Archive for the Family Category

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on April 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

So if you’ve completely divested from the Wizarding World, you have my respect. Nevertheless, you’ll need a primer for this review. The Secrets of Dumbledore is part three of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, which is a spin-off/prequel to the Harry Potter movies. If you’ve seen the other two, it remains a convoluted saga that requires a lot of work to keep track of what’s going on. That’s a warning if you’re not a dedicated fan of this stuff. You must see the other entries first to understand this one. Or better yet, skip all three entirely and watch a satisfying fantasy. Anyway, the positive news is that this entry improves upon the last.

We’re three episodes into this joyless series and I still have no idea what this overarching drama is even trying to say or why. It appears to be a political allegory condemning fascist ideology. Fun! If I can boil this account down to its basic essence, it’s good vs. evil in the form of an honest wizard named Dumbledore (Jude Law) against the malevolent wizard Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). The two made an unbreakable oath never to harm each other a long time ago. The upcoming reveal of the Supreme Mugwump is approaching. A fawn called a Qilin will bow to the leader that is most pure of heart. Grindelwald is manipulating the process and he must be stopped. Dumbledore assembles a team to curtail Grindelwald’s nefarious plans.

Side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that actor Mads Mikkelsen has taken over the role originally played by Johnny Depp. It’s like when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York in TV’s Bewitched in 1969 and no one acknowledged on screen that this was a different actor. The reasons for the decision are different though. Mikkelsen’s emotionless performance may be adequate but it isn’t an improvement. Bowing to the court of public opinion is so much more important than artistic merit.

What the feature has going for it is a nice-looking fantasy adventure with great production design and visual effects. There’s a section where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) goes to rescue his brother Theseus (Callum Turne). He has to mimic the moves of these little scorpion critters. I was mildly amused by that. There are engaging moments here and there. Yet once again there are too many characters. An aggregation of returning individuals includes actors Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, and Fiona Glascott. However, the MVP award goes to Dan Fogler as the non-magic Jacob Kowalski. It is a testament to his ability to turn a minor character into a fascinating personality. He seizes focus as the charismatic spice in a bland stew. Meanwhile the episodic nature of the plot sort of plods along without a strong story or compelling focus.

Nonetheless, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a vast upgrade over its predecessor. The Crimes of Grindelwald came out four years ago. I couldn’t even begin to recall what happened. It was such an ordeal, I probably blocked it out to be quite honest. So before I went to see this, I forced myself to do a significant amount of research on the internet to reacquaint myself with the lore. I even read the plot synopsis of the current release on Wikipedia. Going to see this felt more like a homework assignment than actual entertainment. However, doing that preparation did make my experience more enjoyable. I give this film a pass. If you have the base knowledge to enjoy this flick, then consider it worthy of your time. If you aren’t, steer clear.

04-15-22

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on April 10, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Sonic the Hedgehog was a winning story in 2020 because it was overflowing with heart. At its core, it detailed a friendship forged between a little blue alien and a local sheriff named Tom (James Marsden). It was derivative of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and obviously nowhere near as good, but it did manage to extract some of the same warmth. The account felt sincere. I was pleasantly surprised. Add a goofily inspired performance from Jim Carey as the central villain and I was singing its praises. In contrast, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a cash grab lacking the goodwill, sincerity, and heart of its predecessor.

The chronicle begins when Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik escapes his exile from a mushroom world. This allows the actor to call the fungi planet from which he escapes a “piece of shiitake.” That mildly vulgar play on words was funnier when I heard it in Spy Kids. Regardless, Carey was enough of a villain to sustain the original story — a refreshingly simple fish out of water tale. Adding more characters rarely equals a better movie but filmmakers often rely on it when making sequels. Carey gets an evil ally in the form of a computer-generated short-beaked echidna called Knuckles. Voiced in a low register by Idris Elba, he’s looking for the all-powerful Master Emerald. This is the MacGuffin — the object that everybody wants.

Sonic has been attempting to fight crime on Earth as a superhero. He has been failing miserably. A two-tailed fox appropriately named Tails from yet another distant planet is a good guy. He is imbued with a high-pitched voice by Colleen O’Shaughnessey. Tails has been watching over Sonic and arrives on Earth to warn our hero about the malevolent foes out to get him. These fantastical beasts from outer space occupy the central focus. Why have just one fully CGI star when you can have three? The loneliness of Sonic’s unique existence was a compelling quality in the first film. Sadly that distinction is absent from this overcrowded sequel.

