Archive for August, 2019

Blinded by the Light

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on August 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

blinded_by_the_light_ver2STARS4Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a teen living a humble existence in the city of Luton, England.  It’s the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.  Javed is a poor Pakistani immigrant whose family came here for a better life.  It has been hard.  The economic times are blighted by mass unemployment.  Apparently, skinheads and neo-Nazis roam the streets.  Amidst these political and racial tensions, he attends high school.  He longs to be a writer finding solace in composing poetry.  However, his devout father pushes his son to seek a more lucrative career.  He means well.  He only wants the best for his son but his strict Muslim traditions clash with the boy’s desires.  Right now Javed simply longs to be a kid.  His buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring synth-rocker, invites him to parties to which Javed is forbidden to attend.  He’s also smitten by Eliza (Nell Williams).  One day, a fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) turns his ear onto the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.  He is transformed.  The words play off of the cassette tape and into his heart.  An unlikely fandom is the focus of this winning film.

The subject is so quirky it almost feels like the construct of a writer but this is indeed based on a very real journalist – Sarfraz Manzoor.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. There are so many personal and offbeat touches.  His life clearly resonated with the director.  Manzoor’s saga is a labor of love.  That heartfelt touch comes through every scene and it will resonate with an audience unfamiliar with the time period or his religious upbringing.  Chadha has often approached her subjects from the perspective of Indian women living in the UK.  As an immigrant, they must reconcile a traditional background with their modern society.  Our passions can motivate us.  The equally wonderful Bend It Like Beckham is her most famous work.  The enthusiasm that Chadha evoked from soccer, so too does this extract that same feeling from the music of Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve ever been an obsessive adherent of a particular artist, this portrait will ring true.  There are moments of despair, but the overall tone is uplifting.  The cast is populated by charismatic individuals which includes an intimate depiction of Jared’s strict but positive Muslim family.  Everyone is wonderful, but young actor Viveik Kalra is particularly appealing as the star.  We genuinely hope his dreams are realized despite the stress it places on his father (Kulvinder Ghir).  It’s not necessary to be an admirer of Bruce Springsteen but I do think it helps.  Much of the drama capitalizes on his lyrics in musical vignettes.  The charming numbers are amusing because of their sloppy choreography and guileless lack of precision.  Surprisingly the more compelling sequences just feature the lyrics of “The Boss” literally swirling around Javed’s head.  We are instantly made aware of how the words of a working-class hero from Jersey could galvanize this British Pakistani fan.  Rapturous and exuberant but also unfailingly cheesy.  That’s Blinded by the Light in a nutshell.  Occasionally the sweetness is so overbearing it can get a bit twee.  This is a sincere celebration of how art can inspire us.  Is there such a thing as being too earnest?  For most, the answer would be no.  Blinded by the Light is overflowing with joy.

08-18-19

Good Boys

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

good_boysSTARS3.5If you saw the red band trailer for Good Boys, you will probably expect a version of Superbad with an underage cast.  It has the same producers (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg).  Even the co-star of that film, Jonah Hill, is a producer here.  These pre-teens say and do the kinds of crude things that you’d associate with much older kids.  It looked awful.  The trailer featured non-stop F-bombs and it came off as puerile attempt to simply shock.  It was all raunch and nothing more. That is not this movie. True, there is the occasional curse word, but this comedy is considerably sweeter in tone.  The surprise isn’t that these prepubescent “good boys” are bad.  That revelation would have been a conventional irony.  No, the twist is that they really are well-behaved lads that want to do right.  These are naive youths trying to prepare for a party where spin-the-bottle will be played.  They are sweet and sincere fellows at heart.

Good Boys is a hilarious “one-day-in the life-of” type comedy.  Best friends Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) get invited to their first kissing party.  The invitation is extended by the school’s coolest kid, a little Asian American baller named Soren (Izaac Wang) — an inspired casting choice.  All their female classmates will be in attendance, including Brixlee (Millie Davis), Max’s crush.  The problem is, these 12 year olds are kind of clueless when it comes to the opposite sex.  They have never kissed a girl.  Max decides to use his dad’s drone to spy on neighbor Hannah (Molly Gordon).  The boys want to observe her make out with dimwitted boyfriend Benji (Josh Caras).  Hannah also has a BFF named Lily (Midori Francis) over as well.  The girls see the drone, get angry and things spiral downward from there.  The various misadventures of three sixth-graders involve adult toys, drugs, alcohol, and cops.  Some of their escapades are wrong, but other bits are so right.  A highway of bumper to bumper traffic transforms into a high-speed freeway in seconds.  As their situations grow increasingly convoluted, I relished the absurdity of it all.

