Alien: Covenant

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo alien_covenant_ver4_zpskj0mddqh.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgCut to the chase: Alien: Covenant is not a good movie.   Dear me though its failings are so diffuse, I don’t even know where to begin.  Let’s start with some fast facts: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and is set 10 years later. Prometheus was an Alien prequel and this new production also details events that are supposed to have happened before that 1979 masterpiece. Alien was a nifty little horror gem that was brilliant in its focused simplicity to scare in style. It was unpretentious.  Conversely, Prometheus took the franchise into biological altering origins of life. I appreciated the attempt at something grander. However, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than answers and now Covenant struggles to further expand that storyline with more scientific mumbo jumbo as to why characters are doing what they’re doing and why things are the way they are.   Unfortunately with this installment, Ridley Scott exploits the admirable qualities of Prometheus to ill effect.  Perhaps a little heady thought was welcome, but now he’s gone full tilt into a philosophical consideration of existentialism. Where Prometheus‘ script was elegant and thoughtful, this reflection is brain dead.

Alien (1979) has such a high-minded reputation that it’s easy to forget that every installment in this franchise has always been served with a heaping cup of cheese. Yet Ridley Scott is directing and it’s highlighted by a talented cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Jussie Smollett. Given that, I was expecting so much more. It makes the disappointment much more crushing. I acknowledge the crew members in these Alien films have always made a lot of dumb decisions, but Alien: Covenant tops them all.  Some random observations about that ensemble:  (1) Everyone is a couple on this expedition – including one same-sex duo.  (2) Katherine Waterston’s hairstyle recalls Jim Carrey’s bowl cut from Dumb & Dumber.  That’s not a reason to hate on a movie, but it’s such a distraction, I would be negligent not to at least mention it.

These crew members are more clueless than a group of sexually charged teens in a summer camp.  That a pair of naked lovers finds time to make out in the shower while one creature (known as a Xenomorph) prowls around the spaceship is the absolute nadir.  However, there are at least half a dozen examples where these people exhibit a brazen disregard for their own life.  Feels more like a Friday the 13th movie.  Protocols are ignored, nobody follows instructions, women weep and scream like it’s the 1950s. It becomes almost a laughable game of “Guess who’s next”. Whenever someone says they need to go off to a dark, isolated place (like use the bathroom) you know their role is coming to an end. The fact that these scientists, soldiers and shipmates have been entrusted with 2,000 human embryos to start a new colonization makes their behavior even more reckless.

The funny thing is, I can forgive a predictable elimination of lives if we’re still given an exciting version of And Then There Were None.   But no. Alien: Covenant is a really talky slog that is boring when it isn’t being thoroughly unpleasant.  Alien: Covenant does manage to serve up an abundance of gross-out “events” that are perfunctory demonstrations of body disfiguring horror.  Remember the chest bursting scene in the 1979 movie?  Of course you do. Well we get more of those. One from the front and another out of the back. But director Ridley Scott has traded on the memory of that spectacle so many times by now its impact has been destroyed. There’s nothing even remotely electrifying about these displays anymore. At a fundamental level, director Scott has satisfied a checklist of giving people the gore he thinks they want. Surprisingly most of this drama is dull until we’re served up some excitement in the final 30 minutes but you’ll have to sit through a slew of tedious conversations to get to it.

Alien: Covenant is trying to be all things to all people. On the one hand, it pacifies lovers of the original Alien by presenting a Grand Guignol-style horror film which gives the audience plenty of stomach-churning body mutilating carnage. On the other, it placates Prometheus lovers with ethical creationist theories. Crass pandering to both sides ends up satisfying neither. The best moments in Alien: Covenant center around Michael Fassbender who gets the opportunity to deliver two engaging performances. Here he plays lookalike androids: one named David (from Prometheus) and the other named Walter (an updated model). He delivers what little entertainment value can be found in this mess. By now, the slick aspects to champion in Alien: Covenant are nothing new. We get a colorful cast of astronauts differentiated by nationality, race, and gender, a gleaming set design of a spaceship and the soothing overhead voice of the ship’s onboard system they nickname “Mother”. These are the kinds of things that elevated Alien (and other sci-fi classics) from a rote story into a classy gem. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  I hate rehashing a cliché but it’s apropos.  This script is so bad it’s irredeemable no matter how much shellac you apply.

