Archive for May, 2014

Maleficent

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 31, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Maleficent photo starrating-3stars.jpgMaleficent is a re-imaging of the awesome baddie from Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. That film was adapted from fairy tales by Charles Perrault and The Brothers Grimm. In this new version the narrative is told from a different point of view. The evil sorceress is actually just misunderstood. She is merely a bold fairy in charge of guarding the enchanted forest in the Moors. When the very boy with whom she shared a meaningful friendship/love as a young girl, grows up to betray her, she seeks revenge.

Alice in Wonderland, Oz The Great and Powerful – Disney has a fondness for these live action fantasies based on written works. And why not?  They’ve been a cash cow for the company. Unfortunately, despite their ability to slay at the box office, the productions simply haven’t been very good. Weak story, poor pacing, dreary characters and an over reliance on CGI have made these episodes rather depressing. Now the talented production designer of those movies has made his feature directing debut. Robert Stromberg has in fact won two Oscars for Art Direction (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) Regrettably Maleficent is plagued by some of the same troubles that have tainted the studio’s previous forays into this genre. Stromberg is clearly preoccupied with the visual language to the detriment of plot.

The movie Maleficent has some serious issues. The most glaring being the extensive use of CGI that seemingly infects every scene. Computer graphics are used indiscriminately just to make the grass greener, the sky bluer and La Jolie‘s skin more radiant. Even the actors have been manipulated. Three bumbling flower pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) raise the baby Aurora in the woods until she is 16. The actresses’ faces have been shrunken down to minute size and they are freakish. From the coterie of cutesy critters that overpopulate the forest to the supporting cast, nothing in this picture looks organic. Yet Maleficent ultimately manages to rise above those problems.

The saga develops around a character with a specific point. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton promotes a clear understandable story and the script adheres to a definite dramatic arc. A couple memorable scenes demonstrates this beautifully. The horrific moment in which Maleficent makes a startling discovery is a shocking violation. The act suggests a real world analogy that only an adult would grasp. The original cartoon began with the royal christening of the princess. That scene occurs later in this chronicle but it’s possibly the most iconic spectacle here. It is a brilliant manifestation of the power that Maleficent wields as a sorceress and Angelina Jolie holds as an actress. The new king (and queen) must contend with the curse placed upon their daughter Aurora. The plot steals an innovative twist from Disney’s own Frozen which in turn drew generous inspiration from Broadway’s Wicked. There isn’t much particularly original or fresh in this tale. However, what it does have is Angelina Jolie in a pitch perfect part that raises the entertainment value significantly.

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent, a Disney cartoon villain beautifully brought to real life. Her portrait is a self consciously affected, visually immaculate rendering of the evil fairy. Her sophisticated execution has an artful physicality to it. She is obviously enjoying the role with an exhilarated air that is contagious. Whether it be with an arched brow or a curl of the lips, her scenery chewing performance commands your attention with her stylized manner. She possesses the ability to captivate an audience even when virtually everything else around her is a disappointment. Chief among these problems is the preponderance of CGI that clutters the screen to no benefit. Although she’s ably supported by members of her fellow cast. Elle Fanning is sweetly captivating as Princess Aurora and Sam Riley is emotionally affecting as Diaval, a raven that becomes the witch’s loyal human servant. The less said about Sharlto Copley as King Stefan and his increasingly inscrutable character, the better. None of it matters. In the end, this is Jolie’s movie. It begs the question, can a performance be so transcendent that it can save an entire film? With Maleficent, the answer is, yes, yes it can.

05-30-14

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The Lunchbox

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on May 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Lunchbox photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA lonely housewife lovingly cooks a spectacular lunch for her husband at work. Regrettably he has lost interest in her and her attempt is meant to rekindle a spark. The feast is accidentally delivered to an accountant who regularly has his order made by a local restaurant. After her husband comes home, he offers no reaction to the delectable lunch and she realizes he never even received the meal that she prepared. However she’s intrigued that the metal tins have come back completely empty. This inspires a correspondence with the stranger via messages passed back and forth in the containers.

