Real Steel

Last night my wife and I sneaked out leaving the brother to babysit and saw Real Steel, the new movie out about robot boxing. I have to say, I wasn’t too excited to see it. The idea of robots punching each other for 2 hours didn’t really pique my interest. But I am happy to recommend it now as a fun family film, with some fight scenes, that has all the charm of the Karate Kid and cgi as good as Transformers.

It was directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the MuseumBig Fat Liar …) and stars Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, and newcomer Kevin Durand. Jackman plays Charlie, an ex prize fighter who now slums as a robot coach (of sorts). Jackman discovers he has a son, Max, and try as he might to do otherwise, he is destined to partner up with his 13 year old son throughout the movie. Charlie and Max try their hand at robot management and coaching but it has mixed results. It isn’t until they have a few shared experiences that they acquire a new, plain, yet mysterious powerful robots. What that power is remains to unfold. Together they discover the worth of teamwork and the analog body in sync with the digital robot technology. I won’t give away anymore about the plot but know that it’s quite a fun ride.

Evangeline Lilly plays Bailey, Jackman’s ex. She is the calming force in his life even now that they are not together. They share a little romance that sizzles off the screen. Max is just happy-go-lucky. He ends up getting a dad and a prize fighting robot in the deal. There is not a while lot of real life character development but for what this movie is, an action movie, that isn’t required. Atom is the robot. You end up feeling like he is an actual person. He is the classic underdog fighter with no chance and a small physique. The twist is that he is not a human, like Rocky from the 70’s, but rather a steel fighting machine. He never says to his corner man to “cut me” but several comparisons are obvious, as well as to the Karate Kid.

All in all, this movie isn’t very real amid the steel. That being said, you will cheer when the good robots win fights. It is just the right time for this sort of movie to be made. Technology makes these things seem like real chunks of 1,000 pound metal to watch, enjoy, and give a high five to. While weak on the storyline and character development, this is the ideal underdog movie for the kids of today. And for those of us in our slightly older years, we should suspend disbelief so this movie can please us as well.

Article first published as Real Steel: The Underdog Fight Ensues on Blogcritics.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Lower your standards for acting and dialog but not for CGI and cinematography. It started very slow and laborious but the middle and end were actually a lot of fun.

If you want to bring people in to see your movie, make it a prequel or sequel to a box office explosion like the Wizard of Oz. Additionally, cast mega actors in the lead roles. Oh, and of you really want to blow it up, get the best CGI into it. Voila, you’ll have a monster hit. Will Oz, the Great and Powerful be “monstrous” successful at the box office? Probably but time will have to tell. On opening day, the critics are divided. Some are saying it’s bad writing but should that matter with a fantasy family movie like this?

This Disney film was directed by Sam Raimi, known for the Evil Dead and the Spiderman Trilogy. It stars James Franco as Oz, Mila Kunis as Theodora, Rachel Weisz as Evanora, and Michelle Williams as Glinda. In addition to those giant-name actors, there is cast of lesser-known known yet famous actors.

To summarize the plot with minimal spoilers: Oscar Diggs is whisked away from Kansas and ends up in Oz (familiar?). He meets three witches who he must contend with to stay alive. In the process, her learns about believing in himself as he saves the Emerald City. He uses his skills of illusion to foil the bad witches impress the inhabitants of Oz. An important note is that he never returns to Kansas.

Prequels contain certain unavoidable things. For sure you are bound to hear the origins of things. Oz the Great and Powerful is no exception. My wife was surprised there was no backstory of the slippers but no other stone is left unturned. It’s as if the screenwriters had a checklist and went right down the line. Even though the script seems canned and simple at times, the movie doesn’t need depth to please viewers. We are talking about a prequel to the Wizard of Oz here, the name along with the Disney moniker is enough to bring in the minions. I was there opening night and I have never seen our small town Cinemark that packed. Will it have staying power? Time will tell but I think but probably. It started very slow and laborious but the middle and end were actually a lot of fun. Lower your standards for acting and dialog but not for CGI and cinematography.

The BFG (2016)

With highly advertised Summer films like ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ out this Summer of 2016, the BFG has a lot to stand up to. Fortunately for him, he is 26 feet tall. Oh, and the movie is great too.

This is a repost from last year, the BFG is now streaming on Netflix!

With highly advertised Summer films like The Secret Life of Pets out this Summer of 2016, this film has a lot to stand up to. Fortunately for the giant, he is 26 feet tall so he can stand up to audiences with confidence. Some movies like The BFG should not be over analyzed but rather surrendered to. It has been engineered to take you away as if you were in a dream. Some of the finest names in movie making, including Spielberg as director, have joined forces to do that. Set controls for the heart of childhood, The Big Friendly Giant is here to sweep you away.

bfgposter

The BFG
Cast

Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton

Directed by

Steven Spielberg

Written by

Melissa Mathison (screenplay), Roald Dahl (based on the book by)

Other Info

Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Rated PG
117min

There are two main characters: Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the BFG (Big Friendly Giant – voiced by Mark Rylance). Both characters don’t quite fit into their respective worlds and find a special friendship with each other. There isn’t much by way of plot but that’s not a problem. The tenderness between BFG and Sophie is so powerfully developed and delivered, they can do anything and it’s engaging. Just watch them opening “dream jars,” for example. The plot is thickest when the other, larger giants threaten to eat Sophie. When that’s not happening, Sophie and BFG spend quality  time in “Giant Land.” At some point, they solicit the aid of a “head of state,” (I’ll call her that to not spoil the surprise of who she is) and the bad giants are dealt with.

bfg1At one point, BFG tells Sophie giants have been walking about since the beginning of time. There is no growth or transformation in either character, it’s not that sort of film. We are meant to admire them like art hanging in a gallery. Along those lines, one should remember the book is by Roald Dahl, all his books are highly visual. You see a world that is a reflection upside down on a lake. You also see peoples’ dreams in little pixie sizes, squeaking. There are signature silly words here just like inWilly Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, when a rich human serves him toast and jam, he yells out, “Scrumtapdiliumpcious!”

The main reason The BFG is effective and entertaining because it’s simplified. This is how it should be with a Spielberg film. He’s been making movies since the 1970’s and should know by now a few things that work. He leaves the worthless stuff out. Through the 2000’s his direction was hit and miss. I recall a couple real misses as examples: Cowboys and Aliens and Super 8. I went in to both expecting the caliber of E.T. and instead got uninteresting, worthless movies. Bbfg2ut after all the modern trial and error, it’s great to see him hit the bullseye again with The BFG. I want to recognize the screenwriter Melissa Mathison as I type my review. She has been a collaborator with Spielberg on several project including ET. She passed away tragically from cancer last year. She was only 65. By way of trivia, From 1983 to 2004, Mathison was married to Harrison Ford; they had two children together.

In conclusion, this is the Summer of 2016, and as most movie viewers know there is some family film competition, including The Secret Life of Pets. While a CGI character, the BFG has a lot of personality in his face and body movements. Clearly byt looking at the actor, you can see they fashioned him after Mark Rylance. He’s well known for winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. The casting of Rylance in the BFG was an excellent choice. To me, he IS BFG. While it is performing slowly at the moment at the box office, I truly hope a lot of people get a chance to see this film.

Have you seen this film? Care to see it? Leave your thoughts about the film in the comments.

Hugo

Article first published as Hugo on Blogcritics.
Sometimes a film comes along that I think of as perfect, not because it was made well or even acted well, but because it gave me a space in which to think clearly. These types don’t tell you what to think like so many modern ones try to. Hugo is about life and more specifically the role movies play in our lives.

When I first saw the previews for Hugo I thought it was a kid’s film about a rapscallion pre-teen who lived in a train station and called everyone “gov’na.” It isn’t that at all. Ben Kingsley’s character says when addressing his movie fans, “I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians. You are the true dreamers.” Are you one of those? If so, you’re who Hugo was made for.

Hugo is based on the bestselling book by Brian Selznick. It was produced by Johnny Depp and directed by Martin Scorcese. It’s about a 12-year-old named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a huge clock in a train station. His father was a tinkerer and repairman who died in a museum fire. He left his son a broken automatron, a sort of 1930’s version of a robot, and Hugo is determined to get it working. He thinks there is a message in it from his dad. He meets Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) a girl of his age who has a mysterious grandfather, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). He has a toy stand in the station and seems to despise Hugo for some reason. He is unusually cruel.

There is also a ruthless inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) with a Doberman and a leg brace who captures vagrants in the station. He sends them to jail or to the orphanage. He is a sort of lingering nemesis of Hugo throughout the movie, although he provides few scenes of subtle comic relief; I laughed out loud watching him try and pick up a woman.

The boy is on a quest to make the automatron work, and through the process learns a lot about the people in the station and Isabelle. There is a message here about the role of fantasy in our lives as well as the role of movies.

In conclusion, Hugo is a little slow in the beginning but the 1930s sets, costumes, and Parisian music makes the slow beginning worthwhile. When Hugo steals a croissant from a food cart you feel like you can taste it. The colors and attention to detail are so convincing, you feel like you are in the movie. The stalled action en principio is important in that it develops the characters. I really enjoyed Hugo. Once the ride began, I never wanted it to stop. If you want to go on a cinematic ride and be inspired, watching Hugo should be on your to-do list. I gave it 5/5 stars. Oh yeah, and if you love the history of movies, Martin Scorcese knows a thing or two about that! He certainly says it well in Hugo.

Tangled

Disney’s new movie Tangled is a delight for anyone who’s overcome fear to break out of a bad situation. Disney has long been a voice that tells of our humanity. This movie takes us once again to the center of our human condition. The combination of a simple message, spectacular songs, and mesmerizing animation makes it a winner in my book.

This article I wrote was first published as Tangled – Epic Journey Out the Front Door on Blogcritics.

Disney’s animated movie Tangled is a delight for anyone who’s overcome fear to break out of a bad situation. Disney has long been a voice that tells of our humanity. This movie takes us once again to the center of our human condition. The combination of a simple message, spectacular songs, and mesmerizing animation makes it a winner in my book.

There are 2 relatively new Directors: Nathan Greno, writer on Meet the Robinsons, and Byron Howard, director of Bolt. Though new to the scene, their accomplishment in this film is noteworthy. Their direction on Tangled amounts to a film that audiences will treasure on many levels.

There are not many characters in this movie but in this case less is more. Mandy Moore does a stellar job as the big-eyed Rapunzel. The nuances of her voice match the “painted” style of animation very well. I was deawn in to watch carefully on extended speaking scene because the syncopation was flawless. Because of such excellent animation, these characters are real to us from the opening scene. By the end we think they are our friends. We are invested in them because the movie grows to prove quite deep in its concept.

The basic story is that Rapunzel, a baby princess is kidnapped by a miserly old woman. The old woman then casts a spell from the magic flower into Rapunzel’s hair and the hair keeps the old woman young. As Rapunzel grows, she is kept captive in a tower until she starts to get curious about the outside world. Through a rescue by Flynn Rider, a prince charming type voiced by newcomer Zachary Levi, she eventually breaks free of the castle. There is a lot of psychology to this escape since she has never been outside of the castle and it is food for thought to be sure. I could relate with a lot of it, as I am sure the general audiences will be able to as well.

Leaving the tower is a metaphor of breaking away from ones comfort zone. This is universal to the human condition. We are all held captive at times by forces that would seek to destroy us. Rapunzel fights against this force and wins. As she does, the audience cheers her on!  She breaks away from imagined prison bars and become free. What better message could there be for people in a  recession-burdened 2010 audience. If you enjoy getting tangles undone, this movie is for you!

The movie is in 3D, but I saw it is 2D. There is amazing attention to detail. As I watched the tiny nuances in the characters’ expression I realized it must have take many hours and much money to get this movie completed. Whether or not you like the story, this movie is a gem to look at. Even in 2D, it’s as if you can reach out and touch the characters. It is fitting one director worked on Meet the Robisnons. That movie is an incredible piece that will stand the test of time as great family entertainment. Tangled is the same. Disney did what it does best, it captured humanity.

Disney gets back to what it does best in Tangled. The story encapsulates human experience and makes the viewer feel what the protagonost feels. The movie was made to inspire and not just entertain. I believe many people will find personal inspiration from this film.

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon is a delightful film that will be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. Its spectacular presentation of the black dragon “Toothless” is the product of avant garde animation and captures one’s attention right away. The main character, Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, is a likable fellow who manages through common sense and pure spirit to tame Toothless. Many adventures follow that make for both a swashbuckling tale and a fire-breathing feast for the eyes.The film is directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, Mulan). Toothless is the most breathtaking animated character and he was crafted after the “Stitch” character. You can see influences of a hawk and a dog in certain poses. This animal alone is a reason to see this movie.

Hiccup is a bumbling Viking kid trying to please his father in dragon-fighter school. Unfortunately, his attempts never measure up and he ends up being resented by his father. Along the way, he happens across Toothless, a breed of dragon that is deadly beyond all others. Because Toothless is trapped and needs to be set free, Hiccup sets him free and becomes his master. The irony of this is that throughout the second half of the movie, he ends up saving his community with the help of a dragon. Vikings hate dragons.

There is a female interest, Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. She is tougher than Hiccup but seems drawn to his mysterious nature. Eventually she discovers his miraculous power over Toothless and dragons in general (Toothless teaches him many things which help him have power over dragons).

The story revolves around Toothless and Hiccup but there are some other very funny and round characters, not the least of which is Gobber, voiced by Craig Ferguson. He is like captain Ahab. He has lost a hand and a leg to dragons and lives with the passion of training kids to be dragon hunters. Ferguson’s natural accent adds a lot to the movie and Gobber steals the screen when he shows up.

The visuals of Toothless are so brilliant and so breathtaking they hardly need a good script to capture audiences. At the same time, the story is warmhearted and the way the father and son interact through challenges holds some valuable family lessons. I found this movie delightful and my kids (11, 5, and 2) all loved it for the visuals and the endearing story.

This post I wrote was first published at Blogcritics.

Gnomeo and Juliet

Here’s a brief review of a good movie that children and their parents will like. I watched this movie today with my kids ages 3, 6, and 12. They all loved it. There were a few spots when it dragged a little but all in all the “cuteness” of these garden gnomes sold me.

There is no global solution offered here just Gnomeo and Juliet falling in love. A great afternoon out with your kids. I thought the animation was spectacular and the story light and fun.

There are little asides here and there paying tribute to Shakespeare. It is very well-suited to have Patrick Stewart play the bard himself. Elton John was the producer and his music is woven throughout. It sounds amazing. If nothing else, this movie teaches people about the Shakespearean play. What’s more, it reintroduces the music of Elton John to a new generation. There have been some really bad reviews so far. I’ll admit, it’s not the best movie but the visuals and music are stunning. Listen, these garden gnomes are so cute, you have to see them for yourself. It will hold your kids’ attention for over an hour, what more could you ask for in a movie?

I am really surprised this movie hasn’t received higher ratings. I saw it as an 8/10. I think this is a great one for kids and the pop culture jokes here and there will keep the parents’ interest. Don’t go into it expecting more or you’ll be disappointed. BUT, if that is your expectation, you’ll have a great time at a cute movie.

Boyhood

I waited a while to review this movie because I had a feeling it would age better in my memory. This movie doesn’t show life before our eyes, it puts us among it. I loved this movie for so many reasons, let me set down a few. This film project took 12 years to complete. The director, Richard Linklater, had a vision of using the same actors over a long period of time. The idea was that is would be good cinema, and it is but not for a whole lot more than that. If the film wasn’t so long, I think more people would have found the aging actors thing stunning. As it is, not many people have seen this movie.

Sarah and I drove down the hill to see it at the Ontario Mills mall. We love that place, it has many happy family and couple memories. That could be why we were emotionally MOVED by this film. We have been through the years with kids presented in the film. I have looked in the mirror through decades and seen the changes so evident in this avant garde film. I would say we are given permission to be among the family as it weaves through. The boy reminds me of Hayden Christensen. He does an okay job. Actually I thought the title was lost on such a one dimensional actor. The teen years ad up really show he can’t carry a movie. Still, having once been a boy, I appreciate the title. You’re going to see and feel a whole lot more in Boyhood than the boy. A better name might have been something like Travellin’ thru time with the fam. But hey, I wasn’t around when they were batting around names right? It’s a novelty and if you have a family with kids you’ll pour your own experiences in and have a great time. Unfortunately the film relies solely on its novelty and not enough on a believable script and actors.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This movie opinion piece is based on my article first published as Voyage of the Dawn Treader Actors Grown into Their Skin on Blogcritics.

Much can be said in praise of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Among those praises is the acting. We saw most of these characters in the prior Narnia films, but never so grown up in their acting skills. In a way I think the franchise would have been better with all of them at this age (2010). I don’t know if the messages of Narnia can be properly played by kids who haven’t lived much. Maybe I have to go back and see the old one again? Whatever I may find in reviewing prior films, the actors in Voyage of the Dawn Treader are grown up to perfectly play the kids of Narnia.

The director Michael Apted is one to be respected. His back catalog includes Nell with Jodie Foster, a Bond film The World is Not Enough, and a slough of other films through the years that most any fan of film culture has heard of. All his efforts come together and make this movie appear a professional, emotive film for our times. It is regal, like the impression you get looking at a fine chandeliers.

There are three screenplay authors: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni. The first two worked together on the previous Narnia films while Petroni was brought in just for this one. This may be what adds a new dimension to this film for me. Of course, with three writers adapting a novel to a screenplay, it’s impossible for a humble viewer to say who brought what.

Stellar acting is delivered by the once small Lucy Pevensie, Georgie Henley. I can’t say enough good things about her. She is growing into an accomplished actress and yet she maintains an unassuming air rarely seen in big time actors. There is a scene before she goes into Narnia when she is in her school uniform talking with her siblings and I could tell by her experiences voice and movement that she had grown into a more soulful, mature actor.

Another actor grown into his own skin is Skandar Keynes, Edmund Pevensie. His interactions with the white witch in this film are much more believable than the ones previously. This is crucial to the impact of this film in as much as “dealings with the devil” are important to all the works of C.S. Lewis.

Ben Barnes, who plays Caspian, also plays a very maturely acted role and adds a lot to the film. When I look at photos of him off camera I am struck by how much older and mature he looks in the movie than how he appears in real life. I think all the characters really grew up to act in this film and it provides a positive impact.

Last but not least, Will Poulter plays Eustace Clarence Scrubb. This character by far gives the film more depth than previous Narnia ones. While we may not find him a loveable figure, we see ourselves in Eustace. Whoever has been self conscious or fearful can find relatable material in his character. He does an excellent job conveying an “unlikeable” character to the audience. The payoff? In the end we learn it’s ok to be imperfect. Aren’t we all? Furthermore, the imperfect can inherit the promised land.

It is clear to me the Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be remembered more than the prior ones in this franchise. This is due in large part to the actors having grown into their own skin and their craft.