Archive for the Adventure Category

Deadpool 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on May 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

deadpool_two_ver15STARS3Deadpool 2 is a comedy first and then a superhero movie second. Now that we’ve established that, let’s proceed. The latest installment within the X-Men universe is a difficult feature to criticize because the issues that kept me from wholeheartedly embracing this film would actually be considered the strengths by its adherents. In other words, take my measured critique with a grain of salt. I don’t speak for card-carrying members.  I gave the original a marginal pass because I enjoyed it in parts. I found its meta-awareness to be humorous. I hadn’t ever seen a superhero production quite like it. It was so completely self-aware, the point of view was rather novel. Obviously, with a sequel, a lot of what made the introduction of his personality fresh and witty is gone. In its place, is more of the same. Deadpool really doubles down this time on the self-referential style. I’ll admit this pastiche of stuff still made me chuckle, but what was once unique and innovative has now become smug and tiresome.

Deadpool 2 offers more of the same meta-humor that made its predecessor a huge hit. In that sense, it delivers lots of gags, but creatively it offers nothing new.  It’s a mildly diverting collection of tributes to entertainment loosely connected by a meaningless plot. The story, such as it is, is set in motion when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) a.k.a Wade Wilson is spending the evening with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). She is killed when a criminal breaks into their home. This occurs as they are celebrating their anniversary and it’s one of the few moments I think the screenwriters actually want you to react with an emotion other than glee. However, in a film that is constantly cracking wise, that’s a problem. It’s just so cavalier about everything, it’s difficult to care.

The screenplay (by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds) keeps feelings at bay. Since Deadpool’s regenerative qualities make it impossible for him to die, the stakes are never very high. Deadpool is so distraught he attempts to commit suicide but is put back together by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic). Then Deadpool does a lot of stuff. He reunites with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) from the first episode. He rescues a 14-year-old boy named Russell Collins, aka Firefist from an abusive orphanage. Firefist is portrayed by the wonderful Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A mutant from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) later materializes to destroy Firefist. Deadpool assembles a team called X-Force to aid in protecting the boy.  They include a charismatic Zazie Beetz as Domino and comedian Rob Delaney as the hilarious Peter. The superficial developments are an excuse to make more allusions to contemporary tastes.  The mood is so glib and affected. Woe unto the audience member that even dares to feel something, anything, for these people.

Nothing is sincere. Even the soundtrack of Deadpool can only appreciate music in a post-modern ironic way.  “Ashes” is a newly recorded ballad by Celine Dion. It sounds like the anthemic wannabe theme from a James Bond flick. It’s genuinely sung well although in this context it sounds cheesy. “All Out of Love” (Air Supply), “9 to 5” (Dolly Parton), “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher) and many other tunes appear as pop cultural appropriation. They underscore scenes where their incongruous appearance is the actual joke.

Every mention of another property, whether it be a song, a movie, a TV show or something else, is presented as humor. For example, numerous actors show up in cameos. Look fast when the identity of Vanisher, an invisible mutant, is revealed. But what is the joke exactly? Introducing something familiar out of context is an imitation of wit.  This is simply an opportunity to exclaim “Hey! I know that thing!” Sharknado, My Little Pony,Fox & Friends, Basic Instinct, Say Anything, DC vs. Marvel, the list of targets is extensive. I did laugh. There are some legitimately intelligent observations that have some thought behind them. When our hero Wade notes the melodic similarity between “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Frozen, it’s a definite moment of insight. Those are few and far between, however. Most of the A-ha moments are merely playing musical ditties like “Take on Me” in the background.

5-17-18

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Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

Ready Player One

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on April 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ready_player_one_ver2STARS3It has been nearly a decade since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was the last time Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) actually directed the kind of live-action adventure that made him THE highest-grossing director worldwide.  That alone makes Ready Player One something to be excited about. The production is an adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. His novel was set in a dystopian future 2044 about a teenaged protagonist that simply wants to solve a 3 part quest in a virtual reality video game.

In Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is from “The Stacks.” The name denotes a decaying trailer park where vehicles are stacked on top of one another so more people can live in the same space.  This is apparently because of overpopulation problems and possibly economic ones as well. Existence is a bummer and so to escape, citizens turn to the OASIS, a hyper-realistic 3D virtual reality video game. The game itself is presented as something of a paradise. People enjoy the OASIS. The real world may be a dystopia, but virtual reality is not. Within the OASIS, you can literally be anyone. For reasons I still don’t understand, Wade chooses to look like a frail teen named Parzival. He’s the expression of an unexceptional anime character. Within the game, he frequently interacts with Aech (Lena Waithe), a huge muscular mechanic, as well as the samurai Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Never having met any of these people, Wade only knows them from their chosen avatar.  Their physical appearance in the real world is a mystery…initially.

The OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Eccentric billionaire Halliday is no longer with us.  However before he died, he announced that he had hidden an Easter egg within the OASIS that would be accessible after three keys were found. Collect the keys and his fortune (and control of the OASIS) is yours. Holy shades of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory! This mission forms the crux of the story. Everyone wants to win. Wade and his friends want to escape the very mire of their existence. The main antagonist is the evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Sorrento has rounded up a number of players to find the keys for him. He seeks to take over the OASIS and exploit it to augment his already massive fortune. To be honest, he and Wade ostensibly want the same thing but Sorrento is willing to murder to get what he wants so that’s where the narrative makes it OK to root for Wade and not Sorrento. I’m not sure if Sorrento’s personal style was supposed to recall Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club but given the film is all about the pop culture of a certain era, I’ll assume the casting choice was intentional.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent two paragraphs detailing the backstory for a movie in which the plot is so weak. The aforementioned set-up is merely an excuse to present a CGI fest of various challenges. The viewer is invited to stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed as we marvel at the technological curiosity before us. Don’t get me wrong.  This is a visual wonder to behold. Each quest involves obtaining a key. The first may be obtained when our fearless hero must finish a race. We see him drive a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a Hot Wheels-style course with jumps and loops. It’s seemingly impossible to even finish. King Kong manages to stop him in his tracks. The competition is run more than once. It’s during the revisit where we’re dazzled by some fantastic perspective shots. It’s a dizzying spectacle. It’s here where he meets love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She laments that her avatar is much more attractive than her real appearance. Then we meet her and she’s actually gorgeous. Oh sure she has a birthmark on her face, but she’s still very pretty. Her despair that he won’t find her beautiful is somewhat annoying.

Screenwriter Ernest Cline co-adapted the screenplay from his own book with Zak Penn. A big part of his novel were pop culture allusions.  Cline has a fondness for very particular things.  The author was born in 1972 and suffice it to say that the closer your birthdate matches his, the more likely you will identify with his points of reference. He occasionally acknowledges more recent things: the spaceship Serenity from the TV show Firefly for example. Though examples from 2000 on are rare. His treasured memories are mostly focused on the late 70s early 80s. His fiction was a love letter to fellow fanboys that obsess over comics (Superman, Batman), music (Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran) movies (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant) and video games (cartridges for the Atari 2600) of his childhood.

There’s a hip self-awareness that savvy fans will appreciate. A key element of the Ready Player One novel was specialized geek culture.  However, Steven Spielberg has wisely opened up that narrow focus and cited things that nearly everyone with a casual awareness of mainstream tastes can enjoy.  We’ve seen this done before in the movies. The Cabin in the Woods played with the manipulation of various tropes perhaps even more successfully, but the joy is similar. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the second key concerns an extended walkthrough of a certain movie. This is a departure from what happens in the book but it’s my most favorite setpiece. It practically justifies the entire production.

Ready Player One is a fine film. It’s entertaining enough but it doesn’t have the organic components of Spielberg’s very best work. I get that it’s all about virtual reality and so there’s very little that is tangible about this story. The frenzy keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We observe individuals in action but we never feel like we understand the experience or the intimacy of these people. It’s a technologically manufactured CGI amusement park ride, not an actual narrative motivated by plot and characterization. It’s no masterpiece, but it isn’t a disaster either. I’ll admit the 140-minute runtime can occasionally be exhausting. Yet there should be enough thrills here to satisfy most viewers. I was appeased.

03-29-18

A Wrinkle in Time

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wrinkle_in_time_ver2STARS2.5Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a high school girl who takes a journey across time and space to rescue her scientist father. Four years prior Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) discovered a tesseract, or a wrinkle in time, that allowed him to travel through the universe. A malevolent force known as the Black Thing now holds him prisoner on a distant planet. Meg is accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and (rather pointlessly) by her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller). Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time is a classic for teens and pre-teens. First published in 1962, it won the Newbury Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I read it in junior high and I loved the book. Its blending of science and theology was mysterious, provocative, deep, and yes even inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be a most difficult publication to adapt.

Right from the beginning, A Wrinkle in Time is hindered by weak character development. The behavior of some of these individuals doesn’t make sense. It’s common for the central hero in an adolescent story to be sad, lonely and socially awkward. Meg Murry is cut from the same cloth. Yet she doesn’t really look like an outcast. We’re presented with a girl who acts shy but with her gorgeous ringlets of cascading hair, she is too beautiful to truly believe she’d be treated as a misfit. The reason why her classmates tease her? Because her father has disappeared. Children are socially unaccepted in high school for the way they dress or act or look, but a missing father? Hmmm, that’s a new one. Once the mean girls’ teasing extends to her younger brother, a line is crossed and she hurls a basketball at the face of one them.  Makes sense.  She is being bullied and lashing out at your oppressors is an understandable reaction.  Apparently, this concept is too hard for her principal (André Holland) to grasp.  He isn’t the least bit sympathetic to her predicament. Neither is her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

A Wrinkle in Time has deeper problems than just characters with implausible behavior. The production is high on style but low on substance. L’Engle’s source material dealt with the timeworn battle of good vs. evil too, but there was a lot more bubbling under the surface to sink your teeth into. The film maintains an uplifting moral but screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have discarded the book’s allegory for Communism, science, and religion in favor of easily digestible platitudes that young minds can understand. The novel’s complex themes are distilled down to the singular idea that Meg must learn to appreciate her own uniqueness as an individual. That idea is hammered home throughout the feature.  The dogma of the movie is moving in the way that a Hallmark card can make you feel good about yourself. Pop hits on the soundtrack contain lyrics that easily summarize the underlying message: “There’s someone in the world, lovely as you” (Sade), “You can find the magic in an everyday night, night, night (Sia), “I just wanna believe in me” (Demi Lovato). The subtle complexities of the enduring text are largely trounced by a bright, cheery, CGI-laden manifestation that is very much a product of our age.

Author Madeline L’Engle was never exalted by conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, some even condemned her for what they felt promoted witchcraft. However, her strong Christian faith did gently infuse her writing. The text’s more thought-provoking theology was influenced by her Episcopalian background. Fans of the book’s admittedly religious pluralism will be disheartened to hear the screenwriters have scuttled the mention of Jesus and Christianity in favor of a more all-encompassing humanism via the teachings of Oprah Winfrey. The “Queen of All Media” looms large, quite literally, in the first half embodying one of three astral travelers that accompany the kids on their journey. As Mrs. Which, she initially towers above them all like a God. I can see why the actress/producer/talk show host/philanthropist was drawn to this part. Replete with blonde hair, rhinestones affixed to her brows, and ever-changing shades of lipstick, she beams down on them with a beatific smile. She constantly espouses mottoes that resolutely affirm how wonderful Meg is. Her didactic affirmations are so incessant they actually grow tiresome. She can’t seem to help Meg find her father but she can remind the child just how truly admirable she is. Oprah is playing Oprah.  Note to those who worship at the altar of the media mogul – I highly recommend this picture.

Interestingly the other two visionaries Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are not particularly engaging either. Their identities are vague. Mrs. Whatsit — played by Reese Witherspoon — is sort of an upbeat scatterbrain that hurls insults with a smile.  The actress exaggerates her vocal delivery and facial expressions as if she’s doing community theater. At one point she turns into a flying leaf creature and the fabrication of CGI is so poorly executed it’s laughable in this age of technological perfection. Though it did give me a craving for those delicious lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s. And no, I don’t get paid to say that. Actress Mindy Kaling plays Mrs. Who, an introverted (!) idealistic sort who recites quotations from the likes of Shakespeare and Rumi and the rap group Outkast. I told you this was a product of our age. She was actually my favorite of the three because she talked the least. The three of them are an ever-shifting display of bulky gowns, and bizarre hairstyles whenever they haphazardly zoom off to somewhere new, which brings me to the adventure’s biggest problem.

There is no narrative flow to the plot. The action is reduced to a series of set pieces loosely strung together in a time-traveling saga. Some of the set pieces work, mainly in the 2nd half when the three supernatural beings leave and the children are left alone to fend for themselves. The action on the evil planet Camazotz is where things finally get interesting. Director Ava DuVernay knows how to frame a shot and her skill behind the camera is evident. Scenes of a suburban world with identical houses with similarly dressed kids all bouncing a ball in unison is a captivating tableau. Conformity is bad. Individuality is good. Got it. A later scene occurs at a crowded beach where people lay about in claustrophobic proximity. It seemingly stretches on forever. The mere image is effective for its utter recognizability to real life. A man with red eyes (Michael Pena) encourages the youngsters to dine on sandwiches, which have never been more appropriately named. The discussion is eerily sinister in just the right way. I wish more of the drama had conversations this engaging.

A better title might be Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. She has put her creative stamp all over this picture. Even before it began we were treated to an intro with a message from the director. In a nutshell, she contends this isn’t a film for critics. It’s a love letter to children, and to watch it as such. Sounds a little defensive, but she has a point. Entertainment, often maligned by intellectuals, can still become classics. Home Alone is a perfect example of just such a work. You can’t encounter any promotion for this release (including this review) without reading that Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a movie with a budget over $100M. She is instrumental in the casting, introducing an ethnically diverse ensemble of characters. Meg is a biracial girl whose father is white and mother is black, with a younger brother who is adopted. The screenplay actually highlights that last detail when Meg expresses anxiety in meeting him for the first time. The three celestial beings were also cast with a nod to their ethnic identity. None of this is intrinsic to the story, these are merely visual cues made for the purpose of representation. Ava DuVernay has emphasized in interviews that these were very deliberate choices.

I think insecure children will identify with Storm Reid as Meg. Her performance is understated and natural. She finds the courage within her fear in a convincing arc. Introducing a black girl as a brainy protagonist that loves science is a unique addition that actually adds nuance to a chronicle that so desperately requires it. However, the production suffers from the plight of the modern blockbuster. A Wrinkle in Time is burdened by poorly defined characters, an overreliance on CGI, well-coiffed youths that look like they stepped out of an LA casting session, and conventional advice.  Indeed the encouragement may be a crucial reminder for impressionable tots. This film was obviously made with them in mind. However cynical children and (most) adults should probably steer clear.

03-08-18

Annihilation

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 3, 2018 by Mark Hobin

annihilationSTARS3.5Annihilation is one of those sci-fi features that doesn’t pander to viewers’ thirst for answers. It is a demonstration of narrative ambiguity. Understand that before you begin to watch and you’ll enjoy the developments more. This is the much-anticipated follow-up to Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed, 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina. Garland is an English novelist (The Beach) turned screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine) turned director. The jack of all trades has seen success in his many efforts. All of which makes the expectations for another sci-fi endeavor like Annihilation even higher. I really liked this film, but I fell short of loving it.

The story concerns Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology. Right from the beginning, she is being cross-examined after having already undergone a government expedition into a scientific phenomenon known as the Shimmer. We know she made it out, but what exactly is the Shimmer? It all began when a meteor crashed into the earth and created a slowly growing otherworldly area. Perceptibly it’s this glistening, sparkling force field that encompasses an area where a lot of unexplained things are occurring. Annihilation is a vividly captivating production that includes fractal designs, gaseous forms, and metallic shapes. There is a biological element to the Shimmer too as its colorful effects are felt upon the flora and fauna within. It involves an amorphous terror we don’t understand. In the U.S. this debuted in theaters where the film’s impressive visual effects and sound design could be appreciated. The spectacle is a major part of the appeal. Internationally the movie went straight to Netflix which deprived those audiences of the full experience.

In flashback, we learn that Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only person that has ever actually returned from entering the Shimmer. He was part of a military excursion a year prior. He becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, he and his wife Lena are ambushed by a government security force and taken into some secret research compound in close proximity to the Shimmer. There she meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist. She’s forming another expedition. After Lena’s husband falls into a coma, Lena agrees to accompany Dr. Ventress’ all-female patrol which also includes Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a surveyor/geologist

Annihilation is a tale where the less revealed, the better. The developmental incidents utilize the building blocks of other pictures: Alien, The Thing, Contagion. Yet Annihilation is different than those features because the screenplay doesn’t clarify much. As a result, director Alex Garland is quite successful in creating an impending sense of dread without me being able to fully explain why.  This is fine.  It is a movie to savor not to reveal.  This is a well assembled creepy adventure.  However, the chronicle is so narratively vague it’s hard to embrace.  Despite the ambiguity, the plot is easy to understand.  Only in the final act do things get somewhat baffling.  The denouement is perplexing. Lena’s plan to escape will ultimately leave you with more questions than answers. Still, I’ll concede that the desire to overanalyze things can be a weakness in genre films. To its credit, the final outcome remains mysteriously uncertain.

