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Movie Review: Frozen II

Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements

I remember 6 years ago being hyped for Frozen, after the 2013 D23 Expo gave us some exciting sneaks and imagery beyond the hackneyed American marketing campaign.

Next thing we knew, Elsa dolls were flying off the shelves, Idina Menzel’s Let It Go drove parents insane, and it looked like Walt Disney Feature Animation was back on top.

While the studio’s micro-managers during the “Eisner Era” sequelized as much as they could with cheaply-done animation, sequels made within the big-budget Burbank Disney Studios were few-and-far-between. The company recently embraced big-screen sequels again with Ralph Breaks the Internet, and now are hoping it’s icy cash-cow still has what it takes to fill seats and sell merchandise.

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When the kingdom of Arendelle is threatened by magical forces beyond their borders, Anna (Kristin Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Olaf (Josh Gad), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and Sven set off to find out what is going on.

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L to R: Sven, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna (Kristin Bell), and Elsa (Idina Menzel)

Their journey leads them into an enchanted forest, cut off from the rest of the countryside. Within it’s shrouded wilderness, the group finds new creatures, humans, and the chance to learn a little more about Anna and Elsa’s royal heritage.

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Frozen II attempts to do what most sequels do, which is send it’s characters off on a bigger and more eye-popping journey than the first foray. Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck return to the director’s chairs, while caught in a quandary: how to continue telling the story, when they can’t seem to escape the shadow of the first film.

The filmmakers try to utilize some connective tissue to the Arendelle royal family and expand our knowledge of them, but we get a few too many winks to the audience’s knowledge of Frozen (even Toy Story 2 was able to reference it’s predecessor more sparingly than what we see here).

After 6 years (and two animated shorts), we see that there have been a few changes to our main cast of characters. There’s still a small wedge between the two sisters on how to handle certain situations, with Elsa wanting to do things by herself, and Anna still wanting to be there for her older sister.

Most of the film’s humor comes from Olaf, who seems to be entering the “motor-mouthed kid” portion of his being alive. This time around, Kristoff is pushed to the back, with a running-gag “proposition” narrative that seems to be a continuation from what we saw in the 2015 animated short, Frozen Fever.

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L to R: Destin Mattias (Sterling K Brown), Anna (Kristin Bell)

The film does expand on it’s cast once we get to the enchanted forest. From the introduction of a native tribe, to Arendelle Lieutenant Destin Mattias (Sterling K Brown), it at first seems like we’re going to get a larger cast of characters to go on this new journey. In the end however, they feel like minor bumps in the road.

While the first film focused on Anna learning more about life and coming into her own, this film gives over much of it’s character development time to Elsa. There also is the added mystery as to how the enchanted forest came to be, but it never feels like we really get a concrete understanding about this new location. Still, the visuals do show that Disney’s R&D team have taken some amazing leaps when it comes to real-world environments and lighting.

What also doesn’t help the film, is it’s pacing. From the beginning, the film feels like it’s in a hurry to get us to Elsa’s story. There are some moments where the film could take the time to slow down and allow us to catch our breath, but by the end of it all, you feel like stuff has happened…but how much of what you experienced do you actually comprehend, or care about?

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Elsa (Idina Menzel)

Songwriters Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez are back, with plenty of new music that hits the big Broadway sound, while also dipping into the power ballad arena. Idina Menzel delivers the two big show-stopper pieces, while Kristin Bell and Josh Gad are given songs that just don’t hold much water. I don’t see any of the music becoming the new “Let it Go,” though a song sung by Jonathan Groff will either have you in stitches, or leave you scratching your head.

Frozen II gives us a chance to catch up with old friends, but it feels a little too invested in connecting itself to the first film, and too eager to give us more time with Elsa than to focus on keeping us just as emotionally invested in the rest of it’s cast, both old and new. We’re fortunate that it’s not just a “re-skinned” sequel like Mary Poppins Returns, but it just comes off as a good story, that could have been something far greater (like The Incredibles 2!).

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review: Klaus

Rated PG for rude humor and mild action

As a former animation student, I like many was saddened at how the hand-drawn medium became sidelined in the early 21st century. While Disney would attempt to revive it stateside with The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011), the films did not make much money, and the studio let any further hand-drawn plans sink from sight.

One person who believed in the medium, was Sergio Pablos, who had actually worked for the Disney company on a number of past projects before striking out on his own.

