Archive for June, 2014

Snowpiercer

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Snowpiercer photo starrating-5stars.jpgSnowpiercer is a work of art. A genre busting, amalgamation of action, drama and science fiction, that seamlessly weaves the qualities of disparate styles into an epic tale about a speeding train. The only survivor left on earth are the passengers on a massive locomotive that holds the sum total of all humanity in a climate controlled environment. Like a speeding bullet, it stops for nothing, circumnavigating the entire globe at one complete revolution per year. It hurtles down a track at lightning speeds across a world engulfed in an icy tundra. Snowpiercer is the first English language film from Bong Joon-ho. Savvy art house crowds might remember him as the director of The Host, a Korean monster-movie hit that was released in the U.S. back in 2007. That presaged a talent to watch but nothing could have prepared audiences for this masterpiece.

Working from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Joon-ho Bong co-writes a screenplay with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Together they fashion a post apocalyptic sci-fi dystopian drama. I know what you’re thinking. Those are a dime a dozen these days. But Snowpiercer is different. Powered by a perpetual motion engine, the locomotive holds humanity in its entirety, delineating the world according to class and rank. This caste system on the train is a visually rendered geometric plane of various cars that extends in 2 directions. In the front we get the elite of society living in luxury. In the very back, we have what you’d called steerage if this was the Titanic. Except the existence of passengers aboard the Snowpiercer is much much worse. They are the proletariat subjected to an oppressive rule that recalls the regime of a dictator. Here is where our impoverished team of protagonists reside. It’s the 2030s. They’ve been captive for 15 years and they’ve had it up to here with their lot in life. Let’s just say, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Snowpiercer is highlighted by a charismatic aggregation of talented actors. Chief among them is Chris Evans as Curtis Everett, an insurgent who leads the uprising. Edgar (Jamie Bell) is his rebellious friend. The elder statesmen of the group is called Gilliam (John Hurt) as in Terry Gilliam, director of Brazil. It’s risky to namecheck the rarefied air of that dystopian classic but Snowpiercer compares favorably. This indigent group also includes Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and Luke Pasqualinoin among others, in key roles that highlight some troubling developments. Along the way their insurrection is aided by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) a fellow prisoner. He’s the security expert who engineered the doors separating each car. He is joined by his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). On the opposite side we have Tilda Swinton, a strict disciplinarian tasked with enforcing the rules. She carries out the orders of Wilford, a higher power at the head of the train. A classroom indoctrinating the children in the virtues of the mighty Wilford is a chilling scene of worship and propaganda. Wilford’s control is reminiscent of the cult of a dictatorship. An all powerful person few have seen but everyone fears and respects.

Snowpiercer is a politically provocative ensemble piece of legendary proportions. A parable that manipulates the medium in impressively dynamic ways which captivate the mind while delighting the eye. It’s a production designer’s dream that makes full use of color, mood and style in representing the various rooms within the train. Amidst the futuristic sci-fi effects is a relentlessly sensational, claustrophobic indie about a revolution. Yes the fight for liberty is not an easy one. There will be blood. But it’s never in a gratuitous sense to appeal to bloodthirsty interests. Rather the struggles are a reminder that freedom is a right that many have died for lest ye ever take those blessings for granted. A nightmarish brawl shot entirely in the dark is uncomfortably scary. Snowpiercer is the greatest kind of picture. An intelligent saga of well crafted action that creatively entertains with a loopy imagination. It’s cinematically dazzling with heart pounding excitement. I’m not sure if this is the best film of 2014 yet, but it’s getting pretty close.

06-27-14

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Transformers: Age of Extinction

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Transformers: Age of Extinction photo starrating-1star.jpgTransformers: Age of Extinction, or Transformers 4 for those keeping track, is almost an unreviewable movie. I don’t even want to tease that I might give this a glowing review. I’ll cut right to the chase and kill that suspense. It’s bad. Oh it’s terrible. But in trying to assess this cacophonous flick I realize it’s like trying to review the sound of a Boeing 747 taking off at 100 feet. If sheer decibels were all that mattered, this film would reign supreme. But this is the world of cinema so there is dialogue involved. If you want to save some money, ($19.50 for IMAX 3D in the SF Bay Area) have a few of your friends scream at each other over the din of the garbage disposal. Now have them do this for the duration of 3 hours and you’ll have the same cinematic experience.

