Vindicated

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Left eye, motherf**ka!

SPOILERS WITHIN

In the backlogs of this blog, you will find a horrendously scathing review of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, which I found to be a dishonorable mess and a poor facsimile of a John Hughes movie. This month’s sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, is everything its predecessor was not, and I’ve never been prouder to say that!

As the events of Avengers: Endgame take their toll on the world in the year 2023, New York’s friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, alias Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Current War), is seeking an escape, particularly in the wake of the sacrifice of Tony Stark, his mentor. Conveniently, a summer school trip across Europe brings such an option, until a call from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hitman’s Bodyguard), an encounter with the enigmatic Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal, Source Code) and elemental beasts puts a different tack on Parker’s need for rest and relaxation, and makes who he can trust all the more difficult.

Homecoming was, I felt, a cinematic trainwreck as a result of six (credited) writers’ conflicting visions. Though I worried at first with the return of two writers from said film, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, they are the only ones credited, and wisely so — any more than three writers on a script, I feel, causes a movie’s main characters and objectives to be lost in the herd of subplots and gags. What’s more, this feels like a Marvel Studios film, which the first outing did not feel like at all — eschewing the emulation of the late John Hughes brings a freshness to the film that proves itself a worthy heir to the throne of Sam Raimi’s saga, one built by writers like David Koepp, Michael Chabon and Alvin Sargent. Notedly, the film is not bogged down by the preceding Avengers films, but it does not bury them in the past — rest assured, if you want to see this, you’ve got (at most) 23 movies to catch up on!

Performances are top-notch in this — Holland has truly become the best Spider-Man/Peter Parker on film, bringing all the vulnerability of a kid who just wants to be normal with the bravery of an Avenger — what else could be better? Gyllenhaal, once slated to replace Tobey McGuire in Spider-Man 2, is brilliant as Mysterio, a villain I was clamoring for to appear in this movie; welding together equal parts Syndrome from The Incredibles with his Donnie Darko persona, he’s totally unhinged and truly scary once he makes himself truly known to us. Peter’s one true love, MJ (Zendaya, The Greatest Showman), is much less of an Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club clone and is truly cute when she reveals her knowledge of Peter’s alter ego. The MCU’s erstwhile connecting thread, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-Raq), returns in a capacity akin to his appearance in Iron Man 2, but don’t let that deter you if you weren’t a fan of that film; he serves a much greater purpose in this than he did there, as does Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, Delivery Man).

Spider-Man: Far From Home is, at long last, a truly wonderful outing for the eponymous web-slinger — shaking off all the dusty mess that was Homecoming, integrating a genuinely terrifying villain in Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, and charming performances from Holland’s Peter Parker and his surrounding classmates, plus a few shocking revelations that mean one hell of a sequel is inbound. Bravo, Marvel Studios and Sony!

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

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The last time I saw a Pokémon movie was the winter of 1998 — Pokémon: The First Movie took its sweet time arriving to Patch Barracks theater in Stuttgart, Germany, and at age seven, I fully expected a cinematic classic. Upon departing the theater, I felt utterly betrayed (and envious of my father, who slept from start to finish!), and I never saw a Pokémon movie of any type in theaters ever again. Today’s new release, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu takes a turn in the right directon, moving to live-action and using ridiculously cute CG representations of the Pocket Monsters themselves, and attempting a relatively comedic take on film noir.

Based on the 2017 Nintendo 3DS video game Detective Pikachu, we follow the story of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a young man who just lost his estranged father, Harry, a detective, in an accident. Taking a journey to the mysterious Ryme City to collect his belongings, Tim gets more than he bargained for when he comes upon his father’s partner Pokémon — a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, Once Upon A Deadpool) wearing a deer stalker, who speaks fluent English, but only to Tim’s ears. In addition to being an amnesiac guided by the next cup of coffee that touches his super cute fuzzy lips, Pikachu believes that Harry is alive, and that the case they were working on has to be solved. The game is afoot, and it will take the help of put-upon intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton, Supernatural) and her explosive Psyduck to solve the case, one that will lead right to an old menace and a new threat.

