Archive for the Fantasy Category

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on June 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

godzilla_king_of_the_monsters_ver9STARS2Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the third episode in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, a cinematic series co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.  I’m not sure how many audience members are savvy to the fact that this is actually part three.  It really doesn’t make any difference to understanding the plot anyway.  There is none.  At least not one that requires background information.  Monsters attack.  That’s all you need to know.  This is technically a direct sequel to Godzilla (2014) but it immediately follows Kong: Skull Island (2017).  I was a fan of both entries so I walked into it with great anticipation.  I walked out having experienced one of the biggest disappointments of 2019.

I realize looking for intellectual sense is futile.  Godzilla flicks aren’t known for their conversation, and as expected, the screenplay by director Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields is completely idiotic.  Why these Kaiju or “strange creatures” get released from their dormant slumber is explained through the motivations of Vera Farmiga’s paleobiologist.  Dr. Emma Russell has got to be one of the most bewildering personalities in a 2019 production.  A screenplay shouldn’t even bother to offer clarification if the motive is so implausible.  Emma sympathizes with an eco-terrorist named Jonah Alan (Charles Dance).  Emma wants the enormous beasts to destroy civilization so that they can restore the natural order.  She’s like like Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.  Her declarations sound like the ravings of a lunatic.  Yet she’s presented as an ostensibly sympathetic level headed individual.  Sorry, even Vera Farmiga’s considerable acting chops can’t sell this half baked character.

The script feels the need to offer detailed exposition in a movie that doesn’t call for it.  The rest of the cast of famous performers is simply here to recite horrible dialogue to further a routine plot.  There is a lot of insipid explanation.  Emma’s ex-husband is the sensible Dr. Mark Russell, played by Kyle Chandler.  They have a daughter named Madison, Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown.  International stars Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi play scientists.  They should fire their agents.  After a gathering of experts has Dr. Emma Russell leaving the room, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi) blurts “What a b—!”  Cue audience laughter.  This is what passes for wit.  The exclamation “Oh sh–!” is uttered a couple times to express a surprise.  Simply saying nothing would have been better.

I don’t demand great acting or writing in a Godzilla flick but I do expect awe-inspiring creature battles that are enjoyable to watch.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters even fails in providing these rudimentary pleasures.  Most of the action takes place at night so all the computer-generated imagery is obscured by darkness.  One sequence actually takes place during a blizzard in Antarctica.  When something does occur during the day, there’s so much smoke and debris in the air that the activity looks muddy and dull.  There are parts so devoid of color it looks like a black and white film, or rather gray and dark gray.  Say what you will about the ridiculous special effects in the 1954 Godzilla movie that started it all.  At least it was clear and you could see what was happening.

2014’s Godzilla wasn’t Shakespeare but it was breathtaking to watch.  The admittedly bland cast of human characters was highlighted by beautifully shot sequences of citywide destruction.  Some complained there wasn’t enough action.  Yet director Gareth Edwards understood that just the sight of a colossal winged beast taking off into the night sky could create a feeling of wonder and awe that was exciting.  He took his time laying the groundwork for a climax that felt like a spectacular release when the awesome creature ultimately destroyed San Francisco.  Sadly he didn’t return to shoot this picture.  Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus) apparently equates incomprehensible mayhem with excitement.  We see various creatures throughout the picture.  Only in the final 30 minutes do we get the actual showdown we were promised in the trailer.  Mothra is the queen to Godzilla’s king who face off against the three-headed Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster Zero) and Rodan.  We get a lot more monsters but a less visually impressive spectacle.  If only we could see the giant lizard king more clearly.  The new Godzilla movie has a reptile dysfunction.

05-30-19

Aladdin

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

aladdin_ver2STARS4It’s hard not to look upon these live-action remakes of Disney classics with a bit of cynicism.  Let’s face it.  Familiarity is safe.  Reselling old stories by “updating” them with CGI takes less creativity than having to create something unique.  Some might call them a cash grab.  Truth is.  Most have been wildly lucrative.  Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) being the most notable examples.  That success just feeds into the disapproval.  The box office is certainly there.  However, a cash grab implies something hastily assembled of poor quality.  This definitely does not fall into that category.