05-18-17

The Wall

Posted in Drama, Thriller, War with tags on May 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo wall_zps3dqmhke6.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgU.S. Army Sergeant Allen “Ize” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his spotter Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) are on a mission. They’re in Iraq to retaliate after U.S. contractors building a pipeline, are killed.  Matthews is shot by a sniper and when Ize attempts to rescue him, he too is injured by the unseen assailant. He seeks a safe area. The title refers to the long barrier of crumbling stones that Isaac quickly hides behind as he communicates with the adversary who is trying to take his life.

The Wall is a movie of words. The story by aspiring screenwriter Dwain Worrell actually made the Black List, a compilation of the most liked unproduced screenplays, in 2014. The Wall was ultimately purchased and produced by Amazon studios, their very first spec script. Worrell’s compact drama details a single conversation between the U.S.Issac and a heard but not seen Iraqi sniper (Laith Nakli). Director Doug Liman, known for action extravaganzas like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity, scales his action aesthetic way back for this lean-and-mean war tale. And the chronicle is indeed mean. The situation is tense and the futility of war is highlighted with deft precision. It is particularly significant that we learn at the start that the Iraq war is supposedly over. Yet for these combatants, that designation is meaningless.

The Wall has a lot going for it. It has a tightly concentrated script by Dwain Worrell. There is an engaging performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is essentially a one-man show and it has a brisk running time. The screenplay is particularly clever as the sniper draws information from his opponent. Ize is clearly at a disadvantage and actor Taylor-Johnson makes this soldier immediately affecting.  It’s easy for the audience to feel empathy for this character. I was reminded of Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 single location set Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. That also had a unique take on the Iraq war through a conversation. The Wall isn’t quite as claustrophobic as that picture, but it’s close. Their interaction plays out like a chess match as the unrelenting stress of the conditions escalates. The dusty bleak landscape only adds to the tension. The account ends in a manner over which I still have mixed emotions. It’s either smug or smart.  I’m on the fence…or more appropriately, “the wall”.  Either way, if brevity is the soul of wit, then this artfully focused drama is well worth your 80 minutes.

05-11-17

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on May 7, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo guardians_of_the_galaxy_vol_two_ver4_zpsd2l8up5k.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWhen the first Guardians of the Galaxy debuted in the summer of ’14, its unqualified success came as a bit of a surprise. It was a superhero team with which most were unfamiliar and so predictions were cautious.  Being the 10th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), many assumed it would still rank somewhere in the summer’s top 10. However no one thought it would be the biggest hit of the entire season, even besting Transformers: Age of Extinction, the presumed #1.  There was a very good reason.  Guardians was an extraordinary interplanetary space adventure that perfectly blended, action, romance and melodrama – arguably the best MCU entry yet.  Now with Vol. 2, the outlook is better because we know director James Gunn can deliver the goods. However, a great sequel is the general exception, not the norm in my experience. Could Gunn capture lightning in a bottle again? I’m happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 rises to the occasion. I had my doubts, but this surpasses expectations.

The original Guardians was a candy-colored, fun-tastic sugar rush of a space dream. Yet the production design of Vol. 2 makes the first film look like a Jim Jarmusch indie. The space opera positively bursts with color, effects, and lively entertainment. Sprinkle in another soundtrack of 70s pop hits.  The formula works again.  Marvel has got another smash hit on its hands. The priority is fun and Vol. 2 is, dare I say it, even funnier than the original.  Not better, mind you.  It would have been impossible to recapture the exhilarating feeling of when we first discovered this rag tag team.  Gunn realizes this and so his focus is mining the comedy from familiar individuals and then deepening our comprehension of what makes these characters tick.

