Vivarium

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vivarium_ver2STARS2.5Before March 2020, a science fiction-themed work like Vivarium would’ve been just another riff on a Twilight Zone episode.  Ok, I’ll concede that it utilizes a premise stretched preciously thin by its feature-length.  Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are a young couple that go house hunting.  A peculiarly unsettling real estate agent, named Martin (Jonathan Aris)  introduces them to a residential tract development called Yonder that takes cookie-cutter housing to its conformist extreme.  Martin leads them into house #9.  They go inside. They chat for a short while and suddenly * poof * he’s gone.  They attempt to leave themselves but get lost in Yonder’s labyrinth of similar-looking roads.  After a while, they run out of gas.  Now they are compelled to spend the night.  The nightmare has begun.

Vivarium is a pessimistic ordeal about two individuals trapped at home.  Tensions arise due to the oppression of their forced isolation.  Occasionally there are incidents that will pique the viewers’ interest.   Early on the couple awake to discover a box with a living infant boy inside.  The instructions on the box read: “Raise the child and be released.”  The perplexing occurrence continues to lull the viewer into a state of unease.  The misery of parenthood is definitely a theme but it’s made worse by their confinement and inability to escape.  Their involuntary restriction to interact with anyone else adds to their growing hysteria.  Director Lorcan Finnegan has co-written a story with Garret Shanley about a civilization where personal freedoms have been eroded.

Vivarium‘s existentialist horror is admittedly helped by admirable production design.  Philip Murphy creates a maze of generic green monopoly houses that stretch endlessly unto the horizon.  The vivid color palette is quite effective.  However, no amount of style can obscure the fact that this is simply a movie about two people constrained to stay at home with an unruly child.  Can anyone relate?  The point could have been conveyed in a 10 minute short.  Yet Vivarium cruelly hammers the same objective for a full 98-minute feature.   The film is not only a descent into hell for the couple but for us the audience as well.  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  A month ago I might’ve found this to be an amusing — albeit implausible — bit of fantasy about a dystopian society.  At this moment in time, it feels strangely prescient.  Timing is everything in life.  Regardless, it doesn’t matter when this bit of hokum was unleashed onto the public.  It’s not powerful.  This a case where sadly real life is stranger (and a lot bleaker) than fiction.

04-06-20

Miracle in Cell No. 7

Posted in Drama with tags on April 5, 2020 by Mark Hobin

AAAABejpIjwz9WyEgq1SUjZ95U4wh91IEjzTDKt2Pp9s1bA001yE4IqyBGehb8RlMRTN2rbBz3skQpNc0c57C6nRU5ynqG21STARS3.5Back in February, Netflix starting publishing a list to recognize its most popular movies and TV series.  Recently a 2019 production from Turkey somehow crept into the streaming service’s Top 10.  Miracle in Cell No. 7 is a remake of a 2013 South Korean film.   History has shown it to be a crowd-pleasing story.   The original also spawned Philippine and Indonesian versions as well.  However, the Turkish version is the adaptation that became a hit with Netflix audiences.

The drama concerns a father named Memo (Aras Bulut Iynemli) with an intellectual disability who has a young daughter named Ova (Nisa Sofiya Aksongur).  He’s wrongly implicated in the death of another little girl.  This was the daughter of a high ranking official and so the penalty is death.  He is sent to jail before his eventual hanging.  Ova is now being raised by Memo’s grandmother.  Actress Celile Toyon Uysal is quite compelling in that role.  Separated — Ova desperately wants to reunite with her dad, but more importantly, can Memo prove his innocence before he is executed?

Miracle in Cell 7 is a melodramatic feature that I suspect more jaded viewers will eschew because of its conspicuous sentimentality.  I was reminded of two previous works: Life Is Beautiful and I Am Sam.  If you appreciate those movies, there’s no reason to even question whether to see this.  You will enjoy because it’s cut from the same cloth.  There’s also a scene where Memo is coerced into signing a confession for something he didn’t do.  I immediately thought of In the Name of the Father.  That outstanding film is significantly more understated but I’ll give director Mehmet Ada Öztekin and writers Özge Efendioglu and Kubilay Tat a lot of credit.  They are referencing from the very best.

