Archive for March, 2021

Another Round

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 28, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Academy Awards often bring welcome attention to overseas cinema that many U.S. viewers haven’t seen. The Oscars still have a certain cachet. Though people deride their selections and snubs, critics continue to discuss them passionately on social media. When the announcement occurred on Monday, March 15th, Another Round surprisingly emerged with TWO nominations. This release had been the frontrunner for International Feature, so that honor was anticipated. However, Thomas Vinterberg was also cited as Best Director — one of the biggest surprises of this year’s reveal. Most pundits predicted that Aaron Sorkin’s name would be mentioned for The Trial of the Chicago 7, especially after it placed in 6 other categories including Best Picture. Vinterberg’s citation is a solid reflection on the merits of this film.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) are four teachers at a High School in Copenhagen. They make a most unusual pact — to drink consistently throughout the day. Their decision is rooted in the theories of real-life Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud. He opined that humans are born with a blood alcohol level that is 0.05 percent too low. Therefore they should compensate for that deficit. It sounds highly questionable, but given that their lives are in various degrees of unhappiness, they’re ready to try anything to improve. All four are dealing with unmotivated students and feel that their lives have become stale. Learning to imbibe more, seems like tasty medicine. They decide to put Skårderud’s theory to the test.

Fortunately and rather amusingly, their agreement has an immediate boost. Mild intoxication as a means to get yourself out of a rut would appear to be a recipe for disaster. Please keep an open mind. Anyone who has ever felt more socially at ease after a drink or two will appreciate how it could help. Director Vinterberg’s screenplay which he cowrote with Tobias Lindholm, takes a pragmatic approach to the advantages of inebriation. This is conferred under the guises of a research project. It’s an admittedly superficial justification. Regardless, the benefits are immediately transparent. Martin’s marriage to his wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) improves. He subsequently bonds with his family by taking them on a weekend getaway.

The other teachers experience positive outcomes as well. Tommy coaches his soccer team to victory. The least likely player — nicknamed “Specs” because of his glasses — scores the game-winning goal. Peter inspires his choir to sing better than they ever have. Nikolaj helps an undergraduate who is failing. Martin’s pupils respond positively to his more engaged methods. “The world is never as you expect,” Martin teaches. He cheekily discusses the drinking habits of Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Adolph Hitler. Can you guess who eschewed liquor altogether? Perhaps alcohol isn’t such a bad thing he surmises. The students are amused and so are we.

Actor Mads Mikkelsen ties the whole production together with a sympathetic performance. He embodies a man making improvements at a crossroads. Ah but then things start to collapse. If a little booze is good, more must be even better. No clearheaded person would ever think such a thing. Nevertheless, the men decide to push the boundaries of the study. The narrative starts to settle into the more expected cautionary tale about the pitfalls of drinking — with less surprising results. Director Thomas Vinterberg — poignantly uncovers a mid-life crisis with both humor and introspection. This is Vinterberg’s first Oscar nomination. Yes, he directed The Hunt — also starring Mikkelsen — which was nominated for International Feature in 2014. However the Academy Award for that category is rather unfairly bestowed upon the country represented, not the filmmaker responsible. The Great Beauty (Italy) won that year but there’s still a chance a movie helmed by Vinterberg will win “the prize formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film.” If that happens on April 25, I will toast his success.

03-15-21

The Mauritanian

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on March 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The story of what happened to Mohamedou Ould Salahi is a troubling tale that details a shocking abuse of human rights.

The Mauritanian is based on his memoir Guantánamo Diary published in January 2015. Salahi was detained on suspicion of being involved with the planning of the September 11 attacks. The story begins when he is apprehended at a wedding back in his home country. The case against him includes a lot of ties to various people who were indeed involved. However, the evidence implicating him is circumstantial. Clear-cut proof that Salahi himself had anything to do with 9/11 is lacking. Part of the film details his experiences at the prison as well as his interactions with other inmates. The constant demands made upon him to give a confession grow more and more intense. It is an emotional portrait that humanizes the man and stokes our anger over the way he is treated. Tahar Rahim stars as Salahi. He elevates the production with a powerful performance that draws us into his plight.

The chronicle is also a legal drama that features his defense team. Jodie Foster is criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander and her associate Teri Duncan is portrayed by Shailene Woodley. Doubts over whether their client is culpable keep coming up. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch on the side of the prosecution. His desire to get a conviction is balanced with a need to make sure they have the right man. Even though everyone seems conflicted, we the audience are not. Salahi’s innocence is implied at the beginning so coming to terms with his guilt or lack thereof is never a conundrum. The Mauritanian is pretty clear-cut in its presentation that the U.S. government failed.

