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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Twenty years ago this week, I was caught up in the spectacle of the biggest pop culture event I had ever seen in my short two decades on earth. The triumphant return (according to all the promotional materials) of George Lucas to the franchise that changed movies forever was cause for feverish celebration. I remember seeing the headline of a review for Episode I in the days after the film’s opening that dared to disparage the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years. It called the origin story of Anakin Skywalker The Phantom Movie.

I scoffed. I was having none it. As a die-hard Star Wars fan, the fact of The Phantom Menace’s existence was proof of its greatness. There was no way to convince me that the movie wasn’t anything other than what was promised: the greatest, most exciting movie event in a generation. After a stint in film school, twenty years of studying movies, and a hard-fought effort to refine my critical thinking skills – not just about movies, but everything – it’s no surprise that I don’t look at The Phantom Menace in the same way that I did a long time ago in a small town far, far away.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The most uncharitable way to describe Terry Gilliam’s work is that it is solipsistic. Almost every film the director has made centers on a hero battling – not always successfully – to maintain his autonomy and individuality in a society obsessed with conformity. Gilliam’s characters rage against the system to protect their romantic, singular view of the world. The most satisfying of his films are those in which Gilliam is able to make us see the world through his protagonists’ eyes. His best films, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, unlock the hero’s mind. His misses – The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm – frustratingly fail to do so. We can see the vivid imagination of the central character, but only from the outside. We’re never allowed all the way in.

Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote belongs in the latter category.

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Mary Poppins Returns

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Mary Poppins Returns

It’s impossible to say if author P.L. Travers would have liked the second Disney film to feature her most beloved creation, the magical nanny Mary Poppins, any more than she liked the first. As documented in the 2013 film Saving Mr. Banks, Travers disliked almost everything about what became one of Disney’s most cherished movies, 1964’s Mary Poppins. She hated the musical numbers, she hated the animated characters, she hated the changes Disney made to the Poppins character. If Saving Mr. Banks is to be believed, she hated the general whimsy of the picture. That’s the exact quality that has made it such an enduring piece of pop culture.

The new sequel Mary Poppins Returns – a project which Travers stymied for decades and her estate finally approved years after the author’s death – manages to conjure some of the whimsical magic of the original. But the movie also suffers from being over-plotted to within an inch of its life. It’s true that the original has a message, but it never becomes as overbearing as the one in Mary Poppins Returns. The actress portraying Poppins in the new film, Emily Blunt, also has the insurmountable task of living up to the iconic performance of Julie Andrews. Both of these factors make Mary Poppins Returns a shadow of the movie that it attempts so very hard to evoke.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.

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A Wrinkle in Time

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A Wrinkle in Time

The highest praise you can bestow on a kids’ movie is that adults can enjoy it, too. Is that just us grown-ups being selfish? Not really, because if a movie is aimed at children, but is sophisticated enough for adults, that usually means it’s not talking down to its target audience. It gives kids credit for their own level of sophistication. See just about every Pixar movie for the best examples of this sort of filmmaking.

A Wrinkle in Time truly is a kids’ movie. It’s not meant for me, so it feels mean-spirited to beat up on it too much. There are perhaps millions of kids out there who might have a cultural earthquake happen inside them when they see this picture. But, the movie does a disservice to the kids it wants to entertain. Aside from the gigantic budget and the production value that goes along with it, A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer its audiences (either the kids or the adults) much sophistication at all.

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The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water

Every frame of The Shape of Water seems to live and breathe with a magic that’s only possible on screen. Whether it’s the heavily saturated and precisely chosen color scheme, or the gritty, grimy feel of every location, the movie is full to bursting with visual inventiveness. It’s also very full of ideas. This is a fable about our not so distant past, and it also has something to tell us about our present.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Water takes place almost exclusively in two locations. One is a top-secret government laboratory, the other is the apartment of our hero, the mute Elisa Esposito. Elisa is a janitor working the night shift at the lab. The Cold Warrior scientists and military personnel working there have a new project. It’s a creature the U.S. military discovered in a river in South America. They refer to this creature, which looks like a hybrid of amphibian and human, as “the asset.”

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Rarely have the first 15 minutes of a movie given me more conflicting emotions than those at the start of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. My reservation during the opening crawl gave way to the thrill of a taut, explosive opening action sequence. The source of my initial unease stemmed from a sense of déjà vu.

The exposition contained in the iconic floating paragraphs for writer/director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars adventure is a little too similar to that of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fascistic First Order, under the control of evil Supreme Leader Snoke, is ruthless in its pursuit of the Resistance, lead by General Leia Organa. The First Order is attempting to crush this rebellion so it can solidify its power and rule the galaxy unchallenged.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The opening crawl is missing. The opening crawl is missing! Those famous paragraphs that follow “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in every Star Wars movie – one of the most iconic things about the series – are absent in Rogue One. I don’t know if that set off shrieks of rage around the internet. I purposefully avoid that sort of thing, but it’s not hard to imagine the internet outrage machine losing their collective minds about this when the mere mention that the next James Bond might be portrayed by a black man nearly broke the internet forever.

Director Gareth Edwards took the opportunity of ditching this de rigueur element as a way to set his entry in the Star Wars franchise apart, while also including a sly nod to it, if you’re paying attention. The opening action is set on a planet like Saturn, complimented with a series of rings. Edwards’ camera drifts in space, looking at the planet, and tilting up to reveal the majestic rings above. In an ingenious touch, the special effects department gave a funny quality to those rings. In a way, they look just like blurry, upside down, and backwards text. We, and the film, Edwards is intimating, are just underneath the events of the official “Episodes” that make up the main story arc of the Star Wars universe. This movie doesn’t have an Episode number, after all. Its full title is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is filled with oddball characters possessing strange and wonderful powers. Among them is Claire, the little girl with an extra mouth full of razor sharp teeth hidden under the golden locks of her hair. Hugh is a boy with a hive of bees living in his stomach. Emma is lighter than air; if she takes off her lead shoes, she risks floating away.

It would seem like Tim Burton, the decidedly peculiar director known for bringing similarly oddball characters like Edward Scissorhands and Betelgeuse to life, would be the perfect fit for this story. That’s not the case, though. The characters in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children never take on the rich inner life that Burton was able to explore in a character like Edward Scissorhands, or even the normal ones like Lydia Deetz and the Maitlands. Instead, the most peculiar thing about Claire, Hugh, Emma, and the rest are their individual powers. Burton is never able to get below the surface of their strange gifts in order to create fully formed people.

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The biggest complaint from critics about J.J. Abrams’ 2011 sci-fi thriller Super 8 was that instead of being an homage to one of his heroes – Steven Spielberg, who produced the movie – it slipped into the territory of pastiche. Super 8 was so slavishly devoted to the house style of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment that it simply became an imitation of it. Thinking about that movie now, it feels like it was the perfect test to make sure the most successful franchise in film history would be safe in Abrams’ hands. George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars universe, and Spielberg worked together on the Indiana Jones series after all, and both men came out of the same “film school brat” scene of the 1970s. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek series also proved he was capable of working on the galactic scale required for Star Wars.

Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film without Lucas’ guiding hand as either director or producer, is a mixed bag when it comes to that question of homage vs. pastiche. The Force Awakens feels very much like a J.J. Abrams movie. His signature brand of sarcastic humor and penchant for diversionary sequences of action for action’s sake are both present. At the same time, it seems like Abrams was very aware that he was making A STAR WARS MOVIE. There are points when the movie is close to being crushed under the weight of wanting to live up to its predecessors. As a consequence, the story is overstuffed with plot. A large number of story elements borrow directly from Episodes IV and VI of the series. But ultimately Abrams made an exciting installment that included touches harkening back to the earlier films, putting a smile on this Star Wars fan’s face throughout the movie.

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Legend (1985)

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Legend (1985)

There’s a lot wrong with Ridley Scott’s Legend. But instead of writing it off as an outright failure, it’s deserving of admiration because Scott and his creative team made a movie completely devoid of cynicism, which is commendable. The filmmakers set out to make pure fable come alive through the magic of the silver screen. There are too many problems with the final product to warrant calling it a success, but the effort of all involved is worthy of respect.

The first sign of trouble comes with the opening text crawl. The most famous example of this device, those floating columns of exposition from the original Star Wars films, set the scene quickly. That’s not the case with Legend. The informational paragraphs here are interminable and artless. So much information is crammed in, it’s like a nervous studio executive worried that audiences would be confused by the lack of explanation in the rest of the film. We’re told Darkness ruled the universe before light came to the world. It was the light, protected by unicorns, which drove him into hiding. To protect the light, only a true innocent can find the unicorns. The rest of the movie makes all this abundantly clear, calling into question why the opening explanation is needed at all.

The movie itself concerns the innocent Lily (Mia Sara) as she unwittingly puts the unicorns in danger when she touches them. She does this in the presence of goblins sent by Darkness (Tim Curry) to catch and kill the sacred protectors of light. Jack (Tom Cruise), a forest dweller, brings Lily to the unicorns because he loves her, not realizing that she will endanger the creatures. The rest of the movie is an uneven mix of boring plotting, awkward comic relief, one performance that is particularly mesmerizing, and incredible make-up and special effects.

Ridley Scott has had a long and varied career as a filmmaker. His latest two releases are great examples of the range possible in his output. Produced within a year of each other, Scott climbed dizzyingly high peaks in The Martian and crawled along depressingly low valleys in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott is a visually striking and inventive director, but his talents can’t compensate for a poor screenplay. So, when he gets his hands on a script as strong as Blade Runner or Alien, his masterful visual flair perfectly enhances the story. With a substandard script, like the aforementioned Exodus, the movie turns into a muddled mess.

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