Archive for the Action Category

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction on December 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo star_wars_episode_vii__the_force_awakens_ver3_zpswqkf7wjy.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWe’ve waited 32 years for this. Star Wars: The Force Awakens concerns the continuing epic battle between the Galactic Empire, a fallen government now called the First Order, and the Resistance, which now supports the New Republic, the political system presently in power. If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a little refresher. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was part of the Rebel Alliance that opposed the Empire, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), also an agent of the rebellion, is now General Leia Organa. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the Jedi Master that supported them both. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

The great thing about this current tale is that the story features those three in key roles. The emergence of each inspiring gasps of recognition with the dramatic unveiling of each one. Such is the joy of this production. The Force Awakens arrives in an atmosphere of intense scrutiny and unrealistic hopes. Director J.J. Abrams pays homage to the original trilogy in a crowd pleasing wham bam pow of a film. The saga stands on its own, but for those who can remember what it was like to watch that original 1977 movie, in a drive-in no less, the experience is a childhood catharsis. The Force Awakens doesn’t tread new ground, nor does it introduce plot points that innovate. What it does do is meet expectations in a way that that honors the past, while still providing enough novelty to make the adventure worthwhile. The “it’s just a movie” aesthetic flies in the face of those hard core enthusiasts that demand more, but if you’re open to its obvious charms, you will adore this flick.

The contemporary story interweaves those characters from the past into a fresh tale. This one features Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, who discovers an important droid, BB-8, at a junkyard. There’s also Finn (John Boyega), a reformed stormtrooper, who wants to help the the Resistance crush the First Order. Lupita Nyong’o does motion capture work as Maz Kanata, a wise old sage, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is an X-wing fighter pilot. On the opposing side there’s a powerful Jedi named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is more aligned with the Dark Side. Comparisons of Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn, Poe, Maz and BB-8, to previous incarnations of Star Wars characters are purely intentional I’m sure. That doesn’t make them any less compelling. As long as they can provoke our interest that is…and they do.

The Force Awakens takes its time to get started, but once it does, its evocation of the past is a delight. The script presents a warm, sometimes sad, and often funny story that arouses our emotion due to its familiarity. The story is straightforward, almost simplistic in its desire not to muddle a narrative that is refreshingly uncomplicated. Even the visuals rely less on green screen technology and more on organic practical effects. Only a CGI heavy called the Supreme Leader feels fake. The screenplay is by respected veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as J. J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3). The unveiling of a recognizable broken down old spacecraft shouldn’t bring tears to an adult man, but I’m embarrassed to admit it does. Or consider John Williams’ iconic score that blasts over the opening crawl. Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2? Yup they’re all here. The recognition is what sells the picture. This is satisfying nostalgia pure and simple. Sure wrapping up a present in a bright shiny package with a big red bow isn’t innovative, but gosh darn it, it sure is appealing, and that’s exactly what I love about this film.

12-17-15

In the Heart of the Sea

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on December 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo in_the_heart_of_the_sea_ver4_zpsnlbtbdyq.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIn the Heart of the Sea is a solemn drama of outmoded style. It concerns the adventure that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Our 19th century sea faring tale begins with the American novelist (Ben Whishaw) visiting old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Thomas was once a cabin boy and is the sole living survivor left from the doomed final voyage of the whaleship Essex. Herman has to bribe him to tell the unvarnished truth so he can commit Thomas’ words to the printed page. We then flashback to the events of his yarn. Why we needed this framing device is a mystery. It’s a construct that seemingly serves no purpose other than to derail the picture at inopportune moments. Every time something exciting starts to happen the narrative abruptly stops in its tracks to remind us we’re still listening to a story. I suppose observing two people talk in a dark room is slightly more interesting than watching someone silently write a book. However it’s less exciting than seeing people fight a whale attacking a ship. I figured a director as talented as Ron Howard would have understood this by now, but apparently not.

The proper tale takes place when the Essex leaves Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819. The chronicle centers around Chris Hemsworth as dashing Owen Chase, the first mate, and Benjamin Walker as the more genteel Captain George Pollard, Jr. The aristocratic Pollard has a family lineage that accords him the position, as opposed to the more qualified Chase, who has the experience. Chase’s lower social status has unfortunately precluded him from commanding a ship yet again. The stacked set-up is a cliché. Nevertheless, their combative relationship is a fairly compelling plot point. Early in their voyage, Pollard tests his crew by ordering them to deliberately sail into a dangerous squall. This is amidst the protestations of Chase. The decision almost capsizes the ship, but somehow Pollard finds a way to hold Chase accountable for the debacle anyway.

I was quite enjoying the acrimonious affiliation between the Captain and his first mate . It sort of reminded me of Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, although I admit I am being very charitable when I say that. But then the whale shows up and the focus shifts to CGI spectacles. The whaling scenes pitting man against beast are jampacked but strangely, not thrilling. The action is undone by choppy editing that obscures what is happening exactly. The presentation has a colorful 2D aesthetic but it gives the visual spectacle a simulated muddy quality that lessens the excitement. As a result we’re less invested in their plight.

In the Heart of the Sea is constructed as an old fashioned epic that is anything but. Lots of details about the whaling industry are present. Few scenes stand out, but one features cabin boy Thomas (the narrator of our story, played as a youth by Tom Holland) entering a narrow hole cut into a dead whale’s head, to extract the supply of sperm oil inside. During the 2nd half, when the gang gets shipwrecked, so does the plot. Chase and Pollard promptly make amends and lose the personality that made their antagonistic relationship engaging. Watching the crew, which includes second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), just waste away,  is pretty tedious. They do what they must in order to survive. This includes behavior that should be disturbing, but the environment is so dignified, it barely registers. Honestly, you could say the same thing about the entire film. It’s not awful, but it is awfully forgettable.

