Archive for the Action Category

Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on February 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sonic_the_hedgehog_ver6STARS3.5Surprise!  Sonic the Hedgehog is a hit.  I must say it’s a happy ending for a production that was the focus of some seriously negative online buzz last year.  The trailer dropped in April 2019.  Admittedly the main character looked ugly.  Sonic appeared as a rat-like entity with human teeth.  He was more than just a bit unsettling.  The backlash was so severe it led animators to redesign his look which delayed the release until Feb 14.   In this case, the decision to heed the public outcry was — in retrospect — smart.  The $58 million debut far exceeded expectations.  At $75 million and counting it’s currently the 2nd biggest hit of 2020 (after Bad Boys for Life).  Not sure what this will mean when movie trailers undoubtedly earn unfavorable reactions in the future.  However, in this case, the filmmaker’s decision to react to feedback was handsomely rewarded.

No one could have been less interested in this feature than me.  First off, I don’t care for films based on video games.  I’d be hard-pressed to name one I genuinely loved.  Mortal Kombat (1995) has been my go-to answer when asked to name my favorite and I’ll admit there’s a little nostalgia mixed in my enjoyment of it.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu came out in May of 2019.  It starred a “pocket monster.”  I tolerated it, but I didn’t recommend it to anyone outside of die-hard fans.  Sonic is yet another creature.  This one is an anthropomorphic hedgehog that first appeared in a 1991 game for the Sega Genesis.  It wasn’t part of my childhood so I had no interest in the character which makes what I’m about to say even more astonishing.  Sonic the Hedgehog is the best video game movie ever made.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve read my intro.  The competition isn’t even that fierce but hear me out.  I am not damning with faint praise.  This is indeed an enjoyable movie.  The saga concerns a hedgehog from another dimension.  He’s a blue computer-animated creation voiced by Ben Schwartz (TV’s Parks and Recreation) but he interacts with human people.  While using magical rings like portals to travel to other planets, he ends up in Green Hills, Montana.  There he meets a man named Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter).  Tom is the local sheriff who wants to help Sonic find his missing rings so he can return home.  The two form a friendship, not unlike a boy named Elliott and another extra-terrestrial from a 1982 science fiction classic.

The adventure heralds the welcome return of Jim Carrey in his finest performance in a decade.  The Department of Defense suspects something dangerous is going on after a widespread power outage.  They enlist the aid of Doctor Robotnik (Jim Carrey), a scientific genius sporting a bushy handlebar-mustache that would make any member of a barbershop quartet jealous.  I cannot downplay how much I enjoyed his antics.  His presence is truly a return to form.  I’m talking zany bonkers Jim Carrey in 1994 when he made Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all in the same year.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this role might be tiresome, but in his capable hands, the wacky physical comedy is hilarious.  The high point is when Robotnik does his dance of anarchy to “Where Evil Grows” by The Poppy Family.  His facial expressions and vocal delivery are amusing whenever he’s on screen.  He’s supported by a sidekick named Agent Stone portrayed by actor Lee Majdoub and he’s a calming counterpoint to Carrey’s wild shenanigans.

Sonic the Hedgehog may ostensibly be an adaptation of a video game.  The chronicle is merely about a character that gets into lots of mischief while trying to evade his captors but there’s just enough oddity and edge to delight adults too.  Jim Carrey is indeed the MVP but a charismatic cast featuring James Marsden, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, Natasha Rothwell and Adam Pally all contribute.  The entire production is blessed with memorable and likable personalities.  At its center is Sonic and Tom, a duo whose evolving dynamic develops from casual acquaintances into close friends.  Thanks to them, this ends up being a sweet, warm, clever, and funny story about the importance of friendship.  This may be a broad, accessible family-friendly film for the pre-teen set.  Yet the narrative delves deeper to extract a depth of heart and feeling.  I wasn’t expecting that in a video game movie.

