Archive for the Family Category

Fatherhood

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family with tags on June 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I review what people see. F9 just set a pandemic era record by making $70 million this past weekend. Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place: Part II also did well earlier this year. Given those theatrical successes, I suspect box office will become an accurate reflection of what captures the public interest at some point. With everyone’s viewing habits currently relegated to streaming, it’s been difficult to tell what the masses are watching. At 208 million subscribers, Netflix is far and away the #1 streaming service. Amazon Prime Video is a distant second. For most of 2020 (and 2021 so far), the Netflix Top 10 has been a good reflection on what’s popular. Originally scheduled as a theatrical release by Sony Pictures, Fatherhood was ultimately sold to Netflix and debuted on June 18. It immediately became their #1 movie so I decided to check it out.

This drama starring Kevin Hart is based on the biography by blogger turned author Matthew Logelin entitled Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love. Logelin’s recollection is an account of grief following the unexpected death of his wife right after giving birth to the couple’s first child and then his adapting to single parenthood. I won’t negate the unimaginable real-life tragedy of losing your wife hours after becoming a father. That is a profound event from which few could ever recover. Somehow Matthew Logelin managed to channel that agony and then write about it. Kudos and respect on his accomplishment. Paul Weitz and Dana Stevens subsequently adapted Logelin’s book into a screenplay (far less successfully) that became Fatherhood.

This movie doesn’t do his thoughtful subject any justice. Fatherhood is a maudlin, overly saccharine tale that fails to introduce a single genuine emotion. The chronicle is a well-meaning but uninvolving series of hackneyed affairs that even non-parents would associate with being a father. When Maddy is a baby, plot developments include the difficulty of changing diapers and that infants cry at night. Then when she’s a toddler (Melody Hurd) the story concerns Matthews entering the dating world and Maddy’s acceptance of his choice for a mate (DeWanda Wise). The details are generic and mundane. The film is lacking an original point of view and quite frankly a pulse.

Fatherhood is a calculated effort to present a kinder, gentler version of comedian Hart. The narrative is incredibly sappy. Every time something uplifting happens, inspiring music swells to emphasize the fact and when a sad occurrence unfolds, a very somber tune overwhelms the soundtrack. Those familiar with Hart’s manic stand-up routines will be surprised to find he affects a persona here that is completely unrecognizable. I’ll give him points for going outside his comfort zone. There are occasional glimpses of humor, but this is mostly a bleak, serious affair. It’s like an pale rewrite of the 80s comedy Three Men and a Baby except with just one person and minus the laughs.

06-25-21

Luca

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on June 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pixar has its humble beginnings as part of the Lucasfilm computer division way back in 1979 before spinning off into a separate entity in 1986. Flash forward to 2006: Disney buys Pixar for $7.4 billion. I’ll admit the distinction between the two studios is a bit murky. Yet there’s still a technical difference when a cartoon feature comes from Walt Disney Studios and when branded as Pixar Animation. I think the mantle for the premier American animation studio shifted 17 years ago in 2004 when Pixar unveiled one of the greatest superhero movies ever made in The Incredibles. That same year Disney released something so forgettable that I suspect few even remember it: Home on the Range. Luca is a further reminder that Pixar is the studio that consistently creates films that touch the heart.

The setting is the beautiful city of Portorosso, a fictional town somewhere along the Italian Riviera. It takes place in the 1950s and the soundtrack incorporates Italian pop music from that era. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a teenage sea creature. His species refer to people as land monsters. Conversely, humans have a similarly negative view of them. His life changes when he meets another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). Alberto opens Luca’s eyes to their ability to transform into humans when completely dry. This is a chronicle about their adventures.