Aladdin is a big, extravagant production with musical numbers.  Additionally, costumes and set design are top-notch.  Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both categories back in 2018.  I’d argue that this film is even more deserving of those awards.  There’s a cave of wonders, a flying carpet, and a magical genie.  The source material is not easy to adapt.  There’s a joyous feeling that takes all of those miraculous elements and recreates them in a physical form.  Yes, the imitation feels familiar and less innovative than something fully different.  Yet the manifestation is so spectacular.  It feels like an homage that honors the original.  Aladdin has already been recreated as a musical which had its Broadway debut in 2014.  The idea of adapting this cartoon with human actors is nothing new.  The successful show was nominated for five Tony Awards.  Actor James Monroe Iglehart actually won for playing the Genie.

Of course, it was Robin Williams’ vocal performance that elevated his iconic portrayal in the 1992 animated version.  That’s the role that everyone remembers and actor Will Smith is tasked to fill his very large shoes here.  Just as Emma Watson’s marquee name assisted Beauty and the Beast so too does the Fresh Prince fulfill that part here.  He’s a personality, admittedly, not an impressive vocalist.  Thing is, the veteran actor is wonderful in his own unique way.  His achievement is admirable.  Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has made the decision to have his character vacillate between two extremes.  When Smith gets to be himself and simply exude his natural charisma he’s the most appealing he’s been in years. In fact, he even gets a love interest with Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).  However, when he’s reduced to a blue CGI creation, it’s jarring.  He’s not pleasing in that configuration.

The two leads are more exceptional.  Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) are charming.  I’m not going to unnecessarily detail a tale that is nearly three decades old, but in a nutshell: Aladdin is a “street rat” trying to survive in the bustling city of Agrabah when he runs into Princess Jasmine.  She’s disguised as a commoner like him to understand the conditions of the working class.  The two meet and a connection is made.  The screenplay increases the importance of Jasmine.  She’s got political aspirations to rule her father’s kingdom.  She also gets a new song “Speechless” which is heard twice.  It’s not better than the original songs, but since those can’t be nominated again, it gives the producers the ability to submit it for Oscar consideration.  Jasmine is just as important as the titular hero, but not to his detriment.  She brings a commanding presence.  Massoud is warm and engaging as Aladdin.  The two could have easily come across as bland pretty people.  They are surprisingly great together.  The focus is on what makes them tick not sexiness.  Both bared a lot more skin in the cartoon.  Aladdin is covered up.  His shirtless vest is gone.  Jasmine’s father is the Sultan (Navid Negahban) who rules over the city.  He’s advised by a deceptive sorcerer named Jafar (Marwan Kenzari).  Both are merely a plot means to an end but not a deal breaker in this interpretation.

My 3 wishes for Aladdin were that (1) it would star captivating leads that had chemistry together (2) feature a lively genie that made me laugh and (3) highlight bright splashy production numbers.  I’ve detailed how it delivered the first two.  I’m happy to say my hopes were fulfilled on the third as well.  In particular, the “Prince Ali” number is a fully realized processional accompanied by some fantastic (if not geographically correct) Bollywood-style dancing.  “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” are enchanting too.  This isn’t a replacement of your beloved original.  It’s a remix of sorts.  By adhering mainly to the classic story with only minor tweaks, Disney’s reimagining delivers the goods.  True, it may not be a whole new world.  That’s actually a good thing.  See the execrable Dumbo (2019) if you need proof.  Say what you will about these live-action remakes.  Aladdin is among the very best.

5-23-19

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy with tags on May 13, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pokemon_detective_pikachu_ver2STARS2.5Has there ever been a great movie based on a video game?  The debateable consensus to that question has always been no.  Because of that, films adapted from computer games incur very low expectations.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the latest in a nearly three-decade tradition that began with Super Mario Bros. in 1993.  This has received better reviews than other pictures of its ilk.  Keep in mind the bar has been set pretty low.  I’ll get right to the point.  This isn’t a great movie, so the answer is still (sadly) no.  However, Detective Pikachu deserves some discussion because it has the potential to make a lot of money.  Since 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie has remained the most monetarily lucrative adaptation of its type. That’s the gold standard based on box office grosses earning $131 million.  Given 18 years of inflation, Pokemon Detective Pikachu should easily (duh) shatter that record.  Even if we’re adjusting in 2019 dollars, it should still clear $208 million.  Pokemon is a global phenomenon.