02-13-20

Birds of Prey

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Superhero with tags on February 13, 2020 by Mark Hobin

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“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  That’s what Annie Oakley confidently sang to marksman Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  She was boasting about her abilities as a sharpshooter and she wasn’t wrong.  Birds of Prey is about a decidedly different kind of feminist icon — Harley Quinn.  Some would even call her a villain.  There’s an ideology that subscribes to the idea that women can be just as — if not more than — coarse, vulgar and harmful as the men.  This is the approach where the very exhibition of destruction itself is an idea more cherished than drama, plot or logic.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a complete assault on the senses.  Even the unwieldy title is an irritant.  Warner Brothers also realized this later, because they have now retitled it as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as a course corrective.  At $33.0M, the movie had the worst opening since the DC Extended universe began in 2013.  One day the marketing campaign will be studied as a course entitled “What Not To Do”.  But let’s talk about the actual movie.  It doesn’t help that the plot is an incomprehensible headache to follow.  An animated intro — the only lucid thing in the whole production — informs us that the Joker and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) were once lovers.  He has broken up with her and now she is no longer afforded his protection.  She is now pursued by numerous enemies.  The main baddie is an evil gangster named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who owns a dance club.  He’s too much of a buffoon to be threatening.  Meanwhile, a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) has stolen and swallowed a precious diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) one of Roman Sionis’ henchmen.  So Harley offers to retrieve it for Roman. In exchange, he will spare her life.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have a reputation as artistic cinema but it’s Citizen Kane compared to this bewildering collection of gibberish.  At least Suicide Squad had Margot Robbie’s appearance which rose above the chaotic assemblage of actors.  As part of an ensemble, Harley Quinn was the charismatic standout, but here as the main focus of a narrative, you realize just how shallow and empty she truly is.  The once certified psychiatrist is a brightly colored confection not motivated by anything.  She merely responds to whatever is happening around her.  For most of the saga, her raison d’etre is to simply not die.  As one brutal spectacle piles on top of another, I grew numb.

Margo Robbie isn’t a character she’s an affectation.  An entity entirely composed of mannerisms and attitude.  She’s Baby-Spice blasting glitter bombs, occasionally breaking the fourth wall by winking and talking to the audience under the guidance of director Cathy Yan.  This is the filmmaker’s second feature after the indie comedy-drama Dead Pigs.  Star Robbie is a two-time Oscar nominee.  She is unquestionably a talent but here she is being instructed to behave in a way that truly tests the patience of the audience.  Harley Quinn’s cutesy chirp of a New York accent seems cobbled from Madonna’s performance as Nikki Finn in Who’s that Girl (1987).  Even their names sound similar.  Harley also narrates the film in a scattered singsongy voiceover that explains what’s happening on screen.  Obviously required because no sane person could possibly divine a point to this nonsense.

There is no story — just a series of raucous setpieces to which Harley Quinn must react.  Fight scenes are accompanied by a rock soundtrack cranked at full volume to distract from the lack of rationality.  “I Hate Myself for Loving You”, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Barracuda” all play at various points in the background.   The aural soundscape blends together.  One scene bears little relationship to the one before it.  Indeed the tale is conveniently told in a nonlinear fashion.  The decision feels more like a desperate struggle to obfuscate the lack of structure rather than a purposeful choice of style.

Birds of Prey is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics’ infamous supervillain “girl gang”.  They’re opposed by Roman and right-hand man Victor who cut their victims’ faces off while they’re still alive.  They gun down a family with children in a gory display too.  For most of the movie’s runtime, it concerns one Harley Quinn but three other women emerge who have been mistreated by men: a vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer dubbed Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).  The screenplay disingenuously attempts — in the end — to reinterpret all this mindless cursing, and mayhem into a pseudo-feminist anthem of banding together against their male oppressors.  Yet the women are undeveloped and conventional as characters.  Their one-dimensional personas feel like a giant step backward for female empowerment.  Ultimately the disjointed narrative makes absolutely no sense.  Birds of Prey — utterly lacking in wit, cleverness or coherence — is a featherbrained mess.

02-06-20

The Gentlemen

Posted in Action, Crime with tags on January 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gentlemen_ver8STARS3George Cukor’s infinitely superior classic The Women (1939) is probably the last film any sane person would use as a comparison to this one.  However, Guy Ritchie’s latest offering does have a similar title.  Furthermore, the game of oneupmanship and catty comments that made those ladies such a force to be reckoned with is the underlying basis of what makes this story tick.  Words, not guns, are the most powerful weapon of all.

