Archive for the Fantasy Category

A Monster Calls

Posted in Drama, Fantasy with tags on January 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo monster_calls_zpspvrtiqu5.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgA Monster Calls establishes its narrative with a question. The deep intonations of Liam Neeson articulate “How does the story begin? It begins like so many stories. With a boy. Too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.” If I may paraphrase that preface, this movie is too esoteric for a kid and too jejune for an adult.

A Monster Calls is a dark fantasy about Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is struggling to come terms with his mother’s illness. She has cancer. At just after midnight, Conor is visited by a large tree-like beast who tells him stories. He helps him cope. If this all feels a bit familiar, it’s because the bond between a boy and a fantastical creature has been a recurring theme in the cinema as of late (The BFG, Pete’s Dragon) This film is an adaptation from director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) of the award-winning novel by Patrick Ness.

The chronicle is essentially structured around the three “true” stories told by the giant tree creature. Following these tales, Conor has been instructed to tell a fable himself – the truth behind his own personal ordeal. The way the first two parables are illustrated exemplifies the best thing about the feature. As the monster speaks, his words are brought to life by sequences from Barcelona based animation studio Headless Productions. The luscious textures of watercolor drawings give fervid life to yarns that would have only been merely respectable on their own. The dazzling graphics are so hypnotic, I found myself dreaming about an entire movie done in this aesthetic. I was mesmerized. However, by the third account, artistic images gives way to real life. He is beset by bullies. Heavy handed narration informs us of the “invisible” man that Connor has become. Joy and wonder give way to a lesson of schooling and reproach.

It can’t be easy acting alongside a giant tree creature, but young actor Lewis MacDougall makes it look completely natural in A Monster Calls. The two have an allure that makes their friendship an undeniable delight. Too bad the rest of the ensemble doesn’t inspire the same enthusiasm. Felicity Jones is great – if being a beatific presence over which to grieve is how we measure her achievement. Sigourney Weaver is an odd choice as an icy British grandma. It appears to be more stunt casting than a decision based on the demands of the character. She is appropriately aloof and cold but not an individual we wish to be around. His father (Toby Kebbell ) lives in the U.S. and seems detached from his son. Kebbell (Control, RocknRolla) is a charismatic actor, but all I could think while watching him here is, why aren’t you more interesting?

Who is the audience for this picture? Maybe fantasy fanatics who want to recall their childhood or perhaps anyone who has gone trough a similarly traumatic experience and can identify with this young protagonist. A Monster Calls is artifice fabricated from gorgeous components. The CGI, the musical score, the animated tales are all beautifully put together. It is a visually inventive production. There’s so much to recommend initially that it makes the ultimate denouement such a crushing disappointment., The hackneyed and commonplace ending doesn’t justify all that came before it. We get the tear-jerky finale that we’ve been promised but it feels forced. I was indifferent. It goes through the motions of a sad ending, but we’re missing the humanity.

12-06-16

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

Doctor Strange

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo doctor_strange_ver11_zpso25d43em.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgComic-book productions currently entertain as large a share of the overall film audience as they ever have. Moviegoers are inundated with product. This is the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) alone. I’m not even counting other features based on Marvel fiction like X-Men or Spider-Man and then there’s DC and all of its iterations. As with any series, some of it’s major (The Avengers) and some of it’s minor (Ant-Man). It’s just that there are so many origin stories. There is a template and they’re all so similar. There’s sort of a generic sameness that many of these superhero flicks fall into. The best redefine the genre and set their own course. Doctor Strange doesn’t raise the bar. However this creative fabrication does inundate the viewer with visual stimuli and to that end, the movie entertains.

Doctor Strange is thwarted by repetitive story beats. Brilliant/wealthy genius becomes helpless then discovers magical powers/suit after meeting a powerful entity. Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) are rather iconic at this point so it’s hard not to feel a little been there done that as this thin plot unfolds. In this case, our hero is an acclaimed neurosurgeon but loses the use of his hands in a car accident. He hears that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic rather than Tibetan mystic) might be able to help him and he journeys to an isolated community in the Himalayas to meet her. The Ancient One shows Dr. Stephen Strange her powers. He pleads for her instruction, and she eventually agrees, despite his arrogant disposition. Some time later, Strange encounters a sentient cape and he dons it for protection.

