Archive for the Biography Category

Concussion

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on January 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo concussion_ver2_zpsn7swvjsa.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgBefore I launch into my review of Concussion, I thought a little primer on biology might help. So the brain floats inside the skull surrounded by something called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). When the body is suddenly stopped after a blow to the head, like after being tackled for example, the brain continues to move in the CSF until it hits the next solid surface – the inside of the skull. Sure a helmet will protect the skull, but it cannot protect the brain. If this happens enough times, the nerve fibers break off and proteins start to build up in the brain leaving scar tissue. That’s bad.

Concussion is a medical drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He works for the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office in Pittsburgh. A forensic pathologist, Omalu conducts the autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster – legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had not been well. He was suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression and died from a heart attack at only 50 years old. What Omalu finds, leads to his discovery of a new disease that he names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in 2005. The complications of which somewhat resemble Alzheimer’s, however they occur much earlier in life. The depression, memory loss and erratic, aggressive behavior experienced by ex NFL players, continues to this day. Concussion does a nice job at emphasizing the severity of these symptoms.

Given the subject matter, this could’ve been a much more incendiary film. The research calls the very sport of professional football into question. (I assume athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, rugby and wrestling would be at risk as well.) As you might expect, the publication of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research is viewed as extremely controversial by the National Football league. The NFL had a choice. Join Dr. Bennet Omalu and try to solve the problem, or use their considerable power to discredit him. The NFL choose the latter and they certainly do not come off well. They’re presented as this monolithic corporate entity as headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

Dr. Omalu’s fight to get people to acknowledge he is right, becomes a veritable David-vs.-Goliath match. He was born in Nigeria. Dr. Omalu earned his degree in medicine there before coming to the U.S. where he completed his residency. Despite all of his education, he is seen as an outsider. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” he has said. Not only is Dr. Omalu an immigrant, he is indifferent to that quintessentially American of pastimes called football. Nevertheless he does gain a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

I really wanted to love this movie. Concussion has the best intentions. It dramatizes a serious story that needs to be told. At the heart of this biography is a compelling performance by Will Smith. Historically he has often had a difficult time disappearing into the persona of another person. We see mega celebrity Will Smith – the brash movie star, not an actor fading within a role. Here however, he manages to convincingly present a different personality – accent and demeanor included. It’s his most impressive achievement since The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, the diffuse narrative spends way too much time on tedious details involving his personal life which includes love interest and eventual wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is far too great an actress to be saddled with this expendable role. Concussion is at its best when it’s delving into the science of Omalu’s work, chronicling his study and the ensuing struggle to get his important research acknowledged. The production ends unresolved. According to the film, his research still has yet to be taken seriously by the NFL. Although some concessions have been made, very little about the sport has changed. Apparently the issue is far from over. Stay tuned.

12-29-15

Joy

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on December 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo joy_zpsft2v08cz.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Joy of the title is Joy Mangano. For those unfamiliar, she is an American inventor who created the Miracle Mop – a plastic implement “with a head made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton that can be easily wrung out without getting the user’s hands wet.” Although a modest succes initially, it wasn’t until the entrepreneur appeared on shopping channel QVC in 1992, that the invention actually took off. Although Joy is based on a real woman, this isn’t some straightforward, by the numbers biopic. What David O. Russell has done with the saga of Joy Mangano is a visionary appropriation of the facts. The director has creatively imagined Joy Mangano’s memoir as a modern day fantasy.

Fairy tales do come true. Jennifer Lawrence is surrounded by a colorful ensemble that supports her narrative to comical effect. They almost compel her to rise above the depths of her existence. There’s never any suggestion that her family members don’t love each other. However the menagerie of eccentrics that comprise her family are, hmmm shall we say, a little dysfunctional? As the matriarch of a multi-generational household, her environment is constantly in a state of disarray.  Joy is a divorced mother with two small children. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with this soap opera and never leaves her bed. An amusing aside is that the daytime serial she’s watching is a fictitious send-up. It features newly shot scenes starring icons of the medium, including Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard.  It pops up throughout the years hilariously marking the time period.

