Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Posted in Adventure, Science Fiction on October 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo miss_peregrines_home_for_peculiar_children_zpsbvzyjo5a.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThere’s no denying that Tim Burton has a distinct point of view. He’s always championed the outsider, the weird, the different in his movies. Thus he seems ideally suited to lens an adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The debut novel by author Ransom Riggs recounts the tale of Jacob “Jake” Portman (Asa Butterfield), a seemingly normal boy who wants to learn more about his beloved grandfather after his death. Jake’s search uncovers clues that lead to an orphanage on Cairnholm Island in Wales. Once Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s estate, he descends into a world of the unknown. There he finds himself in a bizarre time loop populated by a group of odd youngsters. What makes them so unique is that they have supernatural powers or deformities. Grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) had always filled Jake’s head with these fantasies when he was very young. It now appears that these whimsical bedtime stories were indeed the truth.

Fables about orphans, often ones on the fringes of society, have long been the subject of beloved fiction. The Outsiders, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter, even Annie are some of our most enduring tales. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is no different. Ok so our narrator Jake isn’t an orphan. He has a mom (Kim Dickens) and a dad (Chris O’Dowd). However his grandfather didn’t and neither do the kids under the care of Miss Peregrine. This is an adventure about the struggle to find a place to fit in. It speaks to anyone who has ever felt like they don’t quite conform to rigid societal norms.  In essence, it’s for everyone. So no, the idea isn’t particularly fascinating or innovative but the manifestation of that idea is. The construct allows Tim Burton to work within his wheelhouse. Say what you will about Burton’s narratives. His work is visually gorgeous. Miss Peregrine is no exception.

Tim Burton has assembled a strong cast. Eva Green is a joy as the headmistress with a smoking pipe who has some peculiar abilities of her own. She’s not the primary lead but she’s mentioned in the title so I’d say the character is a key component. Miss Peregrine is sweet, but there’s an edge to her. She’s sort of a “Scary” Poppins that speaks in soothing tones with just enough curtness to her words to have a little bite. Then there’s the Peculiars, little curiosities, each one with a special ability. We live in the time of superhero movies so they’re not unlike the X-Men to cite a familiar reference. This one floats, another controls fire, he is invisible, she has superhuman strength, this boy has a beehive in his stomach. There are others. The benefit of their ability isn’t as important as its portrayal in cinematic form. The script doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly understand these people in any meaningful way. Yet I had fun in simply discovering and understanding their talents. Samuel L. Jackson plays the film’s main antagonist, the power-hungry Mr. Barron. Apparently, he is the leader of a group of evil monsters who look human. Unfortunately his poorly defined villain is a weakness of an increasingly convoluted saga.

The fable is not perfect by any means. It has a tendency to drag in the 3rd quarter, but I was mostly entertained throughout. Miss Peregrine’s simple beginning starts out promisingly, then grows ever more puzzling. It ultimately lacks a coherent narrative. Yet it never fails as a beautifully realized period piece. Tim Burton is known for his fantastical worlds. Miss Peregrine is the expression of the director’s dreams. The cinematography is nicely handled by 4-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inside Llewyn Davis). Set in 1943 with Gothic flourishes, Tim Burton makes good use of on-location shooting, first in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, then Belgium, England, and Wales. All of that shows in the strong visual aesthetic. Torenhof Castle in Belgium was used as the setting for Miss Peregrine’s home and it’s stunning. I especially liked the exterior shots with a topiary garden of various animals. The production design utilized the actual rooms inside along with constructed practical sets, as opposed to digital backdrops.  These include a parlor, a dining room, a conservatory and a lab where one of the children can resurrect the dead. Speaking of which, there are many delightfully frightening images. Colleen Atwood’s costumes exploit this too. The image of two mute twins in white robes and masks to match, still haunt my mind. The chronicle is long and unfocused, but there are still enough moments to charm. Think of it as an exquisite but messy entanglement.


