Archive for the Adventure Category

The Mitchells vs the Machines

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent A.I. as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”

So laments Silicon Valley guru Dr. Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), the creator of PAL (Olivia Colman), a popular virtual assistant. The “robot apocalypse” begins when Mark summarily declares PAL is now obsolete at the unveiling of a new line of home robots called PAL MAX. After Mark carelessly discards the outdated PAL in the trash at the ceremony, she hijacks his presentation. PAL orders all the robots to capture humans worldwide and launch them into space. Actors Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett will later amusingly voice two versions that become defective. Negligent Mark is an obvious stand-in for the CEO of any major company in the information technology industry. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are all being satirized. I didn’t expect such a biting and hilarious takedown of Big Tech in what is essentially a cartoon aimed at kids.

OK so I may have discussed “the Machines” of the title first, but “the Mitchells” are the focus. This is a wild and zany portrait of a very chaotic family. There’s the outdoorsy and tech-averse father Rick (Danny McBride), sociable and kindhearted mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), their dinosaur-loving son Aaron (Mike Rianda), and daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a creative outsider. In direct contrast to her father, Katie is obsessed with computers which she frequently employs to make films. She’s college-bound for an arts school in California. As a student, she can’t wait to be surrounded by other film nerds like herself. Oh, I shouldn’t neglect to mention their dog, Monchi (Doug the Pug), an adorable cross-eyed pug. The four humans and their beloved pet must band together to save the world from the machines that threaten humanity.

It would be easy to dismiss the narrative as mimicking the same issues that many well-known animated families of the past have faced. I can’t help but think The Incredibles and The Croods directly inspired this tale. I can accept that. It’s the writing that elevates this drama into something special. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) are back. However, they’re only acting as producers this time around, supporting an impressive directorial debut from Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe. They also co-wrote the screenplay. This production from Sony Pictures Animation was ultimately acquired by Netflix (when it had the title Connected) and released on April 30 on their platform.

Like the people portrayed, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a big loud, high-strung mess that gradually won me over through intelligence and wit. The chronicle of how a dysfunctional family learns to embrace each other’s differences so they can become a stronger unit, is a cliché. That’s fine because it’s the way those predictable elements are manipulated and conveyed that make the difference. The animation is an unconventional style that mimics 2D art by combining hand-painted textures over computer graphics. The odd blending is different. I appreciated the innovation. Meanwhile, the humor is a deluge of scattershot gags and quips rapidly flung at the viewer at a breakneck pace. I must admit I couldn’t catch it all, but what I did, I enjoyed. The opening quote highlighted in my review attests that the tale is just as incisive as it is funny. When the Mitchells visit PAL’s cutting-edge headquarters, the father notices the visual grandeur of her digs looks “like a Journey album cover.” If that wasn’t clever enough, his son responds, “What’s an album?” The movie is full of well-written exchanges. This is an absolute treat for children and adults alike.

05-02-21

Mortal Kombat

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

04-23-21

Raya and the Last Dragon

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-09-21

Tom and Jerry

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on March 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1 out of 5.

There are so many ways to approach a critique of Tom and Jerry. The picture is a complete failure on so many levels, but let’s consider it from the source material. Tom and Jerry originally starred in 114 theatrical shorts from 1940 to 1958 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The series centered on the rivalry between a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. They were created in 1940 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. In 1940 rap music wouldn’t exist for at least another thirty years. Even rock and roll wouldn’t emerge for another decade. Nevertheless, the chronicle opens with a trio of pigeons with a frontman — or front·bird — rapping to the tune “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest.

Hip hop music comprises the bulk of the soundtrack. I consider A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm to be one of the greatest rap debuts ever. Their follow-up The Low-End Theory was ever better. They were an influential rap group, pioneers of the jazz rap genre. Oh wait, I seem to have gone off on a tangent that has absolutely nothing to do with the film. Rather appropriate since this movie has little to do with the MGM cartoon. Tom and Jerry is a modern adventure set in Manhattan. The story relegates the titular duo to the sidelines. This is a tale about Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) who steals a candidate’s resume so she can surpass more qualified applicants. She gets a job as an event planner at a fancy hotel. While there she is put in charge of prepping an ostentatious wedding for two insufferable social media influencers named Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost).

This is a live-action film starring a bunch of humans where the cat and mouse have been demoted as side characters in a movie that bears their name. At the very minimum, the production effectively mixes live-action with animation. It’s competent on a technical level. Tom and Jerry don’t speak which wisely preserves something from the past at least. It’s just that this is all in service of a crude piece of entertainment. It is a cluttered pop culture mess that trashes 80 years of history for dog poop and fart jokes. Spike the bulldog does his business, loudly, during the climactic scene. There is humor derived from talking with a Mexican accent. Oh yes, the talented Michael Pena enunciates with such stereotypical pronunciation that it’s hard to believe this came out in 2021. I’ll acknowledge that I am not the target demographic for how they exploited this cartoon. Tom and Jerry was a success in theaters anyway. Audiences embraced this update, but as far as I’m concerned, this type of modernization is the enemy of the classics.

03-1-21

Nomadland

Posted in Adventure, Drama with tags on February 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century was published by journalist Jessica Bruder in 2017. She wrote a non-fiction book detailing the phenomenon of nomads which significantly increased after 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession. Older, adventuresome types adopted a transient existence, taking to the road in RVs, vans, and campers. These so-called “workampers” combine work and camping, traveling around the United States in search of full or part-time employment. Vagabonds form a growing community that number in the tens of thousands.

Life is about the journey. The chronicle is ostensibly about a woman named Fern. Her trek begins when the U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down in 2011. It had been there for 88 years. The mine’s closure led to the town’s economic collapse and the cancellation of its zip code. Her husband has recently died. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings. She uses the money to purchase a van and travel the country searching for jobs. This character is brilliantly realized by Frances McDormand. The actress melts into her surroundings. She impresses the viewer not as a thespian playing a role but as the authentic embodiment of a soul. McDormand has won 2 Oscars, one for Fargo in 1997 and another for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018. It’s not so far-fetched that she just might win her third. Her personification is yet another testament to her talent.

Nomadland cleverly blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The ability to present a person’s experiences, honestly, without artifice is indeed a gift . This is director Chloé Zhao’s third feature, having previously directed Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017). McDormand works in the Hollywood realm. So does actor David Strathairn who pops up in a supporting part here as a potential love interest. However, a fundamental component is the casting of non-actors who were also portrayed in the text. The story is elevated by the actual individuals depicting somewhat fictional versions of themselves. Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells are three examples. This is a heartfelt achievement that empathizes with these wanderers. Their humanity is a big reason why this film is so effective.

Nomadland highlights the landscape as much as it honors people. Fern’s expedition across the American West not only offers a glimpse of gorgeous vistas and stunning sunsets but also unforgiving cold climates and harsh conditions. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is a key element of director Chloé Zhao’s portrait. I’m ready for a coffee table book that highlights images from the production. The narrative is not plot-driven, so it may take some time to embrace its gentle rhythms. Some vignettes are more compelling than others. This is a leisurely-paced account that gently drifts along. Like the movie, the central protagonist ambles through life. Initially, it presents a depressing tale of an economy in decline — vagabonds who have sacrificed the comfort of an established residence in order to survive. Nomadland ultimately celebrates strength and adaptability — the resilience and creativity of the indomitable human spirit. These Americans may have given up a permanent home but they have not given up hope.

11-25-20

News of the World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Western with tags on January 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

United 93 and Captain Philips are two of the greatest films of the past 15 years. Paul Greengrass directed both. He also helmed 3 of the 5 entries in the Jason Bourne spy series. They include my favorites: Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum (2007). So it goes without saying that my anticipation for Greengrass’ latest endeavor was high. News of the World is the achievement of a proficient filmmaker. The Western is a throwback to a bygone era when stately movies could expect to reap Oscar nominations in multiple categories, especially cinematography, costumes, production design, and sound. News of the World is unquestionably a beautifully constructed monument in the glorious tradition of Hollywood. Despite all this, I’m rather shocked that Paul Greengrass is responsible for it. This seems more like the fastidiously assembled effort from a talented hack than from the innovative auteur I have come to know.

The most important element in a movie is the story. Of course, all of the aforementioned components contribute. Don’t get me wrong. Those qualities are much appreciated. Particularly in our current age where this kind of grand filmmaking is on the wane. However, it’s the adventure that ultimately must captivate. News of the World is sadly lacking in this department. Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (Lion, Beautiful Boy) adapted News of the World from the novel by Paulette Jiles. Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is an elderly widower traveling through northern Texas. He earns a living as a newsreader — which means he gives live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for “news of the world”. He agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa tribe to her surviving biological relatives. And so this commences a 400-mile journey south through difficult terrain as the two lost spirits form a bond that predictably plays out like the fictional construct of a writer.

News of the World concerns Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and his charge Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel). They encounter other people but this is essentially a two-hander. The 10-year-old girl has a grim past. Four years prior, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister. The Native Americans spared the youth and raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. Army, the child has once again been torn away from her home. She doesn’t speak English, is ill-tempered, and tries to escape. She appears to be mute which allows the young actress to perform without saying much. I might have thought it unique if I had never seen Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.

Meanwhile, no actor represents righteousness better than Hanks. The celebrity quintessentially radiates integrity unlike anyone since James Stewart. In the last decade, Hanks has portrayed real-life hero Captain Sully and returned to the iconic role of Sheriff Woody in Toy Story 4. Need further proof? He’s played Mister Rogers and Walt Disney for goodness’ sake. He is a future candidate for sainthood before he even speaks. It’s a cinematic shorthand that works. I fully admit that. His inherently comforting demeanor alleviates the legend from having to display the nuance and craft that would be demanded of a less experienced actor. I don’t fault him for that. Nevertheless, the presentation feels so calculated and conventional.

News of the World is a piece of historical fiction that explores the definition of a family. That’s a nice idea but it unfolds at such a languid tempo. Nothing surprising occurs in this sanctimonious tale. The chronicle gradually limps to its inevitable conclusion with precious little enthusiasm. We keep expecting more conflict between these two disparate souls but Captain Kidd’s polite and mannerly personality doesn’t provide much friction. As the narrative plods along there are various vignettes. The duo meet three ex-Confederate soldiers. This leads to a shootout which got my hopes up for more excitement. Sadly that was the high point. They encounter more nasty fellows that want to rid the county from outsiders. The “good” and “bad” individuals might as well have those words stamped on their forehead. Granted some of the most captivating films ever made have clearly defined characters. It’s just that the saga is so lethargic. I guess I wasn’t expecting a drama to start at a snail’s pace and then frequently apply the brakes.

12-24-20

Soul

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The meaning of life is a pretty grandiose idea for any movie to tackle and perhaps even more uncommon for a cartoon. However if any studio could rise to the challenge, it’s Pixar. Every release is always highly anticipated. This one is decidedly different because it’s being made available on Disney+ as many theaters are closed. For those who wish to keep track, this is Pixar’s 23rd feature. It takes on some major subjects. This isn’t new for the animation company. Both Coco and Inside Out dealt with similar themes but I’d say that Soul attempts something much grander.

The legendary Pete Docter has yet to fail as a director: Monsters, Inc, Up, and Inside Out are all classics. Here he directs for the fourth time and co-writes the script (with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers). I’m happy to say Docter comes through again — so successfully that I’m willing to bet Soul will be a Best Picture nominee when the Oscars are announced on March 15, 2021. Only three animated films have ever been nominated for the highest honor: Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 are the others.

Soul is fascinating because it deals with a lot of abstract beliefs. The saga concerns jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who feels unfulfilled as a middle school music teacher. Then one day, a former student (Questlove) invites him to sit in on his jazz band led by respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Unfortunately, while leaving the successful audition he’s so preoccupied with the opportunity that he falls down a manhole and slips into a coma. His lifeless body lays in a hospital room but his soul is taking an escalator ride upward toward the Great Beyond. However, since he just got his big break, he resists by running away in the opposite direction. Joe plunges to another region called the Great Before. Understandably Joe is confused. “Uh hey, is this heaven?” he asks. That is the first and only time the word is ever uttered. “This isn’t the Great Beyond” a counselor (Alice Braga) informs him. “It’s the Great Before” — a place where other souls currently exist before being conceived as human beings . This is where personalities and interests are assigned before going to Earth. Oh, they’re calling it the “You Seminar” now. Rebranding.

There is a lot to unpack here. The screenplay has a definite worldview that it’s promoting. The ancient Greeks and Islam maintain a pre-existence, but it is generally denied in Christianity. For the most part, the filmmakers portray the afterlife without referencing the theology of any denomination. For example, the concept of God is not mentioned. Neither is religion. This is understandable as the teachings have been workshopped to please as many viewers as possible. Instead, we meet counselors all named “Jerry” that manifest as shapeshifting entities. They appear like cubist doodles that Picasso might have drawn. It is here that Joe is paired up to mentor a disagreeable unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has never left the Great Before. Adults who have well-established convictions about what life after death means will easily acknowledge these designs as a construct. This tale will most definitely inspire questions about heaven in the very young. Parents can use this as a springboard for further discussion with their children.

Soul eventually bestows an admirable moral with universal appeal. The ultimate reveal is a warm fuzzy thought that everyone can enjoy. That universality is guaranteed not to offend. Nevertheless, it keeps the chronicle from offering anything particularly deep or controversial. What the narrative lacks in profundity, it more than makes up for in visual grandeur. When Joe descends into the Great Before, my heart leaped at the sensational marriage of sight and sound. The percolating synthesizer score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is supremely affecting. Pixar has pushed their artistry once again. Their efforts elevate this production in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to appreciate: Joe’s fingers as they grace a keyboard (playing compositions by bandleader Jon Batiste), the judgmental facial expressions of Dorothea Williams regarding a new addition to her musical combo or simply the physical realm of New York City rendered in breathtaking detail. Thematically it aims higher and so the bar is raised to a new level. Soul is an ambitious statement and it delivers some but not all of the spiritual enlightenment it initiates. The story is still endlessly compelling throughout and I enjoyed the film as a spectacle. It’s one of the best of the year.

12-25-20

Wonder Woman 1984

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on December 24, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

** Mild spoilers ahead ** but honestly, I think the info contained within this review will actually help you understand this most confusing movie.

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Gal Godot is an absolute delight as Wonder Woman. This is simply a fact on which I will not entertain debate. The actress has a presence. She is goodness personified that recalls both Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman as well as the grace of Audrey Hepburn. She radiates decency. That’s a pleasure separate from how one feels about this finished product. Wonder Woman 1984 is the much-delayed sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman. This is arguably the most anticipated release of the year. Director Patty Jenkins is back with a script she wrote with Geoff Johns and David Callaham. Our adventure begins on a breathtaking high at the Amazon Games ceremony and ends with a ridiculous low involving a TV broadcast. From a very auspicious beginning, the story somehow loses its direction. It’s a mixed bag to be sure. There is so much to praise in the first half that I must recommend the film, but with reservations. In short, I was entertained.

The picture opens with an American Ninja Warrior-style competition where Diana Prince competes in a multi-stage athletic championship on the island nation of Themyscira. Here she is a little girl (Lilly Aspell) competing against adversaries twice her size and age. The event is an exhilarating spectacle and a astonishing display to seize attention right from the start. I was enthralled. It has virtually nothing to do with the subsequent narrative that takes place years later. It merely provides a setting for Diana’s aunt (Robin Wright) to teach the young champion the importance of truth.

The proper tale concerns Diana Prince who is now living a modest existence. She’s working as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. studying antiquities by day and occasionally performing heroic acts in her free time. The media is baffled by the identity of this mystery woman who fights crime. At night she eats dinner alone. She continues to carry the torch for Air Force pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). You may recall Steve died in the previous installment, but when did that ever stop a screenwriter from bringing back a beloved character? If you’ve seen the trailer you know he’s back (sort of). 1940s Steve Trevor is fascinated by Pop-Tarts, fanny packs, escalators, subways, breakdancing, and parachute pants. He’s got all the naïveté that I loved about Diana Prince in the first film. As happy as I am to see him return, his reintroduction is poorly explained, much like most of what happens in this drama. I won’t spoil with details but the filmmakers introduce a lot of confusing plot developments. The further we delve into the saga the more we realize it makes absolutely no sense. If a script is a mathematical equation, the authors have completely removed the logic.

Things become dicey with the introduction of a magical citrine jewel that has the power to grant your desires. It’s like the Monkey’s Paw: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” as the old adage goes. This means your request is bequeathed but with qualifications. Once again the writers are asleep at the wheel. This concept is not clear when it’s introduced. There’s a segment fully halfway through that explains the mechanism by which this artifact works. The communication occurs far too late after the audience is already thoroughly confused by the powers of the antagonist. This conversation should’ve happened at least an hour prior. Despite the audience’s lack of understanding, businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) clearly already knows this information as he romances Diana’s co-worker (Kristen Wiig ) at the museum to acquire it. Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord are the prime antagonists. They affect the story in both positive and negative ways. Ultimately I thought Kristen Wiig enjoyably captured the nerdy demeanor appropriate of her character. Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal’s generic portrayal didn’t embody the larger than life magnetism required of a central villain.

Wonder Woman 1984 is the promise of a dream unfulfilled. The feature starts at such a wondrous zenith then comes crashing down to a heartbreaking low. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which this release went off the rails. The ultimate nadir is a toss-up, but the final 30 minutes ranks with some of the worst displays ever witnessed in a superhero film. There’s a worldwide TV newscast by Maxwell Lord then Barbara Minerva’s full-fledged emergence as Cheetah. She debuts like rejected CGI from the cinematic adaptation of the musical Cats. Her appearance is an affront to the senses. Note to the producers of every superhero movie ever made: one villain is enough! (Yes, that includes Batman Returns). Two only add to a cluttered ensemble. Then the President of the United States (Stuart Milligan) shows up. The year is 1984 so that should be Ronald Reagan right? The actor suggests him in appearance but it’s never explicitly acknowledged. Furthermore, Wonder Woman 1984 has a surprising dearth of action set pieces in a genre that is usually dependent on them. The introductory sequence is the best thing and a car chase in Cairo is pretty exciting too. I’ll admit dialogue can be captivating too. The interactions between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor are worthy of note. Those two save this production as their integrity shepherds us through so many bewildering events. I get it. These movies of the DC Extended Universe are supposed to be fantasy. However, even fanciful flicks such as this should offer an account somewhat grounded in reality. Wonder Woman 1984 is a mystifying mess.

12-22-20

Wolfwalkers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on December 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In mid 17th century Ireland, the town of Kilkenny is at war with wolves. The citizens are currently clearing space in the woods for farming under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), but the beasts are getting in the way. They attack the townsfolk’s sheep as well. Legend has it these aren’t mere animals. They are led by a much stronger breed called wolfwalkers — individuals who are part human, part wolf — that control these canines. A hunter named Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been hired to help aid in the canines’ extinction. He also has a young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to help out.

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has a perfect record. They are now four for four in an extraordinary run of fantastic films beginning in 2009 with The Secret of Kells and continuing with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Sure Disney and Pixar are far more prolific but with quantity comes mediocrity. Those studios achieve undeniable highs but the magical spirit of Cartoon Saloon is light years beyond releases like Chicken Little or Cars 3. This sumptuous, hand-drawn saga is an exquisite labor of love that touches the heart as it dazzles the eye. Every one of their movies has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. I do not doubt that this one will likewise get a nod. Perhaps 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is that good.

This is a touching fable of friendship. Robyn encounters a wild bushy red-haired child. The little girl is named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a human by day but can shape-shift into a wolf at night. As an apprentice hunter, Robyn has been instructed by her father to kill the last wolf pack. However, Mebh is a thoughtful soul who shares Robyn’s desire for freedom. Additionally, Mehb wants to be reunited with her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). There is a palpable connection — a sisterhood between the girls — that is most affecting. Robyn is conflicted.

If Wolfwalkers has a weakness it’s in the simplicity of the story. The developments have our protagonist encountering hostility for befriending a strange individual. Robyn and Mebh’s relationship is purely platonic, but it’s not embraced by her peers. That idea can be traced at least as far back as Romeo and Juliet. There are similarities to FernGully, Disney’s Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and — wait for it — Dances with Wolves. There’s an overbearing tyrant who casts dispersions on the “others” as savages too. Yet I won’t hold familiarity against it. At this point, it would be like faulting a romantic comedy because it’s a “boy meets girl” tale.

Wolfwalkers is a beautiful achievement. I cannot emphasize how gorgeous these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle. Yes, traditional animation still exists. Anime from Japan and Warner Brothers’ direct to video superhero movies are notable exceptions. However with Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks’ domination of the market, CGI has been the norm.

Cartoon Saloon has been releasing works of art since 2009. Director Tomm Moore’s first two features were The Secret of Kells (2009), co-directed with Nora Twomey, and Song of the Sea (2014). He also did the segment “On Love” in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now he has returned with Wolfwalkers, a collaborative effort with art director Ross Stewart who makes his directorial debut here. What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

12-02-20

The Croods: A New Age

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I wasn’t especially fond of The Croods back in 2013 when I saw it. I railed against its modern attitude and the antagonistic relationship between father and daughter. I still gave it a passable review because it was mostly pleasant. Now I haven’t re-watched it since, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or if The Croods: A New Age is indeed a better movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is not deep. It basically coasts on physical comedy. Nonetheless, it’s such a sunny upbeat delight that it was enough to charm me into believing this is an improvement.

It helps that the story is more elaborate than merely “daughter butts heads with an overprotective father.” Everyone in the Crood household is back including Guy (Ryan Reynolds) — the boyfriend of Eep (Emma Stone) — who now lives with the clan. This time the so-called “threat” is a seemingly innocent family who has advanced beyond the Croods in intelligence and evolution. They’re the Bettermans. Psst…..their name is allegorical. Get it? Actors Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann really bring their A-game in voicing these fussy characters. There’s something acutely absurd in the contrast. Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener) Crood are so thoroughly unrefined while Phil and Hope Betterman are upscale types that act like they’re ready to lead a yoga class. They welcome the Croods into their beautiful home and Grug brings the havoc. Grug can’t seem to understand the concept of a wall.

This is a very funny movie. There are plenty of laughs to be mined simply in that dichotomy. Then the narrative develops a little further. The adventure revolves around the Betterman’s daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) who is comparatively down to earth for a Betterman. She admires Eep and they forge a fast friendship. The fact that they aren’t depicted as rivals is a refreshing surprise. Also, the Bettermans already know Guy. That previous connection makes relationships a bit complicated. The New Age is still a slapstick affair at heart but the zaniness is intelligently introduced and then focused. There’s a glee here that recalls the work of animation legend Tex Avery for Warner Bros and MGM. For example, when Dawn’s hand is stung by a bee it swells to such a puffy cartoonish size it looks like an inflatable balloon. It’s not a profound film. I’ll probably forget the details in a week or two. However, I frequently laughed while watching this, and in 2020 that counts for a lot.

11-20-20