Archive for the Action Category

The Maze Runner

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on September 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Maze Runner photo starrating-2stars.jpgThomas (Dylan O’Brien ) wakes up in a mysterious community of teenaged boys with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. He soon learns he is in The Glade, a habitat surrounded by a massive maze. Every teen (known as a Glader) has been entrusted with an important purpose within the colony, not the least of which is the Runner. These are the people who explore the Maze in an effort to map a way out of the tiny territory in which they are trapped. Complicating matters are large mechanical spider-like creatures they call Grievers which patrol the maze making escape even harder.

With one exception, all the adolescents look like they are on special diets, work out constantly to maintain a lean frame and have less than 15% body fat. I happen to know The Maze Runner was shot in Baton Rouge, LA, but it feels more like that other LA in California. There’s one departure from the standard selections from Central Casting – a chubby boy named Chuck (Blake Cooper) who, with his more unique appearance, becomes the most interesting personality by default. Oh but brace yourself because his story arc is extremely frustrating. The guys appear to represent ethnicities from every corner of the globe, yet all speak with an American accent. Again there’s one deviation, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who’s like the second in command. Everyone sports nicely coifed hair and clean casual wear that is tailored to fit perfectly. I wouldn’t have noticed any of this had the drama been more compelling. Sadly when the only narrative is simply “boys vs. mechanical monsters”, your mind tends to deliberate over the peculiarities of the film.

The Maze Runner starts out mildly intriguing. The set up is curious enough that we want to see how things will develop. These youths in the wild get along pretty well for the most part. Everybody seems cool with the distribution of tasks, with sole objections coming from Gally (Will Poulter). It’s a variation of Lord of the Flies minus the commentary that made that novel interesting, the idea that man is inherently barbaric. Unfortunately more substance is sorely needed. As the saga progresses, it doesn’t really develop into anything at all. By the end we’re left with a supremely unsatisfying ending that basically says, this is only the beginning. Stay tuned for the sequel: The Scorch Trials. This adaptation is based on the teen lit bestseller by James Dashner. To the uninitiated, it’s hard to understand how this flimsy plot could sustain an entire book.  In fact, it was so popular he wrote 3 sequels.  Readers that can fill in the many unexplained details, will surely enjoy this more. Not having read the text, the movie could barely hold my attention for part 1, so part 2? Uh no thanks. The thought is anything but a-MAZE-zing.

09-21-14

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Posted in Action, Adventure, Martial Arts, Superhero with tags on August 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a really ugly film. Part one of the original trilogy, also with the same exact title, was released back in 1990 and it confounded expectations to be quite good. Its massive popularity ($260.6 million in 2014 dollars) generated two sequels, each of dwindling quality. A computer animated entry entitled TMNT in 2007 built on the success of the 2003–2009 TV series. Now we’re given a new interpretation on the first motion picture and it’s a sloppy, bewildering mess. The scattershot construction would be bad on its own terms, but when compared to previous incarnations, it achieves a new low.

The history of an established franchise is severely corrupted . The mythology of our beloved foursome is devalued in favor of a tale largely focused on Megan Fox’s character. Reporter April O’Neil is trying to get information about a villainous organization called the Foot Clan that is terrorizing New York City. Side note: A fun drinking game might be to take a drink every time there is a close-up shot of her posterior. At one point, the director actually has her bouncing on a trampoline. I’m not kidding. Fox is not believable as the ambitious go-getting journalist she is supposed to be here but it’s too easy to pick on her so let’s simply move on. The Foot Clan is led by Shredder who looks like a samurai Transformer in a suit of armor with Ginsu knives for hands. He’s ridiculous. Yet he is relegated to secondary villain status in deference to the ubiquity of evil industry mogul Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), a villain as generic as they come. At various junctures his malevolent plan is thwarted by 4 shadowy vigilantes. April sees this and reports her findings to her boss (Whoopi Goldberg). Naturally neither she nor anyone else believes her. Just who are these 4 masked defenders? What follows is a lot of indecipherable nonsense.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles manages to be a really ugly piece of entertainment in a myriad of ways. Dreary events are connected by loud lumbering disorganized mayhem punctuated by lots of noise, all strung together. The action set-pieces are so stridently generic that I couldn’t even describe them immediately after this headache was over. The dimly lit “excitement” is so cluttered, your eyes will glaze over from the miasma of the chaos. A large part of the story has nothing to do with ninja turtles, but rather a bunch of human beings that wouldn’t have enough presence to activate an automatic door, let alone occupy the focus of a movie. And the turtles themselves look disgusting, like gooey roided-up hulks impregnated with reptilian features. We never get to know the characters. The four of them were completely interchangeable as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t differentiate their violent militarized personalities apart. They do wear different colored masks at least. I think one wore glasses. Perhaps even more grotesque is Splinter, their rescued lab rat mentor who learned Ninjutsu from a book he found. He sports rat facial hair and the Asian garb out of an old martial arts flick. He’s voiced by Tony Shalhoub (!). The atmosphere is extremely depressing. The only time some 90s magic is shown is when the turtles start beatboxing in an elevator. It’s at that moment the production starts to feel a little fun, but the second that’s over, the feature reverts back to being a dour desecration of the lighthearted source material. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had me shell-shocked.

