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

Advertisements

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny


Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

(2016) Martial Arts (Netflix) Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon, Roger Yuan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Dev Kingsley, Woon Young Park, Andrew Stehlin, Gary Young, Tim Wong, Sharon Zhang, Kevvy Sing-Hoi Ng, David T. Lim, Alex Shi, Thanh Van Ngo, Shuya Chang. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 in the United States, remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film to be released in the United States. The Ang Lee-directed martial arts classic combines a heart-wrenching love story with innovative martial arts battle sequences making extensive use of wire work to wow audiences of the time.

It has taken 16 years for the sequel to be made, loosely based on the final book of the five-book series by Du Lu Wang that inspired the first film, but the director responsible for those amazing fight scenes is at the helm here and while the absence of Lee and star Chow Yun-Fat are keenly felt (particularly Fat, whose presence hovers over the film throughout like a sad-eyed ghost) the movie surprisingly stands on its own two feet.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of the first film and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), the deadly assassin and swordsman of the first film has removed herself from the world, mourning her lover and feeling keenly the weight of the changing nature of the world. She is called from her lonely isolation to attend the funeral of an old friend, one charged with storing and protecting the Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s famous sword. When sneak thief Tiefang (Shum) is caught attempting to steal the sword by house guest Snow Vase (Bordizzo), Yu realizes that bandit king Hades Die (Lee) and his blind enchantress (E. Yuan) are behind it.

Snow Vase, realizing the identity of Yu, asks her to become her teacher and Yu agrees. However, Hades Western Lotus army is dead set on acquiring the sword for their master and Yu knows the compound will need additional protection. She hires a group of six mercenaries, led by the enigmatic Silent Wolf (Yen) with whom Yu has a particularly convoluted past. It seems that the two were lovers before she was with Li Mu Bai, and that she believed Silent Wolf had been killed in a fight with Hades Die many years earlier. It seems the rumors of his death had been exaggerated.

Despite his deception, there is clearly heat between the two former lovers while Snow Vase is developing a relationship with Tiefang. The two relationships will be tested as the ruthless Hades and his evil enchantress will stop at nothing to acquire the one sword that would make him all-powerful and rule the martial arts world with an iron fist.

I went into this movie with a little bit of trepidation, fully expecting it to be a blatant cash grab knock-off, profiting off of the name of a classic movie. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie captures the melancholy tone of the first film, delivering on the martial arts sequences as well as the emotional resonance. While it isn’t quite to the level of that film, the sequel is still a very worthwhile successor.

Much of the credit must go to Yeoh, the lone returnee of the acting cast here. Her character is the emotional center of the film, dealing with loss with dignity and honor. She is a mighty warrior, yes, able to strike fear in the hearts of strong men and garner their respect, but she is also feminine and certainly still beautiful and graceful at 53. This is perhaps her signature role and the movie is worth seeing just for her.

Yen, one of the biggest and most bankable stars in China, fares less well here but to be fair his character isn’t as well drawn. Silent Wolf is meant to be enigmatic, but he is so enigmatic that some of his motivations ring false and while his fight scenes are some of the best in the film, he is relegated to pretty much a supporting character when he should have been one of the leads.

Like the first film, the cinematography is breathtaking, although there is a lot more CGI here of crumbling ruins, temples and towers that give the movie a kind of a Lord of the Rings feel. I’m not sure how much of this was filmed in China – iMDB lists the filming locations as China and New Zealand – but there is something about the natural beauty of China that speaks to me.

The problems here are that there are too many characters who aren’t fleshed out very much beyond colorful nicknames. While some of them have definite personalities, they are little more than a single trait with a body attached and they’re there mainly to get into spectacular fights with somebody. That’s all well and good but one cares more for the outcome of a fight when one cares for the people doing the fighting.

This is playing on Netflix and on a smattering of IMAX screens across the country. Because it’s getting a simultaneous release on Netflix, the larger theater chains refused to carry this on their IMAX screens, so in places like Orlando there are no IMAX screenings for the film available which is a crying shame – I suspect this would be amazing in IMAX. Hopefully at some point it might show up in some form on IMAX but until then most of us will have to content themselves seeing it at home on Netflix. Even that is well worth the effort as this is a wonderful and worthy follow-up to a classic.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Recreates the melancholy feel of the first film. Some incredible martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh.
REASONS TO STAY: A little less graceful than the first film. Too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of martial arts violence as well as a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Jen, played by Shuya Chang here, was played by Ziyi Zhang in the first film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Silver
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trumbo

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

Maleficent


Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.

