Archive for the Action Category

Jurassic World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Jurassic World photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJurassic World is a sequel set 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park. Pay no attention to entries 2 and 3. They’re irrelevant. The dream of a dinosaur theme park on Isla Nublar, initially conceived by John Hammond, is now a reality. In fact it has been in operation and running smoothly for a couple decades. It’s an amusement park like no other. Jurassic World boasts a plethora of attractions seemingly based on the Disneyland template. Get up close and personal at the Gentle Giants petting zoo. View the flora and fauna by rolling around in a glass encased Gyrosphere or kayaking on the Cretaceous Cruise. Or just sit back, relax and watch a Mosasauraus feeding show in an outdoor arena. Careful, you may get wet.

Much of the visual awe lies in the beautifully crafted details of a dinosaur theme park that looks like a physical creation that could actually exist. We’re told that it has been a success for years. However Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the operations manager, laments that attendance has grown stagnant. Velociraptors have become old hat and the attraction needs to rely on some innovation to spark interest, Chief bioengineer, Dr. Henry Wu (B. D. Wong) has abnormally engineered dinosaur DNA with modern animals to breed a completely new creature. Indominus Rex is impressively large but he reasons in such an intelligent way that it begs laughter. But hey, that’s part of the fun.

Jurassic World delivers on the promise of an exhilarating movie. It’s more thrill ride than complex drama though. The beasts dazzle. The humans? Not so much. The human drama is fabricated upon a frosty operations manager (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose raison d’être is to increase the popularity of the attraction. Naturally she has no time for her two nephews that come to visit the park. Granted Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) are pretty irritating. The first is a sullen drag and the other spouts facts every 5 minutes. Just call them”gloomy” and “gabby”. I suppose the narrative wouldn’t have been the same without those annoying kids. Check the franchise. It’s a tradition. Vincent D’Onofrio is a heel out of the Generic Villains 101 handbook. As head of security operations, he wants to utilize the Raptors as weapons for military purposes. We’re obviously supposed to hate him. Nevertheless I found myself reacting against the script’s obvious manipulation to the point where his idea started to make sense. Chris Pratt as a Velociraptor expert and trainer is the movie’s MVP. Despite his top billing, he doesn’t appear until 20 minutes in. He’s only onscreen for a short period and then doesn’t reappear until the second hour. But when he does, he captivates our attention and exudes the charm of a movie star.  However, his romance with Claire is the very definition of contrived.

The visual splendor of Jurassic World presents all the whiz-bang biological appeal of dinosaurs run amok. It highlights creative set pieces that champion the excitement of a dinosaur disaster story. This is easily the best entry since the first. The narrative frequently references Jurassic Park to tell a tale that is slavishly devoted to the blueprint of the original. Critics might deem it uncreative. Fans would call it nostalgia. I side more with the latter. You came to see animals gone wild and that’s exactly what you’ll get. There’s a showdown of a final fight that includes an aggregation of dinosaurs. The climax pays off perfectly.  The park is manifested as a stunning reality that hearkens back to the wonder of the first film. Although I can’t say the technology has really taken a significant leap. Some CGI bits were spectacular while others had Pratt riding his motorcycle alongside a gang of raptors. There are a lot of tedious scenes involving humans. Claire, who spends the entire movie running in high heels, has her predictable moment where she saves the day. It’s more eye-rolling than applause-worthy. But if you go to a dinosaur movie for “Shakespearean” characterization” then you’ve missed the point. With that said, I will offer that I truly enjoyed an exchange between actors Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson at the end. Wait for it. It’s the funniest moment in the entire film…at least intentionally.

06-11-15

Spy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spy photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgCould Melissa McCarthy be the funniest comedian working today? I asked myself this question on October 1, 2011 when she hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time. (Incredibly, She’s already managed to host 3 times in the previous four seasons). The entire episode was gold but it was the “Hidden Valley Ranch Taste Test ” skit that cemented that status. Her interpretation of an overexcited consumer, made the sketch an instant classic. It was her fearless commitment to a character desperate to get her opinion noticed, complete with facial ticks, pushy gestures and obsessively repeated lines that made it so iconic. It was the same ability that nabbed her an Oscar nomination the same year for Best Supporting Actress in Bridemaids. The film was directed by Paul Feig. The two also collaborated on The Heat. Now Spy marks the third time the two have joined forces. I must say the partnership is electric.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst that has actually chosen desk duty as her preferred career choice. You see, Susan is hopelessly in love with Bradley Fine (Jude Law in his debonair best), the field agent with whom she is partnered. She works at a computer in a dingy rat-infested basement at CIA’s Langley headquarters. As his much needed extra set of eyes when he goes on assignment in the field, she is the whispering voice in his earpiece. Despite her misplaced feelings for Fine, she’s a very perceptive woman. She’s quite effective behind the scenes, extremely good at what she does. As a result, it’s simply a matter of time before she’s forced into international field as a secret agent of the world. Yes, there’s the visual joke that this zaftig woman is playing the role of a James Bond-esque undercover secret agent. However, Susan Cooper is anything but a joke.