08-07-14

Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on August 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Guardians of the Galaxy photo starrating-5stars.jpgAt heart, Guardians of the Galaxy is a simple tale about a group of misfits. A mysterious orb of untold power is stolen by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord on the planet Morag. The valuable artifact is coveted by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a genocidal militarist of the Kree race. Star-Lord attempts to sell the relic on the planet Xandar and pocket the money, but before he can, it is intercepted by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a curvaceous alien warrior. The ensuing commotion also draws in Rocket (Bradley Cooper) a anthropomorphic raccoon and Groot (Vin Diesel) a tree-like biped. They all end up in jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a massive brute out for vengeance. This rag tag aggregation of prisoners become allies who unite against a common threat.

Superhero movies are inherently ridiculous. Beings, often from another planet, dress up in some getup and fight crime with their bizarre superhuman abilities. Silly no? That’s why I like mine served with a big fat helping of comedy. The more winking at the audience, the better. Guardians of the Galaxy may be from a comic book, but it doesn’t feel like a Marvel picture in the traditional sense. It concerns a disparate team that are rather disorganized. This motley collection of mercenaries are pretty selfish too. Fighting corruption is the furthest thing from this sorry gang’s mindset as you can get. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t yearn to adhere to the superhero template. It wants to kick back and relax to the soft rock stylings of the 70s. The production would prefer to just rest its feet on the archetype like it was an ottoman.

What makes the fabric of this story work, is the charismatic mix of personalities that ordinarily would have no business being friends. There’s no reason why this unorthodox lot would ever associate with one another. The combination of individuals is unlike anything ever seen before and yet they are instantly recognizable. First and foremost is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill or Star-Lord as he prefers to be called. He’s a roguish, opportunist who just exudes swagger. Indiana Jones or Han Solo would consider him one of their own. He’s in good company. Zoe Saldana is the sexy Gamora, an assassin, the last of her Zehoberi race. She is a quick witted match for the womanizing Star-Lord. Great shades of Princess Leia! Of humanoid appearance, she sparks believable chemistry with Star-Lord even though she is a green skinned alien. Drax the Destroyer is a tremendously muscled thing not dissimilar to the Hulk. In spite of his brutish looks and psychopathic personality, he masks a remarkably sensitive backstory of pain. Ronan the Accuser killed his family and now he seeks to avenger their death. Gamora has ties to Ronan that will prove to be quite useful.

