Archive for June, 2013

The Heat

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Heat photo starrating-3stars.jpgBefore shooting even began, The Heat was known as “The Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy.”  That might’ve been a more accurate title. This has been done so many times before and more successfully. Like The Other Guys and more recently with 21 Jump Street. The Heat tries to mine similar territory. The difference here is this stars two women. And why shouldn’t it? Bridesmaids proved that women in comedy could be just as funny (and crass) as the men back in the Spring of 2011. Director Paul Feig is back with that film’s breakout star – Melissa McCarthy. This time she’s been teamed up with America’s Sweetheart, Sandra Bullock. They play Boston Detective Shannon Mullins and FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn respectively. The two team up to take down a ruthless Russian drug lord. The genre surroundings are what you’d find in any R rated police drama (violence, profanity) but then there’s also the comedy of their mismatched situation. It’s frequently mined for lighthearted amusement. The uneasy mix doesn’t always meld well, but there are some genuine laugh out loud moments sprinkled from beginning to end.

The two leads have appealing chemistry. There’s a wild physicality to McCarthy’s performance that pushes her hilarious interpretation of the role to ridiculous heights. Her character’s audacity vibrantly culminates when phoning the wife of a perp who just solicited a prostitute or questioning her superior‘s courage in front of the entire station. Her wild mane of hair alone is worth a few giggles. She basically makes a tired script better. Bullock plays a variation on the tough, by the books FBI agent that she portrayed in Miss Congeniality. She’s much more efficient and uptight here however. She‘s also notably less vulgar than her counterpart. She says “bull feces” for example when she deems something to be nonsense. She’s humorous too, but McCarthy’s part is the one that’s played more for laughs. Absurd and obnoxious throughout the picture, she presents an amusing foil for the straitlaced, unflappable Bullock. I’ll concede their odd couple chemistry is a common device, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

The Heat is utterly predictable, but still funny. This is one of those by the numbers, action comedies that uses the well worn blueprint of the buddy movie to earn chuckles. Of course they’re a mismatched pair. Not surprising, McCarthy is the boisterous, foul mouthed one and Bullock is the polite and systematic one. It would’ve been a little more refreshing if their roles had been switched. Ah but that would be tinkering with a tried and true formula, and apparently this is a formula that works. This got huge laughs from the public. Despite the familiar genre trappings, this manages to entertain in spite of itself. It’s like comfort food. It isn’t particularly nutritious, but it takes care of your hunger pangs in a way that is satisfying.

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World War Z

Posted in Action, Horror, Thriller with tags on June 27, 2013 by Mark Hobin

World War Z photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA family sits in their car waiting out a huge traffic jam in some major metropolitan city. A motorcycle zooms by and knocks off the side-view mirror of Brad Pitt’s car. He gets out to retrieve the fallen ornament, his wife and two girls concerned inside. Suddenly an explosion goes off in the distance. So unfolds the trailer for World War Z. I had no idea what the unforeseen threat was to the population, but it had me curious. It was a powerful tactic that had me wanting to see more. It de-emphasized gore, instead focusing on some unforeseen menace.

Ultimately the smart strategy was a good one because the rest of World War Z is similarly restrained. The danger in this case is a universal zombie outbreak, but it could have been anything really. The drama is about survival of the human race. Brad Pitt is a United Nations inspector adept at problem solving. He’s contacted by the powers that be to help join the fight. Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., South Korea, Israel and Wales: as we follow Brad Pitt across the globe, these various locations heighten the situation. Like Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters or War of the Worlds, it affirms a global scale. This makes the calamity all the more dire and real. The response of the governments of the world is a fascinating detail that the narrative effectively exploits. It’s ambitious in scope.

Turns out World War Z is not perfect. Thanks to 28 Days Later, spastic camera work is practically de rigueur in these types of films. Can we please retire this gimmick? It’s meant to emphasize the speed and intensity of the zombie attack., but it just had me reaching for the Dramamine. The plot occasionally drags. It could’ve benefited from some judicious editing to tighten up certain scenes. However other scenes do captivate. A spectacle aboard an airplane is an absolute knockout that creates tension in a setting that already has people on edge in this day and age. It’s spectacularly ridiculous and fun. We don’t really get a clear look at the zombies until much later, but when we do, it’s unnerving. The bulging eyes of one that pierce through the glass wall of a research facility are hard to forget.