This is a disturbing movie. Salahi was ultimately held for fourteen years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp from 2002 until his release in 2016 without ever being charged. That prison is infamous for the inhumane treatment that detainees experienced there. This movie climaxes with torture. The picture is noble in its intentions to bring a grave injustice to light but it’s hard to watch at times. I didn’t need to see graphic abuse to know bad things happened there. Director Kevin Macdonald famously directed The Last King of Scotland which brilliantly demonstrated how sometimes evil remains hidden in plain sight. Here it’s never a question of who’s right and who’s wrong, so the viewer must simply suffer along with Salahi until his eventual freedom.

03-11-21

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on March 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

I’m on the radio! On Sunday, March 14th I had this chat with UK’s Martin Kelner of talkSPORT about the BAFTA nominations but before the Oscar nominations were announced. NOMADLAND, ROCKS, and THE FATHER are the movies we discuss. My segment begins 15 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 15 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Boss Level

Posted in Action, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on March 19, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Boss Level doesn’t waste any time getting right to the point. The focus is action, pure and simple. It starts when a man named Roy (Frank Grillo) wakes up in bed next to a woman (Annabelle Wallis). She screams just as an attacker swings at him with a machete, barely missing his head. Another assassin outside his window flies up in a helicopter and fires a machine gun into the apartment conveniently eliminating the first hitman with bullets that were clearly meant for Roy. He calmly reacts with calculated precision looking rather bored by these attempts on his life. After the chopper crashes through the window, Roy jumps out, safely landing in the back of a truck filled with sand. He carjacks a guy and recklessly dodges two more killers before crashing into an oncoming bus and promptly dies after flying through the window.

This chronicle is a bit disorienting at first. The story gleefully drops the viewer in the middle of some crazy events without much explanation. Roy Pulver is a retired Delta Force soldier. He tells us through voiceover narration that this isn’t the first time he has experienced this day. It unfolds in a continuous loop reverting to the same morning whenever he dies. Specifics like who is after him and why — as well as the science explaining why time repeats — are helpful because it rationalizes this cartoonish film. Even though things may not always make sense, that’s OK because the exposition is merely a superficial justification for a lot of exciting and often humorous set-pieces.

Square-jawed and physically fit, actor Frank Grillo doesn’t get the starring role often but he makes a badass action hero. It’s the kind of part Arnold would have played during his prime in the 1980s. He learns from his mistakes by carefully remembering what went wrong in the previous sequence, then improving on it. As a character, Roy Pulver is singularly fixated on getting the job done and not much else. Roy’s workaholic obsession is what caused his estranged wife Jemma (Naomi Watts) to break up with him. Together they have a son Joe (Grillo’s real-life 12-year-old son Rio). However, Jemma has not yet told the boy that Roy is his father.

Boss Level is more than nonstop combat. It’s also about the connections Roy makes with other people. As the various scenarios play out, relationships are deepened. Details of his marriage with Jemma are revealed. The bond with his son is strengthened. Jemma’s boss is somehow involved too. Mel Gibson shows up portraying the evil head of a shadowy corporation. His sardonic appearances are brief, but just enough to add a little camp to the recipe. Roy also gets assistance from Chef Jake (Ken Jeong), who owns a diner/bar, a security expert named Dave (Sheaun McKinney), and Dai Feng (Michelle Yeoh) a champion sword fighter. These characters are welcome additions that elevate the drama with much-needed interactions that humanize his character. This tale is about more than action. It concerns friendships and family too.

This is a Joe Carnahan movie. The filmmaker has a solid reputation for brutal excitement. The title of his directorial debut Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane established the tone for his career. Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, and The Grey all followed as he built a loyal fan base. He’s a director whose style is personified by: “action speaks a lot louder than words.” In that vein Boss Level is one of his best. Using fast edits, explosions, and intense activity, the saga entertains . The energy rarely lets up so there isn’t much opportunity to pick apart possible inconsistencies. The mood is savage but remains somewhat lighthearted because you know Roy’s death will never be the end. He’s killed a lot. Frequent assailant Guan Yin (Selina Lo) is fond of beheadings with her sword and then proudly declaring, “I am Guan Yin….and Guan Yin has done this!” The atmosphere recalls other films, most directly Edge of Tomorrow for the time loop shenanigans, but also Crank for its relentless pace and Total Recall for its blending sci-fi into the mix. The ability to reset and start over with an infinite number of lives is a nod to video games too. The narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s silly and violent and its pleasures are admittedly ephemeral. However, while I watched I was consistently enthralled. I enjoyed the ride.

