Darke Reviews | How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

So I realized after the movie tonight why in the past few months there have been so many of these early audience screenings published through sources like Amazon Prime, Fandango, and Cinemark. If you are in this industry (movie reviews) you may have noticed a lot of conversation late summer and last fall around backlash on the critic scores, RottenTomatoes, and audience scores. The studios are convinced that critics  (RT was a target) are keeping people away from their movies, many critics and reviewers such as myself are saying “Make better movies”. This is how the studios are retaliating by giving audiences some of their tent-pole movies and let the audience voice take over vs the critical early. I for one welcome this change as if you’ve followed me for any length of time you know I encourage people to enjoy movies I don’t – its fine. I often disagree with critical and or audience reception of movies as well. This is what the experience *should* be. As a critic (yes I am moving myself from reviewer to critic), I can usually articulate why something does or doesn’t work – or more to the point shouldn’t. I can appreciate, and have many, so called guilty pleasure movies.

This franchise is not one of them. This franchise, which I was able to get to watch the finale of with some good and close friends tonight, is something that has been good and solid throughout.

How did the finale fair?

The movie is based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, adapted for the screen and directed by Dean DeBlois. Dean is responsible for the two prior movies and Lilo and Stitch in the same role (writer/director). This means for a franchise that the movie keeps the same narrative style, look, and feel as the others. That the voice direction, music, editing, and action all feel like the others – and while in some cases this can be bad (ie: Zack Snyder); the work DeBlois does has a certain almost universal accessibility to it and while I am hesitant to use the word purity to it that hold through the series that bear little critique. He reminds me in a way of George Miller, who gave us the entirety of the Mad Max series…and Happy Feet as his only entries. All of these have a specific style and vision to them and remain with a solid through line on them that works – even if continuity doesn’t always.

In this case, the continuity does match and holds through the franchise. The characters remain who they are even as they age and growing naturally, physically and emotionally, as they do. If anything in the plot of The Hidden World I expect others to critique the lack of meat to the villain, but he isn’t the point here. Capturing our main characters, Hiccup, Astrid, and Toothless growing is the real line of the movie and it does it amazingly; with an interesting line up between hiccup and the bad guy. For those worried about the new dragon, our Light Fury being subject to Hollywood ‘Girls have spechul powerz” – trust me you don’t have to worry. Moving onto the threat, while not meaty, does feel real and impactful. After the death of Stoic in the sequel you really can’t be sure who or what is on the table for this one and that helps a lot.

What also helps is the solid voice cast, Almost everyone returns to their roles, with Jay Baruchel as Hiccup, America Ferrera as Astrid, Craig Ferguson as Gobber, etc. Everyones favourite King of the North reprises his role as sideline character Eret that appeared in the sequel. The only, mildly, notable voice actor that doesn’t return is TJ Miller as Tuffnut, who is replaced by Justin Rupple. In January of last year the studio hadn’t commented on his (rightful) removal, and I can’t find any articles officially noting it; but good on Dreamworks. Continuing to focus on the positive here, Ferrera and Baruchel shine here with a lot of nuance to their voice acting which is only accentuated by the animation.

One thing everyone could say about these movies since the first one nine years ago is that they are gorgeous. The animation department at Dreamworks has always been top notch on these projects and they continue to push themselves from the lighting, the colour, and little details such as hair and microexpressions. None of this is ignored and makes the experience so much richer for it. The flight sequences absolutely are some of the best in the franchise and this movie doesn’t disappoint on that front either.  There is a sense of scale that the animators provided when displaying the hidden world that lets it feel as large and small as it should be simultaneously and giving you an opportunity to take it all in. The opening fight sequence should be required watching for action movie directors in how to control your camera and let your audience enjoy and view the fight – even with it being dark. You can follow everything in every sequence and understand the geography of where every character is and how they are interacting with each other; all while the camera maintains it’s own fluidity of motion to match the dialogue. Some might say this is easy because it is animation, but there are so many movies now where you get this kind of camera work on an action sequence and you see it *can* be done – people are just choosing not to.

Last special nod to John Powells score. Test Drive from the original is one of my favourite scored musics and I use it regularly for one of my 7th Sea characters, and here he outdoes himself with the callbacks to the prior two scores but some new ones that are just as powerful.

TL;DR?

This movie is the goods. It is good, it is pure, it is how you do the end of a trilogy right AND stick the landing. I honestly have little critique for it and just thoroughly enjoyed my time. The audience I was with, mixed with children as young as 4 to people in their 70’s did too. There was laughter, there were tears, there was applause all at the moments there should be those beats and when you get that from an entire theatre along side you the experience is so much better for it.

