Archive for the Adventure Category

Space Jam: A New Legacy

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Sports with tags on July 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Space Jam starred Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan. Now 25 years later, Space Jam: A New Legacy stars Bugs Bunny and LeBron James. LeBron was 11 years old back in 1996 when the original came out. He was the perfect age for that movie…and this one.

While the first film was pretty zany, it’s downright calm and composed compared to this sequel. The villain here is Don Cheadle as Al-G Rhythm — a play on the word “algorithm.” The pun is appropriate because he’s the artificial intelligence inside the Warner Brothers computer server. Al-G is angry that LeBron James doesn’t respond well to his movie deal idea. In retaliation, Al-G kidnaps LeBron and his son Dom (Cedric Joe) into his virtual reality. Then he has them each play on opposite sides of a computer simulation of a basketball game that includes the Looney Tunes on one side and the Goon Squad on the other. Confused? Welcome to the club.

The high point occurs about 30 minutes in when LeBron is sent to Tune World to round up a team. There he becomes a 2D cartoon version of himself. He meets Bugs Bunny and he’s flattered to find out the rabbit knows who he is. That’s amusing. So are their introductory moments that recall Bugs’ famous shorts. Ultimately they travel to different worlds based on Warner Bros properties to assemble a team of Looney Tunes (Lola Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Wile E Coyote, Road Runner, Speedy Gonzales, Daffy Duck, Taz, Elmer Fudd, Granny, Marvin the Martian, Tweety Bird, Gossamer, Sylvester, and Foghorn Leghorn). Yeah, there’s a lot of characters. Ah but we’re just getting started.

The 2D animation is indeed charming, but the feeling is short-lived. Just before the tournament begins, Al-G declares it’s time for an upgrade and turns everyone into 3D CGI versions of themselves. LeBron goes back to being himself. Then their opponents — the aforementioned Goon Squad — are introduced. They’re genetic mutations of players from the NBA and WNBA with special superpowers. There’s the Brow (Anthony Davis), Chronos (Damian Lillard), Wet-Fire (Klay Thompson), Arachnneka (Nneka Ogwumike), and White Mamba (Diana Taurasi). The spectacle grows even more incoherent.

The story is rather simple when you distill it down to its bare essence. The byzantine machinations are merely an excuse to have a big showdown on the basketball court. The thing is, this isn’t basketball. It’s a computerized imitation of the sport, so none of the rules apply. There is a court and occasionally someone dribbles an inflated rubber object, but that is where the similarities end. The battle is so chaotic and bizarre with the flying and the CGI and video game manipulations my eyes didn’t know where to look.

Also vying for your attention are the spectators watching the competition. Director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, Night School) is working from a screenplay credited to a whopping SIX writers. I’d be willing to wager there were even more given the complete disarray of ideas. They’ve decided to highlight a huge crowd made up of characters from the movies of Warner Brothers past. You’ll see Batman, The Mask, the Wicked Witch of the West & a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz, Pennywise the clown from It, and hundreds of other properties that they own — but without context or emotion. It feels like a piece of corporate product designed to advertise their vast array of entertainment choices. Additionally, you’re constantly seeing these people in the background, so the bystanders take focus away from the central event. Even the violent gang from A Clockwork Orange in their bowler hats is enjoying the match. I’m so glad they were, because I wasn’t.

Last week, The Onion — the satirical online website — published an article: “6-Year-Old Debating Whether To See ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy Following Negative ‘New York Times’ Review.” Hilarious and I get it. This movie certainly wasn’t made for me. If you have kids under 12 they might enjoy all the silliness. It is colorful.

07-16-21

The Tomorrow War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix is far and away the dominant presence on the Nielsen streaming ratings. It has the most-watched programs. However, Amazon Prime Video is still a player. Recent titles include Coming to 2 America in March and Without Remorse in April but The Tomorrow War topped them all in popularity. It was digitally released on July 2 and (according to Samba TV) was seen by 2.4 million U.S. households over the 4 day holiday weekend. Just a week later, the filmmakers confirmed the sci-fi actioner would get a sequel. Yes, it’s now a thing.

Problems begin when Earth is visited in the present day by soldiers from the future year 2051. They inform the populace that the planet is under attack from alien invaders and they need recruits to help in that crusade. Chris Pratt plays an ex-Green Beret named Dan Forester who now teaches high-school chemistry. He is drafted into service without any say in the matter. Most married people with families would be unhappy by that turn of events, but he genuinely seems optimistic about this new direction in his life. His fellow trainees (Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub) are less enthused.

So let’s start on a positive note. I like Chris Pratt and he helps the adventure coast along on the goodwill of his considerable charisma. Ok now on to the “What the hell?!” part.

You have to suspend natural disbelief in this whole operation. We learn there is a less than 30% survival rate. Even when Dan and the other draftees are sent forward in time to do battle, they are accidentally dropped high above the city. Scarcely any survive the first few seconds. C’mon! They haven’t even met the creatures yet. There are glimpses of the citizens back on Earth upset with the whole process of the draft. Dan’s wife (Betty Gilpin) and his estranged father (J. K. Simmons) are among those unhappy about it, but I think most of the world would escape into hiding before allowing themselves to be sent on this ridiculous suicide mission.

Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and screenwriter Zach Dean (Deadfall) give the public what they came for: action and aliens. Dan meets a Colonel named Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) there. We find out immediately that she’s his adult daughter. The two of them work together to fight the intruders. The story is generic and the combat scenes are chaotic. The horrific beasts– called White Spikes — are interesting though. They suggest aquatic critters with huge tentacles, but travel on land akin to a swarm of insects. However, other than Chris Pratt there’s not much to separate this from a silly B movie on the Syfy channel. The Tomorrow War is fabricated from the DNA of Terminator, Total Recall, and Independence Day. The audience-pleasing formula accounts for its clear success on TV. I found it to be a passable diversion.

07-07-21

Black Widow

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Black Widow was first introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. The perpetually sidelined superhero has finally gotten her own standalone feature in 2021. It’s long overdue.

There are two mindsets in which to approach this film. The first is as an expert. This is the 24th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Anyone able to keep track of the way all the various people, alliances, and developments fit together, deserves a Ph.D. in comic book history. You have my respect. The rest of us — me included — are better off disregarding trying to remember everything that happened in the past. Simply appreciate the movie at face value for what it is. In this case, a decent spy thriller.

Black Widow succeeds as a character-driven action thriller. As a necessary installment to clarify the MCU franchise, it comes up short. Case in point: the chronicle feels like an afterthought. A fan will notice the adventure is retroactively set during an earlier time to adhere to the series’ continuity. These events take place right after Captain America: Civil War occurred in 2016 but before what happens in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. The picture should have come out 4-5 years ago. Ah but Black Widow is still an entertaining actioner. Better late than never.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been isolated from the other Avengers. Dissension amongst the group has split them up. She signed the Sokovia Accords at Iron Man’s behest but then sided with Captain America when it really counted. Oh snap! She played both sides. She’s currently not on friendly terms with Iron Man and on the run. Did you follow any of that? No matter. The setup merely provides an opportunity to present a completely new cast. Except for William Hurt who returns in a cameo as U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross. We meet mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour). Surprise! The people who raised Natasha in suburban Ohio may not actually be biologically related to her.

At a young age, Natasha was placed in a covert Soviet facility known as the Red Room. There she was brainwashed and schooled in combat and espionage. Many other girls received this spy training as well. They became mindless assassins without free will, turning them into “Black Widows.” Her sister (Florence Pugh) likewise was also educated in this fashion under the direction of evil mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He also commands an elite operative called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to do his bidding — a tangent that unnecessarily complicates a deeply tortuous narrative. Director Cate Shortland (Lore) directs from a screenplay written by Jac Schaeffer that was rewritten by Ned Benson, who was in turn replaced by Eric Pearson. There’s a lot of plot. The story excels when it’s focused on fewer characters, not more.

The core “family” forms a ragtag group somewhat reminiscent of dynamic in The Incredibles. That’s where the film finds its groove — in comedy. There’s a scene where David Harbour is attempting to squeeze into his old suit as The Red Guardian aka Russia’s version of Captain America. Then there’s Rachel Weisz as a seasoned professional and mother figure. She’s two steps ahead of Alexi with the plans. Then most notable of all, Russian sibling Yelena, portrayed by UK actress Florence Pugh, giving cold unemotional line readings that amusingly make us love her even more.

