Transcendence

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on April 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

  Transcendence photo starrating-2stars.jpgYou really have to believe in the narrative thrust of your story to begin a movie with the conclusion. The ending in Transcendence is spoiled at the start by the screenwriter. Without the necessary suspense, everything leading up to that point had better be exceptional. Simply put, it isn’t. In the opening scene we’re presented with the aftermath of a catastrophe in which virtually all power has been lost throughout the entire world. No cell phones, computers or Internet. We meet a man named Max Waters (Paul Bettany) who remembers his friends Will and Evelyn Caster.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play a brilliant husband and wife team of researchers in the field of artificial intelligence. After Will is shot by a terrorist (Lukas Haas) from an anti-technology group called RIFT. Evelyn suggests they upload Will’s consciousness into the sentient supercomputer in their lab.   Although Will’s body dies in the material sense, his mind is kept alive in the mainframe.  Over time he connects himself to energy sources stretching around the country. He grows more powerful and omnipotent. Part of the problem of Transcendence is the tale is unnecessarily complicated. It’s patently ridiculous. That’s okay, but be cognizant of that absurdity. I mean there’s an inherent irony that RIFT’s attempted murder of Will is the very motivation for him to pursue “transcendence” via the computer. This was the precise activity they were trying to eradicate. The chronicle takes itself way too seriously. I mean they’ve even given the supercomputer a boring name: PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network).  Wouldn’t it have been funnier if they named it GOD (Good Orderly Direction)?  Well that was a wasted opportunity.  <sigh>  The dreary script just sucks the fun out of what should have been a whimsical concept.

Transcendence is a chore to watch. It’s an overly elaborate, unconvincing, joyless bore. A lot of really great actors are wasted by standing around not doing much of anything. Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman are particularly useless. Not because they give bad performances but because they are given awful parts. All four could’ve been taken out of the story and it would’ve made matters much simpler and less convoluted. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany fare better. You’d think Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer (The Dark Knight, Inception), would at least have the presence of mind to create a visually impressive film. Unless you enjoy watching numerous scenes of electronically charged water droplets moving in slow-motion, it’s a downer there as well. At the core, the saga is merely a series of uninteresting standoffs between good vs. evil. Ultimately the drama’s big idea is: Technology Is Bad. At the end of this turgid ordeal, I wasn’t even convinced of that. But this movie sure is.

Heaven Is for Real

Posted in Drama with tags on April 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Heaven Is for Real photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgHeaven is for Real is a well meaning drama about parents with a child who has a near death experience. Four-year-old son Colton suffers from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. After father Todd Burpo takes him to the hospital, Colton claims to have visited heaven and comes back to testify about what he saw. Giving his story validity is the details of what his parents were doing while he was on the operating table in a completely separate room. He also gives other extraordinary details of past events in his parents’ lives that were heretofore unknowable to the little boy.

With one exception, the performances don’t extract much emotion from the audience. Little actor Connor Corum is a beatific little tyke with blonde hair and blue eyes. He’s certainly cute but he doesn’t quite register the personality it takes to anchor a film like this. He’s a bit of a blank slate. Much better is Greg Kinnear as his father. He perfectly embodies everything this part requires. He is likable, sensible and sympathetic. He expresses the kind of genuine excitement tempered with doubt that a real parent would have in this situation.

The biggest issue I had with this story is the Christian church’s reaction to the little boy’s message. Todd Burpo doesn’t quite know how to explain what his child has seen or knows, but at least he registers some happiness. As a pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church he has an audience to which he can recount his son’s visions. You’d think the members of a Christian church would embrace such news with open arms but such is not the case. Leading the opposition is Nancy Rawling as portrayed by Margo Martindale. She worries that his account will turn their parish into a circus. I had to wonder. Is that a problem? The added attention could be a wonderful jumping off point for a parish to discuss the hereafter with believers and non-believers alike. Instead the boys stories become a worrisome thorn in the side of everyone from Todd’s wife (Kelly Reilly) to his close friend (Thomas Haden Church). Only Todd Burpo, his father has the desire to explore further.

Heaven is for Real is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Todd Burpo and best selling conservative writer Lynn Vincent. It was a true story so maybe the negative reaction that Connor’s chronicle received from the congregation at the time was what actually happened, Yet it was a #1 New York Times hit so it obviously touched a lot of hearts outside the religious world. The boy’s experiences should prompt more probing questions. He saw Jesus for goodness sakes! At least he believes he did, why aren’t people in the Church more excited? Regardless of your personal beliefs in the afterlife, it seems like this bestseller should have inspired a more uplifting tale. This could have been the seed for a galvanizing discussion that Christians, non-Christians, atheists and agnostics could have regarding the concept of heaven. The 1977 picture Oh, God! dealt with this subject in a much more innovative way. In contrast here we are nearly 4 decades later and we’re presented a fascinating story that is handled in the most utterly routine fashion. It doesn’t probe enough to inspire the faithful, the skeptics or anyone in between.

