Archive for the Action Category

The Magnificent Seven

Posted in Action, Drama, Western on September 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo magnificent_seven_ver5_zpsj0bruyra.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie remakes have long been Hollywood’s backup plan. In only the last 2 years we’ve received RoboCop, Endless Love, About Last Night, Poltergeist, Point Break, The Jungle Book and Ghostbusters. And there’s a staggering number more in development. I tend to greet each with guarded expectations given the middling success of most of them (The Jungle Book was a notable exception) . Given all the ways The Magnificent Seven could have been corrupted, it’s refreshing to see it got a lot right.

Recycling the past is pretty common these days, but a remake of a remake? Well that’s kind of rare. The Magnificent Seven is a new rendition of the classic 1960 western which was also a reworking of the 1954 Japanese epic Seven Samurai. There are still purists who view the John Sturges version as a pale imitation of the original. Although the 1960 interpretation has grown in such stature over the years that it has now become an accepted exemplar of the American western. The American Film Institute even listed it as one of the 100 most thrilling American movies of all time. So the 2016 adaptation begs the question: why redo it?

I was pleasantly surprised. This reproduction could have been a lot worse. It sidestepped my worst fears. Director Antoine Fuqua has kept the setting in the 1870s. Screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto have preserved the relatively simple narrative. Keeping it as the straightforward western that it is, are among the picture’s strengths.  Don’t fix what ain’t broke. The story concerns evil land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who terrorizes the little mining town of Rose Creek. Townsfolk Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), and her friend, Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) enlist bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) for help. Chisolm, in turn, assembles a team of 6 more gunslingers to help out.

Fuqua assembles a racially diverse, all-star cast. Denzel Washington heads up the company. No stranger to his productions, Washington has worked with Fuqua twice before in his most monetarily successful flicks (Training Day, The Equalizer) when adjusted for inflation. There’s Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a hard-drinking gambler with a talent for explosives. He is joined by the sharpshooter with the coolest moniker Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his assassin-with-a-knife partner, Asian immigrant Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), big burly Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a skilled but goofily unstable tracker, Comanche warrior without a tribe Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and notorious Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Granted, just roll calling the actors like this is a bit methodical, but it’s such an important component. They’re really the best thing about the movie.

The charismatic ensemble is the most compelling argument to see The Magnificent Seven. Every film has the right to be judged on its own merits, but it’s unreasonable not to acknowledge previous versions in a remake. The modern casting is inventive. Simply watching Denzel Washington play the commanding leader of this posse of renegades has an appeal. He’s good in this context. Although the actors distinguish this production, it’s more of a cosmetic change than a substantive one. There’s charisma on display to be sure, particularly in the comedic moments from wisecracking Chris Pratt. “I believe that bear is wearing people clothes,” he says of Vincent D’Onofrio’s character. Yet the performers still come up a bit lacking in the charm department. That would have really put this adaptation over the top. Oh there’s plenty of rip-roaring shooting on display to distract from its deficiencies. However the bare bones story goes on for far too long. I’ll concede the originals were too lengthy as well. Fuqua could have remedied that with his interpretation, but he doesn’t. In contrast, this variant seems to mosey along at a sluggish pace. There’s no reason why we need such a protracted build-up to the final battle. The final confrontation is long and repetitive as well. Oh and really violent. Thousands are slaughtered in this shoot ’em up . The PG-13 rating just might be the funniest joke of the movie. If you watch this first, having never seen the John Sturges’ classic, you should enjoy it. It’s fine, but it’s not fresh or innovative or memorable or necessary. It’s disposable entertainment for a lazy afternoon matinee. The Magnificent Seven succeeds in that way.

09-22-16

Hell or High Water

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Western with tags on August 29, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hell_or_high_water_zpshgdreiqe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgI’m pleasantly surprised. David Mackenzie’s neo-Western wasn’t even on my radar. I generally don’t expect much from the second week of August. That’s kind of a dead period for movie releases. The summer is winding down. Kids are gearing up for back-to-school and most major film studios have already issued their heavy hitters. Lionsgate is not one of the “Big Six” studios, so maybe it’s not surprising that such an awards-worthy production (and potential blockbuster) would have such an atypical release date. However Lionsgate IS the largest and most successful mini-major studio in North America, so I wouldn’t exactly classify them as an indie either. Regardless, I was prompted to watch this on a good recommendation. I’m so glad I did.

