Archive for the Science Fiction Category

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

Boss Level

Posted in Action, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on March 19, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Boss Level doesn’t waste any time getting right to the point. The focus is action, pure and simple. It starts when a man named Roy (Frank Grillo) wakes up in bed next to a woman (Annabelle Wallis). She screams just as an attacker swings at him with a machete, barely missing his head. Another assassin outside his window flies up in a helicopter and fires a machine gun into the apartment conveniently eliminating the first hitman with bullets that were clearly meant for Roy. He calmly reacts with calculated precision looking rather bored by these attempts on his life. After the chopper crashes through the window, Roy jumps out, safely landing in the back of a truck filled with sand. He carjacks a guy and recklessly dodges two more killers before crashing into an oncoming bus and promptly dies after flying through the window.

This chronicle is a bit disorienting at first. The story gleefully drops the viewer in the middle of some crazy events without much explanation. Roy Pulver is a retired Delta Force soldier. He tells us through voiceover narration that this isn’t the first time he has experienced this day. It unfolds in a continuous loop reverting to the same morning whenever he dies. Specifics like who is after him and why — as well as the science explaining why time repeats — are helpful because it rationalizes this cartoonish film. Even though things may not always make sense, that’s OK because the exposition is merely a superficial justification for a lot of exciting and often humorous set-pieces.

Square-jawed and physically fit, actor Frank Grillo doesn’t get the starring role often but he makes a badass action hero. It’s the kind of part Arnold would have played during his prime in the 1980s. He learns from his mistakes by carefully remembering what went wrong in the previous sequence, then improving on it. As a character, Roy Pulver is singularly fixated on getting the job done and not much else. Roy’s workaholic obsession is what caused his estranged wife Jemma (Naomi Watts) to break up with him. Together they have a son Joe (Grillo’s real-life 12-year-old son Rio). However, Jemma has not yet told the boy that Roy is his father.

Boss Level is more than nonstop combat. It’s also about the connections Roy makes with other people. As the various scenarios play out, relationships are deepened. Details of his marriage with Jemma are revealed. The bond with his son is strengthened. Jemma’s boss is somehow involved too. Mel Gibson shows up portraying the evil head of a shadowy corporation. His sardonic appearances are brief, but just enough to add a little camp to the recipe. Roy also gets assistance from Chef Jake (Ken Jeong), who owns a diner/bar, a security expert named Dave (Sheaun McKinney), and Dai Feng (Michelle Yeoh) a champion sword fighter. These characters are welcome additions that elevate the drama with much-needed interactions that humanize his character. This tale is about more than action. It concerns friendships and family too.

This is a Joe Carnahan movie. The filmmaker has a solid reputation for brutal excitement. The title of his directorial debut Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane established the tone for his career. Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, and The Grey all followed as he built a loyal fan base. He’s a director whose style is personified by: “action speaks a lot louder than words.” In that vein Boss Level is one of his best. Using fast edits, explosions, and intense activity, the saga entertains . The energy rarely lets up so there isn’t much opportunity to pick apart possible inconsistencies. The mood is savage but remains somewhat lighthearted because you know Roy’s death will never be the end. He’s killed a lot. Frequent assailant Guan Yin (Selina Lo) is fond of beheadings with her sword and then proudly declaring, “I am Guan Yin….and Guan Yin has done this!” The atmosphere recalls other films, most directly Edge of Tomorrow for the time loop shenanigans, but also Crank for its relentless pace and Total Recall for its blending sci-fi into the mix. The ability to reset and start over with an infinite number of lives is a nod to video games too. The narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s silly and violent and its pleasures are admittedly ephemeral. However, while I watched I was consistently enthralled. I enjoyed the ride.

03-08-21

Possessor

Posted in Drama, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Possessor is brutal. This is horror with the mischievous intent to disturb. I’m not surprised. It’s precisely what I would expect from the son of David Cronenberg. Brandon’s last effort was Antiviral which came out almost a decade ago in 2012. His belated follow-up concerns the degeneration of the human mind. It honors repellent gore at the expense of a compelling plot. Visually it’s a stunner though. Brandon Cronenberg includes all of the superficial affectations that make his father’s work fascinating, but he forgets the fact that story and character development matter too.

Plotwise there isn’t a lot to discuss. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a “possessor.” She works as a contract killer whose consciousness is implanted into the body of a person close to the target in order to carry out an assassination. She receives her orders from Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a relentless boss without any moral qualms whatsoever. Tasya is instructed to kill billionaire John Parse (Sean Bean). To do so, she is embedded into the psyche of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), the boyfriend of John’s daughter, Ava (Tuppence Middleton). Despite Andrea Riseborough’s top billing, it is Christopher Abbott who occupies the bulk of the narrative. He’s a handsome fellow with a wooden personality that never displays any more than the bare minimum required to convey a human being. If he had been revealed to be a robot at the end, his impassivity would’ve made perfect sense.

