Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets_ver3STARS4Every now and then a film coasts by on a visual aesthetic that is so visionary in its daft mentality that it captivates the mind beyond all sense and reason. We’re talking about a production that’s fully formed from its costumes, creature designs and a cheerfully bonkers dedication to an artistic style. It’s like a drug. You actually feel a sense of giddiness simply by watching it. Of course, it relies on the prerequisite that you are open to the creative pleasures of an optical nature. There are those that require more intellectualism and sense in their sci-fi epics. I am not one of those people. Back in 1997, Luc Besson gave audiences the wonderful gift of The Fifth Element. The wildly imaginative space opera became a cult classic (and incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). Now 20 years later, Luc Besson has returned with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s happening all over again because this is a joy.

Our story is set in motion when a race of humanoids on the futuristic planet Mül suffers a life threatening attack. The iridescent silvery people have been living a pastoral life in a bright tropical paradise. A willowy princess wakes up on a beach. They harvest space pearls for energy. She rises to the dawn and washes her face in a bowl full of the white lustrous spherical jewels. A cute little critter called a Mül Converter is used duplicate them. Ok to be more specific, it actually poops what it eats. Their idyllic life is forever affected when they are attacked by an enemy force. The event inspires the race to kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) for mysterious reasons. This act compels Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline. The two basically operate as police officers in space. They are a romantic couple (natch) but bicker like a pair of people that can’t stand each other. He’s a roguish player. She’s a sharp-tongued intellect. I suppose their sexual chemistry is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I found their interactions amusing, albeit a bit reductive. DeHaan’s surfer dude accent is sort of a riff on Keanu Reeves’ character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Attractive Cara Delevingne, with her thick brows, kind of physically recalls Brooke Shields circa 1980. When we first meet the two they’re relaxing on a sunny beach like some marooned island couple out of The Blue Lagoon. Turns out it’s just a visual reality simulation.

Laureline is forever rebuffing Valerian’s advances in a way that’s reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that feels Star Wars-ish. Remember the cantina scene, that bar where are all the otherworldly visitors gathered to merely hang out? Well, that’s kind of like Valerian for 2 hours 17 minutes. Besson’s production is based on the comic Valerian and Laureline by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. That series was launched in 1967, ten years before the first Star Wars film was released. George Lucas has freely admitted he was influenced by director Akira Kurosawa when assembling his space opera. The similarities to Valerian have been noted by other people. [Side Note: Artist Jean-Claude Mézières collaborated with director Luc Besson on The Fifth Element.]

The action is centered around Alpha, an International Space Station where millions of immigrants from different planets gather amicably and exchange their knowledge and cultures. The opening sequence presents this as an array of meet and greets involving various individuals underscored by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The uplifting presentation of a peaceful world is such an exaltation of goodness, I was kind of overcome by the display.  The very idea that such a naive concept could become a reality was made so emotionally resonant. The vignette is among the best introductory scenes that I’ve witnessed all year. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has another. It was the perfect primer to begin this movie. The dizzying opening is pure cinema. I was captivated from the get go.

The creature designs are the strongest part of the film. A lot of it is accomplished using motion capture and CGI. An overreliance on computer graphics is usually not something I appreciate, but here it feels so organic that I enjoyed the creativity. Some of my favorites include three platypus-like aliens called the Doghan-Dagui who offer help…but only for the right price. There’s the Boulan Bathor Couturier that presents Sergeant Laureline with a series of outfits to wear. A chubby little intradimensional species seems pretty harmless but you don’t want to anger its mother. John Goodman voices the massive pirate captain that runs the Big Market Bazaar. Ethan Hawke plays Jolly the Pimp who introduces a shape-shifting species known as a Glamopod. Her name is Bubble. She’s portrayed by pop singer Rihanna in her human form. Her performance is more a feat of CGI and Cirque du Soleil than acting, but the manifestation is unadulterated eye candy at its finest. I was hypnotized by her character.

