Archive for the Science Fiction Category

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-19-20

Color Out of Space

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction with tags on March 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

color_out_of_space_ver2STARS2.5When Nicolas Cage goes “Full Cage” it gives me comfort in times like these.  All U.S. theaters have been ordered to close for an indefinite period in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Hollywood production (as is much of the rest of the world) is currently halted to slow the spread of the virus.  There won’t be any new movies playing in cinemas for a while.  This is unchartered territory.  How long this can last is anyone’s guess.  Yet I will persist.  This won’t deter me from writing.  As long as DVD & streaming still exists, I will review new releases on that platform.  Color Out of Space opened to a mere 81 theaters back on January 24, 2020, in the U.S.  Needless to say few people (including me) had the ability to see it — even if they wanted to.  It was subsequently released to VOD, Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on February 25th.

I was primed to enjoy this production.  Color Out of Space is science fiction fueled horror from Richard Stanley, the director infamously fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).  That might be a cause for concern.  On the plus side, this was produced by the same people who brought us the bizarre 2018 action horror film, MandyMandy was directed by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)).  Now I’m not saying Mandy was great art, mind you, but it presented a bizarro appeal that I found amusing.  It’s was unique and that’s saying something in an age of reboots and sequels.  That cast featured Nicolas Cage in a wild acting display that added to its eccentricities.  He’s starring in this too and I can say his presence definitely adds to the strangeness.  The actor has been cultivating an offbeat persona ever since he starred in Valley Girl way back in 1983.  Anyone familiar with the actor’s work knows he chooses projects where he can bring an air of eccentricity.  This feature is no different in that respect and I can appreciate that.  In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two films.  Nevertheless, where the quirks seemed to make sense in the former, it doesn’t serve much purpose here.

From a narrative standpoint, Color Out of Space is a fairly simple tale based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft.  If you’re acquainted with that author, you know he can be a bit odd.  The text is significantly more scientifically detailed than what we observe onscreen.  The adaptation doesn’t have that much of a plot.  A meteorite plummets to Earth in a dazzling blaze of purple-pink hues and lands in their yard on a remote New England property.  Things get decidedly weirder from there.  Actually, I’m making the adventure seems like more than it is.  Meteor lands.  Mayhem ensues.  That’s it.  But there are some captivating special effects and an interesting visual style.  At one point, a large multi-eyed creature that resembles a praying mantis crawls out of the well. It’s a creepy moment.

Nicolas Cage gives another gonzo performance.  It takes a certain suspension of disbelief.  He plays a father married to his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) with three kids Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard).  They’re all living on a rural farm.  They also care for a herd of animals which allows Cage to say, and I quote “Now if you don’t mind, it’s time we milk the alpacas!”  The actor gets a lot of campy lines.  Another “delightful” exchange with his beloved daughter has him screaming at her to “Get the f— out of my sight, okay?”  Then he reconsiders and says “No, actually, I’ll save you the trouble and get the f— out of yours!”  He constantly reprimands his wife and kids with an exasperation that borders on comic relief.

This is not for people who idolize the work of H.P. Lovecraft.  It’s more like a springboard to create random vignettes.  Nonetheless, audiences who revel in Nicolas Cage doing his uniquely deranged schtick will find much to savor here.  The silliness doesn’t stop with the dialogue.  Another episode features mom making dinner.  While cutting carrots, she chops her own fingers instead of the vegetables.  I can’t even do the scene justice but everything is done for comedic effect.  The story is one big joke.  I admire this film for its silly sensibility and creative aesthetic.  However, those looking for a coherent account will find it lacking.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Tommy Chong pops up as an eccentric squatter who lives on the fringes of the family’s homestead.  He’s the cherry on top of a very messy sundae.

The Invisible Man

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on March 16, 2020 by Mark Hobin

invisible_manSTARS4I’ve seen a lot of good movies over the past year, but it’s been a while since an opening scene grabbed me as quickly as this one.  It’s so perfectly crafted.  A woman (Elisabeth Moss) wakes up in the middle of the night.  Cecilia is lying in bed.  There is a man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeping beside her.  His arm draped around her waist. A look of fear appears as she gently extricates herself from his grasp.  A nearby bottle of Diazepam suggests he has been drugged.  Quietly and methodically she retrieves her belongings, turns off the alarms and positions one camera to face Adrian, the sleeping man, so she can monitor him from her phone.  She attempts to leave.  However, at the last minute, his dog accidentally sets off a car alarm.  Cecilia is forced to make a run for it into the street where her sister (Harriet Dyer) is already waiting in a car.  No sooner has she entered the vehicle when Adrian comes out, smashing the window before Emily drives her away to safety.

I’m a big proponent of less is more.  Those early minutes are the very definition of that phrase. Despite the fact that no words are spoken, the introduction is a perfect tease to whet your appetite for more.  Sure you will have questions, but the answers are skillfully revealed over time in a way that supports the artistry of this narrative.  It may not rival Hitchcock, but someone has clearly studied his methods.  The Invisible Man was written and directed by Leigh Whannell – perhaps best known for writing movies directed by James Wan (Saw, Insidious).  Whannell may have made an unfortunate directorial debut in 2015 with Insidious: Chapter 3.  I won’t mince words.  It was an execrable work.  However, this feature is a solid example of his skills as a director.

The Invisible Man is such a fascinating endeavor.  That effectiveness is due in no small part to the performance of Elizabeth Moss.  The actress rarely does commercial releases like this.  She generally favors indie fare, although Us was a rare exception.  This is actually Moss’s first true lead role in a studio production and if it’s any indication of her abilities, there should be more.  We slowly come to learn the man she escaping from is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a powerful tech entrepreneur who also happens to be an abusive boyfriend.  No injury is depicted.  However, her behavior tells you everything you need to know.  The intro is rather sophisticated.  However, the rest of the account amps up the violence.  People are dragged, hit and thrown by an unseen force.  It’s pretty well done so I found that action to be captivating.  However, on two occasions a person’s throat is graphically sliced open and those demonstrations are decidedly less understated.

The Invisible Man is a remake of the classic 1933 Universal monster movie (which was based on H.G. Wells’ 123-year-old sci-fi novel.  This saga bears little resemblance to the original source.  They’ve basically extrapolated Wells’ seed of an idea to create a completely different film for a contemporary audience.  The feature was originally going to star Johnny Depp and be a part of Universal’s Dark Universe.  Then the reboot of The Mummy franchise starring Tom Cruise flopped.  It deserved to — it was simply awful.  So when the idea of continuing the “Dark Universe” was canceled, we narrowly avoided a potential catastrophe.  Given how great this smaller-scale version turned out, it now seems like a blessing in disguise.  The Invisible Man is so much better than I could have imagined.  A low-budget Blumhouse production may have more modest ambitions.  However, it still manages to highlight the creativity and character development that makes a story compelling.  These characteristics elevate this horror flick which remains one of the very best films in the first quarter of 2020.

03-10-20

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver4STARS3.5Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might have set a record for the number of spontaneous bursts of applause I’ve ever experienced during a theatrical screening.  I stopped counting when it reached double digits.  It was an absolute love fest.  My reaction was less enthusiastic but I can appreciate why the crowd embraced this so gleefully.  The chronicle is heavy on scenes and displays that are specifically designed to appeal to longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise — especially admirers of the first set (and best) of three films often referred to as the classic trilogy.  Director J.J. Abrams is a master at giving people exactly what they want.  That is both boon and bane to the grand narrative arc of the three most recent Star Wars episodes.

