Wednesday, December 12, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - INCREDIBLES 2

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

It took ten years for Disney and Pixar to make a sequel to one of their highly-successful films.  Ten years.  That restraint alone should garner them some praise; in today’s climate, Hollywood seems hell-bent on providing endless franchises that teeter on losing whatever momentum was set up eight films ago.

So to pick up on a film with no current momentum at all seems an interesting choice.  Given that writer/director Brad Bird, of THE IRON GIANT and the original INCREDIBLES film, continues where he left off, but makes the film resonate with today’s social and political strife.  He even advises, via the special features, that the time felt right for his superhero family to return.  That may be so, but for a film geared towards the younger set, he seems a tad long winded.

One of my recent gripes targets the length of animated films.  Back in the day (you know, when I was a kid, and the only movies we had were from the firelight in our caves dancing across our cave paintings), your typical animated film clocked in at about eighty-five minutes.  Nowadays?  Between INCREDIBLES 2, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET, COCO, and CARS 3 (the last four Disney features), the average runtime is one-hundred and twelve minutes.  Not very concise storytelling, and it shows; while I2 does have some redeeming moments, ultimately it is a train on unsteady tracks.

Picking up at an unspecified time following the first film, “supers” have been banned from saving the world—or, at least, from fighting crime.  They make too much of a mess when apprehending the bad guys, and all of the public destruction has become bothersome.  Along comes a rich tycoon and his tech-savvy sister, who hire Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), the matriarch of the Parr family, to be the new poster child of a movement whose sole purpose is to reintroduce supers as a humanitarian benefit.  Which means that Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), aka “Dad”, to look after the three kids.  Playing on the stereotypical idea that dads have no idea what they are doing (I was a single father for some years, and my kids can probably attest to the fact that it is definitely an imperfect learning process), the viewer is presented with two distinct storylines, only one of which is action-packed enough to hold your attention.

It seems that baby Jack-Jack is coming into his superpower, which apparently is every other superpower you could think of.  No spoilers, but the best parts of the movie are any and everything pertaining to the baby.  From his infectious giggle to his battle with a raccoon, the scene-stealer here is the only one that doesn’t speak proper English.  Mr. Bird went out of his way to give 95% of the laughs to, arguably, the most powerful member of the family.  This isn’t a bad thing, other than that when he isn’t on screen, his absence is distracting.  Yes, Elastigirl’s storyline is important, but kids won’t care too much about that, and neither will you.  The unpredictability of Jack is what makes this film fun.

There are several special features included with the disc, but make sure you check out the two animated shorts included.  One is “Auntie Edna”, which is more Jack-Jack, and the wonderful “Bao”, a story about a mother and her…dumpling?  I think it’s a dumpling… 

Up next for the animation studio at Disney is FROZEN 2 and TOY STORY 4.  More sequels, of course.  In fact, the only original project they have forthcoming is a take on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story, GIGANTIC—and that release date has been pushed back to 2020.  Keep your fingers crossed that that far-off date isn’t so that they can take the extra time to make a cartoon that breaks the two-hour mark…

Film Grade: B-
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: It is an animated film, so, yes—everything is more vibrant in the format

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Disney has had a rather storied past when it comes to “Winnie the Pooh”.  There have been numerous cartoons and films based on the bear’s adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods.  And, Pooh may be one of the most quotable characters the studio has ever brought to life.

So it’s a shame that this update of the denizens of that famous land isn’t more Pooh friendly.  ROBIN follows an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) as he navigates life without his childhood friends.  Of course, it becomes necessary for them to help him save his family (if not his job), and their reintegration into his world is what drives this story.

The problem is that ROBIN wants to yank on your heartstrings, and as often as possible.  If you ever purposely needed a film to manipulate your feelings, this one will do nicely for you.  And it tries early on, and on multiple occasions, to do just that.  Pooh gets his feelings hurt so many times that you wish a heffalump would appear and begin chowing down on Christopher Robin, just to prove that there is justice in this universe.  The film wants to be a story about friendship, and how it never dies.  Yet, what it proves several times is how sometimes one side of that friendship has to work really stinkin’ hard to keep it alive.  Probably not the message director Marc Forster (FINDING NEVERLAND, MONSTERS BALL) wanted to deliver; alas, it is the one thing that works consistently within the writing.  Not a great message for the kiddies, methinks.