Spy manages to be both silly adventure while mocking gender cliches as well. The screenplay is sharp because it gets to present the prejudices of her enemies, only to have them humiliated at every turn by her competence. The story intelligently exploits their low expectations of Susan. It’s surprisingly transgressive. Susan is saddled with embarrassing fake identities that make her look like a crazy cat lady or a frumpy tourist. There’s a a hilarious scene where she’s outfitted with her spy accouterments by the script’s version of Q (Michael McDonald). Instead of the usual high tech gadgets of a sophisticated super spy, her equipment comes disguised as hemorrhoid wipes and stool softeners.

If this was the basis for the comedy, it would’ve been enough. But then we’re introduced to the icy daughter of the target that Fine accidentally killed. Rose Byrne is a hoot as Rayna Boyanov. Her snobby barbs and bitchy attitude make her ice queen of a villain a campy delight – a ruthless Bulgarian beauty with an exaggerated accent and a hairstyle that would make a drag queen envious. Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne trade digs as their back and forth verbal game of one-upmanship escalates. Rayna referring to Susan’s chic getup: “The moment I saw you standing there in that abortion of a dress…” versus Susan’s estimation that Rayna’s haute couture looks like “a slutty dolphin-trainer.” Rayna compares Susan to a “sad little Bulgarian clown.” “Thank God, your hair broke your fall” Susan snips after Rayna stumbles. Invective is thrown while the audience gleefully watches, savoring every nasty insult. The pair form a combative team that extends the chronicle into the realm of genius.

As a ridiculous comedy, Spy wholeheartedly delivers the laughs. What deepens this into a tour de force, rests in the way Melissa McCarthy subverts our expectations. She is a heroine to be admired because she is so darn talented. When she fights a lithe knife wielding female assassin in the tight confines of a restaurant kitchen, she demonstrates athleticism by using a frying man to defend herself. The visual sight gag is a spectacle of perfectly timed physical satire and choreography. The understanding is, these athletic specimens may be good, but she is better. Melissa McCarthy has the ability to take even slow parts and make them shine. Add Rose Byrne as the emotionless villain and you have a match made in comedy heaven. If you could bottle their chemistry, you’d have the key ingredient for any successful duo. The rest of the star filled supporting cast (Jason Statham, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law) are amusing too. They’re just not quite at the level of McCarthy or Rose Byrne. That’s OK. There’s more than enough laughs here to sustain two movies. Spy is the most gut-bustingly funny movie of the year so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if it retains that title.

06-04-15

San Andreas

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller on May 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

San Andreas photo starrating-1star.jpgSan Andreas is a catastrophe. It is a lamentable skill when a disaster film, a piece of entertainment that is routinely met with the lowest of expectations, fails to even meet the basic requirements of simply being “dumb summer entertainment”. This is a genre in which universally panned movies like Dante’s Peak, Poseidon or 2012 can still manage to earn big bucks at the box office. However the popular opinion of which inevitably deteriorates over time in the mind of the American public. Oh there are high minded exceptions. The Birds, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, Contagion. But what makes those productions great is the blending of mass destruction with characters that captivate our attention.

San Andreas on the other hand eschews originality in favor of series of tropes uncreatively strung together by CGI effects. The plot can be summarized in a sentence: When the San Andreas fault triggers a 9 plus magnitude quake up the West coast, a search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) make their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). A plot so simple it might be refreshing. But oh the cliches! Most disaster films rely on a few timeworn shortcuts to tell a story but that’s all San Andreas is – literally a checklist of hackneyed tropes and nothing more. How does San Andreas conventionalize? Let me count the ways…

