Movie Review ~ The Lion King (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

Stars: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Beyonce Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There seem to be two camps of Disney animation aficionados. The first feel the studio hit its apex of its second golden age of hand-drawn animation in 1991 with Beauty & the Beast and the other side believe the tipping point was 1994 with the release of The Lion King. Both are a little right because each represent new advances not just in animation but in storytelling and musicality. Fans of the The Lion King are many and while I don’t count myself as one of the ride-or-die devotees of this Hamlet in the Serengeti tale I do appreciate it’s mature themes and humanistic approach to life and loss.

Even though I don’t find the film to be as precious as others, I was considerably surprised Disney would take the risk of adding this beloved classic to their growing roster of revisited films for a new generation.  It was easy to get Cinderella to go to the ball, Aladdin to find his magic lamp, and Pete’s Dragon was downright delightful…though it was considerably harder to convince audiences to see Dumbo take flight. Even so, how would they capture life in the African veldt in a somewhat realistic way? Going off of the success of the photorealistic computer generated animals created for 2016’s The Jungle Book, Disney handed the reins to back to director Jon Favreau and asked him to fully immerse himself in the technology to bring The Lion King to life.

Frankly, while the film is gorgeous to look at and makes the transition to screen far better than any other 2019 release has, it’s ultimately a bit of a pointless endeavor due to it being a nearly shot for shot remake of the animated original with very little creativity added in. At times, the film is frustratingly stuck in 1994, completely ignoring all of the new music added into the subsequent 1997 behemoth Broadway musical and many of its wise decisions in narrative structure. Once I resigned myself to it being so furiously beholden to the original film, I was able to settle in and admittedly got swept up in some of the grand scale of majesty, both visual and emotional, on display.

I have a feeling there will be a lot of audience members coming out of this 2019 retelling of The Lion King looking for someone to blame for the film not living up to their expectations so I’m going to run down the list of blame-ees to see if we can’t land on a culprit.

Blame Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home). This one’s easy. Blame the director who brought only a concept to the table. Yes, the technology for The Jungle Book was a massive undertaking and the results quite splendid but the same magic doesn’t translate here. Going for realism over fantasy limits the film with rules in ways the animated one didn’t have to abide by. There’s little ingenuity to how the movie is constructed, with much of it, including the still goose-bump inducing ‘Circle of Life’ opening (sung by long time London Rafiki Brown Lindiwe Mkhize), just a complete copy of the first film.  I’m familiar enough with that opening sequence to recognize similar focus pulls and camera zooms so I’d love to see the two sequences side by side to see how close they are to each other. I’m a bit taken aback at how frightening Favreau let this one get. Animals that were slightly menacing as animated cells are positively terrifying when realistically rendered – parents should take note of the trio of teeth gnashing hyenas that are decidedly not played for laughs. There’s an attack/chase scene in this that rivaled Crawl for it’s tension and element of surprise.

Blame Julie Taymor. Poor Taymor has long been a scapegoat in the industry so why not throw her to the aforementioned hyenas here as well, right? I guess you could say she “ruined” The Lion King for multiple generations by creating such an unforgettable Broadway musical out of the original material. With brilliant costumes, soaring additional music, and a genius creativity flowing through each and every nook and cranny it set a new standard for what was possible in translating a film to stage.   Actually, she did what I feel the studio should have done here and that is to take the original film, retain the best parts about it and make something equally amazing out of it that lets both exist independently of the other. That doesn’t happen here. I can’t imagine people will be more inclined to watch this 2019 version over the 1994 original and then only if they couldn’t get tickets to the Broadway show.

Blame the cast. While it was nice to hear James Earl Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) back as Mufasa and Billy Eichner is dang delight as Timon, much of the casting falls flat. What’s worse, several of the actors just plain and simple can’t sing. As perfect a villain voice as Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes) provides as Scar, his speak-singing his way through a stupefyingingly truncated ‘Be Prepared’ and unsure high notes are a real bummer. As Pumbaa, Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) is the worst offender and while the part doesn’t require a good voice it at least requires someone to stay on pitch. Donald Glover (The Martian) is also a bit of a dud as the adult Simba showing little fire while Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Nala (Dreamgirls) doesn’t exactly sound like she’s part of a regal pride of lionesses.  Everyone sounds like they’ve just been woken up from a nap, the lions were definitely sleeping tonight before recording their lines.

Blame the Disney executives. Here is where I think we have our winner, the big baddie of them all. Though this can’t be called a live-action remake seeing that the entire film is computer-generated, it represents another attempt by Disney to again cannibalize their catalog. For what purpose? The argument I’ve heard is that “every generation deserves their version of these stories” but that’s just…stupid. By signing off on giving The Lion King a CGI upgrade but not bothering to incorporate any of the new music (aside from Beyonce’s incredibly mediocre Oscar-bait single which has no place in the film) or making inventive creative choices they’ve not provided a purpose for the movie to exist other than lining their purses.  At its best, this new Lion King takes flight because of the durability of the source material and at it’s worst it’s merely a product crafted mindlessly for consumption with a pretty awful Elton John sung tacked into the credits for good measure.

Yet I’m still encouraging people to see this film and will likely see it again myself in theaters.  It’s absolutely better than the dull Dumbo and wooden Aladdin and operates on a different scale of filmmaking.  When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the movie is incredible to look at and what works the best is what has made The Lion King a classic since it was first released 25 years ago. The songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are melodic and will stick in your head, Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing, and the storyline of parental loss and finding strength within is as resonant as ever. I’ve listened to the soundtrack now a few times since seeing the movie and still get chills when the chorus of ‘Circle of Life’ fully kick in. No improvement on the original was needed to reinforce those feelings, though.

Movie Review ~ Mary Poppins Returns


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The journey to make Mary Poppins in 1964 was so fraught with tension and hard feelings that it’s no wonder it took 54 years for a sequel to make its way into theaters. If you don’t believe me, check out the entertaining Saving Mr. Banks for a little history lesson…however revisionist it may seem to be.  What child didn’t grow up seeing the titular magical nanny educate the Banks children and bring order to their family while teaching the biggest lesson of all to their workaholic father? I vividly remember seeing it not only in my house but at school on special occasions when they’d get out an old reel-to-reel projector and gigantic screen.

Over the years the popularity of P.L. Travers creation never really went away, even inspiring a long-running West End and Broadway musical that’s now making the rounds in a community theater near you. You can’t keep the old girl down and in 2018 she’s returned in an all new sequel that’s a surprisingly spry near-equal to its half-century old predecessor. The Walt Disney Company took a huge gamble in dusting off this treasured property and turning it over to director Rob Marshall and it has paid off handsomely; Mary Poppins Returns is a true movie event, a hard-working winning combination of fantasy, music, and heart-tugging emotion.

It’s been thirty years since Jane and Michael Banks spent a wondrous few weeks with Mary Poppins but life at #17 Cherry Tree Lane has moved on. Having recently lost his wife, Michael (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) now lives in his family home with his three children and gets the occasional visit from Jane (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and continued the fight for equality for all. When the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and gives them less than a week to come up with the money all hopes seems lost…until a familiar figure appears from the sky.

Making her grand entrance clutching a kite, Mary Poppins (the divine Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place) has lost none of her dry wit and charming aloofness. She soon sets up shop with the new generation of Banks children while keeping her eye on Jane and Michael as they scramble to find a lost set of bank bonds that could get them out of debt. While their father worries about their future, Mary Poppins helps his children adjust to the present through adventures in undersea realms, at the upside-down dwelling of Mary’s cousin Topsy (a wack-a-doodle Meryl Streep, Hope Springs), and in the painting on a porcelain pot.

Having directed the film versions of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, Marshall knows his way around a movie musical but this is far and away his most accomplished and polished work to date. With the old-school appeal of a Hollywood song and dance spectacular, Mary Poppins Returns is the kind of throwback everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience they just don’t bother to make anymore. Disney and Marshall had the good sense to give audiences exactly what they want in a sequel to a cherished classic…and then some. While not a remake of Mary Poppins per se, it does seem to hit the same beats as that earlier film even down to a splendid animated sequence and a visit to one of her zany relatives.

Even if Marc Shaiman’s songs don’t stay in the brain quite as well as the tunes created by the Sherman Brothers, they feel like they exist within the same universe and are performed with exuberance by Blunt and company. There’s no ‘Feed the Birds’ level accomplishment here but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ stirs the right amount of feelings and ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ is a clever bit of wordplay that the Sherman Brothers would get a kick out of. Streep’s oddball ‘Turning Turtle’ is something only she could pull off and Whishaw’s plaintive ‘A Conversation’ gives the actor a nice jumping off point early on in the film. Marshall and his co-choreographer John DeLuca also nicely avoid the trappings of filming huge musical numbers for the screen by letting the audience see the entire company dancing rather than always cutting into close-ups. ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ arrives late in the game but is a true show-stopper.

If the film makes one miscalculation, it’s in the misappropriation of time given to Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Jack, a lamplighter friend of Mary’s that’s a stand-in for Bert the chimney sweep from the first film. Whereas Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was someone that occasionally popped up in the action, it feels like Jack is shoehorned into the plot at every turn and it begins to take away from the time we want to spend with Mary and the Banks family. At times, Jack becomes the driving force of play and that made the movie feel like it was veering too far in the wrong direction.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Blunt commands the movie in no uncertain terms whenever she’s even close to the screen. I personally think Blunt is the perfect choice for any part she turns up in but here there’s a real chemistry between actress and role that is rarely seen. No one is going to erase the performance of Julie Andrews from our memory and Blunt doesn’t even try to recreate that particular take on the role. Smartly choosing to give Mary an updated look that sets her apart from her 1964 appearance, Blunt’s Mary is just as staunch as Andrews but doesn’t soften quite as easily. She’s also riotously funny with her droll line readings and incredulity at the state of affairs she encounters upon her return. Andrews won an Oscar for her work and I expect Blunt will get a nomination as well.

Filling out the cast is Colin Firth (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) playing a rare villain role as a bank manager eager to claim the Banks house, Julie Walters (Paddington) as put-upon maid Ellen, David Warner (Waxwork) as Admiral Boom, and Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) as a wise Balloon Lady with a magical touch of her own. Then there’s Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) dancing up a storm and keep your eyes out for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice, making a cameo outside of Cherry Tree Lane.

Bound to rake in some serious money this holiday season, Mary Poppins Returns is that rare sequel that feels like it wasn’t done for the money but for the greater good. I know it’s all about the bottom line but this is one film that feels like it could heal what ails you…even if just for two and a half hours.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dumbo (2019)

Synopsis: From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight.

Release Date: March 29, 2019

Thoughts: I must say when I heard Disney was making a live-action version of their classic 1941 animated film Dumbo to be directed by Tim Burton I was less than thrilled. Dumbo is a family favorite and one that seemed unlikely to lend itself to the kind of success other adaptations like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book enjoyed.  Even more, was the dark whimsy of Burton (Dark Shadows) really the right choice to take this simple and lovely tale to the big screen?  After watching this first look at the 2019 release, I’m relaxing into the notion that this marriage of Burton’s style and Disney’s chestnut might not be so strange after all.  It looks downright charming.  Starring Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Michael Keaton (Spider Man: Homecoming), Danny DeVito (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), Eva Green (Cracks) and a big-eyed CGI elephant who is destined to fly to great heights, this just jumped up a few notches on my radar.

Movie Review ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Stars: Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Andre Holland, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Bellamy Young, Rowan Blanchard, Will McCormack, Michael Pena

Director: Ava DuVernay

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It was always going to be possible for any adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time to get bungled on its way to the big screen. The deep ideas, meditational themes, and introspective characters didn’t exactly lend themselves to a sure-fire project that could easily be translated from page to film. I grew up with this book and it’s one of the few I’ve gone back to several times over the years. I’ve seen the previous television movie adaptation, performed in it onstage, and seen other theatrical productions over the years. So, full disclosure, this one was close to my heart.

When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to the novel and brought on red-hot director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to guide its development, my interest was piqued and my hopes raised. When DuVernay went on to assemble a cast of A-List stars there was another jolt of confidence brought on by the names and faces of actors that had previously chosen their projects wisely. Then a much-hyped debut of the first trailer got me thinking that the magic of A Wrinkle in Time would indeed survive and thrive.

So imagine how deflating it was to sit in an IMAX theater and watch what should have been a slam-dunk miss the mark entirely. Like, completely. Now I know that I may hold the source material as perhaps a tad more precious than I should, which would make any attempt to bring it to life an impossible bar to overcome. No, I actually went in with eyes wide open and arms outstretched ready to be transported off the ground only to be depressingly earthbound throughout.

Several years after her scientist father mysteriously disappears, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is still struggling to adjust to his absence. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beauty and the Beast) and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) offer support but Meg has descended into a funk that’s robbed her of self-confidence and her spark. That all changes with the late-night appearance of flighty and flame-haired Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, Home Again) who is the first arrival in the trio of ladies that will bring Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) on an adventure across time and space.

Joined by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, Inside Out) who only speaks in quotes and the grand Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) the children explore Uriel, a world far distant from their own. There the Mrs’ reveal to the children that the universe as they know it is coming under siege from a being they call The IT which is an embodiment of evil. After a visit to The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, Muppets Most Wanted) the kids must travel alone to the peculiar realm of Camazotz where they will come face to face with their fears, relying on their inner strength to battle the forces of darkness.

While the script from Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell remains fairly faithful to L’Engle’s novel, it fails to bring forth any wonderment or magic in the proceedings. A novel with themes of rebellion against societal norms and overcoming struggle with finding one’s own originality winds up being an overly talky self-help seminar that’s dreadfully dull. As a strong advocate for social change and equality, you can see why the tenets of the book had long held an appeal for DuVernay but she surprisingly struggles mightily with keeping her film afloat.

While she’s found a nice discovery in the bold Reid who turns in a confident performance, the rest of DuVernay’s troupe is largely made up of miscasting. Winfrey feels like she’s playing a version of herself, a wise, level-headed sage that speaks in new age-y proverbs and spends the first half of the movie 50 times the size of any other character. Witherspoon is badly out of place in the space-y role that Kaling would have been an infinitely better fit for. Kaling instead is relegated to reciting eye-rolling quotes including a downright groan-worthy one from Lin-Manuel Miranda near the film’s conclusion. Galifianakis is a woeful low-point and poor Michael Pena (End of Watch) is stuck playing a red-eyed denizen of Camazotz. As written, Calvin has even less to do with the action than in the book but Miller has a sweetly platonic chemistry with Reid that works nicely. As Meg’s missing dad Chris Pine (The Finest Hours) may wear the cardigan of a scientist studying time travel but he won’t convince you otherwise he’s cracked a science book in the last decade.

For a movie from this family-friendly studio and adorned with a hefty-budget, the filmmakers seem to not understand who exactly the movie is for. It could have been pitched to mid-teens just fine but there’s so many silly elements and goofy developments that it feels like a wide net was cast. When Witherspoon turns into what looks to be a fantastic piece of flying lettuce and takes the kids for a ride through a field of humming flowers, you may wonder if any focus groups were even brought in to steer this one back on course.

A Wrinkle in Time spawned several sequels involving Meg and her friends but if this labored effort is any indication of the thematic future of the series, I hope significant time is spent smoothing out the wrinkles of the lessons learned here. Every person involved with this picture is capable of so much more than what was delivered – the first real disappointment of 2018.

Movie Review ~ Black Panther


The Facts
:

Synopsis: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Audiences growing tired of the endless slate of comic book movies can roar a sigh of relief…Black Panther is here to cure you of all that ails you. After taking a fun leap with the wacky Thor: Ragnarok in November, Marvel Studios has scored another win with this not-quite origin story that manages to function extremely well as a stand-alone adventure while establishing its characters and place within the Marvel Universe. While the movie is clearly designed to make bank for its producers, out of all the Marvel entries so far it feels the most cleverly orchestrated – giving audiences what they want in terms of special effects and spectacle and slipping in a message of social consciousness.

Popping up first in Captain America: Civil War and set to return in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Black Panther (aka T’Challa, a price turned king of fictitious African nation Wakanda) is already familiar with his gifts when the film emerges from its flashback prologue. Coming from a long line of enhanced ancestors, T’Challa understands the mantle he has to pick up when his father is killed in the terrorist attack that occurred in Captain America: Civil War. Now, returning to Wakanda to mourn his king and grieve for his father, T’Challa must face his people.

There’s problems from the get-go, though, when a long-gestating conflict between Wakanda’s tribes must be dealt with and after several of the nation’s leaders press T’Challa to share the wealth of knowledge Wakanda has protected for years. On top of all that, there’s Ulysses Klaue (played with giddy ‘roided out rage by Andy Serkis, Breathe) trying to steal the powerful Vibranium mined richly in Wakanda’s mountains and the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) who has arrived with a vendetta against T’Challa and his family.

By employing writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to sit atop the Black Panther proceedings, Marvel has opened up their universe even further. Coogler brings an intelligence and depth to the plot and character development we just haven’t seen before in these movies. Themes of social unrest, slavery, familial obligation, and correcting the mistakes of the past flow throughout Coogler’s tale without bogging it down in the slightest. Coogler has also brought along Mudbound’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Cake) to film the exciting action sequences and sure to be Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) to design the jaw-dropping costumes. On a technical level, Marvel has truly outdone themselves with this one.

All the beautiful images in the world and keen knack for plot-driven storytelling would have been for naught had Coogler not assembled one of the best casts in eons. Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) makes for a commanding T’Challa, showing the vulnerability of a well-liked son taking over for his well-respected father. Jordan is an inspired choice for Killmonger, creating one of the more memorable earth-bound villains in the Marvel canon. Serkis rips though the movie with a decent amount of glee, Martin Freeman (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to nail his American accent and his droll comic bits as State Department representative Everett Ross, and new Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a confidant of T’Challa’s with his own score to settle

Let’s face it though…though a man leads the movie it’s the ladies that steal the show out from under their male counterparts with next to no effort. The regal Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen) is Wakanda’s Queen and T’Challa’s mother; no one (NO ONE) does regal queen like Ms. Bassett. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is T’Challa’s warrior love interest and Letitia Wright (The Commuter) is a knockout as T’Challa’s mischievous sister. The MVP of the movie is surely Danai Gurira (TV’s The Walking Dead), though. As T’Challa’s army general Okoye, she’s the definition of badass and you won’t be able to take her eyes off of her each time she’s on screen. If The Academy was more adventurous, this is the kind of performance out of the box nominations for Best Supporting Actress are made of.

After a few ho-hum stumbles (sorry Doctor Strange and Ant-Man), Marvel is back on a roll at the start of 2018. Who knows what will happen when Avengers: Infinity War hits in a few months or when Ant-Man and The Wasp flies into theaters later this summer, but for now Black Panther is the king of the Marvel jungle.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ant-Man and The Wasp

Synopsis: As Scott Lang balances being both a Super Hero and a father, Hope van Dyne and Dr. Hank Pym present an urgent new mission that finds the Ant-Man fighting alongside The Wasp to uncover secrets from their past.

Release Date: July 6, 2018

Thoughts: By the time Ant-Man was released in 2015, I was in major superhero movie fatigue so I’d be forgiven for not going ga-ga over Paul Rudd’s jokey take on the bite-sized Avenger.  While it had some nice Honey, I Shrunk the Kids style fun, Ant-Man just felt like another in a long line of average popcorn flicks featuring lesser characters that were positioned to continue the Marvel Universe while the more popular players took a breather.  After doing battle in Captain America: Civil War and just two short months after making a return appearance in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, Rudd (Wanderlust) returns to headline this follow-up that, I must admit, looks like zany entertainment. I was hoping to get a glimpse of Michelle Pfeiffer (Murder on the Orient Express) in this first trailer but chances are Marvel is saving her for a reveal closer to the release date.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

First Trailer Review: Here
Second Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If there’s one feeling that governed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was nostalgia. Fans had toiled through the dark despair of the Star Wars prequels and were holding out hope that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) would bring them salvation in the continuing story of the sci-fi fantasy epic. So when The Force Awakens opened and was actually good, if not wholly great, most audiences that received the film well left the theater floating on a cosmic wave of good feelings of the old school charm that kept the original trilogy preserved so well over the years.

I count myself as one of those fans and gobbled up the film hook, line, and sinker. However, in hindsight it’s best to admit in the spirit of friendship that I fully recognize The Force Awakens was largely a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. Sure, it wasn’t a paint-by-numbers carbon copy but the familiar themes of the original didn’t go unnoticed. I wasn’t as big a fan of 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as many were, that film didn’t have anywhere to go so it remained flatter than a pancake to this viewer. Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi the producers and filmmakers would really be put to the test. Would they continue to pull from the past to create something to please the fans, or would they dare to try something different?

Well, The Last Jedi is a little bit like walking forward while cinematically rubbernecking to spot where you were coming from. It’s immensely entertaining when it wants to be (which is most of the time) and a little lackluster in laying the groundwork for future installments and whenever it gets too cerebral. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) ably picks up the reins from his predecessor and does more than just keep his seat warm before Abrams returns for Episode 9. There’s a forward thrust but it does take time to reach warp speed.

It’s always a special thrill to hear John Williams score announce the start of the film and a bit of excitement reading the opening crawl. The first fifteen minutes are classic Star Wars, with a group of rebel fighters including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) protecting their cavalcade and fearless leader (the late, great, Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) from an attack waged by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin). It’s here were a strange comedic chord is first heard, one that made me wonder if Johnson had decided to inject his film with more Spaceballs (Mel Brooks’ brilliant send up of the Star Wars films) than was appropriate.

We last saw young orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) traveling with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service) who was in a self-imposed exile. While Poe and Leia continue to evade the monstrous Hux, Rey tries to sway Luke to return and help the resistance defeat The First Order and their leader, General Snoke (a CGI creation that looks better here than in The Force Awakens, once-again voiced by Andy Serkis, Breathe). There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha), Leia and Han Solo’s son who turned to the Dark Side and is still smarting from the butt-whooping he received from Rey and Finn (John Boyega) at the end of the previous film. He’s out for revenge…but does he have more secrets up his well-armored sleeve that will change the course of The First Order and the resistance?

Juggling several storylines at once, Johnson keeps the 2.5 hour film moving a good clip. A race against the clock rescue mission involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, an excellent addition to this male-heavy world) manages to remain engaging even when it’s broken up and interspersed with the goings-on of other characters. The movie has a few endings but manages to justify them with ease.

Aside from Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) as a code-breaking thief and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) showing up with purple hair as Leia’s second in command, it’s largely the same old gang we first sparked to in previous installments. While certain players take more of a backseat in glorified cameos (12 Years as Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o is a mere hologram here), Johnson has introduced a few memorable creatures like the cute Porg’s, Crystal Foxes, and Luke’s island-dwelling servants that one critic hilariously dubbed “the fish nuns”. They’re not going to replace Chewie or R2D2 in your heart but they do rally a convincing bid for you to make some room.

The second movie in a planned trilogy can often feel a bit flimsy as a bridge between the first and final chapters but The Last Jedi avoids those pitfalls. Depending on your knowledge of the Star Wars universe, it could easily stand on its own. It makes you look forward to the next installment rather than feel desperate for answers that you might not get by the time the credits roll. The effects are top notch, the score from Williams sounds as glorious as ever, and try not to get a little choked up every time Fisher’s on screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Trailer 2

beauty_and_the_beast_ver2

Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: No, YOU teared up when you were watching this look at Beauty and the Beast…ok…I did too.  One of Disney’s most beloved animated fairy tales comes to live action life from director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) in 2017 and it looks like, well, a beauty.  We all know the story so even seeing some spoilerific scenes doesn’t deter me from counting down the days until this one gets released.  Boasting an impressive cast with Emma Watson (The Bling Ring), Kevin Kline (The Big Chill), Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures), Sir Ian McKellen (X: Men – Days of Future Past), Josh Gad (Frozen), Luke Evans (The Raven), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games), and Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) all signing and dancing up a storm, anticipation is high for Beauty and the Beast to be another jewel in Disney’s recent slate of live action remakes of their cartoon classics.

View the teaser trailer here: Beauty and the Beast – Teaser Trailer

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians_of_the_galaxy_vol_two

Synopsis: The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage.

Release Date: May 5, 2017

Thoughts: Surpassing the expectations of audiences and even, I think, its own studio, Guardians of the Galaxy was a late summer splash in 2014.  Elevating star Chris Pratt to A-List status (further cemented the next summer when he headlined Jurassic World) and bringing to the screen heroes that didn’t wear a red cape or a cowl, GoTG was slick, funny, exciting, and fueled with enough adrenaline to power several city blocks.  The hype is big for Vol. 2 when it arrives in May 2017 and this first teaser is but a taste of things to come (not to mention multiple full length trailers).  In all honesty, like the trailer for the original this one is too jokey for my taste but as a whistle whetter, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ Pete’s Dragon (2016)

petes_dragon_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If you were to visit The MN Movie Man’s house during the early eighties, on any given weekend you can be sure that at some point Pete’s Dragon would be unspooling on an oft-rented (eventually purchased) VHS cassette.  The 1977 Disney musical production was a household favorite and Helen Reddy’s plaintive Candle on the Water remains one of my favorite tunes to this day.

So you’ll understand that when I heard Disney was adding Pete’s Dragon to it’s expanding list of remakes, I was less than thrilled.  How dare the studio take its folksy tale of a boy and his dragon changing a small New England town and its residents for the better and put a 21st century spin on things…and would they stoop so low as to have some pop princess warble out an auto-tune version of Candle on the Water?  Right up until the lights went down and the Disney logo appeared on screen I was on the defense…but then something downright magical happened.  I loved this remake.

When I say loved, I don’t mean in the same way you say “I love that new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer” but loved in the sense that you feel a wave of warmth emanate from your belly just thinking of certain key scenes in writer-director David Lowery’s damn lovely re-imagining.  Not only is it the best family film to come along in ages but it’s without question the best movie released so far this summer.  People wanted to believe that the terrible Suicide Squad would save the (summer) day and forgive the June and July trespasses but it turns out that Pete’s Dragon is the one that flies highest.

The first thing Lowery did was wisely throw out everything but the names of Pete (Oakes Fegley, This is Where I Leave You) and his dragon Elliot (spectacularly rendered via CGI).  Gone are the songs, the East coast setting, and the plot involving a runaway orphan finding a home with a lighthouse keeper and his daughter in the early 1900s.  Lowery knew the charming yet staid quaintness of the original and it’s accompanying songs wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences so he’s set his film in the 1980s Pacific Northwest.

By the time the credits are over, toddler Pete has been orphaned via tragedy and adopted by a gentle dragon he names Elliot before disappearing into the forest for the next six years.  Found by a kind forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) and befriended by her future stepdaughter (Oona Laurence, Bad Moms), a near-feral Pete warms to this new family but struggles to leave the pain of his past and his fire-breathing constant companion behind.  There’s some late in the game roughness involving a logger’s (Karl Urban, Star Trek) plot to hunt down and trap Elliot that gives the film some tangible conflict but it’s the emotional conflict that is the biggest test for all involved.

This is a film you’ll get a good cry at so just go with it and enjoy the way it kindly pushes your emotional buttons.  It’s not manipulative or malicious in its intent and, man, it feels so good to have an honest response to a movie this far into 2016 when many films have left me cold.  The actors, especially Howard and Fegley, do outstanding work and Robert Redford (All is Lost) exudes grandfatherly warmth as Howard’s dad with his own ties to Elliot.

Where the 1977 Elliot was an animated goofball with neon lime green scales and pink accents, the 2016 version is impressively created as a furry tenderheart endlessly devoted to Pete.  With dog-like mannerisms (watch him struggle to get a giant log through two towering trees), Elliot wins you over from the first time he appears onscreen and thankfully the folks at Disney don’t keep him under wraps/invisible for much of the movie.

Beautifully produced and told with grace, Pete’s Dragon is the kind of remake that shows how to do it right.  If the original wasn’t broke, don’t fix it via a remake but use it to inspire a new tale that can stand on its own against its predecessor.  The two films may share a title but they couldn’t be more different in style and tone…and this new version easily earns a spot on the shelf of future family classics.