Of course that is to negate the “beauty” of the graphics on screen. I’ll admit that computer generated technology has progressed to a point where these images of machines co-existing with humans is visually interesting at least. I still don’t know how real it looks though. Most of the time scenes of digitally rendered Autobots and Decepticons interacting look like a very impressive animated cartoon. That’s where the sound mixing comes in giving these man-made images a presence that feels somewhat more organic. Every single one of these films has at least gotten an Academy Award nomination in this category. The sound is really impressive and unquestionably the best thing to recommend. It is the only thing.

No attempt is made to confer a unique story. We’re presented virtually the same tale of good vs. evil that we’ve been given in 3 prior installments with minimal adjustments. As a result of the destructive battle of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), good Autobots and bad Decepticons are now both seen as an enemy of the state. Their persecution is overseen by an evil government agent (is there another kind?) played by Kelsey Grammer. With the human race no longer trusting Transformers, the Autobots have gone into hiding. Cut to regular dude Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) who’s got the mind of an inventor and the build of a weightlifter. One day he purchases an old broken down semi-truck. He intends to sell its parts for money so his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) can pay for college. She’s supposed to be 17 but walks around in short shorts that seem to shrink in each successive scene. The truck turns out to be the Autobots leader Optimus Prime in disguise. The discovery compels these people to join forces with the remaining Autobots. Together they must defend themselves against a hostile government and the swelling ranks of the human made Deceptions bent on destroying all human life into extinction.

Director Michael Bay has overseen this franchise and built an impressive resume of hits that rake in the big bucks at the box office. Michael Bay has established a pretty recognizable style that has been quite successful. By now you pretty much know what you’re getting with his product. I don’t feel the need to write more about this tired franchise. It’s pretty safe to say that my review or any other critique for that matter, will have little bearing on your decision to see or avoid this. What I can assess is whether a fan would enjoy the picture within the context of the franchise. The previous low point was Revenge of the Fallen, the second entry. I dare say this just might top that entry in awfulness. It’s probably not a deal breaker for a devotee because you’re still going to gets lots of metal crushing metal and explosions that go BOOM. However if we are to judge this as a film based on plot, script, direction, acting and the oppressive length, it’s a heinous decline from Bay’s previous efforts.

06-26-14

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

06-24-14

Jersey Boys

Posted in Biography, Drama, Musical with tags on June 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jersey Boys photo starrating-2stars.jpgGod help the filmmaker that attempts to adapt a jukebox musical from the stage into a filmed movie. At its most basic, that type of production relies on previously released popular songs for its score. A success will enthrall a music lover who wants to hear a lot of beloved songs strung together in service of a loosely defined plot. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is sort of an example of that, but it originated as a film first. The jukebox musical on Broadway is a newer phenomenon. Examples date back to the 70s but it wasn’t until the 90s that the phenomenon really exploded. The triumph of Mamma Mia!, both as a performed play and as a movie really caused the trend to break out. Despite the film‘s huge box office, I still find it absolute torture to sit through. And I enjoy ABBA‘s music. Ditto the movie version of Rock of Ages, another bit of theater based on 70s hair metal bands. What works in a live Broadway show setting doesn’t usually translate so well into the film medium.

The Broadway smash Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. From working class roots to hit making sensation on the charts, their story made for a lively, if somewhat predictable musical detailing an Italian-American success story. How a nice sweet boy named Francesco Castelluccio became Frankie Valli. John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony award winning role. Joining Frankie are local bad boys Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The group finally reaches its hit making potential with the addition of keyboardist-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). They’re guided under the direction of producer Bob Crewe (played by Mike Doyle).

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation is so devoid of life it would be better suited to a mausoleum than a cinema. There is no joy in the narrative, just a mundane checklist as it applies one cliché after another on the group’s rise to the top: angry wife at home, check, infighting within the group, check, conclusion at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame complete with (horrible) old age makeup, check. Everything is presented at arm’s length as if the audience is observing an accident from afar. The Four Seasons rise to popularity is presented in the most blasé fashion as if the group expected to become a household name. Where is the joy in becoming stars? Even their parents, who play an important part in the early scenes, are never involved once they become famous. Later the Four Seasons appear on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Each event is presented like just another gig. It doesn’t help than the acting is rather bland, only really coming alive during those musical numbers. The best performances here are interesting for their camp value. Mike Doyle as flamboyant record producer Bob Crewe, gives a particularly swishy performance and Renée Marino as Frankie Valli’s wife is unintentionally funny when arguing with her husband. They’re both animated at least which is a lot more than I can say for the rest of the film.

