Archive for the Family Category

Beauty and the Beast

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

 photo beauty_and_the_beast_ver3_zpstl3cqj0c.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDisney’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

 photo the-red-turtle-2016-01_zpsacawydlr.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe 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

Sing

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_zpskxzncfte.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBuster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a plucky koala who owns a music theater. Lately, his productions have bombed and now he is in financial trouble. He loves the concert hall for it has a rich history. In an effort to save his failing business he decides to hold a singing contest, not unlike American Idol. He starts by holding auditions and we’re introduced to an interesting assortment of animal critters. Sing is the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the animation company owned by Universal Studios. They scored big this Summer with The Secret Life of Pets and it looks as though they’ve got another major hit on their hands.

Sing gets a lot right, starting with juggling a colorful cast with ease. The screenplay wisely takes the time to thoughtfully delve into the backstories of various individuals. We become emotionally invested in these critters. Five leads emerge: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who is a devoted wife and loving mother. She longs to return to the entertainment spotlight of her teenage years. Mike the mouse croons like Frank Sinatra and has got the confidence to match. Ash is a porcupine who comprises one-half of a punk rock duo with her arrogant boyfriend Lance. She can belt it out, but hasn’t been given the chance. Meena is a shy teen elephant with an incredible voice. Unfortunately her crippling stage fright holds her back. Lastly, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a British mountain gorilla. He longs to perform, but his father wants him to take part in the family’s criminal escapades. These characters occasionally touch on ambitions that can be a bit clichéd. They may follow conventional tropes but they manage to engage. These are reasonably well-developed personalities with some unexpected depth. The narrative could have easily worked as a live action movie with human actors.

“Sing, sing a song / Sing out loud / Sing out strong…” sang Karen Carpenter in a 1973 hit song penned by Joe Raposo. Oddly enough, that similarly titled ditty is NOT included in Sing. This jukebox musical contains over 85 tunes ranging from 1940s standards by Frank Sinatra to current pop singles. These are heard throughout both in the background of scenes or sung in competition by the contestants. The compositions work and many actually feel as though they were written for the drama. Katy Perry’s “Firework” as sung by Rosita (Witherspoon), and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” sung by Johnny (Egerton) as his climatic number at the end, are galvanizing pop hits that pluck your heartstrings. Johnny’s incarcerated father discovers his son’s vocal talent from the TV in his jail cell. I can’t explain why I got choked up, but I did gosh-darn it! There’s a lot here that feels familiar. I mean did we really need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Please retire that ballad immediately. Nevertheless, I freely admit that it’s beautifully sung here by Tori Kelly. 2016 has been a stellar year for animated films. The bar has been raised incredibly high. Sing doesn’t reach the heights of the year’s very best (Zootopia), but I still left the cinema with a smile.

12-22-16

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on November 21, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver4_zpsqgp7sexh.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s been 5 years since the Harry Potter series ended in 2011. That saga may be over and done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t revisit the world. In 2001, J.K. Rowling published what was purportedly one of Harry Potter’s textbooks from Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. The plotless tome was attributed to one Newt Scamander. He’s a wizard with special knowledge in magical creatures. From that slender 128-page volume comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Four additional sequels are in the works as well. Harry Potter addicts, come get your fix!

Fantastic Beasts is actually set in a time well before a lad named Harry Potter ever even existed in a land far removed from the UK – New York city in the 1920s to be exact. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives there to drop off an animal that rightfully belongs in the U.S. His mysterious briefcase is actually filled with a coterie of enchanted critters. A mix-up at the bank switches his suitcase with a hapless man seeking a loan there named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As a result, some of the creatures are released into the world and it’s up to our timid hero to try and round them up. Assisting him are Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror and current member of the wizard police. There’s also her big-hearted sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

Fantastic Beasts wastes no time in laying the groundwork for a new cast of wizards and witches. But what can you say about a film where the side characters are more interesting than the leads?  Newt is certainly a peculiar little man. He arrives with disheveled hair cascading down his forehead and a sheepish grin. Eccentric, shy, no wait, make that painfully introverted. The wizard is so soft spoken he tends to mumble his words. It’s an idiosyncratic performance and one that’s a bit hard to warm up to. I honestly couldn’t understand about half of what he said. That’s pretty frustrating when he’s the star of your picture. I wasn’t particularly taken with the businesslike personality of Porpentina either. She’s ho-hum. Her younger sister Queenie, on the contrary, is another story.  Actress Alison Sudol’s wide-eyed, Betty Boop style floozy is a joy. She is a free-spirited woman who can read minds. The singer-turned-actress is such a pleasure. Ditto her romantic rapport with wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski played by Dan Fogler. An ordinary man with no magical ability – he’s what the Brits call a “muggle”. Ah but we’re in America now so we’re told the term here is a “No-Maj”. Ok, whatever. He’s great regardless of what vocabulary you use define him. The two have palpable charisma together. Whenever they were on screen I was captivated. Can these two get a spin-off?

