Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Posted in Crime, Film Noir, Thriller with tags on August 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For photo starrating-1star.jpgIn 1917 artist Marcel Duchamp took a readymade porcelain urinal signed it “R.Mutt” and submitted it for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. It was a controversial idea whose influence is still discussed today. Now I’m not here to take Duchamp to task for his questionable objet d’art. Nevertheless it would seem to me that beneath this move there had to exist at least a modicum of contempt either for art or the audience or both. As I sat watching Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, this idea filtered through my mind. Duchamp appropriated a urinal as art much in the same manner that Frank Miller appropriates film noir as a movie.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the disastrous sequel to 2005’s Sin City, a successful neo noir thriller. It beautifully captured the look of a comic book. A Dame to Kill For is stylistically impressive as well. But it’s so utterly bereft of substance, as to offend the basic requirements of storytelling. This perverts the very idea of entertainment.  The narrative’s fetishizing of violence and sex would be downright pernicious if it wasn‘t so ineffectual and awkward.  Miller conveys style and visual aesthetic, but not heart.  Granted, the measure of good taste is subjective. Let’s set aside the extreme level of violence for a moment. There is no story. Just a compilation of shooting, stabbing, slicing and dicing. The misdeeds strung together as a pseudo fable that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s disgusting, reprehensible, vulgar, misogynistic and every other negative word you can use in this day and age to describe something without value.

The characters are shockingly devoid of merit, especially for a drama in these “enlightened“ times. Film noir has always highlighted the femme fatale. However these women have little to do other than display their physical attributes. The narrative unrepentantly parades Jessica Alba, Eva Green Jaime King, and Juno Temple through the production like skewered selections by waiters at a Brazilian BBQ. Women are either prostitutes, strippers, or evil temptresses.  At least one gets to be a good luck charm. Rosario Dawson literally wears what looks like metal saucepan lids over her breasts in one scene. Jamie Chung doesn’t even get to speak. Oh but she displays her knife wielding skills. Can I re-emphasize the violence? The unending obliteration of human beings is gruesome. It’s like watching a chef at Benihana chop up various meats and vegetables for 102 minutes and then calling it a drama. The men aren’t any more carefully drawn either. Their lack of humanity is disheartening. These guys are rotten to the core. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is just a body to destroy. He serves no purpose. For the first 10 minutes, I marveled at the visual style. It’s remarkable, but soon after the ugliness beneath the production seeps through and overstays its welcome fast.

08-27-14

Frank

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Frank photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgDomhnall Gleeson is Jon, a young wannabe keyboardist who manages to get recruited into an outré band called The Soronprfbs. The group is led by an enigmatic personality named Frank who wears a giant cartoon papier-mâché head that he never takes off. The gang includes Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a supremely negative individual who plays the theremin (natch), Nana their drummer (Carla Azar of experimental LA act Autolux), petulant lead guitarist Baraque (French actor François Civil) and their manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Despite having little to no talent whatsoever, Jon desperately craves mainstream success. Meanwhile the rest of the band appears to have less focused aspirations. His dream of appearing at Austin’s famed South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is driven by his social media campaign via Twitter and YouTube.

The production captures the collaborative efforts of an unknown indie band with real authenticity. There’s a reason for this. The inspirations for Frank are actually more interesting than the film itself. The screenplay was written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, and was based on Ronson’s experiences playing in the new wave act Oh Blimey Big Band during the late 1980s. Their leader, Chris Sievey was an English musician and comedian. He succumbed to cancer in 2010. Sievey’s comic persona Frank Sidebottom included wearing a large spherical shaped head made of papier mâché and dressing in a retro styled suit from the 1950s. Beneath that veneer, the writers have fashioned a bizarre fictional group that also owes an obvious debt to the talents of avant-garde individuals like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Daniel Johnston.