It’s a bit ironic that Black Widow’s sister outshines the titular superhero in her own movie. Florence Pugh is supposed to be support but her personality is just so darn funny. She totally takes the air out of Natasha’s sails when Yelena mocks her battle stance. “Why do you always do that thing? That thing you do when you’re fighting? With the arm and the hair, when you do like a fighting pose?” she deadpans. Yelena then hilariously affects a posture akin to a ballet position. “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” Yelena’s enthusiasm for vests is cute too. She loves the pockets. She has even made some modifications on the one she’s wearing . Her pride is infectious. As expected there are some good action scenes but it’s the character-driven bits that I savor the most. Those parts elevate the film into something I really enjoyed.

07-08-21

The Ice Road

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama on July 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Even a pandemic couldn’t stop Liam Neeson. After the Great Lockdown, the unemployment rate in the U.S. skyrocketed in 2020 from 3.5% — the lowest in nearly 70 years — to an all-time high of 14.8%. Yet the sexagenarian never stopped working. In the past year, he starred in the lighthearted drama Made in Italy and fronted the actioners Honest Thief and The Marksman. There’s a reason for that. He’s a dependable actor that exudes genuine sincerity. He also enjoys doing the kinds of features that the public loves. Action movies are always in demand.

His latest offering is The Ice Road. In it, he plays a truck driver named Mike McCann. He’s operating one of three vehicles and part of a team that includes four other people. Laurence Fishburne, Benjamin Walker, Amber Midthunder, and Marcus Thomas round out the squad. This diverse crew could hold differing ideological views. Yet the screenplay would prefer to focus on the superficial physical characteristics that differentiate them instead. They’re on a critical mission to deliver wellheads so they can save a group of workers trapped in a mine that has collapsed. The Ice Road refers to the path they take over an ocean that has frozen to the point that they can drive on it. This is understandably quite dangerous because trucks are heavy (duh) and the ice could break.

The plot is so formulaic, it’s depressing. There’s an art of how and when to kill a character. Writer (and director) Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon) is responsible. We’re introduced to individuals to embrace only to have them randomly disposed of later. This indifference is supremely off-putting. I get that the script wants to emphasize the life-threatening qualities of the job, but the whole production is inherently silly. The narrative casually kills beloved personalities in a cheap attempt to create emotion. This happens a couple of times here and both eliminations feel like a shortcut. It doesn’t produce the solemnity desired.

The movie offers a lot of excitement in battling the natural elements though. That would have been enough to entertain on a simple level. However, the adventure also involves a bewildering conspiracy subplot concerning evil businessmen who want to stop the drivers from reaching their goals. That’s a crock of convoluted nonsense. Whenever the drama focuses on that aspect, it lost me. The dialogue is trying to make this story seem more complex than it needs to be. The chronicle should just be about truckers vs. nature but it’s truckers vs. nature vs. a corrupt mining corporation. Yeah, that’s not interesting or coherent. Keep it simple, stupid.

07-02-21

F9: The Fast Saga

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on July 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’ve seen every single one of these films, but full disclosure: it’s been more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I’ve awarded three out of five stars to most of the entries. They’re solid — if not silly entertainment. Furious 7 surprised me as a high point for the franchise. Since then, the movies have been running on fumes. That’s not to say they aren’t potent fumes. The sequels continue to reunite the personalities you love, provide lots of death-defying action and offer a healthy dose of laughs as the stunts push believability to its limit.

Let’s face it. The Fast & Furious succession is a soap opera that now includes long-lost siblings and the return of people long thought dead. At the outset, the screenplay reveals that Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has a brother named Jakob (John Cena). A flashback shows that their father — racecar driver Jack (J. D. Pardo) — died during a race in a fiery blaze. Dom believes his brother was responsible. Now Jakob has returned as a mercenary to steal the Aries Device. This will allow him to hack into any computer system in the world and attain global power. Additionally, the sphere is split in half making it a little harder to assemble and utilize. Dom and his team want to stop Jakob and his associate Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen).

Intelligence is not your friend. The more you apply logic to this saga, the less you will enjoy it. Case in point, we’re nine chapters in and we’re only just learning NOW that Dom has a brother? F9 is bursting with characters and details. The production is constantly evolving — bending and twisting the narrative to retroactively justify continuity. The convoluted developments collapse if given even a modicum of scrutiny. Only a TV melodrama like Dallas or Dynasty in its prime would dare to advance such complicated machinations. There are a lot of flashbacks in this movie. Both Dom and Jakob get two versions of their younger selves. I find the contortions to be a hilarious hoot. However, it could cause a headache if you strive to make sense of it. My advice, don’t even try.

It’s an oft-repeated phrase here. Fast & Furious is all about family. As such, the ever-growing cast is positively Shakespearean in its size. Michael Rooker, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, and Charlize Theron all return in bit parts. Even people thought to be dead are brought back to life. Buddies played by Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges amusingly bicker like an old married couple. Meanwhile, actors Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez strain credibility in portraying husband and wife. They ironically lack any romantic chemistry. Charlize Theron makes the most of her scattered appearances. As Cipher, the actress knows how to wink and preen as a confident villain. Her criminal mastermind is a riff on her evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman but with the haircut of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. She’s enjoyable. Furthermore, the action is nonstop and the plot coasts along on good-natured humor, so it never really gives you a chance to think. The joy lies in its awareness of how ridiculous it is. The series has embraced camp.

06-29-21

Luca

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on June 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pixar has its humble beginnings as part of the Lucasfilm computer division way back in 1979 before spinning off into a separate entity in 1986. Flash forward to 2006: Disney buys Pixar for $7.4 billion. I’ll admit the distinction between the two studios is a bit murky. Yet there’s still a technical difference when a cartoon feature comes from Walt Disney Studios and when branded as Pixar Animation. I think the mantle for the premier American animation studio shifted 17 years ago in 2004 when Pixar unveiled one of the greatest superhero movies ever made in The Incredibles. That same year Disney released something so forgettable that I suspect few even remember it: Home on the Range. Luca is a further reminder that Pixar is the studio that consistently creates films that touch the heart.

The setting is the beautiful city of Portorosso, a fictional town somewhere along the Italian Riviera. It takes place in the 1950s and the soundtrack incorporates Italian pop music from that era. Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay) is a teenage sea creature. His species refer to people as land monsters. Conversely, humans have a similarly negative view of them. His life changes when he meets another young sea monster named Alberto Scorfano (Jack Dylan Grazer). Alberto opens Luca’s eyes to their ability to transform into humans when completely dry. This is a chronicle about their adventures.

Luca is literally a fish out of water comedy. It concerns the titular hero passing for a human on land. The celebration of new experiences exalts opera music, books, telescopes, umbrellas, gelato, pasta…and most importantly Vespas. The plot revolves around competing in the Portorosso Cup (a race that involves swimming, pasta eating, and cycling). The boys hope to win the competition and use the prize money to buy one. In fact, the Italian motor scooter represents such a singular aspiration here, I started to want one. It’s like watching E.T. and craving Reese’s Pieces.

The expressive voice work is worth noting. It’s a bit all over the place though. Main characters Luca, Alberto, and Giulia (Emma Berman) – the girl that befriends them – have American accents. This often irritates me when a movie is set outside the U.S. However, the tonal quality of their voices is so inviting, it grew on me. Meanwhile most of the villagers speak with broad Italian inflections. Their intonations are so highly exaggerated, I didn’t think such stereotypes were still allowed in 2021. This includes the resident bully Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo) and Mrs. Marsigliese (Marina Massironi) – the woman who runs the Portorosso Cup race.

Luca is the directorial feature debut of longtime Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa. He was born in Genoa, Italy, and draws from his childhood in creating this affectionate tale filled with authentic flair. Pixar always does an excellent job at designing landscapes. The underwater spectacle has a graceful flow and the portrait of this coastal center in Italy is exceptional as well. The tableau captures the notable allure of this quaint port city.

Oh what a charming memoir! Water is a key element. The amphibian species are human when dry but shapeshift into sea monsters when they come in contact with H2O. There is a lot of humor extracted from Luca and Alberto trying to hide their true selves from the townsfolk. I laughed at every single moment they got wet and it became an issue. Little bits like Luca using snail slime as hair gel, the image of Grandma Paguro (Sandy Martin) sleeping with her eyes open, or sea-themed swears “Holy carp!” and “Oh sharks!” only add to the charm. Of course, there is a conventional moral about accepting people that are different from yourself. Yes, we’ve seen that before but the presentation of that lesson is so stylish and unique, I embraced the idea as if I was hearing the message for the first time.

06-18-21

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