Starred Up

Posted in Drama with tags on September 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Starred Up photo starrating-4stars.jpgJack O’Connell (the lead in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken) plays Eric, a troubled 19 year old youth from London reassigned to an adult prison for his aggressive behavior. While making enemies of the guards as well as his fellow inmates, he comes face to face with the one man who may be able to soften him — his dad. Eric’s father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is a powerful person in the prisoner hierarchy. Also trying to get through to the boy is a psychiatrist named Oliver (Rupert Friend). A man whose peaceful “let’s talk it out” methods aren’t entirely embraced by the authorities in charge.

Starred Up is written by Jonathan Asser, a real therapist turned screenwriter. The account is based on his “encounter groups” for problem cases at Wandsworth Prison in London where he attempted to pacify violent criminals. Right from the beginning, our protagonist is manufacturing a shank only seconds after entering his jail cell. Shortly thereafter he brutally assaults an innocent inmate. Director David Mackenzie does two things really well. First perfectly establishes the character. Then he details his temperament to everyone around him. It’s a captivating watch, Yes it’s a gritty portrait, but Starred Up isn’t the most brutal display of incarceration I‘ve ever seen. (The HBO TV series Oz and those jail sequences in American History X come to mind.) Although it could possibly be the most corrupt view. There are a lot of unchecked abuses going on in this joint.  At first I thought the penitentiary’s main kingpin Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) was an employee there because he had so much power. Convicts regularly get in altercations with nary a warden in sight. Perhaps that’s just as well since the guards seem to be more of a threat to the inmates than their fellow detainees.

Starred Up is extremely solid. The validity of Jonathan Asser’s screenplay comes through in every scene. Not just in handling the atmosphere with sincerity, but for extracting genuine emotion. Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell are extraordinarily good. Their interaction is infused with subtlety and nuance. As his estranged father, Nev tries to give his son some life lessons to help him from becoming a permanent resident there. It’s a real father-son relationship as opposed to a metaphorical one. I haven’t seen that before. They act the roles to perfection. I suggest a primer on British prison slang prior to watching, however, starting with that title. Starred up refers to young offenders whose conduct is so violent that they’re prematurely transferred from a juvenile institution to an adult one. Gwap is money, prison officers are kangas, and to mug off is to show disrespect. All of this makes the dialogue a little inscrutable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The authenticity is appreciated and it adds to what makes Starred Up the credible drama that it is.

09-14-14

Around the World in 80 Days

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on September 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Around the World in 80 Days photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn 1956 Around the World in 80 Days was a luxurious bubble bath – a warm comforting experience. It was pleasant and enjoyable. As time wore on though that tub water deteriorated. The bubbles dissipated, the water got cold and the qualities that initially made it such a joy were no longer present. The production that apparently charmed audiences in 1956 has aged horribly. Today the Technicolor phenomenon now remains a long, bloated curiosity that stands as one of the most shocking peculiarities to have ever won Best Picture.

The feature is a distended 175 minute bore based on the 1873 Jules Verne classic and that’s not even including the 10 minute intermission. Our story begins with a long introduction by Edward R. Murrow seated behind a desk discussing the” fantastic fiction” of Jules Verne, including the novel From the Earth to the Moon, which was the basis for the 1902 Georges Méliès silent A Trip to the Moon. Murrow lectures on the advances we‘ve made in space travel since then. After that disastrous opening, the main story opens on a scene in London, England, in 1872 about Phileas Fogg, a Victorian gentleman who bets his friends at the Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (roughly £1.6 million today) . Accompanied by his newly employed valet Passepartout he visits many locations as he interacts with various people along the way.

The production was American theater producer Mike Todd’s crowning achievement.  The theatrical impresario who had produced 17 Broadway shows during his career had never produced a theatrical feature. This was his first…..and last. He would tragically die in a plane crash a couple years later on March 22, 1958. He was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. It was her only marriage that didn’t end in divorce.  The drama was filmed in a high resolution widescreen format called Todd-AO first used successfully in Fred Zimmerman’s Oklahoma! (1955). Mike Todd developed the 70mm print format with the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s.