Computer animated creations can be a mixed bag. Jar Jar Binks anyone? However here the technology has been used with fascinating vitality. Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper) is a genetically engineered raccoon that has been given sentient intelligence. A completely realistic CGI creation, he is nonetheless one of the most engaging all the characters, his rather chaotic, trigger happy temperament notwithstanding. One cannot acknowledge Rocket without also mentioning Groot, a tree creature voiced by Vin Diesel. The two of them are bounty hunters that work in tandem. The imposing guy speaks only three words: “I am Groot.” Despite his limited vocabulary, Rocket and Groot understand one another perfectly which gives rise to some very humorous conversations. Groot is an innocent that exudes more heart than all of the other entities put together.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the spiritual sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy we dreamed about. Action packed, well written and most of all fun! This is a space epic where the unexpected happens. Gamora and Star-Lord romantically bond over Elvin Bishop‘s easy listening classic “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”. A baby tree boogies down to “ABC” by The Jackson 5. Glenn Close sports a hair-don’t that looks like a triple dollop of cake frosting. Director James Gunn has never helmed a production this huge.  His highest profile box office success heretofore was as the screenwriter for the live-action Scooby-Doo in 2002. He pulls out all the stops here.  Superhero movies never get Oscar consideration for costume design but Alexandra Byrne’s work needs be recognized. I truly hope she will garner a nomination. Even during battles scenes, the frightened citizens in the background had creative wardrobe details that I haven’t seen since the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work in The Fifth Element. The jaw-dropping manifestation of this universe is a marvel of modern technology, fashion, and special effects. The art direction never ceases to amaze in a world where outstanding visually impressive displays have become commonplace. And let’s not forget that soundtrack, a brilliant blend of early 70s light rock classics that actually exist to cement the deep emotional bond the main protagonist had with his mother. It’s a stunning presentation full of pathos, love, joy and humor. Sorry Transformers: Age of Extinction, but in the words of a pop hit on this soundtrack, I’m hooked on a feeling. I’m high on believing that Guardians of the Galaxy is the summer blockbuster we’ve been waiting for.

07-31-14

Lucy

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on July 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Lucy photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Plot: “Lucy wishes to be part of Ricky’s act at the club but he forbids it, so she disguises herself to get into the show.”

Of course I’m kidding.  That’s obviously a description of the very amusing 50s sitcom I Love Lucy.  However Lucy the movie, the latest sci-fi offering from director Luc Besson, is no less funny, but unintentionally so. Our heroine starts out as a blonde bimbo. An American woman who just wants to have fun while living and studying in Taipei, Taiwan. The gratuitous setting ostensibly for no other reason than it affords the cinematographer lots of cool shots of Taipei 101, which up until 2010, was the tallest building in the world. Her boyfriend, looking like a Bono wannabe with yellow wraparound shades and cowboy hat, is Danish actor Pilou Asbæk.  They’ve only been dating for a week. Now he’s tricked her into becoming a drug mule for his employer, a fearsome Korean gangster named Mr. Jang. Scenes of thugs congregating are awkwardly juxtaposed with nature footage of a cheetah stalking a gazelle on the African veld. Actor Choi Min-sik relishes his role. He shoots a guy for laughing. The way he strikes a paralyzing fear into the hearts of everyone around him is kind of amusing. Lucy is subsequently knocked out and a highly valuable synthetic pharmaceutical called CPH4 is placed in her stomach. The bright blue gravel looks like something with which you’d line an aquarium floor. While imprisoned, one of Lucy’s captors kicks her in the stomach causing the bag to leak which releases the mind enhancing superdrug into her system.

I suppose I can suspend disbelief and accept that this stimulant has crazy mind altering capabilities, but the drug is so potent, her aptitude qualifies as an unfair advantage. She has the powers of a god. Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) is introduced at this juncture giving a lecture on brain capacity to his students likewise bringing the audience up to speed as well. He explains that if humans could exceed beyond their mere 10% brain usage, they would either choose immortality or reproduction. A clip is shown of every species imaginable copulating at this point, just in case we’re unclear as to how animals get busy. Here’s about where the narrative really gets stupid, i.e. so ridiculous it‘s a joke. On each occasion her mental capacity expands, the screen goes black and a big white numerical percentage notifies us how much of her brain she is now using. We start at 10% then 20 on to 30 and so forth. As the movie plays out the numbers advance speedily the closer she nears 100%. She begins acquiring increasingly powerful mental talents and enhanced physical potential. She learns and retains huge amounts of data in seconds, absorbs information instantaneously, manipulates objects with her mind. Pain is essentially something she chooses not to feel. Did I mentions she has mastered time travel too?

Now omnipotent, she has a pretty significant advantage against her human antagonists. Her power is absolute but it‘s also laughable. Lucy contacts Professor Norman by manipulating electronics and incongruously appearing on the TV in his hotel room. At the hospital she mentally dismantles and entire room full of armed men with a wave of her fingers. At least she spares the one French policeman out to help her (Amr Waked). In a superhero movie it would take another all powerful entity to stop her, but here no one can possibly confront her abilities. In one particularly emblematic scene, a small army of combatants accost her down a hallway. With a few flicks of her wrist, the attackers are levitated. The thrill of an elaborately choreographed fight scene is neutralized in seconds. Crisis averted but so is the excitement.

Lucy is so ridiculously harebrained, that it becomes a compelling watch, like a train wreck. For about the first third of the film it’s a fairly straightforward woman in peril story. Once Scarlett Johansson ingests the narcotic and she begins to understand how to manipulate its benefits, the saga becomes a superhero movie without a legitimate antagonist. Scarlett Johansson morphs from a trembling airhead into an instinctual killing machine. Her voice becomes a robotic monotone to boot. Apparently only stupid people show emotion. I kept wondering when someone else would simply take the same drug so they could oppose her on the same level playing field. Alas no one seemed to figure that out. That lack of sense ironically accords with everything else in this loopy film. The script lazily sets up a far fetched premise without even trying to explain why it would work.

As her intellect grows so does the ludicrousness of the story. There’s a moment where Lucy pages through time with her hands like she’s playing a Dance Central video game. We watch her zip from Paris to New York’s Times Square as the site transforms through various eras. While wearing Louboutins and a sexy black mini, she ultimately has an awkward meet and greet in the Jurassic era with Lucy the Australopithecus.  Yes, I’m talking about the first hominid. Then they touch fingers like when God created Adam à la Michelangelo. I laughed so hard I cried. It’s an efficient little thriller too. The whole thing clocks in at just 90 minutes. A trippy dippy delight along the enjoyable nonsense of concoctions like Congo and Anaconda. Lucy is not good in the traditional sense, but it is hilariously nonsensical in spite of itself. This is pure camp and on that level, it qualifies as an entertaining movie.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.

Snowpiercer

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Snowpiercer photo starrating-5stars.jpgSnowpiercer is a work of art. A genre busting, amalgamation of action, drama and science fiction, that seamlessly weaves the qualities of disparate styles into an epic tale about a speeding train. The only survivor left on earth are the passengers on a massive locomotive that holds the sum total of all humanity in a climate controlled environment. Like a speeding bullet, it stops for nothing, circumnavigating the entire globe at one complete revolution per year. It hurtles down a track at lightning speeds across a world engulfed in an icy tundra. Snowpiercer is the first English language film from Bong Joon-ho. Savvy art house crowds might remember him as the director of The Host, a Korean monster-movie hit that was released in the U.S. back in 2007. That presaged a talent to watch but nothing could have prepared audiences for this masterpiece.

Working from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Joon-ho Bong co-writes a screenplay with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Together they fashion a post apocalyptic sci-fi dystopian drama. I know what you’re thinking. Those are a dime a dozen these days. But Snowpiercer is different. Powered by a perpetual motion engine, the locomotive holds humanity in its entirety, delineating the world according to class and rank. This caste system on the train is a visually rendered geometric plane of various cars that extends in 2 directions. In the front we get the elite of society living in luxury. In the very back, we have what you’d called steerage if this was the Titanic. Except the existence of passengers aboard the Snowpiercer is much much worse. They are the proletariat subjected to an oppressive rule that recalls the regime of a dictator. Here is where our impoverished team of protagonists reside. It’s the 2030s. They’ve been captive for 15 years and they’ve had it up to here with their lot in life. Let’s just say, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Snowpiercer is highlighted by a charismatic aggregation of talented actors. Chief among them is Chris Evans as Curtis Everett, an insurgent who leads the uprising. Edgar (Jamie Bell) is his rebellious friend. The elder statesmen of the group is called Gilliam (John Hurt) as in Terry Gilliam, director of Brazil. It’s risky to namecheck the rarefied air of that dystopian classic but Snowpiercer compares favorably. This indigent group also includes Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and Luke Pasqualinoin among others, in key roles that highlight some troubling developments. Along the way their insurrection is aided by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) a fellow prisoner. He’s the security expert who engineered the doors separating each car. He is joined by his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). On the opposite side we have Tilda Swinton, a strict disciplinarian tasked with enforcing the rules. She carries out the orders of Wilford, a higher power at the head of the train. A classroom indoctrinating the children in the virtues of the mighty Wilford is a chilling scene of worship and propaganda. Wilford’s control is reminiscent of the cult of a dictatorship. An all powerful person few have seen but everyone fears and respects.

