Archive for March, 2017

Life

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 25, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo life_ver3_zpseahijifv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLife concerns six astronauts from around the world aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The plot begins when they discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. They revive the microscopic entity with some external stimuli. As a result, the little amoeba, which they’ve dubbed “Calvin” starts to develop at a rapid rate. It’s soon clear that their understanding of this entity is not very good. They’ve underestimated the intelligence of this thing. They make that error several times actually and it’s always to the delight of an audience seeking more thrills.

You can’t read a review of Life without the critique referencing a certain sci-fi classic. That’s totally fair. Life is made up of the DNA of others films, and one in particular. I’m not even going to name the picture because I think it unfairly poisons the mind against this production. Apparently, a story loses credibility if it’s inspired by another film, even one that came out nearly four decades ago. That’s hogwash. The act of homage isn’t a reason to castigate a film. Even the precise movie in question, now venerated as a masterpiece, was chastised as merely a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the time, so there! Let’s give director Daniel Espinosa some credit. He stole from the best and he does it with the polished art of a seasoned pro.

Life has the look of quality in every detail from the elegant art direction to the talented cast. What better way to dress up your picture than with an A-list ensemble. Ryan Reynolds is Rory Adams, the wisecracking (is he ever anything else?) mechanic of the crew. He operates the machinery. The actor worked with Daniel Espinosa before in Safe House. The connection initially gave me pause because that drama was utterly generic. Life, in contrast, is not.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the space station’s doctor, David Jordan. His limited part is eclipsed by the other actors in a bit of casting unpredictability. Rebecca Ferguson is Miranda North, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control. She’s responsible for keeping everyone safe. Let’s just say she’s not too good at her job. Ferguson is best known as the fetching Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. She’s an appealing presence here as well.

The rest of the cast will be more unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but no less captivating. Miranda is joined by fellow Brit Hugh Derry, a microbiologist played by Ariyon Bakare (British TV miniseries A Respectable Trade). ** Spoiler Alert ** The black guy does NOT die first – a refreshing twist. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, The Wolverine) is Shō Murakami the experienced astronaut who’s ready to retire. While on board, his wife gives birth back on Earth. Last but not least is Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina, the commander of the ISS. She has appeared in a smattering of Russian films since 2002. The thespians go a long way into making this spectacle something engaging. After all, if we didn’t care about these people, the story would fail.

Life is an intense, heart-pounding saga that never lets up. The production design is dazzling. The opening scene, an uninterrupted nearly 7-minute take, is a marvel. The ISS set is constructed like a labyrinth and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic within. That adds to the tension as I was riveted throughout. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have worked together before (Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool). The script gives us just enough detailed jargon to seem cerebral but without getting bogged down in a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo. They have a sophisticated take on this outer space thriller that really elevates the presentation into something classy. I mean let’s be clear. At heart, this is a formula sci-fi horror tale and nothing more. Don’t go in expecting to have your mind expanded. Nevertheless, it is nice to see something that isn’t part of some larger franchise. The action entertains a lot better than some warmed over reboot or sequel. Life is worth living….er uh I mean watching.

My Life as a Zucchini

Posted in Animation, Comedy with tags on March 22, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo ma_vie_de_courgette_ver2_zpso33svp5z.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgQuirky, dark and charming. These are the three words that immediately spring to mind when I think of My Life as a Zucchini (also titled My Life as a Courgette). Icare (Erick Abbate), or Zucchini as he likes to be called, is a 9-year old boy who lives with his single mother. An only child, he’s a lonely lad seemingly without any playmates. His mother spends her days watching TV and drinking beer, as evinced by all the aluminum cans lying around the house. He passes time playing up in the attic and flying his kite adorned with a drawing of his father as a superhero. The dad is MIA by the way – whereabouts unknown. One day, little Zucchini is playing up in his room while his inebriated mom is downstairs. He has collected her discarded beer cans and is stacking them to build a tower. Most kids would use blocks but you use what’s available right? One thing leads to another and suddenly Zucchini is facing the unexpected death of his mother. I told you it was dark.

