Archive for June, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo independence_day_resurgence_zpsdychzl31.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgConfession. I didn’t think the 1996 special effects laden film that spawned this sequel was a great movie — BUT it was fun. And I’ll acknowledge that the picture has since become a classic of the science fiction genre. Back in 1996, Independence Day made a gazillion dollars simply by blowing stuff up on a grand scale. The sight of large spacecraft hovering over some of Earth’s major cities was enough to stir excitement/terror in the hearts of moviegoers. The ultimate show-down climaxed with a diverse group of people converging in the Nevada desert. Will Smith socked an alien in the face: “Welcome ta urf!” Americans united, along with the rest of the world, over a counter attack that just so happened to occur on the 4th of July. A now famous rallying cry speech from Bill Pullman precipitated the climax. It was as corny then as it is today, but gosh darn it, it sort of worked on a visceral level. Then they kicked some alien butt.

Now it’s 20 years later. In the interim, the United Nations have created the Earth Space Defense (ESD), a global program that serves as Earth’s early warning system against future extraterrestrial threats. Using recovered alien technology along with existing human technology, the alliance has bolstered the world’s defenses. Africa is the site of an alien spaceship that crashes during one battle. It appears that Congolese warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) has fought the creatures for years. He has experienced recurring visions due to his personal encounters with the aliens. Ex-president Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) has gotten psychic hints of an arrival as well. Furthermore the ESD discovers that the fallen ship managed to send a distress call to its home planet. The Earth is bracing itself for another invasion.

Let’s face it. This was always going to be more of a re-interpretation then a sequel. Keep it simple. Give the people what they want. Nostalgia mixed with better special effects and an assorted cast of appealing characters. It sounds easy — an obvious set-up for a slam dunk success. It’s the cinematic version of boil water – a straightforward recipe that’s pretty hard to screw up. Roland Emmerich is back as director and Dean Devlin is producing again. Heavens to Will Smith! It’s hard to believe this is the same team that made the 1996 movie. The team bungles the execution to the point of incompetence.

How did they make a film so astonishingly boring? Let’s start with the initial invasion. Yes, we get another one of those. But first not without 30 minutes of formless exposition checking in with returning characters that establish who they are in the most perfunctory manner possible. Dull and dreary, these set ups scenes are just a time waster. We’re told that an alien vessel over 3000 miles in diameter has invaded earth. However we’re given no appreciation for the size of that ship. Where is the emphasis on the sense of scale? We’re told it’s levitating Beijing and Dubai, then dumping the debris on London, but it’s not clear that is happening. The destruction sequences are confusing — a haphazardly edited hodgepodge that has no concept for geography. The world is under attack but it feels small and insular. Even worse – it looks cheap. It’s one of the most poorly edited sequences I’ve ever seen in a would-be blockbuster. Did they run out of money for effects? That’s the only explanation I can give for the gross incompetence on display.

I miss the soul of the original cast. Randy Quaid and Mary McDonnell are obviously out. They didn’t survive. Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Judd Hirsch are back however. Given their lack of zeal though, they are clearly more bored than the audience. Pullman’s frazzled ex-Pres is supposed to have PTSD so at least he has an excuse. Brent Spiner is preposterously revived as eccentric scientist Brackish Okun. If you’ve seen the last film, you’ll know why that’s implausible. 20 year coma apparently. Despite the weak justification for his return, I will admit that he’s the most captivating proof of humanity in the entire production. That’s still not saying much. One scene has him scratching his naked rear end in semi-closeup. Margaret Colin is recast in spirit by Charlotte Gainsbourg as Goldblum’s love interest. Zzzzzzzzzz  Sela Ward is the “Leader of the Free World” this time around. Madame President indeed. Vivica A. Fox gets what amounts to a cameo. I think she has a line or two. The late Robert Loggia appears. No lines at all.

