Archive for the Family Category

The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19

Toy Story 4

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 24, 2019 by Mark Hobin

toy_story_four_ver8STARS4Let’s face it.  Toy Story 4 doesn’t need to exist.  Toy Story 3 was a flawless finish to a brilliant trilogy.  Everything had been resolved.  You may recall that Andy the human child had grown up.  At the end, he donated his playthings to a little girl named Bonnie.  She was a preschooler at Sunnyside Daycare.  If you don’t remember this, who could blame you?  2010 was almost a decade ago.  However, it’s an important detail in order to understand the journey of these beloved characters.  Toy Story 4 becomes a necessary addition to this series.  The filmmakers have done something quite radical.  They have in essence rebooted the franchise by highlighting a new ensemble while drastically reducing the screen time of most of the original cast, even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).  Woody (Tom Hanks) is a notable exception who still plays a major part.  He now finds himself neglected by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  He may have been Andy’s favorite, but Bonnie is a completely different individual altogether.  Meet Forky (Tony Hale).  Bonnie has created a primitive toy as a craft project in her kindergarten class.  She loves him as much, if not more than, any store bought toy.

Director Josh Cooley along with writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, have come up with chronicle where an individual considers whether their life has meaning.  Forky has been fashioned from a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and googly eyes.  He becomes a sentient being.  He is not a “toy” in the classic sense and deep down the neurotic entity knows it.  He is constantly trying to throw himself into the trash.  Yet Bonnie’s love has brought him to life.  Her devotion is as real to this curio as any of her branded toys.  Woody understands this.  He unfailingly rescues the plastic thingamabob from trying to end its own life.  It’s an existential crisis that would make Ingmar Bergman proud.

The narrative introduces several characters and each one is a uniquely inspired creation of anxiety.  Forky is merely one soul in a detailed rumination on why toys exist and what gives a life fulfillment and value.  Also making a strong impression are Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), a pair of carnival prizes who simply want to be won.  The stitched together plush animals provide some of the biggest laughs of 2019.  There’s also Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s pull-string doll that is perfectly preserved, except for one thing.  She has a broken voice box.  If that defect is repaired, she reasons, then someone will want her.  She is attended to by a collection of identical looking ventriloquist dummies named Benson that serve as her minions.  The fact they don’t speak is such an intelligent decision.  They are truly terrifying.  There’s also Duke Caboom, a square-jawed Canadian daredevil voiced by Keanu Reeves.  Given his well-received appearances in John Wick: Chapter 3 and Always Be My Maybe, 2019 is definitely his year.  He looks just like the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle I treasured in the 1970s.  Nevertheless, he suffers from low self-esteem because he is unable to perform the stunts his commercial ads promised.  This is pretty heady stuff.  I suspect most youngsters will appreciate all this angst as simply the basic need to be loved.

Toy Story 4 may be billed as a sequel to part 3 but it’s really a new beginning.  Most of the original characters have been sidelined in favor of a fresh cast and amended outlook.  Toy Story 4 profoundly flips the script in finding a sense of purpose.  Enter Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who is a much different personality in this narrative.  She was a porcelain figurine on a lamp in the first two entries.  Woody and she had a flirtatious crush on one another.  She is only briefly referenced in the third so her reemergence here as a major player is unexpected.  Her story opens the movie as a brief intro that begins 9 years prior, where she is unceremoniously given away to a mysterious man.  Part Annie Oakley, part Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road) — she is a galvanizing presence with a revolutionary perspective.

Toy Story 4 justifies its existence.  The storytelling is a bit messier than its predecessors.  The plot is an ungainly merging of various plot threads which juggle the various motivations of a large cast.  There are some risky leaps.  There is an emphasis on jokes. The humor is zany.  Although the script truly has something to say.  I will never doubt Pixar’s ability to reinvent itself.  Once you consider a fourth entry, you expect the quality to drop. You’d be forgiven for being skeptical.  The fourth installment has often been the death knell for a film series.  Batman & Robin (1997), Scream 4 (2011) and (perhaps too soon) Men in Black: International (2019) were each the final movie in their respective franchises.  The title is the only predictable component in this production.  This is a visionary dream.  As far as I’m concerned, Pixar could now put out Toy Story 5 & 6 and I’d greet their existence with joy.