For over a decade, Pablos tried to find investors to bring his film Klaus to life. Finally, Netflix came calling, and the animator’s vision was unleashed to the streaming service, and the world.

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After shirking his Postal Academy training, lazy and over-privileged Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman) is transferred to the isolated island town of Smeerensberg, with the caveat that he establish a postal service there within a year. However, the town is the home of two feuding families (the Ellingboes and the Krums), who would rather see the other side defeated than send each other a letter. Even the town’s lone school teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) sees little future in getting through to the citizenry.

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Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman)

Beyond the town, Jesper comes across a bearded man named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Seeing a large assortment of toys the man has made, Jesper feels that if the kids send letters to request toys from the lone woodcarver, it might be his ticket out of this crazy place.

However, as Jesper begins to put his plan into action, strange things begin to happen to the little island community.

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Like a number of productions in the last 20 years, Klaus comes off as another “you don’t know the whole story” story, but it manages to do things a lot more…”traditionally.”

Pablos’ take on the tale of Santa Claus, definitely feels like it borrows from the older Rankin-Bass Holiday specials (right down to the backwards-thinking jerks who want to quash anything happy). Unlike most films these days, this one treads very lightly into the pop-culture references or “music inspired by” graces of American-made productions. It is quite a feat when the story being put on the screen…is actually focused on telling you a story!

Character-wise, Jesper Johansen isn’t that different from the likes of Emperor Kuzco or Lightning McQueen when we first meet him. He’s your typical character who has it all, and then gets knocked down a few pegs. However, Jesper as a character is not quite as “abrasive” as I had feared.

He does have some work ethic, but he just needs to find a way to focus it. It also helps that we do see him doing quite a bit of action when it comes to helping deliver Klaus’ gifts. The fact that he is quite pro-active for much of the film, definitely helps make us start to feel for his character, even if he isn’t entirely truthful at times.

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Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) and Klaus (J.K. Simmons)

Speaking of Klaus himself, the film portrays him as an enigmatic character: a large figure who seems intimidating, but has a story of his own to tell. Much of his characterization is through little bits of action, and while J.K. Simmons does decent voice-work, it never feels like his voice truly belongs to the gentle giant.

There are also some additional subplots that just feel like overkill for the story.

The subplot regarding the town’s feuding families does get a little flimsy at times. While we do get some scenes regarding the heads of the family, their business within the film just never feels like they’re that much of a real threat.

The town’s school teacher also figures into the plot in a few areas, but it feels like they mainly put her in to give Jesper someone to talk to about the state of Smeerensberg from the inside. She is also given a small character arc, but it doesn’t really seem to be that strong.

The children in the film are what really makes the town seem more alive. As rules are established for the receiving of toys, the children begin to become the more responsible of the citizenry. It is rather fun to see in a few montages, the kids setting a good example to the more “childish adults” around them.

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The art style of the film is inspiring as well. The less-is-more approach to the snow-covered backgrounds, will probably put some people in mind of animation production artists like Mary Blair, or Evyind Earle. There is the use of computer-generated imagery for sure, but it blends in so well to the film, that my brain soon stopped analyzing the techniques and got pulled into the story!

Even so, there are moments that did take me back to what hand-drawn animation could do. From the elasticity of Jesper’s facial expressions, to the “heaviness” of Klaus’ overcoat, this is a film that feels magical in more ways than one.

Klaus is definitely a rare film in this day-and-age, and not just because of the artistry on hand here. While some of the story points woven into it feel a little too much like overkill, the tale of how Jesper and Klaus come together really sticks in your mind long after it’s all over. When there’s an emotional scene to be had in the film, it comes across as genuine and sincere…something that often feels missing from a lot of animated features foisted upon the public these days.

Netflix has helped Sergio Pablos create a wonderful new film, that may surely gain a following of it’s own over the years.

Final Grade: B+

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Movie Review: Terminator – Dark Fate

Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity

In 1984, James Cameron’s tale about a killer cyborg from the future, became one of the year’s surprise hits. Cameron added a sequel (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and a theme park experience (T2-3D: Battle Across Time) to the series before he walked away, but Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone.

The 21st century brought about studio-produced sequels, meant to kick-start new trilogies/series related to the characters. Sadly, none of them could make us forget the earlier films.

