Archive for 2019

The White Crow

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

white_crow_ver2STARS3The White Crow could be about anything.  The cryptic title is explained in the very first frame.  It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”  I suppose I should realize by now that color + bird = ballet movie.  Black Swan and Red Sparrow also wove the same discipline into its storyline.

The White Crow concentrates on famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko)  during his young adulthood.  Most acknowledge him as the greatest male ballet artist of his generation.  He was also the first major Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War.  This contemplative film leisurely advances towards a captivating conclusion.  The account depicts his humble birth on a moving train in 1938, becoming a sensation with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in the late 1950s and the rising acclaim surrounding his early career.

These episodes aren’t depicted in order but rather shifting back and forth. I’ve often felt that haphazard embellishments are utilized when a director doesn’t have enough faith in his tale to tell it in a normal fashion. As if chronological order is too conventional. However, the drama’s clarity is obfuscated by this narrative device as I was often unclear whether certain events occurred earlier or later.  Rudolf Nureyev was a man with a fascinating story.  To wit, most of the focus is on a fateful 6 week trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.  The developments of his life would certainly make an interesting production without the stylistic devices employed here.

Written by two-time Oscar nominee David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and directed by also twice Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, this biopic has prestige oozing from every cinematic pore.  Hare was inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life.  Nureyev was a temperamental man and director Ralph Fiennes doesn’t attempt to make his subject likable.   Fiennes also appears in a small role as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad.  The cast also benefits from the presence of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who portrays Clara Saint, a 21-year old French woman who ends up playing a key element in Nureyev’s personal revolt.

Rudolf Nureyev’s mercurial character is highlighted by first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko, a real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer.  There are brief snippets showcasing his prowess but little in the way of performances.  I wanted to see more of that talent and less brooding.  Ivenko does a good job at conveying his rebellious mood, however.  Nureyev is not a warm person but that’s not required to enjoy this movie.  The saga ultimately builds to a memorable scene with a mesmerizing climax.  While Nureyev’s ballet troupe was to continue on to London, he was being summoned back to Moscow.  The real reason is unclear but his arrogant disdain for company regulations certainly played a part.  The request was enough to send him into hysterics.  The defection is a seemingly impulsive decision that makes perfect sense.  If only it didn’t take so long to get there.  At 127 minutes, the film’s distended length doesn’t do its subject any favors.  Some thoughtful editing would improve the drama immeasurably.  Chop 20 minutes out and just get to the “pointe”.

05-16-19

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Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy with tags on May 13, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pokemon_detective_pikachu_ver2STARS2.5Has there ever been a great movie based on a video game?  The debateable consensus to that question has always been no.  Because of that, films adapted from computer games incur very low expectations.  Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the latest in a nearly three-decade tradition that began with Super Mario Bros. in 1993.  This has received better reviews than other pictures of its ilk.  Keep in mind the bar has been set pretty low.  I’ll get right to the point.  This isn’t a great movie, so the answer is still (sadly) no.  However, Detective Pikachu deserves some discussion because it has the potential to make a lot of money.  Since 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie has remained the most monetarily lucrative adaptation of its type. That’s the gold standard based on box office grosses earning $131 million.  Given 18 years of inflation, Pokemon Detective Pikachu should easily (duh) shatter that record.  Even if we’re adjusting in 2019 dollars, it should still clear $208 million.  Pokemon is a global phenomenon.

The Pokémon franchise began with a pair of games for Nintendo’s Game Boy back in 1996.  Since then this multimedia conglomeration has gone on to include an anime television series, a trading card game, manga comics, music, books, and a mobile game.  Now please do enjoy this live action picture.  The tale concerns an insurance salesman named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith).  The poor man has learned that his estranged father Harry has died while investigating a case.  Humans are usually paired with a Pokemon in this universe.  Harry’s former Pokémon partner, detective Pikachu, is a rodent-like creature with powerful electrical abilities.  Pokémon don’t normally talk, but this one is different.  He’s got a sarcastic point of view with a voice provided by Ryan Reynolds.  Harry’s death is suspicious and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a junior reporter, is looking into it.  She is accompanied by a Psyduck, another Pokémon species.  Lucy pens fluff articles, but you can guess by her preternaturally perky demeanor, she’s destined for better things.  Although Tim expresses an interest in Lucy, their relationship emits fewer sparks than a damp match.  Oh, and the considerable talents of Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe are criminally wasted in supporting parts.

This adventure is an urban mystery wrapped up in a fantasy.  As such, a successful production must rely on the screenplay’s ability to create a fully realized world.  The problem is the superficial script credited to five (count ’em—FIVE) screenwriters, isn’t up to the task.  Disney’s Zootopia had disparate species coexisting beside each other with a concerted attempt to acknowledge the incongruity.  There was a lot of thought put into that story.  In contrast, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu puts very little effort into world-building.  It just is.  Accept it.  Fantasy doesn’t have to be moronic.  The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pan’s Labyrinth all advanced something new and exciting.  Ryme City is a metropolis inhabited by magical creatures that live alongside humans.  The setup could have offered a fiction so deliciously bonkers that it would have won me over by sheer imagination.  No such luck.  There are brief glimpses.  The CGI of the animated characters is amazingly photorealistic.  Each creature looked like a living breathing thing.  Mr. Mime is a particularly offbeat Pokémon.  He’s the highlight of the feature.  So strange –in fact– that the writers had to apparently convince the Pokemon company to include him.  That’s telling because the rest of the saga isn’t blessed by the bizarro mentality that infuses his creation.

The account settles on being a Sam Spade-style story via film noir.  It’s surprisingly bland and predictable.  Wags have compared this science fiction as an appropriation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Blade Runner.  That’s a generous comparison because this doesn’t even remotely approximate the intellectual creativity found within either of those two classics.  This is generic.  It pains me to write this review because I welcome family entertainment.  To his credit, director Rob Letterman (Monsters Vs. Aliens, Goosebumps) steers these cutesy PG-rated shenanigans toward younger viewers.  It will certainly provide charms for those raised on this stuff.  I can appreciate the concept.  If we were talking about a live-action Pac-Man movie, perhaps nostalgia might absolve the minor deficiencies in the work for me.  I’ll concede this wasn’t made with me in mind.  Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a film for the millions of already converted fans.  Be forewarned, if you don’t know the difference between a Jigglypuff and a Squirtle, you may be underwhelmed.

05-09-19

Avengers: Endgame

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

avengers_endgame_ver2STARS4Dear Marvel fan, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.  Avengers: Endgame is ostensibly the direct sequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.  We’ve waited one year with bated breath for a resolution to the cliffhanger of that film.  In a much larger sense, it’s the impressive culmination of 21 films that all began when Iron Man first debuted 11 years ago in 2008.  It was a daunting task.  There were many goals, but for me the three most important were to (1) fashion a chronicle that could coherently juggle a myriad of superheroes with various backstories (2) remain emotionally invested in each one and (3) maintain interest without relying on haphazard conflicts that can often degenerate into a bloated slog. (see Avengers: Age of Ultron).  I’m relieved to say Endgame satisfies every one of these objectives.

A good review shouldn’t recapitulate the plot.  As such, I won’t be revealing spoilers contained within this new episode.  However, I will assume you have at least seen Infinity War which is essentially Part 1 to the continuity of this film.  If that’s not the case, and the denouement of that story still remains a mystery, congratulations on abstaining from every single form of social media!  Furthermore, please stop reading here and come back after you have watched Infinity War first.  Ok ready?  We begin after half of all living things in the universe have been snuffed out by the mighty supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Among those left to deal with the aftermath are the six original Avengers. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The situation is dire.   The loss of life is even more calamitous than a decimation as that word is, by definition, only 1/10 of all living things.   The Avengers have lost many of their closest friends.  Understandably they are a doleful bunch.  Being the do-gooding champions that they are, they set out to recover the Infinity Stones from Thanos so they can reverse his actions.  Sadly he has already destroyed them.  The first hour is abnormally solemn, a somber rumination on coming to terms with what has happened.  The characters now exude a world-weary exterior.  There is a poignancy in the first third that sucks you into the developments that unfold later.  The movie isn’t afraid to gradually lay the groundwork for what must ultimately be done.  The Avengers devise a plan to undo the damage that Thanos has caused.  Hint: the conclusion of Ant-Man and the Wasp provides a crucial element.  The narrative takes its time but once the events of the 2nd hour begin, the payoff is all the better for it.

