Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Ant-Man

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ant-Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s getting hard to summon up the enthusiasm for these superhero movies. There’s just so many of them. Oh and why must each one start with a convoluted origin story? Over the last 10 years we’ve seen as many as 11 comic book adaptations come out in a single year. That was 2011. Since then the sheer number of offerings has declined so perhaps we’re in a bubble that’s about to burst. That’s a shame because a few have ranked among my favorites in a given year. Guardians of the Galaxy is an example that transcends the genre. Unfortunately that’s an exception. For every Avengers there’s an Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which leads me to the latest offering. Ant-Man isn’t terrible but it is far from required viewing.

Even though former systems engineer Scott Lang has been released from prison, he’s a good guy at heart. His crime? Breaking into a shady corporation and transferring money back to workers who deserved it. So he’s like a modern day Robin Hood. Now that he’s a free man, he’s determined to help support his young daughter. She’s an adorable little moppet that gets ample screen time to be cute. Continuing the family angle there also former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his adult daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They have some unresolved issues to work out too.

How about some more great actors cast as random people?  Michael Pena is conspicuous as a member of Scott’s heist team. Pena emphasizes his ethnicity by speaking with an exaggerated Mexican accent. His sidekick character will either be amusing or cringeworthy depending on your tolerance for ethnic stereotypes. My audience giggled. I was quiet. But this is Scott Lang’s story. Apparently stealing things is his sole hope of earning a living. First Scott steals a suit that shrinks him down to microscopic size. Then he uses the technology to steal more things. Yup. Ant-Man is a heist film.

The best moments involve humor. Yet the giggles are pitched at very young viewers, the humor marked by a jejune mentality. “Whoa! I can’t believe things that are usually small now look big!” is that what the audience is supposed to think.  Personally I couldn’t stop thinking this feels like a made for TV movie for the Disney channel. With a few judicious edits for language, this PG-13 could easily be PG. The script has a favorably lighthearted attitude at least. “Isn’t the idea of a tiny masked vigilante kind of stupid?” it winks at us. Part of you laughs with the filmmakers because sometimes they’re in on the joke, and part of you snickers at them because sometimes they aren’t. The action is really generic. No conflict is ever too complicated that it can’t be resolved with another fistfight. There’s several. Each one is uniquely staged I suppose. Call it Honey I Shrunk the Superhero!  But if that’s the only novelty that this picture can offer (and it is) then that’s hardly innovation. Ant-Man is a boilerplate superhero production. It reinforces the (unfair) accusation that, if you’ve seen one costumed crime fighter film, you’ve seen them all.

07-16-15

Jurassic World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Jurassic World photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJurassic World is a sequel set 22 years after the events of Jurassic Park. Pay no attention to entries 2 and 3. They’re irrelevant. The dream of a dinosaur theme park on Isla Nublar, initially conceived by John Hammond, is now a reality. In fact it has been in operation and running smoothly for a couple decades. It’s an amusement park like no other. Jurassic World boasts a plethora of attractions seemingly based on the Disneyland template. Get up close and personal at the Gentle Giants petting zoo. View the flora and fauna by rolling around in a glass encased Gyrosphere or kayaking on the Cretaceous Cruise. Or just sit back, relax and watch a Mosasauraus feeding show in an outdoor arena. Careful, you may get wet.

Much of the visual awe lies in the beautifully crafted details of a dinosaur theme park that looks like a physical creation that could actually exist. We’re told that it has been a success for years. However Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the operations manager, laments that attendance has grown stagnant. Velociraptors have become old hat and the attraction needs to rely on some innovation to spark interest, Chief bioengineer, Dr. Henry Wu (B. D. Wong) has abnormally engineered dinosaur DNA with modern animals to breed a completely new creature. Indominus Rex is impressively large but he reasons in such an intelligent way that it begs laughter. But hey, that’s part of the fun.