What you have is a great finale to a truly family friendly movie franchise and a good reminder this is entirely possible to make as a movie even as we wind down this decade.

Should I see it?

Yes. Go when it opens in a few weeks. Go and see and enjoy. Bring tissues.

Would you watch it again?

Friday February 22, 2019. You will find me at the theatre. Besides nothing else coming out that week, this one is worth seeing again. I honestly want to see it in 3-D if that release happens as the flight moments would be spectacular.

Buying it?

No doubt in my mind what so ever that I will have a 4K version of this the day I can get it in my icy little hands.

Are you perhaps overselling this movie?

No. I really am not. I am a fan of the franchise, but guys it’s that good. It may not be the greatest thing, but it is that good.

The year has started rough, but we have our first real entry and I am glad for it. I think you will be too.

 

Darke Reviews | Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Chim Chim-in-ey, Chim Chim-in-ey, Chim Chim cher-ee! Lyrics I sing at random to this day. I am sure for others it’s a Spoonful of Sugar, and even others still want to go Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I suppose even some may go dociousaliexpilisticfragicalirupes, but thats going a bit far don’t you think? So with children from the late 50s and early 60’s coming into contact with dear Ol Mary Poppins, to those of us in the 70’s and 80’s thanks to the Wonderful World of Disney, and the advent of VHS its safe to say the original movie has earned its reputation as a beloved classic. We all have the nostalgia glasses on for the original regardless of our feelings now, so the concept of a sequel coming out 54 years after the original is a bit jarring, wouldn’t you say?

Does it still have the magic though?

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Memoirs of a Geisha) , along with his partner John Deluca (Choroegrapher on Chicago and Nine), provided us the screenstory for this and David Magee (Life of Pi, Finding Neverland) wrapped that work up and converted it to a screenplay. They remembered what it was like to have a sense of wonder again, to turn things upside down and look at the world as if it had magic again. The story at times may be a little (a lot) on the nose with some more current trends; there is almost always a sense of the fantastical as the story unfolds. Mary Poppins returns to the Banks family, roughly 20 years after the events of the last film. The Banks family is out of money and time before they lose their home, but our wonderous Nanny comes in to provide some much needed lesson and perhaps a sense of adventure as well. If anything the flaws in the story are that it is just a bit too straight forward in its symbolism and meanings; but when making a movie for children of all ages great and small – is that really a bad thing?

The unfortunate bad thing is that the songs just do not work nearly as well. They aren’t bad by any stretch, but I can’t forsee anyone remembering these fifty years down the line. The movie does go full musical and there are far more songs than I remember in the original, but everyone puts on a good show and I can’t fault that at all. I just wish the dance routines, the songs themselves had just that little something extra to make their magic come alive in the same way the visuals did. You can see the songs that Marc Shaiman (Hairspray, Smash) was going for when he worked out the lyrics and beats for the music and while they are lovely homages to 1964, I can barely tell you any of the lyrics now as I write this review. This isn’t a matter of repetition either, most of us may have only watched Mary Poppins a few times as children but we remember those songs to this day, none of these truly hit that and its a bit saddening.

Emily Blunt of course is practically perfect in every way and was the only real choice for the role. We knew she could sing and dance thanks to Into the Woods, and her class and charm are without question – who else could be Mary Poppins now? She brought the same type of personality that Dame Andrews did, and also remembered how to bring the more subtle, quiet moments as well. Rather than a sweep, we have Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamp lighter named Jack, who fills the exact same niche that Dick Van Dyke did all those years ago. Miranda has fantastic screen presence and anyone who thinks the man can’t sing or dance should be flogged accordingly; and thankfully he does not try for a cockney accent. Ben Wishaw (Q in the recent James Bond movies) as our grown up Michael (the child from the first film) despite being 38 doesn’t look old enough to be the part of a father of three. It might be a combination of his clothing and his natural youthful appearance but he really does look like a boy trying to be a man. Perhaps that’s the point though? The three children Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson ride that edge of being too much at times, but really do have what it takes to keep the audience endeared to them.  It was nice to see Julie Walters (Molly Weasley you muggle) again, even in the bit role she had; which can also be said for perennial villain David Warner (Tron, Titanic) in a far more pleasant and amusing role as Admiral Boom.

