New “Beauty and the Beast”dazzles despite having “too many notes”

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As expected, it wouldn’t be too long until Disney did a live-action retelling of their 1991 animated classic. There are factors as to why they would do such a thing considering its one of their popular titles. It was well-loved, the songs are still hummed and it got a Best Picture nomination. It’s never easy to fix something that isn’t broken and that was the case here. I’m pleased to say there are plenty of things that keep it far removed from the original (even going as far to give nods to the 1946 Jean Cocteau version). At the same time, I couldn’t help but question why go the great lengths to recapture the magic and spirit when all the time could have been used for a more unique variation.

In no way I am saying this is a horrible version. Dare I say, far from it. There are things I liked about Bill Condon’s live-action take, scenes and images I will take away from as a moment of beauty and will have the appreciation to watch it again when the feeling is there. There is effort in this one, everyone is trying their best and having fun with their roles. I am glad to say there are no fart jokes or dumbing down of the source. But part of me wonders why there is something more to the 1991 animated film in comparison to this one.

For the most part, the performances are fine. Emma Watson is no Paige O’Hara, but she tires to give the character Belle something. She does stand by her decisions like her reason to trade her freedom for her father’s imprisonment (Kevin Kline) and shows she is more than a girl with basic curiosity. A backstory is tossed on where she wishes to know the mystery of her mother and to be fair, the execution is fine. Yet, what kills it for me is her singing abilities. There are moments when I couldn’t help but compare her voice to the others around her during the opening number. I don’t know if it was the sound system, but something felt flat or “auto-tuned” when she was in the numbers. There was an electronic sense to her voice which made me wonder if any post-production work as done on her vocals. Her interactions with the other characters are fine and there’s even some nice scenes between her and Maurice that I found touching. But when your lead character can’t belt a tune that makes you feel for the character’s dreams and feelings, your just left with a rather mediocre performance lost in a sea of people who are trying.

Take Dan Stevens who is gives as much heart and soul to the Beast. While he’s no Robbie Benson or Jean Marais, Stevens’ portrayal does show what years of isolation and a heartless nature can do. Despite the beckoning of his servants, he sees no sign of hope and knows the curse is forever even if he tries. There’s a scene when he is looking at Belle from the magic mirror and feels there is no connection. As another petal from the rose falls, parts of the castle crumble as we feel a part of his heart did. Even surprisingly Stevens can carry an emotional tune as his solo before the climax speaks the heartfelt and tragedy of the character. While I wish some makeup work was involved, the CGI at times isn’t too bad on this furry Scrooge.

Other standout performances include Luke Evans as the cocky Gaston, who will go to the ends of the Earth in order to get what he wants. Evans really chews out the scenery as this famed Disney villain with fancy footwork and an overly conceited manner that was part of the original character. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun as much as Josh Gad is as LeFou. I admit, I was worried for a bit as having the lovable snowman as a comedic sidekick, but I’m pleased to say Gad didn’t disappoint. And for those worried about his “big moment,” I assure mommies and daddies everywhere that its not big to the story and played in a subtle manner. In short, there’s a movie with a girl falling for an enchanted prince and a candlestick doing a big Broadway number with flying dishes. I think you will be fine.

I’d go down the list and check off who did a great job, but I can say mostly everyone did their part (aside from Watson but she tires.) Kevin Kline is sweet as Maurice hinting a tragic moment in life, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen have humorous chemistry and so forth. But when it comes to altering the story, that’s a different case. There are moments when this “Beast” adds elements from the original fairy tale (Maurice is held prisoner by the Beast for getting a rose from his garden as requested by Belle) and again some subtle nods to other versions like candelabra hands from the Cocteau version.

But when new story beats appear to explain why the Beast got so cold hearten, Belle wondering about this hidden family secret or have Gaston be a famed war captain, this is when it starts to drag. The focus starts to become more on these new additions and less how the story is being told well. Dare I say, these moments do distract but then you have little details used to fill in some plot holes like what would be left of the castle and its inhabitants if the Beast fails to lift the curse. It’s a double edge sword and some of works. But then you have small additions that can change the nature of a scene. Without giving too much away, let’s just say during a big fight scene near the end, a gun is involved. No blade, no fists and no impalement. Just a bunch of bullets and nothing more. There is no sense of intensity as the action in question is by something mechanical as opposed to a blade. It left me wishing it was more intense, but Disney has banned impalement for a while so why bother changing it something more deadly? Nitpick aside, it makes an intense moment less intense.

The songs themselves are fine as Alan Menken returns with old numbers and some new material by Menken and Tim Rice of “Lion King” fame. Some of the songs like “Gaston” and the showstopper “Be Our Guest” contain some new lyrics that don’t diminish why we love these songs. But the new dance breaks and added beats nearly kill the enjoyment of the rhythm. “Be Our Guest” goes from a showstopper into too long of a showstopper as dinner plates sail in the air like kites and Lumiere stops to pay an homage for “Singin’ In the Rain.” The new numbers try to add some new form of substance and they work for the most part. Belle’s father has a nice number at the beginning, the Beast has a powerful song as he scales the lonesome towers of his castle and a sequence with the servants pondering of their fate is interesting. Even if they don’t overpower the others, they are a nice addition for the most part.