While Cameron has become more enamored with his personally-created world of Avatar in the last two decades, he has allowed some directors to play in his sandbox. Director Robert Rodriguez resurrected Cameron’s abandoned Battle Angel Alita earlier this year, and now director Tim Miller looks to “finish” the Terminator story, with Terminator: Dark Fate.

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L to R: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), Grace (Mackenzie Davis)

The film breaks free of our regular cast of main characters, and focuses on a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who finds herself in the sights of a new Terminator, the REV-9 (Gabriel Luna). Help comes in the form of an augmented human protector named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), along with two familiar faces from the series’ past: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzennegger).

Story-wise, the characters in Dark Fate feel like new avatars of those we’ve seen before. Dani is the innocent whose life is turned upside-down, while Grace is our “Kyle Reese,” but with a few twists. Luna’s REV-9 proves to be a more deadly adversary, with the ability to split into a liquid-metal being, and a formidable endoskeleton, making him twice as deadly!

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REV-9 (Gabriel Luna)

Much has been touted publicly regarding Linda Hamilton’s return to one of her most famous roles, but it feels at times like a “caricature” of the Sarah we know and love, growling out her lines and dropping F-bombs. Mercifully, Arnold is relegated to a supporting role, but those moments definitely stand out, and even give us a few laughs in this very dark feature.

It’s also hard to ignore certain story elements that we’ve already seen in the last three sequels, that Dark Fate wants us to forget. Grace’s augmentation doesn’t feel that far from Marcus Wright’s in Terminator: Salvation, and the REV-9’s metal-over-metal form is eerily similar to the T-X’s in Rise of the Machines from 2003.

Director Tim Miller entertained many of us with his work on the film Deadpool a few years ago, but alas, his storytelling isn’t as strong trying to live up to Cameron’s legacy.

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L to R: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)

The film almost gives the viewer whiplash in it’s first act, propelling us from flashbacks into a truncated introduction to Dani and Grace, before slowing almost to a crawl in the second act. The film could have used this area to give us more time to develop stronger connections to these new characters, but instead decides to create a journey-filled quip-fest between Grace and Sarah, as they struggle to keep Dani safe.

The way Miller stages his action and night scenes also took away from much of my enjoyment. Some action shots are a blurry mess and cut together so quickly, that it took me awhile to comprehend just what I was looking at. The night scenes he works with don’t get much better, as the imagery is oftentimes so dark, you’re unable to read character emotions. It doesn’t seem good when some shots in this film, made me pine for the clarity of those from Genisys.

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L to R: Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

This latest film could have tried to steer us down a new path away from the characters and story beats we know by heart, but the film struggles with being a “bridging vehicle” between the older films, and the possibility of new stories with the characters we’re introduced to.

Sadly, we’ve been burned by repetition in this series so many times over the last 35 years (along with the continued knowledge that Judgment Day seems inevitable), that Dark Fate feels like it’s fighting a losing battle to win us over with the promises of greatness, many of us know the series just can’t keep.

Final Grade: C+

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Movie Review: Parasite

Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content

In one of Parasite’s most memorable scenes, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho visually shows the discrepancies between the upper and lower-class families of his film.

As one family sleeps peacefully in their luxury home high on a hill during a thundering rainstorm, another family descends down winding streets and stairways, soaked to the bone…only to find their basement apartment (and the street it’s on) flooded. There will be no peace for this family tonight: only the struggle to salvage what belongings they can, and find a dry shelter soon afterwards.

Bong Joon-Ho is no stranger to class struggles. His 2013 science-fiction film Snowpiercer, showed a number of people at the rear of a futuristic train pushed into action, when the wealthier patrons from the front take several of their children away against their will. With Parasite, the director moves the examinations of class distinction to modern-day South Korea, in a story that is more subtle, but still quite intriguing to the senses.

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The Kim family. L to R: Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), Ki-jung (So-dam Park)

Our main focus is on the Kim family, who currently eek out a meager existence being paid to fold pizza boxes, and struggling to find a stray wi-fi signal in their area. Opportunity comes knocking when the family’s son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) finds that his friend wants him to continue tutoring a wealthy high school student, while he goes abroad.

Thanks to the friend’s recommendation and some forged documents Photoshopped by Ki-woo’s sister Ki-Jung (So-Dam Park), he enters into the gated, upper-class world of the Park family. After winning the trust of the family’s naive matriarch Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), he hatches a bold plan. Soon, the rest of the Kim family have assumed alternate identities, taking on roles that support the Park family in their daily lives.