The Pokémon franchise began with a pair of games for Nintendo’s Game Boy back in 1996.  Since then this multimedia conglomeration has gone on to include an anime television series, a trading card game, manga comics, music, books, and a mobile game.  Now please do enjoy this live action picture.  The tale concerns an insurance salesman named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith).  The poor man has learned that his estranged father Harry has died while investigating a case.  Humans are usually paired with a Pokemon in this universe.  Harry’s former Pokémon partner, detective Pikachu, is a rodent-like creature with powerful electrical abilities.  Pokémon don’t normally talk, but this one is different.  He’s got a sarcastic point of view with a voice provided by Ryan Reynolds.  Harry’s death is suspicious and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a junior reporter, is looking into it.  She is accompanied by a Psyduck, another Pokémon species.  Lucy pens fluff articles, but you can guess by her preternaturally perky demeanor, she’s destined for better things.  Although Tim expresses an interest in Lucy, their relationship emits fewer sparks than a damp match.  Oh, and the considerable talents of Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe are criminally wasted in supporting parts.

This adventure is an urban mystery wrapped up in a fantasy.  As such, a successful production must rely on the screenplay’s ability to create a fully realized world.  The problem is the superficial script credited to five (count ’em—FIVE) screenwriters, isn’t up to the task.  Disney’s Zootopia had disparate species coexisting beside each other with a concerted attempt to acknowledge the incongruity.  There was a lot of thought put into that story.  In contrast, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu puts very little effort into world-building.  It just is.  Accept it.  Fantasy doesn’t have to be moronic.  The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pan’s Labyrinth all advanced something new and exciting.  Ryme City is a metropolis inhabited by magical creatures that live alongside humans.  The setup could have offered a fiction so deliciously bonkers that it would have won me over by sheer imagination.  No such luck.  There are brief glimpses.  The CGI of the animated characters is amazingly photorealistic.  Each creature looked like a living breathing thing.  Mr. Mime is a particularly offbeat Pokémon.  He’s the highlight of the feature.  So strange –in fact– that the writers had to apparently convince the Pokemon company to include him.  That’s telling because the rest of the saga isn’t blessed by the bizarro mentality that infuses his creation.

The account settles on being a Sam Spade-style story via film noir.  It’s surprisingly bland and predictable.  Wags have compared this science fiction as an appropriation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Blade Runner.  That’s a generous comparison because this doesn’t even remotely approximate the intellectual creativity found within either of those two classics.  This is generic.  It pains me to write this review because I welcome family entertainment.  To his credit, director Rob Letterman (Monsters Vs. Aliens, Goosebumps) steers these cutesy PG-rated shenanigans toward younger viewers.  It will certainly provide charms for those raised on this stuff.  I can appreciate the concept.  If we were talking about a live-action Pac-Man movie, perhaps nostalgia might absolve the minor deficiencies in the work for me.  I’ll concede this wasn’t made with me in mind.  Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a film for the millions of already converted fans.  Be forewarned, if you don’t know the difference between a Jigglypuff and a Squirtle, you may be underwhelmed.

05-09-19

Avengers: Endgame

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

avengers_endgame_ver2STARS4Dear Marvel fan, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.  Avengers: Endgame is ostensibly the direct sequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.  We’ve waited one year with bated breath for a resolution to the cliffhanger of that film.  In a much larger sense, it’s the impressive culmination of 21 films that all began when Iron Man first debuted 11 years ago in 2008.  It was a daunting task.  There were many goals, but for me the three most important were to (1) fashion a chronicle that could coherently juggle a myriad of superheroes with various backstories (2) remain emotionally invested in each one and (3) maintain interest without relying on haphazard conflicts that can often degenerate into a bloated slog. (see Avengers: Age of Ultron).  I’m relieved to say Endgame satisfies every one of these objectives.

