Movie Review ~ Early Man


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

Movie Review ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo, Jenn Murray, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Colin Farrell, Zoe Kravitz

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: For you die hard Harry Potter fans out there, know that this review is going to be as spoiler-free as possible. You’ve waited far too long to have the secrets of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them spoiled for you so…read on with confidence.

It’s been five years since the world said good-bye to Harry Potter and company after the films based on the novels by J.K. Rowling concluded. We all knew the end was coming and it was still hard to bid adieu to these characters and the actors we watched grow up over the course of nearly ten years and eight films. Still, we never really said farewell because Rowling has made sure Potter lives on in theme park attractions (been twice to the one in Orlando and it’s, of course, excellent), on the Pottermore website, and even in a stage adaptation taking London (and soon Broadway) by storm. The hunger for more adventures in wizardry was clearly there but how do you get back to business without sullying the memory of a beloved franchise?

The answer: start a new one.

Adapted by Rowling from her 2001 field guide published as a fundraiser for charity, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is your way back into Rowling’s creative creation and fans of the series are sure to find this was worth the wait. Or is it? If I’m being honest, I had a hard time finding my way in this new world and it’s not because it doesn’t do its job or because it doesn’t fit into the same universe as the series it was spun-off from.

My main problem was that with the Harry Potter movies, we knew what to expect and came looking for our favorite parts of the books to come to life onscreen. There was an endgame to work toward that had set boundaries and pre-defined beats to hit. We don’t have that same advantage in Rowling’s original screenplay which spells a fun discovery for some but uncertainty for others, including this critic.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1920’s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, sketching Newt as decidedly on the spectrum) hasn’t come alone. Toting a suitcase with enough capacity to make Mary Poppins green with envy, he’s arrived from London with a mission to restore a “fantastic beast” to its rightful homeland. Before he can get very far, however, he finds himself chasing down some escaped creatures with the help of an American auror (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and a No-Maj (Dan Fogler, Europa Report) that mistakenly switches suitcases with Scamander to disastrous results.

As if that weren’t enough, Rowling get political (and dark) with the inclusion of a family of Second-Salemers who seek to rid the country of the witches and wizards they suspect are living amongst them. The matriarch (Samantha Morton, John Carter) is another grave, frightening character crafted by Rowling to represent much of the racism, bigotry, and even homophobia of the day. Her adopted son (Ezra Miller, Suicide Squad) has clandestine conspiratorial meetings with a MACUSA big-wig (Colin Farrell, Dead Man Down) that are staged uncomfortably on purpose by director David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) and are open for multiple interpretations.

Yates guided the last four Potter films and is signed up for the next installment of Fantastic Beasts. It was a wise decision to keep him involved as he brings a needed tonal consistency to this new jumping off point and nicely balances Rowling’s twists and turns with more than a few delightful moments of special effects flights of fancy. Yet the movie is too long by a good ten minutes, oddly choosing to linger when it should leap.  These are all the problems that go along with the first film in a planned franchise…by the time you arrive at a nifty final twist (and it really is a good one) you realize all of it has been in service to setting up the next four films.

As has been the case recently, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another example of a film marketed to all ages of the family audience that’s far too scary and dark for young children. The Potter films always had sadness at their core but this feels exceedingly bleak and unrepentantly so. Parents are encouraged to view this first before letting kids under the age of 10 have a look. For us grown-ups though, whatever faults lie in the story or calculated forward-looking set-up are lessened by Rowling’s admirable devotion to character development that seems to only richen the deeper you look and the super-duper production design and special effects that put you right back into Depression-era New York City (I half expected to see Annie cross by at ay moment).

More good than fantastic, this first entry in the next saga of Rowling’s witches and wizards is far from a disappointment but could have been tightened and brightened in order to live up to it’s title.

Movie Review ~ The Danish Girl

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A fictitious love story inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I gotta say, I feel like the best way to enjoy The Danish Girl is to read nothing about it before and nothing about it after.  Reading nothing beforehand will help keep the story at the heart of the movie a secret for that much longer, allowing the rich performances to reveal themselves slowly.  Looking deeper into the real life events that led to the construction of the piece is bound to be disappointing as you learn how many liberties were taken with characters that have gained your trust over the previous two hours.

It was only after I’d seen The Danish Girl that I discovered the movie, adapted by Lucinda Coxon from David Ebershoff’s novel was a mostly fictitious retelling of the lives of Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).  Artists in 1920’s Denmark, the movie presents the two as a lovely young couple that support their individual work and have an open honesty that allows them to speak truths both private and painful.  A more successful artist than his wife, Einar keeps painting the same landscape over and over again while Gerda struggles with finding her own voice through her canvas.

What begins as a silly bit of harmless dress-up uncovers a secret desire Einar has harbored that will change the path not only of his life and his marriage, but the path of many men and women in the decades that followed.  Einar spends time transitioning between himself and his female alter-ego, Lili Elbe, first behind closed doors and then in public until the line between the male side and female side is blurred and the choice to live one life becomes a necessity for survival.

An Oscar winner for his stellar work in 2014’s The Theory of Everything, Redmayne takes a similar immersive approach in his portrayal of Einar/Lili.  There’s no holding back when taking on a role with a certain set of requirements and Redmayne meets all of these challenges with believable grace and dignity.  Redmayne presents Einar/Lili not as a stereotype or freak of nature but of a human being struggling with a duality of identity that there is no precedent for.  It’s become cliché to call a performance brave but that’s simply what it is.

He’s matched step-by-step with Vikander’s layered performance as a wife supportive at the outset but who begins to have doubts as her marriage takes on a new direction and the question of what it means to be female is floated between the couple.  Some of her own value as a woman is examined and Vikander takes us through each one of these stages of transformation with a realistic hand.

Director Tom Hooper (reunited with his Les Miserables star Redmayne) is a bit too focused on the production design (which, by the way, is gorgeous from the intricate set design to the period perfect costumes) and less concerned with the narrative motion of the piece.  It’s teeters into a languid stage near its middle section when it should be ramping up its pace.

Then we get to the overall validity of the story being told and, I’m sorry to say, as important as the piece is it’s just not honest and the way the movie presents itself as truth is disappointing considering it’s a story about authenticity.  Taken as fact, the movie greatly misses the mark.  Taken as a work of fiction, The Danish Girl is a strongly acted work of revisionist history.  Here’s hoping that one day down the line a more fact-based retelling is attempted.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Release Date:  November 18, 2016

Thoughts: Now that’s how you make a teaser trailer.  I think in the din of awards season and upcoming superhero movies of 2016, we’ve forgotten that there’s a film arriving in mid-November with some serious pedigree behind it.  Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling adapts her own short guidebook for a film directed by David Yates, the man who helmed the last four Potter features (and who will be represented earlier in 2016 with The Legend of Tarzan) with a cast that includes Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), and Colin Farrell (Winter’s Tale).  A true teaser trailer in every sense, I’ll admit this one gave me some of those good tingles that few previews nowadays can.  Highly anticipated, this only fuels the growing fire.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Danish Girl

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Synopsis: The remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

Release Date: November 27, 2015

Thoughts: Could Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) be the first actor in two decades to win back-to-back Oscars? Based solely on the trailer for The Danish Girl, it may just happen. I know, it’s bold to make that serious of a suggestion so early into the awards season and only going off a 2 ½ minute trailer…but this looks like a seriously majestic performance from the young actor. Based on the true story of one of the first male-to-female gender confirmation surgeries, it’s directed by Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) and co-stars Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina, herself getting awards buzz), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall). With transgender people figuring so prominently into the mainstream media in the last few years, this long in development film feels timely and valuable.

Movie Review ~ The Theory of Everything

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney

Director: James Marsh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  At the center of The Theory of Everything is a Hallmark Hall of Fame film just dying to get out.  It seems to have all the ingredients of those celebrated television movies that pile on the need for Kleenex with each successive commercial break.  You have the story of resilience against all odds, the power of love against all odds, and the will to effect positive change…against all odds.  Each of these pieces is covered at some point or another in Anthony McCarten’s workmanlike script and while less cynical audiences will easily gobble up this bit of fluff, I found it hard to let myself get sucked into that blackhole of saccharine.

So why the relatively high rating, you may ask?  Well, it’s because what The Theory of Everything has (in addition to a parade of scenes that feel as if they should end with the populace onscreen starting a slow-clap that ends in a rousing furor of applause) is not one but two award-worthy performances that easily make the film worth recommending.

As physicist Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) takes us from the wallflower schoolboy with a knack for solving impossible mathematical equations all the way through to the man that battles a degenerative nerve disease that leaves him unable to walk or talk.  It’s a tricky performance that Redmayne carefully navigates, giving us a look at not only the effect the disease has on Hawking’s body but on his spirit.  Twisted limbs and a skewed stance was likely murder on Redmayne’s body but the effect is totally believable on screen.

Though she has no physical ailments to portray, as Jane Hawking young Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) has possibly an even more difficult character to bring to life.  I think it’s easy for audiences to see a disability on screen and be cued into what’s happening under the surface but Jane’s resolve to stand by her man is colored with sacrifice but never resentment.  Take an early scene where Jane makes it clear that she expects the boy she loves to not give up in the face of his diagnosis and play, of all things, croquet.  In one powerhouse shot we see her see him as he struggles but soldiers on and her face tells us she knows what the years to come will bring…and the precise moment when she goes all-in for her love.  It’s maybe one of the best scenes in any movie from 2014.

Even with these two wonderful performances the film never strikes a deep chord, though it does manage to pack in quite a lot concerning the lives of the couple in less than two hours.  Depending on how you look at it, the film has either a happy or a sad ending and being the glass half full kinda guy I am I chose to see the moments that book-end the biopic as a mature, honest, realization of the Hawkings.  I just wish as a whole the film was as complete as the performances from Redmayne and Jones.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Theory of Everything

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Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: A film about the life of Stephen Hawking and his wife could, in the wrong hands, be the stuff of gauzy melodrama, the kind of film you’d see during the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations on a rainy fall night (note: I do love the Hallmark Hall of Fame). Viewing the trailer for The Theory of Everything it appears that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have taken Jane Hawking’s book and brought it to the screen with gentle care for its emotional core. Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) is generating serious Oscar buzz for his performance as the brilliant astrophysicist diagnosed with an ALS-like motor neuron disease. Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is his wife Jane who accompanies him on his journey to a new understanding of life and how far love can take you. Though it must be noted Hawking and Jane divorced in 1995 (the same year he remarried…) I can see audiences being swept away by the overarching themes of love being the greatest victory.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jupiter Ascending

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Synopsis: In a universe where humans are near the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, a young destitute human woman is targeted for assassination by the Queen of the Universe because her very existence threatens to end the Queen’s reign.

Release Date:  July 25, 2014

Thoughts: A whole lotta people didn’t get Cloud Atlas, the 2012 film directed by siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer.  I found that epic to be quite ambitious in scope and idea and a film that resisted the urge to be classified in any one genre.  It was a haunting film that gave some very good actors the chance to do something different and signaled a nice return for the Wachowski’s who had seen their star fade with the lackluster sequels to The Matrix and the utter failure of the candy colored trippy Speed Racer.  Even though I wasn’t a fan of the Matrix follow-ups and I needed a week’s worth of Advil after seeing Speed Racer in IMAX, I’ve always appreciated the cinematic flair in which the brother and sister assemble their films.

That’s why it’s nice to see that a little more than two years after Cloud Atlas they’re back (sans Tykwer) for a new space odyssey.  Even if the movie looks a tad more standard that what Cloud Atlas had to offer, it’s still a helluva lot more intriguing than any number of summer movies with big robots and umpteenth sequels to fading franchises.  I’m not totally sold on the assembled cast but Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) and Mila Kunis (Oz The Great and Powerful) are hot stuff and Tatum at least is a huge draw.  Jury’s still out if this will continue the Wachowski’s ascent back into the A-List but this first look indicates they’re on their way.

Movie Review ~ Les Misérables (2012)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

ReviewFair Warning Note:  It’s next to impossible to give any kind of review of Les Misérables without mentioning a few key moments that some may consider spoilers.  I don’t think I’ll be saying anything you aren’t well aware of, but just in case…

 

In the early 90’s, producer Cameron Mackintosh attempted to get a movie version of his international mega-hit Les Misérables off the ground but with musicals still considered out of fashion it was not to be.  In 1998 a highly underrated non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic tale was released starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes.  As musicals started coming back into fashion, interest was raised again in this tale of redemption and sacrifice set around the time of the French Revolution.

Still, it wasn’t until newly minted Oscar winner Hooper (The King’s Speech) gave the property some attention that Mackintosh finally saw his pet project get the film treatment he had long sought.  Was it worth the wait for fans of the musical like myself?  Well, having seen Les Misérables countless times on tour, in London, and locally I can say that this fan left the theater satisfied and red-eyed from a finale that ate up my supply of tissues.

If you’ve read anything about the production of this musical, you’ll know that Hooper asked his actors to sing live to avoid the lyp-synching done in most films.  On paper, this sounds like a great idea and for the most part I thought it succeeded.  Would I have liked some of the actors to have a stronger delivery of the difficult material and a fuller sound?  Maybe.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have sacrificed some excellent and immediate performances that spring out of this technique just to smooth out some rough vocal patches.

Author Hugo weaved multiple characters over many years in his lengthy novel and a true plot synopsis would take up too much space here.  What you should know is that this is a story centered on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who breaks his parole when he realizes that his future is already laid out before him.  Turned away for work and denied even a place to sleep, it’s the kindness shown by a bishop (original London/Broadway Jean Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that changes the course of his life.

Jumping forward in time, Valjean is now a mayor and business owner.  A chance encounter with his former prison guard Javert (Crowe) and dying factory worker Fantine (Hathaway) again alters his path as he takes charge of Fantine’s young daughter Cosette and disappears from Javert’s sight again.  The final act is played out in the streets of Paris where convict and pursuer meet again in the midst of a bloody battle for freedom by students and unhappy citizens.

Jackman throws every inch of himself into the role, starting the picture with a bruised and battered appearance that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a horror movie.  Gaunt and wide-eyed, he is desperate to gain true freedom at any cost.  Vocally, Jackman is more than up to the challenge of Jean Valjean and he confidently navigates the high (notes) and lows of the character.  My only nitpick with Jackman is that he only seems to be able to sing at one volume…loud.  Anything less than that is spoken or colored with more intensity that a softer song needs.  “Bring Him Home” has always been a quiet battlefield ballad and Jackman sings it so loudly to a sleeping Marius (Redmayne) that I half expected the slumbering chap to open one eye to let us know he was really awake.

In his role as the unforgiving Javert, Crowe has an uphill battle to climb that he never really gets a good foothold for.  He’s not a bad singer, let’s not be cruel, but he’s not vocally right for this role and seems to know it.  Javert’s big number, “Stars”, requires some real strength not only in dramatic delivery but in vocal support and Crowe didn’t nail it for me.  His acting tends to suffer because of this so while I believed that he was a man obsessed with finding this convict, I didn’t see the breakdown of will that occurs within the character as his hunt draws to a close.

Redmayne and Seyfried are nicely lovey-dovey and if Seyfried’s reedy, thin, and heavily vibrato-ed soprano buckles under Redmayne’s assured baritenor, they at least create a palpable attraction in their moments together.  London stage actress Barks makes the most of her limited screen time with a character doomed to love a man that doesn’t notice her until it’s too late.  She makes tender gems out of the material, whether it’s the scaled back power ballad “On My Own” or a duet with Redmayne on “A Little Fall of Rain”.  Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) reunite after another period musical (Sweeney Todd) and make the most out of their roles as crooked innkeepers.  Their material isn’t that hard, which is good for Bonham Carter’s barely-there voice.

Finally, it’s Hathaway who pretty much walks away with the movie.  I’ve long found Hathaway to be an annoyance whether on screen or in interviews but in taking the dark role of a woman who sells her body (and hair and teeth) to support her daughter, she’s found a role that gave me a newfound respect for her.  Gone is the toothy, winking, aw-shucks, pleaser and in her place is an actress that has given herself fully to the work.  She sings beautifully, her grief is laid bare, and she provides some of the more stirring moments in the fast moving film.  If Hathaway doesn’t win an Oscar for her work, it will be a crime because she absolutely deserves it and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every performance that might be up for the award this year.

Hooper films much of the film in close-up, letting many of the songs play out in uninterrupted takes.  Some have criticized this saying that it makes the film feel smaller than it is.  I totally disagree and feel that the close-ups, combined with the live singing make the movie feel more real and alive than ever.  Much of the material is heart-wrenching (some may say cloying) and to have an actor singing live and actually feeling the material adds necessary oomph.

Tremendously moving (like I said, the ending wrung my tear ducts dry), the film does drag in a few sequences.  A new song was written for the film and it doesn’t add anything to the proceedings – it’s really a near shameless attempt to add another Oscar nomination to the bevy of awards the film will certainly be up for.  Some wise truncating/eliminating of songs and a few small shuffles in order help keep the film moving but I can see where the movie may test your bladder as it comes upon its finale just shy of three hours.

As someone who responds to the music and appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, Les Misérables fit the bill of entertainment for me.  What you take out of it could be something totally different but any movie that lays itself bare and deals with issues of the redemption that we all seek and the ultimate sacrifice we eventually make deserves some attention.