The Lunchbox is dependable comfort food that still manages to be a little unconventional. Our tale takes place in Mumbai, India.  We’re introduced to their historically reliable delivery system where a network of 5,000 dabbawalas deliver lunches to office workers so they can eat a home cooked meal.  The picturesque culture adds a uniqueness to the story at hand.  Actor Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spider-Man, Life of Pi) is Saajan, a withdrawn widower and actress Nimrat Kaur is Ila, the lonesome woman with whom he converses through notes. They’re two yearning souls and they engage our emotions. In this age of social networking and email, the quaint reliance on handwritten notes is rather poetic.  Their interaction touches the heart. The emotion feels fresh and innovative despite the fact that the narrative concept really isn’t. This subject has been done before. Most famously with The Shop Around the Corner which in turn was the basis for You’ve Got Mail.   It’s worth mentioning the supporting players as well. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh, his replacement at work that Saajan must train. Shaikh’s passion for learning is infectious. There’s also Ila’s hilarious friendship with her never seen, but loudly heard upstairs neighbor.  Ila affectionately calls the woman “Auntie” and her advice is good as gold.

For a movie that relies heavily on the seductive qualities of food, The Lunchbox rarely dwells on the culinary delights prepared. It’s hard not to think the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity to seduce the audience with the wonders of Indian cuisine. After all, in this parable food speaks louder than words ever could. What we do get is a nice romance that unfolds in a very delicate and deliberate manner. Ila is melancholy but radiant. Saajan is a stoic sourpuss. Both mature as a result of knowing each other. There’s real drama in their interaction. At times it’s so subtle and precious, we have to fill in the blanks as to what people are feeling. This translates into what they ultimately do. I won’t spoil the conclusion, but it’s as if the screenwriters think a tidy resolution is too predictable. Still, there’s a lot to love, particularly the sensitive relationship that evolves among the principals. It’s just that the desultory ending is a serious letdown after such a promising buildup. I found it frustratingly unsatisfying. The finish left me hungry for more.

05-28-14

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

X-Men: Days of Future Past photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOne wouldn’t think the seventh entry in a series would be cause for excitement, but X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP) is a rousing episode in the franchise. For one thing, it is a deft merger of X-Men films. The cast of the original trilogy is united with their younger counterparts of the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s a tribute to Simon Kinberg’s script that for all its characters and detailed exposition, DOFP still manages to present an intelligible story. The time-traveling that begins with a dystopian future in the year 2023 then jumps back to 1973 where most of the chronicle takes place. A word of caution: anyone not up on their X-Men history will require a brief primer to bring yourself up to speed with mutant lore. In addition to the ever-shifting allegiances and objectives, there’s a host of new people. The Avengers had a meager 6 superheroes. DOFP has an astounding 20+ mutants. Thankfully most of these (Storm, Iceman, Bishop, Colossus) are merely window dressing in the background. Others get a few lines (Shadowcat, Beast, Quicksilver). Only Wolverine, Mystique (Raven), Professor X and Magneto are truly indispensable mutants. The narrative wisely focuses on them.

