review//PETE'S DRAGON

Grade: B

PETE'S DRAGON
Directed by David Lowery
Starring Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford

More of a new vision than just a standard reboot or remake, David Lowery's Pete's Dragon preserves the heart of the 1977 original while injecting modern realness and adventure. While there's something to be said about the Disney-fied, joyful, and a tad scary, original film, this new take on a familiar story fits perfectly into Disney's new direction of reimagining their best stories in more mature ways.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a mop-headed little boy, orphaned in the middle of the forest after a car accident with his parents in which he's the only survivor. While making his way, alone, through the woods, looking for help, Pete comes across a dragon, who he names Elliot. Over the years, the existence of Elliot has lived in folklore and tall tales among the townspeople. By happenstance, once Pete makes his presence known to a group of humans, Elliot's capture is imminent and the fight for the true definition of family and belonging becomes what matters most.

From the beginning, director Lowery's vision is sincere, though the story is a bit choppy. There are major differences between this version and the original Disney feature, mostly in the form of Pete's backstory. While the loss of Pete's parents in such a tragic way is grappling, the subplot of the orphanage added an extra layer of fear to the first story that we're missing here. In the same regard, however, Pete's struggle for human connection, but not wanting to say goodbye to Elliot, ultimately drives the heart of it all. It's about growing up and realizing that sometimes that means saying goodbye.

As the adult counterpart, Bryce Dallas Howard is spectacular, eliciting the right amount of compassion and concern, without delving too much into adult caricature. As Grace, a forester who takes Pete under her wing, she lives up to her name in the most pleasant and confident of ways. Playing her father, Robert Redford lives up the tropes of the cooky old man who knows about Elliot's existence all along. In his first outing with Disney, Redford embodies everything the story needs in the form of levelheaded adulthood. Like Howard's Grace, Redford's Meacham comes across more genuine than older characters generally do.

The true star of the show, however, is Fegley as Pete. His quizzical eyes and sheepish grin meld together as the right kind of adventure-loving boy. There are a few high-flying moments that distract from the sincerity of it all, but even through these, including the time he climbs on top of a speeding school bus,  Fegley never seems to lose a certain grounded expressiveness that completely sells it all. Like we saw earlier this year with The Jungle Book, child actors having to perform with CGI creatures shouldn't look so effortless. But, with good talent comes great, effortless, and real performances. Elliot looks CGI, but you quickly forget that he isn't real, thanks to Fegley's enamored emotions.

The structure is off-putting and the third act is way too rushed, but the heart of the film is harrowing and may even well up a few tears. The film means well and works most of the time. It isn't Disney's best live action effort, but it's far from the worst. A palpable adventure definitely worth taking. If I were 11 years old, again, I would have been floored.

Rating: PG
Runtime: 103 minutes

review//FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Grade: B+

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg

It's safe to say that any Meryl Streep performance is going to be a good Meryl Streep performance. Many times, she's the best part of every film. Even last year's Ricki and the Flash, which was mediocre at best, gave Streep the chance to do something slightly new and great. While some of her performances can be too close to caricature, the joy is that Streep has a subtle ability to completely melt into any character to whom she's tasked at giving life. In Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep bounds past caricature to deliver an honest identity within a larger-than-life true story.

Streep stars as the titular Florence Foster Jenkins, a 1940's New York heiress past her prime, but perfectly willing to still shoot for her dreams. Though she grew up musically inclined, Jenkins' main thrills came from performing in any capacity. Her annual tableaus garnered pleasant crowds of friends and revelers. After seeing a opera singer completely enrapture a room of eager music fans, Jenkins does the unthinkable. Much to the chagrin of her common law husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), Jenkins hires an accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), and concocts an extraordinary plan to perform at Carnegie Hall.

The true spirit of Florence Foster Jenkins is how honestly absurd the whole premise is and how respectful the entire filmmaking team treats it. While Jenkins' voice is infamously bad, and the film highlights this in hilarious ways, there's a sense of confidence Streep's Jenkins exudes which makes it feel less like bullying and more like compelling artistry.

