Editor’s Notes: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, Adult Beginners, and Barely Lethal are out on their respective formats August 4th.
Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal
Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (Well Go USA) is an adventure about demon hunter Zhong Kui, whose specialty is vanquishing ghost-like entities. He’s the Chinese mythological equivalent of an exorcist. In a mission overseen by his mentor, master Zhang, Zhong flees with the Dark Crystal, an object said to contain the spirits of all mortals. This theft is engineered to prevent hell’s soldiers from invading the living world. Zhang helps Zhong develop the ability to shape shift into a powerful ogre, which reveals Zhong’s darker, inner being.
Little Snow is a femme fatale from the netherworld who appears in the guise of lead performer of a female dance troupe. She stirs Zhong’s memories of a one-time relationship when he was a handsome scholar studying for an examination that would propel him toward power. Shown in flashback, these scenes show that Zhong cynically traded in a bright future because of a lost love. Even though Zhong recognizes Little Snow to be a demon, he is nonetheless smitten with her.
The movie is extremely ambitious, as it combines an elaborate fantasy action epic with a doomed romance. Lots of screen time is devoted to Zhang’s constant shepherding of Zhong as he attempts to master his inhuman powers to become the ultimate warrior. Loaded with CGI effects, the picture delivers in the area of spectacle while establishing the fantastical backdrop for its action. Most female characters are portrayed as temptresses who use their beauty and physical attributes to cloud men’s minds and control them — a popular aspect of Chinese fantasy.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer.
Adult Beginners (Anchor Bay) is a pleasant, if not particularly distinguished, comedy. Thirty something Jake (Nick Kroll) crashes and burns on the eve of his company’s big launch. Broke and having alienated all his investor friends, Jake moves back home to live in his childhood house, which he shares with estranged sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and her family. To support himself, he takes the job of nanny to his 3-year-old nephew. Bobby Cannavale plays Justine’s husband, Danny, and Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) is a stand-out as singing swim instructor Miss Jenn.
Returning to his roots gives Jake the chance to start all over. Despite initial mistakes caring for a toddler, he soon bonds with his nephew. But all of the adult characters have axes to grind, unfinished business, thwarted ambitions, or are unhappy with their lives. Director Ross Katz avoids the temptation of going the sitcom route, building the movie around punchlines. he balances drama and comedy, weaving them together seamlessly so that the interactions seem believable and the dialogue real. These are not perfect characters, but that’s what makes them interesting; they all have their flaws and thus resonate as genuine.
The metaphor of swimming runs through the movie. The ability to swim is not something we’re born with; it has to be learned. It cannot be learned as an outsider, observing. It must be learned by getting wet, practicing, and putting forth effort. Thus, swimming is like maturity. Just as there are adults who cannot swim, there are adults who have not completely embraced adulthood and its responsibilities and demands.
Both Mr. Kroll and Ms. Byyne are effective and have good screen chemistry. But the movie tends to use a familiar plot device: a person hits bottom and then must work his way up. We’ve seen this story before, in slightly different forms. Director Katz never succeeds in raising the level of the picture from merely enjoyable to something more.
The only extra on the DVD release is a making-of featurette.
Barely Lethal (Lionsgate) is a comedy about high schooler Megan (Hailee Seinfeld) who was raised in a secret spy program to be a secret agent/assassin. But Megan yearns for a normal adolescence and, on a mission, decides to fake her own death and assume a false identity as an exchange student. Megan assumes that high school is just as it’s portrayed in the movies and on TV. Once enrolled in school, however, she sees that being a “normal” teenager in high school has its downside of catty peers, petty rivalries, and romantic intrigue.
The comic theme, of course, is that high school is more brutal than being an assassin. The movie channels other pictures, particularly Mean Girls, Heathers and Cruel Intentions, though the tone in Barely Lethal is lighter and more sitcom-y. Unfortunately, after a promising if unlikely premise, it soon settles into overly familiar territory. Jessica Alba, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Mann, and Sophie Turner co-star.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include the featurette, “Back to School: On the Set of Barely Lethal;” deleted scenes; and audio commentary with director Kyle Newman and actors Dove Cameron and Thomas Mann. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
For over 25 years, I was the Film and Home Entertainment Reviewer for "The Villadom TIMES," a New Jersey weekly newspaper, and have written for several other publications. I developed and taught a Film Studies program for two New York City high schools that included Film History, Horror/Fantasy, and Film Making.