Archive for the Action Category

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero, Thriller with tags on April 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Captain America: The Winter Soldier photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCaptain America: The Winter Soldier is the 9th installment in the series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios. The series has been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own acronym MCU. There are in fact different phases designed to apparently conquer the movie world (and your wallet). We’re currently in Phase 2 which will culminate with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I’m only mentioning all this because some people take this stuff with a very straight face. The deeper we get into these franchises, the more they demand that you’ve see the others. I’ve seen everything but even my eyes begin to glaze over when actors start tossing around names and organizations like we’re in the middle of a history lesson. I’m just here to watch a fun flick and I’m happy to say that this is indeed an enjoyable picture. The Avengers and Iron Man are better, but it ranks in the top half of the 9 entries thus far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the events of The Avengers (2012). Following a lot of exposition that extends this movie 16 minutes past the 2 hour sweet spot, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) entrusts Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) with a hard drive containing sensitive information. When he refuses to hand it over to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce.(Robert Redford), Steve is branded an enemy of the very organization he once served. A superhuman agent codenamed the Winter Soldier does Secretary Pierce’s bidding. The Winter Soldier’s identity is a secret so no details on him. Helping Steve get to the bottom things are fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. member Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They’re both quite good. Scarlett Johansson fetchingly straddles the line between friend and flirt. Anthony Mackie has genuine camaraderie with Chris Evans as Steve’s buddy who he meets while jogging. The three of them joining forces makes this feel sort of like an Avengers movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining spy thriller. The story includes lots of rousing action sequences . The hand to hand combat scenes draw heavily from martial arts films in the best possible way. The pace is efficient with a narrative that doesn’t disappoint fans looking for excitement featuring people they already know and love. There’s enough human interaction to satisfy those who savor a little character development in their superhero flicks. Occasionally the overly complex story takes itself a bit too seriously. I welcome the humor of Thor. Fan boys will appreciate the reverence, but anyone unfamiliar with the Avengers universe might not be as captivated. Thankfully the tone shines with the occasional witty quips where everyone in the production can simply lighten up.

P.S. Given Marvel’s history, I shouldn’t have to point out that there are mid-credits and post-credits stingers that you should probably stick around for. That is unless that extra large Coke you drank is playing havoc with your bladder.

Noah

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on March 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Noah photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNoah is Paramount Pictures indefatigably middle-of-the-road biblical fantasy. Anyone expecting a theological epic with the dramatic heft of something like The Ten Commandments will be mostly disappointed. There’s an innate difficulty in expanding a tale that comprises 4 brief chapters in the Book of Genesis into a 138 minute movie. A big budget biblical production utilizing the full extent of technology of today could be the recipe for a huge success. Visually the spectacle is impressive. Watching the large assemblage of animals march in line to board the ark is an awe-inspiring scene. The narrative even explains logistical details. For example it answers how these creatures could co-exist without eating each other. But elsewhere the story feels padded with vignettes that utilize spectacular special effects but add no emotional drama. Cue The Watchers, angels cast out of heaven who have fallen out of favor with The Creator. They have become encased in mud and dirt on Earth and are now gigantic stone creatures not unlike something found in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

At first glance one might think Darren Aronofsky, a self-professed atheist, to be an odd choice to helm a big-budget, A-lister epic based on scripture. However individuals driven by obsessive quests have long been a tenet of his work, so the religious subject mater isn’t as foreign as it seems. A man driven by obsession could be the focus of a fascinating film, but this drama doesn’t cut beneath the surface to delve deeply into the emotional concepts present. There is inherent drama in this story. We’re talking about God’s displeasure with the sum total of mankind. This is angry vengeful Old Testament God. Noah experiences visions or dreams that he believes are messages from the Supreme Being. The Creator, as he’s called here, apparently wants to not only wipe out all of humanity that currently exists, but to end it completely with his family, never to continue again.

