The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19

Midsommar

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery on July 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

midsommar_ver2STARS4How do you analyze a movie like Midsommar?  On the one hand, it’s an effective psychological drama that induces dread in a unique way.  It’s an impressive achievement.  On the other hand, it details an extremely unpleasant and often disturbing horror that will shake you to your very core.  Ok well, I can’t speak for everyone, but it rattled me.  This wasn’t a pleasurable experience.  Yet there is so much to recommend.

To start, I adored the central performance of actress Florence Pugh.  Dani Ardor is not in a happy place.  Our heroine has suffered an unspeakable family tragedy.  She is affected by grief.  The intensity causes a traumatic breakdown.  Dani must face agonizing sorrow more than once in this film.  Her primal screams recall the pain Toni Collette’s character endured in director Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary.  Pugh’s ability to exhibit extreme anguish is difficult to watch because it’s so genuine.  Her emotional state mirrors the tangible horror of what’s happening around her.  It’s almost cathartic because Dani’s pain seems so primal.  The tangible process of acting in this production must have been physically draining.  My heart went out to the actress herself.  It doesn’t happen often.  I had this reaction when watching Shelley Duvall in The Shining, as well as Isabelle Rossellini in Blue Velvet.  Florence Pugh as Dani exhibits emotional hell in a way I’ve rarely felt in a movie.

Anxiety riddled Dani looks for support from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but their relationship is not in a happy place either.  Christian has a trip to Sweden planned with his buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).  They’re going to attend a rare Midsommar festival that only occurs once every 90 years.  They’re traveling to a commune in Halsingland, a village where Pelle grew up.  They expect a little rest, relaxation and perhaps to meet women.  We the audience know that Christian was about to break up with Dani just before the tragedy.  Of course the timing couldn’t have been worse because now he can’t bring himself to sever ties with her.  When Dani finds out about the trip, she is rightfully hurt and so Christian begrudgingly invites her along.  He continues to exhibit increasingly distant behavior that incites our disdain.  He couldn’t be more disconnected.  Dani has no support system on which to fall.  His grad school friends aren’t much better.  They’re less than thrilled to have her tag along, although Pelle does reach out to comfort Dani at one point.

The Swedish word “Midsommar” predicably translates to Midsummer but specifically describes the first day of summer or the summer solstice.  Pagans have celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years.  The tradition includes weaving wreaths and crowns, eating herring and strawberries, playing folk music and singing songs, and dancing around the maypole.  The maypole is a mast garnished with flowers and ribbon to symbolize a tree.  It may seem like a children’s game but the giant phallus in the middle of the village clearing also holds an earthly significance of fertility to adults.  It highlights a memorable scene.

Midsommar is a hallucinogenic fever dream that blurs the line between delusions and reality.  The citizens rely on psychedelics to enhance their existence.  To reach this remote location, the friends must drive for 4 hours from Stockholm. Right before they reach their final destination, the group is offered magic mushrooms to help them acclimatize to the festivities.  Dani declines.  Then is made to feel like a killjoy for her decision.  If you’ve ever been forced to indulge in something that made you uncomfortable, you know how troublesome that experience can be.  It’s subtle, but things deteriorate from there.  The group spends most of their time in a psychedelic haze.  The long daylight hours coupled with drug trips make it difficult to determine the passage of time.  Occasionally you forget these people are under the influence.  Much later on when the flowers in her crown star to pulsate, it’s so bizarre because we the audience feel like we’re on drugs as well.

