Archive for the Fantasy Category

A Ghost Story

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on July 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

ghost_story.jpgSTARS2.5If nothing else, writer and director David Lowery’s new feature is a curiosity. A tale without a distinct narrative to understand so much as to experience. In that respect, this meditation on life is a difficult movie to review. The chronicle is not about events per se, but rather a feeling you appreciate while watching it.

David Lowery has reunited the two stars from his 2013 crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  At the center is a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.  A Ghost Story is a chronicle indifferent to details.  The characters aren’t given names for example.  The credits list Casey Affleck as ‘C’ and Rooney Mara as ‘M’ but even those letters aren’t expressed in the script.  They’re just two people.  We can infer a few things from what we observe.  They’re human.  They’re married.  He’s a musician but not making a lot of money doing that.  Suddenly he’s bloody, sitting motionless behind the wheel of a smashed car.  We can assume he has just died in car accident.  The collision itself happens offscreen.  We do however see the aftermath.  Then we see him at the morgue.  He’s lying down on a table for an uncomfortable length of time.  His body is covered by a clean white sheet.  Minutes pass by with no discernible change in the room.  At one point I thought the film had been paused.  Then he slowly arises, still under the sheet.

Casey Affleck wanders the halls under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. He does this for the entire duration of the picture.  The openings are deep black and empty.  They offer no hint of a human face underneath.  It caused me to wonder if Affleck’s eyes were edited out in post production.  Ah but I digress.  It soon becomes apparent that no one can see him.  He walks to the end of a hallway and a luminous portal of light opens up. He stares at it without entering.  After awhile, the shimmering gateway closes.  That a ghost is embodied in the most cliched representation possible is really the only predictable thing about this film.  The set-up is merely a construct in which to present a mood piece.  That is, it’s not plot or character driven, but rather a reason to luxuriate in an elegiac tone.  The saga as it exists is constructed as a reflection on life, or more appropriately, death.

Rooney Mara grieves looking forlorn and despondent. In one scene, we watch her eat most of a whole pie for what feels like an eternity. It’s a static shot, not particularly well lit and she’s sitting on the floor. I read somewhere that it’s only 9 minutes long but the very manifestation is an endurance test of artistic license. It’s an unconventional exhibition to be sure but upon reflection, it comes across as a self-conscious choice.  I saw it as an indulgence motivated by the ego driven impulses of a director unrestrained. Some might praise Lowery’s choice to film an activity so mundane as audacious and bold.  Yet I didn’t see a woman grieving.  I saw a filmmaker shooting a scene.

Director David Lowery is unconcerned with time.  Time passes, first days, then years, then centuries.  Certain scenes play out in real time.  In others, the years go by in the blink of an eye.  People move on. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt, but Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a disconnected soul remains.  What Lowery is saying and how much that affects you is probably where you’ll derive your enjoyment from this.  Adherents should find it hypnotic, surreal and deep while detractors will find it affected, empty and inert. Let’s just say they both have a point.  I would’ve liked to have seen A Ghost Story on a flat screen TV mounted to the wall of a museum.  There its artistic passions could be celebrated.  It’s an evocative rumination on which to deliberate.  In that respect the production triumphs as an objet d’art.  Without the expectation of plot or character development, Lowery’s introspection piece succeeds, but as a movie, this disembodied account left me unfulfilled.

07-27-17

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets_ver3STARS4Every now and then a film coasts by on a visual aesthetic that is so visionary in its daft mentality that it captivates the mind beyond all sense and reason. We’re talking about a production that’s fully formed from its costumes, creature designs and a cheerfully bonkers dedication to an artistic style. It’s like a drug. You actually feel a sense of giddiness simply by watching it. Of course, it relies on the prerequisite that you are open to the creative pleasures of an optical nature. There are those that require more intellectualism and sense in their sci-fi epics. I am not one of those people. Back in 1997, Luc Besson gave audiences the wonderful gift of The Fifth Element. The wildly imaginative space opera became a cult classic (and incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). Now 20 years later, Luc Besson has returned with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s happening all over again because this is a joy.