Luca is literally a fish out of water comedy. It concerns the titular hero passing for a human on land. The celebration of new experiences exalts opera music, books, telescopes, umbrellas, gelato, pasta…and most importantly Vespas. The plot revolves around competing in the Portorosso Cup (a race that involves swimming, pasta eating, and cycling). The boys hope to win the competition and use the prize money to buy one. In fact, the Italian motor scooter represents such a singular aspiration here, I started to want one. It’s like watching E.T. and craving Reese’s Pieces.

The expressive voice work is worth noting. It’s a bit all over the place though. Main characters Luca, Alberto, and Giulia (Emma Berman) – the girl that befriends them – have American accents. This often irritates me when a movie is set outside the U.S. However, the tonal quality of their voices is so inviting, it grew on me. Meanwhile most of the villagers speak with broad Italian inflections. Their intonations are so highly exaggerated, I didn’t think such stereotypes were still allowed in 2021. This includes the resident bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) and Mrs. Marsigliese (Marina Massironi) – the woman who runs the Portorosso Cup race.

Luca is the directorial feature debut of longtime Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa. He was born in Genoa, Italy, and draws from his childhood in creating this affectionate tale filled with authentic flair. Pixar always does an excellent job at designing landscapes. The underwater spectacle has a graceful flow and the portrait of this coastal center in Italy is exceptional as well. The tableau captures the notable allure of this quaint port city.

Oh what a charming memoir! Water is a key element. The amphibian species are human when dry but shapeshift into sea monsters when they come in contact with H2O. There is a lot of humor extracted from Luca and Alberto trying to hide their true selves from the townsfolk. I laughed at every single moment they got wet and it became an issue. Little bits like Luca using snail slime as hair gel, the image of Grandma Paguro (Sandy Martin) sleeping with her eyes open, or sea-themed swears “Holy carp!” and “Oh sharks!” only add to the charm. Of course, there is a conventional moral about accepting people that are different from yourself. Yes, we’ve seen that before but the presentation of that lesson is so stylish and unique, I embraced the idea as if I was hearing the message for the first time.

06-18-21

Cruella

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on June 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you seen Disney’s 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians lately? It is perhaps the least pretentious tale the Disney factory has ever concocted: evil woman hires criminals to steal puppies so she can make a fur coat. It also has one of the greatest Disney villains ever. Voiced by radio star Betty Lou Gerson, her raspy voice addressed everyone as “dahling” like theater legend Talulah Bankhead. The character preened about the room ensconced in a huge fur that hides her skeletal frame while chain-smoking from a cigarette holder. She was a sight to behold. Like actress Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the villain didn’t have a lot of screen time. Yet when she appeared, her charisma was such a force of nature it loomed over everything else. You remember her to be a bigger presence than she actually was.

Cruella is another live-action Disney concoction that investigates the origins of this character in the form of a prequel. Reinvent the story from the villain’s perspective. This was similarly accomplished (from a profitability angle anyway) with Maleficent. However, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all recently mined the live action remake idea. I admit it is with much cynicism when I say the raison dêtre for all of these interpretations is business first. The art (hopefully) will follow. I still contend their 2015 masterful achievement Cinderella is the gold standard. Cruella is nowhere near that level, but it’s too beautiful to be a train wreck.

Some people are evil because they are born that way. In the cartoon, the character was driven by selfish greed — a refreshingly simple idea that needed no explanation. Nevertheless, the screenwriters here do not share that point of view. They seek to expand on why Cruella de Vil is the way she is. The protagonist is conflicted by two sides of a dual personality. Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) notices this in her daughter. There’s nice girl Estella but that only gets her so far. Hence why she creates the Cruella persona. She’s not really bad. It’s all an act. Cruella doesn’t smoke. Nor does she want to skin puppies. She doesn’t even wear furs. Sheesh! How did this nice girl become the Cruella de Vil we know?

