Lucy

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on July 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Lucy photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Plot: “Lucy wishes to be part of Ricky’s act at the club but he forbids it, so she disguises herself to get into the show.”

Of course I’m kidding.  That’s obviously a description of the very amusing 50s sitcom I Love Lucy.  However Lucy the movie, the latest sci-fi offering from director Luc Besson, is no less funny, but unintentionally so. Our heroine starts out as a blonde bimbo. An American woman who just wants to have fun while living and studying in Taipei, Taiwan. The gratuitous setting ostensibly for no other reason than it affords the cinematographer lots of cool shots of Taipei 101, which up until 2010, was the tallest building in the world. Her boyfriend, looking like a Bono wannabe with yellow wraparound shades and cowboy hat, is Danish actor Pilou Asbæk.  They’ve only been dating for a week. Now he’s tricked her into becoming a drug mule for his employer, a fearsome Korean gangster named Mr. Jang. Scenes of thugs congregating are awkwardly juxtaposed with nature footage of a cheetah stalking a gazelle on the African veld. Actor Choi Min-sik relishes his role. He shoots a guy for laughing. The way he strikes a paralyzing fear into the hearts of everyone around him is kind of amusing. Lucy is subsequently knocked out and a highly valuable synthetic pharmaceutical called CPH4 is placed in her stomach. The bright blue gravel looks like something with which you’d line an aquarium floor. While imprisoned, one of Lucy’s captors kicks her in the stomach causing the bag to leak which releases the mind enhancing superdrug into her system.

I suppose I can suspend disbelief and accept that this stimulant has crazy mind altering capabilities, but the drug is so potent, her aptitude qualifies as an unfair advantage. She has the powers of a god. Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) is introduced at this juncture giving a lecture on brain capacity to his students likewise bringing the audience up to speed as well. He explains that if humans could exceed beyond their mere 10% brain usage, they would either choose immortality or reproduction. A clip is shown of every species imaginable copulating at this point, just in case we’re unclear as to how animals get busy. Here’s about where the narrative really gets stupid, i.e. so ridiculous it‘s a joke. On each occasion her mental capacity expands, the screen goes black and a big white numerical percentage notifies us how much of her brain she is now using. We start at 10% then 20 on to 30 and so forth. As the movie plays out the numbers advance speedily the closer she nears 100%. She begins acquiring increasingly powerful mental talents and enhanced physical potential. She learns and retains huge amounts of data in seconds, absorbs information instantaneously, manipulates objects with her mind. Pain is essentially something she chooses not to feel. Did I mentions she has mastered time travel too?

Now omnipotent, she has a pretty significant advantage against her human antagonists. Her power is absolute but it‘s also laughable. Lucy contacts Professor Norman by manipulating electronics and incongruously appearing on the TV in his hotel room. At the hospital she mentally dismantles and entire room full of armed men with a wave of her fingers. At least she spares the one French policeman out to help her (Amr Waked). In a superhero movie it would take another all powerful entity to stop her, but here no one can possibly confront her abilities. In one particularly emblematic scene, a small army of combatants accost her down a hallway. With a few flicks of her wrist, the attackers are levitated. The thrill of an elaborately choreographed fight scene is neutralized in seconds. Crisis averted but so is the excitement.

Lucy is so ridiculously harebrained, that it becomes a compelling watch, like a train wreck. For about the first third of the film it’s a fairly straightforward woman in peril story. Once Scarlett Johansson ingests the narcotic and she begins to understand how to manipulate its benefits, the saga becomes a superhero movie without a legitimate antagonist. Scarlett Johansson morphs from a trembling airhead into an instinctual killing machine. Her voice becomes a robotic monotone to boot. Apparently only stupid people show emotion. I kept wondering when someone else would simply take the same drug so they could oppose her on the same level playing field. Alas no one seemed to figure that out. That lack of sense ironically accords with everything else in this loopy film. The script lazily sets up a far fetched premise without even trying to explain why it would work.