Our story is set in motion when a race of humanoids on the futuristic planet Mül suffers a life threatening attack. The iridescent silvery people have been living a pastoral life in a bright tropical paradise. A willowy princess wakes up on a beach. They harvest space pearls for energy. She rises to the dawn and washes her face in a bowl full of the white lustrous spherical jewels. A cute little critter called a Mül Converter is used duplicate them. Ok to be more specific, it actually poops what it eats. Their idyllic life is forever affected when they are attacked by an enemy force. The event inspires the race to kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) for mysterious reasons. This act compels Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline. The two basically operate as police officers in space. They are a romantic couple (natch) but bicker like a pair of people that can’t stand each other. He’s a roguish player. She’s a sharp-tongued intellect. I suppose their sexual chemistry is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I found their interactions amusing, albeit a bit reductive. DeHaan’s surfer dude accent is sort of a riff on Keanu Reeves’ character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Attractive Cara Delevingne, with her thick brows, kind of physically recalls Brooke Shields circa 1980. When we first meet the two they’re relaxing on a sunny beach like some marooned island couple out of The Blue Lagoon. Turns out it’s just a visual reality simulation.

Laureline is forever rebuffing Valerian’s advances in a way that’s reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that feels Star Wars-ish. Remember the cantina scene, that bar where are all the otherworldly visitors gathered to merely hang out? Well, that’s kind of like Valerian for 2 hours 17 minutes. Besson’s production is based on the comic Valerian and Laureline by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. That series was launched in 1967, ten years before the first Star Wars film was released. George Lucas has freely admitted he was influenced by director Akira Kurosawa when assembling his space opera. The similarities to Valerian have been noted by other people. [Side Note: Artist Jean-Claude Mézières collaborated with director Luc Besson on The Fifth Element.]

The action is centered around Alpha, an International Space Station where millions of immigrants from different planets gather amicably and exchange their knowledge and cultures. The opening sequence presents this as an array of meet and greets involving various individuals underscored by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The uplifting presentation of a peaceful world is such an exaltation of goodness, I was kind of overcome by the display.  The very idea that such a naive concept could become a reality was made so emotionally resonant. The vignette is among the best introductory scenes that I’ve witnessed all year. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has another. It was the perfect primer to begin this movie. The dizzying opening is pure cinema. I was captivated from the get go.

The creature designs are the strongest part of the film. A lot of it is accomplished using motion capture and CGI. An overreliance on computer graphics is usually not something I appreciate, but here it feels so organic that I enjoyed the creativity. Some of my favorites include three platypus-like aliens called the Doghan-Dagui who offer help…but only for the right price. There’s the Boulan Bathor Couturier that presents Sergeant Laureline with a series of outfits to wear. A chubby little intradimensional species seems pretty harmless but you don’t want to anger its mother. John Goodman voices the massive pirate captain that runs the Big Market Bazaar. Ethan Hawke plays Jolly the Pimp who introduces a shape-shifting species known as a Glamopod. Her name is Bubble. She’s portrayed by pop singer Rihanna in her human form. Her performance is more a feat of CGI and Cirque du Soleil than acting, but the manifestation is unadulterated eye candy at its finest. I was hypnotized by her character.

I’ll admit that when it comes to story, Luc Besson is more fascinated by the question “How does it look” not “Why does this happen?” In that respect, Valerian isn’t going to expand your mind with philosophical thought. However, it will dazzle you with the exploration of creative worlds. It’s more about the physical display. When some gentle looking butterflies flutter by, their reveal as a dangerous threat is world building at its most hilarious. The fabrication has a European, no make that international sensibility. This is helped by the inventive casting which, besides all the aforementioned names, also includes English Actor Clive Owen, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, American composer Herbie Hancock, and Chinese-born pop singer Kris Wu. Valerian is a production designer’s dream on a hallucinogenic trip. When our two protagonists go to “Big Market” the mind-bending action is a lot to wrap your head around. The shopping mall is a setting that has other dimensions that can only be accessed when you don virtual reality gloves and glasses. It’s so erratic in the way it switches back and forth between the two realities, it’s a madcap delight. The popcorn flick works on that level throughout the entire film. It’s just so silly. I adored it.

