Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton

 

I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

Swiss Army Man


Just another day at the beach.

Just another day at the beach.

(2016) Fantasy (A24) Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Caruth. Directed by Daniels

 

Look, some movies simply aren’t meant for everybody. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in an era where Hollywood is constantly trying to create franchise films that are all things to all people, it’s refreshing once in awhile to happen upon a movie that is meant to appeal only to a narrow few and if you’re one of that narrow few, it’s like getting a private message from someone who shares your own particular interests.

On a deserted tropical island, a bearded and bedraggled Hank (Dano) is standing on a cooler with a noose around his neck, ready to step off and have an end to everything. How he got to this island is unimportant; the salient fact is that he’s totally alone – and sharp-eyed viewers will recognize that as a metaphor that drives the film.

However, his loneliness ends with the site of a man washed ashore on the beach. Forgetting his precarious position, Hank steps off…and fortunately for him, the rope snaps, allowing him to rescue the man…who is sadly, quite dead. The corpse, whom Hank names Manny (Radcliffe), is full of the gasses of decomposition and farts constantly. If you are the sort who is offended by flatulence, read no further and skip this movie altogether. You will not find a movie anywhere ever that revels in the act of breaking wind as this one does.

It turns out that Manny’s gasses can be used in a variety of ways, including as a propulsion system turning Manny into a kind of stinky Jet Ski that transports Hank from the desert island to a location of forest and ocean. The prospects are much better for survival here, and Hank builds…well, a recreation of his life for Manny because Manny is able to talk to Hank. Hank gives Manny tips on how to pick up girls and other assorted facts of life. As he does, we begin to learn that Hank is a deeply wounded and possibly deeply disturbed young man and that not everything he says can be trusted.

Which, once again, is a metaphor for this film. Not everything that the filmmakers show you can be trusted and as the story unfolds, our point of view is changed somewhat – more than somewhat, in fact. It is a bit of a carnie trick, a game of Three Card Monty that the filmmakers – a pair of young auteurs who got their start in the music video game and who are known collectively as Daniels – play on their audience. Some are going to feel a bit cheated and others will be delighted, as is usually the case in cinematic con games.

The movie is largely Radcliffe and Dano, with Winstead showing up mainly in the last reel as the object of obsession for both of the main characters, the living one and the farting corpse. There are other characters here as well but again, they show up late and have little impact on the story except to help bring it to an unexpected although not unsurprising conclusion given on what we witnessed in the rest of the movie. Dano has become known for parts like this and he performs it with gusto; this well may become one of his signature roles. Radcliffe continues to take chances while distancing himself from a certain boy wizard, and we are rewarded by a character who is sweet and funny and charming. I don’t know that Radcliffe will necessarily want to be remembered for being a flatulent cadaver but he seems to have promoted the role with a good sense of humor and a ton of enthusiasm.

There are some scenes that are heart-achingly beautiful here, as well as others that are downright crude. It is a literal mix of the profane and the sublime. I will say that this may well be the most imaginative movie of the year; certainly you won’t be seeing anything like it in the multiplex or at your local film festival. You may find yourself smirking at fart jokes, that lowest common denominator of all humor, but you will also find yourself thinking about the human condition. If the movie has a flaw, it is that the filmmakers seem to be completely aware that they have a high cinematic IQ and at times the movie feels a little condescending, a little hipper-than-thou.

Mostly though, this is an artistic endeavor that tickles the funny bone as well as the brain stem. I can’t say that every reader is going to fall for this the way I did. For that reason, I’ve given the movie a lower rating than it deserves; I can’t in good conscience say “everybody should go see this.” Everybody should not go see this. If your tastes run towards the adventurous, if you’re not easily offended by the scatological and if you are willing to allow yourself be taken in by the wonder, this is the movie for you.

REASONS TO GO: An imaginative exercise different than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s genuinely funny at times. This is truly movie magic on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: This is most definitely an acquired taste. It may be a little bit too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the songs in the movie are sung a cappella, mainly by Andy Hull of the Manchester Orchestra (who also cameos as a cameraman near the end of the movie) and Robert Powell.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Fundamentals of Caring

Warcraft


Some of the dazzling visuals we refer to.

