Men in Black: International

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

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

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

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

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

Ma

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

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

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

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

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

06-08-19

The Secret Life of Pets 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

06-06-19

Rocketman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06-01-19

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on June 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

godzilla_king_of_the_monsters_ver9STARS2Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the third episode in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, a cinematic series co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.  I’m not sure how many audience members are savvy to the fact that this is actually part three.  It really doesn’t make any difference to understanding the plot anyway.  There is none.  At least not one that requires background information.  Monsters attack.  That’s all you need to know.  This is technically a direct sequel to Godzilla (2014) but it immediately follows Kong: Skull Island (2017).  I was a fan of both entries so I walked into it with great anticipation.  I walked out having experienced one of the biggest disappointments of 2019.

I realize looking for intellectual sense is futile.  Godzilla flicks aren’t known for their conversation, and as expected, the screenplay by director Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields is completely idiotic.  Why these Kaiju or “strange creatures” get released from their dormant slumber is explained through the motivations of Vera Farmiga’s paleobiologist.  Dr. Emma Russell has got to be one of the most bewildering personalities in a 2019 production.  A screenplay shouldn’t even bother to offer clarification if the motive is so implausible.  Emma sympathizes with an eco-terrorist named Jonah Alan (Charles Dance).  Emma wants the enormous beasts to destroy civilization so that they can restore the natural order.  She’s like like Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.  Her declarations sound like the ravings of a lunatic.  Yet she’s presented as an ostensibly sympathetic level headed individual.  Sorry, even Vera Farmiga’s considerable acting chops can’t sell this half baked character.

The script feels the need to offer detailed exposition in a movie that doesn’t call for it.  The rest of the cast of famous performers is simply here to recite horrible dialogue to further a routine plot.  There is a lot of insipid explanation.  Emma’s ex-husband is the sensible Dr. Mark Russell, played by Kyle Chandler.  They have a daughter named Madison, Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown.  International stars Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi play scientists.  They should fire their agents.  After a gathering of experts has Dr. Emma Russell leaving the room, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi) blurts “What a b—!”  Cue audience laughter.  This is what passes for wit.  The exclamation “Oh sh–!” is uttered a couple times to express a surprise.  Simply saying nothing would have been better.

I don’t demand great acting or writing in a Godzilla flick but I do expect awe-inspiring creature battles that are enjoyable to watch.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters even fails in providing these rudimentary pleasures.  Most of the action takes place at night so all the computer-generated imagery is obscured by darkness.  One sequence actually takes place during a blizzard in Antarctica.  When something does occur during the day, there’s so much smoke and debris in the air that the activity looks muddy and dull.  There are parts so devoid of color it looks like a black and white film, or rather gray and dark gray.  Say what you will about the ridiculous special effects in the 1954 Godzilla movie that started it all.  At least it was clear and you could see what was happening.

2014’s Godzilla wasn’t Shakespeare but it was breathtaking to watch.  The admittedly bland cast of human characters was highlighted by beautifully shot sequences of citywide destruction.  Some complained there wasn’t enough action.  Yet director Gareth Edwards understood that just the sight of a colossal winged beast taking off into the night sky could create a feeling of wonder and awe that was exciting.  He took his time laying the groundwork for a climax that felt like a spectacular release when the awesome creature ultimately destroyed San Francisco.  Sadly he didn’t return to shoot this picture.  Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus) apparently equates incomprehensible mayhem with excitement.  We see various creatures throughout the picture.  Only in the final 30 minutes do we get the actual showdown we were promised in the trailer.  Mothra is the queen to Godzilla’s king who face off against the three-headed Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster Zero) and Rodan.  We get a lot more monsters but a less visually impressive spectacle.  If only we could see the giant lizard king more clearly.  The new Godzilla movie has a reptile dysfunction.

