The Good Dinosaur

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Uncategorized on November 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo good_dinosaur_ver3_zpsykoytrdq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt would be easy to dismiss The Good Dinosaur‘s simple narrative as minor Pixar. The tale’s themes touch upon the importance of family and finding your place in this world. These lessons have certainly been done before. But delve deeper and what the studio has done here is no less magical that some of their very best. In many ways, the blend of ideas is one of their most subversive. To begin with, it relies on less dialogue than virtually all of their productions. They explored this abstraction in the first half of Wall-E then abandoned it in the second. A cursory look at production stills show a little boy and his dinosaur, a seemingly clichéd set-up that suggests that the dinosaur is a substitute for the boy’s proverbial dog. Leave it to Pixar to flip the script.

The saga begins with a vignette that might not even register if you’ve managed to avoid press materials for this picture. An asteroid flies overhead. Dinosaurs look up. Go back to eating. What the visual tableau is hypothesizing without words is, what if the theoretical asteroid that was supposed to hit earth rendering dinosaurs extinct, never did. How would they evolve, and even more intriguingly, how would they interact with humans? The answer is one of Pixar’s most radical concepts. Naturally the dinosaurs talk. Animals do that in animated films all the time.  But Pixar takes the conceit one step further. They’re now highly evolved creatures, developing a sophisticated ecosystem. They grow crops, store grain in a silo and raise what appears to be dino-chickens in a coop.

Pixar has designed a fully realized world that pushes graphic technology to the next level. The plot concerns an Apatosaurus family. There’s Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand) who witness the birth of their three children at the outset: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner) and runt of the litter, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Though the main character is cute and cartoonish, the environment created is not. To say this is the studio’s most visually impressive movie, is an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly or negated. Some of these awe-inspiring landscapes are photo realistic achievements that dazzle the eye. This isn’t a film, it’s an experience. You can get lost in the mood, particularly during the wordless spectacles. After a not so spectacular intro, something tragic happens (Pixar is known for this) and young Arlo is separated from his family. He meets a caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright). Spot is an unexpected individual full of facial expressions and body language. His dirty mangled hair, fair skin, slightly red from the sun and piercing green eyes embody a mesmerizing soul that captivates with tangible cues. In one episode he forages for food and offers some to Arlo. The moment manages to be funny, gross and tender in mere moments. The charm slowly sneaks up on you. I fell in love with this kid.

The Good Dinosaur is a deceptively slight narrative that belies a philosophical exploration of humanity. Is it about a spirit journey? Is it a coming-of-age movie? Is it a western? Pay attention, because there is a lot being covered. Much of the drama evolves like seeds that grow in the mind well after the film is over. It stays with you. Let’s start with the notion that fear is something you learn to live with, not conquer. That’s pretty “out of the box” thinking for a children’s story. Oh but there’s so much more. On the surface, you might not even realize what’s being promoted here because it’s never expressly stated. The evolutionary relationship between Arlo and Spot is a completely subversive idea that caught me quite by surprise. Pixar has drawn inspiration from classics of the past. The close alliance between two species has been explored before. There are many examples but perhaps never done better than in something like The Black Stallion. The Good Dinosaur ranks up there in tender sophistication. When Arlo and Spot “discuss” their families, the communication is a pantomime where sticks are used. Their interaction presents a harsh reality in such a refreshingly simple way, it’s profound. The scene is heartbreaking. I’ll admit I teared up. Ok Pixar, you win again.



Posted in Uncategorized on November 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo creed_zpsdktsugdb.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBefore this picture, the need for another “Rocky” movie was right up there with the urgency for another Friday the 13th installment. Creed is the latest entry in the franchise following 2006’s Rocky Balboa. The series stopped using numbers after Rocky V because well it’s more classy I suppose. This is the first Rocky movie not written by Stallone, but judging from the story, it may as well have been. Creed (or Rocky VII, let’s be honest) is essentially a note for note remake of the original Rocky. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad. On the contrary it’s surprisingly solid. It’s just that this is a tried and true formula. It has worked before and I’m happy to report it works again.