06-20-19

Aladdin

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

aladdin_ver2STARS4It’s hard not to look upon these live-action remakes of Disney classics with a bit of cynicism.  Let’s face it.  Familiarity is safe.  Reselling old stories by “updating” them with CGI takes less creativity than having to create something unique.  Some might call them a cash grab.  Truth is.  Most have been wildly lucrative.  Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) being the most notable examples.  That success just feeds into the disapproval.  The box office is certainly there.  However, a cash grab implies something hastily assembled of poor quality.  This definitely does not fall into that category.

Aladdin is a big, extravagant production with musical numbers.  Additionally, costumes and set design are top-notch.  Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both categories back in 2018.  I’d argue that this film is even more deserving of those awards.  There’s a cave of wonders, a flying carpet, and a magical genie.  The source material is not easy to adapt.  There’s a joyous feeling that takes all of those miraculous elements and recreates them in a physical form.  Yes, the imitation feels familiar and less innovative than something fully different.  Yet the manifestation is so spectacular.  It feels like an homage that honors the original.  Aladdin has already been recreated as a musical which had its Broadway debut in 2014.  The idea of adapting this cartoon with human actors is nothing new.  The successful show was nominated for five Tony Awards.  Actor James Monroe Iglehart actually won for playing the Genie.

Of course, it was Robin Williams’ vocal performance that elevated his iconic portrayal in the 1992 animated version.  That’s the role that everyone remembers and actor Will Smith is tasked to fill his very large shoes here.  Just as Emma Watson’s marquee name assisted Beauty and the Beast so too does the Fresh Prince fulfill that part here.  He’s a personality, admittedly, not an impressive vocalist.  Thing is, the veteran actor is wonderful in his own unique way.  His achievement is admirable.  Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has made the decision to have his character vacillate between two extremes.  When Smith gets to be himself and simply exude his natural charisma he’s the most appealing he’s been in years. In fact, he even gets a love interest with Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).  However, when he’s reduced to a blue CGI creation, it’s jarring.  He’s not pleasing in that configuration.

The two leads are more exceptional.  Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) are charming.  I’m not going to unnecessarily detail a tale that is nearly three decades old, but in a nutshell: Aladdin is a “street rat” trying to survive in the bustling city of Agrabah when he runs into Princess Jasmine.  She’s disguised as a commoner like him to understand the conditions of the working class.  The two meet and a connection is made.  The screenplay increases the importance of Jasmine.  She’s got political aspirations to rule her father’s kingdom.  She also gets a new song “Speechless” which is heard twice.  It’s not better than the original songs, but since those can’t be nominated again, it gives the producers the ability to submit it for Oscar consideration.  Jasmine is just as important as the titular hero, but not to his detriment.  She brings a commanding presence.  Massoud is warm and engaging as Aladdin.  The two could have easily come across as bland pretty people.  They are surprisingly great together.  The focus is on what makes them tick not sexiness.  Both bared a lot more skin in the cartoon.  Aladdin is covered up.  His shirtless vest is gone.  Jasmine’s father is the Sultan (Navid Negahban) who rules over the city.  He’s advised by a deceptive sorcerer named Jafar (Marwan Kenzari).  Both are merely a plot means to an end but not a deal breaker in this interpretation.

My 3 wishes for Aladdin were that (1) it would star captivating leads that had chemistry together (2) feature a lively genie that made me laugh and (3) highlight bright splashy production numbers.  I’ve detailed how it delivered the first two.  I’m happy to say my hopes were fulfilled on the third as well.  In particular, the “Prince Ali” number is a fully realized processional accompanied by some fantastic (if not geographically correct) Bollywood-style dancing.  “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” are enchanting too.  This isn’t a replacement of your beloved original.  It’s a remix of sorts.  By adhering mainly to the classic story with only minor tweaks, Disney’s reimagining delivers the goods.  True, it may not be a whole new world.  That’s actually a good thing.  See the execrable Dumbo (2019) if you need proof.  Say what you will about these live-action remakes.  Aladdin is among the very best.