Some of the dazzling visuals we refer to.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkely Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Dean Redman, Glenn Ennis, Terry Notary, Elena Wurlitzer, Michael Adamthwaite, Anna Van Hooft. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

As videogames go, Warcraft is a classic. It led to the massively popular MMORPG Worlds of Warcraft which is one of the most dynamic and rabid communities on the Internet. The filmed version of Warcraft was announced in 2006 when Blizzard Games signed a deal with Legendary Pictures, one of the top production companies in Hollywood. However, the road to the screen was a bumpy one as the project went through a plethora of directors and stars. Now, hot young director Duncan Jones (Moon) has at last shepherded the property to reality.

Durotan (Kebbell) is a chieftain of the Frost Wolves clan of Orcs. He is loved by his people but particularly by Draka (Galvin), his wife who is heavy with child. They, like all the other Orc clans, have gathered on a huge plain at the order of Orgrim (Kazinsky), a powerful wizard who is opening a portal to another world. The world of the Orcs is dying and they need a new place to live, and they have chosen a world called Azeroth.

There a young ambitious wizard named Khadgar (Schnetzer) discovers the presence of the Orcs and takes it to the knight Lothar (Fimmel), the brother-in-law to King Llane (Cooper) who rules a land that has been at peace for generations. They agree to call in the Guardian – the most powerful wizard on Azeroth – for his advice. Medivh (Foster) is one of Lothar’s closest friends and his wisdom and power is well-respected throughout the Kingdom. He agrees the situation is dire, particularly since the Orcs are using the Fel, a type of magic that steals life from everything it touches and warps the user into something evil.

In a skirmish, Lothar’s knights capture Garona (Patton), a half-orc, half-human who at first is fiercely pro-orc. However, convinced by the King (and the Queen (Negga) who happens to be Lothar’s sister) that she would be protected by the humans, she agrees to tell them what Orgrim’s plans are. In the meantime, Durotan has also figured out that Orgrim is up to no good and that all his posturing about glory for the Orcs is only going to end up in disaster for his people. He decides to reach out to the humans and propose a dangerous plan. However, what neither Lothar nor Durotan know is that there is a traitor in the ranks of the humans who might just mean an end to both races.

One of the litmus tests for any movie based on something from a different medium be it comic books, television shows or videogames is whether or not people unfamiliar with the source material can follow what’s going on in the movie. In other words, does the movie stand on its own merits or do you require intimate knowledge of the source material in order to enjoy the movie? The answer here is that the movie does not stand on its own. Being a fan of the game is certainly going to give viewers an advantage over those who are unfamiliar with it.

In fact, the story is so jam-packed with references to the game and background that there’s almost information overload going on. Couple that with some lavish visuals (and I admit that the CGI effects are absolutely stunning) and your senses might be stunned into submission. This is certainly a feast for the eyes and the CGI is detailed and inspiring.

Still, the plot is also dense with a lot of subplots going on. Jones was attempting to show the roots of the conflict that are at the heart of the game and he wanted to show that conflict from both sides so we are constantly switching back between the human and Orcish points of view. I think it was a noble idea that proved to be better in conception than in execution. Too many characters to follow, too many plots. Most moviegoers tend to like things simple.

To be fair, critics have been ripping this film a new one, to the point that they buried Jones’ career even before the movie was released. It is doing spectacular business in China and despite fairly anemic box office in the States it is still already turning a profit. There’s a good possibility that a sequel will eventually be greenlit. I’ll probably see it. Hopefully, they’ll learn from their mistakes and concentrate on telling a story rather than trying to be all things to all fans.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular visuals. Fans of the game likely to love this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and overindulgent. Terribly confusing to non-fans of the game.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of fantasy warfare and violence, including some orc gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga play husband and wife here; they are also playing a couple in the upcoming Preacher series on AMC.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Twisted Justice

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

The Huntsman: Winter’s War


Sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Amelia Crouch, Fred Tatasciore, Lynne Wilmot, Colin Morgan, Liam Neeson (voice), Kara Lily Hayworth. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

When making a successful cinematic fairy tale, remember the cardinal rule – always leave room for a sequel. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman didn’t really go that route, although there was certainly a possibility for a sequel. What they did was an oddball mix of prequel and sequel – a pre-sequel, if you will.