If nothing else, Around the World in 80 Days is a spectacle. The period piece was shot extensively in thirteen different countries, utilizing 70,000 extras and 8,000 animals. Areas from all around the world were represented including such distant spots as Paris (France), Chinchón (Spain), Bangkok (Thailand), Calcutta (India), Hong Kong (China), Yokohama (Japan), and the USA (Colorado). These locales provided the setting for various vignettes, none of which are particularly exciting. For example the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain go on for far too long. Perhaps the promise of actual location shooting was enough to sustain a film at that time. Air travel was a luxury of the wealthy in the 1950s. Travel to far flung places wasn’t common. Regardless, these days any locale can easily be rendered via blue screen and computer, so the extravaganza doesn’t fascinate in the way it might have in 1956.

Then there’s the stunt casting. David Niven’s distinctly British (read fastidious) portrayal of Phileas Fogg is a saving grace. Ditto the appearance of Mexican movie star Cantinflas. The latter makes his American screen debut as Fogg’s sidekick Passepartout. The screen legend gets a comic bullfighting sequence created just for him, not in the text. But Shirley MacLaine, in only her 3rd screen role, is forgettable. She is perplexingly cast as a princess from India heroically rescued from being sacrificed by our heroic duo. Robert Newton is a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly thinks Fogg is a bank robber. His presence is charitably best described as an amusing annoyance. For star watchers there are nearly 50 cameos from then famous personalities, many of which are unknown today. I watch a lot of old movies and even I didn’t recognize a lot of these stars. However a few stood out including Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton and Frank Sinatra. This isn’t a quality film. It’s a sightseeing excursion with a chance to play “spot the star”. Call it an unfunny version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or a cinematic version of the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland.

There’s no other way to say it. Around the World in 80s Days is nothing more than a bland travelogue. What must’ve seemed like an grandiose marvel in 1956 doesn’t translate to the modern era. Our technologically advanced age makes this once epic period piece seem like an old dated relic.  It still has value. Anthropologists should study this as a faded artifact of a bygone era. How this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture must certainly be one of the great anomalies in the Academy’s illustrious history. Now reflect on the fact that it beat The King and I, The Ten Commandments and Giant and the win seems even more egregious. But the accolades didn’t stop there. It snagged 5 Academy Awards out of its 8 nominations. The mind boggles. The only one it seems remotely worthy of consideration was for Best Cinematography and I would still argue it was up against stiffer competition. David Niven and Cantinflas make an entertaining duo. I liked them and the cinematography is pleasant. Oh and then there’s that animated end credits sequence titled “Who was seen in what scene…and who did what” created by Saul Bass. The whimsical cartoon is most delightful thing in the whole production.

09-07-14

Ghostbusters

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ghostbusters photo starrating-5stars.jpgHard to believe, but 2014 is the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters. 1984 was a magical summer for me. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid and The Last Starfighter were all movies I saw that year. And that June 8th weekend was a historic one because it not only marked the debut of Ivan Reitman’s comedy classic, but of also another big hit. Gremlins was in fact THE major release that weekend. It was opening in many more theaters and it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg who was red hot from directing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial two years prior. Even Beat Street, now a little remembered music drama about a newly emerging dance style called breakdancing, was launched in more theaters. Despite debuting on fewer screens, the picture would ultimately become the 2nd highest grossing film of the year. Beverly Hills Cop, opening at the end of the year, would be #1.

It wasn’t easy to find. My local cinema that only charged $2 wasn’t showing it, but me and my buddies desperately wanted to see it.   I was too young to drive so we had to beg my friend’s mom to take us so we could make the trip out of town. $5 for a matinee which in 1984 was outrageously expensive. That would be like $12 today. Unbelievable! I can remember sitting in that darkened theater wide eyed at the special effects, laughing at the gut-busting one-liners. I was captivated by what I saw and it immediately became a treasured favorite. I still cite it any time I’m asked to list my top movies. I’ll admit my love is influenced by nostalgia, but I find it has lost none of its luster.

