Archive for 2017

Wonder Woman

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

 photo wonder_woman_ver5_zpshsnw2ynx.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe 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

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

The Fate of the Furious

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime with tags on April 20, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo fate_of_the_furious_ver2_zpsldq9ohik.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Fate of the Furious begins with a street race in Havana.  It’s a nice traditional nod to the kind of quaintly illegal activities that started this franchise during much simpler times. Of course, the preposterous storylines and feats of skill are the real joy for which this series is known. It’s the bizarre action set pieces that have come to define these pictures. That mentality that has made each entry such a delight for some and something for others to eschew.  The latter of which attest to never having seen any of these films like it’s a badge of honor.  I, conversely, have seen all eight and I freely admit this without shame.

Yet how do you assess a movie where the sillier and more unbelievable the stunts, the better? Let’s start with the cast. The ensemble for each has always been a revolving door. Even characters that you thought had been written out of the series for good without the possibility of a return, have been known to pop back into the continuity. Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kurt Russell are back. Newcomers Scott Eastwood, Helen Mirren, and Charlize Theron are fresh additions. This is the first chapter since Tokyo Drift not to include Paul Walker due to his untimely passing. His presence is missed. Jordana Brewster who played his wife does not return either.

This elite crew operates outside the law for the greater good. These criminals are bound together by a sense of loyalty. This extended clan are more than just friends, they’re family. In particular, Dom, Vin Diesel’s character, reminds us of this over and over again. That camaraderie has held this macho action soap opera together. This screenplay actually plays with that narrative a bit by having one of their own betray the others by working with the baddies. Who and why would be spoilers. That big twist should be revealed by watching this production. I will only offer though that it’s a risky move that isn’t entirely successful. The whole gang united together against the fight of evil has always been a key component of the drama. By tinkering with the formula the story removes a dependable quality that is missing from the story.

F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) takes over the directing duties from James Wan (The Conjuring). Interesting footnote: The Fate of the Furious reunites Gray with actors Charlize Theron and Jason Statham from The Italian Job, which came out back in 2003. The last movie, Furious 7, was extremely successful. Usually, it’s important to evaluate a film on its own merits without comparing it to other pictures. However, in the case of a franchise, I think it’s more than acceptable, it’s required. We are now eight chapters deep into this chronicle. Fast Five is where everything really came together, serving up a captivating recipe that mixes the genial friendship of a charismatic cast with outlandish stunts that wow audiences. That’s where the franchise really came into its own under Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond). He is the only filmmaker so far to direct more than one episode (parts 3-6). We should acknowledge how each new adventure measures up with the others. I think The Fate of the Furious transcends parts 2-4 but is less effective than the last 3 (episodes 5-7).

The first low-budget feature about street racing has gradually morphed over time into a big budget action extravaganza where driving cars is more of a detour. I’ve grown to enjoy this series as a whole. Still, I’ll admit that after eight entries, these sagas do start to blend together. It’s the stunts that I remember. This installment throws in a few doozies. Charlize Theron is a surprisingly generic villain, although the mayhem she causes is anything but. As cyberterrorist Cipher, she does a bit of hacking that causes a fleet of cars to high-dive off parking structures and essentially attacks a motorcade driving through the city. This implausible sequence in New York is my favorite moment simply because it’s just so ridiculous. Hobbs & Deckard’s prison break/fight sequence is memorable as well. Ditto the final race across an icy terrain from a nuclear submarine popping out of the frozen waters. Helen Mirren, Jason Statham and especially a baby are the most welcome personalities. Oh and there’s a nice nod to Paul Walker’s character at the end. All in all, it’s a rousing good time.

04-13-17

Your Name

Posted in Animation, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo Your_Name_zpsscwpbv9e.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgTake a body switching fantasy, add a young adult romance, mix in a sci-fi time travel twist and throw in a natural disaster for good measure. Your Name is like a cross between Freaky Friday and Deep Impact. To be fair, that is overly simplifying things. Your Name is nothing if not ambitious. Ever since legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki announced his (temporary) retirement after The Wind Rises, thoughts over which filmmaker(s) would become his successor have inspired much speculation. Director Makoto Shinkai is definitely a possibility. Already a massive hit in its native Japan, Your Name is the first anime not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to earn more than $100 million at the Japanese box office. The film has now been released in the U.S. to critical acclaim.

