Archive for the Science Fiction Category

The Meg

Posted in Action, Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on August 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

meg_ver7STARS1.5In the four decades since Jaws there has been a seemingly never-ending tide (pun intended) of shark-themed dramas. I suppose quality determines whether each offering is considered a rip-off, an homage or perhaps “inspired by”.  I do enjoy these types of stories.  The Shallows is a recent example that was quite good.  Others like Deep Blue Sea or Jaws 3-D — a proper sequel in the original franchise — are so ridiculous that they’re kind of enjoyable anyway. The Meg is neither of those. It’s just awful. This production doesn’t even qualify as adequate entertainment. It’s cut up pieces of fish – a bucket of chum in the sea of movies about killer sharks.

The Meg is actually short for Megalodon which is a now extinct 75 foot long species of fish that lived in prehistoric times.  It was one of the largest and most powerful predators to have ever lived.  First off, The Meg is a stupid title.  It sounds like a romantic comedy about a woman named Megan with a very big ego.  Yes I know it was based on the book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten.  I don’t care.  Lose that title.  That’s why movies are written by screenwriters.  It astonishingly took three writers (Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber) to adapt this story.  Personally, I don’t know why they didn’t embrace the silliness with some fun title like Megalomania! and put an exclamation point at the end to emphasize the fact.  The saga is helmed by Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon, National Treasure).  He’s one of those dependable directors that has been working since the early 90s.  For years he turned out a lot of profitable live-action features for the Disney studio.  Disney in fact picked up the movie rights way back in 1997 but dropped the project a few years later. It languished in development hell for 2 decades. Warner Brothers has finally brought it to the screen.  Given the production budget was between $130–178 million plus $140 million on advertising, it would appear they’re likely to lose money.  At least in the domestic market.  There are overworked clichés, dreary special effects, and a plot so rote it can be summed up in three words: Shark attacks crew.

The Meg could have been so bad it’s good. No such luck. The picture takes itself too seriously to be in on the joke but then not legitimately enough to bother with a decent script.  It occupies that middle ground where it’s conspicuously bad.  The marketing for The Meg has featured Jason Statham. I am a fan of the action star.  He brings a much needed stoic resolve that is required in adventures like these.  He plays a rescue diver and he’s the main figure.  However, there’s a large international cast of actors playing scientists, oceanographers, and Ph.D. holders that take residence up in this underwater research facility too.  They add absolutely nothing to the narrative.  There’s some great talent here.  I won’t impugn their acting craft.  Unfortunately, none of it is on display here.  It’s surprising that in a flick named after a prehistoric beast, the titular animal doesn’t really occupy that much screen time.  This is mainly about the capricious relationships between the various crew members.  In fact, there’s very little to recommend about The Meg. It’s a pretty weak excuse for a film.  This shark movie lacks bite.

08-09-18

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Sorry to Bother You

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 12, 2018 by Mark Hobin

sorry_to_bother_youSTARS4An unemployed man (Lakeith Stanfield) in his twenties is existing in an alternate reality version of modern-day Oakland, California. He’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and is 4 months behind in the rent His name is Cassius Green and the similarity of that moniker to “cash green” is intentionally ironic I’m sure. He simply wants a job. There’s an opportunity to be a telemarketer with a company called RegalView. He’s even gone so far as to bring a fake “Employee of the Month” plaque that he made himself to the job interview. The interviewer (Robert Longstreet) sees through the facade but hires him anyway because he appreciates the initiative it took to do such a thing. After he’s hired, the manager tells him to “Stick to the Script” or “S.T.T.S.” and amusingly pronounces it as if it’s an acronym. The movie’s title refers to his first line of rehearsed patter. Cassius’ happiness at attaining a job turns to despair however when he realizes how difficult it is to finish his marketing spiel before a potential client hangs up on him. Director Boots Riley has a creative spirit and this cleverness informs the entire film. These interactions are presented with his desk crashing through the floor into the homes of various people he’s calling. It was at this moment I was ready to accept whatever the filmmaker would be throwing down. And let me tell you, he assaults us with a bizarro world of absurdity.

The presentation of Cassius’ mundane workaday milieu will ring true for anyone who has ever held a job they really didn’t enjoy. I would suspect that is pretty much everyone and if that doesn’t describe you, then count your blessings. RegalView is a depressing work environment based in a dingy basement of cubicles surrounded by drab white walls. Things change however when he meets black co-worker Langston (Danny Glover). The aged associate advises him to use his “white voice” which is actually the dubbed delivery of actor David Cross. The incongruity of hearing that nasal tone coming out of the man’s body is perhaps a simple joy but it’s supremely funny nevertheless. Suddenly Cassius’ success rate with clients drastically improves.  One quibble.  Why Langston wasn’t successful at doing the exact same thing is never explained. However, we will soon discover that’s far from the most baffling enigma in this story.  Cassius gains the attention of his superiors who want to promote him up to the high-rise offices as a hallowed Power Caller.

