Archive for the Adventure Category

The Fate of the Furious

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on April 20, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo fate_of_the_furious_ver2_zpsldq9ohik.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Fate of the Furious begins with a street race in Havana.  It’s a nice traditional nod to the kind of quaintly illegal activities that started this franchise during much simpler times. Of course, the preposterous storylines and feats of skill are the real joy for which this series is known. It’s the bizarre action set pieces that have come to define these pictures. That mentality that has made each entry such a delight for some and something for others to eschew.  The latter of which attest to never having seen any of these films like it’s a badge of honor.  I, conversely, have seen all eight and I freely admit this without shame.

Yet how do you assess a movie where the sillier and more unbelievable the stunts, the better? Let’s start with the cast. The ensemble for each has always been a revolving door. Even characters that you thought had been written out of the series for good without the possibility of a return, have been known to pop back into the continuity. Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kurt Russell are back. Newcomers Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, and Charlize Theron are fresh additions. This is the first chapter since Tokyo Drift not to include Paul Walker due to his untimely passing. His presence is missed. Jordana Brewster who played his wife does not return either.

This elite crew operates outside the law for the greater good. These criminals are bound together by a sense of loyalty. This extended clan are more than just friends, they’re family. In particular, Dom, Vin Diesel’s character, reminds us of this over and over again. That camaraderie has held this macho action soap opera together. This screenplay actually plays with that narrative a bit by having one of their own betray the others by working with the baddies. Who and why would be spoilers. That big twist should be revealed by watching this production. I will only offer though that it’s a risky move that isn’t entirely successful. The whole gang united together against the fight of evil has always been a key component of the drama. By tinkering with the formula the story removes a dependable quality that is missing from the story.

F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) takes over the directing duties from James Wan (The Conjuring). Interesting footnote: The Fate of the Furious reunites Gray with actors Charlize Theron and Jason Statham from The Italian Job, which came out back in 2003. The last movie, Furious 7, was extremely successful. Usually, it’s important to evaluate a film on its own merits without comparing it to other pictures. However, in the case of a franchise, I think it’s more than acceptable, it’s required. We are now eight chapters deep into this chronicle. Fast Five is where everything really came together, serving up a captivating recipe that mixes the genial friendship of a charismatic cast with outlandish stunts that wow audiences. That’s where the franchise really came into its own under Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond). He is the only filmmaker so far to direct more than one episode (parts 3-6). We should acknowledge how each new adventure measures up with the others. I think The Fate of the Furious transcends parts 2-4 but is less effective than the last 3 (episodes 5-7).

The first low-budget feature about street racing has gradually morphed over time into a big budget action extravaganza where driving cars is more of a detour. I’ve grown to enjoy this series as a whole. Still, I’ll admit that after eight entries, these sagas do start to blend together. It’s the stunts that I remember. This installment throws in a few doozies. Charlize Theron is a surprisingly generic villain, although the mayhem she causes is anything but. As cyberterrorist Cipher, she does a bit of hacking that causes a fleet of cars to high-dive off parking structures and essentially attacks a motorcade driving through the city. This implausible sequence in New York is my favorite moment simply because it’s just so ridiculous. Hobbs & Deckard’s prison break/fight sequence is memorable as well. Ditto the final race across an icy terrain from a nuclear submarine popping out of the frozen waters. Helen Mirren, Jason Statham and especially a baby are the most welcome personalities. Oh and there’s a nice nod to Paul Walker’s character at the end. All in all, it’s a rousing good time.

04-13-17

Kong: Skull Island

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on March 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo kong_skull_island_ver2_zpsvvhmmcyl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s hard to believe, but there have actually been 7 movies in which King Kong has appeared before Skull Island. The original (and best) is the 1933 classic starring Fay Wray. That masterpiece was famously remade in 1976 introducing Jessica Lange in her debut and then redone again by Peter Jackson in 2005. It’s been only 12 years since that director’s critically acclaimed, box office success, so why exactly is another version necessary?

Kong: Skull Island isn’t technically a remake per se, but rather an “original” story meant to serve as the second entry in a series not unlike Marvel’s cinematic universe. Here in this so-called MonsterVerse, the combatants will feature Godzilla and Kong. Although this new shared universe is a fresh franchise, the idea of pitting Godzilla against King Kong is not unique. It dates back to the 1962 Japanese feature King Kong vs. Godzilla from Tokyo-based distribution company Toho. Provided these contemporary films continue to be successful, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, will show up in future pictures as well.  Stay for a post-credits scene, by the way.