Brad Peyton is the brains behind such movies as Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Kid friendly doesn’t have to mean intellectually vacant, but I’ll let his filmography speak for itself. Ray and Emma are a divorced couple that are still amicable toward each other. This gives them the awkward sexual tension when they band together to save their daughter trapped in San Francisco. Clearly the narrative wants you to think Ray is a stand-up guy. Clumsily inserted amongst the CGI mayhem we get the occasional “quiet dramatic scene”. In flashback, Ray reflects on his greatest failure: he wasn’t able to save his younger daughter when she tragically drowned in a rafting accident. He obsesses over the daughter he couldn’t save while the living daughter suffers in need. His behavior gets more egregious. Here we have an active-duty LAFD pilot who ignores orders by abandoning his job in the middle of the greatest natural emergency in American history. Instead he goes AWOL on a personal mission with one of the department’s helicopters. He intends to save his wife and daughter but no none else – leaving thousands to die as a result. To emphasize the point further, he drives past an elderly couple on the side of the road leaving them in the dust. The only reason he ultimately turns around is because they were trying to warn HIM before he drove into a chasm. Ray’s dereliction of duty is disgusting.

However according to the script, the truly reprehensible human is Emma’s rich boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). Naturally he is revealed to be an unctuous jerk who cowardly abandons Blake in her hour of need. This an obvious setup to make his inevitable death by a falling building all the more gratifying. Daniel’s sister Susan (Kylie Minogue) dies too but that’s OK because she made an insensitive comment. Death karma to people who are rude. But good people die as well. You almost have to admire a film with the audacity to kill millions but then conveniently neglects to show a single dead body. Buildings will fall, tides will raise, but there’s nary a casualty in sight. The death and trauma that follow a major earthquake are nonexistent here. That would interrupt the viewer’s enjoyment of the pristine beauty of CGI served up for visual consumption.

There are some impressive effects. Behold the brilliant shards of glass raining down upon people as they narrowly make their escape. Narrowly is the operative words here. Nobody escapes a discernible threat unless it is barely by the skin of their teeth. Time and again the audience is led to believe that every major character is just within a hair’s breadth of losing their life only to escape within an inch of life. This includes a scenario where the pilot of a helicopter tempts fate by saying “we’re only 90 minutes away” and then seconds later, the engine fails. Meanwhile Ray’s daughter Blake is trapped in a San Francisco parking garage. There she encounters Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). The meet-cute allows her to rescue him. Girl Power! They’re all such a bore though. The one lone individual that is mildly interesting is Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) a seismology professor at Caltech who detects the quake and warns everybody about their impending doom. He’s the “I told you so!”

San Andreas has a lot of faults. A narrative disaster that falls apart under the weight of a thousand cliches. In a few years this DVD should find a permanent home in the 99 cent bin at your local Walmart. Until then crowds will flock to see pretty CGI . The chronicle’s lazy reliance on tropes from other disaster pictures is pretty shameful. Did the real script get destroyed in the quake? LA and San Francisco are decimated and millions have died. But a happy ending rests on whether our “hero” Ray and his family are reunited. The countless souls that have their lives extinguished is presented as a mild inconvenience. The final minutes lovingly feature the courageous efforts of FEMA, the National Guard, and the UN. Please note the giant American flag draped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. As Emma ponders, “What now?” Ray looks up to the heavens and says without irony “We rebuild.” I wouldn’t say the picture was forgettable because  that would have been a blessing. San Andreas is so hopelessly bad, I just can’t stop thinking about its miserableness.

05-28-15

The Blues Brothers

Posted in Action, Comedy, Music, Musical on May 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Blues Brothers photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Blues Brothers began as a novelty act on Saturday Night Live on January 17, 1976. Dressed in bee outfits, the duo sang “I’m a King Bee”. They made 3 appearances total on the show but their fame grew far beyond these performances. The invented personas and life histories for the Blues Brothers followed later. John Belushi was lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues and Dan Aykroyd was the harmonica player/backing singer Elwood Blues. Dressed in iconic matching suits, skinny ties, dark glasses and fedoras. The actual band, was composed of well-known and respected musicians. Despite the comedic leanings of the sketch TV show, their love for the blues was anything but a joke. The Holland Tunnel Blues bar was a place that Aykroyd rented (or bought?) for the cast to hang out following shows. It was here that Aykroyd inspired Belushi’s interest in the blues. The popularity of the pair led to the release of their debut album on November 28, 1978. A runaway success, Briefcase Full of Blues reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum.

Given the chart success of their album, I suppose a feature film was only a matter of time. The plot is elementary. After Elwood Blues’ brother, Jake is released from prison, the two visit the orphanage where they were raised. It is there that they learn from Sister Mary Stigmata (a.k.a. The Penguin) that they must raise $5000 in order to save their beloved childhood home. The brothers decide to put their blues band back together and stage a big gig as a fundraising event. But can they earn enough money? It helps that they are on a “mission from God” as Elwood reminds us.