Snowpiercer is a politically provocative ensemble piece of legendary proportions. A parable that manipulates the medium in impressively dynamic ways which captivate the mind while delighting the eye. It’s a production designer’s dream that makes full use of color, mood and style in representing the various rooms within the train. Amidst the futuristic sci-fi effects is a relentlessly sensational, claustrophobic indie about a revolution. Yes the fight for liberty is not an easy one. There will be blood. But it’s never in a gratuitous sense to appeal to bloodthirsty interests. Rather the struggles are a reminder that freedom is a right that many have died for lest ye ever take those blessings for granted. A nightmarish brawl shot entirely in the dark is uncomfortably scary. Snowpiercer is the greatest kind of picture. An intelligent saga of well crafted action that creatively entertains with a loopy imagination. It’s cinematically dazzling with heart pounding excitement. I’m not sure if this is the best film of 2014 yet, but it’s getting pretty close.

06-27-14

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Transformers: Age of Extinction photo starrating-1star.jpgTransformers: Age of Extinction, or Transformers 4 for those keeping track, is almost an unreviewable movie. I don’t even want to tease that I might give this a glowing review. I’ll cut right to the chase and kill that suspense. It’s bad. Oh it’s terrible. But in trying to assess this cacophonous flick I realize it’s like trying to review the sound of a Boeing 747 taking off at 100 feet. If sheer decibels were all that mattered, this film would reign supreme. But this is the world of cinema so there is dialogue involved. If you want to save some money, ($19.50 for IMAX 3D in the SF Bay Area) have a few of your friends scream at each other over the din of the garbage disposal. Now have them do this for the duration of 3 hours and you’ll have the same cinematic experience.

Of course that is to negate the “beauty” of the graphics on screen. I’ll admit that computer generated technology has progressed to a point where these images of machines co-existing with humans is visually interesting at least. I still don’t know how real it looks though. Most of the time scenes of digitally rendered Autobots and Decepticons interacting look like a very impressive animated cartoon. That’s where the sound mixing comes in giving these man-made images a presence that feels somewhat more organic. Every single one of these films has at least gotten an Academy Award nomination in this category. The sound is really impressive and unquestionably the best thing to recommend. It is the only thing.

No attempt is made to confer a unique story. We’re presented virtually the same tale of good vs. evil that we’ve been given in 3 prior installments with minimal adjustments. As a result of the destructive battle of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), good Autobots and bad Decepticons are now both seen as an enemy of the state. Their persecution is overseen by an evil government agent (is there another kind?) played by Kelsey Grammer. With the human race no longer trusting Transformers, the Autobots have gone into hiding. Cut to regular dude Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) who’s got the mind of an inventor and the build of a weightlifter. One day he purchases an old broken down semi-truck. He intends to sell its parts for money so his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) can pay for college. She’s supposed to be 17 but walks around in short shorts that seem to shrink in each successive scene. The truck turns out to be the Autobots leader Optimus Prime in disguise. The discovery compels these people to join forces with the remaining Autobots. Together they must defend themselves against a hostile government and the swelling ranks of the human made Deceptions bent on destroying all human life into extinction.

Director Michael Bay has overseen this franchise and built an impressive resume of hits that rake in the big bucks at the box office. Michael Bay has established a pretty recognizable style that has been quite successful. By now you pretty much know what you’re getting with his product. I don’t feel the need to write more about this tired franchise. It’s pretty safe to say that my review or any other critique for that matter, will have little bearing on your decision to see or avoid this. What I can assess is whether a fan would enjoy the picture within the context of the franchise. The previous low point was Revenge of the Fallen, the second entry. I dare say this just might top that entry in awfulness. It’s probably not a deal breaker for a devotee because you’re still going to gets lots of metal crushing metal and explosions that go BOOM. However if we are to judge this as a film based on plot, script, direction, acting and the oppressive length, it’s a heinous decline from Bay’s previous efforts.