Kong: Skull Island flaunts an accomplished cast of actors with at least 10 speaking parts. John Goodman plays a senior official in charge of a group of scientists (Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins) funded by the U.S. Government. They’re escorted by Samuel L. Jackson as a U.S. Colonel and his right-hand man, an Army major portrayed by Toby Kebbell.  Jackson heads up an Army helicopter squadron of soldiers (Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero) from the Vietnam War. There’s also a British hunter-tracker played by a ripped Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson as a luminous looking photojournalist. I guess you could say the last two actors are the two central human stars but they don’t really register as such.

It’s a sizable cast. While all are adequate, hardly any of these underdeveloped characters have the charisma to enthrall us. Sure we’re given some superficial details about these people that are meant to captivate our interest, but we honestly don’t know them. It’s a shame to see such a notable assemblage of talent so underutilized. It harks back to the days of the casts in those 70s disaster flicks where spectacle was the star, not people. I suppose that’s not surprising given the title of this movie. The CGI creature is the presumed headliner. The fact that John C. Reilly stands out, however, is proof that he can outact almost anyone.

Kong: Skull Island pushes the old adage that bigger is better and this is the biggest Kong yet in terms of size. This upright walking gorilla is a 100-foot tall digital creation by Industrial Light & Magic. His colossal size will make the inevitable showdown with Godzilla more of an even match. Technically speaking, this is the most impressive version of the creature yet. That’s surely saying something too because Peter Jackson’s movie won an Oscar in that category. The special effects are state of the art. Besides Kong, there’s his natural enemies, the Skullcrawlers, which look like massive two-legged lizards. There’s also a giant spider, a colossal red squid, and an enormous water buffalo. Of course, if you’re familiar with this story, we all know who the real monster is, right?

The foundation looks incredible. The island is its own living breathing ecosystem. It’s a spectacular display and the scope of the creatures gives us a sense of awe. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts certainly delivers the goods. We don’t even have to wait long for the main attraction. Kong appears within the first 30 minutes. Nevertheless, character machinations are ridiculous. The dialogue is silly. This is strictly a B-movie with a much heftier budget. Screenwriters Max Borenstein and John Gatins toy with the events to give us a slightly different take. For one thing, we never leave that darn island. On the one hand, I guess it’s admirable they’re not merely giving us an identical account as previous incarnations of Kong but is what they offer really an improvement? The best part in every iteration of this fable – be it 1933, 1976 or 2005 – has always been the moment where our hairy hero is let loose in the city to contend with a world he doesn’t understand. I miss that part.

Kong: Skull Island is a mindless popcorn flick but it’s still pretty entertaining. This is a lot less ambitious than previous interpretations. Kong’s noble savagery is still apparent, but the main thrust of this action is little more than monsters run amok. The original fantasy had a self-contained plot with a poignant message. This entry exists as an intro to a beast that will go on to star in more installments. That modifies the narrative in a pretty significant way. In more cosmetic changes, the production is envisioned as a period piece as it moves the time frame back to 1973. 70s rock music blares on the soundtrack as helicopters loom in search of a mysterious figure in the jungle. Allusions to a certain Francis Ford Coppola directed war film are deliberate. Yet, I’m still not sure whether it’s intended to be so intellectually shallow. I suppose there’s joy in the simplicity of just the spectacle. Let’s put it this way, the less you think about it, the better it gets.

03-09-17

The Red Turtle

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on February 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo the-red-turtle-2016-01_zpsacawydlr.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe story, such as it is, begins when a man adrift in a storm washes ashore on an uninhabited island. At first, he forages for food, but after awhile he endeavors to escape. He builds a raft.  However, at sea, a large red sea turtle swims below and smashes the boat from underneath. The man swims back to the island. He tries, again and again with an increasingly bigger raft and each time the animal foils his attempts. Then one evening, the man spies the creature on the beach attempting to crawl inland. In a fit of rage, he hits the turtle over the head with a bamboo stick and then turns it upside down, setting in motion a fantasy that will blend elements of Hans Christian Andersen with an already Robinson Crusoe influenced tale.

The Red Turtle is a partnership between Japanese Studio Ghibli and French distributor Wild Bunch. Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit is doing the artwork. He received international recognition after winning the Oscar for his 2000 short film Father and Daughter. This is his debut feature. His style is reminiscent of Belgian cartoonist Hergé and his comic The Adventures of Tintin. It’s nice to see there’s still a place for the hand-drawn animation that has been widely rejected in recent years by major animation houses like Disney and Pixar. This production is above all an exquisitely animated gem.

