Archive for the Action Category

The Tomorrow War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix is far and away the dominant presence on the Nielsen streaming ratings. It has the most-watched programs. However, Amazon Prime Video is still a player. Recent titles include Coming to 2 America in March and Without Remorse in April but The Tomorrow War topped them all in popularity. It was digitally released on July 2 and (according to Samba TV) was seen by 2.4 million U.S. households over the 4 day holiday weekend. Just a week later, the filmmakers confirmed the sci-fi actioner would get a sequel. Yes, it’s now a thing.

Problems begin when Earth is visited in the present day by soldiers from the future year 2051. They inform the populace that the planet is under attack from alien invaders and they need recruits to help in that crusade. Chris Pratt plays an ex-Green Beret named Dan Forester who now teaches high-school chemistry. He is drafted into service without any say in the matter. Most married people with families would be unhappy by that turn of events, but he genuinely seems optimistic about this new direction in his life. His fellow trainees (Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub) are less enthused.

So let’s start on a positive note. I like Chris Pratt and he helps the adventure coast along on the goodwill of his considerable charisma. Ok now on to the “What the hell?!” part.

You have to suspend natural disbelief in this whole operation. We learn there is a less than 30% survival rate. Even when Dan and the other draftees are sent forward in time to do battle, they are accidentally dropped high above the city. Scarcely any survive the first few seconds. C’mon! They haven’t even met the creatures yet. There are glimpses of the citizens back on Earth upset with the whole process of the draft. Dan’s wife (Betty Gilpin) and his estranged father (J. K. Simmons) are among those unhappy about it, but I think most of the world would escape into hiding before allowing themselves to be sent on this ridiculous suicide mission.

Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and screenwriter Zach Dean (Deadfall) give the public what they came for: action and aliens. Dan meets a Colonel named Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) there. We find out immediately that she’s his adult daughter. The two of them work together to fight the intruders. The story is generic and the combat scenes are chaotic. The horrific beasts– called White Spikes — are interesting though. They suggest aquatic critters with huge tentacles, but travel on land akin to a swarm of insects. However, other than Chris Pratt there’s not much to separate this from a silly B movie on the Syfy channel. The Tomorrow War is fabricated from the DNA of Terminator, Total Recall, and Independence Day. The audience-pleasing formula accounts for its clear success on TV. I found it to be a passable diversion.

07-07-21

Black Widow

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Black Widow was first introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. The perpetually sidelined superhero has finally gotten her own standalone feature in 2021. It’s long overdue.

There are two mindsets in which to approach this film. The first is as an expert. This is the 24th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Anyone able to keep track of the way all the various people, alliances, and developments fit together, deserves a Ph.D. in comic book history. You have my respect. The rest of us — me included — are better off disregarding trying to remember everything that happened in the past. Simply appreciate the movie at face value for what it is. In this case, a decent spy thriller.

Black Widow succeeds as a character-driven action thriller. As a necessary installment to clarify the MCU franchise, it comes up short. Case in point: the chronicle feels like an afterthought. A fan will notice the adventure is retroactively set during an earlier time to adhere to the series’ continuity. These events take place right after Captain America: Civil War occurred in 2016 but before what happens in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. The picture should have come out 4-5 years ago. Ah but Black Widow is still an entertaining actioner. Better late than never.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been isolated from the other Avengers. Dissension amongst the group has split them up. She signed the Sokovia Accords at Iron Man’s behest but then sided with Captain America when it really counted. Oh snap! She played both sides. She’s currently not on friendly terms with Iron Man and on the run. Did you follow any of that? No matter. The setup merely provides an opportunity to present a completely new cast. Except for William Hurt who returns in a cameo as U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross. We meet mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour). Surprise! The people who raised Natasha in suburban Ohio may not actually be biologically related to her.

At a young age, Natasha was placed in a covert Soviet facility known as the Red Room. There she was brainwashed and schooled in combat and espionage. Many other girls received this spy training as well. They became mindless assassins without free will, turning them into “Black Widows.” Her sister (Florence Pugh) likewise was also educated in this fashion under the direction of evil mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He also commands an elite operative called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to do his bidding — a tangent that unnecessarily complicates a deeply tortuous narrative. Director Cate Shortland (Lore) directs from a screenplay written by Jac Schaeffer that was rewritten by Ned Benson, who was in turn replaced by Eric Pearson. There’s a lot of plot. The story excels when it’s focused on fewer characters, not more.