Since the traditional Western takes place in the later half of the 19th century, I probably shouldn’t place Hell or High Water in that genre. The setting is present-day West Texas. The American frontier setting certainly confuses things. It’s unquestionably a heist picture. On that everyone will agree. The story is simple. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster respectively) plan a series of robberies targeting various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in an effort to buy back their family farm. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in hot pursuit along with his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The narrative details a series of stick-ups like you’d find in an old western but set in today’s modern day Texas. Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material. He is brilliant at establishing characters. His last movie, the underseen British prison drama Starred Up, also excelled in this area. Naturally a lot of credit should also go to the crackerjack script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Gradually the screenwriter reveals layers to these brothers, Toby and Tanner. At first the two appear to be one and the same – bank robbers. As the chronicle develops, we’re given motives and backstories and emotional temperaments that play out in little dialogues with various people along the way. Each vignette uncovers more depth to these people. A flirtatious conversation with Toby from a waitress (a noteworthy Katy Mixon) in a diner, is deceptively mundane taken at face value. Yet her wistful exchange exposes a heartbreaking yearning for so much more in her life.

She’s merely one component in an incredible ensemble. Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton. The grizzled, old fashioned Texas ranger is not such a stretch for the veteran actor anymore. Still, he’s wonderful. Ditto his partner Alberto Parker, a marshal whose half-Comanche/half-Mexican roots are subject to his constant teasing. The focus revolves around their pursuit of the brothers. The younger duo is united in the same dirty business, but they are rather different. Ben Foster has always been a bit of a chameleon. He’s mesmerizing. His portrayal is just as intense as you’d expect. However Chris Pine’s soulful work is the performance of his career. His understated achievement is so quietly expressive. I thought I knew the actor. He’s a revelation.

In this account, no one person is all good or all bad. Toby and Tanner are clearly in the wrong. Yet we are given valid reasons to hate these financial institutions – the source of foreclosed houses and crushed dreams. Are these brothers a modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not exactly, although you’d be forgiven for making the connection. Rooting for these guys is similarly problematic, but this is a tale with even deeper shades of gray. There are so many surprises. One violent altercation inadvertently provides a cogent defense for carrying a concealed weapon. The mentality of the vigilante perspective is presented so rationally, I was a bit taken aback. There’s sort of an odd mix of emotion that fluctuates wildly between compassion and disgust for these lawbreakers. Sympathy turns to aversion over the course of the narrative. It’s the way these little unforeseen vignettes plays out that make this character study so captivating.  One of the most noteworthy dramas of 2016.

08-27-16

Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Superhero with tags on August 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo suicide_squad_ver24_zpstam6rkzx.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI love the concept of Suicide Squad. The whole movie is predicated on the idea that bringing together a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals would be a great way to fight crime. Fight fire with fire, right? Their lives are expendable so if they don’t succeed it’s no great loss. The collection of a ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells has formed the basis of great films from The Dirty Dozen to Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, the notion of assembling crooks to fight their own is inherently ridiculous. So if you can get past the illogical set up, you’re half the way there into buying this hokum.

The key thing is to set up an engaging group of characters that we want to embrace. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or evil. Give them charisma and we’ll follow their adventure. The assortment of convicts here is also known as Task Force X. “The worst of the worst” as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls them. She’s the high ranking government official who oversees them. At her side is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is responsible for executing her orders. He directs the baddies in the field. But as we find out, deep down they’re really not so bad at heart.  Let’s start with the slightly more interesting people. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), a dangerous assassin with impeccable aim. He also has an 11 year old daughter for whom he’d do anything in the world. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has pyrokinetic abilities. However he is reluctant to use them after accidentally killing his wife and daughter from setting a building on fire.

The best character is Harley Quinn in a star making turn by Margot Robbie. If this superhero movie has any hope for longevity in these seemingly endless comic book adaptations, it will be because of her. Honestly they should’ve called Suicide Squad, The Harley Quinn Show. She is the reason to see this picture and easily the most compelling outcast. She’s the psychiatrist that became a psychopath. Face smeared with pale makeup, she wears her hair in colorful pigtails, wields a baseball bat as a weapon and giggles incessantly. She knows more than her male cohorts but downplays her smarts with a flirtatious wink. She certainly outshines her boyfriend, none other than the Joker (Jared Leto), a former patient now turned paramour.  Ah yes she’s motivated by her love for him.  Given all the advance studio promotion of Leto’s appearance, you’d think he was the star of this joint. He’s nothing more than an expanded cameo here – neither the main villain nor a member of the squad – only Harley Quinn’s boyfriend that pops up briefly to rescue her in a scene. After months of online hype, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated.

Let’s not forget the section I call “and the rest” on the team: Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Rick Flag’s bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) joins the gang too I think. It  wasn’t clear to me whether she’s an official addition or just sort of tags along.  Regardless none of the remaining constituents are able to register a definable personality in this loud cacophonous mess. In an adventure where everyone is a lunatic, the main evildoer should be pretty boffo. Instead we get the Enchantress, an archaeologist who becomes a powerful sorceress when possessed . She’s played by Cara Delevingne. The model turned actress simply doesn’t have the gravitas to play the arch villain that should anchor a production such as this. It’s not apparent at first, but suppressing her ultimately becomes Task Force X’s main objective.