The majority of DOFP takes place a decade after the events of First Class in 1973. A smart move, given that it was the previous apex of this anthology. Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is an important new villain. A dangerous extremist, he advocates robots called Sentinels to protect humans from the mutant threat. We’re presented an alternate storyline of what originally happened. In an effort to put an end to his madness, Mystique assassinated him. Ironically this would ultimately cause more harm than good. As a result, she is captured and her shapeshifting power is harnessed to engineer the unstoppable Sentinel robots. They ultimately lead to the complete annihilation of life as we know it. That’s the grim scene that opens the film. So the mutants decide to send Wolverine back in time to stop Mystique from causing an event that triggers the Sentimental program. Will the mutants be successful? Wolverine will have to enlist the help of their younger mutant selves.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the very best of a decent franchise. It marks the return of director Bryan Singer who helmed the first two respected entries before the collection took a serious nosedive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and those two Wolverine-centric movies.  He entertainingly combines multiple entries into a coherent tale that conveniently incorporates a lot of fan service. That this doesn’t feel like the climax it should be, but rather another setup to further sequels is a bit regrettable. DOFP doesn’t introduce innovation to the formula. “Humans cannot be trusted” vs. “Can’t we all just get along?” mentalities continue to propel the dramatic discussion with Magneto and Professor X each representing the respective arguments.  But why quibble? There are great moments here that transcend all others in the series. Chief among them is a jailbreak featuring new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who can move at supersonic speeds. He must free Magneto from a prison cell beneath The Pentagon at one point. How he accomplishes the task is a dazzling sequence in slow motion that displays more inventiveness and wit than anything else in the entire picture. It’s a peak that kind of makes you wish the whole saga had been about him.

05-22-14

Chef

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on May 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Chef photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgChef is about following your passions. I love the fact that writer/director/star Jon Favreau still has time for these pet projects. An executive chef drama doesn’t exactly scream mainstream Hollywood blockbuster.  Jon Favreau started out writing more intimate ventures in the beginning of his career. Swingers is a classic to people of a certain generation. After Jon Favreau’s achievement directing Iron Man 1 & 2, it would seem sensible to continue with big budget Hollywood fare. Let’s face it, that is where the money is. Perhaps it was the middling success of Cowboys & Aliens that prompted this return to his roots. The narrative thrust could easily be taken as a metaphor for his own life.  Chef is clearly a personal project. It concerns rekindling your lust for life. Certainly making a living doing what you genuinely love, but also placing an emphasis on things that matter like family.

When Ramsey Michel, an important food blogger announces his visit to a popular LA eatery, head chef Carl Caspar sees it as his opportunity to get creative and dazzle him with new creations. But restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) will have none of it. He wants to rely on their old standbys, dishes that have long been a staple of the popular restaurant. Carl follows orders. The result gets a nasty review that reads more like a personal attack. It’s interesting to note that there is a subtlety to this critic character portrayed by Oliver Platt. We’re obviously meant to not like him. However his negative review is borne out of a frustrated disappointment from eating uninspired cuisine. In truth, Ramsey Michel deeply believes chef Carl to be talented. Anyways, the bad experience has repercussions. Carl is inspired to make some changes in his life.

You need not be a foodie to appreciate the merits of Chef. The film was surely made by people who appreciate culinary delights, but this passion translates on screen to the regular movie-goer. One of the things that Chef gets really right has nothing to do with food at all. Our digital media age and the power of social networks, in particular Twitter, is perfectly represented. Carl’s feud with the aforementioned food critic begins online. The ability for news to travel throughout the Internet and go viral, that is spread in seconds to the masses, is exploited with humorous results. Jon Favreau is sort of an innocent and his ignorance to the service is humorously explained by his tech savvy son. His awkwardness to the technology and its effect on his business are fun to watch. Emjay Anthony’s performance as the smart tyke is refreshing. He’s precocious but not in an annoying way.

And then of course there’s the food. Chef is the latest in a long line of food porn movies. I’m talking Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Big Night (1996), Ratatouille (2007) Julie & Julia (2009). Movies that lovingly present the beauty of food so that it elicits a physical reaction from an audience. The creations are so seductive you feel as though you could almost taste them. If I need to further my case, right after seeing this movie, I felt compelled to visit La Bodeguita Del Medio, a local hangout in Palo Alto and ordered the Cuban sandwich, one of many dishes highlighted. I suggest going to the movie hungry because you will want to eat immediately after, even on a full stomach. If there’s a quibble, it’s that his success all comes too easily. I would’ve preferred a bit more conflict. The story doesn’t yield many surprises. The script encourages one to do what they love. Good luck will follow. Maybe not pursuing what we truly love is motivated by a fear of failure. Chef is a dear statement from Jon Favreau and I loved what he was putting down. It’s a unique picture, particularly for the Summer. We need more movies like this. You should seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

