Archive for the Action Category

The Martian

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on October 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Martian photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Martian is the latest movie in a tradition that looks at space travel with a serious eye. I’m talking about recent favs Gravity and Interstellar. The comparisons to Interstellar are especially pertinent. Aside from the astronaut subject matter, both also feature Matt Damon being stranded on a planet (this time as a good guy), and each highlight Jessica Chastain as one of the featured players. While the corresponding actors link this closer to Interstellar, the human marooned-in-space tale is much more aligned with Gravity.

Matt Damon stars as a proficient botanist left behind on Mars when his squad flees a dangerous storm. You want comedy? You’re in luck, because there’s a lot of it. It’s a tribute to Drew Goddard’s adaptation, that a narrative can still find humor in the the face of very grim circumstances. Are you taking notes Christopher Nolan? This is Director Ridley Scott’s most celebrated film since American Gangster in 2007. It’s also his funniest loosest space epic yet. Alien and Prometheus were downright dour. The hilarity lightens the mood. Gravity was somber. Ditto Interstellar. The Martian, by comparison, is a laugh riot.

The Martian is a much more audience friendly film. Surviving against all odds is the clear through line. This is a feel-good production that promotes the triumph of the human will. But its accessibility goes deeper than that. For one thing, we’ve surrounded Matt Damon with a stellar cast of characters so he’s not required to shoulder the entire narrative alone in the same way that Sandra Bullock needed to with Gravity. Or, if we really want to be accurate, like the modern day Robinson Crusoe of Tom Hanks in Castaway. Granted, that wasn’t about space, but the thematic analogy is particularly apt. In addition to Chastain, Damon is joined by Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie as his Ares 3 crew. They certainly don’t act like brainy scientists. They crack wise like they’re on a sitcom. Actor Michael Peña has elevated this archetype to an art form. Meanwhile Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Sean Bean are part of ground control on earth. Though much more business-like, they have their lighthearted moments too. Donald Glover, you’re wanted on set.

The picture is rooted in science. As in Andy Weir’s novel on which this is based, we have heaps of technical jargon. The words are creatively tossed out like grenades. In a story with a rather straightforward plot, they help create an intellectual mood. Star astronaut Matt Damon talks to himself, and by extension the audience, constantly. He’s fond of explaining what he’s currently doing, and what he’s going to do. He keeps meticulous video logs as well. I suppose these expository conversations are necessary so we can understand what’s going on. It’s just that the spoon-fed information reminds us that we’re watching a movie and not eavesdropping on the way these things would play actually play out organically in real life. The chronicle often shifts back to earth and the drama playing out down there as well. We are privy to the minute details and bureaucratic loopholes that would come into play once NASA discovered their man was still alive.

The Martian is an unabashed crowd pleaser. Once Matt Damon realizes he’s been abandoned by his flight crew, he remains a spirited protagonist. He plows ahead with a plucky abandon determined to make a go of the hand he has been dealt. “I’m going to have to science the sh- – out of this” is his oft repeated quote. He relies on a combination of duct tape and disco. Ok so that’s not all, but the cheesy music ditties give the drama an air of ridiculousness. They even inform the story. From Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” – what the timeworn selections lack in originality, they make up for in listenability. Try not and smile as he transports a radioactive isotope while grooving to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”. I’d be rolling my eyes if it weren’t so gosh darn funny. “Bring Him Home” is the tagline on the poster. That’s the objective and everyone gets involved – from China, who must declassify their own space program, to an aerodynamics geek at NASA who comes up with a solution. The latter, who uses a stapler to dumb down his explanation for his superiors, is amusing for his condescending tone. The whole world is captivated by Mark Watney’s predicament. The Martian is simplistic in plot, but elaborate in experience. Breezy Hollywood hokum makes you feel good to be human. Sunny optimism never felt so cerebral.



Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on September 26, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Sicario photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWelcome to Juarez, a Mexican city along the U.S. border just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Juarez is a battleground for drug cartels and one of the most violent places in the world. This is the setting for director Denis Villeneuve’s latest production which details an ever escalating war on drugs.

Sicario relies on a trio of solid performances. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a naive FBI agent enlisted to aid in the capture of a dangerous drug lord. She runs a kidnap rescue team, but soon her talents will be pushed far beyond what she normally does. Right from the beginning, Sicario opens with a nightmarish find. Hidden within the plasterboard walls of a harmless looking home are dozens of corpses sealed in plastic bags. It’s a prelude to the vicious methods of the criminal organizations they wish to stop. Josh Brolin is the task force official in charge of the clandestine U.S. operation. Is he DEA? CIA? Something else? His affiliations aren’t clear as is the mysterious “consultant” they hire played by Benicio Del Toro. This the film’s most juicy role and he clearly relishes the part. Kate Macer is by the book. The rest of this crew, seemingly less so.

