Archive for the Family Category

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

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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

Coco

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

coco_ver7STARS4.5Pixar has a knack for extracting emotion. Do you recall the first 10 minutes in Up that depicted the married life of Carl and Ellie? Yeah, it had me bawling like a baby too. Ditto when WALL-E doesn’t recognize Eve or when Andy gives his toys away in Toy Story 3. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Coco strums the heartstrings as well as any Pixar film has ever done.

In fact, Coco is one of the most touching odes to family that I have ever seen. I don’t bestow such high praise lightly. There’s an undeniable joy in discovering the sentimental depth of this drama. I’ll describe the chronicle at its most basic so as not to ruin the joyous revelation of what happens. Our saga concerns Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician. He plays the guitar and serenades like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous Mexican star of 1930s/40s cinema. Ernesto is somewhat reminiscent of actual stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Unfortunately, Miguel’s late great-great-grandmother and matriarch of the Rivera family, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) had long ago banned music for future generations. You see her husband left her to pursue a music career. That also included their daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). His face has been removed from the family photo that is displayed during the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead also known as Día de Muertos. When living grandmother Elena (Renée Victor) destroys Miguel’s guitar, he journeys off to find another instrument so he can enter a talent show.

The voice cast includes stars Benjamin Bratt and Gael García Bernal. Bratt’s voicing of Ernesto de la Cruz makes the singing idol a commanding presence. Even more affecting is a comical trickster named Héctor (Bernal) that little Miguel meets on his pilgrimage. He is a poor soul that is in danger of being forgotten — a personality full of humor and charm. I really enjoyed him. I didn’t realize that both Bratt and Bernal could sing, like really well in fact. They’re equally good at voicing their characters. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez is suitably moving as the star, Miguel Rivera.  Melodies are an essential part of this feature. As such, this is the closest Pixar has ever come to making a full-on musical. Song selections infuse the narrative. “Un Poco Loco” and “Proud Corazón” are two highlights but the likely Oscar nominee is “Remember Me” which shows up in several renditions. The one sung as a lullaby near the end is the version that made me cry.

The importance of honoring your loved ones that have passed on encompasses The Day of the Dead, a celebration that forms the central focus of Coco. The idea that we are connected to our family members of the past and how present generations commemorate their memory is an integral component of the plot. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3) upholds an emotionally complex chronicle while still keeping things refreshingly simple in the way the account unfolds. That’s not easy to do. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich elevates feeling over plot details. There is a supernatural element when Miguel penetrates the “other side.” This would be a bit bewildering for me to explain how it occurs and what actually happens in this odyssey, but it’s simple as it plays out.  If I had a criticism, it would be that Pixar has an issue with extended final acts where the narrative contains elements that aren’t quite as magical as the stuff before it. We see it in great movies like Wall-E and Up. The concluding act in Coco is somewhat weakened by multiple endings. I started to think I was watching Return of the King. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed this segment. It’s a minor quibble in an overall stunning achievement.

On the surface, Coco is a simple tale of a little boy that wants to play the guitar. This is a return to the greatness of Pixar. Inside Out was pretty remarkable too, but Coco tops it for emotional intensity. Not since Toy Story 3 has a Pixar flick touched my heart so profoundly. I know we’re always praising the visuals in a Pixar movie, but this just might be one of their most beautifully animated films. The Land of the Dead is an underworld in which the spirits of the deceased meet their final destination. The manifestation of this realm is stunningly gorgeous as a multi-tiered city of buildings, bright lights, and colors. Bridges extend from out of the city onto which the deceased can travel. In this way, souls may return to the Land of the Living to see their relatives once again. The Day of the Dead is a vivid holiday. The animators have deftly celebrated its tradition in the best possible way for this movie. A non-stop party of lively (not frightening) skeletons dancing to music is a glorious sight to behold. The animators magnificently give life to lovable skeletons —  characters that are inherently scary. I liked seeing the comparison between their current existence as a silhouette of bones and their past life as a human being. I was astonished at how this stirred me so deeply. There was one plot twist that in retrospect I probably should have been able to predict but I was so hypnotized by what I saw, that I didn’t see it coming. Coco made me lose myself in the celebration of a young boy’s odyssey. The humanity completely overwhelmed me. Coco is full of heart and when I left the theater my heart was full.