The animation is a painstakingly rendered stop-motion charmer. The plasticine people have big heads and large eyes like a Margaret Keane painting. Their faces are not as expressive as the cartoons with which we are familiar, but that almost gives these characters a sense of mystery underneath their pleasant facades.  My Life as a Zucchini is French-Swiss director Claude Barras’  first full-length feature. It’s an adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette.  Barras receives an able assist from a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood).   The intelligent writing details how resilient children truly are.  Despite the medium, this material isn’t meant for young children, hence the PG-13. Although most pre-adolescents age 10 and up should be fine, the subject matter might disturb kids of Zucchini’s age or younger.

Zucchini is taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman named Raymond (Nick Offerman). There he meets 5 others like him without parents already living there.  They’re a ragtag group. Amazingly the screenplay takes the time to develop a nuanced personality for each waif. Red haired Simon (Romy Beckman) is “the boss”. Alluring Kafka-reading Camille (Ness Krell), who arrives later, turns his head.  This enchanting stop-motion cartoon was originally presented in French, but the English language dub features actors Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. I found their work engaging.  For the most part, Zucchini’s encounters are positive experiences.  It’s refreshing that a state-run institution is actually presented as a place of kindness rather than terror. The boys have a hilarious conversation about the birds and the bees and it captures the spotty understanding that a group of 10-year-olds would have. We love these kids

My Life as a Zucchini flies by in a scant 70 minutes but mines more depth of emotion than a drama twice its length. The nature of the production allows the disturbing script to deal with sensitive problems that might be off-putting in a live action movie. As performed with stop motion puppets the weighty issues take on a poignant charm.  Sometimes children find themselves without a mom or a dad. The circumstances are many: some have passed on, others arrested, deported, or maybe they have just simply abandoned them.  It’s a heartwarming tale that doesn’t sugarcoat the toughest thing a youngster may ever have to face. Yet somehow kids manage to weather the tribulations that life throws at them.  The narrative delves into the need for a child, and anyone really, to feel loved. My Life As A Zucchini received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film well before it was even available in theaters. Now it has been officially released and it’s still pretty hard to find. I suspect most people will have to discover this lovingly crafted gem once it’s available to rent. And please do seek it out. It’s an unconventional delight.

03-19-17

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on March 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo beauty_and_the_beast_ver3_zpstl3cqj0c.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDisney’s current trend of turning its animated classics into live-action movies has been a pretty lucrative business. Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book have all done big business. The recipe is simple. Take an existing fictional work that is beloved by millions and reproduce with real people. This satisfies a thirst for nostalgia which ensures there will already be a built-in audience ready to watch. The formula works so well it seems almost too easy. It’s not difficult to dismiss the practice as a quick cash grab. Yet, anyone who has ever looked upon any of these films can distinguish that these aren’t slapdash efforts. These meticulously created works, while lacking an original story, still present something magical at the cinema.

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is a noble addition to the Disney treasury. We all know the “tale as old as time”. It’s the chronicle of Belle played by a no-nonsense Emma Watson. Belle is a smart, independent young woman at odds with the bourgeois habits of her provincial townsfolk. Luke Evans is Gaston, an arrogant suitor. LeFou (Josh Gad) is his bumbling sidekick. However, Belle has no use for Gaston or anyone else in the town for that matter. Personally, I’ve always found her opening song decrying the unsophisticated townsfolk as insufferably elitist, but hey that’s just me. Nevertheless, she gains our sympathy when she is taken prisoner by a beast in his fortress. Dan Stevens portrays the part in a motion capture performance, rather than relying on prosthetics. Her initial fears dissipate as she is befriended by the enchanted denizens of the castle staff. Slowly she grows to see beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and see the true heart of the man within.

This isn’t director Bill Condon’s foray into the movie musical. His production of Dreamgirls in 2006 was a lavish adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. His reworking here evokes the traditional theater pieces of a bygone era. It’s lavish, grand and cheerfully old fashioned. That the achievement seems rooted in the musical tradition of a bygone era is a colossal feat of misdirection given all the modern CGI employed here. It’s seamlessly utilized to bring the inanimate objects of the castle to life: the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the mantel clock (Ian McKellen), the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), , the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and last but certainly not least, the teapot (Emma Thompson) and teacup (Nathan Mack). It’s not easy to embody characters we already know and love, but the actors, mostly only heard, lend their voices with sincerity and warmth.

