Archive for March, 2014

Noah

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on March 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Noah photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNoah is Paramount Pictures indefatigably middle-of-the-road biblical fantasy. Anyone expecting a theological epic with the dramatic heft of something like The Ten Commandments will be mostly disappointed. There’s an innate difficulty in expanding a tale that comprises 4 brief chapters in the Book of Genesis into a 138 minute movie. A big budget biblical production utilizing the full extent of technology of today could be the recipe for a huge success. Visually the spectacle is impressive. Watching the large assemblage of animals march in line to board the ark is an awe-inspiring scene. The narrative even explains logistical details. For example it answers how these creatures could co-exist without eating each other. But elsewhere the story feels padded with vignettes that utilize spectacular special effects but add no emotional drama. Cue The Watchers, angels cast out of heaven who have fallen out of favor with The Creator. They have become encased in mud and dirt on Earth and are now gigantic stone creatures not unlike something found in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

At first glance one might think Darren Aronofsky, a self-professed atheist, to be an odd choice to helm a big-budget, A-lister epic based on scripture. However individuals driven by obsessive quests have long been a tenet of his work, so the religious subject mater isn’t as foreign as it seems. A man driven by obsession could be the focus of a fascinating film, but this drama doesn’t cut beneath the surface to delve deeply into the emotional concepts present. There is inherent drama in this story. We’re talking about God’s displeasure with the sum total of mankind. This is angry vengeful Old Testament God. Noah experiences visions or dreams that he believes are messages from the Supreme Being. The Creator, as he’s called here, apparently wants to not only wipe out all of humanity that currently exists, but to end it completely with his family, never to continue again.

You’d think that this might be cause for alarm. Sadly the chronicle rarely explores that concept deeply. Noah has been entrusted with a major task. He must build an ark and take 2 of every creature so that they may thrive after a great flood kills every living thing. Except for a few worried glances, Noah doesn’t seems conflicted enough by what he’s been asked to do. That is where the narrative should mine his complex struggle. Obviously he wasn’t completely successful because humanity continued to thrive, but that conflict happens at the very end. We lack an outlet for the sheer magnitude of his emotional struggle that demonstrates his problems/fears/stress. As a result the character remains a vague representation of a man in crises with whom we never truly connect.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s point of view is just so blandly neutral. Noah isn’t a terrible picture. There are moments of greatness. At one point, the flood has consumed the world, yet there are still some mountain peaks exposed. A scene with the huddled masses wailing out to the ark, while Noah and his family enjoy safety within, highlights this concept brilliantly. Unfortunately it’s one of the few moments we experience that anguish. It’s as if he was asked to comfort the religious with a perfect portrait of Noah’s unwavering devotion but also placate movie goers looking for a CGI extravaganza. Early test screenings back in October of 2013 to determine which version of the film would “please” the most people is not the way to make great art. This is the product of a talented director being kept under reins. The end result is that it’s not inspirational enough to inspire the faithful and it’s not innovative enough to entertain Aronofsky’s fans. By trying to stay neutral and satisfy everyone, he ends up pleasing no one.

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Enemy

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Enemy photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpg“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”

So begins Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s confusingly twisty but oh-so-stylish ode to David Lynch. The brew is a head trip of a cocktail that goes down deliciously smooth but will no doubt disorient you for days afterwards. Imbiber beware! It’s a refreshingly tight 90 minutes but has enough style to populate 2 additional movies directed by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg. Its visually stark set design, champagne-hued color palette, cinematography, and score make watching every minute of this little perplexity a cineaste’s delight. By the end, however, I really didn’t know what I had actually witnessed. This will irritate some and enchant others. If you haven’t guessed by now, I happily claim to be a member of the latter group. I totally dug the film.

Enemy was adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a mild mannered history professor. One day a colleague recommends a movie, which he subsequently rents from a video store soon after. Do those still exist? While watching late at night he notices an anonymous extra in the background that looks eerily like himself. Pausing the frames reveals a similarity that appears identical. Fascinated, he researches the actor and learns his pseudonym is Daniel St. Claire (real name Anthony). The curiosity becomes an obsession as Adam rents the performer’s other films. Next he finds out where Anthony lives. Then Adam uncovers his phone number and calls his home. Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers and mistakes Adam’s voice for her own husband’s. And that is only the beginning.