The costuming was amazing. Period. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. When we get into our second animated-live-action hybrid sequence the look and style of the costumes are just so perfect. Overall the entire production design was spot on and let me feel like I was in that early London period. If anything there is a flaw in that it doesn’t feel like sets this time and is more real. Odd thing to call as a flaw. At 2 hours and 10 minutes though it does feel a bit long, but I checked and the original runs 2 hours and 19 so…improvements?

TL;DR

Mary Poppins Returned. From an opening credits of chalk art and matte paintings that reminded me and my partner tonight of vintage Disney, to the time of CINEMA and Audrey and the classics, to the true sense of joy of being a child again (if only for 2 hours and 10 minutes); the movie is absolutely cute. It is charming and nostalgic at the same time without being condescending or manipulative about it. While none of the musical sequences themselves made me want to sing along, coming out of the movie I was light on my feet and was dancing through the parking lot of the theatre.

The movie does lack some of the quieter beats the original held and has some more modern film making flaws cooked into it that would be inescapable, it really is a solid work. It’s a project born of love for the stories of Mary Poppins and a movie from 1964 and it does show in every frame. This is the definition of a family film that could satiate multiple generations and could become a holiday classic at home for some families.

Should I see it?

If what you want is that sense of child like wonder again and a sense of the nostalgic beyond pop culture, you would be well served to see this. I do really believe this is an excellent family film for all.

Would you see it again?

Quite likely, but that would be after seeing Anna and the Apocalypse or Spider-Man again. Still worth a rewatch though.

So you are buying it?

No doubt in my mind.

Anything else on the movie?

I think my estimates on its weekend take are about right, but I do wish people would see this instead of Aquaman. I will also say that the cameo’s by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury brought me to tears, especially Lansbury. Not all of the songs worked for me, but the magic did. This is nostalgia worth experiencing and hit the spot for that sense of wonder.

Also Mary Poppins is a Time Lord. Fight me.

Darke Reviews | Mortal Engines (2018)

I have to admit the trailer for this one got me interested. While Steampunk and Dieselpunk are not my preferred Gothic aesthetic, I always appreciate my brothers and sisters in the alternative clothing. Drawing from bygone era’s with a significant fictional embellishment shows a certain passion and commitment that has to be appreciated, even if the mainstream looks down on it or tries to market it and co opt it. The movies trailer hinted at this with gigantic moving cities beyond anything rationally (or physically) being able to be engineered. Without a single image, if I told you that there was a city of a hundred thousand people moving about on tank treads so large that a person could stand between each spoke of the tread and it moves around a post apocalyptic/nature reborn landscape capturing other cities for resources – you have a visual in mind. Immense. Grand in scale and scope and absolutely fantastical. Then I am going to tell you the movie is writen and produced by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh who gave us the impossible to film Lord of the Rings.

How can this not be amazing to watch?

First, you must understand that this is not an original work, but instead based on a 2001 childrens book by Philip Reeve. Based on the length of the book and the overall content this falls into another YA adaptation in another Hollywood attempt to find their new Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight franchises. That doesn’t stop it from being a passion project for the three writers either, but it must be acknowledged that the studio wouldn’t greenlight something this ambitious unless they think it can sell.  The story is barely more complex than I covered in my preamble to the review, with the character beats missing. The world has been ravaged by a hyper-technology war some hundred years from our now, and a thousand years before the movie starts. We have a young girl (of course), Hester, who is trying to assassinate a high ranking member of the city of London, Valentine, who killed her mother. A young man (of course), Tom, intervenes and they both end up outside the city.  Hester spends her time trying to return to the city to finish her vendetta, Tom tries to return home, meanwhile our mustache twirling Valentine has a much darker plan with lost technology in his bid for power and resources.

As plots go, it’s basic at its core; which is fine when you have YA material. This is not an insult to YA material, which is specifically designed to be basic and accessible and is a good thing. When translating it to a movie, it can also be a good thing, if done well. I cannot say that this was done well. The plot isn’t really the problem, but the script is. There are no less than a dozen characters we’re expected to emotionally attach to at one point or another and the movie gives most of them at best four or five lines; whilst our main characters are rather dull or unlikable. Even worse, our heroine for the movie is ridiculously inconsistent with her logic and actions to the point I was rolling my eyes half way through the movie. I don’t really expect a lot, but consistency would be nice. You literally have a beat at one point in the movie where she looks at Tom and goes “I would have left you.” Not even five minutes later, she risks her life and anothers more than once to save him. Now I could take it as her trying to be strong and aloof and saying one thing, but believing another; but the movie never gave me reason to believe that she would have saved him. Beyond that there’s script beats where I was able to look to my companion tonight and go “Cue scene…” and it would happen. After the movie she went “even I knew it was coming”. This is being stated by someone who until recently didn’t get to see a lot of movies on the regular. The beats are that telegraphed. Then of course there are the braindead moments and even other higher moments of logic fails that I can’t get into for spoiler reasons but someone, somewhere should have went – this is a stupid decision for the character to make/say/do.

