Archive for the Drama Category

Far from the Madding Crowd

Posted in Drama with tags on May 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Far from the Madding Crowd photo starrating-3stars.jpgHandsomely mounted adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel regarding one Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and the romantic interest that she sparks in three very different suitors. There’s Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a poor shepherd; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing soldier; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), her neighbor – a wealthy bachelor.

Mulligan fully inhabits the character so that she is a genuine person. However I can’t get past the fact that throughout this 2 hour movie, it takes the entire duration to arrive at a conclusion that was obvious 10 minutes into the story. Bathsheba is a very independent woman with headstrong ways that make her a compelling individual in this Victorian melodrama. Nevertheless she is also a capricious woman given to romantic whims that don’t always endear her to the viewer. All through the production Bathsheba entertains the options of her situation. Yet she remains perplexed by her circumstance. The glaring choice so clear to everyone but her. Such are matters of the heart. Her inner working are a bit inscrutable. She is real though. I guess being fickle is a human weakness. The narrative concerns unrequited love. It’s just a matter of time before the right two people feel the same way about each other.

Far From the Madding Crowd is an exquisitely produced period piece. The cinematography, costumes and music are the accoutrements from which Academy Awards are bestowed. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen beautifully evokes the rural culture of the English countryside portrayed in Thomas Hardy’s novel. The chronicle is well acted. Carey Mulligan makes a fetching Bathsheba Everdene. The Oscar nominated actress (An Education) has proven herself a capable leading lady. Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge all do well by their parts as her admirers. I couldn’t help but think that Aaron Taylor-Johnson would’ve embodied the qualities of Sergeant Francis Troy a little better but otherwise well cast. Schoenaerts is the standout. With the right future roles, the actor could easily become a star. And yet, despite all these accolades, I was largely unmoved by Bathsheba’s dilemma. I couldn’t sympathize with her plight. Her decision is so evident it’s ridiculous. The consensus is that Director Thomas Vinterberg’s interpretation is preferable to the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger. I’ll buy that, but I suppose there’s the respected text if you really need more depth. If you keep score about such things it’s still Book: 1 – Movie: 0.

05-14-15

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Posted in Drama on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 

I participated in a “Decades Blogathon” hosted by movie review pages: Three Rows Back & Digital Shortbread. Please check out their sites.  Their task was to pick a movie released in the 5th year of any decade (1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, etc.) I chose 1975 and wrote about ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.
 
 
 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest photo starrating-5stars.jpgDepending on my mood, I have about 5 films from which I often choose to give as my favorite of all time One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is invariably the answer I cite most often. It is simply as perfect as a movie can get. Unlike cinematic works that achieved their classic status over many years, audiences immediately knew what they had with this one. It was a huge box office success, second only only to Jaws that year.  [1]  The film earned 9 Oscar nominations and made a “clean sweep” of the top 5 categories: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay (Adapted). It is only the second of three pictures to accomplish this distinction. It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are the other two.

Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, its adaptation to screen took over a decade. Actor Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962 and spent years trying to get a film version off the ground. Ultimately his son Michael purchased the rights from his father and then produced with Saul Zaentz. Czech émigré Milos Foreman directed this take of one Randle Peter McMurphy. Convicted of statutory rape, he has been sentenced to a fairly short prison term. However, at the start of our story he is being transferred from the Pendleton Work Farm to the Oregon State Hospital because he has feigned insanity. McMurphy assumes his time spent there will be much easier than the hard labor he’d experience in jail. Sometimes things don’t always work out the way we plan.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher star. They epitomize a perfect pair of combatants. The head administrative caretaker of the psychiatric hospital is Nurse Ratched. She is a formidable woman. This is her ward and she exercises complete authority over it. “Medication time. Medication time, gentlemen,” she intones over the loudspeaker from the nurse’s station. She dispenses drugs to her patients waiting in line like a priest administering communion to his congregation. Fletcher is the antagonist, but she is no traditional villan. She is a nurse after all, someone who takes care of people. She seems well meaning at first but her calm demeanor hides a stern ugliness beneath. She rules with an iron hand, but she rarely raises her voice. Her tyrannical nature is aroused when things go awry. Cold and calculating, her words are like grenades that she carefully lobs with intent to destroy. Her quiet presence is largely felt even when she isn’t talking. The woman is inhuman, but Fletcher never reduces the character to parody. Hers is among the greatest performances in cinema.

