At a time when the Disney studios are remaking many of their well-known animated classics into live-action movies, it’s interesting that they chose to bring back the lesser received 1970s film, Pete’s Dragon. However, this is not a case of just repeating the same tale with updated visual effects, but taking the basic premise and creating an entirely new story around it. The 2016 Pete’s Dragon is not a whimsical and cheeky musical like the original but approaches similar themes about friendship and family in a more effectively moving and sentimental way, you may want to bring some tissues with you to the theatre for this one.
The movie opens with a tragic accident that leaves the young protagonist, Pete, orphaned and alone in a vast wilderness. Luckily for Pete a large and friendly dragon, whom he names Elliot, resides in these woods and protects him from the other dangerous wildlife there. Years pass and Pete and Elliot’s fun but solitary lifestyle of playing in the forest is interrupted by the arrival of a logging company venturing deep into their area of the woodlands. At first the pair go undetected, especially since Elliot has a magical camouflaging ability to turn invisible, but soon they both encounter and interact with these strange newcomers which sets off a series of events that threatens to turn their lives upside down forever.
Director David Lowery has crafted an enjoyable family feature that will appeal to both kids and adults alike without relying on the rapid action and witty humour we are used to seeing in the flashy kids films of today. The pacing is slower and thoughtful, the colour palette is muted and green, and there is an almost quaint and old fashioned atmosphere to the production, as if this film was made in the early 1980s rather than 2016. This is obviously on purpose to give the film an almost timeless feel, the movie never dates itself by revealing items such as computers or cell phones, and even the vehicles shown are hard to place.
The story takes place in the United States yet because it was filmed entirely here in New Zealand this setting feels a little bit strange at times. Despite the American accents and prevalence of visible US flags it is hard not to think of this as taking place here in Aotearoa. That said, the landscapes are used beautifully throughout the film evoking a real sense of wild adventure and an isolation that weighs heavily on the story.
The design of Elliot the dragon is actually less in the traditional look of a scaly reptile and more like a boisterous green dog with wings. Considering the strength of the movie is its sentiment, having a large animal with the expressiveness of a lovable dog does tend to help the narrative a lot. The boy they have found to play Pete, Oakes Fegley, rather convincingly plays off against the computer generated dragon making you completely forget that it isn’t actually there on set. Fegley is also good at showing the confusion a feral wild boy like Pete would have when confronted by the human world he lost and re-discovering what it means to be part of a family. While the emotional heart of the film is centred on the relationship between the boy and his dragon, it is Bryce Dallas Howard as the Park Ranger, Grace, that has one of the bigger character arcs of the film and ties all the different story threads and characters together. Other notable standouts in the cast are Robert Redford, sagely playing the grandfatherly figure whom no-one believes saw a dragon in the woods decades earlier, Oona Laurence as a young girl who befriends Pete, and Karl Urban as a brash timber worker who comes into conflict with the dragon.
A few contrivances lurk at the edges of the plot, while most should go over the heads of children, older viewers may find themselves unnecessarily wondering how a child isolated in the woods for years can speak perfect English or what exactly the intentions of the villain for the dragon are and what is motivating him. The movie also hints at an environmental sub-plot about deforestation but then never explores it or comes to a conclusion, preferring to focus more on the central themes about family and conflicted loyalty.
Overall Pete’s Dragon is a charming fantasy that feels familiar in its call-back to kids’ films of the past yet also provides a refreshing change of pace in this current Hollywood climate of cynical money-driven blockbuster product. While it occasionally has some cheesy moments it has a genuine heart to its proceedings, and balances its darker story beats with joyous and rewarding conclusions – it is not to be missed, go along and remind yourself what the magical world of Disney is all about again.
Reviewed by Matt Whyte for Pink&Sparkles
In a career that has spanned 6 decades and 51 films thus far, Woody Allen’s consistent output of cinematic work has led audiences to assess each new film in recent years as either belonging to a batch of good later films (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Blue Jasmine) or relegate them to a list of forgettable poorer efforts (Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man.) Strangely, this 51st cinematic effort falls somewhere in the middle and belongs to neither, harking back to a series of storylines and themes he has explored in the past, but without the energy and vitality that made the earlier films iconic.
