Archive for the Action Category

The Meg

Posted in Action, Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on August 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

meg_ver7STARS1.5In the four decades since Jaws there has been a seemingly never-ending tide (pun intended) of shark-themed dramas. I suppose quality determines whether each offering is considered a rip-off, an homage or perhaps “inspired by”.  I do enjoy these types of stories.  The Shallows is a recent example that was quite good.  Others like Deep Blue Sea or Jaws 3-D — a proper sequel in the original franchise — are so ridiculous that they’re kind of enjoyable anyway. The Meg is neither of those. It’s just awful. This production doesn’t even qualify as adequate entertainment. It’s cut up pieces of fish – a bucket of chum in the sea of movies about killer sharks.

The Meg is actually short for Megalodon which is a now extinct 75 foot long species of fish that lived in prehistoric times.  It was one of the largest and most powerful predators to have ever lived.  First off, The Meg is a stupid title.  It sounds like a romantic comedy about a woman named Megan with a very big ego.  Yes I know it was based on the book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten.  I don’t care.  Lose that title.  That’s why movies are written by screenwriters.  It astonishingly took three writers (Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber) to adapt this story.  Personally, I don’t know why they didn’t embrace the silliness with some fun title like Megalomania! and put an exclamation point at the end to emphasize the fact.  The saga is helmed by Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon, National Treasure).  He’s one of those dependable directors that has been working since the early 90s.  For years he turned out a lot of profitable live-action features for the Disney studio.  Disney in fact picked up the movie rights way back in 1997 but dropped the project a few years later. It languished in development hell for 2 decades. Warner Brothers has finally brought it to the screen.  Given the production budget was between $130–178 million plus $140 million on advertising, it would appear they’re likely to lose money.  At least in the domestic market.  There are overworked clichés, dreary special effects, and a plot so rote it can be summed up in three words: Shark attacks crew.

The Meg could have been so bad it’s good. No such luck. The picture takes itself too seriously to be in on the joke but then not legitimately enough to bother with a decent script.  It occupies that middle ground where it’s conspicuously bad.  The marketing for The Meg has featured Jason Statham. I am a fan of the action star.  He brings a much needed stoic resolve that is required in adventures like these.  He plays a rescue diver and he’s the main figure.  However, there’s a large international cast of actors playing scientists, oceanographers, and Ph.D. holders that take residence up in this underwater research facility too.  They add absolutely nothing to the narrative.  There’s some great talent here.  I won’t impugn their acting craft.  Unfortunately, none of it is on display here.  It’s surprising that in a flick named after a prehistoric beast, the titular animal doesn’t really occupy that much screen time.  This is mainly about the capricious relationships between the various crew members.  In fact, there’s very little to recommend about The Meg. It’s a pretty weak excuse for a film.  This shark movie lacks bite.

08-09-18

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller on August 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mission_impossible__fallout_ver3STARS4The rather generic sounding “Fallout” label of the latest Mission: Impossible title has sort of a dual meaning. There is the obvious threat of nuclear terrorism on which the entire movie is based, but it also can apply to the adverse side effects of a past decision. That certainly plays a part in the life of Ethan Hunt. This is the sixth chapter in the Mission: Impossible franchise and I dare say this just might be the very best episode. Despite beginning way back in 1996, the film series shows absolutely no signs of fatigue.

Tom Crusie has anchored this franchise since the very beginning. Ethan Hunt is a solid action hero that ranks up there with characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne. Much has been made of the actor’s age-defying looks and stamina. I must throw my approval on top of the heap. He does an incredible job here. The original TV show was an ensemble piece. Mr. Cruise is definitely the face we associate with these pictures. Still actors Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Alec Baldwin return from the previous film. They all provide ample support in varying degrees. Also of note is an arms dealer known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), new CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) and her operative August Walker (Henry Cavill). Cavill is best known as Superman, but here he brings the same rugged sophistication that he demonstrated in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He’s a charismatic addition to the colorful cast.