I can’t really say I hated this “Beast.” There are moments I did enjoy and some that did get me teary. Will it be memorable as the original? Probably not. This is just part of trend Disney is doing because they want to see what sticks and what doesn’t. While I’m against the idea of doing a live-action take of this one, it was nice to see an attempt. It delivered when it needed to despite having a few flaws. Had the animated movie not exist, it would be difficult to picture if this would stand on its own better. In a sense, maybe but the flaws in story and some performances would still be there. In retrospect, this is very much how I feel about Ron Howard’s “Grinch.” While nowhere near as powerful as the original, it was a good try.

“Kong: Skull Island”a jungle of fun

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If anything “Kong: Skull Island” proves is that monster movies are not dead. Nor is the genre of jungle adventure films. In today’s age, Hollywood has been giving us more superhero and reboots to the point of overkill. Now, Legendary Pictures is getting its “MonsterVerse” into gear and I can thankfully say I wasn’t disappointed with this entry. It was about time the big ape got a fresh start and I had a blast watching it. The movie in a nutshell is the war tone of Apocalypse Now meets the characters from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Set during the Vietnam War’s end, a government agent named Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeks a plan to visit an mysterious island for study and proof that monsters exist there. He gets teamed up with Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a bunch of soldiers to take a trek via helicopter. At first we are led to believe this is some sort of study when it turns out Bill wants to blow up the island in a fiery rage. All plans are halted when Kong arrives showing he’s not only king of the island, but also a protector of his home.

The moment Kong shows up and smashes some helicopters, everything changes as the war movie turns into a monster movie. While stranded and seeking an exist, soldiers fend their way through thick jungle and avoid the wraith of giant spiders and demonic lizard monsters seeking to munch on them. Each creature is well designed by ILM and its a shame we never get to see many in action. With the only exception being a bunch of monsters called “skull crushers,” that look like a crossbreed between Cubone from Pokemon and a gila monster. When these monstrous being attack, I was greedy in hoping for a big action scene with a whole horde of them. On the other hand, this movie is dedicated to Kong, so I probably shouldn’t complain.

Also stuck on the island is a former British Captain (Tom Hiddleston)  and a photojournalist (Brie Larson) who get the better part of the journey. Most of the time, they run into peaceful beasts and kindly natives that have a Buddhist-like personality. They later come across a World War II pilot played by John C. Riley, who crashed landed on the island in 1944. Riley proves to be a lot of fun with a manic performance that is funny and touching. Of course, they joke around how he has no clue about current events but they work for the most part.

“Kong” is very much your run of the mill monster movie stocked with cliched characters, rampaging beasts and all tossed into a thick jungle. What sets itself apart is the directorial style and fun performances. The choice of placing the story during the Vietnam War gives way for some creative scenes of solders blasting off to a tape recording playing Black Sabbath. The soundtrack itself is packed with psychedelic rock music from Creedence Clearwater Revival to David Bowie and the color scheme is put to great use with intense sunlight and cold blue nights.

Aside from the eye candy, I can’t think of single performance or character I disliked. Most of the people there are stock characters and cliches, but not in an annoying way. You have the one person who knows what is going on but is ignored, the war crazy Colonel, the guy who promises to make it home but doesn’t and so forth. In a way, I wish the characterization was given more depth but I wasn’t too disappointed in the light development. Actors like Sameul Jackson and John C. Riely really soak up the screen and knowing this is the kind of movie not to take seriously. In honesty, it works.

The revamped Kong is a big highlight differing from any other version depicted before him. The ape stands like a God of the sky and will defend his home in anyway he can. The special effects really convey the emotion and determination of this creature in how far he will go to protect Skull Island. Unlike Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla from 2014 (which the enjoyment is starting to wear off), we get plenty of Kong scenes paced perfectly throughout the movie. From brawling monsters to taking down choppers, this variation is sure to please.

I found myself overjoyed by the time the end credits came along. I’m a dead sucker for monster movies as much as jungle adventure films. Maybe this will start a revival of interest in monster movies or maybe it won’t. All I can say is that I saw a good monster movie and enjoyed every minute of it. Even during the intense moments, “Kong” doesn’t lose its fun luster. From beautiful visuals that will stay with me to engaging creatures fights, this is one eight wonder that I will never forget.

Also word of caution, as stated before this is the first in a planned “shared film universe” meaning the movie ends with a setup for the next entry right after the end credits. Unlike everyone who left the theater, I stayed through every name of the crew members just to see what lay at the end. Sure enough, I got a nice surprise but couldn’t believe how many missed such a great tease. And the fact I was the only one in the movie theater that waited so patiently to see it really shows how determined a filmgoer can be. Do yourself a favor when seeing this in theaters. Don’t walk out during the end credits. The patience is worth it.

“Rogue One”a step in the right direction

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Last year, Disney reintroduced the Star Wars franchise to a new generation with “Force Awakens.” The positive of that was to see a new story on the big screen from the galaxy far, far away. However, my greatest disappointment was how so much time was spent rehashing material from the first movie instead of being its own thing. “Rogue One” has the upper hand because its a true prequel. This one has the advantage to expand on the universe while being a true link to “Star Wars.”