Café Society is not only a tale of two cities (Los Angeles and New York) in the 1930s, but also a tale of two Veronicas and how they relate to one man, Jesse Eisenberg’s neurotic Bobby Dorfman. Sent from New York to Los Angeles by his mother to work for his enterprising movie producer Uncle, Phil Stern (a slightly miscast Steve Carrell who at first seems like a caricature of Hollywood moguls before the film humanises him), Bobby observes and engages with the elites of Hollywood glitz and glamour, seeking out purpose and direction to his life and career. To this end he finds a kindred spirit in Vonnie (short for Veronica, and likably played by Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame) who shares a similar love-hate attitude to the lifestyle that exists around them. As events unfold a disillusioned Bobby leaves this world returning to his family in New York to run a nightclub with his gangster brother. Although successful here and now entrenched in the affairs of the café society himself, the latter half of the story finds Bobby’s new existence in New York is always tempered by the consequences of his experiences in Los Angeles.
The movie comes across as a nostalgic love letter to a bygone era, and is easily one of the most sumptuous visual treats Woody Allen has provided us with at the cinema in some time, and is arguably the movie’s strongest selling point. The director’s fascination with the period comes across in spades, from the art deco trappings and attention to detail in the fashions and interiors, to the sun-drenched lens that depicts the lavish and picturesque environments of golden age Hollywood and California, and all to the beat of a jazzy soundtrack setting the scene firmly in the mind of the viewer.
Jesse Eisenberg seems like a natural fit to be a protagonist in one of Allen’s films, with the character of Bobby going from a “deer in the headlights” youth with more than a hint of a Woody Allen impression going on, to a more outwardly confident and successful businessman at the end of the film still plagued by doubt and neuroticism underneath. Kristen Stewart shines in what is, like most of the film, an understated performance and has great chemistry with Jesse Eisenberg (this is the third time these actors have been coupled together on screen.) Vonnie has the usual backstory of a small town girl seeking fame and fortune in Los Angeles yet is still a complex characterisation as the character recognises the superficial aspects of the Hollywood scene without becoming jaded by it. Later in the film Blake Lively might not have the same chemistry with Eisenberg as Stewart does (though this could be on purpose) but does well to make quite an impression on the narrative with only a handful of scenes afforded to her, as her character of Veronica, is of equal importance to the message of the film as Kristen’s much larger role of Vonnie offers. Also of note in the cast is Michael Stoll playing a somewhat humorous take on a murderous 1930s type Mafioso, who solves most of his ‘problems’ by burying them in cement.
While others have rightfully pointed to a variety of previous Allen films as being of a similar ilk as Café Society, the film reminded me a lot of the Michael J. Fox 1987 romantic comedy, The Secret of my Success. In both films a naive but determined youngster leaves home to work for the rich and successful capitalist Uncle, and whilst learning the social skills and establishing a network of business contacts that eventually contribute to their financial success, they become embroiled in a hopeless love triangle. But whereas the 80s film, with all its Wall St and Reaganomics undercurrents, has the protagonist get everything they ever wanted, Café Society has a slightly more grounded and thought-provoking outcome. Framed by a slightly tired-sounding narration by Woody Allen himself, Café Society might not have the spark and vigour of his career highlights, but it still manages to deliver a few zingers and one-liners, and almost certainly will feel like familiar ground for Allen regulars. This film also seems to reflect the maturity of its now octogenarian director, it may have a slower more tepid pace than earlier efforts but in a funny way this kind of aids the more nuanced and complex themes the film is exploring; of yearning for the unattainable, living with the choices one makes and accepting the roads left unexplored. The film concludes with an open ending, not because it wants you to make up your own idea of what will happen next, but rather leading you to inevitably reflect on one’s own life, the paths you took and what might have been.
Reviewed by Matt Whyte for Pink&Sparkles
Marvel Studios has been successfully leading the charge in taking movie audiences on an ambitious and grand experiment in world-building that has already made a massive cultural impact in the way we approach film franchises. Taking their cues from the vast catalogue of Marvel comic book titles, a plethora of heroic tales and disparate story genres, all presented through an array of different directorial visions, has been steadily guided by the studio towards one inter-connected and unified super-story. This year sees the introduction of Doctor Steven Strange and his bizarre world of mysticism and magic upon this increasingly diverse cinematic universe.