Ravenna (Theron), the beautiful but evil queen from the first movie, has a sister named Freya (Blunt) who is married and happy. When a tragedy turns Freya’s life upside down, Freya finds that she has magical powers as well – an ability to control the cold. She turns her kingdom into ice, and forbids love of any sort to exist. She ravages the towns of her kingdom, murdering the parents and stealing kids to be groomed into medieval ninja assassins, whom she calls Huntsmen.

Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) are the best of these; no others can stand against them. They become leaders of an organization that strikes fear throughout the land but then they break the most sacred law of the kingdom by falling in love and they end up paying a terrible price for it. One, I’m sure, you can see coming.

Fast forward seven years and the events of Snow White and the Huntsman are no longer taking place in the future but in the past – raise your hands if you find that confusing. The audience certainly did. In any case, Ravenna is dead but Freya has figured a way to bring her back to life – by acquiring the Magic Mirror of the first film. Eric is not about to let that happen. Aided by a quartet of comic relief dwarves, he heads out to stop Freya at all costs – but he doesn’t count on the one card Freya has to play that he could never have possibly expected.

Like a lot of the fairy tale films produced by Joe Roth, this movie is effects-laden and often sacrifices story for imagery. That’s OK, when the images are as scintillating as they are here; this is a beautiful film to watch. The problem here is that the movie feels like the pacing has gone by the wayside. It’s slow and turgid, and while the actors do credible work, they are given characters who lack much in the way of personality.

Hemsworth is one of only four actors who return from the first film, and as there he shows here that he has all he needs to be a strong leading man. He has that “one of the boys” feel that serves him well as a certain Marvel superhero, but he also commands the screen with confidence as befits a big star. Theron, in addition to being absolutely knock-down drag-out gorgeous, is an actress of considerable range and ability; she does the villain role as well as anybody, including Christoph Waltz.

Emily Blunt is one of those actresses whose name isn’t well known, but who delivers a strong performance every time out. She’s been impressive in such films as Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow and she gives the most emotional performance of any here. Freya is a tortured soul and we get to see glimpses of it; her experiences have hardened her heart (or frozen it) but not completely. From time to time we see flashes of the pain she bears.

Chastain has become one of those actresses who appears in a lot of movies, nearly all of them good. This one is a bit of an exception (more on that later) but she still carries herself off as a warrior struggling with her emotions and her feelings of betrayal. Now while these sound like characters who should have loads of personality, they aren’t allowed to really express them through action or even dialogue. The body language and eyes of the actors gets across most of the characters’ inner feelings. You can tell the actors are trying hard and quite frankly they could have been excused if they’d just phoned it in once they’d cashed the paycheck.

But this movie feels ponderous and not in the sense that it ponders – more like a bloated elephant stomping its way through the underbrush. There’s little finesse here and a little bit too much reliance on the effects to give the movie a sense of wonder. The sequences in the fairy forest of the first film were truly magical; nothing here equals that. In fact, given the somewhat jarring move from prequel to sequel (which in itself was a promising idea) it feels like the filmmakers at times were distracted by things not even going on in the movie.

This is reasonably entertaining with some fine performances, but as other critics have deftly pointed out, there are a lot of good elements here that don’t add up to a good film. Winter’s War is mediocre at best and given that there are so many really good movies out there just waiting for you to check out, it makes no sense to throw your money away when you could be seeing something that really does have plenty of movie magic to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects. Theron makes a delicious villain.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels a bit too bloated. Overall, lacks focus.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence of the swords and sorcery variety as well as a little bit of sensuality..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the popularity of the first film, Kristen Stewart who played Snow White was not asked to reprise her role, the producers electing to go the prequel route. Some say that her notorious affair with director Rupert Sanders was the reason both were made absent from this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Jungle Book

