Tag Archives: Fantasy

Bleach (2018)

[3 stars]

Live action adaptations of anime and/or manga via anime often fail miserably. (Consider the recent Attack on Titan attempt.) Usually it is due to assumptions the audience will know the story or an insulting approach as to what they’ll accept. I have to admit Bleach surprised me. I wasn’t very familiar with the story, but there was enough in the movie to help me understand and to invest in the characters.

This isn’t a great movie, as movies go, but it was entertaining if you like the genre; I do. Director Shinsuke Sato gave me characters with motivations. He also provided fun fight scenes, a bit of humor, and probably a bit too much high school romance forced in (it simply goes no where in this short-ish film). It didn’t hurt that there was some very competent actors driving the piece like Hana Sugisaki and Sôta Fukushi, both from Blade of the Immortal. Even the side characters have some cred, such as Miyavi (Kong: Skull Island).

It succeeded enough that I’m now curious to explore the anime series and its various movies to see what else goes on…there are several sequences to Bleach and this covered just one of them. And while I’m sure it was in a highly compressed way, the movie didn’t feel overly cheated.

The House with the Clock in the Walls

[3 stars]

The first two-thirds of this film are really spot-on and fun. A beautiful crossing of Stranger Things and Supernatural, but for kids. No huge surprise given the writer is Eric Kripke (Supernatural). Unfortunately, the final act of the film got away from him, and the movie devolves into the worst of the 70s and 80s Disney-style “horror” endings (Think Hocus Pocus or Escape to Witch Mountain). Given Eli Roth (Death Wish) directed, that was a surprise given his darker and tougher nature. It still works, but it ends up much more of a film for kids than a four-quadrant deal…but it was so close.

Even with those concerns, watching Jack Black (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and Cate Blanchett (Ocean’s 8) play together is worth the time in the seat. Black is every kids wish for a weird uncle and Blanchett is, well, Blanchett. Owen Vaccaro (Mother’s Day) as the young lead actually holds his own with them, which is as much a credit to their ability to share screen as it is to his presence. And, though I looked forward to seeing Kyle MacLachlan (Inside Out), he never really gets to spread his wings on this one though he does fine with what he has.

This movie is still a fun romp and certainly aims at its 6-15 yr old audience, with just enough for older viewers to keep them happy. The issues are really more the plot than execution. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as the friendly nemesis for Vaccaro has no supporting story for his actions. Not everything that is introduced gets used (which is the writer’s fault). And, even more importantly, the ending is rushed, though it has some clever bits to it (and some logic holes).

The production design is lush and really deserves a big screen, so if you go, see it on the largest format you can afford. I felt somewhat cheated on the smaller screen on which I caught it. And I do suggest seeing this, especially if you have kids. It is a step up from the brainless fare that is often served and it is entertaining.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

[3.5 stars]

Take a story by Neil Gaiman and give John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit HoleHedvig and the Angry Inch) the opportunity to turn it into a movie and you get a sort of punk rock coming-of-age fantasy that starts odd, gets odder, and manages to steal your heart.

Alex Sharp in his first movie (though a Tony winner for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) nails it. He and his friends, Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, give us a group of young punks in 1977 Croydon looking for…something in all the wrong places. As most adolescents do. The story is best experienced without any preamble, so I’ll stop there.

The boys are supported by a great cast. Elle Fanning (Leap!), ever her ethereal self, headlines it all and seems to expand on her Neon Demon character. And in support, Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Luther), and Matt Lucas (Sherlock Gnomes) each bring their own special brand of uniqueness to the characters.

But it isn’t just about the story and people directly. It is also about the music and movement that was just gaining steam in ’77. Real-life musician Martin Tomlinson leads the fictional Dyschords in a brilliant and believable set of performances to set the mood. As Gaiman put it when he saw it, they feel like a real band from that era you just somehow missed at the time. I’d add, if you ever cared about that era, you’d be sorry you did. And the rest of Nico Muhly and Jamie Stewart’s music is equally effective and engaging.

Entertainment and cleverness aside, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett took the smallest of seeds from Gaiman’s story of the same name (published as part of his Fragile Things collection) and grew it into a wondrous and unexpected adventure. It is as if Sing Street tripped into Wonderland, or Across the Universe collided with Velvet Goldmine. And yet none of that is really accurate other than to imply the unexpectedness of it all. Despite all the expansions, it still retains the sense and point of the original piece. Truly a great example of adaptation. However, if you haven’t read the story first I’d read it after. The story will suffer for that, but the movie will probably be improved by protecting some of its uniqueness.

Check this out without finding out more and just let the story take you. Mitchell is wonderful at laying out secret and twisty paths and imbuing his creations with heart, even amid heartbreak. And in this case, with Gaiman’s sensibility to help inform it all, it comes together in delightful ways. This is a universal story, even if the trappings don’t appear so.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

[3 stars]

You don’t check into the Hotel Transylvania expecting depth or subtlety, even though it was directing and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack). You check in for silly fun, like its previous installments.