The leisurely paced narrative is not in a hurry to get anywhere. That’s fine because it’s the creation of a fictional world that is this production’s strong point. The meandering account is introduced when Jacob Kowalski and Newt Scamander accidentally switch luggage. The event is more of a conduit through which to introduce a menagerie of various living things that escape from his bag. I loved the Niffler. A mischievous critter that looked like a platypus but roughly the size of a mole. He’s a tiny scamp. There’s also a Bowtruckle named Pickett. He’s a pocket creature that resembled a twig-like man. Think mini-Groot from Guardian of the Galaxy. There are other animals and they’re all rendered beautifully. I don’t know if CGI is just getting better or I’ve been beaten down by such a reliance on these special effects in modern movies that I’ve just come to accept them. The phantasmagorical displays are easy on the eyes.

At best, the unfocused production is a visual delight. At worst, the dark developments are tonally odd . There’s a tiresome subplot about repressive fascists. Crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is head of an extremist group against wizards and magic. She thinks children should muzzle their magical gifts. It’s like X-Men but for toddlers. This makes them quietly go crazy. Ezra Miller is Credence Barebone, her troubled adopted son. Miller is normally a dynamic presence. I’ve enjoyed his work since the very beginning of his career. Yet here he is given little to do other than sleepwalk through the chronicle as a catatonic creep. Colin Farrell as Percival Graves is better but not by much. His poorly defined character is tasked with tracking down Newt. He changes in a way that is both confusing and dispiriting. I could say more, but I consider spoilers to be verboten.

There’s a lot to recommend. This should satisfy both Harry Potter fans and fantasy enthusiasts as well. Director David Yates is back. He brings his quirky aesthetic to this new film and the touch is welcome. He directed the last four installments of the Harry Potter series and he will direct all 5 of these films as well. On the other hand, Steve Kloves, who adapted every Potter movies except Order of the Phoenix, is only a producer here. This time the script is penned by none other than author Dame J. K. Rowling herself. This is her first screenplay. She pretty much had free reign to adapt her work any way she saw fit. We get a wandering two-hour plus movie from a meager story thread. Fantastic Beasts is a suitably accomplished escapist adventure. However the attempts to mix upbeat fantasy with something more sinister, fall flat. At best, the tale is a fanciful stroll through a dreamlike world. Nicely photographed, with a lush score and special effects galore; these all unite to create an occasionally bewitching imaginary universe.

11-18-16

Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo kubo_and_the_two_strings_ver13_zpstii1y4fz.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA new production from Laika Entertainment is something to celebrate. They’re the creators behind the Oscar-nominated features Coraline and ParaNorman, animated films I adored. Unlike rivals Pixar or Walt Disney, the studio specializes in stop-motion animation in which an actual object is physically manipulated one frame at a time to create a moving image. The advent of computer animation has currently replaced the once ubiquitous traditional hand-drawn approach. Their technique is a unique and specialized art. Characters have the look of moving puppets. When it’s done well, it’s transcendent. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a welcome addition to Laika’s growing oeveure.

The animated tale takes place in ancient Japan. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives with his single mother. She has taken ill. At night, when she becomes active, Kubo attends to and cares for her. By day, he journeys to the local village square where he plays his beloved shamisen, a Japanese three string guitar. His performances magically summon origami creatures to life as they act out the legend of his father, Hanzo, a great warrior who died while protecting him. Unfortunately shadowy figures from his past, Kubo’s witch-like aunts (both Rooney Mara), discover his whereabouts and he is separated from his mother (Charlize Theron). He is offered help from Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with the appearance of a beetle-like man. Together they must find the three components of his father’s armor to use as protection from his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns Kubo in the very first line of spoken dialogue. And indeed there is so much to appreciate visually. The spectacle positively dazzles the eye. Each acquisition in their quest is a marvel to witness. The extraction of The Sword Unbreakable from a humongous skeleton, The Armor Impenetrable, a breastplate, hidden below the sea in the Garden of Eyes, and the of the location of The Helmet Invulnerable revealed in a dream. That last revelation leads to the climatic showdown.

