Archive for the Action Category

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

The Interview

Posted in Action, Comedy on January 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Interview photo starrating-1star.jpgBy now we’ve heard the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked on November 24, 2014.   The hackers called themselves the “Guardians of Peace” A lot of sensitive data pertaining to studio employees and their families was released. But what got the most attention was the demanded cancellation of the release of this film The Interview, a political “comedy” regarding a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Although North Korea has denied any responsibility, the FBI has claimed otherwise, Meanwhile independent cybersecurity experts have cast credible doubt on North Korea’s involvement. They contend rather that the hack was an inside job by disgruntled fired SONY employees.

Now I’m certainly not qualified to weigh in on who’s responsible. However I will submit as evidence the actual movie. It’s a sloppily directed, misguided mess. The picture has as much trenchant political satire as The Three Stooges but without the sophisticated urbane wit that characterizes one of their flicks. The scattershot script is just a succession of jokes pitched at the lowest form of toilet humor. In other words The Interview is more of an attack on the fabric of good taste than a threat to the North Korean regime.

Sample dialogue:

Dave Skylark: Do you pee and poo?
Kim Jong-un: You’ve heard the stories, huh? Yes, I pee and poo.
Dave Skylark: So you have a butt—-.
Kim Jong-un: I’ve got a butt—- and it’s working overtime.

The Interview is nothing more than a hodgepodge of random gags loosely strung together. The story concerns Dave Skylark (James Franco) a bumbling idiot that hosts a TV talk show. With the help of his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) he lands a meeting with the dictator of North Korea. It starts off promisingly enough. A rosy cheeked schoolgirl with a beatific face lovingly sings a little ditty. Her Korean is translated in subtitled lyrics that pleads “Die America, die! Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny heart with joy!“ The lyrics express extremist attitudes, but the sweetly sung delivery from the face of innocence does induce laughter. After that, it’s all downhill with a tiresome preoccupation with potty-mouth humor. The script is staggeringly bad. Forget a send-up of the political situation. The writing is mainly dumbed-down raunch about body parts. Other lines are so stupid they barely register as jokes. Case in point: An argument between buddies Dave and Aaron has Dave repeating the phrase “They hate us ’cause they ain’t us” so many times I thought the projector was broken. It also doesn’t help that the actor playing Kim Jong-un looks absolutely nothing like him. He’s male and Asian, but that’s it. Actor Randall Park affects an accent so awful it borders on a racist stereotype. The character also bangs lots of women, drinks margaritas and listens to Katy Perry music.

I should think North Korea would champion this movie because it wallows in the offensiveness to which America’s critics accuse us. If The Interview is a threat to anything, it’s to the definition of cinema as an art form.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on December 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies photo starrating-2stars.jpgIf for nothing else, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is wonderful for finally putting to rest the ongoing speculation as to whether making 3 movies was a cash grab. It most certainly was. This series has always been marred by a ridiculously extended narrative. The original book by JRR Tolkien was 310 pages and meant for children. The filmed adaptation by Peter Jackson runs 474 minutes in its entirety. That’s almost 8 hours folks. My patience has worn out. Simply put, the third installment is an aesthetically pleasing but tedious bore.

Our story commences with Smaug the dragon. He assaults the city of Lake-town by setting fire to it, destroying everything. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) faces off against the beast with his arrows. What happens next doesn’t put an end to the troubles of Bilbo and the dwarves. In fact it brings more enmity, not closure. It’s interesting to note that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) doesn’t even register as the star of the movie that bears his name. Instead most of the plot concerns the spiritual quest of Thorin, the dwarf leader played by Richard Armitage. Given his portrayal here, you’ll forget that he was once a good guy. Driven solely by greed, he’s an insufferable presence.

This sleep inducing chronicle encourages a lot of reflection during its 144 minute slog. The fighting is monotonous. All of it repetitive. The battle is drawn out for no other purpose than to render 72 pages into a feature length work. Although it gave me time to make some random observations. What to make of that title? As near as I can figure it, the five armies comprise of (1) Goblins & Wargs, (2) the Men of Dale, (3) Elves, (4) Dwarves and (5) Eagles. Wait what? Eagles?! I’m sorry but a group of gliding birds does not constitute an army. I don’t care how big they are. Actor Ryan Gage is dreary comic relief as Alfrid Lickspittle, a citizen of Lake-town whose chief skill is disguising himself as a woman to save his own skin. When he cries out “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” All I heard was Helen Lovejoy, the gossipy wife of the Reverend on The Simpsons. How about some more déjà vu line readings? A CGI display has Galadriel holding up her hand to banish evil spirit Sauron. But hold the Arkenstone! Did I hear Galadriel dismiss Sauron with a “Begone! You have no power here!”? Wasn’t that Glinda’s line from The Wizard of Oz? Maybe she should’ve just dropped a house on him and been done with it.

The Hobbit as a adaptation simply does not have a narrative rich enough to sustain this bloated, distended bore. The chronicle is not deep nor meaningful nor even well-executed, with one exception. At least there is a definitive conclusion. That’s something that couldn’t be said of the previous two parts. Cheers for that. But the paper-thin plot is stretched out beyond all common sense. Director Peter Jackson continues to add his own characters and subplots to the detriment of Tolkien’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” novel.  Jackson’s re-imagining has no focus. Smaug’s attack upon Lake-town, which opens part 3, is one of the better sequences as far as this prequel franchise is concerned. It captivated me. But it’s really the only thing that did. The climatic fight, which is supposed to be the centerpiece, goes on forever – interminable.  It’s more Game of Thrones than Tolkien anyway. The material is there. Somewhere buried under all of this exposition is an entertaining adventure, which prompts my suggestion: Could someone please take these three Hobbit movies and just edit them into one enjoyable 2 hour film? Thanks in advance.

