Archive for the Biography Category

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.

Dallas Buyers Club

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 17, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Dallas Buyers Club photo starrating-4stars.jpgRon Woodroof is a hard-partying, drug addicted Rodeo cowboy and electrician. It’s 1985 and the AIDS epidemic is in its early stages. The earliest outbreak was recorded in 1981. Given the lack of knowledge about the disease during the first 6 years, most sufferers were basically told to just wait it out. It wasn’t until 1987 when the FDA approved the first antiretroviral medication, AZT. Ron’s promiscuous lifestyle involves sex with lots of women. He is diagnosed with HIV and told he has 30 days to live. During these early years of AIDS, there were no medically sanctioned treatment options. There were however clinical trials through which some patients might receive AZT (others would get a placebo). Ron begins taking AZT. Initially there is some response, but over time his condition actually worsens. Instead of accepting this, Woodroof decides to take matters into his own hands.

Dallas Buyers Club is fashioned as the portrait of an iconoclast. By studying the available research Woodroof learns of a black market in other countries with untested drugs not recognized by the FDA. , Many have been shown to counteract the effects of AIDS. He obtains a trial of proteins, vitamins and medicine from a doctor in Mexico. His situation improves and his life is extended beyond 30 days. He then starts selling his own supply to those in need for $400-a-month. The enterprise becomes the Dallas Buyers Club, a huge network of buyers and sellers, for the distribution of experimental AIDS treatments out of his Oak Lawn, Texas, apartment. Dallas Buyers Club is essentially the profile of a man desperate to survive. The very desire to live is the most basic human right. However the script takes the FDA to task for its ‘slow to act’ drug approval policy during this time. Ron Woodroof also butts heads with the bureaucracy of the hospital for not having the patients’ best interests at heart. Actress Jennifer Garner is Dr. Eve Saks, a doctor sympathetic to his plight.

Dallas Buyers Club is highlighted by a pair of extraordinary performances. Matthew McConaughey’s depiction is powerful for its commitment. The individual presented exhibits a stripped down, natural complexity. His achievement is the pinnacle of a career that continues to impress with each successive role. Much of the drama concerns Ron’s slowly evolving attitudes. His character is a representation of society’s changing understanding of how the disease is spread. It’s emotionally resonant, but it’s hard not to also take into account his physical shape. Matthew McConaughey lost 47 pounds for the part. Filmgoers aware of the actor’s regular physique will be shocked by the transformation. A slender wisp of his former self, he is virtually unrecognizable. There are scenes of his ravaged body that are almost hard to watch. Ron’s business receives help from Rayon, a transgender HIV positive woman with a drug problem. She becomes an unlikely ally, especially for the bigoted good-ole-boy . Their improbable partnership provides Ron a link with the gay community through which he is able to distribute his pharmaceutical package. Jared Leto is quite memorable in the part. A scene where she dresses up in a suit and visits her father for money is particularly poignant.

Ron Woodroof doesn’t start out as a crusader for the betterment of mankind. His crusade is propelled by his own need to survive. The expansion of the Dallas Buyers Club is motivated by self interest. He is more entrepreneur than activist. But over time as his knowledge of the pharmaceuticals grows, he is able to intelligently prescribe based on the patient’s symptoms. His efforts extend the lives of many, including his own. Ron Woodroof doesn’t fit the profile of the typical AIDS sufferer. That’s what makes this story different. His uneasy relationship with gay people is difficult at first. His empathy for Rayon, a transgender woman, develops over the course of the chronicle. Dallas Buyers Club is not a Hollywood glossy biopic of a folk hero. He’s a hedonistic homophobic redneck that inadvertently saved lives and in the process, made a difference.

Saving Mr. Banks

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on November 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Saving Mr. Banks photo starrating-4stars.jpgSome of the most critically acclaimed classics are movies about making movies: Sunset Blvd., Singin’ in the Rain, , Day for Night, The Player, Ed Wood, Boogie Nights, The Artist. There are others, but you get the idea. Personally I adore stories centered on the filmmaking process. Now along comes Saving Mr. Banks, a feature detailing Walt Disney’s quest to bring the cherished children’s book, Mary Poppins to the big screen. I am happy to report it joins the ranks of that illustrious list.

I fell in love with the magical English nanny when I first saw Mary Poppins on TV as a youngster. Little did I know that the journey from written text to screen was a tumultuous one, and not the lighthearted affair it appears on screen. The plot of Saving Mr. Banks concerns Disney’s desire to convince an extremely reluctant author in 1961 to sell him the rights to the story she holds so dear. Before Pamela Lyndon Travers (Emma Thompson) will agree, she demands script approval which necessitates discussions between screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak & Jason Schwartzman), composers/lyricists for the musical numbers. As head honcho, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pops in from time to time to see things run smoothly. The scenes are brilliant in explicating the different sides and what exactly each person wanted. Indeed the back and forth tug of war conversation forms the majority of the plot. If there is a criticism it’s that the narrative could’ve had less depictions of these numerous ongoing fights.

