Month: January 2016

The Road to El Dorado

road to el dorado

Somewhat like its main characters, The Road to El Dorado has designs for greatness but comes up short. The middling Dreamworks production boasts fine voice talent, a sterling music team, and a story rich with artistic potential but doesn’t coalesce around any strong creative vision. I watched with a constant yearning for something more majestic. Visually, the film should be stunning; El Dorado, after all, was a mythical city of gold, cradled in the mountains and forests of South America and lusted after by European explorers. With only the imagination as reference, this new world should be an animator’s dream. And musically, a collaboration between Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer all but promises a charged and award-winning soundtrack. Of John and Rice’s previous two projects, their Broadway hit Aida won an armful of Tonys and spawned numerous touring productions while The Lion King, and I’m not being hyperbolic, defined a generation.

But El Dorado doesn’t seize on any of these opportunities, and it’s surprising how uninspired the whole movie turns out. Besides its lifeless animation and forgettable music, the story settles for an average plot and characters that only go through the motions of a great adventure. It’s as if the filmmakers, sensing their lack of vision, dump the rogue explorers, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh, the fairest Spaniard of them all), into the fantastic, fabled city and continue on their merry way.

Tulio and Miguel’s friendship should guide the enterprise and does form the backbone of the plot. We are introduced to them as they con their way through the streets of 1500s Seville. Miguel, the daydreamer, scores a map to El Dorado, and before the practical-minded Tulio gets a chance to talk his friend out of the journey, they both accidentally find themselves Hernán Cortés’s (Jim Cummings) ship bound for the New World. After prematurely parting ways with the raging conquistador, they stumble upon the hidden city.

Since this is called The Road to El Dorado, you might think this was some sixteenth century version of a road trip movie, which is it for awhile. But the time Tulio and Miguel spend stranded on a boat or lost in the forest is neither formative nor very much related to what ends up being the main story. The two strange looking Europeans are mistaken for gods when they arrive and, conveniently for them, are honored with mountains of golden baubles. They meet the benevolent ruler (Edward James Olmos) who is depicted not unlike a genial Hawaiian surfer king, a raging pharisaic priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), with authoritarian ambitions, and Chel (a slightly less Brooklyn Rosie Perez), a spunky, shrewd woman who sees through Tulio and Miguel’s deception. It’s a trio almost as discordant as the voice casting.

El Dorado ends up sparking a change in both characters, but this is only explored superficially. Tulio falls for Chel and wants to make off with her in one hand and the loot in the other, but his most impassioned affections are reserved for inanimate objects. Even if he really is nothing more than a charming thief, he doesn’t have enough emotional gravity to pull the audience towards him. Miguel at least has the benefit of introspection, and my favorite scenes are when he begins falling under the spell of this breathtaking city. When he considers staying in El Dorado, you expect some weight in the conflict between the friends, but there is hardly any. Instead, there is a giant rock monster that comes to furious life, bringing the movie to a lively crash of an end.

“El Dorado” by Elton John:

“Someday Out of the Blue” by animated Elton John:

“Without Question” by Elton John:

“Friends Never Say Goodbye” by Elton John:

“The Trail We Blaze” by Elton John:

“16th Century Man” by Elton John:

“The Panic in Me” by Elton John:

“It’s Tough to be a God” by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh:

Released: 2000
Prod: Brook Breton, Bonne Radford
Dir: Don Paul, Eric Bergeron
Writer: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Jim Cummings, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos, Frank Welker
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Ridiculous 6

ridiculous 6

Netflix’s recent entry into the Hong Kong market was greeted with much delight, until people discovered the catalog resembled the bargain bin at Walmart. (Still trying to decide if it’s an Aloha or Jackass kind of night.) To be fair, there’s a choice documentary selection, and Ken Burns’s The West turns out to be the best cleanse if you’ve had the misfortune of imbibing The Ridiculous 6, the relentlessly promoted first installment of Netflix’s four picture deal with noted auteur Adam Sandler. It might be aiming for the smallest slice of Blazing Saddles glory, but the unamusing farce about a mismatched gang of robbers is an embarrassment to the western and comedy genres.

Already the subject of controversy during its filming, the finished product does nothing to redeem itself. Native American actors were right to storm off set and divorce themselves from characters with names like Never Wears Bra or Smoking Fox (Julia Jones). When they weren’t being mocked for their physical characteristics, however, they characters were transformed into noble savages, always on hand with a piece of abstract wisdom or a mystical remedy so that Tommy “White Knife” (Sandler), the adopted white son of a Native family and the film’s hero, could save the day. It also shouldn’t surprise that so few women appear in the movie, and those who do are mostly of the painted variety, merely there to be paraded atop men’s shoulders or so that a cowboy might dive headfirst first into her décolletage.

That’s about the sophistication of the humor, par for course for Sandler films. Unless you’re into extended jokes about horses pleasuring mentally challenged teens or equally prolonged decapitation scenes, then you’ll find little to laugh about here. I’m not even sure this plays that well to the frat house crowd. In fact, the antics are suited for a far younger audience, and stripped of its vulgarity, it might be a framework for a passable kids movie.