06-26-14

22 Jump Street

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

22 Jump Street photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOfficers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back in this follow-up to the wildly popular 2012 hit 21 Jump Street. There isn’t much new or fresh added to the original idea of the first. Sequels are usually more of the same, just bigger with an increased budget. The whole production is rather pointless, but that IS the point. Familiarity is a major component of the laughs. The truth is, the only thing a comedy really needs to be, is funny and 22 Jump Street is indeed that.

I don’t even think the narrative matters but here’s a little recap anyway. Instead of high school this time, the two go undercover at a local college. They’re out to investigate a new designer drug called WHYPHY (pronounced Wi-Fi) which the students are using to help them study. Instead of locating their base of operations in the Korean church at 21 Jump Street, this satire has them setting up headquarters on the opposite side at 22 Jump Street. That’s the level of humor on display here. The screenplay keeps everything that made the original hilarious and even a few things that didn’t. The first movie’s villains Dave Franco and Rob Riggle cameo as prisoners whose interaction is profoundly unfunny. It borders on embarrassing. However, there are new additions like Jillian Bell as Mercedes, a college student that sees right through Schmidt’s weak cover.  Her deadpan delivery had me in stitches. Whenever she appears, the scene springs to life. Then there’s the twins that occupy the dorm room across the hall. As portrayed by the Lucas Bros., they provide an off kilter stoned out presence that is reminiscent of Cheech & Chong. In the words of Keith Staskiewicz, they’re “so laid-back, they’re practically lying down.”

22 Jump Street is keenly aware of itself in every way possible. The picture is one big meta joke. Nick Offerman’s grumpy police chief shows up in the beginning to explain we’re going to do EXACTLY the same thing as before. Just in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title, the trailer and everything we’ve seen prior to his appearance. What, are we dead? Three main themes are beaten into the ground ad nauseam. One, that the actors know they are making a sequel, Two, that the principals look too old to be in college, and three that the male camaraderie between work partners Schmidt and Jenko have the superficial characteristics of a romantic relationship. The script persists in exploiting different ways to make gags about these topics. For the most part, they are amusing, but I don’t know how much longer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can continue in this vein. There’s a final bit regarding the ongoing monotony of additional episodes in the future: 23 Jump Street, 24 Jump Street, etc. It’s presented as if doing so would be a joke. I hope so. I am not too keen on a protracted franchise that makes fun of routine by being routine.

06-15-14

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

How to Train Your Dragon 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA lot has changed in the 5 years since the Viking village of Berk made peace with the dragons. Thanks to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), he proved they could be our allies.  With all due respect to dogs, the reptiles have become man’s best friend in every way.  No longer feared, dragons are a part of everyday life. This includes the dizzying sport of dragon racing which opens the picture. Combatants compete atop dragons by scooping sheep and throwing them into nets. However our teen protagonist, the awkward yet sensitive Hiccup, is nowhere to be found. His father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), wants his son to succeed him as chief of Berk. Hiccup is avoiding the issue. Instead he is hanging with “Toothless”, his Night Fury dragon. He and his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), come across a group of dragon trappers. They are in the service of a crazed madman out to conquer the world.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that most rarest of sequels, one that not only feels like a necessary extension of the original but then improves upon it. Indeed the script admirably propels the story forward in a meaningful way. This is the legend of a Viking hero‘s progression from boy into manhood. Should I forgo the obligatory paragraph about how gorgeous the artwork is? That should be expected these days, right? We are spoiled in this area like never before. Yet even with my lofty expectations, there are still spectacles where I audibly gasped. Stunning exhibitions show off the breathtaking array of different dragon species out there. Like butterflies they swarm in displays too dazzling to describe. And I won’t even mention the impressive new Bewilderbeast, the biggest of all the dragons. A gargantuan spiky dragon with two big mammoth-like tusks – truly a sight to behold. Ok so I brought him up anyway. I couldn’t resist.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 represents a remarkable leap in narrative complexity. This is an epic that details the self discovery and personal revelations of an individual. Hiccup must contend with various personalities that enrich his own experience and ours. Figures that include Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a tyrannical leader that cannot be reasoned with or conversely, a more generous, nature-respecting type like Valka (Cate Blanchett). There is even a touching reunion that reconciles two people that have been apart for 20 years. But above all is the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless. They develop an understanding to which most live action films can only aspire. This is a sequel that has the audacity to just relax and take a breath. The saga frequently allows silence to convey a depth that most other cartoons cannot. Their colorful animations and jokey asides are no substitute for the sophistication presented here. Interestingly it’s the action sequences that open and close this production that are the least interesting parts. That misstep aside, please do note that the chronicle has the courage to trust in the power of emotion. This is a tale with so much heart it hurts. How could anyone hate something that elevates such goodness? I imagine there will be people that don’t like How to Train Your Dragon 2. I pray for their soul.

