Archive for June, 2019

Men in Black: International

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on June 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

men_in_black_internationalSTARS3Anyone  22 years or younger seeing Men in Black: International this weekend wasn’t even alive when the first film came out.  I feel old. July 2, 1997, seems like such a long time ago.  I thought this series was over by the third entry.  Now 7 years later, we have a belated fourth episode which is being marketed as more of a spin-off.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are long gone although Emma Thompson who was in Men in Black 3 is back as Agent O, the head of MIB’s US branch.  Head of MIB’s UK branch is Liam Neeson as High T.  Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (no relation to Emma) star as Agents H and M respectively.  Coincidence or did the Swedish clothing-retail company pay for that mention?   No matter – back to the actors.  The two famously appeared together in Thor: Ragnarok.  I dare say the charm they had together then is even more apparent here.

The story concerns Molly who witnessed an alien abduction when she was a little girl. Her parents’ minds were erased by the MIB but they neglected to neuralyze her.  She still carries those memories.  She longs to be one of the “Men in Black”.  Yes, the screenplay acknowledges that not all operatives are male.  She sneaks into the headquarters and convinces Agent O to hire her on as sort of a probationary test.  It makes no sense why this would happen so easily but it’s so ridiculous that I kind of appreciated the careless happenstance of it all.  Soon she meets Agent H.  He’s cocky.  She’s bookish.  Writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway have created stock characters.  We’ve seen this personality dynamic many times before.  The difference is that Chris and Tessa genuinely appear to be friends in real life.  The appeal of the stars is why Men in Black: International entertains.  They generate the kind of palpable chemistry that two attractive Hollywood stars are able to parlay into elevating a flimsy script.   In essence, the fate of the world is at stake.  Despite this, their objectives never seem insurmountable.  Things come quite easily for these two, particularly Agent M who assimilates into the MIB organization with barely any difficulty at all.

You can always count on the special effects to captivate in these films.  They are selectively utilized to create intergalactic creatures.  The designs are impressive.  Which leads me to another reason why this ultimately charmed me: Kumail Nanjiani. We never actually even see the actor/comedian.  Rather, we hear him as an alien that assists Agents H and M.  He’s the size of a chess pawn and he’s assigned to protect his diminutive queen so Agent M starts calling him Pawny.  This miniature green humanoid creature reminded me of The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones.  His humor mostly consists of offering a sardonic comment on the events happening around them.  He can say banal things at times.  He spouts hackneyed catchphrases like “That’s what I’m talking about!”  Yet Nanjiani’s irritated delivery absolutely sells this tiny creature.  Additionally, the animated expressions on his tiny face are consistently hilarious.

Apparently, this movie wasn’t hilarious to the majority of critics who have saddled this movie with some of the harshest reviews of 2019.  It currently has a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Me thinks people are comparing this to the style of the earlier films.  This has a different atmosphere.  There’s an emphasis on elegant sophistication, not zany antics.  Men in Black: International lacks Will Smith’s manic energy but that’s OK.  Although Pawny is a notable exception.  Director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) continues to demonstrate his ability to helm a large-scale production.  The plot is pretty standard stuff.  However, this amiable production coasts on the smooth easygoing chemistry of its two leads.  Their relationship has an amusing push-pull trade-off.  It’s pleasing to watch actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson interact.  Sometimes charismatic actors reciting humorous back and forth banter is enough.  I was entertained.

Ma

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on June 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maSTARS3.5There’s something so wonderful about Ma, the new horror movie starring Octavia Spencer.  I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a cheesy film.  Tate Taylor also directed The Girl on the Train which was one of my least favorite releases of 2016.  But Ma is something else entirely.  It’s a completely idiosyncratic story about a middle-aged black woman that befriends a group of mostly white teens.  She invites them over so they can have a safe place to hang out and drink.  Obviously, juveniles under the age of 21 shouldn’t be drinking but Spencer isn’t supposed to be playing an admirable person.  However, there’s a lot more to uncover here than initially meets the eye.

Ma is trashy fun.  Screenwriters Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor know exactly the kind of campy film they’re making.  So does Octavia Spencer.  It’s not great art but it is entertaining.  She plays a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann Ellington who is approached by a group of adolescents who ask her to buy alcohol for them.  Sue Ann is awkward.  She sports a hairstyle seemingly inspired by Joey Lawrence in the TV show Gimme a Break! circa 1983.  It isn’t only the way she looks, though.  It’s the way she acts.  Spencer’s identity is that of a kindly mature woman desperate to be liked.  The kids start calling her Ma and she likes the attention.  The script gives this misfit a detailed backstory recounted in flashbacks.  There are details to this character that aren’t readily apparent.  There’s a reason for her unhinged behavior.  She still harbors unresolved anger from her past.