The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky

Pan


Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

(2015) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Nonso Anozie, Adeel Akhtar, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis MacDougall, Cara Delevingne, Tae-joo Na, Jack Charles, Bronson Webb, Mike Shepherd, Brian Bovell, Kurt Egyiawan, Jimmy Vee, Paul Hunter, Spencer Wilding, Dean Nolan, Giacomo Mancini, Ami Metcalf. Directed by Joe Wright

Most of us are familiar with the boy who never grew up, whether through the stage play or the Disney animation. Author J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan was not terribly forthcoming when it came to his origins, other than what we all know – that he was an orphan who was kidnapped and brought to Neverland where he became leader of the Lost Boys and took on his nemesis, Captain James Hook. But how did he become leader? Where did Captain Hook come from? How did Peter get his sword? And what was he like before he became The Boy Who Never Grew Up?

In Blitz-scarred London during the Second World War, young Peter (Miller) has lived his entire life in an orphanage, run by the malevolent Mother Barnabas (Burke) whom Peter suspects of hoarding the war rations of the Orphanage. With his partner-in-crime Nibs (MacDougall) Peter is also highly suspicious of the rapid disappearance of the boys in the Orphanage; adopted, say the sisters; sent to the country for their own safety, say the sisters. Peter says bunk!

His suspicions soon prove to be correct as it turns out that the boys are being kidnapped by pirates, taken in a flying galleon (which engages in a thrilling battle with Spitfires that are already dealing with the Luftwaffe bombers) and brought to a strange island floating placidly above an ocean which sits in the heavens. This is Neverland and it is ruled with an iron fist by the famous pirate Blackbeard (Jackman) who uses the boys as slave labor in the mines who are digging not for gold but for Pixum, the concentrated remains of dead fairies which Blackbeard killed by the thousands. However, they have all fled to the Fairy Kingdom which Blackbeard cannot find and he is growing frantic; the Pixum preserves his youth and vitality and he will die without it. Peter, kidnapped by the pirates but saving his pal Nibs in the process, ends up in the mines with an adult – James Hook (Hedlund), who is friend to nobody but for some odd reason takes to Peter.

There is also a prophecy among the natives that a boy would come, a Pan warrior bearing the symbol of their tribe (pan pipes) that would kill their oppressor and lead them to freedom. When Peter discovers that he has the ability to fly, Hook sees a way out of the mines and enlists Peter and the overseer Sam Smiegel (Akhtar) – whom Hook addresses as Smee – they are successful but end up captured by the natives led by Princess Tiger Lily (Mara) whose father (Charles), the chief of the tribe, orders that Hook fight the tribe’s most valiant warrior. If he defeats their champion, the three of them go free. If not, the three will be put to death. Tough place, Neverland.

The fight is interrupted by Peter who is discovered to be wearing a chain bearing the tribe’s Pan symbol and Hook blabs about the boy’s ability to take flight. The trouble is, Peter isn’t confident that he can repeat his feat and Blackbeard is on his way to reclaim the boy, whom he sees as not just a threat but as a means to lead him to the fairy kingdom. A final battle will ensue and ’tis life or death. Will Peter become the warrior and leader he is destined to be?

Well, yeah. That’s the thing about prequels; you know essentially how things are going to turn out. Therefore it is important that the journey getting there is interesting. Certainly the visuals are amazing, with majestic flying pirate ships, skeletal prehistoric giant birds and native Neverlanders exploding into multicolored dust when the pirates kill them. Visually, this is a treat.

Story-wise, not so much. The movie plods along with virtually no energy. Peter Pan is meant to make our spirits soar, to allow us to recapture (or retain) our childhood. None of this is really uplifting or enjoyable. It feels like all the effort went into the visuals but the story itself got little more attention than being an excuse for some spectacular production design.

There’s also the odd propensity to use anachronisms, like the miners greeting Blackbeard with an a Capella performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” or the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop.” They both take us out of the movie and remind us that we are watching a movie. The surest way for a filmmaker to sabotage his or her own film is to use pop songs inappropriately.