Unlike most films that would probably have one family “good” and the other “evil,” the two families here (while caricatured at times) exist in a very real “grey area.” Of the two, the Kim family is definitely the more “cunning,” with the skills they’ve acquired over the years helping them in a big way. The Park family on the other hand, seems to live comfortably without a care in the world, and seemingly oblivious to the world outside their narrow scope.

Most of Joon-Ho’s films have stories that don’t fit into a standard formula, and Parasite is no different. Just when you think you may know just where he’s taking us, he swerves down a side-path that takes the audience completely by surprise. It is this way of storytelling that often makes his films interesting conversation pieces once the lights come up.

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Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) arrives for his tutoring lessons.

Much like the director’s 2006 film The Host, we find ourselves bemused by the comedic antics of the main family, including Joon-Ho alumni, Kang-ho Song. Song has played the father-figure in a number of the filmmaker’s stories, though here he takes more of a supporting (but still important) role. It is the younger family members Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung who we follow through most of the film, as we see them speak with a confidence that easily subdues Yeon-kyo Park to give in to their requests.

This year has given us several films about people in the lower echelons of society, wanting respect or acknowledgement in a world that seems to think they are invisible. Some films are made as a reflection of the times we are in, and along with Jordan Peele’s recent film UsParasite feels like a story that has something important to say, even if it is a work of fiction.

To tell more about the film would be to spoil many of the surprises Joon-ho has hidden within it’s walls. While it seems to struggle to find it’s ending, the rest of the film leads us on a journey that truly has to be seen to be believed. Be prepared to run through a number of emotions while watching Parasite…and possibly question some of the people you yourself work with on a daily basis.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review: The Addams Family

Many of us have encountered Charles Addams’ creepy-and-kooky family in some form or another over the years, and now they have found themselves in the world of computer animation, courtesy of MGM and Cinesite Studios.

After moving to their dream residence and living in seclusion for 13 years, the Addams find the community of Assimilation has been built close by. While Gomez (Oscar Issacs) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) are a little apprehensive about their new neighbors, their daughter Wednesday (Chloe Grace-Moretz) grows curious about the world beyond the house she’s known all her life.

A highlight of the Addams family has often been their twisted take on family and society, and when the film focuses on those areas, it can get rather fun. The designs follow the original comic imagery pretty closely, and we even see a number of additional Addams characters brought to life.

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When it comes to the film’s storyline, it feels like it borrows from “the best of the mediocre” in recent years. If you’ve seen Hotel Transylvania or a number of Illumination Entertainment films, there are a number of similarities to be found here.

From an overly-colorful town presided over by a smiling-but-controlling figure, and the blatantly-obvious “it’s okay to be different” theme, there’s nothing really new the film has to offer regarding messages or storylines.

The film is also quite busy juggling a number of storylines (which pushes it’s run-time past the standard 90-minute average for animated features). When the film strives to find a focal point, it zeroes in on Wednesday, who soon finds herself hanging out with an ostracized teenager named Parker (Elsie Fisher). Sadly, just when it seems things might be getting interesting with this story thread, we are zipped back to a number of less-interesting ones.

What’s shocking is that even with all that stuff I mentioned…The Addams Family is still a pretty okay film!

While animation from the likes of Disney or Pixar may feel like a fine meal, Addams comes across like animated fast food. It’s okay and a little enjoyable, but a few hours later, it’s an experience that is only faintly remembered.

The voice cast does a decent-enough job, with Isaacs disappearing vocally into Gomez, and Theron vamping it up as Morticia. They can’t all be perfect however, as Finn Wolfhard sounds a little too old to play Pugsley, and…what was the point of hiring Snoop Dogg for Cousin It if he’s just going to be speaking in gibberish?

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Most films have some nods to pop-culture, and surprisingly, Addams keeps it on the down-low. They end up making a number of quips in relation to certain horror films, with a few references that will probably make the adults chuckle (aside from the It-related gag spoiled in the early previews).

The Addams Family could have really crashed-and-burned, but has enough life within it that it manages to eek by as a passable film experience. It’s doubtful this will get nominated for Best Animated Feature come awards season, but it’s enjoyable and harmless enough to take the family to on a weekend matinee.