The Red Turtle is an artistic work that is virtually wordless. Except for a few shouts of “Hey!” or cries of “Aargh!” there is no dialogue at all. The illustrations draw explicit attention to naturalistic detail. Beauty lies in the meditation on the flora and fauna – the whisper of the wind through the trees, an approaching rain, the buzz of cicadas in the forest, the rhythmic splash of waves against the sand, seeing the stars and moonlight reflected on the water. Whether it be a flock of birds flying overhead or a cast of crabs acting like cartoon sidekicks, this concentrated reflection on nature never ceases to be calm and comforting.

The Red Turtle coasts on ambient noise and wildlife sounds. Assisting the atmosphere is the sumptuous score of composer Laurent Perez Del Mar. By itself, the music is lushly atmospheric, but when paired with the gorgeous spectacle it occasionally veers to excess as it overly emphasizes the emotional cues.  When a tsunami hits, the music swells.  The visual splendor is enough. There’s no need to gild the lily.  Nevertheless, the exhibition is certainly a delight for aesthetes who prefer mood to plot and a languid pace over action.  While The Red Turtle feels like a short expanded to feature length, it’s undeniably pleasant and serene. Its simple joys are pure.

02-16-17

The LEGO Batman Movie

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Superhero with tags on February 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo lego_batman_movie_ver4_zpsc1rro5mm.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBack in 2014, Batman was introduced as a supporting role in The Lego Movie, an animated tale from Warner Bros. Now the Dark Knight has returned. Both his gravelly voice and out-sized ego are in full force in this humorous take that is his most (deliberately) funny manifestation yet. I still contend Joel Schumacher’s 1997 Batman & Robin is unintentionally funnier.  Director Chris McKay (Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken), who worked as an editor on The Lego Movie, is making his feature film debut here and he maintains the buoyant quality of the first picture.

The Lego Batman Movie is a rollicking good time. The light and breezy humor pokes fun at its own creation. The pop culture amalgamation is steeped in self-aware satire. It relies heavily on Batman history and every incarnation he’s ever had. Not only sampling from Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s work but from comic books, the campy 60s TV show, and animated adaptations as well. Unless you’re a superhero savant, it should be impossible to correctly place all the references. I laughed at a part where they recite a ridiculously long list of villains.  The Riddler, Catwoman and the Penguin I knew, but Polka-Dot Man, Crazy Quilt, and the Condiment King? I chuckled at the seemingly made up names. I had no idea that they were all real characters. The joke is amusing either way.

If you thought the triumph of The Lego Movie was a fluke, prepare to be surprised once more. The Lego Batman Movie is another delight. It’s smart and witty in a way that everyone, even this comic book illiterate, can enjoy. Batman fights crime by night but by day he lives an ordinary existence. He retires to his living room to watch a live action projection of Jerry Maguire on a big screen while he eats his microwaved Lobster Thermidor. His computer assistant informs him he has an expired Bed Bath & Beyond coupon, “but I hear some stores will honor them after the expiration date,” she offers. That’s so random it’s genius. Listen closely for a mention of cheesy 80s martial arts flick Gymkata.

But The Lego Batman Movie is first and foremost about the Caped Crusader. He’s once again articulated by Will Arnett. His absurd rendition stands in stark contrast to the dark and brooding iterations of the cinematic adaptations since 1989. Nevertheless, his goofy performance ranks up there with the very best. It’s a clever choice that his Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera voices Robin. The cast is spirited.  Rosario Dawson is the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon. Ralph Fiennes is Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler. Zach Galifianakis is the Joker. Even Mariah Carey plays a character. The whole production is agreeable fun. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the story is merely a perfunctory excuse to make wisecracks.  Even as the narrative sags in the 2nd half, the action continues to zoom forward in an increasingly eccentric fashion.  It plays for 15 minutes too long. Still, there are enough left-field references and rapid-fire gags to entertain. In fact, it’s tough to catch them all the first time around. I just might be willing to see it a second time.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on December 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_ver5_zpsp5ilvmau.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgFilms can make us laugh, cry, tremble and shout. Some of our most intense feelings occur when we’re at the cinema. I can cite reasons as to why I loved a given movie, but ultimately, it comes down to the emotional reaction I had while watching it. That’s why I can assign the same rating to a picture like Vertigo as I would to Team America: World Police. The reasons may be very different, but my enjoyment is the same. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first stand-alone film in the Star Wars anthology series. Chronologically it happens sometime after the events of Revenge of the Sith and immediately before the events of A New Hope (or Star Wars for those born before 1977). It’s a shining example of a production that did not engage my emotions in any way shape or form. I simply didn’t care. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t a satisfying experience either. Now in writing this review I have to assign the reasons why.