A good review shouldn’t recapitulate the plot.  As such, I won’t be revealing spoilers contained within this new episode.  However, I will assume you have at least seen Infinity War which is essentially Part 1 to the continuity of this film.  If that’s not the case, and the denouement of that story still remains a mystery, congratulations on abstaining from every single form of social media!  Furthermore, please stop reading here and come back after you have watched Infinity War first.  Ok ready?  We begin after half of all living things in the universe have been snuffed out by the mighty supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Among those left to deal with the aftermath are the six original Avengers. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The situation is dire.   The loss of life is even more calamitous than a decimation as that word is, by definition, only 1/10 of all living things.   The Avengers have lost many of their closest friends.  Understandably they are a doleful bunch.  Being the do-gooding champions that they are, they set out to recover the Infinity Stones from Thanos so they can reverse his actions.  Sadly he has already destroyed them.  The first hour is abnormally solemn, a somber rumination on coming to terms with what has happened.  The characters now exude a world-weary exterior.  There is a poignancy in the first third that sucks you into the developments that unfold later.  The movie isn’t afraid to gradually lay the groundwork for what must ultimately be done.  The Avengers devise a plan to undo the damage that Thanos has caused.  Hint: the conclusion of Ant-Man and the Wasp provides a crucial element.  The narrative takes its time but once the events of the 2nd hour begin, the payoff is all the better for it.

Endgame is surprisingly moving.  Working from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, rely heavily on past films and alliances.  Given that, this will unquestionably please die-hard fans.  Having seen every installment will surely add to your experience.  Endgame includes a profusion of moments to delight those people, a consideration now known as fan service.  The bad news is that this not an adventure for newbies or even the casual moviegoer that may have seen, oh let’s say, less than 5 of these productions.  Your enjoyment directly depends on an appreciation of formerly established alliances and circumstances.  Tony Stark/Iron Man is a key personality.  His relationship with Steve Rogers, Pepper Potts, and Peter Parker all provide touching high points.  I, like the rest of my theater, was visibly affected by the sentiment.  Conversely, newcomers are likely to sit stone-faced, shrug and wonder why the rest of the theater is in tears.

The narrative brings out the humanity in these beloved individuals.  They may be all-powerful, but they still care for one another.  The drama frequently relies on previously articulated interpersonal connections.  For those that have been on this journey since the very beginning, this entertains on every level.  There’s gratification is seeing this branch of the franchise tied up in such a satisfying way.  The spectacular climax fully captivated the 12-year-old in me.   It was a complete and utter wow – the visual manifestation of the epic battles in my wildest imagination as a child.  Along the way, we’re treated to a lot of developments over the course of a 3+ hour movie.  Amazingly, it never drags.  The script brings closure to many personalities while always providing interesting happenings on screen.  Endgame‘s take on the Hulk and Thor present enjoyable character changes that really made me smile.  The return of Queen Frigga of Asgard (Rene Russo) is particularly poignant.  This isn’t the termination of the MCU mind you, but it is the concluding phase of the Infinity Saga which handles the exit of several cherished favorites.  I’ve seen every single entry in this series.  The Russo brothers clearly embody a genuine love for this franchise.  Sure, this is merely a fantasy about superheroes.  The plot isn’t deep or essential in any spiritual or metaphysical sense.  However, the production generates the wave of feelings that this fan craves.  In that respect, Avengers: Endgame is an emotional catharsis that totally delivers.

04-25-19

Dumbo

Posted in Family, Fantasy with tags on April 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

dumbo_ver2STARS1.5It takes a special kind of talent to twist an uplifting story and turn it into a depressing slog.  The animated Dumbo (1941) is widely considered one of Disney’s 10 greatest animated films by published critics who make it their business to rank such things.  That’s not my opinion it’s simply a fact.  How director Tim Burton was able to take a heartfelt animated treasure and pervert it into this soulless shell of a disgrace is almost incomprehensible.  For the purposes of this review, however, I’m going to try.

Tim Burton actually worked for Walt Disney as an apprentice animator beginning in1980.  By 1984 he directed a short while there called Frankenweenie.  He was summarily fired by the studio shortly thereafter.  Could this be some sort of pent up anger finally being released decades later?  He’s worked with the studio several times since. That 2010 Alice in Wonderland adaptation isn’t great either but at least it had a modicum of reverence for the source material.  What Burton has accomplished here is the desecration of a classic.  The original was about how an outsider comes to terms with what makes him different and then capitalizing on that supposed weakness.  Dumbo’s big ears became a strength allowing him to triumph over adversity winning the hearts of all those around him.  This aberration of a film marginally runs on the fumes of that idea, but it’s really about something else entirely,

