Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Librarians (series 3)

[4 stars]

The Librarian movies weren’t brilliant pieces of fantasy adventure, but there was something wonderful about the concept and the characters in the franchise. The first movie, in particular, struck a chord. Then it began a long slide into silliness and, frankly, weaker and weaker writing. Entertaining, but not memorable.

When it was reimagined into a series, it carried that sensibility with it and, through sheer energy, overcame the overly simplistic, Nickelodeon-style approach to the tales. Nothing brilliant, but some fun distraction that I certainly took part in, being the geeky book collector and lover of genre that I am.

With season three, the show found its footing again. The story plots are full of short-cuts on the order of Scooby Doo, but the subject matter is, at its core, stuff adults can appreciate too. It has fun while being entirely self-conscious of its intentions. Much like a good library, the goal is to pull in younger viewers and excite them to learn more about all the stories and history. I don’t really classify this as educational TV, but it certainly plants seeds and introduces those who are curious to ideas and facts that could take root later.

The cast have always worked well together but, like their characters, they’re cooperative energy has gelled in their third season. Christian Kane (Leverage), Lindy Booth (Kick-Ass 2), and John Harlan Kim are more a cohesive unit and Rebecca Romijn (X-Men: First Class) more of the leader she needed to become as Noah Wyle (Falling Skies) has stepped further away from being the overriding authority. And, of course, John Larroquette (Me, Myself, & I) always brings a fun energy and delivery. Each season has its particular arc, and this one brings in Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) to provide the friction. She provides a nicely myopic antagonist and walks a good line for younger and older viewers alike.

The writing and directing are less bombastic this season, which has helped its sensibility. Sure there are prat falls, but far fewer. And the scenery is only mildly chewed upon by the cast, and only on occasion. It is a fun run and suggests a stronger season to follow if they can stick to their creative guns and direction.

The Librarians

Justice League

[3 stars]

Let’s start with the short version: Yes, it is better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Yes, it is a big-screen movie. Yes, it has some good (if flawed) entertainment value.

Now for the longer version: Little was going to completely rescue this movie. It was coming out of a long history and vision which had set the tone and approach. It was very much in the can before Joss Whedon (Avengers) was brought on to finish it after Zack Snyder’s family tragedy. Whedon brought some bright spots in dialogue and character, but the main structure of the story was set and there wasn’t going to be a massive rework.

One of the big draws for this installment was the return of Wonder Woman. Mind you, she is far from the focus of the story. In fact, no one is really the focus of this film, which is part of its flaw. It also suffers from a slightly different angle on the issue that Thor: Ragnarok has. Thor has a big “surprise” a third of the way in that we all knew because of the adverts. It didn’t ruin the movie, but it diminished the impact. Justice League is structured solely to get Superman back so the League can exist. Despite that, more than half the movie passes before we get to that goal and intent and, instead, we wallow for ages with guilt and battling a villain we don’t really care about (and whose CG was appallingly bad and whose character resolution was head-scratching, though that may be because I didn’t know the Darkseid background).

Despite those issues, there are lots of good moments that help buoy the weight of the plot. Whedon’s dialogue is primary there…mostly in the guise of Adam Driver’s (Silence) Flash and interchanges between the characters. If you want to see all the bits and pieces that Whedon changed, here is a near exhaustive, and spoiler-rich list. Definitely insightful and with only a few surprises in ownership.

Justice League serves as a bridge away from the Zack Snyder era and into whatever is next for DC. For the moment that looks like it will be Joss Whedon influenced, which could be the best thing to happen to them since Christopher Nolan. I would actually argue that is better that Nolan because Whedon is a much more entertaining storyteller overall, but that isn’t the discussion for today.

Snyder, for all his faults as a writer and director, has a singularity of vision and was in the forefront of defining how Hollywood brought to life a true sense of comic books. It was an unrelentingly, navel-gazing, and ultimately ill-conceived view, but it was undeniably well-intentioned on his part. Most movie-goers aren’t sorry to see him leave the fold at this point, but we shouldn’t begrudge him the props he is owed for getting us here nor deny that he may return again triumphant when he is ready to take up his seats again behind the camera.

As to Justice League… yeah, go see it. It isn’t the train wreck you fear, even if it isn’t the glory you’d wish for. It is an important stepping stone to whatever is to come and it really does deserve a big screen the first time you see it.

Justice League

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

Hocus Pocus

[2.5 stars]

Just about 25 years ago Disney was back on the upswing in its animation department and they took a swing with this live-action fantasy stocked with a couple rising stars [Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City 2) and Kathy Najimy (King of the Hill)] and one powerhouse: Bette Midler.  What was created embodied the best and worst of Disney, leaving a classically bad film in its wake.

Hocus Pocus has all the modern sensibility of a film from the 50s or 60s, but it is set, sadly, in the early 90s. It is all easy, breezy, and without much consequence despite high stakes. But in typical Disney sensibility of the time, there are no real risks or danger or doubt about what will happen. That could be acceptable if it also meant we got characters we could care about, but we don’t. Only the young Thora Birch (The Hole) manages to really dominate the screen and our interest.