The chemistry between the human James Marsden and the cartoon Sonic is what made the original so delightful. That’s gone. Here the trio of animated personalities mostly interact with each other. Watching three computerized entities zip around the screen in frenetic pre-programmed action sequences in a crushing bore. Carrey attempts to give another larger-than-life performance. Unfortunately, he’s buried underneath a technology-laden tsunami of CGI characters. I’ve watched the skills of talented gamers up on a TV screen that offered more emotional context. Meanwhile the humans — Tom and his wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter) – are relegated to the background as they head off to Hawaii for the wedding of Maddie’s sister Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) to handsome Randall (Shemar Moore). The screenplay goes off on a convoluted tangent to explain the incredulity of their relationship.

If I can say anything nice, it’s that the picture wears its mediocrity on its sleeve. I’m not saying it was intentional, but it is obvious. Some productions often lull you into a sense of ease with a promising beginning. Then do an about-face and surprise you somewhere at the midway point with ineptitude. It’s immediately apparent that Sonic 2 is a slapdash effort right from the start. The chaotic events zip back and forth on a globetrotting affair to various locales without a reason or care. The opening 30-40 minutes could be excised entirely and not have any effect on the proper plot. To be honest you could eliminate developments from almost any part of the film and it wouldn’t matter. The story exists to feature beloved characters that audiences came to see in a random series of events.

Whenever the action subsides, the soundtrack kicks in. More often than not it’s some late 80s, early 90s hip hop jam. “It’s Tricky” (Run-DMC), “Here Comes the Hotstepper” (Ini Kamoze), “This Is How We Do It” (Montell Jordan), and “You Know How We Do It” (Ice Cube) overwhelm at various points. “Uptown Funk” featuring Bruno Mars isn’t from that era, but it caps off a scene that features Sonic and Tails in a remote Russian bar. The locals challenge them to a dance-off. As a fan of musicals, my hopes were somewhat piqued, but the number is such a pedestrian display of choreography and music my enthusiasm dissipated as quickly as a lost life. Computer technology will never replace Gene Kelly.

Longer! Faster! Louder! More! Anything but better. When critics talk of sequelitis, this soulless piece of product is what they’re talking about. My theater was filled with children that were more content to run about the auditorium than watch what was up on the screen. Were they distracted because the rudimentary requirements of entertainment were not being met? I suspect the patience-testing length of over two hours was the real culprit. 90 minutes is the sweet spot for family entertainment. I was pleasantly surprised by the first film. This however is the FX-laden eyesore I feared the original would be. Nevertheless, it had a successful opening weekend debut. The mood on social media asserts that Sonic 2 delivers the requisite enjoyment to devotees of the SEGA games. I don’t play the Sonic the Hedgehog video game so that doesn’t include me. However dear readers, I will offer if you have young kids that are begging you to see this, then by all means take them. Just be prepared that they will probably enjoy the movie a lot more than you do.

04-07-22

The Adam Project

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 15, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Free Guy was one of the biggest hits of 2021, so it made financial sense that star Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy would reunite. This is another high concept, sci-fi movie that’s even more wholesome. I appreciate that both Free Guy and this new release are “original” ideas not based on an established property. Nevertheless, The Adam Project still feels awfully familiar.

Adam Reed is a space pilot who time travels from the future year of 2050 back to 2022. Ryan Reynolds is playing a sarcastic type with a confident personality. Newsflash: this is the same character he has played in every single picture he has ever made. Please don’t @ me with counterexamples. Hyperbole is a part of film criticism. In this one, he meets his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell) and together they unite on a mission to end time travel and SAVE THE WORLD.

If it sounds a little like I’m mocking this, it’s because I am. The production is fabricated from pre-existing parts. The narrative liberally copies elements of classics from my childhood like Back to the Future and The Last Starfighter. Indeed, those were enjoyable flicks. The difference here is a generic screenplay credited to four different writers: Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin. The story is calculated like a commodity a studio manufactured from a blueprint called a “family-friendly sci-fi action movie” with heavy inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The production is synthesized from hyper-edited battles and digital laser blasts. The action does slow down occasionally so it can evoke some emotion when the adult man and his younger self give each other wisdom to be a better person. The best scene is a quiet one. Reynolds as the grown-up son gives his mother encouragement. She is unaware they’re related. The interaction set in a local bar uncomfortably suggests a flirtatious exchange at first, but it turns into a genuinely affecting moment.