The plot is secondary to the fun, but I’ll recount it anyway. There’s this high rise apartment building in New York at 55 Central Park West, see. It’s being haunted by a demonic spirit named Zuul which starts terrorizing poor musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) in her kitchen. Meanwhile compatible demi-god Vinz Clortho the Keymaster attacks nerdy accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) at a party he’s throwing for his clients. Both beings act as loyal minions preparing the way for Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian god of destruction who can manifest itself in different forms. Scientists Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler are doctors of parapsychology. With paranormal activity in New York on the rise, they create The Ghostbusters, an exterminating business of sorts.

Ghostbusters is quite simply one of my most beloved films of all time. The iconic production is a perfect marriage of a special effects extravaganza with spectacular performances to create one side-splitting gem. Bill Murray is the undeniable star and he’s in top form as Dr. Peter Venkman a sly, laid back scientist with deadpan delivery that seems more concerned with dating his pretty client Dana Barrett than actually getting to the bottom of her disturbances. Sigourney Weaver nicely straddles the line between exasperated annoyance and charmed love interest. Bill Murray likewise has great camaraderie with his fellow Ghostbusters Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Those two are also responsible for writing the finely tuned screenplay. It zips, it pops and it never lets up. Ernie Hudson joins them later as Winston Zeddemore. He delivers my favorite quip after the group is blown away by the lightening bolts of an evil entity from another dimension. There is a slew of funny dialogue and Rick Moranis’ nerdy portrayal of Louis Tully delivers a lot of it. He‘s hilarious. “Okay, who brought the dog?” he grins after hearing the growl from the long horned beast hiding in his closet.

The spectacular special effects support the story, but they never threaten to overshadow the actors. The technology was state of the art at the time, even earning an Academy Award nomination.  But it lost to the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Perhaps time has rendered the optics a bit quaint to a modern audience. The sight of that devil dog leaping from the closet and running around the city is the most dicey. But it’s the comedic interactions between characters that hold our focus, not the whiz bang appeal of the visual displays. Ok so there’s that “monster” near the end that dwarfs everything else. When the Destructor of their choosing threatens the city and their very existence, it’s memorable. That’s the kind of silly moment of brilliance that makes you realize you’re watching a work of creative genius. Oh yeah.  I adore this film.

09-06-14

Love Is Strange

Posted in Drama with tags on September 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Love Is Strange photo starrating-4stars.jpgI have a confession. Once I saw the title, I was truly hoping that Love is Strange would feature John Lithgow and Alfred Molina doing a cover version of Mickey & Sylvia’s classic ditty. Alas, I was to be disappointed. No such luck.

After nearly 40 years together, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have decided to get married. As a result of this act, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. No longer able to afford the rent on their Manhattan residence, the two scramble to find living arrangements. George still receives some income from the music lessons he provides locally. In order to stay close to his students, George sleeps on the couch in the small apartment of their sympathetic neighbors. Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) are two cops. Ben on the other hand stays in Brooklyn with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Their distant residences gives way to a unique set of issues with which each man must deal.

Love is Strange highlights a sterling ensemble cast. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are extraordinarily good. Through the construct of Ben and George’s situational living development, drama from their everyday lives is extracted. George likes classical music and reading books. His desires don’t quite mesh with the hip party loving atmosphere of his hosts. There is an amusing scene of party revelers dancing to bass heavy music filmed in close-ups. I was certain these people were in a club only to have the camera pull back to reveal them just hanging out in a tiny apartment. Meanwhile struggling writer Kate, the wife of Ben’s nephew, politely listens to Ben’s ramblings while trying to finish her novel. Marisa Tomei gives an exquisitely sophisticated performance that showcases the various sacrifices being made by the family.