A lot of the feel of this film comes from the creative roots of its crew. Co-writer Mick Garris has additional cred as a primary writer on the primarily-lost (though fun) TV run of She Wolf of London. Director Kenny Ortega was and remains primarily a TV director, like his remount of Rocky Horror last year. The fact that Hocus Pocus seems like a Wonderful World of Disney, Sunday night offering should be less confusing with that knowledge. About the only real risk they took was in who the virgin was in the curse…and they ran with that…often.

So it really all comes down to how much you like bad films that somehow transcend their badness enough to be entertaining. Either you laugh with them or against them. There are some good spot-the-actor moments in this one (one soon-to-be Buffy alum shows up and several adult roles are worthy catches too). But as a film, it is painfully sweet, silly, absurd, and intelligence insulting. Perhaps it is just aimed younger than I’d have liked, but I don’t think the plot points speak to a young audience, only to young minds.

Hocus Pocus

Thor: Ragnarok

[4 stars]

Thanks in large part to Taika Waititi (BoyWhat We Do in the Shadows), Thor lives somewhere between Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool in tone. It is a delightful, distracting piece of fun whose sole purpose is to bridge us into the next Avengers film. His writers, who came out of the one-shots, Agent Carter, and multiple Marvel animation series had a good handle on the possibilities as well. But if you know Waititi’s work, you see his stamp everywhere.

There are a load of inside jokes and references to previous films, and an amusing guest appearance by Liam Hemsworth (The Dressmaker) and Sam Neil (Mindgamers). Waititi even managed to put a fun role in there for himself. The movie is, of course, full of action as well. Big, world-busting action. And, by the end of the extra scenes, it answers and resolves a number of open threads from the previous cycle of movies.

Waititi tackled the franchise with his usual flare for the silly and absurd, but always anchored with a human heart-beat. It is, I must admit, sometimes an uncomfortable melding of styles.  Much like McFarlane’s Orville, he injects his particular brand of humor onto a known template; it sometimes breaks the flow even while being wildly entertaining.

But the cast is game for both sides of that equation and gives it their all. Over-the-top and yet somehow grounded, these gods and super heroes battle it out with verve and slapstick.

Getting to see Chris Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) and Mark Ruffalo (Now You See Me 2) finally cut loose with humor that has been hinted at for years was a load of fun. Add in Tom Hiddleston (Kong: Skull Island) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) playing into it all and it becomes like a great party. Of all the returning characters, only Idris Elba (The Dark Tower) and Anthony Hopkins (The Dresser) don’t seem to get to get their moments of humor. They do, however, get their moments.

And then there are the new folks. Cate Blanchett (Song to Song) falls so far into her role, and the make-up alters her so subtly, that she is almost unrecognizable but for her incredible voice and command of the screen. In the other main female lead, Tessa Thompson (Creed) brings in a great anti-Wonder Woman sort of flare to accompany her heroics. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon), while no stranger to dry humor, gets to try something new as well…melding his humor to what feels like a refugee from Mad Max. And then there are Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) and Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), in her first truly big film thanks to Waititi’s coattails (having been in almost every one of his other films), as a wonderfully comic couple.

If I had one major gripe it was that the studios gave away the first third of the film, totally zapping a big reveal of its power. It may still be a fun and great moment, but man ‘o man, I wish I hadn’t known and had only the clues (and they are there) and curiosity to go on. But, we’ll never know because there wasn’t even an option to avoid that knowledge.

Go. Have fun. See it on the big screen. 3D is optional for this one, but it deserves a big screen. It also has a great application of Zepplin’s Immigrant Song. What more can you ask for?

Thor: Ragnarok

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

[3 stars]

I’ll admit that I was never a huge  fan of the Pirates series. I always found them empty vessels of pretty pictures filled with action and broad comedy, but not much else. This most recent installment isn’t that much different, but I have to admit I found it more satisfying. The push into a new generation with Brenton Thwaites (The Giver) and Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) was done well and Scodelario gave us a strong, intelligent woman to help balance it all out.

The rest of the returning cast produce everything you’d expect and what has kept this series moving along for five films. The only character that was forced into the plot and, frankly, was just frustrating, was David Wenham’s (Marvel’s Iron Fist) Scarfield. His character was there for continuity, but wasn’t really effective nor anything but annoying to me. However, I did think the rest of the overall story held together better than the previous films. Admittedly, not much better, but everything is relative and I could at least follow and believe(ish) in this plot. It also buttoned up some nice aspects of the previous films.

The film is filled with great action, including an hysterical opening that rivals the bank heist in Fast & Furious 6. It isn’t that you can’t build a film on effects and action alone, but they aren’t the kind that tend to keep me coming back. Even broad comedies or action need fun characters and a good plot to make me want to revisit their world or remember it past the final credits. This installment isn’t going to live long in my memory, but it did keep its gasping life alive longer than the previous four films, so that’s something.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Dark Tower

[2 stars]

If there is anything good that came from this tragedy of an adaptation, it is that it makes me want to re-read the original series again. Sony took an 8 book series written over 30 years and stripped it down to a 90 minute, lifeless overview. And let’s forget about everything you changed.