Ma goes to places I didn’t foresee.  At first, she simply buys the kids booze, but pretty soon she’s offering up the basement in her home as a place for them to party.  Then she’s celebrating right alongside them.  That’s so unexpected.  So is the soundtrack which includes “The Safety Dance”, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Funkytown”.  I didn’t reckon Ma would crank up the bouncy hit “September” by Earth Wind and Fire while running over a victim.  It’s refreshing to see a production where Octavia Spencer gets to be the star and the supporting cast are there to support her.  The ensemble consists of teen Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) who has just moved to the area with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis).  Luke Evans is Ben, an old high school classmate from Erica’s childhood and Missi Pyle portrays Ben’s girlfriend who can’t hold her liquor.   There’s also Allison Janney who’s highly memorable as Ma’s irritable boss.  There is literally only one note to her performance.  That sounds like a condemnation but it’s not.  Janney is hilarious.  She doesn’t have many lines but every one she utters is vicious.  This is a reunion of sorts. Janney and Spencer were in The Help together which was likewise helmed by Tate Taylor. He happens to play a police officer here.

You really have to suspend a lot of disbelief with Ma. The way these children keep going back to Ma’s house makes absolutely no sense. It almost becomes an unintentional(?) running joke.  There are so many signs that Ma isn’t quite right.  Early on she points a gun at one of the students and demands that he remove his clothes.   It’s an uncomfortable scene, but the kids inexplicably seem fine with it after she laughs it off.  Later she hugs Erica and her expression over toward Maggie goes from delighted to deranged in a half second.  That’s part of the movie’s spell.  Spencer adroitly switches from sympathetic to cruel.  I felt sorry for this woman.  Then I hated her.  Earlier this year Neil Jordan’s Greta employed a similar camp sensibility.  Ma is even less inhibited and therefore more fun.  For the majority of the picture, this is a compelling character study. Unfortunately, the drama’s final 20-minute descent into Grand Guignol is a letdown.  Yet through it all, Spencer endures as a fascinating personality.  The achievement would be a parody in a lesser actor’s hands.  Spencer extracts both pathos and absurdity from the screenplay.  The individual is cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Kathy Bates in Misery.   Those may be iconic grandes dames of horror but Spencer is most definitely in the same league.

06-08-19

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on June 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

secret_life_of_pets_twoSTARS2From a narrative standpoint, The Secret Life of Pets 2 has no reason to exist.  From a business angle, it would be to make money.  Given my sparsely attended theater on opening night, it’s a mere shadow of its predecessor in that department as well.  The first movie wasn’t great art but it had a zany quality that ultimately endeared itself to the audience.  There was a lot of animal personalities crammed into the plot but none stood out more than Kevin Hart as a white bunny named Snowball.  He’s back again but no longer a villain. The attitude that made his character a surprise in the original is gone.

The rest of the cast is back with one major exception.  Max, a Jack Russell Terrier, is now voiced by Patton Oswalt in this go-around taking over for Louis CK who was not rehired due to accusations of sexual harassment.  Oswalt voiced Remy the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille so he’s no stranger to voice acting.  Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is back as the large, brown, shaggy Newfoundland mix who lives with Max.  If I had to award an MVP in the cast it would be to Lake Bell who returns as Chloe, a blue tabby cat.  Her sarcastic indifference perfectly matched my mood while watching this.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is even more chaotic, more freeform and less focused than its forebear.  30 minutes into the film and I still couldn’t discern a plot.  If you’re looking for a sampling of gags stuffed into an admittedly brief 86 minute saga (that includes the credits) then I suppose it fitfully entertains.  There are three storylines going on simultaneously.  The screenplay keeps them coherently discernible from one another like a banana, a mango and a peach in a fruit smoothie after they’ve been liquified in a blender.  The difference?  This experience isn’t tasty.

Max and Duke’s human owner Katie has married and now has a child.  The family all take a trip to visit a farm as a way to relax.  There Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford), an alpha farm dog who watches Fox News and stans for Donald Trump.  I’m kidding but watch the movie and then tell me I’m wrong.  Meanwhile, Pomeranian Gidget ( Jenny Slate) accidentally loses Max’s favorite chew toy (a busy bee) to a bunch of cats in the apartment below hers.  She needs to get it back.  Finally, Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih Tzu, must rescue a white tiger from a Russian circus run by a heavily accented stereotype named Sergei (Nick Kroll).   In these highly sensitive times, making fun of Eastern Europeans and the way they talk is apparently still OK.