Jackman, as Blackbeard, alone appears to be having fun here. While he looks something like a demented Cavalier, he has a joie de vivre that is missing from the rest of the movie. Miller as the titular character isn’t bad but he isn’t memorable either. He has some potential I think but he is thrown into the cinematic fire, essentially being expected to carry much of the load of this film and it really is an awful lot to expect out of an inexperienced kid (this is his first feature film). That he acquits himself as well as he does is a minor miracle.

Hedlund for some odd reason chooses to play Hook as the love child of Indiana Jones and James Cagney. It isn’t an embarrassing performance but quite frankly his odd line delivery is distracting and I don’t think he got a lot of direction on how to play the character. The man who is to be the nemesis of Peter Pan should be much darker than this Hook is who comes off mainly as spoiled and scared. There’s no sign of the great pirate Captain Hook here which is a shame.

The movie has been getting roundly panned by critics (couldn’t resist) and has been a box office bomb. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you’ve heard it is, but it isn’t very good either. I’d put it up there as mediocre mindless entertainment that might be too dark for the kids and too childish for their parents. Considering the amount of money spent on this, I have to say that the audience has much better uses for their time than on this early serving of turkey.

REASONS TO GO: Great production design. Jackman is clearly having fun with this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and top-heavy. Doesn’t have the heart that Peter Pan films should have.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material, some mild cursing and fantasy violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Javier Bardem was originally offered the role of Blackbeard but turned it down.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hook
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Death Valley

Cinderella (2015)


Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

(2015) Fantasy (Disney) Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex Macqueen, Tom Edden, Gareth Mason, Paul Hunter, Eloise Webb, Joshua McGuire, Matthew Steer, Mimi Ndiweni, Laura Elsworthy, Ella Smith. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

We all grow up with fairy tales. We’re familiar with all the ones in which courageous and kind young women overcome poverty and the machinations of villains to triumph over adversity and win the love of handsome young princes who whisk them away to a happy ending of wealth and privilege. Most little girls grow up wondering what type of prince is going to sweep them off their feet.

Like most fairy tale heroines, Ella (Webb) wasn’t really thinking in those terms, at least not right away. She was too busy living an idyllic childhood on a country estate with a loving mother (Atwell) and a doting father (Chaplin) who’s often away on business. She doesn’t have many human friends but she has companions in a trio of mice that she feeds and also the farm’s goose. It’s a lovely, sun-dappled existence.

But all good things must come to an end and Ella’s golden childhood does when her mother takes ill and dies, lingering long enough to make her daughter promise to have courage and be kind in life. She takes comfort in that she still has her father but life isn’t quite as golden, not nearly as idyllic. Thinking that Ella needs a mother around her, her father decides to remarry, bringing into the household Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), the widow of an old friend of his, and her two spoiled, cruel and stupid daughters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger). None of the three are very pleasant but Ella treats them with kindness.

Then on a business trip her father also takes ill and dies, leaving Ella alone with these three monstrous females. Reduced to being essentially a servant in her own home, the newly rechristened Cinderella (James) – so named because of the embers staining her cheeks – tries to cope with being an orphan and being so cruelly used.

After a chance meeting with young Kip (Madden), who claims to be an apprentice in the castle of the King, in a forest during a hunt, Cinderella has hope that things might get better for her. What she doesn’t know is that Kip is actually the Prince who is apprentice to be the next King and with his father (Jacobi) in poor health, the pressure for him to marry is becoming intense. Traditionally, the royal family throws a ball at the castle in which all the eligible princesses from around the world are invited so that the prince of the castle might choose from one a bride to become the future Queen, but he has fallen deeply in love with Cinderella, although he doesn’t know her identity or her station in life. Desperate to see her again, he manages to convince his father to allow all the women of the kingdom to come to the ball as well, while the Grand Duke (Skarsgard) manipulates behind the scenes a match with the lovely Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Perez).

Of course, everyone in the land is all aflutter over the prospects of attending a royal ball and Lady Tremaine knows that to get out of the financial bind she is now in due to her husband’s death that marrying off one of her daughters to the Prince would solve everything. Cinderella in the meantime longs to attend the ball so that she might see Kip again, whom she is quite taken by. She even finds an old dress that was once worn by her mother to wear, but the spiteful stepmother tears the dress and forbids her from attending, fearing the competition to her daughters.