11-23-17

Despicable Me 3

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family on July 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

despicable_me_three_ver3STARS1.5Well, It took seven years, but Illumination Entertainment finally delivered The Despicable Me movie its detractors have accused them of making all along. Tedious, frantic, disjointed, shallow, dull, dumb. Despicable Me 3 is an insufferable mess of a film. It doesn’t have a focus so much as disparate interludes that have been randomly thrown together with no regard for the components needed to create an intelligible story. It’s up for discussion, but I think I counted at least four different story threads. These have then been haphazardly assembled to justify a 90 minute runtime. I’m not even sure I can even coherently outline the action, but I’ll try.

The alpha plotline begins when Gru (Steve Carell), former evildoer now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is fired from the group because of his inability to apprehend criminal Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). He’s the worst excuse for a villain, but I’ll get back to him. Plot B details when Gru discovers he has a twin brother named Dru. The whole family – which includes wife Lucy and adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) – are invited to go hang out at his estate in Freedonia. The Duck Soup reference is cute. Then more developments: Mother Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is worried about being a good step-mom to the little girls, Edith and Agnes try to find a real unicorn, and Margo is almost married off to a little boy in a cheese ceremony. Meanwhile in Plot C, Gru is still preoccupied with retrieving the world’s biggest diamond from Balthazar Bratt. By accomplishing this, he hopes to get his old job back at the AVL. Oh and I almost forgot the Minions who are treated like an afterthought here. Plot D has the little yellow creatures upset that Gru is no longer interested in villainy. They leave but are promptly arrested and thrown in jail after trespassing at a talent show. Seriously if you’ve always hated the Minions, then this is the picture for you.

The narrative couldn’t even offer compelling supporting personalities this time around. Steve Carell also voices Dru, Gru’s long-lost twin brother. He’s a billionaire, has a higher pitched voice, and is flamboyantly carefree but he’s essentially the exact same person – just with a mane of blonde hair. We’re supposed to care about this familial reunion but their relationship is given short shrift. There’s simply too much going on to even care.

Now about that villain. A chronicle fixated on an antagonist is only as good as that personality. Balthazar Bratt is a lackadaisical suggestion of a individual. A former child star of a tacky 80s TV series called “Evil Bratt”, he found his popularity wane after entering puberty. Now an adult, he’s bent on world domination. Why? Good question. The writers aren’t concerned with such exposition, but I’m thinking it’s a case of “Waaaaah! You better notice me!” We’re never given an explanation as to why he is doing what he is doing.  Dressed in a purple jumpsuit with outrageous shoulder pads and parachute pants. He sports a droopy mustache and a black mullet with an extreme hi-top fade. He plays the keytar which gives the soundtrack an excuse to flood our senses with lots of late 80s hits (“Bad”, “Sussudio”, “Money For Nothing”, “99 Luftballons”, etc.) at every juncture. Their ostensible purpose? To elicit the reaction “Hey I recognize that song!” He’s merely a visual/auditory joke and nothing more. He’s easily the most lazily created villain of this franchise.

I’ve enjoyed the wacky playful antics of this series. Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 were well-crafted exercises that combined fun with feeling. Even the underappreciated Minions had enough laughs to support its existence. They had the zany joy of those classic Warner Bros. Cartoons. They were goofy, sure, but they had a sense of purpose in the pursuit of an actual story. This time the scattershot atmosphere yields boredom. It’s a sloppy, commercially focused, Hollywood product that inspires nothing but pure unadulterated apathy. It lacks everything – wit, heart, joy – that made the first two installments great. It’s so empty that the experience was soul crushing for this self-avowed fan. As expected, Despicable Me 3 ends with a set-up to yet another one of these films. No thanks, I’ve had sufficient. I’ve stood by this franchise long after my peers abandoned it but here’s where I’m jumping ship too.

06-29-17

The Book of Henry

Posted in Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller on June 29, 2017 by Mark Hobin

book_of_henrySTARS3.5It’s a poignant melodrama about a terminal illness. Well to clarify, it’s more of a heart-rending tearjerker. No wait, it’s actually crime thriller. I know, it’s an inspirational family drama. Scratch that, it’s really a light comedy. In truth, The Book of Henry is all of these things – a cinematic yo-yo spinning wildly between a plethora of genres. Granted, the screenplay by crime author Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X) may not follow the rules of how to gradually lead an audience through a saga, but I was absolutely fascinated by where it would take me next.

