Earwig and the Witch (Âya to majo)


Which is the witch?

(2020) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Dan Stevens, Richard E. Grant, Taylor Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Kacey Musgraves, Logan Hannan, Pandora Colin, JB Blanc, Thomas Bromhead, Alex Cartañá, Summer Jenkins, Eva Kaminski, Sherina Munafu, Vivienne Richardson. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki

 

For anime fans, Studio Ghibli is the apex predator, much in the same way Pixar was to computer animation early on (and, some would argue, still is). But while Pixar has specialized in computer generated animation, Studio Ghibli was strictly hand-drawn. That is, until this made-for-TV entry by founder Hayao Miyazaki’s son, based on a posthumously-published novel by Howl’s Moving Castle author Diane Wynne Jones.

A baby is dropped off at St. Morwad’s orphanage by a red-haired witch (Musgraves) who leaves a note that she is being chased by 12 witches and will be back to pick up her child once she shakes off the pursuit, which, she warns, may take years. That baby grows up to be Earwig (Henderson), a somewhat manipulative and not always lovable tyke who has the orphanage running to her specifications and is in no hurry to leave it. She tells fellow orphan Custard (Hannan) as much, shortly before being adopted by Bella Yaga (Marshall), a corpulent blue-haired witch and her domestic partner, the demonic Mandrake (Grant) who is quick to anger and, she is warned, will do awful things if not left alone.

Bella Yaga isn’t looking for a daughter so much as she’s looking for an assistant – slave labor would be more like it – and Earwig balks at the idea of giving away her work for nothing. HOWEVER…if Bella Yaga is willing to teach her spellcraft, things might just work out after all. In any case, Earwig wants to control her new “parents” the same way she controlled the orphanage – only this will take some real magic. When Bella Yaga proves to be less than forthcoming in terms of lessons, Earwig teaches herself, aided by the feline familiar Thomas (Stevens).

Earwig isn’t one of Wynne Jones’ better novels and whereas pappy Hayao fleshed out Howl’s Moving Castle with his own personality and feeling, scion Goro doesn’t really do the same here. There are a few scenes giving Earwig’s mother some back story, but other than that, things are mainly as written. The computer animation, mostly farmed out to contractors around the world, is mainly uneven despite an opening sequence of Earwig’s mom being chased on a motorcycle through traffic that is absolutely brilliant. After that, this turns out more like direct-to-video CGI complete with plastic skin tones, stiff facial expressions and robot-like movement.

While there are some moments of whimsy and humor that are the trademark of Ghibli productions, the main issue here is Earwig herself. She’s not very likable. She’s controlling, selfish, uber-manipulative and often sneers at the adults she has under her thumb behind their backs. It makes for not a very attractive character and it makes it hard for viewers to like her and root for her.

Still, as a Studio Ghibli production, there is quality here, albeit not as much as you’re used to seeing in the course of most of their other productions. One gets the sense that Goro is trying to impress or perhaps outdo his father by taking on productions that are similar thematically to those his father was famous for, but he doesn’t seem to have a knack for it. Perhaps Goro would be wiser to try making features that please himself first and worry about dear old dad afterwards. It’s perhaps not fair to compare him to his father, who is essentially the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, but Goro invites those comparisons by doing projects like this one. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad production – it really is meant for a younger audience than most Studio Ghibli films – but compared to their high standards it doesn’t quite reach the bar.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of that sly Studio Ghibli humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Surprisingly uneven and Earwig is far too annoying to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Studio Ghibli to be completely computer animated.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witches
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blithe Spirit (2021)

Isn’t It Romantic


Three’s a crowd.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott-Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alexandra Kis, Jay Oakerson, Rao Rampilla, Marcus Choi, Hugh Sheridan, Luciano Acuna Jr., Ray Anthony Thomas, Zach Cherry, Sandy Honig, Rosemary Howard, Ron Nakahar, Tom Ellis, Michelle Buteau. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 

I have never been a huge Rebel Wilson fan, but even I can see that the girl’s got skills. Part of my problem with Wilson is that she seems to be cast in very similar roles that after a while, get monotonous. The good news here is that she is the lead for the first time In her career, and she has been given a part that is unlike anything she’s ever played before.