03-08-21

The Father

Posted in Drama with tags on March 17, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s no debate. Anthony Hopkins is one of the finest actors who ever lived. Back when he received his Academy Award (and first nomination) as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs, he had already been acting in movies, TV, and the stage for over 25 years. His career actually began back in the 1960s when he became Laurence Olivier’s understudy at the Royal National Theatre in London. Hopkins’ stage work earned him critical acclaim. Even then, he was compared to both Olivier and Richard Burton. Hopkins got his cinematic break playing Richard the Lionheart, in The Lion in Winter in1968. It was only his second feature but he received a BAFTA nomination and widespread praise for his work. Over the next 50 years, he has since given many great performances, even in lesser productions that didn’t match his greatness. There are so many highlights for me: Magic, The Elephant Man, The Bounty, The Silence of the Lambs, Howards End, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shadowlands, The Remains of the Day, Nixon, Amistad, The Two Popes. Now add The Father to that list.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know it has been a while since I awarded anything higher than 3 1/2 stars. I’ve seen several movies I’d recommend this year. However, the last movie to get 4 stars was Minari in my January 7 review. There is now another and I am happy to extol its virtues. The Father is a modest drama about an 80-year-old London man who struggles with aging. Hopkins’ character is also named Anthony. He is coping with memory loss. There’s not a lot more to the narrative than that, but that’s preferable in this case. That simplicity allows the actor to present one of the purest displays of acting I’ve seen in some time. The rest of the tiny ensemble includes Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Mark Gatiss, and Olivia Williams. Anthony lives with his daughter Anne, a key role played by Olivia Colman. She also stands out.

The Father is a very simple, understated picture that takes place in a flat. Director Florian Zeller adapted his 2012 play Le Pèreco and co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Hampton. This small-scale production merely relies on conversation. Its theatrical roots from the stage are evident. That quiet intimacy is one of the story’s strengths. Much in the same way that Sound of Metal put us into the mind of a protagonist losing his hearing, this likewise makes us understand his confusion when Anthony begins to suffer the onset of dementia. We experience his frustrations. His environment along with the people that come to visit seem to be constantly changing. The chronicle is an unsettling depiction of his reality. I was completely blown away by Hopkins’ achievement. I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s a gifted actor and well known for his thespian skills but honestly, this is among the best. In fact — and I don’t say this lightly — this just might be the greatest performance of his career.

02-16-21

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Drama with tags on March 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

I’m on the radio! On my March 7th appearance on talkSPORT, I chat with Martin Kelner about Eddie Murphy’s long-awaited sequel COMING 2 AMERICA as well as the animated releases: TOM AND JERRY and THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE ON THE RUN. My segment begins 17 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 13 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Raya and the Last Dragon

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on March 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In the mythical land of Kumandra, there lived a fearless and bold warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). And she is not going to be having any sort of a romantic relationship whatsoever, thank you very much. That’s not explicitly stated, but you can rest assured it’s a key part of her personality. Ever since Snow White first appeared in 1937, Disney has always adhered to a blueprint for their leading ladies. Sure it changes with time, but this is the current one. The stars of Frozen and Moana featured fiercely independent types where a romance wasn’t expressed as a desire and now Raya joins that club. That’s perfectly fine since the emphasis is on the adventure, but that trait is now an expected ingredient in the formula.

Formulaic is a good way to describe this convoluted tale. The kingdom of Kumandra is comprised of five tribes named after parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. There was a time when a magical gem kept them safe. However, people coveted the object’s power. This further divided their individual societies. Raya’s dad, Chief Benja, (Daniel Dae Kim) guarded the orb. Believing that their warring tribes could still be united, Benja foolishly invites his mortal enemies over for a feast. They (predictably) start fighting over the valuable bauble. It is dropped and shatters into five fragments. The purple smoke-like Druun is unleashed and turns some people into stone. Members from each clan grab the individual pieces and take them back to their respective lands.