The whole production has this unrelenting feeling of dread. There’s something sinister looming you can’t quite put your finger on. Enemy plays with the conventions of doppelgangers. Adam Bell is the humdrum one, emotionally distant with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). He teaches history with languid enthusiasm to college students.  Anthony St. Claire on the other hand is more confident. He’s an actor who rides a motorcycle. His wife is expecting. For some reason his existence proves unsettling to Adam’s identity. The atmosphere instills Adam’s discovery with a sense of alarm. The narrative grows more fascinating with each new development.

Director Dennis Villeneuve worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on 2013’s Prisoners. That was a solid Hollywood studio picture, but this little independent is far better because it’s so bizarrely original and unexpected. The Canadian filmmaker knows how to exploit Gyllenhaal’s strengths. Jake gives two powerfully nuanced performances here, each one masterful in their own right. It’s a complicated balancing act because both guys must look identical in every way, yet remain two separate people. Even the physical similarities between the women in their respective lives are uncannily alike as well. An inquiring mind can be a dangerous thing. Adam’s visit to his mother (Isabella Rossellini) provides hazy details to an individuality that feels increasingly threatened. Bits and pieces of evidence of various sorts are offered up to the audience to help formulate an explanation as to what exactly is going on – that opening scene in a nightclub, for example.   You might think you’ve already guessed how it ends. Let me tell you, you aren’t even close.

The Shawshank Redemption

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on March 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Shawshank Redemption photo starrating-5stars.jpg“They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.” — Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

So laments Red (Morgan Freeman) as he reflects upon his duration at Shawshank State Penitentiary. He is in jail for murder. The “only guilty man” there he informs us as narrator. The year is 1947 and banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, has just been admitted. He has been given two consecutive life sentences. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the tale recounts a 20 year friendship between the two men. It is a story that is undeniably powerful as a moving portrait of camaraderie.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine ode to male bonding than this drama spanning two decades from 1946 to 1967. When Andy arrives, he is subject to beatings, humiliation and all manner of horrors within the prison system. He endures the harassment seemingly unfazed. Slowly he learns to adapt, utilizing his talents as an auditor to garner favor from the powers that be. In time he inspires his fellow inmates, making friends with them, in particular Red. This is the same inmate that had originally bet Andy would be the first inductee to crack upon arriving.

The film is highlighted by several superlative performances. Morgan Freeman rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Red, our narrator. He embodies the character with reverence, heart, and warmth. Freeman has never been better and that is saying quite a lot of the 5 time nominated actor who would ultimately win an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Tim Robbins is every bit his equal in a role that is more difficult to warm up to. If the actor appears a bit of an enigma, that is only because the character is meant to be that way. There is a quiet stoicism to his performance that recalls the great Gary Cooper. Actor Bob Gunton is a villain for the ages as Warden Samuel Norton. A stern man that exploits the prison for his own gain as low-cost labor. He presents himself as a god-fearing man, although his true nature is gradually disclosed. The depth of his evil seems to know no bounds. His reaction regarding testimony from young convict Tommy Williams is particularly memorable.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies whose estimation has only grown with time,. It wasn’t a box office hit in 1994, barely making back it’s production budget when initially released. However it was a critical success and received 7 Academy Award nominations of which it won absolutely NOTHING, losing Best Picture to Forrest Gump.  Nevertheless, it has occupied the #1 slot as greatest film on the IMDb’s user-generated list since 2008. Like a flower that grows through a crack in the concrete, the narrative is filled with one uplifting note after another amongst the most oppressive of surroundings. There are many, but here’s my personal favorite: Andy’s letter writing efforts to secure a better library for the prison are finally rewarded with a collection of old records. In an act of defiance, Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and using the central microphone, blasts an opera record. As Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro echoes through the penitentiary, Roger Deakins cinematography captures the emotion as the inmates look upwards, embracing the audible gift. I can’t exactly describe the feeling, but the scene always reduces me to tears. Shawshank is brimming with moments like this where the human soul triumphs over adversity in the most inspiring way.