5-23-19

Dumbo

Posted in Family, Fantasy with tags on April 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

dumbo_ver2STARS1.5It takes a special kind of talent to twist an uplifting story and turn it into a depressing slog.  The animated Dumbo (1941) is widely considered one of Disney’s 10 greatest animated films by published critics who make it their business to rank such things.  That’s not my opinion it’s simply a fact.  How director Tim Burton was able to take a heartfelt animated treasure and pervert it into this soulless shell of a disgrace is almost incomprehensible.  For the purposes of this review, however, I’m going to try.

Tim Burton actually worked for Walt Disney as an apprentice animator beginning in1980.  By 1984 he directed a short while there called Frankenweenie.  He was summarily fired by the studio shortly thereafter.  Could this be some sort of pent up anger finally being released decades later?  He’s worked with the studio several times since. That 2010 Alice in Wonderland adaptation isn’t great either but at least it had a modicum of reverence for the source material.  What Burton has accomplished here is the desecration of a classic.  The original was about how an outsider comes to terms with what makes him different and then capitalizing on that supposed weakness.  Dumbo’s big ears became a strength allowing him to triumph over adversity winning the hearts of all those around him.  This aberration of a film marginally runs on the fumes of that idea, but it’s really about something else entirely,

The animated Dumbo (1941) clocked in at a mere 64 minutes.  That’s roughly an hour folks.  Burton’s Dumbo is near twice that length.  Dumbo isn’t told from the perspective of the animals.  None of the critters talk in this version.  Dumbo is a saga about people.  The financial woes of a struggling circus appear to worsen when a newborn baby elephant is born with oversized ears.  Widowed and one-armed horse trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is hired by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito).  He’s got two dead-behind -the-eyes children.  Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) channel all the excitement of a damp dishrag in their performances.  They discover early on that Dumbo can fly.  The cute little guy takes off so frequently for audiences at Medici’s circus that it feels like no big deal.  This catches the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life amusement park, Dreamland.  The carnival feels like a veiled attack on Disneyland.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.  Vandevere and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) make the odd pachyderm a star in his circus.  Unfortunately, life under his big top is not all that it seems.

Before I completely tear this sacrilege apart, I want to give Dumbo its due.  The production looks impressive.  Most noticeably, the photo-realistic digital CGI representation of the main character looks convincing.  The set design by Rick Heinrichs and costumes by Colleen Atwood convey a magical fantasy that’s beyond compare.  Visually my eyes were satisfied by the painstaking details.  Additionally having real-life announcer Michael Buffer portray a ringmaster that bellows “LET’S GET READY FOR DUMBOOO!” was a nice touch.  However, I’d have to go back to The Wiz (1978) to find a stunning work of art based on a joyous original that was so inherently empty.  Like that 70s musical adaptation, a lot of obvious care and craft has gone into creating something that looks beautiful.  Yet peel back the meticulous facade and it’s devoid of substance. Dumbo sucked the life out of me.

Despite its distended length, Burton eviscerates everything that made the prototype so great.  Granted I didn’t expect the crows to make an appearance.  Although reclaiming and redeeming those characters would have displayed the kind of confidence I admire in an auteur.  Once upon a time, Tim Burton was that guy.  The witty wordplay from the crows’ song “When I See an Elephant Fly” is still half-heartedly incorporated into the script.  It’s the wittiest dialogue said in the entire film.  But remember the part where Dumbo’s mother spanks an unruly child?  Or where she rocks Dumbo to sleep in her trunk like a baby?  Or Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s streetwise but supportive confidant?  Or the whimsical elephants on parade number when Dumbo gets drunk?  How about the climactic surprise of a circus crowd that first gasped to see an elephant take flight?  Eliminated, corrupted and mishandled.  All of it.  Point blank and period.  The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell) subverts joy and exploits suffering.  Dumbo is one of the grimmest tales meant for children that I’ve ever seen