The bad news is that it isn’t a part like anything we haven’t seen before. She’s Natalie, a junior architect at a New York City firm in which she is ignored and marginalized – the billionaire client (Hemsworth) whose project she’s working on, continually asks her to fetch coffee for him. As with many people in the Big Apple, she is alone. Cynically rejecting the tropes of romance and of romantic comedies in particular, she sees herself as a realist – until a bonk on the head during a subway mugging knocks her unconscious, leading her to wake up in a world that IS a romantic comedy.

This is a nightmare for a cynic. All the clichés are here, from the gay best friend to the PG-13 coupling, to the way it always seems to rain when she kisses someone romantically. Most satires tend to be pretty hit and miss and that’s very true about Isn’t It Romantic but it does get some laughs – just not as many as I would have preferred. The ending is a bit sappy but pleasant in a surprising way and is geared to lift even the most grumpy soul out of the doldrums, which is something all of us can use lately.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly surprising, particularly the ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much of the humor doesn’t work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and brief drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strauss-Schulson watched over 90 rom-coms in just over two weeks in order to note similarities in visual styles so he could apply them to this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Sunlit Night

My Hindu Friend (Meu Amigo Hindu)


Doing a rain dance.

(2015) Drama (Rock SaltWillem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Candido, Reynaldo Gianecchini, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello, Guilherme Weber, Dan Stulbach, Gilda Nomacce, Tuna Dwek, Tania Khalill, Maité Proença, Dalton Vigh, Supla, Ary Fontoura, Rio Adlakha, Barry Baker, Juan Alba, Lilian Blanc, Jason Bermingham, Roney Facchini, Helena Cerello, Ondina Clais, Christine Fernandes. Directed by Hector Babenco

 

Death comes for us all, but it comes in different forms; a sudden, violent end a gentle slippage into eternal sleep, or a protracted, painful illness. Whether ready or not, we all die.

Diego Fairman (Dafoe) is a famous film director but neither his riches or his fame can rescue him from the inevitable; he has cancer, an aggressive and life-threatening sort. He needs a bone marrow transplant if he is to survive, but the operation itself might kill him. His girlfriend/partner Livia (Candido) responds with supportive words “You know that if it were a choice between you dying and me dying, I’d choose me” to which Diego agrees that he wishes it were her dying. He’s lashing out, of course but even so that had to hurt, but still she agrees to marry him.

Following the ceremony, he is whisked to New York for the painful and debilitating process that will either save his life or end it. While in the hospital, he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Mello) who has come to collect him to take him to the other side. “But I’m not ready to go,” Diego protests. The man shrugs. “That’s what they all say,” he says in a plainly irritated voice. The stranger comes night after night, sitting down to play chess with Diego in a nice little nod to Berman.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Diego meets a young Indian boy (Adlakha) whom he befriends, using his imagination to tell stories to keep the frightened little boy from being too afraid of the terrible suffering he is undergoing. Diego wants to make one more movie and his new friend might just give him the strength to go out and make it.

The movie was actually made in 2015 by Brazilian legend Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco, the first Latin American director to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. It is largely based on his own experiences battling the cancer that would eventually kiss him in 2016 (his death would keep the film from American distribution until earlier this year).

This is not just a downbeat film about the indignity of dying – yes, the horrible painful indignities visited upon cancer patients are presented matter-of-factly, as are Diego’s estrangement from his brother who is now charged with keeping Diego alive with a donation of bone marrow – but also a loving tribute to the movies that Babenco loves and kept him going in dark times. At one point, Diego breaks into a song – “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to be exact – pulling out his breathing apparatus, but his fantasy overlaps into the real world as nurses frantically sedate him before he inadvertently kills himself.

Like most Brazilian films, there is a sensuality that is going to surprise American audiences not used to such things. It manifests in a joyous dance routine that closes out the movie set to the standard “Singing in the Rain.” It also manifests in a scene in which Diego, long too sick for sex, rediscovers his physical sexuality once again in one of the film’s more affecting moments.

The film was originally written in Portuguese but was switched to English to accommodate Dafoe (more on him in a moment). The result is that some of the Brazilian actors are a bit stiff and stilted in their dialogue and it is kind of strange to hear all the supposedly American doctors and nurses speaking with Portuguese accents.