Taki is a high school boy who lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a teenaged country girl living in Itomori, a rural Japanese village. Their lives become intertwined one day after they inexplicably swap bodies when they awake one morning. At first, it isn’t clear what’s exactly happening. We do know that Mitsuha isn’t happy with her homemaking duties. “Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” she calls out at an early point. An approaching comet might have something to do with it too. At first, it appears they’re just dreaming. That’s how our lead characters assess what has occurred. But their friends’ reactions let them soon realize this has indeed physically transpired. The body exchange phenomenon continues to take place at random intervals for brief periods. They start leaving notes for the other so that when they change back they can ease the transition and not disrupt the other’s life. Taki allows Mitsuha to become more popular with her classmates. Conversely Taki’s new personality catches the eye of Ms. Okudera, his female boss. The idea that Okudera is more attracted to the transposed Mitsuha is a subversive contemplation that is brought up but never resolved. Ditto Taki’s male pal who thought he was cute the other day.

Anime or Japanese animation is an acquired taste. One has to be conditioned to understand its rhythms and idiosyncrasies The accounts are often so fanciful or overly convoluted as to render them almost incomprehensible to viewers expecting an accessible plot. Those not already accustomed to the offbeat style of anime may find this perpetually morphing narrative a bit puzzling.  I mean I was down for the “traditional” body switching story but when it was further shuffled with time-shifting events that led to a transmigration of souls across the astral plane, I was less engaged. Let’s not forget there’s also an impending comet that promises a monumental act of God. Whew!

I find if you tinker with a narrative too much, you lose the audience’s commitment to the drama. Your Name is more comprehensible than some anime, but it’s still pretty packed with plot machinations. At one point you realize our protagonists are not even existing in the same time frame anymore. Taki drinks something called kuchikamizake, which is essentially fermented rice that Mitsuha chewed up and spit into a jug years ago.  This somehow allows Taki to have some control over his ability to swap bodies with Mitsuha in another dimension. One leap of faith and I’m still invested. Three or four and I’m reduced to a shrug.  I lose interest. I appreciate the desire to creatively tell a story, but there’s beauty in a straightforward tale of boy meets girl.  Simply put: less is more. The visuals are crisp. When the comet finally arrives it’s beautifully revealed. Your Name’s mainstream teen saga of young love is further emphasized with a modern sensibility. An emo pop soundtrack by Japanese rock band RADWIMPS underlines the production. For Western audiences, think of the pop/punk melding of Fall Out Boy. The cheesily upbeat tunes nicely complement the teenybopper romance. It’s a bit cloying, but I was rooting for these two to finally meet. Your Name is highly watchable. I was entertained, but regrettably I wasn’t moved.

I saw it in the original Japanese with English subtitles. There is also an English dub.

04-09-17

My Life as a Zucchini

Posted in Animation, Comedy with tags on March 22, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo ma_vie_de_courgette_ver2_zpso33svp5z.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgQuirky, dark and charming. These are the three words that immediately spring to mind when I think of My Life as a Zucchini (also titled My Life as a Courgette). Icare (Erick Abbate), or Zucchini as he likes to be called, is a 9-year old boy who lives with his single mother. An only child, he’s a lonely lad seemingly without any playmates. His mother spends her days watching TV and drinking beer, as evinced by all the aluminum cans lying around the house. He passes time playing up in the attic and flying his kite adorned with a drawing of his father as a superhero. The dad is MIA by the way – whereabouts unknown. One day, little Zucchini is playing up in his room while his inebriated mom is downstairs. He has collected her discarded beer cans and is stacking them to build a tower. Most kids would use blocks but you use what’s available right? One thing leads to another and suddenly Zucchini is facing the unexpected death of his mother. I told you it was dark.