This origin tale is hampered by unnecessary plot threads in a convoluted 134-minute backstory. The pile of unresolved details is a snooze fest. I’d excise the first 30 minutes at least. A better more efficient movie would have begun when Estella is employed by the Baroness. Estella first arrives in London as an orphaned child of the late 60s. It’s at this time that Cruella meets two delinquents who will become her cohorts. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry will play Horace and Jasper respectively as adults. Cruella cobbles her childhood from the iconography of Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie. Sadly Cruella doesn’t come close to the beloved musicals inspired by those works.

Cruella isn’t a musical, although it does feature a lot of music. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I, Tonya) appropriates 33 songs (yes 33 I looked it up) mostly from the 60s and 70s that emphasize the image on the screen. From Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” or “She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones – the song selections are overused needle drops you’ve heard a million times before. The musical cues are so on the nose they are more likely to inspire eye-rolls than admiration.

Cruella is another case of “too many cooks.” The saga has five credited writers: Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from a story by Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis, and most tellingly — Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada. At its core, Cruella reveals itself to be just a remix of that classic. A bad screenplay is a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking. Despite this most major transgression, I did not hate this.

The film delivers in several key areas that kept me enrapt. As a showcase for an opulent parade of gorgeous fashions it flourishes. Occasionally costume design can elevate an entire production. Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mirror Mirror) could do this. So can Jenny Beavan (A Room with a View, Mad Max: Fury Road). The costumes are the movie. She’s been nominated 10 times (2 Oscar wins) and her work here deserves an eleventh. At the Baroness’ Black and White Ball, Cruella arrives covered in a white cape that goes up in flames to reveal a vintage red dress. Cruella manages to steal from…er uh excuse me…pay homage to pop-culture history and the career of Vivienne Westwood. It presents the hero as an aspiring fashion designer with a punk style that usurps her boss.

Cruella is a mixed bag. The performances are satisfying even when the writing is not. Emma Stone’s manic energy is captivating. Her boss is Baroness von Hellman. Emma Thompson is doing a riff on Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Thompson is exquisite. She looks and acts the part. The Baroness affects a dismissive attitude. However, her appetite for delivering disparaging remarks isn’t as beautifully realized. She tries. Oh, how she tries! Unfortunately, her words aren’t as clever. It is her physical embodiment of the role where the comedy succeeds. The Baroness’ lack of concern when she pops a champagne cork into a poor waiter’s eye gets the biggest laugh. Furthermore, it never fails visually. Come and gorge on the opulence. Hey, if you can’t feel good, at least look good.

06-01-21

Raya and the Last Dragon

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on March 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In the mythical land of Kumandra, there lived a fearless and bold warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). And she is not going to be having any sort of a romantic relationship whatsoever, thank you very much. That’s not explicitly stated, but you can rest assured it’s a key part of her personality. Ever since Snow White first appeared in 1937, Disney has always adhered to a blueprint for their leading ladies. Sure it changes with time, but this is the current one. The stars of Frozen and Moana featured fiercely independent types where a romance wasn’t expressed as a desire and now Raya joins that club. That’s perfectly fine since the emphasis is on the adventure, but that trait is now an expected ingredient in the formula.

Formulaic is a good way to describe this convoluted tale. The kingdom of Kumandra is comprised of five tribes named after parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. There was a time when a magical gem kept them safe. However, people coveted the object’s power. This further divided their individual societies. Raya’s dad, Chief Benja, (Daniel Dae Kim) guarded the orb. Believing that their warring tribes could still be united, Benja foolishly invites his mortal enemies over for a feast. They (predictably) start fighting over the valuable bauble. It is dropped and shatters into five fragments. The purple smoke-like Druun is unleashed and turns some people into stone. Members from each clan grab the individual pieces and take them back to their respective lands.

It is now six years later. Raya must travel to all 5 lands in Kumandra to retrieve the jewel to restore order. She rides around on her giant pet named Tuk Tuk. The animal functions like an off-road vehicle that looks like an armadillo crossed with a pill bug. Raya is gradually joined one by one “Wizard of Oz style” by a ragtag group of individuals to collect the scattered pieces of the stone. These entities include Sisu (Awkwafina) a goofy water dragon who is the last surviving member of her species, an annoying 10-year-old boy (Izaac Wang), a bulky warrior (Benedict Wong), and a baby thief (Thalia Tran) — who may or may not actually be an infant. I was unclear.