07-21-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo cars_three_ver3_zpscemphvxy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgCars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17

The Mummy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy on June 10, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo mummy_ver3_zpslrfy0i83.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgIt must have seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Disney has their Marvel Cinematic Universe. Warner Bros. has its ever-improving DC Comics world. Universal didn’t want to left behind. Why not reboot their own Mummy franchise as the first installment in a new film series dubbed the “Dark Universe”?  A pompous Russell Crowe even pops up here early on to deliver a lengthy prologue as Dr. Henry Jekyll.  He gives us a little backstory as to how his character will fit into this new world they’re creating.  Other classic Universal Studios monsters are expected to follow: the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man among others.  Some major stars are being promoted for future installments.  Johnny Depp has signed on to be the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem will be Frankenstein’s monster. The problem is to build a superior anthology of related films, it helps to start off with a bang. Sadly The Mummy is not great. It’s not even good.

Casting Tom Cruise as your lead is a positive way to begin. For the record, I do like Tom Cruise.  Please remember that as I carry on with my review.  As Nick Morton, he’s a former U.S. Military officer who accidentally uncovers the tomb of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).  He’s a roguish mercenary type that seeks to profit from the treasure he finds.  He does this with his trusty sidekick Chris (played by New Girl’s Jake Johnson) and aloof archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), a former lover that is young enough to be his daughter. Strangely Cruise has no chemistry with either of his co-stars.  The actor has never been one lacking in charm, until now.  He’s surprisingly stiff if you’ll pardon the pun.  Johnson and Wallis are meant to provide laughs and sexual tension respectively but there’s nary a trace to be extracted from either. Anyway back in ancient times, Princess Ahmanet was really ticked off that she didn’t get to become queen so she’s not a happy camper. Naturally when Nick and his gang disturb her tomb, she uses the opportunity to put a curse on our hapless hero. Yeah, things are looking kind of grim for the poor guy.

The Mummy allows Tom Cruise to do what he does well.  He partakes in some death-defying stunts, looks convincingly exasperated and runs…a lot.  Once again, a Tom Cruise thriller features a setpiece involving a plane.  He is subjected to zero gravity followed by a frightening crash.  He’s still in top physical shape too and he wants you to know it.  The man is in his 50s but he ages like the picture of Dorian Gray. He even manages to show off his naked physique. This logically occurs when he extricates himself from a body bag at the morgue.  They thought he died in a plane crash.  He didn’t.  As to why has to do with developments that are better left unspoiled.  The movie always makes sure to present Tom Cruise in the most flattering way possible.  His co-stars, on the other hand, aren’t quite so lucky. As the Mummy, Sofia Boutella is obscured with skin disfiguring tattoos all over her anatomy and best buddy Chris becomes like the walking dead with eyes to match.

The Mummy could have been silly fun but it gets bogged down in expository explanations of a superfluous narrative.  The ancient history of the female mummy takes up a lot of time.  And what is the plot exactly?  Peel back all the corroborative details and it’s not much of a saga at all.  Just the revenge of an ancient wanna-be Egyptian queen that unites a progression of attacks.  The effects are enjoyable.  I’ll give it that and Tom Cruise tries, really really hard.  I give him an A for effort, but there’s not much here to sink your Friday night popcorn flick teeth into.  It isn’t cheesy enough to be fun and it isn’t refined enough to be thrilling.  Just a sequence of CGI encounters that have been stitched together one after the other for our hexed hero (and us the audience) to experience.  In fact, I’ll save you some money right now. The Mummy is attack of the spiders, beetles, crows, rats, and zombies.  The End.  You’re welcome.

06-08-17

Wonder Woman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on June 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

wonder_woman_ver5STARS4The story of Wonder Woman is less about the dawn of another superhero and more about a sheltered individual living in a bubble who comes to understand what is happening in the outside world around her. Princess Diana (Gal Godot) was a child sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and given life by Zeus. As such, she does indeed possess special powers, superhuman strength to name but one.  Although her mother forbids it, Diana is trained to be a warrior by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright).