The main center of the story is a heroin named Jyn (Felicity Jones) who reluctantly assists a group of rebels to find out what the evil Imperial army is up to. I like how at first she doesn’t show interest but suddenly shows a sign of care once faced with what’s to come. Although she has little to no appeal in the space battles, her curiosity peaks when she learns how her father is in the mix of this. She is rebellious yet cunning. Honestly, I can’t think of a female character in the Star Wars universe that wasn’t highly determined.

Joining for the trip is an officer named Cassian (Diego Luna) whose only there to do his job. Tasked with the mission at hand, Cassian shares the same instincts but knows his limits. In one crucial moment, he’s told to assassinate someone vital to bringing down the Rebellion. Once in the moment, he hesitates questioning what value it would bring.  I like how he’s not stubborn to a new idea and at least there is no romantic pairing with Jyn. He’s an honest companion that questions his rights as a fighter.

Other rebels on the way range from a blind man who believes in the Jedi ways and his friend who is more militant. There’s sort of a ying and yang idea going on here as the two have different fighting methods. One is more resourceful on spiritual belief while the other is more into physical action. Its elements like these that make me wonder why “Force Awakens” wasn’t this clever with ideas like this. Sure it had Finn questioning if he’s a human or a fighting machine, but “Rouge One” was built around a fresh story.

To be fair, this one doesn’t shy away from reheating leftover elements. Case and point is an android named K-2SO. He’s obviously the C-3PO type who is very knowledgeable despite being the comic relief. Thankfully, Alan Tudyk’s performance saves the character from being a predictable variation making K more open to fighting when needed and hilariously pessimistic. In a way, this bot reminded me of Marvin the Depressed Robot or some kind of creation that only Douglas Adams would delight in.

Like I said, “Rogue One” doesn’t shy away from the bin of “oh, look its this from the other films” or “wow, that answers this.” I can’t begin to describe the amount of Easter eggs and things I’m sure Star Wars fans of old will be overjoyed in. The one I’m most surprised is a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I guess now in days you don’t need to hire a new actor with heavy make-up and I should be too shocked considering this same method was done in Tron Legacy to Jeff Bridges. Still, I liked how limitless this movie went when it came to linking itself to the older entry.

When you boil it down, “Rouge One” is hard to talk about without giving away most of the plot details. For fans of old and new, this will certainly be a nice Christmas treat. I know considering how much of a kick I got out of seeing real sets instead of CGI crafted ones, actual planet environments instead of studio built ones and intense battle scenes that challenge or match the charm of the original trilogy. I can’t tell you how much I smiled to see the AT-TA walkers during the big finale. This is a fun ball of nostalgia while also delivering a complex movie about power and fighting back.

Though parents, be fair warned. “Rouge One” is highly recommended not for smaller fans. This is a radically different movie as director Gareth Edwards wanted this to be more like a  war movie and I feel he succeeded. Despite the PG-13 rating, this is packed with many intense battle scenes and shootouts that parents might want to reconsider this as a Christmas gift for their kids. Even bigger of a debate is the ending (which I will try to avoid ruining) as key characters get killed off to which I’m certain will upset some viewers. For alternatives, I suggest taking them to either “Moana” or “Fantastic Beasts.” Both films have a kind charm that are better suited for the holiday. “Rogue One” is a good entry and an improvement over last year’s entry. But what irks me is how it won’t be canon with the new trilogy. Apparently, the idea is to make a series of Star Wars anthology movies that are more in line with the original films. Honestly, I’d more inclined to see them than watch the continuing retreaded adventures of Kylo Ren.

“Fantastic Beasts”fun but lacks focus

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Fifteenth years after the first Harry Potter movie, the talents of writer J. K. Rowling and director David Yates (who has directed the fifth movie and so forth) combine once again to bring us back to the secret world of witches and wizards. Surprisingly, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is based on a book. During the Potter craze, two spin off books were published as mock guides to monsters and the sport Quidditch. With that in mind, I felt the choice was perfectly made with “Fantastic Beasts.” The last thing I would need to see is a cliche sports movie with wizards and witches.

Joking aside, Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything) plays a wizard named Newt Scamander who believes that not all mythical creatures are dangerous and can be understood. While on a trip to New York in 1926, he has stowed away in a briefcase tons of creatures that he is studying as well as taking care of. The charm of Newt really comes from Redmayne’s performance. When he’s interacting with CGI monsters, it almost feels like he has a knowledge and sense about them. When it comes to people, the character tries to find a reasoning and middle ground.  Despite the skepticism, he proves that most creatures can be easily reasoned if done right. There’s a sense of calmness to Redmaye’s performance and yet some mystery to his character.

Plopped into the mix is a normal human named Jacob who comes across the wizard’s zoo-like collection. He is perhaps the biggest surprise considering this character is played by Dan Fogler. After an up and down filmography, I’m impressed to say Dan’s performance is enjoyable while also the heart of the picture. What they do with his character is smart and clever. He is used as a means for the audience to connect with. When something strange comes his way, Jacob tries to accept it for what it is instead of running away. This is clear in some great moments when Newt is trying to capture some creatures on the loose and he tries to help. In a strange way, it feels like Dan is trying to channel Chaplin in certain scenes of chase while maintaining charm. I do hope he gets more roles like this.

