Movie Review ~ Hotel Transylvania: Transformania

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Van Helsing’s mysterious invention, the “Monsterfication Ray,” goes haywire, Drac and his monster pals are all transformed into humans, and Johnny becomes a monster.

Stars: Brian Hull, Jim Gaffigan, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key, Fran Drescher, Brad Abrell, Asher Blinkoff

Director: Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Now that we’re in the second decade of this site, I find that I’ve had more opportunities to go back and revisit some of the reviews I did in that first year and aside from noticing that my love for run-on sentences hasn’t changed, I’ve also seen that my taste in specific genres has.  Maybe it was the younger me that wasn’t quite as hard to entertain but back then I derived a lot more thrill from an upcoming animated release, especially one that spoke to my style of dark humor.  That’s why I developed such a fondness for darker kids fare like Coraline and ParaNorman (still do) and also why each time a new Hotel Transylvania film was released I was eager to book a stay.  If anything was going to resurrect nostalgia that had been buried up to its neck by dreck, this was the franchise to do it.

The first Hotel Transylvania in 2012 was a dynamic, if not overly inspired, PG comedy that brought together a number of famous monster characters and made them family friendly.  Dracula was now a single-dad running a hotel catering only to creature clientele with his friends Frankenstein, the Wolf Man (Steve Buscemi, The Dead Don’t Die), the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland), and the Invisible Man (David Spade, Tommy Boy) also pitching in.  When Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez, Dolittle) falls in love with human Johnny (Andy Samberg, Palm Springs), who waltzes in not knowing that his kind is not so much catered to as served by the caterer, it forces Dracula to reevaluate his protection of his daughter.  The 2015 sequel branched out the story nicely by including the in-laws, Johnny’s parents and Dracula’s dad, both of whom come into play after the birth of Dracula’s first grandson.  I didn’t do a formal review of the last film from 2018 but the colorful vacation cruise storyline gave Dracula his own love interest in the form of a Van Helsing relative.

For the opening of the fourth chapter, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, the Hotel has gone through some renovations and like the Holiday Inn near my grandparent’s house that removed the jacuzzi between our Thanksgiving and Christmas stay in 1991, it hasn’t been for the better.  Gone are original voices of Dracula and Frankenstein, Adam Sandler and Kevin James, replaced with Brian Hull and Brad Abrell (only Hull makes an attempt to recreate Sandler’s sound) and Genndy Tartakovsky, the director who spearheaded the previous three entries is only credited with the story on this stay.  New directors Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska come from the land of SpongeBob SquarePants, a factoid I read up on after the movie concluded but which makes total sense when you consider how the story develops and the strangely bright tone it takes.  Not only is it the weakest entry, wisely skipping a theatrical release and heading straight for a debut on Amazon Prime, it feels far removed from the trilogy it is following.  If this is the direction the Hotel Transylvania industry is headed, I think I’ll look for a different place to visit in the future.

On the eve of Hotel Transylvania’s 125th birthday, Dracula is planning to retire with wife Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn, Bad Moms), leaving the business to his daughter and her husband.  During a conversation with the free-spirited Johnny, Dracula balks after hearing his planned ‘improvements’ to the hotel and instead tells him it’s impossible to give the hotel to a non-monster, causing a despondent Johnny to turn to wacky Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan, Them That Follow) for help.  It just so happens the mad scientist has a tool that can change humans into monsters…and vice versa.  Using the “Monsterfication Ray”, the goofy Johnny is transformed into an equally goofy dragon. When Dracula finds out what he innocently misled Johnny to do and then accidently changes himself into an ordinary human, breaking the ray in the process, the two will need to work together and travel across the globe for a solution…before their wives find out.

Generally, unless you’re working with an exemplary example of skilled writing and creative storytelling, an animated film can start to feel stale after it’s introduced the characters and settled into finding the way toward a happy ending.  Almost from the start, Transformania gets gummy and can’t shake some sense of exhaustion.  It doesn’t help that taking Dracula and Johnny out of their environment and putting them into a South American one feels more like it’s a comfort to its directors than the core audience and fans of the series.  The most exciting scenes remain those featuring the darker, more spooky creations of the computer animation wizards at Sony Animation Studios and there are some nice comic bits after Dracula’s friends turn themselves into humans.  Who knew Frankenstein was such a hunk? 

If you or your kids are fans of the series, by all means fire Hotel Transylvania: Transformania up on Amazon Prime and continue your adventures with the gang.  It’s worth the watch more for the B plot involving the side characters reacting to their transformation than anything going on in the A plot.  There’s just nothing new to the father/son-in-law bonding story audiences (yes, even kids) haven’t been exposed to and better through other films.  I’m sure this is a franchise that could go on longer, yet there is a sweet finality to the movie where it could end here and it would feel right.  Money will always win out…but here’s hoping the keys get turned in and the lights shut off soon. 

Movie Review ~ Dolittle

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…

Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ Hotel Transylvania 2

hotel_transylvania_two_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dracula and his friends try to bring out the monster in his half human, half vampire grandson in order to keep Mavis from leaving the hotel.

Stars: Adam Sandler, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Kevin James, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Mel Brooks, Fran Drescher, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: As a kid growing up watching Saturday morning cartoons I was more drawn to the adventures of Scooby-Doo than some of the more younger-skewing fare.  The best of the best, though, was when the Scooby-Doo episode would be extra-long or even a full length feature ala Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf or my personal favorite Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School.  So when the original Hotel Transylvania was released in 2012 I wasn’t all that surprised that I warmed to its silly, spooky charms with little resistance from my inner critic.

Three years later the inevitable sequel is released and it’s one of those rare instances where a second outing inches slightly above its predecessor in the fun factor.  Yes, it’s pretty much a retread of the original film with the central message of “Be yourself” reiterated often throughout the trim 89 minutes, but it’s all in the delivery and that’s where the film really takes off.

To recap the first film, Dracula (Adam Sandler, Blended) runs a hotel that caters to all manners of ghouls, ghosts, & monsters and is overprotective of his growing daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez).  When human Jonathan (Andy Samberg, The To Do List) happens into the hotel lobby and catches the eye of Mavis, hilarity ensues as Dracula tries to keep the two lovebirds apart.

Picking up right when the original left off, the film opens with (spoiler alert!) the wedding of Mavis and Jonathan, followed by the birth of their firstborn son Dennis who sports the kind of luscious ginger curls that would make Little Orphan Annie salivate.  The Count becomes a doting grandpa, even as he grows more concerned by the day that little Dennis may not get his fangs and could be more human than monster.  So when Mavis and Jonathan take a trip to visit his family, the Count sets out to help the transformation along before it’s too late, bringing along friends Frankenstein’s Monster (Kevin James), the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, Vacation, taking over for CeeLo Green), The Invisible Man (David Spade, Entourage), and the Werewolf (Steve Buscemi, Monsters University) on a throwback road trip for morbid support.

As was the case with our first stay in Hotel Transylvania, the gags come a mile a minute but there are less duds in this sequel.  It’s all good-natured (if slightly too scary) fun that has its heart in the right place.  It’s telling that Sandler seems to be more appealing and certainly livelier as an animated character than he has been lately with his string of ghastly live-action turkeys.  Across the board the voice talent is strong, with the exception of Megan Mullally (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) as Jonathan’s suburban mom.  Mullaly channels her alter ego from television’s Will and Grace for the hundredth time and even her brief appearance grates on the nerves.

For the slightly older set and adults that fondly remember those Saturday morning adventures with Scooby-Doo, Hotel Transylvania 2 may not be five star entertainment but it’s worth checking into.

The Silver Bullet ~ Getaway

getaway

Synopsis: Brent Magna must get behind the wheel and follow the orders of a mysterious man to save his kidnapped wife.

Release Date:  August 30, 2013

Thoughts:  Though star Ethan Hawke is on a bit of a hot streak lately after appearing in a trio of successful films over the past year (Sinister, The Purge, Before Midnight), he may have trouble coming out on top of this hokey looking action thriller that also features Jon Voight, Jon Voight’s questionable European dialect courtesy of Villian Accents Inc., and a performance from Selena Gomez that may be destined for the Razzie Awards.  Though muscle cars and a slick grit may help sell this film to overly forgiving audiences at the end of the summer, I’m not so sure that Getaway should be anything you get involved with.