And it isn’t that CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a bad film—it isn’t.  It just isn’t a film worthy of Pooh and his pals.  Gone is the magic that connected the multitude of characters from the earlier films and cartoons.  Also gone is the loving connection you’d feel between Robin and Pooh anytime the boy referred to him as a “silly old bear”.  The line is overused here and doesn’t carry quite the same meaning.  Pooh, at this point, is indeed old, and he and the rest of the gang show it.  Their iterations as real-life characters are done in the muted colors of the illustrations from earlier literary works, which is okay; it makes them appear more realistic, less imaginary from a child’s standpoint and more believable from an adult’s perspective.  Therein lies one of the other problems; these characters helped Christopher Robin navigate his childhood, and while their appearance here has that classical look to them, the Pooh Bear I remember did not have a hairy nose.  As an adult watching this film, I want my old Pooh back.  He doesn’t have to be vibrantly colored, but he sure as hell doesn’t need a hairy beak, either.

Redeeming moments can be found in the cinematography of Matthias Koenigswieser (who hasn’t shot much of note prior to this).  His eye wanders through the Hundred Acre Wood just enough to make it appear naturally magical, and some of the views (although used more than once in some cases) are spectacular.

There are several special features, although many are short and serve more as commercials for a film you’ve already bought.  There isn’t a whole lot of captivating behind-the-scenes stuff here, other than how they brought the characters to life through puppetry (and, yes, CGI).

Technically, you could consider this another entry in Disney’s recent exuberance into the live-action genre; after the success of their re-do’s of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE JUNGLE BOOK, and with ALADDIN and THE LION KING on the horizon, one would hope that at some point, they’d get back to the animation that made them a part of millions of childhoods.  And maybe make a film that doesn’t have “dead parent” as a plotline…

Film Grade: C
Special Features: C+
Blu-ray Necessary: Not necessary (due to the lack of heffalumps and woozles)

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, November 29, 2018


“SKumm’s Thoughts”

I hate to admit it, but there came upon me a moment when watching this sequel to 2016’s FANTASTIC BEASTS in which I hoped Johnny Depp would look directly into the camera and break into his Captain Jack Sparrow routine.

Granted, there are a few moments when that slightly rolling voice comes through, as though he’s egging you on a bit.  Like at any moment he could cry out “mun-key!” in fear and a slightly drunken repose.  But he doesn’t.  Which kinda sucked.

CRIMES follows the basic Hollywood sequel setup, in that it adheres to the formula set forth by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK; secrets are revealed, some questions are answered, and the bad guys have a field day.  Seeing the fugitive wizard Grindelwald (Depp) in action can be quite the nefarious spectacle.  His power is obvious, his intentions are honestly blunt, and his ideology is skewed yet rational in a sympathetic kind of way.  He wants all pure-blood witches and wizards to rule the world, and he nearly has the means to do so.  Those means involve winning Credence (Ezra Miller) over to his side.  Where Grindelwald is stalwart in his resolution, Credence is coming into his own.  He still shies away from human interaction, but his conflicted emotions have evolved into a quest for identity—one which, sadly, is not explored quite enough here.  Neither is that of Nagini (Claudia Kim), who eventually grows up to be a really evil snake.  In fact, there are several characters here that need more fleshing out, and more time to simmer.  You get the distinct impression that there is a longer, more character-friendly film here somewhere.

It is certainly possible that they will all evolve more over time; this is, after all, only the second in a planned five-film story.  But there are a whole lotta people on display here, and it seems an injustice to not let these characters develop more naturally.

My other gripe lies with either J.K. Rowling’s script or Mark Day’s editing; there are jumps in the storyline that are wholly out of place for a film set in the “Wizarding World” universe.  Scenes cut to other characters suddenly further along than you last saw them, which goes against the typical storytelling of these films.  It is especially bothersome when it concerns characters we care about.  Speaking of which, the early standout for me in this film was, once again, Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski.  His humor and presence show an almost uncanny depth, making him the most relatable character in the movie—well, for part of it, anyways.  Eddie Redmayne is just as effective as he was the first time around, and this time he is allowed to better plumb the depths of his social anxieties and self-doubts.  Newt Scamander really is one of the most complex characters writer J.K. Rowling has ever created, and I’m including Severus Snape in that mix (Slytherin forever, beotches!).

