Archive for the Thriller Category

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Ad Astra

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

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

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

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

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

09-19-19

It Chapter Two

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on September 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

it_chapter_two_ver3STARS1.5Warning: It Chapter Two is almost 3 hours which doesn’t translate into “better”, just “more”.  That means objectionable situations, jump scares, blood, and gore in perpetuity.  Director Andy Muschietti takes everything awful about his first film and significantly increases that unpleasantness exponentially.  I will say this. If you thoroughly enjoyed part one, I should think you’ll enjoy part two as well because it’s more of the same.  That’s about as ringing an endorsement I can give this turgid mess.

In 1989, the group of kids known as “The Losers” made a blood pact to return to the town of Derry if the entity known as “It” ever came back.  It Chapter Two begins in 2016 – 27 years later.  The picture opens with the shocking depiction of a vicious assault on Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and Don (Taylor Frey), a gay couple.  The men are mercilessly beaten by a group of homophobic thugs.  Then Adrian is thrown over a bridge into the water below.  He has an asthmatic attack and nearly drowns.  Suddenly the poor man is pulled out of the water by a scary looking clown.  He is then eaten alive.  His boyfriend Don watches in horror.  Few will realize that the violent hate crime that unethically sets off this intro is based on the real-life murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor, Maine in 1984.  Unbelievably this killing is thoughtlessly used to signify that Pennywise is back.

This act sets the story in motion.  Mike (Isiah Mustafa aka the Old Spice Guy), is now an adult and still living in Derry as the town librarian.  He alerts his childhood friends that they must once again fight IT.  We proceed to catch up with the other Losers in adulthood.  The original screenplay reduced these kids to basic simplistic traits.  That’s what passed for characterization in the first movie and so I’m obliged to use those same descriptive adjectives here.  There’s stuttering writer Bill (James McAvoy), sexually abused Beverly (Jessica Chastain), overweight turned hottie Ben (Jay Ryan), foul-mouthed comedian Richie (Bill Hader), hypochondriac risk assessor Eddie (James Ransone) and Jewish accountant Stanley (Andy Bean).  Neighborhood bully Henry (Teach Grant) is back again too.  He kills a guard and escapes a mental institution so he can continue to terrorize.  What, the clown isn’t enough?  As a secondary antagonist, his presence is completely unnecessary.  This isn’t a production that relies on acting.  However, Hader delivers the most recognizably human performance of someone with genuine feelings.  Also kudos to the casting director for hiring actors that perfectly suggest grown-up versions of their youthful selves.  The chronicle employs frequent flashbacks to the past and the similarity of the child actors to their adult counterparts is uncanny.  There aren’t many compliments I can bestow, but the optics of the cast are on point.

The brutal attack of the opening scene is merely one regrettable vignette.  Unfortunately, it kicks off the entire movie.  I was willing to get past that and still give this a chance.  Sadly, we’re assaulted by more heavy abuse that is exploited to inject superficial weight to a script that has no respect or understanding for the gravity of the issues it so carelessly desecrates.  Writer Gary Dauberman returns to adapt Stephen King’s novel.  When we’re introduced to Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as an adult, she’s married to an abusive husband named Tom (Will Beinbrink).  Beverly tells her husband that she must travel to Derry to visit friends.  However, he now thinks she is cheating on him because he heard Mike’s name.  Tom starts to physically beat Beverly and then attempts to rape her.  This is yet another really ugly spectacle.  Luckily she fights back and runs away, but the feeling that lingers is pure ick.  It casts a pall over this production.  This feeling never goes away.  Stanley (Andy Bean) is so scared to hear the news that he commits suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub so he doesn’t have to endure any more nastiness.  Dear Lord, please forgive me for saying this, but I envied him at this point.

I already hated this film 30 minutes in and it had only barely begun.  Remember it’s 3 hours.  The rest is just as appalling.  It Chapter Two is an absolute dumpster fire.  The piecemeal tale is manufactured from a conventional attempt to string together a lot of expensive special effects and jump scares.  The saga revisits the Losers as children in a protracted and convoluted sequence in the second hour.  This dump of a narrative throws everything it can at the audience including the kitchen sink.  The drama is so sloppily constructed, ultimately it doesn’t feel like a story but rather a highlight reel for the visual effects teams at Method Studios and Atomic Arts.  The impressive technology grows increasingly ubiquitous.  To make matters worse, the screenplay has no sensitivity for the sincere loss of human lives and suffering that it depicts.  There is no emotional connection to the depravity.  But I’ve grown tired of my rant as I’m sure you have too.  I needn’t continue to list this movie’s many offensives.  If I did, my review would be 10 pages long.

