Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Day Shift

Posted in Action, Comedy, Science Fiction, Thriller on August 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

In 2005 Jaime Foxx won the Oscar for Best Actor. He hasn’t been nominated since, and Day Shift certainly isn’t going to change that. However, it’s currently the #1 streaming title on Netflix, so that’s something.

Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) is a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner who gets an unlikely partner in union rep Seth (Dave Franco). Jaime Foxx portrays a confident, streetwise action hero, and Dave Franco is the intelligent but awkward official with whom he is saddled. We’ve seen the odd couple pairing a million times before. I love those offbeat bonds of the 1980s like 48 hours, Lethal Weapon, and Midnight Run. Despite their differences, we all know that the two will become good friends. It’s the series of comical escapades that entertains. These lay the groundwork for their ultimate meeting of the minds.

Action comedies about mismatched people united in a common cause usually rely on the camaraderie that makes the partnership fun. Apparently, screenwriters Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten skipped the days when those lessons were taught in film writing school. The slapdash script is so emotionally vacant it makes Central Intelligence look like In the Heat of the Night. Jaime Foxx and Dave Franco do their talented best, but the screenplay doesn’t allow them to have chemistry together. The interaction between these two actors is not pleasant. It doesn’t help that Dave Franco is required to vomit often and pee his pants to show his ineptitude in combat. Oh, and let’s be clear, physical confrontations — not intellectual repartee — are the raison d’être of the picture.

The chronicle relies heavily on explosions, blood, knives, machine guns, stabbings, explosions, and neck slicing decapitations featuring disembodied heads. Oops! Did I mention the explosions twice? Well, it bears repeating. Carnage is why this flick exists. Stuntman-turned-director J.J. Perry is making his directorial debut. The arbitrary developments are a disjointed mess. If you enjoy seeing an individual get their arms ripped off and then pummeled with their own limbs, you will treasure at least one scene in the chaos. The wonky special effects in the fight scenes are kind of hilarious, though. Jaime Foxx is kicked and thrown across the room like a rag doll in the climax.

The cast includes a random ensemble of other personalities that distract from the central duo. Perhaps the most engaging is the main villain Audrey San Fernando (Karla Souza), a pretty vampire/real estate agent who works for a high-end firm. Her flashy attitude would be right at home on the reality TV series Selling Sunset. Snoop Dogg pops up as an intimidating but supportive cowboy named Big John Elliott. His appearance is sure to be a particular delight for viewers who were teens in 1993. I must admit I was amused by his lackadaisical presence. Although Bud may have a violent job, the narrative also unconvincingly paints him as a family man. He’s got a beloved daughter (Zion Broadnax) and an estranged wife (Meagan Good). Yet the relationships don’t resonate with even a modicum of genuine emotion. These are accomplished actors instructed to pose as nonentities in a soulless product for streaming consumption. By the end, someone informs us that “vampires don’t pee or poop,” which inspires Bud’s 8-year-old daughter to crudely blurt out, “Does that mean they’re full of sh–?” That kind of language is not to be encouraged from a youngster, but I still answered politely with, “No, but your movie is.”

08-16-22

Nope

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on July 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The difference between homage and rip-off is subjective. The old joke is that an “homage” is when you copy someone else; a “rip-off” is when someone else copies you. Another glib definition is that when one enjoys the appropriation, the borrowing is deemed a lovely tribute, and when offended, it’s theft. However, I would like to offer a more sincere explanation. When you take elements that exist in beloved films and creatively manipulate them into something entirely new and innovative, it’s an homage. That is the process at play in Jordan Peele’s latest triumph.

The tale concerns a brother and sister who run a horse wrangling business. Daniel Kaluuya’s character incredulously goes by OJ, a nickname that invites double takes. Keke Palmer is the affable Emerald. Nestled 40 miles north of Los Angeles in the desert town of Agua Dulce sits the Haywood Ranch. Here horses are raised for use in Hollywood productions. This was their father’s livelihood, an enterprise dating all the way back to the beginning of motion pictures. In the official explanation, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) has recently met with an untimely demise when he is violently pelted with stray particles thrown from a plane overhead. Yet something more ominous is looming. A mysterious cloud up in the sky seems to have a malevolent effect on the human and animal life in the area.