Emma Thompson is terrific as P. L. Travers. I think her reverent take of the author is an extraordinary portrait that is award worthy. Yet the script does tend to exaggerate her combativeness for the sake of humor. Everything is up for debate. Before they start, she asks for clarification on the abbreviations for the stage directions. The “Mr. Banks” of the title is the father of the children in the novel. Even something as seemingly simple as his facial hair becomes a bone of contention. She demands a clean shaven father in the movie. “She wants to know why the father has a mustache” his secretary informs Walt. “Because I asked for it” is his reply. Initially I was worried her performance would be one-note, the cantankerous old maid unwilling to budge an inch. She is extremely irritable. Tom Hanks as Disney comes across much more magnanimous. No surprise since Saving Mr. Banks was made by the Disney studio after all. But in flashbacks we see scenes of the author as a young girl in Australia with her loving (but alcoholic) father played by Colin Farrell. These scenes elucidate the inspiration for her novel and why she keeps the tale so close to her heart. Much was based on her own life. Her worry that Disney would sugarcoat a character she meant to be a much darker sort, becomes an understandable anxiety. Irrelevant of the ultimate success of the Disney picture, it was in retrospect quite justified.

Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film about making a wonderful film. I’ll be honest, despite my fondness for the original flick, I really knew nothing of its background or its author. It’s fascinating to learn is that the process was not a smooth one. The author was not pleased with Walt’s casting choices, the use of animation or the suggestion to turn it into a musical. It’s easy to scoff at P.L. Travers because Mary Poppins the movie is now an acknowledged classic. However the script intelligently presents why Travers resisted the Disneyfication of a beloved story based on her childhood. This is the work of a finely tuned ensemble cast that does an exquisite job at giving life to these parts. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are particularly good at presenting 2 individuals at odds. Their insightful vignettes are among the many memorable interactions about the moviemaking process. Even a small role by Paul Giamatti as Travers’ chauffeur accentuates some key scenes. Saving Mr. Banks is a beautiful portrait of how, positive results notwithstanding, the creative process from book to film can be very difficult.

Kill Your Darlings

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 6, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Kill Your Darlings photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe celebrated writers of the Beat Generation in their early college days is the subject of this docudrama. Allen Ginsberg is accepted to Columbia University in 1944. Intimidated by his new surroundings, he is immediately drawn to blonde haired, blue-eyed Lucien Carr portrayed with charismatic theatricality by Dane DeHaan. The timid and shy, Ginsberg is attracted to the young man’s anti-conformist views. The two strike up a friendship amidst a social circle that also includes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. But there is an older influence named David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) that threatens their comfortable clique. As Allen’s fascination with Lucien grows deeper, David’s interdependent relationship with Lucien becomes clear. This contributes to a growing antagonism amongst the trio

The performances are exceptional. Daniel Radcliffe is our lead protagonist. It’s another daringly uncharacteristic role for the Harry Potter star. He manages to evoke a writer with a lot to say, but still unsure of how to express it. Actor Michael C. Hall interprets English teacher David Kammerer as if he were Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I mean that as the sincerest form of flattery. Honestly I would love to see those two actors as rival brothers in some agreeably turgid drama directed by David O. Russell. But I digress. The genuine revelation here is Dane DeHaan who embodies cool rabble-rousing student Lucien Carr with verve and style. He blithely rejects the writing conventions of the day with a disrespectful air that is cheeky. Yet his ideas are substantially grander than his abilities to compose.

William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He was admonishing authors from relying on their personal favorite elements. The title is a clever play on words as a real life murder will infect the lives of their circle. It builds to a fervid climax but that really isn’t the thrust of the narrative. The setting allows for a concentrated biographical study in a minor key. The atmosphere is rather stylish. A memorably mischievous scene occurs when the band breaks into the school library at midnight and replaces the classic works featured, with banned books by Henry Miller, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. First time writer/director John Krokidas further energizes this episode and others by infusing the soundtrack with anachronistic music (TV on the Radio, The Libertines). In doing so he places their philosophy in a contemporary context. Ginsberg’s in-class debates with his professor about the nature of, and need for, rhyme and meter is an amusing vignette that prefaces poems like Howl for which he would later become famous. There are limitations to the account. It’s hard to properly convey the creative process of writing in an exciting way in a movie. Someone typing furiously at a typewriter isn’t the most cinematic of displays. But more often than not, this is an entertaining story about a group of outsiders that ultimately crashed the mainstream party.