Doctor Strange is capably directed by Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and tells the story of an arrogant and brilliant neurosurgeon who is involved in a terrible accident that renders him unable to carry on his practice. Seeking a cure to his afflictions he encounters an order of Sorcerers who offer him an altogether different path to take in life and a higher calling, but not one without all new perils and dangers to overcome. With shades of the Harry Potter series present while Strange is taught how to access and use magic, the movie eventually moves on and begins to resemble The Matrix as it combines martial arts with exploring the edges of reality and what lies beyond. Due to the scope of the ideas the movie is trying to explain there is admittedly a lot of expository dialogue in this film yet for the most part it is never dull, and subsequently paced with a lot of frenetic action and light-hearted humour to give the film a good sense of fun and momentum.
Aside from a slightly slipping American accent from the English actor, Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting as the title character is perfect. Cumberbatch confidently embodies the brash and headstrong Doctor Strange, and has the ability to believably take us from overly self-assured genius, to the melodramatic broken shell he becomes after his accident and back to a cocky messianic saviour of humankind by film’s end. Similarly, the supporting cast all around him are more than up for the task with Tilda Swinton being a standout as the enigmatic Sorcerer Supreme, The Ancient One, evoking traces of Yoda, Morpheus and many other wise old mentors seen in film over the years. Rachel McAdams provides some emotional heart to the movie, and gets to partake in one delightful action scene where she tries to conduct life-saving surgery whilst an invisible battle on the astral plane is raging around her and interfering with her operating theatre equipment.
Unfortunately, as is often the way with these busy origin stories, the villain is left a little under-developed as there is so much other material to cover and establish for the story to make sense. That said, Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius is at least afforded a backstory scene that justifies his evil motives but he never really feels like an overly menacing presence in the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong round out the cast with both playing strong, warrior sidekicks that aid in Strange’s occult teaching and later cosmic conflicts. For an Oscar nominated actor of his calibre, Ejiofor does come across as under used in this film, but it seems they were deliberately holding back on purpose as it is clear he will play a much bigger part in future instalments. Also of note, is one last charming character, the seemingly sentient Cloak of Levitation that becomes Dr. Strange’s cape, a CGI creation that seems heavily reminiscent of the playful Magic Carpet from the classic 1992 Disney animated feature, Aladdin.
In addition to the excellent cast, the digital effects in this film are spectacular, and may warrant splashing out to see it in a 3D session. While the characters are able to call forth glowing, floating spells and turn them into portals, weapons and useful items, visually they are equivalent to what we’ve seen with the holographic technology seen in these movies before. But beyond this the Sorcery in the film can manipulate time and space, conjuring up kaleidoscopic mirror universes and multi-dimensional realms interweaving with our own, with the movie boasting some pretty impressive visuals that bring to mind the mathematical illusions of M. C. Escher’s artworks, psychedelic sixties graphics and the interweaving gravity-defying dream architecture of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This aspect of Doctor Strange is probably the biggest drawcard for seeing the film, and the newest and most refreshing element the movie brings to the rather familiar trappings of the superhero genre.
Strangely, despite all these good points the film’s parts may have ended up being greater than the whole. The plot and character arc of the protagonist are both familiar to audiences by now and similar to many previous Marvel titles, especially Ironman and its character of Tony Stark. But while not offering anything that is particularly refreshing or off-brand to the formulaic Marvel storytelling blueprint, Doctor Strange is still a compelling supernatural romp and the new ‘magical’ contributions it offers to the larger Marvel Universe may yet have an even more entertaining pay-off in later movies from the brand. The grand experiment continues and with this movie another significant piece of the Marvel puzzle has fallen into place at last – the result is magic.
Reviewed by Matt Whyte for Pink&Sparkles
It’s been awhile since we last compiled a Movie Edit. It’s been quite hectic at the Pink&Sparkles HQ. Thank you to Matt Whyte for his latest contributions to our website. Today, I am heading to the advance screening of Nocturnal Animals directed by one of my favourite designers Tom Ford. I am looking forward to it. What have you seen lately at the movies?