Archive for the Fantasy Category

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

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Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

The Death of Stalin

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

death_of_stalinSTARS4The Death of Stalin is a political satire about the power struggle that occurs after the infamous leader (or more appropriately – dictator) of the Soviet Union suffers a stroke and dies. The aftermath has a major effect, plunging the ruling government into a genuine free-for-all where control is seemingly up for grabs. The production had a most curious journey to the screen. Obviously, the characters are based on actual historical figures. However, the property began as a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The screenplay was then adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows.  The film details the events in October 1953 after the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that’s a terrific starting point for any great comedy.  In fact, the resulting power play that occurs is so ridiculous it could only be true. Be that as it may, the details of the ensuing crisis is infused with a bit of whimsical conjecture.

The depiction is a sensational ensemble piece of people who fight over Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) vacant seat. There’s Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), his advisor vs. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. These two are directly at odds. They try to manipulate a coterie of peripheral characters that include Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Deputy Premier, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), originally the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but subsequently placed on his enemies list, and lastly Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), the famed communist’s son. Well-informed history buffs will be in absolute heaven. For others, it can be a lot to grasp. I’ll admit there were times I was a little confused as to who is aligned with whom.

The Death of Stalin is such a literate comedy. So packed with intelligence and wit. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of one-liners and quotable dialogue. It can get somewhat impenetrable, but for those with the right mindset, it is a most rewarding experience. Director Armando Iannucci cleverly utilizes real occurrences and then embellishes for the purposes of parody. In the U.S. the director is probably best known for creating Veep, the HBO TV series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s full of political satire as well. Right from the start, the circumstances here are completely absurd. A live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 has just been broadcast over the radio waves. Stalin requests a recording of the concerto. The trouble is, none was made. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) frantically endeavors to restage the entire concert, including bringing in random people to recreate the commotion of the audience. It’s just as bizarre as it sounds.  Things only get more outlandish from there.

There is something inherently satisfying about taking the exemplars of pure evil and making them buffoons. The film makes a lot of concessions in the name of comedy. For example, no Russian is spoken. The actors don’t even attempt a fake accent. They speak English as they would in their everyday life, cockney diction included!  It’s a bold but welcome choice. Elsewhere the screenplay wisely references the egregious sins of Lavrentiy Beria without unnecessarily dwelling on their legitimate horror. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he commands at one point. The execution ordered with all the calm demeanor of selecting an entree off a dinner menu.  Despite the subject, it remains comical, even when dramatizing the physical demise of Stalin. The exhibition of his body falling to the ground produces a loud thud. Hearing the noise, the two bumbling guards outside his room debate whether they should investigate. Too afraid, they don’t. When they finally realize he is ill, it would make sense to find a doctor. Ironically all the good physicians have either been killed or sent to the gulags. No one wants to treat him for fear of reprisal by the state. I could go on and on and on with more hard to believe examples. The funeral scene is my favorite, but I’ve said enough. I’ve tempted you with the history, now see the way it’s been exploited for laughs. The script shrewdly mixes what literally happened with some creative augmentations for the sake of humor. The amazing thing is the root of these events actually transpired. How it all played out is another story, but that’s where the fun of this chronicle begins.

04-16-18

A Wrinkle in Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-08-18

Annihilation

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

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

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

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

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

02-26-18

Paddington 2

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

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

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

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

1-25-18

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_last_jedi_ver9STARS4“If you post spoilers, I will unfriend and block you.”  That sentiment was typical of the posts on my Facebook feeds following the release of The Last Jedi this weekend.  I don’t recall seeing such aggressive declarations when either Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman opened this summer. For some reason, people are emphatically wary of Star Wars spoilers, even if it concerns the most banal information. I agree that ruining important plot developments is disrespectful. Rest assured this review is spoiler-free. That’s true of all of my write-ups. Nevertheless, if you’re especially sensitive to the reveal of what a critter is named or the sheer confirmation that lightsaber battles occur, then I suggest you don’t read my (or any) review of this film until after you’ve seen it.

Episode 7 – The Force Awakens – set the stage for a new group that would transition our allegiance from the previous cast (Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill) to an ever-expanding ensemble.  Han Solo was an important figure in Part 7.    Now it’s Luke Skywalker’s turn to inform the narrative.  Although Luke seems like a completely different person here. Obviously, he’s older, but he sports a salt and pepper beard like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. The young hotshot of the original trilogy now seems like a peaceful Buddhist living off the land on an island retreat. He speaks differently too, in verse like quoting the scripture of some sacred text.  Mark Hamill has done a lot of voice work over the years and it really shows. He sounds imposing even when he doesn’t always carry himself in that manner.

The Force Awakens introduced Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  They all get their moments here.  The once-named Ben Solo continues to struggle with the dark side.   Meanwhile, Rey’s growing influence concerns her journey to the remote planet of Ahch-To in an effort to recruit Luke into helping the cause.  The Force Awakens implied that she might be a Jedi which would beg the question, to whom does the title of this movie refer, her or Luke?  I won’t comment, but I’d love to hear your thoughts after watching this. I wish we could’ve spent more time with them.  The Last Jedi continues to add characters to a constantly growing ensemble.  Poe, Finn, and Rey must share a lot of screen time with a host of unfamiliar personalities that may or may not become central.  A welcome addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who fights alongside the Resistance. She is introduced by way of her relationship with Finn. Their developing partnership is a key component of the chronicle. Her oddball sweetness is charming. Less delightful is Benicio del Toro as DJ, an underworld individual who specializes in computer hacking. His affected stutter is really the only thing memorable about him. Given the fact that this production is 2 hours 32 minutes long, his existence is where I would’ve started to do some serious editing. Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) impressively juggles a lot of disparate plot threads. Still, this is a long, and frequently meandering film, particularly in the introductory slog. Yes, it takes a while to get started, but once it does, oh boy, does it dazzle the senses.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge that the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher adds an air of melancholy to her scenes.  Her role is expanded here and it’s nice to see her featured in several segments. As General Leia Organa, she leads the military effort against the First Order. She receives support from purple haired, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). The two are old friends and Amilyn steps in to support her.  Amilyn is not quite as friendly with Poe, however, as a conversation they have will attest. Their confrontation is memorable. Women rule in this world.  Beside Leia and Amilyn, there is also Commander Larma D’Acy (Amanda Lawrence) and Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd – daughter of Carrie Fisher). They have key roles here too.  Conversely, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), a female Stormtrooper, is regrettably given very little screen time.

The Resistance faces off against an onslaught led by the overbearing General Hux.  Actor Domhnall Gleeson is easily the most over-the-top campy performance in this entire series.  General Hux always comes across as a child who snuck into daddy’s office and is playing pretend takeover of the world.  I was kind of amused by his theatrics, but it’s definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of achievement.  His authority is only exceeded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).   Kylo Ren’s relationship with the Supreme Leader continues to be a major element of the plot.  Yet this is the second appearance of Snoke and I still don’t know anything about him. It’s really not important I suppose.  He’s a bad guy — a motion capture CGI fabrication.   That’s all you need to know.

This is probably a good time to mention all the computer graphics employed in this outing. General Snoke was an excess of CGI in the preceding spectacle. Now we have adorable wide-eyed sea-bird creatures called Porgs that scream and bellow in cutely animated glee.  I think I know what’s going to be the hot Christmas toy this year. There’s also the Vulptices, crystalline foxes that live beneath the salt surface of Crait.  Then there are the Fathiers, space horses with long ears like rabbits. They race in a metropolitan center where people place their bets in a casino world that features the Monte Carlo-ish city Canto Bight. I wasn’t a fan of this backdrop. It feels like an unnecessary appendage to the primary tale. The environment is somewhat of an analog to the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars but much less captivating in my opinion. Oh but I digress — back to the creatures. My favorite of them all are the Caretakers, fish-like nuns on the planet Ahch-To. Their completely random appearance was probably the most laugh out loud moment in the entire picture.

In a nutshell, The Last Jedi is the continuing adventures of the most iconic space opera of all time.  Simply put, our heroes of the Resistance, square off against the villains of the First Order. The Force Awakens brilliantly manipulated the legend of Star Wars into a thrilling fable for a new generation to consume.  Much in the same way, this script expands on things using the same approach that The Empire Strikes Back did nearly 4 decades ago. It’s a darker production that creatively enhances the fundamental mythology of the franchise. It deepens the backstories of the characters with which we are familiar.  It’s also funnier with several bits at which you will either enjoy or roll your eyes. I was pleased for the most part, although watching Luke milk a beast and drink its green formula was definitely a WTF moment.  This is a perfect segue into my next observation.

By now I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a formula. We want nostalgia, but we expect something new, bring back the favorites with which we are familiar, add a few new ones we can embrace. Don’t forget cute creatures and sprinkle in bits of humor. I dare say a couple gags are the most full-on hilarious bits I’ve ever seen in this franchise. At 8 episodes and counting, that’s really saying something.  By the end, you’ll want to stand up and cheer. The final 30 minutes are as exciting as any in the series. It totally sticks the ending.  Modern action films are often a succession of the fight extravaganzas that we crave, separated by speechifying portions that we don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how sensational action set-pieces have become or that the dialogue that screenwriters compose in these flicks often isn’t particularly compelling.  Either way, this is the nature of the beast.  The movie starts out frustratingly slow but ends with a bang. The narrative is a bit of a tangle in the middle, but each action set piece is an event. We get not one, but two, epic lightsaber battles. This is what we expect of the middle entry of a Star Wars flick. The Last Jedi does all of these things and it does them rather well.

12-14-17

The Shape of Water

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

shape_of_water_ver3STARS3Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Amélie was sexually attracted to The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If so, then The Shape of Water will be the cinematic revelation to satisfy that curiosity. At heart, The Shape of Water is rooted in the well-worn design of a fairy tale. The idea that two disparate individuals should find their soulmate is a tale as old as time, right? Director Guillermo del Toro’s fable utilizes the structure of classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A human falls in love with something that isn’t human, but The Shape of Water goes farther. This is not a children’s story. This is del Toro’s take on interspecies romance and as such, it has his decidedly adult interpretation.

The setting is early 1960s Baltimore. Not the warm nostalgia for a twinkly bygone period seen through rose colored glasses though. This is the cold intolerant version of that era with a racist, close-minded person in charge.   Our lead character is nothing like that.   Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a shy woman whose vocal cords were slashed when she was a child (ouch!). As such, she is mute. At night, she works as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. One day, the facility receives a new discovery from the rivers of South America courtesy of the heartless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Elisa meets new acquisition, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), she begins sneaking into the enclosure. He’s obviously not human. He’s green, scaly, has fins but he walks upright, is very tall and has a muscular frame. Elisa is immediately drawn to this amphibious beast for reasons that aren’t quite clear. However, their developing connection is plainly shown. She feeds him hard-boiled eggs and plays records on a portable phonograph for him. I felt their friendship. The couple gradually form a special bond that eventually goes — you guessed it — there. I didn’t feel that.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa Esposito, a sort of a melancholy mute plagued by erotic urges. This means the audience is subjected to Elisa pleasuring herself in the bathtub while her naked breasts rest just above the water. The scene feels surprisingly exploitative in what mostly feels like sentimental folklore. Elisa is seemingly modest in other ways. She’s gently timid and reserved at work. Her friendship with the creature is like a couple of lost souls united by love. It’s hard not to feel something for Elisa. A few judicious edits here and there could easily turn this R-rated male fantasy into a PG-rated family film but that would be at the expense of the artist’s creative vision. This is Guillermo del Toro after all, not Frank Capra.

Elisa is surrounded by two charismatic personalities. She lives in the same building as Giles, a closeted commercial artist who pines for a young man that runs the pie shop. Giles is amiable and friendly. His advertising work are like the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Elisa’s co-worker is fellow cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She is Elisa’s good friend and confidant. These three are clearly the archetypal “good” people of the story painted in broad strokes so as not to confuse the viewer.  Despite the formula, there’s still something kind of intriguing about these individuals. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland portrayed by Michael Shannon. He’s the baddie. Strickland views the sea creature as an affront to God because he isn’t made in his image. “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image,” he says. “Some more so than others”, he sneers at Zelda who happens to be black. We know Strickland is an outrage to civil rights, but his characterization as an indefensible piece of garbage is about as subtle as a flying brick.

The Shape of Water is a sumptuous production. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen even captures the glossy surfaces of the government facility with a stylish sheen. Its gorgeous set design and costumes are only matched by its luscious score by Alexandre Desplat. Richard Jenkins’ opening narration beautifully sets the stage for a lush yarn of sweetness and warmth. I was enchanted with the beginning. I desperately wanted to celebrate the elegance of this saga before being shaken by less savory elements. Sex and violence are often about context. Their appearances are awkward here. At one point a man is actually shot in the face and dragged across the floor by the hole in his cheek. You can’t unsee these things. When was the last time you saw that in a Disney movie? The question is fair because del Toro is operating within that vocabulary. At its core, this is a rather simple legend that a child would embrace. Nothing wrong with a straightforward ode to love. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are basic tales of a seemingly mismatched pair and they charm children of all ages. The difference here is that it’s filtered through a clouded lens of decidedly adult sensibilities. The ultimate objective is that by the end you’re transported to a feeling of joy. Some apparently are but I was kinda creeped out.

The Shape of Water is scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8, 2017, after a December 1 limited release in New York.

11-13-17

Justice League

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

justice_league_ver9STARS1.5A good film introduces us to interesting people. It provides exposition as to what motivates them as characters so we can empathize with their plight. The tale should essentially lay the groundwork for an account that will feature enriching individuals that develop over the course of an adventure. Their inner journey is part of a larger narrative that we can follow and enjoy. In this way our emotions are captivated and we can feel some emotional component to what’s happening on screen. Justice League is not one of those films.

To be fair, this picture concerns superheroes with which a large portion of the moviegoing public has some previously built-in awareness. Icons like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman already have a recognizability factor, yes. You’re granted a certain amount of shortcuts when detailing familiar characters. Still, that doesn’t absolve the screenwriter or the director from presenting something coherent. Justice League is an absolute mishmash of unfocused plot threads and pointless mayhem. Given the basic elements of what normally constitutes a story, I struggle to even define it as such. It’s a visual chaos of color and activity with dreary conversations sprinkled throughout to give the appearance that something interesting is developing.

The first 30 minutes are as bad as any in the entire 120-minute runtime. The chronicle bewilderingly opens with what appears to be archival camera phone footage of two kids talking to Superman. “What’s your favorite thing about earth?” one asks. The clip stops short before we can get an answer. Now cut to Batman chasing an unknown man on a rooftop that has just committed a robbery. Batman dangles the man over the edge and apparently his fear lures some flying monster out of the shadows. The creature inexplicably explodes moments later leaving 3 boxes. I immediately had questions. Who is the robber? What is that monster? What’s in those boxes? Some of these are answered later while others linger on well after the movie is over. But first some arbitrarily inserted scenes of Superman’s earthly mom (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) pontificating on how they miss Superman. He’s dead of course, but you already knew that, right?  If not too bad because the screenwriters have assumed you do.  Cut to the city of London where Wonder Woman is stopping a bank robbery. Then abrupt edit to Batman journeying to Iceland to recruit what looks like a long haired bodybuilder with tribal tattoos that cover his body. It seems that this is Aquaman. He declines. Bruce is sad. He’s trying to assemble a team. He wants Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) too. Cut to hastily inserted scenes featuring those people as well. The narrative is so haphazard. Plot elements are distributed to viewers like the shuffled deck at a blackjack table. The only difference here is that there is no winner.

Justice League doesn’t resemble a story so much as the random insertion of recognizable characters doing puzzling things. Without any meaningful focus, we’re left to try and appreciate the visual spectacle. Computer generated imagery infects every frame of the film. Action set pieces are grotesque displays of blurry images. The action is confusing and uninvolving. We’re missing the human element. The human visage can charm an audience. Yet even Superman’s face doesn’t look natural in his opening vignette. Here’s where a little background information might be helpful.  You see, actor Henry Cavill had to come back late in production for reshoots.  At that point he was sporting a mustache that he was contractually obligated to keep for another picture. CGI was used to erase the facial hair. Hence the bizarre unnatural look to his face in this scene.

The film has bigger storytelling problems than ugly CGI though. It’s characters we couldn’t care less about. Batman (Bruce Wayne), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are unlikeable protagonists that are dour at best. Their interactions gave me the impression that they hate each other. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) at least smile occasionally but the screenplay limits their chances to connect with the audience. What a comedown from this summer’s far superior Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is mainly in action mode and Henry Cavill merely occupies the final quarter of the picture. Only The Flash (Ezra Miller) has that spark of a personality that engenders warmth. His plight is emotionally involving. Ezra Miller was well utilized. Oh well him and the personal trainers of Jason Momoa & Henry Cavill. The cinematography makes sure you notice how physically fit they are. Duly noted. Everyone else was wasted. The rest of the actors are meaningless ciphers – stand-ins for where charismatic people are supposed to be.

I really wanted to love Justice League. The idea of these superheroes all joining forces and fighting crime together is an inherently exciting idea. Any child of the 70s like me will remember the animated Super Friends Saturday morning TV series. I loved that show. Yet the joy of that concept is completely subjugated under the helm of Zack Snyder. Sadly the director had to leave due to a most regrettable family tragedy. Joss Whedon stepped in to finish things up. I can’t ascertain as to whether the change helped or hurt the movie. I can only offer that the final product is an absolute travesty to anyone who values an intelligible narrative. At this point, the central villain doesn’t even matter, but even he is a non-entity.  He registers not as a personality but as a plot device.  His name is Steppenwolf and comprises the whole reason the Justice League must assemble. The monster isn’t even portrayed by an actor but a completely fabricated creation using CGI and motion capture technology. Ciarán Hinds’ body movements were utilized for reference. However it’s telling that the poor actor never even met the rest of the cast. He’s merely an afterthought in a production that treats the humanity of a human actor as an inconvenience when telling a story. That kind of sums up the viewpoint of the entire film.

11-16-17

A Ghost Story

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on July 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

ghost_story.jpgSTARS2.5If nothing else, writer and director David Lowery’s new feature is a curiosity. A tale without a distinct narrative to understand so much as to experience. In that respect, this meditation on life is a difficult movie to review. The chronicle is not about events per se, but rather a feeling you appreciate while watching it.

David Lowery has reunited the two stars from his 2013 crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  At the center is a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.  A Ghost Story is a chronicle indifferent to details.  The characters aren’t given names for example.  The credits list Casey Affleck as ‘C’ and Rooney Mara as ‘M’ but even those letters aren’t expressed in the script.  They’re just two people.  We can infer a few things from what we observe.  They’re human.  They’re married.  He’s a musician but not making a lot of money doing that.  Suddenly he’s bloody, sitting motionless behind the wheel of a smashed car.  We can assume he has just died in car accident.  The collision itself happens offscreen.  We do however see the aftermath.  Then we see him at the morgue.  He’s lying down on a table for an uncomfortable length of time.  His body is covered by a clean white sheet.  Minutes pass by with no discernible change in the room.  At one point I thought the film had been paused.  Then he slowly arises, still under the sheet.

Casey Affleck wanders the halls under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. He does this for the entire duration of the picture.  The openings are deep black and empty.  They offer no hint of a human face underneath.  It caused me to wonder if Affleck’s eyes were edited out in post production.  Ah but I digress.  It soon becomes apparent that no one can see him.  He walks to the end of a hallway and a luminous portal of light opens up. He stares at it without entering.  After awhile, the shimmering gateway closes.  That a ghost is embodied in the most cliched representation possible is really the only predictable thing about this film.  The set-up is merely a construct in which to present a mood piece.  That is, it’s not plot or character driven, but rather a reason to luxuriate in an elegiac tone.  The saga as it exists is constructed as a reflection on life, or more appropriately, death.

Rooney Mara grieves looking forlorn and despondent. In one scene, we watch her eat most of a whole pie for what feels like an eternity. It’s a static shot, not particularly well lit and she’s sitting on the floor. I read somewhere that it’s only 9 minutes long but the very manifestation is an endurance test of artistic license. It’s an unconventional exhibition to be sure but upon reflection, it comes across as a self-conscious choice.  I saw it as an indulgence motivated by the ego driven impulses of a director unrestrained. Some might praise Lowery’s choice to film an activity so mundane as audacious and bold.  Yet I didn’t see a woman grieving.  I saw a filmmaker shooting a scene.

Director David Lowery is unconcerned with time.  Time passes, first days, then years, then centuries.  Certain scenes play out in real time.  In others, the years go by in the blink of an eye.  People move on. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt, but Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a disconnected soul remains.  What Lowery is saying and how much that affects you is probably where you’ll derive your enjoyment from this.  Adherents should find it hypnotic, surreal and deep while detractors will find it affected, empty and inert. Let’s just say they both have a point.  I would’ve liked to have seen A Ghost Story on a flat screen TV mounted to the wall of a museum.  There its artistic passions could be celebrated.  It’s an evocative rumination on which to deliberate.  In that respect the production triumphs as an objet d’art.  Without the expectation of plot or character development, Lowery’s introspection piece succeeds, but as a movie, this disembodied account left me unfulfilled.

07-27-17