If there’s an MVP, it’s Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Once again working with Villeneuve (Prisoners), he extracts the art out of a grim drama. There are comprehensive aerial shots of the desert, a stunning night-vision raid, emotive close-ups in a climatic dinner scene. A convoy stopped to a standstill in a traffic jam at the U.S.-Mexico border is a heart-pounding set piece. Car chases are so cliche. Headless figures hung as a warning from an overpass, is a chilling image that lingers long after the picture is over. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s spare music with it’s punchy tones, is rather effective as well.  This is the same guy responsible for the lush orchestrations of The Theory of Everything. Talk about contrasts. It’s more sound design than melody, but the score mines a truly suspenseful feeling.

Sicario is an experience. An air of hopelessness permeates the atmosphere. This isn’t a detailed investigation. It’s a bleak mood piece that gives the viewer a you-are-there perspective. Director Villeneuve showcases the corrupt measures utilized to combat drug trafficking. Sicario is slang for “hitman” in Mexico and the simple title fits. The drama is minimalist, both in the articulated tale as well as style. As Emily Blunt plunges deeper into this sinister world, she registers confusion and uncertainty. To be honest, I wish the script had allowed her to be a bit more shrewd. Although we the audience can easily identify with her bewilderment. Who is this top secret U.S. Agency that she’s working for now? What has she gotten herself into exactly? And is there even a solution to the horrors of the illegal drug trade? So much ambiguity. We don’t get many answers, but such is life I suppose.


The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgConfession time. I’ve never seen an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – the dated mid-60s TV show starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. The two worked as ancillary superspies for a global covert intelligence agency during the Cold War. The series lasted a mere 4 seasons but apparently it made enough of a lasting impression to inspire this movie. In my jaded estimation, turning a TV show into a feature film seems like another lazy attempt to start a franchise. Perhaps the motivation of the producers is a bit calculating, but I found this to be nothing less than an effervescent cocktail of a spy thriller. It’s a handsome production.

Speaking of handsome, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stars Superman and the Lone Ranger. That’s Brit Henry Cavill as American Napoleon Solo and American Armie Hammer as Soviet Illya Kuryakin. It’s debateable, but I dare say neither actor has ever been more charismatic on screen than they are here. The two trade wisecracks with flair and panache, each one playing a game of one-upmanship that’s so delightfully fun you can’t help but smile. Cavill also banters with Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as Victoria Vinciguerra, a devastatingly beautiful but icy Italian villain. Cavill tosses off quips with compelling insouciance. The words delivered with such clarity they sound almost too lyrical to be coming from an American, but the fantasy works nonetheless. This is how we wish we spoke. Like some long lost conversation between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, their flirtatious exchanges are captivating.

What sets this apart from today’s bombastic assaults is that the approach is breezily elegant. This bright, sparkling concoction is a period piece mixture of swanky espionage, jazzy lounge pop instrumentals and chic fashions. James Bond author Ian Fleming contributed to the original concept of the TV show and that’s immediately obvious when watching this film. It oozes the aesthetic of that British Secret Service agent in every frame. Daniel Pemberton’s light snappy arrangements should be recognized. His pop music selections suggest Hugo Montenegro’s work on the TV series as well as Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin with stirring élan. Surprisingly he excludes Jerry Goldsmith’s popular theme song. The omission isn’t missed however as the dulcet tones present effectively transport viewers back to the bossa nova of another time and place.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston also deserves a special mention. Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is the most nattily attired secret agent I’ve ever seen. In one scene he sports a large blue windowpane plaid suit inspired by Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. He’s talking with nemesis Victoria Vinciguerra in a black and white number that’s an homage to Cruella de Vil. The two look marvelous. Let’s not forget Swedish Alicia Vikander as the equally stunning but spunky Gaby, an East German mechanic recruited to be an unlikely ally. At one point she models an orange and cream wool camo-print mini-dress that is utterly Twiggy-esque.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a pleasant refreshment. It’s not the most urgent story you’ll see at the multiplex this year but it is entertaining. Guy Ritchie has directed this flick with the same swagger he brought to Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey, Jr. And Jude Law were a dashing pair and Ritchie extracts that same palpable chemistry between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They have never been better. 2015 has seen its fair share of undercover thrillers. There was Kingsman: The Secret Service, the comedy Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. All saw decent success. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proves there’s room for one more. Its sexy take is a satisfying addition to the mix. Granted it’s superficial, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. This should be a welcome diversion to tide the spy fan over until Spectre, the 24th Bond film, is released on November 6th.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on July 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation photo starrating-4stars.jpgMost films are launched by the best entry and continue with subsequent sequels over a steady course of decreasing returns. The Mission: Impossible spy movies, however, buck that trend. By and large, these flicks just seem to keep getting better and more focused. This has a lot to to do with the point at which the series started. The 1996 Mission: Impossible picture that kicked off the franchise was a web of switching allegiances that unraveled into a convoluted mess. I still won’t spoil the plot of a near 20 year old movie, but it actually managed to dishonor the heart of the original TV show. Fast forward to the 4th installment, 2011’s Ghost Protocol, and it achieved an apex. Now we have number 5. While Rogue Nation doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, it’s still an efficiently written, well acted and directed thriller overflowing with stunts infused with a healthy dose of wit.