Raya and the Last Dragon may be extremely predictable, but it still curates an environment. Kumandra is a fictional place comprised of an amalgamation of references from different countries to form one monolithic culture. There’s no denying the production team did some homework. They sample from an array of various customs of Southeast Asia — but not solely from any one particular country. It’s sort of a blending of the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The landscape, food, combat styles, greetings, and objects are fastidiously presented.

Nevertheless, all of the efforts to maintain some credible identity collapses under the A-List Asian cast sporting contemporary American accents. Hearing the hip sassy lingo of suburban teens is fitting on an episode of Modern Family or The Goldbergs, but it’s distracting in a historical period drama set in Southeast Asia. Queens native Awkwafina voices the dragon which is an incongruous creation. Sisu has shapeshifting properties but never manifests as how Westerners know dragons. Sisu is more of a large klutzy furry snake creature that can morph into a human. Her articulation is an amusing contradiction to be sure, but so was Eddie Murphy in Mulan. Regrettably, the voice acting totally takes you out of the atmosphere.

This cartoon is an interesting assortment of talent: written by Qui Nguyen (Netflix TV series The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and directed in an irregular pairing of Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and Don Hall (Big Hero 6). Both directors have done better. I wasn’t particularly charmed by any of the generic situations or personalities. However, the animation is unquestionably stunning and it’s enough to carry you through some of the film’s more insipid passages.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a classic hero’s journey with a strange message. Raya goes on an adventure, is victorious in a crisis, and emerges transformed by the experience. What she learns is an odd lesson though. Her chief antagonist is Namaari (Gemma Chan). On the surface, Raya and Namaari are adversaries, although each woman is more driven by loyalty to their own people than direct hate of the other person. As children, the two were friends, but Namaari betrays Raya’s confidence when she gives her friend a peek at the gemstone. Namaari’s treachery sets the entire thrust of the plot in motion. Despite a history of deception, the movie ultimately pleads that a person should still put faith in their enemy. So if I understand correctly, the moral of the story is an update of a famous proverb. I’m paraphrasing but something along the lines of “Fool me once, fool me twice…it’s all good. I should keep trusting you anyway.” Sounds like dangerous advice.

03-09-21

Tom and Jerry

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on March 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1 out of 5.

There are so many ways to approach a critique of Tom and Jerry. The picture is a complete failure on so many levels, but let’s consider it from the source material. Tom and Jerry originally starred in 114 theatrical shorts from 1940 to 1958 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The series centered on the rivalry between a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. They were created in 1940 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. In 1940 rap music wouldn’t exist for at least another thirty years. Even rock and roll wouldn’t emerge for another decade. Nevertheless, the chronicle opens with a trio of pigeons with a frontman — or front·bird — rapping to the tune “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest.

Hip hop music comprises the bulk of the soundtrack. I consider A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm to be one of the greatest rap debuts ever. Their follow-up The Low-End Theory was ever better. They were an influential rap group, pioneers of the jazz rap genre. Oh wait, I seem to have gone off on a tangent that has absolutely nothing to do with the film. Rather appropriate since this movie has little to do with the MGM cartoon. Tom and Jerry is a modern adventure set in Manhattan. The story relegates the titular duo to the sidelines. This is a tale about Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) who steals a candidate’s resume so she can surpass more qualified applicants. She gets a job as an event planner at a fancy hotel. While there she is put in charge of prepping an ostentatious wedding for two insufferable social media influencers named Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost).

