Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSTARS2It’s Halloween night, 1968.  In the Mill Valley suburb of Pennsylvania, a group of misfit teenagers seek refuge in the abandoned mansion where Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) once lived.  The legend contends that the vengeful woman held a terrible secret.  There in her room, they discover a haunted journal of individual tales.  The book contains scary stories of the past but there are blank pages as well.  When nerdy horror novelist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) carelessly recites an incantation from the tome, Sarah’s spirit is unleashed.  Soon new chapters begin to magically appear on the previously empty pages.  Each one will have a dire consequence for a person trespassing in her home.  The appealing cast includes Stella’s friends, intellectual Auggie (Gabriel Rush), mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and an enigmatic teen drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza).  Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a dumb blonde stereotype, shows up later along with her date Tommy (Austin Abrams), a football player/bully at the school.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of children’s books that were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991.  Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is a producer and co-writer.  The books were a horror compendium of urban legends and folk tales.  The movie interpolates several of the short stories by weaving them into an overall feature.  The film can easily be broken apart into pieces.  “The Haunted House”, “Harold” The Red Spot”, “The Big Toe”, and “The Jangly Man” are all episodes within the narrative.  The pale lady of “The Dream” is a high point.  It’s the only time I was ever creeped out.  Still, the interlude is effective only because it produces a haunting image.  The simple story is merely about an obese woman that wants to hug you.  Some fables are lifted directly from the text.  Others are composites.  They’re all dull and perfunctory.  Although the drama presents this all as one united saga, it’s obvious from its episodic nature that this account has been cobbled together from disparate yarns.  It still has the divided feel of an anthology.  There are thematic parallels to Creepshow (1982).  There’s even a gross-out tale that resembles that flick’s cockroach scene.

The kids are ostensibly here to unravel the mystery of why Sarah Bellows, even in death, is still so ticked off.  They are frustratingly ineffective for the duration of the picture.  The kids watch in terror as one new chapter after another writes itself in blood on the page before them.  There’s a Spielbergian mood.  Properties like the TV show Stranger Things and the adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) are very much in vogue.  This production clearly wants to exploit that same demographic.  Each youthful victim is eliminated one by one.  The remaining survivors seemingly learn nothing from the previous death.  I mean if they did then the film would be over a lot faster, right?  There is a solution to stopping these casualties but it’s about as generic as something like telling the truth.  Until that occurs, bad things just keep happening to these people Final Destination-style so the writers can justify a nearly 2-hour running time.  Oh, and the chronicle makes sure to isolate each character when they face their demise.  That also adds to the disjointed, fragmentary nature of this story.  The screenplay by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman is extremely poor.

There are some positives.  The setting is small-town America, 1968, so it’s an evocative period piece.  It uses the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the presidential election of Richard Nixon as background elements.  The atmosphere is more picturesque than say a film set in our modern-day.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with those ideas.  It simply uses them as window dressing.  For fans of the series, I do think director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has done a nice job at visually embodying the original freaky illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  However, your imagination is always going to be scarier than something manifested so literally in gross detail.  The movie employs copious amounts of CGI.  Some scenes are eerie.  One concerning a pimple is too disgusting for words, but none of it is particularly scary.

The Art of Self-Defense

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hobbs_and_shaw_ver6STARS3
It’s been a while but does anyone remember that The Fast and the Furious was originally about illegal street racing?  Oh so much has changed since that 2001 film.  Dwayne Johnson joined the franchise in Fast Five (2011) as American federal law officer Luke Hobbs.  Jason Statham would be introduced later in a cameo during the end credits of Fast & Furious 6 (2013).  Statham is a British special forces assassin-turned-mercenary named Deckard Shaw.  It was the box office success high of Furious 7 (2015) that prominently featured both stars which ultimately inspired this offshoot.  Together they had an adversarial relationship.  Now the two are starring in the first spin-off of the series and the results are exactly what you’d expect.  Muscle cars and even muscular men.  Oh and a Moscow mansion of deadly beauties with a leader (Eiza González) that’s more appropriately dressed for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show than commanding a gang of arms dealers.

The tale has these frenemies paired against their will to extract a deadly virus called “The Snowflake” that has been manufactured by a terrorist group called Eteon.  Shaw’s sister, MI6 field agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected capsules containing it into her own body for safekeeping.  She will die if an antidote isn’t found soon.  Lead terrorist Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) just so happens to be genetically enhanced by cybernetic augmentations.  Naturally, villains can’t be mere humans anymore.  Indeed this super soldier’s enhanced field of view is not unlike something The Terminator or perhaps Tony Stark might see.  “I’m Black Superman” he declares.  He seeks to claim and unleash The Snowflake to kill the half of humanity that Eteon has deemed weak.  The central duo is enough but the filmmakers still feel the need to insert unnecessary cameos from Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds into the mix.  Must the ever-sarcastic Reynolds act/sound like Deadpool in every single role?  His unexpected arrival is pleasant at first but his many appearances (including in two of the three — yes three! — end credits sequences) really grates on the audiences’ nerves like an unwelcome guest.

Don’t even try to make any sense of it.  This picture has amusing continuity errors on a Plan 9 from Outer Space level.  Flashbacks show Deckard and Hattie as roughly the same age as brother and sister.  Yet actors Jason Statham and Vanessa Kirby are over twenty years apart playing the roles as adults.  Ok, so not a big deal, but more logic is thrown out the window during a climactic battle on the island of Samoa.  Apparently, the sun in this world doesn’t follow the rules of the solar system.  Shaw lights a ring of fire around enemy soldiers in a conspicuous display at night.  A second later and it’s broad daylight.  It’s such an abrupt transition.  There’s more, but I already know what you’re thinking.  You don’t watch movies like this for intelligence or sense.  I’ll move on.

It’s a cliche to call a feature “big dumb fun” but Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw IS a cliche.   To call the plot formulaic is an insult to the very word itself.  As a story, the account isn’t built on a coherent narrative but rather a string of carefully planned spectacles.  The car chases and pyrotechnics are ridiculous.  That’s part of their cartoonish charm. You came for stunts and you’ll get mayhem aplenty.  Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) understands how to photograph a crisp action sequence.  It’s chaotic and nonsensical but you can still see what’s happening.  Just don’t apply the laws of physics.

What pushes this flick into something I’d recommend is the chemistry of the lead pair.  Mix two cantankerous individuals together and watch the sparks fly.  It’s a recipe that works.  Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are enough to carry the narrative.  The mere sight of them together is comical.  Statham has a solid build.  He stands about 5’10. He’s not small.  Johnson, however, has mutated into a roided out inhuman hulk.  Statham looks positively diminutive next to this guy.  These action set pieces are linked together by hilarious banter courtesy of screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce.  The way these stars trade insults is even better than the way they trade punches.  Shaw cracks that the massive Hobbs’ tight t-shirt size is “spray-on”.  Upon meeting Shaw’s sibling Hattie, Hobbs quips, “She’s too pretty to be your sister”.  They bicker like an old married couple.  At one point Shaw must create pseudonyms for both of them at the airport.  “Mike Oxmall” is the name he gives to his associate.  Sound it out.  Granted this is low-level humor.  If that doesn’t make you chuckle, you probably won’t be swayed by the screenplay’s superficial charms.

Nevertheless, Hobbs & Shaw is surprisingly wholesome.  This PG-13 rated movie is completely devoid of gore.  Furthermore, its redemptive message of unity makes this an uplifting paean to honoring your relatives.  There’s even a reunion with Hobbs’ beloved mom (Lori Pelenise Tuisano).  The screenplay pounds the notes of sentimentality with a sledgehammer.  Hallmark Channel, take note.  The culminating showdown set in Hobbs’ childhood home of Samoa provides him an opportunity to mend ties with his estranged sibling, Jonah (Cliff Curtis).  Later Hobbs and his brothers perform a Samoan war dance — the Siva Tau — before going to battle with the far more technologically advanced bad guys.  Each display designed to pluck at your heartstrings. This series has never failed to emphasize the importance of friends and family.  The setting is different, but we’ve seen this buddy-action blueprint before.  The car chase scene with his Samoan brothers could’ve been lifted directly out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s straightforward fun, so there’s no earthly reason why a simplistic action picture needs to be patience-testing 2 hours and 15 minutes long.  However, those funny and abundant put-downs make this saga entertaining.  Johnson and Statham boost the production and it’s their charisma that pushes this derivative story into passable time filler.  Stay tuned, Fast and Furious 9 arrives May 2020.

08-01-19

The Farewell

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

farewellSTARS4“Based on an actual lie.”  That how The Farewell begins – with a bit of levity.  It’s a true story culled from director Lulu Wang’s own experiences in hiding the truth.  Her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Since Chinese law does not require doctors to disclose such determinations to patients, her relatives didn’t divulge the news to the terminally ill woman.  They meant well.  They didn’t want to spoil her final months.  They carried on as if everything was fine so that her final days would be stress-free.  According to the filmmaker, this is a Chinese tradition.