Miracle in Cell 7 creatively draws on a variety of inspirations to engage the emotions.  The screenplay is so overt in its intention to cull emotion.  In that respect, it’s extremely manipulative.  Some may resist its more obvious charms.  Yet the presentation is rather poetic.  There is a choice one particular prisoner decides to make near the end and it honestly touched me.  I got caught up in the emotional stakes.  The father/daughter relationship is key, but many of the side characters in the prison make an impression as well.  This is a portrait of humanity.  The film’s ability to consistently make people cry has currently fueled a shared cultural experience on social media.  The spirit of our age has embraced this flick.  I can understand why it captured the attention of the nation.  The tale is an uplifting piece of entertainment, especially in these uncertain times.

03-30-20

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Posted in Crime, Documentary, Drama with tags on April 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

tiger_kingSTARS3.5America loves Tiger King.  Most of us are confined to our homes.  265 million citizens — about 80% of the US population— are currently under stay-at-home orders.  Needless to say, movie theaters across the U.S. are closed.  As a result, state mandates have no doubt contributed to the popularity of certain TV shows. The U.S. population has made Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness a bona fide hit.  It has captured the nation’s attention.  Not a traditional film per se, but a true-crime documentary TV series.  Actually “true-crimes” would be a more accurate description because there is an inestimable myriad of infractions here on display.  This was actually released on Netflix back on March 20  (2 weeks ago) but it took a little time for it to enter my radar.  I don’t usually review television shows on this site but with cinemas shuttered, I figured might as well review what the people are watching.

Tiger King has captured the zeitgeist of 2020 America.  This is a tale complete with a cast of bizarre personalities and sinister plot twists that even the most creative mind couldn’t concoct in their wildest fantasies.  Honestly, if this was a work of fiction, I would fault it for too many plot twists.  The title technically refers to one man: Joe Exotic.  He’s a rather — shall we say — unsavory soul.  Spending time with him is a dispiriting experience.  After the first episode, I didn’t want to continue.  Yet I persisted because I had to understand how this piece of pop culture had become such a phenomenon.  Further chapters in this saga changed my perception.  The chronicle isn’t just about him.  The movie essentially details a circle of individuals associated with a small but deeply interconnected society of big cat parks.  Along the way, there’s a panoply of subjects we will touch upon: murder for hire, polygamy, political elections, drugs, and a “missing” husband.  It loses focus occasionally.  Part 5 contains Joe’s run for both President and state Governor.

The series is divided into 7 segments each roughly about 45 minutes long.  The first episode “Not Your Average Joe” introduced the character of Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage (nee: Schreibvogel) who runs the Greater Wynnewood (G.W.) Zoo in Oklahoma.  In his own words, he’s “a gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.”  He’s often seen wearing a sequined top.  Animal rights activists don’t like him very much.  He has a well-defined conflict with a woman named Carole Baskin who is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal “sanctuary” near Tampa, Florida.  Every good story needs a villain and she is his chief rival.  Their antagonism toward each other is rooted in distrust — that the intentions of the other person are less than admirable.  Before it’s all over, someone will be sentenced to jail for 22 years because of a murder-for-hire scheme.

This is a portrait of an eccentric group of Americans who are obsessed with the power that comes from owning large felines.  The tale is set against the practice of private zoo keeping and ownership of large wild cats.  It’s like a religion and this documentary sheds a light on their practices.  Are these businesses exploitative zoos or conservationists or sanctuaries?  Good question.  I’m convinced each business is inherently the same.  It’s just a matter of marketing more than anything else.  I suspect you’ll come away with the same conclusion after having watched all of this.  Because this presentation is spread out over 7 installments, you will get a pretty deep and detailed snapshot of many different people and the parks to which they’re attached.