Possessor isn’t a complicated film. The saga details a murder gone wrong. Yet a science fiction milieu has been grafted onto a simplistic outline that travels at a snail’s pace. The futuristic cyberpunk vibe elevates the atmosphere into something far more convoluted than the facade. I’m not saying the concept couldn’t have inspired something great. Christopher Nolan took the notion and made Inception — one of the greatest films of the past 10 years. Give the idea to the progeny of a famous filmmaker and you get lots of macabre ways to creatively kill people. As the body count grows, it’s apparent that Cronenberg is more interested in making people uncomfortable than telling an appealing story. This is a thoroughly repellent production that cruelly assaults the viewer without engaging our emotions. At least Karim Hussain’s cinematography imbues the carnage with an elegant sheen. It’s a testament to its style that this film has garnered some very positive reviews from the cognoscenti. I want substance however, and stomach-churning violence doesn’t qualify.

09-01-20

Tenet

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller on October 5, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I feel I must acknowledge right from the beginning that Tenet was supposed to be the movie that would “save” cinema by inspiring people back into theaters. It didn’t. There was reason to think it would flourish. 10 years ago, the thematically similar Inception made nearly $300 million in the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, Tenet isn’t anywhere near as good. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the film and honestly, it was a success everywhere else in the world. Its poor showing at the U.S. box office has a lot more to do with the fact that many markets, including the two largest (New York, Los Angeles) weren’t even open when it was released on September 3.

In retrospect, a talky and confusing spy thriller from the creative imagination of Christopher Nolan wasn’t the best choice to welcome people back into theaters. There are those who will demand the astonishing visuals must be seen on the biggest screen available. They are indeed breathtaking. However, I’m here to say that this feature will probably find its greatest victory at home where viewers can pause and re-rewind to their heart’s content to fully comprehend Christopher Nolan’s impenetrable screenplay. Audiences have also complained that the dialogue can be hard to hear. I didn’t have a problem with it but closed captioning will be a godsend for those who feel this way. Now let’s discuss the story.

A CIA agent (John David Washington) is recruited by an organization from the future called Tenet to save the world. A Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is dying. He wants to use a device called an Algorithm which allows him to alter time. His doomsday plan is to invert the universe and have humanity die with him. The CIA officer contacts Andrei’s estranged wife Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki) to aid him in his task. Also assisting the “Protagonist” (he’s not given a name) is Neil (Robert Pattinson), his handler in the mission. Of course that’s simplifying things considerably. The plot isn’t straightforward, but that’s all you need to know. This is the mind of Christopher Nolan where he complicates the notion of time travel with a facility called a Turnstile that uses red and blue rooms to invert and revert a traveler’s path. Whatever.

Nolan is obsessed with time. I submit Memento, Inception, and Interstellar as exhibits A, B, and C. It’s his fetish, and Tenet furthers that obsession. He would rather articulate how time travel could occur with verbose specificity and then manipulate that idea even further to the point of nonsense. He exploits that theorem as an excuse to create nifty setpieces where multiple timelines exist concurrently. Time is moving ahead in one chronology and reversed in another simultaneously right before our eyes. I’d argue that the mechanism of time travel never holds up intellectually. Once you accept that principle, the easier it will be to champion any movie that employs that concept.

Suspend your desire to understand the baffling exposition. Simply delight in the sheer scale of the extravaganza that is presented. You will be satisfied. There are spectacles created within this environment that are too beautiful to dismiss. A shootout at the opera, a fistfight in a hallway, a plane crash at an airport, a reverse car chase, and the climax when the protagonist is inverted and he goes back in time while another team is advancing forward. It is is a vivid action display that is easily the most thrilling sequence of the year. Buildings collapsing, coming back together, and exploding again is a sight I won’t soon forget. The action is highlighted by the type of blasting soundscape of a score we’ve come to expect in a Nolan production. Ludwig Göransson’s music reverberates with bass to thrillingly punctuate the action. Does the chronicle make coherent sense? No, but I enjoy Tenet for the same reasons I appreciate the 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It’s not about rationalizing every plot detail or understanding the dense narrative. It’s about the manifestation of spectacular style that could only triumph within the world of cinema.

