Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Belle

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

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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 Suzu is a withdrawn freckle-faced girl living in rural Japan.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

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

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

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

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

01-07-22

Don’t Look Up

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

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

12-26-21

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One of the biggest highlights at the cinema during my youth was the incongruous reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (1984). I’ll never forget how shocked and amused I was in the theater by that unholy amalgamation of the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Everyone was. It was a communal event. I’ll forgo further details to avoid spoiling the surprise. Although, one might argue that there’s no one’s experience still left to spoil. The movie is now nearly four decades old and the moment is iconic. However, perhaps to those young readers who haven’t seen it yet: Do yourself a favor and watch it now. This sequel does reference the goofy mascot “s’more” (that’s a pun on the marshmallow treat) as well as a plethora of other ideas from the 1984 classic. Sometimes nostalgia can be an albatross to creativity.

The story of a single mother who moves to a small town in Oklahoma with her two kids doesn’t sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The daughter’s familial connection to the supernatural events of the past is discovered when she inadvertently uncovers the legacy of her grandfather. This picture is directed by Jason Reitman and is a continuation of both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989). Those were directed by his father Ivan who is the producer here. You may recall there was a female-led reboot in 2016. If you don’t, that’s OK because this chapter doesn’t acknowledge that the picture even exists.

The ending of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is completely indebted to the inspiration of the past. More to the point, the lack of originality in the denouement isn’t endearing. Nevertheless, for the first three quarters, the narrative presents an engaging plot about kids that veers closer in spirit to something like The Goonies. The saga focuses on the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler who was Harold Ramis’ character. Her name is Phoebe and she is nicely realized with understated charisma by Mckenna Grace. Her mom and brother relocate to an abandoned farm that Egon left behind when he passed away. There, on his dilapidated estate, she discovers some of his ghostbusting tools. She brings a PKE Meter and an electronic trap to school — much to the delight of her classmate. The precocious boy is played by Logan Kim. “I call myself Podcast…because of my podcast.” He is undeniably funny, captivating, and also a real scene-stealer. Phoebe and Podcast form a compelling duo that I enjoyed immensely.

For the significant duration of the picture, the languid drama feels more like an indie picture. The fantasy isn’t as zany or sarcastic as its predecessor. It takes 45 minutes before we even see a ghost. However, there are laughs. The adventure adds additional members to the ghostbusting team. These include Phoebe’s brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his girlfriend Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), along with their mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and a teacher named Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). The movie charms but with the heart and character development of a leisurely-paced production and a smaller scale. This cost a comparatively low $75 million before promotion and advertising.

Sadly the filmmakers didn’t trust in the beauty of this new innovative direction they had forged. In the final quarter, it’s as if another malevolent director grabbed the steering wheel of this amiable tale, stepped on the gas, and forced it down a path that lazily remixes the climax of the 1984 blockbuster with garish and extravagant CGI effects. Unfortunately, everything from that point on is the exploitation of nostalgia in the most heavy-handed demonstration of the concept. I wasn’t a fan of the closing act. However, the chronicle before that was good. I’ll give it a pass because I was entertained. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a pleasant time-filler. Ah, but it could’ve been so much more.

11-18-21

Finch

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction on November 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Dramas don’t get much more intimate than Finch: a chronicle about a man, his dog, and a robot.

So the Earth has become a wasteland after a solar flare has scorched the Earth by ultraviolet radiation and increased the temperatures beyond living conditions. Certified national treasure Tom Hanks plays Finch Weinberg. The guy stays indoors most of the time, but he dons a special protective suit whenever he ventures outside for supplies. Finch is dying from cancer. So he builds a mechanical person (Caleb Landry Jones utilizing motion-capture) to be a companion for his canine Goodyear after he has passed on. When Finch hears of a major storm approaching, he decides to leave in a motor home toward San Francisco with his two companions.

There isn’t much to this story. Most of it centers on the interaction between Finch and the android who is developing a personality. We watch as the robot learns. Hanks gives yet another genuine, understated performance. Finch is cut from the same cloth as the characters Hanks played in Greyhound and News of the World. Meanwhile, the humanoid — who ultimately adopts the name Jeff — is reminiscent of other cinematic portrayals. Your references may vary. I thought of Pixar’s animated Wall-E (2008) but also “Johnny 5” in the 80s sci-fi comedy Short Circuit (1986). I never saw Chappie (2015) but I’ve heard that allusion as well. The post-apocalyptic tale is a serious account and it grows darker. However, Jeff has a cloying temperament throughout. Given the bare-bones plot, I found it hard to sit through.

The sweet, wholesome production is constantly trying to tug at your heartstrings. The nicest thing I can offer is that it’s inoffensive. When the robot isn’t acting cute, there’s also a puppy to melt your heart. This would have been more charming as an efficient 30 minute short. Stretched out to nearly two hours, it wears thin. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks is a star for a reason. He is undeniably likable, so if you are a major fan of his celebrity, then I suppose this will entertain you. The saga has its moments, but I was less enchanted by all the sentimentality.

11-05-21

Eternals

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on November 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Well, it’s about time. It’s been 13 years and now 26 films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has given us something unlike anything in the franchise thus far. Oh sure, they’ve dabbled in different genres before: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a 70s style political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is a space opera, Ant-Man (2015) is a comedic heist picture. There’s the coming-of-age teen movie envisioned in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the Afro-futurism of Black Panther (2018), and the martial arts of Shang-Chi (2021). Eternals deviates from the formula far more than anything before. Yet that’s what makes it so fascinating. The ambitious character-driven drama is a lot more intimate. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Director Chloe Zhao won the Oscar in 2021 for directing the very introspective Nomadland.

The saga is a sweeping epic that spans eons concerning the Eternals — a diverse group of 10 immortal aliens created by god-like beings known as the Celestials. Eternals also interact with humans by imparting their wisdom and offering protection but are forbidden to alter human history. The main adventure, set in the present, follows Sersi and company as they try to reunite the Eternals and defeat the Deviants, a race of enemy creatures who have suddenly reappeared after 500 years. However, the movie frequently flashes back to show the past of these cosmic beings, their impact on humanity, and why the group disbanded at one point.

That’s the basic outline. Delve deeper and we are confronted with a very mature and reflective piece. The tale manages to juggle ten superheroes, each with their own unique power. Watching the Eternals work together to take down the Deviants is thrilling. The distinctness of their superhero abilities is a little ill-defined. I mean they’re all super strong and can fight. Everyone seems indestructible too. On a couple of occasions I thought someone was finished, only to magically restore themselves. The Eternal that gets the most focus is Sersi (Gemma Chan). Her compelling personality has such compassion. She’s currently dating a history professor (Kit Harington) in the present day. Her skill is she can transform matter. Then there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), who — like Superman – can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. (Yes I know Superman is DC Comics) He and Sersi share a romantic past. The two have been a couple through the ages. Sersi and Ikaris experience a genuine moment of — ahem — intimacy. That’s another first for an MCU film.

The rest of the cast gets a little less attention but each is a charismatic individual. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can produce weapons. Ajak (Salma Hayek) has the power to heal, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires projectile blasts from his hands and Sprite (Lia McHugh) can generate illusions. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) round out the ten. I won’t detail them all since their specific talents are unimportant. The overall manifestation of the team working together is what compels the viewer. This is a family of sorts with an emotional backstory. These people are interesting and that’s crucial. It recalls the familial relationships in films like The Incredibles (2004) and The Avengers (2012). I was completely invested in the stories of every last one. That raises the stakes when they have the requisite battles. My engagement made these big, awe-inspiring displays even more exciting.

The chronicle wrestles with grand philosophical and theological questions. That’s always a risky venture. It mostly delights but there are disappointments. The account depicts the dropping of a five-ton bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. An event so horrific should never be casually inserted in a superhero fantasy. Eternals regrettably exploits this real-world tragedy to add significance to its narrative. Additionally, it jumps back and forth in time a bit too much and left me a little confused as to where we were in the story. And lastly, at 157 minutes, it is far too long. A little editing would have presented a cleaner account. Yet those are minor quibbles when compared with the many positives.

