Archive for the Science Fiction Category

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.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_last_jedi_ver9STARS4“If you post spoilers, I will unfriend and block you.”  That sentiment was typical of the posts on my Facebook feeds following the release of The Last Jedi this weekend.  I don’t recall seeing such aggressive declarations when either Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman opened this summer. For some reason, people are emphatically wary of Star Wars spoilers, even if it concerns the most banal information. I agree that ruining important plot developments is disrespectful. Rest assured this review is spoiler-free. That’s true of all of my write-ups. Nevertheless, if you’re especially sensitive to the reveal of what a critter is named or the sheer confirmation that lightsaber battles occur, then I suggest you don’t read my (or any) review of this film until after you’ve seen it.

Episode 7 – The Force Awakens – set the stage for a new group that would transition our allegiance from the previous cast (Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill) to an ever-expanding ensemble.  Han Solo was an important figure in Part 7.    Now it’s Luke Skywalker’s turn to inform the narrative.  Although Luke seems like a completely different person here. Obviously, he’s older, but he sports a salt and pepper beard like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. The young hotshot of the original trilogy now seems like a peaceful Buddhist living off the land on an island retreat. He speaks differently too, in verse like quoting the scripture of some sacred text.  Mark Hamill has done a lot of voice work over the years and it really shows. He sounds imposing even when he doesn’t always carry himself in that manner.

The Force Awakens introduced Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  They all get their moments here.  The once-named Ben Solo continues to struggle with the dark side.   Meanwhile, Rey’s growing influence concerns her journey to the remote planet of Ahch-To in an effort to recruit Luke into helping the cause.  The Force Awakens implied that she might be a Jedi which would beg the question, to whom does the title of this movie refer, her or Luke?  I won’t comment, but I’d love to hear your thoughts after watching this. I wish we could’ve spent more time with them.  The Last Jedi continues to add characters to a constantly growing ensemble.  Poe, Finn, and Rey must share a lot of screen time with a host of unfamiliar personalities that may or may not become central.  A welcome addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who fights alongside the Resistance. She is introduced by way of her relationship with Finn. Their developing partnership is a key component of the chronicle. Her oddball sweetness is charming. Less delightful is Benicio del Toro as DJ, an underworld individual who specializes in computer hacking. His affected stutter is really the only thing memorable about him. Given the fact that this production is 2 hours 32 minutes long, his existence is where I would’ve started to do some serious editing. Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) impressively juggles a lot of disparate plot threads. Still, this is a long, and frequently meandering film, particularly in the introductory slog. Yes, it takes a while to get started, but once it does, oh boy, does it dazzle the senses.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge that the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher adds an air of melancholy to her scenes.  Her role is expanded here and it’s nice to see her featured in several segments. As General Leia Organa, she leads the military effort against the First Order. She receives support from purple haired, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). The two are old friends and Amilyn steps in to support her.  Amilyn is not quite as friendly with Poe, however, as a conversation they have will attest. Their confrontation is memorable. Women rule in this world.  Beside Leia and Amilyn, there is also Commander Larma D’Acy (Amanda Lawrence) and Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd – daughter of Carrie Fisher). They have key roles here too.  Conversely, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), a female Stormtrooper, is regrettably given very little screen time.

The Resistance faces off against an onslaught led by the overbearing General Hux.  Actor Domhnall Gleeson is easily the most over-the-top campy performance in this entire series.  General Hux always comes across as a child who snuck into daddy’s office and is playing pretend takeover of the world.  I was kind of amused by his theatrics, but it’s definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of achievement.  His authority is only exceeded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).   Kylo Ren’s relationship with the Supreme Leader continues to be a major element of the plot.  Yet this is the second appearance of Snoke and I still don’t know anything about him. It’s really not important I suppose.  He’s a bad guy — a motion capture CGI fabrication.   That’s all you need to know.

This is probably a good time to mention all the computer graphics employed in this outing. General Snoke was an excess of CGI in the preceding spectacle. Now we have adorable wide-eyed sea-bird creatures called Porgs that scream and bellow in cutely animated glee.  I think I know what’s going to be the hot Christmas toy this year. There’s also the Vulptices, crystalline foxes that live beneath the salt surface of Crait.  Then there are the Fathiers, space horses with long ears like rabbits. They race in a metropolitan center where people place their bets in a casino world that features the Monte Carlo-ish city Canto Bight. I wasn’t a fan of this backdrop. It feels like an unnecessary appendage to the primary tale. The environment is somewhat of an analog to the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars but much less captivating in my opinion. Oh but I digress — back to the creatures. My favorite of them all are the Caretakers, fish-like nuns on the planet Ahch-To. Their completely random appearance was probably the most laugh out loud moment in the entire picture.