J.J. Abrams was faced with an epic task.  First, he had to close out the sequel trilogy which he began with The Force Awakens in 2015, but also cap off the entire “Skywalker Saga” of nine movies.  He only partially succeeds as the three chapters linked do not fit together as a cohesive whole.  I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s subversive take in the 2nd movie because he brought innovation and unexpected change to the franchise.  However, it was not meant to be. From a story standpoint, it now feels like Abrams directed The Force Awakens with an idea of where he wanted the adventure to go.  Then the series was hijacked by filmmaker Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi who introduced plot elements and personalities only to have Abrams either ignore them or explain them away with The Rise of Skywalker as a course-correcting measure.  This is true with the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic of the resistance that was a huge part of The Last Jedi but now only registers as a gloried cameo typing away at a computer here.  Be warned there will be other adjustments made in the name of retroactive continuity.  What I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the opening crawl.  Somehow a resurrected emperor Palpatine returns (Ian McDiarmid) as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been rendered as a nonentity.

J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Wars is more focused on the meticulous crafting of visual style at the expense of logical developments. That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker isn’t enjoyable.  It’s hugely entertaining.  The audience in my theater were laughing, crying, cheering.  That audience experienced something akin to a religious experience.  There are lots of encounters with fantastic creatures and random humans.  Babu Frik is the baby Yoda of this movie.  Don’t underestimate this little guy’s power to charm the viewer.  Babu Frik reprograms droids and speaks in an incomprehensible but adorable alien language that had my theater enraptured.  There’s a cone-headed droid named D-O that behaves like a rehabilitated puppy.  Porgs, Ewoks, Jawas, droids all pop up intermittently to satisfy your fan lust for more cute critters.  Abrams is adept at manipulating the Star Wars aesthetic in a way that honors the past while fashioning a tale with new personalities.

There’s a dizzying array of human roles too.  Numerous individuals pop up, deliver one line and then frustratingly disappear.  Abrams prioritizes the wants and needs of the fans over plot, characterization and thematic consistency.  Rose Tico has been sidelined.  Yet the writers have added other actors that appear to fulfill the same role but then obfuscate the advancement of a singular narrative.  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is an ally of the Resistance who is paired up with Finn.  She also has a conversation with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) that’s calculated to tease some sort of relationship.  Oscar Isaac is back as Poe and he hangs out with an old friend named Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell.  You’d never know it was the actress, however, because she wears a helmet.  You only see her eyes in one scene.  The inclusion of Jannah and Zorii seems rather pointless.  Nevertheless, the cast is filled with beings that all look and sound the part.  The villains continue to be cast like actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde in the First Order looks like a genetic descendant of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

Yes, this movie relies on the groundwork that was established long ago.  This entry will lack an emotional impact for the uninitiated.  It feels a bit like a greatest hits reel where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in.  At one point Rey amusingly utters a declaration that followers will recognize as a variation of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.  My theater was erupting in applause at moments that I didn’t even grasp.  The gang walks into a droid shop and there’s an old guy with a white beard shaking his head.  Everyone started clapping.  It was only after the film was over and I consulted the internet that I found out who that was.  Abrams even finds a way to include original cast members including (but not limited to) Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams.  Fisher passed on in 2016 and so her scenes have been cobbled together from outtakes and pre-recorded dialogue.  Her declarations have a vagueness about them but it’s nice to see her.  Another character reappears as just a figment of someone’s memory.

The Rise of Skywalker ultimately delivers the satisfying end to — what I like to call — the nonology.  The chronicle is well-paced but at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it’s overpacked with too much stuff.  It’s messy and incoherent.  However, the central trio continues to be a charismatic bunch.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) bicker like two brothers.  They still have a nice dynamic.  The main hero, Jedi Knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the lion’s share of the drama.  The idea of “The Force” as an all-powerful almost Godlike solution to difficult problems is further promoted.  Rey now has abilities so advanced that she can control a spaceship flying overhead simply by outstretching her hand while she is safely on the ground.  Apparently, the force can even be manipulated in the same way that Jesus helped Lazarus.

Rey is a captivating heroine and her interaction with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the sentimental core.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a lightsaber duel between the two of them.  The fact it’s set against a backdrop of stormy ocean waves that rise and crash all around them truly elevate the action.  It ends with a surprising act.  Abrams fills his account with sensational set pieces that delight the viewer.  Also ** news flash ** there will be a massive air battle between the Rebels and the Empire.  Abrams celebrates cinematic history by courting nostalgia but then amps up the spectacle.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s his ties to the same ideas that fascinated George Lucas where The Rise of Skywalker fitfully entertains as an end to the Star Wars saga.

12-19-19

Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

terminator_dark_fate_ver3STARS3The story in a nutshell: a malevolent Terminator is sent from the future to terminate a woman from the present. It is believed she will be the mother of a resistance leader in the war against the machines.  The resistance also sends somebody back to fight that Terminator.

There are 2 ways to watch this production.  With your arms folded as you realize the plot is nearly a carbon copy of the original film or with relief that the story in a Terminator movie is actually more concerned with extracting humanity and emotion from a simplified screenplay than special effects.  Deadpool director Tim Miller is at the helm and he mostly keeps things moving.  Although the screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does sag in the middle.  What could have been a brisk efficient 98-minute actioner is stretched to an interminable 128 minutes.  The action sequences are indeed good.  I just didn’t need so many.

Terminator: Dark Fate is the 6th entry in this series.  Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron (Titanic) and Gale Anne Hurd created the franchise back in 1984 with The Terminator.  Then came Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991.  I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, some time passed and then we got this installment in 2019.  I’m ignoring 3 other sequels and James Cameron has wisely decided to do the same.  He’s gotten involved in the franchise for the first time since T2 and has relegated entries 3 through 5 as part of some alternate universe.  Also reuniting after 28 years are Arnold Schwarzenegger as T-800 and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor.

Let’s not underestimate the sheer joy of rejoining these two on-screen.  OK, so the producers have decided to introduce a whole new cast as well.  I won’t discount the contributions of characters Grace (Mackenzie Davis) the modified human-cyborg sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) from evil Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).  Incidentally, the advanced Rev-9 can separate the skin from its body and act as two units at once.  I guess that’s what passes for innovation in this screenplay.  It was a little confusing at first because I don’t recall an explanation in the movie as to why he was doing this.  It just sort of happens.

The new additions to the cast are serviceable, but the real spotlight belongs to seeing Linda Hamilton again and to a lesser extent, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Yes, their relationship arc admittedly copies what happens in T2 but that was nearly 3 decades ago.   I think enough time has passed that you can now choose to label their interaction as an homage.   Linda Hamilton is especially good.  She adopts this world-weary “seen it all before” persona.   She’s so grizzled and tough that the portrayal almost borders on parody.   I enjoyed her much in the same way it was nice having Jaime Lee Curtis return in the Halloween movie from 2018.  That follow-up also chose to ignore a collection of inferior sequels too so it’s very similar in spirit to this film.  Still, did we really need a sixth chapter in the Terminator franchise?  Simply put, no.  However, this is the best entry since T2 so there’s that.  It could’ve been a lot worse.

10-31-19

Ad Astra

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ad_astra_ver3STARS3Heaven knows there isn’t a shortage of movies that use outer space as a metaphor for depression.  That’s because the setting is an exquisite allegory for distance, loneliness and broken relationships.  2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, Moon, Interstellar, and First Man are just a few that exploited these feelings.  It’s impossible not to think of one of these chronicles set amongst the stars when watching this picture.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Ad Astra – Latin for “to the stars” – is part of a hallowed and timeworn tradition.