American director Ira Sachs’ work is clearly a movie made for devotees of reflective film and not mainstream box office. Sachs also co-produced and writes this account of disparate relationships. The fabricated arrangement gives way to some admittedly contrived situations manufactured in the interest of extracting a reaction. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are extraordinarily good as the displaced couple. They lend a gravity to their characters that raise this chronicle to a higher level. Despite the narrative’s handling of the hot button topic of same sex marriage, the real story exploits genuine emotion as it deals with the many-sided personalities in an extended family. This is a subtle production that has universal appeal. Whether they’re singing at a piano to guests at a party or reflecting on what has become of their lives in separate bunk beds, Molina and Lithgow give nuanced performances. Yet the script accomplishes so much more. Love is Strange is a well written drama that beautifully handles the observational insights of a family tree and the way a simple crisis affects its many branches.

08-31-14

Gigi

Posted in Comedy, Musical, Romance with tags on August 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gigi photo starrating-4stars.jpgHistorically August has never been the month for which studios save movies with boffo box office potential. Imagine my surprise when Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released on August 1st, turned out to be the biggest hit of the year so far. And it deserved to be because it’s a terrific film to boot. That accounts for the fact that the movie has largely dominated the entire month. Ok so there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too but that was awful. Seeking some counter programming was the impetus behind my decision to see a revival of Gigi at The Stanford Theatre. It was the palate cleansing sorbet in a month of mostly bitter tasting selections.

The MGM musical won a then unprecedented 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1958. It held a short-lived record until Ben-Hur won 11 the very next year. In addition to Gigi, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were responsible for creating Camelot, Brigadoon and perhaps most famously, My Fair Lady. Gigi pales in comparison to that similar smash hit also thematically built around a Cinderella transformation. Gigi isn’t my favorite musical, but it’s still entertaining.

Gigi is based on the 1944 novella of the same name by Colette. Rich and attractive millionaire Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan) is bored with the superficial lifestyle of the upper class in Parisian society. The year is 1900 and he’d prefer to hang out with the former mistress (Hermoine Gingold) of his uncle (Maurice Chevalier). Gaston calls her Mamita. Madame Alvarez is also grandmother to the carefree Gigi, with whom he enjoys hanging out with as well. She is currently a young girl but on the verge of becoming a woman. Madame Alvarez encourages Gigi to spend time with her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to educate Gigi in the ways of becoming a courtesan, that is a wealthy man’s mistress. Important skills like walking elegantly, how to choose a cigar, and pouring coffee in the proper fashion, are part of the lesson plan. How long before Gaston notices this tomboy of a girl has matured into a beautiful young woman?

Director Vincente Minnelli fills the screen with so much color and pageantry, the eyes can barely contain it all. There’s a magnificence to the presentation that seems to have spared no expense in recreating the French fashions. Cecil Beaton’s production design, costumes and scenery is the ultimate. It is sumptuous. There’s such an old fashioned grandeur that relies so heavily on sets and wardrobe that it is kind of fascinating. Even for 1958, Gigi was a bit of a throwback to an earlier time. It was the last great MGM musical of Hollywood’s golden age, although Minnelli would direct Bells are Ringing in 1960 and that’s pretty wonderful too.

The cast is captivating. My favorites are Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. They are an absolute delight, particularly in their witty duet, “”I Remember It Well”. Other song highlights are “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “Gigi”. Leslie Caron is a spirited vision as the title character. No one conveys indignant exasperation like suave Louie Jourdan. The script is rather funny too. Isabel Jeans as the highly strung Aunt Alicia delivers some of the best lines with perfect timing and intonation during her tutelage. Classic lines abound. “A topaz? Among my jewels? Are you mad?” “Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.” “Wait for the first-class jewels, Gigi. Hold on to your ideals.” The social mores and customs are amusingly dated, but that’s really the point now isn’t it? Let’s just say, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

08-24-14

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Posted in Crime, Film Noir, Thriller with tags on August 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For photo starrating-1star.jpgIn 1917 artist Marcel Duchamp took a readymade porcelain urinal signed it “R.Mutt” and submitted it for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. It was a controversial idea whose influence is still discussed today. Now I’m not here to take Duchamp to task for his questionable objet d’art. Nevertheless it would seem to me that beneath this move there had to exist at least a modicum of contempt either for art or the audience or both. As I sat watching Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, this idea filtered through my mind. Duchamp appropriated a urinal as art much in the same manner that Frank Miller appropriates film noir as a movie.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is the disastrous sequel to 2005’s Sin City, a successful neo noir thriller. It beautifully captured the look of a comic book. A Dame to Kill For is stylistically impressive as well. But it’s so utterly bereft of substance, as to offend the basic requirements of storytelling. This perverts the very idea of entertainment.  The narrative’s fetishizing of violence and sex would be downright pernicious if it wasn‘t so ineffectual and awkward.  Miller conveys style and visual aesthetic, but not heart.  Granted, the measure of good taste is subjective. Let’s set aside the extreme level of violence for a moment. There is no story. Just a compilation of shooting, stabbing, slicing and dicing. The misdeeds strung together as a pseudo fable that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s disgusting, reprehensible, vulgar, misogynistic and every other negative word you can use in this day and age to describe something without value.

The characters are shockingly devoid of merit, especially for a drama in these “enlightened“ times. Film noir has always highlighted the femme fatale. However these women have little to do other than display their physical attributes. The narrative unrepentantly parades Jessica Alba, Eva Green Jaime King, and Juno Temple through the production like skewered selections by waiters at a Brazilian BBQ. Women are either prostitutes, strippers, or evil temptresses.  At least one gets to be a good luck charm. Rosario Dawson literally wears what looks like metal saucepan lids over her breasts in one scene. Jamie Chung doesn’t even get to speak. Oh but she displays her knife wielding skills. Can I re-emphasize the violence? The unending obliteration of human beings is gruesome. It’s like watching a chef at Benihana chop up various meats and vegetables for 102 minutes and then calling it a drama. The men aren’t any more carefully drawn either. Their lack of humanity is disheartening. These guys are rotten to the core. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is just a body to destroy. He serves no purpose. For the first 10 minutes, I marveled at the visual style. It’s remarkable, but soon after the ugliness beneath the production seeps through and overstays its welcome fast.

08-27-14

Frank

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Frank photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgDomhnall Gleeson is Jon, a young wannabe keyboardist who manages to get recruited into an outré band called The Soronprfbs. The group is led by an enigmatic personality named Frank who wears a giant cartoon papier-mâché head that he never takes off. The gang includes Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a supremely negative individual who plays the theremin (natch), Nana their drummer (Carla Azar of experimental LA act Autolux), petulant lead guitarist Baraque (French actor François Civil) and their manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Despite having little to no talent whatsoever, Jon desperately craves mainstream success. Meanwhile the rest of the band appears to have less focused aspirations. His dream of appearing at Austin’s famed South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is driven by his social media campaign via Twitter and YouTube.

The production captures the collaborative efforts of an unknown indie band with real authenticity. There’s a reason for this. The inspirations for Frank are actually more interesting than the film itself. The screenplay was written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, and was based on Ronson’s experiences playing in the new wave act Oh Blimey Big Band during the late 1980s. Their leader, Chris Sievey was an English musician and comedian. He succumbed to cancer in 2010. Sievey’s comic persona Frank Sidebottom included wearing a large spherical shaped head made of papier mâché and dressing in a retro styled suit from the 1950s. Beneath that veneer, the writers have fashioned a bizarre fictional group that also owes an obvious debt to the talents of avant-garde individuals like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Daniel Johnston.

Frank is a black comedy with a dark undercurrent. How dark? Well someone who has committed suicide by hanging himself from tree is presented as a visual joke. In another instance a man is suddenly hit by a car in a sonic surprise that virtually slaps the audience with a punctuated jolt. Frank is definitely an odd little film with a sensibility that will charm some and irk others. There are some amusing moments. Frank’s attempt at his most likable pop song is something called “Coca Cola, Lipstick, Ringo.” In the words of screenwriter Jon Ronson, it would be the result “if someone with manic depression tried to write a Katy Perry song.” The final ditty “I Love You All” is strangely affecting as well. Unfortunately those occurrences are few and far between. Most of the picture isn’t that funny or even particularly memorable. Frank isn’t a bad movie. There are some touching episodes amidst the bleak humor, but I’ll liken its appeal to food. Frank is a heaping plate of fava beans. There’s nothing wrong with fava beans. I just wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’ll take a plate of broccoli instead.

08-23-14

What If

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

What If photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgCan men and women be “just friends“? That’s the age old question that What If address within its well worn story structure, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes infatuated with Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party only to discover that she already has a boyfriend at the very end of their evening together. Chantry maintains she loves her current beau but would like to remain friends. Wallace agrees. Things don’t go as planned.

What If isn’t wholly generic but it isn’t particularly innovative either. Surprisingly, Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) isn’t made out to be a complete jerk. You could imagine the two of them getting married and living a happy life. Although Ben’s first interaction with Wallace is rude and it causes the audience to dislike Ben right from the start, despite his sincere devotion to Chantry. What If does indeed have moments of relaxed whimsy. Radcliffe and Kazan are charming up to a point and they generate enough chemistry to sustain interesting discussions. They share a scene in a diner and a conversation about a disgusting sandwich known as Fool’s Gold was something I had never heard before. More often than not, however, these offhand fragments feel like the carefully orchestrated fabrications of a writer. The twee stretches outweigh the periods of genuine honest emotion.

Chantry’s latent attraction becomes frustrating. In spite of her exhortations that she doesn’t want a romantic relationship, her actions speak otherwise. Upon their first meeting, Chantry flirts conspicuously with Wallace at the party. It’s shocking when she abruptly reveals she is already spoken for when he drops her off. They spent an entire evening together. She couldn’t mention this earlier? Their accidental meeting at a revival showing of The Princess Bride is another mixed signal flirtatious conversation as well. Chantry is a complex woman and she remains a compelling individual, but her behavior develops into this cat-and-mouse game where she seems to express an attraction towards Wallace, then gets indignant when he responds. Then there is her exceptionally bizarre reaction late in the narrative. Her amorous feelings prompts a grand declaration of love from him. Her subsequent response renders her character a most confounding object of befuddlement.

What If is all about when men and women enter the “friend” zone. The picture frequently recalls the far superior When Harry Met Sally both in subject matter and alliances. Wallace and Chantry embark on a platonic relationship. She opens up to her sister Dalia (Megan Park) for advice. He confides in his buddy Allan (Adam Driver). Allan also happens to be Chantry’s cousin. More quirkiness. The production was originally titled The F Word when it was released at the 2013 Toronto film festival in September. That the filmmakers ditched that significantly more zesty title for a humdrum one, actually belies the movie’s true heart. What If is pleasant enough but the slightness of the story ultimately relegates this affair to little more than passable time filler.

08-17-14

Calvary

Posted in Drama on August 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Calvary photo starrating-2stars.jpgBrendan Gleeson is Father James Lavelle, a pastor of a church in County Sligo on Ireland’s Northwest coast. The province is in an outlying area, an environment full of natural beauty that is a facade that hides an ugly sinister heartbeat of assorted sinners and delinquents. The tale begins as he hears the confession of a man. The confessor vows to murder Lavelle in one week’s time because of abuses he suffered when he was a boy at the hands of a completely different priest. The congregant’s rationale is that it would be a more powerful statement to kill a good priest, on a Sunday no less. The movie then introduces us to the various weirdos of his congregation, apparently so we the audience can play, “Guess the culprit.”

