Category Archives: In Theaters (Sort of)

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: The Mummy (2017)

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mummy posterHonestly, there is no reason this movie should be given a spotlight on this blog-a-thon. However, it does tie into the theme of “cult classics” (somehow) and the Universal Studio Monsters franchise is normally watched around Halloween. On top of that, I’m certain EVERYONE had something to say about this dusty turkey. And yet, if I had to toss my two cents in, The Mummy is without a doubt, on my roster, for being the worst movie of 2017.

Let’s back up a little and talk about some history. Universal Studios has been desperate in every way to try and bring new life to their horror themed franchise. Back in the 1930s, movies about Dracula, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera and many others are what put the studio on the map.  These are iconic pictures that leave a lasting impact upon the public, regardless if one doesn’t like black and white features. There is a glowing haunting impact that is still left from the ideas and building atmosphere.

Universal Studios has been toying with their creature features for a long time. I can’t tell you how many times they tried to get a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake off the ground. Even John Carpenter nearly got the chance to helm it; that is if a certain Invisible Man movie with Chevy Chase didn’t bomb at the box-office. Bottom line, this studio has been trying. They tried a new Wolfman in 2010, it didn’t do very well. They tried to give Dracula an origin story, it did moderately well, yet critics put a stake right into it.

Now, the new plan was to reboot everything and create a shared universe along the lines of Marvel Studios. Not a bad idea, but there is one crucial problem. In order to achieve it, you need to introduce your monsters individual first. Give Marvel some credit, it took time and effort to establish who their superheros were and why are they all connected. It made the debut of The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble in International waters) the more satisfying seeing characters we already saw. The concept of a shared universe seemed not needed when you consider there already exists a movie with all the monsters meeting (more on that later in the month).

Come the summer of 2017, a string of sequels and reboots that never seemed to catch on with some exceptions. Arriving to the big screen is The Mummy, a movie Universal Studios is confident will be a huge hit and ignite a massive interest in making a shared universe. And let me tell you, for a movie called The Mummy, it’s sad to see it plays out more like a 2 hour trailer for a franchise as opposed to a standalone feature.

the-mummy3Every problem can be summed up in the opening. First, there is a 30-second flashback to Medieval Times were knights hide a powerful ruby. Cut to modern times where a group of FBI-like agents find a tomb carrying said ruby. Then, it flashes back to show the origin of the mummy and how she came to be. What should be a simple introduction is really a massive exposition dump. There is too much being addressed and it doesn’t know what information is crucial to the narrative. It literally throws everything at you and expects a sense of understanding.

So, now your probably asking how is the rest of the movie? Well, here’s a hint. Notice how the focus of this article is about Universal’s choice to make a franchise. When you boil down to it, there isn’t much of a movie, or a story, to discuss. Tom Cruise is a treasure raider who finds a mummy, mummy curses him in a weird set up that sounds stolen from Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, Russell Crowe shows up as Dr. Jekyll to talk about a set of agents who prevent monsters from going loose and that’s it.

the-mummy-russell-crowe-dr-jekyllEverything I summed up in that small paragraph is all you need to know. Sure there are things I didn’t talk about like the performances, a subplot involving a dead friend that is taken from An American Werewolf In London, the complex origins of the mummy that make no sense, the rampage on London near the end and the obvious tie-ins to “future entries.” Honestly, who cares? If Mummy just stuck to one story line, it would have been fine. Instead, it feels like different scripts were bunch into one and then hacked down with a chainsaw. All we get is a set of shreds that don’t add up. Stuff happens, but there is rarely any connection.