03-28-19

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy on February 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

how_to_train_your_dragon_the_hidden_worldSTARS4There’s something so gratifying about a saga with an emotional finish.  DreamWorks Animation may not hold the influence of Disney or Pixar, but they’ve given us some pretty beloved animated franchises including Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda.  This fantasy series, inspired by Cressida Cowell’s books, is among DreamWorks’ very best.  It all started back in 2010 with the first production.  The sequel arrived in 2014.  Now we have The Hidden World, the third (and allegedly final) entry in the trilogy.  All three of these movies have been directed by Canadian animator, Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stich).  Executive producer Chris Sanders was a co-director on the first.  DeBlois has really shepherded this adventure about a callow youth and his maturation into adulthood.

This is the personal evolution of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) or just Hiccup to his friends.  The series has comprised a very affecting character arc.  His ability to buddy up with a supposedly dangerous dragon, teaches his fellow citizens from Berk that these creatures are not the enemy.   In fact, they can be allies.  Hiccup’s friendship with his pet Toothless, a mysterious dark breed called a Night Fury, has developed into a deeply moving relationship that has changed his worldview.  Hiccup has gone from a gangly Viking teen afraid to kill dragons to a gangly adult that confidently befriends them.  It may be your classic “from zero to hero” transformation, but gosh darn it, I completely bought into this young man’s odyssey.  He was 15 years old in the first picture with a major jump to age 20 in the second.  That episode ended with Hiccup taking over as Chieftain of the town of Berk and Toothless becoming the Alpha Dragon.  Only one year has passed when The Hidden World begins. Hiccup has been struggling in his new role.  He and his friends continue to rescue the misunderstood beasts.  He leads a community where dragons now outnumber the people.  They coexist in perfect harmony.  Toothless gets a love interest in the form of a white female known as the Light Fury.  Little do they know that she is being used as bait by a ruthless hunter named Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) who still firmly believes dragons must be exterminated.

How to Train Your Dragon has always presented an impressive spectacle along with John Powell’s atmospheric score.  Like a painting, the use of shadow, texture, light, elevates the visual tableau.  Head of layout is cinematographer Gil Zimmerman with the legendary Roger Deakins consulting on the imagery.  The chronicle is filled with breathtaking images of dragons taking flight.  The best passages have no dialogue whatsoever.  Come for the dragons.  Luxuriate in the gorgeous surroundings.  The narrative manages to expand the scope of their world when evil Grimmel forces the Berkians to emigrate to a place called Caldera — the “hidden world” of the film’s title.  A memorable dance where Toothless courts his lady dragon is an absolute highlight.  The mood is fairly serious, although there’s room for humor.  The tenacious Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) annoying her captors is a delight.  The brash Snotlout (Jonah Hill) trying to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) is chuckle-worthy.  The chemistry between Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), his betrothed fiancée, isn’t particularly captivating, but that’s a minor quibble.  This is a story about growing up.  It’s about humans, sure, but it’s also about dragons and it’s that bond between the two that make this trilogy so touching.  The ending is a satisfying – though bittersweet, – conclusion to a poignant trilogy.

02-21-19

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 26, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ralph_breaks_the_internet_wreckit_ralph_two_ver8STARS3Wreck-It Ralph (2012) was a fine movie but not the Disney animated feature most deserving of a sequel.  In their comparatively short history, Disney subsidiary Pixar has revisited their previous hits quite often.  Walt Disney Animation Studios traditionally has not.  There have only been four (4) follow-ups in the Disney Animated Canon since 1937.  These are not their most oft-remembered films: The Three Caballeros (1944), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000, and Winnie the Pooh (2011).  With Frozen 2, coming out next year, I worry the dependence is becoming a habit.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is currently their fifth.  It’s a pleasant diversion but destined to join the sequel bin as well.  Like the majority of their kind, less delightful than the original.  Wreck-It Ralph detailed an existential crisis of sorts.  It was about a baddie who deep down really was a sweetheart of a guy.  The intellectualism was pitched toward a very young age so while the narrative didn’t stimulate an adult brain much, at least the drama had heart.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is something else entirely.  It’s noisier, more destructive, and amps up the pop culture references.  The heart, however, has been dialed way down.

