Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: From Monsters to the Moon

MONSTER HUNT • MOONWALKERS

 

January 21, 2016



In addition to scattered screenings of many of this year’s Academy Award nominated films still showing in theatres, there are plenty of new releases opening every week in theatres, as well as digitally and VOD. This week, there is a terrific range of films opening with something for everyone in the family. I can’t recommend highly enough THE PASTOR. Faith-based without being preachy, actor/writer/producer Arturo Muyshondt delivers a solid uplifting story of social relevance in today’s world. Solid production values with cinematography by Jordan Parrott adding to the storytelling, this Deborah Goodwin directed feature is a “must see” for all. Can’t get enough of Oscar Isaac or Garrett Hedlund? Look no further than MOJAVE. A true psychological mind bender, both men bring their “A” game to this cat and mouse drama in this William Monahan vehicle. But let’s turn some closer attention to two other faves of mine this week. . .

MONSTER HUNT

I’ve got Monster Love for MONSTER HUNT! A live action-CGI animation meld courtesy of director Raman Hui, it’s easy to see why MONSTER HUNT is the biggest grossing film of all time in China. (Yes, it topped “Fast & Furious 7".) It’s a pure delight! And now, this wonderful blend of history, fantasy, animation, live-action and Wuba, the cutest little monster ever, makes its way east across the Pacific to the United States.

Written by Alan Yuen, MONSTER HUNT takes place in a fantasy world filled with the mysteries of the ancients, a world where monsters and mortals exist, but don’t co-exist. Monsters may rule the world, but a delicate balance of peace is maintained by the mortals humans living within their own kingdom. But as with any societal structure, there are good monsters and bad monsters, good mortals and bad and here we have bad monsters hunting the current monster queen who is carrying the future king, a monster king destined to make an everlasting peace between the species.

Knowing her days are numbered before she is caught, the Queen transfers her monster baby egg to a human man she encounters in the forest during an attack by evil monsters. Mayor of a small local village, Tianyin is a bit on the clutzy, goofy, hapless side of life, so when he is suddenly “pregnant”, the hilarity seen with his usual foibles, escalates exponentially. Alongside Tianyin is Xiaolan, a monster hunter. She too is seeking the as yet unborn baby.

As to be expected, for non-stop laughter and action, especially once Tianyin goes into labor and gives birth to the cutest little monster imaginable - Wuba. While Xiaolan wants to protect Wuba on her way to collect a reward for his capture, Tianyin only grows closer to him, wanting to protect him because he is a life that should be saved.

As the trio make their way through Ancient China and the monster world and mortal worlds cross paths, we are treated to oh-so-adorable “family” moments as well as some adrenaline-fueled martial arts disciplines, all of which are so eye-popping and engaging to entertain even the youngest moviegoer. Along the way, Xiaolan does battle against fellow monster bounty hunter Luo Gan, and we learn the history of the now defunct Monster Hunt Bureau, as well as meeting Ge Qianhu who, under guise of being the owner of the most palatial restaurant/spa in the province, may have secrets designed to destroy the peace and drive up his profits. Hmmm.

A climactic fight within Ge Qianhu’s restaurant is a visual spectacle showcasing not only the high caliber VFX courtesy of Jason Snell, but giving all the characters fantastical moments to soar through the VFX and superlative martial arts action choreography by Ku Huen Chiu. And let’s just say, be on the lookout for Tianyin’s grandmother. She’s got a few tricks up her sleeve.

The monsters themselves - especially Wuba - are for the most part just adorable. If this film were in the hands of Disney, there would be little Wuba monster merchandising. Personally, I want one! Great thought is evident with the detail of the monsters; all the good monsters - even the adults - rounded, soft-edges, like a roly poly baby, non-threatening and harmless. Friendly. Bad monsters have the claws and hard edges. Makes for a nice subtle tonal distinction worked into the visuals. Interesting is that I note some of the monster designs harken to other film animation designs of late, such as “Home”, “Escape From Planet Earth” and even “Strange Magic”, especially with the eyes; thus, the wonderful emotional expressiveness that the film achieves.

Yuen’s script is imaginative and provides strong foundation for story, although some of the antics that we watch unfold go off the rails. While in many films, that would be a bad thing, despite some confusion at times, it works within the structure of MONSTER HUNT. Moral aspects of the story are strong, celebrating family, respect, community and tolerance. Characters are all fun and entertaining, but let’s face it, the star of the show is Wuba.

Director Hui’s animation background serves MONSTER HUNT well as animation is a seamless meld with live-action and the CGI imagery is dynamic, clean, crisp and creative.

Although many of the cast are unknown to US audiences, for anyone that sees MONSTER HUNT, you will find yourself taking notice of each and look for them in other films. There is a terrific chemistry between Wu Jiang’s bounty hunter Luo and Baihe Bai’s Xiaolan, as well as between Bai and Jing Boran’s Tianyin, the latter of whom is endearing with his bumbling fumbling charm. Performances and relationship dynamics are resonant, carrying beyond some of the silly fantasy and fun and into believability. Elaine Jin as the Grandmother is simply a kick in the ass. Hilarious! And her facial expressions and physicality just buttresses the character. Standout are Hong Kong comedy stars Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng who will have you in stitches as Zhugao and Pangying, monster guardians (in human disguise). And kudos to the entire cast who execute my truly memorable slapstick comedic moments.