If only the screenplay (also by Guy Ritchie) completely understood this.  The Gentlemen is a violent comedy with shootings, assaults and plenty of blood.  Yet the movie frequently relies on conversation-heavy scenes.  That is what captivated me.  Ritchie got his start making high octane British crime thrillers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  Then he went on to direct Hollywood box office blockbusters like Sherlock Holmes and AladdinThe Gentlemen is a return to the kinds of pictures he used to make.  Longtime fans should be quite pleased.  All others will be less entertained.

The acting ensemble assembled here is a charismatic lot and they’re clearly having fun.  Matthew McConaughey stars as a cool cannabis baron named Mickey Pearson.  Mickey has his values.  Hard drugs are bad but pot is perfectly harmless.  His wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) and right-hand-man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) are there to assist him in his sordid dealings.  He’s opposed by a sleazy investigative reporter — a character played by Hugh Grant sporting a goatee and leather jacket.  Also included are American billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding).  Then there’s Colin Farrell as Coach who’s just kind of shoehorned into the mix.  The man isn’t as closely affiliated with the criminal underworld as the others but he’s still a welcome presence.  Actually, the entire cast is very good.

What always highlighted Ritchie’s gangster films was a breezy wit that played fast and loose with a linear narrative and frankly didn’t give a damn of whether you grasped what they were saying or even doing.  The dialogue is flamboyantly funny when it isn’t relying on race-related jokes or the mere sound of dirty words.  Another problem is that there are also too many plot twists.  One or two is clever but twelve is a headache to follow.  I would never spoil specific developments in a review anyway but I couldn’t — even with a gun to my head.  Get it?  The Gentlemen isn’t as good as Richie’s best.  Heck, it’s barely recommendable.  However, style and panache make this chronicle captivating.   It kind of wins you over through the sheer power of its aesthetic.

01-26-20

Bad Boys for Life

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_boys_for_life_ver2STARS3 I was skeptical.  When they unearth and dust off some long-done franchise for another sequel, it’s very easy to simply view it as a cash grab.  Bad Boys II was released in 2003.  17 years have passed and now we get this entry.  Surprise!  The result is a lively diversion.  Jerry Bruckheimer is back again to produce but Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are helming the film.  The ambiance is calmer and more coherent than the previous movies directed by Michael Bay.   However, fans will appreciate this.  Critics have already hailed it as the best of the trilogy.  (Side note: a fourth episode is planned).

Bad Boys for Life is entertaining.  Sometimes going back to the well can yield engaging results.  I was one of the few that enjoyed Men in Black: International, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fundamental difference with this release is the original stars have returned.  The pairing of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is the reason to see this.  They ground the film with their considerable charisma.

The comedy smartly acknowledges that they are indeed older.  Although can they rightly be called “boys” at this point?  They’re quinquagenarians.  Nevertheless, Will Smith doesn’t seem to age.  As Mike Lowrey, he’s the straight man while Martin Lawrence gets to be the comic relief as Marcus Burnett.  Marcus just wants to retire and spend time with his newborn grandson.  It’s a formula but hey it works.  This conventional action movie coasts on the affable charm of its stars.  The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan has given some depth to the backstories of these characters. Actors Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio portray antagonists that are better than the run of the mill kingpins that have blighted this franchise in the past.   One individual has prior ties with a villain.  That connection adds some interesting insight into these relationships.

Bad Boys for Life is undemanding fun.  That is — it has little value beyond providing an evening’s worth of amusement.  If anyone should be enriched the most from this exercise it’s Sony Pictures.  This was a surprise hit.   People often bemoan the fact that Hollywood likes to recycle old properties.  The success of this picture is a prime example of why studios rely so heavily on the practice.  It’s perfectly fine.  Aficionados of the earlier flicks will be satisfied and those seeking 2 hours of distraction should be appeased as well.  I was.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I wrote this review shortly after I watched the film.  I doubt I’ll remember much of it by next week.