It’s clear that Clint Eastwood doesn’t understand the first thing about making a musical. He grossly mishandles the source material. What made the original such a joy was the wonderful plethora of hit songs from the Four Seasons, not the generic Behind the Music-style story. Eastwood highlights the weakest aspects of the play while de-emphasizing the music. The elephantine length clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it feels twice that long. It is a laborious chore to sit through. It’s a full hour before we even hear a recognizable Four Seasons song. Granted the singing is the best part. That’s because the music is inherently good. But the musical numbers are realized with all the excitement of a trip to the dentist. They should be lively and innovative. Instead the actors come out, hit their mark, sway while they sing and leave. This is a movie for goodness sakes. You could do things here with color, lights, effects, to punch up the production that you can’t on the stage. Music videos take advantage of this fact, why can’t this movie? There’s one example of that spirit in the whole picture. It happens at the end as they are rolling the credits. Oh what Bill Condon or Baz Luhrmann could have done with this material.

06-22-14

Ida

Posted in Drama with tags on June 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ida photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRoad movie about a religiously minded woman who joins forces with a skeptic. The two travelers are on a quest to uncover a truth obscured by a scandalous history. If that sounds like I’m describing 2013’s Philomena, you‘d be making the same associations as I. Yet there is a major difference. That Best Picture nominee was like a sentimentalized fabrication of Hollywood by comparison. Ida is the story of an orphaned teenager (Agata Trzebuchowska) in 1960s Poland on her away to becoming a nun. Before Ida’s vows can be taken, however, she is instructed to first pay a visit to her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Her only living relative has served Poland’s Stalinist regime as a former justice with an infamous reputation as a hanging judge.

A stark environment boldly highlights Ida’s introduction into a world she has never experienced. Through it all we are mesmerized by her face, a quiet 18 year old who has been fairly sheltered thus far in her young existence. Ida’s reactions are rather dependent on visual cues. Her beautiful but stoic countenance barely registering the range of varying emotions you know she deeply understands. Her devout behavior is a contrast to Wanda, a woman who smokes, drinks, and enjoys the company of men. Wanda reveals notable details of Ida’s life with an unblinking pragmatism.

Ida is an anti-movie in today’s world of visually enhanced 3D, color saturated computer generated imagery. Austere, black and white cinematography utilizes a 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s not in widescreen folks. Did I mention it has subtitles? It’s slow moving and subdued, but still a deeply felt contemplation. The production is full of beautifully composed compositions in somber detail. I sensed the inspiration of director Ingmar Bergman. You might perceive Roberto Rossellini.  Ida’s spiritual expedition is an awakening. But it’s also an examination of her aunt. This is actually the study of two women: the worldly vs. the innocent.  Their pilgrimage, both a physical and mental one, plays out over a scant 80 minutes. It definitely feels longer given the deliberate pace of the narrative. Still, the picture is never boring as Ida’s journey of self discovery is consistently compelling.

06-18-14

22 Jump Street

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

22 Jump Street photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOfficers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back in this follow-up to the wildly popular 2012 hit 21 Jump Street. There isn’t much new or fresh added to the original idea of the first. Sequels are usually more of the same, just bigger with an increased budget. The whole production is rather pointless, but that IS the point. Familiarity is a major component of the laughs. The truth is, the only thing a comedy really needs to be, is funny and 22 Jump Street is indeed that.