This is a live-action film starring a bunch of humans where the cat and mouse have been demoted as side characters in a movie that bears their name. At the very minimum, the production effectively mixes live-action with animation. It’s competent on a technical level. Tom and Jerry don’t speak which wisely preserves something from the past at least. It’s just that this is all in service of a crude piece of entertainment. It is a cluttered pop culture mess that trashes 80 years of history for dog poop and fart jokes. Spike the bulldog does his business, loudly, during the climactic scene. There is humor derived from talking with a Mexican accent. Oh yes, the talented Michael Pena enunciates with such stereotypical pronunciation that it’s hard to believe this came out in 2021. I’ll acknowledge that I am not the target demographic for how they exploited this cartoon. Tom and Jerry was a success in theaters anyway. Audiences embraced this update, but as far as I’m concerned, this type of modernization is the enemy of the classics.

03-1-21

Palmer

Posted in Drama, Family with tags on February 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A former high-school football star has been in prison for 12 years. Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is now free and returns to the small town of his youth. He manages to secure a job as a janitor at the local school. There his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him, offers a place to stay. She’s an upstanding church-going woman. Palmer acquiesces to her demand that he attend services along with her. He must readjust to life on the outside. Vivian also frequently watches the neighbor’s kid (Ryder Allen) for extended periods. Sam is a 7-year-old boy who lives a modest life in a trailer with his drug-addicted mother (Juno Temple) and abusive boyfriend (Dean Winters). Palmer is ostensibly a rough-hewn criminal hardened by years in prison. Meanwhile, the boy prefers watching a cartoon about princesses and having tea parties. They have nothing in common. There’s no way these two are going to connect. Can you imagine what happens next?

I can foresee how certain tales will unfold from a mile away Palmer relies on predictable plot developments. However, it isn’t familiarity that can sink a film such as this. It’s artificiality and insincerity. This, on the other hand, is a heartfelt and emotionally resonant account that is assisted by its understated acting. Given that Timberlake was in the boy band NSYNC and has had a wildly successful solo singing career, it may still surprise some people to hear that he’s a talented actor. When he’s good (Alpha Dog, The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis) he’s very good. He wisely underplays the role as a “strong silent type.” He’s a stoic man of few words sporting a Paul Bunyan beard and flannel to visually represent a tough guy here. Initially, he snaps “You know you’re a boy, right?” upon witnessing Sam play with dolls. It isn’t long before Palmer is protecting the boy from bullies. I wasn’t surprised by the turnaround. His pretty-boy features and sweet-natured disposition shine through his gruff exterior. His change of heart should be believable and it is that.

Palmer exceeds expectations. I wasn’t expecting the saga to be so reassuring and wholesome. Credit the presence of actor Ryder Allen as Sam, Eddie’s young neighbor. He pulls off the most challenging piece that is key to the entire project. His character could have been a parody of a confident tyke with catchphrases and overacting. Instead, we are offered a deeply nuanced portrait of a boy that doesn’t adhere to traditional interests. Sam seems like a genuine person and we are invested in his plight. Some recognition for this (and honestly every great child performance) should also go to the director. Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens (The Cove, Crazy Love) deserves kudos. Stevens doesn’t direct fiction often. His comedy Stand Up Guys (2012) wasn’t well-received, but this is surprisingly entertaining. Cheryl Guerriero’s screenplay adheres to reliable story beats that entertain and uplift with a relaxed air of comfort. I will admit I eye-rolled more than once at situations I foresaw well before they occurred. For example, the second Palmer meets Sam’s beautiful and conspicuously available teacher (Alisha Wainwright), I knew it was only a matter of time before they would date. And yet, I was OK with the clichés. Why? Simple old fashioned storytelling and honest portrayals. That is enough to propel a conventional film into an enjoyable experience. Simply put, this movie made me happy.

