Archive for April, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

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7th Annual Summer Movie Gamble from “Out Now With Aaron and Abe”

Posted in Podcast on April 24, 2018 by Mark Hobin

I was guest this week on Out Now With Aaron and Abe

This year’s summer movies have the potential to be the biggest box office ever. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR kicks off the season this Friday. Then DEADPOOL 2, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY, THE INCREDIBLES 2, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM and a host of other films will all come out as well.

We challenge each other to correctly pick the Top 10 in the correct order because…we’re competitive that way. Aaron Neuwirth, Abraham Moua, Jordan Grout, Markus Emilio Robinson and I discuss our predictions as well as the picks of other frequent personalities of the show.

The competition will be fierce!

The Death of Stalin

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

death_of_stalinSTARS4The Death of Stalin is a political satire about the power struggle that occurs after the infamous leader (or more appropriately – dictator) of the Soviet Union suffers a stroke and dies. The aftermath has a major effect, plunging the ruling government into a genuine free-for-all where control is seemingly up for grabs. The production had a most curious journey to the screen. Obviously, the characters are based on actual historical figures. However, the property began as a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The screenplay was then adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows.  The film details the events in October 1953 after the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that’s a terrific starting point for any great comedy.  In fact, the resulting power play that occurs is so ridiculous it could only be true. Be that as it may, the details of the ensuing crisis is infused with a bit of whimsical conjecture.

The depiction is a sensational ensemble piece of people who fight over Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) vacant seat. There’s Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), his advisor vs. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. These two are directly at odds. They try to manipulate a coterie of peripheral characters that include Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Deputy Premier, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), originally the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but subsequently placed on his enemies list, and lastly Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), the famed communist’s son. Well-informed history buffs will be in absolute heaven. For others, it can be a lot to grasp. I’ll admit there were times I was a little confused as to who is aligned with whom.

The Death of Stalin is such a literate comedy. So packed with intelligence and wit. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of one-liners and quotable dialogue. It can get somewhat impenetrable, but for those with the right mindset, it is a most rewarding experience. Director Armando Iannucci cleverly utilizes real occurrences and then embellishes for the purposes of parody. In the U.S. the director is probably best known for creating Veep, the HBO TV series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s full of political satire as well. Right from the start, the circumstances here are completely absurd. A live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 has just been broadcast over the radio waves. Stalin requests a recording of the concerto. The trouble is, none was made. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) frantically endeavors to restage the entire concert, including bringing in random people to recreate the commotion of the audience. It’s just as bizarre as it sounds.  Things only get more outlandish from there.

There is something inherently satisfying about taking the exemplars of pure evil and making them buffoons. The film makes a lot of concessions in the name of comedy. For example, no Russian is spoken. The actors don’t even attempt a fake accent. They speak English as they would in their everyday life, cockney diction included!  It’s a bold but welcome choice. Elsewhere the screenplay wisely references the egregious sins of Lavrentiy Beria without unnecessarily dwelling on their legitimate horror. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he commands at one point. The execution ordered with all the calm demeanor of selecting an entree off a dinner menu.  Despite the subject, it remains comical, even when dramatizing the physical demise of Stalin. The exhibition of his body falling to the ground produces a loud thud. Hearing the noise, the two bumbling guards outside his room debate whether they should investigate. Too afraid, they don’t. When they finally realize he is ill, it would make sense to find a doctor. Ironically all the good physicians have either been killed or sent to the gulags. No one wants to treat him for fear of reprisal by the state. I could go on and on and on with more hard to believe examples. The funeral scene is my favorite, but I’ve said enough. I’ve tempted you with the history, now see the way it’s been exploited for laughs. The script shrewdly mixes what literally happened with some creative augmentations for the sake of humor. The amazing thing is the root of these events actually transpired. How it all played out is another story, but that’s where the fun of this chronicle begins.

04-16-18

Blockers

Posted in Comedy on April 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

blockers_ver2STARS2.5The marketing team behind Blockers must not have had much faith in the movie they were selling. The ad campaign is the most frustrating form of bait and switch. Specifically, the ads promised a raunchy sex comedy but instead, they delivered a mawkishly sentimental drama about self-empowered teens. Now I know what you’re thinking. They actually marketed it as something that is less respected? I know. I’m confused too. There’s nothing particularly noble or admirable about a bawdy picture fixated on human beings attempting to have sex. Yet that idea has been the inspiration for a lot of films. Some admittedly hilarious ones as a matter of fact.  Maybe that’s the lofty standard to which screenwriter (Pitch Perfect) and first-time director Kay Cannon aspired.  The “illustrious” genre arguably started back in 1978 with the granddaddy of all teen comedies Animal House and has continued on through American Pie, Superbad, The Hangover and even 2017’s Girls Trip. I’m casting a wide net because those last two examples were most definitely about adults, not teens, but the focus is the same. As long as people are trying to get their groove on, there will always be a movie to make light of it.