Jurassic World delivers on the promise of an exhilarating movie. It’s more thrill ride than complex drama though. The beasts dazzle. The humans? Not so much. The human drama is fabricated upon a frosty operations manager (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose raison d’être is to increase the popularity of the attraction. Naturally she has no time for her two nephews that come to visit the park. Granted Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) are pretty irritating. The first is a sullen drag and the other spouts facts every 5 minutes. Just call them”gloomy” and “gabby”. I suppose the narrative wouldn’t have been the same without those annoying kids. Check the franchise. It’s a tradition. Vincent D’Onofrio is a heel out of the Generic Villains 101 handbook. As head of security operations, he wants to utilize the Raptors as weapons for military purposes. We’re obviously supposed to hate him. Nevertheless I found myself reacting against the script’s obvious manipulation to the point where his idea started to make sense. Chris Pratt as a Velociraptor expert and trainer is the movie’s MVP. Despite his top billing, he doesn’t appear until 20 minutes in. He’s only onscreen for a short period and then doesn’t reappear until the second hour. But when he does, he captivates our attention and exudes the charm of a movie star.  However, his romance with Claire is the very definition of contrived.

The visual splendor of Jurassic World presents all the whiz-bang biological appeal of dinosaurs run amok. It highlights creative set pieces that champion the excitement of a dinosaur disaster story. This is easily the best entry since the first. The narrative frequently references Jurassic Park to tell a tale that is slavishly devoted to the blueprint of the original. Critics might deem it uncreative. Fans would call it nostalgia. I side more with the latter. You came to see animals gone wild and that’s exactly what you’ll get. There’s a showdown of a final fight that includes an aggregation of dinosaurs. The climax pays off perfectly.  The park is manifested as a stunning reality that hearkens back to the wonder of the first film. Although I can’t say the technology has really taken a significant leap. Some CGI bits were spectacular while others had Pratt riding his motorcycle alongside a gang of raptors. There are a lot of tedious scenes involving humans. Claire, who spends the entire movie running in high heels, has her predictable moment where she saves the day. It’s more eye-rolling than applause-worthy. But if you go to a dinosaur movie for “Shakespearean” characterization” then you’ve missed the point. With that said, I will offer that I truly enjoyed an exchange between actors Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson at the end. Wait for it. It’s the funniest moment in the entire film…at least intentionally.

06-11-15

Mad Max: Fury Road

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mad Max: Fury Road photo starrating-4stars.jpgMad Max: Fury Road is a visionary work of production design. It isn’t a story in the traditional sense with a lot of plot. This is more like a symphony of chase sequences that undulate like the movement within a classical piece. You might say the action is “mad”. Each setpiece is carefully modulated with deft precision. They’re punctuated by bursts of violence like trumpets that then ease into quieter moments like the calm violins of a soothing melody. The tempo rises and falls before culminating in a coda that leaves the viewer debilitated but relived.

In a future world, a nasty cult leader named King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules over a collapsed civilization . Keays-Byrne also portrayed the main villain “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max (1979) but there is no connection between these evildoers. In order to breathe he wears a mask with horse teeth arranged in a skull motif from which two vacuum pipes extend. A shock of white hair and ghastly skin contribute to the overall nightmare that is his face. He’s a frightening sight. Just watching him suit up is kind of mesmerizing. He commands a group of white painted minions called “War Boys” at the Citadel. They help him maintain control over the masses, hoarding this world’s most precious commodity, water.  His dependents include his son Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones ), a muscular warrior that looks like he could take on The Rock and War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) in a captivating performance.

Tom Hardy is”Mad” Max Rockatansky, one of the rebels trying to out run Joe and his army. Max is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. This is a reboot of the same character that Mel Gibson played in the previous 3 installments. He speaks with a deep, raspy voice rarely stringing more than 2 words together. Initially he is a hapless hostage strapped to the front of a car. Thrust into this supposed male dominated world is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who drives “The War Rig”, one of Joe’s vehicles. She sports a metal prosthetic arm and can speak in full sentences thank you very much. Theron is a female badass that ranks with the icons in cinema. I’m thinking Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. She dominates the story. While Mad Max may bear the movie’s title, he’s not the star of the show. Furiosa has decided to rescue King Immortan Joe’s five beautiful wives out of the Citadel. Joe pursues her. And they’re off!

The action is the realization of a perfect manipulation of cinematography and production design. The futuristic terrain of Australia here is courtesy of the Namib desert in southern Africa. It’s an arid land with an inhospitable climate. It’s a post apocalyptic dystopia, but cinematographer John Seale should get an Oscar for making the desolate wasteland look so visually stunning. The landscape has the energy of life. There’s a massive sand storm that will blow your mind. Even the heroes look good. They all have the healthy looking bronze of a sun kissed glow: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and the five wives of Joe that she rescues in tow. They are the emotional core of the film. Joe’s favorite is played by the gorgeous Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Side note: how do these women look so ravishing in these dusty conditions? Seriously. No I mean seriously.

