Archive for 2019

The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted in Drama with tags on June 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

last_black_man_in_san_francisco_ver2STARS4The way a booming tech industry can negatively affect the changing Bay Area landscape fuels the art of some really great films.  Just a year after 2018 gave us both Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You,  we have The Last Black Man in San Francisco – another story that mines the subject of gentrification in “The City by the Bay”.  To call it a story is a bit imprecise, however.  This is not a plot-heavy drama but merely an elegiac reflection with a wistful nod towards creating a mood.  It washes over you like an emotional embrace with a love for a city that is slowly morphing into a much different community.  Dorothy once proclaimed “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  This movie most assuredly asserts that expression.

This is the feature-length debut from filmmaker Joe Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who directs his longtime friend in the lead role.  Jimmy Fails is an S.F. native who plays a fictionalized version of himself.  Fails and writer Rob Richert collaborated on the script with Talbot.  This is a fully realized work from a director and star who have deeply experienced this lamentation.  The tech industry has been both a boon and bane to a population.  At the very least, it has created a vast income disparity.  In turn, this has propelled S.F. to be the most absurdly expensive real estate in the entire U.S.  Only the richest 1% can afford.  Fact: according to the Cost of Living Index, The median home price is $1.6 million in S.F. and the average rent for an apartment is $3,821 a month.  That has had an effect on businesses too.  Places like La Victoria, a historic Mexican bakery in the Mission, had to shut down after 70 years in business in 2018.  In Joe Talbot’s words, this is rapidly altering the very fabric of a city which is pushing out “some of the people who made San Francisco so great.”

At the center of the account is a tender relationship between Jimmie and his idiosyncratic best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors).  They ride skateboards and wear thrift store duds.  Their rapport is not unlike the bond between two much younger boys.  They’re uncommonly close.  Jimmie currently lives with his buddy in the tiny house of Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the city’s Bayview neighborhood.  It’s here on the streets that Jimmie and Montgomery are taunted for their close bond by tough outspoken locals credited as the “Greek Chorus”.  These two close friends struggle in the outskirts of the city in which they can no longer afford to live.  The vulnerable pair are united by a quest to find their place in an area that seems to have left them behind.

Jimmie still obsesses over the elegant Victorian home his grandfather built in the now-gentrified Fillmore District – a section once nicknamed “Harlem of the West.”  His unending drive to reclaim his childhood abode drives this narrative.  The ornate edifice with its stained-glass windows, wood-paneling, and witch’s hat turret—is a character in itself.  The estate’s current value has made his birthplace financially out of his reach.  Various vignettes clarify his mindset on a San Francisco odyssey.  Tichina Arnold pops up as Jimmie’s aunt and Rob Morgan appears as his father, Jimmie Fails Sr.  One poignant moment occurs on a public transit bus where he casually bumps into his own mother, whom he hasn’t seen in some time.  She’s played by Jimmie’s actual mother in real life.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco doesn’t overtly promote an agenda.  It’s far more subtle than that.  This is a deeply felt contemplation that appeals on a purely sentimental level.  The film’s lack of a narrative thrust may irk some.  Indeed at times, I wished for a little more momentum.  This feels like a funeral that honors the past with a profound love that pines for a bygone era.  Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra presents a languid tribute to a forgotten age.  The images beautifully underscored by a majestic score by composer Emile Mosseri making his feature debut.

This quirky city once comprised a cultural diversity that included bohemians, musicians, artists, and other counterculture dreamers.  In recent years the metropolis has morphed into a playground for hipster transplants with six-figure salaries.  Yes, I acknowledge I’m simplifying a community that still remains remarkably diverse.  However, a key scene has our protagonist, Jimmie on a Muni bus when he overhears two young women dissing the place that he treasures – “I’ve been saying for months, let’s just move to East L.A.,” one woman says to the other. “This city is dead.”  In a moment of clarity Jimmie directly addresses her point blank: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco.  You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”.  The declaration spews from lips with a passion that got me choked up.  Perhaps because I call the Bay Area my home, this rumination really struck a chord with me.  It clearly comes from an emotional place, so I hope anyone can appreciate the depth of the meditation.  This is a movie that comes from the heart.

06-14-19

Men in Black: International

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on June 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

men_in_black_internationalSTARS3Anyone  22 years or younger seeing Men in Black: International this weekend wasn’t even alive when the first film came out.  I feel old. July 2, 1997, seems like such a long time ago.  I thought this series was over by the third entry.  Now 7 years later, we have a belated fourth episode which is being marketed as more of a spin-off.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are long gone although Emma Thompson who was in Men in Black 3 is back as Agent O, the head of MIB’s US branch.  Head of MIB’s UK branch is Liam Neeson as High T.  Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (no relation to Emma) star as Agents H and M respectively.  Coincidence or did the Swedish clothing-retail company pay for that mention?   No matter – back to the actors.  The two famously appeared together in Thor: Ragnarok.  I dare say the charm they had together then is even more apparent here.

The story concerns Molly who witnessed an alien abduction when she was a little girl. Her parents’ minds were erased by the MIB but they neglected to neuralyze her.  She still carries those memories.  She longs to be one of the “Men in Black”.  Yes, the screenplay acknowledges that not all operatives are male.  She sneaks into the headquarters and convinces Agent O to hire her on as sort of a probationary test.  It makes no sense why this would happen so easily but it’s so ridiculous that I kind of appreciated the careless happenstance of it all.  Soon she meets Agent H.  He’s cocky.  She’s bookish.  Writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway have created stock characters.  We’ve seen this personality dynamic many times before.  The difference is that Chris and Tessa genuinely appear to be friends in real life.  The appeal of the stars is why Men in Black: International entertains.  They generate the kind of palpable chemistry that two attractive Hollywood stars are able to parlay into elevating a flimsy script.   In essence, the fate of the world is at stake.  Despite this, their objectives never seem insurmountable.  Things come quite easily for these two, particularly Agent M who assimilates into the MIB organization with barely any difficulty at all.

You can always count on the special effects to captivate in these films.  They are selectively utilized to create intergalactic creatures.  The designs are impressive.  Which leads me to another reason why this ultimately charmed me: Kumail Nanjiani. We never actually even see the actor/comedian.  Rather, we hear him as an alien that assists Agents H and M.  He’s the size of a chess pawn and he’s assigned to protect his diminutive queen so Agent M starts calling him Pawny.  This miniature green humanoid creature reminded me of The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones.  His humor mostly consists of offering a sardonic comment on the events happening around them.  He can say banal things at times.  He spouts hackneyed catchphrases like “That’s what I’m talking about!”  Yet Nanjiani’s irritated delivery absolutely sells this tiny creature.  Additionally, the animated expressions on his tiny face are consistently hilarious.

Apparently, this movie wasn’t hilarious to the majority of critics who have saddled this movie with some of the harshest reviews of 2019.  It currently has a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Me thinks people are comparing this to the style of the earlier films.  This has a different atmosphere.  There’s an emphasis on elegant sophistication, not zany antics.  Men in Black: International lacks Will Smith’s manic energy but that’s OK.  Although Pawny is a notable exception.  Director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) continues to demonstrate his ability to helm a large-scale production.  The plot is pretty standard stuff.  However, this amiable production coasts on the smooth easygoing chemistry of its two leads.  Their relationship has an amusing push-pull trade-off.  It’s pleasing to watch actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson interact.  Sometimes charismatic actors reciting humorous back and forth banter is enough.  I was entertained.

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 Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on June 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

secret_life_of_pets_twoSTARS2From a narrative standpoint, The Secret Life of Pets 2 has no reason to exist.  From a business angle, it would be to make money.  Given my sparsely attended theater on opening night, it’s a mere shadow of its predecessor in that department as well.  The first movie wasn’t great art but it had a zany quality that ultimately endeared itself to the audience.  There was a lot of animal personalities crammed into the plot but none stood out more than Kevin Hart as a white bunny named Snowball.  He’s back again but no longer a villain. The attitude that made his character a surprise in the original is gone.

The rest of the cast is back with one major exception.  Max, a Jack Russell Terrier, is now voiced by Patton Oswalt in this go-around taking over for Louis CK who was not rehired due to accusations of sexual harassment.  Oswalt voiced Remy the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille so he’s no stranger to voice acting.  Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is back as the large, brown, shaggy Newfoundland mix who lives with Max.  If I had to award an MVP in the cast it would be to Lake Bell who returns as Chloe, a blue tabby cat.  Her sarcastic indifference perfectly matched my mood while watching this.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is even more chaotic, more freeform and less focused than its forebear.  30 minutes into the film and I still couldn’t discern a plot.  If you’re looking for a sampling of gags stuffed into an admittedly brief 86 minute saga (that includes the credits) then I suppose it fitfully entertains.  There are three storylines going on simultaneously.  The screenplay keeps them coherently discernible from one another like a banana, a mango and a peach in a fruit smoothie after they’ve been liquified in a blender.  The difference?  This experience isn’t tasty.

Max and Duke’s human owner Katie has married and now has a child.  The family all take a trip to visit a farm as a way to relax.  There Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford), an alpha farm dog who watches Fox News and stans for Donald Trump.  I’m kidding but watch the movie and then tell me I’m wrong.  Meanwhile, Pomeranian Gidget ( Jenny Slate) accidentally loses Max’s favorite chew toy (a busy bee) to a bunch of cats in the apartment below hers.  She needs to get it back.  Finally, Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih Tzu, must rescue a white tiger from a Russian circus run by a heavily accented stereotype named Sergei (Nick Kroll).   In these highly sensitive times, making fun of Eastern Europeans and the way they talk is apparently still OK.

Thankfully, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is short but it still feels long because it’s so meandering.  The story is essentially three cartoon shorts along with various subplots and vignettes cobbled together to make a theatrical feature.  None of them are particularly captivating.  It’s fleeting and ephemeral.  I can barely remember what I watched and I just saw it.  Perhaps this would be more comprehensible edited down and promoted as 3 half-hour TV episodes.  The screenplay doesn’t bother to expand on our understanding of these characters.  Nor does it offer anything in the way of wit.   If toilet humor is your thing, there are poop jokes and fart jokes.  The ending credits presents an America’s Funniest Home Videos-style montage of kids with their pets.  It made me laugh more than anything in the film.  At best this works as an 86-minute babysitter for your kids and at worst it’s an unpleasant time waster.

06-06-19

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy with tags on June 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

godzilla_king_of_the_monsters_ver9STARS2Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the third episode in Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, a cinematic series co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros.  I’m not sure how many audience members are savvy to the fact that this is actually part three.  It really doesn’t make any difference to understanding the plot anyway.  There is none.  At least not one that requires background information.  Monsters attack.  That’s all you need to know.  This is technically a direct sequel to Godzilla (2014) but it immediately follows Kong: Skull Island (2017).  I was a fan of both entries so I walked into it with great anticipation.  I walked out having experienced one of the biggest disappointments of 2019.

I realize looking for intellectual sense is futile.  Godzilla flicks aren’t known for their conversation, and as expected, the screenplay by director Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields is completely idiotic.  Why these Kaiju or “strange creatures” get released from their dormant slumber is explained through the motivations of Vera Farmiga’s paleobiologist.  Dr. Emma Russell has got to be one of the most bewildering personalities in a 2019 production.  A screenplay shouldn’t even bother to offer clarification if the motive is so implausible.  Emma sympathizes with an eco-terrorist named Jonah Alan (Charles Dance).  Emma wants the enormous beasts to destroy civilization so that they can restore the natural order.  She’s like like Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.  Her declarations sound like the ravings of a lunatic.  Yet she’s presented as an ostensibly sympathetic level headed individual.  Sorry, even Vera Farmiga’s considerable acting chops can’t sell this half baked character.

The script feels the need to offer detailed exposition in a movie that doesn’t call for it.  The rest of the cast of famous performers is simply here to recite horrible dialogue to further a routine plot.  There is a lot of insipid explanation.  Emma’s ex-husband is the sensible Dr. Mark Russell, played by Kyle Chandler.  They have a daughter named Madison, Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown.  International stars Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi play scientists.  They should fire their agents.  After a gathering of experts has Dr. Emma Russell leaving the room, Dr. Ilene Chen (Zhang Ziyi) blurts “What a b—!”  Cue audience laughter.  This is what passes for wit.  The exclamation “Oh sh–!” is uttered a couple times to express a surprise.  Simply saying nothing would have been better.

I don’t demand great acting or writing in a Godzilla flick but I do expect awe-inspiring creature battles that are enjoyable to watch.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters even fails in providing these rudimentary pleasures.  Most of the action takes place at night so all the computer-generated imagery is obscured by darkness.  One sequence actually takes place during a blizzard in Antarctica.  When something does occur during the day, there’s so much smoke and debris in the air that the activity looks muddy and dull.  There are parts so devoid of color it looks like a black and white film, or rather gray and dark gray.  Say what you will about the ridiculous special effects in the 1954 Godzilla movie that started it all.  At least it was clear and you could see what was happening.

2014’s Godzilla wasn’t Shakespeare but it was breathtaking to watch.  The admittedly bland cast of human characters was highlighted by beautifully shot sequences of citywide destruction.  Some complained there wasn’t enough action.  Yet director Gareth Edwards understood that just the sight of a colossal winged beast taking off into the night sky could create a feeling of wonder and awe that was exciting.  He took his time laying the groundwork for a climax that felt like a spectacular release when the awesome creature ultimately destroyed San Francisco.  Sadly he didn’t return to shoot this picture.  Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus) apparently equates incomprehensible mayhem with excitement.  We see various creatures throughout the picture.  Only in the final 30 minutes do we get the actual showdown we were promised in the trailer.  Mothra is the queen to Godzilla’s king who face off against the three-headed Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster Zero) and Rodan.  We get a lot more monsters but a less visually impressive spectacle.  If only we could see the giant lizard king more clearly.  The new Godzilla movie has a reptile dysfunction.

05-30-19

Booksmart

Posted in Comedy with tags on May 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

booksmartSTARS4Every era has its classic coming of age tale.  Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, The 400 Blows, American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Superbad, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There are so many others.  Generation Z is maturing into adolescence.  They are currently getting the movies that define their age.  We will have to wait to see what will stand the test of time.  Last year’s Eighth Grade is a good candidate.  It was my favorite film of 2018.  I’m thinking Booksmart has a good chance of making the grade.

Booksmart centers on class president Molly, a driven, scholarly-minded teenager played by Beanie Feldstein.  She wears a blazer paired with a turtleneck to school.  Her best friend is Amy (Kaitlyn Dever).  They’re both academic overachievers who have stayed out of trouble for their entire scholastic career so that they could get into the finest colleges.  Molly is heading to Yale.  Amy to Columbia.  Then one fateful day, Molly’s world comes crashing down around her when she comes to a distressing realization.  Her lackadaisical peers have been accepted to Ivy League schools as well.  Even the blissfully unaware stoner (Eduardo Franco) has been recruited to code for Google.  Molly’s discipline, good behavior, and focus were apparently for nothing she reasons.  Enraged at having missed out on high school fun, these former “goody-two-shoes” make a vow to condense 4 years of social life into one full uninterrupted night of partying.  In this way, they can “make up” for 4 years of good behavior.  Incidentally, this revelation is gleaned from a conversation overheard in the school’s unisex bathroom.  This is so a movie of our times.