Star Trek Beyond

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on July 23, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo star_trek_beyond_ver2_zps1pnn4doa.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgI suppose two out of three ain’t bad. After director J.J. Abrams’ spectacular reboot on the franchise simply titled Star Trek in 2009 and his equally thrilling follow-up Star Trek Into Darkness, the series takes a giant leap backward with Star Trek Beyond. How giant? Well, this is the weakest chapter in the franchise since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). J.J. Abrams is still listed as one of the producers but this entry has different writers (Simon Pegg, Doug Jung) and a new director, Justin Lin of The Fast and the Furious 3–6 fame. Lin is unquestionably a talented filmmaker that has brought much life to those car racing films, but his broey aesthetic is a clumsy fit for the Star Trek universe. The philosophical intellectualism that usually inhabits Gene Roddenberry’s creation is tossed aside. Less thinking, more destructive action is the primary agenda here.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his team are 3 years into their 5-year mission to explore the ends of the cosmos. Kirk’s upcoming birthday has him wistfully thinking about his deceased father. He is seeking the position of Vice Admiral and requests that Spock be made captain of the Enterprise. Kirk has become rather bored by his duties. The disinterest is contagious. His colleagues are dispassionate too. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) relationship continues to play out in tedious exchanges. The two unduly concerned with the soap opera of their lives rather than their mission.

Things finally get shaken up when a distress signal leads them to an alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson), who asks for help in rescuing her people on the far side of the galaxy. On the way there, they are attacked by more aliens led by Krall (Idris Elba). It’s hard to pinpoint how an acclaimed actor such as Elba could become such a dull villain, but somehow he manages that unimaginable feat here. His raid causes the crew to be dispersed as they abandon their beloved USS Enterprise. Scotty lands on a forest planet and is saved by another alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). More stuff happens. Little of it memorable.

Star Trek Beyond is an odd creation. So safe, so boring, so utterly devoid of anything new or innovative – it feels like the mandatory enforcement of a contract to release another Star Trek film. Check. Obligation fulfilled. The movie is at its best when the personalities of the esteemed cast are highlighted. After the Enterprise team abandons ship during Krall’s attack, the crew is dispersed. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) are isolated together and it is during their interactions on a foreign planet that the script momentarily springs to life.

What does Star Trek BEYOND mean exactly?  Even the title lacks definition. May I suggest Star Trek: Generic Space Action Movie. Sadly, most of Beyond plays out more like a Fast and Furious movie with visual effects here substituting for much needed depth. The adventure is shockingly routine for a production of this magnitude.  The story is just too insubstantial for a 2 hour motion picture. This develops like a rejected plot from the 60s TV show expanded to feature length. Then the music of the Beastie Boys makes an incongruous appearance in one key scene. The song’s arrival is eye-rolling to say the least. What in Gene Roddenberry’s name is that song doing here?  However 24 hours later, and it’s the only thing that still stands out in my mind. At least I remember they played ‘Sabotage’ really loud. What a shame that it’s all I remember.



Posted in Action, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ghostbusters_ver5_zpsuplq07c1.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI don’t think I could’ve been more primed to like this film. (1) I adore the classic 1984 comedy and the concept of a distinctly fresh version of Ghostbusters sounded like fun. (2) I am a huge fan of the cast. Melissa McCarthy has the whip-smart comic timing that can shape even a stale bit into a gem. Kristen Wiig is a genius of oft kilter humor. Up-and-comers Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are rising stars whose work on Saturday Night Live is among the most outstanding on that show right now. (3) Bridesmaids was one of the best features of 2011. It made my Top 10 for that year. Reunite the director Paul Feig with two of that picture’s personalities and watch their obvious chemistry unfold again. (4) The pre-release internet hate directed at this production was so unfounded I was tempted to give the movie a pass simply to prove the naysayers wrong.

The good news is that Ghostbusters is not the disaster that the internet predicted. Yet it’s far from the inspired reboot for which I was hoping. The set-up: Many years ago, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) collaborated on an unpopular book about paranormal phenomenon. When Gilbert realizes the book has been republished, she seeks out Yates to undo an embarrassing situation that might damage her tenure at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, Yates has continued to study the supernatural with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Yates coaxes Gilbert into joining her on another investigation in exchange for squashing the book’s publication. And so they’re off to fight ghosts.

