Archive for the Biography Category

One Chance

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on October 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

One Chance photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgHis tale reads like the most clichéd underdog success story you‘ve ever heard. Paul Potts was a mere mobile-phone salesman who ultimately went on to win the first season of Britain’s Got Talent back in June of 2007. He was a shy, unassuming man in his mid-30s with a decidedly un-glamorous appearance. Yet he fought his own insecurities to win over audiences and the judges alike with his astounding ability to sing opera. Paul became the stuff of legend in Britain. In the U.S. he remained largely an unknown. However his “from nobody to somebody” saga would be repeated during the third season by another contestant. This time with the similarly plain but spectacularly gifted Susan Boyle who would take the competition by storm in 2009.

Note: Boyle did not win but became the runner-up in Season 3. Yet she ironically achieved more success in the U.S. than actual Season 1 winner Paul Potts.

Paul Potts’ saga is nothing new, but these accounts of fame do captivate the heart on some level. David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) lays on the schmaltz and the narrative hits all the beats you expect a soap opera collage to hit. Perhaps screenwriter Justin Rackham (The Bucket List, The Big Wedding) is a bit to blame as well. You want to take him to task for fabricating such a rote story from Paul Potts’ rise to fame. There is very little here to set this apart from the 2 minute bio you get on these singing competitions in their recorded segment. In this case they’ve optimistically expanded that human interest story to a feature length 103 minutes. Where the chronicle sets itself apart is in its handling of the relationship with his girlfriend Julie-Ann (Alexandra Roach) whom he calls Julz. After flirting online, the two finally decide to meet. Their awkward chemistry is warm and appealing. They complement each other and it’s nice to see a relationship between two people that don’t look like Hollywood actors after having visited a stylist.

One Chance is pleasant, but it isn’t innovative enough to make this different from a dozen other rags to riches stories you’ve already seen fifty times before. The story really botches the ending too. The fact that Paul succeeded is already a foregone conclusion so the inevitable climax simply becomes a waiting game for Paul’s TV triumph. Actor James Corden plays the lead character with a lot of humanity. The comic is set to take over Craig Ferguson’s place on The Late Late Show in 2015. Corden ably lip- syncs while the real Paul Potts supplies the vocals. That all works. But then actual judging panel footage from the Britain’s Got Talent TV show is used, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden and Piers Morgan’s historic responses are intercut with footage of actor Corden reacting to their evaluations. The assembled editing is not organic. The pastiche drains the moment of the drama of Paul intenerating with real people. If this were the only problem, I might’ve forgiven the misstep. The problem is this is merely the icing of an issue on a very uninspired cake.

10-12-14

Get on Up

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 5, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Get on Up photo starrating-3stars.jpg1988 – A man in a green tracksuit arrives at a strip mall that he owns. He realizes someone has been using the bathroom without his permission. With shotgun in hand he enters a room and points it at the small gathering of people demanding to know the guilty culprit. He accidentally fires a shot in the ceiling amidst shrieks of the people now cowering on the floor, frightened out of their minds.  Police sirens are heard approaching in the distance. James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, is that man.

The practice of digitally encoding music and reusing it as part of another song is common practice today. They claim that James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. In that vein, director Tate Taylor (The Help) gives us haphazard excerpts of a life. These vignettes are selected from different years at various intervals as if chosen from a buffet of life experiences. A detailed handling of the life of James Brown would be a formidable enterprise no doubt given the amount of material the man’s life would entail. Perhaps the filmmakers realized the task of accurately recounting the biography of a man with a long and complicated life would be too daunting. Nevertheless the disregard for chronology is odd. Get On Up is a biographical drama about the life of James Brown, where telling a traditional chronological tale is rejected in favor of emotional touchstones grouped by feeling.

As a result, the saga never has a chance to build momentum. We start near the end where James Brown is already a legend in his own lifetime. People are chanting his name as he walks down a concert hall. As he reflects upon his life, we get the aforementioned run-in with the law. We see a sketch during the 60s where he’s nearly shot down, right before he’s entertaining the troops in Vietnam. 1939 – He’s a little boy running in the woods of South Carolina with his mother, Then he’s performing at a gig in 1964 with his singing group The Famous Flames preceding The Rolling Stones. Jill Scott plays Dee-Dee Jenkins, James Brown’s second wife. One minute they’re handing out gifts as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The next he’s beating her within an inch of her life. Before we can process what‘s happening, the narrative has moved on to another year. Flashback and flash forward. Back and forth, all over the place.

The technique becomes particularly frustrating on the occasion where James is celebrating in his dressing room at the Apollo theater after a show. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen in years, walks in smiling. The power of that scene dissipates as it abruptly ends right there and we skim a myriad of other time periods instead, detailing different relationships with assorted women. All the while an alert viewer is wondering what exactly was the outcome of that fateful reunion of James Brown and his mother. We finally get the answer but it’s over 30 minutes later. In the interim, we come to realize how James Brown could be an effective mediator. A concert at The Boston Garden following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is nearly cancelled for fear of riots. In an effort to diffuse a situation that has an excitable police presence on edge, he appeals to the crowd for order. James calms an excitable crowd whose dancing members keep getting up on stage. It’s a powerful moment.

One thing is for sure. Get on Up is highlighted by some great acting. Let’s start with the supporting parts. Dan Aykroyd as his manager, Viola Davis as his mother, and Octavia Spencer as the Aunt who raised him – they’re all memorable. But none more so than actor Nelsan Ellis (TV’s True Blood) who matches Chadwick Boseman’s work for unadulterated emotional heft. While in prison, James Brown met the man that would change his life, Bobby Byrd. Wives and band members would come and go but his long suffering sidekick stood by his side through the best and worst times of his life. As one of the most moving relationships in James Brown career, it’s a poignant performance that lingers after the music has faded.

Chadwick Boseman is impressive as James Brown. He fully embodies the man in vocal inflections, attitude and behavior. Boseman gets James’ signature raspy voice spot on, extending beyond mere mimicry. And when James sings! The musical performances are the best part. All of his hits are here including “Get Up Offa That Thing”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Pt. 1″, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. The presentation relies on lip synching to actual James Brown tracks and personally I’m glad that decision was made. The singer’s idiosyncratic musical style would have been extremely difficult to duplicate. Chadwick Boseman gets the electricity of James’ delivery down pat, complete with the dancing, the splits and the sheer athleticism. People in my theater actually got up and danced. I’ve never seen that happen. Get on Up isn’t a deep film. It samples from the highlights of a very intricate life with a slapdash approach. I suppose the disjointed sampling is appropriate in an ironic way. It’s how his music is often manipulated today. However, it doesn’t lend itself to a dramatically affecting story arc, just a well acted one.  Chadwick Boseman is indeed an actor to watch.

08-03-14

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on July 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.

Life Itself

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Life Itself photo starrating-4stars.jpgMy introduction to Roger Ebert (and to film criticism in general) began at a very young age. I used to watch Sneak Previews on channel 9 which was the public television station in the San Francisco Bay area. He, a writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, would co-host along with Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. As far as I was concerned you couldn’t mention one without the other. They critiqued enough movies that kids could enjoy to maintain my interest. However most were pictures I was either too young for or had no interest in seeing at that age. It was my dad who initially watched the show and he like me enjoyed the back and forth when they would disagree, even more than the actual review. They spoke intelligently about movies but at a level where I could still understand.

Life Itself is based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name. It’s presented somewhat in chronological order but not always. Sections of his life that pertain to the Siskel & Ebert stuff or his wife Chaz have a constant presence. We’re reminded of what chapter is being addressed in the lower left hand comer. The numbers jump around as the document picks and chooses vignettes that seem most relevant to tell a story. As it charts his career, it touches upon the high points of his days at the University of Illinois as an influential reporter for the Daily Illini on through his job as critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. His rivalry with fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel, their eventual show and the lasting impact that it had, are important milestones.

