Archive for the Action Category

Star Trek Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

07-21-16

Ghostbusters

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

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

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

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

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

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

07-14-16

Independence Day: Resurgence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06-24-16

Central Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

06-21-16

X-Men: Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

05-27-16

Alice Through the Looking Glass

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

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

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

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

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

05-26-16

The Nice Guys

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

 photo nice_guys_ver2_zpsk3d3imaa.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBuddy film about Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hapless private eye and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a paid enforcer. The pair team up to solve the seemingly unrelated disappearance of a runaway teen (Margaret Qualley), and the apparent suicide of porn starlet (Murielle Telio).

The Nice Guys was not only written but also directed by Shane Black.  A celebrated screenwriter, he penned Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With its fast talking, neo-noir stylings, his script here could be inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler. That Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author was known for seminal detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. However Shane Black’s script isn’t as organized to bear comparison with Chandler’s writing. The plot is made up of various story threads thrown together in a dramatic blender that favors messy incongruity over twisty coherence.

The Nice Guys succeeds best when it’s going for laughs. Crowe is an effective straight man. Gosling is enjoyable as the comic relief. As hired muscle and private eye respectively, they make an amusing duo. Actress Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s 14 year old daughter, Holly March, a nice addition to the mix. Holly desperately wants to help her father out with his business, much to his dismay. She is an appealing presence, but she also brings out the more benevolent qualities of the two men. Their more iniquitous traits are downplayed when she is around. She steals every scene too. In fact, the narrative might have benefited if it had been simplified solely around a father-daughter crime fighting team.

The Nice Guys is at heart, a simple B-movie thriller dressed up as a period piece. The feature is a loving evocation of 1970s excess. Polyester suits, bom chicka wah wah guitar riffs and Playboy mansion style parties uplift the environment with a kitschy retro sheen.  That’s fun, but then there’s a lot of extraneous story nonsense here that is wholly unnecessary.  Less is more.  A basic tale is obstructed with a convoluted plot involving the mistaken identities of two lookalikes, the porn world, government corruption, and a whole lot of murders. One, in particular, is especially depressing because the victim gets away from the killer only to be murdered by him minutes later while hitchhiking to escape. Zany comedy mixed with violence is a difficult balancing act. The uneven tone can be off-putting. Still, there’s enough jokes and charisma to make up for the unsavory stretches that occasionally bring this production down. The slapdash recipe is generally a tasty one.

05-22-16

Captain America: Civil War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on May 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_america_civil_war_ver15_zps6veouhci.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s amazing how two superhero movies can share nearly identical themes, and yet be so different in what they achieve. It was just six short weeks prior that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released. Although the movie was a success at the box office, it received a critical drubbing from many viewers (this critic included). Now we have the release of Marvel’s latest opus, a movie built around the ultimate showdown between two warring factions of the Avengers. The motivation of revenge for the central antagonist is the same. Even the way in which to exact revenge is the same. Despite the similarities, the satisfaction derived from each film is a study in contrasts. Captain America: Civil War is the far superior picture. No surprise. By now, everyone knows Marvel has perfected the ongoing storyline across sequels down to a science.

If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this is presented in name as a sequel to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that adventure, we learned that Captain America’s friend, Bucky Barnes was captured and experimented upon during WWII. He was brainwashed into a trained assassin using mind control. Although Civil War also concerns the much larger picture as to what happed more recently in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The number of civilian deaths as a result of the war in Sokovia has become a global concern. Can the Avengers be partially held accountable? The United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement designed to limit and control the Avengers.

The Avengers are torn apart into two factions: one led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the other by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Captain America’s anti-registration squad is composed of Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Iron Man’s pro accord team is comprised of Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). New VIPs Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also join up on this side as well. Side note: Thor and the Hulk are conspicuously absent for reasons that seemed a little murky, but honestly this movie already has plenty of speaking parts. While their absence is noticeable, it’s not crucial.

If all this exposition and characters sounds complicated, it is. This is a superhero film that subscribes to the idea that bigger is better. More cast members, more battles, more run time. At almost 2 1/2 hours, this does seem long and a bit overblown. Yet the strengths far exceed the weaknesses. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve a lot of credit for making sense of all these events and distilling it into a narrative we can still follow and enjoy. The big fight featuring the whole gang is fashioned as a centerpiece of the drama. The choreography is appropriately spectacular. Surprises await and the showdown is a delight. Although shaky camera work and rapid cuts do detract a little from the mostly rousing action sequences.

With all the personalities, Civil War, truly plays out like a third Avengers movie, besting Age of Ultron (2015) for emotional depth, but lacking the breezy joy of The Avengers (2012). The story is at its best in quieter moments when it focuses on the personality of the individual. The narrative gives clear, understandable reasons as to why each superhero aligns with the side that they do. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr deserve major kudos for anchoring the production with sincere performances that captivate our attention. That’s not easy to do with a cast of this magnitude. In a film full of many highs, I did not expect Ant-Man & Spider-Man to be at the very top.  Both have amusing vignettes that make the promise of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp something I am now willing to embrace rather than dread. Additionally the heavy emotional burden that Bucky Barnes carries as the Winter Soldier is emphasized. His relationship with Steve Rogers, his buddy since childhood, is affirmed as well. These cast members stand out in a roster that is uniformly excellent. I could cite more characters and the traits that make them interesting but that would spoil the fun of discovery. It’s their complex backstories that help secure our interest in the personal dynamics of these people. They give the heroes depth. That is what makes Captain America: Civil War so gosh darn entertaining.

