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Entries in Fantasy (4)

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.

Saturday
Feb062016

THE MONKEY KING 2

Stars: Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, Feng Shaofeng, Kelly Chen, Xiao Shenyang and Him Law.
Writers: Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi
Director: Pou-Soi Cheang

Rating: 3.5/5

The Lunar New Year festivities heralding in The Year of The Monkey will assuredly include celestial box office takings for the epic and emotional fantasy adventure, The Monkey King 2.

Featuring Aaron Kwok in a vibrant, vivid rendition of the legendary simian deity, Sun Wukong, and an giddy parade of artfully rendered special effects showpieces, Pou-Soi Cheang’s sequel to his 2014 blockbuster proves an infinitely more engaging and impressive mounting of key elements from  Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel, Journey to The West. The narrative troughs and visual overkill of the first film are nowhere to be found in the sequel; leaner and more focussed, the central characters take on greater emotional resonance and the artists crafting wondrous visions of this fantasy landscape come into their own.

Despite the title, most central to the plot is young monk Xuanzang (William Feng), an idealistic traveller who, whilst fleeing a tiger attack, finds himself deep within the Five Elements Mountain, prison to the impish Wukong for 500 years. Having spectacularly dispatched the tiger (rather too enthusiastically for some animal lovers, it may be said), Wukong is visited by the Goddess Guanyin (Kelly Chan) and summoned to accompany Xuanzang on a journey west to acquire ancient Buddhist scrolls, or sutras, that will calm the natural order of Earth. The pair are accompanied by two of the book’s most beloved characters, pig/man Baije (Xiao Shenyang) and blue-skinned water spirit, Wujing (Him Law). 

Soon, supernatural villainy arises in the form of beautiful but lethal White Bone Spirit, Baigujing, played with a seething malevolence by the terrific Gong Li. The actress dominates every scene she’s in, her larger-than-life presence and ethereal beauty perfect for the role. Wukong’s role as bodyguard and protector of Xuanzang leads to a series of spectacular wire-&-CGI encounters with Baigujing and her scantily clad demonic minions (who may prove too nightmarish for the under 10 audience). The film poses some unexpectedly weighty moral questions when the hero is called upon to defend his charge against spirits in the guise of a young girl and her mother; this ‘death of the innocents’ moment is a bold move in a fantasy pic and one that the director and the writing team of Ran Ping, Ran Jianan, Elvis Man and Yin Yiyi pull off with maturity and grace.

In terms of cultural impact and literary significance, perhaps the closest that western audiences have to Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century text is Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings books. And not unlike The Two Towers, the second cinematic chapter of the Rings Trilogy, The Monkey King 2 proves by any measure a superior work to its predecessor. At 120 minutes, it also shares a hefty running time with Peter Jackson’s film that feels over indulgent at times, but that minor complaint want prove any hindrance at all to mainland audiences and Chinese diaspora worldwide. New Years celebrations (and global box office for international distributor China Lion) will be enhanced by arguably the finest big-screen vision to date of Chinese culture’s most beloved literary figure.

Sunday
Apr122015

THE AGE OF ADALINE

Stars: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew and Anthony Ingruber.
Writer: J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz.
Director: Lee Toland Krieger.

Rating: 4/5

After his acid-tongued, ultra-contemporary take on burdened romance in 2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever, director Lee Toland Krieger embraces a far more fantastical and glowingly cinematic incantation of fateful love with his follow-up, The Age of Adaline.

Boldly departing from her small-screen persona in her first film-carrying lead role, Blake Lively plays Adaline Bowman, a well-to-do turn-of-the-century 29 year-old whose life appears cut short when her car plunges into river waters turned freezing by a freak North Californian snowfall. Taking its mystical cue from the likes of Back to the Future and The Natural, a bolt of lightning strikes her over-turned vehicle and affords Adaline the apparent virtue of eternal youth.

A soothing voice-over smartly imbues the premise with credible fantasy and a lovingly cinematic extended montage (recalling the weepy opening from Pixar’s Up) leads to the modern day, where the still 29 year-old Adaline lives a work-focussed life in a very photogenic San Francisco. After eight decades, she no longer indulges in notions of romance; her blessing has become a curse, her life spent alone, bar the companionship of her now aged daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn). But Adaline’s existential defences are worn down by the persistent romancing of rich philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman, very charming), who whisks his dream girl off to a family get-together on their lush estate.

The second-act kicker brings added emotional depth, when Ellis’ father William lays eyes upon Adaline and both are gripped by overwhelming memories of the soulful romance they shared 50-odd years hence. As William, Harrison Ford emerges as Krieger's trump card; the moment when they reconnect, and William’s intellectualism is confronted by a torrent of emotions, represents some of Ford’s best ever frames of film. It is a raw, vulnerable performance that ensures the film soars and draws fresh reserves out of Lively (the definition of 'Supporting Actor', surely); their scenes together are deeply moving, transcending any ‘fantasy genre’ trappings. (Kudos, too, to the casting department for finding Anthony Ingruder, whose physical and vocal rendering of a twenty-something Ford in flashback is uncanny).

Krieger’s vivid, melancholic melodrama emerges as a major work in the tough-to-pull-off ‘romantic fantasy’ genre subset. The cult fan base that fondly recall Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time, the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weepie from 1980 in which self-hypnosis brings together lovers born 100 years apart, will adore the narrative boldness that Krieger employs and the visual richness that DOP David Lanzenberg paints with to sell the premise. Nor will they bat a tear-sodden eyelid at the multi-generational leaps in logic that scriptwriters J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz slyly ask of their audience.

Revelling in the role that will come to define her transition from tabloid starlet to bigscreen A-lister, Lively exhibits maturity beyond her years and recalls the incandescent bigscreen presence of the likes of Jessica Lange, Eva Marie Saint or Françoise Dorléac. The Oscar-worthy work of Australian costumer Angus Strathie (Moulin Rouge, Catwoman) never overwhelms the star, although it has every right to. Fittingly, all below-the-line department heads - Claudia Pare’s production design; Martina Javorova’s art direction; Shannon Gottlieb’s set decoration - on The Age of Adaline bring their A-game.

Friday
Jun292012

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Sam Claflin and Eddie Marsan.
Writers: Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini.
Director: Rupert Sanders

Rating: 3.5/5

An expansive retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic, Snow White and The Huntsman takes its most impactful beats from such post-modern literary adaptations as 1998s The Man in the Iron Mask and Peter Jackson’s …Rings trilogy, as well as vivid fantasy imaginings such as Willow and Ladyhawke. That it doesn’t really nail a flavour all its own is ok; it mimics the best bits of other movies so well, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had even if none of it substantially resonates.

There are incongruities that should sink first-time director Rupert Sanders’ big, ballsy mash-up of feminine generational conflict and throne-room treachery. Kristen Stewart is both too old to convince as a virginal vision of purity and too small to be an armour-clad leader of misfit revolutionaries, but she makes it work; there’s a lean mid-section to the film that belies its meagre fairy tale origins, but the padding-out of these scenes is expertly done; and, as the evil witch-queen Raveena, who yearns to consume the essence of her fairer foe, Charlize Theron chews the scenery like a termite plague – and is all the more awesome for it.

An opening sequence that steeps the film in ruthless royal intrigue and murderous betrayal sets the tone for a narrative that may prove a little too dark for the wee ones who were enchanted by Disney’s “hi-ho-ing” animated take. A stepmother usurping the kingdom of a monarch she murders and imprisoning his princess, rightful heiress to the land, then existing in youthful perpetuity by sucking the rich soulfulness of her subjects certainly makes for a compelling set-up. But parents, beware; under 10’s will spend more of the 125 minute running time averting their eyes than you may have expected.

As a blossoming Snow White, It-girl Stewart affords us glimpses of the compelling screen actress she is destined to become. Her strong presence and china-doll bone-structure recalling a young Nicole Kidman, she exudes a teary innocence in the film’s early stages before transforming into a warrior princess. One can’t dismiss her mousiness – she is definitely not physically right for the role – but it is impossible not to be compassionate for her plight, so engaging is her star power. As The Huntsman, Chris Hemsworth confidently continues his ascension to stardom, his brawniness recalling a young, in-his-prime Nick Nolte.

Tech credits, especially the work of the visual effects team, are superlative. The morphing of full-size actors such as Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost and Toby Jones into a feisty band of dwarves is seamless; an extended sequence set in a fantastical netherworld, whilst thin on plotting, is a sight to behold. Grandly-staged battle sequences that lead to the film’s denouement are suitably exciting.