It is now six years later. Raya must travel to all 5 lands in Kumandra to retrieve the jewel to restore order. She rides around on her giant pet named Tuk Tuk. The animal functions like an off-road vehicle that looks like an armadillo crossed with a pill bug. Raya is gradually joined one by one “Wizard of Oz style” by a ragtag group of individuals to collect the scattered pieces of the stone. These entities include Sisu (Awkwafina) a goofy water dragon who is the last surviving member of her species, an annoying 10-year-old boy (Izaac Wang), a bulky warrior (Benedict Wong), and a baby thief (Thalia Tran) — who may or may not actually be an infant. I was unclear.

Raya and the Last Dragon may be extremely predictable, but it still curates an environment. Kumandra is a fictional place comprised of an amalgamation of references from different countries to form one monolithic culture. There’s no denying the production team did some homework. They sample from an array of various customs of Southeast Asia — but not solely from any one particular country. It’s sort of a blending of the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The landscape, food, combat styles, greetings, and objects are fastidiously presented.

Nevertheless, all of the efforts to maintain some credible identity collapses under the A-List Asian cast sporting contemporary American accents. Hearing the hip sassy lingo of suburban teens is fitting on an episode of Modern Family or The Goldbergs, but it’s distracting in a historical period drama set in Southeast Asia. Queens native Awkwafina voices the dragon which is an incongruous creation. Sisu has shapeshifting properties but never manifests as how Westerners know dragons. Sisu is more of a large klutzy furry snake creature that can morph into a human. Her articulation is an amusing contradiction to be sure, but so was Eddie Murphy in Mulan. Regrettably, the voice acting totally takes you out of the atmosphere.

This cartoon is an interesting assortment of talent: written by Qui Nguyen (Netflix TV series The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and directed in an irregular pairing of Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and Don Hall (Big Hero 6). Both directors have done better. I wasn’t particularly charmed by any of the generic situations or personalities. However, the animation is unquestionably stunning and it’s enough to carry you through some of the film’s more insipid passages.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a classic hero’s journey with a strange message. Raya goes on an adventure, is victorious in a crisis, and emerges transformed by the experience. What she learns is an odd lesson though. Her chief antagonist is Namaari (Gemma Chan). On the surface, Raya and Namaari are adversaries, although each woman is more driven by loyalty to their own people than direct hate of the other person. As children, the two were friends, but Namaari betrays Raya’s confidence when she gives her friend a peek at the gemstone. Namaari’s treachery sets the entire thrust of the plot in motion. Despite a history of deception, the movie ultimately pleads that a person should still put faith in their enemy. So if I understand correctly, the moral of the story is an update of a famous proverb. I’m paraphrasing but something along the lines of “Fool me once, fool me twice…it’s all good. I should keep trusting you anyway.” Sounds like dangerous advice.

03-09-21

Coming 2 America

Posted in Comedy with tags on March 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

It’s been 33 years and Eddie Murphy returns as Prince Akeem. He’s supported once again by Arsenio Hall as his trusted confidant Semmi. I regard Coming to America as a classic and easily among the Top 5 movies Eddie Murphy ever made. The R-rated farce admittedly had a couple adult scenes and some coarse language, but it was mostly a warm, good-natured comedy full of heart.

In this continuation, the two must traverse again to America from their country of Zamunda. Prince Akeem has just become the supreme ruler upon the death of his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones). Akeem has recently discovered he sired an illegitimate son when he visited Queens in the 1980s. As the newly appointed King, he must make arrangements for a suitable successor. Incidentally, Akeem has three fiercely independent daughters that are all strong and intelligent. First-born Princess Meeka Joffer (KiKi Layne) is more than capable. Ah but sadly tradition demands that only a man can inherit the throne. So off he goes to locate his “bastard son” (Akeem’s words, not mine). The King finds his offspring surprisingly quickly and takes Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) along with his mother Mary (Leslie Jones) and Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) back to Zamunda.

Culture clash shenanigans ensue as Lavelle is groomed to be royalty. These developments include a bride named Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) that has been pre-selected for him. She is the daughter of General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) and this marriage will unite the kingdom of Zamunda with neighboring Nextdoria. Surprise! Lavelle isn’t too keen on this predetermined match. He’s in love with his Zamundan hairdresser, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha). I needn’t continue to illustrate how familiar this saga sounds. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The filmmakers can’t even be bothered with a new title. Coming 2 America just replaces a preposition with a number. That’s the level of creativity used for the entire production.