When Detective Pikachu is at its best, it’s focusing on the things that made the series so great — big ol’ battles, buddying up with an obscenely adorkable creature that doesn’t exist in real life and having a blast with both, but when it isn’t at it’s best, it comes off as a poor man’s live-action Zootopia; make of that what you will. The story varies in quality — from moment to moment, you think you’re in the dark of what’s going to happen, and then the movie pulls old tricks out of the book, and you have the story pegged. It’s nowhere near as corny as The First Movie was (no cry-back-to-life here, folks!), but it’s such a letdown to have few surprises in this story. Also, the estranged relationship between Tim and Harry comes off as a stale afterthought by the end, which is a big mistake in a day and age when boys, and even girls, are without their fathers in their lives.

Still, director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) is to be commended for making a live-action film based on a video game that isn’t an audio-visual atrocity — technically speaking, this is a marvelous effort, with the Pokémon shown looking hyper-realistic (a la the brilliant Alita: Battle Angel) and still cuddly and cute as can be. Props also go to the actors in question, acting against almost nothing at all and still providing realistic reactions and performances — bringing to my mind two wonderful examples of such, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Bumblebee. Further props to Letterman for shooting entirely on Kodak 35mm film, providing a unique look in a digital age, and echoing the feel of 1960’s detective flicks.

Characters and their actors are not entirely successful — Justice Smith is terrific as Tim and brings the necessary angst of an abandoned child to the role with the needed tenderness he slowly builds toward his partner Pokémon. Reynolds is somewhat confused as to whether or not the movie is rated PG (sidenote: it is), and it’s really unnerving having him make jokes about Tim having last talked to a woman while he was in the birthing canal. I realize that an R-rated version of his jokes were recorded, but it’s so pathetic to be shoving that stuff in a movie largely intended for general audiences. Newton is charming as Lucy, is even cuter when she tries to be mysterious, and a prime example of how to write tough ladies in movies. Bill Nighy (Love Actually), playing Howard Clifford, the mysterious founder of Ryme City, is clearly having a better time in franchiseland than he did on either of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, but he’s not in it nearly as much as he should be. Still, he has more screentime than he did in the remake of Total Recall, and by all accounts, he had a ball making it.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is leagues ahead of the misery that was The First Movie, and might be the finest adaptation of a video game yet, but it’s bogged down by some tired plotlines, a few foul jokes and a weak story about the importance of a relationship between a father and son, something that needed to be stressed moreso. I can’t recommend it as a family film, and not so much as a film for the layman, but still, if you, the fully-grown reader, even remotely love Pokémon, you will have a ball, even if it’s only for visual callbacks to the characters we grew up with — this movie does nostalgia better than Ready Player One ever could have!

Rating: 3.5/5

The End is the Beginning is the End

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SPOILERS AHEAD

To end a motion picture saga is a daunting task — from Richard Marquand to Peter Jackson to David Yates, it’s a heavy cross to bear, and not all of them are successful. Under lesser hands, Avengers: Endgame, the recently-released closer of Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga, could have wound up a massive disappointment (a la Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Godfather: Part III), but Cleveland’s own Anthony and Joe Russo pull one last trick out of the hat that impresses your heart as it does your intellect.

First things first: if you haven’t seen any of the previous films, don’t go thinking you can jump in and enjoy this; you have your work cut out for you in 21 preceding increments, so do it — that’s not a request. If you HAVE kept up, you are in for the ride of your life. At times, this Avengers feels like the best video game you’ll never get to play, and yet, it’s so damn satisfying. Every loose end that needed to be tied up was lovingly tied up and wrapped in the most lovely paper, while still leaving enough leeway to continue the story in a suitable way.

Franchise fatigue doesn’t happen with Marvel, and this is due not just to Kevin Fiege and the Russos but also to erstwhile screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who have stuck with the journey since Captain America: The First Avenger. Written strongly and with great knowledge of what came before, the film never feels confusing, despite traveling between timeframes and setpieces, and they are equal parts of the glue that holds the franchise together.