From the actors, they do what they can with the material. Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar plays our heroine and she tries. She really really tries, but it just doesn’t work; but I don’t know that I can blame her. Robert Sheehan, (Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Geostorm) is our Tom and again does his best, but there’s nothing in the direction or script to help him. Hugo Weaving is Valentine and I am not sure if he was aware he was on camera or thought he was in rehearsals still because it just was not good for him; he might have been dead at the time and that would explain a lot. (Note: Hugo Weaving is not dead…this is a joke). Jihae, who I’ve never heard of before, is one of our secondary characters and is far more interesting than any of the mains and I’d like a movie about her please. Leila George (Mother May I Sleep with Danger)  is another secondary character, Valentine’s daughter Katherine, who the script and editing did no favours to.

This brings us to our director, Christian Rivers. Rivers worked on the art department as a storyboard artist for all of Jackson’s previous films all the way back to the Frighteners in 96 and Dead Alive in 92; though never credited as such. That concerned me a bit so I had to go find an interview to prove he was real and not a Jackson alias. I admit I am still not sure. He isn’t that good. Sorry but all the performances are barely delivered and that falls on him. The blocking, staging, camera angle choices, weird whip pans, all of it just don’t work. Even JunkieXL on music seemed to be phoning it in with his left overs from Justice League and Catwoman. I know I ripped on Robin Hood a bit a few weeks ago for stealing scenes from other movies shamelessly, but they did it and turned those scenes to an 11. This lifts from some of the Star Wars movies and doesn’t even do anything interesting with it.  The editing is…painful. I think there are 15 to 20 minutes on the cutting room floor and you can feel it.

TL;DR

This movie is bad. It is visually interesting, but very very bad. At an annoying level of bad. You may hear of things called Script Doctors who come in and polish scripts. This movie needed a team of trauma surgeons. Someone should have taken a second or third look, but wait the producers were Jackson, Walsh and Boyens so they had the creative control too. Ugh. Ok…so time to bust out a meme.

Peter Jackson

You gave us the Lord of the Rings trilogy and it was magical. Truly changing the face of the fantasy film genre forever. Changing how Hollywood should look at making movies and the importance of well crafted practical effects and the effort put in to make something more than just a movie, but feel like a real lived in world. You reminded us of King Kong, and we forgave you the dinosaur stampede, but let us remember that Beauty Killed the beast and it too was breathtaking. Then, then came the dark times. The Hobbit trilogy where you became obsessed with technology and forgot the practical. You have become what you once fought against. This movie cements your fate, stop now while you still can.

This movie will not satisfy movie goers or fans of the book. It’s a mess.

Should I watch it though?

Go see Spider-Man.  Seriously, My friend was entertained because it was visually interesting and I can’t argue that, but the more I discussed it with her, the more annoyed with the movie she became. It’s that kind of movie.

Would you watch it again?

Go see Spider-Man.

Buying it?

Nope. Seriously folks. I said this movie was going to get destroyed by Spider-Man and I felt bad for Peter Jackson…I don’t now. This movie deserves its demise. I do feel bad for the actors and hope their careers aren’t hurt by this.

Anything else to add?

So I didn’t cover this in the review, because it is not objectively about the movie as given. I also don’t typically touch on the adaptation from the book to screen as I haven’t often read the book to compare; but while researching this review I found an interview that honestly makes me even angrier at Jackson than I was after seeing the movie.

In the book Hester is described as having a prominent, grotesque scar across her face that had also taken an eye and severely damaged her nose; to quote:

“Her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump, and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as grey and chill as a winter sea.”

This is what we got:

 

Now, as someone who loves Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lanister, I know he is not as described in the book facially. This is problematic. I acknowledge this. He also turns out a good performance and still provides representation for a marginalized group.