The production is set during the era of World War I and this conflict forms the basis of the narrative. What really impresses is how much the tale could exist without the value added depiction of an origin story.  It’s telling you’ll never hear the words “Wonder Woman” in the entire movie. The crime fighting uniform she ultimately adopts consists of battle armor and a tiara.  Like other recent DC comic adaptations, they look rather subdued from the traditional red, white and blue tights we’ve seen in previous iterations. Long time fans rest assured, they didn’t try to totally reinvent the character.  This is still the defender you know and love, just recontextualized for a 2017 audience.  She still gets her cuff bracelets and the Lasso of Truth.  Her invisible jet is sadly missing though.

Gal Gadot is such a joy as the titular heroine. She is sexy and beautiful of course, but also wholesome and virtuous as well. She’s a refreshingly stable personality. In that respect, she’s reminiscent of Marvel’s Captain America. That mental stability has been lacking in the DC Extended Universe as of late. It began with Man of Steel in 2013.  DC has completely bungled the new version of Superman. Where is the decent champion of truth we love from the 1978 feature?  This pessimism continued on through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, both in 2016.  Most agreed, Gadot’s presence was the best thing about the former film.  Where the characters in those pictures have been conflicted and plagued with self-doubt, Wonder Woman is distinctly well-adjusted.

Events are set in motion when she meets Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the Allied powers.  He crash lands his plane in the waters off of Themyscira, her island of Amazons. Wonder Woman was taught at a young age that Ares, the God of war corrupted mankind. She’s convinced that he is behind all this. Steve is skeptical of her beliefs but charmed by her presence.  Her adopted persona is Diana Prince when she leaves the island and the excursion becomes a learning experience. He explains what a watch is and she responds with “You let this tiny thing run your life?” Gadot’s chemistry with Chris Pine is so palpable it really enhances the drama. Of course, I expected Gal Gadot to be the major part of the production and she is. What I didn’t expect what how important Chris Pine would be. He really rises to the task. Their charisma together strikes the perfect balance. Their interactions run the gamut from romantic and sensuous to funny and lighthearted. The screenplay is by Allan Heinberg, co-creator of The Young Avengers, a superhero team published by Marvel Comics. Imagine, a comic book movie written by a comic book writer. What a concept!  Heinberg takes the time to develop well-rounded and likable people we truly care about.  It’s one of the most important requirements in an engaging story and Wonder Woman does it well.

The saga incorporates the terror of World War I but it’s still surprisingly upbeat and hopeful. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets so much right. This is a long movie though – 2 hours and 21 minutes to be exact. I think brevity and simplicity are qualities to celebrate in a superhero fable. For the majority of the adventure, the action is well photographed and exciting.  The initial battle, an early skirmish on the beach between the Amazons and German soldiers gets things off a rocking good start. It’s arrows and shields vs. guns and torpedoes. There are more clashes later on and they’re visually well depicted too.  However, the finish is kind of mediocre.  Things deteriorate a bit in the video-game aesthetic of the finale with murky action and CGI.  It’s not enough to sink the whole picture, mind you. The rest of the film is absolutely sensational.  Nevertheless, it is a misstep that’s impossible to ignore in an otherwise spectacular production.

Wonder Woman is smashing success.  Gal Gadot is an absolute delight.  She is an innocent, a babe in the woods.  She enjoys ice cream for the very first time and she tells the vendor, “You should be very proud!” You want to embrace this good-hearted soul. She is someone to cherish. It’s no secret that the comic book business is a male-dominated genre. The pressure to deliver the first female-led superhero box office smash was pretty intense. There are so many instances in which this could have gone wrong, but instead, there are so many ways in which this was done right.  Expectations were so cautious.  The mere fact that the character is such a breath of fresh air makes one give the success perhaps, even more credit than it truly deserves. There has never been a successful female-led superhero blockbuster. That is until now. DC has finally given us something Marvel hasn’t.  I’m ready to see it again.