When they ultimately arrive, they encounter a big wooden sunburst which they walk through as a portal to a clearing in the woods.  There they meet a mysterious group of Swedes called the Harga where the adherents dress in embroidered white garments.  Later the women adorn their hair with floral headdresses.  The blonde and blue-eyed community has the feel of a cult.  Yet everyone appears benevolent and inviting.  There’s a young oracle named Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith) whose drawings comprise a theological text that is interpreted and then assimilated into their lives.  They’re taken to a huge barn where the ceiling is adorned with primitive art depicting various animals and people.  One glimpse of a banner posted outside depicts degenerate acts that detail a love story.  It’s ever so briefly seen, but long enough to convey the perversion.  The sleeping arrangements consist of a series of twin size beds arranged all along the perimeter of the edifice.  Midsommar is fascinating because it mines terror in the perpetual daylight of a Scandinavian summer.  It’s a daydream where warm sunlight bathes the festival.  The film is visually light.  Henrik Svensson’s production design coupled with superior cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski creatively establishes a mood that is both idyllic but sinister.

Midsommar isn’t about whether something bad will happen.  If you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you know that danger is afoot.   This is a chronicle about the way things unfold and evolve.  It’s a psychological journey.   Midsommar is a slow burn of a film and it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long.  It gets oppressive.  The viewer is transported to this pastoral community where we are incorporated into customs we don’t understand.  Their ritualistic traditions are based on the cycle of life as it relates to how a year is divided.  Life is differentiated into four 18-year segments that correspond with spring then summer, fall, and ultimately winter.  Their godless beliefs worship the season themselves.  It may sound poetic but Ari Aster doesn’t make their devotion attractive.  This voyage down the rabbit hole is a disquieting descent.  Several setpieces detail things that are extremely unsettling.  There are moments where director Ari Aster presents something shocking.  Conventional filmmaking dictates that you cut away but Aster lingers on the image.  Then brutally doubles down on it.  He condemns the sight but crosses the line in order to enforce a point of view.  This is a movie that wallows in dark forces.  It’s masterfully put together.  Though I can’t say I technically “enjoyed” Midsommar, I truly admired it.  It is an authentic presentation of evil in cinematic form.  Now real talk:  I’m concerned.   Can someone please give director Ari Aster a hug?

07-03-19

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 6, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_far_from_home_ver7STARS4Warning: Review contains an Avengers: Endgame spoiler.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn’t waste any time getting started.  A gigantic cyclone “with a face” terrorizes a city in Mexico.  An enigmatic superhero heretofore unknown arrives to fight the creature and save the day.  We later learn his name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  He will become a key figure in this narrative.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) investigate.  They appeal to Peter Parker (Tom Holland ) for help.  However the mild-mannered teen a.k.a. Spider-Man is more concerned with high school life.  This means preparing for a class trip to Europe, hanging out with his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and attending to the crush he has on cute classmate “MJ” (Zendaya).  He likes her and she likes him.  They’re just too painfully shy to tell one another.  It may technically be the final chapter in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but debuting after Avengers: Endgame, this really feels like a fresh beginning.  The adventure enthusiastically prepares the viewer for a new series of MCU movies with a lighthearted attitude that is buoyant and fun.

Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own identity.  Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its 2017 predecessor, this one is equally coming of age comedy as it is a superhero fantasy.  Actually, the portrait of teen angst is the best part.  Coming on the heels of Endgame, this is the first feature to detail the aftermath of what Thanos caused.  In that vein, their high-school TV station playfully presents an “In Memoriam” segment for Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Vision.  It also explains what happened when half the Earth’s population disappeared in what this story calls “The Blip” then reappeared exactly the same age five years later.  Their peers who remained on Earth did age.

