Archive for the Action Category

7500

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sevenfivezerozero_ver2STARS2.5Airborne thriller concerns the hijacking of a plane by Islamic terrorists.  Add this to the growing list in the aviation genre that includes movies like Airport, Alive, and Final Destination.  This is definitely one selection that will never become a part of your  in-flight entertainment.  Count your blessings.   That’s a good thing in this case.  The narrative is efficient in the extreme as the drama ultimately becomes a two-hander between one pilot (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and one terrorist named Vedat (Omid Memar).

Our central protagonist is Tobias, an American co-pilot on a flight traveling from Berlin to Paris.  A small group of Islamic extremists — and I’ll clarify, I counted 3 — attempt to take over the aircraft.  Their weapons of choice are shards of broken glass.  Writer-director Patrick Vollrath was previously nominated for an Oscar in 2016 for his live-action short Everything Will Be Okay.  He makes his feature directorial debut with this economical drama.  That’s a nice way of saying the entire picture is completely set in one room — the cockpit of a plane.   To say this drama is claustrophobic would be an understatement.

7500 creates a harrowing scenario so there is tension but it’s unpleasant without being engaging.  All of the exciting moments occur in the first half.  The hijackers make demands.  People are threatened.  The navigator is conflicted.  Then our attention begins to wane as Vollrath seems to repeat the cycle with more of the same.  Joseph Gordon Levitt does his best with substandard material.   However, the characters are superficially detailed.  I mean they’re people so we care because they represent human life but the screenplay is unable to afford them any depth.  They aren’t relatable or interesting.  Director Paul Greengrass tackled very similar material in an infinitely better way with United 93.  My recommendation is to watch it instead if you haven’t seen that far superior film already.   You would do best to skip this….unless you happen to be a Joseph Gordon-Levitt completist.

06-20-20

Artemis Fowl

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

artemis_fowlSTARS1I couldn’t decipher it.  For the uninitiated (that would include me) Artemis Fowl is an impenetrable hodgepodge.  This is an adventure so confusing that it practically dares you to understand it.  I have a college degree mind you and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the random assemblage of stuff thrown up on the screen.  Lovers of the 8 young adult fantasy novels written by Irish author Eoin Colfer have sadly waited nearly two decades.  This adaptation has languished in development hell after the first book was published in 2001.  Artemis Fowl is a fanciful tale that aimlessly fluctuates between both human and fairy type characters.  The latter encompasses elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, pixies, sprites, gremlins, and demons.  I didn’t realize what I was getting into.  Unfortunately, the narrative never makes any concessions to try and draw the viewer into this complex world.  However, I will do better by trying to make sense of what I saw, dear reader.

Let me see if I can piece together some semblance of a story.  Let’s begin with the complete snooze that is the central protagonist.  Artemis is a name most famously attributed to the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology.  Here however it refers to a highly intelligent 12-year-old boy, a child prodigy and we’re told a so-called criminal mastermind.  Criminal?!  He’s more of a dispassionate philanthropist.  As embodied by teen actor Ferdia Shaw, he is a cold, unemotional individual that elicits zero enthusiasm.  Shaw lacks the charisma to be the focus of a production.  The screenwriters seem to indirectly acknowledge this because he’s frequently relegated to the background while a couple of side characters become the center of attention.  Elf Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) — a large dwarf that resembles Hagrid from Harry Potter — are comparatively more interesting.  Probably not a good foundation to kick off a cinematic franchise.  Judi Dench also shows up as an elven military commander who at one point tells someone to “Get the four-leaf clover out of here!”   That’s an amusing line.  Unfortunately nothing else she says afterward ever is.

The Fowl clan is kind of a family along the lines of the Corleones in The Godfather.  They are a close-knit group of people.  So when Dad (Colin Farrell) goes missing, Artemis — with the help of his bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) — must recover an acorn-shaped artifact called the Aculos.  That’s about all I can tell you.  The narrative doesn’t offer a plot but rather a vomit of action sequences and special effects.  It haphazardly jumps from one event to another with little explanation as to why anyone is doing what they are doing.  I sat there dumbfounded for 95 minutes bewildered by the utter cacophony of noise and spectacle that unfolded before my eyes.  It’s as baffling as anything ever committed to celluloid and that includes the opening monologue to David Lynch’s Dune.

I hated this movie.  Artemis Fowl is among the worst films of 2020.  Given our current reality, that’s really saying something.  There are explicit reasons why this property was greenlighted.  It’s called “MONEY”.  The search for the next literary work that can mimic Harry Potter’s success continues.  It superficially involves fairies, dwarves, trolls, and other  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.   Oops sorry!  That was yet another unsuccessful attempt to duplicate Harry Potter’s magic.  Given the chilly response, Artemis Fowl hasn’t placated even the most devoted supporters.  This release is an insult to every human being that enjoys cinema so if you aren’t deeply familiar with the text, this will be an even more frustrating experience.  How did Disney (a studio that usually knows what people want) allow this mess to get a release?  A lot of the blame should be placed on the screenplay by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl but director Kenneth Branagh is culpable too.   His ability to helm a coherent feature is seriously in question.   The Irish director has given us many other examples over the course of three decades: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), As You Like It (2006), Sleuth (2007), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) weren’t good movies either but he’s surprisingly topped himself in 2020.  It pains me to say it, but this is unquestionably Branagh’s worst film.