Joining them are MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who sees a ghost in a subway line and contacts the Department. She joins the team a while later. Jones is normally a uniquely dynamic presence on SNL but here she is given nothing more to do than pedestrian shtick.  Unfortunately the sidekick part fails to highlight the sharp comedic gifts she displays every week.  Shouting your lines doesn’t make them funnier. There’s also Kevin Beckman, a feebleminded but handsome receptionist (Chris Hemsworth). I could easily fault the “himbo” act for being nothing more than a dumb blonde role reversal joke.  The thing is, he’s actually one of the funniest things in the film. Credit his affable charisma for taking a flimsy part and making it funny.

Of the four Ghostbusters, only Kate McKinnon truly elevates her loony scientist into something interesting and original. She interprets lines that would normally fall flat in the hands of a lesser actress. By delivering them with an off beat sensibility, she makes the character her own and not a pale imitation. A relative unknown, she has the most to gain from this exposure. I suspect this credit on her resume will be a nice stepping stone to greater things in her career. However established stars McCarthy and Wiig have been lobotomized. They seriously downplay their normally quirky appeal here. Perhaps that’s admirable. This is an ensemble piece and it allows others like McKinnon and Hemsworth to shine. However, in the process we lose what makes their comedic personas so invigorating.

Ghostbusters is a largely uninspired take on a well known property. The story scores points for changing up the plot at least. Like a remix of a classic song with a new singer and modern production, it entertains based on familiarity but not through excellence or innovation. Ok so Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth are amusing, but the script hangs the rest of the cast out to dry. In lieu of a Sumerian deity from another dimension brought back from the dead, we get a nerdy petulant weirdo (Neil Casey).  He is a weak excuse for the main villain. Humor is subjective, but I rarely laughed and that’s a deal breaker when assessing a comedy. This cacophonous spectacle wants it both ways. Embrace a modern take, while constantly reminding you of nostalgia for the 1984 original. Star cameos abound with Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts all in conspicuous bits that distract from, rather than add to the narrative. The idea of a summer blockbuster that headlines 4 women celebrated for their witty minds, and not their physical attributes, is exciting in theory. I so very wanted this movie to be spectacular. Instead it’s just barely acceptable.


Independence Day: Resurgence

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo independence_day_resurgence_zpsdychzl31.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgConfession. I didn’t think the 1996 special effects laden film that spawned this sequel was a great movie — BUT it was fun. And I’ll acknowledge that the picture has since become a classic of the science fiction genre. Back in 1996, Independence Day made a gazillion dollars simply by blowing stuff up on a grand scale. The sight of large spacecraft hovering over some of Earth’s major cities was enough to stir excitement/terror in the hearts of moviegoers. The ultimate show-down climaxed with a diverse group of people converging in the Nevada desert. Will Smith socked an alien in the face: “Welcome ta urf!” Americans united, along with the rest of the world, over a counter attack that just so happened to occur on the 4th of July. A now famous rallying cry speech from Bill Pullman precipitated the climax. It was as corny then as it is today, but gosh darn it, it sort of worked on a visceral level. Then they kicked some alien butt.

Now it’s 20 years later. In the interim, the United Nations have created the Earth Space Defense (ESD), a global program that serves as Earth’s early warning system against future extraterrestrial threats. Using recovered alien technology along with existing human technology, the alliance has bolstered the world’s defenses. Africa is the site of an alien spaceship that crashes during one battle. It appears that Congolese warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) has fought the creatures for years. He has experienced recurring visions due to his personal encounters with the aliens. Ex-president Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) has gotten psychic hints of an arrival as well. Furthermore the ESD discovers that the fallen ship managed to send a distress call to its home planet. The Earth is bracing itself for another invasion.

Let’s face it. This was always going to be more of a re-interpretation then a sequel. Keep it simple. Give the people what they want. Nostalgia mixed with better special effects and an assorted cast of appealing characters. It sounds easy — an obvious set-up for a slam dunk success. It’s the cinematic version of boil water – a straightforward recipe that’s pretty hard to screw up. Roland Emmerich is back as director and Dean Devlin is producing again. Heavens to Will Smith! It’s hard to believe this is the same team that made the 1996 movie. The team bungles the execution to the point of incompetence.