As in any fable, there are many obstacles to overcome. Her father, and mother’s ex-husband, Rudy (Robert De Niro) comes over to live in her basement after he has broken up with his girlfriend. Complicating matters is the fact that Tony (Edgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, is already living down there and has for the past two years. He’s trying to jump start his stalled lounge singing career. Isabella Rossellini later emerges as Trudi, Rudy’s new girlfriend who becomes the chief financial backer for Joy’s innovative idea. Do I see a ray of light? There’s also Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who runs the QVC shopping network. He’s sort of the male version of a fairy godmother in her life. Joy’s jealous half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) is a negative presence, but her longtime childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) is a positive one. Diane Ladd is Mimi, Joy’s supportive grandmother and the narrator of this fable.

Truth is stranger than fiction. David O. Russell has brilliantly distilled the elaborate narrative to its essence, trimming away the excess fat of unimportant details and highlighted the bonkers mentality of her life. The director has recontextualized the very true story of Joy Mangano into that of a contemporary fairy tale. Like some Cinderella scrubbing up a spill on the floor, she gets cut after wringing out a mop. Her hands bleed from the shards of glass. Inspiration strikes without a hint of cynicism. Joy isn’t some woman waiting for her prince charming . She improves the very mire of her own existence with her entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The chronicle demands that we reconsider how inspirational fantasies from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, are still happening today. The hard working resolve of a single mother with a dream manifested as a glorious paean to female empowerment.

David O. Russell has found his muse. As Katharine Hepburn was to George Cukor or Marlene Dietrich was to Josef von Sternberg, so too is Jennifer Lawrence to David O. Russell. This is his 3rd picture to feature Jennifer Lawrence but the first to star her — or any woman for that matter — as the sole lead in one of his movies. The partnership has yielded yet another fruitful collaboration for all involved. In an era where we routinely bemoan the derth of strong roles for women, Joy quietly enters the discussion and gives us exactly that. It’s a real tribute to the scrappy heroines of the 1940s when female-centric films were common. Think pictures starring Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. Yes those are indeed lofty comparisons but Jennifer Lawrence embodies the fierce spirit of those trailblazing heroines. What’s old seems new again. She’s an uplifting breath of fresh air. A woman with her eyes firmly set on the American dream. This is a defining role where she comes in not aggressively “with a bow and arrow,” as the director has noted, “but with her heart and soul.”

12-03-15

In the Heart of the Sea

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on December 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo in_the_heart_of_the_sea_ver4_zpsnlbtbdyq.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIn the Heart of the Sea is a solemn drama of outmoded style. It concerns the adventure that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Our 19th century sea faring tale begins with the American novelist (Ben Whishaw) visiting old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Thomas was once a cabin boy and is the sole living survivor left from the doomed final voyage of the whaleship Essex. Herman has to bribe him to tell the unvarnished truth so he can commit Thomas’ words to the printed page. We then flashback to the events of his yarn. Why we needed this framing device is a mystery. It’s a construct that seemingly serves no purpose other than to derail the picture at inopportune moments. Every time something exciting starts to happen the narrative abruptly stops in its tracks to remind us we’re still listening to a story. I suppose observing two people talk in a dark room is slightly more interesting than watching someone silently write a book. However it’s less exciting than seeing people fight a whale attacking a ship. I figured a director as talented as Ron Howard would have understood this by now, but apparently not.

The proper tale takes place when the Essex leaves Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819. The chronicle centers around Chris Hemsworth as dashing Owen Chase, the first mate, and Benjamin Walker as the more genteel Captain George Pollard, Jr. The aristocratic Pollard has a family lineage that accords him the position, as opposed to the more qualified Chase, who has the experience. Chase’s lower social status has unfortunately precluded him from commanding a ship yet again. The stacked set-up is a cliché. Nevertheless, their combative relationship is a fairly compelling plot point. Early in their voyage, Pollard tests his crew by ordering them to deliberately sail into a dangerous squall. This is amidst the protestations of Chase. The decision almost capsizes the ship, but somehow Pollard finds a way to hold Chase accountable for the debacle anyway.