09-05-19

Luce

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on September 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

luceSTARS3What’s worse: a movie that never shows any potential to be good in the first place or a feature that begins with an intriguing setup and then squanders that opportunity?  I can definitely attest the latter is more disheartening.  That’s the experience you’ll get if you watch this provocation of a film.  It sets up an intriguing premise meant to provoke but then carelessly dismisses all those ideas with more questions than answers by the end.

Luce (pronounced loose) is all about Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), all-star athlete, accomplished debater, and an academically gifted high school student.  He is also a black teen adopted at the age of seven by a wealthy white married couple Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts).  He came from impoverished war-torn Eritrea in East Africa.  There as a child soldier he was taught to fight at a young age.  None of this violent background is immediately apparent from the calm, upstanding child we see here.  He appears to be an affable teen, popular with students and teachers alike.  He is an inspiration at assemblies with his stirring speeches.  He’s seen addressing his classmates at the beginning of the movie and once again at the end.  You’d think life would be all roses for Luce.  His teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) views him as “an important example to the school”.  However, his relationship with this woman is strained.  He feels an overwhelming pressure to be the ideal representative of his race.  There’s unresolved conflict bubbling beneath the surface of his personality.  His conduct will arouse many questions.

Octavia Spencer is one of our finest actors working today.  She was mesmerizing earlier this year in the underrated Ma.  Here again, she imbues this role with such gravitas that I was absolutely riveted to her whenever she was on screen.  As Luce’s history teacher, she is unnerved when she reads the paper he turns in.  The assignment was to write from the perspective of a historical figure.  Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, a 20th-century revolutionary and writer who believed violence by the oppressed was necessary for the struggle against colonialism.  When Harriet finds a bag of illegal fireworks in his locker, she views him as a potential terrorist threat.  Is he being judged fairly?  There’s a powerful dichotomy between this teacher who wants to do the right thing and the confident Luce who is exceptionally glib.  He’s a slippery chap and actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. is very good in the role.  He has an answer for everything.  It’s hard for the audience to truly determine who is in the right.  That set-up is indeed compelling and Octavia Spencer elevates this woman to seem more astute than her character has been written.

Luce is directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  He also adapted the script with JC Lee who wrote the original play on which this film is based.  They are constantly playing with the audience’s perception.  This is a highly theatrical work where people say and do things that wouldn’t occur the same way in real life.  When Harriet makes her discovery in Luce’s locker, she goes out of her way to hand the fireworks over to his mom first rather than simply going to the principal.  Her decision is not prudent.  This will have negative repercussions for her later but it acts as a conduit to create other manufactured situations for the purposes of contemplation.

Luce, the film, is ultimately a frustrating experience.  The screenplay introduces many fascinating ideas.  Then smugly neglects to make a lucid point about any of them.  It creates well-intentioned people for whom we sympathize.  Then later “pranks” the audience by giving the people behaviors to stimulate our contempt.  Luce’s liberal parents have given him an opportunity to shine.  That’s commendable but then they point to his success as a testament to how virtuous they are.  Later we learn that because mom Amy couldn’t pronounce Luce’s original name, his parents gave him a new one so they could.  We discover ex-girlfriend Stephanie was sexually abused at a party but by the end, it is implied that she actually can’t be trusted.  Harriet has a sister named Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) that lives with her.  Their relationship is an engaging plot point that humanizes Harriet.  Rosemary will later exhibit a needlessly exaggerated display that is uncomfortable to watch.  Luce himself is a big question mark too.  He seems like a model student, but maybe he has everyone fooled.  Could he be a sociopath that has perfected the ability to code-switch depending on the listener?  You’ll never know and the movie doesn’t provide enough info to make that determination.  Luce is an unfinished thesis that considers race, privilege, prejudice, tokenism, and adoption.  It merely exploits those subjects to incite a fire, then irresponsibly leaves without making any attempt to quell the flames.