The plot is confusing. We get so many incidental asides that give backstory as to how these felons came to be. A chemical baptism flashback between the Joker and Harley Quinn has some promise, but with so many tangents, it’s easy to lose track of all the random individuals. The film descends into tired action picture clichés with overstuffed commotion. The rapid fire cut and paste edit aesthetic does nothing to uplift this feature. The characters disappear under the weight of discordant madness and haphazard editing. The movie poster promises a colorful psychedelic mushroom cloud extravaganza. Yet in reality the production is actually a dark, dimly lit slog with a surprising lack of color.

I’d fault Suicide Squad for not having a story, but that’s not really the point. Introducing a bunch of characters is the plot. This is an excuse to create archetypes and parade them around for 123 minutes in a gleefully exuberant devil-may-care spectacle. That might have been acceptable. If every member of this battalion had as much pizzazz as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), I’d be loving this flick.  If I had to name one other MVP, it would be Viola Davis as their governmental superior. She is often the voice of calm in a calamitous haze, reciting exposition to clarify the script’s more ambiguous passages. Three installments into the DC Extended Universe and I can see things are improving. The problem is that the rest of the cast is lacking. Not the actors’ fault. Their parts are simply underwritten. Suicide Squad is better than Batman v Superman. I’ll give it that. It’s just that it still has a ways to go.

08-04-16

Jason Bourne

Posted in Action, Thriller on July 30, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jason_bourne_ver2_zpsmypfjyrl.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe current season has another month to go, but I’d like to dub the preceding 3 months as “The Summer of the Blah Blockbuster”: X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, and Star Trek Beyond. All big budget productions that made far less than their hefty price tags prescribed. The audience numbers have been underwhelming. To be fair, not all cinematic product is created equal. I found the latest  X-Men enjoyable, but I still wouldn’t call it necessary viewing unless you’re an X-Men completist. And that’s true of all of these releases. Other than an opportunity to make money, their stories lack a reason to exist. Did we need this film? The answer is no in every case. Into this atmosphere we get the creatively titled Jason Bourne. It feels right at home in the prevailing Hollywood climate.

Jason Bourne is the fifth installment of the Bourne series. This is a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum, the third chapter and the last to feature Matt Damon. You’d think the previous star Jeremy Renner might warrant a cameo, but no such luck. Paul Greengrass is back directing, making this is third venture into the Bourne franchise. I concede that recounting all these facts is kind of boring to read, but writing about such a workmanlike movie almost demands it.

The story picks up 10 years after the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne is hiding out in Greece and has taken up illegal brawling. This is a good time to note that Matt Damon is seen knocking a big guy out in one punch and it’s the most clearly shot action scene in the whole picture. Anyway, the former CIA assassin and recovering amnesiac is finally starting to remember who he is. Ex-CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) has discovered some distressing information and has decided to contact Bourne with the info.  Bourne seeks to find out the truth behind the death of his father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Meanwhile CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) aren’t happy with these developments. They are implementing a new program aimed at taking Jason Bourne down.

Jason Bourne is a somber thriller filled with dispassionate people doing very serious things. There’s some added nonsense about a Las Vegas tech convention with actor Riz Ahmed. He plays the CEO & Founder of a social networking app called Deep Dream. The CIA wants to spy on everyone through a back door surveillance program dubbed Operation Iron Hand. I couldn’t even summon up the energy to even give a care about this story tangent. I only mention it because actor Riz Ahmed was also in Nightcrawler and it’s another chance to promote the fine actor’s work in that film. At least his tech tycoon registers a little personality. None of the other actors express much emotion. No one even cracks a smile. Perhaps with Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel, the stoicism is a bit more expected. However Alicia Vikander was such an effervescent presence in The Danish Girl. Although I admit she was also brilliant as a robot in Ex Machina. I’m just not sure why she was told to act like one here.

