Archive for March, 2011

Win Win

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 29, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketMike Flaherty, a struggling attorney, accepts the guardianship of an elderly client in order to collect the monetary benefit the responsibility affords. Stridently domestic drama has all the characteristics of what you’d expect from an Indie picture in 2011.  It has alternatingly sweet and humorous moods punctuated by crisis.  It’s got serendipitous situations that arise out of apparent happenstance.  Oh and don’t forget to add the quirky characters.  Off kilter performances abound.  This is an engaging ensemble cast, particularly Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s best friend Terry Delfino.  Terry’s idolization of a teenaged wrestling phenom is humorously peculiar and a high point in this often carefully fabricated comedic drama.  Couldn’t a family help a child in need simply by virtue that he’s in trouble and not because he’s a talented athlete?  Nothing is ever black and white, as ethics can be a grey area, but make no mistake Paul Giamatti as Mike, is a morally confused character.  We worry he might be found out for his lies, but at the same time we want him to get his comeuppance for his impropriety.  Very much an idiosyncratic companion piece to director Thomas McCarthy’s other productions (The Station Agent, The Visitor).  Chances are if you liked those films, you’ll like this.  Slight, inconsequential movie isn’t essential viewing, but it’s a moderately absorbing slice of life.  I would have preferred a bit more substance.  The story is nicely acted, but it just kind of coasts along on its charm.

Imitation of Life

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on March 26, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Given her personal life, Lana Turner would seem ideally suited for a movie detailing the problematic relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter.  Indeed it was one of her greatest successes as she is excellent.  The plot concerns Lora Meredith, a struggling white widow with a child who befriends Annie Johnson, a single black mother whose husband has likewise passed on.  Driven by ambition to succeed as an aspiring actress, she often makes self-serving concessions in her life.  Lora regularly relies on her new friend’s assistance in raising her daughter, Susie.  But Annie has issues dealing with her own daughter, Sarah Jane, who is so light skinned she appears to be white.  This becomes a source of contention for the little girl, embarrassed to have a mother who is black.  The story touches on everything from strained families and unrequited crushes to the casting couch and racial inequality.  Melodramatic?  Very, but in a tremendously enjoyable way.  It does seem dated, but entertains despite, or perhaps because of it.  Juanita Moore is most engaging as the selfless Annie.  She’s sincere, sweet and dignified.  She rightfully received an Oscar nomination for her part.  Also receiving a nomination was Susan Kohner as the daughter who resents her.  Her performance, however, is much more overwrought.  The script doesn’t present her as fully formed a character in the way that her actions don’t always seem reasonable, especially to a modern audience.

Artificial soap opera dressed up as exquisite drama has all the hallmarks of a Douglas Sirk Hollywood picture.  It’s colorful, glossy and unapologetically old-fashioned.  At first glance it‘s easy to be mesmerized by the well appointed sets, lavish costumes, and cinematography.  But beneath the stylish surface, the action casually unfolds as a harsh critique of contemporary American 1950s society.  It’s (thankfully) a subtle theme, one that slowly creeps up on you well after the film is over.

Jane Eyre

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on March 25, 2011 by Mark Hobin

The 28th(!) version of the beloved English novel by Charlotte Brontë is a stunning adaptation of classic literature.  Emotionally engaging account details the maturation of a poor and plain little girl into a compassionate and intellectually accomplished woman.  Jane Eyre is certainly a part that would be a godsend for any young actress to play and Mia Wasikowska is more than up for the task.  She perfectly conveys a character strikingly individualistic, yearning a full life, but morally strong.  Mia captures Jane’s independence while still making her appear sympathetic and vulnerable.  It’s a delicate balance and key to drawing the audience into her world.  Michael Fassbender matches Mia as Edward Rochester, her employer at Thornfield Hall, the grand estate of his family.  When the two are face to face, they give vitality to Brontë’s written word.  Their verbal exchanges are riveting.  He’s a complex individual.  He’s less than honest about his past and therefore, morally flawed, but also admirable in his love for someone of a lesser social and economic class than he.  Despite their differences, his heartfelt feelings toward her are utterly believable.  The script touches on many themes, but at heart it’s a love story and beautiful one at that.

The setting is packed with style to spare, which should not be overlooked in contributing to the strength of the production.  The music, costumes, and cinematography are all first rate and beautifully add to the ambiance of the time period.  The dark atmosphere inside isolated Thornfield Hall is especially bewitching.  Even the scenes outside the mansion are colored by gloomy grays and blues which lend the outdoors a menacing tone.  Director Cary Fukunaga keeps the action moving and wisely trusts in the novel’s power.  It doesn’t feel modernized, but it never feels stuffy either.  A marked departure from his last movie, the gritty Sin Nombre.  Definitely a versatile filmmaker to watch.