Fatigue is also not to be found in our actors — saying farewell to the role that made him a star once again, Robert Downey Jr. gives Iron Man his best hurrah, ending a role that began in 2008 with sacrifice and dignity. Similarly, Chris Evans bids a surprising farewell to Steve Rogers with the happy ending he always deserved. Some have complained about the sacrifice of Black Widow, claiming she was, in the nerd vernacular, “fridged,” but I beg to differ; it was a fitting farewell to a character who began chronologically as a villain, and if it was good enough for Scarlett Johannson, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Villains on the brain, Thanos is, as he was, a monster, brilliantly portrayed as before by Josh Brolin, bringing an unholy threat to life with all the necessary menace of a terrorist mastermind and all the calculating daring of a stalker. Can we give Oscars to mocap performances yet? Not that it matters, for reasons I’ll mention later. A surprisingly great turn comes from Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, grieving for his lost family and dealing with it by killing off merciless criminals. Far from the pretty face with a bow and arrow he was in Thor, Renner has become one of the best Avengers in the group; a truly dynamic paradigm shift. Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner and, at long last, the Hulk, and brings an unexpected, healthy dose of warmth to the situation. A mark of great versatility goes to Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, showing his range beyond the usual dumb comedies he was once known for. Karen Gillan is in fine form as Nebula, an integral part of the universe now, and better written than ever. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor in a seemingly comedic turn, having gotten fat drowning his sorrows post-Thanos, but comedy of this ilk stems from pathos, and he brings both to the forefront with ease.

That being said, whomever feared a turn to DC levels of darkness and dread will also be pleasantly surprised by an abundance of quality gags in the film, and they alleviate the tension where necessary, while furthering the story. Technically speaking, as with Avengers: Infinity War, this installment was filmed entirely with IMAX cameras, and it brings great, expanded scope to this final journey taken by the Russos. See it that way, preferably in IMAX 3D, or else you’re wasting your money.

I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame three times now, and each time cements stronger the two words that came to mind when I first saw it — pure perfection. It’s the greatest closer to a saga since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and it further proves that Marvel Studios has something of far greater worth than Oscars — they have the love of the multitudes, spanning races, religions and generations. To put that into perspective, famed actor Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, was once asked if he received any royalties from repeat showings of said movie, and his response was pure and simple: “No residuals — just immortality.”

Rating: 5/5

 

Defying Gravity

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When you think of Tim Burton, the last thing one would think of would be a family film about flying elephants, but in the grand scheme of things, the man has done it all — from superheroes like Batman to serial killers in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or even in the realm of stop motion animation with Corpse Bride, the man has quite a varied history behind him, and it’s knowing that which brings us to this week’s new release of Dumbo, a remake of the 1941 Disney classic, itself an adaptation of a novel by Helen Aberson.

A traveling circus, owned by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, Matilda), is in the pits following the First World War — it’s even hit one of his best performers, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks), who has returned home without his left arm, or a stable relationship with his young children. As recompense for his act being scrapped, Medici has him caring for the circus’ lone elephant, who is expecting. Upon the birth of her pachyderm, the crew of the circus is taken aback by the new elephant’s massive ears, but in a surprise discovery by Holt’s children, the elephant can fly, setting off a chain reaction in the universe of showbusiness, and all that it implies.

Loads of pundits were unsure as to how Tim Burton would make Dumbo work in his style and vision, and pleasingly, it’s one of his more charming films, and certainly his most accessible. Relying on greenscreen backdrops but real props and sets, something is always happening in the 1.85:1 frame, and it’s well appreciated. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, finally getting a break from Bayhem, writes sincerely and lovingly in his Disney debut, making a charming yarn that satisfies the child in all of us while giving a healthy dose of empathy for the lonely outcasts that have become a staple of Burton’s work.

The cast is largely in great form — Farrell plays Farrier as a lost soul, trying so desperately to be useful as father and performer in spite of a war injury, but doesn’t overplay his character’s suffering to caricature. The actors playing his children, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, may seem stoic to people expecting dynamic performances, but that wouldn’t suit their characters well — if you want Camp Broadway kids, look elsewhere. DeVito, making his first Disney film since 1997’s Hercules, is comedic as Medici, but not hammy, while Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice) , working with Burton for the first time since Batman Returns, is creepy as domineering entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere, a villain that symbolizes corporate greed (of an apolitical type, don’t worry). Leading lady Eva Green (Penny Dreadful), in her third collaboration with Burton, is a little hastily transformed in her arc, but in the end, what she does makes sense — unlike a certain sidekick in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.

