Archive for the Adventure Category

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Superhero on January 9, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_into_the_spiderverse_ver2STARS3.5How much Spider-Man do you need in your life? Sequels, reboots, so many origin stories – This is the 7th feature film to star the Marvel superhero since 2002 and the first animated movie in the franchise. That’s roughly a new release every 27 months. This chapter has certainly put the other entries in perspective. The cognoscenti extolled this feature as the best Spider-Man ever, some even going so far as to call it the best superhero picture of all-time. Those are some pretty lofty declarations. It’s an enjoyable production to be sure. Just based on innovation alone, this production justifies yet another iteration. At this point, those Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield from 2012 and 2014 are only worth watching if you’re a die-hard completist.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse plays with tradition. I wasn’t up on my comic book history. Those well versed in such lore will be at a distinct advantage. If that’s you, go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph. In fact, go ahead and skip the whole review. This movie was made with you in mind and I can recommend it to you wholeheartedly. Ok now for you casuals and non-superhero fans,  apparently the setting is a shared multiverse called the “Spider-Verse”, which has alternate worlds. This is the first to feature Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn. He was a re-invention of the character in 2011 by writers Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli. Miles admires Spider-Man /Peter Parker (Chris Pine), the classic guy with whom we are familiar. In this realm, Peter Parker is blonde, fit and seemingly perfect. Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider in the very same way and also develops the same powerful abilities.

That’s merely the beginning. Maniacal crime lord, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his top scientist Liv Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), the head of Alchemax, are the baddies. They’ve built a particle accelerator to access parallel universes. Fisk wants to reconnect with his wife and son who died in a car accident. His use of this thing allows various forms of Spider-Man to come into contact with Miles and interact. There’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a more disheveled, brown-haired Spider-Man that sort of acts as his mentor. He’s from another dimension.  There’s teenaged Gwen Stacy, a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a brooding reporter from the Great Depression called Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), an anthropomorphic pig parody called Spider-Ham AKA Peter Porker (John Mulaney), and Japanese-American high school student Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who pilots a robot called SP//dr. Does this sound confusing? Believe me, it’s even more dizzying as you’re watching it. Each one of these versions gets a chance to tell their tale of how they became a “spider-man”. The production boasts three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) and five producers including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind The Lego Movie. They don’t adhere to the past rules of the live-action films. It’s not based in reality. It’s ridiculously bonkers. I suppose that’s part of its charm.

Spider-Verse sets up some emotional stakes. This Spider-Man is still another origin story about a guy coming to terms with his superpowers. In those broad terms, this doesn’t distinguish itself. It’s another hero’s journey.  However, Spider-Verse does a great job at introducing people we care about. We understand Miles. He’s the teenaged son of Jefferson Davis, a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales, a Puerto Rican nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Despite the different surnames, they are married. His uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali ) is a supportive presence who encourages his nephew to express his artistic side. Brothers Jefferson and Aaron have drifted apart, however. At one point Dad pleads with his son not to drift away like his brother did. The conversation occurs while Miles is in his room on the other side of a closed door. It’s very poignant.

Spider-Verse is a built upon the DNA of comic books. I’ve explained how the story utilizes that aesthetic but it also infects the trippy graphics as well. The stunning visual design is what captivated me the most. The computer animation is distinctive. Its bold colors and images almost bleed through the lines. Not constantly, but the effect is noticeable at times. Initially, I thought I had accidentally walked into a 3D showing without the glasses to render the proper effect.  It was an intentional choice. The technique recalls the Ben-Day Dots printing process of old, pulpy magazines on cheap paper.