I don’t even think the narrative matters but here’s a little recap anyway. Instead of high school this time, the two go undercover at a local college. They’re out to investigate a new designer drug called WHYPHY (pronounced Wi-Fi) which the students are using to help them study. Instead of locating their base of operations in the Korean church at 21 Jump Street, this satire has them setting up headquarters on the opposite side at 22 Jump Street. That’s the level of humor on display here. The screenplay keeps everything that made the original hilarious and even a few things that didn’t. The first movie’s villains Dave Franco and Rob Riggle cameo as prisoners whose interaction is profoundly unfunny. It borders on embarrassing. However, there are new additions like Jillian Bell as Mercedes, a college student that sees right through Schmidt’s weak cover.  Her deadpan delivery had me in stitches. Whenever she appears, the scene springs to life. Then there’s the twins that occupy the dorm room across the hall. As portrayed by the Lucas Bros., they provide an off kilter stoned out presence that is reminiscent of Cheech & Chong. In the words of Keith Staskiewicz, they’re “so laid-back, they’re practically lying down.”

22 Jump Street is keenly aware of itself in every way possible. The picture is one big meta joke. Nick Offerman’s grumpy police chief shows up in the beginning to explain we’re going to do EXACTLY the same thing as before. Just in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title, the trailer and everything we’ve seen prior to his appearance. What, are we dead? Three main themes are beaten into the ground ad nauseam. One, that the actors know they are making a sequel, Two, that the principals look too old to be in college, and three that the male camaraderie between work partners Schmidt and Jenko have the superficial characteristics of a romantic relationship. The script persists in exploiting different ways to make gags about these topics. For the most part, they are amusing, but I don’t know how much longer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can continue in this vein. There’s a final bit regarding the ongoing monotony of additional episodes in the future: 23 Jump Street, 24 Jump Street, etc. It’s presented as if doing so would be a joke. I hope so. I am not too keen on a protracted franchise that makes fun of routine by being routine.

06-15-14

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

How to Train Your Dragon 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA lot has changed in the 5 years since the Viking village of Berk made peace with the dragons. Thanks to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), he proved they could be our allies.  With all due respect to dogs, the reptiles have become man’s best friend in every way.  No longer feared, dragons are a part of everyday life. This includes the dizzying sport of dragon racing which opens the picture. Combatants compete atop dragons by scooping sheep and throwing them into nets. However our teen protagonist, the awkward yet sensitive Hiccup, is nowhere to be found. His father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), wants his son to succeed him as chief of Berk. Hiccup is avoiding the issue. Instead he is hanging with “Toothless”, his Night Fury dragon. He and his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), come across a group of dragon trappers. They are in the service of a crazed madman out to conquer the world.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that most rarest of sequels, one that not only feels like a necessary extension of the original but then improves upon it. Indeed the script admirably propels the story forward in a meaningful way. This is the legend of a Viking hero‘s progression from boy into manhood. Should I forgo the obligatory paragraph about how gorgeous the artwork is? That should be expected these days, right? We are spoiled in this area like never before. Yet even with my lofty expectations, there are still spectacles where I audibly gasped. Stunning exhibitions show off the breathtaking array of different dragon species out there. Like butterflies they swarm in displays too dazzling to describe. And I won’t even mention the impressive new Bewilderbeast, the biggest of all the dragons. A gargantuan spiky dragon with two big mammoth-like tusks – truly a sight to behold. Ok so I brought him up anyway. I couldn’t resist.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 represents a remarkable leap in narrative complexity. This is an epic that details the self discovery and personal revelations of an individual. Hiccup must contend with various personalities that enrich his own experience and ours. Figures that include Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a tyrannical leader that cannot be reasoned with or conversely, a more generous, nature-respecting type like Valka (Cate Blanchett). There is even a touching reunion that reconciles two people that have been apart for 20 years. But above all is the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless. They develop an understanding to which most live action films can only aspire. This is a sequel that has the audacity to just relax and take a breath. The saga frequently allows silence to convey a depth that most other cartoons cannot. Their colorful animations and jokey asides are no substitute for the sophistication presented here. Interestingly it’s the action sequences that open and close this production that are the least interesting parts. That misstep aside, please do note that the chronicle has the courage to trust in the power of emotion. This is a tale with so much heart it hurts. How could anyone hate something that elevates such goodness? I imagine there will be people that don’t like How to Train Your Dragon 2. I pray for their soul.

