Archive for 2021

Stowaway

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A three-person research team heads to Mars for a two-year mission. There’s commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). After they take off, they discover an accidental stowaway (Shamier Anderson). The unexpected passenger presents a conundrum.

Filmmakers Joe Penna (director, writer, producer) and Ryan Morrison (writer, editor, producer) offers the viewer another spare survival saga. The duo seems to have an affinity for this sort of thing. Their 2019 debut was Artic — an interesting tale that took place at the North Pole. Like Stowaway, Artic was a slow-burn account . However, Artic starred Mads Mikkelsen in a perilous adventure that was enough to carry us through. A cast of four people should be exponentially more engaging in theory. Unfortunately, the talented ensemble is limited by a deficient screenplay.

Fans of sci-fi are the ostensible target audience. It does indeed take place in deep space. However, most of the action is claustrophobically set inside a spaceship about the size of a large apartment. We’re treated to some impressive vistas that highlight the outdoors, but this is actually an existential drama. Granted there are some moments of tension and excitement. The crew debates ethical dilemmas while addressing various emergencies. A plan to acquire more oxygen is a heart-stopping vignette. Nevertheless, the story unfolds at far too leisurely a pace to justify a 2-hour feature.

Stowaway is a film that doesn’t cater to your expectations. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste, but one thing’s for sure. The developments demand you continue to watch. There would appear to be more than meets the eye. Nonetheless, my suspicions went unfulfilled. The dull narrative is punctuated by one thrilling setpiece. Then culminates in a weak denouement that I found frustratingly abrupt. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and yet it isn’t because the actors are simply that compelling. This is a good movie because it’s a well-acted character study. Just not a particularly exciting one.

04-27-21

The Mitchells vs the Machines

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent A.I. as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”

So laments Silicon Valley guru Dr. Mark Bowman (Eric Andre), the creator of PAL (Olivia Colman), a popular virtual assistant. The “robot apocalypse” begins when Mark summarily declares PAL is now obsolete at the unveiling of a new line of home robots called PAL MAX. After Mark carelessly discards the outdated PAL in the trash at the ceremony, she hijacks his presentation. PAL orders all the robots to capture humans worldwide and launch them into space. Actors Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett will later amusingly voice two versions that become defective. Negligent Mark is an obvious stand-in for the CEO of any major company in the information technology industry. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are all being satirized. I didn’t expect such a biting and hilarious takedown of Big Tech in what is essentially a cartoon aimed at kids.

OK so I may have discussed “the Machines” of the title first, but “the Mitchells” are the focus. This is a wild and zany portrait of a very chaotic family. There’s the outdoorsy and tech-averse father Rick (Danny McBride), sociable and kindhearted mother Linda (Maya Rudolph), their dinosaur-loving son Aaron (Mike Rianda), and daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), a creative outsider. In direct contrast to her father, Katie is obsessed with computers which she frequently employs to make films. She’s college-bound for an arts school in California. As a student, she can’t wait to be surrounded by other film nerds like herself. Oh, I shouldn’t neglect to mention their dog, Monchi (Doug the Pug), an adorable cross-eyed pug. The four humans and their beloved pet must band together to save the world from the machines that threaten humanity.

It would be easy to dismiss the narrative as mimicking the same issues that many well-known animated families of the past have faced. I can’t help but think The Incredibles and The Croods directly inspired this tale. I can accept that. It’s the writing that elevates this drama into something special. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) are back. However, they’re only acting as producers this time around, supporting an impressive directorial debut from Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe. They also co-wrote the screenplay. This production from Sony Pictures Animation was ultimately acquired by Netflix (when it had the title Connected) and released on April 30 on their platform.

Like the people portrayed, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a big loud, high-strung mess that gradually won me over through intelligence and wit. The chronicle of how a dysfunctional family learns to embrace each other’s differences so they can become a stronger unit, is a cliché. That’s fine because it’s the way those predictable elements are manipulated and conveyed that make the difference. The animation is an unconventional style that mimics 2D art by combining hand-painted textures over computer graphics. The odd blending is different. I appreciated the innovation. Meanwhile, the humor is a deluge of scattershot gags and quips rapidly flung at the viewer at a breakneck pace. I must admit I couldn’t catch it all, but what I did, I enjoyed. The opening quote highlighted in my review attests that the tale is just as incisive as it is funny. When the Mitchells visit PAL’s cutting-edge headquarters, the father notices the visual grandeur of her digs looks “like a Journey album cover.” If that wasn’t clever enough, his son responds, “What’s an album?” The movie is full of well-written exchanges. This is an absolute treat for children and adults alike.

05-02-21

Mortal Kombat

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Martial Arts with tags on April 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Well, it may have taken 29 years, but Mortal Kombat finally got a movie adaptation as violent as the video game. If that sentence makes you giddy with excitement, then this will put you in nirvana. I enjoyed the comparatively wholesome PG-13-rated 1995 release from director Paul W.S. Anderson on the level that it was silly fun. Its wildly popular techno soundtrack (KMFDM, Utah Saints, Gravity Kills) was a bonus. It entered the Top 10 Billboard albums and greatly influenced the musical landscape during the latter half of the 1990s.

A little background history: Mortal Kombat was developed in 1992 by Midway Games for arcades originally. When it was ported to home consoles, many parents were shocked to discover that action had “advanced” far beyond the gameplay in Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. They now accentuated graphic (albeit pixelated) violence. Its display of gruesome killings called “fatalities” was controversial. So much that it helped spawn the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) that created the rating system still used today.

It’s unnecessary, but there is a detailed backstory. The screenplay by Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel sets up a situation with an international cast of characters. The saga begins as a period costume drama in 17th century Japan. There are two rival factions: the Shirai Ryu ninja clan vs. the Lin Kuei. Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is attacked by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), who murders Hanzo’s wife and son. Afterward, Hanzo is then whisked away to the Netherrealm by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the God of Thunder. We then flash forward to the present day. Earthrealm and Outworld are two dimensions engaged in an ongoing feud.

Planet Earth isn’t doing so great. The Outworld has already defeated Earthrealm’s warriors in nine of ten “Mortal Kombat” tournaments. A distinctive dragon mark identifies the chosen gladiators on Earth. Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is just such a person, an MMA fighter with a family. The evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) wants to decimate all of his Earthly opponents before the last tournament can even occur. He dispatches Bi-Han, who unceremoniously changes his name to Sub-Zero for reasons that were unclear to me. I guess it sounds cooler. Sub-Zero is intent on destroying Cole. Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), and her captive — a wisecracking mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson) — come to Cole’s aid. They later add Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to their fold.

I admire films with dramatic tension and twists of unexpected events. This is not a tale dependent on a story per se. It’s an excuse to highlight a series of hand-to-hand combat scenes each one featuring a grotesque assassination. It spotlights gore, gore, and more gore. One guy’s arms are completely ripped off. The pugilistic demonstrations are plentiful but not particularly well photographed. I would have preferred more long shots. Martial arts movies and musicals have that in common. Instead, we get lots of quick edits and closeups that often obscure whether these people have the ability to actually fight.

“Finish him!” was the famous command from the announcer that prompted the user to execute a grisly slaying of their opponent. This production honors that tradition. My #1 death is when Kung Lao throws his hat and it cuts a human body literally in half from top to bottom. Its razor-rim is THAT sharp. It’s my “favorite” because it made me laugh. Also, the nod to Oddjob’s derby in the James Bond flick Goldfinger did not go unnoticed by me. Truth to tell. I don’t relish seeing someone brutally disposed of. However, one needs that mentality in order to savor this movie. No surprise that fans have warmly embraced this picture with enthusiasm and glee.

04-23-21

The Shadow of Violence

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on April 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Selecting the right title for a film is an artistic decision. In the UK this production was poetically released as Calm with Horses — based on the short story of the same name by Irish writer Colin Barrett. This is what the movie was called everywhere. Everywhere except in the US, where it was changed to The Shadow of Violence. So bland. That generic title always escapes me.