The Blues Brothers is a spectacular blockbuster filled with car chases and big, bright musical numbers. It seems so upbeat on the surface, but it was a nightmare behind the scenes. The 6 months in development script, primarily written by Aykroyd, was an unwieldy tome that needed to be hacked down to size by John Landis who also got screenwriting credit. A ballooning budget and Belushi’s cocaine addiction, compounded a production that was wildly behind schedule. The action featured perhaps the most destructive race of cars in pursuit ever filmed, part of which takes place inside a shopping mall. The picture cost $38 million dollars, an unprecedented amount for a comedy at the time. The critics were unconvinced. Nevertheless the megahit grossed $57.2 million in the summer of 1980 making it the 10th biggest movie of the year with the same frat-boy contingent that made Animal House a classic. Both directed by John Landis and both starring John Belushi.

Over time The Blues Brothers has grown in stature to become a cult classic. Separated from the storied Hollywood backstory it’s easy to see why. The chronicle is host to a plethora of cameos including R&B legends Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown. The love the filmmakers have for this music is obvious. The production numbers are buoyant and sensational featuring a cast of hundreds dancing with a joie de vivre rarely captured on screen. Aretha Franklin performs “Think” as a warning to her husband in a diner and the moment is miraculous. Granted the plot of this overlong 135 minute extravaganza is simplistic in the extreme. The story is essentially an an ever escalating car chase that includes the Chicago police force, Illinois state troopers, a parade of Nazis, an outraged country & western band and Jake’s jilted girlfriend (Carrie Fisher). But heck if the whole thing isn’t enjoyable fun. Laying waste to the greater Chicago area never felt so joyous….or soulful.

05-20-15

Mad Max: Fury Road

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mad Max: Fury Road photo starrating-4stars.jpgMad Max: Fury Road is a visionary work of production design. It isn’t a story in the traditional sense with a lot of plot. This is more like a symphony of chase sequences that undulate like the movement within a classical piece. You might say the action is “mad”. Each setpiece is carefully modulated with deft precision. They’re punctuated by bursts of violence like trumpets that then ease into quieter moments like the calm violins of a soothing melody. The tempo rises and falls before culminating in a coda that leaves the viewer debilitated but relived.

In a future world, a nasty cult leader named King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules over a collapsed civilization . Keays-Byrne also portrayed the main villain “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max (1979) but there is no connection between these evildoers. In order to breathe he wears a mask with horse teeth arranged in a skull motif from which two vacuum pipes extend. A shock of white hair and ghastly skin contribute to the overall nightmare that is his face. He’s a frightening sight. Just watching him suit up is kind of mesmerizing. He commands a group of white painted minions called “War Boys” at the Citadel. They help him maintain control over the masses, hoarding this world’s most precious commodity, water.  His dependents include his son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones ), a muscular warrior that looks like he could take on The Rock and War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) in a captivating performance.

Tom Hardy is”Mad” Max Rockatansky, one of the rebels trying to out run Joe and his army. Max is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. This is a reboot of the same character that Mel Gibson played in the previous 3 installments. He speaks with a deep, raspy voice rarely stringing more than 2 words together. Initially he is a hapless hostage strapped to the front of a car. Thrust into this supposed male dominated world is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who drives “The War Rig”, one of Joe’s vehicles. She sports a metal prosthetic arm and can speak in full sentences thank you very much. Theron is a female badass that ranks with the icons in cinema. I’m thinking Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. She dominates the story. While Mad Max may bear the movie’s title, he’s not the star of the show. Furiosa has decided to rescue King Immortan Joe’s five beautiful wives out of the Citadel. Joe pursues her. And they’re off!

The action is the realization of a perfect manipulation of cinematography and production design. The futuristic terrain of Australia here is courtesy of the Namib desert in southern Africa. It’s an arid land with an inhospitable climate. It’s a post apocalyptic dystopia, but cinematographer John Seale should get an Oscar for making the desolate wasteland look so visually stunning. The landscape has the energy of life. There’s a massive sand storm that will blow your mind. Even the heroes look good. They all have the healthy looking bronze of a sun kissed glow: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and the five wives of Joe that she rescues in tow. They are the emotional core of the film. Joe’s favorite is played by the gorgeous Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Side note: how do these women look so ravishing in these dusty conditions? Seriously. No I mean seriously.