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review: Toy Story 4

Rated G

Nine years ago, PIXAR Animation Studios seemed to have wrapped up the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and their toy pals in a nice, emotionally-charged little package…or so we thought.

Toy Story 4 catches up with Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang shortly after the events of the last film. While Woody struggles to help his new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), things get weird when a craft project Bonnie dubs Forky (Tony Hale), suddenly comes to life!

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Forky (Tony Hale) and Woody (Tom Hanks)

It is during a road trip that the manic creation wanders off, leaving Woody to try and return the new “toy” back to it’s owner. During the journey, they encounter some new toys…and a familiar face or two.

In watching the Toy Story films over the years, it has felt like their plots mirror human life, but in “toy terms.” If the last film was about Woody learning to let go of his owner Andy, then this film is him dealing with his retirement years. In that sense, Woody’s part in the storyline will probably go over the heads of the younger crowd, but for those getting on in years, they will probably see something of themselves in the cowboy doll’s struggles.

Compared to it’s predecessors, this film definitely feels like it’s trying to pay homage to it’s past stories, but also trying to embrace these characters with new eyes. Much of the original crew that created the first film have moved on, making this an effort largely created by a newer generation.

For a portion of the film, the character of Forky becomes our Buzz Lightyear: a toy that can’t quite accept what it is, and thinks it is something else entirely. I had hoped there would be a bit more interaction between Woody and Forky, but while Forky’s antics are quite entertaining, he soon seems to become little more than our macguffin for the story.

For those expecting to see some of their favorite toys in action, most of them are shuffled to the sidelines. Even Buzz feels quite under-utilized here. At one point, the story “equips” him with a running gag, but it quickly peters out after the first few uses.

In this film, our attention is given over to a number of “new toys.” From an antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to a pair of carnival toys named Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), the film gives these characters (and several others) a chance to shine.

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Bo Peep (Annie Potts)

One thing the film’s advertising has not shied away from, is publicizing the return of a character that was sorely missed from the last film: Bo Peep (played once again by Annie Potts). Her appearance here may be one of the most radical re-imaginings for a character PIXAR has done, as the once soft-spoken porcelain doll, has become quite independent in her time away from the others. One of Woody’s greatest fears is to be a lost toy, but Bo seems to prove that one may not always need a kid to survive in the world.

For most film series, the fourth film is usually the one that ends up crashing-and-burning, leaving people wishing the filmmakers had walked away a long time ago. While Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite top the toys’ last adventure in my book, it proves that PIXAR is still a major talent to be reckoned with.

I will confess that a whirlwind of emotions passed across my face through the course of the film, and while I was rarely ever bored, the flow of the film felt uneven at times. Still, when Toy Story 4 slowed down and took its time, that was where some of it’s most beautiful work “burned brightest,” and showed the company’s next generation of filmmakers may be quite capable of carrying the studios legacy to infinity, and beyond.

Final Grade: B+

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Movie Review: Alita – Battle Angel

Rated PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

Over the last two decades, the topic of adapting the Japanese manga Battle Angel Alita, would pop up in conversations with writer/director James Cameron. However, once he set full-sail into his own world of Avatar, it seemed like Alita would just be another of his “lost projects” (like his plans to make a Spider-man film in the 1990’s!).

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Writer/Producer James Cameron, and Director Robert Rodriguez on the set of Alita: Battle Angel.

Enter Robert Rodriguez. Having seen what Cameron wanted to do many years before, Robert was able to obtain Jim’s blessing, and has now brought Alita’s story to the big-screen.

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While looking for parts in Iron City’a scrap yard, Dr Dyson Ido (Christopher Waltz) comes across the severed torso of a feminine-looking cyborg. After reviving the cyborg and giving it a new body, Ido names it Alita, and sets out to help her start a new life.

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Dr Ido (Christopher Waltz), and Alita (Rosa Salazar)

However, the more Alita experiences of Iron City, the more she begins to learn about humanity, along with the darker sides of our world…and possibly, who she once was.

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Much like Avatar, the key to Alita is believing in the main character, created exclusively through motion-capture and visual effects.

With actress Rosa Salazar and the team at Weta Digital behind him, Rodriguez has managed to craft a believable performance that delivers for the majority of her screen time. Early trailers had some unsure of Alita’s anime-style eyes, but as the film goes on, you’re soon drawn moreso into her journey.