06-01-17

Your Name

Posted in Animation, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo Your_Name_zpsscwpbv9e.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgTake a body switching fantasy, add a young adult romance, mix in a sci-fi time travel twist and throw in a natural disaster for good measure. Your Name is like a cross between Freaky Friday and Deep Impact. To be fair, that is overly simplifying things. Your Name is nothing if not ambitious. Ever since legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki announced his (temporary) retirement after The Wind Rises, thoughts over which filmmaker(s) would become his successor have inspired much speculation. Director Makoto Shinkai is definitely a possibility. Already a massive hit in its native Japan, Your Name is the first anime not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to earn more than $100 million at the Japanese box office. The film has now been released in the U.S. to critical acclaim.

Taki is a high school boy who lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a teenaged country girl living in Itomori, a rural Japanese village. Their lives become intertwined one day after they inexplicably swap bodies when they awake one morning. At first, it isn’t clear what’s exactly happening. We do know that Mitsuha isn’t happy with her homemaking duties. “Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” she calls out at an early point. An approaching comet might have something to do with it too. At first, it appears they’re just dreaming. That’s how our lead characters assess what has occurred. But their friends’ reactions let them soon realize this has indeed physically transpired. The body exchange phenomenon continues to take place at random intervals for brief periods. They start leaving notes for the other so that when they change back they can ease the transition and not disrupt the other’s life. Taki allows Mitsuha to become more popular with her classmates. Conversely Taki’s new personality catches the eye of Ms. Okudera, his female boss. The idea that Okudera is more attracted to the transposed Mitsuha is a subversive contemplation that is brought up but never resolved. Ditto Taki’s male pal who thought he was cute the other day.

Anime or Japanese animation is an acquired taste. One has to be conditioned to understand its rhythms and idiosyncrasies The accounts are often so fanciful or overly convoluted as to render them almost incomprehensible to viewers expecting an accessible plot. Those not already accustomed to the offbeat style of anime may find this perpetually morphing narrative a bit puzzling.  I mean I was down for the “traditional” body switching story but when it was further shuffled with time-shifting events that led to a transmigration of souls across the astral plane, I was less engaged. Let’s not forget there’s also an impending comet that promises a monumental act of God. Whew!

I find if you tinker with a narrative too much, you lose the audience’s commitment to the drama. Your Name is more comprehensible than some anime, but it’s still pretty packed with plot machinations. At one point you realize our protagonists are not even existing in the same time frame anymore. Taki drinks something called kuchikamizake, which is essentially fermented rice that Mitsuha chewed up and spit into a jug years ago.  This somehow allows Taki to have some control over his ability to swap bodies with Mitsuha in another dimension. One leap of faith and I’m still invested. Three or four and I’m reduced to a shrug.  I lose interest. I appreciate the desire to creatively tell a story, but there’s beauty in a straightforward tale of boy meets girl.  Simply put: less is more. The visuals are crisp. When the comet finally arrives it’s beautifully revealed. Your Name’s mainstream teen saga of young love is further emphasized with a modern sensibility. An emo pop soundtrack by Japanese rock band RADWIMPS underlines the production. For Western audiences, think of the pop/punk melding of Fall Out Boy. The cheesily upbeat tunes nicely complement the teenybopper romance. It’s a bit cloying, but I was rooting for these two to finally meet. Your Name is highly watchable. I was entertained, but regrettably I wasn’t moved.

I saw it in the original Japanese with English subtitles. There is also an English dub.

04-09-17

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on March 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo beauty_and_the_beast_ver3_zpstl3cqj0c.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDisney’s current trend of turning its animated classics into live-action movies has been a pretty lucrative business. Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book have all done big business. The recipe is simple. Take an existing fictional work that is beloved by millions and reproduce with real people. This satisfies a thirst for nostalgia which ensures there will already be a built-in audience ready to watch. The formula works so well it seems almost too easy. It’s not difficult to dismiss the practice as a quick cash grab. Yet, anyone who has ever looked upon any of these films can distinguish that these aren’t slapdash efforts. These meticulously created works, while lacking an original story, still present something magical at the cinema.