Also in the mix are Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as two witch sisters that work in an underground ministry named Tina and Queenie. When these two come their way, I like how theses two have a ying and yang feel. Tina  wants to do the way of justice and expose Newt while Queenie feels otherwise. And much like with Jacob, they start to realize that maybe there is more to these creatures than they thought. Both get some great comedic moments when Tina goes after Newt for his “illegal” collection and Queenie who feels more than just a typical flapper girl.

In a nutshell, “Fantastic Beasts” feels like two movies in one. In corner, you have this well-written whimsical movie which echos classics like “Bedknobs and Brooksticks” and has the smart yet engaging wonder of a “Doctor Who” episode. Easily, the best scenes are when characters interact with Newt’s creatures as each one gets established by not just design but even quirks. A good example is one escaped animal that looks like a hybrid between a platypus and a mole yet the mind of a robber. I didn’t find a single one boring and wanted to learn more about these odd things.

Unfortunately, you have this other half which tries to mesh and yet feels like it could be its own movie. Samantha Morton plays this leader of extremists who plan to expose wizards and witches. She runs an orphanage while simultaneously beating in propaganda about the existence of magic and going as far to even abuse one of the orphans for his beliefs. Somewhere in this other subplot is an invisible creature that goes around and makes destruction in King Kong fashion. This is not a bad idea, but it feels sidelined when you compared it to the other tone of the movie which tires to be amazing and light-hearted. We jump back and forth even the point we can tell which story we are in by the cinematography. Story A which is about the creatures on the loose appears more bright and colorful. While Story B about the witch hunters looks bleak, dark and Burton-lite in spots.

Aside from that flaw in story/pacing, “Fantastic Beasts” is guaranteed to the best flick of the holiday season so far. I loved the characters, the premise and even the climax which gets intense but knows how to have fun. According to Rowling, there seems to be 4 more films coming from this one and I’m fine with it. I want to see what else can be done in this universe, but even then I do question a few things left nearly hanging by the end. After over a decade of being on the big screen, this secret world of wizards and witches appears to never be short on supply of creativity and magic.

“Doctor Strange” other-worldly enjoyable

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“Doctor Strange” is a movie that truly lives up to its title. This is a strange entry in the Marvel Universe, but a unique one. Of all the superheroes, he is the only one who can walk through different dimensions and bend reality. With a movie adaptation out, the possibilities seem endless for a character like this. Of course, the usual origins route has to be done in order to understand who this person is. Chances are if you can get through that, you will have a good time.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon with a high ego yet maintains a lot of ambition. This is proven after a car accident renders his hands useless as he tries to find a way to restore them. An incident like this proves just how far his character will go to save his reputation along with his usefulness. His knowledge of medical procedures show his understanding for the human mind physically but doesn’t have a mental grasp.

His journey leads him to a place in Napal where he learns a group of people might know how to cure his injured hands. As it turns out, this is really a coven of sorcerers who protect the world from evil. Sounds basic on paper, but when you get into the belief system and different spells, “Doctor Strange” starts to become more theoretical. Strange, himself, is more equip with knowing the world as he sees it; through scientific measures and practices. The journey into the place of sorcerers give off a belief vs. fact argument as Strange questions if his traditional methods are more powerful than magic.

However, a character named the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) proves the importance of mystical belief over science. Or at least the two can be one in some way. She proves useful in showing her new accomplice how vast the universe is within secret and odd ways. I liked how the calmness of this character really defined her. True, this is the usual master with knowledgeable ways, but an interesting one. The moments that made her stood out was when she argues with Strange’s faith. My only nitpick is they try to put in this twist about how she might be deceiving her followers which felt a tad unnecessary.

I say that because the main conflict of the plot doesn’t seem to have much room for it. A group of rebels, led by Dannish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who plan to unleash a monster from a darker dimension in hopes to take over the world in some way. But even the good vs. evil aspect feels a tad underplayed when we are exploring this new realm and the possibilities of traveling between space and time. Once we get to the zealots and their grand plan, it almost feels like a footnote after scenes of Strange training and learning about the new world along with its powers.

These effect-heavy scenes were more interesting than the villains as it proves the biggest eye-candy of the movie. We get treated to Strange traveling briefly through different dimensions (almost an homage to the vortex of light in Kubrick’s 2001), jumping through self-made portals and exploring more the sorcerer culture. When it was exploring this bizarre world of magic and mind over matter, it got interesting. But when it picked up and got back to the villains, the plot turns into your basic “whose the real bad guy” scenario.

On the bright side, it makes for a good excuse for intense action scenes that even push the limits of “Inception” and “The Matrix.” “Doctor Strange” goes further by having the sets actually move like the twisted gears of a clock or a puzzling Rubix cube. Between the fist fights, whole buildings and roads twist and roll around and it only gets bigger once we draw down to the climax. Unfortunately, if you took away the amazing effects, all that would exist is clunky fight scenes. The added sets that constantly move at least add tension and a dream-like feeling.

