Archive for the Fantasy Category

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

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19

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