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is a noble addition to the Disney treasury. We all know the “tale as old as time”. It’s the chronicle of Belle played by a no-nonsense Emma Watson. Belle is a smart, independent young woman at odds with the bourgeois habits of her provincial townsfolk. Luke Evans is Gaston, an arrogant suitor. LeFou (Josh Gad) is his bumbling sidekick. However, Belle has no use for Gaston or anyone else in the town for that matter. Personally, I’ve always found her opening song decrying the unsophisticated townsfolk as insufferably elitist, but hey that’s just me. Nevertheless, she gains our sympathy when she is taken prisoner by a beast in his fortress. Dan Stevens portrays the part in a motion capture performance, rather than relying on prosthetics. Her initial fears dissipate as she is befriended by the enchanted denizens of the castle staff. Slowly she grows to see beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and see the true heart of the man within.

This isn’t director Bill Condon’s foray into the movie musical. His production of Dreamgirls in 2006 was a lavish adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. His reworking here evokes the traditional theater pieces of a bygone era. It’s lavish, grand and cheerfully old fashioned. That the achievement seems rooted in the musical tradition of a bygone era is a colossal feat of misdirection given all the modern CGI employed here. It’s seamlessly utilized to bring the inanimate objects of the castle to life: the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the mantel clock (Ian McKellen), the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), , the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and last but certainly not least, the teapot (Emma Thompson) and teacup (Nathan Mack). It’s not easy to embody characters we already know and love, but the actors, mostly only heard, lend their voices with sincerity and warmth.

Emma Watson makes a self-assured Belle. The actress is recognizable to audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and that familiarity, along with her personality, fulfills this role. Dan Stevens is a suitably charismatic beast. Together they have chemistry. Their discussion in the library over the merits of Shakespeare is the proof we need that these characters have souls. She falls in love with his goodness, but he is also her intellectual equal. It’s not merely his appearance that makes him different. It’s his mind as well. Also amongst the humans is Gaston, a fittingly cast Luke Evans as Belle’s narcissistic wannabe suitor and his fawning pal LeFou, in a bit of comic relief by Josh Gad.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) gently tweak the story to give added depth to the fable with which we are already acquainted. Don’t worry. This isn’t meant to replace your fond memories of the animated 1991 classic. It’s simply there to offer something more. And more is what you’ll get. More songs! Three new numbers are added by Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. More script! It’s 45 minutes longer than the cartoon. More costumes! More flair! More! More! More!   The songs are supported by the spectacle.  The famous number “Be Our Guest” is a veritable Busby Berkeley extravaganza inside the magnificent home. My mouth stood agape as the dazzling routine unfolded before my eyes in a specular vision of color and music.

Beauty and the Beast is a production designer’s dream. The sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, and costumes are beyond compare. In particular, there’s a physicality to these locales that make you believe that these places do indeed exist. The town is a quaint fairy tale community and the majestic castle has an impressive gothic air. The overall look is so fully realized, you’ll forgive that the plot holds no surprises. Yes for all its charm, this merely remains a beautifully realized imitation of its predecessor. The accomplishment is undeniably gorgeous but not visionary. If the very idea of a live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast offends you, then this picture will not change your perceptions. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the idea, then the movie will be a delight. I’m pleased to say I was thoroughly entertained.

03-16-17

Kong: Skull Island

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on March 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo kong_skull_island_ver2_zpsvvhmmcyl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s hard to believe, but there have actually been 7 movies in which King Kong has appeared before Skull Island. The original (and best) is the 1933 classic starring Fay Wray. That masterpiece was famously remade in 1976 introducing Jessica Lange in her debut and then redone again by Peter Jackson in 2005. It’s been only 12 years since that director’s critically acclaimed, box office success, so why exactly is another version necessary?

Kong: Skull Island isn’t technically a remake per se, but rather an “original” story meant to serve as the second entry in a series not unlike Marvel’s cinematic universe. Here in this so-called MonsterVerse, the combatants will feature Godzilla and Kong. Although this new shared universe is a fresh franchise, the idea of pitting Godzilla against King Kong is not unique. It dates back to the 1962 Japanese feature King Kong vs. Godzilla from Tokyo-based distribution company Toho. Provided these contemporary films continue to be successful, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, will show up in future pictures as well.  Stay for a post-credits scene, by the way.