I tried to think of anything positive about this movie and I could only come up with two things. Tom Cruise plays the lead and, regardless of ego, he tries to be entertaining. His performance goes for a very goofy-action hero tone that matches Brendan Fraser, but it feels weird knowing he’s more equipped when it comes to spy movies. And for what little we see of Sofia Boutella, she tries to bring a sense of menace to her take of the mummy. Under all the poor CGI effects they paint over her face, she is really trying to stand out. Unfortunately, her presence is literally buried under Cruise’s rampant ego and “too many cooks” trying to steer this popcorn flick.

la-et-film-title-the-mummy-20161205I really can’t even do much justice to recommend this train wreck. Your better off seeing the original 1932 Mummy with Boris Karloff. That one was more scary in atmosphere and selling the concept of reincarnation. Why can’t we have a movie like that anymore? A horror film that sells on scaring you with atmospheric tone and concept as opposed to jump scares. I’m certain there are some out there, but I can only imagine how few there are. This movie is pure proof that certain executives can’t keep up with the times on what audiences want. A lesson that is learned again and again as time goes on. Just when Hollywood thinks they know what people want, they come out with a movie too late once that previous obsession has died down. We are pass the bar of shared universes. Some can work, but this one doesn’t.

Avoid at all costs.

 

“IT” scary delight

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Last month, viewers got “The Dark Tower.” Basically, a way on how NOT to adapt a Stephen King adaption. The problems lies in how overstuffed and expansive King’s universes really are. After reading his famed novel “IT,” I can see why adapting his books can be a challenge. There’s only so much information you can cram in to justify for a two hour venture. Well, I don’t know how but director Andres Muschietti was able to take a 1,100 page novel and use the right parts to make a good movie.

The basic story is there as a supernatural entity is killing and eating kids in the small Maine town named Derry. A group of kids discover the truth behind the kid’s disappearances in hopes to stop this monster from any more terror. Sounds basic enough, but Stephen King’s novel goes so in-depth that it feels like your reading a history text book at times. To King’s credit, he has good ideas, knows how to build atmosphere and create some memorable characters. Muschietti was kind enough to know what to cut out and what elements were crucial to keep in.

The main meat of this adaptation relies on the child portion of the story. While we get to see them as adults and try to stop “IT” again, all of that is rightfully saved for a possible follow-up. The focus here is on the “Losers’ Club” and who they are. We see what fears they each have which plays a important fact later on. You get the feeling of being a kid again when the world was big and yet you feel defenseless.

All of the kid actors do a good job conveying these characters. Each one bringing to life so much depth and yet few feel like a trope. I feel this has to do with how the setting is changed from being in 1958 to 1989. A time when the teenager was more rebellious and carefree than before. This is reflected with Eddie who is trying to bypass his mother who wants him to remain inside his home. Along with that is more character depth for the bully Henry Bowers who feels more like a threat and less like a generic stock villain with a pocket knife.

The biggest scene stealer is of Bill Skarsgard as the demonic clown Pennywise. From the first scene, there is a hint of something uncanny from the way his eyes look in the other direction and his kind delivery feels more eerie. In a 1990 TV miniseries version, Tim Curry donned the clown make-up and gave a fun performance. I feel Skarsgard easily blew that out of the water. When we see him terrorize the kids, the performance is never over the top or too scary. Skarsgard walks a middle ground that is fun and creepy at the same time.

Those who are afraid of horror movies and want to know how gory it gets should be fine. When I went to see it, there was an 11 year old in the audience who acted fine. However, some moments might be too intense to see from a blood fountain gushing from a sink to a quick shot of Pennywise nibbling on a dismembered arm. Being one whose seen many horror movies, the violence and horrific tone feels more on par with the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie, but doesn’t feel too gory or too much. Little kids under 10 might not sit well with some of the ghoulish imagery and running theme of missing kids being eaten by an evil clown.

I was honestly surprised by what “IT” came to offer. This new adaptation was fun as a haunted house while even heartwarming when it needed to be. I do have one or two nitpicks with some of the changes, but they are all the more welcome. When a scene from the book was being adapted, I grew more excited as the scene played out wondering how it would play out. When “IT” was funny, it was funny. When “IT” was scary, you could feel the building tension and creepy atmosphere sinking in. By changing the theme of the story to “facing your fears,” we get not only a movie we can identify with but a journey we wish would never end. If there is a second half in the near future, you can count on this film fan anticipating the next chapter of “IT.”