Too much of the plot is dominated by younger actors who register zero charisma. Will Smith, who became a huge star in the 20 years since, wisely passed on this script. We’re told he died in a test flight.  Wow.  Apparently the screenwriters couldn’t be bothered with disposing of him in a creative way.  A substitution for his temperament is the character of his adult son. Instead of getting the original performer, Ross Bagley, the part went to Jessie Usher. He possesses none of Smith’s personality.  Even his declaration “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!” lacks the required conviction. Mae Whitman, who portrayed Patricia, the president’s daughter in 1996, has been inexplicably replaced as well. The taller, blonder Maika Monroe (It Follows) is a fine actress but Whitman is still a talented thespian in her own right, so the snub is rather vexing.

The former First Daughter now has a romance with fiancée Jake Morrison, a role depicted by blonde and bland hunk du jour Liam Hemsworth. Why oh why does he continue to find work while hundreds of actors struggle in Hollywood? His best friend is Charlie Ritter realized by actor Travis Tope. Or did I reverse those names?  Too forgettable to even keep straight.  Charlie has his eyes on Rain Lao, played by Hong Kong model, Angelababy. Don’t quit your day job, kid. Jake, Dylan, Charlie and Rain form this squad of fighter pilots that are a quartet of vapidity. Together their scenes comprise a large portion of the narrative, yet their tedious personalities add absolutely nothing to its enjoyment. I would have eliminated every last one of their parts altogether.

Independence Day: Resurgence is bad. Not bad in the ridiculous, let’s relish it for the folly of it all. That was the original flick. This is so mind numbingly lifeless, it’s awful. I wasn’t invested.   When the very existence of mankind is at stake, that’s a problem.  I couldn’t give a care about what happens.  It’s clear the filmmakers didn’t either. Poorly edited, drearily acted with sloppy CGI that has no sense of breadth or scope. If this was one of those Syfy channel pieces of schlock like Sharknado I’d be a little more forgiving. No this is a shining beacon of gross ineptitude for a mega budget blockbuster. There’s a moment in the last half hour where the movie does something right. A Godzilla-sized queen is seen tearing down the desert as planes encircle her. The climatic battle gives a hint of what might have been, but it’s too little too late. Then the inevitable tease for a Part 3 slaps you in the face. There’s still some fun to be had. Save your money now. Invite your friends to watch this when it’s on DVD. First one to fall asleep is the loser. Or is that the winner? Regardless, it’ll be a short game.

06-24-16

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Central Intelligence

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo central_intelligence_ver2_zps8nxd0sdr.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMovies don’t get more agreeably disposable than Central Intelligence, a stridently by-the-numbers action comedy. The source of all humor contained within is an incongruous juxtaposition – the visual joke as it were. Hey guys!! Watch a big muscular dude (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) pal around with a yappy shrimp of a man (Kevin Hart). The former has a flamboyant personality. The latter possesses a shrill disposition. Just what we’re in short supply of – another “odd couple” comedy.

Back in high school it was a much different story. Calvin Joyner (Hart) was a BMOC: class president, homecoming king, drama club thespian, et cetera. Conversely Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was a morbidly obese dork who enjoyed dancing in the gym locker room to En Vogue’s “My Loving (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”. Yup, complete with hand gestures and everything. He was mercilessly teased. Flash forward to the modern day. Calvin is in a funk. He hasn’t yet achieved what he had envisioned for his life. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart and gainfully employed as an accountant. “Wait what’s the problem?”, you may ask. That’s a very good question. Oops! I think you just might be too smart for this picture.

Robbie Weirdicht (now calling himself Bob Stone), on the other hand, is a huge brawny guy who likes to wear unicorn shirts that look like they were purchased at Baby Gap. He also happens to be a competent CIA agent. This figures into the plot but it’s kind of irrelevant. The purpose of this buddy film is to unite two unlikely people and merely savor their chemistry. Bob still idolizes Calvin like a hero. He quickly ingratiates himself back into Calvin’s life after a Facebook invite. Within hours he’s already sleeping on his couch. Honestly Bob’s obsessive fascination with Calvin is borderline stalker behavior.