02-26-18

Black Panther

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on February 22, 2018 by Mark Hobin

black_panther_ver3STARS4It isn’t hyperbole to say that there has never been anything quite like Black Panther. The film is a game changer. This picture has been out less than a week and already earned $263M in its first 5 days of release. Its weekend debut was bigger than virtually every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Only The Avengers (2012) had a bigger opening. I think it’s safe to predict it will ultimately earn at least $600M although it has the potential to earn even more given the extraordinarily positive word of mouth. Its influence has become a phenomenon. That would’ve been enough to set Black Panther apart from its predecessors. The fact that it’s a genre film (sci-fi, rom-com, horror, etc.) that weaves racial politics and black identity within the framework of a Marvel superhero movie makes it even more unique. Its cagey ability to capture the ongoing cultural discussion and insert it into the plot is masterful. News stories blanketing its release have dominated social media as of late. Whether it be U.S. educators leading money-raising efforts for kids to see Black Panther for a school field trip or fans dressing up in African inspired clothing to attend showings, the publicity surrounding the picture is unprecedented. It has become an event.

Black Panther captures the zeitgeist as shrewdly as any in recent memory. It concerns the fictional East African nation of Wakanda. An opening narration informs us that centuries ago, 5 African nations went to war over a metal called Vibranium — a substance so vital that, according to Slate.com, the word is uttered an average of every 5.36 minutes in the screenplay.  Now there’s a drinking game that’ll get you inebriated, but quick!  The metal is so powerful that it allows the African nation to appear as a third world country to the other nations of the Earth.  In reality, Wakanda has developed the advanced science to become a technological utopia of which only its own residents are aware.  The current black panther is T’Challa, a king that has assumed his role after a combat ritual. The present leader of the Jabari Tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) challenged him but yields to his win in defeat. T’Challa wishes to continue Wakanda’s isolationist policies and separate itself from the rest of the planet.  Where have I heard that before?  Enter Erik Stevens who adopts the not-so-subtle moniker “Killmonger” after his success as a U.S. black ops soldier.  He disagrees with T’Challa’s stance and strongly advocates for a different policy.  He feels it is Wakanda’s duty to share its resources with the African diaspora so that they may rise up and overthrow their oppressors all over the globe. This handling of different political ideologies informs the basis of the central conflict.

Those conflicting beliefs are embodied by the main protagonist and antagonist.  Actor Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa or the titular Black Panther. Since 2013, the actor has portrayed Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall all to rapturous reviews. T’Challa is a reflective, at times somber individual. That makes him an admirable character, but perhaps not as compelling as those that surround him. In contrast, Michael B Jordan is a commanding presence as Killmonger. A dominant villain full of swagger and defiance galvanized by a painful event in 1992 while growing up in Oakland, California. The time and place — carefully selected by the Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler — are NOT fictional and very intentionally so. More than any Marvel property before, the director (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) is the visionary behind the manifestation of a comic first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

What makes the narrative so compelling is that it comprises a raft of complex characters any one of which could form the basis of their own movie. T’Challa is protected by royal bodyguards called the Dora Milaje headed up by Okoye (Danai Gurira). Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a superspy for whom he has personal feelings. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his feisty sister and technology guru. She is to this story what Q is to James Bond. I loved her. Everyone has their moment, but Letitia Wright’s use of words like “sneakers” and “colonizer” injected some much-needed humor. Her charismatic performance (and anonymity to me) forced me to look her up on the IMDb to see what else she had done. My anticipation for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One in March 2018 just got more fervid. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is T’Challa’s best friend whose own loyalty will be tested regarding the capture of a black market arms dealer who threatens Wakanda’s safety. The aforementioned M’Baku portrayed by Winston Duke is probably the side character I most wanted to know more about. When is he going to star in a film? Angela Bassett is majestic as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, and Forest Whitaker is elder statesman Zuri. There’s also a couple of white actors from the Lord of the Rings series. The movie isn’t about them – Tolkien white guys played by Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue) and Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross). My apologies for appropriating an old joke from when the trailer dropped back in October, but it still makes me laugh.

Black Panther is a rather dignified picture. It’s also glorious. A colorful Afro-futuristic sensibility informs gorgeous landscapes, opulent costumes and a large, mostly all-black cast in which even the supporting parts are played by name actors. Not since the kingdom of Zamunda in Coming to America have we seen pure African style presented in such a regal manner. Although I’ll admit the role of women in Zamunda was decidedly less enlightened. Black Panther has a vision unlike any Marvel episode before it. I have never seen a chapter that is less interested in the way that it fits within the MCU. Except for a concluding title card that informs us of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (which got the Pavlovian round of applause anyway) this feel more like standalone entry than any of the 17 installments that came before. I must admit that I like my superhero productions with a bit of humor. I’ve often said in my reviews that dressing up in tights and fighting crime is inherently silly. So why not treat your creation as such? A tongue in cheek attitude serves your worldbuilding well. This is why I particularly love Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. In contrast, Black Panther is a very noble superhero feature. It’s telling that the action, while serviceable, is the least interesting thing about the picture. Instead, it’s highlighted by a narrative steeped in a complicated and detailed backstory that brilliantly weaves reality into fantasy. It’s more than a film. It’s a mission statement that manipulates the spirit of our time into entertainment.

02-15-17

The Cloverfield Paradox

Posted in Action, Adventure, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

cloverfield_paradoxSTARS2It’s only February, but The Cloverfield Paradox just may go down as the most brilliantly marketed gimmick of 2018. Paramount couldn’t have asked for a better moment to drop their movie. Originally produced under the title God Particle, it was scheduled for an April 2018 release in theaters. Then during Super Bowl LII, a trailer teased that the $40 million budgeted film would actually be presented on Netflix right after the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018. Now retitled The Cloverfield Paradox and marketed as part of the Cloverfield series, the picture was debuted. The reviews were less than enthusiastic. There’s a reason for that. It’s pretty bad and I’m convinced that Paramount knew this would happen.

The studio heads were very smart. The protracted trajectory of a movie normally includes a lengthy build up of anticipation that in this case would have inevitably led to a crushing disappointment.  The studio sidestepped all this and minimized the damage. Instead, the negativity was contained within the surprise unveiling of a unique sci-fi film that many didn’t even know existed. I must admit, I was pretty excited to watch when I saw the trailer during Super Bowl 52. The instant hype created a need in me to see this fresh sci-fi production. I, for the record, enjoyed Cloverfield (2008) as well as it’s spiritual sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). I happily switched over to Netflix after the game. O dear! I have never watched the drama TV series “This Is Us” but I can safely say I wish I had kept the channel on NBC right after the game. The Cloverfield Paradox is simply awful.

It’s the year 2028 and the Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis. A crew of astronauts is thrust into space in order to help solve the planet’s energy problems. Unfortunately, their efforts may open portals to other dimensions that could have a negative lasting effect on their current existence. Naturally, this is exactly what happens. The charismatic crew (cast) includes Daniel Brühl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Aksel Hennie and Elizabeth Debicki. They’re more than up to the task of giving this ridiculous script life. The problem is, nothing makes sense. The narrative is a grab bag of assorted sci-fi tropes that recalls Aliens, Interstellar and 2017’s Life. Anyone remember the cockroach scene when they burst out-out of E. G. Marshall in Creepshow? Yeah well, something like that happens in this movie too except it’s with worms this time. Yup, it’s just as gross as it sounds.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a mess. It’s a sequel to the franchise in only the most general sense. Some script tweaking has creatively brought this into the same universe. If you’ve seen the other entries you may see a loose connection, but it certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the franchise. This J.J. Abrams produced prequel was directed by the heretofore unknown Julius Onah with a screenplay by Oren Uziel who co-wrote the comedy 22 Jump Street. That’s kind of telling. This unintentionally veers into comedy on several occasions. The production also feels like the umpteenth version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Yet this adventure has no direction.

The Cloverifeld Paradox is all over the place. No focus. Just a mish-mash of ideas that occasionally captivates the mind for a moment only to be let down by another concept that subverts the one before it. When an astronaut played by Chris O’Dowd loses his arm in a freak accident, the occurrence is so bizarre we are captivated by the event. Then the arm comes to life, receiving instructions from some alternate reality that forces the viewer to pay attention.  I was enrapt for a while as the limb starts to write notes on its own volition, but the longer this nonsensical account plays out, the sillier it gets, At one point it appears that the planet Earth no longer exists. Then it does. There’s nothing here but a lot of half-baked theories and unresolved plot threads. The Cloverfield Paradox is a jumble of contrivances.  It’s an entertaining medley for only the introductory section of the movie. I was entertained in the beginning, then common sense took over.

Paddington 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on January 26, 2018 by Mark Hobin

paddington_twoSTARS4Was it really necessary to make a sequel to Paddington, the 2014 movie about a cute bear featured in a series of children’s fiction by Michael Bond? Yes, as evidenced by this effervescent piece of joy. Paddington 2 is the continuing adventures of a Spectacled bear from Peru after he comes to live with the Brown family in England. His Aunt sent him off on a train before she departed for the Home for Retired Bears. It’s now her 100th birthday and this duffle-coat-wearing star would like to get her a nice gift. There’s a unique pop-up book that he wants to purchase at a London boutique. Paddington saves up some money from performing odd jobs and subsequently goes down to the store buy it. Coincidentally at that very moment, the publication is stolen by a thief who believes the edition contains clues to a secret treasure. Unfortunately, Paddington is mistakenly identified as the culprit and sent off to jail.

Paddington’s life inside the prison is an entertaining diversion. His personality is infectious and even a group of hardened criminals is no match for the charismatic bear. Once again actor Ben Whishaw lends his voice. His delivery is still the perfect balance between an adult who’s unfailingly polite and a child who is a charming innocent. He ultimately wins over their (and our) hearts. Paddington’s recipe for marmalade sandwiches definitely comes in handy when influencing Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the cook at the penitentiary.  The production is cleverly filmed with delicate attention. At one point, Paddington inadvertently leaves a red sock in a laundry load of black and white uniforms. Uh-oh! The vision of a group of rugged hoodlums in pink prison uniforms is an amusing sight. Stylistic cinematography presents the decorative spectacle like a deliberately arranged painting of misfits. Never underestimate how much a decorative flourish can artfully elevate an otherwise cornball scene. Paddington 2 is an episodic tale but it’s so stylishly presented you’ll cheer every carefully manipulated twist that captures the eye.

Paddington 2 benefits from an ensemble of veteran actors, many of whom return from the first movie. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back as Paddington’s adoptive parents, along with Julie Walters as their serious but sweet housekeeper. Jim Broadbent is the antique shop owner. Peter Capaldi reprises his role as Mr. Curry, the next door neighbor. You may recall Nicole Kidman as the villain in the last entry. She’s gone but fulfilling the same archetype is new-to-the-cast Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, a selfish cad of an actor. He alternately dresses as a nun, a knight, and a canine for his work.  His comical disguises will provide laughs to both young and old alike. This prodcution is a worthy follow-up to the enchanting original that came out in 2015 in the U.S.  The chronicle is made with the same attention to detail as other great British-y themed and youth-oriented stories like Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. Like those classics, it never feels like the narrative has been dumbed down for little minds. It remains steadfastly sophisticated, intelligent and witty. Paddington 2 is an absolute delight for adults…and also for the children that inevitably brought them.

1-25-18

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_last_jedi_ver9STARS4“If you post spoilers, I will unfriend and block you.”  That sentiment was typical of the posts on my Facebook feeds following the release of The Last Jedi this weekend.  I don’t recall seeing such aggressive declarations when either Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman opened this summer. For some reason, people are emphatically wary of Star Wars spoilers, even if it concerns the most banal information. I agree that ruining important plot developments is disrespectful. Rest assured this review is spoiler-free. That’s true of all of my write-ups. Nevertheless, if you’re especially sensitive to the reveal of what a critter is named or the sheer confirmation that lightsaber battles occur, then I suggest you don’t read my (or any) review of this film until after you’ve seen it.

Episode 7 – The Force Awakens – set the stage for a new group that would transition our allegiance from the previous cast (Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill) to an ever-expanding ensemble.  Han Solo was an important figure in Part 7.    Now it’s Luke Skywalker’s turn to inform the narrative.  Although Luke seems like a completely different person here. Obviously, he’s older, but he sports a salt and pepper beard like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. The young hotshot of the original trilogy now seems like a peaceful Buddhist living off the land on an island retreat. He speaks differently too, in verse like quoting the scripture of some sacred text.  Mark Hamill has done a lot of voice work over the years and it really shows. He sounds imposing even when he doesn’t always carry himself in that manner.