World War Z separates itself from many other zombie variations in that it mines thrills out of skillfully staged action. The chronicle has some very compelling sequences, particularly the opening and closing set pieces, the moments you remember most. Along the way the script favors paranoia and claustrophobia over cheap scares and gore. Special effects are restrained and used only sparingly making their occasional appearance that more striking. It creates a thrilling mood. I also enjoyed the score which makes inspired use of the song “Isolated System” by Muse. Marc Forster directs this very loose adaptation of Max Brooks’ 2006 novel. The screenwriters basically threw out everything but the name. Despite the troubled production, the end result is a memorable saga that finds a way to tie the United Nations, the World Health Organization and world governments in with the zombie apocalypse. Forster has finally created his most enjoyable picture since Finding Neverland – a tale that couldn’t be more thematically different.

Monsters University

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 23, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Monsters University photo starrating-4stars.jpg3 of the last 4 Pixar movies have been sequels. On the surface that sounds like a depressing trend. But delve deeper and we find that one of those was Toy Story 3, a stunning work of art that stands tall amongst the very best of that studio. The original effort on the other hand, Brave, was actually pretty mediocre. Maybe sequels aren’t so bad, or if you want to be truly technical in this case, a prequel. That positive progression is supported by Pixar’s latest offering.

Monster’s University is an engaging entry in the Pixar cannon. Naturally there’s an unavoidable “haven’t we seen this all before?” feeling. By definition an air of familiarity will creep in any sequel. But the dueling fraternities in college also have more than a passing resemblance to the basic outline of Revenge of the Nerds. It’s the preppies (Roar Omega Roar) vs. the underdogs (Oozma Kappa). We also have Greeks made up of Goth chicks, jocks, & pink ladies that are competing as well. All teams are vying to be the ultimate winner in the annual “Scare Games.” While the picture may not qualify as a classic, it’s a captivating story I thoroughly enjoyed. Screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, & Dan Scanlon have fashioned a well written tale full of heart and emotion around characters we know and love.

Mike and Sulley are back and it’s like they never left. They’re just as warm and charming as ever. They join the same fraternity and become teammates. Except their reasons are completely out of necessity and not because they are friends. You see they don’t really get along. That was unexpected. There are other little developments in the story that aren’t predictable either. The script keeps you guessing. It even dares to consider that certain truths cannot be denied or changed. Hard work will only take you so far. To give an example of my own, short people are going to have a disadvantage in the NBA no matter how vigorously they train. The screenplay acknowledges differences can be strengths, but does it a way that doesn’t feel preachy.

Monster’s University is a vivid delight. The animation beautifully exploits lavish color and texture possibilities in animating the myriad of creatures contained within. We get some new creations that are welcome additions to the ensemble. The actors put in extraordinary voice performances here. The most noteworthy includes Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble, the headmistress. She’s flawless in conveying a strict authoritarian that should not be crossed. Charlie Day as Art, a goofy purple Oozma Kappa member that looks like the letter U upside down, is rather memorable as well. There are many more. The entire cast gives soul to a script that doesn’t fall victim to clichés the way other non-Pixar movies do. There’s some subtle life lessons that are more nuanced than many live action films. You kind of assume a happy ending, but it’s not really the one you’d expect.

The Kings of Summer

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on June 19, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Kings of Summer photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Kings of Summer should’ve been called The Boys of Summer. My mind keeps going to that title. First off there’s the iconic Don Henley song from the 80s which I love. And secondly, this is a coming of age story about three young men. They spend the summer living off the land in a fortress they build in the woods. I‘ll admit, the “kings” of the title is poetic as their reasons are to cast off the shackles of their “oppressive” existence with their parents and live like kings in the forest. I put oppressive in quotes because their home life, while exacerbated by parents they view as a burden, is fret with the kinds of problems that any well cared for adolescent might encounter. Lead protagonist Joe is played by Nick Robinson. The actor is the heir apparent to a young Emile Hirsch. Basically the reality of these entitled kids is pretty good. Granted, he’s recently lost his mother. That’s a devastating misfortune and now he has a shaky relationship with his father. Actor Nick Offerman (TV’s Parks and Recreation) portrays him as a strict authoritarian, but it’s certainly not something he should be despised for. After all, he’s also grieving the loss of his wife.

The Kings of Summer is a wonderful little film, but it’s diminished with some issues that keep it from being truly great. Joe’s pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is fed up with his parents (Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson). In fleshing out their personalities, writer Chris Galletta has made them almost suffocatingly nice. It’s an awkward way to mine laughs. It feels more like a writer’s construct than the way real parents actually behave. Ditto the boys’ third friend Biaggio played by Moises Arias. He’s some arbitrary weirdo that shows up at a party. He’s a sensitive chap, but thoroughly weird. It doesn’t make sense why he becomes part of this friendly threesome. His purpose appears to be a focus of hilarious vignettes from which to extract humor.  For example he confuses being gay with having cystic fibrosis. That’s random.  Despite this, the three of them do form a warm camaraderie that is indeed satisfying.