Jack Nicholson is McMurphy, a hero but not in the classic sense. He’s a cocky, self assured rebel that rails against the establishment. Full of swagger, he makes it his mission to flout the rules. That most of the patients are there voluntarily is a revelation that doesn’t sit well with McMurphy. He’s a gambling man and he makes a bet that he can cause Nurse Ratched to lose her temper within a week. In this way he seeks to liberate the others from her grip. His confrontations with her are entertaining for the patients and for us the audience as well. He challenges the norms, slowly fortifying the group with his lack of regard for her authority. A simple plea to watch the 1963 World Series becomes a moment of desperation. The discussion is a mesmerizing battle of wills. The role solidified Nicholson as a cinematic icon and rebel superstar. This is arguably his very finest moment, of many, on film.

A telling highlight of the narrative are the group meetings over which Nurse Ratched presides. They are a nightmare, ostensibly designed to be helpful therapy sessions, but they are anything but. The mental patients, all male, are encouraged to reveal each others’ secrets to the public. The embarrassing gatherings are belittling. Her psychologically manipulative program designed to weaken their self-esteem and bolster her own authority. The dialogues of the group meetings are fascinating. You often don’t realize their insidious nature until the session is over. Jack Nicholson represents a savior of sorts to the patients that have been victimized under Nurse Ratched’s rule.

And let’s talk about those patients. The supporting cast of predominantly unknown actors form a masterpiece ensemble. Every single one of them a fully realized individual in their own right. Even a silent performance shines through. That’s Chief (Will Sampson), a towering 6’7″ tall Native American. He delivers a heartbreaking achievement with just body language and gestures. The scene where Randle teaches Chief how to play basketball is priceless. There’s Harding (William Redfield), an intelligent married man who feels emasculated by his wife and Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who is prone to temper tantrums. Brad Dourif received an Oscar nomination for Billy Bibbit, a timid, almost childlike 31 year old. Yet virtually any one of these actors could’ve been recognized. Among the smaller patient roles are docile Martini (Danny DeVito) and belligerent Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). Three years later those two actors would be reunited on the TV show Taxi. William Duell, Vincent Schiavelli, and Delos V. Smith round out the group. Their assemblage meshes in a brilliant way that make their therapy sessions hypnotic.

At first, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would seem a depressing film. The setting is a mental institution. The colors are drab. The milieu is bleak. Many of the patients look unkempt wearing robes. This is most assuredly a condemnation of psychiatric institutions as an emblem of compassionless bureaucracy. The chronicle contributed to the departure of electroshock therapy from mainstream mental health care for example. However Randle is a strong-willed individual bucking the system. He represents hope in a place where there seemingly is none. He can snare an audience with a cocked eyebrow and a winking glance. He charms the patients in the asylum like he does the viewer. His foil is the equally strong-willed Nurse Ratched, an emasculating presence portrayed by Louise Fletcher. The two play a game of one-upmanship while we sit and watch, basking in the glory of their finely tuned characters. That the atmosphere can go from tense to hilarious to unrelentingly grim, all in the same scene is a tribute to the script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Their screenplay highlights the complexity of the dual nature of the narrative. It builds to an emotionally shattering conclusion that could either be considered the saddest or the most inspiring ending in the history of film.

 


[1]  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, largely ignored in 1975, became a success over the years due to midnight showings. It now ranks as the 2nd biggest hit of the year due to the phenomenon that it ultimately became.