Thankfully, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is short but it still feels long because it’s so meandering.  The story is essentially three cartoon shorts along with various subplots and vignettes cobbled together to make a theatrical feature.  None of them are particularly captivating.  It’s fleeting and ephemeral.  I can barely remember what I watched and I just saw it.  Perhaps this would be more comprehensible edited down and promoted as 3 half-hour TV episodes.  The screenplay doesn’t bother to expand on our understanding of these characters.  Nor does it offer anything in the way of wit.   If toilet humor is your thing, there are poop jokes and fart jokes.  The ending credits presents an America’s Funniest Home Videos-style montage of kids with their pets.  It made me laugh more than anything in the film.  At best this works as an 86-minute babysitter for your kids and at worst it’s an unpleasant time waster.

06-06-19

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on June 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

godzilla_king_of_the_monsters_ver9STARS2Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the third episode in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, a cinematic series co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.  I’m not sure how many audience members are savvy to the fact that this is actually part three.  It really doesn’t make any difference to understanding the plot anyway.  There is none.  At least not one that requires background information.  Monsters attack.  That’s all you need to know.  This is technically a direct sequel to Godzilla (2014) but it immediately follows Kong: Skull Island (2017).  I was a fan of both entries so I walked into it with great anticipation.  I walked out having experienced one of the biggest disappointments of 2019.

I realize looking for intellectual sense is futile.  Godzilla flicks aren’t known for their conversation, and as expected, the screenplay by director Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields is completely idiotic.  Why these Kaiju or “strange creatures” get released from their dormant slumber is explained through the motivations of Vera Farmiga’s paleobiologist.  Dr. Emma Russell has got to be one of the most bewildering personalities in a 2019 production.  A screenplay shouldn’t even bother to offer clarification if the motive is so implausible.  Emma sympathizes with an eco-terrorist named Jonah Alan (Charles Dance).  Emma wants the enormous beasts to destroy civilization so that they can restore the natural order.  She’s like like Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.  Her declarations sound like the ravings of a lunatic.  Yet she’s presented as an ostensibly sympathetic level headed individual.  Sorry, even Vera Farmiga’s considerable acting chops can’t sell this half baked character.

The script feels the need to offer detailed exposition in a movie that doesn’t call for it.  The rest of the cast of famous performers is simply here to recite horrible dialogue to further a routine plot.  There is a lot of insipid explanation.  Emma’s ex-husband is the sensible Dr. Mark Russell, played by Kyle Chandler.  They have a daughter named Madison, Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown.  International stars Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi play scientists.  They should fire their agents.  After a gathering of experts has Dr. Emma Russell leaving the room, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi) blurts “What a b—!”  Cue audience laughter.  This is what passes for wit.  The exclamation “Oh sh–!” is uttered a couple times to express a surprise.  Simply saying nothing would have been better.

I don’t demand great acting or writing in a Godzilla flick but I do expect awe-inspiring creature battles that are enjoyable to watch.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters even fails in providing these rudimentary pleasures.  Most of the action takes place at night so all the computer-generated imagery is obscured by darkness.  One sequence actually takes place during a blizzard in Antarctica.  When something does occur during the day, there’s so much smoke and debris in the air that the activity looks muddy and dull.  There are parts so devoid of color it looks like a black and white film, or rather gray and dark gray.  Say what you will about the ridiculous special effects in the 1954 Godzilla movie that started it all.  At least it was clear and you could see what was happening.

2014’s Godzilla wasn’t Shakespeare but it was breathtaking to watch.  The admittedly bland cast of human characters was highlighted by beautifully shot sequences of citywide destruction.  Some complained there wasn’t enough action.  Yet director Gareth Edwards understood that just the sight of a colossal winged beast taking off into the night sky could create a feeling of wonder and awe that was exciting.  He took his time laying the groundwork for a climax that felt like a spectacular release when the awesome creature ultimately destroyed San Francisco.  Sadly he didn’t return to shoot this picture.  Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus) apparently equates incomprehensible mayhem with excitement.  We see various creatures throughout the picture.  Only in the final 30 minutes do we get the actual showdown we were promised in the trailer.  Mothra is the queen to Godzilla’s king who face off against the three-headed Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster Zero) and Rodan.  We get a lot more monsters but a less visually impressive spectacle.  If only we could see the giant lizard king more clearly.  The new Godzilla movie has a reptile dysfunction.

05-30-19