Archive for April, 2012

Safe

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on April 27, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketJason Statham is a classic action hero. He’s England’s answer to Bruce Willis with less conversation and more muscle – like a combination of James Bond and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s got the British accent and can deliver an intelligent quip with savoir faire. Yet he still looks capable of handling himself like Jackie Chan. Safe is his current vehicle and once again it’s a serviceable thriller in the style of The Transporter. It certainly doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre, but you know exactly what to expect and you get what you pay for.

This time around he plays a mixed martial arts fighter who accidentally wins a fixed match he was supposed to lose. He has now incurred the anger of both the Russian Mafia and the crooked cops that bet against him. With his life at its lowest point, he’s just about to commit suicide.  At that moment he witnesses a frightened 12 year old Chinese girl being pursued by the very same Russian monsters who killed his family in retaliation. This sets a sequence of events in motion that will involve all the aforementioned groups as well as the Triads and high-level corrupt New York City politicians.

Safe is a movie where nothing is safe, including logic and reason, but damn if it isn’t fun. This is a lively film that seeks to entertain and that’s about it. Jason Statham is an effective tough guy and he’s quick with the clever wisecrack. He’s the obvious heir apparent to Arnold as king of the witty one liner. “Don’t lose sleep. He had it coming,” he tells a trainload of subway passengers after shooting a guy dead at point blank range. I must admit I also enjoyed seeing veteran actor James Hong as the head of the Chinese mafia. You may not recognize the name, but you definitely have seen him in something. He’s done a bazillion movies but probably best known for playing Lo Pan, the ancient sorcerer in Big Trouble in Little China. The fight scenes in Safe are kind of de rigueur for this sort of thing. They never really rise above the graphics of a good video game, but Jason Statham has plenty of charisma to keep things gripping. There’s enough creative twists and turns to elevate Jason Statham’s latest opus into a worthwhile diversion.

Monsieur Lazhar

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on April 24, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Monsier Lazhar is a quiet unassuming little drama. Our story begins after an elementary school teacher commits suicide. She hangs herself in the very classroom where she teaches her students. From that shocking, but tastefully presented event, we are introduced to Bachir Lazhar. He’s an immigrant from Algeria who applies for the position of teaching her class. Due to a lack of candidates, he’s quickly hired to replace her. A guarded fellow, Lazhar is something of an enigma. He connects with his students in the face of the cultural gap between them. But something does not compute. His teaching methods are odd. He gives dictation lessons by reading selections from Honoré de Balzac novels. His suggestion for a future field trip is to take his class to see The Imaginary Invalid, a three-act comédie-ballet by French playwright Molière. Both kind of advanced for grade school, wouldn’t you say?  Although the children are perplexed by all this, they do respond to his emotional support. They confront the death of their beloved teacher encouraged by Monsieur Lazhar as he helps them through that grief. In actuality, this teacher is a man with a past. He likewise has his own issues with which he must deal. A man with life experiences that make him rather well equipped for the job. As these revelations come to light, there is a genuine poignancy that never rings false.

Monsier Lazhar is captivating by presenting an honest account, simple and unadorned. It’s a lyrical drama with the rhythms of a play out of the early 1970s. The screenplay is in fact developed from a one-character play by Canadian actress Évelyne de la Chenelière. It’s a soft focus presentation of the emotional damage a tragedy has on a group of young students and the methods their teacher utilizes to comfort them. He gives them a lot of credit and treats them accordingly. The script has pointed commentary on how children cope with the death in contrast to their parents and the rest of the faculty at the school. Yet, despite the film’s title, the students are the true stars here. There’s not one precocious brat amongst the cast. 2 kids in particular give performances of depth and maturity. Actress Sophie Nélisse is the mature beyond her years Alice. Her straightforward, no nonsense personality feels just like a real child. And then there’s actor Émilien Néron as Simon who seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. His feelings of guilt coming to a head in one particularly cathartic scene. These are highlights in a tale that at times can be vague and underdeveloped. This French Canadian nominee for 2012’s Best Foreign Language Film is a relatively slight production. There are times the whole affair can be a bit underwhelming, but the subtlety and discretion with which the story unfolds is commendable.

