Archive for the Fantasy Category

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

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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

A Wrinkle in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-08-18

Annihilation

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

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

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

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

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

02-26-18

Paddington 2

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

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

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

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

1-25-18