06-12-14

The Immigrant

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on June 11, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Immigrant photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s 1921. Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) sail to New York from their native Poland. They’re escaping their bleak homeland in search of a fresh start. Unfortunately Magda is quarantined at Ellis Island because of suspected lung disease. Meanwhile Ewa is almost deported due to an “incident” on the boat ride over. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) notices her ability to speak English and bribes an officer to let her go. Bruno runs a burlesque show and he hires Ewa to do the sewing. From that point on, their lives intertwine and they will never be the same. Bruno also manages a side business where he arranges, shall we say, appointments with the female performers in the show. Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician who performs at the burlesque house, becomes infatuated with Ewa. Could he be her knight in shining armor? But he also makes waves. This triggers a dark jealous streak in Bruno whose fondness for Ewa has grown over time.

Director James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night) has such a way with these character based dramas. The Immigrant is another fine example. The screenplay details the wants and needs of dissimilar people at odds with one another. James Gray and co-writer Ric Menello previously worked together in 2008 on Two Lovers. The Immigrant is the saga of what three disparate people must do in order to survive. The drama is so affecting. Ewa is that most exquisite of personalities. Seemingly plain and unkempt but with genuine allure, both physically and emotionally. Her beauty shines through. She needs to raise money to get her sister out of the infirmary on Ellis Island. It isn’t long before she succumbs to doing things she’d rather not do. The script reflects upon her moral struggle. How far is she willing to compromise her virtue in exchange for a noble goal? The idea is handled in a fascinating yet respectful way.

Marion Cotillard portrays such sincere yearning. If she is the heart of The Immigrant then Joaquin Phoenix is the soul. In their 4th picture together Director James Gray extracts another brilliant performance from his frequent collaborator. Phoenix is riveting as the morally troublesome Bruno. His behavior includes distasteful business ventures. Yet there is a positive nuance to this mortal that gently persuades the audience to forgive him. His elemental desire to do the best thing for Ewa underlies a palpable tragedy. Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) complicates matters for him considerably. They both pursue Ewa.

The Immigrant is a beautifully realized period film that presents a knotty tangle of ethical decisions. It’s rather understated and probably why director James Gray’s work charms critics over mainstream audiences. The three protagonists are fully realized creations that captivate. What superficially appears like a love triangle is actually much deeper and morally complex. Gray has a talent for extracting raw emotion. Additionally, the production has a nice feel for time and place. Costumes and cinematography superbly add to the historical detail. The filmmaker grew up in New York City and it’s a place he returns to again and again in his movies. This is a story that upholds the promise of America, but doesn’t deny the cold harsh reality.

06-04-14

The Fault in Our Stars

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on June 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Fault in Our Stars photo starrating-4stars.jpgDespite her protestations, a sixteen-year-old girl is forced to attend a support group. Hazel suffers from stage IV thyroid cancer and her parents have determined she is depressed. That emotion would most certainly be a reasonable one, but melancholy would probably be a more apt description of her state of mind. One day seventeen-year-old Augustus Waters walks into the group. He used to play basketball before he was fitted for a prosthetic leg. Though he is a bone cancer survivor, he is merely there to encourage his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff).

In support group Gus worries about “oblivion” – that is not being remembered – after he has passed on. Hazel is an acerbic pragmatist.  She feels his fear is unimportant and tells him to get over it. Their little exchange is cute and it lights the spark for a friendship. Possibly more. While some advancements in the narrative can be predicted, others are rather unexpected. For example, they each recommend their favorite book to one another. Her chosen novel leads to an encounter with its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe). It is just one of several fascinating developments.

On the surface, one might view The Fault in Our Stars as just another chronicle of star-crossed lovers. The thought-provoking title was inspired from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Cassius says to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Here the title has apparently the exact opposite meaning, that our stars, or destiny, can be cruel through no fault of our own. While the drama concerns the ups and downs of suffering from an illness, it actually has a much more philosophical appeal as a tale that captures the awkwardness of adolescence.

John Green’s 2012 teen lit best seller The Fault in Our Stars is faithfully adapted by Scott Eric Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They are the talented writing team behind young adult successes (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. Fault is another shining example of the genre. The saga is ambitious for the depth of feeling explored within their relationship. The screenwriters have a nice facility for extracting genuine emotion that doesn’t ever seem forced or overwrought. Gus and Hazel‘s exchanges are funny, intelligent, and insightful. But what truly separates an account that tackles a subject as inherently manipulative as cancer, is the sincerity of the performances.