Frank is a black comedy with a dark undercurrent. How dark? Well someone who has committed suicide by hanging himself from tree is presented as a visual joke. In another instance a man is suddenly hit by a car in a sonic surprise that virtually slaps the audience with a punctuated jolt. Frank is definitely an odd little film with a sensibility that will charm some and irk others. There are some amusing moments. Frank’s attempt at his most likable pop song is something called “Coca Cola, Lipstick, Ringo.” In the words of screenwriter Jon Ronson, it would be the result “if someone with manic depression tried to write a Katy Perry song.” The final ditty “I Love You All” is strangely affecting as well. Unfortunately those occurrences are few and far between. Most of the picture isn’t that funny or even particularly memorable. Frank isn’t a bad movie. There are some touching episodes amidst the bleak humor, but I’ll liken its appeal to food. Frank is a heaping plate of fava beans. There’s nothing wrong with fava beans. I just wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’ll take a plate of broccoli instead.

08-23-14

What If

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

What If photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgCan men and women be “just friends“? That’s the age old question that What If address within its well worn story structure, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes infatuated with Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party only to discover that she already has a boyfriend at the very end of their evening together. Chantry maintains she loves her current beau but would like to remain friends. Wallace agrees. Things don’t go as planned.

What If isn’t wholly generic but it isn’t particularly innovative either. Surprisingly, Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) isn’t made out to be a complete jerk. You could imagine the two of them getting married and living a happy life. Although Ben’s first interaction with Wallace is rude and it causes the audience to dislike Ben right from the start, despite his sincere devotion to Chantry. What If does indeed have moments of relaxed whimsy. Radcliffe and Kazan are charming up to a point and they generate enough chemistry to sustain interesting discussions. They share a scene in a diner and a conversation about a disgusting sandwich known as Fool’s Gold was something I had never heard before. More often than not, however, these offhand fragments feel like the carefully orchestrated fabrications of a writer. The twee stretches outweigh the periods of genuine honest emotion.

Chantry’s latent attraction becomes frustrating. In spite of her exhortations that she doesn’t want a romantic relationship, her actions speak otherwise. Upon their first meeting, Chantry flirts conspicuously with Wallace at the party. It’s shocking when she abruptly reveals she is already spoken for when he drops her off. They spent an entire evening together. She couldn’t mention this earlier? Their accidental meeting at a revival showing of The Princess Bride is another mixed signal flirtatious conversation as well. Chantry is a complex woman and she remains a compelling individual, but her behavior develops into this cat-and-mouse game where she seems to express an attraction towards Wallace, then gets indignant when he responds. Then there is her exceptionally bizarre reaction late in the narrative. Her amorous feelings prompts a grand declaration of love from him. Her subsequent response renders her character a most confounding object of befuddlement.

What If is all about when men and women enter the “friend” zone. The picture frequently recalls the far superior When Harry Met Sally both in subject matter and alliances. Wallace and Chantry embark on a platonic relationship. She opens up to her sister Dalia (Megan Park) for advice. He confides in his buddy Allan (Adam Driver). Allan also happens to be Chantry’s cousin. More quirkiness. The production was originally titled The F Word when it was released at the 2013 Toronto film festival in September. That the filmmakers ditched that significantly more zesty title for a humdrum one, actually belies the movie’s true heart. What If is pleasant enough but the slightness of the story ultimately relegates this affair to little more than passable time filler.

08-17-14

Calvary

Posted in Drama on August 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Calvary photo starrating-2stars.jpgBrendan Gleeson is Father James Lavelle, a pastor of a church in County Sligo on Ireland’s Northwest coast. The province is in an outlying area, an environment full of natural beauty that is a facade that hides an ugly sinister heartbeat of assorted sinners and delinquents. The tale begins as he hears the confession of a man. The confessor vows to murder Lavelle in one week’s time because of abuses he suffered when he was a boy at the hands of a completely different priest. The congregant’s rationale is that it would be a more powerful statement to kill a good priest, on a Sunday no less. The movie then introduces us to the various weirdos of his congregation, apparently so we the audience can play, “Guess the culprit.”