Any studio with a lot of money can put on a CGI fest these days. Watch a superhero movie. Take your pick. It takes a visionary to present action in a style that propels the medium further. It’s essential that every automotive monstrosity in Mad Max: Fury Road is a physical entity that exists. The danger is real. The 88 uniquely different cars are characters themselves. I’m told 150 vehicles were actually created because, well ya know, they take a beating. One roadster with porcupine spikes is called “Plymouth Rock”. Another called “The Doof Wagon” is fronted by a blind electric guitarist (Sean Hape better known as iOTA). The mutant dangles from a bungee cord above an epic sound system made of amps and speakers. There’s a separate truck that holds massive drums of course. They pulse like a heartbeat. Some cars are outfitted with long spires that swing hundreds of feet in the air like metronomes. Enemy acrobats ride atop the poles enabling their aerial attacks. Charlize Theron drives “The War Rig”, a six-wheel-drive tanker powered by two supercharged V8 engines built to haul gasoline and annihilate anyone that crosses its path.

The spectacle of Mad Max: Fury Road is a symphony of action under George Miller’s direction. It’s gleefully insane! Like some unholy union between The Wacky Races cartoon and an Iron Maiden album cover. Miller has described the film as one long chase sequence. When you get right down to it, that’s pretty accurate. Plotwise it’s a race to there and back again. But it’s Colin Gibson’s production design, John Seale’s cinematography, Junkie XL’s immersive score, and Jenny Beavan’s costumes that define this movie. The look is absolutely bonkers. It’s a testament to the visual and aural overload that it propels an adult like me into giddy exuberance. Mad Max: Fury Road is an all out pedal to the metal, full throttle chase with nothing held back. You know those pre-teens raised on heavy metal music and 80s action movies back in the day? Well we’re adults now.  This movie hits the sweet spot.

05-14-15

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Avengers: Age of Ultron photo starrating-3stars.jpgI consider myself to be reasonably intelligent. I understand that it’s a good idea to settle your credit card bill at the end of the month and not let the balance roll over. I grasp the difference between ‘there’, ‘they’re’ & ‘their’ and use them appropriately. But Avengers: Age of Ultron is confusing. I’ll admit it’s nice seeing the old gang get together and kick butt again. They do a lot of that here in cacophonous spectacles that are the best money can buy. Age of Ultron was made with an estimated budget of $250 million, making it the most expensive Marvel picture to date and I won’t question that figure. This looks like a costly movie. Although the battles feel a bit familiar this time around. More expensive doesn’t always equal better. The recent direction of superhero productions like Man of Steel (2013) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) don’t enchant me. They’re not rooted in dramatic storytelling but rather feats of engineering. There’s a lot going on. Kristopher Tapley over at HitFix defined the practice as “money-shot overload.” The term fits perfectly.

The Avengers was enjoyable because it kept things relatively simple. Let’s bring the superheroes of the Marvel universe together to fight a known enemy: Loki. Age of Ultron is about introducing even more characters to that universe. When I research the cast on the IMDb I see names like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and The Vision. I could’ve missed it, but I don’t recall ever hearing those actual words in the film. What seemed so fun and effortless the first time has now become a thoroughly labored affair. It begins with a complicated opening set in a fictional eastern European country with a mad scientist named Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Von Strucker’s experiments have created genetically enhanced versions of twins Pietro and Wanda Maximofff. They’re portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen sporting embarrassing pseudo-Russian accents. It is interesting to note the actors went from playing a married couple in Godzilla to a brother & sister duo here.

Avengers: Age of Ultron makes precious little sense. I realize looking for consistency in a sci-fi fantasy is a feeble pursuit but I must start with a random observation. Pietro’s powers are wildly inconsistent. The dude is supposed to move at supersonic speeds. We saw this in 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past when the individual was notably played by Evan Peters. In that film, Quicksilver raced around a room to prevent an onslaught of bullets from hitting his friends. So I take serious exception to what he does here. I must tread lightly to avoid spoilers but his behavior is beyond comprehension. Paul Bettany’s role as J.A.R.V.I.S.. takes on a new dimension in a mystifying story arc which I couldn’t spoil because I didn’t get it either. Somehow the internet made it possible though.

Also lacking clarity is Ultron, the main villain.  He is actually part of Tony Stark’s global defense program. I will say it’s kind of amusing seeing Robert Downey Jr. reunited with his Less Than Zero co-star, or at least his voice anyway. James Spader looks different but hey, that was 28 years ago. Apparently Ultron is Tony Stark’s fault and he’s kind of a jerk about it. The words, “I’m sorry” would’ve helped.  Initially he had the best of intentions.  He wanted to keep the peace. His Ultron program was designed to protect the Earth.  But Ultron becomes a sentient being and naturally decides that the human race must be eliminated because they’re the biggest threat. It’s that darned artificial intelligence gone wrong again. You didn’t see this coming? How many movies are going to use this as a plot point? From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.  Oh but why have just one Ultron when you can have many. Of course there must be an army of robot drones further cluttering the screen.

A big part of the narrative involves the gang coming to terms with their feelings. Assisting them in this is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Her power is to get inside people’s heads. She disorients them with visions of their fears. There’s several dream sequences that put division amongst the Avengers. In fact much of the tale, in between conventional combat, is centered on Avengers who just wanna go home and walk away from all this.  Ah, that’s what was missing from the last Avengers movie, existentialist mumbo jumbo.  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets an expanded back-story that seeks to further humanize him. There’s even room for a burgeoning romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. I hesitate to use an adjective like boring, especially in a film with so much visual stimuli thrown at the screen, but these arbitrary developments aren’t captivating. How about lame? Is that a better word?

It’s not all bad. There are some genuinely humorous moments that made me smile. The Hulk’s dream (which we unfortunately never see) causes him to fly into a rage and forces Iron Man to don his Hulk-Buster suit of armor to calm him down. The team takes turns trying to pick up Thor’s hammer which has a hilarious payoff later. But then Ultron and the twins go to a shipyard in South Africa and Andy Serkis inexplicably pops up. Cue fanboy giggles. Bewildered looks on everyone else. Enough with the fan service! It shouldn’t come at the expense of a coherent story. As per usual, stay for a mid-credits scene (no post credits one) where we’re reminded of that creature with a purple face that we saw briefly in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. (I’m told it’s Thanos) I only wish Age of Ultron were more focused on giving the audience a lucid plot instead of being a character springboard for future films.

05-01-15

Ex Machina

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 19, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ex Machina photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe story is simple. A young programmer wins the opportunity to spend a week at the private mountain retreat of his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire and internet search-engine mogul. When he gets there, he’s asked to sign a non disclosure agreement before they can even proceed. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has actually won the chance to evaluate the aptitude and consciousness of a beautiful and sophisticated robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). But robot seems almost like an outmoded term in this case. For you see, the capabilities of Ava far exceed the intellect of any mere machine. Caleb will determine whether she has the competence to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human.

Ex Machina concerns the philosophy of artificial intelligence. The chronicle is built around the monitored conversations that Caleb has with Ava. The first day, Caleb questions Ava, but on the second day, Ava questions him. The insightful script plays with the way humans talk and then how a computer would glean information from that interaction. “Does Ava feel?” is a key question. Ex Machina does a great job and presenting a lot of interesting topics for discussion. Caleb’s sessions with Nathan when he reports his findings are equally important. Of course Caleb’s interactions with Ava are being watched, but what Nathan observes is not as important and the way Caleb reports on it. Occasionally power failures affect the means with which Nathan can monitor these sessions. That’s when the exchanges between Ava and Caleb get really juicy.

Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is an arrogant tech tycoon with a bit of a God complex. With his shaved head and bushy beard, He wants to present himself as this approachable laid back guy, but we immediately realize he is anything but. He’s an über control freak that works out incessantly throughout the day and parties even harder at night. There’s an intensity to him that is unsettling. Take Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the Japanese servant girl he employs. He values her inability to speak or understand English. In this way he can freely talk trade secrets around her. His insulting disregard for her borders on misogyny. Even when he’s ostensibly just boogieing down to a disco ditty with her, there’s still something menacing about the act.

That brings us to his technological creation Ava: a very female entity. She has the face, hands and feet of a human woman but the body of a cyborg, although still shapely. As manifested by actress Alicia Vikander, she is a hypnotic creation. The Swedish dancer trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm for nine years. With her lithesome movements and graceful placement, she suggests a very carefully studied decision to move. The fact that she is female is a very deliberate component to her creation. After all, an artificially intelligent computer need not have a sex. The objectification of the female body courtesy of her creator. This idea is found elsewhere in the narrative, but to reveal more would be to spoil the discovery.

Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s feature debut as a director. But he’s no newbie to film. The English novelist has been writing for years. His first novel The Beach was turned into a movie by Danny Boyle. It would mark the beginning of several partnerships between the two. He most successfully penned the post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. In 2007 he wrote the screenplay for Boyle’s Sunshine and then they executive produced 28 Weeks Later together. But perhaps the director Garland more closely references this time, is the work of Mark Romanek. With its austere environment and smooth shiny surfaces the film occasionally recalls his glossy music videos “Scream” (Michael & Janet Jackson) and “Bedtime Story” (Madonna). The two collaborated when Romanek directed Never Let Me Go which Garland adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel.

Artificial Intelligence is the topic at hand. Given the heady subject matter, I was surprised with the very basic way in which the idea is handled. Ex Machina is entertaining, though the narrative doesn’t tread any new ground. Some interesting concepts are brought up, but nothing particularly innovative is resolved. This is a glorified episode of The Twilight Zone. However the stripped down, simple design is visually attractive. Nathan’s subterranean compound is a modern architectural wonder in the middle of a forest. His lair is both richly appealing and menacingly claustrophobic. The style makes the story seem weightier than it really is. There’s precious little depth, but heck if the whole thing isn’t entertaining. Caleb, Ava and Nathan form an emotional triangle of sorts that seduce, attack, argue, persuade and sympathize. Ultimately, the tale is a triumph because I was captivated throughout.

04-16-15

Predestination

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 22, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Predestination photo starrating-3stars.jpgOw! My head hurts. After watching Predestination, my brain is trying to come to terms with the conclusion of this wackadoodle film. It’s actually kind of nifty at first. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling agent who attempts to prevent an elusive terrorist before he strikes. The thug is known as the “Fizzle Bomber” and his deadly explosive, if successful, will kill thousands of people. Right from the start we see our hero is badly burned in an attack. After reconstructive surgery he is sent back in time to March 1975 to stop the criminal.

The movie captivates your attention rather quickly. The proper drama really begins with Ethan Hawke assuming the role of a bar keeper. He strikes up conversation with an odd young man named John. Whether this gentleman is the Fizzle Bomber or not isn’t really clear. He is a writer that writes confession stories under the pen name Unmarried Mother. John tells the barkeep that he’s got an incredible story. He’s heard a lot and so the two make a bet over whether it tops everything he has heard before. When John begins with, “When I was a little girl…” you know it’s going to be a doozy.

That there’s something a bit off about this “man” (Sarah Snook), is immediately obvious. John’s revelation appears just 15 minutes into the picture so it‘s not a key plot point. However his tale will unite the two on a quest that will eventually lead them to a finish that will have not one, not two, but three revelations dropped in the final third. This reveal is so preposterous that it feels as if the writer came up with the convoluted ending first and then thought backwards as to how they could make this head trip a reality. Predestination is based on a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein called  ‘—All You Zombies—’.  I suppose we might credit the author known for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) as the root of this silliness, but ultimately the blame must rest with brothers Michael & Peter Spierig who not only adapted Heinlein’s work but also direct.

Predestination is the belief that everything that will happen has already been decided by God/fate and cannot be changed. The film utilizes this idea intelligently. The carefully constructed tale that Jane tells the barkeeper is a fascinating narrative that draws the viewer in for most of the adventure. The Spierig Brothers have fashioned a nifty little drama. “The most incredible story you ever heard” is indeed pretty bizarre. Yet the script thinks it’s smarter than it really is. A turn of events in the final third undoes an intelligent account until it becomes almost a parody. I wish I could explain it because it makes me laugh just taking about it, but trust me, it’s pretty ridiculous. Michael & Peter could have manipulated the source material utilizing any method they saw fit. As the resolution is presented here, it doesn’t earn these revelations honestly, but rather in a way that is desperate to shock more than it is trying to tell a coherent tale. True, these time travel sagas never add up upon close scrutiny but this aggressively exploits a gimmick ending. As a result the narrative falls apart to problems that other time travel movies do not. Watch Back to the Future or Looper for the gold standard.