“Pirates” 5 stale despite lively action

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There are certain franchises that deserve the need to hang their cape and maintain their golden years. I hate to admit it, but I feel Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” is one of them. I recalled fond memories of seeing the first one “Curse of the Black Peal” at my local drive-in theater and enjoying the shear spectacle. As expected, two sequels followed to make a trilogy that were in my opinion mixed but still had some fun. Then “On Stranger Tides” arrived and the wear started to show. Too many complex story-lines, too many convoluted rules and not enough momentum to stay afloat. Now we arrive at the fifth outing, “Dead Man Tell No Tales,” and I feel there’s nothing left to explore here.

Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow but there is nothing new Depp brings here. In previous entries, the rum boozed Captain always knew he had an extra trick up his sleeve when it came to escape or battle. Here, we have seen these character’s actions so much that we are aware of the trademarks. Even worse, Depp feels tired in the role as he walks through like he’s sleepwalking his part. The only time he feels interested is when his character is not talking and partaking in action scenes considering the huge amount of stunt work.

Tossed into the mix are two new characters Henry (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who are trying to be the two new leads of the franchise. Henry is set up as the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last left cursed to the Flying Dutchman, and is trying to seek a way to break his dad’s curse. It is the basic father and son story but it doesn’t feel developed. On Carina’s angle, she has an interesting concept but it gets easily tiresome. Carina is constantly deemed a witch by her knowledge of the stars which starts as an amusing joke, but gets old by its constant use and one huge plot hole. If everyone deems her a witch, then how come this government is secretly keeping a witch alive for their personal use. If they are using one for their own service, why not use Carina’s methods for their own good instead of trying to execute her.

In the middle of all this, a dead captain named Salazar (Javier Bardem) is out for blood as he tries to hunt Jack Sparrow down for something the booze-hound savvy did to him years ago. To Javier’s credit, he really chews the scenery and acts like he’s having a good time. I’m close to saying he’s the only reason to see this entry for how well-acted and oddly designed him and his ghostly crew are which feel like remnants of a strange Salvador Dali painting.  I like the idea his body moves around like its still floating in water seeing it was the last thing that happened to him when he died. But doesn’t this sound familiar? A supernatural entity that is out for revenge against Sparrow over something he did. Haven’t we been here before?

In fact, the whole movie banks more on the nostalgia of the others and does little to reinvent. Once in a while there is a neat action scene, but it doesn’t last too long to make its impact. Jack finds himself going against a Guillotine blade while being swung around, zombie sharks menace our heroes and old friends return. But there’s much to care about when none of your characters are anchored to a ticking clock or any form of leverage. Certain people could just wonder about without any risk and there still wouldn’t be a sense of care. Even the appearance of old faces like Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) really try to have some fun, but feel this is a tired and repeated premise.

The only reason “Dead Men Tell No Tales” exist is just to see if there’s any life in the franchise along with another reason. I believe after how many fans reacted to the third on “At World’s End,” the people behind this one are trying to make up for those mistakes of a tragic love story and how drawn-out it was. Maybe if this came out 5 years ago, it would have been passable. As it stands, its a swift two hours of swashbuckling that really feels like a fish out of water when your compare it to last week’s Wonder Woman and all the other “better” summer blockbusters that came before it.

“Wonder Woman” is blockbuster fun

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Ever since “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” I wondered when DC Comics would finally get their act together and make a fun comic book movie. The only two I recall that worked so well was a bulk of “Superman II” and Burton’s “Batman.” Finally, with a breath of air, I can claim “Wonder Woman” as my favorite DC Comics movie to date. It’s fun, action-packed and does what has been missing the whole time. A bright colorful superhero flick that isn’t afraid to try things.

Gal Gadot plays the Amazonian warrior Diana who is tough but has a human soul. The movie starts off introducing her character in probably the smartest way. We learn who she is and what she wants to gain over the course of the plot. Diana maybe trying to understand the nature of her people, but she wants to know what lies beyond her island home to see if humanity is more forgiving then what her people think. There is no big quest to save her world or big urge for a love interest like Disney’s “Little Mermaid.” The aspect of World War I plays a big factor into her character as she questions if human beings should be saved or left to their own devices.

