Archive for the Fantasy Category

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

The Vast of Night

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vast_of_night_ver2STARS3The camera slowly enters a black and white TV set.  We overhear a familiar-sounding narration and are presented with opening titles that recall Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  The narrative gradually morphs into color.  It mostly stays this way, but every so often it turns black and white again as an affectionate reminder of the homage.  Director Andrew Patterson retro ode recreates a 1950s mood that concerns a mysterious sound that bewilders two teens.  There’s switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and the comparatively more worldly DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) at local station WOTW.  The Vast of Night is set in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico and it’s certainly an impeccably fashioned period piece.  The portrait has been lovingly put together.  Although I’m surprised no one associated with this production realized that call letters for radio stations west of the Mississippi begin with a ‘K’.

The Vast of Night has a beguiling approach.  All of the events take place after dark.  The initial dialogue is delivered at a breakneck pace and it can be hard to follow at first.  During the first 30 minutes, the meandering introduction felt especially unfocused.  Stick with it though because this is superfluous exposition.  The proper story doesn’t even begin until half an hour later when Fay hears a bizarre audio frequency coming through the electronic circuits.  She forwards the intonations to Everett who plays it on the air.  The strange humming noise is identified by a disabled veteran named Billy (Bruce Davis).  The phone caller conveys his experiences in an extended auditory sequence.  Later on, the duo travels to meet an elderly woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer).  She too recounts her experiences with the same sonic vibrations in another static shot.  Her verbose monologue is a long-winded sequence that may test the patience of most viewers.

The Vast of Night is a gloomy drama built solely around an enigmatic reverberation.  Evidence suggests a conspiracy theory involving a military experiment.  Most of what makes this saga compelling is its commitment to a B movie atmosphere.  However — save for a few showy unbroken tracking shots — the assemblage is not particularly cinematic. The film is regrettably centered entirely around the recollections of two loquacious individuals: Billy and then Mabel. Their lengthy monologues would be perfect vignettes for a popular radio program. That is before TV became the dominant entertainment medium in the 1950s. The interludes are not the most visually captivating. Some have labeled this release science-fiction but honestly, this extremely low budget tale is more mystery than anything else. It isn’t until the final 10 minutes that the feature ultimately succumbs to a spectacle that deems it as sci-fi. It’s unquestionably a powerful ending to a protracted buildup but its effectiveness also serves to underscore another insight. It’s at that moment we the audience suspect the film’s lo-fi aesthetic was more due to a lack of finances than art.

05-29-20

Gretel & Hansel

Posted in Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on February 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gretel_and_hansel_ver3STARS3.5Cinephiles know that January is a dumping ground for terrible movies.  I’m not talking about pictures like 1917 which go wide in the first month.  Award-worthy films like that have limited openings in December in New York and LA to qualify for the Oscars.  No, I mean productions that drop in January for the first time.  Horror flicks are especially suspect in the winter months because the best ones are usually distributed in summer and fall.  The Grudge and The Turning both opened to extremely negative reviews and “F” Cinemascores.  Gretel & Hansel is also a horror movie released this month.  Plot twist: It’s actually good.

Gretel & Hansel is indeed based on the 200-year-old German folklore tale.  Those fables collected by the Brothers Grimm have always been a little twisted so the fact that this has been reimagined as a dark adventure isn’t such a stretch.  Director Osgood Perkins or rather Oz (son of Anthony) essentially recounts the same legend but with a few tweaks.  As the reversal of the title implies, the girl is the focus in this drama.  Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is now a teenager looking after her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey).  Their father has already passed on.  After their awful mother kicks them out of the house, the two venture into the woods in search of food.  They come across a dwelling in a clearing where they meet a mysterious woman named Holda (Alice Krige).  In exchange for food and shelter, they’ll cook and clean for her.  Sounds like a fair trade…or is it?