The story has Hunt as his team trying to prove the existence of The Syndicate. This is some evil international organization intent on taking down Tom Cruise and the rest of the Impossible Missions Force. Rogue Nation assembles some familiar faces: Tom Cruise along with Ving Rhames are a constant in every film. I suppose there will come a day where Crusie will be replaced by a younger actor. I must say though, given his superhuman feats of derring-do, that day isn’t any time soon. He exudes nothing but the aura of a vibrant action star. 53 years old never looked so good. Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner have reunited as well. The men are a bit more consistent. The Mission women on the other hand, are a revolving door. Past femme fatales Thandie Newton, Michelle Monaghan and Paula Patton are out. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust is in. A welcome addition, she plays an able bodied agent whose mysterious loyalties are unclear.

MI:5 starts off with a seemingly death-defying action extravaganza that has Ethan Hunt jumping on a plane to seize some missiles loaded with nerve gas. That he must cling to the outside of the plane as it takes off is par of the course for this globetrotter. It’s hard in this day and age of computer effects to impress with stunts anymore. That the mighty feat is seemingly accomplished without the aid of computers adds to the excitement. Sometimes it’s a sprint through the streets of London or swinging on a curtain rope backstage at the opera. Other times a car chase through the winding roads of Casablanca morphs into a a motorcycle race through mountain highways. How about a soaring altitude jump into a massive circular tank of water where our hero must hold his breath for SIX minutes. He must swim to the bottom of an underwater tunnel to switch out a profile card to allow his associate unrestricted access into a maximum security stronghold. The action never fails to thrill.

Christopher McQuarrie is the writer behind Valkyrie (2008), Jack Reacher (2012) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – all movies starring Tom Cruise, The two have joined forces again for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where McQuarrie also directs the actor for a second time. Their close working relationship produces a lively production that is high on fun and low on overwrought complications of the earlier entries in this franchise. Colorful stunt-filled escapades dramatically utilize the full scope of the wide screen. In truth, the production is little more than a series of athletic exploits that dazzle the eye. Yet each tableau is so great that any one of them could easily serve as the climax of its own film. The excessive 2 hour+ run time does wear on the viewer. Call it too much of a good thing. Still, it’s the breathtaking stunts that genuinely sell this picture. Can I emphasize how much this Hitchcock fan truly appreciated that “Man Who Knew Too Much“-inspired assassination attempt at the Vienna Opera House? Well I did…a lot.



Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ant-Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s getting hard to summon up the enthusiasm for these superhero movies. There’s just so many of them. Oh and why must each one start with a convoluted origin story? Over the last 10 years we’ve seen as many as 11 comic book adaptations come out in a single year. That was 2011. Since then the sheer number of offerings has declined so perhaps we’re in a bubble that’s about to burst. That’s a shame because a few have ranked among my favorites in a given year. Guardians of the Galaxy is an example that transcends the genre. Unfortunately that’s an exception. For every Avengers there’s an Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which leads me to the latest offering. Ant-Man isn’t terrible but it is far from required viewing.

Even though former systems engineer Scott Lang has been released from prison, he’s a good guy at heart. His crime? Breaking into a shady corporation and transferring money back to workers who deserved it. So he’s like a modern day Robin Hood. Now that he’s a free man, he’s determined to help support his young daughter. She’s an adorable little moppet that gets ample screen time to be cute. Continuing the family angle there also former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his adult daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They have some unresolved issues to work out too.

How about some more great actors cast as random people?  Michael Pena is conspicuous as a member of Scott’s heist team. Pena emphasizes his ethnicity by speaking with an exaggerated Mexican accent. His sidekick character will either be amusing or cringeworthy depending on your tolerance for ethnic stereotypes. My audience giggled. I was quiet. But this is Scott Lang’s story. Apparently stealing things is his sole hope of earning a living. First Scott steals a suit that shrinks him down to microscopic size. Then he uses the technology to steal more things. Yup. Ant-Man is a heist film.

The best moments involve humor. Yet the giggles are pitched at very young viewers, the humor marked by a jejune mentality. “Whoa! I can’t believe things that are usually small now look big!” is that what the audience is supposed to think.  Personally I couldn’t stop thinking this feels like a made for TV movie for the Disney channel. With a few judicious edits for language, this PG-13 could easily be PG. The script has a favorably lighthearted attitude at least. “Isn’t the idea of a tiny masked vigilante kind of stupid?” it winks at us. Part of you laughs with the filmmakers because sometimes they’re in on the joke, and part of you snickers at them because sometimes they aren’t. The action is really generic. No conflict is ever too complicated that it can’t be resolved with another fistfight. There’s several. Each one is uniquely staged I suppose. Call it Honey I Shrunk the Superhero!  But if that’s the only novelty that this picture can offer (and it is) then that’s hardly innovation. Ant-Man is a boilerplate superhero production. It reinforces the (unfair) accusation that, if you’ve seen one costumed crime fighter film, you’ve seen them all.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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