Archive for the Fantasy Category

Song of the Sea

Posted in Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on March 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Song of the Sea photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe setting is Ireland but this period piece sort of exists in a magical land that seems almost otherworldly. The environment relies on folklore as it concerns the ancient legends of the selkie, mythological creatures that live as seals in the sea but become human on land. Song of the Sea is the second film from Cartoon Saloon and Tomm Moore, the creators of The Secret of Kells. Like that film, it received a nomination for Best Animated Feature.

This fantasy involves a little girl names Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) who lives in a lighthouse by the sea with her brother Ben (David Rawle). Six years after the child’s birth, their father (Brendan Gleeson) still laments the loss of their mother (Lisa Hannigan). Saoirse herself has yet to utter a word. But they have other issues. After the girl is found sleeping on the beach one night, she and her older brother are sent to live with Granny in the supposed safety of the city. The story is fashioned as an epic journey where Ben and Saoirse must embark through a mysterious world of Giants, Rock Fairies and an Owl Witch to get back to the sea. The latter creature is named Macha and her ability to turn people to stone has foreboding qualities. At one point the two become separated. Young Ben’s journey to find her is rather touching.

This mythic tale stars two kids and is pitched at a young audience. However this unfolds at a much slower pace than the cartoons of today. The narrative is more of an experience. It’s quiet and gradually takes its time to unfold. That’s fitting given the bewitching atmosphere of the production. It’s a gorgeous, hand drawn delight that is rich in color. The minimalist design is made up of visually bold shapes. Their simplicity is extremely pleasing to the eye. The soundtrack is haunting which evokes an ethereal mood. Irish singer Lisa Hannigan contributes several exquisite melodies including the title tune. She also happens to be the voice of the mother. With Hollywood studios dominating at the multiplexes these days, Song of the Sea is a beautiful anomaly amongst the current computer graphics landscape. Young children and animation fans will be enchanted alike.

03-19-15

Cinderella

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on March 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Cinderella photo starrating-4stars.jpgDisney has created a mini industry over the last 5 years in adapting fantasy into live action films: Alice in Wonderland, Oz The Great and Powerful, Maleficent. They have all achieved remarkable box office success. You wouldn’t think that adapting a fantasy would be difficult. After all, these stories have stood the test of time. While each version has had their moments, they’ve always fallen victim to traps of our current age that keep them from feeling like a timeless work of art….until now. The funny thing is, Cinderella should have been the most difficult to adapt. No Disney princess has been more harshly condemned than Cinderella. The criticisms by now legendary: “She’s one-dimensional.“ “She’s bland – too passive.” “She’s reactionary – waiting around for her prince instead of actively doing something to improve her situation.”. And yet the character endures. With Cinderella, the studio has for the first time, created a work that not only respects the classic fable, but still manages to enchant a contemporary audience.

Kenneth Branagh has accomplished something that is revolutionary in 2015. He doesn’t re-invent the fairy tale. He doesn’t modernize it. He doesn’t try to inject winking irony into the proceedings. Those maneuvers, while in vogue, have always negated the original text by descending into camp. Along with screenwriter Chris Weitz, Branagh has done a most inconceivable thing. He somehow cherishes the heart of the 1950 Disney animated movie while elevating the character into someone to admire. That one’s noble heart and unyielding virtue can itself bring reward. If after watching Cinderella, you still think its moral is that lonely girls who wait, will one day be rescued by a handsome prince, then you haven’t been paying attention.

With Cinderella free to just be what it is, the production can concentrate on making the story seem magical again. This is, after all, a fairy tale. It takes what the audience is familiar with and utilizes our modern age to make it better. One of the high points is the magical appearance of her fairy godmother played by Helena Bonham Carter. It’s nice to see the actress look beautiful in a fantasy again. Her pre-ball interaction with Cinderella is a pure delight.  Watching the pumpkin become a coach, mice become horses and lizards become footmen is a marvel of CGI that feels like just the right amount to dazzle the eyes, but not so much that it descends into a garish technological spectacle. The magic continues as Cinderella makes it to the reception at the castle. As Cinderella, Downton Abbey’s Lily James suggests a young Jessica Lange, particularly in her gorgeously made up face. The set piece at the ball is a sumptuous parade of choreographed dancers who spin and turn in unison. The party scene a dazzling display of color and merriment that is every bit as wondrous a moment as you can imagine.