The cast is uniformly excellent — particularly actress Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) who narrowly gets my vote for the MVP as the wonderfully creepy Holda.  She delivers her lines with a Shakespearean energy that imbues the words with more importance than they actually deserve.  Sophia Lillis is exceptional as Gretel too.  Her interaction with the aged woman — OK let’s be honest, witch — is an interesting relationship that propels the story forward.   Gretel may exhibit an anachronistic personality but that demeanor makes her more relatable to a modern audience in fact.   The behavior applies to her brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey) as well.  Gretel has visions that verge on nightmares.  The witch senses Gretel’s abilities.  She teaches Gretel how to tap into her powers.   Also worth mentioning is Jessica De Gouw as a young Holda who is a malevolent presence.

Gretel & Hansel is the third feature from director Perkins.  He bestows a vibrancy to this ancient yarn heretofore unknown.  His previous efforts were The Blackcoat’s Daughter which made a mere 20k domestically and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House which debuted on Netflix – both horror films.  It’s clear that Perkins loves the genre.  He explores it with a rare subtlety.  The box office of Gretel & Hansel may have been a modest achievement.  It earned just $6.1M in the U.S. opening weekend but given that the budget was only $5M, I’d call that a success.  It’s well on its way to profitability.

There is so much to recommend about this production.  As the PG-13 rating would imply, this movie relies far more on atmospherics than gore.   The outstanding production design is arguably the movie’s strongest asset.  Jeremy Reed extracts fear out of gloomy spaces.  The rooms and buildings have an ominous air to them.  Cinematographer Galo Olivares captures all of this with stylish elegance.  He was a collaborator on Roma and the talent he brought to that triumph is clearly evident here.  One particular set piece involving a bucket of guts leaves a lasting impression.  Now let’s talk about the soundtrack.  I love the Beatles and the Moody Blues so I’ve always been a sucker for any melody that features a mellotron.  The eerie synth-heavy score is composed by Paris-based composer ROB aka Robin Coudert (Maniac, Horns).  He adds a glorious soundscape that further immerses the viewer into a sinister environment.

If I must register a gripe, it’s that director Oz Perkins favors slow-burn pacing at the expense of a compelling story.  Ironically it’s during the climax that the chronicle suddenly feels rushed.  Plot is not this saga’s strong point.  However I enjoyed this overall, so I won’t end on a pessimistic note.  The gorgeous production is content to revel in a dark climate.  It’s intensely disturbing.  The music and visuals really add to the sense of dread.  I was quite taken by the mood.  Gretel & Hansel mesmerizes while it simultaneously unsettles.  What it lacks in a narrative, it more than makes up for in some hauntingly beautiful tableaus.

01-30-20

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver4STARS3.5Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might have set a record for the number of spontaneous bursts of applause I’ve ever experienced during a theatrical screening.  I stopped counting when it reached double digits.  It was an absolute love fest.  My reaction was less enthusiastic but I can appreciate why the crowd embraced this so gleefully.  The chronicle is heavy on scenes and displays that are specifically designed to appeal to longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise — especially admirers of the first set (and best) of three films often referred to as the classic trilogy.  Director J.J. Abrams is a master at giving people exactly what they want.  That is both boon and bane to the grand narrative arc of the three most recent Star Wars episodes.

J.J. Abrams was faced with an epic task.  First, he had to close out the sequel trilogy which he began with The Force Awakens in 2015, but also cap off the entire “Skywalker Saga” of nine movies.  He only partially succeeds as the three chapters linked do not fit together as a cohesive whole.  I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s subversive take in the 2nd movie because he brought innovation and unexpected change to the franchise.  However, it was not meant to be. From a story standpoint, it now feels like Abrams directed The Force Awakens with an idea of where he wanted the adventure to go.  Then the series was hijacked by filmmaker Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi who introduced plot elements and personalities only to have Abrams either ignore them or explain them away with The Rise of Skywalker as a course-correcting measure.  This is true with the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic of the resistance that was a huge part of The Last Jedi but now only registers as a gloried cameo typing away at a computer here.  Be warned there will be other adjustments made in the name of retroactive continuity.  What I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the opening crawl.  Somehow a resurrected emperor Palpatine returns (Ian McDiarmid) as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been rendered as a nonentity.