In this episode, Michael B. Jordan portrays Adonis Creed or “Donny” as the son of Rocky’s late rival/friend Apollo. He’s the titular star, an underdog with a shot at the big time and something to prove. Sylvester Stallone is still Rocky but now he’s in the manager capacity, kinda like Burgess Meredith as Mickey. There’s also Tessa Thompson as love interest Adrian, er uh excuse me, Bianca. She’s a singer but suffering from hearing loss. Instead of Apollo, it’s “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the title holder that Donny must challenge. Phylicia Rashād is the extended family member of the narrative. Mary Anne is Apollo’s widow but not Donny’s biological mother. Donny was apparently the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former opponent, a confusing detail that isn’t very clear at first.

Creed announces its focus up front. This isn’t a tale about Rocky. Michael B. Jordan personifies a restless spirit in the finance world that quits his job to pursue a love of boxing. Deep down he’s always been a combative fighter, a product of the LA foster care system. Donny heads to Philadelphia and coaxes Rocky Balboa out of retirement to train him as a professional boxer. There’s no question that Michael B. Jordan can physically embody the part. The actor has packed on so much muscle since 2012’s Chronicle it’s ridiculous. Substantially he’s a completely different person. Yet he never breaks out into a fully realized and unique character that subverts expectations. Rocky drank raw eggs, trained in a meat locker and awkwardly pursued an even more socially awkward girl from the pet store. Donny is simply a nice guy. However he’s an incredible athlete too and the pugilistic displays do pack a punch. Director Ryan Coogler stages two fight scenes and the results are mesmerizing. You experience every connect as if you felt the punch yourself. I wish they had been longer.

Creed is a perfectly enjoyable flick. It should really score with audiences unfamiliar with the 1976 film. Rocky was a landmark. I mean c’mon it was nominated for TEN Academy Awards and won 3 including Best Picture. Subsequent entries were less critically exalted but no less crowd-pleasing. What made Rocky III and Rocky IV so entertaining was the charismatic opponents that cast a legendary shadow. Remember when Clubber Lang told Adrian to come to his apartment to “come see a real man” or when Ivan Drago uttered “I must break you” in his thick Russian accent. Those villains were iconic in their mythic evil. Tony Bellew is the nasty opponent in this entry, a Liverpudlian bruiser. While the individual, who is a cruiserweight prizefighter in real life, has an authenticity, he’s not enough of that larger than life personality that can carry a production. Nonetheless, the picture utilizes enough mythology to curry our favor. The effort is impossible to hate. There’s the “Rocky Steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Apollo’s red, white & blue trunks, Bill Conti’s soaring theme during the climax and most importantly, Sylvester Stallone. The 69 year old actor settles into the mentor role like a comfortable pair of shoes. He’s a wise, old soul and his presence in this film feels like a comforting hug. Stallone’s performance is worth the price of admission.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction on November 21, 2015 by Mark Hobin

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 photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSplitting author Suzanne Collins’ third and final book into two parts was a decision motivated by greed. The choice may have made stockholders happy, but it certainly didn’t benefit the art of telling an interesting story. Mockingjay Part 1 relied on exposition to set up a civil war that was brewing. The subject continues in Part 2. The ruthless enemy is Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), President of Panem. The rebel factions from the outer districts take orders from Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), President of District 13. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still on the side of Coin but she’s clearly conflicted to be an instrument in furthering her motives. Katniss  is no longer a valiant participant in the games. She’s the Mockingjay — an inspiration for a generation of insurgents to launch a strike against the Capitol. It’s all out war. Complicating matters is that Peeta — now rescued from being under the influence of the enemy — has been brainwashed into thinking his beloved friend is the source of society’s ills.

The action had been stretched pretty thin in Mockingjay – Part 1, so expectations were that this is where the excitement would be. Yet there appears to be even less of that this go around. It’s more dialogue as actor squares off against actor. Sutherland and Moore impressively seize the focus. Unfortunately though the plot is a tedious slog in which the sum total of the narrative can be reduced to “Let’s go kill Snow”. There is an exorbitant amount of time spent on just walking to the Capitol. The trek includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Finnick (Sam Claflin) among others. On their way, Katniss and her team confront various traps and threats. A lot of people die. Katniss is disgusted by war and apparently herself. She’s glum and depressed, racked with guilt as she struggles with her new role. She never asked to be a symbol for the rebellion. The depression zaps the actress of her usual spark. Her despondency seeps into the overall spirit of the film.