But it might have well been worth it to get Dafoe, one of the best actors of his generation. He is downright skeletal as the ill Diego, his head shaved from the chemo and radiation therapies, looking very much like a man who is inching closer to death. He still, even in his debilitated state, have the ability to roar at the cosmos over the injustice of it all and Dafoe makes it feel organic.

The movie is a bit of a mixed bag and sometimes all the parts don’t mesh as well as I would like, but that’s me. The fantasy sequences work really well, but the “real” sequences of the cancer treatment are also compelling in their own way. The movie does end up on a high note, even though it is tempered with the thought that one of the great directors was making his last film. As swan songs go, this one is a pretty satisfying way to say goodbye.

REASONS TO SEE: Rather imaginative and somewhat surreal. Keeps the interest despite a two-hour running time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little self-indulgent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some drug use, and plenty of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on the experiences of Babenco as he battled cancer and the characters are based on his own family and friends; this would turn out to be his final film as he passed away a year after the movie was released in Brazil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, FlixFling, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seventh Seal
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A 12-year Night

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald


An expanding family portrait.

(2018) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, David Wilmot, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jessica Williams, Hugh Quarshie, Isaura Barbé-Brown, Victoria Yeates, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Derek Riddell, Poppy Corby-Tuech. Directed by David Yates

 

The Harry Potter franchise has been nothing short of a cash cow for Warner Brothers. After Harry’s adventures came to an end, we looked forward with some eagerness to the adventures of New Scamander in a prequel of sorts. When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them became the expected massive hit, the proposed trilogy was expanded into a five-film series.

Heavy on exposition, the second film in the series has turned out to be a bloated mess. The evil wizard Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped from captivity and looks to continue his quest to amass an army to take over the world and rule all muggles. He has seen a vision of the future and it includes a mushroom cloud, so one can hardly blame him there – we muggles certainly made a hash of things.

Newt Scamander (Redmayne) would rather continue to gather magical beasts from around the world but he is under a travel ban until his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (Law) gives him a new quest – to find Creedence (Miller), the emotionally abused young man from the first film. It turns out that the Ministry of Magic is also after him. And so is Grindelwald. Newt, aided by the woman he loves, American auror Tina Goldstein (Waterston), her ditzy sister Queenie (Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend (as well as Newt’s buddy from the first film) Jacob the Baker (Fogler) will have to step lively if they are to find the elusive Creedence, who is searching for his past so he may discover truly who and what he is. He is, for all intents and purposes, the crux of the show.

The tone is distinctly darker here, as most second films of fantasy series’ are. J.K. Rowling’s world-building skills are beyond reproach but I get the sense she was trying to accomplish too much with this film; in addition to the main characters from the first film there are also plenty of new ones running around, so much so that it becomes difficult to determine who’s who and what’s what. The movie gets bogged down in plot exposition and character development, eschewing action a little bit too much.

The special effects are wondrous, of course, as you would expect. There are plenty of amazing creature effects here, both CGI and practical. The cast does it’s level best but I got the sense that they, too, were confused by what was going on behind them. The third film, after the disappointing reviews and box office of this film, is being retooled but hopefully it will right the course for the series which has made a most definite misstep.

REASONS TO SEE: The beasties continue to be nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underwhelming performances and plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Newt Scamander’s basement, where he keeps his beasts, was inspired by an M.C. Escher print (Relativity).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews, Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mowgli

Okja


A girl and her genetically modified giant pig; such a sweet picture!

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seohyun An, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jungeun Lee, Byun Heebong, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshaw, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, José Carias, Colm Hill, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Nancy Bell, Jaein Kim, Bongryun Lee, Woo Shik Choi, Moon Choi. Directed by Joon-ho Bong

 

Asian culture can be incomprehensible at times for the Western mind. There is an almost cultish worship of things that are ridiculously cute and a sense of humor that is wacky and broad, yet their comic books and animated features can be crazy violent and chock full of deviant sexual behavior. Some things are best left un-analyzed.

In the near future, food shortages have led the multinational Morando Corporation to develop a genetically enhanced pig. The CEO (Swinton), seeking to undo the damage to the corporate image her amoral sister (also Swinton) did, proclaims the pig to be a miracle; it eats and poops less, provides more meat on the hoof (it resembles a hippopotamus with dog eyes) and tastes delicious. She initiates a contest in which piglets are sent to a variety of farms around the world to see which one is most successful at raising one.

