Archive for the Science Fiction Category

The Zero Theorem

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Zero Theorem photo starrating-2stars.jpgQohen, pronounced Cohen but often referred to as merely Q, is a reclusive mathematical genius working for a company named Mancom. The job requires he labor over a formula that makes zero equal 100%. In this way they hope to prove the reason for human existence: “everything adds up to nothing”. If you haven’t guessed from that, Qohen lives in a future dystopia. It’s a cacophonous society of advertising where talking adverts actually follow you as you walk down the street. Qohen is suffering from his own existential crisis. He’s searching for meaning in a world run by heartless corporations. Christoph Waltz plays a bloke who is a bit off his rocker. The hairless introvert refers to himself as “we” and constantly waits at home for a phone call he believes will give him the answer he needs.

Apparently The Zero Theorem completes a trilogy. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satires began with 1985’s Brazil and continued on through 1995 with Twelve Monkeys. Similar in spirit, there’s no denying that the production has visually appealing aspects. The atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic as most of the action takes place in Qohen’s cluttered home, a repurposed cathedral that has been abandoned. Gilliam appoints the room with little details like a collage. Director Gilliam surrounds Waltz with seasoned thespians in supporting roles. Unfortunately the parts are too shallow to make much of an impression. Tilda Swinton ends her succession of phenomenal films with a role that feels like a cheap imitation of her dictatorial character from Snowpiercer. The 2nd half improves with the arrival of newcomer Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a seductive femme fatale that could either be his one true love or perhaps just a mere distraction.

Despite my fairly level-headed distillation of the plot, The Zero Theorem has no objective to entertain with a coherent story. It’s a vague rumination of a concept. The lack of specifics makes the disastrous beginning extremely hard to sit through. My consistent thought during the first half: What in the name of Egon Pearson is this movie about?! There are creative features of the society that do captivate. Robin Williams briefly appears on a billboard that promotes “The Church of Batman the Redeemer”. Party-goers dance to music on their own cell phones instead of what’s playing at the party. Terry Gilliam’s world building is impressive. But look past those amusing gags and we’re left with an inkling of an idea unable to support a compelling narrative. It recalls his brilliant Brazil in style but not in substance. The Zero Theorem is a thoroughly uninvolving exercise in abstract thought, and it’s not even a very interesting one at that.

09-23-2014

Ghostbusters

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ghostbusters photo starrating-5stars.jpgHard to believe, but 2014 is the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters. 1984 was a magical summer for me. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid and The Last Starfighter were all movies I saw that year. And that June 8th weekend was a historic one because it not only marked the debut of Ivan Reitman’s comedy classic, but of also another big hit. Gremlins was in fact THE major release that weekend. It was opening in many more theaters and it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg who was red hot from directing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial two years prior. Even Beat Street, now a little remembered music drama about a newly emerging dance style called breakdancing, was launched in more theaters. Despite debuting on fewer screens, the picture would ultimately become the 2nd highest grossing film of the year. Beverly Hills Cop, opening at the end of the year, would be #1.

It wasn’t easy to find. My local cinema that only charged $2 wasn’t showing it, but me and my buddies desperately wanted to see it.   I was too young to drive so we had to beg my friend’s mom to take us so we could make the trip out of town. $5 for a matinee which in 1984 was outrageously expensive. That would be like $12 today. Unbelievable! I can remember sitting in that darkened theater wide eyed at the special effects, laughing at the gut-busting one-liners. I was captivated by what I saw and it immediately became a treasured favorite. I still cite it any time I’m asked to list my top movies. I’ll admit my love is influenced by nostalgia, but I find it has lost none of its luster.

The plot is secondary to the fun, but I’ll recount it anyway. There’s this high rise apartment building in New York at 55 Central Park West, see. It’s being haunted by a demonic spirit named Zuul which starts terrorizing poor musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) in her kitchen. Meanwhile compatible demi-god Vinz Clortho the Keymaster attacks nerdy accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) at a party he’s throwing for his clients. Both beings act as loyal minions preparing the way for Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian god of destruction who can manifest itself in different forms. Scientists Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler are doctors of parapsychology. With paranormal activity in New York on the rise, they create The Ghostbusters, an exterminating business of sorts.

Ghostbusters is quite simply one of my most beloved films of all time. The iconic production is a perfect marriage of a special effects extravaganza with spectacular performances to create one side-splitting gem. Bill Murray is the undeniable star and he’s in top form as Dr. Peter Venkman a sly, laid back scientist with deadpan delivery that seems more concerned with dating his pretty client Dana Barrett than actually getting to the bottom of her disturbances. Sigourney Weaver nicely straddles the line between exasperated annoyance and charmed love interest. Bill Murray likewise has great camaraderie with his fellow Ghostbusters Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Those two are also responsible for writing the finely tuned screenplay. It zips, it pops and it never lets up. Ernie Hudson joins them later as Winston Zeddemore. He delivers my favorite quip after the group is blown away by the lightening bolts of an evil entity from another dimension. There is a slew of funny dialogue and Rick Moranis’ nerdy portrayal of Louis Tully delivers a lot of it. He‘s hilarious. “Okay, who brought the dog?” he grins after hearing the growl from the long horned beast hiding in his closet.

The spectacular special effects support the story, but they never threaten to overshadow the actors. The technology was state of the art at the time, even earning an Academy Award nomination.  But it lost to the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Perhaps time has rendered the optics a bit quaint to a modern audience. The sight of that devil dog leaping from the closet and running around the city is the most dicey. But it’s the comedic interactions between characters that hold our focus, not the whiz bang appeal of the visual displays. Ok so there’s that “monster” near the end that dwarfs everything else. When the Destructor of their choosing threatens the city and their very existence, it’s memorable. That’s the kind of silly moment of brilliance that makes you realize you’re watching a work of creative genius. Oh yeah.  I adore this film.

09-06-14

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

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

06-24-14

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

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

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