Bad Words

Posted in Comedy with tags on March 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Bad Words photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCritics often use the expression “check your brain at the door” for movies that are best enjoyed without thinking about their inherent ridiculousness. I’d like to coin the phrase, “check your morality at the door“ for Bad Words. The production has a gleefully amoral sensibility when it comes to what is socially acceptable to say in polite conversation. The story concerns Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a middle aged man who has strong-armed his way into a national spelling bee on a technicality. You must not have completed the 8th grade, the rules state. This junior high drop-out never did. Why he wants to compete in a children’s spelling bee is a bit of explanatory information that should be gleaned from watching the film.

Bad Words has a profoundly cynical overtone. The humor is pitch black so many viewers will understandably not warm up to its prickly charms. Guy walks through this chronicle perceptually annoyed with everyone and everything. He’s racist, sexist and an all-around first class SOB.  Perhaps anyone who’s ever been pestered on a plane by a child when you’d prefer just to relax, might sympathize a little with this jerk. Some of the putdowns he dishes out to the adults (and even some kids) are downright nasty in nature but they’re so creatively written that you’ll find your self gasping and laughing almost at the same time. The attitude is usually the kind of stuff I hate. Vulgarity is no substitute for wit. Yet Andrew Dodge’s script is intelligently irreverent. It doesn’t rely on mere shock value. Plus the drama doesn’t hold up Guy as someone to emulate. There is an ultimate point to the madness.

For most of the picture, Bad Words’ dark outlook means to subvert clichéd Hollywood tales where the optimistic adult inspires a youngster to be a better person. If Bad Words is guilty of a legitimate offense, it would be in betraying its initial politically incorrect premise with an ending that devolves into saccharine schmaltz. The change in atmosphere doesn’t ring true because it’s a complete sellout of the acerbic first half. A sincere but awkward 10 year old proves to be his undoing. Pint sized actor Rohan Chand is a genuinely sweet presence. He is really winning as Chaitanya Chopra. The descent into sentiment is both the screenplay’s weakness and success. It’s hard not to appreciate Chand’s toothsome tyke who balances out a lot of the nastiness. The saga still treats Guy Trilby as a misanthrope. But it makes Jason Bateman’s character easier to take because the child becomes his comic foil. Underlying the “clutch the pearls” shenanigans is a moral center that has its heart in the right place. You might roll your eyes at the resolution, but you’ll savor the warmth as well.

Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on March 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Muppets Most Wanted photo starrating-3stars.jpgHistory repeats itself. Much in the same way that The Muppets (2011) was a reboot of The Muppet Movie (1979) so too does Muppets Most Wanted (2014) follow in the burglar footsteps of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). The Muppets burst out singing in their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.“ In a nod that acknowledges a regrettable reality, they sing “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” I wish I could say the lyrics were just a lighthearted bit of self-depreciation but the acknowledgement is sadly prescient.

In this go-around the gang are led astray by a slick manager named Dominic Badguy. That’s pronounced “Bad-JEE” he says. “It’s French.“ That’s a well written line. He convinces the Muppets to take their act on a worldwide international tour. Kermit’s better judgment warns that renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance is probably not a smart idea. But strangely he turns out to be wrong and the show sells out. Dominic‘s increasingly outlandish ideas and ‘say yes to everything’ attitude secures favor in the group. As he gains their confidence, he secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog. Save for a mole on his upper lip Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit in appearance. His personality on the other hand, is quite different. Constantine and Dominic work together as a team although the evil frog’s song “I’m Number One” clearly delineates their relationship. Meanwhile Kermit is correspondingly mistook for the master criminal and thrown into a Russian Gulag.