The Age of Adaline

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on May 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Age of Adaline photo starrating-4stars.jpgNo genre receives less respect in the 21st century than romance. Even the once maligned horror gets more critical acclaim. And woe unto the film that eschews the comedy and dares to simply be a sentimental drama. Writer Nicholas Sparks has had box office success in this area with adaptations of his novels like Dear John and Safe Haven. But those treacly tearjerkers prove my point. Audiences may flock to them but critics hate them. Occasionally an exception will attempt a more elevated take. The Theory of Everything is a good example. The Stephen Hawking biopic was a bona fide romance that actually received some recognition. But even that had a vociferous minority of detractors. Heck Best Picture winner Titanic is often unjustly maligned now. It wasn’t always this way. Roman Holiday (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957) are great examples of unabashed emotion. Critics still adore those films. Perhaps the idea of an earnest love story almost seems regressive in our current era. Tenderness must be presented with sarcasm or artifice for it to be believable apparently. Into this climate comes The Age of Adaline. This heartfelt romance is a real throwback. It won’t get respect, but it should.

Lee Toland Krieger directs a cheerfully old fashioned tale that hearkens back to love stories of pre-1965 cinema. It stars a stunning Blake Lively as a perpetually 29 year old woman. She was born on New Year’s Day 1908. She originally had a normal life. She fell in love, got married, had a child. She became a widow when her husband suffered a tragedy during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then one night a snowfall in Sonoma County leads to a freak accident that causes her to stop aging. A talkative narrator explains how it scientifically happened with hypothermia and lightning. Yes it’s absurd. But if you openly accept the powers of every Marvel superhero and you can’t even wrap your head around this little conceit, then you are clearly a walking contradiction.

One would think staying forever young would be a blessing. However Adaline is apprehended by the FBI so they can study her abnormality. So she decides to escape. Every ten years she creates a new identity and a new life. This goes on for eight decades to our modern day. Only her aging daughter (Ellen Burstyn) knows her secret.  This gives the production an excuse to outfit our heroine in a variety of hairstyles and costume changes to reflect the times. This is a gorgeous looking film. Let’s just say chief hair stylist Anne Carroll, head of makeup Monica Huppert and costume designer Angus Strathie are major assets. Ditto composer Rob Simonsen whose luscious score further gives the atmosphere an exquisite sophistication. Adaline doesn’t physically age although her fashion most assuredly does.

All the style of this fantasy wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t care about the characters. In order to be captivated by a romance, we too must fall in love with the people. Blake Lively is a vision. Her film choices have been spotty (Green Lantern, Savages) but she negates any lingering doubts in her acting ability here. The script allows her to casually deliver some very witty one-liners that poke fun at the way she transcends time. There is a subtle aristocratic air about her that appropriates the refinement of say a Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps I go too far, but it’s a quality I rarely see in modern movies so I’ll stand by the comparison. Her beau is Ellis (Charlie Huisman) to whom she introduces herself as Jenny on New Year’s Eve 2014. With his beard and ‘stache he looks kind of like a mid-70s era Kris Kristofferson. Huisman has undeniable chemistry with Lively. He pursues her with the single-minded passion of a man in love. They’re appealing together but the saga’s greatest moment is the late in the narrative introduction of Harrison Ford in a small but pivotal role. His emotionally powerful performance carefully straddles the line between contentment and regret. Ford gives his greatest performance of the last two decades in film and one of the best of his entire career. The Age of Adaline is such a delicate little unsung movie, I almost passed it over. I only hope other people are willing to give it a chance.

05-07-15

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter photo starrating-2stars.jpgKumiko is certainly a unique individual. She lives in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo but remains an utterly isolated woman existing in a decomposing world. She hates her dead-end job where she spits in the boss’s tea. She is unsociable refusing to interact with her fellow co-workers. A friend sidles up to her on the street and she all but ignores the perky creature. Her overbearing mother incessantly nags her to get married. She is extremely withdrawn. She’d rather spend all her time carefully re-watching a distorted VHS tape of the 1996 movie Fargo. Can someone please give this woman a hug?

It’s important to note that the Coen brothers picture begins with a title card that reads: “This is a true story.” She finds the tape in a seaside cave. It’s battered and worn. The film is grainy. Fargo has some pretty ardent fans so if you’re going to choose a movie to obsess over, I suppose that is as believable as any. Personally I’d pick The Fifth Element but hey that’s just me. Anyhow, Kumiko is somehow convinced that the briefcase full of money Steve Buscemi buried in the snow is real. Armed with a hand-stitched map, she decides to travel to North Dakota and find the cash.