Why are there so many misanthropes in this picturesque little Irish town? There’s the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke). She cheats with the approval of her married husband (Chris O’Dowd), a butcher. He is indifferent to his wife’s persistent adultery with an abusive mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé) from the Ivory Coast who thinks women want to be slapped around every now and then. There’s also the rapist murderer (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s actual son) who felt like God when he was killing, an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) with a wicked temperament, an ineffectual young man (Killian Scott) who hates women for not paying attention to him, a flamboyant gay hustler (Owen Sharpe) whose affectations come across like a reject from a failed production of Grease, and a snotty rich man (Dylan Moran) who urinates on an priceless work of art to demonstrate his contempt for life. Let’s not forget his fellow clergyman (David Wilmot), a passionless assistant who seems more like an insurance salesman than a man moved by religious conviction. Lastly there’s the aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) that just wants to commit suicide. You will too after being surrounded by this sorry lot.

So how does a priest spend what might possibly be the very last week of his life? By keeping mum on the threat to his existence and sublimating himself in the mire of his own congregation. Brendan Gleeson is a conscientious man of the cloth with his heart in the right place. He’s mostly a positive portrayal of a Catholic father in an age where that is an original concept. In contrast, writer/director John Michael McDonagh surrounds Brendan Gleeson with a coterie of oddballs and miscreants. A circus freak show would look like the picture of normality when compared to this parish. It’s very self consciously arty. The one actually nice person in this whole depressing production is actress Kelly Reilly who plays Lavelle’s daughter. He was once married and entered the priesthood following the death of his wife. She provides a bit of a respite from the miserableness. Along the way we endure situations brought down by dialogue that challenges the very nature of what it means to produce an engaging drama. The ending is one last expression of disregard for an audience that has endured a narrative that ultimately goes nowhere. Calvary is the hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. And that’s a pretty good description of how I felt after this film was over.

08-13-14

Magic in the Moonlight

Posted in Comedy, Romance on August 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Magic in the Moonlight photo starrating-2stars.jpgWoody Allen has been making films for close to 50 years, so it goes without saying that his productions run the gamut from masterpieces (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to instantly forgettable (September, Anything Else). I’m sorry to report that Magic in the Moonlight sits firmly in the latter category. Even the best of us can have an off day, but I still find it fascinating that a filmmaker can immediately follow up a work of art like Blue Jasmine with an offering that is flawed at such a rudimentary level.

As is often the case with his fumbles, Woody starts out with an interesting idea. At the behest of his fellow illusionist colleague, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is invited to the mansion of the Catledge family on the French Riviera to debunk an ethereal young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who claims to be a psychic. The family is apparently beguiled by this attractive twenty-something. British Stanley is a celebrated magician who performs in disguise as a Chinese conjuror named Wei Ling Soo. With the exception of the friend who invites him, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), no one at the estate is aware of Stanley’s other persona. This then will allow him to observe the clairvoyant and ostensibly expose her as a fraud.

For half the movie, the director has our attention. Colin Firth is enjoyable as this cranky cynic looking to demystify an inscrutable but charming visionary. They banter back and forth. The mood is light, the scenery is pretty and the 1920s milieu is enchanting. As they spend time together, Sophie is able to discern personal details about Stanley’s life and even those of his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Incidentally her minor role was my favorite part. At this juncture, Stanley begins to seriously question his deep-rooted rationalism. Then he decides he has feelings for this girl. Sorry. Nope. Not buying it.

These realizations are a complete betrayal of Colin Firth’s character. That this lifelong curmudgeon would all of sudden, fall head over heals in love with a woman he had regarded as a charlatan is a bunch of hooey. Add to this the unsavory fact that he is old enough to be her grandfather and it adds another layer of ick. Who’s Helena Bonham Carter’s love interest going to be in her next film….Justin Bieber? Because their age difference is exactly the same. Everything up until this point is decent.  However the story falls apart from there. Then a plot twist is added and the reveal is like deflating a hot air balloon as it rapidly descends back to earth. From then on there is absolutely nowhere for the narrative to go. His comment on faith is by now a Woody Allen cliché. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the worst Woody Allen film, but it’s 238,855 miles away from being the best.

08-06-14

The Hundred-Foot Journey

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on August 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hundred-Foot Journey photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDirector Lasse Hallström has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for light romantic dramas that aim to please a mass audience. His Chocolat is a particularly relevant example as it closely resembles his latest work. The Hundred-Foot Journey is a comfy well worn mélange made of simple ingredients.  An Indian family new to France is currently looking for a place to live. They had a restaurant in Mumbai but on election night it was set on fire, killing their mother in the ensuing fracas. The remaining clan escapes those horrible conditions for Europe. After a series of failed starts the group is driving through the French countryside. All of sudden their van conveniently breaks down in the picturesque little village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. They meet Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), a young local woman who’s stunning and the same age as their middle son Hassan (Manish Dayal) who also happens to be handsome. She takes them to her place and provides a bountiful meal full of locally grown fruits and vegetables all lovingly captured in colorful detail. In the morning, after the van has been repaired, Papa (Om Puri) discovers an old abandoned restaurant and decides to buy it. Wouldn’t you know, it’s right across the street from Le Saule Pleureur – Madame Mallory‘s (Helen Mirren) highly acclaimed Michelin star restaurant. More coincidence.

The actors go a long way into making the trite anecdotes seem a lot more weighty. Helen Mirren plays the snooty Madame Mallory. She starts out as a tough-as-nails disciplinarian. Naturally she’s really just a lovable old softie deep down, which should surprise absolutely no one watching this. Strict patriarch (Om Puri) opens up his Indian restaurant Maison Mumbai on the other side of the road. The 100-feet refers to the distance between the two establishments, This prompts a war of one-upmanship. Cue the inevitable culture clash as it’s France vs. India. Puri is an accomplished actor that holds his own in every scene with the equally talented but more critically applauded Mirren. The two of them are an MVP team of brilliant actors schooling the rest of the cast. They make this material seem fresh. I found their interaction to be rather amusing. For three-fourths of the movie the screenplay mines a familiar rhythm that is comforting. The final quarter devolves into a rushed, overly plotted narrative that goes off in a bizarre direction as our protagonist Hassan finds success. It almost looks like the story will go off the rails but then it suddenly gets steered back on course. The drama ultimately ends exactly like you always expected everything to turn out. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I should fault the film for remaining totally predicable or applaud it for being consistent. I guess I’ll go with the second choice.

Anyone who has ever seen a romantic drama will know precisely how this will all play out. The Hundred-Foot Journey is deliberately calculated, button pushing entertainment as manipulative as they come. The thing is, it’s very well done. It’s highlighted by seductive cinematography. The performances are engaging. So you have to ask yourself, am I going to fight this script because it appeals to the lowest common sentimental denominator or shall I sit back, relax and simply enjoy the beautifully photographed ride? I choose the latter.  The production is a pleasant diversion, but it exploits every emotional beat that you expect. Destiny, serendipity and happenstance are the ingredients in a recipe that dictates the storyline. It’s all very precious. There are no surprises or innovation and yet the contrivance goes down rather smoothly. The confection is sweet, akin to a custard filled pastry liberally sprinkled with a lot of sugar and no nutritional value. Its appeal relies on very obvious charms. Let’s just say that I enjoyed the film, but kind of embarrassed to admit that I did.

08-10-14

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Posted in Action, Adventure, Martial Arts, Superhero with tags on August 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a really ugly film. Part one of the original trilogy, also with the same exact title, was released back in 1990 and it confounded expectations to be quite good. Its massive popularity ($260.6 million in 2014 dollars) generated two sequels, each of dwindling quality. A computer animated entry entitled TMNT in 2007 built on the success of the 2003–2009 TV series. Now we’re given a new interpretation on the first motion picture and it’s a sloppy, bewildering mess. The scattershot construction would be bad on its own terms, but when compared to previous incarnations, it achieves a new low.

The history of an established franchise is severely corrupted . The mythology of our beloved foursome is devalued in favor of a tale largely focused on Megan Fox’s character. Reporter April O’Neil is trying to get information about a villainous organization called the Foot Clan that is terrorizing New York City. Side note: A fun drinking game might be to take a drink every time there is a close-up shot of her posterior. At one point, the director actually has her bouncing on a trampoline. I’m not kidding. Fox is not believable as the ambitious go-getting journalist she is supposed to be here but it’s too easy to pick on her so let’s simply move on. The Foot Clan is led by Shredder who looks like a samurai Transformer in a suit of armor with Ginsu knives for hands. He’s ridiculous. Yet he is relegated to secondary villain status in deference to the ubiquity of evil industry mogul Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), a villain as generic as they come. At various junctures his malevolent plan is thwarted by 4 shadowy vigilantes. April sees this and reports her findings to her boss (Whoopi Goldberg). Naturally neither she nor anyone else believes her. Just who are these 4 masked defenders? What follows is a lot of indecipherable nonsense.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles manages to be a really ugly piece of entertainment in a myriad of ways. Dreary events are connected by loud lumbering disorganized mayhem punctuated by lots of noise, all strung together. The action set-pieces are so stridently generic that I couldn’t even describe them immediately after this headache was over. The dimly lit “excitement” is so cluttered, your eyes will glaze over from the miasma of the chaos. A large part of the story has nothing to do with ninja turtles, but rather a bunch of human beings that wouldn’t have enough presence to activate an automatic door, let alone occupy the focus of a movie. And the turtles themselves look disgusting, like gooey roided-up hulks impregnated with reptilian features. We never get to know the characters. The four of them were completely interchangeable as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t differentiate their violent militarized personalities apart. They do wear different colored masks at least. I think one wore glasses. Perhaps even more grotesque is Splinter, their rescued lab rat mentor who learned Ninjutsu from a book he found. He sports rat facial hair and the Asian garb out of an old martial arts flick. He’s voiced by Tony Shalhoub (!). The atmosphere is extremely depressing. The only time some 90s magic is shown is when the turtles start beatboxing in an elevator. It’s at that moment the production starts to feel a little fun, but the second that’s over, the feature reverts back to being a dour desecration of the lighthearted source material. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had me shell-shocked.

08-07-14

Get on Up

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 5, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Get on Up photo starrating-3stars.jpg1988 – A man in a green tracksuit arrives at a strip mall that he owns. He realizes someone has been using the bathroom without his permission. With shotgun in hand he enters a room and points it at the small gathering of people demanding to know the guilty culprit. He accidentally fires a shot in the ceiling amidst shrieks of the people now cowering on the floor, frightened out of their minds.  Police sirens are heard approaching in the distance. James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, is that man.

The practice of digitally encoding music and reusing it as part of another song is common practice today. They claim that James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. In that vein, director Tate Taylor (The Help) gives us haphazard excerpts of a life. These vignettes are selected from different years at various intervals as if chosen from a buffet of life experiences. A detailed handling of the life of James Brown would be a formidable enterprise no doubt given the amount of material the man’s life would entail. Perhaps the filmmakers realized the task of accurately recounting the biography of a man with a long and complicated life would be too daunting. Nevertheless the disregard for chronology is odd. Get On Up is a biographical drama about the life of James Brown, where telling a traditional chronological tale is rejected in favor of emotional touchstones grouped by feeling.

As a result, the saga never has a chance to build momentum. We start near the end where James Brown is already a legend in his own lifetime. People are chanting his name as he walks down a concert hall. As he reflects upon his life, we get the aforementioned run-in with the law. We see a sketch during the 60s where he’s nearly shot down, right before he’s entertaining the troops in Vietnam. 1939 – He’s a little boy running in the woods of South Carolina with his mother, Then he’s performing at a gig in 1964 with his singing group The Famous Flames preceding The Rolling Stones. Jill Scott plays Dee-Dee Jenkins, James Brown’s second wife. One minute they’re handing out gifts as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The next he’s beating her within an inch of her life. Before we can process what‘s happening, the narrative has moved on to another year. Flashback and flash forward. Back and forth, all over the place.

The technique becomes particularly frustrating on the occasion where James is celebrating in his dressing room at the Apollo theater after a show. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen in years, walks in smiling. The power of that scene dissipates as it abruptly ends right there and we skim a myriad of other time periods instead, detailing different relationships with assorted women. All the while an alert viewer is wondering what exactly was the outcome of that fateful reunion of James Brown and his mother. We finally get the answer but it’s over 30 minutes later. In the interim, we come to realize how James Brown could be an effective mediator. A concert at The Boston Garden following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is nearly cancelled for fear of riots. In an effort to diffuse a situation that has an excitable police presence on edge, he appeals to the crowd for order. James calms an excitable crowd whose dancing members keep getting up on stage. It’s a powerful moment.