Coming 2 America is a blatant ripoff of the original. This quite possibly ranks among the laziest copies I’ve ever seen. Screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield have returned and they are now assisted by Kenya Barris (ABC sitcom Black-ish). They merely recreate the narrative with minimal changes. The main difference is how much country-hopping they do. The adventure blissfully bounces from Zamunda to Queens, then back to Zamunda where most of the action takes place. Then it’s off to Queens for the climax only to retire in Zamunda for the finish.

The drama is filled with antics that no rational (or principled) person should be forced to accept. Anyone who saw the first flick knew that Akeem was far more progressive than his father. For example, arranged marriages were not his thing. I mean that belief formed the entire thrust of the previous film. However, this account requires that he forget all of that and promote the intolerance of his father to make this outdated premise work once again. Akeem has now embraced the mindset he once rallied against. It gets worse.

Let’s consider the deed that sets the plot in motion. How could Akeem have a son he knew nothing about? Apparently, Lavelle’s mother Mary put Akeem into a drug-induced stupor and sexually assaulted him while he was passed out unconscious. In the real world, she would be arrested for date rape but in this movie, the act is casually presented as a throwaway bit to justify why he now has a male heir. There are gags about circumcision and transgender surgery too. If all that’s not dreadful enough, Eddie Murphy isn’t even the focus here. It’s actor Jermaine Fowler as his son. He’s playing the same role in a remix of the established story with only slight manipulation of the previous jokes. When Lavelle’s mother takes a bath, this time it’s a MALE servant who informs her, “The royal privates are clean.” Oh so clever.

Coming 2 America is awful. The script still carelessly glides through all of this dreck with a sunny, upbeat attitude. The reprehensible bits only become troublesome if you stop to contemplate them. This is a movie that asks viewers to tolerate ridiculous situations and biases. I simply couldn’t surrender to the irksome requirements of the film. This is recycled dross. But let’s end on a positive note, shall we? At least it’s one of those sequels that doesn’t require you have seen part 1 to understand it. Oh, and the costumes by Ruth Carter (Malcolm X, Amistad, Black Panther) are fantastic.

03-05-21

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on March 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

I’m on the radio! On my Feb 28th appearance on talkSPORT, I chat with Martin Kelner about two awards contenders: JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH and THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY. My segment begins 20 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 10 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Tom and Jerry

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on March 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1 out of 5.

There are so many ways to approach a critique of Tom and Jerry. The picture is a complete failure on so many levels, but let’s consider it from the source material. Tom and Jerry originally starred in 114 theatrical shorts from 1940 to 1958 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The series centered on the rivalry between a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. They were created in 1940 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. In 1940 rap music wouldn’t exist for at least another thirty years. Even rock and roll wouldn’t emerge for another decade. Nevertheless, the chronicle opens with a trio of pigeons with a frontman — or front·bird — rapping to the tune “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest.

Hip hop music comprises the bulk of the soundtrack. I consider A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm to be one of the greatest rap debuts ever. Their follow-up The Low-End Theory was ever better. They were an influential rap group, pioneers of the jazz rap genre. Oh wait, I seem to have gone off on a tangent that has absolutely nothing to do with the film. Rather appropriate since this movie has little to do with the MGM cartoon. Tom and Jerry is a modern adventure set in Manhattan. The story relegates the titular duo to the sidelines. This is a tale about Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) who steals a candidate’s resume so she can surpass more qualified applicants. She gets a job as an event planner at a fancy hotel. While there she is put in charge of prepping an ostentatious wedding for two insufferable social media influencers named Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost).

This is a live-action film starring a bunch of humans where the cat and mouse have been demoted as side characters in a movie that bears their name. At the very minimum, the production effectively mixes live-action with animation. It’s competent on a technical level. Tom and Jerry don’t speak which wisely preserves something from the past at least. It’s just that this is all in service of a crude piece of entertainment. It is a cluttered pop culture mess that trashes 80 years of history for dog poop and fart jokes. Spike the bulldog does his business, loudly, during the climactic scene. There is humor derived from talking with a Mexican accent. Oh yes, the talented Michael Pena enunciates with such stereotypical pronunciation that it’s hard to believe this came out in 2021. I’ll acknowledge that I am not the target demographic for how they exploited this cartoon. Tom and Jerry was a success in theaters anyway. Audiences embraced this update, but as far as I’m concerned, this type of modernization is the enemy of the classics.

03-1-21