As her intellect grows so does the ludicrousness of the story. There’s a moment where Lucy pages through time with her hands like she’s playing a Dance Central video game. We watch her zip from Paris to New York’s Times Square as the site transforms through various eras. While wearing Louboutins and a sexy black mini, she ultimately has an awkward meet and greet in the Jurassic era with Lucy the Australopithecus.  Yes, I’m talking about the first hominid. Then they touch fingers like when God created Adam à la Michelangelo. I laughed so hard I cried. It’s an efficient little thriller too. The whole thing clocks in at just 90 minutes. A trippy dippy delight along the enjoyable nonsense of concoctions like Congo and Anaconda. Lucy is not good in the traditional sense, but it is hilariously nonsensical in spite of itself. This is pure camp and on that level, it qualifies as an entertaining movie.

A Hard Day’s Night

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on July 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Hard Day's Night photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt was fifty years ago today…well August 11, 1964 to be exact….that the picture A Hard Day’s Night was unleashed onto the American public. The soundtrack was The Beatles’ third studio album. Beatlemania was already in full swing and the teen public’s hunger for anything having to do with the British phenomenon was insatiable.

After signing them to a 3 picture deal, United Artists could have put anything out with John, Paul, George and Ringo in it and it would’ve been a success.  The surprise was that A Hard Day’s Night was actually quite good on its own merits. The production was helmed by an American movie director based in Britain named Richard Lester. He had created a short called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film starting Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The Beatles loved it and selected him from handful of choices to direct their first feature.

The plot for this mock-documentary is simple. It’s a day in the life. The Beatles, playing themselves, are on their way to perform on a London TV show. The ongoing constant is that the Fab Four are eternally having to duck hordes of screaming fans at every stop. They board a train, get settled at their hotel, rehearse at the studio. Then Ringo gets separated from the group. Along the way on their various lightweight adventures, the Beatles display a charisma that is irresistible. The script is filled with little exchanges like the following.

Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: Um, no. I’m a mocker.

A Hard Day’s Night is not particularly deep but it is fun – displaying an irreverent charm that is joyous. The Beatles come across as likable and witty. It simplifies their personalities and then amplifies them in short easy to digest sound bites. Yes, they are caricatures of their personas but these are appealing distortions of themselves. The production is highlighted by a manic energy. There are a lot of funny bits contained within. My favorite: Ringo puts his coat down for a girl so that she can walk across a muddy puddle several times before she ultimately falls down a deep hole. Oh and let’s not forget the music! As far as this Beatles fan is concerned, every song is gold, but highlights include: “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “She Loves You” and the title hit of course. Incidentally “I’ll Cry Instead” was excised from the sketch where the Beatles flee their hotel room via the fire escape. It can still be found on the soundtrack. However the more upbeat “Can’t Buy Me Love” was used in its place because Richard Lester felt the tune suited the scene better.

The cultural impact of the film cannot be underestimated. Its importance was immediately understood even garnering two Academy Award nominations at the time (Best Original Screenplay and Best Score). Although uncomplicated and seemingly insignificant, the narrative had an impact on spy thrillers like Dr. No, inspired 60s TV sitcom The Monkees and influenced later day pop music videos. It additionally makes a strong case as to why the Beatles became a worldwide sensation.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day’s Night, a spectacular new restoration was released to theaters on July 4th by Janus Films. If you can’t make it to the cinema, Criterion Collection has assembled a special new edition on DVD and Blu-ray. You’ll marvel at the stunning black-and-white cinematography. Please re-discover this classic.

Boyhood

Posted in Drama with tags on July 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Boyhood photo starrating-5stars.jpgRichard Linklater’s sprawling 2 hour and 45 minute magnum opus details 12 years in the life of a family, and principally that of a young male lead, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a six year old boy when our drama begins. Mason is like many juveniles. He happens to live in Texas in a typical town like many others. He has a sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) who is older by one year and a Mom played by Patricia Arquette. Olivia is a divorced single parent. A struggling working class woman, Olivia is raising her children the best way she knows how. We see Mom’s choices revolve around her family at the expense of being able to go out and have fun. Mason does have an absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). He doesn’t appear right away but then shows up rather unexpectedly one day to take the kids bowling. Once he is introduced to the audience, his presence becomes a bit more familiar. Given the narrative breadth, Boyhood could have just as easily been called Motherhood, Fatherhood or simply Childhood.