08-21-19

Ready or Not

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ready_or_notSTARS2If Ready or Not is the question, the answer most assuredly is “not”.  I didn’t much care for this umpteenth variation on The Most Dangerous Game.  It is a violent hunt where the audience’s pleasure is extracted from the way in which various characters are murdered.  Will they be bludgeoned, shot, or crushed to death?  Oh please don’t keep me in suspense! Somewhere, buried underneath this blood-soaked free for all, there is a seed of inspiration that could have sparked a more intellectual consideration that dealt with issues of classism.

Penniless Grace (Samara Weaving) is a bride about to marry her beloved.  By contrast, Alex ( Mark O’Brien ) the groom is exceedingly rich.  He is of the Le Domas family who made their fortune through board games.  Their impressive wealth has also afforded them the ownership of four professional sports teams.  They are a dynasty.  “We prefer dominion” the patriarch offers.  Grace is a foster child with no friends or relatives of her own.  This conveniently relieves the writers of having to give this poor woman any sort of backstory.  Tradition states that any new addition to their wealthy empire must randomly pick a card on their wedding night and play the game selected.  This has been decreed by the clan’s original benefactor, a mysterious figure named Mr. Le Bail.  Games in the past have included Old Maid, Checkers, and other ordinary selections.  But when Grace selects “Hide and Seek” the room grows silent.  This is the one card you do not want to draw.  She is unaware but soon she will be literally hunted to death through the halls of the estate by the rest of the household.  Crossbows, spears, axes, and muskets will be the weapons of choice.  Oh, and if I may quote Paul Thomas Anderson, there will be blood.

The superior cast disguises this B movie dross in a sheen that can camouflage the muck.  Lead heroine Samara Weaving is gamely athletic as Grace.  Naturally, we want her to live.  Yet this woman’s ability to continually evade her captors suspends disbelief to the point of exasperation.  She’s restricted to a mansion, not an entire country.  Eliminating her shouldn’t be this hard.  The affluent Le Domas clan includes some recognizable name actors.  Adam Brody (FOX TV’s The O.C.) is alcoholic brother Daniel.  Aunt Becky is portrayed by Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day) and patriarch Tony is embodied by old standby Henry Czerny.  He memorably played a bureaucratic jerk in Clear and Present Danger and has been reliably playing slimeballs ever since.  Melanie Scrofano (Syfy TV’s Wynonna Earp) is indelible as the fluttery, pill-popping Emilie.  Her theatrical character delivers lines that would sound a lot funnier on a stage.  “Why does this keep happening!” Emilie whines after she unintentionally kills the wrong person yet again.  Her lack of compassion is hilarious.  It’s just that the loss of human life amidst such gory details makes Emilie’s disinterest a lot less funny.  Her flippant reaction should be the punchline, not the brutal slaughter.

Ready or Not had the potential to be so much more.  As I watched this grisly pursuit unfold, I pictured the production reimagined as an unconventional play — an intricately plotted comedy of manners that satirized the upper class with a macabre sense of humor.  The screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy obviously means to skewers the well-to-do as a godless class prone to murder and mayhem.  Yet there is no wit or subtly.  “They’re just trying to figure out if you’re a gold-digging whore,” one family member tells Grace early on.  It’s pretty heavy-handed.  Rich people are jerks is what passes for insight.  In time, various people will accidentally die in grotesque ways.  In a play, we’d only have to imagine the carnage.  The emphasis on the cruel deaths is at odds with the lighthearted feel of the script.  Violent murder isn’t funny in any era but when mass shootings seemingly occur on a weekly basis, the depiction is especially ill-timed.  In the hands of Busick and Murphy,  Ready or Not clumsily devolves into a ghastly and oppressive product.  The drama takes place in an ornate manor which suitably lends the setting an elegance.  The cinematography, however, wallows in dark tones which ultimately sabotage any feeling of lightness.  Grace’s wedding dress is completely covered in blood and guts by the end.  Thank goodness this is only 90 minutes long.  Under the auspices of a more capable writer, classism, not killing would be the raison d’être of this piece.  There are much more talented writers who could do this type of material justice.  Is John Guare available?

