Archive for the Fantasy Category

Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo kubo_and_the_two_strings_ver13_zpstii1y4fz.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA new production from Laika Entertainment is something to celebrate. They’re the creators behind the Oscar-nominated features Coraline and ParaNorman, animated films I adored. Unlike rivals Pixar or Walt Disney, the studio specializes in stop-motion animation in which an actual object is physically manipulated one frame at a time to create a moving image. The advent of computer animation has currently replaced the once ubiquitous traditional hand-drawn approach. Their technique is a unique and specialized art. Characters have the look of moving puppets. When it’s done well, it’s transcendent. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a welcome addition to Laika’s growing oeveure.

The animated tale takes place in ancient Japan. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives with his single mother. She has taken ill. At night, when she becomes active, Kubo attends to and cares for her. By day, he journeys to the local village square where he plays his beloved shamisen, a Japanese three string guitar. His performances magically summon origami creatures to life as they act out the legend of his father, Hanzo, a great warrior who died while protecting him. Unfortunately shadowy figures from his past, Kubo’s witch-like aunts (both Rooney Mara), discover his whereabouts and he is separated from his mother (Charlize Theron). He is offered help from Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with the appearance of a beetle-like man. Together they must find the three components of his father’s armor to use as protection from his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns Kubo in the very first line of spoken dialogue. And indeed there is so much to appreciate visually. The spectacle positively dazzles the eye. Each acquisition in their quest is a marvel to witness. The extraction of The Sword Unbreakable from a humongous skeleton, The Armor Impenetrable, a breastplate, hidden below the sea in the Garden of Eyes, and the of the location of The Helmet Invulnerable revealed in a dream. That last revelation leads to the climatic showdown.

Kubo and the Two Strings has all the attributes of classic folklore – an account that has been passed down from one generation to the next. But don’t go looking for this fantasy in some sacred text. The original screenplay for was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, with a “Story By” credit for Shannon Tindle. Given the contemporary origins of the saga, I suppose I can forgive the Hollywood movie star voices in the place of actors that could have better conveyed the authenticity of feudal Japan. Despite the somewhat generic “hero’s journey” trappings of the adventure, the drama touches upon some weighty themes. You have to admire a cartoon that challenges younger viewers to consider the nature of humanity. Is death really the end of someone’s life when one is still held in the hearts of those that loved them?  Along the way, the chronicle never ceases to be anything less than captivating. The style is so crisp, colorful and vibrant, that it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the craft. This picture is simply a joy to behold.

08-23-16

Pete’s Dragon

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 17, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo petes_dragon_ver2_zpsi7ubdra4.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgPete’s Dragon is a difficult movie to review for me. On the one hand, it’s sweet and pleasant and the kind of wholesome entertainment that you can bring the whole family to see. What makes this a bit of an anomaly is that it’s live action and rated PG. All too often pictures classified as such, are solely cartoons. Pete’s Dragon is refreshing.  It satisfies a niche that often goes unfulfilled in today’s marketplace. The Jungle Book and The BFG were other films that came out this year that also fell into this category. I enjoyed them both equally. Which is to say, they’re fine, but they didn’t wow me. The big reason being that there just isn’t much story to captivate the mind. Interestingly enough, the same issue plagues Pete’s Dragon as well.

Pete’s Dragon is actually a remake of the heretofore forgotten 1977 Disney musical that starred an animated beast. I only mention the original because the filmmakers have chosen to bestow this movie with the same title. Despite the fact that the chronicle concerns the friendship between a child and a dragon, the two have very little in common. In contrast to the previous 70s musical incarnation, the current reimaging of the tale is a dark, almost moody piece about a sullen youngster who loses his parents in a car crash in the thick of the woods of the Pacific Northwest. That child is 10-year-old Pete and he’s played by Oakes Fegley. Pete is a curious personality. Nat King Cole once sang “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…” and he is indeed something of a nature boy, having to fend for himself amidst the forest environment. It is there he meets Elliot. This is the name he gives the dragon that lives there. They become close friends.

Pete’s Dragon develops into a sentimental bit of fluff. It certainly helps that young actor Oakes Fegley is extremely natural and the CGI creature is realistic as well. Elliot is not your typical dragon. Instead of scales he has fur. He can even disappear when he deems it necessary to hide from danger. He’s also exceptionally loving and protective. Their relationship is not unlike that of a boy and his dog. It’s this bond that forms the foundation of the drama. The two unquestionably have a warm rapport but it’s a wispy premise on which to build an entire production. Oh sure once other humans discover Elliot, they threaten his safety, but you knew that was going to happen 20 minutes into this fantasy. Everything unfolds in a predictable fashion. This “boy meets pet” fable was released to near universal acclaim. I expected a saga with a much higher level of creativity.  I liked Pete’s Dragon, but I didn’t love it. I really wanted to love it.

08/16/16

Ghostbusters

Posted in Action, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ghostbusters_ver5_zpsuplq07c1.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI don’t think I could’ve been more primed to like this film. (1) I adore the classic 1984 comedy and the concept of a distinctly fresh version of Ghostbusters sounded like fun. (2) I am a huge fan of the cast. Melissa McCarthy has the whip-smart comic timing that can shape even a stale bit into a gem. Kristen Wiig is a genius of oft kilter humor. Up-and-comers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are rising stars whose work on Saturday Night Live is among the most outstanding on that show right now. (3) Bridesmaids was one of the best features of 2011. It made my Top 10 for that year. Reunite the director Paul Feig with two of that picture’s personalities and watch their obvious chemistry unfold again. (4) The pre-release internet hate directed at this production was so unfounded I was tempted to give the movie a pass simply to prove the naysayers wrong.

The good news is that Ghostbusters is not the disaster that the internet predicted. Yet it’s far from the inspired reboot for which I was hoping. The set-up: Many years ago, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) collaborated on an unpopular book about paranormal phenomenon. When Gilbert realizes the book has been republished, she seeks out Yates to undo an embarrassing situation that might damage her tenure at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, Yates has continued to study the supernatural with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates coaxes Gilbert into joining her on another investigation in exchange for squashing the book’s publication. And so they’re off to fight ghosts.

Joining them are MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who sees a ghost in a subway line and contacts the Department. She joins the team a while later. Jones is normally a uniquely dynamic presence on SNL but here she is given nothing more to do than pedestrian shtick.  Unfortunately the sidekick part fails to highlight the sharp comedic gifts she displays every week.  Shouting your lines doesn’t make them funnier. There’s also Kevin Beckman, a feebleminded but handsome receptionist (Chris Hemsworth). I could easily fault the “himbo” act for being nothing more than a dumb blonde role reversal joke.  The thing is, he’s actually one of the funniest things in the film. Credit his affable charisma for taking a flimsy part and making it funny.

Of the four Ghostbusters, only Kate McKinnon truly elevates her loony scientist into something interesting and original. She interprets lines that would normally fall flat in the hands of a lesser actress. By delivering them with an off beat sensibility, she makes the character her own and not a pale imitation. A relative unknown, she has the most to gain from this exposure. I suspect this credit on her resume will be a nice stepping stone to greater things in her career. However established stars McCarthy and Wiig have been lobotomized. They seriously downplay their normally quirky appeal here. Perhaps that’s admirable. This is an ensemble piece and it allows others like McKinnon and Hemsworth to shine. However, in the process we lose what makes their comedic personas so invigorating.

Ghostbusters is a largely uninspired take on a well known property. The story scores points for changing up the plot at least. Like a remix of a classic song with a new singer and modern production, it entertains based on familiarity but not through excellence or innovation. Ok so Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are amusing, but the script hangs the rest of the cast out to dry. In lieu of a Sumerian deity from another dimension brought back from the dead, we get a nerdy petulant weirdo (Neil Casey).  He is a weak excuse for the main villain. Humor is subjective, but I rarely laughed and that’s a deal breaker when assessing a comedy. This cacophonous spectacle wants it both ways. Embrace a modern take, while constantly reminding you of nostalgia for the 1984 original. Star cameos abound with Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all in conspicuous bits that distract from, rather than add to the narrative. The idea of a summer blockbuster that headlines 4 women celebrated for their witty minds, and not their physical attributes, is exciting in theory. I so very wanted this movie to be spectacular. Instead it’s just barely acceptable.

07-14-16

The BFG

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on July 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo bfg_ver2_zps109o0kyc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgSophie is an unhappy girl who lives in an orphanage. One night she sees a giant walking about carrying what looks like a large trumpet. He spies her as well. In an effort to keep his existence a secret, he reaches in and snatches the young girl from her bed. Back to his place he takes her. While he may appear to be big and scary, his true nature is quickly revealed. For you see, the BFG stands for “Big Friendly Giant”. The two develop a fast friendship.

With Steven Spielberg directing and Melissa Mathison penning the script, expectations are high. The two have only worked together twice before: Twilight Zone: The Movie and more spectacularly, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The latter hit still remains the 4th highest grossing film of all time (when adjusting for inflation). So chances are you’re aware of its legendary status. The BFG pales in comparison.

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill are certainly up to the task. Their portrayals are wonderful. Rylance fresh from his supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, shows that his Academy Award was no fluke. He embodies the titular creature with a twinkle in his eye and palpable warmth . His mixed up vocabulary is kind of cute too. The giant is manifested through a liberal use of CGI mixed with Rylance’s motion capture performance. The visual effect doesn’t look real, but it does feel magical.

The problem is that The BFG is an awfully slight adventure. The fantasy is adapted from a 1982 novel by Roald Dahl. The book is barely 200 pages, so a 2 hour drama is really pushing things. For almost 90 minutes, The BFG is just a “hang out” movie. Little Sophie and the BFG merely get to know each other for the major part of the narrative. He reads her a book, she falls asleep. Then he gives her a dream. Instead of eating humans, he cooks up snozzcumbers which are these repugnant vegetables. The word suggests a portmanteau of snot and cucumbers. Oh he also drinks a carbonated beverage called frobscottle where the bubbles go down rather than up. That’s how the gas is emitted from the body as well. In place of burps we get what the BFG calls “whiz-poppers”. This information laying the groundwork for the most protracted setup to a fart joke I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty amusing I’ll sheepishly admit. It includes a couple of corgis.

Roald Dahl is the same author of classics like James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. An undercurrent of evil is usually a common theme in his stores. The potential for death is a most definite possibility. In The BFG we’re told hideous giants are responsible for the disappearance of children. They regularly raid the cities under the cover of night to eat “human beans”. The BFG would rather spend his time on other things. Sophie follows him on one of his runs to harvest dreams. He then gives the good ones to children with the aid of his trumpet. This talent is later utilized in a section involving Queen Elizabeth II. This is where story developments finally take place, but they form the last 30 minutes of the plot. For most of the chronicle we have essentially watched these two make small talk and chill. The lack of action plainly begs for a musical number or two at the very least. A bit of judicious editing would have helped tighten the tale’s languid rhythms. I can’t recommended this to everyone but I will to a select few. The BFG is a cult film – a production whose leisurely charms will undeniably delight a passionate, though very small, audience.

06-30-16

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 28, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo alice_through_the_looking_glass_ver8_zpsia3k2lst.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgHow to explain when a movie goes from being merely bad, to an out-and-out assault on the senses. That is the conundrum I’m faced with trying to make sense of Alice Through the Looking Glass. This is the followup to Tim Burton’s wildly successful hit that came out in the spring of 2010. Alice in Wonderland remarkably made $334 million in the U.S. alone. It was the 2nd biggest hit of that year (behind Toy Story 3), so you knew it was only a matter of time before they would make a sequel. Why it took more than half a decade is a question for Tim Burton. Highly successful screenwriter for Disney, Linda Wolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), is back, however Tim Burton is only a producer this time around. Apparently he really didn’t want to helm another one. The director’s job has been delegated to James Bobin (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted). On paper, that sounds promising. I mildly enjoyed the original and was at least prepared to delight in the artistry of a sequel.

Flamboyance is the recipe again but magnified to the tenth power. That’s hard to imagine. The first was hardly a model of restraint, but it still had some semblance of a story. Although Alice in Wonderland threw out the plot of the book, it kept the characters and amped up the crazy. What it lacked in dramatic coherence it made up for in visual spectacle. So what exactly is the plot in the current installment? That’s a very good question. I still don’t have a good answer. Lewis Carroll’s book dealt with Alice’s attempts to become a Queen. His novel exploited the game of chess as a metaphor for the lack of control she had over the direction of her own life. An overriding theme concerned the feeling of loneliness as one grows older.

Linda Woolverton’s screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass has nothing to do with any of that. Ok fine, but what does it concern? The action inexplicably starts out on a ship in the ocean with Alice as the captain trying to outrun a trio of pirates. It’s a loud, chaotic beginning that feels like the climax of a completely different film. Then on to some nonsense regarding her ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and an exchange of that ship for her home. What does it all mean? Doesn’t really matter because everything is thrown aside when she walks through a mirror and ends up in Wonderland. The Mad Matter’s family is missing and Alice agrees to help. From what I can glean, this is the true thrust of the narrative. First, she visits a character called Time. He’s some bizarre demigod played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the only performance that manages to gain a modicum of our interest. He relishes the part and his commitment is palpable. Next Alice steals the Chronosphere and promptly travels back in time to change the past right after being told that is forbidden. Here the developments resemble Muppet Babies as we get junior versions of the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter. More stuff happens involving their childhood. The Jabberwocky appears. Alice wakes up in a mental hospital, diagnosed with female hysteria.  That’s not how it ends.  She goes back to Wonderland.  Yup again.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a wackadoodle free-for-all with a CGI budget that’s roughly the GDP of an island nation. Every scene of this haphazardly plotted film bursts with more computer generated imagery than the human eye can even absorb. Each display vies for the viewer’s attention as effect is heaped upon effect. One exhibition competes with the next for space within the frame. There is little relief from the uninterrupted excess. The crowded extravaganza is so staggeringly overindulgent, it’s vulgar. I’ve played with kaleidoscopes that had a more coherent narrative. Meanwhile Johnny Depp minces with abandon as the Mad Hatter, lisping all the while in another fey performance so cloying it inspired me to brush my teeth afterward for fear I might get cavities. Helena Bonham Carter, so wonderful as the Red Queen in the last film, bickers with her sister to the point of annoyance. Her decades old hate for her sibling, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), revealed as having originated as a lie to the question “Who ate these tarts?”  There is little story. Just effects. Alice Through The Looking Glass is stridently obscene in its desire to distract and confuse. The production is focused on satiating the basest component of visual desire and nothing more. It’s offensive.

05-26-16

The Jungle Book

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on April 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jungle_book_ver6_zpsanfpdshe.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBy now, Disney’s live action remakes of their classics have become so familiar, they constitute their own genre. There are at least 15 currently in the development stage. We’ve already seen Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella. Say hello to their latest: The Jungle Book. When adjusted for inflation, the original remains their 5th highest grossing animated film of all time following Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and Fantasia. The 1967 film has the legacy of a beloved treasure. This new version is fun too, a vivid spectacle for modern viewers.

What The Jungle Book gets right is in the construction. It’s gorgeous. The production places the viewer right in the forests of India. The cinematic display of flora and fauna is rather breathtaking at times. The visual tableau is a optical wonder to experience. This accomplishment makes the ultimate realization that everything was actually filmed on a Los Angeles sound stage,  fairly shocking. In fact, save for young actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli, there is little if anything organic on screen. This is a high-tech CGI curiosity to be sure in 2016.  What truly makes the 1967 cartoon endure is that emotional component.  This prodcution is fastiduously composed but it’s missing that spark.

This is essentially a CGI copy of their hand drawn gem. Baloo (Bill Murray), Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) are all here. Like the animated film, the animals talk. They even sing. “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” both make an appearance. “Trust in Me” plays over the closing credits. There are adjustments, however. The animals have a decidedly more noble quality that sets them apart from the lighthearted buffoonery of the cartoon. Here King Louie is the much larger Gigantopithecus, a species now extinct, instead of an orangutan. Please! Those are not native to India, thank you very much. Kaa, formerly male, is now voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Sterling Holloway was a memorable Kaa, but I dare say Johansson makes the character her own. Her seductive voice is positively hypnotizing. When she tells Mowgli a story, I was captivated. I wanted to hear more.

The Jungle Book is hampered by a narrative that can be reduced to “boy outwits tiger”. Rudyard Kipling’s book was a collection of tales in fact, as opposed to a sustained novel. Both the animated and live-action versions adhere to a series of vignettes where Mowgli interacts with various characters. While the cartoon was quite whimsical, with a referential eye toward the pop culture of its era, this adaptation is more realistic. Well except that the animals speak, obviously. But the intensity level is heightened. Mowgli is placed in more peril as the ferocity of Shere Khan is intensified. Buoyancy is replaced by darkness. These tweaks serve to distinguish this from the original, but the largely cosmetic changes don’t really elevate the production. They merely “correct” it. As such, The Jungle Book is indeed a technological marvel of our time. It’s a stunningly realized environment for families to appreciate and enjoy. Most assuredly an impressive accomplishment for today’s audiences. But will it achieve immortality as a classic 50 years from now? I have my doubts.

04-14-16

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on March 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo batman_v_superman_dawn_of_justice_ver8_zpsgpnkvncd.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSuperhero movie are serious business. Just ask director Zack Snyder who apparently doesn’t have a humorous bone in his entire body given his latest opus.  The awkwardly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is dark. Like really really really really really really really DARK. This is entry #2 in the DC Extended Universe and it arrives three years after 2013’s Man of Steel, a deplorable waste of time and talent that I hated as much as anything I saw that year. The good news is that Batman v Superman is an improvement, The bad news is that it still isn’t very good.

DC Comics is clearly on a mission to create this grand epic. This is their bid to outdo the franchise empire created by Marvel Studios. And let me tell you, there’s a veritable onslaught of releases planned by the DC machine in the next few years. There’s two movies centered around the Justice League with the individual meta-humans Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Shazam! Cyborg and Green Lantern all getting their own pictures. We’re introduced to some of them via a computer screen in this movie. Bruce Wayne is seen opening their files on a drive from LexCorp by clicking on their icons. It’s the cinematic equivalent of observing someone watch a coming attractions trailer.

We also get a ton of supplementary characters that needlessly complicate matters. Ok so both Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are required. I’ll allow for them, but neither adds much to the proceedings. On the plus side, Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) does make an appearance all dressed up in a muted uniform that doesn’t stray too far from what we associate with that character. Her reveal got applause so that’s good. Girl Power! and all that. But elsewhere the news isn’t so rosy. Central antagonist Lex Luthor (Jr.) is portrayed by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Superman’s arch rival is an iconic villain, a brilliant manipulator, but here he comes across as just a bratty millennial. Lex Luthor is anti-Superman right from the beginning. The superhero has become this controversial figure in the media after all the death and destruction he caused during his battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel.

Luthor’s objective is kind of ambiguous at first.  Initially it appears he wants to make people dislike Superman even more but he develops into this puppeteer of people who aims to pit the two crime fighters against each other. He partners with U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). She is contacted by Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), an employee of Wayne enterprises injured in the previous installment’s Zod vs. Superman combat. Luthor has tapped wanted criminal Anatoli Knyazev (Callum Mulvey) as well to get him some kryptonite. There’s a lot of people involved.  However Luthor’s grand master scheme is ridiculously inefficient when you ultimately realize how it depends on so many arbitrary things potentially falling into place.  When his plan doesn’t work, Luthor has a back-up that involves creating yet another super-villain, sort of a cross between the Thing and the Incredible Hulk. It’s a CGI mess of technology that is about as thoughtful as witnessing two explosions have an argument.

Batman v Superman should have been an engaging character study, but it’s overstuffed – crowded with actors, jammed with plot, packed with mayhem. Look at the title. It promises a one-on-one showdown between two titans of the superhero world. Granted we do get that. If two physical specimens throwing each other around sounds exciting, then you will be pleased. But there’s so much excess fat in this almost three hour film. Too many extraneous plot threads muddle a crowded adventure. Was it really necessary to present the Batman origin story yet another time? I got it, Zack Snyder. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Sheesh! That scene has had more performances than Phantom of the Opera. Cameos from Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anderson Cooper are superfluous padding.

We’re talking about two guys that dress up in tights and run around fighting crime. The very idea is inherently silly, but you’d think we were detailing the most horrific chapters of World War II given this movie’s utterly bleak tone. There’s little room for “fun” when grim, depressing self-importance is the thrust of the DC agenda. The strident inability to “lighten up” must also afflict writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer who penned this ponderous screenplay. Batman v Superman isn’t horrible. It’s intermittently involving as it unfolds, but all these issues weigh it down upon reflection. One of those “I was mildly entertained while I sat in the theater, but days later I couldn’t care less” type films.

03-24-16

Deadpool

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Superhero on February 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo deadpool_ver8_zpsxm3xv2hl.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgDeadpool is really funny. As a story, it gets by on a lot of witty one-liners. Hey they charmed this guy — a reviewer that doesn’t care about the comic book origins of a Marvel superhero. The comedy is obscene at times, but that’s not the part that lands. Mostly it’s the meta material that breaks the 4th wall, when it knowingly pokes fun at the idea that everything we’re watching is just fiction. Take the opening credits for example. It’s like the title sequence version of Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailers”. The camera crawls through a frozen-in-mid-air car crash amid stopped bullets. Dismissive descriptions pop up as stand ins for names. The cast features “Hot Chick,” “Some Idiot,” “Moody Teen” and “British Villain.” I give it numerous points for making fun of itself, but I deduct a few for the fact that it actually succumbs to those stereotypes.

Deadpool was introduced as Wade Wilson in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That entry treated the personality like an afterthought. It even went so far as to sew his mouth shut at one point. That definitely isn’t the approach here, where the wisecracking individual seems like a totally different person. Deadpool makes offhand concessions to the same X-Men universe. A couple mutants even show up. They want to recruit Deadpool for a slot in the X-Men. Neither are the ones you were hoping for though. We get Colossus (an entirely CGI creation this time around) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Wait, what, who? Sorry no clue, but then why only two of them? Well that’s all the budget could afford — or so says the script. That line is priceless so I’m not complaining. The takeaway, you don’t need to have seen any of the X-Men films to enjoy Deadpool. It stands on its own and it’s all the better for it.

You cast Ryan Reynolds for two reasons. His sarcastic, comedic delivery and his pretty boy good looks. The first strength is put to great use. Ryan Reynolds’ winking, snotty attitude is a delight and he delivers the consistently amusing screenplay with wit and aplomb. I admit that Robert Downey Jr. has already done the smart alecky shtick to perfection in Iron Man, but Reynolds takes the concept in a slightly new direction. The approach is not cutting edge, but still interesting. However the second attribute is where the movie gives the ultimate middle finger to the viewer.

The action is violent verging on sadism. At the lab, Wade is mercilessly tortured for months by a criminal named Ajax (Ed Skrein). The purpose ostensibly to unleash his powers of regeneration and cure his cancer. However Ajax definitely takes a perverse pleasure in the whole procedure. The process works but the treatment leaves Deadpool horribly disfigured. A face so bloodied and pulverized he dons a red mask and bodysuit to hide his appearance. It’s really gross to be quite honest. “You look like an avocado had sex with an older avocado” opines Wade’s best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). The unnecessary endurance test serves nothing other than to cater to the cruelest sensibilities of a maladjusted adolescent. The off-putting scene is a regrettable detour from the production’s mostly intelligent satire.

Too often Deadpool seems to rely on its gratuitous gore, nudity and language as if it’s inventing something new. This is business as usual for the most part. Anyone who has ever seen Blade, Kick-Ass or Dredd will be familiar with hard R-rated shenanigans in this usually family friendly genre. Of course there’s the knowing, self-aware aesthetic. It’s the humor that sells the film. Although even that doesn’t feel innovative. Heck even affable blokes like Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell or Ferris Bueller have famously addressed the audience directly. Incidentally, stay tuned for a cute after credits segment that satirizes that. This isn’t truly subversive in a way that redefines the genre, but the picture maintains an environment that is consistently hilarious. Deadpool undermines the business of making superhero movies just enough to be interesting and worthwhile.

02-11-16

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction on December 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo star_wars_episode_vii__the_force_awakens_ver3_zpswqkf7wjy.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWe’ve waited 32 years for this. Star Wars: The Force Awakens concerns the continuing epic battle between the Galactic Empire, a fallen government now called the First Order, and the Resistance, which now supports the New Republic, the political system presently in power. If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a little refresher. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was part of the Rebel Alliance that opposed the Empire, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), also an agent of the rebellion, is now General Leia Organa. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the Jedi Master that supported them both. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

The great thing about this current tale is that the story features those three in key roles. The emergence of each inspiring gasps of recognition with the dramatic unveiling of each one. Such is the joy of this production. The Force Awakens arrives in an atmosphere of intense scrutiny and unrealistic hopes. Director J.J. Abrams pays homage to the original trilogy in a crowd pleasing wham bam pow of a film. The saga stands on its own, but for those who can remember what it was like to watch that original 1977 movie, in a drive-in no less, the experience is a childhood catharsis. The Force Awakens doesn’t tread new ground, nor does it introduce plot points that innovate. What it does do is meet expectations in a way that that honors the past, while still providing enough novelty to make the adventure worthwhile. The “it’s just a movie” aesthetic flies in the face of those hard core enthusiasts that demand more, but if you’re open to its obvious charms, you will adore this flick.

The contemporary story interweaves those characters from the past into a fresh tale. This one features Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, who discovers an important droid, BB-8, at a junkyard. There’s also Finn (John Boyega), a reformed stormtrooper, who wants to help the the Resistance crush the First Order. Lupita Nyong’o does motion capture work as Maz Kanata, a wise old sage, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is an X-wing fighter pilot. On the opposing side there’s a powerful Jedi named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is more aligned with the Dark Side. Comparisons of Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn, Poe, Maz and BB-8, to previous incarnations of Star Wars characters are purely intentional I’m sure. That doesn’t make them any less compelling. As long as they can provoke our interest that is…and they do.

The Force Awakens takes its time to get started, but once it does, its evocation of the past is a delight. The script presents a warm, sometimes sad, and often funny story that arouses our emotion due to its familiarity. The story is straightforward, almost simplistic in its desire not to muddle a narrative that is refreshingly uncomplicated. Even the visuals rely less on green screen technology and more on organic practical effects. Only a CGI heavy called the Supreme Leader feels fake. The screenplay is by respected veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as J. J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3). The unveiling of a recognizable broken down old spacecraft shouldn’t bring tears to an adult man, but I’m embarrassed to admit it does. Or consider John Williams’ iconic score that blasts over the opening crawl. Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2? Yup they’re all here. The recognition is what sells the picture. This is satisfying nostalgia pure and simple. Sure wrapping up a present in a bright shiny package with a big red bow isn’t innovative, but gosh darn it, it sure is appealing, and that’s exactly what I love about this film.

12-17-15

The Good Dinosaur

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on November 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo good_dinosaur_ver3_zpsykoytrdq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt would be easy to dismiss The Good Dinosaur‘s simple narrative as minor Pixar. The tale’s themes touch upon the importance of family and finding your place in this world. These lessons have certainly been done before. But delve deeper and what the studio has done here is no less magical than some of their very best. In many ways, the blend of ideas is one of their most subversive. To begin with, it relies on less dialogue than virtually all of their productions. They explored this abstraction in the first half of Wall-E then abandoned it in the second. A cursory look at production stills show a little boy and his dinosaur, a seemingly clichéd set-up that suggests that the dinosaur is a substitute for the boy’s proverbial dog. Leave it to Pixar to flip the script.

The saga begins with a vignette that might not even register if you’ve managed to avoid press materials for this picture. An asteroid flies overhead. Dinosaurs look up. Go back to eating. What the visual tableau is hypothesizing without words is, what if the theoretical asteroid that was supposed to hit earth rendering dinosaurs extinct, never did. How would they evolve, and even more intriguingly, how would they interact with humans? The answer is one of Pixar’s most radical concepts. Naturally the dinosaurs talk. Animals do that in animated films all the time.  But Pixar takes the conceit one step further. They’re now highly evolved creatures, developing a sophisticated ecosystem. They grow crops, store grain in a silo and raise what appears to be dino-chickens in a coop.

Pixar has designed a fully realized world that pushes graphic technology to the next level. The plot concerns an Apatosaurus family. There’s Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand) who witness the birth of their three children at the outset: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner) and runt of the litter, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Though the main character is cute and cartoonish, the environment created is not. To say this is the studio’s most visually impressive movie, is an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly or negated. Some of these awe-inspiring landscapes are photo realistic achievements that dazzle the eye. This isn’t a film, it’s an experience. You can get lost in the mood, particularly during the wordless spectacles. After a not so spectacular intro, something tragic happens (Pixar is known for this) and young Arlo is separated from his family. He meets a caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright). Spot is an unexpected individual full of facial expressions and body language. His dirty mangled hair, fair skin, slightly red from the sun and piercing green eyes embody a mesmerizing soul that captivates with tangible cues. In one episode he forages for food and offers some to Arlo. The moment manages to be funny, gross and tender in mere moments. The charm slowly sneaks up on you. I fell in love with this kid.

The Good Dinosaur is a deceptively slight narrative that belies a philosophical exploration of humanity. Is it about a spirit journey? Is it a coming-of-age movie? Is it a western? Pay attention, because there is a lot being covered. Much of the drama evolves like seeds that grow in the mind well after the film is over. It stays with you. Let’s start with the notion that fear is something you learn to live with, not conquer. That’s pretty “out of the box” thinking for a children’s story. Oh but there’s so much more. On the surface, you might not even realize what’s being promoted here because it’s never expressly stated. The evolutionary relationship between Arlo and Spot is a completely subversive idea that caught me quite by surprise. Pixar has drawn inspiration from classics of the past. The close alliance between two species has been explored before. There are many examples but perhaps never done better than in something like The Black Stallion. The Good Dinosaur ranks up there in tender sophistication. When Arlo and Spot “discuss” their families, the communication is a pantomime where sticks are used. Their interaction presents a harsh reality in such a refreshingly simple way, it’s profound. The scene is heartbreaking. I’ll admit I teared up. Ok Pixar, you win again.

11-24-15

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