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Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Petes-Dragon-PosterI have no personal love for the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon. I thought you, dear reader, deserved to know this morsel. I never felt a sense of wonder from the animated dragon creating mischief while a town tried to rid itself of an orphan and a bunch of hillbillies sang an ode to child abuse (it was a different time?). Disney has gotten into the self-cannibalizing habit of dipping into its own past and remaking its animated hits for a new generation of moviegoers. It worked splendidly with last spring’s Jungle Book, and the new version of Pete’s Dragon is further proof that when Disney aligns the right artist with a vision and gives them latitude to express that vision, rewards are generously reaped. This is a delightful, heartwarming, and enchanting summer movie that got me crying.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy who lives in the wooded reservations with one very special friend, a furry green dragon he has named Eliot. He’s been living in the woods for six years after Eliot rescued him following a car accident that claimed the lives of Pete’s parents. One day a park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), comes across Pete and brings him back into town for medical evaluation. He’s a mystery child, a bit feral, and demands to return home into the woods. Grace incites Pete into her home and her family, but there are worries about the boy acclimating to society. All the while Eliot is looking for his best friend and mournful that they might have to part ways after all.

peter-et-elliott-le-dragon-peter-et-elliott-962309Pete’s Dragon is a simple story but this is not a detriment to its ultimate effectiveness. Rather the filmmakers take care to treat this childhood fable with enough heart and earnest emotion that the movie feels fully developed to its aims. The characters and their journeys aren’t exactly revolutionary, but I didn’t mind at all. This is an old-fashioned family film told without irony and set in a nondescript past that adds to the universal appeal of its message. It’s elegantly simple but there are poignant themes running under the surface, namely an unmistakable level of melancholy with Pete’s process of growing up. This feels like Disney’s version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a movie that examines the hard but necessary transitions of childhood and the acceptance of a sort of loss among the fantastic. This movie isn’t consumed with a dour interpretation of childhood as an oppressively hellish existence of misunderstanding (I didn’t connect with Where the Wild Things Are if you couldn’t tell) but it does acknowledge a loneliness of being absent a family to call your own. Pete’s life with Eliot is filled with boyish excitement and adventure but he knows he can’t hold onto that world much longer, and this realization magnifies the remaining time with Eliot. From start to finish, Pete’s’ Dragon is bursting with warmth and resonant emotions.

I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that this film delivered. Not since perhaps Pixar’s Up has a movie so effectively triggered my sympathies in its opening ten minutes. In a beautiful yet tastefully restrained sequence, Pete becomes an orphan and is rescued by Eliot, and the vulnerability and compassion of this moment already had me tearing up. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the “boy and his dog” stories, and while Eliot is a special dragon by design he is, at his core, a rendition of man’s best friend. Their relationship is one of love, companionship, and protection. They’re a pack. When Eliot spots Pete cozy in a family house, he’s crestfallen but accepts that a placement in the human world is where Pete belongs. And then at the end after a fraught situation, Pete instinctively runs to Eliot and leaps into his arms, and Eliot takes him in, holding him dearly, and it was at this point that I couldn’t stop the flow of tears even if I wanted to. Happy tears, people. The takeaway of the film is the formative bonds of family and the need to reach out for that nourishing companionship. While it’s highly emotional, it’s all earned and avoids cheap maudlin, manipulative theatrics, short of one extended sequence of Eliot’s capture.

I never would have expected such an old-fashioned yet preternaturally charming movie from the team responsible for the somber indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Director/co-writer David Lowery is locked-in with its goals and finds ways to build its characters through small, cumulative actions. The film also has a marvelous sense of place as get a strong feel for everyday life in this foggy Pacific Northwest environment. Contributing to that sense is a terrific soundtrack of low-key folk songs that thrum with a lovely homespun gentleness that taps into the earthy magic of its setting. The score strings-heavy by Daniel Hart is perfectly attuned to the emotional rhythms of the film without becoming overbearing. The photography is often gorgeous and the editing near invisible with how effortlessly it presents its story with room to breathe. There’s a standout sequence that highlights just how well all of these individual elements come together to form a greater whole. Pete escapes from the town’s hospital and desperately runs outside. He is dazed by the activity of the modern world and the geography of the town, and the residents of this town are just as dazed about Pete, a wild child exploring his alien surroundings. He hops aboard a school bus and the children inside are amazed at Pete’s daredevil antics. The chase sequence is set to the Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows” and it builds upon the sense of discovery, community, and mutual awe. It’s a wonderful sequence that develops patiently.

