Tag Archives: Fantasy

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

mother!

[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.

Mother!

Geostorm

[2 stars]

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I owe Maze Runner: The Death Cure an apology…at least as compared to this film. The only film at this scale that I’ve seen this past year that was worse than this was Life. I started compiling a list of bad science and stupid plot moments from the script, but gave up after about 5 minutes. Truly awful dialogue written by people who did almost no research on the science and none on the workings of the government.

And why do I owe Maze an apology after those statements? Well, because for all the bad science and silly plotting in Maze, at least the action sequences were good and there were some moments of value. Geostorm has neither. It is woodenly acted by actors who look so wrong for their parts the make-up artists and costumers should be shot.

Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) , in particular, looked like a lost Millennial who didn’t know what a professional haircut was. Fine in business these days, but not as an Asst. Secretary in the White House (our current administration’s examples aside). His acting was equally hacked. Even Gerard Butler (London Has Fallen), while never the most impressive of actors, was decidedly phoning it in through much of this movie. Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who has some reasonable cred, couldn’t even do much with the script and situations. And what was done to Robert Sheehan (Moonwalkers), Robert Schiff (Good Doctor), and Andy Garcia (Passengers) was near criminal. Only Ed Harris (Gravity, Westworld), Talitha Eliana Bateman (Nine Lives), and Zazie Beetz had anything approaching reasonable performances, but the bar was low in this flick.

Director and co-writer Dean Devlin (Independence Day: Resurgence) either rushed this or simply didn’t realize how clunky it all was. Though, perhaps, pairing up with his oft-time co-writer Paul Guyot (The Librarians) wasn’t the best choice, each reinforcing their small screen comfort zone onto what should have been a huge screen adventure in every sense, not just the special effects. They even tried to shoe-horn in a dog and a little girl to force you to feel emotions that just aren’t there in the story; cheap.

Yes, just skip this one. Even the thrills aren’t good enough to make it worth your time. You need something this silly and globe spanning? Rewatch 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, both equally silly, but executed with better skill.

Geostorm

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

[2.5 stars]

With most of the stoopid science behind them, this finale is basically a lot of great action sequences, with a couple good moments, and some questionable script and acting. Enough for an evening’s entertainment? Well, that would be up to you. The ride, from the get go, is pretty unrelenting. As a story, this popcorner held together way better than the first two; motivations were mostly clear and mostly made sense. Satisfying? Eh. I never was able to read past the first book of the series myself (the science and plot were just so poorly thought through), so I’m clearly not the target audience.

You may have noticed I used “mostly” a good deal in my comments. There are still some truly horrendous moments of bad science, plotting, and dialogue. However, relative to its earlier installments, it is a huge leap forward.

What is sad is that these young actors, from Dylan O’Brien (The First Time), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Will Poulter (The Revenant), Rosa Salazar (The Scorch Trials), Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales),  to the adults Giancarlo Esposito (Money Monster), Patricia Clarkson (Learning to Drive), Barry Pepper (The Lone Ranger), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) are all capable. Of this rather packed list, only Salazar, Esposito and Goggins have any real moments in the final cut and they are minor characters. The rest are just going through their paces and getting through the script. They aren’t awful, but nothing pops out as emotionally effective, which is a crime at the end of a trilogy. You may have hated how Hunger Games finaled, but you can’t claim it didn’t have emotional punch.

There are also a few craft issues. First and foremost, directors have to learn that when you’re going to do an IMAX release, that any hand-held camera work you have should be cut by 30%-50% from what you think you want to do. The size of the screen amplifies movement and a shaky cam gets quickly unwatchable. Maze isn’t the first offender, or even the worst (which was Hunger Games), but somehow it still keeps happening. Then there were the costuming issues. Let’s just say that the lower class and the kids were way too clean and crisp for people living in the streets and that having female scientists in 4″ heels was, well, a bit out of touch these days (forgetting how absurd it was).

If you’re hooked or a mega-fan, you’ll probably enjoy this wind up. Frankly, as a film series, I’d have liked to see at least an attempt at a better script and more than a passing attempt to make a movie rather than a glorified and stitched together series of action sequences. If there is anything that films like Jumanji have taught the industry in the last year, you can have your cake and eat it too when it comes to silly action films. A good script pays massive dividends; pretty pictures alone only works some of the time (witness films like Avatar). While Death Cure didn’t make me wish for the big sleep, I can’t say I’d ever need to see this hobbled piece of trifle again.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Electric Dreams

[4 stars]

While it may not be fair, it is hard to view a science fiction anthology series these days without comparing it to Netflix’s Black Mirror. So, lack of fairness acknowledged, this steam punk take on Black Mirror, by Amazon and the BBC, is entirely fascinating and captures Philip K. Dick’s (PDK’s) sense of the surreal wonderfully. It is Twilight Zone on drugs… which is to say that each episode has some great stories and compelling characters, but exists in a world with its own set of rules rather than just trying to shock or spook you out.