Everything kind of revolves around the rivalry between Joe Exotic vs. Carole Baskin.  Their relationship is merely a springboard into other larger-than-life characters involved in a host of other true-crime tales.  At times, it’s a bit hard to keep track of all of the individuals.  Some of the most important include Carole Baskin’s former husband — Don Lewis — who simply vanished without a trace.   There’s Carole Basin’s third and present husband Howard.  He is deeply devoted to her and to running Big Cat Rescue.  There’s also fellow private zookeeper Doc Antle who is the founder of “The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species” (T.I.G.E.R.S.).  He runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina which is staffed by his girlfriends…wives?  There also Mario Tabraue, a former drug kingpin who now runs the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in Miami.  He was reportedly the inspiration for “Scarface” Tony Montana.  Then there’s the current GW Zoo owner — Jeff Lowe — who is introduced as a wealthy investor.  Initially, he’s seen as a beacon of hope willing to bail Joe out of financial trouble.  Things don’t go so well for Joe.  Jeff currently owns the zoo as of this writing.  Nevertheless, there are a few people that appeared to have Joe’s best interests at heart.  The GW Zoo General Manager — John Reinke — who lost both legs in a bungee jumping accident.  He remained loyal to Joe through the good times and the bad.

Joe Exotic’s personal life is a soap opera in itself.  He has had four husbands, some simultaneously.  John Finlay was Exotic’s second.  Then there’s Travis Maldonado who he met in 2013 when the young man was only 19 years old.  Maldonado and John Finlay married Joe in a three-way ceremony.  Apparently, Travis was straight but was so addicted to methamphetamines and marijuana that he entered into a relationship that provided convenient access to drugs.  You can’t make this stuff up.  There’s so much more.  I couldn’t possibly detail all of the ins and outs of this drama but let’s just say that Travis Maldonado is a truly tragic figure.  Two months after their marriage ended, Joe married another young man named Dillon Passage.

So who is the moral center of this saga?  That is a question you will ask yourself over and over again throughout this chronicle.  In the first episode, it appears to be Carole Baskin.  However, the questionable disappearance of her husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis, in 1997, will definitely give you pause.  Joe Exotic stoked the rumors surrounding Don’s disappearance with a music video to a song entitled “Here Kitty Kitty.”  In it, a spot-on lookalike of Baskin is ostensibility feeding pieces of her husband to a tiger.  Was she guilty?  She was never charged but I’ve seen the entire series and I still don’t know who to root for.  I’ll tell you right now, my ultimate take is there is no saint in this whole sordid mess.   That is part of what makes the machinations icky and yet so oddly fascinating.

Tiger King delineates a dramatis personae that would rival the cast of a Shakespearean novel.  I have barely touched the surface in this review.  Over five years, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin assembled these presentations.  THAT is what elevates this profile into something approaching artistic merit.  It’s the sheer depth and variety of the characters involved.  I dare say, this makes the regrettable guests you used to see on The Jerry Springer Show seem tame by comparison.  Yet you can’t help but fixate on the array of humanity presented.  It’s an honest and captivating depiction of our modern times.  I try not to rely on cliches….but yes, this is your classic train wreck.

 

03-27-20

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20

Apollo 11

Posted in Documentary, History with tags on March 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

apollo_elevenSTARS4I couldn’t possibly be a bigger Oscar fan.  However, I’ll freely admit they often get it wrong.  In fact, the Documentary branch of the Academy is guilty of at least one glaring omission every year.  It happened in 2017 when Tower failed to garner a nom, then again in 2018 with Jane and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in 2019.  You get the idea.  I could’ve selected a title for every year, but then that would become a rant.  This is a review — a very positive one at that — for this year’s omission: Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 was, of course, the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon.  For many Americans, it was a proud occasion they will always remember.  However since it took place on July 24, 1969, many moviegoers (including this one) weren’t even alive at the time.  This commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the NASA mission.  However, you’d think it occurred yesterday given the clarity of this document.  Naturally, shots of crowds and people convey hairstyles and fashions that will betray an earlier era.  Yet the space footage feels immediate and recent given the quality, power, and detail seen here.  It feels ageless, perhaps (dare I say) even futuristic.