Cinderella is comprised of a cast that perfectly interprets the individuals in the fairy tale. The script preserves the basis of these people while expounding upon them to give motivation for their behavior. The King (Derek Jacobi), The Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård), the Captain (Nonso Anozie), the wicked stepsisters (Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera) all have a depth to them. And what would any great drama be without an entertaining villain? Cate Blanchett makes an iconic Stepmother. She does an admirable job of portraying the exaggerated portrait of a hissable villain – yet believably rooted in the attitudes of a jealous adult who would put her own selfish desires before that of a child.

Cinderella has done the unthinkable – preserved the spirit of the original tale, while promoting an empowering message. Actress Lily James is a fetching heroine – a creature of integrity. The ”love at first sight” relationship between the Prince and Cinderella is kept simple, but clarified in a way to make it more commendable. You understand why Cinderella and the Prince are drawn to each other initially when they meet in the forest under more modest circumstances and then again at the ball. It is her selfless personality that is emphasized. When the Prince (Richard Madden) talks of the mysterious girl he met in the forest, his desire is motivated by Cinderella’s words. There is more to their relationship than mere beauty. The poor girl that has been treated like a maid in her own home, has finally felt what it’s like to be a princess. At the beginning of the story, Cinderella’s mother imparts these words of wisdom on her deathbed: “Have courage and be kind. Where there is kindness, there is goodness and where there is goodness, there is magic.” By holding fast to the notion that Cinderella is first and foremost the epitome of virtue, they have fashioned a heroine of female empowerment that is laudable simply because she is a compassionate human being. The concept is revolutionary.

03-12-15

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

Posted in Animation, Drama, Fantasy with tags on February 5, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya photo stars-3_zpsdbd867b4.gifA bamboo cutter find a tiny nymph inside a plant stalk. The child grows at a rapid rate into a beautiful young woman, desired by many. The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is the latest offering from Studio Ghibli. This is rumored to be Director Isao Takahata‘s swan song who hasn’t directed a film since 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember that one. He co-founded the legendary Japanese animation house with long-time collaborative partner Hayao Miyazaki. Savvy moviegoers will likewise remember Miyazaki’s farewell The Wind Rises.

The animation is unlike the majority of what is being produced today. The look is reminiscent of the delicate approach of pre-war Japanese watercolor artists.  Hand drawn minimalist style – read unfinished – recalls the preliminary sketch cartoons that Disney commissions before making the actual feature. You know the ones. They’re often featured in the DVD extras in those behind-the-scenes featurettes. It is steadfastly old fashioned when compared with the cartoons of today. In fact the visuals have a traditional quality that make linking it to our contemporary times seem like an anachronism.  Takahata certainly doesn’t rely on comic relief either.  The saga is taken from an ancient Japanese text so it makes the timeless design most appropriate.  The story’s seeming existence in another time and place is one of its most positive attributes.

There is a magical credibility to the drama which is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese fable.  Princess Kaguya has moments of genuine poignancy. There are also long stretches where the languid narrative is simply allowed to rest. There’s something admirable about an account that is unconcerned by time.  It’s akin to watching the undulating ripples of a pond. If gazing at the quiet beauty of nature can captivate you for 2 ½ hours this will surely enchant your senses.

The chronicle is a legend full of fanciful flourishes that myths are known to have. Princess Kaguya is a mysterious protagonist compete with a secret back-story like the heroine of any good yarn. However she isn’t a particularly warm person. When her childhood friend Sutemaru is beaten in front of her, she does nothing to help him.  She gives would-be suitors false hope by demanding they fetch items to court her favor. The kicker is she has no interest in any of these men to begin with, so her requests are for impossible to get items. One even dies in the process. At least Kaguya gets depressed about it. At first she seems to praise the simple value of her previous country life over her more exalted existence in the big city, but then the fantastical ending kind of throws that idea out the window. Fairy tales always have a moral and I’m sure this one is no exception. I just have no idea what that is given the bizarre resolution. I still enjoyed The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. It’s different and that’s saying something in today’s cookie cutter world.

