Archive for October, 2011

Margin Call

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on October 28, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Independent drama outlines the chain of events over a 24 hour period after a startling discovery is made at a global financial services firm. Timely production utilizes the background of the actual 2008 financial crisis and fashions a fictional account of what happens when an analyst discovers sensitive information that threatens to derail the future of the fiscal institution – not Lehman Brothers, mind you, but an enterprise very much like them. Basically the company has discovered that they’re riddled with financial assets whose value has fallen so significantly as to be essentially worthless.

Well written, overly intellectual script, is educational almost at the expense of excitement. Director J.C. Chandor has a unique insight into the world of traders. His father worked on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch for more than 35 years and he drew on those experiences to fashion this story. Understanding what all the hubbub is about is fairly important to enjoying this movie. There’s actually a scene where Jeremy Irons asks Zachary Quinto playing a young analyst, to break down the intricate monetary entanglement “as you would to a small child.”  I still didn’t completely understand the explanation. It’s as if we’re really eavesdropping on genuine confidential financial discussions. The screenwriter’s failure to “dumb it down” is commendable I suppose. Although I didn’t fully comprehend the jargon, I was entertained by the parade of acting talent.

What I found rather unexpected was the script’s evenhanded approach regarding the various movers and shakers at the Wall Street firm. Greed is definitely the underlying theme, but the script engenders a certain amount of sympathy too. There’s a bit of justifiable self preservation involved. An incredible cast really brings the sophisticated script to life: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci who portrays a recently fired risk analyst. If there’s someone we feel for the most, it’s his character. He makes investment bankers seem almost sensitive in this age of villainy. The fact that the script doesn’t solely demonize the principals, is remarkably unconventional.

The economic meltdown of a bank is not a typical subject for entertainment. At times the drama can be a bit studious. The feature unfolds through conversations in boardrooms, staring at computer screens. By now, you should know whether the subject will hold adequate interest for you. I’ll confirm the script was sufficiently intelligent to keep me interested and the high powered cast added significantly to the material. The subject has a current relevance given the recent Occupy Wall Street movement that has emerged nationwide. The subject couldn’t be more well-timed. But the crisis depicted doesn’t seem intense or savage enough to generate the necessary enthusiasm. As an indictment of corporate greed, Margin Call is an instructional account that generates little more than restrained admiration.

Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags , on October 27, 2011 by Mark Hobin

In all the world, no city was more impressive than Metropolis – an exaltation of buildings towering into the skies. A city to be idolized and adored where people seemed free to concentrate on pleasurable pursuits. But beneath the surface lay the reason why Metropolis thrived. As happy as life was above the surface, so was the sadness of the workers beneath the city’s shiny exterior. Working long days deep below without daylight or fresh air, it was a dismal existence consumed by backbreaking labor. Joh Fredersen, the city’s founder and architect, observed all from on high with a watchful eye. His son Freder lives among the carefree unaware of the horrors underneath. Then one day Freder encounters the beautiful Maria, a woman who takes care of the worker’s children while they toil. He is immediately smitten by her and trails her to learn more about the woman. He soon becomes aware of the ugly side of Metropolis. Horrified by the drudgery of the troubled lives of the working class he vows to become an agent for change.

Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis is a marvelous reinterpretation of an incredible film. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is an important work and synth wizard Giorgio Moroder complements Fritz Lang‘s artistic vision. Metropolis was a silent first released in 1927. It had an orchestral musical arrangement by Gottfried Huppertz which included elements from the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. In 1984 Giorgio Moroder took the Metropolis print, composed a new more modern score, added sound effects, and color tinted certain scenes. The Giorgio Moroder entry was actually shorter than existing prints at the time. This was due mainly to the addition of subtitles to replace intertitles that displayed dialogue and running at a quicker 24 frames/second. This version was a restoration of sorts for the time, but it’s also HIS vision. Highly controversial when it was released back in 1984, this strongly divided audiences. I can imagine that to purists, taking a respected work of art and applying such changes is something akin to blasphemy. I, however, am not one those people. Obviously the concept isn’t meant to replace the original Metropolis, which still exists in all its glory, but it is a revitalization of the silent classic. In fact, Moroder’s undertaking was key in stoking renewed interest in the seminal work. In 2010 the most compete version of Metropolis was discovered totaling 147 minutes. I recommend seeking that as well as it approximates Fritz Lang’s work as it was originally presented.