Henry Carpenter is an 11-year-old genius. He has used his gift to smartly invest in the stock market to build up a stable financial future for his household. In fact, he’s smarter than all of the adults in his life. Number one on that list would have to be his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan is a waitress, a working mom who writes picture books in her spare time. She’s also a parent to Peter (Jacob Tremblay), Henry’s younger brother. Enter Christina, their next door neighbor. She is Henry’s classmate and a girl with whom Henry has a crush. She’s predictably beautiful, but also very sad. The reveal of her predicament and how Henry tries to help her sets one major plot thread into motion. Henry is also beset with a dilemma of his own. Yes, two major problems that each could be the focus of their own film. I’m being purposefully vague because a big part of the allure is how each contrivance piles on top of another. That sounds like a slam, and it is, but it’s also kind of mesmerizing the way it plays out. Try to look away. You can’t. I was captivated and that counts for something.

The Book of Henry is a fantasy that could only exist in the mind of a writer. It’s a fable that concerns the real world but one invaded by outlandish developments that can feel too implausible to accept. It’s a tale of fabulism.  Lead Jaeden Lieberher has already starred in the acclaimed Midnight Special. Jacob Tremblay was featured in one of the best films of 2015, Room. The opportunity to see these two burgeoning talents in the same production had me sold. They do not disappoint. Add twice Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts and you have an unconventional family that had me enrapt. As mother and son, Watts and Lieberher have genuine chemistry. They both starred together in the wonderful St. Vincent. As a character, Susan is a bit intellectually stunted. Ok, that’s putting it mildly but then her son Henry is emotionally deficient. Younger son Peter is simply all around playful sweetness, Together these three form a sensitive triad, a sort of us-against-the-world dynamic that enticed my heart. They’ve got a soul. Buy into their relationship and you’ll buy into the movie.

I usually disregard the critical consensus when reviewing a movie. I’m here to detail my own thoughts. Yet this picture has received some of the most vitriolic reviews of anything this year. Why has this little family film (PG-13 rated for the dark subject matter) received so much hostility from critics? Director Colin Trevorrow burst onto the indie scene with a little gem called Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. Then followed that indie achievement with the 4th biggest (as of this writing) U.S. blockbuster of all time, 2015’s Jurassic World. Perhaps when someone has a success another feel is unearned, the claws really come out when they stumble. No The Book of Henry isn’t for everyone. The script has got chutzpah for attempting something rather unique. I get that the genre-defying narrative is a bit bananas, but the hate is disproportionate to the movie’s shortcomings. The plot is simply too audacious to dismiss and the drama has too much heart. I was entertained for the entire duration of this chronicle.

06-18-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

cars_three_ver3STARS3Cars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on March 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

beauty_and_the_beast_ver3STARS3.5Disney’s current trend of turning its animated classics into live-action movies has been a pretty lucrative business. Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book have all done big business. The recipe is simple. Take an existing fictional work that is beloved by millions and reproduce with real people. This satisfies a thirst for nostalgia which ensures there will already be a built-in audience ready to watch. The formula works so well it seems almost too easy. It’s not difficult to dismiss the practice as a quick cash grab. Yet, anyone who has ever looked upon any of these films can distinguish that these aren’t slapdash efforts. These meticulously created works, while lacking an original story, still present something magical at the cinema.

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is a noble addition to the Disney treasury. We all know the “tale as old as time”. It’s the chronicle of Belle played by a no-nonsense Emma Watson. Belle is a smart, independent young woman at odds with the bourgeois habits of her provincial townsfolk. Luke Evans is Gaston, an arrogant suitor. LeFou (Josh Gad) is his bumbling sidekick. However, Belle has no use for Gaston or anyone else in the town for that matter. Personally, I’ve always found her opening song decrying the unsophisticated townsfolk as insufferably elitist, but hey that’s just me. Nevertheless, she gains our sympathy when she is taken prisoner by a beast in his fortress. Dan Stevens portrays the part in a motion capture performance, rather than relying on prosthetics. Her initial fears dissipate as she is befriended by the enchanted denizens of the castle staff. Slowly she grows to see beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and see the true heart of the man within.