09-29-20

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Music, Science Fiction with tags on August 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bill_and_ted_face_the_music_ver3STARS2.5So the last time we saw Bill & Ted, it was 29 years ago.  A lot has changed since the duo’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bogus Journey (1991).  I mean, let’s be real.  It’s been nearly three decades.  Neither installment was what I’d call great cinema but they both coast on the affable charm of the leads.  “Be excellent to each other!” and “Party on dudes!” they proclaimed.  I really wanted to like this sequel because (1) of nostalgia for the first film and (2) there are flashes of inspiration that kept me hoping it would get better.  Unfortunately, the production is a chaotic, loud special effects-laden fantasy that never quite gelled for me.

So the boys (well men — Bill & Ted are in their 50s now) are tasked with writing a song that will unite the world and save humanity.  If they don’t, then reality will collapse.  Being the slackers that they are, they decide to reutilize their old miraculous phone booth to time travel into the future where the tune already exists, steal it and bring it back to their current era.  But there’s so much more going on.  They are married and their wives (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) are also time traveling to find an existence where each woman is happily married to their respective husband.  Bill & Ted are also pursued by a neurotic robot (Anthony Carrigan) that has been sent by The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) to kill the duo in order to restore balance to the universe. Whew!

Now on to the most righteous part.  Bill & Ted are aided by their daughters, Thea and Billie, who want to help their fathers write the song.  Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine embody the offspring with charisma and appeal.  Their personalities reflect their fathers’ demeanor but with more wisdom.  They have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and they put it to good use as they recruit a supergroup of the greatest musicians from throughout history.  Mozart (Daniel Dorr), Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft), and Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) are among the choices.  This is the story thread that harkens back to the sweet simplicity of the first movie.  The portion concerning the two girls is actually the most compelling.

The bloated saga is tedious though. Bill & Ted keep running into depressing or silly future versions of themselves.  In one they’re muscle-bound inmates in prison, in another timeline, hippies, in still another, old men.   None of these different iterations are very funny or clever.  Of course, most people tuning in won’t care.  They want to see “Bill” played by Alex Winter and “Ted” portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  The dudes are back and that’s very important because nostalgia is everything in this episode.  I think it’s safe to say if you haven’t seen the other two chapters or didn’t enjoy them,  then Face the Music is definitely not made with you in mind.   This is for the fans and it relies on jokes and asides that reward people who are.

8-28-20

Project Power

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on August 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

project_powerSTARS1.5There is a (brief) moment where Project Power isn’t a turgid mishmash of special effects and badly edited action sequences.  It occurs when actress Dominique Fishback portraying high schooler Robin Reilly drops a series of rhymes extemporaneously built around random words suggestions by Art (Jamie Foxx).  These meticulously clever raps probably weren’t dashed off as effortlessly in real life.  Yet the screenplay by Mattson Tomlin presents them that way.  The fantasy that this teen has such a facility with language that she could achieve the impressive feat is a superpower in itself.  That’s the kind of talent that should have been the focus of this film — not some stupid drug.

Most of Project Power is a slapdash mess of an idea about a pill that grants the taker a mere 5 minutes of superhero ability.  However, there are caveats.  An individual’s reaction to the drug is unknown until it is ingested.  Some people have exploded after taking which makes it an extremely risky endeavor.  The narcotic is popular in the criminal underground where it has been purposefully introduced.  Now if you’re thinking this may be some thinly disguised sociopolitical message movie about the CIA and its association with crack cocaine, then you’re far too smart for this twaddle.

The drama is populated with hackneyed personalities.  Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a police officer trying to enforce order on the streets of New Orleans.  We’re reminded that this is the “Big Easy” many times.  So often, in fact, that I started thinking that it might make a good drinking game because alcohol is the only way I could have enjoyed this numbing assemblage of cliches.  Frank is supposed to be a good guy, yet even he takes the stimulant in order to level the playing field.  He’s conflicted.  The motivations of an ex-army soldier named Art (Jaime Foxx) are even less clear or logical.  He kidnaps a small-time dealer named Robin Reilly (Dominique Fishback).  Robin is the one human being that exhibits a fresh personality.  Art demands to know her supplier.  As if we needed more plot threads, he also happens to be searching for his missing daughter.  Then there’s the clearly evil drug overlord “Biggie” portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro.

The tone is wildly inconsistent.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt often provides comic relief as Officer Frank Shaver.  Meanwhile, Jaime Foxx is as serious as a heart attack.  He scowls a lot.  You’d think the superhero narrative and presence of high school kids would’ve inspired directors Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman (Nerve, Viral) to go the family-friendly route.  Instead, this is a wallow through R-rated sludge.  Events are blighted by violence and gore.  The decision to feature people who either graphically explode or are permanently disfigured is misguided to say the least.  One guy is shot in the hand and his fingers are blown off.  Luckily the CGI is so sloppy that the effects are more cartoonish than realistic.  Visually incoherent is the best way to describe the action sequences and quite frankly, the entire film.  Project Power contains a creative idea that 9 out of 10 writers could’ve easily expanded into an interesting tale.  Apparently, this is the attempt that failed.