And please don’t think that I hated this sequel; on the contrary, it was enjoyable.  Some of the effects are stunning, and the set detail was delightful.  The graveyard was especially effective as a mood setter, although that was also one of the parts which felt a bit rushed.  Phillipe Rousselot’s cinematography is wonderful, in that he sets up some shots that linger in your head well into the next scene.  Some of his work may seem unconventional for a Wizarding World film, but it is a great visual tool in director David Yates’ arsenal.

There are other things which bothered me (and some things about the story that I loved), but to divulge them goes against my “No Spoilers! Rule”.  If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what the film is about.  And no, it isn’t about Jack Sparrow getting the Black Pearl back.  No matter how badly you want that sly wink and a “mun-key!”.

Film Grade: B-

- T.S.Kummelman

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE MEG

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Summer movies can sometimes get a bit stale.  Hollywood occasionally regurgitates the same ideas; what made money last summer surely will garner the same reaction this time around.

Thankfully, last summer had a few offerings that offered new hope when it comes to the typical summer blockbuster; whether it was dinosaurs haunting in a mansion or watching Tom Cruise run across an entire city, we definitely had some variety in the theaters.  And THE MEG was exactly what a summer movie should be: there was action, laughs, muscles, and a giant, hangry shark. 

MEG concerns a megalodon, a not quite extinct, giant, prehistoric shark that eats killer whales for appetizers and whales of the bigger variety at meal time.  And, apparently, it’s always meal time.  When a megalodon is freed from its underwater prison during a rescue operation and begins roaming the open waters 200 miles off the coast of China (which, for a shark that size, is probably, like, twenty feet from the beach), a team of scientists and precisely one badass try to save the day.  The script, written by two screenwriters responsible for RED and BATTLESHIP, and another dude that wrote PAYCHECK, work from the 1997 novel by Robert Alten.  Usually, three screenwriters spells doom; it means that there were either a whole lotta rewrites, or that the film could be clunky (like, one guy wrote the action, another the comedy, and another dude did the scientific research, and nothing in the film quite matches).  But this…oh, this is a beast that works surprisingly well.

Jason Statham stars as deep sea diver Jonas Taylor, a guy that rescues other divers for a living—or at least did, until what he claims was a giant shark was responsible for a prior rescue that turned disastrous.  He is pulled back into the mix after a Megalodon cripples a research vessel in the depths of the ocean, and rushes to save the scientists on board.  One of those is Hiro Naka—I mean, Masi Oka (“Heroes”), who proves once again how much of a natural talent he is.  Also in the cast is the gorgeous Ruby Rose, along with Bingbing Li (coolest name ever), Rainn Wilson, Page Kennedy, and a whole bunch of other people you will recognize from similar parts they have played in the past.  But stereotyping is part of the fun here, believe it or not.  This is a summer action film, so don’t go in wanting to see something other than two hours of joyous carnage and a remarkable number of near misses.

The film looks beautiful; the fully realized sets and the mini submarines that look like something out of a STAR WARS film have more than enough detail in them to make them appear better than your typical movie props.  The CGI translates well from the big screen to whatever you watch this film on; the filmmakers went to great lengths to making this look as authentic as possible, and it works.  And the score by Harry Gregson-Williams (THE EQUALIZER, THE MARTIAN) is a perfect pairing to the on-screen action.

The only thing I wanted more of in this film, however, was ten-year-old actress Shuya Sophia Cai.  Her timing is impeccable, and she has, quite possibly, the Greatest Eyebrows in Hollywood.  Seriously.  There are numerous funny moments to behold, several of which are delivered by Ms. Cai, whose facial expressions alone warrant their own special feature.  Alas, the special features included here are not eyebrow-specific; while entertaining, there are only two, and they don’t offer up much different in the way of behind-the-scenes.  Although “Making of the Beast” is very interesting in that it shows you how much research and detail actually went into creating the shark, the rest is skippable. 