Kubo and the Two Strings has all the attributes of classic folklore – an account that has been passed down from one generation to the next. But don’t go looking for this fantasy in some sacred text. The original screenplay was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, with a “Story By” credit for Shannon Tindle. Given the contemporary origins of the saga, I suppose I can forgive the Hollywood movie star voices in the place of actors that could have better conveyed the authenticity of feudal Japan. Despite the somewhat generic “hero’s journey” trappings of the adventure, the drama touches upon some weighty themes. You have to admire a cartoon that challenges younger viewers to consider the nature of humanity. Is death really the end of someone’s life when one is still held in the hearts of those that loved them?  Along the way, the chronicle never ceases to be anything less than captivating. The style is so crisp, colorful and vibrant, that it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the craft. This picture is simply a joy to behold.

08-23-16

Pete’s Dragon

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 17, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo petes_dragon_ver2_zpsi7ubdra4.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgPete’s Dragon is a difficult movie to review for me. On the one hand, it’s sweet and pleasant and the kind of wholesome entertainment that you can bring the whole family to see. What makes this a bit of an anomaly is that it’s live action and rated PG. All too often pictures classified as such, are solely cartoons. Pete’s Dragon is refreshing.  It satisfies a niche that often goes unfulfilled in today’s marketplace. The Jungle Book and The BFG were other films that came out this year that also fell into this category. I enjoyed them both equally. Which is to say, they’re fine, but they didn’t wow me. The big reason being that there just isn’t much story to captivate the mind. Interestingly enough, the same issue plagues Pete’s Dragon as well.

Pete’s Dragon is actually a remake of the heretofore forgotten 1977 Disney musical that starred an animated beast. I only mention the original because the filmmakers have chosen to bestow this movie with the same title. Despite the fact that the chronicle concerns the friendship between a child and a dragon, the two have very little in common. In contrast to the previous 70s musical incarnation, the current reimaging of the tale is a dark, almost moody piece about a sullen youngster who loses his parents in a car crash in the thick of the woods of the Pacific Northwest. That child is 10-year-old Pete and he’s played by Oakes Fegley. Pete is a curious personality. Nat King Cole once sang “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…” and he is indeed something of a nature boy, having to fend for himself amidst the forest environment. It is there he meets Elliot. This is the name he gives the dragon that lives there. They become close friends.

Pete’s Dragon develops into a sentimental bit of fluff. It certainly helps that young actor Oakes Fegley is extremely natural and the CGI creature is realistic as well. Elliot is not your typical dragon. Instead of scales he has fur. He can even disappear when he deems it necessary to hide from danger. He’s also exceptionally loving and protective. Their relationship is not unlike that of a boy and his dog. It’s this bond that forms the foundation of the drama. The two unquestionably have a warm rapport but it’s a wispy premise on which to build an entire production. Oh sure once other humans discover Elliot, they threaten his safety, but you knew that was going to happen 20 minutes into this fantasy. Everything unfolds in a predictable fashion. This “boy meets pet” fable was released to near universal acclaim. I expected a saga with a much higher level of creativity.  I liked Pete’s Dragon, but I didn’t love it. I really wanted to love it.

08/16/16

The Secret Life Of Pets

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on July 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo secret_life_of_pets_ver2_zpsst2sqnzq.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Secret Life of Pets promises to show you what domesticated animals are really like when people aren’t around. In set-up, it’s a spiritual cousin to Toy Story. But here the mood is defined by a cursory depth and a far zanier mentality.  The narrative structure is loose and free-form. Pets seems inspired by the cartoons of the 1940s & 50s from Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Character development is minimized in exchange for the almighty gag. It’s a hodgepodge of routines but if you’re looking to laugh, it does the job.

The production is overflowing with a huge cadre of personalities, an odd assortment of mostly cats and dogs given life by celebrity voices. They’re an amusing variety of individuals. At first it’s unclear which animal will be the center of attention. There are so many. However we come to understand that Max (Louis C.K.) a Jack Russell Terrier, is the star. He’s a good natured doggie, but grows rather jealous when his owner (Ellie Kemper) adopts another pet in Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big shaggy Newfoundland. The two dogs are soon thrust into an odyssey on the streets of New York. There they meet up with a cult that promotes “The Flushed Pets” movement. They want to overthrow the humans. Meanwhile Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian, rounds up Max’s friends in an effort to find him. Pops (Dana Carvey) stands out as an elderly basset hound with paralyzed back legs. Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a menacing red-tailed hawk is an unexpected addition. There’s a tattooed pig (Michael Beattie), a parakeet (Tara Strong) and a guinea pig (Chris Renaud) as well. However none stand out as much as Snowball, a white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. His manic charisma stole every scene he was in. He is hilarious.