Sometimes real life is even better than the movie.  The journey to the Moon and back to Earth has been detailed before.  There is a myriad of ways that director Todd Douglas Miller could have assembled this chronicle.  Contributing to the timelessness is that his presentation contains no voice-over narration or interviews other than the voices of the people in the actual time as it is transpiring.  We also have original music composed by Matt Morton.  He employs a Moog modular synthesizer to underscore an account that is — in a word — thrilling.   Incidentally, every instrument and effect used in the score existed at the time of the mission.  There’s something so pure, simple and quite frankly, unique, about a record that doesn’t guide the viewer at all.  As a result, the takeaway is largely up to the audience to extract what they want from the images and music presented.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of an Oscar nom for Best Documentary Feature was an unforgivable oversight, but it could have easily warranted one for Best Film Editing as well.  Todd Douglas Miller has scrutinized countless hours of footage, many of it heretofore unseen, in a coherent and mesmerizing account.  He keeps the editing creative and dynamic.  As you’d expect, the Moon landing itself is a highlight.  His use of split screens to depict the operation as they prepare to set foot on the surface is brilliantly conceived.  The point when the lunar module (LM) separates from the Columbia spacecraft is breathtaking.  We get two then three images side by side.  The separations and connections of the LM Eagle have never been conveyed with such lucidity as this.  If there is a criticism it’s that the narrative is hindered by its inherent non-specificity.  A little narration might have helped in constructing what exactly is happening at any given moment.  However, that is precisely what makes the document immortal.  What it lacks in information, it more than makes up for in poeticism.  It looks and sounds amazing.  Apollo 11 is a work of art.

03-24-20

Color Out of Space

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction with tags on March 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

color_out_of_space_ver2STARS2.5When Nicolas Cage goes “Full Cage” it gives me comfort in times like these.  All U.S. theaters have been ordered to close for an indefinite period in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Hollywood production (as is much of the rest of the world) is currently halted to slow the spread of the virus.  There won’t be any new movies playing in cinemas for a while.  This is unchartered territory.  How long this can last is anyone’s guess.  Yet I will persist.  This won’t deter me from writing.  As long as DVD & streaming still exists, I will review new releases on that platform.  Color Out of Space opened to a mere 81 theaters back on January 24, 2020, in the U.S.  Needless to say few people (including me) had the ability to see it — even if they wanted to.  It was subsequently released to VOD, Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on February 25th.

I was primed to enjoy this production.  Color Out of Space is science fiction fueled horror from Richard Stanley, the director infamously fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).  That might be a cause for concern.  On the plus side, this was produced by the same people who brought us the bizarre 2018 action horror film, MandyMandy was directed by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)).  Now I’m not saying Mandy was great art, mind you, but it presented a bizarro appeal that I found amusing.  It’s was unique and that’s saying something in an age of reboots and sequels.  That cast featured Nicolas Cage in a wild acting display that added to its eccentricities.  He’s starring in this too and I can say his presence definitely adds to the strangeness.  The actor has been cultivating an offbeat persona ever since he starred in Valley Girl way back in 1983.  Anyone familiar with the actor’s work knows he chooses projects where he can bring an air of eccentricity.  This feature is no different in that respect and I can appreciate that.  In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two films.  Nevertheless, where the quirks seemed to make sense in the former, it doesn’t serve much purpose here.

From a narrative standpoint, Color Out of Space is a fairly simple tale based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft.  If you’re acquainted with that author, you know he can be a bit odd.  The text is significantly more scientifically detailed than what we observe onscreen.  The adaptation doesn’t have that much of a plot.  A meteorite plummets to Earth in a dazzling blaze of purple-pink hues and lands in their yard on a remote New England property.  Things get decidedly weirder from there.  Actually, I’m making the adventure seems like more than it is.  Meteor lands.  Mayhem ensues.  That’s it.  But there are some captivating special effects and an interesting visual style.  At one point, a large multi-eyed creature that resembles a praying mantis crawls out of the well. It’s a creepy moment.