Angelina Jolie in full-on Maleficent mode.

(2014) Fantasy (Disney) Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Brenton Thwaites, Kenneth Cranham, Hannah New, Sarah Flind, Isobelle Molloy, Michael Higgins, Ella Purnell, Jackson Bews, Angus Wright, Janet McTeer (voice), Oliver Maltman, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt. Directed by Robert Stromberg

Little boys everywhere know this to be true: never mess with a Disney princess. That’s a war in which there is no winning. Of course, little boys grow up and forget the lessons they knew when they were young.

Most of us know the story of Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale in which Princes Aurora, daughter of a greedy king, is cursed by a wicked sorceress to sleep for eternity, only awakening with true love’s kiss. Of course, that’s just one side of the story.

Maleficent (Jolie) is the aforementioned wicked sorceress, but she wasn’t always that way. Once she was a young woman in the enchanted land known as the Moors, adjacent to a human kingdom ruled by a greedy king (but not the aforementioned one). Reacting to rumors of wealth in the Moors, the King (Cranham) brings his army to bear on the Moor. However, Maleficent isn’t just any ol’ young woman; she’s charismatic, a leader of the denizens of the Moor and she rallies her people to fight off the invasion, personally humiliating the King and sending him back to his castle with his tail between his legs (figuratively; the only tails in this war belong to the people of the Moor).

Furious, the King promises his daughter and the crown of the land to whoever kills Maleficent. Stefan (Copley), an ambitious pageboy in the service of the King, overhears this and realizes an opportunity is at hand. He alone of anyone in the Kingdom has the best chance of accomplishing this; that’s because he has had a relationship with Maleficent since boyhood and the fairy-born sorceress has feelings for him.

He steals out to the Moors and canoodles with Maleficent, slipping her a sleeping draught in the process. While she’s out, he can’t quite bring himself to kill her but still manages to do something dreadful, enough to win himself the throne and the princess as well as the enduring hatred of the sorceress and every big boy knows never to mess with a woman scorned.

She waits for Stefan to have a child of his own before leveling her terrible curse – that the newborn babe will live to her 16th year, growing in beauty and grace, beloved by all. Before sundown on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death, never to awaken again. Only true love’s kiss will awaken her.

Horrified, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom collected and broken into pieces and then burned, their remains stored in the castle. He sends the infant to a remote corner of his kingdom, a bucolic cottage where she will be raised by three fairies in human form; Knotgrass (Staunton), Fittle (Manville) and Thistlewit (Temple).

The infant grows into a beautiful young girl (Fanning), beloved by the women she knows as her aunts but also observed by Maleficent and her minion, Diaval (Riley), a crow that Maleficent changes into human form from time to time (among other things). Maleficent, somewhat curious about the girl she has cursed, brings her into the Moor and soon becomes enchanted herself by the girl’s love and beauty. She slowly begins to regret her actions because Maleficent knows why her curse is so terrible – that there is no such thing as true love.

Stromberg made his name in Hollywood as the production designer for such films as Avatar and Oz, the Great and Powerful. This is his first feature film as a director and given his expertise, he was given the largest budget ever for a first-time director. To his credit, you can see every penny on the screen. This is a visually stunning movie and the Moors is as enchanting an environment as you’re likely to see at the movies this year.

But even given the gorgeous effects, the best thing about the movie is Angelina Jolie. I don’t know if she’d consider this an insult, but she was born to play this role. Her intimidating stare, her malevolent smile, her ice-cold eyes make for a perfect villain, and to make matters even better, she resembles facially the cartoon Maleficent quite closely (in fact, most of the actors were cast for their physical resemblance to the characters of the Sleeping Beauty animated feature).

Jolie gives the character depth, from the anguished cry when she is betrayed by Stefan to the evil grin as she throws soldiers around in the air like she’s juggling bowling pins and to the softening of her heart as she begins to fall under Aurora’s sway. This isn’t the kind of thing that wins Oscars but it is nonetheless one of the better acting performances that you’re going to find at the movies in 2014. She nails this role.

Which is where we come to the big question about the movie. Disney purists have howled that the new movie messes with Maleficent, turning her into a sympathetic character rather than the deliciously evil villain of the original 1959 film and of course they have a point. The movie takes a page from Wicked not only in looking at a classic story from the point of view of its villain, but in explaining the villain’s motivations for her actions and in the end, making other characters the true villain while making the original villain somewhat heroic. Wicked has been in film development for a decade and perhaps we’ll see it on the big screen someday but for now, Maleficent does the same thing for Sleeping Beauty. While some will find it intriguing, others may be less sanguine about seeing a beloved story messed with.

I liked Riley in the role of Maleficent’s flunky. He is courtly and occasionally sour; “Don’t change me into a dog. Dogs eat birds,” he grouses at his mistress at one point. He makes a fine foil for Jolie. Fanning’s role has been described as a “happy idiot” which isn’t far from the mark but her character doesn’t give Fanning, who has shown tremendous skill in meatier roles, much to work with. She’s mainly here to be cursed and the source of Maleficent’s regret and she does both solidly.

There are some logical lapses here. For example, Stefan orders all the spinning wheels destroyed and yet at the crucial time there’s a bunch of them (broken apart to be sure) sitting in the castle, waiting for Aurora to come and prick her finger on them. Why wouldn’t you burn them to ash and then bury the ashes to be sure? Nobody ever accused King Stefan of thinking clearly however.

In any case, I will say that Da Queen has always been a huge fan of the character – it is her favorite Disney villain – and she felt let down by the film. To both of our surprise, I wound up actually liking the movie more than she did and I’m not the Disney fan she is. Take that for what it’s worth. Still, if you don’t come in with expectations that this is going to be a live action version of Sleeping Beauty that sticks exactly with canon, you’ll find that this is another solidly entertaining summer movie that may not have a ton of substance (although there are some subtexts here that are intriguing, though not terribly developed) but will take you away and out of your lives for a couple of hours and that’s never a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Jolie is perfect for the role. Incredible production design and special effects. Well-cast.

REASONS TO STAY: May offend Disney purists. Maleficent not evil so much as throwing a tantrum. A few logical holes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action, battle violence and some pretty frightening images. The really little ones will probably be terrified of the dragon and of some of the Moor creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Jolie’s first film in four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Without a Face

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Copenhagen

Frozen (2013)


Olaf is looking to make some S'mores.

Olaf is looking to make some S’mores.

(2013) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson, Maia Wilson, Edie McClurg, Robert Pine, Maurice LaMarche, Livvy Stubenrauch, Eva Bella, Spencer Ganus, Jesse Corti, Nicholas Guest,  Annaleigh Ashford. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

If climate change proponents are to be believed, the world is slowly heating up and eventually catastrophic consequences will come about as a result. Here is an animated movie that looks at a different kind of climate change.

Elsa (Menzel), the princess of Arundel who is heir to the throne, has a unique gift – power over snow and ice. When innocent play with her younger sister Anna (Bell) causes her to injure her, Elsa’s parents take the both of them to Pabbie (Hinds), the troll king. He heals Anna but tells Elsa that she must hide her powers. This causes Elsa to stay in her room for the most part, shutting out the world and Anna in particular whom she loves more than anyone. Anna for her part is mystified, her memory of the events gone. She wonders what she has done to drive her sister away so. The gates to the city are closed and stay that way.

Then comes the day that Elsa must be crowned Queen of Arundel for that time has come. Anna is absolutely over the moon, having become bored with the same halls, the same people. She wants music and laughter and life. She meets a handsome young Prince Hans (Fontana) and while there is a stuffy old Duke (Tudyk) who is endlessly irritated at the mispronunciation of his Duchy of Weselton, there is dancing and fun all around them.

Unfortunately, Elsa’s powers manifest themselves at an inopportune time and she flees to the North Mountain but not before putting all of Arundel into a deep freeze. Anna decides to chase after Elsa and bring her home, leaving Prince Hans in charge. Along the way Anna’s horse bolts, leading her to a trading post where she meets young Kristoff (Goff), who finds the winter more unfortunate than most because he delivers ice with his trusty reindeer Sven. The three of them team up to go to the ice castle Elsa has created for herself, assisted by the tenacious snowman Olaf (Gad) who was brought to life by Elsa’s spell.

However Elsa still hasn’t figured out a way to control her powers and Anna doesn’t yet realize that she has been betrayed by someone close to her. Will summer ever come again to Arundel or is that kingdom destined to be an eternal Winnipeg?

First off, this is one of the most spectacular animated features Disney has put out since Beauty and the Beast and maybe since The Little Mermaid. A kingdom of beautiful ice and snow with a traditional Disney rural kingdom setting makes this familiar and yet new all at once. The visuals are some of the best Disney has ever produced.

That said, they sadly set this beautiful film to a typical Disney story. While this was supposed to based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen it is so loosely based as to be unrecognizable. However I will admit that your little princess-wannabe is going to be in seventh heaven as there are not one but two princesses to ooh and ahh over (all right, one of them is technically a queen).

Oddly, the protagonist is pretty much like every other Disney princess ever – plucky, eager, chomping at the bit to find her prince and compassionate to boot. It is Elsa who is a far more interesting character and I think it’s telling that on a recent visit to EPCOT, the princess holding court at the Norway pavilion was not Anna but Elsa. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Idris Menzel is the voice of Elsa and if you didn’t fall for her talent in Wicked then you really don’t know what talent is. This girl has a voice that could restart a flat-lined heart and make a Republican fund the arts.

I also found Olaf to be a hoot. He’s one of those characters who isn’t very bright but has a heart the size of a small planet and the kind of simple faith that only a child would get. One can envy his world view a little bit as it lacks all the sophistication that we adults like to throw into the mix but at the same time probably is closer to what the world should be than we’ll ever get. I could hang with Olaf and hopefully Disney will realize that they have the kind of character who is going to sell a lot of merchandise and direct-to-DVD videos.

While I wish the story was a bit less rote and that the music was more memorable, nonetheless this is a pretty decent effort in a year when animated features really were uniformly bad with only one or two exceptions. While this doesn’t reach the standard of Disney classics, it is still good enough that if your kid wants to see it more than once you probably won’t mind getting the home video edition and watching it along with them – after having seen this in the theater several times of course.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully animated. Olaf is a keeper.

REASONS TO STAY: Songs are nothing to write home about. A little bit rote.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of rude jokes and some semi-violent action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A cameo is made by Rapunzel and Eugene (Flynn) during the opening of the gates during the musical number “For the First Time in Forever.” They can be seen entering the screen from the left – Rapunzel has short hair and is wearing a purple and pink dress while Eugene is wearing a maroon vest and brown sash.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tangled

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Flypaper

Now You See Me


 

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

Isla Fisher knows how to make a splash.

(2013) Action Crime Thriller (Summit) Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Common, Melanie Laurent, Michael J. Kelly, David Warshofsky, Jose Garcia, Jessica Lindsey, Caitriona Balfe, Stephanie Honore, Stanley Wong, Laura Cayouette, Adam Shapiro, Justine Wachsberger, Conan O’Brien. Directed by Louis Leterrier

Magic is the art of misdirection and trickery. You fool the other person into thinking that you’re doing something impossible when all you’re really doing is managing the environment. Of course the bigger the trick, the more completely you must manage the environment.

The Four Horsemen are a magic act that is the toast of Vegas, playing sold out shows at the Vdara Hotel and Casino. Only a year prior however Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) was an arrogant street magician with ambition (although he’s kept the arrogance), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) was a mentalist who’d fallen from grace who has had to stoop to using his powers of observation for shaking down rubes, Henley Reeves (Fisher) was an underground magic act who had broken away from being Atlas’ assistant but found that the male-dominated magic world was no less easy on her own, and Jack Wilder (Franco) spent as much time picking pockets as he did doing sleight of hand. All four of them had received mysterious invitations via Tarot card – but sent by whom?

That didn’t matter much. Backed by insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Caine), they’ve hit the big time but for their new show, they have a hell of a finale; they send an audience member (Garcia) seemingly by teleportation to the vault of his Paris bank; once there he turns on a switch that sends a skid full of Euros through a vent shaft to rain down on the audience at the Vdara.

Except that the bank was actually robbed and this seemingly was no trick. This puts grouch FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) on their trail. He doesn’t really want any help but he gets some anyway – from comely Interpol agent Alma Dray (Laurent) and professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) who was once a magician himself but has found it more lucrative to debunk the illusions of his former colleagues on DVDs.

While the Horsemen are questioned, there really isn’t any way to pin anything on them. After all, they have a theater full of witnesses that they were in Las Vegas and only the insistence of the audience member that he was there at all – and the evidence of the audience member’s signed ticket stub in the empty vault. But it’s not possible that he could travel to Paris instantaneously, is it?

Dylan doesn’t think so. With the Horsemen advertising an even bigger trick in New Orleans, the FBI set to tailing them, but how do you keep your eyes on people trained to misdirect and trick you into think you’re seeing something that you’re actually not? And who is it that called the group together? And most importantly, what is the end game?

Leterrier established his career with the Jason Statham-led Transporter movies which were slick action-packed thrillers of an automotive nature (I thought at the time that they were even better than the Fast and Furious movies although the last two have since changed my mind). Here, he goes back to his roots following a couple of big effects-laden Hollywood movies (although this is still a Hollywood movie with effects), taking on a simpler storyline which is at the same time more complex.

There is a nice twist at the end which most won’t see coming but the movie is overall kind of uneven. The magic trick sequences are stunning and are some of the best moments in the movie. Ruffalo who is moving up the Hollywood ladder just about takes this movie over. My interest became more piqued every time he was onscreen. Not that the Horsemen are slouches (I did appreciate the banter between them) but I found myself drawn to him and his character. Freeman and Caine are two of my favorite actors but Caine is on so briefly that if you blink you’ll miss him (wasting an opportunity in my opinion) and Freeman kind of phones it in.

The actors perform some nifty tricks but their big elaborate ones are mainly established with CGI which is kind of disappointing; like the magic-themed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, there are some pretty neat illusions but that movie performed them with practical effects rather than visual and the movie is better for it.

This is the kind of movie Da Queen adores, one with a puzzle set before an audience that isn’t easily solved. That it involves magicians is an extra added attraction for her (she loves magic), so she found this more to her liking than I did (she’d have probably given it a 7.5/10 which is higher than the rating I eventually gave it). I can see her point; the movie is clearly entertaining and accomplishes what it set out to do. I could have used with less car chases and less police procedural and a little more emphasis on the characters of the magicians themselves – they are so aloof for most of the movie that they become as well-rounded as mannequins. It would have been a much better trick to turn them into interesting characters instead.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo is marvelous. Magic tricks are nifty. Fairly clever twist.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on CGI.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few action sequences that might be a bit too intense for the very young, as well as a few bad words here and there and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Caine fell asleep in his dressing room and didn’t hear the director call a wrap for the day. He awoke in pitch black and remained until his cries for help were heard the next morning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100; pretty mediocre numbers.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Prestige

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: After Earth

Epic


Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father's Day.

Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father’s Day.

(2013) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles, Pitbull, Blake Anderson, Judah Friedlander, Chris O’Dowd, Dan Green, Allison Bills, John DiMaggio, Troy Evans, Kelly Keaton, Malikha Mallette. Directed by Chris Wedge

The natural world is nothing like what we think it is. Yes, there are flora and fauna, rocks and trees and water but there are also tiny little creatures who are waging a war for the very survival of the forest. Don’t believe me?

Dr. Bomba (Sudeikis) does. He’s been searching the forest outside his home for years, convinced that these creatures exist. He’s managed to find some artifacts of them but thus far, no concrete proof of their existence. His obsession cost him his standing in the scientific community and eventually, his family.

His ex-wife has recently passed away and his estranged daughter Mary Katherine (Seyfried) has come to live with him. She’s a rebellious teen now however, mourning her mother and wishing to go by the name MK. As in MK Ultra, maybe. Anywho, she trusts her distracted dad about as far as she could throw him – although he’s kind of scrawny and she’s kind of tough sot that could be a considerable distance.

When she arrives she’s not sure of what’s going to happen but the worst essentially does – she discovers dear old dad hasn’t changed any and the same craziness that drove her mother out is still present and accounted for, thank you. She desperately needs to talk things out with him but every time she tries to get him to sit down, one of his camera sensors starts beeping and off he goes, with an outlandish helmet that Wayne Szalinski of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would probably find stylish.

She means to leave and make her own way but on her way out the door her dad’s (and her childhood pet) Ozzie, a three legged dog, gets out and MK goes out into the woods to find him. What she finds is something else entirely.

You see, her dad was right – there are tiny little creatures battling it out in the woods. On the side of good are the Leaf Men, valiant and noble warriors who ride hummingbirds, are able to leap tremendous distances and insure the safety and tranquility of the woods. They are ruled over (and are charged to protect) Queen Tara (Knowles) who that very day as it so happens is partaking in a ceremony that will transfer her powers to a new heir who is yet to be chosen.