Peter Parker is torn.  Four Elementals are wreaking havoc on the world.  These immortal creatures are so-named because each one controls an element: earth, air, fire, and water.  As Tony Stark’s protegee, he feels the call to be a superhero.  At the same time, Peter just wants to see the sights of Europe with his friends.  Enter Quentin Beck, a hero from a parallel Earth, who seems ever more capable than Peter when dealing with these supernatural threats.  Peter’s classmates start calling the individual “Mysterio” which the genial guy soon adopts as his moniker.  Jake Gyllenhaal is memorable.  He imbues his character with a charisma that deftly straddles the line between good-natured and disingenuous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a blast.  It also details a very personal odyssey.  Directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the film brilliantly juggles a crisis of conscience for Peter Parker.  This is a character based chronicle and as such, his desire to simply live a “normal” life is quite compelling.  I truly cared about the various choices that Peter Parker makes.  One, in particular, is an (almost) unforgivable decision.  Deep down we know in this Tony Stark-less reality, the world truly needs Spider-Man.  The emotional stakes are huge!  A wonderful cast engages the emotions with humor and intensity.  I’ve discussed most of the main players but “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) also bear a mention.  They share an amusing flirtation in their minor roles.  The class field trip provides a picaresque tour of Europe.  This appealingly sets the action in various destinations: Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London.  The action comes to a crescendo in a climax that exploits the idea that everything you see in a deception.  It’s a dizzying feat of CGI and the effects had me gasping at the optical illusion of it all.  The chaotic frenzy recalls the bewildering displays of last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Mysterio’s glowing orbs of lightning blasts are kind of awesome in a kitschy old-school science fiction way.  This saga perfectly blends emotion and technology.  This summertime romp effortlessly entertains with wit and style.

07-02-19

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19

Toy Story 4

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 24, 2019 by Mark Hobin

toy_story_four_ver8STARS4Let’s face it.  Toy Story 4 doesn’t need to exist.  Toy Story 3 was a flawless finish to a brilliant trilogy.  Everything had been resolved.  You may recall that Andy the human child had grown up.  At the end, he donated his playthings to a little girl named Bonnie.  She was a preschooler at Sunnyside Daycare.  If you don’t remember this, who could blame you?  2010 was almost a decade ago.  However, it’s an important detail in order to understand the journey of these beloved characters.  Toy Story 4 becomes a necessary addition to this series.  The filmmakers have done something quite radical.  They have in essence rebooted the franchise by highlighting a new ensemble while drastically reducing the screen time of most of the original cast, even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).  Woody (Tom Hanks) is a notable exception who still plays a major part.  He now finds himself neglected by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  He may have been Andy’s favorite, but Bonnie is a completely different individual altogether.  Meet Forky (Tony Hale).  Bonnie has created a primitive toy as a craft project in her kindergarten class.  She loves him as much, if not more than, any store bought toy.

Director Josh Cooley along with writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, have come up with chronicle where an individual considers whether their life has meaning.  Forky has been fashioned from a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and googly eyes.  He becomes a sentient being.  He is not a “toy” in the classic sense and deep down the neurotic entity knows it.  He is constantly trying to throw himself into the trash.  Yet Bonnie’s love has brought him to life.  Her devotion is as real to this curio as any of her branded toys.  Woody understands this.  He unfailingly rescues the plastic thingamabob from trying to end its own life.  It’s an existential crisis that would make Ingmar Bergman proud.

The narrative introduces several characters and each one is a uniquely inspired creation of anxiety.  Forky is merely one soul in a detailed rumination on why toys exist and what gives a life fulfillment and value.  Also making a strong impression are Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), a pair of carnival prizes who simply want to be won.  The stitched together plush animals provide some of the biggest laughs of 2019.  There’s also Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s pull-string doll that is perfectly preserved, except for one thing.  She has a broken voice box.  If that defect is repaired, she reasons, then someone will want her.  She is attended to by a collection of identical looking ventriloquist dummies named Benson that serve as her minions.  The fact they don’t speak is such an intelligent decision.  They are truly terrifying.  There’s also Duke Caboom, a square-jawed Canadian daredevil voiced by Keanu Reeves.  Given his well-received appearances in John Wick: Chapter 3 and Always Be My Maybe, 2019 is definitely his year.  He looks just like the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle I treasured in the 1970s.  Nevertheless, he suffers from low self-esteem because he is unable to perform the stunts his commercial ads promised.  This is pretty heady stuff.  I suspect most youngsters will appreciate all this angst as simply the basic need to be loved.

Toy Story 4 may be billed as a sequel to part 3 but it’s really a new beginning.  Most of the original characters have been sidelined in favor of a fresh cast and amended outlook.  Toy Story 4 profoundly flips the script in finding a sense of purpose.  Enter Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who is a much different personality in this narrative.  She was a porcelain figurine on a lamp in the first two entries.  Woody and she had a flirtatious crush on one another.  She is only briefly referenced in the third so her reemergence here as a major player is unexpected.  Her story opens the movie as a brief intro that begins 9 years prior, where she is unceremoniously given away to a mysterious man.  Part Annie Oakley, part Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road) — she is a galvanizing presence with a revolutionary perspective.

Toy Story 4 justifies its existence.  The storytelling is a bit messier than its predecessors.  The plot is an ungainly merging of various plot threads which juggle the various motivations of a large cast.  There are some risky leaps.  There is an emphasis on jokes. The humor is zany.  Although the script truly has something to say.  I will never doubt Pixar’s ability to reinvent itself.  Once you consider a fourth entry, you expect the quality to drop. You’d be forgiven for being skeptical.  The fourth installment has often been the death knell for a film series.  Batman & Robin (1997), Scream 4 (2011) and (perhaps too soon) Men in Black: International (2019) were each the final movie in their respective franchises.  The title is the only predictable component in this production.  This is a visionary dream.  As far as I’m concerned, Pixar could now put out Toy Story 5 & 6 and I’d greet their existence with joy.

06-20-19

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted in Drama with tags on June 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

last_black_man_in_san_francisco_ver2STARS4The way a booming tech industry can negatively affect the changing Bay Area landscape fuels the art of some really great films.  Just a year after 2018 gave us both Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You,  we have The Last Black Man in San Francisco – another story that mines the subject of gentrification in “The City by the Bay”.  To call it a story is a bit imprecise, however.  This is not a plot-heavy drama but merely an elegiac reflection with a wistful nod towards creating a mood.  It washes over you like an emotional embrace with a love for a city that is slowly morphing into a much different community.  Dorothy once proclaimed “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  This movie most assuredly asserts that expression.

This is the feature-length debut from filmmaker Joe Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who directs his longtime friend in the lead role.  Jimmy Fails is an S.F. native who plays a fictionalized version of himself.  Fails and writer Rob Richert collaborated on the script with Talbot.  This is a fully realized work from a director and star who have deeply experienced this lamentation.  The tech industry has been both a boon and bane to a population.  At the very least, it has created a vast income disparity.  In turn, this has propelled S.F. to be the most absurdly expensive real estate in the entire U.S.  Only the richest 1% can afford.  Fact: according to the Cost of Living Index, The median home price is $1.6 million in S.F. and the average rent for an apartment is $3,821 a month.  That has had an effect on businesses too.  Places like La Victoria, a historic Mexican bakery in the Mission, had to shut down after 70 years in business in 2018.  In Joe Talbot’s words, this is rapidly altering the very fabric of a city which is pushing out “some of the people who made San Francisco so great.”

At the center of the account is a tender relationship between Jimmie and his idiosyncratic best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors).  They ride skateboards and wear thrift store duds.  Their rapport is not unlike the bond between two much younger boys.  They’re uncommonly close.  Jimmie currently lives with his buddy in the tiny house of Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the city’s Bayview neighborhood.  It’s here on the streets that Jimmie and Montgomery are taunted for their close bond by tough outspoken locals credited as the “Greek Chorus”.  These two close friends struggle in the outskirts of the city in which they can no longer afford to live.  The vulnerable pair are united by a quest to find their place in an area that seems to have left them behind.

Jimmie still obsesses over the elegant Victorian home his grandfather built in the now-gentrified Fillmore District – a section once nicknamed “Harlem of the West.”  His unending drive to reclaim his childhood abode drives this narrative.  The ornate edifice with its stained-glass windows, wood-paneling, and witch’s hat turret—is a character in itself.  The estate’s current value has made his birthplace financially out of his reach.  Various vignettes clarify his mindset on a San Francisco odyssey.  Tichina Arnold pops up as Jimmie’s aunt and Rob Morgan appears as his father, Jimmie Fails Sr.  One poignant moment occurs on a public transit bus where he casually bumps into his own mother, whom he hasn’t seen in some time.  She’s played by Jimmie’s actual mother in real life.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco doesn’t overtly promote an agenda.  It’s far more subtle than that.  This is a deeply felt contemplation that appeals on a purely sentimental level.  The film’s lack of a narrative thrust may irk some.  Indeed at times, I wished for a little more momentum.  This feels like a funeral that honors the past with a profound love that pines for a bygone era.  Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra presents a languid tribute to a forgotten age.  The images beautifully underscored by a majestic score by composer Emile Mosseri making his feature debut.

This quirky city once comprised a cultural diversity that included bohemians, musicians, artists, and other counterculture dreamers.  In recent years the metropolis has morphed into a playground for hipster transplants with six-figure salaries.  Yes, I acknowledge I’m simplifying a community that still remains remarkably diverse.  However, a key scene has our protagonist, Jimmie on a Muni bus when he overhears two young women dissing the place that he treasures – “I’ve been saying for months, let’s just move to East L.A.,” one woman says to the other. “This city is dead.”  In a moment of clarity Jimmie directly addresses her point blank: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco.  You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”.  The declaration spews from lips with a passion that got me choked up.  Perhaps because I call the Bay Area my home, this rumination really struck a chord with me.  It clearly comes from an emotional place, so I hope anyone can appreciate the depth of the meditation.  This is a movie that comes from the heart.

06-14-19

Men in Black: International

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on June 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

men_in_black_internationalSTARS3Anyone  22 years or younger seeing Men in Black: International this weekend wasn’t even alive when the first film came out.  I feel old. July 2, 1997, seems like such a long time ago.  I thought this series was over by the third entry.  Now 7 years later, we have a belated fourth episode which is being marketed as more of a spin-off.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are long gone although Emma Thompson who was in Men in Black 3 is back as Agent O, the head of MIB’s US branch.  Head of MIB’s UK branch is Liam Neeson as High T.  Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (no relation to Emma) star as Agents H and M respectively.  Coincidence or did the Swedish clothing-retail company pay for that mention?   No matter – back to the actors.  The two famously appeared together in Thor: Ragnarok.  I dare say the charm they had together then is even more apparent here.

The story concerns Molly who witnessed an alien abduction when she was a little girl. Her parents’ minds were erased by the MIB but they neglected to neuralyze her.  She still carries those memories.  She longs to be one of the “Men in Black”.  Yes, the screenplay acknowledges that not all operatives are male.  She sneaks into the headquarters and convinces Agent O to hire her on as sort of a probationary test.  It makes no sense why this would happen so easily but it’s so ridiculous that I kind of appreciated the careless happenstance of it all.  Soon she meets Agent H.  He’s cocky.  She’s bookish.  Writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway have created stock characters.  We’ve seen this personality dynamic many times before.  The difference is that Chris and Tessa genuinely appear to be friends in real life.  The appeal of the stars is why Men in Black: International entertains.  They generate the kind of palpable chemistry that two attractive Hollywood stars are able to parlay into elevating a flimsy script.   In essence, the fate of the world is at stake.  Despite this, their objectives never seem insurmountable.  Things come quite easily for these two, particularly Agent M who assimilates into the MIB organization with barely any difficulty at all.