Nicolas Cage gives another gonzo performance.  It takes a certain suspension of disbelief.  He plays a father married to his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) with three kids Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard).  They’re all living on a rural farm.  They also care for a herd of animals which allows Cage to say, and I quote “Now if you don’t mind, it’s time we milk the alpacas!”  The actor gets a lot of campy lines.  Another “delightful” exchange with his beloved daughter has him screaming at her to “Get the f— out of my sight, okay?”  Then he reconsiders and says “No, actually, I’ll save you the trouble and get the f— out of yours!”  He constantly reprimands his wife and kids with an exasperation that borders on comic relief.

This is not for people who idolize the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  It’s more like a springboard to create random vignettes.  Nonetheless, audiences who revel in Nicolas Cage doing his uniquely deranged schtick will find much to savor here.  The silliness doesn’t stop with the dialogue.  Another episode features mom making dinner.  While cutting carrots, she chops her own fingers instead of the vegetables.  I can’t even do the scene justice but everything is done for comedic effect.  The story is one big joke.  I admire this film for its silly sensibility and creative aesthetic.  However, those looking for a coherent account will find it lacking.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Tommy Chong pops up as an eccentric squatter who lives on the fringes of the family’s homestead.  He’s the cherry on top of a very messy sundae.

The Invisible Man

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on March 16, 2020 by Mark Hobin

invisible_manSTARS4I’ve seen a lot of good movies over the past year, but it’s been a while since an opening scene grabbed me as quickly as this one.  It’s so perfectly crafted.  A woman (Elisabeth Moss) wakes up in the middle of the night.  Cecilia is lying in bed.  There is a man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeping beside her.  His arm draped around her waist. A look of fear appears as she gently extricates herself from his grasp.  A nearby bottle of Diazepam suggests he has been drugged.  Quietly and methodically she retrieves her belongings, turns off the alarms and positions one camera to face Adrian, the sleeping man, so she can monitor him from her phone.  She attempts to leave.  However, at the last minute, his dog accidentally sets off a car alarm.  Cecilia is forced to make a run for it into the street where her sister (Harriet Dyer) is already waiting in a car.  No sooner has she entered the vehicle when Adrian comes out, smashing the window before Emily drives her away to safety.

I’m a big proponent of less is more.  Those early minutes are the very definition of that phrase. Despite the fact that no words are spoken, the introduction is a perfect tease to whet your appetite for more.  Sure you will have questions, but the answers are skillfully revealed over time in a way that supports the artistry of this narrative.  It may not rival Hitchcock, but someone has clearly studied his methods.  The Invisible Man was written and directed by Leigh Whannell – perhaps best known for writing movies directed by James Wan (Saw, Insidious).  Whannell may have made an unfortunate directorial debut in 2015 with Insidious: Chapter 3.  I won’t mince words.  It was an execrable work.  However, this feature is a solid example of his skills as a director.

The Invisible Man is such a fascinating endeavor.  That effectiveness is due in no small part to the performance of Elizabeth Moss.  The actress rarely does commercial releases like this.  She generally favors indie fare, although Us was a rare exception.  This is actually Moss’s first true lead role in a studio production and if it’s any indication of her abilities, there should be more.  We slowly come to learn the man she escaping from is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a powerful tech entrepreneur who also happens to be an abusive boyfriend.  No injury is depicted.  However, her behavior tells you everything you need to know.  The intro is rather sophisticated.  However, the rest of the account amps up the violence.  People are dragged, hit and thrown by an unseen force.  It’s pretty well done so I found that action to be captivating.  However, on two occasions a person’s throat is graphically sliced open and those demonstrations are decidedly less understated.