The South Korean entry is sent to the farm of Hee Bong (Heebong) whose granddaughter Mija (An) has developed a bond with her pig whom she has named Okja. When television personality Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) – a sort of Steve Irwin-like character if Steve Irwin had been a corporate shill – visits the remote mountain farm and proclaims Okja the winner. What nobody has told Mija however is that Okja is to be taken away from the farm, sent to New York for a promotional appearance and then butchered for snacks. When she finds this out, she is not at all pleased.

But she gets a break; the quirky Animal Liberation Front, led by the quirky Jay (Dano) – has kidnapped Okja (maybe pig-napped would be a better term) and hopes to use the creature for his own agenda. However operatives for Morando find Okja and bring her back to New York. Can Okja be saved? And even if she is, will she ever be able to live on the farm again once she’s seen New York?

Director Joon-ho Bong, who gave us the wonderful The Host and the not as wonderful but still interesting Snowpiercer, delivers a great-looking film which is infused with a good deal of unexpected satire on the nature of corporate politics, mass media, obsession, animal cruelty and a little bit of American imperialism (at least one line spoke in Korean is deliberately mistranslated in the subtitles, which is about as subversive as you’d think Netflix would ever get). The satire can be a bit broad but it at least has its heart in the right place.

Just as broad is the humor which can take some getting used to by Western and particularly American audiences. There’s an awful lot of jokes about pig shit and if you find that dopey or distasteful, well, you’re not alone. Fortunately nothing is overtly mean or tremendously gross, so most youngsters will be delighted by the mainly CGI Okja who looks startlingly realistic.

This isn’t bad at all, although again there is a bit of a curve of how much you’ll enjoy it depending on how open to different cultures you might be. While much of this is fairly universal, I found some of it to be bewildering. Still, the cinematography is incredible (particularly in the Korean scenes) and even if the usually reliable Gyllenhaal and Swinton overact shamelessly (Esposito as a debonair corporate flunky is an exception) the movie is a solid choice for a night at home with Netflix.

REASONS TO GO: It’s bizarre and weird but in a good way. There is a surprising amount of social satire in the mix.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor is a little broad for my Western tastes and the movie a bit too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some violence and plenty of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Animal Liberation Front is an actual organization that is dedicated to freeing animals in captivity and causing economic chaos for corporations profiting from their captivity.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babe: A Giant Pig in the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

Bright


Not your two ordinary cops.

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho, Joseph Piccuirro, Brad William Henke, Jay Hernandez, Enrique Murciano, Scarlet Spencer, Andrea Navedo, Kenneth Cho, Bobby Naderi, Carlos Linares, Bunnie Rivera. Directed by David Ayer

 

This Netflix film, released last Christmas, is a perfect example of the dichotomy between critics and audiences. Film critics hammered the film, calling it confusing and preposterous. Audiences loved it, making it one of the most watched non-theatrical movies ever. Netflix called for a sequel which is likely to be on the streaming giant’s front page in two to three years.

Smith, one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood for the past two decades, stars as a bitter and curmudgeonly L.A. cop who has a new partner that he doesn’t want. That sounds like the plot to dozens of cop buddy movies but this one’s a little different – it turns out his partner, Nick (Edgerton) is not just a different ethnicity. He’s an Orc – a completely different species.

The two are on the trail of a magic wand so powerful that whoever wields it can essentially bend the world to their will. Fortunately, only a select few can actually wield the wand; these worthies are called “Brights” and they only appear once every generation or so. Also on the trail of the wand is a bunch of corrupt cops, a gang of Orcs (who are portrayed here essentially as low-riding gangbangers) and an evil elf named Leilah (Rapace). Assisting Nick and Daryl (the Smith character’s name) is a less corrupt elf named Tikka (Fry).

There are some pretty decent effects here and Smith has never been so badass as he is in this film. I’m not kidding when I say that this is his best performance in a decade. Daryl walks around in a perpetually foul mood, like there’s a rock in his shoe he can’t quite get rid of or he has a particularly painful case of hemorrhoids. Either way, he’s far from cheerful; he’s like the anti-Fresh Prince.

It should come as no surprise that Max Landis wrote this; one of the things he does extremely well as a writer is world-building. The world of Bright is believable despite the mash-up of high fantasy and urban crime drama. There is a lot of detail and one gets a lot more detail that didn’t make it into the script. This is the kind of thing that can turn a single picture into a franchise.