The Kings of Summer is a compelling comedy. What separates one passage into manhood from another is the ability to resist clichés and create an affecting portrayal. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ debut feature is worse than some, but better than most. The movie recalls the youthfulness of Stand By Me with the quirkiness of Moonrise Kingdom thrown in. No it’s not as triumphant as those pictures, but it’s still pretty enjoyable.  It’s a beautifully shot reminiscence on what it means to be a teen boy growing up in rural Ohio. Their rite of passage in the woods is an experience that deeply bonds the three. All three leads are charismatic actors that form a rapport as they face the world. We genuinely want to see these three succeed, despite the lack of observable pain in their lives. This trio forms a fascinating friendship. Their journey is timeless tale which makes it meaningful for the rest of us. There is insight, warmth and joy in their saga.

Man of Steel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on June 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Man of Steel photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgGeneral: What are you smiling about, Captain?
Captain: I just think he’s kinda hot.

Henry Cavill certainly looks like Superman. He’s handsome, almost distractingly so, sports a ripped physique that adheres closer to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine than any previous incarnation of the role. The Brit even speaks the part affecting a perfect American accent with the necessary gravitas to make everything he says sound meaningful. But that’s where compliments end for Man of Steel.

Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s iconic superhero is given the bigger is better treatment in this updated version for moviegoers raised on Transformers films. Zack “I directed 300” Snyder has taken courses at the Michael Bay school for directors where spectacle is key and damn any coherence or dialogue that gets in the way. Loud noise is more important than the story. Millions of dollars gloriously spent to envision beautifully designed worlds of breathtaking 3D graphics only to be obliterated in some fantastic assault of bombs, explosions and mayhem. A bombastic excess where even Superman’s cape is digitally animated. Snyder’s aesthetic is money and spend lots of it

Man of Steel is an overinflated packed to the rafters display of computer generated imagery (CGI) that makes Transformers seem like Forbidden Planet by comparison. The CGI is ridiculously wild and unchecked. A full third of this film is fight scenes. Not exciting ones, but blurry, relentless onslaughts that are hard to follow. I think I counted three epic battles but honestly one conflict blurs indistinguishably into the next. Their sole purpose exists so Snyder can blow stuff up. The wanton annihilation of buildings in the climax doesn’t even appear to be Planet Earth anymore. At one point Superman wrestles with tentacles in the center of the globe as some rocket machine deconstructs the earth’s atmosphere to that of an alien planet. The whole spectacle is so removed from anything organic, it doesn’t even exist as a live action movie with human actors. More like a virtual 3D universe populated by automatons rendered by a computer program.

The obscene amount of CGI-enhanced activity might’ve been tolerable if it served a coherent story. Unfortunately following the haphazard chronology is a task in itself. Good luck figuring out what time period we‘re in. The films was apparently edited in a blender. First we’re on Krypton, then we’re on an oil rig with an adult Clark Kent, now Clark is a kid in school overwhelmed by his powers, suddenly he‘s older rescuing his classmates from a bus. Now he’s Superman in the Arctic. Now back as a child again with his parents near a tornado. The script flash forwards, then back, then forward and back again, back and forth, back and forth over and over to the point of complete incoherence. The movie is an attention punishing 143 minutes and you feel every single one of them.

Part of the reason the story is so mind numbingly long is because the plot spends an inordinate amount of time delving into Kryptonian society, and explaining the sociopolitical and ecological situation before the planet’s destruction. Just what I want to see in a Superhero film. How about some scenes inside the Kryptonian Senate while they vote on various bills and legislation? Last time I checked this was called Man of Steel but it’s a full hour before he even dons the suit and near the very end before someone clearly calls him Superman. Even then it’s used as more of a throwaway joke.

There are moments where the script attempts to convey Superman’s inner conflict. The narrative tries to present Superman’s undying love for the people of his adoptive planet earth. But his devotion never makes sense. He experiences overwhelming rejection from the faceless masses his whole life. We’re given infrequent glimpses of his interactions with the human population. School bullies tease him as a child, a bar patron humiliates him (shades of Superman II), the military wants to give him up to uber villain General Zod. This is predicted in early scenes by his father (Kevin Costner) who warns him: “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.” We comprehend why Superman isn’t accepted, but not why he still cares for the citizens of this foreign world called Earth. The population disregards him so thoroughly. We have no reason to sympathize, to care, or even to watch.