I’ll admit that when it comes to story, Luc Besson is more fascinated by the question “How does it look” not “Why does this happen?” In that respect, Valerian isn’t going to expand your mind with philosophical thought. However, it will dazzle you with the exploration of creative worlds. It’s more about the physical display. When some gentle looking butterflies flutter by, their reveal as a dangerous threat is world building at its most hilarious. The fabrication has a European, no make that international sensibility. This is helped by the inventive casting which, besides all the aforementioned names, also includes English Actor Clive Owen, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, American composer Herbie Hancock, and Chinese-born pop singer Kris Wu. Valerian is a production designer’s dream on a hallucinogenic trip. When our two protagonists go to “Big Market” the mind-bending action is a lot to wrap your head around. The shopping mall is a setting that has other dimensions that can only be accessed when you don virtual reality gloves and glasses. It’s so erratic in the way it switches back and forth between the two realities, it’s a madcap delight. The popcorn flick works on that level throughout the entire film. It’s just so silly. I adored it.

07-21-17

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3STARS3War for the Planet of the Apes is Part 3 in the rebooted film series that commenced in 2011. The franchise has been operating as a sequence of prequels leading up to the events of the 1968 classic. Now with the release of this picture, people have been referring to the collection as a trilogy. Whether more installments will follow still remains to be seen.  However if this picture makes enough money, you can best believe that more films will follow.

War is the story of Caesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes.  His army of simian warriors is at odds with Alpha-Omega, a terrorist faction of humans.  Caesar preaches a peaceful coexistence with the homo sapiens. However, the people are led by an aggressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  Apparently these barbaric individuals, can’t be reasoned with.  They’re just so warlike.  Not wanting to suffer any more casualties, Caesar plans to relocate his clan to the desert far away from Muir woods.  The night before they’re supposed to leave, Caesar’s home is invaded by the Colonel and his family is brutally attacked.  Now Caesar has a score to settle. He’s out for revenge.  This goes against everything his character has ever stood for, but hey no conflict no movie right?  Now we’re ready for a showdown.

The apes are anthropomorphic miracles of technology that act with more humanity than people. Ah yes, indeed that is the intention. If you couldn’t tell from the plot description above, War is told from the apes’ perspective. The entire trilogy (thus far anyway) has been developing a personal arc that traces the life of Caesar from a tortured experiment into a commanding leader. You will identify with the apes more than the humans. In this story, apes are better than people. You’ll be rooting for the demise of the human race if this screenplay has anything to say about it. That’s an interesting take, I suppose, but there’s more to creating a compelling narrative than merely affecting a unique point of view.

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s hard not to notice him as (1) he’s got the lion’s share of all the dialogue and (2) the camera lingers on his expressive CGI face for seemingly minutes on end. He’s a fascinating creature to be sure. Caesar rounds up a loyal band of followers. These include his second in command, an orangutan adviser named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a fellow chimpanzee named Rocket (Terry Notary), and a sensitive gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They are a serious lot. The whole production would be a serious downer if not for one individual. Steve Zahn voices a zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” in a bit of comic relief.  The misfit is kind of at lighthearted odds with the rest of the cast.  Yet he’s the only mitigation from all the dreariness.  As such, he’s a welcome reprieve from the bleak narrative.

On the non-simian side, there’s the evil Colonel played with cartoonish excess by Woody Harrelson. He wants to eradicate the world of not only all apes but also virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech. It’s easy to side with animals when this is the example of a human with which we are presented. His bald, deranged character is clearly inspired by  Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.  As a matter of fact, some graffiti on the wall actually says “Ape-ocalypse Now” lest the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle tribute wasn’t obvious.   The whole homage might seem rather clever had it not been for Kong: Skull Island liberally referencing the very same classic a mere 4 months ago.  It’s still pretty fresh in my mind.  News flash: there are other memorable films about war that weren’t made by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable spectacle.  At times it actually feels like a silent movie.  There are very few speaking parts.  Facial expressions are more important than actual words.  The camera fixates on the countenance of Caesar and we are invited to be moved by the way he emotes.  The script gets by on minimal dialogue.  The apes rescue a human orphan girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who doesn’t talk.  She was rendered mute by the Simian Flu.  Most of the apes, in turn, communicate via sign language.  The technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the series began in 2011.  Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin inspire awe with every shot.  This is a gorgeous achievement and the reason I’m giving this production a pass.  The CGI & MoCap apes are a marvel to behold.  It’s hard not to be wowed by the way War looks.  There is a trade-off for all of this visual wonder though.  The atmosphere is lugubrious.  The pacing is sluggish.  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours.  Even though the chronicle builds to a climactic finale, action does not comprise the bulk of the drama.  It’s yet another dismal morality tale that is a punishing watch.  It relies on the oldest of clichés. I’ll summarize: War is hell, but so are you, the human race, that is.  Forgive me if I don’t stand up and cheer.

07-13-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17

Alien: Covenant

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo alien_covenant_ver4_zpskj0mddqh.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgCut to the chase: Alien: Covenant is not a good movie.   Dear me though its failings are so diffuse, I don’t even know where to begin.  Let’s start with some fast facts: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and is set 10 years later. Prometheus was an Alien prequel and this new production also details events that are supposed to have happened before that 1979 masterpiece. Alien was a nifty little horror gem that was brilliant in its focused simplicity to scare in style. It was unpretentious.  Conversely, Prometheus took the franchise into biological altering origins of life. I appreciated the attempt at something grander. However, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than answers and now Covenant struggles to further expand that storyline with more scientific mumbo jumbo as to why characters are doing what they’re doing and why things are the way they are.   Unfortunately with this installment, Ridley Scott exploits the admirable qualities of Prometheus to ill effect.  Perhaps a little heady thought was welcome, but now he’s gone full tilt into a philosophical consideration of existentialism. Where Prometheus‘ script was elegant and thoughtful, this reflection is brain dead.

Alien (1979) has such a high-minded reputation that it’s easy to forget that every installment in this franchise has always been served with a heaping cup of cheese. Yet Ridley Scott is directing and it’s highlighted by a talented cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Jussie Smollett. Given that, I was expecting so much more. It makes the disappointment much more crushing. I acknowledge the crew members in these Alien films have always made a lot of dumb decisions, but Alien: Covenant tops them all.  Some random observations about that ensemble:  (1) Everyone is a couple on this expedition – including one same-sex duo.  (2) Katherine Waterston’s hairstyle recalls Jim Carrey’s bowl cut from Dumb & Dumber.  That’s not a reason to hate on a movie, but it’s such a distraction, I would be negligent not to at least mention it.

These crew members are more clueless than a group of sexually charged teens in a summer camp.  That a pair of naked lovers finds time to make out in the shower while one creature (known as a Xenomorph) prowls around the spaceship is the absolute nadir.  However, there are at least half a dozen examples where these people exhibit a brazen disregard for their own life.  Feels more like a Friday the 13th movie.  Protocols are ignored, nobody follows instructions, women weep and scream like it’s the 1950s. It becomes almost a laughable game of “Guess who’s next”. Whenever someone says they need to go off to a dark, isolated place (like use the bathroom) you know their role is coming to an end. The fact that these scientists, soldiers and shipmates have been entrusted with 2,000 human embryos to start a new colonization makes their behavior even more reckless.

The funny thing is, I can forgive a predictable elimination of lives if we’re still given an exciting version of And Then There Were None.   But no. Alien: Covenant is a really talky slog that is boring when it isn’t being thoroughly unpleasant.  Alien: Covenant does manage to serve up an abundance of gross-out “events” that are perfunctory demonstrations of body disfiguring horror.  Remember the chest bursting scene in the 1979 movie?  Of course you do. Well we get more of those. One from the front and another out of the back. But director Ridley Scott has traded on the memory of that spectacle so many times by now its impact has been destroyed. There’s nothing even remotely electrifying about these displays anymore. At a fundamental level, director Scott has satisfied a checklist of giving people the gore he thinks they want. Surprisingly most of this drama is dull until we’re served up some excitement in the final 30 minutes but you’ll have to sit through a slew of tedious conversations to get to it.

Alien: Covenant is trying to be all things to all people. On the one hand, it pacifies lovers of the original Alien by presenting a Grand Guignol-style horror film which gives the audience plenty of stomach-churning body mutilating carnage. On the other, it placates Prometheus lovers with ethical creationist theories. Crass pandering to both sides ends up satisfying neither. The best moments in Alien: Covenant center around Michael Fassbender who gets the opportunity to deliver two engaging performances. Here he plays lookalike androids: one named David (from Prometheus) and the other named Walter (an updated model). He delivers what little entertainment value can be found in this mess. By now, the slick aspects to champion in Alien: Covenant are nothing new. We get a colorful cast of astronauts differentiated by nationality, race, and gender, a gleaming set design of a spaceship and the soothing overhead voice of the ship’s onboard system they nickname “Mother”. These are the kinds of things that elevated Alien (and other sci-fi classics) from a rote story into a classy gem. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  I hate rehashing a cliché but it’s apropos.  This script is so bad it’s irredeemable no matter how much shellac you apply.

05-18-17

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on May 7, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo guardians_of_the_galaxy_vol_two_ver4_zpsd2l8up5k.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWhen the first Guardians of the Galaxy debuted in the summer of ’14, its unqualified success came as a bit of a surprise. It was a superhero team with which most were unfamiliar and so predictions were cautious.  Being the 10th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), many assumed it would still rank somewhere in the summer’s top 10. However no one thought it would be the biggest hit of the entire season, even besting Transformers: Age of Extinction, the presumed #1.  There was a very good reason.  Guardians was an extraordinary interplanetary space adventure that perfectly blended, action, romance and melodrama – arguably the best MCU entry yet.  Now with Vol. 2, the outlook is better because we know director James Gunn can deliver the goods. However, a great sequel is the general exception, not the norm in my experience. Could Gunn capture lightning in a bottle again? I’m happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 rises to the occasion. I had my doubts, but this surpasses expectations.

The original Guardians was a candy-colored, fun-tastic sugar rush of a space dream. Yet the production design of Vol. 2 makes the first film look like a Jim Jarmusch indie. The space opera positively bursts with color, effects, and lively entertainment. Sprinkle in another soundtrack of 70s pop hits.  The formula works again.  Marvel has got another smash hit on its hands. The priority is fun and Vol. 2 is, dare I say it, even funnier than the original.  Not better, mind you.  It would have been impossible to recapture the exhilarating feeling of when we first discovered this rag tag team.  Gunn realizes this and so his focus is mining the comedy from familiar individuals and then deepening our comprehension of what makes these characters tick.

Guardians is all about family.  Director James Gunn’s screenplay manages to weave in a tale about deadbeat dads, sibling rivalry between sisters and infighting amongst the clan. This gives us a fuller grasp of characters we thought we already knew.  The unmistakable chemistry remains with this lovable bunch. There’s Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) the smart-alecky leader and tough-talking, unsmiling warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Their relationship, or lack of one, is addressed through the empathic powers of new cast member, Mantis (Pom Klementieff ).   Massive galoot Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is back.  Despite his literal perception of words, he inexplicably informs the naive alien she’s ugly.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a budding romance between the two.  Also returning are the cranky bounty hunter Rocket, (voiced by Bradley Cooper), that genetically engineered raccoon, and cut from a sapling, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).  He’s awfully dim but still cute as can be.  There’s a couple unexpected cameos thrown in and the introduction of an important new villain.  No further explanation is necessary.  I consider those details spoilers.

Guardians Vol. 2 succeeds at being both funny and deep. There’s humor to spare but there’s a poignancy to the proceedings too. We get a more well-rounded understanding of characters we know and love. Guardians gives us the laughs while serving up a lot of heart as well.  Marvel movies have always been amusing.  What sets Guardians apart from others of its ilk is the free associating pop culture aesthetic. No where is that more conspicuous than in the soundtrack.   Peter’s beloved mixtape is the sentimental link to his deceased mother.  Like its predecessor, we get a liberal sampling of 70s hits from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, ELO and Cat Stevens. The film is so loopy there’s even room for a David Hasselhoff tune.  Trust me.  It actually has context in the story.  At times, the More glitz! More dazzle! can seem like too much.  At 2 hours 18 minutes, the extended run time suffers a bit from too much bloat.  But at its best, Guardians is silly and irreverent in the best sense of the word.  This is the giddy spectacle of a summer flick that wants to party down and have fun. The production achieves this in visually spectacular fashion.  It’s an opportunity for any carefree individual to simply enjoy themselves at the cinema.   One need only be open to the invitation.  In a bit of sage advice, Drax tells Peter, “There’s two types of beings in the universe: those who dance, and those who do not.”  This is a film for those who dance.

05-04-17

Colossal

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction on April 26, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo colossal_ver2_zpsxbe75ffw.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgColossal is a bizarre movie. So strange in fact that I’m almost tempted to give it a pass simply because it’s audacious. And yet I really can’t say that I completely enjoyed the experience. Oh, it’s entertaining in parts. Particularly in the first half when we’re trying to make sense of it all. Yet the production meddles with tone to the point of exasperation.

The story begins with a random flashback involving a Godzilla-like monster that terrorizes a little girl in South Korea. Then flash forward to the present day and Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is getting kicked out of boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment. She is an unemployed writer and has just come home in the early morning, drunk yet again. “I expect you to be gone when I get home.” Tim leaves for work angry. He leaves her sitting there in disbelief. All of a sudden a bunch of her friends come over and start partying. Colossal is highlighted by awkward tonal shifts like that. One minute it’s deadly serious, the next it’s trying to make you laugh. But mostly it’s trying to make you laugh. It’s silly and light until it isn’t.

Colossal starts out like a romantic comedy with a lighthearted touch. Gloria journeys back to her quiet hometown and moves into her parent’s vacant home. While struggling with an inflatable mattress she runs into old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Their meet cute turns into a date at the bar Oscar owns. They have drinks. She meets his friends Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). The group have a palpable chemistry together. We remember ex-boyfriend Tim broke up with Gloria because of her drinking problem. Yet the affable Oscar happily offers her a job working in his bar. Peculiarly the atmosphere still remains upbeat and appealing. Then it develops into a kaiju movie when a giant reptilian creature magically appears out of thin air over in South Korea. I told you it was bizarre. I enjoyed the whimsical spirit because it’s unexpected and charming. Gloria’s morning stumbles through a children’s playground after a night of drinking seem to coincide with this astonishing event. Yet it still keeps the same silly and light atmosphere. Side note: Anne Hathaway is possibly the cutest/most fashionable portrayal of a drunk I’ve ever seen in a film.

The screenplay is vague. At times it doesn’t even seem to be aware of its own absurdities.  The story eventually falters when a once sympathetic individual grows increasingly dark in ways that are incoherent and unreasonable. Oscar abruptly becomes strangely cold and cruel in a way that defies sense. The character doesn’t logically evolve. The narrative’s ability to subvert expectations is admirable, but the failure to lose all sense with a well-written personality is not. Is it an underdeveloped script or is it Jason Sudeikis’ inability to convey the complexities of a capricious character?  Jason Sudeikis is too good to simply lay all the blame on him. It’s a bit of both.

Colossal is essentially a fable about alcoholism. It’s emblematic of the film’s obliqueness that that word is never uttered. If you haven’t guessed by now, the fantastical tale is very metaphorical. The giant beast is literal but can be figurative too. It’s about the devil we become when we succumb to addiction or perhaps the monster is also the person that enables our addiction. The narrative clumsily goes through some labored machinations that enable it to present a kooky conclusion. The screenplay is provocative yet the narrative’s oddly shifting mood is disjointed to the point it’s more irritating than innovative. I’ll celebrate the subversive enthusiasm to a point. I liked the unpredictability of the genre: romantic comedy vs. sci-fi flick vs. alcoholic drama. Surprise! It’s all of these things Yet the ever-shifting mood from silly to dark and back to fun again are completely random. The human behavior on display is even more haphazard. I grew frustrated at the experience.

04-23-17

Life

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 25, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo life_ver3_zpseahijifv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLife concerns six astronauts from around the world aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The plot begins when they discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. They revive the microscopic entity with some external stimuli. As a result, the little amoeba, which they’ve dubbed “Calvin” starts to develop at a rapid rate. It’s soon clear that their understanding of this entity is not very good. They’ve underestimated the intelligence of this thing. They make that error several times actually and it’s always to the delight of an audience seeking more thrills.

You can’t read a review of Life without the critique referencing a certain sci-fi classic. That’s totally fair. Life is made up of the DNA of others films, and one in particular. I’m not even going to name the picture because I think it unfairly poisons the mind against this production. Apparently, a story loses credibility if it’s inspired by another film, even one that came out nearly four decades ago. That’s hogwash. The act of homage isn’t a reason to castigate a film. Even the precise movie in question, now venerated as a masterpiece, was chastised as merely a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the time, so there! Let’s give director Daniel Espinosa some credit. He stole from the best and he does it with the polished art of a seasoned pro.

Life has the look of quality in every detail from the elegant art direction to the talented cast. What better way to dress up your picture than with an A-list ensemble. Ryan Reynolds is Rory Adams, the wisecracking (is he ever anything else?) mechanic of the crew. He operates the machinery. The actor worked with Daniel Espinosa before in Safe House. The connection initially gave me pause because that drama was utterly generic. Life, in contrast, is not.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the space station’s doctor, David Jordan. His limited part is eclipsed by the other actors in a bit of casting unpredictability. Rebecca Ferguson is Miranda North, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control. She’s responsible for keeping everyone safe. Let’s just say she’s not too good at her job. Ferguson is best known as the fetching Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. She’s an appealing presence here as well.

The rest of the cast will be more unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but no less captivating. Miranda is joined by fellow Brit Hugh Derry, a microbiologist played by Ariyon Bakare (British TV miniseries A Respectable Trade). ** Spoiler Alert ** The black guy does NOT die first – a refreshing twist. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, The Wolverine) is Shō Murakami the experienced astronaut who’s ready to retire. While on board, his wife gives birth back on Earth. Last but not least is Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina, the commander of the ISS. She has appeared in a smattering of Russian films since 2002. The thespians go a long way into making this spectacle something engaging. After all, if we didn’t care about these people, the story would fail.

Life is an intense, heart-pounding saga that never lets up. The production design is dazzling. The opening scene, an uninterrupted nearly 7-minute take, is a marvel. The ISS set is constructed like a labyrinth and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic within. That adds to the tension as I was riveted throughout. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have worked together before (Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool). The script gives us just enough detailed jargon to seem cerebral but without getting bogged down in a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo. They have a sophisticated take on this outer space thriller that really elevates the presentation into something classy. I mean let’s be clear. At heart, this is a formula sci-fi horror tale and nothing more. Don’t go in expecting to have your mind expanded. Nevertheless, it is nice to see something that isn’t part of some larger franchise. The action entertains a lot better than some warmed over reboot or sequel. Life is worth living….er uh I mean watching.

Logan

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Superhero on March 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo logan_ver5_zpsigtia2p8.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgFor the uninitiated, Logan is the 10th chapter in Marvel Comic series about the X-Men. You know, those wacky subspecies of humans called mutants who are born with superhuman powers. It follows last year’s fiercely successful Deadpool and the not so wildly lucrative X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s also the 3rd and final entry to feature the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Given U.S. ticket sales, 2013’s The Wolverine was the least popular entry of all 10 films. How to re-invent the character for a theater-going public that has clearly grown tired of this personality?

Logan revolves around Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) a young mutant girl that enters the life of the aging Wolverine. His healing abilities are not what they once were. He is older and more grizzled here. At first, Logan is worried about caring for the even more decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). However, his focus changes when a nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), entrusts a mute 11-year-old girl into his care. Young Laura yearns for a sanctuary in North Dakota called “Eden”.  Curiously the feral Laura has strengths that are not unlike the Wolverine’s. That makes Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the Chief of Security for a company called Transigen, unhappy. You see he doesn’t like mutants and he is in hot pursuit of the little girl.

If you enjoy hyperbole in your reviews then let me attest that Logan is The Goriest Superhero Movie Ever Made!  That’s not hype. I mean what are the contenders?  Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Blade or The Punisher? Logan tops them all. Someone’s face is blown off by a gunshot and the bloody aftermath is shown. People are routinely impaled, blood spurts everywhere. Then there’s my “favorite” scene.  Professor X is prone to seizures. During one of these episodes, time stops with his psychic blast and Charles Xavier freezes everyone at a hotel. This allows Logan to go through a room stabbing people through the head and face with his claws. I mean he splices and dices their brains while they just stand there powerless. It almost seems unfair.

Allow me to hypothesize how the pitch for this story went. “We loved ‘Midnight Special’ but nobody saw it so let’s adapt it into a superhero movie and add more decapitations.” A child in need of protection hits the road with guardians while being pursued by evil baddies. Midnight Special is the most recent cinematic example of this plot. TV’s Stranger Things is a current reference too in that Laura is a kindred spirit of Eleven on that show.  Laura and her ethnically diverse mutant peers are like the women of Mad Max: Fury Road or the kids who survive Children of Men. If this was the 80s we’d be making comparisons to Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. If it was the 90s we’d be talking Edward Furlong in Terminator 2. It’s a recycled story. The difference is that superhero yarns don’t usually center on the portrayal of people at the expense of the extravaganza. Nor do they mine R-rated territory very often. Logan is for people who think the PG-13 rating is why the previous Wolverine installments weren’t very good. I only wish the script had done more than salvage a familiar trope. The story is functional and utilitarian, but it isn’t deep. Logan works best for those who get giddy when an elderly gentleman like Charles Xavier says the F word.

Logan is a deadly serious road trip. To its credit, the saga is more concerned with character development than the spectacle. It’s more intimate than the traditional superhero picture too. Director James Mangold strips the production of unnecessary flourishes. Occasionally it pauses to reflect on age and one’s own mortality. That’s such a rarity it has caused some critics to elevate this to the status of greatest superhero film ever made. Let’s all just calm down now a bit shall we?  Anyone who saw the narratively similar Midnight Special knows an introspective study about people has been done before and better, but I’ll give Logan points for trying at least. This road movie does attempt to give the audience something more than the average X-Men commodity. Logan is easily the best of the three Wolverine episodes, but I stop short of giving this picture any more acclaim beyond that.

3-3-16

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on December 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_ver5_zpsp5ilvmau.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgFilms can make us laugh, cry, tremble and shout. Some of our most intense feelings occur when we’re at the cinema. I can cite reasons as to why I loved a given movie, but ultimately, it comes down to the emotional reaction I had while watching it. That’s why I can assign the same rating to a picture like Vertigo as I would to Team America: World Police. The reasons may be very different, but my enjoyment is the same. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first stand-alone film in the Star Wars anthology series. Chronologically it happens sometime after the events of Revenge of the Sith and immediately before the events of A New Hope (or Star Wars for those born before 1977). It’s a shining example of a production that did not engage my emotions in any way shape or form. I simply didn’t care. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t a satisfying experience either. Now in writing this review I have to assign the reasons why.

1.) The saga is overburdened with minutiae. There’s a lot going on here. We hop around to various locales and characters introducing a lot of people, places, and things but never concentrating on any one thing long enough to make an impression. We even get different time frames – a flashback of when our central hero was a little girl. There’s a lot of names being thrown about too. The messy screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) is jam-packed with Easter eggs. The script includes so many little in-jokes and winking nods to previous installments, that only the most obsessive Star Wars aesthete will get all of the negligible details. In and of themselves, these inside references aren’t bad. They can be amusing, but too many can take away from the importance of telling a meaningful narrative. There’s an art to telling a simple, good old fashioned story. Oh sure, the screenwriters know their Star Wars history. They’ve done their homework. The adventure has the brains but it lacks heart and a soul.

2.) There’s a ridiculous number of bland characters.  Too many parts mean a lack of focus on a motivating protagonist. Felicity Jones’s warrior, Jyn Erso, teams up with Diego Luna’s rebel spy, Cassian Andor, to steal the plans for the Imperial Death Star. Yet neither Jyn nor Cassian inspires our passion with their lethargic charisma. They just exist to recite their lines so they can advance a dense plot. Without a galvanizing presence to arouse our sympathy, it’s hard to care. Maybe that’s why we also get a veritable backstory of secondary people each one more undefined than the next. Donnie Yen is slightly more invigorating than the rest as a blind monk guided by the Force. However Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker all have “key” roles that are so undeveloped that they barely register as personalities. Come see an international cast of great actors portraying insubstantial parts! The screenplay doesn’t have the desire to have them do anything to incite our affection. There’s one exception but it doesn’t even involve someone human. The very best (and he is a delight) is a droid, K-2SO. He’s been programmed to be incredibly honest and speak his mind. He’s like a sassier version of C-3PO portrayed in motion capture and voice by Alan Tudyk. I wish the entire movie had been about him.

3.) Rogue One is a depressing slog. This is a dour affair with surprisingly little humor. It’s telling that even most fans pick K-2SO as their favorite thing about this.  The convoluted tale doesn’t have a narrative to stimulate the emotions. I could go into specifics but that would involve revealing plot details which are apparently verboten when discussing these kinds of pictures. Translation: movies with an overzealous fan base. Words wasted encapsulating what happens are superfluous anyway. That’s why you watch the film. A good review should explain why it succeeds or fails.  Let’s just say the drama is dark and joyless. Not just in spirit but in its presentation. The gritty cinematography has the feel of a documentary about a war-torn country. A dreary blue-gray color palette underscores the gloom.  Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Let Me In, Zero Dark Thirty, and Foxcatcher) has lensed some pretty bleak features. In those, his technique worked because the subject matter demanded it. This is such a grave exercise. I thought Rogue One was part of the Star Wars world,  a thematically hopeful series that’s easy to follow. An adventure of when good triumphs over evil. Granted a little bit of optimism is shoehorned in when a cheesily inserted reference to A New Hope is spoken by a CGI Princess Leia of all people. Last year’s’ referential The Force Awakens may have been Star Wars redux, but at least it was an exciting hybridization. It succeeded because it was unbridled fun. Rogue One is cobbled together from other chapters as well, but it’s so serious it’s didactic. If I wanted to sit through an academic exercise, I’d take a course at the local community college.