This change however, less forgivable as this is why it was made from Director Christian Rivers and producer Peter Jackson:

It’s fine in the book for Hester to be described to be ugly, hideous, and have lost a nose ‘cause, even that, you reimagine it in your own mind as, ‘Okay, yeah, she’s ugly, but she’s not really ugly,’” Rivers explained. “Tom falls in love with her… and film is a visual medium. With a book you can take what you want and reimagine it in your head and put together your own picture. But when you put it on film, you are literalizing it. You are making it a literal thing, so it was just finding a balance where we need to believe that Tom and Hester fall in love. And her scar does need to be disfiguring enough that she thinks she’s ugly — it can’t just be a little scratch — and I think we’ve struck a good balance of it.

First off, and I mean this with all professional kindness – Go jump face first into a chipper shredder. Take your ableist BS with you. You are literally saying we couldn’t leave her disfigured as written because then the audience couldn’t buy someone falling in love with her. Have you ever read a book? I mean it seriously. When an author gives you a description, especially one as clear and visceral as Hester’s, you DONT reimagine it to make it more palatable unless you are trash. You imagine what was written and if not clear may think the right eye or the left, but the aesthetic of it remains as a horrifying accident induced scar. Something millions of people have and in this interview you worthless garbage you said they aren’t worthy of love.

Christian Rivers. Go to hell. I’ll give you a map.

 

Darke Reviews | The Girl in the Spiders Web (2018)

The past few weeks have been hell on my movie going timelines with vacation and a brief plague; in addition to a number of double or triple releases of films I want to see. This was a last minute viewing for me with no real plan or I would have invited my regular movie going partner with me, who I do owe a movie and a dinner for missing our last showing. Now, I am a fan of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the original Swedish release (2009), not so much the American remake (2011) a few years later. Noomi Rapace defined the role of Lisbeth Salander, and the late Michael Nyqvist introduced me to investigative journalist Mikael Blomvist. While director Niels Arden Oplev may not be the auteur that David Fincher is, I found his (original) film more engaging. Rooney Mara was good, but she just didn’t hit what Rapace did for me in the role. Unfortunately, I have not gotten around to watching the two sequel films in the Millenium series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and the Girl Who Kicked the Hornets nest; but they are on my list. The movies require a certain frame of mind and preparation for solid investigation, mystery, and intensity that we don’t often get here in the states.

Tonight I was in that frame of mind and took a chance. 

The characters were created by late activist and Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson (1954-2004), with whom even the original Millenium trilogy (Tattoo/Fire/Nest) was published posthumously, then converted to movies shortly after. This movie is based on the book of the same name, written by David Lagercrantz, who has another sequel in print The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. That’s a complex origin, but worth noting for future trivia contests if you so wish. Spiders Web was given the screenplay treatment by Jay Basu (Monsters: Dark Continent) with Steven Knight (Allied, Locke, Seventh Son); with on set touch ups by director Fede Alvarez.  As the director is the third writing credit here, my take is that he was doing rewrites on set with his cast. Alvarez worked on 2016’s Don’t Breathe and the acclaimed 2013 remake of Evil Dead.

The story here is a simple one as told in the trailer, Lisbeth Salander, righter of wrongs, is an avenging angel in Stockholm. She is a computer genius and particularly vindictive to those who victimize women – regardless of their social standing. Lisbeth is contacted to steal a scary software MacGuffin, is nearly killed, and must recover the MacGuffin before it’s too late with the help of some friends. She has an on again off again friendship with famous reporter Mikael Blomkvist, who returns in this movie as well. All of the events though tie to a past we have not seen fully explored for Ms Salander and it may come back to bite her in the end. Honestly, the story is Steal the Scary thing. Scary thing stolen from you. Steal it back that we’ve seen in so many spy thrillers and heist movies over the years. What makes this different is the personal touches and ties to the past and sense of self. Trying to identify who you are and remembering your past without letting it consume you.

The acting is fantastic. Claire Foy (The Crown, Unsane) gets the character. She has the rage, the insecurity, the fear, and the cunning of the titular character down. It’s difficult to make a character like Lisbeth sympathetic as she’s relatively anti social and unlikable, but if you have the chops and can pull of the complexity you can show the sensitivity and the need to reach out for human contact in a look, a touch, or even the slight tilt of the head and Foy has that. It isn’t a surprise she won awards for her work on The Crown, I’d personally like to see her nominated again here. Sverrir Gunnason takes over in the role of Mikael and he’s good, but he doesn’t have the edge to him I was feeling with Nyqvists performance. Lakeith Stanfield (Selma, Death Note) plays another party interested in our MacGuffin and brings a physicality to the movie that it might otherwise be missing, but the character doesn’t do him justice beyond that unfortunately. Sylvia Hoeks is our woman in red, and gives an as nuanced performance as she did as Luv in Blade Runner 2049 last year; which is difficult with the make up and prosthetics she has going on. Even with the minor roles and mediocre characters there’s a lot of subtext in the movie the various cast members have to deliver on and they do that effectively.