The Hunger Games series ultimately sputters to a weak and sorry conclusion in this fourth and final installment. What a comedown from the exhilarating high point that Catching Fire had achieved. Mockingjay – Part 2 is a dour condemnation of war where very little of consequence happens until the end. The drama fails to make a lasting impression. There are a few exceptions. Katniss and her team encounter mutant zombies whose mouths resemble piranhas. The “Alien” attack sequence is the single most nightmarish moment in the entire picture. The chronicle is once again abetted by a colorful ensemble cast. Tigris (Eugenie Bondurant), is a former Hunger Games’ stylist, briefly seen hiding Katniss’ unit in her shop. The bizarre surgically altered cat woman is like some futuristic descendant of Jocelyn Wildenstein. Regrettably those loopy flourishes are the exception. A mostly gray color palette complements a boring narrative with a sluggish pace. At least it’s finally over I suppose.



Posted in Drama, Romance on November 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo brooklyn_ver3_zpsdyjwt9ge.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMovies concerning the cultural assimilation of an immigrant into American life are rare. Nostalgic period pieces about the experience are rarer still. Into this atmosphere comes Brooklyn. In stark contrast to the current zeitgeist, it’s like a invigorating breath of positive air. That’s not to say her new country is a bed of roses. However opportunity does exist for those with an indomitable resolve. The drama is a paean to the spirit of new beginnings, a fresh identity in a foreign land. It’s unapologetically old fashioned and I mean that in the most grand, romantic, heartwarming sense of the word.

On paper, the plot is perfectly ordinary. Eilis Lacey is around 20 years old and living in 1950s Ireland. Things could be better as her life has become stagnant. She journeys to the U.S. searching for better opportunities. Eilis deals with simple problems: the boat trip across, her accommodations in America, starting a new job, going to school, the people she meets, homesickness. A chronicle so straightforward, the sum total of which could be summarized in 2 sentences. The relationships she develops and her conflicting feelings regarding her past and her current experience come into play. I won’t spoil with specifics. We’ve seen this material before.  What makes Brooklyn so affecting is the fully realized portrait of American life, as seen through the eyes of an outsider.  The entire composition is rather profound. Brooklyn is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín. The screenplay is adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley (Boy A). Brooklyn somehow presents the subject in a way that feels innovative and new. The depiction is honest, sweet, lovely and sincere.

At the heart of Brooklyn is Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant played by Saoirse Ronan. Her talent was famously recognized in 2007 after a supporting part in Atonement for which she received an Oscar nomination. She’s all but assured of another, this time in the Best Actress category. The film’s narrative rests completely on the shoulders of the ingenue. She beautifully upholds the story in every scene with poise and class. She’s supported by a fairly large cast. Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Bríd Brennan all support her in key roles. Every single actor having a chance to shine with their rich performances. But this is Saoirse Ronan’s show and she commands the screen.

It has been said that eyes are the window to the soul. Director John Crowley utilizes this to his advantage. Sometimes the camera simply lingers on Saoirse’s expressive face. Her countenance speaks volumes, but there’s also a sophistication just in the way she carries herself. She recalls classic Hollywood with her hypnotic presence. You’ll marvel that this actress is only 21 years old. The maturity of her performance is nothing less than a flawless achievement that elevates the entire film. A Best Picture nomination somehow eluded Avalon & In America, pleasantly optimistic tales about immigration. I’m hoping that changes with Brooklyn.



Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spotlight photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe difference between when a story explodes in the media and the time it actually happens, can be two totally different things. Just ask Bill Cosby. Such is the case with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. On January 6, 2002 the Boston Globe ran the first of many reports detailing a shocking pattern of molestation and cover-ups that had been going on for years. The ignominy went deeper than the actual acts. It was also that the Church knew about the crimes and knowingly shuttled priests to different parishes when incidents would rise. The events in the Archdiocese had local repercussions. Cardinal Bernard Law ultimately resigned as the Archbishop of Boston for his administrative role in the crime. However what originally appeared to be a problem within the local diocese caused other victims to come forward in parishes across the United States. The sheer number of people attested to a pattern that went back decades. The ensuing scandal spread and became a nationwide crisis for the Catholic Church.