08-22-19

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSTARS2It’s Halloween night, 1968.  In the Mill Valley suburb of Pennsylvania, a group of misfit teenagers seek refuge in the abandoned mansion where Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) once lived.  The legend contends that the vengeful woman held a terrible secret.  There in her room, they discover a haunted journal of individual tales.  The book contains scary stories of the past but there are blank pages as well.  When nerdy horror novelist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) carelessly recites an incantation from the tome, Sarah’s spirit is unleashed.  Soon new chapters begin to magically appear on the previously empty pages.  Each one will have a dire consequence for a person trespassing in her home.  The appealing cast includes Stella’s friends, intellectual Auggie (Gabriel Rush), mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and an enigmatic teen drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza).  Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a dumb blonde stereotype, shows up later along with her date Tommy (Austin Abrams), a football player/bully at the school.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of children’s books that were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991.  Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is a producer and co-writer.  The books were a horror compendium of urban legends and folk tales.  The movie interpolates several of the short stories by weaving them into an overall feature.  The film can easily be broken apart into pieces.  “The Haunted House”, “Harold” The Red Spot”, “The Big Toe”, and “The Jangly Man” are all episodes within the narrative.  The pale lady of “The Dream” is a high point.  It’s the only time I was ever creeped out.  Still, the interlude is effective only because it produces a haunting image.  The simple story is merely about an obese woman that wants to hug you.  Some fables are lifted directly from the text.  Others are composites.  They’re all dull and perfunctory.  Although the drama presents this all as one united saga, it’s obvious from its episodic nature that this account has been cobbled together from disparate yarns.  It still has the divided feel of an anthology.  There are thematic parallels to Creepshow (1982).  There’s even a gross-out tale that resembles that flick’s cockroach scene.

The kids are ostensibly here to unravel the mystery of why Sarah Bellows, even in death, is still so ticked off.  They are frustratingly ineffective for the duration of the picture.  The kids watch in terror as one new chapter after another writes itself in blood on the page before them.  There’s a Spielbergian mood.  Properties like the TV show Stranger Things and the adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) are very much in vogue.  This production clearly wants to exploit that same demographic.  Each youthful victim is eliminated one by one.  The remaining survivors seemingly learn nothing from the previous death.  I mean if they did then the film would be over a lot faster, right?  There is a solution to stopping these casualties but it’s about as generic as something like telling the truth.  Until that occurs, bad things just keep happening to these people Final Destination-style so the writers can justify a nearly 2-hour running time.  Oh, and the chronicle makes sure to isolate each character when they face their demise.  That also adds to the disjointed, fragmentary nature of this story.  The screenplay by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman is extremely poor.

There are some positives.  The setting is small-town America, 1968, so it’s an evocative period piece.  It uses the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the presidential election of Richard Nixon as background elements.  The atmosphere is more picturesque than say a film set in our modern-day.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with those ideas.  It simply uses them as window dressing.  For fans of the series, I do think director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has done a nice job at visually embodying the original freaky illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  However, your imagination is always going to be scarier than something manifested so literally in gross detail.  The movie employs copious amounts of CGI.  Some scenes are eerie.  One concerning a pimple is too disgusting for words, but none of it is particularly scary.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hobbs_and_shaw_ver6STARS3
It’s been a while but does anyone remember that The Fast and the Furious was originally about illegal street racing?  Oh so much has changed since that 2001 film.  Dwayne Johnson joined the franchise in Fast Five (2011) as American federal law officer Luke Hobbs.  Jason Statham would be introduced later in a cameo during the end credits of Fast & Furious 6 (2013).  Statham is a British special forces assassin-turned-mercenary named Deckard Shaw.  It was the box office success high of Furious 7 (2015) that prominently featured both stars which ultimately inspired this offshoot.  Together they had an adversarial relationship.  Now the two are starring in the first spin-off of the series and the results are exactly what you’d expect.  Muscle cars and even muscular men.  Oh and a Moscow mansion of deadly beauties with a leader (Eiza González) that’s more appropriately dressed for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show than commanding a gang of arms dealers.

The tale has these frenemies paired against their will to extract a deadly virus called “The Snowflake” that has been manufactured by a terrorist group called Eteon.  Shaw’s sister, MI6 field agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected capsules containing it into her own body for safekeeping.  She will die if an antidote isn’t found soon.  Lead terrorist Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) just so happens to be genetically enhanced by cybernetic augmentations.  Naturally, villains can’t be mere humans anymore.  Indeed this super soldier’s enhanced field of view is not unlike something The Terminator or perhaps Tony Stark might see.  “I’m Black Superman” he declares.  He seeks to claim and unleash The Snowflake to kill the half of humanity that Eteon has deemed weak.  The central duo is enough but the filmmakers still feel the need to insert unnecessary cameos from Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds into the mix.  Must the ever-sarcastic Reynolds act/sound like Deadpool in every single role?  His unexpected arrival is pleasant at first but his many appearances (including in two of the three — yes three! — end credits sequences) really grates on the audiences’ nerves like an unwelcome guest.

Don’t even try to make any sense of it.  This picture has amusing continuity errors on a Plan 9 from Outer Space level.  Flashbacks show Deckard and Hattie as roughly the same age as brother and sister.  Yet actors Jason Statham and Vanessa Kirby are over twenty years apart playing the roles as adults.  Ok, so not a big deal, but more logic is thrown out the window during a climactic battle on the island of Samoa.  Apparently, the sun in this world doesn’t follow the rules of the solar system.  Shaw lights a ring of fire around enemy soldiers in a conspicuous display at night.  A second later and it’s broad daylight.  It’s such an abrupt transition.  There’s more, but I already know what you’re thinking.  You don’t watch movies like this for intelligence or sense.  I’ll move on.

It’s a cliche to call a feature “big dumb fun” but Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw IS a cliche.   To call the plot formulaic is an insult to the very word itself.  As a story, the account isn’t built on a coherent narrative but rather a string of carefully planned spectacles.  The car chases and pyrotechnics are ridiculous.  That’s part of their cartoonish charm. You came for stunts and you’ll get mayhem aplenty.  Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) understands how to photograph a crisp action sequence.  It’s chaotic and nonsensical but you can still see what’s happening.  Just don’t apply the laws of physics.

What pushes this flick into something I’d recommend is the chemistry of the lead pair.  Mix two cantankerous individuals together and watch the sparks fly.  It’s a recipe that works.  Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are enough to carry the narrative.  The mere sight of them together is comical.  Statham has a solid build.  He stands about 5’10. He’s not small.  Johnson, however, has mutated into a roided out inhuman hulk.  Statham looks positively diminutive next to this guy.  These action set pieces are linked together by hilarious banter courtesy of screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce.  The way these stars trade insults is even better than the way they trade punches.  Shaw cracks that the massive Hobbs’ tight t-shirt size is “spray-on”.  Upon meeting Shaw’s sibling Hattie, Hobbs quips, “She’s too pretty to be your sister”.  They bicker like an old married couple.  At one point Shaw must create pseudonyms for both of them at the airport.  “Mike Oxmall” is the name he gives to his associate.  Sound it out.  Granted this is low-level humor.  If that doesn’t make you chuckle, you probably won’t be swayed by the screenplay’s superficial charms.

Nevertheless, Hobbs & Shaw is surprisingly wholesome.  This PG-13 rated movie is completely devoid of gore.  Furthermore, its redemptive message of unity makes this an uplifting paean to honoring your relatives.  There’s even a reunion with Hobbs’ beloved mom (Lori Pelenise Tuisano).  The screenplay pounds the notes of sentimentality with a sledgehammer.  Hallmark Channel, take note.  The culminating showdown set in Hobbs’ childhood home of Samoa provides him an opportunity to mend ties with his estranged sibling, Jonah (Cliff Curtis).  Later Hobbs and his brothers perform a Samoan war dance — the Siva Tau — before going to battle with the far more technologically advanced bad guys.  Each display designed to pluck at your heartstrings. This series has never failed to emphasize the importance of friends and family.  The setting is different, but we’ve seen this buddy-action blueprint before.  The car chase scene with his Samoan brothers could’ve been lifted directly out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s straightforward fun, so there’s no earthly reason why a simplistic action picture needs to be patience-testing 2 hours and 15 minutes long.  However, those funny and abundant put-downs make this saga entertaining.  Johnson and Statham boost the production and it’s their charisma that pushes this derivative story into passable time filler.  Stay tuned, Fast and Furious 9 arrives May 2020.

08-01-19

Ma

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on June 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maSTARS3.5There’s something so wonderful about Ma, the new horror movie starring Octavia Spencer.  I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a cheesy film.  Tate Taylor also directed The Girl on the Train which was one of my least favorite releases of 2016.  But Ma is something else entirely.  It’s a completely idiosyncratic story about a middle-aged black woman that befriends a group of mostly white teens.  She invites them over so they can have a safe place to hang out and drink.  Obviously, juveniles under the age of 21 shouldn’t be drinking but Spencer isn’t supposed to be playing an admirable person.  However, there’s a lot more to uncover here than initially meets the eye.