01-16-20

1917

Posted in Action, Drama, War with tags on December 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

nineteen_seventeen_ver2STARS5It’s no secret that films set during the Second World War far outnumber ones about other wars.  Since 1998, the more well-known ones include Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, The Pianist, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk.  There are so many others.  My apologies if I missed your favorite.  But what about pictures concerning the Great War?  Some WWI movies rank among the greatest classics of all time: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory and Lawrence of Arabia.  I wouldn’t immediately include a movie that just came out in the same company.  Likewise, I would never describe a current release using the M-word*.  A certain amount of time must pass.   I’d say at least 10 years.  However, 1917 is a good candidate to be considered both of these things in 2029.

1917 is an epic about two British soldiers entrusted with a mission.  The story is based on an account told to director Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes.  Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are two lance corporals that must deliver a message across enemy German territory to an Allied front line.  The British are preparing to launch an ambush but the problem is, it will lead to many many deaths on the side of the Allies.  The soldiers have a false sense of security.  The Germans are in fact ready for the British and therefore should not attack.  Blake and Schofield must convey an order to stand down.  Their journey is the movie.

1917 is filmed in one continuous shot.  When I first heard that, I regarded the decision to use this technique as a pretentious affectation.  Birdman did this rather famously in 2014.  No, cinematographer Roger Deakins didn’t really shoot without stopping.  If he had, filming would have only taken one hour and 59 minutes.  However, the narrative has pieced together that way and the approach is indeed a very intrinsic part of the story that lends the adventure an immersive quality.  I forgot it was filmed this way because  I was fully engrossed in the feature.  It is brilliantly shot and expertly staged.  The scenes are occasionally shot 360 degrees as it moves around the action and it brought me to the feeling that I was right there with them on this expedition.  There are stretches where I watched with held breath.  I didn’t feel as though I was watching a movie.  I was a solider on this mission with them.

This is, in fact, a good time for movies about World War I.  Peter Jackson’s gloriously spellbinding documentary They Shall Not Grow got a limited release at the tail end of 2018.  It too was magnificent but I wasn’t prepared for another tour de force.  1917 is an absolutely penetrating albeit manipulative achievement about courage.  Our two heroes travel through a landscape that invokes anxiety and fear on a scale of biblical proportions.  The chronicle is directed and produced by Sam Mendes with a screenplay he wrote withy Krysty Wilson-Cairns.  It features stellar cinematography from the aforementioned Roger Deakins and a rousing score by Thomas Newman that already feels iconic.  Together they combine to form this artistic success.  It’s horrific and beautiful, mesmerizing and immediate.  If cinema is an emotional experience — a portal that transports us to another time and place — then 1917 inspired the most visceral reaction of any picture I saw in 2019.  The majesty of it all blew me away.

 

 

*  “masterpiece”.

12-03-19

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver4STARS3.5Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might have set a record for the number of spontaneous bursts of applause I’ve ever experienced during a theatrical screening.  I stopped counting when it reached double digits.  It was an absolute love fest.  My reaction was less enthusiastic but I can appreciate why the crowd embraced this so gleefully.  The chronicle is heavy on scenes and displays that are specifically designed to appeal to longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise — especially admirers of the first set (and best) of three films often referred to as the classic trilogy.  Director J.J. Abrams is a master at giving people exactly what they want.  That is both boon and bane to the grand narrative arc of the three most recent Star Wars episodes.

J.J. Abrams was faced with an epic task.  First, he had to close out the sequel trilogy which he began with The Force Awakens in 2015, but also cap off the entire “Skywalker Saga” of nine movies.  He only partially succeeds as the three chapters linked do not fit together as a cohesive whole.  I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s subversive take in the 2nd movie because he brought innovation and unexpected change to the franchise.  However, it was not meant to be. From a story standpoint, it now feels like Abrams directed The Force Awakens with an idea of where he wanted the adventure to go.  Then the series was hijacked by filmmaker Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi who introduced plot elements and personalities only to have Abrams either ignore them or explain them away with The Rise of Skywalker as a course-correcting measure.  This is true with the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic of the resistance that was a huge part of The Last Jedi but now only registers as a gloried cameo typing away at a computer here.  Be warned there will be other adjustments made in the name of retroactive continuity.  What I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the opening crawl.  Somehow a resurrected emperor Palpatine returns (Ian McDiarmid) as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been rendered as a nonentity.

J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Wars is more focused on the meticulous crafting of visual style at the expense of logical developments. That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker isn’t enjoyable.  It’s hugely entertaining.  The audience in my theater were laughing, crying, cheering.  That audience experienced something akin to a religious experience.  There are lots of encounters with fantastic creatures and random humans.  Babu Frik is the baby Yoda of this movie.  Don’t underestimate this little guy’s power to charm the viewer.  Babu Frik reprograms droids and speaks in an incomprehensible but adorable alien language that had my theater enraptured.  There’s a cone-headed droid named D-O that behaves like a rehabilitated puppy.  Porgs, Ewoks, Jawas, droids all pop up intermittently to satisfy your fan lust for more cute critters.  Abrams is adept at manipulating the Star Wars aesthetic in a way that honors the past while fashioning a tale with new personalities.

There’s a dizzying array of human roles too.  Numerous individuals pop up, deliver one line and then frustratingly disappear.  Abrams prioritizes the wants and needs of the fans over plot, characterization and thematic consistency.  Rose Tico has been sidelined.  Yet the writers have added other actors that appear to fulfill the same role but then obfuscate the advancement of a singular narrative.  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is an ally of the Resistance who is paired up with Finn.  She also has a conversation with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) that’s calculated to tease some sort of relationship.  Oscar Isaac is back as Poe and he hangs out with an old friend named Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell.  You’d never know it was the actress, however, because she wears a helmet.  You only see her eyes in one scene.  The inclusion of Jannah and Zorii seems rather pointless.  Nevertheless, the cast is filled with beings that all look and sound the part.  The villains continue to be cast like actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde in the First Order looks like a genetic descendant of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

Yes, this movie relies on the groundwork that was established long ago.  This entry will lack an emotional impact for the uninitiated.  It feels a bit like a greatest hits reel where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in.  At one point Rey amusingly utters a declaration that followers will recognize as a variation of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.  My theater was erupting in applause at moments that I didn’t even grasp.  The gang walks into a droid shop and there’s an old guy with a white beard shaking his head.  Everyone started clapping.  It was only after the film was over and I consulted the internet that I found out who that was.  Abrams even finds a way to include original cast members including (but not limited to) Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams.  Fisher passed on in 2016 and so her scenes have been cobbled together from outtakes and pre-recorded dialogue.  Her declarations have a vagueness about them but it’s nice to see her.  Another character reappears as just a figment of someone’s memory.

The Rise of Skywalker ultimately delivers the satisfying end to — what I like to call — the nonology.  The chronicle is well-paced but at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it’s overpacked with too much stuff.  It’s messy and incoherent.  However, the central trio continues to be a charismatic bunch.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) bicker like two brothers.  They still have a nice dynamic.  The main hero, Jedi Knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the lion’s share of the drama.  The idea of “The Force” as an all-powerful almost Godlike solution to difficult problems is further promoted.  Rey now has abilities so advanced that she can control a spaceship flying overhead simply by outstretching her hand while she is safely on the ground.  Apparently, the force can even be manipulated in the same way that Jesus helped Lazarus.

Rey is a captivating heroine and her interaction with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the sentimental core.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a lightsaber duel between the two of them.  The fact it’s set against a backdrop of stormy ocean waves that rise and crash all around them truly elevate the action.  It ends with a surprising act.  Abrams fills his account with sensational set pieces that delight the viewer.  Also ** news flash ** there will be a massive air battle between the Rebels and the Empire.  Abrams celebrates cinematic history by courting nostalgia but then amps up the spectacle.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s his ties to the same ideas that fascinated George Lucas where The Rise of Skywalker fitfully entertains as an end to the Star Wars saga.

12-19-19

Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on December 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

jumanji_the_next_level_ver3STARS2.5I didn’t expect much from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in 2017.  I was pleasantly surprised. The feature was a fun adventure about four kids in the real world that inhabited the bodies of visually disparate avatars in a video game.  The joke was how their personalities were matched up.  For example, the shy nerdy boy (Alex Wolff) became a strong confident explorer (Dwayne Johnson) and a pretty but ditzy, self-centered girl (Madison Iseman) was reborn as a pudgy male archeologist (Jack Black).  The concept was both innovative and funny.  It wasn’t great art but it succeeded because it was entertaining.