05-30-19

Booksmart

Posted in Comedy with tags on May 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

booksmartSTARS4Every era has its classic coming of age tale.  Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, The 400 Blows, American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Superbad, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There are so many others.  Generation Z is maturing into adolescence.  They are currently getting the movies that define their age.  We will have to wait to see what will stand the test of time.  Last year’s Eighth Grade is a good candidate.  It was my favorite film of 2018.  I’m thinking Booksmart has a good chance of making the grade.

Booksmart centers on class president Molly, a driven, scholarly-minded teenager played by Beanie Feldstein.  She wears a blazer paired with a turtleneck to school.  Her best friend is Amy (Kaitlyn Dever).  They’re both academic overachievers who have stayed out of trouble for their entire scholastic career so that they could get into the finest colleges.  Molly is heading to Yale.  Amy to Columbia.  Then one fateful day, Molly’s world comes crashing down around her when she comes to a distressing realization.  Her lackadaisical peers have been accepted to Ivy League schools as well.  Even the blissfully unaware stoner (Eduardo Franco) has been recruited to code for Google.  Molly’s discipline, good behavior, and focus were apparently for nothing she reasons.  Enraged at having missed out on high school fun, these former “goody-two-shoes” make a vow to condense 4 years of social life into one full uninterrupted night of partying.  In this way, they can “make up” for 4 years of good behavior.  Incidentally, this revelation is gleaned from a conversation overheard in the school’s unisex bathroom.  This is so a movie of our times.

I usually don’t compare pictures in a review.  However, this “one crazy night” in the life of two misfits on the cusp of graduation was the same foundation behind Superbad.  Both also share a casting director, Allison Jones.  Star Beanie Feldstein is the sister of Jonah Hill who starred in that production.  These R-rated shenanigans measure up favorably to that classic.  They’d make a perfect double feature.  So comparisons are quite apt. Booksmart is actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut.  She’s known for playing Quorra in Tron: Legacy, and “Thirteen” on the medical-drama TV series House (2007–2012).  She’s also engaged (since 2013) to former SNL member Jason Sudakis.  Sudeikis plays a goofy principal with no moral authority.  He moonlights as a rideshare driver.  Which brings me to my next point.

Booksmart is another movie that treats adults like clueless idiots and teens as the hip people who all want to aspire to be.  Amy’s mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Will Forte) have crafted a celebratory dinner of entrees with themes for her graduation.  Their indulgence is presented as quaint.  One of their teachers (Jessica Williams), who seems sensible at first, shows a complete lack of discretion at a party with a student.   I must admit, as I get older this “naive adult” gets more and more annoying.  However, I’m pretty cognizant of my hypocrisy.  I can appreciate the skewed perspective of the American adolescent because (shocker) I too was one once.  My teens years played out during the mid-1980s era of John Hughes films where that character was an archetype, so I can relate.  Booksmart captures the zeitgeist of that perspective in a way that is highly entertaining.

There’s a vibrant energy to Booksmart that infuses every scene.  Like so many films of this ilk, it’s highlighted by a charismatic ensemble of up and comers.  I suspect some will have success in the future.  Time will tell.  Molly and Amy are witty goofballs.  Their central friendship is sweet and uplifting.  Molly is the more confident of the two.  There’s an intensity to her character that is particularly amusing.  She has a crush on über-popular class vice-president, Nick (Mason Gooding).  Amy pines for a skater girl named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).  Like their schoolmates, they all seem to live in the rarefied air of a posh suburb in Los Angeles.  They own cars and live in houses (not apartments).  Some exude ostentatious wealth.  We still have the cool kids, jocks, nerds, mean girls, drama geeks, etc.  What’s changed is the egalitarianism of this high school.  I didn’t see one bully.  They may not all be best friends, but no one is persecuted for being different.  Ah, movies!