05-17-14

Godzilla

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Godzilla photo starrating-4stars.jpgGodzilla takes its time. It’s a slow burn, deliberate set up to a climax that truly delivers. Let’s face it. In this day and age special effects are the one constant that we can almost always assume will be done correctly. Godzilla most assuredly delivers in this area, but it goes further. The exhibition deeply delights so that we have a reason to care. Its well calculated build is emotionally designed to captivate the senses on a noticeable level. Much in the same way a roller coaster can provide a perceptible high, Godzilla delivers a release not unlike an amusement park ride. It’s a superficial thrill, but still no less substantial.

Director Gareth Edwards understands that sometimes, just the sight of a giant winged beast taking off into the night sky creates a feeling of wonder and awe that is exciting. Indeed it is just as necessary to the foundation as a full on creature assault. If one viewed the overall chronicle as a banquet, these massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) are an appetizer to the main course. While scores of onlookers watch aghast, we the audience share their terror. It is the visual exposition for us to appreciate the climatic battle later. Like a master card player, Edwards bides his time giving us brief glimpses of the lizard. Just the way Godzilla glides through the water as battleships follow tracking his progress. The image is impressive because it has scope. There is a regard in just existing.  Yes he could’ve had Godzilla attack 15 minutes into the film, but then he would’ve played his hand too quickly and diminished the exhilaration of what is to come. He builds to a rousing climax like a conductor manipulating an orchestra as it rises to a crescendo. It must gradually intensify with well placed sonic bursts. A symphony cannot be all highs. If it was, then nothing would be.

I hesitate to even mention the human actors in Godzilla because they really aren’t that important. Gareth Edwards uses well built Aaron Taylor-Johnson and emotionally devoted wife Elizabeth Olsen to put a face on the human devastation. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are his nuclear physicist parents. Cranston is that guy, you know the one. The conspiracy theorist that warns about a cover-up when no one will listen. Hmmm wonder if he’ll be proven correct? Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are scientists who have been studying MUTOs. David Strathairn is a U.S. general in charge of fighting the creature. All of their presence is rather perfunctory yet they are essential constructs through which to push the story forward. We need SOMEONE to follow so we can appreciate what’s happening on a human level, but they are merely a microcosm of a much larger picture. They provide an intimacy to the grand scale.  Like Spielberg did with Jaws, Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds before, Edwards recognizes that we need the drama of human involvement. One could argue these characters could’ve been more engaging and I wouldn’t disagree with that point. The fact that, when studied closely, the humans are rather dull, isn’t actually a problem. The real show aren’t the humans at all, it’s the freakin’ monster we do battle with.

Godzilla originates in Japan, then visits Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco on his itinerary. Godzilla had a definite awareness for time and place. The script is aware of the past. But it’s also cognizant of the current world and our place in it. What happened at Hiroshima for example is mentioned but is treated with a reverence that doesn’t feel glib. There’s a gravitas here that the much more campy Pacific Rim never had. While that film was silly fun, there’s undoubtedly a thrilling excitement to be found in Godzilla’s movie realism. Yet there’s also a refreshing simplicity to the proceedings. There’s a little cautionary tale stuff thrown in, but none of it makes much of an impression to be a buzzkill. Thankfully, the story’s main objective is to entertain not educate.

If nothing else, Godzilla is a spectacle of the highest caliber. There are some stunning set pieces. Watching paratroopers dive from a plane into ground zero has a poetic beauty. The billowing red smoke released as they fall may distract the creature in purpose but it also looks very cool on film. Godzilla’s special effects are extraordinary. Not because we get a non-stop litany of explosions and pyrotechnics but because there’s a physicality to him. Godzilla genuinely seems like an organic living breathing thing because he moves like a giant mutant of that size would if it existed. When Godzilla lets out his first ear splitting, theater shaking roar, I felt the earth move. Sound effects editing takes a giant leap forward. The excitement in that auditorium was palpable as if we were collectively witnessing rebirth of sound in cinema. Gareth Edwards makes us believe that a giant lizard really did destroy San Francisco.

05-15-14

Belle

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

Belle photo starrating-4stars.jpgBelle is the story of a bi-racial woman who was the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy officer. Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) is a well meaning man, who wants to do the right thing after the death of Belle’s mother, a slave of African ancestry. Apparently people were aware that this sort of thing happened, they just didn’t talk about it. While off to fight, he leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Chief Justice, at his estate of Kenwood House. He and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) are also raising another niece, Elizabeth Murray, and so the two will be raised as sisters of sorts. Surrounded by wealth and privilege, her upbringing is going to test the social mores of the day. On the surface, Belle is one of those well meaning period dramas that seeks to educate while it entertains.

I must admit, I am a sucker for a good costume drama. A British screenwriter of Nigerian ancestry, Misan Sagay was inspired by a real 18th century painting that currently hangs at Scotland’s Scone Palace. It presents the racially mixed Dido Elizabeth Belle as an equal with her white sister/cousin, Elizabeth Murray. At first, the drama concerns Belle’s place in society. Her race and class have different dictates than that of her sister, In theory, these period pieces often become victims to anachronistic sensibilities as colored through the historical revisionism of modern views. We can watch from a enlightened distance with 300 years of history on our side. Belle is good enough to fit comfortably with the works of Jane Austen. If the social consciousness seems a bit 2014, rest assured the melodrama has a genuine feel for time and place. That these qualms never really become an issue while watching Belle is testament to the stirring performances of the main cast.

Where Belle really gets interesting is when it delves into the history of the era. The details of the Zong slave-ship massacre becomes a landmark case in the courts. Lord Mansfield is the Chief Justice presiding over the case when the insurance company refuses to pay for the loss of the human cargo. He must determine whether the slave trading company can collect on the slaves that were deliberately thrown overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. Will Belle’s influence have an effect on him? Woven into this account is a would-be suitor (James Norton) whose mother is tempted by Belle’s sizeable dowry. After all she is still heir to her father‘s fortune. His brother is a hissable villain played by Malfoy, er uh pardon me, Tom Felton. There’s also an idealistic abolitionist (Sam Reid) of a lower class who provides some romantic spark. The cast is uniformly great, but none better than Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a British woman of South African descent. She embodies the title role with dignity and grace. Her personality is restrained, yet resolved. A gorgeous countenance highlighted by her remarkably expressive eyes which convey all manner of emotion without words. Belle is captivating and presages the arrival of an exciting new talent.

05-11-14

Neighbors

Posted in Comedy with tags on May 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Neighbors photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgMac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are a young couple with a baby who’ve recently moved to the suburbs. When the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door to theirs, mayhem ensues. Their differing values give birth to rising tensions in the neighborhood. You’d think the saga would be about the rude, obnoxious frat boys pitted against the uptight intolerant thirty-somethings, but you’d be wrong. That is merely the beginning of where this culture clash comedy deviates from conventions.

The principals do not fit neatly within the traditional stereotypes of this genre. Yes the greeks are obsessed with partying at all hours of the night. They even have a shrine to great blowouts over the years on their wall. Yet these adolescents are more compassionate than others of their ilk. The script takes the time to develop distinct personalities among the frat guys. While Teddy (Zac Efron) is an athletic party boy with swagger, Pete (Dave Franco), also a partier, is academically inclined. Teddy and his right-hand dude Pete are sympathetic when dealing with harassment at the hands of the Radners. The adults, Mac and Kelly are overly concerned with trying to appear hip and cool while they assert their need to have peace and quiet at a reasonable hour. Seth Rogen has always hilariously embodied that intellectually stunted adult. Rose Byrne is his equal.

