Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

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Straw Dogs (2011)


 

Straw Dogs

Kate Bosworth wants better roles and she’ll do what she has to to get them!

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Jessica Cook. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

There is no doubt that violence pervades American culture. We glorify it through our love of football; we aggressively defend it through our love of guns. We like to think of ourselves as civilized, sure but how civilized are we really? If violence were to come to our homes, would we know when to stop? Is there a point where we cross the line even in defense of those we love?

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter and a Harvard graduate, a combination that you don’t see very often. His wife Amy (Bosworth) is a marginally successful actress who worked on a short-lived TV show that Sumner wrote for. After her father passed away, she is returning home to Blackwater, Mississippi where she grew up to repair and renovate his home with an eye for a possible sale in the future.

Sumner, an intellectual with a friendly but slightly condescending attitude, fits in to the good ol’ boys in Blackwater like a rhino in a flock of sheep. There’s the alcoholic ex-football coach, Tom Heddon (Woods) who fancies himself a latter-day Bear Bryant (down to the houndstooth cap) who has a somewhat slutty 15-year-old daughter Janice (Holland) who has eyes for Jeremy (Purcell), a mentally challenged young man who has had past incidents with young women.

Worse yet is Charlie (Skarsgard), a handsome handyman who once was Amy’s beau. She was a cheerleader at the time, he a football hero who still hangs out with the same bunch he did in high school. The pack of them have seen their lives go downhill since high school, a bitter pill for anyone to swallow but they dull the ache with beer and hunting trips. Charlie gets the friendly David to hire him and his crew to repair the hurricane-damaged barn on the property.

Charlie, you see, still has a bit of a torch for Amy. He also has a bit of a passive-aggressive mean streak with a hate on for David that starts to manifest itself in subtle ways, like showing up for work early enough to wake David, or helping himself to beer uninvited from David’s fridge. As David retaliates in equally passive-aggressive ways, the violence escalates.

It boils to a head when Jeremy precipitates a tragedy and through an unlikely turn of events ends up in David’s home. A maddened crowd gathers with the intent of storming David’s castle. This he cannot allow and the passive aggressive turns to outright aggressive. As the villagers take to assaulting the walls of the fortress, David turns from civilized to savage in the blink of an eye. What will this cost him?

This is a remake of a 1971 Sam Peckinpah film which at the time polarized audiences and critics alike. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as the couple, the action was in that film located in rural England with Hoffman playing an out-of-shape mathematician. The hunky Marsden is a far different physical type.

That film was notorious for the shocking brutality of its violence which at the time caused critics to wonder if Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch two years earlier had made violence into an art form, had gone too far. Today there are those who consider it one of the most brilliant films to come out of the 70s, pushing the anti-hero so prevalent in the era to its limits.

In some ways Peckinpah’s film was ahead of its time. While there is violence here, it isn’t as in your face as it was in the 1971 version. One of the crucial scenes in that film was a rape of the wife by the handyman. During the course of the assault, the Susan George character seems to give up fighting, and may be even enjoying it. This was considered to be misogynistic, even though there are accounts of women reacting in a similar manner in real life. That element is missing here; Amy struggles mightily throughout and in doing so removes a plot point that is crucial to the first film and makes it less ambiguous than the first movie, robbing it of some of its power. I don’t know that Lurie makes a mistake in that regard but it is a major change from the original and I can see fans of that film being outraged.

Marsden has to fill the shoes of Dustin Hoffman, one of the most brilliant actors of all time and fares surprisingly well. He doesn’t even attempt to be the same character; he is far too hunky to be convincing as a meek nebbish as Hoffman’s character was, but he does manage to imbue the character with a kind of intellectual superiority which he can’t help but flaunt.

That leads to a kind of political subtext for the movie, which then becomes a Red State versus Blue State confrontation – the Left Coast liberal who is an *shudder* atheist and an intellectual, whose presence is slightly insulting to the god-fearing, gun-toting football fans whose traditional moral values get a might twisted in an Old Testament style reckoning. Woods, who actually is kind of a Left Coast liberal, plays Heddon as a hotheaded bigot with a short fuse. He’s usually a reliable performer but here he sails way over the top and turns the coach into a character.

I don’t know that this stands up to the original, which was about the savage lurking in all of us, even the most civilized of people. Here this turns into a bit of a revenge fantasy which when you get down to it are kind of a dime a dozen. There are enough elements from Peckinpah’s original to make this worth looking out for in the rental queue but even though the relocation in my mind is perfect location casting, not enough of the changes work out well enough to make this something you’ll want to see more than once.

The sad thing is that the point is lost on a lot of audiences, who critics reported were cheering and clapping at the end. Peckinpah might have been right about the savage in all of us after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Relocation to the American South makes much sense. Marsden does surprisingly well stepping into Hoffman’s shoes. Skarsgard shows some big screen charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too watered down, removing the shock value. Woods too over the top.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence can be pretty brutal. There’s a sexual assault, a ton of bad language and some consensual sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lurie is the Israel-born son of internationally syndicated cartoonist Ranan Lurie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette comparing and contrasting this with the 1971 original which in a way attempts to justify the existence of the remake, but Lurie’s commentary also does plenty of that.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $25M production budget; the movie fell short at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Iron Lady