Central Intelligence isn’t a horrible movie. It coasts on the charm of its leads. Dwayne Johnson is eager, overzealous and blissfully unaware. He imagines this close personal friendship with Kevin Hart’s character that was never really there. He’s so naive he seems almost mentally challenged. Kevin Hart plays an exasperated, persnickety fuss-budget. The two are a mismatched pair. If you can appreciate the constant mugging from the two stars then you should cuddle up to the film’s modest charms. Me? I was hoping for a bit more story than the threadbare plot that’s served up here. For the record, it’s some nonsense about selling critical U.S. satellite codes to terrorists. There’s also some confusion as to whether Bob Stone is actually a good or a bad guy in the CIA but you’d have to be fast asleep not to figure that out. Yes it’s totally predictable, but that’s not the issue. I found their hijinks mildly amusing. I simply never laughed out loud at any point. It’s so thoroughly generic. Directer and co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber has done better work. I’d uphold DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story over this. What sets Central Intelligence apart is Wayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. I recommend this to very forgiving fans (and only fans) for whom these celebrities can do no wrong.

06-21-16

Finding Dory

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo finding_dory_ver6_zpsvkailyui.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s been 13 years. How do you follow up Pixar’s highest grossing (when adjusting for inflation) film ever? Why you release a sequel that goes bigger.  Add more characters, more zaniness and even better animation, but don’t stray too far from what worked before. A tragic backstory that leads to a great adventure is nearly identical in nature. The dramatic beats are kind of samey too. Instead of a frightening encounter with a giant shark we get one with an enormous squid. It’s a bit of a rough watch in the beginning. I was worried. It does takes awhile for Finding Dory to find its footing and form a distinct identity from the original, but I’m happy to say it ultimately does. The story doesn’t take chances but rather goes for audience pleasing entertainment. It may be pure formula but hey it’s also pure fun.

You may remember (pun not intended) that Dory, the blue tang, is forgetful. She suffers from short term memory loss. In flashback, we see her as a tiny fish with her parents. “Stay away from the undertow!”, they say. Father Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Mother Jenny (Diane Keaton) resort to repetitive learning techniques using rhymes to impress upon her. Any parent of a child with special needs will surely relate. The scenes encourage understanding for those who are unfamiliar with how difficult it can be. Despite their due diligence, Dory becomes separated from her parents anyway.

The years pass. Dory (voiced as an adult by Ellen DeGeneres) continues to solicit help from other fish in finding her family. This leads to the events depicted in the first film when she meets Marlin (Albert Brooks) looking for his lost son Nemo. Now flash forward to a year after Nemo was found. While on a field trip with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) a long forgotten memory is triggered while watching a stingray migration. Dory hears the word “undertow”. She recalls bits and pieces. She was looking for her parents. She realizes she must travel from the Great Barrier Reef to California – specifically “The Jewel of Morro Bay.” – in order to find them. And so begins our adventure.

Most of the activity takes place in California at a state of the art “rescue, rehabilitate, release” aquarium called the Marine Life Institute modeled after the impressive one in Monterey*. During production, the setting was changed from a SeaWorld type facility. This was as a result of the backlash caused by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Sigourney Weaver’s voice is overheard in pre-recorded announcements at the exhibits in the park like the voice of God. It was at that moment, I knew everything was going to be OK. She never appears in physical form, but we know it’s her because she introduces herself by name over and over. We’re reminded that it’s her speaking so many times, it becomes a running joke.