Damsels in Distress

Posted in Comedy with tags on April 20, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Aptly named director Whit Stillman has one of those rapier wits. He possesses an ear for language, but the intellectual, almost pedantic discourse can sometimes put people off.  I, however, find his ear for dialogue absolutely scintillating even when espoused by individuals I find rather arrogant. In the past Whit Stillman has always presented what he describes as the “urban haute bourgeoisie” with a sentimentality that made them likable if not immediately identifiable. His debut and magnum opus was 1990’s Metropolitan. Its depiction of a group of Upper East Side Manhattanites making the rounds at debutante balls was wholly unique, particularly for its portrayal of young affluent intellectuals and the way they spoke. The script earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

What makes Damsels in Distress different from Stillman’s other works, is that the script is much more shallow this go around. For the very first time, He seems to have a contempt for these people. We are presented with Violet a young collegiate leader of a girl posse who exalt cleanliness and tap dance as things to aspire to. Her forewarning on the perils of dating seem to contradict her actions which makes her a rather laughable figure.  That’s nothing however when compared to the great unwashed that she hopes to motivate.  One guy can’t even tell the difference between colors because, well he skipped that grade. It’s rather perplexing. Whit Stillman’s preoccupation with the preppy class is a rarity indeed. While most filmmakers view people of high social rank as objects of derision, he has an obvious affection for the group. These are after all his peeps. He came from a rather privileged background. His father was a Democratic politician – an assistant secretary of commerce under President John F. Kennedy. His godfather is E. Digby Baltzell, an academic who popularized the term WASP in a 1964 book he wrote.

Greta Gerwig is our main damsel. She came to prominence as the female lead in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg opposite Ben Stiller. She resembles Chloë Sevigny in features but is more approachable in temperament. She favors the quirkiness of Zooey Deschanel over Sevigny’s more caustic nature.  Here she’s the appointed leader of her little clique who work for the betterment of her class – that’s class as in college mind you. The American actress is rather winning in the role even when she’s being ridiculous. She sends bars of soap to the local fraternity as if they’ve never heard of the hygiene product. She carries herself with an arrogance that is mesmerizing. Gerwig and her gang of 3 (later 4) are the types that are sympathetic enough to volunteer at the campus suicide prevention center but seem more concerned with making sure the free donuts they provide are only consumed by those victims that are truly depressed. That’s amusing, yes, but her hypocrisy makes her an unrelatable personality.

Damsels in Distress is populated with preppy characters that seem to inhabit some alternate universe where catchphrases, pop culture and TV doesn’t exist. These girls speak with a theatrical air of authority that makes them a fascinating lot. Their world is definitely unconventional. Some of it rooted in sense, the rest rooted in nonsense. They talk with such dignity and confidence, we feel compelled to listen. For a good part of the movie it works. Their sardonic banter is like spoken word poetry. Much of the conversation is captivating in its affected state. Yet there’s a shapeless lack of focus that ultimately does the whole production in. It ends with a random musical number that while pleasant, does nothing to address everything we’ve watched before it. It feels a little, “since I couldn‘t write an ending, how’s about a song and dance ?” What exactly was the point of all this? I’m still not sure and for the first time, I don’t think Stillman knows either.

The Three Stooges

Posted in Comedy with tags on April 17, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Very rarely am I surprised by a film. I generally have a good idea of whether I’m going to like a picture even before I see it. I watch the trailer, look up it up on the IMDb, browse over the reviews and often catch interviews from the cast. All of these things have proven to be pretty dependable in predicting how I will respond. Sometimes, a movie receives glowing notices, but I end up hating it. That doesn’t surprise me as much. Far rarer is the flick that is saddled with a horrible trailer and receives bad reviews, that I find exceptional. The Three Stooges is just such a film.

Give the source material, I can’t imagine a movie made in 2012 about The Three Stooges being any better than this. For those who find those original shorts enchanting, this movie is as good as a film regarding that subject can be. The approach strikes just the right tone and mood. You can debate the merits of The Three Stooges. Granted their brand of humor isn’t for everyone. Their vaudeville act excelled in physical farce and extreme slapstick. It’s a form of comedy that seldom gets respect because it relies on pratfalls instead of witty banter. Slapstick has always been an essential part of the Farrelly brothers oeuvre. Behold their feature debut back in 1994 with Dumb and Dumber whose brand of idiocy was clearly inspired by The Three Stooges. The Farrelly brothers haven’t been too consistent as of late. One watch of 2007’s painfully unfunny The Heartbreak Kid and it’s hard to remember this was the same filmmaking duo responsible for the career defining highs of their late 90s work reaching a comedic apex with the classic There’s Something About Mary. There have been some bright spots, but since then their output has been inconsistent.

The Farrelly brothers were the perfect choice to direct this tribute. Our story begins when our fearless threesome are dumped as babies (with the same exact adult hairstyles no less) on the doorstep of the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage. When Moe insists his newly adoptive parents take on Larry and Curly as well, they drop him back at the orphanage and instead adopt Teddy, a smaller and more adorable moppet . The Farrellys could have gone a few different ways with this. The script decides to transpose The Three Stooges exactly as they existed in the 1930s. Appearance and catch phrases intact, their behavior is identical in the modern day. Because their shtick is a bit anachronistic, it could have been a disaster. However this is not the case. Sean Hayes, Will Sasso and Chris Diamantopoulos star as Larry, Curly, and Moe respectively. They are nothing less than a revelation as the titular trio. I mean these guys have an almost Zen like dedication to the craft. I dare say they are the superlative manifestation of those characters. The story is then divided in three acts and this was a wise decision. For one it harkens back to the vintage shorts they were originally known for. Second it gives the events a distinct focus. It breaks up the somewhat rambling narrative into easily digestible vignettes with a sense of purpose. The Farrellys pretty much do everything right in this homage.

Explaining why this made me laugh is like describing why Adagio for Strings makes me cry. It’s more of a mood that the Farrelly brothers set up and maintain. For one thing they keep the atmosphere surprisingly wholesome. (It’s rated PG, not PG-13 but PG) And why shouldn’t they? This is the Three Stooges after all. The trio that rose to fame in the 1930s, while admittedly idiotic, was never vulgar or offensive. They remain sweet, good natured guys so we can still support them even when they’re acting like idiots. Despite all the physical harm, their genuine love for each other and their fellow man, is evident. There’s an innocence that imbues every scene with heart. Yes there’s the requisite head bonks, eyeball gouges and hammers to the head complete with the cartoon noises that highlight each to amusing effect. But there’s also considerable humanity. I can’t justify why this made me chuckle, but I say without shame, I laughed a lot!

The Three Stooges is a near perfect re-creation of the phenomenon that makes our trio such a lasting comedic team. At times the storyline falters a little. There’s a development in the third act where Moe becomes the newest addition to the MTV reality series Jersey Shore. Linking the enduring comedy team of the 30s to fleeting pop culture references of today is a disservice. It’s the weakest part in an otherwise hilariously strong film. Yet even that subplot isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. At least “stars” of that curiosity have significant cameos becoming an integral part of the story, rather than just stunt casting for a cheap joke. I’ll admit the brilliance of The Three Stooges caught me off guard. I went in with expectations so low, I figured if I didn’t walk out in disgust, it would have been a success. Given the amount of side splitters that this film elicited, it has to be considered an unqualified success. It’s a symphony of one hilarious pratfall after another delivered with impeccable timing and generous heart. Should you go see this? Soitenly!

The Cabin in the Woods

Posted in Comedy, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 13, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Amusing thriller subverts the horror genre in a way that is wholly appreciated. Five friends on a vacation take a trip in an RV up to the proverbial cabin in the woods. There’s the stock archetypes: The Athlete, The Whore, The Scholar, The Fool, and The Virgin. Well, at least they embody those stereotypes at first glance.  Soon after they arrive they begin playing Truth or Dare. Then bad things start happening. This was directed by Drew Goddard who was the scribe behind Cloverfield. His frequent collaborator Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) writes and produces here so you know this isn’t going to be a straightforward idea. The Cabin in the Woods was shot in 2009 and then shelved until April 2012 due to the financial difficulties of parent studio MGM. Lionsgate ultimately stepped in and purchased distribution rights. Luckily the oft delayed release date has nothing to do with the quality of the picture. What starts out as your basic clichéd setup evolves into something much more unpredictable. It’s a nifty little film, but the details of what happens next is something best discovered by watching the movie.

Most of the events are rather standard horror action on the surface with a modified twist. The general milieu is stridently self aware. Tension builds and is then diffused with humor. So The Cabin in the Woods is essentially a horror comedy. It’s rarely scary, but it is genuinely funny and much more intelligent than the films it’s satirizing. It spoofs clichés so as to expose them. It’s a fine line however. There’s always the danger that the story may fall victim to the very targets it’s parodying. There are moments where the proceedings adhere so religiously to genre conventions that it indeed succumbs to those traps. We’re going to go have sex in the woods, not because we‘re lustful, but because we want to show how stupid kids always do that sort of thing in these types of flicks. As long as we’re watching teens getting naked, I’m not sure there’s really a difference. Likewise, the cast comes off as your run-of-the-mill attractive twenty-somethings, but special mention must go to actor Fran Kranz as Marty, the requisite burnout. He somehow takes a character that could have been an annoyance (and is at first) and turns him into someone engaging.