02-05-15

Into the Woods

Posted in Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical on December 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Into the Woods photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgA humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have longed to have a child. Apparently their neighbor, an ugly old witch (Meryl Streep), placed a curse on his house when the baker’s father was caught stealing from the old hag. The witch is willing to reverse the spell. But only because she wants to be beautiful again. She cannot touch the objects she needs to accomplish this task and so she delegates securing the artifacts to the couple. The witch requires (1) a cow as white as milk, (2) a cape as red as blood, (3) hair as yellow as corn and (4) a slipper as pure as gold. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will recognize these items. Writer James Lapine has interpolated the stories of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) & the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) in an altogether new take on traditional fables.

Playwright turned screenwriter James Lapine adapts his Tony Award–winning 1987 Broadway musical highlighting music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For roughly 75 minutes – 60% of the film – the formula works. The script celebrates classic fairy tales from the likes of The Brothers Grimm with a captivating presentation. The production design is lavish featuring costumes and sets that compare favorably with classic movie musicals. The songs are catchy too. Certainly chief among these is the duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as whiny princes. In “Agony” they lament they cannot be with the women they desire. Pine is typecast as Cinderella’s caddish suitor and he’s enjoyable. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Who knew Pine could sing? His scene with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they splash amongst the tiny waterfalls of a brook is the musical high point in an opus that has a few. I’ll also include Anna Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Stay With Me” as well.

Into the Woods is half of a good film. The need to subvert conventional fairy tales exists during the first portion but it does so from a place that uplifts the source material. The take is ironic at times and yet the script still keeps an air of sentimentality that is enticing. Unfortunately the mindset to trash “happily ever after” actually tanks the production in the second half. There is the first artificial ending. It’s optimistic and glorious in a winking way. But then the movie continues on for another 50 minutes and the results are disastrous. As the story carries forward, the wife of the fallen giant is now angry. She terrorizes the countryside looking for the boy (Jack) responsible for the death of her husband. Everything upbeat is subsequently destroyed with little regard for the likable personalities they had originally created. A sample “modern sensibility” is when Prince Charming makes a pass at the Baker’s wife. Ew. It ultimately lumps along to a complete bummer of a conclusion that essentially undoes everything wonderful in the first section. Rarely has a movie gone so quickly from a whimsical delight to a dispirited drag. My advice? Stop watching after the mock ending.  Up until then it’s a really entertaining film.

12-25-14

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on December 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies photo starrating-2stars.jpgIf for nothing else, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is wonderful for finally putting to rest the ongoing speculation as to whether making 3 movies was a cash grab. It most certainly was. This series has always been marred by a ridiculously extended narrative. The original book by JRR Tolkien was 310 pages and meant for children. The filmed adaptation by Peter Jackson runs 474 minutes in its entirety. That’s almost 8 hours folks. My patience has worn out. Simply put, the third installment is an aesthetically pleasing but tedious bore.

Our story commences with Smaug the dragon. He assaults the city of Lake-town by setting fire to it, destroying everything. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) faces off against the beast with his arrows. What happens next doesn’t put an end to the troubles of Bilbo and the dwarves. In fact it brings more enmity, not closure. It’s interesting to note that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) doesn’t even register as the star of the movie that bears his name. Instead most of the plot concerns the spiritual quest of Thorin, the dwarf leader played by Richard Armitage. Given his portrayal here, you’ll forget that he was once a good guy. Driven solely by greed, he’s an insufferable presence.

This sleep inducing chronicle encourages a lot of reflection during its 144 minute slog. The fighting is monotonous. All of it repetitive. The battle is drawn out for no other purpose than to render 72 pages into a feature length work. Although it gave me time to make some random observations. What to make of that title? As near as I can figure it, the five armies comprise of (1) Goblins & Wargs, (2) the Men of Dale, (3) Elves, (4) Dwarves and (5) Eagles. Wait what? Eagles?! I’m sorry but a group of gliding birds does not constitute an army. I don’t care how big they are. Actor Ryan Gage is dreary comic relief as Alfrid Lickspittle, a citizen of Lake-town whose chief skill is disguising himself as a woman to save his own skin. When he cries out “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” All I heard was Helen Lovejoy, the gossipy wife of the Reverend on The Simpsons. How about some more déjà vu line readings? A CGI display has Galadriel holding up her hand to banish evil spirit Sauron. But hold the Arkenstone! Did I hear Galadriel dismiss Sauron with a “Begone! You have no power here!”? Wasn’t that Glinda’s line from The Wizard of Oz? Maybe she should’ve just dropped a house on him and been done with it.