These flicks have never been known for the continuity between installments. This is actually a benefit because you can pick up the story without ever having seen a previous episode. Each one admittedly a convoluted manifestation of plot machinations that make something like The Big Sleep appear simple by comparison. Everyone’s allegiances are in doubt. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the way to enjoy these movies is not to get caught up on plot specifics like why who is doing what to whom. You just sit back and revel in the excitement. Other parts of the drama are positively rote. The evil villain’s credo is “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” Isn’t that that the justification for like every Marvel villain too? Each entry in the Mission Impossible franchise has always been helmed by a different director with a distinctively different style. That is until now. Filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) has been a frequent Tom Cruise collaborator for over a decade. He’s back after having also completed the last installment, Rogue Nation in 2015. The two obviously work well together. Tom Cruise trusts the director implicitly and is apparently game to perform almost any action sequence. This is amidst much hype that the actor does his own stunts. I still maintain a healthy degree of skepticism, but the stunts do look impressively REAL. In this day and age of reliance on CGI, you can best believe that matters.

The saga is jam-packed with spectacle and each set piece is so breathtaking, it could be the climax of any drama. The great thing is that there are a lot. Right at the beginning, Ethan does a HALO jump out of out of a C-17 plane. HALO is a “high-altitude, low-open” skydive for the uninformed. Hey, that includes me. I had to look it up. A fight in the men’s room of the Grand Palais in Paris is profoundly intense. Walker and Hunt go toe to toe with a man they believe to be the mysterious John Lark (Liang Yang) The high contrast, brightly lit altercation of raw fist punching testosterone is a demonstration of broken tile and smashing mirrors that rain down like glitter on the bloody participants. These things aren’t random. There is a choreographed art to this scene whose precision equals the most graceful ballet. A car chase down the impossibly narrow streets of Paris provides more excitement on another setpiece. The ACTUAL climax includes a helicopter chase, mountain climbing in Kashmir, and two ticking time bombs. Director McQuarrie piles exhibition on top of extravaganza in a ridiculously over-the-top display. Of course, no Tom Crusie actioner would be complete without the obligatory running scene. No one books like this guy. By now the appearance has become fan service but it gives the people what they want and what we want is to be entertained. Simply put, Mission: Impossible – Fallout delivers that in abundance.

07-26-18

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2STARS3.5Back in 2015, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s lesser offerings in their seemingly never-ending blitz of superhero movies. After Avengers: Age of Ultron of that year, it sorta felt like the cheese course following the main entree. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp functions in very much the same way. At the beginning of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War was a game-changing adventure in the ongoing epic of these champions of justice. Comparatively this agreeable little interlude feels like a dessert. I like dessert. Dessert is sweet and delicious. It’s just that this is like a yogurt parfait and I was craving a baked New York–style cheesecake.

Given the lighthearted atmosphere, the narrative is curiously overcrowded with a massive ensemble of characters. Scott Lang, better known as Ant-Man, has been under house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords by working with Captain America. His home is now a veritable playground so he can entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) when she visits. She’s dropped off by his ex-wife (Judy Greer ) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). The proper story begins when Scott has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, still trapped in the quantum realm. Apparently, the two of them are quantumly entangled after Scott visited the quantum dimension when he went subatomic in the last film. Get used to hearing the word “quantum” a lot in this movie. The screenplay even makes a joke about this. “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang asks.

Scott’s ability to return from the quantum realm is noteworthy. This compels him to contact Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hope shows up, wisely ditching that severe black bob for a much more-practical-for-fighting ponytail. Extracting Janet from the quantum field is the ostensible point of this picture. That’s it. Coming after Infinity War where half of humanity was in danger, the uncommonly low stakes are refreshingly simple here. They all join forces with the help of Ant-Man’s X-Con Security crew Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Luis secures the hilarious high point of the picture during an interrogation scene when he reveals Scott’s location after being injected with truth serum. It’s unquestionably amusing (again) but since we got this same exact joke in the last Ant-Man the charm is somewhat lessened this time around.  The elder Hank must reluctantly seek the help of former friend and partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Incidentally, despite the buoyant tone, Hank affects such a grim, humorless personality, that it feels as if the actual actor, Michael Douglas, is supremely unhappy to be in this movie.