You’d think that this might be cause for alarm. Sadly the chronicle rarely explores that concept deeply. Noah has been entrusted with a major task. He must build an ark and take 2 of every creature so that they may thrive after a great flood kills every living thing. Except for a few worried glances, Noah doesn’t seems conflicted enough by what he’s been asked to do. That is where the narrative should mine his complex struggle. Obviously he wasn’t completely successful because humanity continued to thrive, but that conflict happens at the very end. We lack an outlet for the sheer magnitude of his emotional struggle that demonstrates his problems/fears/stress. As a result the character remains a vague representation of a man in crises with whom we never truly connect.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s point of view is just so blandly neutral. Noah isn’t a terrible picture. There are moments of greatness. At one point, the flood has consumed the world, yet there are still some mountain peaks exposed. A scene with the huddled masses wailing out to the ark, while Noah and his family enjoy safety within, highlights this concept brilliantly. Unfortunately it’s one of the few moments we experience that anguish. It’s as if he was asked to comfort the religious with a perfect portrait of Noah’s unwavering devotion but also placate movie goers looking for a CGI extravaganza. Early test screenings back in October of 2013 to determine which version of the film would “please” the most people is not the way to make great art. This is the product of a talented director being kept under reins. The end result is that it’s not inspirational enough to inspire the faithful and it’s not innovative enough to entertain Aronofsky’s fans. By trying to stay neutral and satisfy everyone, he ends up pleasing no one.

300: Rise of an Empire

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War with tags on March 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

300: Rise of an Empire photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgOkay let’s see now. Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, BREASTS, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, Pecs Blood, Pecs. That pretty much sizes up the narrative formula of 300: Rise of an Empire. This is the sequel (prequel) to 300, the once cutting edge action/fantasy movie based on the Dark Horse comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Released back in March of 2007, its innovative visual style borrowed from Sin City, favored the appearance of a comic book. Now almost a decade later, the look has been copied (The Spirit, Immortals) and even parodied (Meet the Spartans) to the point where innovative spectacle isn’t enough. We require a story.

Stepping into Gerard Butler’s leather briefs as the star this time around is Sullivan Stapleton who plays Greek general Themistokles. He’s leading the charge against the invading Persian army. The Persian people are once again represented by Xerxes, the giant god/king. You might remember him from part one. He was the eccentric that looked like he was dipped in bronze, adorned with gold chains and then applied Joan Crawford eyebrows. He’s ticked off because Themistokles killed his father. Xerxes thinks he’s calling the shots, but he’s really just a puppet of Artemisia, the queen/commander of his naval fleet. As portrayed by Eva Green, she is the real star of the show. Following years in captivity after being raped by a gang of Greek soldiers, she is out for revenge. That is a pretty good reason to be upset. So after you hear her side of the events, you’ll switch allegiances and root against the Spartans. As the most memorable character, she rises above the mire with her wickedly scene-chewing performance.

Unfortunately characterization, story and drama are pushed aside solely in favor of a dated style that isn’t innovative anymore. Gushing fountains of CGI blood garnish a scene like parsley on a plate. The super slo-mo sepia toned plasma streams across every battle scene. Oh and there are a lot of battle scenes in this picture. It never lets up. Throats are cut, men are beheaded, women are raped. The amount of slaughter shows no subtlety or justification. It’s merely offered up as entertainment for an audience that might have to pay as much as $19.50 to see this filth in IMAX 3D. And let me tell you, the dichromatic visual palette is dark, muddy and not impressive. So save your money and see it in 2D at a bargain priced matinee, if at all.

There are some hilarious lines however. 300 seemed kind of oblivious to the homoerotic subtext of so many half naked muscular gym bodies in a historical context. Seriously, why don’t these men wear armor? On the other hand, 300: Rise of the Empire seems to not only embrace it, but exploit it. “You’ve come a long way to stroke your c*** watching real men train,” quips Sparta’s Queen Gorgo upon Themistokles’ arrival. Later Themistokles proudly states, “I have spent my life on my one true love — the Greek fleet.“  Naturally he says this right before a most ridiculous sex scene between him and the seductive Artemisia. There is so much punching, choking and hair pulling, it’s unclear whether they’re making love or physically assaulting each other. Once they’re done she deadpans “You fight much harder than you f***” on his performance. Ouch!

The triumph of the few against the many was unquestionably a more engaging plot point in the first film than the ugly tale of revenge on display here. You can laugh at the unmitigated excess of the saga and try to appreciate it on that level. Unfortunately all the carnage without any redeeming value gets pretty mind numbing after awhile. 300: Rise of an Empire is too witless to really enjoy. Surprisingly this became a huge success which proves that an interesting script is not required of a hit.  300: Rise of An Empire did $45.1M in its opening weekend.  Expect studio execs to dust off other 7 year old properties now. Wild Hogs 2 anyone?

Non-Stop

Posted in Action, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Non-Stop photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIn the grand tradition of aviation movies like Red Eye and Flightplan comes Non-Stop. Star Liam Neeson is clearly in his comfort zone playing, what else, a badass. Okay so he’s in fact a U.S. Federal Air Marshal. But Bill Marks has a past. His daughter died when she was 8 and his wife has since divorced him. He’s an alcoholic AND he smokes too. These days smoking cigarettes is pretty much the same thing as shooting up heroin as far as the cinema is concerned. So we’re already wary of him. He even duct tapes the vents in the airplane lavoratory so he can light up without tripping the smoke detectors. Yet he gives us reason to care. Liam Neeson is incredibly charismatic as the lead character. Let’s face it. Taken and Unknown have given the actor enough practice where he can now play a tough, but likable, ultra-cool mofo in his sleep. And I got to hand it to the guy.  He’s in his 60s and he’s carved a nice little niche in these action roles where others have failed at this age.  Sorry Arnold.

Speaking of Unknown, Non-Stop reunites the star with the same director, Jaume Collet-Serra. I like the director’s style. He’s a dependable type that knows how to keep the chronicle moving so we are never bored (or reflect on the plausibility of what is happening). Most of the picture takes place in the tiny cramped, quarters of an airline cabin and you could hardly pick a more tense environment in our post 9/11 world.  Midway on a transatlantic flight from New York City to London, Marks begins receiving cryptic text message on his personal phone. The anonymous intruder demands $150 million dollars to be transferred into a secure account or a passenger will die every 20 minutes.

The screenwriters have stockpiled the trip with a sampling of cultural identities and temperaments to make the guessing game a bit more confusing. Every time someone gives a dirty look (and there are a lot), we’re meant to think, “It’s him! It’s him! It’s totally him!” The shifting blame of who’s responsible is fairly effective.  Neeson is surrounded by an engaging cast. I was surprised to see Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant . This year’s Supporting Actress Oscar winner took the part after filming 12 Years a Slave but before her performance was received with universal acclaim. Her generic role here allows her to utter maybe 3 lines. I suspect she can say goodbye to being cast in this fashion from now on.

As developments happen, and the evidence starts to pile up, Bill Marks himself appears to be culprit. That secure account for example? It’s in his own name. Is this all an elaborate set up to make him appear guilty or is he indeed the villain. Without giving anything away, I was convinced I knew “whodunit” only to be proven wrong in the end. That’s not because this is a smartly written, coherent mystery, but because the story doesn’t really play fair with the audience. It obscures information it doesn’t want you to have, then throws in red herrings that cloud the truth even further. Given that a substantial amount of time involves him receiving text messages from the extortionist, you’d think that all he’d have to do is merely watch the passengers to see who keeps texting him. He actually attempts to do this at one point, but apparently he isn’t thorough enough because it leads to absolutely nothing. I’m being overly critical however. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t entertained. I was, immensely in fact. This is a nifty little thriller that will captivate your attention for most of its running time. It’s very enjoyable. It’s just that by the end when everything is made known, you kind of feel betrayed. The reveal doesn’t really equal the sum total of the clues that we’ve seen. But eh I liked it anyway.

Pompeii

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Pompeii photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe studio pitch for Pompeii must have gone something like this, “People loved Dante’s Peak and they loved Gladiator, so why not combine the two?” It speaks to general mood that this story doesn’t unfold as something fresh and original. It feels like a dusted off script from some sword and sandal relic from the 1960s. You know the kind, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts are examples. They featured great special effects by Ray Harryhausen. No one would ever raise them up as great art, however they were rousing adventures that were fitfully entertaining. Pompeii is very much in the same tradition.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is best known as the director of Resident Evil and the husband of Milla Jovovich whom he met while directing her in that movie. He also helmed Mortal Kombat which was a nifty little flick that combined martial arts and fantasy. He can be a dependable talent.  It was a monetary triumph back in 1995. Though he’s never been a director that gets critical acclaim. Much of that is deserved. But he shouldn’t be held accountable for past transgressions. He gets a lot of things right here.

The first part, the gladiator section, is set in 79 A.D where we meet our hero, Milo (Kit Harington), a slave. As a child, he witnessed his parents’ slaughter by Romans who demolished his entire Celtic village. Now an adult, he is in the company of a lot of other slaves that are being taken to the city of Pompeii by the Roman Empire. Unless they had 24 Hour Fitness in ancient Rome, they’re more physically fit than anyone in that era ought to be. Milo sports curly locks and a smoldering stare but with a dim bulb personality that doesn’t feel the need to speak much.

Then there’s the romance which is de rigueur in these stories. Emily Browning plays the daughter of a wealthy businessman and his wife, Aurelia. Kudos to Carrie-Anne Moss who manages to get second billing for her cameo. She does speak once, maybe twice? I can’t remember. Anyway Emily Browning’s chemistry with Kit Harrington is not particularly moving but if you‘re here for the romance, you probably didn‘t take note of the size of the volcano on the movie poster. Poor Browning has had one success in the beginning of her career (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) and hasn’t had a hit since. That’s not going to change with this film. The beautifully blank Cassia admires the young slave for his horse whispering skills. Milo and Cassia “meet-cute” occurs when he humanely kills a horse with his bare hands to ease its suffering. It’s a moment where Cassia looks so moved she just might faint. “I can’t believe he had the strength to do that,” Cassia breathlessly tells her gal pal later on. “Didn’t you see his muscles?” her friend replies. Oh but Cassia apparently meant his strength of character. You decide if exchanges like that are enjoyable funny or roll-your-eyes silly.

If I’m being more critical than my star rating suggests, you misunderstand the weight of my objections. The supporting casting is really good. The face of the evil Roman empire is embodied by Senator Corvis, a hissable villain portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland. He’s the only one who seems in on the joke and he chews scenery like Jon Voight in Anaconda. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje commands the focus of every scene in which he’s present. As Bridgageous, a fellow slave, the two are meant to be rivals. They’re destined to face off in the arena, but when Bridgageous saves Milo from a fellow slave who tries to stab him, we know it’s only a matter of time before these two ultimately join forces.

Pompeii is good old fashioned nonsense. The story is refreshingly simple and uncluttered with superfluities. Completely unencumbered by anything deep or pretentious, it’s the occasional cheese that makes this experience fun. I actually wished there was more. Milo’s moral dilemma is initially conceived as a revenge tale but clearly the gods are not happy with Rome either and the narrative slowly turns into a disaster flick. I chuckled every time rumbling shots of Mount Vesuvius were randomly inserted amongst the action.  These sonic reminders of the mountain percolating in the background pop up occasionally. “Remember me? “ the mountain seems to ask. “Well I just might have something to say a little later.“ The climax is exciting and when the ASH hole blows its top, the spectacle is appropriately impressive. Before that happens, however, we get some nicely staged action sequences in the arena. There’s slashed throats, stabbings, and enough deaths that might have earned an R, but the spirited battles are surprisingly bloodless. The PG-13 rating makes sense for a lively production a teen audience shouldn’t be denied the right to see. Pompeii is by no means a great film, but it isn’t horrible either. It kind of exists in that realm and that’s how I appreciated it.

The Lego Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on February 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Lego Movie photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLow expectations totally help The Lego Movie. We’ve seen other examples of films based on a specific brand name toy before with mixed results.  At least Transformers and G.I. Joe were box office successes if not critical ones, while Battleship was a failure by anyone’s measure. It’s hard not to be cynical at the title and greet this animated film as nothing more than a feature length commercial. While the production will undoubtedly sell a boatload of Lego, it’s surprising that there is a lot of creativity behind the marketing. The Lego Movie works on a meta level. We’re watching an advertisement for toys that warns us about a nefarious corporation that tries to sell us products: these include the TV show Where Are My Pants?, the ubiquitous hit song, “Everything is Awesome“, and designer coffee for $37.

The evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) wants to unleash the Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue with some letters missing). It’s a superweapon that will leave the many various Lego worlds immobilized in perfect constructed harmony forever. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is completely average in every way. Nothing special. He helps build skyscrapers for the Octan Corporation. He’s one of the faceless Lego denizens at the construction site. One day after everyone has gone home, he accidentally stumbles into a pit and a red relic – “the Piece of Resistance” becomes fused to his back. Wyldstyle a tough fighter chick, and Vitruvius a blind wizard, now believe him to be the “Special” – the one the prophecy foretold would be sent to stop Lord Business.

The story is pure formula. Yes the plot admittedly bears more than a passing resemblance to The Matrix. However that implies The Matrix was an exclusively original concept.  It wasn’t. These ordinary heroes thrust in extraordinary circumstances have been an archetype dating back to ancient myths. Even side characters suggest earlier works. Lord Business’ lieutenant, the split personality Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), is reminiscent of the Mayor of Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Where the saga takes off is the utter senselessness of it all. Lego owns the rights to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DC superheroes, so each of these figures can and do pop up. Some making only a very brief appearance.  The action moves at a speedy clip through different lands rarely stopping to take a breath. The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land are represented.  It combines these disparate inspirations and solidifies them into an entertaining amalgamation. It’s mostly computer animated, although the animation is purposefully done in a herky jerky style to resemble the way Lego bricks actually move. There are rapid fire bullets, frantic chases, and flying machines – all rendered in a kaleidoscopic spectacle bursting with colors. Sometimes it’s so chaotic it verges on distracting, but it’s impressive as well. I loved seeing Lego bricks forming puffs of smoke as they’re billowing out of a train stack or an explosion rendered as a series of colorful bricks.

This is pretty manic stuff.  For better or worse, the narrative is all over the place. Writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) are the minds behind all this lunacy. They manipulate the conventions of children’s entertainment and turn them right on their ear. They imbue the proceedings with a subversive bent. The importance of a coherent story is ridiculed. The prophecy of wizard Vitruvius (brilliantly voiced by Morgan Freeman) is not taken from some venerable sacred text. It’s something he just makes up on the spot. Emmet zones out when listening to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) give exposition and all he (and the audience) hears is, “blah blah blah proper name place name back-story stuff.“ Wyldstyle desperately wants to be the “Special”. And why not? She’s infinitely more qualified because she is creative and brilliant, unlike Emmet who just follows the rules. The hero is in fact a zero. But believe in yourself and you can achieve anything, right?  The message is superficially cloying but there is a twist.  Without revealing anything important, the underlying recommendation is to NOT follow instructions. The “good guys encourage the workers to rise up against Lord Business. Imagination is a powerful thing. Freedom is better than conformity. However the script’s greatest inspiration lies in its ability to explicitly decry business while indirectly celebrating it. This is after all, an advertisement for Lego toys, right?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Posted in Action, Thriller with tags on January 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe fifth in the Jack Ryan series, stars Chris Pine as a financial analyst who studies market patterns that would indicate terrorist activity. Um ok. Action thriller is different from other entries in that the plot is not based on a pre-existing book by Tom Clancy. That gives the screenwriters carte blanche to do what they want with the narrative. The irony is this spy picture is thoroughly by-the-numbers with very little to distinguish itself from others of its ilk.  In other words, the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises have nothing to worry about.