The Hobbit as a adaptation simply does not have a narrative rich enough to sustain this bloated, distended bore. The chronicle is not deep nor meaningful nor even well-executed, with one exception. At least there is a definitive conclusion. That’s something that couldn’t be said of the previous two parts. Cheers for that. But the paper-thin plot is stretched out beyond all common sense. Director Peter Jackson continues to add his own characters and subplots to the detriment of Tolkien’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” novel.  Jackson’s re-imagining has no focus. Smaug’s attack upon Lake-town, which opens part 3, is one of the better sequences as far as this prequel franchise is concerned. It captivated me. But it’s really the only thing that did. The climatic fight, which is supposed to be the centerpiece, goes on forever – interminable.  It’s more Game of Thrones than Tolkien anyway. The material is there. Somewhere buried under all of this exposition is an entertaining adventure, which prompts my suggestion: Could someone please take these three Hobbit movies and just edit them into one enjoyable 2 hour film? Thanks in advance.

12-21-14

The Zero Theorem

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Zero Theorem photo starrating-2stars.jpgQohen, pronounced Cohen but often referred to as merely Q, is a reclusive mathematical genius working for a company named Mancom. The job requires he labor over a formula that makes zero equal 100%. In this way they hope to prove the reason for human existence: “everything adds up to nothing”. If you haven’t guessed from that, Qohen lives in a future dystopia. It’s a cacophonous society of advertising where talking adverts actually follow you as you walk down the street. Qohen is suffering from his own existential crisis. He’s searching for meaning in a world run by heartless corporations. Christoph Waltz plays a bloke who is a bit off his rocker. The hairless introvert refers to himself as “we” and constantly waits at home for a phone call he believes will give him the answer he needs.

Apparently The Zero Theorem completes a trilogy. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satires began with 1985’s Brazil and continued on through 1995 with Twelve Monkeys. Similar in spirit, there’s no denying that the production has visually appealing aspects. The atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic as most of the action takes place in Qohen’s cluttered home, a repurposed cathedral that has been abandoned. Gilliam appoints the room with little details like a collage. Director Gilliam surrounds Waltz with seasoned thespians in supporting roles. Unfortunately the parts are too shallow to make much of an impression. Tilda Swinton ends her succession of phenomenal films with a role that feels like a cheap imitation of her dictatorial character from Snowpiercer. The 2nd half improves with the arrival of newcomer Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a seductive femme fatale that could either be his one true love or perhaps just a mere distraction.

Despite my fairly level-headed distillation of the plot, The Zero Theorem has no objective to entertain with a coherent story. It’s a vague rumination of a concept. The lack of specifics makes the disastrous beginning extremely hard to sit through. My consistent thought during the first half: What in the name of Egon Pearson is this movie about?! There are creative features of the society that do captivate. Robin Williams briefly appears on a billboard that promotes “The Church of Batman the Redeemer”. Party-goers dance to music on their own cell phones instead of what’s playing at the party. Terry Gilliam’s world building is impressive. But look past those amusing gags and we’re left with an inkling of an idea unable to support a compelling narrative. It recalls his brilliant Brazil in style but not in substance. The Zero Theorem is a thoroughly uninvolving exercise in abstract thought, and it’s not even a very interesting one at that.

09-23-2014

Ghostbusters

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ghostbusters photo starrating-5stars.jpgHard to believe, but 2014 is the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters. 1984 was a magical summer for me. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid and The Last Starfighter were all movies I saw that year. And that June 8th weekend was a historic one because it not only marked the debut of Ivan Reitman’s comedy classic, but of also another big hit. Gremlins was in fact THE major release that weekend. It was opening in many more theaters and it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg who was red hot from directing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial two years prior. Even Beat Street, now a little remembered music drama about a newly emerging dance style called breakdancing, was launched in more theaters. Despite debuting on fewer screens, the picture would ultimately become the 2nd highest grossing film of the year. Beverly Hills Cop, opening at the end of the year, would be #1.

