Archive for the Adventure Category

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver4STARS3.5Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might have set a record for the number of spontaneous bursts of applause I’ve ever experienced during a theatrical screening.  I stopped counting when it reached double digits.  It was an absolute love fest.  My reaction was less enthusiastic but I can appreciate why the crowd embraced this so gleefully.  The chronicle is heavy on scenes and displays that are specifically designed to appeal to longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise — especially admirers of the first set (and best) of three films often referred to as the classic trilogy.  Director J.J. Abrams is a master at giving people exactly what they want.  That is both boon and bane to the grand narrative arc of the three most recent Star Wars episodes.

J.J. Abrams was faced with an epic task.  First, he had to close out the sequel trilogy which he began with The Force Awakens in 2015, but also cap off the entire “Skywalker Saga” of nine movies.  He only partially succeeds as the three chapters linked do not fit together as a cohesive whole.  I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s subversive take in the 2nd movie because he brought innovation and unexpected change to the franchise.  However, it was not meant to be. From a story standpoint, it now feels like Abrams directed The Force Awakens with an idea of where he wanted the adventure to go.  Then the series was hijacked by filmmaker Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi who introduced plot elements and personalities only to have Abrams either ignore them or explain them away with The Rise of Skywalker as a course-correcting measure.  This is true with the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic of the resistance that was a huge part of The Last Jedi but now only registers as a gloried cameo typing away at a computer here.  Be warned there will be other adjustments made in the name of retroactive continuity.  What I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the opening crawl.  Somehow a resurrected emperor Palpatine returns (Ian McDiarmid) as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been rendered as a nonentity.

J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Wars is more focused on the meticulous crafting of visual style at the expense of logical developments. That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker isn’t enjoyable.  It’s hugely entertaining.  The audience in my theater were laughing, crying, cheering.  That audience experienced something akin to a religious experience.  There are lots of encounters with fantastic creatures and random humans.  Babu Frik is the baby Yoda of this movie.  Don’t underestimate this little guy’s power to charm the viewer.  Babu Frik reprograms droids and speaks in an incomprehensible but adorable alien language that had my theater enraptured.  There’s a cone-headed droid named D-O that behaves like a rehabilitated puppy.  Porgs, Ewoks, Jawas, droids all pop up intermittently to satisfy your fan lust for more cute critters.  Abrams is adept at manipulating the Star Wars aesthetic in a way that honors the past while fashioning a tale with new personalities.

There’s a dizzying array of human roles too.  Numerous individuals pop up, deliver one line and then frustratingly disappear.  Abrams prioritizes the wants and needs of the fans over plot, characterization and thematic consistency.  Rose Tico has been sidelined.  Yet the writers have added other actors that appear to fulfill the same role but then obfuscate the advancement of a singular narrative.  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is an ally of the Resistance who is paired up with Finn.  She also has a conversation with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) that’s calculated to tease some sort of relationship.  Oscar Isaac is back as Poe and he hangs out with an old friend named Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell.  You’d never know it was the actress, however, because she wears a helmet.  You only see her eyes in one scene.  The inclusion of Jannah and Zorii seems rather pointless.  Nevertheless, the cast is filled with beings that all look and sound the part.  The villains continue to be cast like actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde in the First Order looks like a genetic descendant of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

Yes, this movie relies on the groundwork that was established long ago.  This entry will lack an emotional impact for the uninitiated.  It feels a bit like a greatest hits reel where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in.  At one point Rey amusingly utters a declaration that followers will recognize as a variation of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.  My theater was erupting in applause at moments that I didn’t even grasp.  The gang walks into a droid shop and there’s an old guy with a white beard shaking his head.  Everyone started clapping.  It was only after the film was over and I consulted the internet that I found out who that was.  Abrams even finds a way to include original cast members including (but not limited to) Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams.  Fisher passed on in 2016 and so her scenes have been cobbled together from outtakes and pre-recorded dialogue.  Her declarations have a vagueness about them but it’s nice to see her.  Another character reappears as just a figment of someone’s memory.

The Rise of Skywalker ultimately delivers the satisfying end to — what I like to call — the nonology.  The chronicle is well-paced but at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it’s overpacked with too much stuff.  It’s messy and incoherent.  However, the central trio continues to be a charismatic bunch.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) bicker like two brothers.  They still have a nice dynamic.  The main hero, Jedi Knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the lion’s share of the drama.  The idea of “The Force” as an all-powerful almost Godlike solution to difficult problems is further promoted.  Rey now has abilities so advanced that she can control a spaceship flying overhead simply by outstretching her hand while she is safely on the ground.  Apparently, the force can even be manipulated in the same way that Jesus helped Lazarus.