Confession: The scandal had far reaching consequences. The victims had been harmed directly but the news also disturbed faithful members of the Church. As a practicing Roman Catholic, the scandal shook me. It was a powerful reminder that a religious organization is not God. Of course I knew what Spotlight was about even before I saw it. This was going to be a painful reminder of a very embarrassing chapter in the Catholic Church. What I didn’t expect, however was the balanced level at which the movie treats faith. At one point in their investigation, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team comes into contact with an ex-priest turned psychiatrist. He was not involved in any wrongdoing, but they wanted his comment on it. Incredulous they ask over a phone call, how he can still be a practicing Catholic. His response, “My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.”

First and foremost, Spotlight is about investigative journalism. The story itself is secondary to the way reporters conduct their procedure. The narrative is fashioned as a finely tuned ensemble piece. It’s fascinating that an entire film can be constructed simply out of conversations. But rest assured, these are extremely eye opening discussions. Liev Schreiber is the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron, presented as a Jewish outsider in the largely Roman Catholic enclave of Boston. At first the exposé appears to be about John J. Geoghan, one former priest found to have a history of abuse, but Marty suspects a systemic problem. Before they publish, he presses the team to dig deeper. Was the hierarchy of the Boston diocese aware of this misconduct? Editor Baron pays a courtesy call to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). Their chat highlights a happily upbeat Law, who mistakenly assumes the Boston Globe will work WITH the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Spotlight is the investigative unit. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James portray the core reporters of the team. As Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., John Slattery oversees them. Spotlight certainly puts the Catholic Church on notice for the way it handled the allegations, but it also has a harsh critique for journalists themselves, even the very ones who finally broke the story. Interestingly, all of the the “Spotlight” reporters admit to being lapsed Catholics. Despite having fallen from organized religion, their lack of desire to offend their readership underlies their hesitancy at first. The way news stories are buried and ignored, sometimes for years, is a very key point of the drama. The information was always there. It just wasn’t reported properly. Lawyers (played by Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are on opposite sides that have represented the plaintiffs and defendants for years. They each have extensive knowledge of the cases and are key to understanding the depth of this problem.

Spotlight is a pragmatic and clear headed approach to investigative journalism. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win) and his co-writer Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing) do not sensationalize the subject. For example, there are no flashback scenes of the abuse. Discussions with the now adult victims are carefully handled as fact finding interviews. At one point, a man only offers he was “molested” as a boy. Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, gracefully presses that he needs to be more specific as that word can have a variety of meanings to different people. Our witness to the rest of their conversation ends there. In a later scene, Sacha knocks on the door of another former clergy member: Father Ronald H. Paquin (Richard O’Rourke). Their brief, matter-of-fact interaction is one of the most memorable dialogues in the entire film. It stays with you because it reveals so much in mere mommets. The trust we place in trusted figures of authority, the role of journalists to report the news, the way scandals affect our faith, the lasting effects of sexual abuse – Spotlight touches on all of these issues and more in a 128 minute runtime that flies by. It does all this in the guise of a straightforward drama. The account could have been about almost any report, as long as it were true. The nature of this story obviously gives the chronicle an emotional component, but Spotlight is somewhat dispassionate. Yet that weakness of sorts is also its strength. The drama is efficient, objective and direct and that’s exactly what good news journalism should be.


The Peanuts Movie

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Peanuts Movie photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Peanuts characters have been animated before, but never quite like this. Charles Schultz’ creations debuted as a comic strip way back in 1950 and ran for 50 years until 2000. It continued on in reruns. During those years Peanuts expanded on its success with television specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are so iconic, they’re still run today. In addition 4 feature films were released between 1969 and 1980. Each relied on traditional hand-drawn techniques. The comics were pitched at adults but the cartoons had a childlike mentality with a nod to adults who might be watching as well. That’s likewise the sensibility of The Peanuts Movie.

The animation comes courtesy of Blue Sky Studios, the CGI team behind those barely tolerable Ice Age flicks. The artists have done a beautiful job at portraying the gang in this medium. The characters look exactly like you’d expect if they were magically made whole and became 3D designs. There’s a visual depth to these renderings. For example Frieda’s naturally curly red hair and Pig Pen’s dust cloud are so vivid you see distinct strands and dirt particles. It’s the originals you know, only to the second power. Director Steve Martino has had experience turning illustrations into cinematic sagas. He helmed Horton Hears a Who! in 2008. Charles Schulz’s son Craig, his grandson Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, co-write the screenplay.

Honoring a 2D property and modernizing it as a computer animated feature, in 3D no less, is a difficult balancing act. This nostalgia connects people across generational lines. Peanuts have seemingly been around forever so virtually everyone has at least some connection to these kids. Mess with the memory, you mess with our childhood. Despite the visually modern update, the account is a slavishly faithful manifestation of previous incarnations. That’s good news and bad. The positive is the story doesn’t taint the dignity of Charles Schultz’ beloved work. These are the same cherished icons dealing with identical conundrums. Now the dilemma.

The Peanuts Movie is amiable, but if you’re looking for creativity or imagination, you’re watching the wrong movie. The plot is merely a compendium of replicated gags. Charlie Brown develops a crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl who moves in next door. He wants to make a good first impression. Meanwhile Ace pilot Snoopy writes a novel where he faces his arch nemesis, the Red Baron. He’s supported by Woodstock. The rest of the gang says and does things you remember from past iterations. Lucy dispenses psychiatric advice. Schroeder plays the piano. Marcie calls Peppermint Patty “sir”. Sally pines for her sweet baboo, Linus, who clutches a security blanket, and so forth. They go ice skating and play hockey. There’s a talent show and a dance. Its warm nostalgia and it’s pleasant. The nicest thing I can say is that it honors the source. Yet there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Peanuts is a “greatest hits” of recycled vignettes. Its gentle pabulum is guaranteed not to upset the status quo. I was hoping for more.



Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller on November 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spectre photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDaniel Craig is back for his 4th appearance in the Bond series. For those keeping score, Spectre is the 24th entry made by Eon Productions. The greatest James Bond features have always worked as a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. To put it another way, they are an assortment of action set pieces strung together to form a lucid story. Here the action rises and falls. Spectre is typified both by exhilarating highs and mundane lows that interact to produce an overall spirited good time.

The flick gets off to a rollicking good start in Mexico City, where celebrants have amassed to honor the Day of the Dead with a colorful parade. The color, costumes, and energy present contribute to feeling of excitement that is equally exuberant and sinister. The film’s heart-pumping opening chase take place in a helicopter high above Zócalo Square. It’s a logistically spectacular display that undoubtedly contributed to this being the most expensive James Bond production ever. It shows. The stunt ranks favorably with the best of Jame Bond. Then comes a credits sequence highlighted by Sam Smith’s wimpy falsetto theme “Writing’s on the Wall”. The corresponding images illicit more giggles than awe with a shirtless Bond being massaged by sexy ladies and octopus tentacles. The bad guys have a ring engraved with an octopus so that’s the connection I suppose.  It’s all a bit WTF but memorable for being so over-the-top.

The proper tale concerns Spectre, a nefarious international criminal network that wants to unite the world’s surveillance services into a global agency. It’s somewhat murky and there are more than a few conversations that could’ve ended up on the cutting room floor to benefit a more efficient running time. I mean a zippy adventure shouldn’t be prolonged to 2 hours and 30 minutes. That’s ridiculous. Honestly if they had shaved 30 minutes off this monstrosity it would’ve gotten a higher rating from me. Still what is here is very good. In addition to the spectacles I’ve mentioned there’s a nifty fist fight on a train barreling through Morocco with wrestler Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx. He plays a henchman for the Spectre organization. There’s also rousing chase sequences through Rome, the Austrian Alps and London as well.

Spectre incorporates a lot of references from the past that sort of provide a unifying whole to the previous four Bond entries. Recurring characters M, Q and Miss Moneypenny all return. New addition Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann is an attractive presence, although too judgmental for a typical “Bond girl”. Spectre is the villanous global criminal network that forms the crux of the saga. Meanwhile the essential fate of the 007 organization is in jeopardy when a smug bureaucrat named C (Andrew Scott) takes over British intelligence. The pinnacle of evil is Christoph Waltz, whom Bond tracks down to his desert lair housed in a meteor crater. He’s a serviceable villain, but veers on the dull side. This is where you’re supposed to ham it up, Christoph! His head drilling machine is kind of nasty though. I cringed at the scene.

The Daniel Craig Bond era has been unusually strong. Over the course of four movies, the franchise has seen some of its most popular films. The series hit a zenith with Skyfall, an all around success by any standard. Quantum of Solace was execrable, but hey, three out of four ain’t bad. Spectre isn’t the best entry, but it’s good entertaining fun nonetheless. Daniel Craig has intimated this may be the last time he plays Bond. If that’s true, I will lament his decision. He’s been one of my favorites.



Posted in Uncategorized on November 5, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Legend photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s 2 Tom Hardys for the price of 1. That should be the tagline of Legend, the new biopic about the Krays from American director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, 42). He also adapts the screenplay from John Pearson’s 1972 book The Profession of Violence. Twin brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray were two of London’s most notorious gangsters in organized crime. Going from protection rackets and extortion in 1950s to West End nightclub owners in the swinging 60s, they mixed with celebrities and politicians alike becoming personalities in their own right. Legend is a fairly entertaining tale that recounts the rise and fall of the Kray twins. Thankfully our chronicle begins with the brothers already in power so we don’t have to suffer through some hackneyed stuff about their childhood. They’re a formidable entity right from the start, instilling fear into everyone with whom they do business. They’re even seeking to expand their bid for supremacy with some mobsters from across the pond.

Tom Hardy is hands down the MVP of the picture. He plays both brothers in separately shot scenes aided by the use of some digital trickery. Ronnie is an unstable gay paranoid schizophrenic and Reggie is his equally unstable, but much more suave and debonair brother. Reggie pursues pretty ingenue Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the sister of his driver. As the girlfriend, she is a pleasant girl who ultimately becomes his wife. However the decision to make her the narrator for everything that happens is odd. Having her recount their inner-gangland affairs is awkward since she’s rarely present during those events. It’s a simplistic style choice that trades on an overall lack of depth for beaucoup gloss.

Clearly the main selling point of Legend is a pair of gangster performances from British actor Tom Hardy. The scattered and superficial biography is sustained by juicy twin roles that impressively come across as two totally different people. The framework allows for him to really chew scenery in a compelling way. Reggie is by far the better characterization in terms of charisma. He’s a brooding, commanding presence. Impatient Ronnie, on the other hand, is a bit cartoonish. He tosses off intentionally funny one-liners that appropriately induce laughter but also cheapen the seriousness of the rest of the production. Hardy ‘s garbled elocution is actually reminiscent of his portrayal of the supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

A few of the Krays’ criminal dealings are depicted. For example, the murders of George Cornell (Shane Attwooll), a member of the rival Richardson gang, and criminal hitman Jack the Hat (Sam Spruell), do occur. Unfortunately all too often Legend focuses on the less interesting subject of Reggie’s marriage to Frances Shea. Certainly there is no derth of bloodshed. The account is indeed violent. It’s just that the narrative is fashioned around a triad of performances that occasionally veers into soap opera when it should focus on the twins rule of terror. In addition to the aforementioned Emily Browning, Tom Hardy is supported by an able cast including actors Colin Morgan, Christopher Eccleston, Taron Egerton, David Thewlis and Chazz Palminteri. They’re all great, but make no mistake. This is Tom Hardy’s show.


Beasts of No Nation

Posted in Drama, War with tags on November 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Beasts of No Nation photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWar is hell. The idea has been promoted before and here it is presented once again. This time through a series harrowing images that remain in the mind’s eye well after this combat film is over. The tale concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy affected by an unnamed civil war raging in his country. His mother and sisters escape, but his father is shot and killed. Agu is essentially kidnapped by militants who coerce him to join their rebel force. Their mercenary unit is headed up by a megalomaniacal leader only referred to as Commandant (Idris Elba).

Agu’s awareness of evil expands as the conflict rages on. This conversion forms the narrative in the capable hands of newcomer Abraham Attah. He is fascinating, both thoughtful and sincere. It’s a revelatory performance and the most compelling reason to discuss the picture. Idris Elba as the Commandant is also effective as an intimidating presence overseeing this rag tag team of soldiers. His dominant authority over these young men and boys as he molds them into soldiers is chilling. As the full extent of his predatory abuse is revealed, he becomes an even more reprehensible individual. The pessimism inherent in the perspective adheres close to convention. It is his meeting with the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) where the limits of the Commandant’s power are revealed. This is where the script finally explores something slightly more innovative.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has shown a facility with different genres. He has gone from the Mexican gangland adventure Sin Nombre to an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This time he’s adapting another book, the 2005 debut novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Little detail is given as to what conflict this is and for what exactly are these various warring factions fighting. The lack of political context or commentary is a bit of a misstep in a chronicle about people who do indeed pick sides. Our protagonist, however doesn’t pick a side. He’s merely swept up into the maelstrom of violence. The saga revels in one war crime after another. The way people intellectually justify their point of view is clearly not the point. Beasts of No Nation is about a child’s loss of innocence. Not a novel idea, but at least one presented with a pair of laudable performances.

