Archive for the Adventure Category

Dune

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

10-21-21

No Time to Die

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-07-21

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

09-3-21

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09-03-21

Vivo

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Music, Musical with tags on August 26, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Vivo has staying power. The release from Sony Pictures Animation debuted on Netflix back on August 6. Three weeks later and it’s still in the Top 3 of all movies on their streaming site. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a brightly colored cartoon musical with catchy songs and an original story. A family looking for convenient entertainment at home could do far worse.

Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a kinkajou that sings and dances while old and humble bandleader Andrés (musician Juan de Marcos González of Buena Vista Social Club fame) is the organ-grinder/guitarist. The charismatic duo entertains street audiences in Havana, Cuba. Then one day Andrés receives a letter from Marta (Gloria Estefan) — his ex-singing partner for whom he always carried a secret love. The Celia Cruz-esque entertainer is about to retire and requests his presence at her farewell concert in Miami. Finally! The ideal opportunity to tell Marta how he truly feels in a song he wrote just for her before they parted ways. Tragically Andrés dies that night in his sleep. Now it’s up to his pet Kinkajou to fulfill his master’s dream and deliver the tune to his unrequited love. At the funeral, Vivo meets Andrés’ widowed niece Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and her offbeat teenage daughter Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). They’re both headed back to Florida. The mammal stows away in their luggage.

Vivo is the heart of a tale that features a rather unconventional star. We the audience can understand the creature as he speaks perfect English but it sounds like unintelligible chitters to everyone else. The “honey bear” is a member of the raccoon family that is native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. So what’s he doing in Cuba? Well, he answers that question in the captivating ditty “One of a Kind” where he raps: “Maybe I fell in a shipping crate as a baby.” You see this is a musical with music and lyrics courtesy of none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Emmy-Grammy-Tony Award winner also voices the titular personality. (No Oscar yet although he came close with “Best Original Song” for Moana). This isn’t exclusively his picture though. Kirk DeMicco who gave us The Croods directs and co-wrote the movie with Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights).

Vivo has a great foundation. A flashback presented in traditional 2D animation elicits the much needed romantic nostalgia that the cold modern textures of CGI lacks. An unorthodox beginning that features the death of a beloved character is so unexpected. I was ready for something singular and bizarre. No such luck. Don’t get me wrong. It’s pleasant entertainment and the fact that this is a musical elevates my review into a recommendation.

You can best believe the creator of In The Heights and Hamilton has offered up a plethora of hip-hop and Latin music-inspired tunes. When the melodies kick in, the narrative shines. The surging “Keep the Beat” while Vivo and Gabi drift their way through the Florida Everglades is a highlight. The same goes for Gabi’s prideful declaration “My Own Drum” where she asserts her individuality.

The first half overshadows the second. Gabi’s hyper disposition grows tiresome. Seriously people who solely think they alone are distinctive (she has purple hair) while deeming everyone else to possess a cookie-cutter personality, suffer from narcissism. News flash: every single person who ever lived is a unique human being. This account succumbs to tropes and clichés as it devolves into a banal road trip adventure. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to appreciate. Those less inclined to dissect and ponder the narrative are likely to enjoy this even more.

08-11-21

Jungle Cruise

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Jungle Cruise is shallow, even for a production based on a Disney theme park attraction. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is the gold standard. That picture justified a ride could be adapted into something enjoyable – once. Sorry, the sequels gave me a headache. Other movies inspired by one of their properties include Tower of Terror (1997), Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003), and Tomorrowland (2015). Throw this piece of corporate product onto that unexceptional list.

Jungle Cruise (the ride) was featured at Disneyland’s grand opening back in 1955. Over the next 65 years, it received only minor changes. Welcome to 2021 when it was completely overhauled to remove “imperialist and racist” content that included “negative depictions of native people.” Despite their mea culpa, Disney was still determined to adapt the attraction into a feature. There’s money to be made, right? The chronicle feels more like a course corrective apology than an organic story that needed to be told. It lacks an identity from which to distinguish itself as something vital or unique. This generic commodity has no spark.

The adventure involves Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) who goes on an expedition down the Amazon river to find the Tears of the Moon. Her research has found the life-saving petals from a mythical tree of life have healing properties. Her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall ) joins her and wisecracking tour-boat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) leads the excursion. The plot begins well. Dwayne Johnson is always a likable presence. He’s a tour guide riffing through various puns that his audience finds annoying. His schtick is the funniest bit. I laughed at those jokes (as did the audience). The puns are one of the few callbacks to the Disneyland ride. Unfortunately it’s all downhill, or over the falls, from there.

Frank’s passengers on his riverboat include a strong, confident, tough-talking, no-nonsense individual and a feeble, fastidious namby-pamby. They would be poorly written stock characters no matter who played them. Yet the screenwriters’ idea of innovation is to swap gender roles. Get ready for a tiresome running gag about how a woman is wearing pants in 1916. Meanwhile, the man that packs a dozen suitcases of clothes for the trip is exploited as comic relief. It also allows Disney to promote him as their “first gay character” for the seventh time by my count. Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast, Avengers: Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, and Onward were all hyped as being the “first” too. MacGregor gets a poignant scene halfway through where he confides in Frank his lack of interest in getting married. It’s the one moment we aren’t supposed to be laughing at his buffoonery. The word “gay” is never uttered. However, we’ve experienced his flamboyant histrionics for over an hour at this point. The scene merely emphasized what had been made abundantly clear previously with less sophistication.