While both are creating cautionary tales, there are interesting contrasts as well. Black Mirror builds a world from the path we’re on, and even interlinks the stories via technology and reference. Each episode of Electric Dreams, however, is about a different world on a path not taken by ours; not quite real even though all of its messages still apply. Even when reaching into the bizarre, Electric Dreams has solid writing and is stocked with recognizable names and faces, that keep it all intriguing.

PKD was known for challenging your mind and sensibilities (and, yes, recreational drugs). His work is prone to dystopia. However, there is humanity in every one of the tales I’ve seen so far. It is that spark, that base reality, that makes them compelling and effective. It has a little bit of everything in it, from politics to comedy, and each served up as a little gem of its own.

Product Details

The Shape of Water

[4.5 stars]

A beautiful period creature tale or simply a wonderful love story, either way this film is like a warm hug on screen. And I say this despite some of the uglier sides of the period being unequivocally shown, not to mention the obvious nods to our current culture. It is both clear-eyed and well timed as a reminder of how things were and how they have been going.

Sally Hawkins (Maudie) is captivating as Elisa, and she manages it with nary a spoken word. Richard Jenkins (Kong: Skull Island) is heartbreakingly wonderful as well. Even Michael Stuhlbarg (Miss Sloane) gets to put on a (mostly) good face for a change, and delivers a nicely nuanced character. Only Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) is stuck with cliche, and even he gets to add some uniqueness to it all.

This film also marks the opportunity for Doug Jones (Star Trek: Discovery) to expand on his Abe Sapien role from the Hellboy series. Abe is a character that has always deserved his own story. Though this is not that tale, it feels like a satisfying exploration and conclusion given that Del Toro will not be completing his trilogy. And, ultimately, you won’t even see the creature suit. Without speaking a word, Jones lets you see the “person” inside the skin of his character.

Supporting the story, Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) does a great job as well. Though not her best role, it is full of detail, humor, and bite. Smaller roles by Morgan Kelly (Killjoys), David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis), and Nigel Bennett are some of the more notable other appearances. 

Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) has always been a story teller with a particular vision. Each of his tales is unique, but they all bear his signature in look and feel. Shape is no exception in that regard. It is a luscious production suffused with light and corridors and odd but human characters. He loves humanity and has a strange, dark optimism about us as a culture and a species. Or maybe he’s just a hopeless romantic, as this tale of otherness finding love may attest.

See this on the big screen. It has amazing production values and excellent sound. Let it make a hopeless romantic of you as well.

Warning: Spoiler Follows

My only gripe with this incredible film is that I knew exactly where the film ended just as it began. It was a bad choice and could have been easily covered if I’d only seen one side of Hawkins’s neck rather than both. It isn’t that you don’t know where it is all going anyway, so it isn’t a huge loss, but I would have loved that Aha! moment that I heard in gasps around me at the theater. Instead, I had been waiting almost 2 hours to see it play out. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again so I can let go of the anticipation and just fully enjoy the ride.

The Shape of Water

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (Christmas 2017)

[4.5 stars]

Well, it was a long slog getting to this finale, starting back with the opening frames of World Enough and Time last season and then getting teased at the end of The Doctor Falls at the end of series 10.  But it definitely paid off. This farewell to Moffat as writer and show-runner, not to mention Capaldi as the Doctor, is poignant, well crafted, and full of nice moments. And, yes, probably a few mistakes in history and dropping of some threads regarding The Mastress. Having Rachel Talalay direct the entire through-line certainly helped keep it all steady in look and feel.

The impact of this sequence aside, it was also just a really good Who episode and not overly Christmas-y. In the best way it integrated the holiday for those who wanted it without making it the focus of the story in a way that pushed away others. The bridging plot of Mark Gatiss’s (queers.) character made that both possible and wonderful. And the “return” of Hartnell’s original Who, through the capable hands of  Game of Thrones alum David Bradley, was surprisingly effective. I also want to call out some great editing and camerawork that helped on that point, especially the cuts from past to present and back again.

Overall, this was a wonderfully strong ending for a Doctor who should have had a longer run. And, as I’ve railed over the last few years, a better set of scripts. I am looking forward to seeing where the show goes now with Chris Chibnall at the helm. Chibnall has a wide-ranging background and a series of critical and popular hits under his belt and a clear love of the Who universe. He is likely to bring a darker view, and a more science fiction approach back to the show. But he is also getting to blaze new ground and was left with one heck of a cliff hanger…one that mirrors the arrival of Matt Smith who was also brought new direction to the series.

All in all, a great ending to a mixed run by Moffat and a satisfying close to the Capaldi years, despite wondering what might of been.

Doctor Who

Bright

[3 stars]

Imagine Alien Nation reconceived with orcs and fairies instead of extraterrestrials. More importantly, imagine that world as if it had been the status quo for thousands of years instead of only a decade or so. It is an intriguing concept, especially with the rise of fantasy into the mainstream.

This is the world that writer Max Landis attempts to lay out for us. Frustratingly, he is an unpredictable writer. He can hit the mark with movies like American Ultra as well as miss the target widely with fare like Victor Frankenstein.  Bright is a script that lands in the middle of those two. Unlike Alien Nation, he loses the family dynamic for buddy cops Will Smith (Collateral Beauty) and Joel Edgerton (It Comes at Night), which is essential to bridging their understanding of one another. Truthfully, neither of their characters is fleshed out in any real, believable way. There are odd gaps in understanding and culture as well a demonstrated well of intelligence and capability in a world they have supposedly grown up in.

It comes down to a matter of genre. Landis didn’t quite know how to show us this new world so we could understand it. He  also really didn’t understand how to tweak history, which would have radically changed where we are today, not just a few little things, to create a fleshed out, new LA. And the ending is so telegraphed it is actually almost a disappointment when it finally arrives.

I do wonder if some of the lack of depth is due to director David Ayer’s (Suicide Squad) choices or decisions. Ayer has played on both sides of the camera in the cop milieu. He wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch, both critical darlings. Both were also quite dark and violent, which is where this movie shines in fight (after fight after fight) with different players all trying to wrest the prize from Smith and Edgerton. The fights get quite inventive and fun, but they’d have meant more if we had more invested in the world and characters.

One of the sets of anti-players is led by a very spooky Noomi Rapace (Unlocked). She doesn’t get to act much in this movie, but she gets some great tableaus and costumes. She is helped along by two credible fighters in Veronica Ngo and Alex Meraz. Another incomplete pairing, from the law enforcement (dark)side, is Ike Barinholtz (Mindy Project) and Happy Anderson (The Knick) who serve for exposition and additional tension, though not a lot of believability.

So, how much confidence does Netflix have in this movie: They’ve ordered a sequel on the day of release. There is a LOT of potential here, but they need to get someone with more genre experience, like Rockne S. O’Bannon or one of the Whedon clan to come in and fill out the world and characters to make them more compelling.  It feels more like a prologue than a complete story due to the lack of world and character depth. We want and expect more, but will apparently have to wait for it.

This is still a fun ride, and worth a couple hours on the couch with some popcorn, but given the depth of talent in the main roles, you’d like to see it used rather than just as names on a marquis.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

[4 stars]

OK, I admit it, I was surprised. Seriously surprised. This long-coming sequel (third if you count Zathura: A Space Adventure) wasn’t really something I felt I would need to see, but I ended up going on a lark.

There are multiple things that really made this movie succeed. First the script is very clever, even if it missed hitting some obvious jokes for the geek crowd. But mainly it is thought through and uses just about everything in clever ways, especially near the top in showing us how the new Jumanji works.

Jake Kasdan’s direction is also nicely done, keeping the adults on an even keel and focused on their particular realities. Well, most of them anyway; and this is the last critical piece that makes this film a great romp. These are the kinds of parts that play directly to the acting and comedic strengths of Dwayne Johnson (Baywatch) , Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) , and Jack Black (Goosebumps). They embraced their teenagehood and awkwardness and managed to get us to see enough of a ghost of the kids inside to enjoy their discoveries. Nick Jonas ( did fine with his role; it wasn’t complex or brilliant, but it certainly met the needs. And Bobby Cannavale (The Fundamentals of Caring) got to chew up some serious scenery as their nemesis. Only Kevin Hart (The Wedding Ringer), drops the ball on the acting. He is funny and, at turns, very real, but he kept falling back on his shtick… shtick that didn’t really match his IRL counterpart.

OK, yes, the “life lessons” are slapped on with a heavy hand. And, yes, it is sometimes a little too easy, but it is a video game after all. Ultimately, though, there was enough time in this movie to allow it to breathe and be more than just slap-dash action flick. Even when some of the effects get a bit cheap, the story and characters carry it along nicely.

This is a guaranteed crowd and family pleaser with enough PG humor to keep it interesting for anyone above the age of 15 and with enough risk and action to keep it from being too predictable. Go and have some fun with this. It isn’t the best film you’ll see this year, but it is way better written than latest Star Wars and, frankly, entertained me more.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle