War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3STARS3War for the Planet of the Apes is Part 3 in the rebooted film series that commenced in 2011. The franchise has been operating as a sequence of prequels leading up to the events of the 1968 classic. Now with the release of this picture, people have been referring to the collection as a trilogy. Whether more installments will follow still remains to be seen.  However if this picture makes enough money, you can best believe that more films will follow.

War is the story of Caesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes.  His army of simian warriors is at odds with Alpha-Omega, a terrorist faction of humans.  Caesar preaches a peaceful coexistence with the homo sapiens. However, the people are led by an aggressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  Apparently these barbaric individuals, can’t be reasoned with.  They’re just so warlike.  Not wanting to suffer any more casualties, Caesar plans to relocate his clan to the desert far away from Muir woods.  The night before they’re supposed to leave, Caesar’s home is invaded by the Colonel and his family is brutally attacked.  Now Caesar has a score to settle. He’s out for revenge.  This goes against everything his character has ever stood for, but hey no conflict no movie right?  Now we’re ready for a showdown.

The apes are anthropomorphic miracles of technology that act with more humanity than people. Ah yes, indeed that is the intention. If you couldn’t tell from the plot description above, War is told from the apes’ perspective. The entire trilogy (thus far anyway) has been developing a personal arc that traces the life of Caesar from a tortured experiment into a commanding leader. You will identify with the apes more than the humans. In this story, apes are better than people. You’ll be rooting for the demise of the human race if this screenplay has anything to say about it. That’s an interesting take, I suppose, but there’s more to creating a compelling narrative than merely affecting a unique point of view.

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s hard not to notice him as (1) he’s got the lion’s share of all the dialogue and (2) the camera lingers on his expressive CGI face for seemingly minutes on end. He’s a fascinating creature to be sure. Caesar rounds up a loyal band of followers. These include his second in command, an orangutan adviser named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a fellow chimpanzee named Rocket (Terry Notary), and a sensitive gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They are a serious lot. The whole production would be a serious downer if not for one individual. Steve Zahn voices a zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” in a bit of comic relief.  The misfit is kind of at lighthearted odds with the rest of the cast.  Yet he’s the only mitigation from all the dreariness.  As such, he’s a welcome reprieve from the bleak narrative.

On the non-simian side, there’s the evil Colonel played with cartoonish excess by Woody Harrelson. He wants to eradicate the world of not only all apes but also virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech. It’s easy to side with animals when this is the example of a human with which we are presented. His bald, deranged character is clearly inspired by  Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.  As a matter of fact, some graffiti on the wall actually says “Ape-ocalypse Now” lest the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle tribute wasn’t obvious.   The whole homage might seem rather clever had it not been for Kong: Skull Island liberally referencing the very same classic a mere 4 months ago.  It’s still pretty fresh in my mind.  News flash: there are other memorable films about war that weren’t made by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable spectacle.  At times it actually feels like a silent movie.  There are very few speaking parts.  Facial expressions are more important than actual words.  The camera fixates on the countenance of Caesar and we are invited to be moved by the way he emotes.  The script gets by on minimal dialogue.  The apes rescue a human orphan girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who doesn’t talk.  She was rendered mute by the Simian Flu.  Most of the apes, in turn, communicate via sign language.  The technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the series began in 2011.  Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin inspire awe with every shot.  This is a gorgeous achievement and the reason I’m giving this production a pass.  The CGI & MoCap apes are a marvel to behold.  It’s hard not to be wowed by the way War looks.  There is a trade-off for all of this visual wonder though.  The atmosphere is lugubrious.  The pacing is sluggish.  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours.  Even though the chronicle builds to a climactic finale, action does not comprise the bulk of the drama.  It’s yet another dismal morality tale that is a punishing watch.  It relies on the oldest of clichés. I’ll summarize: War is hell, but so are you, the human race, that is.  Forgive me if I don’t stand up and cheer.

07-13-17

The Big Sick

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on July 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

big_sickSTARS5I adore romantic comedies.  Good ones, that is. The genre gets such a bad rap nowadays, but when they’re good, they can be transcendent. They capture that most sublime of all human emotions: love. It’s when we, as people are at our most vulnerable. It Happened One Night (1934), Roman Holiday (1953), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Princess Bride (1987), Notting Hill (1999), 500 Days of Summer (2009): these are my very favorites. We’re talking some of the best movies ever made. Let’s add another title to that growing list of rom-coms: The Big Sick.

You’ve heard the old adage before: Write what you know. Screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon really took that to heart. They’ve been a married couple for 10 years now. The Big Sick is the story of their lives fully realized in cinematic form. Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a mildly fictionalized version of himself. Actress Zoe Kazan (Meek’s Cutoff, Ruby Sparks) plays Emily. Kumail is a Chicago-based stand-up comic who first meets Emily, a grad student, at one of his shows. She is in the audience and her heckling, which is more flirtatious in nature, piques his interest. The two chat after the show and you can practically see the physical sparks ignite in the air. What begins as a one-night stand develops into a full blown relationship with deep romantic feelings. It gets the early stages of a courtship perfectly and it’s a giddy experience.

Now if that set-up was all there was to The Big Sick, it would still be a profound paean to love. But there’s a unique point of view that makes this drama unlike any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. Kumail and his parents are from Pakistan. They have emigrated to the U.S and now live here. Kumail is very close to his folks and he visits them regularly. Mom and Dad are conventionally religious Muslims. They believe in arranged marriage. The seemingly endless parade of women that just happen to “drop by” their home is an amusing facade. We know mom is behind all this, hoping that one of them might be a match. Yet there is a very real cultural tradition at play here and it’s presented with sensitivity and compassion. However, Kumail wants no part of that practice. He wants to find his own true love, although he is loath to bring up the subject.  He is afraid to express his actual feelings to them. In fact, his parents know nothing of his association with Emily. Emily’s realization of this fact is a heartbreaking moment that causes a serious rift.

If it feels as though I have described the entire plot, rest assured, I haven’t even come close. The story, as are the ups and downs of any relationship, is a series of setbacks. I still have yet to even detail the biggest one of all. I won’t though. I will only say that it gives us the opportunity to meet Emily’s parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Simply put, they are wonderful. They express grief, pathos, and humor in a way that is absolutely masterful. Their performances blend the gravest of circumstances with a tragicomedy touch. Although they are merely supporting parts, we get a full and rich understanding of their affinity as well. Their bond feels as breathtakingly real and nuanced as any I’ve ever seen put up on the screen. I rarely talk Oscars this early in the year, but both actors are worthy of a nomination. They are so genuine in their portrayals.

The Big Sick embraces all the ideals of what makes the classic romances succeed. It’s a saga about when two people who are truly meant for each other, fall in love. It sounds simple to do but few movies detail the experience with this much soul and authenticity.  What can I say?  Actors Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani captivated my heart. I was emotionally invested in their relationship. The Big Sick is humanity with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies on full display. The screenplay mines humor in the clash of cultures but it also extracts the awkwardness of relatives. The idea that “You don’t just marry a person; you marry into a family” is a concept that frequently comes up. It’s not going to be smooth. Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel produce. Michael Showalter directs. Individually, these people have done a lot of great work. Yet this combination of talent utilizing a script from Nanjiani and Gordon, have produced a masterpiece. It’s a flawless testament to a couple in love. The pièce de résistance is that it’s actually true.

07-02-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17

Baby Driver

Posted in Action, Crime, Music, Thriller with tags on July 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo baby_driver_ver2_zpswm3g3gkq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgOk, can we get one thing out of the way first? Baby Driver is a terrible title. It sounds like either (1) a frivolous comedy about a chauffeur who works for a rich baby or (2) about an infant who can literally drive. Perhaps the follow-up sequel to DreamWorks’ animated hit The Boss Baby. None of this is correct. Baby, as it turns out, is the nickname of Ansel Elgort’s character, but he isn’t a baby. He’s a young man. He is a motorist though, a getaway driver actually. That much is true. Baby suffers from hearing loss. He incurred this ailment as a child when he was in a car accident which killed both his parents. To cope with the constant humming in his ears, he listens to music…all the time…on his iPod. That’s the set-up but it’s really just a great excuse to play a lot of classic songs.

Baby is a man of few words. He’s cool, laid back – a soft faced James Dean for our era. He’s a bit of a mystery, but we know he’s good at what he does. We’ve seen him in action. In the opening scene, he skillfully maneuverers the car that bank robbers Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) jump into after their heist. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1995 single “Bellbottoms” blasts away in his headphones. Baby is employed as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an intimidating crime boss that plans heists. Not entirely by choice. Baby is indebted to Doc for having stolen one of his cars. He’s currently working off the debt he incurred. Baby rarely speaks, often retreating into the world of the tunes playing on his iPod. You see, his music is our music. That is, what he hears and the score of the film, is exactly the same thing.

The movie is a cinematic construct, a heart-stirring, toe-tapping production in which diegetic music is synchronized to the action on the screen. Think of it as a jukebox musical in which director Edgar Wright has decided to assemble a playlist of 30+ songs that just so happen to have a story attached. Selections run the gamut from various eras but they mostly favor oldies before the 1980s. The Beach Boys, Carla Thomas, Queen, Barry White, The Commodores, Simon & Garfunkel, who provide the movie’s title, all have their moment. However, a few comparatively later compositions from the likes of Young MC, Beck, and Blur pop up too. “The Harlem Shuffle” is a particularly breathtaking set piece. We’re talking the 1963 original by Bob & Earl, not the Stones version. Sorry, it’s my age, but I can’t detect those opening horn blasts without thinking I’m about to hear “Jump Around” by House of Pain. The minor R&B hit underscores the second scene after the first heist, where Baby walks through the town while the city life happens in sync with the music. It’s a beautifully realized vignette that has to be seen multiple times to appreciate the complexity of its many details. Check out the graffiti on the walls that match the lyrics of the number.

The plot is kind of incidental but it provides the framework for a charismatic ensemble that meshes together like a finely tuned automotive machine. Baby’s foster father is a deaf man in a wheelchair named Joseph (CJ Jones) whom he cares for. They communicate via sign language. Baby goes to Bo’s Diner where he meets a pretty young waitress named Debora (Lily James), spelled exactly like a ditty by English glam rock band T. Rex. Then there’s the aforementioned Doc (Kevin Spacey), the crime boss for whom Baby works. Doc is capable of murder, but he’s frighteningly calm. You know that beneath his placid exterior there lies an evil temperament. “Your waitress girlfriend is cute,” he says to Baby. “Let’s keep it that way.” Doc assembles a rotating crew for each job. Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) comprise the first team. Eddie No-Nose (Flea), JD (Lanny Joon), and Bats (Jamie Foxx) form another. Somewhere along the line, Paul Williams pops up as an arms dealer known as The Butcher. Unifying all the disparate parts is Baby, a criminal with a heart.

Baby Driver is a whole lot of action, a little comedy and a touch of romance. It’s a classic heist flick that conveniently builds to “one last job”. The screenplay weaves a simple story amidst a profusion of pop culture tunes. This amalgamation of constant music. quick cut editing and swooping cinematography is extremely showy. At times, it’s oppressively so. I was keenly aware of the director’s hand more than once. The unrelenting style subverts genuine emotion for an illustration of love. Ansel Elgort and Lily James are more like the symbol of an on-screen couple than the genuine article. But we’ve got elaborate chase sequences choreographed to music. If action bang for your movie buck is what you want, then you’ll get your money’s worth. I simply can’t overstate how exhilarating this whole exercise is. The flashy production is presented with technique and panache. It’s like a shiny new sports car — albeit one built with some previously available parts. The director himself has cited The Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Point Break, Heat and The Blues Brothers as influences. While it may have been assembled from the building blocks of previous films, there’s certainly no denying the craft that went into making it. In a summer of sequels and franchise installments, Edgar Wright’s vision is a distinctly welcome breath of fresh air.

07-01-17

Despicable Me 3

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family on July 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo despicable_me_three_ver3_zpsq185xh6v.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgWell, It took seven years, but Illumination Entertainment finally delivered The Despicable Me movie its detractors have accused them of making all along. Tedious, frantic, disjointed, shallow, dull, dumb. Despicable Me 3 is an insufferable mess of a film. It doesn’t have a focus so much as disparate interludes that have been randomly thrown together with no regard for the components needed to create an intelligible story. It’s up for discussion, but I think I counted at least four different story threads. These have then been haphazardly assembled to justify a 90 minute runtime. I’m not even sure I can even coherently outline the action, but I’ll try.

The alpha plotline begins when Gru (Steve Carell), former evildoer now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is fired from the group because of his inability to apprehend criminal Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). He’s the worst excuse for a villain, but I’ll get back to him. Plot B details when Gru discovers he has a twin brother named Dru. The whole family – which includes wife Lucy and adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) – are invited to go hang out at his estate in Freedonia. The Duck Soup reference is cute. Then more developments: Mother Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is worried about being a good step-mom to the little girls, Edith and Agnes try to find a real unicorn, and Margo is almost married off to a little boy in a cheese ceremony. Meanwhile in Plot C, Gru is still preoccupied with retrieving the world’s biggest diamond from Balthazar Bratt. By accomplishing this, he hopes to get his old job back at the AVL. Oh and I almost forgot the Minions who are treated like an afterthought here. Plot D has the little yellow creatures upset that Gru is no longer interested in villainy. They leave but are promptly arrested and thrown in jail after trespassing at a talent show. Seriously if you’ve always hated the Minions, then this is the picture for you.

The narrative couldn’t even offer compelling supporting personalities this time around. Steve Carell also voices Dru, Gru’s long-lost twin brother. He’s a billionaire, has a higher pitched voice, and is flamboyantly carefree but he’s essentially the exact same person – just with a mane of blonde hair. We’re supposed to care about this familial reunion but their relationship is given short shrift. There’s simply too much going on to even care.

Now about that villain. A chronicle fixated on an antagonist is only as good as that personality. Balthazar Bratt is a lackadaisical suggestion of a individual. A former child star of a tacky 80s TV series called “Evil Bratt”, he found his popularity wane after entering puberty. Now an adult, he’s bent on world domination. Why? Good question. The writers aren’t concerned with such exposition, but I’m thinking it’s a case of “Waaaaah! You better notice me!” We’re never given an explanation as to why he is doing what he is doing.  Dressed in a purple jumpsuit with outrageous shoulder pads and parachute pants. He sports a droopy mustache and a black mullet with an extreme hi-top fade. He plays the keytar which gives the soundtrack an excuse to flood our senses with lots of late 80s hits (“Bad”, “Sussudio”, “Money For Nothing”, “99 Luftballons”, etc.) at every juncture. Their ostensible purpose? To elicit the reaction “Hey I recognize that song!” He’s merely a visual/auditory joke and nothing more. He’s easily the most lazily created villain of this franchise.

I’ve enjoyed the wacky playful antics of this series. Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 were well-crafted exercises that combined fun with feeling. Even the underappreciated Minions had enough laughs to support its existence. They had the zany joy of those classic Warner Bros. Cartoons. They were goofy, sure, but they had a sense of purpose in the pursuit of an actual story. This time the scattershot atmosphere yields boredom. It’s a sloppy, commercially focused, Hollywood product that inspires nothing but pure unadulterated apathy. It lacks everything – wit, heart, joy – that made the first two installments great. It’s so empty that the experience was soul crushing for this self-avowed fan. As expected, Despicable Me 3 ends with a set-up to yet another one of these films. No thanks, I’ve had sufficient. I’ve stood by this franchise long after my peers abandoned it but here’s where I’m jumping ship too.

06-29-17

The Book of Henry

Posted in Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller on June 29, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo book_of_henry_zpsgw3gibvv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s a poignant melodrama about a terminal illness. Well to clarify, it’s more of a heart-rending tearjerker. No wait, it’s actually crime thriller. I know, it’s an inspirational family drama. Scratch that, it’s really a light comedy. In truth, The Book of Henry is all of these things – a cinematic yo-yo spinning wildly between a plethora of genres. Granted, the screenplay by crime author Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X) may not follow the rules of how to gradually lead an audience through a saga, but I was absolutely fascinated by where it would take me next.

Henry Carpenter is an 11-year-old genius. He has used his gift to smartly invest in the stock market to build up a stable financial future for his household. In fact, he’s smarter than all of the adults in his life. Number one on that list would have to be his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan is a waitress, a working mom who writes picture books in her spare time. She’s also a parent to Peter (Jacob Tremblay), Henry’s younger brother. Enter Christina, their next door neighbor. She is Henry’s classmate and a girl with whom Henry has a crush. She’s predictably beautiful, but also very sad. The reveal of her predicament and how Henry tries to help her sets one major plot thread into motion. Henry is also beset with a dilemma of his own. Yes, two major problems that each could be the focus of their own film. I’m being purposefully vague because a big part of the allure is how each contrivance piles on top of another. That sounds like a slam, and it is, but it’s also kind of mesmerizing the way it plays out. Try to look away. You can’t. I was captivated and that counts for something.

The Book of Henry is a fantasy that could only exist in the mind of a writer. It’s a fable that concerns the real world but one invaded by outlandish developments that can feel too implausible to accept. It’s a tale of fabulism.  Lead Jaeden Lieberher has already starred in the acclaimed Midnight Special. Jacob Tremblay was featured in one of the best films of 2015, Room. The opportunity to see these two burgeoning talents in the same production had me sold. They do not disappoint. Add twice Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts and you have an unconventional family that had me enrapt. As mother and son, Watts and Lieberher have genuine chemistry. They both starred together in the wonderful St. Vincent. As a character, Susan is a bit intellectually stunted. Ok, that’s putting it mildly but then her son Henry is emotionally deficient. Younger son Peter is simply all around playful sweetness, Together these three form a sensitive triad, a sort of us-against-the-world dynamic that enticed my heart. They’ve got a soul. Buy into their relationship and you’ll buy into the movie.

I usually disregard the critical consensus when reviewing a movie. I’m here to detail my own thoughts. Yet this picture has received some of the most vitriolic reviews of anything this year. Why has this little family film (PG-13 rated for the dark subject matter) received so much hostility from critics? Director Colin Trevorrow burst onto the indie scene with a little gem called Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. Then followed that indie achievement with the 4th biggest (as of this writing) U.S. blockbuster of all time, 2015’s Jurassic World. Perhaps when someone has a success another feel is unearned, the claws really come out when they stumble. No The Book of Henry isn’t for everyone. The script has got chutzpah for attempting something rather unique. I get that the genre-defying narrative is a bit bananas, but the hate is disproportionate to the movie’s shortcomings. The plot is simply too audacious to dismiss and the drama has too much heart. I was entertained for the entire duration of this chronicle.

06-18-17

Beatriz at Dinner

Posted in Comedy, Drama on June 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo beatriz_zpsh6gtpliq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Beatriz (Salma Hayek) in Beatriz at Dinner is a massage therapist. More specifically, she’s a natural healer who works at a holistic cancer center in Los Angeles. When we first meet her she’s having an idyllic daydream of rowing a boat as it glides down a picturesque river. It’s a sunny day, there’s a flock of birds flying overhead, and then the bleat of a goat. It cries out again and she’s awakened to the sound of the actual goat she keeps in her bedroom. Yup. She lives in a modest LA apartment and keeps goats. She loves animals. She has dogs too. She drives a VW beetle with the bumper sticker “Have a Nice Day…unless you’ve made other plans”. She makes house calls. Her longtime client is Kathy (Connie Britton), an extremely wealthy but progressively minded housewife. Kathy and her husband live in a Newport Beach community behind multiple levels of security gates. When Beatriz’ beat-up old VW bug won’t start after completing her massage therapy, Kathy invites her to stay for dinner.  She is hosting an intimate shindig for some important co-workers of her husband. Kathy is unceasingly friendly toward Beatriz. In fact, she wears her accommodating treatment like a badge of honor. It’s not without conflict, however. She must force her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) to accept the presence of Beatriz at their little affair.

Beatriz at Dinner is a new production directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White. The two have worked together before, most notably on Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). White has a gift for making the audience ill at ease. He creates odd personalities in awkward situations. The Mike White written and directed Year of the Dog (2007) is a perfect example. His latest screenplay, Beatriz at Dinner, is another. The drama concerns three couples. In addition to our aforementioned hosts, Kathy and Grant, there’s attractive but haughty couple Shannon (Chloë Sevigny ) and Alex (Jay Duplass). Chloë Sevigny, in particular, makes the condescension of her character seem almost elegant. But the alpha guest is John Lithgow as Doug Strutt, a billionaire real estate tycoon. He is accompanied by his third (and much younger) wife Jeana (Amy Landecker).

You can’t read a critique of this film without the reviewer noting a connection between Doug Strutt and Donald Trump. It’s a rather glib comparison. Granted the U.S. president currently occupies the media’s attention in a capacity never seen before – in my lifetime anyway.  However, I’d say Lithgow’s portrayal is a more nuanced stand-in for a universal archetype.  White has said the idea for John Lithgow’s part was inspired from the fallout regarding the Minnesota dentist and big game hunter who killed Cecil the Lion on African safari in 2015.  In fact, one key scene has Doug Strutt passing around his cell with a photo of his latest conquest, a Rhino.  The scene ends with Beatriz angrily hurling the phone across the room at the mogul.

The script has an ear for dialogue, but what sells the discourse is its nonjudgmental point of view.  Everyone is a character, but no one is a stereotype.  These people do indeed exist.  What makes the set-up such a delight is its off-kilter sense of humor.  The turn of events are not here to change your mind or sell one point of view. It’s to expose a situation that is ripe for humor. The exercise places us in Beatriz’ shoes so we’re ostensibly on her side. Yet the comedy is uncomfortable and sometimes it’s not clear whether it’s mocking the haves or the have-not. The recommendations of this natural healer are so clearly out of place amongst these people. Her home remedy of apple cider vinegar and dandelion root to cure some random ailment is met with bemused patronization. “Oh dandelion root, honey.  Your favorite!” Shannon coos.  It’s hard not to snicker along with her and then immediately hate ourselves for doing so.  The screenplay is remarkably shrewd in this way.

Salma Hayek is a beautiful actress, but as Beatriz, she is plain and mousy. She wears no makeup and sports unflattering bangs.  Given the unexpected circumstances of her being stranded, she’s underdressed for their little get-together too, wearing mom jeans and athletic shoes.  She walks tentatively but purposefully throughout the home.  Beatriz is an outsider.  At first, she glides from one room to another like a cat quietly eavesdropping along the fringes of the gathering. She hovers so much that early on Doug Strutt asks her to freshen his drink, mistaking her for the help. You instinctively want to chastise him because we know who she is, but then his mistake is kind of understandable given her behavior. Incidentally the help, Kathy’s chef, is a white male (John Early).  As the party continues and the conversation deepens our understanding of these people Beatriz’ eyes are opened. To her, Doug Strut is the personification of evil. He represents everything that is wrong in the world. You can see her wrestle with how she should proceed throughout the course of the evening. Should she confront the man or merely satisfy her curiosity with questions to try and understand him or perhaps she should take much more dire actions. The wine flows freely and additional glasses make her bolder as the evening progresses. As Margo Channing once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

We are a nation ideologically divided.  It is the intersection between conservative and liberal viewpoints that is presented here.  Mike White is a brilliant comedic writer by choosing to have this discourse under the auspices of an awkward dinner party. He has fashioned a sophisticated comedy of manners in which he mines humor out of tension and discomfort. There’s a caustic tone that recalls writer-director Todd Solondz, but White shows more compassion. It’s a fascinating watch for the majority of the drama. Unfortunately, the narrative is flawed.  The ending is a frustrating cop out that left me unfulfilled.  It’s simply not up to the standard of the rest of the film. However for about three-quarters of the picture I was captivated. Salma Hayek gives the performance of her career. She absolutely nails the role. Her performance is mesmerizing. Actually, the entire ensemble is compelling with every actor bringing a humanity to their parts.  They may not be admirable, but they do feel genuine.  Beatriz at Dinner implausibly brings them all together for one evening.  I was uncomfortably entertained.

06-22-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo cars_three_ver3_zpscemphvxy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgCars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17

It Comes at Night

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller on June 15, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo it_comes_at_night_ver2_zpsckbwstrl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCall it psychological horror.  Call it wilderness survival.  Call it a post-apocalyptic tale of the unknown.  It Comes at Night is a bit of all of these things.  The production is assembled from cinematic components with which we are familiar.  It’s easy to think we have the story pegged and our expectations fall into line as to what we’re going to get.  But this drama innovates as it entertains.  It’s not predictable and that’s part of what makes this cleverly crafted piece of intensity so effective.

At its most elemental, It Comes at Night is a cabin-in-the-woods chronicle of survival. Paul, his wife Sarah and their teenage son Travis are holed up in the safe confines of a shack in the forest.  Meanwhile, some outside epidemic has had a devastating effect on the world as we know it.  Society has crumbled and it’s every man for himself.  The movie begins with Sarah’s father who has contracted the disease.  He is terminally ill.  The family has been forced to brutally put an end to his life in order to contain the threat.  It’s an unsettling way to begin a story, but it immediately establishes how dire circumstances have become.  The contamination is serious business and this family isn’t afraid to make some very harsh decisions.  Things grow more complicated when they encounter a man that has broken into their home.  Will (Christopher Abbott ) says he is searching for food for his wife Kim (Riley Keough ) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults is a filmmaker that is still finding his voice but he has presented a unified vision in both of his two features.  2016 saw the release of his debut Krisha.  That drama was about a woman being re-introduced to her family at Thanksgiving dinner after having struggled with addiction.  The narrative was emotional, claustrophobic, and unrelentingly uncomfortable.  Interestingly all of those descriptions apply to It Comes at Night as well.  Both are intimate accounts of human behavior.  In his new work, Shults isn’t really concerned with what is outside the cabin.  It’s what’s inside that counts. The production is photographed to highlight the dark and foreboding hallways in their little shack.  Although we are constantly reminded of the outside risk.  A red door, the only escape in or out, becomes an ominous motif of some unseen peril that lies out there.  

Human behavior is the focus.  Shults is fascinated with people and their conversations. The screenplay, which the director also penned, ratchets up the tension to the point where things become oppressive.  He assembles the composition like a play of human interactions.  The screenplay succeeds because of the believable work of the ensemble cast.  Actor Joel Edgerton is the most famous name.  He has the biggest role as Paul and he’s just as commanding a presence as you’d expect.  However up and coming actor Christopher Abbott (James White) is particularly noteworthy.  As the intruder that disturbs the safety of their world, he’s mysterious and vague in just the right way.  Also of note are Carmen Ejogo as Paul’s wife Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their son Travis. They perfectly capture a palpable fear.  Our experience is heightened because we empathize with their unrelenting dread.

It Comes at Night is brilliantly constructed.  The mood is dire, barren, desolate.  As things get more intense, director Shults plays with perception, paranoia, and reality.  The saga is thrilling for his developing technique.  As in every movie, there’s a moment where the picture ultimately ends, the credits roll and the lights come up.  I sheepishly admit my immediate reaction was disappointment.  However, this is a film for discussion.  As I reflected on what I had seen, it gets clearer.  Director Trey Edward Shults has taken a visionary approach.  This is a thoughtful fable about humanity.  It’s about so much more than what is physically represented.

06-11-17

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy on June 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_underpants_zpslgih4pza.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgGeorge and Harold are two mischievous 4th graders that enjoy playing practical jokes because they cheer the students up at their miserable school.  They also write comic books in their spare time. Their latest superhero creation is Captain Underpants, a literary work that is ripped up by their ill-tempered principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms).  Despite the fact he doesn’t have proof, Mr. Krupp knows they are behind the practical jokes on the teachers at their elementary school. At the Invention Convention, the boys tamper with a fellow classmates’ entry called the Turbo Toilet so that it shoots toilet paper rolls at the audience. However this time, Mr. Krupp has video evidence of their shenanigans. He threatens to end the kids’ alliance by splitting them up into different classes. Before this can happen, the kids put him in a trance using a Hypno-Ring they got out of a cereal box. They make him act like a chicken, then a monkey, until finally…Captain Underpants. Hilarity ensues.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on an extremely successful 10-part series of children’s fiction by author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.  The saga revolves around George and Harold, two imaginative but disobedient fourth graders.  The youngsters defy authority and are prone to pranks. The massive popularity of the books, particularly with children ages 6–8 has garnered much attention since they were first published in 1997.

The boys’ playful disrespect for authority has garnered some controversy. The series surprisingly topped the list of the most banned books in America in 2012, beating out the much more controversial Fifty Shades of Grey. These novels were never part of my upbringing.  I was a wee bit older than 8 in 1997. I haven’t read any of them, but I can affirm there’s nothing in this kid-friendly movie that would offend even the most delicate sensibilities. Yes the main protagonist does wear tighty whities but let’s face it, if the sight of a cartoon wearing underpants is offensive to you, then you probably shouldn’t be watching films made after 1968 anyway.

The humor is rather innocent, but it certainly doesn’t reach sophisticated highs either. The potty jokes are mild but they’re constant. I suppose gags about poop and other bodily functions carry a certain charm – for budding minds anyway.  If you still think a planet with the name Uranus is hilarious, then calling it a “gas giant” should have you rolling with laughter.  That experience is what originally unites these two friends.  The taunts don’t get any more vulgar that “weirdo,” “stupid,” and “suck up”. Although some parents may bristle at one of the film’s subtle underlying messages.  The kids’ decision to tinker with a classmate’s science project is partially based on the fact that he enjoys learning and is excited about going to the science fair.  Since Melvin is socially awkward, he is apparently deserving of their ridicule.

The movie is colorful and should appeal to the young and young at heart. Where the production excels is in the bright and lively animation. When Professor P ( Nick Kroll) attacks the school, it’s presented as slapstick.  The action for the climatic big battle switches from the 3D computer graphics to the style of a flip-book. It’s such an amusing way to lighten the mood while lending interest to the scene. The voice actors are all well cast.  The two main 4th grade protagonists are especially good.  George is portrayed by well-known comedian Kevin Hart.  His best friend Harold is voiced by lesser known actor, Thomas Middleditch (TV series Silicon Valley).  The uplifting takeaway amongst all the poo poo and pee pee jokes is the unshakable bond of true friendship. George and Harold’s loyalty to one another is something to admire and emulate. Nonetheless, potty humor is still low comedy. Not objectionable in this case, just naive, simplistic and childish.  The film is a trifle. The main antagonist introduces himself as Professor P but the boys later discover the P stands for Poopypants. If that reveal causes you to burst out giggling, then I highly recommend this.  5 years olds will totally dig it. Some adults will too.  You know who you are.

06-07-17