Archive for May, 2022

Moonfall

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 19, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Let’s face it, director Roland Emmerich peaked with Independence Day. He’s been chasing that achievement ever since. Oh sure, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 were huge successes as well, but they were disaster films modeled on the blueprint of that success. The simple concept here: The moon’s trajectory has mysteriously altered and is now hurtling toward our planet. The monumental catastrophe makes no sense whatsoever. That would be fine if the script simply embraced the silliness and then gave us a show. However, Emmerich has other plans.

The central figure is Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson). The disgraced astronaut has been blamed for a calamity up in space while doing maintenance on a satellite station. The mission was led by Commander Jo Fowler (Halle Berry). She was knocked unconscious and has no memory of the event. At least she survived. The other astronaut (Frank Fiola) in their trio did not. Brian’s allegation that a large black mass attacked them is written off as crazy talk. Human error is the official explanation. The event takes its toll on his daily life. Brian eventually divorces his wife Brenda (Carolina Bartczak). Their teen son Sonny (Charlie Plummer) grows emotionally distant from him. Brenda gets remarried to Tom (Michael Peña) and moves to Jersey. Commander Jo also has an ex-husband (Eme Ikwuakor) who is an Air Force chief of staff. They share custody of their annoyingly cute 10-year-old (Zayn Maloney). None of the drama down on land is compelling. Unfortunately, these soap opera shenanigans are de rigueur for an Emmerich production.

Moonfall is a greatest hits album of Roland Emmerich themes: Manhattan gets decimated, an alien threat, broken father-son relationship. The “master of disaster” understands that audiences come to see a spectacle when things go wrong. He delivers that at least. Stuff will be destroyed, but he also feels the need to ground everything in characters that endlessly clarify the science of it all. The cast includes comic relief in the form of a wacky conspiracy theorist with a podcast. KC Houseman (John Bradley) believes the moon is an artificial megastructure whose elliptical orbit has changed. His character exists to explain things. Count how many times the word “megastructure ” is uttered if you get bored. Yes the developments do get sillier by the minute and I expect that, but exposition dumps are never an interesting way to describe what’s happening. These densely written monologues somehow make the plot sound more stupid. Even Donald Sutherland pops up briefly to collect a paycheck. As the gatekeeper of NASA’s secret archives, he imparts a bevy of information.

Moonfall could have been so dumb it’s fun. The title is literally the premise: Moon falls…toward Earth. The amount of science and data forced into the account effectively drains the lighthearted spirit out of the story. Emmerich didn’t act alone. He assembled this wretched screenplay with two others: Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen. The ersatz drama of interconnected familial relationships and subplots is a real snooze too. With a $146 million budget, it’s one of the most expensive independently-funded movies ever made. When Moonfall opened in theaters back in February it flopped hard. I wasn’t surprised. It looked terrible and I ignored it. But it found a second life on VOD when it debuted in April. The rental has consistently remained in the Top 10. “Maybe it’s not so bad?” I thought. <sigh> I should trust my instincts.

05-17-22

Operation Mincemeat

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on May 17, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

British cinema will always have a fascination with World War II. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are recent offerings. Just this past January, we were blessed with Munich: The Edge of War which detailed Hitler’s early designs on Czechoslovakia. I now present Operation Mincemeat, a true-life tale about the effort to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. This involves obtaining a corpse and passing it off as a fallen soldier with secret documents suggesting Greece is the real target.

The best thing about the film is the cast which features Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen. Coincidentally, the two actors have each played Mr. Darcy in versions of Pride and Prejudice, Firth in a 1995 BBC production, and Macfadyen in the 2005 movie with Keira Knightley. The intelligence officers plan the disinformation campaign. Even Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) — yes, the future writer of James Bond — is tapped to help. Despite the fact that the central pair are on the same side, feelings of jealousy arise. Both are attracted to a widowed secretary who works in their office. Actress Kelly Macdonald portrays Jean Leslie. Jason Issacs oversees the tactical deception as Admiral John Godfrey. And what WWII drama would be complete without an appearance by Winston Churchill? That role is occupied by Simon Russell Beale.

Operation Mincemeat is a solid production skillfully assembled by experienced director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). There are bits of levity inserted throughout. The attempts at humor enliven the atmosphere. If you relish fact-based espionage, then you’ll find this to be a competent melodrama ably supported by a talented ensemble. However, the account is a little too content to rely on proficient actors simply doing their thing. This is one of those cases where the truth is stranger than fiction. Reading about the real-life mission is a lot more fascinating than the entanglements depicted here. The period piece is polished and genteel, but I craved more excitement. It all culminates with a telephone call informing the audience how the endeavor went. I won’t spoil the outcome, but any history buff will already know the answer. I was kind of anticipating a recreation of the attack. Now that would have been exciting.