I was quite enjoying the acrimonious affiliation between the Captain and his first mate . It sort of reminded me of Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, although I admit I am being very charitable when I say that. But then the whale shows up and the focus shifts to CGI spectacles. The whaling scenes pitting man against beast are jampacked but strangely, not thrilling. The action is undone by choppy editing that obscures what is happening exactly. The presentation has a colorful 2D aesthetic but it gives the visual spectacle a simulated muddy quality that lessens the excitement. As a result we’re less invested in their plight.

In the Heart of the Sea is constructed as an old fashioned epic that is anything but. Lots of details about the whaling industry are present. Few scenes stand out, but one features cabin boy Thomas (the narrator of our story, played as a youth by Tom Holland) entering a narrow hole cut into a dead whale’s head, to extract the supply of sperm oil inside. During the 2nd half, when the gang gets shipwrecked, so does the plot. Chase and Pollard promptly make amends and lose the personality that made their antagonistic relationship engaging. Watching the crew, which includes second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), just waste away,  is pretty tedious. They do what they must in order to survive. This includes behavior that should be disturbing, but the environment is so dignified, it barely registers. Honestly, you could say the same thing about the entire film. It’s not awful, but it is awfully forgettable.

12-09-15

The Danish Girl

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo danish_girl_zpskpzxg9gw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Danish Girl is a partially fictionalized biography about the very real Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. The account imagines the experience of Einar Wegener, a man living in Europe who underwent a series of procedures from 1930–1931. It is based on a 2000 novel by American writer David Ebershoff. The tale begins in the early 1920s in Copenhagen, Denmark. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a successful landscape artist married to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), also an aspiring painter and illustrator. However Einar is the more well regarded of the two. Gerda just hasn’t found the right muse. One day Gerda asks if her husband would stand in for their ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard) who hasn’t arrived as the model. He dons female stockings and shoes so that his wife can finish painting that part of the picture. Einar is oddly comforted by the experience.

At first, Gerda seems remarkably receptive to her husband’s inclination to dress in women’s clothes. In fact, she promotes it initially, helping him disguise as a woman to attend a society party so he won’t be recognized. To her, it’s a game that she encourages not knowing the extent to which it starts to cement Einar’s feelings. They have fun passing him off as Lili, Einar’s visiting female cousin. However the game goes too far when Gerda catches her husband’s interaction with another party guest (Ben Whishaw). The previously unflappable Gerda, is a bit unnerved.

The production is a gorgeous period piece of costumes and manners. In the 1920s there was no transsexual or transgender vocabulary. Gender identity vs. sexual orientation were not even understood as separate ideas by most of the medical establishment. Einar’s case was unheard of at the time. While the chronicle is ostensibly a drama about the metamorphosis of Einar Wegener, what captivates the mind more is the journey of his wife. Gerda’s realization of how deep her husband’s feelings go is the most compelling thrust of the narrative. Whether that is intentional is perhaps irrelevant if the story is interesting — and it is. However it is at the expense of truly deep comprehension of what makes Einar Wegener tick. The jump from putting on women’s clothes to getting a “sex-change” operation is such a massive leap. The screenplay lacks the required depth to explain the idea in the mind of the viewer. As a result our sympathies start to align with Gerda, trying to wrap our heads around Einar’s struggle that leads to a difficult decision we don’t fully grasp.

Despite the film’s title, Gerda Wegener is the more intriguing presence as the wife. The production begins so tastefully restrained and sensitive that it initially resembles any number of well mounted period pieces that incur respect. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander give compelling performances that sell the narrative. Eddie Redmayne has the showier role. At one point Einar visits a seedy part of Paris to see a peep-show — but not for pleasure. No he is actually there to study the graceful movements of the stripper who performs for him. It’s a memorable vignette. Redmayne ably demonstrates the persona of a man who became a woman with the right mixture of sincerity and uncertainty that the part requires. Yet Vikander slowly seizes our focus. Her journey becomes just as important as that of the title character. Gerda’s gradual understanding that her marriage will forever change is a dramatic story arc. Her strength of resolve to indulge her husband, is kind of incredible. This would be true of any age, but particularly given this era. Yet her support never seems unnatural or anachronistic. We are fascinated by this woman, oddly even more so than her husband’s landmark decision.

