Archive for the Fantasy Category

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

The Green Knight

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy with tags on August 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Green Knight is the movie David Lowery was born to make. The director has never been in a hurry. Anyone familiar knows he is an artist with a propensity for leisurely-paced tales and fastidious attention to detail. He became a critical darling at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. The success led to his helming the remake of Pete’s Dragon (1977) for Disney. His 2016 reimagining was a commercial attempt whose aesthetic sensibilities bore little resemblance to the original. Next came the thoughtful though patience-testing A Ghost Story. The narrative had many reviewers listing it among their Top 10s of the year. It didn’t connect with everyone though. Yours truly found it empty and unfulfilling. Now color me surprised. The Green Knight is David Lowery’s most accomplished work. The poetic saga is a perfect marriage for the director’s meticulous skill. Fans craving a feast for the senses will be in art house heaven. All others should probably steer clear.

During a banquet in King Arthur’s castle at Christmas, an intimidating warrior on horseback enters the room. The Green Knight is an imposing figure. His skin and size more closely resembles that of a tree. The uninvited intruder challenges those present to a little game. Any opponent brave enough may strike him with his axe. If victorious, they will win the massive weapon on the condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in a year. As the King (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Katie Dickie) look on, the crowd is silent. Yet Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) wants to prove himself as a worthy Knight of the Round Table. He agrees to the task at hand knowing full well that he is bound by his promise to return in a year if he is successful. That’s the story in a nutshell. It could have been a 30 minute short. David Lowery is a master of drawing things out. Not with words but with images.

The display is a fitting presentation given the source. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Middle English verse by an unknown author. The King Arthur yarn follows his nephew, Gawain who assumes a challenge to demonstrate his worth and honor. The heady visual spectacle deems dialogue and plot as secondary. This is simply an adventure of self-discovery as reimagined as a series of moving paintings. An atmosphere to revel and experience rather than comprehend. Title cards in flowery Old English fonts are scattered throughout to provide some welcome structure. Gawain encounters battlefields (where the action has already ended), lush forests, and a magnificent castle. In a film all about the visual, it is a most clever and conspicuous decision to cast Dev Patel as an Arthurian knight. The colorblind casting emphasizes his smoldering emotion and physical presence as the lead. Patel is mesmerizing.

Gawain is often the only one on-screen alone with his thoughts. He along with the audience contemplates his quest. However, he does interact with others. Before embarking on his trek, we meet his mother (Sarita Choudhury), a mysterious sorceress named Morgan le Fay, and a peasant woman (Alicia Vikander), Gawain’s occasional romantic companion. On his pilgrimage, he’ll meet a ragged scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who is not to be trusted and the ghost of Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman) who makes an unusual request. Ultimately his journey takes him to a castle where Gawain meets the seductive lady of the house (also performed by Vikander) and her seemingly good-natured and benevolent husband, the Lord (Joel Edgerton).

The account is pure cinematic fantasy. Historians have not found evidence to even substantiate the existence of King Arthur. As such, the chivalrous legend recounting the moral odyssey of a heroic knight can be vague. It doesn’t all work. The slowly building first half is more bewitching than the second. It culminates with an artistic end that is frustratingly ambiguous. The source poem leaves no doubt. Well-versed readers can fill in the blanks. The ending is far more powerful with the additional knowledge. The meditative tale rests in the exploitation of mood and feeling over action and events. It’s like a seed that grows in the mind after it has been planted. Those expecting the excitement of jousting or swordplay should look elsewhere. However, those looking for a haunting meditation that merges Christian morality with knightly chivalry will be delighted by the symbolic trek.

07-29-21

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.

_________________________________

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