Kong: Skull Island flaunts an accomplished cast of actors with at least 10 speaking parts. John Goodman plays a senior official in charge of a group of scientists (Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins) funded by the U.S. Government. They’re escorted by Samuel L. Jackson as a U.S. Colonel and his right-hand man, an Army major portrayed by Toby Kebbell.  Jackson heads up an Army helicopter squadron of soldiers (Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero) from the Vietnam War. There’s also a British hunter-tracker played by a ripped Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson as a luminous looking photojournalist. I guess you could say the last two actors are the two central human stars but they don’t really register as such.

It’s a sizable cast. While all are adequate, hardly any of these underdeveloped characters have the charisma to enthrall us. Sure we’re given some superficial details about these people that are meant to captivate our interest, but we honestly don’t know them. It’s a shame to see such a notable assemblage of talent so underutilized. It harks back to the days of the casts in those 70s disaster flicks where spectacle was the star, not people. I suppose that’s not surprising given the title of this movie. The CGI creature is the presumed headliner. The fact that John C. Reilly stands out, however, is proof that he can outact almost anyone.

Kong: Skull Island pushes the old adage that bigger is better and this is the biggest Kong yet in terms of size. This upright walking gorilla is a 100-foot tall digital creation by Industrial Light & Magic. His colossal size will make the inevitable showdown with Godzilla more of an even match. Technically speaking, this is the most impressive version of the creature yet. That’s surely saying something too because Peter Jackson’s movie won an Oscar in that category. The special effects are state of the art. Besides Kong, there’s his natural enemies, the Skullcrawlers, which look like massive two-legged lizards. There’s also a giant spider, a colossal red squid, and an enormous water buffalo. Of course, if you’re familiar with this story, we all know who the real monster is, right?

The foundation looks incredible. The island is its own living breathing ecosystem. It’s a spectacular display and the scope of the creatures gives us a sense of awe. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts certainly delivers the goods. We don’t even have to wait long for the main attraction. Kong appears within the first 30 minutes. Nevertheless, character machinations are ridiculous. The dialogue is silly. This is strictly a B-movie with a much heftier budget. Screenwriters Max Borenstein and John Gatins toy with the events to give us a slightly different take. For one thing, we never leave that darn island. On the one hand, I guess it’s admirable they’re not merely giving us an identical account as previous incarnations of Kong but is what they offer really an improvement? The best part in every iteration of this fable – be it 1933, 1976 or 2005 – has always been the moment where our hairy hero is let loose in the city to contend with a world he doesn’t understand. I miss that part.

Kong: Skull Island is a mindless popcorn flick but it’s still pretty entertaining. This is a lot less ambitious than previous interpretations. Kong’s noble savagery is still apparent, but the main thrust of this action is little more than monsters run amok. The original fantasy had a self-contained plot with a poignant message. This entry exists as an intro to a beast that will go on to star in more installments. That modifies the narrative in a pretty significant way. In more cosmetic changes, the production is envisioned as a period piece as it moves the time frame back to 1973. 70s rock music blares on the soundtrack as helicopters loom in search of a mysterious figure in the jungle. Allusions to a certain Francis Ford Coppola directed war film are deliberate. Yet, I’m still not sure whether it’s intended to be so intellectually shallow. I suppose there’s joy in the simplicity of just the spectacle. Let’s put it this way, the less you think about it, the better it gets.

03-09-17

A Monster Calls

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

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

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

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

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

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

12-06-16

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on November 21, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver4_zpsqgp7sexh.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s been 5 years since the Harry Potter series ended in 2011. That saga may be over and done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t revisit the world. In 2001, J.K. Rowling published what was purportedly one of Harry Potter’s textbooks from Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. The plotless tome was attributed to one Newt Scamander. He’s a wizard with special knowledge in magical creatures. From that slender 128-page volume comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Four additional sequels are in the works as well. Harry Potter addicts, come get your fix!