In a nutshell, The Last Jedi is the continuing adventures of the most iconic space opera of all time.  Simply put, our heroes of the Resistance, square off against the villains of the First Order. The Force Awakens brilliantly manipulated the legend of Star Wars into a thrilling fable for a new generation to consume.  Much in the same way, this script expands on things using the same approach that The Empire Strikes Back did nearly 4 decades ago. It’s a darker production that creatively enhances the fundamental mythology of the franchise. It deepens the backstories of the characters with which we are familiar.  It’s also funnier with several bits at which you will either enjoy or roll your eyes. I was pleased for the most part, although watching Luke milk a beast and drink its green formula was definitely a WTF moment.  This is a perfect segue into my next observation.

By now I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a formula. We want nostalgia, but we expect something new, bring back the favorites with which we are familiar, add a few new ones we can embrace. Don’t forget cute creatures and sprinkle in bits of humor. I dare say a couple gags are the most full-on hilarious bits I’ve ever seen in this franchise. At 8 episodes and counting, that’s really saying something.  By the end, you’ll want to stand up and cheer. The final 30 minutes are as exciting as any in the series. It totally sticks the ending.  Modern action films are often a succession of the fight extravaganzas that we crave, separated by speechifying portions that we don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how sensational action set-pieces have become or that the dialogue that screenwriters compose in these flicks often isn’t particularly compelling.  Either way, this is the nature of the beast.  The movie starts out frustratingly slow but ends with a bang. The narrative is a bit of a tangle in the middle, but each action set piece is an event. We get not one, but two, epic lightsaber battles. This is what we expect of the middle entry of a Star Wars flick. The Last Jedi does all of these things and it does them rather well.

12-14-17

Blade Runner 2049

Posted in Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

blade_runner_twenty_forty_nine_ver4STARS4Could we be in a golden age of sequels? I need to rethink my former convictions. Perhaps long-delayed continuations of old movies can be more than crass attempts to make money. Apparently, they can be an artistic triumphs in their own right. Mad Max: Fury Road was a cinematic achievement and The Force Awakens recaptured the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy. Now Denis Villeneuve has taken on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and, if you haven’t figured out from my positive introduction, it’s a magnificent extension of an iconic classic.

Blade Runner cemented the cyberpunk aesthetic that would be utilized for a generation of sci-fi films. Its impact was legendary. This sequel picks up 30 years later but continues this thought. Bioengineered humans called replicants have been integrated into society. They are still being treated like second-class citizens, however. KD6.3-7 or K for short (Ryan Gosling) is one of these synthetic humans who works for the LAPD. Gosling is in Drive /Only God Forgives mode. He’s detached, showing little emotion or feelings. It makes sense. He’s a robot after all. He was created to “retire” older models that have been deemed a danger to civilization. In a routine investigation, K discovers the skeletal remains of what appears to be an android who died while giving birth. The ability for replicants to reproduce was thought to be impossible. This development is considered dangerous by K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). She orders him to find and eliminate the child.

Blade Runner debuted in 1982 with a theatrical cut that has been both embraced and rejected over the ensuing years. The original favored a happier ending than the subsequent one that Scott proffered. There have actually been no less than 7 different versions that have been exhibited over the years. The most notable alternative is the 2007 Final Cut that was overseen by director Ridley Scott himself. His Final Cut eschewed the voice-over narration that clarified the focus of the narrative. Additionally, whether the main character Deckard was a replicant himself, is less ambiguous in The Final Cut. The question was, given the disparate endings, which interpretation would Villeneuve’s movie follow-up?

