Archive for the Crime Category

The Shawshank Redemption

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on March 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Shawshank Redemption photo starrating-5stars.jpg“They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.” — Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

So laments Red (Morgan Freeman) as he reflects upon his duration at Shawshank State Penitentiary. He is in jail for murder. The “only guilty man” there he informs us as narrator. The year is 1947 and banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, has just been admitted. He has been given two consecutive life sentences. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the tale recounts a 20 year friendship between the two men. It is a story that is undeniably powerful as a moving portrait of camaraderie.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine ode to male bonding than this drama spanning two decades from 1946 to 1967. When Andy arrives, he is subject to beatings, humiliation and all manner of horrors within the prison system. He endures the harassment seemingly unfazed. Slowly he learns to adapt, utilizing his talents as an auditor to garner favor from the powers that be. In time he inspires his fellow inmates, making friends with them, in particular Red. This is the same inmate that had originally bet Andy would be the first inductee to crack upon arriving.

The film is highlighted by several superlative performances. Morgan Freeman rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Red, our narrator. He embodies the character with reverence, heart, and warmth. Freeman has never been better and that is saying quite a lot of the 5 time nominated actor who would ultimately win an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Tim Robbins is every bit his equal in a role that is more difficult to warm up to. If the actor appears a bit of an enigma, that is only because the character is meant to be that way. There is a quiet stoicism to his performance that recalls the great Gary Cooper. Actor Bob Gunton is a villain for the ages as Warden Samuel Norton. A stern man that exploits the prison for his own gain as low-cost labor. He presents himself as a god-fearing man, although his true nature is gradually disclosed. The depth of his evil seems to know no bounds. His reaction regarding testimony from young convict Tommy Williams is particularly memorable.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies whose estimation has only grown with time,. It wasn’t a box office hit in 1994, barely making back it’s production budget when initially released. However it was a critical success and received 7 Academy Award nominations of which it won absolutely NOTHING, losing Best Picture to Forrest Gump.  Nevertheless, it has occupied the #1 slot as greatest film on the IMDb’s user-generated list since 2008. Like a flower that grows through a crack in the concrete, the narrative is filled with one uplifting note after another amongst the most oppressive of surroundings. There are many, but here’s my personal favorite: Andy’s letter writing efforts to secure a better library for the prison are finally rewarded with a collection of old records. In an act of defiance, Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and using the central microphone, blasts an opera record. As Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro echoes through the penitentiary, Roger Deakins cinematography captures the emotion as the inmates look upwards, embracing the audible gift. I can’t exactly describe the feeling, but the scene always reduces me to tears. Shawshank is brimming with moments like this where the human soul triumphs over adversity in the most inspiring way.

Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on March 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Muppets Most Wanted photo starrating-3stars.jpgHistory repeats itself. Much in the same way that The Muppets (2011) was a reboot of The Muppet Movie (1979) so too does Muppets Most Wanted (2014) follow in the burglar footsteps of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). The Muppets burst out singing in their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.“ In a nod that acknowledges a regrettable reality, they sing “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” I wish I could say the lyrics were just a lighthearted bit of self-depreciation but the acknowledgement is sadly prescient.

In this go-around the gang are led astray by a slick manager named Dominic Badguy. That’s pronounced “Bad-JEE” he says. “It’s French.“ That’s a well written line. He convinces the Muppets to take their act on a worldwide international tour. Kermit’s better judgment warns that renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance is probably not a smart idea. But strangely he turns out to be wrong and the show sells out. Dominic‘s increasingly outlandish ideas and ‘say yes to everything’ attitude secures favor in the group. As he gains their confidence, he secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog. Save for a mole on his upper lip Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit in appearance. His personality on the other hand, is quite different. Constantine and Dominic work together as a team although the evil frog’s song “I’m Number One” clearly delineates their relationship. Meanwhile Kermit is correspondingly mistook for the master criminal and thrown into a Russian Gulag.

