Archive for the Adventure Category

Belle

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Music, Science Fiction with tags on January 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When they call you the spiritual successor to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, you must be doing something right. Director Mamoru Hosoda originally garnered fame at Toei Animation in the early 2000s with two films in the Digimon Adventure series. In 2011, he co-founded Studio Chizu. Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast were their first two films. Mirai followed and was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated feature in 2019. Belle is the studio’s fourth release.

OK, let me see if I can make sense of this story. Suzu is a withdrawn freckle-faced girl living in rural Japan. Following the death of her mother, the high school student retreats into an online virtual world called “U” with 5 billion players. She creates an avatar linked to her biometric info and becomes a pink-haired pop princess named Belle (also with freckles). It is within this alternate reality that Suzu achieves her true potential. As a lithe and beautiful Barbie-like singer, she attains global superstardom. She later meets a mysterious fellow player within the fantasy world called “The Dragon.” After this beast interrupts her concert — ultimately ruining it — he is pursued by a phalanx of vigilantes led by the arrogant Jason. They have superpowers naturally. Suzu’s desire to uncover The Dragon’s true identity develops into an obsession.

Belle is nothing if not bewildering for the number of plot threads it throws into the mix. The title acknowledges a debt to Beauty and the Beast. It even has an extended sequence that “pays homage” to the iconic ballroom dance from that Disney film. That’s merely one minor component. An ordinary teen who secretly performs as a pretty singing star is reminiscent of the 1980s American cartoon TV series Jem but in a simulated existence. Think Jem visits The Matrix.

Suzu is constantly being pulled between reality and fantasy. In the real world, Suzu is trying to come to terms with her mom’s passing. A group of uniformed high school peers comprises a soap opera that could be the foundation for a completely different movie. Suzu has a crush on childhood pal Shinobu. Popular “It” girl Ruka has eyes for jock Kamishin and appeals to Suzu for help. Meanwhile, her intellectual but snarky best friend Hiro offers Suzu advice on how to navigate the internet world of U. Hiro assists in trying to unveil The Dragon. It’s here that the saga goes off on another tangent as various odd characters are introduced: a troubled baseball player, a tattooed artist, and some random woman pretending to be the ideal housewife. If all that weren’t enough, there’s also an investigation into child abuse. Why have one plotline when you can have six or more?

Belle is an ambitious tale inundated by exquisite imagery. There are undeniably dazzling moments. Mamoru Hosoda populates his virtual environment with a glittering confection of digital avatars, pixies, critters, superheroes, confetti, glowing orbs, and whales in the cosmos. When Belle sings “A Million Miles Away” at the climax, it’s an epic finish that achieves a poetic finality. Unfortunately, the chronicle continues for another 20 minutes in order to tie up some unfinished details. The bizarre unpredictability of the production may have more appeal for fans familiar with the capricious nature of anime.

It’s sci-fi! It’s a fairytale! It’s a soap opera! Belle’s demanding two hour+ runtime entertains a dizzying number of subplots. Sadly they don’t coalesce into a compelling singular narrative. The spotlight is on Suzu (and her alter ego Belle), but this poor girl is beset by a myriad of distractions. The death of her mom, the cute boy at school, acquiring confidence, a J-Pop singing career, computer technology, and helping out an abused youth, all vie for her attention. Those craving a focus will be mystified. The lack of consideration for one central objective makes an emotional connection to this material impossible.

01-07-22

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spider-man has had a long and varied history on film. It all began rather inauspiciously in 1977 with a made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man series on CBS. That starred Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music). Since then, we’ve gotten productions with a considerably higher budget: the Sam Raimi directed pictures (2002–2007) starring Tobey Maguire and those helmed by Marc Webb (2012–2014) with Andrew Garfield. Sony’s Licensing agreement with Marvel Studios then allowed a group of movies featuring Tom Holland to officially become a part of the MCU. There was Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), then Far From Home (2019), and now the latest No Way Home. The recurring word “home” appearing in every title has always made differentiating these titles a little difficult for this reviewer. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed them. The latest is no exception.

The story is refreshingly succinct at heart. After Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man, Peter appeals for help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to conjure a spell to make people forget his true identity. Complications arise.

What makes the 8th Spider-Man entry different in yet another SONY-produced installment is the way it effectively embraces nostalgia. Peter Parker must contend with a panoply of villains in this episode. These include the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). This then is the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album if you will. Still using that analogy, I will offer there are a few bonus cuts as well. The additions will delight longtime fans of the franchise. It’s a superficial pleasure, but a genuine one.

The screenplay’s attempts at poignancy and significance will resonate more with people who come to this movie already invested. Learning from your mistakes and the link between power and responsibility are imparted as words of wisdom. Another lesson is giving people second chances, even at the expense of making some extremely bad choices. A key plot point is that Peter is conflicted by people who divide over whether he is a hero or a menace to society. J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons ) is a conspiracy theorist with his own news show on the internet. Jameson vociferously speaks out against the web-slinger. The public seems divided, although we the audience are invited to view Jameson as a crackpot.

Then Peter makes a choice. Director Jon Watts is working from a script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Up until this point, they had managed to keep me on board with the various machinations of the story. Even the leap required to accept that Doctor Strange would agree to cast that ridiculous spell. Peter’s error in judgment goes against the strict admonitions of Doctor Strange. It is a highly flawed decision that I could never get behind. Quite frankly, it’s indefensible. “You only have yourself to blame!” was my reaction to every bad thing that happens thereafter. This includes someone’s death.

No Way Home is still a sturdy, entertaining flick. You’ll get the requisite battles and they’re fine. More appreciated is the camaraderie between these beloved characters. Actors Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ Jones-Watson), and Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) have a rapport that is deeply affecting. They have a connection. You truly believe in their core friendship. However, I would argue that Holland has become so ultrabuff he looks out of place, especially in one scene where he appears shirtless. Their interactions are what carried me through the standard-issue action scenes. The screenplay seeks to inject sentimentality into the narrative with emotional developments. These efforts are more meaningful because of their chemistry. The relationship of this trio goes a long way into making us care.

To say this picture has resonated with audiences is an understatement. Spider-Man: No Way Home has accomplished what heretofore seemed impossible post-pandemic. At $260 million, it’s the 2nd biggest U.S. opening OF ALL TIME. Only Avengers: Endgame did more with the $357 million it earned in April 2019. Given that the theatrical landscape was a lot more welcoming in 2019, it makes the achievement even more incredible. This made more in just one weekend than the entire gross of any movie since 2019. The last was Rise of Skywalker with $515 million. No Way Home may just top that. Stay tuned.

12-21-21

Encanto

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2021 is alive with the sound of musicals! I submit exhibits A through G as evidence: In the Heights, Annette, Cinderella, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story. Disney’s latest is a notable addition to the genre this year.

Encanto is a saga about a sprawling family and the matriarch who controls it all with an iron hand. Alma (María Cecilia Botero) whom everyone affectionally calls “Abuela”—uses an enchanted candle to create a magical house in the hills of Columbia for the Madrigal family in which to live. These include her three infant children Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno. The magical protection allows an entire village to flourish around the “casita” and this same magic imbues the clan with exceptional powers. Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal others with her cooking, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, and Bruno (John Leguizamo) can see the future. However, Bruno’s visions — which contradicted Abuela’s “everything is wonderful” vibe — weren’t appreciated. He is mysteriously missing when the main story begins.

After an initial setup, the main chronicle centers around Julieta’s daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) depicted with a visual anomaly. This is never acknowledged, but I will. She wears glasses. Oh sure, for years many men have worn them in Disney’s canonical animated features: Doc, Gepetto, Mr. Smee & John from Peter Pan to name a few. But a female protagonist sporting spectacles is virtually nonexistent. The internet informs me that Anita Radcliffe, a supporting character in 101 Dalmatians, occasionally wore them. Mirabel is a splendid addition to an animated tradition that includes icons like Velma, Edna Mode, Meg Griffin, and Daria. Sadly she is not blessed with supernatural abilities like older sisters Isabela (Diane Guerrero ) who can make flowers bloom and Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) superhuman strength. Although Mirabel has an undeniable kinship with their sentient house. She is a warm and empathic fifteen-year-old that may have accepted her lack of a gift, but it weighs on her. Nevertheless, she seems well-adjusted with a maturity that supersedes most of the adults. This includes Abuela, an enigmatic individual with a temperament that grows angrier as the tale develops.

Of course, any musical must be judged by the music, and the production reigns supreme in this area. Encanto features a buoyant score with music and lyrics by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns). His familiarity with Broadway elevates the production. I cannot minimize how captivating a melody can be when also accompanied by bright colorful visuals. The whole songbook is stellar: “The Family Madrigal” is a toe-tapping delight, “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is joyful and Luisa’s lament “Surface Pressure” all rank highly, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” really stands out. That “…no, no, no.” refrain is so memorable. I haven’t been this wowed by a Disney tune since “Let It Go” in Frozen.

Everyone is special in their own unique way. The moral is timeworn but conveyed with sincerity and style. I’m impressed by a screenplay by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush that can deftly handle such an expansive cast of characters. Everyone has a well-defined and engaging personality. They gradually each begin to feel the stress of living in the Madrigal household. There is a nuanced idea percolating beneath the surface. People who outwardly appear to be successful may carry a private pain. Those rifts within this “perfect” dynasty begin to manifest themselves as cracks within the physical building of their Casita. The metaphor is so obvious, but it feels fresh within this presentation. Encanto means “charm” in Spanish and it is indeed charming.

11-25-21

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One of the biggest highlights at the cinema during my youth was the incongruous reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (1984). I’ll never forget how shocked and amused I was in the theater by that unholy amalgamation of the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Everyone was. It was a communal event. I’ll forgo further details to avoid spoiling the surprise. Although, one might argue that there’s no one’s experience still left to spoil. The movie is now nearly four decades old and the moment is iconic. However, perhaps to those young readers who haven’t seen it yet: Do yourself a favor and watch it now. This sequel does reference the goofy mascot “s’more” (that’s a pun on the marshmallow treat) as well as a plethora of other ideas from the 1984 classic. Sometimes nostalgia can be an albatross to creativity.

The story of a single mother who moves to a small town in Oklahoma with her two kids doesn’t sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The daughter’s familial connection to the supernatural events of the past is discovered when she inadvertently uncovers the legacy of her grandfather. This picture is directed by Jason Reitman and is a continuation of both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989). Those were directed by his father Ivan who is the producer here. You may recall there was a female-led reboot in 2016. If you don’t, that’s OK because this chapter doesn’t acknowledge that the picture even exists.

The ending of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is completely indebted to the inspiration of the past. More to the point, the lack of originality in the denouement isn’t endearing. Nevertheless, for the first three quarters, the narrative presents an engaging plot about kids that veers closer in spirit to something like The Goonies. The saga focuses on the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler who was Harold Ramis’ character. Her name is Phoebe and she is nicely realized with understated charisma by Mckenna Grace. Her mom and brother relocate to an abandoned farm that Egon left behind when he passed away. There, on his dilapidated estate, she discovers some of his ghostbusting tools. She brings a PKE Meter and an electronic trap to school — much to the delight of her classmate. The precocious boy is played by Logan Kim. “I call myself Podcast…because of my podcast.” He is undeniably funny, captivating, and also a real scene-stealer. Phoebe and Podcast form a compelling duo that I enjoyed immensely.

For the significant duration of the picture, the languid drama feels more like an indie picture. The fantasy isn’t as zany or sarcastic as its predecessor. It takes 45 minutes before we even see a ghost. However, there are laughs. The adventure adds additional members to the ghostbusting team. These include Phoebe’s brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his girlfriend Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), along with their mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and a teacher named Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). The movie charms but with the heart and character development of a leisurely-paced production and a smaller scale. This cost a comparatively low $75 million before promotion and advertising.

Sadly the filmmakers didn’t trust in the beauty of this new innovative direction they had forged. In the final quarter, it’s as if another malevolent director grabbed the steering wheel of this amiable tale, stepped on the gas, and forced it down a path that lazily remixes the climax of the 1984 blockbuster with garish and extravagant CGI effects. Unfortunately, everything from that point on is the exploitation of nostalgia in the most heavy-handed demonstration of the concept. I wasn’t a fan of the closing act. However, the chronicle before that was good. I’ll give it a pass because I was entertained. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a pleasant time-filler. Ah, but it could’ve been so much more.

11-18-21

Finch

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction on November 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Dramas don’t get much more intimate than Finch: a chronicle about a man, his dog, and a robot.

So the Earth has become a wasteland after a solar flare has scorched the Earth by ultraviolet radiation and increased the temperatures beyond living conditions. Certified national treasure Tom Hanks plays Finch Weinberg. The guy stays indoors most of the time, but he dons a special protective suit whenever he ventures outside for supplies. Finch is dying from cancer. So he builds a mechanical person (Caleb Landry Jones utilizing motion-capture) to be a companion for his canine Goodyear after he has passed on. When Finch hears of a major storm approaching, he decides to leave in a motor home toward San Francisco with his two companions.

There isn’t much to this story. Most of it centers on the interaction between Finch and the android who is developing a personality. We watch as the robot learns. Hanks gives yet another genuine, understated performance. Finch is cut from the same cloth as the characters Hanks played in Greyhound and News of the World. Meanwhile, the humanoid — who ultimately adopts the name Jeff — is reminiscent of other cinematic portrayals. Your references may vary. I thought of Pixar’s animated Wall-E (2008) but also “Johnny 5” in the 80s sci-fi comedy Short Circuit (1986). I never saw Chappie (2015) but I’ve heard that allusion as well. The post-apocalyptic tale is a serious account and it grows darker. However, Jeff has a cloying temperament throughout. Given the bare-bones plot, I found it hard to sit through.

The sweet, wholesome production is constantly trying to tug at your heartstrings. The nicest thing I can offer is that it’s inoffensive. When the robot isn’t acting cute, there’s also a puppy to melt your heart. This would have been more charming as an efficient 30 minute short. Stretched out to nearly two hours, it wears thin. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks is a star for a reason. He is undeniably likable, so if you are a major fan of his celebrity, then I suppose this will entertain you. The saga has its moments, but I was less enchanted by all the sentimentality.

11-05-21

Eternals

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on November 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Well, it’s about time. It’s been 13 years and now 26 films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has given us something unlike anything in the franchise thus far. Oh sure, they’ve dabbled in different genres before: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a 70s style political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is a space opera, Ant-Man (2015) is a comedic heist picture. There’s the coming-of-age teen movie envisioned in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the Afro-futurism of Black Panther (2018), and the martial arts of Shang-Chi (2021). Eternals deviates from the formula far more than anything before. Yet that’s what makes it so fascinating. The ambitious character-driven drama is a lot more intimate. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Director Chloe Zhao won the Oscar in 2021 for directing the very introspective Nomadland.

The saga is a sweeping epic that spans eons concerning the Eternals — a diverse group of 10 immortal aliens created by god-like beings known as the Celestials. Eternals also interact with humans by imparting their wisdom and offering protection but are forbidden to alter human history. The main adventure, set in the present, follows Sersi and company as they try to reunite the Eternals and defeat the Deviants, a race of enemy creatures who have suddenly reappeared after 500 years. However, the movie frequently flashes back to show the past of these cosmic beings, their impact on humanity, and why the group disbanded at one point.

That’s the basic outline. Delve deeper and we are confronted with a very mature and reflective piece. The tale manages to juggle ten superheroes, each with their own unique power. Watching the Eternals work together to take down the Deviants is thrilling. The distinctness of their superhero abilities is a little ill-defined. I mean they’re all super strong and can fight. Everyone seems indestructible too. On a couple of occasions I thought someone was finished, only to magically restore themselves. The Eternal that gets the most focus is Sersi (Gemma Chan). Her compelling personality has such compassion. She’s currently dating a history professor (Kit Harington) in the present day. Her skill is she can transform matter. Then there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), who — like Superman – can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. (Yes I know Superman is DC Comics) He and Sersi share a romantic past. The two have been a couple through the ages. Sersi and Ikaris experience a genuine moment of — ahem — intimacy. That’s another first for an MCU film.

The rest of the cast gets a little less attention but each is a charismatic individual. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can produce weapons. Ajak (Salma Hayek) has the power to heal, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires projectile blasts from his hands and Sprite (Lia McHugh) can generate illusions. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) round out the ten. I won’t detail them all since their specific talents are unimportant. The overall manifestation of the team working together is what compels the viewer. This is a family of sorts with an emotional backstory. These people are interesting and that’s crucial. It recalls the familial relationships in films like The Incredibles (2004) and The Avengers (2012). I was completely invested in the stories of every last one. That raises the stakes when they have the requisite battles. My engagement made these big, awe-inspiring displays even more exciting.

The chronicle wrestles with grand philosophical and theological questions. That’s always a risky venture. It mostly delights but there are disappointments. The account depicts the dropping of a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. An event so horrific should never be casually inserted in a superhero fantasy. Eternals regrettably exploits this real-world tragedy to add significance to its narrative. Additionally, it jumps back and forth in time a bit too much and left me a little confused as to where we were in the story. And lastly, at 157 minutes, it is far too long. A little editing would have presented a cleaner account. Yet those are minor quibbles when compared with the many positives.

I haven’t even mentioned the visual spectacle. This gorgeous-looking picture features cinematography from Ben Davis (Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel). While still CGI heavy during battle scenes, the production has this grounded reality in the world around it. True to its title, the tale travels to various locations throughout history. It covers thousands of years from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon to the Gupta Empire and the Aztecs. The beautiful background vistas add to the weight of what’s happening. Chloé Zhao employs a lot of practical location-based filmmaking to simulate these environments and it makes a difference.

The screenplay swings for the fences. I admire that. Chloé Zhao (co-written with Patrick Burleigh and cousins Ryan & Kaz Firpo) wants to engage your emotions. The adventure has a lofty scale. It may not score a home run, but I wholly appreciate her successful attempt to try something different. Much like the Eternals who have this world-weary pathos about them, I personally suffer from superhero fatigue. Eternals flips the script and gives us a contemplative, character-driven drama. No, it’s not a typical superhero film. That’s a good thing. I am here for this new innovative direction.

11-04-21

Dune

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on October 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Chilly remote and majestic — the latest cinematic version of Frank Herbert’s Dune very much resembles the desert planet it depicts. The epic evolves like a visually profound mass of hot windswept dust to behold. The breadth and scale are impressive but the environment is dull. Even color is lacking. The production flaunts a monochromic palette that vacillates between dreary shades of blue to gray and on other occasions from orange to brown. I dare contend that if the film had been shot in black and white, it would’ve been more vibrant. The atmosphere weighs upon the audience. This lethargic mediation on race, culture, and colonialism is not a work to enjoy but to endure.

Dune is a tale fronted by a large cast of individuals in search of a personality. The saga details a feud between two families. The lush planet Caladan is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of the House of Atreides. He has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), with the official concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul could be “the one” — that is — the savior that might bring important change to the universe. Meanwhile, over on the planet Arrakis (informally known as Dune) live the native Fremen people. Long exposure to spice has given the Freemen glowing blue eyes — a welcome excuse to inject a little color, albiet through digital manipulation. They are ruled by Atreides’ mortal enemies, the Harkonnen. Arrakis is desolate terrain. However, the world is rich in “spice”, a powerful drug desired throughout the galaxy because it extends life and aids in interstellar travel among no doubt other glorious things. By order of an unseen Emperor, Duke Leto leaves for his new position as the governor of Arrakis. However, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård wearing a most unfortunate fat suit) has nefarious plans for Leto and the whole Atreides family. Dune portrays a complex society within a dystopian future. (Is there any other kind?).

As a captivating adventure this drama fails — but only in the most sensational way. The drama lacks vitality. The political machinations of the community within comprise the story but there’s nary a personality to be found in this emotionless drudge. Paul is surrounded by an Imperial Court of various mentors and advisors. Jason Momoa plays one, Duncan Idaho, a strapping warrior that exudes a modicum of the rakish charm we so desperately crave. Nearly everyone else delivers their lines with all the theatrics of a Shakespearean play. Their robotic declarations are so stilted, so deliberate they simulate the self-serious recitations of a poem, not human dialogue. Ecologist Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is arguably the most egregious offender. I honestly suspected she was suppressing a secret — that she was indeed a robot. Although that reveal never arrives so apparently my suspicions were incorrect? The various performances are augmented by an unfocused gaze or a solemn pause. These actorly devices can rightly intensify a scene, but they cannot replace genuine depth or meaning. I felt absolutely nothing for anyone or anything in this sweeping account. I’ve derived more humanity from the random influx of strangers coming and going inside an airport than I did in this movie. Dune is full of lives, but there is no life.

What the picture has going for it is scope. The grand and stately fantasy perfectly conveys the monumental sweep of another world. The production design continually impresses from aircraft called Thopters with wings that buzz like dragonflies to miniature flying robots the size of tadpoles designed to kill. And the sandworms — those colossal creatures on Arrakis — are as spectacular as I imagined. The visuals from DP Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) would fulfill a nice retrospective in a museum dedicated to dazzling cinematography from sci-fi movies. I marveled at each individual segment as an artistic clip. But something happens when connecting one scene after another. Without any narrative thrust to propel them forward, they lack the emotional weight to keep the viewer enrapt. I tried to stay invested in this turgid drama. Oh, how I tried! Just before the credits roll, the chronicle ends with the intonations of Zendaya. (The actress’s brief appearance was greatly overstated in the marketing.) The mysterious Fremen girl who had been appearing in Paul’s dreams smiles playfully taunting the audience with “This is only the beginning.” That is correct. Director Denis Villeneuve’s ridiculously long 2-hour 35 minute adaptation only concerns the first half of the 1965 novel, which means it’s half an experience — a prologue to a sequel.

Without a single individual in which to root for or care, Dune is a torturous sit. The ceremonial dignity of soldiers marching in formation or the grandeur of awe-inspiring metal ships hovering in the sky can only take you so far. And yet there are flickers of liveliness. Within the first few minutes, Duke Leto playfully commands weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) to smile. As he sits there stone-faced, he declares, “I am smiling.” There are more examples. When Stilgar (Javier Bardem) greets Leto by spitting in his direction, the act is amusingly revealed to be a sign of respect. Or how about an evaluation from the Imperial Truthsayer (Charlotte Rampling) that puts Paul through a critical test. The intense ordeal is a compelling predicament. As the fable develops, much appreciated moments such as these would pop up occasionally. I savored each one. They broke up the monotony. Each reflection of this society aroused a response. Like an inhabitant of Arrakis for a precious glass of water, I happily relished these rare glimpses that reflected human emotion.

10-21-21

No Time to Die

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on October 10, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Daniel Craig doesn’t smile. At least that’s the claim. This is the 5th and final film of the series to star the actor and he has grown progressively despondent with each entry. Hey, I’ve enjoyed his interpretation. Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall are in my Top 10 of Bond movies. The actor has been reinventing the character ever since he fell head over heels in love with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in the iconic Casino Royale. That failed romance haunts him. Despite his ongoing depression, Spectre ended on a happy note. James Bond retired and drove off into the sunset with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). He should’ve quit while he was ahead.

In this story (and I’m liberally using the official synopsis), Bond has retired from MI6. He is enjoying a tranquil retirement in Jamaica after leaving active service. Nevertheless, his peace is short-lived as CIA field officer Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) shows up and asks for help. The mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Valdo Obruche (David Dencik) leads Bond on the trail of an enigmatic terrorist named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) who is armed with Project Heracles, a bioengineered weapon selectively tailored to an individual’s DNA. Lyutsifer is your standard-issue megalomaniac with an affected speech pattern. Actor Rami Malek enunciates each word with a nod toward camp. The confusing target of his evil plan seems to fluctuate, but I think his vendetta is ultimately against SPECTRE, the organization that murdered his family.

James Bond has a long and rich history. The British secret agent was introduced in 1953 by novelist Ian Fleming and adapted to movies starting with Dr. No in 1962. Forget what you knew. James Bond has changed. No Time to Die recasts the lothario as a monogamous family man. Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), his pretty love interest from Spectre returns. She’s got a mysterious five-year-old daughter named Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet) in tow. Mathilde may have piercing blue eyes, but Madeleine informs him that “she is not his.” Bond visits the grave of Vesper Lynd in the prologue so you know he’s still pining for that woman. I guess Madeleine is the next best thing because he’s devoted to her now. However, Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux generate as much heated passion as two damp towels in a freezer. These two look more like father and daughter than lovers. As progressive as this Bond is, dating a woman his own age is the one thing that doesn’t change. Side note: Their 17 year age difference isn’t a record gap for the superspy. Carol Bouquet and Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only were 29 years apart.

