The Book of Henry

Posted in Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller on June 29, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo book_of_henry_zpsgw3gibvv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s a poignant melodrama about a terminal illness. Well to clarify, it’s more of a heart-rending tearjerker. No wait, it’s actually crime thriller. I know, it’s an inspirational family drama. Scratch that, it’s really a light comedy. In truth, The Book of Henry is all of these things – a cinematic yo-yo spinning wildly between a plethora of genres. Granted, the screenplay by crime author Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X) may not follow the rules of how to gradually lead an audience through a saga, but I was absolutely fascinated by where it would take me next.

Henry Carpenter is an 11-year-old genius. He has used his gift to smartly invest in the stock market to build up a stable financial future for his household. In fact, he’s smarter than all of the adults in his life. Number one on that list would have to be his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan is a waitress, a working mom who writes picture books in her spare time. She’s also a parent to Peter (Jacob Tremblay), Henry’s younger brother. Enter Christina, their next door neighbor. She is Henry’s classmate and a girl with whom Henry has a crush. She’s predictably beautiful, but also very sad. The reveal of her predicament and how Henry tries to help her sets one major plot thread into motion. Henry is also beset with a dilemma of his own. Yes, two major problems that each could be the focus of their own film. I’m being purposefully vague because a big part of the allure is how each contrivance piles on top of another. That sounds like a slam, and it is, but it’s also kind of mesmerizing the way it plays out. Try to look away. You can’t. I was captivated and that counts for something.

The Book of Henry is a fantasy that could only exist in the mind of a writer. It’s a fable that concerns the real world but one invaded by outlandish developments that can feel too implausible to accept. It’s a tale of fabulism.  Lead Jaeden Lieberher has already starred in the acclaimed Midnight Special. Jacob Tremblay was featured in one of the best films of 2015, Room. The opportunity to see these two burgeoning talents in the same production had me sold. They do not disappoint. Add twice Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts and you have an unconventional family that had me enrapt. As mother and son, Watts and Lieberher have genuine chemistry. They both starred together in the wonderful St. Vincent. As a character, Susan is a bit intellectually stunted. Ok, that’s putting it mildly but then her son Henry is emotionally deficient. Younger son Peter is simply all around playful sweetness, Together these three form a sensitive triad, a sort of us-against-the-world dynamic that enticed my heart. They’ve got a soul. Buy into their relationship and you’ll buy into the movie.

I usually disregard the critical consensus when reviewing a movie. I’m here to detail my own thoughts. Yet this picture has received some of the most vitriolic reviews of anything this year. Why has this little family film (PG-13 rated for the dark subject matter) received so much hostility from critics? Director Colin Trevorrow burst onto the indie scene with a little gem called Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012. Then followed that indie achievement with the 4th biggest (as of this writing) U.S. blockbuster of all time, 2015’s Jurassic World. Perhaps when someone has a success another feel is unearned, the claws really come out when they stumble. No The Book of Henry isn’t for everyone. The script has got chutzpah for attempting something rather unique. I get that the genre-defying narrative is a bit bananas, but the hate is disproportionate to the movie’s shortcomings. The plot is simply too audacious to dismiss and the drama has too much heart. I was entertained for the entire duration of this chronicle.

06-18-17

Beatriz at Dinner

Posted in Comedy, Drama on June 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo beatriz_zpsh6gtpliq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Beatriz (Salma Hayek) in Beatriz at Dinner is a massage therapist. More specifically, she’s a natural healer who works at a holistic cancer center in Los Angeles. When we first meet her she’s having an idyllic daydream of rowing a boat as it glides down a picturesque river. It’s a sunny day, there’s a flock of birds flying overhead, and then the bleat of a goat. It cries out again and she’s awakened to the sound of the actual goat she keeps in her bedroom. Yup. She lives in a modest LA apartment and keeps goats. She loves animals. She has dogs too. She drives a VW beetle with the bumper sticker “Have a Nice Day…unless you’ve made other plans”. She makes house calls. Her longtime client is Kathy (Connie Britton), an extremely wealthy but progressively minded housewife. Kathy and her husband live in a Newport Beach community behind multiple levels of security gates. When Beatriz’ beat-up old VW bug won’t start after completing her massage therapy, Kathy invites her to stay for dinner.  She is hosting an intimate shindig for some important co-workers of her husband. Kathy is unceasingly friendly toward Beatriz. In fact, she wears her accommodating treatment like a badge of honor. It’s not without conflict, however. She must force her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) to accept the presence of Beatriz at their little affair.