What ultimately sends Booksmart into the stratosphere is the engaging chemistry of the supporting cast who populate the school.  These classmates include Noah Galvin as George who plays a flamboyant, and that’s putting it mildly, theater geek hosting a murder mystery soiree.  There’s also Skyler Gisondo as Jared, a dorky rich kid who remains conspicuously uncool.  He tries to buy the friendship of his peers by throwing the 1st of three parties the girls crash.  It’s on a yacht with a gambling casino and tuxedoed waiters serving hors d’oeuvres.  The complimentary gift bags include an iPad.  He’s invited everyone, but no one shows up.  That’s a lot for the audience to swallow.  I don’t care if you’re my mortal enemy.  I’m most definitely checking “will attend” on THAT invitation.  Lastly, there’s Jared’s friend Gigi played by Billie Lourd. She is Carrie Fisher’s real-life daughter.  Lourd’s ability to keep popping up at every party is hilarious.  She’s absolutely a scene stealer.  One might argue that the “message” for these girls to indulge every instinct does get questionable by the end and projectile vomiting is never OK.  Overall it’s raunchy but not mean-spirited.  The egalitarian nature of this fantasy is warm and appealing.  The charisma of this cast is palpable and there are many laughs along the way.

05-24-19

Aladdin

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

aladdin_ver2STARS4It’s hard not to look upon these live-action remakes of Disney classics with a bit of cynicism.  Let’s face it.  Familiarity is safe.  Reselling old stories by “updating” them with CGI takes less creativity than having to create something unique.  Some might call them a cash grab.  Truth is.  Most have been wildly lucrative.  Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) being the most notable examples.  That success just feeds into the disapproval.  The box office is certainly there.  However, a cash grab implies something hastily assembled of poor quality.  This definitely does not fall into that category.

Aladdin is a big, extravagant production with musical numbers.  Additionally, costumes and set design are top-notch.  Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both categories back in 2018.  I’d argue that this film is even more deserving of those awards.  There’s a cave of wonders, a flying carpet, and a magical genie.  The source material is not easy to adapt.  There’s a joyous feeling that takes all of those miraculous elements and recreates them in a physical form.  Yes, the imitation feels familiar and less innovative than something fully different.  Yet the manifestation is so spectacular.  It feels like an homage that honors the original.  Aladdin has already been recreated as a musical which had its Broadway debut in 2014.  The idea of adapting this cartoon with human actors is nothing new.  The successful show was nominated for five Tony Awards.  Actor James Monroe Iglehart actually won for playing the Genie.

Of course, it was Robin Williams’ vocal performance that elevated his iconic portrayal in the 1992 animated version.  That’s the role that everyone remembers and actor Will Smith is tasked to fill his very large shoes here.  Just as Emma Watson’s marquee name assisted Beauty and the Beast so too does the Fresh Prince fulfill that part here.  He’s a personality, admittedly, not an impressive vocalist.  Thing is, the veteran actor is wonderful in his own unique way.  His achievement is admirable.  Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has made the decision to have his character vacillate between two extremes.  When Smith gets to be himself and simply exude his natural charisma he’s the most appealing he’s been in years. In fact, he even gets a love interest with Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).  However, when he’s reduced to a blue CGI creation, it’s jarring.  He’s not pleasing in that configuration.

The two leads are more exceptional.  Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) are charming.  I’m not going to unnecessarily detail a tale that is nearly three decades old, but in a nutshell: Aladdin is a “street rat” trying to survive in the bustling city of Agrabah when he runs into Princess Jasmine.  She’s disguised as a commoner like him to understand the conditions of the working class.  The two meet and a connection is made.  The screenplay increases the importance of Jasmine.  She’s got political aspirations to rule her father’s kingdom.  She also gets a new song “Speechless” which is heard twice.  It’s not better than the original songs, but since those can’t be nominated again, it gives the producers the ability to submit it for Oscar consideration.  Jasmine is just as important as the titular hero, but not to his detriment.  She brings a commanding presence.  Massoud is warm and engaging as Aladdin.  The two could have easily come across as bland pretty people.  They are surprisingly great together.  The focus is on what makes them tick not sexiness.  Both bared a lot more skin in the cartoon.  Aladdin is covered up.  His shirtless vest is gone.  Jasmine’s father is the Sultan (Navid Negahban) who rules over the city.  He’s advised by a deceptive sorcerer named Jafar (Marwan Kenzari).  Both are merely a plot means to an end but not a deal breaker in this interpretation.

My 3 wishes for Aladdin were that (1) it would star captivating leads that had chemistry together (2) feature a lively genie that made me laugh and (3) highlight bright splashy production numbers.  I’ve detailed how it delivered the first two.  I’m happy to say my hopes were fulfilled on the third as well.  In particular, the “Prince Ali” number is a fully realized processional accompanied by some fantastic (if not geographically correct) Bollywood-style dancing.  “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” are enchanting too.  This isn’t a replacement of your beloved original.  It’s a remix of sorts.  By adhering mainly to the classic story with only minor tweaks, Disney’s reimagining delivers the goods.  True, it may not be a whole new world.  That’s actually a good thing.  See the execrable Dumbo (2019) if you need proof.  Say what you will about these live-action remakes.  Aladdin is among the very best.

5-23-19

The White Crow

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

white_crow_ver2STARS3The White Crow could be about anything.  The cryptic title is explained in the very first frame.  It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”  I suppose I should realize by now that color + bird = ballet movie.  Black Swan and Red Sparrow also wove the same discipline into its storyline.

The White Crow concentrates on famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko)  during his young adulthood.  Most acknowledge him as the greatest male ballet artist of his generation.  He was also the first major Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War.  This contemplative film leisurely advances towards a captivating conclusion.  The account depicts his humble birth on a moving train in 1938, becoming a sensation with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in the late 1950s and the rising acclaim surrounding his early career.

These episodes aren’t depicted in order but rather shifting back and forth. I’ve often felt that haphazard embellishments are utilized when a director doesn’t have enough faith in his tale to tell it in a normal fashion. As if chronological order is too conventional. However, the drama’s clarity is obfuscated by this narrative device as I was often unclear whether certain events occurred earlier or later.  Rudolf Nureyev was a man with a fascinating story.  To wit, most of the focus is on a fateful 6 week trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.  The developments of his life would certainly make an interesting production without the stylistic devices employed here.

Written by two-time Oscar nominee David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and directed by also twice Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, this biopic has prestige oozing from every cinematic pore.  Hare was inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life.  Nureyev was a temperamental man and director Ralph Fiennes doesn’t attempt to make his subject likable.   Fiennes also appears in a small role as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad.  The cast also benefits from the presence of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who portrays Clara Saint, a 21-year old French woman who ends up playing a key element in Nureyev’s personal revolt.

Rudolf Nureyev’s mercurial character is highlighted by first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko, a real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer.  There are brief snippets showcasing his prowess but little in the way of performances.  I wanted to see more of that talent and less brooding.  Ivenko does a good job at conveying his rebellious mood, however.  Nureyev is not a warm person but that’s not required to enjoy this movie.  The saga ultimately builds to a memorable scene with a mesmerizing climax.  While Nureyev’s ballet troupe was to continue on to London, he was being summoned back to Moscow.  The real reason is unclear but his arrogant disdain for company regulations certainly played a part.  The request was enough to send him into hysterics.  The defection is a seemingly impulsive decision that makes perfect sense.  If only it didn’t take so long to get there.  At 127 minutes, the film’s distended length doesn’t do its subject any favors.  Some thoughtful editing would improve the drama immeasurably.  Chop 20 minutes out and just get to the “pointe”.