Surprisingly, the narrative never becomes too convoluted despite the sheer number of actors involved in this plot.  Scott, Hope, and Hank are all confronted by a cadre of corrupt people who impede their progress. There’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), also known as Ava Starr.  She has the ability to move through solid matter but has difficulty stabilizing herself.  She requires Janet’s quantum energy at all costs — even if it means Ghost needs to kill her.  There’s a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on Hank’s lab.   Also added to the mix is FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) whose job it is to monitor Scott Lang should he try to break free from the house arrest of his home. He’s also after Hank and Hope as well. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is a college professor and former associate of Hank’s. He shows up too, although I’ll keep his nefarious associations a secret.

This is a stridently pleasant production. The drama along with the assorted villains unfold under a mishmash of silly antics. That means we are presented with less crucial stakes but lots of upbeat humor and a jovial mood. This is an innocuous film about simple pleasures.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching things enlarge and then quickly shrink down. Tiny cars zipping around the streets of San Francisco or watching Hank’s gigantic lab reduced to a rolling suitcase never gets old.  Ant-Man and the Wasp essentially takes what made the original good and fine tunes it to make it a little bit better.  Yes, this is an improvement over the 2015 entry, but it’s still the B side throwaway ditty to the A-side single. This isn’t a story so much as a framework on which to hang a disposable tale with affable gags.  I remember the frivolous jokes.  The plot machinations, not so much.  Honestly, I had to take to the internet to remind me of the details of this saga.  The specific components fade from memory but I remembered the comedy.  Hey, this is a very funny movie.

07-05-18

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on June 24, 2018 by Mark Hobin

jurassic_world_fallen_kingdom_ver7STARS1.5I think it’s pretty clear that the only Jurassic movie that ever NEEDED to be made in this whole blessed series was the very first entry.   Allow me to clarify with an explanation that admittedly reeks of arrogance.  The whole point was to show the wonder of an emerging technology in which dinosaurs looked like they did indeed exist. We experienced jaw-dropping special effects and lots and lots of reaction shots at which Steven Spielberg is so good at giving us. It was simply the wonder of it all. I won’t pretend out of nostalgia that The Lost World and Jurassic Park III were any better than the schlocky entries they actually were. Nor do I think 2015’s Jurassic World was great art. However, and this is key, it had the best reason to exist since the first. I am an ardent apologist of Jurassic World. I am not alone. That production remains the sixth highest box office hit of all time in the U.S. and the fifth highest worldwide. It was the culmination of everything. For the first time, we got to see the park legitimately open and then, of course, fall apart right before our eyes in cataclysmic tragedy. As frivolously entertaining as 1970s disaster classics like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure.

It has now been three years after the theme park debacle on a fictional Central American island. Back in the United States, an ongoing Senate debate over the fate of the dinosaurs rages on. An impending volcanic eruption threatens the very existence of the creatures on Isla Nublar. “Should they be saved?” is the question. Seems pretty obvious to me. Given the fact that many human lives have died at the hands of those unpredictable beasts, NO is the only sane response.  Ha! But then alas there would be no movie. In a rare glimpse of common sense, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues that the dinosaurs should be left to die. Despite his ubiquitous presence in the marketing, he only appears ever so very briefly in two hearings.  I’m guessing Mr. Goldblum’s time commitment couldn’t have required more than a few hours.

The production introduces a bunch of new characters, none of which are interesting. Preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is called by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who apparently wishes to relocate 11 species to a new island sanctuary.  Mills is acting as an agent on behalf of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Lockwood is a previously unknown partner of Jurassic Park’s original creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough).  That we would have never heard of this man after four installments takes a huge leap of faith, but whatever. Like his predecessor, Lockwood has no problem with cloning. The circumstances concerning the birth of his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) involves a pointless reveal.  I can’t imagine any of these rote story beats need to be concealed but I’ll tread lightly.  Claire subsequently seeks Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) help to secure the raptor Blue, who is also loose on the island.  They’re joined by two nonentities that would’ve served better use as dino fodder. They work for Claire – technician Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda).  A mercenary team is also sent to help retrieve the dinosaurs headed up up Ken Wheatley.  He’s portrayed by Ted Levine and if you’re aware of the actor’s most famous role, you already know * SPOILER ALERT* he’s not a nice person.

Fallen Kingdom is an uncreative excuse to depict a lot of tedious pandemonium involving giant reptiles. Directed by ostensibly talented J. A. Bayona, the Spanish director has charted a steady decline from helming something great with The Orphanage (2017), good with The Impossible (2012), passable with A Monster Calls (20116) and now something truly wretched.  The volcano erupts.  What follows is a lot of monsters and humans running around in catastrophic chaos.  The mercenaries apprehend the creatures in their helicopters.  We later learn that Mills (Rafe Spall) isn’t as altruistic as we had originally thought. He meets with Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones), an auctioneer who wants to have the dinosaurs sold for profit. They’ve also designed a new hybrid dinosaur combining the DNA of an Indominus and a Raptor, calling it the Indoraptor. Gasp!  It’s an even more technologically advanced version.  Do you really even care about the scientific mumbo jumbo?  I didn’t.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is part 5 for those keeping track and perhaps that is the breaking point in this franchise.  At least for me anyway.  You might be surprised to learn that I was really looking forward to this picture.  Now that I’ve seen this utterly shabby display of commercial product, I can scarcely remember to explain why.  My enthusiasm obliterated by a soulless commodity of corporate greed utterly bereft of creative ideas.  So bad, it casts doubt on whether Universal Studios still has the ability to invent worthwhile entrainment. I will offer a bit of praise. Returning heroes Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are slightly more likable this time around. Everyone one else behaves in a way that inspires contempt. The spectacle of the Indoraptor claw slowly reaching out toward Maise as she cowers in her bed is a striking image. But if you saw the trailer, that scene will be familiar.

The hollow screenplay is courtesy of writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, the director of the 2015 film. They seemingly have no interest in trying to even assemble a coherent plot. The tale clearly means for the profit-driven mercenaries to be the hissable villains. But I’m confused. Wasn’t the amusement park originally designed by individuals seeking monetary gain? Apparently, capitalism was an acceptable quality in episodes one through four, but now it’s considered a bad thing. It doesn’t seem so horrible to anyone who tries to logically understand the motivations of the so-called scoundrels that are simply trying to stay alive.  In other plot points, the drama posits a sort of a debate over whether dinosaurs are beautiful living things or horrible beasts. It’s never clear how we’re meant to feel. The schizophrenic script takes no position on the matter. Don’t try to rationalize any of the story beats. Money! Mayhem! Monsters! These are the reasons for a Hollywood product so formulaic it could induce a vegetative state. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is one of those movies that fans will tell you to “turn your brain off” to enjoy. I’d need a lot of help with this flick. I suppose I could consume enough alcoholic beverages to artificially dumb down my brain. However, I don’t want to die of alcohol poisoning.

06-21-18

Incredibles 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Drama, Superhero with tags on June 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

incredibles_two_ver11STARS4As far as this animation fan is concerned, The Incredibles is still the greatest Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made as well. I mention this because it helps to appreciate my mindset as I entered the theater to watch Incredibles 2. This was 14 years in the making. I had high expectations and I greeted this sequel with breathless anticipation. Did it deliver?

In a word, yes. It’s an absolute joy. The kid in me was delighted. It’s entertaining and colorful and funny and all the things that a good feature should be. The action embodies the peaks of Whiz! Bang! Pow! spectacle. The score by returning composer Michael Giacchino is profoundly compelling. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a good film. That’s everyone obviously. However, and this is why I opened my review with where my head was at, this doesn’t even come close to the heartfelt emotion of the previous story. Part of that lies in the inherent qualities of original vs. sequel. The first was blessed with the grace of purity. The Parr family was realizing their abilities right before our eyes and the mere exploration of that was a simple pleasure. In a follow-up, that novelty is gone. Now there is an expectation to expand upon the world and deepen our understanding.

As such, this is a more complicated production. The chronicle picks up where The Incredibles ended. After failing to stop the Underminer from robbing the bank with his massive drill, the authorities are worried. The destruction caused to the city has forced the Incredibles and other “supers” to retire from duty for the moment. I initially thought of the Sokovia Accords that regulated superhero powers in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Although Pixar was first. The theme of assimilating powerful individuals into normal society was present in the studio’s 2004 entry as well.  Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who leads DEVTECH, a telecommunications company, with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  She is voiced with the world-weary sarcastic knowingness of Catherine Keener sporting a cartoon face that looks hyperrealistic — especially when compared to her brother’s ridiculously long face.  Winston is a fan and wishes to reignite public support for “supers”.  Since Winston deems Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the least destructive, he advises her to fight crime as part of a publicity stunt.  It is during this period we are introduced to a new villain, Screenslaver, a baddie who hijacks screens by flashing hypnotic images that brainwash civilians.

With Elastigirl out fighting crime, the adventure reverses the traditional gender roles of mom and dad.  Thanks to DEVTECH corporation’s plan, Elastigirl is now the public face of superheroes while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) stays home to take care of the kids. It’s not easy for him.  We’re so far past thinking this notion is a revolutionary concept that it’s positively quaint when the screenplay presents the idea as if it’s treading new ground. Look! Women can go to work.  Men can take care of their own children.  The basis for the plot is positively retro like a sitcom still firmly rooted in another era.  Even the obstacles with which Mr. Incredible must contend while being a stay-at-home dad seem like issues out of the past. While assisting his son with his arithmetic, he exasperatedly exclaims in frustration “This is Math! Why would they change Math?” There’s even a part where the Incredibles are given a space aged home filled with technological advances. I was reminded of the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled with similar issues.

I’m nitpicking mind you. Despite its inferiority to the original, Incredibles 2 is still the second best “Part 2” that Pixar has ever put out. The best sequel being Toy Story 2. We love this family. Their wholesome relationship is just as captivating as before. Older sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) and her brother Dash (Huck Milner) complete the family dynamic.  Bob’s best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back too.  Fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) is wisely inserted into the drama again but she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The revelation of each unique personality is gone, but it’s nice to see everyone return nonetheless.

The character that really gets his due is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The baby has an entire cadre of various superhero powers and much of the fun/laughs is discovering what this tiny tot will do next. His fight with a raccoon is a specular tableau, one of several in this film.  Writer/ director Brad Bird really knows how to frame an action set piece and there are many to dazzle you here. Once again, an Incredibles film out marvels Marvel. Amazingly this particular one all takes place within the confines of the backyard of their home. It’s telling that simplicity is its strongest asset. It’s that restraint that is missing from a somewhat more cluttered narrative.  The motivation for the villain is a bit convoluted too.  This doesn’t achieve the sheer feeling of Pixar’s very best works.  Instead, I will remember Incredibles 2 mainly for the spectacular action, music and style….but oh what style!

06-14-18

Ocean’s 8

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Thriller on June 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

oceans_eight_ver2STARS3.5It’s very easy to roll your eyes when Hollywood decides to take a tried and true movie series and simply tweak the formula in some cosmetic way to make it seem different for a new generation. i.e. “It’s ________ but now with women!” Back in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise famously retooled the recipe with a cast of female comedians. This sparked a much-publicized outrage amongst Internet fanboys. Nevertheless, it was still a modest summer hit in the U.S. Although it wouldn’t have recouped its massive production costs without the benefit of the foreign market. Now Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy gets the gender flip treatment.  I’m happy to report the results are a frothy delight. It’s lighthearted, breezy and effortless.

To be fair, Ocean’s Eleven is merely a blueprint onto which you can tell any heist tale. Here Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s now deceased character. There’s that connective story DNA. Cameos by Elliott Gould and Shaobo Qinbut try to link the series together but they don’t really add any substantive value to their adventure. The plot concerns Debbie Ocean, freshly released from prison for a fraud scheme. She immediately celebrates her freedom by shoplifting fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman within the first 15 minutes of the picture. So much for rehabilitation. In fact, she has been planning a jewelry heist while locked up for the past 5 years, 8 months and 12 days. Lou (Cate Blanchett,) is her confidant and best friend. Their witty exchanges suggest more than a hint of sexual tension between the two. Debbie enlists her help first.  Then Debbie mobilizes the assistance of a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson), a street hustler (Awkwafina), a computer hacker (Rihanna), and a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).  Each one ideally equipped with some special talent in lifting an item valued at $150 million.

Ah but what exactly is the MacGuffin in question? Why that would be the Jeanne Toussaint necklace created by Cartier. I was curious if this ridiculously expensive bauble was an authentic thing.  If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you’d want to know too.  It was created in 1931 for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, an Indian prince.  Since then, the necklace has been dismantled and the individual diamonds used in other pieces. However, the pendant did in fact once exist.  Cartier was hired to create a replica out of natural zirconium and white gold for the movie.  The prop is pretty valuable too, but at a value nowhere near the original obviously. Debbie Ocean wants to steal the treasure.  She insists on only hiring women because they are “invisible”. Then proceeds to plan a heist where the objet d’art will be worn by one of the guests at the annual Met Gala. Oh hell no! I thought.  That’s where the men in a sea of tuxedos are invisible.  The wearer of the adornment is Daphne Kluger, a self-centered celebrity wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway.  In a film stuffed with many charismatic entities, she arguably makes the biggest impression.  It is a fully aware performance that trades on the star’s real-world persona in such a knowing way, that it makes her acting achievement an absolute joy.

Ocean’s 8 succeeds best when it focuses on telling its own story.  People recognize the Ocean’s Eleven brand.  Marketing this as a spin-off is an easy way to sell this film to the public.  Yet Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable romp in its own right.  Honestly, this has less to do with the Soderbergh entries and more in common with other heist movies that feature women like Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Set It Off (1996). Setting the central heist at the Met Gala with its haute couture and luxurious trappings bathes the production in slick style.  The fundraising event is America’s most exclusive, elegant, star-studded party so the atmosphere is stylish and chic.  The stellar ensemble adds immeasurably to the sophisticated, high-class mood of the production.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t have the innovative instincts of Steven Soderbergh but he is a reliable director that knows how to relate an account in an efficient manner. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch.  It doesn’t reinvent the formula.  Nor does it provide much conflict. The women sail through this heist with the greatest of ease.  There’s hardly any struggle in the entire 110 minutes. But there’s something to be said for a fizzy comedy in the early summer months that doesn’t tax your brain. It’s free-spirited fun, has ample charisma from an impressive cast and you’ll have a chuckle or two before it’s all over.  I left the theater in an upbeat mood and that garners a solid recommendation in my book.