It wasn’t easy to find. My local cinema that only charged $2 wasn’t showing it, but me and my buddies desperately wanted to see it.   I was too young to drive so we had to beg my friend’s mom to take us so we could make the trip out of town. $5 for a matinee which in 1984 was outrageously expensive. That would be like $12 today. Unbelievable! I can remember sitting in that darkened theater wide eyed at the special effects, laughing at the gut-busting one-liners. I was captivated by what I saw and it immediately became a treasured favorite. I still cite it any time I’m asked to list my top movies. I’ll admit my love is influenced by nostalgia, but I find it has lost none of its luster.

The plot is secondary to the fun, but I’ll recount it anyway. There’s this high rise apartment building in New York at 55 Central Park West, see. It’s being haunted by a demonic spirit named Zuul which starts terrorizing poor musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) in her kitchen. Meanwhile compatible demi-god Vinz Clortho the Keymaster attacks nerdy accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) at a party he’s throwing for his clients. Both beings act as loyal minions preparing the way for Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian god of destruction who can manifest itself in different forms. Scientists Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler are doctors of parapsychology. With paranormal activity in New York on the rise, they create The Ghostbusters, an exterminating business of sorts.

Ghostbusters is quite simply one of my most beloved films of all time. The iconic production is a perfect marriage of a special effects extravaganza with spectacular performances to create one side-splitting gem. Bill Murray is the undeniable star and he’s in top form as Dr. Peter Venkman a sly, laid back scientist with deadpan delivery that seems more concerned with dating his pretty client Dana Barrett than actually getting to the bottom of her disturbances. Sigourney Weaver nicely straddles the line between exasperated annoyance and charmed love interest. Bill Murray likewise has great camaraderie with his fellow Ghostbusters Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Those two are also responsible for writing the finely tuned screenplay. It zips, it pops and it never lets up. Ernie Hudson joins them later as Winston Zeddemore. He delivers my favorite quip after the group is blown away by the lightening bolts of an evil entity from another dimension. There is a slew of funny dialogue and Rick Moranis’ nerdy portrayal of Louis Tully delivers a lot of it. He‘s hilarious. “Okay, who brought the dog?” he grins after hearing the growl from the long horned beast hiding in his closet.

The spectacular special effects support the story, but they never threaten to overshadow the actors. The technology was state of the art at the time, even earning an Academy Award nomination.  But it lost to the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Perhaps time has rendered the optics a bit quaint to a modern audience. The sight of that devil dog leaping from the closet and running around the city is the most dicey. But it’s the comedic interactions between characters that hold our focus, not the whiz bang appeal of the visual displays. Ok so there’s that “monster” near the end that dwarfs everything else. When the Destructor of their choosing threatens the city and their very existence, it’s memorable. That’s the kind of silly moment of brilliance that makes you realize you’re watching a work of creative genius. Oh yeah.  I adore this film.

09-06-14

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Posted in Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgCome with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…

So sings Willy Wonka, the mysterious confectioner whose candy factory is shrouded in secrecy. “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out”. Then one day the enigmatic maker of the world’s most coveted sweets extends a proclamation. Five lucky individuals will be given a tour of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. This will be granted to anyone in the world who happens to find a golden ticket hidden within the package of a Wonka Bar. Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee are four children who each receive a winning entry. Charlie Bucket, our upbeat but downtrodden protagonist, wants nothing more than to be number five. The chocolate factory, we learn, is right in Charlie’s hometown. Poor Charlie lives an underprivileged life. He doesn’t have extra change to buy candy bars. Then one day he happens upon a coin lying in the gutter and uses the money to buy a Wonka bar. From that point forward his life will never be the same.