05-11-22

The Outfit

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on May 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I love a clever title with a double meaning. The Outfit is about an English tailor named Leonard Burling (Mark Rylance) who sews suits, but it also concerns the Chicago Outfit, an organized crime syndicate. The story details one fateful night in the tailor’s life. Okay, so he’s technically a “cutter” because Leonard used to work in London’s Savile Row. It’s 1956 and he runs a neighborhood shop in Chicago controlled by Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), an Irish Mob boss. Roy’s son Ritchie (Dylan O’Brien) and chief enforcer Francis (Johnny Flynn) are Leonard’s best customers but they also use his business as a place to hide dirty money. Oh and his receptionist Mable (Zoey Deutch) also happens to be Ritchie’s girlfriend.

The drama has all the trapping of the stage. The story is set in a single location. A twisty sequence of developments unfolds as the tailor attempts to stay alive by manipulating people with his words. The low-key vibe of the account takes a while to get going. However, things do get more complicated and even bloody. Before the night is over, not everyone will still be alive. A series of discussions propel the plot. Although the climax ultimately relies on a sequence of several actions. The ending could use a little — pardon the pun — tailoring.

The Outfit is an entertaining tale from screenwriter Graham Moore who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game. The dialogue is crisp and witty. A sample exchange:

Richie: [My father was] always stating, “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life kid”
Leonard: Wilde
Richie: F***ing crazy, right?
Leonard: No, that’s a quote: Oscar Wilde

Screenwriter Graham Moore is making his directorial debut. He expertly builds tension from a unique situation. There’s a rat somewhere in Roy Boyle’s organization and he’s aiming to find out who it is. The centerpiece is a stellar performance from Mark Rylance. He’s a cagey individual but his unassuming nature belies a shrewd personality. A notable alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, his talent here recalls the work of another graduate of the prestigious school, Anthony Hopkins. I can’t give an actor higher praise than that. Mark Rylance elevates this well-written theater piece into a captivating pressure cooker drama.

05-06-22

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”

Why not be both? Benedict Cumberbatch may get top billing, but the driving force of the narrative is Elizabeth Olsen. She is Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch. The woman loves her sons Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) dearly. She simply wants them back with her safe and sound. Nothing wrong with that, right? The problem is, to accomplish this, she has to create a lot of chaos. What’s a mother to do? Enter America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to travel to different worlds in the multiverse. Unfortunately, America cannot control her abilities. She is being chased by a demonic entity and requests the help of Dr. Stephen Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong). Strange realizes he needs further assistance and so he appeals to Wanda Maximoff for help.

The chronicle is surprisingly basic but made needlessly complicated. The title may be saddled with the sobriquet “In the Multiverse of Madness,” but this is a direct sequel to Doctor Strange. It’s not a movie for uninformed viewers. It demands knowledge of other Marvel properties before watching. Obviously, you must see part one. A familiarity with Spider-Man: No Way Home and the TV shows What If…? and Loki might also improve your experience. Essential viewing is the Disney+ TV show WandaVision. In that series, Wanda has two kids and the love for her sons is her motivation here in what could have been a straightforward saga. Complicating matters are cameos that distract from the drama at its heart.

This sequel is conspicuously hampered by a slavish devotion to being a piece in a much larger puzzle. Callbacks to other individuals within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) pop up to check off boxes and remind the viewer this is merely a chapter in a media franchise. The saga is burdened by the introduction of people that reference other releases and suggest potential developments in future films. A tedious detour presents Stephen Strange attending the wedding of Christine Palmer where Dr. Nic West also happens to be a guest. The extended sequence hijacks the narrative only to justify that Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg’s names be included on the movie poster. In another development, we meet Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo. He is the Sorcerer Supreme of the Illuminati, a secret society made of superheroes that Doctor Strange originally formed. This includes alternate versions of well-known characters from previous MCU features that have been recast. It feels like a distraction shoehorned into the account. They have little to do with the central tale. Even screenwriter Michael Waldron seems to secretly loathe their presence. No detailed spoilers, but I wouldn’t get attached to all of them.

It’s nice when an auteur can bring their style to the Marvel machine. Let’s face it. In this context, directors are talent for hire that must adhere to a set of rules overseen by a committee with the final say. The caliber of notables tapped to oversee something within the MCU is a most impressive list. Some are more successful than others at injecting their stamp onto the material. Taika Waititi added camp to Thor: Ragnarok. Chloé Zhao brought thoughtful introspection to Eternals. Sam Raimi brings his eccentric spirit. He’s already familiar with the superhero genre. The Spider-Man trilogy he helmed starring Tobey Maguire beginning back in 2002 is iconic. But it’s the horror aesthetic of The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell that informs the DNA of this picture.

