Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Dune

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on October 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Chilly remote and majestic — the latest cinematic version of Frank Herbert’s Dune very much resembles the desert planet it depicts. The epic evolves like a visually profound mass of hot windswept dust to behold. The breadth and scale are impressive but the environment is dull. Even color is lacking. The production flaunts a monochromic palette that vacillates between dreary shades of blue to gray and on other occasions from orange to brown. I dare contend that if the film had been shot in black and white, it would’ve been more vibrant. The atmosphere weighs upon the audience. This lethargic mediation on race, culture, and colonialism is not a work to enjoy but to endure.

Dune is a tale fronted by a large cast of individuals in search of a personality. The saga details a feud between two families. The lush planet Caladan is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of the House of Atreides. He has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), with the official concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul could be “the one” — that is — the savior that might bring important change to the universe. Meanwhile, over on the planet Arrakis (informally known as Dune) live the native Fremen people. Long exposure to spice has given the Freemen glowing blue eyes — a welcome excuse to inject a little color, albiet through digital manipulation. They are ruled by Atreides’ mortal enemies, the Harkonnen. Arrakis is desolate terrain. However, the world is rich in “spice”, a powerful drug desired throughout the galaxy because it extends life and aids in interstellar travel among no doubt other glorious things. By order of an unseen Emperor, Duke Leto leaves for his new position as the governor of Arrakis. However, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård wearing a most unfortunate fat suit) has nefarious plans for Leto and the whole Atreides family. Dune portrays a complex society within a dystopian future. (Is there any other kind?).

As a captivating adventure this drama fails — but only in the most sensational way. The drama lacks vitality. The political machinations of the community within comprise the story but there’s nary a personality to be found in this emotionless drudge. Paul is surrounded by an Imperial Court of various mentors and advisors. Jason Momoa plays one, Duncan Idaho, a strapping warrior that exudes a modicum of the rakish charm we so desperately crave. Nearly everyone else delivers their lines with all the theatrics of a Shakespearean play. Their robotic declarations are so stilted, so deliberate they simulate the self-serious recitations of a poem, not human dialogue. Ecologist Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is arguably the most egregious offender. I honestly suspected she was suppressing a secret — that she was indeed a robot. Although that reveal never arrives so apparently my suspicions were incorrect? The various performances are augmented by an unfocused gaze or a solemn pause. These actorly devices can rightly intensify a scene, but they cannot replace genuine depth or meaning. I felt absolutely nothing for anyone or anything in this sweeping account. I’ve derived more humanity from the random influx of strangers coming and going inside an airport than I did in this movie. Dune is full of lives, but there is no life.

What the picture has going for it is scope. The grand and stately fantasy perfectly conveys the monumental sweep of another world. The production design continually impresses from aircraft called Thopters with wings that buzz like dragonflies to miniature flying robots the size of tadpoles designed to kill. And the sandworms — those colossal creatures on Arrakis — are as spectacular as I imagined. The visuals from DP Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) would fulfill a nice retrospective in a museum dedicated to dazzling cinematography from sci-fi movies. I marveled at each individual segment as an artistic clip. But something happens when connecting one scene after another. Without any narrative thrust to propel them forward, they lack the emotional weight to keep the viewer enrapt. I tried to stay invested in this turgid drama. Oh, how I tried! Just before the credits roll, the chronicle ends with the intonations of Zendaya. (The actress’s brief appearance was greatly overstated in the marketing.) The mysterious Fremen girl who had been appearing in Paul’s dreams smiles playfully taunting the audience with “This is only the beginning.” That is correct. Director Denis Villeneuve’s ridiculously long 2-hour 35 minute adaptation only concerns the first half of the 1965 novel, which means it’s half an experience — a prologue to a sequel.

Without a single individual in which to root for or care, Dune is a torturous sit. The ceremonial dignity of soldiers marching in formation or the grandeur of awe-inspiring metal ships hovering in the sky can only take you so far. And yet there are flickers of liveliness. Within the first few minutes, Duke Leto playfully commands weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) to smile. As he sits there stone-faced, he declares, “I am smiling.” There are more examples. When Stilgar (Javier Bardem) greets Leto by spitting in his direction, the act is amusingly revealed to be a sign of respect. Or how about an evaluation from the Imperial Truthsayer (Charlotte Rampling) that puts Paul through a critical test. The intense ordeal is a compelling predicament. As the fable develops, much appreciated moments such as these would pop up occasionally. I savored each one. They broke up the monotony. Each reflection of this society aroused a response. Like an inhabitant of Arrakis for a precious glass of water, I happily relished these rare glimpses that reflected human emotion.

10-21-21

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on October 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you ever seen a movie that you enjoyed in the moment, but was so inconsequential you immediately forgot about it a day later? Such is Venom Let There Be Carnage, the sequel to Venom, Sony’s massive 2018 box office hit. As an entertaining time-filler, the film succeeds, but it’s hard to write about since it made virtually no impression on me. The mid-credits sequence had more of an impact than the proper saga. No details. I’ll only offer that it acknowledges Venom is a Marvel character originally introduced in the Spider-Man comics.

I could pretend this story is complicated but it’s easy to simplify things. The narrative isn’t complex. Venom is the alien organism that uses the body of investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as a host in which to live. The alien symbiote is a frightening presence because he wants to eat human brains. Nonetheless, he is resigned to eating chicken and chocolate because of Eddie’s admonition to do so. Venom has become a friendly dweller in his body.

The extraterrestrial must face a new enemy named Carnage who inhabits a serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). At first, this guy only wants to get back to his true love but Carnage gives him powerful abilities. Girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) has some superpowers of her own. Incidentally, the same actress is also Miss Moneypenny in the new James Bond flick No Time to Die. Harris is enjoying a most productive October.

The best thing about this production is what made the original so enjoyable. That is — the oddball relationship between Eddie Brock and Venom, the alien who uses him as a host. While he possesses his body, you can hear them talking to each other. They are at ease with one another. They bicker with the comfortableness of an old married couple and it’s amusing. They even experience a break-up. The screenplay has moments of hilarity. However, there are still many opportunities for jokes that aren’t exploited. At one point, Carnage incongruously shouts, “Let there Be Carnage!” The title is stated verbatim without nary a wink or a nudge to the audience. In another scene, Eddie ducks into a women’s bathroom to argue with Venom — and save for the surprised face of one occupant in the adjacent stall — nothing of consequence is mined from the situation.

There is little here to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the comic book. The chronicle is all in service of a climactic duel between the two monsters. The battle is terrible as it showcases garish and nonsensical CGI action that is just a bunch of craziness up there on the screen. Director Andy Serkis keeps things simple and brisk. That can be a plus. They say brevity is the soul of wit. If you subscribe to that point of view, then the fact that this a mere 90 minutes should increase your enjoyment considerably. The production stays light, but — ya know — with mass destruction. Oh, and the brutal — albeit bloodless — deaths of several characters that test the confines of a PG-13 rating. It’s like a violent sitcom.

09-3-21

Free Guy

Posted in Action, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on August 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Give people a reason to go to theaters and they will. Audiences went to see Free Guy opening weekend. The prediction was that it would only do $15M-17 million due to a recent surge in the Delta variant. The reality is that it debuted well above expectations with $28.4 million. The fact that it wasn’t available on streaming — that you had to see it in a theater — certainly helped.

Free Guy is the story of a random bank teller that lives in a video game called Free City. He’s merely a background character, but then one day he becomes self-aware after seeing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) from afar. In the game, his best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard who works alongside him at the bank. Outside in the real world, he’s supported by computer specialists Keys (Joe Keery), Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and Millie (also played by Jodie Comer). This peripheral cipher decides to break away from his programming and make himself the hero of the game and pursue the woman he loves.

Ryan Reynolds is an actor that has made a career out of playing the talkative sarcastic smart-aleck. Here his generic personality is simply known as Blue Shirt Guy — a cheerfully upbeat nonentity with a vapid demeanor that has never thought for himself. He is a blank slate of a man whose eyes are suddenly opened. Reynolds doesn’t give a performance so much as deliver his lines loudly while mugging for emphasis. He affects the same persona he always has and this doesn’t come across as a well-rounded individual. Yet that’s exactly what the script calls for. He’s not playing a human being after all, but rather a video game character. It’s easy to laugh AT him but difficult to have empathy FOR him.

The deconstruction of one’s reality is an idea presented on the weighty shoulders of other better movies. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) is working from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. The boilerplate story even throws in a romance solely because it’s expected. The repetitive nature of the game gently evokes Groundhog Day while the themes of repression recall Pleasantville. Meanwhile, the tale about a good-natured everyman whose life is broadcast to people throughout the planet is like The Truman Show. Given their philosophy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the megalomaniacal boss of Soonami Studios (insufferably overplayed by Taika Waititi) would be friends with Christof (Ed Harris) of The Truman Show.

Free Guy is a hyper-exaggerated saga so you’ll have to warm up to the film’s tone. I did but gradually. This is a self-conscious production that is constantly winking at the viewer. The account inserts numerous celebrity cameos. Most of the “stars” are from online streaming platforms YouTube and Twitch. I was blissfully unaware of their fame. There were a couple of major personalities that I did recognize. Unfortunately, the mass media callbacks kept my emotional connection at arm’s length. This is a release from 20th Century Studios. The fact that Disney is their parent company will be obvious given several high profile pop-culture gags that are fan service and nothing more. Meta-humor and Easter eggs (insidery jokes for fans) threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times.

The highest praise I can give Free Guy is that it’s an original movie. This isn’t a sequel, a remake, based on a comic book or a pre-existing video game. The action takes place in a completely new computerized action-adventure. Although, it’s inspired by violent open-world interactive titles like Grand Theft Auto. The thing is, the chronicle is not about video games per se. It concerns the way we exist and how we aspire to break out of the rut in which we may reside. The moral is “Seize the Day!” but pitched toward gamers. Overall the message is extremely lightweight, but I appreciated that Blue Shirt Guy was a force for hope and good in a city of chaos. I can get behind that.

08-12-21

The Tomorrow War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix is far and away the dominant presence on the Nielsen streaming ratings. It has the most-watched programs. However, Amazon Prime Video is still a player. Recent titles include Coming to 2 America in March and Without Remorse in April but The Tomorrow War topped them all in popularity. It was digitally released on July 2 and (according to Samba TV) was seen by 2.4 million U.S. households over the 4 day holiday weekend. Just a week later, the filmmakers confirmed the sci-fi actioner would get a sequel. Yes, it’s now a thing.

Problems begin when Earth is visited in the present day by soldiers from the future year 2051. They inform the populace that the planet is under attack from alien invaders and they need recruits to help in that crusade. Chris Pratt plays an ex-Green Beret named Dan Forester who now teaches high-school chemistry. He is drafted into service without any say in the matter. Most married people with families would be unhappy by that turn of events, but he genuinely seems optimistic about this new direction in his life. His fellow trainees (Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub) are less enthused.

So let’s start on a positive note. I like Chris Pratt and he helps the adventure coast along on the goodwill of his considerable charisma. Ok now on to the “What the hell?!” part.

You have to suspend natural disbelief in this whole operation. We learn there is a less than 30% survival rate. Even when Dan and the other draftees are sent forward in time to do battle, they are accidentally dropped high above the city. Scarcely any survive the first few seconds. C’mon! They haven’t even met the creatures yet. There are glimpses of the citizens back on Earth upset with the whole process of the draft. Dan’s wife (Betty Gilpin) and his estranged father (J. K. Simmons) are among those unhappy about it, but I think most of the world would escape into hiding before allowing themselves to be sent on this ridiculous suicide mission.

Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and screenwriter Zach Dean (Deadfall) give the public what they came for: action and aliens. Dan meets a Colonel named Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) there. We find out immediately that she’s his adult daughter. The two of them work together to fight the intruders. The story is generic and the combat scenes are chaotic. The horrific beasts– called White Spikes — are interesting though. They suggest aquatic critters with huge tentacles, but travel on land akin to a swarm of insects. However, other than Chris Pratt there’s not much to separate this from a silly B movie on the Syfy channel. The Tomorrow War is fabricated from the DNA of Terminator, Total Recall, and Independence Day. The audience-pleasing formula accounts for its clear success on TV. I found it to be a passable diversion.

07-07-21

Black Widow

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Black Widow was first introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. The perpetually sidelined superhero has finally gotten her own standalone feature in 2021. It’s long overdue.

There are two mindsets in which to approach this film. The first is as an expert. This is the 24th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Anyone able to keep track of the way all the various people, alliances, and developments fit together, deserves a Ph.D. in comic book history. You have my respect. The rest of us — me included — are better off disregarding trying to remember everything that happened in the past. Simply appreciate the movie at face value for what it is. In this case, a decent spy thriller.

Black Widow succeeds as a character-driven action thriller. As a necessary installment to clarify the MCU franchise, it comes up short. Case in point: the chronicle feels like an afterthought. A fan will notice the adventure is retroactively set during an earlier time to adhere to the series’ continuity. These events take place right after Captain America: Civil War occurred in 2016 but before what happens in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. The picture should have come out 4-5 years ago. Ah but Black Widow is still an entertaining actioner. Better late than never.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been isolated from the other Avengers. Dissension amongst the group has split them up. She signed the Sokovia Accords at Iron Man’s behest but then sided with Captain America when it really counted. Oh snap! She played both sides. She’s currently not on friendly terms with Iron Man and on the run. Did you follow any of that? No matter. The setup merely provides an opportunity to present a completely new cast. Except for William Hurt who returns in a cameo as U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross. We meet mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour). Surprise! The people who raised Natasha in suburban Ohio may not actually be biologically related to her.

At a young age, Natasha was placed in a covert Soviet facility known as the Red Room. There she was brainwashed and schooled in combat and espionage. Many other girls received this spy training as well. They became mindless assassins without free will, turning them into “Black Widows.” Her sister (Florence Pugh) likewise was also educated in this fashion under the direction of evil mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He also commands an elite operative called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to do his bidding — a tangent that unnecessarily complicates a deeply tortuous narrative. Director Cate Shortland (Lore) directs from a screenplay written by Jac Schaeffer that was rewritten by Ned Benson, who was in turn replaced by Eric Pearson. There’s a lot of plot. The story excels when it’s focused on fewer characters, not more.

The core “family” forms a ragtag group somewhat reminiscent of dynamic in The Incredibles. That’s where the film finds its groove — in comedy. There’s a scene where David Harbour is attempting to squeeze into his old suit as The Red Guardian aka Russia’s version of Captain America. Then there’s Rachel Weisz as a seasoned professional and mother figure. She’s two steps ahead of Alexi with the plans. Then most notable of all, Russian sibling Yelena, portrayed by UK actress Florence Pugh, giving cold unemotional line readings that amusingly make us love her even more.

It’s a bit ironic that Black Widow’s sister outshines the titular superhero in her own movie. Florence Pugh is supposed to be support but her personality is just so darn funny. She totally takes the air out of Natasha’s sails when Yelena mocks her battle stance. “Why do you always do that thing? That thing you do when you’re fighting? With the arm and the hair, when you do like a fighting pose?” she deadpans. Yelena then hilariously affects a posture akin to a ballet position. “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” Yelena’s enthusiasm for vests is cute too. She loves the pockets. She has even made some modifications on the one she’s wearing . Her pride is infectious. As expected there are some good action scenes but it’s the character-driven bits that I savor the most. Those parts elevate the film into something I really enjoyed.

07-08-21

A Quiet Place Part II

Posted in Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on May 30, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

** WARNING – This review contains spoilers from A Quiet Place (2018) — not the current film, but the original that came out three years ago **

At the outset of 2018, no one could have predicted that A Quiet Place — a nearly dialogue-free horror movie with a minuscule $17 million budget — would become a U.S. Top 20 box office hit of the year. It even knocked Steven Spielberg’s much-hyped science fiction adventure Ready Player One out of the #1 position when it was released that April. A Quiet Place would go on to gross considerably more, so another chapter was inevitable. There will likely be a Part III given the success of this entry.

These are the continuing adventures of the Abbott household, a family desperately trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by a race of extraterrestrial monsters. The aliens can’t see, but they’ve got hypersensitive hearing. They attack anything that makes noise. Most of Earth’s human population has been exterminated. If you saw Part 1, all of this is merely a recap. If you haven’t, you should see that one first.

We open with a memorable prelude — a flashback at a baseball game. A flaming comet in the sky announces the aliens’ arrival. They brutally invade the town. John Krasinski returns as director as well as to portray Lee the father. Lee sacrificed his own life during PART I, so the opening prologue has a dual purpose. 1) It allows actor John Krasinski to make a brief appearance and 2) it introduces Lee’s buddy Emmett, (a grizzled-looking Cillian Murphy) who will become an important addition to this new story. Flash forward to the present day. Over a year has passed. Mother Evelyn and her newborn baby, along with daughter Regan, and son Marcus have all survived. They previously learned that the creatures are unable to withstand high-frequency audio feedback. Regan, who cannot hear, uses her hearing aid to produce the sounds that can kill them.

You know what they say: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Come be entertained by an intense tale that continues the frightening narrative. The introductory installment was a tension-filled nightmare. PART II delivers the same stress and anxiety. However, this one offers a somewhat calmer survival drama that will split off into three separate stories: one concerning Regan and Emmett, the second with son Marcus watching over the baby, and a third featuring mother Evelyn. There’s a sequence In the climax where editor Michael P. Shawver intercuts what’s happening in each timeline, uniting the missions of a trio of concurrent chronologies. The editing masterfully creates unbearable suspense. I loved it.

The greatest horror is not always about the events themselves, but the people they affect. Emotionally compelling performances are what elevates a merely good flick into something great . Emily Blunt is always stellar. Yet she is surprisingly less essential to this account. The MVPs of this production are the children. Millicent Simmonds as deaf daughter Regan and curly-haired Noah Jupe as introverted Marcus are indispensable. Their faces convey all the fear, apprehension, sadness, and relief necessary for us to be invested. Their fully-realized dread is perfectly expressed. The relentless weight of their dilemmas becomes relatable. It’s their achievements that make this adventure so powerful.

05-27-21

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

Stowaway

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A three-person research team heads to Mars for a two-year mission. There’s commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). After they take off, they discover an accidental stowaway (Shamier Anderson). The unexpected passenger presents a conundrum.

Filmmakers Joe Penna (director, writer, producer) and Ryan Morrison (writer, editor, producer) offers the viewer another spare survival saga. The duo seems to have an affinity for this sort of thing. Their 2019 debut was Artic — an interesting tale that took place at the North Pole. Like Stowaway, Artic was a slow-burn account . However, Artic starred Mads Mikkelsen in a perilous adventure that was enough to carry us through. A cast of four people should be exponentially more engaging in theory. Unfortunately, the talented ensemble is limited by a deficient screenplay.

Fans of sci-fi are the ostensible target audience. It does indeed take place in deep space. However, most of the action is claustrophobically set inside a spaceship about the size of a large apartment. We’re treated to some impressive vistas that highlight the outdoors, but this is actually an existential drama. Granted there are some moments of tension and excitement. The crew debates ethical dilemmas while addressing various emergencies. A plan to acquire more oxygen is a heart-stopping vignette. Nevertheless, the story unfolds at far too leisurely a pace to justify a 2-hour feature.

Stowaway is a film that doesn’t cater to your expectations. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste, but one thing’s for sure. The developments demand you continue to watch. There would appear to be more than meets the eye. Nonetheless, my suspicions went unfulfilled. The dull narrative is punctuated by one thrilling setpiece. Then culminates in a weak denouement that I found frustratingly abrupt. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and yet it isn’t because the actors are simply that compelling. This is a good movie because it’s a well-acted character study. Just not a particularly exciting one.

04-27-21

Synchronic

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synchronic is one of those films that is conveniently described as “interesting” and it’s unclear whether you mean it as a compliment. The ambiguous word is perfection because it fits this movie to a T. Steve and Dennis (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are paramedics in New Orleans who also happen to be best friends. They encounter a rash of unusual deaths in their line of work. A new designer drug called Synchronic is the common thread that unites all of the cases. It would appear this drug — which is sold in single-dose packets — might have otherworldly powers. When his partner’s daughter Brianna goes missing, Steve investigates.

The narrative is a slow starter. The first half establishes the close relationship between the central duo. It’s nice to see their bond is a positive depiction of male friendship. However, both men are adrift in their everyday lives, occasionally turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Anthony Mackie’s character is a ladies’ man that has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jamie Dornan portrays a man who had difficulty meeting women in the past (!) but is now married with two kids. He’s currently having marital problems. When the pair confront a series of bizarre fatalities in their job, it unfolds like a crime drama, disseminated in fragments using a piecemeal approach.

The second half improves. Steve becomes the hero as it concerns his investigation into the whereabouts of Brianna. His EMT partner Dennis is mostly sidelined. Dennis’ vague personality lacks a compelling identity anyway. Steve’s experimentation with Synchronic is intriguing. Here the chronicle starts to connect the threads of the grisly murders we witnessed before. These developments provide some much-needed clarification in a picture heretofore wallowing in existential gloom. The script plays with the idea that sometimes nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The past f—–g sucks, man!” Steve cries out at one point.

This is the fourth feature from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Scott Moorhead who specialize in quirky features (Spring, The Endless) that blend sci-fi with horror. Synchronic debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 but didn’t get released to the public until after Project Power and Tenet. It feels like an amalgamation of those movies but through a low-budget indie B-movie aesthetic. Synchronic is a real downer of a film. Not a criticism. Just a fact. Nevertheless, its aimless meandering feels somewhat pointless until that mic drop of an ending involving a troubling sacrifice. The “good old days” are a misnomer. “Be thankful you live in the present” is the veiled admonition presented in its final scene. Fair enough. However I suspect a hundred years from today, someone will make a similar movie condemning our current era.

04-19-21

Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You’d think a movie with the title Godzilla vs. Kong would be pretty self-explanatory. Not hard to understand, right? Well, you’d be wrong. This is the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse — a comprehensive series featuring Godzilla and King Kong. Like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers have decided to devise a needlessly complicated backstory to connect it to the previous installments. This directly draws upon the setup in Kong: Skull Island (2017) as well as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). I just want to see two beasts face off in the biggest beatdown in history. Can I?

The answer is yes, you can….after suffering through 40 minutes of exposition that weaves a lot of convoluted details that connect the stories of the earlier chapters into this one. This includes a discussion of “Hollow Earth” That is the idea that the center of the planet has an excavated space with other titans living within. Devoted viewers may recall this was brought up in Kong: Skull Island. The Skull Crawlers from that feature also make a brief appearance here too. Hollow Earth was likewise discussed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Godzilla is using subterranean tunnels to swim across the globe. Just quickly tell me, but don’t subject me to nearly an hour of talking heads pontificating about the idea. It’s a tortuous set of details that is bewilderingly hard to follow. News flash: Your movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong. If I wanted a confusing scientific explanation I’ll watch Primer. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) doesn’t seem to grasp the idea that audiences don’t require laborious clarifications in a monster flick. One line from Rebecca Hall as Dr. Ilene Andrews explains it perfectly: the rivalry between these two beastly kings is rooted in a historical feud traversing centuries to an epic Titan War. Their hate spans generations. Got it. That’s all I needed to know.