The on location (Stockholm) really adds the required atmosphere for the movie. The ice and snow (happy Elsa sigh) are as much characters in the movie at times and add a necessary element to the film. The camera work is both stable and kinetic in that you can see everything going on in every sequence, but there’s a motion to the camera for many of them that draws you into the chases and chess moves being laid out before you on screen.

TL;DR

I was excited watching this movie. It’s good. It’s entertaining from beginning to end. Ultimately it is also satisfying. More than once I found myself sitting up in the lounge seat and leaning forward or quietly cheering for whatever actually happened. In addition to this the movie provides multiple types of LGBT representation which is worth calling out.

I really enjoyed The Girl in the Spiders Web and I think you will too.

Should I see it then?

Yes. This one absolutely edges Widows out if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s just the more satisfying film.

Would you see it again?

No question in my mind. also at full price.

Buying it?

Yes. Also likely to get the other films, sight unseen.

Anything else to add?

I am going to try to see Suspiria this weekend at a local theatre if I can.

Darke Reviews | The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

I admit to curiosity upon the trailer for this one being dropped. Visually it did look derivative of the Alice in Wonderland movies, which unfortunately I am not a fan, but there was some sense of wonder instilled and a sense of magic to the trailer. I am a bit late to the game on this one and the other review going up today due to a vacation so really the final tally is set for this film, but

Did audiences and critics miss the mark on The Nutcracker?

This film probably gets one of the more accurate credits in the “Suggested by the short story”, versus based on, inspired by, etc, of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Screenplay and Screen Story credit goes to first timer Ashleigh Powell. She’s been working in Hollywood as a production assistant for years and submitting screenplays and scripts since at least 2012, but this is the first one to make it to the screen. I can’t really get a feel for her off this script, as it feels like a watered down version of Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and a touch of Hugo.  We have the story of a girl out of place in her home since the death of her mother, she does have a loving father, brother, and sister which is a breath of fresh air. She is clever and an inventor, showing off her understanding with a Rube Goldberg machine in the opening tracking shot. Of course this puts her even more out of place in classic Victorian London. She inexplicably finds her way into a fantasy world and must save it from dark forces who seek to rule it all. The plot is basic. Discover who you are and you can do anything. Make some friends along the way. Come back to the world at the end with some important life lessons.

If this sounds very much like Alice in Wonderland and it’s sequel you are 100% correct. If this looks at all like it and the other films mentioned, you are also 100% correct. I just don’t know why though. You have Joe Johnston at the helm who gave us Captain America: The First Avenger and The Rocketeer. He has such a sense for evocation in his films, yet there’s none of that here. Maybe the other director Lasse Hallstrom is behind that? Yet he is a multiple award nominee with such films like The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Either of these two should have been able to evoke emotion in the style of the film. Awe, Wonder should have been easy, not to mention a sense of triumph or joy, or even risk and threat. The movie contains none of that and I am profoundly surprised and disappointed, and have to look to the producers perhaps? Some of the producers here go back to movies such as The Thing (1982 version), or Saving Private Ryan, others are first timers.

I could talk about the acting here, but MacKenzie Foy tries, but doesn’t seem to be getting a lot to work with. The script, the direction, even the background production design seems to be fighting her; literally in one scene Helen Mirren is wasted as is Kierra Knightley. Morgan Freeman seems to have just walked on set, got dressed, put on an eye patch and collected his check. Speaking of the production design I think it was left overs from all the other movies I’ve mentioned combined as nothing is striking or evoking here.

TL:DR?

This movie is a hot mess. It has all the elements behind the scenes to make it work, but nothing in it quite does. There’s no strong sense of visual style, direction, or music in the movie. I mean music beyond the Nutcracker Suite of course. Something is wrong in the House of Mouse here; as nothing in this movie feels like what anyone in this movie is capable of. The script needed a few rewrites. The editing was…a thing that happened badly. I am not sure what went on in pre-production or post production here, but something did. Something not good.

The Nutcracker is a bloody mess from start to finish and I could tell you a half dozen ways to fix it but no one did. This feels like contractual obligation the movie and it just doesn’t care beyond that. There are tonal issues, where the movie screeches to a halt for an actual balet in it, and I wonder who this movie is for? At best I can say it was an obligation and it was for no one in particular.

So would you see it again?

No. No I wouldn’t.

What about buying it?