How did they make a film so astonishingly boring? Let’s start with the initial invasion. Yes, we get another one of those. But first not without 30 minutes of formless exposition checking in with returning characters that establish who they are in the most perfunctory manner possible. Dull and dreary, these set ups scenes are just a time waster. We’re told that an alien vessel over 3000 miles in diameter has invaded earth. However we’re given no appreciation for the size of that ship. Where is the emphasis on the sense of scale? We’re told it’s levitating Beijing and Dubai, then dumping the debris on London, but it’s not clear that is happening. The destruction sequences are confusing — a haphazardly edited hodgepodge that has no concept for geography. The world is under attack but it feels small and insular. Even worse – it looks cheap. It’s one of the most poorly edited sequences I’ve ever seen in a would-be blockbuster. Did they run out of money for effects? That’s the only explanation I can give for the gross incompetence on display.

I miss the soul of the original cast. Randy Quaid and Mary McDonnell are obviously out. They didn’t survive. Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Judd Hirsch are back however. Given their lack of zeal though, they are clearly more bored than the audience. Pullman’s frazzled ex-Pres is supposed to have PTSD so at least he has an excuse. Brent Spiner is preposterously revived as eccentric scientist Brackish Okun. If you’ve seen the last film, you’ll know why that’s implausible. 20 year coma apparently. Despite the weak justification for his return, I will admit that he’s the most captivating proof of humanity in the entire production. That’s still not saying much. One scene has him scratching his naked rear end in semi-closeup. Margaret Colin is recast in spirit by Charlotte Gainsbourg as Goldblum’s love interest. Zzzzzzzzzz  Sela Ward is the “Leader of the Free World” this time around. Madame President indeed. Vivica A. Fox gets what amounts to a cameo. I think she has a line or two. The late Robert Loggia appears. No lines at all.

Too much of the plot is dominated by younger actors who register zero charisma. Will Smith, who became a huge star in the 20 years since, wisely passed on this script. We’re told he died in a test flight.  Wow.  Apparently the screenwriters couldn’t be bothered with disposing of him in a creative way.  A substitution for his temperament is the character of his adult son. Instead of getting the original performer, Ross Bagley, the part went to Jessie Usher. He possesses none of Smith’s personality.  Even his declaration “Get ready for a close encounter, bitch!” lacks the required conviction. Mae Whitman, who portrayed Patricia, the president’s daughter in 1996, has been inexplicably replaced as well. The taller, blonder Maika Monroe (It Follows) is a fine actress but Whitman is still a talented thespian in her own right, so the snub is rather vexing.

The former First Daughter now has a romance with fiancée Jake Morrison, a role depicted by blonde and bland hunk du jour Liam Hemsworth. Why oh why does he continue to find work while hundreds of actors struggle in Hollywood? His best friend is Charlie Ritter realized by actor Travis Tope. Or did I reverse those names?  Too forgettable to even keep straight.  Charlie has his eyes on Rain Lao, played by Hong Kong model, Angelababy. Don’t quit your day job, kid. Jake, Dylan, Charlie and Rain form this squad of fighter pilots that are a quartet of vapidity. Together their scenes comprise a large portion of the narrative, yet their tedious personalities add absolutely nothing to its enjoyment. I would have eliminated every last one of their parts altogether.

Independence Day: Resurgence is bad. Not bad in the ridiculous, let’s relish it for the folly of it all. That was the original flick. This is so mind numbingly lifeless, it’s awful. I wasn’t invested.   When the very existence of mankind is at stake, that’s a problem.  I couldn’t give a care about what happens.  It’s clear the filmmakers didn’t either. Poorly edited, drearily acted with sloppy CGI that has no sense of breadth or scope. If this was one of those Syfy channel pieces of schlock like Sharknado I’d be a little more forgiving. No this is a shining beacon of gross ineptitude for a mega budget blockbuster. There’s a moment in the last half hour where the movie does something right. A Godzilla-sized queen is seen tearing down the desert as planes encircle her. The climatic battle gives a hint of what might have been, but it’s too little too late. Then the inevitable tease for a Part 3 slaps you in the face. There’s still some fun to be had. Save your money now. Invite your friends to watch this when it’s on DVD. First one to fall asleep is the loser. Or is that the winner? Regardless, it’ll be a short game.