The events depicted in Fargo are fictitious. However Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is partially based on fact. Apparently Takako Konishi was a real woman from Tokyo who was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota in 2001. Her death was ruled a suicide, but a conversation between a local police officer and Takako led to speculation by the media that she had died trying to locate the missing money portrayed in the movie. It was a fabrication, but the misunderstanding grew into an urban legend about the woman. Her tale was detailed in the 25 minute short This Is a True Story (2003), directed by Paul Berczeller.

That the details of this are far more fascinating than what is presented here highlight my lack of passion for this production. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter concerns an obsessive quest. Generally I enjoy these tales about social outcasts that don’t quite fit in with society. These quixotic individuals have such a romantic quality that can be very appealing. Kumiko is outfitted in scarlet sweatshirt with a large hood like a contemporary Red Riding Hood. That visual further pushes the fairy tale notion of this modern fable. Indeed there’s an air of surrealism that infuses her life as if it were a dream. But Kumiko is such an enigma that it’s difficult to embrace the character. We don’t know this woman. She rarely speaks, only occasionally mustering out a random word in her broken English. The locals along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota just want to help her but she is so painfully shy that it’s hard to summon any interest in her mission. Kumiko is a curiosity to be sure but not someone I embraced. Her only friend is a pet rabbit named Bunzo. I think it’s telling that her animal side-kick is the emotional heart of the saga. I’m #TeamBunzo all the way. #TeamKumiko not so much.

Clouds of Sils Maria

Posted in Drama with tags on April 24, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Clouds of Sils Maria photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgClouds of Sils Maria is a provocative film. The gamut of topics that pass through the consciousness of screenwriter (and director) Olivier Assayas are plentiful and diverse. It considers youth vs. age, life vs. death, the past vs. the present, art vs. commerce, and fame vs. anonymity. Good heavens! Any one of these would’ve been enough fodder for an entire script, but Assayas touches on all of these topics. The complexity of Clouds involves trying to figure just what heck the narrative is actually about. It’s arty to the point of ambiguousness. Regardless Assayas clearly delineates a deep poignancy amongst women.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an international star that is on her way to accept an award on behalf of world renowned playwright Wilhelm Melichior. In her early 20s, she played Sigrid, the ingénue in a play he directed called The Maloja Snake. While en route by train, she receives word that the man to be feted has died which turns the celebration into a memorial. When she arrives she meets another director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger). Her assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) has set up this appointment. Klaus is interested in directing a revival of The Maloja Snake. However this time, he wants her to play Helena, the woman twice Sigrid’s age driven to suicide from their destructive love.

Reality and fiction have a way of intertwining uncomfortably for the respected actress. Juliette Binoche playing the part of an esteemed thespian in her 40s is not such a stretch. She beautifully immerses herself in the portrayal as expected. More surprising is Kristin Stewart who gives an extremely self possessed performance. As her personal assistant Val, she motivates Maria to secure the role. Maria subsequently prepares for the play with Val who runs the lines of the adolescent social climber. The play is endlessly rehearsed throughout the movie and at times, the line between their true character and the persona they’re playing become blurred. The idea of playing the opposite part intrigues Maria.  Though she becomes conflicted because the role forces her to confront her own mortality. Further confusing things is the setting of Lake Sils, an area in the Maloja district of the Swiss Alps. There they witness mysterious cloud formations that slither through the mountain scenery. This is the real-life Maloja Snake after which their fictional play is named.

Controversial wild child actress Jo Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is chosen to play Sigrid, the role that was originally Maria’s. When Maria finally meets the young upstart, her flattery of the venerable actresses immediately recalls the association between Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. I’m sure the comparison was intentional. Maria has many more interactions with her assistant Val than actress Jo-Ann. However the unbalanced relationship between the characters in the play is definitely a bone of contention for the older actress.