12-09-15

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on November 21, 2015 by Mark Hobin

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 photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSplitting author Suzanne Collins’ third and final book into two parts was a decision motivated by greed. The choice may have made stockholders happy, but it certainly didn’t benefit the art of telling an interesting story. Mockingjay Part 1 relied on exposition to set up a civil war that was brewing. The subject continues in Part 2. The ruthless enemy is Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), President of Panem. The rebel factions from the outer districts take orders from Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), President of District 13. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still on the side of Coin but she’s clearly conflicted to be an instrument in furthering her motives. Katniss  is no longer a valiant participant in the games. She’s the Mockingjay — an inspiration for a generation of insurgents to launch a strike against the Capitol. It’s all out war. Complicating matters is that Peeta — now rescued from being under the influence of the enemy — has been brainwashed into thinking his beloved friend is the source of society’s ills.

The action had been stretched pretty thin in Mockingjay – Part 1, so expectations were that this is where the excitement would be. Yet there appears to be even less of that this go around. It’s more dialogue as actor squares off against actor. Sutherland and Moore impressively seize the focus. Unfortunately though the plot is a tedious slog in which the sum total of the narrative can be reduced to “Let’s go kill Snow”. There is an exorbitant amount of time spent on just walking to the Capitol. The trek includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Finnick (Sam Claflin) among others. On their way, Katniss and her team confront various traps and threats. A lot of people die. Katniss is disgusted by war and apparently herself. She’s glum and depressed, racked with guilt as she struggles with her new role. She never asked to be a symbol for the rebellion. The depression zaps the actress of her usual spark. Her despondency seeps into the overall spirit of the film.

The Hunger Games series ultimately sputters to a weak and sorry conclusion in this fourth and final installment. What a comedown from the exhilarating high point that Catching Fire had achieved. Mockingjay – Part 2 is a dour condemnation of war where very little of consequence happens until the end. The drama fails to make a lasting impression. There are a few exceptions. Katniss and her team encounter mutant zombies whose mouths resemble piranhas. The “Alien” attack sequence is the single most nightmarish moment in the entire picture. The chronicle is once again abetted by a colorful ensemble cast. Tigris (Eugenie Bondurant), is a former Hunger Games’ stylist, briefly seen hiding Katniss’ unit in her shop. The bizarre surgically altered cat woman is like some futuristic descendant of Jocelyn Wildenstein. Regrettably those loopy flourishes are the exception. A mostly gray color palette complements a boring narrative with a sluggish pace. At least it’s finally over I suppose.

11-20-15

Spectre

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller on November 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spectre photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDaniel Craig is back for his 4th appearance in the Bond series. For those keeping score, Spectre is the 24th entry made by Eon Productions. The greatest James Bond features have always worked as a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. To put it another way, they are an assortment of action set pieces strung together to form a lucid story. Here the action rises and falls. Spectre is typified both by exhilarating highs and mundane lows that interact to produce an overall spirited good time.

The flick gets off to a rollicking good start in Mexico City, where celebrants have amassed to honor the Day of the Dead with a colorful parade. The color, costumes, and energy present contribute to feeling of excitement that is equally exuberant and sinister. The film’s heart-pumping opening chase take place in a helicopter high above Zócalo Square. It’s a logistically spectacular display that undoubtedly contributed to this being the most expensive James Bond production ever. It shows. The stunt ranks favorably with the best of Jame Bond. Then comes a credits sequence highlighted by Sam Smith’s wimpy falsetto theme “Writing’s on the Wall”. The corresponding images illicit more giggles than awe with a shirtless Bond being massaged by sexy ladies and octopus tentacles. The bad guys have a ring engraved with an octopus so that’s the connection I suppose.  It’s all a bit WTF but memorable for being so over-the-top.

The proper tale concerns Spectre, a nefarious international criminal network that wants to unite the world’s surveillance services into a global agency. It’s somewhat murky and there are more than a few conversations that could’ve ended up on the cutting room floor to benefit a more efficient running time. I mean a zippy adventure shouldn’t be prolonged to 2 hours and 30 minutes. That’s ridiculous. Honestly if they had shaved 30 minutes off this monstrosity it would’ve gotten a higher rating from me. Still what is here is very good. In addition to the spectacles I’ve mentioned there’s a nifty fist fight on a train barreling through Morocco with wrestler Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx. He plays a henchman for the Spectre organization. There’s also rousing chase sequences through Rome, the Austrian Alps and London as well.

Spectre incorporates a lot of references from the past that sort of provide a unifying whole to the previous four Bond entries. Recurring characters M, Q and Miss Moneypenny all return. New addition Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann is an attractive presence, although too judgmental for a typical “Bond girl”. Spectre is the villanous global criminal network that forms the crux of the saga. Meanwhile the essential fate of the 007 organization is in jeopardy when a smug bureaucrat named C (Andrew Scott) takes over British intelligence. The pinnacle of evil is Christoph Waltz, whom Bond tracks down to his desert lair housed in a meteor crater. He’s a serviceable villain, but veers on the dull side. This is where you’re supposed to ham it up, Christoph! His head drilling machine is kind of nasty though. I cringed at the scene.

The Daniel Craig Bond era has been unusually strong. Over the course of four movies, the franchise has seen some of its most popular films. The series hit a zenith with Skyfall, an all around success by any standard. Quantum of Solace was execrable, but hey, three out of four ain’t bad. Spectre isn’t the best entry, but it’s good entertaining fun nonetheless. Daniel Craig has intimated this may be the last time he plays Bond. If that’s true, I will lament his decision. He’s been one of my favorites.

11-06-15

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 a science 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.

10-01-15

Sicario

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.

09-26-15

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.

08-17-15

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.

07-10-15

Ant-Man

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.

07-16-15

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

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