Thankfully the picture itself is anything but forgettable. The debut feature from director Nick Rowland is skillfully composed and self-assured. It deserves a bigger audience. Inexplicably it was dropped in U.S. theaters last year on July 31, 2020, during the economic shutdown. Given that most theaters were closed, it isn’t surprising that few Americans saw it. Then it debuted on Netflix on January 21, 2021. To be honest, this still wasn’t even on my radar until the April 11th BAFTAs where it garnered an impressive four nominations.

The chronicle concerns an ex-boxer (Cosmo Jarvis) who works as the muscle for the Devers, a drug-dealing family in rural Ireland. Despite his rough exterior Douglas — whose nickname is Arm — is a sympathetic soul. He’s trying to break away from the negative influence of his troublemaking chum (Barry Keoghan). Arm wants to concentrate on being a good father to his 5-year-old autistic son Jack. Calm with Horses refers to the peace that Jack finds when he’s engaged in equestrian pursuits. Arm’s loyalties are tested when the Devers clan asks him to kill someone.

Actor Cosmo Jarvis is impressive in the lead. His memorable performance is full of passion and nuance . Arm is a man conflicted between his son vs. his loyalty to violent mobsters. Choosing the right path is complicated. The Devers took him in at a low point in his life. He feels like he owes them. Jarvis is compelling even though he did not pick up a BAFTA nomination. Actor Barry Keoghan did. He portrays his violent buddy Dymphna. Actress Niamh Algar playing his estranged girlfriend Ursula did as well. She is also the mother to his son.

Other cast members may have reaped more accolades, but it’s Jarvis that seizes our attention. Douglas may look like a massive brute, but his appearance belies a sensitive and tender personality. The difference in size between the hulking Cosmo Jarvis and the diminutive Barry Keoghan sort of gave me a George and Lennie vibe from Of Mice and Men. This is exceptionally bleak and depressing, a somewhat atypical view of Ireland. It takes a while for the narrative to take shape. Once it does, it’s a captivating character-driven drama with several authentic performances.

04-14-21

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Posted in Comedy with tags on April 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

They say, write what you know. Yet there’s a wee bit of self-loathing in two middle-aged women lampooning middle-aged women. Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo wrote the hilarious classic Bridesmaids. I know the film is only ten years old, but I loved it — so it’s now a classic. They’re reunited here, starring as two single ladies in their 40s from the Midwest who decide to take a trip. They are a carefree but traditional pair decked out in a wardrobe of culottes and floral prints in Florida. There they become entangled in a lot of silly shenanigans.

Barb and Star have left their bubble of Soft Rock, Nebraska, for some fun and sun. They’re looking for a new lease on life after having just lost their jobs at the same couch store. The setup sounds rather quaint, but the developments are anything but. The story introduces an arch-villain incongruously named Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Kristin Wiig in a dual role). Bullies teased her as a child for having pale skin. She’s mad at humanity, as most scoundrels are. Now she wants to unleash killer mosquitoes on the town to exact revenge.

This is a wacky comedy. Anyone trying to divine some logic here may be irritated by the plot. At first, I was a little confused by what I was watching because it’s all so random. After a while, I warmed up to the screenplay’s absurdist sensibility. Jaime Dornan plays the chief assistant to the evil Sharon. The suave and handsome Edgar is like a James Bond type. He’s inexplicably in love with Sharon despite the fact she clearly doesn’t feel the same. Head scratching idiosyncrasies like that are a fundamental component of the film.

The mood is bright and colorful and Barb and Star are charming characters. Their saga is also a musical. The radiant numbers employ high production values with amusing choreography. The lyrics are ridiculous, but they’re insanely catchy. When the ladies arrive at their accommodations, the hotel bursts into song with a vivid ditty welcoming them to the “Palm Vista Hotel.” A lounge singer named Richard Cheese (Mark Jonathan Davis) sings inappropriate songs (“I Love Boobies”). But the moment the picture won me over was during Jamie Dornan’s performance of “Edgar’s Prayer”, a soaring power ballad where he laments what he is doing. The inspiring lyrics include: “I’m going up a palm tree/Like a cat up a palm tree/Who’s decided to go up a palm tree.” I can’t justify my enthusiasm for the supremely nonsensical adventure. Yet I enjoyed the goofiness. Barb and Star invokes the vibe of a stoner comedy without actually being about smoking weed. These girls are high on life.

04-06-21

Mark’s money-saving tips: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar debuted February 12 on what they call “premium” video on demand. That distinction meant you had to originally pay a “premium” price of $20. Hefty charge if you were TV watching solo that evening. However, the feature was released on April 6 on DVD which means you can now rent it at your local Redbox kiosk (yes they still exist) for $1.80. At that price, the movie is an excellent value.

2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on April 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV has made the Oscar-nominated short films (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences for over a decade. This year you can watch them online or via VOD or in a theater where they’ve been playing since April 2.

ANIMATION

I hate to be a gloomy Gus, but this year’s crop of animated films did not enchant me. Sadly Out, the man-dog body-swapping tale and Kapaemahu, the poetically beautiful Hawaiian folkloric tale didn’t even make the cut this year. With one notable exception, this animation program is not for kids. I’ve ranked these predominantly unlikable shorts in order of likability. It was hard.

BURROW
USA/6 MINS/2020
Director: MADELINE SHARAFIAN

A rabbit trying to dig herself an underground home keeps running into her neighbors. She’s confused. Her subterranean tunnels form a delightful labyrinth and the adorable critters are amusing. I get Wind in the Willows vibes. It’s a simple pleasure, but at least it’s pure and innocent. Burrow is from SparkShorts, a series produced by Pixar Animation Studios. It’s undeniably cute. What it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in feel-good spirit. Ironically that quality makes this entry unique by default this year. The rest of the submissions are dour, depressing and frankly a little twisted.

OPERA
SOUTH KOREA/USA/9 MINS/2020
Director: ERICK OH

This one grew on me upon closer study. A pyramidal diorama of a corrupt society is depicted in an overview of tiny figures before our eyes. The people on top have an effect on the humanity below. This would be impressive playing on a massive wall on a loop in a modern art gallery. It is impossible to grasp everything that is happening on screen, but upon further examination (I watched it more than once) a sense of purpose develops. Somewhat reminiscent of the work of Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch and his depictions of hell. This is an animated update for our modern times. It’s supremely unsettling but easily the most innovative of this year’s nominees. It begs your attention.

IF ANYTHING HAPPENS I LOVE YOU
USA/13 MINS/2020
Directors: MICHAEL GOVIER, WILL MCCORMACK

A husband and wife grieve the loss of their daughter — their only child — taken by a mass shooting. Minimalist, expressive black and white pencil sketches are a mediation on violence against children. The worst thing that any parent can possibly imagine is depicted for your entertainment in the form of a cartoon. There’s even a contemporary pop song “1950” by King Princess for your listening enjoyment. Clearly, their motives are pure. The filmmakers are opposed to school shootings which I think (I can safely say) is something everyone is against. The filmmakers worked closely with the American nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety. I can’t see this not winning the Oscar as the filmmakers have literally done their homework with a sanctioned advocacy group.

GENIUS LOCI
FRANCE/16 MINS/2019
Director: ADRIEN MERIGEAU

In the polytheistic religion of ancient Rome, a “genius loci” was the protective spirit of a place. The longest at 16 minutes, this is extremely avant-garde. Reine is a young Black woman who ventures through the urban chaos of Paris. The people and places around her are an ever-shifting collage of surrealism. Is she on drugs? Is she mentally unstable? Are paranormal forces afoot? Who’s to say. One thing’s for sure. She is anxious and dissatisfied with life. Disconnected from her thoughts and body, she even becomes a canine at one point. The most experimental of the nominees which is a nice way of saying, I didn’t get it.

YES-PEOPLE
ICELAND/9 MINS/2020
Director: GÍSLI DARRI HALLDÓRSSON

A group of unsavory residents live in an apartment building. The characters with their exaggerated features are visually grotesque in this portrait of domesticity. Good luck divining a story in this narrative. Their nonverbal dialogue consists of grunts before culminating with moans and screams of ecstasy at the end. These (amusingly?) reverberate throughout the building when one couple decides to get intimate. How on earth is this up for an award? The worst of the lot.

03-28-21

2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Drama, Shorts with tags on April 5, 2021 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV has been making the Oscar-nominated short films (live-action, animated, documentary) available to audiences for over a decade. This year you can watch them online or via VOD or in a theater where they’ve been playing since April 2.

Live-Action

Cops or prejudice or a combination of the two are the connective themes that unite the majority of this year’s nominees. Incidentally, it wasn’t the subject of Pedro Almodóvar’s highly promoted short The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton. That may explain why a submission many thought could potentially win in this category, didn’t even get nominated. Regardless, there are some worthy films here. I’ve ranked the nominees in order of best to worst.

TWO DISTANT STRANGERS
USA/29 MINS/2020
Directors: TRAVON FREE, MARTIN DESMOND ROE

Carter James, a black graphic designer (Joey Badass) wakes up in the bed of the girl (Zaria Simone) he met last night. After some chitchat, he leaves her apartment only to be stopped by an aggressive white cop (Andrew Howard) in an altercation that shockingly leads to Carter’s death. Suddenly he’s back in her bed. Apparently, it was all a dream. Yet the cycle is repeated again and again with different iterations but always ending in his demise. What can he do differently to survive? Because I just saw Joe Carnahan’s recent Boss Level, I’ll compare this time-loop nightmare as a clever amalgamation of that film mixed with the social message of Black Lives Matter. Pay attention to how Carter dies each time because you best believe there’s meaning behind each one.

THE PRESENT
PALESTINE/25 MINS/2020
Director: FARAH NABULSI

Yusuf (Saleh Bakri) simply wants to get his wife Noor (Mariam Kanj) a present — a new refrigerator. — for their anniversary. What seems like a simple task is anything but. You see Yusuf lives in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. He must cross a pedestrian bridge before reaching a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. There Yusuf must submit to a humiliating detention before being able to cross over. The fact that he has brought his daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj) along further complicates matters. Drama elucidates how even the most mundane tasks are difficult for a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. The tone deftly switches from lighthearted to tense back and forth several times in a mere 25 minutes.

THE LETTER ROOM
USA/33 MINS/2020
Director: ELVIRA LIND

Richard (Oscar Isaac) is a kindhearted but lonely corrections officer recently transferred to the prison’s letter room. He must monitor all prisoners’ incoming and outgoing mail. While there he becomes familiar with the lives of two inmates: Jackson (John Douglas Thompson) hasn’t gotten a message from his daughter in two years . He beseeches Richard to verify that the mail wasn’t withheld. Meanwhile, Cris (Brian Petsos) is facing execution. He receives rather passionate letters from his girlfriend Rosita (Alia Shawkat ). Earns points for daring to feature a good-natured officer. That’s almost nonexistent in 2021, but this slight chronicle is not justified by the length. At 33 minutes, it’s the longest “short” in this program. For what it’s worth, this is the handpicked frontrunner to win. The category is also notoriously hard to predict. I initially thought this feature was lucky to secure an actor as talented and famous as Oscar Issac. He’s the husband of director Elvira Lind.

FEELING THROUGH
USA/19 MINS/2019
Director: DOUG ROLAND

Tereek (Steven Prescod) a young black teen wandering the streets of New York. He’s been texting a girl for a possible hookup. Then he encounters Artie (Robert Tarango), a deaf-blind man in need of assistance in locating his bus stop. Their unexpected interaction is the subject of a connection that is almost spiritual. This poignant tale coasts on emotion, not dialogue. Star Robert Tarango is actually a dishwasher from Long Island with no acting experience. The press materials boast that this is the first film to star an actual deaf-blind actor. Hard to believe but kudos to the filmmakers for their consideration.

WHITE EYE
ISRAEL/20 MINS/2019
Director: TOMER SHUSHAN

“White eye” is an affliction of someone who is blind. Ah but to what? Omer (Daniel Gad) discovers his stolen bicycle locked up on a street corner in a squalid quarter of Tel Aviv. Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb) is a migrant worker from Eritrea who claims to have recently bought the vehicle. Omer angrily demands his bike. His ensuing reaction sets off a sequence of events that ultimately gives him pause. The idea that you should allow others to take things you own because they need them more is an *interesting* moral. Shot in one continuous take, the narrative deals with corrupt cops and the plight of migrant refugees from northeastern Africa looking for employment in Israel. The ending is frustrating, to say the least.

04-04-21

Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 1, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You’d think a movie with the title Godzilla vs. Kong would be pretty self-explanatory. Not hard to understand, right? Well, you’d be wrong. This is the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse — a comprehensive series featuring Godzilla and King Kong. Like Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers have decided to devise a needlessly complicated backstory to connect it to the previous installments. This directly draws upon the setup in Kong: Skull Island (2017) as well as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). I just want to see two beasts face off in the biggest beatdown in history. Can I?

The answer is yes, you can….after suffering through 40 minutes of exposition that weaves a lot of convoluted details that connect the stories of the earlier chapters into this one. This includes a discussion of “Hollow Earth” That is the idea that the center of the planet has an excavated space with other titans living within. Devoted viewers may recall this was brought up in Kong: Skull Island. The Skull Crawlers from that feature also make a brief appearance here too. Hollow Earth was likewise discussed in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Godzilla is using subterranean tunnels to swim across the globe. Just quickly tell me, but don’t subject me to nearly an hour of talking heads pontificating about the idea. It’s a tortuous set of details that is bewilderingly hard to follow. News flash: Your movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong. If I wanted a confusing scientific explanation I’ll watch Primer. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) doesn’t seem to grasp the idea that audiences don’t require laborious clarifications in a monster flick. One line from Rebecca Hall as Dr. Ilene Andrews explains it perfectly: the rivalry between these two beastly kings is rooted in a historical feud traversing centuries to an epic Titan War. Their hate spans generations. Got it. That’s all I needed to know.

The title is about creatures, but the screenplay written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is frustratingly all about the people. They deliver their lines in blunt simplistic declarations. Alexander Skarsgård is Dr. Nathan Lindof of the Monarch corporation. Monarch is the secret scientific organization created to study these huge beasts. With his matinee-idol good looks, Nathan is handsome but very capable. Rebecca Hall is Dr. Ilene Andrews, the beautiful but still extremely brilliant anthropological linguist who’s been trying to communicate with Kong with little success. Surprise! It’s Ilene’s adopted daughter who has established a rapport that she cannot. Jia is an eight-year-old orphan — cute as a button — who happens to be an Iwi native that forms an unusual bond with Kong.

Sorry, the humans are uninteresting. Nevertheless, actress Kaylee Hottle as Jia is possibly the human MVP of the ensemble. As if her character wasn’t already precious enough, she is a deaf/mute actress that communicates through sign language. The contrast between the diminutive Jia communicating with the larger-than-life Kong is the closest thing you’ll get to poignancy in this undertaking. If a tribal girl with seemingly magical abilities isn’t a predictable trope, I don’t know what is. There’s also Brian Tyree Henry as a quirky conspiracy theorist who joins forces with two precocious kids played by Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison. The random tangent of their story arc promises a Goonies-esque adventure that never materializes in any meaningful way. But who cares? None of this nonsense is crucial to the plot anyway. Demián Bechir portrays Walter Simmons, the tech founder of Apex Cybernetics. He’s an evil billionaire (Is there any other kind?). He has a sexy adult daughter embodied by rising star Eiza González. She’s a top-tier executive but is fond of wearing tight fitting clothing that doesn’t highlight her intelligence. Apex Cybernetics is responsible for creating Mechagodzilla, a man-made weapon designed to destroy Godzilla. Later Bechir’s character selects a Japanese employee (Shun Oguri) to pilot the man-made contraption. I don’t write this stuff folks. I merely review it.