06-12-20

The Lovebirds

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime with tags on June 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

lovebirdsSTARS2So I was excited about this film for a couple reasons.  (1) it was originally scheduled to be released to theaters in April by Paramount Pictures and (2) it reunites Kumail Nanjiani with director Michael Showalter who were both responsible for The Big Sick, my favorite movie of 2017.  However I’ll cut to the chase, it didn’t deliver, and the fact that this had different writers probably explains why it wasn’t on the same level.

I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The Lovebirds debuted to Netflix on May 22 and briefly held the #1 position.  Then it plummeted.  Not even two weeks later and the title is nowhere to be found in the Top 10.  Meanwhile, Uncut Gems and  Just Go With It have been popular mainstays. Perhaps Netflix should try acquiring Adam Sandler’s entire filmography.

But back to The Lovebirds.  Our story concerns a constantly bickering duo played by Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani that unintentionally become murder suspects in a mystery where they must clear their names.  A tale of mistaken identity can be a great basis for a plot.  Alfred Hitchcock took the idea and delivered North by Northwest, an indisputable classic.   Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall who wrote the screenplay are presenting us with a comedy.   The problem is it’s not funny.

The dialogue is mostly scenes where this annoying couple endlessly bicker.   It’s the details of those arguments that are supposed to make the audience laugh.  Comedy is the most subjective genre.  However, humor must be rooted in a kernel of truth.  The conversations don’t read as the ways humans really talk.  They’re like stand up routines.  The dialogue is completely detached from the situation happening on screen.  A few times they find themselves in dire circumstances where there appears to be no escape.  Yet each time they easily get out of it.  There are no stakes.  This is essentially a series of fabricated situations so the lovers have an excuse to simply argue.  I’ll admit there are some amusing lines but not enough to justify sitting through this 87-minute movie.  I know, that seems short….but it feels long.

05-22-20

Extraction

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on April 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

extraction_netflixSTARS2A very wise person once said, “It’s not what you know.  It’s who you know.”  Extraction proves the adage still holds.  Director Sam Hargrave has been an enduring presence in Hollywood ever since 2005 when he did stunts for the WB TV series Supernatural.  However, I suspect it was his connections as a stunt coordinator for the 3 Marvel films (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame ) the Russo brothers directed that ultimately led to this job.  Joe Russo even wrote the screenplay that supports Sam’s directorial debut.  Is this a story that will captivate your attention?  Let’s just say if action and stunts are more important to you than plot, then this will be an absolute treat.

Chris Hemsworth plays a black market mercenary.  It’s hard to feel too much concern for an individual that is seemingly invincible.  John J. Rambo exhibited more vulnerability.  Rest assured that this is a drama where even getting shot in the neck may not be a life-threatening injury.  The main character is a writer’s creation.  There’s an amusing bit of foreshadowing early on when Tyler unceremoniously slams someone’s head face down onto a steel rake.  The scene is brief, but halfway through the picture, we learn that this guy’s full name is Tyler RAKE.  Hats off to those who have already seen the movie and made this connection.  Anyway, he is hired to rescue Ovi Jr., (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) a teen who happens to be the kidnapped son of India’s biggest drug lord Ovi Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi).

This hazardous mission requires Tyler to transport the young boy out of Dhaka, Bangladesh which —  from the looks of this production — has got to be one of the worst places on Earth.  Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Drive) is a talented individual but here he chooses to film the events through a yellow filter that gives everything in this country a grimy haze.  The overall effect is off-putting.  I suppose it’s a superficial way to make the air appear unhealthy.  Extraction does for Bangladesh what The Hangover Part II did for Thailand.  I can safely bet the Bangladesh Tourism Board will not be endorsing this release.

This is an exceptionally violent production — the kind of generic shoot-em-up that dually redefines the word disposable.  First, in terms of memorability.  See this once and then forget about it immediately after, but also in the way it treats humanity.  A lot of people are murdered and every human life extinguished is treated with the same emotional weight of swatting a fly.  Nevertheless, the duplicitous script still manages to sprinkle little bits of “poignant” information throughout the movie to make sure the audience feels something (anything) for this character.  Tyler is haunted by the memory of his own young son, who died of leukemia while Tyler was away on an assignment in Afghanistan.  Normally that would be troubling, sure.  The thing is, it’s hard to sympathize with his love for one life when he’s responsible for so many deaths.

As many hunker down during shelter in place, Netflix has been the go-to source of entertainment for 60 million people in the US.  Now more than ever there are plenty of options but the streaming service has proven to be one of the most popular.  Netflix has made its Top 10 programs become a matter of public record.  I’m a pop culture fanatic which is akin to being a cultural anthropologist.  I’m fascinated by the things that end up in the #1 position.  Extraction is a big hit and so I watch what becomes part of the zeitgeist.

I wouldn’t have paid to see this in a theater.  Yet that’s exactly where a product like this would be best experienced.  That’s where connoisseurs of this stuff can appreciate all the explosions, carnage, and destruction on a widescreen in full digital sound.  Sadly fans will never get that chance.  Extraction was released to Netflix on April 24th and the title promptly shot to #1.  I’m not surprised.  It stars Chris Hemsworth.  I too think the actor exhibits charisma when he plays Thor so I figured if he’s starring in this, how bad could it be?   The answer is…extremely.

04-24-20

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

birds_of_prey_ver6

 

STARS1
“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