The animation is a painstakingly rendered stop-motion charmer. The plasticine people have big heads and large eyes like a Margaret Keane painting. Their faces are not as expressive as the cartoons with which we are familiar, but that almost gives these characters a sense of mystery underneath their pleasant facades.  My Life as a Zucchini is French-Swiss director Claude Barras’  first full-length feature. It’s an adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette.  Barras receives an able assist from a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood).   The intelligent writing details how resilient children truly are.  Despite the medium, this material isn’t meant for young children, hence the PG-13. Although most pre-adolescents age 10 and up should be fine, the subject matter might disturb kids of Zucchini’s age or younger.

Zucchini is taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman named Raymond (Nick Offerman). There he meets 5 others like him without parents already living there.  They’re a ragtag group. Amazingly the screenplay takes the time to develop a nuanced personality for each waif. Red haired Simon (Romy Beckman) is “the boss”. Alluring Kafka-reading Camille (Ness Krell), who arrives later, turns his head.  This enchanting stop-motion cartoon was originally presented in French, but the English language dub features actors Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. I found their work engaging.  For the most part, Zucchini’s encounters are positive experiences.  It’s refreshing that a state-run institution is actually presented as a place of kindness rather than terror. The boys have a hilarious conversation about the birds and the bees and it captures the spotty understanding that a group of 10-year-olds would have. We love these kids

My Life as a Zucchini flies by in a scant 70 minutes but mines more depth of emotion than a drama twice its length. The nature of the production allows the disturbing script to deal with sensitive problems that might be off-putting in a live action movie. As performed with stop motion puppets the weighty issues take on a poignant charm.  Sometimes children find themselves without a mom or a dad. The circumstances are many: some have passed on, others arrested, deported, or maybe they have just simply abandoned them.  It’s a heartwarming tale that doesn’t sugarcoat the toughest thing a youngster may ever have to face. Yet somehow kids manage to weather the tribulations that life throws at them.  The narrative delves into the need for a child, and anyone really, to feel loved. My Life As A Zucchini received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film well before it was even available in theaters. Now it has been officially released and it’s still pretty hard to find. I suspect most people will have to discover this lovingly crafted gem once it’s available to rent. And please do seek it out. It’s an unconventional delight.

03-19-17

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on March 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo beauty_and_the_beast_ver3_zpstl3cqj0c.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDisney’s current trend of turning its animated classics into live-action movies has been a pretty lucrative business. Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book have all done big business. The recipe is simple. Take an existing fictional work that is beloved by millions and reproduce with real people. This satisfies a thirst for nostalgia which ensures there will already be a built-in audience ready to watch. The formula works so well it seems almost too easy. It’s not difficult to dismiss the practice as a quick cash grab. Yet, anyone who has ever looked upon any of these films can distinguish that these aren’t slapdash efforts. These meticulously created works, while lacking an original story, still present something magical at the cinema.

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is a noble addition to the Disney treasury. We all know the “tale as old as time”. It’s the chronicle of Belle played by a no-nonsense Emma Watson. Belle is a smart, independent young woman at odds with the bourgeois habits of her provincial townsfolk. Luke Evans is Gaston, an arrogant suitor. LeFou (Josh Gad) is his bumbling sidekick. However, Belle has no use for Gaston or anyone else in the town for that matter. Personally, I’ve always found her opening song decrying the unsophisticated townsfolk as insufferably elitist, but hey that’s just me. Nevertheless, she gains our sympathy when she is taken prisoner by a beast in his fortress. Dan Stevens portrays the part in a motion capture performance, rather than relying on prosthetics. Her initial fears dissipate as she is befriended by the enchanted denizens of the castle staff. Slowly she grows to see beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and see the true heart of the man within.

This isn’t director Bill Condon’s foray into the movie musical. His production of Dreamgirls in 2006 was a lavish adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. His reworking here evokes the traditional theater pieces of a bygone era. It’s lavish, grand and cheerfully old fashioned. That the achievement seems rooted in the musical tradition of a bygone era is a colossal feat of misdirection given all the modern CGI employed here. It’s seamlessly utilized to bring the inanimate objects of the castle to life: the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the mantel clock (Ian McKellen), the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), , the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and last but certainly not least, the teapot (Emma Thompson) and teacup (Nathan Mack). It’s not easy to embody characters we already know and love, but the actors, mostly only heard, lend their voices with sincerity and warmth.