Guardians is all about family.  Director James Gunn’s screenplay manages to weave in a tale about deadbeat dads, sibling rivalry between sisters and infighting amongst the clan. This gives us a fuller grasp of characters we thought we already knew.  The unmistakable chemistry remains with this lovable bunch. There’s Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) the smart-alecky leader and tough-talking, unsmiling warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Their relationship, or lack of one, is addressed through the empathic powers of new cast member, Mantis (Pom Klementieff ).   Massive galoot Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is back.  Despite his literal perception of words, he inexplicably informs the naive alien she’s ugly.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a budding romance between the two.  Also returning are the cranky bounty hunter Rocket, (voiced by Bradley Cooper), that genetically engineered raccoon, and cut from a sapling, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).  He’s awfully dim but still cute as can be.  There’s a couple unexpected cameos thrown in and the introduction of an important new villain.  No further explanation is necessary.  I consider those details spoilers.

Guardians Vol. 2 succeeds at being both funny and deep. There’s humor to spare but there’s a poignancy to the proceedings too. We get a more well-rounded understanding of characters we know and love. Guardians gives us the laughs while serving up a lot of heart as well.  Marvel movies have always been amusing.  What sets Guardians apart from others of its ilk is the free associating pop culture aesthetic. No where is that more conspicuous than in the soundtrack.   Peter’s beloved mixtape is the sentimental link to his deceased mother.  Like its predecessor, we get a liberal sampling of 70s hits from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, ELO and Cat Stevens. The film is so loopy there’s even room for a David Hasselhoff tune.  Trust me.  It actually has context in the story.  At times, the More glitz! More dazzle! can seem like too much.  At 2 hours 18 minutes, the extended run time suffers a bit from too much bloat.  But at its best, Guardians is silly and irreverent in the best sense of the word.  This is the giddy spectacle of a summer flick that wants to party down and have fun. The production achieves this in visually spectacular fashion.  It’s an opportunity for any carefree individual to simply enjoy themselves at the cinema.   One need only be open to the invitation.  In a bit of sage advice, Drax tells Peter, “There’s two types of beings in the universe: those who dance, and those who do not.”  This is a film for those who dance.

05-04-17

The Lost City of Z

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography on April 30, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo lost_city_of_z_ver4_zpsftsrwykk.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgI wasn’t familiar with British explorer Percy Fawcett before I saw The Lost City of Z. Now that I have, I’m still befuddled as to why he merits consideration.  The movie’s very existence implies that Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett was a trailblazer.  The account presents a man who made a series of trips searching the uncharted Amazonian forests in search of Z, a lost civilianization. Although he mapped supposedly unexplored Brazilian territory, by white men anyway, he didn’t really accomplish much more than that. Yet the screenplay unconditionally glorifies its central hero. In short, the ambiguous movie doesn’t make it clear why this guy was important.

The Lost City of Z is based on New York journalist David Grann’s 2009 bestselling nonfiction book of the same name. Its subtitle: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, suggests nonstop excitement with charismatic individuals. This saga has neither. Charlie Hunnam looks the part of a dashing hero. He speaks his lines with clear conviction often shouting them to show passion, but he remains a vague personality. He’s joined by various companions on different expeditions. Of note are Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett’s trusted assistant, biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) and Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland), who joins his father on his last trip. I mention them because they are known actors with lines but they don’t elevate this tale. His wife Nina (Sienna Miller) is written as a burgeoning feminist with dialogue seemingly written with a 2017 audience in mind.

There is no cohesive thrust to the narrative. He travels through the rain forest, then comes back home, to the jungle again and back to England he returns. At times, he seems to magically appear in the forest and then back home again so abruptly we lose the appreciation for how difficult the journey to those destinations must have been. This occurs a few times over the course of 2 1/2 hours. In the midst of all this, we get the outbreak of World War I. The film’s taxing length is a killer. The languid middle is only debilitated further by the lack of a satisfying end. What actually transpired in real life doesn’t help, but there are certainly ways to creatively tell a story. The screenplay doesn’t pull that off.

The search for the lost city of Z took up Fawcett’s entire life. The chronicle is ostensibly about obsessive quests. Fawcett kept returning to the jungle in a repetitive fashion. But to what end?  Each meandering journey is marked by a shortage of excitement. We’re looking for inspiration but there’s nothing here to captivate the mind. Instead we get “this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The drama is recounted with all the joy of a 7th grader reciting a book report. James Gray is a talented director I have long admired. His most seen film was We Own the Night, the 2007 crime drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. I really enjoyed The Yards (2000) and The Immigrant (2014) too. This is his first piece set outside his native New York. The Lost City of Z represents a departure for the director and judging from this, it was a risk that didn’t pay off.  It looks good. Credit goes to cinematographer Darius Khondji for that. It’s a supreme letdown that the gorgeous facade far exceeds the content within.

04-27-17

Colossal

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction on April 26, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo colossal_ver2_zpsxbe75ffw.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgColossal is a bizarre movie. So strange in fact that I’m almost tempted to give it a pass simply because it’s audacious. And yet I really can’t say that I completely enjoyed the experience. Oh, it’s entertaining in parts. Particularly in the first half when we’re trying to make sense of it all. Yet the production meddles with tone to the point of exasperation.

The story begins with a random flashback involving a Godzilla-like monster that terrorizes a little girl in South Korea. Then flash forward to the present day and Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is getting kicked out of boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment. She is an unemployed writer and has just come home in the early morning, drunk yet again. “I expect you to be gone when I get home.” Tim leaves for work angry. He leaves her sitting there in disbelief. All of a sudden a bunch of her friends come over and start partying. Colossal is highlighted by awkward tonal shifts like that. One minute it’s deadly serious, the next it’s trying to make you laugh. But mostly it’s trying to make you laugh. It’s silly and light until it isn’t.

Colossal starts out like a romantic comedy with a lighthearted touch. Gloria journeys back to her quiet hometown and moves into her parent’s vacant home. While struggling with an inflatable mattress she runs into old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Their meet cute turns into a date at the bar Oscar owns. They have drinks. She meets his friends Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). The group have a palpable chemistry together. We remember ex-boyfriend Tim broke up with Gloria because of her drinking problem. Yet the affable Oscar happily offers her a job working in his bar. Peculiarly the atmosphere still remains upbeat and appealing. Then it develops into a kaiju movie when a giant reptilian creature magically appears out of thin air over in South Korea. I told you it was bizarre. I enjoyed the whimsical spirit because it’s unexpected and charming. Gloria’s morning stumbles through a children’s playground after a night of drinking seem to coincide with this astonishing event. Yet it still keeps the same silly and light atmosphere. Side note: Anne Hathaway is possibly the cutest/most fashionable portrayal of a drunk I’ve ever seen in a film.

The screenplay is vague. At times it doesn’t even seem to be aware of its own absurdities.  The story eventually falters when a once sympathetic individual grows increasingly dark in ways that are incoherent and unreasonable. Oscar abruptly becomes strangely cold and cruel in a way that defies sense. The character doesn’t logically evolve. The narrative’s ability to subvert expectations is admirable, but the failure to lose all sense with a well-written personality is not. Is it an underdeveloped script or is it Jason Sudeikis’ inability to convey the complexities of a capricious character?  Jason Sudeikis is too good to simply lay all the blame on him. It’s a bit of both.

Colossal is essentially a fable about alcoholism. It’s emblematic of the film’s obliqueness that that word is never uttered. If you haven’t guessed by now, the fantastical tale is very metaphorical. The giant beast is literal but can be figurative too. It’s about the devil we become when we succumb to addiction or perhaps the monster is also the person that enables our addiction. The narrative clumsily goes through some labored machinations that enable it to present a kooky conclusion. The screenplay is provocative yet the narrative’s oddly shifting mood is disjointed to the point it’s more irritating than innovative. I’ll celebrate the subversive enthusiasm to a point. I liked the unpredictability of the genre: romantic comedy vs. sci-fi flick vs. alcoholic drama. Surprise! It’s all of these things Yet the ever-shifting mood from silly to dark and back to fun again are completely random. The human behavior on display is even more haphazard. I grew frustrated at the experience.

04-23-17

The Fate of the Furious

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on April 20, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo fate_of_the_furious_ver2_zpsldq9ohik.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Fate of the Furious begins with a street race in Havana.  It’s a nice traditional nod to the kind of quaintly illegal activities that started this franchise during much simpler times. Of course, the preposterous storylines and feats of skill are the real joy for which this series is known. It’s the bizarre action set pieces that have come to define these pictures. That mentality that has made each entry such a delight for some and something for others to eschew.  The latter of which attest to never having seen any of these films like it’s a badge of honor.  I, conversely, have seen all eight and I freely admit this without shame.

Yet how do you assess a movie where the sillier and more unbelievable the stunts, the better? Let’s start with the cast. The ensemble for each has always been a revolving door. Even characters that you thought had been written out of the series for good without the possibility of a return, have been known to pop back into the continuity. Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kurt Russell are back. Newcomers Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, and Charlize Theron are fresh additions. This is the first chapter since Tokyo Drift not to include Paul Walker due to his untimely passing. His presence is missed. Jordana Brewster who played his wife does not return either.

This elite crew operates outside the law for the greater good. These criminals are bound together by a sense of loyalty. This extended clan are more than just friends, they’re family. In particular, Dom, Vin Diesel’s character, reminds us of this over and over again. That camaraderie has held this macho action soap opera together. This screenplay actually plays with that narrative a bit by having one of their own betray the others by working with the baddies. Who and why would be spoilers. That big twist should be revealed by watching this production. I will only offer though that it’s a risky move that isn’t entirely successful. The whole gang united together against the fight of evil has always been a key component of the drama. By tinkering with the formula the story removes a dependable quality that is missing from the story.

F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) takes over the directing duties from James Wan (The Conjuring). Interesting footnote: The Fate of the Furious reunites Gray with actors Charlize Theron and Jason Statham from The Italian Job, which came out back in 2003. The last movie, Furious 7, was extremely successful. Usually, it’s important to evaluate a film on its own merits without comparing it to other pictures. However, in the case of a franchise, I think it’s more than acceptable, it’s required. We are now eight chapters deep into this chronicle. Fast Five is where everything really came together, serving up a captivating recipe that mixes the genial friendship of a charismatic cast with outlandish stunts that wow audiences. That’s where the franchise really came into its own under Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond). He is the only filmmaker so far to direct more than one episode (parts 3-6). We should acknowledge how each new adventure measures up with the others. I think The Fate of the Furious transcends parts 2-4 but is less effective than the last 3 (episodes 5-7).

The first low-budget feature about street racing has gradually morphed over time into a big budget action extravaganza where driving cars is more of a detour. I’ve grown to enjoy this series as a whole. Still, I’ll admit that after eight entries, these sagas do start to blend together. It’s the stunts that I remember. This installment throws in a few doozies. Charlize Theron is a surprisingly generic villain, although the mayhem she causes is anything but. As cyberterrorist Cipher, she does a bit of hacking that causes a fleet of cars to high-dive off parking structures and essentially attacks a motorcade driving through the city. This implausible sequence in New York is my favorite moment simply because it’s just so ridiculous. Hobbs & Deckard’s prison break/fight sequence is memorable as well. Ditto the final race across an icy terrain from a nuclear submarine popping out of the frozen waters. Helen Mirren, Jason Statham and especially a baby are the most welcome personalities. Oh and there’s a nice nod to Paul Walker’s character at the end. All in all, it’s a rousing good time.

04-13-17

Your Name

Posted in Animation, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo Your_Name_zpsscwpbv9e.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgTake a body switching fantasy, add a young adult romance, mix in a sci-fi time travel twist and throw in a natural disaster for good measure. Your Name is like a cross between Freaky Friday and Deep Impact. To be fair, that is overly simplifying things. Your Name is nothing if not ambitious. Ever since legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki announced his (temporary) retirement after The Wind Rises, thoughts over which filmmaker(s) would become his successor have inspired much speculation. Director Makoto Shinkai is definitely a possibility. Already a massive hit in its native Japan, Your Name is the first anime not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to earn more than $100 million at the Japanese box office. The film has now been released in the U.S. to critical acclaim.

Taki is a high school boy who lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a teenaged country girl living in Itomori, a rural Japanese village. Their lives become intertwined one day after they inexplicably swap bodies when they awake one morning. At first, it isn’t clear what’s exactly happening. We do know that Mitsuha isn’t happy with her homemaking duties. “Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” she calls out at an early point. An approaching comet might have something to do with it too. At first, it appears they’re just dreaming. That’s how our lead characters assess what has occurred. But their friends’ reactions let them soon realize this has indeed physically transpired. The body exchange phenomenon continues to take place at random intervals for brief periods. They start leaving notes for the other so that when they change back they can ease the transition and not disrupt the other’s life. Taki allows Mitsuha to become more popular with her classmates. Conversely Taki’s new personality catches the eye of Ms. Okudera, his female boss. The idea that Okudera is more attracted to the transposed Mitsuha is a subversive contemplation that is brought up but never resolved. Ditto Taki’s male pal who thought he was cute the other day.

Anime or Japanese animation is an acquired taste. One has to be conditioned to understand its rhythms and idiosyncrasies The accounts are often so fanciful or overly convoluted as to render them almost incomprehensible to viewers expecting an accessible plot. Those not already accustomed to the offbeat style of anime may find this perpetually morphing narrative a bit puzzling.  I mean I was down for the “traditional” body switching story but when it was further shuffled with time-shifting events that led to a transmigration of souls across the astral plane, I was less engaged. Let’s not forget there’s also an impending comet that promises a monumental act of God. Whew!

I find if you tinker with a narrative too much, you lose the audience’s commitment to the drama. Your Name is more comprehensible than some anime, but it’s still pretty packed with plot machinations. At one point you realize our protagonists are not even existing in the same time frame anymore. Taki drinks something called kuchikamizake, which is essentially fermented rice that Mitsuha chewed up and spit into a jug years ago.  This somehow allows Taki to have some control over his ability to swap bodies with Mitsuha in another dimension. One leap of faith and I’m still invested. Three or four and I’m reduced to a shrug.  I lose interest. I appreciate the desire to creatively tell a story, but there’s beauty in a straightforward tale of boy meets girl.  Simply put: less is more. The visuals are crisp. When the comet finally arrives it’s beautifully revealed. Your Name’s mainstream teen saga of young love is further emphasized with a modern sensibility. An emo pop soundtrack by Japanese rock band RADWIMPS underlines the production. For Western audiences, think of the pop/punk melding of Fall Out Boy. The cheesily upbeat tunes nicely complement the teenybopper romance. It’s a bit cloying, but I was rooting for these two to finally meet. Your Name is highly watchable. I was entertained, but regrettably I wasn’t moved.

I saw it in the original Japanese with English subtitles. There is also an English dub.

04-09-17

T2 Trainspotting

Posted in Comedy, Drama on April 2, 2017 by Mark Hobin

Note: This review assumes you’ve seen Trainspotting from 1996 and mentions past plot developments that could be considered spoilers of the older film.

 photo t_two_trainspotting_ver6_zps4u8ankvv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgTrainspotting was an unlikely hit when it was first released in 1996. It has remained on the IMDb Top 250 ever since. The film became an iconic standard of British pop culture in the 90s. It defined a generation much in the same way that Easy Rider or Saturday Night Fever did. The harrowing comedy-drama about heroin addicts put director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) on the map. Even the soundtrack was such a hit it prompted the release of a Vol. 2.

Trainspotting was based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh. Likewise, the sequel is very loosely based on Welsh’s 2002 follow-up Porno with elements lifted from the previous novel as well. With a nod to the way Terminator 2 is often informally referred, Danny Boyle has cheekily named his sequel T2 Trainspotting. Although the book was set 9 years after the events of the first, director Danny Boyle felt a longer wait was necessary which is why T2 is set 20 years later. The last time we saw Mark Renton he’d just swindled his pals out of £16,000 (minus the £4,000 he left to Spud). The plot is set in motion when Renton returns to Edinburgh after a 20-year absence living in Amsterdam. Sick Boy is running the Port Sunshine Pub, which he inherited from his aunt. He’s operating a videotape-then-blackmail scam with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) too. His drug of choice is now cocaine. Spud is addicted to heroin. He’s lost his job. His long suffering wife (and son) have left him. He’s currently in the grips of depression. Franco Begbie is serving a 25-year prison sentence for murder. His violent disposition has not mellowed with age.