02-01-21

Soul

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The meaning of life is a pretty grandiose idea for any movie to tackle and perhaps even more uncommon for a cartoon. However if any studio could rise to the challenge, it’s Pixar. Every release is always highly anticipated. This one is decidedly different because it’s being made available on Disney+ as many theaters are closed. For those who wish to keep track, this is Pixar’s 23rd feature. It takes on some major subjects. This isn’t new for the animation company. Both Coco and Inside Out dealt with similar themes but I’d say that Soul attempts something much grander.

The legendary Pete Docter has yet to fail as a director: Monsters, Inc, Up, and Inside Out are all classics. Here he directs for the fourth time and co-writes the script (with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers). I’m happy to say Docter comes through again — so successfully that I’m willing to bet Soul will be a Best Picture nominee when the Oscars are announced on March 15, 2021. Only three animated films have ever been nominated for the highest honor: Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 are the others.

Soul is fascinating because it deals with a lot of abstract beliefs. The saga concerns jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who feels unfulfilled as a middle school music teacher. Then one day, a former student (Questlove) invites him to sit in on his jazz band led by respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Unfortunately, while leaving the successful audition he’s so preoccupied with the opportunity that he falls down a manhole and slips into a coma. His lifeless body lays in a hospital room but his soul is taking an escalator ride upward toward the Great Beyond. However, since he just got his big break, he resists by running away in the opposite direction. Joe plunges to another region called the Great Before. Understandably Joe is confused. “Uh hey, is this heaven?” he asks. That is the first and only time the word is ever uttered. “This isn’t the Great Beyond” a counselor (Alice Braga) informs him. “It’s the Great Before” — a place where other souls currently exist before being conceived as human beings . This is where personalities and interests are assigned before going to Earth. Oh, they’re calling it the “You Seminar” now. Rebranding.

There is a lot to unpack here. The screenplay has a definite worldview that it’s promoting. The ancient Greeks and Islam maintain a pre-existence, but it is generally denied in Christianity. For the most part, the filmmakers portray the afterlife without referencing the theology of any denomination. For example, the concept of God is not mentioned. Neither is religion. This is understandable as the teachings have been workshopped to please as many viewers as possible. Instead, we meet counselors all named “Jerry” that manifest as shapeshifting entities. They appear like cubist doodles that Picasso might have drawn. It is here that Joe is paired up to mentor a disagreeable unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has never left the Great Before. Adults who have well-established convictions about what life after death means will easily acknowledge these designs as a construct. This tale will most definitely inspire questions about heaven in the very young. Parents can use this as a springboard for further discussion with their children.

Soul eventually bestows an admirable moral with universal appeal. The ultimate reveal is a warm fuzzy thought that everyone can enjoy. That universality is guaranteed not to offend. Nevertheless, it keeps the chronicle from offering anything particularly deep or controversial. What the narrative lacks in profundity, it more than makes up for in visual grandeur. When Joe descends into the Great Before, my heart leaped at the sensational marriage of sight and sound. The percolating synthesizer score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is supremely affecting. Pixar has pushed their artistry once again. Their efforts elevate this production in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to appreciate: Joe’s fingers as they grace a keyboard (playing compositions by bandleader Jon Batiste), the judgmental facial expressions of Dorothea Williams regarding a new addition to her musical combo or simply the physical realm of New York City rendered in breathtaking detail. Thematically it aims higher and so the bar is raised to a new level. Soul is an ambitious statement and it delivers some but not all of the spiritual enlightenment it initiates. The story is still endlessly compelling throughout and I enjoyed the film as a spectacle. It’s one of the best of the year.

12-25-20

Wolfwalkers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on December 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In mid 17th century Ireland, the town of Kilkenny is at war with wolves. The citizens are currently clearing space in the woods for farming under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), but the beasts are getting in the way. They attack the townsfolk’s sheep as well. Legend has it these aren’t mere animals. They are led by a much stronger breed called wolfwalkers — individuals who are part human, part wolf — that control these canines. A hunter named Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been hired to help aid in the canines’ extinction. He also has a young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to help out.