What follows is a lot of perfunctory chase sequences. We get shaky cam photography of chaotic movement edited with a hacksaw. Ladies and gentlemen, I present an entire feature made up of fast cutting. No scene lingers for more than 3 seconds before proceeding to the next shot. The ADHD cinematography can be frustrating. “Stop I want to get off!” I almost screamed, like right there out loud in the theater. Two people simply have a quiet conversation and the camera refuses to remain still – a nervous bundle of energy, constantly moving. Ok so at times it can be exhilarating as well. The camera jerks and dives to thrilling effect during a climactic fight. The motion gives the feeling of actually being physically hit before descending into a blurry mishmash where the human combatants are no longer discernible. Director Paul Greengrass is known for favoring this technique. He’s had much success in the past (United 93, Captain Phillips), but the plot developments aren’t memorable this time around. We’re just going through the motions.  In the end, I didn’t hate this movie. It’s too competent to be egregious. The effort fuses high production values with well choreographed action. Jason Bourne isn’t great, but it’s significant because it exemplifies how this kind of entertainment is now available on TV for free.

07-28-16

Star Trek Beyond

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on July 23, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo star_trek_beyond_ver2_zps1pnn4doa.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgI suppose two out of three ain’t bad. After director J.J. Abrams’ spectacular reboot on the franchise simply titled Star Trek in 2009 and his equally thrilling follow-up Star Trek Into Darkness, the series takes a giant leap backward with Star Trek Beyond. How giant? Well, this is the weakest chapter in the franchise since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). J.J. Abrams is still listed as one of the producers but this entry has different writers (Simon Pegg, Doug Jung) and a new director, Justin Lin of The Fast and the Furious 3–6 fame. Lin is unquestionably a talented filmmaker that has brought much life to those car racing films, but his broey aesthetic is a clumsy fit for the Star Trek universe. The philosophical intellectualism that usually inhabits Gene Roddenberry’s creation is tossed aside. Less thinking, more destructive action is the primary agenda here.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his team are 3 years into their 5-year mission to explore the ends of the cosmos. Kirk’s upcoming birthday has him wistfully thinking about his deceased father. He is seeking the position of Vice Admiral and requests that Spock be made captain of the Enterprise. Kirk has become rather bored by his duties. The disinterest is contagious. His colleagues are dispassionate too. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) relationship continues to play out in tedious exchanges. The two unduly concerned with the soap opera of their lives rather than their mission.

Things finally get shaken up when a distress signal leads them to an alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson), who asks for help in rescuing her people on the far side of the galaxy. On the way there, they are attacked by more aliens led by Krall (Idris Elba). It’s hard to pinpoint how an acclaimed actor such as Elba could become such a dull villain, but somehow he manages that unimaginable feat here. His raid causes the crew to be dispersed as they abandon their beloved USS Enterprise. Scotty lands on a forest planet and is saved by another alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). More stuff happens. Little of it memorable.

Star Trek Beyond is an odd creation. So safe, so boring, so utterly devoid of anything new or innovative – it feels like the mandatory enforcement of a contract to release another Star Trek film. Check. Obligation fulfilled. The movie is at its best when the personalities of the esteemed cast are highlighted. After the Enterprise team abandons ship during Krall’s attack, the crew is dispersed. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) are isolated together and it is during their interactions on a foreign planet that the script momentarily springs to life.

What does Star Trek BEYOND mean exactly?  Even the title lacks definition. May I suggest Star Trek: Generic Space Action Movie. Sadly, most of Beyond plays out more like a Fast and Furious movie with visual effects here substituting for much needed depth. The adventure is shockingly routine for a production of this magnitude.  The story is just too insubstantial for a 2 hour motion picture. This develops like a rejected plot from the 60s TV show expanded to feature length. Then the music of the Beastie Boys makes an incongruous appearance in one key scene. The song’s arrival is eye-rolling to say the least. What in Gene Roddenberry’s name is that song doing here?  However 24 hours later, and it’s the only thing that still stands out in my mind. At least I remember they played ‘Sabotage’ really loud. What a shame that it’s all I remember.

07-21-16

Ghostbusters

Posted in Action, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ghostbusters_ver5_zpsuplq07c1.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI don’t think I could’ve been more primed to like this film. (1) I adore the classic 1984 comedy and the concept of a distinctly fresh version of Ghostbusters sounded like fun. (2) I am a huge fan of the cast. Melissa McCarthy has the whip-smart comic timing that can shape even a stale bit into a gem. Kristen Wiig is a genius of oft kilter humor. Up-and-comers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are rising stars whose work on Saturday Night Live is among the most outstanding on that show right now. (3) Bridesmaids was one of the best features of 2011. It made my Top 10 for that year. Reunite the director Paul Feig with two of that picture’s personalities and watch their obvious chemistry unfold again. (4) The pre-release internet hate directed at this production was so unfounded I was tempted to give the movie a pass simply to prove the naysayers wrong.

The good news is that Ghostbusters is not the disaster that the internet predicted. Yet it’s far from the inspired reboot for which I was hoping. The set-up: Many years ago, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) collaborated on an unpopular book about paranormal phenomenon. When Gilbert realizes the book has been republished, she seeks out Yates to undo an embarrassing situation that might damage her tenure at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, Yates has continued to study the supernatural with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates coaxes Gilbert into joining her on another investigation in exchange for squashing the book’s publication. And so they’re off to fight ghosts.