Sorry to Bother You is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. His girlfriend is Detroit, an alternative artist played Tessa Thompson. Her comically oversized earrings displaying messages are a running gag throughout the picture. Unfortunately, her radical performance art, supposedly designed to “take down the system”, was completely lost on me.  How does getting pelted with water balloons filled with sheep’s blood make a point? She also condemns Cassius for affecting a false persona that she too is guilty of as well. I wanted her to acknowledge her own hypocrisy.  She doesn’t.  Back in the business realm, low-level supervisor Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) is an absolute hoot. Her surname looks like “debauchery”.  “It’s pronounced DE-bau-sher-AY” she corrects. To physically get him to those high rise offices she must enter a code into the elevator buttons that look like a touch tone phone pad. The joke is extended for such a long time that it actually goes from tiresome to genius. When he gets to his new employment digs he meets Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick) replete with an eye patch and bowler hat. He’s a black man with his own “white voice” (Patton Oswalt) that’s sort of a bridge between Cassius and the chief executive.  Cassius ultimately meets the shadowy business mogul Steve Lift played by Armie Hammer. Steve is the coke-snorting C.E.O. of a morally corrupt corporation named WorryFree.  His company is liable for questionable business practices although “questionable” doesn’t even begin to describe what they do.  I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.  As a symbol of the establishment, he is the very definition of “The Man”. This all happens at the very same time that Cassius’ peers, which include buddy Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and led by colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun), are inciting to strike due to poor working conditions.  Does he align with his oppressed workers or assimilate into the mainstream corporate world? The drama is successful at presenting this as a conundrum to be sure, but you don’t even know the half of it.  Things get decidedly weirder after that. The political focus spins wildly out of control along with the plot developments.

This is director Boots Riley’s first feature. I predict this will change, but heretofore he’s been best known as the frontman of a radical hip-hop group known as The Coup. Their politically charged songs center around race, class, capitalism, police brutality, the proletariat, and other issues. Those topics inform the group’s biting social commentary. That point of view gently infiltrates the film’s very funny outlook but it doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the insanity that follows. The screenplay satirizes social media, race, class, poverty, television, and rap music in brilliant ways that often have different interpretations. The production is so adventurous and so gloriously bizarre that it won me over. Sorry to Bother You is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen and yet If I had to draw analogies, I could say the work of Mike Judge is a close parallel.  I found elements of both Office Space and Idiocracy in its targets. There’s also the loopiness of Michel Gondry, who is indirectly name-dropped in an absolutely disturbing claymation video. There’s an off-kilter sensibility that influences the narrative that makes this instantly feel like a cult classic that should play at midnight screenings. Despite a chaotic fantasy that careens wildly from political satire into science fiction, this movie remains fun and witty in a lively way that boldly announces its presence. Its freewheeling bonkers mentality is simply too audacious to ignore.

07-06-18

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2STARS3.5Back in 2015, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s lesser offerings in their seemingly never-ending blitz of superhero movies. After Avengers: Age of Ultron of that year, it sorta felt like the cheese course following the main entree. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp functions in very much the same way. At the beginning of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War was a game-changing adventure in the ongoing epic of these champions of justice. Comparatively this agreeable little interlude feels like a dessert. I like dessert. Dessert is sweet and delicious. It’s just that this is like a yogurt parfait and I was craving a baked New York–style cheesecake.

Given the lighthearted atmosphere, the narrative is curiously overcrowded with a massive ensemble of characters. Scott Lang, better known as Ant-Man, has been under house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords by working with Captain America. His home is now a veritable playground so he can entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) when she visits. She’s dropped off by his ex-wife (Judy Greer ) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). The proper story begins when Scott has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, still trapped in the quantum realm. Apparently, the two of them are quantumly entangled after Scott visited the quantum dimension when he went subatomic in the last film. Get used to hearing the word “quantum” a lot in this movie. The screenplay even makes a joke about this. “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang asks.

Scott’s ability to return from the quantum realm is noteworthy. This compels him to contact Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hope shows up, wisely ditching that severe black bob for a much more-practical-for-fighting ponytail. Extracting Janet from the quantum field is the ostensible point of this picture. That’s it. Coming after Infinity War where half of humanity was in danger, the uncommonly low stakes are refreshingly simple here. They all join forces with the help of Ant-Man’s X-Con Security crew Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Luis secures the hilarious high point of the picture during an interrogation scene when he reveals Scott’s location after being injected with truth serum. It’s unquestionably amusing (again) but since we got this same exact joke in the last Ant-Man the charm is somewhat lessened this time around.  The elder Hank must reluctantly seek the help of former friend and partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Incidentally, despite the buoyant tone, Hank affects such a grim, humorless personality, that it feels as if the actual actor, Michael Douglas, is supremely unhappy to be in this movie.

Surprisingly, the narrative never becomes too convoluted despite the sheer number of actors involved in this plot.  Scott, Hope, and Hank are all confronted by a cadre of corrupt people who impede their progress. There’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), also known as Ava Starr.  She has the ability to move through solid matter but has difficulty stabilizing herself.  She requires Janet’s quantum energy at all costs — even if it means Ghost needs to kill her.  There’s a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on Hank’s lab.   Also added to the mix is FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) whose job it is to monitor Scott Lang should he try to break free from the house arrest of his home. He’s also after Hank and Hope as well. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is a college professor and former associate of Hank’s. He shows up too, although I’ll keep his nefarious associations a secret.

This is a stridently pleasant production. The drama along with the assorted villains unfold under a mishmash of silly antics. That means we are presented with less crucial stakes but lots of upbeat humor and a jovial mood. This is an innocuous film about simple pleasures.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching things enlarge and then quickly shrink down. Tiny cars zipping around the streets of San Francisco or watching Hank’s gigantic lab reduced to a rolling suitcase never gets old.  Ant-Man and the Wasp essentially takes what made the original good and fine tunes it to make it a little bit better.  Yes, this is an improvement over the 2015 entry, but it’s still the B side throwaway ditty to the A-side single. This isn’t a story so much as a framework on which to hang a disposable tale with affable gags.  I remember the frivolous jokes.  The plot machinations, not so much.  Honestly, I had to take to the internet to remind me of the details of this saga.  The specific components fade from memory but I remembered the comedy.  Hey, this is a very funny movie.

07-05-18

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on June 24, 2018 by Mark Hobin

jurassic_world_fallen_kingdom_ver7STARS1.5I think it’s pretty clear that the only Jurassic movie that ever NEEDED to be made in this whole blessed series was the very first entry.   Allow me to clarify with an explanation that admittedly reeks of arrogance.  The whole point was to show the wonder of an emerging technology in which dinosaurs looked like they did indeed exist. We experienced jaw-dropping special effects and lots and lots of reaction shots at which Steven Spielberg is so good at giving us. It was simply the wonder of it all. I won’t pretend out of nostalgia that The Lost World and Jurassic Park III were any better than the schlocky entries they actually were. Nor do I think 2015’s Jurassic World was great art. However, and this is key, it had the best reason to exist since the first. I am an ardent apologist of Jurassic World. I am not alone. That production remains the sixth highest box office hit of all time in the U.S. and the fifth highest worldwide. It was the culmination of everything. For the first time, we got to see the park legitimately open and then, of course, fall apart right before our eyes in cataclysmic tragedy. As frivolously entertaining as 1970s disaster classics like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure.

It has now been three years after the theme park debacle on a fictional Central American island. Back in the United States, an ongoing Senate debate over the fate of the dinosaurs rages on. An impending volcanic eruption threatens the very existence of the creatures on Isla Nublar. “Should they be saved?” is the question. Seems pretty obvious to me. Given the fact that many human lives have died at the hands of those unpredictable beasts, NO is the only sane response.  Ha! But then alas there would be no movie. In a rare glimpse of common sense, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues that the dinosaurs should be left to die. Despite his ubiquitous presence in the marketing, he only appears ever so very briefly in two hearings.  I’m guessing Mr. Goldblum’s time commitment couldn’t have required more than a few hours.

The production introduces a bunch of new characters, none of which are interesting. Preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is called by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who apparently wishes to relocate 11 species to a new island sanctuary.  Mills is acting as an agent on behalf of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Lockwood is a previously unknown partner of Jurassic Park’s original creator John Hammond (Richard Attenborough).  That we would have never heard of this man after four installments takes a huge leap of faith, but whatever. Like his predecessor, Lockwood has no problem with cloning. The circumstances concerning the birth of his granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) involves a pointless reveal.  I can’t imagine any of these rote story beats need to be concealed but I’ll tread lightly.  Claire subsequently seeks Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) help to secure the raptor Blue, who is also loose on the island.  They’re joined by two nonentities that would’ve served better use as dino fodder. They work for Claire – technician Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda).  A mercenary team is also sent to help retrieve the dinosaurs headed up up Ken Wheatley.  He’s portrayed by Ted Levine and if you’re aware of the actor’s most famous role, you already know * SPOILER ALERT* he’s not a nice person.

Fallen Kingdom is an uncreative excuse to depict a lot of tedious pandemonium involving giant reptiles. Directed by ostensibly talented J. A. Bayona, the Spanish director has charted a steady decline from helming something great with The Orphanage (2017), good with The Impossible (2012), passable with A Monster Calls (20116) and now something truly wretched.  The volcano erupts.  What follows is a lot of monsters and humans running around in catastrophic chaos.  The mercenaries apprehend the creatures in their helicopters.  We later learn that Mills (Rafe Spall) isn’t as altruistic as we had originally thought. He meets with Gunnar Eversol (Toby Jones), an auctioneer who wants to have the dinosaurs sold for profit. They’ve also designed a new hybrid dinosaur combining the DNA of an Indominus and a Raptor, calling it the Indoraptor. Gasp!  It’s an even more technologically advanced version.  Do you really even care about the scientific mumbo jumbo?  I didn’t.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is part 5 for those keeping track and perhaps that is the breaking point in this franchise.  At least for me anyway.  You might be surprised to learn that I was really looking forward to this picture.  Now that I’ve seen this utterly shabby display of commercial product, I can scarcely remember to explain why.  My enthusiasm obliterated by a soulless commodity of corporate greed utterly bereft of creative ideas.  So bad, it casts doubt on whether Universal Studios still has the ability to invent worthwhile entrainment. I will offer a bit of praise. Returning heroes Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are slightly more likable this time around. Everyone one else behaves in a way that inspires contempt. The spectacle of the Indoraptor claw slowly reaching out toward Maise as she cowers in her bed is a striking image. But if you saw the trailer, that scene will be familiar.