Beatriz at Dinner is a new production directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White. The two have worked together before, most notably on Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). White has a gift for making the audience ill at ease. He creates odd personalities in awkward situations. The Mike White written and directed Year of the Dog (2007) is a perfect example. His latest screenplay, Beatriz at Dinner, is another. The drama concerns three couples. In addition to our aforementioned hosts, Kathy and Grant, there’s attractive but haughty couple Shannon (Chloë Sevigny ) and Alex (Jay Duplass). Chloë Sevigny, in particular, makes the condescension of her character seem almost elegant. But the alpha guest is John Lithgow as Doug Strutt, a billionaire real estate tycoon. He is accompanied by his third (and much younger) wife Jeana (Amy Landecker).

You can’t read a critique of this film without the reviewer noting a connection between Doug Strutt and Donald Trump. It’s a rather glib comparison. Granted the U.S. president currently occupies the media’s attention in a capacity never seen before – in my lifetime anyway.  However, I’d say Lithgow’s portrayal is a more nuanced stand-in for a universal archetype.  White has said the idea for John Lithgow’s part was inspired from the fallout regarding the Minnesota dentist and big game hunter who killed Cecil the Lion on African safari in 2015.  In fact, one key scene has Doug Strutt passing around his cell with a photo of his latest conquest, a Rhino.  The scene ends with Beatriz angrily hurling the phone across the room at the mogul.

The script has an ear for dialogue, but what sells the discourse is its nonjudgmental point of view.  Everyone is a character, but no one is a stereotype.  These people do indeed exist.  What makes the set-up such a delight is its off-kilter sense of humor.  The turn of events are not here to change your mind or sell one point of view. It’s to expose a situation that is ripe for humor. The exercise places us in Beatriz’ shoes so we’re ostensibly on her side. Yet the comedy is uncomfortable and sometimes it’s not clear whether it’s mocking the haves or the have-not. The recommendations of this natural healer are so clearly out of place amongst these people. Her home remedy of apple cider vinegar and dandelion root to cure some random ailment is met with bemused patronization. “Oh dandelion root, honey.  Your favorite!” Shannon coos.  It’s hard not to snicker along with her and then immediately hate ourselves for doing so.  The screenplay is remarkably shrewd in this way.

Salma Hayek is a beautiful actress, but as Beatriz, she is plain and mousy. She wears no makeup and sports unflattering bangs.  Given the unexpected circumstances of her being stranded, she’s underdressed for their little get-together too, wearing mom jeans and athletic shoes.  She walks tentatively but purposefully throughout the home.  Beatriz is an outsider.  At first, she glides from one room to another like a cat quietly eavesdropping along the fringes of the gathering. She hovers so much that early on Doug Strutt asks her to freshen his drink, mistaking her for the help. You instinctively want to chastise him because we know who she is, but then his mistake is kind of understandable given her behavior. Incidentally the help, Kathy’s chef, is a white male (John Early).  As the party continues and the conversation deepens our understanding of these people Beatriz’ eyes are opened. To her, Doug Strut is the personification of evil. He represents everything that is wrong in the world. You can see her wrestle with how she should proceed throughout the course of the evening. Should she confront the man or merely satisfy her curiosity with questions to try and understand him or perhaps she should take much more dire actions. The wine flows freely and additional glasses make her bolder as the evening progresses. As Margo Channing once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

We are a nation ideologically divided.  It is the intersection between conservative and liberal viewpoints that is presented here.  Mike White is a brilliant comedic writer by choosing to have this discourse under the auspices of an awkward dinner party. He has fashioned a sophisticated comedy of manners in which he mines humor out of tension and discomfort. There’s a caustic tone that recalls writer-director Todd Solondz, but White shows more compassion. It’s a fascinating watch for the majority of the drama. Unfortunately, the narrative is flawed.  The ending is a frustrating cop out that left me unfulfilled.  It’s simply not up to the standard of the rest of the film. However for about three-quarters of the picture I was captivated. Salma Hayek gives the performance of her career. She absolutely nails the role. Her performance is mesmerizing. Actually, the entire ensemble is compelling with every actor bringing a humanity to their parts.  They may not be admirable, but they do feel genuine.  Beatriz at Dinner implausibly brings them all together for one evening.  I was uncomfortably entertained.

06-22-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo cars_three_ver3_zpscemphvxy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgCars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17

It Comes at Night

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller on June 15, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo it_comes_at_night_ver2_zpsckbwstrl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCall it psychological horror.  Call it wilderness survival.  Call it a post-apocalyptic tale of the unknown.  It Comes at Night is a bit of all of these things.  The production is assembled from cinematic components with which we are familiar.  It’s easy to think we have the story pegged and our expectations fall into line as to what we’re going to get.  But this drama innovates as it entertains.  It’s not predictable and that’s part of what makes this cleverly crafted piece of intensity so effective.

At its most elemental, It Comes at Night is a cabin-in-the-woods chronicle of survival. Paul, his wife Sarah and their teenage son Travis are holed up in the safe confines of a shack in the forest.  Meanwhile, some outside epidemic has had a devastating effect on the world as we know it.  Society has crumbled and it’s every man for himself.  The movie begins with Sarah’s father who has contracted the disease.  He is terminally ill.  The family has been forced to brutally put an end to his life in order to contain the threat.  It’s an unsettling way to begin a story, but it immediately establishes how dire circumstances have become.  The contamination is serious business and this family isn’t afraid to make some very harsh decisions.  Things grow more complicated when they encounter a man that has broken into their home.  Will (Christopher Abbott ) says he is searching for food for his wife Kim (Riley Keough ) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults is a filmmaker that is still finding his voice but he has presented a unified vision in both of his two features.  2016 saw the release of his debut Krisha.  That drama was about a woman being re-introduced to her family at Thanksgiving dinner after having struggled with addiction.  The narrative was emotional, claustrophobic, and unrelentingly uncomfortable.  Interestingly all of those descriptions apply to It Comes at Night as well.  Both are intimate accounts of human behavior.  In his new work, Shults isn’t really concerned with what is outside the cabin.  It’s what’s inside that counts. The production is photographed to highlight the dark and foreboding hallways in their little shack.  Although we are constantly reminded of the outside risk.  A red door, the only escape in or out, becomes an ominous motif of some unseen peril that lies out there.  

Human behavior is the focus.  Shults is fascinated with people and their conversations. The screenplay, which the director also penned, ratchets up the tension to the point where things become oppressive.  He assembles the composition like a play of human interactions.  The screenplay succeeds because of the believable work of the ensemble cast.  Actor Joel Edgerton is the most famous name.  He has the biggest role as Paul and he’s just as commanding a presence as you’d expect.  However up and coming actor Christopher Abbott (James White) is particularly noteworthy.  As the intruder that disturbs the safety of their world, he’s mysterious and vague in just the right way.  Also of note are Carmen Ejogo as Paul’s wife Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their son Travis. They perfectly capture a palpable fear.  Our experience is heightened because we empathize with their unrelenting dread.

It Comes at Night is brilliantly constructed.  The mood is dire, barren, desolate.  As things get more intense, director Shults plays with perception, paranoia, and reality.  The saga is thrilling for his developing technique.  As in every movie, there’s a moment where the picture ultimately ends, the credits roll and the lights come up.  I sheepishly admit my immediate reaction was disappointment.  However, this is a film for discussion.  As I reflected on what I had seen, it gets clearer.  Director Trey Edward Shults has taken a visionary approach.  This is a thoughtful fable about humanity.  It’s about so much more than what is physically represented.

06-11-17

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy on June 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_underpants_zpslgih4pza.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgGeorge and Harold are two mischievous 4th graders that enjoy playing practical jokes because they cheer the students up at their miserable school.  They also write comic books in their spare time. Their latest superhero creation is Captain Underpants, a literary work that is ripped up by their ill-tempered principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms).  Despite the fact he doesn’t have proof, Mr. Krupp knows they are behind the practical jokes on the teachers at their elementary school. At the Invention Convention, the boys tamper with a fellow classmates’ entry called the Turbo Toilet so that it shoots toilet paper rolls at the audience. However this time, Mr. Krupp has video evidence of their shenanigans. He threatens to end the kids’ alliance by splitting them up into different classes. Before this can happen, the kids put him in a trance using a Hypno-Ring they got out of a cereal box. They make him act like a chicken, then a monkey, until finally…Captain Underpants. Hilarity ensues.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on an extremely successful 10-part series of children’s fiction by author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.  The saga revolves around George and Harold, two imaginative but disobedient fourth graders.  The youngsters defy authority and are prone to pranks. The massive popularity of the books, particularly with children ages 6–8 has garnered much attention since they were first published in 1997.

The boys’ playful disrespect for authority has garnered some controversy. The series surprisingly topped the list of the most banned books in America in 2012, beating out the much more controversial Fifty Shades of Grey. These novels were never part of my upbringing.  I was a wee bit older than 8 in 1997. I haven’t read any of them, but I can affirm there’s nothing in this kid-friendly movie that would offend even the most delicate sensibilities. Yes the main protagonist does wear tighty whities but let’s face it, if the sight of a cartoon wearing underpants is offensive to you, then you probably shouldn’t be watching films made after 1968 anyway.

The humor is rather innocent, but it certainly doesn’t reach sophisticated highs either. The potty jokes are mild but they’re constant. I suppose gags about poop and other bodily functions carry a certain charm – for budding minds anyway.  If you still think a planet with the name Uranus is hilarious, then calling it a “gas giant” should have you rolling with laughter.  That experience is what originally unites these two friends.  The taunts don’t get any more vulgar that “weirdo,” “stupid,” and “suck up”. Although some parents may bristle at one of the film’s subtle underlying messages.  The kids’ decision to tinker with a classmate’s science project is partially based on the fact that he enjoys learning and is excited about going to the science fair.  Since Melvin is socially awkward, he is apparently deserving of their ridicule.

The movie is colorful and should appeal to the young and young at heart. Where the production excels is in the bright and lively animation. When Professor P ( Nick Kroll) attacks the school, it’s presented as slapstick.  The action for the climatic big battle switches from the 3D computer graphics to the style of a flip-book. It’s such an amusing way to lighten the mood while lending interest to the scene. The voice actors are all well cast.  The two main 4th grade protagonists are especially good.  George is portrayed by well-known comedian Kevin Hart.  His best friend Harold is voiced by lesser known actor, Thomas Middleditch (TV series Silicon Valley).  The uplifting takeaway amongst all the poo poo and pee pee jokes is the unshakable bond of true friendship. George and Harold’s loyalty to one another is something to admire and emulate. Nonetheless, potty humor is still low comedy. Not objectionable in this case, just naive, simplistic and childish.  The film is a trifle. The main antagonist introduces himself as Professor P but the boys later discover the P stands for Poopypants. If that reveal causes you to burst out giggling, then I highly recommend this.  5 years olds will totally dig it. Some adults will too.  You know who you are.

06-07-17

The Mummy

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy on June 10, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo mummy_ver3_zpslrfy0i83.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgIt must have seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Disney has their Marvel Cinematic Universe. Warner Bros. has its ever-improving DC Comics world. Universal didn’t want to left behind. Why not reboot their own Mummy franchise as the first installment in a new film series dubbed the “Dark Universe”?  A pompous Russell Crowe even pops up here early on to deliver a lengthy prologue as Dr. Henry Jekyll.  He gives us a little backstory as to how his character will fit into this new world they’re creating.  Other classic Universal Studios monsters are expected to follow: the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man among others.  Some major stars are being promoted for future installments.  Johnny Depp has signed on to be the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem will be Frankenstein’s monster. The problem is to build a superior anthology of related films, it helps to start off with a bang. Sadly The Mummy is not great. It’s not even good.

Casting Tom Cruise as your lead is a positive way to begin. For the record, I do like Tom Cruise.  Please remember that as I carry on with my review.  As Nick Morton, he’s a former U.S. Military officer who accidentally uncovers the tomb of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).  He’s a roguish mercenary type that seeks to profit from the treasure he finds.  He does this with his trusty sidekick Chris (played by New Girl’s Jake Johnson) and aloof archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), a former lover that is young enough to be his daughter. Strangely Cruise has no chemistry with either of his co-stars.  The actor has never been one lacking in charm, until now.  He’s surprisingly stiff if you’ll pardon the pun.  Johnson and Wallis are meant to provide laughs and sexual tension respectively but there’s nary a trace to be extracted from either. Anyway back in ancient times, Princess Ahmanet was really ticked off that she didn’t get to become queen so she’s not a happy camper. Naturally when Nick and his gang disturb her tomb, she uses the opportunity to put a curse on our hapless hero. Yeah, things are looking kind of grim for the poor guy.

The Mummy allows Tom Cruise to do what he does well.  He partakes in some death-defying stunts, looks convincingly exasperated and runs…a lot.  Once again, a Tom Cruise thriller features a setpiece involving a plane.  He is subjected to zero gravity followed by a frightening crash.  He’s still in top physical shape too and he wants you to know it.  The man is in his 50s but he ages like the picture of Dorian Gray. He even manages to show off his naked physique. This logically occurs when he extricates himself from a body bag at the morgue.  They thought he died in a plane crash.  He didn’t.  As to why has to do with developments that are better left unspoiled.  The movie always makes sure to present Tom Cruise in the most flattering way possible.  His co-stars, on the other hand, aren’t quite so lucky. As the Mummy, Sofia Boutella is obscured with skin disfiguring tattoos all over her anatomy and best buddy Chris becomes like the walking dead with eyes to match.

The Mummy could have been silly fun but it gets bogged down in expository explanations of a superfluous narrative.  The ancient history of the female mummy takes up a lot of time.  And what is the plot exactly?  Peel back all the corroborative details and it’s not much of a saga at all.  Just the revenge of an ancient wanna-be Egyptian queen that unites a progression of attacks.  The effects are enjoyable.  I’ll give it that and Tom Cruise tries, really really hard.  I give him an A for effort, but there’s not much here to sink your Friday night popcorn flick teeth into.  It isn’t cheesy enough to be fun and it isn’t refined enough to be thrilling.  Just a sequence of CGI encounters that have been stitched together one after the other for our hexed hero (and us the audience) to experience.  In fact, I’ll save you some money right now. The Mummy is attack of the spiders, beetles, crows, rats, and zombies.  The End.  You’re welcome.

06-08-17

Wonder Woman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on June 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

wonder_woman_ver5STARS4The story of Wonder Woman is less about the dawn of another superhero and more about a sheltered individual living in a bubble who comes to understand what is happening in the outside world around her. Princess Diana (Gal Godot) was a child sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and given life by Zeus. As such, she does indeed possess special powers, superhuman strength to name but one.  Although her mother forbids it, Diana is trained to be a warrior by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright).

The production is set during the era of World War I and this conflict forms the basis of the narrative. What really impresses is how much the tale could exist without the value added depiction of an origin story.  It’s telling you’ll never hear the words “Wonder Woman” in the entire movie. The crime fighting uniform she ultimately adopts consists of battle armor and a tiara.  Like other recent DC comic adaptations, they look rather subdued from the traditional red, white and blue tights we’ve seen in previous iterations. Long time fans rest assured, they didn’t try to totally reinvent the character.  This is still the defender you know and love, just recontextualized for a 2017 audience.  She still gets her cuff bracelets and the Lasso of Truth.  Her invisible jet is sadly missing though.

Gal Gadot is such a joy as the titular heroine. She is sexy and beautiful of course, but also wholesome and virtuous as well. She’s a refreshingly stable personality. In that respect, she’s reminiscent of Marvel’s Captain America. That mental stability has been lacking in the DC Extended Universe as of late. It began with Man of Steel in 2013.  DC has completely bungled the new version of Superman. Where is the decent champion of truth we love from the 1978 feature?  This pessimism continued on through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, both in 2016.  Most agreed, Gadot’s presence was the best thing about the former film.  Where the characters in those pictures have been conflicted and plagued with self-doubt, Wonder Woman is distinctly well-adjusted.

Events are set in motion when she meets Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the Allied powers.  He crash lands his plane in the waters off of Themyscira, her island of Amazons. Wonder Woman was taught at a young age that Ares, the God of war corrupted mankind. She’s convinced that he is behind all this. Steve is skeptical of her beliefs but charmed by her presence.  Her adopted persona is Diana Prince when she leaves the island and the excursion becomes a learning experience. He explains what a watch is and she responds with “You let this tiny thing run your life?” Gadot’s chemistry with Chris Pine is so palpable it really enhances the drama. Of course, I expected Gal Gadot to be the major part of the production and she is. What I didn’t expect what how important Chris Pine would be. He really rises to the task. Their charisma together strikes the perfect balance. Their interactions run the gamut from romantic and sensuous to funny and lighthearted. The screenplay is by Allan Heinberg, co-creator of The Young Avengers, a superhero team published by Marvel Comics. Imagine, a comic book movie written by a comic book writer. What a concept!  Heinberg takes the time to develop well-rounded and likable people we truly care about.  It’s one of the most important requirements in an engaging story and Wonder Woman does it well.

The saga incorporates the terror of World War I but it’s still surprisingly upbeat and hopeful. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets so much right. This is a long movie though – 2 hours and 21 minutes to be exact. I think brevity and simplicity are qualities to celebrate in a superhero fable. For the majority of the adventure, the action is well photographed and exciting.  The initial battle, an early skirmish on the beach between the Amazons and German soldiers gets things off a rocking good start. It’s arrows and shields vs. guns and torpedoes. There are more clashes later on and they’re visually well depicted too.  However, the finish is kind of mediocre.  Things deteriorate a bit in the video-game aesthetic of the finale with murky action and CGI.  It’s not enough to sink the whole picture, mind you. The rest of the film is absolutely sensational.  Nevertheless, it is a misstep that’s impossible to ignore in an otherwise spectacular production.

Wonder Woman is smashing success.  Gal Gadot is an absolute delight.  She is an innocent, a babe in the woods.  She enjoys ice cream for the very first time and she tells the vendor, “You should be very proud!” You want to embrace this good-hearted soul. She is someone to cherish. It’s no secret that the comic book business is a male-dominated genre. The pressure to deliver the first female-led superhero box office smash was pretty intense. There are so many instances in which this could have gone wrong, but instead, there are so many ways in which this was done right.  Expectations were so cautious.  The mere fact that the character is such a breath of fresh air makes one give the success perhaps, even more credit than it truly deserves. There has never been a successful female-led superhero blockbuster. That is until now. DC has finally given us something Marvel hasn’t.  I’m ready to see it again.

06-01-17

Baywatch

Posted in Action, Comedy with tags on May 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo baywatch_ver14_zpsut0mbflb.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgI suppose when you go see a feature length film based on a cheesy 90s TV series, you get what you deserve.  Somehow I thought a winking comedy based on that type of material had potential. Baywatch was an hour-long action drama that relied heavily on lots of pretty people in bathing suits, running in slow motion. It was canceled after only 1 season on NBC but was brought back in 1991 to the first-run syndication where it went on to become hugely successful, particularly in the international market. Its charms were admittedly mostly visual but let’s acknowledge the fact that it ran for 11 seasons. That’s nothing to scoff at.

This re-imagining takes its cues from the school of manipulating something sincere and poking fun at it.  So if you’re looking for a reverent homage, keep swimming.  It’s like The Brady Bunch Movie in that respect. However, the adaptation assays the R-rated direction of the 21 Jump Street movie. I dare say Baywatch is even less sacred than either of those properties. The original source is ripe for a spoof.  The series took itself way too seriously, so the idea of transforming the show into a self-aware caricature actually appealed to me on some level.

Baywatch the movie lacks the integrity of the TV show. That’s really saying something. I’m not saying the series was artistically pure.   It was a frivolous action drama, but at least it had a sense of purpose.  The movie version is completely empty headed.  There are occasional laughs, but the screenplay relies far too heavily on f-bombs and penis jokes. That’s not a substitute for a good parody. Credit for the screenplay goes to Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, two scribes more known for horror projects [Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Friday the 13th (2009]. Baywatch is just one long meandering and haphazard trudge through witless humor. One extended sequence involves a poor schmuck (Jon Bass) who gets his manhood caught in a beach chair. Another involves Zac Efron’s character when he must examine a naked corpse. It’s even worse than you think. The skit makes the previous mangled crotch gag seem highbrow by comparison. I haven’t seen all of Efron’s films, but I’m still willing to bet it’s a career low for the young actor.