Joining them are MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who sees a ghost in a subway line and contacts the Department. She joins the team a while later. Jones is normally a uniquely dynamic presence on SNL but here she is given nothing more to do than pedestrian shtick.  Unfortunately the sidekick part fails to highlight the sharp comedic gifts she displays every week.  Shouting your lines doesn’t make them funnier. There’s also Kevin Beckman, a feebleminded but handsome receptionist (Chris Hemsworth). I could easily fault the “himbo” act for being nothing more than a dumb blonde role reversal joke.  The thing is, he’s actually one of the funniest things in the film. Credit his affable charisma for taking a flimsy part and making it funny.

Of the four Ghostbusters, only Kate McKinnon truly elevates her loony scientist into something interesting and original. She interprets lines that would normally fall flat in the hands of a lesser actress. By delivering them with an off beat sensibility, she makes the character her own and not a pale imitation. A relative unknown, she has the most to gain from this exposure. I suspect this credit on her resume will be a nice stepping stone to greater things in her career. However established stars McCarthy and Wiig have been lobotomized. They seriously downplay their normally quirky appeal here. Perhaps that’s admirable. This is an ensemble piece and it allows others like McKinnon and Hemsworth to shine. However, in the process we lose what makes their comedic personas so invigorating.

Ghostbusters is a largely uninspired take on a well known property. The story scores points for changing up the plot at least. Like a remix of a classic song with a new singer and modern production, it entertains based on familiarity but not through excellence or innovation. Ok so Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are amusing, but the script hangs the rest of the cast out to dry. In lieu of a Sumerian deity from another dimension brought back from the dead, we get a nerdy petulant weirdo (Neil Casey).  He is a weak excuse for the main villain. Humor is subjective, but I rarely laughed and that’s a deal breaker when assessing a comedy. This cacophonous spectacle wants it both ways. Embrace a modern take, while constantly reminding you of nostalgia for the 1984 original. Star cameos abound with Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all in conspicuous bits that distract from, rather than add to the narrative. The idea of a summer blockbuster that headlines 4 women celebrated for their witty minds, and not their physical attributes, is exciting in theory. I so very wanted this movie to be spectacular. Instead it’s just barely acceptable.

07-14-16

Independence Day: Resurgence

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo independence_day_resurgence_zpsdychzl31.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgConfession. I didn’t think the 1996 special effects laden film that spawned this sequel was a great movie — BUT it was fun. And I’ll acknowledge that the picture has since become a classic of the science fiction genre. Back in 1996, Independence Day made a gazillion dollars simply by blowing stuff up on a grand scale. The sight of large spacecraft hovering over some of Earth’s major cities was enough to stir excitement/terror in the hearts of moviegoers. The ultimate show-down climaxed with a diverse group of people converging in the Nevada desert. Will Smith socked an alien in the face: “Welcome ta urf!” Americans united, along with the rest of the world, over a counter attack that just so happened to occur on the 4th of July. A now famous rallying cry speech from Bill Pullman precipitated the climax. It was as corny then as it is today, but gosh darn it, it sort of worked on a visceral level. Then they kicked some alien butt.

Now it’s 20 years later. In the interim, the United Nations have created the Earth Space Defense (ESD), a global program that serves as Earth’s early warning system against future extraterrestrial threats. Using recovered alien technology along with existing human technology, the alliance has bolstered the world’s defenses. Africa is the site of an alien spaceship that crashes during one battle. It appears that Congolese warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) has fought the creatures for years. He has experienced recurring visions due to his personal encounters with the aliens. Ex-president Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) has gotten psychic hints of an arrival as well. Furthermore the ESD discovers that the fallen ship managed to send a distress call to its home planet. The Earth is bracing itself for another invasion.

Let’s face it. This was always going to be more of a re-interpretation then a sequel. Keep it simple. Give the people what they want. Nostalgia mixed with better special effects and an assorted cast of appealing characters. It sounds easy — an obvious set-up for a slam dunk success. It’s the cinematic version of boil water – a straightforward recipe that’s pretty hard to screw up. Roland Emmerich is back as director and Dean Devlin is producing again. Heavens to Will Smith! It’s hard to believe this is the same team that made the 1996 movie. The team bungles the execution to the point of incompetence.