11-10-15

Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-09-15

Suffragette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-24-15

The Walk

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on October 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Walk photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe tale was famously told onscreen once before in James Marsh’s Man on Wire, an Oscar winner in 2009 for Best Documentary Feature. On the early morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He completed the death-defying stunt 1,350-feet above the ground, making 8 passes on the wire for 45 minutes. The story behind this unauthorized feat was a carefully planned exploit that he referred to as “le coup”.

At first glance, Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) might appear to be an odd fit for this fairly introspective little dramatic piece. But upon closer inspection, the concept doesn’t seem like such a random subject for the director. This is the saga of a dreamer, and as such, it feels like a labor of love for the wildly successful auteur who helmed Forrest Gump. The cinematic valentine comes across as both an ode to the idealistic spirit of Philippe Petit as well as a tribute to the memory of those impressive buildings that once towered above New York City.

A large part of the picture is merely setup to his celebrated act. The planning and organization of the caper is presented with all the anticipation of a heist. Robert Zemeckis frames the movie with charismatic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the similarly charming Petit speaking right into the camera while atop of the torch in the Statue of Liberty. Petit narrates his chronicle. That’s a whimsical touch. I suppose Zemeckis makes all of the prelude as interesting as possible, but it’s not unlike someone clearing their throat before giving an oratory address.

Zemeckis surrounds Gordon-Levitt with a colorful cast of accomplices. These include a photographer portrayed by Clément Sibony and a math whiz played by César Domboy. There’s also James Badge Dale as an American who speaks French, Steve Valentine as an American admirer with a WTC office, and Charlotte LeBon as a fellow French street performer/love interest. Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel are the final two conspirators. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what purpose they serve. Oh and there’s Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a circus performer who inspires Petit in his native France.

Like the recent Everest prior to this, The Walk debuted exclusively in 448 IMAX 3D theaters a week before its wide release. What could have been a gimmick becomes a fundamental component of the moviegoing phenomenon. This may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that utilized 3D and IMAX more perfectly than this one. The spectacle is nothing less than revelatory. I’m not saying the first half is expendable, but compared to the spectacular climax, it pales in comparison to the realism of the tightrope performance. You actually suffer the dizzying vertigo first-hand.  The experience truly illustrates the danger of Petit’s achievement. This will scare the heck out of you. The technology elevates the sensation into something unforgettable.

10-03-15

Pawn Sacrifice

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on October 1, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pawn Sacrifice photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s easy to see how a chess match between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) became the ultimate Cold War showdown amongst two superpowers. Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union was the defending champion. The Soviet Chess School had long held a monopoly on the game at the highest level and Spassky was the latest in an uninterrupted chain beginning in 1948. The political rivalry separating the Soviet Union from the United States laid the foundation for a clash of mental dexterity that played out in a chess tournament on the world stage. It fascinated America and ignited a widespread chess fever at a height that has never been duplicated since.

Pawn Sacrifice is a handsomely mounted period piece – a fastidiously rendered production with shifting cinematography styles. Director Edward Zwick combines archival footage with shots made to look like the real thing. He uses cinematic tricks like digitally inserting Tobey Maguire into The Dick Cavett Show, as well as using real news reports from the era. When Fischer goes AWOL at the championship, a dozen different news anchors question Bobby’s whereabouts. These filmmaking techniques are showy but they’re never quite as satisfying as good old fashioned conversation between two people. Zwick has assembled an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert as his attorney, his coach, and his mom respectively. Liev Schreiber speaks Russian as Boris Spassky, though his performance is mostly emotive. Each extracts a component of Fischer’s intense intellect.