As this is based on a series of books, we would be lucky enough to be swimming these waters with Mr. Statham and Co. again.  There has been no official announcement from the studio yet, which is quite surprising; the film grossed almost three times its budget, and that usually equates to a green light for a sequel.  So keep your fingers crossed, and watch out for fins.
Grade: A-
Special Features: C-
Blu-ray Necessary: Abso-freaking-lutely

Thursday, November 15, 2018

“SKumm’s Thoughts” - THE GRINCH

“SKumm’s Thoughts”

In the year 2000, Ron Howard reimagined the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with a live-action film starring Jim Carrey.  There has been much debate over the film’s merit, as it stretched a classic twenty-six-minute television cartoon into a movie four times that long (not to mention the fact that it starred one of the most frenetic comedic actors of the time), and most viewers either loved or hated it.

Count me as one of the latter; something about the Who’s of Whoville brought to life really creeped me out, and I thought the casting of Mr. Carrey seemed out of place.

So why would Universal give it another try?  Why would the same studio take a film that, despite the mixed reviews, was highly successful at the box office, and remake it?

In short, because they could do it better.  This animated retelling may be the best iteration of the story yet—and I’m including the Boris Karloff led Warner Brothers cartoon in that.  I know, I know: blasphemy.  But the wunderkinds at Illumination have crafted a story that is touching, relevant, and extremely funny, and have wrapped it in sharp animation that pays homage to its predecessor and creates a sense of wonder which overshadows prior attempts.  There is something glorious about seeing all those lights in Whoville, and the attention to detail in the animation is precise and breathtaking.

Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, working from a script by Tommy Swerdlow and Michael LeSieur, keep the pacing consistent throughout.  There are no lulls in the storytelling or the laughs, and the cast does a wonderful job in making you care about the goings on of a tale you probably already know.  The standouts are Pharrell Williams as the narrator, whose lyrical delivery makes you want to reread the book (out loud, and with his voice), and young Cameron Seely as Cindy Lou Who.  Ms. Seely does a fantastic job capturing the nuances and attitudes of a child (probably because she is one, but her comedic timing nears brilliance in certain moments).  Benedict Cumberbatch is an interesting choice for The Grinch; he is confident and spontaneously erratic (when needed), and at times seems to channel only the better moments of Jim Carrey’s attempt at the role.  Yet he makes it his own when it comes to his delivery and his commitment to the material; whereas Carrey never seemed to stop being Carrey, you feel the change in Cumberbatch’s Grinch.  Occasionally, though, you wish Cumberbatch would just let loose a little more; his delivery is, again, confident, but his it also sometimes falls flat. 

The only drawback to the production is Tyler the Creator’s version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”.  There really isn’t any way to beat or outshine Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic baritone voice, and the studio seems to get this by only using a brief twenty or thirty seconds of this attempt.  But said attempt is a mumbled mess, and honestly, pairing Tyler the (I am so not writing out his entire name again, as the only thing I think he created here is a new way to sing with a mouth packed full of stale sugarplums) with singing children is weird.  Weird, and creepy.

The rest of the soundtrack is perfectly chosen.  Danny Elfman’s score is inspired and complimentary to the action onscreen, and never once feels presumptuous or rudimentary.  If anything, Elfman’s music adds additional layers to the animation, if that’s even possible.

This is one of those films that bears seeing twice, as there are many details you will probably miss the first time around (including the lovely diversity within the populace of Whoville).  And to pull it off without any low-brow humor or fart jokes just shows the amount of respect the filmmakers have for the source material.  Congratulations to Universal for allowing Illumination to take the reins on this one, and to all those involved (except for Tyler the Agitator) for creating a film I will definitely be adding to my yearly Christmas watch list.

Grade: A-

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - REPRISAL

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

There are times that I really, REALLY enjoy writing these reviews.  Mostly it is due to my excitement at being able to recommend something I really enjoyed, and other times, it is the joy I experience in coming up with new insults.

Thank you, Brian A. Miller (VICE, THE PRINCE) for giving us REPRISAL.  This is the third time he has directed Bruce Willis, and the third time that effort has sucked toad anus.  Seriously—movies don’t get as dumb as this one.  It is like watching a kid playing with those cheap store-brand cars, the ones that want to be Matchbox Cars but look and act more like crap with wheels that don’t spin.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Mr. Willis, or even Frank Grillo (CAPTAIN AMERICA), to poop toys.  While both are fine actors, neither one really acts their collective pants off here.  In fact, there are only three people taking this film seriously: the director (Miller), first time screenwriter Bryce Hammons, and “Legends of Tomorrow’s” own Jonah Hex, Johnathon Schaech, who is so excited to be playing the bad guy that he overacts his buns off.