The cast is far too good for the average script. Actor Chris Pine makes for a handsome, but bland, Jack Ryan. He’s not as charismatic as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. Kevin Costner underplays nicely as his CIA handler – a part James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman have exemplified in previous installments. Kenneth Branagh who also directs, saves the plum role of “the villain” for himself. He does a nifty Russian accent as Viktor Cherevin. I am a big Keira Knightley fan and her presence in this was initially greeted as a blessing. The sad thing is, she really isn’t given much to do. Essentially reduced to playing “female love interest” her talents are kind of wasted here. Her bit is more deserving of some rising starlet than an Oscar nominated actress of Knightley’s caliber. She still shines brightest in period costume dramas.

With that said, I will somewhat contradict myself when I contend that the best moment in the entire film involves her. The scene occurs when Viktor takes Jack and his fiancée Cathy Muller to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Cathy demands her husband-to-be walk off his drunken stupor after the couple feign a lovers’ spat. “This is geopolitics, not couples therapy.” Now Cathy must keep Viktor occupied in conversation by charming him. Apparently he has a weakness for women with odd American accents. Meanwhile, this allows Jack to infiltrate Viktor’s office so he can download his computer files. The segment includes a thrilling level of tension sorely missing from the rest of the movie.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an efficient, serviceable thriller. A decent watch, but it’s not essential viewing. Our hero is hired as a covert operative on Wall Street. While there the undercover CIA agent unearths a nefarious foreign plot to shatter the U.S. economy. Making the Russians the baddies is a refreshing retro throwback to Cold War movies from 1985–1991. The production is polished. The story is stylish, well photographed and speeds by in a brief 105 minutes. The tale is entertaining enough, but it’s pretty formulaic nonetheless. Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow the film is that it’s an improvement over the character’s last appearance, The Sum of All Fears in 2002.

Lone Survivor

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Lone Survivor photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgLone Survivor is the depiction of a United States maneuver during the War in Afghanistan in 2005. Labeled Operation Red Wings, a group of Navy SEALs are tasked to capture or kill high ranking Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The story is based on Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 book about the failed mission. First let’s address the elephant in the room. I’d be hard pressed to name a more spoiler heavy title than Lone Survivor. It’s a pretty efficient buzzkill. There’s Death of Salesman perhaps, but then that play had so much more to offer intellectually. We’re introduced to a team of four Navy SEALs played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. Right from the start there’s this nagging feeling that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to at least three of these guys.

This is a pretty simple plot. Four guys go in. Only one comes out. Basically everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Director Peter Berg (Battleship) never met a bullet going through flesh that he didn’t want to film in slow motion. The death of Ben Foster’s character is particularly gruesome. As he’s gasping for breath, blood pouring out, we watch as he is hit not once, not twice but three shots with grisly brutality. A veritable pastiche of sound effects highlights detonations, guns shooting, bullets whizzing by. Several scenes show soldiers tumbling down the side of a mountain. This tableau is repeated several times in fact. Their bodies somersaulting like rag dolls with bones crunching against every rock along the way in glorious sonic clarity. In one of the production’s quieter moments, Wahlberg performs surgery on his leg with a knife.