Note: Beasts of No Nation debuted simultaneously on Netflix and to theaters in limited release. It’s a tough watch particularly at a punishing 2 hours 17 minutes. The temptation to break away from this bleak story is pretty high. I admittedly did not see this in one sitting. I do consider my wavering desire to finish the movie, relevant. Definitely more of an immersive experience uninterrupted in a theater.



Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Suffragette photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgYou’d think a period piece concerning the women’s suffragette movement in the U.K. would be an uplifting slam dunk. I mean championing a women’s right to vote is not exactly a controversial notion unless, according to the movie’s closing credits, you’re Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of accessible femininism that everybody can get behind. Unfortunately what should have been an unimpeachable drama becomes a tedious chore with a mangled narrative that thwarts an inspiring true story.

The screenplay has fashioned the UK suffrage crusade around a fictional group of working class women. If your knowledge about their struggle is centered around actress Glynis Johns singling “Sister Suffragette” in Mary Poppins, then this movie should be quite an education. Yes they do in fact wear those sashes and bonnets, but they aren’t interested in peaceful protest. These women are violent. First it starts with throwing rocks at store front windows. Then it’s on to blowing things up, first mailboxes, then the prime minister’s home.

Meryl Streep pops up briefly to inspire the masses as a leader of the British suffragette campaign. And by briefly, I mean if you use the restroom, you’ll miss her. She plays political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the few roles literally based on a real person. Women have been fighting for more representation in Parliament for some 50 years, she laments. Civil disobedience has now given way to a radicalized cause prone to violence as the sole route to change. She inspires Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to go from law abiding housewife to rabble rouser. “We break windows, we burn things, because war’s the only language men listen to” she cries.

A great actor can rise above conventional, even bland, filmmaking. I thought this as I watched Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. She is convincing as Maud, a working wife and mother, who is indirectly recruited into the movement. This occurs when she is asked to read a speech detailing horrible conditions at the laundry to a cabinet committee, on behalf of her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud does this because her friend’s face is badly bruised after having been beat by her husband. It would seem that condition would actually lend more power to Violet’s words, but that idea is never even considered. Carey Mulligan as Maud is barely concerned about the vote at the beginning, but her transformation into a raging extremist becomes a compelling character arc.

Maud’s conversion from mild mannered housewife into left wing revolutionary is effective in Carey Mulligan’s hands. She transcends the material. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. The film is filled with clichés not people. Meryl Streep’s part is too small to make a difference. Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai all portray fictional composites that represent types. Natalie Press, on the other hand, is the very real Emily Davison. It’s unfortunate she’s more of a plot device than a person. She provides a climax of sorts. Oh but the men fare even worse. Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband as an unforgiving man who’d rather kick his wife out into the street and give up his only child for adoption, than have a conversation with his wife. Maud’s boss (Geoff Bell) is a snarling sexual predator and shop-floor tyrant that does everything but twirl his mustache. Meanwhile the police bash lady demonstrators senseless with batons.

Suffragette is a pedestrian account that fails to be incisive. The screenplay by Abi Morgan paints their experience in broad strokes. These are supposed to be our mothers and daughters, but they aren’t human, they’re shortcuts to character development that short change a powerful saga. It’s interesting to note that Abi Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady which was another narratively weak script. Maud loses her husband, child, job, home, basically everything in her life. She’s even thrown in jail and force fed with tubes in a particularly hard to watch scene. On paper, this chronicle should’ve been a soft sell for today’s viewer. It’s the ultimate indignity to the struggle of these brave women that you unwittingly start to question Maud’s decisions. Was becoming a domestic bomber and arsonist really the correct path? This shouldn’t happen in a tale about courageous women fighting for equal rights, but strangely it does.



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