“Doctor Strange” is once again another step in the right direction for Marvel. They already proven before that they can do more than just superhero movies. “Strange” shows Marvel can channel any genre into their heroes and fly with it. The only flaws I do have to nitpick, which keep me from saying this is their best, include some odd pacing  and the handle of the material. In the first 20 minutes or so, the tragic backstory goes immediately into the training and the final third immediately launches itself into the typical good vs. evil battle. And I understand newcomers need to understand key terms in this odd world, but even they break the aspect of telling as opposed to showing. Characters keep mentioning about this massive creature which might destroy the world, but makes the mistake of talking instead of giving us an idea of this being’s power. When we do see this god-like creature, there’s not a sense of menace because we didn’t see this thing or action or understand its motive.

I must also tag on that despite the PG-13 rating, this is not a movie I would recommend for younger viewers. I would dare say this is one of Marvel’s darkest movies in violence and tone. From surgical procedures to a beheading seen in shadow, I’m honestly miffed at how this got away without getting an R rating. On the other hand, what we see is not too graphic to upset, but when you have talks of surgery on the spinal cord and scenes with out of body experiences, this might be something not for kids under 9 or 12. Parental guidance is strongly suggested for this entry.

Although, I can look past the flaws and say “Doctor Strange” was a fun ride. Full of imagination and creative fantasy, I once again find myself wondering what else Marvel has up its sleeve. After traveling through space in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the world of the small in “Ant Man,” “Strange” goes beyond the realm and even delivers, what I hope, a possible new franchise. One I even predict will be bigger since “Iron Man” made its debut. If not, at least it was a good start to the holiday season.

“Madea Halloween” scarily unfunny

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I think I just saw a movie. Then again, I’m not sure if I should call it a movie. The more the minutes lingered, “Boo! A Madea Halloween” felt more like an out of body experience desperate to find at least some humor. One joke to hang onto despite a soulless effort to make use of the holiday. Tyler Perry stated in interviews he’s not a fan of ghosts, witches or anything creepy crawly. A shame as the trailers advertise scenes of everyone’s favorite granny punching clowns and running away from zombies. If one thinks this will be a big “monster mash,” you will be disappointed to find its really a lame pumpkin smash.

The main plot relies on Brian Simmons (Tyler Perry) and his inability to control his bratty daughter. He crushes his daughter’s plan to go out and party at a nearby fraternity by having Madea watch her. As expected,  Brown’s daughter sneaks out and the granny is not happy. Armed with her two friends and brother, Madea seeks justice in a plot that really goes nowhere. I shouldn’t be surprised as that tends to happen in most of these movies. There seems to be a spark of an idea but somehow gets lost in a sea of meandering subplots and running jokes.

First, we get the fraternity and their big Halloween bash as every teen acts like a stereotype from Animal House or a watered down gang that boozes on beer and sex. While we don’t see any beer glasses touch lips, the writing for these characters gets irradiating with a one sided view on the modern teenager. The kind who is constantly saying a bunch of suffer talk in a masculine way, but acts all tough. The only time the fraternity got interesting is when they try to wise up (say if, someone under-aged appears at their party) and take responsibility. But even then, this action would immediately backfire when they decide to do something completely irresponsible like intense pranking.

This leads into one of the biggest problems of the whole movie. It seems to be really centered on the idea that a prank gone too far can have serious consequences. And honestly, I’m ok with stuff like that. The way its being handled is what I can’t tolerate. Without spoiling too much, certain characters will go out of their way to do these elaborate pranks against each other wither it be staging a zombie apocalypse or the death of a main character. I understand the morale value behind this subplot, but it wears the welcome too much. It even trails into an unnecessary 15 minutes near the end which completely contradicts the “other” main message.

And that is the other big problem I have which is the main theme of parenting. Most of the Madea movies center on a certain theme from second chances to dysfunctional families. “Madea Halloween” tries to examine the idea of what is good parenting and bad parenting. But it gets a set of mixed messages when you have jokes about how to beat a child up wrapped around a climax when Brian finally gets the idea of how to discipline your kid. I’m all for the idea of show and even discussing the limits of child discipline. Yet everything goes back and forth on key jokes like Brian talking to Uncle Joe about a time when Joe tossed him off the roof to learn a lesson. Material like this is not funny and bogs down the message to the point it will feel like a beating to the head or exhaust itself.

I can’t remember a single character I liked from this movie. They were all annoying, irradiating and even some that got under my skin a lot. Madea was never funny or interesting to me. I get the reason why people love this character, but I always find her to be too mean spirited at times. And it doesn’t help when you have her force out this morale message of kids respecting parents when immediately afterwards has a entire sequence when she does something mean to others. I know the purpose why she does (I can’t say without spoiling), but it sort of goes against those moments when the character has a heartfelt morale to say.

As for the others, I really couldn’t care less. Uncle Joe is the perverted senior that’s always trying to say some kind of catchphrase or dirty joke. Aunt Bam has this running gag about being able to legal smoke marijuana which gets old. Hattie is the comic relief with the annoying voice that keeps mispronouncing words just for a gag. The biggest offender I found was really Brian and his daughter. I get they are trying to build this arc over how he can’t manage to connect or even maintain control of his daughter. But when we get to their moment when they recoup, it feels manipulated after a slew of exposition on why Brian is inept over taking charge. And for someone his age, Brian should at least be able to know his daughter this well.