J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Wars is more focused on the meticulous crafting of visual style at the expense of logical developments. That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker isn’t enjoyable.  It’s hugely entertaining.  The audience in my theater were laughing, crying, cheering.  That audience experienced something akin to a religious experience.  There are lots of encounters with fantastic creatures and random humans.  Babu Frik is the baby Yoda of this movie.  Don’t underestimate this little guy’s power to charm the viewer.  Babu Frik reprograms droids and speaks in an incomprehensible but adorable alien language that had my theater enraptured.  There’s a cone-headed droid named D-O that behaves like a rehabilitated puppy.  Porgs, Ewoks, Jawas, droids all pop up intermittently to satisfy your fan lust for more cute critters.  Abrams is adept at manipulating the Star Wars aesthetic in a way that honors the past while fashioning a tale with new personalities.

There’s a dizzying array of human roles too.  Numerous individuals pop up, deliver one line and then frustratingly disappear.  Abrams prioritizes the wants and needs of the fans over plot, characterization and thematic consistency.  Rose Tico has been sidelined.  Yet the writers have added other actors that appear to fulfill the same role but then obfuscate the advancement of a singular narrative.  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is an ally of the Resistance who is paired up with Finn.  She also has a conversation with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) that’s calculated to tease some sort of relationship.  Oscar Isaac is back as Poe and he hangs out with an old friend named Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell.  You’d never know it was the actress, however, because she wears a helmet.  You only see her eyes in one scene.  The inclusion of Jannah and Zorii seems rather pointless.  Nevertheless, the cast is filled with beings that all look and sound the part.  The villains continue to be cast like actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde in the First Order looks like a genetic descendant of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

Yes, this movie relies on the groundwork that was established long ago.  This entry will lack an emotional impact for the uninitiated.  It feels a bit like a greatest hits reel where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in.  At one point Rey amusingly utters a declaration that followers will recognize as a variation of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.  My theater was erupting in applause at moments that I didn’t even grasp.  The gang walks into a droid shop and there’s an old guy with a white beard shaking his head.  Everyone started clapping.  It was only after the film was over and I consulted the internet that I found out who that was.  Abrams even finds a way to include original cast members including (but not limited to) Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams.  Fisher passed on in 2016 and so her scenes have been cobbled together from outtakes and pre-recorded dialogue.  Her declarations have a vagueness about them but it’s nice to see her.  Another character reappears as just a figment of someone’s memory.

The Rise of Skywalker ultimately delivers the satisfying end to — what I like to call — the nonology.  The chronicle is well-paced but at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it’s overpacked with too much stuff.  It’s messy and incoherent.  However, the central trio continues to be a charismatic bunch.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) bicker like two brothers.  They still have a nice dynamic.  The main hero, Jedi Knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the lion’s share of the drama.  The idea of “The Force” as an all-powerful almost Godlike solution to difficult problems is further promoted.  Rey now has abilities so advanced that she can control a spaceship flying overhead simply by outstretching her hand while she is safely on the ground.  Apparently, the force can even be manipulated in the same way that Jesus helped Lazarus.

Rey is a captivating heroine and her interaction with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the sentimental core.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a lightsaber duel between the two of them.  The fact it’s set against a backdrop of stormy ocean waves that rise and crash all around them truly elevate the action.  It ends with a surprising act.  Abrams fills his account with sensational set pieces that delight the viewer.  Also ** news flash ** there will be a massive air battle between the Rebels and the Empire.  Abrams celebrates cinematic history by courting nostalgia but then amps up the spectacle.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s his ties to the same ideas that fascinated George Lucas where The Rise of Skywalker fitfully entertains as an end to the Star Wars saga.