Emma Watson makes a self-assured Belle. The actress is recognizable to audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and that familiarity, along with her personality, fulfills this role. Dan Stevens is a suitably charismatic beast. Together they have chemistry. Their discussion in the library over the merits of Shakespeare is the proof we need that these characters have souls. She falls in love with his goodness, but he is also her intellectual equal. It’s not merely his appearance that makes him different. It’s his mind as well. Also amongst the humans is Gaston, a fittingly cast Luke Evans as Belle’s narcissistic wannabe suitor and his fawning pal LeFou, in a bit of comic relief by Josh Gad.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) gently tweak the story to give added depth to the fable with which we are already acquainted. Don’t worry. This isn’t meant to replace your fond memories of the animated 1991 classic. It’s simply there to offer something more. And more is what you’ll get. More songs! Three new numbers are added by Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. More script! It’s 45 minutes longer than the cartoon. More costumes! More flair! More! More! More!   The songs are supported by the spectacle.  The famous number “Be Our Guest” is a veritable Busby Berkeley extravaganza inside the magnificent home. My mouth stood agape as the dazzling routine unfolded before my eyes in a specular vision of color and music.

Beauty and the Beast is a production designer’s dream. The sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, and costumes are beyond compare. In particular, there’s a physicality to these locales that make you believe that these places do indeed exist. The town is a quaint fairy tale community and the majestic castle has an impressive gothic air. The overall look is so fully realized, you’ll forgive that the plot holds no surprises. Yes for all its charm, this merely remains a beautifully realized imitation of its predecessor. The accomplishment is undeniably gorgeous but not visionary. If the very idea of a live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast offends you, then this picture will not change your perceptions. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the idea, then the movie will be a delight. I’m pleased to say I was thoroughly entertained.

03-16-17

Kong: Skull Island

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on March 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo kong_skull_island_ver2_zpsvvhmmcyl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s hard to believe, but there have actually been 7 movies in which King Kong has appeared before Skull Island. The original (and best) is the 1933 classic starring Fay Wray. That masterpiece was famously remade in 1976 introducing Jessica Lange in her debut and then redone again by Peter Jackson in 2005. It’s been only 12 years since that director’s critically acclaimed, box office success, so why exactly is another version necessary?

Kong: Skull Island isn’t technically a remake per se, but rather an “original” story meant to serve as the second entry in a series not unlike Marvel’s cinematic universe. Here in this so-called MonsterVerse, the combatants will feature Godzilla and Kong. Although this new shared universe is a fresh franchise, the idea of pitting Godzilla against King Kong is not unique. It dates back to the 1962 Japanese feature King Kong vs. Godzilla from Tokyo-based distribution company Toho. Provided these contemporary films continue to be successful, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah, the three-headed monster, will show up in future pictures as well.  Stay for a post-credits scene, by the way.

Kong: Skull Island flaunts an accomplished cast of actors with at least 10 speaking parts. John Goodman plays a senior official in charge of a group of scientists (Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins) funded by the U.S. Government. They’re escorted by Samuel L. Jackson as a U.S. Colonel and his right-hand man, an Army major portrayed by Toby Kebbell.  Jackson heads up an Army helicopter squadron of soldiers (Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero) from the Vietnam War. There’s also a British hunter-tracker played by a ripped Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson as a luminous looking photojournalist. I guess you could say the last two actors are the two central human stars but they don’t really register as such.

It’s a sizable cast. While all are adequate, hardly any of these underdeveloped characters have the charisma to enthrall us. Sure we’re given some superficial details about these people that are meant to captivate our interest, but we honestly don’t know them. It’s a shame to see such a notable assemblage of talent so underutilized. It harks back to the days of the casts in those 70s disaster flicks where spectacle was the star, not people. I suppose that’s not surprising given the title of this movie. The CGI creature is the presumed headliner. The fact that John C. Reilly stands out, however, is proof that he can outact almost anyone.

Kong: Skull Island pushes the old adage that bigger is better and this is the biggest Kong yet in terms of size. This upright walking gorilla is a 100-foot tall digital creation by Industrial Light & Magic. His colossal size will make the inevitable showdown with Godzilla more of an even match. Technically speaking, this is the most impressive version of the creature yet. That’s surely saying something too because Peter Jackson’s movie won an Oscar in that category. The special effects are state of the art. Besides Kong, there’s his natural enemies, the Skullcrawlers, which look like massive two-legged lizards. There’s also a giant spider, a colossal red squid, and an enormous water buffalo. Of course, if you’re familiar with this story, we all know who the real monster is, right?

The foundation looks incredible. The island is its own living breathing ecosystem. It’s a spectacular display and the scope of the creatures gives us a sense of awe. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts certainly delivers the goods. We don’t even have to wait long for the main attraction. Kong appears within the first 30 minutes. Nevertheless, character machinations are ridiculous. The dialogue is silly. This is strictly a B-movie with a much heftier budget. Screenwriters Max Borenstein and John Gatins toy with the events to give us a slightly different take. For one thing, we never leave that darn island. On the one hand, I guess it’s admirable they’re not merely giving us an identical account as previous incarnations of Kong but is what they offer really an improvement? The best part in every iteration of this fable – be it 1933, 1976 or 2005 – has always been the moment where our hairy hero is let loose in the city to contend with a world he doesn’t understand. I miss that part.

Kong: Skull Island is a mindless popcorn flick but it’s still pretty entertaining. This is a lot less ambitious than previous interpretations. Kong’s noble savagery is still apparent, but the main thrust of this action is little more than monsters run amok. The original fantasy had a self-contained plot with a poignant message. This entry exists as an intro to a beast that will go on to star in more installments. That modifies the narrative in a pretty significant way. In more cosmetic changes, the production is envisioned as a period piece as it moves the time frame back to 1973. 70s rock music blares on the soundtrack as helicopters loom in search of a mysterious figure in the jungle. Allusions to a certain Francis Ford Coppola directed war film are deliberate. Yet, I’m still not sure whether it’s intended to be so intellectually shallow. I suppose there’s joy in the simplicity of just the spectacle. Let’s put it this way, the less you think about it, the better it gets.

03-09-17

Get Out

Posted in Horror, Mystery with tags on March 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo get_out_ver2_zpsfkozcn69.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA young black man has anxiety about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Get Out, with its race-baiting premise, would seem a bit outdated in 2017. Interracial dating is nothing new.  Rest assured director Jordan Peele knows this. Rose (Allison Williams) can’t wait to introduce Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to her parents. They arrive at the Armitage estate. Rose’s mom (Catherine Keener) and dad (Bradley Whitford) are quite genial, excessively so in fact.  Yet something is amiss. There’s the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), their maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a guest at their party named Logan (LaKeith Stanfield). All African American and all exhibit an odd demeanor. What initially felt like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner now seems closer to The Stepford Wives.

Jordan Peele merely raises the issue of race but doesn’t delve too deeply. It’s left to the moviegoer as to what they will take away from this story. A less introspective viewer may simply see “white people are evil” but look deeper and there’s an ample minefield of racial tension to explore. The director begins with the surface level awkwardness felt between a black man in a sea of affluent white people. It’s not just about Chris’ racial unease. It’s about how the townspeople try to empathize with Chris in that situation. They want to be seen as altruistic people. Those feelings manifest into socially inept behavior. They attempt to atone for his experience with overly polite, almost pandering conversation.

The screenplay capitalizes on this notion with artlessly misguided remarks at first. At the outset, Rose insists her liberal parents are really cool. She tries to ally Chris’ fears with “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” Later there’s a party scene where Chris must navigate a maze of warm pleasantries, tinged with passively racist undertones. One guest enthusiastically extols the athletic achievements of Olympian Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. Another who plays golf goes out of his way to tell Chris that he’s a big fan of Tiger Woods. The overcompensating comments come across like white guilt. That’s funny but then the narrative exploits this nervousness into the fear felt by an outsider. The entire audience ultimately feels it too.