Our saga concerns Brad Pitt who plays Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with tracking down his father.   Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rebel astronaut who has gone missing for years in the outer reaches of the solar system.   The plot actually evokes a literary classic that has nothing to do with deep space.  A man on a meandering quest to find his symbolic “Kurtz” figure is pure Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by Joseph Conrad which also inspired Apocalypse Now.  McBride must unravel the mystery of recent catastrophic power surges that threaten the very future of the entire planet.  Needless to say, the stakes are high.  The story begins as a thinking man’s exploration of the cosmos.  Although the tale of a son that harbors deeply buried abandonment issues against his dad slowly becomes the focus.  The father complex can get a bit tedious.  Roy McBride seems to be pretty cool and collected at first.  His pulse rate never accelerates.  As the possibility that Clifford might still be alive, the man’s placid exterior begins to crumble.  I greeted this turn of events like the psychoanalysis from a dime-store therapist.  An unhealthy parental relationship is the root of his emotional problems.  I tried hard not to roll my eyes too far in the back of my head for fear I would miss a dazzling set-piece.  Ad Astra presents these conventional ideas with stunning cinematography.

This is a gorgeously photographed production that demands to be seen on a wide screen.  Writer-director James Gray is known for his portraits of families in crisis (The Yards, We Own the Night) and this narrative also fits within those descriptive confines.  However, this is the first time he’s ever worked with an $80 million budget.  Gray makes excellent use of the increased funds.  An electrical surge causes the International Space Antenna to go haywire.  Roy falls to earth and I gasped at the spectacle.  A lunar buggy chase on the unsettled areas of the moon, where our hero and his men are pursued by pirates, is spectacularly thrilling.  This is the near future and such things are to be expected.  Later, against Roy McBride’s protestations,  the team answers a mayday call.   The discovery aboard the foreign rocket ship contains a surprise that is scarier than anything I saw in the recent horror IT Chapter Two.  These are the moments I remember the most.  Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

Ad Astra is content to luxuriate within the contemplative mood of an introspective study of a man who misses his daddy.  Why oh why did father prefer searching for extraterrestrial life out in the galaxy when he had life right here on earth that loved him?  That is the central dilemma.  The elegant presentation is somewhat undone by intrusive and excessive narration by Brad Pitt’s character.  His reflections are extraneous expository thoughts.   The vocalized inner monologue comes across as self-indulgent.   This is not a device that elevates our enjoyment.  It might have helped if there were other significant personalities to share the load of the drama.  Both Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga pop up briefly but each of their appearances are incidental in nature.  Liv Tyler as “the wife” has minimal dialogue.   I’d say she gets roughly five lines in total and that’s a charitable estimate.   Eve McBride is more of a symbol than an actual role.  This is clearly the Brad Pitt show.  He is indeed good and so are the visuals.  It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but overall the visual extravaganza won out over the stuffy sections.  One day someone will revolutionize storytelling and make a film where the beauty of the cosmos is a metaphor for a happy and well-adjusted life.  Until, then, there’s Ad Astra.

09-19-19

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 6, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_far_from_home_ver7STARS4Warning: Review contains an Avengers: Endgame spoiler.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn’t waste any time getting started.  A gigantic cyclone “with a face” terrorizes a city in Mexico.  An enigmatic superhero heretofore unknown arrives to fight the creature and save the day.  We later learn his name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  He will become a key figure in this narrative.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) investigate.  They appeal to Peter Parker (Tom Holland ) for help.  However the mild-mannered teen a.k.a. Spider-Man is more concerned with high school life.  This means preparing for a class trip to Europe, hanging out with his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and attending to the crush he has on cute classmate “MJ” (Zendaya).  He likes her and she likes him.  They’re just too painfully shy to tell one another.  It may technically be the final chapter in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but debuting after Avengers: Endgame, this really feels like a fresh beginning.  The adventure enthusiastically prepares the viewer for a new series of MCU movies with a lighthearted attitude that is buoyant and fun.

Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own identity.  Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its 2017 predecessor, this one is equally coming of age comedy as it is a superhero fantasy.  Actually, the portrait of teen angst is the best part.  Coming on the heels of Endgame, this is the first feature to detail the aftermath of what Thanos caused.  In that vein, their high-school TV station playfully presents an “In Memoriam” segment for Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Vision.  It also explains what happened when half the Earth’s population disappeared in what this story calls “The Blip” then reappeared exactly the same age five years later.  Their peers who remained on Earth did age.

Peter Parker is torn.  Four Elementals are wreaking havoc on the world.  These immortal creatures are so-named because each one controls an element: earth, air, fire, and water.  As Tony Stark’s protegee, he feels the call to be a superhero.  At the same time, Peter just wants to see the sights of Europe with his friends.  Enter Quentin Beck, a hero from a parallel Earth, who seems ever more capable than Peter when dealing with these supernatural threats.  Peter’s classmates start calling the individual “Mysterio” which the genial guy soon adopts as his moniker.  Jake Gyllenhaal is memorable.  He imbues his character with a charisma that deftly straddles the line between good-natured and disingenuous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a blast.  It also details a very personal odyssey.  Directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the film brilliantly juggles a crisis of conscience for Peter Parker.  This is a character based chronicle and as such, his desire to simply live a “normal” life is quite compelling.  I truly cared about the various choices that Peter Parker makes.  One, in particular, is an (almost) unforgivable decision.  Deep down we know in this Tony Stark-less reality, the world truly needs Spider-Man.  The emotional stakes are huge!  A wonderful cast engages the emotions with humor and intensity.  I’ve discussed most of the main players but “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) also bear a mention.  They share an amusing flirtation in their minor roles.  The class field trip provides a picaresque tour of Europe.  This appealingly sets the action in various destinations: Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London.  The action comes to a crescendo in a climax that exploits the idea that everything you see in a deception.  It’s a dizzying feat of CGI and the effects had me gasping at the optical illusion of it all.  The chaotic frenzy recalls the bewildering displays of last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Mysterio’s glowing orbs of lightning blasts are kind of awesome in a kitschy old-school science fiction way.  This saga perfectly blends emotion and technology.  This summertime romp effortlessly entertains with wit and style.

07-02-19

Men in Black: International

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on June 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

men_in_black_internationalSTARS3Anyone  22 years or younger seeing Men in Black: International this weekend wasn’t even alive when the first film came out.  I feel old. July 2, 1997, seems like such a long time ago.  I thought this series was over by the third entry.  Now 7 years later, we have a belated fourth episode which is being marketed as more of a spin-off.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are long gone although Emma Thompson who was in Men in Black 3 is back as Agent O, the head of MIB’s US branch.  Head of MIB’s UK branch is Liam Neeson as High T.  Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (no relation to Emma) star as Agents H and M respectively.  Coincidence or did the Swedish clothing-retail company pay for that mention?   No matter – back to the actors.  The two famously appeared together in Thor: Ragnarok.  I dare say the charm they had together then is even more apparent here.

The story concerns Molly who witnessed an alien abduction when she was a little girl. Her parents’ minds were erased by the MIB but they neglected to neuralyze her.  She still carries those memories.  She longs to be one of the “Men in Black”.  Yes, the screenplay acknowledges that not all operatives are male.  She sneaks into the headquarters and convinces Agent O to hire her on as sort of a probationary test.  It makes no sense why this would happen so easily but it’s so ridiculous that I kind of appreciated the careless happenstance of it all.  Soon she meets Agent H.  He’s cocky.  She’s bookish.  Writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway have created stock characters.  We’ve seen this personality dynamic many times before.  The difference is that Chris and Tessa genuinely appear to be friends in real life.  The appeal of the stars is why Men in Black: International entertains.  They generate the kind of palpable chemistry that two attractive Hollywood stars are able to parlay into elevating a flimsy script.   In essence, the fate of the world is at stake.  Despite this, their objectives never seem insurmountable.  Things come quite easily for these two, particularly Agent M who assimilates into the MIB organization with barely any difficulty at all.

You can always count on the special effects to captivate in these films.  They are selectively utilized to create intergalactic creatures.  The designs are impressive.  Which leads me to another reason why this ultimately charmed me: Kumail Nanjiani. We never actually even see the actor/comedian.  Rather, we hear him as an alien that assists Agents H and M.  He’s the size of a chess pawn and he’s assigned to protect his diminutive queen so Agent M starts calling him Pawny.  This miniature green humanoid creature reminded me of The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones.  His humor mostly consists of offering a sardonic comment on the events happening around them.  He can say banal things at times.  He spouts hackneyed catchphrases like “That’s what I’m talking about!”  Yet Nanjiani’s irritated delivery absolutely sells this tiny creature.  Additionally, the animated expressions on his tiny face are consistently hilarious.

Apparently, this movie wasn’t hilarious to the majority of critics who have saddled this movie with some of the harshest reviews of 2019.  It currently has a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Me thinks people are comparing this to the style of the earlier films.  This has a different atmosphere.  There’s an emphasis on elegant sophistication, not zany antics.  Men in Black: International lacks Will Smith’s manic energy but that’s OK.  Although Pawny is a notable exception.  Director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) continues to demonstrate his ability to helm a large-scale production.  The plot is pretty standard stuff.  However, this amiable production coasts on the smooth easygoing chemistry of its two leads.  Their relationship has an amusing push-pull trade-off.  It’s pleasing to watch actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson interact.  Sometimes charismatic actors reciting humorous back and forth banter is enough.  I was entertained.

Captain Marvel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on March 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

captain_marvel_ver2STARS3It’s hard to believe, but after 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel is the first to star a female lead.  I still don’t understand why we didn’t get a Black Widow movie back in 2010 when that character was introduced in Iron Man 2.  The DC Extended Universe beat Marvel to the punch by two years with Wonder Woman, a critical and box office hit in the summer of 2017.  Much has been made of Captain Marvel‘s trailblazing status.  I mean it was released on International Women’s Day.  The drama is so retro.  Ok so yes, the feature is set in 1995 but it actually feels like it was made back then.

Captain Marvel is a prequel to the entire MCU.  The adventure concerns an officer in the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers.  This is the saga of how she became Captain Marvel through a series of events, Yup it’s another origin story.  The problem is she has amnesia. We know who she is.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t, so she wanders through a large part of the film on an “emotional journey” with her mind in a funky haze.  That makes her personality kind of nil.  She interacts with a youthful looking Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury minus the eyepatch.  For once the de-aging technology looks pretty amazing.  Jackson gets to see out of both eyes and he has a nice repartee with Brie Larson.  He helps her unravel the mystery of her past.  Also of note is Ben Mendelsohn who plays a shapeshifting Skrull villain named Talos.  As of late, he’s been playing underwritten parts that could simply be labeled as “old evil white guy” (Rogue One, Ready Player One).  Here he gets a part with depth worthy of his talents.  He rises to the challenge.  Talos is not all that he seems and he’s a highlight in a movie in desperate need of them.

The best scenes of Captain Marvel take place on Planet C-53.  That’s Earth to you newbies. Before we can get there, the production is saddled with the worst 20-minute intro ever to grace an MCU film.  It all takes place in space.  Carol Danvers, who thinks her name is Vers, reports to commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who is a Kree.  She believes herself to be one as well.  She ends up on Earth which is the site for a galactic conflict between these two alien populations, the Skrulls and the Krees.  Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are a filmmaking duo known for indies (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story).  It’s the quieter moments where Captain Marvel shines.  Carol meets her longtime friend from the U.S. Air Force, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  The two women have a conversation about something other than a man.  Bechtel test, check.

I hate to invoke a cliché like “been there done that” but it’s too fitting to reject.  The overall sensibility of the presentation is conventionality.  As you’d predict for a film set in the 90s, there are nods to the trappings of the era.  Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Blackberry cell phones, CD ROMs that take forever to load are all visual gags.  The 90s infused soundtrack means we can listen to tunes like No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” while she engages in combat or hear Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” as she enters Mar-Vell’s (Annette Bening ) quarters.  Brief musical snippets pop up here and there.  However, their presence is far less memorable than the way Guardians utilized songs from the 1960s and 1970s.  The problems go deeper than the timeworn habit of invoking familiar references to elicit laughs.  Captain Marvel is encumbered with a narrative that is surprisingly old hat. Expectations in 2019 demand a plot with more innovation than the formulaic story beats presented here.

Captain Marvel was a highly anticipated production. The ending of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War teased the introduction of this character.  She is clearly going to be an important part in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. I still believe this is an acceptable amuse-bouche for the upcoming main course.  The world has been waiting with bated breath.  Sadly this is not the significant episode we imagined.  We waited over a decade for this.  Had this film come out back in 2008 when the MCU began, the simple novelty of a female-led superhero movie would have been enough.  A decade later and things have changed.  Now we also need the thrills to be extraordinary too.  Instead, they’re rather ordinary.  For the first time, Marvel is struggling to keep up with the spirit of the times.

03-07-19

Alita: Battle Angel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Romance, Science Fiction with tags on February 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

alita_battle_angel_ver2STARS3.5Alita: Battle Angel is an immersive sci-fi fantasy that plunges the viewer into an imaginary world.  I really enjoyed this production, but no amount of complicated exposition can disguise the fact that it’s essentially a cyberpunk update of 1975’s Rollerball.  It certainly doesn’t start out that way.  It’s the future (naturally) – 2563 to be exact and a cyberphysician (Christoph Waltz) who repairs people with android parts discovers the discarded remains of a female robot in a junkyard.  He takes the head, which houses a still active brain, back to his laboratory and rebuilds her.  He names her Alita, after his deceased daughter.  She is of youthful age and this only cements the fatherly attachment he forms to her well being.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm. The titular cyborg is portrayed by Rosa Salazar.  The actress is in her thirties but she is made to look like a teenager here.  Her appearance is actually a mix of CGI and human performance.  With her somewhat vacant uncharacteristically wide eyes, she resembles a Margaret Keane painting.  She’s got a spark to her personality though.  Her burgeoning attraction to Hugo (Keean Johnson) is more captivating than what you’d expect out of the obligatory love interest role he fulfills.   Hugo also functions as her introduction to this gladiator-style game called Motorball which is a mishmash of football, basketball, and roller derby.  Turns out Alita has quite the talent for the game.

This is fundamentally a martial arts/sci-fi B-movie but it’s given vibrant life with an A-list cast.  Christoph Waltz is the fatherly Geppetto, er uh I mean Dr. Dyson Ido, a cybernetics mastermind.  The seemingly ageless Jennifer Connelly is his ex-wife Chiren, who now works for a nefarious businessman named Vector played by Mahershala Ali.  Fashion-wise he makes a very strong case for a Blade reboot.  Vector hires malevolent cyborgs for the Motorball matches in an attempt to kill Alita for reasons I didn’t completely understand.  His identity is somewhat ill-defined.  He’s definitely a villain and that’s apparently what they do in a dystopian society.  CGI is liberally used to re-imagine scenery and in many cases, the actors as well.  Many figures in the movie are a mix of both organic and fabricated elements.  Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeff Fahey, Edward Norton, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jai Courtney all appear.  Some more recognizably human than others.

The screenplay by James Cameron (Avatar) and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) is fairly standard issue.  When good people do bad things – that’s the level of innovation.  A few characters have this moment.  At times, the narrative morphs in needlessly convoluted ways that are uninteresting.  The crux of the plot is about playing a futuristic sport.  The lively action consistently returns to Motorball time and again, even ending at the arena.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s artistic value in simplicity.  Alita manages to recall both Frankenstein and Pinocchio by way of creating life from a once lifeless body.  This is a story for children.  Director Robert Rodriguez was responsible for Spy Kids and this should charm the same audience.  However, the writers still felt the need to throw in one, and only one, prominent use of the F-word.  The visuals are fun as you’d expect when James Cameron is the producer.  The classic battle of good vs. evil is presented under a pretty veneer of special effects and charismatic actors.   There’s a pure joy here and with a little judicious editing, this could’ve been quite spectacular.  As it stands, it’s fitfully entertaining.

02-14-19