Why are there so many misanthropes in this picturesque little Irish town? There’s the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke). She cheats with the approval of her married husband (Chris O’Dowd), a butcher. He is indifferent to his wife’s persistent adultery with an abusive mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé) from the Ivory Coast who thinks women want to be slapped around every now and then. There’s also the rapist murderer (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s actual son) who felt like God when he was killing, an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) with a wicked temperament, an ineffectual young man (Killian Scott) who hates women for not paying attention to him, a flamboyant gay hustler (Owen Sharpe) whose affectations come across like a reject from a failed production of Grease, and a snotty rich man (Dylan Moran) who urinates on an priceless work of art to demonstrate his contempt for life. Let’s not forget his fellow clergyman (David Wilmot), a passionless assistant who seems more like an insurance salesman than a man moved by religious conviction. Lastly there’s the aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) that just wants to commit suicide. You will too after being surrounded by this sorry lot.

So how does a priest spend what might possibly be the very last week of his life? By keeping mum on the threat to his existence and sublimating himself in the mire of his own congregation. Brendan Gleeson is a conscientious man of the cloth with his heart in the right place. He’s mostly a positive portrayal of a Catholic father in an age where that is an original concept. In contrast, writer/director John Michael McDonagh surrounds Brendan Gleeson with a coterie of oddballs and miscreants. A circus freak show would look like the picture of normality when compared to this parish. It’s very self consciously arty. The one actually nice person in this whole depressing production is actress Kelly Reilly who plays Lavelle’s daughter. He was once married and entered the priesthood following the death of his wife. She provides a bit of a respite from the miserableness. Along the way we endure situations brought down by dialogue that challenges the very nature of what it means to produce an engaging drama. The ending is one last expression of disregard for an audience that has endured a narrative that ultimately goes nowhere. Calvary is the hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. And that’s a pretty good description of how I felt after this film was over.

08-13-14

Magic in the Moonlight

Posted in Comedy, Romance on August 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Magic in the Moonlight photo starrating-2stars.jpgWoody Allen has been making films for close to 50 years, so it goes without saying that his productions run the gamut from masterpieces (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to instantly forgettable (September, Anything Else). I’m sorry to report that Magic in the Moonlight sits firmly in the latter category. Even the best of us can have an off day, but I still find it fascinating that a filmmaker can immediately follow up a work of art like Blue Jasmine with an offering that is flawed at such a rudimentary level.

As is often the case with his fumbles, Woody starts out with an interesting idea. At the behest of his fellow illusionist colleague, Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is invited to the mansion of the Catledge family on the French Riviera to debunk an ethereal young woman named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who claims to be a psychic. The family is apparently beguiled by this attractive twenty-something. British Stanley is a celebrated magician who performs in disguise as a Chinese conjuror named Wei Ling Soo. With the exception of the friend who invites him, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), no one at the estate is aware of Stanley’s other persona. This then will allow him to observe the clairvoyant and ostensibly expose her as a fraud.

For half the movie, the director has our attention. Colin Firth is enjoyable as this cranky cynic looking to demystify an inscrutable but charming visionary. They banter back and forth. The mood is light, the scenery is pretty and the 1920s milieu is enchanting. As they spend time together, Sophie is able to discern personal details about Stanley’s life and even those of his aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Incidentally her minor role was my favorite part. At this juncture, Stanley begins to seriously question his deep-rooted rationalism. Then he decides he has feelings for this girl. Sorry. Nope. Not buying it.

These realizations are a complete betrayal of Colin Firth’s character. That this lifelong curmudgeon would all of sudden, fall head over heals in love with a woman he had regarded as a charlatan is a bunch of hooey. Add to this the unsavory fact that he is old enough to be her grandfather and it adds another layer of ick. Who’s Helena Bonham Carter’s love interest going to be in her next film….Justin Bieber? Because their age difference is exactly the same. Everything up until this point is decent.  However the story falls apart from there. Then a plot twist is added and the reveal is like deflating a hot air balloon as it rapidly descends back to earth. From then on there is absolutely nowhere for the narrative to go. His comment on faith is by now a Woody Allen cliché. Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the worst Woody Allen film, but it’s 238,855 miles away from being the best.

08-06-14

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 615 other followers