02-20-15

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 follows the further adventures of Miss Katniss Everdeen. As embodied by the effervescent Jennifer Lawrence, the character never ceases to be captivating. The actress can make even the most banal dialogue or scene seem absolutely riveting and crucial. And let’s face it. None of these chapters have a clear-cut ending so that talent is most appreciated. In fact, this one is all the more piecemeal because it ends in the middle of the book on which it is adapted. As such, it’s a perfectly acceptable stopgap measure in between the 2nd and final film.

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up where Catching Fire left off. District 12 has been reduced to ashes. Katniss Everdeen has been saved from the arena but Peeta Mellark is still under the restraint of the state. Her goal is to save him and unite a nation ready to oppose the state. This is a plot centered on exposition. Katniss is sent into the front lines in order to star in a sequence of propaganda videos. These are also designed to infiltrate the Capitol airwaves in order to educate the masses into what is really going on. Assuming a major role in this episode is President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) who was the President of District 13. Thought to be destroyed, the district is actually completely intact, just underground.  Coin is now the leader of the rebellion. I didn’t even see The Giver but she looks like Meryl Streep in the trailers for that picture. Less important this time around is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who is used more as a tool to weaken Katniss. The capitol wants Katniss to abandon her role as the Mockingjay. As a symbol of someone who has broken free from the control of the government she is a dangerous inspiration to the people of Panem.

Mockingjay is inferior to Catching Fire, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It’s just that the excitement quotient of the story is a bit anemic. There are a lot of segments where the narrative simply drags. That has never been the case with this series before. This is a running commentary on the fabrication of propaganda in order to promote a cause. The groundwork has been laid for all out war. Gone are the reality based competitions to the death. In its place is a war of words, essentially between Katniss Everdeen and President Snow who uses Peeta against her. I must warn the uninitiated. Anyone unfamiliar with the previous installments will be lost. More than Twilight, more than Harry Potter, this entry does require that you have seen Parts 1 and 2. These are the details concerning the ongoing evolution in the nation of Panem. For those in the know, the production can provide some satisfaction.

11-21-14

Big Hero 6

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on November 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Big Hero 6 photo starrating-4stars.jpgMeet Baymax – a personal healthcare robot invented by gifted university student Tadashi Hamada. He looks a like an inflatable Michelin man without the definition. With a quick and easy full body scan, Baymax can determine your vital stats and subsequently treat any ailment. He’s a polite, nurturing fellow of pure innocence. Baymax is the heart and soul of Big Hero 6. He makes this film soar….literally. Indeed he can fly, thanks to some creative enhancements.

Big Hero 6 starts off on a very serious note. Professor Robert Callaghan and Tadashi Hamada are killed in a fire at the university. After falling into a depression, younger brother Hiro Hamada strengthens Baymax with armor and a microchip programmed with martial arts moves. The relationship between Hiro and Baymax is at core of this adventure. It’s an engaging friendship and they are an absolute delight together.  Although only 14 years old, Hiro has created a brilliant new invention – microbots – tiny robots that can link together by swarming into any arrangement imaginable.  Hiro is now on the hunt for a mysterious man wearing a kabuki mask who has stolen his invention. The baddie wishes to exact retribution on those who wronged him.

Hiro gets support from his older brother’s four friends at the university.  Their personalities mesh well, although the screenwriters have taken a few shortcuts. The characters falls into clichéd archetypes easily discernable for young viewers. Nevertheless they have nice camaraderie together. There’s Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), a chemistry whiz who uses a designer handbag like Batman uses a utility belt. Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) is a solidly built neat freak that screams like a little girl when he isn’t slicing people with lasers. Tough chick GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung) skates on magnetic levitation discs like something out of Tron. And lastly there’s fan boy Fred (T. J. Miller) a laid back dude with an alter ego that breathes fire. The four of them team up with Hiro and Baymax to save the city.  They are a lively bunch.

Big Hero 6 isn’t particularly innovative in the narrative department. The Incredibles kept popping up in my mind. The story is pretty standard: get the bad guy out for revenge. Yet the beginning grabs the viewer’s attention with an enticing set-up. Too bad the ending does not live up to all the excitement that precedes it. Nevertheless the production is bright, colorful fun and the animation is a joy to watch. Big Hero 6 actually bests its influences in this area. Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a 14 year old engineering wonder. His affinity for Baymax is palpable and his upgrades to his brother’s creation inform the chronicle. Baymax is a great physical comedian. He conveys so much with so little. I mean his face is two dots connected by a line. He’s expressionless, but his sweet innocence comes through in every scene. His character is such a refreshing change of pace from the in-your-face, amped up, hyperactive personalities that often plague kiddie cartoons. His pacifist stance explores the futility of vengeance and power of forgiveness. Child Hiro emotionally matures as a human being as a result of knowing Baymax. I found their kinship genuinely touching.