The story revolves around a bank manager (Grillo), who’s branch is robbed one day by an occasionally violent baddie (Schaech).  He wants to clear his name so he can go back to work, therefore enlists the help of his neighbor (Mr. Willis), a retired cop, to track down the murderous thief.  At least, that’s the brief reason given to justify his motivation.  His neighbor’s motivation?  He’s retired, what the hell else does he have to do?  And, just as importantly, the bad guy’s motivation?  HE’S THE ANTAGONIST, HE DOESN’T NEED ONE.  If the fact that the bank manager and the retired cop figure out where the bad guy is hiding out through an extended and tedious montage doesn’t bother you, then you should definitely follow this film up with the other two frog-butt sucking movies I previously referenced.  Otherwise, please read on.

You know how you can skip from chapter to chapter on your Blu-ray player?  For this one, you should be able to skip to moments of absurdity and/or idiocy.  And they should have titles, like “Chapter 1: Dumbass Plot”, or “Chapter 7: How Cop Cars Skid Out During Chase Scenes When the Pavement Isn’t Wet”.  Maybe even “Chapter 20: When the Daughter Finally Speaks Above an Incoherent Mumble.”  There is so much wrong with this film, and everyone’s involvement with it, that you wonder how something this terrible could actually be regurgitated by Hollywood, and directly onto our eyes.  That’s right, folks: you could save yourself the time and trouble of watching this “film” by paying someone to throw up on your eyeball.  Same difference, really.

There are special features, but, really, who cares?  The last thing I want to watch is a bunch of people saying nice things about each other and the film when that is probably the best acting on the disc.  The special features should have titles commiserate with that of the film: “The Making of Reprisal: The Lengths We Went to To Ensure This Movie Was the Mental Equivalent of an Acidic Enema”.  And “The Casting of Reprisal: Actors That Thought This Would Be More Entertaining Than Watching a Competition Between Growing Grass (not the fun kind) and Drying Paint”.  “The Music of Reprisal: How to Play the Drums and a Tuba with Your Fart Hole”.

In summary: poop.
Grade: F+ (the “+” is for actress Olivia Culpo, the only spark of beauty in an otherwise crappy affair)
Special Features: F- (just because)
Blu-ray Necessary: If you buy this on Blu-ray, somehow, somewhere, entire colonies of cute puppies and kittens will simultaneously explode.  Please—don’t kill the puppies.

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, November 1, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Remember when there was a certain charm to the Marvel Universe?  It was a happy time, when Thor and Hulk bickered with their fists to perfect comedic timing, when Tony Stark’s wit and sarcasm were hilarious exclamation points to the action and kept everything feeling light and relatable?

And then the MCU got all dark and mysterious.  Okay, not really mysterious.  It was more like heavy-handed storytelling and origin stories which all followed the same blueprint.  Even the first ANT-MAN was guilty of that: hero comes into a superpower/supersuit, hero has to learn about defending the people and the greater good, hero battles someone that has the same type of superpower/supersuit.  But what set the first film apart from the rest of the MCU was its reconnection to the humor that charmed us in IRON MAN and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  It was an origin story, yes, but it was also a crime caper.  It felt fresh, because it set itself apart from the rest of the pack by not reaching further than its geographical confines.

With ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, returning director Peyton Reed not only stays true to his method of storytelling from 2015’s ANT-MAN, but he ups things a notch.  He smoothly and without any heavy-handedness makes the viewer more emotionally invested in the characters—and he does it all with that lighthearted humor which is becoming unique to this little corner of the MCU. 

In this installment, scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) figures out a way to rescue his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm.  He just needs Scott Lang’s (Paul Rudd) help to do so—well, he and Pym’s daughter Hope (the badass Evangeline Lilly).  There are several elements that turn this story about a rescue operation into something more, and I’d be giving away too much by describing them all to you.  There is the comedic action, the easy banter between Lang and Hope, the nearly unbearable cuteness of Lang’s daughter (played with amazing timing by Abby Ryder Fortson).

Mr. Reed is smart enough to know that a film cannot rely on its title heroes alone; like the first film, the character that nearly steals the show is Michael Pena’s “Luis”, the fast-talking ex-con who tells a story like no other.  He is on point again, and even better than before. 