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Hugo (Keean Johnson), and Alita.

It is also in the characterization of those around Alita, that keeps us invested in her. Waltz’s performance as Ido, gives the two a father/daughter relationship, but one that can get testy at times as the cyborg yearns to know more than what Ido wants her to. Alita also develops a friendship with one of Ido’s friends named Hugo (Keean Johnson), whose adventurous spirit she quickly latches onto.

While the focus on Alita’s story is a positive of the film, it falters a bit at times in how jam-packed it is with subplots. Cyborg hunters, a ghostly presence that can possess anything cybernetically-enhanced, and even a deadly sport called Motorball, are just a few of the things that may have you a little confused as the story progresses. It feels like a film series could tackle these topics one-by-one, but this film seeks to take on the herculean task of trying to juggle all of them, and hope the audience is keeping track of what is going on.

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Cyborg hunter Zapan (Ed Skrein), has an altercation with Alita.

Most of the action scenes do benefit from the skills of cinematographer Bill Pope, who has cut his teeth on the Matrix films and Scott Pilgrim vs the World’s hyper-kinetic, anime-inspired action sequences. Given the shadowy, noir-like environments, Pope’s focus works greatly to keep us close to Alita, throughout her journey.

Like anything associated with Cameron these days, Alita also tries to draw us into viewing the film in 3D. However, given the number of dark environs for much of the film, it doesn’t feel like the extra money is necessary to viewing the story.

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Battle Angel Alita manages to succeed where many other American-adapted manga films have failed. Alita herself and the characters that surround her, help make us care for her plight, and feel grounded in the world of Iron City.

It’s easy for me to see why Cameron was drawn to adapting the manga. Much like Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, and even Rose Dawson, Alita is a character who soon realizes she has the potential to be something more than what others feel she should be. And just like those characters, Alita also proves she can hold her own in a world largely controlled by men.

Unfortunately, the film overloads itself with a few-too-many subplots, and it’s juggling act at times can be a bit cumbersome to follow.

Even so, Robert Rodriguez has done a commendable job in showing us a digital world that builds upon his experience directing the Spy Kids and Sin City films. One can only wonder if he’ll get another chance to play in Cameron’s toy box, in the future.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review: Welcome to Marwen

Growing up in the 1980’s, one director who rose to prominence in my eyes was Robert Zemeckis. After entrancing me with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in my youth, I soon considered him to be one of my favorite directors beyond the norms of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Over the course of his film career, Zemeckis has never shied away from wanting to push the boundaries of storytelling and technology. This was evident in several of his films like Forrest Gump, Contact, and The Polar Express.

In recent years, Zemeckis has pushed into biographical territory, notably with his 2015 film, The Walk. With Welcome to Marwen, he is attempting to once again tell the story of a real-life figure, with special effects to enhance the tale.

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Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell)’s life changed one evening, when he became the victim of a hate-crime. The results of these brutal events left him with memory loss, post-traumatic stress, and the inability to walk.

After regaining most of his faculties, Mark took refuge in the construction of a miniature village that he named Marwen. The village is the residence of a WWII pilot named Hogie (Mark’s alter-ego), and five women (each one based on a woman in Mark’s own life who inspired him). However, the quiet of the village (and Hogie’s life), is often disrupted by a small group of Nazi’s (based on the men who victimized Mark), leading Mark to take photographs detailing the stories of how Hogie and the women of Marwen fight back against their tormentors.

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Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell)

Mark finds unexpected fame when interest in his photography, leads to a number of requested exhibitions of his work. However, as his latest exhibition is about to begin, he is faced with two daunting situations.

The first is the upcoming sentencing of the men who assaulted him, leading Mark to grapple with the ghosts of his past.

The other situation concerns a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann), who has moved in across the street. As she grows interested in Marwen, Mark soon believes a new “recruit” may be moving in to the village.

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With his latest film, Zemeckis was given the opportunity to show a man struggling to emerge from a terrible event, through the powers of creativity. Stories like this I am often willing to get behind if done properly. Unfortunately, Marwen’s story seems unsure of just how to tell itself.

At times, it feels like we are meant to see the world in a disjointed way, as if we were inside Hogancamp’s head as he struggles to keep himself functioning. A few times, we get jarring scenes revolving around Mark’s PTSD, and are left to figure out just what happened.

Zemeckis has done films before where he trusts his audience to piece together what’s happening, but it feels like some important pieces to the story are missing.

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The Women of Marwen. L to R: GI Julie (Janelle Monae), Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), Nicol (Leslie Mann), Carlala (Eliza Gonzalez), Roberta (Merritt Weaver), Anna (Gwendoline Christie)

Most notable is in regards to the women who inspired the dolls living in Marwen. One would assume that we’d get a little more backstory about them and how they helped Mark, but only a few of their real-world counterparts even get the chance to be on-screen.

Speaking of the dolls, this seems to be where the film spends most of it’s time, as a number of imaginary scenarios that play out in Mark’s head, are animated through motion-capture technology. Zemeckis tries to weave seriousness and whimsy together in some of these scenes, but the numerous attempts to animate what Hogancamp envisions, feels a bit like CGI-overkill.

For most of the film, Steve Carell is front-and-center as Hogancamp (and his alter-ego, Hogie). He does his best to try and make us believe in Mark’s plight, but the story zig-zags so much that by the time it all ends, it feels more like we’ve been on a long car trip, rather than actually learned something from the experience.

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L to R: GI Julie (Janelle Monae), Nicol (Leslie Mann), Hogie (Steve Carell), Anna (Gwendoline Christie)

Aside from Hogancamp, his neighbor Nicol feels like the only other “real” character that is given much screen-time. She seems to be our window into understanding Mark and his world, but there are some times she seems a bit too innocent. A good example is when she doesn’t see anything strange when Mark suddenly claims he’s added a new doll to Marwen…a redhead named Nicol.

That also is a fine line that the film seems hard-pressed to balance along. We’re meant to find some of Mark’s actions to be endearing and believe that it is okay to be different, but it feels like we’re never given enough time to be comfortable understanding him. This seems to be a major hump the film is unable to get over, and makes some scenes that are meant to be emotional, come off as a little unsettling or questionable.

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I went into this film hoping to see beyond a lot of the negative talk I was hearing, but it feels like Welcome to Marwen falls into the lower areas of Robert Zemeckis’ filmography. He’s shown himself many times to be a competent and capable storyteller, but many of the decisions he makes regarding Mark Hogancamp’s story, makes the whole experience feel incredibly disjointed.

I think when it comes to learning more about Hogancamp and his work, it might be best to consider the 2010 documentary Marwencol. I know after I saw Zemeckis’ film, I did wonder if that documentary could shed some more light on helping me understand more about who this man (really) is.

Final Grade: C-

Movie Review : Fantastic Beasts- The Crimes of Grindelwald

Rated PG-13, for some sequences of fantasy action

After the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was more than content to say goodbye to the world that J.K. Rowling had created, having enjoyed the grand adventure. Much like when George Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogy ended however, there were many that wanted to still play in the sandbox the author had created.

And so, Rowling revisited the Wizarding World, centering a new film series around the character of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Newt’s adventures took place during the late 1920’s, and his first film showcased an adventure among witches and wizards in America.

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Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne)

In the Fantastic Beasts sequel, the action returns to Europe, as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes confinement. At the insistence of Albus Dumbledore (played this time by Jude Law), Newt is asked to help in apprehending Grindelwald.

When it comes to sequels, many people eagerly anticipate seeing their favorite characters again. For this film, you do get Newt’s American friends returning (including Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski), but for the most part, the film doesn’t really seem to be about them.

Instead, we’re introduced to a large group of ancillary characters (including a few from the first film), and are given several mysteries to unravel. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t give us enough time or development to care, as we’re throttled along from one new set-piece after another.

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Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) 

 

Unlike the first film, this one really seems to be trying hard to throw out little asides to those who are fans of the series. We get a few familiar name-drops, and if you’ve seen the trailers, a (brief) return to Hogwarts Castle.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the film’s writing process, given that this is Rowling’s second screenplay (after the first Beasts film). There are a number of times I couldn’t help but feel the screenplay could have benefited from some rewrites, to narrow the focus and make us care more about what was going on. At times, the film felt as overloaded with material, as Rowling’s fifth Harry Potter novel, The Order of the Phoenix.

Where the film does succeed, is in captivating us with even more magical creatures that Newt encounters. While fan-favorite Niffler is back, the film gives us some intriguing new animals, including a Chinese creature called a Zouwu. Sadly, the new menagerie isn’t enough to save the film.

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Newt encounters a Zouwu.

This is going to sound like a major film-bash, but I can’t help but feel The Crimes of Grindelwald, could be this series’ The Last Jedi. I think a lot of people are going to go into this film with a certain set of expectations, and find they’ve wandered into a different film entirely.

By the looks of where the story is headed now, the Fantastic Beasts title seems almost like an afterthought. With three more films scheduled to follow, one wonders how much longer Newt’s life-long obsession with magical creatures will last on-screen, as he and his friends are pulled into a story that wants to be just as big as the one we saw in Rowling’s Harry Potter series?

Final Grade: C

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Movie Review: Summer of 84

(This film is Not Rated)

Once upon a time, the suburban landscape was seen as the next safe bastion of modern society, beyond the seediness and crime of the city.

Soon, it seemed that the well-manicured lawns and the gable-roofed dwellings, were little more than false-fronts to unspeakable terror.

In the 80’s, there were a number of films that explored what might be hiding behind the locked doors, with films like Fright Night and The Burbs showing normality being invaded by the abnormal.

In Summer of 84, the directing trio behind the cult-favorite film Turbo Kid, move their 80’s-era focus out of the action genre, and into the territory of suspense.

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In Ipswitch, Oregon, 15-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), is spending his summer vacation delivering newspapers, hanging out with his best friends, and lusting after the neighborhood hottie, Nikki (played by Tiera Skovebye). However, the lazy summer mood is soon broken, when word comes that a serial killer is on the loose, and a number of boys in the area begin to turn up missing.

A fan of mysteries and unexplained events, Davey soon believes he has the perfect suspect: his next-door-neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer). This seems strange to his friends, as Mackey is a local Police Officer that has lived in their neighborhood for years, but Davey is determined to solve this summer mystery, with or without them.

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When it comes to retro-laced media, we seem to be living in an era that is currently set on idolizing the world of 30 years ago. In the last few years, we’ve seen shows like Stranger Things and film adaptations like It, plunge their youthful protagonists into a familiar-yet-frightful world.

Unlike those recent pop-culture hits, Summer of 84 has no supernatural elements to be found, or multiple plot layers to pick through. The story strives for something a bit simpler in it’s execution, with much of the time focused on the main kids.

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L to R: Dale Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), Tommy Eaton (Judah Lewis)

Along for the ride with Davey, are Dale Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Tommy Eaton (Judah Lewis), and Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew). While the film starts out feeling like it’s just going to be these four talking trash to each other and oogling skin-mags for a majority of time, it surprisingly manages to open up a bit more, and reveal a bit more about who a few of them really are.

I was also surprised to find that there were also a fair amount of jump-scares that actually end up working in the film’s favor (with some of them getting quite creative). The filmmakers definitely use an impressive sleight-of-hand trick to make them work.

While the strange, outlandish wasteland of Turbo Kid seemed open for unquestioning acceptance of that story’s world, there are quite a number of areas in Summer of 84 that had me questioning some of the film’s logic that the directors use.

A good example would be that while we see headlines about a number of young boys disappearing in the Ipswitch area, we never get any indication that the parents or local authorities are that concerned for their kids. Several times we see the four boys and some other non-descript neighbor kids playing a game at night, and yet there’s never a call for a curfew.

There also are some uneven bumps in the road regarding Davey’s crush (and former babysitter), Nikki. Originally seen as an object of desire, the film soon throws her in as an unofficial member of the boy’s investigative group (kind of like how Andy and Steff became unofficial Goonies), but some of the ways the story has her pop up in certain areas seems a bit odd. It almost feels like some added backstory on Nikki could have made her character a bit more acceptable in some scenarios.

Much of the film’s tone almost seems to meander along, until it gets to it’s third act. It is here that it felt like the audience I was with, was suddenly jolted awake by what we were seeing. The suckerpunch end scenes of the film are definitely something that is still seared into my brain, but I did wish that the film could have given us a few more moments during the story, that made us sit-up and take notice a bit more.

Summer of 84 is commendable for not throwing in a supernatural element to it’s nostalgic tale, but there are areas where the storytelling gets a bit too loose for my tastes. A good film, but it feels like with some extra time and care, it could have been a great one.

Final Grade: B-

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