06-07-18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

Deadpool 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on May 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

deadpool_two_ver15STARS3Deadpool 2 is a comedy first and then a superhero movie second. Now that we’ve established that, let’s proceed. The latest installment within the X-Men universe is a difficult feature to criticize because the issues that kept me from wholeheartedly embracing this film would actually be considered the strengths by its adherents. In other words, take my measured critique with a grain of salt. I don’t speak for card-carrying members.  I gave the original a marginal pass because I enjoyed it in parts. I found its meta-awareness to be humorous. I hadn’t ever seen a superhero production quite like it. It was so completely self-aware, the point of view was rather novel. Obviously, with a sequel, a lot of what made the introduction of his personality fresh and witty is gone. In its place, is more of the same. Deadpool really doubles down this time on the self-referential style. I’ll admit this pastiche of stuff still made me chuckle, but what was once unique and innovative has now become smug and tiresome.

Deadpool 2 offers more of the same meta-humor that made its predecessor a huge hit. In that sense, it delivers lots of gags, but creatively it offers nothing new.  It’s a mildly diverting collection of tributes to entertainment loosely connected by a meaningless plot. The story, such as it is, is set in motion when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) a.k.a Wade Wilson is spending the evening with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). She is killed when a criminal breaks into their home. This occurs as they are celebrating their anniversary and it’s one of the few moments I think the screenwriters actually want you to react with an emotion other than glee. However, in a film that is constantly cracking wise, that’s a problem. It’s just so cavalier about everything, it’s difficult to care.

The screenplay (by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds) keeps feelings at bay. Since Deadpool’s regenerative qualities make it impossible for him to die, the stakes are never very high. Deadpool is so distraught he attempts to commit suicide but is put back together by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic). Then Deadpool does a lot of stuff. He reunites with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) from the first episode. He rescues a 14-year-old boy named Russell Collins, aka Firefist from an abusive orphanage. Firefist is portrayed by the wonderful Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A mutant from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) later materializes to destroy Firefist. Deadpool assembles a team called X-Force to aid in protecting the boy.  They include a charismatic Zazie Beetz as Domino and comedian Rob Delaney as the hilarious Peter. The superficial developments are an excuse to make more allusions to contemporary tastes.  The mood is so glib and affected. Woe unto the audience member that even dares to feel something, anything, for these people.

Nothing is sincere. Even the soundtrack of Deadpool can only appreciate music in a post-modern ironic way.  “Ashes” is a newly recorded ballad by Celine Dion. It sounds like the anthemic wannabe theme from a James Bond flick. It’s genuinely sung well although in this context it sounds cheesy. “All Out of Love” (Air Supply), “9 to 5” (Dolly Parton), “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher) and many other tunes appear as pop cultural appropriation. They underscore scenes where their incongruous appearance is the actual joke.

Every mention of another property, whether it be a song, a movie, a TV show or something else, is presented as humor. For example, numerous actors show up in cameos. Look fast when the identity of Vanisher, an invisible mutant, is revealed. But what is the joke exactly? Introducing something familiar out of context is an imitation of wit.  This is simply an opportunity to exclaim “Hey! I know that thing!” Sharknado, My Little Pony,Fox & Friends, Basic Instinct, Say Anything, DC vs. Marvel, the list of targets is extensive. I did laugh. There are some legitimately intelligent observations that have some thought behind them. When our hero Wade notes the melodic similarity between “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Frozen, it’s a definite moment of insight. Those are few and far between, however. Most of the A-ha moments are merely playing musical ditties like “Take on Me” in the background.

5-17-18

Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

Ready Player One

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on April 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ready_player_one_ver2STARS3It has been nearly a decade since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was the last time Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) actually directed the kind of live-action adventure that made him THE highest-grossing director worldwide.  That alone makes Ready Player One something to be excited about. The production is an adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. His novel was set in a dystopian future 2044 about a teenaged protagonist that simply wants to solve a 3 part quest in a virtual reality video game.

In Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is from “The Stacks.” The name denotes a decaying trailer park where vehicles are stacked on top of one another so more people can live in the same space.  This is apparently because of overpopulation problems and possibly economic ones as well. Existence is a bummer and so to escape, citizens turn to the OASIS, a hyper-realistic 3D virtual reality video game. The game itself is presented as something of a paradise. People enjoy the OASIS. The real world may be a dystopia, but virtual reality is not. Within the OASIS, you can literally be anyone. For reasons I still don’t understand, Wade chooses to look like a frail teen named Parzival. He’s the expression of an unexceptional anime character. Within the game, he frequently interacts with Aech (Lena Waithe), a huge muscular mechanic, as well as the samurai Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Never having met any of these people, Wade only knows them from their chosen avatar.  Their physical appearance in the real world is a mystery…initially.

The OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Eccentric billionaire Halliday is no longer with us.  However before he died, he announced that he had hidden an Easter egg within the OASIS that would be accessible after three keys were found. Collect the keys and his fortune (and control of the OASIS) is yours. Holy shades of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory! This mission forms the crux of the story. Everyone wants to win. Wade and his friends want to escape the very mire of their existence. The main antagonist is the evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Sorrento has rounded up a number of players to find the keys for him. He seeks to take over the OASIS and exploit it to augment his already massive fortune. To be honest, he and Wade ostensibly want the same thing but Sorrento is willing to murder to get what he wants so that’s where the narrative makes it OK to root for Wade and not Sorrento. I’m not sure if Sorrento’s personal style was supposed to recall Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club but given the film is all about the pop culture of a certain era, I’ll assume the casting choice was intentional.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent two paragraphs detailing the backstory for a movie in which the plot is so weak. The aforementioned set-up is merely an excuse to present a CGI fest of various challenges. The viewer is invited to stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed as we marvel at the technological curiosity before us. Don’t get me wrong.  This is a visual wonder to behold. Each quest involves obtaining a key. The first may be obtained when our fearless hero must finish a race. We see him drive a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a Hot Wheels-style course with jumps and loops. It’s seemingly impossible to even finish. King Kong manages to stop him in his tracks. The competition is run more than once. It’s during the revisit where we’re dazzled by some fantastic perspective shots. It’s a dizzying spectacle. It’s here where he meets love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She laments that her avatar is much more attractive than her real appearance. Then we meet her and she’s actually gorgeous. Oh sure she has a birthmark on her face, but she’s still very pretty. Her despair that he won’t find her beautiful is somewhat annoying.

Screenwriter Ernest Cline co-adapted the screenplay from his own book with Zak Penn. A big part of his novel were pop culture allusions.  Cline has a fondness for very particular things.  The author was born in 1972 and suffice it to say that the closer your birthdate matches his, the more likely you will identify with his points of reference. He occasionally acknowledges more recent things: the spaceship Serenity from the TV show Firefly for example. Though examples from 2000 on are rare. His treasured memories are mostly focused on the late 70s early 80s. His fiction was a love letter to fellow fanboys that obsess over comics (Superman, Batman), music (Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran) movies (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant) and video games (cartridges for the Atari 2600) of his childhood.

There’s a hip self-awareness that savvy fans will appreciate. A key element of the Ready Player One novel was specialized geek culture.  However, Steven Spielberg has wisely opened up that narrow focus and cited things that nearly everyone with a casual awareness of mainstream tastes can enjoy.  We’ve seen this done before in the movies. The Cabin in the Woods played with the manipulation of various tropes perhaps even more successfully, but the joy is similar. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the second key concerns an extended walkthrough of a certain movie. This is a departure from what happens in the book but it’s my most favorite setpiece. It practically justifies the entire production.

Ready Player One is a fine film. It’s entertaining enough but it doesn’t have the organic components of Spielberg’s very best work. I get that it’s all about virtual reality and so there’s very little that is tangible about this story. The frenzy keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We observe individuals in action but we never feel like we understand the experience or the intimacy of these people. It’s a technologically manufactured CGI amusement park ride, not an actual narrative motivated by plot and characterization. It’s no masterpiece, but it isn’t a disaster either. I’ll admit the 140-minute runtime can occasionally be exhausting. Yet there should be enough thrills here to satisfy most viewers. I was appeased.

03-29-18