Archive for the Adventure Category

Lightyear

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Three sentences flash across the screen to set the stage. “In 1995 Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” After it was over, I didn’t buy that assertion. Yeah, I know. It’s probably best not to question such things. This feature doesn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny, but given that the most captivating character didn’t become a toy back then is a huge leap of faith. Sox the cat (Peter Sohn) is the breakout star and it’s not even close. Buzz Lightyear’s robotic feline companion is an absolute delight. Buzz Lightyear himself? Oh sure, he’s in the film too. Just not a particularly interesting personality. He’s kind of an oaf, a bit of a dullard too.

Lightyear concerns a human astronaut (Chris Evans) — er uh space ranger — who is responsible for marooning his crew of travelers on a hostile alien planet. You see he’s branded a failure at the outset. He even tries to quit the mission but his commanding officer and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) refuses to accept his resignation. So Buzz attempts to devise the perfect formula for a working hyperspeed crystal to get his crew off this foreign planet, thereby fixing his mistake and fulfilling his duty. Buzz undergoes a series of test flights to reach hyperspeed to bring everyone back home. Whenever Buzz zips away in his spacecraft for a few minutes, four years elapse for everyone else. He doesn’t age but everyone else does — rather quickly. Unfortunately, he isn’t successful for a very long time. Decades pass and the progression of time suggest the first 10 minutes of Up. Guess who finally comes up with the correct formula? Psst…See the first paragraph.

My encapsulation above may read like the complete saga, but it’s just a prelude. The setup seeks to establish the emotional basis for the formulaic drama that comprises the bulk of the picture. Lightyear and Sox have their moments interacting as a duo. That computerized feline saves his owner’s neck on more than one occasion. There is a refreshing simplicity to their relationship. Yet this chronicle doesn’t allow them to shine alone. The plot introduces a goofy collection of additional helpers. Three space-colony outcasts show up to assist Lightyear in his objective. Chief among this ragtag trio is Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter. She’s flanked by Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) a naive and inexperienced recruit, and Darby Steel (Dale Soules) an elderly convict on parole.

This is where the moral comes through: “Collaborate as a team. Be less of a maverick.” The idea that cooperation is glorified as the ultimate goal is so ubiquitous in children’s entertainment these days that you accept it as standard-issue. I’d suggest that a great many intellectuals or innovators in the adult world are free-thinking radicals, and far from conformists, but perhaps that concept is a bit too revolutionary for Pixar. Anyway, the woebegone characters are uninteresting and detract from the narrative rather than add to it. The sad-sack troupe faces off against an invading force of robots led by the mysterious Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) — another callback to the original Toy Story.

Lightyear isn’t terrible. It’s nicely animated and features an adventure with some lively sequences. But bestowing your creation with that title incites the exalted history of the Toy Story franchise. The first two are widely considered Pixar’s best. This production is not even in the same cosmos. It’s a straightforward tale, painfully ordinary and utterly lacking in imagination or depth. The only remarkable individual is a mechanical cat. Meanwhile, the milieu is oppressive and dreary. The plot throws in generic developments. A time travel subplot yields a reveal that is a ho-hum of a surprise. This is not the awe-inspiring entertainment that you’d expect to become any child’s most treasured movie. Lightyear may take place on a different planet, but creatively it remains — earthbound.

06-16-22

Jurassic World: Dominion

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After the tumultuous tedium of Fallen Kingdom, I don’t think I could stand another return to the remote enclave of Isla Nublar. Fortunately, the 2nd installment in the Jurassic World trilogy ended with the destruction of the theme park. The island is now a barren wasteland, but dinosaurs still exist and have been set loose on the mainland. They live and hunt alongside humans all over the world. The question is, will human beings remain at the top of the food chain? I’m happy to report that Jurassic World: Dominion gives plenty of examples where people and dinosaurs face off to test that theory.

The production succeeds as simply one breathtaking action sequence after another loosely strung together by inconsequential drama. If you want details, a screenplay by Emily Carmichael & director Colin Trevorrow provides them, but if you don’t grasp (or care about) everything they’re putting down, it won’t matter. So get this, a giant hybrid of locusts spliced with the DNA of their prehistoric ancestors is rampaging the earth. They are attacking all crops EXCEPT those grown from the seeds of a biotech company called Biosyn. Owen and Claire have an adopted daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who is a genetic clone of her mother, Charlotte (Elva Trill). Her DNA could hold the secret to eradicating the pests.

The story handily juggles a sprawling cast of actors. Akin to those disaster flicks of the 1970s like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, no one actor is the sole focus. I suppose the closest thing to a starring duo is romantic couple Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). We also are reunited with the scientific minds of Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and Henry Wu (BD Wong) of the original trilogy. That’s a big deal. It’s nice seeing everyone reunite on screen. That wide shot of the entire cast looking up with mouths agape during the climax is an emotionally compelling sight.

The chronicle throws in a bunch of new key cast members. Surprise! They don’t stick out like a sore thumb. They’re welcome additions. Actors DeWanda Wise (TV series She’s Gotta Have It) and Mamoudou Athie (Patti Cake$, Uncorked) notably hold their own in the company of their more famous and experienced co-stars. Meanwhile, Campbell Scott (Dying Young, Singles) — another new addition — is a seasoned veteran who has been acting for nearly four decades. He channels his inner Steve Jobs in demeanor and wardrobe as the CEO of Biosyn Genetics.

But hey, let’s be honest. Who cares about the people?! These pictures have always been about the dinosaurs and Dominion offers several doozies. A red feathery Pyroraptor torments Owen and Kayla above a frozen lake and then dives through a hole in the ice to chase them underwater. With long extended claws, Therizinosaurus is like Freddy Krueger or the Wolverine crossed with a prehistoric bird. He swats a deer as if it were a fly with sharp talons after stalking Claire through the woods. Claire is forced to hide in a pond in a memorable encounter. And who could forget the pack of Atrociraptors that pursue Owen in a spectacular motorcycle race through the streets of Malta? That last setpiece is worth the price of admission alone. Oh and I haven’t even mentioned Giganotosaurus and his climactic showdown with a Tyrannosaurus rex, but I’ve said enough. Go watch the movie.

Jurassic World Dominion flips the script. The adventure introduces something new and wholly unexpected. Instead of being set on that same island yet again, we get globe-hopping exploits in jungles and distant countries filled with dinosaurs that involve shootouts, plane crashes, and undercover missions. The account has an “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. The audience is constantly inundated with stuff. “More is more” is the mantra and it works. These stories have never been about sense. As long as we’re having fun, I’m OK with it. The film strays when it feels the need to provide convoluted details about things that don’t need explaining. Also at 2.5 hours, it’s painfully long. Thankfully there’s lots of exciting dino action. I reveled in the effects and so I enjoyed the movie.

06-09-22

Top Gun: Maverick

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on May 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Top Gun: Maverick is a sequel that understands what an audience craves and then unabashedly delivers it with gusto. A return to the 1986 classic should give you nostalgia that lovingly recalls the original, provide high octane thrills, and build drama to an exciting conclusion. This is a textbook example of how to satisfy the assignment.

The plot concerns Navy pilot Peter Mitchell known as Maverick (Tom Cruise). All the aviators have catchy handles like this, so I’ll dispense with their proper names from here on out. Maverick has returned to the fighter pilot program but now he’s an instructor for a dangerous objective that involves a group of cocky but much younger recruits. Among them is Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of his best friend Goose who tragically died in the 1986 film. Rooster is eerily reminiscent of his father. To emphasize the connection, the similarly mustachioed son sings “Great Balls of Fire” in a bar sporting a Hawaiian shirt exactly like his old man did. Maverick is emotionally conflicted. He wants to protect Rooster, but support the lieutenant for the skillful flyer that he is as well. The mission is to train the hotshot pilots to bomb the uranium enrichment facility of some hostile nation that is never named. The script shrewdly keeps everything non-political so as not to offend. Of course, the task is a perilous endeavor because it will require death-defying maneuvers and a low-level approach into enemy territory.

For the first 90 minutes, Top Gun: Maverick is entertaining but familiar as it draws upon the story beats of the first movie. The screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie, doesn’t hide the fact that it is deeply indebted to the past. See Tom Cruise looking cool in sunglasses and riding a motorcycle again. Hear the same musical riffs in the score and Kenny Loggins singing “Danger Zone.” Oh and remember that beach volleyball game that was totally unnecessary to the plot? Of course you do. The slow-motion demonstration of sweaty athleticism became the stuff of legend. Director Joseph Kosinski refers to it as “the Super Bowl of shirtless scenes.” Sure enough, his update contains a similar competition that is supposedly another team-building exercise. This time it’s a game of beach football, and the dudes include Hangman (Glen Powell), Payback (Jay Ellis), Fanboy (Danny Ramirez), Bob (Lewis Pullman), and one woman — Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) wearing a sensible sports bra.

Top Gun Maverick embraces its predecessor but updates in clever ways. And why shouldn’t it? It’s 36 years later and a lot has changed. But guess who hasn’t? Tom Cruise. He is a compelling mentor to a batch of young recruits. Astonishingly, he looks just as fit as his youthful co-stars. I’ll concede creative camera angles, lighting and makeup may offer an assist. Yet he continues to exude the charisma of a star in this role. We understand why an obstinate but highly decorated pilot has remained a captain after all these years. In a touching moment, Iceman (Val Kilmer) who is now an Admiral — imparts sage advice to his old rival. Tom Cruise turns 60 in July. The actor is over four decades into his career and still commands the lead in summer blockbusters. There’s something almost alien about the actor, and no that’s not a Scientology joke.

Top Gun: Maverick gently recycles the original but ultimately soars to a thrilling finale. The saga sticks the landing and ends with one of the most exhilarating sequences in a decade. The final 40 minutes are a jaw-dropping example of action entertainment as the adventure ascends breathtakingly into the sky as the plan is carried out. I sat there, eyes glued to the screen, elated by the realism. The live-action dogfight battle has immediacy and authenticity. The spectacle makes the ubiquitous CGI-heavy effects of other films look like an artificial fabrication. It goes to prove how important it is to finish a story well. Send the audience off on a high when you leave the theater. Top Gun first delighted a generation 36 years ago. Now amazingly its sequel has accomplished the same thing. This is a rip-roaring good time.

05-26-22

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m in shock. I can’t remember the last time a new release so thoroughly upended my low expectations. Chip ‘n Dale are an animated chipmunk duo first introduced in the 1943 cartoon short Private Pluto. I’m familiar with that iteration. However Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers the movie is based on a more recent 1990s version of a TV series that I have never seen. I was expecting a headache-inducing update aimed at young children. I got something far more clever.

The screenplay only takes inspiration from that TV program, then does something wholly unexpected. The story recasts the two chipmunks as cartoons existing within the real-life world of human people. Their shrill squeaks were only a pitch affected while acting. Here their articulations occupy a much lower register. John Mulaney is the voice of Chip who now works as an insurance salesman. Andy Samberg is vocalizing Dale. He’s undergone CGI surgery and is currently working conventions with other animated stars of the past.

Traditionally drawn cartoons are a big part of this world. Many are desperately trying to find work in an industry that increasingly prefers computer graphics. In one hilarious cutaway, Chip and Dale are spotted in the background on an episode of the TV show Full House. The plot is set in motion when their friend and detective teammate, Monterey Jack (voiced by Eric Bana), is kidnapped and risks possibly being subjected to the horror of video piracy. It’s up to Chip and Dale to save him.

Animation combined with live-action has existed since the very beginning of the film business. In 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit famously broke new ground and became the gold standard for this technique. That classic inspired a bevy of similar mash-ups attempting to replicate that success, always with diminishing results. Examples include Space Jam, and its sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, and Tom & Jerry: The Movie. I could go on. I only list these examples to illustrate how none has ever approached the wit of Robert Zemeckis’ marvel. This production comes closer than anything in the 34 years since. In fact, Roger Rabbit unexpectedly pops up.

There are a ton of characters referenced within this environment. Many are now working different jobs. A lot of these intellectual properties aren’t even owned by Disney. These include random cameos from My Little Pony and South Park, as well as McGruff the Crime Dog, MC Skat Kat with Paula Abdul, and the ugly version of Sonic the Hedgehog before an internet outcry got him redesigned. There are many other personalities. Look fast for what’s on various billboards and landmarks. You’ll see Butthead is running for Senator and Chun-Li (of the Street Fighter video game) has a star on the Walk of Fame. You’ll need to watch the film more than once to catch them all or be prepared to hit that pause button.

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is the funniest movie of the year thus far. It’s also joyful, uplifting, and — most surprising — a sharp sendup of Hollywood. This is directed by Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) who frequently collaborates with Andy Samberg (and Jorma Taccone) as part of the comedy trio The Lonely Island. The screenplay from Dan Gregor and Doug Mand (TV’s How I Met Your Mother, Dolittle) pokes fun at a lot of things. The obsession with remakes and reboots (Meryl Streep in Mr. Doubtfire), how ideas are recycled to make films (LEGO Miserables, Waze the Movie), or the way cartoons are superficially modernized using CGI and rap music. That’s ironic because it’s Disney’s reliance on those qualities that had me dismissing this reboot before I had even seen it. Color me surprised. I expected a silly cartoon but I got an intelligent satire.

05-20-22

Moonfall

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 19, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Let’s face it, director Roland Emmerich peaked with Independence Day. He’s been chasing that achievement ever since. Oh sure, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 were huge successes as well, but they were disaster films modeled on the blueprint of that success. The simple concept here: The moon’s trajectory has mysteriously altered and is now hurtling toward our planet. The monumental catastrophe makes no sense whatsoever. That would be fine if the script simply embraced the silliness and then gave us a show. However, Emmerich has other plans.

The central figure is Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson). The disgraced astronaut has been blamed for a calamity up in space while doing maintenance on a satellite station. The mission was led by Commander Jo Fowler (Halle Berry). She was knocked unconscious and has no memory of the event. At least she survived. The other astronaut (Frank Fiola) in their trio did not. Brian’s allegation that a large black mass attacked them is written off as crazy talk. Human error is the official explanation. The event takes its toll on his daily life. Brian eventually divorces his wife Brenda (Carolina Bartczak). Their teen son Sonny (Charlie Plummer) grows emotionally distant from him. Brenda gets remarried to Tom (Michael Peña) and moves to Jersey. Commander Jo also has an ex-husband (Eme Ikwuakor) who is an Air Force chief of staff. They share custody of their annoyingly cute 10-year-old (Zayn Maloney). None of the drama down on land is compelling. Unfortunately, these soap opera shenanigans are de rigueur for an Emmerich production.

Moonfall is a greatest hits album of Roland Emmerich themes: Manhattan gets decimated, an alien threat, broken father-son relationship. The “master of disaster” understands that audiences come to see a spectacle when things go wrong. He delivers that at least. Stuff will be destroyed, but he also feels the need to ground everything in characters that endlessly clarify the science of it all. The cast includes comic relief in the form of a wacky conspiracy theorist with a podcast. KC Houseman (John Bradley) believes the moon is an artificial megastructure whose elliptical orbit has changed. His character exists to explain things. Count how many times the word “megastructure ” is uttered if you get bored. Yes the developments do get sillier by the minute and I expect that, but exposition dumps are never an interesting way to describe what’s happening. These densely written monologues somehow make the plot sound more stupid. Even Donald Sutherland pops up briefly to collect a paycheck. As the gatekeeper of NASA’s secret archives, he imparts a bevy of information.

Moonfall could have been so dumb it’s fun. The title is literally the premise: Moon falls…toward Earth. The amount of science and data forced into the account effectively drains the lighthearted spirit out of the story. Emmerich didn’t act alone. He assembled this wretched screenplay with two others: Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen. The ersatz drama of interconnected familial relationships and subplots is a real snooze too. With a $146 million budget, it’s one of the most expensive independently-funded movies ever made. When Moonfall opened in theaters back in February it flopped hard. I wasn’t surprised. It looked terrible and I ignored it. But it found a second life on VOD when it debuted in April. The rental has consistently remained in the Top 10. “Maybe it’s not so bad?” I thought. <sigh> I should trust my instincts.

05-17-22

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”

Why not be both? Benedict Cumberbatch may get top billing, but the driving force of the narrative is Elizabeth Olsen. She is Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch. The woman loves her sons Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) dearly. She simply wants them back with her safe and sound. Nothing wrong with that, right? The problem is, to accomplish this, she has to create a lot of chaos. What’s a mother to do? Enter America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to travel to different worlds in the multiverse. Unfortunately, America cannot control her abilities. She is being chased by a demonic entity and requests the help of Dr. Stephen Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong). Strange realizes he needs further assistance and so he appeals to Wanda Maximoff for help.

The chronicle is surprisingly basic but made needlessly complicated. The title may be saddled with the sobriquet “In the Multiverse of Madness,” but this is a direct sequel to Doctor Strange. It’s not a movie for uninformed viewers. It demands knowledge of other Marvel properties before watching. Obviously, you must see part one. A familiarity with Spider-Man: No Way Home and the TV shows What If…? and Loki might also improve your experience. Essential viewing is the Disney+ TV show WandaVision. In that series, Wanda has two kids and the love for her sons is her motivation here in what could have been a straightforward saga. Complicating matters are cameos that distract from the drama at its heart.

This sequel is conspicuously hampered by a slavish devotion to being a piece in a much larger puzzle. Callbacks to other individuals within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) pop up to check off boxes and remind the viewer this is merely a chapter in a media franchise. The saga is burdened by the introduction of people that reference other releases and suggest potential developments in future films. A tedious detour presents Stephen Strange attending the wedding of Christine Palmer where Dr. Nic West also happens to be a guest. The extended sequence hijacks the narrative only to justify that Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg’s names be included on the movie poster. In another development, we meet Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo. He is the Sorcerer Supreme of the Illuminati, a secret society made of superheroes that Doctor Strange originally formed. This includes alternate versions of well-known characters from previous MCU features that have been recast. It feels like a distraction shoehorned into the account. They have little to do with the central tale. Even screenwriter Michael Waldron seems to secretly loathe their presence. No detailed spoilers, but I wouldn’t get attached to all of them.

It’s nice when an auteur can bring their style to the Marvel machine. Let’s face it. In this context, directors are talent for hire that must adhere to a set of rules overseen by a committee with the final say. The caliber of notables tapped to oversee something within the MCU is a most impressive list. Some are more successful than others at injecting their stamp onto the material. Taika Waititi added camp to Thor: Ragnarok. Chloé Zhao brought thoughtful introspection to Eternals. Sam Raimi brings his eccentric spirit. He’s already familiar with the superhero genre. The Spider-Man trilogy he helmed starring Tobey Maguire beginning back in 2002 is iconic. But it’s the horror aesthetic of The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell that informs the DNA of this picture.

Doctor Strange 2 (yes I’m calling it that) is a weird and wild blockbuster. Director Sam Raimi’s signature is all over this film. When Stephen Strange and his ally America are falling through multiple universes, it is a surreal trip employing bizarre visuals and music. At one point they even briefly become cartoons. The snippet is one of the most inspired bits I’ve seen in a movie all year. Later Stephen Strange uses Dreamwalking (don’t ask) to take over the corpse of another variant of himself called Defender Strange. His walking and talking zombie is hideous. It can be entertaining — especially when Elizabeth Olsen is on screen as The Scarlet Witch doing her magic. When the story gets sidetracked by tributaries and detours it’s less captivating. It’s a mixed bag for me, although I lean toward a recommendation. It’s a fun summer flick with fantasy elements and special effects. I guess I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

05-05-22

The Bad Guys

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 5, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Overall ticket sales haven’t returned to robust pre-pandemic levels, but the box office is still full of success stories. The latest is this gem from DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Universal Pictures. Well-crafted family-friendly diversions have always been a safe bet. It may not equal the full auditory overload of Sing 2 (thank goodness), but this PG-rated treasure should dazzle the wee ones. At least until Pixar’s Toy Story spin-off Lightyear comes out on June 17.

The Bad Guys are a gang of anthropomorphic animals who walk and talk amongst humans. The coterie of creatures consists of a Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos). The group of five are so named because they’re career criminals. During their latest caper, they attempt to steal a humanitarian award at a large gala. The trophy is to be conferred upon a pompous guinea pig named Professor Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade). The recipient happens to be a philanthropist. The villains are caught in the act. Normally they would be taken to jail. However, Mr. Wolf — the leader of the group — persuades the guinea pig to reform them instead. Little does Rupert know that the scoundrels plan to swipe the award again.

The adventure isn’t ambitious, yet I quite liked this rather unassuming film. The artwork captivates the eye. It’s set in Los Angeles and the illustrators insert recognizable landmarks into the background. The style uses computer graphics but is subverted with the hand-drawn illustrated look of a 2D format. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse famously used this technique, but so did The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s very effective. The story is captivating as well. Elsewhere this tale of various critters attempting a heist has been encapsulated as “Zootopia meets Ocean’s Eleven.” That’s an apt description. Even the screenplay acknowledges the similarities. When Mr. Wolf tries to charm the governor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), Mr. Shark defines his conduct as “going full Clooney on her.”

The Bad Guys is a simplistic but pure joy. Granted the gags aren’t profound or innovative. My kingdom for modern children’s entertainment that doesn’t rely on fart jokes. As a missed payment affects a credit score, so does the stumble into toilet humor lower my rating. Nevertheless, the narrative is mostly clean and surprisingly coherent. The fact that the plot developments make sense impressed me. I’ve noticed as I get older, cartoons seem to grow more and more chaotic. Not sure whether I or the animation is the thing that’s changing. I suspect both, but this account is a bit more sensible. Humans and animals interacting together like people may be a silly idea, but the saga’s developments have a logical progression. The characters are clearly defined and elicit our sympathy. I enjoyed this and — more importantly — your kids should as well.

04-29-22

The Northman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on April 26, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Princess Bride was the last film I expected to think of while watching The Northman. It occurs when Prince Amleth makes his proclamation: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” Like the declaration of Inigo Montoya in the William Goldman novel and subsequent adaptation, the vindictive pledge is like a mantra. In all fairness, the mood of this Viking adventure is closer to darker revenge movies like Conan the Barbarian, Braveheart, and Gladiator.

The ancient Norse legends are the basis for Robert Eggers’ tale. They’re part of a rich tradition that also inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. The Northman is the director’s most commercial release. He’s working from a reported budget of somewhere between $70 and $90 million depending on whatever accounting reports you believe. Regardless, it’s easy to see where the money went. The chronicle is a beautifully photographed epic of visual grandeur. If you’re content to simply gorge on the scenery, you’ll be satiated.

The story is simplistic, but it’s accomplished by a talented ensemble. Young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses the murder of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), and the capture of his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Years later, Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) vows to assassinate Fjölnir. He also promises to liberate his mother — still played by Kidman (!) The actress is now only nine years older than the actor playing her son. Ah, Hollywood! Amleth embarks on a quest to find and execute Fjölnir. During his journey, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress/Slavic slave who becomes his ally and also love interest — not necessarily in that order.

There’s no denying that Alexander Skargaaard has the physicality of a Viking. His performance is a wild untamed muscular bundle of rage. The dude is so jacked, his workout routine suggests he’s doing a lot more than rowing a boat and occasionally wielding a sword. Intellectually he has one thing on his mind: to avenge his father’s death. So he enlists the help of a group of berserkers to help him accomplish his task. I wish I could say there was more to the plot but that’s it. The account portrays this undertaking.

The Northman is a surprisingly conventional tale from a director who heretofore has been anything but. It’s not surprising that the director is feeling a little playful. He’s working with a massive budget that now allows for a grander scale and scope. The Witch and The Lighthouse were contemplative pictures that traded action for meaning. The Northman feels like an about-face. The screenplay — co-written by Eggers and Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón — isn’t too interested in profound considerations. It’s a basic and bloody revenge scenario. Introspection be damned.

Where this visceral fable of retaliation excels is in the iconography that elevates the most historically accurate Viking movie ever made. At least that’s what the press materials brag. Maybe it is. I can’t dispute the boast because I don’t have a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Studies. The research and attention to detail must be acknowledged. The director is hell-bent on historical authenticity. The feature relies on a lot of window dressing that follows a narrative blueprint of retribution. I’m talking about spectacular production design by Craig Lathrop, beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and meticulously created costumes by Linda Muir.

I’ll admit the spectacle is visually impressive. The landscapes are stunning. The violence is brutal. Yet I’d accept a little inaccuracy for some narrative depth. The saga is high on style but low on innovation. Nevertheless, it does manage to proffer a meditative consideration of masculinity and honor. Meanwhile, the action remains rooted in pulpy earthiness. It all culminates in a bloody skirmish between Amleth and Fjölnir who converge — naked — near an active volcano. If nothing else, it’s a moment that ensures this picture demands a mention on lists of memorable fights that include Women in Love and Eastern Promises. The Northman‘s place in cinematic history is ensured.

04-21-22

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on April 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

So if you’ve completely divested from the Wizarding World, you have my respect. Nevertheless, you’ll need a primer for this review. The Secrets of Dumbledore is part three of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, which is a spin-off/prequel to the Harry Potter movies. If you’ve seen the other two, it remains a convoluted saga that requires a lot of work to keep track of what’s going on. That’s a warning if you’re not a dedicated fan of this stuff. You must see the other entries first to understand this one. Or better yet, skip all three entirely and watch a satisfying fantasy. Anyway, the positive news is that this entry improves upon the last.

We’re three episodes into this joyless series and I still have no idea what this overarching drama is even trying to say or why. It appears to be a political allegory condemning fascist ideology. Fun! If I can boil this account down to its basic essence, it’s good vs. evil in the form of an honest wizard named Dumbledore (Jude Law) against the malevolent wizard Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). The two made an unbreakable oath never to harm each other a long time ago. The upcoming reveal of the Supreme Mugwump is approaching. A fawn called a Qilin will bow to the leader that is most pure of heart. Grindelwald is manipulating the process and he must be stopped. Dumbledore assembles a team to curtail Grindelwald’s nefarious plans.