Shailene Woodley (Hazel) and Ansel Elgort (Gus) are an extraordinary team. At times Augustus seems too good to be true. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Hazel asks. Augustus half smiles “Because you’re beautiful. I enjoy looking at beautiful people.” Cue the biggest contented “Aw!” from my mostly female audience. To be fair, that corny dialogue is taken directly from the book. Gus pontificates in soliloquies. His undeniable charisma sometimes drifts into ersatz charm. Occasionally the cuteness quotient beaks the scale and the preciousness seems like it might derail the production. It never does though. The two remain an engaging pair. Their effortless rapport details passion, doubt, and insecurity. The way their relationship unfolds is particularly affecting. The couple exudes a substantial amount of chemistry together that is, pardon the pun, “faultless”. It is organic and natural. Their considerable heart is a rarity these days. That is what separates this from other romantic dramas of the past. Equally touching as the bond between Jenny and Oliver from Love Story. Perhaps even more so. I always felt Jenny was a bit caustic for my tastes anyway. Hazel and Gus are a memorable twosome. The Fault in Our Stars is a love story for the ages.

06-07-14

Edge of Tomorrow

Posted in Action, Science Fiction with tags on June 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Edge of Tomorrow photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgEarth has been invaded by an alien race called The Mimics. They landed in Germany and have so far occupied all of Europe. An allied army of humans from all across the world have suited up in special mechanized armor to fight the enemy. Tom Cruise is Major William Cage of the US Army. He‘s a weak-kneed talking head in public relations that has never seen a day of combat in his life. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), leader of the United Defense Force, orders Cage to accompany the initial wave of Allied troops in France on the front lines. Cage balks at the order and responds with a veiled threat that only gets him in hot water. General Brigham’s guards taser the major and he wakes up in a military base at Heathrow airport. There he meets Master Sergeant Farell, Bill Paxton in a role he inhabits well. Cage has been demoted from an Officer to Private with a fake history. He’s been labeled a deserter. He is placed with a ragtag squadron of recruits set to invade the French Coast where they will launch a surprise attack on the Mimics.

Here’s where Edge of Tomorrow gets interesting. The battle doesn’t go well and he dies. It’s a moment he will relive again and again every single day as he is caught in a time loop back to the point where he wakes up at Heathrow. For months wags have been calling Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi offering “Groundhog Day-meets-Starship Troopers”. I hesitate to even mention that dismissive summary because it’s so flippant. In truth, the assessment is precisely accurate but it also unintentionally minimizes a very imaginative script. The movie takes the concept and really runs with it.

There is a real excitement watching Tom Cruise. Sweating profusely, he seems genuinely scared, being dangled with the rest of his squadron from a plane than plans to parachute into a combat zone in France. They wear weaponized suits that looks like metal exoskeletons to assist them in the fight. Think Ellen Ripley in Aliens. He’s skillfully supported by Emily Blunt. She plays a Special Forces Soldier he meets in the fray named Sgt. Rita Vrataski. Having been credited with hundreds of Mimic kills, she becomes an aid in helping him harness his special ability for good. Whenever they‘re injured and unable to continue, she has to kill him to start anew. It’s kind of like a real life reset button. There is an excellent balance of intense adventure and lighthearted humor as well. The first half makes extraordinary use of its head trip idea. Despite the fact that he can keep starting over, we are invested in his mission. Unfortunately the climax forgoes the established concept. The speedy sci-fi at the beginning devolves into a generic action film. It’s tolerable. However a fundamental distinction that made the narrative innovative is replaced by developments that are comparatively underwhelming. The standard issue finale just can’t quite live up to the inspiration of the set up.  Yes, I’m being vague.  I don’t ruin movies.

Edge of Tomorrow excels when Officer William Cage manipulates his abilities to serve a laudable purpose. Over time we see the lead learn how to make use of his gift for the greater good. There is a genuine character arc where our protagonist grows from a cowardly sneak to a reluctant hero. There is some extremely brilliant editing in the first half. The sequences repeat continuously so that he can extract the best possible outcome. The results are funny but they’re also validating because they build character. Watching the same vignette play out repeatedly might seem monotonous, but it never feels that way. The execution is surprisingly captivating because it combines thrills with levity. Practice makes perfect. The second part eschews the basic premise. That’s where the dizzying sci-fi succumbs to generic formula.  It’s a regrettable misstep in an otherwise entertaining watch.

06-05-14