Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Kid Who Would Be King

[3 stars]

When Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) took on the Arthur legend, the hope was for something like Excalibur by way of Time Bandits. And while there are slight nods to both, it is really more just a solid kid’s film with some humor and light action, but none of the dark, satyric edge of his previous effort. This may not have been the film anticipated, but in some ways it is the right movie for the right audience now. And, certainly, it is a better reconception than the other recent Arthur movie.

Louis Ashbourne Serkis (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is nicely earnest in the lead, if a little lacking in levels. And his gang of knights, Dean Chaumoo, Rhianna Dorris, and Tom Taylor (Dark Tower), all turn in similarly appropriate performances for the feel of the tale.

In truth, though, Angus Imrie (Kingdom) and Patrick Stewart (Logan) steal whatever thunder there is to steal. Imrie’s performance is unselfconsciously weird and Stewart gets to play it up as well.

Denise Gough (Colette), as Serkis’s mother is suitably mother-like without being too smarmy. While Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) never really gets to stretch her wings as the big bad. She spends the entire film in a harsh whisper that is promising and foreboding, but never really comes off as entirely threatening.

But the tale itself is only part of the story here. Sure, there is adventure and action and humor, to a degree. But the message, just like the book it mirrors, is the real point. And in today’s world, perhaps that is more appropriate. I did enjoy myself through the two hour jaunt. It isn’t a simple film, fortunately, taking some pains to have some bits of reality, but neither is it really aimed at adults. So go in for the mindless fun or to share with a tween of your choosing. I think Cornish is capable of much more and much better…especially if let off his leash. The result here smacks of a studio panicking and forcing him to scale back from the very sensibility that probably landed him the job.

Dumbo

[3 stars]

You can see the dark edges of Tim Burton (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) in the production design and the plot of the first act of Dumbo, but not his trademark sense of wonder and magic. The movie, as a whole, has a lack of focus in tone and a lack of characters. Given the potential of some of the clever updates to the story, the result is surprising.

In their first roles, Nico Parker, as a bright young woman who drives the story in the stead of the mice from the Disney cartoon, and Finley Hobbins as her brother are solid, but flat. Even Colin Farrell (Widows), Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Danny DeVito (Smallfoot), all with solid foundations in the story, were left without much development or payoff. DeVito, in particular, has rich potential, but was left to be just a clown. Michael Keaton (American Assassin)never moves beyond being a simple black hat with no depth at all. And Alan Arkin (Going in Style) was just a throw-away.

Adaptations are just hard. Fighting everyone’s memory of an original while trying to create something new is challenging at best. Dumbo was due an update to leave its problematic issues behind and bring it into the modern world. It is a great tale of believing in yourself and family. And there are interesting new choices in this telling of the tale, but they just aren’t fully explored. Ehren Kruger’s (Ghost in the Shell) script is devoid of real challenges and resolutions for the human characters. Everything is either too easy or too assumed. The reality is that a flying elephant isn’t magical on its own, it has to become magical…  romance doesn’t just happen, it has to be earned… families don’t heal on their own, you have to work at it. And even Dumbo’s challenges all seem too easily resolved, not to mention that his understanding of the world is inconsistent and seemingly omniscient at times.

I will say that Burton’s dark take on Disney World is delightfully subversive and ironic, but it doesn’t make up for the missing magic in the movie. What is left is a somewhat entertaining, though surprisingly surfacey story that never reaches the heights it should have, but isn’t entirely without entertainment or merit, it just isn’t a new classic. As always, Burton’s designs are best on a big screen, but this is a somewhat neutered fantasy that will play better to younger audiences than adults and that won’t survive the ravages of time.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.

Nutcracker and the Four Realms

[3 stars]

So, if you thought from the trailers that this was a thinly re-veneered Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, you’d be mostly right. But it is also an interesting retelling of the story Tchaikovsky adapted to his infamous ballet over 100 years ago. While it is more complete as a story than the ballet, it is still aimed at a young audience and is rather simple in its telling and resolution. Given its primary audience is tweens that isn’t unfair, it just is less enduring and interesting in the result.

I will say that co-directors, Lasse Hallström (A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain America) and first-time feature writer Ashleigh Powell did manage to provide a strong heroine to lead the tale. Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) is not just an observer in this story. She is bright, charismatic, strong and very much her own savior.

The production values and design are also wonderful. Among these aspects I include the supporting players from the realms who are built out of that vision. Helen Mirren (The Leisure Seeker), Keira Knightley (Colette), Morgan Freeman (Just Getting Started), and relative newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight are all just extensions of that world and each delivers nicely.