The brilliance of Denis Villeneuve’s vision is that he honors all of these variants by being purposefully ambiguous in his sequel. (He personally professed his love for the 1982 US theatrical edit in a recent interview.) You could have seen any one of these versions and Blade Runner 2049 will still make sense. In fact, I dare say that it is imperative you do see either the 1982 theatrical release or the 2007’s The Final Cut before seeing this picture. You will understand it regardless. However, it lays the groundwork for you to have an emotional connection to the new extension. What does it mean to be human? The original was a slow moving, meditative rumination on the nature of humanity. It was as exquisite as it was ambiguous. Blade Runner 2049 is a fittingly gorgeous continuation of the same themes. Denis Villeneuve could have delved into explaining unanswered questions from the first film. The famous “Tears in Rain” speech is a baffling mix of prosaic exposition. Nevertheless, Villeneuve wisely forgoes giving us lots of answers. Instead, he focuses on expanding the world. It remains somewhat vague but he imbues it with a deeper consideration. Production designer Dennis Gassner and art director Paul Inglis have expanded on the precursor’s approach in creating something reminiscent yet different. We get the flying cars and video advertising with which we are familiar. I’m happy to say ads for Pan Am and Atari have an enduring presence. And as great as everything looks, it sounds even better.  The setting has been invigorated with a new score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Some echoes of the Blade Runner theme by Vangelis show up though. The climactic fight is so brazenly cacophonous my heart felt the reverberations of the score.

Blade Runner tantalizes with several supporting characters of note. Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard. Not a spoiler. His participation has been well publicized in trailers and posters. He’s not the star, but his relationship with replicant Rachel in the first film becomes a key plot point here as well. His humanity is on full display. Marvel at the martial arts style of Sylvia Hoeks who plays Luv, a killing machine. Meet her boss, replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace. Once again, Jared Leto plays a sociopath character that has less screen time than you were led to believe, but just enough to make an impression. We knew that replicants were outfitted with fake memories, but here we are presented with a visual as to how those memories are put together and assembled. It features Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) a memory maker creating the presentation of a girl blowing out the candles of a cake at a birthday party. It’s a fascinating scene. And finally, there’s Ana de Armas who plays Joi, a digital simulation of a human that plays K’s love interest. She is perhaps the most important addition. Her shimmering outfits change in seconds emphasizing her ephemeral beauty.  One minute she’s K’s live-in girlfriend the next she’s an advertising hologram 20 feet tall in the city square.

Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning looking film. It is a world in which to admire and luxuriate in its style. An urban Los Angeles still looks like a nightmare of neon advertising and endless rain while a bleak and desolate Las Vegas hypnotizes us with a somber spectacle of amber radioactive smog. Rooms with no discernible water source manifest aquatic reflections upon the walls. Holograms are everywhere. Elvis Presley flickers on and off in the interior of a dusty Las Vegas casino. Blink and you’ll miss Marilyn Monroe too. Frank Sinatra appears in a futuristic jukebox singing “One for My Baby.” Director of photography, Roger Deakins captures all this in his usual cinematographic style. At this point, the oft-nominated director of photography has been cited 13 times at the Oscars. It’s a safe bet he’ll be nominated for this as well. At almost three hours, the length of this production is a little problematic. Its melancholy mood has a depressive effect on the viewer. However, it’s never boring. I was transfixed to the screen to see where the story would go as it gradually unfolded. This is not an actioner in the way James Cameron’s Aliens separated itself from the more leisurely paced Alien, (also by Ridley Scott incidentally). Blade Runner 2049 maintains the spirit of the original film. It’s respectful and indebted to the past, but Blade Runner 2049 presents its own identity. It deserves to be a classic as well.

10-05-17

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets_ver3STARS4Every now and then a film coasts by on a visual aesthetic that is so visionary in its daft mentality that it captivates the mind beyond all sense and reason. We’re talking about a production that’s fully formed from its costumes, creature designs and a cheerfully bonkers dedication to an artistic style. It’s like a drug. You actually feel a sense of giddiness simply by watching it. Of course, it relies on the prerequisite that you are open to the creative pleasures of an optical nature. There are those that require more intellectualism and sense in their sci-fi epics. I am not one of those people. Back in 1997, Luc Besson gave audiences the wonderful gift of The Fifth Element. The wildly imaginative space opera became a cult classic (and incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). Now 20 years later, Luc Besson has returned with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s happening all over again because this is a joy.