Most of the ingredients are here to have another success. Director James Bobin is back as director. He also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller who returns as well. Bret McKenzie is doing the music again. The songs stand on their own, but are less essential to the narrative this time around. They’re often shoe-horned into a scene forcing the action to take an abrupt stop rather than truly adding to the mood.  Jemaine Clement, the other half of McKenzie’s comedic Flight of the Conchords duo, plays one of Kermit’s fellow inmates at the prison. Despite all the returning talent, this doesn’t have the sincerity or integrity of the previous entry. I have to wonder if the missing ingredient is Jason Segel. His presence is nowhere to be found.  He not only co-wrote The Muppets but he added a human element as an actor that gave the story a genuine warmth. I’ve already mentioned Ricky Gervais as the central villain. He‘s entertaining. Ty Burrell is an Inspector Clouseau type paired up with Sam the Eagle who plays his American counterpart at the CIA. The two are investigating a string of bank robberies. He is very amusing as French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. But Tina Fey is wasted as Nadya, a Russian prison guard that has the hots for Kermit. That’s a shame because her part is a sizeable chunk of the movie. Unfortunately she is given little to do other than affect an exaggerated accent and mug for the camera. It’s a poorly written role. None of her scenes are funny. Oh alright maybe one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a respectable entry. It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, et al. These characters are enduring personalities for a reason. It’s really a pleasure seeing the old gang reunited in anything at this point. The Muppets was a heartwarming confection. It mixed in a lot of sweetness amongst the self knowing cynical jokes to make it one of the best releases of 2011. It made my Top 10 of that year in fact. Muppets Most Wanted, in contrast, is a collection of scattershot humor that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It has positive qualities, but much of the story is just a setup for gags. The story doesn’t really add up. Case in point: Dominic Badguy’s master plan, actually costs an insane amount of money to make it work. It also takes the entire film for Kermit’s lifelong friends (with the exception of Animal) to even notice his personality shift.  The fact is a little hard to swallow.  Constantine speaks with a bizarre Russian accent to boot so he doesn’t even sound like Kermit. I’m nitpicking. These issues are unimportant if the laughs are there. There are some sprinkled throughout but they are mild chuckles rather than actual knee-slappers. The picture’s funniest parts, like the “my badge is bigger than yours” bit, were shown in the trailer. The best production number hints at what could have been. When Miss Piggy turns to singer Celine Dion in a moment of crisis, the vocal pairing of the two divas is hilarious. As the two duet on “Something So Right”, the production hits a high note of lunacy that is truly inspired.

The Act Of Killing

Posted in Crime, Documentary, History with tags on January 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

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.

American Hustle

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on December 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

American Hustle photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIrving Rosenfeld is a small time con-artist. He meets bewitching Sydney Prosser and the two join forces embezzling money from unsuspecting investors. Their talents are soon tapped by a cocky FBI agent named Richie DiMaso who‘s looking to prosecute political corruption in Washington. Carmine Polito is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey and one of Richie’s potential targets. In their interactions, Richie develops an attraction to the seductive Sydney. He tells her things in an attempt to turn her loyalties away from Irving. A dynamic love triangle evolves. Sydney keeps the two men (and the audience) in the dark as to who she is truly loyal to. Oh and let’s not forget that Irving is married to temperamental Rosalyn who complicates matters considerably.

The exuberant flamboyant swagger of the late 70s is an important component of American Hustle. It’s lovingly recreated with the care and attention of an aesthete. The soundtrack percolates with the joy of a disco dancing, pop song loving, classic rock connoisseur. Elton John, Electric Light Orchestra, Wings, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer are all represented, The music underscores the action and the tone is humorously tongue in cheek. Witness Christian Bale, who gained 43 pounds for the part, fastidiously fixing his “elaborate” comb over in the opening scene.

Fashion is a key component in the personification of the era. Jeremy Renner rocks a pompadour that would make Elvis jealous, Bradley Cooper sports a tight perm. He even wears curlers at one point. The guys don plaid suits, velour blazers, aviator sunglasses, exaggerated peak lapels and huge floppy bow ties. Not to be outdone by the men, the women raise swanky 70s fashion to new heights with body hugging wrap dresses. Amy Adams models a sequin gown with a plunging down-to-there neckline, channeling ringlets a la Bernadette Peters. Jennifer Lawrence has the sophisticated updo of a Charlie’s Angel with a slinky white dress that would look right at home on the dance floor at Studio 54. The era is conceived as it was and then multiplied by 100.

