Archive for the Comedy Category

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 6, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_far_from_home_ver7STARS4Warning: Review contains an Avengers: Endgame spoiler.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn’t waste any time getting started.  A gigantic cyclone “with a face” terrorizes a city in Mexico.  An enigmatic superhero heretofore unknown arrives to fight the creature and save the day.  We later learn his name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  He will become a key figure in this narrative.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) investigate.  They appeal to Peter Parker (Tom Holland ) for help.  However the mild-mannered teen a.k.a. Spider-Man is more concerned with high school life.  This means preparing for a class trip to Europe, hanging out with his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and attending to the crush he has on cute classmate “MJ” (Zendaya).  He likes her and she likes him.  They’re just too painfully shy to tell one another.  It may technically be the final chapter in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but debuting after Avengers: Endgame, this really feels like a fresh beginning.  The adventure enthusiastically prepares the viewer for a new series of MCU movies with a lighthearted attitude that is buoyant and fun.

Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own identity.  Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its 2017 predecessor, this one is equally coming of age comedy as it is a superhero fantasy.  Actually, the portrait of teen angst is the best part.  Coming on the heels of Endgame, this is the first feature to detail the aftermath of what Thanos caused.  In that vein, their high-school TV station playfully presents an “In Memoriam” segment for Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Vision.  It also explains what happened when half the Earth’s population disappeared in what this story calls “The Blip” then reappeared exactly the same age five years later.  Their peers who remained on Earth did age.

Peter Parker is torn.  Four Elementals are wreaking havoc on the world.  These immortal creatures are so-named because each one controls an element: earth, air, fire, and water.  As Tony Stark’s protegee, he feels the call to be a superhero.  At the same time, Peter just wants to see the sights of Europe with his friends.  Enter Quentin Beck, a hero from a parallel Earth, who seems ever more capable than Peter when dealing with these supernatural threats.  Peter’s classmates start calling the individual “Mysterio” which the genial guy soon adopts as his moniker.  Jake Gyllenhaal is memorable.  He imbues his character with a charisma that deftly straddles the line between good-natured and disingenuous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a blast.  It also details a very personal odyssey.  Directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the film brilliantly juggles a crisis of conscience for Peter Parker.  This is a character based chronicle and as such, his desire to simply live a “normal” life is quite compelling.  I truly cared about the various choices that Peter Parker makes.  One, in particular, is an (almost) unforgivable decision.  Deep down we know in this Tony Stark-less reality, the world truly needs Spider-Man.  The emotional stakes are huge!  A wonderful cast engages the emotions with humor and intensity.  I’ve discussed most of the main players but “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) also bear a mention.  They share an amusing flirtation in their minor roles.  The class field trip provides a picaresque tour of Europe.  This appealingly sets the action in various destinations: Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London.  The action comes to a crescendo in a climax that exploits the idea that everything you see in a deception.  It’s a dizzying feat of CGI and the effects had me gasping at the optical illusion of it all.  The chaotic frenzy recalls the bewildering displays of last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Mysterio’s glowing orbs of lightning blasts are kind of awesome in a kitschy old-school science fiction way.  This saga perfectly blends emotion and technology.  This summertime romp effortlessly entertains with wit and style.

07-02-19

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19

Toy Story 4

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 24, 2019 by Mark Hobin

toy_story_four_ver8STARS4Let’s face it.  Toy Story 4 doesn’t need to exist.  Toy Story 3 was a flawless finish to a brilliant trilogy.  Everything had been resolved.  You may recall that Andy the human child had grown up.  At the end, he donated his playthings to a little girl named Bonnie.  She was a preschooler at Sunnyside Daycare.  If you don’t remember this, who could blame you?  2010 was almost a decade ago.  However, it’s an important detail in order to understand the journey of these beloved characters.  Toy Story 4 becomes a necessary addition to this series.  The filmmakers have done something quite radical.  They have in essence rebooted the franchise by highlighting a new ensemble while drastically reducing the screen time of most of the original cast, even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).  Woody (Tom Hanks) is a notable exception who still plays a major part.  He now finds himself neglected by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  He may have been Andy’s favorite, but Bonnie is a completely different individual altogether.  Meet Forky (Tony Hale).  Bonnie has created a primitive toy as a craft project in her kindergarten class.  She loves him as much, if not more than, any store bought toy.

Director Josh Cooley along with writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, have come up with chronicle where an individual considers whether their life has meaning.  Forky has been fashioned from a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and googly eyes.  He becomes a sentient being.  He is not a “toy” in the classic sense and deep down the neurotic entity knows it.  He is constantly trying to throw himself into the trash.  Yet Bonnie’s love has brought him to life.  Her devotion is as real to this curio as any of her branded toys.  Woody understands this.  He unfailingly rescues the plastic thingamabob from trying to end its own life.  It’s an existential crisis that would make Ingmar Bergman proud.

The narrative introduces several characters and each one is a uniquely inspired creation of anxiety.  Forky is merely one soul in a detailed rumination on why toys exist and what gives a life fulfillment and value.  Also making a strong impression are Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), a pair of carnival prizes who simply want to be won.  The stitched together plush animals provide some of the biggest laughs of 2019.  There’s also Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s pull-string doll that is perfectly preserved, except for one thing.  She has a broken voice box.  If that defect is repaired, she reasons, then someone will want her.  She is attended to by a collection of identical looking ventriloquist dummies named Benson that serve as her minions.  The fact they don’t speak is such an intelligent decision.  They are truly terrifying.  There’s also Duke Caboom, a square-jawed Canadian daredevil voiced by Keanu Reeves.  Given his well-received appearances in John Wick: Chapter 3 and Always Be My Maybe, 2019 is definitely his year.  He looks just like the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle I treasured in the 1970s.  Nevertheless, he suffers from low self-esteem because he is unable to perform the stunts his commercial ads promised.  This is pretty heady stuff.  I suspect most youngsters will appreciate all this angst as simply the basic need to be loved.

Toy Story 4 may be billed as a sequel to part 3 but it’s really a new beginning.  Most of the original characters have been sidelined in favor of a fresh cast and amended outlook.  Toy Story 4 profoundly flips the script in finding a sense of purpose.  Enter Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who is a much different personality in this narrative.  She was a porcelain figurine on a lamp in the first two entries.  Woody and she had a flirtatious crush on one another.  She is only briefly referenced in the third so her reemergence here as a major player is unexpected.  Her story opens the movie as a brief intro that begins 9 years prior, where she is unceremoniously given away to a mysterious man.  Part Annie Oakley, part Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road) — she is a galvanizing presence with a revolutionary perspective.

Toy Story 4 justifies its existence.  The storytelling is a bit messier than its predecessors.  The plot is an ungainly merging of various plot threads which juggle the various motivations of a large cast.  There are some risky leaps.  There is an emphasis on jokes. The humor is zany.  Although the script truly has something to say.  I will never doubt Pixar’s ability to reinvent itself.  Once you consider a fourth entry, you expect the quality to drop. You’d be forgiven for being skeptical.  The fourth installment has often been the death knell for a film series.  Batman & Robin (1997), Scream 4 (2011) and (perhaps too soon) Men in Black: International (2019) were each the final movie in their respective franchises.  The title is the only predictable component in this production.  This is a visionary dream.  As far as I’m concerned, Pixar could now put out Toy Story 5 & 6 and I’d greet their existence with joy.

06-20-19

Men in Black: International

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on June 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

men_in_black_internationalSTARS3Anyone  22 years or younger seeing Men in Black: International this weekend wasn’t even alive when the first film came out.  I feel old. July 2, 1997, seems like such a long time ago.  I thought this series was over by the third entry.  Now 7 years later, we have a belated fourth episode which is being marketed as more of a spin-off.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are long gone although Emma Thompson who was in Men in Black 3 is back as Agent O, the head of MIB’s US branch.  Head of MIB’s UK branch is Liam Neeson as High T.  Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (no relation to Emma) star as Agents H and M respectively.  Coincidence or did the Swedish clothing-retail company pay for that mention?   No matter – back to the actors.  The two famously appeared together in Thor: Ragnarok.  I dare say the charm they had together then is even more apparent here.