The hollow screenplay is courtesy of writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, the director of the 2015 film. They seemingly have no interest in trying to even assemble a coherent plot. The tale clearly means for the profit-driven mercenaries to be the hissable villains. But I’m confused. Wasn’t the amusement park originally designed by individuals seeking monetary gain? Apparently, capitalism was an acceptable quality in episodes one through four, but now it’s considered a bad thing. It doesn’t seem so horrible to anyone who tries to logically understand the motivations of the so-called scoundrels that are simply trying to stay alive.  In other plot points, the drama posits a sort of a debate over whether dinosaurs are beautiful living things or horrible beasts. It’s never clear how we’re meant to feel. The schizophrenic script takes no position on the matter. Don’t try to rationalize any of the story beats. Money! Mayhem! Monsters! These are the reasons for a Hollywood product so formulaic it could induce a vegetative state. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is one of those movies that fans will tell you to “turn your brain off” to enjoy. I’d need a lot of help with this flick. I suppose I could consume enough alcoholic beverages to artificially dumb down my brain. However, I don’t want to die of alcohol poisoning.

06-21-18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

Ready Player One

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on April 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ready_player_one_ver2STARS3It has been nearly a decade since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was the last time Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) actually directed the kind of live-action adventure that made him THE highest-grossing director worldwide.  That alone makes Ready Player One something to be excited about. The production is an adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. His novel was set in a dystopian future 2044 about a teenaged protagonist that simply wants to solve a 3 part quest in a virtual reality video game.

In Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is from “The Stacks.” The name denotes a decaying trailer park where vehicles are stacked on top of one another so more people can live in the same space.  This is apparently because of overpopulation problems and possibly economic ones as well. Existence is a bummer and so to escape, citizens turn to the OASIS, a hyper-realistic 3D virtual reality video game. The game itself is presented as something of a paradise. People enjoy the OASIS. The real world may be a dystopia, but virtual reality is not. Within the OASIS, you can literally be anyone. For reasons I still don’t understand, Wade chooses to look like a frail teen named Parzival. He’s the expression of an unexceptional anime character. Within the game, he frequently interacts with Aech (Lena Waithe), a huge muscular mechanic, as well as the samurai Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Never having met any of these people, Wade only knows them from their chosen avatar.  Their physical appearance in the real world is a mystery…initially.

The OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Eccentric billionaire Halliday is no longer with us.  However before he died, he announced that he had hidden an Easter egg within the OASIS that would be accessible after three keys were found. Collect the keys and his fortune (and control of the OASIS) is yours. Holy shades of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory! This mission forms the crux of the story. Everyone wants to win. Wade and his friends want to escape the very mire of their existence. The main antagonist is the evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Sorrento has rounded up a number of players to find the keys for him. He seeks to take over the OASIS and exploit it to augment his already massive fortune. To be honest, he and Wade ostensibly want the same thing but Sorrento is willing to murder to get what he wants so that’s where the narrative makes it OK to root for Wade and not Sorrento. I’m not sure if Sorrento’s personal style was supposed to recall Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club but given the film is all about the pop culture of a certain era, I’ll assume the casting choice was intentional.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent two paragraphs detailing the backstory for a movie in which the plot is so weak. The aforementioned set-up is merely an excuse to present a CGI fest of various challenges. The viewer is invited to stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed as we marvel at the technological curiosity before us. Don’t get me wrong.  This is a visual wonder to behold. Each quest involves obtaining a key. The first may be obtained when our fearless hero must finish a race. We see him drive a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a Hot Wheels-style course with jumps and loops. It’s seemingly impossible to even finish. King Kong manages to stop him in his tracks. The competition is run more than once. It’s during the revisit where we’re dazzled by some fantastic perspective shots. It’s a dizzying spectacle. It’s here where he meets love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She laments that her avatar is much more attractive than her real appearance. Then we meet her and she’s actually gorgeous. Oh sure she has a birthmark on her face, but she’s still very pretty. Her despair that he won’t find her beautiful is somewhat annoying.