Distraught, Cinderella sobs in the garden, realizing that her life will never change but her breakdown is interrupted by the appearance of an old crone begging for something to eat and drink which the compassionate Cinderella gives her. Turns out the old crone is her Fairy Godmother (Carter) who says “Hell YES you’re going to the ball,” or words to that effect. She conjures up a fabulous coach out of a pumpkin, footmen out of a pair of lizards and a driver from the goose. She also transforms her mother’s now ripped and ragged old dress into a beautiful gown and a pair of glass slippers – which are surprisingly comfortable – for her to wear. All the better to win the heart of a prince, although she has until midnight before the enchantments wear off.

For hordes of little girls, the princess fantasy is one that is central to their lives, the belief that a better life and a handsome princess who will adore them and see to their every happiness is just around the corner. How healthy this fantasy is can be debated as to whether it raises unrealistic expectations – not every handsome man is a prince, after all, and maybe the expectation that their own personal happiness is wrapped up in finding one. But that’s a debate for another time or place.

Branagh has always been a terrific director but as of late he has moved from Shakespeare and art house films to big budget event movies and this one continues in the series of live action reimaginings of classic Disney animated features. Inevitably, Cinderella will be compared to its 1950 predecessor but surprisingly it doesn’t fall as short as you think it might have.

The costumes and set design are lush and detailed, from the gilt on the pumpkin coach to the sumptuous ball gowns to the rustic charms of Cinderella’s home. This really looks like you’ve always imagined the fairy tale to be and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road it got Oscar consideration for costume design and/or production design.

The acting is another matter. James is certainly as beautiful as a fairy tale princess, but her smile seems forced at times and her acting seems a tad stilted. Julia Roberts was a more believable fairy tale princess in Pretty Woman, that most modern of fairy tales, and more relatable. Not that Cinderella has to be a hooker mind you, but there was more genuineness coming from Roberts, although to compare James whose career is fairly nascent with one of the most glittering stars in the Hollywood firmament may be a trifle unfair.

One of the main attractions of the movie is that it is a retro fairy tale, which in this case is a good thing. This isn’t a re-working or a re-imagining; this is Cinderella exactly the way you remember it and the way your little girls envisioned it. This is the kind of movie that puts to the lie the old adage that “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” because clearly they can and occasionally they do.

REASONS TO GO: Lush costumes and sets. Beautifully shot. Retro in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: James’ performance a bit forced. Princess porn.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for most audiences except the very wee and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James and McShera both appear in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey although their roles are reversed; in the show, James plays an aristocrat and McShera a servant.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Seventh Son


"No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?"

“No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?”

(2014) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, Antje Traue, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo, Timothy Webber, Lilah Fitzgerald, Marcel Bridges, Libby Osler, Primo Allon, Taya Clyne. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

In Hollywood’s seemingly unceasing attempt to grab the newest Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen from a Young Adult novel series, they have moved on to their latest attempt with a cemetery full of potential candidates who didn’t make any sort of box office impact behind them. So will this enter that final resting place of dismal cinematic failures or will it be the next license for the studio to print money?

Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last of a once-vaunted but now nearly extinct order of Knights, the Knights of the Falcon – more popularly known as Spooks. That’s because this particular order hunted the supernatural, witches and dragons and such. In order to be effective in such a venture, they are all made up of the seventh sons of seventh sons, which makes them stronger than ordinary humans as well as more sensitive to magic and wizardry.

With his most recent apprentice (Harrington) indisposed, Master Gregory needs to find one in a hurry. That’s because one of his most powerful foes, Mother Malkin (Moore), a particularly powerful and malevolent witch, has escaped her entombment in a mountain and becomes more powerful by the moment with the approach of a once-in-a-century Blood Moon. She has the means to perform a ritual that will allow her to be all-powerful and to strike down Gregory which will allow the witches of the land to rule with impunity.