How did they make a film so astonishingly boring? Let’s start with the initial invasion. Yes, we get another one of those. But first not without 30 minutes of formless exposition checking in with returning characters that establish who they are in the most perfunctory manner possible. Dull and dreary, these set ups scenes are just a time waster. We’re told that an alien vessel over 3000 miles in diameter has invaded earth. However we’re given no appreciation for the size of that ship. Where is the emphasis on the sense of scale? We’re told it’s levitating Beijing and Dubai, then dumping the debris on London, but it’s not clear that is happening. The destruction sequences are confusing — a haphazardly edited hodgepodge that has no concept for geography. The world is under attack but it feels small and insular. Even worse – it looks cheap. It’s one of the most poorly edited sequences I’ve ever seen in a would-be blockbuster. Did they run out of money for effects? That’s the only explanation I can give for the gross incompetence on display.

I miss the soul of the original cast. Randy Quaid and Mary McDonnell are obviously out. They didn’t survive. Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Judd Hirsch are back however. Given their lack of zeal though, they are clearly more bored than the audience. Pullman’s frazzled ex-Pres is supposed to have PTSD so at least he has an excuse. Brent Spiner is preposterously revived as eccentric scientist Brackish Okun. If you’ve seen the last film, you’ll know why that’s implausible. 20 year coma apparently. Despite the weak justification for his return, I will admit that he’s the most captivating proof of humanity in the entire production. That’s still not saying much. One scene has him scratching his naked rear end in semi-closeup. Margaret Colin is recast in spirit by Charlotte Gainsbourg as Goldblum’s love interest. Zzzzzzzzzz  Sela Ward is the “Leader of the Free World” this time around. Madame President indeed. Vivica A. Fox gets what amounts to a cameo. I think she has a line or two. The late Robert Loggia appears. No lines at all.

Too much of the plot is dominated by younger actors who register zero charisma. Will Smith, who became a huge star in the 20 years since, wisely passed on this script. We’re told he died in a test flight.  Wow.  Apparently the screenwriters couldn’t be bothered with disposing of him in a creative way.  A substitution for his temperament is the character of his adult son. Instead of getting the original performer, Ross Bagley, the part went to Jessie Usher. He possesses none of Smith’s personality.  Even his declaration “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!” lacks the required conviction. Mae Whitman, who portrayed Patricia, the president’s daughter in 1996, has been inexplicably replaced as well. The taller, blonder Maika Monroe (It Follows) is a fine actress but Whitman is still a talented thespian in her own right, so the snub is rather vexing.

The former First Daughter now has a romance with fiancée Jake Morrison, a role depicted by blonde and bland hunk du jour Liam Hemsworth. Why oh why does he continue to find work while hundreds of actors struggle in Hollywood? His best friend is Charlie Ritter realized by actor Travis Tope. Or did I reverse those names?  Too forgettable to even keep straight.  Charlie has his eyes on Rain Lao, played by Hong Kong model, Angelababy. Don’t quit your day job, kid. Jake, Dylan, Charlie and Rain form this squad of fighter pilots that are a quartet of vapidity. Together their scenes comprise a large portion of the narrative, yet their tedious personalities add absolutely nothing to its enjoyment. I would have eliminated every last one of their parts altogether.

Independence Day: Resurgence is bad. Not bad in the ridiculous, let’s relish it for the folly of it all. That was the original flick. This is so mind numbingly lifeless, it’s awful. I wasn’t invested.   When the very existence of mankind is at stake, that’s a problem.  I couldn’t give a care about what happens.  It’s clear the filmmakers didn’t either. Poorly edited, drearily acted with sloppy CGI that has no sense of breadth or scope. If this was one of those Syfy channel pieces of schlock like Sharknado I’d be a little more forgiving. No this is a shining beacon of gross ineptitude for a mega budget blockbuster. There’s a moment in the last half hour where the movie does something right. A Godzilla-sized queen is seen tearing down the desert as planes encircle her. The climatic battle gives a hint of what might have been, but it’s too little too late. Then the inevitable tease for a Part 3 slaps you in the face. There’s still some fun to be had. Save your money now. Invite your friends to watch this when it’s on DVD. First one to fall asleep is the loser. Or is that the winner? Regardless, it’ll be a short game.

06-24-16

Central Intelligence

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo central_intelligence_ver2_zps8nxd0sdr.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgMovies don’t get more agreeably disposable than Central Intelligence, a stridently by-the-numbers action comedy. The source of all humor contained within is an incongruous juxtaposition – the visual joke as it were. Hey guys!! Watch a big muscular dude (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) pal around with a yappy shrimp of a man (Kevin Hart). The former has a flamboyant personality. The latter possesses a shrill disposition. Just what we’re in short supply of – another “odd couple” comedy.