The accomplished cast delivers their lines with all the gravitas of a Shakespearean drama. Star Cumberbatch has the serious demeanor to make all this silliness seem thoughtful. Jedi-like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his Morpheus-like master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), stand out as well. They make their preposterous lines seem credible. But Strange’s love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), is a particularly thankless role. Granted she’s not the proverbial damsel-in-distress. In fact, she’s even less important than that stereotype because her role is completely superfluous. Elsewhere Strange has learned to spin fire circles in the air that create doorways to escape to other places. It all builds to an expected showdown between good and evil as preordained by these fables. But Strange’ character arc makes no sense. First, he’s a jerk, then suddenly he’s not. Where did his climatic act of selflessness come from? The fact that it takes place in an alternate time-loop dimension is different at least.  Points for that I guess.

Doctor Strange is a formulaic origin story with dazzling computer-generated imagery. Director Scott Derrickson adheres closely to the superhero blueprint. He makes sure to add humorous quips that are indeed genuinely funny. After he accepts a card from Mordo, Strange asks, “What’s this? My mantra?” “It’s the wi-fi password,” Mordo responds. “We’re not savages.” Where filmmaker Derrickson steps outside the box is in the hallucinogenic head trip effects. The kaleidoscopic metropolis is rendered as if designed by M.C. Escher. Master of the mystic arts, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his minions chase after Strange and Baron Mordo through 3D manipulated landscapes that delight the eye. As one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius is a stock villain. Unfortunately, he’s a snooze. His dialogues with Dr. Strange are completely ridiculous.  Virtually everything he says is gibberish, but the visuals aren’t. It’s fun to watch.  It isn’t innovative though. The Matrix or Inception did these ideas earlier and did them better. It’s still fun to look at though. Doctor Strange is a dubious trendsetter – the first MCU movie where spectacle outshines a boilerplate adventure.

11-03-16

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

Ghostbusters

Posted in Action, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ghostbusters_ver5_zpsuplq07c1.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI don’t think I could’ve been more primed to like this film. (1) I adore the classic 1984 comedy and the concept of a distinctly fresh version of Ghostbusters sounded like fun. (2) I am a huge fan of the cast. Melissa McCarthy has the whip-smart comic timing that can shape even a stale bit into a gem. Kristen Wiig is a genius of oft kilter humor. Up-and-comers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are rising stars whose work on Saturday Night Live is among the most outstanding on that show right now. (3) Bridesmaids was one of the best features of 2011. It made my Top 10 for that year. Reunite the director Paul Feig with two of that picture’s personalities and watch their obvious chemistry unfold again. (4) The pre-release internet hate directed at this production was so unfounded I was tempted to give the movie a pass simply to prove the naysayers wrong.

The good news is that Ghostbusters is not the disaster that the internet predicted. Yet it’s far from the inspired reboot for which I was hoping. The set-up: Many years ago, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) collaborated on an unpopular book about paranormal phenomenon. When Gilbert realizes the book has been republished, she seeks out Yates to undo an embarrassing situation that might damage her tenure at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, Yates has continued to study the supernatural with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates coaxes Gilbert into joining her on another investigation in exchange for squashing the book’s publication. And so they’re off to fight ghosts.

Joining them are MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who sees a ghost in a subway line and contacts the Department. She joins the team a while later. Jones is normally a uniquely dynamic presence on SNL but here she is given nothing more to do than pedestrian shtick.  Unfortunately the sidekick part fails to highlight the sharp comedic gifts she displays every week.  Shouting your lines doesn’t make them funnier. There’s also Kevin Beckman, a feebleminded but handsome receptionist (Chris Hemsworth). I could easily fault the “himbo” act for being nothing more than a dumb blonde role reversal joke.  The thing is, he’s actually one of the funniest things in the film. Credit his affable charisma for taking a flimsy part and making it funny.