Doctor Strange 2 (yes I’m calling it that) is a weird and wild blockbuster. Director Sam Raimi’s signature is all over this film. When Stephen Strange and his ally America are falling through multiple universes, it is a surreal trip employing bizarre visuals and music. At one point they even briefly become cartoons. The snippet is one of the most inspired bits I’ve seen in a movie all year. Later Stephen Strange uses Dreamwalking (don’t ask) to take over the corpse of another variant of himself called Defender Strange. His walking and talking zombie is hideous. It can be entertaining — especially when Elizabeth Olsen is on screen as The Scarlet Witch doing her magic. When the story gets sidetracked by tributaries and detours it’s less captivating. It’s a mixed bag for me, although I lean toward a recommendation. It’s a fun summer flick with fantasy elements and special effects. I guess I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

05-05-22

The Bad Guys

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 5, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Overall ticket sales haven’t returned to robust pre-pandemic levels, but the box office is still full of success stories. The latest is this gem from DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Universal Pictures. Well-crafted family-friendly diversions have always been a safe bet. It may not equal the full auditory overload of Sing 2 (thank goodness), but this PG-rated treasure should dazzle the wee ones. At least until Pixar’s Toy Story spin-off Lightyear comes out on June 17.

The Bad Guys are a gang of anthropomorphic animals who walk and talk amongst humans. The coterie of creatures consists of a Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos). The group of five are so named because they’re career criminals. During their latest caper, they attempt to steal a humanitarian award at a large gala. The trophy is to be conferred upon a pompous guinea pig named Professor Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade). The recipient happens to be a philanthropist. The villains are caught in the act. Normally they would be taken to jail. However, Mr. Wolf — the leader of the group — persuades the guinea pig to reform them instead. Little does Rupert know that the scoundrels plan to swipe the award again.

The adventure isn’t ambitious, yet I quite liked this rather unassuming film. The artwork captivates the eye. It’s set in Los Angeles and the illustrators insert recognizable landmarks into the background. The style uses computer graphics but is subverted with the hand-drawn illustrated look of a 2D format. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse famously used this technique, but so did The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s very effective. The story is captivating as well. Elsewhere this tale of various critters attempting a heist has been encapsulated as “Zootopia meets Ocean’s Eleven.” That’s an apt description. Even the screenplay acknowledges the similarities. When Mr. Wolf tries to charm the governor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), Mr. Shark defines his conduct as “going full Clooney on her.”

The Bad Guys is a simplistic but pure joy. Granted the gags aren’t profound or innovative. My kingdom for modern children’s entertainment that doesn’t rely on fart jokes. As a missed payment affects a credit score, so does the stumble into toilet humor lower my rating. Nevertheless, the narrative is mostly clean and surprisingly coherent. The fact that the plot developments make sense impressed me. I’ve noticed as I get older, cartoons seem to grow more and more chaotic. Not sure whether I or the animation is the thing that’s changing. I suspect both, but this account is a bit more sensible. Humans and animals interacting together like people may be a silly idea, but the saga’s developments have a logical progression. The characters are clearly defined and elicit our sympathy. I enjoyed this and — more importantly — your kids should as well.

04-29-22

Valerie

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Shorts with tags on May 2, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In the 1970s the definition of feminism was changing. The idea that a woman could reclaim her sexuality by exploiting it to her advantage was becoming a thing. Few women better embodied this ideal than Valerie Perrine. The actress was certainly comfortable in her skin. She was never afraid to flaunt raw, unbridled sensuality. This documentary short does not shy away from that reality.

Born in Texas, Perrine began her path to stardom as a Vegas showgirl. Early on, she was cleverly cast as stripper Honey Bruce in the 1974 biopic Lenny. It was a raw, credible performance. In fact, she was so memorable she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Later parts would also often rely on her physical assets. She was fully aware of this. However, she was much more than a voluptuous beauty. She gave authentically earthy performances in many movies and held her own alongside some of the biggest names of the decade. These include Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero), Robert Redford (The Electric Horseman), and Jack Nicholson (The Border). I was a child in the 1970s. She will always be Miss Teschmacher in Superman and Superman II to me. She made the character iconic.

Valerie is the celebration of the life of a star. She is currently 78. Perrine would continue to act well after her 1970s and early 80s heyday, but would ultimately fade from the limelight. In a heartbreaking development, Perrine was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. The chronicle opens with her voice narrating how she ended up in the hospital. We see a daily struggle with illness. The film then flashes back to the beginning of her Hollywood career. The contrast between the past and the present can be jarring. Yet she consistently remains a vibrant and compelling personality.

Valerie is a complimentary account — occasionally excessively so. In archival footage, photos, and memorabilia, we are presented with a flattering homage. Interviews with celebrities including Jeff Bridges, Angie Dickinson, George Hamilton, Stacy Keach, Richard Donner, Loni Anderson, and David Arquette attest to a life lived on her own terms. What comes through is the humanity of a talent who understood her charms and utilized them to the fullest. I now understand what made this woman tick a little better than before. Director Stacey Souther (an actor in his own right) presents this intimate portrait as a friend. This warm and loving memoir is like hanging out with Valerie for 36 minutes. It was time well spent.

Valerie is streaming Tuesday, May 3 on Amazon, iTunes, AppleTV, YouTube, and Google Play. Available for pre-order on DVD through Amazon.

04-19-22