It doesn’t help that Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) is an even bigger part of this saga.  Wreck-It Ralph was charming before the pint-sized princess showed up.  You may recall she was a pixelated programming glitch in the candy-coated kart-racing game Sugar Rush.  Simply put, she was a brat.  The close friendship that Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope forged in the first entry at least made her tolerable.  Her character hasn’t changed.  If anything, she has become more self-centered.  In this chapter, Vanellope is bored.  She has grown tired of the repetitive nature of her racing game.  One day she ventures off the prescribed track.  This leads to a series of events where the physical steering wheel on the outside of the console that is used to play the game, gets broken. Unable to replace the part, the arcade owner Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) unplugs the game leaving the denizens inside homeless.  Yet all is not lost.  Litwak has recently introduced Wi-Fi to the arcade.  Ralph and Vanellope can visit the internet via the newly installed Wi-Fi router.  They plan to locate and purchase a new steering wheel for Sugar Rush.

Naturally, a journey into cyberspace is a great set-up for lots of gags.  The real internet is a wild and scary place but here it has been rendered unimaginatively as just a chaotic metropolis.  I’ve said this before, but as long as movies keep doing it, I’ll keep calling it out.  Recontextualizing something you’ve seen elsewhere by simply appropriating it into in your story is a very lazy form of comedy.  Ralph Breaks the Internet has nothing interesting or insightful to say about things like YouTube or Instagram or Twitter.  The script is simply cognizant that these social networks exist and that they can feature vapid things.  For example, the screenplay is aware that people do indeed film themselves eating unbearably spicy foods.  It’s relying on the reaction “Hey! I’ve watched things like that on YouTube before!”  If the idea of seeing such things in a cartoon makes you laugh, then perhaps you will be delighted by the level of humor presented here.

The buzz-worthy scene occurs when Vanellope enters the online hub of the Magic Kingdom and encounters a roomful of Disney princesses.  The spectacle would reek of smug self-promotion if it wasn’t so contemptuous of its own product.  The Disney studio lampoons what its critics have alleged for years, that their princesses are anachronistic shells of an outdated trope.  Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and many more appear.  They’re all here but they kind of blend together as one insipid personality.  The girl from Brave is somewhat differentiated because nobody can understand the way she talks.  She’s ridiculed for her accent.  I’ve heard of biting the hand that feeds you, but this takes the saying to a whole new level.

Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t as appealing as the first.  It’s bright and colorful as it plays but this fable has a troubling moral.  While in the World Wide Web, Vanellope is seduced by the nihilistic and violent Slaughter Race. It’s a dark and gritty Grand Theft Auto-style action adventure game with cars.  There she meets the strikingly beautiful driver Shank (Gal Gadot) in whom she confides her dissatisfaction with her life and more shockingly, Ralph himself.  This is after the poor chap has been humiliating himself in a series of viral videos for her sake.  He’s been trying to earn enough money through “likes” so he can buy the steering wheel she needs for her game to work again.  That’s gratitude for ya.  Back in 1939, Dorothy famously learned “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  Vanellope feels the exact opposite.  She hates where she’s from.  Ralph’s attachment to his dear friend is presented as his flaw.  Simple types that love unconditionally get no respect in this universe.  He’s a bit of an oaf.  Some might even call him a rube.  Vanellope is a woman on the move and this big galoot is holding her back.  She has no use for such provincial types.  I, however, happen to admire that kind of unreciprocated devotion.  (whispers) Psst….hey Ralph, get out of that relationship quick!   She’s toxic.