Good Boys is a hopeful ode to friendship.  These chums call themselves the Bean Bag Boys for no other reason than they like hanging out in bean bags with each other.  Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Bad Teacher, Year One) emphasize this camaraderie at every turn.  These buddies deal with the age-old problems of middle school: bullying, peer pressure, and annoying younger siblings,  This pre-teen bromance ultimately transcends because of a talented ensemble.  These are genuine characters for whom we truly care.  Max is the most worldly of the three.  He’s into girls and one in particular.  He also cares about his standing in the social hierarchy.  Thor, on the other hand, has no interest in dating yet. He’s a theater geek more concerned with singing in the school play.  Lucas is into role-playing card games, has a high pitched scream, and wears his goodie-two-shoes lifestyle like a badge of honor.   Actor Jacob Tremblay may be the most famous of the three, but Keith L. Williams is the breakout star.   Their innocence is poignant.  “I’m already a social piranha!” Thor laments at one point.  Max takes a single sip of beer and immediately declares that he’s “already feeling something”.  The laughs frequently rely on the characters’ mistaken or uninformed understanding of the adult world.  It’s that naiveté that affirms the humor and makes it touching.  This is a very heartwarming film.

08-15-19

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSTARS2It’s Halloween night, 1968.  In the Mill Valley suburb of Pennsylvania, a group of misfit teenagers seek refuge in the abandoned mansion where Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) once lived.  The legend contends that the vengeful woman held a terrible secret.  There in her room, they discover a haunted journal of individual tales.  The book contains scary stories of the past but there are blank pages as well.  When nerdy horror novelist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) carelessly recites an incantation from the tome, Sarah’s spirit is unleashed.  Soon new chapters begin to magically appear on the previously empty pages.  Each one will have a dire consequence for a person trespassing in her home.  The appealing cast includes Stella’s friends, intellectual Auggie (Gabriel Rush), mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and an enigmatic teen drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza).  Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a dumb blonde stereotype, shows up later along with her date Tommy (Austin Abrams), a football player/bully at the school.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of children’s books that were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991.  Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is a producer and co-writer.  The books were a horror compendium of urban legends and folk tales.  The movie interpolates several of the short stories by weaving them into an overall feature.  The film can easily be broken apart into pieces.  “The Haunted House”, “Harold” The Red Spot”, “The Big Toe”, and “The Jangly Man” are all episodes within the narrative.  The pale lady of “The Dream” is a high point.  It’s the only time I was ever creeped out.  Still, the interlude is effective only because it produces a haunting image.  The simple story is merely about an obese woman that wants to hug you.  Some fables are lifted directly from the text.  Others are composites.  They’re all dull and perfunctory.  Although the drama presents this all as one united saga, it’s obvious from its episodic nature that this account has been cobbled together from disparate yarns.  It still has the divided feel of an anthology.  There are thematic parallels to Creepshow (1982).  There’s even a gross-out tale that resembles that flick’s cockroach scene.

The kids are ostensibly here to unravel the mystery of why Sarah Bellows, even in death, is still so ticked off.  They are frustratingly ineffective for the duration of the picture.  The kids watch in terror as one new chapter after another writes itself in blood on the page before them.  There’s a Spielbergian mood.  Properties like the TV show Stranger Things and the adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) are very much in vogue.  This production clearly wants to exploit that same demographic.  Each youthful victim is eliminated one by one.  The remaining survivors seemingly learn nothing from the previous death.  I mean if they did then the film would be over a lot faster, right?  There is a solution to stopping these casualties but it’s about as generic as something like telling the truth.  Until that occurs, bad things just keep happening to these people Final Destination-style so the writers can justify a nearly 2-hour running time.  Oh, and the chronicle makes sure to isolate each character when they face their demise.  That also adds to the disjointed, fragmentary nature of this story.  The screenplay by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman is extremely poor.

There are some positives.  The setting is small-town America, 1968, so it’s an evocative period piece.  It uses the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the presidential election of Richard Nixon as background elements.  The atmosphere is more picturesque than say a film set in our modern-day.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with those ideas.  It simply uses them as window dressing.  For fans of the series, I do think director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has done a nice job at visually embodying the original freaky illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  However, your imagination is always going to be scarier than something manifested so literally in gross detail.  The movie employs copious amounts of CGI.  Some scenes are eerie.  One concerning a pimple is too disgusting for words, but none of it is particularly scary.

The Art of Self-Defense

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hobbs_and_shaw_ver6STARS3
It’s been a while but does anyone remember that The Fast and the Furious was originally about illegal street racing?  Oh so much has changed since that 2001 film.  Dwayne Johnson joined the franchise in Fast Five (2011) as American federal law officer Luke Hobbs.  Jason Statham would be introduced later in a cameo during the end credits of Fast & Furious 6 (2013).  Statham is a British special forces assassin-turned-mercenary named Deckard Shaw.  It was the box office success high of Furious 7 (2015) that prominently featured both stars which ultimately inspired this offshoot.  Together they had an adversarial relationship.  Now the two are starring in the first spin-off of the series and the results are exactly what you’d expect.  Muscle cars and even muscular men.  Oh and a Moscow mansion of deadly beauties with a leader (Eiza González) that’s more appropriately dressed for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show than commanding a gang of arms dealers.