The Secret Life of Pets is largely a joy that beguiles almost as easily as it evaporates from the mind. That’s actually part of the script’s ephemeral appeal. The cartoon is brought to you by Illumination Entertainment, the highly successful film production company that brought you the Despicable Me movies. This flick wants to charm us with unfettered antics. There is a purity to that.  You’d have to have the cold heart of a grinch to not at least chuckle at some of the random absurdities. At one point a bizarre hallucination sequence in a sausage factory involves a Busby Berkeley number of dancing wieners clad in hula skirts. As their heads are bitten off, they gleefully sing “We Go Together” from Grease. The eclectic soundtrack also includes selections from artists as disparate as Taylor Swift, System of a Down, Queen, Nappy Roots, Ringworm, Beastie Boys, Bill Withers, Andrew W.K. and N-Trance with their the 1995 remake of “Stayin’ Alive”. Sadly, a compilation of all this diverse music has not been released but you can download the selections individually I suppose. Humor targets run the gamut from behavioral shenanigans to poop jokes. And yes there are one too many of the latter. The Secret Life of Pets is a chaotic tornado of random bits & characters. There is very little sense to this. At times, I struggled to discern the focus of the story. And yet it pops up every now and then when it needs to make an appearance or simply make us laugh. I was entertained.

07-07-16

The BFG

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on July 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo bfg_ver2_zps109o0kyc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgSophie is an unhappy girl who lives in an orphanage. One night she sees a giant walking about carrying what looks like a large trumpet. He spies her as well. In an effort to keep his existence a secret, he reaches in and snatches the young girl from her bed. Back to his place he takes her. While he may appear to be big and scary, his true nature is quickly revealed. For you see, the BFG stands for “Big Friendly Giant”. The two develop a fast friendship.

With Steven Spielberg directing and Melissa Mathison penning the script, expectations are high. The two have only worked together twice before: Twilight Zone: The Movie and more spectacularly, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The latter hit still remains the 4th highest grossing film of all time (when adjusting for inflation). So chances are you’re aware of its legendary status. The BFG pales in comparison.

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill are certainly up to the task. Their portrayals are wonderful. Rylance fresh from his supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, shows that his Academy Award was no fluke. He embodies the titular creature with a twinkle in his eye and palpable warmth . His mixed up vocabulary is kind of cute too. The giant is manifested through a liberal use of CGI mixed with Rylance’s motion capture performance. The visual effect doesn’t look real, but it does feel magical.

The problem is that The BFG is an awfully slight adventure. The fantasy is adapted from a 1982 novel by Roald Dahl. The book is barely 200 pages, so a 2 hour drama is really pushing things. For almost 90 minutes, The BFG is just a “hang out” movie. Little Sophie and the BFG merely get to know each other for the major part of the narrative. He reads her a book, she falls asleep. Then he gives her a dream. Instead of eating humans, he cooks up snozzcumbers which are these repugnant vegetables. The word suggests a portmanteau of snot and cucumbers. Oh he also drinks a carbonated beverage called frobscottle where the bubbles go down rather than up. That’s how the gas is emitted from the body as well. In place of burps we get what the BFG calls “whiz-poppers”. This information laying the groundwork for the most protracted setup to a fart joke I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty amusing I’ll sheepishly admit. It includes a couple of corgis.

Roald Dahl is the same author of classics like James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. An undercurrent of evil is usually a common theme in his stores. The potential for death is a most definite possibility. In The BFG we’re told hideous giants are responsible for the disappearance of children. They regularly raid the cities under the cover of night to eat “human beans”. The BFG would rather spend his time on other things. Sophie follows him on one of his runs to harvest dreams. He then gives the good ones to children with the aid of his trumpet. This talent is later utilized in a section involving Queen Elizabeth II. This is where story developments finally take place, but they form the last 30 minutes of the plot. For most of the chronicle we have essentially watched these two make small talk and chill. The lack of action plainly begs for a musical number or two at the very least. A bit of judicious editing would have helped tighten the tale’s languid rhythms. I can’t recommended this to everyone but I will to a select few. The BFG is a cult film – a production whose leisurely charms will undeniably delight a passionate, though very small, audience.