The cast is flawless. A traditional family-oriented adventure would tell a buoyant tale of children thrilled to tour the world’s most famous candy factory. This workshop is different however, and Willy Wonka is no ordinary manufacturer. Gene Wilder should have gotten an Academy Award nomination for his offbeat performance. The titular chocolatier is a master of ceremonies unseen since the likes of PT Barnum. Although his personality is a mixture of a benevolent confidant and a bitter misanthrope out for vengeance. He presides over the tour with a fiendish delight. His candy factory makes tasty sweets but it’s also a bit malevolent. For example a seemingly innocuous boat trip aboard the Wonkatania becomes a terrorizing trip when it passes though a dark tunnel. His helpers, the Oompa Loompas are bizarre little orange-skinned, green-haired men with a singular purpose: to make Wonka’s astounding confections. The five kids are perfectly cast. American boy Peter Ostrum in his only film role, is Charlie Bucket, our sweet and well mannered lead. The same cannot be said for the remaining four. The script has a pessimistic view of children as ill behaved and the characterizations are bewitchingly wicked. Chief among them is Veruca Salt who is a positively unbearable in her demands for anything and everything she sees fit to want.

The freakish atmosphere is punctuated by songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. They, along with Walter Scharf, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. When British actress Julie Dawn Cole sings “I Want It Now!” she embodies a girl with unadulterated greed but in a most alluring way. You cannot ignore Veruca Salt. Her father indulges her every whim and her personality is the worse for it. The “Oompa Loompa” chants sung by Willy Wonka’s minions are catchy little ditties that lament the behavior of each of the nasty children. “The Candy Man” would become a #1 hit a year later for Sammy Davis, Jr. when he covered the song. And of course there’s my personal favorite “Pure Imagination” sung in complete sincerity by Gene Wilder.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. As is the case with the author’s children’s books, there is a sinister element that is most subversive. It is a recurring theme in his works and this adaptation is no different. The movie was filmed in Munich and this gives the town a puzzling hard-to-place feel before anyone even sets foot in the factory. Five lucky kids get the opportunity to tour Willy Wonka’s wondrous plant but the experience isn’t quite what they were anticipating. The bright colorful production design stirs the imagination with possibilities. There’s a chocolate river, giant edible mushrooms, lickable wallpaper, a Wonkamobile that shoots soap. It’s all rather enchanting. Only the Fizzy Lifting Drinks sequence is a snooze. When the picture was released in 1971 it was a box office disappointment. Despite garnering positive reviews it only earned a mere $4 million in 1971. Over the years, however, the film achieved the status as a cult film and is now widely accepted as an outright classic. It’s easy to see why. I love this movie.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

How to Train Your Dragon 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA lot has changed in the 5 years since the Viking village of Berk made peace with the dragons. Thanks to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), he proved they could be our allies.  With all due respect to dogs, the reptiles have become man’s best friend in every way.  No longer feared, dragons are a part of everyday life. This includes the dizzying sport of dragon racing which opens the picture. Combatants compete atop dragons by scooping sheep and throwing them into nets. However our teen protagonist, the awkward yet sensitive Hiccup, is nowhere to be found. His father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), wants his son to succeed him as chief of Berk. Hiccup is avoiding the issue. Instead he is hanging with “Toothless”, his Night Fury dragon. He and his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), come across a group of dragon trappers. They are in the service of a crazed madman out to conquer the world.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that most rarest of sequels, one that not only feels like a necessary extension of the original but then improves upon it. Indeed the script admirably propels the story forward in a meaningful way. This is the legend of a Viking hero‘s progression from boy into manhood. Should I forgo the obligatory paragraph about how gorgeous the artwork is? That should be expected these days, right? We are spoiled in this area like never before. Yet even with my lofty expectations, there are still spectacles where I audibly gasped. Stunning exhibitions show off the breathtaking array of different dragon species out there. Like butterflies they swarm in displays too dazzling to describe. And I won’t even mention the impressive new Bewilderbeast, the biggest of all the dragons. A gargantuan spiky dragon with two big mammoth-like tusks – truly a sight to behold. Ok so I brought him up anyway. I couldn’t resist.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 represents a remarkable leap in narrative complexity. This is an epic that details the self discovery and personal revelations of an individual. Hiccup must contend with various personalities that enrich his own experience and ours. Figures that include Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a tyrannical leader that cannot be reasoned with or conversely, a more generous, nature-respecting type like Valka (Cate Blanchett). There is even a touching reunion that reconciles two people that have been apart for 20 years. But above all is the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless. They develop an understanding to which most live action films can only aspire. This is a sequel that has the audacity to just relax and take a breath. The saga frequently allows silence to convey a depth that most other cartoons cannot. Their colorful animations and jokey asides are no substitute for the sophistication presented here. Interestingly it’s the action sequences that open and close this production that are the least interesting parts. That misstep aside, please do note that the chronicle has the courage to trust in the power of emotion. This is a tale with so much heart it hurts. How could anyone hate something that elevates such goodness? I imagine there will be people that don’t like How to Train Your Dragon 2. I pray for their soul.

