Monthly Archives: August 2016

“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.