There were only two times I actually did snicker during “A Madea Halloween.” Once at a gag when Bam steals candy from kids and a comment from Uncle Joe about Madea having a prostate. Those jokes only worked because of the delivery of the humor and the ideas behind these two jokes. Everything else I recall is material about being harsh on child discipline and fraternity boys learning responsibility the hard way. There is nothing else I can remember that was remotely investing outside of the advanced technical work giving us the ability to see three Tyler Perry characters in one shot. I know there is an audience for Madea, but I’m not one of them.

“Boo! A Madea Halloween” left me feeling empty and dumb down to the point my mind felt numb. The morale is mixed between cynical humor and taking responsibility to the point it feels kinda calculated. Tyler Perry said his movies were meant for entertainment and not to be thought too heavily on. My criticism to that is when you force a morale like that amidst jokes of spanking and child beating, there will be mixed signals. There are better things to watch this Halloween season and this movie is no treat. I wouldn’t even recommend a single frame to anyone. The only positive about this whole thing was that I saw this Madea movie at my local cinema on Bargain Tuesday for $6. Because it would have been a whole lot scarier if I paid to see this for full admission price.

“Kubo” powerful, emotionally moving and beautiful

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After finally seen it, I have to admit how much I regret passing up “Kubo and the Two Strings” the minute it arrived to theaters. Laika Studios deserves better attention for how impressive their stop-motion animated features are. Even more unique is how they are made for the budget of a simple $60 million. A movie like this almost appears more than that. And yet, much was well spent with great characters, a powerful story and an overall movie-going experience that swept me away. In a sense, I’m tempted to put this on my list of all-time favorite movies. But perhaps, it will in due time once its greatness is more recognized (I’m looking at you Oscars.) I would go as far to say its a great anime (seeing its set in ancient Japan) considering the style and tone does feel like one.

The character of Kubo is highly identifiable. Not because he is a kid, but how imaginative and caring he can be. It’s about as realistic as a typical kid with innocence can get. In the first part of the movie, we get an idea of his surroundings and his limits. How protective he is others and how creative he can be. Gifted with a magic shamisen, Kubo uses this to bring origami to life and tell stories to the local village. A clever way to set up the remainder of the story as Kubo can draft heroic characters and monsters, but sadly stuck on an ending.

His life changes when two witches are after him and has to find three pieces of armor to save him and those around him. Accompanying his journey is a no-nonsense Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai warrior trapped as a humanoid beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And let me tell you, I loved these characters and greatly cared for them. I loved how the Monkey was motherly at times, but knew when to be a fighter and protector. I adored Beetle and how he could provide comic relief for his bad memory as well as his heroic attempts. When one of them was in danger (especially little Kubo), there was a sense of danger and risk that we might loose these heroes. And that’s what I found more intriguing compared to the other summer films this year; there was a sense of care for our characters.

Again, I feel tormented I didn’t see this one sooner to really appreciate its beauty. Watching this was like “Wolf Children,” a movie about growing up and learning its difficulties along the way. To know when to let go and find your place in the universe. That to me is really what this movie was in a nutshell, but more. The lesson at the end is to make your own story and live it. Telling legends are good, but don’t forget to live your tale to the fullest. And even when it ends, those who heard it will remember your story and how important it can be. Few movies this year are able to convey such a heavy message in a unique way.

Thus at the end, I found myself in tears. Tears at the beauty of the animation and the way it concludes. Sometimes, you don’t need a big epic fight to bookend your movie. And that’s something missing from most good vs. evil tales. Without spoiling HOW it ends, violence can defend, but it can’t serve a happy ending in this kind of world. And they way this “alternative” was offered was so powerful and emotional that I had a hard time holding back every tear.

The only thing I do have to nitpick is the use of CGI. To its credit, there are times when it blends perfectly into the environment and obviously animating water in a stop-motion flick is near to impossible. Sometimes the CGI effects can stick out while other times it can blend seamlessly into this colorful world. I even found myself marveling at certain sets and blades of grass wondering what was really there and what was digital. Not to mention there is a great amount of effort and creativity in things like a giant skeleton (which is a big puppet as shown during the end credits) and an array of monsters. Each one feels like they were taken from Japansese folklore in design and poetic movement.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a movie I can’t recommend enough. It’s up there with “Coraline” as my favorite film from Laika. There is action, humor and plenty of heart. Not a single frame feels wasted and everything feels perfectly paced. The dark moments feel earned, the quiet moments are put in the right spots and when it gets theoretical about topics like death and what lies beyond, it’s executed in a way that is subtle and executable. So much that even little kids won’t have a hard time with the some of the harsher elements because they will be assured their story will live on even at the end. But it breaks my heart to see not many have given this one the love and respect it deserves at the box-office. I beg of you, see this on the big screen. Because if you blink out on this one, you will miss out on a powerful experience.

“Pete’s” dull and generic “Dragon”

dvnxj5nde6cjj-hzmo4lodtu15ulbzdj-largeThere were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?

The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?

The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.

The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.

As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.

In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.

This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.

