WENDY (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. When you think of Peter Pan, you likely envision either the 1953 animated Disney film classic or the writings of J.M. Barre, who first introduced the character in his 1902 adult novel, “The Little White Bird.” Whatever your impressions and memories of Peter Pan, they likely differ from those of filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, who was Oscar nominated for his stunning 2012 film, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD.

The story begins at a small town greasy spoon diner nestled along railroad tracks. Birthday boy Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) is devouring a plate of bacon and taking ribbing from the locals who are teasing him with tales of his future working at the diner. He storms out yelping “I ain’t gonna be no mop and broom man”. Toddler Wendy watches as Thomas jumps on the passing train and disappears with the wind. A few years later, Wendy (newcomer Devin France) and her older twin brothers James and Douglas (Gage and Gavin Naquin) are awakened by a passing train and spot a giggling Peter (Yashua Mack) running along the top of the cars. The siblings climb out the window and leap to join Peter. Soon, they are on an adventure to an island (we assume is Neverland) which seems to be populated with kids who run and jump and play all day. Among them is Thomas, who hasn’t aged a day since his birthday bacon.

Any re-imagining of a classic comes with risks. Messing with people’s childhood memories inevitably leads to push-back. Benh Zeitlin gives the impression that he’s a passion-project only type of filmmaker. This interpretation means something to him, and it’s obvious in the detail and creativity. The similarities in visual style to his previous “Beasts” film are obvious, and render quite a different look and feel than we are accustomed to with fantasy movies. But then, this is not a Peter Pan for kids. It’s really a philosophical analysis of life. Everything is an adventure for kids, and then somewhere along the way, we lose ourselves and start the ‘adulting’ portion of life – leaving our childhood dreams behind.

Buzzo represents the once young boy who lost faith. He’s now an old guy dreaming of recapturing his youth. Mr. Zeitlin’s film, which he co-wrote with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, includes magical elements, fantasies, realism, life lessons, hardships, and the importance of personal connections. The score from Dan Romer is exceptional, as are the performances from youngsters Devin France and Yashua Mack. It was filmed on the volcanic island of Montserrat, and thanks to the mythical “Mother” who lives underwater, it becomes a fable about keeping the faith and never growing old. J.M. Barre’s famous first line was “All children, except one, grow up.” Are you that one child, or have you lost faith?

watch the trailer:


ONWARD (animated, 2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. No studio has ever had a 25 year run like Pixar. This is their 22nd feature film over that span and every single one lands somewhere in the range of brilliant/instant classic to watchable/re-watchable. Though this latest may not reach instant classic level, it does stick to the Pixar standard template of highly entertaining while delivering a life lesson. This is the first time in the Pixar director’s chair for Dan Scanlon since MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). It’s also the first original Pixar since COCO (2017) … and note, it’s rated PG.

The film opens with a “history” lesson detailing how the world was once populated by enchanted creatures like elves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, fairies and sprites. Science and technology created shortcuts and soon the world’s “magic” had disappeared, relegating these creatures to life in the suburbs. We pick up the story on Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Ian is part of an elf family that includes his older brother Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology (think Dungeons & Dragons), Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met. Both brothers are surprised when their mother presents a “gift” from their dad – one he left instructions to be held until Ian turned 16. The gift is a magical wizard staff that, with the included precious stone, can bring dad back to life for 24 hours.

Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence ends up botching things to the point that only half of dad is brought back – the bottom half. Under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild. Their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore, and mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco.

We have come to expect ‘magic’ from Pixar with every movie, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons … the most crucial of which is: being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

As always, the voice acting is top notch. Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) delivers the goods as Ian, and Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) brings the necessary wonder and excitement to brother Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus never really gets to shine as their mother, but then this story is focused on the boys. Octavia Spencer has fun as Manticore (we needed more Manticore!), Mel Rodriguez is a hoot as Officer Colt Bronco, and yes of course, John Ratzenberger sneaks in – he’s now voiced a character in all 22 Pixar films.

