Archive for the Action Category

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Maleficent

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 31, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Maleficent photo starrating-3stars.jpgMaleficent is a re-imaging of the awesome baddie from Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. That film was adapted from fairy tales by Charles Perrault and The Brothers Grimm. In this new version the narrative is told from a different point of view. The evil sorceress is actually just misunderstood. She is merely a bold fairy in charge of guarding the enchanted forest in the Moors. When the very boy with whom she shared a meaningful friendship/love as a young girl, grows up to betray her, she seeks revenge.

Alice in Wonderland, Oz The Great and Powerful – Disney has a fondness for these live action fantasies based on written works. And why not?  They’ve been a cash cow for the company. Unfortunately, despite their ability to slay at the box office, the productions simply haven’t been very good. Weak story, poor pacing, dreary characters and an over reliance on CGI have made these episodes rather depressing. Now the talented production designer of those movies has made his feature directing debut. Robert Stromberg has in fact won two Oscars for Art Direction (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) Regrettably Maleficent is plagued by some of the same troubles that have tainted the studio’s previous forays into this genre. Stromberg is clearly preoccupied with the visual language to the detriment of plot.

The movie Maleficent has some serious issues. The most glaring being the extensive use of CGI that seemingly infects every scene. Computer graphics are used indiscriminately just to make the grass greener, the sky bluer and La Jolie‘s skin more radiant. Even the actors have been manipulated. Three bumbling flower pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) raise the baby Aurora in the woods until she is 16. The actresses’ faces have been shrunken down to minute size and they are freakish. From the coterie of cutesy critters that overpopulate the forest to the supporting cast, nothing in this picture looks organic. Yet Maleficent ultimately manages to rise above those problems.

The saga develops around a character with a specific point. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton promotes a clear understandable story and the script adheres to a definite dramatic arc. A couple memorable scenes demonstrates this beautifully. The horrific moment in which Maleficent makes a startling discovery is a shocking violation. The act suggests a real world analogy that only an adult would grasp. The original cartoon began with the royal christening of the princess. That scene occurs later in this chronicle but it’s possibly the most iconic spectacle here. It is a brilliant manifestation of the power that Maleficent wields as a sorceress and Angelina Jolie holds as an actress. The new king (and queen) must contend with the curse placed upon their daughter Aurora. The plot steals an innovative twist from Disney’s own Frozen which in turn drew generous inspiration from Broadway’s Wicked. There isn’t much particularly original or fresh in this tale. However, what it does have is Angelina Jolie in a pitch perfect part that raises the entertainment value significantly.

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent, a Disney cartoon villain beautifully brought to real life. Her portrait is a self consciously affected, visually immaculate rendering of the evil fairy. Her sophisticated execution has an artful physicality to it. She is obviously enjoying the role with an exhilarated air that is contagious. Whether it be with an arched brow or a curl of the lips, her scenery chewing performance commands your attention with her stylized manner. She possesses the ability to captivate an audience even when virtually everything else around her is a disappointment. Chief among these problems is the preponderance of CGI that clutters the screen to no benefit. Although she’s ably supported by members of her fellow cast. Elle Fanning is sweetly captivating as Princess Aurora and Sam Riley is emotionally affecting as Diaval, a raven that becomes the witch’s loyal human servant. The less said about Sharlto Copley as King Stefan and his increasingly inscrutable character, the better. None of it matters. In the end, this is Jolie’s movie. It begs the question, can a performance be so transcendent that it can save an entire film? With Maleficent, the answer is, yes, yes it can.

05-30-14

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

X-Men: Days of Future Past photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOne wouldn’t think the seventh entry in a series would be cause for excitement, but X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP) is a rousing episode in the franchise. For one thing, it is a deft merger of X-Men films. The cast of the original trilogy is united with their younger counterparts of the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s a tribute to Simon Kinberg’s script that for all its characters and detailed exposition, DOFP still manages to present an intelligible story. The time-traveling that begins with a dystopian future in the year 2023 then jumps back to 1973 where most of the chronicle takes place. A word of caution: anyone not up on their X-Men history will require a brief primer to bring yourself up to speed with mutant lore. In addition to the ever-shifting allegiances and objectives, there’s a host of new people. The Avengers had a meager 6 superheroes. DOFP has an astounding 20+ mutants. Thankfully most of these (Storm, Iceman, Bishop, Colossus) are merely window dressing in the background. Others get a few lines (Shadowcat, Beast, Quicksilver). Only Wolverine, Mystique (Raven), Professor X and Magneto are truly indispensable mutants. The narrative wisely focuses on them.

The majority of DOFP takes place a decade after the events of First Class in 1973. A smart move, given that it was the previous apex of this anthology. Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is an important new villain. A dangerous extremist, he advocates robots called Sentinels to protect humans from the mutant threat. We’re presented an alternate storyline of what originally happened. In an effort to put an end to his madness, Mystique assassinated him. Ironically this would ultimately cause more harm than good. As a result, she is captured and her shapeshifting power is harnessed to engineer the unstoppable Sentinel robots. They ultimately lead to the complete annihilation of life as we know it. That’s the grim scene that opens the film. So the mutants decide to send Wolverine back in time to stop Mystique from causing an event that triggers the Sentimental program. Will the mutants be successful? Wolverine will have to enlist the help of their younger mutant selves.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the very best of a decent franchise. It marks the return of director Bryan Singer who helmed the first two respected entries before the collection took a serious nosedive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and those two Wolverine-centric movies.  He entertainingly combines multiple entries into a coherent tale that conveniently incorporates a lot of fan service. That this doesn’t feel like the climax it should be, but rather another setup to further sequels is a bit regrettable. DOFP doesn’t introduce innovation to the formula. “Humans cannot be trusted” vs. “Can’t we all just get along?” mentalities continue to propel the dramatic discussion with Magneto and Professor X each representing the respective arguments.  But why quibble? There are great moments here that transcend all others in the series. Chief among them is a jailbreak featuring new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who can move at supersonic speeds. He must free Magneto from a prison cell beneath The Pentagon at one point. How he accomplishes the task is a dazzling sequence in slow motion that displays more inventiveness and wit than anything else in the entire picture. It’s a peak that kind of makes you wish the whole saga had been about him.

05-22-14

Godzilla

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Godzilla photo starrating-4stars.jpgGodzilla takes its time. It’s a slow burn, deliberate set up to a climax that truly delivers. Let’s face it. In this day and age special effects are the one constant that we can almost always assume will be done correctly. Godzilla most assuredly delivers in this area, but it goes further. The exhibition deeply delights so that we have a reason to care. Its well calculated build is emotionally designed to captivate the senses on a noticeable level. Much in the same way a roller coaster can provide a perceptible high, Godzilla delivers a release not unlike an amusement park ride. It’s a superficial thrill, but still no less substantial.

Director Gareth Edwards understands that sometimes, just the sight of a giant winged beast taking off into the night sky creates a feeling of wonder and awe that is exciting. Indeed it is just as necessary to the foundation as a full on creature assault. If one viewed the overall chronicle as a banquet, these massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) are an appetizer to the main course. While scores of onlookers watch aghast, we the audience share their terror. It is the visual exposition for us to appreciate the climatic battle later. Like a master card player, Edwards bides his time giving us brief glimpses of the lizard. Just the way Godzilla glides through the water as battleships follow tracking his progress. The image is impressive because it has scope. There is a regard in just existing.  Yes he could’ve had Godzilla attack 15 minutes into the film, but then he would’ve played his hand too quickly and diminished the exhilaration of what is to come. He builds to a rousing climax like a conductor manipulating an orchestra as it rises to a crescendo. It must gradually intensify with well placed sonic bursts. A symphony cannot be all highs. If it was, then nothing would be.

I hesitate to even mention the human actors in Godzilla because they really aren’t that important. Gareth Edwards uses well built Aaron Taylor-Johnson and emotionally devoted wife Elizabeth Olsen to put a face on the human devastation. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are his nuclear physicist parents. Cranston is that guy, you know the one. The conspiracy theorist that warns about a cover-up when no one will listen. Hmmm wonder if he’ll be proven correct? Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are scientists who have been studying MUTOs. David Strathairn is a U.S. general in charge of fighting the creature. All of their presence is rather perfunctory yet they are essential constructs through which to push the story forward. We need SOMEONE to follow so we can appreciate what’s happening on a human level, but they are merely a microcosm of a much larger picture. They provide an intimacy to the grand scale.  Like Spielberg did with Jaws, Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds before, Edwards recognizes that we need the drama of human involvement. One could argue these characters could’ve been more engaging and I wouldn’t disagree with that point. The fact that, when studied closely, the humans are rather dull, isn’t actually a problem. The real show aren’t the humans at all, it’s the freakin’ monster we do battle with.

Godzilla originates in Japan, then visits Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco on his itinerary. Godzilla had a definite awareness for time and place. The script is aware of the past. But it’s also cognizant of the current world and our place in it. What happened at Hiroshima for example is mentioned but is treated with a reverence that doesn’t feel glib. There’s a gravitas here that the much more campy Pacific Rim never had. While that film was silly fun, there’s undoubtedly a thrilling excitement to be found in Godzilla’s movie realism. Yet there’s also a refreshing simplicity to the proceedings. There’s a little cautionary tale stuff thrown in, but none of it makes much of an impression to be a buzzkill. Thankfully, the story’s main objective is to entertain not educate.

If nothing else, Godzilla is a spectacle of the highest caliber. There are some stunning set pieces. Watching paratroopers dive from a plane into ground zero has a poetic beauty. The billowing red smoke released as they fall may distract the creature in purpose but it also looks very cool on film. Godzilla’s special effects are extraordinary. Not because we get a non-stop litany of explosions and pyrotechnics but because there’s a physicality to him. Godzilla genuinely seems like an organic living breathing thing because he moves like a giant mutant of that size would if it existed. When Godzilla lets out his first ear splitting, theater shaking roar, I felt the earth move. Sound effects editing takes a giant leap forward. The excitement in that auditorium was palpable as if we were collectively witnessing rebirth of sound in cinema. Gareth Edwards makes us believe that a giant lizard really did destroy San Francisco.

05-15-14

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgI’m exercising restraint when I say that The Amazing Spider Man 2 (TASM2) is a staggeringly disorganized, senseless drudgery of a picture. The production is an expensively produced, techno-spastic, headache inducing mess. It’s populated by undeveloped roles that merely exist as a prelude to future chapters. TASM2 is not concerned with telling a coherent tale. The narrative is more focused on cramming multiple threads of various origin stories in preparation of the main event later. Apparently these fragments will have meaning not just in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (2016) but also in spin-offs Venom (in development) and The Sinister Six. This recipe for disaster is comprised of 3 parts: A) cluttered action B) multiple narratives left unresolved for later sequels and C) too many antagonists.

When you get right down to it, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t really about Spider-Man at all. It’s about the villains, 3 main ones in my estimation. We’ve got Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) who becomes the Rhino, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who becomes the Green Goblin, and nerdy Max Dillon (a criminally miscast Jamie Foxx) who becomes Electro.  They’ll (presumably) comprise three of the members in the all-villain superteam known as The Sinister Six. Sony is clearly trying to beef up their stake in their Marvel property in a nod that seeks to compete with Disney and their Marvel universe centered around The Avengers. There are numerous other characters too. I have neither the strength nor desire to list them all here but surprisingly few exhibit any originality or nuance. Case in point, actor Marton Csokas weirdly channels Dr. Strangelove to play Dr. Ashley Kafka, the founder of the Ravencroft Institute. A notable exception is Sally Field as Aunt May who is a refreshing ocean of calm in a sea of madness.

Spider-Man is on somewhat more solid ground when he is allowed to be Peter Parker and not some CGI blur zipping across the screen. A technological exhibition doesn‘t engage the emotions like a personality. Scenes invoking humanity are preferable, although it’s really stretching credibility to have a man in his 30s pretending to graduate high school.  Garfield portrays Peter Parker as a smug hipster. He even self-knowingly whistles the Spider-Man TV theme. Unfortunately his supposedly spontaneous witticisms come off as shtick and not as the lighthearted banter I believe was written to endear us to the superhero. His interactions with girlfriend Gwen Stacy feel like manufactured affectations that cause the couple to conventionally fall in love, break up, get back together at various intervals for the sole purpose of romantic conflict. Their ersatz charm is sheer torture to anyone who values sincerity. A heinous screenplay derails even quiet moments that should be making us give a care in between explosions.

The whole production is a labor intensive chore to watch. We are presented with a visual and aural assault on the senses. The over-abundance of special effects are so chaotic at times that the brain cannot even reconcile what is happening. Take the fight sequences between combatants. The battles are computer generated imagery where people are irrelevant. Spider-Man is wearing a mask. Electro is a glowing blue humanoid. They’re thrust into a cacophonous light display of sound and fury that is an animated nightmare. A significant portion of the movie holds literally nothing organic on screen. There are bolts of lightning, crashes and pyrotechnics. The destruction of Times Square should be an awe inspiring experience but the event barely incites any concern from the audience. It gets lost in the annihilation of all the public property – the financial repercussions of which are never addressed. Of course you’re not meant to think about such things. This is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, a holding pattern if you will, that connects parts 1 and 3. The film is a glorified advertisement for upcoming installments. TASM2 is not a movie, it’s a 142 minute trailer, and very unsatisfying one at that.

05-01-14

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