In just her second feature, director Lulu Wang has fashioned a very personal film based on her own experience.  In the movie, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has only a limited time left to live.  The family has hatched a plan.  Under the deception of a fake wedding for Hao Hao (Chen Han), Nai Nai’s grandson, everyone will travel to China to see the matriarch one last time.  Nai Nai thinks they have arrived to plan and attend the wedding when in reality they are simply there to see her.  In this way, they can personally pay their respects.  Awkwafina plays Billi, a fictionalized version of the director.  Wang was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6.  That mix of cultures shapes Billi’s point of view as well.  Her American desire to truthfully break the news is at odds with this Chinese custom to shield their beloved grandmother from this heartbreaking prognosis.  Billi’s mom (Diana Lin) and dad (Tzi Ma) have advised Billi to remain at home in the U.S.  They know she will be unable to hide her feelings and promote the ruse.  Billi shows up unannounced anyway and her entrance is one of many awkwardly amusing scenes.

Awkwafina is a fascinating actress and the identity with which the audience can most relate in this account.  The Queens-born rapper initially had a viral rap success on YouTube before she was cast in the ensemble Ocean’s 8 in 2018. She later appeared in Crazy Rich Asians that same year.  In both, she was a flamboyant, extroverted individual.  She was funny and likable.  She is no less captivating here but her personality is notably dialed way down.  Awkwafina bridges the cultural divide between Billi’s New York home and her Chinese roots.  There are mentions that Billi’s ability to speak Mandarin isn’t very good so that struggle to fit in remains an underlying subtext.  Awkwafina’s acting is extremely unaffected and understated in its sophistication.  She incurs our empathy without sentimentality.  Her amazing achievement stands out because of (despite?) the exquisite subtlety of the performance.

The Farewell brilliantly details familial bonds in a most personal and honest way.  We’re detailing the impending death of a loved one.  This is pretty serious stuff but Lulu Wang’s screenplay somehow combines real comedy amongst the tragic circumstances.  “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die,” her mom proclaims early on.  An idiosyncratic blend of humor and solemnity pervades the atmosphere.  The Farewell is a heartfelt and touching picture.  What makes it so powerful is the utter veracity with which the household comes together to deal with the news.  The different ways in which a family grieves is a big part of the narrative.  It invites the viewer to reflect on their own relatives and how one would handle the situation. This may detail a Chinese family but the human emotions on display are universal.

The Farewell contains moments of great insight and poignancy. At times the screenplay is quite subtle because it suggests things without overtly expressing them. Given the melancholy mood surrounding the wedding, you start to wonder if perhaps Nai Nai doesn’t suspect something is amiss.  When we learn that Nai Nai also kept her own husband in the dark about his terminal illness, that suspicion intensifies but is still not confirmed.  As in life, ambiguity delicately informs this tale from beginning to end.  A movie about dying that shuns conventional rules where everyone must explicitly confess what they are thinking – what a refreshing take!  Every once in awhile an authentic reminiscence can capture our attention without requiring a complicated plot or melodramatic performances.  It’s the depth of emotion that charms our heart. The Farewell is just such a film.

07-28-19

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_ver7STARS2.5A new Quentin Tarantino film is an event.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been billed as his ninth picture.  So apparently Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 are now considered one film.  The auteur has declared his plans to retire after he has made 10 total.  Much of the critical establishment has worshiped at the altar of this much-lauded filmmaker.  Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of the way he succumbs to his excessive impulses.  His last production, The Hateful Eight, was a mean-spirited tale of truly reprehensible individuals.  To its credit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is decidedly more good-natured.  It’s a tale that longs for a bygone era.  But that isn’t for the Golden Age of directors like William Wyler, Frank Capra, and George Cukor.  No Tarantino reveres the men of 1960s Hollywood like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and John Sturges who made manly movies.

The drama takes place in Los Angeles circa 1969 which was a turning point in the entertainment industry.  Easy Rider, Medium Cool and The Wild Bunch all came out that year.  The studio driven era of the past was giving way to a slew of cinematic revolutionaries that were pushing the envelope in what types of behavior could be portrayed on film.  Studios had always kept a tight reign on what could be depicted on screen.  That standard was quickly eroding due to a social conflict that was playing out in real life.  The Best Picture of 1969 was a whimsical musical – Oliver – the last G-rated movie to win the award in fact.  In 1970 it was the X rated Midnight Cowboy.  Contrasts don’t get more conspicuous than that.  This is all mere subtext however but it helps to appreciate the social environment that this film details.

Tarantino’s attention to detail in fabricating Los Angeles circa 1969 is visually flawless.  He favors practical effects over CGI.  There is exhausting attention to period detail and production designer Barbara Ling is the MVP on this picture as far as I’m concerned.  The time is lovingly recreated with painstaking accuracy.   The vehicles, the storefronts, the clothing, Hollywood Boulevard – it is an immersive and palpable atmosphere.  The movie employs a soundtrack of Top 40 hits and vintage radio commercials in an aural pastiche that recalls American Graffiti.  To Tarantino’s credit, he’s depicting a generation that occurred a whopping 50 years ago whereas George Lucas manifested a past that transpired a mere 11 years from his fabrication.  Still, American Graffiti was positively hypnotic compared to this formless rambling.  If set design were the whole movie, this would be the best film of the year.  However, movies also rely on pacing and that’s a major problem in this nearly 3-hour endurance test.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like a patchwork quilt of interconnecting characters.  This is the saga of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a fading actor, and his close buddy/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was once a successful star of TV westerns of the 50s and 60s but has seen his career decline as of late.  He’s currently guest-starring as the villain in an action series.  In contrast, the more level-headed Cliff, who also doubles as Rick’s valet, is more resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him.  Cliff hasn’t been able to get much work due to speculation surrounding his wife’s death.  The central relationship is loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his buddy Hal Needham, a stuntman as well as director, actor, and writer.   There’s also a superfluous story that involves actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newlywed to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).  Her chronicle simply revolves around going to the cinema to watch herself in the Dean Martin spy comedy The Wrecking Crew. Her vacuous but beautiful face is enrapt at the sight of her own visage.  Except she’s watching genuine footage of the actual movie with the real Sharon Tate.  It’s an odd juxtaposition because Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate are clearly not the same people.

That’s the set-up, but what exactly is the story?  In this 3 hour tale, the account plods along at a leisurely pace that seems in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.  The fable operates as sort of a meandering series of vignettes in and around Los Angles.  The account largely focuses on the slumping career of Rick Dalton.  His interaction with a precocious young co-star named Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) is a high point.  Her obsessive allegiance to her craft actually causes Rick to question his own dedication.  Another is Cliff’s bizarre run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who was starring in The Green Hornet at the time.  Tarantino is a fan of martial arts.  Cliff implausibly humiliates the Asian star in hand to hand combat.  I didn’t take this biased fantasy of Quentin’s as truth, although that doesn’t make the deceit any less compelling.  Moh’s portrayal is so over the top that the martial artist star still remains the most captivating presence on screen.  Actors Moh and Butters were my two favorite cameos in a sprawling cast that has many of them.  Well, human ones anyway. Brandy, the pit bull that plays Cliff Booth’s pet, bears a mention as well.  The drama has little narrative thrust so any one of these scenes could be excerpted and enjoyed independently or even excised completely and not affect the story.

The movie briefly springs to life in a fascinating diversion which concerns Cliff Booth and an underage teen hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley).  She invites him back to the ranch of George Spahn (Bruce Dern).  This is the desert commune/cult where she lives and works.  She invites him to stay and meet their friend Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Booth is clearly distrustful of the hippies.  He insists on seeing the 80-year-old almost blind George for himself to make sure he isn’t being exploited.  It’s a captivating segment.

They say that this is Tarantino’s most personal work, but what exactly is this man idolizing?  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Tarantino was pining for the days when America was bolstered by strong conservative values before the cultural mores were upended by the freethinkers of the “decadent” 1960s.  The production functions as a mournful lament.  These two men bemoan the liberal hippie culture that is infiltrating show business and indeed the rest of society.  At one point 4 young people pull up and park their car in Rick’s driveway.  Rick, who has had enough of these counterculture types, lunges from his doorway like a bat out of hell cursing.  He orders the youths to leave, uttering the word “hippie” almost like it’s a slur.  It’s a surprisingly sympathetic point of view for what these two middle-aged white guys represent in our post-2017 MeToo movement.  The fact that this is Quentin Tarantino’s first film without producer Harvey Weinstein provides some interesting underlying context.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most amiable picture.  There is less bloodshed than you’d expect from a man who routinely fetishizes violence.  It’s only during the climax that this production ultimately submits to slaughter.  I must admit, knowing that Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her unborn child when she was murdered along with coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Polish screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) gave me anxiety about where this movie was headed.  Leave it to Quentin to subvert expectations.  Inglourious Basterds is his most satisfying work.  There are parallels between that alternate take on history and this one.  However, where that film gradually builds toward its conclusion, this one simply meanders without focus or direction.  Only in the last 15 minutes do the characters come together in an action-filled (and yes extremely violent) altercation.  It’s the director’s classic presentation of wish fulfillment.  There is a point I suppose.   I sadly regret that once this movie started to show a pulse, it was all over.

07-25-19

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