Abscam began in 1978 and was a major procedure run by the Long Island office of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to target corrupt public officials.  What makes a potentially dry subject so delightfully fun is the intricate way the plot unfolds. The movie boasts the best ensemble cast of the year. Director David O. Russell once again commands his impressive troupe of regulars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence. Was frequent supporter Mark Wahlberg not available? Every performance is award worthy. They give life to a story about a complicated sting. But just who exactly is going to get stung? You’ll be guessing until the end when the true nature of the plan is revealed.

David O. Russell’s tour de force on the FBI operation begins rather modestly with the words: “Some of this actually happened.” That playful intro informs the viewer that while this is a drama, it’s also a bit of a comedy as well. American Hustle is the work of a dazzling showman that has logged years of experience under his belt. Russell manipulates fact vs. fiction with the singular vision of a confident filmmaker. We’re treated to a spectacular production that fabricates the pop culture excess of the late 70s in its unfettered glory. With its remarkable style and storytelling, American Hustle feels like the beautiful lovechild sired by Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Yes, comparisons to one of filmdom’s most accomplished auteurs is a compliment of the highest order. Call it Martin Scorsese’s greatest movie…that he didn’t actually direct.

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.

Prisoners

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Prisoners photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgPrisoners is a tale of a grief-stricken father that decides to take the law into his own hands when his 6 year old daughter goes missing. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife (Maria Bello) are enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner at their neighbors, who have a 6 year old daughter as well. After dinner the two girls go outside the home to play but they do not return. With their children missing, this leads them to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has never had an unsolved case. Suspects are questioned, leads are followed and the trail runs cold.

Prisoners has been marketed as a thriller with Hugh Jackman as the angry father at the center. He is key, but there is a dual protagonist with Jake Gyllenhaal as the beleaguered detective attempting to figure out a difficult case. Jackman is competent in expressing Dover’s rage borne out of anger and frustration. He is a rough-hewn Christian survivalist who works as a carpenter with various materials at his disposal. Despite the fact that few would follow down the same dark path, his vigilante methods are somewhat understandable given what he has endured. He’s certainly effective at engendering our sympathy as the devastated father out for revenge. However the real surprise here is Jake Gyllenhaal. He perfectly embodies the kind of world weary, but stern personality of a policeman. He’s exceptional and his focus provides a ray of hope throughout the oppressive milieu. To say that Prisoners is dour is an understatement. This is every parents worst nightmare. The subject is decidedly grim and the production has visuals to match. Cinematographer Roger Deakins complements the depressing atmosphere of a cold Pennsylvania winter. The bleak rain-soaked suburb is highlighted by a palette of washed out blues and grays that enhances the drama unfolding on screen.

Prisoners is a nifty bit of writing that genuinely grabs the audience’s curiosity. By slowly releasing tidbits of information, we assemble the puzzle as the principals do on screen. There is definite interest in trying to decipher the “whodunit” mystery. This is Canadian film director Denis Villanueva’s (Incendies) rendering of an original script by Aaron Guzikowski. He does a good job. One vignette that begins with Jake Gyllenhaal trailing Hugh Jackman’s footsteps is masterfully composed. Indeed the most compelling moments are not boffo set pieces but well acted interplays between key people. Though a discovery involving some snakes is pretty memorable. If I have a quibble it’s that the plot is overly focused on revenge but then that thread doesn‘t yield a satisfying denouement. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid to imply that torture gets results. Plus the 153 minute running time could’ve been tightened up a bit. We probably didn’t need so many scenes of angry Hugh Jackman. Overall Villanueva does a brilliant job of presenting the procedural story in such a way that we might be able to piece things together ourselves. Although I must admit I personally didn’t solve the answer before it was revealed. Prisoners isn’t perfect, but Guzikowski’s screenplay is intelligent, credible and engaging. That begets a recommendation in my book.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on September 18, 2013 by Mark Hobin

To Kill a Mockingbird photo starrating-5stars.jpg“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel is adapted into a milestone of American cinematic entertainment. The townspeople of Maycomb, Alabama as seen through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch or “Scout” as she‘s affectionately known – a little girl living during The Great Depression in the South. As the movie begins, an adult Scout narrates through voice-over regarding her experiences growing up with her family – brother Jem, friend Dill, and father Atticus Finch.