The performances are good across the board. There’s a collection of bros in the fraternity that have speaking lines but Zac Efron and Dave Franco are the ones that get the main focus. They put in memorable work and straddle the line between charismatic and contemptible. They’re more than the arrogant stock characters I expected them to be. Seth Rogen, and Rose Byrne are engaging as the mellowing couple that’s starting to grow up. On the surface Mac and Kelly kind of represent the archetypes made famous on the TV show The King of Queens. The clumsy schlub with a inexplicably hot wife that constantly needles him when he messes up. The self-aware script even has the characters themselves bring up the model simply to subvert it. And let’s not forget their baby! Baby Stella is played by twins Zoey and Elise Vargas.  I only looked this up because I was convinced that she was really a 30-year-old actress who just happened to look like a baby. Her expressions are priceless. What a little scene stealer! In truth Neighbors doesn’t re-invent the wheel. I mean their idea of innovation to make the wife as loud and dumb as her husband. However that is precisely what raises the bar. It overturns expectations.

Neighbors displays a surprisingly amount of empathy for both sides. That’s admirable I suppose. It’s funniest though when the ridiculous pranks push the envelope of what would be considered acceptable hijinks. The comedy excels when it’s a back and forth game of one-upmanship. The biggest laughs come when things develop into all out war. Please do note, it’s the aging Radners that get nastier. By the end, I was actually siding with the fraternity who act more reasonably, although I appreciated the Radners’ willingness to go for broke. The Radner’s earn more laughs. After she sets her evil plan in motion, Rose Byrne’s self assured slow-motion strut at the frat party is everything. This comedy ultimately gets by on raucous vibes. In terms of story, though, this is pretty basic stuff. The dramatic beats of the simplistic tale won’t resonate hours after you’ve seen it. It’s fitfully entertaining for the moment. In many ways, that makes it the perfect summer comedy. It‘s equal parts funny, flashy and fleeting.

05-08-14

The Railway Man

Posted in Biography, Drama, War with tags on May 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Railway Man photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgEric Lomax was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. He subsequently wrote a book entitled The Railway Man. In it he recounted his horrific persecution on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II.  The same setting detailed in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Remember that film? If not, then go rent that profoundly better movie instead. Seriously. Just go. I command you.

The Railway Man begins in 1980 where Scottish World War II veteran Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets pretty Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) for the first time on a train in a scene that is meant to be delightfully adorable. Kidman does what she can.  However given her stature, we keep expecting the star to become a more integral part. The underwritten role would’ve benefited form a lesser known actress because it’s more of a accessory than a fully formed individual. They both settle into a comfortable existence together as a married couple, but wouldn’t you know it, trouble looms on the horizon. As biopics are often wont to do, this idyllic life is only presented to contrast with the real point of the story. You see Lomax is tortured by repressed memories of his time spent as a Japanese POW. Cue the flashback sequence, a dependable device to be sure, but the bane of every manufactured biopic that has ever been made.

The Railway Man suffers from erratic pacing. These flashback sequences comprise the bulk of the second half of the film. They’re set at the POW camp with actor Jeremy Irvine portraying Lomax as a younger man. He does what he can with a pretty sizeable role, but there is a disconnect. The disturbing events of the past juxtaposed with the placid view of him as an adult don’t jive well. The back and forth is jarring and doesn’t flow into the overall narrative. He builds a radio which the Japanese Army believes he is using to transmit signals. As a result, he must endure the horrors of an abusive prison which include waterboarding.  I get that it’s told from Lomax’s POV but his captors might as well be cardboard cutouts because they have no depth or personality. They merely serve one purpose, to be the antagonists from which Lomax must suffer.   They’re somewhat given a face in actor Tanroh Ishida as Takashi Nagase, an interpreter.