Part of the success of the movie is also due to the skill and implementation of the special effects team. Eliot is a cuddly creature you want to take home with you yet he can still be intimidating under the right circumstances. He’s on screen a lot but his magical qualities don’t diminish. This is one highly communicative dragon and it’s easy to empathize with him (those exquisitely emotive canine eyes help). There’s a tenderness to him that convinces the audience early on to take a journey with Eliot and see what happens next.

The human specimens are heartfelt and enjoyable as well. Ostensibly the main character, his name is in the title after all, the role of Pete rests on the tiny shoulders of actor Oakes Fegley, and he aces the part, tapping into the rougher, wilder edge while also selling the dramatic moments in a clear relation to his interpretation of the character. The next main character is Howard (Jurassic World) and she’s quite good. She gives a maternal performance that doesn’t go overboard while still allowing her to come across as an independent, thinking woman with her own desire for proof of the fantastical. She has several tender moments with Fegley. The actors all perform ably. Even West Bentley (TV’s American Horror Story) works well in the movie, and when was the last time that could be said? Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) is enjoyably hammy as the villain who’s not much of a villain. I wish Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) was in more scenes because his grandfatherly presence is so enjoyable to watch and he so easily slides into the part.

Disney is two-for-two when it comes to 2016 live-action remakes of its old catalogue, and if The Jungle Book and now Pete’s Dragon are any indication, then bring on the remakes. The original Pete’s Dragon was never a memorable or enjoyable film for me, so there was already much to improve upon, which is what the new version does in every way. It’s poignant, heartwarming, earnest, and bursting with feeling. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well with artistry and grace. There’s a dash of indie flavor to the mainstream filmmaking. I think this movie will appeal to people of all ages, grown ups that are looking for some magic in their movies, as well as families looking for a movie that will entertain children but won’t rot their brains. It’s fortunate that we can end such a mediocre summer at the movies on a high note, and Pete’s Dragon is a wonderful infusion of the old and new, magic and reality, heartache and triumph. It’s a movie dripping with purity, and one that demands to be seen and hopefully cherished.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Capt2-Payoff-1-Sht-v8-Lg-c563dA welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second Captain America film brings the square superhero to our modern-day and presents a complicated national setting where the enemy is the U.S government. The challenge with a Captain America (played by Chris Evans) movie is just how outdated his whole sensibility seems, an irony-free nationalistic hero. Smartly, the filmmakers have pushed his loyalties to the test, and the movie transforms into something along the lines of a Jason Bourne thriller, where the government is hunting down a rogue fugitive. It’s certainly the most timely superhero film since 2008’s The Dark Knight, and the political commentary on the NSA spying and drones is a welcome big screen subversion. But the action is still what people come for and in that the Winter Soldier is quite an entertaining movie. Directed by the Russo brothers, known mostly for their comedy work in TV like Community, the movie packs quite a punch with a variety of action/thriller sequences, each well staged and well developed. My favorite might be Nick Fury under assault and desperate to escape in his car from overwhelming enemy forces. An opening sequence rescuing hostages on a boat serves as a great reminder why Captain America is indeed so super. The movie does have some issues but nothing so large as to derail the enjoyment. First off the villain is way too obvious, but also the movie lets the U.S. government off the hook, falling back on a select evil group that has been undercover perverting the government. Secondly, the Winter Soldier of the title is one plotline that doesn’t feel needed or well integrated. It’s another super soldier for Cap to combat and this guy has a mysterious link to our hero. It feels like one plotline too many, a story that deserves better attention on its own. Still, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an engaging, thrilling, intelligent, and altogether entertaining addition into Marvel’s sprawling cinematic canvas.