05-16-19

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy with tags on May 13, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pokemon_detective_pikachu_ver2STARS2.5Has there ever been a great movie based on a video game?  The debateable consensus to that question has always been no.  Because of that, films adapted from computer games incur very low expectations.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the latest in a nearly three-decade tradition that began with Super Mario Bros. in 1993.  This has received better reviews than other pictures of its ilk.  Keep in mind the bar has been set pretty low.  I’ll get right to the point.  This isn’t a great movie, so the answer is still (sadly) no.  However, Detective Pikachu deserves some discussion because it has the potential to make a lot of money.  Since 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie has remained the most monetarily lucrative adaptation of its type. That’s the gold standard based on box office grosses earning $131 million.  Given 18 years of inflation, Pokemon Detective Pikachu should easily (duh) shatter that record.  Even if we’re adjusting in 2019 dollars, it should still clear $208 million.  Pokemon is a global phenomenon.

The Pokémon franchise began with a pair of games for Nintendo’s Game Boy back in 1996.  Since then this multimedia conglomeration has gone on to include an anime television series, a trading card game, manga comics, music, books, and a mobile game.  Now please do enjoy this live action picture.  The tale concerns an insurance salesman named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith).  The poor man has learned that his estranged father Harry has died while investigating a case.  Humans are usually paired with a Pokemon in this universe.  Harry’s former Pokémon partner, detective Pikachu, is a rodent-like creature with powerful electrical abilities.  Pokémon don’t normally talk, but this one is different.  He’s got a sarcastic point of view with a voice provided by Ryan Reynolds.  Harry’s death is suspicious and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a junior reporter, is looking into it.  She is accompanied by a Psyduck, another Pokémon species.  Lucy pens fluff articles, but you can guess by her preternaturally perky demeanor, she’s destined for better things.  Although Tim expresses an interest in Lucy, their relationship emits fewer sparks than a damp match.  Oh, and the considerable talents of Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe are criminally wasted in supporting parts.

This adventure is an urban mystery wrapped up in a fantasy.  As such, a successful production must rely on the screenplay’s ability to create a fully realized world.  The problem is the superficial script credited to five (count ’em—FIVE) screenwriters, isn’t up to the task.  Disney’s Zootopia had disparate species coexisting beside each other with a concerted attempt to acknowledge the incongruity.  There was a lot of thought put into that story.  In contrast, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu puts very little effort into world-building.  It just is.  Accept it.  Fantasy doesn’t have to be moronic.  The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pan’s Labyrinth all advanced something new and exciting.  Ryme City is a metropolis inhabited by magical creatures that live alongside humans.  The setup could have offered a fiction so deliciously bonkers that it would have won me over by sheer imagination.  No such luck.  There are brief glimpses.  The CGI of the animated characters is amazingly photorealistic.  Each creature looked like a living breathing thing.  Mr. Mime is a particularly offbeat Pokémon.  He’s the highlight of the feature.  So strange –in fact– that the writers had to apparently convince the Pokemon company to include him.  That’s telling because the rest of the saga isn’t blessed by the bizarro mentality that infuses his creation.

The account settles on being a Sam Spade-style story via film noir.  It’s surprisingly bland and predictable.  Wags have compared this science fiction as an appropriation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Blade Runner.  That’s a generous comparison because this doesn’t even remotely approximate the intellectual creativity found within either of those two classics.  This is generic.  It pains me to write this review because I welcome family entertainment.  To his credit, director Rob Letterman (Monsters Vs. Aliens, Goosebumps) steers these cutesy PG-rated shenanigans toward younger viewers.  It will certainly provide charms for those raised on this stuff.  I can appreciate the concept.  If we were talking about a live-action Pac-Man movie, perhaps nostalgia might absolve the minor deficiencies in the work for me.  I’ll concede this wasn’t made with me in mind.  Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a film for the millions of already converted fans.  Be forewarned, if you don’t know the difference between a Jigglypuff and a Squirtle, you may be underwhelmed.