This is high-quality entertainment for the entire family conveniently available to Netflix subscribers for free. Lately, I’m bewildered when certain releases go directly to streaming. Pixar’s Turning Red is another recent example. The Adam Project looks expensive. The amalgamation is well-produced, so I can’t say it’s bad. Young actor Walker Scobell effectively evokes Reynolds as a boy. Color me surprised that he was the standout in this star-studded ensemble. The cast also features Jennifer Garner, Catherine Keener, Zoe Saldaña, and Mark Ruffalo. Given the stars and the budget, this looks like a theatrical picture. Ryan Reynolds was just in Red Notice and that was a massive success on Netflix. This is much better, so no shock that it’s currently #1 on the streaming service as well. I have seen a version of this movie hundreds of times (more hyperbole). Meanwhile, children have not. Take my tepid reaction with a grain of salt.

03-11-22

Encanto

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2021 is alive with the sound of musicals! I submit exhibits A through G as evidence: In the Heights, Annette, Cinderella, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story. Disney’s latest is a notable addition to the genre this year.

Encanto is a saga about a sprawling family and the matriarch who controls it all with an iron hand. Alma (María Cecilia Botero) whom everyone affectionally calls “Abuela”—uses an enchanted candle to create a magical house in the hills of Columbia for the Madrigal family in which to live. These include her three infant children Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno. The magical protection allows an entire village to flourish around the “casita” and this same magic imbues the clan with exceptional powers. Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal others with her cooking, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, and Bruno (John Leguizamo) can see the future. However, Bruno’s visions — which contradicted Abuela’s “everything is wonderful” vibe — weren’t appreciated. He is mysteriously missing when the main story begins.

After an initial setup, the main chronicle centers around Julieta’s daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) depicted with a visual anomaly. This is never acknowledged, but I will. She wears glasses. Oh sure, for years many men have worn them in Disney’s canonical animated features: Doc, Gepetto, Mr. Smee & John from Peter Pan to name a few. But a female protagonist sporting spectacles is virtually nonexistent. The internet informs me that Anita Radcliffe, a supporting character in 101 Dalmatians, occasionally wore them. Mirabel is a splendid addition to an animated tradition that includes icons like Velma, Edna Mode, Meg Griffin, and Daria. Sadly she is not blessed with supernatural abilities like older sisters Isabela (Diane Guerrero ) who can make flowers bloom and Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) superhuman strength. Although Mirabel has an undeniable kinship with their sentient house. She is a warm and empathic fifteen-year-old that may have accepted her lack of a gift, but it weighs on her. Nevertheless, she seems well-adjusted with a maturity that supersedes most of the adults. This includes Abuela, an enigmatic individual with a temperament that grows angrier as the tale develops.

Of course, any musical must be judged by the music, and the production reigns supreme in this area. Encanto features a buoyant score with music and lyrics by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns). His familiarity with Broadway elevates the production. I cannot minimize how captivating a melody can be when also accompanied by bright colorful visuals. The whole songbook is stellar: “The Family Madrigal” is a toe-tapping delight, “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is joyful and Luisa’s lament “Surface Pressure” all rank highly, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” really stands out. That “…no, no, no.” refrain is so memorable. I haven’t been this wowed by a Disney tune since “Let It Go” in Frozen.

Everyone is special in their own unique way. The moral is timeworn but conveyed with sincerity and style. I’m impressed by a screenplay by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush that can deftly handle such an expansive cast of characters. Everyone has a well-defined and engaging personality. They gradually each begin to feel the stress of living in the Madrigal household. There is a nuanced idea percolating beneath the surface. People who outwardly appear to be successful may carry a private pain. Those rifts within this “perfect” dynasty begin to manifest themselves as cracks within the physical building of their Casita. The metaphor is so obvious, but it feels fresh within this presentation. Encanto means “charm” in Spanish and it is indeed charming.

11-25-21

Vivo

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Music, Musical with tags on August 26, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Vivo has staying power. The release from Sony Pictures Animation debuted on Netflix back on August 6. Three weeks later and it’s still in the Top 3 of all movies on their streaming site. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a brightly colored cartoon musical with catchy songs and an original story. A family looking for convenient entertainment at home could do far worse.

Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a kinkajou that sings and dances while old and humble bandleader Andrés (musician Juan de Marcos González of Buena Vista Social Club fame) is the organ-grinder/guitarist. The charismatic duo entertains street audiences in Havana, Cuba. Then one day Andrés receives a letter from Marta (Gloria Estefan) — his ex-singing partner for whom he always carried a secret love. The Celia Cruz-esque entertainer is about to retire and requests his presence at her farewell concert in Miami. Finally! The ideal opportunity to tell Marta how he truly feels in a song he wrote just for her before they parted ways. Tragically Andrés dies that night in his sleep. Now it’s up to his pet Kinkajou to fulfill his master’s dream and deliver the tune to his unrequited love. At the funeral, Vivo meets Andrés’ widowed niece Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and her offbeat teenage daughter Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). They’re both headed back to Florida. The mammal stows away in their luggage.