Audiences loved the first film and positive word of mouth propelled a healthy run in theaters. It grossed over $962 million worldwide so it was only a matter of time before we got this inevitable sequel.  Once again Jumanji: The Next Level essentially relies on the very same gag with a slight twist.  The difference this time is that each protagonist is now inhabiting a different body in the simulated fantasy.  So Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan are all back but with the added “novelty” to act in a different manner.

The proceedings are essentially a tired rehash of the previous film, but there are bright spots.  The script also attempts to inject new life by adding 2 old people.  The scribes have introduced two characters in the real world.  Danny De Vito portrays Spencer’s grandfather Eddie and Danny Glover pops up as Eddie’s estranged friend.  They are both sucked into the video game adventure.  Their temperaments are good for a few laughs.  Also, breakout star and current “It Girl” Awkwafina plays an additional avatar within the video game.  Awkwafina stands out.  She’s a legitimately good actress so she’s effective at manifesting distinctive identities.  Kevin Hart downplays his more intense charisma by talking much slower which is rather amusing in itself.

However, the story is a complete snooze.  Actor Rory McCann impersonates this “Game of Thrones” style warlord named Jurgen the Brutal.  He’s stolen a necklace called the Falcon’s Heart and the gang must get it back and expose it to the sun so they may end the drought that has infected the land and yada yada yada.

A fresh idea can no longer captivate when it’s simply repeated with more clutter.  This narrative is undone by a screenplay that is content to check the boxes of a formula to safely produce another hit in the same vein.  Writers Jake Kasdan (who also returns as director), Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg barely tweak the formula to produce this generic hit.  The first half of the movie relies more on the characters so it genially coasts on the talents of its cast but in the 2nd half, the chronicle dwells far too long on a convoluted story.  I just didn’t give a care.  The final 30 minutes is a difficult sit.  The saga runs over two hours when it should’ve been a brisk 90 minutes.  So ultimately Jumanji: The Next Level turns out to be a level down from its predecessor.

12-12-19

Ford v Ferrari

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama with tags on November 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ford_v_ferrariSTARS4There’s something refreshingly retro about Ford v. Ferrari.  A traditional well-written tale about fast cars, friendships among men and their competitive spirit.  It’s the type of macho entertainment that used to feature actors like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, and James Garner.  The pictures made beaucoup bucks at the box office and still managed to get a nomination or two at the Academy Awards.  That just may happen again this year because audiences have embraced this (A+ Cinemascore), critics truly love it (92% on RT) and Oscar pundits are all abuzz.  I’m truly delighted by its popularity because I agree.  This is an enjoyable movie.

Ford v Ferrari is set in the 1960s and that time-honored sensibility makes this chronicle feel like it was made in the same period.  The saga centers on two charismatic individuals whose chemistry together sells the entire film.  There’s Matt Damon who plays Carroll Shelby, an American automotive designer and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, an English race car driver.  Together they work for the Ford Motor Company in its effort to beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race.  A cantankerous relationship is stirred between Ford and Ferrari.  This is created when the vice president, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), has a meeting in Italy with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone).  There’s a variety of other assorted developments that lay the groundwork in the beginning.  It takes nearly an hour in this 152-minute production to get to the proper story.  However, every minute feels necessary because it makes what happens later that much more emotionally compelling.

There is such irony (and genuine hubris) in casting a mammoth American entity like Ford as an underdog David while portraying the significantly smaller Italian Ferrari company as the arrogant and conceited Goliath that must be defeated.  Perhaps that’s why it’s called Ford v. Ferrari in the U.S. but Le Mans ’66 everywhere else in the world.  That rivalry means more here I suppose.  However, there’s also conflict within the Ford team.  This sets up Ford as this bureaucratic corporation represented by a lot of men in suits.  The key figures are represented by CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas ) a Ford executive who insidiously becomes more of an antagonist than their fellow racing competitors.