Helping her out is US spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who helps Diana understand the world outside her own is not all pleasant. His character works well as the straight man as Steve keeps her curiosity at balance while letting her understand the human element is more complex. There is a love interest hint but thankfully downplayed to let the two work off each other. Pine and Gadot have a fun chemistry that really works in scenes when Steve is trying to have the Amazonian learn about the treatment of women and government law.

On the opposite side, a German general (Danny Huston) plays a red herring in all this as he works with the diabolical Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) to create a deadly gas bomb. Most of the movie focuses these two are trying to craft the ultimate killing device with much menace. Unfortunately, I found myself more interested in the Poison character. She has a disfigured face which feels like a tribute to William Castle’s “Mr Sardonicus” and seeks to ensure they have the upper hand. While they don’t build her up to the “big evil one,” I felt there was something memorable about her performance and look. In contrast to the iron-fisted general who is just there to win the war.

There is much action to behold as “Wonder Woman” leaps from one colorful action scene to another. Something missing in recent DC adaptions was the value of fun and there is much to enjoy. One of my favorite moments was seeing Diana dash into No Man’s Land and go up against an air full of bullets. There is something awe-inspiring yet enjoyable with the usage of music and energetic visuals.

Even the side characters are a lot of fun too. At Steve’s side is a ragtag of secret agents and sharpshooters who provide plenty of comic relief. But when they are not cracking jokes, there is a sense of vulnerability to these characters that help Diana’s understanding of the human race. One such example is a Scotsman who post-traumatic stress disorder who can be a good shot but also has a heart. While they are aware of how hard the war is, they try to keep optimistic in the best way possible.

And for a movie like this to take on a heavy subject as war, it knows how much to focus on the darker details. Images of injured soldiers, families without homes and dead bodies after a launched gas bomb could have weighed in on the fun factor, but it works. Diana understands the human race is a complex bunch that fight each other, but never feel spite against one another. In a lesson never learned from Superman, you can win on some days but lose sometimes as well. This is an element I see Fieg’s “Ghostbusters” tried but I feel it works better because the main character is trying to know how the world works.

I am close to say “Wonder Woman” is a perfect movie, but there is one tiny flaw that can either make or break the movie. Throughout the story, Diana believes this was is the doing of a god and seeks to end it by killing him. It leads to an interesting concept about belief. Diana is stuck to her mythological history while Steve believes things are a cause of human nature. There comes a moment when it starts to pay off, but unfortunately a twist villain confirms the true nature.

For a moment, I thought it was going in a very smart and very clever direction, but then it felt like we were not ready for something unique and different. The final 20 minutes resort to a final showdown between Wonder Woman and the true antagonist behind the whole thing. Why couldn’t they just do something more brilliant like have Diana’s mother appear in her mind and try to remind her of her warnings or something less cliche. Instead, they play it safe and even if the climatic fight scene is explosive, I just wish it a much stronger element than a twist villain.

But, I can’t rampage on this latest entry. DC Comics and Warner Bros are trying to make a good adaption here and I can see it. They were so close and yet so far from perfection. However, I think I can let them off the hook this time. Even if the ending was slightly lame, “Wonder Woman” still turns out to be fun and engaging from beginning to end. Its finally refreshing to see a good movie from the other comic book brand and can safely say this one is certainly worth your time.

“Alien: Covenant” disappoints on many levels

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As I left the theater, I honestly gave a small giggle. Once I got into my car, the giggle became a laugh. Then, as I drove to my house, the laughter just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t believe how absurd and dumbfounded this feature was that I found myself laughing in mockery over what strange choices director Ridley Scott took. At least when “Prometheus” came out, Scott had the upper hand in starting a fresh timeline. My theory is thanks to those who complained about the unhinging questions and mysteries from that movie, we ended up with “Alien: Covenant.” A film meant to pacifier fans who complained about Scott’s prequel. Instead, I feel those pacifiers have been rejected in the process.