Vivo is the heart of a tale that features a rather unconventional star. We the audience can understand the creature as he speaks perfect English but it sounds like unintelligible chitters to everyone else. The “honey bear” is a member of the raccoon family that is native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. So what’s he doing in Cuba? Well, he answers that question in the captivating ditty “One of a Kind” where he raps: “Maybe I fell in a shipping crate as a baby.” You see this is a musical with music and lyrics courtesy of none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Emmy-Grammy-Tony Award winner also voices the titular personality. (No Oscar yet although he came close with “Best Original Song” for Moana). This isn’t exclusively his picture though. Kirk DeMicco who gave us The Croods directs and co-wrote the movie with Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights).

Vivo has a great foundation. A flashback presented in traditional 2D animation elicits the much needed romantic nostalgia that the cold modern textures of CGI lacks. An unorthodox beginning that features the death of a beloved character is so unexpected. I was ready for something singular and bizarre. No such luck. Don’t get me wrong. It’s pleasant entertainment and the fact that this is a musical elevates my review into a recommendation.

You can best believe the creator of In The Heights and Hamilton has offered up a plethora of hip-hop and Latin music-inspired tunes. When the melodies kick in, the narrative shines. The surging “Keep the Beat” while Vivo and Gabi drift their way through the Florida Everglades is a highlight. The same goes for Gabi’s prideful declaration “My Own Drum” where she asserts her individuality.

The first half overshadows the second. Gabi’s hyper disposition grows tiresome. Seriously people who solely think they alone are distinctive (she has purple hair) while deeming everyone else to possess a cookie-cutter personality, suffer from narcissism. News flash: every single person who ever lived is a unique human being. This account succumbs to tropes and clichés as it devolves into a banal road trip adventure. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to appreciate. Those less inclined to dissect and ponder the narrative are likely to enjoy this even more.

08-11-21

CODA

Posted in Drama, Family, Music with tags on August 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The term CODA was coined in 1983 by Millie Brother while founding the support organization Children of Deaf Adults. However, the word can also describe a concluding passage or event. That meaning is equally relevant here. This is a heartwarming tale about a hearing girl named Ruby played by Emilia Jones with Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as her parents and Daniel Durant as her brother, all of whom are deaf. Writer/director Sian Heder’s picture is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier whose plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1996 German movie Beyond Silence.

Because Ruby is the only one in the household who can hear, she assists in the family fishing business as an interpreter with the outside world. She plans to do it full-time after finishing high school. However, Ruby can also sing and tries out for the school chorus. It turns out she is quite good. Choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is impressed. She’s paired up with a fellow student named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) for a duet and a sweet romance blossoms.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. CODA is a simple saga that is honest, wise, and unassuming. The chronicle concerns a girl who triumphs through different challenges by juggling her talents and interests with the demands of her family. It’s a formulaic account, but it gives the audience exactly what they want. A powerful reminder that the most enduring movies are derivative. Three Amigos, A Bug’s Life, and Galaxy Quest are all based on the same narrative. Their blueprint — The Magnificent Seven — is an inspiration which itself was a remake of Seven Samurai. The westerns of director John Ford inspired director Akira Kurosawa. It never ends. Formulas don’t negate an artistic work. It’s HOW these elements are creatively put together that matters. CODA poignantly captures the heart with sincerity — a human life artfully presented in a way with which anyone can identify.

My empathy was fully engaged. I admit I teared up at several points. In the final 20 minutes where Ruby sings the Joni Mitchell chestnut “Both Sides Now” I was on the precipice of full-blown waterworks. The screenplay is funny too. Earlier in the story, there’s a moment where the parents are discussing Ruby’s singing career. Mother is worried. “And what if she can’t sing? Maybe she’s awful,” she says and the father quickly responds, “She’s not awful.” The mother counters with “Really? Have you heard her?”

That deft mix of emotions is a big part of why this warm and earnest movie works. Also, credit goes to a charismatic ensemble. Special mention for newcomer actress Emilia Jones in the starring role. I was surprised to learn she is from the UK. Another Brit who can do a spot on American accent. She is just fantastic. CODA won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and has gotten a limited release in theaters and through Apple TV+. It’s one of the highlights of the year for me.

08-15-21

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