The title is about creatures, but the screenplay written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is frustratingly all about the people. They deliver their lines in blunt simplistic declarations. Alexander Skarsgård is Dr. Nathan Lindof of the Monarch corporation. Monarch is the secret scientific organization created to study these huge beasts. With his matinee-idol good looks, Nathan is handsome but very capable. Rebecca Hall is Dr. Ilene Andrews, the beautiful but still extremely brilliant anthropological linguist who’s been trying to communicate with Kong with little success. Surprise! It’s Ilene’s adopted daughter who has established a rapport that she cannot. Jia is an eight-year-old orphan — cute as a button — who happens to be an Iwi native that forms an unusual bond with Kong.

Sorry, the humans are uninteresting. Nevertheless, actress Kaylee Hottle as Jia is possibly the human MVP of the ensemble. As if her character wasn’t already precious enough, she is a deaf/mute actress that communicates through sign language. The contrast between the diminutive Jia communicating with the larger-than-life Kong is the closest thing you’ll get to poignancy in this undertaking. If a tribal girl with seemingly magical abilities isn’t a predictable trope, I don’t know what is. There’s also Brian Tyree Henry as a quirky conspiracy theorist who joins forces with two precocious kids played by Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison. The random tangent of their story arc promises a Goonies-esque adventure that never materializes in any meaningful way. But who cares? None of this nonsense is crucial to the plot anyway. Demián Bechir portrays Walter Simmons, the tech founder of Apex Cybernetics. He’s an evil billionaire (Is there any other kind?). He has a sexy adult daughter embodied by rising star Eiza González. She’s a top-tier executive but is fond of wearing tight fitting clothing that doesn’t highlight her intelligence. Apex Cybernetics is responsible for creating Mechagodzilla, a man-made weapon designed to destroy Godzilla. Later Bechir’s character selects a Japanese employee (Shun Oguri) to pilot the man-made contraption. I don’t write this stuff folks. I merely review it.

Luckily the picture is smart enough to know that we came here for the battles and there are a couple of doozies. The first one is under the sea where Godzilla has the upper hand. But the second one begins in the hollow earth where Kong realizes that this might be his ancestral home. It’s here that he picks up an ax made from a spike off the back of Godzilla’s ancestors . The second showdown ultimately occurs when Kong jumps through a portal to meet Godzilla. They end up in the streets of Hong Kong. The setting amongst the buildings with neon outlines resembles a disco nightclub. It’s in these moments that Godzilla vs. Kong redeems itself into the movie you came to see.

There was a time when I enjoyed these nonsensical fight fests without giving a care. I often wonder how I would’ve reacted to a flick such as this when I was 5. Back then, they utilized actual people in suits. That would have been preferable. Here the CGI fest feels more like a cartoon than an organic meeting of physical enemies. Welcome to 2021. Another peculiarity of the 21st century is that insidery callbacks to earlier episodes are considered more of a priority than simply telling a coherent story. Only diehard fans will recognize every single one of these “easter eggs” inserted into the dense narrative. Ah but that is the current state of cinema. Speaking of which, this was simultaneously released for free to subscribers on HBO Max and in theaters in the U.S. Given our current reality, it’s obvious most people will see this on a TV. That’s fine. Even IMAX can’t fix a bad script. At least the production has a sense of humor. The quirky soundtrack emphasizes selections that perfectly describe the scene. “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea” by Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley’s “Loving Arms”, “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest, and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies all play at key intervals. I chuckled at how the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the action on screen. Godzilla vs. Kong is by no means a good movie, but it’s moments like these that remind me it can still be fun. At this juncture in time, that just might be enough.

03-31-21