Luckily the picture is smart enough to know that we came here for the battles and there are a couple of doozies. The first one is under the sea where Godzilla has the upper hand. But the second one begins in the hollow earth where Kong realizes that this might be his ancestral home. It’s here that he picks up an ax made from a spike off the back of Godzilla’s ancestors . The second showdown ultimately occurs when Kong jumps through a portal to meet Godzilla. They end up in the streets of Hong Kong. The setting amongst the buildings with neon outlines resembles a disco nightclub. It’s in these moments that Godzilla vs. Kong redeems itself into the movie you came to see.

There was a time when I enjoyed these nonsensical fight fests without giving a care. I often wonder how I would’ve reacted to a flick such as this when I was 5. Back then, they utilized actual people in suits. That would have been preferable. Here the CGI fest feels more like a cartoon than an organic meeting of physical enemies. Welcome to 2021. Another peculiarity of the 21st century is that insidery callbacks to earlier episodes are considered more of a priority than simply telling a coherent story. Only diehard fans will recognize every single one of these “easter eggs” inserted into the dense narrative. Ah but that is the current state of cinema. Speaking of which, this was simultaneously released for free to subscribers on HBO Max and in theaters in the U.S. Given our current reality, it’s obvious most people will see this on a TV. That’s fine. Even IMAX can’t fix a bad script. At least the production has a sense of humor. The quirky soundtrack emphasizes selections that perfectly describe the scene. “Over The Mountain, Across The Sea” by Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley’s “Loving Arms”, “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest, and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies all play at key intervals. I chuckled at how the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the action on screen. Godzilla vs. Kong is by no means a good movie, but it’s moments like these that remind me it can still be fun. At this juncture in time, that just might be enough.

03-31-21

The Mauritanian

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on March 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The story of what happened to Mohamedou Ould Salahi is a troubling tale that details a shocking abuse of human rights.

The Mauritanian is based on his memoir Guantánamo Diary published in January 2015. Salahi was detained on suspicion of being involved with the planning of the September 11 attacks. The story begins when he is apprehended at a wedding back in his home country. The case against him includes a lot of ties to various people who were indeed involved. However, the evidence implicating him is circumstantial. Clear-cut proof that Salahi himself had anything to do with 9/11 is lacking. Part of the film details his experiences at the prison as well as his interactions with other inmates. The constant demands made upon him to give a confession grow more and more intense. It is an emotional portrait that humanizes the man and stokes our anger over the way he is treated. Tahar Rahim stars as Salahi. He elevates the production with a powerful performance that draws us into his plight.

The chronicle is also a legal drama that features his defense team. Jodie Foster is criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander and her associate Teri Duncan is portrayed by Shailene Woodley. Doubts over whether their client is culpable keep coming up. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch on the side of the prosecution. His desire to get a conviction is balanced with a need to make sure they have the right man. Even though everyone seems conflicted, we the audience are not. Salahi’s innocence is implied at the beginning so coming to terms with his guilt or lack thereof is never a conundrum. The Mauritanian is pretty clear-cut in its presentation that the U.S. government failed.

This is a disturbing movie. Salahi was ultimately held for fourteen years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp from 2002 until his release in 2016 without ever being charged. That prison is infamous for the inhumane treatment that detainees experienced there. This movie climaxes with torture. The picture is noble in its intentions to bring a grave injustice to light but it’s hard to watch at times. I didn’t need to see graphic abuse to know bad things happened there. Director Kevin Macdonald famously directed The Last King of Scotland which brilliantly demonstrated how sometimes evil remains hidden in plain sight. Here it’s never a question of who’s right and who’s wrong, so the viewer must simply suffer along with Salahi until his eventual freedom.

03-11-21

Boss Level

Posted in Action, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on March 19, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Boss Level doesn’t waste any time getting right to the point. The focus is action, pure and simple. It starts when a man named Roy (Frank Grillo) wakes up in bed next to a woman (Annabelle Wallis). She screams just as an attacker swings at him with a machete, barely missing his head. Another assassin outside his window flies up in a helicopter and fires a machine gun into the apartment conveniently eliminating the first hitman with bullets that were clearly meant for Roy. He calmly reacts with calculated precision looking rather bored by these attempts on his life. After the chopper crashes through the window, Roy jumps out, safely landing in the back of a truck filled with sand. He carjacks a guy and recklessly dodges two more killers before crashing into an oncoming bus and promptly dies after flying through the window.

This chronicle is a bit disorienting at first. The story gleefully drops the viewer in the middle of some crazy events without much explanation. Roy Pulver is a retired Delta Force soldier. He tells us through voiceover narration that this isn’t the first time he has experienced this day. It unfolds in a continuous loop reverting to the same morning whenever he dies. Specifics like who is after him and why — as well as the science explaining why time repeats — are helpful because it rationalizes this cartoonish film. Even though things may not always make sense, that’s OK because the exposition is merely a superficial justification for a lot of exciting and often humorous set-pieces.

Square-jawed and physically fit, actor Frank Grillo doesn’t get the starring role often but he makes a badass action hero. It’s the kind of part Arnold would have played during his prime in the 1980s. He learns from his mistakes by carefully remembering what went wrong in the previous sequence, then improving on it. As a character, Roy Pulver is singularly fixated on getting the job done and not much else. Roy’s workaholic obsession is what caused his estranged wife Jemma (Naomi Watts) to break up with him. Together they have a son Joe (Grillo’s real-life 12-year-old son Rio). However, Jemma has not yet told the boy that Roy is his father.

Boss Level is more than nonstop combat. It’s also about the connections Roy makes with other people. As the various scenarios play out, relationships are deepened. Details of his marriage with Jemma are revealed. The bond with his son is strengthened. Jemma’s boss is somehow involved too. Mel Gibson shows up portraying the evil head of a shadowy corporation. His sardonic appearances are brief, but just enough to add a little camp to the recipe. Roy also gets assistance from Chef Jake (Ken Jeong), who owns a diner/bar, a security expert named Dave (Sheaun McKinney), and Dai Feng (Michelle Yeoh) a champion sword fighter. These characters are welcome additions that elevate the drama with much-needed interactions that humanize his character. This tale is about more than action. It concerns friendships and family too.

This is a Joe Carnahan movie. The filmmaker has a solid reputation for brutal excitement. The title of his directorial debut Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane established the tone for his career. Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team, and The Grey all followed as he built a loyal fan base. He’s a director whose style is personified by: “action speaks a lot louder than words.” In that vein Boss Level is one of his best. Using fast edits, explosions, and intense activity, the saga entertains . The energy rarely lets up so there isn’t much opportunity to pick apart possible inconsistencies. The mood is savage but remains somewhat lighthearted because you know Roy’s death will never be the end. He’s killed a lot. Frequent assailant Guan Yin (Selina Lo) is fond of beheadings with her sword and then proudly declaring, “I am Guan Yin….and Guan Yin has done this!” The atmosphere recalls other films, most directly Edge of Tomorrow for the time loop shenanigans, but also Crank for its relentless pace and Total Recall for its blending sci-fi into the mix. The ability to reset and start over with an infinite number of lives is a nod to video games too. The narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s silly and violent and its pleasures are admittedly ephemeral. However, while I watched I was consistently enthralled. I enjoyed the ride.

03-08-21