The evil Boggans don’t want that to happen. They are ruled over by the nefarious Mandrake (Waltz) whose minions are charged with spreading rot and decay, destroying the green woods forever. Tara keeps them at bay, able to regenerate any damage they do. However, Mandrake has figured out a plan to stop her from passing on her powers, which would allow he and his Boggans to take things over and turn the woods into a lovely dead stretch of rotted vegetation.

Tara seems to think there isn’t much of a threat, much to the consternation of Ronin (Farrell), her captain of the guards, or leader of the Leaf Men. He’s in charge of her security and he knows the Boggans are up to something. Of course nobody listens to him, particularly Nod (Hutcherson), the reckless young man who is the son of Ronin’s best friend who was killed in battle. Ronin has raised Nod as his own, which clearly shows it must suck to be his kid. In any case, Nod chafes under Ronin’s rough discipline and takes a powder, leaving the Leaf Men.

They should have listened. The Boggans interrupt the ceremony and send everyone scurrying in all directions. Tara, alone and desperate, is forced to transfer all her powers into a seed pod as she lays dying on the forest floor. MK (remember her?), wandering out on the forest looking for Ozzie, stumbles onto the dying Tara instead. Tara hands her the pod which magically shrinks MK down to Leaf Man size. Before the Boggans can get there, Ronin arrives in time for the Queen to die in his arms, turning into mulch and scattering to the four winds as she passes. At least, it would be mulch if mulch was sparkly.

This is a lot of plot to take in and we’re talking only the first 20 minutes or so here. The rest of the movie is spent with the small group of Leaf Men – Ronin, MK, Nod and the caretakers of the pod – slug Mub (Ansari) and snail Grub (O’Dowd) – and their attempts to get the pod from point A to point B so it can be in the proper place when the moon is at its height and, well, yadda yadda yadda. Mub and Grub provide comic relief – Mub a kind of ladies man slug, and Grub who desperately yearns to be a Leaf Man. They are neither cute enough to be kiddy favorites. I don’t care how funny the voice actors are, kids are just not going to warm up to slugs and snails. Are you listening, makers of Turbo?

Wedge, who had a hand in Ice Age and Robots, is given a beautiful palette to work with. The animated forest is realistic and beautiful. However, the trailer made the place look incredible, with small cities and fairy-like creatures turning up under every flower and twig. The finished film shows some of that but those scenes are few and far between. The sense of wonder that the trailer had is missing from the final film and how ironic is that?

Kids aren’t going to care much that there are huge lapses in internal logic. For example, the Leaf Men and Boggans are said to be too small for the human eye to see but they are large enough to ride hummingbirds and bats. They are also moving too fast for us to see or hear but what happens when they’re sleeping?

This is the kind of movie that tries to look superficially green without offending conservative families. The message is at least on the surface about being a caretaker to the planet which is admirable but then the buck is passed. It’s not OUR responsibility to care for the planet – it’s these little Leaf Men. Carry on with your carbon footprint kiddies, you’re off the hook (and by the way, the rot that the Leaf Men are so afraid of is actually beneficial for the forest, acting as fertilizer, mulch and clearing space to allow things to grow). At least The Lorax sent a message that it is our personal responsibility to take charge of our own behavior in regards to the environment.

This is a movie trying to offend nobody and winds up being offensive because of it. I wish the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions but I can’t imagine Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, sending out an eco-friendly kid-film under any circumstances so perhaps we can’t blame them overly much. We can blame them for a convoluted plot, however and an over-abundance of characters who flit in and out of the movie, many of which without any real need to be there.

The movie liberally borrows from too many other movies. There’s a bit of Neverending Story here, a bit of The Secret of NIMH there, a little more The Secret World of Arrietty over there. There’s even a bit of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (there are pod races and a bullfrog with more than a little resemblance to Jabba the Hut). This is a mish mash that will probably do good business (at least until Monsters University opens) but is a big disappointing. The very young might be enchanted by some of the beautiful visuals but they aren’t sustained long and it turns into more fluff than substance. Even a kid can recognize a bad movie when they see it.

REASONS TO GO: Some lush animation. Farrell’s Ronin is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing overall; lacks a sense of wonder. Suffers from Green Hippie disease.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of watered down action sequences which shouldn’t be too much for the kiddies, mild bad language and a scary image or two.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film produced by Blue Sky Animation Studios to feature a female protagonist and the first animated feature overall from Fox to do so since Anastasia in 1997.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; I’d call them mildly positive reviews overall.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret of NIMH

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Scream 3