There is one small bee under my bonnet regarding this film, and it will pester many Disney buffs and especially those who grew up in the age of when Disneyland was a new concept — there appears, at a glance, to be a lot of Walt Disney himself in the villainous Vandevere. The knee-jerk reaction is to think such a way, what with the use of an amusement park in the film’s second half as a sort of prison, but let’s be realistic — would The Walt Disney Company allow an attempt, intentional or otherwise, to slander their founder and scion? Rather, I see the park as a metaphor for the horrors of sideshow attractions of the 1920s, Coney Island-style, and I further see Vandevere as more of a caricature of the Thomas Edisons of the world, a despicable sort that Walt Disney did not fall into. If not that, it could arguably be an extension of Burton’s previously exhibited dislike for cookie-cutter perfection (see also: Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie) and life in a cage, physical and metaphorical (see also: Sleepy Hollow, Big Eyes), and the use of electric wonders as a surrogate for evil may be a reference to Kruger’s work on the Transformers saga.

Much like how Hugo was for Martin Scorsese — or even Jersey Boys for Clint Eastwood — Dumbo is an unexpected career move for Tim Burton, and while it bears all the hallmarks of his previous work, it’s still a film very near and dear to his heart. Potential controversy (and a useless salute to the song Pink Elephants on Parade) notwithstanding, it’s still a kindly, inspiring movie that will appeal to all people in need of an escape to gentler times.

Rating: 3.5/5

You Are (Not) Alone

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From the depths of development hell comes a new sci-fi classic; a masterclass in how to adapt manga to live action without sacrificing artistic integrity of its source — Alita: Battle Angel. Once a passion project of Oscar winner James Cameron (Avatar), it now emerges with Cameron’s producing power behind the unsung brilliance of director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), who takes his skills to the next level with a story of equal parts convention and innovation.

The story opens in the 26th century – Iron City is the one of the last civilizations on Earth. Above lies the floating utopia of Zolum, where people of Earth would kill to gain passage to. Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) is a scrappy prosthetics repairman in Iron City who, on searching though a junk heap, finds a cybernetic torso, limbless but alive. Rescuing and rebuilding her, she awakens into a new world she doesn’t know. Given the name of Alita (Rosa Salazar, Maze Runner: The Death Cure), she embarks on a journey to find the truth about the past she can’t remember, all while Vector (Mahershala Ali, Green Book) and other pawns of Zolum will stop at nothing to acquire her.

Director Robert Rodriguez, largely known for making major movies on limited budgets (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Machete) finally gets his just desserts with James Cameron’s producing prowess, to say nothing of a script to match co-penned by Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys). In a first for Rodriguez’s career, the movie is shot almost entirely on-location in his beautiful home city of Austin, Texas, with palpable realism sight unseen in his career thus far. Technical skill is, however, not left to languish in the corner — filmed in 3D with scenes specially formatted exclusively for IMAX theatres, this is the finest 3D film since TRON: Legacy, and it demands to be seen in 3D — IMAX 3D, if possible (Sidenote: At Rodriguez’s orders, the IMAX presentations are only in 3D. Buck up.)

On the note of technical detail, in her design, Alita herself appears breathing and human despite her cybernetic body and exaggerated eyes, but those features are simply a means of honoring the manga — lesser filmmakers would have thrown the film’s source material to the wind and simply had an actress portray the character as they are (Dragonball: Evolution, I’m looking at you.) Truly, the team at Weta Digital are to be commended for their work, as are Rosa Salazar and the rest of the cast, for making sense of something that does not exist.

A film is only half of itself with a lousy cast — a problem not found here! Ms. Salazar is a joy to watch, performing the full breadth of Alita’s journey, from pretty innocent to street-smart fighter to warrior of Iron City, a type of story arc sadly not often seen in a decade of strong female characters. Christoph Walts makes a much-needed turn to a kindly character (which is apparently the main reason he took the role) — Dr. Ido is equal parts mentor to his charge and a bit of an overprotective father; it’s certainly a welcome change from seeing him play villains in American movies. Mahershala Ali is quite creepy in this, despite his status as the pawn of an unseen mastermind — more than once I was reminded, if not just in looks alone, of a very villainous take of Wesley Snipes in the Blade trilogy.