Yet Blockers really isn’t akin to those films. Only on paper does the chronicle seem similar. The plot is simple. Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) are unrelated parents each with a different child. Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) are their respective daughters. The guardians are goofballs. Their offspring are self-serious killjoys.  Nevertheless, the girls make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. The parents find out and try to stop them. Mayhem ensues. I’ll give the script points for flipping the script and making this about female teen horniness instead of the tractional male libido but that’s about where the innovation stops.

The funny thing is, or rather ironically, Blockers is NOT very funny.   It’s rather heavy-handed unfortunately.   That’s where I cry “Foul!”  It’s essentially a girl power drama about parental responsibility and how teens empower themselves to rationally make the so-called right choices. That sounds like an improvement but then the third act descends into cloying melodrama. Mom and each dad pontificates to the audience on what they learned. Yawn! This isn’t a comedy at heart. It’s a preachy, after-school special about making the right life choices with some crudities thrown in.   Oh sure there are a few clever jokes here and there. One extended vignette involves the adults hanging out in mother Lisa’s home after having sent each of their three children off to prom. Lisa’s daughter Julie accidentally leaves her computer on. Some noises from Julie’s laptop compel them to convene in her room. Once there, they eavesdrop on the adolescents’ emoji-filled group chat from their phones as it is displayed on the computer monitor. Don’t question whether this is possible. It’s 2018. Technology allows everything. The subsequent parents’ conversation over what they read is possibly the funniest scene that I will see in all of 2018. Their deciphering over what a drooling face means vs. the significance of an eggplant is the kind of dialogue this movie needed more of.

I’ll admit it. I laughed. Maybe for a total of 3 times throughout the picture. I wish the rest of the screenplay had been that smart. It’s so not.  One sketch involves something that can only wholesomely be referred to as an “alcohol enema”. The sequence is stupid and lowbrow. There’s no point other than to simply be disgusting. There are a lot of those moments in this picture. Crude bits can be excusable when they show some signs of intelligent life. Moronic bits are unforgivable. When it isn’t gross, Blockers is trying to be positively upbeat and sappy. Nothing wrong with emotion if it feels sincere. When it follows a scene in which everyone projectile vomits, well….it made me want to vomit. Save for the “emoji texting” scene, the jokes aren’t amusing. When you’re calling yourself a comedy, that’s kind of a deal breaker.

04-12-18

A Quiet Place

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

quiet_placeSTARS3.5In the climax of a thriller, tension is often extracted when the main character is hiding from a dangerous threat lurking nearby.  It could be another person, an animal, an alien, whatever. You name it. As long as they don’t make noise, they’ll be OK. We hold our breath praying that our hero doesn’t give himself away. The menace looms closer. The protagonist’s heart beats faster. Our hearts beat faster in the audience. The stress can be unbearable. A Quiet Place is extremely clever. The story takes the crucial element of a horror film and makes that apex the entire picture. The anxiety is non-stop for the duration of the production.  It’s extremely compelling.

Things are hushed right from the beginning. A Quiet Place doesn’t waste time with exposition, but we can sort of gather info as things develop. We’re in the very near future. Earth has been taken over by some really scary looking aliens that prey on human beings. As long as people remain silent, they are safe. Make a sound, and individuals run the risk of being discovered. The Abbotts are a family simply trying to stay alive. You’ll find out within the first few minutes how hard that is. There’s Lee (John Krasinski), the father, mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds). She happens to be deaf, both in the drama and in real life. Regan has two brothers as well: Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward). Complicating matters is when Evelyn becomes pregnant.   Psst….babies are kind of noisy.

A Quiet Place is an effective horror tale that entertains as it plays. To this fan, actor John Krasinski will forever be Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office. Clearly a man of many talents, he directed and co-wrote this screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. He directed his real-life wife Emily Blunt who plays his fictional wife in the story.  That makes the role easier.  They’ve been married since 2010.  No need to feign onscreen chemistry.  They’ve had plenty of practice.  They’re the couple at the center of a very interesting but uncomplicated idea. For long stretches, there is virtually no sound at all. The tension is unbearably intense at times. The experience will require absolute silence in the theater too.   It will certainly be a most demanding test of a modern audience to not make a peep while watching a horror film. Obviously talking and cell phones are always forbidden but I’d recommend no food or drink as well. Loud popcorn eating and rusting candy wrappers were present at my screening, along with some hilariously exaggerated gasps as well. I could’ve done without the distractions. I’m not usually obsessive about such things, but go see this particular movie in a packed theater and then tell me I was wrong.

A Quiet Place is a sharp thriller made on a shoestring budget for only $17 million. Judging from the grosses this weekend it looks like it will ultimately reap at least 10 times that amount. I especially love when inexpensive productions (that I like) make a huge profit.  It proves you don’t always have to spend a great deal of money to earn a lot of money.  You simply need a good idea.  It doesn’t even have to be totally original either.  Director John Krasinski’s influences are simple and unmistakable. Like 1979’s Alien, these monsters are really big and ugly. Also like that feature, part of the giddy apprehension is how they’re introduced ever so carefully over time.  Just a glimpse of one here, another flash of one there.  These beasts cannot see, but they have extremely sensitive hearing.  The beautifully abhorrent details of the creatures become more and more familiar as the story wears on. “Don’t make a sound” was a gimmick recently used in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. That was good too, but A Quiet Place is more elegant and family friendly.  It’s rated PG-13.  It’s also incredibly exciting. Do go and enjoy it right now. Just please shut your trap when you do.