08-22-20

Sputnik

Posted in Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on August 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

sputnikSTARS3Sputnik embraces an ethos that will undoubtedly endear itself to some viewers more than others.  Personally, I get it.  There’s something extremely satisfying about a thoughtful sci-fi saga.  Scientists that are driven by intellectual thought more closely resemble the way things play out in real life than an action star that shoots first and asks questions later.  However, a movie favoring cerebral over emotional impulses is going to yield a decidedly lower level of raw excitement.

The year is 1983.  Two Soviet astronauts…er uh excuse me…cosmonauts are sent into space.  They unexpectedly encounter something out in the galaxy.  They crash land in Kazakhstan.  Only Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) survives.  Authoritarian military Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) is in charge of the government’s effort to study him.  Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) is the controversial but effective doctor he brings on board to assist.  English speakers will probably associate the title with the first satellite launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union.  However, Sputnik is also the Russian word for “companion” and that’s exactly how it is meant here.  Konstantin inadvertently brought something back with him.

Creature design and mood are the best parts.  The potent but restrained use of special effects is highly effective.  The alien looks a bit like the Hammerpede entity from Prometheus but with the face of a wolf spider.  It’s impossible not to see how the DNA of Alien (1979) is an inspiration for the story.  Many have taken note of the similarities.  However, where Alien took place in space, Sputnik is a claustrophobic saga set in a laboratory where an explorer is being studied.  Additionally, the personality of the extraterrestrial is significantly different.   I contend this story actually adheres a lot closer to the narrative of Venom (2018).

Sputnik is fascinating.  I was completely enrapt whenever the creature was on screen.  I enjoyed so much about this film.  Screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev rely heavily on talky exposition for most of its runtime.  Yet many plot developments leave the spectator with questions that are still left unexplained by the end.  That’s a bit frustrating. The schizophrenic late in the movie shift to deliver a standard action movie style climax leaves a bad taste too.  Sputnik is the feature directorial debut of Egor Abramenko.  Given this audacious effort, I am interested to see what he does next.

08-15-20

The Vast of Night

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

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

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

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

05-29-20

Vivarium

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vivarium_ver2STARS2.5Before March 2020, a science fiction-themed work like Vivarium would’ve been just another riff on a Twilight Zone episode.  Ok, I’ll concede that it utilizes a premise stretched preciously thin by its feature-length.  Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are a young couple that go house hunting.  A peculiarly unsettling real estate agent, named Martin (Jonathan Aris)  introduces them to a residential tract development called Yonder that takes cookie-cutter housing to its conformist extreme.  Martin leads them into house #9.  They go inside. They chat for a short while and suddenly * poof * he’s gone.  They attempt to leave themselves but get lost in Yonder’s labyrinth of similar-looking roads.  After a while, they run out of gas.  Now they are compelled to spend the night.  The nightmare has begun.

Vivarium is a pessimistic ordeal about two individuals trapped at home.  Tensions arise due to the oppression of their forced isolation.  Occasionally there are incidents that will pique the viewers’ interest.   Early on the couple awake to discover a box with a living infant boy inside.  The instructions on the box read: “Raise the child and be released.”  The perplexing occurrence continues to lull the viewer into a state of unease.  The misery of parenthood is definitely a theme but it’s made worse by their confinement and inability to escape.  Their involuntary restriction to interact with anyone else adds to their growing hysteria.  Director Lorcan Finnegan has co-written a story with Garret Shanley about a civilization where personal freedoms have been eroded.

Vivarium‘s existentialist horror is admittedly helped by admirable production design.  Philip Murphy creates a maze of generic green monopoly houses that stretch endlessly unto the horizon.  The vivid color palette is quite effective.  However, no amount of style can obscure the fact that this is simply a movie about two people constrained to stay at home with an unruly child.  Can anyone relate?  The point could have been conveyed in a 10 minute short.  Yet Vivarium cruelly hammers the same objective for a full 98-minute feature.   The film is not only a descent into hell for the couple but for us the audience as well.  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  A month ago I might’ve found this to be an amusing — albeit implausible — bit of fantasy about a dystopian society.  At this moment in time, it feels strangely prescient.  Timing is everything in life.  Regardless, it doesn’t matter when this bit of hokum was unleashed onto the public.  It’s not powerful.  This a case where sadly real life is stranger (and a lot bleaker) than fiction.

04-06-20

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20