The best documentaries don’t take sides but rather present its subject for the audience to come to a conclusion. Director Steve James, who also helmed the highly acclaimed Hoop Dreams, doesn’t hide the fact that is clearly a fan.  Roger Ebert enthusiastically promoted his work as well. Life Itself unfolds like a celebratory memoir of a great man who revolutionized film criticism with a more populist approach. It treats Roger Ebert like the be-all, end-all authority giving Ebert a lot of credit for starting what groundbreaking reviewers such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were doing long before him. To be fair, the director does namecheck them.

Occasionally director Steve James allows a little grit. Critic Richard Corliss was particularly disapproving of Ebert’s quick “fast-food” style approach to reviews on TV. His scathing 1990 Film Comment article, “All Thumbs” is mentioned. Ebert could be a bit snippy and egotistical too. His trashing of the movie Three Amigos on The Tonight Show as the movie’s star Chevy Chase sat right behind him is pretty awkward. It reveals Ebert’s prickly personality much better than any wordy description ever could.  The best moments come from the footage of him and Gene Siskel recording their TV program. A series of recorded promos which expose the two bickering like children, provides a candid window into the man. Excerpted footage where they vehemently disagreed in their assessments is provided. The clips highlight their appeal and why no one has ever been able to replicate their chemistry since. Talking head interviews are also particularly enlightening. Gene Siskel’s wife recalls some private anecdotes. How he stole her cab while she was 8 months pregnant sticks out. Film greats Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog wax poetically on the influence he had on their careers.

Life Itself features Ebert’s love of movies just as much as his love for Chaz Ebert his wife, whom he married at the age of 50 in 1992. Their relationship forms a major part of the narrative in the third act. The film is a life lived and it is at various times informative, fascinating and yes sentimental. It would almost have to be. In early 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which was successfully removed in February of that year. 4 years later he had surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The results of which altered his life to where he ate and drink through a tube. At times the unblinking gaze of the camera on his appearance is difficult to watch. Unable to speak, he communicated via text-to-speech computer software. There’s an undeniable sadness that must permeate the proceedings. Chaz has a perspective that humanizes a man with an outsized ego. Chaz and Roger’s love for each other is profoundly touching. Their devotion is just as important a component as his thoughts and feelings about film. These scenes contrast with his often cantankerous relationship with his famous cohort Gene Siskel. Although those displays are where the documentary soars, the final act provides a poignant coda on the life of a man who left an indelible legacy on film criticism.

Jersey Boys

Posted in Biography, Drama, Musical with tags on June 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jersey Boys photo starrating-2stars.jpgGod help the filmmaker that attempts to adapt a jukebox musical from the stage into a filmed movie. At its most basic, that type of production relies on previously released popular songs for its score. A success will enthrall a music lover who wants to hear a lot of beloved songs strung together in service of a loosely defined plot. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is sort of an example of that, but it originated as a film first. The jukebox musical on Broadway is a newer phenomenon. Examples date back to the 70s but it wasn’t until the 90s that the phenomenon really exploded. The triumph of Mamma Mia!, both as a performed play and as a movie really caused the trend to break out. Despite the film‘s huge box office, I still find it absolute torture to sit through. And I enjoy ABBA‘s music. Ditto the movie version of Rock of Ages, another bit of theater based on 70s hair metal bands. What works in a live Broadway show setting doesn’t usually translate so well into the film medium.

The Broadway smash Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. From working class roots to hit making sensation on the charts, their story made for a lively, if somewhat predictable musical detailing an Italian-American success story. How a nice sweet boy named Francesco Castelluccio became Frankie Valli. John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony award winning role. Joining Frankie are local bad boys Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The group finally reaches its hit making potential with the addition of keyboardist-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). They’re guided under the direction of producer Bob Crewe (played by Mike Doyle).