12-19-19

Frozen 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on November 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

frozen_two_ver8STARS3.5Truth be told, I enjoyed Frozen just fine in 2013, but I didn’t think it was the be all and end all of animated cinema.  I was in the minority because somehow it ended up making $1.2 billion worldwide and winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  I was rooting for Despicable Me 2 that year incidentally and yes I’m 100% serious.  Now we have Frozen 2, a sequel to the Disney megahit.  Coming on the heels of Ralph Breaks the Internet, I suspect that Disney is in the early stages of producing many followups to their successful properties.  Pixar has been doing this for years.  I could be snarky and say you could almost throw anything up there on the screen and it would be a hit but the filmmakers didn’t play it safe.  They have put in considerable work to deepen the drama with a complicated backstory.  I appreciate the attempt, but it’s an effort that feels unnecessary.

Before we get to the adventure, however, let’s starts with the basics.  It’s not hard to see how Frozen 2 checks off the ingredients in a recipe: bring back familiar personalities we know, introduce new characters which can be marketed as great toys, pre-package girl power messaging and highlight a musical with original show tunes.  Not a problem.  I was prepared for that.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) return.   A magic water horse called the Nokk, a cute salamander named Bruni and a family of giant rock monsters are newly added merchandising opportunities.  It also grants us an entire soundtrack of new songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  There seems to be some debate, but I contend that “Show Yourself” is the one designed to mimic “Let it Go” musically and visually in the film.  “Into the Unknown” is the ballad they’re pushing as the hit though.  The best ditty, however, is not when the soundtrack is trying to rewrite the melodies from the previous chapter.   It happens when our expectations are subverted.  Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) 80s influenced “Lost in the Woods” is the greatest power pop ballad that REO Speedwagon never sang.

More isn’t always better.  The story presented here proves that.  Sometimes more is just more.  The chronicle is a needlessly convoluted fantasy with more subplots.  It offers answers for questions you never thought to ask but are going to receive anyway.  Some people will adore that level of mythology.  Are you one of those people?  You have to ask yourself this question: What do you require of a cartoon?  If simplicity and clarity are what you crave, you are likely to be a bit perplexed by the elaborate exposition.  However, if you prefer more legends and fabrications, then your curiosity will be satiated.  You’re going to get a lot of expounding.  For example, the narrative will produce explanations as to why Elsa has magical abilities, and what happened to her and Anna’s parents.  I didn’t need that level of detail, but thanks for the info…I guess.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough.  The production is beautifully animated and features some nice music.  It’s a formula but it’s a formula that works.  Frozen 2 did $127 million in the U.S. during its opening weekend so be ready to take your children to a movie they will beg you to see.  That is if you haven’t seen it already.

11-21-19

Doctor Sleep

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2019 by Mark Hobin

doctor_sleep_ver2STARS3Doctor Sleep vacillates between trying to please two factions.  Some audiences will come for the adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel which the author wrote as a sequel to his 1977 bestseller The Shining.  Then there are the fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie that arguably has an even more devoted following.  King himself was famously not a fan of Kubrick’s vision.  The now-classic was a gorgeous evocation of horror that relied on visual imagery, not on detailed explanations.  Conversely, Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) has directed an account that offers a lot of exposition for people hungry for answers.  This chronicle is more plot-driven with lots of folklore to deepen your understanding of what “shining” is.  Doctor Sleep tries to schizophrenically appease both camps.

The story concerns Danny Torrance, now Dan, (Ewan McGregor), best remembered as the little clairvoyant son of his mad father, Jack.  He has become an alcoholic, desperate to forget the events at the Overlook hotel.  He comforts the terminally ill while working at a hospice where the patients give him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”.  He meets another psychic, a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and they band together to fight a malevolent clan called the True Knot.  The group is killing children with special powers and feeding off the steam that they emit.  It’s just as gruesome as it sounds and there’s one death in particular (Jacob Tremblay) that is extremely hard to watch.  I suspect the methodical depiction of what befalls him could be a deal-breaker for some people.  A couple of other individuals with close relationships will be introduced and then summarily killed off as well.  The tale has an uncomfortable disregard for the lives of characters whose deaths should mean more than just another offhand development.