05-09-19

Avengers: Endgame

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

avengers_endgame_ver2STARS4Dear Marvel fan, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.  Avengers: Endgame is ostensibly the direct sequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.  We’ve waited one year with bated breath for a resolution to the cliffhanger of that film.  In a much larger sense, it’s the impressive culmination of 21 films that all began when Iron Man first debuted 11 years ago in 2008.  It was a daunting task.  There were many goals, but for me the three most important were to (1) fashion a chronicle that could coherently juggle a myriad of superheroes with various backstories (2) remain emotionally invested in each one and (3) maintain interest without relying on haphazard conflicts that can often degenerate into a bloated slog. (see Avengers: Age of Ultron).  I’m relieved to say Endgame satisfies every one of these objectives.

A good review shouldn’t recapitulate the plot.  As such, I won’t be revealing spoilers contained within this new episode.  However, I will assume you have at least seen Infinity War which is essentially Part 1 to the continuity of this film.  If that’s not the case, and the denouement of that story still remains a mystery, congratulations on abstaining from every single form of social media!  Furthermore, please stop reading here and come back after you have watched Infinity War first.  Ok ready?  We begin after half of all living things in the universe have been snuffed out by the mighty supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Among those left to deal with the aftermath are the six original Avengers. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The situation is dire.   The loss of life is even more calamitous than a decimation as that word is, by definition, only 1/10 of all living things.   The Avengers have lost many of their closest friends.  Understandably they are a doleful bunch.  Being the do-gooding champions that they are, they set out to recover the Infinity Stones from Thanos so they can reverse his actions.  Sadly he has already destroyed them.  The first hour is abnormally solemn, a somber rumination on coming to terms with what has happened.  The characters now exude a world-weary exterior.  There is a poignancy in the first third that sucks you into the developments that unfold later.  The movie isn’t afraid to gradually lay the groundwork for what must ultimately be done.  The Avengers devise a plan to undo the damage that Thanos has caused.  Hint: the conclusion of Ant-Man and the Wasp provides a crucial element.  The narrative takes its time but once the events of the 2nd hour begin, the payoff is all the better for it.

Endgame is surprisingly moving.  Working from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, rely heavily on past films and alliances.  Given that, this will unquestionably please die-hard fans.  Having seen every installment will surely add to your experience.  Endgame includes a profusion of moments to delight those people, a consideration now known as fan service.  The bad news is that this not an adventure for newbies or even the casual moviegoer that may have seen, oh let’s say, less than 5 of these productions.  Your enjoyment directly depends on an appreciation of formerly established alliances and circumstances.  Tony Stark/Iron Man is a key personality.  His relationship with Steve Rogers, Pepper Potts, and Peter Parker all provide touching high points.  I, like the rest of my theater, was visibly affected by the sentiment.  Conversely, newcomers are likely to sit stone-faced, shrug and wonder why the rest of the theater is in tears.

The narrative brings out the humanity in these beloved individuals.  They may be all-powerful, but they still care for one another.  The drama frequently relies on previously articulated interpersonal connections.  For those that have been on this journey since the very beginning, this entertains on every level.  There’s gratification is seeing this branch of the franchise tied up in such a satisfying way.  The spectacular climax fully captivated the 12-year-old in me.   It was a complete and utter wow – the visual manifestation of the epic battles in my wildest imagination as a child.  Along the way, we’re treated to a lot of developments over the course of a 3+ hour movie.  Amazingly, it never drags.  The script brings closure to many personalities while always providing interesting happenings on screen.  Endgame‘s take on the Hulk and Thor present enjoyable character changes that really made me smile.  The return of Queen Frigga of Asgard (Rene Russo) is particularly poignant.  This isn’t the termination of the MCU mind you, but it is the concluding phase of the Infinity Saga which handles the exit of several cherished favorites.  I’ve seen every single entry in this series.  The Russo brothers clearly embody a genuine love for this franchise.  Sure, this is merely a fantasy about superheroes.  The plot isn’t deep or essential in any spiritual or metaphysical sense.  However, the production generates the wave of feelings that this fan craves.  In that respect, Avengers: Endgame is an emotional catharsis that totally delivers.

04-25-19