11-22-18

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on November 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_ver14STARS2It’s easy to dismiss the Fantastic Beasts franchise as a desperate attempt to extend the Harry Potter universe.  I mean there’s a precedent.   Warner Brothers had the chutzpah to take the original 7 books and expand them into 8 movies.  There are a lot of fans out there that live for this sort of thing.  Confession time: I am not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong. I think the Harry Potter films creatively built a rich fantasy world.  If you fall within a certain age, this was your childhood and I respect that.  It’s just that the adventure was so episodic.  A loosely connected series of events that unfolded cinematically like: “So this happened, and then this happened, and then this happens…”  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was even more meandering but at least it had some nice CGI effects and a couple of star-crossed lovers in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).  Unfortunately, we’ve reached a low point with The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What is this chronicle even about?  I don’t know where to begin because I couldn’t figure it out.  Somewhere in this mishmosh of stuff, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) contacts Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for help.  The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and he intends on amassing an army of wizards to follow him.  I assume this is all laying the groundwork for a Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald showdown during some unspecified sequel in the future, but not here friends.  This is a movie about expository details.  There are a lot of characters.  My favorites Jacob and Queenie are back, but they have less room to be enchanting here.  They’re crowded out by a distended cast that highlights the troubled you-thought-he-was dead-but-he’s-really-not Credence (Ezra Miller).  In smaller, less important roles there’s also half-blood witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror, along with pure-blood witch Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) who is engaged to Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), MACUSA employee, Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie ), French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a freak show attraction named Nagini (Claudia Kim).

It’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald but the only crime I could see was the utter debasement of a sensible plot.  It’s incoherently edited.  The drama has no structure.  The saga is overcrowded with people.  Their introduction to this story isn’t organic. Each individual forcibly inserted into the narrative.  One appears after another as a clumsy means to explain various alliances that only the most minutia-obsessive fan would even care about.  I’m sure some of this confusing exposition relates back to the original Harry Potter world but this casual observer couldn’t make the associations required to enjoy this mess.  Mind you, I’ve seen every single installment in this blessed oeuvre.  People pop up, get a complicated character explanation and then *poof* it’s on to the next identity.  There are simply far too many personalities.  Few get a chance to make an impression, so we have no reason to be invested in their assorted plights.

I couldn’t divine any focus to this tale.  I gather it’s about Grindelwald because he is namechecked in the title, but your guess is as good as mine.  Johnny Depp has an opportunity to stand out.  He doesn’t enliven the narrative, but he doesn’t ruin it either. It’s the screenplay that sinks this production.  We have J. K. Rowling herself to thank for that.  Her gift for writing novels does not translate to screenwriting.  These are clearly two very different talents.  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them suffered from a poor script as well.  As bad as this entry is, there are some high points.  The costumes, production design, makeup, and hairstyling are all beyond compare.  Seriously, I noticed how perfectly coiffed everyone was.  My mind had time to wander on several occasions. Unfortunately, those attributes are not the foundation for a meaningful film.  Sense and reason are, but alas, they have no power in this wizarding world.

11-15-18

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18

A Wrinkle in Time

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wrinkle_in_time_ver2STARS2.5Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a high school girl who takes a journey across time and space to rescue her scientist father. Four years prior Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) discovered a tesseract, or a wrinkle in time, that allowed him to travel through the universe. A malevolent force known as the Black Thing now holds him prisoner on a distant planet. Meg is accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and (rather pointlessly) by her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller). Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time is a classic for teens and pre-teens. First published in 1962, it won the Newbury Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I read it in junior high and I loved the book. Its blending of science and theology was mysterious, provocative, deep, and yes even inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be a most difficult publication to adapt.

Right from the beginning, A Wrinkle in Time is hindered by weak character development. The behavior of some of these individuals doesn’t make sense. It’s common for the central hero in an adolescent story to be sad, lonely and socially awkward. Meg Murry is cut from the same cloth. Yet she doesn’t really look like an outcast. We’re presented with a girl who acts shy but with her gorgeous ringlets of cascading hair, she is too beautiful to truly believe she’d be treated as a misfit. The reason why her classmates tease her? Because her father has disappeared. Children are socially unaccepted in high school for the way they dress or act or look, but a missing father? Hmmm, that’s a new one. Once the mean girls’ teasing extends to her younger brother, a line is crossed and she hurls a basketball at the face of one them.  Makes sense.  She is being bullied and lashing out at your oppressors is an understandable reaction.  Apparently, this concept is too hard for her principal (André Holland) to grasp.  He isn’t the least bit sympathetic to her predicament. Neither is her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