Probably not.

Anything about it good?

There are beautiful elements to the production design, but thats about it.

Are you being harsher because you saw a better movie first?

I weighed that and unfortunately that isn’t the case.

This one just isn’t that good.

Darke Reviews | The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

So aside from the animated variety you won’t get many movies from me that would be considered kids movies, but the trailer for this one grabbed me somehow. Honestly, I’d have to say it was Jack Blacks performance in those trailers and the atmosphere of the movie that got me. Then I looked into it, and of course its based on a book I haven’t read or even heard of. Turns out the book was published three years before I was born, but I swear I never heard of it or anyone in my elementary school reading it or it being at a scholastic book fair (I miss those) even once. I’ll ask any of my old grade school mates that read my reviews (all 3 of you) if you can recall seeing it.

In the meanwhile, should you see the movie?

So the book was adapted for the screen by Eric Kripke. If you’ve watched the CW channel in the past thirteen years you’ve seen his name on a little show that much like its main characters refuses to die, Supernatural. As the creator of the show he will always be on the credits, he also happened to write eleven episodes himself. He was also behind such shows as Revolution and Timeless. This tells me he is good at making a product that does have mass market appeal, but also can have issues sticking the landing. He has a grasp of charm, pacing, mystery, and banter; all of which are necessary in a “haunted house” story that has a child, his eccentric uncle, and purple clad neighbor investigating the house for a mysterious clock. Quite honestly, there’s only a slight roll of the ankle on the landing here the movie is quite solid. There’s a bit much exposition here and there but its told as innovatively as they can and it does succeed in telling a coherent, charming, even quaint little story that is engaging.

Coming out of left field to direct is the gorehound himself Eli Roth. Roth is best known for his work on things like Cabin Fever, Hostel, and the Green Inferno, so of course this man is tapped to do a movie for a kids book. Without looking into it, I would guess this is something he asked for and fought for to get made vs being handed a script by a studio. This has the fingerprints of a passion project on it and sometimes that can be dangerous, yet here it wasn’t. You can tell by the darkness and atmosphere this is an Eli Roth production, but it never crosses the line on being too dark even if it dances on the razors edge with one or two shots. His overall composition is basic without any significant style to the shots, but each shot is still framed beautifully. You don’t always have to have a dutch angle or an inverted camera to make it good and Roth and his cinematographer Rogier Stoffers stick to the basics, but make it count. No one will be talking about it (but me probably) but the simplicity and cleanness of it was noticeable and worked for the movie.

From an acting perspective, this was Jack Black at his best. All of his usual schtick and overt goofiness is entirely subdued here giving a performance still fit for a kids movie, but still mature. I haven’t seen anything like this from him since King Kong with Peter Jackson (2005). I might actually go see more Jack Black movies if this is the direction he chooses to go. Aside from *one* scene it was nearly a perfect performance for my humor tastes and with just the right amount of drama to it that the movie needed.  Cate Blanchett is a goddess and can do no wrong. Much like Black here she has a subdued performance for a kids movie and there’s a single beat that had my eyebrows go up which I would believe was Roth’s choice, but damn if she didn’t sell it (again with a kids movie in mind here). Owen Vaccaro is our principle child actor here and he has a few beats that don’t work, but I am going to cut him some slack because they weren’t bad takes just not the best I think he could do. Overall his performance felt earnest and honest and he sold me on the character he was playing.

Visually the movie is a treat. It has atmosphere dripping from the walls almost literally and I want that house. All of it. The creature animations there are are bright and colourful but still are within the darker tones of the film. There’s only one real shot that could and should have been given a second look and I think Jack may have asked for it as its closer to his style, and the movie could do without. It just gels otherwise. This isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have some flaws as well. There’s some pacing issues that come hand in hand with the exposition dumps mid movie that may bore some children but otherwise the pace moves decently through the plot briskly enough you won’t find yourself checking your watch.

TL;DR

This is a cute, fun, little movie. It’s timing just at the start of fall is no accident as this movie feels like it should be a fall or halloween movie.  The only real complaint I have is asking myself and my partner tonight who is this movie for? It didn’t feel like a Young Adult demographic in its style or story. It might be a bit too dark for kids too young, so the best I can figure is the 8-12 range?  The performances are good, the plot is good, its just a good movie that families, including the adults, will be able to enjoy.

Should I see it?

It’s got my vote.  With a lackluster September overall and no real offerings for the families yet this should be able to make a decent amount this weekend and is worth that. You can pay full price here and not feel cheated.