Our story is set in motion when a race of humanoids on the futuristic planet Mül suffers a life threatening attack. The iridescent silvery people have been living a pastoral life in a bright tropical paradise. A willowy princess wakes up on a beach. They harvest space pearls for energy. She rises to the dawn and washes her face in a bowl full of the white lustrous spherical jewels. A cute little critter called a Mül Converter is used duplicate them. Ok to be more specific, it actually poops what it eats. Their idyllic life is forever affected when they are attacked by an enemy force. The event inspires the race to kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) for mysterious reasons. This act compels Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline. The two basically operate as police officers in space. They are a romantic couple (natch) but bicker like a pair of people that can’t stand each other. He’s a roguish player. She’s a sharp-tongued intellect. I suppose their sexual chemistry is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I found their interactions amusing, albeit a bit reductive. DeHaan’s surfer dude accent is sort of a riff on Keanu Reeves’ character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Attractive Cara Delevingne, with her thick brows, kind of physically recalls Brooke Shields circa 1980. When we first meet the two they’re relaxing on a sunny beach like some marooned island couple out of The Blue Lagoon. Turns out it’s just a visual reality simulation.

Laureline is forever rebuffing Valerian’s advances in a way that’s reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that feels Star Wars-ish. Remember the cantina scene, that bar where are all the otherworldly visitors gathered to merely hang out? Well, that’s kind of like Valerian for 2 hours 17 minutes. Besson’s production is based on the comic Valerian and Laureline by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. That series was launched in 1967, ten years before the first Star Wars film was released. George Lucas has freely admitted he was influenced by director Akira Kurosawa when assembling his space opera. The similarities to Valerian have been noted by other people. [Side Note: Artist Jean-Claude Mézières collaborated with director Luc Besson on The Fifth Element.]

The action is centered around Alpha, an International Space Station where millions of immigrants from different planets gather amicably and exchange their knowledge and cultures. The opening sequence presents this as an array of meet and greets involving various individuals underscored by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The uplifting presentation of a peaceful world is such an exaltation of goodness, I was kind of overcome by the display.  The very idea that such a naive concept could become a reality was made so emotionally resonant. The vignette is among the best introductory scenes that I’ve witnessed all year. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has another. It was the perfect primer to begin this movie. The dizzying opening is pure cinema. I was captivated from the get go.

The creature designs are the strongest part of the film. A lot of it is accomplished using motion capture and CGI. An overreliance on computer graphics is usually not something I appreciate, but here it feels so organic that I enjoyed the creativity. Some of my favorites include three platypus-like aliens called the Doghan-Dagui who offer help…but only for the right price. There’s the Boulan Bathor Couturier that presents Sergeant Laureline with a series of outfits to wear. A chubby little intradimensional species seems pretty harmless but you don’t want to anger its mother. John Goodman voices the massive pirate captain that runs the Big Market Bazaar. Ethan Hawke plays Jolly the Pimp who introduces a shape-shifting species known as a Glamopod. Her name is Bubble. She’s portrayed by pop singer Rihanna in her human form. Her performance is more a feat of CGI and Cirque du Soleil than acting, but the manifestation is unadulterated eye candy at its finest. I was hypnotized by her character.

I’ll admit that when it comes to story, Luc Besson is more fascinated by the question “How does it look” not “Why does this happen?” In that respect, Valerian isn’t going to expand your mind with philosophical thought. However, it will dazzle you with the exploration of creative worlds. It’s more about the physical display. When some gentle looking butterflies flutter by, their reveal as a dangerous threat is world building at its most hilarious. The fabrication has a European, no make that international sensibility. This is helped by the inventive casting which, besides all the aforementioned names, also includes English Actor Clive Owen, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, American composer Herbie Hancock, and Chinese-born pop singer Kris Wu. Valerian is a production designer’s dream on a hallucinogenic trip. When our two protagonists go to “Big Market” the mind-bending action is a lot to wrap your head around. The shopping mall is a setting that has other dimensions that can only be accessed when you don virtual reality gloves and glasses. It’s so erratic in the way it switches back and forth between the two realities, it’s a madcap delight. The popcorn flick works on that level throughout the entire film. It’s just so silly. I adored it.

07-21-17

War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3STARS3War for the Planet of the Apes is Part 3 in the rebooted film series that commenced in 2011. The franchise has been operating as a sequence of prequels leading up to the events of the 1968 classic. Now with the release of this picture, people have been referring to the collection as a trilogy. Whether more installments will follow still remains to be seen.  However if this picture makes enough money, you can best believe that more films will follow.

War is the story of Caesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes.  His army of simian warriors is at odds with Alpha-Omega, a terrorist faction of humans.  Caesar preaches a peaceful coexistence with the homo sapiens. However, the people are led by an aggressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  Apparently these barbaric individuals, can’t be reasoned with.  They’re just so warlike.  Not wanting to suffer any more casualties, Caesar plans to relocate his clan to the desert far away from Muir woods.  The night before they’re supposed to leave, Caesar’s home is invaded by the Colonel and his family is brutally attacked.  Now Caesar has a score to settle. He’s out for revenge.  This goes against everything his character has ever stood for, but hey no conflict no movie right?  Now we’re ready for a showdown.

The apes are anthropomorphic miracles of technology that act with more humanity than people. Ah yes, indeed that is the intention. If you couldn’t tell from the plot description above, War is told from the apes’ perspective. The entire trilogy (thus far anyway) has been developing a personal arc that traces the life of Caesar from a tortured experiment into a commanding leader. You will identify with the apes more than the humans. In this story, apes are better than people. You’ll be rooting for the demise of the human race if this screenplay has anything to say about it. That’s an interesting take, I suppose, but there’s more to creating a compelling narrative than merely affecting a unique point of view.

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s hard not to notice him as (1) he’s got the lion’s share of all the dialogue and (2) the camera lingers on his expressive CGI face for seemingly minutes on end. He’s a fascinating creature to be sure. Caesar rounds up a loyal band of followers. These include his second in command, an orangutan adviser named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a fellow chimpanzee named Rocket (Terry Notary), and a sensitive gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They are a serious lot. The whole production would be a serious downer if not for one individual. Steve Zahn voices a zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” in a bit of comic relief.  The misfit is kind of at lighthearted odds with the rest of the cast.  Yet he’s the only mitigation from all the dreariness.  As such, he’s a welcome reprieve from the bleak narrative.

On the non-simian side, there’s the evil Colonel played with cartoonish excess by Woody Harrelson. He wants to eradicate the world of not only all apes but also virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech. It’s easy to side with animals when this is the example of a human with which we are presented. His bald, deranged character is clearly inspired by  Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.  As a matter of fact, some graffiti on the wall actually says “Ape-ocalypse Now” lest the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle tribute wasn’t obvious.   The whole homage might seem rather clever had it not been for Kong: Skull Island liberally referencing the very same classic a mere 4 months ago.  It’s still pretty fresh in my mind.  News flash: there are other memorable films about war that weren’t made by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable spectacle.  At times it actually feels like a silent movie.  There are very few speaking parts.  Facial expressions are more important than actual words.  The camera fixates on the countenance of Caesar and we are invited to be moved by the way he emotes.  The script gets by on minimal dialogue.  The apes rescue a human orphan girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who doesn’t talk.  She was rendered mute by the Simian Flu.  Most of the apes, in turn, communicate via sign language.  The technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the series began in 2011.  Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin inspire awe with every shot.  This is a gorgeous achievement and the reason I’m giving this production a pass.  The CGI & MoCap apes are a marvel to behold.  It’s hard not to be wowed by the way War looks.  There is a trade-off for all of this visual wonder though.  The atmosphere is lugubrious.  The pacing is sluggish.  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours.  Even though the chronicle builds to a climactic finale, action does not comprise the bulk of the drama.  It’s yet another dismal morality tale that is a punishing watch.  It relies on the oldest of clichés. I’ll summarize: War is hell, but so are you, the human race, that is.  Forgive me if I don’t stand up and cheer.

07-13-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17

Alien: Covenant

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

alien_covenant_ver4STARS2Cut to the chase: Alien: Covenant is not a good movie.   Dear me though its failings are so diffuse, I don’t even know where to begin.  Let’s start with some fast facts: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and is set 10 years later. Prometheus was an Alien prequel and this new production also details events that are supposed to have happened before that 1979 masterpiece. Alien was a nifty little horror gem that was brilliant in its focused simplicity to scare in style. It was unpretentious.  Conversely, Prometheus took the franchise into biological altering origins of life. I appreciated the attempt at something grander. However, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than answers and now Covenant struggles to further expand that storyline with more scientific mumbo jumbo as to why characters are doing what they’re doing and why things are the way they are.   Unfortunately with this installment, Ridley Scott exploits the admirable qualities of Prometheus to ill effect.  Perhaps a little heady thought was welcome, but now he’s gone full tilt into a philosophical consideration of existentialism. Where Prometheus‘ script was elegant and thoughtful, this reflection is brain dead.

Alien (1979) has such a high-minded reputation that it’s easy to forget that every installment in this franchise has always been served with a heaping cup of cheese. Yet Ridley Scott is directing and it’s highlighted by a talented cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Jussie Smollett. Given that, I was expecting so much more. It makes the disappointment much more crushing. I acknowledge the crew members in these Alien films have always made a lot of dumb decisions, but Alien: Covenant tops them all.  Some random observations about that ensemble:  (1) Everyone is a couple on this expedition – including one same-sex duo.  (2) Katherine Waterston’s hairstyle recalls Jim Carrey’s bowl cut from Dumb & Dumber.  That’s not a reason to hate on a movie, but it’s such a distraction, I would be negligent not to at least mention it.

These crew members are more clueless than a group of sexually charged teens in a summer camp.  That a pair of naked lovers finds time to make out in the shower while one creature (known as a Xenomorph) prowls around the spaceship is the absolute nadir.  However, there are at least half a dozen examples where these people exhibit a brazen disregard for their own life.  Feels more like a Friday the 13th movie.  Protocols are ignored, nobody follows instructions, women weep and scream like it’s the 1950s. It becomes almost a laughable game of “Guess who’s next”. Whenever someone says they need to go off to a dark, isolated place (like use the bathroom) you know their role is coming to an end. The fact that these scientists, soldiers and shipmates have been entrusted with 2,000 human embryos to start a new colonization makes their behavior even more reckless.

The funny thing is, I can forgive a predictable elimination of lives if we’re still given an exciting version of And Then There Were None.   But no. Alien: Covenant is a really talky slog that is boring when it isn’t being thoroughly unpleasant.  Alien: Covenant does manage to serve up an abundance of gross-out “events” that are perfunctory demonstrations of body disfiguring horror.  Remember the chest bursting scene in the 1979 movie?  Of course you do. Well we get more of those. One from the front and another out of the back. But director Ridley Scott has traded on the memory of that spectacle so many times by now its impact has been destroyed. There’s nothing even remotely electrifying about these displays anymore. At a fundamental level, director Scott has satisfied a checklist of giving people the gore he thinks they want. Surprisingly most of this drama is dull until we’re served up some excitement in the final 30 minutes but you’ll have to sit through a slew of tedious conversations to get to it.

Alien: Covenant is trying to be all things to all people. On the one hand, it pacifies lovers of the original Alien by presenting a Grand Guignol-style horror film which gives the audience plenty of stomach-churning body mutilating carnage. On the other, it placates Prometheus lovers with ethical creationist theories. Crass pandering to both sides ends up satisfying neither. The best moments in Alien: Covenant center around Michael Fassbender who gets the opportunity to deliver two engaging performances. Here he plays lookalike androids: one named David (from Prometheus) and the other named Walter (an updated model). He delivers what little entertainment value can be found in this mess. By now, the slick aspects to champion in Alien: Covenant are nothing new. We get a colorful cast of astronauts differentiated by nationality, race, and gender, a gleaming set design of a spaceship and the soothing overhead voice of the ship’s onboard system they nickname “Mother”. These are the kinds of things that elevated Alien (and other sci-fi classics) from a rote story into a classy gem. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  I hate rehashing a cliché but it’s apropos.  This script is so bad it’s irredeemable no matter how much shellac you apply.

05-18-17

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on May 7, 2017 by Mark Hobin

guardians_of_the_galaxy_vol_two_ver4STARS4When the first Guardians of the Galaxy debuted in the summer of ’14, its unqualified success came as a bit of a surprise. It was a superhero team with which most were unfamiliar and so predictions were cautious.  Being the 10th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), many assumed it would still rank somewhere in the summer’s top 10. However no one thought it would be the biggest hit of the entire season, even besting Transformers: Age of Extinction, the presumed #1.  There was a very good reason.  Guardians was an extraordinary interplanetary space adventure that perfectly blended, action, romance and melodrama – arguably the best MCU entry yet.  Now with Vol. 2, the outlook is better because we know director James Gunn can deliver the goods. However, a great sequel is the general exception, not the norm in my experience. Could Gunn capture lightning in a bottle again? I’m happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 rises to the occasion. I had my doubts, but this surpasses expectations.

The original Guardians was a candy-colored, fun-tastic sugar rush of a space dream. Yet the production design of Vol. 2 makes the first film look like a Jim Jarmusch indie. The space opera positively bursts with color, effects, and lively entertainment. Sprinkle in another soundtrack of 70s pop hits.  The formula works again.  Marvel has got another smash hit on its hands. The priority is fun and Vol. 2 is, dare I say it, even funnier than the original.  Not better, mind you.  It would have been impossible to recapture the exhilarating feeling of when we first discovered this rag tag team.  Gunn realizes this and so his focus is mining the comedy from familiar individuals and then deepening our comprehension of what makes these characters tick.

Guardians is all about family.  Director James Gunn’s screenplay manages to weave in a tale about deadbeat dads, sibling rivalry between sisters and infighting amongst the clan. This gives us a fuller grasp of characters we thought we already knew.  The unmistakable chemistry remains with this lovable bunch. There’s Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) the smart-alecky leader and tough-talking, unsmiling warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Their relationship, or lack of one, is addressed through the empathic powers of new cast member, Mantis (Pom Klementieff ).   Massive galoot Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is back.  Despite his literal perception of words, he inexplicably informs the naive alien she’s ugly.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a budding romance between the two.  Also returning are the cranky bounty hunter Rocket, (voiced by Bradley Cooper), that genetically engineered raccoon, and cut from a sapling, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).  He’s awfully dim but still cute as can be.  There’s a couple unexpected cameos thrown in and the introduction of an important new villain.  No further explanation is necessary.  I consider those details spoilers.

Guardians Vol. 2 succeeds at being both funny and deep. There’s humor to spare but there’s a poignancy to the proceedings too. We get a more well-rounded understanding of characters we know and love. Guardians gives us the laughs while serving up a lot of heart as well.  Marvel movies have always been amusing.  What sets Guardians apart from others of its ilk is the free associating pop culture aesthetic. No where is that more conspicuous than in the soundtrack.   Peter’s beloved mixtape is the sentimental link to his deceased mother.  Like its predecessor, we get a liberal sampling of 70s hits from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, ELO and Cat Stevens. The film is so loopy there’s even room for a David Hasselhoff tune.  Trust me.  It actually has context in the story.  At times, the More glitz! More dazzle! can seem like too much.  At 2 hours 18 minutes, the extended run time suffers a bit from too much bloat.  But at its best, Guardians is silly and irreverent in the best sense of the word.  This is the giddy spectacle of a summer flick that wants to party down and have fun. The production achieves this in visually spectacular fashion.  It’s an opportunity for any carefree individual to simply enjoy themselves at the cinema.   One need only be open to the invitation.  In a bit of sage advice, Drax tells Peter, “There’s two types of beings in the universe: those who dance, and those who do not.”  This is a film for those who dance.

05-04-17

Colossal

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction on April 26, 2017 by Mark Hobin

colossal_ver2STARS2.5Colossal is a bizarre movie. So strange in fact that I’m almost tempted to give it a pass simply because it’s audacious. And yet I really can’t say that I completely enjoyed the experience. Oh, it’s entertaining in parts. Particularly in the first half when we’re trying to make sense of it all. Yet the production meddles with tone to the point of exasperation.

The story begins with a random flashback involving a Godzilla-like monster that terrorizes a little girl in South Korea. Then flash forward to the present day and Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is getting kicked out of boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment. She is an unemployed writer and has just come home in the early morning, drunk yet again. “I expect you to be gone when I get home.” Tim leaves for work angry. He leaves her sitting there in disbelief. All of a sudden a bunch of her friends come over and start partying. Colossal is highlighted by awkward tonal shifts like that. One minute it’s deadly serious, the next it’s trying to make you laugh. But mostly it’s trying to make you laugh. It’s silly and light until it isn’t.

Colossal starts out like a romantic comedy with a lighthearted touch. Gloria journeys back to her quiet hometown and moves into her parent’s vacant home. While struggling with an inflatable mattress she runs into old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Their meet cute turns into a date at the bar Oscar owns. They have drinks. She meets his friends Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). The group have a palpable chemistry together. We remember ex-boyfriend Tim broke up with Gloria because of her drinking problem. Yet the affable Oscar happily offers her a job working in his bar. Peculiarly the atmosphere still remains upbeat and appealing. Then it develops into a kaiju movie when a giant reptilian creature magically appears out of thin air over in South Korea. I told you it was bizarre. I enjoyed the whimsical spirit because it’s unexpected and charming. Gloria’s morning stumbles through a children’s playground after a night of drinking seem to coincide with this astonishing event. Yet it still keeps the same silly and light atmosphere. Side note: Anne Hathaway is possibly the cutest/most fashionable portrayal of a drunk I’ve ever seen in a film.