Any studio with a lot of money can put on a CGI fest these days. Watch a superhero movie. Take your pick. It takes a visionary to present action in a style that propels the medium further. It’s essential that every automotive monstrosity in Mad Max: Fury Road is a physical entity that exists. The danger is real. The 88 uniquely different cars are characters themselves. I’m told 150 vehicles were actually created because, well ya know, they take a beating. One roadster with porcupine spikes is called “Plymouth Rock”. Another called “The Doof Wagon” is fronted by a blind electric guitarist (Sean Hape better known as iOTA). The mutant dangles from a bungee cord above an epic sound system made of amps and speakers. There’s a separate truck that holds massive drums of course. They pulse like a heartbeat. Some cars are outfitted with long spires that swing hundreds of feet in the air like metronomes. Enemy acrobats ride atop the poles enabling their aerial attacks. Charlize Theron drives “The War Rig”, a six-wheel-drive tanker powered by two supercharged V8 engines built to haul gasoline and annihilate anyone that crosses its path.

The spectacle of Mad Max: Fury Road is a symphony of action under George Miller’s direction. It’s gleefully insane! Like some unholy union between The Wacky Races cartoon and an Iron Maiden album cover. Miller has described the film as one long chase sequence. When you get right down to it, that’s pretty accurate. Plotwise it’s a race to there and back again. But it’s Colin Gibson’s production design, John Seale’s cinematography, Junkie XL’s immersive score, and Jenny Beavan’s costumes that define this movie. The look is absolutely bonkers. It’s a testament to the visual and aural overload that it propels an adult like me into giddy exuberance. Mad Max: Fury Road is an all out pedal to the metal, full throttle chase with nothing held back. You know those pre-teens raised on heavy metal music and 80s action movies back in the day? Well we’re adults now.  This movie hits the sweet spot.

05-14-15

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Avengers: Age of Ultron photo starrating-3stars.jpgI consider myself to be reasonably intelligent. I understand that it’s a good idea to settle your credit card bill at the end of the month and not let the balance roll over. I grasp the difference between ‘there’, ‘they’re’ & ‘their’ and use them appropriately. But Avengers: Age of Ultron is confusing. I’ll admit it’s nice seeing the old gang get together and kick butt again. They do a lot of that here in cacophonous spectacles that are the best money can buy. Age of Ultron was made with an estimated budget of $250 million, making it the most expensive Marvel picture to date and I won’t question that figure. This looks like a costly movie. Although the battles feel a bit familiar this time around. More expensive doesn’t always equal better. The recent direction of superhero productions like Man of Steel (2013) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) don’t enchant me. They’re not rooted in dramatic storytelling but rather feats of engineering. There’s a lot going on. Kristopher Tapley over at HitFix defined the practice as “money-shot overload.” The term fits perfectly.

The Avengers was enjoyable because it kept things relatively simple. Let’s bring the superheroes of the Marvel universe together to fight a known enemy: Loki. Age of Ultron is about introducing even more characters to that universe. When I research the cast on the IMDb I see names like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and The Vision. I could’ve missed it, but I don’t recall ever hearing those actual words in the film. What seemed so fun and effortless the first time has now become a thoroughly labored affair. It begins with a complicated opening set in a fictional eastern European country with a mad scientist named Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Von Strucker’s experiments have created genetically enhanced versions of twins Pietro and Wanda Maximofff. They’re portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen sporting embarrassing pseudo-Russian accents. It is interesting to note the actors went from playing a married couple in Godzilla to a brother & sister duo here.

Avengers: Age of Ultron makes precious little sense. I realize looking for consistency in a sci-fi fantasy is a feeble pursuit but I must start with a random observation. Pietro’s powers are wildly inconsistent. The dude is supposed to move at supersonic speeds. We saw this in 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past when the individual was notably played by Evan Peters. In that film, Quicksilver raced around a room to prevent an onslaught of bullets from hitting his friends. So I take serious exception to what he does here. I must tread lightly to avoid spoilers but his behavior is beyond comprehension. Paul Bettany’s role as J.A.R.V.I.S.. takes on a new dimension in a mystifying story arc which I couldn’t spoil because I didn’t get it either. Somehow the internet made it possible though.

Also lacking clarity is Ultron, the main villain.  He is actually part of Tony Stark’s global defense program. I will say it’s kind of amusing seeing Robert Downey Jr. reunited with his Less Than Zero co-star, or at least his voice anyway. James Spader looks different but hey, that was 28 years ago. Apparently Ultron is Tony Stark’s fault and he’s kind of a jerk about it. The words, “I’m sorry” would’ve helped.  Initially he had the best of intentions.  He wanted to keep the peace. His Ultron program was designed to protect the Earth.  But Ultron becomes a sentient being and naturally decides that the human race must be eliminated because they’re the biggest threat. It’s that darned artificial intelligence gone wrong again. You didn’t see this coming? How many movies are going to use this as a plot point? From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.  Oh but why have just one Ultron when you can have many. Of course there must be an army of robot drones further cluttering the screen.