04-05-18

Ready Player One

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on April 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ready_player_one_ver2STARS3It has been nearly a decade since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was the last time Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) actually directed the kind of live-action adventure that made him THE highest-grossing director worldwide.  That alone makes Ready Player One something to be excited about. The production is an adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. His novel was set in a dystopian future 2044 about a teenaged protagonist that simply wants to solve a 3 part quest in a virtual reality video game.

In Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is from “The Stacks.” The name denotes a decaying trailer park where vehicles are stacked on top of one another so more people can live in the same space.  This is apparently because of overpopulation problems and possibly economic ones as well. Existence is a bummer and so to escape, citizens turn to the OASIS, a hyper-realistic 3D virtual reality video game. The game itself is presented as something of a paradise. People enjoy the OASIS. The real world may be a dystopia, but virtual reality is not. Within the OASIS, you can literally be anyone. For reasons I still don’t understand, Wade chooses to look like a frail teen named Parzival. He’s the expression of an unexceptional anime character. Within the game, he frequently interacts with Aech (Lena Waithe), a huge muscular mechanic, as well as the samurai Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Never having met any of these people, Wade only knows them from their chosen avatar.  Their physical appearance in the real world is a mystery…initially.

The OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Eccentric billionaire Halliday is no longer with us.  However before he died, he announced that he had hidden an Easter egg within the OASIS that would be accessible after three keys were found. Collect the keys and his fortune (and control of the OASIS) is yours. Holy shades of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory! This mission forms the crux of the story. Everyone wants to win. Wade and his friends want to escape the very mire of their existence. The main antagonist is the evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Sorrento has rounded up a number of players to find the keys for him. He seeks to take over the OASIS and exploit it to augment his already massive fortune. To be honest, he and Wade ostensibly want the same thing but Sorrento is willing to murder to get what he wants so that’s where the narrative makes it OK to root for Wade and not Sorrento. I’m not sure if Sorrento’s personal style was supposed to recall Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club but given the film is all about the pop culture of a certain era, I’ll assume the casting choice was intentional.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent two paragraphs detailing the backstory for a movie in which the plot is so weak. The aforementioned set-up is merely an excuse to present a CGI fest of various challenges. The viewer is invited to stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed as we marvel at the technological curiosity before us. Don’t get me wrong.  This is a visual wonder to behold. Each quest involves obtaining a key. The first may be obtained when our fearless hero must finish a race. We see him drive a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a Hot Wheels-style course with jumps and loops. It’s seemingly impossible to even finish. King Kong manages to stop him in his tracks. The competition is run more than once. It’s during the revisit where we’re dazzled by some fantastic perspective shots. It’s a dizzying spectacle. It’s here where he meets love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She laments that her avatar is much more attractive than her real appearance. Then we meet her and she’s actually gorgeous. Oh sure she has a birthmark on her face, but she’s still very pretty. Her despair that he won’t find her beautiful is somewhat annoying.

Screenwriter Ernest Cline co-adapted the screenplay from his own book with Zak Penn. A big part of his novel were pop culture allusions.  Cline has a fondness for very particular things.  The author was born in 1972 and suffice it to say that the closer your birthdate matches his, the more likely you will identify with his points of reference. He occasionally acknowledges more recent things: the spaceship Serenity from the TV show Firefly for example. Though examples from 2000 on are rare. His treasured memories are mostly focused on the late 70s early 80s. His fiction was a love letter to fellow fanboys that obsess over comics (Superman, Batman), music (Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran) movies (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant) and video games (cartridges for the Atari 2600) of his childhood.

There’s a hip self-awareness that savvy fans will appreciate. A key element of the Ready Player One novel was specialized geek culture.  However, Steven Spielberg has wisely opened up that narrow focus and cited things that nearly everyone with a casual awareness of mainstream tastes can enjoy.  We’ve seen this done before in the movies. The Cabin in the Woods played with the manipulation of various tropes perhaps even more successfully, but the joy is similar. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the second key concerns an extended walkthrough of a certain movie. This is a departure from what happens in the book but it’s my most favorite setpiece. It practically justifies the entire production.

Ready Player One is a fine film. It’s entertaining enough but it doesn’t have the organic components of Spielberg’s very best work. I get that it’s all about virtual reality and so there’s very little that is tangible about this story. The frenzy keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We observe individuals in action but we never feel like we understand the experience or the intimacy of these people. It’s a technologically manufactured CGI amusement park ride, not an actual narrative motivated by plot and characterization. It’s no masterpiece, but it isn’t a disaster either. I’ll admit the 140-minute runtime can occasionally be exhausting. Yet there should be enough thrills here to satisfy most viewers. I was appeased.

03-29-18