06-12-14

Edge of Tomorrow

Posted in Action, Science Fiction with tags on June 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Edge of Tomorrow photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgEarth has been invaded by an alien race called The Mimics. They landed in Germany and have so far occupied all of Europe. An allied army of humans from all across the world have suited up in special mechanized armor to fight the enemy. Tom Cruise is Major William Cage of the US Army. He‘s a weak-kneed talking head in public relations that has never seen a day of combat in his life. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), leader of the United Defense Force, orders Cage to accompany the initial wave of Allied troops in France on the front lines. Cage balks at the order and responds with a veiled threat that only gets him in hot water. General Brigham’s guards taser the major and he wakes up in a military base at Heathrow airport. There he meets Master Sergeant Farell, Bill Paxton in a role he inhabits well. Cage has been demoted from an Officer to Private with a fake history. He’s been labeled a deserter. He is placed with a ragtag squadron of recruits set to invade the French Coast where they will launch a surprise attack on the Mimics.

Here’s where Edge of Tomorrow gets interesting. The battle doesn’t go well and he dies. It’s a moment he will relive again and again every single day as he is caught in a time loop back to the point where he wakes up at Heathrow. For months wags have been calling Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi offering “Groundhog Day-meets-Starship Troopers”. I hesitate to even mention that dismissive summary because it’s so flippant. In truth, the assessment is precisely accurate but it also unintentionally minimizes a very imaginative script. The movie takes the concept and really runs with it.

There is a real excitement watching Tom Cruise. Sweating profusely, he seems genuinely scared, being dangled with the rest of his squadron from a plane than plans to parachute into a combat zone in France. They wear weaponized suits that looks like metal exoskeletons to assist them in the fight. Think Ellen Ripley in Aliens. He’s skillfully supported by Emily Blunt. She plays a Special Forces Soldier he meets in the fray named Sgt. Rita Vrataski. Having been credited with hundreds of Mimic kills, she becomes an aid in helping him harness his special ability for good. Whenever they‘re injured and unable to continue, she has to kill him to start anew. It’s kind of like a real life reset button. There is an excellent balance of intense adventure and lighthearted humor as well. The first half makes extraordinary use of its head trip idea. Despite the fact that he can keep starting over, we are invested in his mission. Unfortunately the climax forgoes the established concept. The speedy sci-fi at the beginning devolves into a generic action film. It’s tolerable. However a fundamental distinction that made the narrative innovative is replaced by developments that are comparatively underwhelming. The standard issue finale just can’t quite live up to the inspiration of the set up.  Yes, I’m being vague.  I don’t ruin movies.

Edge of Tomorrow excels when Officer William Cage manipulates his abilities to serve a laudable purpose. Over time we see the lead learn how to make use of his gift for the greater good. There is a genuine character arc where our protagonist grows from a cowardly sneak to a reluctant hero. There is some extremely brilliant editing in the first half. The sequences repeat continuously so that he can extract the best possible outcome. The results are funny but they’re also validating because they build character. Watching the same vignette play out repeatedly might seem monotonous, but it never feels that way. The execution is surprisingly captivating because it combines thrills with levity. Practice makes perfect. The second part eschews the basic premise. That’s where the dizzying sci-fi succumbs to generic formula.  It’s a regrettable misstep in an otherwise entertaining watch.

06-05-14

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