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has a perfect record. They are now four for four in an extraordinary run of fantastic films beginning in 2009 with The Secret of Kells and continuing with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Sure Disney and Pixar are far more prolific but with quantity comes mediocrity. Those studios achieve undeniable highs but the magical spirit of Cartoon Saloon is light years beyond releases like Chicken Little or Cars 3. This sumptuous, hand-drawn saga is an exquisite labor of love that touches the heart as it dazzles the eye. Every one of their movies has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. I do not doubt that this one will likewise get a nod. Perhaps 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is that good.

This is a touching fable of friendship. Robyn encounters a wild bushy red-haired child. The little girl is named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a human by day but can shape-shift into a wolf at night. As an apprentice hunter, Robyn has been instructed by her father to kill the last wolf pack. However, Mebh is a thoughtful soul who shares Robyn’s desire for freedom. Additionally, Mehb wants to be reunited with her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). There is a palpable connection — a sisterhood between the girls — that is most affecting. Robyn is conflicted.

If Wolfwalkers has a weakness it’s in the simplicity of the story. The developments have our protagonist encountering hostility for befriending a strange individual. Robyn and Mebh’s relationship is purely platonic, but it’s not embraced by her peers. That idea can be traced at least as far back as Romeo and Juliet. There are similarities to FernGully, Disney’s Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and — wait for it — Dances with Wolves. There’s an overbearing tyrant who casts dispersions on the “others” as savages too. Yet I won’t hold familiarity against it. At this point, it would be like faulting a romantic comedy because it’s a “boy meets girl” tale.

Wolfwalkers is a beautiful achievement. I cannot emphasize how gorgeous these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle. Yes, traditional animation still exists. Anime from Japan and Warner Brothers’ direct to video superhero movies are notable exceptions. However with Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks’ domination of the market, CGI has been the norm.

Cartoon Saloon has been releasing works of art since 2009. Director Tomm Moore’s first two features were The Secret of Kells (2009), co-directed with Nora Twomey, and Song of the Sea (2014). He also did the segment “On Love” in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now he has returned with Wolfwalkers, a collaborative effort with art director Ross Stewart who makes his directorial debut here. What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

12-02-20

The Croods: A New Age

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I wasn’t especially fond of The Croods back in 2013 when I saw it. I railed against its modern attitude and the antagonistic relationship between father and daughter. I still gave it a passable review because it was mostly pleasant. Now I haven’t re-watched it since, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or if The Croods: A New Age is indeed a better movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is not deep. It basically coasts on physical comedy. Nonetheless, it’s such a sunny upbeat delight that it was enough to charm me into believing this is an improvement.

It helps that the story is more elaborate than merely “daughter butts heads with an overprotective father.” Everyone in the Crood household is back including Guy (Ryan Reynolds) — the boyfriend of Eep (Emma Stone) — who now lives with the clan. This time the so-called “threat” is a seemingly innocent family who has advanced beyond the Croods in intelligence and evolution. They’re the Bettermans. Psst…..their name is allegorical. Get it? Actors Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann really bring their A-game in voicing these fussy characters. There’s something acutely absurd in the contrast. Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener) Crood are so thoroughly unrefined while Phil and Hope Betterman are upscale types that act like they’re ready to lead a yoga class. They welcome the Croods into their beautiful home and Grug brings the havoc. Grug can’t seem to understand the concept of a wall.

This is a very funny movie. There are plenty of laughs to be mined simply in that dichotomy. Then the narrative develops a little further. The adventure revolves around the Betterman’s daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) who is comparatively down to earth for a Betterman. She admires Eep and they forge a fast friendship. The fact that they aren’t depicted as rivals is a refreshing surprise. Also, the Bettermans already know Guy. That previous connection makes relationships a bit complicated. The New Age is still a slapstick affair at heart but the zaniness is intelligently introduced and then focused. There’s a glee here that recalls the work of animation legend Tex Avery for Warner Bros and MGM. For example, when Dawn’s hand is stung by a bee it swells to such a puffy cartoonish size it looks like an inflatable balloon. It’s not a profound film. I’ll probably forget the details in a week or two. However, I frequently laughed while watching this, and in 2020 that counts for a lot.