Most of the ingredients are here to have another success. Director James Bobin is back as director. He also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller who returns as well. Bret McKenzie is doing the music again. The songs stand on their own, but are less essential to the narrative this time around. They’re often shoe-horned into a scene forcing the action to take an abrupt stop rather than truly adding to the mood.  Jemaine Clement, the other half of McKenzie’s comedic Flight of the Conchords duo, plays one of Kermit’s fellow inmates at the prison. Despite all the returning talent, this doesn’t have the sincerity or integrity of the previous entry. I have to wonder if the missing ingredient is Jason Segel. His presence is nowhere to be found.  He not only co-wrote The Muppets but he added a human element as an actor that gave the story a genuine warmth. I’ve already mentioned Ricky Gervais as the central villain. He‘s entertaining. Ty Burrell is an Inspector Clouseau type paired up with Sam the Eagle who plays his American counterpart at the CIA. The two are investigating a string of bank robberies. He is very amusing as French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. But Tina Fey is wasted as Nadya, a Russian prison guard that has the hots for Kermit. That’s a shame because her part is a sizeable chunk of the movie. Unfortunately she is given little to do other than affect an exaggerated accent and mug for the camera. It’s a poorly written role. None of her scenes are funny. Oh alright maybe one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a respectable entry. It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, et al. These characters are enduring personalities for a reason. It’s really a pleasure seeing the old gang reunited in anything at this point. The Muppets was a heartwarming confection. It mixed in a lot of sweetness amongst the self knowing cynical jokes to make it one of the best releases of 2011. It made my Top 10 of that year in fact. Muppets Most Wanted, in contrast, is a collection of scattershot humor that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It has positive qualities, but much of the story is just a setup for gags. The story doesn’t really add up. Case in point: Dominic Badguy’s master plan, actually costs an insane amount of money to make it work. It also takes the entire film for Kermit’s lifelong friends (with the exception of Animal) to even notice his personality shift.  The fact is a little hard to swallow.  Constantine speaks with a bizarre Russian accent to boot so he doesn’t even sound like Kermit. I’m nitpicking. These issues are unimportant if the laughs are there. There are some sprinkled throughout but they are mild chuckles rather than actual knee-slappers. The picture’s funniest parts, like the “my badge is bigger than yours” bit, were shown in the trailer. The best production number hints at what could have been. When Miss Piggy turns to singer Celine Dion in a moment of crisis, the vocal pairing of the two divas is hilarious. As the two duet on “Something So Right”, the production hits a high note of lunacy that is truly inspired.

Tim’s Vermeer

Posted in Documentary with tags on March 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Tim's Vermeer photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Tim of the title is Tim Jenison a digital video visionary who founded NewTek Inc. in 1985. Vermeer is of course, Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter known for his domestic interior scenes of women mostly. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is perhaps his most celebrated piece. This essentially documents the video software entrepreneur’s desire to explore how Vermeer was able to achieve such photorealistic treatments in the 17th-century. The attention to detail in Vermeer’s work is indeed extraordinary. Furthermore, evidence shows that Vermeer didn’t even bother with preparatory sketches. In 2001, artist David Hockey proposed the idea that some virtuosos relied on optical devices to compose their paintings. His hypothesis was that Vermeer used the camera obscura, a darkened room with an aperture fitted with a lens through which light could enter to form an outside image on the opposite wall inside.

Tim’s Vermeer is not only a document of Vermeer, but also of Tim Jenison a man driven by an obsession. How could Vermeer, a man with apparently no formal training, achieve his creations? The question puzzles Jenison who has no academic foundation either. He hypothesizes that Vermeer utilized a dental sized mirror apparatus in addition to the camera obscura to create his works of art. He then proceeds to reconstruct the actual room depicted in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” building a chair, harpsichord, stained glass windows, and floor tile.  He even gets his own daughter to stand in for the female subject.

This is the study of how a non-artist could construct a masterpiece. For most of the film we watch as Tim attempts to copy the painting. His pursuit occurs over several months. Only a very rich man with deep pockets could possibly endeavor such a colossal undertaking of time and money. At times the experiment is almost like watching paint dry, and the chronicle even acknowledges this.  Yet the results are astonishing nevertheless.  One might suggest that his findings negate Vermeer’s accomplishments. I found quite the opposite. Assuming this is how Vermeer worked, it re-enforces how difficult it was to create his compositions. Tim’s Vermeer is something I’d recommend to anyone with an appreciation for Baroque painting. It probably plays more like a special on public television than as a theatrical movie, but as far as this art history buff is concerned, I was transfixed.

Note: Tim’s Vermeer made the 2014 Documentary Feature shortlist of 15 films, but it did not secure an Oscar nomination.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Grand Budapest Hotel photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Grand Budapest Hotel is a dazzling slice of enchantment. It’s a tale wrapped up in a tale wrapped up in a tale. Try and explicate the nested account and its convoluted evolution threatens to implode upon itself. I’ll admit the chronicle is, shall we say, meticulous?  Ok so naysayers might say tortured. If you‘re not already a Wes Anderson fan, this film won‘t change your mind. But for this aficionado of the auteur, the intricate set up was only the beginning of an exquisite yarn that had me captivated from the get-go.

