FlixChatter Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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I always try to keep a neutral expectation going into a film, and it’s a lot easier when I didn’t know much about that particular movie. I had no idea that Pete’s Dragon was a remake of the 1977 movie until days before I saw it, and I didn’t see the original (which is apparently a live-action musical mixed with animated elements). Well, thankfully the constantly-advancing CGI technology enables this live-action version to have a pretty realistic looking dragon.

Now, great CGI alone does not make a movie, but Pete’s Dragon has an engaging story, lovable characters and so much heart. The movie opens with young Pete on a road trip with his parents. I knew somehow things would go wrong and it did. The car crash claimed his parents’ lives, leaving Pete (Oakes Fegley) all alone in the woods… until he found a new friend. I’m surprised how it didn’t take long before we see the creature in the title role, which Pete named Elliot. He’s not a scary, slithery dragon like The Hobbit‘s Smaug nor the ones in Game of Thrones. Elliot is a green fury dragon who can fly and breathe fire, but yet gentle and huggable. In other words, I fell in love with Elliot instantly, the same way I did with Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon.

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Now, the friendship that developed between Pete and Elliot wasn’t shown in the same manner as HTTYD. After that initial meet-up when little Pete climbs into Elliot’s huge paw, we meet them six years later and they’re already BFFs. The scenes of them hanging out in the woods reminds me a lot of Disney’s recent The Jungle Book with Pete as a Mowgli-like character. But of course the story is quite different and none of the animals can talk here, neither does Elliot. Like in Jungle Book, you also can’t overthink about how a child survives in the woods being raised by an animal.

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Elliot’s become kind of a local folklore (kind of like the Lochness monster). Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) is practically the only one who still talks about it, despite being teased by his skeptical daughter, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). It’s when Grace ends up running into Pete, and taking him back to civilization that the real action begins. Grace bonds immediately with Pete, who shares her wide-eyed wonder of her beloved woods, and so is her step-daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). For the first time Pete has someone his own age to hang out with. There’s little resistance on his part to live amongst humans, but it’s obvious he misses his fury friend. Elliot too, misses Pete, and the moment he watches Pete hanging out with Grace’s family from the window tugs my heartstrings.

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Pete’s Dragon is set in the 80s, so naturally it conjures up images of Spielberg’s family movies. Interestingly, Spielberg’s latest The BFG left me underwhelmed & quite bored. But what David Lowery did here captured my imagination as well as my heart in equal measure. I cry easily in movies but I’ve never cried so much like I did here. I literally sobbed watching some of the scenes. The story isn’t original and predictable at times, but I was transported into another world and was caught up in the journey of the characters. It’s quite a feat since he hasn’t made a family feature before and his last feature effort was the R-rated crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

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Oakes Fegley is wonderful as Pete, and there’s so much believable chemistry between him and the CGI character Elliot. Redford adds gravitas in the role, but also has a memorable scene towards the end that makes up for his rather small screentime. Howard fares so much better here than in the other big Summer movie featuring large creatures Jurassic World. The closest to a film’s antagonist is Karl Urban‘s lumberjack Gavin, who seems rather silly and even childish as he saw Elliot as a threat but then later became very possessive of him. But I like Urban as an actor and he looks really good in his lumberjack outfit (ehm), plus Gavin did redeem himself in the end. It’s Wes Bentley who isn’t given much to do here as Gavin’s brother/Grace’s fiancé.

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The New Zealand scenery is absolutely breathtaking. For a film that utilizes a lot of CGI for the dragon scenes, it looks pretty natural and organic throughout, with seamless mix between the dragon & humans. The music by Daniel Hart helps enhance the emotional factor of the movie, though not quite as memorable as John Powell‘s in HTTYD.

So yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed Pete’s Dragon. As Pete and Elliot take flight through the clouds, my heart literally soars along with it. Easily one of my favorite movies this Summer that I certainly won’t mind watching again and again.

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What do you think of ‘Pete’s Dragon?’

Trailer Spotlight: Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ starring Christian Bale

I don’t usually post a trailer spotlight so early in the week, but I’ve been waiting for this movie since back in 2011! Knight of Cups was also on my most-anticipated films of 2013, alas it’s Terrence Malick we’re talking about here. But looks like we WILL see this one in 2015 as apparently the film will now open at Berlinale, Berlin Film Festival, next February.

I was already sold on this film when they cast Christian Bale and the incomparable Cate Blanchett. There’s something about Bale’s look in this film that really appeals to me. At the time, all that’s known about the premise is that it’s the story of a man, temptations, celebrity, and excess. Check out the trailer:


Well, per Deadline we’ve not got the full synopsis:

“Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep. Rick’s father used to read this story to him as a boy. The road to the East stretches out before him. Will he set forth?”

I must say I’m quite mesmerized by the trailer. But then again, Malick’s films are always chock full of gorgeous, poetic and evocative imagery. He’s working with his longtime cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki again so we can expect another visual spectacle.

Somehow though, this one doesn’t seem as cryptic as his previous films. The story seems to be a cautionary tale or even just a commentary about the repercussion of hedonistic lifestyle.

“You don’t want love… you want to love… experience.”

“You have love in you… I know it.” 

Of course with Malick, he tends to communicate via metaphors and such, so who really knows how accessible and comprehensible this film is.

With the bass-heavy paired with all kinds of debauchery and decadence in the first half, and later with a more soul-stirring classical style, it’s such a beautifully-cut trailer that I hope the film itself will live up to. As I’m watching it, it made me think that Malick should perhaps do a short film. I think if you take out all the reflective long shots, this story could potentially be told under 20 min. Heck, given his penchant for leaving so much stuff in the cutting room floor, you’d think short films would be his forte.

The cast is pretty eclectic, though some of them are barely featured in the trailer. For sure we’ve got Natalie PortmanJason Clarke and I hear Antonio Banderas‘ voice on there. The rest: Brian Dennehy, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Armin Mueller-Stahl and apparently, the voice of Ben Kingsley.

I’ve seen four of Malick’s films so far and I actually like all of them to varying degrees. Even though I didn’t quite comprehend Tree of Life, there are still a lot to like about it and I appreciate Malick’s poetic style. That reminds me, I should rent To The Wonder at some point. So yeah, I guess you could say I’m anticipating this now, even more so than before.


What do you think of this trailer? 

TCFF 2014 Day 3 Reviews: These Hopeless Savages, 3 Nights in the Desert, The Well and House of Manson

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The festivities continues at Twin Cities Film Fest! Weekends are always super busy at the Showplace ICON Theatres at the West End, but even more so with all the hustle and bustle of the TCFF crowds. A bunch of Midwest Premieres took place last night, featuring Q&A following films such as These Hopeless Savages, Old Fashioned, BFFs, The Well, and a huge cast & crew in attendance for the first of two sold out screening of House of Manson.


The second screening of House of Manson on Monday night at 9:30pm is already SOLD OUT … but, no fret, TCFF will have a RUSH LINE available for every “sold out” screening. We typically are able to accommodate anyone waiting in line. So, before you decide not to come, please do consider the Rush Line! The Rush Line is located across from the TCFF Offices on the Main Level of the Shops at West End, right below the theater lobby.


Now here are the reviews from Day 3…

These Hopeless Savages

Similar to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), These Hopeless Savages is a road movie doubling as a relationship drama. In this case, the focus is on Shawn (co-director/co-producer/co-writer/star Sean Christopher Lewis) and Greg (co-writer/star Matt Delapina), childhood friends who have lost touch over the years. Shawn believes he’s won $50,000, which he can claim by traveling from New York to Iowa, and he wants Greg’s help. Though Greg doubts the money’s authenticity, he agrees, for personal reasons, and the two embark in Shawn’s sedan. These Hopeless Savages documents their cross-country journey, along which they encounter several eccentric characters.

In so doing, the film is often funny, particularly in scene’s including Greg’s girlfriend, Nicki (Mackenzi Meehan). Meehan’s deadpan delivery and her chemistry with Delapina are both striking, indeed so much so that she is the film’s greatest merit. Which is saying something, because the cast is universally strong. The picture’s visual style is impressive, as well; directors Kaitlyn Busbee and Lewis use minimalist camera movements and wide image frames to create a realistic tone, one which helps push forward the plot.

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Unfortunately, These Hopeless Savages stumbles at various points. First, we never understand why Shawn believes the $50,000 actually exists. Unlike Nebraska’s Woody, Shawn’s mental faculties are not deteriorating, so what gives him such confidence? It helps that Lewis and Delapina, as writers, hint, at various points, that the money isn’t Shawn’s actual motivation, but the idea is undercooked and then contradicted when the protagonists reach their destination. Moreover, neither of these characters change. They start emotionally damaged, and they end that way. They start with particular character flaws, and they end with the same. Their stories feel unfinished, even in a picture less about individuals than relationships.

For all of that, These Hopeless Savages has enough humor, good acting and quality directing to make it immersive and entertaining. It is far from great, but it is also far from bad.   

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The Well

Though too predictable and too faithful to genre, The Well, is filled with enchanting cinematography and even more atmospheric intensity. The picture, which is written by Jacob Forman and director Thomas S. Hammock, depicts an apocalyptic world fatally short on water. Living in this world is Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson, excellent), who struggles to rebuild an airplane while simultaneously caring for her ill childhood friend, Dean (Booboo Stewart, even better than Richardson) and a youth named Alby (Max Charles, underused), whom she’s found living alone. She must also fend off many rivals, some of them in search of water, and some of them employees of a nefarious company.

In part because of the actor playing her, Kendal makes a compelling protagonist, but she is not the most interesting character here. That is the primary villain, Carson (played empathetically by Jon Gries), who is layered by love for his daughter, Brooke (Nicole Fox) and remorse. When Carson and Kendal finally speak to each other, it is a riveting scene, indeed, one that rewards the viewer with fascinating dialogue between two multi-dimensional characters.

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Hammock’s visuals are just as rewarding, as is his ability to create tension, both through audio and image frames. At times, The Well’s obviously low budget hurts the picture, especially when Hammock uses CGI to create blood or fire, but mostly the director overcomes financial limitations.

A handful of exposition-heavy scenes between Carson and Brooke prove bigger flaws. As does Brooke’s characterization. She is so underdeveloped as to be almost senseless. Finally, during what should be the film’s most impacting moments, Kendal successfully hides from her enemies, but only because Carson doesn’t follow previous patterns of behavior. In another should-be-impacting sequence Kendal behaves differently than she has before. These moments border on character breaking, and thereby disengage the viewer, at least for a time.

Still, The Well succeeds far more than it fails. It deserves a recommendation.

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Check out FlixChatter’s exclusive interview w/ Haley Lu Richardson as she discussed getting her part in her feature film debut, and the challenges of filming The Well.


3 Nights in the Desert 

A middling drama about old friends/bandmates reuniting after several years without contact, 3 Nights in the Desert neither impresses nor offends. It simply exists.

Tax attorney Barry (Vincent Piazza) and musician Anna (Amber Tamblyn) travel to the California desert, where their defunct band’s former guitarist, Travis (Wes Bentley), now lives. Ostensibly the three are fulfilling a long-ago promise to collectively celebrate their thirtieth birthdays, but Travis has a manipulative motive, Anna has personal issues never fully explained, and Barry doesn’t want to admit he pines for the past, even while he also rages at it.

All three actors do well with what they’re given, especially Tamblyn, who makes an underdeveloped character feel almost real. Unfortunately, writer Adam Chanzit and director Gabriel Cowan don’t give them much. First, the characters are sketches, not multi-dimensional figures. Second, the plot is boilerplate, offering a standard love-triangle, and equally standard reflection on idealism versus pragmatism. Some forced symbolism and a repeated metaphor (a supposedly mystical cave) don’t help either.

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Yet, 3 Nights in the Desert isn’t bad. Sure the opening voice over explains relationship dynamics Chanzit and Cowan would have been wise to show us, and sure nothing here surprises or enlightens, but the actors still capture attention, the occasional music is quite good, and the picture’s pacing (a run time just over eighty minutes) is crisp enough to ensure the narrative never grows stale. Plus, the director and his crew skillfully photograph some gorgeous California scenery.

In the end, do I recommend 3 Nights in the Desert? Not really. But it needn’t be avoided either.

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House of Manson 

House of Manson is a film that chronicles the life of Charles Manson and focuses in on the events leading up to and including the Sharon Tate murders of 1969. Unlike other Charles Manson biopics that focus in on the sex or the over the top nature of the Tate murder, this one focuses in Charles Manson’s influence and connection with his followers, the Manson family as they call themselves.

Charles Manson is portrayed by Minnesota born actor Ryan Kiser, who returns for the second year in a row to Twin Cities Film Fest. Last year Kiser co-starred in the horror film Truth or Dare and this year he brings the fest the world premiere of House of Manson. Kiser approached the character in a very serious tone and does a fantastic job conveying the crazy yet brilliant way Charles Manson was able to draw followers into his cult.

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Devanny Pinn co-stars as one of Manson’s followers Susan Atkins and gives a chilling performance as her screen presence is freaky. Pinn truly becomes Atkins on screen as the facial reactions make you think this women is completely off her rocker and has no moral compass at all.  An overall amazing performance by Pinn.

This film does suffer from some technical flaws as the sound isn’t completely smoothed and could use some more attention by a sound mixer. The filmmakers even admitted in a Q&A following the world premiere that some of the sound transitions were going to need to be looked at. The film also has a saturated look that doesn’t look completely intentional. The image doesn’t pop off the screen as some movies do that have a more crisp and sharp look to it.

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Overall, the film is a great portrayal of the events surrounding the infamous Charles Manson. It doesn’t get too crude or violent as previous films about the same subject matter, it takes the source material as it is and conveys the story in a very tasteful matter. With a great cast and direction by Brandon Slagle, House of Manson is definitely worth checking out when it later finds distribution.

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Stay tuned for reviews from Day 4!


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Individual tickets are on sale now at twincitiesfilmfest.org


Have you seen any of these films? What did you think?