The Invisible Man is a remake of the classic 1933 Universal monster movie (which was based on H.G. Wells’ 123-year-old sci-fi novel.  This saga bears little resemblance to the original source.  They’ve basically extrapolated Wells’ seed of an idea to create a completely different film for a contemporary audience.  The feature was originally going to star Johnny Depp and be a part of Universal’s Dark Universe.  Then the reboot of The Mummy franchise starring Tom Cruise flopped.  It deserved to — it was simply awful.  So when the idea of continuing the “Dark Universe” was canceled, we narrowly avoided a potential catastrophe.  Given how great this smaller-scale version turned out, it now seems like a blessing in disguise.  The Invisible Man is so much better than I could have imagined.  A low-budget Blumhouse production may have more modest ambitions.  However, it still manages to highlight the creativity and character development that makes a story compelling.  These characteristics elevate this horror flick which remains one of the very best films in the first quarter of 2020.

03-10-20

Onward

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

onward_ver11STARS3.5When I hear the name Pixar I think of some of the best animated films ever made.  Few will deny the entertainment value of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out for example.  So the announcement of a new release from that subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios will always be something that I greet with joyous anticipation.  I’ll admit they’re not all classics.  The Cars trilogy, Monsters University, and Brave would land near the bottom in my estimation.  Nevertheless, I have never given a Pixar movie a negative review.  That hasn’t changed with this effort.

Onward is about two brothers who happen to be elves.  They’re the Lightfoot brothers.  Younger teenaged Ian is a dead ringer for Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille.  Remember how Disney recycled the character design of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book (1967) for Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) or how about Penny in The Rescuers (1977) from Mowgli in The Jungle Book?   I’m ok with it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Ian is articulated by Tom Holland who is fresh from another voice starring appearance in the feature-length cartoon Spies in Disguise from Blue Sky Studios.  Barley (Chris Pratt) is Ian’s stocky older teenaged brother who acts as a mentor.  He’s also partial to fantasy role-playing games.  Together they set out on an epic quest to find a jewel that will allow them to see their long-deceased father.

Ok, so I was worried. Onward didn’t grab me right away.  For the first 20-30 minutes or so I wasn’t feeling this movie.  It simply felt like a present-day sitcom superficially dressed up with fantastical elements.  The individuals may look like magical figures but they act like contemporary people.  There’s a centaur, a cyclops, pixies, elves, and other assorted creatures.  The animation is bright and colorful but it’s hard not to feel like the fanciful critters are frivolously employed to obscure a very pedestrian plot.  Then they go on a road trip and they meet a manticore who owns a restaurant and she’s vocalized by Octavia Spencer.  There’s a joy to the animation and the voice acting with her character that kind of jump-starts this drama.  From then on it gets better.  There a lot of jokes obtained from this fictional world.  Let me tell you, there’s is a depth to the creativity of this world-building that definitely raises the bar.

Pixar is famous for being able to extract emotion. Onward didn’t make me cry.  Although it certainly tries.  Most of the adventure is fine but it’s in the resolution where I was converted into a fan.  During the climax, the chronicle smartly recalls previous events that occurred throughout the saga.  Those episodes didn’t seem so important at the time but the story connects the dots and recontextualizes them.  This touching through-line elevates the denouement into an emotionally resonant finale.   It’s a savvy manipulation.  Director Dan Scanlon – who also helmed Monsters University – wrote the film with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.  They essentially redeem the entire narrative within the final 15 minutes.  It reconsiders everything that we have seen before.  Onward isn’t anywhere near as affecting or innovative as the studio’s best work but it is pleasant enough.  It just goes to prove that even a minor Pixar release is still pretty enjoyable.

Emma.

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

emma_ver2STARS3.5“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.” — Jane Austen

Emma is like a piece of candy wrapped in colorful cellophane placed in a silver box covered in shiny paper, affixed with a bright bow and then placed on a pedestal.  Given the sumptuous demonstration, it’s not the most substantive endeavor, but it is easily appreciated for its frivolous charms.  Even the title has been stylized with a period at the end — because it’s a period piece –according to director Autumn de Wilde.