The antagonism between Ford and Ferrari is less interesting than the battle of wills between Ford the corporation vs. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.  The two mavericks are trying to support a company that runs on committee.  Shelby and Miles appear to be quick-witted experts when it comes to decision making.  I have no idea whether the actual men behaved as they are portrayed here, but their interactions are extremely fascinating to watch.  Together these two actors give colorful performances that bring these personalities to life.  Ken Miles is quite a character and Christian Bale’s achievement is especially noteworthy.  Director James Mangold and Bale have an established rapport having worked together before on 3:10 to Yuma.  They clearly bring out the best in each other.

This is the ultimate Dad movie.  It’s a conventional tale about manly things.  Furthermore, it features Miles’ close relationship with his son Peter (Noah Jupe).  Their bond is a key component and a true source of emotional depth.  Sometimes true life is stranger than fiction.  The account details one development that had me consulting the history books.  I had to verify that what I saw really happened.  I like pictures that do that although situations in real life don’t always play out in a way that is as satisfying.  Nevertheless, we are still presented with some of the best car racing car sequences ever put on film.  They’re perfectly edited pieces of thrills bursting with loud and adrenaline-fueled excitement.  Special mention to editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland who know how to edit an action sequence to maximum effect.  The racing scenes are spectacular but in the end, it’s the performances that make this drama transcendent.  This classic narrative beautifully highlights male camaraderie.  It has all the qualities of a bygone era but it’s old fashioned in the best sense of the word.  It’s the human element that provides the most sparks.

11-14-19

Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

terminator_dark_fate_ver3STARS3The story in a nutshell: a malevolent Terminator is sent from the future to terminate a woman from the present. It is believed she will be the mother of a resistance leader in the war against the machines.  The resistance also sends somebody back to fight that Terminator.

There are 2 ways to watch this production.  With your arms folded as you realize the plot is nearly a carbon copy of the original film or with relief that the story in a Terminator movie is actually more concerned with extracting humanity and emotion from a simplified screenplay than special effects.  Deadpool director Tim Miller is at the helm and he mostly keeps things moving.  Although the screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does sag in the middle.  What could have been a brisk efficient 98-minute actioner is stretched to an interminable 128 minutes.  The action sequences are indeed good.  I just didn’t need so many.

Terminator: Dark Fate is the 6th entry in this series.  Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron (Titanic) and Gale Anne Hurd created the franchise back in 1984 with The Terminator.  Then came Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991.  I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, some time passed and then we got this installment in 2019.  I’m ignoring 3 other sequels and James Cameron has wisely decided to do the same.  He’s gotten involved in the franchise for the first time since T2 and has relegated entries 3 through 5 as part of some alternate universe.  Also reuniting after 28 years are Arnold Schwarzenegger as T-800 and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor.

Let’s not underestimate the sheer joy of rejoining these two on-screen.  OK, so the producers have decided to introduce a whole new cast as well.  I won’t discount the contributions of characters Grace (Mackenzie Davis) the modified human-cyborg sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) from evil Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).  Incidentally, the advanced Rev-9 can separate the skin from its body and act as two units at once.  I guess that’s what passes for innovation in this screenplay.  It was a little confusing at first because I don’t recall an explanation in the movie as to why he was doing this.  It just sort of happens.

The new additions to the cast are serviceable, but the real spotlight belongs to seeing Linda Hamilton again and to a lesser extent, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Yes, their relationship arc admittedly copies what happens in T2 but that was nearly 3 decades ago.   I think enough time has passed that you can now choose to label their interaction as an homage.   Linda Hamilton is especially good.  She adopts this world-weary “seen it all before” persona.   She’s so grizzled and tough that the portrayal almost borders on parody.   I enjoyed her much in the same way it was nice having Jaime Lee Curtis return in the Halloween movie from 2018.  That follow-up also chose to ignore a collection of inferior sequels too so it’s very similar in spirit to this film.  Still, did we really need a sixth chapter in the Terminator franchise?  Simply put, no.  However, this is the best entry since T2 so there’s that.  It could’ve been a lot worse.

10-31-19

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08-01-19