This presentation is largely missing the stately grandeur of its precursor.  So in that respect, it will not appease the die-hards of Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric reworking.  However, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who thought Kubrick’s version should’ve adhered closer to King’s original text.  If you crave exposition and plot, this is the production for you.  It’s a convoluted follow-up that attempts to give lots of unnecessary details about Dan’s extrasensory “shining” power.  The bulk of the narrative isn’t a continuation of the events from the first film but rather a saga about what Dan encounters after he grew up.   The focus is on his interactions with the True Knot, the aforementioned nomadic group of evil visionaries.  In that sense, Doctor Sleep becomes a superhero origin story of nefarious mutants with psychic powers and goofy names.  There’s Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken) and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), among others.

Doctor Sleep is a mixed bag.  It ultimately can’t escape the shadow of the 1980 film.  “This also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining,” director Mike Flanagan has said.  He leans heavily on imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation in several key scenes, particularly in the third act.  This might have been more thrilling if Steven Spielberg hadn’t already exploited the same iconography in 2018 with Ready Player One.  There are roughly 30 minutes of developments that include sets that tastefully recreate the Overlook Hotel.  Additionally, lookalike actors are cast playing the parts of Dan’s younger self (Roger Dale Floyd), his parents Wendy (Alex Essoe) and Jack (Henry Thomas) and Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) the cook.  When this appropriates the visuals of its predecessor, it can be distracting.  Also, at 2 and a half hours it’s far too long.  Nevertheless, this movie has some good points.  Chief among them is Rebecca Ferguson who is great as the central villain Rose the Hat.  True to her moniker, she wears a top hat and exudes this Stevie Nicks vibe of beautiful witchery.  She clearly enjoys the fun of being the baddie and its a compelling performance.  When Doctor Sleep isn’t overly wrapped up in mythology and explanation and simply focuses on the performances of the main characters, it can be fitfully entertaining.

11-07-19

The Lighthouse

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror with tags on October 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lighthouse_ver2STARS3I loved director Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch back in 2015.  His follow-up really doubles down on the lo-fi art house pretensions of his directorial debut.  Not only is it shot in black and white but it also presents a 1.19:1 aspect ratio reducing the screen down to an almost perfect square.  Furthermore, it’s another period piece this time set more than 200 years later in 1850 and it relies on the dialect and colloquialisms of the era.  Eggers co-wrote the script along with his brother Max Eggers.  The screenplay was heavily influenced by the 19th-century writings of author Sarah Orne Jewett.  The thick drawl of the dialogue can get a bit impenetrable to our 21st-century ears.  Lastly, this two-hander stars current indie idol Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis, Good Time) as well as eccentric indie notable Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project, At Eternity’s Gate).  Each actor often gravitates toward inscrutable fare.  This film is a prime example.  As two bona fide movie stars should, they fully commit to their characters by bringing their A-game.   If nothing else, their performances are intense.  It’s still a challenging watch.

The Lighthouse has been described as psychological horror which is a nice description for a movie that traffics in an unsettling milieu without actually being scary.  On the surface, it’s a story about two co-workers forced to live together in a remote lighthouse on a tiny New England island.  They’re supposed to be there for four weeks until their replacements show up.  Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are roommates that don’t get along and their deteriorating relationship is the plot.  Thomas Wake is the old salt in charge and he makes life absolutely miserable for his young protege.  For the most part, the taciturn Winslow does what he is told.  The abusive Wake burdens Winslow with an inordinate amount of chores, forces him to drink, frequently passes gas and spends time with (ahem) himself.  Wake’s repulsive behavior offends Winslow.   Wake seems completely unstable — a taskmaster obsessed with power.  At one point Wake angrily demands that Winslow make the lighthouse “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker!”  The line reads as ridiculous as it sounds.  It was then that I realized I was watching a comedy albeit one inspired by the visual style of Sven Nykvist.