A big part of the narrative involves the gang coming to terms with their feelings. Assisting them in this is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Her power is to get inside people’s heads. She disorients them with visions of their fears. There’s several dream sequences that put division amongst the Avengers. In fact much of the tale, in between conventional combat, is centered on Avengers who just wanna go home and walk away from all this.  Ah, that’s what was missing from the last Avengers movie, existentialist mumbo jumbo.  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets an expanded back-story that seeks to further humanize him. There’s even room for a burgeoning romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. I hesitate to use an adjective like boring, especially in a film with so much visual stimuli thrown at the screen, but these arbitrary developments aren’t captivating. How about lame? Is that a better word?

It’s not all bad. There are some genuinely humorous moments that made me smile. The Hulk’s dream (which we unfortunately never see) causes him to fly into a rage and forces Iron Man to don his Hulk-Buster suit of armor to calm him down. The team takes turns trying to pick up Thor’s hammer which has a hilarious payoff later. But then Ultron and the twins go to a shipyard in South Africa and Andy Serkis inexplicably pops up. Cue fanboy giggles. Bewildered looks on everyone else. Enough with the fan service! It shouldn’t come at the expense of a coherent story. As per usual, stay for a mid-credits scene (no post credits one) where we’re reminded of that creature with a purple face that we saw briefly in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. (I’m told it’s Thanos) I only wish Age of Ultron were more focused on giving the audience a lucid plot instead of being a character springboard for future films.

05-01-15

Furious 7

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Furious 7 photo starrating-4stars.jpgOver the course of seven films, the raison d’être of the Fast & Furious movies has been car chases, explosions and epic fights. The movies have laid this groundwork. I didn’t make the rules but that is how they must be judged. Using this barometer, I have always found the Fast & Furious franchise to be mildly entertaining. The first one is almost quaint by today’s standards. A variation of Point Break but with cars instead of surfboards. Parts 2-4 were of irregular quality with mixed results. But then the saga got a shot in the arm with parts 5 & 6. They both exceeded expectations. However they still never quite hit that sweet spot where the rightfully lively crossed over into the magnificent. That is until now. With Furious 7, director James Wan has produced a sequel that is so insane, so giddy to just throw the rules out the window, that the merely exciting has now crossed over into the ridiculously sublime. Regardless of your evaluation, this entry is unlike any that has come before. It is completely bonkers and the established drama is all the better for it.

Furious 7 evokes the best camaraderie from the gang. A huge cast is beautifully integrated into a story that has multiple events constantly going on at any given time. In a nod to the original film, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) gather with the neighborhood for race wars. Is that Iggy Azalea congratulating Letty for her win? Brian (Paul Walker) adjusts to a quiet family life with his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster) and son. Meanwhile Federal Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds a new villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) hacking away into his computer. Shaw has vowed to take revenge on behalf of his brother Owen (Luke Evans) who now lays in a coma amongst the ruins of a hospital on fire. Shaw is a human killing machine and Hobbs ends up in the hospital with a broken arm after he is hurled out of a second story window. He contacts Dom who vows to take down Shaw for good. Dom assembles the old gang which includes Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris). They embark on a mission to try and locate Shaw using a surveillance system called God’s Eye which can spot anybody from anywhere in the world. The story also has parts for Kurt Russell, Djimon Hounsou, a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Bollywood actor Ali Fazal, martial artist Tony Jaa and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. Even Lucas Black from Tokyo Drift shows up briefly.

Naturally the plan involves five of our heroes dropping out of a jet plane sitting in their cars equipped with parachutes. In this entry a car behaves more like a spaceship than a vehicle meant for land. The action set piece ends with a bus teetering on the edge of a cliff with Paul Walker inside. Aw heck a cliff never stopped anybody in this. Vin Diesel willingly drives himself off another cliff and he miraculously survives. Oh wait till you see the skyscraper scene in Abu Dhabi. This comes after a lavish party which is possibly the film’s only lull. There’s lots of music video edits and color at least. Then there’s a combat scene where Vin Diesel goes mano a mano with rival Jason Statham. “Thought this was gonna be street fight?” Diesel shouts holding a gun at an unarmed Statham. “You’re damn right it is” he says tossing the gun aside. The quips usually aren’t much more cutting than that, but they’re always perfectly timed and delivered with such confidence that they invariably land like the most eloquently tossed off wit.