We begin in the modern day with a young fan reading a book at the grave of a dead novelist. Zoom to 1985, the writer is played by Tom Wilkinson who recalls a time that he stayed at the hotel. We then flashback to 1968. That same writer is now Jude Law interacting with F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Zero Moustafa. As the hotel’s old owner, Moustafa reminisces about a time when the place was more opulent. Another flashback to a grander time, 1932 to be exact, where we meet the boyish Moustafa now played by Tony Revolori. The main narrative concerns the friendship that develops between M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), as the hotel’s respected concierge, and the youthful Moustafa who becomes his devoted protégé.

Have you marveled at the depth of acting talent on display? I’ve only barely begun to name-drop. Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are all present and accounted for. The latter’s presence in a Wes Anderson film shouldn’t be a surprise, yet his role as the concierge at Excelsior Palace, Grand Budapest’s rival hotel, was greeted with cheers of applause at my screening. Despite the expanded cast, everyone adds value. But I digress.

Wes Anderson has done a most noble thing. He has taken the fabric of a genuine reality and formed an alternate universe. His amalgamation alludes to history but manipulated to suit his romantic world. The Grand Budapest Hotel is located in the Republic of Zubrowka. I’d place the fictional European nation somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Hungary. The proper saga begins in 1932, a year when elections in Germany would appoint Hitler as the head of government. A time between the two world wars, still several years before the outbreak of WW2, Yet Germany, Hitler, Nazis and Jews are never mentioned. The SS for example is actually the ZZ — the Zig-Zags. The director has carefully fashioned a drama set within his impressionist vision of a country on the brink of war and the results are intoxicating.

The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel seemingly hinges on the fate of a priceless Renaissance painting. “Boy with Apple” is a key plot device credited to artist Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger, an entirely fictional construct. Once again Anderson’s attention to detail is impressive. The mannerist artwork is impressive in its own right, perhaps something attributed to Albrecht Dürer or Il Bronzino or Hans Holbein the Younger. I can’t decide which. At one point M. Gustave is bequeathed the valuable painting in the will of a wealthy old dowager who has died under mysterious circumstances. The objet d’art represents something over which everyone obsesses. When the canvas is removed from the wall, it’s replaced by a lewd watercolor that suggests Egon Schiele. It’s a hilarious visual joke. Ah but the piece isn’t the point at all. Its existence is really the MacGuffin if you will — an unimportant bit of nonsense deliberately constructed in the same playful spirit as everything else in Wes Anderson’s universe.

The composition of a scene has always taken precedence to actual story in a Wes Anderson picture, but here even more so. The ornate milieu is home to an offbeat comedy that focuses on a missing painting. But what makes the narrative so affecting isn’t the future of the portrait. It’s the fastidiously created world in which our characters live. I could spend pages explicating the distended cast. In the interest of brevity, I’ll merely disclose numero uno: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. As the hotel’s concierge, he is nattily attired and consistently perfumed. Then there is the hotel itself, a beautiful storybook creation that is the soul of the film. The stunning art nouveau palace is highlighted by a funicular and rows of columns. An edifice photographed with an eye for detail not seen since Stanley Kubrick’s ode to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Notice the red lacquer walls in the elevator or the pink pastels of countess Madame D.’s suite. Naturally the architecture is the director’s vision but it’s flawlessly presented through the work of cinematographer and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator, Robert D. Yeoman. One does not simply watch a Wes Anderson film as you would say a pot on the verge of a boil. No you experience it. The Grand Budapest Hotel is best appreciated as a work of art in which to luxuriate in the glorious ambiance of its fastidious charms.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Peabody & Sherman photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn both spirit and style, the feature film Mr. Peabody & Sherman bears little resemblance to the 5 minute cartoons on which it’s based. The brief segments called Peabody’s Improbable History, first aired during The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show in the 1960s. The rudimentary shorts were characterized by primitive artwork and hilarious puns. The writing was snarky and sarcastic. DreamWorks Animation has kept the same basic set-up, but not the tone. Mr. Peabody is a talking dog – athlete, inventor, scientist, and all around super-brain. He has a adopted a 7 year boy named Sherman as his son. The two time-travel back in time meeting famous figures of ancient times. There are a lot, but among those getting significant screen time are Marie Antoinette, Maximilien de Robespierre, King Tut, King Agamemnon, and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s also a subplot concerning an antagonistic school counselor named Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney) who doesn’t think a dog is a fitting guardian for a boy. These are welcome additions but the cast is populated with unwelcome personalities too. Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) is a female classmate of Sherman’s that acts as a bully turned friend. She’s thoroughly annoying and completely unnecessary.