Keep in mind when watching, however, that whereas ANT-MAN was a crime caper, this one is a rescue mission.  Meaning, there is no need for a super-bad villain, one promising destruction of a city or the world.  This story is kept within Lang & Company’s little corner of San Francisco, and that’s just fine.  It helps keep the goings on more relatable, and the tone lighter. 

There are several special features, including a gag reel and two deleted scenes.  The docs deliver the usual, but what’s missing is more Luis.  For some reason, the Whale Boat Guy gets his own unused takes, but for a studio that was Luis-heavy during the film’s marketing campaign, not including more of him in the special features is a misstep.

ANT-MAN will be back in action in the next INFINITY WARS film, but that will be a brooding sequel to that last heavy, heavy AVENGERS film.  With any luck, he and The Wasp will continue on into the next phase of the MCU; I’m sure it will need a little (pun totally intended) levity following the end of the current one.
Grade: A
Special Features: B-
Blu-ray necessary: Absolutely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, October 25, 2018


“SKumm’s Thoughts”

I have never been a huge fan of Eli Roth; it seemed that most of his films were light on story, heavy on gore and torture, and the need to push the limits of the rating’s board.

So, when I heard he was directing a kid’s movie, I was a bit skeptical.  Who wouldn’t be?  This is the same guy that did HOSTEL, CABIN FEVER, and The Bloodiest Bruce Willis Movie Ever Made.  How in the wide world of sports was this guy going to pull off a PG-rated movie?  Turns out, spectacularly.

Working from the script by veteran television writer Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”, and the forthcoming “The Boys”), and based on the classic children’s series written by John Bellairs, Mr. Roth pulls off the seemingly impossible.  While the finished product is not wholly perfect, it is perfect in enough places to make it a thoroughly entertaining experience.

HOUSE stars young Owen Vaccaro (DADDY’S HOME) as Lewis Barnavelt, a recently orphaned boy who moves into his uncle’s house.  Uncle Jonathon (Jack Black, who tones down his Jack Blackness enough for you to enjoy his performance) lives in what, at first glance, appears to be a haunted house.  Stained glass windows rearrange themselves, chairs follow you around, and the griffin topiary likes to poo in the bird bath.  Yet things are not what they would seem: Uncle Jonathon is a warlock, and his feisty neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett, giving me several more reasons to adore her) is a witch.  The house once belonged to an evil warlock who built a nefarious clock within its walls (duh—the title…), one which has remained hidden since his death the previous year.  Jonathon spends much of the nighttime hours searching for it, as he is certain it is up to absolutely nothing good.

There are several elements on display which work surprisingly well, not the least of which is Lewis’s plight.  He finds himself in a new home, in a new school where he struggles to make new friends, and trying to grieve for his dead parents.  Young Mr. Vaccaro plays his role quite well; he is sorrowful, yet still displays the curiosity inherent in any child.  He plays off his adult co-stars well, but it is the back-and-forth insults between his uncle and Florence that are some of the biggest highlights.  Black and Blanchett seem made for each other, so far as trading quips goes.  It is their chemistry as his bickering surrogate family that gives the story its hidden heart, that which guides Lewis through this tumultuous time.  And makes for some pretty good laughs.  Also on hand is Kyle MacLachlan as the evil warlock Isaac Izard, who doesn’t grind his teeth on the scenery so much as he gleefully gnaws on it.

This may seem like a movie just for kids, but the humor here is smart, sometimes biting, and the typical trappings of a tale about an orphaned kid are not present enough to bog down the story.  We see that Lewis is sad, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be the entire focus here; he’s a kid, and even when dealing with loss, there is still a certain feeling of wonder and beauty in childhood.  The script captures it, but, more importantly, Owen interprets it beautifully through his portrayal.  There are also some moments that could be a bit scary for kids, but not so much that they’ll be having nightmares over it.

There is a certain magic to this story, and to Mr. Roth’s way of telling it.  From the opening credits (he uses the old Universal Pictures logo to start things off) to the way he never once condescends to his target audience, here he seems a master storyteller.  He isn’t setting you up for the next gore-drenched scene, but rather guiding you along with a friendly nod and the gentlest of nudges.  With any luck, Mr. Roth has at last found his niche, and based on the latest box office returns, he should be given the opportunity to direct a sequel.

Grade: A

-- T. S. Kummelman