Moroder’s synth driven score gives the action on screen a vitality and energy not present in the original. Being a silent with all of the print and sound quality issues that go along with it, the application of contemporary music with color tints doesn’t seem so abhorrent. It provides a modern context to a picture already visually ahead of its time. Although mostly an instrumental creation, he also included several pop songs written for the movie by the likes of Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benatar. The lyrics of these songs inform the storyline so they don’t just feel like throwaway numbers. The pop rock compositions revitalize the original. Much like a remix of a classic song, they energize the narrative and make it more cohesive and urgent. Every spectacle pulses with a renewed vitality. The disco number that plays over Maria’s striptease only emphasizes the seductive nature of the dance. The adaptation succeeds because Giorgio Moroder has an obvious love for the material.

Scene after scene fascinates with mind-blowing displays that have never been equaled in style or design. Metropolis is among the most visually notable triumphs ever. Quite a feat considering it was released in 1927. The architecture of the city is a combination of contemporary Modernism and Art Deco. Even by today’s standards these images continue to impress. When a enormous machine explodes killing dozens of workers, Freder imagines it as a monstrous deity to which the laborers are sacrificed. Stunning visions of the Tower of Babel, based on a painting by Pieter Bruegel , are mesmerizing. And perhaps most iconic of all, the astonishing moment in which scientist Rotwang transforms a robot into a double of Maria using her soul. The segment is technologically dazzling manifestation of light and electricity. The undulating Saturn-like rings pulsate around the metal creation complete with futuristic sound effects. Metropolis remains the most expensive silent film ever made and it shows.

Metropolis is a fundamental work in science fiction. True, the melodramatic acting of silent films can come across as unintentionally comedic. And the parable of class warfare is about as timeworn an idea as they come. At one point, Maria implores “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.” That sounds like the wisdom from a fortune cookie, but along with those overworked ideas, beats Fritz Lang’s vision of a ultramodern city that continues to influence filmmakers of today. Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element all gather inspiration from Metropolis. Even the video for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” relies heavily on the masterpiece. Giorgio Moroder’s reinterpretation only accentuates Fritz Lang’s imaginative talent. At times it’s ridiculously over the top, but that’s what makes the story so endlessly watchable. It stands up to repeated viewings. Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis is a revitalized adaptation of a classic film and deserves a hallowed place along side the original.

Paranormal Activity 3

Posted in Horror with tags on October 21, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Here we go again. The “found-footage” horror genre’s most famous series gets its next installment with this supernatural thriller. Similar to Paranormal Activity 2, this is a prequel – coming 18 years prior to the last entry. We go back to when Katie and Kristi were young girls. They live with their mother Julie and her boyfriend Dennis, a videographer who looks somewhat like James Franco in 127 Hours. Kristi begins interacting with an imaginary friend named Toby. Soon after Dennis and Julie start hearing strange noises in the house late at night. Determined to get to the cause of the disturbances, Dennis sets up cameras throughout their home to document what is happening.

The “found footage” style is especially effective in the horror category because it makes the drama feel true. I’ll admit there are some authentic surprises. A common mechanism in producing terror is for the cinematographer to use a pan and scan format so that something not present originally, now unexpectedly appears in the frame. The clever contribution with part 3 is for our protagonist to mount a camera onto an oscillating fan so that we get many examples of this method. It’s a powerful technique but not enough to sustain a full feature. There’s no substance. Paranormal Activity 3 is the cinematic equivalent of a jelly donut. It’s tasty while you’re eating it, but once finished you’re left with scant nutritional value.

Call it the law of diminishing returns. The first was a landmark in horror and the second was able to push the mythology forward by simply being a prequel. But now we are presented ANOTHER prequel and precious little is added to the blueprint. Children are a compelling device in arousing anxiety. We identify with their fear and want to protect them By taking an individual that is a source of joy and then threatening that, a filmmaker can always wring a few scares from the setup. The problem is, the story never attempts anything more than just formula. This is a direct copy of the other two with no innovative takes on shocking the audience differently. This copies all we’ve seen and been frightened of before. How many times can we see bodies dragged across the floor and doors seemingly slamming on their own volition? I suggest twice. The gimmicks wear out its welcome this time around. A person suddenly jumping from a closet might be good for a superficial jolt, but does nothing to engender genuine terror.

I was a big fan of the original. Even the second film, albeit similar, still managed to add a decent history to keep me interested. Granted there are several alarming scares here, including at least one nice special effect involving the kitchen. But honestly, there’s no way you could enjoy watching these pictures back to back. With this chapter, the chronology has become  routine. Everything is reminiscent of the previous two, even the ending. That’s the biggest slap in the face because you leave the theater feeling cheated. A giant step backward, the inevitable Paranormal Activity 4 will need to re-invent itself or this series, much like a real ghost, is dead.

