Archive for the Fantasy Category

Oxygen

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix has a thing for sci-fi thrillers about people confined to a small space with diminishing air. That description describes the plot of Oxygen which came out on May 12, but coincidentally also applies to Stowaway released last month. If you haven’t seen either and can only handle one similar premise, this is the one to watch.

The chronicle concerns Elizabeth Hansen, a young (thirtysomething) woman who wakes up in a cryogenic pod the size of a coffin. Elizabeth has no memory of who she is or how she got there. She has been entombed and must find a way to escape. Her very life is at stake. The inability to even sit upright is also reminiscent of Buried, the 2010 drama starring Ryan Reynolds.

What elevates the story is Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Now You See Me). She is the MVP. This is essentially a one-woman show in which she convincingly portrays confusion, exasperation, and panic to the astonishment of an audience that fully appreciates the agony of her situation. Occasionally flashbacks of her past provide a reprieve to the claustrophobia. Her predicament is an experience and that is where the production uncomfortably entertains.

If she has a co-star, it is the informative computer within the hi-tech chamber. MILO (Mathieu Amalric) is a disembodied voice that constantly relays helpful information on Elizabeth’s declining resources. Though Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) is never seen, his contribution is a key ingredient. His soothing tones are both comforting and sinister. There is a real HAL 9000 vibe to his matter-of-fact delivery in the face of dire circumstances. I did enjoy their exchanges.

Oxygen is director Alexandre Aja’s (Piranha 3D, Crawl) first French-language film since High Tension in 2003. Side note. The default setting for international programs on Netflix is the English dub. You will have to manually select French with subtitles to hear this in its original format. It’s nice to have options, but I prefer when the actor’s mouth and words are perfectly in sync. This is a surprisingly restrained effort from the horror maestro. There are moments where Elizabeth must pull bloodied tubes and long needles out of her body and then insert them back in. However, that is the zenith of the gore. I appreciated the focus on emotional rather than physical terror.

In the end, Oxygen is a fine movie. It manages to entertain with a compelling performance. However, there is no earthly reason why such a simple tale should require 1 hour and 41 minutes. The account would have been much more efficient and effective as a 60 minute (or less) episode on an anthology series for TV. The extreme length really taxes the viewer’s patience. It doesn’t support what is essentially an impressive acting exercise limited by a restrained location. The considerable skills of Melanie Laurent are the highlight.

05-14-21

Mortal Kombat

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Martial Arts with tags on April 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Well, it may have taken 29 years, but Mortal Kombat finally got a movie adaptation as violent as the video game. If that sentence makes you giddy with excitement, then this will put you in nirvana. I enjoyed the comparatively wholesome PG-13-rated 1995 release from director Paul W.S. Anderson on the level that it was silly fun. Its wildly popular techno soundtrack (KMFDM, Utah Saints, Gravity Kills) was a bonus. It entered the Top 10 Billboard albums and greatly influenced the musical landscape during the latter half of the 1990s.

A little background history: Mortal Kombat was developed in 1992 by Midway Games for arcades originally. When it was ported to home consoles, many parents were shocked to discover that action had “advanced” far beyond the gameplay in Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. They now accentuated graphic (albeit pixelated) violence. Its display of gruesome killings called “fatalities” was controversial. So much that it helped spawn the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) that created the rating system still used today.

It’s unnecessary, but there is a detailed backstory. The screenplay by Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel sets up a situation with an international cast of characters. The saga begins as a period costume drama in 17th century Japan. There are two rival factions: the Shirai Ryu ninja clan vs. the Lin Kuei. Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is attacked by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), who murders Hanzo’s wife and son. Afterward, Hanzo is then whisked away to the Netherrealm by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the God of Thunder. We then flash forward to the present day. Earthrealm and Outworld are two dimensions engaged in an ongoing feud.

Planet Earth isn’t doing so great. The Outworld has already defeated Earthrealm’s warriors in nine of ten “Mortal Kombat” tournaments. A distinctive dragon mark identifies the chosen gladiators on Earth. Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is just such a person, an MMA fighter with a family. The evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) wants to decimate all of his Earthly opponents before the last tournament can even occur. He dispatches Bi-Han, who unceremoniously changes his name to Sub-Zero for reasons that were unclear to me. I guess it sounds cooler. Sub-Zero is intent on destroying Cole. Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), and her captive — a wisecracking mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson) — come to Cole’s aid. They later add Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to their fold.

I admire films with dramatic tension and twists of unexpected events. This is not a tale dependent on a story per se. It’s an excuse to highlight a series of hand-to-hand combat scenes each one featuring a grotesque assassination. It spotlights gore, gore, and more gore. One guy’s arms are completely ripped off. The pugilistic demonstrations are plentiful but not particularly well photographed. I would have preferred more long shots. Martial arts movies and musicals have that in common. Instead, we get lots of quick edits and closeups that often obscure whether these people have the ability to actually fight.

“Finish him!” was the famous command from the announcer that prompted the user to execute a grisly slaying of their opponent. This production honors that tradition. My #1 death is when Kung Lao throws his hat and it cuts a human body literally in half from top to bottom. Its razor-rim is THAT sharp. It’s my “favorite” because it made me laugh. Also, the nod to Oddjob’s derby in the James Bond flick Goldfinger did not go unnoticed by me. Truth to tell. I don’t relish seeing someone brutally disposed of. However, one needs that mentality in order to savor this movie. No surprise that fans have warmly embraced this picture with enthusiasm and glee.

04-23-21

Wonder Woman 1984

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on December 24, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

** Mild spoilers ahead ** but honestly, I think the info contained within this review will actually help you understand this most confusing movie.

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Gal Godot is an absolute delight as Wonder Woman. This is simply a fact on which I will not entertain debate. The actress has a presence. She is goodness personified that recalls both Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman as well as the grace of Audrey Hepburn. She radiates decency. That’s a pleasure separate from how one feels about this finished product. Wonder Woman 1984 is the much-delayed sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman. This is arguably the most anticipated release of the year. Director Patty Jenkins is back with a script she wrote with Geoff Johns and David Callaham. Our adventure begins on a breathtaking high at the Amazon Games ceremony and ends with a ridiculous low involving a TV broadcast. From a very auspicious beginning, the story somehow loses its direction. It’s a mixed bag to be sure. There is so much to praise in the first half that I must recommend the film, but with reservations. In short, I was entertained.

The picture opens with an American Ninja Warrior-style competition where Diana Prince competes in a multi-stage athletic championship on the island nation of Themyscira. Here she is a little girl (Lilly Aspell) competing against adversaries twice her size and age. The event is an exhilarating spectacle and a astonishing display to seize attention right from the start. I was enthralled. It has virtually nothing to do with the subsequent narrative that takes place years later. It merely provides a setting for Diana’s aunt (Robin Wright) to teach the young champion the importance of truth.

The proper tale concerns Diana Prince who is now living a modest existence. She’s working as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. studying antiquities by day and occasionally performing heroic acts in her free time. The media is baffled by the identity of this mystery woman who fights crime. At night she eats dinner alone. She continues to carry the torch for Air Force pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). You may recall Steve died in the previous installment, but when did that ever stop a screenwriter from bringing back a beloved character? If you’ve seen the trailer you know he’s back (sort of). 1940s Steve Trevor is fascinated by Pop-Tarts, fanny packs, escalators, subways, breakdancing, and parachute pants. He’s got all the naïveté that I loved about Diana Prince in the first film. As happy as I am to see him return, his reintroduction is poorly explained, much like most of what happens in this drama. I won’t spoil with details but the filmmakers introduce a lot of confusing plot developments. The further we delve into the saga the more we realize it makes absolutely no sense. If a script is a mathematical equation, the authors have completely removed the logic.

Things become dicey with the introduction of a magical citrine jewel that has the power to grant your desires. It’s like the Monkey’s Paw: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” as the old adage goes. This means your request is bequeathed but with qualifications. Once again the writers are asleep at the wheel. This concept is not clear when it’s introduced. There’s a segment fully halfway through that explains the mechanism by which this artifact works. The communication occurs far too late after the audience is already thoroughly confused by the powers of the antagonist. This conversation should’ve happened at least an hour prior. Despite the audience’s lack of understanding, businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) clearly already knows this information as he romances Diana’s co-worker (Kristen Wiig ) at the museum to acquire it. Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord are the prime antagonists. They affect the story in both positive and negative ways. Ultimately I thought Kristen Wiig enjoyably captured the nerdy demeanor appropriate of her character. Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal’s generic portrayal didn’t embody the larger than life magnetism required of a central villain.

Wonder Woman 1984 is the promise of a dream unfulfilled. The feature starts at such a wondrous zenith then comes crashing down to a heartbreaking low. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which this release went off the rails. The ultimate nadir is a toss-up, but the final 30 minutes ranks with some of the worst displays ever witnessed in a superhero film. There’s a worldwide TV newscast by Maxwell Lord then Barbara Minerva’s full-fledged emergence as Cheetah. She debuts like rejected CGI from the cinematic adaptation of the musical Cats. Her appearance is an affront to the senses. Note to the producers of every superhero movie ever made: one villain is enough! (Yes, that includes Batman Returns). Two only add to a cluttered ensemble. Then the President of the United States (Stuart Milligan) shows up. The year is 1984 so that should be Ronald Reagan right? The actor suggests him in appearance but it’s never explicitly acknowledged. Furthermore, Wonder Woman 1984 has a surprising dearth of action set pieces in a genre that is usually dependent on them. The introductory sequence is the best thing and a car chase in Cairo is pretty exciting too. I’ll admit dialogue can be captivating too. The interactions between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor are worthy of note. Those two save this production as their integrity shepherds us through so many bewildering events. I get it. These movies of the DC Extended Universe are supposed to be fantasy. However, even fanciful flicks such as this should offer an account somewhat grounded in reality. Wonder Woman 1984 is a mystifying mess.

12-22-20

Wolfwalkers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on December 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In mid 17th century Ireland, the town of Kilkenny is at war with wolves. The citizens are currently clearing space in the woods for farming under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), but the beasts are getting in the way. They attack the townsfolk’s sheep as well. Legend has it these aren’t mere animals. They are led by a much stronger breed called wolfwalkers — individuals who are part human, part wolf — that control these canines. A hunter named Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been hired to help aid in the canines’ extinction. He also has a young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to help out.

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has a perfect record. They are now four for four in an extraordinary run of fantastic films beginning in 2009 with The Secret of Kells and continuing with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Sure Disney and Pixar are far more prolific but with quantity comes mediocrity. Those studios achieve undeniable highs but the magical spirit of Cartoon Saloon is light years beyond releases like Chicken Little or Cars 3. This sumptuous, hand-drawn saga is an exquisite labor of love that touches the heart as it dazzles the eye. Every one of their movies has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. I do not doubt that this one will likewise get a nod. Perhaps 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is that good.

This is a touching fable of friendship. Robyn encounters a wild bushy red-haired child. The little girl is named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a human by day but can shape-shift into a wolf at night. As an apprentice hunter, Robyn has been instructed by her father to kill the last wolf pack. However, Mebh is a thoughtful soul who shares Robyn’s desire for freedom. Additionally, Mehb wants to be reunited with her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). There is a palpable connection — a sisterhood between the girls — that is most affecting. Robyn is conflicted.

If Wolfwalkers has a weakness it’s in the simplicity of the story. The developments have our protagonist encountering hostility for befriending a strange individual. Robyn and Mebh’s relationship is purely platonic, but it’s not embraced by her peers. That idea can be traced at least as far back as Romeo and Juliet. There are similarities to FernGully, Disney’s Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and — wait for it — Dances with Wolves. There’s an overbearing tyrant who casts dispersions on the “others” as savages too. Yet I won’t hold familiarity against it. At this point, it would be like faulting a romantic comedy because it’s a “boy meets girl” tale.

Wolfwalkers is a beautiful achievement. I cannot emphasize how gorgeous these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle. Yes, traditional animation still exists. Anime from Japan and Warner Brothers’ direct to video superhero movies are notable exceptions. However with Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks’ domination of the market, CGI has been the norm.

Cartoon Saloon has been releasing works of art since 2009. Director Tomm Moore’s first two features were The Secret of Kells (2009), co-directed with Nora Twomey, and Song of the Sea (2014). He also did the segment “On Love” in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now he has returned with Wolfwalkers, a collaborative effort with art director Ross Stewart who makes his directorial debut here. What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

12-02-20

Palm Springs

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance with tags on July 27, 2020 by Mark Hobin

palm_springsSTARS4So I’ll just cut to the chase and start off by saying that Palm Springs made assembling my Top 10 list for 2020 a little easier.  I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly enjoyable this tale would be.  Romantic comedies are often given short shrift when it comes to discussing great cinema but when they are done well the genre can hit emotional highs in a way that few stories can.

The amorous entanglement concerns two strangers who are both guests at a wedding in Palm Springs.  They meet and then promptly get stuck repeating the same span of time over and over.  It’s obviously similar to Groundhog Day.  I cherish that classic and I dare say Palm Springs is a close 2nd in all films featuring a time loop.  That may seem like a narrow bar but there’s a surprising number of choices that qualify: Source Code, About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Naked and Happy Death Day are but only a few.  This is a story about how Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) become an unlikely couple in the midst of bizarre circumstances.

Palm Springs has a breezy screenplay that doesn’t take itself very seriously.  Yet it’s smart and coherent when it needs to be.  Nyles and Sarah aren’t about love at first sight.  He’s actually there with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) who one of the bridesmaids.  Oh, it’s OK he flirts with Sarah.  Misty has been cheating on Nyles and he knows it.  Sarah isn’t some demure heroine.  In fact, she’s kind of edgy and bitter. Meanwhile, Nyles isn’t a suave leading man. He can be a goofball but he’s still charming nonetheless.  Neither Sarah nor Nyles wants to be a guest at this wedding.  So they have that in common and are united by this feeling.  That’s enough.  Then the temporal loop shenanigans begin.

None of this preposterous — albeit inspired — nonsense would work if the two stars weren’t so charismatic.  The saga stars Andy Samberg who got his start on the long-running late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2005.  He’s part of a contingent with a persona like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon in the ensemble.  Pete Davidson currently holds that casting slot.  This may sound like I’m negating actor Samberg’s individuality.  I’m not.  In fact, he is probably the most appealing member that has ever held that niche.

Nyles has met the woman who will change his life in Sarah.  Cristin Milioti is probably best known for her role in the final season of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  She’s featured in one of my favorite scenes in this production.  Sarah is hardcore studying quantum physics to figure out how to end this infinite time loop in which she’s stuck.  The inspired montage is set to “The Brazilian” by Genesis.  Another endearing musical vignette involves the couple’s impromptu dance in a bar while “Megatron Man” by Patrick Cowley blasts in the background.  These displays aren’t rare occurrences but representative of the many delightful moments contained within.  It’s been a while since a romantic comedy captivated me this much.  It’s funny, sweet, and a little acerbic.  I loved it.

07-11-20

The Old Guard

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Thriller with tags on July 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

old_guardSTARS3The Old Guard isn’t winning any Oscars but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable.  I am a movie critic, not a film “snob”.  Of course, that word means different things to different people.  For some, a snob will actually scorn blatant Oscar bait so I probably shouldn’t get too bogged down in labels.  I only contest that I have a love for many types of flicks even when I critique a release for its obvious flaws.  Critics rightfully want to champion works that promote character development but movies that simply indulge on a purely visceral level are often negated.

There was an era (the 1980s) that genre films of this type routinely succeeded and the perspective changed.  An action-packed screenplay could also support interesting characters that kept us on the edge of our seats. First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984), Die Hard (1988) and Point Break (1991) are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.  The passage of time has only cemented these thrilling classics in the pantheon.  It’s easy to defend these endeavors as cinematic touchstones now but it wasn’t in the age they came out.  The Old Guard seeks to delight that same audience.  This production doesn’t come anywhere close to achieving the heights of those aforementioned titles but there is a glimmer here of what made them great.

The chronicle concerns an impressive team of soldiers for hire that goes on a revenge mission.  The difference is that these mercenaries are immortal.  Charlize Theron plays Andy also known as Andromache of Scythia.  She’s a centuries-old leader of a band of warriors and she’s perfectly cast.  Theron exhibited a desire for such projects when she did Æon Flux 15 years ago but it’s really only been in the last 5 years that she has presented herself as a serious action star.  Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, The Fate of the Furious, and now this.  Theron’s unflinching portrayal is one of the high points.

I crave a story.  These roles are difficult because they’re largely defined by fight choreography and not the depth of nuance in the acting department.  In fact, the ability to show little to no emotion is usually desired.  That’s exactly what Andy is — a killing machine with a consistently grave demeanor.  She barely comes across as human. Showing more character development is a woman named Nile Freeman played by KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) who was a former US Marine who discovers she is an immortal as well.  Her journey as a new addition to the team is emotionally compelling.  The appealing cast also includes actors Matthias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Their presence, as well as others, ensures the audience is treated to a captivating ensemble of personalities.

The Old Guard is actually adapted from a graphic novel so if you suffer from what I call “comic-book movie fatigue” this may not be your cup of tea.   It can be a bit formulaic but the fight sequences are indeed dynamic.  Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has only helmed three films since her directorial debut Love & Basketball in 2000.  The Secret Life of Bees (2008), and Beyond the Lights (2014) followed.  Each work is satisfying.  The Old Guard is a big hit on Netflix so perhaps this will be the moment that finally catapults a career that spans two decades.  It has a fantastical superhero element to it.  Given the silliness of the premise, I would’ve appreciated a little more humor though.  Why so serious?  Nevertheless, if you’re looking to be entertained for 125 minutes, this should fit the bill.

07-13-20

Artemis Fowl

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

artemis_fowlSTARS1I couldn’t decipher it.  For the uninitiated (that would include me) Artemis Fowl is an impenetrable hodgepodge.  This is an adventure so confusing that it practically dares you to understand it.  I have a college degree mind you and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the random assemblage of stuff thrown up on the screen.  Lovers of the 8 young adult fantasy novels written by Irish author Eoin Colfer have sadly waited nearly two decades.  This adaptation has languished in development hell after the first book was published in 2001.  Artemis Fowl is a fanciful tale that aimlessly fluctuates between both human and fairy type characters.  The latter encompasses elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, pixies, sprites, gremlins, and demons.  I didn’t realize what I was getting into.  Unfortunately, the narrative never makes any concessions to try and draw the viewer into this complex world.  However, I will do better by trying to make sense of what I saw, dear reader.

Let me see if I can piece together some semblance of a story.  Let’s begin with the complete snooze that is the central protagonist.  Artemis is a name most famously attributed to the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology.  Here however it refers to a highly intelligent 12-year-old boy, a child prodigy and we’re told a so-called criminal mastermind.  Criminal?!  He’s more of a dispassionate philanthropist.  As embodied by teen actor Ferdia Shaw, he is a cold, unemotional individual that elicits zero enthusiasm.  Shaw lacks the charisma to be the focus of a production.  The screenwriters seem to indirectly acknowledge this because he’s frequently relegated to the background while a couple of side characters become the center of attention.  Elf Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) and Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) — a large dwarf that resembles Hagrid from Harry Potter — are comparatively more interesting.  Probably not a good foundation to kick off a cinematic franchise.  Judi Dench also shows up as an elven military commander who at one point tells someone to “Get the four-leaf clover out of here!”   That’s an amusing line.  Unfortunately nothing else she says afterward ever is.

The Fowl clan is kind of a family along the lines of the Corleones in The Godfather.  They are a close-knit group of people.  So when Dad (Colin Farrell) goes missing, Artemis — with the help of his bodyguard Domovoi Butler (Nonso Anozie) — must recover an acorn-shaped artifact called the Aculos.  That’s about all I can tell you.  The narrative doesn’t offer a plot but rather a vomit of action sequences and special effects.  It haphazardly jumps from one event to another with little explanation as to why anyone is doing what they are doing.  I sat there dumbfounded for 95 minutes bewildered by the utter cacophony of noise and spectacle that unfolded before my eyes.  It’s as baffling as anything ever committed to celluloid and that includes the opening monologue to David Lynch’s Dune.

I hated this movie.  Artemis Fowl is among the worst films of 2020.  Given our current reality, that’s really saying something.  There are explicit reasons why this property was greenlighted.  It’s called “MONEY”.  The search for the next literary work that can mimic Harry Potter’s success continues.  It superficially involves fairies, dwarves, trolls, and other  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.   Oops sorry!  That was yet another unsuccessful attempt to duplicate Harry Potter’s magic.  Given the chilly response, Artemis Fowl hasn’t placated even the most devoted supporters.  This release is an insult to every human being that enjoys cinema so if you aren’t deeply familiar with the text, this will be an even more frustrating experience.  How did Disney (a studio that usually knows what people want) allow this mess to get a release?  A lot of the blame should be placed on the screenplay by Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl but director Kenneth Branagh is culpable too.   His ability to helm a coherent feature is seriously in question.   The Irish director has given us many other examples over the course of three decades: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), As You Like It (2006), Sleuth (2007), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) weren’t good movies either but he’s surprisingly topped himself in 2020.  It pains me to say it, but this is unquestionably Branagh’s worst film.

06-12-20

The Vast of Night

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vast_of_night_ver2STARS3The camera slowly enters a black and white TV set.  We overhear a familiar-sounding narration and are presented with opening titles that recall Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  The narrative gradually morphs into color.  It mostly stays this way, but every so often it turns black and white again as an affectionate reminder of the homage.  Director Andrew Patterson retro ode recreates a 1950s mood that concerns a mysterious sound that bewilders two teens.  There’s switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and the comparatively more worldly DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) at local station WOTW.  The Vast of Night is set in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico and it’s certainly an impeccably fashioned period piece.  The portrait has been lovingly put together.  Although I’m surprised no one associated with this production realized that call letters for radio stations west of the Mississippi begin with a ‘K’.

The Vast of Night has a beguiling approach.  All of the events take place after dark.  The initial dialogue is delivered at a breakneck pace and it can be hard to follow at first.  During the first 30 minutes, the meandering introduction felt especially unfocused.  Stick with it though because this is superfluous exposition.  The proper story doesn’t even begin until half an hour later when Fay hears a bizarre audio frequency coming through the electronic circuits.  She forwards the intonations to Everett who plays it on the air.  The strange humming noise is identified by a disabled veteran named Billy (Bruce Davis).  The phone caller conveys his experiences in an extended auditory sequence.  Later on, the duo travels to meet an elderly woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer).  She too recounts her experiences with the same sonic vibrations in another static shot.  Her verbose monologue is a long-winded sequence that may test the patience of most viewers.

The Vast of Night is a gloomy drama built solely around an enigmatic reverberation.  Evidence suggests a conspiracy theory involving a military experiment.  Most of what makes this saga compelling is its commitment to a B movie atmosphere.  However — save for a few showy unbroken tracking shots — the assemblage is not particularly cinematic. The film is regrettably centered entirely around the recollections of two loquacious individuals: Billy and then Mabel. Their lengthy monologues would be perfect vignettes for a popular radio program. That is before TV became the dominant entertainment medium in the 1950s. The interludes are not the most visually captivating. Some have labeled this release science-fiction but honestly, this extremely low budget tale is more mystery than anything else. It isn’t until the final 10 minutes that the feature ultimately succumbs to a spectacle that deems it as sci-fi. It’s unquestionably a powerful ending to a protracted buildup but its effectiveness also serves to underscore another insight. It’s at that moment we the audience suspect the film’s lo-fi aesthetic was more due to a lack of finances than art.

05-29-20

Gretel & Hansel

Posted in Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on February 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gretel_and_hansel_ver3STARS3.5Cinephiles know that January is a dumping ground for terrible movies.  I’m not talking about pictures like 1917 which go wide in the first month.  Award-worthy films like that have limited openings in December in New York and LA to qualify for the Oscars.  No, I mean productions that drop in January for the first time.  Horror flicks are especially suspect in the winter months because the best ones are usually distributed in summer and fall.  The Grudge and The Turning both opened to extremely negative reviews and “F” Cinemascores.  Gretel & Hansel is also a horror movie released this month.  Plot twist: It’s actually good.

Gretel & Hansel is indeed based on the 200-year-old German folklore tale.  Those fables collected by the Brothers Grimm have always been a little twisted so the fact that this has been reimagined as a dark adventure isn’t such a stretch.  Director Osgood Perkins or rather Oz (son of Anthony) essentially recounts the same legend but with a few tweaks.  As the reversal of the title implies, the girl is the focus in this drama.  Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is now a teenager looking after her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey).  Their father has already passed on.  After their awful mother kicks them out of the house, the two venture into the woods in search of food.  They come across a dwelling in a clearing where they meet a mysterious woman named Holda (Alice Krige).  In exchange for food and shelter, they’ll cook and clean for her.  Sounds like a fair trade…or is it?

The cast is uniformly excellent — particularly actress Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) who narrowly gets my vote for the MVP as the wonderfully creepy Holda.  She delivers her lines with a Shakespearean energy that imbues the words with more importance than they actually deserve.  Sophia Lillis is exceptional as Gretel too.  Her interaction with the aged woman — OK let’s be honest, witch — is an interesting relationship that propels the story forward.   Gretel may exhibit an anachronistic personality but that demeanor makes her more relatable to a modern audience in fact.   The behavior applies to her brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey) as well.  Gretel has visions that verge on nightmares.  The witch senses Gretel’s abilities.  She teaches Gretel how to tap into her powers.   Also worth mentioning is Jessica De Gouw as a young Holda who is a malevolent presence.

Gretel & Hansel is the third feature from director Perkins.  He bestows a vibrancy to this ancient yarn heretofore unknown.  His previous efforts were The Blackcoat’s Daughter which made a mere 20k domestically and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House which debuted on Netflix – both horror films.  It’s clear that Perkins loves the genre.  He explores it with a rare subtlety.  The box office of Gretel & Hansel may have been a modest achievement.  It earned just $6.1M in the U.S. opening weekend but given that the budget was only $5M, I’d call that a success.  It’s well on its way to profitability.

There is so much to recommend about this production.  As the PG-13 rating would imply, this movie relies far more on atmospherics than gore.   The outstanding production design is arguably the movie’s strongest asset.  Jeremy Reed extracts fear out of gloomy spaces.  The rooms and buildings have an ominous air to them.  Cinematographer Galo Olivares captures all of this with stylish elegance.  He was a collaborator on Roma and the talent he brought to that triumph is clearly evident here.  One particular set piece involving a bucket of guts leaves a lasting impression.  Now let’s talk about the soundtrack.  I love the Beatles and the Moody Blues so I’ve always been a sucker for any melody that features a mellotron.  The eerie synth-heavy score is composed by Paris-based composer ROB aka Robin Coudert (Maniac, Horns).  He adds a glorious soundscape that further immerses the viewer into a sinister environment.

If I must register a gripe, it’s that director Oz Perkins favors slow-burn pacing at the expense of a compelling story.  Ironically it’s during the climax that the chronicle suddenly feels rushed.  Plot is not this saga’s strong point.  However I enjoyed this overall, so I won’t end on a pessimistic note.  The gorgeous production is content to revel in a dark climate.  It’s intensely disturbing.  The music and visuals really add to the sense of dread.  I was quite taken by the mood.  Gretel & Hansel mesmerizes while it simultaneously unsettles.  What it lacks in a narrative, it more than makes up for in some hauntingly beautiful tableaus.

01-30-20

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver4STARS3.5Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might have set a record for the number of spontaneous bursts of applause I’ve ever experienced during a theatrical screening.  I stopped counting when it reached double digits.  It was an absolute love fest.  My reaction was less enthusiastic but I can appreciate why the crowd embraced this so gleefully.  The chronicle is heavy on scenes and displays that are specifically designed to appeal to longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise — especially admirers of the first set (and best) of three films often referred to as the classic trilogy.  Director J.J. Abrams is a master at giving people exactly what they want.  That is both boon and bane to the grand narrative arc of the three most recent Star Wars episodes.

J.J. Abrams was faced with an epic task.  First, he had to close out the sequel trilogy which he began with The Force Awakens in 2015, but also cap off the entire “Skywalker Saga” of nine movies.  He only partially succeeds as the three chapters linked do not fit together as a cohesive whole.  I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s subversive take in the 2nd movie because he brought innovation and unexpected change to the franchise.  However, it was not meant to be. From a story standpoint, it now feels like Abrams directed The Force Awakens with an idea of where he wanted the adventure to go.  Then the series was hijacked by filmmaker Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi who introduced plot elements and personalities only to have Abrams either ignore them or explain them away with The Rise of Skywalker as a course-correcting measure.  This is true with the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic of the resistance that was a huge part of The Last Jedi but now only registers as a gloried cameo typing away at a computer here.  Be warned there will be other adjustments made in the name of retroactive continuity.  What I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the opening crawl.  Somehow a resurrected emperor Palpatine returns (Ian McDiarmid) as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been rendered as a nonentity.

J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Wars is more focused on the meticulous crafting of visual style at the expense of logical developments. That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker isn’t enjoyable.  It’s hugely entertaining.  The audience in my theater were laughing, crying, cheering.  That audience experienced something akin to a religious experience.  There are lots of encounters with fantastic creatures and random humans.  Babu Frik is the baby Yoda of this movie.  Don’t underestimate this little guy’s power to charm the viewer.  Babu Frik reprograms droids and speaks in an incomprehensible but adorable alien language that had my theater enraptured.  There’s a cone-headed droid named D-O that behaves like a rehabilitated puppy.  Porgs, Ewoks, Jawas, droids all pop up intermittently to satisfy your fan lust for more cute critters.  Abrams is adept at manipulating the Star Wars aesthetic in a way that honors the past while fashioning a tale with new personalities.

There’s a dizzying array of human roles too.  Numerous individuals pop up, deliver one line and then frustratingly disappear.  Abrams prioritizes the wants and needs of the fans over plot, characterization and thematic consistency.  Rose Tico has been sidelined.  Yet the writers have added other actors that appear to fulfill the same role but then obfuscate the advancement of a singular narrative.  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is an ally of the Resistance who is paired up with Finn.  She also has a conversation with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) that’s calculated to tease some sort of relationship.  Oscar Isaac is back as Poe and he hangs out with an old friend named Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell.  You’d never know it was the actress, however, because she wears a helmet.  You only see her eyes in one scene.  The inclusion of Jannah and Zorii seems rather pointless.  Nevertheless, the cast is filled with beings that all look and sound the part.  The villains continue to be cast like actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde in the First Order looks like a genetic descendant of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

Yes, this movie relies on the groundwork that was established long ago.  This entry will lack an emotional impact for the uninitiated.  It feels a bit like a greatest hits reel where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in.  At one point Rey amusingly utters a declaration that followers will recognize as a variation of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.  My theater was erupting in applause at moments that I didn’t even grasp.  The gang walks into a droid shop and there’s an old guy with a white beard shaking his head.  Everyone started clapping.  It was only after the film was over and I consulted the internet that I found out who that was.  Abrams even finds a way to include original cast members including (but not limited to) Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams.  Fisher passed on in 2016 and so her scenes have been cobbled together from outtakes and pre-recorded dialogue.  Her declarations have a vagueness about them but it’s nice to see her.  Another character reappears as just a figment of someone’s memory.

The Rise of Skywalker ultimately delivers the satisfying end to — what I like to call — the nonology.  The chronicle is well-paced but at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it’s overpacked with too much stuff.  It’s messy and incoherent.  However, the central trio continues to be a charismatic bunch.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) bicker like two brothers.  They still have a nice dynamic.  The main hero, Jedi Knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the lion’s share of the drama.  The idea of “The Force” as an all-powerful almost Godlike solution to difficult problems is further promoted.  Rey now has abilities so advanced that she can control a spaceship flying overhead simply by outstretching her hand while she is safely on the ground.  Apparently, the force can even be manipulated in the same way that Jesus helped Lazarus.

Rey is a captivating heroine and her interaction with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the sentimental core.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a lightsaber duel between the two of them.  The fact it’s set against a backdrop of stormy ocean waves that rise and crash all around them truly elevate the action.  It ends with a surprising act.  Abrams fills his account with sensational set pieces that delight the viewer.  Also ** news flash ** there will be a massive air battle between the Rebels and the Empire.  Abrams celebrates cinematic history by courting nostalgia but then amps up the spectacle.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s his ties to the same ideas that fascinated George Lucas where The Rise of Skywalker fitfully entertains as an end to the Star Wars saga.

12-19-19