Additional cast members include Jennifer Connelly (The Rocketeer) as Dr. Chiren, a former colleague of Ido’s in league with the enemy, bringing a character that might otherwise be a one-note performance and giving it conflict and indecision. A brilliantly horrifying addition to the cast is Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) as a hulking cybernetic sociopath named Grewishka — he exudes menace, as villains should, but is more than the token pawn of the villains. Alita has a love interest in the form of Hugo (Keean Johnson, Nashville), a character that years for passage to Zolum at any cost, except where true love is concerned. Johnson may be seen as a little too Aladdin-y by moviegoers, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s good. His arc is a little sudden, but nothing so strong as to warrant a truly bad mark.

The only downside to the film may be this: I was reminded more than once while seeing Alita of another unsung sci-fi classic of not long ago — John Carter of Mars. Though this film is a much easier pill to swallow, and I do hope for its tremendous success, I worry that audiences will find similarities between this film and other sci-fi classics — highly ironic if so, that like Carter, the source material for this film predates the films those may erroneously claim it copies. Still, time and the box-office returns will tell.

Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi masterwork many, many years in the make, and it’s all been worth it in this reviewer’s eyes. Manga has been proven to be adaptable to live-action, Cameron’s journey has ended yet begun, Ms. Salazar has her star vehicle, and Rodriguez has the gilded feather in his cap — hopefully the first of many! Of course, to see more adventures through the streets of Iron City requires we see this film, in grand numbers. Let’s make it count, because if you’re at all like me, you will be thirsty for more stories of the battle angel herself!

Rating: 5/5

No Wonder That It’s Mary That We Love!

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Nothing is impossible, says Mary Poppins herself in this week’s new release, Mary Poppins Returns, and she is as right as ever! What many deemed impossible to happen has happened, and it’s one of the most welcome Christmas presents of the year!

Picking up during the Great Depression, a fully-grown and widowed Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, Paddington 2) is doing his best to keep his children satisfied and his home intact, the latter of which is under threat of repossession by the very bank he works for. Despite help from his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl) and the erstwhile domestic, Ellen (Julie Walters, Billy Elliot), he’s barely holding it together until a sudden change in the wind brings none other than Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, Into The Woods) back to scenic 17 Cherry Tree Lane. With help from Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, In The Heights), a lamplighter (who apprenticed under Bert!), the Banks children, young and old, must relearn the beauty in life and the wisdom of having fun!

“Beautiful” is a word oft-overused in movie reviews, especially mine, and yet, it’s totally appropriate here; there isn’t a single movie this Christmas season as beautiful as Poppins, and it’s so lovingly crafted, with a briskly-paced script, sound direction by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and a host of new songs co-authored by Marc Shaiman (Sister Act) and Scott Whitman — to say nothing of its loving nods to the film which preceded it, with input from Richard Sherman and Tony Walton, among others’ influence. The standout moment has to be the hand-drawn animated musical number, which sees Poppins and her charge making a journey akin to “Jolly Holiday” in the first film — gloriously drawn digitally by a team of animators led by immortals Ken Duncan and James Baxter, this makes the case for Disney themselves to return to hand-drawn animation ASAP.

Our cast is in fine a form as I’ve ever seen them, with Ms. Blunt stepping into the shoes of Dame Julie Andrews with ease and care, and her work on Into The Woods doubtlessly helped in gaining her singing voice. Mr. Miranda is charming as can be as Jack; a true heir apparent to Dick Van Dyke’s work preceding — to say nothing of his much better Cockney accent! Mr. Whishaw, however, is in as great a form as I’ve seen him, showing a tender soul broken by loss, and what a singing voice!

Additional cast members unmentioned before now include Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), hilarious but not suffocating to us, nor chewing scenery — Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as the villain of the story, William Weatherall Wilkins, plus a few loving cameos from Disney’s history. The real MVPs here are doubtless the Banks children, each one a young natural at their craft, with so much to offer in their career ahead.

Joyous though the picture is, the cast and script never stoop to the saccharine caricature of other movie musicals (I’m looking at you, The Greatest Showman), and rather honors the ghosts of Broadway long past — the generation that grew up on My Fair Lady, Camelot and The Music Man will find so much to love in this film, as will their children! You just don’t get movies like Mary Poppins Returns as much as we used to, and more’s the pity, as it’s a joyous reminder of what motion pictures used to be and can be if we try once again! Truly one of the best pictures of the year, its longevity will be tantamount to its source!