Nope is an ensemble anchored by the dichotomy of a pair of individuals. These two differ on how to proceed with the family’s legacy. Keke Palmer plays the free-spirited sister. Her lively performance is a vibrant counterpoint to Daniel Kaluuya’s aloof, almost lethargic personality. He is a man of few words, with virtually no expression. I have to assume the intention to render OJ so stoic was a directorial decision. To imbue this man with a sluggish demeanor was an unconventional choice I couldn’t embrace. Does nothing faze this man? In one intense, armrest clenching predicament, OJ quietly utters a simple — albiet hilarious — “Nope” when deciding whether to exit his car.

Once they realize something more sinister is afoot, the duo decide they need to document the threat. Aiding them is Brandon Perea as Angel, a tech employee at a Fry’s Electronics store who installs the security cameras they purchase. He’s also a conspiracy theorist that believes in aliens and wants to be involved in their endeavor. A dialogue about how UFOs are now known as UAPs is an amusing aside. They shun Angel’s assistance, although his tenacity prevails. Deep-voiced character actor Michael Wincott also appears as Antlers Holst, a cameraman from the old school that may have a solution to getting these mystifying events on film. If Nope has parallels to Jaws, then Antlers is our Quint.

Nope is filled with fascinating scenes, but it takes a while to groove into the rhythm of this picture. I didn’t know what the heck was going on at first. Nevertheless, Jordan Peele’s saga is a carefully constructed narrative that twists and contorts to include essential clues that gradually aid our understanding of the story. Paradoxes and red herrings crop up. The appearance of a TMZ reporter riding a motorcycle in a mirrored helmet becomes a fly in the ointment. Look again because these seemingly arbitrary ideas illuminate what makes these personalities tick. A key ingredient to the cast is Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor named “Jupe” after his role on a popular 90s TV show Kid Sheriff. He now trades on that fame by running a Western-themed amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim. The outdoor show attended by a small audience is a jaw-dropping setpiece that descends into a terrifying sequence. A random vignette regarding his second failed sitcom and a monkey is a head-scratching bit of information that memorably opens the picture. It’s horrifying. Sometimes sound effects conjure up images that are worse than any visual.

Nothing about this chronicle is expected. That quality elevates this breathtaking odyssey into a compelling and bewildering experience. In a bit of misdirection, the movie starts with a cryptic quote from an obscure book of the Hebrew Bible: Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” The prophet foretold destruction, and that is precisely what you will get. I was immediately taken aback. Is this Jordan Peele’s religious awakening? In a sense. His latest shows a reverence for Hollywood filmmaking.

Nope is about slowly building dread and the method for dealing with that danger. The account is masterfully detailed and executed. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is among the MVPs with his masterful celebration of the visual grandeur using IMAX cameras. The presentation is stunning. Whether it’s the magnificent sweep of an aerial object or capturing the incongruity of inflatable tube men blowing in the wind across the open prairie, the impressive exhibition of Nope is terrific in a production inundated with the majesty of the unknown. Michael Abels’ (Get Out, Us) atmospheric music heightens the awe-inspiring displays. Jordan Peele borrows heavily from the book of Spielberg in how his narrative plays out. Most notably, the elements of Close Encounters, Poltergeist, and Jaws. The bloody iconography of The Shining and the love for classic Hollywood cinema in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are in there too. Steven Spielberg made it scary to swim. Jordan Peele makes it frightening to look up at the sky.

07-21-22

Jurassic World: Dominion

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After the tumultuous tedium of Fallen Kingdom, I don’t think I could stand another return to the remote enclave of Isla Nublar. Fortunately, the 2nd installment in the Jurassic World trilogy ended with the destruction of the theme park. The island is now a barren wasteland, but dinosaurs still exist and have been set loose on the mainland. They live and hunt alongside humans all over the world. The question is, will human beings remain at the top of the food chain? I’m happy to report that Jurassic World: Dominion gives plenty of examples where people and dinosaurs face off to test that theory.