05-05-16

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on March 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo batman_v_superman_dawn_of_justice_ver8_zpsgpnkvncd.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSuperhero movie are serious business. Just ask director Zack Snyder who apparently doesn’t have a humorous bone in his entire body given his latest opus.  The awkwardly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is dark. Like really really really really really really really DARK. This is entry #2 in the DC Extended Universe and it arrives three years after 2013’s Man of Steel, a deplorable waste of time and talent that I hated as much as anything I saw that year. The good news is that Batman v Superman is an improvement, The bad news is that it still isn’t very good.

DC Comics is clearly on a mission to create this grand epic. This is their bid to outdo the franchise empire created by Marvel Studios. And let me tell you, there’s a veritable onslaught of releases planned by the DC machine in the next few years. There’s two movies centered around the Justice League with the individual meta-humans Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Shazam! Cyborg and Green Lantern all getting their own pictures. We’re introduced to some of them via a computer screen in this movie. Bruce Wayne is seen opening their files on a drive from LexCorp by clicking on their icons. It’s the cinematic equivalent of observing someone watch a coming attractions trailer.

We also get a ton of supplementary characters that needlessly complicate matters. Ok so both Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are required. I’ll allow for them, but neither adds much to the proceedings. On the plus side, Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) does make an appearance all dressed up in a muted uniform that doesn’t stray too far from what we associate with that character. Her reveal got applause so that’s good. Girl Power! and all that. But elsewhere the news isn’t so rosy. Central antagonist Lex Luthor (Jr.) is portrayed by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Superman’s arch rival is an iconic villain, a brilliant manipulator, but here he comes across as just a bratty millennial. Lex Luthor is anti-Superman right from the beginning. The superhero has become this controversial figure in the media after all the death and destruction he caused during his battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel.

Luthor’s objective is kind of ambiguous at first.  Initially it appears he wants to make people dislike Superman even more but he develops into this puppeteer of people who aims to pit the two crime fighters against each other. He partners with U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). She is contacted by Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), an employee of Wayne enterprises injured in the previous installment’s Zod vs. Superman combat. Luthor has tapped wanted criminal Anatoli Knyazev (Callum Mulvey) as well to get him some kryptonite. There’s a lot of people involved.  However Luthor’s grand master scheme is ridiculously inefficient when you ultimately realize how it depends on so many arbitrary things potentially falling into place.  When his plan doesn’t work, Luthor has a back-up that involves creating yet another super-villain, sort of a cross between the Thing and the Incredible Hulk. It’s a CGI mess of technology that is about as thoughtful as witnessing two explosions have an argument.

Batman v Superman should have been an engaging character study, but it’s overstuffed – crowded with actors, jammed with plot, packed with mayhem. Look at the title. It promises a one-on-one showdown between two titans of the superhero world. Granted we do get that. If two physical specimens throwing each other around sounds exciting, then you will be pleased. But there’s so much excess fat in this almost three hour film. Too many extraneous plot threads muddle a crowded adventure. Was it really necessary to present the Batman origin story yet another time? I got it, Zack Snyder. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Sheesh! That scene has had more performances than Phantom of the Opera. Cameos from Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anderson Cooper are superfluous padding.

We’re talking about two guys that dress up in tights and run around fighting crime. The very idea is inherently silly, but you’d think we were detailing the most horrific chapters of World War II given this movie’s utterly bleak tone. There’s little room for “fun” when grim, depressing self-importance is the thrust of the DC agenda. The strident inability to “lighten up” must also afflict writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer who penned this ponderous screenplay. Batman v Superman isn’t horrible. It’s intermittently involving as it unfolds, but all these issues weigh it down upon reflection. One of those “I was mildly entertained while I sat in the theater, but days later I couldn’t care less” type films.

03-24-16

Zootopia

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Uncategorized on March 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo zootopia_ver3_zpsel0s8nq8.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgDisney has long been a force to be reckoned with – a studio with a laudable history that invented the idea of a full length animated film. I am a fan. A career resurgence began in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid and continued on through the ensuing decade. Since 2000, the Mouse House has released respectable work of various highs (Big Hero 6) and crushing lows (Chicken Little) but nothing that has really pushed the medium to the next level. As great as beloved titles like Tangled and Frozen were, they were still a reworking of traditional princess fairy tales. Since 1995, Pixar has taken on the mantle of raising the bar. Now with Disney’s 55th animated feature film, they have done something innovative. They’ve brilliantly captured the political zeitgeist and manipulated it into an entertaining adventure involving the police, race relations, and diversity. A lot of people contributed to Zootopia. Jared Bush and Phil Johnston wrote the screenplay but a jaw dropping group of eight writers receive story credit. That’s usually cause for alarm, but their vision remains surprisingly focused. That the achievement feels effortless and light is an amazing balancing act that deserves kudos.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one message, but the narrative is rather astonishing in its ability to a tackle a seemingly simple moral with utter depth. It’s the tale of an anthropomorphized animal kingdom starring one “dumb bunny” Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and one “sly fox” Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). But those nicknames aren’t who they really are. This concerns how each must transcend the stereotypes that they are beset with. Predator vs. prey is the line that divides them, but this is a new age. In Zootopia, predator and prey exist side by side. They have learned to set aside their differences and co-exist in peace. The smartly crafted story has a distinct moral. This thriving metropolis separated into distinct communities. Like New York City, Zootopia is a dazzling municipality divided into boroughs.

The filmmakers have fun with these settings. The fantastic world designed is a character in and of itself. The breathtaking depth to which they have created a fully realized world is impressive. The districts feel like living breathing environments. Each habitat sustains the climate required by the animals that live within. There’s Little Rodentia, a neighborhood that caters to mostly tiny rodents. Polar bears live in freezing Tundratown. Desert mammals like camels exist in hot Sahara Square. Jaguars, otters and sloths live in Rain Forest District and then there’s Savanna Central which is the downtown central hub where everyone converges.

According to Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), “In Zootopia, anyone can be anything.” The cast is a splendid collection of characters each imbued with a captivating personality that uniquely enhance their visual design. Particularly memorable are Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) as the blustery head of the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD) and Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) a sweet sheep, sympathetic to Judy Hopps plight. Judy wants to be a cop but no rabbit has ever done that line of work. The ZPD is run by large mammals, such as rhinos, elephants and hippos, and lions. Through sheer determination and an assist by the diversity program Judy achieves her dream. There’s a lot jokes that use scale as a way to highlight how challenging it is for these various animals to co-exist in the same world. When Judy Hopps became the first rabbit on the police force, you truly appreciate why her accomplishment is so commendable. Conversely watching Judy pursue a suspect around Little Rodentia, it gives you an appreciation for how tiny this district really is. She’s initially assigned parking detail but soon circumstances intervene and she’s on a real case to help Mrs. Otterton locate her missing husband.

The fun is in the way Disney employs the DNA of pop culture to produce this massive homage. Inside jokes abound that will require multiple viewing to catch them all. Previous Disney films that appropriate animals with human qualities are inspirations. The Jungle Book and Robin Hood are obvious influences. Nick Wilde could be Robin Hood’s fox twin. Like that feature, the animals are completely anthropomorphic. They walk upright, wear clothes, drives cars and converse with one another exactly like people, yet still keeping their bestial behaviors – like a twitching nose – intact. Some individuals recall other cartoons as well. Officer Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), a police dispatcher, is a cheetah that suggests Snagglepuss’ upbeat temperament. I was getting Pete Puma vibes from a laid back yak named Yax (Tommy Cong). His scruffy mane covers his eyes while flies buzz around his head. Far out man. But the pop culture allusions don’t stop with animated titles. Some personalities even cite live action. A diminutive mole Mr. Big is a mob boss straight out of The Godfather. A drug operation is run by two rams named Walter and Jesse. Even some adults will miss that as a Breaking Bad reference.

Zootopia manages to address racism, the crack epidemic and how authorities use scapegoating to supplement their power by instilling fear of marginalized groups.  Whew!  No it’s not subtle, but it isn’t heavy-handed either. What makes the lesson so palatable is in the details. Visually it’s a marvel and if it my review were based solely on spectacle, it would be enough. Zootopia goes deeper by catapulting the ongoing discussion of prejudice to the front and center of a Disney cartoon. There’s so much subversive wit. Calling a bunny “cute” is not acceptable, unless it’s coming from another bunny. Judy finds Nick “articulate” but he finds the remark more condescending than complimentary. A characters can’t refrain from touching the woolly sheep’s hair. The way the observances are manipulated into the animal world is funny and incisive. It’s difficult to be both.

For all its ability to undermine established stereotypes, the film isn’t above exploiting them as well. There’s good natured ribbing at the expense of clichés of the zoological kingdom. Faraway rural Bunnyburrow is affected by a wildly expanding population. Wolves can’t resist baying at the moon the second someone howls first. The sloths are slow and work at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles). The “sly”fox is indeed a con man. Oh but he wasn’t always this way. He transcended that stereotype as a child but ultimately succumbed to it thanks to overwhelming societal pressure to be anything more. Disney’s most politically motivated movie ever is a trenchant reflection on diversity. No the predator vs. prey allegory doesn’t stand up under intense scrutiny. What then do the carnivores eat if not other animals? That is never addressed. It’s easy to get bogged down in how the symbolism to our world doesn’t hold up. The fable is better appreciated as a morality tale that addresses topics very much in the zeitgeist. Living in harmony is possible. Our strengths and weaknesses can complement each other. The takeaway is – respect your fellow man.

03-04-16

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