In theory, the very idea of a sequel to a modern classic like Trainspotting sounds like a bad idea, a desecration to the sublime ambiguousness of the ending in the original. Like doing a sequel to CasablancaTrainspotting captured lightning in a bottle. It zipped along with a comedic irreverence and exploited the inexperienced energy of a youthful cast. What made the production so magnetic was the assemblage of young talent in the form of a group of friendly reprobates played by Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd and Robert Carlyle. Kelly Macdonald was introduced in a brief role as a jailbait love interest.

The good news is T2 is solid fan service for aficionados of the first movie. If you’ve missed these characters to the point where you were dying to know what happened next, this story will not disappoint. To begin with, all the regulars are back. Well everyone but Kevin McKidd obviously since Tommy succumbed to HIV-related toxoplasmosis. Both director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge return also. They do a good job of honoring the memory of the previous incarnation. However, the youthful spirit of the original is gone. That’s intentional. The guys have significantly aged and the tone is more somber and world-weary. Die-hard devotees will be happy to see that the personalities of these individuals remain consistent though. That fluctuating temptation between trying to be a decent guy and scamming your friends for money is still at the heart of these lads.

T2 is an enjoyable production but principally aimed at idolizing the original for fans. The soundtrack includes remixed pieces of Underworld’s “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as callbacks to the first feature. A few well-placed vignettes of old footage are strategically woven into the narrative. Additionally, much of the dialogue recalls the former film. Renton has a conversation with Veronika that references the famous “Choose Life” speech: “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares…” The pacing is equally brisk and there are plenty of random vignettes that will make you laugh. One entertaining bit has Renton and Simon distracting the clientele of a Protestant pub with an anti-Catholic chant after robbing them blind. In another scene, Renton and Begbie discover the presence of the other in a most amusing way. The scene is perfectly shot. The irreverent humor is still is there, although it’s neither revolutionary nor necessary. T2 works but it needs the other to exist. It has been fashioned as an exceptionally well-made companion piece.

03-31-17

Life

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 25, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo life_ver3_zpseahijifv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLife concerns six astronauts from around the world aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The plot begins when they discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. They revive the microscopic entity with some external stimuli. As a result, the little amoeba, which they’ve dubbed “Calvin” starts to develop at a rapid rate. It’s soon clear that their understanding of this entity is not very good. They’ve underestimated the intelligence of this thing. They make that error several times actually and it’s always to the delight of an audience seeking more thrills.

You can’t read a review of Life without the critique referencing a certain sci-fi classic. That’s totally fair. Life is made up of the DNA of others films, and one in particular. I’m not even going to name the picture because I think it unfairly poisons the mind against this production. Apparently, a story loses credibility if it’s inspired by another film, even one that came out nearly four decades ago. That’s hogwash. The act of homage isn’t a reason to castigate a film. Even the precise movie in question, now venerated as a masterpiece, was chastised as merely a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the time, so there! Let’s give director Daniel Espinosa some credit. He stole from the best and he does it with the polished art of a seasoned pro.

Life has the look of quality in every detail from the elegant art direction to the talented cast. What better way to dress up your picture than with an A-list ensemble. Ryan Reynolds is Rory Adams, the wisecracking (is he ever anything else?) mechanic of the crew. He operates the machinery. The actor worked with Daniel Espinosa before in Safe House. The connection initially gave me pause because that drama was utterly generic. Life, in contrast, is not.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the space station’s doctor, David Jordan. His limited part is eclipsed by the other actors in a bit of casting unpredictability. Rebecca Ferguson is Miranda North, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control. She’s responsible for keeping everyone safe. Let’s just say she’s not too good at her job. Ferguson is best known as the fetching Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. She’s an appealing presence here as well.

The rest of the cast will be more unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but no less captivating. Miranda is joined by fellow Brit Hugh Derry, a microbiologist played by Ariyon Bakare (British TV miniseries A Respectable Trade). ** Spoiler Alert ** The black guy does NOT die first – a refreshing twist. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, The Wolverine) is Shō Murakami the experienced astronaut who’s ready to retire. While on board, his wife gives birth back on Earth. Last but not least is Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina, the commander of the ISS. She has appeared in a smattering of Russian films since 2002. The thespians go a long way into making this spectacle something engaging. After all, if we didn’t care about these people, the story would fail.