The core “family” forms a ragtag group somewhat reminiscent of dynamic in The Incredibles. That’s where the film finds its groove — in comedy. There’s a scene where David Harbour is attempting to squeeze into his old suit as The Red Guardian aka Russia’s version of Captain America. Then there’s Rachel Weisz as a seasoned professional and mother figure. She’s two steps ahead of Alexi with the plans. Then most notable of all, Russian sibling Yelena, portrayed by UK actress Florence Pugh, giving cold unemotional line readings that amusingly make us love her even more.

It’s a bit ironic that Black Widow’s sister outshines the titular superhero in her own movie. Florence Pugh is supposed to be support but her personality is just so darn funny. She totally takes the air out of Natasha’s sails when Yelena mocks her battle stance. “Why do you always do that thing? That thing you do when you’re fighting? With the arm and the hair, when you do like a fighting pose?” she deadpans. Yelena then hilariously affects a posture akin to a ballet position. “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” Yelena’s enthusiasm for vests is cute too. She loves the pockets. She has even made some modifications on the one she’s wearing . Her pride is infectious. As expected there are some good action scenes but it’s the character-driven bits that I savor the most. Those parts elevate the film into something I really enjoyed.

07-08-21

The Ice Road

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama on July 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Even a pandemic couldn’t stop Liam Neeson. After the Great Lockdown, the unemployment rate in the U.S. skyrocketed in 2020 from 3.5% — the lowest in nearly 70 years — to an all-time high of 14.8%. Yet the sexagenarian never stopped working. In the past year, he starred in the lighthearted drama Made in Italy and fronted the actioners Honest Thief and The Marksman. There’s a reason for that. He’s a dependable actor that exudes genuine sincerity. He also enjoys doing the kinds of features that the public loves. Action movies are always in demand.

His latest offering is The Ice Road. In it, he plays a truck driver named Mike McCann. He’s operating one of three vehicles and part of a team that includes four other people. Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Amber Midthunder, and Marcus Thomas round out the squad. This diverse crew could hold differing ideological views. Yet the screenplay would prefer to focus on the superficial physical characteristics that differentiate them instead. They’re on a critical mission to deliver wellheads so they can save a group of workers trapped in a mine that has collapsed. The Ice Road refers to the path they take over an ocean that has frozen to the point that they can drive on it. This is understandably quite dangerous because trucks are heavy (duh) and the ice could break.

The plot is so formulaic, it’s depressing. There’s an art of how and when to kill a character. Writer (and director) Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon) is responsible. We’re introduced to individuals to embrace only to have them randomly disposed of later. This indifference is supremely off-putting. I get that the script wants to emphasize the life-threatening qualities of the job, but the whole production is inherently silly. The narrative casually kills beloved personalities in a cheap attempt to create emotion. This happens a couple of times here and both eliminations feel like a shortcut. It doesn’t produce the solemnity desired.

The movie offers a lot of excitement in battling the natural elements though. That would have been enough to entertain on a simple level. However, the adventure also involves a bewildering conspiracy subplot concerning evil businessmen who want to stop the drivers from reaching their goals. That’s a crock of convoluted nonsense. Whenever the drama focuses on that aspect, it lost me. The dialogue is trying to make this story seem more complex than it needs to be. The chronicle should just be about truckers vs. nature but it’s truckers vs. nature vs. a corrupt mining corporation. Yeah, that’s not interesting or coherent. Keep it simple, stupid.

07-02-21

F9: The Fast Saga

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on July 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’ve seen every single one of these films, but full disclosure: it’s been more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I’ve awarded three out of five stars to most of the entries. They’re solid — if not silly entertainment. Furious 7 surprised me as a high point for the franchise. Since then, the movies have been running on fumes. That’s not to say they aren’t potent fumes. The sequels continue to reunite the personalities you love, provide lots of death-defying action and offer a healthy dose of laughs as the stunts push believability to its limit.

Let’s face it. The Fast & Furious succession is a soap opera that now includes long-lost siblings and the return of people long thought dead. At the outset, the screenplay reveals that Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a brother named Jakob (John Cena). A flashback shows that their father — racecar driver Jack (J. D. Pardo) — died during a race in a fiery blaze. Dom believes his brother was responsible. Now Jakob has returned as a mercenary to steal the Aries Device. This will allow him to hack into any computer system in the world and attain global power. Additionally, the sphere is split in half making it a little harder to assemble and utilize. Dom and his team want to stop Jakob and his associate Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).

Intelligence is not your friend. The more you apply logic to this saga, the less you will enjoy it. Case in point, we’re nine chapters in and we’re only just learning NOW that Dom has a brother? F9 is bursting with characters and details. The production is constantly evolving — bending and twisting the narrative to retroactively justify continuity. The convoluted developments collapse if given even a modicum of scrutiny. Only a TV melodrama like Dallas or Dynasty in its prime would dare to advance such complicated machinations. There are a lot of flashbacks in this movie. Both Dom and Jakob get two versions of their younger selves. I find the contortions to be a hilarious hoot. However, it could cause a headache if you strive to make sense of it. My advice, don’t even try.

It’s an oft-repeated phrase here. Fast & Furious is all about family. As such, the ever-growing cast is positively Shakespearean in its size. Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, and Charlize Theron all return in bit parts. Even people thought to be dead are brought back to life. Buddies played by Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges amusingly bicker like an old married couple. Meanwhile, actors Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez strain credibility in portraying husband and wife. They ironically lack any romantic chemistry. Charlize Theron makes the most of her scattered appearances. As Cipher, the actress knows how to wink and preen as a confident villain. Her criminal mastermind is a riff on her evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman but with the haircut of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. She’s enjoyable. Furthermore, the action is nonstop and the plot coasts along on good-natured humor, so it never really gives you a chance to think. The joy lies in its awareness of how ridiculous it is. The series has embraced camp.

06-29-21

Army of the Dead

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s about quality not quantity in art. There is a power to simplicity. Most movie genres benefit from efficient storytelling. In particular, I’ve always thought comedies and animated films are better when they’re 100 minutes or less. After watching this 2 hour and 28-minute chronicle, I’m ready to add zombie movies to that list. The 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead adhered to that rule. Even Zack Snyder’s first foray into this genre qualifies. His feature debut was a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Ok, so I’ll concede the 1978 original was 126 minutes. There are exceptions to every rule.

Complicated epics may benefit from longer runtimes. However, this saga is rather simple. The zombie apocalypse has left Las Vegas separated from the rest of humanity. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former war hero who’s now flipping burgers. Casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) tasks him with retrieving $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip. Slight complication: In 32 hours, Las Vegas will be nuked by the government as a solution to its infestation. Scott accepts the challenge and assembles a team of experts for the heist. There’s little time to waste. The clock is ticking.

The narrative highlights a flamboyant band of mercenaries. Characterization isn’t a highlight, other than to emphasize tough guys and gals in its lively cast of personalities. Scott and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) have unresolved issues that are shoehorned in for ersatz sentimentality. I remember Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). The latter looking like a sturdier version of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Their prickly interactions at the outset predictably develop into a friendship by the end. French actress Nora Arnezeder as Lily suggests Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels with her short blonde hairstyle. Then there’s Zeus (Richard Cetrone ) the alpha male, and his queen (Athena Perample) in this society of the undead. Question: Can an intelligent entity with emotions and highly evolved problem-solving skills still be considered a zombie?

This is a Zack Snyder movie through and through. He’s not only the director but also a producer, and one of the screenwriters. This also marks the first time that the director has been his own DP. Much of the cinematography has a “unique” look. The actors in the foreground are often clear but the background is blurry. Occasionally even the stars are out of focus too. This was a conscious choice the director made, but it didn’t improve the experience in my living room. In a theater (this played on 600 screens) one might be more forgiving. On a TV it comes off like a visual glitch. It’s a strange decision in this 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray age. Incidentally, Tig Notaro was digitally added post-filming, although the late addition doesn’t stand out from anyone else.

Army of the Dead has its moments. The high points occur when the adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously and calls attention to how — let’s face it — stupid it is. I especially enjoyed all the “on the nose” needle drops. They are a welcome reprieve from the heavy-handed gore. Snyder ends his saga with the most literally titled song you could imagine. The Cranberries’ protest anthem “Zombie” has absolutely nothing to do with reanimated corpses but here it is, appropriated out of context for your listening pleasure. “Night Life” and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley can be heard. However, the version of “Viva Las Vegas” that opens the film is a campier rendition by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. A cover of “Bad Moon Rising” by Theo Gilmore, “The End” by The Raveonettes, and Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” also pop up at amusing points.