The Lobster

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction on June 3, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lobster_zpsjfnskqu5.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Lobster concerns a dystopian society where coupledom is key. Set within The City, singles are given 45 days to locate a partner or be turned into the animal of their choice. Upon arrival at the Hotel — more like a prison — guests must make a selection. This happens immediately regardless of whether one is successful at finding a mate. Apparently David (Colin Farrell) has just been dumped.  During his initial interview he chooses a lobster and hence bestows the film its title. “They live for over 100 years, they are blue-blooded like aristocrats, they are fertile all their lives and I like the sea.” At least that’s his reasoning. He’s praised for not choosing a dog because there is a surplus of that animal. I snickered a little at that line. If you actually guffaw, then you may adore this movie. That’s the level of humor.

Bizarre drama honors ambiguousness over detail and extols absurdity over coherence. It’s an intriguing setup for a comedy that creates a surreal environment from which to extract humor. The script succeeds for awhile. Particularly in the beginning where the insanity of it all can be rather diverting. But what is the point?  Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos possibly means to mock the societal pressure to couple up. Also the superficiality of the common interest that ultimately unites one person with another is satirized. Actress Jessica Barden plays a woman who gets nosebleeds. Actor Ben Whishaw portrays a man who has a limp. It appears that the two can only be together if they share the same malady.

Grim farce had me entertained for the first hour where David experiences the rules of the Hotel. His daily routine in which to find a companion is dryly amusing in parts. To prepare them for coupled life, patrons are initially handcuffed with one hand behind their back.  Then they converse with one another employing the stilted dialogue of a robot going through the motions of a conversation.  They have joyless sex with the employees like they were performing a chore.  Later guests hunt their unattached peers in the forest. The tale then takes a disastrous turn in part two after David escapes and experiences solace with a radical group in the wild called the Loners. They promote the exact opposite theology, separateness. It is there that he actually meets a soulmate in fellow Loner Rachel Weisz. Oh the irony! They’re prisoners yet again.

Yorgos Lanthimos also directed the extremely misanthropic comedy(?) Dogtooth. Devotees of that picture should find his disaffected worldview appealing here as well.  Less cynical individuals may discover his malevolent characters a bit harder to endorse. Surprisingly, I was on board. The silly rules at the Hotel are ridiculously wicked. But I checked out during the tedious second half.  Opening segments that fabricate the story should be absolute catnip for anyone who vehemently despises the very concept of a holiday like Valentine’s Day. If there’s such a thing as discrimination against singles, then this satire will surely hit home with any viewer who feels like a victim. Once the script throws the foundation kit and caboodle out the window, the fable emerges merely as an excuse to parade a group of antisocial types around for the viewer’s pleasure. These people are really hard to embrace, especially in the second section where the narrative and the jokes come to a grinding halt. To like these people is clearly not the aim. However after spending 118 minutes with these thoroughly unpleasant people, I wish I was a lobster too.


X-Men: Apocalypse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 31, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo xmen_apocalypse_ver19_zps8wydoi89.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg
Let’s face it. You already know if you’re part of the of the audience receptive for one more X-Men movie. Apocalypse is the ninth installment in the X-Men film series (if you’re counting Deadpool). A certain level of skepticism is raised whether it’s warranted or not.  Honestly I was lukewarm to the idea of another one of these pictures. Color me surprised because there’s still a lot of entertainment packed into this admittedly messy picture. If you’re not rolling your eyes at the thought of an additional installment, then you’re at least primed to enjoy this.

In a nutshell, the plot concerns what happens when Professor Xavier’s class of super-powered mutants take on Apocalypse. Who’s this now?  Well apparently he was the world’s first mutant. He ruled ancient Egypt circa. 3600 BC before being buried alive by his followers. He awakens in 1983 pretty ticked off by humanity and wants to take over the world.  Naturally.

Bryan Singer is back in the director chair for the 4th time . He understands this franchise better than anyone. It’s set in the 1980s which occurs ten years after his critically and commercially successful X-Men: Days of Future Past. Apocalypse unquestionably pales in comparison to that movie. The computer graphics are wonky in parts and the narrative gets a bit chaotic with the numerous characters. There’s a bunch, but let’s reflect on that cast for a moment: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn and Kodi Smit-McPhee. This is a tightly wound orchestra of actors. It reads like a who’s who of great up and coming stars. The best and brightest of their generation in service of a special effects laden fantasy.