11-09-14

Interstellar

Posted in Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on November 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Interstellar photo starrating-3stars.jpgInterstellar is vague in every way that a film can be vague. The year is difficult to pinpoint. It feels like sometime in the indeterminate near future, say 2050, but the production design is more inspired by John Steinbeck novels set in the 1930s. This is the heartland of America, possibly a state like Oklahoma. We see them watching the Yankees as a barnstorming team so maybe they’re in New York. We really don‘t know. The very existence of the human race is endangered by dust clouds, described as blight, that are gradually eliminating the number of crops that are viable on Earth. We’re to assume the whole world is at risk, but only the U.S. is addressed or even mentioned. Farms are collapsing. In a prologue, elderly people reminisce about the farming era in which they lived. Most of the interviewees are actually non actors from Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl repurposed here to represent a different ecological disaster.

However one of those subjects is an actual actress – Ellen Burstyn – who plays Murphy Cooper as an old woman. Flashback to the proper start of our adventure. Murph is the highly regarded 10 year old daughter of Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). She is initially played by Mackenzie Foy and later Jessica Chastain. This father-daughter connection is the heart of Interstellar. However the tenderness between father and daughter rings hollow. They are given little to do, save for hunting down an errant drone spy plane together.  Their relationship is an emotional void and the drama fails to engage at this level. Cooper’s eagerness to leave his family and blast off into the stratosphere doesn’t help.  Father Cooper also lives with his seemingly disregarded 15-year-old son Tom (Timothée Chalamet). The script barely acknowledges the boy. Rounding out this foursome is his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Murph communicates with a ghost in her bedroom which ultimately leads her father to a secret NASA base location. There he meets a team of explorers that hypothesizes the solution to the Earth’s problems lies somewhere beyond this galaxy.

Christopher Nolan is a storyteller and he fashions a chronicle with a great deal of attention. There is a lot of science tossed around in the explanation of space travel. I won’t bore you with the particulars but it involves Einstein, relativity and the space-time continuum. I’m not a scientist, but most of it sounded pretty logical to me so I accepted it at face value. Christopher Nolan fills the world with little details that make watching more fun. TARS is a robot helper on the mission. He looks like a monolith that separates into rectangular limbs when he walks and talks. He is refreshingly outdated in style but uncomfortably human when he enunciates. Several times I couldn’t figure out who was speaking, only to realize, it was TARS the robot. He has a sarcastic personality brought to life by actor Bill Irwin. “I have a cue light I can use to show you when I’m joking, if you like.”

Interstellar is filled with fascinating setpieces: (1) a tidal wave on a water planet that rises up out of nothing like a wall, (2) the arrival of a guest with depressing news, (3) an altercation on the frozen tundra of another planet, (4) a docking maneuver that is a nail bitter. But the whole isn’t equal to the sum of these parts. Interstellar is certainly a wonder to behold. Nolan gets the majesty of the universe in all its wide expansive grandeur. The director was clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was utilized to legendary effect in that picture. Hans Zimmer attempts to outdo the epicness of that piece. The score is bombastic, almost assaultive. In space no one can hear you scream. That’s because Hans Zimmer’s score will drown you out. Long-time collaborator Wally Pfister was busy directing Transcendence, so Nolan tapped Hoyt Van Hoytema to shoot this saga. The cinematography is full of breathtaking images as they reinforce a lofty tale of epic proportions. If you can feast on the visuals, then perhaps that will be enough to hold you. But any movie that MUST be seen on a big screen to be enjoyed, falls short at telling an engaging story.

Interstellar is an extremely long 3 hour movie. For roughly half the drama, the ideas feel organic as they effortlessly support a real respect for the wonder of the cosmos. But by the 2nd half, something happens. The ideas become more ponderous, the tone more solemn. Physics gives way to mysticism. An initial set up that was driven by the joy of space travel devolves into a superficial meditation on love. Yet for all its efforts to be tear-jerking, I felt nothing. It’s not a bad film, but it is Christopher Nolan’s least captivating picture. It doesn’t seem informed by the director’s vision. It’s more like the 2nd greatest work that M. Night Shyamalan never directed.

11-04-14

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

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