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation is so devoid of life it would be better suited to a mausoleum than a cinema. There is no joy in the narrative, just a mundane checklist as it applies one cliché after another on the group’s rise to the top: angry wife at home, check, infighting within the group, check, conclusion at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame complete with (horrible) old age makeup, check. Everything is presented at arm’s length as if the audience is observing an accident from afar. The Four Seasons rise to popularity is presented in the most blasé fashion as if the group expected to become a household name. Where is the joy in becoming stars? Even their parents, who play an important part in the early scenes, are never involved once they become famous. Later the Four Seasons appear on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Each event is presented like just another gig. It doesn’t help than the acting is rather bland, only really coming alive during those musical numbers. The best performances here are interesting for their camp value. Mike Doyle as flamboyant record producer Bob Crewe, gives a particularly swishy performance and Renée Marino as Frankie Valli’s wife is unintentionally funny when arguing with her husband. They’re both animated at least which is a lot more than I can say for the rest of the film.

It’s clear that Clint Eastwood doesn’t understand the first thing about making a musical. He grossly mishandles the source material. What made the original such a joy was the wonderful plethora of hit songs from the Four Seasons, not the generic Behind the Music-style story. Eastwood highlights the weakest aspects of the play while de-emphasizing the music. The elephantine length clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it feels twice that long. It is a laborious chore to sit through. It’s a full hour before we even hear a recognizable Four Seasons song. Granted the singing is the best part. That’s because the music is inherently good. But the musical numbers are realized with all the excitement of a trip to the dentist. They should be lively and innovative. Instead the actors come out, hit their mark, sway while they sing and leave. This is a movie for goodness sakes. You could do things here with color, lights, effects, to punch up the production that you can’t on the stage. Music videos take advantage of this fact, why can’t this movie? There’s one example of that spirit in the whole picture. It happens at the end as they are rolling the credits. Oh what Bill Condon or Baz Luhrmann could have done with this material.

06-22-14

The Railway Man

Posted in Biography, Drama, War with tags on May 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Railway Man photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgEric Lomax was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. He subsequently wrote a book entitled The Railway Man. In it he recounted his horrific persecution on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II.  The same setting detailed in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Remember that film? If not, then go rent that profoundly better movie instead. Seriously. Just go. I command you.

The Railway Man begins in 1980 where Scottish World War II veteran Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets pretty Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) for the first time on a train in a scene that is meant to be delightfully adorable. Kidman does what she can.  However given her stature, we keep expecting the star to become a more integral part. The underwritten role would’ve benefited form a lesser known actress because it’s more of a accessory than a fully formed individual. They both settle into a comfortable existence together as a married couple, but wouldn’t you know it, trouble looms on the horizon. As biopics are often wont to do, this idyllic life is only presented to contrast with the real point of the story. You see Lomax is tortured by repressed memories of his time spent as a Japanese POW. Cue the flashback sequence, a dependable device to be sure, but the bane of every manufactured biopic that has ever been made.

The Railway Man suffers from erratic pacing. These flashback sequences comprise the bulk of the second half of the film. They’re set at the POW camp with actor Jeremy Irvine portraying Lomax as a younger man. He does what he can with a pretty sizeable role, but there is a disconnect. The disturbing events of the past juxtaposed with the placid view of him as an adult don’t jive well. The back and forth is jarring and doesn’t flow into the overall narrative. He builds a radio which the Japanese Army believes he is using to transmit signals. As a result, he must endure the horrors of an abusive prison which include waterboarding.  I get that it’s told from Lomax’s POV but his captors might as well be cardboard cutouts because they have no depth or personality. They merely serve one purpose, to be the antagonists from which Lomax must suffer.   They’re somewhat given a face in actor Tanroh Ishida as Takashi Nagase, an interpreter.

Languidly paced biography is handsomely mounted and well acted but this period melodrama is inert. Colin Firth exemplifies respectful reverence in his depiction of Eric Lomax as a soft genteel man haunted by the past. His posttraumatic stress disorder continues to weigh on him. That sets the stage for the climax. Lomax learns that that Takashi Nagase is now employed as a tour guide. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada is him as an adult. The Japanese soldier who oversaw his torture in 1942 now works at a museum on the very grounds of the prison camp where the two men first met. In an effort to reconcile his feelings, Lomax re-visits Burma several decades later. On paper the developments sound fascinating, but what is undoubtedly an important account is given a very conventional treatment. The film builds to this meeting as a highlight of sorts. Will he find peace or revenge? Colin Firth’s portrait of restrained passivity is both admirable and frustrating. The biopic engages at irregular intervals but it’s so carefully modulated that it feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The Railway Man is ultimately a positive tale and I suppose it gets some sympathy points for that.

05-04-14

Cutie and the Boxer

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Cutie and the Boxer photo starrating-3stars.jpg“The Boxer” is 80 year old Neo-Dadaist artist Ushio Shinohara. “Cutie” is his long suffering wife Noriko Shinohara. The two live and work in New York City and have ever since they originally met in back in 1973. Both were transplants from Japan. Back then he was 41. She was 19. He was a painter and sculptor – a rising star in the art world. She was a student. They got married and she not only became his wife but his de facto assistant as well. For you see, she put her own vocation on hold so she could support her husband’s career.

Ushio is still producing art. While he struggles to affirm his legacy, Noriko is finally getting some deserved recognition. We see him creating his paintings by punching the canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint. He also creates “junk art” sculptures composed of found objects with garishly colored paint. Motorcycles are a common theme. Her work consists of a progression of whimsical drawings depicting her own life with Ushio entitled ‘Cutie and Bullie’. Light animation has these figures parallel their real life counterparts at appropriate times throughout the documentary. Her voice representing a quietly fuming display of resentment.

Cutie and the Boxer is not so much a story about artists but rather people in a 40 year relationship. The couple is a most curious pair. Ushio is small but physically scrappy. Although his work has been displayed at high profile museum exhibitions, his creations haven’t seen a great deal of monetary success. We see the two converse in a cluttered apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by sculptures, scattered materials and cats. Their marriage comes across like a series of “what-coulda-beens”, “if-onlys” and “I -wish-I hads”. In speaking with the camera, Noriko detail a singular existence obsessively focused on her husband’s art career. She admits it has had an effect on their now 39 year old son. Alex is also a struggling artist and clearly uncomfortable on screen. His uncharacteristic upbringing hampered by his father’s alcoholism which now seems to afflict him.

Cutie and the Boxer is mildly interesting, but it’s a depressing watch. There isn’t a lot of insight, but there is nuance. The director’s POV sides with Noriko for having set aside her own ambitions to take care of essentially two children, her son and husband. Ushio is seemingly oblivious or perhaps indifferent to his wife’s regrets. Her own artistic pursuits only now receiving some attention. Together the couple exhibit a competitive alliance regarding their individual careers. Because of all this, the production has an air sadness to it. Yet it’s a relationship that has endured for quixotic reasons, but there is hope here. Ushio inquires of Noriko, if Cutie hates Bullie. “Ah, Cutie loves Bullie so much,” she responds.

The Invisible Woman

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Invisible Woman photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBiographical romance spotlights Charles Dickens and his clandestine relationship with English actress Ellen Ternan, or Nelly. By 1857 Charles Dickens had been married to his wife Catherine for over twenty years. They had 10 children together. Dickens meets Nelly, a struggling young actress who is performing in one of his plays, The Frozen Deep. He is 45, she is 18. Immediately taken with the girl, he ever so delicately pursues her in the most gradual way possible. Slow, methodically plotted story truly emphasizes the great lengths that Dickens took to tread lightly in his advances toward the woman. Based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name, this handsomely mounted costume drama is actor Ralph Fiennes directorial follow-up to Coriolanus.

In essence the film is about lust. But it‘s presented in the most carefully articulated way so as not to disturb societal conventions. There aren’t obvious displays of tremendous passion. Dickens’ pursuit of Nelly progresses through glances and things not said, but understood. Despite his best efforts, his attraction to the young woman does not go unnoticed by her mother portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas. Mrs. Frances Ternan regards his intentions with a mixture of cautious uncertainty.  Frances is a small role but the inspired casting choice grants Thomas the opportunity to share the screen with the actor with whom she famously co-starred in 1996’s The English Patient.

For half the movie Nelly and Charles refrain from physically acting upon their desires. She initially rebuffs his advances. At a key juncture, Dickens brings Nelly to friend and author Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) home, where Collins’ lives in an openly unmarried affair with his mistress Caroline (Michelle Fairley). Nelly is visibly appalled that Dickens would take the liberty to expose her to it. They are clearly falling for each other, however, as their slowly growing emotions are perceptible. They keep their feelings hidden from the public sans overt demonstrations of their love. This isn’t the type of love affair we’re used to seeing, but that is what makes this production unique.

Dickens is a charismatic presence, particularly in Ralph Fiennes’ hands. In public he commands attention. He captivates a crowd in town who swarm around him like a rock star. Privately however, Dickens was surprisingly insecure and shy. Felicity Jones isn’t as acclaimed as her co-star, but she superbly proves herself every bit his match in the title role. She exhibits a wide eyed innocence that gives way to moral turmoil. Together the couple are static vessels externally hiding powerful emotion kept tightly within. The much lauded novelist, comes up decidedly short as a husband. Joanna Scanlan is quite memorable as Dickens’ wife Catherine. She beautifully conveys the heartbreaking realization of her husband’s infidelity in one devastating scene. The visit she pays the ingénue is mortifying. Catherine’s subsequent declaration to Nelly is heartbreakingly pragmatic.

The Invisible Woman details a specific period of a particular time. The 13 year relationship between Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens is not just a tale of love but of pain and regret as well. Occasionally the focus on this exclusive detail of the author’s life doesn’t always sustain the narrative. But more often than not, the production captures an era when traditional moral attitudes were held dear. Outwardly, Dickens was the passionate defender of home and family. But secretly his heart belonged to another . Even after separating from his wife, he continued to keep his association with Nelly a secret for fear of damaging her reputation. There were rumors, but he consistently maintained in public that Nelly was nothing less than a chaste woman. This endured for the rest of his life until 1870 when he died. These conventions seem archaic to modern audiences, but those social mores made this couple’s guarded behavior necessary. Breaking implied codes of decency would condemn a woman’s standing in the community. The threat forced people at least to maintain the appearance of adhering to accepted societal customs. I can understand why someone wouldn’t appreciate the film’s deliberate pace but that is precisely what I loved about it.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wolf of Wall Street photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe spectacular rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the subject of this dark comedy based on his memoir of the same name. In 1991 Forbes magazine dubbed him the “Wolf of Wall Street”. The article was meant to incriminate the tycoon, but ironically only ended up adding to his allure. He didn’t even work on Wall Street—he operated out of Long Island. Stratton Oakmont was a New York “over-the-counter” brokerage house founded after the stock crash of 1987 by him and his business partner Danny Porush. Jonah Hill is Donnie Azoff modeled after the very real Danny Porush. The financial institution became the largest OTC firm in the country during the late 1980s and 1990s. Employing more than 1,000 young impressionable money-hungry types at its peak, the firm operated as a boiler room. Their racket? Encouraging potential investors to buy mostly penny stocks, pumping up the price with exaggerated claims and then selling quickly leaving investors holding worthless stocks.

Director Martin Scorsese considers the true story, then extracts every ounce of hype and offers it to the masses as a fascinating piece of flamboyant entertainment. It’s a fictionalization of Jordan Belfort’s life and Leonardo DiCaprio embodies that man. This marks the 5th collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and his current muse. The two are a partnership made in cinematic heaven as this elicits DiCaprio’s finest performance in a Scorsese film, and possibly ever. He is simply amazing in the role. All intense wild-eyed coked up intensity, he perfectly conveys the magnetic intensity of the man that became a multi-millionaire at age 26. He displays a manic energy dialed up to eleven. Jordan’s take no prisoners approach to getting investors is at once abhorrent and captivating as he commands a roomful of wannabe Gordon Geckos who hang on his every word. We the audience cannot look away either, even when he is spouting the sort of business tactics that would make him a convicted felon a decade later. He doesn’t ask for your attention. He demands it, then smacks you in the face for not listening sooner.