Rating: Practically Perfect in Every Way

Welcome Christmas

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Every Christmas season brings with it a glut of Christmas movies; most of them awful — from How The Grinch Stole Christmas to Daddy’s Home 2, each year brings double its fair share of cinematic atrocities, and it’s all too rare that a good movie breaks through the mess — for every five of the aforementioned films, there is The Santa Clause, The Polar Express and The Man Who Invented Christmas. With the impending season all set to unleash itself, one can take refuge without hesitation in this weekend’s new release of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

Freely adapted from the E.T.A. Hoffman tale entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and the Tchaikovsky ballet, the story opens on young Clara Stuhlbaum (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar), enjoying Christmas Eve as much as one can in her situation — her mother has passed earlier in the year, and the loss still weighs heavy on her heart, as well as that of her father (Matthew MacFayden, The Three Musketeers). In an attempt to bring her from her sadness, he gives her a gift from her mother – a Fabergé-style egg, but it is locked. Already on her way to a Christmas party held by her inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Going in Style), she seeks his help, but to little avail. While at the party, gifts are given in an elaborate hide-and-seek manner. This leads Clara on the inexplicable discovery of the Four Realms, where brightness and darkness await in equal numbers.

Directed twofold by Lasse Halström (The Cider House Rules) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and written by first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell, the film is a wonderful sight to behold! Lushly photographed entirely in 65mm and 35mm film, every frame is a painting fit to be framed, and the direction given to the actors is solid, not once feeling like the hodgepodge of two conflicting visions. It truly does feel like Christmas when you see this film, and for the Disney nerds, there are more than a few welcome homages to Walt Disney’s 1940 classic, Fantasia, which itself featured selections from The Nutcracker suite! Powell’s screenplay is a strong debut, but it falters in one key aspect — the inclusion of a throwaway line naming the setting of the real world segments as London. Now really, that’s not very Hoffman or Tchaikovsky, is it? It’s so jarring, especially when Clara and her family retain their original names; it would have been better to let the setting remain ambiguous, rather than compromise the origins of the story. Still, this a strong debut from a fledgling writer that is to be commended.

As for the actors, Ms. Foy has truly shed the stain of her Twilight Saga beginnings, and is charming and bright as Clara; she doesn’t falter in her English accent and she never hams it up. Kiera Knightley (Anna Karenina) is bright and cheery as the Sugar Plum Fairy, leader of the Land of Sweets, while supporting characters of the realms include charming performances by Eugenio Derbez (How to Be a Latin Lover) as the eccentric Hawthorne, of the Land of Flowers, and the venerable Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I), who was in the last (atrocious) cinematic adaptation of this story, among a better cast and crew this time around as Shiver, the ice-laden leader of the Land of Snowflakes. The titular character of the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight, Ready Player One), is kindly and innocently charming — as for antagonist Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), let’s just say I’d rather not spoil the film.

Another welcome bit of brilliance in this film is the seamless melding of selections from the Tchaikovsky ballet with a score composed by the eminent James Newton Howard (Maleficent). Mr. Howard is, in my humble opinion, one of the more underrated composers in film history, and he is in as good a form as he’s every been — maybe not as memorable as his work on Snow White and the Huntsman or Treasure Planet, but certainly pleasant. Speaking of ballet, such a segment is in this film, with none other than Misty Copeland performing! Be sure to keep in your seats for an additional performance in the end credits.

Speaking honestly, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn’t quite an instant classic, but it truly is an adorable bit of Christmas fluff, and one could do an awful lot worse in theaters this season. Buy your tickets, get the kiddos in the car, and watch with confidence that you’re getting a charming Christmas movie!

Rating: 3.5/5

Magnificent Desolation

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Neil Armstrong — an American hero and a pioneer in the field of space exploration, it’s true, but does the public en masse know his struggles as well as he and his family did? The answer, and then some, is provided in First Man, the third feature film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. Certainly, it was an unexpected move from the director of music films Whiplash and La-La Land to do a period piece about the greatest voyage humankind ever bore witness to, but damned if it isn’t his finest, and one of the finest movies of the year.

Grounded as an Air Force test pilot and traumatized by a recent tragedy, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) applies to NASA’s nascent Gemini program to get a new start for himself, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Breathe) and their son. In doing so, Neil is tested in all manners of speaking as he tests the limits of the atmosphere, the patience of public and politicians alike and the strength of his family.