Side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that actor Mads Mikkelsen has taken over the role originally played by Johnny Depp. It’s like when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York in TV’s Bewitched in 1969 and no one acknowledged on screen that this was a different actor. The reasons for the decision are different though. Mikkelsen’s emotionless performance may be adequate but it isn’t an improvement. Bowing to the court of public opinion is so much more important than artistic merit.

What the feature has going for it is a nice-looking fantasy adventure with great production design and visual effects. There’s a section where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) goes to rescue his brother Theseus (Callum Turne). He has to mimic the moves of these little scorpion critters. I was mildly amused by that. There are engaging moments here and there. Yet once again there are too many characters. An aggregation of returning individuals includes actors Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, and Fiona Glascott. However, the MVP award goes to Dan Fogler as the non-magic Jacob Kowalski. It is a testament to his ability to turn a minor character into a fascinating personality. He seizes focus as the charismatic spice in a bland stew. Meanwhile the episodic nature of the plot sort of plods along without a strong story or compelling focus.

Nonetheless, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a vast upgrade over its predecessor. The Crimes of Grindelwald came out four years ago. I couldn’t even begin to recall what happened. It was such an ordeal, I probably blocked it out to be quite honest. So before I went to see this, I forced myself to do a significant amount of research on the internet to reacquaint myself with the lore. I even read the plot synopsis of the current release on Wikipedia. Going to see this felt more like a homework assignment than actual entertainment. However, doing that preparation did make my experience more enjoyable. I give this film a pass. If you have the base knowledge to enjoy this flick, then consider it worthy of your time. If you aren’t, steer clear.

04-15-22

Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama with tags on April 14, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is Richard Linklater’s warm reflection on growing up in 1969. 10 1/2-year-old Stanley (voiced by Milo Coy) is a boy living in Houston, Texas right before the Apollo 11 Moon landing. He’s the youngest of six children — three boys and three girls. So that would be “Bobby” if you’re a Brady Bunch fan. The saga includes a fanciful tale of a fourth-grader who imagines himself to be the first person to land on the Moon because the engineers accidentally made a capsule too small.

Apollo 10 1/2 is Linklater’s most accomplished delve into rotoscope animation yet. He utilized the technique before in both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The style is used to create animated sequences by tracing over live-action footage frame by frame. The nostalgic trip through the late 1960s relies heavily on voice-over from past collaborator Jack Black (School of Rock, Bernie) as the adult Stanley. As the events of his childhood play out, his reflective narration recalls The Wonder Years. The nostalgia is heavy and deep.

Few people recreate an era like Richard Linklater. I’m talking about masterful movies like Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! I have one brother. My household of four was a far less complicated structure than the family of eight depicted here. Additionally, Linklater’s birth predates my own by a decade. Nevertheless, his lovingly recreated memoir is realized with such authentic detail that I identified with his recollections in a uniquely personal way. From a father employed by NASA (My father worked for NASA Ames Research Center) to a mother who recycled paper bags from the grocery store as trash bags for the kitchen, I felt the parallels to my own suburban but frugal upbringing. Incidentally, our protagonist humorously notes that the last idea is a smart one so long as the garbage isn’t wet.

Apollo 10 1/2 depicts a simpler time. The minutia brought back a ton of memories, though the chronicle does tend to drift. It lacks the propulsive thrust of a strong narrative. The leisurely account should captivate adults more than kids. However, it emphasizes that a compelling depiction of our childhood need not incorporate the biggest news stories of the day. Sometimes it’s the vivid but inconsequential details that resonate. The best moments aren’t the events surrounding the moon landing itself, but when Linklater offers pop culture touchstones in this personal coming-of-age story. The mere listing of his favorite TV shows or the board games he enjoyed playing, will resound with anyone who lived back then. It was perhaps the last generation when parents let their offspring run wild and free throughout the neighborhood. No one thought twice if a group of kids should be traveling in the back flatbed of a pickup truck — sans seatbelts — or riding a bike without a helmet. It may not have been prudent, but we had a glorious time. Somehow we survived. I felt a connection to my own experience.

Streaming on Netflix since April 1.

04-10-22