The Force Awakens introduced Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  They all get their moments here.  The once-named Ben Solo continues to struggle with the dark side.   Meanwhile, Rey’s growing influence concerns her journey to the remote planet of Ahch-To in an effort to recruit Luke into helping the cause.  The Force Awakens implied that she might be a Jedi which would beg the question, to whom does the title of this movie refer, her or Luke?  I won’t comment, but I’d love to hear your thoughts after watching this. I wish we could’ve spent more time with them.  The Last Jedi continues to add characters to a constantly growing ensemble.  Poe, Finn, and Rey must share a lot of screen time with a host of unfamiliar personalities that may or may not become central.  A welcome addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who fights alongside the Resistance. She is introduced by way of her relationship with Finn. Their developing partnership is a key component of the chronicle. Her oddball sweetness is charming. Less delightful is Benicio del Toro as DJ, an underworld individual who specializes in computer hacking. His affected stutter is really the only thing memorable about him. Given the fact that this production is 2 hours 32 minutes long, his existence is where I would’ve started to do some serious editing. Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) impressively juggles a lot of disparate plot threads. Still, this is a long, and frequently meandering film, particularly in the introductory slog. Yes, it takes a while to get started, but once it does, oh boy, does it dazzle the senses.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge that the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher adds an air of melancholy to her scenes.  Her role is expanded here and it’s nice to see her featured in several segments. As General Leia Organa, she leads the military effort against the First Order. She receives support from purple haired, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). The two are old friends and Amilyn steps in to support her.  Amilyn is not quite as friendly with Poe, however, as a conversation they have will attest. Their confrontation is memorable. Women rule in this world.  Beside Leia and Amilyn, there is also Commander Larma D’Acy (Amanda Lawrence) and Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd – daughter of Carrie Fisher). They have key roles here too.  Conversely, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), a female Stormtrooper, is regrettably given very little screen time.

The Resistance faces off against an onslaught led by the overbearing General Hux.  Actor Domhnall Gleeson is easily the most over-the-top campy performance in this entire series.  General Hux always comes across as a child who snuck into daddy’s office and is playing pretend takeover of the world.  I was kind of amused by his theatrics, but it’s definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of achievement.  His authority is only exceeded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).   Kylo Ren’s relationship with the Supreme Leader continues to be a major element of the plot.  Yet this is the second appearance of Snoke and I still don’t know anything about him. It’s really not important I suppose.  He’s a bad guy — a motion capture CGI fabrication.   That’s all you need to know.

This is probably a good time to mention all the computer graphics employed in this outing. General Snoke was an excess of CGI in the preceding spectacle. Now we have adorable wide-eyed sea-bird creatures called Porgs that scream and bellow in cutely animated glee.  I think I know what’s going to be the hot Christmas toy this year. There’s also the Vulptices, crystalline foxes that live beneath the salt surface of Crait.  Then there are the Fathiers, space horses with long ears like rabbits. They race in a metropolitan center where people place their bets in a casino world that features the Monte Carlo-ish city Canto Bight. I wasn’t a fan of this backdrop. It feels like an unnecessary appendage to the primary tale. The environment is somewhat of an analog to the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars but much less captivating in my opinion. Oh but I digress — back to the creatures. My favorite of them all are the Caretakers, fish-like nuns on the planet Ahch-To. Their completely random appearance was probably the most laugh out loud moment in the entire picture.

In a nutshell, The Last Jedi is the continuing adventures of the most iconic space opera of all time.  Simply put, our heroes of the Resistance, square off against the villains of the First Order. The Force Awakens brilliantly manipulated the legend of Star Wars into a thrilling fable for a new generation to consume.  Much in the same way, this script expands on things using the same approach that The Empire Strikes Back did nearly 4 decades ago. It’s a darker production that creatively enhances the fundamental mythology of the franchise. It deepens the backstories of the characters with which we are familiar.  It’s also funnier with several bits at which you will either enjoy or roll your eyes. I was pleased for the most part, although watching Luke milk a beast and drink its green formula was definitely a WTF moment.  This is a perfect segue into my next observation.

By now I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a formula. We want nostalgia, but we expect something new, bring back the favorites with which we are familiar, add a few new ones we can embrace. Don’t forget cute creatures and sprinkle in bits of humor. I dare say a couple gags are the most full-on hilarious bits I’ve ever seen in this franchise. At 8 episodes and counting, that’s really saying something.  By the end, you’ll want to stand up and cheer. The final 30 minutes are as exciting as any in the series. It totally sticks the ending.  Modern action films are often a succession of the fight extravaganzas that we crave, separated by speechifying portions that we don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how sensational action set-pieces have become or that the dialogue that screenwriters compose in these flicks often isn’t particularly compelling.  Either way, this is the nature of the beast.  The movie starts out frustratingly slow but ends with a bang. The narrative is a bit of a tangle in the middle, but each action set piece is an event. We get not one, but two, epic lightsaber battles. This is what we expect of the middle entry of a Star Wars flick. The Last Jedi does all of these things and it does them rather well.

12-14-17

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