The production succeeds as simply one breathtaking action sequence after another loosely strung together by inconsequential drama. If you want details, a screenplay by Emily Carmichael & director Colin Trevorrow provides them, but if you don’t grasp (or care about) everything they’re putting down, it won’t matter. So get this, a giant hybrid of locusts spliced with the DNA of their prehistoric ancestors is rampaging the earth. They are attacking all crops EXCEPT those grown from the seeds of a biotech company called Biosyn. Owen and Claire have an adopted daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who is a genetic clone of her mother, Charlotte (Elva Trill). Her DNA could hold the secret to eradicating the pests.

The story handily juggles a sprawling cast of actors. Akin to those disaster flicks of the 1970s like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, no one actor is the sole focus. I suppose the closest thing to a starring duo is romantic couple Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). We also are reunited with the scientific minds of Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and Henry Wu (BD Wong) of the original trilogy. That’s a big deal. It’s nice seeing everyone reunite on screen. That wide shot of the entire cast looking up with mouths agape during the climax is an emotionally compelling sight.

The chronicle throws in a bunch of new key cast members. Surprise! They don’t stick out like a sore thumb. They’re welcome additions. Actors DeWanda Wise (TV series She’s Gotta Have It) and Mamoudou Athie (Patti Cake$, Uncorked) notably hold their own in the company of their more famous and experienced co-stars. Meanwhile, Campbell Scott (Dying Young, Singles) — another new addition — is a seasoned veteran who has been acting for nearly four decades. He channels his inner Steve Jobs in demeanor and wardrobe as the CEO of Biosyn Genetics.

But hey, let’s be honest. Who cares about the people?! These pictures have always been about the dinosaurs and Dominion offers several doozies. A red feathery Pyroraptor torments Owen and Kayla above a frozen lake and then dives through a hole in the ice to chase them underwater. With long extended claws, Therizinosaurus is like Freddy Krueger or the Wolverine crossed with a prehistoric bird. He swats a deer as if it were a fly with sharp talons after stalking Claire through the woods. Claire is forced to hide in a pond in a memorable encounter. And who could forget the pack of Atrociraptors that pursue Owen in a spectacular motorcycle race through the streets of Malta? That last setpiece is worth the price of admission alone. Oh and I haven’t even mentioned Giganotosaurus and his climactic showdown with a Tyrannosaurus rex, but I’ve said enough. Go watch the movie.

Jurassic World Dominion flips the script. The adventure introduces something new and wholly unexpected. Instead of being set on that same island yet again, we get globe-hopping exploits in jungles and distant countries filled with dinosaurs that involve shootouts, plane crashes, and undercover missions. The account has an “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. The audience is constantly inundated with stuff. “More is more” is the mantra and it works. These stories have never been about sense. As long as we’re having fun, I’m OK with it. The film strays when it feels the need to provide convoluted details about things that don’t need explaining. Also at 2.5 hours, it’s painfully long. Thankfully there’s lots of exciting dino action. I reveled in the effects and so I enjoyed the movie.

06-09-22

Men

Posted in Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on May 26, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

An impressive setup is always appreciated, but a satisfying conclusion is fundamental. Obviously, a movie should hold up from start to finish, but a great beginning is all for naught if the resolution can’t make good on the buildup. Men is the manifestation of a promise unfulfilled, an interesting idea that devolves into a disappointment.

Jessie Buckley is Harper Marlowe, a woman who retreats to the English countryside after her husband’s (Paapa Essiedu) death. They had a heated argument in James’ final moments. He became abusive and struck Harper in the face. She angrily pushed him out of the room and locked the door. He either attempted to climb back into the room from the 2nd floor and slipped or purposefully committed suicide by jumping, impaling himself on the iron fence below. His passing haunts her. A retreat to more peaceful surroundings does little to allay her anxiety.