The tale has these frenemies paired against their will to extract a deadly virus called “The Snowflake” that has been manufactured by a terrorist group called Eteon.  Shaw’s sister, MI6 field agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected capsules containing it into her own body for safekeeping.  She will die if an antidote isn’t found soon.  Lead terrorist Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) just so happens to be genetically enhanced by cybernetic augmentations.  Naturally, villains can’t be mere humans anymore.  Indeed this super soldier’s enhanced field of view is not unlike something The Terminator or perhaps Tony Stark might see.  “I’m Black Superman” he declares.  He seeks to claim and unleash The Snowflake to kill the half of humanity that Eteon has deemed weak.  The central duo is enough but the filmmakers still feel the need to insert unnecessary cameos from Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds into the mix.  Must the ever-sarcastic Reynolds act/sound like Deadpool in every single role?  His unexpected arrival is pleasant at first but his many appearances (including in two of the three — yes three! — end credits sequences) really grates on the audiences’ nerves like an unwelcome guest.

Don’t even try to make any sense of it.  This picture has amusing continuity errors on a Plan 9 from Outer Space level.  Flashbacks show Deckard and Hattie as roughly the same age as brother and sister.  Yet actors Jason Statham and Vanessa Kirby are over twenty years apart playing the roles as adults.  Ok, so not a big deal, but more logic is thrown out the window during a climactic battle on the island of Samoa.  Apparently, the sun in this world doesn’t follow the rules of the solar system.  Shaw lights a ring of fire around enemy soldiers in a conspicuous display at night.  A second later and it’s broad daylight.  It’s such an abrupt transition.  There’s more, but I already know what you’re thinking.  You don’t watch movies like this for intelligence or sense.  I’ll move on.

It’s a cliche to call a feature “big dumb fun” but Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw IS a cliche.   To call the plot formulaic is an insult to the very word itself.  As a story, the account isn’t built on a coherent narrative but rather a string of carefully planned spectacles.  The car chases and pyrotechnics are ridiculous.  That’s part of their cartoonish charm. You came for stunts and you’ll get mayhem aplenty.  Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) understands how to photograph a crisp action sequence.  It’s chaotic and nonsensical but you can still see what’s happening.  Just don’t apply the laws of physics.

What pushes this flick into something I’d recommend is the chemistry of the lead pair.  Mix two cantankerous individuals together and watch the sparks fly.  It’s a recipe that works.  Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are enough to carry the narrative.  The mere sight of them together is comical.  Statham has a solid build.  He stands about 5’10. He’s not small.  Johnson, however, has mutated into a roided out inhuman hulk.  Statham looks positively diminutive next to this guy.  These action set pieces are linked together by hilarious banter courtesy of screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce.  The way these stars trade insults is even better than the way they trade punches.  Shaw cracks that the massive Hobbs’ tight t-shirt size is “spray-on”.  Upon meeting Shaw’s sibling Hattie, Hobbs quips, “She’s too pretty to be your sister”.  They bicker like an old married couple.  At one point Shaw must create pseudonyms for both of them at the airport.  “Mike Oxmall” is the name he gives to his associate.  Sound it out.  Granted this is low-level humor.  If that doesn’t make you chuckle, you probably won’t be swayed by the screenplay’s superficial charms.

Nevertheless, Hobbs & Shaw is surprisingly wholesome.  This PG-13 rated movie is completely devoid of gore.  Furthermore, its redemptive message of unity makes this an uplifting paean to honoring your relatives.  There’s even a reunion with Hobbs’ beloved mom (Lori Pelenise Tuisano).  The screenplay pounds the notes of sentimentality with a sledgehammer.  Hallmark Channel, take note.  The culminating showdown set in Hobbs’ childhood home of Samoa provides him an opportunity to mend ties with his estranged sibling, Jonah (Cliff Curtis).  Later Hobbs and his brothers perform a Samoan war dance — the Siva Tau — before going to battle with the far more technologically advanced bad guys.  Each display designed to pluck at your heartstrings. This series has never failed to emphasize the importance of friends and family.  The setting is different, but we’ve seen this buddy-action blueprint before.  The car chase scene with his Samoan brothers could’ve been lifted directly out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s straightforward fun, so there’s no earthly reason why a simplistic action picture needs to be patience-testing 2 hours and 15 minutes long.  However, those funny and abundant put-downs make this saga entertaining.  Johnson and Statham boost the production and it’s their charisma that pushes this derivative story into passable time filler.  Stay tuned, Fast and Furious 9 arrives May 2020.

08-01-19