The drama absolutely benefits from the superior acting skills of that incredible ensemble. Ok so I’m a little miffed they hired Oscar Isaac, and then obscured him beneath pounds of makeup rendering him unrecognizable as the villain. That could’ve been anyone under that blue face. But Jennifer Lawrence who plays Mystique, gets to actually look like Jennifer Lawrence through most of the film. She takes on a greater role here. As Charles Xavier has done previously, it partially falls on Mystique’s shoulders to help lead and mentor the X-Men. Apocalypse still has some room to develop these personalities amongst the pyrotechnics, For example, the connection between Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and her forgotten memories of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is addressed. Their relationship is further deepened and the result is almost poignant.

If characterization and plot are truly what you crave, you probably should try an indie drama. Amazing action set pieces are the mark of a good superhero film. Apocalypse presents several that give virtually every individual the opportunity to shine. Magneto has retired from super-villany and so he has been working at a factory in Poland as Erik Lehnsherr. After an incident there reveals his true self, Magneto must confront a threat to his wife and daughter. Let’s just say, her locket is a lot more dangerous than you think. The return of the Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is an opportunity for another slow-motion rescue sequence in the middle of the movie. It’s a music video scored to the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and it’s dazzling. Professor X’s battle of shared consciousness with Apocalypse is a conflict that technically takes place in the mind. It’s an interesting concept that should be difficult to portray, but it’s executed in a most captivating way. And finally Sophie Turner as Jean Grey gets a chance to tap into something called the Phoenix Force in the film’s rousing payoff which ably juggles most of the cast. Yes, the entire climax rests on a lot of invincible people using their supernatural strengths to stop a godlike villain until one exhibits the greatest power to surpass them all. That’s not the optimal recipe for creating a heart-pounding conclusion but it’s certainly not boring. I’ll concede it may not be the best in the series (Days of Future Past). However this is far from the worst (X-Men Origins and The Wolverine). X-Men Apocalypse is enjoyable fun, sitting comfortably in the upper half of the X-Men franchise.


Captain America: Civil War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on May 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_america_civil_war_ver15_zps6veouhci.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s amazing how two superhero movies can share nearly identical themes, and yet be so different in what they achieve. It was just six short weeks prior that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released. Although the movie was a success at the box office, it received a critical drubbing from many viewers (this critic included). Now we have the release of Marvel’s latest opus, a movie built around the ultimate showdown between two warring factions of the Avengers. The motivation of revenge for the central antagonist is the same. Even the way in which to exact revenge is the same. Despite the similarities, the satisfaction derived from each film is a study in contrasts. Captain America: Civil War is the far superior picture. No surprise. By now, everyone knows Marvel has perfected the ongoing storyline across sequels down to a science.

If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this is presented in name as a sequel to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that adventure, we learned that Captain America’s friend, Bucky Barnes was captured and experimented upon during WWII. He was brainwashed into a trained assassin using mind control. Although Civil War also concerns the much larger picture as to what happed more recently in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The number of civilian deaths as a result of the war in Sokovia has become a global concern. Can the Avengers be partially held accountable? The United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement designed to limit and control the Avengers.

The Avengers are torn apart into two factions: one led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the other by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Captain America’s anti-registration squad is composed of Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Iron Man’s pro accord team is comprised of Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). New VIPs Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also join up on this side as well. Side note: Thor and the Hulk are conspicuously absent for reasons that seemed a little murky, but honestly this movie already has plenty of speaking parts. While their absence is noticeable, it’s not crucial.

If all this exposition and characters sounds complicated, it is. This is a superhero film that subscribes to the idea that bigger is better. More cast members, more battles, more run time. At almost 2 1/2 hours, this does seem long and a bit overblown. Yet the strengths far exceed the weaknesses. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve a lot of credit for making sense of all these events and distilling it into a narrative we can still follow and enjoy. The big fight featuring the whole gang is fashioned as a centerpiece of the drama. The choreography is appropriately spectacular. Surprises await and the showdown is a delight. Although shaky camera work and rapid cuts do detract a little from the mostly rousing action sequences.

With all the personalities, Civil War, truly plays out like a third Avengers movie, besting Age of Ultron (2015) for emotional depth, but lacking the breezy joy of The Avengers (2012). The story is at its best in quieter moments when it focuses on the personality of the individual. The narrative gives clear, understandable reasons as to why each superhero aligns with the side that they do. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr deserve major kudos for anchoring the production with sincere performances that captivate our attention. That’s not easy to do with a cast of this magnitude. In a film full of many highs, I did not expect Ant-Man & Spider-Man to be at the very top.  Both have amusing vignettes that make the promise of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp something I am now willing to embrace rather than dread. Additionally the heavy emotional burden that Bucky Barnes carries as the Winter Soldier is emphasized. His relationship with Steve Rogers, his buddy since childhood, is affirmed as well. These cast members stand out in a roster that is uniformly excellent. I could cite more characters and the traits that make them interesting but that would spoil the fun of discovery. It’s their complex backstories that help secure our interest in the personal dynamics of these people. They give the heroes depth. That is what makes Captain America: Civil War so gosh darn entertaining.


Midnight Special

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo midnight_special_zpstoozevoh.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRoy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are waiting for the sun to go down in a darkened motel room. A television is on in the background. As we listen to a news report, we learn these very men have kidnapped an 8-year-old named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). He sits reading comics with bizarre blue goggles over his eyes and noise canceling headphones on his head. Day turns into night and now they’re on the move again. A religious group and the federal government are both involved as well. Everyone seems preoccupied with the fate of this special little boy. It’s not even clear for awhile where our sympathies should lie. For example, is Roy a good guy or a bad guy? To even reveal that would be a disservice to the story.

The pleasure of this slow burn thriller is in the way it slowly disseminates information so that the audiences gradually understand what’s going on as developments arise. Our minds are held captive by the truth. The trick is how much to reveal and how soon. Midnight Special does a pretty outstanding job at keeping us interested for the majority of its run time. It’s fascinating how “wanting to know more” fuels our appetite. There are well placed reveals throughout and these have the power to satiate our desire. Director Jeff Nichols shows remarkable restraint. The full scope of the chronicle is a gradual understanding.

Less is more. If you were to boil Midnight Special down to its very essence, it’s essentially a chase movie. But there is beauty in simplicity. Nichols has always been a visual story teller and his latest is no different. This is his 4th directorial effort. The drama manipulates sci-fi into a tale about family. The spirit of Steven Spielberg permeates the account. As such it’s Nichols’ most accessible movie. Actor Michael Shannon has been featured in all of the director’s films. He’s appropriately intense. Kudos also to young Jaeden Lieberher as the enigmatic little boy. He was the central child at the focus of the wonderful 2014 comedy St. Vincent as well. What keeps Midnight Special from achieving greatness is that you ultimately need to have some sort of an ending. That’s the difficult part in a narrative that’s all about the journey. I liked being in the dark, but the script ultimately betrays its own ambiguity. It gives us a destination.  This could have been handled differently. The resolution is a little too, hmmm shall we say, specific in this case. It’s the finishing misstep that ultimately lingers in a movie that is mostly captivating.


10 Cloverfield Lane

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ten_cloverfield_lane_zpse8bhkrgw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes from a car accident and finds herself in a concrete room chained to a wall with a saline IV in her arm. A heavy-set man named Howard (John Goodman) tells her that he is her solitary chance for survival. You see, it was he that “rescued” her and is now keeping her alive. Panicked, she tries to escape, but Howard sedates her. When she comes to, Howard explains that some kind of attack has already occurred in the world and the air up on the surface is now unbreathable. He speculates either the Russians, Koreans or maybe even aliens. His bunker is the only sanctuary left.

The title 10 Cloverfield Lane is supposed to recall the sci-fi monster movie Cloverfield from 2008. That picture was directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard and produced by JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk. But just forget about any connection to that earlier picture. All of those guys are indeed back, as producers this time, but aside from some mutual personnel and the horror angle, this story has essentially nothing to do with that earlier production. Think of this as a spin-off of the Cloverfield universe. The sooner you let go of finding ties to that prior film, the more you’ll enjoy this one on its own terms.