I should point out another film would have taken place after “Prometheus” called “Paradise Lost” and I was rather intrigued to see where it would lead. From what I recall, unless its the “Mandela Effect” kicking in, we would have seen Elizabeth Shaw’s character visit the Engineer world and seek her questions of why this and that. Either that concept was tossed when writer Damon Lindelof left or Scott had alternate plans. After all, he did say there would be no xenomorphs in the next feature and then contradicted himself by saying they would have aliens of a similar breed. Honestly, I’d rather get my opinion out of the way now considering how confusing it is to look into the behind the scenes stuff already.

The plot is very close, if not, and somewhat similar to the first “Alien” movie. A group of people get a distress call and go to investigate, they find a strange stuff there, one of the members gets attacked by a creature that impregnates him with an alien and so forth. Scott tries to rectify that by doing some new stuff like introducing the ship’s crew in the midst of an action scene. But when casualties happen, like one of the scientists die in the wreckage, we feel little to no empathy because we just met these people. In previous movies, at least we had time and development in understanding who we are with. Here, I could care less.

The spacecraft named Covenant holds a crew on a mission for colonization. That means, we spent with couples instead of scientists. Even when the crew of Prometheus was doing things like taking helmets off in oxygen laden alien ships, I wouldn’t mind it too much because they were observers and examining things. Here, when I see normal people walk around on an alien planet without something crucial as a space helmet, it begs the question if they really think they got a chance at living or have a death wish. And when your characters are so dumb enough to a point they slip on bloody floors or shoot alien creatures inside a ship near explosive equipment, it gets irritating to wonder if anyone has any brains. Even the Robinson Family on the “Lost In Space” series knew much better than these people.

I can’t remember a single character that was memorable or did anything significant. Sure, Katherine Waterston’s character is given this Ripley-style arch where they place her in the background and build her up, but it doesn’t work. All we know to her character is that she is suffering from a loss and you don’t feel the building emotion of her recovering once her big action scene kicks in. Most of these crew members feel like the red shirts you would see on Star Trek. The minute you see them, you know someone is going to act dumb and die from their consequences. Even the captain is so miffed that what happens to him later on is so baffling that it makes you think why would anyone make such poor choices.

So is there anything worth sparing? For one, Michael Fassbender has proven to be very unique to this “prequel” trilogy. He does double duty as android Walter who seeks to serve the crew and android David who plans to one up mankind in his own right. Being a fan of Blade Runner, there is a running theme of creation vs. creator that is reflected here. Instead of creation asking for something impossible to achieve, it seeks to outdo creator by means of making something in his own image. It is here the character of David is brought to creepy levels that overpower those of HAL 9000. The idea if he is created in the most perfect way possible and wishes to let humanity die on its imperfect nature. A typical trope but it’s helped with the character of Walter who is complete opposite and let nature take its course.

Even if I said most of the crew are forgettable, Danny McBride is surprisingly engaging here. His character Tennessee is more laid back and less manic compared to his other comedic roles. McBride tries to channel his actions like he is the next Kurt Russell when it comes to overpowering computer restrictions and comes handy in key action scenes near the end. Considering how I’m used to seeing him in raunchy comedies, I’m very speechless to see how great his acting is here. When he looses someone dear, we see him react in broken manner that shows how much he is giving it his all.

On the whole, did I completely hate this movie? For the most part, I’d say maybe the first and second acts where fine. When it was doing its own thing and trying to follow on the questions “Prometheus” left, that’s when I felt it worked. The final 20 minutes, on the other hand, try way too hard to repeat what made “Alien” so enjoyable. “Alien” was about claustrophobia and survive in the unknown space frontier. Here, all of that gets revisited in a section of the movie that could have been so easily cut out and you wouldn’t have noticed it. I won’t go into spoilers about what happens in the final third, but if you know what happens at the end of EVERY ALIEN MOVIE, then I’m certain will expect that it will go in THIS DIRECTION as well. But wait, there is a bonus twist tossed in that is sure to throw viewers for a loop but even we can see that coming a mile away.

