Archive for the Fantasy Category

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Posted in Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgCome with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…

So sings Willy Wonka, the mysterious confectioner whose candy factory is shrouded in secrecy. “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out”. Then one day the enigmatic maker of the world’s most coveted sweets extends a proclamation. Five lucky individuals will be given a tour of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. This will be granted to anyone in the world who happens to find a golden ticket hidden within the package of a Wonka Bar. Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee are four children who each receive a winning entry. Charlie Bucket, our upbeat but downtrodden protagonist, wants nothing more than to be number five. The chocolate factory, we learn, is right in Charlie’s hometown. Poor Charlie lives an underprivileged life. He doesn’t have extra change to buy candy bars. Then one day he happens upon a coin lying in the gutter and uses the money to buy a Wonka bar. From that point forward his life will never be the same.

The cast is flawless. A traditional family-oriented adventure would tell a buoyant tale of children thrilled to tour the world’s most famous candy factory. This workshop is different however, and Willy Wonka is no ordinary manufacturer. Gene Wilder should have gotten an Academy Award nomination for his offbeat performance. The titular chocolatier is a master of ceremonies unseen since the likes of PT Barnum. Although his personality is a mixture of a benevolent confidant and a bitter misanthrope out for vengeance. He presides over the tour with a fiendish delight. His candy factory makes tasty sweets but it’s also a bit malevolent. For example a seemingly innocuous boat trip aboard the Wonkatania becomes a terrorizing trip when it passes though a dark tunnel. His helpers, the Oompa Loompas are bizarre little orange-skinned, green-haired men with a singular purpose: to make Wonka’s astounding confections. The five kids are perfectly cast. American boy Peter Ostrum in his only film role, is Charlie Bucket, our sweet and well mannered lead. The same cannot be said for the remaining four. The script has a pessimistic view of children as ill behaved and the characterizations are bewitchingly wicked. Chief among them is Veruca Salt who is a positively unbearable in her demands for anything and everything she sees fit to want.

The freakish atmosphere is punctuated by songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. They, along with Walter Scharf, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. When British actress Julie Dawn Cole sings “I Want It Now!” she embodies a girl with unadulterated greed but in a most alluring way. You cannot ignore Veruca Salt. Her father indulges her every whim and her personality is the worse for it. The “Oompa Loompa” chants sung by Willy Wonka’s minions are catchy little ditties that lament the behavior of each of the nasty children. “The Candy Man” would become a #1 hit a year later for Sammy Davis, Jr. when he covered the song. And of course there’s my personal favorite “Pure Imagination” sung in complete sincerity by Gene Wilder.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. As is the case with the author’s children’s books, there is a sinister element that is most subversive. It is a recurring theme in his works and this adaptation is no different. The movie was filmed in Munich and this gives the town a puzzling hard-to-place feel before anyone even sets foot in the factory. Five lucky kids get the opportunity to tour Willy Wonka’s wondrous plant but the experience isn’t quite what they were anticipating. The bright colorful production design stirs the imagination with possibilities. There’s a chocolate river, giant edible mushrooms, lickable wallpaper, a Wonkamobile that shoots soap. It’s all rather enchanting. Only the Fizzy Lifting Drinks sequence is a snooze. When the picture was released in 1971 it was a box office disappointment. Despite garnering positive reviews it only earned a mere $4 million in 1971. Over the years, however, the film achieved the status as a cult film and is now widely accepted as an outright classic. It’s easy to see why. I love this movie.

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

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

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

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on December 31, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI have no desire to write this review. I’ll give you a little insight into my creative process. I really enjoy evaluating movies I am passionate about, 4 stars or more. And I’ll admit I take some delight in assailing a production that is an affront to my sensibilities. That’s 1 ½ stars or less. The ones that earn 2-3 stars from me are the most difficult critiques to compose because those flicks merely exist. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of brilliance in them, but by and large they fail to truly engage me as a moviegoer. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films.

This is the 2nd time that James Thurber‘s short story has been made into a feature. Apparently bringing the comedy back to the screen again was a tough nut to crack. The origins of this long developing remake go back at least as far as 1994 when its producers had Jim Carrey in mind for the title role. The director included everyone from Ron Howard to Chuck Russell (The Mask) to Steven Spielberg. The lead actor changed as well. Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen had each been attached. It wasn’t until April of 2011 that Ben Stiller was tapped for the lead. A year later he stepped up to direct as well. The current screenplay by writer Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) is less an adaptation of the original short story and more of a modern rewrite. Walter still has a predilection to daydream. However it’s updated to a 21st-century milieu by setting it amongst the modernity of corporate downsizing and eHarmony online dating. The latter of which hopefully paid for all the free advertising they get here. 

Ben Stiller is a proven talent that knows how to connect with his audience. Tropic Thunder was a prime example of an innovative comedy that brought something new to the table. Conversely, it’s hard to believe this production is from the same director. The nicest thing I can say is that it’s inoffensive. Stridently bland and mild, the picture’s grand design is to serve up some special effects-laden setpieces whereby a milquetoast learns to find himself. Our protagonist manages the photographic negatives at LIFE magazine where he has a crush on his coworker Cheryl played by Kristen Wiig. She is quite likable in the part. Walter has a new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) at work.  Writer Steve Conrad has envisioned his part as a smug jerk. I think Ted is supposed to be amusing, but he’s just annoying. He’s also got a ridiculous looking beard. Actually his whole adversarial team have beards. Anyway, it looks fake, like it was darkened by a magic marker. I was distracted by how ugly it was. The tale is set against the backdrop of the magazine’s final print issue as it converts to online status. (Incidentally this occurred in real life for the 3rd and last time on April 20, 2007 when LIFE was a newspaper insert).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the whimsically labored chronicle concerning a daydreamer who finds himself. The screenplay is annoyingly twee. His amusing daydreams permeate the beginning. Some of these fantasies are kind of inventive while others are kind of random. In one he has the “Benjamin Button” condition where he ages in reverse, leading him to imagine growing old with co-worker Cheryl whom he fancies. He‘s sitting on her knee, as an old geriatric baby. However these delusions dissipate after a while and then we’re left with the reality of Walter Mitty. His goal?  To find a photographer! Zzzzzzzzzz. He flies to Greenland and knowingly boards a helicopter being maneuvered by a drunk pilot. Once in the air, he accidentally jumps out of that chopper and fights a shark in the water below, then takes a boat up to Iceland where heads to a volcano. The non existent drama is populated by overly precious scenarios without much substance. The story ends up having very little narrative heft. Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is an inconsequential fellow, much like the picture. His character has the soul of a dreamer, but the film itself has no soul.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy with tags on December 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe ongoing story of one Bilbo Baggins continues its seemingly endless continuation toward completion. While An Unexpected Journey took forever to take root, The Desolation of Smaug gets to the heart of the matter a bit quicker. This interlude subverts the Bilbo character for an adventure centered around Thorin, the leader of the Dwarves, and his mission. A brief flashback reminds us why Thorin is on this expedition. In case you didn’t see Part 1 (and incidentally don’t bother watching this if you haven’t) he must locate the Arkenstone inside the Lonely Mountain which is guarded by a fierce dragon. We then jump right back into their quest.

The long chronicle feels stretched to the breaking point this time around despite the fact that it actually runs slightly shorter. The flick is superficially packed with more events, but that doesn’t mean it’s more engaging. In the novel, this is the part where Bilbo proves himself useful to Thorin, but the Hobbit is relegated to the background. There are examples where Bilbo increasingly relies on the ring, but the ramifications are not emphasized in the movie, like they were in the text. Thorin becomes the focus. The most affecting moments have nothing to do with Bilbo. Beautiful elf Tauriel is smitten with hunky dwarf Killi. Their romance forms a love triangle with jealous elf Legolas in the sidelines. The relationship comprises unexpectedly touching vignettes.  Ironically Legolas shouldn’t even be in The Hobbit. Peter Jackson is apparently more concerned with tying everything together with his earlier trilogy over making J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. He’s fashioning a prequel to Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit 2 is once again a spectacle. It has lots of captivating computer graphics. At one juncture Bilbo climbs to the top of some autumn hued trees and a kaleidoscope of blue butterflies is unleashed. Soon after the Dwarves lose their way in the forest and are caught by giant spiders. That’s kind of cool too. The action is lively with occasional but rare glimpses of humor. This is true in an amusing scene where the dwarves escape their elf captors in barrels. Initially the elves, led by Legolas and Tauriel, pursue them but then they’re all attacked by the Orcs. There’s a brisk battle involving arrows and some accidental barrel crushing that hilariously saves the day.

The Desolation of Smaug is more of the same. In that respect, it’s still a visual display that will charm an easy-going viewer who wants pretty stuff to look at. Several set pieces will delight the senses. Smaug the dragon is a feat of CGI that is a wonder to behold. But the interminable length of the first film is only magnified this time around. 2 hours and 40 minutes is devoted to rendering 6 chapters (7-12) of a children’s book. There’s lots of eye-popping events, but the story doesn‘t develop in any meaningful way. There’s a feeling of treading water with this entry. It’s not the set up and it’s not the end. A distinct feeling of disappointment sets in when the production stops abruptly with Bilbo lamenting “What have we done?” It implies everything we just sat through was merely exposition to the real deal coming out next year. If you count the first part, we’ve endured close to 6 hours of a saga that hasn’t even reached a climax. The short tale of The Hobbit has become bloated with filler. Now if we were talking about a mattress or a bra, then padding would be a selling point perhaps, but in a movie it leads to diminishing returns.

Thor: The Dark World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on November 10, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Thor: The Dark World photo starrating-3stars.jpgLet’s see if I can simplify this for the uninitiated. There’s this thing called the Aether see, and it’s a power stone that can be used as a weapon. Actually it’s one of 6 stones in the Infinity Gauntlet. Ah but I’m getting ahead of myself here. The main baddie is Malekith (unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston), ruler of the Dark Elves, who wants to plunge the world into eternal darkness because well that‘s what villains do. He’s out for revenge or something. Anyway, Thor’s earth girlfriend, Jane, is inadvertently infected by the Aether following her teleportation to another realm. Malekith is somehow aware of this occurrence and now he‘s pursuing her. Side note: Thor is still in love with Jane and vice versa. Thor’s evil brother is currently in prison on Asgard for the war crimes he committed on Earth in Thor. However, Loki happens to knows of a secret portal to Malekith’s world so Thor must appeal to him for help.

The first half of Thor: The Dark World is needlessly complicated. You can probably tell from my encapsulation of just a mere fraction of the narrative. Additionally, it has more roles than a Shakespearean play. With names like Malekith, Algrim and Frigga, a playbill would’ve been helpful. Everyone finally restores peace to the 9 realms. On one, Vanaheim, there’s Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and this group called the Warriors Three – Fandral (Zachary Levi), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). The quartet of combatants reminded me of a band of vampires you might find in the Twilight franchise.

The lifeless introductory crawl of Thor: The Dark World is overly concerned with set up and exposition. It’s rather boring. Luckily, about halfway through things get moving. In fact I can specifically pinpoint the moment at which the tale is transformed. It occurs the second they free Loki from his prison. Thor and Loki are walking together and Loki starts shapeshifting both of them into various disguises as different people. It’s an amusing display and where the picture finally finds its humor. I still like Chris Hemsworth. He has a presence (physique, acting, smile) that makes him ideally suited for the Norse god. Yet Tom Hiddleston is so engaging that Thor is essentially reduced to a supporting actor in his own film. I dare say this is the Loki show.

Thor: The Dark World is saved by Tom Hiddleston. In a production with an astounding number of characters vying for attention, he stands out head and shoulders above the rest. I’ll credit the script as well which makes his “villain” the juiciest part. While he’s kept locked up in prison during the problematic first half, the story looks to be a dud. The overreliance on computer graphics were accomplished by a mind-blowing seven (7) VFX studios. At times the special effects threaten to asphyxiate the proceedings. Once Loki is released, the plot eventually regains its footing. It’s the human element that makes these superhero movies work. His performance and a more lighthearted touch in the second half elevate this fantasy into fun entertainment. This is a superhero movie after all, not some dour historical epic. Thanks to Hiddleston’s solid portrayal, the action ultimately becomes a rousing good time.

Note: By now, Marvel should have you conditioned to remain in your seat until the very end of one of their productions, but just in case you haven‘t been properly trained: There is the traditional ending, a mid-credits scene and then a post sequence after the final credits. Stay for all of them, although one vignette won’t make any make sense to filmgoers unfamiliar with next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

Escape from Tomorrow

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror on October 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Escape from Tomorrow photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe last day of a family’s vacation at Walt Disney World goes from horrible to worse. Things get off to a bad start when the father gets a call from his boss that he has been fired. He keeps the news to himself not wanting to spoil their trip. But while on the rides he begins seeing the animatronic faces frowning at him. Then his son gets sick after he takes him on Space Mountain. This leads to a fight with his wife. His only relief from his misery are the sight of two pretty young French girls that he trails throughout the park.

At the very least, Escape from Tomorrow is a triumph of guerrilla filmmaking. Since The Walt Disney Company is fiercely protective of their “intellectual property” director Randy Moore shot the movie on the sly, clandestine style. That means his crew did not obtain permits or permission to film. He shot with hand-held cameras commonly used by visitors and tiny digital audio recorders to capture sound. Given the restrictive environment, the production is an absolute marvel of inventiveness. Many scenes are clearly shot at the complex in full view with real patrons in the background. Perhaps to get around copyright laws, no official Disney music from the park is used. This actually strengthens the sinister atmosphere. Weird, alternate music is substituted that give the attractions an ominous quality. At times the director uses green screens with venue locations for the backdrop of extended takes. The effect gives the picture an almost surreal, hyperrealistic quality. Black and white cinematography also adds to the simulation.

Escape from Tomorrow sounds like an interesting curiosity and it is. Unfortunately the back-story of how the picture was created is more fascinating than the film itself. The problem is this fantasy really doesn’t go anywhere interesting. The downward spiral of the tale is sort of a hallucinogenic head trip – but it’s incoherent. There’s a buried subtle critique that even Disney World’s sunny happy facade can’t mask true depression. But this has more to do with negativity in this family’s life than a comment on the actual merits of the park itself. For most of the drama I was intrigued where the chronicle would go. Then the movie takes a particularly nasty turn 10 min from the end that dares the audience to keep watching. It devolves into a scatological creepshow. Shame because with some judicious editing and more intellectual mindset, this could’ve been a perceptive commentary on the artificiality of the happiest place on earth. After screening at the Sundance Film Festival, there was some speculation that future audiences would never see Escape from Tomorrow because of legal difficulties. The work most likely falls under the fair-use doctrine as parody and therefore not subject to copyright law. Whatever the reason, Disney has decided to ignore the production so as not to bring more attention to it. You should probably do the same.

Pacific Rim

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Pacific Rim photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThey don’t get dumber than this. It has a primitive story (robots vs. monsters), explosive special effects and game actors willing to say or do anything to get a laugh. You’ve got to give Guillermo del Toro credit for persuading Hollywood to indulge his fanboy urges. He combines monsters, er uh excuse me Kaiju, robots, an international cast, a huge budget ($190 million!), and throws it all against the wall to sees what sticks.

For the most part, it works. I only wish that Guillermo had the innovation to push this into material that excelled beyond primary concepts. Like puzzle pieces, each actor inhabits a stereotypical role you’ve seen before. Main protagonist Raleigh Becket has lost his brother in an attack and now lives a nomadic lifestyle mentally scarred by the loss. He reports to Stacker Pentecost, a stern commander that has two emotions, pissed and very pissed. I’m curious, was Charlie Day supposed to look like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters and Burn Gorman recall Crispin Glover in Back to the Future? Regardless the screenplay is funny. Much of it unintentionally so. And my enjoyment was completely dependent on the fact that I was able to laugh with and more importantly AT this picture. There are a lot of humorous developments. Raleigh Becket butts heads with another rival, Chuck Hansen in a full display of alpha male posturing. Just the way actor Charlie Hunnam swaggers into every scene with chest puffed out is good for a few laughs. How many times does this guy need to change his shirt? And there’s something inherently amusing about a woman who has been brilliantly taught her entire life to fight like a champion by her English speaking guardian, but possesses only the most rudimentary command of that language. Was that not part of the lesson plan? Eh! No matter. The production really spoke to the 12 year old in me.

Pacific Rim unfolds like an homage to those Japanese giant monster movies. You know the ones.  Toho studios put them out starting in the 1950s with Godzilla. I grew up on those flicks. They played on TV weekday afternoons after school. (No I wasn’t alive when they came out if that‘s what you‘re thinking) Thankfully the script doesn’t spend too much time on boring exposition. There’s an opening crawl that kind of sets everything up, then lets the computer generated imagery do the talking. Occasionally there’s a slog through some dialogue that will have the viewer asking, “I wonder what the monsters are doing now.“ More often than not the plot has the presence of mind to get back to the combat. And oh what battles! These monsters spit liquid, sprout wings and scream with all the sonic force that modern technology can muster. The pleasures are pure and simple. I appreciate this much in the same way I get a kick out of Congo or Anaconda. No, those aren’t great films, but they are fun. And that’s why you watch something like this anyway, right?

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