Despite the markedly different tone, this production still attempts to recreate the cast of the original series. Dwayne Johnson is Mitch Buchannon, the David Hasselhoff role. I suspect the writers just assumed Johnson’s affable charisma would somehow compensate for the script’s failings. He tries really hard. His second in command is Stephanie Holden (Ilfenesh Hadera) – Alexandra Paul in the TV show. There’s also CJ Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), a portrayal made famous by Pamela Anderson, but she is surprisingly relegated to a bit part. The film’s arch villainess is a diva in heels, resort owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra). She’s as bland as she is beautiful.

A subplot involves the upcoming tryouts held in order to hire 3 new lifeguards. First, we have nerdy Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass), a comic relief with no direct counterpart in the TV program, Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario ) a part originally portrayed by Nicole Eggert, and arrogant recruit Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced Olympic swimmer hired as a public relations move. David Charvet was his TV equivalent. Although Charvet was never the main focus of the show, Efron dominates the proceedings here. Johnson is clearly the star, but Efron is a close second. They have some funny moments but even their considerable chemistry together can’t salvage this soggy script.

Baywatch wants to make you laugh, but the script is detrimentally focused on other things. Instead of just lampooning the job of being a lifeguard, the story spends an inordinate amount of time on an insipid plot involving drug trafficking. You see the ongoing joke is that these beach attendants are more focused on the duties of a cop than as the protectors of the beach.  Investigating crime is a big part of this film.   It’s too serious when it should have been absurd.   Baywatch had promise. The comedy initially gets off to an inspired start when Mitch Buchannon rescues a man who has injured himself while parasailing. The scene is shot in slow motion and ends with dolphins jumping out of the water as if to celebrate Mitch’s heroic save.  I wish for more of that buoyant energy.   Instead we’re given a bloated corruption tale that is just too freaking long.  If ever there was a mindless comedy that demanded a brief 90 minute run time, this is it.   The screenplay has barely enough grins to be a 1-hour episode of the TV show. Unfortunately, it’s a 2-hour movie.

05-25-17

Alien: Covenant

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

 photo alien_covenant_ver4_zpskj0mddqh.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgCut 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

The Wall

Posted in Drama, Thriller, War with tags on May 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo wall_zps3dqmhke6.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgU.S. Army Sergeant Allen “Ize” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his spotter Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) are on a mission. They’re in Iraq to retaliate after U.S. contractors building a pipeline, are killed.  Matthews is shot by a sniper and when Ize attempts to rescue him, he too is injured by the unseen assailant. He seeks a safe area. The title refers to the long barrier of crumbling stones that Isaac quickly hides behind as he communicates with the adversary who is trying to take his life.

The Wall is a movie of words. The story by aspiring screenwriter Dwain Worrell actually made the Black List, a compilation of the most liked unproduced screenplays, in 2014. The Wall was ultimately purchased and produced by Amazon studios, their very first spec script. Worrell’s compact drama details a single conversation between the U.S.Issac and a heard but not seen Iraqi sniper (Laith Nakli). Director Doug Liman, known for action extravaganzas like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity, scales his action aesthetic way back for this lean-and-mean war tale. And the chronicle is indeed mean. The situation is tense and the futility of war is highlighted with deft precision. It is particularly significant that we learn at the start that the Iraq war is supposedly over. Yet for these combatants, that designation is meaningless.

The Wall has a lot going for it. It has a tightly concentrated script by Dwain Worrell. There is an engaging performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is essentially a one-man show and it has a brisk running time. The screenplay is particularly clever as the sniper draws information from his opponent. Ize is clearly at a disadvantage and actor Taylor-Johnson makes this soldier immediately affecting.  It’s easy for the audience to feel empathy for this character. I was reminded of Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 single location set Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. That also had a unique take on the Iraq war through a conversation. The Wall isn’t quite as claustrophobic as that picture, but it’s close. Their interaction plays out like a chess match as the unrelenting stress of the conditions escalates. The dusty bleak landscape only adds to the tension. The account ends in a manner over which I still have mixed emotions. It’s either smug or smart.  I’m on the fence…or more appropriately, “the wall”.  Either way, if brevity is the soul of wit, then this artfully focused drama is well worth your 80 minutes.

05-11-17