The Wolf of Wall Street is never boring, but it is overlong. The picture was originally scheduled for release on November 15th. That date was pushed back six weeks to Dec 25th when the production was still unfinished. The pressure to get it out before the year was over to qualify for the Academy Awards was building. The finished 3 hours show signs that it didn’t spend enough time in the editing room. It’s easy to see where cuts could’ve been made. It’s not so much that all the lasciviousness occupies a high percentage of the action, because it doesn‘t. But in showing Jordan’s seduction into a drug-fueled and sexual decadence, brief examples pop up continuously throughout. We get it. Jordan snorted a lot of cocaine and <bleeped> a lot of whores. There’s grace in the art of restraint especially in a saga about excess.

The Wolf of Wall Street presents the sensationalism, but what keeps it interesting is the levity. There’s a crazy sense of humor as things are spiraling out of control. The financial institution becomes sort of a bacchanalian orgy where office practices are decidedly less than professional. The movie opens with a large group of brokers playing a dwarf tossing game where they throw little people onto a board with a dollar sign for a bulls-eye. Slimy Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) and stylish British aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) are memorable side roles. Jordan interacts with each of these characters separately. The scenes feature alternating voice-over inner thoughts that add a humorous layer to the outer dialogue. But the most memorable scene in the film, and perhaps of the year, is when Jordan overdoses on expired Quaaludes and enters what he labels the cerebral palsy stage. What follows is terrifyingly hilarious or hilariously terrifying, depending on your point of view.

The narrative gently chastises Jordan for immorality and the illegality of his depraved lifestyle, while subconsciously seducing the viewer with temptations. Hookers are his weakness. Cocaine and Quaaludes are his vices, but his ultimate drug of choice is money. It’s an indictment of greed. He and his buddies ultimately get their comeuppance. Although it’s served with a frustrating helping of mercy. Screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) adapts Jordan Belfort’s memoir that supposedly lectures us on the wages of sin, then proceeds to show a guy having the time of his life. The cautionary tale gets a bit lost in the 3 hour runtime but it’s a fun ride while it lasts.

Lone Survivor

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on December 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Lone Survivor photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgLone Survivor is the depiction of a United States maneuver during the War in Afghanistan in 2005. Labeled Operation Red Wings, a group of Navy SEALs are tasked to capture or kill high ranking Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. The story is based on Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 book about the failed mission. First let’s address the elephant in the room. I’d be hard pressed to name a more spoiler heavy title than Lone Survivor. It’s a pretty efficient buzzkill. There’s Death of Salesman perhaps, but then that play had so much more to offer intellectually. We’re introduced to a team of four Navy SEALs played by Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster. Right from the start there’s this nagging feeling that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to at least three of these guys.

This is a pretty simple plot. Four guys go in. Only one comes out. Basically everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Director Peter Berg (Battleship) never met a bullet going through flesh that he didn’t want to film in slow motion. The death of Ben Foster’s character is particularly gruesome. As he’s gasping for breath, blood pouring out, we watch as he is hit not once, not twice but three shots with grisly brutality. A veritable pastiche of sound effects highlights detonations, guns shooting, bullets whizzing by. Several scenes show soldiers tumbling down the side of a mountain. This tableau is repeated several times in fact. Their bodies somersaulting like rag dolls with bones crunching against every rock along the way in glorious sonic clarity. In one of the production’s quieter moments, Wahlberg performs surgery on his leg with a knife.

Lone Survivor is a weird mix of jingoism and “war is hell” mentality. The opening crawl of actual training footage feels like a military recruitment film, but then the senseless escalating body count screams otherwise. Our team of four Navy SEALs are robust models of tough American masculinity. Their male bonding, rah-rah, “let’s go kick some Taliban butt” mindset is occasionally interrupted by exclamations of “Muthaf–ka!” and “F–k You!” For the second half, it’s seemingly the only words they know as the action is mainly punctuated by the sound of bodies exploding while bullets pierce their skulls in blood splattering detail. The soundtrack has the audacity to play the quietly solemn beats of a noble drum march in the background as if that makes all the carnage more meaningful. There are admittedly two examples where expectations are subverted and humanity is displayed. In those minutes, we realize what this picture could have been. Then it’s back to bloody business as usual. In the end, the overriding conclusion is that Operation Red Wings was a tragic waste of life and this movie is a tragic waste of time.

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