06-30-16

Finding Dory

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo finding_dory_ver6_zpsvkailyui.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s been 13 years. How do you follow up Pixar’s highest grossing (when adjusting for inflation) film ever? Why you release a sequel that goes bigger.  Add more characters, more zaniness and even better animation, but don’t stray too far from what worked before. A tragic backstory that leads to a great adventure is nearly identical in nature. The dramatic beats are kind of samey too. Instead of a frightening encounter with a giant shark we get one with an enormous squid. It’s a bit of a rough watch in the beginning. I was worried. It does takes awhile for Finding Dory to find its footing and form a distinct identity from the original, but I’m happy to say it ultimately does. The story doesn’t take chances but rather goes for audience pleasing entertainment. It may be pure formula but hey it’s also pure fun.

You may remember (pun not intended) that Dory, the blue tang, is forgetful. She suffers from short term memory loss. In flashback, we see her as a tiny fish with her parents. “Stay away from the undertow!”, they say. Father Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Mother Jenny (Diane Keaton) resort to repetitive learning techniques using rhymes to impress upon her. Any parent of a child with special needs will surely relate. The scenes encourage understanding for those who are unfamiliar with how difficult it can be. Despite their due diligence, Dory becomes separated from her parents anyway.

The years pass. Dory (voiced as an adult by Ellen DeGeneres) continues to solicit help from other fish in finding her family. This leads to the events depicted in the first film when she meets Marlin (Albert Brooks) looking for his lost son Nemo. Now flash forward to a year after Nemo was found. While on a field trip with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) a long forgotten memory is triggered while watching a stingray migration. Dory hears the word “undertow”. She recalls bits and pieces. She was looking for her parents. She realizes she must travel from the Great Barrier Reef to California – specifically “The Jewel of Morro Bay.” – in order to find them. And so begins our adventure.

Most of the activity takes place in California at a state of the art “rescue, rehabilitate, release” aquarium called the Marine Life Institute modeled after the impressive one in Monterey*. During production, the setting was changed from a SeaWorld type facility. This was as a result of the backlash caused by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Sigourney Weaver’s voice is overheard in pre-recorded announcements at the exhibits in the park like the voice of God. It was at that moment, I knew everything was going to be OK. She never appears in physical form, but we know it’s her because she introduces herself by name over and over. We’re reminded that it’s her speaking so many times, it becomes a running joke.

Finding Dory adds a dizzying array of new characters. Clownfish Nemo and his father Marlin are back aiding Dory in her quest. It piles on the cutes too. In the early scenes baby Dory (Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes) has eyes as big as her body. Just the sight of her will make your heart melt. They’re still the characters we know and love, but I’d argue a new character tops them all — Ed O’Neill as Hank The octopus. Ok so actually he’s a septopus — he lost a tentacle. Hank is a wondrous creation that seems the next likely candidate to get his own movie. An irascible sort, he surprisingly prefers an aquarium in Cleveland to the open wild of the Ocean. He slings himself from one room to another with elastic ease, using adaptive camouflage to blend in with whatever background he chooses. He’s almost human the way he ambles about. There’s no natural explanation why a cephalopod should behave this way, but I loved every second of him. Other denizens of the Marine Life Institute include a clumsy whale shark with poor eyesight named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a neurotic beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), a pair of territorial sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), and an awkward loon named Becky. She doesn’t speak, but her frazzled personality shines through.

Finding Dory is a lot of fun by amping up the craziness. After Dory is captured by two aquarium employees, the primary setting shifts to the Marine Life Institute. It might seem odd that the majority of action takes place on dry land. After all Dory is a blue tang who needs water to, ya know, like swim. This is one of the constructs that is most unexpected. The journey is not without its challenges. The Kid Zone touch pool scene is an absolute nightmare of grabby hands from the perspective of the aquatic life within. Nevertheless, Dory is able to navigate the outside world with surprising ease. She leaps from one tank to another. Fish move distances using the spouting geysers of a fountain. Others travel in a bucket of water grasped by Becky the loon and carried in a coffee pot by Hank the Octopus. You might think that that’s stretching things. Wait until you see the car chase.

Finding Dory doesn’t top Finding Nemo. It’s sillier and more frivolous than its predecessor. Although there’s some consideration for mental illness and the importance of family, it doesn’t attempt the emotional depth. No I didn’t cry.  Pixar is usually so good at that.  Although there is a poignant moment that certainly tries. However, the movie does goes off in a bizarre, completely zany direction, and forges its own identity that way. Once it does, it’s a warm, good–natured, non-stop hilarious, gag-filled joy of a film.

*[Side note: The script mentions the coastal city of Morro Bay which is about 125 miles south of Monterey, but the aquarium in that city is most definitely not the the same place depicted here].

06-16-16