I usually don’t compare pictures in a review.  However, this “one crazy night” in the life of two misfits on the cusp of graduation was the same foundation behind Superbad.  Both also share a casting director, Allison Jones.  Star Beanie Feldstein is the sister of Jonah Hill who starred in that production.  These R-rated shenanigans measure up favorably to that classic.  They’d make a perfect double feature.  So comparisons are quite apt. Booksmart is actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut.  She’s known for playing Quorra in Tron: Legacy, and “Thirteen” on the medical-drama TV series House (2007–2012).  She’s also engaged (since 2013) to former SNL member Jason Sudakis.  Sudeikis plays a goofy principal with no moral authority.  He moonlights as a rideshare driver.  Which brings me to my next point.

Booksmart is another movie that treats adults like clueless idiots and teens as the hip people who all want to aspire to be.  Amy’s mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Will Forte) have crafted a celebratory dinner of entrees with themes for her graduation.  Their indulgence is presented as quaint.  One of their teachers (Jessica Williams), who seems sensible at first, shows a complete lack of discretion at a party with a student.   I must admit, as I get older this “naive adult” gets more and more annoying.  However, I’m pretty cognizant of my hypocrisy.  I can appreciate the skewed perspective of the American adolescent because (shocker) I too was one once.  My teens years played out during the mid-1980s era of John Hughes films where that character was an archetype, so I can relate.  Booksmart captures the zeitgeist of that perspective in a way that is highly entertaining.

There’s a vibrant energy to Booksmart that infuses every scene.  Like so many films of this ilk, it’s highlighted by a charismatic ensemble of up and comers.  I suspect some will have success in the future.  Time will tell.  Molly and Amy are witty goofballs.  Their central friendship is sweet and uplifting.  Molly is the more confident of the two.  There’s an intensity to her character that is particularly amusing.  She has a crush on über-popular class vice-president, Nick (Mason Gooding).  Amy pines for a skater girl named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).  Like their schoolmates, they all seem to live in the rarefied air of a posh suburb in Los Angeles.  They own cars and live in houses (not apartments).  Some exude ostentatious wealth.  We still have the cool kids, jocks, nerds, mean girls, drama geeks, etc.  What’s changed is the egalitarianism of this high school.  I didn’t see one bully.  They may not all be best friends, but no one is persecuted for being different.  Ah, movies!

What ultimately sends Booksmart into the stratosphere is the engaging chemistry of the supporting cast who populate the school.  These classmates include Noah Galvin as George who plays a flamboyant, and that’s putting it mildly, theater geek hosting a murder mystery soiree.  There’s also Skyler Gisondo as Jared, a dorky rich kid who remains conspicuously uncool.  He tries to buy the friendship of his peers by throwing the 1st of three parties the girls crash.  It’s on a yacht with a gambling casino and tuxedoed waiters serving hors d’oeuvres.  The complimentary gift bags include an iPad.  He’s invited everyone, but no one shows up.  That’s a lot for the audience to swallow.  I don’t care if you’re my mortal enemy.  I’m most definitely checking “will attend” on THAT invitation.  Lastly, there’s Jared’s friend Gigi played by Billie Lourd. She is Carrie Fisher’s real-life daughter.  Lourd’s ability to keep popping up at every party is hilarious.  She’s absolutely a scene stealer.  One might argue that the “message” for these girls to indulge every instinct does get questionable by the end and projectile vomiting is never OK.  Overall it’s raunchy but not mean-spirited.  The egalitarian nature of this fantasy is warm and appealing.  The charisma of this cast is palpable and there are many laughs along the way.

05-24-19

Aladdin

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

aladdin_ver2STARS4It’s hard not to look upon these live-action remakes of Disney classics with a bit of cynicism.  Let’s face it.  Familiarity is safe.  Reselling old stories by “updating” them with CGI takes less creativity than having to create something unique.  Some might call them a cash grab.  Truth is.  Most have been wildly lucrative.  Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) being the most notable examples.  That success just feeds into the disapproval.  The box office is certainly there.  However, a cash grab implies something hastily assembled of poor quality.  This definitely does not fall into that category.

Aladdin is a big, extravagant production with musical numbers.  Additionally, costumes and set design are top-notch.  Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both categories back in 2018.  I’d argue that this film is even more deserving of those awards.  There’s a cave of wonders, a flying carpet, and a magical genie.  The source material is not easy to adapt.  There’s a joyous feeling that takes all of those miraculous elements and recreates them in a physical form.  Yes, the imitation feels familiar and less innovative than something fully different.  Yet the manifestation is so spectacular.  It feels like an homage that honors the original.  Aladdin has already been recreated as a musical which had its Broadway debut in 2014.  The idea of adapting this cartoon with human actors is nothing new.  The successful show was nominated for five Tony Awards.  Actor James Monroe Iglehart actually won for playing the Genie.

Of course, it was Robin Williams’ vocal performance that elevated his iconic portrayal in the 1992 animated version.  That’s the role that everyone remembers and actor Will Smith is tasked to fill his very large shoes here.  Just as Emma Watson’s marquee name assisted Beauty and the Beast so too does the Fresh Prince fulfill that part here.  He’s a personality, admittedly, not an impressive vocalist.  Thing is, the veteran actor is wonderful in his own unique way.  His achievement is admirable.  Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has made the decision to have his character vacillate between two extremes.  When Smith gets to be himself and simply exude his natural charisma he’s the most appealing he’s been in years. In fact, he even gets a love interest with Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).  However, when he’s reduced to a blue CGI creation, it’s jarring.  He’s not pleasing in that configuration.

The two leads are more exceptional.  Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) are charming.  I’m not going to unnecessarily detail a tale that is nearly three decades old, but in a nutshell: Aladdin is a “street rat” trying to survive in the bustling city of Agrabah when he runs into Princess Jasmine.  She’s disguised as a commoner like him to understand the conditions of the working class.  The two meet and a connection is made.  The screenplay increases the importance of Jasmine.  She’s got political aspirations to rule her father’s kingdom.  She also gets a new song “Speechless” which is heard twice.  It’s not better than the original songs, but since those can’t be nominated again, it gives the producers the ability to submit it for Oscar consideration.  Jasmine is just as important as the titular hero, but not to his detriment.  She brings a commanding presence.  Massoud is warm and engaging as Aladdin.  The two could have easily come across as bland pretty people.  They are surprisingly great together.  The focus is on what makes them tick not sexiness.  Both bared a lot more skin in the cartoon.  Aladdin is covered up.  His shirtless vest is gone.  Jasmine’s father is the Sultan (Navid Negahban) who rules over the city.  He’s advised by a deceptive sorcerer named Jafar (Marwan Kenzari).  Both are merely a plot means to an end but not a deal breaker in this interpretation.

My 3 wishes for Aladdin were that (1) it would star captivating leads that had chemistry together (2) feature a lively genie that made me laugh and (3) highlight bright splashy production numbers.  I’ve detailed how it delivered the first two.  I’m happy to say my hopes were fulfilled on the third as well.  In particular, the “Prince Ali” number is a fully realized processional accompanied by some fantastic (if not geographically correct) Bollywood-style dancing.  “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” are enchanting too.  This isn’t a replacement of your beloved original.  It’s a remix of sorts.  By adhering mainly to the classic story with only minor tweaks, Disney’s reimagining delivers the goods.  True, it may not be a whole new world.  That’s actually a good thing.  See the execrable Dumbo (2019) if you need proof.  Say what you will about these live-action remakes.  Aladdin is among the very best.

5-23-19