It’s safe to say that Clouds of Sils Maria is a character study. Beyond that though I’m not exactly sure how to label what Oliver Assayas is trying to say with this piece. That is to say, it’s a bit dramatically gray. Val enjoys working for Maria, a famous actress. Maria treasures Val’s youthful energy. Kristin Stewart inhabits a woman that almost seems tailored made to suit her own temperament. She’s at her very best. When Val pleads with her employer to look past the veneer of a rising starlet’s goofy superhero role to the talent beneath, you can actually hear Stewart justifying her own work in the Twilight movies. She is every bit Binoche’s match in these conversations. Stewart’s work here is a reminder of just how great she can be. In the end, one can at least say Clouds simply concerns time, or the passage of it and how it affects us. Director Assayas understands women. With this production, he has created a richly textured examination of individuals with three juicy female parts. There are a few men in the picture too, but they are inconsequential additions merely there to support the girls. Ah yes, Clouds of Sils Maria is that rare meaningful film where women are the sole purpose of the tale. Yes for those familiar with the Bechdel Test, this passes with flying colors.

04-21-14

Ex Machina

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 19, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ex Machina photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe story is simple. A young programmer wins the opportunity to spend a week at the private mountain retreat of his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire and internet search-engine mogul. When he gets there, he’s asked to sign a non disclosure agreement before they can even proceed. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has actually won the chance to evaluate the aptitude and consciousness of a beautiful and sophisticated robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). But robot seems almost like an outmoded term in this case. For you see, the capabilities of Ava far exceed the intellect of any mere machine. Caleb will determine whether she has the competence to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human.

Ex Machina concerns the philosophy of artificial intelligence. The chronicle is built around the monitored conversations that Caleb has with Ava. The first day, Caleb questions Ava, but on the second day, Ava questions him. The insightful script plays with the way humans talk and then how a computer would glean information from that interaction. “Does Ava feel?” is a key question. Ex Machina does a great job and presenting a lot of interesting topics for discussion. Caleb’s sessions with Nathan when he reports his findings are equally important. Of course Caleb’s interactions with Ava are being watched, but what Nathan observes is not as important and the way Caleb reports on it. Occasionally power failures affect the means with which Nathan can monitor these sessions. That’s when the exchanges between Ava and Caleb get really juicy.

Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is an arrogant tech tycoon with a bit of a God complex. With his shaved head and bushy beard, He wants to present himself as this approachable laid back guy, but we immediately realize he is anything but. He’s an über control freak that works out incessantly throughout the day and parties even harder at night. There’s an intensity to him that is unsettling. Take Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the Japanese servant girl he employs. He values her inability to speak or understand English. In this way he can freely talk trade secrets around her. His insulting disregard for her borders on misogyny. Even when he’s ostensibly just boogieing down to a disco ditty with her, there’s still something menacing about the act.

That brings us to his technological creation Ava: a very female entity. She has the face, hands and feet of a human woman but the body of a cyborg, although still shapely. As manifested by actress Alicia Vikander, she is a hypnotic creation. The Swedish dancer trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm for nine years. With her lithesome movements and graceful placement, she suggests a very carefully studied decision to move. The fact that she is female is a very deliberate component to her creation. After all, an artificially intelligent computer need not have a sex. The objectification of the female body courtesy of her creator. This idea is found elsewhere in the narrative, but to reveal more would be to spoil the discovery.

Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s feature debut as a director. But he’s no newbie to film. The English novelist has been writing for years. His first novel The Beach was turned into a movie by Danny Boyle. It would mark the beginning of several partnerships between the two. He most successfully penned the post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. In 2007 he wrote the screenplay for Boyle’s Sunshine and then they executive produced 28 Weeks Later together. But perhaps the director Garland more closely references this time, is the work of Mark Romanek. With its austere environment and smooth shiny surfaces the film occasionally recalls his glossy music videos “Scream” (Michael & Janet Jackson) and “Bedtime Story” (Madonna). The two collaborated when Romanek directed Never Let Me Go which Garland adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel.

Artificial Intelligence is the topic at hand. Given the heady subject matter, I was surprised with the very basic way in which the idea is handled. Ex Machina is entertaining, though the narrative doesn’t tread any new ground. Some interesting concepts are brought up, but nothing particularly innovative is resolved. This is a glorified episode of The Twilight Zone. However the stripped down, simple design is visually attractive. Nathan’s subterranean compound is a modern architectural wonder in the middle of a forest. His lair is both richly appealing and menacingly claustrophobic. The style makes the story seem weightier than it really is. There’s precious little depth, but heck if the whole thing isn’t entertaining. Caleb, Ava and Nathan form an emotional triangle of sorts that seduce, attack, argue, persuade and sympathize. Ultimately, the tale is a triumph because I was captivated throughout.