One thing is for sure. Get on Up is highlighted by some great acting. Let’s start with the supporting parts. Dan Aykroyd as his manager, Viola Davis as his mother, and Octavia Spencer as the Aunt who raised him – they’re all memorable. But none more so than actor Nelsan Ellis (TV’s True Blood) who matches Chadwick Boseman’s work for unadulterated emotional heft. While in prison, James Brown met the man that would change his life, Bobby Byrd. Wives and band members would come and go but his long suffering sidekick stood by his side through the best and worst times of his life. As one of the most moving relationships in James Brown career, it’s a poignant performance that lingers after the music has faded.

Chadwick Boseman is impressive as James Brown. He fully embodies the man in vocal inflections, attitude and behavior. Boseman gets James’ signature raspy voice spot on, extending beyond mere mimicry. And when James sings! The musical performances are the best part. All of his hits are here including “Get Up Offa That Thing”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Pt. 1″, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. The presentation relies on lip synching to actual James Brown tracks and personally I’m glad that decision was made. The singer’s idiosyncratic musical style would have been extremely difficult to duplicate. Chadwick Boseman gets the electricity of James’ delivery down pat, complete with the dancing, the splits and the sheer athleticism. People in my theater actually got up and danced. I’ve never seen that happen. Get on Up isn’t a deep film. It samples from the highlights of a very intricate life with a slapdash approach. I suppose the disjointed sampling is appropriate in an ironic way. It’s how his music is often manipulated today. However, it doesn’t lend itself to a dramatically affecting story arc, just a well acted one.  Chadwick Boseman is indeed an actor to watch.

08-03-14

Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on August 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Guardians of the Galaxy photo starrating-5stars.jpgAt heart, Guardians of the Galaxy is a simple tale about a group of misfits. A mysterious orb of untold power is stolen by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord on the planet Morag. The valuable artifact is coveted by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a genocidal militarist of the Kree race. Star-Lord attempts to sell the relic on the planet Xandar and pocket the money, but before he can, it is intercepted by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a curvaceous alien warrior. The ensuing commotion also draws in Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a anthropomorphic raccoon and Groot (Vin Diesel) a tree-like biped. They all end up in jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a massive brute out for vengeance. This rag tag aggregation of prisoners become allies who unite against a common threat.

Superhero movies are inherently ridiculous. Beings, often from another planet, dress up in some getup and fight crime with their bizarre superhuman abilities. Silly no? That’s why I like mine served with a big fat helping of comedy. The more winking at the audience, the better. Guardians of the Galaxy may be from a comic book, but it doesn’t feel like a Marvel picture in the traditional sense. It concerns a disparate team that are rather disorganized. This motley collection of mercenaries are pretty selfish too. Fighting corruption is the furthest thing from this sorry gang’s mindset as you can get. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t yearn to adhere to the superhero template. It wants to kick back and relax to the soft rock stylings of the 70s. The production would prefer to just rest its feet on the archetype like it was an ottoman.

What makes the fabric of this story work, is the charismatic mix of personalities that ordinarily would have no business being friends. There’s no reason why this unorthodox lot would ever associate with one another. The combination of individuals is unlike anything ever seen before and yet they are instantly recognizable. First and foremost is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill or Star-Lord as he prefers to be called. He’s a roguish, opportunist who just exudes swagger. Indiana Jones or Han Solo would consider him one of their own. He’s in good company. Zoe Saldana is the sexy Gamora, an assassin, the last of her Zehoberi race. She is a quick witted match for the womanizing Star-Lord. Great shades of Princess Leia! Of humanoid appearance, she sparks believable chemistry with Star-Lord even though she is a green skinned alien. Drax the Destroyer is a tremendously muscled thing not dissimilar to the Hulk. In spite of his brutish looks and psychopathic personality, he masks a remarkably sensitive backstory of pain. Ronan the Accuser killed his family and now he seeks to avenger their death. Gamora has ties to Ronan that will prove to be quite useful.