To Kill a Mockingbird is highlighted by stunning performances that are breathtakingly genuine. Young actress Mary Badham epitomizes tomboy “Scout” with the skill of a seasoned pro. The film examines her societal observations beginning as a 6 year old. These include her adventures with her brother, 10 year-old Jem (Phillip Alford) and their friend “Dill” (John Megna). Dill is a peculiarly eccentric boy based on Harper Lee‘s real life childhood friendship with Truman Capote. The three of them pass their summers together preoccupied with a neighbor home that belongs to the hateful Mr. Radley and his reclusive son – the often talked about but never seen – Boo Radley. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch, a lawyer and the children’s father. It has become an iconic role. The actor embodies absolute virtue, both as a father and as a lawyer tapped to defend a man on trial for a serious crime. Peck even won the Oscar (beating Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). Estelle Evans is their no-nonsense housekeeper Calpurnia and inherent mother figure to the kids. Deeply respected, she provides discipline and love but doesn’t overindulge the children.

Gregory Peck is the personification of goodness in his part as the southern lawyer selected to defend a black man accused of rape. Director Robert Mulligan along with frequent collaborator-producer Alan J. Pakula, brings a classic of modern American literature to the screen in a near perfect masterpiece. To Kill a Mockingbird meticulously captures the reflections of a young girl. It’s hard to imagine a more deft handling of what a child witnesses concerning the residents of a close-knit community. Bigotry is definitely a major subject. However Horton Foote’s Oscar winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, is more importantly a timeless reminiscence about growing up in Alabama during the 1930s. Multiple characters and storylines are effectively managed as a portrait of the American south is painted. The atmosphere of a small southern town is perfectly captured. Russell Harlan’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography has a transcendent quality that rightfully earned an Oscar nomination. His beautifully framed evocation of the south is just as important as the actors that gives spirit to Harper Lee’s words. The entire story climaxes in a entertaining courtroom drama that deals with civil rights but it leads to so much more. As the developments play out, the movie demonstrates how subsequent events have a profound effect on the formative education on a maturing protagonist.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Posted in Crime, Drama, Romance, Western with tags on September 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Ain't Them Bodies Saints photo starrating-3stars.jpgFor all its artistry, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is saddled with one of the worst movie titles in recent memory. Watching the film will not shed any light on what that cryptic title means. Apparently director David Lowery misheard the lyrics in an old folk song many years ago but liked the sound of the phrase anyway. They have absolutely no significance other than interesting sounding words to convey a time period. In many ways that’s appropriate because David Lowery’s meditation on a western is more concerned with milieu than meaning anyway.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are engaging. They play a couple kept apart after a getaway gone wrong from a botched robbery.  Bob agrees to take the fall for a violent act for which his wife Ruth is in fact responsible. This then is the emotional chronicle of outlaws whose exalted devotion is made more relevant than what they’ve actually done. Their romance is boiled down to its essence. We learn Ruth is pregnant with their daughter. Bob vows to reunite with his wife, prison sentence be damned. His undying dedication to her is a key theme. That Bob and Ruth love each other is obvious. There is a pure naturalism to their behavior. They express a lot with very few words. Conversation is secondary as the atmosphere is what’s important. Matching them is Ben Foster who plays the deputy who warms up to Ruth oblivious that it was she who indeed shot him. He’s memorable as a third wheel. Keith Carradine also gives a notable performance as their neighbor who has become sort of a father figure to Bob.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a stunningly beautiful picture with a score to match. The drama is set against the backdrop of 1970s Texas Hill Country. However there’s a timelessness that makes this saga feel as if it could’ve happened even further in the past. Their homestead takes on an ethereal beauty far beyond the modest farmhouse where they live in reality. The aura at once recalls depression era photographs of Dorethea Lange or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”.  But it’s even more hewn from Terrence Malick’s Badlands and to a lesser extent Days of Heaven. David Lowery is unquestionably a director to watch, yet he’s fashioned a film that’s easy to admire but a hard one to truly enjoy. Lowery exploits the neo-western ethos in a way that luxuriates in ambience but at the expense of a strong narrative. If you champion appearances over depth, you‘ll find much to cherish here. The elegant lyricism will charm anyone more captivated by a mood than well-defined storytelling. Its melancholy tone will seduce style mongers into heaven.

Despicable Me 2

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Crime, Superhero with tags on July 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Despicable Me 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgWhen we last saw Felonious Gru, former super-villain, he had adopted three adorable orphan girls: Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They’ve formed their own surrogate family as he’s settled into a life of blissful domesticity. However when a secret laboratory somewhere near the Arctic Circle, is lifted and taken by a large flying magnet, The Anti-Villain League (AVL) calls Gru out of retirement so he may help solve the case by thinking like a criminal. This is the basic outline of the tale, but Despicable Me 2 is a much more relaxed affair than its predecessor. The storytelling isn’t centered on advancing plot, but rather focused completely on earning laughs. It’s almost Zen-like in its approach to humor.

The voice actors give the cast vigor pushing this from the enjoyable to the revelatory. There’s a zippy exaggeration to their actions that make their performances even funnier. Steve Carell is once again, compelling as the lead. When Gru walks down the street with the confidence of a man in love, the musical interlude is as triumphant as John Travolta’s famous strut in Saturday Night Fever. Kristen Wiig is back, but this time as Lucy Wilde, an AVL agent. The actress’ real expressions and body movements can be seen in the animation. Every raised eyebrow, awkward statement, and nervous gesture is there. Watching her behave is an absolute delight. Her development from adversary to ally is bewitching. It’s unusual that while she is competent, she’s not particularly beautiful, a rarity in a cartoon love interest. The complete manifestation of the character is captivating. The head of the AVL, Silas Sheepsbutt, oops I mean, Ramsbottom is played by Steve Coogan. (That was their joke, by the way) He speaks with an affected sophistication. Ken Jeong as a wig store proprietor and Benjamin Bratt as the owner of a Mexican restaurant, are possible suspects in Gru’s search. They’re amusing editions that highlight great voice casting coupled with wonderful animation.

Where sequels often lazily retread Part 1, Despicable Me 2 aims higher. Gru is now an entrepreneur with a new line of jams, tapped to aid in the capture of a mysterious evildoer. In his personal life he’s attempting to meet someone special. The story unfolds with the focus of a gentle stroll and the production is the better for it. The chronicle builds upon Gru’s character from the original as it explores the possibility of a girlfriend for him. There’s a familiarity, a knowing sarcasm with the pitfalls of the dating world that infuses Gru’s journey. This is especially true concerning Shannon, a gum-chewing blonde bimbo he goes on a date with. She favors unnaturally orange tans and leopard print dresses. You could say she comes across as a tad superficial. “Your accent is so exotic” she says in her Valley Girl patois. “I know someone who can fix that for you.“

For all of Despicable Me 2’s speedy 98 minutes, it never ceases to be anything less than a snappy joy. It is gag filled fun fest. We hear a rumor that a past villain died while riding a shark into a volcano with 250 pounds of TNT strapped to his chest. Then they proceed to show you what that might look like. The atmosphere is steeped in the manic lunacy of animator Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons of the 40s and 50s. This brings me to Gru’s minions which take on an even more pivotal role this time around. Their nonsensical language is exploited for maximum giggles. I can’t over-emphasize how wonderful they are here. There’s a zaniness that children will adore, but there’s also an edge that adults will appreciate.

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