Fantastic Beasts is actually set in a time well before a lad named Harry Potter ever even existed in a land far removed from the UK – New York city in the 1920s to be exact. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives there to drop off an animal that rightfully belongs in the U.S. His mysterious briefcase is actually filled with a coterie of enchanted critters. A mix-up at the bank switches his suitcase with a hapless man seeking a loan there named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As a result, some of the creatures are released into the world and it’s up to our timid hero to try and round them up. Assisting him are Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror and current member of the wizard police. There’s also her big-hearted sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

Fantastic Beasts wastes no time in laying the groundwork for a new cast of wizards and witches. But what can you say about a film where the side characters are more interesting than the leads?  Newt is certainly a peculiar little man. He arrives with disheveled hair cascading down his forehead and a sheepish grin. Eccentric, shy, no wait, make that painfully introverted. The wizard is so soft spoken he tends to mumble his words. It’s an idiosyncratic performance and one that’s a bit hard to warm up to. I honestly couldn’t understand about half of what he said. That’s pretty frustrating when he’s the star of your picture. I wasn’t particularly taken with the businesslike personality of Porpentina either. She’s ho-hum. Her younger sister Queenie, on the contrary, is another story.  Actress Alison Sudol’s wide-eyed, Betty Boop style floozy is a joy. She is a free-spirited woman who can read minds. The singer-turned-actress is such a pleasure. Ditto her romantic rapport with wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski played by Dan Fogler. An ordinary man with no magical ability – he’s what the Brits call a “muggle”. Ah but we’re in America now so we’re told the term here is a “No-Maj”. Ok, whatever. He’s great regardless of what vocabulary you use define him. The two have palpable charisma together. Whenever they were on screen I was captivated. Can these two get a spin-off?

The leisurely paced narrative is not in a hurry to get anywhere. That’s fine because it’s the creation of a fictional world that is this production’s strong point. The meandering account is introduced when Jacob Kowalski and Newt Scamander accidentally switch luggage. The event is more of a conduit through which to introduce a menagerie of various living things that escape from his bag. I loved the Niffler. A mischievous critter that looked like a platypus but roughly the size of a mole. He’s a tiny scamp. There’s also a Bowtruckle named Pickett. He’s a pocket creature that resembled a twig-like man. Think mini-Groot from Guardian of the Galaxy. There are other animals and they’re all rendered beautifully. I don’t know if CGI is just getting better or I’ve been beaten down by such a reliance on these special effects in modern movies that I’ve just come to accept them. The phantasmagorical displays are easy on the eyes.

At best, the unfocused production is a visual delight. At worst, the dark developments are tonally odd . There’s a tiresome subplot about repressive fascists. Crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is head of an extremist group against wizards and magic. She thinks children should muzzle their magical gifts. It’s like X-Men but for toddlers. This makes them quietly go crazy. Ezra Miller is Credence Barebone, her troubled adopted son. Miller is normally a dynamic presence. I’ve enjoyed his work since the very beginning of his career. Yet here he is given little to do other than sleepwalk through the chronicle as a catatonic creep. Colin Farrell as Percival Graves is better but not by much. His poorly defined character is tasked with tracking down Newt. He changes in a way that is both confusing and dispiriting. I could say more, but I consider spoilers to be verboten.

There’s a lot to recommend. This should satisfy both Harry Potter fans and fantasy enthusiasts as well. Director David Yates is back. He brings his quirky aesthetic to this new film and the touch is welcome. He directed the last four installments of the Harry Potter series and he will direct all 5 of these films as well. On the other hand, Steve Kloves, who adapted every Potter movies except Order of the Phoenix, is only a producer here. This time the script is penned by none other than author Dame J. K. Rowling herself. This is her first screenplay. She pretty much had free reign to adapt her work any way she saw fit. We get a wandering two-hour plus movie from a meager story thread. Fantastic Beasts is a suitably accomplished escapist adventure. However the attempts to mix upbeat fantasy with something more sinister, fall flat. At best, the tale is a fanciful stroll through a dreamlike world. Nicely photographed, with a lush score and special effects galore; these all unite to create an occasionally bewitching imaginary universe.

11-18-16