David Ayer is the perfect director for this. Not so much for the fantasy elements although he is just fine with those but there are few directors who intuitively understand the workings of an urban crime drama like Ayer, whose previous credits include Training Day (as a writer), End of Watch, Harsh Times and Street Kings.

I don’t understand all the critical hate; this is really a good movie but I suppose this kind of fantasy mash-up isn’t for everybody. Still, I found it not just solidly entertaining but actually absorbing. This is one I wouldn’t mind seeing regularly (I’ve already watched it several times since it debuted). As far as I’m concerned, I only wish that this movie had a more widespread theatrical run; I would have liked to have seen it on a big movie theater screen. Ah well, if wishes were horses…there would undoubtedly be a few of them trotting around in the world of Bright.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an excellent job of world-building. Will Smith is at his badass best in this one.
REASONS TO STAY: The final action sequence is a bit disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, fantasy violence and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a $90 million production budget, this is the most expensive Netflix movie to date. Also, it is the first Netflix film to generate a sequel which was signed shortly before the movie was released to the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien Nation
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Three Identical Strangers

The Dark Tower (2017)


Good vs evil goes nose to nose.

(2017) Fantasy (Columbia) Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Ben Gavin, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Nicholas Pauling, Michael Barbieri, José Zuñiga, Nicholas Hamilton, Inge Beckmann, Alfredo Narciso, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean, Mark Elderkin, Matthew Thomson, Karl Thaning, Charlize Churcher. Directed by Nicolaj Arcel

 

There are few who will accuse Stephen King of being a brilliant writer but it is true that when it comes to telling a story he is without peer. His most ambitious story is the eight-book Dark Tower saga featuring Roland Deschain (Elba) as the last of an honorable caste of warriors known as the Gunslingers. He is tasked to protect The Dark Tower, a structure at the intersection of all reality that keeps chaos at bay. It is in the process of failing thanks to an evil wizard named Walter O’Dim (McConaughey) a.k.a. The Man in Black and we’re not talking Johnny Cash. Walter wants the tower to fall and all worlds to fall apart in the process.

Jake Chambers (Taylor) is a powerful psychic who has visions of Roland and the Man in Black, the latter of whom wants to harness Jake’s power in order to bring the Dark Tower down. Jake lives on our Earth, the so-called Keystone which is the last holdout, the last world that has yet to “move on,” as the Gunslinger terms it. Jake escapes the minions of Walter and finds a portal into Mid-World, the Earth of Roland. Although Roland is disinterested in saving the universe, he is very much interested in taking down Walter who has killed everything that Roland loves. There is going to be some gunslinging you can be sure.

Elba and McConaughey are both terrific performers. Elba in particular excels; he seems literally born to roles like this one. He gives the role gravitas and a certain stoic nobility that made the role so compelling in the books. It’s the kind of character that was much more prevalent in the past than it is now; these days we like our heroes to be pure but Roland is riddled with impurities.

Sadly, these two performances are all there really is to recommend the movie. Opinion on the books is sharply divided; some believe that they are a case of King’s reach exceeding his grasp while others consider it a terrific read. Count me among the latter believers. However, trying to boil down eight books into a 90 minute movie is like trying to figure out a way to condense the Manhattan phone book into two names. You might get the gist of the series but you won’t get the flavor. There are some dynamic creature effects but they are so dimly lit that you can’t really make out the details. The pacing is all over the map; sometimes it seems rushed; other times it’s painfully slow. This has all the earmarks of a studio putting its grubby hands all over a project.

So the consensus is that this is a mess and not even a hot one. The books deserve better attention than this gives it; a full series would have done it more justice. I can’t imagine King himself is satisfied with what was done to a work he put so much time and effort into. I know that I, as a fan of the books, certainly am not.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba is perfectly cast for this role.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is a disappointment on nearly every level.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence particularly using guns and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eight-book Dark Tower series by Stephen King was inspired at least in part by Robert Browning’s epic poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Sony, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Stand
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sunset Park

Destined


In any reality, there are some guys you just don’t mess with.