Ma is trashy fun.  Screenwriters Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor know exactly the kind of campy film they’re making.  So does Octavia Spencer.  It’s not great art but it is entertaining.  She plays a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann Ellington who is approached by a group of adolescents who ask her to buy alcohol for them.  Sue Ann is awkward.  She sports a hairstyle seemingly inspired by Joey Lawrence in the TV show Gimme a Break! circa 1983.  It isn’t only the way she looks, though.  It’s the way she acts.  Spencer’s identity is that of a kindly mature woman desperate to be liked.  The kids start calling her Ma and she likes the attention.  The script gives this misfit a detailed backstory recounted in flashbacks.  There are details to this character that aren’t readily apparent.  There’s a reason for her unhinged behavior.  She still harbors unresolved anger from her past.

Ma goes to places I didn’t foresee.  At first, she simply buys the kids booze, but pretty soon she’s offering up the basement in her home as a place for them to party.  Then she’s celebrating right alongside them.  That’s so unexpected.  So is the soundtrack which includes “The Safety Dance”, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Funkytown”.  I didn’t reckon Ma would crank up the bouncy hit “September” by Earth Wind and Fire while running over a victim.  It’s refreshing to see a production where Octavia Spencer gets to be the star and the supporting cast are there to support her.  The ensemble consists of teen Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) who has just moved to the area with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis).  Luke Evans is Ben, an old high school classmate from Erica’s childhood and Missi Pyle portrays Ben’s girlfriend who can’t hold her liquor.   There’s also Allison Janney who’s highly memorable as Ma’s irritable boss.  There is literally only one note to her performance.  That sounds like a condemnation but it’s not.  Janney is hilarious.  She doesn’t have many lines but every one she utters is vicious.  This is a reunion of sorts. Janney and Spencer were in The Help together which was likewise helmed by Tate Taylor. He happens to play a police officer here.

You really have to suspend a lot of disbelief with Ma. The way these children keep going back to Ma’s house makes absolutely no sense. It almost becomes an unintentional(?) running joke.  There are so many signs that Ma isn’t quite right.  Early on she points a gun at one of the students and demands that he remove his clothes.   It’s an uncomfortable scene, but the kids inexplicably seem fine with it after she laughs it off.  Later she hugs Erica and her expression over toward Maggie goes from delighted to deranged in a half second.  That’s part of the movie’s spell.  Spencer adroitly switches from sympathetic to cruel.  I felt sorry for this woman.  Then I hated her.  Earlier this year Neil Jordan’s Greta employed a similar camp sensibility.  Ma is even less inhibited and therefore more fun.  For the majority of the picture, this is a compelling character study. Unfortunately, the drama’s final 20-minute descent into Grand Guignol is a letdown.  Yet through it all, Spencer endures as a fascinating personality.  The achievement would be a parody in a lesser actor’s hands.  Spencer extracts both pathos and absurdity from the screenplay.  The individual is cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Kathy Bates in Misery.   Those may be iconic grandes dames of horror but Spencer is most definitely in the same league.

06-08-19

The Curse of La Llorona

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

curse_of_la_llorona_ver2STARS2.5In Mexican folklore, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is the legend of a “weeping woman” who drowned her children in a blind rage.  The act was to take revenge on her philandering husband, but once she realized what she had done, the river had already carried them away.  After her death, she was prevented from entering the kingdom of heaven until she found them.  Thus, she continues to wander the night looking for children whom she mistakes for her own.

The Curse of La Llorona is the sixth installment in producer James Wan’s horror franchise that began with the breakout success of The Conjuring in 2013 and includes Annabelle (2014) and The Nun (2018).  The fable dates back to 1673 and it’s nicely reenacted as an eerie intro that sets the stage for the proper story here.  The production is a period piece that mainly takes place 300 years later in 1973.  This allows for Father Perez (Tony Amendola) who appeared in the 1967 set Annabelle to briefly pop up, so there’s the connective tissue to the rest of the series.

Recently widowed Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) becomes familiar with the myth when investigating a case of possible child abuse.  She is a social worker questioning the mother (Patricia Velasquez) of two sons.  Soon Anna’s own kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are being terrorized.  She appeals to a former priest named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) for help.  This isn’t great art.  It’s a lot of scares loosely strung together by a generic tale dressed up in period detail.  Even though this is primitive stuff, there is some enjoyment in experiencing one shock after another.  Car windows roll down by themselves, transparent umbrellas reveal shadowy figures when lowered then disappear when raised.  Later, Rafael spreads seeds from a special tree across the doorway to prevent La Llorona from entering their home.  The scene where that barrier of protection is compromised is exceptionally intense.

The Curse of La Llorona is a very efficient horror movie.  Evaluating the way it’s constructed is kind of like looking for the nutritional value in cotton candy or analyzing the plot of a roller coaster.  This is a pure yet simple entertainment.  You’ll laugh at how openly guileless the production is in eliciting frights.  In a scant 93 minutes, director Michael Chaves piles on more jump scares per minute than any film I can remember.  That is a backhanded compliment.  The technique of creating surprises with an abrupt image accompanied by a loud sound is perhaps the laziest way to frighten the viewer.  Nevertheless, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting the very basic requirement of what you paid for.  Unfortunately, that’s all you get.

04-18-19

Pet Sematary

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pet_sematary_ver3STARS3.5It’s been 30 years.  Pet Cemetery was ripe for a remake.  Oh pardon me, that’s S-E-M-A-T-A-R-Y.  Although a hit in the spring of 1989, the original isn’t held in particularly high regard.  Additionally, author Stephen King has never been hotter.  His novel It was reworked for a second time as two theatrical features in 2017 and 2019.  Even accounting for inflation, Part 1 became the biggest box office success of a Stephen King property ever.  This critic wasn’t a fan actually.  I’d have to go back to 1408 to find something based on the author’s work I enjoyed so I wasn’t highly anticipating this.  I’m happy to say that this is the best Stephen King adaptation in over a decade.

The best horror movies establish an evocative mood.  There’s something really eerie about a burial ground.  A graveyard for animals is even creepier still.  Now add the fact that I’m not a cat person.  Just the set-up of Pet Sematary is inherently scary.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has relocated his family from Boston to rural Maine.  His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their youngsters, daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and son Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) are getting used to their new surroundings.  Their home deep in the woods affords them peace and quiet.  The acres that now make up their backyard also includes a pet cemetery used by the locals.  While out walking one day, Rachel and Ellie come upon a funeral procession of children in frightening animal masks.  One malevolently beats on a toy drum.  The spectacle is even more menacing than it sounds.  When Ellie tries to climb beyond a tangled mass of fallen trees and brush, she is stopped from going any further by the Creeds’ well-meaning new neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow).  We’re immediately curious about what lays past the deadfall.  The unsettling unknown is often scarier than the actual reveal.

The chronicle relies on an emotional core.  The screenplay doesn’t treat grief as some throwaway concern, but an emotion with which one must come to terms.  We learn early on that mother Rachel was traumatized by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine).  Death has always been a hard subject for her to talk about.  When the family cat Church is hit by a truck, she decides to hide this detail from the kids and simply say the cat ran away.  Louis and Jud go to bury Church in the established shrine.  However, Jud shares a bit of information with Louis that will change their lives forever.  Pet Sematary is a horror reflection that contemplates bereavement.  Perhaps these harsh realities of life are better to accept than to reject.

This is a simple drama unencumbered by extraneous details.  Matt Greenberg (1408) has slightly changed the story from one of Stephen King’s shorter novels.  This may anger some King purists.  I don’t worship the text so it’s didn’t faze me.  Screenwriter Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) has adapted the source for directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) who take a refreshingly spartan approach to the proceedings.  This is a bare-bones study with effective scares and a chilling atmosphere.  As we’ve recently seen in Hereditary and Us, a performance can greatly enhance a production.  11-year-old actress Jeté Laurence gives a nuanced portrayal.  Ellie Creed is a complex role worthy of an actor twice her age.  Unfortunately, the developments succumb to blood and guts violence in the final act.  I’m not a fan of viscera.  Then again it probably wouldn’t be Stephen King if it didn’t include some.  Thankfully this tale depends more on emotions than gore.  The sophisticated craft is markedly better than the silliness of the 1989 version.  Christopher Young’s ominous score adds to the disturbing milieu.  The ambiance is a mounting wall of impending dread.  I “dug” this Pet Sematary.

04-04-19