Rey is a captivating heroine and her interaction with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the sentimental core.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a lightsaber duel between the two of them.  The fact it’s set against a backdrop of stormy ocean waves that rise and crash all around them truly elevate the action.  It ends with a surprising act.  Abrams fills his account with sensational set pieces that delight the viewer.  Also ** news flash ** there will be a massive air battle between the Rebels and the Empire.  Abrams celebrates cinematic history by courting nostalgia but then amps up the spectacle.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s his ties to the same ideas that fascinated George Lucas where The Rise of Skywalker fitfully entertains as an end to the Star Wars saga.

12-19-19

Jumanji: The Next Level

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on December 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

jumanji_the_next_level_ver3STARS2.5I didn’t expect much from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in 2017.  I was pleasantly surprised. The feature was a fun adventure about four kids in the real world that inhabited the bodies of visually disparate avatars in a video game.  The joke was how their personalities were matched up.  For example, the shy nerdy boy (Alex Wolff) became a strong confident explorer (Dwayne Johnson) and a pretty but ditzy, self-centered girl (Madison Iseman) was reborn as a pudgy male archeologist (Jack Black).  The concept was both innovative and funny.  It wasn’t great art but it succeeded because it was entertaining.

Audiences loved the first film and positive word of mouth propelled a healthy run in theaters. It grossed over $962 million worldwide so it was only a matter of time before we got this inevitable sequel.  Once again Jumanji: The Next Level essentially relies on the very same gag with a slight twist.  The difference this time is that each protagonist is now inhabiting a different body in the simulated fantasy.  So Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan are all back but with the added “novelty” to act in a different manner.

The proceedings are essentially a tired rehash of the previous film, but there are bright spots.  The script also attempts to inject new life by adding 2 old people.  The scribes have introduced two characters in the real world.  Danny De Vito portrays Spencer’s grandfather Eddie and Danny Glover pops up as Eddie’s estranged friend.  They are both sucked into the video game adventure.  Their temperaments are good for a few laughs.  Also, breakout star and current “It Girl” Awkwafina plays an additional avatar within the video game.  Awkwafina stands out.  She’s a legitimately good actress so she’s effective at manifesting distinctive identities.  Kevin Hart downplays his more intense charisma by talking much slower which is rather amusing in itself.

However, the story is a complete snooze.  Actor Rory McCann impersonates this “Game of Thrones” style warlord named Jurgen the Brutal.  He’s stolen a necklace called the Falcon’s Heart and the gang must get it back and expose it to the sun so they may end the drought that has infected the land and yada yada yada.

A fresh idea can no longer captivate when it’s simply repeated with more clutter.  This narrative is undone by a screenplay that is content to check the boxes of a formula to safely produce another hit in the same vein.  Writers Jake Kasdan (who also returns as director), Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg barely tweak the formula to produce this generic hit.  The first half of the movie relies more on the characters so it genially coasts on the talents of its cast but in the 2nd half, the chronicle dwells far too long on a convoluted story.  I just didn’t give a care.  The final 30 minutes is a difficult sit.  The saga runs over two hours when it should’ve been a brisk 90 minutes.  So ultimately Jumanji: The Next Level turns out to be a level down from its predecessor.

12-12-19

Frozen 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on November 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

frozen_two_ver8STARS3.5Truth be told, I enjoyed Frozen just fine in 2013, but I didn’t think it was the be all and end all of animated cinema.  I was in the minority because somehow it ended up making $1.2 billion worldwide and winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  I was rooting for Despicable Me 2 that year incidentally and yes I’m 100% serious.  Now we have Frozen 2, a sequel to the Disney megahit.  Coming on the heels of Ralph Breaks the Internet, I suspect that Disney is in the early stages of producing many followups to their successful properties.  Pixar has been doing this for years.  I could be snarky and say you could almost throw anything up there on the screen and it would be a hit but the filmmakers didn’t play it safe.  They have put in considerable work to deepen the drama with a complicated backstory.  I appreciate the attempt, but it’s an effort that feels unnecessary.

Before we get to the adventure, however, let’s starts with the basics.  It’s not hard to see how Frozen 2 checks off the ingredients in a recipe: bring back familiar personalities we know, introduce new characters which can be marketed as great toys, pre-package girl power messaging and highlight a musical with original show tunes.  Not a problem.  I was prepared for that.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) return.   A magic water horse called the Nokk, a cute salamander named Bruni and a family of giant rock monsters are newly added merchandising opportunities.  It also grants us an entire soundtrack of new songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  There seems to be some debate, but I contend that “Show Yourself” is the one designed to mimic “Let it Go” musically and visually in the film.  “Into the Unknown” is the ballad they’re pushing as the hit though.  The best ditty, however, is not when the soundtrack is trying to rewrite the melodies from the previous chapter.   It happens when our expectations are subverted.  Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) 80s influenced “Lost in the Woods” is the greatest power pop ballad that REO Speedwagon never sang.

More isn’t always better.  The story presented here proves that.  Sometimes more is just more.  The chronicle is a needlessly convoluted fantasy with more subplots.  It offers answers for questions you never thought to ask but are going to receive anyway.  Some people will adore that level of mythology.  Are you one of those people?  You have to ask yourself this question: What do you require of a cartoon?  If simplicity and clarity are what you crave, you are likely to be a bit perplexed by the elaborate exposition.  However, if you prefer more legends and fabrications, then your curiosity will be satiated.  You’re going to get a lot of expounding.  For example, the narrative will produce explanations as to why Elsa has magical abilities, and what happened to her and Anna’s parents.  I didn’t need that level of detail, but thanks for the info…I guess.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough.  The production is beautifully animated and features some nice music.  It’s a formula but it’s a formula that works.  Frozen 2 did $127 million in the U.S. during its opening weekend so be ready to take your children to a movie they will beg you to see.  That is if you haven’t seen it already.

11-21-19

Zombieland: Double Tap

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Horror with tags on October 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zombieland_double_tap_ver2STARS3.5So forgive the pun, but I am a DEAD-icated fan of the 2009 original film.  With that said, I didn’t need a sequel 10 years later but here we are.  I’m happy to report it’s a funny and well-paced tale.  Director Ruben Fleischer (Venom) returns along with the same screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool).  Writer Dave Callaham is a new addition.  The script doesn’t overcomplicate things.  Zombies are still on the loose and our four protagonists are back to fight them.  Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) all go by the cities where they’re from.  Those aren’t their actual names.  Getting too attached to people in this society is not encouraged.  Death by zombies is a serious reality.

Zombieland 2 Double Tap is an entertaining road movie about a family of sorts.  Little Rock isn’t a child anymore.  An adolescent often needs to rebel against a father figure.    She leaves the nest, so to speak, and meets up with a hippie/stoner/pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia).  The others go out on the road in search of her.  That’s when the adventure starts to get interesting.  Along the way, they meet a blonde airhead named Madison.  Actress Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!) is the MVP of this production.   How Madison has managed to survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland is nothing short of a miracle.  Deutch is absolutely hilarious.  She steals every scene in which she appears.  No small feat given the caliber of talent assembled here.  These 4 stars have 8 Oscar nominations between them.  Emma Stone (La La Land) has actually won.

Our heroes have truly perfected their zombie-killing methods.  Over the years, walking corpses have evolved.   They’ve divided these monsters into different types by giving them humorous code names.  Brief vignettes detail the “zombie kills of the year” and each interlude is good for a few chuckles.  Columbus’ strict rules for survival frequently pop up like huge letters that take up space in the physical world to emphasize their importance.  In fact, a double-tap shooting technique is the most effective way to kill the undead.  However, I’ve also got a cinematic rule of my own.  Projectile vomiting is never okay.  This movie unfortunately breaks that rule.

Like its predecessor, Zombieland: Double Tap is a comedy first and a horror movie….well it really isn’t very scary at all.  Although it is incredibly violent.  Zombies are shot within point-blank range over and over.  The nonstop slaughter feels like a first-person-shooter video game in a comedic vein.  That flippant attitude pervades the adventure.  The playfulness helps to both lighten the mood as well as make the entire endeavor feel like a frivolous exercise.  These friends live at the White House, go to Graceland in one segment, meet their doppelgangers in another.  It’s all so very random – a series of gags that have been assembled together to make a feature.  Yet the dialogue-heavy screenplay has a lot of bright banter that truly elevates this clever zombie satire.  The conflict amongst this amiable extended family is far more engaging than any of the altercations with faceless ghouls.   As a compelling story the narrative is lacking, but as an afternoon diversion to make you laugh the production is quite successful.  Yes, this sequel is completely unnecessary but that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedy.   I laughed out loud…a lot.

10-17-19

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on October 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maleficent_mistress_of_evil_ver6STARS2.5First off, let’s clarify one point right away.  Maleficent the “Mistress of Evil” is NOT a villain.  This is a sequel to the 2014 live-action feature which was a revisionist take on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Maleficent wasn’t bad in that film either, just misunderstood.  Here she’s actually bordering on virtuous because there’s another character that becomes the main antagonist.

You may recall that Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is Princess Aurora’s fairy godmother.  Aurora (Elle Fanning) Queen of the Moors wants to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson).   Their vacant personalities are dull.  Perhaps it shouldn’t matter since this young couple in love isn’t the focus, but I felt no sympathy for them.  In fact, I couldn’t relate to any living thing in this film.  That includes all of the whimsical assemblages of flora and fauna that are aggressively thrust into the audience’s face.  Problems arise during an awkward family dinner.  Aurora’s parents are King John and Queen Ingrith played by Robert Lindsay and Michelle Pfeiffer.  They invite their prospective in-law Maleficent over to dinner to ostensibly welcome her into the family.  However, the Queen has ulterior motives and starts an argument with Maleficent that turns really ugly.

Angelina Jolie brings true movie star charisma to the role.  It’s nice to see her acting again.  Jolie has only appeared in one picture since the last installment — the box office bomb By the Sea in 2015.  She’s at her best when she’s desperately trying to make nice with the royals and failing miserably.  The costumes (Maleficent got an Oscar nomination for this) are spectacular and the production design is luxurious.  However, the sheer amount of CGI in this concoction is almost too much for the human eye to comprehend.  The technology rendering various elves, nymphs, sylphs, sprites, and pixies infects every frame.

I lost track of how many artificially rendered side characters exist in this world.  The three pixies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville are an abomination.  Their manifestation hasn’t changed from the 2014 entry.  These fairies don’t resemble anything even remotely organic.  Their shrunken faces, squeezed into diminutive bodies are merely graphical displays.  The nadir is when one of them utters the colloquial expression: “I see what you did there.”   A chattering Sonic the hedgehog-like critter named Pinto speaks in a cutesy high pitched language that I can only describe as Ewok.   There’s a mushroom fairy named Button that gets captured by an evil goblin scientist with big ears named Lickspittle (Warwick Davis).   He resembles Yoda.  There are also tree creatures that evoke Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (or the Ents in Lord of the Rings – take your pick).  On-screen, it’s just a visual assault of random stuff.

The story is a bloated mishmash that superficially draws more from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings than the animated classic from 1959 on which this was inspired.  Only shapeshifter Diaval, Maleficent’s right-hand man, is able to register some presence.  You’d think a confrontation between Michelle Pfeiffer (bedecked in pearls) and Angelina Jolie (at her vampiest) would be a captivating showdown.  Nope! Maleficent: Mistress of Evil bungles even that.  A lot of the blame can be placed at the doorstep of screenwriter Linda Woolverton who wrote a better screenplay for Maleficent (2014). The script is simply awful. Though the multimedia artists are definitely working against her.  The movie is more concerned with digitally enhanced special effects than actual drama.  There’s no emotional weight to their interactions.  I was numb watching this tale play out.  Back in 2007, Michelle Pfeiffer appeared in a Matthew Vaughn directed fantasy called Stardust.  That award-winning delight is infinitely superior to this dreck.  If this review can have a positive effect, it will inspire someone to go watch a good film.

10-17-19

Abominable

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

abominable_ver4STARS3This site is called “Fast” Film Reviews so I’ll get right to the point.  I’m giving Abominable a marginal pass because it’s vivid entertainment that will undoubtedly charm 8 years olds and under who haven’t been corrupted by as many movies as I.  My mind, however, went to a lot of other flicks while watching this tried and true tale.   It suffers by comparison.  The adventure is about a Yeti.  It begins in Shanghai, China.  One day a girl discovers a cute roly-poly creature with a loving disposition on her rooftop.  He has escaped from his holding cell in a laboratory at the sinister Burnish Industries.  The two bond and she names him Everest.  She vows to bring him back to that highest mountain on earth where he lives.  The problem is that they’re pursued by authorities who want to apprehend him.  With her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and his selfie-obsessed cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), the four individuals undertake an epic journey.

Despite the setting, the experience succumbs to an Americanized milieu.  This is a joint effort by DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.  With the exception of her diminutive grandmother Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), the entire cast sounds as if they were assembled from a Hollywood casting call of local talent.  The central character is a teenaged girl named Yi.  Given the flat tonal quality of her voice, she recalls Miley Cyrus (Bolt) to this untrained ear.  I checked the credits and saw it was in fact actress Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).  Yi plays the violin which allows for a few expressive pieces that genuinely enhance the soundtrack.  However, hearing London based Coldplay’s song “Fix You” takes you right out of that atmosphere.  A pop ditty entitled “Beautiful Life” by Brooklyn born Bebe Rexha doesn’t add to the mood either.  English Eddie Izzard and American Sarah Paulson voice the antagonists.   Ok so the visual backgrounds are culled from Far East locations but there’s nothing about this production that would have substantially changed if it had been set in a large American city like New York.  In a year where The Farewell truly presented Chinese culture with depth and nuance, you’re going to have to do better than simply having your characters eat a few pork buns.  Abominable was also released with a far more evocative Mandarin-language translation for Chinese-speaking moviegoers.  Personally, I would’ve appreciated that version, with English subtitles of course.

Abominable meets the acceptable standard of children’s entertainment.  It’s pleasant enough. The visuals are indeed colorful and the saving grace of this picture.  A highlight occurs when huge blueberries rain down a hill toward our protagonists in a tsunami.  Vast sweeping fields of canola flowers are appropriately stunning.  Shanghai is a glowing neon metropolis, the Gobi desert is pretty and the giant mountainside Buddha in Leshan is an impressively rendered landmark.  The principal critter is a smartly designed plump ball of fur.  He doesn’t resemble an abominable snowman but as a stuffed animal to be manufactured and produced for the masses, he’s adorable.  The animation is adventurous.  The screenplay by writer-director Jill Culton is not.

The “girl makes an unlikely friend” chronicle is stridently average.  Substitute Everest for an alien or pet or dragon and you have the blueprint of countless (better) tales that have come before.  Additionally, the pacing is unbearably slow.  There is surprisingly very little humor to break up the monotony.  A full third of the drama must elapse before they even begin their journey, which is the main thrust of the narrative.  The final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy came out just 7 months ago.  That far superior release was also from DreamWorks, so the company is actually offering pale imitations of their own movies now.  This story is rote and unoriginal.  The noteworthy thing about Abominable is that it’s is the 7th movie from Universal to top the box office weekend in the U.S. this year (8 if you include Downton Abbey).  The studio has the most #1 films in 2019.  At a time where Disney’s dominance over the market is unprecedented, I love to root for the underdog.  Kudos to Universal for still being a competitor.  I just wish it could do so with a less conventional product.

10-01-19

Ad Astra

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ad_astra_ver3STARS3Heaven knows there isn’t a shortage of movies that use outer space as a metaphor for depression.  That’s because the setting is an exquisite allegory for distance, loneliness and broken relationships.  2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, Moon, Interstellar, and First Man are just a few that exploited these feelings.  It’s impossible not to think of one of these chronicles set amongst the stars when watching this picture.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Ad Astra – Latin for “to the stars” – is part of a hallowed and timeworn tradition.

Our saga concerns Brad Pitt who plays Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with tracking down his father.   Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rebel astronaut who has gone missing for years in the outer reaches of the solar system.   The plot actually evokes a literary classic that has nothing to do with deep space.  A man on a meandering quest to find his symbolic “Kurtz” figure is pure Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by Joseph Conrad which also inspired Apocalypse Now.  McBride must unravel the mystery of recent catastrophic power surges that threaten the very future of the entire planet.  Needless to say, the stakes are high.  The story begins as a thinking man’s exploration of the cosmos.  Although the tale of a son that harbors deeply buried abandonment issues against his dad slowly becomes the focus.  The father complex can get a bit tedious.  Roy McBride seems to be pretty cool and collected at first.  His pulse rate never accelerates.  As the possibility that Clifford might still be alive, the man’s placid exterior begins to crumble.  I greeted this turn of events like the psychoanalysis from a dime-store therapist.  An unhealthy parental relationship is the root of his emotional problems.  I tried hard not to roll my eyes too far in the back of my head for fear I would miss a dazzling set-piece.  Ad Astra presents these conventional ideas with stunning cinematography.