The Cabin in the Woods is closer to a horror spoof than anything resembling actual terror. Yes, this is one of those oh-so hip-it-hurts movies that deconstructs the genre much in the same way that Scream played with conventions back in 1996. This is the horror of the new millennium. Updated and revised. Scream was scarier. Cabin’s plot is so wrapped up in tongue in cheek sensibility that the half hearted attempts to build suspense are routinely undercut with laughs and sarcasm. It’s pretty smug.  Yet if Scream was more frightening, The Cabin in the Woods is smarter. The script goes further as it questions society’s ease with violence as entertainment. True, that isn’t a concept that is as original as the filmmakers seem to think it is, but gosh if it isn’t compelling as all get out. A polarizing work – this has become the darling of critics and fanboys alike much to the puzzlement of mainstream tastes. What really takes this to the next level is the final third that quite frankly, blew my mind. It follows through on what it sets up in a most satisfying way. Again I won’t reveal anything here. Let’s just say that it’s a dazzling display.

Titanic

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History, Romance with tags on April 6, 2012 by Mark Hobin

James Cameron’s chronicle about the maiden voyage of the “ship of dreams” is simply put, one of the greatest films of all time. Like Gone with the Wind for its era, this was THE epic romance for the 90s generation. Sweeping in both historical charm and emotional intensity, it was the most expensive movie ever made, with an estimated budget of $200 million. It could have been a recipe for bankruptcy for the studio but it ended up earning 1.8 billion worldwide to become the world’s highest grossing picture until Cameron beat his own record with Avatar 12 years later. Now it has been re-released presented in a new 3D print amid much fanfare. While the 3D transfer is adequate, what justifies watching this is the chance to see this saga on the big screen where it really shines best.

What sets Titanic apart is the skillful union of a technically dazzling disaster movie with a captivating art house period piece. Witness how the director deftly draws us into the drama. This takes patience and he lays the groundwork right from the beginning. Cameron uses a framing device where we are introduced to the adult Rose DeWitt Bukater, aged and forgotten in the modern day. As she tells her story, we flashback to 1912, the time of Titanic. The filmmaker didn’t have to frame the action this way. He could have just started 30 minutes in when the Titanic is getting ready to embark, but that’s a testament to his genius, He subtly provides a contemporary audience a deeper bond with this woman who survived. Rose is the woman forced into an engagement with Cal Hockley in order to maintain her family’s status. Jack Dawson is the young vagabond that unexpectedly wins a ticket aboard the same ship. Initially Rose is somewhat difficult to like. She comes across as a spoiled brat and Jack literally confronts her with that same description. But Jack makes her likable. We see she her true personality come through their relationship and we ultimately fall in love with them as a couple. We certainly care for Jack and Rose, our two principals, but Cameron actually takes the time to create involving vignettes around the passengers as well: the ship’s captain, the ship’s designer, the musicians in the band , the travelers in steerage vs. the those in first class. We’re introduced to all of them. This isn’t a group of nameless unknowns.  These is a community with families and feelings and lives that are doomed to die. It makes the final hour that much more tragic.

Titanic is by no means a perfect picture. Of the 14 nominations, it failed to earn one for its screenplay and that’s not entirely a surprise. The script is a bit amateurish in its effort to set characters up with awkward dialogue. Many of the biggest groaners come from Rose’s fiancée, Cal Hockley played by Billy Zane. At the start he declares how indestructible the Titanic is. “It is unsinkable” he asserts “God himself could not sink this ship.” Cue laughter. Then later when discussing art he opines, “Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing. He won’t, trust me.” Ah, the screenwriters clumsily paint Cal as an idiot. I get that. But when Rose laments “Half the people on this ship are going to die” was it really necessary for Cal to sneer, “Not the better half.” And what about his character? Why does Cal settle for a woman who clearly hates him. She makes no secret of the fact that she despises him. Couldn’t Cal find a woman who truly loved him, even for the cad that he is. He’s sophisticated, good looking and very wealthy at least. Was Rose seriously his only option for a wife? But I digress, these are mere quibbles.

Titanic is the embodiment of a gifted director working at the top of his craft. His eye for detail is masterful. Of course there’s that spectacular final act that is the standard for non-stop, heart pounding excitement. But what many directors fail to establish is a cast we sincerely care about. That’s what makes a tragedy something we merely endure versus something we actually tear up over. We should be emotionally connected to the people. Throughout the course of 3 hours and 14 minutes Cameron expertly builds a real connection to our leads. A masterpiece combining technical skill of an action picture with the engaging theatrics of a tear-jerker, James Cameron’s Titanic is a stunning achievement. Critics continue to deride its success as dubious hype over a feature unwarranted of such praise. I disagree, It deserves its place among such popular works as The Sound of Music and Star Wars as one of the great achievements committed to celluloid. This is a film for people who love film.

Interstella 5555

Posted in Animation, Fantasy, Musical, Science Fiction with tags on April 5, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketStraddling the line between a music video and a feature film, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem was conceived as a visual representation of the 2001 album Discovery by French house duo Daft Punk. The 67 minutes comprise a sequence of animated segments spliced together to create this movie which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2003. Each related episode is underscored by one of the songs off of that album to tell a complete story. The musical concerns an intergalactic rock band who are abducted from their home planet by the evil Earl de Darkwood. He seeks to manipulate the aliens with mind control so that he can duplicate their success as a band on Earth. By this method he plans to become rich off their talent on a global scale. Japanese animation was designed with the collaboration of Toei Animation under the supervision of Leiji Matsumoto and director Kazuhisa Takenouchi. Matsumoto is a Manga legend probably best known for his work on the science fiction cartoon series Space Battleship Yamato which was dubbed in English for North American and Australian audiences and called Star Blazers in 1979.

Interstella 5555 is a brilliant amalgamation of animated technique and house music. The picture’s allure will likely depend on your enjoyment of at least one of those things but not necessarily both. The film utilizes Daft Punk’s music in a thoroughly entertaining way that will make fans of people who don’t normally enjoy their type of electronic music. But it also gives the illustrative style a vibrancy for people who often find the art form emotionally cold. The latter has described my experiences. Love the band, but don’t particularly care for anime. However I loved this. The plot was filled with an energizing spirit and artistic flair. Observe the part where against the back drop of the song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” the blue skinned aliens are transformed into human musicians that can now pass for a rock band on the planet Earth. The music invigorates the visuals and gives them an excitement I rarely feel while watching anime.

Interstella 5555 is a rewarding fantasy that is delightfully imaginative. The story is a dialogue-free production. Relying simply on observable cues and music with minimal sound effects can somewhat limit its appeal to the casual viewer. Although it lacks the adult themes typical of anime (it is unrated), I suspect the fuzzy narrative will be a bit esoteric for young viewers. It’s hard for an adult to understand what is happening at times. Another quibble is that the 4:3 aspect ratio is better suited to an antiquated TV screen than the widescreen standard of today. Yet as a completely wordless experience, the hypnotic visual complement to Daft Punk’s music is a rather original concept. I really enjoyed the 70s disco aesthetic. It’s dated in a joyfully modern approach.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 3, 2012 by Mark Hobin

30-year-old Jeff still lives with his mother. He’s a firm believer in fate as he asserts everything happens for the greater purpose. In this minor comedy, Jeff searches for his destiny one day while assisting his brother with his marital problems. Over the course of 83 minutes we’re treated to the incidental developments of his life. A significant portion concerns Jeff’s single-minded obsession with the name Kevin. Following a wrong number asking for that unknown person, he obsesses over the name so much that it leads him on a slight odyssey of sorts. But the quest is one letdown after another. Ultimately there’s an actual point to the proceedings. Thank goodness for that and the tone is sincere enough. The problem is, with the exception of the ending, all the little episodes are rather boring.

Directors Mark and Jay Duplass’ films are an acquired taste. If you can get behind the slacker milieu with its unapologetic passivity, you might cozy up to the production’s charms. Ultra low budget and championing an authenticity that favors natural performances and dialogue, there’s always been an improvisational feel in their movies. They favor individuals that occupy an awkward existence in their own life. Characters deliver their lines with the all confidence of a spokesperson with a fear of public speaking. That can be entertaining. Wes Anderson has made a career of indies that take delight in that. But where Anderson deals with the doldrums of everyday people in a way that celebrates those quirky details creatively, the Duplass brothers almost wallow in a despair that grows debilitating. It’s just so dreary. Even then, there can be entertainment in that, if not for the fact that the events are so insignificant. The routine happenings of random white, middle class American twenty-somethings would probably make a more thought provoking picture than what is presented here. When British artist Tracey Emin exhibited her unmade bed at the Tate Gallery in 1999 she was able to create a notoriety in the art world. I’m a film critic. I won’t debate the value of such pieces other than to say that Jeff, Who Lives at Home is sort of the cinematic version of art from found objects.

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