This is the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter, and it’s one of the very few to be released outside of the summer or awards season. The likely reason is that the studio has a second original film being released this June. SOUL will be directed by Pete Docter and is viewed as a companion piece to the already classic INSIDE OUT (2015). Given the time of year, it could be easy to overlook ONWARD, but it nails the Pixar trademark emotional finale … delivering a sentimental scene likely to stick with you. I have praised Pixar many times over the years as their creative teams really seem to “get it”. Regardless of the month, ONWARD will cast a spell.

watch the trailer:


THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I got hooked on “Monster” movies as a kid, and even all these years later, I still get a kick out of them. Of course, with today’s special effects, the look of these films is much different than in the early days. The big challenge for the genre now isn’t how to frighten us or create an awe-inspiring effect, but rather can it capture the charm and appeal of those ground-breaking B-movies? Universal Studio’s Dark Universe got off to a less-than-stellar start with Tom Cruise’s 2017 THE MUMMY. Now, after re-grouping, the fabled Monster studio re-boots THE INVISIBLE MAN … with roots in H.G. Wells’1897 sci-fi novel and the Claude Rains – James Whale film from 1933.

Perhaps their best decision was choosing Leigh Whannell to write and direct. I’m hesitant to mention that Mr. Whannell was a creative writing force behind both the SAW and INSIDIOUS franchises, as some may jump to conclusions on what to expect with this latest. All I can say is that you’d be incorrect to assume THE INVISIBLE MAN falls in line with those previous films. Instead, this film is a psychological thriller in the form of #MeToo vengeance. Whereas the 1933 film featured a brilliant scientist whose invention turned him sour, this contemporary version is told from the viewpoint of a woman who has been abused and controlled by her boyfriend.

When we first see Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), she is sneaking out of her stunning cliffside home while her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeps. Within just a few minutes, Ceclia’s escape has taken us on a tour of the home (including a high-tech laboratory), disclosed that she has drugged Adrian, introduced us to her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), and above all, given us a glimpse at just how terrorized Cecilia feels. The sequence is complemented by a nerve-jarring score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch (BLADE RUNNER 2049).

We flash forward two weeks and find Cecilia taking refuge at a friend’s home, and she remains so paranoid, she is barely able to step outside. As the old saying goes, ‘is it paranoia if they are really after you?’ Her friend is James (Aldis Hodge, CLEMENCY), a stout no-nonsense cop and single dad raising teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, A WRINKLE IN TIME). When it’s discovered that Adrian has committed suicide and, according to Adrian’s creepy attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), left millions to Cecilia, she allows herself to celebrate the moment. However, what fun would it be watching her spend and give away money? Instead, the tone shifts and Cecilia’s life becomes unbearable as she is convinced dead/invisible Adrian is torturing her. As you can imagine, this leads to questions about Cecilia’s mental stability, which then leads to more misery and tragedy.

Director Whannell’s brilliant approach and Ms. Moss’ superb performance combine to make this a thrill ride worth taking … it’s the kind where some folks in the audience shout warnings to the characters on screen! It’s difficult to tell which is more frightening, having everyone you know think you have lost your mind, or actually being stalked by an invisible, presumed-dead former abuser who wants you to suffer. Floating knives and physical fights are unsettling, but can’t compare to the tension created by cinematographer Stefan Duscio turning his camera to a blank wall or empty space. Our mind (and Ms. Moss’s face) fill in the gaps with Adrian’s evil presence. This is not a scientist-gone-bad, but rather a madman utilizing his most powerful tool. Having Adrian be an Optics innovator was a contemporary twist that takes us from the science fiction of the 1930’s to the technological world of modern day.

The film was originally going to star Johnny Depp, but it works so much better, and is so much more terrifying, having it told through the eyes of Ms. Moss’ Cecilia. Strangely enough, the movie I kept flashing back to was not the 1933 Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart (64 years later, she played reminiscing Rose in TITANIC) movie directed by the great James Whale, but rather the schlocky 1991 Julia Roberts film SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY. This is the most fun kind of movie suspense, and what’s scarier than the things we can’t see? It’s nice to have Universal Studios’ monsters back on track, and we have talented filmmaker Leigh Whannell to thank for this “Surprise!

watch the trailer:


UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer:


THE SONATA (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A throwback to 1970’s cinema is easy to appreciate, whether it was intended or nor. Writer-director Andrew Desmond’s debut feature film certainly serves up the feel and style of so many of those low-budget horror films I watched as a youngster (many, it seemed, featured the late Roddy McDowall). Mr. Desmond and co-writer Arthur Morin (also his first feature film screenplay) likely viewed some of those same films, as this one succeeds in capturing the same creepy tone.