You can always count on the special effects to captivate in these films.  They are selectively utilized to create intergalactic creatures.  The designs are impressive.  Which leads me to another reason why this ultimately charmed me: Kumail Nanjiani. We never actually even see the actor/comedian.  Rather, we hear him as an alien that assists Agents H and M.  He’s the size of a chess pawn and he’s assigned to protect his diminutive queen so Agent M starts calling him Pawny.  This miniature green humanoid creature reminded me of The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones.  His humor mostly consists of offering a sardonic comment on the events happening around them.  He can say banal things at times.  He spouts hackneyed catchphrases like “That’s what I’m talking about!”  Yet Nanjiani’s irritated delivery absolutely sells this tiny creature.  Additionally, the animated expressions on his tiny face are consistently hilarious.

Apparently, this movie wasn’t hilarious to the majority of critics who have saddled this movie with some of the harshest reviews of 2019.  It currently has a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Me thinks people are comparing this to the style of the earlier films.  This has a different atmosphere.  There’s an emphasis on elegant sophistication, not zany antics.  Men in Black: International lacks Will Smith’s manic energy but that’s OK.  Although Pawny is a notable exception.  Director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) continues to demonstrate his ability to helm a large-scale production.  The plot is pretty standard stuff.  However, this amiable production coasts on the smooth easygoing chemistry of its two leads.  Their relationship has an amusing push-pull trade-off.  It’s pleasing to watch actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson interact.  Sometimes charismatic actors reciting humorous back and forth banter is enough.  I was entertained.

Ma

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on June 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maSTARS3.5There’s something so wonderful about Ma, the new horror movie starring Octavia Spencer.  I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a cheesy film.  Tate Taylor also directed The Girl on the Train which was one of my least favorite releases of 2016.  But Ma is something else entirely.  It’s a completely idiosyncratic story about a middle-aged black woman that befriends a group of mostly white teens.  She invites them over so they can have a safe place to hang out and drink.  Obviously, juveniles under the age of 21 shouldn’t be drinking but Spencer isn’t supposed to be playing an admirable person.  However, there’s a lot more to uncover here than initially meets the eye.

Ma is trashy fun.  Screenwriters Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor know exactly the kind of campy film they’re making.  So does Octavia Spencer.  It’s not great art but it is entertaining.  She plays a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann Ellington who is approached by a group of adolescents who ask her to buy alcohol for them.  Sue Ann is awkward.  She sports a hairstyle seemingly inspired by Joey Lawrence in the TV show Gimme a Break! circa 1983.  It isn’t only the way she looks, though.  It’s the way she acts.  Spencer’s identity is that of a kindly mature woman desperate to be liked.  The kids start calling her Ma and she likes the attention.  The script gives this misfit a detailed backstory recounted in flashbacks.  There are details to this character that aren’t readily apparent.  There’s a reason for her unhinged behavior.  She still harbors unresolved anger from her past.

Ma goes to places I didn’t foresee.  At first, she simply buys the kids booze, but pretty soon she’s offering up the basement in her home as a place for them to party.  Then she’s celebrating right alongside them.  That’s so unexpected.  So is the soundtrack which includes “The Safety Dance”, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Funkytown”.  I didn’t reckon Ma would crank up the bouncy hit “September” by Earth Wind and Fire while running over a victim.  It’s refreshing to see a production where Octavia Spencer gets to be the star and the supporting cast are there to support her.  The ensemble consists of teen Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) who has just moved to the area with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis).  Luke Evans is Ben, an old high school classmate from Erica’s childhood and Missi Pyle portrays Ben’s girlfriend who can’t hold her liquor.   There’s also Allison Janney who’s highly memorable as Ma’s irritable boss.  There is literally only one note to her performance.  That sounds like a condemnation but it’s not.  Janney is hilarious.  She doesn’t have many lines but every one she utters is vicious.  This is a reunion of sorts. Janney and Spencer were in The Help together which was likewise helmed by Tate Taylor. He happens to play a police officer here.