The movie is the creation of sterile perfectionism. The actors are pretty, everyone hits their marks, says their lines and does exactly what is asked of them. It exhibits slick professionalism but not art. The picture has no essence. There is no warmth, no wit, no humor, no joy. The only thing more offensive than the vulgar reliance on special effects in this flick, are the product placement deals. Word has it that it earned $160 million even before it ever played in a single theater due to all the advertising negotiations made. It doesn’t come without a cost. Superman literally has a fight that starts at 7-Eleven, heads over to IHOP afterwards, then wraps at Sears. All the while the aforementioned businesses conspicuously pop up in scenes where the action is a muddy blur but their beaming signs are clear as day. There is no spark of life to be found in Man of Steel. It is a soulless product bought and paid for by the Hollywood machine.

This Is the End

Posted in Comedy with tags on June 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

This is the End photo starrating-4stars.jpgA group of revelers party hard at a luxurious home in Los Angeles, oblivious that the end of the world is happening while they enjoy themselves inside. Six friends find safety in the modern mansion after a series of apocalyptic events lay waste to the planet outside the protective shelter of their confinement. Writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg expand on the short “Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse.” This writing team has been responsible for amusing highs (Superbad, Pineapple Express) and at least one crushing low (The Watch) so I approached this with guarded expectations. I’m happy to report, This is the End sports a hilarious script packed with laughs.

One of the ingenuities of the script is that the stars are in fact playing James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, or rather an alternate reality version of themselves. The riffs on their own personae is a smart idea. The cast encompasses virtually anyone who has ever appeared in a Judd Apatow production. There’s also a few new additions to keep things fresh. I suspect there is more accuracy to some characterizations than others. Michael Cera for example spoofs his timid nice guy image as a cocaine snorting, sexually preoccupied creep. It’s absolutely bonkers. On the contrary, Jay Baruchel’s insecurity as a lesser star, that prevents him from bonding with Seth Rogen’s celebrity buddies has a ring of truth to it.  The screenwriters aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves or their own bad movies (The Green Hornet, Your Highness) either. It’s self depreciating in other ways too. The very plot condemns our heroes as unfit for heaven. While the devout are beamed up body and soul, everyone at the party is left behind to fend for themselves.

The set up of This is the End is brilliant. The plot exists as sort of a series of comedy sketches. The script pays homage to movies of the past. Clever send-ups abound for knowing film buffs including The Exorcist, Ghostbusters and a scene from Rosemary’s Baby that’s mostly a shot for shot copy with one slight modification. Poor Jonah Hill. By fashioning the majority of the satire inside an LA home, it gives our 6 stars the opportunity to monologue on a variety of subjects. Much of their interactive banter is side-splitting. Franco and McBride’s verbal sparring over the mishandling of an adult magazine devolves into a conversation of unbalanced insanity. It’s refreshing that while their conversations are frequently accusatory they never devolve into mean-spiritedness. As they exhibit a jovial camaraderie in the face of mounting danger, you always get the feeling these guys still like each other. Their 6 personalities give the audience someone with which to identify and /or appreciate. However that doesn’t mean everyone behaves with the best of intentions. Danny Mc Bride basically becomes the worst person who ever lived.

Stoner movie, slacker comedy, the arrested development of grown men in their 30s. It’s a tradition that perhaps started in 1978 with National Lampoon’s Animal House and has continued with last year’s Ted.  This is the End compares favorably with those works. No this isn’t highbrow stuff.  Admittedly, it can be puerile and jejune at times. All the soporific humor gets a bit excessive. And the running time could use the benefits of an editor. It drags for about 20 minutes before the final act (which is thankfully inspired). But the overall theme promotes a redemptive heart. After all, these people were forsaken when the faithful were being taken up into heaven during the rapture. There’s brilliance in its simple truths. For example — James Franco attempting to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity to his confused friend. “It’s like Neapolitan ice cream.” More often than not this riff on the end of the world is a funny, and even insightful, sketch comedy. A model of the genre that deserves to be the most quotable film of 2013.

The East

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on June 7, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The East photo starrating-4stars.jpgSarah (Brit Marling) works for a private security firm in Washington DC that gathers intelligence against eco-terrorists. Her agency is employed by big corporations under fire for endangering the health of people and/or the environment. This includes industries like oil refineries, pharmaceuticals, etc. Sarah is selected as an undercover agent to infiltrate an anarchist group known as The East. Posing as one of them she endeavors to gain knowledge and report back to her bosses at the bureau. The subsequent information will be used to make arrests.

