Tag Archives: fantasy

Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl is a series of quite beloved fantasy novels written by Eoin Colfer. If you are a fan of the books, may I suggest you put that aside right now and meet Artemis Fowl the movie as a similarly titled but only loosely based third cousin twice removed type situation.

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a 12 year old genius rambling about his big old house in Ireland with only his definitely-not-a-butler manservant/bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) for company. He learns from TV that his father (Colin Farrell) has gone mysteriously missing (is that redundant? i think yes) and also, I think, that he’s behind some major art-thievery. Which is when Alfred Mr. Butler gently guides young Bruce Artemis down to the batcave secret lair and lays some truth on him: he comes from a family of criminal masterminds. He’s meant to be some sort of prodigy villain, and so donning the batsuit and sunglasses, he receives the obligatory ransom call and gets down to saving the world or maybe just his dad, I’m really not sure, this part wasn’t entirely clear to me.

Meanwhile, keeping in mind that Ireland is apparently quite magical, we’re introduced to some non-human characters such as Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a felonious oversized dwarf who seems like he would have bad breath, Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), who I think is a fairy, and her boss Commander Root (Judi Dench), who’s in charge of making sure magical creatures don’t mix with humans, and Juliet (Tamara Smart) who is some much younger relation of Mr. Butler’s and whose presence I never quite understood. Also various goblins, elves, trolls, Italians, and even a centaur with a sexy little canter. Most of these…beings…are technically enemies. Well, enemy is a strong word for people who don’t even know each other. Maybe “non-belligerent” is a better term for it, a term I picked up mere moments before watching this film thanks to a Spike Lee movie about the race discrimination and the Vietnam war (who knew these two movies would have so much this one thing in common!). Anyway, it’s hard to keep track of who’s on who’s side and what that side wants and why. And then there’s you know, alliances made and broken, objectives intended and abandoned, just stuff. Presumably. I don’t really know. There’s magical force fields/space-time continuums (?), dislocating jaws, and a coup against an 800 year old stickler for rules.

The movie is kind of a mess. This is a kid’s movie and I’m struggling to relay any of the plot points, and I’m frankly not even 100% convinced there were any, it may have just 90 minutes of pure pixie chaos for all I know. It hurt my brain to try to keep up, but on the other hand it wasn’t really interesting enough to pause let alone rewind.

Those who have read the book(s) will of course bring important supplemental information to the film, which will either a) make it a more pleasant, sensical viewing experience or b) make it that much more frustrating, just a big old soak in a bath of disappointment. I’m guessing it’s b but let’s not marinate in negativity. Let’s optimistically assume that you subscribed to Disney+ hoping for a child’s version of Men In Black where the aliens are now fairies and the good parts are now the suck and the idea of a sequel both frightens and confuses you.

If you wanna hear more, and you know you do: Youtube!

Ne Zha

Bear with me: I am about to attempt to describe the plot of a cartoon, which is deceptively hard work.

A chaos pearl, birthed from primordial essences, manifests as a giant crystal monster, is sucking up energy to feed its seemingly infinite potential for destruction. The Primeval Lord of Heaven, Tianzun, sends two of his disciples, Taiyi and Shen, to subdue it, but it just keeps siphoning energy, growing bigger and stronger, so the Primeval Lord Tianzun has to separate the pearl into two opposite components: a spirit pearl and a demon orb. The spirit pearl is meant to be reincarnated as a son to Li Jing, while Tianzun curses the demon orb; it will be destroyed in 3 years’ time by a powerful lightning strike. Tianzun gives them to the care of Taiyi and promises him a seat at his heavenly table if he performs well. This makes Shen insanely jealous of course, so he steals the spirit pearl, which means that Li Jing’s pregnant wife Lady Yin is possessed by the demon orb instead. Poor Lady Yin has been pregnant for 3 years and now gives birth to a demon child, Ne Zha.

If you’re following even 25% of what I’m saying, you deserve a silver medal (sorry, I’m reserving the gold for Lady Yin’s marathon pregnancy).

Ne Zha is born with unique powers, as you might expect, and he’s known (and feared) in the village as being incredibly destructive, which makes him a lonely outcast. Taiyi brings him to a universe inside a painting to train him and his progress is astounding, even if his discipline is lacking (note: this is an extremely advanced toddler). Meanwhile, Shen takes the stolen spirit pearl down to the Dragon King. The dragons are angry because they’ve been banished underwater as hell’s gatekeepers. The Dragon King believes that a son of his born of the spirit pearl would mean dragons would finally be worthy and could ascend to heaven, so he gives birth to an egg OUT OF HIS MOUTH and names the kid Ao Bing.

Against the odds, Ne Zha and Ao Bing meet and make friends, but as we know, they’re actually enemies, and they’re going to have to meet in battle on their third birthdays.

Written and directed by Yu Yang, the movie starts out with some shaky story-telling, and as you can tell by my synopsis, there’s quite a bit of vital information to parse rather quickly (we had to pause the movie, compare notes, and restart). Once it gets going, the problems get largely ironed out by some pretty compelling animation. The action scenes are of course commendable but I was also rather dazzled by the universe contained within the painting. Yu Yang takes full advantage of the perks of animation, allowing bold action sequences to communicate character, engaging the audience and fueling the film’s momentum. Kids will delight in the low-brow humour (and by low-brow I of course mean disgusting) and everyone can appreciate the visual spectacle of it all.

In China it was released exclusively in IMAX 3-D and I can imagine this would have been an excellent use of the medium. We watched the English dub on Netflix (we also had the subtitles on, which made for a mind-bending exercise as the two NEVER matched); if you do the same, make sure to check out mid- and post-credit scenes which introduce a new character and set up a sequel. The sequel was actually due to be released January 2020 in China but was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

The Golden Compass

I watched this back in 2007 because I adored the book(s) (by Philip Pullman) and was optimistic. Oh 2007, the days of wild optimism.

The movie is…not good. It’s not rotten, there are some attempts at goodness, especially from Nicole Kidman and the visual effects department. But it’s like someone put The Golden Compass through a strainer to sift out all the best bits and made a movie with the wrong bowl.

Yes, movie studios were desperate to recreate that Harry Potter magic, but Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was always a little more cumbersome than its wizarding counterpart; Pullman’s work was not specifically meant for young audiences. But some intrepid readers found him anyway, and loved the way he combined physics, philosophy, and theology but made them accessible via a young protagonist. Those are not exactly movie-friendly themes, and the trilogy’s criticism of religion was of course controversial. When the film got released, christians boycotted it for its anti-religion reputation but secularists balked at this theme’s dilution (and some would say absence).

The film shows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan living in a parallel universe where a dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium opposes free inquiry and every person has their inner spirit manifested as an animal, which they call a daemon. Before settling into a single shape in adulthood, the deamons of young children tend to shape shift quite a lot. Which is not much use when children are being kidnapped by an unknown group called the Gobblers who are supported by the Magisterium. Lyra joins a tribe of seafarers on a trip to the far North, the land of the armoured polar bears, in search of the missing children.

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There’s more to it than that, a lot more to it. It’s not so bad when you’ve got the book in your hands. You can take a break when you need to think on things, or digest others. You can flip back a few pages, read with new insight and understanding. But movie audiences have to take what you’re given, and if a director foolishly tries to stuff too much detail into too thin a story, it’s not just overwhelming but it turns what should be a fun entertainment or a version of escapism into an exercise in fact sorting and memory retention.

There are some dazzling effects and I’m not going to lie: armoured polar bears are kinda the best. Which is why so many of us rooted so hard for the movie. But the movie was too self-important, too busy setting up the next in the series that it forgot to give us a satisfying experience in the present. Which, as you know, not only resulted in its poor performance at the box office, but it ground production on the next two to a complete and final halt. No one will reattempt this for another quarter century. Which is really too bad, because if you’ve read the book(s), you know there’s a compelling story in there, and it shouldn’t be this hard to tease it out.

Onward

Every geek dreams of being able to apply their obscure knowledge to a real world situation.  It hasn’t happened for me yet, but Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) is about to get his chance. See, Barley and his brother Ian (Tom Holland) live in a fantastic world where magic is real, or at least was real before technology took its place.

As a result, Barley’s favourite fantasy role playing game is not just fiction. Instead, it’s based on historical events, and Barley960x0‘s knowledge of those obscure facts really comes in handy as Ian and Barley embark on a quest to find a Phoenix Stone to power their father’s magic wand which will allow them to bring their dead dad back to life for 24 hours. If those stakes weren’t high enough, Ian and Barley have accidentally brought back their dad’s legs so the clock’s ticking!

What might have been a paint-by-numbers fetch quest in lesser hands is an epic adventure imbued with magic and wonder from Disney-Pixar. The extraordinary attention to detail makes Onward’s world feel authentic and exciting as we follow Barley, Ian and their half-a-dad on their epic adventure. Along the way, their efforts revitalize the world around them and bring back some of the magic that’s been forgotten. By the time we arrive at the final battle, everything has come together just as the prophecy foretold (truth be told, there is no explicit prophecy mentioned but this adventure is clearly the stuff of destiny). It’s a lot of fun to see it take shape.

Onward is more pure cinematic magic from Disney-Pixar. Even though Onward may not quite hit the heights of the studio’s very best, it’s a worthy addition to the catalogue and it will be especially enjoyable for anyone who has slayed dragons as an elf, troll or wizard in their basement (whether in modern digital form, the classic tabletop and 20-sided-die variety, or both).

Bright

What’s worse than being flat, derivative and uninspired? Being all those things, showing a tiny bit of promise in spite of them, and then throwing the interesting parts away in search of a flashy climax and tidy resolution. That’s Bright.

The concept is sound – what if there were Elves and Orcs and magic in our world? It’s not a new idea and that’s fine. The hodgepodge of fantasy elements forming the basis of this world are standard fare as webright_unit_06597_r_wide-67b1f15cb792c81ccc1359a7e8a2e6c0bce7b718-s900-c85ll, straight out of Tolkien or World of Warcraft. Orcs are brutes with sharp teeth, Elves are beautiful and rich, magic wands are super powerful but not everyone can use them. The script, complete with minority and 1% allegories, practically writes itself.

The problem is, it feels like no extra effort was put in to creating Bright. Like, at all.  Like, I’m pretty sure Will Smith was quoting himself from Men in Black every time he let a sarcastic quip fly. Not incidentally, well over 90% of his lines in Bright are sarcastic quips. Either stop phoning it in or stop being in movies, please.

Joel Edgerton doesn’t phone it in like Smith but he is totally unrecognizable and totally wasted here as the sensitive Orc sidekick. He had no chance of saving this mess. Full disclosure: this is a recurring exchange between Jay and me:

Jay: We should go see [small indie movie]. Joel Edgerton is in it.

Me: Who’s Joel Edgerton again?

Jay: The guy from [slightly older small indie movie that we saw a few months prior].

Me: That was Joel Edgerton?

Jay: We literally just had this conversation when you made me watch the Star Wars prequels.

Me: JOEL EDGERTON IS IN STAR WARS?

Jay: I hate you.

It happened again in Bright only I swear, this time it was not my fault. It was David Ayer’s, and Bright is proof that we should have cut Ayer off long before Suicide Squad. Thanks for writing Training Day, really, but that goodwill was used up long ago.  A glimmer of promise and then an avalanche of mediocrity and disappointment – just like Bright.

Lu Over the Wall

Greetings from the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which we’re always proud to cover because not only is it our hometown festival, it’s also a really great one – terrific movies, great venues, well-organized by staff and volunteers. It makes an Asshole proud!

Our first stop at the festival was to the good old Bytowne, where all the best indie films get shown year-round. Lu Over the Wall is a Japanese film by director Masaaki Yuasa, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by it.

The film is about Kai, a surly middle schooler who seems isolated from his peers until it 48a6ae418cf7ea14caa9daee89cfc4381491527985_largeis discovered that he makes really interesting beats with his computer, and he gets recruited into a band by Yuuho and Kuniko. The band practices on a deserted island away from the mainland so that Kuniko’s family won’t discover his dirty little secret (he’s destined to be a temple keeper, not a rock star). But out there they stir up the myth that has shrouded their town for decades: that of merpeople.

Turns out, merpeople are attracted to music, and that’s exactly what prompts Lu, a very cute little mermaid, to leave the water to sing and dance with them. Everyone else is terrified of merpeople, who, legend has it, eat people, among other atrocities, but Kai can relate to Lu and so they become friends. It’s a tricky relationship to navigate when half the townspeople want the merfolk dead and gone, and the other half hope to exploit them for money.

No, this isn’t an animated take on The Shape of Water, though it’s beginning to sound like it. But it is a story about looking beyond our preconceptions, a story made all the more palatable by its incredibly sweet animation. When it’s meant to, the joy practically leaps right off the screen. You’ll feel your heart tug upward. Lu’s happiness is infectious. I mean, what kind of a person isn’t completely bowled over by mermaids? Like, how black is your soul? And Lu is so bright and bubbly she makes Ariel seem like a puddle of puke. Lu Over the Wall is giddy, upbeat, and as you might have guessed, has a soundtrack bursting with J-pop. I love how the movie evokes emotion by changing up its animation style and if for some reason your inner darkness has been able to resist up until now, I’ll leave you with just one word, the only word this review really needs: mer-doggies.

The Shape of Water

What did we ever do to deserve Guillermo Del Toro? The man is willing to crack his head open and allow his most beautiful dreams to spill out, onto the big screen, for our viewing pleasure. The Shape of Water, a delicious period piece with fantasy elements, is just about as sumptuous and satisfying as it gets at the movies.

Sally Hawkins, an inspiring casting choice, plays Eliza, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a top secret government facility. She and her cleaning partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer in a role she was born to play, because between Hidden Figures and The Help, MV5BZDU0NmU1NDUtNjMyNi00YTMyLTgwNWUtNTVmMzQ3NzJjNTJmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTk1MzcwNTI@._V1_she already has) stumble upon agent Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) latest capture, a humanoid sea creature reportedly worshiped as a god by the Amazonians. Set against the Cold War era, the Americans hope this scaly curiosity will give them a leg up against the Ruskies are and prepared to torture the secrets out of their prisoner – and worse. But sweet Eliza spots the creature’s humanity and her kind heart urges her to save him. She enlists a scientist at the facility (Michael Stuhlbarg) and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) in her daring escape plan, but Strickland isn’t going to let this career-defining prize slip through his rotting fingers.

The Shape of Water is poetic and beautifully stylized. I fell in love during the opening shot, an ethereal scene that establishes the fairy-tale quality of the story. The whole film is richly textured; it feels like a story book you’ll want to step inside. Full credit to production design and art direction for creating a living, breathing piece of art that feels grounded in reality but often has this other-wordly, heightened reality feel to it that you just don’t find in your average film. The script, a Guillermo-Vanessa Taylor hybrid, is a phenom. It so smartly sets up all that is to come with careful, quiet nods. This is a movie with many small pleasures, many delights to savour. Because our heroine is non-speaking, the score plays a major role, and composer Alexandre Desplat is more than equal to the task. Del Toro weaves magic into threads of monster movie – love story – musical – spy thriller – comedy. I’m not sure which of these is more surprising, but all are very welcome. You may hear from others that this is Del Toro’s best since Pan’s Labyrinth, but they’re lying. I believe this is his best, full stop.

The Shape of Water wouldn’t be nearly so special without Sally Hawkins’ grace and measured precision. She’s wonderful, full of light, communicating much with little. Eliza is a woman of small parameters. Her life is ordered and banal. She’s suffering in her loneliness when she meets her merman, and her outsider status allows her to view him not as a monster but as a kindred spirit. Richard Jenkins meanwhile is restrained as the starving artist next door. Michael Shannon is anything but as the man who gets the job done at any cost – unless his vanity gets in the way. He’s awfully fond of the trappings of success. You might be starting to get an idea of what makes this script so lush: all the characters are brought fully to life. This is the clown car of movies, a film filled to the gills with interesting ideas and perfect little moments and scene-stealing details.

You don’t just watch a movie like The Shape of Water, you feel it, you experience it. We saw its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this week but it’s coming to a cinema near you this December, and you won’t want to miss it. Hawkins’s name will be on the Oscar ballot and I’m guessing Del Toro’s will be too – maybe even twice.