I know, I’m dog piling with ever so many others this past summer. There were such high hopes and plans when this project began: multiple movies bridged by TV shows. Something that could hold the scope and complexity of the world and characters that King created. As production neared, the studios panicked and scaled back, but rather than gamble and do one really great flick to try and hook people, they tried to just do all the books at once. That there is over 25 minutes of near-completed scenes on the disc that were excised, and which cover aspects like the Crimson King references, gives you a real sense of how badly they were flailing as the movie came to the wire.

Idris Elba (The Jungle Book) and Matthew McConaughey (Sea of Trees) play the larger-than-life, near-immortal combatants for the universe. Their work had incredible potential. Both men are tightly contained and complicated characters, though we never get to see much what that really means. Only Elba’s backstory is ever explored, and then only with a cheap, oft-repeated moment with his father. Tom Taylor (Doctor Foster), as Jake, also implied great potential, but was never allowed to grow and discover the new world and understanding around him. He ended up purely a pawn for the story to be told. And don’t bother looking for any kind of strong female influence in this version of the story, you’ll just get angry.

Better known as the writer of Antboy, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Department Q, Nikolaj Arcel directed and co-wrote the mess that got delivered. To be fair, I don’t think all the bad choices were his…many were forced upon him…but it is his name on the screen and his legacy that has been marred.

If you have a choice still to make, read the books, skip the film. You’ll be glad you did.

The Dark Tower

The Emoji Movie

[2 stars]

Let’s start with the obvious. Emoji is like watching a grade-schooler’s attempt to re-imagine Tron. Mind you, whoever thought making a flick about emoji’s should have been laughed out of the pitch room to begin with. But they weren’t, so here we are.

That stated, Emoji does have two things going for it. First, there is a tough(ish) female hacker in a lead role. Second, its message is a solid, “be yourself.” Other than that it is a vacuous, obvious, unimaginative tale aimed at 6 year olds.

So, yeah, skip this unless you need to entertain a youngster or need a brain power-down from a crazy day. It is certainly an empty piece of colorful motion with a dance track. Which, honestly, is why I put it on in the first place. And yet, I could have, and wish I had, done better.

The Emoji Movie

Tag (Riaru onigokko)

[3 stars]

When Tag kicks off, there is a familiarity to the scene of Japanese girls on a school trip, having a pillow fight, and generally being silly. That is until the blood starts flying. Well, that’s not too unusual in Japanese horror either. At that point you’re sure it is going to be in the vein of Battle Royale. However, it doesn’t quite go there either.

Instead, writer/director Shion Sono creates a surreal world where running and pillow fights become driving symbols in a shifting landscape. Yes there is carnage… massively over-the-top carnage, but there is also emotion. And, more impressively as the story continues, some serious directing chops holding it all together despite the genre and any assumptions that may bring with it.

Tag is a film about not only the human condition, but also about the nature of reality, fate, and life generally. It isn’t a philosophical treatise by any stretch, but neither is it completely empty mayhem. It all builds to a purpose and a point.

Reina Triendl, in particular, gives us a focus and a connection for the story. She draws you in with her innocence and desperation, as well as her strength and determination in the face of overwhelming insanity. Her counterparts, with Sono’s guidance, in Mariko Shinoda and Erina Mano carry that torch well which pulls it all together. Yuki Sakurai, Ami Tomite, and Aki Hiraoka all deliver too. Most of these young women have worked with Sono in the past and their c.v.s are almost entirely unknown to US viewers, but they are worth keeping an eye on. For all of its absurdity, the success of this movie is down to their commitment and interactions.

If you enjoy Japanese horror, this is a bit unusual and worth seeing. I was expecting gooey silliness given its write up, but it really is meatier and more interesting than you might expect.

Tag

The Magic Flute (2006)

[2.5 stars]

There is a reason Magic Flute has survived 100s of years; the music is glorious. But when Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) and Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus) collaborated to reimagine the opera as a tale from the battlefields of WWI, the shift is not really successful and no amount of great music can heal the issues. Generally, Flute is seen as a comic opera with a bit of adventure, but this version drops us into trench warfare and mustard gas as backdrop to the kinds of silliness and romance that drives the story. Frankly, it makes war and sacrifice feel cheap. And the new lyrics and plot don’t really come together into a complete story. Even done traditionally, Flute sort of skips ahead from song to song with the thinnest veneer of story to contain it.

Story aside, the design and production values are very good all around. The singers are excellent, even if the looping is imperfect. There is also an odd effect where some things are done with high realistic value, but others, like Papageno’s playing of his flute, look as fake as they do on stage. It was as if Branagh couldn’t decide if he was making a movie or filming a stage presentation. A commitment to one direction or the other would have made it all a little sharper.

Honestly, if you’re looking for an interesting take on this story that works better, seek out Julie Taymor’s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) 2004 production (which was also remounted in 2006). It captures more of the fantasy aspect but doesn’t lose the menace and has an equally clever English libretto. There is a DVD, though I don’t know the quality, and you can read more about it and see images on the net. But as to this production…as a curio it is interesting. As part of the Branagh’s opus, it was good to seek out. As a piece of film: not something I’d recommend.

The Magic Flute