There isn’t any voice talent really worth calling out other than Chris Parnell (Life of the Party), whose silly fish was nicely surprising and dry. The rest are either reprising their roles from the past movies or are standard cartoon. Even the new additions of Jim Gaffigan and Kathryn Hahn (Flower), while effective, weren’t great performances.

There some good aspects to this cinematic distraction. Primarily, it is some silly distraction and humor for the summer and kids. The message is solid and well placed for its young audience (and even a good reminder for adults these days). Oddly, the best joke of the entire film is a throw-away chupacabra reference for which the film pauses and then moves on. It doesn’t really come back or mean anything, but it is clearly a gift that Tartakovsky or the producers weren’t willing to give up, even though it added nothing other than a brilliant nod and wink to the audience for those that understood it.

There are some big issues as well. The animation is a bit uneven in design approach. There are very realistic moments followed by oddly flat, cartoonish sequences. Though you can can clearly see Tartakovsky’s sensibility in some of the characters, but it isn’t nearly as inventive overall. Also disappointing was the ending battle, which desperately needed a music expert to pull it off. The idea was a riot, but the presentation was far too clunky to get to the result. A shame, really. It could have been an amazing final sequence.

If you enjoy the series, be assured it hasn’t really diminished over time. It is what it always was and even opens up some new avenues to continue. It isn’t really aimed at adults, though there are some gifts sprinkled in the script throughout. Go to escape the heat or distract your kids, but it isn’t some high form of animation.

Jessica, Luke, and Iron Fist

Jessica Jones [3.5 stars]

The second series of this dark, intense drama delves into Jessica’s origins and the continued fallout from the first season. It is also dominated by female writers and directors. There is a dark beauty to this series…even when it is formulaic it delivers with a punch and enough emotion to let you go with it. By the end of the series all the characters are somewhere new, setting us up for an intriguing set of confrontations to come. That said, some of the writing was more forced than the first series. And Rachael Taylor, in particular, seems to dissolve in weird ways. On the other hand, Eka Darville and Carrie-Anne Moss really come into their own this season. Darville with a cleaned-up act and growing maturity (if also sleight stupidity) and Moss with some actual human stuff to tackle. And, of course, Janet McTeer bashes her way through as the overcharged Frankenstein’s monster she has become wonderfully. Amidst all this, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica gets positioned for a whole new life that makes a series three intriguing.

Luke Cage [3 stars]

One of the intriguing aspects of the Marvel series has been their different sensibilities and how they are melded together. Last series for Luke was distinct in its 70’s feel with an empowering take-back of black exploitation.  It was full of jazz and funk and plenty of action and politics. This second go-round seems to be off-rhythm. The pacing  drags and it is less smooth in the integration of music and feel. The entire first half to two-thirds of the series are set-up, but you spend a good part of that time frustrated with the characters and their choices. After that the payoff feels a bit blunted.

But it isn’t just the rhythm, it was the diminishing of the powerful women in the show that was so disturbing. Alfre Woodward was turned into a whining coward. Even Rosario Dawson comes across as an almost fawning second-fiddle to Luke while Simone Missick is, at best, erratic in her loyalties and choices. Michael Colton did manage to move Luke into a new phase of his hero’s journey…dripping with hubris, hell-bent for leather, and doomed for a fall…but it simply becomes painful at times watching obvious mistakes. The last chunk of the season found its feet a little better, but, even with the clever reversals, the characters are less than credible. The one subtle-ish theme I will give them props for is the game of thrones idea they are playing (and mirroring) right up till the finale.

Iron Fist [3.5 stars]

Like many, I was not impressed with the first season of this show.  It had possibilities, but a weak lead in Finn Jones and weak writing generally. There were good things too, particularly Jessica Henwick and some of the cross-overs. But it wasn’t enough to make me happy. The series was only necessary as a bridge to The Defenders, so I took it like bitter medicine.

With series 2, Danny Rand’s testicles seem to have finally descended. In fact, I had to redo my title for this post which was originally Jessica, Luke, and Iron Weenie…he just didn’t deserve that slam. The whining is gone and there is a hero there who seems capable and able to succeed thanks to who he is, not despite it. Alice Eve was a great addition and had some serious fun with her character and challenges. And the continuation of Sacha Dhawan’s story to drive the series was necessary and, ultimately, interesting even if a bit forced.

And, while there is some nearly unforgivable comic book logic writing particularly around police work, they manage to pull off a great series and shift in the show, redeeming it from its freshman season. After this round, I’m actually looking forward to seeing these characters and their travails again, be it here or in the next series of The Defenders. They’ve really got some stuff to work with.

Missions

[3.5 stars]

Missions is a high concept, high production quality science fiction drama in a 30 minute format. It’s not going to win any genre awards for its writing (or most of its acting) but, as a suspense mystery, Missions is nicely constructed. It should be mentioned that is also in French and Russian with subtitles.

The frustrating aspects of the writing are mostly around the premise of who is on the crew and how some of the science works. There are many cliché and expedient choices over the 10 episodes…none of which would be made in real life, but which make for a more tense set of interactions. The show does run close to reality in terms of how space is currently on the edge of being exploited, however. And it plays just outside the margins of known facts to get us to a somewhat unexpected place with interesting possibilities. It is also an interesting contrast to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which it echos in odd ways, even treading in some of its missteps in trying to build out its plot.

However, if you’re hoping for this first series to provide resolution or a sense of complete understanding, you’ll have to wait till the next season (at least). The first season sort of completes an arc, but then leaves you hanging with a pile of questions. I’d have liked a bit more buttoning up of ideas to feel incredibly enthused about the show. The characters aren’t quite compelling enough for me to have invested on that level, so it was up to the story to pull me in. I would certainly tune in to see where it goes from here, so that says something. Whether it will pay off or if the pulp-ish plot and dialogue will scuttle it on return, I don’t know. But it is a surprisingly well-produced piece and is clearly trying to hit it out of the park on ideas if not always in script.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

[3-ish stars]

Ok, Fallen Kingdom’s prequel, Jurassic World, was no great piece of cinema, despite its ridiculously high box-office gross. This sequel, however, made it look like Pulitzer material in many ways. Honestly, I’m fine with escapist silliness when it is done well, but I don’t like having my intelligence insulted.

There is exactly one adult, thoughtful moment in this entire film. It comes near the end and it is a good one too. The moment, and its resolution, actually reflect the core of the story that is buried in the bones of this popcorn trifle. The rest of the action and plot are predictable and, frankly, frustrating. Evil people are evil. Good people are good. Old men are foolish. Dinosaurs with big eyes are cute. Humans are greedy. Dinosaurs with big teeth are… well, you get the idea. You know what you’re walking into; there are no shades of gray, it is all black and white which leaves no room for any real lasting or surprising emotions or experience.

I will grant director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls) one thing: he kept the slaughter on screen to a minimum, though there is no shortage of comeuppance by the final credits. But Fallen Kingdom is merely a bridge to the third movie that Universal really wanted to make, which is hinted at in the tag after the credits. They realized that leap would have been too much to do straight from the end of the previous movie, so they made a nod at taking the time to tell it right. Unfortunately Trevorrow and Connolly’s follow-up script to their previous is even more rife with time, science, and character problems. Oh, let’s call it what it is: generally bad writing.

Will most people care? Probably not. They haven’t in previous installments, which were no better at times (including going all the way back to the beginning). It is a visual romp and the effects are, as always, pretty astounding. If you must see it, see it on a big screen and maybe even 3D to get the most you can out of the amusement park ride it is. In traditional 2D the fact that it is aimed squarely at pre-teens is unavoidable.

I expect more from my entertainment. Even when I want to turn my brain off it needs to be occupied rather than irritated to enjoy itself. I can suspend disbelief as long as things are consistent, honest, and marginally believable. Fallen Kingdom came close to those requirements, but, at least for me, missed just enough to leave me less entertained and more annoyed. As they say, your mileage may vary (and probably will).

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

Incredibles 2

[3 stars]

The largest part of what made The Incredibles so successful and ripe for a sequel was Brad Bird (Tomorrowland).  Up till now he never treated any of his animations as cartoons, he approached them like drawn movies. Few animators (and their studios) took that approach before him, though it is more common now. It isn’t just in the subject matter, it is in the composition of the frames and the choices of the edits. Watching a Bird animation you could sometimes forget these aren’t real people on screen, unlike, say the Despicable Me series.

But while this sequel picks up seconds (and 14 years) after the original ended, some of the Bird magic seems to be missing for me. For starters, the whole point of the first movie was the family learning to accept who they were and to work together. This second throws that out and starts again, admittedly for different reasons, but it still feels a bit like a loop rather than a progression. The action, probably thanks a lot to Jack Jack, is broader and more cartoon-y. And the mystery…just isn’t in this one. Or at least it wasn’t to me.

This is certainly enjoyable family fare…and with more going for it than most family movies. There are nods and comments for adults throughout that were noticed and enjoyed by the crowd. But I expect a bit more from Bird instead of a, basically, a solid Pixar action flick that took very little time to build characters. There weren’t even any voice performances worth calling out as anything special, though Catherine Keener (Nostalgia) and Bob Odenkirk (The Post) come close. Keener’s exchanges with Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) also verge on something unique, but never quite get there. Overall it felt like Bird was afraid to let the action lull too long and so quickly left any quiet moment. To be fair, it certainly seemed to work to keep the kids all engaged through the 2+ hours (including the uneven, if ultimately surprising, short, Bao).

Certainly, make time for this rollicking and entertaining distraction. But it isn’t quite everything I had hoped for, though it was great to spend time with these Supers again after so long; they deserved a new adventure. Perhaps we’ll get that next time.

Incredibles 2

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .