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poster_petedragonYet another trend from Disney which tends to fall flat with each attempt. However, this one wasn’t as bad as I had expected. In fact that’s the best I could say about it; albeit insanely unoriginal in plot, this live action retell of Pete’s Dragon didn’t entirely suck.

Pete’a Dragon is about a toddler named Pete who’s parents and he suffered a terrible car wreck in the woods of Millhaven, Ore. As the toddler survived, but the parents did not, a legendary docile dragon which the boy names Elliot takes him into its care for the next six years until a logging company and a Forrest ranger discover the boy has been living in the wild all this time. Soon, they learn his dragon exists and a hunter party ensues to capture the magical beast while those who respect the creature look to keep it free and hidden.

Here’s what I appreciated about the film. Elliot never spoke. I was so afraid that character was going to receive the A-typical Disney date rape by having this computer generated character speak English and take that much more reality away from a plot already based in fantasy. However, someone made the decision not to and it worked much better for the integrity of the film, I felt.

I also loved the cast. Bryce Dallas Howard (Lady In the Water) as Grace the forest ranger completely sold her part. She committed and within a Disney fantasy I didn’t expect that from anyone in the film. It was a pleasant surprise and increased my respect for her as an actor.

Frankly, this live action remake of a Disney classic will probably disappoint the die hard fans of the original, I think. I wasn’t one. It’s cute, but I feel this storyline is better in the for of the Steven Spielberg directed classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

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poster_moanaI love where Disney is going with its animated films. For years the mega studio has been allowing room for its material to address themes kids truly need to be exposed to, much like the Disney films I remember seeing when I was young. Moana fits into this category; however, when you’re trying to climb to new heights with your material, sometimes, you stumble.

Moana, being less than perfect is that stumble.

Since being an infant, Moana has been drawn to the sea beyond the reef of the island she calls home. Later in life, driven by her father to take over rule of the island, Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, still finds the sea beckoning her for a mission. On the advice of her estranged grandmother, Moana sets out to complete the story of an ancient Polynesian legend of how a demigod named Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson (Central Intelligence), stole the heart of the life goddess Te Fiti which was lost in the ocean during a great battle between Maui and the lava god. Moana sets across the ocean to find Maui and force him to replace the heart to save her island from a mysterious darkness slowly killing it.

With every new major Disney release, one thing is guaranteed; songs. You basically have to expect a musical. Why wouldn’t you? And that’s fine. While the musical movie genre is practically dead once again, Disney has been the only company to continue producing them and have success. My problem this time around is the songs lacked the spark which I expect from most musicals.

Maybe it’s just the theatrical training I received in college, but I’ve always felt and been told songs in musicals are generally ways to express a character’s inner motivations and conflicts, while book scenes focused on the main plot points and outer motivations and conflicts of its characters. Many cast musical numbers express the collective conscious of the group. For example–for those of you who have seen Little Shop of Horrors movie musical with Rick Moranis as Seymour–the opening number of Little Shop had the characters singing about what life is like on skid row, setting the tone for the movie. The musical Rent is the same example; the characters all come together to sing about how broke they are and what they are aspiring to be in general.

For the most part, the musical numbers in Moana do the same; a musical number about how life on the island provides and there is no need to venture out, another number for Moana expressing her need to be whom she knows she is inside, yadda, yadda, yadda. However, the musical numbers themselves lacked the spark other Disney musicals have nailed in the past. It simply didn’t have melodies which people could take home with them. Mulan’s musical number expressing her inner desires, that is memorable. Moana’s, I can’t even recall how it goes at the moment and I just saw the movie a couple days ago. A Whole New World, Beauty and the Beast, Just Can’t Wait to be King; these are all memorable musical numbers which stay with you in a time tested fashion. Moana’s numbers lack that and dare I say are even cheesy in spots.

The only numbers, albeit still not that memorable, which I thought were at least effective where Maui’s introduction number “You’re Welcome,” and the “I’m Shiny” number from the massive monster crab Tomatoa, brilliantly voiced by Jemaine Clement (Rio). These numbers were fun and expressed exactly what the viewer needed to know about these characters.

As far as the placement of the musical numbers, and I’m sorry to spend so many inches on this aspect of the movie, if you couldn’t tell from my tone in previous paragraphs, tend to make the movie very formulaic and not so original.

The only other aspect of the film I did not like is what came after the climax. The movie came to a climax which included a strong plot twist–no spoilers here–but after that climax, the denouement of the film fell into the deadly realm of the hoakey. Seeing Te Fiti at long last was so less strong than any adverse character Moana and Maui faced to reach her. It really hurt the film. There were so many book scenes which were executed so strong that when we come to Te Fiti scene, it fell so short the standard the film otherwise established.

That brings me to the strengths of the film. There were several. The theme alone is always one kids need to be hearing on a regular basis; be yourself. The characters were also strong, well written with clearly defined motivations and conflicts, inner and outer. The adversity scenes were extremely strong and effective which helped keep this thin folklore storyline afloat and moving forward with the viewer engaged. In fact, I don’t remember a single scene without a musical number that wasn’t necessary. That fault came with most of the songs.

Disney’s formula for success also comes with an emphasis on the breakout sidekick characters. For Moanna it looked like it was going to be a pet pig, but soon it turned out to be a mentally challenged chicken which provided some laughs but had a little too many of them for what the film needed at the bird’s expense. However, uniquely presented for Maui, that character’s sidekick was an ongoing tattoo of himself on his chest which served as his conscience at times. This animated tattoo was a great addition to the Maui character which gave a sponge bath to an otherwise flat-footed formulaic Disney vehicle. 

In closing, I liked the movie as a whole. It disappointed at the end and the songs didn’t exactly elevate the story as anticipated, but it’s a quality tale of folklore for the whole family. 

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poster_fantasticbeastsI just can’t get into this type of movie. I’ve tried, and I DO enjoy the Harry Potter series. However, I am not fanatical about them. My biggest problem with fantasy type films is the verbiage. There are so many terms of beasts and locations and spells that its difficult for me to understand what is being said half the time, let lone be able to identify with the characters and feel engaged.

In this work written directly for the screen by Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling, Hogwarts alum Newt, played by Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), brings his collection of magical beasts to New York City where one breaks loose at a bank and causes a scene for the wizard and an American non-magic amateur baker named Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury). An exiled agent Tina, played by Katherine Waterston (Steve Jobs), of the American wizarding community takes the Brit into the authorities for his antics while eventually more beasts get out into the “no-mag” world.

Now Newt and Tina must work together along with her sultry sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol (The Lucky One) and Kowalski, now illegally exposed to all the magic of his surroundings to prove the escaped beasts are not the culprit of repeated dark magic taking the lives of a handful of Americans no-mags.

I’ll start with what I enjoyed about the film; Redmayne, Waterston, Fogler and Sudol. These four characters were well created by their actors. Redmayne was extremely consistent, while Waterston made it easily to see what her inner motivation and conflicts were as we kearned more about her. Fogler had probably my favorite character as Kowalski. I’ve only seen him in movies which were outlandish comedies or the over-the-top bestfriends characters. This role was a character performance but on a more subtle scale than I’ve seen him before. Queenie was hard not to fall for, as Kowalski did.

I also loved the visual effects the film used to create prohibition era New York City; model T cars, pin-striped suits, etc. It looked quite like the real deal and added to the experience.
Before I get into my issues with the film, I’ll last mention I adored the dyamic of the four mentioned characters. Kowalski’s love of the magical world which grows once his eyes are open to it. Queenie’s adoration of him. Newt’s love of animals who are banned from ownership despite having practical uses in the wizarding world and Tina’s passion for making things right and loyalty for those who appreciate her. I loved their storylines between each other. It kept me involved, while the remainder of the film would have lost my interest otherwise.

Now, don’t expect a Harry Potter movie when you see this, despite being a part of that universe set 70 years prior to where the first HP film lands on the universal timeline. The only thing that connects this story to HP is a couple of last names like Dumbledore, L’Estrange and Grindewald. Oh and the sign of the Deathly Hallows. There were no familiar locations since its set in NYC. There were no creatures identifiable to the previous eight HP films. Although I enjoyed the film making itself its own independent franchise for the most part, I just feel die hard HP fans need to realize they may be severely disappointed expecting something similar.

I hated the screen time spent on certain aspects of Newt’s back story. I agree we need to know more about him as a person and a wizard, but honestly what they shared was stupid, and without visuals I really couldn’t care about his days at Hogwarts. I also thought the script attempted to set the character up as an annoying British Sheldon of sorts. At least there was dialogue to say such, but to be honest, even though Newt was a little socially awkward and better with beasts, he wasn’t altogether bad with people nor was he at all unlikable. He was actually charming in his simply way.

Lastly, I think the design of the dark force which threatened lives has been done before. This dark cloud that resembles trying to comb gum out of the carpet has been done before several times; the most recent was Marvel’s Thor: The Dark Age, same effect. I’m waiting for a new way for fantasy filmmakers to present dark forces without a visage in a new way because this dark cloudy thing has gotten old for me.

Overall, I liked the movie. I’ll own it because the four main characters were good and well acted, which is important for a fantasy film I feel. You need your actors to sell it first. However, I feel the writing is generally weak and simply uses “Harry Potter” as a marketing technique. Comparing this movie to Harry Potter is like comparing Saving Private Ryan to Schindler’s List. Same war being represented but far from similar movies.

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poster_volunteersWhen I ever say that a movie has no plot, I usually mean in the sense that it follows no identifiable structure. I mean, every movie has a plot obviously, even the worse ones have some mode of plot. Example: douchebag A attempts to sleep with librarian girl B but has to drive to C before she flies to Italy for college. That’s a plot as simple as it is, but the sequences, scenes, themes and beats which tell that story are what really make up a movie’s plot.

Here is another example: A spoiled Yale grad is forced to join the Peace Corps to avoid a deadly gambling debt and ends up in Thailand where he attempts to sleep with the only two attractive women of the region. That’s pretty much the plot of this 1995’s screwball comedy of Tom Hanks’ career, Volunteers.

Hanks (Inferno) stars as the spoiled Ivy leaguer Lawrence who trades identities with his Peace Corps volunteer college roommate to avoid his gambling debt. On his way to Thailand, he meets fellow volunteer Beth, played by Rita Wilson (Tom Hanks’ real life wife), and civil engineer Tom Tuttle, played by John Candy (Uncle Buck). Once in Thailand, the team is stationed in a small village where they are tasked to build a bridge over the region’s main river, even though it’s never clearly stated why the village needed it. Of course, once he’s there, he’s a total jackass and the villagers for some reason love him. He learns this bridge is a point of interest for both the region’s communist regime and its gangland warlord to expand their efforts and power and is offered the chance to sleep with the warlord’s mistress if he can make sure the bridge gets built. And of course his efforts to sleep with Beth turns into a genuine romance.

So basically, a bridge is built and a bridge is blown up. And sex was the only real motivation provided for our main character to do both.

This mess of a story had no direction once it hit Thailand. The writing was so weak and underdeveloped it was like watching a squirrel take a sedative. You know it should have been entertaining but simply wasn’t. I can’t say enough bad things about how piss poor this screenplay was. It would have been so much better if building the bridge was the main goal the entire time and the warlord and communists DIDN’T want it to be built. Then Lawrence would be trying to sabotage the project to sleep with aforementioned warlord mistress and have much more room for a substantial character arc when he falls for Beth. Instead, there was hardly any decent conflict and no story threads were followed through to the point of satisfaction.

The character of Lawrence was also weak. Sex and avoiding responsibility were his only motivations. He was a little witty but mostly he came off pompous. He just wasn’t likable for me, and for a role being played by Tom Hanks, it’s hard to accept.

Also, the movie simply wasn’t funny. At no time did I ever laugh out loud. Actually…I take that back. The only points which made me giggle was when Gedde Watanabe (Gung Ho!), playing the only English speaker in the villager At Toon, kept calling Lawrence by the nickname Asshole. Even after At Toon started to care about the protagonist, he still continued to call him Asshole. For some reason, that bit of funny never got old. But that was all that was funny about the film, period.

The last thing I’ll say is, this is maybe the worst role and performance I’ve seen from John Candy, and that makes me sad to see. It’s a terrible thing to have this as the last role I’ve seen of the late Second City alumn comedian. I will probably have to go rent Uncle Buck to or The Great Outdoors to get this vomit of an over-acted excuse for funny–or even acting–out of my head. There was nothing believable about Tom Tuttle except being a bit of an egoist and an inability to stop talking. Yet another character we aren’t allowed to like.

Overall, this movie was painful once it got to Thailand. It is maybe one of the worst Tom Hanks movies I’ve ever seen and now it is no wonder I’ve managed to have never seen it before.

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poster_infernoI love these Robert Langdon movies. And I love the story concept of waking up without knowing where you are or how you got there. I’ve even had a couple of moments like that happen to me, much smaller scale of course, and from those moments I’ve thought of my own screenplay and stageplay ideas from that concept vehicle. I’ve read a couple books and graphic novels with this concept. I think what attracts me to it is that situation creates an instant mystery  Without mystery, your thriller is worthless, I feel.

So, with Inferno, the latest film production inspired by a novel of Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons), we have not only one mystery but two. The first is figuring out why Robert Langdon awoke in a hospital in Florence, Italy. The second is locating the virus left behind by an unhinged idealistic billionaire. However, the film has faults and not as strong as one would think having a double-mystery thriller.

Langdon, once again played by Tom Hanks (Sully), wakes up in a hospital not knowing whom he is or how he got to Florence, Italy. However, after being shot at and rescued by his nurse, he finds a clue to the location of a deadly virus intended to wipe out the Earth’s population by 75-percent, using Dante’s notorious book Inferno as a guide.

Eventually, we learn who is after Langdon and his assistant, whom to trust and whom are the “bad guys,” and eventually we find ourselves in Istanbul for the exciting climax.

I will start with what I loved about the film. One, I loved the double mystery of the film, especially moments like when Langdon discovers he and a partner stole a mask of Dante’s from a museum, which he learned by watching the security video with authorities standing next to him. Scenes like that reveal were strong and excellent. There were several WTF moments in the plot which really kept me involved and caring about the next turn.

Two, I liked the pacing. It felt like a quality thriller with high intensity and always that sense of urgency Robert Langdon stories now need to have and bring that expectation. Director Ron Howard (The DaVinci Code, In the Heart of the Sea) did well to slow the film down in spots to allow the viewer to process certain information to keep up with Langdon and his assistant, Sienna, played by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything).

Three, I enjoyed the locations. Who doesn’t enjoy chase sequences by car or on foot through European cobble stone streets? Seriously. IF you don’t, you’re dead inside.

However, the film isn’t perfect. The pace of the film got disrupted a couple times with a very weak storyline about Langdon’s not-quite romance with investigator Sinsky, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen (Tv’s Westworld). I really struggled to give a shit about lingering “what could have been” feelings between Langdon and this lady. I was okay with the writing establishing their backstory as such, but letting it linger, feeling some sort of closure or inner conflict was necessary to address was a mistake and took away from an otherwise exciting film.

**SPOILER ALERTS IN THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS**

It also seems to me that the company responsible setting up Langdon with a memory lapse and creating this incredibly elaborate fake hospital just to get them to help them find this virus was overkill. Langdon isn’t exactly an FBI profiler. It seems he could have been much easily duped into helping the wrong people until he gets evidence to the contrary than having to kidnap him, distort his memory and pull all the other strings involved. The whole presence of this company was weak, I felt.

I also felt the sequences involving Langdon attempting to get his memory back and having loads of annoying frightful visions really got old. It seemed to occupy the entire first 20 minutes of the film and was really getting hard to watch until we the viewers starting getting hard clues about our mysteries. Until then, it was giving me a headache.

Next, I thought it was obvious Sienna was working for the wrong side. Langdon got played by the person standing closest to him. Maybe it’s easy to spot the double crossing character easier now that three of Brown’s novels have made it to screen, but between Ian McKellan’s character in DaVinci Code, Ewan McGregor in Angels & Demons and not Jones in Inferno, it’s apparent whomever is closest to Langdon is the bag guy or a part of them. I and others I know who have seen the movie saw this twist coming.

That being said, Seinna as a character was quite strong once we learn her entire back story. Between her and billionaire boyfriend Zobrist, played by Ben Foster (The Finest Hours), whom created the virus to kill most of humanity, presented a antagonist presence which truly felt they were doing the right thing for humanity. They felt by destroying 75-percent of it, they were saving humanity’s existence for the future. I’ve always said movies’ most scary villains are the ones who are convinced they are doing the right thing.

Overall, I felt the movie was worth the cost of admission and were not better or worse than previous Robert Langdon films from Ron Howard. This movie just makes me want to read other Dan Brown books awaiting their shot at a silver screen production.

To read the review of Inferno from my Movie Corner writing cohort, Brian G. Felts, click here.

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poster_polarexpressEver since I got married, you have no idea how much I’ve been immersed into the spirit of this advanced capture animation production from producer/director Robert Zemeckis. I’ve seen it countless times now. We’ve read the book which inspired it to our kids. We’ve even been on a train which was modeled after the movie with our kids and my immense extended family. All this, inspired by a film that was utterly delightful but slow.

The best thing about the film is that not only do we get one Tom Hanks, we get six. What better title for me to write about during a month when we select Tom Hanks as our theme.

Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express is about a young boy who decides to get on a magical train which stops on his front lawn, claiming to head to the North Pole. He finds his journey joined by a handful of children who each need a renewal of the Christmas spirit in their own ways. The boy is guided through his journey by a train conductor, a hobo and Santa Clause himself, each played by Tom Hanks as well as a couple other small roles.

First off, the computer technology for this film was amazing. The motion capture really managed to represent Tom Hanks’ facial features and unspoken ability and convey them through his animated characters. The capture for the children characters were equally impressive.

The film also had numerous sequences which were both thrilling and heart-warming, at times. Obviously a theme of about believing in Christmas and Santa Clause has been done several times over, but getting to that point is what makes the film unique. The story begins with a train coming out of no where and stopping on a kids lawn. That alone sets the pace for the magic that is to come.

My most favorite sequence was the train’s attempt to get across the frozen lake and it begins to crack. It was intense and exciting and comical to boot. It also was shot-selected extremely well because sequences like this tend to get muttled if the shot decisions aren’t exactly crafted to show each beat of the scene. This is credited to Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump) as a director.

Here’s what I didn’t care for about the film. It was slow in most spots, or slow in getting from its strongest sequences to the next. I think the lack of decent pace could be blamed on the lack of music score behind most of the slower scenes. The action sequences had plenty to enhance the intensity, but the slower dialogue scenes had none. I’m not saying a film has to have wall-to-wall orchestra, but some of those dialogue scenes felt like they were taking place in a library because of how quiet it was. It just seemed odd and a little off for a “magical” story.

I also hate the hot chocolate musical sequence. It was well done, but I just felt it was out of place and far from as strong as other scenes of the film. I also felt it served no real purpose, and if you read any of my posts about film, than you know I hate unnecessary screen time.

However, the film has enough excitement, intensity, magic and eventually finishes strong to say this production was well worth my time, and the multiple times I’ve been forced to watch it.

Just a little pool of tidbits about this film, the hero boy protagonist was never named in the movie, but the book refers to him as Chris, the first name of the author. In the film, the looks at a photo of himself of Santa’s lap outside a department store named Herpolsheimer’s, which was a store in the author’s childhood hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is where the film’s premiere was also held.

The actual train captured in the film is modeled after the Pere Marquette 1225, a restore steam locomotive which runs through parts of Michigan during the holidays. The film used audio effects in its sound design captured from the real-life train to use in the sound effects editing.

The film is awkward in spots, but it is a true gem.

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poster_ghostbustersEvery so often, your childhood memories and innocence is crushed for whatever reason. This time, the reason was a revamp of the 1984 comedic classic Ghostbusters. Despite not having any expectations going into this viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to find the first 30 minutes of the film decently funny. But after a while, things got stale and I just didn’t care for the movie by its end.

Not related to the original Ghostbusters storyline at all, four women start a paranormal investigation and removal business after a series of adverse spirits are released upon the city but an unknown mastermind.

You would think would think with Melissa McCarthy (Spy), and Tv’s Saturday Night Live talents like Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Kate McKinnon (Finding Dory) and Leslie Jones (Trainwreck) this movie would have been hilarious from beginning to end. But that’s about all this film had going for it; comedic star power. The script itself and material needs to be funny. Actors need a foundation to work with, and the foundation for this one was weak.

Strangely, I liked Kate McKinnon. She seemed to have to most fully developed character performance of the principal four. I looked up her career high points, and she’s done mostly vocal work for animated films, but I am eager to see what she can do showing her face down the road. Her character was overdone, but at least it was consistent and developed.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor) also provided a couple of laughs as the group’s dimwitted assistant, but once his character was possessed, the laughs pretty much ended for me. In fact, that’s the point the laughs ended for the entire movie.

I hated the presence of the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement as a subplot. It served no comedic purpose and didn’t propel anything. It was the true definition of a red herring. I also feel any Ghostbusters movie needs a strong villain. Even the sequel to the original Ghostbusters, which was total crap also, had at least a strong villain in Vigo.

What I found most annoying than the creation of a Ghostbusters revamp in the first place what the little tributes to the original film; involving actors from the original cast like Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver in walk on roles only annoyed me further. The appearance of the Stuff Puff Marshmellow Man and having iconic green ghost Slimer also make appearances didn’t help the film a bit. I also hated the revised versions–yes, there were more than one–of the original 80’s hit song to the first movie from Ray Parker Jr. Basically, any link this movie attempted to make to that of the original Ghostbusters didn’t sit well with me. If producers are going to make this revamp their own, they need to make it their own, period.

Lastly, I had a problem with the big throw down in Times Square where these paranormal scientists are fighting and capturing ghosts and spirits. The film showed the foursome go through a minimal amount of training with their equipment. These are scientists. Nerds, basically. They possibly don’t even possess any real self defense training, let alone combat training. However, when the fight comes to them, they turn into this set of sick-ass ninja level ghost fighters which I found EXTREMELY hard to swallow. Even in the original Ghostbusters, Venkman and company never fought anything. They captured and vanquished with their gear, but hand to hand combat was never an option. I would have had the same complaint of that film too if it did the same thing. Firefighters are trained to be firefighters. Scientists are not trained to be Jackie Chan.

The movie was terrible. McCarthy and Wiig did what we usually see them do. the screenplay lacked motivation and development, and the whole production went stale about an hour into it. I may have to say the movie went stale the moment it got the green light for production.

To read the review of this movie from my Movie Corner co-hort Brian G. Felts, click here.

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