Archive for the Fantasy Category

Dumbo

Posted in Family, Fantasy with tags on April 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

dumbo_ver2STARS1.5It takes a special kind of talent to twist an uplifting story and turn it into a depressing slog.  The animated Dumbo (1941) is widely considered one of Disney’s 10 greatest animated films by published critics who make it their business to rank such things.  That’s not my opinion it’s simply a fact.  How director Tim Burton was able to take a heartfelt animated treasure and pervert it into this soulless shell of a disgrace is almost incomprehensible.  For the purposes of this review, however, I’m going to try.

Tim Burton actually worked for Walt Disney as an apprentice animator beginning in1980.  By 1984 he directed a short while there called Frankenweenie.  He was summarily fired by the studio shortly thereafter.  Could this be some sort of pent up anger finally being released decades later?  He’s worked with the studio several times since. That 2010 Alice in Wonderland adaptation isn’t great either but at least it had a modicum of reverence for the source material.  What Burton has accomplished here is the desecration of a classic.  The original was about how an outsider comes to terms with what makes him different and then capitalizing on that supposed weakness.  Dumbo’s big ears became a strength allowing him to triumph over adversity winning the hearts of all those around him.  This aberration of a film marginally runs on the fumes of that idea, but it’s really about something else entirely,

The animated Dumbo (1941) clocked in at a mere 64 minutes.  That’s roughly an hour folks.  Burton’s Dumbo is near twice that length.  Dumbo isn’t told from the perspective of the animals.  None of the critters talk in this version.  Dumbo is a saga about people.  The financial woes of a struggling circus appear to worsen when a newborn baby elephant is born with oversized ears.  Widowed and one-armed horse trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is hired by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito).  He’s got two dead-behind -the-eyes children.  Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) channel all the excitement of a damp dishrag in their performances.  They discover early on that Dumbo can fly.  The cute little guy takes off so frequently for audiences at Medici’s circus that it feels like no big deal.  This catches the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life amusement park, Dreamland.  The carnival feels like a veiled attack on Disneyland.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.  Vandevere and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) make the odd pachyderm a star in his circus.  Unfortunately, life under his big top is not all that it seems.

Before I completely tear this sacrilege apart, I want to give Dumbo its due.  The production looks impressive.  Most noticeably, the photo-realistic digital CGI representation of the main character looks convincing.  The set design by Rick Heinrichs and costumes by Colleen Atwood convey a magical fantasy that’s beyond compare.  Visually my eyes were satisfied by the painstaking details.  Additionally having real-life announcer Michael Buffer portray a ringmaster that bellows “LET’S GET READY FOR DUMBOOO!” was a nice touch.  However, I’d have to go back to The Wiz (1978) to find a stunning work of art based on a joyous original that was so inherently empty.  Like that 70s musical adaptation, a lot of obvious care and craft has gone into creating something that looks beautiful.  Yet peel back the meticulous facade and it’s devoid of substance. Dumbo sucked the life out of me.

Despite its distended length, Burton eviscerates everything that made the prototype so great.  Granted I didn’t expect the crows to make an appearance.  Although reclaiming and redeeming those characters would have displayed the kind of confidence I admire in an auteur.  Once upon a time, Tim Burton was that guy.  The witty wordplay from the crows’ song “When I See an Elephant Fly” is still half-heartedly incorporated into the script.  It’s the wittiest dialogue said in the entire film.  But remember the part where Dumbo’s mother spanks an unruly child?  Or where she rocks Dumbo to sleep in her trunk like a baby?  Or Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s streetwise but supportive confidant?  Or the whimsical elephants on parade number when Dumbo gets drunk?  How about the climactic surprise of a circus crowd that first gasped to see an elephant take flight?  Eliminated, corrupted and mishandled.  All of it.  Point blank and period.  The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell) subverts joy and exploits suffering.  Dumbo is one of the grimmest tales meant for children that I’ve ever seen

03-28-19

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy on February 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

how_to_train_your_dragon_the_hidden_worldSTARS4There’s something so gratifying about a saga with an emotional finish.  DreamWorks Animation may not hold the influence of Disney or Pixar, but they’ve given us some pretty beloved animated franchises including Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda.  This fantasy series, inspired by Cressida Cowell’s books, is among DreamWorks’ very best.  It all started back in 2010 with the first production.  The sequel arrived in 2014.  Now we have The Hidden World, the third (and allegedly final) entry in the trilogy.  All three of these movies have been directed by Canadian animator, Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stich).  Executive producer Chris Sanders was a co-director on the first.  DeBlois has really shepherded this adventure about a callow youth and his maturation into adulthood.

This is the personal evolution of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) or just Hiccup to his friends.  The series has comprised a very affecting character arc.  His ability to buddy up with a supposedly dangerous dragon, teaches his fellow citizens from Berk that these creatures are not the enemy.   In fact, they can be allies.  Hiccup’s friendship with his pet Toothless, a mysterious dark breed called a Night Fury, has developed into a deeply moving relationship that has changed his worldview.  Hiccup has gone from a gangly Viking teen afraid to kill dragons to a gangly adult that confidently befriends them.  It may be your classic “from zero to hero” transformation, but gosh darn it, I completely bought into this young man’s odyssey.  He was 15 years old in the first picture with a major jump to age 20 in the second.  That episode ended with Hiccup taking over as Chieftain of the town of Berk and Toothless becoming the Alpha Dragon.  Only one year has passed when The Hidden World begins. Hiccup has been struggling in his new role.  He and his friends continue to rescue the misunderstood beasts.  He leads a community where dragons now outnumber the people.  They coexist in perfect harmony.  Toothless gets a love interest in the form of a white female known as the Light Fury.  Little do they know that she is being used as bait by a ruthless hunter named Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) who still firmly believes dragons must be exterminated.

How to Train Your Dragon has always presented an impressive spectacle along with John Powell’s atmospheric score.  Like a painting, the use of shadow, texture, light, elevates the visual tableau.  Head of layout is cinematographer Gil Zimmerman with the legendary Roger Deakins consulting on the imagery.  The chronicle is filled with breathtaking images of dragons taking flight.  The best passages have no dialogue whatsoever.  Come for the dragons.  Luxuriate in the gorgeous surroundings.  The narrative manages to expand the scope of their world when evil Grimmel forces the Berkians to emigrate to a place called Caldera — the “hidden world” of the film’s title.  A memorable dance where Toothless courts his lady dragon is an absolute highlight.  The mood is fairly serious, although there’s room for humor.  The tenacious Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) annoying her captors is a delight.  The brash Snotlout (Jonah Hill) trying to flirt with Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) is chuckle-worthy.  The chemistry between Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), his betrothed fiancée, isn’t particularly captivating, but that’s a minor quibble.  This is a story about growing up.  It’s about humans, sure, but it’s also about dragons and it’s that bond between the two that make this trilogy so touching.  The ending is a satisfying – though bittersweet, – conclusion to a poignant trilogy.

02-21-19

Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on November 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_ver14STARS2It’s easy to dismiss the Fantastic Beasts franchise as a desperate attempt to extend the Harry Potter universe.  I mean there’s a precedent.   Warner Brothers had the chutzpah to take the original 7 books and expand them into 8 movies.  There are a lot of fans out there that live for this sort of thing.  Confession time: I am not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong. I think the Harry Potter films creatively built a rich fantasy world.  If you fall within a certain age, this was your childhood and I respect that.  It’s just that the adventure was so episodic.  A loosely connected series of events that unfolded cinematically like: “So this happened, and then this happened, and then this happens…”  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was even more meandering but at least it had some nice CGI effects and a couple of star-crossed lovers in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).  Unfortunately, we’ve reached a low point with The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What is this chronicle even about?  I don’t know where to begin because I couldn’t figure it out.  Somewhere in this mishmosh of stuff, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) contacts Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for help.  The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and he intends on amassing an army of wizards to follow him.  I assume this is all laying the groundwork for a Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald showdown during some unspecified sequel in the future, but not here friends.  This is a movie about expository details.  There are a lot of characters.  My favorites Jacob and Queenie are back, but they have less room to be enchanting here.  They’re crowded out by a distended cast that highlights the troubled you-thought-he-was dead-but-he’s-really-not Credence (Ezra Miller).  In smaller, less important roles there’s also half-blood witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror, along with pure-blood witch Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) who is engaged to Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), MACUSA employee, Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie ), French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a freak show attraction named Nagini (Claudia Kim).

It’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald but the only crime I could see was the utter debasement of a sensible plot.  It’s incoherently edited.  The drama has no structure.  The saga is overcrowded with people.  Their introduction to this story isn’t organic. Each individual forcibly inserted into the narrative.  One appears after another as a clumsy means to explain various alliances that only the most minutia-obsessive fan would even care about.  I’m sure some of this confusing exposition relates back to the original Harry Potter world but this casual observer couldn’t make the associations required to enjoy this mess.  Mind you, I’ve seen every single installment in this blessed oeuvre.  People pop up, get a complicated character explanation and then *poof* it’s on to the next identity.  There are simply far too many personalities.  Few get a chance to make an impression, so we have no reason to be invested in their assorted plights.

I couldn’t divine any focus to this tale.  I gather it’s about Grindelwald because he is namechecked in the title, but your guess is as good as mine.  Johnny Depp has an opportunity to stand out.  He doesn’t enliven the narrative, but he doesn’t ruin it either. It’s the screenplay that sinks this production.  We have J. K. Rowling herself to thank for that.  Her gift for writing novels does not translate to screenwriting.  These are clearly two very different talents.  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them suffered from a poor script as well.  As bad as this entry is, there are some high points.  The costumes, production design, makeup, and hairstyling are all beyond compare.  Seriously, I noticed how perfectly coiffed everyone was.  My mind had time to wander on several occasions. Unfortunately, those attributes are not the foundation for a meaningful film.  Sense and reason are, but alas, they have no power in this wizarding world.

11-15-18

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18

Sorry to Bother You

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 12, 2018 by Mark Hobin

sorry_to_bother_youSTARS4An unemployed man (Lakeith Stanfield) in his twenties is existing in an alternate reality version of modern-day Oakland, California. He’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and is 4 months behind in the rent His name is Cassius Green and the similarity of that moniker to “cash green” is intentionally ironic I’m sure. He simply wants a job. There’s an opportunity to be a telemarketer with a company called RegalView. He’s even gone so far as to bring a fake “Employee of the Month” plaque that he made himself to the job interview. The interviewer (Robert Longstreet) sees through the facade but hires him anyway because he appreciates the initiative it took to do such a thing. After he’s hired, the manager tells him to “Stick to the Script” or “S.T.T.S.” and amusingly pronounces it as if it’s an acronym. The movie’s title refers to his first line of rehearsed patter. Cassius’ happiness at attaining a job turns to despair however when he realizes how difficult it is to finish his marketing spiel before a potential client hangs up on him. Director Boots Riley has a creative spirit and this cleverness informs the entire film. These interactions are presented with his desk crashing through the floor into the homes of various people he’s calling. It was at this moment I was ready to accept whatever the filmmaker would be throwing down. And let me tell you, he assaults us with a bizarro world of absurdity.

The presentation of Cassius’ mundane workaday milieu will ring true for anyone who has ever held a job they really didn’t enjoy. I would suspect that is pretty much everyone and if that doesn’t describe you, then count your blessings. RegalView is a depressing work environment based in a dingy basement of cubicles surrounded by drab white walls. Things change however when he meets black co-worker Langston (Danny Glover). The aged associate advises him to use his “white voice” which is actually the dubbed delivery of actor David Cross. The incongruity of hearing that nasal tone coming out of the man’s body is perhaps a simple joy but it’s supremely funny nevertheless. Suddenly Cassius’ success rate with clients drastically improves.  One quibble.  Why Langston wasn’t successful at doing the exact same thing is never explained. However, we will soon discover that’s far from the most baffling enigma in this story.  Cassius gains the attention of his superiors who want to promote him up to the high-rise offices as a hallowed Power Caller.

Sorry to Bother You is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. His girlfriend is Detroit, an alternative artist played Tessa Thompson. Her comically oversized earrings displaying messages are a running gag throughout the picture. Unfortunately, her radical performance art, supposedly designed to “take down the system”, was completely lost on me.  How does getting pelted with water balloons filled with sheep’s blood make a point? She also condemns Cassius for affecting a false persona that she too is guilty of as well. I wanted her to acknowledge her own hypocrisy.  She doesn’t.  Back in the business realm, low-level supervisor Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) is an absolute hoot. Her surname looks like “debauchery”.  “It’s pronounced DE-bau-sher-AY” she corrects. To physically get him to those high rise offices she must enter a code into the elevator buttons that look like a touch tone phone pad. The joke is extended for such a long time that it actually goes from tiresome to genius. When he gets to his new employment digs he meets Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick) replete with an eye patch and bowler hat. He’s a black man with his own “white voice” (Patton Oswalt) that’s sort of a bridge between Cassius and the chief executive.  Cassius ultimately meets the shadowy business mogul Steve Lift played by Armie Hammer. Steve is the coke-snorting C.E.O. of a morally corrupt corporation named WorryFree.  His company is liable for questionable business practices although “questionable” doesn’t even begin to describe what they do.  I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.  As a symbol of the establishment, he is the very definition of “The Man”. This all happens at the very same time that Cassius’ peers, which include buddy Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and led by colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun), are inciting to strike due to poor working conditions.  Does he align with his oppressed workers or assimilate into the mainstream corporate world? The drama is successful at presenting this as a conundrum to be sure, but you don’t even know the half of it.  Things get decidedly weirder after that. The political focus spins wildly out of control along with the plot developments.

This is director Boots Riley’s first feature. I predict this will change, but heretofore he’s been best known as the frontman of a radical hip-hop group known as The Coup. Their politically charged songs center around race, class, capitalism, police brutality, the proletariat, and other issues. Those topics inform the group’s biting social commentary. That point of view gently infiltrates the film’s very funny outlook but it doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the insanity that follows. The screenplay satirizes social media, race, class, poverty, television, and rap music in brilliant ways that often have different interpretations. The production is so adventurous and so gloriously bizarre that it won me over. Sorry to Bother You is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen and yet If I had to draw analogies, I could say the work of Mike Judge is a close parallel.  I found elements of both Office Space and Idiocracy in its targets. There’s also the loopiness of Michel Gondry, who is indirectly name-dropped in an absolutely disturbing claymation video. There’s an off-kilter sensibility that influences the narrative that makes this instantly feel like a cult classic that should play at midnight screenings. Despite a chaotic fantasy that careens wildly from political satire into science fiction, this movie remains fun and witty in a lively way that boldly announces its presence. Its freewheeling bonkers mentality is simply too audacious to ignore.

07-06-18

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2STARS3.5Back in 2015, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s lesser offerings in their seemingly never-ending blitz of superhero movies. After Avengers: Age of Ultron of that year, it sorta felt like the cheese course following the main entree. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp functions in very much the same way. At the beginning of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War was a game-changing adventure in the ongoing epic of these champions of justice. Comparatively this agreeable little interlude feels like a dessert. I like dessert. Dessert is sweet and delicious. It’s just that this is like a yogurt parfait and I was craving a baked New York–style cheesecake.

Given the lighthearted atmosphere, the narrative is curiously overcrowded with a massive ensemble of characters. Scott Lang, better known as Ant-Man, has been under house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords by working with Captain America. His home is now a veritable playground so he can entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) when she visits. She’s dropped off by his ex-wife (Judy Greer ) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). The proper story begins when Scott has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, still trapped in the quantum realm. Apparently, the two of them are quantumly entangled after Scott visited the quantum dimension when he went subatomic in the last film. Get used to hearing the word “quantum” a lot in this movie. The screenplay even makes a joke about this. “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang asks.

Scott’s ability to return from the quantum realm is noteworthy. This compels him to contact Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hope shows up, wisely ditching that severe black bob for a much more-practical-for-fighting ponytail. Extracting Janet from the quantum field is the ostensible point of this picture. That’s it. Coming after Infinity War where half of humanity was in danger, the uncommonly low stakes are refreshingly simple here. They all join forces with the help of Ant-Man’s X-Con Security crew Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Luis secures the hilarious high point of the picture during an interrogation scene when he reveals Scott’s location after being injected with truth serum. It’s unquestionably amusing (again) but since we got this same exact joke in the last Ant-Man the charm is somewhat lessened this time around.  The elder Hank must reluctantly seek the help of former friend and partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Incidentally, despite the buoyant tone, Hank affects such a grim, humorless personality, that it feels as if the actual actor, Michael Douglas, is supremely unhappy to be in this movie.

Surprisingly, the narrative never becomes too convoluted despite the sheer number of actors involved in this plot.  Scott, Hope, and Hank are all confronted by a cadre of corrupt people who impede their progress. There’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), also known as Ava Starr.  She has the ability to move through solid matter but has difficulty stabilizing herself.  She requires Janet’s quantum energy at all costs — even if it means Ghost needs to kill her.  There’s a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on Hank’s lab.   Also added to the mix is FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) whose job it is to monitor Scott Lang should he try to break free from the house arrest of his home. He’s also after Hank and Hope as well. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is a college professor and former associate of Hank’s. He shows up too, although I’ll keep his nefarious associations a secret.

This is a stridently pleasant production. The drama along with the assorted villains unfold under a mishmash of silly antics. That means we are presented with less crucial stakes but lots of upbeat humor and a jovial mood. This is an innocuous film about simple pleasures.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching things enlarge and then quickly shrink down. Tiny cars zipping around the streets of San Francisco or watching Hank’s gigantic lab reduced to a rolling suitcase never gets old.  Ant-Man and the Wasp essentially takes what made the original good and fine tunes it to make it a little bit better.  Yes, this is an improvement over the 2015 entry, but it’s still the B side throwaway ditty to the A-side single. This isn’t a story so much as a framework on which to hang a disposable tale with affable gags.  I remember the frivolous jokes.  The plot machinations, not so much.  Honestly, I had to take to the internet to remind me of the details of this saga.  The specific components fade from memory but I remembered the comedy.  Hey, this is a very funny movie.

07-05-18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

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

The Death of Stalin

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

death_of_stalinSTARS4The Death of Stalin is a political satire about the power struggle that occurs after the infamous leader (or more appropriately – dictator) of the Soviet Union suffers a stroke and dies. The aftermath has a major effect, plunging the ruling government into a genuine free-for-all where control is seemingly up for grabs. The production had a most curious journey to the screen. Obviously, the characters are based on actual historical figures. However, the property began as a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The screenplay was then adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows.  The film details the events in October 1953 after the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that’s a terrific starting point for any great comedy.  In fact, the resulting power play that occurs is so ridiculous it could only be true. Be that as it may, the details of the ensuing crisis is infused with a bit of whimsical conjecture.

The depiction is a sensational ensemble piece of people who fight over Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) vacant seat. There’s Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), his advisor vs. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. These two are directly at odds. They try to manipulate a coterie of peripheral characters that include Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Deputy Premier, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), originally the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but subsequently placed on his enemies list, and lastly Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), the famed communist’s son. Well-informed history buffs will be in absolute heaven. For others, it can be a lot to grasp. I’ll admit there were times I was a little confused as to who is aligned with whom.

The Death of Stalin is such a literate comedy. So packed with intelligence and wit. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of one-liners and quotable dialogue. It can get somewhat impenetrable, but for those with the right mindset, it is a most rewarding experience. Director Armando Iannucci cleverly utilizes real occurrences and then embellishes for the purposes of parody. In the U.S. the director is probably best known for creating Veep, the HBO TV series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s full of political satire as well. Right from the start, the circumstances here are completely absurd. A live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 has just been broadcast over the radio waves. Stalin requests a recording of the concerto. The trouble is, none was made. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) frantically endeavors to restage the entire concert, including bringing in random people to recreate the commotion of the audience. It’s just as bizarre as it sounds.  Things only get more outlandish from there.

There is something inherently satisfying about taking the exemplars of pure evil and making them buffoons. The film makes a lot of concessions in the name of comedy. For example, no Russian is spoken. The actors don’t even attempt a fake accent. They speak English as they would in their everyday life, cockney diction included!  It’s a bold but welcome choice. Elsewhere the screenplay wisely references the egregious sins of Lavrentiy Beria without unnecessarily dwelling on their legitimate horror. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he commands at one point. The execution ordered with all the calm demeanor of selecting an entree off a dinner menu.  Despite the subject, it remains comical, even when dramatizing the physical demise of Stalin. The exhibition of his body falling to the ground produces a loud thud. Hearing the noise, the two bumbling guards outside his room debate whether they should investigate. Too afraid, they don’t. When they finally realize he is ill, it would make sense to find a doctor. Ironically all the good physicians have either been killed or sent to the gulags. No one wants to treat him for fear of reprisal by the state. I could go on and on and on with more hard to believe examples. The funeral scene is my favorite, but I’ve said enough. I’ve tempted you with the history, now see the way it’s been exploited for laughs. The script shrewdly mixes what literally happened with some creative augmentations for the sake of humor. The amazing thing is the root of these events actually transpired. How it all played out is another story, but that’s where the fun of this chronicle begins.

04-16-18