This isn’t a great movie. It is a simple tale of a young woman growing up and accepting herself and her family. There are no surprises and even the warmest moments feel a little glossed over. It doesn’t even rely heavily on the music you are so familiar with, which will be a disappointment to many, I’m sure. But it is a reasonable and beautifully escape for an evening and it has a good message. I didn’t feel I’d waste my time, I just don’t see this becoming the classic it might have been had the story been a little richer.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

[3.5 stars]

This third and final installment of the dragon epic is just as delightful and visually stunning as the previous releases. It is full of humor, emotional moments, and, of course, adorable dragons. The story brings the series full-circle and concludes in a satisfying tale of growing up and mature decisions.

My only disappointment is that I didn’t feel the resolution enough. It felt…muted. I don’t know if it was the sound levels or just a weakness in the script toward the end. It isn’t bad, I just wanted to feel more of a swell at the conclusion…something to really remember it all by. Instead it all felt a bit more rushed than the previous movies and bit more on the surface.

However, if you like the other movies in the series, you’ll love this one too. Even if you haven’t been following the story, seeing it on the big screen is worthwhile; the animation is often jaw-dropping in its beauty, scope, and depth. The voice acting is all fine, but nothing really stands out…all the credit for the characters goes to the animators and returning director Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon 2). They really understood what they had and how to sell it. So go and have fun. It is worth it on the big screen if you can make the time.

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

Alita: Battle Angel

[3 stars]

There is a lot to like and a lot to hate in this epic adventure. It is packed with incredible visuals, a strong female lead, amazing fights, and some great moments. To dislike, with prejudice, are several chunks of the script and the non-ending (again, thanks to the script). Did I mention the script?

There was so much anticipation around this first big offering of 2019. The pedigree was solid with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), king of the low-budget high-impact green screen, at the helm. It even had James Cameron behind it as producer and co-writer along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) with solid source material in a well-loved manga (Gunnm).

And, honestly, it starts off pretty well. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) tackles Alita with a guileless honesty that manages to not feel stupid. Christoph Waltz (Tulip Fever) guides her journey with some actual depth and character. Even Jennifer Connelly (Stuck in Love), whose character is more than a little cliche, manages to broaden it out to something richer than what was provided on the page. Keean Johnson (Nashville) gives Salazar a reasonable foil and love interest, though he doesn’t quite have the experience to make the role much more than how it was written. Then, of course, there is Mehershala Ali (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the man who’s everywhere this year. Ali gets to have some fun…if not blaze new ground or create a role of a lifetime. Jackie Earle Haley (Damnation Alley) and Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) put together some fun, if unsurprising, villains as well. Even Ed Norton (Isle of Dogs) has a small and, unremarkable, appearance.

But the story is incomplete. It literally ends on an ellipsis without a sense of completion. That is entirely on the script. This film was clearly intended as a first installment in a franchise…one that will never get made (at least for the big screen). But rather than help it stand on its own with a possibility of a future, it simply gets through some stuff and ends without any feeling of resolution. Some slight edits at the end might have helped avoid that feeling by moving some of the final action into or after the credits, but that isn’t what Rodriguez did. After bringing the story to a rather nice climax emotionally, he drops the ball and speeds directly through to the final moments and images.

And then there are the eyes. Alita’s eyes, a weird homage to its anime roots and attempt to make her look different, are, well, distracting. I think there was some intent there to highlight her uniqueness. But in a world where cyborgs and body mods are common, no one there seems to notice them and, as viewers, we just keep getting put off. Salazar’s acting was more than enough to get across the point, the eyes were overkill. It doesn’t ruin the performances or film, but it was the one serious production mistake.

The truth is that if you have any interest in this story or movie, you should see it on the big screen (3D or not is up to you, I saw it in Dobly and was suitably impressed) because it really won’t translate to small screen. Like Valerian, this is a sprawling visual feast with a lot of story that feels pretty common since its release (almost 20 years ago in this case). It is worth supporting for its attempt to do something new, despite its weak script. On the other hand, if you aren’t living to see this or desire some visual acrobatics for a relaxing couple hours away from the world, there are plenty of other choices out there.

Smallfoot

[3 stars]

There are some real gems jammed into the goop of Smallfoot. For instance, the opening is a wonderfully rich satire that is a story in and of itself. Much like the opening of Up it was its own tale before the tale. And Smallfoot’s main message is equally as adult and important, and it is delivered cleverly with the Yeti and Humans unable to easily communicate (in a surprisingly accurate way).

But, ultimately, co-writer/co-director Karey Kirkpatrick (Spiderwick Chronicles, Chicken Run) gave us a kid’s film trying hard to be Frozen and slipping into silliness too often to make it a classic…or even all that good. The musical numbers are bolted on and poorly mixed, even if delivered with talent. The dialogue is just OK and the plot, generally, is way too obvious (though it has at least one nice twist).  One of the issues may have been the number of other co-writers and co-directors that worked on the film (3 other writers and one other director). Just too many chefs.

Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) takes the lead in the cast as a guileless Yeti coming to terms with new knowledge. Along with James Corden (Ocean’s 8), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Common (John Wick: Chapter 2), Danny DeVito (The Lorax), Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation), and even
LeBron James (possibly in prep for his upcoming Space Jam 2), the cast has quite the scope and solid delivery of what they had to work with. But you can’t overcome a weak script no matter how talented you are, you can only sell it well.

So, yes, you can probably watch this once, alongside a youngster, without being too bored. However, if those same mini-people demand it on repeat, set it up and walk out of earshot. Once is more than enough for this, despite any of the good bits that it may contain.

Glass

[4 stars]

Go to Glass, but don’t try to watch the movie you wanted to see… see the movie that is on offer to watch if you want to enjoy yourself.

M. Night Shyamalan has always made the movies he wanted to make, for better or worse. He rarely compromises his vision, but he also often confounds audience expectations. And, sadly, most audiences don’t want to be challenged. Their loss, more often than not. And Glass definitely isn’t the movie you think it is going to be. Honestly, I loved it once I let go and went with it, but I know a lot of people out there were frustrated.

Another aspect weighing on Glass is that it isn’t a stand-alone story. Absent Split and Unbreakable, it means nothing and doesn’t work. Together, they are a great trilogy, but Glass has no individual foundation like the other two films. Ninteen years ago Unbreakable left us hanging with David Dunn’s and Mr. Glass’s story. It was a love it or hate it comic book film that predated the current rush of such things, but foresaw the tone. Split surprised us all a couple years ago by connecting to Dunn’s tale at the end. And now…Glass…the story we’ve been waiting for so long it was almost guaranteed to disappoint. To be fair, Shyamalan and the studios probably strung out the anticipation a bit too long to make this a complete success–we’ve had too long to plan on what we expected.

The challenges of the movie aside, Shyamalan managed to collect almost all the principles from the previous two movies. Bruce Willis (Death Wish), Spencer Treat Clark (Animal Kingdom), Charlayne Woodard (Pose), and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) all came back and felt like they’d lived the 19 intervening years. Likewise for James McAvoy (Sherlock Gnomes), and Anya Taylor-Joy’s (Thoroughbreds) three years since Split. Taylor-Joy, in particular, has a fascinating challenge for her character.

But these were from the past, and Shyamalan was just as invested in his world in the present. Sarah Paulson (Bird Box) with some assistance by Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and Adam David Thompson (The Sinner) create the framework for the new story…or the explanation of the old ones. As with all Shyamalan films, there are things that feel wrong or out of place, but if you trust the filmmaker, it will all eventually make sense.

In prep, I did rewatch Unbreakable for the first time in about 18 years and I was glad I did. It still holds up wonderfully and there are some important and minor aspects I’d forgotten. Unbreakable was also eerily prescient, coming out the year before 9/11 and with nods to other current movements in our culture. But, most of all, it was it’s intent on making an origin story that was ahead of its time. Heroes that are human, villains too, was not the coin of the day back then, but was about to sweep the entertainment world two years later with Spider-Man and eight years later with the launch of the MCU.

As the end of a trilogy, I think Glass will eventually find its place in the pantheon of fandom. Why? Because it is a real trilogy, with three different stories that connect into a great whole. Compare this to other trilogies that are just the same story but with raised stakes to sub in for more story (Hunger Games, Fast & Furious, John Wick). It is going to take some time for folks to adjust to the realities of this final installment and, perhaps, some investment in rewatching the previous movies to see how they all fit together so nicely. There aren’t many directors out there who would have even tried to complete that vision, and fewer still who have properties that deserved it. Shyamalan is still a storyteller I respect a great deal, even with some of his truly awful films like After Earth and The Happening.

So, again, let go of what you think the story is of Unbreakable, Split, and Glass. Give each character and tale their due, and trust a great storyteller to make something complete and satisfying, even if it isn’t quite the meal you expected to sit down to.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (series 8 – finale)

[4 stars]

What is it they say: Go big or go home?

I haven’t written Voltron up recently due to the uneven aspects of its story and the odd rhythm of release. But the good runs have been pretty good and this finale season definitely raised the stakes about as high as they could go while also supplying an interesting story.

It isn’t often an animated series, especially one that bridges younger and older viewers, is willing to do a complete cycle and finale. They’re usually designed to keep going and generate revenue as a business model. It is more common for manga series or adult anime where an end was always intended.

Voltron has bridged these audiences by creating a long-form, more mature story with a lot of kids-style animation spread throughout. They also took some interesting chances stylistically occasionally. It isn’t on the level of Attack on Titan, nor is it purposefully adult like Castlevania, but has definitely stretched to make something beyond the typical Saturday morning style stories. If you’ve not found it yet, give it some time and let it reel you in. I have to admit, it surprised the heck out of me, and only a few episodes really put my teeth on edge as too juvenile for my taste.