Back in high school it was a much different story. Calvin Joyner (Hart) was a BMOC: class president, homecoming king, drama club thespian, et cetera. Conversely Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was a morbidly obese dork who enjoyed dancing in the gym locker room to En Vogue’s “My Loving (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”. Yup, complete with hand gestures and everything. He was mercilessly teased. Flash forward to the modern day. Calvin is in a funk. He hasn’t yet achieved what he had envisioned for his life. He’s happily married to his high school sweetheart and gainfully employed as an accountant. “Wait what’s the problem?”, you may ask. That’s a very good question. Oops! I think you just might be too smart for this picture.

Robbie Weirdicht (now calling himself Bob Stone), on the other hand, is a huge brawny guy who likes to wear unicorn shirts that look like they were purchased at Baby Gap. He also happens to be a competent CIA agent. This figures into the plot but it’s kind of irrelevant. The purpose of this buddy film is to unite two unlikely people and merely savor their chemistry. Bob still idolizes Calvin like a hero. He quickly ingratiates himself back into Calvin’s life after a Facebook invite. Within hours he’s already sleeping on his couch. Honestly Bob’s obsessive fascination with Calvin is borderline stalker behavior.

Central Intelligence isn’t a horrible movie. It coasts on the charm of its leads. Dwayne Johnson is eager, overzealous and blissfully unaware. He imagines this close personal friendship with Kevin Hart’s character that was never really there. He’s so naive he seems almost mentally challenged. Kevin Hart plays an exasperated, persnickety fuss-budget. The two are a mismatched pair. If you can appreciate the constant mugging from the two stars then you should cuddle up to the film’s modest charms. Me? I was hoping for a bit more story than the threadbare plot that’s served up here. For the record, it’s some nonsense about selling critical U.S. satellite codes to terrorists. There’s also some confusion as to whether Bob Stone is actually a good or a bad guy in the CIA but you’d have to be fast asleep not to figure that out. Yes it’s totally predictable, but that’s not the issue. I found their hijinks mildly amusing. I simply never laughed out loud at any point. It’s so thoroughly generic. Directer and co-writer Rawson Marshall Thurber has done better work. I’d uphold DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story over this. What sets Central Intelligence apart is Wayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. I recommend this to very forgiving fans (and only fans) for whom these celebrities can do no wrong.

06-21-16

X-Men: Apocalypse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 31, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo xmen_apocalypse_ver19_zps8wydoi89.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg
Let’s face it. You already know if you’re part of the of the audience receptive for one more X-Men movie. Apocalypse is the ninth installment in the X-Men film series (if you’re counting Deadpool). A certain level of skepticism is raised whether it’s warranted or not.  Honestly I was lukewarm to the idea of another one of these pictures. Color me surprised because there’s still a lot of entertainment packed into this admittedly messy picture. If you’re not rolling your eyes at the thought of an additional installment, then you’re at least primed to enjoy this.

In a nutshell, the plot concerns what happens when Professor Xavier’s class of super-powered mutants take on Apocalypse. Who’s this now?  Well apparently he was the world’s first mutant. He ruled ancient Egypt circa. 3600 BC before being buried alive by his followers. He awakens in 1983 pretty ticked off by humanity and wants to take over the world.  Naturally.

Bryan Singer is back in the director chair for the 4th time . He understands this franchise better than anyone. It’s set in the 1980s which occurs ten years after his critically and commercially successful X-Men: Days of Future Past. Apocalypse unquestionably pales in comparison to that movie. The computer graphics are wonky in parts and the narrative gets a bit chaotic with the numerous characters. There’s a bunch, but let’s reflect on that cast for a moment: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn and Kodi Smit-McPhee. This is a tightly wound orchestra of actors. It reads like a who’s who of great up and coming stars. The best and brightest of their generation in service of a special effects laden fantasy.

The drama absolutely benefits from the superior acting skills of that incredible ensemble. Ok so I’m a little miffed they hired Oscar Isaac, and then obscured him beneath pounds of makeup rendering him unrecognizable as the villain. That could’ve been anyone under that blue face. But Jennifer Lawrence who plays Mystique, gets to actually look like Jennifer Lawrence through most of the film. She takes on a greater role here. As Charles Xavier has done previously, it partially falls on Mystique’s shoulders to help lead and mentor the X-Men. Apocalypse still has some room to develop these personalities amongst the pyrotechnics, For example, the connection between Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and her forgotten memories of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is addressed. Their relationship is further deepened and the result is almost poignant.