Army of the Dead is a straightforward story undone by its interminable length. You could depict two heists in this ridiculously long zombie apocalypse tale. Is it too early to start championing a new hashtag on Twitter? “Release the NON-Snyder cut!” I’d prefer a version where the studio boldly makes the deep cuts necessary to edit this distended tedium into a compelling piece of entertainment. There’s a decent movie buried somewhere amongst all the excess.

05-22-21

Those Who Wish Me Dead

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

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Ideas for a Movie:

Plot #1: Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a specially trained wildland firefighter traumatized by the deaths of 3 children she failed to save.

Plot #2: Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aidan Gillen) are two contract killers that complete a hit on a district attorney and his family in Fort Lauderdale.

Plot #3: Owen (Jake Weber) is a forensic accountant that sees the murder of his boss on the news. Fearing for their lives, he escapes with his 12-year-old son Connor (Finn Little).

Plot #4: Ethan (Jon Bernthal) is the strapping sheriff and ex-boyfriend of Hannah. He is now married to Allison (Medina Senghore). The couple is anticipating a new arrival. She’s pregnant.


Each one of these disparate threads could be the basis of a different production. Yet these four situations all occur in literally the first 15 minutes. They will converge in a orderly manner later, so thanks for that. Nonetheless, the segments are pitched at the audience in a haphazard deluge without clarification. I craved coherence and sense.

It’s nice to see Jolie looking like herself in an action-packed thriller. She’s directed 5 films since 2007. Over the last decade, Angelina Jolie has most notably focused the acting side of her career on (1) playing a wicked fairy godmother and (2) voicing a tiger sidekick with a talent for kung fu. She’s a tough-talking smoke jumper battling the natural elements and evil hitmen. She’s the only female firefighter hanging out with a rowdy group of manly men. They naturally accept her as one of their own, but her gorgeous countenance stands out in the crowd. This is what the actress does. Jolie has such a physicality. She is beautiful, sure, but that belies a fiery personality. In a word the star is — charismatic. Seeing Angelina in her element is clearly something Warner Bros. wanted to highlight. The marketing prominently features the star on the poster with newcomer Finn Little partially visible in the lower-left corner. Thing is, it’s not just about Hannah. Nor is she the most interesting character.

This is a chronicle set in the Montana wilderness with multiple storylines that merge into a whole. Director Taylor Sheridan wrote Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water where he brilliantly utilized a similar blueprint. I hate to break it to the filmmakers, but this film ain’t winning awards. The narrative fragments are agonizingly vague. I understand what motivates that decision. Being bombarded with unnecessary minutiae can be a drain. I’m not asking for complicated exposition. However, laying a foundation is important. There’s hardly any explanation in the opening as to what is happening.

The screenwriters have deemed information as superfluous to our experience. We get to see WHAT people are doing, but not the details of WHO they are or WHY. What is on that piece of paper that Owen entrusts to his son? Why do Patrick and Jack wish this Connor kid dead? Tyler Perry pops up for an instant. He is never heard from or seen again. His appearance is so random it’s amusing. We can infer he’s a crime boss, but these and many other questions go unexplained. The writers don’t care. I did at first, then neither did I.

The movie begins badly. The screenplay simply drops us in the middle of the action. Michael Koryta is adapting his own 2014 novel with help from Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and director Taylor Sheridan. A storyteller can’t expect the viewer to care about a bunch of people we know absolutely nothing about. That changes though. As the events unfold, I got more invested. There are surprises — good ones — that kept me curious. Surprisingly it’s actress Medina Senghore, not Jolie, who gets to be the biggest badass. Patrick and Jack break into Allison’s home, looking for Connor. The fact she is pregnant seriously amplifies the tension of the scene. Her response is the most exciting sequence.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is a generic thriller dressed up with capable actors and lush cinematography. This is a real throwback to the pulp fiction of the 1990s. John Grisham’s The Client comes to mind. “Young boy witnesses a murder” is a development in both. DP Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) highlights the terror of uncontrolled wildfires. This trashy tale has the look of sophistication even when blighted by so much ambiguity. It’s frustrating at first. The movie recovers after a disastrous beginning — somewhat. The saga ultimately manages to entertain.

05-16-21

Mortal Kombat

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Martial Arts with tags on April 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Well, it may have taken 29 years, but Mortal Kombat finally got a movie adaptation as violent as the video game. If that sentence makes you giddy with excitement, then this will put you in nirvana. I enjoyed the comparatively wholesome PG-13-rated 1995 release from director Paul W.S. Anderson on the level that it was silly fun. Its wildly popular techno soundtrack (KMFDM, Utah Saints, Gravity Kills) was a bonus. It entered the Top 10 Billboard albums and greatly influenced the musical landscape during the latter half of the 1990s.

A little background history: Mortal Kombat was developed in 1992 by Midway Games for arcades originally. When it was ported to home consoles, many parents were shocked to discover that action had “advanced” far beyond the gameplay in Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. They now accentuated graphic (albeit pixelated) violence. Its display of gruesome killings called “fatalities” was controversial. So much that it helped spawn the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) that created the rating system still used today.

It’s unnecessary, but there is a detailed backstory. The screenplay by Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel sets up a situation with an international cast of characters. The saga begins as a period costume drama in 17th century Japan. There are two rival factions: the Shirai Ryu ninja clan vs. the Lin Kuei. Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is attacked by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), who murders Hanzo’s wife and son. Afterward, Hanzo is then whisked away to the Netherrealm by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the God of Thunder. We then flash forward to the present day. Earthrealm and Outworld are two dimensions engaged in an ongoing feud.

Planet Earth isn’t doing so great. The Outworld has already defeated Earthrealm’s warriors in nine of ten “Mortal Kombat” tournaments. A distinctive dragon mark identifies the chosen gladiators on Earth. Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is just such a person, an MMA fighter with a family. The evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) wants to decimate all of his Earthly opponents before the last tournament can even occur. He dispatches Bi-Han, who unceremoniously changes his name to Sub-Zero for reasons that were unclear to me. I guess it sounds cooler. Sub-Zero is intent on destroying Cole. Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), and her captive — a wisecracking mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson) — come to Cole’s aid. They later add Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to their fold.

I admire films with dramatic tension and twists of unexpected events. This is not a tale dependent on a story per se. It’s an excuse to highlight a series of hand-to-hand combat scenes each one featuring a grotesque assassination. It spotlights gore, gore, and more gore. One guy’s arms are completely ripped off. The pugilistic demonstrations are plentiful but not particularly well photographed. I would have preferred more long shots. Martial arts movies and musicals have that in common. Instead, we get lots of quick edits and closeups that often obscure whether these people have the ability to actually fight.

“Finish him!” was the famous command from the announcer that prompted the user to execute a grisly slaying of their opponent. This production honors that tradition. My #1 death is when Kung Lao throws his hat and it cuts a human body literally in half from top to bottom. Its razor-rim is THAT sharp. It’s my “favorite” because it made me laugh. Also, the nod to Oddjob’s derby in the James Bond flick Goldfinger did not go unnoticed by me. Truth to tell. I don’t relish seeing someone brutally disposed of. However, one needs that mentality in order to savor this movie. No surprise that fans have warmly embraced this picture with enthusiasm and glee.

04-23-21

Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You’d think a movie with the title Godzilla vs. Kong would be pretty self-explanatory. Not hard to understand, right? Well, you’d be wrong. This is the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse — a comprehensive series featuring Godzilla and King Kong. Like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers have decided to devise a needlessly complicated backstory to connect it to the previous installments. This directly draws upon the setup in Kong: Skull Island (2017) as well as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). I just want to see two beasts face off in the biggest beatdown in history. Can I?

The answer is yes, you can….after suffering through 40 minutes of exposition that weaves a lot of convoluted details that connect the stories of the earlier chapters into this one. This includes a discussion of “Hollow Earth” That is the idea that the center of the planet has an excavated space with other titans living within. Devoted viewers may recall this was brought up in Kong: Skull Island. The Skull Crawlers from that feature also make a brief appearance here too. Hollow Earth was likewise discussed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Godzilla is using subterranean tunnels to swim across the globe. Just quickly tell me, but don’t subject me to nearly an hour of talking heads pontificating about the idea. It’s a tortuous set of details that is bewilderingly hard to follow. News flash: Your movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong. If I wanted a confusing scientific explanation I’ll watch Primer. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) doesn’t seem to grasp the idea that audiences don’t require laborious clarifications in a monster flick. One line from Rebecca Hall as Dr. Ilene Andrews explains it perfectly: the rivalry between these two beastly kings is rooted in a historical feud traversing centuries to an epic Titan War. Their hate spans generations. Got it. That’s all I needed to know.

The title is about creatures, but the screenplay written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is frustratingly all about the people. They deliver their lines in blunt simplistic declarations. Alexander Skarsgård is Dr. Nathan Lindof of the Monarch corporation. Monarch is the secret scientific organization created to study these huge beasts. With his matinee-idol good looks, Nathan is handsome but very capable. Rebecca Hall is Dr. Ilene Andrews, the beautiful but still extremely brilliant anthropological linguist who’s been trying to communicate with Kong with little success. Surprise! It’s Ilene’s adopted daughter who has established a rapport that she cannot. Jia is an eight-year-old orphan — cute as a button — who happens to be an Iwi native that forms an unusual bond with Kong.

Sorry, the humans are uninteresting. Nevertheless, actress Kaylee Hottle as Jia is possibly the human MVP of the ensemble. As if her character wasn’t already precious enough, she is a deaf/mute actress that communicates through sign language. The contrast between the diminutive Jia communicating with the larger-than-life Kong is the closest thing you’ll get to poignancy in this undertaking. If a tribal girl with seemingly magical abilities isn’t a predictable trope, I don’t know what is. There’s also Brian Tyree Henry as a quirky conspiracy theorist who joins forces with two precocious kids played by Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison. The random tangent of their story arc promises a Goonies-esque adventure that never materializes in any meaningful way. But who cares? None of this nonsense is crucial to the plot anyway. Demián Bechir portrays Walter Simmons, the tech founder of Apex Cybernetics. He’s an evil billionaire (Is there any other kind?). He has a sexy adult daughter embodied by rising star Eiza González. She’s a top-tier executive but is fond of wearing tight fitting clothing that doesn’t highlight her intelligence. Apex Cybernetics is responsible for creating Mechagodzilla, a man-made weapon designed to destroy Godzilla. Later Bechir’s character selects a Japanese employee (Shun Oguri) to pilot the man-made contraption. I don’t write this stuff folks. I merely review it.

Luckily the picture is smart enough to know that we came here for the battles and there are a couple of doozies. The first one is under the sea where Godzilla has the upper hand. But the second one begins in the hollow earth where Kong realizes that this might be his ancestral home. It’s here that he picks up an ax made from a spike off the back of Godzilla’s ancestors . The second showdown ultimately occurs when Kong jumps through a portal to meet Godzilla. They end up in the streets of Hong Kong. The setting amongst the buildings with neon outlines resembles a disco nightclub. It’s in these moments that Godzilla vs. Kong redeems itself into the movie you came to see.

There was a time when I enjoyed these nonsensical fight fests without giving a care. I often wonder how I would’ve reacted to a flick such as this when I was 5. Back then, they utilized actual people in suits. That would have been preferable. Here the CGI fest feels more like a cartoon than an organic meeting of physical enemies. Welcome to 2021. Another peculiarity of the 21st century is that insidery callbacks to earlier episodes are considered more of a priority than simply telling a coherent story. Only diehard fans will recognize every single one of these “easter eggs” inserted into the dense narrative. Ah but that is the current state of cinema. Speaking of which, this was simultaneously released for free to subscribers on HBO Max and in theaters in the U.S. Given our current reality, it’s obvious most people will see this on a TV. That’s fine. Even IMAX can’t fix a bad script. At least the production has a sense of humor. The quirky soundtrack emphasizes selections that perfectly describe the scene. “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea” by Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley’s “Loving Arms”, “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest, and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies all play at key intervals. I chuckled at how the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the action on screen. Godzilla vs. Kong is by no means a good movie, but it’s moments like these that remind me it can still be fun. At this juncture in time, that just might be enough.

03-31-21

Boss Level

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

03-08-21

Raya and the Last Dragon

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-09-21