What sets Mr. Peabody and Sherman apart is the anarchistic sense of humor, sexual innuendos only an adult would get, and some mild potty humor. And no, those distinctions are not an improvement.  A Trojan horse appears to be pooping when Greek soldiers exit its rear. “Well Sherman, it looks like we were the butt of that joke” says Mr. Peabody when they shoot out of the back end of the sphinx. Even Bill Clinton pops up to sheepishly admit “I did worse” referencing activities best not even alluded to in a children’s cartoon.  The script has regrettably jettisoned the sophisticated wit of the source material. That’s a shame because this could’ve been an irreverent but educational romp through history. The rather lowbrow take seen here is only tepidly amusing in parts. I suspect a child will respond more favorably to the colorful animation and poop jokes. As I sat watching the seemingly endless credits, I marveled at the sheer number of people involved to create such a derivative product. It’s visually pretty. I enjoyed the look of the action, but story wise it’s an uninspired trip thorough the past.  This has been done much more successfully before. The climax in particularly is obviously lifted by writers raised on 80s comedies. I liked Mr. Peabody & Sherman…………when it was called Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

300: Rise of an Empire

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War with tags on March 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

300: Rise of an Empire photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgOkay let’s see now. Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, BREASTS, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, Pecs Blood, Pecs. That pretty much sizes up the narrative formula of 300: Rise of an Empire. This is the sequel (prequel) to 300, the once cutting edge action/fantasy movie based on the Dark Horse comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Released back in March of 2007, its innovative visual style borrowed from Sin City, favored the appearance of a comic book. Now almost a decade later, the look has been copied (The Spirit, Immortals) and even parodied (Meet the Spartans) to the point where innovative spectacle isn’t enough. We require a story.

Stepping into Gerard Butler’s leather briefs as the star this time around is Sullivan Stapleton who plays Greek general Themistokles. He’s leading the charge against the invading Persian army. The Persian people are once again represented by Xerxes, the giant god/king. You might remember him from part one. He was the eccentric that looked like he was dipped in bronze, adorned with gold chains and then applied Joan Crawford eyebrows. He’s ticked off because Themistokles killed his father. Xerxes thinks he’s calling the shots, but he’s really just a puppet of Artemisia, the queen/commander of his naval fleet. As portrayed by Eva Green, she is the real star of the show. Following years in captivity after being raped by a gang of Greek soldiers, she is out for revenge. That is a pretty good reason to be upset. So after you hear her side of the events, you’ll switch allegiances and root against the Spartans. As the most memorable character, she rises above the mire with her wickedly scene-chewing performance.

Unfortunately characterization, story and drama are pushed aside solely in favor of a dated style that isn’t innovative anymore. Gushing fountains of CGI blood garnish a scene like parsley on a plate. The super slo-mo sepia toned plasma streams across every battle scene. Oh and there are a lot of battle scenes in this picture. It never lets up. Throats are cut, men are beheaded, women are raped. The amount of slaughter shows no subtlety or justification. It’s merely offered up as entertainment for an audience that might have to pay as much as $19.50 to see this filth in IMAX 3D. And let me tell you, the dichromatic visual palette is dark, muddy and not impressive. So save your money and see it in 2D at a bargain priced matinee, if at all.

There are some hilarious lines however. 300 seemed kind of oblivious to the homoerotic subtext of so many half naked muscular gym bodies in a historical context. Seriously, why don’t these men wear armor? On the other hand, 300: Rise of the Empire seems to not only embrace it, but exploit it. “You’ve come a long way to stroke your c*** watching real men train,” quips Sparta’s Queen Gorgo upon Themistokles’ arrival. Later Themistokles proudly states, “I have spent my life on my one true love — the Greek fleet.“  Naturally he says this right before a most ridiculous sex scene between him and the seductive Artemisia. There is so much punching, choking and hair pulling, it’s unclear whether they’re making love or physically assaulting each other. Once they’re done she deadpans “You fight much harder than you f***” on his performance. Ouch!

The triumph of the few against the many was unquestionably a more engaging plot point in the first film than the ugly tale of revenge on display here. You can laugh at the unmitigated excess of the saga and try to appreciate it on that level. Unfortunately all the carnage without any redeeming value gets pretty mind numbing after awhile. 300: Rise of an Empire is too witless to really enjoy. Surprisingly this became a huge success which proves that an interesting script is not required of a hit.  300: Rise of An Empire did $45.1M in its opening weekend.  Expect studio execs to dust off other 7 year old properties now. Wild Hogs 2 anyone?

Non-Stop

Posted in Action, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Non-Stop photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIn the grand tradition of aviation movies like Red Eye and Flightplan comes Non-Stop. Star Liam Neeson is clearly in his comfort zone playing, what else, a badass. Okay so he’s in fact a U.S. Federal Air Marshal. But Bill Marks has a past. His daughter died when she was 8 and his wife has since divorced him. He’s an alcoholic AND he smokes too. These days smoking cigarettes is pretty much the same thing as shooting up heroin as far as the cinema is concerned. So we’re already wary of him. He even duct tapes the vents in the airplane lavoratory so he can light up without tripping the smoke detectors. Yet he gives us reason to care. Liam Neeson is incredibly charismatic as the lead character. Let’s face it. Taken and Unknown have given the actor enough practice where he can now play a tough, but likable, ultra-cool mofo in his sleep. And I got to hand it to the guy.  He’s in his 60s and he’s carved a nice little niche in these action roles where others have failed at this age.  Sorry Arnold.

Speaking of Unknown, Non-Stop reunites the star with the same director, Jaume Collet-Serra. I like the director’s style. He’s a dependable type that knows how to keep the chronicle moving so we are never bored (or reflect on the plausibility of what is happening). Most of the picture takes place in the tiny cramped, quarters of an airline cabin and you could hardly pick a more tense environment in our post 9/11 world.  Midway on a transatlantic flight from New York City to London, Marks begins receiving cryptic text message on his personal phone. The anonymous intruder demands $150 million dollars to be transferred into a secure account or a passenger will die every 20 minutes.

The screenwriters have stockpiled the trip with a sampling of cultural identities and temperaments to make the guessing game a bit more confusing. Every time someone gives a dirty look (and there are a lot), we’re meant to think, “It’s him! It’s him! It’s totally him!” The shifting blame of who’s responsible is fairly effective.  Neeson is surrounded by an engaging cast. I was surprised to see Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant . This year’s Supporting Actress Oscar winner took the part after filming 12 Years a Slave but before her performance was received with universal acclaim. Her generic role here allows her to utter maybe 3 lines. I suspect she can say goodbye to being cast in this fashion from now on.

As developments happen, and the evidence starts to pile up, Bill Marks himself appears to be culprit. That secure account for example? It’s in his own name. Is this all an elaborate set up to make him appear guilty or is he indeed the villain. Without giving anything away, I was convinced I knew “whodunit” only to be proven wrong in the end. That’s not because this is a smartly written, coherent mystery, but because the story doesn’t really play fair with the audience. It obscures information it doesn’t want you to have, then throws in red herrings that cloud the truth even further. Given that a substantial amount of time involves him receiving text messages from the extortionist, you’d think that all he’d have to do is merely watch the passengers to see who keeps texting him. He actually attempts to do this at one point, but apparently he isn’t thorough enough because it leads to absolutely nothing. I’m being overly critical however. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t entertained. I was, immensely in fact. This is a nifty little thriller that will captivate your attention for most of its running time. It’s very enjoyable. It’s just that by the end when everything is made known, you kind of feel betrayed. The reveal doesn’t really equal the sum total of the clues that we’ve seen. But eh I liked it anyway.