This isn’t director Bill Condon’s foray into the movie musical. His production of Dreamgirls in 2006 was a lavish adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. His reworking here evokes the traditional theater pieces of a bygone era. It’s lavish, grand and cheerfully old fashioned. That the achievement seems rooted in the musical tradition of a bygone era is a colossal feat of misdirection given all the modern CGI employed here. It’s seamlessly utilized to bring the inanimate objects of the castle to life: the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the mantel clock (Ian McKellen), the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), , the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and last but certainly not least, the teapot (Emma Thompson) and teacup (Nathan Mack). It’s not easy to embody characters we already know and love, but the actors, mostly only heard, lend their voices with sincerity and warmth.

Emma Watson makes a self-assured Belle. The actress is recognizable to audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and that familiarity, along with her personality, fulfills this role. Dan Stevens is a suitably charismatic beast. Together they have chemistry. Their discussion in the library over the merits of Shakespeare is the proof we need that these characters have souls. She falls in love with his goodness, but he is also her intellectual equal. It’s not merely his appearance that makes him different. It’s his mind as well. Also amongst the humans is Gaston, a fittingly cast Luke Evans as Belle’s narcissistic wannabe suitor and his fawning pal LeFou, in a bit of comic relief by Josh Gad.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) gently tweak the story to give added depth to the fable with which we are already acquainted. Don’t worry. This isn’t meant to replace your fond memories of the animated 1991 classic. It’s simply there to offer something more. And more is what you’ll get. More songs! Three new numbers are added by Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. More script! It’s 45 minutes longer than the cartoon. More costumes! More flair! More! More! More!   The songs are supported by the spectacle.  The famous number “Be Our Guest” is a veritable Busby Berkeley extravaganza inside the magnificent home. My mouth stood agape as the dazzling routine unfolded before my eyes in a specular vision of color and music.

Beauty and the Beast is a production designer’s dream. The sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, and costumes are beyond compare. In particular, there’s a physicality to these locales that make you believe that these places do indeed exist. The town is a quaint fairy tale community and the majestic castle has an impressive gothic air. The overall look is so fully realized, you’ll forgive that the plot holds no surprises. Yes for all its charm, this merely remains a beautifully realized imitation of its predecessor. The accomplishment is undeniably gorgeous but not visionary. If the very idea of a live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast offends you, then this picture will not change your perceptions. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the idea, then the movie will be a delight. I’m pleased to say I was thoroughly entertained.

03-16-17

The Red Turtle

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on February 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

the-red-turtle-2016-01STARS3.5The story, such as it is, begins when a man adrift in a storm washes ashore on an uninhabited island. At first, he forages for food, but after awhile he endeavors to escape. He builds a raft.  However, at sea, a large red sea turtle swims below and smashes the boat from underneath. The man swims back to the island. He tries, again and again with an increasingly bigger raft and each time the animal foils his attempts. Then one evening, the man spies the creature on the beach attempting to crawl inland. In a fit of rage, he hits the turtle over the head with a bamboo stick and then turns it upside down, setting in motion a fantasy that will blend elements of Hans Christian Andersen with an already Robinson Crusoe influenced tale.

The Red Turtle is a partnership between Japanese Studio Ghibli and French distributor Wild Bunch. Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit is doing the artwork. He received international recognition after winning the Oscar for his 2000 short film Father and Daughter. This is his debut feature. His style is reminiscent of Belgian cartoonist Hergé and his comic The Adventures of Tintin. It’s nice to see there’s still a place for the hand-drawn animation that has been widely rejected in recent years by major animation houses like Disney and Pixar. This production is above all an exquisitely animated gem.

The Red Turtle is an artistic work that is virtually wordless. Except for a few shouts of “Hey!” or cries of “Aargh!” there is no dialogue at all. The illustrations draw explicit attention to naturalistic detail. Beauty lies in the meditation on the flora and fauna – the whisper of the wind through the trees, an approaching rain, the buzz of cicadas in the forest, the rhythmic splash of waves against the sand, seeing the stars and moonlight reflected on the water. Whether it be a flock of birds flying overhead or a cast of crabs acting like cartoon sidekicks, this concentrated reflection on nature never ceases to be calm and comforting.