Ah but Bobby Fischer was one of those marvels tinged with madness. I’d fault the “tortured genius” narrative for endorsing a biopic cliché if it weren’t actually true. Pawn Sacrifice is undoubtedly a skillfully constructed docudrama. However for those hungry for a movie about chess and the intricacies of the game, they will be disappointed. This is a chronicle detailing paranoia, with chess as a backdrop. The filmmakers are more concerned with Fischer’s fragile psychological state than his brilliant mind. The child prodigy that became the youngest international grand master at the age of 15 is merely subtext. Many of the chess matches are kept off screen. Tobey Maguire plays Jewish Brooklyn born Bobby Fischer as a man haunted by demons. He’s a seething ball of neurosis. He tears apart his hotel rooms searching for wiretaps. He complains that his food has been poisoned. The script doesn’t explicitly say chess made him crazy, although the association seems to be that chess exacerbated his mental illness. Why chess became his obsession, and not another pursuit, remains unclear.

Pawn Sacrifice presents Bobby Fischer as a most unlikeable individual. He suffers from moods that fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He avows the Soviets have been cheating by throwing games to create draws. His devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism is presented as peculiar. He is anti-Semitic, even though he himself is Jewish. When Fischer finally gets to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship, he makes everyone wait, taking the stage at the very last possible minute for his first game. Then forfeits the second game by not turning up at all. His prima donna behavior escalates with one outlandish demand after another. He complains that the audience and the TV video cameras are too noisy, refusing to continue unless the tournament is moved from a public hall to a private room. Save for a few coughs, the room appears quiet to us. When Fischer threatens to quit, Henry Kissinger calls to offer words of encouragement. The organizers relent anyway, giving into his demands. This doesn’t endear Bobby to us. Certainly it isn’t necessary to like the central character in order to appreciate a film. Yet we should feel something for this man. The movie entertains in parts but while showing how Bobby Fischer could be a jerk, it neglects to present his humanity. I was captivated during much of Pawn Sacrifice. I wanted to know more about this boy genius, particularly in his early life. It wasn’t until the climax that finally I realized that, after getting to know fellow American Bobby Fischer, I found myself rooting for Boris Spassky.

09-28-15

Everest

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on September 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Everest photo starrating-4stars.jpgLace up your boots, strap on your pack, and let’s hit the trails. Everest concerns an ill-fated climbing expedition in 1996 to summit the world’s tallest mountain. The account mainly focuses on a crew in the Himalayas headed by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a guide for Adventure Consultants.

Everest has an extended cast of famous names. Most don’t get more than a few lines of dialogue, but nevertheless their familiar presence aids in our affinity for their characters. Rob’s clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a seasoned hiker, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a former mailman pursuing his dream, and climbing veteran Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has scaled 6 of the 7 summits. Only Everest remains for her. Another excursion is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the chief guide for Mountain Madness. These tourist treks highlight the commercialization of Everest, which is an underlying theme. Initially they happen to each meet at the base camp first, in preparation for their attempt to reach the apex. The two caravans communicate with Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who manages the base camp compound. Everest is loosely inspired by the book Into Thin Air by Outside magazine journalist Jon Krakauer. He’s portrayed here by Michael Kelly.

Icelandic born director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) ups the ante over his previous American films and produces something far more ambitious. Granted this isn’t intellectually deep or technically rich. Narratively it’s fairly straightforward. However there is grace in trusting that the genuine drama of the true story will captivate the viewer….and it does. Green screen technology is used sparingly. Everest was shot on location at Everest base camp. The Dolomite mountains in northern Italy stands in for higher elevations. At times, the chronicle has such a visceral quality, it almost feels like documentary. It does a nice job in depicting the physiological effects of the climb. At higher altitudes even breathing becomes a task because the percentage of oxygen in the air is lower. The conditions force the team to acclimate to the low atmospheric pressure first before continuing.