The animated Dumbo (1941) clocked in at a mere 64 minutes.  That’s roughly an hour folks.  Burton’s Dumbo is near twice that length.  Dumbo isn’t told from the perspective of the animals.  None of the critters talk in this version.  Dumbo is a saga about people.  The financial woes of a struggling circus appear to worsen when a newborn baby elephant is born with oversized ears.  Widowed and one-armed horse trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is hired by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito).  He’s got two dead-behind -the-eyes children.  Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) channel all the excitement of a damp dishrag in their performances.  They discover early on that Dumbo can fly.  The cute little guy takes off so frequently for audiences at Medici’s circus that it feels like no big deal.  This catches the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life amusement park, Dreamland.  The carnival feels like a veiled attack on Disneyland.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.  Vandevere and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) make the odd pachyderm a star in his circus.  Unfortunately, life under his big top is not all that it seems.

Before I completely tear this sacrilege apart, I want to give Dumbo its due.  The production looks impressive.  Most noticeably, the photo-realistic digital CGI representation of the main character looks convincing.  The set design by Rick Heinrichs and costumes by Colleen Atwood convey a magical fantasy that’s beyond compare.  Visually my eyes were satisfied by the painstaking details.  Additionally having real-life announcer Michael Buffer portray a ringmaster that bellows “LET’S GET READY FOR DUMBOOO!” was a nice touch.  However, I’d have to go back to The Wiz (1978) to find a stunning work of art based on a joyous original that was so inherently empty.  Like that 70s musical adaptation, a lot of obvious care and craft has gone into creating something that looks beautiful.  Yet peel back the meticulous facade and it’s devoid of substance. Dumbo sucked the life out of me.

Despite its distended length, Burton eviscerates everything that made the prototype so great.  Granted I didn’t expect the crows to make an appearance.  Although reclaiming and redeeming those characters would have displayed the kind of confidence I admire in an auteur.  Once upon a time, Tim Burton was that guy.  The witty wordplay from the crows’ song “When I See an Elephant Fly” is still half-heartedly incorporated into the script.  It’s the wittiest dialogue said in the entire film.  But remember the part where Dumbo’s mother spanks an unruly child?  Or where she rocks Dumbo to sleep in her trunk like a baby?  Or Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s streetwise but supportive confidant?  Or the whimsical elephants on parade number when Dumbo gets drunk?  How about the climactic surprise of a circus crowd that first gasped to see an elephant take flight?  Eliminated, corrupted and mishandled.  All of it.  Point blank and period.  The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell) subverts joy and exploits suffering.  Dumbo is one of the grimmest tales meant for children that I’ve ever seen

03-28-19

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy on February 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

how_to_train_your_dragon_the_hidden_worldSTARS4There’s something so gratifying about a saga with an emotional finish.  DreamWorks Animation may not hold the influence of Disney or Pixar, but they’ve given us some pretty beloved animated franchises including Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda.  This fantasy series, inspired by Cressida Cowell’s books, is among DreamWorks’ very best.  It all started back in 2010 with the first production.  The sequel arrived in 2014.  Now we have The Hidden World, the third (and allegedly final) entry in the trilogy.  All three of these movies have been directed by Canadian animator, Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stich).  Executive producer Chris Sanders was a co-director on the first.  DeBlois has really shepherded this adventure about a callow youth and his maturation into adulthood.

This is the personal evolution of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) or just Hiccup to his friends.  The series has comprised a very affecting character arc.  His ability to buddy up with a supposedly dangerous dragon, teaches his fellow citizens from Berk that these creatures are not the enemy.   In fact, they can be allies.  Hiccup’s friendship with his pet Toothless, a mysterious dark breed called a Night Fury, has developed into a deeply moving relationship that has changed his worldview.  Hiccup has gone from a gangly Viking teen afraid to kill dragons to a gangly adult that confidently befriends them.  It may be your classic “from zero to hero” transformation, but gosh darn it, I completely bought into this young man’s odyssey.  He was 15 years old in the first picture with a major jump to age 20 in the second.  That episode ended with Hiccup taking over as Chieftain of the town of Berk and Toothless becoming the Alpha Dragon.  Only one year has passed when The Hidden World begins. Hiccup has been struggling in his new role.  He and his friends continue to rescue the misunderstood beasts.  He leads a community where dragons now outnumber the people.  They coexist in perfect harmony.  Toothless gets a love interest in the form of a white female known as the Light Fury.  Little do they know that she is being used as bait by a ruthless hunter named Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) who still firmly believes dragons must be exterminated.