How did one of the most unique and mysterious of features get turned into something akin to “Friday the 13th?” The beauty and sublime are replaced by trope characters repeating things that have been done light-years before. There was never a sense of dread or fear. I was never scared at all by these CGI monsters and never felt like I was on the edge of my seat during the action scenes. It’s hard for me to chalk off if Ridley Scott was giving too much freedom with the franchise or the keys to the liquor cabinet during press interviews. I feel bad for saying that because Scott is capable of doing a good movie and this shows it. There is much eye candy to behold, but the story that goes with it doesn’t match up. If 20th Century Fox is considering another installment, my best recommendation is to really overlook what has become right before they hand over the blank check budget.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2” bigger, better and emotional

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THE FOLLOWING IS SPOILER FREE! YOU’RE WELCOME!

Some say lightening rarely strikes twice when it comes to sequels. But even with a concept like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you would think there wouldn’t be that big of a fanbase. Considering how much love there was towards the first one, especially making it, another adventure with the ragtag of anti-heroes was inevitable and I couldn’t be happier to say it comes close to being better than the original.

So what quest lies for our heroes? Well, without giving too much away, each member finally comes to terms with the term family and the meaning behind it. If the first film was about how they met and why they relate to each other, this one goes deeper. The characters and even us understand just crucial they are to one another.

Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) has to deal with the realization of who is father truly is. An entity named Ego (Kurt Russell) finally meets up and we get a sense these two have a bonding father and son relationship. I like how we get an idea of how Peter’s father means to him, but there is a sense of something questionable here. Peter  has lived a long time without a father figure, so how would he take to heart someone whose never been there for him? The basic thought of emotions play until Ego’s true persona that is shocking and unique at the same time. While they both share similar qualities, they are far different from each other in many ways.

Also on the sideline, Yondu (Michael Rooker) is having a hard time coming to terms with where he stands. His crew of scavengers feel he’s not gritty as he once was while the Captain himself wonders if he can change his ways. A crucial highlight is when the blue skinned blighter has to reluctantly team up with the “equally heartless” Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradly Cooper) as the two come to terms with themselves.  Both of them can’t stand each other, but find they are the same person from the inside out and have to know what matters to them the most.

Elsewhere, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) have their own troubles. The green warrior has sibling rivalry issues to handle while the big muscle head himself is still trying to find a way to belong. While Gamora has to come to terms with her broken sisterhood, Drax finds companionship in the strangest way in understanding his poor ways in socialization even when he tires. And of course, I can’t forget Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) who is a new reincarnation of everyone’s favorite walking tree. This time around, he starts life anew and has to understand its harness along with it. Thankfully, this toddler variation doesn’t outstay its welcome and knows when to chime in at the right spots.

A big surprise to the table is the addition of a new character named Mantis (French actress Pom Klementieff). This bug-like creature has the ability to feel and manipulate emotions while also trying to understand how complex human beings really are. There is a level of comedy and drama to this character which make her a nice addition and clear scene sealer. Then again, her scenes with the misunderstood Drax make for the best moments in this sequel.

I’d go into deeper details of the story, but I feel its best for you to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” yourself. James Gunn returns in the writing and director’s chair giving us a world that is unlike ours and yet similar in many ways. From hot topics like creation to lost fatherhood, Gunn really channels how complex the human race can be with these characters. And for someone to take on such a difficult issue and tell it through these anti-heroes we love so dearly, I congratulate him for doing so. There’s much humor, action and plenty of color to behold. Dare I’d say, its literally more colorful than the first film when we see the multitude of planets and how their different races run. All I have left to say is that “Vol. 2” will certainly give a run for its money how much it tops not just the first, but other classics like “Wrath of Khan” and “Empire Strikes Back.” I maybe overdoing it, but I personally feel it deserves to be up there with those sequel classics.

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.

“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.