Everest is a rather simple tale about a quest that ended in tragedy. It’s an old fashioned rip roaring adventure ideally suited to the big screen. Early theater engagements were shown exclusively in IMAX 3D. The attributes of those formats serve this subject well. The visual splendor is beautifully conveyed. Sweeping vistas and aerial photography convey a sense of grandeur. One dizzy overhead shot above a high suspension bridge triggers feelings of acrophobia. This is a saga where nature is the enemy. A grueling storm, frostbite, blindless and the wind all threaten the safety of our courageous explorers. I am neither an experienced mountaineer nor was I present on the actual expedition. Therefore I am not here to vouch for the authenticity of facts of the sport or what really happened. What I am is a film critic, and I can say that Everest absolutely delivers thrilling entertainment.

09-24-15

Black Mass

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama on September 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Black Mass photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBlack Mass is the true story of Whitey Bulger, an organized crime boss of the Boston Irish mob faction known as the Winter Hill Gang. Indicted for 19 murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus five years for his offenses on November 14, 2013, he is currently incarcerated. Prior to this, starting in 1975, Bulger served as an FBI informant. He reported on the inner workings of his rivals, the Italian American Patriarca crime family. In exchange, the bureau turned a blind eye to murder. His organization and their illegal doings went unchecked for years. Once Bulger’s relationship with the FBI was finally exposed by the local media, he went into hiding on December 23, 1994. For 12 of the 16 years he was on the lam, Bulger was #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list, behind only Osama bin Laden.

The infamous Whitey Bulger has been the stuff of legend in popular culture. In 2006 actor Jack Nicholson portrayed Frank Costello, an individual loosely based on Bulger, in The Departed. The reference is especially apropos because Black Mass frequently calls Martin Scorsese to mind. Not just the Best Picture winner, but Goodfellas as well. Watch Johnny Depp rebuke an FBI agent for too readily revealing his “secret” family recipe for a marinade. The intensity with which he takes him to task for a seemingly honest remark, evokes Joe Pesci’s iconic “How am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas.

Black Mass is a well acted character piece. Joel Edgerton is important as John Connolly, the FBI agent who strikes up an alliance with Bulger, abetted by their childhood friendship. Also Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s more respectable brother who chose the political world instead. Billy Bulger was President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years. Also of note is is Julianne Nicholson as the wife of John Connolly, who wants nothing to do with her husband’s schemes, and Corey Stoll as no-nonsense prosecutor Fred Wyshak. The latter two take nothing parts and turn them into the kind of roles that justify Oscar campaigns.

The only one that comes up a bit short is its star. I’ll admit, this is the most captivating Johnny Depp has been since Finding Neverland. He’s engaging and fully committed to the portrayal. Bulger is a frightening figure, as mean as they come. He’ll choke a friend’s stepdaughter with his bare hands if he thinks she might know too much. Regrettably his performance must still rely on an elaborate Tim Burton-style makeup job to “age” Depp into the role. The thinning blonde hair, brushed back to reveal a bald scalp, the rotten teeth, the ghostly, icy blue eyes aided by contacts. His pale, angular appearance makes him somewhat unrecognizable, but the transformation is distracting. It’s exaggerated, unnatural. He preys upon the innocent like a seething vampire. I remember back in 2012, critics were comparing Johnny Depp in Dark Shadows to Nosferatu. Well it’s happening all over again.

Black Mass is a solid, well-structured crime drama. The production is handsomely mounted. The cinematography is well photographed. The account doesn’t hold back from what a horrible man Bulger truly was. He puts a bullet in the head of a contrite friend in mid apology. It’s got brutal events carefully detailed in a fascinating true life tale of corruption. So what’s the problem? It’s a well presented series of facts, but it’s not much more. The studied approach requires passion. The film’s deliberate pace is so stately, it’s almost lethargic. In short, it lacks momentum and depth. It’s entertaining enough, a gripping character study bolstered by a supporting cast of earnest performances. However Black Mass won’t join the ranks of the greatest crime dramas. Along the way it often recalls them, but it pales in comparison.

09-17-15

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