The pictorial tableau is crammed with haunting images.  They compel the viewer to remain riveted to the screen.  Indeed the cinematography is the most attractive feature of the spectacle.  Director of photography Jarin Blaschke makes bad things look beautiful. There’s a seductive mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), an impending storm, and claustrophobic quarters tainted by an unendurable stench.  Emptying a chamber pot filled with feces proves especially frustrating on a windy day.  Thank goodness this movie doesn’t utilize the 1960s innovation Smell-O-Vision because the odor would be intolerable.  The sound design is just as important as the visuals as a constantly blaring foghorn adds to the tension.  The spell of this film is to lull the audience into a state of unease and for a while, that’s enough.

The effect of extreme loneliness on the psyche is a theme.  As such, there’s a feeling that much of what we see isn’t real.  Are the consequences of their seclusion a product of their environment or the result of supernatural forces?  There is no definitive answer.  The film is playfully vague which cleverly provides a reason for people to discuss what is real and what is fantasy.  Oh did I mention that a bird steals the show?  Much as the goat Black Phillip in The Witch was an animal of malevolent evil, there’s a seagull here that traumatizes our protagonist.  I could have adored an entire conflict focused around him but alas our feathered friend is but a minor interlude.  The further along we go, the more we realize that the “story” is simply about creating a mood of despair.  Sticking the landing — so to speak — is so difficult in these productions high on atmospherics and low on substance.  That can be disheartening for people who crave a point – a final thought to think about as you leave the theater.  Sadly the narrative is “resolved” in a way that leaves even more doubt than resolution.  Admirers will defend, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” Fans and detractors alike should happily agree on this point.

10-22-19

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on October 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maleficent_mistress_of_evil_ver6STARS2.5First off, let’s clarify one point right away.  Maleficent the “Mistress of Evil” is NOT a villain.  This is a sequel to the 2014 live-action feature which was a revisionist take on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Maleficent wasn’t bad in that film either, just misunderstood.  Here she’s actually bordering on virtuous because there’s another character that becomes the main antagonist.

You may recall that Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is Princess Aurora’s fairy godmother.  Aurora (Elle Fanning) Queen of the Moors wants to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson).   Their vacant personalities are dull.  Perhaps it shouldn’t matter since this young couple in love isn’t the focus, but I felt no sympathy for them.  In fact, I couldn’t relate to any living thing in this film.  That includes all of the whimsical assemblages of flora and fauna that are aggressively thrust into the audience’s face.  Problems arise during an awkward family dinner.  Aurora’s parents are King John and Queen Ingrith played by Robert Lindsay and Michelle Pfeiffer.  They invite their prospective in-law Maleficent over to dinner to ostensibly welcome her into the family.  However, the Queen has ulterior motives and starts an argument with Maleficent that turns really ugly.

Angelina Jolie brings true movie star charisma to the role.  It’s nice to see her acting again.  Jolie has only appeared in one picture since the last installment — the box office bomb By the Sea in 2015.  She’s at her best when she’s desperately trying to make nice with the royals and failing miserably.  The costumes (Maleficent got an Oscar nomination for this) are spectacular and the production design is luxurious.  However, the sheer amount of CGI in this concoction is almost too much for the human eye to comprehend.  The technology rendering various elves, nymphs, sylphs, sprites, and pixies infects every frame.

I lost track of how many artificially rendered side characters exist in this world.  The three pixies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville are an abomination.  Their manifestation hasn’t changed from the 2014 entry.  These fairies don’t resemble anything even remotely organic.  Their shrunken faces, squeezed into diminutive bodies are merely graphical displays.  The nadir is when one of them utters the colloquial expression: “I see what you did there.”   A chattering Sonic the hedgehog-like critter named Pinto speaks in a cutesy high pitched language that I can only describe as Ewok.   There’s a mushroom fairy named Button that gets captured by an evil goblin scientist with big ears named Lickspittle (Warwick Davis).   He resembles Yoda.  There are also tree creatures that evoke Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (or the Ents in Lord of the Rings – take your pick).  On-screen, it’s just a visual assault of random stuff.