A majority of the cast have fully developed personalities. What makes The East so captivating is the perceptive screenplay.  Credit  star Brit Marling who co-writes and produces with director Zal Batmanglij, the same duo responsible for 2011’s Sound of My Voice. As our lead protagonist Sarah, she’s an appealing presence, smart and attractive, capable of handling herself in rough situations . She prays for guidance to do what is right and acts with her conscience. We experience the faction through her eyes, judging everything she experiences. It’s a carefully modulated window into a world not many have experienced. As she extracts information / develops friendships, these characters become complex individuals. Alexander Skarsgård is their cultish leader. To emphasize the point, he sports Jesus-like hair and beard. We’re first introduced to him at a dinner scene involving straitjackets. It’s a memorable introduction to his methods. He has earned a dedicated loyalty from his followers. These include Doc (Toby Kebbell) and Izzy (Ellen Page), both of which offer detailed backstories to explain why they’re part of this collective.

When I originally saw the trailer for The East, I figured it would be a “horror” film recounting violent revenge “The East” exacted on evil companies they determined should be taken to task. But the way the plot unfolds it’s more of a character examination balancing the principles of environmental terrorists with those of a corporate spy concerned about their “eye for an eye” mentality.  It’s natural to champion the environment, but hardly anyone would go to the limits of these radicals.  We see these activists operate on the far end on the protester spectrum. They break into a gasoline mogul’s mansion and dump crude oil through the air-conditioning vents. Later they lace the champagne of employees at a drug manufacturer’s party with their own questionable medication. Their extreme behavior is not something most people would advocate. Yet we grow to understand their motivations and their viewpoint. On this converse side, we also appreciate Sarah’s dilemma as she starts to sympathize with her criminal zealots and their alarming objectives. There are some issues. You might say that Brit Marling as Sarah ingratiates herself into the group a bit too easily. Also, the narrative is tidied up at the conclusion in a couple hastily presented scenes that don’t do the nuanced story any favors. But more often than not this portrait is a brilliant study that handles multiple characters with deft and precision. Few films have accomplished this so skillfully in 2013.

Epic

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Epic photo starrating-2stars.jpgI have officially reached my limit of dull computer animated films. There needs to be more than just pretty CGI to hold my attention. Epic is the latest from the “creative” minds at Blue Sky Studios who brought us Ice Age.  A questionable achievement, but a downright masterpiece when compared to this utterly nondescript piece. The plot concerns an ordinary-size teen girl who is magically shrunken down into a secret world when she grabs a hold of a magical leaf pod. She’s subsequently thrust into an ongoing environmental conflict amongst various forest creatures who struggle to see who can become the most forgettable. Sorry sarcasm.

An hour after watching Epic, it was already fading from memory. The cast is made up of famous actors that turn in vapid voice work in exchange for a paycheck. Colin Farrell and Beyoncé Knowles are major stars. They charm in real life, but their voices are so bland here. The leader of the Leaf-Men and Queen of the Forest should be captivating, but their personalities only cause drowsiness. Don’t drive or operate heavy machinery under the effects of this movie. Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd are a slug and snail respectively, but they should’ve been listed as hackneyed sidekick characters #1 and #2. They’re the comic relief but I didn’t hear a single child laugh in my theater. I suppose the script is the actual culprit.

This generic tale of good vs. evil  has been done countless times with more innovation and appeal. The story is lackluster in the extreme. Couldn’t the screenwriters have tried a little harder to come up with something interesting? The best lesson they can come up with is: “Many leaves, one tree; we’re all individuals, but we’re still connected.” Zzzzzzzz. It’s a shame because what the film does have going for it is gorgeous computer graphics. The animators have done a beautiful job giving zest to a script that has none. Epic won’t entertain adults and will leave kids wanting more. Children know a quality adventure when they see one and this ain’t it. You cannot foist a subpar saga on them and expect a hit. Not surprisingly, out of 8 productions, this became Blue Sky’s worst performing feature by a wide margin. It didn’t even recoup its $100M production budget in the U.S. Epic is neither majestic nor grand. It’s about as far from the word’s connotation as you can get. The most glaringly mistitled movie since The LAST Exorcism Part II.

The B.A.N.G Show

Posted in Podcast with tags , on June 1, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Arcturus, The Beast and Mark Hobin recap last week’s box office (May 24–26).  We discuss Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover Part III and the rest of the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.  We also consider upcoming movies and give our own irreverent take on what to see and what to skip.  Fast, fun and informative!  You won’t want to miss this!

MGCTv – The B.A.N.G Show

The BANG Show

Also Available on iTunes‎!