Production values on the whole are strong. Cinematography by Anthony Pun is beautiful and melds well with the animation. Use of color is lush, rich - especially in the climactic restaurant scene. Notable is also the pops of color with the monsters. The colors used with the monsters is not duplicated with human costume or decor.

And I would be remiss to not mention the work of production designer Yohei Taneda. Exquisite. From the design and construction of a small village to the majesty of the palatial restaurant and ethereal mysticism of the forests and places along the journey, Taneda is masterful. (Cinema fans may find it interesting to check out some more of Taneda’s work in theatres now with “The Hateful Eight.”)

One caveat I must give to you, though. There are two versions showing in theatres - one is dubbed in English, the other Mandarin with sub-titles. Having seen both versions and throughly enjoying both, I would recommend the Mandarin version. Unfortunately, because of the very nature of mouth and facial movements associated with pronunciation and cadence with each language, the English dubbing is not the best in the world and at times becomes distracting whereas the Mandarin version is uninterrupted and non-distracting.

Wuba is a monster you’re just gonna “wub”. Yep. Monster love for MONSTER HUNT!

MOONWALKERS

The time is July 1969. Apollo 11 is ready to blast off to the Moon. But wait? What if something goes wrong? What if they don’t make it? Television time is locked. The moon landing will be broadcast live. NASA and the US government can’t show a disaster on tv. They need a contingent plan and leave it to our beloved bureaucrats and powers that be to come up with a plan - hire Stanley Kubrick to make a fake moon landing film pursuant to all the NASA specs for the real LEM, the moon landing site, the flag, etc. No one will know the difference IF the film rolls instead of live tv. And why Kubrick? “2001: A Space Odyssey” had recently released which to the CIA and NASA meant Kubrick knows how to “shoot space”. And so, we have MOONWALKERS. Laugh-out-loud-tears-rolling-down-cheeks-rolling-in-the-aisle-funny!!

Enter CIA Agent Kidman. A one man wrecking machine, Kidman can get the job done, but he also suffers with severe PTSD, nightmares and hallucinations from his days in Viet Nam. Although not thrilled at the assignment, Kidman is a company man, so off he goes to jolly old England to meet up with Kubrick’s agent, neither of whom Kidman has a clue of what they look like.

Arriving in England at the offices of Kubrick’s agent Derek Kaye, with whom he spoke on the phone, he meets the man whom he believes is Kaye. As the audience and everyone else in the film knows, this is not Kaye, but his cousin Jonny, a wannabe record promoter/band manager who is deep in debt with loansharks ready to cut off his hands. He sees all the money the US is willing to pay Kubrick, and voila! - he’s Derek Kaye and he’s gonna deliver Kubrick. Only he doesn’t know Kubrick. But his actor roommate Leon looks “kinda” like him.

But it’s going to take a lot to pull the wool over Kidman’s eyes and it doesn’t take long before Jonny’s deception spirals out of control with Kidman and Jonny realizing one thing; if they don’t make this movie, both of them are dead. Assuring Kidman he “knows a guy”, he can help them, the two look to “auteur” Renatus to make the film. And with that, we plunge down into the rabbit hole with Kidman and Jonny and company for one of the most hilarious and headiest trips to come around in a long while!

As Kidman, Ron Perlman is an absolute scream, delivering a performance that feels like George Kennedy and Lee Marvin melted into one another. Rupert Grint is perfection as foppish “Nervous Nelly” Jonny, but who actually has a character arc that develops into something with strength and decisiveness. Similarly, Perlman's Kidman goes from total complete uptight PTSD CIA heavy to a little looser and more "normal" kind of guy. The story plays, as do their two performances, towards a meeting in the middle as one loosens up and one buttons up.

Tom Audenaert is a scene stealer as Renatus, giving him a camp Victor Buono aka King Tut on "Batman" tv series flair. A giddy delight to watch his work. But there are no words for the hilarity of Eric Lampaert as lead singer and rock opera wannabe Glen. I couldn't stop laughing everytime he was on screen and never moreso than when dressed as a floating jellyfish in space.

Long a fan of screenwriter Dean Craig's dark delicious comedy styling with his story construct and character development, here is no different. He pushes the envelope and then some while incorporating Kubrick references and nods at every turn both in dialogue and with visuals. Previously unfamiliar with the work of director Antoine Bardoue-Jacquet, I'm all for seeing more of his directorial escapades. Playing to the conspiracy theorists who have long said the moon landing was faked, MOONWALKERS is a gem. The time period is played to perfection, and the fact that it's set in London with a "looser, freer, free love, LSD and mushroom laced culture at the time" just fuels the funny.

The attention to detail with character and production design is actually quite meticulous - as is costuming - and belies the "haphazard" lifestyle and filming methods of Renatus. Over the top camp is delicious with kills, blood spurting and, of course, the recreation of the moon landing. And yes, it did look very cool but adding to the humor was how taken Jonny, Kidman and Leon were with the work and that they truly thought it "looked real". A scream!!!

MOONWALKERS is a cakewalk of comedic proportions!

 

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