Among the cast, Gosling finally proves his mettle in my eyes as more than a handsome face and a cutesy voice, and brings realism and humanity to the legendary Armstrong. Similarly, Ms. Foy is at her career best with this film, bringing an truthful portrayal of the struggles felt by the wife of an astronaut, wondering if the man she loves will ever come home to her and holding the fort largely by herself (bringing to mind an equally stellar Sienna Miller in 2014’s American Sniper). Other notable standouts include Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) as Edward White, a colleague of Neil’s who serves as a shoulder for him to lean on at times, and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Elliott See, an early acquaintance of Neil’s during the interview phase of the Gemini program. Finally, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) brings all the requisite smarm and crass behavior to the utterly asinine Buzz Aldrin — the accuracy is much appreciated!

Chazelle shows real talent as a director with this film — unlike his wanton tail-riding of other, better movies (let’s face facts, La-La Land is just a modernized An American in Paris), he seems to have gone deep in ensuring authentic performances of his actors — no one is hamming it up for an Oscar — and portraying the 1960s without glamorizing or mocking it. Also, in a wise move, the lunar landing scene is entirely film in IMAX, bringing an expanded view for such a pivotal scene, and heightening the reality of the moment — if you have the good fortune of being near an IMAX Laser theater, get your tickets now! Josh Singer’s script — itself based on a chronicle of the same name by James R. Hansen —  never goes to the hysterical level of other space chronicles or period pieces. The words coming from these actors’ mouths feel natural, not at the Aaron Sorkin level of ego and hyperbole, and the events shown are certainly believable and honestly portrayed.

The film also arrives at a most apropos time, for in a day and age when public interest in our intergalactic future is at an all-time high, a film like First Man presents a reminding view to audiences; apathetic generations less concerned about contributions to history and human progress than putting band-aids on Earthbound problems — sounds to me like an additional past America, circa 2008-2016. The fact is we need to explore space continuously — even if no life exists beyond Earth, we can learn so much and further human advances in technology, medicine and countless other fields all from journeying from one habitable planet to the next. After all, why did maritime explorers look for a new world?

First Man is a brilliant, tautly-crafted film, honest in every detail, and while it almost certainly won’t win many, if any, of the awards it’s hyped to get (let’s be real, Oscars don’t do science… or honest history), it doesn’t need them. It never stoops to the overbearing caricature of space exploration and its conflicts that Apollo 13 was, nor does it bombard the viewer with fact and conjecture a la (the still very brilliant) Interstellar. No, this is a movie of its time for our time; a reminder that the future is up there, far beyond the atmosphere and, soon, the stars.

Rating: 5/5

Overplayed

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Proving once and for all that a turd can’t be polished, the seminal Hollywood favorite A Star is Born is remade for the third time, and it’s as cut-and-dry as they come.

All the original story elements are here – Jackson Maine, a drunken star on decline (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover), Ally, the talented ingenue he discovers (Lady Gaga, in her motion picture debut), and the love they share while one rises to stardom (heh-heh.) and the other falls flat (hee-hee.). I wondered on the way home why it took two other directors — Steven Spielberg (?!) and Clint Eastwood (?!?!) — to attempt this film before Mr. Cooper made his directorial debut with this, and also how nothing changed at all for these characters. If Warner Bros. & MGM, and by association, the screenwriters, kept the storyline the same for the sake of familiarity, or wanton laziness (you decide), that was a really bad move — If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, you’ve already seen this film. The only changes made are the actors, the songs and the time in which it takes place. Speaking of the former two, the only three actors worth their oats in this film are Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot (Road House), who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod as Jackson’s beleaguered eldest brother-turned-handler, and, oddly enough, Andrew Dice Clay (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) as Ally’s well-meaning father who can’t keep money even if it were sewed into his pants. Actors like Dave Chappelle (he of the eponymous TV show) are there and then gone; not much else to say about that.

As for the songs, most are bizarrely cut into snippets, with only three numbers played in full to my immediate recollection — the movie feels like a sampler designed solely to make you buy the soundtrack album, which Lady Gaga devotees will doubtless buy in staggering numbers. Don’t get me wrong, her voice is stellar, and truthfully, her future is not in monotone, drawling autotuned pop songs, but in hard rock. That being said, “Shallows” is the only number that truly resonated with me. Still, to each their own.