1.) The saga is overburdened with minutiae. There’s a lot going on here. We hop around to various locales and characters introducing a lot of people, places, and things but never concentrating on any one thing long enough to make an impression. We even get different time frames – a flashback of when our central hero was a little girl. There’s a lot of names being thrown about too. The messy screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) is jam-packed with Easter eggs. The script includes so many little in-jokes and winking nods to previous installments, that only the most obsessive Star Wars aesthete will get all of the negligible details. In and of themselves, these inside references aren’t bad. They can be amusing, but too many can take away from the importance of telling a meaningful narrative. There’s an art to telling a simple, good old fashioned story. Oh sure, the screenwriters know their Star Wars history. They’ve done their homework. The adventure has the brains but it lacks heart and a soul.

2.) There’s a ridiculous number of bland characters.  Too many parts mean a lack of focus on a motivating protagonist. Felicity Jones’s warrior, Jyn Erso, teams up with Diego Luna’s rebel spy, Cassian Andor, to steal the plans for the Imperial Death Star. Yet neither Jyn nor Cassian inspires our passion with their lethargic charisma. They just exist to recite their lines so they can advance a dense plot. Without a galvanizing presence to arouse our sympathy, it’s hard to care. Maybe that’s why we also get a veritable backstory of secondary people each one more undefined than the next. Donnie Yen is slightly more invigorating than the rest as a blind monk guided by the Force. However Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker all have “key” roles that are so undeveloped that they barely register as personalities. Come see an international cast of great actors portraying insubstantial parts! The screenplay doesn’t have the desire to have them do anything to incite our affection. There’s one exception but it doesn’t even involve someone human. The very best (and he is a delight) is a droid, K-2SO. He’s been programmed to be incredibly honest and speak his mind. He’s like a sassier version of C-3PO portrayed in motion capture and voice by Alan Tudyk. I wish the entire movie had been about him.

3.) Rogue One is a depressing slog. This is a dour affair with surprisingly little humor. It’s telling that even most fans pick K-2SO as their favorite thing about this.  The convoluted tale doesn’t have a narrative to stimulate the emotions. I could go into specifics but that would involve revealing plot details which are apparently verboten when discussing these kinds of pictures. Translation: movies with an overzealous fan base. Words wasted encapsulating what happens are superfluous anyway. That’s why you watch the film. A good review should explain why it succeeds or fails.  Let’s just say the drama is dark and joyless. Not just in spirit but in its presentation. The gritty cinematography has the feel of a documentary about a war-torn country. A dreary blue-gray color palette underscores the gloom.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Let Me In, Zero Dark Thirty, and Foxcatcher) has lensed some pretty bleak features. In those, his technique worked because the subject matter demanded it. This is such a grave exercise. I thought Rogue One was part of the Star Wars world,  a thematically hopeful series that’s easy to follow. An adventure of when good triumphs over evil. Granted a little bit of optimism is shoehorned in when a cheesily inserted reference to A New Hope is spoken by a CGI Princess Leia of all people. Last year’s’ referential The Force Awakens may have been Star Wars redux, but at least it was an exciting hybridization. It succeeded because it was unbridled fun. Rogue One is cobbled together from other chapters as well, but it’s so serious it’s didactic. If I wanted to sit through an academic exercise, I’d take a course at the local community college.

Rogue One is well done from a technical standpoint. It has awe-inspiring special effects, meticulous production design, and a rousing score. It draws from a universe of films that I already adore. Well, 4 out of 7 anyway. (Those prequels are pretty weak.) The epic long battle, which comprises the second half, is impressive but it lacks a key component – our emotional attachment. Probably because the script hasn’t engendered our love for these individuals. That’s a key dilemma. The original trilogy embodies three of the most entertaining movies ever made. The grim Rogue One doesn’t even feel like the same universe. Luke, Han, and Leia were captivating, but there’s not one person here to make this story interesting. The chronicle certainly isn’t necessary. It’s merely an assembly line product efficiently produced to make money. You don’t need this other than to answer a lingering question. Why did a design flaw exist enabling the Rebel Alliance to launch torpedoes into a tiny exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star?  Rogue One uses 133 minutes to basically give us an answer. Thanks for the fan fiction, but you could’ve just told me.

12-15-16

Moana

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on November 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo moana_ver4_zpshihqyz6h.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIf there’s an archetype that Disney is most known for, it’s the princess. Snow White, Cinderella Sleeping Beauty – these are the classics. In recent years we’ve added ones from Tangled and Frozen. The studio’s latest offering is Moana (voiced by Hawaiian teen Auli’i Cravalho). Ok so she’s actually the daughter of her tribe’s Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), not royalty as she herself points out for us, but she fits the princess mythology. The paradigm has always been loosely defined, but if the movie is a success, then she’s adopted into the tradition. If there’s any justice, this movie deserves to be a huge hit.

