Archive for the Adventure Category

Coco

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

coco_ver7STARS4.5Pixar has a knack for extracting emotion. Do you recall the first 10 minutes in Up that depicted the married life of Carl and Ellie? Yeah, it had me bawling like a baby too. Ditto when WALL-E doesn’t recognize Eve or when Andy gives his toys away in Toy Story 3. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Coco strums the heartstrings as well as any Pixar film has ever done.

In fact, Coco is one of the most touching odes to family that I have ever seen. I don’t bestow such high praise lightly. There’s an undeniable joy in discovering the sentimental depth of this drama. I’ll describe the chronicle at its most basic so as not to ruin the joyous revelation of what happens. Our saga concerns Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician. He plays the guitar and serenades like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous Mexican star of 1930s/40s cinema. Ernesto is somewhat reminiscent of actual stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Unfortunately, Miguel’s late great-great-grandmother and matriarch of the Rivera family, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) had long ago banned music for future generations. You see her husband left her to pursue a music career. That also included their daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). His face has been removed from the family photo that is displayed during the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead also known as Día de Muertos. When living grandmother Elena (Renée Victor) destroys Miguel’s guitar, he journeys off to find another instrument so he can enter a talent show.

The voice cast includes stars Benjamin Bratt and Gael García Bernal. Bratt’s voicing of Ernesto de la Cruz makes the singing idol a commanding presence. Even more affecting is a comical trickster named Héctor (Bernal) that little Miguel meets on his pilgrimage. He is a poor soul that is in danger of being forgotten — a personality full of humor and charm. I really enjoyed him. I didn’t realize that both Bratt and Bernal could sing, like really well in fact. They’re equally good at voicing their characters. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez is suitably moving as the star, Miguel Rivera.  Melodies are an essential part of this feature. As such, this is the closest Pixar has ever come to making a full-on musical. Song selections infuse the narrative. “Un Poco Loco” and “Proud Corazón” are two highlights but the likely Oscar nominee is “Remember Me” which shows up in several renditions. The one sung as a lullaby near the end is the version that made me cry.

The importance of honoring your loved ones that have passed on encompasses The Day of the Dead, a celebration that forms the central focus of Coco. The idea that we are connected to our family members of the past and how present generations commemorate their memory is an integral component of the plot. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3) upholds an emotionally complex chronicle while still keeping things refreshingly simple in the way the account unfolds. That’s not easy to do. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich elevates feeling over plot details. There is a supernatural element when Miguel penetrates the “other side.” This would be a bit bewildering for me to explain how it occurs and what actually happens in this odyssey, but it’s simple as it plays out.  If I had a criticism, it would be that Pixar has an issue with extended final acts where the narrative contains elements that aren’t quite as magical as the stuff before it. We see it in great movies like Wall-E and Up. The concluding act in Coco is somewhat weakened by multiple endings. I started to think I was watching Return of the King. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed this segment. It’s a minor quibble in an overall stunning achievement.

On the surface, Coco is a simple tale of a little boy that wants to play the guitar. This is a return to the greatness of Pixar. Inside Out was pretty remarkable too, but Coco tops it for emotional intensity. Not since Toy Story 3 has a Pixar flick touched my heart so profoundly. I know we’re always praising the visuals in a Pixar movie, but this just might be one of their most beautifully animated films. The Land of the Dead is an underworld in which the spirits of the deceased meet their final destination. The manifestation of this realm is stunningly gorgeous as a multi-tiered city of buildings, bright lights, and colors. Bridges extend from out of the city onto which the deceased can travel. In this way, souls may return to the Land of the Living to see their relatives once again. The Day of the Dead is a vivid holiday. The animators have deftly celebrated its tradition in the best possible way for this movie. A non-stop party of lively (not frightening) skeletons dancing to music is a glorious sight to behold. The animators magnificently give life to lovable skeletons —  characters that are inherently scary. I liked seeing the comparison between their current existence as a silhouette of bones and their past life as a human being. I was astonished at how this stirred me so deeply. There was one plot twist that in retrospect I probably should have been able to predict but I was so hypnotized by what I saw, that I didn’t see it coming. Coco made me lose myself in the celebration of a young boy’s odyssey. The humanity completely overwhelmed me. Coco is full of heart and when I left the theater my heart was full.

11-23-17

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The Shape of Water

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

shape_of_water_ver3STARS3Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Amélie was sexually attracted to The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If so, then The Shape of Water will be the cinematic revelation to satisfy that curiosity. At heart, The Shape of Water is rooted in the well-worn design of a fairy tale. The idea that two disparate individuals should find their soulmate is a tale as old as time, right? Director Guillermo del Toro’s fable utilizes the structure of classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A human falls in love with something that isn’t human, but The Shape of Water goes farther. This is not a children’s story. This is del Toro’s take on interspecies romance and as such, it has his decidedly adult interpretation.

The setting is early 1960s Baltimore. Not the warm nostalgia for a twinkly bygone period seen through rose colored glasses though. This is the cold intolerant version of that era with a racist, close-minded person in charge.   Our lead character is nothing like that.   Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a shy woman whose vocal cords were slashed when she was a child (ouch!). As such, she is mute. At night, she works as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. One day, the facility receives a new discovery from the rivers of South America courtesy of the heartless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Elisa meets new acquisition, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), she begins sneaking into the enclosure. He’s obviously not human. He’s green, scaly, has fins but he walks upright, is very tall and has a muscular frame. Elisa is immediately drawn to this amphibious beast for reasons that aren’t quite clear. However, their developing connection is plainly shown. She feeds him hard-boiled eggs and plays records on a portable phonograph for him. I felt their friendship. The couple gradually form a special bond that eventually goes — you guessed it — there. I didn’t feel that.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa Esposito, a sort of a melancholy mute plagued by erotic urges. This means the audience is subjected to Elisa pleasuring herself in the bathtub while her naked breasts rest just above the water. The scene feels surprisingly exploitative in what mostly feels like sentimental folklore. Elisa is seemingly modest in other ways. She’s gently timid and reserved at work. Her friendship with the creature is like a couple of lost souls united by love. It’s hard not to feel something for Elisa. A few judicious edits here and there could easily turn this R-rated male fantasy into a PG-rated family film but that would be at the expense of the artist’s creative vision. This is Guillermo del Toro after all, not Frank Capra.

Elisa is surrounded by two charismatic personalities. She lives in the same building as Giles, a closeted commercial artist who pines for a young man that runs the pie shop. Giles is amiable and friendly. His advertising work are like the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Elisa’s co-worker is fellow cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She is Elisa’s good friend and confidant. These three are clearly the archetypal “good” people of the story painted in broad strokes so as not to confuse the viewer.  Despite the formula, there’s still something kind of intriguing about these individuals. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland portrayed by Michael Shannon. He’s the baddie. Strickland views the sea creature as an affront to God because he isn’t made in his image. “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image,” he says. “Some more so than others”, he sneers at Zelda who happens to be black. We know Strickland is an outrage to civil rights, but his characterization as an indefensible piece of garbage is about as subtle as a flying brick.

The Shape of Water is a sumptuous production. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen even captures the glossy surfaces of the government facility with a stylish sheen. Its gorgeous set design and costumes are only matched by its luscious score by Alexandre Desplat. Richard Jenkins’ opening narration beautifully sets the stage for a lush yarn of sweetness and warmth. I was enchanted with the beginning. I desperately wanted to celebrate the elegance of this saga before being shaken by less savory elements. Sex and violence are often about context. Their appearances are awkward here. At one point a man is actually shot in the face and dragged across the floor by the hole in his cheek. You can’t unsee these things. When was the last time you saw that in a Disney movie? The question is fair because del Toro is operating within that vocabulary. At its core, this is a rather simple legend that a child would embrace. Nothing wrong with a straightforward ode to love. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are basic tales of a seemingly mismatched pair and they charm children of all ages. The difference here is that it’s filtered through a clouded lens of decidedly adult sensibilities. The ultimate objective is that by the end you’re transported to a feeling of joy. Some apparently are but I was kinda creeped out.

The Shape of Water is scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8, 2017, after a December 1 limited release in New York.

11-13-17

Justice League

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

justice_league_ver9STARS1.5A good film introduces us to interesting people. It provides exposition as to what motivates them as characters so we can empathize with their plight. The tale should essentially lay the groundwork for an account that will feature enriching individuals that develop over the course of an adventure. Their inner journey is part of a larger narrative that we can follow and enjoy. In this way our emotions are captivated and we can feel some emotional component to what’s happening on screen. Justice League is not one of those films.

To be fair, this picture concerns superheroes with which a large portion of the moviegoing public has some previously built-in awareness. Icons like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman already have a recognizability factor, yes. You’re granted a certain amount of shortcuts when detailing familiar characters. Still, that doesn’t absolve the screenwriter or the director from presenting something coherent. Justice League is an absolute mishmash of unfocused plot threads and pointless mayhem. Given the basic elements of what normally constitutes a story, I struggle to even define it as such. It’s a visual chaos of color and activity with dreary conversations sprinkled throughout to give the appearance that something interesting is developing.

The first 30 minutes are as bad as any in the entire 120-minute runtime. The chronicle bewilderingly opens with what appears to be archival camera phone footage of two kids talking to Superman. “What’s your favorite thing about earth?” one asks. The clip stops short before we can get an answer. Now cut to Batman chasing an unknown man on a rooftop that has just committed a robbery. Batman dangles the man over the edge and apparently his fear lures some flying monster out of the shadows. The creature inexplicably explodes moments later leaving 3 boxes. I immediately had questions. Who is the robber? What is that monster? What’s in those boxes? Some of these are answered later while others linger on well after the movie is over. But first some arbitrarily inserted scenes of Superman’s earthly mom (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) pontificating on how they miss Superman. He’s dead of course, but you already knew that, right?  If not too bad because the screenwriters have assumed you do.  Cut to the city of London where Wonder Woman is stopping a bank robbery. Then abrupt edit to Batman journeying to Iceland to recruit what looks like a long haired bodybuilder with tribal tattoos that cover his body. It seems that this is Aquaman. He declines. Bruce is sad. He’s trying to assemble a team. He wants Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) too. Cut to hastily inserted scenes featuring those people as well. The narrative is so haphazard. Plot elements are distributed to viewers like the shuffled deck at a blackjack table. The only difference here is that there is no winner.

Justice League doesn’t resemble a story so much as the random insertion of recognizable characters doing puzzling things. Without any meaningful focus, we’re left to try and appreciate the visual spectacle. Computer generated imagery infects every frame of the film. Action set pieces are grotesque displays of blurry images. The action is confusing and uninvolving. We’re missing the human element. The human visage can charm an audience. Yet even Superman’s face doesn’t look natural in his opening vignette. Here’s where a little background information might be helpful.  You see, actor Henry Cavill had to come back late in production for reshoots.  At that point he was sporting a mustache that he was contractually obligated to keep for another picture. CGI was used to erase the facial hair. Hence the bizarre unnatural look to his face in this scene.

The film has bigger storytelling problems than ugly CGI though. It’s characters we couldn’t care less about. Batman (Bruce Wayne), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are unlikeable protagonists that are dour at best. Their interactions gave me the impression that they hate each other. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) at least smile occasionally but the screenplay limits their chances to connect with the audience. What a comedown from this summer’s far superior Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is mainly in action mode and Henry Cavill merely occupies the final quarter of the picture. Only The Flash (Ezra Miller) has that spark of a personality that engenders warmth. His plight is emotionally involving. Ezra Miller was well utilized. Oh well him and the personal trainers of Jason Momoa & Henry Cavill. The cinematography makes sure you notice how physically fit they are. Duly noted. Everyone else was wasted. The rest of the actors are meaningless ciphers – stand-ins for where charismatic people are supposed to be.

I really wanted to love Justice League. The idea of these superheroes all joining forces and fighting crime together is an inherently exciting idea. Any child of the 70s like me will remember the animated Super Friends Saturday morning TV series. I loved that show. Yet the joy of that concept is completely subjugated under the helm of Zack Snyder. Sadly the director had to leave due to a most regrettable family tragedy. Joss Whedon stepped in to finish things up. I can’t ascertain as to whether the change helped or hurt the movie. I can only offer that the final product is an absolute travesty to anyone who values an intelligible narrative. At this point, the central villain doesn’t even matter, but even he is a non-entity.  He registers not as a personality but as a plot device.  His name is Steppenwolf and comprises the whole reason the Justice League must assemble. The monster isn’t even portrayed by an actor but a completely fabricated creation using CGI and motion capture technology. Ciarán Hinds’ body movements were utilized for reference. However it’s telling that the poor actor never even met the rest of the cast. He’s merely an afterthought in a production that treats the humanity of a human actor as an inconvenience when telling a story. That kind of sums up the viewpoint of the entire film.

11-16-17

Thor: Ragnarok

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on November 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

thor_ragnarok_ver2STARS4A lot has happened since 2013, the year Thor’s last standalone film came out. Eight, count ’em EIGHT Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entries have separated Thor: The Dark World and the current Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps that’s why the difference between the two chapters is like night and day. Where The Dark World was a ponderous, needlessly complicated dirge through exposition, Ragnarok is a light, breezy comical fun fest. I’ve always been a fan of humor in my superhero flicks. I mean the idea of people dressing up in costumes and fighting crime is inherently silly so any narrative that understands this idea is a favorable one. It’s the reason why the Guardians of the Galaxy adaptations are so wonderful. New Zealand director Taika Waititi brings a lighthearted take to the proceedings. His interpretation of the MCU is a hysterical delight.

Thor: Ragnarok does have some supplementary explication if you’re needing that sort of thing. We’re told that the kingdom of Asgard will soon be destroyed in the prophesied Ragnarok, the final destruction of the world. Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is dying. His passing will allow his firstborn daughter — and Thor’s half-sister — Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from a prison. She is an evil badass and a serious threat to peace. She’s so powerful in fact that she forces Thor out of Asgard. He is soon apprehended by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) a servant of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As the ruler of the planet Sakaar, the Grandmaster holds gladiator tournaments. Holy shades of Flash Gordon! Unfortunately, the advertising spoiled who Thor meets in that tournament. It should have remained a mystery so if you haven’t seen the trailer, I won’t ruin the surprise here. Anyway, Thor still wants to save Asgard and prevent Ragnarok from happening. The script plays fast and loose with the hallmarks of the character. Thor sports a different outfit, his golden tresses are shorn and his hammer Mjolnir is shattered. The fact that these things happen isn’t a spoiler but knowing how and why would be. Therein lies the joy. The way things unfold is enjoyable and always served with a heaping cup of frivolity.

Thor: Ragnarok boasts an impressive cast of A-list talent. Chris Hemsworth’s interactions with the supporting cast are uniformly great. Cate Blanchett is the over-the-top villainess Hela and she is hella good.  She is an effective evocation of a goddess that draws on both the physical and psychological qualities of Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. With her horned headdress, she is like the manifestation of some magnificent elk in human form. Her evildoer is just as much a camp depiction as it is a CGI exhibition of special effects. Jeff Goldblum is a sardonic delight as The Grandmaster. Mark Ruffalo turns up as Bruce Banner/Hulk and his presence is a welcome addition. Ruffalo’s ability to alternately convey both the aggressive and warm tendencies of the character is admirable. Tessa Thompson (Creed) is a tough-talking, hard-drinking Valkyrie. Karl Urban is Skurge, an Asgardian warrior who becomes Hela’s right-hand minion. Idris Elba is back as Heimdall, and Anthony Hopkins appears briefly as Odin. Also returning is Tom Hiddleston as Loki but he gets a deeper mention in the next paragraph.

This is Chris Hemsworth’s fifth portrayal of the Norse deity in an MCU movie and he’s really grown into the role. Honing his comedic sensibilities and embracing the personality in a way that feels more lived-in.  He’s getting more in touch with Thor’s psyche.  The actor has always looked the part but now he seems to embody the mindset. His considerable charisma is at its peak. He’s more engaging than ever. For the first time,  Hemsworth doesn’t feel like he’s guest-starring in his own movie. Tom Hiddleston as Loki has always been a highlight in these ensembles, and he is great here too but now he’s supporting the god of thunder rather than stealing his thunder. The two of them have always had palpable chemistry and their scenes together here are wonderful. Combine that with an extravaganza of sheer excess and you’ve got a bold, splashy color-soaked spectacular. There is probably more eye candy than the human mind can grasp in one sitting. Multiple viewings may be needed to appreciate it all. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t the most thoughtful story in the MCU, but it could be the most visually appealing. I sat back in my chair, jaw agape at the spectacle. It’s also exceptionally comical throughout. Warning: there is a passage through the space-time continuum called the Devil’s Anus. Perhaps not always funny on the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, but pretty close. All of that combines to make this a rousing good time at the movies. It’s entertaining AF.

11-02-17

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Thriller with tags on September 30, 2017 by Mark Hobin

kingsman_the_golden_circle_ver22STARS3I believe 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was fine. I gave it a marginal recommendation but I wasn’t shouting my praise from the rooftops. I won’t rehash my thoughts but you can read them here. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the sequel to that hit. It stars Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Yes you read the right, Firth is back. Mild spoiler if you haven’t seen the first film, but it shouldn’t have been possible for his character to appear in another film. This kind of underscores the screenwriters’ relationship with logic and reason: we don’t give a flying fig as to what makes sense. Director Matthew Vaughn is back as well and he’s co-writing the screenplay once again with Jane Goldman, the identical team that wrote the first. Given that this features the same cast and crew, it makes sense that The Golden Circle is equally enjoyable.

Matthew Vaughn’s aesthetic is to take the spy thriller, à la James Bond, and subvert it with sarcastic gloss drenched in nihilism. Let’s give credit where it’s due first. Both movies are based on the comic book series Kingsman, created by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar. It’s a category already known for absurdity but Vaughn takes it a step further. He doesn’t present the genre seriously. He’s a cheeky adolescent-minded rascal that gets his kicks through shock value. One’s pleasure is going to rely on how much you share his point of view. Those who delight in parody will be captivated. Moviegoers searching for depth won’t find it here. Expect well-choreographed fight sequences, extreme violence, vulgar discourse, and far-fetched gadgets. It’s a silly overblown hyper-violent fun fest that entertains as it plays. Yet it quickly evaporates from the mind a week later.

I’m already halfway through my review and I haven’t even mentioned what the story is about. The capricious details of the plot are merely an excuse to present random acts of mayhem but I’ll elaborate. It’s a year later and our superspy hero Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) must do battle with Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a billionaire drug lord looking to decriminalize her enterprise by bullying the United States into legalizing drugs. She’s an over-the-top personality who commands a couple of robotic dogs while championing a love for campy 50s style. She obtains the names and addresses of everyone in the UK Kingsman organization. You may remember that the undercover headquarters of the team of spies was housed as a society of Savile Row tailors. The film opens with a major attack from rejected Kingsman recruit, Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft). Virtually everyone is eliminated leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) left. Oh and his mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who has apparently survived. Nothing is what it seems. The dead can be brought back to life. This is essentially a cartoon after all. In their quest to save the world, they discover U.S. allies and meet agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). Together they join forces and attempt to stop the villainous Poppy Adams and her evil plans.

If you subscribe to the mantra that bigger is better, then The Golden Circle may just be what you crave. As far as action is concerned, director Matthew Vaughn is always operating at 100%. There are fight scenes galore and they feature enough brutality to highlight 3 or 4 spy films. There’s a cast of new stars in this too. Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Elton John, Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges all show up. Each has a varying degree of involvement. Julianne Moore is in it so much that this could have been called “The Poppy Show.” She might even have more screen time than Taron Edgerton. Conversely, Channing Tatum is in it so briefly that if you use the restroom during his scene, you might miss his appearance. There’s a lot going on here. The mere sight of Elton John is enough to elicit at least a few chuckles. At 2 hours 21 minutes, it is overstuffed. It starts to wear out its welcome before it’s over. However, there’s still a great deal to enjoy. It doesn’t break any new ground, but if you’re looking for a louder, more expensive spectacle, then you’ll be comfortably entertained.

9-21-17

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets_ver3STARS4Every now and then a film coasts by on a visual aesthetic that is so visionary in its daft mentality that it captivates the mind beyond all sense and reason. We’re talking about a production that’s fully formed from its costumes, creature designs and a cheerfully bonkers dedication to an artistic style. It’s like a drug. You actually feel a sense of giddiness simply by watching it. Of course, it relies on the prerequisite that you are open to the creative pleasures of an optical nature. There are those that require more intellectualism and sense in their sci-fi epics. I am not one of those people. Back in 1997, Luc Besson gave audiences the wonderful gift of The Fifth Element. The wildly imaginative space opera became a cult classic (and incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). Now 20 years later, Luc Besson has returned with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s happening all over again because this is a joy.

Our story is set in motion when a race of humanoids on the futuristic planet Mül suffers a life threatening attack. The iridescent silvery people have been living a pastoral life in a bright tropical paradise. A willowy princess wakes up on a beach. They harvest space pearls for energy. She rises to the dawn and washes her face in a bowl full of the white lustrous spherical jewels. A cute little critter called a Mül Converter is used duplicate them. Ok to be more specific, it actually poops what it eats. Their idyllic life is forever affected when they are attacked by an enemy force. The event inspires the race to kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) for mysterious reasons. This act compels Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline. The two basically operate as police officers in space. They are a romantic couple (natch) but bicker like a pair of people that can’t stand each other. He’s a roguish player. She’s a sharp-tongued intellect. I suppose their sexual chemistry is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I found their interactions amusing, albeit a bit reductive. DeHaan’s surfer dude accent is sort of a riff on Keanu Reeves’ character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Attractive Cara Delevingne, with her thick brows, kind of physically recalls Brooke Shields circa 1980. When we first meet the two they’re relaxing on a sunny beach like some marooned island couple out of The Blue Lagoon. Turns out it’s just a visual reality simulation.

Laureline is forever rebuffing Valerian’s advances in a way that’s reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that feels Star Wars-ish. Remember the cantina scene, that bar where are all the otherworldly visitors gathered to merely hang out? Well, that’s kind of like Valerian for 2 hours 17 minutes. Besson’s production is based on the comic Valerian and Laureline by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. That series was launched in 1967, ten years before the first Star Wars film was released. George Lucas has freely admitted he was influenced by director Akira Kurosawa when assembling his space opera. The similarities to Valerian have been noted by other people. [Side Note: Artist Jean-Claude Mézières collaborated with director Luc Besson on The Fifth Element.]

The action is centered around Alpha, an International Space Station where millions of immigrants from different planets gather amicably and exchange their knowledge and cultures. The opening sequence presents this as an array of meet and greets involving various individuals underscored by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The uplifting presentation of a peaceful world is such an exaltation of goodness, I was kind of overcome by the display.  The very idea that such a naive concept could become a reality was made so emotionally resonant. The vignette is among the best introductory scenes that I’ve witnessed all year. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has another. It was the perfect primer to begin this movie. The dizzying opening is pure cinema. I was captivated from the get go.

The creature designs are the strongest part of the film. A lot of it is accomplished using motion capture and CGI. An overreliance on computer graphics is usually not something I appreciate, but here it feels so organic that I enjoyed the creativity. Some of my favorites include three platypus-like aliens called the Doghan-Dagui who offer help…but only for the right price. There’s the Boulan Bathor Couturier that presents Sergeant Laureline with a series of outfits to wear. A chubby little intradimensional species seems pretty harmless but you don’t want to anger its mother. John Goodman voices the massive pirate captain that runs the Big Market Bazaar. Ethan Hawke plays Jolly the Pimp who introduces a shape-shifting species known as a Glamopod. Her name is Bubble. She’s portrayed by pop singer Rihanna in her human form. Her performance is more a feat of CGI and Cirque du Soleil than acting, but the manifestation is unadulterated eye candy at its finest. I was hypnotized by her character.

I’ll admit that when it comes to story, Luc Besson is more fascinated by the question “How does it look” not “Why does this happen?” In that respect, Valerian isn’t going to expand your mind with philosophical thought. However, it will dazzle you with the exploration of creative worlds. It’s more about the physical display. When some gentle looking butterflies flutter by, their reveal as a dangerous threat is world building at its most hilarious. The fabrication has a European, no make that international sensibility. This is helped by the inventive casting which, besides all the aforementioned names, also includes English Actor Clive Owen, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, American composer Herbie Hancock, and Chinese-born pop singer Kris Wu. Valerian is a production designer’s dream on a hallucinogenic trip. When our two protagonists go to “Big Market” the mind-bending action is a lot to wrap your head around. The shopping mall is a setting that has other dimensions that can only be accessed when you don virtual reality gloves and glasses. It’s so erratic in the way it switches back and forth between the two realities, it’s a madcap delight. The popcorn flick works on that level throughout the entire film. It’s just so silly. I adored it.

07-21-17

War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3STARS3War for the Planet of the Apes is Part 3 in the rebooted film series that commenced in 2011. The franchise has been operating as a sequence of prequels leading up to the events of the 1968 classic. Now with the release of this picture, people have been referring to the collection as a trilogy. Whether more installments will follow still remains to be seen.  However if this picture makes enough money, you can best believe that more films will follow.

War is the story of Caesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes.  His army of simian warriors is at odds with Alpha-Omega, a terrorist faction of humans.  Caesar preaches a peaceful coexistence with the homo sapiens. However, the people are led by an aggressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  Apparently these barbaric individuals, can’t be reasoned with.  They’re just so warlike.  Not wanting to suffer any more casualties, Caesar plans to relocate his clan to the desert far away from Muir woods.  The night before they’re supposed to leave, Caesar’s home is invaded by the Colonel and his family is brutally attacked.  Now Caesar has a score to settle. He’s out for revenge.  This goes against everything his character has ever stood for, but hey no conflict no movie right?  Now we’re ready for a showdown.

The apes are anthropomorphic miracles of technology that act with more humanity than people. Ah yes, indeed that is the intention. If you couldn’t tell from the plot description above, War is told from the apes’ perspective. The entire trilogy (thus far anyway) has been developing a personal arc that traces the life of Caesar from a tortured experiment into a commanding leader. You will identify with the apes more than the humans. In this story, apes are better than people. You’ll be rooting for the demise of the human race if this screenplay has anything to say about it. That’s an interesting take, I suppose, but there’s more to creating a compelling narrative than merely affecting a unique point of view.

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s hard not to notice him as (1) he’s got the lion’s share of all the dialogue and (2) the camera lingers on his expressive CGI face for seemingly minutes on end. He’s a fascinating creature to be sure. Caesar rounds up a loyal band of followers. These include his second in command, an orangutan adviser named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a fellow chimpanzee named Rocket (Terry Notary), and a sensitive gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They are a serious lot. The whole production would be a serious downer if not for one individual. Steve Zahn voices a zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” in a bit of comic relief.  The misfit is kind of at lighthearted odds with the rest of the cast.  Yet he’s the only mitigation from all the dreariness.  As such, he’s a welcome reprieve from the bleak narrative.

On the non-simian side, there’s the evil Colonel played with cartoonish excess by Woody Harrelson. He wants to eradicate the world of not only all apes but also virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech. It’s easy to side with animals when this is the example of a human with which we are presented. His bald, deranged character is clearly inspired by  Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.  As a matter of fact, some graffiti on the wall actually says “Ape-ocalypse Now” lest the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle tribute wasn’t obvious.   The whole homage might seem rather clever had it not been for Kong: Skull Island liberally referencing the very same classic a mere 4 months ago.  It’s still pretty fresh in my mind.  News flash: there are other memorable films about war that weren’t made by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable spectacle.  At times it actually feels like a silent movie.  There are very few speaking parts.  Facial expressions are more important than actual words.  The camera fixates on the countenance of Caesar and we are invited to be moved by the way he emotes.  The script gets by on minimal dialogue.  The apes rescue a human orphan girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who doesn’t talk.  She was rendered mute by the Simian Flu.  Most of the apes, in turn, communicate via sign language.  The technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the series began in 2011.  Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin inspire awe with every shot.  This is a gorgeous achievement and the reason I’m giving this production a pass.  The CGI & MoCap apes are a marvel to behold.  It’s hard not to be wowed by the way War looks.  There is a trade-off for all of this visual wonder though.  The atmosphere is lugubrious.  The pacing is sluggish.  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours.  Even though the chronicle builds to a climactic finale, action does not comprise the bulk of the drama.  It’s yet another dismal morality tale that is a punishing watch.  It relies on the oldest of clichés. I’ll summarize: War is hell, but so are you, the human race, that is.  Forgive me if I don’t stand up and cheer.

07-13-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17

Despicable Me 3

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family on July 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo despicable_me_three_ver3_zpsq185xh6v.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgWell, It took seven years, but Illumination Entertainment finally delivered The Despicable Me movie its detractors have accused them of making all along. Tedious, frantic, disjointed, shallow, dull, dumb. Despicable Me 3 is an insufferable mess of a film. It doesn’t have a focus so much as disparate interludes that have been randomly thrown together with no regard for the components needed to create an intelligible story. It’s up for discussion, but I think I counted at least four different story threads. These have then been haphazardly assembled to justify a 90 minute runtime. I’m not even sure I can even coherently outline the action, but I’ll try.

The alpha plotline begins when Gru (Steve Carell), former evildoer now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is fired from the group because of his inability to apprehend criminal Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). He’s the worst excuse for a villain, but I’ll get back to him. Plot B details when Gru discovers he has a twin brother named Dru. The whole family – which includes wife Lucy and adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) – are invited to go hang out at his estate in Freedonia. The Duck Soup reference is cute. Then more developments: Mother Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is worried about being a good step-mom to the little girls, Edith and Agnes try to find a real unicorn, and Margo is almost married off to a little boy in a cheese ceremony. Meanwhile in Plot C, Gru is still preoccupied with retrieving the world’s biggest diamond from Balthazar Bratt. By accomplishing this, he hopes to get his old job back at the AVL. Oh and I almost forgot the Minions who are treated like an afterthought here. Plot D has the little yellow creatures upset that Gru is no longer interested in villainy. They leave but are promptly arrested and thrown in jail after trespassing at a talent show. Seriously if you’ve always hated the Minions, then this is the picture for you.

The narrative couldn’t even offer compelling supporting personalities this time around. Steve Carell also voices Dru, Gru’s long-lost twin brother. He’s a billionaire, has a higher pitched voice, and is flamboyantly carefree but he’s essentially the exact same person – just with a mane of blonde hair. We’re supposed to care about this familial reunion but their relationship is given short shrift. There’s simply too much going on to even care.

Now about that villain. A chronicle fixated on an antagonist is only as good as that personality. Balthazar Bratt is a lackadaisical suggestion of a individual. A former child star of a tacky 80s TV series called “Evil Bratt”, he found his popularity wane after entering puberty. Now an adult, he’s bent on world domination. Why? Good question. The writers aren’t concerned with such exposition, but I’m thinking it’s a case of “Waaaaah! You better notice me!” We’re never given an explanation as to why he is doing what he is doing.  Dressed in a purple jumpsuit with outrageous shoulder pads and parachute pants. He sports a droopy mustache and a black mullet with an extreme hi-top fade. He plays the keytar which gives the soundtrack an excuse to flood our senses with lots of late 80s hits (“Bad”, “Sussudio”, “Money For Nothing”, “99 Luftballons”, etc.) at every juncture. Their ostensible purpose? To elicit the reaction “Hey I recognize that song!” He’s merely a visual/auditory joke and nothing more. He’s easily the most lazily created villain of this franchise.

I’ve enjoyed the wacky playful antics of this series. Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 were well-crafted exercises that combined fun with feeling. Even the underappreciated Minions had enough laughs to support its existence. They had the zany joy of those classic Warner Bros. Cartoons. They were goofy, sure, but they had a sense of purpose in the pursuit of an actual story. This time the scattershot atmosphere yields boredom. It’s a sloppy, commercially focused, Hollywood product that inspires nothing but pure unadulterated apathy. It lacks everything – wit, heart, joy – that made the first two installments great. It’s so empty that the experience was soul crushing for this self-avowed fan. As expected, Despicable Me 3 ends with a set-up to yet another one of these films. No thanks, I’ve had sufficient. I’ve stood by this franchise long after my peers abandoned it but here’s where I’m jumping ship too.

06-29-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo cars_three_ver3_zpscemphvxy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgCars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17