How to Train Your Dragon has always presented an impressive spectacle along with John Powell’s atmospheric score.  Like a painting, the use of shadow, texture, light, elevates the visual tableau.  Head of layout is cinematographer Gil Zimmerman with the legendary Roger Deakins consulting on the imagery.  The chronicle is filled with breathtaking images of dragons taking flight.  The best passages have no dialogue whatsoever.  Come for the dragons.  Luxuriate in the gorgeous surroundings.  The narrative manages to expand the scope of their world when evil Grimmel forces the Berkians to emigrate to a place called Caldera — the “hidden world” of the film’s title.  A memorable dance where Toothless courts his lady dragon is an absolute highlight.  The mood is fairly serious, although there’s room for humor.  The tenacious Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) annoying her captors is a delight.  The brash Snotlout (Jonah Hill) trying to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) is chuckle-worthy.  The chemistry between Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), his betrothed fiancée, isn’t particularly captivating, but that’s a minor quibble.  This is a story about growing up.  It’s about humans, sure, but it’s also about dragons and it’s that bond between the two that make this trilogy so touching.  The ending is a satisfying – though bittersweet, – conclusion to a poignant trilogy.

02-21-19

Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on November 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_ver14STARS2It’s easy to dismiss the Fantastic Beasts franchise as a desperate attempt to extend the Harry Potter universe.  I mean there’s a precedent.   Warner Brothers had the chutzpah to take the original 7 books and expand them into 8 movies.  There are a lot of fans out there that live for this sort of thing.  Confession time: I am not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong. I think the Harry Potter films creatively built a rich fantasy world.  If you fall within a certain age, this was your childhood and I respect that.  It’s just that the adventure was so episodic.  A loosely connected series of events that unfolded cinematically like: “So this happened, and then this happened, and then this happens…”  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was even more meandering but at least it had some nice CGI effects and a couple of star-crossed lovers in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).  Unfortunately, we’ve reached a low point with The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What is this chronicle even about?  I don’t know where to begin because I couldn’t figure it out.  Somewhere in this mishmosh of stuff, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) contacts Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for help.  The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and he intends on amassing an army of wizards to follow him.  I assume this is all laying the groundwork for a Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald showdown during some unspecified sequel in the future, but not here friends.  This is a movie about expository details.  There are a lot of characters.  My favorites Jacob and Queenie are back, but they have less room to be enchanting here.  They’re crowded out by a distended cast that highlights the troubled you-thought-he-was dead-but-he’s-really-not Credence (Ezra Miller).  In smaller, less important roles there’s also half-blood witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror, along with pure-blood witch Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) who is engaged to Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), MACUSA employee, Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie ), French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a freak show attraction named Nagini (Claudia Kim).

It’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald but the only crime I could see was the utter debasement of a sensible plot.  It’s incoherently edited.  The drama has no structure.  The saga is overcrowded with people.  Their introduction to this story isn’t organic. Each individual forcibly inserted into the narrative.  One appears after another as a clumsy means to explain various alliances that only the most minutia-obsessive fan would even care about.  I’m sure some of this confusing exposition relates back to the original Harry Potter world but this casual observer couldn’t make the associations required to enjoy this mess.  Mind you, I’ve seen every single installment in this blessed oeuvre.  People pop up, get a complicated character explanation and then *poof* it’s on to the next identity.  There are simply far too many personalities.  Few get a chance to make an impression, so we have no reason to be invested in their assorted plights.

I couldn’t divine any focus to this tale.  I gather it’s about Grindelwald because he is namechecked in the title, but your guess is as good as mine.  Johnny Depp has an opportunity to stand out.  He doesn’t enliven the narrative, but he doesn’t ruin it either. It’s the screenplay that sinks this production.  We have J. K. Rowling herself to thank for that.  Her gift for writing novels does not translate to screenwriting.  These are clearly two very different talents.  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them suffered from a poor script as well.  As bad as this entry is, there are some high points.  The costumes, production design, makeup, and hairstyling are all beyond compare.  Seriously, I noticed how perfectly coiffed everyone was.  My mind had time to wander on several occasions. Unfortunately, those attributes are not the foundation for a meaningful film.  Sense and reason are, but alas, they have no power in this wizarding world.

11-15-18

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18