Moana is all about a quest. She hails from the fictional island of Motunui. Although that is indeed the name for a settlement in New Zealand, the location is set on an unspecified archipelago. This could be also Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii or any peninsula in the South Pacific. Moana is intrigued by the sea. However, her love for the oceans is sternly repressed by her father. The world is a dangerous and scary place he tells her. Those feelings are rooted in his own personal trauma. Yet we’ll discover, Moana’s longing has a basis in her cultural destiny. Her island is slowing declining. Crops are dying, coconuts are rotting, and fish are becoming scarce. According to legend, there’s a reason for this. Many years earlier, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. This was a glowing green, jade-like stone. The absence of Te Fiti’s heart will continue to bring hardship. So, inspired by her Grandma Tala (Rachel House) Moana sets out on a journey to find the ancient gem and restore her world to its original magnificence.

The leading ladies of Disney have undergone a personality overhaul over the past three decades beginning with Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The classic princesses have been criticized for being too simplistically innocent. On the other hand, the modern ones can be a bit self-centered in their rebellion against a repressive society. I know it’s technically Pixar (owned by Disney) but Merida from Brave actually turned her mother into a bear. She was downright mean. Yes, Moana rebels in predictable fashion too, but she feels a little different. For the first time in quite a while, she exudes more humility than I have seen from Disney’s recent heroines. Simply put, she is a nicer person. Additionally, she has no love interest. It’s lamentable that we’re at a point where even a minor deviation from the rigid princess blueprint is considered revolutionary but here we are. Moana is refreshingly different.

You’ve got a spunky, can-do explorer at the center of a bright shiny musical with a positive message. Moana may be set between 2000 and 3000 years ago, but she’s still a contemporary heroine tailor made for a 2016 audience. Whether it’s Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esméralda, Mulan or Tiana, Disney has included more ethnically diverse protagonists for quite some time now. This time the formula is gently tweaked to include a Polynesian setting and people. Moana isn’t tall and stick thin but she’s still attractive. Certainly an athletic type. Disney has yet to really get subversive and create a leading lady that doesn’t look like she could model. Legendary demigod Maui has a wildly expressive face and a giant physical presence when compared to Moana. The juxtaposition of her tiny physique with his massive frame is amusing. The art direction draws heavily from Samoan culture incorporating the architecture, statues, even body art. The adult characters sport tattoos. Maui even interacts with a figure on himself that pantomimes advice like his sidekick.

Moana finds Disney working very much within their wheelhouse. The production is immeasurably enhanced by songs written by Opetaia Foa’i of the New Zealand group Te Vaka, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s Hamilton fame, and American composer Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan), who also composes the musical score. Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” is the obvious bid for a hit single in the vein of “Let It Go” from Frozen. However, there are many others that stand out. The Rock sings “You’re Welcome” and it’s instantly catchy.  The tribal chant “We Know the Way”, partially sung in Tokelauan, is great too. Oh and “Shiny” sung by a villainous coconut crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) is completely unexpected – like early 70s era David Bowie. The music is great. I think the sheer number of memorable songs is higher than any of their animated features since perhaps the 90s.

Young girl wants to realize her destiny by breaking free from the strict confines of her society. We’ve seen the hero’s journey story before. It gently recycles elements of The Little Mermaid, Mulan and half a dozen other of their own creations. Even the way the chronicle presents fluctuating happy and sad events won’t surprise anyone over the age of 5. Moana and Maui’s rocky relationship are highlighted by ups and downs that I would warmly describe as haphazardly predicable . Yet the production is carried out in such a proficient manner that the appropriation is still incredibly entertaining. The soundtrack is filled with one transcendent song after another. The animation is vibrant and appealing. The evocation of paradise is stunningly beautiful. Even the water is a translucent character that protects our young hero. Her pets, a pig (Puanani Cravalho) and a rooster (Alan Tudyk), each provide wonderful comic relief. Moana happily employs an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mentality that includes the sum total of what makes a Disney film entertaining.  You want colorful animation, music, sidekicks, a comic villain, humor, a moral?  Well how about an army cuddly cute coconut warriors?  You get all that and more and it’s skillfully presented in an artistically appealing way.

11-22-16

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on November 21, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver4_zpsqgp7sexh.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s been 5 years since the Harry Potter series ended in 2011. That saga may be over and done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t revisit the world. In 2001, J.K. Rowling published what was purportedly one of Harry Potter’s textbooks from Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. The plotless tome was attributed to one Newt Scamander. He’s a wizard with special knowledge in magical creatures. From that slender 128-page volume comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Four additional sequels are in the works as well. Harry Potter addicts, come get your fix!

Fantastic Beasts is actually set in a time well before a lad named Harry Potter ever even existed in a land far removed from the UK – New York city in the 1920s to be exact. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives there to drop off an animal that rightfully belongs in the U.S. His mysterious briefcase is actually filled with a coterie of enchanted critters. A mix-up at the bank switches his suitcase with a hapless man seeking a loan there named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As a result, some of the creatures are released into the world and it’s up to our timid hero to try and round them up. Assisting him are Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror and current member of the wizard police. There’s also her big-hearted sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

Fantastic Beasts wastes no time in laying the groundwork for a new cast of wizards and witches. But what can you say about a film where the side characters are more interesting than the leads?  Newt is certainly a peculiar little man. He arrives with disheveled hair cascading down his forehead and a sheepish grin. Eccentric, shy, no wait, make that painfully introverted. The wizard is so soft spoken he tends to mumble his words. It’s an idiosyncratic performance and one that’s a bit hard to warm up to. I honestly couldn’t understand about half of what he said. That’s pretty frustrating when he’s the star of your picture. I wasn’t particularly taken with the businesslike personality of Porpentina either. She’s ho-hum. Her younger sister Queenie, on the contrary, is another story.  Actress Alison Sudol’s wide-eyed, Betty Boop style floozy is a joy. She is a free-spirited woman who can read minds. The singer-turned-actress is such a pleasure. Ditto her romantic rapport with wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski played by Dan Fogler. An ordinary man with no magical ability – he’s what the Brits call a “muggle”. Ah but we’re in America now so we’re told the term here is a “No-Maj”. Ok, whatever. He’s great regardless of what vocabulary you use define him. The two have palpable charisma together. Whenever they were on screen I was captivated. Can these two get a spin-off?

The leisurely paced narrative is not in a hurry to get anywhere. That’s fine because it’s the creation of a fictional world that is this production’s strong point. The meandering account is introduced when Jacob Kowalski and Newt Scamander accidentally switch luggage. The event is more of a conduit through which to introduce a menagerie of various living things that escape from his bag. I loved the Niffler. A mischievous critter that looked like a platypus but roughly the size of a mole. He’s a tiny scamp. There’s also a Bowtruckle named Pickett. He’s a pocket creature that resembled a twig-like man. Think mini-Groot from Guardian of the Galaxy. There are other animals and they’re all rendered beautifully. I don’t know if CGI is just getting better or I’ve been beaten down by such a reliance on these special effects in modern movies that I’ve just come to accept them. The phantasmagorical displays are easy on the eyes.

At best, the unfocused production is a visual delight. At worst, the dark developments are tonally odd . There’s a tiresome subplot about repressive fascists. Crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is head of an extremist group against wizards and magic. She thinks children should muzzle their magical gifts. It’s like X-Men but for toddlers. This makes them quietly go crazy. Ezra Miller is Credence Barebone, her troubled adopted son. Miller is normally a dynamic presence. I’ve enjoyed his work since the very beginning of his career. Yet here he is given little to do other than sleepwalk through the chronicle as a catatonic creep. Colin Farrell as Percival Graves is better but not by much. His poorly defined character is tasked with tracking down Newt. He changes in a way that is both confusing and dispiriting. I could say more, but I consider spoilers to be verboten.

There’s a lot to recommend. This should satisfy both Harry Potter fans and fantasy enthusiasts as well. Director David Yates is back. He brings his quirky aesthetic to this new film and the touch is welcome. He directed the last four installments of the Harry Potter series and he will direct all 5 of these films as well. On the other hand, Steve Kloves, who adapted every Potter movies except Order of the Phoenix, is only a producer here. This time the script is penned by none other than author Dame J. K. Rowling herself. This is her first screenplay. She pretty much had free reign to adapt her work any way she saw fit. We get a wandering two-hour plus movie from a meager story thread. Fantastic Beasts is a suitably accomplished escapist adventure. However the attempts to mix upbeat fantasy with something more sinister, fall flat. At best, the tale is a fanciful stroll through a dreamlike world. Nicely photographed, with a lush score and special effects galore; these all unite to create an occasionally bewitching imaginary universe.

11-18-16

Doctor Strange

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo doctor_strange_ver11_zpso25d43em.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgComic-book productions currently entertain as large a share of the overall film audience as they ever have. Moviegoers are inundated with product. This is the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) alone. I’m not even counting other features based on Marvel fiction like X-Men or Spider-Man and then there’s DC and all of its iterations. As with any series, some of it’s major (The Avengers) and some of it’s minor (Ant-Man). It’s just that there are so many origin stories. There is a template and they’re all so similar. There’s sort of a generic sameness that many of these superhero flicks fall into. The best redefine the genre and set their own course. Doctor Strange doesn’t raise the bar. However this creative fabrication does inundate the viewer with visual stimuli and to that end, the movie entertains.

Doctor Strange is thwarted by repetitive story beats. Brilliant/wealthy genius becomes helpless then discovers magical powers/suit after meeting a powerful entity. Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) are rather iconic at this point so it’s hard not to feel a little been there done that as this thin plot unfolds. In this case, our hero is an acclaimed neurosurgeon but loses the use of his hands in a car accident. He hears that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic rather than Tibetan mystic) might be able to help him and he journeys to an isolated community in the Himalayas to meet her. The Ancient One shows Dr. Stephen Strange her powers. He pleads for her instruction, and she eventually agrees, despite his arrogant disposition. Some time later, Strange encounters a sentient cape and he dons it for protection.

The accomplished cast delivers their lines with all the gravitas of a Shakespearean drama. Star Cumberbatch has the serious demeanor to make all this silliness seem thoughtful. Jedi-like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his Morpheus-like master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), stand out as well. They make their preposterous lines seem credible. But Strange’s love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), is a particularly thankless role. Granted she’s not the proverbial damsel-in-distress. In fact, she’s even less important than that stereotype because her role is completely superfluous. Elsewhere Strange has learned to spin fire circles in the air that create doorways to escape to other places. It all builds to an expected showdown between good and evil as preordained by these fables. But Strange’ character arc makes no sense. First, he’s a jerk, then suddenly he’s not. Where did his climatic act of selflessness come from? The fact that it takes place in an alternate time-loop dimension is different at least.  Points for that I guess.

Doctor Strange is a formulaic origin story with dazzling computer-generated imagery. Director Scott Derrickson adheres closely to the superhero blueprint. He makes sure to add humorous quips that are indeed genuinely funny. After he accepts a card from Mordo, Strange asks, “What’s this? My mantra?” “It’s the wi-fi password,” Mordo responds. “We’re not savages.” Where filmmaker Derrickson steps outside the box is in the hallucinogenic head trip effects. The kaleidoscopic metropolis is rendered as if designed by M.C. Escher. Master of the mystic arts, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his minions chase after Strange and Baron Mordo through 3D manipulated landscapes that delight the eye. As one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius is a stock villain. Unfortunately, he’s a snooze. His dialogues with Dr. Strange are completely ridiculous.  Virtually everything he says is gibberish, but the visuals aren’t. It’s fun to watch.  It isn’t innovative though. The Matrix or Inception did these ideas earlier and did them better. It’s still fun to look at though. Doctor Strange is a dubious trendsetter – the first MCU movie where spectacle outshines a boilerplate adventure.

11-03-16

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Posted in Adventure, Science Fiction on October 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo miss_peregrines_home_for_peculiar_children_zpsbvzyjo5a.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThere’s no denying that Tim Burton has a distinct point of view. He’s always championed the outsider, the weird, the different in his movies. Thus he seems ideally suited to lens an adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The debut novel by author Ransom Riggs recounts the tale of Jacob “Jake” Portman (Asa Butterfield), a seemingly normal boy who wants to learn more about his beloved grandfather after his death. Jake’s search uncovers clues that lead to an orphanage on Cairnholm Island in Wales. Once Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s estate, he descends into a world of the unknown. There he finds himself in a bizarre time loop populated by a group of odd youngsters. What makes them so unique is that they have supernatural powers or deformities. Grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) had always filled Jake’s head with these fantasies when he was very young. It now appears that these whimsical bedtime stories were indeed the truth.

Fables about orphans, often ones on the fringes of society, have long been the subject of beloved fiction. The Outsiders, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, even Annie are some of our most enduring tales. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is no different. Ok so our narrator Jake isn’t an orphan. He has a mom (Kim Dickens) and a dad (Chris O’Dowd). However his grandfather didn’t and neither do the kids under the care of Miss Peregrine. This is an adventure about the struggle to find a place to fit in. It speaks to anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite conform to rigid societal norms.  In essence, it’s for everyone. So no, the idea isn’t particularly fascinating or innovative but the manifestation of that idea is. The construct allows Tim Burton to work within his wheelhouse. Say what you will about Burton’s narratives. His work is visually gorgeous. Miss Peregrine is no exception.