A Wrinkle in Time has deeper problems than just characters with implausible behavior. The production is high on style but low on substance. L’Engle’s source material dealt with the timeworn battle of good vs. evil too, but there was a lot more bubbling under the surface to sink your teeth into. The film maintains an uplifting moral but screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have discarded the book’s allegory for Communism, science, and religion in favor of easily digestible platitudes that young minds can understand. The novel’s complex themes are distilled down to the singular idea that Meg must learn to appreciate her own uniqueness as an individual. That idea is hammered home throughout the feature.  The dogma of the movie is moving in the way that a Hallmark card can make you feel good about yourself. Pop hits on the soundtrack contain lyrics that easily summarize the underlying message: “There’s someone in the world, lovely as you” (Sade), “You can find the magic in an everyday night, night, night (Sia), “I just wanna believe in me” (Demi Lovato). The subtle complexities of the enduring text are largely trounced by a bright, cheery, CGI-laden manifestation that is very much a product of our age.

Author Madeline L’Engle was never exalted by conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, some even condemned her for what they felt promoted witchcraft. However, her strong Christian faith did gently infuse her writing. The text’s more thought-provoking theology was influenced by her Episcopalian background. Fans of the book’s admittedly religious pluralism will be disheartened to hear the screenwriters have scuttled the mention of Jesus and Christianity in favor of a more all-encompassing humanism via the teachings of Oprah Winfrey. The “Queen of All Media” looms large, quite literally, in the first half embodying one of three astral travelers that accompany the kids on their journey. As Mrs. Which, she initially towers above them all like a God. I can see why the actress/producer/talk show host/philanthropist was drawn to this part. Replete with blonde hair, rhinestones affixed to her brows, and ever-changing shades of lipstick, she beams down on them with a beatific smile. She constantly espouses mottoes that resolutely affirm how wonderful Meg is. Her didactic affirmations are so incessant they actually grow tiresome. She can’t seem to help Meg find her father but she can remind the child just how truly admirable she is. Oprah is playing Oprah.  Note to those who worship at the altar of the media mogul – I highly recommend this picture.

Interestingly the other two visionaries Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are not particularly engaging either. Their identities are vague. Mrs. Whatsit — played by Reese Witherspoon — is sort of an upbeat scatterbrain that hurls insults with a smile.  The actress exaggerates her vocal delivery and facial expressions as if she’s doing community theater. At one point she turns into a flying leaf creature and the fabrication of CGI is so poorly executed it’s laughable in this age of technological perfection. Though it did give me a craving for those delicious lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s. And no, I don’t get paid to say that. Actress Mindy Kaling plays Mrs. Who, an introverted (!) idealistic sort who recites quotations from the likes of Shakespeare and Rumi and the rap group Outkast. I told you this was a product of our age. She was actually my favorite of the three because she talked the least. The three of them are an ever-shifting display of bulky gowns, and bizarre hairstyles whenever they haphazardly zoom off to somewhere new, which brings me to the adventure’s biggest problem.

There is no narrative flow to the plot. The action is reduced to a series of set pieces loosely strung together in a time-traveling saga. Some of the set pieces work, mainly in the 2nd half when the three supernatural beings leave and the children are left alone to fend for themselves. The action on the evil planet Camazotz is where things finally get interesting. Director Ava DuVernay knows how to frame a shot and her skill behind the camera is evident. Scenes of a suburban world with identical houses with similarly dressed kids all bouncing a ball in unison is a captivating tableau. Conformity is bad. Individuality is good. Got it. A later scene occurs at a crowded beach where people lay about in claustrophobic proximity. It seemingly stretches on forever. The mere image is effective for its utter recognizability to real life. A man with red eyes (Michael Pena) encourages the youngsters to dine on sandwiches, which have never been more appropriately named. The discussion is eerily sinister in just the right way. I wish more of the drama had conversations this engaging.

A better title might be Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. She has put her creative stamp all over this picture. Even before it began we were treated to an intro with a message from the director. In a nutshell, she contends this isn’t a film for critics. It’s a love letter to children, and to watch it as such. Sounds a little defensive, but she has a point. Entertainment, often maligned by intellectuals, can still become classics. Home Alone is a perfect example of just such a work. You can’t encounter any promotion for this release (including this review) without reading that Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a movie with a budget over $100M. She is instrumental in the casting, introducing an ethnically diverse ensemble of characters. Meg is a biracial girl whose father is white and mother is black, with a younger brother who is adopted. The screenplay actually highlights that last detail when Meg expresses anxiety in meeting him for the first time. The three celestial beings were also cast with a nod to their ethnic identity. None of this is intrinsic to the story, these are merely visual cues made for the purpose of representation. Ava DuVernay has emphasized in interviews that these were very deliberate choices.

I think insecure children will identify with Storm Reid as Meg. Her performance is understated and natural. She finds the courage within her fear in a convincing arc. Introducing a black girl as a brainy protagonist that loves science is a unique addition that actually adds nuance to a chronicle that so desperately requires it. However, the production suffers from the plight of the modern blockbuster. A Wrinkle in Time is burdened by poorly defined characters, an overreliance on CGI, well-coiffed youths that look like they stepped out of an LA casting session, and conventional advice.  Indeed the encouragement may be a crucial reminder for impressionable tots. This film was obviously made with them in mind. However cynical children and (most) adults should probably steer clear.

03-08-18

Paddington 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on January 26, 2018 by Mark Hobin

paddington_twoSTARS4Was it really necessary to make a sequel to Paddington, the 2014 movie about a cute bear featured in a series of children’s fiction by Michael Bond? Yes, as evidenced by this effervescent piece of joy. Paddington 2 is the continuing adventures of a Spectacled bear from Peru after he comes to live with the Brown family in England. His Aunt sent him off on a train before she departed for the Home for Retired Bears. It’s now her 100th birthday and this duffle-coat-wearing star would like to get her a nice gift. There’s a unique pop-up book that he wants to purchase at a London boutique. Paddington saves up some money from performing odd jobs and subsequently goes down to the store buy it. Coincidentally at that very moment, the publication is stolen by a thief who believes the edition contains clues to a secret treasure. Unfortunately, Paddington is mistakenly identified as the culprit and sent off to jail.

Paddington’s life inside the prison is an entertaining diversion. His personality is infectious and even a group of hardened criminals is no match for the charismatic bear. Once again actor Ben Whishaw lends his voice. His delivery is still the perfect balance between an adult who’s unfailingly polite and a child who is a charming innocent. He ultimately wins over their (and our) hearts. Paddington’s recipe for marmalade sandwiches definitely comes in handy when influencing Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the cook at the penitentiary.  The production is cleverly filmed with delicate attention. At one point, Paddington inadvertently leaves a red sock in a laundry load of black and white uniforms. Uh-oh! The vision of a group of rugged hoodlums in pink prison uniforms is an amusing sight. Stylistic cinematography presents the decorative spectacle like a deliberately arranged painting of misfits. Never underestimate how much a decorative flourish can artfully elevate an otherwise cornball scene. Paddington 2 is an episodic tale but it’s so stylishly presented you’ll cheer every carefully manipulated twist that captures the eye.

Paddington 2 benefits from an ensemble of veteran actors, many of whom return from the first movie. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back as Paddington’s adoptive parents, along with Julie Walters as their serious but sweet housekeeper. Jim Broadbent is the antique shop owner. Peter Capaldi reprises his role as Mr. Curry, the next door neighbor. You may recall Nicole Kidman as the villain in the last entry. She’s gone but fulfilling the same archetype is new-to-the-cast Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, a selfish cad of an actor. He alternately dresses as a nun, a knight, and a canine for his work.  His comical disguises will provide laughs to both young and old alike. This prodcution is a worthy follow-up to the enchanting original that came out in 2015 in the U.S.  The chronicle is made with the same attention to detail as other great British-y themed and youth-oriented stories like Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. Like those classics, it never feels like the narrative has been dumbed down for little minds. It remains steadfastly sophisticated, intelligent and witty. Paddington 2 is an absolute delight for adults…and also for the children that inevitably brought them.

1-25-18