Of the four Ghostbusters, only Kate McKinnon truly elevates her loony scientist into something interesting and original. She interprets lines that would normally fall flat in the hands of a lesser actress. By delivering them with an off beat sensibility, she makes the character her own and not a pale imitation. A relative unknown, she has the most to gain from this exposure. I suspect this credit on her resume will be a nice stepping stone to greater things in her career. However established stars McCarthy and Wiig have been lobotomized. They seriously downplay their normally quirky appeal here. Perhaps that’s admirable. This is an ensemble piece and it allows others like McKinnon and Hemsworth to shine. However, in the process we lose what makes their comedic personas so invigorating.

Ghostbusters is a largely uninspired take on a well known property. The story scores points for changing up the plot at least. Like a remix of a classic song with a new singer and modern production, it entertains based on familiarity but not through excellence or innovation. Ok so Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are amusing, but the script hangs the rest of the cast out to dry. In lieu of a Sumerian deity from another dimension brought back from the dead, we get a nerdy petulant weirdo (Neil Casey).  He is a weak excuse for the main villain. Humor is subjective, but I rarely laughed and that’s a deal breaker when assessing a comedy. This cacophonous spectacle wants it both ways. Embrace a modern take, while constantly reminding you of nostalgia for the 1984 original. Star cameos abound with Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all in conspicuous bits that distract from, rather than add to the narrative. The idea of a summer blockbuster that headlines 4 women celebrated for their witty minds, and not their physical attributes, is exciting in theory. I so very wanted this movie to be spectacular. Instead it’s just barely acceptable.

07-14-16

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

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 28, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo alice_through_the_looking_glass_ver8_zpsia3k2lst.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgHow to explain when a movie goes from being merely bad, to an out-and-out assault on the senses. That is the conundrum I’m faced with trying to make sense of Alice Through the Looking Glass. This is the followup to Tim Burton’s wildly successful hit that came out in the spring of 2010. Alice in Wonderland remarkably made $334 million in the U.S. alone. It was the 2nd biggest hit of that year (behind Toy Story 3), so you knew it was only a matter of time before they would make a sequel. Why it took more than half a decade is a question for Tim Burton. Highly successful screenwriter for Disney, Linda Wolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), is back, however Tim Burton is only a producer this time around. Apparently he really didn’t want to helm another one. The director’s job has been delegated to James Bobin (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted). On paper, that sounds promising. I mildly enjoyed the original and was at least prepared to delight in the artistry of a sequel.

Flamboyance is the recipe again but magnified to the tenth power. That’s hard to imagine. The first was hardly a model of restraint, but it still had some semblance of a story. Although Alice in Wonderland threw out the plot of the book, it kept the characters and amped up the crazy. What it lacked in dramatic coherence it made up for in visual spectacle. So what exactly is the plot in the current installment? That’s a very good question. I still don’t have a good answer. Lewis Carroll’s book dealt with Alice’s attempts to become a Queen. His novel exploited the game of chess as a metaphor for the lack of control she had over the direction of her own life. An overriding theme concerned the feeling of loneliness as one grows older.