Endgame is surprisingly moving.  Working from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, rely heavily on past films and alliances.  Given that, this will unquestionably please die-hard fans.  Having seen every installment will surely add to your experience.  Endgame includes a profusion of moments to delight those people, a consideration now known as fan service.  The bad news is that this not an adventure for newbies or even the casual moviegoer that may have seen, oh let’s say, less than 5 of these productions.  Your enjoyment directly depends on an appreciation of formerly established alliances and circumstances.  Tony Stark/Iron Man is a key personality.  His relationship with Steve Rogers, Pepper Potts, and Peter Parker all provide touching high points.  I, like the rest of my theater, was visibly affected by the sentiment.  Conversely, newcomers are likely to sit stone-faced, shrug and wonder why the rest of the theater is in tears.

The narrative brings out the humanity in these beloved individuals.  They may be all-powerful, but they still care for one another.  The drama frequently relies on previously articulated interpersonal connections.  For those that have been on this journey since the very beginning, this entertains on every level.  There’s gratification is seeing this branch of the franchise tied up in such a satisfying way.  The spectacular climax fully captivated the 12-year-old in me.   It was a complete and utter wow – the visual manifestation of the epic battles in my wildest imagination as a child.  Along the way, we’re treated to a lot of developments over the course of a 3+ hour movie.  Amazingly, it never drags.  The script brings closure to many personalities while always providing interesting happenings on screen.  Endgame‘s take on the Hulk and Thor present enjoyable character changes that really made me smile.  The return of Queen Frigga of Asgard (Rene Russo) is particularly poignant.  This isn’t the termination of the MCU mind you, but it is the concluding phase of the Infinity Saga which handles the exit of several cherished favorites.  I’ve seen every single entry in this series.  The Russo brothers clearly embody a genuine love for this franchise.  Sure, this is merely a fantasy about superheroes.  The plot isn’t deep or essential in any spiritual or metaphysical sense.  However, the production generates the wave of feelings that this fan craves.  In that respect, Avengers: Endgame is an emotional catharsis that totally delivers.

04-25-19

The Curse of La Llorona

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

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

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

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

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

04-18-19

Missing Link

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on April 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

missing_linkSTARS3Laika needs help.  The studio specializes in fastidiously mounted, exquisitely produced stop-motion animated features.  They receive critical raves but are increasingly ignored at the box office.  Their latest effort debuted at $5.9 million which set a record for the lowest total ever for a film to open on more than 3,200+ screens.  It helps that Laika is owned by Nike founder Phil Knight who has the power to subsidize their efforts.  Knight’s son Travis is President and CEO.  To be fair, their movies have never been huge money makers, but they can turn a profit.  The darkly twisted yet lovely Coraline made a substantial $75 million at the box office in 2009.  Their stop motion technique is liberally enhanced using computer-generated effects and 3D printing.  Some critics have blamed a lack of audience interest on Laika’s approach, but that doesn’t ring true.  The finished product is not dissimilar to Pixar’s or Disney’s computer-animated style.  I admire the meticulous craft that goes into making Laika’s art even when the production doesn’t charm me (The Boxtrolls).  I really want Laika to succeed because they make gorgeous looking pictures.  Missing Link likewise is visually stunning, but overall a relatively low point in their filmography.

The story concerns Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a self-absorbed trailblazer that sets off on a trek of the Pacific Northwest.  He seeks to prove the existence of a legendary primitive man creature.  By doing this he hopes to secure admission into London’s Optimates Club, a group of narrow-minded explorers headed up by the insufferable Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).  Why Frost so desperately wants to belong to an organization of arrogant snobs is rather baffling.  At any rate, he meets the Sasquatch rather quickly in the forest.  Turns out “Mr. Link” (Zach Galifianakis) as Frost dubs him, is a gentle giant who can talk.  Incidentally, with his tiny beady eyes and large pig nose, the design of the titular beast isn’t appealing.  Honestly, he’s downright ugly.  My unsolicited advice: if your main protagonist is furry and virtuous, make him adorable so kids will want the stuffed animal version.   The two set out to find Mr. Link’s long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La in the Himalayas.  Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Frost’s former girlfriend joins the two on their journey.  Her look may mimic the style of the “Gibson Girl” but her contemptuous personality isn’t cute.  Meanwhile, they are pursed by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) a bounty hunter on a mission to kill Frost.  Apparently, Piggot-Dunceby wants Frost dead so he has no chance of ever joining their group.  I still can’t get past the idea that Frost craves this guy’s acceptance.

Missing Link has its charms but they’re mostly visual.  The adventure has no momentum.  Just a meandering saga highlighting beautifully executed stop motion skills.  The chronicle is lacking a spark of inspiration to bring it to life.  Coraline and ParaNorman both had this audacious quality that entertained through sheer eccentricity.  But Missing Link is much saner and safer.  Frost’s whole purpose to gain admission into this highfalutin society of people who are beneath contempt is just misguided and sad.  The prim Victorian era setting isn’t an atmosphere that’s ripe for laughs.  Unless of course, you find colonialism and stuffy tradition, inherently funny.  Most of the stodgy repartee doesn’t land.  Emma Thompson, as the Yeti Elder Queen gets in a few laconic quips.  ‘Throw them in the Pit of Misery and Perpetual Disappointment!’ and “Shangri-La means, Keep out. We hate you,” are droll lines.  An adult fan of sarcasm might chuckle but it’s not banter that would delight a young child.   Ads for the movie clearly mismarketed this to children when this really should’ve been targeted at teens and adults.  However, the climactic action scene is a real cliffhanger – literally.  It entertains all ages.  The moment energizes with inspired loopiness.  That zany joy is sadly absent from most of the film.  It was a wacky jolt from a tale in desperate need of it.

04-11-19

Pet Sematary

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

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

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

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

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

04-04-19

Dumbo

Posted in Family, Fantasy with tags on April 1, 2019 by Mark Hobin

dumbo_ver2STARS1.5It takes a special kind of talent to twist an uplifting story and turn it into a depressing slog.  The animated Dumbo (1941) is widely considered one of Disney’s 10 greatest animated films by published critics who make it their business to rank such things.  That’s not my opinion it’s simply a fact.  How director Tim Burton was able to take a heartfelt animated treasure and pervert it into this soulless shell of a disgrace is almost incomprehensible.  For the purposes of this review, however, I’m going to try.

Tim Burton actually worked for Walt Disney as an apprentice animator beginning in1980.  By 1984 he directed a short while there called Frankenweenie.  He was summarily fired by the studio shortly thereafter.  Could this be some sort of pent up anger finally being released decades later?  He’s worked with the studio several times since. That 2010 Alice in Wonderland adaptation isn’t great either but at least it had a modicum of reverence for the source material.  What Burton has accomplished here is the desecration of a classic.  The original was about how an outsider comes to terms with what makes him different and then capitalizing on that supposed weakness.  Dumbo’s big ears became a strength allowing him to triumph over adversity winning the hearts of all those around him.  This aberration of a film marginally runs on the fumes of that idea, but it’s really about something else entirely,

The animated Dumbo (1941) clocked in at a mere 64 minutes.  That’s roughly an hour folks.  Burton’s Dumbo is near twice that length.  Dumbo isn’t told from the perspective of the animals.  None of the critters talk in this version.  Dumbo is a saga about people.  The financial woes of a struggling circus appear to worsen when a newborn baby elephant is born with oversized ears.  Widowed and one-armed horse trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is hired by circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito).  He’s got two dead-behind -the-eyes children.  Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) channel all the excitement of a damp dishrag in their performances.  They discover early on that Dumbo can fly.  The cute little guy takes off so frequently for audiences at Medici’s circus that it feels like no big deal.  This catches the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life amusement park, Dreamland.  The carnival feels like a veiled attack on Disneyland.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.  Vandevere and aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) make the odd pachyderm a star in his circus.  Unfortunately, life under his big top is not all that it seems.

Before I completely tear this sacrilege apart, I want to give Dumbo its due.  The production looks impressive.  Most noticeably, the photo-realistic digital CGI representation of the main character looks convincing.  The set design by Rick Heinrichs and costumes by Colleen Atwood convey a magical fantasy that’s beyond compare.  Visually my eyes were satisfied by the painstaking details.  Additionally having real-life announcer Michael Buffer portray a ringmaster that bellows “LET’S GET READY FOR DUMBOOO!” was a nice touch.  However, I’d have to go back to The Wiz (1978) to find a stunning work of art based on a joyous original that was so inherently empty.  Like that 70s musical adaptation, a lot of obvious care and craft has gone into creating something that looks beautiful.  Yet peel back the meticulous facade and it’s devoid of substance. Dumbo sucked the life out of me.

Despite its distended length, Burton eviscerates everything that made the prototype so great.  Granted I didn’t expect the crows to make an appearance.  Although reclaiming and redeeming those characters would have displayed the kind of confidence I admire in an auteur.  Once upon a time, Tim Burton was that guy.  The witty wordplay from the crows’ song “When I See an Elephant Fly” is still half-heartedly incorporated into the script.  It’s the wittiest dialogue said in the entire film.  But remember the part where Dumbo’s mother spanks an unruly child?  Or where she rocks Dumbo to sleep in her trunk like a baby?  Or Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo’s streetwise but supportive confidant?  Or the whimsical elephants on parade number when Dumbo gets drunk?  How about the climactic surprise of a circus crowd that first gasped to see an elephant take flight?  Eliminated, corrupted and mishandled.  All of it.  Point blank and period.  The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell) subverts joy and exploits suffering.  Dumbo is one of the grimmest tales meant for children that I’ve ever seen

03-28-19

Shazam!

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero with tags on March 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

shazam_ver3STARS3.5I’m officially ready to concede that the DC Extended Universe has me excited.  It’s been a rocky road ever since Man of Steel debuted back in 2013.  For a while, this current DC iteration of films subscribed to the gospel of Christopher Nolan.  Moody and brooding realism equaled a quality flick.  I adore The Dark Knight trilogy so, in theory, it sounded like a good idea.  Then one joyless, poorly written project after another proved that something wasn’t working.  I wasn’t a fan until Wonder Woman came along in 2017 and then Aquaman solidified that love in 2018.  Both were entertaining episodes that stood on their own.  They were individual chapters that didn’t depend on having seen the rest of the series.  Justice League, which was sandwiched between the two, negated that concept, but let’s focus on the positive.  We currently have a new offering based on a DC Comics property previously known as “Captain Marvel” when it was originally published by Fawcett Comics 1940–1953.  Branded as the DC character “Shazam!” In 1972, the superhero has made his first appearance in a theatrical feature since the 1941 movie serial from Republic Pictures. What took so long?  This production is an outright charmer.

Well color me surprised.  I had seen the trailers and thought the whimsical — no make that goofy — mood was a tonal misfire.  We haven’t seen such brightly colored tights on a superhero costume in quite a while.  The whole thing seemed too irreverent to be taken seriously.  Turns out the jokey tone is the screenplay’s greatest asset.  Not since the halcyon days of Christopher Reeve has a buoyant, upbeat tone been employed so effectively.  Superman II (1980) is one of the greatest films ever made (not kidding) so pardon the aforementioned blasphemy.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid with a mischievous and arrogant demeanor at first, but he has a kind and compassionate heart.  While escaping a couple of schoolyard bullies, he’s magically whisked to a magical realm known as The Rock of Eternity where he meets the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).  No stranger to comic book adaptations, Hounsou has played Korath the Pursuer in Marvel productions (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) and (using CGI) the ruler of the Fisherman Kingdom in DC’s Aquaman.  Here he portrays the sorcerer who chooses to bestow his magical powers on Billy.  By saying the word “shazam”, Billy receives Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ courage, and Mercury’s speed.  It’s all in the name.

A big part of the chronicle is the joy of discovery as young Billy becomes acclimated to his new god-like abilities.  Remember, he’s still fundamentally a teen, but when he becomes Shazam, he is an adult.  Incidentally, he never embraces that name here.  An ongoing joke is trying to come up with a suitable moniker.  Zachary Levi is absolutely winning when Billy transforms into the musclebound champion.  He perfectly conveys that naive enthusiasm even as a grown adult.  His “golly gee wilikers” expressions convey pure innocence.  He’s a do-gooder that kids can look up to.  His friendship with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the foster kids he goes to live with, is a sheer delight.  The two of them have a lot of fun figuring out what superpowers he has.  Grazer is an actor to watch.  He memorably portrayed the youthful hypochondriac, Eddie in 2017’s It.  Here he stands out as well with his wide-eyed charisma.  His curiosity is contagious.  The chemistry he has with both actors Angel and Levi is captivating.

Of course there’s a villain.  He’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, ably played by the dependable Mark Strong.  This adventure actually begins with his story.  We learn how the poor treatment he had received at the hands of his older brother and father led to his dark desires.  He too was summoned by the Wizard Shazam as a child but was not chosen.  A bunch of CGI gargoyle monsters that each represent the 7 deadly sins assist him in his sinister ambitions.  They might frighten very young toddlers.  There’s a moment where Dr. Sivana pushes his equally corrupt brother out of a skyscraper.  If you can manage the cartoon level violence of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons, you can handle this.  Although I completely understood why Dr. Sivana turned evil, I didn’t particularly care.  His saga is less compelling.  It occupies a lot more time in the narrative than I cared to indulge.

Ultimately Shazam! emphasizes the happiness in comic books.  This celebrates the feeling of wish fulfillment.  Billy’s childlike wonder in savoring his newfound abilities is so palpable.  We appreciate his euphoria.  Writer Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and horror director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) also emphasize the importance of family.  After being separated from his mother, Billy is sent to live with a foster home that includes other children.  Based on this account, I suspect these individuals will become more important in the inevitable sequel.  Besides Freddy, there’s college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), and youngest Darla (Faithe Herman).  The close camaraderie that develops proves that a family isn’t necessarily about blood relations.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Even when Shazam! gets bogged down in less interesting plot machinations, it’s the heart that shines through.

03-23-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

Captain Marvel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on March 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

captain_marvel_ver2STARS3It’s hard to believe, but after 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel is the first to star a female lead.  I still don’t understand why we didn’t get a Black Widow movie back in 2010 when that character was introduced in Iron Man 2.  The DC Extended Universe beat Marvel to the punch by two years with Wonder Woman, a critical and box office hit in the summer of 2017.  Much has been made of Captain Marvel‘s trailblazing status.  I mean it was released on International Women’s Day.  The drama is so retro.  Ok so yes, the feature is set in 1995 but it actually feels like it was made back then.

Captain Marvel is a prequel to the entire MCU.  The adventure concerns an officer in the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers.  This is the saga of how she became Captain Marvel through a series of events, Yup it’s another origin story.  The problem is she has amnesia. We know who she is.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t, so she wanders through a large part of the film on an “emotional journey” with her mind in a funky haze.  That makes her personality kind of nil.  She interacts with a youthful looking Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury minus the eyepatch.  For once the de-aging technology looks pretty amazing.  Jackson gets to see out of both eyes and he has a nice repartee with Brie Larson.  He helps her unravel the mystery of her past.  Also of note is Ben Mendelsohn who plays a shapeshifting Skrull villain named Talos.  As of late, he’s been playing underwritten parts that could simply be labeled as “old evil white guy” (Rogue One, Ready Player One).  Here he gets a part with depth worthy of his talents.  He rises to the challenge.  Talos is not all that he seems and he’s a highlight in a movie in desperate need of them.

The best scenes of Captain Marvel take place on Planet C-53.  That’s Earth to you newbies. Before we can get there, the production is saddled with the worst 20-minute intro ever to grace an MCU film.  It all takes place in space.  Carol Danvers, who thinks her name is Vers, reports to commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who is a Kree.  She believes herself to be one as well.  She ends up on Earth which is the site for a galactic conflict between these two alien populations, the Skrulls and the Krees.  Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are a filmmaking duo known for indies (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story).  It’s the quieter moments where Captain Marvel shines.  Carol meets her longtime friend from the U.S. Air Force, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  The two women have a conversation about something other than a man.  Bechtel test, check.

I hate to invoke a cliché like “been there done that” but it’s too fitting to reject.  The overall sensibility of the presentation is conventionality.  As you’d predict for a film set in the 90s, there are nods to the trappings of the era.  Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Blackberry cell phones, CD ROMs that take forever to load are all visual gags.  The 90s infused soundtrack means we can listen to tunes like No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” while she engages in combat or hear Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” as she enters Mar-Vell’s (Annette Bening ) quarters.  Brief musical snippets pop up here and there.  However, their presence is far less memorable than the way Guardians utilized songs from the 1960s and 1970s.  The problems go deeper than the timeworn habit of invoking familiar references to elicit laughs.  Captain Marvel is encumbered with a narrative that is surprisingly old hat. Expectations in 2019 demand a plot with more innovation than the formulaic story beats presented here.

Captain Marvel was a highly anticipated production. The ending of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War teased the introduction of this character.  She is clearly going to be an important part in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. I still believe this is an acceptable amuse-bouche for the upcoming main course.  The world has been waiting with bated breath.  Sadly this is not the significant episode we imagined.  We waited over a decade for this.  Had this film come out back in 2008 when the MCU began, the simple novelty of a female-led superhero movie would have been enough.  A decade later and things have changed.  Now we also need the thrills to be extraordinary too.  Instead, they’re rather ordinary.  For the first time, Marvel is struggling to keep up with the spirit of the times.

03-07-19