12-21-14

American Sniper

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on November 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

American Sniper photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie adaptation of the memoir written by United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle exists between the taught, tension filled investigation of The Hurt Locker and the overt rah rah jingoism of Lone Survivor. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and during that time, he had at least 160 confirmed kills by the Pentagon’s count, but 255 probable by his own calculation. Eastwood touches on his early years but the majority of the picture is devoted to Kyle’s military service, It is an often sobering account of how the most lethal sniper in American military history conducted his business in the Iraq War. As such it is Clint Eastwood’s best film in years.

Bradley Cooper handles the role with seriousness and humility. The actor fleshes out a character with pure sincerity. Although Chris remains a bit inscrutable, his devotion to his purpose and why he does what he does, is clear. The Navy SEAL is shown to be a perceptive man who understands the severity of what he does. His actions have grave consequences. Bradley Cooper looks quite different physically here. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Chris Kyle was a large guy. Bradley Cooper sports a beard and packs on 40 lbs of muscle to become the man. With her reddish brown hair and American accent, Sienna Miller is virtually unrecognizable as well in a fundamental supporting part as his wife Taya Kyle.

Eastwood is effective at contrasting the difference between a sniper’s job from the troops fighting on the ground. To be honest, Kyle takes on this duty as well when he cannot be of help on the rooftops. As a sharpshooter, we are presented with the emotionally difficult decisions he must make from a distance. He weighs the importance of what he is about to do with the lasting results. Is this an innocent civilian or a dangerous enemy that threatens American lives? Not every assassin looks like a human killing machine trained for combat. Warning: the most compelling scene that illustrates this is in the trailer.

The negative effects his service had on his marriage is understandable but they’re the kind of well worn issues oft dramatized. Chris Kyle is a career solider. We understand his desire to keep going back to Iraq. He has developed a reputation as a legend and he is driven to contribute to the cause. Meanwhile his growing detachment from domestic life becomes problematic. He volunteers to return for a total of four separate tours and it weighs heavily on his marriage.  If there’s a mission that keeps him coming back, it is the unfinished pursuit of a Syrian marksman (Sammy Sheik) who is his counterpart on the opposite side. But his wife and kids need him too. This dilemma forms a persistent idea in the second half.

American Sniper is a solid well constructed effort that is arguably Clint Eastwood’s best since Gran Torino. I would support that assertion anyway. But it’s also rather predictable. The depiction hits the familiar beats you‘d expect the bio of a dedicated solider to address. Whether the deadliest sniper in U.S. history is a hero is not even a topic up for discussion. It is just presented as fact. The reverential portrait is a tribute that honors the man. The way this affected his personal life is a key aspect. The ongoing effect that war has on an individual’s psyche as well as his family are thoughtfully addressed, but there’s never anything particularly revelatory added to the conversation.

11-23-14

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 follows the further adventures of Miss Katniss Everdeen. As embodied by the effervescent Jennifer Lawrence, the character never ceases to be captivating. The actress can make even the most banal dialogue or scene seem absolutely riveting and crucial. And let’s face it. None of these chapters have a clear-cut ending so that talent is most appreciated. In fact, this one is all the more piecemeal because it ends in the middle of the book on which it is adapted. As such, it’s a perfectly acceptable stopgap measure in between the 2nd and final film.

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up where Catching Fire left off. District 12 has been reduced to ashes. Katniss Everdeen has been saved from the arena but Peeta Mellark is still under the restraint of the state. Her goal is to save him and unite a nation ready to oppose the state. This is a plot centered on exposition. Katniss is sent into the front lines in order to star in a sequence of propaganda videos. These are also designed to infiltrate the Capitol airwaves in order to educate the masses into what is really going on. Assuming a major role in this episode is President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) who was the President of District 13. Thought to be destroyed, the district is actually completely intact, just underground.  Coin is now the leader of the rebellion. I didn’t even see The Giver but she looks like Meryl Streep in the trailers for that picture. Less important this time around is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who is used more as a tool to weaken Katniss. The capitol wants Katniss to abandon her role as the Mockingjay. As a symbol of someone who has broken free from the control of the government she is a dangerous inspiration to the people of Panem.

Mockingjay is inferior to Catching Fire, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It’s just that the excitement quotient of the story is a bit anemic. There are a lot of segments where the narrative simply drags. That has never been the case with this series before. This is a running commentary on the fabrication of propaganda in order to promote a cause. The groundwork has been laid for all out war. Gone are the reality based competitions to the death. In its place is a war of words, essentially between Katniss Everdeen and President Snow who uses Peeta against her. I must warn the uninitiated. Anyone unfamiliar with the previous installments will be lost. More than Twilight, more than Harry Potter, this entry does require that you have seen Parts 1 and 2. These are the details concerning the ongoing evolution in the nation of Panem. For those in the know, the production can provide some satisfaction.

11-21-14

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