04-16-15

While We’re Young

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

While We're Young photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgNoah Baumbach has a unique outlook on life. The director has always had precocious ideas to the point where they become precious. He belongs to that rare club that dares to present quirky New York angst of the white middle to upper class. Woody Allen is the patron saint of these hyper-intellectuals – Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson are the disciples. Those latter two veer closer to a rosy Norman Rockwellian angle where Baumbach, up until recently, was decidedly more pessimistic. The Squid and the Whale was downright nasty. But his attitude changed with Frances Ha and now I feel that Baumbach has taken another leap forward with his worldview. It’s measured and much more layered.

While We’re Young is ostensibly a story about getting older. Noah Baumbach presents us with an aging couple in their 40s. Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentarian who has been struggling with his obtuse 7 hour documentary for a decade. Naomi Watts is Cornelia, his wife who is struggling to come to terms with her inability to have children. They’re in a rut. Then they meet a catalyst for change in hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) & Darby (Amanda Seyfried). They’re vibrant, laid back and spontaneous. Jaime & Darby are down to earth, but they’re nutty too. They have 70s movie posters up on the walls, watch movies on VHS tapes and listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” on vinyl. There‘s a little subtext here in appreciating something because you actually experienced it as opposed to enjoying something in an ironic sense from afar.

While We’re Young is a movie based on existential discussions. Josh & Cornelia are drawn to Jamie & Darby’s carefree but irresponsible perspective on life. The narrative is sensible and even-handed in a way that endorses everyone’s point of view. The chronicle doesn’t take sides. Their relationship with these free spirits reacquaints them with commendable qualities they no longer possess and forces them to come to terms with how they have changed. These loquacious New Yorkers can be trying at times, but they’re funny too. We see people we know and then we see the qualities of people that annoy us. We see ourselves in Josh and Cornelia as well. I don’t care who you are. Anyone who has ever felt old while observing twenty-somethings as another life form can relate.

Baumbach can make the behavior of these bohemian intellectuals admirable and childish all in the same scene. That’s kind of brilliant. Whether Josh and Cornelia are attending an invite to an impromptu “street beach” event in Brooklyn or an Ayahuasca ceremony, I found myself thinking, “That might be cool” at the idea but when confronted with the reality thinking, “Ok that looks unpleasant.” That’s probably because I have grown up and my perspective is closer to the director’s than the youthful hipsters that populate these parties. Baumbach’s greatest contribution is the way he subverts your expectations. Nobody is the butt of the joke here. While We’re Young isn’t perfect. What drives Josh as a filmmaker is completely unrelatable – to me anyway. But then that’s part of the humor now isn’t it? These are multidimensional people that have genuine good qualities – each and every one of them. They also have components to their personalities that can make them a little insufferable too. In other words they’re human. These characters are more lovable than any I have ever seen in one of the director’s films. Baumbach really has something interesting to say with While We’re Young…and I’m listening.

04-12-15

Trainwreck

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Trainwreck photo starrating-4stars.jpgTrainwreck is a romantic comedy with a different point of view – Amy Schumer‘s. She isn’t interested in settling down. Part of the humor is her knee-jerk reaction to leave quickly after every one-night stand before it develops into a relationship. This is regardless of how sweet, sincere or handsome her date is.  This is especially true when she meets Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader).  It’s difficult at times to comprehend why she acts the way she does. That’s the beauty of the screenplay. We view her so-called male sensibility with fresh eyes. There’s some insight into her worldview in the very first scene – a flashback of her father giving Amy and her younger sister Kim some advice when they were little girls. His “monogamy isn’t realistic” speech draws an analogy the little ones can understand: “What if you were told that you could only play with just one doll for the rest of your life?” Twenty-three years later we see the results of those words. Amy took the lesson to heart and has never looked back. However her sister (Brie Larson), resisted the suggestion and has settled down into a happy existence of domesticity with her husband (Mike Birbiglia) and their son. Kim is a nice counterpoint to her sister. Larson makes the most of a portrayal that could’ve been the target of jokes but the presentation of her reality, while sedate, is one of happiness.