Under the Skin

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Under the Skin photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.

This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.

The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.

There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.

Oculus

Posted in Horror with tags on April 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Oculus  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe words ‘intelligent’ and ‘horror’ don’t follow one another too often but Oculus is the rare example where they do. Oculus concerns two siblings returning to face the torment of their youth. Kaylie and her younger brother Tim are now adults with a dark past. Their parents were murdered, the mysterious details of which are best left unexplained. They make a vow as children to validate the real reason behind their parent’s death. Kaylie has a theory that involves an antique mirror – an ornate heirloom with a miserable history dating back 4 centuries.  She affirms the mirror houses a supernatural force responsible for 45 deaths affecting the previous owners. Tim, whose recollection has been corrupted over time, is skeptical of Kaylie’s outlook. The narrative documents her endeavor to prove the mirror is evil through an elaborate test to document the power of the malevolent object.

The success of any horror picture is reliant on the believability of the actors. They must behave as if they are genuinely in danger and then we have to actually care that they are in peril. Let me say, Kaylie, as played by Karen Gillan, is the MVP of this story.  She not only registers credibly and resourcefulness, but she is appealing. Early on she explains the history of the mirror to her brother in an expository scene that is obviously meant to bring the audience up to speed at the same time. She commands the screen with her charisma. Her brother (Brenton Thwaites) is also likable. Their younger selves are portrayed by exceptional young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Regardless of which timeline we’re in, the characters remain admirable. We presume these siblings like each other because they show respect.  We sympathize with them and worry for their safety. This is rarely the case in horror as of late. Their propriety is such an anomaly that they don’t quite register as American teens, at least not in the way they are usually depicted in this genre. Surprise! Karen Gillan is Scottish. Brenton Thwaites is Australian.  Although you’d never guess. Their accents are flawless.

Oculus is a character driven story shrewdly written and beautifully acted. It’s nice to bask in the sophistication of an intelligently written screenplay that doesn’t depend on jump scares. In fact it’s not really about shocks at all. Rest assured there are some frightful scenes, but the drama is more eerie mystery than horror. That suits this reviewer just fine. As the climax comes to a head, there’s an ambiguous blending between events back when they were growing up and their current identity.  The editing brilliantly parallels past and present. As appearances gets more confusing, we question whether we can actually trust what we are seeing. Is our perception accurate or is it a hallucination? Oculus has technique that aspires to the same rarified cinematic air as films like The Innocents, The Shining and Poltergeist. Perhaps it is more content to sample from those sophisticated influences than create an innovate style of its own. I won’t fault it for the homage. Virtually all horror movies rely on well worn tropes. What makes Oculus something to be admired, is that the presentation has the good sense to appropriate from the best. It’s the most elegantly told supernatural movie of the last few years.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero, Thriller with tags on April 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Captain America: The Winter Soldier photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCaptain America: The Winter Soldier is the 9th installment in the series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios. The series has been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own acronym MCU. There are in fact different phases designed to apparently conquer the movie world (and your wallet). We’re currently in Phase 2 which will culminate with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I’m only mentioning all this because some people take this stuff with a very straight face. The deeper we get into these franchises, the more they demand that you’ve see the others. I’ve seen everything but even my eyes begin to glaze over when actors start tossing around names and organizations like we’re in the middle of a history lesson. I’m just here to watch a fun flick and I’m happy to say that this is indeed an enjoyable picture. The Avengers and Iron Man are better, but it ranks in the top half of the 9 entries thus far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the events of The Avengers (2012). Following a lot of exposition that extends this movie 16 minutes past the 2 hour sweet spot, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) entrusts Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) with a hard drive containing sensitive information. When he refuses to hand it over to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce.(Robert Redford), Steve is branded an enemy of the very organization he once served. A superhuman agent codenamed the Winter Soldier does Secretary Pierce’s bidding. The Winter Soldier’s identity is a secret so no details on him. Helping Steve get to the bottom things are fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. member Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They’re both quite good. Scarlett Johansson fetchingly straddles the line between friend and flirt. Anthony Mackie has genuine camaraderie with Chris Evans as Steve’s buddy who he meets while jogging. The three of them joining forces makes this feel sort of like an Avengers movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining spy thriller. The story includes lots of rousing action sequences . The hand to hand combat scenes draw heavily from martial arts films in the best possible way. The pace is efficient with a narrative that doesn’t disappoint fans looking for excitement featuring people they already know and love. There’s enough human interaction to satisfy those who savor a little character development in their superhero flicks. Occasionally the overly complex story takes itself a bit too seriously. I welcome the humor of Thor. Fan boys will appreciate the reverence, but anyone unfamiliar with the Avengers universe might not be as captivated. Thankfully the tone shines with the occasional witty quips where everyone in the production can simply lighten up.

P.S. Given Marvel’s history, I shouldn’t have to point out that there are mid-credits and post-credits stingers that you should probably stick around for. That is unless that extra large Coke you drank is playing havoc with your bladder.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Posted in Documentary, Science Fiction with tags on April 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jodorowsky's Dune photo starrating-4stars.jpgJodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating documentary because it posits “what could have been?” Chilean born director Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for his avant garde films. El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) in particular were mainstays of the 1970s midnight movie circuit in the United States. Neither gained widespread distribution, but both became classics of underground cinema. Then in 1975, the cult director optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. He then proceeded to amass an impressive assemblage of talent: artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for character and set design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, Pink Floyd for music, and a cast that would include David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. The group became what he refers to as his “spiritual warriors” – people with whom the director felt a kinship in manifesting what was to be his masterpiece. Douglas Trumbull, in contrast, was considered for special effects first. The director’s personality didn’t gel with the talent behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and he was not hired.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a engrossing document because it provides the history behind a bizarre movie that never came to fruition. In his fertile and uninhibited imagination, the production becomes sort of a no-holds-barred, anything is possible fantasy with limitless possibilities. Whether an unproven director could have successfully produced an opus of this magnitude is unclear. The undertaking soon ran out of funds. Jodorsoksky burned through more than $2 million of producer Michel Seydoux’s money and hadn’t yet shot a single frame. They appealed for more cash. Apparently the studio was not convinced and shut down the project before it had the opportunity to continue.

Jodorowsky’s Dune makes an entertaining case that this is the greatest sci-fi film never made. The massive Dune storyboard book circulated through various studios in Hollywood as the proposal sought financing partners. The blueprints contain attributes which correlate to visual aspects in Star Wars, Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Masters of the Universe, The Matrix and others. Alejandro Jodorowsky is an intriguing personality and it’s fun hearing him reminisce about something in which he is still so passionate. He was able to charm a lot of people into initially believing in him. As charismatic as he is, I am certain the man is also stark raving mad. There’s no way the final product could have possibly lived up to the potential that this feature suggests. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact of this captivating document on filmmaking. Ultimately Dune would reach the screen in David Lynch’s infamous 1984 adaptation. Jodorowsky’s reluctance to see someone else’s vision of a project he was so close to, is understandable. Even his climatic recounting of that story is worth the price of admission.

Noah

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on March 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Noah photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNoah is Paramount Pictures indefatigably middle-of-the-road biblical fantasy. Anyone expecting a theological epic with the dramatic heft of something like The Ten Commandments will be mostly disappointed. There’s an innate difficulty in expanding a tale that comprises 4 brief chapters in the Book of Genesis into a 138 minute movie. A big budget biblical production utilizing the full extent of technology of today could be the recipe for a huge success. Visually the spectacle is impressive. Watching the large assemblage of animals march in line to board the ark is an awe-inspiring scene. The narrative even explains logistical details. For example it answers how these creatures could co-exist without eating each other. But elsewhere the story feels padded with vignettes that utilize spectacular special effects but add no emotional drama. Cue The Watchers, angels cast out of heaven who have fallen out of favor with The Creator. They have become encased in mud and dirt on Earth and are now gigantic stone creatures not unlike something found in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

At first glance one might think Darren Aronofsky, a self-professed atheist, to be an odd choice to helm a big-budget, A-lister epic based on scripture. However individuals driven by obsessive quests have long been a tenet of his work, so the religious subject mater isn’t as foreign as it seems. A man driven by obsession could be the focus of a fascinating film, but this drama doesn’t cut beneath the surface to delve deeply into the emotional concepts present. There is inherent drama in this story. We’re talking about God’s displeasure with the sum total of mankind. This is angry vengeful Old Testament God. Noah experiences visions or dreams that he believes are messages from the Supreme Being. The Creator, as he’s called here, apparently wants to not only wipe out all of humanity that currently exists, but to end it completely with his family, never to continue again.

You’d think that this might be cause for alarm. Sadly the chronicle rarely explores that concept deeply. Noah has been entrusted with a major task. He must build an ark and take 2 of every creature so that they may thrive after a great flood kills every living thing. Except for a few worried glances, Noah doesn’t seems conflicted enough by what he’s been asked to do. That is where the narrative should mine his complex struggle. Obviously he wasn’t completely successful because humanity continued to thrive, but that conflict happens at the very end. We lack an outlet for the sheer magnitude of his emotional struggle that demonstrates his problems/fears/stress. As a result the character remains a vague representation of a man in crises with whom we never truly connect.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s point of view is just so blandly neutral. Noah isn’t a terrible picture. There are moments of greatness. At one point, the flood has consumed the world, yet there are still some mountain peaks exposed. A scene with the huddled masses wailing out to the ark, while Noah and his family enjoy safety within, highlights this concept brilliantly. Unfortunately it’s one of the few moments we experience that anguish. It’s as if he was asked to comfort the religious with a perfect portrait of Noah’s unwavering devotion but also placate movie goers looking for a CGI extravaganza. Early test screenings back in October of 2013 to determine which version of the film would “please” the most people is not the way to make great art. This is the product of a talented director being kept under reins. The end result is that it’s not inspirational enough to inspire the faithful and it’s not innovative enough to entertain Aronofsky’s fans. By trying to stay neutral and satisfy everyone, he ends up pleasing no one.

Enemy

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Enemy photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpg“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”

So begins Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s confusingly twisty but oh-so-stylish ode to David Lynch. The brew is a head trip of a cocktail that goes down deliciously smooth but will no doubt disorient you for days afterwards. Imbiber beware! It’s a refreshingly tight 90 minutes but has enough style to populate 2 additional movies directed by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg. Its visually stark set design, champagne-hued color palette, cinematography, and score make watching every minute of this little perplexity a cineaste’s delight. By the end, however, I really didn’t know what I had actually witnessed. This will irritate some and enchant others. If you haven’t guessed by now, I happily claim to be a member of the latter group. I totally dug the film.

Enemy was adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a mild mannered history professor. One day a colleague recommends a movie, which he subsequently rents from a video store soon after. Do those still exist? While watching late at night he notices an anonymous extra in the background that looks eerily like himself. Pausing the frames reveals a similarity that appears identical. Fascinated, he researches the actor and learns his pseudonym is Daniel St. Claire (real name Anthony). The curiosity becomes an obsession as Adam rents the performer’s other films. Next he finds out where Anthony lives. Then Adam uncovers his phone number and calls his home. Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers and mistakes Adam’s voice for her own husband’s. And that is only the beginning.

The whole production has this unrelenting feeling of dread. There’s something sinister looming you can’t quite put your finger on. Enemy plays with the conventions of doppelgangers. Adam Bell is the humdrum one, emotionally distant with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). He teaches history with languid enthusiasm to college students.  Anthony St. Claire on the other hand is more confident. He’s an actor who rides a motorcycle. His wife is expecting. For some reason his existence proves unsettling to Adam’s identity. The atmosphere instills Adam’s discovery with a sense of alarm. The narrative grows more fascinating with each new development.

Director Dennis Villeneuve worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on 2013’s Prisoners. That was a solid Hollywood studio picture, but this little independent is far better because it’s so bizarrely original and unexpected. The Canadian filmmaker knows how to exploit Gyllenhaal’s strengths. Jake gives two powerfully nuanced performances here, each one masterful in their own right. It’s a complicated balancing act because both guys must look identical in every way, yet remain two separate people. Even the physical similarities between the women in their respective lives are uncannily alike as well. An inquiring mind can be a dangerous thing. Adam’s visit to his mother (Isabella Rossellini) provides hazy details to an individuality that feels increasingly threatened. Bits and pieces of evidence of various sorts are offered up to the audience to help formulate an explanation as to what exactly is going on – that opening scene in a nightclub, for example.   You might think you’ve already guessed how it ends. Let me tell you, you aren’t even close.

The Shawshank Redemption

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on March 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Shawshank Redemption photo starrating-5stars.jpg“They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.” — Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

So laments Red (Morgan Freeman) as he reflects upon his duration at Shawshank State Penitentiary. He is in jail for murder. The “only guilty man” there he informs us as narrator. The year is 1947 and banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, has just been admitted. He has been given two consecutive life sentences. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the tale recounts a 20 year friendship between the two men. It is a story that is undeniably powerful as a moving portrait of camaraderie.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine ode to male bonding than this drama spanning two decades from 1946 to 1967. When Andy arrives, he is subject to beatings, humiliation and all manner of horrors within the prison system. He endures the harassment seemingly unfazed. Slowly he learns to adapt, utilizing his talents as an auditor to garner favor from the powers that be. In time he inspires his fellow inmates, making friends with them, in particular Red. This is the same inmate that had originally bet Andy would be the first inductee to crack upon arriving.

The film is highlighted by several superlative performances. Morgan Freeman rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Red, our narrator. He embodies the character with reverence, heart, and warmth. Freeman has never been better and that is saying quite a lot of the 5 time nominated actor who would ultimately win an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Tim Robbins is every bit his equal in a role that is more difficult to warm up to. If the actor appears a bit of an enigma, that is only because the character is meant to be that way. There is a quiet stoicism to his performance that recalls the great Gary Cooper. Actor Bob Gunton is a villain for the ages as Warden Samuel Norton. A stern man that exploits the prison for his own gain as low-cost labor. He presents himself as a god-fearing man, although his true nature is gradually disclosed. The depth of his evil seems to know no bounds. His reaction regarding testimony from young convict Tommy Williams is particularly memorable.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies whose estimation has only grown with time,. It wasn’t a box office hit in 1994, barely making back it’s production budget when initially released. However it was a critical success and received 7 Academy Award nominations of which it won absolutely NOTHING, losing Best Picture to Forrest Gump.  Nevertheless, it has occupied the #1 slot as greatest film on the IMDb’s user-generated list since 2008. Like a flower that grows through a crack in the concrete, the narrative is filled with one uplifting note after another amongst the most oppressive of surroundings. There are many, but here’s my personal favorite: Andy’s letter writing efforts to secure a better library for the prison are finally rewarded with a collection of old records. In an act of defiance, Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and using the central microphone, blasts an opera record. As Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro echoes through the penitentiary, Roger Deakins cinematography captures the emotion as the inmates look upwards, embracing the audible gift. I can’t exactly describe the feeling, but the scene always reduces me to tears. Shawshank is brimming with moments like this where the human soul triumphs over adversity in the most inspiring way.

Bad Words

Posted in Comedy with tags on March 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Bad Words photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCritics often use the expression “check your brain at the door” for movies that are best enjoyed without thinking about their inherent ridiculousness. I’d like to coin the phrase, “check your morality at the door“ for Bad Words. The production has a gleefully amoral sensibility when it comes to what is socially acceptable to say in polite conversation. The story concerns Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a middle aged man who has strong-armed his way into a national spelling bee on a technicality. You must not have completed the 8th grade, the rules state. This junior high drop-out never did. Why he wants to compete in a children’s spelling bee is a bit of explanatory information that should be gleaned from watching the film.

Bad Words has a profoundly cynical overtone. The humor is pitch black so many viewers will understandably not warm up to its prickly charms. Guy walks through this chronicle perceptually annoyed with everyone and everything. He’s racist, sexist and an all-around first class SOB.  Perhaps anyone who’s ever been pestered on a plane by a child when you’d prefer just to relax, might sympathize a little with this jerk. Some of the putdowns he dishes out to the adults (and even some kids) are downright nasty in nature but they’re so creatively written that you’ll find your self gasping and laughing almost at the same time. The attitude is usually the kind of stuff I hate. Vulgarity is no substitute for wit. Yet Andrew Dodge’s script is intelligently irreverent. It doesn’t rely on mere shock value. Plus the drama doesn’t hold up Guy as someone to emulate. There is an ultimate point to the madness.

For most of the picture, Bad Words’ dark outlook means to subvert clichéd Hollywood tales where the optimistic adult inspires a youngster to be a better person. If Bad Words is guilty of a legitimate offense, it would be in betraying its initial politically incorrect premise with an ending that devolves into saccharine schmaltz. The change in atmosphere doesn’t ring true because it’s a complete sellout of the acerbic first half. A sincere but awkward 10 year old proves to be his undoing. Pint sized actor Rohan Chand is a genuinely sweet presence. He is really winning as Chaitanya Chopra. The descent into sentiment is both the screenplay’s weakness and success. It’s hard not to appreciate Chand’s toothsome tyke who balances out a lot of the nastiness. The saga still treats Guy Trilby as a misanthrope. But it makes Jason Bateman’s character easier to take because the child becomes his comic foil. Underlying the “clutch the pearls” shenanigans is a moral center that has its heart in the right place. You might roll your eyes at the resolution, but you’ll savor the warmth as well.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 493 other followers