This is a gorgeously photographed production that demands to be seen on a wide screen.  Writer-director James Gray is known for his portraits of families in crisis (The Yards, We Own the Night) and this narrative also fits within those descriptive confines.  However, this is the first time he’s ever worked with an $80 million budget.  Gray makes excellent use of the increased funds.  An electrical surge causes the International Space Antenna to go haywire.  Roy falls to earth and I gasped at the spectacle.  A lunar buggy chase on the unsettled areas of the moon, where our hero and his men are pursued by pirates, is spectacularly thrilling.  This is the near future and such things are to be expected.  Later, against Roy McBride’s protestations,  the team answers a mayday call.   The discovery aboard the foreign rocket ship contains a surprise that is scarier than anything I saw in the recent horror IT Chapter Two.  These are the moments I remember the most.  Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

Ad Astra is content to luxuriate within the contemplative mood of an introspective study of a man who misses his daddy.  Why oh why did father prefer searching for extraterrestrial life out in the galaxy when he had life right here on earth that loved him?  That is the central dilemma.  The elegant presentation is somewhat undone by intrusive and excessive narration by Brad Pitt’s character.  His reflections are extraneous expository thoughts.   The vocalized inner monologue comes across as self-indulgent.   This is not a device that elevates our enjoyment.  It might have helped if there were other significant personalities to share the load of the drama.  Both Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga pop up briefly but each of their appearances are incidental in nature.  Liv Tyler as “the wife” has minimal dialogue.   I’d say she gets roughly five lines in total and that’s a charitable estimate.   Eve McBride is more of a symbol than an actual role.  This is clearly the Brad Pitt show.  He is indeed good and so are the visuals.  It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but overall the visual extravaganza won out over the stuffy sections.  One day someone will revolutionize storytelling and make a film where the beauty of the cosmos is a metaphor for a happy and well-adjusted life.  Until, then, there’s Ad Astra.

09-19-19

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on August 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

peanut_butter_falcon_ver2STARS4The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those films I like to recommend to people who say “They don’t make movies like they used to anymore.”  Sweet, innocent, and traditional – it’s all those things.  Furthermore, the film isn’t a remake, a sequel or a comic book adaptation.  It’s the very antithesis of what’s popular at the megaplex these days.  The fact that it even got financed at all is something of an anomaly.  For some, that description won’t be enticing.  However, I most definitely mean that as a strong endorsement.  This, despite the fact that the plot isn’t particularly innovative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the straightforward account of a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from a retirement home.  He longs to become a professional wrestler.   The bizarre title refers to the stage name that Zak ultimately adopts.   He idolizes a fighter named The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  It is Zak’s dream to locate his hero and attend his wrestling school.  This is advertised on a timeworn VHS tape that Zak has watched hundreds of times.  His roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) wants to help him accomplish that goal and so Carl helps him escape.  Zak stows away on a boat owned by crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).  Tyler is on the run too after setting fire to the business of rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and his sidekick heavy Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf).  Zak and Tyler are both runways.  They have this in common, but that’s the only thing.  The unlikely duo team up for an epic adventure beginning in the Outer Banks and drifting south down the stagnant swamps of North Carolina.  Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is a sympathetic social worker at Zak’s nursing facility that goes in search of her missing resident.  Co-director Tyler Nilson (also boasting the same first name as Shia’s character) is originally from the Tar Heel State.  The love for his childhood home comes through in the atmospheric details of the production.  This fable set amongst these backwood swamps and marshes has a fully realized languid quality that is assisted by the picturesque cinematography of Nigel Bluck.

At the heart of this simple tale is actor Zack Gottsagen who has Down syndrome.  He gives a convincing performance that is both warm and natural.  The background of how this picture got made is an uplifting anecdote in itself.  Writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met their leading man at Zeno Mountain Farm, an acting camp in Southern California.  Gottsagen had studied his craft for many years.  The filmmakers were captivated by his talent that had gone unfulfilled.  They were inspired to write a starring vehicle for him.  What started out as a short story ultimately developed into a feature.  The chronicle entertains by appealing to the emotions.  Far more jaded types will describe this as manipulative and sentimental.  True, the relationships do progress in ways that are easy to predict.  The saga of Zak and Tyler is a classic buddy movie of a burgeoning friendship.  The portrait could be superficially criticized for that quality, but there’s something really authentic about the way the narrative mines emotion.  As the old adage goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  This is a composition made up of human interactions and the way those people emotionally connect on an elemental level.  There’s a purity to the setup that shares a commonality with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Simply watching their rapport evolve is the account.  It doesn’t get more complicated than that.  Yet it is that very simplicity that makes this flick so poignant.

The rest of the cast is equally affecting.  These established professionals were perhaps motivated by the guileless sincerity of the lead.  Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) aren’t exactly the first names you’d associate with a production that is so decidedly wholesome.  Yet they both bring a genuine warmth and humanity to their characters.  Together this trio forms a closeness that is as engaging as any relationship I’ve seen this year.  Additionally, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church appear in supporting parts that deeply benefit the little scenarios that occur throughout the drama.

There has been no shortage of heartwarming movies in 2019: The Upside, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Blinded by the light, and Good Boys are just a few of the titles that could be classified as such.  In a year filled with many inspiring movie choices, The Peanut Butter Falcon just may be the “heartwarming-est” production of the year.  Indeed it won an Audience Award at South by Southwest back in March and its long journey to achieve a widespread release has finally arrived.  Please do enjoy this wonderful film immediately.

08-20-19

Good Boys

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

good_boysSTARS3.5If you saw the red band trailer for Good Boys, you will probably expect a version of Superbad with an underage cast.  It has the same producers (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg).  Even the co-star of that film, Jonah Hill, is a producer here.  These pre-teens say and do the kinds of crude things that you’d associate with much older kids.  It looked awful.  The trailer featured non-stop F-bombs and it came off as puerile attempt to simply shock.  It was all raunch and nothing more. That is not this movie. True, there is the occasional curse word, but this comedy is considerably sweeter in tone.  The surprise isn’t that these prepubescent “good boys” are bad.  That revelation would have been a conventional irony.  No, the twist is that they really are well-behaved lads that want to do right.  These are naive youths trying to prepare for a party where spin-the-bottle will be played.  They are sweet and sincere fellows at heart.

Good Boys is a hilarious “one-day-in the life-of” type comedy.  Best friends Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) get invited to their first kissing party.  The invitation is extended by the school’s coolest kid, a little Asian American baller named Soren (Izaac Wang) — an inspired casting choice.  All their female classmates will be in attendance, including Brixlee (Millie Davis), Max’s crush.  The problem is, these 12 year olds are kind of clueless when it comes to the opposite sex.  They have never kissed a girl.  Max decides to use his dad’s drone to spy on neighbor Hannah (Molly Gordon).  The boys want to observe her make out with dimwitted boyfriend Benji (Josh Caras).  Hannah also has a BFF named Lily (Midori Francis) over as well.  The girls see the drone, get angry and things spiral downward from there.  The various misadventures of three sixth-graders involve adult toys, drugs, alcohol, and cops.  Some of their escapades are wrong, but other bits are so right.  A highway of bumper to bumper traffic transforms into a high-speed freeway in seconds.  As their situations grow increasingly convoluted, I relished the absurdity of it all.

Good Boys is a hopeful ode to friendship.  These chums call themselves the Bean Bag Boys for no other reason than they like hanging out in bean bags with each other.  Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Bad Teacher, Year One) emphasize this camaraderie at every turn.  These buddies deal with the age-old problems of middle school: bullying, peer pressure, and annoying younger siblings,  This pre-teen bromance ultimately transcends because of a talented ensemble.  These are genuine characters for whom we truly care.  Max is the most worldly of the three.  He’s into girls and one in particular.  He also cares about his standing in the social hierarchy.  Thor, on the other hand, has no interest in dating yet. He’s a theater geek more concerned with singing in the school play.  Lucas is into role-playing card games, has a high pitched scream, and wears his goodie-two-shoes lifestyle like a badge of honor.   Actor Jacob Tremblay may be the most famous of the three, but Keith L. Williams is the breakout star.   Their innocence is poignant.  “I’m already a social piranha!” Thor laments at one point.  Max takes a single sip of beer and immediately declares that he’s “already feeling something”.  The laughs frequently rely on the characters’ mistaken or uninformed understanding of the adult world.  It’s that naiveté that affirms the humor and makes it touching.  This is a very heartwarming film.

08-15-19

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hobbs_and_shaw_ver6STARS3
It’s been a while but does anyone remember that The Fast and the Furious was originally about illegal street racing?  Oh so much has changed since that 2001 film.  Dwayne Johnson joined the franchise in Fast Five (2011) as American federal law officer Luke Hobbs.  Jason Statham would be introduced later in a cameo during the end credits of Fast & Furious 6 (2013).  Statham is a British special forces assassin-turned-mercenary named Deckard Shaw.  It was the box office success high of Furious 7 (2015) that prominently featured both stars which ultimately inspired this offshoot.  Together they had an adversarial relationship.  Now the two are starring in the first spin-off of the series and the results are exactly what you’d expect.  Muscle cars and even muscular men.  Oh and a Moscow mansion of deadly beauties with a leader (Eiza González) that’s more appropriately dressed for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show than commanding a gang of arms dealers.