The story concerns Molly who witnessed an alien abduction when she was a little girl. Her parents’ minds were erased by the MIB but they neglected to neuralyze her.  She still carries those memories.  She longs to be one of the “Men in Black”.  Yes, the screenplay acknowledges that not all operatives are male.  She sneaks into the headquarters and convinces Agent O to hire her on as sort of a probationary test.  It makes no sense why this would happen so easily but it’s so ridiculous that I kind of appreciated the careless happenstance of it all.  Soon she meets Agent H.  He’s cocky.  She’s bookish.  Writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway have created stock characters.  We’ve seen this personality dynamic many times before.  The difference is that Chris and Tessa genuinely appear to be friends in real life.  The appeal of the stars is why Men in Black: International entertains.  They generate the kind of palpable chemistry that two attractive Hollywood stars are able to parlay into elevating a flimsy script.   In essence, the fate of the world is at stake.  Despite this, their objectives never seem insurmountable.  Things come quite easily for these two, particularly Agent M who assimilates into the MIB organization with barely any difficulty at all.

You can always count on the special effects to captivate in these films.  They are selectively utilized to create intergalactic creatures.  The designs are impressive.  Which leads me to another reason why this ultimately charmed me: Kumail Nanjiani. We never actually even see the actor/comedian.  Rather, we hear him as an alien that assists Agents H and M.  He’s the size of a chess pawn and he’s assigned to protect his diminutive queen so Agent M starts calling him Pawny.  This miniature green humanoid creature reminded me of The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones.  His humor mostly consists of offering a sardonic comment on the events happening around them.  He can say banal things at times.  He spouts hackneyed catchphrases like “That’s what I’m talking about!”  Yet Nanjiani’s irritated delivery absolutely sells this tiny creature.  Additionally, the animated expressions on his tiny face are consistently hilarious.

Apparently, this movie wasn’t hilarious to the majority of critics who have saddled this movie with some of the harshest reviews of 2019.  It currently has a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Me thinks people are comparing this to the style of the earlier films.  This has a different atmosphere.  There’s an emphasis on elegant sophistication, not zany antics.  Men in Black: International lacks Will Smith’s manic energy but that’s OK.  Although Pawny is a notable exception.  Director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) continues to demonstrate his ability to helm a large-scale production.  The plot is pretty standard stuff.  However, this amiable production coasts on the smooth easygoing chemistry of its two leads.  Their relationship has an amusing push-pull trade-off.  It’s pleasing to watch actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson interact.  Sometimes charismatic actors reciting humorous back and forth banter is enough.  I was entertained.

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on June 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

secret_life_of_pets_twoSTARS2From a narrative standpoint, The Secret Life of Pets 2 has no reason to exist.  From a business angle, it would be to make money.  Given my sparsely attended theater on opening night, it’s a mere shadow of its predecessor in that department as well.  The first movie wasn’t great art but it had a zany quality that ultimately endeared itself to the audience.  There was a lot of animal personalities crammed into the plot but none stood out more than Kevin Hart as a white bunny named Snowball.  He’s back again but no longer a villain. The attitude that made his character a surprise in the original is gone.

The rest of the cast is back with one major exception.  Max, a Jack Russell Terrier, is now voiced by Patton Oswalt in this go-around taking over for Louis CK who was not rehired due to accusations of sexual harassment.  Oswalt voiced Remy the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille so he’s no stranger to voice acting.  Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is back as the large, brown, shaggy Newfoundland mix who lives with Max.  If I had to award an MVP in the cast it would be to Lake Bell who returns as Chloe, a blue tabby cat.  Her sarcastic indifference perfectly matched my mood while watching this.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is even more chaotic, more freeform and less focused than its forebear.  30 minutes into the film and I still couldn’t discern a plot.  If you’re looking for a sampling of gags stuffed into an admittedly brief 86 minute saga (that includes the credits) then I suppose it fitfully entertains.  There are three storylines going on simultaneously.  The screenplay keeps them coherently discernible from one another like a banana, a mango and a peach in a fruit smoothie after they’ve been liquified in a blender.  The difference?  This experience isn’t tasty.

Max and Duke’s human owner Katie has married and now has a child.  The family all take a trip to visit a farm as a way to relax.  There Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford), an alpha farm dog who watches Fox News and stans for Donald Trump.  I’m kidding but watch the movie and then tell me I’m wrong.  Meanwhile, Pomeranian Gidget ( Jenny Slate) accidentally loses Max’s favorite chew toy (a busy bee) to a bunch of cats in the apartment below hers.  She needs to get it back.  Finally, Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih Tzu, must rescue a white tiger from a Russian circus run by a heavily accented stereotype named Sergei (Nick Kroll).   In these highly sensitive times, making fun of Eastern Europeans and the way they talk is apparently still OK.

Thankfully, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is short but it still feels long because it’s so meandering.  The story is essentially three cartoon shorts along with various subplots and vignettes cobbled together to make a theatrical feature.  None of them are particularly captivating.  It’s fleeting and ephemeral.  I can barely remember what I watched and I just saw it.  Perhaps this would be more comprehensible edited down and promoted as 3 half-hour TV episodes.  The screenplay doesn’t bother to expand on our understanding of these characters.  Nor does it offer anything in the way of wit.   If toilet humor is your thing, there are poop jokes and fart jokes.  The ending credits presents an America’s Funniest Home Videos-style montage of kids with their pets.  It made me laugh more than anything in the film.  At best this works as an 86-minute babysitter for your kids and at worst it’s an unpleasant time waster.

06-06-19

Booksmart

Posted in Comedy with tags on May 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

booksmartSTARS4Every era has its classic coming of age tale.  Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, The 400 Blows, American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Superbad, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There are so many others.  Generation Z is maturing into adolescence.  They are currently getting the movies that define their age.  We will have to wait to see what will stand the test of time.  Last year’s Eighth Grade is a good candidate.  It was my favorite film of 2018.  I’m thinking Booksmart has a good chance of making the grade.

Booksmart centers on class president Molly, a driven, scholarly-minded teenager played by Beanie Feldstein.  She wears a blazer paired with a turtleneck to school.  Her best friend is Amy (Kaitlyn Dever).  They’re both academic overachievers who have stayed out of trouble for their entire scholastic career so that they could get into the finest colleges.  Molly is heading to Yale.  Amy to Columbia.  Then one fateful day, Molly’s world comes crashing down around her when she comes to a distressing realization.  Her lackadaisical peers have been accepted to Ivy League schools as well.  Even the blissfully unaware stoner (Eduardo Franco) has been recruited to code for Google.  Molly’s discipline, good behavior, and focus were apparently for nothing she reasons.  Enraged at having missed out on high school fun, these former “goody-two-shoes” make a vow to condense 4 years of social life into one full uninterrupted night of partying.  In this way, they can “make up” for 4 years of good behavior.  Incidentally, this revelation is gleaned from a conversation overheard in the school’s unisex bathroom.  This is so a movie of our times.

I usually don’t compare pictures in a review.  However, this “one crazy night” in the life of two misfits on the cusp of graduation was the same foundation behind Superbad.  Both also share a casting director, Allison Jones.  Star Beanie Feldstein is the sister of Jonah Hill who starred in that production.  These R-rated shenanigans measure up favorably to that classic.  They’d make a perfect double feature.  So comparisons are quite apt. Booksmart is actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut.  She’s known for playing Quorra in Tron: Legacy, and “Thirteen” on the medical-drama TV series House (2007–2012).  She’s also engaged (since 2013) to former SNL member Jason Sudakis.  Sudeikis plays a goofy principal with no moral authority.  He moonlights as a rideshare driver.  Which brings me to my next point.

Booksmart is another movie that treats adults like clueless idiots and teens as the hip people who all want to aspire to be.  Amy’s mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Will Forte) have crafted a celebratory dinner of entrees with themes for her graduation.  Their indulgence is presented as quaint.  One of their teachers (Jessica Williams), who seems sensible at first, shows a complete lack of discretion at a party with a student.   I must admit, as I get older this “naive adult” gets more and more annoying.  However, I’m pretty cognizant of my hypocrisy.  I can appreciate the skewed perspective of the American adolescent because (shocker) I too was one once.  My teens years played out during the mid-1980s era of John Hughes films where that character was an archetype, so I can relate.  Booksmart captures the zeitgeist of that perspective in a way that is highly entertaining.

There’s a vibrant energy to Booksmart that infuses every scene.  Like so many films of this ilk, it’s highlighted by a charismatic ensemble of up and comers.  I suspect some will have success in the future.  Time will tell.  Molly and Amy are witty goofballs.  Their central friendship is sweet and uplifting.  Molly is the more confident of the two.  There’s an intensity to her character that is particularly amusing.  She has a crush on über-popular class vice-president, Nick (Mason Gooding).  Amy pines for a skater girl named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).  Like their schoolmates, they all seem to live in the rarefied air of a posh suburb in Los Angeles.  They own cars and live in houses (not apartments).  Some exude ostentatious wealth.  We still have the cool kids, jocks, nerds, mean girls, drama geeks, etc.  What’s changed is the egalitarianism of this high school.  I didn’t see one bully.  They may not all be best friends, but no one is persecuted for being different.  Ah, movies!

What ultimately sends Booksmart into the stratosphere is the engaging chemistry of the supporting cast who populate the school.  These classmates include Noah Galvin as George who plays a flamboyant, and that’s putting it mildly, theater geek hosting a murder mystery soiree.  There’s also Skyler Gisondo as Jared, a dorky rich kid who remains conspicuously uncool.  He tries to buy the friendship of his peers by throwing the 1st of three parties the girls crash.  It’s on a yacht with a gambling casino and tuxedoed waiters serving hors d’oeuvres.  The complimentary gift bags include an iPad.  He’s invited everyone, but no one shows up.  That’s a lot for the audience to swallow.  I don’t care if you’re my mortal enemy.  I’m most definitely checking “will attend” on THAT invitation.  Lastly, there’s Jared’s friend Gigi played by Billie Lourd. She is Carrie Fisher’s real-life daughter.  Lourd’s ability to keep popping up at every party is hilarious.  She’s absolutely a scene stealer.  One might argue that the “message” for these girls to indulge every instinct does get questionable by the end and projectile vomiting is never OK.  Overall it’s raunchy but not mean-spirited.  The egalitarian nature of this fantasy is warm and appealing.  The charisma of this cast is palpable and there are many laughs along the way.

05-24-19

Aladdin

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

aladdin_ver2STARS4It’s hard not to look upon these live-action remakes of Disney classics with a bit of cynicism.  Let’s face it.  Familiarity is safe.  Reselling old stories by “updating” them with CGI takes less creativity than having to create something unique.  Some might call them a cash grab.  Truth is.  Most have been wildly lucrative.  Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) being the most notable examples.  That success just feeds into the disapproval.  The box office is certainly there.  However, a cash grab implies something hastily assembled of poor quality.  This definitely does not fall into that category.

Aladdin is a big, extravagant production with musical numbers.  Additionally, costumes and set design are top-notch.  Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both categories back in 2018.  I’d argue that this film is even more deserving of those awards.  There’s a cave of wonders, a flying carpet, and a magical genie.  The source material is not easy to adapt.  There’s a joyous feeling that takes all of those miraculous elements and recreates them in a physical form.  Yes, the imitation feels familiar and less innovative than something fully different.  Yet the manifestation is so spectacular.  It feels like an homage that honors the original.  Aladdin has already been recreated as a musical which had its Broadway debut in 2014.  The idea of adapting this cartoon with human actors is nothing new.  The successful show was nominated for five Tony Awards.  Actor James Monroe Iglehart actually won for playing the Genie.

Of course, it was Robin Williams’ vocal performance that elevated his iconic portrayal in the 1992 animated version.  That’s the role that everyone remembers and actor Will Smith is tasked to fill his very large shoes here.  Just as Emma Watson’s marquee name assisted Beauty and the Beast so too does the Fresh Prince fulfill that part here.  He’s a personality, admittedly, not an impressive vocalist.  Thing is, the veteran actor is wonderful in his own unique way.  His achievement is admirable.  Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has made the decision to have his character vacillate between two extremes.  When Smith gets to be himself and simply exude his natural charisma he’s the most appealing he’s been in years. In fact, he even gets a love interest with Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).  However, when he’s reduced to a blue CGI creation, it’s jarring.  He’s not pleasing in that configuration.

The two leads are more exceptional.  Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) are charming.  I’m not going to unnecessarily detail a tale that is nearly three decades old, but in a nutshell: Aladdin is a “street rat” trying to survive in the bustling city of Agrabah when he runs into Princess Jasmine.  She’s disguised as a commoner like him to understand the conditions of the working class.  The two meet and a connection is made.  The screenplay increases the importance of Jasmine.  She’s got political aspirations to rule her father’s kingdom.  She also gets a new song “Speechless” which is heard twice.  It’s not better than the original songs, but since those can’t be nominated again, it gives the producers the ability to submit it for Oscar consideration.  Jasmine is just as important as the titular hero, but not to his detriment.  She brings a commanding presence.  Massoud is warm and engaging as Aladdin.  The two could have easily come across as bland pretty people.  They are surprisingly great together.  The focus is on what makes them tick not sexiness.  Both bared a lot more skin in the cartoon.  Aladdin is covered up.  His shirtless vest is gone.  Jasmine’s father is the Sultan (Navid Negahban) who rules over the city.  He’s advised by a deceptive sorcerer named Jafar (Marwan Kenzari).  Both are merely a plot means to an end but not a deal breaker in this interpretation.

My 3 wishes for Aladdin were that (1) it would star captivating leads that had chemistry together (2) feature a lively genie that made me laugh and (3) highlight bright splashy production numbers.  I’ve detailed how it delivered the first two.  I’m happy to say my hopes were fulfilled on the third as well.  In particular, the “Prince Ali” number is a fully realized processional accompanied by some fantastic (if not geographically correct) Bollywood-style dancing.  “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” are enchanting too.  This isn’t a replacement of your beloved original.  It’s a remix of sorts.  By adhering mainly to the classic story with only minor tweaks, Disney’s reimagining delivers the goods.  True, it may not be a whole new world.  That’s actually a good thing.  See the execrable Dumbo (2019) if you need proof.  Say what you will about these live-action remakes.  Aladdin is among the very best.

5-23-19

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy with tags on May 13, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pokemon_detective_pikachu_ver2STARS2.5Has there ever been a great movie based on a video game?  The debateable consensus to that question has always been no.  Because of that, films adapted from computer games incur very low expectations.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the latest in a nearly three-decade tradition that began with Super Mario Bros. in 1993.  This has received better reviews than other pictures of its ilk.  Keep in mind the bar has been set pretty low.  I’ll get right to the point.  This isn’t a great movie, so the answer is still (sadly) no.  However, Detective Pikachu deserves some discussion because it has the potential to make a lot of money.  Since 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie has remained the most monetarily lucrative adaptation of its type. That’s the gold standard based on box office grosses earning $131 million.  Given 18 years of inflation, Pokemon Detective Pikachu should easily (duh) shatter that record.  Even if we’re adjusting in 2019 dollars, it should still clear $208 million.  Pokemon is a global phenomenon.

The Pokémon franchise began with a pair of games for Nintendo’s Game Boy back in 1996.  Since then this multimedia conglomeration has gone on to include an anime television series, a trading card game, manga comics, music, books, and a mobile game.  Now please do enjoy this live action picture.  The tale concerns an insurance salesman named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith).  The poor man has learned that his estranged father Harry has died while investigating a case.  Humans are usually paired with a Pokemon in this universe.  Harry’s former Pokémon partner, detective Pikachu, is a rodent-like creature with powerful electrical abilities.  Pokémon don’t normally talk, but this one is different.  He’s got a sarcastic point of view with a voice provided by Ryan Reynolds.  Harry’s death is suspicious and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a junior reporter, is looking into it.  She is accompanied by a Psyduck, another Pokémon species.  Lucy pens fluff articles, but you can guess by her preternaturally perky demeanor, she’s destined for better things.  Although Tim expresses an interest in Lucy, their relationship emits fewer sparks than a damp match.  Oh, and the considerable talents of Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe are criminally wasted in supporting parts.

This adventure is an urban mystery wrapped up in a fantasy.  As such, a successful production must rely on the screenplay’s ability to create a fully realized world.  The problem is the superficial script credited to five (count ’em—FIVE) screenwriters, isn’t up to the task.  Disney’s Zootopia had disparate species coexisting beside each other with a concerted attempt to acknowledge the incongruity.  There was a lot of thought put into that story.  In contrast, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu puts very little effort into world-building.  It just is.  Accept it.  Fantasy doesn’t have to be moronic.  The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pan’s Labyrinth all advanced something new and exciting.  Ryme City is a metropolis inhabited by magical creatures that live alongside humans.  The setup could have offered a fiction so deliciously bonkers that it would have won me over by sheer imagination.  No such luck.  There are brief glimpses.  The CGI of the animated characters is amazingly photorealistic.  Each creature looked like a living breathing thing.  Mr. Mime is a particularly offbeat Pokémon.  He’s the highlight of the feature.  So strange –in fact– that the writers had to apparently convince the Pokemon company to include him.  That’s telling because the rest of the saga isn’t blessed by the bizarro mentality that infuses his creation.

The account settles on being a Sam Spade-style story via film noir.  It’s surprisingly bland and predictable.  Wags have compared this science fiction as an appropriation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Blade Runner.  That’s a generous comparison because this doesn’t even remotely approximate the intellectual creativity found within either of those two classics.  This is generic.  It pains me to write this review because I welcome family entertainment.  To his credit, director Rob Letterman (Monsters Vs. Aliens, Goosebumps) steers these cutesy PG-rated shenanigans toward younger viewers.  It will certainly provide charms for those raised on this stuff.  I can appreciate the concept.  If we were talking about a live-action Pac-Man movie, perhaps nostalgia might absolve the minor deficiencies in the work for me.  I’ll concede this wasn’t made with me in mind.  Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a film for the millions of already converted fans.  Be forewarned, if you don’t know the difference between a Jigglypuff and a Squirtle, you may be underwhelmed.

05-09-19

Missing Link

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on April 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

missing_linkSTARS3Laika needs help.  The studio specializes in fastidiously mounted, exquisitely produced stop-motion animated features.  They receive critical raves but are increasingly ignored at the box office.  Their latest effort debuted at $5.9 million which set a record for the lowest total ever for a film to open on more than 3,200+ screens.  It helps that Laika is owned by Nike founder Phil Knight who has the power to subsidize their efforts.  Knight’s son Travis is President and CEO.  To be fair, their movies have never been huge money makers, but they can turn a profit.  The darkly twisted yet lovely Coraline made a substantial $75 million at the box office in 2009.  Their stop motion technique is liberally enhanced using computer-generated effects and 3D printing.  Some critics have blamed a lack of audience interest on Laika’s approach, but that doesn’t ring true.  The finished product is not dissimilar to Pixar’s or Disney’s computer-animated style.  I admire the meticulous craft that goes into making Laika’s art even when the production doesn’t charm me (The Boxtrolls).  I really want Laika to succeed because they make gorgeous looking pictures.  Missing Link likewise is visually stunning, but overall a relatively low point in their filmography.

The story concerns Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a self-absorbed trailblazer that sets off on a trek of the Pacific Northwest.  He seeks to prove the existence of a legendary primitive man creature.  By doing this he hopes to secure admission into London’s Optimates Club, a group of narrow-minded explorers headed up by the insufferable Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).  Why Frost so desperately wants to belong to an organization of arrogant snobs is rather baffling.  At any rate, he meets the Sasquatch rather quickly in the forest.  Turns out “Mr. Link” (Zach Galifianakis) as Frost dubs him, is a gentle giant who can talk.  Incidentally, with his tiny beady eyes and large pig nose, the design of the titular beast isn’t appealing.  Honestly, he’s downright ugly.  My unsolicited advice: if your main protagonist is furry and virtuous, make him adorable so kids will want the stuffed animal version.   The two set out to find Mr. Link’s long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La in the Himalayas.  Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Frost’s former girlfriend joins the two on their journey.  Her look may mimic the style of the “Gibson Girl” but her contemptuous personality isn’t cute.  Meanwhile, they are pursed by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) a bounty hunter on a mission to kill Frost.  Apparently, Piggot-Dunceby wants Frost dead so he has no chance of ever joining their group.  I still can’t get past the idea that Frost craves this guy’s acceptance.

Missing Link has its charms but they’re mostly visual.  The adventure has no momentum.  Just a meandering saga highlighting beautifully executed stop motion skills.  The chronicle is lacking a spark of inspiration to bring it to life.  Coraline and ParaNorman both had this audacious quality that entertained through sheer eccentricity.  But Missing Link is much saner and safer.  Frost’s whole purpose to gain admission into this highfalutin society of people who are beneath contempt is just misguided and sad.  The prim Victorian era setting isn’t an atmosphere that’s ripe for laughs.  Unless of course, you find colonialism and stuffy tradition, inherently funny.  Most of the stodgy repartee doesn’t land.  Emma Thompson, as the Yeti Elder Queen gets in a few laconic quips.  ‘Throw them in the Pit of Misery and Perpetual Disappointment!’ and “Shangri-La means, Keep out. We hate you,” are droll lines.  An adult fan of sarcasm might chuckle but it’s not banter that would delight a young child.   Ads for the movie clearly mismarketed this to children when this really should’ve been targeted at teens and adults.  However, the climactic action scene is a real cliffhanger – literally.  It entertains all ages.  The moment energizes with inspired loopiness.  That zany joy is sadly absent from most of the film.  It was a wacky jolt from a tale in desperate need of it.

04-11-19

Shazam!

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero with tags on March 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

shazam_ver3STARS3.5I’m officially ready to concede that the DC Extended Universe has me excited.  It’s been a rocky road ever since Man of Steel debuted back in 2013.  For a while, this current DC iteration of films subscribed to the gospel of Christopher Nolan.  Moody and brooding realism equaled a quality flick.  I adore The Dark Knight trilogy so, in theory, it sounded like a good idea.  Then one joyless, poorly written project after another proved that something wasn’t working.  I wasn’t a fan until Wonder Woman came along in 2017 and then Aquaman solidified that love in 2018.  Both were entertaining episodes that stood on their own.  They were individual chapters that didn’t depend on having seen the rest of the series.  Justice League, which was sandwiched between the two, negated that concept, but let’s focus on the positive.  We currently have a new offering based on a DC Comics property previously known as “Captain Marvel” when it was originally published by Fawcett Comics 1940–1953.  Branded as the DC character “Shazam!” In 1972, the superhero has made his first appearance in a theatrical feature since the 1941 movie serial from Republic Pictures. What took so long?  This production is an outright charmer.

Well color me surprised.  I had seen the trailers and thought the whimsical — no make that goofy — mood was a tonal misfire.  We haven’t seen such brightly colored tights on a superhero costume in quite a while.  The whole thing seemed too irreverent to be taken seriously.  Turns out the jokey tone is the screenplay’s greatest asset.  Not since the halcyon days of Christopher Reeve has a buoyant, upbeat tone been employed so effectively.  Superman II (1980) is one of the greatest films ever made (not kidding) so pardon the aforementioned blasphemy.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid with a mischievous and arrogant demeanor at first, but he has a kind and compassionate heart.  While escaping a couple of schoolyard bullies, he’s magically whisked to a magical realm known as The Rock of Eternity where he meets the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).  No stranger to comic book adaptations, Hounsou has played Korath the Pursuer in Marvel productions (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) and (using CGI) the ruler of the Fisherman Kingdom in DC’s Aquaman.  Here he portrays the sorcerer who chooses to bestow his magical powers on Billy.  By saying the word “shazam”, Billy receives Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ courage, and Mercury’s speed.  It’s all in the name.

A big part of the chronicle is the joy of discovery as young Billy becomes acclimated to his new god-like abilities.  Remember, he’s still fundamentally a teen, but when he becomes Shazam, he is an adult.  Incidentally, he never embraces that name here.  An ongoing joke is trying to come up with a suitable moniker.  Zachary Levi is absolutely winning when Billy transforms into the musclebound champion.  He perfectly conveys that naive enthusiasm even as a grown adult.  His “golly gee wilikers” expressions convey pure innocence.  He’s a do-gooder that kids can look up to.  His friendship with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the foster kids he goes to live with, is a sheer delight.  The two of them have a lot of fun figuring out what superpowers he has.  Grazer is an actor to watch.  He memorably portrayed the youthful hypochondriac, Eddie in 2017’s It.  Here he stands out as well with his wide-eyed charisma.  His curiosity is contagious.  The chemistry he has with both actors Angel and Levi is captivating.

Of course there’s a villain.  He’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, ably played by the dependable Mark Strong.  This adventure actually begins with his story.  We learn how the poor treatment he had received at the hands of his older brother and father led to his dark desires.  He too was summoned by the Wizard Shazam as a child but was not chosen.  A bunch of CGI gargoyle monsters that each represent the 7 deadly sins assist him in his sinister ambitions.  They might frighten very young toddlers.  There’s a moment where Dr. Sivana pushes his equally corrupt brother out of a skyscraper.  If you can manage the cartoon level violence of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons, you can handle this.  Although I completely understood why Dr. Sivana turned evil, I didn’t particularly care.  His saga is less compelling.  It occupies a lot more time in the narrative than I cared to indulge.

Ultimately Shazam! emphasizes the happiness in comic books.  This celebrates the feeling of wish fulfillment.  Billy’s childlike wonder in savoring his newfound abilities is so palpable.  We appreciate his euphoria.  Writer Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and horror director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) also emphasize the importance of family.  After being separated from his mother, Billy is sent to live with a foster home that includes other children.  Based on this account, I suspect these individuals will become more important in the inevitable sequel.  Besides Freddy, there’s college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), and youngest Darla (Faithe Herman).  The close camaraderie that develops proves that a family isn’t necessarily about blood relations.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Even when Shazam! gets bogged down in less interesting plot machinations, it’s the heart that shines through.

03-23-19