Lone Survivor is a weird mix of jingoism and “war is hell” mentality. The opening crawl of actual training footage feels like a military recruitment film, but then the senseless escalating body count screams otherwise. Our team of four Navy SEALs are robust models of tough American masculinity. Their male bonding, rah-rah, “let’s go kick some Taliban butt” mindset is occasionally interrupted by exclamations of “Muthaf–ka!” and “F–k You!” For the second half, it’s seemingly the only words they know as the action is mainly punctuated by the sound of bodies exploding while bullets pierce their skulls in blood splattering detail. The soundtrack has the audacity to play the quietly solemn beats of a noble drum march in the background as if that makes all the carnage more meaningful. There are admittedly two examples where expectations are subverted and humanity is displayed. In those minutes, we realize what this picture could have been. Then it’s back to bloody business as usual. In the end, the overriding conclusion is that Operation Red Wings was a tragic waste of life and this movie is a tragic waste of time.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on November 24, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIt’s rare when part 2 of a trilogy can not only live up to expectations, but surpass them.  The second entry isn’t the exciting setup, nor the epic conclusion. There are examples, but second installments are often a holding pattern for the final and third climatic entry. Attack of the Clones, anyone? My feeling about Part 1 are a matter of public record. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I even felt that it jettisoned superfluous aspects of the book in service of an improved cinematic experience. Now we come to Catching Fire. I appreciated the novel, but it was hampered by the law of diminishing returns. The plot begins when the people of Panem greet Katniss as she tours the 12 districts with Peeta on her victorious return from the Hunger Games. The two arrive as heroes. But President Snow is not happy with the outcome. The seeds of revolt have been planted. The leader seeks to contain the building restlessness of the populace. His solution will affect the lives of many former winners. Catching Fire violates a commonly held belief that sequels are inferior. This shouldn’t have happened, but Catching Fire actually surpasses The Hunger Games. The film does the impossible. It presents a 2 ½ hour movie that is thrilling from beginning to end and leaves the audience breathlessly waiting for the next installment.

What makes Catching Fire so effective is the utter believability of the narrative. Credit an ensemble cast that delivers without exception. These days, we’re lucky to get one performance that captivates our emotion in a typical big budget fantasy like this. Here I could cite 10 actors that impress with their contributions. However any reasonable discussion must acknowledge the lead. Jennifer Lawrence is a talent of the highest magnitude. Let’s face it. A dystopian future where the state maintains egregious control, is nothing new. We’ve seen this subject before in literary masterpieces such as 1984 and Brave New World to celluloid classics like Brazil and The Matrix. Here the tyrannical state punishes its citizens by making them fight to the death, and then presents the ordeal to the masses as entertainment. The deterioration of society is a prevalent theme in fiction (and in the real world to be quite honest). Yet there still remains an inherent skepticism. In each frame, Jennifer Lawrence expressive portrayal engenders our sympathy. Study her countenance as she takes her National Victory Tour. As she stares out to the faces of the districts whose tributes she has defeated, she reveals pain, often without speaking. Her expressions speak more than a thousand pages. Her tortured soul in full view of a nation. You too might feel sorrow. Miss Lawrence renders a flawless achievement. She treats the role as if she were acting in a biographical drama. Her sincere performance has the gravitas required to engage our passion.

Studio Lionsgate Entertainment increased the budget from the first film by over 60% and it shows. Catching Fire dazzles the senses in almost every scene. The tale is particularly amusing when sending up the frivolous facade of disposable entertainment. The first half detailing the increasing uneasiness, is actually more compelling than the standard-issue combat of the second half. Some of the climactic resolutions will be a bit murky to people unfamiliar with the text. The critique of our media based culture is rather engaging. The actors embody the residents of a despotic state that feels as genuine as any historical saga. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket coordinates our protagonists’ personal appearances. Sporting false eyelashes that extend out like tendrils from her eyes, she is a glittering Christmas tree of changing outfits. She remains just as intellectually superficial, but her character registers a knowing sadness this time around. Her discontent with the process is barely there, but it is perceptible.  Her ever-so-subtle dissatisfaction mirrors the mood of the citizenry. The depiction is masterful in its nuance. Later, Katniss is on stage with host Caesar Flickerman in her pre-games interview show. The glitzy neon, “Hollywood” production is a humorous parallel to American Idol, although the stakes are admittedly much higher. Stanley Tucci is the preening, purple haired, showman with bright white capped teeth. His flashy persona rivals Ryan Seacrest.