Like many G-rated adventures, this one revolves around an unlikely group of friends – Tommy, Ramon (Rob Schneider), Chico (Terry Crews), Lil’ Pete (a very un-Team-Jacob-like Taylor Lautner), Herm (Jorge Garcia), and Danny (Luke Wilson) – that embarks on a quest to save a kidnapped man. They soon discover that they are actually brothers and the man they are trying to save is their father (Nick Nolte), and that they must steal the ransom. The Ridiculous 6 is so packed with cameos, however, that not even the brothers turn out anything beyond a one-note performance. Even with its two hour running time, the film makes no room for introspection, leaving most of the main characters as faintly drawn as the minor roles. In fact, Abner Doubleday (John Turturro) shows more flare attempting to invent the game of baseball on the fly than the wordless, grunting Herm, and Vanilla Ice as a hip hop Mark Twain seems oddly appropriate in this age of Hamilton (though as a Hamilton fangirl, I am in no way equating the two). The pleasures are fleeting though, and nothing justifies such abuse of American scenery, the best and only thing going for this movie.

Released: 2015
Prod: Allen Covert, Adam Sandler
Dir: Frank Coraci
Writer: Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler
Cast: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte, Will Forte, Steve Zahn, Harvey Keitel, Jon Lovitz, Danny Trejo, Julia Jones, Blake Shelton…..and so many more damn cameos
Time: 119 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

All Aboard! The Canal Trip

all aboard the canal trip

Enough cannot be said about the virtues of slow TV, programming that forgoes traditional ideas of a narrative in favor of leisurely gazes at the ordinary. Unhurried and unassuming, these unconventional documentaries are an antidote to the cacophony that often fills our screens. The most notable of these programs is Norway’s firewood burning marathon, an hours long event that had bewitched viewers contemplating the minutiae of firewood. Most recently, BBC has latched onto the trend with its thus two-part All Aboard! series. The show invites those with an abundance of patience and an appreciation for natural beauty to experience unique and tranquil journeys, both familiar and far out.

I watched the recent Christmas special, The Sleigh Ride, about a pair of reindeer herders trekking across part of the Artic Circle, before I watched The Canal Trip, which aired half a year earlier. And while the tundra boasts captivating vistas, the recent cold snap in Hong Kong, where I live, left me wary of embarking on my own frosty, -40 degree adventure. The Canal Trip, however, offers a sunny alternative and worked like a tourism advert for the Kennet and Avon Canal in southern England. An uninterrupted two-hour ride, the movie takes you down a small section of the route, from Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct.

One distinguishing feature of slow TV is the lack of narration, and this show’s only soundtrack is a raw compilation of nature sounds – water gurgling beneath the boat, wind scrambling through reeds, birds chirping in mid-flight. In fact, the very aim is to approximate, as well as a television program can, the experience of floating down the canal on a quiet Saturday mid-morning, not with your best girlfriends or your college flatmates, but with a book, a desire to clear one’s mind, and maybe a significant other with whom you can share long bouts of silence.

Far from lazy programming – the show is ostensibly a single camera mounted atop a boat, I found The Canal Trip to be television in fine form. This is one where less indeed turns out to be more. Absent typical narrative intrusions, the canal and its environs become characters of their own. As the boat winds eastward, you see snatches of hidden life. The city park gives way to expansive fields and isolated farms. Every once in a while, a village comes into view, next to a picturesque stone bridge that stands steadily as cars flit across. And like a light aside, embedded graphics about the canal’s history and ecology fade in and out but always in the most unobtrusive way. It’s not a fantastic leap, if you watch this with a sense of purpose and not as white noise, to imagine yourself perched at the bow, absorbing the rustic beauty.

What I most appreciate about the All Aboard! series, and this show in particular, though is the way the visual and aural space sweeps past the television screen. If you needed permission to let your mind wander, this is it. Stillness leaves so much ripe for imagination. After an hour or so, I noticed that the water rippled out like a giant thumbprint and that the sound of mini waves hitting the boat was like that of wet batter being slapped around a mixing bowl. I peered curiously into the windows of certain houseboats; there was a beaten one with fraying tarps moored next to a gleaming one with a new blue paint job. Then I wondered why there was so little traffic and, when there was a backup on the waterway, how one might navigate it. Confident there were measures in place for this very issue, my eyes drifted back upwards towards the crisp sky, occasionally clouded over by an English grey. Surely I should start every weekend with a journey this subdued.

Released: 2015
Prod: Clare Patterson
Time: 120 min
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four
Reviewed: 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie

shaun the sheep2

Like his real-life counterpart, Chris, an unlucky Merino, plucky, claymated Shaun the Sheep shoots straight for the heart in his first big screen outing. Bored with his daily routine, which includes getting hauled in and out of pens and enduring the occasional shearing, Shaun concocts a plan to keep Farmer at bay while the sheep let loose for the day on Mossy Bottom Farm. What should be a relaxing afternoon frolicking in the fields or lounging in front of the telly quickly descends into a madcap adventure, however, when Farmer’s camper rolls off into The Big City.