Tim Burton has assembled a strong cast. Eva Green is a joy as the headmistress with a smoking pipe who has some peculiar abilities of her own. She’s not the primary lead but she’s mentioned in the title so I’d say the character is a key component. Miss Peregrine is sweet, but there’s an edge to her. She’s sort of a “Scary” Poppins that speaks in soothing tones with just enough curtness to her words to have a little bite. Then there’s the Peculiars, little curiosities, each one with a special ability. We live in the time of superhero movies so they’re not unlike the X-Men to cite a familiar reference. This one floats, another controls fire, he is invisible, she has superhuman strength, this boy has a beehive in his stomach. There are others. The benefit of their ability isn’t as important as its portrayal in cinematic form. The script doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly understand these people in any meaningful way. Yet I had fun in simply discovering and understanding their talents. Samuel L. Jackson plays the film’s main antagonist, the power-hungry Mr. Barron. Apparently, he is the leader of a group of evil monsters who look human. Unfortunately his poorly defined villain is a weakness of an increasingly convoluted saga.

The fable is not perfect by any means. It has a tendency to drag in the 3rd quarter, but I was mostly entertained throughout. Miss Peregrine’s simple beginning starts out promisingly, then grows ever more puzzling. It ultimately lacks a coherent narrative. Yet it never fails as a beautifully realized period piece. Tim Burton is known for his fantastical worlds. Miss Peregrine is the expression of the director’s dreams. The cinematography is nicely handled by 4-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inside Llewyn Davis). Set in 1943 with Gothic flourishes, Tim Burton makes good use of on-location shooting, first in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, then Belgium, England, and Wales. All of that shows in the strong visual aesthetic. Torenhof Castle in Belgium was used as the setting for Miss Peregrine’s home and it’s stunning. I especially liked the exterior shots with a topiary garden of various animals. The production design utilized the actual rooms inside along with constructed practical sets, as opposed to digital backdrops.  These include a parlor, a dining room, a conservatory and a lab where one of the children can resurrect the dead. Speaking of which, there are many delightfully frightening images. Colleen Atwood’s costumes exploit this too. The image of two mute twins in white robes and masks to match, still haunt my mind. The chronicle is long and unfocused, but there are still enough moments to charm. Think of it as an exquisite but messy entanglement.

09-29-16

Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo kubo_and_the_two_strings_ver13_zpstii1y4fz.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA new production from Laika Entertainment is something to celebrate. They’re the creators behind the Oscar-nominated features Coraline and ParaNorman, animated films I adored. Unlike rivals Pixar or Walt Disney, the studio specializes in stop-motion animation in which an actual object is physically manipulated one frame at a time to create a moving image. The advent of computer animation has currently replaced the once ubiquitous traditional hand-drawn approach. Their technique is a unique and specialized art. Characters have the look of moving puppets. When it’s done well, it’s transcendent. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a welcome addition to Laika’s growing oeveure.

The animated tale takes place in ancient Japan. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives with his single mother. She has taken ill. At night, when she becomes active, Kubo attends to and cares for her. By day, he journeys to the local village square where he plays his beloved shamisen, a Japanese three string guitar. His performances magically summon origami creatures to life as they act out the legend of his father, Hanzo, a great warrior who died while protecting him. Unfortunately shadowy figures from his past, Kubo’s witch-like aunts (both Rooney Mara), discover his whereabouts and he is separated from his mother (Charlize Theron). He is offered help from Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with the appearance of a beetle-like man. Together they must find the three components of his father’s armor to use as protection from his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns Kubo in the very first line of spoken dialogue. And indeed there is so much to appreciate visually. The spectacle positively dazzles the eye. Each acquisition in their quest is a marvel to witness. The extraction of The Sword Unbreakable from a humongous skeleton, The Armor Impenetrable, a breastplate, hidden below the sea in the Garden of Eyes, and the of the location of The Helmet Invulnerable revealed in a dream. That last revelation leads to the climatic showdown.

Kubo and the Two Strings has all the attributes of classic folklore – an account that has been passed down from one generation to the next. But don’t go looking for this fantasy in some sacred text. The original screenplay was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, with a “Story By” credit for Shannon Tindle. Given the contemporary origins of the saga, I suppose I can forgive the Hollywood movie star voices in the place of actors that could have better conveyed the authenticity of feudal Japan. Despite the somewhat generic “hero’s journey” trappings of the adventure, the drama touches upon some weighty themes. You have to admire a cartoon that challenges younger viewers to consider the nature of humanity. Is death really the end of someone’s life when one is still held in the hearts of those that loved them?  Along the way, the chronicle never ceases to be anything less than captivating. The style is so crisp, colorful and vibrant, that it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the craft. This picture is simply a joy to behold.

08-23-16