Men is a folkloric fable that exploits the darkness of rural landscapes. The Wicker Man is perhaps the granddaddy of the genre but The Witch, Midsommar, and Lamb are all recent examples that did this skillfully. At the very least, Alex Garland vividly extracts an unsettling atmosphere from the seemingly tranquil setting of a country estate. Ah but something sinister is afoot. The first half employs the splendid cinematography of frequent collaborator Rob Hardy in an account of a woman’s unease. Harper hopes to alleviate her stress. The heart of the drama is built on the solid base of a compelling performance. Actress Jessie Buckley engenders our sympathy. That’s key. Actor Rory Kinnear is also memorable as the landlord of the manor where she’s staying. He is — as the English say — an odd duck. Also bizarre are the townsfolk of the village. These include a vicar, a policeman, and a schoolboy. Each one is an insensitive male figure with a dismissive attitude. Rory Kinnear plays them all.

I enthusiastically anticipate a new production from Alex Garland. He gained notoriety with screenplays that included 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go. Then cemented this reputation with his directorial debut Ex Machina. He followed with Annihilation. I had high expectations for his latest offering. The tale brilliantly creates the impending sense of dread for a woman. I felt that. The appearance of a stalker in the garden of the estate is a disturbing image I won’t soon forget.

Sadly, the chronicle doesn’t end well. The allegory is rife with symbolism. The cerebral exercise inserts pagan iconography like the Sheela-na-gig and the Green Man without explanation. When she first arrives, Eve — er uh I mean Harper — picks and eats forbidden fruit from a tree in the garden. But what exactly is Garland trying to say? Deciphering a story bereft of a plot but loaded with imagery can be daunting — especially when the metaphors aren’t profound. As the saga limps toward its crushing denouement, one can only luxuriate in the mood. Delve further to decipher the meaning beneath what’s presented and I uncovered a superficial objective, unsuccessfully realized.

The ickiest body horror in filmdom can repel or fascinate based on context. David Cronenberg (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) practically originated the genre. At the very least, he regularly exploited it. John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Rick Baker’s makeup for An American Werewolf in London are iconic examples. Those hallucinatory displays served the narrative and elevated the plot. Here the payoff rests on an over-the-top effect designed to shock, but to what end? I’ll leave a deep psychological analysis of its themes to the viewer. However, it’s hard to ignore that Alex Garland has saddled his movie with such an all-encompassing title. Men suggest the overall conflict between the sexes. Its reflection on gender is — at best — obvious and superficially explored. I didn’t glean any insight or enlightenment from the presentation. This ultimately failed in execution.

05-19-22

Moonfall

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 19, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Let’s face it, director Roland Emmerich peaked with Independence Day. He’s been chasing that achievement ever since. Oh sure, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 were huge successes as well, but they were disaster films modeled on the blueprint of that success. The simple concept here: The moon’s trajectory has mysteriously altered and is now hurtling toward our planet. The monumental catastrophe makes no sense whatsoever. That would be fine if the script simply embraced the silliness and then gave us a show. However, Emmerich has other plans.

The central figure is Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson). The disgraced astronaut has been blamed for a calamity up in space while doing maintenance on a satellite station. The mission was led by Commander Jo Fowler (Halle Berry). She was knocked unconscious and has no memory of the event. At least she survived. The other astronaut (Frank Fiola) in their trio did not. Brian’s allegation that a large black mass attacked them is written off as crazy talk. Human error is the official explanation. The event takes its toll on his daily life. Brian eventually divorces his wife Brenda (Carolina Bartczak). Their teen son Sonny (Charlie Plummer) grows emotionally distant from him. Brenda gets remarried to Tom (Michael Peña) and moves to Jersey. Commander Jo also has an ex-husband (Eme Ikwuakor) who is an Air Force chief of staff. They share custody of their annoyingly cute 10-year-old (Zayn Maloney). None of the drama down on land is compelling. Unfortunately, these soap opera shenanigans are de rigueur for an Emmerich production.