Shaun and the rest of his flurry flock, along with dog Bitzer, give chase and try to retrieve their owner, but it’s kind of a jungle out there. Trumper, the neckless animal control officer, is determined to throw them in the pound, a sideshow of animal oddities, and they must evade him by donning human disguises. It’s easier said than done because despite their highly anthropomorphized nature, they don’t really understand all our strange human ways. More appallingly, however, Farmer loses his memory – and adopts the persona of a celebrity hairstylist – and any affection he had for the Mossy Bottom gang, throwing Shaun in particular into a bit of an existential crisis.

Fans of the TV show or Aardman productions (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Flushed Away) won’t be surprised by the amount of charm the filmmakers bring to this simple story. While the studio tends to be unambitious when it comes to plotting, they are masters at detail, animating every scene with loving attention. Despite tightly focused sets and stories, there’s so much to savor visually that I always watch a second time just to absorb each inch of each carefully crafted frame. There’s the way Farmer takes his clipboard off the barn door every morning, as he has for the last decade, to reveal a clean patch of wood. There are the mismatched garments that hang on wire racks at the charity shop where the sheep go to find disguises. There’s Timmy, the baby sheep, shivering in his mother’s arms when the dejected flock seek shelter in a junkyard.

Animated movies, even the best ones, don’t rely this heavily on the visual storytelling that Shaun does, and it’s unsurprising that the film contains no dialogue, save an occasional grunt or bleat. When Shaun sets to win his day off, he tries to bribe a duck with bread, a silent exchange that pokes fun at mob film clichés better than any dopey one-liner could. The script also doesn’t let words get in the way of emotion. Farmer is more surrogate dad than taskmaster, and the animals’ attempt to bring him back home is about more than restoring equilibrium. A scratchy and dated home movie in the opening credits establishes a real affection between the characters, so it makes sense when Bitzer and the flock rush off into the city, refusing to give up even when a horrified Farmer shoos them from the salon and leaves them crestfallen. Animal lovers will embrace this cross-species family, but I suspect many others will also fall for our furry friends.

shaun the sheep1

“Feels Like Summer” by Tim Wheeler, Ilan Eshkeri, and Nick Hodgson:

shaun the sheep3

“Life’s a Treat”, Rizzle Kicks remix:

Released: 2015
Prod: Paul Kewley, Julie Lockhart
Dir: Richard Starzak, Mark Burton
Writer: Richard Starzak, Mark Burton
Cast: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili
Time: 85 min
Lang: Gibberish
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Murder, She Baked: A Peach Cobbler Mystery

murder she baked peach cobbler mystery

Watching the Murder, She Baked series as akin to indulging in a warm chocolate chip cookie…and then a plum pudding and then a peach cobbler. I should be snacking on a fruit cup, but my impulses lead elsewhere. These movies, adapted from books by Joanne Fluke, hit my light entertainment sweet spot. They’ve got me hooked in just enough that I willingly come back for more.

We last left off at Christmastime, when our heroine baker, Hannah Swensen (Alison Sweeney) was sitting down for a cozy holiday dinner with her family and both love interests, having solved yet another murder. This movie picks up a few months later, during which time a new bakery has opened shop across the street.

Out-of-towner Melanie (Michelle Harrison) is the owner of Magnolia Bakery and is using her signature peach cobbler to draw customers, including police inspector Mike (Cameron Mathison), away from Hannah’s Cookie Jar. When Hannah stumbles upon her rival’s dead body, however, she suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of a police inquiry. With Mike keeping his distance due to the investigation, she turns to her other potential suitor, Norman (Gabriel Hogan), to help her solve the crime.

The movie tries to spice up the murder mystery recipe a bit by making Hannah the suspect, but it doesn’t taste all that different. The general trajectory of the story remains the same, and her heightened role in the case merely serves as another obstacle rather than a fundamental shift in perspective or proceedings. As with the previous film, the case does more to facilitate the romance than to really pique one’s interest in crime solving and psychology.

And that’s okay with me because what I really want to know is who Hannah’s going to end up with. I’m pulling for nice Norman, who gets to be more than the genial dentist here. In a scene that unabashedly conforms to stereotype, he uses his manly charm and dashing good looks to compel a weak-willed woman to divulge classified information about another suspect, someone who may be connected to the victim’s sister. Mike doesn’t exactly take the back seat in all of this, but he does end up on shakier ground with Norman stepping it up and after some of his own past is revealed.

I’ll admit that I’m looking forward to the next Lake Eden murder, which is shaping up to be a damn dangerous town. (So much for Minnesota nice.) And despite the fact that Hannah cannot get a grip on how to handle armed suspects, the town is small enough and filled with enough people who care about her – her chirpy younger sister, her dramatic mother, her practical-minded brother-in-law – that you know she’ll be alright in the end.

Released: 2016
Dir: Kristoffer Tabori
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Cameron Mathison, Lisa Durupt, Barbara Niven, Gabriel Hogan, Michelle Harrison, Anna Marie DeLuise, Roark Critchlow, Juliana Wimbles, Toby Levins
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2016