“Sausage Party:” offensive, filthy and hilarious

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Upon walking out of the theater, there was a strange feeling my mind had. It was almost like my eyes swelled up to the size of Beaker’s from The Muppets. There is no other movie I can think of that left me feeling amazed and shocked at the same time. In many ways, reviewing “Sausage Party” is hard because this is truly a movie that must be seen to be believed. It’s unapologetic, its stereotypical, its dirty to the max, its a cesspool of swears and innuendos, its insane but I enjoyed every minute of it.

The basic gist is that food in a grocery store comes to life every day with the hope of being picked. You see, each product believes that when they are chosen, they are taken to a heaven of their own to enjoy. Right off the bat, you can tell exactly what kind of movie this is. Much like with “South Park” or “The Simpsons Movie,” its a cartoony and dumb concept that holds a sharp and clever commentary. And even if this is an idea that has been done before in dumb (“Foodfight”) and smart places (“The Brave Little Toaster.”)

“Sausage Party” becomes more of a view on religion and beliefs without taking a brutal beating to it. Much like with Monty Python, the comedy on the subject matter is handled well by taking satirical jabs as opposed to stepping out and making mean ramblings. One such example is a Jewish bagel arguing with a Muslim lavash about how different they are. But not by what kind of product they appear as, they argue about different beliefs and the common misconceptions with their religious customs. As the lavash dreams how he wishes to be bathed by 100 bottles of virgin oil, the bagel disagrees with the “pure nature” he proclaims. A little predicable but the delivery makes it worth the laughs.

Seth Rogan plays the lead named Frank, a sausage who gets lost from his cart during a accident. While seeking to be back on the shelf, Frank starts to question not only his purpose, but also the value of why food exists. Even if we know what happens to food, the joke is funnier when we see his reaction to the terrible truth and wonder just how he will coupe with it. As always, Rogan is a lot of fun bring a manic energy while knowing when to be charming and likable.

Kristen Wigg is surprisingly funny voicing Frank’s girlfriend Brenda, a hot dog bun who wishes for…she’s a hot dog bun. What do you think is on her mind? Perhaps interesting is how Wigg’s character is used for a counterpoint as Brenda feels the humans (or “Gods” as they are referred to) are not ones to mess with still having faith in the food’s belief system. Even more startling is Wigg’s raunchy style of comedy is let loose to some welcome and hilarious lines. Coming of off “Ghostbusters,” I felt this movie suited her better to allow more breathing room for her shtick. Her character is more than a one note walking “hot dog in bun” joke. Brenda starts to question if the value of life should truly be questioned while also wondering if morale code should be worth sticking to.

Speaking of which, the best way to describe the movie and its comedy is very much if “The Brave Little Toaster” was directed by John Waters. Just when you think the opportunity to joke about sentient groceries are wearing thin, another joke lurks around the corner unexpectedly. There are moments in “Sausage Party” where on paper is sounds dumb, but then you see the clever side of it once it gets executed. This is notable in a scene when one of the sauasges (Micheal Cera) has an encounter with a druggie who goes on a “bad trip.” Every joke seeks a good opportunity into what kind of life this addict has along with the kind of things that would happen on a drug high. It hits bullseye without missing a single beat.

The only problems I have with “Sausage Party” are surprisingly minor. In this universe, people can’t see the food walk and talk unless are drugged up. This leads to a curious question of how the products look in the eyes of a human being in reality as opposed to the reality of food. This is evident in a gag when two baby carrots try to run and it shows a shot of them running. It then cuts to a shot of the lady seeing two carrots rolling off the counter showing “reality’s perspective.” There were points when I did question what would certain moments look like from reality’s point of view as food runs across floors or mingle with each other. There is one other nitpick and it’s aimed at the final joke in the movie. Instead of ending on a high note, it breaks the fourth wall in a way so bizarre that I questioned if it was ever needed. Even a friend of mine agreed that the scene preceding it would have just been fine to end on. After a climatic and jaw-dropping moment, they try to sneak in one more jab that could have been easily cut out seeing how little it effects the story.

But for what’s worth, “Sausage Party” is worth the recommendation. There are moments that I still can help but snicker over they appear in a movie like this. I enjoyed the jokes, the characters and theological stuff as well. Its that one summer surprise that packs tons of laughs and plenty of creative effort. Now as expected, children are not the target audience for this movie. In fact, I do question if parents will be that dumbfounded to take them to see it despite the marketing clearly saying its R-rated. For those curious fools who think a tyke will sit through it, I wouldn’t even attempt it. I predict that it will be a movie that will keep kids far away from the refrigerator as possible as adults laugh over the absurd nature this movie brings.

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“Suicide Squad” psychotic fun despite messy delivery

maxresdefaultssA few months ago, viewers were given the start of DC Comics’ Cinematic Universe known as Batman vs Superman. It was meant to be the big stepping stone in DC Comics’ foray into feature films but instead divided viewers and fans. Many felt it was the Citizen Kane of superhero movies while others thought the complete opposite. And despite being a financial success worldwide, movie executives wrote it off as a flop thanks to the negative public and critical reception. Fearing another flop on the horizon, “Suicide Squad” was given another look at and supposedly tinkered to avoid another brooding battle with viewers. Do the efforts pay off? No, but you can tell they were trying to make a popcorn flick.