The Tourist

Posted in Drama, Romance, Thriller with tags on March 24, 2011 by Mark Hobin

A math teacher from Wisconsin visits Italy in order to mend a broken heart and crosses paths with a mysterious woman.  “Travel romance with thriller elements” is a light, frothy romp that harkens back to films like Charade and North by Northwest.  The Tourist is nowhere near as inspired as those classics, but it is an enjoyable attempt and a lot better than the infamous reputation it acquired.  The movie radiates glamour.  Beautiful cinematography features lavish locations in France and Italy. Johnny Depp is amusing, Angelina Jolie is enchanting.  Their loose banter together on the train when they first meet is charming and fun.  None of it should be taken too seriously as the story’s tone is delightfully tongue in cheek.  The film doesn’t demand much, it just wants to entertain.  Despite what you’ve heard, it succeeds.

The Grapes of Wrath

Posted in Drama with tags on March 22, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Heartbreakingly beautiful adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a poor family of sharecroppers from Oklahoma who lose their land and must travel West in search of a better life. Set during the Great Depression, the story opens when Tom Joad returns to his family’s farm only to find it deserted. He soon learns farmers all over the area have been forced from their land by the deed holders. In a flashback we see a heartbreaking scene where a local boy is hired to drive a Caterpillar tractor right through a farmer’s home knocking it down like a house of cards. It’s a frustrating image and one that only hints at the hardships they’re about to experience.

The Grapes of Wrath is arguably the most epic film to tackle the plight of the Midwest farmer during the Dust Bowl. The script masterfully takes a complicated subject and centers the focus on the Joad family, a group we come to love and identify with. They radiate goodness and dignity. Somber and bleak, their helplessness is presented in devastating detail. When the family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers, the conditions they find are less than desirable: the camp is overcrowded with other starving and jobless travelers. The desperation is palpable. The brilliant cinematography recalls real depression era images of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. The movie’s release in 1940 was a particularly impressive document considering the Great Depression had only ended a year earlier with the advent of WWII.

Everyone in the production is memorable. Director John Ford won the Oscar for directing. So too actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the tenacious matriarch. And let’s not forget how fascinating it is to see John Carradine, patriarch of the real life acting dynasty, in his first important role as an ex-preacher who has lost his faith.  But what grounds the story is Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad. Just released from prison his heartfelt performance becomes an almost mythic hero of social justice. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those films that surpasses its literary source and actually improves on the novel’s pessimistic tone. There is much despair, but there is also an uplifting feeling of hope. Tom Joad’s poetic final speech is legendary.

Paul

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on March 22, 2011 by Mark Hobin

What if an alien from another planet had been living in the U.S. for the past 60 years, advising the government and influencing pop culture ever since?  But instead of an intellectual form of otherworldly life, he was a beer swilling, pot smoking, foul mouthed slacker.  The kind of character an actor like Seth Rogen has played in every comedy he’s ever done.  Actually the extraterrestrial is in fact voiced by none other than Seth Rogen.  The problem is I couldn’t get past seeing him any time the alien opened his mouth.  By the end of the movie I wanted to sock the creature in the face he was so obnoxious.  There are a few occasionally funny jokes that tweak conventions of classic sci-fi films.  There’s also a running gag about morally liberated Kristen Wiig awkwardly using profanity.  I’m embarrassed to admit her clumsy combination of crude words do provide some creative laughs.  But it’s a guilty pleasure and one that admittedly appeals to the lowest common denominator.   For each little comedic gem, there are 3 lines that fail and it’s a buzzkill.  The f-word, penis jokes, flatulence, and the buddies being mistaken for a gay couple are the script’s frequent concept of wit.  Surprisingly given this lowbrow humor, the lazy script even manages an air of condescension as it ridicules timeworn targets like fundamentalist Christians and provincial types.  It plays like the unenlightened British idea of a stereotypical American comedy.  Writer/star Simon Pegg has come a long way from the career defining highs of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  That’s a huge disappointment.  I must say I did acquire an even greater respect for director Edgar Wright.  He appears to have been the the intellect behind those earlier films.  His influence is sorely missed here.

Limitless

Posted in Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on March 21, 2011 by Mark Hobin

What if you were able to simply take a pill and access the untapped resources of your brain?  A substance that could expand your mental abilities to the point it changed your life.  That’s the premise behind Limitless, a science fiction that supposes this fascinating question.  Eddie Morra is a failing writer who lives in New York City.  Initially the script is rather smart in imagining the possibilities when an untested drug called NZT-48 endows him with seemingly superhuman knowledge.  His very existence becomes a chaotic roller coaster and the ride is exhilarating.  There is a giddy excitement as he experiences the positive results.  The occasional visual flourishes while he’s medicated are intoxicating.  Bradley Cooper is charismatic and likeable which helps in rooting for his character.  He might have come off as an arrogant jerk when he begins using his newfound powers to be monetarily and socially successful.  But he starts out so pathetic in the beginning, he doesn’t seem obnoxious when his confidence builds to an over-inflated ego.  Additionally, his acumen exponentially improves.  Naturally the stimulant is illegal and problems arise regarding its side effects as well as its scarcity.   Here’s where it gets morally ambiguous.  NZT’s parallels to Adderall and methamphetamines are unmistakable.  The numerous benefits to his life are practically a motivator for people to take narcotics.  You’ll be asking yourself, would I take NZT?  The way his metamorphosis is presented, the answer for most would be an unequivocal YES.  It plays fast and loose with real facts, but if you can appreciate the thriller as a wish fulfillment fantasy, it is fun.  Just don’t think about it too hard (or use it to justify your drug addiction).

The Secret of Kells

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on March 20, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Animated Irish folk tale about young Brendan, an apprentice in a monastery who becomes obsessed with completing the legendary Book of Kells, a treasured illuminated manuscript.  Set in the 9th century, this hand drawn film is a glorious mixture of Celtic art and geometric cubism; sort of The Powerpuff Girls Go to Ireland! in illustrative style. When Vikings attack the monastery, the assault is a brutally gorgeous scene, a stylized war of blood and snow.  The problem is with the spiritually muddled narrative.  It’s random and doesn’t flow like a good storyline should.   We know from history that the Book of Kells contains the four Gospels of the New Testament.  That would explain its significance, yet although Brandon is compelled to finish the text, no explanation is ever given as to why.  Additionally, character development is minimal.  When Brendan goes out into the woods he encounters Aisling, a magical fairy.  She appears at first glance to be just a human girl.  Her ability to change form is never explained and a source of bewilderment whenever she is on screen.  Other sequences feel too abstract.  When he does battle with Crom Cruach, a Celtic snake god, the encounter becomes rather conceptual in style.  The odd execution feels lifted from the pages of Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Visually, however, this stunning fable is a joy to watch, a luxurious burst of color and glow.  The story is admittedly an awkward amalgamation of Christianity and pagan folklore.  Nevertheless, every frame is dazzling and the artwork’s hypnotic power can be appreciated even when the action is confusing.

The Lincoln Lawyer

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on March 18, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Los Angeles criminal attorney represents a rich Beverly Hills playboy accused of rape and attempted murder.  What seems simple becomes complex as the facts of the case unfold in this captivating legal thriller.  Fascinating complications arise that introduce doubt concerning how our hero will handle the defense.  The viewer feels just as invested in the proceedings.  Is he in over his head or can he rise to the challenge?  It’s these twists that keep the audience guessing and maintains the exciting action all through the picture.  Matthew McConaughey is charismatic as the titular lawyer, so named because he operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town car.  His office of choice is only one of several humorous touches that appealingly add to his slightly goofy character.  He delivers some witty quips too.  It’s arguably his best performance since A Time to Kill and it’s nice to see him do more than just coast on his good looks.  Director Brad Furman occasionally tries to punch up the visuals with slick camera tricks.  Unnecessary considering the plot is riveting enough.   There are also a few too many climaxes which lessen the more powerful impact of a simple conclusion.  One ending would’ve been sufficient.  Those minor flaws aside, this is a very satisfying story that explores legal ethics intelligently and manages to inject humor as well.  A welcome return to greatness for McConaughey and for intelligent courtroom drama.

Rango

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Western with tags on March 10, 2011 by Mark Hobin

A chameleon finds himself in Dirt, a tiny Old West town plagued by bandits, and pretends to be a swashbuckling hero in order to protect it.  Extraordinary amalgamation of film references is an absolute celebration of classic Hollywood westerns.  All of this appropriating might have felt like unoriginality, but it doesn’t come off that way here.  This is not about trendy pop culture references, but an intelligent blending of movie history.  Any avid moviegoer will be in cinematic nirvana with this creative mashup.  In one scene, Rango’s phony overconfidence recalls Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun in the West and the homage is the funniest thing I’ve seen in quite a while.   Even the Rango theme song by Los Lobos is a catchy little ditty that recalls the theme to the 60s television series Rawhide.

The picture is a cinephile’s dream come true, but I think what pushes Rango to the next level is the subversiveness of it all.  This cartoon is atypically irreverent.  I wouldn‘t recommend the story to anyone under the age of 7.  Most of it will sail right over their heads and I suspect many adults won’t “get it” either.  The script alternates between jokes only a knowledgeable film buff would get and those no child could possibly understand.  At one point Rango tries to convince people that he and a snake are brothers, explaining, “Mama had an active social life.” Oh and make no mistake, these desert animals are ugly.  Not a cuddly cutie in the entire motley bunch.  One of the members of Rango’s posse is a bird that has an arrow struck through his eye.  But they’re beautifully animated, and the supporting cast has real character depth.  My favorite was “Spoons” a grey bearded mouse.  Tough and grizzled like an old prospector, he’s hilariously expressive.  It’s the kind of creative story that demands repeated viewings.  Just see it for the many lines of laughably quotable dialogue.   I won’t spoil them here.  OK, maybe just one: “If this were heaven, kid, we’d all be eating pop tarts with Kim Novak”.

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