Basket Case

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags on October 20, 2011 by Mark Hobin

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Ultra low budget gore fest concerning socially awkward Duane Bradley who checks into a New York Hotel carrying a large mysterious basket. He has to take care of some unfinished business. The run-down seedy hotel is rather depressing and the mood is spare and desolate. There’s a feeling of hopelessness in the décor from the shoddy furniture, to the front desk manager to the guests staying within. What’s in the basket and why Duane is there are questions best answered by watching the picture. The story is of the utmost simplicity, but what it lacks in narrative complexity, it more than makes up for in B movie entertainment.

The technical qualities are at once delightfully crude and hilariously imaginative. The script is wise about not playing its cards too quickly. For the first half hour the audience is completely in the dark regarding the basket‘s contents. I won’t spoil the reveal with a detailed description, but the entity is a combination of puppetry when close up and stop motion animation when it is moving across the floor. Let’s just say the effects are less than stellar. I mean I’ve seen better stop motion in a Rankin/Bass Christmas special. Even for 1982 these illusions are pretty inferior. Yet there is distinct charm in the meager production values.

And let’s not forget the sound effects which are equally primitive as the visual style. At one point, Duane dangles hot dogs over the basket, dropping them in one after the other to ostensibly feed his companion. We still haven’t seen the fellow at this point, but boy do we hear him! Gurgling and growling with lip smacking satisfaction. The creature gobbling them up with ravenous hunger. Notable sounds are significant later on in a surgery scene as well. As doctors cut through the skin dividing two separate masses, the nauseating sounds of the surgeons pulling the bone and tissue is amplified like giant stalks of celery being pulled apart. It’s outrageous in the extreme. Additionally the background synthesizer music is suitably creepy and the spareness of the notes benefits the menacing atmosphere. It sounds like the low rent version of music from a Doctor Who episode.

A decent plot with light comedy elements separates this from other cheapo horror of this ilk. There’s a surprisingly amount of back-story as the narrative unfolds. Inexperienced Duane manages to captivate an attractive receptionist at the doctor’s office to go out on a date. It’s strictly amateur night in terms of acting, but there is some character development as the two hit it off arousing the ire of Duane’s counterpart, who is apparently jealous. The production is the antithesis of sophistication. It can be kind of sleazy. A trashy tour de force where bright red blood is plentiful and thick like corn syrup. At times it’s so abundant, it splashes over the actors in an unrestrained splatterfest. However there’s a hilarity in those tacky effects. Although not particularly frightening, it manages to be disturbingly weird. In the end, Basket Case is a horror film with enough creativity and bits of campy humor to make it fascinating.

Take Shelter

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

Curtis LaForche is a happily married family man in Ohio. With a solid construction job including generous benefits, he earns a decent living for his loving wife and daughter. That’s good because 6 year old Hannah is deaf and in need of an expensive medical procedure.  Michael unexpectedly begins having dreams of an imminent storm. But are these actual visions of things to come or the sign of dementia setting in? You see his own mother was committed 30 years prior when she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia at the same age Curtis is now. This weighs on him as he contends with his unraveling sanity. These visions become more frequent and threatening as they start to involve his wife and daughter, his co-workers, even the family dog.

Take Shelter reasonably unfolds rather effectively despite the way things spiral mentally out of control. The hallucinations aren’t overly done. They’re darkly ominous and believable. These haunting flourishes are powerful given the rest of the film is so austere. As they pile on top of each other we suffer his impending sense of dread. It’s almost as if he reveals them to his wife, they will confirm he’s going crazy. So he doesn’t at first, relying on a counselor named Kendra to disclose them. But as soon as he starts to depend on her, she is transferred.

Michael Shannon’s helplessness is perfectly conveyed through his actions even when he doesn‘t verbalize them. He initiates changes in his life based on these premonitions. He embarks on constructing a storm shelter and his behavior has less than ideal consequences on his job and his marriage. The tension builds as a patriarch who slowly unravels in a once tranquil household. He’s mesmerizing. It’s a slow burn performance that grabs you with its intensity. In contrast, Jessica Chastain is warmth and compassion personified as his devoted wife who desperately tries to understand what is going on. Initially she is in the dark regarding the severity of his condition, but is gradually made aware. She conveys all the anxiety the audience is feeling.