You really have to suspend a lot of disbelief with Ma. The way these children keep going back to Ma’s house makes absolutely no sense. It almost becomes an unintentional(?) running joke.  There are so many signs that Ma isn’t quite right.  Early on she points a gun at one of the students and demands that he remove his clothes.   It’s an uncomfortable scene, but the kids inexplicably seem fine with it after she laughs it off.  Later she hugs Erica and her expression over toward Maggie goes from delighted to deranged in a half second.  That’s part of the movie’s spell.  Spencer adroitly switches from sympathetic to cruel.  I felt sorry for this woman.  Then I hated her.  Earlier this year Neil Jordan’s Greta employed a similar camp sensibility.  Ma is even less inhibited and therefore more fun.  For the majority of the picture, this is a compelling character study. Unfortunately, the drama’s final 20-minute descent into Grand Guignol is a letdown.  Yet through it all, Spencer endures as a fascinating personality.  The achievement would be a parody in a lesser actor’s hands.  Spencer extracts both pathos and absurdity from the screenplay.  The individual is cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Kathy Bates in Misery.   Those may be iconic grandes dames of horror but Spencer is most definitely in the same league.

06-08-19

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on June 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

secret_life_of_pets_twoSTARS2From a narrative standpoint, The Secret Life of Pets 2 has no reason to exist.  From a business angle, it would be to make money.  Given my sparsely attended theater on opening night, it’s a mere shadow of its predecessor in that department as well.  The first movie wasn’t great art but it had a zany quality that ultimately endeared itself to the audience.  There was a lot of animal personalities crammed into the plot but none stood out more than Kevin Hart as a white bunny named Snowball.  He’s back again but no longer a villain. The attitude that made his character a surprise in the original is gone.

The rest of the cast is back with one major exception.  Max, a Jack Russell Terrier, is now voiced by Patton Oswalt in this go-around taking over for Louis CK who was not rehired due to accusations of sexual harassment.  Oswalt voiced Remy the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille so he’s no stranger to voice acting.  Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is back as the large, brown, shaggy Newfoundland mix who lives with Max.  If I had to award an MVP in the cast it would be to Lake Bell who returns as Chloe, a blue tabby cat.  Her sarcastic indifference perfectly matched my mood while watching this.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is even more chaotic, more freeform and less focused than its forebear.  30 minutes into the film and I still couldn’t discern a plot.  If you’re looking for a sampling of gags stuffed into an admittedly brief 86 minute saga (that includes the credits) then I suppose it fitfully entertains.  There are three storylines going on simultaneously.  The screenplay keeps them coherently discernible from one another like a banana, a mango and a peach in a fruit smoothie after they’ve been liquified in a blender.  The difference?  This experience isn’t tasty.

Max and Duke’s human owner Katie has married and now has a child.  The family all take a trip to visit a farm as a way to relax.  There Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford), an alpha farm dog who watches Fox News and stans for Donald Trump.  I’m kidding but watch the movie and then tell me I’m wrong.  Meanwhile, Pomeranian Gidget ( Jenny Slate) accidentally loses Max’s favorite chew toy (a busy bee) to a bunch of cats in the apartment below hers.  She needs to get it back.  Finally, Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih Tzu, must rescue a white tiger from a Russian circus run by a heavily accented stereotype named Sergei (Nick Kroll).   In these highly sensitive times, making fun of Eastern Europeans and the way they talk is apparently still OK.

Thankfully, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is short but it still feels long because it’s so meandering.  The story is essentially three cartoon shorts along with various subplots and vignettes cobbled together to make a theatrical feature.  None of them are particularly captivating.  It’s fleeting and ephemeral.  I can barely remember what I watched and I just saw it.  Perhaps this would be more comprehensible edited down and promoted as 3 half-hour TV episodes.  The screenplay doesn’t bother to expand on our understanding of these characters.  Nor does it offer anything in the way of wit.   If toilet humor is your thing, there are poop jokes and fart jokes.  The ending credits presents an America’s Funniest Home Videos-style montage of kids with their pets.  It made me laugh more than anything in the film.  At best this works as an 86-minute babysitter for your kids and at worst it’s an unpleasant time waster.

06-06-19

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19