No Time to Die subverts the nature of what makes this man tick. Cary Joji Fukunaga (1st season of the HBO series True Detective) directs this long-delayed continuation, taking over for Danny Boyle who left the project in 2018. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have written seven episodes beginning with The World Is Not Enough (1999). Also contributing to the script is Phoebe Waller-Bridge (BBC Three TV show Fleabag) who was brought in to spice up the dialogue at Daniel Craig’s request. Every woman is a fully realized human being that most definitely does not exist to satiate your lascivious desires. Thank you very much. There’s even a competitive new 007 named Nomi (Lashana Lynch). She has replaced Bond at MI6. He is ostensibly working for the CIA at this point. Their combative rivalry is amusing.

Then there’s the action apex of the entire production. The setpiece recalls the elegance and winking silliness of the past. Bond travels to Cuba. There he is assisted by a sexy CIA operative named Paloma memorably played by Ana de Armas. The ensuing sequence unfolds when they infiltrate a SPECTRE meeting. The two face off in a balletic shootout against a host of various gunmen including Safin’s right-hand man (Dali Benssalah). At one point, Paloma rams the car she’s driving into the structure that corrupt scientist Valdo Obruchev is climbing, causing him and it to collapse onto the car. Ana De Armas outshines Bond. Sadly her appearance is merely a cameo. She steals the show and left me wanting more.

Daniel Craig’s version of 007 has always displayed world-weariness but here his sadness looms large. This is a surprisingly dour affair with the biggest downer of an ending to ever grace this franchise. At two hours and 43 minutes, the 25th entry from Eon Productions is the longest Bond film ever made. It feels like it. The good news is there’s ample opportunity for redeeming highlights. I loved seeing all the familiar faces return: Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, Christoph Waltz as arch-enemy Blofeld (in MI6 custody), and Ralph Fiennes as head of MI6. There are some cool vehicles too. #1 is a scissor-wing plane that folds into a submarine. #2 is the Aston Martin DB5 of course. Cinematic flair has been one of the hallmarks. Oscar-winning director of photography Linus Sandgren (La La Land) significantly contributes to the overall style of the production. The intimate and clean cinematography is a real throwback to the classic era before CGI and shaky-cam. Features like these reminded me why I love these movies. There are flashes of exhilaration buried amongst the melancholy.

10-07-21

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on October 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you ever seen a movie that you enjoyed in the moment, but was so inconsequential you immediately forgot about it a day later? Such is Venom Let There Be Carnage, the sequel to Venom, Sony’s massive 2018 box office hit. As an entertaining time-filler, the film succeeds, but it’s hard to write about since it made virtually no impression on me. The mid-credits sequence had more of an impact than the proper saga. No details. I’ll only offer that it acknowledges Venom is a Marvel character originally introduced in the Spider-Man comics.

I could pretend this story is complicated but it’s easy to simplify things. The narrative isn’t complex. Venom is the alien organism that uses the body of investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as a host in which to live. The alien symbiote is a frightening presence because he wants to eat human brains. Nonetheless, he is resigned to eating chicken and chocolate because of Eddie’s admonition to do so. Venom has become a friendly dweller in his body.

The extraterrestrial must face a new enemy named Carnage who inhabits a serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). At first, this guy only wants to get back to his true love but Carnage gives him powerful abilities. Girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) has some superpowers of her own. Incidentally, the same actress is also Miss Moneypenny in the new James Bond flick No Time to Die. Harris is enjoying a most productive October.

The best thing about this production is what made the original so enjoyable. That is — the oddball relationship between Eddie Brock and Venom, the alien who uses him as a host. While he possesses his body, you can hear them talking to each other. They are at ease with one another. They bicker with the comfortableness of an old married couple and it’s amusing. They even experience a break-up. The screenplay has moments of hilarity. However, there are still many opportunities for jokes that aren’t exploited. At one point, Carnage incongruously shouts, “Let there Be Carnage!” The title is stated verbatim without nary a wink or a nudge to the audience. In another scene, Eddie ducks into a women’s bathroom to argue with Venom — and save for the surprised face of one occupant in the adjacent stall — nothing of consequence is mined from the situation.

There is little here to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the comic book. The chronicle is all in service of a climactic duel between the two monsters. The battle is terrible as it showcases garish and nonsensical CGI action that is just a bunch of craziness up there on the screen. Director Andy Serkis keeps things simple and brisk. That can be a plus. They say brevity is the soul of wit. If you subscribe to that point of view, then the fact that this a mere 90 minutes should increase your enjoyment considerably. The production stays light, but — ya know — with mass destruction. Oh, and the brutal — albeit bloodless — deaths of several characters that test the confines of a PG-13 rating. It’s like a violent sitcom.

09-3-21

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on September 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The discussion of race and diversity within superhero movies has grown significantly over the last half-decade. Studios have expressed a desire to elevate representation within their stories. Whether this is a marketing move or an altruistic desire to be inclusive is a question you can discuss amongst yourselves. Nevertheless, Marvel Studios promoted Black Panther as their first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a black lead, and Captain Marvel was publicized as their first female warrior to get her own film. In March 2020, Marvel Comics announced its first-ever non-binary superhero called Snowflake who uses they/them pronouns. Any idea on how long that picture will take to be made?

A shift occurred in 2016 during Phase 3 of the MCU with Doctor Strange. Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was cast in the role of the Ancient One, a Tibetan. Never mind the fact that the release was a huge financial success. The social media backlash was vociferous and enduring. It continues to this day. At the time Marvel President Kevin Feige defended the decision but he would later apologize for the “whitewashing” controversy and express regret for not casting an Asian actor.

In that spirit, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Marvel release with an Asian lead. No production should have to carry the entire weight of Asian representation within the MCU but 25 films in, and that’s where we are. The best of intentions are nice but “Is the movie any good?” is the bottom line. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings delivers. It’s a solid mid-level addition to the MCU. The newest entry stands on its own and that counts for a lot.

I often forgot I was watching yet another installment of a franchise. OK, so a couple of characters do pop up that are callbacks to earlier entries. Wong (Benedict Wong ), who worked alongside Doctor Strange, is seen at a cage fighting tournament here. Ben Kingsley also reprises his Trevor Slattery character from Iron Man 3. This chapter is part of the same shared world, but thankfully the narrative doesn’t rely too much on the previous movies. In many ways, it feels like a completely separate entity. I appreciated that the drama could be enjoyed without having seen the other pictures.

Shang-Chi boasts a charismatic cast. Actor Simu Liu (Canadian TV sitcom Kim’s Convenience) makes for a likable hero as the titular character. Initially, he seems just like a normal, mild-mannered guy who parks cars as a valet. His skillful fighting abilities are a secret. They’re first revealed while traveling on a bus with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. The two share a warm friendship and their chemistry is a delight.

A group of henchmen launches an attack on public transportation. The passengers amusingly look on, stunned with their mouths agape. One villain stands out because he’s a hulking Romanian bruiser in a cast full of Asian actors. Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) brandishes a machete blade for a right hand.

The baddies turn out to be part of a nefarious organization known as the Ten Rings. Their leader is Xu Wenwu portrayed by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, Hero) making his Hollywood debut. Wenwu also happens to use a powerful set of ten discs worn like bracelets around his arms that he uses in combat. Wenwu is Shang-Chi’s father. He also has a daughter named Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Yup Shang-Chi has a sister and she’s just as much of a badass as he is.

This is a perfect time to mention the fight choreography is phenomenal. That scene on the bus is an outstanding highlight. Another takes place on the scaffolding of a high rise. Shang Chi draws on the tradition of Wuxia. The martial arts genre of Chinese fiction usually takes place in a historical setting but often involves fantasy elements. The action sequences also recall some of the stunt work of actor Jackie Chan.

These cultural details distinctly separate this superhero from previous episodes of the MCU. That’s good. The bad is that there is too much exposition that is dumped on the audience. The twisting alliances and people’s motives comprise details I won’t spoil here, but it’s a convoluted web of needless complications. The 3rd act ends up at a magical village called Ta Lo. The atmosphere suddenly morphs into a full-blown fantasy epic. The spectacle devolves into a total CGI fest with flying dragons and lots of special effects. It is nowhere near as captivating as the human drama that plays out in the first two acts. That’s the part I loved. Oh and the martial arts. The hand-to-hand combat is so cool.

09-03-21