The screenplay is vague. At times it doesn’t even seem to be aware of its own absurdities.  The story eventually falters when a once sympathetic individual grows increasingly dark in ways that are incoherent and unreasonable. Oscar abruptly becomes strangely cold and cruel in a way that defies sense. The character doesn’t logically evolve. The narrative’s ability to subvert expectations is admirable, but the failure to lose all sense with a well-written personality is not. Is it an underdeveloped script or is it Jason Sudeikis’ inability to convey the complexities of a capricious character?  Jason Sudeikis is too good to simply lay all the blame on him. It’s a bit of both.

Colossal is essentially a fable about alcoholism. It’s emblematic of the film’s obliqueness that that word is never uttered. If you haven’t guessed by now, the fantastical tale is very metaphorical. The giant beast is literal but can be figurative too. It’s about the devil we become when we succumb to addiction or perhaps the monster is also the person that enables our addiction. The narrative clumsily goes through some labored machinations that enable it to present a kooky conclusion. The screenplay is provocative yet the narrative’s oddly shifting mood is disjointed to the point it’s more irritating than innovative. I’ll celebrate the subversive enthusiasm to a point. I liked the unpredictability of the genre: romantic comedy vs. sci-fi flick vs. alcoholic drama. Surprise! It’s all of these things Yet the ever-shifting mood from silly to dark and back to fun again are completely random. The human behavior on display is even more haphazard. I grew frustrated at the experience.

04-23-17

Life

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 25, 2017 by Mark Hobin

life_ver3STARS3.5Life concerns six astronauts from around the world aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The plot begins when they discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. They revive the microscopic entity with some external stimuli. As a result, the little amoeba, which they’ve dubbed “Calvin” starts to develop at a rapid rate. It’s soon clear that their understanding of this entity is not very good. They’ve underestimated the intelligence of this thing. They make that error several times actually and it’s always to the delight of an audience seeking more thrills.

You can’t read a review of Life without the critique referencing a certain sci-fi classic. That’s totally fair. Life is made up of the DNA of others films, and one in particular. I’m not even going to name the picture because I think it unfairly poisons the mind against this production. Apparently, a story loses credibility if it’s inspired by another film, even one that came out nearly four decades ago. That’s hogwash. The act of homage isn’t a reason to castigate a film. Even the precise movie in question, now venerated as a masterpiece, was chastised as merely a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the time, so there! Let’s give director Daniel Espinosa some credit. He stole from the best and he does it with the polished art of a seasoned pro.

Life has the look of quality in every detail from the elegant art direction to the talented cast. What better way to dress up your picture than with an A-list ensemble. Ryan Reynolds is Rory Adams, the wisecracking (is he ever anything else?) mechanic of the crew. He operates the machinery. The actor worked with Daniel Espinosa before in Safe House. The connection initially gave me pause because that drama was utterly generic. Life, in contrast, is not.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the space station’s doctor, David Jordan. His limited part is eclipsed by the other actors in a bit of casting unpredictability. Rebecca Ferguson is Miranda North, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control. She’s responsible for keeping everyone safe. Let’s just say she’s not too good at her job. Ferguson is best known as the fetching Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. She’s an appealing presence here as well.

The rest of the cast will be more unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but no less captivating. Miranda is joined by fellow Brit Hugh Derry, a microbiologist played by Ariyon Bakare (British TV miniseries A Respectable Trade). ** Spoiler Alert ** The black guy does NOT die first – a refreshing twist. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, The Wolverine) is Shō Murakami the experienced astronaut who’s ready to retire. While on board, his wife gives birth back on Earth. Last but not least is Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina, the commander of the ISS. She has appeared in a smattering of Russian films since 2002. The thespians go a long way into making this spectacle something engaging. After all, if we didn’t care about these people, the story would fail.

Life is an intense, heart-pounding saga that never lets up. The production design is dazzling. The opening scene, an uninterrupted nearly 7-minute take, is a marvel. The ISS set is constructed like a labyrinth and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic within. That adds to the tension as I was riveted throughout. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have worked together before (Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool). The script gives us just enough detailed jargon to seem cerebral but without getting bogged down in a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo. They have a sophisticated take on this outer space thriller that really elevates the presentation into something classy. I mean let’s be clear. At heart, this is a formula sci-fi horror tale and nothing more. Don’t go in expecting to have your mind expanded. Nevertheless, it is nice to see something that isn’t part of some larger franchise. The action entertains a lot better than some warmed over reboot or sequel. Life is worth living….er uh I mean watching.