Get Out strikes a nice balance between terror and comedy. There’s a satirical edge to the proceedings that elevates this horror flick into something rather intelligent. Most of the scares are psychological. Hypnosis is introduced as a frightening state of consciousness. That the clicking of a teacup could be a weapon more powerful than a loaded gun is a concept that is both amusing and disconcerting at the very same time. A trigger with the ability to render a person powerless. Ok, there is some blood in the third act, but there’s very little viscera. The R rating is mainly for language. As Get Out unfolds to its inevitable conclusion we the audience understand this environment from Chris’ perspective, The final twist is the perfect cap to a tale that has toyed with race for the entire duration. By the end, the script confronts the issue in a way that is both subversive and unique.

02-23-17

2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 2)

Posted in Awards, Shorts with tags on February 22, 2017 by Mark Hobin

For the past decade, ShortsHD has made all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.

Live Action

The live-action compilation was released to theaters on February 10th, giving the public the opportunity to see the nominated entries before the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 26th.

In addition to the theatrical release, the nominated live-action and animated shorts will also be accessible online ( iTunes, Amazon Instant Video) and on VOD/Pay-per-view Platforms (AT&T, Comcast, DIRECTV, etc) starting February 21st.

Recently the award for the live-action segment has gone to the more upbeat title in a sea of misery.  The lighthearted touch of last year’s winner Stutterer stood out from the pack. It’s virtually impossible to predict which of these will win this year, but I’ve listed them in order of my own personal preference from best to worst.

Interestingly, unlike in the other short categories (docs and animation), there’s nary a US or UK production in the bunch.

 

Timecode
SPAIN/15MINS/2016
Director: Juanjo Giménez Peñ
 photo Timecode_zpsg6w8x9eb.jpg
Luna and Diego are car-park security guards, working class stiffs stuck in a dull job. A subtle animosity between boss and employee is felt but never explicitly stated. However, the human spirit has a way of making the best of a dreary situation and these two enliven their jobs in the most curious of ways. Not going to explain what happens because it’s these unexpected developments that make this tale so enchanting. A real charmer.

 

Sing (Hungarian: Mindenki)
HUNGARY/25MINS/2016
Director: Kristof Deák
 photo Sing2_zpsq6a8tohv.jpg
Sweet drama about Zsofi, a new girl trying to fit in at school. She’s ecstatic to become a member of the school’s famous choir. Excitement turns to disillusionment, however, when she discovers the inspirational choir director isn’t quite as wonderful as she thought. Crowd-pleasing tale builds to an inspiring conclusion.

 

La Femme et le TGV (English: The Railroad Lady)
SWITZERLAND/30MINS/2016
Director: Timo von Gunten
 photo TGV_zpsmyqxcigf.jpg
Elise Lafontaine waves at the express train that passes her house every day. One day, she discovers a letter that has been thrown from the high-speed rail service in her garden. She starts a promising correspondence with him as she imagines a budding romance with the conductor.

Whimsical fluff offers a restrained performance by English actress (and 70s muse) Jane Birkin. Her aging bakery owner doesn’t quite seem “all there” but nevertheless this optimistic tale has its moments.

 

Ennemis intérieurs (English: Enemies Within)
FRANCE/28MINS/2016
Director: Sélim Aazzazi
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The conversation takes place almost entirely inside the claustrophobic room of an immigration office. This two-hander is a nice showcase for actors Hassam Ghancy as the Algerian wishing to become a French citizen and Najib Oudghiri as a focused interrogator. Heavy handed story concerning immigration certainly has its finger on the current political conversion.

 

Silent Nights
DENMARK/30MINS/2016
Director: Aske Bang
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The chronicle starts out as a simple love story between different cultures. Then manages to pile on immigration, racism, poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, romance, adultery and a pregnancy in a scant 30 minutes. This plot has so many ridiculous twists at the end, it’s impossible to care. Initially appealing main characters become unsympathetic. Shame after a promising start.