As the story progresses, the principals grow older. In most movies this would involve casting different people to represent the kids at various stages as they got older. Makeup would probably be used to age the adults. Instead, Boyhood was actually filmed over the course of 12 years so as the characters mature, so do the actors. It’s a fascinating development that infuses the tale with an allure not found in the way a traditional picture is shot over a few months. Richard Linklater not only utilizes the appearance of his performers to inform the passage of time, but also little cultural touchstones in each era. These present the minutiae that makes up our everyday lives. Mason ogles the women in the underwear section of a department store catalogue, is annoyed by his sister’s rendition of “Oops! I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, and attends a book release party for the latest Harry Potter novel. These non-events are what compose a life. Individually they mean very little, but added together they represent the sum total of an existence.

Boyhood has an astounding level of characterization. The depiction of the four principals is deceptively simple. Yet it isn’t until after you contemplate the full scope of the chronicle that you fully comprehend the complexity of the portrait. The production was shot over 39 days beginning in the summer of 2002 and completed in October 2013. Mason gets taller, his voice deepens. His personality matures before our very eyes. But even more than the physical changes is the emotional evolution of a life. Linklater isn’t content to merely gives us Mason’s reality. Mom Olivia has a compelling dramatic arc as well. Incidentally, Patricia Arquette is extraordinary. This is the single greatest performance of her career. She registers fear, pain, sorrow and joy with absolute veracity. At different points, her depiction details two marriages to men of questionable character. A scene where her husband Bill interrogates the kids about their mother’s whereabouts is chilling but it gets increasingly intense when he starts checking their cell phones for calling history. Conversely there are moments that are quite moving as well. An offhand comment by Olivia to a handyman replacing their home’s water pipes will have major repercussions later. All of these vignettes immediately make an impression but they must meditate in the mind well after the saga is over. The drama advances organically and the actors perform naturally. Rarely has an individual’s developmental transitions been dramatized so imaginatively on film. Boyhood is an outstanding achievement and a magnificent paean to the simple brilliance of the human experience.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on July 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Posted in Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgCome with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…

So sings Willy Wonka, the mysterious confectioner whose candy factory is shrouded in secrecy. “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out”. Then one day the enigmatic maker of the world’s most coveted sweets extends a proclamation. Five lucky individuals will be given a tour of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. This will be granted to anyone in the world who happens to find a golden ticket hidden within the package of a Wonka Bar. Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee are four children who each receive a winning entry. Charlie Bucket, our upbeat but downtrodden protagonist, wants nothing more than to be number five. The chocolate factory, we learn, is right in Charlie’s hometown. Poor Charlie lives an underprivileged life. He doesn’t have extra change to buy candy bars. Then one day he happens upon a coin lying in the gutter and uses the money to buy a Wonka bar. From that point forward his life will never be the same.

The cast is flawless. A traditional family-oriented adventure would tell a buoyant tale of children thrilled to tour the world’s most famous candy factory. This workshop is different however, and Willy Wonka is no ordinary manufacturer. Gene Wilder should have gotten an Academy Award nomination for his offbeat performance. The titular chocolatier is a master of ceremonies unseen since the likes of PT Barnum. Although his personality is a mixture of a benevolent confidant and a bitter misanthrope out for vengeance. He presides over the tour with a fiendish delight. His candy factory makes tasty sweets but it’s also a bit malevolent. For example a seemingly innocuous boat trip aboard the Wonkatania becomes a terrorizing trip when it passes though a dark tunnel. His helpers, the Oompa Loompas are bizarre little orange-skinned, green-haired men with a singular purpose: to make Wonka’s astounding confections. The five kids are perfectly cast. American boy Peter Ostrum in his only film role, is Charlie Bucket, our sweet and well mannered lead. The same cannot be said for the remaining four. The script has a pessimistic view of children as ill behaved and the characterizations are bewitchingly wicked. Chief among them is Veruca Salt who is a positively unbearable in her demands for anything and everything she sees fit to want.

The freakish atmosphere is punctuated by songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. They, along with Walter Scharf, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. When British actress Julie Dawn Cole sings “I Want It Now!” she embodies a girl with unadulterated greed but in a most alluring way. You cannot ignore Veruca Salt. Her father indulges her every whim and her personality is the worse for it. The “Oompa Loompa” chants sung by Willy Wonka’s minions are catchy little ditties that lament the behavior of each of the nasty children. “The Candy Man” would become a #1 hit a year later for Sammy Davis, Jr. when he covered the song. And of course there’s my personal favorite “Pure Imagination” sung in complete sincerity by Gene Wilder.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. As is the case with the author’s children’s books, there is a sinister element that is most subversive. It is a recurring theme in his works and this adaptation is no different. The movie was filmed in Munich and this gives the town a puzzling hard-to-place feel before anyone even sets foot in the factory. Five lucky kids get the opportunity to tour Willy Wonka’s wondrous plant but the experience isn’t quite what they were anticipating. The bright colorful production design stirs the imagination with possibilities. There’s a chocolate river, giant edible mushrooms, lickable wallpaper, a Wonkamobile that shoots soap. It’s all rather enchanting. Only the Fizzy Lifting Drinks sequence is a snooze. When the picture was released in 1971 it was a box office disappointment. Despite garnering positive reviews it only earned a mere $4 million in 1971. Over the years, however, the film achieved the status as a cult film and is now widely accepted as an outright classic. It’s easy to see why. I love this movie.

Life Itself

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Life Itself photo starrating-4stars.jpgMy introduction to Roger Ebert (and to film criticism in general) began at a very young age. I used to watch Sneak Previews on channel 9 which was the public television station in the San Francisco Bay area. He, a writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, would co-host along with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. As far as I was concerned you couldn’t mention one without the other. They critiqued enough movies that kids could enjoy to maintain my interest. However most were pictures I was either too young for or had no interest in seeing at that age. It was my dad who initially watched the show and he like me enjoyed the back and forth when they would disagree, even more than the actual review. They spoke intelligently about movies but at a level where I could still understand.

Life Itself is based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name. It’s presented somewhat in chronological order but not always. Sections of his life that pertain to the Siskel & Ebert stuff or his wife Chaz have a constant presence. We’re reminded of what chapter is being addressed in the lower left hand comer. The numbers jump around as the document picks and chooses vignettes that seem most relevant to tell a story. As it charts his career, it touches upon the high points of his days at the University of Illinois as an influential reporter for the Daily Illini on through his job as critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. His rivalry with fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel, their eventual show and the lasting impact that it had, are important milestones.

The best documentaries don’t take sides but rather present its subject for the audience to come to a conclusion. Director Steve James, who also helmed the highly acclaimed Hoop Dreams, doesn’t hide the fact that is clearly a fan.  Roger Ebert enthusiastically promoted his work as well. Life Itself unfolds like a celebratory memoir of a great man who revolutionized film criticism with a more populist approach. It treats Roger Ebert like the be-all, end-all authority giving Ebert a lot of credit for starting what groundbreaking reviewers such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were doing long before him. To be fair, the director does namecheck them.

Occasionally director Steve James allows a little grit. Critic Richard Corliss was particularly disapproving of Ebert’s quick “fast-food” style approach to reviews on TV. His scathing 1990 Film Comment article, “All Thumbs” is mentioned. Ebert could be a bit snippy and egotistical too. His trashing of the movie Three Amigos on The Tonight Show as the movie’s star Chevy Chase sat right behind him is pretty awkward. It reveals Ebert’s prickly personality much better than any wordy description ever could.  The best moments come from the footage of him and Gene Siskel recording their TV program. A series of recorded promos which expose the two bickering like children, provides a candid window into the man. Excerpted footage where they vehemently disagreed in their assessments is provided. The clips highlight their appeal and why no one has ever been able to replicate their chemistry since. Talking head interviews are also particularly enlightening. Gene Siskel’s wife recalls some private anecdotes. How he stole her cab while she was 8 months pregnant sticks out. Film greats Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog wax poetically on the influence he had on their careers.

Life Itself features Ebert’s love of movies just as much as his love for Chaz Ebert his wife, whom he married at the age of 50 in 1992. Their relationship forms a major part of the narrative in the third act. The film is a life lived and it is at various times informative, fascinating and yes sentimental. It would almost have to be. In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which was successfully removed in February of that year. 4 years later he had surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The results of which altered his life to where he ate and drink through a tube. At times the unblinking gaze of the camera on his appearance is difficult to watch. Unable to speak, he communicated via text-to-speech computer software. There’s an undeniable sadness that must permeate the proceedings. Chaz has a perspective that humanizes a man with an outsized ego. Chaz and Roger’s love for each other is profoundly touching. Their devotion is just as important a component as his thoughts and feelings about film. These scenes contrast with his often cantankerous relationship with his famous cohort Gene Siskel. Although those displays are where the documentary soars, the final act provides a poignant coda on the life of a man who left an indelible legacy on film criticism.

Begin Again

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Begin Again photo starrating-4stars.jpgBegin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.

Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.

The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.

Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.

Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.

07-02-14

Snowpiercer

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Snowpiercer photo starrating-5stars.jpgSnowpiercer is a work of art. A genre busting, amalgamation of action, drama and science fiction, that seamlessly weaves the qualities of disparate styles into an epic tale about a speeding train. The only survivor left on earth are the passengers on a massive locomotive that holds the sum total of all humanity in a climate controlled environment. Like a speeding bullet, it stops for nothing, circumnavigating the entire globe at one complete revolution per year. It hurtles down a track at lightning speeds across a world engulfed in an icy tundra. Snowpiercer is the first English language film from Bong Joon-ho. Savvy art house crowds might remember him as the director of The Host, a Korean monster-movie hit that was released in the U.S. back in 2007. That presaged a talent to watch but nothing could have prepared audiences for this masterpiece.

Working from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Joon-ho Bong co-writes a screenplay with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Together they fashion a post apocalyptic sci-fi dystopian drama. I know what you’re thinking. Those are a dime a dozen these days. But Snowpiercer is different. Powered by a perpetual motion engine, the locomotive holds humanity in its entirety, delineating the world according to class and rank. This caste system on the train is a visually rendered geometric plane of various cars that extends in 2 directions. In the front we get the elite of society living in luxury. In the very back, we have what you’d called steerage if this was the Titanic. Except the existence of passengers aboard the Snowpiercer is much much worse. They are the proletariat subjected to an oppressive rule that recalls the regime of a dictator. Here is where our impoverished team of protagonists reside. It’s the 2030s. They’ve been captive for 15 years and they’ve had it up to here with their lot in life. Let’s just say, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Snowpiercer is highlighted by a charismatic aggregation of talented actors. Chief among them is Chris Evans as Curtis Everett, an insurgent who leads the uprising. Edgar (Jamie Bell) is his rebellious friend. The elder statesmen of the group is called Gilliam (John Hurt) as in Terry Gilliam, director of Brazil. It’s risky to namecheck the rarefied air of that dystopian classic but Snowpiercer compares favorably. This indigent group also includes Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and Luke Pasqualinoin among others, in key roles that highlight some troubling developments. Along the way their insurrection is aided by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) a fellow prisoner. He’s the security expert who engineered the doors separating each car. He is joined by his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). On the opposite side we have Tilda Swinton, a strict disciplinarian tasked with enforcing the rules. She carries out the orders of Wilford, a higher power at the head of the train. A classroom indoctrinating the children in the virtues of the mighty Wilford is a chilling scene of worship and propaganda. Wilford’s control is reminiscent of the cult of a dictatorship. An all powerful person few have seen but everyone fears and respects.

Snowpiercer is a politically provocative ensemble piece of legendary proportions. A parable that manipulates the medium in impressively dynamic ways which captivate the mind while delighting the eye. It’s a production designer’s dream that makes full use of color, mood and style in representing the various rooms within the train. Amidst the futuristic sci-fi effects is a relentlessly sensational, claustrophobic indie about a revolution. Yes the fight for liberty is not an easy one. There will be blood. But it’s never in a gratuitous sense to appeal to bloodthirsty interests. Rather the struggles are a reminder that freedom is a right that many have died for lest ye ever take those blessings for granted. A nightmarish brawl shot entirely in the dark is uncomfortably scary. Snowpiercer is the greatest kind of picture. An intelligent saga of well crafted action that creatively entertains with a loopy imagination. It’s cinematically dazzling with heart pounding excitement. I’m not sure if this is the best film of 2014 yet, but it’s getting pretty close.

06-27-14

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Transformers: Age of Extinction photo starrating-1star.jpgTransformers: Age of Extinction, or Transformers 4 for those keeping track, is almost an unreviewable movie. I don’t even want to tease that I might give this a glowing review. I’ll cut right to the chase and kill that suspense. It’s bad. Oh it’s terrible. But in trying to assess this cacophonous flick I realize it’s like trying to review the sound of a Boeing 747 taking off at 100 feet. If sheer decibels were all that mattered, this film would reign supreme. But this is the world of cinema so there is dialogue involved. If you want to save some money, ($19.50 for IMAX 3D in the SF Bay Area) have a few of your friends scream at each other over the din of the garbage disposal. Now have them do this for the duration of 3 hours and you’ll have the same cinematic experience.

Of course that is to negate the “beauty” of the graphics on screen. I’ll admit that computer generated technology has progressed to a point where these images of machines co-existing with humans is visually interesting at least. I still don’t know how real it looks though. Most of the time scenes of digitally rendered Autobots and Decepticons interacting look like a very impressive animated cartoon. That’s where the sound mixing comes in giving these man-made images a presence that feels somewhat more organic. Every single one of these films has at least gotten an Academy Award nomination in this category. The sound is really impressive and unquestionably the best thing to recommend. It is the only thing.

No attempt is made to confer a unique story. We’re presented virtually the same tale of good vs. evil that we’ve been given in 3 prior installments with minimal adjustments. As a result of the destructive battle of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), good Autobots and bad Decepticons are now both seen as an enemy of the state. Their persecution is overseen by an evil government agent (is there another kind?) played by Kelsey Grammer. With the human race no longer trusting Transformers, the Autobots have gone into hiding. Cut to regular dude Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) who’s got the mind of an inventor and the build of a weightlifter. One day he purchases an old broken down semi-truck. He intends to sell its parts for money so his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) can pay for college. She’s supposed to be 17 but walks around in short shorts that seem to shrink in each successive scene. The truck turns out to be the Autobots leader Optimus Prime in disguise. The discovery compels these people to join forces with the remaining Autobots. Together they must defend themselves against a hostile government and the swelling ranks of the human made Deceptions bent on destroying all human life into extinction.

Director Michael Bay has overseen this franchise and built an impressive resume of hits that rake in the big bucks at the box office. Michael Bay has established a pretty recognizable style that has been quite successful. By now you pretty much know what you’re getting with his product. I don’t feel the need to write more about this tired franchise. It’s pretty safe to say that my review or any other critique for that matter, will have little bearing on your decision to see or avoid this. What I can assess is whether a fan would enjoy the picture within the context of the franchise. The previous low point was Revenge of the Fallen, the second entry. I dare say this just might top that entry in awfulness. It’s probably not a deal breaker for a devotee because you’re still going to gets lots of metal crushing metal and explosions that go BOOM. However if we are to judge this as a film based on plot, script, direction, acting and the oppressive length, it’s a heinous decline from Bay’s previous efforts.

06-26-14

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