For some, the music they create comes from their soul … it makes them who they are. For these musicians, their obsession and quest for perfection can be off-putting to others. In an early sequence, we see young violist Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley, “Once Upon a Time”) react to news of her father’s death by shrugging and stating she wants to continue with her recording session. See, Rose’s father deserted the family when she was a toddler, and the two never spoke again. Richard Marlowe (the late great Rutger Hauer) was an exciting and brilliant young composer when he chose to drop out and live as a recluse (think Salinger). He’s even compared to Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Rose chose to never use her genetics as a springboard to success; never even telling her manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE) of the connection.

Rose visits Marlowe’s house, and before learning of the startling manner in which his life ended, she discovers his final composition locked away in a drawer … a violin sonata seemingly left for her to find. Neither Rose nor Charles recognize some of the non-musical symbols included on the sheet music, but it’s clear there are elements of genius in the piece. While Charles envisions piles of cash to be made by capitalizing on this situation, Rose sets about tracking down clues to the unknown symbols by exploring her father’s estate.

It should be noted that Marlowe’s “house” is actually the 19th century Cesvaine Palace, and it makes a wonderfully gothic setting for this story. This sub-genre of horror films is always best when the setting is a creepy old mansion/castle, and includes a mysterious housekeeper, other-worldly children, a leather-bound book of secrets, and a subterranean room (this one is beneath a chapel) with curious wall murals telling some forbidden legend of the occult. The only element missing here is vicious dog that pops up periodically.

The symbols lead to a French secret society, and in their own ways, both Rose and Charles learn that finishing Marlowe’s final piece will conjure the Anti-Christ. While Charles pursues greed, Rose pursues the music. Spoken words pale in comparison to the music Rose creates. Screen veteran James Faulkner appears as Sir Victor Ferdinand in a vital supporting role. While it’s a bit disappointing that the late, great Rutger Hauer has very little screen time, it’s quite enjoyable to watch Ms. Tingley carry the lead. Mr. Desmond filmed in Latvia, and delivers a film that fits quite nicely for those who enjoy the creepy throwback horror style.

watch the trailer:


CATS (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Tom Hooper must really enjoy this process. In 2012 he brought mega-hit stage musical LES MISERABLES to the screen. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 3, including one for Anne Hathaway. This time, Mr. Hooper again turns his talents towards a colossally successful stage musical, and costumes, make-up, and visual effects are even more crucial. Whereas Les Mis was adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel, CATS was adapted by songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber from a 1939 poetry collection of T.S. Elilot. Of course, Mr. Webber is also the genius behind other brilliant musicals, including THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (from the novel by Gaston Leroux).

Tom Hooper and Lee Hall have adapted the screenplay from the stage presentation, and the sung-through musical approach means there is minimal dialogue. Songs are used to tell the story and introduce the key characters. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a 3-time Tony winner, “Hamilton”) is the real star. Multiple dance styles are featured, including: classical ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and traditional tap. The dancing is tremendous, and of course, a big part of that is Francesca Hayward, who plays new kitten on the block, Victoria. Ms. Hayward is a Principal Ballerina at The Royal Ballet. Numerous other skilled dancers are in the cast as well.

The story (such that it is) revolves around a tribe of Jellicle cats who have an annual ritual of selecting one to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back with a new Jellicle life. Sweet Victoria is unceremoniously dumped in the alley by her owner, and is quickly surrounded by this tribe of cats that basically aren’t very nice. It’s in this opening sequence where we realize these humans as cats actually look a bit creepy and take a while to get accustomed to. Given the structure, the story plods along through each successive song, with certain characters getting their moment to shine. These include Rebel Wilson as humorous and chunky Gumbie cat Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tiger cat played by talented musician/singer/dancer Jason Derulo, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as outcast Grizabella, James Corden as the usually-hungry Bustopher Jones, and Oscar winner Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy.  Always hovering, is the mystical Macavity played by glowing-green-eyed Idris Elba, and making a later appearance is Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, singing the Macavity tribute song.

The two most memorable numbers come courtesy of Ian McKellan as Gus the Theatre Cat, and Ms. Hudson who belts out the most famous song of the production, “Memory”, in a vocal and emotional highlight of the film. Visually, it’s Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) magic number that breaks us out of the muted palette. The other musical numbers mostly just fall flat and aren’t very entertaining or enjoyable.