(2016) Drama (XLRator) Cory Hardrict, Margot Bingham, Robert Christopher Riley, Jesse Metcalfe, Jason Dohring, Hill Harper, Zulay Henao, Mo McRae, La La Anthony, Demonte Thompson, Paula Devicq, James McCaffrey, Curtiss Cook, Robert Forte Simpson III, David Bianchi, Terri Partyka, Ricky Wayne, Sarab Kamoo, Martavious Grayles, Karen Minard. Directed by Qasim Basir

 

There is a theory that there are an uncountable number of realities, each one changing due to a different outcome in a pivotal moment; a choice made, a road not taken. Every outcome creates its own reality. This was explored somewhat in the romance Sliding Doors in which a missed train led to life-changing consequences for Gwyneth Paltrow.

Here, a young teen drug courier flees from the police. In one reality, he escapes and goes on to become Sheed (Hardrict), a ruthless drug kingpin who rules urban Detroit with the help of his volatile right hand man Cal (Riley). In the other, he stumbles and is caught by the police, straightens out his life and becomes an architect Rasheed (also Hardrict) who with the encouragement of close friend Calvin (also Riley) prepares to demolish his old neighborhood and erect gentrified condominiums in its place.

The two realities are differentiated by camera filters; in the Sheed story there is a warm, orange filter; in the Rasheed story the filter is more of a cool blue. Once you figure out the difference, it is generally pretty easy to tell which story is which although occasionally there is some confusion which might just be a continuity issue.

I did like the concept a great deal, which is meant to illustrate how a seemingly random change can have an earth-shattering effect on an individual life but some of the differences between the two realities seem to be inexplicable. In the Rasheed reality, Dylan Holder (Metcalfe) is a corrupt corporate type who works with Rasheed; in the Sheed reality, he is a relentless police officer looking to put an end to the reign of a drug boss. It doesn’t make sense that an arrest could have such a polarizing effect on Holder. Also, in the Rasheed reality his mother (Devicq) is a drug addict reaping the benefits of her son’s underworld status; in the other she is supportive and clean. How would her son’s arrest change her from a junkie to mother of the year?

In a lot of ways the Rasheed tale is much more interesting than the more generic Sheed story. The erosion of Rasheed’s conscience in the name of ambition resonates with me more. We’ve seen characters like Sheed in a number of thug life movies and he doesn’t really add a whole lot to the mix. Rasheed on the other hand is someone who is struggling between making a better life for himself but begins to wonder if the cost is too high. Most of us have to choose from time to time between the greater good and self-interest.

In each reality, Sheed/Rasheed are ambitious and ruthless, both willing to do whatever it takes to make that big score that will set him up for life. In each reality, he is pining for Maya (Bingham), a childhood friend who is trying to better herself. Either way, Sheed/Rasheed has an appointment with a loaded gun which seems to indicate that no matter what you do or how you live, you’re still going to end up at the same destination which seems to defeat the purpose of the whole film.

Hardrict is a compelling presence who could join actors like Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and John Boyega as big stars. He shows some rough edges here but with a little more experience and the right roles he has unlimited potential. His is definitely a name to remember coming out of this film.

Basir also utilizes the bleak urban war zone landscape of Detroit to full effect; in the Rasheed stories, he shows a dilapidated high rise being torn down as a kind of metaphor. The Sheed storyline packs a few too many clichés of the urban crime drama – the hip hop club where drug lords go to have a few drinks with their entourage, glare at one another, start wars with one another and argue with their nagging girlfriends. They don’t seem to be there to have a good time as we never see much dancing. There’s also the hotheaded pal who becomes a rival for power within his own gang. And so on. And so forth.

This is far from being a complete success. There are definitely signs of talent and imagination behind the camera and in front of it but Basir and crew don’t quite pull together a solid movie. Part of the issue is that the two stories don’t intertwine well; they need to flow together more smoothly and harmonize, each story complimenting the other. Often the movement from one story to the other seems somewhat arbitrary and without purpose. When the final credits roll, the viewer is left wondering what the point of the movie was other than as acting as an exercise in filmmaking that will lead to bigger and better things for all involved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hard to recommend for viewing a movie that at times feels like a practice run.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is a good one, although not original. Basir does a good job of delineating between the two realities.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a lot of stock urban crime tropes. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality and occasional drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers is Rick Rosenthal, director of two movies in the Halloween franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Big Sonia

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving