Mistress America

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mistress America photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNoah Baumbach’s latest character drama is a slender abstraction in search of a meaningful narrative. This isn’t a story but a series of witticisms strung together as entertainment. Actress Lola Kirke is Tracy Fishko, a drab artsy college student. She is starting her freshman year at Barnard, that oh-so-selective liberal arts college for women in Manhattan. She has no friends, flirts unsuccessfully with Tony, a potential boyfriend turned buddy, and is rejected by the school’s elite literary society. Then her life takes a turn for the better when she calls her soon-to-be step-sister. Brooke Cardenas is a bubbly Times Square resident who “does everything and nothing”. That’s according to Tracy’s assessment. She wavers between spin-class instructor, math tutor, freelance interior designer and whatever else strikes her fancy. Brooke is larger than life, a gal about town. Our tale centers around their night of unbridled whimsy. Tracy seems to idolize her. Or does she?

These individuals don’t talk to each other, but rather at each other knowing full well we the audience are eavesdropping on their affected conversation. These aren’t people as we know them, but models of pseudo-intellectual posturing. A chum photographs Brooke in a club and she loudly proclaims “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?” The sheer volume at which she makes this declaration ostensibly so that everyone within earshot can applaud her specious display of modesty. She never stops, constantly in motion, incessantly talking. On several occasions I was compelled to simply shake this woman free from her all-encompassing fog of self-interest. It’s inexhaustible. “Could you please just shut up for 2 seconds?! Seriously, please.” Brooke never stops to take a breath for fear that she might actually hear something other than the sound of her own voice.

Good grief, Brooke Cardenas is incredibly self-absorbed. You’ll snicker. You’ll smile occasionally, but the sum total adds precious little value. Noah Baumbach has been making movies for 2 decades now. Mistress America is his 9th directorial effort and his 3rd collaboration with Greta Gerwig. They’re a couple in real life and I will admit the relationship has actually made his characters more pleasant. Brooke has a sunny disposition at least, but she’s too self-indulgent to truly embrace. The whole shebang climaxes (a most charitably chosen verb) over an act of betrayal. The acrimonious finale takes place in the upscale home of Brooke’s ex-fiance (Michael Chernus) and his wife, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). She was once Brooke’s best friend, now mortal enemy. A coterie of supporting players present weigh in on Brooke and Tracy’s friendship. The mixed message of the piece leaves the viewer in a state of flux. Is Brooke life-affirming? Is Brooke a disorganized mess? She’s got moxie, sure, but inherently flawed as well. So what’s the point? To worship at the altar of an individual who is shamelessly narcissistic apparently.

08-23-15

The Gift

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 22, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Gift photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgSimon is a highly competitive, status-conscious go-getter. His wife Robyn is interested in restarting her successful architect business. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall are the Callums, a well-to-do couple who have recently moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles. They’ve bought a sleek glass-walled home in the hills near where Simon grew up. They seemingly have the perfect life. However a recent miscarriage hangs over them. Then one day while out shopping for furniture for their new home, a man approaches Simon and claims to know him from high school. Simon doesn’t recognize him until he says his name is Gordon Mosely, or Gordo.

Their exchange is pleasant, but soon after, he begins dropping by their home unannounced, usually when Simon is at work. Then there’s the series of escalating presents that Gordo bestows on the pair: a bottle of wine, koi fish for their outdoor pond. His presence starts to make them uncomfortable. Dismantling the peaceful tranquility of the wealthy suburban upper-class is a genre unto itself. Call it the “home-invasion” thriller. Fatal Attraction, Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and Unlawful Entry have all done the broad category justice. The Gift is an impressive addition.

The cast is uniformly excellent. I generally consider Jason Bateman to be a comedic actor, but he plays against type occasionally.  Once again, he is outstanding in a serious role. Rebecca Hall is his equal as yes, his sympathetic wife. But she’s a complex individual in her own right. They don’t always see eye to eye. Together they must contend with this intruder in their lives. Joel Edgerton (WarriorThe Great Gatsby) strikes the perfect balance between menacing and amiable as Simon’s classmate from the past. Edgerton is also the writer and director. He delivers an extremely self assured directorial debut with this finely crafted feature.

The Gift is a suspense thriller that hews close to the grand tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. The chronicle commences with a predicable frame, but it doesn’t end that way. What energizes the story is how Edgerton’s screenplay extracts tension from the unknown. That queasy feeling you get when things are a bit off kilter but you’re not really quite sure why. That lack of privacy is at the heart of the horror exploited here. Their personal refuge is being infringed to the point that it becomes unsettling. What makes Gordo tick is a question you’ll immediately have once he becomes part of the narrative. The script takes it’s time not to answer this question immediately. The drama allows the audience to simmer for awhile in this sinister stew. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy being on edge. By the shocking climax, The Gift pushes you to the absolute brink.

08-13-15

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

Posted in Animation, Drama with tags on August 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgKahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a cartoon, yes. However before you rush out to see this movie with the kids in tow, you really should read this review first. It’s not that there’s anything here that young minds shouldn’t see. On the contrary, it’s filled with inspirational life lessons that are perfectly acceptable. It’s just that it is not something a child would find particularly entertaining nor, dare I say it, most adults.

Kahlil Gibran was a Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer. Born in the Ottoman Empire on January 6, 1883, he immigrated with his family to the United States as a young man. He is best known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet which is an English collection of 26 prose essays. It was wildly successful and has been translated into over 40 different languages. In the Arab world, political leaders considered Gibran a literary rebel. In Lebanon, he is a literary hero to this day.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet doesn’t have a strong narrative per se. Rather it’s a succession of animated poems, each one taken from his seminal work. The subjects are freedom, children, marriage, work, eating & drinking, love, good & evil, and death, with different animators for each. Segment directors include Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), Bill Plympton (Guard Dog, Cheatin’), Joan Gratz (Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase), Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues), Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat), Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (“Firebird Suite” in Fantasia 2000), Michal Socha (Simpson’s couch gag from “What To Expect When Bart’s Expecting”) and Mohammed Harib (Freej). The displays are loosely strung together by the tale of an imprisoned poet named Mustafa (Liam Neeson), who has just been released. He’s on his way to board a ship that will take him home. Along the way, he gives the advice that forms the foundation of the various segments.

The obvious audience for this are devotees of Kahlil Gibran. He is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao Tzu, so he obviously has his admirers. If an array of animated shorts depicting his words sounds captivating, then I’d surely recommend this to you. The series of 8 videos presented here are all of noble quality – pretty images with spoken word narration. A couple have music to accompany them. My favorite was Nina Paley’s “On Children”. The shadow puppets of Indonesia inspire a mesmerizing visual tableau accompanied by a song by Damien Rice. It presents a pregnant female archer who shoots an arrow into the belly of another pregnant woman, thus giving birth to another human being. It’s utterly hypnotic. The entire movie was produced by actress Salma Hayek, who also gives voice to one of the characters, and supervised by director Roger Allers (The Lion King). The talent behind the camera is considerable and the intentions are clearly heartfelt. It’s a pleasant diversion, but far from necessary viewing. For die-hard fans of Kahlil Gibran’s poetry, however, it should prove enchanting.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgConfession time. I’ve never seen an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – the dated mid-60s TV show starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. The two worked as ancillary superspies for a global covert intelligence agency during the Cold War. The series lasted a mere 4 seasons but apparently it made enough of a lasting impression to inspire this movie. In my jaded estimation, turning a TV show into a feature film seems like another lazy attempt to start a franchise. Perhaps the motivation of the producers is a bit calculating, but I found this to be nothing less than an effervescent cocktail of a spy thriller. It’s a handsome production.

Speaking of handsome, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stars Superman and the Lone Ranger. That’s Brit Henry Cavill as American Napoleon Solo and American Armie Hammer as Soviet Illya Kuryakin. It’s debateable, but I dare say neither actor has ever been more charismatic on screen than they are here. The two trade wisecracks with flair and panache, each one playing a game of one-upmanship that’s so delightfully fun you can’t help but smile. Cavill also banters with Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as Victoria Vinciguerra, a devastatingly beautiful but icy Italian villain. Cavill tosses off quips with compelling insouciance. The words delivered with such clarity they sound almost too lyrical to be coming from an American, but the fantasy works nonetheless. This is how we wish we spoke. Like some long lost conversation between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, their flirtatious exchanges are captivating.

What sets this apart from today’s bombastic assaults is that the approach is breezily elegant. This bright, sparkling concoction is a period piece mixture of swanky espionage, jazzy lounge pop instrumentals and chic fashions. James Bond author Ian Fleming contributed to the original concept of the TV show and that’s immediately obvious when watching this film. It oozes the aesthetic of that British Secret Service agent in every frame. Daniel Pemberton’s light snappy arrangements should be recognized. His pop music selections suggest Hugo Montenegro’s work on the TV series as well as Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin with stirring élan. Surprisingly he excludes Jerry Goldsmith’s popular theme song. The omission isn’t missed however as the dulcet tones present effectively transport viewers back to the bossa nova of another time and place.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston also deserves a special mention. Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is the most nattily attired secret agent I’ve ever seen. In one scene he sports a large blue windowpane plaid suit inspired by Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. He’s talking with nemesis Victoria Vinciguerra in a black and white number that’s an homage to Cruella de Vil. The two look marvelous. Let’s not forget Swedish Alicia Vikander as the equally stunning but spunky Gaby, an East German mechanic recruited to be an unlikely ally. At one point she models an orange and cream wool camo-print mini-dress that is utterly Twiggy-esque.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a pleasant refreshment. It’s not the most urgent story you’ll see at the multiplex this year but it is entertaining. Guy Ritchie has directed this flick with the same swagger he brought to Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey, Jr. And Jude Law were a dashing pair and Ritchie extracts that same palpable chemistry between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They have never been better. 2015 has seen its fair share of undercover thrillers. There was Kingsman: The Secret Service, the comedy Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. All saw decent success. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proves there’s room for one more. Its sexy take is a satisfying addition to the mix. Granted it’s superficial, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. This should be a welcome diversion to tide the spy fan over until Spectre, the 24th Bond film, is released on November 6th.

08-17-15

Straight Outta Compton

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Straight Outta Compton  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe formation and eventual breakup of seminal rap group N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitude) is the subject of Straight Outta Compton. The biopic mainly charts the careers of 5 artists from Compton, California who greatly influenced hip hop in the 90’s and beyond. In 1988 N.W.A was dubbed “the worlds most dangerous group”. Much of this due to their explicit and profanity-filled lyrics about urban crime and the gangster lifestyle. The FBI even sent them a warning letter. In retrospect, they couldn’t have asked for better publicity. Their music, including songs like “F— tha Police,” received no airplay from mainstream radio. Yet publicity fueled the album’s success and their popularity grew with the masses.

Any memoir must edit facts in order to streamline a narrative. Straight Outta Compton is definitely a bit guilty of selective history. The lineup of N.W.A. began with Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. Although N.W.A formed in 1986, MC Ren actually didn’t join until 1988 just before the release of their first album Straight Outta Compton. Arabian Prince left shortly after but he did contribute to their debut. As a matter of fact, he appears on the album cover. So why doesn’t he rate a mention here? Even a bus driver gets a credit. Delving a little into this personnel shakeup would’ve been nice.

The film mainly centers on members Ice Cube (real life son O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are key people too but remain somewhat in the background. All of the aforementioned three get ample screen time, but interestingly it’s Eazy-E’s story that is the most compelling. From drug dealer to last minute replacement rapper, his drama is never short on surprises. His solo debut single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” is presented as almost an afterthought. Short of stature with a voice pitched in a higher register, his characteristics belie an intriguing personality. The strength of his business partnership with manager/friend Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) was a development I wasn’t expecting.

Straight Outta Compton does a nice job of encapsulating a fairly dense plot that juggles a myriad cast of characters. The era leading up to N.W.A’s creation is dramatized but also the period following their breakup. Dr. Dre’s association with Suge Knight is detailed, as well as his split from Death Row records amid rising tensions, to form his own label Aftermath. At 2½ hours, it is a bit long but there is still a lot of interesting material here. The first half that focuses on N.W.A’s inception and transformation is best. Occasionally director F. Gary Gray falls victim to the standard rise and fall cliches of music biographies. The fable succeeds most when detailing the harsh realities of urban LA that inspired the song lyrics of their true-to-life tales. They were rallying against poverty and prejudice. We’re given news events that establish a timeline. The Rodney King trial is referenced for example. In light of current ongoing media investigation of police brutality, their social commentary rings even truer today. The details behind N.W.A is something of which I knew little. Yet the movie gave me a reason to care. The complex evolution of how influential artists popularized a burgeoning subgenre called gangsta rap, is frequently fascinating.

08-15-15

Best of Enemies

Posted in Documentary, History with tags on August 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Best of Enemies photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe proliferation of political punditry on TV wasn’t always so ubiquitous. Before Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck, Rachael Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, there was William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. In the summer of 1968, ABC news needed something to punch up their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. They were dead last in the ratings behind more established news teams on NBC (Chet Huntley & David Brinkley) and CBS (Walter Cronkite). Conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal didn’t just detest each other, they viewed the other as dangerous to the very fabric of American society. This was a culture war and it would played out on a TV screen. It was an audacious attempt to try something different. Millions tuned in. Ratings soared.

If the idea of two erudite minds with diametrically opposed ideologies duking it out in the intellectual arena sounds exciting to you, then see this movie. We are of like mind incidentally. The way this documentary is constructed is kind of brilliant. Directors Robert Gordon (20 Feet from Stardom) and Morgan Neville masterfully orchestrate a drama built around a battle of wills. The vitriolic hate is palpable. I suspect this chronicle is indeed more interesting than the debates themselves. The forums do not appear in their entirety. We are given sound bites, the selection of which no doubt at the discretion of the filmmakers. However the sampling seems fair and both sides are comparably represented by their apparent friends / fans / devotees. Each of which get equal time to expound on the merits of their idol.

Best of Enemies centers on ten televised debates in 1968 between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal regarding the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Most of the conversation is heated but diplomatic. The climax is fashioned around what is essentially an infamous altercation of name calling between these two loquacious rivals. The discussion centered on freedom of speech in regards to American protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag. Their polite discourse ultimately condensed to a hostile exchange. Gore Vidal baits Buckley with a personal low blow. Buckley strikes back in kind. Buckley and Vidal, these intellectuals with aristocratic bearing, had been reduced to children. According to the documentary, both had a hard time ever forgetting the incident. It was the seed that inspired an article in Esquire that led to a lengthy lawsuit that took years to settle. Individually, these debates had profoundly affected their lives, but more universally it changed the landscape of political punditry. Given the mostly civilized, highbrow rhetoric seen here and what we are now accustomed to, I’d say things have deteriorated considerably.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on August 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Shaun the Sheep Movie photo starrating-4stars.jpgDelightful confection about a sheep who simply dreams about having a day off at the farm. Shaun (Justin Fletcher) is the de facto leader of a flock of sheep. He hatches a scheme so they can have a break from their daily routine. Naturally things don’t go quite as planned.

Despite the title, Shaun the Sheep is actually an ensemble piece. There’s the oblivious bespectacled Farmer (John Sparkes). His odyssey after accidentality winding up in the Big City is just as important as Shaun’s narrative. There’s the rest of the flock too, some of whom get distinct personalities. This includes Nuts, Hazel, Shirley, the largest member and little Timmy, Shaun’s nephew. There’s Bitzer the Sheepdog, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gromit, another Nick Park creation. Bitzer is loyally devoted to the Farmer and the calm yin to Shaun’s wild yang. Their adventures allow them to meet a variety of animals including Slip, a lovable little stray dog with the longest eyelashes ever. But it’s not all fun and games. They must contend with Trumper (Omid Djalili) an animal control officer who is the traditional nemesis of any stray pet.

Shaun the Sheep is the sixth feature from Aardman Studios and based on the BBC television show. The production almost exists in another world apart from other animated films. However the visual and comedic stylings are very much in line with the British animation studio’s other pictures. Located in Bristol, they are best known for using stop-motion claymation techniques. The company first gained fame with several shorts starring the adventures of Wallace & Gromit. In 2000 they released their theatrical debut with Chicken Run and it was a huge success.

Shaun the Sheep is warm, clever, witty, hilarious, touching, sweet, cute.  I could go on. A delight for those who appreciate a whimsical romp. It’s refreshingly slight clocking in at a mere 85 minutes. For those whose tastes run toward more electrifying fare, this placid tale may seem a bit soporific. There’s nary a word of spoken dialogue. Everything is expressed through gestures and vocal cues. I, on the other hand, truly appreciated this undemanding tale’s lighthearted take. It’s rather impressive how much story be conveyed through mutters and grunts and baas and bleats. As such, witty sight gags abound. Gentle G rated humor references Inception, Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver and The Terminator. Stick around for an end-credits homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Early on, the sheep lull Farmer to sleep by continuously jumping over a fence. But my absolute favorite interlude is a disguise sequence where the sheep dress up as humans and go out to a fancy French restaurant. It’s so visually brilliant it could only be described as Chaplin-esque.

08-06-15

Fantastic Four

Posted in Uncategorized on August 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Fantastic Four photo starrating-3stars.jpgFollowing 2005’s Fantastic Four and Rise of the Silver Surfer in 2007, this 2015 movie is the third theatrical film from 20th Century Fox to feature the superhero team. Regrettably it is yet another origin story. Oh joy! After 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, I was hoping for another unnecessary reboot. Perhaps it’s akin to naming the sweetest poison, but this is indeed the best in the series yet. Historically the team has been interpreted as a pseudo family represented by a father of sorts in Reed Richards (Miles Teller) mother figure Sue Storm (Kate Mara), son Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and uncle Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell ). The difference here is that they’re depicted as a much younger version of those archetypes.

Fantastic Four takes a lot of liberties with the source material and as such, will probably ruffle the feathers of purists. As far as I’m concerned, comic books are not gospel. As long as I get an entertaining flick, I’m happy. Some individuals are admittedly sidelined and shuffled around in a way that doesn’t effectively serve the story. Ben Grimm (The Thing) disappears for a large portion of the film. Sue is left out of the key event from which they get their powers. The face of Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) metamorphosizes into an immobile plastic mask devoid of emotion. Moreover, he’s such a flimsily written attempt at a villain, he’s all but unnecessary. However the overhaul does give us something novel. What sets this saga apart is that it really isn’t a superhero movie at all, but a science fiction character study. Granted it’s a bit dour and humorless, but after the campy and ridiculous previous entries, the change of pace is rather refreshing.

In terms of plot, Fantastic Four is easily divided into 3 parts. Thematically it starts out with a whiz kid’s science project like Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985). As they mature it exploits the body morphing horror of The Fly (1986) before ultimately devolving into a CGI superpower demonstration that recalls The Incredibles but without the heart. This chapter doesn’t tread new ground but it is competent at least. At first the narrative has the courage to eschew the clichéd banalities of action setpieces for genuine understated drama. The exposition delves into the complexities of their situation. The relationship of these people is key and as portrayed by these charismatic actors, their anguish is captivating. The film is so modest, so rooted in 1960s science fiction, it’s almost a revolutionary act in 2015. Unfortunately the script doesn’t have the cojones to continue in this vein.

Fantastic Four is a mixed bag in 3 parts. For sections one and two, the script prioritizes character development. It probes the entanglements of their relationship. Just what exactly makes these people tick? These are nuanced protagonists struggling with their own identities. However, the story ultimately devolves into a computer graphics laden spectacle. The action climax is straight out of the textbook of bad superhero filmmaking. The finale is incoherent, bombastic and to be quite honest, really ugly. The director of Chronicle (2012), Josh Trank has publicly distanced himself from his picture. He intimated that it was ruined by studio interference. Given the complete change in tone in the final third, it’s plausible to see where his vision might have been thwarted. That’s a shame because given that a mere two-thirds of this is watchable, Fantastic Four can only rightfully be called Fantastic 2.67.

08-06-15

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Posted in Drama with tags on August 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Stanford Prison Experiment photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgUncomfortable, unsettling, unnerving, and any other unpleasant “un” you can think of – the Stanford prison experiment was a simulation conducted in 1971 at Stanford University under the supervision of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. 24 male college students were chosen. Participants received $15 per day (equivalent to $87 in 2015). A hyper-realistic environment was established in a nondescript hallway in the basement of Jordan Hall (Stanford’s psychology building). 9 plus 3 alternates were assigned the role of prisoner while 9 others plus 3 backups were designated as guards. The ascribed parts being determined by a coin toss. No one wanted to be a guard, many determining there was more work involved. Zimbardo monitored their roleplay from another room via surveillance cameras as the superintendent. An undergraduate research assistant assumed the character of the warden. It was to run between 7 to 14 days. Zimbardo pulled the plug on the whole exercise after only 6.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez directs a skilled cast. Billy Crudup is the very real, still living, psychologist Philip Zimbardo who led the notorious experiment which studied the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or guard. He heads up an impressive cast of up and coming future stars. The production is highlighted by a flawless ensemble that demonstrates the various intricacies of how the whole enterprise devolved. The largest parts going to Ezra Miller who plays the most defiant and Michael Angarano who emerges as the most brutal. Before the venture began Zimbardo instructed the guards not to physically harm the prisoners. However he did motivate them to be controlling, to take away their individuality and to create a sense of fear and powerlessness. The participants adapted to their roles way past Zimbardo’s expectations.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a frustrating watch. The guards negatively treat the detainees in ever increasing shocking and dehumanizing ways. Initially a few prisoners resist with acts of rebellion, but more often than not they start to concede to their situation. Their passive acceptance is no less disquieting. This conduct over the course of the drama is not easy viewing. What we see is personalties change. These are not prisoners/guards. These are privileged upper-middle-class college students attending Stanford. Guards grow sadistic while prisoners become submissive. They act out the roles expected of them in a way far beyond what anyone involved with the study could have expected. The undertaking is a bit exasperating. I had many questions and concerns about how the whole operation was handled and the validity of the results. However, as a document of a notorious experiment gone wrong (or right depending on what you wanted to prove) I found it to be an arresting study in human behavior. I can’t say I enjoyed The Stanford Prison Experiment, but I did respect the craft that when into making it.

07-25-15

Tangerine

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Tangerine photo starrating-4stars.jpgA girl inadvertently reveals the philandering ways of her pal’s boyfriend during a casual conversation in an LA doughnut shop The news compels the deceived to get to the bottom of the situation. Sounds like a rather pedestrian plot, right? Now add that the parties are 2 transgender prostitutes working in a seedy part of Hollywood. Her beau earns a living as a pimp and the whole production was shot on an iPhone 5s. Are you still with me? OK well yes, Tangerine is gonna be a rough journey for some. This is LA, raw and uncensored, right in the heart of where N. Highland Ave. intersects Santa Monica Blvd. Yet deep down, heart is what this picture is all about.

A great story is highlighted by meaningful characters. This diverse ensemble is headlined by a plethora of memorable people including an Armenian taxicab driver (Karren Karagulian), his wife (Luiza Nersisyan) and her mother (Alla Tumanian). Tangerine stars Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez as Sin-Dee Rella and Mya Taylor as her BFF Alexandra. Both make their acting debut here. The two unite in gritty L.A. during Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee has recently gotten out of LA county jail and she’s looking for her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone). She has just been informed that he has been less than true. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. That there is still space to present Alexandra and her dreams of becoming a singer, only adds to the depth of the narrative.  In keeping with the Christmas period, her rendition of the song “Toyland” from the Victor Herbert operetta Babes in Toyland is moving.  The myriad of individuals ultimately descend at Donut Time for a confrontation at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

Tangerine is an important film. Not simply because of content. Plenty of movies have dealt with challenging adult subject matter. What sets it apart is uplifting proof that cost is no longer a prohibitive factor when setting out to make an entertaining flick. The fact that the entire drama was photographed on an iPhone 5s is clearly the result of an autonomous mind. The idea that anyone with a unique point of view can make a movie is an exhilarating concept that lies beneath every frame of Tangerine that illuminates the screen.

Director Sean Baker is an American film and TV director and co-creator of Greg the Bunny, an American television sitcom that originally aired on Fox in 2002. Tangerine is actually his fifth feature but perhaps the first to achieve any modicum of fame. In it, he provides an insider’s view of the sordid and dangerous lives of streetwalkers in Los Angeles. Yet it’s not entirely doom and gloom. It’s marked by a light touch. Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in all of 2015 occur in this production. The screenplay is accentuated by some flippant one liners that are sure to be oft quoted lines of dialogue as the movie undoubtedly makes its way into the pop culture mainstream in years to come.

Tangerine pulses with the unique voice of independent film. The narrative beats with a vitality rarely seen in contemporary cinema. An evocation of LA’s current essence, perfectly captured as any I’ve seen.  It’s vibrant and funny and yes at times pretty bleak.  The humorous touch sometimes undone by the grim truth in the ongoing predicament of the two protagonists. Perhaps that’s being authentic but it also shocks the viewer. One minute we’re laughing at an amusing aside, the next we’re slapped into harsh reality by dead seriousness. Along the way, the script straddles the line between dignifying the two leads and exploiting them. That’s no easy feat. Their fierce attitudes consistently at the fore as the chronicle emphasizes their sassy personalities.  Yet it never resorts to caricature. There’s an inherent sadness within these characters too.  The humanity on display is pretty heartbreaking. Tangerine encapsulates the atmosphere of LA 2015 and distills this into a poignant chronicle for the present generation. The sensibility is clearly the product of our modern time. Like Boyz n the Hood (1991), The Player (1992) & Mulholland Drive (2001), Tangerine is the quintessential LA movie for the current era.

08-02-15

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 887 other followers