Life is an intense, heart-pounding saga that never lets up. The production design is dazzling. The opening scene, an uninterrupted nearly 7-minute take, is a marvel. The ISS set is constructed like a labyrinth and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic within. That adds to the tension as I was riveted throughout. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have worked together before (Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool). The script gives us just enough detailed jargon to seem cerebral but without getting bogged down in a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo. They have a sophisticated take on this outer space thriller that really elevates the presentation into something classy. I mean let’s be clear. At heart, this is a formula sci-fi horror tale and nothing more. Don’t go in expecting to have your mind expanded. Nevertheless, it is nice to see something that isn’t part of some larger franchise. The action entertains a lot better than some warmed over reboot or sequel. Life is worth living….er uh I mean watching.

My Life as a Zucchini

Posted in Animation, Comedy with tags on March 22, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo ma_vie_de_courgette_ver2_zpso33svp5z.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgQuirky, dark and charming. These are the three words that immediately spring to mind when I think of My Life as a Zucchini (also titled My Life as a Courgette). Icare (Erick Abbate), or Zucchini as he likes to be called, is a 9-year old boy who lives with his single mother. An only child, he’s a lonely lad seemingly without any playmates. His mother spends her days watching TV and drinking beer, as evinced by all the aluminum cans lying around the house. He passes time playing up in the attic and flying his kite adorned with a drawing of his father as a superhero. The dad is MIA by the way – whereabouts unknown. One day, little Zucchini is playing up in his room while his inebriated mom is downstairs. He has collected her discarded beer cans and is stacking them to build a tower. Most kids would use blocks but you use what’s available right? One thing leads to another and suddenly Zucchini is facing the unexpected death of his mother. I told you it was dark.

The animation is a painstakingly rendered stop-motion charmer. The plasticine people have big heads and large eyes like a Margaret Keane painting. Their faces are not as expressive as the cartoons with which we are familiar, but that almost gives these characters a sense of mystery underneath their pleasant facades.  My Life as a Zucchini is French-Swiss director Claude Barras’  first full-length feature. It’s an adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette.  Barras receives an able assist from a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood).   The intelligent writing details how resilient children truly are.  Despite the medium, this material isn’t meant for young children, hence the PG-13. Although most pre-adolescents age 10 and up should be fine, the subject matter might disturb kids of Zucchini’s age or younger.

Zucchini is taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman named Raymond (Nick Offerman). There he meets 5 others like him without parents already living there.  They’re a ragtag group. Amazingly the screenplay takes the time to develop a nuanced personality for each waif. Red haired Simon (Romy Beckman) is “the boss”. Alluring Kafka-reading Camille (Ness Krell), who arrives later, turns his head.  This enchanting stop-motion cartoon was originally presented in French, but the English language dub features actors Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. I found their work engaging.  For the most part, Zucchini’s encounters are positive experiences.  It’s refreshing that a state-run institution is actually presented as a place of kindness rather than terror. The boys have a hilarious conversation about the birds and the bees and it captures the spotty understanding that a group of 10-year-olds would have. We love these kids

My Life as a Zucchini flies by in a scant 70 minutes but mines more depth of emotion than a drama twice its length. The nature of the production allows the disturbing script to deal with sensitive problems that might be off-putting in a live action movie. As performed with stop motion puppets the weighty issues take on a poignant charm.  Sometimes children find themselves without a mom or a dad. The circumstances are many: some have passed on, others arrested, deported, or maybe they have just simply abandoned them.  It’s a heartwarming tale that doesn’t sugarcoat the toughest thing a youngster may ever have to face. Yet somehow kids manage to weather the tribulations that life throws at them.  The narrative delves into the need for a child, and anyone really, to feel loved. My Life As A Zucchini received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film well before it was even available in theaters. Now it has been officially released and it’s still pretty hard to find. I suspect most people will have to discover this lovingly crafted gem once it’s available to rent. And please do seek it out. It’s an unconventional delight.

03-19-17