Emma Watson makes a self-assured Belle. The actress is recognizable to audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and that familiarity, along with her personality, fulfills this role. Dan Stevens is a suitably charismatic beast. Together they have chemistry. Their discussion in the library over the merits of Shakespeare is the proof we need that these characters have souls. She falls in love with his goodness, but he is also her intellectual equal. It’s not merely his appearance that makes him different. It’s his mind as well. Also amongst the humans is Gaston, a fittingly cast Luke Evans as Belle’s narcissistic wannabe suitor and his fawning pal LeFou, in a bit of comic relief by Josh Gad.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) gently tweak the story to give added depth to the fable with which we are already acquainted. Don’t worry. This isn’t meant to replace your fond memories of the animated 1991 classic. It’s simply there to offer something more. And more is what you’ll get. More songs! Three new numbers are added by Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. More script! It’s 45 minutes longer than the cartoon. More costumes! More flair! More! More! More!   The songs are supported by the spectacle.  The famous number “Be Our Guest” is a veritable Busby Berkeley extravaganza inside the magnificent home. My mouth stood agape as the dazzling routine unfolded before my eyes in a specular vision of color and music.

Beauty and the Beast is a production designer’s dream. The sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, and costumes are beyond compare. In particular, there’s a physicality to these locales that make you believe that these places do indeed exist. The town is a quaint fairy tale community and the majestic castle has an impressive gothic air. The overall look is so fully realized, you’ll forgive that the plot holds no surprises. Yes for all its charm, this merely remains a beautifully realized imitation of its predecessor. The accomplishment is undeniably gorgeous but not visionary. If the very idea of a live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast offends you, then this picture will not change your perceptions. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the idea, then the movie will be a delight. I’m pleased to say I was thoroughly entertained.

03-16-17

Kong: Skull Island

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on March 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo kong_skull_island_ver2_zpsvvhmmcyl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s hard to believe, but there have actually been 7 movies in which King Kong has appeared before Skull Island. The original (and best) is the 1933 classic starring Fay Wray. That masterpiece was famously remade in 1976 introducing Jessica Lange in her debut and then redone again by Peter Jackson in 2005. It’s been only 12 years since that director’s critically acclaimed, box office success, so why exactly is another version necessary?

Kong: Skull Island isn’t technically a remake per se, but rather an “original” story meant to serve as the second entry in a series not unlike Marvel’s cinematic universe. Here in this so-called MonsterVerse, the combatants will feature Godzilla and Kong. Although this new shared universe is a fresh franchise, the idea of pitting Godzilla against King Kong is not unique. It dates back to the 1962 Japanese feature King Kong vs. Godzilla from Tokyo-based distribution company Toho. Provided these contemporary films continue to be successful, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, will show up in future pictures as well.  Stay for a post-credits scene, by the way.

Kong: Skull Island flaunts an accomplished cast of actors with at least 10 speaking parts. John Goodman plays a senior official in charge of a group of scientists (Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins) funded by the U.S. Government. They’re escorted by Samuel L. Jackson as a U.S. Colonel and his right-hand man, an Army major portrayed by Toby Kebbell.  Jackson heads up an Army helicopter squadron of soldiers (Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero) from the Vietnam War. There’s also a British hunter-tracker played by a ripped Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson as a luminous looking photojournalist. I guess you could say the last two actors are the two central human stars but they don’t really register as such.

It’s a sizable cast. While all are adequate, hardly any of these underdeveloped characters have the charisma to enthrall us. Sure we’re given some superficial details about these people that are meant to captivate our interest, but we honestly don’t know them. It’s a shame to see such a notable assemblage of talent so underutilized. It harks back to the days of the casts in those 70s disaster flicks where spectacle was the star, not people. I suppose that’s not surprising given the title of this movie. The CGI creature is the presumed headliner. The fact that John C. Reilly stands out, however, is proof that he can outact almost anyone.