Screenwriter Ernest Cline co-adapted the screenplay from his own book with Zak Penn. A big part of his novel were pop culture allusions.  Cline has a fondness for very particular things.  The author was born in 1972 and suffice it to say that the closer your birthdate matches his, the more likely you will identify with his points of reference. He occasionally acknowledges more recent things: the spaceship Serenity from the TV show Firefly for example. Though examples from 2000 on are rare. His treasured memories are mostly focused on the late 70s early 80s. His fiction was a love letter to fellow fanboys that obsess over comics (Superman, Batman), music (Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran) movies (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant) and video games (cartridges for the Atari 2600) of his childhood.

There’s a hip self-awareness that savvy fans will appreciate. A key element of the Ready Player One novel was specialized geek culture.  However, Steven Spielberg has wisely opened up that narrow focus and cited things that nearly everyone with a casual awareness of mainstream tastes can enjoy.  We’ve seen this done before in the movies. The Cabin in the Woods played with the manipulation of various tropes perhaps even more successfully, but the joy is similar. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the second key concerns an extended walkthrough of a certain movie. This is a departure from what happens in the book but it’s my most favorite setpiece. It practically justifies the entire production.

Ready Player One is a fine film. It’s entertaining enough but it doesn’t have the organic components of Spielberg’s very best work. I get that it’s all about virtual reality and so there’s very little that is tangible about this story. The frenzy keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We observe individuals in action but we never feel like we understand the experience or the intimacy of these people. It’s a technologically manufactured CGI amusement park ride, not an actual narrative motivated by plot and characterization. It’s no masterpiece, but it isn’t a disaster either. I’ll admit the 140-minute runtime can occasionally be exhausting. Yet there should be enough thrills here to satisfy most viewers. I was appeased.

03-29-18

A Wrinkle in Time

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wrinkle_in_time_ver2STARS2.5Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a high school girl who takes a journey across time and space to rescue her scientist father. Four years prior Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) discovered a tesseract, or a wrinkle in time, that allowed him to travel through the universe. A malevolent force known as the Black Thing now holds him prisoner on a distant planet. Meg is accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and (rather pointlessly) by her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller). Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time is a classic for teens and pre-teens. First published in 1962, it won the Newbury Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I read it in junior high and I loved the book. Its blending of science and theology was mysterious, provocative, deep, and yes even inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be a most difficult publication to adapt.

Right from the beginning, A Wrinkle in Time is hindered by weak character development. The behavior of some of these individuals doesn’t make sense. It’s common for the central hero in an adolescent story to be sad, lonely and socially awkward. Meg Murry is cut from the same cloth. Yet she doesn’t really look like an outcast. We’re presented with a girl who acts shy but with her gorgeous ringlets of cascading hair, she is too beautiful to truly believe she’d be treated as a misfit. The reason why her classmates tease her? Because her father has disappeared. Children are socially unaccepted in high school for the way they dress or act or look, but a missing father? Hmmm, that’s a new one. Once the mean girls’ teasing extends to her younger brother, a line is crossed and she hurls a basketball at the face of one them.  Makes sense.  She is being bullied and lashing out at your oppressors is an understandable reaction.  Apparently, this concept is too hard for her principal (André Holland) to grasp.  He isn’t the least bit sympathetic to her predicament. Neither is her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

A Wrinkle in Time has deeper problems than just characters with implausible behavior. The production is high on style but low on substance. L’Engle’s source material dealt with the timeworn battle of good vs. evil too, but there was a lot more bubbling under the surface to sink your teeth into. The film maintains an uplifting moral but screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have discarded the book’s allegory for Communism, science, and religion in favor of easily digestible platitudes that young minds can understand. The novel’s complex themes are distilled down to the singular idea that Meg must learn to appreciate her own uniqueness as an individual. That idea is hammered home throughout the feature.  The dogma of the movie is moving in the way that a Hallmark card can make you feel good about yourself. Pop hits on the soundtrack contain lyrics that easily summarize the underlying message: “There’s someone in the world, lovely as you” (Sade), “You can find the magic in an everyday night, night, night (Sia), “I just wanna believe in me” (Demi Lovato). The subtle complexities of the enduring text are largely trounced by a bright, cheery, CGI-laden manifestation that is very much a product of our age.

Author Madeline L’Engle was never exalted by conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, some even condemned her for what they felt promoted witchcraft. However, her strong Christian faith did gently infuse her writing. The text’s more thought-provoking theology was influenced by her Episcopalian background. Fans of the book’s admittedly religious pluralism will be disheartened to hear the screenwriters have scuttled the mention of Jesus and Christianity in favor of a more all-encompassing humanism via the teachings of Oprah Winfrey. The “Queen of All Media” looms large, quite literally, in the first half embodying one of three astral travelers that accompany the kids on their journey. As Mrs. Which, she initially towers above them all like a God. I can see why the actress/producer/talk show host/philanthropist was drawn to this part. Replete with blonde hair, rhinestones affixed to her brows, and ever-changing shades of lipstick, she beams down on them with a beatific smile. She constantly espouses mottoes that resolutely affirm how wonderful Meg is. Her didactic affirmations are so incessant they actually grow tiresome. She can’t seem to help Meg find her father but she can remind the child just how truly admirable she is. Oprah is playing Oprah.  Note to those who worship at the altar of the media mogul – I highly recommend this picture.