Finding Dory adds a dizzying array of new characters. Clownfish Nemo and his father Marlin are back aiding Dory in her quest. It piles on the cutes too. In the early scenes baby Dory (Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes) has eyes as big as her body. Just the sight of her will make your heart melt. They’re still the characters we know and love, but I’d argue a new character tops them all — Ed O’Neill as Hank The octopus. Ok so actually he’s a septopus — he lost a tentacle. Hank is a wondrous creation that seems the next likely candidate to get his own movie. An irascible sort, he surprisingly prefers an aquarium in Cleveland to the open wild of the Ocean. He slings himself from one room to another with elastic ease, using adaptive camouflage to blend in with whatever background he chooses. He’s almost human the way he ambles about. There’s no natural explanation why a cephalopod should behave this way, but I loved every second of him. Other denizens of the Marine Life Institute include a clumsy whale shark with poor eyesight named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a neurotic beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), a pair of territorial sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), and an awkward loon named Becky. She doesn’t speak, but her frazzled personality shines through.

Finding Dory is a lot of fun by amping up the craziness. After Dory is captured by two aquarium employees, the primary setting shifts to the Marine Life Institute. It might seem odd that the majority of action takes place on dry land. After all Dory is a blue tang who needs water to, ya know, like swim. This is one of the constructs that is most unexpected. The journey is not without its challenges. The Kid Zone touch pool scene is an absolute nightmare of grabby hands from the perspective of the aquatic life within. Nevertheless, Dory is able to navigate the outside world with surprising ease. She leaps from one tank to another. Fish move distances using the spouting geysers of a fountain. Others travel in a bucket of water grasped by Becky the loon and carried in a coffee pot by Hank the Octopus. You might think that that’s stretching things. Wait until you see the car chase.

Finding Dory doesn’t top Finding Nemo. It’s sillier and more frivolous than its predecessor. Although there’s some consideration for mental illness and the importance of family, it doesn’t attempt the emotional depth. No I didn’t cry.  Pixar is usually so good at that.  Although there is a poignant moment that certainly tries. However, the movie does goes off in a bizarre, completely zany direction, and forges its own identity that way. Once it does, it’s a warm, good–natured, non-stop hilarious, gag-filled joy of a film.

*[Side note: The script mentions the coastal city of Morro Bay which is about 125 miles south of Monterey, but the aquarium in that city is most definitely not the the same place depicted here].

06-16-16

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Posted in Biography, Drama on June 16, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo man_who_knew_infinity_ver2_zpsdhy0zicy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) should be the subject of a compelling movie. He was an accomplished Indian mathematician.  In this school of thought, people like Sir Isaac Newton or Professor Stephen Hawking are household names to anyone over the age of 12. Ramanujan, however, still remains somewhat of a mystery. That is until now. His lack of recognition with the general public makes this document of his life even more crucial.

Born in utter poverty, Ramanujan possessed a brilliant mind for analytical theory but had no university training. At one point he decided to send some of his written formulas to a well-known professor at Cambridge University during World War I. At first G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) thought the correspondence from the unknown sender was a joke, but in time Ramanujan was invited to come study at Cambridge. This occurred in 1914.  He would ultimately become a pioneer in mathematical principles under the guidance of professor G. H. Hardy, his advocate and sponsor.

A fascinating man inspires this production but it’s buried under the formal structure of a staid biopic. Dramatizing the study of theorems is not easy to do and the drama (perhaps wisely) doesn’t even try. Instead, the best parts of The Man Who Knew Infinity deal with the push and pull between Ramanujan and Hardy. They butt heads over differing ideological views. Ramanujan is a devout Hindu while Hardy is openly atheist. Hardy demands proofs. Ramanujan relies on intuition. Their battles of wills is the engaging conflict at the heart of this rather academic and somewhat superficial picture. It’s their love of mathematics that unites them.

Two talents elevate this script. Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel play off one another. To say that this is Dev Patel’s greatest performance since Slumdog Millionaire sounds a bit like damning with faint praise. After all the actor has struggled since that breakthrough in films like The Last Airbender and Chappie. Patel gives the part a sweet determination that honors the man’s accomplishments while giving us an appreciation for all the sacrifices he had to make. The Man Who Knew Infinity isn’t a great movie. Yet let’s consider the fact that it exists to honor the contributions of an unsung hero. That alone makes the biography worthwhile.