I haven’t even mentioned the visual spectacle. This gorgeous-looking picture features cinematography from Ben Davis (Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel). While still CGI heavy during battle scenes, the production has this grounded reality in the world around it. True to its title, the tale travels to various locations throughout history. It covers thousands of years from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon to the Gupta Empire and the Aztecs. The beautiful background vistas add to the weight of what’s happening. Chloé Zhao employs a lot of practical location-based filmmaking to simulate these environments and it makes a difference.

The screenplay swings for the fences. I admire that. Chloé Zhao (co-written with Patrick Burleigh and cousins Ryan & Kaz Firpo) wants to engage your emotions. The adventure has a lofty scale. It may not score a home run, but I wholly appreciate her successful attempt to try something different. Much like the Eternals who have this world-weary pathos about them, I personally suffer from superhero fatigue. Eternals flips the script and gives us a contemplative, character-driven drama. No, it’s not a typical superhero film. That’s a good thing. I am here for this new innovative direction.

11-04-21

Dune

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on October 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Chilly remote and majestic — the latest cinematic version of Frank Herbert’s Dune very much resembles the desert planet it depicts. The epic evolves like a visually profound mass of hot windswept dust to behold. The breadth and scale are impressive but the environment is dull. Even color is lacking. The production flaunts a monochromic palette that vacillates between dreary shades of blue to gray and on other occasions from orange to brown. I dare contend that if the film had been shot in black and white, it would’ve been more vibrant. The atmosphere weighs upon the audience. This lethargic mediation on race, culture, and colonialism is not a work to enjoy but to endure.

Dune is a tale fronted by a large cast of individuals in search of a personality. The saga details a feud between two families. The lush planet Caladan is ruled by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) of the House of Atreides. He has a son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), with the official concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul could be “the one” — that is — the savior that might bring important change to the universe. Meanwhile, over on the planet Arrakis (informally known as Dune) live the native Fremen people. Long exposure to spice has given the Freemen glowing blue eyes — a welcome excuse to inject a little color, albiet through digital manipulation. They are ruled by Atreides’ mortal enemies, the Harkonnen. Arrakis is desolate terrain. However, the world is rich in “spice”, a powerful drug desired throughout the galaxy because it extends life and aids in interstellar travel among no doubt other glorious things. By order of an unseen Emperor, Duke Leto leaves for his new position as the governor of Arrakis. However, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård wearing a most unfortunate fat suit) has nefarious plans for Leto and the whole Atreides family. Dune portrays a complex society within a dystopian future. (Is there any other kind?).

As a captivating adventure this drama fails — but only in the most sensational way. The drama lacks vitality. The political machinations of the community within comprise the story but there’s nary a personality to be found in this emotionless drudge. Paul is surrounded by an Imperial Court of various mentors and advisors. Jason Momoa plays one, Duncan Idaho, a strapping warrior that exudes a modicum of the rakish charm we so desperately crave. Nearly everyone else delivers their lines with all the theatrics of a Shakespearean play. Their robotic declarations are so stilted, so deliberate they simulate the self-serious recitations of a poem, not human dialogue. Ecologist Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is arguably the most egregious offender. I honestly suspected she was suppressing a secret — that she was indeed a robot. Although that reveal never arrives so apparently my suspicions were incorrect? The various performances are augmented by an unfocused gaze or a solemn pause. These actorly devices can rightly intensify a scene, but they cannot replace genuine depth or meaning. I felt absolutely nothing for anyone or anything in this sweeping account. I’ve derived more humanity from the random influx of strangers coming and going inside an airport than I did in this movie. Dune is full of lives, but there is no life.

What the picture has going for it is scope. The grand and stately fantasy perfectly conveys the monumental sweep of another world. The production design continually impresses from aircraft called Thopters with wings that buzz like dragonflies to miniature flying robots the size of tadpoles designed to kill. And the sandworms — those colossal creatures on Arrakis — are as spectacular as I imagined. The visuals from DP Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) would fulfill a nice retrospective in a museum dedicated to dazzling cinematography from sci-fi movies. I marveled at each individual segment as an artistic clip. But something happens when connecting one scene after another. Without any narrative thrust to propel them forward, they lack the emotional weight to keep the viewer enrapt. I tried to stay invested in this turgid drama. Oh, how I tried! Just before the credits roll, the chronicle ends with the intonations of Zendaya. (The actress’s brief appearance was greatly overstated in the marketing.) The mysterious Fremen girl who had been appearing in Paul’s dreams smiles playfully taunting the audience with “This is only the beginning.” That is correct. Director Denis Villeneuve’s ridiculously long 2-hour 35 minute adaptation only concerns the first half of the 1965 novel, which means it’s half an experience — a prologue to a sequel.