Actually Trainwreck is populated by a supporting cast of really well written side characters that make a strong impression. Amy works as a writer at a dopey men’s interest magazine called S’NUFF that publishes articles like “The Ugliest Celebrity Children Under 6″. Her place of employment is the setting for some very clever material. Tilda Swinton stands out in a supporting performance as Amy’s editor. To be honest, at first I didn’t recognize the British actress with her long tresses and heavy eyeliner. I thought, “Who is this hilarious woman that kind of resembles Tilda Swinton?“ The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, and now this – once again she really shines. Tilda Swinton is like bacon. She makes everything better. In addition the production reunites Tilda with Ezra Miller, her co-star from We Need to Talk About Kevin. Miller plays an odd intern.

Trainwreck is full of random people that defy conventions. These include pro wrestler John Cena as a sweet musclehead that is closest thing she has to a boyfriend. He only wants to settle down with Amy. There’s professional basketball player LeBron James as Aaron’s effusive best friend who doesn’t want to see his buddy get hurt. Did I mention he’s a big fan of Downton Abbey? The fact that LeBron is supposed to be playing himself makes his unexpected personality quirks even more random. His counterpart in Amy’s life is Nikki, Amy’s best friend played by Vanessa Bayer. “Why would he call? You guys just had sex.” More role reversal. And that’s merely the beginning. Amy has written a production with parts that allow a whole cast to shine. There are a ton other cameos. No more disclosures. They’ll be more amusing when you discover them for yourself.

Is Judd Apatow the directorial successor to James L. Brooks? Kind of looks that way. Trainwreck is as funny & poignant as Brooks in his prime. Judd Apatow directed but Amy Schumer wrote the script and this movie has her fingerprints all over it. The generic romantic comedy model tells the chronicle of a man who dates a lot of women. He can’t be tied down. He doesn’t want the commitment of a relationship, simply the superficial pleasures that serial dating affords. Then one day he meets the woman that challenges his expectations and nothing will ever be the same from that point on.

Trainwreck follows that romantic comedy blueprint. The difference? Amy Schumer is the “man” who shuns commitment. Heck. It goes far beyond that. She doesn’t even want a second date. Then she meets successful and charming sports doctor, Aaron Connors. Comedian Bill Hader is the “woman” that challenges her approach to relationships. If this was Trainwreck’s only contribution, it might not have been so innovative. But Amy Schumer amplifies the folly of such attitudes with the role reversal. Her character, also named Amy, is such a strange bird. The behavior doesn’t exactly make her endearing. As the story progresses and Dr. Connors becomes almost saintly, you just want to shake Amy to her senses. But the conduct makes her funny and there are laughs, insightful ones that belie her hedonistic perspective. Even when she is making fun of her sister’s domesticity, you can sense a little jealousy behind her barbs. It’s that bitterness mixed with sensitivity that comes through and makes her personality someone we want to embrace.

04-09-15

Faults

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Thriller on March 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Faults photo starrating-4stars.jpgAnsel Roth (Leland Orser) is “one of the world’s foremost authorities on mind control and cult organizations” or so he adamantly proclaims to a heckler at one of his poorly attended seminars. You see Ansel’s life has taken a downturn. He’s divorced, his TV show is canceled, and now he’s been reduced to shilling his new book in a conference room in a cheap hotel. “I can sign it for $5.”  It wasn’t always this way. His first book was a big hit. Unfortunately his former wife acquired the rights to it as part of their divorce settlement. Now he’s starting from ground zero with a new tome that hasn’t exactly burned up the bestseller list. His last intervention to help someone in a religious sect tragically resulted in their suicide. Because of this, when the parents (Chris Ellis & Beth Grant) of another member of a cult recruit him to deprogram their daughter, his first instinct is to disregard their request. But their persistence and the looming monetary debt he owes to his manager (Jon Gries) soon leads to a change of heart.

Faults carefully straddles the line between black comedy and cautionary tale. The chronicle begins rather playfully but as the story develops it becomes less and less so. By the conclusion, it becomes extremely serious without a hint of humor. The ending is actually rather chilling. “Faults” is the name of the cult. Ansel’s plan begins with kidnapping the parents’ daughter and bringing her to a sparsely decorated hotel room for deprogramming. This is where the majority of the action takes place. The narrative mostly consists of conversations designed to get to the root of her devotion to “Faults”.

The success of Faults is the result of a brilliant screenplay. The claustrophobic surroundings and extended cinematic takes add to the dialogue heavy drama. The interactions of the two principals uncover intriguing discoveries. To go into more details would be to spoil the movie, but writer/director Riley Stearns has written a fascinating script and extracted the best performances I have ever seen from these two talented performers. Character actor Leland Orser is probably best known as a recurring part on the television show ER. Here is given a rare starring role and he makes the most of this compelling cult expert. He has this hapless quality that grows more self assured when he is in his element. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is the wife of the director, is phenomenal as well. There is a blankness to her expressions where you’re never really sure where her head is at. She has this weird mix of vulnerability and calm throughout. This is very much a non-traditional horror film of sorts. It sets up a troubling premise and then follows through to a surprising twist ending with a point. Faults is a rewarding experience.

03-28-15

Rear Window

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Rear Window photo starrating-5stars.jpgThe story is simple. Photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. His broken leg injury is temporary thanks to an accident during an on the job assignment. He remains at home while he recuperating. His rear window overlooks a small courtyard where he can see into the rooms of other apartments. The view is a microcosm of humanity at various stages in their relationships. It’s voyeurism at its most enthusiastically unrestrained. As he peers into the private lives of his neighbors, we are disturbed and intrigued all at the same time. Though he doesn’t know them, he creates nicknames for some residents based on his observations. Among them, there’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso, Miss Hearing Aid. There’s also the songwriter, the newlyweds, the couple on the fire escape, the traveling salesman and his invalid wife. Then one day he firmly believes one has committed murder. He hasn’t actually seen the act, though, so how will he prove it?

First and foremost, Rear Window is a thriller, but additionally bubbling beneath the surface we’ve got this captivating love story between Jeff (James Stewart) and Manhattan model and socialite, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who wants to marry him. Despite her exhortations for them to tie the knot, he is reluctant to commit. Stella (Thelma Ritter), in a great supporting role as his wisecracking nurse, thinks Jeff’s fear is ridiculous.

“When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, “ she says, “they ought to come together – wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”

Jeff’s profession and his love of travel literally mean the world to him. Lisa loves expensive clothes and attending parties. You aren’t made for that kind of a life,“ he contends. Yet Kelly plays the character in a way so that she never seems materialistic or vain. On the contrary, we agree with Jeff. She is perfect. At one point he sends her out to go investigate. As she climbs up the railing to go into a suspected murderer’s apartment, we realize something: She truly is too good for him.

When we talk about the golden age of Hollywood and I mean the period covering the late 1920s to the early 1960s, Grace Kelly must certainly be included in the greatest sirens of the silver screen. She is positively luminous in this picture. Jeff awakes to a full close-up of her coming towards him for a kiss. It’s a memorable shot. Kelly is introduced wearing an $1100 dress “fresh from the Paris plane” and it’s spectacular. It’s the first of many outfits she wears throughout the production and each one just as stunning as the next. Legendary Edith Head was the costume designer so we expect nothing less.

Rear Window is regularly listed with the greatest movies ever made. Certainly one of Hitchcock’s finest. In addition to the exceptional chemistry between star James Stewart and a radiant Grace Kelly , there’s Raymond Burr as salesman Lars Thorwald with his hair dyed white to make him appear older. When his invalid wife disappears, Jeff suspects foul play might be involved. The setting is a fascinating tableau. Virtually the entire feature is shot from Jeff’s gaze looking out into the open courtyard into the many windows of his neighbors. Each residence is a set within itself, fully furnished. With few exceptions, the camera never leaves the confinement of Stewart’s apartment. The setting can get a bit claustrophobic. Nevertheless it’s a brilliantly assembled theatrical piece right down to the heart-pounding climax . Hitchcock’s brilliance as a director has never been questioned and with Rear Window, his abilities as a visual storyteller remain unparalleled.

03-22-15

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