Gregory seeks Tom Ward (Barnes), an honest hard-working sort whose mother (Williams) seems to know more about what he’s in for than she’s saying. Gregory doesn’t have time to train Tom properly but he’ll just have to learn on the job; Malkin is gathering her forces including her right-hand witch Lizzie (Traue), master assassin Radu (Hounsou) and were-cheetah Sarikin (McClure). There’s also young Alice (Vikander) who Tom becomes sweet on but she’s actually Lizzie’s daughter, which complicates things.

All will come to a head in the witch’s castle high in a forbidden and desolate mountain range where a sacrifice needs to be made for the witch to become all-powerful. With the world at stake, can Gregory the aged knight triumph with an untested apprentice at his side?

Like many of the Young Adult fantasies to come our way in recent years, there is a heavy reliance on CG creatures which here have a kind of Ray Harryhausen-like aesthetic, only without the jerky movement of stop motion. One definitely has to give Bodrov, who wowed Russian and American audiences with the epic sweeping Mongol back in 2007, props for the respect.

Unfortunately, he has a very weak script to work with, one that was evidently written by Captain BeenThereDoneThat. We get an untested young protagonist who seems destined to fail, despite trying his hardest time after time but when a significant event occurs, he finds the power within himself and turns out to be even more powerful than anyone ever imagined. Most of those who litter the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed have very similar storylines.

Sadly, this doesn’t have a Jennifer Lawrence or a Daniel Radcliffe either. Ben Barnes is an attractive young actor and he’s certainly got the looks that you need to pull in the hormonal teen girl crowd, but he’s got about as much charisma as his character name implies. Not to knock Barnes who shows moments of talent, but this kind of part requires charisma of a once-in-a-blue-moon sort. Barnes does his best and makes a likable lead, but not a messianic one.

Bridges and Moore, both familiar with Oscar (and in Moore’s case, likely to become even more familiar shortly) get to chew the scenery and they have at it with abandon. In Moore’s case, she becomes a sexy femme fatale who has been wronged and who has seen her people persecuted. If only the writers had chosen to explore that aspect of it more and make Mother Malkin less of a black hat and more of a tragic villain, this might have been a far different – and far better – movie.

Bridges mumbles and slurs his speech like a drunkard (which, to be fair, Master Gregory is) which wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s donned a similar affectation in his last four films. His Van Dyke beard looks a bit anachronistic considering this is supposed to be set during a medieval period but I can overlook that. There’s just little chemistry between him and Barnes so there’s a distance between the two characters that belies the fatherly affection that Gregory displays later in the film.

Part of the problem is that for a Young Adult series to succeed cinematically, it has to appeal to an audience beyond the target. In other words, Old Adults have to find something to latch onto as well, thus the casting of Bridges and Moore. However, the lead character needs to be charismatic and memorable and Barnes simply has not shown that he has that kind of screen presence, not as Prince Caspian and not as Tom Ward. Not yet anyway.

The attempts at humor mostly revolve around Gregory’s drunkenness leading me to think that this is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While the supporting crew – in particular Hounsou, Williams and Vikander – are satisfactory, Moore and Bridges are both fine actors having a fine time with Barnes trying to and falling a little short. This isn’t a bad film, you understand – there have been far worse in this genre – but it’s just fairly ordinary entertainment, making this a likely candidate for a headstone in the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice monster effects. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Some decent support.
REASONS TO STAY: Humorless. Clunky. Predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of swords and sorcery violence, some frightening images of monsters and mayhem and some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Harvey

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Say "cheesy".

Say “cheesy”.

(2006) Fantasy (Picturehouse) Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander, Boris McGiver, Emmy Clarke, Genevieve McCarthy, Mary Duffy, Lynn Marie Stetson, Gwendolyn Bucci, Eric Gingold, Christina Rouner, Marceline Hugo, Emily Bergl, Matt Servitto, David Green, Sandriel Frank, Krista Coyle. Directed by Steven Shainberg.

In the 1950s, housewives were expected essentially to be seen and not heard. The only voice their husbands wanted to hear was “Welcome home, honey” and “Here’s your martini” and “Dinner’s ready” and maybe “Yes, dear.” Of course, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at things and most wives, even back then, had voice and were heard, although they often had to find subtle ways of doing it. Diane Arbus was never the strongest of women, but she had a vision and her determination to express it led her to places that she could not have expected to go.