Would you see it again?

Maybe. You buyin?

So you going to buy this family friendly movie?

If I am being honest, probably not. When it comes out on disc and if I see it I might.  It does have rewatch value and I am always for good atmosphere.

Final thoughts?

I was surprised how much I was entertained. From the 80’s throwback Universal Logo, to the old Amblin Logo, I can’t help but think of something like Monster Squad or some of the movies I saw when I was a little girl and this would fit right in. I am happy I saw it and I think, most people will be as well.

Darke Reviews | A Simple Favor (2018)

I happened upon this trailer only a few weeks ago and I was immediately curious about what the unfolding of the story would look like. Kendrick is always solid in anything she does, usually giving a stand out performance above and beyond her co stars; while Lively won me over in Age of Adeline and The Shalllows. I know Kendrick and Lively have been doing the rounds and marketing the film, but I’ve missed all of it; somewhat intentionally so I could enjoy the movie for what it wanted to do and bring me along on the journey of uncovering the mystery of what the simple favor might be and its results.

Was it worth the anticipation?

First we need to understand it was based on a book by Darcey Bell that I shall never likely read. It was adapted for the screen by Jessica Sharzer, who was a writer on a handful of episodes of American Horror Story and the 2016 movie Nerve that had some interesting ideas going for it. While I will never know what the material covered, I can say with confidence that Sharzer did an excellent job writing a screenplay for a suspense mystery that has an air of comedy to it that shouldn’t be possible with the directions it takes, but rides the line so deftly I cannot fault it. I often critique movies on tonal issues and had this one not been so intentional in its scripting it would have received the same such complaint. The script here is tight, and no I am not getting into the story beyond the trailer – Spoilers duh, but I don’t think there’s a single scene worth putting on the cutting room floor or a moment of dialogue I really found cringeworthy.

Surprisingly, some of the credit here goes to 2016 Ghostbusters director Paul Feig. Interesting and unrelated note, it is now getting the subheading of “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call”.  This makes Feigs first movie without Melissa McCarthy (The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters) since  2011, also while being his 4th film since then too. *sigh* He is not what I would call and inspired director, as the movie is largely shot as you would a rom-com or his usual fair within the cinema with static camera shots and a film almost entirely filmed from a medium shot, or close ups in a standard 180 back and forth. There were some hints of growth with a POV tracking shot or a slight sideways camera move, but not enough to call the movie thrilling in that aspect. What he can do, and proved in the only other film of his I’ve seen, is still get layered and nuanced performances from his cast. He brought the humor to the edge of too much a few times, but reeled it in at the last second all the while still giving us something to figure out and displaying the changes in our characters as the movie and mystery unfolds.

Kendrick and Lively are perfect together. Their scenes are endearing as you watch these polar opposite characters engage with each other and the evolution of Kendricks character Stephanie through the film. Watching that was truly a joy and so much beyond script and direction comes down to the levels that Anna Kendrick can bring to the screen. Also worth mentioning this is not a Blake Lively performance I have ever seen before and it is absolutely knocked out of the park. No one else in the film comes close, though Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) does his best. He is given more to do here than he was in that film, and the range is there. I would love to see him with a stronger director and different style of film to really understand what he can do. Granted I might be biased as his accent is to die for.

The movie does have its flaws though. As I said the camera work is uninspired and quite honestly, there’s a few things I would have loved to see them have the boldness to do. The pacing is brisk, but the editing is solid. One of the other highlights of the film in the technical aspect is the costuming, when you go see this pay attention to both our main female leads and watch what they wear as there’s very intentional craftsmanship in their costuming and make up through the film.

TL;DR?

This movie is the quiet dark horse of the weekend. It doesn’t cross the line The Predator did by going full comedy-action (in that priority order) and isn’t a historical mob drama, but I think it is quite likely one of the best releases we are going to get this September. This is not a mediocre film by any stretch, its both enjoyable and engaging; while still drawing you into the mystery and the lives of the charactrers. It has intent and effort that should be rewarded.

Should I see it?

Yes. No questions. Yes.

Would you see it again?

Absolutely.

Buying it then? 

No doubts.

You haven’t been this excited in a month; whats up?

The movie does a lot of things that speak to my interests across the board. It tells a story that just grabs me and takes me to the dark places I want to see characters go; even if it keeps on the guard rails. That’s the big flaw, it still is safe; beyond that it had me. I liked it.

Also special thanks to the unofficial girls night that lead to this and the friend who organized it and the other who joined us for the first time. I look forward to future engagements.