Interestingly the other two visionaries Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are not particularly engaging either. Their identities are vague. Mrs. Whatsit — played by Reese Witherspoon — is sort of an upbeat scatterbrain that hurls insults with a smile.  The actress exaggerates her vocal delivery and facial expressions as if she’s doing community theater. At one point she turns into a flying leaf creature and the fabrication of CGI is so poorly executed it’s laughable in this age of technological perfection. Though it did give me a craving for those delicious lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s. And no, I don’t get paid to say that. Actress Mindy Kaling plays Mrs. Who, an introverted (!) idealistic sort who recites quotations from the likes of Shakespeare and Rumi and the rap group Outkast. I told you this was a product of our age. She was actually my favorite of the three because she talked the least. The three of them are an ever-shifting display of bulky gowns, and bizarre hairstyles whenever they haphazardly zoom off to somewhere new, which brings me to the adventure’s biggest problem.

There is no narrative flow to the plot. The action is reduced to a series of set pieces loosely strung together in a time-traveling saga. Some of the set pieces work, mainly in the 2nd half when the three supernatural beings leave and the children are left alone to fend for themselves. The action on the evil planet Camazotz is where things finally get interesting. Director Ava DuVernay knows how to frame a shot and her skill behind the camera is evident. Scenes of a suburban world with identical houses with similarly dressed kids all bouncing a ball in unison is a captivating tableau. Conformity is bad. Individuality is good. Got it. A later scene occurs at a crowded beach where people lay about in claustrophobic proximity. It seemingly stretches on forever. The mere image is effective for its utter recognizability to real life. A man with red eyes (Michael Pena) encourages the youngsters to dine on sandwiches, which have never been more appropriately named. The discussion is eerily sinister in just the right way. I wish more of the drama had conversations this engaging.

A better title might be Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. She has put her creative stamp all over this picture. Even before it began we were treated to an intro with a message from the director. In a nutshell, she contends this isn’t a film for critics. It’s a love letter to children, and to watch it as such. Sounds a little defensive, but she has a point. Entertainment, often maligned by intellectuals, can still become classics. Home Alone is a perfect example of just such a work. You can’t encounter any promotion for this release (including this review) without reading that Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a movie with a budget over $100M. She is instrumental in the casting, introducing an ethnically diverse ensemble of characters. Meg is a biracial girl whose father is white and mother is black, with a younger brother who is adopted. The screenplay actually highlights that last detail when Meg expresses anxiety in meeting him for the first time. The three celestial beings were also cast with a nod to their ethnic identity. None of this is intrinsic to the story, these are merely visual cues made for the purpose of representation. Ava DuVernay has emphasized in interviews that these were very deliberate choices.

I think insecure children will identify with Storm Reid as Meg. Her performance is understated and natural. She finds the courage within her fear in a convincing arc. Introducing a black girl as a brainy protagonist that loves science is a unique addition that actually adds nuance to a chronicle that so desperately requires it. However, the production suffers from the plight of the modern blockbuster. A Wrinkle in Time is burdened by poorly defined characters, an overreliance on CGI, well-coiffed youths that look like they stepped out of an LA casting session, and conventional advice.  Indeed the encouragement may be a crucial reminder for impressionable tots. This film was obviously made with them in mind. However cynical children and (most) adults should probably steer clear.

03-08-18

Annihilation

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 3, 2018 by Mark Hobin

annihilationSTARS3.5Annihilation is one of those sci-fi features that doesn’t pander to viewers’ thirst for answers. It is a demonstration of narrative ambiguity. Understand that before you begin to watch and you’ll enjoy the developments more. This is the much-anticipated follow-up to Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed, 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina. Garland is an English novelist (The Beach) turned screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine) turned director. The jack of all trades has seen success in his many efforts. All of which makes the expectations for another sci-fi endeavor like Annihilation even higher. I really liked this film, but I fell short of loving it.

The story concerns Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology. Right from the beginning, she is being cross-examined after having already undergone a government expedition into a scientific phenomenon known as the Shimmer. We know she made it out, but what exactly is the Shimmer? It all began when a meteor crashed into the earth and created a slowly growing otherworldly area. Perceptibly it’s this glistening, sparkling force field that encompasses an area where a lot of unexplained things are occurring. Annihilation is a vividly captivating production that includes fractal designs, gaseous forms, and metallic shapes. There is a biological element to the Shimmer too as its colorful effects are felt upon the flora and fauna within. It involves an amorphous terror we don’t understand. In the U.S. this debuted in theaters where the film’s impressive visual effects and sound design could be appreciated. The spectacle is a major part of the appeal. Internationally the movie went straight to Netflix which deprived those audiences of the full experience.

In flashback, we learn that Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only person that has ever actually returned from entering the Shimmer. He was part of a military excursion a year prior. He becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, he and his wife Lena are ambushed by a government security force and taken into some secret research compound in close proximity to the Shimmer. There she meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist. She’s forming another expedition. After Lena’s husband falls into a coma, Lena agrees to accompany Dr. Ventress’ all-female patrol which also includes Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a surveyor/geologist

Annihilation is a tale where the less revealed, the better. The developmental incidents utilize the building blocks of other pictures: Alien, The Thing, Contagion. Yet Annihilation is different than those features because the screenplay doesn’t clarify much. As a result, director Alex Garland is quite successful in creating an impending sense of dread without me being able to fully explain why.  This is fine.  It is a movie to savor not to reveal.  This is a well assembled creepy adventure.  However, the chronicle is so narratively vague it’s hard to embrace.  Despite the ambiguity, the plot is easy to understand.  Only in the final act do things get somewhat baffling.  The denouement is perplexing. Lena’s plan to escape will ultimately leave you with more questions than answers. Still, I’ll concede that the desire to overanalyze things can be a weakness in genre films. To its credit, the final outcome remains mysteriously uncertain.

02-26-18

Black Panther

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on February 22, 2018 by Mark Hobin

black_panther_ver3STARS4It isn’t hyperbole to say that there has never been anything quite like Black Panther. The film is a game changer. This picture has been out less than a week and already earned $263M in its first 5 days of release. Its weekend debut was bigger than virtually every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Only The Avengers (2012) had a bigger opening. I think it’s safe to predict it will ultimately earn at least $600M although it has the potential to earn even more given the extraordinarily positive word of mouth. Its influence has become a phenomenon. That would’ve been enough to set Black Panther apart from its predecessors. The fact that it’s a genre film (sci-fi, rom-com, horror, etc.) that weaves racial politics and black identity within the framework of a Marvel superhero movie makes it even more unique. Its cagey ability to capture the ongoing cultural discussion and insert it into the plot is masterful. News stories blanketing its release have dominated social media as of late. Whether it be U.S. educators leading money-raising efforts for kids to see Black Panther for a school field trip or fans dressing up in African inspired clothing to attend showings, the publicity surrounding the picture is unprecedented. It has become an event.

Black Panther captures the zeitgeist as shrewdly as any in recent memory. It concerns the fictional East African nation of Wakanda. An opening narration informs us that centuries ago, 5 African nations went to war over a metal called Vibranium — a substance so vital that, according to Slate.com, the word is uttered an average of every 5.36 minutes in the screenplay.  Now there’s a drinking game that’ll get you inebriated, but quick!  The metal is so powerful that it allows the African nation to appear as a third world country to the other nations of the Earth.  In reality, Wakanda has developed the advanced science to become a technological utopia of which only its own residents are aware.  The current black panther is T’Challa, a king that has assumed his role after a combat ritual. The present leader of the Jabari Tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) challenged him but yields to his win in defeat. T’Challa wishes to continue Wakanda’s isolationist policies and separate itself from the rest of the planet.  Where have I heard that before?  Enter Erik Stevens who adopts the not-so-subtle moniker “Killmonger” after his success as a U.S. black ops soldier.  He disagrees with T’Challa’s stance and strongly advocates for a different policy.  He feels it is Wakanda’s duty to share its resources with the African diaspora so that they may rise up and overthrow their oppressors all over the globe. This handling of different political ideologies informs the basis of the central conflict.

Those conflicting beliefs are embodied by the main protagonist and antagonist.  Actor Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa or the titular Black Panther. Since 2013, the actor has portrayed Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall all to rapturous reviews. T’Challa is a reflective, at times somber individual. That makes him an admirable character, but perhaps not as compelling as those that surround him. In contrast, Michael B Jordan is a commanding presence as Killmonger. A dominant villain full of swagger and defiance galvanized by a painful event in 1992 while growing up in Oakland, California. The time and place — carefully selected by the Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler — are NOT fictional and very intentionally so. More than any Marvel property before, the director (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) is the visionary behind the manifestation of a comic first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

What makes the narrative so compelling is that it comprises a raft of complex characters any one of which could form the basis of their own movie. T’Challa is protected by royal bodyguards called the Dora Milaje headed up by Okoye (Danai Gurira). Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a superspy for whom he has personal feelings. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his feisty sister and technology guru. She is to this story what Q is to James Bond. I loved her. Everyone has their moment, but Letitia Wright’s use of words like “sneakers” and “colonizer” injected some much-needed humor. Her charismatic performance (and anonymity to me) forced me to look her up on the IMDb to see what else she had done. My anticipation for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One in March 2018 just got more fervid. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is T’Challa’s best friend whose own loyalty will be tested regarding the capture of a black market arms dealer who threatens Wakanda’s safety. The aforementioned M’Baku portrayed by Winston Duke is probably the side character I most wanted to know more about. When is he going to star in a film? Angela Bassett is majestic as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, and Forest Whitaker is elder statesman Zuri. There’s also a couple of white actors from the Lord of the Rings series. The movie isn’t about them – Tolkien white guys played by Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue) and Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross). My apologies for appropriating an old joke from when the trailer dropped back in October, but it still makes me laugh.