The tale has these frenemies paired against their will to extract a deadly virus called “The Snowflake” that has been manufactured by a terrorist group called Eteon.  Shaw’s sister, MI6 field agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected capsules containing it into her own body for safekeeping.  She will die if an antidote isn’t found soon.  Lead terrorist Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) just so happens to be genetically enhanced by cybernetic augmentations.  Naturally, villains can’t be mere humans anymore.  Indeed this super soldier’s enhanced field of view is not unlike something The Terminator or perhaps Tony Stark might see.  “I’m Black Superman” he declares.  He seeks to claim and unleash The Snowflake to kill the half of humanity that Eteon has deemed weak.  The central duo is enough but the filmmakers still feel the need to insert unnecessary cameos from Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds into the mix.  Must the ever-sarcastic Reynolds act/sound like Deadpool in every single role?  His unexpected arrival is pleasant at first but his many appearances (including in two of the three — yes three! — end credits sequences) really grates on the audiences’ nerves like an unwelcome guest.

Don’t even try to make any sense of it.  This picture has amusing continuity errors on a Plan 9 from Outer Space level.  Flashbacks show Deckard and Hattie as roughly the same age as brother and sister.  Yet actors Jason Statham and Vanessa Kirby are over twenty years apart playing the roles as adults.  Ok, so not a big deal, but more logic is thrown out the window during a climactic battle on the island of Samoa.  Apparently, the sun in this world doesn’t follow the rules of the solar system.  Shaw lights a ring of fire around enemy soldiers in a conspicuous display at night.  A second later and it’s broad daylight.  It’s such an abrupt transition.  There’s more, but I already know what you’re thinking.  You don’t watch movies like this for intelligence or sense.  I’ll move on.

It’s a cliche to call a feature “big dumb fun” but Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw IS a cliche.   To call the plot formulaic is an insult to the very word itself.  As a story, the account isn’t built on a coherent narrative but rather a string of carefully planned spectacles.  The car chases and pyrotechnics are ridiculous.  That’s part of their cartoonish charm. You came for stunts and you’ll get mayhem aplenty.  Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) understands how to photograph a crisp action sequence.  It’s chaotic and nonsensical but you can still see what’s happening.  Just don’t apply the laws of physics.

What pushes this flick into something I’d recommend is the chemistry of the lead pair.  Mix two cantankerous individuals together and watch the sparks fly.  It’s a recipe that works.  Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are enough to carry the narrative.  The mere sight of them together is comical.  Statham has a solid build.  He stands about 5’10. He’s not small.  Johnson, however, has mutated into a roided out inhuman hulk.  Statham looks positively diminutive next to this guy.  These action set pieces are linked together by hilarious banter courtesy of screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce.  The way these stars trade insults is even better than the way they trade punches.  Shaw cracks that the massive Hobbs’ tight t-shirt size is “spray-on”.  Upon meeting Shaw’s sibling Hattie, Hobbs quips, “She’s too pretty to be your sister”.  They bicker like an old married couple.  At one point Shaw must create pseudonyms for both of them at the airport.  “Mike Oxmall” is the name he gives to his associate.  Sound it out.  Granted this is low-level humor.  If that doesn’t make you chuckle, you probably won’t be swayed by the screenplay’s superficial charms.

Nevertheless, Hobbs & Shaw is surprisingly wholesome.  This PG-13 rated movie is completely devoid of gore.  Furthermore, its redemptive message of unity makes this an uplifting paean to honoring your relatives.  There’s even a reunion with Hobbs’ beloved mom (Lori Pelenise Tuisano).  The screenplay pounds the notes of sentimentality with a sledgehammer.  Hallmark Channel, take note.  The culminating showdown set in Hobbs’ childhood home of Samoa provides him an opportunity to mend ties with his estranged sibling, Jonah (Cliff Curtis).  Later Hobbs and his brothers perform a Samoan war dance — the Siva Tau — before going to battle with the far more technologically advanced bad guys.  Each display designed to pluck at your heartstrings. This series has never failed to emphasize the importance of friends and family.  The setting is different, but we’ve seen this buddy-action blueprint before.  The car chase scene with his Samoan brothers could’ve been lifted directly out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s straightforward fun, so there’s no earthly reason why a simplistic action picture needs to be patience-testing 2 hours and 15 minutes long.  However, those funny and abundant put-downs make this saga entertaining.  Johnson and Statham boost the production and it’s their charisma that pushes this derivative story into passable time filler.  Stay tuned, Fast and Furious 9 arrives May 2020.

08-01-19