21 12 2016

When it comes to making movies for children, simplicity is your friend. In the case of Illumination Entertainment’s “Sing,” however, animators must have just decided to meet the times and deliver a scattered mess of characters in need of Adderall and concision. There’s genuine heart and sweetness in Garth Jenning’s film, but it gets choked out of the equation in favor of more songs, more gags, more scenes, more … everything.

There’s really no need to stuff in another animal, another backstory, another musical number. We already know what’s going on from the get-go because “Sing” is not a particularly complicated film. Koala bear Buster Moon (voice of Matthew McConaughey) is a man after many of our own hearts – inspired by art at a young age, he doggedly and even naively sets course to be a booster and patron in the community. When his theater falls on hard times, he holds auditions for a singing contest to spotlight the unsung stars of the town.

While he struggles to pay the rent and keep the lights on, his contestants engage in battles of their own. Yet among the handful of singers, each given about equal screen time, there are really only two issues – nerves and family expectations. Be it the dedicated domestic engineer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon’s plucky pig Rosita), the shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), or the bank robber-cum-closet crooner Johnny (Taron Egerton’s gorilla Johnny), the conflicts all bleed into each other. By their final numbers, there’s no surprise or jubilation because we know these animals as nothing more than familiar character dilemmas. With our attention spread so thin between them, there’s no connection built up, either.

If anything, “Sing” feels like an animated television series retrofitted into a feature-length film. Well, actually … maybe that’s the motivation after all. Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that this is an uninspiring pilot episode. C+2stars

REVIEW: Eddie the Eagle

5 03 2016

The inspirational sports movie has certainly seen better days, as most now hew to the same audience-tested formula to equate athletic victory with a larger triumph over adversity. Either screenwriters penning or executives green-lighting these movies seem to regard this widely accepted set of conventions like the recipe for Coca-Cola, as if only one specific combination of ingredients can bottle up happiness.

Films like Dexter Fletcher’s “Eddie the Eagle,” however, prove otherwise. While everything about the actual story might indicate it perfectly fitting the standard mold, the film functions more like a loving nod to the classics rather than a dutiful servant to their legacy. Through protagonist Eddie, the ideals of effort and self-worth receive top billing over achievement and self-satisfaction.  If it has to send a message, at least Fletcher goes for one somewhat different than the norm.

These principles are not just tacked on at the end or through a big motivation speech, either. They begin at the start of “Eddie the Eagle,” when the eponymous character declares he will go to the Olympics and screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton never declare the goal out of reach. Despite some difficulties with his knees as a youngster in working class England, they never milk his physical challenges for easy sympathy. In fact, they get Eddie all grown up by the end of the opening credits!

From there, the film maintains Eddie’s cock-eyed optimism as he sets his sights on the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. The question is never if but how, and he find the answer in the sneaky backdoor of ski jumping. Since the U.K. has not sent anyone for the sport in decades, all Eddie (Taron Egerton) needs to do is complete a jump in sanctioned competition to qualify. His quest for bottom of the barrel results recalls the fun of “Silver Linings Playbook” where Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters dance for literally mediocre marks from the judges.

But more than anything, it recalls “Million Dollar Baby” with its relationship of an eager mentee paired with a jaded coach, a role assumed here by Hugh Jackman. His Bronson Peary, a disgraced former American Olympian, reluctantly helps Eddie reach the lowest common denominator. With a Vangelis-style score behind it, “Eddie the Eagle” takes flight as our jumping friend triumphs over the elite British Olympians who scorned his lack of Oxbridge pedigree. The coke-bottle classes Eddie sports magnify wonder in Egerton’s doe eyes, allowing us a window into the untarnished goodness of his soul. For the hundred or so minute runtime, the film makes a convincing case for the eternal endurance of this endearing, indomitable spirit. B+3stars

REVIEW: Testament of Youth

27 11 2015

Testament of YouthThe allure of period pieces, especially romances, is typically lost on me. So it’s always nice when something like “Testament of Youth” comes along to prove an exception to the rule. Rather than belabor its love story, James Kent’s film focuses on the experience of one extraordinary British woman during The Great War, Alicia Vikander’s Vera Brittain.

This richer, fuller narrative allows “Testament of Youth” to resonate for present-day audiences, not merely feel like a century-old time capsule. Vera begins the film pursuing an Oxford education, even then a struggle for women to achieve, but gradually feels her heart drawn toward the battlefields of Europe. There, her lover (Kit Harrington’s Roland), brother (Taron Egerton’s Edward) and many friends go to war for the soul of Europe. She begins to think it selfish to mill about in classrooms, so she shows some agency and joins the effort.

As a nurse, she gains a front row seat to the horrors of war, only amplifying the authenticity of her grief and worry for the men she loves. This perspective ultimately drives her towards taking a bold stance, one that Kent or screenwriter Juliette Towhidi do not necessarily presage in the two hours prior. Nonetheless, its high valuation of Vera’s opinion more than compensates for any narrative hang-ups. Vikander’s performance, emotionally forceful without ever resorting to maudlin histrionics, also helps quite a bit. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Legend

24 11 2015

The term “Scorsese lite” gets bandied about in critical discourse often (I’ve used it to describe both “Black Mass” and “Blood Ties“), but if anyone needed a textbook definition, they should probably look at Brian Helgeland’s “Legend.” Here is a film with all the style and gang violence of “GoodFellas” with none of its poise or polish. Helgeland is all talk, no walk.

At one of the many points during the film’s bloated 131 minute runtime when my mind drifted away from the action, I came to realize what a deceptively difficult act “GoodFellas” was to execute. Henry Hill’s saga essentially has no major character obstacles (other than the law), no major goals nor anything driving the action … and yet it’s totally compelling and engaging the whole way through. “Legend,” despite a “Parent Trap”-style dual performance from Tom Hardy as the Kray Twins, just runs around in well-styled circles to the tunes of a great jukebox.

The Krays are supposedly the most feared men in London, but you can hardly tell from the movie, which seems to take that fact for granted. “Legend” mostly consists of brotherly bickering between Ronnie, the more unstable one, and Reggie, the one with interest in conventional goals like getting married. Hardy has proven himself great at exposing the homoeroticism that lies dormant in the male propensity for violence, and the Krays are another great showcase of this gift. Too bad the film insists on turning these undercurrents into such obvious overtones.

And, oddly enough, Helgeland chooses to frame their story through the narration of Reggie’s wife, Emily Browning’s Frances. It seems like a choice meant to rebut some of the sexism that plagues gangster films, though she winds up feeling like a token character. Her character is of little consequence to the narrative – heck, “Legend” probably does not even pass the Bechdel Test. Worse yet, this is just skimming the surface of basic screenwriting issues from a writer who won an Oscar for his “L.A. Confidential” script. C / 2stars

REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service

23 03 2015

Earlier in 2015, Matthew Vaughn hit a nerve with many movie fans when he took a giant crap on the face of reigning blockbuster king Christopher Nolan.  “People want fun and escapism at the moment,” said Vaughn in an interview, “I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.”

I take issue with his statement for a number of reasons.  First of all, it just reeks of bitterness over Nolan’s success; the total worldwide gross of Vaughn’s combined filmography does not even come close to equaling the haul of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Second, it implies that serious action films are shoving lighter fare out of the market on both the level of the corporation and the consumer.

For me, I tend to prefer Nolan’s films because they so boldly test the boundaries of what our entertainment can be.  But at the end of the day, I do not want to live in a world where I cannot kick back and enjoy a blissfully funny, irreverent, and exciting movie like Matthew Vaughn’s own “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”  There will always be a place for well-crafted entertainment that knows the role it wants to play and fulfills its duties with gusto.

Vaughn’s film, co-written with his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, strikes a rarely found balance between spy movie classicism (like a Bond flick) and outright parody (a la “Austin Powers”).  They find the right times to shift gears, and the result is an experience that plays like all the fun of two movies for the price of one.  Overall, I found myself reminded of the hero’s quest of Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” hybridized with “Agent Cody Banks” (throwback – bet you haven’t thought about that movie in a while).

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