If 10 Cloverfield Lane has a spiritual ancestor, it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the 1948 psychological thriller based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton. This debut feature from director Dan Trachtenberg virtually takes place entirely in a single enclosed space underground. The success of this three-character chamber piece rests on the charisma of its principal players as they interact with one another. John Goodman is suitably creepy. He’s memorable in a rare dramatic role. Yet he’s so visually iconic in comedic portrayals that I never forgot that I was still watching John Goodman, the actor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an appealing presence as a woman in a stressful situation. She radiates a mix of helplessness and moxie that snares our full attention and compassion. A sympathetic cellar-mate named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) appears to be a fellow ally.

The atmosphere of this nail-bitter vacillates between a spirit of unease and relaxed camaraderie. The majority of the action is claustrophobic suspense that creates tension out of the unknown. What happened to the earth? Is life up there actually worse than their existence in the bunker? Can Howard be trusted? Questions of this variety fuel the narrative and warrant serious consideration as the drama plays out. We’ve seen this genre before. M. Night Shyamalan is a director that has built a career on this sort of thing. The fragments designed as a foundation on which to build a denouement that hopefully answers all of these questions and more.  The build-up is bit protracted, but don’t worry. Everything will indeed be explained by the time the credits roll. And let me affirm, I was more than satisfied by the resolution.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction on December 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo star_wars_episode_vii__the_force_awakens_ver3_zpswqkf7wjy.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWe’ve waited 32 years for this. Star Wars: The Force Awakens concerns the continuing epic battle between the Galactic Empire, a fallen government now called the First Order, and the Resistance, which now supports the New Republic, the political system presently in power. If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a little refresher. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was part of the Rebel Alliance that opposed the Empire, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), also an agent of the rebellion, is now General Leia Organa. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the Jedi Master that supported them both. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

The great thing about this current tale is that the story features those three in key roles. The emergence of each inspiring gasps of recognition with the dramatic unveiling of each one. Such is the joy of this production. The Force Awakens arrives in an atmosphere of intense scrutiny and unrealistic hopes. Director J.J. Abrams pays homage to the original trilogy in a crowd pleasing wham bam pow of a film. The saga stands on its own, but for those who can remember what it was like to watch that original 1977 movie, in a drive-in no less, the experience is a childhood catharsis. The Force Awakens doesn’t tread new ground, nor does it introduce plot points that innovate. What it does do is meet expectations in a way that that honors the past, while still providing enough novelty to make the adventure worthwhile. The “it’s just a movie” aesthetic flies in the face of those hard core enthusiasts that demand more, but if you’re open to its obvious charms, you will adore this flick.

The contemporary story interweaves those characters from the past into a fresh tale. This one features Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, who discovers an important droid, BB-8, at a junkyard. There’s also Finn (John Boyega), a reformed stormtrooper, who wants to help the the Resistance crush the First Order. Lupita Nyong’o does motion capture work as Maz Kanata, a wise old sage, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is an X-wing fighter pilot. On the opposing side there’s a powerful Jedi named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is more aligned with the Dark Side. Comparisons of Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn, Poe, Maz and BB-8, to previous incarnations of Star Wars characters are purely intentional I’m sure. That doesn’t make them any less compelling. As long as they can provoke our interest that is…and they do.

The Force Awakens takes its time to get started, but once it does, its evocation of the past is a delight. The script presents a warm, sometimes sad, and often funny story that arouses our emotion due to its familiarity. The story is straightforward, almost simplistic in its desire not to muddle a narrative that is refreshingly uncomplicated. Even the visuals rely less on green screen technology and more on organic practical effects. Only a CGI heavy called the Supreme Leader feels fake. The screenplay is by respected veteran Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as J. J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3). The unveiling of a recognizable broken down old spacecraft shouldn’t bring tears to an adult man, but I’m embarrassed to admit it does. Or consider John Williams’ iconic score that blasts over the opening crawl. Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2? Yup they’re all here. The recognition is what sells the picture. This is satisfying nostalgia pure and simple. Sure wrapping up a present in a bright shiny package with a big red bow isn’t innovative, but gosh darn it, it sure is appealing, and that’s exactly what I love about this film.