The visuals are gorgeous. The computer rendering gives the faces a photo-realism. It’s incredibly expressive. Their faces emote. Yet it’s still filtered through the style of a comic book. It’s a nice balance. Thought bubbles occasionally pop up. When someone activates his Spider-Sense it’s conveyed through squiggly lines around their head. Then the hyperkinetic action sequences kick in. It can get a bit insane. The interconnected characters from other dimensions start to glitch and become unstable. This random twitching seems to increase when they’re fighting.  At times this mixes with the action on screen and it can be a lot to process for the uninitiated.  “What is happening?!” I thought to myself on more than one occasion. Yet it’s always a wonder to behold. “How much Spider-Man do you need in your life?” I ask.  Spider-Verse proves that when creativity and innovation are fully engaged, there’s always room for one more.

12-28-18

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Mary Poppins Returns

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_poppins_returns_ver2STARS3.5Mary Poppins Returns answers the question: Is it still possible for a movie of today to promote sweetness and joy with unadulterated sincerity?  The response is a resounding yes.  This is an enterprise without guile or sarcasm.  It simply exists as a bit of wholesome entertainment, exactly as the 1964 version did.  54 years may separate these two films, but you’d never know it from this production.  The time is 1935 Depression-era London.  Jane (Emily Mortimer ) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the children from the original, are now adults.  Michael is a widower with three young children of his own: John (Nathanael Saleh) Annabel (Pixie Davies) and adorable star-in-the-making Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Since his wife’s death, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments.  He has been informed by the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (Colin Firth) that he has until Friday to pay off the entire loan, or he will lose the house. Jane and Michael remember their father had given them shares in the bank which would provide enough money to repay the debt.  The certificate would be the proof.  It has disappeared.  If only they knew where it was.

Mary Poppins Returns utilizes the blueprint of the first feature to fashion its tale.  The barely-there story is eerily similar, although plot is not really the point.  The drama basically concerns a missing piece of paper.  Its whereabouts are a nonentity for most of the picture.   The adventure highlights musical interludes.  This is a musical enchantment of wit and charm.  As the title has promised, Mary Poppins is back.  She’s exactly the same person and she hasn’t aged a day.  In Emily Blunt’s capable hands she is a walking, talking facsimile of Julie Andrews’ creation.  Not a unique achievement mind you, but a grand impression that trades on glorious nostalgia.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is Mary’s friend Jack.  He doesn’t work as a chimney sweep as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the earlier incarnation but as a lamplighter.  Miranda is delightful and his cockney accent is thankfully more subtle.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a sequel so much as a remake.  A magnificent remix of the 1964 version that mimics its every song, character, story beat, and style.  Instead of helping the kids tidy their nursery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) Mary encourages them to take a bath (“Can You Imagine That?”).  Rather than jumping into a painting (“Jolly Holiday”), Mary, Jack, and the kids enter a ceramic bowl (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”).  Meeting cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her “Turning Turtle” song is like bumping into Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) when he bellows “I Love To Laugh”.  Jack croons “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” with the other lamplighters and it harkens back to the chimney sweeps’ “Step In Time” number.  My side by side comparisons may sound like a carp but the production numbers are so beautifully realized that I embraced the happiness.   They succeed by exploiting the euphoria of wonder and color.  The very idea that a movie in 2018 would reproduce the very same aesthetic as a picture from the 1960s is a fairly risky venture.  I was transported to an earlier era when movies were different.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mary Poppins Returns has just paid the original film the most awesome compliment imaginable.

12-19-18

Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 26, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ralph_breaks_the_internet_wreckit_ralph_two_ver8STARS3Wreck-It Ralph (2012) was a fine movie but not the Disney animated feature most deserving of a sequel.  In their comparatively short history, Disney subsidiary Pixar has revisited their previous hits quite often.  Walt Disney Animation Studios traditionally has not.  There have only been four (4) follow-ups in the Disney Animated Canon since 1937.  These are not their most oft-remembered films: The Three Caballeros (1944), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000, and Winnie the Pooh (2011).  With Frozen 2, coming out next year, I worry the dependence is becoming a habit.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is currently their fifth.  It’s a pleasant diversion but destined to join the sequel bin as well.  Like the majority of their kind, less delightful than the original.  Wreck-It Ralph detailed an existential crisis of sorts.  It was about a baddie who deep down really was a sweetheart of a guy.  The intellectualism was pitched toward a very young age so while the narrative didn’t stimulate an adult brain much, at least the drama had heart.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is something else entirely.  It’s noisier, more destructive, and amps up the pop culture references.  The heart, however, has been dialed way down.

It doesn’t help that Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) is an even bigger part of this saga.  Wreck-It Ralph was charming before the pint-sized princess showed up.  You may recall she was a pixelated programming glitch in the candy-coated kart-racing game Sugar Rush.  Simply put, she was a brat.  The close friendship that Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope forged in the first entry at least made her tolerable.  Her character hasn’t changed.  If anything, she has become more self-centered.  In this chapter, Vanellope is bored.  She has grown tired of the repetitive nature of her racing game.  One day she ventures off the prescribed track.  This leads to a series of events where the physical steering wheel on the outside of the console that is used to play the game, gets broken. Unable to replace the part, the arcade owner Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) unplugs the game leaving the denizens inside homeless.  Yet all is not lost.  Litwak has recently introduced Wi-Fi to the arcade.  Ralph and Vanellope can visit the internet via the newly installed Wi-Fi router.  They plan to locate and purchase a new steering wheel for Sugar Rush.

Naturally, a journey into cyberspace is a great set-up for lots of gags.  The real internet is a wild and scary place but here it has been rendered unimaginatively as just a chaotic metropolis.  I’ve said this before, but as long as movies keep doing it, I’ll keep calling it out.  Recontextualizing something you’ve seen elsewhere by simply appropriating it into in your story is a very lazy form of comedy.  Ralph Breaks the Internet has nothing interesting or insightful to say about things like YouTube or Instagram or Twitter.  The script is simply cognizant that these social networks exist and that they can feature vapid things.  For example, the screenplay is aware that people do indeed film themselves eating unbearably spicy foods.  It’s relying on the reaction “Hey! I’ve watched things like that on YouTube before!”  If the idea of seeing such things in a cartoon makes you laugh, then perhaps you will be delighted by the level of humor presented here.

The buzz-worthy scene occurs when Vanellope enters the online hub of the Magic Kingdom and encounters a roomful of Disney princesses.  The spectacle would reek of smug self-promotion if it wasn’t so contemptuous of its own product.  The Disney studio lampoons what its critics have alleged for years, that their princesses are anachronistic shells of an outdated trope.  Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and many more appear.  They’re all here but they kind of blend together as one insipid personality.  The girl from Brave is somewhat differentiated because nobody can understand the way she talks.  She’s ridiculed for her accent.  I’ve heard of biting the hand that feeds you, but this takes the saying to a whole new level.

Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t as appealing as the first.  It’s bright and colorful as it plays but this fable has a troubling moral.  While in the World Wide Web, Vanellope is seduced by the nihilistic and violent Slaughter Race. It’s a dark and gritty Grand Theft Auto-style action adventure game with cars.  There she meets the strikingly beautiful driver Shank (Gal Gadot) in whom she confides her dissatisfaction with her life and more shockingly, Ralph himself.  This is after the poor chap has been humiliating himself in a series of viral videos for her sake.  He’s been trying to earn enough money through “likes” so he can buy the steering wheel she needs for her game to work again.  That’s gratitude for ya.  Back in 1939, Dorothy famously learned “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  Vanellope feels the exact opposite.  She hates where she’s from.  Ralph’s attachment to his dear friend is presented as his flaw.  Simple types that love unconditionally get no respect in this universe.  He’s a bit of an oaf.  Some might even call him a rube.  Vanellope is a woman on the move and this big galoot is holding her back.  She has no use for such provincial types.  I, however, happen to admire that kind of unreciprocated devotion.  (whispers) Psst….hey Ralph, get out of that relationship quick!   She’s toxic.

11-22-18

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on November 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_ver14STARS2It’s easy to dismiss the Fantastic Beasts franchise as a desperate attempt to extend the Harry Potter universe.  I mean there’s a precedent.   Warner Brothers had the chutzpah to take the original 7 books and expand them into 8 movies.  There are a lot of fans out there that live for this sort of thing.  Confession time: I am not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong. I think the Harry Potter films creatively built a rich fantasy world.  If you fall within a certain age, this was your childhood and I respect that.  It’s just that the adventure was so episodic.  A loosely connected series of events that unfolded cinematically like: “So this happened, and then this happened, and then this happens…”  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was even more meandering but at least it had some nice CGI effects and a couple of star-crossed lovers in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).  Unfortunately, we’ve reached a low point with The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What is this chronicle even about?  I don’t know where to begin because I couldn’t figure it out.  Somewhere in this mishmosh of stuff, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) contacts Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for help.  The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and he intends on amassing an army of wizards to follow him.  I assume this is all laying the groundwork for a Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald showdown during some unspecified sequel in the future, but not here friends.  This is a movie about expository details.  There are a lot of characters.  My favorites Jacob and Queenie are back, but they have less room to be enchanting here.  They’re crowded out by a distended cast that highlights the troubled you-thought-he-was dead-but-he’s-really-not Credence (Ezra Miller).  In smaller, less important roles there’s also half-blood witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror, along with pure-blood witch Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) who is engaged to Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), MACUSA employee, Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie ), French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a freak show attraction named Nagini (Claudia Kim).

It’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald but the only crime I could see was the utter debasement of a sensible plot.  It’s incoherently edited.  The drama has no structure.  The saga is overcrowded with people.  Their introduction to this story isn’t organic. Each individual forcibly inserted into the narrative.  One appears after another as a clumsy means to explain various alliances that only the most minutia-obsessive fan would even care about.  I’m sure some of this confusing exposition relates back to the original Harry Potter world but this casual observer couldn’t make the associations required to enjoy this mess.  Mind you, I’ve seen every single installment in this blessed oeuvre.  People pop up, get a complicated character explanation and then *poof* it’s on to the next identity.  There are simply far too many personalities.  Few get a chance to make an impression, so we have no reason to be invested in their assorted plights.

I couldn’t divine any focus to this tale.  I gather it’s about Grindelwald because he is namechecked in the title, but your guess is as good as mine.  Johnny Depp has an opportunity to stand out.  He doesn’t enliven the narrative, but he doesn’t ruin it either. It’s the screenplay that sinks this production.  We have J. K. Rowling herself to thank for that.  Her gift for writing novels does not translate to screenwriting.  These are clearly two very different talents.  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them suffered from a poor script as well.  As bad as this entry is, there are some high points.  The costumes, production design, makeup, and hairstyling are all beyond compare.  Seriously, I noticed how perfectly coiffed everyone was.  My mind had time to wander on several occasions. Unfortunately, those attributes are not the foundation for a meaningful film.  Sense and reason are, but alas, they have no power in this wizarding world.

11-15-18

First Man

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_manSTARS4What captivated me most about First Man is how it transformed the conventional into the unique to tell this story. That is to say, the difference between what I was expecting and what I got, was unusually fascinating. I’ve seen The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures – movies that touch on achievements in space travel in different ways. One thing that unites them all is scope – each production details the stories of multiple people to tell their respective accounts. First Man in contrast is told from the exclusive perspective of a single astronaut. Writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) adapts from James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. The screenplay isn’t concerned with the inner workings of NASA or details of the Apollo 11 mission. It simply presents the personal point of view of Neil Armstrong.

In light of the current cultural conversation, First Man has a surprisingly traditional point of view. Recent portrayals (Hidden Figures) might contend otherwise, but this representation of NASA is overwhelmingly white and male. There has been a reactionary controversy regarding director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to illustrate the physical planting of the American flag on the moon. True it isn’t depicted, but it’s a moot point. The idea that this is a U.S. success is visually well documented in the film. The American flag is seen on the surface after it has been planted as well as visibly sewn on all of the astronauts’ uniforms. The words “United States” are clearly emblazoned on the side of the rocket ship. A coda highlights an interview with a French citizen who speaks highly of U.S. resolve. The outrage against a perceived left-wing agenda is ironic. The mood for most of the drama is practically a commemoration of a bygone era when men were men and women stayed home and minded the kids. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have this relationship. Oh and let’s start with the fact that that the very title of the picture is First MAN.

It’s interesting that Chazelle acknowledges that not everyone was a fan of the space program. There were those who felt that the billions spent could be put to better use. Actor Leon Bridges portrays revolutionary musician Gil Scott-Heron as he recites his spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon” – a searing indictment of the space program and conservative values. This appears right after vintage footage of author Kurt Vonnegut questions the cost of the American space program in light of a country with citizens that still didn’t even have food to eat or a place to live. It’s a valid argument. A cabin fire during the Apollo 1 mission kills astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) Ed White (Jason Clarke ) and Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) on board. At this point I started to question, should we even be doing this?  I mean is the value of the knowledge you gain from space travel worth the grievous loss of human lives?

Despite these moments, there is no question that the narrative means to idolize its subject and his purpose as an American hero. As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is a very interior individual. He’s a man of few words, relying more on expression than language. Honestly, it’s the kind of “quiet” performance that Gosling has been doing his entire career.  From his starring role in Drive to Officer K in Blade Runner 2049, Gosling has always been a bit of an enigma when he isn’t in a comedic role. Neil Armstrong is stoic man’s man that is an emotionally distant husband. It’s suggested that the agony he experienced from the death of his 2-year-old daughter from cancer drives him to focus his repressed grief into the space program. Regardless, Neil is admirable in his role as an explorer. He’s completely immersed in his patriotic work. Yet, as a human being, he is the idealized portrait of macho blankness. His feelings are suppressed to the point that he is an emotional void. There’s little in this individual with which the viewer can identify.  For example, if someone were to bring a cassette of their favorite music in 1969 most people would probably bring something along the lines of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, a little Motown perhaps? Not Neil. He brings an orchestral piece called “Lunar Rhapsody” by Les Baxter.

Although this is clearly Neil’s story, there is room for a few supporting characters. His fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) has more personality. The script paints Buzz as a bit of jerk, but there’s no denying that he has a lot more charisma. Watching him bound up and down in the distance is so different from Armstrong’s more reserved behavior on the moon. I secretly longed for an account about Buzz actually. Interestingly the emotional weight of the narrative rests on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy). Foy’s performance is so subtle and of so little dialogue that it didn’t affect me until after the chronicle was over. However, upon reflection, her acting is rather notable. She galvanizes our emotions. Her eyes speak volumes even when she isn’t given anything to say. Her achievement is impressive. She is the emotional center.

First Man is a most intimate affair. This is a personal account seen through the eyes of one Neil Armstrong.  The selling point is that director Damien Chazelle reproduces the “you are there” feeling that astronauts experienced during their flights. The movie opens with Neil flying a single-person jet in a test voyage. The camera shakes as the aircraft throttles uncontrollably. The view fixates on his eyes that remain wide open and alert. The plane sounds like it’s about to break away in pieces. The feeling of vertigo is almost paralyzing for the viewer. Yet Neil is the picture of calm. Chazelle shoots a few vignettes that rely on this visceral experience. Each display is a claustrophobic portrayal of a rickety vehicle barely held together by rivets and a nickel-steel alloy almost falling apart. Each punishing spectacle delivers an unforgettable sequence. It is both intense and authentic. The adventure ultimately climaxes with the Apollo 11 mission, It’s telling that Justin Hurwitz’ triumphant score is noticeably silent when they land. Chazelle dutifully recreates moments of the moon landing we’ve witnessed a million times. That includes Neil’s iconic statement “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet Josh Singer’s screenplay is more interested in Neil Armstrong the man, than in detailing what the rest of the world was thinking. That gives First Man a unique perspective on this story.

10-11-18

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18

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