Computer animated creations can be a mixed bag. Jar Jar Binks anyone? However here the technology has been used with fascinating vitality. Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper) is a genetically engineered raccoon that has been given sentient intelligence. A completely realistic CGI creation, he is nonetheless one of the most engaging all the characters, his rather chaotic, trigger happy temperament notwithstanding. One cannot acknowledge Rocket without also mentioning Groot, a tree creature voiced by Vin Diesel. The two of them are bounty hunters that work in tandem. The imposing guy speaks only three words: “I am Groot.” Despite his limited vocabulary, Rocket and Groot understand one another perfectly which gives rise to some very humorous conversations. Groot is an innocent that exudes more heart than all of the other entities put together.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the spiritual sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy we dreamed about. Action packed, well written and most of all fun! This is a space epic where the unexpected happens. Gamora and Star-Lord romantically bond over Elvin Bishop‘s easy listening classic “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”. A baby tree boogies down to “ABC” by The Jackson 5. Glenn Close sports a hair-don’t that looks like a triple dollop of cake frosting. Director James Gunn has never helmed a production this huge.  His highest profile box office success heretofore was as the screenwriter for the live-action Scooby-Doo in 2002. He pulls out all the stops here.  Superhero movies never get Oscar consideration for costume design but Alexandra Byrne’s work needs be recognized. I truly hope she will garner a nomination. Even during battles scenes, the frightened citizens in the background had creative wardrobe details that I haven’t seen since the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work in The Fifth Element. The jaw-dropping manifestation of this universe is a marvel of modern technology, fashion, and special effects. The art direction never ceases to amaze in a world where outstanding visually impressive displays have become commonplace. And let’s not forget that soundtrack, a brilliant blend of early 70s light rock classics that actually exist to cement the deep emotional bond the main protagonist had with his mother. It’s a stunning presentation full of pathos, love, joy and humor. Sorry Transformers: Age of Extinction, but in the words of a pop hit on this soundtrack, I’m hooked on a feeling. I’m high on believing that Guardians of the Galaxy is the summer blockbuster we’ve been waiting for.

07-31-14

A Most Wanted Man

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on July 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Most Wanted Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgA Most Wanted Man is a dense, elaborate adaptation of the 2008 John le Carré espionage novel of the same name. The particularly timely subject matter concerns The War on Terror but the film will probably be best remembered as the final starring screen role of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not surprisingly he turns in another stellar performance. He is truly missed.

As in all John le Carré novels everyone has an important part in the wide-ranging chronicle. The real focus of our tale is one Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who seeks asylum in Germany after he is half beaten to death. As the son of a notorious Muslim terrorist he is heir to his father‘s wealth. The authorities have labeled him a militant jihadist as well. However his true allegiances are still a bit of an enigma. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann a German counterterrorist expert based in Hamburg. He heads up a secret intelligence team working within the Islamic community to stop radical organizations. He’s a hard drinking, unkempt sort, disheartened by his life experiences. Yet he remains an intelligent man guided by principle. He is still willing to pause and see the big picture first before rushing in to act. Rachel McAdams is Annabel Richter, a young German human rights attorney. She’s an altruistic type fighting in the interest of the downtrodden. Nonetheless, in Bachmann’s eyes she’s a social worker for terrorists. Also a foil to Bachman is corrupt British banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) whose bank holds the fortune of Karpov’s father. Brue forms an association with Annabel and these two comprise a coalition of sorts with Karpov.

There are no good guys in A Most Wanted Man. There are decent people, yes, but they’re caught up in a maze of moral ambiguities that can compromise their ethics. It’s a dreary but well acted critique concerning a global military campaign in a post 9/11 world. The saga is highlighted by a plethora of memorable characters beautifully rendered with studious care as layered personalities. Like a chess game you never know what one person’s next move will be. The sympathetic becomes insensitive, the heartless becomes merciful. Everything comes to head when the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge in a climax that literally involves a man initialing papers at a desk. Of course the issue being addressed is deeper than that, but like most John le Carré stories, the narrative remains emotionally cold and the milieu is bleak. It succeeds despite an overworked set up that somewhat wanes in the middle. For a movie that runs over two hours, not a whole lot happens to be quite honest. At times it’s an indictment of bureaucratic incompetence. Nevertheless this carefully modulated character study ultimately ends on a powerful note.

07-30-14

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