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Smurfs: The Lost Village – Movie Review

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Smurfs: The Lost Village – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Sony Pictures

As commercially successful as the hybrid Smurfs films from a couple of years ago were, they left most Smurfs fans disappointed with their tendency to shift focus towards dull human characters and pop-culture references. Smurfs: The Lost Village is a sincere attempt to bring the Smurfs even closer to the original comics created by Peyo and the result is an imaginative delight. Director Kelly Asbury completely understands the appeal of the Smurfs and the world they inhabit. The artists at Sony Pictures Animation have crafted a beautiful film that is sure to elicit instant smiles from Smurfs fans, excited to see these blue creatures rendered with the proper charm and dedication.

The main focus of The Lost Village is Smurfette, immediately addressing the awkwardness of being the lone, featureless female in a town full of men. She has a genuine arc through the movie as she tries to figure out her place in the Smurf village and it’s easy to be instantly warmed to her. The Smurfs are often stereotyped as being lovey-dovey shut-ins, but this film manages to show flaws that go beyond their core personality traits. They were frequently mischievous and were prone to temper tantrums, both of which are highlighted in this film, particularly in a rivalry that forms between Brainy and Hefty.

Gargamel is as goofy as he’s ever been and Rainn Wilson brings the proper silly menace to voicing the evil wizard, with the animators following suit. The film creates legitimate stakes, both from Gargamel and the dangerous animals the Smurfs encounter on their journey. The humour is largely successful with credited screenwriters Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon, along with Sony’s band of storyboard artists, finding a lot of avenues to mine comedy from. There are some funny gags, ranging from poking good natured fun at the Smurfs and their personality traits to more physical cartoon comedy. One of the highlights comes courtesy of Ellie Kemper’s energetic turn as an overly confident Smurf.

The Lost Village earns its emotional scenes with the film taking a couple of surprising turns on that front. It’s not hard to predict where a Smurfs movie will go, but Asbury and the scriptwriters throw us some curveballs. The animation of the Smurfs world is beautifully realised on screen, with each area of this medieval land looking distinct and featuring many creative creatures and plants. The Sony animators also apply their trademark rubbery cartoon style to the characters, nicely complimenting Patrick Mate’s faithful designs. The film does fall into the trap of playing too many pop songs, when Christopher Lennertz’s orchestral score was already suitable enough. When Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue” plays over the soundtrack, one immediately thinks “Really?”

Smurfs: The Lost Village thankfully grants every Smurfs fan’s wish of seeing a proper Smurfs movie. There are no magical portals, toilet jokes or Hank Azaria to be found anywhere. It’s pure Smurf goodness, done in the most charming way possible. It takes the creativity and imagination of Peyo’s comics and translates them to the screen better than even the popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon managed to pull off. The respect Kelly Asbury clearly had for these characters is in every frame of this movie. People opposed to the Smurfs probably won’t change their minds if they happen to view this film. However, the fanbase that has loved this property since first setting their eyes on it will find plenty to smile at.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


The Zookeeper’s Wife – Movie Review

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The Zookeeper’s Wife – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

The Holocaust is frequently depicted on film, not only because it’s a time period that should never be forgotten, but also because there are still many stories to tell. The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t rank among the best Holocaust films, but it does manage to dig into the mindset of those who were seduced by Nazism and those who fought against its evil. What initially seems like it will rest on the cuteness of the animals to grab the audience’s attention, director Niki Caro eventually shows the horrors of the Holocaust and the need to escape what the Nazis were doing.

Caro and her screenwriter Angela Workman, adapting Diane Ackerman’s book, immediately latch onto the setting of the zoo in Nazi-occupied Warsaw to show the contrast of the innocence of the animals and the awful acts committed outside of the gates. It is instantly established how much Antonina and her husband Jan understand the atrocities that are being committed. Caro mounts a number of sequences that build the tension when the Zabinskis begin hiding Jews in their zoo. There is a frequent fear of any little thing going wrong and spoiling the entire plan. Nothing is shied away from or hidden in this film, in regards to the atrocities being committed.

The film also shows how even regular people with normal jobs were manipulated by the terrible ideas being presented by the Third Reich. Daniel Bruhl’s zoologist claims to not be political and prefers to focus on the well being of animals. This instantly disappears the second he puts on the uniform and doesn’t think twice about shooting whatever animal crosses his path at the zoo. It shows how the Nazi ideology was planted in each SS soldier’s head and there was no turning back. Bruhl’s performance is scary as he continually puts the pieces together and attempts to understand everyone’s motives.

While it is likely up for debate how accurate Jessica Chastain’s Polish accent is, she gives an admirable performance and shows the compassion Antonina had for her animals, her family and the Jews who sought her help. Johan Heldenbergh also provides solid work as Jan, as he sees the horrors unfold before his eyes. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when he assists children entering the trains and knows precisely what awaits them. Caro, Workman and editor David Coulson jump through the timeline of the story’s events with the proper smoothness and it never feels like information is missing when we leap ahead to a new year. The aging of their young son also never feels jarring and gives a glimpse of the Holocaust through the eyes of a growing boy watching from a distance.

The Zookeeper’s Wife presents another necessary story of the terrible events that happened during the Holocaust. However, we also need to remember the people who realised what the Nazis were doing and put their lives on the line to lessen their success rate. The Zabinskis are undoubtedly heroes and this film honours them nicely. The film shows all of the points of views clearly, whether it’s the Nazis and their evil ways, those on the outside who understood what they were doing was no good and the Jews trying to survive. This film presents a necessary picture of these events.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


The Boss Baby – Movie Review

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The Boss Baby – Movie Review

Rating: C+ (Above Average)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy 20th Century Fox

DreamWorks Animation can best be described as the chocolate box of animation studios. Due to the multitude of projects being worked on concurrently, there is not a specific art style and storytelling approach taken by their films. The Boss Baby could have gone either way and while the animation style is inspired, the story feels overstretched and goes for the easiest jokes. As a short film, this could have been amusing. However, director Tom McGrath relies mostly on Alec Baldwin’s voice coming out of an animated baby to provide the necessary laughs and it does not sustain the runtime. This definitely stands as one of the more mediocre DreamWorks entries.

The highlight of The Boss Baby comes not from any character or a specific joke, but rather the animation. There is a clear 1950s influence, particularly of the UPA shorts, with the simplicity of the designs and some of the physical humour. That a quick visual reference is made to Mr. Magoo is not a mere coincidence. The sequences in which the main character Tim imagines a fantasy world are the most gorgeously realised with an incredible use of colours. McGrath also brings the proper energy to some of the chase scenes that ensue, including one where a cassette is an important possession. The artists also find some clever ways to depict the headquarters in which babies exert their dominance.

The humour mostly relies on obvious baby-related gags, with plenty of buttocks and droll jokes. There’s also the expected joke about a baby wearing a suit and talking like Alec Baldwin. This wears thin rather quickly and it’s also easy to make the inevitable comparison with Family Guy’s similar adult-voiced baby Stewie. The screenplay, credited to Austin Powers scribe Michael McCullers, re-uses comedy that the long running animated sitcom already used up decades ago. Naturally, the film throws in a couple of references to Baldwin’s work, most notably Glengarry Glen Ross. Almost every joke in The Boss Baby is predictable and expected.

Compounding the weak story is a dull villain, who is given an elaborate and convoluted back story to justify his motivation. There are moments of sentiment thrown into the film, mostly through a recurring use of the Beatles song “Blackbird”, but they don’t register the proper response. The script ticks off the necessary boxes, as it tries to justify the extended runtime. The brotherly relationship the film tries to build between Tim and the Boss Baby has almost every cliché and story beat imaginable in this sort of plot line. The Boss Baby desperately tries to create stakes by having him revert to a more baby-like state, but they don’t create the proper impact.

There is some potential inspiration early on, when it seems the script will comment on how babies seemingly take over the household. However, that concept evaporates rather quickly and we are left with stale jokes. The script also cannot decide whether it wants the baby’s actions to exist within Tim’s hyperactive imagination or are actually happening in the real world. The Art Of book is likely filled with amazing illustrations and concept art the animators were able to beautifully bring to life on the screen. One wishes The Boss Baby was funnier and realised this concept was better suited for a short film to play before the next DreamWorks feature.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


Life (2017) – Movie Review

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Life (2017) – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Sony Pictures

In the wake of Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979, every outer space set horror film has been obviously inspired by that work of cinema. It’s not hard to understand as it provides a solid template on which to mount a potentially suspenseful haunted house movie in space. Life clearly owes a lot to Alien, but also throws in nods to Gravity and Event Horizon. Seeing its influences is slightly more entertaining than the film itself, which relies on basic characters and the strength of its evolving alien creature. There are some inspired bits of horror that show up in Life as well as meandering sequences of characters speaking technobabble.

Life starts promisingly with a one-shot take as the audience glides through the space craft and sees the astronauts at work. The film does the simple job of introducing each character, though none of them truly evolve during the course of the story. They mostly exist as snacks for the alien. The alien proves to be the most intriguing character in how the effects artists slowly evolve him every time we see it. He becomes more and more menacing with each appearance and the fear of the astronauts is understandable. The first casualty is dispatched with in the most horrific way possible, showing Life will not flinch from the gore.

In between the alien playing peek-a-boo are scenes of the crew members calculating and finding a means of escape. These sequences prove somewhat dull, especially since there is little to attach ourselves to the characters. While this would have created yet more comparisons with Alien, there is a Ripley missing onboard. This is not the fault of the actors, who do what is required of them. Ryan Reynolds showcases the most spark, probably helped by him reuniting with his Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick on this project. Everyone is mostly directed by Daniel Espinosa to act frightened, when the scenes call for it.

In what seems par for the course in one of these evil alien pictures, some not very bright decisions are made. This can be easily defended as the stress of the situation affecting their better judgment, but it remains a slight distraction at points. The special effects are impressively mounted as the team have treated this like it were a realistic space travel film, rather than just any science-fiction splatter fest. NASA engineers could probably break down the scientifically inaccurate portions, but that shouldn’t take away from the immersive quality of the picture. The cinematography and sets give the proper feeling of being inside the space station. It is surprising this is not being released in 3D. Life could have been the rare film to benefit from a stereoscopic experience.

Life does not try to escape from its Alien knock-off trappings, but there are still moments of inspired creativity hidden beneath the one-note characters and obvious techno-speak. It creates the proper tension at some points, while dragging at others. It becomes merely a wait for when the alien will pop up again to terrorize the crew. Those who shield their eyes at gory sequences probably won’t react well to the events depicted on-screen, while others will have seen a lot of this before. As a B-movie (albeit one produced on a sizable budget by a major studio), it works as a mild diversion at best.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


Power Rangers – Movie Review

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Power Rangers – Movie Review

Rating: D+ (Bad)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy eOne Films

If there was a property popular with children in the 1990s that left their parents perplexed, it was Power Rangers. Even Pokemon had the cuteness and collectable factor attached to it. However, Power Rangers was nothing more than the Japanese series Super Sentai poorly dubbed into English with new actors reacting to the cheap-suited monsters. With ‘90s nostalgia recently reigning its head, it was inevitable they would somehow find themselves on the big screen in the modern era. The problem with this new incarnation of Power Rangers is it seemingly forgets how cheesy and campy the original series was. Even as somebody who was far more enchanted by the Ninja Turtles, it’s hard not to wish for this film to be more faithful to its silly source.

This new Power Rangers is almost every superhero origin story with young people, told in the most generic manner possible. The five leads just barely have personality traits to distinguish them apart. Most of the over two hour runtime is devoted to set-up as they meet, find Zordon’s magic rocks and train. This is paint-by-numbers storytelling as every character goes through the expected beats, as they learn about friendship. Director Dean Israelite and the committee of writers (five of whom are credited on the screenplay) play the film completely straight for the most part. The doses of humour thrown into the dialogue barely elicit chuckles and despite the actors’ best efforts, there is barely any chemistry between the Rangers in training.

Alpha-5, the wacky robot voiced by Bill Hader, is the principal comic relief of the picture. However, his shtick gets old extremely quickly and there’s little endearing about his master Zordon. Bryan Cranston is frequently directed to shout and snap at the Rangers and one wonders why they bother to stick around, were it not for the allure of having super strength. The one actor who fully embraces the camp nature of their role is Elizabeth Banks. It’s easy to understand why she accepted the part of the villainous and aptly named Rita Repulsa and she digs into the role with relish. Constantly cackling and snacking on gold, she never downplays how ridiculous the character is and provides much of the necessary spark early on.

The film finally embraces its source material at the start of the third act, when the theme song kicks in. Even novices and non-fans will smile when the catchy tune plays over the speakers, even if just for thirty or so seconds. The climatic action scene with robotic animals battling silly looking monsters is the first time this movie looks like a legit Power Rangers adventure. Even the running gag of a piece of product placement being the centre of the conflict provides the necessary goofy appeal. Banks goes even more over-the-top in her performance and it’s a genuine delight, even for those who once dismissed the original Power Rangers series as campy stupidity. However, that campy stupidity is what made children embrace it back in the ‘90s. It’s a shame the filmmakers ignore that appeal through most of the movie.

While the urge was clearly strong to play Power Rangers completely straight, that’s the wrong direction for this property. This is an overlong and drab affair that doesn’t realise until it’s too late how ridiculous this concept is. It almost goes out of its way to distance itself from the campy original. That the film even bothers to play the iconic theme song is surprising. The plan is obviously to turn Power Rangers into a multi-film franchise, so hopefully, they apply a lighter and goofier approach for future installments. Otherwise, why even bother with rebooting this series in the first place?

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


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