Linda Woolverton’s screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass has nothing to do with any of that. Ok fine, but what does it concern? The action inexplicably starts out on a ship in the ocean with Alice as the captain trying to outrun a trio of pirates. It’s a loud, chaotic beginning that feels like the climax of a completely different film. Then on to some nonsense regarding her ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and an exchange of that ship for her home. What does it all mean? Doesn’t really matter because everything is thrown aside when she walks through a mirror and ends up in Wonderland. The Mad Matter’s family is missing and Alice agrees to help. From what I can glean, this is the true thrust of the narrative. First, she visits a character called Time. He’s some bizarre demigod played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the only performance that manages to gain a modicum of our interest. He relishes the part and his commitment is palpable. Next Alice steals the Chronosphere and promptly travels back in time to change the past right after being told that is forbidden. Here the developments resemble Muppet Babies as we get junior versions of the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter. More stuff happens involving their childhood. The Jabberwocky appears. Alice wakes up in a mental hospital, diagnosed with female hysteria.  That’s not how it ends.  She goes back to Wonderland.  Yup again.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a wackadoodle free-for-all with a CGI budget that’s roughly the GDP of an island nation. Every scene of this haphazardly plotted film bursts with more computer generated imagery than the human eye can even absorb. Each display vies for the viewer’s attention as effect is heaped upon effect. One exhibition competes with the next for space within the frame. There is little relief from the uninterrupted excess. The crowded extravaganza is so staggeringly overindulgent, it’s vulgar. I’ve played with kaleidoscopes that had a more coherent narrative. Meanwhile Johnny Depp minces with abandon as the Mad Hatter, lisping all the while in another fey performance so cloying it inspired me to brush my teeth afterward for fear I might get cavities. Helena Bonham Carter, so wonderful as the Red Queen in the last film, bickers with her sister to the point of annoyance. Her decades old hate for her sibling, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), revealed as having originated as a lie to the question “Who ate these tarts?”  There is little story. Just effects. Alice Through The Looking Glass is stridently obscene in its desire to distract and confuse. The production is focused on satiating the basest component of visual desire and nothing more. It’s offensive.

05-26-16

The Jungle Book

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on April 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jungle_book_ver6_zpsanfpdshe.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBy now, Disney’s live action remakes of their classics have become so familiar, they constitute their own genre. There are at least 15 currently in the development stage. We’ve already seen Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella. Say hello to their latest: The Jungle Book. When adjusted for inflation, the original remains their 5th highest grossing animated film of all time following Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and Fantasia. The 1967 film has the legacy of a beloved treasure. This new version is fun too, a vivid spectacle for modern viewers.

What The Jungle Book gets right is in the construction. It’s gorgeous. The production places the viewer right in the forests of India. The cinematic display of flora and fauna is rather breathtaking at times. The visual tableau is a optical wonder to experience. This accomplishment makes the ultimate realization that everything was actually filmed on a Los Angeles sound stage,  fairly shocking. In fact, save for young actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli, there is little if anything organic on screen. This is a high-tech CGI curiosity to be sure in 2016.  What truly makes the 1967 cartoon endure is that emotional component.  This prodcution is fastiduously composed but it’s missing that spark.

This is essentially a CGI copy of their hand drawn gem. Baloo (Bill Murray), Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) are all here. Like the animated film, the animals talk. They even sing. “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” both make an appearance. “Trust in Me” plays over the closing credits. There are adjustments, however. The animals have a decidedly more noble quality that sets them apart from the lighthearted buffoonery of the cartoon. Here King Louie is the much larger Gigantopithecus, a species now extinct, instead of an orangutan. Please! Those are not native to India, thank you very much. Kaa, formerly male, is now voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Sterling Holloway was a memorable Kaa, but I dare say Johansson makes the character her own. Her seductive voice is positively hypnotizing. When she tells Mowgli a story, I was captivated. I wanted to hear more.

The Jungle Book is hampered by a narrative that can be reduced to “boy outwits tiger”. Rudyard Kipling’s book was a collection of tales in fact, as opposed to a sustained novel. Both the animated and live-action versions adhere to a series of vignettes where Mowgli interacts with various characters. While the cartoon was quite whimsical, with a referential eye toward the pop culture of its era, this adaptation is more realistic. Well except that the animals speak, obviously. But the intensity level is heightened. Mowgli is placed in more peril as the ferocity of Shere Khan is intensified. Buoyancy is replaced by darkness. These tweaks serve to distinguish this from the original, but the largely cosmetic changes don’t really elevate the production. They merely “correct” it. As such, The Jungle Book is indeed a technological marvel of our time. It’s a stunningly realized environment for families to appreciate and enjoy. Most assuredly an impressive accomplishment for today’s audiences. But will it achieve immortality as a classic 50 years from now? I have my doubts.