The story is a bloated mishmash that superficially draws more from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings than the animated classic from 1959 on which this was inspired.  Only shapeshifter Diaval, Maleficent’s right-hand man, is able to register some presence.  You’d think a confrontation between Michelle Pfeiffer (bedecked in pearls) and Angelina Jolie (at her vampiest) would be a captivating showdown.  Nope! Maleficent: Mistress of Evil bungles even that.  A lot of the blame can be placed at the doorstep of screenwriter Linda Woolverton who wrote a better screenplay for Maleficent (2014). The script is simply awful. Though the multimedia artists are definitely working against her.  The movie is more concerned with digitally enhanced special effects than actual drama.  There’s no emotional weight to their interactions.  I was numb watching this tale play out.  Back in 2007, Michelle Pfeiffer appeared in a Matthew Vaughn directed fantasy called Stardust.  That award-winning delight is infinitely superior to this dreck.  If this review can have a positive effect, it will inspire someone to go watch a good film.

10-17-19

The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 6, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_far_from_home_ver7STARS4Warning: Review contains an Avengers: Endgame spoiler.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn’t waste any time getting started.  A gigantic cyclone “with a face” terrorizes a city in Mexico.  An enigmatic superhero heretofore unknown arrives to fight the creature and save the day.  We later learn his name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  He will become a key figure in this narrative.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) investigate.  They appeal to Peter Parker (Tom Holland ) for help.  However the mild-mannered teen a.k.a. Spider-Man is more concerned with high school life.  This means preparing for a class trip to Europe, hanging out with his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and attending to the crush he has on cute classmate “MJ” (Zendaya).  He likes her and she likes him.  They’re just too painfully shy to tell one another.  It may technically be the final chapter in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but debuting after Avengers: Endgame, this really feels like a fresh beginning.  The adventure enthusiastically prepares the viewer for a new series of MCU movies with a lighthearted attitude that is buoyant and fun.

Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own identity.  Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its 2017 predecessor, this one is equally coming of age comedy as it is a superhero fantasy.  Actually, the portrait of teen angst is the best part.  Coming on the heels of Endgame, this is the first feature to detail the aftermath of what Thanos caused.  In that vein, their high-school TV station playfully presents an “In Memoriam” segment for Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Vision.  It also explains what happened when half the Earth’s population disappeared in what this story calls “The Blip” then reappeared exactly the same age five years later.  Their peers who remained on Earth did age.

Peter Parker is torn.  Four Elementals are wreaking havoc on the world.  These immortal creatures are so-named because each one controls an element: earth, air, fire, and water.  As Tony Stark’s protegee, he feels the call to be a superhero.  At the same time, Peter just wants to see the sights of Europe with his friends.  Enter Quentin Beck, a hero from a parallel Earth, who seems ever more capable than Peter when dealing with these supernatural threats.  Peter’s classmates start calling the individual “Mysterio” which the genial guy soon adopts as his moniker.  Jake Gyllenhaal is memorable.  He imbues his character with a charisma that deftly straddles the line between good-natured and disingenuous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a blast.  It also details a very personal odyssey.  Directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the film brilliantly juggles a crisis of conscience for Peter Parker.  This is a character based chronicle and as such, his desire to simply live a “normal” life is quite compelling.  I truly cared about the various choices that Peter Parker makes.  One, in particular, is an (almost) unforgivable decision.  Deep down we know in this Tony Stark-less reality, the world truly needs Spider-Man.  The emotional stakes are huge!  A wonderful cast engages the emotions with humor and intensity.  I’ve discussed most of the main players but “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) also bear a mention.  They share an amusing flirtation in their minor roles.  The class field trip provides a picaresque tour of Europe.  This appealingly sets the action in various destinations: Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London.  The action comes to a crescendo in a climax that exploits the idea that everything you see in a deception.  It’s a dizzying feat of CGI and the effects had me gasping at the optical illusion of it all.  The chaotic frenzy recalls the bewildering displays of last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Mysterio’s glowing orbs of lightning blasts are kind of awesome in a kitschy old-school science fiction way.  This saga perfectly blends emotion and technology.  This summertime romp effortlessly entertains with wit and style.

07-02-19