Having not read any of the comics (outside of knowing some the characters), I was worried at first of how put off I would feel. The trailers sold this odd punked-out feature that didn’t match my expectations. But considering the hit list of duds I had to go through this summer, I was still open. Thankfully, Suicide Squad is not bad as I thought it would be. However, it’s far from being a good movie.

Following in the aftermath of Batman vs Superman, an intelligence operative (Viola Davis) offers a team of dangerous criminals for high risk missions. Among the group are elite hit man Deadshot (Will Smith redeeming his career), deranged doctor Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie chewing the scenery), smooth thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, also trying to chew up the scenery), the cannibalistic Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in impressive make up), a litterally hot headed ex-gangster named El Diablo (sympathetically performed by Jay Hernandez) and literal late add-on Katana (coolly performed by  Karen Fukuhara).The team is assembled to stop a supernatural entity trying to destroy a city and that’s basically about it.

I felt a bit ashamed seeing there were parts of the movie I was engaged in. When characters would play off each other, I was actually starting to appreciate our group of anti-heroes. My favorite scene in the whole movie is when they break into a bar and just kick back for a bit. Some of them trade tragic stories while others show their true colors. This reminded me of the Batman TAS episode “Almost Got ‘Im”because it showed there is a side of humanity to these characters. We do get glimpses along the way via flashbacks of Deadshot having parental problems and the relationship troubles of Harley too. In a way, parts of it did remind me of the Saturday morning cartoon and how it balanced between the funny and dark moments.

When it has a joke, it can be funny. When it tries to be serious, it can be hit or miss while delivering a good moment. This is evident in Will Smith’s performance who I honestly didn’t mind that much. I felt like Smith was channeling his old days of blockbusters like Men in Black or Independence Day. He brings this tragic side to the character with the problem of his daughter pushing him to be good. Once in a while, Smith has a funny line or two while still showing essence of a three dimension being.

The same could be said for Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn. Sure, she doesn’t look like the character but she channels the personality really well. There is a funny line Robbie says once in a while and her character does get interesting later on when we see her relationship with the Joker (Jared Leto). Personally, I really liked these group of characters and how strange yet similar they felt. However, with a 2 hour running time, I felt like some got shorthanded. I really wanted to see more of Killer Croc who barley got a line and while Katana is personally my favorite character of the batch, I felt she needed more to do. Ironically, Katana feels like a late addition to the story when she is introduced to us midway in the movie.

One of my concerns was how Jared Leto would live up to playing the Joker. And I admit, I was skeptical of the new look and wasn’t sold on it. And while I’m not a fan of the metal mouth appearance, I do admit Leto gets the personality nailed. Unlike Jessie Esienberg in Batman vs Superman, Leto has an understanding of this character and how he acts. There is a manic presence that doesn’t step on the toes of previous incarnations while doing its own thing. It felt more like a mad caped gangster fueled with punk. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear for very long. Those expecting for the Joker to make a big impact will be disappointed to hear how little of an appearance he makes. I’d go as far to say Leto feels like an extended cameo as opposed to a driving force for the story. If you removed him from the story as a whole, it wouldn’t change anything drastically.

And this is where my main problem with Suicide Squad comes into place. I do admit, its more fun than the brooding vigilante battle we got in March and boasts a good soundtrack. There are points where I feel it started to scale back the mean-spirited tone that was present in trailers or the plot start to meander for a bit. The first act is fine despite setting up our characters in exposition fashion, the second part starts to recover and get fun while the big climax suffers from trying to be a “big finale” that others like Ghostbusters (1984) or Batman (1989) succeeded.

The villain of the movie (without giving too much away) wants to take over humanity just because of the changing days and that everyone doesn’t worship gods anymore. So what? Judging from the trailers, I thought the gang was going to go up against the Joker considering it appears that way (at least that’s what I thought from the advertising). Instead we get an ancient witch that plans to take over humanity by spreading its wicked and evilness across the world. In fact, forget it. Its very much just like the 1984 Ghostbusters but with stuff changed around.

I’m also not a big fan of the editing on this movie. The manner of the flashbacks are abused so much that I wanted to watch the movie and learn these characters. Instead, we spend the first 20 minutes or so hearing a wealth of information that is the equivalency of Wikipeida text. The golden rule of “show, don’t tell” gets easily abused too much here. And there were points when I felt some scenes went missing in spots. One minute Leto’s Joker is taking out a security guard at the prison gates and then it immediately cuts to the Joker’s gang shooting up police guards inside the prison. The manner of pacing is sacrificed so much, that it leads to lack of focus on the plot as we rush to the next action set piece.

Honestly, I was hoping for “Suicide Squad” to finally break the mold and show DC can do more than brooding movies. While I admit there is fun to be had here, the comic company has still a lot to improve upon. Don’t let your story introduce characters. Let your characters introduce themselves. Don’t be afraid to go too bloody or too mean spirited. I was actually hoping this to be as good as “Deadpool,” which was entertaining in how unapologetic it was. “Suicide Squad” suffers from trying to be balance between being a light summer blockbuster film and a cynical anit-hero at the same time. The final result is a mix bag that is still worth seeing. Because honestly, I’d rather be entertained by one of Killer Croc’s one liners than see any more footage of Jesse Eisenberg’s painful performance as Lex Luthor.