Archive for the Fantasy Category

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on August 29, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Disappointment, thy name is Three Thousand Years of Longing. Director George Miller’s film had all the ingredients to be one of my favorites of the summer. The auteur is the orchestrator behind the beloved Mad Max franchise. Additionally, Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton are two of our era’s most unique actors. The juxtaposition of these two introspective personalities could only produce sparks, right? Somehow the chasm between idea and execution was vast.

Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) recounts a narrative of her life which she will render as a fantasy. She is a scholar of mythology. While in Istanbul to deliver a talk, she discovers a glass bottle in an antique shop. A fellow professor (Erdil Yasaroglu) suggests another item. Yet she is fascinated by the object, so he purchases it for her. While cleaning the bottle in her quarters, she unleashes a djinn (Idris Elba) from the lamp. The genie has the power to grant three wishes, but Alithea is skeptical. Despite his offer, she clings tightly to the mantra “Be careful what you wish for.”

The foundation sets the stage for the djinn to recount four separate yarns. The result should’ve been a thrilling journey. Unfortunately, the picture is a lethargic story about telling meandering stories. The spirit regales us with tales of his life that include queens, princes, and the like. Themes of love and desire untie them all. Yet his reflections fail to maintain interest. It doesn’t help that they’re all conveyed in a hotel room which gives the production an oddly claustrophobic feel. The CGI-enhanced depictions have their moments. Some elements hint at the excitement of Universal’s costumed adventure epics made in the 1940s, like Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However, the reflective interactions between Swinton and Elba dazzle far more than the special effects.

George Miller has fashioned a somber fable about discourse, or more specifically — two people talking in a restrictive space while wearing plush white terry cloth bathrobes provided by the establishment. Mad Max Fury Road is one of the most exciting action movies of the last decade. Some would say ever. It’s been seven years since Miller’s previous outing, so expectations were admittedly elevated. This passive meditation couldn’t be more different. Even the director himself dubbed his work “anti-Mad Max.” Respect for attempting a project made for personal reasons and not commercial success. The supernatural romance had a $60 million budget and made $2.9 million in its opening weekend. The only magic I experienced in this mystical tribute to storytelling was as a soporiferous drug that worked its spell on me as I struggled to stay awake.

08-25-22

Lightyear

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

06-16-22

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“I’m not a monster. I’m a mother.”

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

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

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

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

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

05-05-22

Petite Maman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Foreign with tags on April 21, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a wistful ode to childhood. Petite Maman — which means “little mother ” — tells the story of an 8-year-old girl who has just lost her beloved grandmother (Margo Abascal). Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) joins her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) in the painful endeavor of cleaning out her mother’s childhood home in the countryside. Mom is deeply disturbed by the process and leaves that night without saying goodbye. The next morning Nelly goes off to play in the forest and happens upon another girl her own age. The stranger’s name is Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and she’s building a fort made of branches in the woods.

The less said about the narrative the better. Many reviews have spoiled the central conceit of the film. That’s a shame because the mystery is one of the film’s greatest charms. What exactly this meditative reflection is trying to say is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Nothing is explained. The bonds of family, specifically between mothers and daughters, is certainly a theme. Director Sciamma has cited Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki as an influence. A French movie told from the naive perspective of a child also recalls René Clément’s 1952 masterpiece Forbidden Games.

The story is slight and it unfolds at a languid pace. Whether Sciamma’s vague meditation approaches the depth of its influences is open for discussion. Your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, the bewitching yarn does manage to captivate in a mere 72 minutes. That’s saying something these days when films double this length routinely do not. It is in the quiet moments of solitude that the atmosphere can resonate as intensely as pages of dialogue. Sometimes the most profound ideas aren’t overtly expressed but rather felt with the heart. The otherworldly fantasy mines the evocative mood of a fairy tale. A tender devotion to the characters shines through, elevating the fable with warmth and poignancy.

Petite Maman opens in select US theaters on April 22 and goes wider on April 29.

01-22-22

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

04-15-22

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Martial Arts with tags on April 7, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The owner of a laundromat undergoes a fiscal audit. With Tax Day arriving on Monday, April 18, Everything Everywhere All at Once couldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time. Although my simplification of the plot doesn’t even begin to convey the ensuing mashup of science fiction, fantasy, comedy, and martial arts in this genre-defying picture. Directed by the duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man) their second feature is like Alice in Wonderland on steroids.

Michelle Yeoh is Evelyn Wang, a middle-aged, Chinese American matriarch who runs the aforementioned laundromat in Simi Valley with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has been dating her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) for three years now. Her mother hasn’t accepted their relationship. Evelyn is also organizing a Chinese New Year party. Her equally critical father affectionally known as Gong Gong has just arrived from China to attend her little shindig. Meanwhile, her husband is planning to serve her with divorce papers. Needless to say, tensions are high. Evelyn has a lot on her plate. The tale is set in motion when Evelyn and Waymond meet with a tax auditor (an amusingly frumpy-looking Jaime Lee Curtis) working for the IRS.

During their chaotic meeting, Waymond starts acting weird. He privately informs Evelyn that alternate realities concurrently exist. There are many parallel worlds, each one based on whatever decision a person makes. At this point, I have to admit the prospect of yet another production that employs the concept of a multiverse did not excite me. It’s been so heavily exploited by Marvel as of late. Despite my reservations, it becomes a refreshingly goofy construct that — gosh darn it — I embraced. Evelyn is the key to ending a conflict that is raging across infinite dimensions. An evil being known as the Jobu Tupaki (also played by Stephanie Hsu) is seeking to kill and destroy everything. Evelyn is the only one who can stop her.

Everything Everywhere must be seen to be believed. Mere words cannot do it justice. Nevertheless, I will try. This jumping across from one universe to another requires that a person (first wearing a Bluetooth headset) perform some unconventional maneuvers. These actions include eating chapstick, purposefully giving yourself paper cuts, photocopying your rear end, or doing an unspeakable act with a trophy. Once one propels their consciousness into a different dimension, the individual will acquire the memories and special skills of that version of themselves. Does that make sense? It is a little confusing, but a film review shouldn’t ruin the surprises in a flick you haven’t seen. There are websites to explicate all the gobbledygook afterward. The production’s ability to creatively detail various worlds is an impressive spectacle that few movies attempt. Editor Paul Rogers manages to assemble the Daniels’ frenetic vision into a mostly coherent narrative. Everything Everywhere is a wildly inventive, uniquely intense — and at times — bewildering story.

Holding it all together is the emotional dynamic of this captivating family. Evelyn & Waymond & Joy & Gong Gong are a memorable clan portrayed by an appealing cast. Legendary action queen Michelle Yeoh is front and center as the multiverse hopping protagonist. In assorted iterations, she plays a master chef, an international movie star (not unlike herself), and a woman with hot dogs for fingers. She is a dismissive and demanding personality. Conversely, her husband Waymond is gentle and kind. I didn’t realize Short Round (Indiana Jones) / Data (The Goonies) would be playing the dad. Seeing Ke Huy Quan again was an absolute joy. James Hong (Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China) as the aging grandfather is also a delight. The 93-year-old actor hasn’t stopped working since the 1950s. Talk about prolific! Stephanie Hsu (TV’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) — a newcomer by comparison — finds the nuance in a character with contrasting personalities.

Everything Everywhere keeps the insanity dialed to 11 for the duration of the picture. The action is a pure sensory overload that is both exhilarating and exhausting. The cosmic bombast bludgeons the viewer into submission without a rest. That is, not until near the end when a quiet moment features a silent conversation between two rocks with googly eyes. But even that dialogue with subtitles is such a bizarre sight that it still feels like the zaniness hasn’t subsided. This treatise on existential despair builds to a rather nihilistic moral: Nothing matters. However, there is a caveat. If we show love and kindness to others, then perhaps anything is possible. The sentimental idea is a touching resolution that offers some hope. Is that a tear? I think maybe this family will make it together after all.

04-05-22

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spider-man has had a long and varied history on film. It all began rather inauspiciously in 1977 with a made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man series on CBS. That starred Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music). Since then, we’ve gotten productions with a considerably higher budget: the Sam Raimi directed pictures (2002–2007) starring Tobey Maguire and those helmed by Marc Webb (2012–2014) with Andrew Garfield. Sony’s Licensing agreement with Marvel Studios then allowed a group of movies featuring Tom Holland to officially become a part of the MCU. There was Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), then Far From Home (2019), and now the latest No Way Home. The recurring word “home” appearing in every title has always made differentiating these titles a little difficult for this reviewer. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed them. The latest is no exception.

The story is refreshingly succinct at heart. After Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man, Peter appeals for help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to conjure a spell to make people forget his true identity. Complications arise.

What makes the 8th Spider-Man entry different in yet another SONY-produced installment is the way it effectively embraces nostalgia. Peter Parker must contend with a panoply of villains in this episode. These include the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). This then is the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album if you will. Still using that analogy, I will offer there are a few bonus cuts as well. The additions will delight longtime fans of the franchise. It’s a superficial pleasure, but a genuine one.

The screenplay’s attempts at poignancy and significance will resonate more with people who come to this movie already invested. Learning from your mistakes and the link between power and responsibility are imparted as words of wisdom. Another lesson is giving people second chances, even at the expense of making some extremely bad choices. A key plot point is that Peter is conflicted by people who divide over whether he is a hero or a menace to society. J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons ) is a conspiracy theorist with his own news show on the internet. Jameson vociferously speaks out against the web-slinger. The public seems divided, although we the audience are invited to view Jameson as a crackpot.

Then Peter makes a choice. Director Jon Watts is working from a script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Up until this point, they had managed to keep me on board with the various machinations of the story. Even the leap required to accept that Doctor Strange would agree to cast that ridiculous spell. Peter’s error in judgment goes against the strict admonitions of Doctor Strange. It is a highly flawed decision that I could never get behind. Quite frankly, it’s indefensible. “You only have yourself to blame!” was my reaction to every bad thing that happens thereafter. This includes someone’s death.

No Way Home is still a sturdy, entertaining flick. You’ll get the requisite battles and they’re fine. More appreciated is the camaraderie between these beloved characters. Actors Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ Jones-Watson), and Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) have a rapport that is deeply affecting. They have a connection. You truly believe in their core friendship. However, I would argue that Holland has become so ultrabuff he looks out of place, especially in one scene where he appears shirtless. Their interactions are what carried me through the standard-issue action scenes. The screenplay seeks to inject sentimentality into the narrative with emotional developments. These efforts are more meaningful because of their chemistry. The relationship of this trio goes a long way into making us care.

To say this picture has resonated with audiences is an understatement. Spider-Man: No Way Home has accomplished what heretofore seemed impossible post-pandemic. At $260 million, it’s the 2nd biggest U.S. opening OF ALL TIME. Only Avengers: Endgame did more with the $357 million it earned in April 2019. Given that the theatrical landscape was a lot more welcoming in 2019, it makes the achievement even more incredible. This made more in just one weekend than the entire gross of any movie since 2019. The last was Rise of Skywalker with $515 million. No Way Home may just top that. Stay tuned.

12-21-21

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One of the biggest highlights at the cinema during my youth was the incongruous reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (1984). I’ll never forget how shocked and amused I was in the theater by that unholy amalgamation of the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Everyone was. It was a communal event. I’ll forgo further details to avoid spoiling the surprise. Although, one might argue that there’s no one’s experience still left to spoil. The movie is now nearly four decades old and the moment is iconic. However, perhaps to those young readers who haven’t seen it yet: Do yourself a favor and watch it now. This sequel does reference the goofy mascot “s’more” (that’s a pun on the marshmallow treat) as well as a plethora of other ideas from the 1984 classic. Sometimes nostalgia can be an albatross to creativity.

The story of a single mother who moves to a small town in Oklahoma with her two kids doesn’t sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The daughter’s familial connection to the supernatural events of the past is discovered when she inadvertently uncovers the legacy of her grandfather. This picture is directed by Jason Reitman and is a continuation of both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989). Those were directed by his father Ivan who is the producer here. You may recall there was a female-led reboot in 2016. If you don’t, that’s OK because this chapter doesn’t acknowledge that the picture even exists.

The ending of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is completely indebted to the inspiration of the past. More to the point, the lack of originality in the denouement isn’t endearing. Nevertheless, for the first three quarters, the narrative presents an engaging plot about kids that veers closer in spirit to something like The Goonies. The saga focuses on the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler who was Harold Ramis’ character. Her name is Phoebe and she is nicely realized with understated charisma by Mckenna Grace. Her mom and brother relocate to an abandoned farm that Egon left behind when he passed away. There, on his dilapidated estate, she discovers some of his ghostbusting tools. She brings a PKE Meter and an electronic trap to school — much to the delight of her classmate. The precocious boy is played by Logan Kim. “I call myself Podcast…because of my podcast.” He is undeniably funny, captivating, and also a real scene-stealer. Phoebe and Podcast form a compelling duo that I enjoyed immensely.

For the significant duration of the picture, the languid drama feels more like an indie picture. The fantasy isn’t as zany or sarcastic as its predecessor. It takes 45 minutes before we even see a ghost. However, there are laughs. The adventure adds additional members to the ghostbusting team. These include Phoebe’s brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his girlfriend Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), along with their mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and a teacher named Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). The movie charms but with the heart and character development of a leisurely-paced production and a smaller scale. This cost a comparatively low $75 million before promotion and advertising.

Sadly the filmmakers didn’t trust in the beauty of this new innovative direction they had forged. In the final quarter, it’s as if another malevolent director grabbed the steering wheel of this amiable tale, stepped on the gas, and forced it down a path that lazily remixes the climax of the 1984 blockbuster with garish and extravagant CGI effects. Unfortunately, everything from that point on is the exploitation of nostalgia in the most heavy-handed demonstration of the concept. I wasn’t a fan of the closing act. However, the chronicle before that was good. I’ll give it a pass because I was entertained. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a pleasant time-filler. Ah, but it could’ve been so much more.

11-18-21

Eternals

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on November 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Well, it’s about time. It’s been 13 years and now 26 films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has given us something unlike anything in the franchise thus far. Oh sure, they’ve dabbled in different genres before: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a 70s style political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is a space opera, Ant-Man (2015) is a comedic heist picture. There’s the coming-of-age teen movie envisioned in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the Afro-futurism of Black Panther (2018), and the martial arts of Shang-Chi (2021). Eternals deviates from the formula far more than anything before. Yet that’s what makes it so fascinating. The ambitious character-driven drama is a lot more intimate. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Director Chloe Zhao won the Oscar in 2021 for directing the very introspective Nomadland.

The saga is a sweeping epic that spans eons concerning the Eternals — a diverse group of 10 immortal aliens created by god-like beings known as the Celestials. Eternals also interact with humans by imparting their wisdom and offering protection but are forbidden to alter human history. The main adventure, set in the present, follows Sersi and company as they try to reunite the Eternals and defeat the Deviants, a race of enemy creatures who have suddenly reappeared after 500 years. However, the movie frequently flashes back to show the past of these cosmic beings, their impact on humanity, and why the group disbanded at one point.

That’s the basic outline. Delve deeper and we are confronted with a very mature and reflective piece. The tale manages to juggle ten superheroes, each with their own unique power. Watching the Eternals work together to take down the Deviants is thrilling. The distinctness of their superhero abilities is a little ill-defined. I mean they’re all super strong and can fight. Everyone seems indestructible too. On a couple of occasions I thought someone was finished, only to magically restore themselves. The Eternal that gets the most focus is Sersi (Gemma Chan). Her compelling personality has such compassion. She’s currently dating a history professor (Kit Harington) in the present day. Her skill is she can transform matter. Then there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), who — like Superman – can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. (Yes I know Superman is DC Comics) He and Sersi share a romantic past. The two have been a couple through the ages. Sersi and Ikaris experience a genuine moment of — ahem — intimacy. That’s another first for an MCU film.

The rest of the cast gets a little less attention but each is a charismatic individual. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can produce weapons. Ajak (Salma Hayek) has the power to heal, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires projectile blasts from his hands and Sprite (Lia McHugh) can generate illusions. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) round out the ten. I won’t detail them all since their specific talents are unimportant. The overall manifestation of the team working together is what compels the viewer. This is a family of sorts with an emotional backstory. These people are interesting and that’s crucial. It recalls the familial relationships in films like The Incredibles (2004) and The Avengers (2012). I was completely invested in the stories of every last one. That raises the stakes when they have the requisite battles. My engagement made these big, awe-inspiring displays even more exciting.

The chronicle wrestles with grand philosophical and theological questions. That’s always a risky venture. It mostly delights but there are disappointments. The account depicts the dropping of a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. An event so horrific should never be casually inserted in a superhero fantasy. Eternals regrettably exploits this real-world tragedy to add significance to its narrative. Additionally, it jumps back and forth in time a bit too much and left me a little confused as to where we were in the story. And lastly, at 157 minutes, it is far too long. A little editing would have presented a cleaner account. Yet those are minor quibbles when compared with the many positives.

I haven’t even mentioned the visual spectacle. This gorgeous-looking picture features cinematography from Ben Davis (Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel). While still CGI heavy during battle scenes, the production has this grounded reality in the world around it. True to its title, the tale travels to various locations throughout history. It covers thousands of years from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon to the Gupta Empire and the Aztecs. The beautiful background vistas add to the weight of what’s happening. Chloé Zhao employs a lot of practical location-based filmmaking to simulate these environments and it makes a difference.

The screenplay swings for the fences. I admire that. Chloé Zhao (co-written with Patrick Burleigh and cousins Ryan & Kaz Firpo) wants to engage your emotions. The adventure has a lofty scale. It may not score a home run, but I wholly appreciate her successful attempt to try something different. Much like the Eternals who have this world-weary pathos about them, I personally suffer from superhero fatigue. Eternals flips the script and gives us a contemplative, character-driven drama. No, it’s not a typical superhero film. That’s a good thing. I am here for this new innovative direction.

11-04-21

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on September 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The discussion of race and diversity within superhero movies has grown significantly over the last half-decade. Studios have expressed a desire to elevate representation within their stories. Whether this is a marketing move or an altruistic desire to be inclusive is a question you can discuss amongst yourselves. Nevertheless, Marvel Studios promoted Black Panther as their first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a black lead, and Captain Marvel was publicized as their first female warrior to get her own film. In March 2020, Marvel Comics announced its first-ever non-binary superhero called Snowflake who uses they/them pronouns. Any idea on how long that picture will take to be made?

A shift occurred in 2016 during Phase 3 of the MCU with Doctor Strange. Scottish actress Tilda Swinton was cast in the role of the Ancient One, a Tibetan. Never mind the fact that the release was a huge financial success. The social media backlash was vociferous and enduring. It continues to this day. At the time Marvel President Kevin Feige defended the decision but he would later apologize for the “whitewashing” controversy and express regret for not casting an Asian actor.

In that spirit, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Marvel release with an Asian lead. No production should have to carry the entire weight of Asian representation within the MCU but 25 films in, and that’s where we are. The best of intentions are nice but “Is the movie any good?” is the bottom line. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings delivers. It’s a solid mid-level addition to the MCU. The newest entry stands on its own and that counts for a lot.

I often forgot I was watching yet another installment of a franchise. OK, so a couple of characters do pop up that are callbacks to earlier entries. Wong (Benedict Wong ), who worked alongside Doctor Strange, is seen at a cage fighting tournament here. Ben Kingsley also reprises his Trevor Slattery character from Iron Man 3. This chapter is part of the same shared world, but thankfully the narrative doesn’t rely too much on the previous movies. In many ways, it feels like a completely separate entity. I appreciated that the drama could be enjoyed without having seen the other pictures.

Shang-Chi boasts a charismatic cast. Actor Simu Liu (Canadian TV sitcom Kim’s Convenience) makes for a likable hero as the titular character. Initially, he seems just like a normal, mild-mannered guy who parks cars as a valet. His skillful fighting abilities are a secret. They’re first revealed while traveling on a bus with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. The two share a warm friendship and their chemistry is a delight.

A group of henchmen launches an attack on public transportation. The passengers amusingly look on, stunned with their mouths agape. One villain stands out because he’s a hulking Romanian bruiser in a cast full of Asian actors. Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) brandishes a machete blade for a right hand.

The baddies turn out to be part of a nefarious organization known as the Ten Rings. Their leader is Xu Wenwu portrayed by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, Hero) making his Hollywood debut. Wenwu also happens to use a powerful set of ten discs worn like bracelets around his arms that he uses in combat. Wenwu is Shang-Chi’s father. He also has a daughter named Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Yup Shang-Chi has a sister and she’s just as much of a badass as he is.

This is a perfect time to mention the fight choreography is phenomenal. That scene on the bus is an outstanding highlight. Another takes place on the scaffolding of a high rise. Shang Chi draws on the tradition of Wuxia. The martial arts genre of Chinese fiction usually takes place in a historical setting but often involves fantasy elements. The action sequences also recall some of the stunt work of actor Jackie Chan.

These cultural details distinctly separate this superhero from previous episodes of the MCU. That’s good. The bad is that there is too much exposition that is dumped on the audience. The twisting alliances and people’s motives comprise details I won’t spoil here, but it’s a convoluted web of needless complications. The 3rd act ends up at a magical village called Ta Lo. The atmosphere suddenly morphs into a full-blown fantasy epic. The spectacle devolves into a total CGI fest with flying dragons and lots of special effects. It is nowhere near as captivating as the human drama that plays out in the first two acts. That’s the part I loved. Oh and the martial arts. The hand-to-hand combat is so cool.

09-03-21