Catching Fire does a brilliant job of taking a beloved work and turning it into a cinematic event. You’ve heard the adage “show don’t tell.” In scene after scene, director Francis Lawrence invigorates the words of Suzanne Collins’ novel into a fully realized picture that exploits the possibilities of the visual medium. The evils of living in Panem are explored with an enlightened depth. The actors personify the victims of a single-party totalitarian dictatorship in the saga of an oppressive government. The anguish is authentic, at times heartbreaking. There is a scene in Catching Fire where Katniss takes a TV stage resplendent in a white wedding gown. She is unveiling the dress she was supposed to have worn in her upcoming marriage ceremony to Peeta. As the live studio spectators watch in rapt attention, she begins spinning. The outfit catches fire, engulfed in flames transformed like a phoenix. Her costume grows wings, becoming a mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion against the capital. The galvanizing spectacle will have grave repercussions later, but it’s a heady display – an instant to share in the power of the collective experience. We’re witnessing the manifestation of a star right before our very eyes – in the movie, but also real life. The fame of Katniss Everdeen parallels Jennifer Lawrence’s own soaring career trajectory. Indeed life imitates art.

Thor: The Dark World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on November 10, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Thor: The Dark World photo starrating-3stars.jpgLet’s see if I can simplify this for the uninitiated. There’s this thing called the Aether see, and it’s a power stone that can be used as a weapon. Actually it’s one of 6 stones in the Infinity Gauntlet. Ah but I’m getting ahead of myself here. The main baddie is Malekith (unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston), ruler of the Dark Elves, who wants to plunge the world into eternal darkness because well that‘s what villains do. He’s out for revenge or something. Anyway, Thor’s earth girlfriend, Jane, is inadvertently infected by the Aether following her teleportation to another realm. Malekith is somehow aware of this occurrence and now he‘s pursuing her. Side note: Thor is still in love with Jane and vice versa. Thor’s evil brother is currently in prison on Asgard for the war crimes he committed on Earth in Thor. However, Loki happens to knows of a secret portal to Malekith’s world so Thor must appeal to him for help.

The first half of Thor: The Dark World is needlessly complicated. You can probably tell from my encapsulation of just a mere fraction of the narrative. Additionally, it has more roles than a Shakespearean play. With names like Malekith, Algrim and Frigga, a playbill would’ve been helpful. Everyone finally restores peace to the 9 realms. On one, Vanaheim, there’s Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and this group called the Warriors Three – Fandral (Zachary Levi), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). The quartet of combatants reminded me of a band of vampires you might find in the Twilight franchise.

The lifeless introductory crawl of Thor: The Dark World is overly concerned with set up and exposition. It’s rather boring. Luckily, about halfway through things get moving. In fact I can specifically pinpoint the moment at which the tale is transformed. It occurs the second they free Loki from his prison. Thor and Loki are walking together and Loki starts shapeshifting both of them into various disguises as different people. It’s an amusing display and where the picture finally finds its humor. I still like Chris Hemsworth. He has a presence (physique, acting, smile) that makes him ideally suited for the Norse god. Yet Tom Hiddleston is so engaging that Thor is essentially reduced to a supporting actor in his own film. I dare say this is the Loki show.

Thor: The Dark World is saved by Tom Hiddleston. In a production with an astounding number of characters vying for attention, he stands out head and shoulders above the rest. I’ll credit the script as well which makes his “villain” the juiciest part. While he’s kept locked up in prison during the problematic first half, the story looks to be a dud. The overreliance on computer graphics were accomplished by a mind-blowing seven (7) VFX studios. At times the special effects threaten to asphyxiate the proceedings. Once Loki is released, the plot eventually regains its footing. It’s the human element that makes these superhero movies work. His performance and a more lighthearted touch in the second half elevate this fantasy into fun entertainment. This is a superhero movie after all, not some dour historical epic. Thanks to Hiddleston’s solid portrayal, the action ultimately becomes a rousing good time.

Note: By now, Marvel should have you conditioned to remain in your seat until the very end of one of their productions, but just in case you haven‘t been properly trained: There is the traditional ending, a mid-credits scene and then a post sequence after the final credits. Stay for all of them, although one vignette won’t make any make sense to filmgoers unfamiliar with next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 496 other followers