Languidly paced biography is handsomely mounted and well acted but this period melodrama is inert. Colin Firth exemplifies respectful reverence in his depiction of Eric Lomax as a soft genteel man haunted by the past. His posttraumatic stress disorder continues to weigh on him. That sets the stage for the climax. Lomax learns that that Takashi Nagase is now employed as a tour guide. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada is him as an adult. The Japanese soldier who oversaw his torture in 1942 now works at a museum on the very grounds of the prison camp where the two men first met. In an effort to reconcile his feelings, Lomax re-visits Burma several decades later. On paper the developments sound fascinating, but what is undoubtedly an important account is given a very conventional treatment. The film builds to this meeting as a highlight of sorts. Will he find peace or revenge? Colin Firth’s portrait of restrained passivity is both admirable and frustrating. The biopic engages at irregular intervals but it’s so carefully modulated that it feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The Railway Man is ultimately a positive tale and I suppose it gets some sympathy points for that.

05-04-14

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgI’m exercising restraint when I say that The Amazing Spider Man 2 (TASM2) is a staggeringly disorganized, senseless drudgery of a picture. The production is expensively produced, techno-spastic, headache inducing mess. It’s populated by undeveloped roles that merely exist as a prelude to future chapters. TASM2 is not concerned with telling a coherent tale. The narrative is more focused on cramming multiple threads of various origin stories in preparation of the main event later. Apparently these fragments will have meaning not just in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (2016) but also in spin-offs Venom (in development) and The Sinister Six. This recipe for disaster is comprised of 3 parts: A) cluttered action B) multiple narratives left unresolved for later sequels and C) too many antagonists.

When you get right down to it, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t really about Spider-Man at all. It’s about the villains, 3 main ones in my estimation. We’ve got Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) who becomes the Rhino, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who becomes the Green Goblin, and nerdy Max Dillon (a criminally miscast Jamie Foxx) who becomes Electro.  They’ll (presumably) comprise three of the members in the all-villain superteam known as The Sinister Six. Sony is clearly trying to beef up their stake in their Marvel property in a nod that seeks to compete with Disney and their Marvel universe centered around The Avengers. There are numerous other characters too. I have neither the strength nor desire to list them all here but surprisingly few exhibit any originality or nuance. Case in point, actor Marton Csokas weirdly channels Dr. Strangelove to play Dr. Ashley Kafka, the founder of the Ravencroft Institute. A notable exception is Sally Field as Aunt May who is a refreshing ocean of calm in a sea of madness.

Spider-Man is on somewhat more solid ground when he is allowed to be Peter Parker and not some CGI blur zipping across the screen. A technological exhibition doesn‘t engage the emotions like a personality. Scenes invoking humanity are preferable, although it’s really stretching credibility to have a man in his 30s pretending to graduate high school.  Garfield portrays Peter Parker as a smug hipster. He even self-knowingly whistles the Spider-Man TV theme. Unfortunately his supposedly spontaneous witticisms come off as shtick and not as the lighthearted banter I believe was written to endear us to the superhero. His interactions with girlfriend Gwen Stacy feel like manufactured affectations that cause the couple to conventionally fall in love, break up, get back together at various intervals for the sole purpose of romantic conflict. Their ersatz charm is sheer torture to anyone who values sincerity. A heinous screenplay derails even quiet moments that should be making us give a care in between explosions.

The whole production is a labor intensive chore to watch. We are presented with a visual and aural assault on the senses. The over-abundance of special effects are so chaotic at times that the brain cannot even reconcile what is happening. The battles are computer generated imagery where people are irrelevant. Take the fight sequences between combatants. Spider-Man is wearing a mask. Electro is a glowing blue humanoid. They’re thrust into a cacophonous light display of sound and fury that is an animated nightmare. A significant portion of the movie holds literally nothing organic on screen. There are bolts of lightning, crashes and pyrotechnics. The destruction of Times Square should be an awe inspiring experience but the event barely incites any concern from the audience. It gets lost in the annihilation of all the public property – the financial repercussions of which are never addressed. Of course you’re not meant to think about such things. This is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, a holding pattern if you will, that connects parts 1 and 3. The film is a glorified advertisement for upcoming installments. TASM2 is not a movie, it’s a 142 minute trailer, and very unsatisfying one at that.