers and special effects artists underscore Henson’s lasting impact on the industry, cementing his status as a trailblazer whose influence endures.

“The Idea Man” does not shy away from the emotional aspects of Henson’s life. The documentary addresses the challenges he faced, both professionally and personally, and how he navigated the pressures of creative success. This balanced portrayal adds depth to the narrative, making it not only a celebration of Henson’s achievements but also a poignant reminder of his humanity.

Disney’s “The Idea Man” is a must-watch for fans of Jim Henson and anyone interested in the magic of creative storytelling. The documentary is a heartfelt tribute to a man whose imagination knew no bounds and whose work continues to inspire generations. Through a blend of archival footage, personal interviews, and expert analysis, “The Idea Man” offers a rich and engaging look at the life and legacy of Jim Henson.

For those searching for an insightful and inspiring documentary on one of the entertainment industry’s most influential figures, “The Idea Man” is an essential addition to your watchlist.

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Beach boys documentary

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**Rating: ★★★★☆**

Disney Plus’ new documentary, “The Beach Boys: Endless Harmony,” dives deep into the tumultuous, yet harmonious journey of America’s quintessential surf rock band. Directed with a keen eye for both nostalgia and narrative depth, the film offers an intimate look at the band’s rise to stardom, their internal conflicts, and their enduring legacy.

From the outset, the documentary captures the essence of The Beach Boys’ musical genius, spotlighting Brian Wilson’s unparalleled songwriting and the band’s signature harmonies that defined a generation. Archival footage, including rare studio sessions and candid home videos, paints a vivid picture of their creative process and the carefree California lifestyle that inspired their biggest hits. The inclusion of previously unreleased tracks and demos adds a layer of authenticity, giving fans a rare glimpse into the evolution of some of their most iconic songs.

Interviews with surviving band members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine, alongside insights from music historians and contemporary artists influenced by The Beach Boys, enrich the narrative. These personal accounts are heartfelt and, at times, poignant, particularly when addressing the darker chapters of the band’s history—Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental health, the impact of drugs, and the tragic loss of Dennis and Carl Wilson.

The documentary’s strength lies in its balanced portrayal. It doesn’t shy away from the band’s internal discord and the challenges they faced, yet it also celebrates their artistic achievements and cultural impact. The visual style is vibrant, with a seamless blend of past and present, creating a tapestry that feels both nostalgic and fresh.

However, “Endless Harmony” occasionally veers into fan-service territory, glossing over certain controversies and perhaps offering a more sanitized version of events. Despite this, the documentary succeeds in providing a comprehensive overview that will satisfy long-time fans while introducing new audiences to the magic of The Beach Boys.

In conclusion, “The Beach Boys: Endless Harmony” is a must-watch for music lovers and history buffs alike. It captures the spirit of an era, the brilliance of a band, and the timeless appeal of their music. Disney Plus has delivered a documentary that is as much a celebration of The Beach Boys’ legacy as it is a testament to the enduring power of their sound and soul.

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