06-15-16

The Conjuring 2

Posted in Horror on June 10, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo conjuring_two_zps37p07hq8.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAny decent actor worth their weight in salt can do justice to a part that’s inherently outstanding. But it takes an extraordinary talent to give life to a generic part and make it captivating. That’s the power of Vera Farmiga, an American actress active since her Broadway debut in the play Taking Sides in 1996. Perhaps today’s audiences know Farmiga best as Norma Louise Bates in the A&E television series Bates Motel. But her star turn in 2013’s The Conjuring  brought her some much deserved recognition. She, along with the accomplished Patrick Wilson, return as real life paranormal investigators Loraine and Ed Warren. The Warrens received recognition for their involvement in the Amityville Horror case made famous by the 1979 movie.

The Conjuring 2 is actually based on the Enfield poltergeist, some alleged spiritual activity that affected a council house in England from 1977 to 1979. But before we get to the legitimate heart of this tale, the narrative briefly revisits the Amityville Horror events. Ostensibly, this is to just to lay the groundwork for the societal doubt that the Warrens incurred for their work. Then it’s off to London, England, where the Warrens fly out to meet afflicted matriarch, Peggy Hodgson. This is where the proper story finally takes off — nearly an hour into this 134 minute film. Yes it is much too long.  I contend the horror sweet spot is a brisk 90 minutes.  Anyway, Peggy believes that some nasty ghosts are haunting her home. Then her youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) starts showing signs of demonic possession. Ed and Lorraine investigate and pretty soon those pesky spirits have targeted them.

Director James Wan is back. Besides helming the original The Conjuring, he directed Saw and Insidious so he knows a thing or two about horror. Wan focuses on the traumatized family first.  For a while this is a document of how a close knit household, united by a single mother, is torn apart. Then the focus shifts to the Warrens and here’s where the dramatic skills of a couple of superior actors strengthen the account. Wilson and Farmiga are Christian paranormal investigators relying on their faith and working for the Catholic church.  They are portrayed as sensible people with a healthy skepticism. Through it all, director James Wan keeps the shocks coming. The events are fashioned like a roller coaster ride with a rhythmical ebb and flow of tension and calm. Scares are artfully presented in a period atmosphere.  It lends the proceedings the look of quality that gives horror aficionados joy.  Furniture moves by itself.  Unexplained banging noises/voices are heard.  There’s 4 feet of water in the basement. That sets the mood.  The demons are scary too. One unwanted visitor looks like rocker Marilyn Manson dressed up like a nun.  Pasty white fingers reach out from behind a painting.  A spinning zoetrope brings a “crooked man” to life. I jumped a few times, but to be honest, this shtick all feels pretty familiar. Ultimately the movie belongs to Wilson and particularly Farmiga. Their unmitigated sincerity sells this picture. I was invested because of them.

06-09-16

Love & Friendship

Posted in Uncategorized on June 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo love_and_friendship_ver2_zpsddbpzlbk.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgLady Susan is a fairly obscure, early novel by Jane Austen written around 1794. Never submitted by the author in her lifetime, it was later published in 1871, well after her death.  Given that background, you might think this is inferior Jane Austen. Compared as written works to Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, that is undoubtedly true. However as a production in the hands of Whit Stillman, it becomes a superlative rumination of Regency manners and mores.

Love & Friendship is a period piece that concerns the widowed Lady Susan Vernon. The woman is a bit of a coquette. She seeks a second marriage that will be beneficial for herself. She has set her sights on Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). Meanwhile she attempts to push her less polished daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) into a relationship with wealthy idiot Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The central role is a most peculiar creature — a woman to despise for her scheming but also to admire for her perseverance. She possesses a societal reputation for flagrantly manipulating men regardless of marital status. The Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain) has benefited from her company. In the hand of the beautiful Kate Beckinsale she is a devious flirt. The actress, all too often found in skin tight leather gear, gets a chance here to actually act and show her formidable talent. Her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon, as played by the excellent Emma Greenwell, sees through her charade while her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards), does not.