04-14-16

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on March 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo batman_v_superman_dawn_of_justice_ver8_zpsgpnkvncd.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSuperhero movie are serious business. Just ask director Zack Snyder who apparently doesn’t have a humorous bone in his entire body given his latest opus.  The awkwardly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is dark. Like really really really really really really really DARK. This is entry #2 in the DC Extended Universe and it arrives three years after 2013’s Man of Steel, a deplorable waste of time and talent that I hated as much as anything I saw that year. The good news is that Batman v Superman is an improvement, The bad news is that it still isn’t very good.

DC Comics is clearly on a mission to create this grand epic. This is their bid to outdo the franchise empire created by Marvel Studios. And let me tell you, there’s a veritable onslaught of releases planned by the DC machine in the next few years. There’s two movies centered around the Justice League with the individual meta-humans Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Shazam! Cyborg and Green Lantern all getting their own pictures. We’re introduced to some of them via a computer screen in this movie. Bruce Wayne is seen opening their files on a drive from LexCorp by clicking on their icons. It’s the cinematic equivalent of observing someone watch a coming attractions trailer.

We also get a ton of supplementary characters that needlessly complicate matters. Ok so both Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are required. I’ll allow for them, but neither adds much to the proceedings. On the plus side, Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) does make an appearance all dressed up in a muted uniform that doesn’t stray too far from what we associate with that character. Her reveal got applause so that’s good. Girl Power! and all that. But elsewhere the news isn’t so rosy. Central antagonist Lex Luthor (Jr.) is portrayed by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Superman’s arch rival is an iconic villain, a brilliant manipulator, but here he comes across as just a bratty millennial. Lex Luthor is anti-Superman right from the beginning. The superhero has become this controversial figure in the media after all the death and destruction he caused during his battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel.

Luthor’s objective is kind of ambiguous at first.  Initially it appears he wants to make people dislike Superman even more but he develops into this puppeteer of people who aims to pit the two crime fighters against each other. He partners with U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). She is contacted by Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), an employee of Wayne enterprises injured in the previous installment’s Zod vs. Superman combat. Luthor has tapped wanted criminal Anatoli Knyazev (Callum Mulvey) as well to get him some kryptonite. There’s a lot of people involved.  However Luthor’s grand master scheme is ridiculously inefficient when you ultimately realize how it depends on so many arbitrary things potentially falling into place.  When his plan doesn’t work, Luthor has a back-up that involves creating yet another super-villain, sort of a cross between the Thing and the Incredible Hulk. It’s a CGI mess of technology that is about as thoughtful as witnessing two explosions have an argument.

Batman v Superman should have been an engaging character study, but it’s overstuffed – crowded with actors, jammed with plot, packed with mayhem. Look at the title. It promises a one-on-one showdown between two titans of the superhero world. Granted we do get that. If two physical specimens throwing each other around sounds exciting, then you will be pleased. But there’s so much excess fat in this almost three hour film. Too many extraneous plot threads muddle a crowded adventure. Was it really necessary to present the Batman origin story yet another time? I got it, Zack Snyder. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Sheesh! That scene has had more performances than Phantom of the Opera. Cameos from Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anderson Cooper are superfluous padding.

We’re talking about two guys that dress up in tights and run around fighting crime. The very idea is inherently silly, but you’d think we were detailing the most horrific chapters of World War II given this movie’s utterly bleak tone. There’s little room for “fun” when grim, depressing self-importance is the thrust of the DC agenda. The strident inability to “lighten up” must also afflict writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer who penned this ponderous screenplay. Batman v Superman isn’t horrible. It’s intermittently involving as it unfolds, but all these issues weigh it down upon reflection. One of those “I was mildly entertained while I sat in the theater, but days later I couldn’t care less” type films.

03-24-16