Without a single individual in which to root for or care, Dune is a torturous sit. The ceremonial dignity of soldiers marching in formation or the grandeur of awe-inspiring metal ships hovering in the sky can only take you so far. And yet there are flickers of liveliness. Within the first few minutes, Duke Leto playfully commands weapons master Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) to smile. As he sits there stone-faced, he declares, “I am smiling.” There are more examples. When Stilgar (Javier Bardem) greets Leto by spitting in his direction, the act is amusingly revealed to be a sign of respect. Or how about an evaluation from the Imperial Truthsayer (Charlotte Rampling) that puts Paul through a critical test. The intense ordeal is a compelling predicament. As the fable develops, much appreciated moments such as these would pop up occasionally. I savored each one. They broke up the monotony. Each reflection of this society aroused a response. Like an inhabitant of Arrakis for a precious glass of water, I happily relished these rare glimpses that reflected human emotion.

10-21-21

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on October 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you ever seen a movie that you enjoyed in the moment, but was so inconsequential you immediately forgot about it a day later? Such is Venom Let There Be Carnage, the sequel to Venom, Sony’s massive 2018 box office hit. As an entertaining time-filler, the film succeeds, but it’s hard to write about since it made virtually no impression on me. The mid-credits sequence had more of an impact than the proper saga. No details. I’ll only offer that it acknowledges Venom is a Marvel character originally introduced in the Spider-Man comics.

I could pretend this story is complicated but it’s easy to simplify things. The narrative isn’t complex. Venom is the alien organism that uses the body of investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as a host in which to live. The alien symbiote is a frightening presence because he wants to eat human brains. Nonetheless, he is resigned to eating chicken and chocolate because of Eddie’s admonition to do so. Venom has become a friendly dweller in his body.

The extraterrestrial must face a new enemy named Carnage who inhabits a serial killer named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson). At first, this guy only wants to get back to his true love but Carnage gives him powerful abilities. Girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) has some superpowers of her own. Incidentally, the same actress is also Miss Moneypenny in the new James Bond flick No Time to Die. Harris is enjoying a most productive October.

The best thing about this production is what made the original so enjoyable. That is — the oddball relationship between Eddie Brock and Venom, the alien who uses him as a host. While he possesses his body, you can hear them talking to each other. They are at ease with one another. They bicker with the comfortableness of an old married couple and it’s amusing. They even experience a break-up. The screenplay has moments of hilarity. However, there are still many opportunities for jokes that aren’t exploited. At one point, Carnage incongruously shouts, “Let there Be Carnage!” The title is stated verbatim without nary a wink or a nudge to the audience. In another scene, Eddie ducks into a women’s bathroom to argue with Venom — and save for the surprised face of one occupant in the adjacent stall — nothing of consequence is mined from the situation.

There is little here to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the comic book. The chronicle is all in service of a climactic duel between the two monsters. The battle is terrible as it showcases garish and nonsensical CGI action that is just a bunch of craziness up there on the screen. Director Andy Serkis keeps things simple and brisk. That can be a plus. They say brevity is the soul of wit. If you subscribe to that point of view, then the fact that this a mere 90 minutes should increase your enjoyment considerably. The production stays light, but — ya know — with mass destruction. Oh, and the brutal — albeit bloodless — deaths of several characters that test the confines of a PG-13 rating. It’s like a violent sitcom.

09-3-21

Free Guy

Posted in Action, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on August 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Give people a reason to go to theaters and they will. Audiences went to see Free Guy opening weekend. The prediction was that it would only do $15M-17 million due to a recent surge in the Delta variant. The reality is that it debuted well above expectations with $28.4 million. The fact that it wasn’t available on streaming — that you had to see it in a theater — certainly helped.

Free Guy is the story of a random bank teller that lives in a video game called Free City. He’s merely a background character, but then one day he becomes self-aware after seeing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) from afar. In the game, his best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard who works alongside him at the bank. Outside in the real world, he’s supported by computer specialists Keys (Joe Keery), Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and Millie (also played by Jodie Comer). This peripheral cipher decides to break away from his programming and make himself the hero of the game and pursue the woman he loves.

Ryan Reynolds is an actor that has made a career out of playing the talkative sarcastic smart-aleck. Here his generic personality is simply known as Blue Shirt Guy — a cheerfully upbeat nonentity with a vapid demeanor that has never thought for himself. He is a blank slate of a man whose eyes are suddenly opened. Reynolds doesn’t give a performance so much as deliver his lines loudly while mugging for emphasis. He affects the same persona he always has and this doesn’t come across as a well-rounded individual. Yet that’s exactly what the script calls for. He’s not playing a human being after all, but rather a video game character. It’s easy to laugh AT him but difficult to have empathy FOR him.

The deconstruction of one’s reality is an idea presented on the weighty shoulders of other better movies. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) is working from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. The boilerplate story even throws in a romance solely because it’s expected. The repetitive nature of the game gently evokes Groundhog Day while the themes of repression recall Pleasantville. Meanwhile, the tale about a good-natured everyman whose life is broadcast to people throughout the planet is like The Truman Show. Given their philosophy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that the megalomaniacal boss of Soonami Studios (insufferably overplayed by Taika Waititi) would be friends with Christof (Ed Harris) of The Truman Show.

Free Guy is a hyper-exaggerated saga so you’ll have to warm up to the film’s tone. I did but gradually. This is a self-conscious production that is constantly winking at the viewer. The account inserts numerous celebrity cameos. Most of the “stars” are from online streaming platforms YouTube and Twitch. I was blissfully unaware of their fame. There were a couple of major personalities that I did recognize. Unfortunately, the mass media callbacks kept my emotional connection at arm’s length. This is a release from 20th Century Studios. The fact that Disney is their parent company will be obvious given several high profile pop-culture gags that are fan service and nothing more. Meta-humor and Easter eggs (insidery jokes for fans) threaten to overwhelm the narrative at times.

The highest praise I can give Free Guy is that it’s an original movie. This isn’t a sequel, a remake, based on a comic book or a pre-existing video game. The action takes place in a completely new computerized action-adventure. Although, it’s inspired by violent open-world interactive titles like Grand Theft Auto. The thing is, the chronicle is not about video games per se. It concerns the way we exist and how we aspire to break out of the rut in which we may reside. The moral is “Seize the Day!” but pitched toward gamers. Overall the message is extremely lightweight, but I appreciated that Blue Shirt Guy was a force for hope and good in a city of chaos. I can get behind that.

08-12-21

The Tomorrow War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on July 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix is far and away the dominant presence on the Nielsen streaming ratings. It has the most-watched programs. However, Amazon Prime Video is still a player. Recent titles include Coming to 2 America in March and Without Remorse in April but The Tomorrow War topped them all in popularity. It was digitally released on July 2 and (according to Samba TV) was seen by 2.4 million U.S. households over the 4 day holiday weekend. Just a week later, the filmmakers confirmed the sci-fi actioner would get a sequel. Yes, it’s now a thing.

Problems begin when Earth is visited in the present day by soldiers from the future year 2051. They inform the populace that the planet is under attack from alien invaders and they need recruits to help in that crusade. Chris Pratt plays an ex-Green Beret named Dan Forester who now teaches high-school chemistry. He is drafted into service without any say in the matter. Most married people with families would be unhappy by that turn of events, but he genuinely seems optimistic about this new direction in his life. His fellow trainees (Sam Richardson, Mary Lynn Rajskub) are less enthused.

So let’s start on a positive note. I like Chris Pratt and he helps the adventure coast along on the goodwill of his considerable charisma. Ok now on to the “What the hell?!” part.

You have to suspend natural disbelief in this whole operation. We learn there is a less than 30% survival rate. Even when Dan and the other draftees are sent forward in time to do battle, they are accidentally dropped high above the city. Scarcely any survive the first few seconds. C’mon! They haven’t even met the creatures yet. There are glimpses of the citizens back on Earth upset with the whole process of the draft. Dan’s wife (Betty Gilpin) and his estranged father (J. K. Simmons) are among those unhappy about it, but I think most of the world would escape into hiding before allowing themselves to be sent on this ridiculous suicide mission.

Director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) and screenwriter Zach Dean (Deadfall) give the public what they came for: action and aliens. Dan meets a Colonel named Muri (Yvonne Strahovski) there. We find out immediately that she’s his adult daughter. The two of them work together to fight the intruders. The story is generic and the combat scenes are chaotic. The horrific beasts– called White Spikes — are interesting though. They suggest aquatic critters with huge tentacles, but travel on land akin to a swarm of insects. However, other than Chris Pratt there’s not much to separate this from a silly B movie on the Syfy channel. The Tomorrow War is fabricated from the DNA of Terminator, Total Recall, and Independence Day. The audience-pleasing formula accounts for its clear success on TV. I found it to be a passable diversion.

07-07-21

Black Widow

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Black Widow was first introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. The perpetually sidelined superhero has finally gotten her own standalone feature in 2021. It’s long overdue.

There are two mindsets in which to approach this film. The first is as an expert. This is the 24th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Anyone able to keep track of the way all the various people, alliances, and developments fit together, deserves a Ph.D. in comic book history. You have my respect. The rest of us — me included — are better off disregarding trying to remember everything that happened in the past. Simply appreciate the movie at face value for what it is. In this case, a decent spy thriller.

Black Widow succeeds as a character-driven action thriller. As a necessary installment to clarify the MCU franchise, it comes up short. Case in point: the chronicle feels like an afterthought. A fan will notice the adventure is retroactively set during an earlier time to adhere to the series’ continuity. These events take place right after Captain America: Civil War occurred in 2016 but before what happens in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. The picture should have come out 4-5 years ago. Ah but Black Widow is still an entertaining actioner. Better late than never.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been isolated from the other Avengers. Dissension amongst the group has split them up. She signed the Sokovia Accords at Iron Man’s behest but then sided with Captain America when it really counted. Oh snap! She played both sides. She’s currently not on friendly terms with Iron Man and on the run. Did you follow any of that? No matter. The setup merely provides an opportunity to present a completely new cast. Except for William Hurt who returns in a cameo as U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross. We meet mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour). Surprise! The people who raised Natasha in suburban Ohio may not actually be biologically related to her.

At a young age, Natasha was placed in a covert Soviet facility known as the Red Room. There she was brainwashed and schooled in combat and espionage. Many other girls received this spy training as well. They became mindless assassins without free will, turning them into “Black Widows.” Her sister (Florence Pugh) likewise was also educated in this fashion under the direction of evil mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He also commands an elite operative called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to do his bidding — a tangent that unnecessarily complicates a deeply tortuous narrative. Director Cate Shortland (Lore) directs from a screenplay written by Jac Schaeffer that was rewritten by Ned Benson, who was in turn replaced by Eric Pearson. There’s a lot of plot. The story excels when it’s focused on fewer characters, not more.

The core “family” forms a ragtag group somewhat reminiscent of dynamic in The Incredibles. That’s where the film finds its groove — in comedy. There’s a scene where David Harbour is attempting to squeeze into his old suit as The Red Guardian aka Russia’s version of Captain America. Then there’s Rachel Weisz as a seasoned professional and mother figure. She’s two steps ahead of Alexi with the plans. Then most notable of all, Russian sibling Yelena, portrayed by UK actress Florence Pugh, giving cold unemotional line readings that amusingly make us love her even more.

It’s a bit ironic that Black Widow’s sister outshines the titular superhero in her own movie. Florence Pugh is supposed to be support but her personality is just so darn funny. She totally takes the air out of Natasha’s sails when Yelena mocks her battle stance. “Why do you always do that thing? That thing you do when you’re fighting? With the arm and the hair, when you do like a fighting pose?” she deadpans. Yelena then hilariously affects a posture akin to a ballet position. “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” Yelena’s enthusiasm for vests is cute too. She loves the pockets. She has even made some modifications on the one she’s wearing . Her pride is infectious. As expected there are some good action scenes but it’s the character-driven bits that I savor the most. Those parts elevate the film into something I really enjoyed.

07-08-21