Take Shelter can be taken as a brilliant psychological character study, an allegory about uncertainly in troubled times, or as simply advocating the support of loved ones in the face of mounting difficulties. It wholly relies on the performances of its two leads to convey these themes. They engender our sympathy and so the script works. It’s not a particularity well plotted movie. The story moves forward through dialogue more than actual events. But as an emotional journey it’s moving. See it for Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. They make the trip worthwhile.

Real Steel

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Sports with tags on October 11, 2011 by Mark Hobin

In the near future, robots have replaced humans as pugilistic combatants of the sport. Former boxer Charlie Kenton, ekes out a living in illegal boxing matches between robots to pay his debts to loan sharks. Naturally his estranged son, who he hasn’t seen in years, is thrust into his life all of a sudden at this critical juncture. Together they attempt to succeed with an obsolete, sparring-partner robot they rescue from a garbage lot.  If the classic toy, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots were turned into a movie, this would be it.

On the surface, the boxing scenes among the robotic rivals are incredible.  There is a real organic feel to the robot boxing as genuine animatronic robots were used in close ups and mixed with totally believable computer animation. There’s a countrified atmosphere to the narrative as well that’s altogether unexpected. His original robot goes head to head against an actual bull at a county fair in the first match up. The battles are crisp and fluid. Later on the chronicle focuses on Atom, the disregarded robot they find buried in the dirt at the junkyard. There’s real drama in whether spunky Atom can triumph.

But why must the little boy be such a royal pain? His part (at least from a storyline standpoint) is reminiscent of the young son in the Sylvester Stallone flick Over the Top (which has always been something of a guilty pleasure for me). While that child was merely wimpy, this child is insolent and bossy. That’s a lot worse. He essentially wears the pants in his relationship with his father who is consistently schooled by this punk kid at every turn. It’s depressing seeing a macho actor like Hugh Jackman emasculated over and over throughout the film by this little brat. I’m not usually an advocate of corporal punishment, but I’d make an exception in this tykes case. He’s unbearable.

Luckily the special effects make up for the lack of character development. Hugh Jackman is a charismatic screen presence and Evangeline Lilly is quite appealing as well as his love interest.  But there are some inconsistencies in the script. It’s difficult to tell what’s really more crucial, the robot or the human who comands the robot. And why do some robots have a whole team controlling them while others just have one person? Is the quality of the robot even that important? Elsewhere, it’s hinted at that the robot may genuinely experience feelings as a human would, but that suggestion is never developed. If you don’t get too bogged down in those deficiencies, there is definitely some entertainment value in the robot boxing scenes. And honestly, that’s why you watch a movie like this anyway, right?

The Mill and the Cross

Posted in Drama, History with tags on October 7, 2011 by Mark Hobin

What would it be like to step into a great work of art and experience the lives of the people within? That’s the idea behind The Mill and the Cross a languid recreation of “The Way to Calvary,” the 1564 masterpiece by painter Pieter Bruegel. Throughout the film we often see the Flemish renaissance artist painting the scene. But most of the action takes place inside the composition as we observe the community within. It’s an interesting concept, beautifully presented, but the sluggish pace is just too lethargic to enjoy.

For those not familiar with the painting, it represents Christ making his way to his own crucifixion by carrying his cross though a crowded landscape that features hundreds of historic and contemporary figures.  One of the painting’s objectives was seen as protesting the cruelty of the Holy Roman Empire by transposing Christ’s suffering  to the Flanders of his own time. Christ is at the center with a group of his tormentors, but he’s almost hidden amongst the throng of 500 people surrounding him, doing other things. Christ’s passion and religious persecution are examined for a bit, but the picture also spotlights a dozen other characters in brief vignettes as well.

The notion of transforming a painting into a moving picture is an ambitious idea. Unfortunately there simply isn’t enough drama to justify the movie. There’s scarcely any dialogue. What little there is, is rather awkward and clumsily spoken. The story merely lies there to be appreciated much as a painting would be. The problem, this isn’t a painting, but a film where different rules apply. The entire exercise feels academic. Even the well known actors fail to create excitement. Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel with a depression that arouses sadness in the viewer. Michael York is his patron, a wealthy Antwerp merchant.  He’s similarly dreary, giving a routine performance. But the most ludicrous acting choice of all is Charlotte Rampling cast way against type as the Virgin Mary. It’s difficult to imagine an actress less suited to play the Mother of Christ. I suppose this was stunt casting, but the uncharacteristic choice adds nothing to the role.

The actual painting currently hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Indeed it would be much more dramatic to gaze upon the actual artwork for 96 minutes than to watch this boring artistic study. I will admit the movie would make the perfect DVD to sell in the gift shop there, or any art gallery for that matter. As art history, the film is visually incredible, but as a cinematic entertainment, it fails.

The Ides of March

Posted in Drama with tags on October 7, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketHo hum drama about an idealistic Junior Campaign Manager who succumbs to dirty politics when his candidate’s election chances are threatened. Disillusionment with the political system is such a common theme, the subject could be its own genre. As drama, The Ides of March is respectable but as harsh critique on the political game, it’s about 100 years too late to be revelatory. Better yet, make that 200 years behind. Anyone who believes the road to the presidency was ever paved with truth and integrity might be amazed by what they see here. For everyone else, this is business as usual.

It’s pretty safe to say it has actor George Clooney’s ideology all wrapped up in it. He wrote, directed, produced and stars in The Ides of March. Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, a charismatic politician that worships at the altar of the U.S. Constitution eschewing any sort of religion. But the script is less than equitable.  Apparently the story’s idea of fairness is to show how moderate Democrats must become deceitful devils in order to compete with the evil Republicans at their own game. So much for an even handed approach.

It’s clear that Clooney’s presidential hopeful is modeled after his personal beliefs. He’s glib, relaxed and always confident in his answers. On a live TV interview, Morris is questioned whether he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Shades of Michael Dukakis back in 1988 when he was posed that very same question! Clooney responds with a more emotional (albeit illegal) answer that many felt Dukakis should have given. Nothing like having two decades to craft your response.  Morris is trying to win the Ohio Democratic primary, but Clooney is delusional if he thinks his candidate would ever make it anywhere close to a Presidential primary in the real world. He’s too inflexible. End all war! No reliance on foreign oil! Free education for mandatory service in the military! No new cars with internal combustion engines! These are not open for debate and he’s not budging.  The character is so steadfast, it feels disingenuous.  Where’s the ambiguity and self doubt? However that isn’t even this tale’s biggest problem.

Surprisingly clichéd, the narrative is dull as a political exposé on what goes on behind powerful campaigns. Nothing really resonates much after it’s over. It’s biggest conceit is that the wheels of the political machine are greased with concessions and compromise. Shocking! Today the term Ides of March is best known as the date that Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate by a group of conspirators in 44 B.C. The title here points more to a betrayal of loyalty than of physical harm. There’s a particularly engrossing scene where Philip Seymour Hoffman addresses Ryan Gosling in the second half. As Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara, Hoffman gives a riveting speech regarding loyalty. I wish more of the film had electrifying scenes like that. It’s as well written as anything I’ve seen in 2011. Paul Giamatti also bears a mention as the rival Campaign Manager for a competing Democratic candidate. He gives quite a performance as well. But those bright spots are rare examples of interest. As it stands, the perspective is just too insipid to make much of an impression.

Dolphin Tale

Posted in Drama, Family with tags on October 4, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Heartwarming animal drama (is there any other kind?) about a young boy, Sawyer Nelson, who befriends an injured bottlenose dolphin. She loses her tail after being caught in a crab trap in the Indian River in Fort Pierce, Florida. Inspired by a true story, this uplifting tale is acceptable family viewing. It’s tough to dislike a film that is so traditional and wholesome. Its heart is in the right place as it advocates a respect for animals that is admirable. You’d have to have a heart of stone to not root for the dolphin’s success.  There’s even a territorial pelican named Rufus that hangs out at the aquarium and provides some comic relief. He’s got even more personality than the title character.

Unfortunately the script has a tendency to overdose on the schmaltz. The tender moments between the juvenile and the dolphin are affecting enough. But why did the filmmakers have to slather on the melodrama? Sawyer is a directionless kid living in Clearwater, Florida with his single mother. His older cousin is a promising athletic swimmer who is leaving to serve oversees in the military. There’s even an impending hurricane on the horizon.  Rough seas ahead. No pun intended. Young children will certainly find much to love here. After all, a passion for sea creatures  is practically instinctive in children. It has some tender swimming scenes where the boy bonds with his aquatic friend. But this wildlife saga is as predictable as they come. The plot isn’t interesting in any meaningful way. No surprises or twists in the entire 112 minutes.  Still give the film credit for being so decent and sweet. Thankfully it lacks hip pop culture references as well. If you’re looking for a pleasant live action film for the whole family, this should fit the bill rather nicely.

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