Kong: Skull Island pushes the old adage that bigger is better and this is the biggest Kong yet in terms of size. This upright walking gorilla is a 100-foot tall digital creation by Industrial Light & Magic. His colossal size will make the inevitable showdown with Godzilla more of an even match. Technically speaking, this is the most impressive version of the creature yet. That’s surely saying something too because Peter Jackson’s movie won an Oscar in that category. The special effects are state of the art. Besides Kong, there’s his natural enemies, the Skullcrawlers, which look like massive two-legged lizards. There’s also a giant spider, a colossal red squid, and an enormous water buffalo. Of course, if you’re familiar with this story, we all know who the real monster is, right?

The foundation looks incredible. The island is its own living breathing ecosystem. It’s a spectacular display and the scope of the creatures gives us a sense of awe. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts certainly delivers the goods. We don’t even have to wait long for the main attraction. Kong appears within the first 30 minutes. Nevertheless, character machinations are ridiculous. The dialogue is silly. This is strictly a B-movie with a much heftier budget. Screenwriters Max Borenstein and John Gatins toy with the events to give us a slightly different take. For one thing, we never leave that darn island. On the one hand, I guess it’s admirable they’re not merely giving us an identical account as previous incarnations of Kong but is what they offer really an improvement? The best part in every iteration of this fable – be it 1933, 1976 or 2005 – has always been the moment where our hairy hero is let loose in the city to contend with a world he doesn’t understand. I miss that part.

Kong: Skull Island is a mindless popcorn flick but it’s still pretty entertaining. This is a lot less ambitious than previous interpretations. Kong’s noble savagery is still apparent, but the main thrust of this action is little more than monsters run amok. The original fantasy had a self-contained plot with a poignant message. This entry exists as an intro to a beast that will go on to star in more installments. That modifies the narrative in a pretty significant way. In more cosmetic changes, the production is envisioned as a period piece as it moves the time frame back to 1973. 70s rock music blares on the soundtrack as helicopters loom in search of a mysterious figure in the jungle. Allusions to a certain Francis Ford Coppola directed war film are deliberate. Yet, I’m still not sure whether it’s intended to be so intellectually shallow. I suppose there’s joy in the simplicity of just the spectacle. Let’s put it this way, the less you think about it, the better it gets.

03-09-17

Logan

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Superhero on March 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo logan_ver5_zpsigtia2p8.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgFor the uninitiated, Logan is the 10th chapter in Marvel Comic series about the X-Men. You know, those wacky subspecies of humans called mutants who are born with superhuman powers. It follows last year’s fiercely successful Deadpool and the not so wildly lucrative X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s also the 3rd and final entry to feature the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Given U.S. ticket sales, 2013’s The Wolverine was the least popular entry of all 10 films. How to re-invent the character for a theater-going public that has clearly grown tired of this personality?

Logan revolves around Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) a young mutant girl that enters the life of the aging Wolverine. His healing abilities are not what they once were. He is older and more grizzled here. At first, Logan is worried about caring for the even more decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). However, his focus changes when a nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), entrusts a mute 11-year-old girl into his care. Young Laura yearns for a sanctuary in North Dakota called “Eden”.  Curiously the feral Laura has strengths that are not unlike the Wolverine’s. That makes Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the Chief of Security for a company called Transigen, unhappy. You see he doesn’t like mutants and he is in hot pursuit of the little girl.

If you enjoy hyperbole in your reviews then let me attest that Logan is The Goriest Superhero Movie Ever Made!  That’s not hype. I mean what are the contenders?  Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Blade or The Punisher? Logan tops them all. Someone’s face is blown off by a gunshot and the bloody aftermath is shown. People are routinely impaled, blood spurts everywhere. Then there’s my “favorite” scene.  Professor X is prone to seizures. During one of these episodes, time stops with his psychic blast and Charles Xavier freezes everyone at a hotel. This allows Logan to go through a room stabbing people through the head and face with his claws. I mean he splices and dices their brains while they just stand there powerless. It almost seems unfair.