It’s pure coincidence that the screening for this film was the same day as the new Star Wars movie. The franchise for the latter began in 1977, while “Cats” first hit the stage in 1981. That’s quite a legacy for both. As for this film version from director Hooper, I do wonder if enough viewers will respond to a musical where the story and songs are overshadowed by the dancing, and the sets and costumes offer no ‘wow’ factor. Many will find these characters hard to connect with … at least outside of that incredible Jennifer Hudson vocal. It seems these kitties should have remained on stage.

watch the trailer:


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

December 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ending the final trilogy of trilogies that covers 42 years of storytelling, was never going to be easy. And, given the rabid fan base’s backlash from the penultimate episode, the ending was unlikely to appease all (or even most?).  Keeping respectful of the sensitivity associated with this franchise, no spoilers are included here, certainly nothing that hasn’t already been dissected and debated after the trailers were released.

As I approached the theatre, it was impossible not to chuckle at the irony of seeing the life-sized marketing prop for KNIVES OUT in the lobby. Of course, that current release is directed by Rian Johnson, who caused such an uproar with the aforementioned STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Episode VIII), a franchise entry that happens to be one of my personal favorites. But we are here for Episode IX, the wrap-up of George Lucas’ masterful vision. JJ Abrams (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) is back in the director’s chair, and knowing what a fanboy he is, it’s not surprising to see the familiarity and tributes to the franchise interjected throughout.

In fact, this finale leans heavily on nostalgia and humor, while tying up most loose ends – as well as some that weren’t even all that loose. Writers Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (originally slated to direct), Chris Terrio, and Abrams seemed intent on giving each beloved character their moment, as a sign of appreciation for their contributions to a legacy that covers a period longer than the lifespan of some of the biggest Star Wars fans. As one who stood in line in 1977, it’s an approach that I respect and have no problems with – knowing full well that some will.

Any attempt to tie up previous threads must focus on the odd, mystical relationship between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Both are still conflicted and attempting to come to grips with who they are. Rey especially is struggling with her identity and roots. One of my favorite elements from The Last Jedi was inner-head conversations blended with cross-dimensional physical interactions between Kylo and Rey, and it’s used beautifully here.

So, the biggest complaint from me is that despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, there is simply too much crammed in. Too much story and too many characters and too many things that get a glimpse or mention, but no real development. This movie is jam-packed, and ‘convoluted’ would not be too strong of a word to describe. There are times we aren’t sure where the characters are or what they are doing or why they are doing it. We do know that everything good is dependent on ‘this mission’, a mission that seems to change direction about every 12 minutes. In fact, the “new” players – Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) – spend very little time together on screen. And really, Finn is given almost nothing to do except look worried most of the time. On the bright side for characters, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO both get their own sub-plots. Anthony Daniels (as C3PO) becomes the only actor to appear in all 9 episodes, although R2D2 joins C3PO as characters appearing in all.

There are many old familiar faces, both good and evil. Some of these play key roles, while others are brief cameos. Much has been speculated about how Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia will be handled. Archival footage, combined with special effects and camera angles, allows her to be present throughout, and yes, she gets the send-off she deserves. There are even some new characters/creatures introduced, including a cute new droid (never underestimate or under-market a droid) that is already for sale in Disney stores.

No matter one’s feelings or expectations, an area that surely will not disappoint is the visual effects. Somehow, this one is even more impressive and awe-inspiring than the others. In particular, a couple of scenes filmed in and around an angry sea left me dumbfounded, mouth-agape. However, what’s most amazing is the consistency of the visuals throughout. It’s just a stunning film to look at.  Some of the story may be a bit confusing or cheesy, but some parts of the film are truly great. Cinematographer and Special Effects guru Dan Mindel deserves special mention, as do Production Designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins. Of course the visual effects team is without peer – and take up about 5 minutes in the closing credits.

Lastly, composer John Williams gets to add his well-deserved personal stamp on this final chapter with new work added to the already iconic score. Very few moments compare to the opening notes blasting away on the theatre sound system as a Star Wars film begins. And as much as we’d like to treat this as the end, we all know Disney will find a way to keep us interested in a galaxy, far far away.

RIP: Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher

watch the trailer: