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Entries in Disney (5)

Saturday
May192018

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Joonas Suotamo, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt.
Writers: Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas.
Director: Ron Howard.

WARNING: CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

Rating: 3.5/5

Despite jettisoning much of the franchise mythology like a shipment at the first sign of an Imperial starship, ring-in director Ron Howard still feels bound to his Lucasfilm overlord for much of Solo: A Star Wars Story. The latest ‘expanded universe’ episode in Disney’s brand expansion offensive, the origin backstory of roguish space scoundrel Han Solo is a lot better than fans had any right to expect, but it is not the ripping yarn we collectively yearned for when the project was first announced.

With no title crawl, no Force, no Darth (Vader, at least), no Death Star and only a smattering of Rebellion angst, Solo is about as ‘stand alone’ as the franchise has allowed itself to become since it was re-awakened in 2015. Yet there is a structural through-line that ties Howard’s film to the series earliest installments, most notably A New Hope. Both films kick start on a remote, unremarkable planet (first up, it was Tatooine, here it is a scummy industrial city on Corellia), where our hero comes into possession of a small but plot-spinning Macguffin (then, it was R2 and his Death Star plans; now, it is a vial of superfuel).

Like young Skywalker, young Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), is motivated by notions of romance; his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is left behind as a fleeing Han signs up with the Imperial infantry, yelling to her he will return, Last of The Mohicans-style. While in the midst of combat on a mud-soaked outer world, he meets his paternal mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson in the Alec Guinness part, although more Fagin than Obi-Wan), the leader of a small but high-stakes criminal outfit that includes a terrific Thandie Newton and multi-limbed pilot Rio Durant (the voice of Jon Favreau, in a part that veers too close to the tone and function of Guardians of The Galaxy favourite, Rocket Racoon).

So sets in motion a well-paced, serviceable heist thriller that Howard handles with the assured slickness of an old school Hollywood pro. He calls upon his preferred support player Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code; A Beautiful Mind) to chew the scenery as the key villain, Dryden Vos, as well as demanding career-best work from DOP Bradford Young (Arrival; Selma), who proves adept at both murky/grainy and stark/crisp. Howard also conjures a cute bit part for a franchise favourite, whose career he bolstered with his fantasy epic Willow, 30 years ago.

Along the way, loyalists learn the answer to questions they never asked, including ‘How did Han get his surname?’, ‘How did Han get his iconic pistol?’, ‘How did Han meet Chewbacca?’ (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, stepping into the hairy feet for the third time, for a meet-cute that harkens back to Luke’s encounter with the Rancor in Return of The Jedi) and ‘How did Han win the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian?’ (the super-smooth Donald Glover).

Ehrenreich brings enough charisma in the title role to (mostly) convince that he could morph into the ‘Han Solo’ that launched Harrison Ford into Hollywood history. He proves physically capable when carrying the action sequences, especially the film’s highpoint – a freight-train hijacking set amidst rugged, ice-covered mountains (one of many nods to the series’ Western genre origins); his rapport with his romantic lead needed another polish, with Clarke’s underwritten part a let-down given the strong roles usually afforded women in the Star Wars universe.

The film takes a left-field spin into contemporary politics with the introduction of Lando’s droid offsider, L3-3L (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, channeling the vocal intonations of Tilda Swinton). Spouting ‘equality for robots’ speeches and leading a ‘free the repressed’ mini-revolt at one stage (not to mention an open attitude to human/android coupling), her presence may be construed as either an honouring of or pandering to the #MeToo movement, suffice to say such outspokenness was not founder George Lucas’ strongpoint. Of the two scriptwriters, her voice sounds most like that of the younger Kasdan, Jonathan (he penned 2007’s In The Land of Women); the rest of the script is pure Lawrence – commercially instinctive, effortlessly heroic with endearing human fallibility, all a bit macho.     

Gareth Edwards’ rousing Rogue One still remains the most emotionally resonant and fully satisfying work of the post-Lucas films. Ultimately, there is not enough at stake in Solo: A Star Wars Story to up the narrative ante into that white-knuckle, crowd-stirring realm. It’s a romp, albeit a bit clunky at times; a space-opera, but one that needed a bit more tuning up. Howard delivers an enjoyable US summer movie ‘event’, but as an entry in the greatest science-fiction film series of all time, it is far, far away from the best of them.

Wednesday
May242017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Stars: Johnny Depp, Brenton Thwaites, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Martin Klebba, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Writers: Jeff Nathanson.
Directors: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Rating: 2.5/5

When done right - when the narrative is pumped full of emotional engagement and the effects work is exhilarating - the modern Hollywood popcorn picture can still deliver the giddy entertainment value of, say, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of The Black Pearl. When a summer season movie crashes and burns on all fronts, much like Pirates #4 On Stranger Tides, there is a morbid fascination in watching that carnage unfold, too.

But there is no saving grace for the mediocre blockbuster-wannabe, and that’s what is being pitched with the fifth Pirate film, the unironically titled Dead Men Tell No Tales. There is skill and effort on display in every frame, but the result is an ugly skyscraper of a film; to build it must have been a monumental undertaking (that cost Disney a reported $230million), but what, if anything of merit is the outcome?

The Mouse House deemed Norwegian pair Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg the dynamic duo to guide this sort-of-reboot, for no other apparent reason than they had made 2012’s Kon-Tiki, another movie set on water. It was a fine film, a small, human drama shot with a lean dedication to character and nuance set against a non-CGI watery expanse. Dead Men Tell No Tales is…well, it’s not that. Most likely they are there to guide the performances of Brenton Thwaites, as idealistic hero Henry Turner, and Kaya Scodelario (the pic's biggest asset), as smart and sassy Carina Smyth, the only real people in the relentlessly fantastical Pirates’ universe.

Written by Jeff Nathanson, a scribe with a few franchise-fracturing credits to his name (Speed 2 Cruise Control; Rush Hour 3; Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull), the plot is toothpick scaffolding for the effects work, which is grand at times but also patchy in the service of a sombre, murky palette. Young Turner is determined to undo the deep-sea curse that still entombs his father Will (a returning Orlando Bloom as Will, reprising the role that set him on the road to tabloid fame). To do so, he needs to find the mythological sceptre, Poseidon’s Trident, a journey he undertakes utilising the drive and intelligence of Carina and, for some reason, the loutish charm of a certain drunken buccaneer named Jack Sparrow. Getting the gazillion dollar payday just for showing up, Johnny Depp (pictured, top) brings the look but only occasionally the vibe of his career-defining role, a role that was defined by the joie de vivre of a much younger actor.

In the way of our band of heroes are series’ stalwart Geoffrey Rush as Capt. Barbosa, heading up a support cast of strong Australian talent (David Wenham, Bruce Spence, Zoe Ventoura, Michael Dorman) taking advantage of the extended Queensland shoot, and Javier Bardem as Salazar (pictured, above), a seething Spaniard spirit leading a crew of ghastly, ghostly seamen on a vengeful quest to kill Sparrow.

It would be a particularly hardened cynic not to concede there is some fun to be had. The franchise reintroduces its star player with a wild heist sequence that all but lays waste a colonial outpost; Sparrow’s and Carina’s rescue and subsequent escape from the executioner’s grasp is a highlight, including a cleverly staged gag involving a guillotine. The storming of a beach by Salazar’s undead crew is the the film’s highpoint, mixing effects mastery and legitimate narrative thrills. The re-emergence of one of the original stars of the franchise makes for a nicely sentimental reunion moment, though not allowing one of the finest actresses of her generation a single word is a disappointment.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will meet shareholders expectations and open huge, serving its function as a profit centre KPI. Creatively, however, it is adrift at sea, becalmed by a lack of inspiration.

Sunday
May152016

THE BFG

Stars: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Matt Frewer, Rafe Spall and Penelope Wilton.
Writer: Melissa Mathison; based upon the children’s novel by Roald Dahl.
Director: Steven Spielberg

Premiered Out of Competition at 69th Festival du Cannes; screened at the Grand Lumiere Theatre.

Rating: 2/5

Steven Spielberg has been open about his adoration for the classic Roald Dahl children’s novel The BFG, of how the 1982 book was standard bedtime reading in his household and how an adaptation has been in development for close to 20 years. He is not alone; the book is a publishing phenomenon that impacted a generation of young readers, just as Spielberg’s body of work is arguably the most fondly favoured American film output of the last half century.

Reteaming with the late writer Melissa Mathison (E.T. The Extra-terrestrial) and long time producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Spielberg at least delivers on his promise to get it made. Unfortunately, the only element of the entire production that inspires any kind of wonder is just how far from a satisfying adaptation the film proves to be, given the potential held by the pairing of these two great storytellers.

The heroine is Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a little girl with big dreams who wanders the halls of her 80’s era London orphanage (looking very Harry Potter-ish, as does much of the film) well into the witching hour. Barely 10 words have been spoken in the film when we meet Oscar-winner Mark Rylance’s not-yet-friendly giant, who abducts Sophie from her bed and takes her to a faraway land. The trauma of the abduction barely registers on Sophie and soon a type of accelerated ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ kicks in. The pair chatter away interminably in the giant’s home at the expense of plot establishment, the now friendly giant instead introducing her to such wonders as The Tree of Dreams and a workshop where he mixes the tree’s pickings to create happy night time visions.

The BFG is the runt of a large band of horribly ill-tempered, one-dimensional giants (just like the ones in Bryan Singer’s dud Jack The Giant Slayer), many times larger and with a cruel hunger for human flesh. Sophie convinces The BFG to come with her to Buckingham Palace, resulting in the film’s liveliest, funniest sequence, and advise The Queen (Penelope Wilton, the film’s best asset) and her offsider Mary (an entirely ill-fitting Rebecca Hall) that the giants are a real threat and a military first strike against them is the best option. Nocturnal kidnapping, the threat of cannibalism and the upside of a tactical airborne offensive all make for a modern family movie, apparently.

The absence of any discernible narrative for a great swathe of the film may not bother the real littlies; colour and movement abound and Barnhill is cutey-pie enough to connect with the tots. On the other hand, parents (in fact, anyone over 10) will be driven to distraction by the sweetness-over-substance approach. The BFG and his clan also speak in a broken ‘pigeon English’-like dialect called ‘gobblefunk’ that is often impossible to understand, ensuring a ponderous 115 minutes of young ones pulling at your shirt sleeve and asking, “What did he say?”

Steven Spielberg has rarely ever let the technology at his disposal do the work for him. Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, A.I. and Minority Report broke new ground in almost every frame, but Spielberg steadfastly put story first.  The BFG more readily recalls his lumbering over-produced misfires 1941, Hook and Always. It also bares witness to just how fallible the director is in this late-career stage; for every great work (Munich; Lincoln; Bridge of Spies), he persists at shoehorning storylines into experiments with CGI and performance capture tech, resulting in stinkers like Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.

The occasionally pretty images captured by DOP Janusz Kaminski and omnipresent orchestral work of John Williams keep demanding that we feel for Sophie and her gargantuan friend, but Spielberg’s erratic tonality, overly-familiar technique and heavy-handed graphics renders what should have been a soaring adaptation of Dahl just plain dull.

Monday
Oct272014

BIG HERO 6

Voice Cast: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr, Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph and Stan Lee.
Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Jordan Roberts; based n the Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Steven T Seagle.
Directors: Don Hall and Chris Williams.

Rating: 3/5

Wondrous feats of new generation effects technology service some old school tropes in Big Hero 6, the latest exercise in brand expansion from the Disney/Marvel monolith. An all-but-forgotten property from the comic giant’s distant past is resuscitated by Mouse House magicians, who apply dazzling digital wizardry to bolster a narrative that borrows from just about every family hit of the last half decade.

Co-directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh, 2011) and Chris Williams (Bolt, 2008) are tasked with creating an Avengers-style super-hero pic within the thematic parameters of the Disney canon. In their favour is raffish boy-whiz protagonist, Hiro (Ryan Potter), a spunky, spiky-haired tween with a head for state-of-the-art robotics and a rebellious attitude that threatens to derail his future. Raised without parents, it becomes the role of his big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to guide his sibling’s future, introducing him to ‘The Nerd Room’ – a free-thinking, high-tech workspace where Tadashi creates mechanical wonders alongside lab buddies Go-Go (Jamie Chung), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr) and Fred (the ubiquitous T.J. Miller).

Tadashi’s special project is a medical droid named Baymax (Scott Adsit), a based-in-fact ‘bot whose joints and limbs are protected by soft-to-the-touch inflatable nylon. Soon, Baymax is in the sole care of Hiro and both are hurtled into a mystery that involves corporate espionage, a hurriedly constructed revenge plot and the mass destruction of a shimmering cityscape (again). Littlies may find a confrontation set in the baddies lair a tad confronting, although parents will appreciate the dexterity and craftsmanship as all creative elements meld into the film’s best sequence.

The action takes place in San Fransokyo, a richly textured, beautifully rendered world that melds the architecture and ambience of the northern Californian city with the neon aesthetic and ancient Asian influence of Japan’s capital (it is never clear whether this is a future world or an alternate reality). Disney Animation, applying in-house technology developed for the project, have created a truly artistic palette of detail and colour that is at times breathtaking to behold.

And yet Big Hero 6 manages to dull its impact by overplaying the influence of superior works. Both visually and narratively, The Incredibles, How To Train Your Dragon, ET The Extra-terrestrial, Iron Man and ParaNorman are invoked; surging microbot weaponry looks to have been derived from the same software used for The Green Lantern or Spiderman 3; as stated, the broad daylight demolition of a metropolis recalls Marvel tentpoles The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy (and seems like overkill in a kids flick). Big Hero 6 has dreams beyond the corporate landscape from which it has emerged, yet remains bound to the template set by its creators.

The ace in the hole is Baymax, who scores big laughs and generates warmth and good will that ultimately proves more crucial to the film than it should have to be. The core relationship between Hiro and his synthetic surrogate guardian pans out warmly and should play well with all audience quadrants, as it was clearly intended. Suffice to say, toy sales will soar over Christmas.

Friday
Apr262013

IRON MAN 3

Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak and Ty Simpkins.
Writers: Drew Pearce and Shane Black.
Director: Shane Black.

Rating: 2.5/5

Though the top brass at Marvel Studios and their new Disney cohorts are positioning the third Iron Man instalment as a four-quadrant ‘Avengers’-size blockbuster, writer/director Shane Black’s underwhelming take on Tony Stark’s heroic alter-ego is very much a fanboy’s-own adventure.

Despite a central character steeped in cutting-edge technology, Iron Man 3 creaks through an overly familiar structure and blah tropes that hurtle the series back into the world of 80s action flicks. Brought on board to punch up leading man Robert Downey Jr’s smart-mouth dialogue between scenes of generic mayhem, Black achieves a modicum of success with some well-played one-liners. If Iron Man 3 outdoes the first two instalments in any significant way, it is with a welcome and surprising shot of non-Downey inspired humour in the form of Ben Kingsley’s Bin Laden-esque bad guy, The Mandarin.

But there are too many moments that recall Black’s past works (most famously, Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero and The Last Boy Scout, as well as punching-up tough-guy talk on Predator, The Hunt for Red October and Battle Los Angeles, too name just a few). Those familiar with his over-played beats will recognise such clichéd tools as the smart-mouthed kid sidekick (here, played well by Ty Simpkins), the hero’s fractured mental state (in one of several nods to the events in The Avengers, Stark has PTSD-like anxiety attacks), a cartoonish villain prone to monologue-ing (an OTT Guy Pearce) and the necessity for our protagonist to hit rock bottom (here, represented by snowy, small-town America) before ascending once again to full hero status.  

Where Black falls noticeably short is in his depiction of the franchise’s key relationship between Stark and Pepper Potts (a game but under-served Gwyneth Paltrow). Keeping the pair separate for much of the film robs the mechanical vision of much needed humanity. Oddly, Black keeps the principal characters in different corners for long stretches – Favreau’s Happy Hogan is taken out of the action early-on; Don Cheadles’ own iron-suited soldier, War Machine, is off in Pakistan seeking out insurgents. Even Stark is separated from his suit for much of the films mid-section (not unlike the recent third instalment of The Dark Knight Rises, during which Bruce Wayne spent a long time sans suit and which resembles Iron Man 3 in its portrayal of a troubled tech-heavy hero).

Action set-pieces are top-tier, though exhibit no particular auteuristic vision (unlike, say, those of Black’s longtime collaborator, John McTiernan, in his heyday). A helicopter attack on Stark’s home (previewed heavily in the trailer) represents desktop effects work par excellence; a drama aboard Air Force One allows for some old-fashioned stunt work and green-screening; the hero-villain standoff finale has a been-there-done-that blandness. The scenes, like the rest of Shane Black’s perfunctory, fatigued film, will suffice for the fans who have to have their regular cinematic superhero fix, but will leave others generally unmoved.