Rogue One is well done from a technical standpoint. It has awe-inspiring special effects, meticulous production design, and a rousing score. It draws from a universe of films that I already adore. Well, 4 out of 7 anyway. (Those prequels are pretty weak.) The epic long battle, which comprises the second half, is impressive but it lacks a key component – our emotional attachment. Probably because the script hasn’t engendered our love for these individuals. That’s a key dilemma. The original trilogy embodies three of the most entertaining movies ever made. The grim Rogue One doesn’t even feel like the same universe. Luke, Han, and Leia were captivating, but there’s not one person here to make this story interesting. The chronicle certainly isn’t necessary. It’s merely an assembly line product efficiently produced to make money. You don’t need this other than to answer a lingering question. Why did a design flaw exist enabling the Rebel Alliance to launch torpedoes into a tiny exhaust vent and blow up the Death Star?  Rogue One uses 133 minutes to basically give us an answer. Thanks for the fan fiction, but you could’ve just told me.

12-15-16

Arrival

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo arrival_ver16_zpsbblz4gnr.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgOh, what hath 2001: A Space Odyssey wrought? Ever since Stanley Kubrick’s trippy, mind-expanding space adventure first unfurled back in 1968, the intersection of extraterrestrial life and the human experience at the movies has never been the same. The original set the bar inspiring a varying degree of diminishing results ever since. The latest sci-fi offering to delve into this concept is Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival featuring a screenplay adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”. Like Robert Zemeckis’ Contact or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Arrival is the “thinking man’s” alien invasion flick. Elevate your consciousness. That means expect lots of existentialist mumbo jumbo and less in the way of action or events.

Villeneuve is a category-defying filmmaker with successes in several genres including mystery (Incendies), thriller (Prisoners), psychobiological head trip (Enemy) and crime (Sicario) . His latest is an ethereal dissertation on what transpires after alien beings land on Earth. Twelve UFOs descend, hovering mysteriously in the sky. Tall, oblong shaped orbs dangling like colossal footballs over random locations across the planet. The one in the U.S. is over a field in Montana, The world is concerned. The key question must be addressed: “What is their purpose?”. In order to make contact, the U.S. Government taps Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in the starring role), a top linguist, and a theoretical scientist (Jeremy Renner in a bit part), to help them to better understand their intention. She will try and establish communication with the extraterrestrial visitors.

Somber, eerie, and virtually devoid of color, Arrival is an atmospheric mood piece that treats the landing of visitors from another planet with the graveness of a heart attack. In the first half, there are moments of dread. The circumstances hold promise for the audience like a dangling carrot tempting a mule to move forward.  Dennis Villeneuve conveys so much on a small budget.  The set design is bleak. The spaceships loom large. The tension is palpable. The life forms are called heptapods . Their presence is frightening. Like huge long-limbed spiders, they present seven squid-like tentacles that emit an inky black substance. The amorphous liquid is their written language which forms circular shapes that Dr. Banks tries to decode. How do we interpret their language? What are they trying to tell us? Are they friend or foe? It’s a captivating set-up. Dr. Banks and her operation argue over whether the information they glean should be kept private or shared with the other teams corresponding with the pods in their parts of the world. The human race stands on the precipice of a global war. Arrival is great when it’s a twisty conundrum….until it isn’t.

To its credit, Arrival eventually answers all of its questions. The problem is that when the enigma is slowly disconnected, then so is the film.  Subplots become red herrings.  The narrative isn’t ultimately preoccupied with the alien threat. It’s fascinated by how language molds who we are. The idea is that people approach the world differently because of vocabulary. Reality varies according to the linguistic tools employed. Terminology frames our understanding. Dr. Banks is changed by the experience. That’s the gist of the account, but I’ve purposefully omitted the closing truth. Your enjoyment of Arrival will derive out of how fascinating you think the final reveal is. Perhaps it will positively blow your mind. It has a philosophical gist. In keeping with the production’s chilly tone, I found the ending too dispassionate. The denouement is rather underwhelming after such a promising introduction. Denis Villeneuve has erroneously created a drama left unfulfilled.

11-10-16