Nate’s Grade: B+

All is Lost (2013)

all-is-lost-webposterJ.C. Chandor, nominated for an Oscar for writing Margin Call, chose a curious follow-up. In All is Lost, Chandor serves as writer/director and takes acting legend Robert Redford, strands him in the middle of the ocean, and watches him flounder. Considering Margin Call was heavily dialogue-driven, it’s an interesting detour to a nearly wordless film. Redford plays an older sea-faring gentleman who discovers one morning that his boat has been damaged by a floating shipping container. He has to repair the hole and take inventory of his remaining supplies. As his boat takes on more water, being battered by storms, Redford must strive to reach a shipping lane as his best bet to be rescued.

all-is-lost-robert-redford-02-600-370Allow me to furor my brow at the reception All is Lost has gotten thus far. It’s not a bad movie but when you boil it down it’s a rendition of The Old Man and the Sea minus, you know, the giant fish. I knew going in that the film was going to be minimalist, but I didn’t think it would be this dull. It is literally a guy manning a boat for 90 minutes, patching things up, with the situation getting worse. Then he’s in a raft. Then he’s low on supplies. Then, well, it ends pretty much how you’d expect though with a flicker of ambiguity for the squeamish. The drama of human survival, of man against nature, can be plenty invigorating, but instead Chandor takes a more leisurely and studiously pessimistic approach, and so we watch Redford slowly fail. The filmmaking can barely keep your interest. He hoists the sale. He tends a hole in his boat. He salvages electronics. There are a couple of choppy storms that throw the ship around, but The Perfect Storm this isn’t. Nor is it Open Water. There is a certain brainy enjoyment from survival thrillers, thinking alongside the characters, but our opportunities are absent here unless you know a thing or two about sailing, otherwise I just kept thinking, “fix the hole in your boat.” It takes a good while, until the third act when Redford is forced to abandon his sinking vessel, before the perilous reality seems to settle in. Beforehand it feels like the film is dawdling, and I just found myself shrugging and growing restless. It feels callow of me to complain that not enough happens onscreen when I’m watching a man struggle to survive at sea, but that’s because the sense of urgency is nil. I watched Redford eat beans out of a can more than I saw him sweat over his predicament. I wish Redford had been paired with a tiger or a volleyball for decent screen company.

This is very much a one-man show with Redford ably holding the screen, but will you care about his character and his plight? The character is nonexistent, far more so than the similar charge against the other awards-friendly survival thriller, Gravity. I always felt like I was observing Redford from a distance, never fully emotionally engaged, and more so just studying his survival skills like there might be a test later. That’s because Redford serves as a metaphorical stand-in for all of humanity (the character’s listed name is “Our Man”); the movie feels replete with allegory, which makes the tedium all the more unbearable for me. I didn’t feel the man’s horror or nerves or despair or urgency. I didn’t feel much of anything. That’s because I believe that Redford’s acting history is meant to fill in for the absence of character. We’re not watching any man brave the dangers of the ocean, we’re watching the aging Hollywood screen idol dig into his own screen history and showcase what remains. It’s a fine performance that kept me watching but it felt too modulated, too controlled, too internalized to translate the myriad of emotions necessary. It’s 90 minutes of Redford standing in for himself standing in for humanity, named “Our Guy,” remember. That already sounds laborious.

movie-reviews-All-is-LostChandor received notoriety for his smart, hard-hitting Mamet-esque dialogue, and deft handling of actors, but All is Lost showcases a whole other set of skills in his storyteller toolbox. Being nearly wordless, the movie is one giant exercise in visual storytelling. Chandor’s camera angles, editing, and in particular the use of sound and lighting, keep the audience oriented smoothly. While it may take a moment to gauge what Redford is doing, there is a logical connection to his actions. There’s a visual mastery here that was not even hinted at with Margin Call, which was mostly a stage play of boardroom conversations put on film. The special effects are seamlessly integrated into the film and having Redford perform many of his own stunts adds to the overall verisimilitude, the film’s calling card. I feel like Chandor the director outdid Chandor the writer.

All is Lost is a film I can better respect than support, an intellectual exercise in a deteriorating and seemingly doomed survival scenario, the anti-Cast Away. It’s probably as realistic as these things get, but does that make it interesting? The details of reality are there but the story and especially the character work is lagging. It’s nice to see Redford with such a meaty part, and obviously one he is connecting with, but I wish his talents were put to greater non-metaphorical purposes. With the plot and characterization stripped, it appears that Chandor’s film is rife for allegorical analysis, noting the struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, the futility of existence, etc. To me, that sounds like you’re doing the movie’s work for it. The overall lack of urgency just wrings out what entertainment there could have been with this tale of survival. When your main character doesn’t recognize the threat, then that transfers to the audience, and we too shrug. All is Lost is certainly well made from a technical standpoint, with Chandor showing impressive visual storytelling prowess, but it drags and offers little incentive to connect. What ends up being lost is your patience and attention.

Nate’s Grade: B-

An Unfinished Life (2005)

Einar (Robert Redford) is a gruff  rancher living with his long-time friend and ranch hand, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who has been recovering from a bear mauling. Jean (Jennifer Lopez) and her young daughter (Becca Gardner) have run away from her abusive boyfriend and seeking temporary refuge with Einar. There’s still a lot of tension and unspoken anger between the two. Einar blames Jean for the death of his son from a car accident. As their stay continues each member imparts wisdom to the other, hard exteriors get warmed, and lessons about forgiveness are learned.

This is melodrama with a capital M. An Unfinished Life is clunky, the movie hasn’t the foggiest idea when it comes to subtlety, the characters all shout out their feelings all the time, and worse yet, it’s also incredibly transparent. A scene where Lopez breaks a dish and Redford goes nuts is just too much. Of course they’re talking about his dead son but the moment is played to the hilt that I half expected every line to end in a wink (“It’s just a dish” wink “Maybe it’s more than a dish to me!” wink “Maybe that was my favorite dish!” wink). Honestly, it was at this point that the film lost me. The metaphors are another symptom of the film’s overly ramped-up obviousness; Redford might as well be pointing at the bear to pantomime that it?s supposed to represent his pain and anger. And Freeman’s eventual forgiveness of his attacker is meant to encroach upon Redford to do likewise to the source of his pain, and many other moviegoers, Jennifer Lopez. I cannot find a movie emotionally involving when it doesn’t even bother to mask its grand statements.

Seriously, this movie is brimming with sprawling earnestness meant to cover the narrative shortcomings. This is a simple tale that could have suckered the audience in with its framework to showcase complex characters and their personal interactions, like a Million Dollar Baby, but even though An Unfinished Life is simplistic it still manages to beat you over the head. Every line of significance is underlined so you get it. It’s like director Lasse Hallstrom was making a seething parody of these overarching, small-town, large cast, homesy feel-good flicks he’s specialized in for a decade.

The acting is all fine. Redford is fun to watch and get his Jeremiah Johnson back on. Lopez makes you forget how much you hate her in other movies. Freeman is settling into a weird groove as a disfigured narrator. The acting of the ensemble really isn’t the issue with An Unfinished Life.

Despite all its earnest intentions and lush scenery, An Unfinished Life is too much melodrama squeezed into such a small space. It’s an old fashioned tale that feels too convenient, too simplistic, too perfunctory, and too unhappy with being any of those things. This feels like a Hallmark card turned into a movie by someone who has no grasp for human emotion. Everything is shouted when it needs to be a whisper and explained when it needs to just be experienced. And yet there will be an audience for this slow burn small-town tale of forgiveness and accountability. It may please people immensely, but I prefer a little subtlety to my drama. I won’t say the film is bad but I’ll never say An Unfinished Life is particularly good, even as melodrama.

Nate’s Grade: C

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