In fact, director Stephen Frears keeps the focus and energy of the film in a place that encourages the audience to root for Jenkins, while the rest of the world at the time may have been laughing at her. If this story had been fabricated, it would not live up to the pedigree of an analogous morality tale. But, in its truthfulness, Florence Foster Jenkins speaks to that small piece in all of us telling us that our dreams are still attainable. Without any vocal talent, Jenkins still inspired audiences and filled the void in her own life. Though criticism can be tough, and Jenkins and her team did everything they could to keep honest critics away, the fact that she found the courage in herself to stand on the stage of Carnegie Hall and fulfill her dream is telling and encouraging.

The story aside, as a film, Frears packs a punch with his performers. Streep soars in an awards-worthy performance as Jenkins. Grant, returning to the screen just to work with Streep, shines. If projects like this keep coming his way, we're in for a treat. Helberg, who's most notably part of the cast of "The Big Bang Theory", surprises in a quirky supporting, but important, role.

Style and substance are two other main ingredients here. Though filmed in England, the early 20th century New York set pieces, cars, and costumes, are wonderfully elegant. The bustle of the times, especially in the aristocratic arenas, is on perfect display. Every piece of the film is fun to watch.

With a pace that's never dull and a script that earns plenty of laughs, Florence Foster Jenkins is a fun time at the movies.

Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 110 minutes

review//CAFE SOCIETY

Grade: A-

CAFE SOCIETY
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell

As a director and writer Woody Allen is a master at witty dialogue, neurotic characterizations, and near-perfect period details. With a film released annually, Allen sometimes misses the mark at sincerity and masterpiece, even with subtle moments of enjoyment. In his newest film, Cafe Society, he returns to some of his greatest work, delivering a film with a strong script and even stronger performances.

Set in the 1930s, Cafe Society follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Bronx native who drops everything to move out west to Hollywood, with hopes of picking up a job with his powerful uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Though his uncle has a hard time remembering his name, Bobby finally lands a job as an errand boy. New to the city, Bobby is tasked by his uncle to see as much as he can his first weekend there. Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a fellow employee, takes up tour guide duty and, before long, Bobby is in love.

Eisenberg, as Bobby, fills the void of what would have definitely been an Allen role, had Cafe Society been made in the 70s. Every bit of Allen's signature biting delivery is present in almost every line Eisenberg utters. Though, it's tough to say if that's a directorial and performance decision, or just pleasant coincidence. We've come to know Eisenberg as an equally neurotic performer in his past films, like The Social Network. The busy-brain stutter plays into the wackiness of it all so well. An Allen homage or not, Eisenberg's Bobby is a refreshing anti-hero, never sure of himself, but constantly over-confident.

Stewart, who is traditionally not an electric screen performance, shows plenty of growth as an actress. Perhaps her greatest weakness all along has been her choice of projects. (Imagine if she started as an arthouse queen, instead of the Twilight saga.) She's expressive in a way that is both sincere and mysterious. Vonnie lives and breathes the beleaguered girl-next-door type, but it's when we realize with whom she's having an affair that her morals as a lady come into question.

Being the 1930s, the most fun part of the film is the behind-the-scenes look at studio heavy Hollywood. While Allen is smart to never reveal big studio stars of the time, their names are uttered by Phil Stern in a fantastically showy way. Hollywood is, after all, all about appearances. While Ginger Rogers or Paul Muni never call, Stern is quick to let everyone at his fabulous parties know he's expecting them.

Perhaps a love letter to Los Angeles and the Hollywood we all like to remember, Cafe Society serves its locations well. Glamour is all around and the characters always seem to be just as in awe as we are.

Cafe Society works well as a comedy, mostly thanks to its incredible cast. Eisenberg and Stewart carry most of the film, but supporting players do just as well. Carell plays opposite type as the filthy rich Phil Stern, always focused on work and his love life. He's nasty and enjoyably so. It's one of the first times I wasn't distractedly thinking Michael Scott had popped up in a film. Blake Lively, in an important but small role, is gorgeous and light. This should continue to serve her well as she transitions into movie star status. Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, and Anna Camp play up other, great moments throughout the story.

As most summertime arthouse films do, Cafe Society offers a refreshing filmgoing experience, full of life, laughs, and an intelligent story.

Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 96 min