If characterization and plot are truly what you crave, you probably should try an indie drama. Amazing action set pieces are the mark of a good superhero film. Apocalypse presents several that give virtually every individual the opportunity to shine. Magneto has retired from super-villany and so he has been working at a factory in Poland as Erik Lehnsherr. After an incident there reveals his true self, Magneto must confront a threat to his wife and daughter. Let’s just say, her locket is a lot more dangerous than you think. The return of the Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is an opportunity for another slow-motion rescue sequence in the middle of the movie. It’s a music video scored to the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and it’s dazzling. Professor X’s battle of shared consciousness with Apocalypse is a conflict that technically takes place in the mind. It’s an interesting concept that should be difficult to portray, but it’s executed in a most captivating way. And finally Sophie Turner as Jean Grey gets a chance to tap into something called the Phoenix Force in the film’s rousing payoff which ably juggles most of the cast. Yes, the entire climax rests on a lot of invincible people using their supernatural strengths to stop a godlike villain until one exhibits the greatest power to surpass them all. That’s not the optimal recipe for creating a heart-pounding conclusion but it’s certainly not boring. I’ll concede it may not be the best in the series (Days of Future Past). However this is far from the worst (X-Men Origins and The Wolverine). X-Men Apocalypse is enjoyable fun, sitting comfortably in the upper half of the X-Men franchise.

05-27-16

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 28, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo alice_through_the_looking_glass_ver8_zpsia3k2lst.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgHow to explain when a movie goes from being merely bad, to an out-and-out assault on the senses. That is the conundrum I’m faced with trying to make sense of Alice Through the Looking Glass. This is the followup to Tim Burton’s wildly successful hit that came out in the spring of 2010. Alice in Wonderland remarkably made $334 million in the U.S. alone. It was the 2nd biggest hit of that year (behind Toy Story 3), so you knew it was only a matter of time before they would make a sequel. Why it took more than half a decade is a question for Tim Burton. Highly successful screenwriter for Disney, Linda Wolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), is back, however Tim Burton is only a producer this time around. Apparently he really didn’t want to helm another one. The director’s job has been delegated to James Bobin (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted). On paper, that sounds promising. I mildly enjoyed the original and was at least prepared to delight in the artistry of a sequel.

Flamboyance is the recipe again but magnified to the tenth power. That’s hard to imagine. The first was hardly a model of restraint, but it still had some semblance of a story. Although Alice in Wonderland threw out the plot of the book, it kept the characters and amped up the crazy. What it lacked in dramatic coherence it made up for in visual spectacle. So what exactly is the plot in the current installment? That’s a very good question. I still don’t have a good answer. Lewis Carroll’s book dealt with Alice’s attempts to become a Queen. His novel exploited the game of chess as a metaphor for the lack of control she had over the direction of her own life. An overriding theme concerned the feeling of loneliness as one grows older.

Linda Woolverton’s screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass has nothing to do with any of that. Ok fine, but what does it concern? The action inexplicably starts out on a ship in the ocean with Alice as the captain trying to outrun a trio of pirates. It’s a loud, chaotic beginning that feels like the climax of a completely different film. Then on to some nonsense regarding her ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and an exchange of that ship for her home. What does it all mean? Doesn’t really matter because everything is thrown aside when she walks through a mirror and ends up in Wonderland. The Mad Matter’s family is missing and Alice agrees to help. From what I can glean, this is the true thrust of the narrative. First, she visits a character called Time. He’s some bizarre demigod played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the only performance that manages to gain a modicum of our interest. He relishes the part and his commitment is palpable. Next Alice steals the Chronosphere and promptly travels back in time to change the past right after being told that is forbidden. Here the developments resemble Muppet Babies as we get junior versions of the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter. More stuff happens involving their childhood. The Jabberwocky appears. Alice wakes up in a mental hospital, diagnosed with female hysteria.  That’s not how it ends.  She goes back to Wonderland.  Yup again.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a wackadoodle free-for-all with a CGI budget that’s roughly the GDP of an island nation. Every scene of this haphazardly plotted film bursts with more computer generated imagery than the human eye can even absorb. Each display vies for the viewer’s attention as effect is heaped upon effect. One exhibition competes with the next for space within the frame. There is little relief from the uninterrupted excess. The crowded extravaganza is so staggeringly overindulgent, it’s vulgar. I’ve played with kaleidoscopes that had a more coherent narrative. Meanwhile Johnny Depp minces with abandon as the Mad Hatter, lisping all the while in another fey performance so cloying it inspired me to brush my teeth afterward for fear I might get cavities. Helena Bonham Carter, so wonderful as the Red Queen in the last film, bickers with her sister to the point of annoyance. Her decades old hate for her sibling, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), revealed as having originated as a lie to the question “Who ate these tarts?”  There is little story. Just effects. Alice Through The Looking Glass is stridently obscene in its desire to distract and confuse. The production is focused on satiating the basest component of visual desire and nothing more. It’s offensive.

05-26-16