Pete’s Dragon (2016)

PeteDirector: David Lwery

Screenwriters: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban

Disney’s gluttonous onslaught of reimagined live-action reboots hits a new milestone with Pete’s Dragon, a remake of the 1977 film of the same name. Just four months after the release of the monumentally successful Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon represents the first time the studio has released two remakes of its classic films in one calendar year! Still, as easy as it is to view these remakes as a withered corpse of lost inspiration dressed up as a gift to a new generation, I must put my snarkiness aside and admit that Pete’s Dragon is another solid entry on the remake roster.

Pete’s Dragon tells the story of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who while lost in the forest discovers and befriends a mythical dragon whom Pete names Elliot. Pete and Elliot live and thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for six years before Pete stumbles upon lumberjacks cutting deep into the woods near where he and Elliot live. When Pete is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence) the young daughter of one of the workers, she chases him into the forest and during the chase nearly falls from a tree and screams causing her father Jack (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) to arrive on the scene. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) accidentally knocks Pete unconscious leading them to take him to the hospital and in turn, abandon Elliot in the woods alone. Now apart for the first time in years, Elliot an enormous, green, furry fire-breathing dragon leaves the woods in search of his lost friend. Meanwhile Pete is invited to stay with Jack and Grace and discovers that Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have seen a dragon once long ago. Trouble brews as Elliot is spotted by Gavin who sees nothing but dollar signs if he can somehow capture himself a dragon!

Pete’s Dragon was directed by David Lowery, whose most notable film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) couldn’t be more thematically distant from this film. However, Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make family films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999, Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from 2015, or more recently Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. These films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors, and Lowery benefits from this, creating a beautiful film and a grounded fable with good performances. Also, the dragon is nicely realized here. In 1977 the limits of technology forced the dragon to be a hand-drawn cartoon inserted into a live-action film. Here the dragon is created with cutting edge CGI to make it feel more immersed allowing the narrative to not use the dragon as a distracting novelty, but a realistic presence resulting in a richer cinematic experience.

So given all of the classic films produced by Disney studios over the years, you have to wonder, why Pete’s Dragon? Is it the dated aspect of the original film? Could it be the popularity of Game of Thrones and its dragonesque motifs? Maybe it’s because it was a good candidate for Disney to show us another child victimized by the sudden and tragic death of parental figures after Cinderella (2015) and Jungle Book (2016)? Quite honestly, Pete’s Dragon may be the best candidate to benefit from a remake thus far. Lowery is the first to truly deviate from the source film’s major story points. Pete’s Dragon has more in common with King Kong or Free Willy than it does with the 1977 original, which was basically a goofy musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…with a dragon. Lowery casts a deep, fantasy-laden tone here; the film is more a sum of its parts than the original film’s more segmented feel. Additionally, the 1977 film is more obscure than Cinderella or The Jungle Book, and it received far more polarizing reviews than either of these films, making it ripe for a makeover. Still, while Pete’s Dragon was perhaps most worthy of a remake treatment, it is still a pretty safe movie in any regard. Plot points come fast and predictably, emotional turning points are crowbarred in manipulatively, and Bryce Dallas Howard once again wears unflattering clothing while facing off with enormous presumably extinct reptilian creatures. Any way you look at it, the previous remakes have been based on older and/or obscure Disney films. Next up, we have Beauty and the Beast in early 2017, which is neither old nor obscure, so the pressure’s on. B

Pete’s Dragon is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

ImageJust as Spidey is swinging back into theaters for, doubtless, another big opening at the box office, The People’s Critic is just getting a chance to write up the Spring’s first big blockbuster. That’s right, Cap is back, and in a big, big way! Remember when Sam Raimi’s Spiderman came out, and everyone was saying, “Now that is how you make a comic book movie!”? But then The Dark Knight came out and everyone said, “No wait, now that is how you make a comic book movie!” Taking nothing away from Spiderman, The Dark Knight, or the other entries in the Marvel franchise, I would like to formally invite Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the conversation because this is how you make a comic book movie!

To begin with, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a terrific political conspiracy thriller in the style of Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View except with superheroes and a bigger budget. I can honestly say that anyone can enjoy this film even without previous knowledge of other Marvel franchise films. I can say this because I took my mother to the film and she loved it. For those of you who know my mother’s skepticism to all things “comic,” that should send you to the theater immediately.

For those of you who don’t know my mother or need even more motivation, now I’m speaking to you. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the follow-up to Joe Johnston’s 2011 film, Captain America: The First Avenger. The sequel, exquisitely directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, finds “Cap” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finally adjusting to life in the 21st century. Still an active member of S.H.I.E.L.D, Rogers continues to take missions but is finding modern ethics a bit distasteful compared to those he lived by in the 1940s.  

When S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), reveals a new initiative called Project Insight, Rogers has major doubts. Spearheaded by the World Security Council, Project Insight would use triangulated helicarriers that track bio-levels in all humans to determine future threats and then eliminate them before they can ever strike. Similar to the conflicts in the film Minority Report, this form of “pre-crime” judgment is a tough pill for Rogers to swallow. After Fury requests that Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) delay Project Insight, Fury is suddenly attacked in one of the finest action sequences put to film in recent memory.

Now Rogers along with new pal, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson), must search to find who it is that is attacking S.H.I.E.L.D. and preserve the safety of America and the world. His efforts are complicated with the arrival of The Winter Soldier, a mysterious super soldier with talents and abilities rivaling those of Rogers’s. The cat’s mostly out of the bag regarding what the Winter Soldier’s identity truly is, but I will not reveal it here.

Back to my original statement about why this film belongs in the conversation of finest comic book movies. While many films of this genre are born into intergalactic conflicts and absurdly fantastic plotlines, the best of them are grounded, at least partially, in reality. The motive for Captain America has always been protecting his homeland from threats, and it is a credit to the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely to put him in an environment where he is doing that very thing.  Additionally, the performances are pitch perfect.  Evans brings the perfect balance of charm, bravado, and idealism to the role of Captain America, and Robert Redford puts forth a very real and noteworthy performance as Pierce, no doubt inspired by how Tommy Lee Jones treated his role as Colonel Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger. 

The film, while capable of standing alone, is also so well woven in to the Marvel universe. References and Easter eggs abound including one small homage to actor, Samuel L. Jackson that is sure to delight fans of his films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another fantastic entry into this still unrivaled and unprecedented series of associated franchises. However, this film sets a new bar but one that I have no doubts will be surpassed again. A

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. Marvel continues its trend of providing stingers after the credits, so stay comfortable and enjoy two scenes – one midway through the credits and one afterwards.

All is Lost

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In the early 20th century, a literary movement known as Naturalism caught on as war suddenly began to grip America once again.  Influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, Naturalistic writers wanted to emphasize the dark, harshness of life as well as man’s lack of control of the natural forces that truly guide his fate.  All is Lost is as close to cinematic Naturalism as I’ve ever seen. 

Robert Redford plays a character whose name is never revealed, a typical trait of Naturalism as these forms of expression look to stress nature’s indifference to man. This indifference is further exemplified with the film’s opening scene where the man (Redford) awakens from a nap below deck on his sailboat to find that a stray floating cargo container had somehow drifted into the side of his boat, puncturing it and resulting in the boat quickly taking on water.  No explanation is given for this circumstance or than that it presumably fell off of a cargo ship and, as fate would have it, collided with the boat.  The man is a pensive man; he does not react wildly or make rash decisions, rather he weighs his options and relies on his experience and skills.  Redford’s is the only character in the entire film, and he is also a man of few words; accordingly, the script for All is Lost is only 32 pages long.  Thus, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s film looks to explore modern Naturalism at sea as deliberately as possible. 

All is Lost is a riveting achievement.  As we watch this man struggle through a series of events set into motion by that seemingly innocuous cargo container, we are forced to mull over our own mortality and our own suitability to circumstance.  Last year, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi beautifully captured some of what All is Lost attempted to capture, but that film was far more Romantic in its aspirations.  All is Lost instead puts plot aside and seeks to pit man against nature in a rigorous, albeit somewhat predictable series of events.  The result is a compelling yet extraordinarily minimalistic effort that does feel redundant at times. 

Earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity also pitted man against incredible odds in a far more successful way.  While both films depict man’s struggle with expertise, Cuarón, like Ang Lee before him, understood the need to make the film a visual spectacle as well.  Thus, those films certainly utilize the media of film far more than All is Lost, while All is Lost relies more on Redford.  Fortunately, Redford delivers.  The sharp, witty con-man from The Sting is no more, but he has been replaced by a weathered and beaten sailor who may have the grit to do what Johnny Hooker never could – win an Oscar.  B+

All is Lost is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes.  It is a nailbiter and a triumph for Redford.  The score by indi-rock name Alex Ebert is also characteristically right on.