Allow me to hypothesize how the pitch for this story went. “We loved ‘Midnight Special’ but nobody saw it so let’s adapt it into a superhero movie and add more decapitations.” A child in need of protection hits the road with guardians while being pursued by evil baddies. Midnight Special is the most recent cinematic example of this plot. TV’s Stranger Things is a current reference too in that Laura is a kindred spirit of Eleven on that show.  Laura and her ethnically diverse mutant peers are like the women of Mad Max: Fury Road or the kids who survive Children of Men. If this was the 80s we’d be making comparisons to Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. If it was the 90s we’d be talking Edward Furlong in Terminator 2. It’s a recycled story. The difference is that superhero yarns don’t usually center on the portrayal of people at the expense of the extravaganza. Nor do they mine R-rated territory very often. Logan is for people who think the PG-13 rating is why the previous Wolverine installments weren’t very good. I only wish the script had done more than salvage a familiar trope. The story is functional and utilitarian, but it isn’t deep. Logan works best for those who get giddy when an elderly gentleman like Charles Xavier says the F word.

Logan is a deadly serious road trip. To its credit, the saga is more concerned with character development than the spectacle. It’s more intimate than the traditional superhero picture too. Director James Mangold strips the production of unnecessary flourishes. Occasionally it pauses to reflect on age and one’s own mortality. That’s such a rarity it has caused some critics to elevate this to the status of greatest superhero film ever made. Let’s all just calm down now a bit shall we?  Anyone who saw the narratively similar Midnight Special knows an introspective study about people has been done before and better, but I’ll give Logan points for trying at least. This road movie does attempt to give the audience something more than the average X-Men commodity. Logan is easily the best of the three Wolverine episodes, but I stop short of giving this picture any more acclaim beyond that.

3-3-16

Get Out

Posted in Horror, Mystery with tags on March 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo get_out_ver2_zpsfkozcn69.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA young black man has anxiety about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Get Out, with its race-baiting premise, would seem a bit outdated in 2017. Interracial dating is nothing new.  Rest assured director Jordan Peele knows this. Rose (Allison Williams) can’t wait to introduce Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to her parents. They arrive at the Armitage estate. Rose’s mom (Catherine Keener) and dad (Bradley Whitford) are quite genial, excessively so in fact.  Yet something is amiss. There’s the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), their maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a guest at their party named Logan (LaKeith Stanfield). All African American and all exhibit an odd demeanor. What initially felt like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner now seems closer to The Stepford Wives.

Jordan Peele merely raises the issue of race but doesn’t delve too deeply. It’s left to the moviegoer as to what they will take away from this story. A less introspective viewer may simply see “white people are evil” but look deeper and there’s an ample minefield of racial tension to explore. The director begins with the surface level awkwardness felt between a black man in a sea of affluent white people. It’s not just about Chris’ racial unease. It’s about how the townspeople try to empathize with Chris in that situation. They want to be seen as altruistic people. Those feelings manifest into socially inept behavior. They attempt to atone for his experience with overly polite, almost pandering conversation.

The screenplay capitalizes on this notion with artlessly misguided remarks at first. At the outset, Rose insists her liberal parents are really cool. She tries to ally Chris’ fears with “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” Later there’s a party scene where Chris must navigate a maze of warm pleasantries, tinged with passively racist undertones. One guest enthusiastically extols the athletic achievements of Olympian Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. Another who plays golf goes out of his way to tell Chris that he’s a big fan of Tiger Woods. The overcompensating comments come across like white guilt. That’s funny but then the narrative exploits this nervousness into the fear felt by an outsider. The entire audience ultimately feels it too.

Get Out strikes a nice balance between terror and comedy. There’s a satirical edge to the proceedings that elevates this horror flick into something rather intelligent. Most of the scares are psychological. Hypnosis is introduced as a frightening state of consciousness. That the clicking of a teacup could be a weapon more powerful than a loaded gun is a concept that is both amusing and disconcerting at the very same time. A trigger with the ability to render a person powerless. Ok, there is some blood in the third act, but there’s very little viscera. The R rating is mainly for language. As Get Out unfolds to its inevitable conclusion we the audience understand this environment from Chris’ perspective, The final twist is the perfect cap to a tale that has toyed with race for the entire duration. By the end, the script confronts the issue in a way that is both subversive and unique.

02-23-17