12 Years a Slave

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

12 Years a Slave photo starrating-3stars.jpgBefore the American Civil War, a free black man named Solomon Northup lives in New-York, the north. But in 1841, he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. There in Louisiana he is kept in bondage for 12 years until 1853. The story has been adapted by screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) from Solomon Northup’s memoir as told to white abolitionist writer, David Wilson. The autobiography was a moderate hit, selling 30,000 copies in 1853, but then fell into obscurity for years until it was re-discovered by historians and republished in 1968.

There are moments in 12 Years a Slave that are excruciating. Director Steve McQueen’s gaze is unflinching as it lingers over the brutality in long extended takes. The dehumanization of slavery is presented as something for the audience to reflect upon. From the second Northup wakes up chained in a cell, there is no relief from the constant outrage. He is given a new name and sold as if livestock. An accomplished violist, he is reduced to destroy the very instrument he once held so dear. Time and again we see a litany of atrocities–humiliation, beatings, rape–for our evaluation. Northup standing half-strangled in a noose on his tiptoes, hands tied behind his back, is a positively agonizing scene. Though not the most physically bloody example onscreen, and there are several, it is nevertheless, agonizing to watch. The camera persists at a distance in one very long protracted sequence. His feet barely touching the ground, interspersed with his gasps for air, we see slaves in the background: children happily playing and women doing laundry.

12 years a Slave is an influential film. Its depiction has contributed to the ongoing examination of slavery in the U.S. Django Unchained (2012), Beloved (1998), Amistad (1997), Glory (1989), Roots (1977) have all been a part of the canon, but 12 Years a Slave is different. The uncompromising portrayal of the horrors of slavery is its raison d’être. This isn’t an apology, but rather a condemnation. Extreme degradation is represented in unwavering barbarism throughout the entire running time. Much in the way that The Passion of the Christ exhibited the unrelenting gore of the crucifixion. For anyone not aware of the violence, it’s likely to be heralded as a revelation. I almost find praise for the drama’s supposed eye-opening spectacle troublesome, as if one’s complacency has been newly awakened to the perniciousness of slavery. For those who had an epiphany while watching, questions should be asked. How did your opinion of slavery change? What was it before?

Certainly Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is the essence of the picture. It’s tragic to see a character who has his hope for rescue continually quashed or beaten out of him. His transformation from a carefree and happy family man to the downtrodden of society would be heartbreaking in anyone’s hands. However he maintains the humanity that we so desperately crave amongst the execrable representation of mankind on display. With his expressive eyes and quiet demeanor, he single-handedly commands our attention even amongst more flashy characterizations from his fellow actors. It’s a role that is subtle in its patience. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” he professes. His understated work further affirms that he is an actor with exceptional talent.

12 Years a Slave is a significant movie because it just might possibly be the first to truly flaunt the savagery in unexpurgated detail. What the historical epic does well is illustrating the lack of humanity that would cause one man to enslave another. There’s value in wallowing in the mire of its unpleasantness. But is graphic sadism enough to challenge your audience? I find the narrative doesn’t go far enough. There is such unspeakable physical and mental torture, I searched for answers. A great work of art would have dissected the mentality of the monster that could do this to another human being. Even after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am no clearer on why this ugly chapter in American history existed than I was before. There is craft in director Steve McQueen’s brutal reality. No film has done this in quite the same way before. For now, I suppose that‘s enough to add to the discussion of slavery, but the conversation is far from over.

The Bling Ring

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on October 30, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Bling Ring photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRebecca: Did you speak to any of the victims?
L.A. Detective: I’ve spoken to all of them.
Rebecca: Really?! What did Lindsay say?

A gang of 5 wealthy L.A. teenagers begin breaking into the homes of celebrities. They’re driven by a dual obsession with fame and desire for new clothes. The group of four girls and one boy targets celebutantes and starlets. The reason being they own clothes the girls want to wear. Sounds like a satire dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter, an indictment of entitled LA teens not satisfied with the level of their affluence. But truth is stranger than fiction. The reality is, it did happen during the latter half of 2008 and beginning of 2009 when Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge and the homes of various other personalities were burglarized in the Hollywood Hills.

As we watch the crimes committed, the details are a real eye-opener. We see how the band reads gossip magazines to determine when their victims would be out of town, then use the internet to discover their addresses. Once there, they climb over fences without effort and virtually walk in undeterred. At one point they access a house through a doggy door, at another they find the keys lying under the doormat. Director Sofia Coppola was intrigued after reading an article in the March 2010 Vanity Fair titled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” The movie features newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard as the main duo and includes genuine stars Emma Watson as Nicki, one of the vapid teens, and Leslie Mann as her airhead mother, Laurie. The cast is uniformly excellent in conveying their shallow yet passionate rapacity for material possessions.