Black Panther is a rather dignified picture. It’s also glorious. A colorful Afro-futuristic sensibility informs gorgeous landscapes, opulent costumes and a large, mostly all-black cast in which even the supporting parts are played by name actors. Not since the kingdom of Zamunda in Coming to America have we seen pure African style presented in such a regal manner. Although I’ll admit the role of women in Zamunda was decidedly less enlightened. Black Panther has a vision unlike any Marvel episode before it. I have never seen a chapter that is less interested in the way that it fits within the MCU. Except for a concluding title card that informs us of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (which got the Pavlovian round of applause anyway) this feel more like standalone entry than any of the 17 installments that came before. I must admit that I like my superhero productions with a bit of humor. I’ve often said in my reviews that dressing up in tights and fighting crime is inherently silly. So why not treat your creation as such? A tongue in cheek attitude serves your worldbuilding well. This is why I particularly love Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. In contrast, Black Panther is a very noble superhero feature. It’s telling that the action, while serviceable, is the least interesting thing about the picture. Instead, it’s highlighted by a narrative steeped in a complicated and detailed backstory that brilliantly weaves reality into fantasy. It’s more than a film. It’s a mission statement that manipulates the spirit of our time into entertainment.

02-15-17

The Cloverfield Paradox

Posted in Action, Adventure, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

cloverfield_paradoxSTARS2It’s only February, but The Cloverfield Paradox just may go down as the most brilliantly marketed gimmick of 2018. Paramount couldn’t have asked for a better moment to drop their movie. Originally produced under the title God Particle, it was scheduled for an April 2018 release in theaters. Then during Super Bowl LII, a trailer teased that the $40 million budgeted film would actually be presented on Netflix right after the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018. Now retitled The Cloverfield Paradox and marketed as part of the Cloverfield series, the picture was debuted. The reviews were less than enthusiastic. There’s a reason for that. It’s pretty bad and I’m convinced that Paramount knew this would happen.

The studio heads were very smart. The protracted trajectory of a movie normally includes a lengthy build up of anticipation that in this case would have inevitably led to a crushing disappointment.  The studio sidestepped all this and minimized the damage. Instead, the negativity was contained within the surprise unveiling of a unique sci-fi film that many didn’t even know existed. I must admit, I was pretty excited to watch when I saw the trailer during Super Bowl 52. The instant hype created a need in me to see this fresh sci-fi production. I, for the record, enjoyed Cloverfield (2008) as well as it’s spiritual sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). I happily switched over to Netflix after the game. O dear! I have never watched the drama TV series “This Is Us” but I can safely say I wish I had kept the channel on NBC right after the game. The Cloverfield Paradox is simply awful.

It’s the year 2028 and the Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis. A crew of astronauts is thrust into space in order to help solve the planet’s energy problems. Unfortunately, their efforts may open portals to other dimensions that could have a negative lasting effect on their current existence. Naturally, this is exactly what happens. The charismatic crew (cast) includes Daniel Brühl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Aksel Hennie and Elizabeth Debicki. They’re more than up to the task of giving this ridiculous script life. The problem is, nothing makes sense. The narrative is a grab bag of assorted sci-fi tropes that recalls Aliens, Interstellar and 2017’s Life. Anyone remember the cockroach scene when they burst out-out of E. G. Marshall in Creepshow? Yeah well, something like that happens in this movie too except it’s with worms this time. Yup, it’s just as gross as it sounds.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a mess. It’s a sequel to the franchise in only the most general sense. Some script tweaking has creatively brought this into the same universe. If you’ve seen the other entries you may see a loose connection, but it certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the franchise. This J.J. Abrams produced prequel was directed by the heretofore unknown Julius Onah with a screenplay by Oren Uziel who co-wrote the comedy 22 Jump Street. That’s kind of telling. This unintentionally veers into comedy on several occasions. The production also feels like the umpteenth version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Yet this adventure has no direction.

The Cloverifeld Paradox is all over the place. No focus. Just a mish-mash of ideas that occasionally captivates the mind for a moment only to be let down by another concept that subverts the one before it. When an astronaut played by Chris O’Dowd loses his arm in a freak accident, the occurrence is so bizarre we are captivated by the event. Then the arm comes to life, receiving instructions from some alternate reality that forces the viewer to pay attention.  I was enrapt for a while as the limb starts to write notes on its own volition, but the longer this nonsensical account plays out, the sillier it gets, At one point it appears that the planet Earth no longer exists. Then it does. There’s nothing here but a lot of half-baked theories and unresolved plot threads. The Cloverfield Paradox is a jumble of contrivances.  It’s an entertaining medley for only the introductory section of the movie. I was entertained in the beginning, then common sense took over.