Love & Friendship is a wonderfully crafted story that will charm Austen fans with its wit and sparkling wordplay. The script is a marvel with pleasantries and barbs doled out in equal measure. The individuals Jane encounters are sophisticated, educated and polite, but overly mannered to the point of being finicky, almost uptight.  Director Whit Stillman exploits an erudite segment of society that other filmmakers would relegate as side characters for comedy. Yet Stillman, like Woody Allen or Wes Anderson, brings them to the fore. He has such love for these people. Even when he is making fun of their foibles, there is a palpable admiration for their temperament as well. That makes his comedy less hostile and more satisfying. The age of Jane Austen is perfectly suited to Whit Stillman’s aesthetic. His The Last Days of Disco in 1998 was a period piece set in the 1970s.  Regrettably, the director has never made a costume drama from the 18th century until now. It’s about time he did. The era suits him to a T. Let’s hope he returns.

06-02-16

The Lobster

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction on June 3, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lobster_zpsjfnskqu5.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Lobster concerns a dystopian society where coupledom is key. Set within The City, singles are given 45 days to locate a partner or be turned into the animal of their choice. Upon arrival at the Hotel — more like a prison — guests must make a selection. This happens immediately regardless of whether one is successful at finding a mate. Apparently David (Colin Farrell) has just been dumped.  During his initial interview he chooses a lobster and hence bestows the film its title. “They live for over 100 years, they are blue-blooded like aristocrats, they are fertile all their lives and I like the sea.” At least that’s his reasoning. He’s praised for not choosing a dog because there is a surplus of that animal. I snickered a little at that line. If you actually guffaw, then you may adore this movie. That’s the level of humor.

Bizarre drama honors ambiguousness over detail and extols absurdity over coherence. It’s an intriguing setup for a comedy that creates a surreal environment from which to extract humor. The script succeeds for awhile. Particularly in the beginning where the insanity of it all can be rather diverting. But what is the point?  Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos possibly means to mock the societal pressure to couple up. Also the superficiality of the common interest that ultimately unites one person with another is satirized. Actress Jessica Barden plays a woman who gets nosebleeds. Actor Ben Whishaw portrays a man who has a limp. It appears that the two can only be together if they share the same malady.

Grim farce had me entertained for the first hour where David experiences the rules of the Hotel. His daily routine in which to find a companion is dryly amusing in parts. To prepare them for coupled life, patrons are initially handcuffed with one hand behind their back.  Then they converse with one another employing the stilted dialogue of a robot going through the motions of a conversation.  They have joyless sex with the employees like they were performing a chore.  Later guests hunt their unattached peers in the forest. The tale then takes a disastrous turn in part two after David escapes and experiences solace with a radical group in the wild called the Loners. They promote the exact opposite theology, separateness. It is there that he actually meets a soulmate in fellow Loner Rachel Weisz. Oh the irony! They’re prisoners yet again.

Yorgos Lanthimos also directed the extremely misanthropic comedy(?) Dogtooth. Devotees of that picture should find his disaffected worldview appealing here as well.  Less cynical individuals may discover his malevolent characters a bit harder to endorse. Surprisingly, I was on board. The silly rules at the Hotel are ridiculously wicked. But I checked out during the tedious second half.  Opening segments that fabricate the story should be absolute catnip for anyone who vehemently despises the very concept of a holiday like Valentine’s Day. If there’s such a thing as discrimination against singles, then this satire will surely hit home with any viewer who feels like a victim. Once the script throws the foundation kit and caboodle out the window, the fable emerges merely as an excuse to parade a group of antisocial types around for the viewer’s pleasure. These people are really hard to embrace, especially in the second section where the narrative and the jokes come to a grinding halt. To like these people is clearly not the aim. However after spending 118 minutes with these thoroughly unpleasant people, I wish I was a lobster too.

05-28-16