Furious 7 is the best chapter in the Fast & Furious franchise. This is a fact. It’s not even up for discussion. The production is all about raising the stakes to top the others. It succeeds. It’s bigger, faster, funnier and yes, more touching. Furious 7 has the craziest stunts, the campiest dialogue, and the warmest, most amiable fellowship of any entry yet. The sequels have grown progressively sillier. This has been to the benefit of the series. The way this gang cheats death in this world is closer to the rules that govern cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Side Note: Their first Looney Tunes appearance was actually a short called Fast and Furry-ous in 1949. I kid you not. Anyway, it‘s the no holds barred, gleefully outrageous stunts that make this installment so transcendent. Nobody ever said these films were emotionally deep. Yet Furious 7 ends ups being a surprisingly touching tale concerning family – not necessarily people united by blood, but by loyalty and friendship. The camaraderie here is stronger than it has ever been. Furious 7 is a fitting coda not just to the series, but to the life of the late Paul Walker as well. By the end, I challenge you to keep the tears at bay.

04-02-15

’71

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller on March 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

'71 photo starrating-4stars.jpgBelfast 1971. It’s the height of the Northern Ireland conflict. But first, a little background for those unaware. The political war ran from 1968–1998. There’s the Loyalists, mostly Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Then there’s the Nationalists, a Catholic minority, who want to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. ’71 involves a particularly volatile area on Divis Street where the two warring communities live side by side. British solider Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is dropped into the middle of the combat to keep the peace. I suppose if you’re from the UK this conflict needs no introduction, but for the majority of viewers, the lack of info will be a bit confusing. I suppose it’s fitting that we aren’t given any backstory as to what is going on here. Our hero is rerouted from Germany and sent with little knowledge as to what he’s truly getting himself into.

What ‘71 has going for it is tense excitement. The story concerns when Gary becomes separated from his unit during a riot and needs to find his way back. It is an intense journey that is interesting because we desperately hope our young soldier can stay alive. French-born director Yann Demange fashions a tale with stunning immediacy. Shot in part with hand-held cameras, ‘71 has an almost documentary like approach. The style has led some to make comparisons to director Paul Greengrass whose Bloody Sunday (2002) covered a similar topic. It’s not always clear who is on what side in ‘71. Even the Catholic Nationalists have their own internal quarrels with the IRA. It doesn’t help that there are two(?) double agents and they look alike right down to their facial hair. Their shifting loyalties fluctuate throughout the film. An offhand remark by one at the end still leaves one guy’s loyalty in doubt even after the movie ends. In fact both groups of fighting ethnic factions look remarkably similar.

The funny thing is, despite the lack of information, the details are not really important in ‘71. True, the absence of sense prevents those intimately familiar with the situation to totally comprehend what’s going on. The script doesn’t benefit from a coherent distillation of history. However the story succeeds as a tension filled, entertaining film. It’s the dramatic urgency that compels us to watch. With the hazy specifics, we make connections between this and other conflicts. I thought of the Iraq War. You might make other associations. The takeaway is that this is about a man on the run. He simply wants to navigate the streets and alleyways just to make it back to his barracks alive. Viewed from that perspective, this is an extremely exciting, well made thriller.

03-15-15

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy on February 15, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Kingsman: The Secret Service photo starrating-3stars.jpgKingsman: The Secret Service is best when it focuses on the superlative training of applicants for an elite agency. At one point new recruits are tied to tracks while an oncoming train is speeding toward them down the path. They will be released only if they divulge the true nature of their organization. The image is particularly apropos when describing the ridiculous way in which Kingsman ends. It’s a great film for most of its run time.  I mean really wonderful. Then it goes completely “off the rails” in spectacular fashion.

Kingsman is a comic book update of a James Bond thriller but with the snotty attitude of director Matthew Vaughn’s own Kick-Ass. Colin Firth plays an impeccably dressed, well mannered spy heading a group that trains young men and women as deadly assassins. After a really marvelous action sequence, I was almost hoping Firth would remain the star. The well choreographed fight where he takes down a room full of combatants is sensational. The same goes for the gadgets, like when he uses his umbrella as a shield. He’s got the prim and proper manners of Mary Poppins with the physical prowess of Lennox Lewis. When a key member of his secret organization dies in the line of duty, he must seek a replacement. Among those being considered is Eggsy, the son of another murdered agent from the past. As portrayed by Taron Egerton he’s sort of a working class hooligan without any direction in life. Cue Harry Hart who’s there to help. They have great chemistry. It’s buoyant but the stakes are high. For three quarters of the film, the story concerns the organization and the development of talent. There is a series of tests designed to select adept individuals that surpass expectations.  When one of the team is given a faulty parachute after the group has already skydived out of a plane, it’s a real nail biter. You never know if an applicant is going to get killed in the selection process.