This is indeed an adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel.  The esteemed author is celebrated for literary works that include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  However, Emma is not some stuffy scholarly chore.  This is a diversion about an impertinent girl who likes meddling in the affairs of other people.  Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a doe-eyed beauty with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.  She was rather memorable in  The Witch back in 2015.  Taylor-Joy does a convincing about-face here embodying a completely different kind of individual with believable conviction.  Emma is a bit spoiled and conceited with shallow concerns.  She fancies herself as a matchmaker but she really isn’t very good at it.  Furthermore, Emma has no desire to get married or even fall in love herself.  Ah but we the audience know better, don’t we?  Her gradual and changing realization is a developing theme of the story.

This is a gorgeous spectacle that is more readily enjoyed for the pleasures of presentation over content.  I do not mean that as a bad thing.  You don’t drink a Mimosa for its nutrients but because it’s a sparkling gem of a cocktail.   There’s a fizzy superficiality to this production that actually endears itself to the audience because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  The movie is playfully divided into sections by title cards that highlight the seasons.  The cast is sprightly and fun.  Besides the aforementioned Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, there’s also Johnny Flynn as her brother-in-law – George Knightley, Bill Nighy as her father Mr. Woodhouse and Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, the object of Emma’s matchmaking schemes.  This is a carefully choreographed portrait that exercises great care, not only in the placement of characters within any given frame but in the studied manifestation of opulent tableaus.  Filmmaker de Wilde is known for her portraiture photography and her talent shows.   The thinness of the plot is greatly augmented by visual detail.

Emma has been adapted a few times, most famously as Clueless in 1995.  Amy Heckerling’s reworking was a coming of age comedy classic about contemporary teens.  Any fan of that film (I am a proud one myself) will relish matching these personalities with their Clueless counterparts.  I realize this practice may sound a little reductive but it makes me value the source even more in fact.  Emma is perhaps the most stylish variation yet and a worthy addition to the cinematic canon of Jane Austin.

02-27-20

Brahms: The Boy II

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

brahms_the_boy_iiSTARS1.5Brahms: The Boy II is a fittingly awkward title for a story that did not demand a continuation.  The Boy was a modestly budgeted horror release in January of 2016.  It went on to gross $35 million in the U.S. and ultimately made $68 million worldwide.  It only cost $10 million so the fact that a sequel was made isn’t surprising.  The bewildering concept is that the previous entry ended on a note of finality.   A clever reveal made it seemingly impossible to create a compelling follow-up from that basis.  None of the actors from the film return incidentally.  My fears were indeed justified.  This movie is utterly uninteresting.

Killer toys usually involve a doll coming to life.  It’s practically a horror genre unto itself now.  They have a long and rich history.  I often point to the 1963 episode “Living Doll” from the TV series The Twilight Zone as a key inspiration.  It wasn’t the first example but it was a notable work.  The Child’s Play series is probably the most famous incarnation for audiences of today.  The Boy is part of that tradition and it was a serviceable drama that offered an amusing twist.  For this work to exist, however, screenwriter Stacey Menear had to retroactively introduce new elements.  These additions change what made the original film unique and reduce this new offering into something wholly pedestrian and dull.

Brahms: The Boy II is so thoroughly generic, mundane, banal, mediocre, uninteresting that to write a longer review would essentially be a creative exercise in using a thesaurus.  Sadly the narrative is a complete zero.   Nevertheless, it has some nice attributes.  I will admit the production design is lush.  The old mansion with its rooms of ornate furniture is nicely photographed and there is an underlying sense that something exciting could happen at any point.  Actor Christopher Convery as 8-year-old Jude conveys weirdness.  Sitting in a sweater-tie combo alongside his porcelain doll dressed in identical attire is a captivating image.  Now how’s that for a plot twist?  A one-and-a-half star review that ends on a positive note.