The Red Turtle coasts on ambient noise and wildlife sounds. Assisting the atmosphere is the sumptuous score of composer Laurent Perez Del Mar. By itself, the music is lushly atmospheric, but when paired with the gorgeous spectacle it occasionally veers to excess as it overly emphasizes the emotional cues.  When a tsunami hits, the music swells.  The visual splendor is enough. There’s no need to gild the lily.  Nevertheless, the exhibition is certainly a delight for aesthetes who prefer mood to plot and a languid pace over action.  While The Red Turtle feels like a short expanded to feature length, it’s undeniably pleasant and serene. Its simple joys are pure.

02-16-17

Hidden Figures

Posted in Drama, Family with tags on January 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo hidden_figures_zpsshrcpaew.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe contributions of three African American women to the U.S. space program in the 1950s is the subject of Hidden Figures. The central protagonist of this biography is Katherine G. Johnson, the mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury when John Glenn made three orbits around the Earth in 1962. She worked in the West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. Her efforts supported the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor agency to NASA. Assisting are her fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Hidden Figures is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. In actuality, this was adapted from a 55-page proposal which would explain why the movie contains a lot of things that were created for dramatic effect. (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hidden-figures/)

The institutionalized racism that Katherine and her colleagues had to face while working in the segregated environment is a significant part of Hidden Figures. The many indignities they suffered are in the details. The production offers a proven amalgamation of drama with light touches of comedy for a mass audience. The movie uses humor to gently push its agenda. We see a black woman in a colorful dress against a sea of conformity: lots of white men in white shirts and uniform ties. Thanks to the costume designer for color coding it for us.  These are her oppressors, particularly in the fictional character of Paul Stafford as portrayed by Jim Parsons. He’s a hissable villain and someone designed for moviegoers to jeer. But white women can be just as racist too. Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, another fictional character, is a condescending supervisor that suppresses Dorothy’s chances for advancement.  Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, is a bit more enlightened. He’s actually based on a real person, well three anyway. Incidentally, Costner is slowly becoming this generation’s Henry Fonda always seeming to be the right side of history in racial dramas (Black or White, McFarland, USA).

For example, the fact that black women had separate bathrooms from white women is shown. For a modern observer of the past, this must seem pretty bizarre. Why this was the case is never explained. “That’s just how things are” is the point of view. Instead, we’re given little montages set to Pharrell Williams’ song “Runnin” while she has to make her dashes to a bathroom seemingly on the other side of town and then sprint all the way back to her desk. When nature calls it might take someone 5-10 minutes, for her it was a brutal part of her day. This all comes to the fore when Kevin Costner as her oblivious white boss, questions her on her absences. She explains. Cut to a scene of him taking a crowbar to the “colored ladies room” sign. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” He says. That he’s the one to right this wrong never actually happened, but the movie chooses to portray it this way. His quick transformation into the noble white savior is a bit exasperating, to say the least.

In other areas, the narrative portrays the contributions of these women as important because the Americans must better the Russians. Their satellite Sputnik is the first to orbit the earth in 1957. Curses, the Reds won again! The script practically shouts this sentiment while a somber room of people watches the event on a TV.  Apparently, some people are worried that the Soviets can now spy on America. If you’re unclear as to how this is supposed to happen, don’t look to this movie for specifics.  Just know that the space race is a competition where we must “beat” the Russians like an Olympic event. Topping other countries with our space program is just supposed to be understood as an inherent desire.

Hidden Figures follows the narrative formula of many sports movies. We get the injustice, the teasing, the dirty looks, the undervalued appreciation for their ability and then that come from behind moment where everyone is proven wrong. It’s all served in a pleasing, well-photographed family friendly creation. The overlooked advances from individuals forgotten by history can provide a cutting edge perspective into a historical event. As a piece of entertainment, Hidden Figures is entertaining enough. However, the sentimental uplift of this Hallmark greeting card of a movie doesn’t scratch beneath the surface to plumb the depths of their experience. I can imagine that these women faced egregious behavior that undermined their human dignity. One would think Langley Research Center would be a place where analysis and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. Apparently not. The screenplay doesn’t examine harder. I wish it had delved deeper and examined why. This cursory study is content to present predictable tropes that are de rigueur for any tale of an underdog. These brave women deserve a powerful story, but Hidden Figures never expands beyond a shallow exploration to get to the heart of their struggle. The screenplay by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi is an inspirational saga of intellect triumphing over racism in a PG-rated tale. Hidden Figures is a feel-good diversion that will hopefully inspire people to study further.

12-19-16