REVIEW: Pete’s Dragon

14 08 2016

Disney has been trading on easy callbacks to their animated classics for the past half-decade or so, using new technologies to reiterate their well-established old stories. This style is valid, sure, but largely empty. From “Alice in Wonderland” to “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the Mouse House shortchanges the creation of childhood memories by pandering to adults (or at least older) viewers who already have such experiences.

With “Pete’s Dragon,” however, the studio takes a step in the right direction. Co-writer and director David Lowery, working with one of Disney’s lesser known archival properties, makes a more poignant homage to the iconic French short “The Red Balloon” than to the original 1977 film. It’s a glimpse of what these remakes can be when unyoked from nostalgia and blatant commercial pandering.

Lowery brings an elegant simplicity to this fairytale-like story involving a hairy green CGI dragon and the wilderness-dwelling orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) with a unique ability to corral the giant mythical creature. When a plucky park ranger, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, stumbles upon Pete during a routine walkthrough, the discovery transforms his life by bringing him in contact with people once again.

But the beginnings of Pete’s reintegration into polite society also raises the possibility that others might find the dragon – and they might not possess the same magnanimity of spirit as Grace. When the dragon ultimately does become known to the small Pacific Northwestern town, his mysterious intent instantly divides the community into those who fear the unknown and those who have faith in its goodness.

“Pete’s Dragon” soars towards its powerful close as Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks celebrate our capacity for belief. This ability need not be tethered to some childlike wonder; rather, it is an inherent quality accessible to anyone should they choose to do so. The film’s folksy, plucky spirit only underscores the authenticity of this yarn about listening, learning and loving. B2halfstars

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REVIEW: We Are Your Friends

10 07 2016

Zac Efron, at least until recently, was far more known for his impressive abs than his impressive acting. His actual body received more attention than his body of work. Beginning with 2014’s “Neighbors,” Efron turned his weapon of seduction into a weapon of self-deprecation, making his tabloid good looks the butt of the joke rather than an unironic selling point.

But what happens when Efron tries to be just … Zac Efron? Not a performance of himself, but just any other actor who wants to live and die by their work alone. As of publication, 2015’s “We Are Your Friends” is really the only film to date that allows Efron to be just any other performer. It never calls back to our cultural associations as a teen idol or sex symbol; in fact, the only time he appears shirtless appears incidentally and not as a deliberate courting of lust and/or jealousy.

As Cole, an aspiring EDM DJ awaiting his big break, Efron probably had to act more than ever to get into the mindset of the character. Talented though he may be, Cole dwells in mediocrity. He languishes in the San Fernando Valley, tucked away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, with three fiercely loyal but stagnant chums. (The illegitimate cousin of acting, pornography, thrived in this area during the ’70s.) Luckily for Cole, his medium of artistic expression rewards its participants on the basis of a single hit track.

Director Max Joseph sets up Cole as a sonic scientist behind the mix table before even establishing him as a creator or a person. His technique stems from an ability to physiologically affect his audience using principles of rhythm and frequency. It stands in marked contrast to the thespian in his friend group, who refers to himself as “a movie star” in a sea of actors. On a meta level, “We Are Your Friends” begs the question … is this calculated, methodical artist a reflection of the Efron that is? Or perhaps the one that could have been without the meteoric success of “High School Musical” that until recently hung like an albatross around his neck?

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REVIEW: Knight of Cups

22 03 2016

Knight of CupsWith “Knight of Cups,” wunderkind Terrence Malick frees himself even further from a plot-based cinema than he had in art-house darling “The Tree of Life” and head-scratcher “To the Wonder.” In many ways, it is refreshing to see him further embrace the kind of elliptical, free-floating style that he seems to dabble in more and more with each film. At last, he has devised something from his footage that feels fully and truly avant-garde, where the motif is the basic building block of understanding rather than events in the story.

If “The Tree of Life” was Malick’s version of the Gospel, then “Knight of Cups” is his most vividly realized visual Psalm. Everyone consistently seems to acknowledge or call upon the divine, a presence they can sense but onto whom they never fully latch. This anguished yearning even changes Malick’s most recognizable visual device – the close-up of the hand running through some sort of greenery. In “Knight of Cups,” characters stretch out their hands yet reach for air as if to make it palpable to no avail. Rather than connect with God through the earth, as plenty an ethereal Malick character has done, these empty Hollywood types grasp at straws.

Beyond some of the blatant religious symbolism, it’s hard to tell where purposeful planning ends and happy accidents captured by the lithe camera of Emmanuel Lubezki begin. A shot of three men arguing on a roof that is interrupted by both a plane and a helicopter flying overhead – which the camera tilts up to capture – cannot be pre-visualized, right? As beautiful as his floating mobile shots can be, they often capture levels of acting on par with a commercial for a local car dealership. (This is especially prevalent in the film’s big house party scene, which improbably features Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Kroll among the more high-minded likes of Antonio Banderas and Jason Clarke.)

There are plenty of mixed Biblical metaphors, too. Malick seems to dance around between Cain & Abel, Sodom & Gomorrah and more along with plenty of other admonishments of licentious behavior. The false angel presiding over the simulacra known as Las Vegas pretty much says it all. But ultimately, the “what” feels less important than the “how,” the form and experience more relevant than the content or comprehension.

Why on earth Christian Bale’s movie mogul lothario needs six different women to reach a point of self-actualization and reckoning with his family tragedy seems beside the point. So long as one can place themselves in the right frame of mind, the abstract delve into his world proves quite immersive, immediate and impactful. B+3stars





REVIEW: Welcome to Me

8 05 2015

Welcome to MeSeeing as how she got her start on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig is certainly no stranger to satire.  While her work on that topical comedy show often brilliantly pointed out human error and ridicule, most of it pales in comparison to her scathingly incisive new film, “Welcome to Me.”  Eliot Laurence’s script cuts deep to probe some of our society’s deepest insecurities and fears.

He pinpoints that these collective anxieties find assuaging in the self-help gospel preached by daytime talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey.  Take away the free car giveaways, though, and the program really just sold herself as a product.  (Who other than Oprah has ever graced the cover of O Magazine?)  “Welcome to Me” takes this narcissism to its logical extreme, following Wiig’s Alice Klieg as she uses her millions in lottery earnings to mount a show about her, for her.

Her talk show/broadcasted therapy session is not made by her, however.  To get on the air and look impressive, Alice requires the talents of producers at a local television studio.  At Live Alchemy, she finds the perfect blend of dead airspace, crushing company debt, and morally bankrupt executives willing to indulge her every desire.

Led by the slimily obsequious Rich (James Marsden), the station caters to each of Alice’s increasingly bizarre whims, even when they cross the line into literal slander and figurative self-flagellation.  It’s not hard to imagine similar board room meetings taking place at E! debating the Kardashian family.  Alice suffers from a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and manifest her symptoms rather clearly, yet no employee seems willing to protect her from herself so long as the checks keep cashing.  Consider it a less violent first cousin to “Nightcrawler” (or dare I even say, the golden goose that is “Network”).

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games

23 03 2012

From the very beginning of “The Hunger Games,” it is very clear that this literary adaptation has in common with “Harry Potter” only the hype surrounding their release.  While Rowling and an army of talented directors transported us to a universe accessible only in our wildest imaginations, writer/director Gary Ross shows no such inclinations in bringing Suzanne Collins’ best-seller to the big screen.  As her novel is meant to hold a mirror up to our own reality-TV saturated culture, he plants the film in an America just a little bit of social upheaval removed from our current one.

He has no interest in sweeping formalist cinematography that basks in the beauty of castles and countryside.  Ross’ style adheres more closely to the films of Danny Boyle with a kinetic desire propelling every shot; watching the struggles in the wilderness harkens more to Aron Ralston’s fight against nature in “127 Hours” than it does to anything in the Forbidden Forest.  The editing is more deliberate, too, lingering on the actors to communicate internal monologues with their eyes rather than conveying that the editor forgot to take their Ritalin.

Of course, not everything in the film looks as gritty as District 12 and as unyielding as the Arena.  The Capitol, where the rich and the elites bask, is embellished to the maximum for an especially emphasized contrast.  The men and women look like they walked out of Hunter S. Thompson’s acid trip, and their lavish makeup and attire are nothing short of ridiculous.  (So don’t be surprised if “The Hunger Games” takes home a technical Oscar or two next February.)

All of this makes Panem, a strange society born from the ashes of an America that tore itself apart, a fascinating place to build a story of triumph over the odds.  16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister.  The Games require the competitive edge of an Olympic athlete in addition to the cut-throat inclinations of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and it gets worse for Katniss as class bias is institutionalized in the rigid caste society of Panem.

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