Diane Arbus (Kidman), the quiet, mousy daughter of fur magnate David Nemorov (Yulin) and his overbearing wife Gertrude (Alexander), is also the devoted wife to would-be photographer Allan (Burrell). She has aspirations to being a photographer herself, but has had little time to pursue that dream, helping her husband run his portrait studio as well as clean their apartment and raise their children. However, her passions and eclectic nature have led even her children to label her “weird,” although her saintly husband is willing to overlook her occasional emotional outbursts and supports her in nearly everything she wants to do.

However, a drastic change ensues when the mysterious Lionel (Downey) moves in upstairs. He only ventures in public wearing a sweater mask; that is, when he ventures out at all. She finally summons up the courage to go introduce herself to the new neighbor and discovers he suffers from a rare disfigurement; his hair grows rapidly and all over his body, turning him effectively into a living wolf man. Once she gets over his appearance, she wants to take his portrait but he keeps demurring, offering her a glimpse into a world of what used to be called the freaks; a world of dwarves and dominatrix, giants and gender benders. She begins to immerse herself more fully into that world, withdrawing more and more from her own family. Which world will Diane Arbus eventually choose?

Kidman is asked to carry this movie while retaining the obedient and subservient demeanor of a 1950s housewife. Much of her dialogue is in a whispering, excuse-me-for-speaking voice which at times gets irritating, considering you’re asking the audience to retain an interest in her character. To her credit, Kidman’s  acting is right on the money for the character as written, but pales when compared to Downey’s Lionel.

Essentially pared of facial expression for most of the movie (except for the very last reel in which Kidman tenderly – and sensually – shaves the fur from his skin), Downey uses his eyes and his voice to great effect. Although he received no acting nominations for any major awards for his performance, he was certainly deserving of consideration. If they’d used a fictional photographer loosely based on Arbus in many ways this would have been a better movie, because then they could make it about Lionel. In addition, Burrell does a surprisingly good job as the husband helplessly watching his wife drift away, wanting her to be happy and yet needing her love and support. You can see the potential he would eventually fulfill in Modern Family.

The filmmakers capture the energy of New York circa 1958 rather nicely. The apartment set by Amy Danger and Carrie Stewart, is spot-on. The set decoration, both of the Arbus’ apartment with its 1950s normality, and the more whimsical loft of Lionel, is bold and striking. Carter Burwell’s score captures the jazzy feel one associates with the city in the era of the Beat Generation. The legendary Stan Winston’s make-up for Lionel makes him the perfect Beast to Kidman’s Beauty.

First of all, I don’t like the whole concept. Why create a fictional account of Diane Arbus’ life? I’d much rather prefer to see a movie about her actual life. Wasn’t it interesting enough? I also find it highly telling that in a movie purporting to be a tribute to the world-famous photographer they use none of her photographs. I found very little of Diane Arbus in this movie, at least as far as I could detect. While Kidman does a pretty good job acting, she is asked to essentially carry the movie and yet be reserved and quiet (most of her lines are delivered in almost a whisper), leading to a curiously flat quality to the movie. We never get a sense of who Diane Arbus really was or why anyone should bother making a film about her life.

No. I honestly think this does a disservice to the memory of Diane Arbus and her work. I felt after seeing it that I hadn’t gleaned anything new about the artist; in that sense, you’re better off picking up a book of her photographs (of course, that’s pretty much true of any artist). Despite Downey’s wonderful performance and Kidman’s presence, the movie is neither inspiring nor informative and sadly, not really entertaining either.

WHY RENT THIS: Downey is compelling. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We don’t ever see any of Arbus’ actual photographs. Would have preferred seeing her actual life story. Kidman speaks in a whisper and we never get the sense that Arbus was of any interest whatsoever.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is much explicit nudity and a graphic sex scene. The adult tone to the film make it unsuitable viewing for any but the most mature teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Director Steven Shainberg’s Uncle Lawrence was a close friend of Diane Arbus.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2,3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 3.5/10
NEXT: Selma