06-12-14

Maleficent

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 31, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Maleficent photo starrating-3stars.jpgMaleficent is a re-imaging of the awesome baddie from Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. That film was adapted from fairy tales by Charles Perrault and The Brothers Grimm. In this new version the narrative is told from a different point of view. The evil sorceress is actually just misunderstood. She is merely a bold fairy in charge of guarding the enchanted forest in the Moors. When the very boy with whom she shared a meaningful friendship/love as a young girl, grows up to betray her, she seeks revenge.

Alice in Wonderland, Oz The Great and Powerful – Disney has a fondness for these live action fantasies based on written works. And why not?  They’ve been a cash cow for the company. Unfortunately, despite their ability to slay at the box office, the productions simply haven’t been very good. Weak story, poor pacing, dreary characters and an over reliance on CGI have made these episodes rather depressing. Now the talented production designer of those movies has made his feature directing debut. Robert Stromberg has in fact won two Oscars for Art Direction (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) Regrettably Maleficent is plagued by some of the same troubles that have tainted the studio’s previous forays into this genre. Stromberg is clearly preoccupied with the visual language to the detriment of plot.

The movie Maleficent has some serious issues. The most glaring being the extensive use of CGI that seemingly infects every scene. Computer graphics are used indiscriminately just to make the grass greener, the sky bluer and La Jolie‘s skin more radiant. Even the actors have been manipulated. Three bumbling flower pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) raise the baby Aurora in the woods until she is 16. The actresses’ faces have been shrunken down to minute size and they are freakish. From the coterie of cutesy critters that overpopulate the forest to the supporting cast, nothing in this picture looks organic. Yet Maleficent ultimately manages to rise above those problems.

The saga develops around a character with a specific point. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton promotes a clear understandable story and the script adheres to a definite dramatic arc. A couple memorable scenes demonstrates this beautifully. The horrific moment in which Maleficent makes a startling discovery is a shocking violation. The act suggests a real world analogy that only an adult would grasp. The original cartoon began with the royal christening of the princess. That scene occurs later in this chronicle but it’s possibly the most iconic spectacle here. It is a brilliant manifestation of the power that Maleficent wields as a sorceress and Angelina Jolie holds as an actress. The new king (and queen) must contend with the curse placed upon their daughter Aurora. The plot steals an innovative twist from Disney’s own Frozen which in turn drew generous inspiration from Broadway’s Wicked. There isn’t much particularly original or fresh in this tale. However, what it does have is Angelina Jolie in a pitch perfect part that raises the entertainment value significantly.

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent, a Disney cartoon villain beautifully brought to real life. Her portrait is a self consciously affected, visually immaculate rendering of the evil fairy. Her sophisticated execution has an artful physicality to it. She is obviously enjoying the role with an exhilarated air that is contagious. Whether it be with an arched brow or a curl of the lips, her scenery chewing performance commands your attention with her stylized manner. She possesses the ability to captivate an audience even when virtually everything else around her is a disappointment. Chief among these problems is the preponderance of CGI that clutters the screen to no benefit. Although she’s ably supported by members of her fellow cast. Elle Fanning is sweetly captivating as Princess Aurora and Sam Riley is emotionally affecting as Diaval, a raven that becomes the witch’s loyal human servant. The less said about Sharlto Copley as King Stefan and his increasingly inscrutable character, the better. None of it matters. In the end, this is Jolie’s movie. It begs the question, can a performance be so transcendent that it can save an entire film? With Maleficent, the answer is, yes, yes it can.

05-30-14

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