The action is filmed almost as if the audience is the 6th member of their little clique. There are some delicious quotes sprinkled throughout: “Girls, time for your Adderall!” mother Laurie shrieks to her daughters one morning; or the way lead burglar Rebecca chirps, “Let’s go shopping!” before she robs someone’s house. The tone of The Bling Ring is surprisingly egalitarian. It presents without moralizing. As such, the script isn’t particularly deep, but it‘s compelling viewing nevertheless. The superficial approach actually befits its subject. There is a noticeable unwillingness to delve into their celebrity based fame-whore mentality. That’s because there is no depth to the machinations of these youths. They’re an American tragedy. They believe in absolutely nothing but their own satisfaction. Therefore, the peripheral examination gently rebukes these kids by giving their lives a trivial treatment. Despite the heinousness of their crimes, I suspect they relish the fact that a film was made about their escapades. Perhaps that’s the saddest tragedy of all.

Captain Phillips

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on October 13, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Captain Phillips photo starrating-5stars.jpgPerhaps the greatest triumph a movie can achieve is portraying a crisis so honestly, so purely, that it goes beyond the point of mere filmed entertainment. You feel as if you’re experiencing the genuine tragedy of real life. Captain Phillips is that type of film.

Director Paul Greengrass once again proves he is master of the exhilarating docudrama. United 93 (2006) was a flawless piece of filmmaking. This given that stories about 9/11 have an unquestionably high degree of difficulty. Then there was his outstanding early career effort, Bloody Sunday (2002) which addressed the British massacre of Irish civil rights protestors in 1972. Now comes Captain Phillips based on the terrifying true account of a merchant mariner who was taken hostage by Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean in 2009. The 5 day ordeal began with the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship. Captain Phillips is arguably a simpler saga to tackle, but it’s no less overwhelming in scope. As far as I’m concerned, every heart-pounding adventure constructed from a horrifying true incident should be offered to Paul Greengrass first. If he passes, then open the field to other directors.

From the moment Phillips first spies the pirates as a blip on his radar, Paul Greengrass manages to create suspense and not let up until the second the credits start rolling. In between, the stress is so incredible, there are times where you must remember to breathe.  Tom Hanks is brilliant in actualizing a figure we identify with immediately. I’ve often felt the beloved 2 time Academy Award winner is so famous, so recognizable, it’s hard for me to forget that I am watching Tom Hanks the actor. But here he loses himself in the character, giving a nuanced and honest performance. He easily conveys decency as well as fear without even speaking. Hanks acts simply through his eyes in a way that you cannot teach. We imagine what it is like to be him, what we would do in that situation, and marvel at the instances where his carefully chosen words gives indirect directions to the crew on how to proceed. He makes us believe he really is in danger. We lose ourselves in a movie.

Captain Phillips is based on Richard Phillips own memoir. Despite being told from his point of view, the production does an admirable job at lending the antagonists a voice. It would’ve been easy to present the Somali raiders as a simplistic version of evil vs. the good unarmed crew of the Maersk. Though I never had sympathy for the pirates, the director presents enough of their predicament that you see them as human, and not solely as barbaric savages out for a quick score. We come to understand the reasons for the relentless drive in their undertaking. We appreciate how high the stakes are for these pirates to succeed. Actor Barkhad Abdi holds his own as the chief pirate Muse. He is a threatening presence, a gaunt slender wisp of a man that is nevertheless frightening. He is not someone to be toyed with. He’s mesmerizing and his impressive contribution is key to the picture.

Captain Phillips is the perfect combination of a white knuckle thriller coupled with the grounded seriousness of reality. Although it undoubtedly manipulates facts for the benefits of entertainment, this doesn’t play out as a Hollywoodization. There are no perfectly timed witty quips or muscular displays of heroism. The scenes aren’t staged as superficial thrills in the service of a glitzy action picture.  Greengrass frequently employs hand held cameras. The technique is exquisitely effective in creating authenticity. It looks like the actual found footage of a harrowing event. Crew members behave very much in the way you’d expect real people who aren’t trained for combat to act. Tom Hanks comes across as a man, an ordinary man, in extraordinary circumstances. He is forced to act under duress given extreme hardship. By the end, the tension has built to such a level that you’re glad when the intensity is over. The effect is such a release. Captain Phillips is a searing drama of the individual pushed to the breaking point in order to survive.  It’s also one of the very best films of 2013.

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