Archive for the Family Category

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

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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

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