11-20-20

Artemis Fowl

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

artemis_fowlSTARS1I couldn’t decipher it.  For the uninitiated (that would include me) Artemis Fowl is an impenetrable hodgepodge.  This is an adventure so confusing that it practically dares you to understand it.  I have a college degree mind you and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the random assemblage of stuff thrown up on the screen.  Lovers of the 8 young adult fantasy novels written by Irish author Eoin Colfer have sadly waited nearly two decades.  This adaptation has languished in development hell after the first book was published in 2001.  Artemis Fowl is a fanciful tale that aimlessly fluctuates between both human and fairy type characters.  The latter encompasses elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, pixies, sprites, gremlins, and demons.  I didn’t realize what I was getting into.  Unfortunately, the narrative never makes any concessions to try and draw the viewer into this complex world.  However, I will do better by trying to make sense of what I saw, dear reader.

Let me see if I can piece together some semblance of a story.  Let’s begin with the complete snooze that is the central protagonist.  Artemis is a name most famously attributed to the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology.  Here however it refers to a highly intelligent 12-year-old boy, a child prodigy and we’re told a so-called criminal mastermind.  Criminal?!  He’s more of a dispassionate philanthropist.  As embodied by teen actor Ferdia Shaw, he is a cold, unemotional individual that elicits zero enthusiasm.  Shaw lacks the charisma to be the focus of a production.  The screenwriters seem to indirectly acknowledge this because he’s frequently relegated to the background while a couple of side characters become the center of attention.  Elf Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) — a large dwarf that resembles Hagrid from Harry Potter — are comparatively more interesting.  Probably not a good foundation to kick off a cinematic franchise.  Judi Dench also shows up as an elven military commander who at one point tells someone to “Get the four-leaf clover out of here!”   That’s an amusing line.  Unfortunately nothing else she says afterward ever is.

The Fowl clan is kind of a family along the lines of the Corleones in The Godfather.  They are a close-knit group of people.  So when Dad (Colin Farrell) goes missing, Artemis — with the help of his bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) — must recover an acorn-shaped artifact called the Aculos.  That’s about all I can tell you.  The narrative doesn’t offer a plot but rather a vomit of action sequences and special effects.  It haphazardly jumps from one event to another with little explanation as to why anyone is doing what they are doing.  I sat there dumbfounded for 95 minutes bewildered by the utter cacophony of noise and spectacle that unfolded before my eyes.  It’s as baffling as anything ever committed to celluloid and that includes the opening monologue to David Lynch’s Dune.

I hated this movie.  Artemis Fowl is among the worst films of 2020.  Given our current reality, that’s really saying something.  There are explicit reasons why this property was greenlighted.  It’s called “MONEY”.  The search for the next literary work that can mimic Harry Potter’s success continues.  It superficially involves fairies, dwarves, trolls, and other  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.   Oops sorry!  That was yet another unsuccessful attempt to duplicate Harry Potter’s magic.  Given the chilly response, Artemis Fowl hasn’t placated even the most devoted supporters.  This release is an insult to every human being that enjoys cinema so if you aren’t deeply familiar with the text, this will be an even more frustrating experience.  How did Disney (a studio that usually knows what people want) allow this mess to get a release?  A lot of the blame should be placed on the screenplay by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl but director Kenneth Branagh is culpable too.   His ability to helm a coherent feature is seriously in question.   The Irish director has given us many other examples over the course of three decades: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), As You Like It (2006), Sleuth (2007), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) weren’t good movies either but he’s surprisingly topped himself in 2020.  It pains me to say it, but this is unquestionably Branagh’s worst film.

06-12-20