Moonfall is a greatest hits album of Roland Emmerich themes: Manhattan gets decimated, an alien threat, broken father-son relationship. The “master of disaster” understands that audiences come to see a spectacle when things go wrong. He delivers that at least. Stuff will be destroyed, but he also feels the need to ground everything in characters that endlessly clarify the science of it all. The cast includes comic relief in the form of a wacky conspiracy theorist with a podcast. KC Houseman (John Bradley) believes the moon is an artificial megastructure whose elliptical orbit has changed. His character exists to explain things. Count how many times the word “megastructure ” is uttered if you get bored. Yes the developments do get sillier by the minute and I expect that, but exposition dumps are never an interesting way to describe what’s happening. These densely written monologues somehow make the plot sound more stupid. Even Donald Sutherland pops up briefly to collect a paycheck. As the gatekeeper of NASA’s secret archives, he imparts a bevy of information.

Moonfall could have been so dumb it’s fun. The title is literally the premise: Moon falls…toward Earth. The amount of science and data forced into the account effectively drains the lighthearted spirit out of the story. Emmerich didn’t act alone. He assembled this wretched screenplay with two others: Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen. The ersatz drama of interconnected familial relationships and subplots is a real snooze too. With a $146 million budget, it’s one of the most expensive independently-funded movies ever made. When Moonfall opened in theaters back in February it flopped hard. I wasn’t surprised. It looked terrible and I ignored it. But it found a second life on VOD when it debuted in April. The rental has consistently remained in the Top 10. “Maybe it’s not so bad?” I thought. <sigh> I should trust my instincts.

05-17-22

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on April 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

So if you’ve completely divested from the Wizarding World, you have my respect. Nevertheless, you’ll need a primer for this review. The Secrets of Dumbledore is part three of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, which is a spin-off/prequel to the Harry Potter movies. If you’ve seen the other two, it remains a convoluted saga that requires a lot of work to keep track of what’s going on. That’s a warning if you’re not a dedicated fan of this stuff. You must see the other entries first to understand this one. Or better yet, skip all three entirely and watch a satisfying fantasy. Anyway, the positive news is that this entry improves upon the last.

We’re three episodes into this joyless series and I still have no idea what this overarching drama is even trying to say or why. It appears to be a political allegory condemning fascist ideology. Fun! If I can boil this account down to its basic essence, it’s good vs. evil in the form of an honest wizard named Dumbledore (Jude Law) against the malevolent wizard Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen). The two made an unbreakable oath never to harm each other a long time ago. The upcoming reveal of the Supreme Mugwump is approaching. A fawn called a Qilin will bow to the leader that is most pure of heart. Grindelwald is manipulating the process and he must be stopped. Dumbledore assembles a team to curtail Grindelwald’s nefarious plans.

Side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that actor Mads Mikkelsen has taken over the role originally played by Johnny Depp. It’s like when Dick Sargent replaced Dick York in TV’s Bewitched in 1969 and no one acknowledged on screen that this was a different actor. The reasons for the decision are different though. Mikkelsen’s emotionless performance may be adequate but it isn’t an improvement. Bowing to the court of public opinion is so much more important than artistic merit.

What the feature has going for it is a nice-looking fantasy adventure with great production design and visual effects. There’s a section where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) goes to rescue his brother Theseus (Callum Turne). He has to mimic the moves of these little scorpion critters. I was mildly amused by that. There are engaging moments here and there. Yet once again there are too many characters. An aggregation of returning individuals includes actors Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Callum Turner, and Fiona Glascott. However, the MVP award goes to Dan Fogler as the non-magic Jacob Kowalski. It is a testament to his ability to turn a minor character into a fascinating personality. He seizes focus as the charismatic spice in a bland stew. Meanwhile the episodic nature of the plot sort of plods along without a strong story or compelling focus.

Nonetheless, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a vast upgrade over its predecessor. The Crimes of Grindelwald came out four years ago. I couldn’t even begin to recall what happened. It was such an ordeal, I probably blocked it out to be quite honest. So before I went to see this, I forced myself to do a significant amount of research on the internet to reacquaint myself with the lore. I even read the plot synopsis of the current release on Wikipedia. Going to see this felt more like a homework assignment than actual entertainment. However, doing that preparation did make my experience more enjoyable. I give this film a pass. If you have the base knowledge to enjoy this flick, then consider it worthy of your time. If you aren’t, steer clear.

04-15-22

The Adam Project

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 15, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Free Guy was one of the biggest hits of 2021, so it made financial sense that star Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy would reunite. This is another high concept, sci-fi movie that’s even more wholesome. I appreciate that both Free Guy and this new release are “original” ideas not based on an established property. Nevertheless, The Adam Project still feels awfully familiar.

Adam Reed is a space pilot who time travels from the future year of 2050 back to 2022. Ryan Reynolds is playing a sarcastic type with a confident personality. Newsflash: this is the same character he has played in every single picture he has ever made. Please don’t @ me with counterexamples. Hyperbole is a part of film criticism. In this one, he meets his 12-year-old self (Walker Scobell) and together they unite on a mission to end time travel and SAVE THE WORLD.

If it sounds a little like I’m mocking this, it’s because I am. The production is fabricated from pre-existing parts. The narrative liberally copies elements of classics from my childhood like Back to the Future and The Last Starfighter. Indeed, those were enjoyable flicks. The difference here is a generic screenplay credited to four different writers: Jonathan Tropper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin. The story is calculated like a commodity a studio manufactured from a blueprint called a “family-friendly sci-fi action movie” with heavy inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The production is synthesized from hyper-edited battles and digital laser blasts. The action does slow down occasionally so it can evoke some emotion when the adult man and his younger self give each other wisdom to be a better person. The best scene is a quiet one. Reynolds as the grown-up son gives his mother encouragement. She is unaware they’re related. The interaction set in a local bar uncomfortably suggests a flirtatious exchange at first, but it turns into a genuinely affecting moment.

This is high-quality entertainment for the entire family conveniently available to Netflix subscribers for free. Lately, I’m bewildered when certain releases go directly to streaming. Pixar’s Turning Red is another recent example. The Adam Project looks expensive. The amalgamation is well-produced, so I can’t say it’s bad. Young actor Walker Scobell effectively evokes Reynolds as a boy. Color me surprised that he was the standout in this star-studded ensemble. The cast also features Jennifer Garner, Catherine Keener, Zoe Saldaña, and Mark Ruffalo. Given the stars and the budget, this looks like a theatrical picture. Ryan Reynolds was just in Red Notice and that was a massive success on Netflix. This is much better, so no shock that it’s currently #1 on the streaming service as well. I have seen a version of this movie hundreds of times (more hyperbole). Meanwhile, children have not. Take my tepid reaction with a grain of salt.

03-11-22

After Yang

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A minimalist sci-fi flick from A24 Films about an artificially intelligent robot that coexists with people featuring an incongruous dance routine, I’d have said you described Ex Machina to a T. Not so fast. Alex Garland’s 2015 release has a spiritual cousin in After Yang. However, that is where the similarities end.

After Yang‘s boogie moment pops up early on. It happens during the credits which occur after a 4-minute opening intro. Apparently, families of the future compete in virtual competitions. This is recreation, like playing “Dance Dance Revolution” in your living room. More than 30,000 households are competing across the globe. “Level one complete. 3,000 families eliminated,” a woman’s disembodied voice flatly declares. The captivating sequence suggests a tale about a dystopian society where people are literally terminated for not performing choreography with meticulous precision. Sadly it was not meant to be. This is nothing more than a playful introduction to the cast.

The drama concerns an android purchased by parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). Yang (Justin H. Min) is what is known as a “technosapien.” He has been programmed to help their adoptive Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) learn about her cultural heritage. The movie is adapted from the short story Saying Goodbye to Yang by Alexander Weinstein. Then one day, Yang stops working. The malfunction means more than just the loss of a babysitter. He’s also become something of a surrogate son. Yang is still under warranty, but Jake’s traditional attempts to have the appliance repaired are difficult. He bought a refurbished model from a shop that no longer exists. But then a rogue repairman (Ritchie Coster) steps in to help and uncovers some hidden memories of which Jake was unaware. These include a mysterious girl (Haley Lu Richardson). Is there something more sinister afoot? Was “Big Brother” Yang built to spy on the family? Alas, this fascinating idea is not explored either.

What does it mean to be human? South Korean-born writer and director Kogonada (Columbus) considers the age-old question. Then probes further to ask what it means to be “Asian.” Yang is a “cultural techno” that can offer “Chinese fun facts” as part of his educational discourse. Nevertheless, he laments that he feels disassociated from his ethnicity. This is where the movie ultimately shows its hand. After Yang aspires to be a rumination on race, culture, family, and identity. The screenplay has ambitious objectives. The problem is it does little more than suggest those ideas then does absolutely nothing with them. The mood is chilly, spartan, and sterile. Yang is a machine, so his lifeless personality makes perfect sense. Yet the humans are ciphers too, almost catatonic in their inability to express emotion. The actors often contemplate these concepts in darkened spaces and silence. Unfortunately, I do not read minds so I was at a significant disadvantage.

03-08-22

Belle

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Music, Science Fiction with tags on January 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When they call you the spiritual successor to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, you must be doing something right. Director Mamoru Hosoda originally garnered fame at Toei Animation in the early 2000s with two films in the Digimon Adventure series. In 2011, he co-founded Studio Chizu. Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast were their first two films. Mirai followed and was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated feature in 2019. Belle is the studio’s fourth release.

OK, let me see if I can make sense of this story. Suzu is a withdrawn freckle-faced girl living in rural Japan. Following the death of her mother, the high school student retreats into an online virtual world called “U” with 5 billion players. She creates an avatar linked to her biometric info and becomes a pink-haired pop princess named Belle (also with freckles). It is within this alternate reality that Suzu achieves her true potential. As a lithe and beautiful Barbie-like singer, she attains global superstardom. She later meets a mysterious fellow player within the fantasy world called “The Dragon.” After this beast interrupts her concert — ultimately ruining it — he is pursued by a phalanx of vigilantes led by the arrogant Jason. They have superpowers naturally. Suzu’s desire to uncover The Dragon’s true identity develops into an obsession.

Belle is nothing if not bewildering for the number of plot threads it throws into the mix. The title acknowledges a debt to Beauty and the Beast. It even has an extended sequence that “pays homage” to the iconic ballroom dance from that Disney film. That’s merely one minor component. An ordinary teen who secretly performs as a pretty singing star is reminiscent of the 1980s American cartoon TV series Jem but in a simulated existence. Think Jem visits The Matrix.

Suzu is constantly being pulled between reality and fantasy. In the real world, Suzu is trying to come to terms with her mom’s passing. A group of uniformed high school peers comprises a soap opera that could be the foundation for a completely different movie. Suzu has a crush on childhood pal Shinobu. Popular “It” girl Ruka has eyes for jock Kamishin and appeals to Suzu for help. Meanwhile, her intellectual but snarky best friend Hiro offers Suzu advice on how to navigate the internet world of U. Hiro assists in trying to unveil The Dragon. It’s here that the saga goes off on another tangent as various odd characters are introduced: a troubled baseball player, a tattooed artist, and some random woman pretending to be the ideal housewife. If all that weren’t enough, there’s also an investigation into child abuse. Why have one plotline when you can have six or more?

Belle is an ambitious tale inundated by exquisite imagery. There are undeniably dazzling moments. Mamoru Hosoda populates his virtual environment with a glittering confection of digital avatars, pixies, critters, superheroes, confetti, glowing orbs, and whales in the cosmos. When Belle sings “A Million Miles Away” at the climax, it’s an epic finish that achieves a poetic finality. Unfortunately, the chronicle continues for another 20 minutes in order to tie up some unfinished details. The bizarre unpredictability of the production may have more appeal for fans familiar with the capricious nature of anime.

It’s sci-fi! It’s a fairytale! It’s a soap opera! Belle’s demanding two hour+ runtime entertains a dizzying number of subplots. Sadly they don’t coalesce into a compelling singular narrative. The spotlight is on Suzu (and her alter ego Belle), but this poor girl is beset by a myriad of distractions. The death of her mom, the cute boy at school, acquiring confidence, a J-Pop singing career, computer technology, and helping out an abused youth, all vie for her attention. Those craving a focus will be mystified. The lack of consideration for one central objective makes an emotional connection to this material impossible.

01-07-22

Don’t Look Up

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on December 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It’s never a good sign when you’re rooting for the end of humanity in a movie. Nevertheless, I did experience gleeful anticipation as an impending comet loomed ever closer to destroying all life on Earth — a planet filled with a complete bunch of dum-dums.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two astronomers who discover a comet is plunging toward the planet. They soon determine that the celestial sphere is extremely dangerous. It will kill all life as we know it in 6 months. Naturally, they contact the authorities. NASA scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) is totally on board, but President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is not. Meryl Streep is doing a version of Donald Trump in a female form complete with a nitwit son Jason (Jonah Hill) who also happens to be her Chief-of-Staff. At first, President Orlean avoids doing anything about the problem. Then decides with mid-term elections approaching, a response would benefit her campaign.

This is a heavy-handed parable with a lot of stars working extra hard to portray unpleasant people to elicit laughs. The central conceit is that the scientists speak the truth, but no one listens or cares. A raft of celebrities inhabit incidental subplots. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play perky TV personalities on a Morning Joe-style TV show. Ariana Grande noticeably flexes her acting muscles to play a vacuous pop star that sings a soaring ballad about our imminent doom. Timothée Chalamet embodies a directionless teen who has a fling with Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Ron Perlman yells a lot as a general who will pilot the spacecraft that will divert the trajectory of the cosmic snowball in question. Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwood, the placid CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company. His Elon Musk-ish billionaire steps in to help out when it’s discovered that the comet can be mined for valuable resources.

Subtle political satire is difficult to pull off. Why address grave concepts like climate change or the pandemic head-on when a physical object hurtling toward the world is so much easier to grasp? The filmmakers exploit that obvious metaphor by repeatedly hammering the same point using different actors in assorted situations for a mind-numbing 138-minutes. This sanctimonious sermon would have been so much more effective (and enjoyable) if presented in half that time. Honestly, there are plenty of funny jokes that land. I would have given this a recommendation if 50 minutes of the repetitive tedium were excised. Writer and Director Adam McKay is working from a story by David Sirota. McKay applies the same haphazard but smug approach he used in The Big Short and Vice. Hard to believe, but this is the same guy that once gave us the breezy comedy triumvirate of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. Oh, how I miss that guy.

Don’t Look Up is a clashing hybrid of drama and comedy. We can cite the inspirations of the past. Dr. Strangelove or Network are the acknowledged classics. As a matter of fact, when Leonardo DiCaprio loses it on the air, he seems to be channeling Peter Finch’s famous meltdown. The screenplay is more potent as a silly comedy. There are occasional laughs. A running joke which cites Kate’s inability to get over the fact that General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) charged her for free snacks is so random, it’s amusing. There are many hilarious lines. Indeed I chuckled throughout. However, Adam McKay’s method grows increasingly didactic over a punishingly long runtime. The tone is irritable when the narrative would have been better served by a lighter touch. Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy also exploited a similar vibe in its sendup of human nature. Where that lighthearted parody had many targets, this oppressive spoof has one: America is one big country of stupid people. Thanks. I already get that perspective from the news (and it’s delivered in under 30 minutes to boot!).

12-26-21