Disney spent a boatload (pun intended) of money so points for really trying. Jungle Cruise reportedly cost at least $200 million to make and another $100 million to market. Normally I wouldn’t mention the budget in a review but expensive special effects are an intrinsic part of the film. The narrative employs an inordinate amount of CGI. You wouldn’t think computer graphics would be required in 1916, but somehow Disney found a way. Whether red flowers are glowing in the moonlight or rip-roaring rapids about to capsize our protagonist’s ship, there isn’t a single scene in this god-forsaken mess that isn’t blighted by a programmer’s code to enhance the spectacle. One of the recurring characters is a poorly rendered CGI leopard. I’m dumbfounded we are still getting animals this phony in 2021. He looks like a cartoon.

At least Jungle Cruise has the good sense to appropriate from the best. It’s as if a newbie watched The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, and The Mummy all back to back in one sitting. They then regurgitated a superficial composite of what they had just seen without the character development, originality, or heart. Credit (or blame) goes to Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop) who directs from a screenplay written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green.

The plot is a dizzying clutter of stuff. Did I mention there’s more than one villain? This includes Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), a conquistador who once sought the tree’s power. He was cursed with immortality and is now inexplicably surrounded by CGI snakes that burst out of his zombie body. There’s also a German aristocrat named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). He leads a competing expedition to harness the Tree of Life for himself. Joachim pops up in a massive submarine at one point. I told you the budget was huge. Almost topping him in the contest for most ridiculous accent is Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), the harbormaster that Dr. Lily Houghton initially seeks to secure a boat for their voyage. If there’s anything to salvage from this sinking ship, it’s that actors Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson do muster up a modicum of charisma. They provide the wispy threads of some chemistry together. Nevertheless, they aren’t even in the same universe as a superior duo like Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. If The African Queen is the cinematic Queen Mary of seaworthy vessels, then Jungle Cruise is the garbage scow.

08-03-21

The Green Knight

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy with tags on August 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Green Knight is the movie David Lowery was born to make. The director has never been in a hurry. Anyone familiar knows he is an artist with a propensity for leisurely-paced tales and fastidious attention to detail. He became a critical darling at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. The success led to his helming the remake of Pete’s Dragon (1977) for Disney. His 2016 reimagining was a commercial attempt whose aesthetic sensibilities bore little resemblance to the original. Next came the thoughtful though patience-testing A Ghost Story. The narrative had many reviewers listing it among their Top 10s of the year. It didn’t connect with everyone though. Yours truly found it empty and unfulfilling. Now color me surprised. The Green Knight is David Lowery’s most accomplished work. The poetic saga is a perfect marriage for the director’s meticulous skill. Fans craving a feast for the senses will be in art house heaven. All others should probably steer clear.

During a banquet in King Arthur’s castle at Christmas, an intimidating warrior on horseback enters the room. The Green Knight is an imposing figure. His skin and size more closely resembles that of a tree. The uninvited intruder challenges those present to a little game. Any opponent brave enough may strike him with his axe. If victorious, they will win the massive weapon on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in a year. As the King (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Katie Dickie) look on, the crowd is silent. Yet Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) wants to prove himself as a worthy Knight of the Round Table. He agrees to the task at hand knowing full well that he is bound by his promise to return in a year if he is successful. That’s the story in a nutshell. It could have been a 30 minute short. David Lowery is a master of drawing things out. Not with words but with images.

The display is a fitting presentation given the source. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Middle English verse by an unknown author. The King Arthur yarn follows his nephew, Gawain who assumes a challenge to demonstrate his worth and honor. The heady visual spectacle deems dialogue and plot as secondary. This is simply an adventure of self-discovery as reimagined as a series of moving paintings. An atmosphere to revel and experience rather than comprehend. Title cards in flowery Old English fonts are scattered throughout to provide some welcome structure. Gawain encounters battlefields (where the action has already ended), lush forests, and a magnificent castle. In a film all about the visual, it is a most clever and conspicuous decision to cast Dev Patel as an Arthurian knight. The colorblind casting emphasizes his smoldering emotion and physical presence as the lead. Patel is mesmerizing.

Gawain is often the only one on-screen alone with his thoughts. He along with the audience contemplates his quest. However, he does interact with others. Before embarking on his trek, we meet his mother (Sarita Choudhury), a mysterious sorceress named Morgan le Fay, and a peasant woman (Alicia Vikander), Gawain’s occasional romantic companion. On his pilgrimage, he’ll meet a ragged scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who is not to be trusted and the ghost of Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman) who makes an unusual request. Ultimately his journey takes him to a castle where Gawain meets the seductive lady of the house (also performed by Vikander) and her seemingly good-natured and benevolent husband, the Lord (Joel Edgerton).

The account is pure cinematic fantasy. Historians have not found evidence to even substantiate the existence of King Arthur. As such, the chivalrous legend recounting the moral odyssey of a heroic knight can be vague. It doesn’t all work. The slowly building first half is more bewitching than the second. It culminates with an artistic end that is frustratingly ambiguous. The source poem leaves no doubt. Well-versed readers can fill in the blanks. The ending is far more powerful with the additional knowledge. The meditative tale rests in the exploitation of mood and feeling over action and events. It’s like a seed that grows in the mind after it has been planted. Those expecting the excitement of jousting or swordplay should look elsewhere. However, those looking for a haunting meditation that merges Christian morality with knightly chivalry will be delighted by the symbolic trek.

07-29-21

Space Jam: A New Legacy

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07-16-21

The Tomorrow War

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

07-07-21

Black Widow

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07-08-21