I honestly don’t want to be this unkind toward the film, but as it stands, A Star is Born, while a feast to listen to and look at (Matthew Libatique’s luscious anamorphic cinematography will win him the Oscar), is not worth seeing in the slightest. It almost reminds me of the cinematic adaptations of The Great Gatsby thus far, but with Gatsby, one need only look back to the source novel for the best version; A Star is Born has no good version to look back on, and that was the first of many mistakes with this one.

Rating: 2/5

Your Heart Will Lead You Home

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Unless you had an unfortunate upbringing, Disney movies are a part of every child’s life – with beautiful, lovable characters and stories that touch your heart. One of those many characters is the whimsical Winnie-the-Pooh — in the pantheon of childhood icons, there are few others who can make one smile as he can. Playing off of that notion, Disney and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) take us back to the Hundred-Acre Wood and, with it, our childhoods, in today’s new release, Christopher Robin.

Now fully-grown, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor, American Pastoral) is working a thankless job in a luggage company in London — one that keeps his mind focused exclusively on work and away from his family, even when he’s at home. When ordered by his boss (Mark Gatiss, Sherlock) to stay at work over a weekend he promised to take his wife (Haley Atwell, Howard’s End) and daughter (Bronte Carmichael, On Chesil Beach) to the countryside, Christopher opts to keep to his job, but not without hesitation. While taking a quick break from work, his past finally catches up to him in the form of Winnie-the-Pooh (the inimitable Jim Cummings) – arriving when they need each other most…

Let’s not beat around the bush – this is a wondrous movie! If you haven’t been sold on Disney’s animated movies as of late, their live-action films have truly proven that the soul of Walt is alive and well! How, you may ask? I believe it’s in their knowledge of the meaning of nostalgia. Whereas so many movie remakes and TV revivals claim to be for the sake of “nostalgia,” they lack any feeling for the works that came beforehand and make little attempt to connect to the past. To better understand it, the etymology of the word “nostalgia” originates from the Greek words “Nostos” and “Algos” — translated, those words refer to “return home” and “pain,” both of which this film understands so very well. It further helps to have the accomplished Marc Forster directing — think what you will of his James Bond outing (Quantum of Solace), the man is experienced in pulling tears the same way dentists pull teeth — he brings all the wonder of childhood he did in Finding Neverland with the heartfelt feeling of time lost that he perfected in Stranger Than Fiction.

As for our cast, Mr. McGregor is in fine form as Robin, and it’s truly brilliant seeing him transform from stiff-upper-lip businessman to a grown child playacting with his old friends! Ms. Atwell plays his wife, Evelyn, wonderfully, initially a woman struggling to recognize the man she married as the man she loves, but still loving to both husband and daughter, and she has some great moments toward the end of the film! Young Ms. Carmichael, as daughter Madeline, is charming and lovable, even at her saddest, which she pulls off with aplomb. As for Mr. Gatiss… what a great sleaze he plays!

The voice cast is also terrific — Mr. Cummings plays both Pooh and Tigger as youthfully and joyfully as ever and with all the respect they deserve… there will never be another voice actor quite like him! Brad Garrett (Ratatouille) returns as Eeyore, the character he once played in Disney Interactive CD-ROM games in the 90’s, and he has some of the best deadpan comedy I’ve ever heard! Newcomers to the Hundred-Acre Wood include venerable English stars Sophie Okenodo (The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses) as Kanga, Toby Jones (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) as Owl, Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) as Rabbit (who has some great visual gags!) and Nick Mohammed (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie) as Piglet, all of whom are wonderful additions to the cast and perfect heirs to the work of their previous actors.

I know I have been gushy in more than a few of my previous reviews, but the fact is, in this case, that Christopher Robin is a beautiful film that expands the stories we once knew so well and does it with the same loving care a parent would have for their child. Some would dismiss this movie as “depressing,” or the ungodly fusion of Ted and Hook — you’d be very wrong. Leave your prejudices at the door (where applicable) and enjoy wandering through your childhood memories that call you back once more.

(By the way, you’ll want to stick through the credits for a lovely nod to the past!)

Rating: 5/5