Archive for the Fantasy Category

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

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

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

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

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

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

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

05-09-19

Avengers: Endgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

04-25-19

Dumbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-28-19

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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

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

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

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

02-21-19