For about 80-90 minutes this movie is a blast. The picture is a well crafted adventure that delights the senses with eye popping action and colorful set design. Unfortunately the production doesn’t maintain that upbeat sensibility. A villain in the form of a lisping Internet billionaire hijacks the narrative. Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) believes humanity is a virus and global warming is the fever. So to stop this threat to the environment, he will exterminate people by distributing free SIM cards that will explode at his command. That could be fun, but then the lighthearted touch devolves into parody. There’s also an undercurrent of hate that invites us to cheer in the widespread genocide of human beings. I guess because the script has depicted these people as beneath contempt, it‘s supposed to be ok. They happily kill some stereotypical Arabs too with Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” blasting in the background. When it’s not being offensive it gets incredibly zany. It winds up being closer to Austin Powers than a James Bond flick at the conclusion. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing but the deviation in tone is so jarring with everything that came before.  Pity, because Matthew Vaughn sets up a really enjoyable thriller that engages the viewer….only to throw it in a dumpster during the final quarter.

02-15-15

A Most Violent Year

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

A Most Violent Year photo starrating-4stars.jpgA Most Violent Year is similarly titled in the same deceptive way that There Will Be Blood was named. Yes it concerns violent acts but it’s nowhere near as bloody as the crime dramas of Martin Scorsese for example. The setting is New York City 1981.  Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) seeks to expand a struggling oil delivery company. There has been a rash of attacks on his drivers. Thieves are hijacking trucks and stealing the oil. Meanwhile he is trying to secure a loan that will help him grow the business.

There’s a familiarity woven into the production. Abel Morales is a character Al Pacino would have portrayed in the 70s. As his wife Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain is channeling early 80s Michelle Pfeiffer style if not the personality. Alright, I’ll admit I’m alluding to Scarface here, but The Godfather is a reference as well. The production kind of suggests the mob mentality of those films but they’re not a good comparison. A Most Violent Year is actually rather elegant. Oscar Isaac resists the impulse to be a hoodlum, despite the temptation. He understands the mobster lifestyle is the road to hell and opts for legally working within the system to rise above the mire of that behavior. He’s steely calm in the face of crisis. His Brooklyn born wife is another story. Jessica Chastain is more gangster than he is. She’s fantastic in this role. I mean we already know the actress can inhabit a part like few of her generation but she steals the spotlight here. Her delivery of lines like “This was very disrespectful” to David Oyelowo’s district attorney conveys so much with just a wave of her finger. In another sequence, the couple accidentally hit a deer in their car on the way home one evening. Chastain owns that scene too.

That’s not to say that Isaac isn’t her equal. As Abel Morales, he’s a charismatic guy that embodies the idea that “success and prosperity are attainable through hard work, determination, and initiative.” There’s an occasion early in A Most Violent Year when businessman Abel is conferring with one of his drivers Julian (Elyes Gabel). The Spanish speaking man starts to talk in his native tongue and Abel corrects him. “In English” he insists. Later he’s trying to get information from Julian’s wife and the exchange is completely in Spanish. It’s a telling moment. Abel has the ability to speak Spanish but he chooses not to unless it’s absolutely necessary. He has fully bought into the American way of life and assimilated into its culture.

A Most Violent Year is an interesting take on the American Dream. Columbian born Abel Morales is not the stereotypical all American boy next door. With his wavy black hair and dark eyes he rocks a camel-hair topcoat with a suave personality to match. Plus he’s got the work ethic that says he’s going places.  The wardrobe is key – so well dressed. The only thing that rivals Abel’s succession of double breasted suits, is Chastain’s seemingly endless wardrobe of outfits. Just try and watch the couple engage a potential investor at dinner and NOT stare at Anna’s plunging neckline. It complements her personality. What I’m really saying is I love the mood of A Most Violent Year. Along with a haunting score by Alex Ebert, Director J.C. Chandor weaves a deep tale of the American Dream that authentically portrays the time period as if it was genuinely filmed in 1981. Chandor has directed 3 critically acclaimed movies to date, and for my money, this is his most entertaining. If he’s reading, “Keep up the great work!  I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

01-22-15

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