Archive for the Drama Category

Kill the Messenger

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on October 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Kill the Messenger photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgGary Webb was an American investigative reporter best known for a series of 1996 articles that detailed CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking into the US. He worked for the San Jose Mercury News, a small newspaper that gained significant notoriety that year when he alleged that drug traffickers in Nicaragua had sold and distributed crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and that drug profits were regulated to fund the CIA-supported Contras. He never asserted that the CIA was actively directing the drug dealers, but rather that they were aware the money was being raised and managed to subsidize them.

The resulting fallout was major. This chronicle suggests that the larger papers were embarrassed that they had been scooped on such a significant news story by a much smaller paper: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times tried to debunk the link between the Contras and the crack epidemic to discredit Webb. The account also suggest the CIA applied pressure on Webb and his family to remain silent. Webb’s key sources then disappeared mysteriously. Others later contended that Webb had lied about what they had said to him. The San Jose Mercury News backed away from the story, then threw him under the bus.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Kill the Messenger turns Gary Webb into a hero. He is presented as a crusader for accountability that divulged a reality that was too hot to handle. As a reporter he had uncovered what he believed to be unequivocal evidence linking the illegal business of crack cocaine in the U.S to the money used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. He simply wanted to unveil that truth. It should be noted that there are still some who contend that Gary Webb was a disgraced journalist. However they will not find that point of view here. Peter Landesman’s script is adapted from Gary Webb’s own 1999 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s 2006 book Kill the Messenger. His screenplay critically indicts both the U.S. government as well as the news correspondents of the day. The competing papers launched a smear campaign against him ultimately ending his career. They do not come out good here and your outrage will rest on how those revelations surprise you.

Kill the Messenger is an interesting tale in two parts. The first half recounts Webb’s discovering the evidence. The second half depicts the aftermath of that story. What makes this so watchable is Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of newspaper reporter Gary Webb. He is really good at getting the audience to like him. We feel the unbearable tension that our hero endures as he is threatened directly and indirectly. The impending sense of doom never seems very far way. We share in his growing fear for his own safety amidst his desire to expose the truth. The best scenes concern him and his family. In particular Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Lucas Hedges as his son, provide another facet that gives Gary Webb more depth. They imbue his character with flaws that are somewhat unexpected. After all, we have seen this before. All the President’s Men is an example of the crusading journalist railing against the system. The difference however is where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were celebrated as heroes at the time, Gary Webb was given a much different reception.

10-15-14

One Chance

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

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

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

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

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

10-12-14

Maps to the Stars

Posted in Comedy, Drama on October 14, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Maps to the Stars photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn theory, Maps to the Stars wants to be a savage satire on Hollywood as seen through the eyes of the Weiss family. Our story begins with Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a chauffeur. Like everyone in this city, he’s actually a struggling actor writing a screenplay. At the start he picks up Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who has hired him to drive her. She is newly arrived to Tinseltown and eager to start a new life. Her relationship to the rest of the ensemble is a bit of a mystery. She ultimately gets hired by Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a waning superstar.  Havana is a woman fiercely seeking a role in the remake of her mother’s 1960 movie Stolen Waters. Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) was an iconic actress who died tragically in a fire. She now appears as a ghost apparently only to torment her daughter. John Cusack is Dr. Stafford Weiss – Havana’s new age therapist. He’s father to Benjie, a child celebrity and a recovering drug addict. Benjie got famous from a popular film franchise called Bad Babysitter. Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams ) is his exploitative mother who enables his bad behavior.

There’s something a little off kilter about this tale – and not in a good way. For a comedy-drama set amongst the politics of La la Land, the ambiance is surprisingly lethargic. The picture occasionally makes an impression.  When Havana’s lucky break comes at the expense of her colleague’s son drowning, she belts out “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”.   But the milieu never quite feels like The Entertainment Capital of the World.  Anyone who has witnessed reality TV train wrecks like The Anna Nicole Show (2002–2004) or Whitney Houston’s behavior on Being Bobby Brown (2005) will get a better window into the perils of fame.  Just 30 minutes of those reality series are more savage attacks on Hollywood excess than anything in this script.  The production notes tell us this is director David Cronenberg’s first film shot in the U.S. but his overwhelming reliance on interior shots have the prefabricated feel of a Toronto soundstage. There’s a noticeable lack of stars playing themselves in this land too.  Carrie Fisher pops up briefly to give the dialogue some much needed levity that doesn‘t rely on vulgar discourse. We find out the Star Wars actress became friends with Agatha on Twitter. That could be a joke. It’s hard to tell.

David Cronenberg satirizes those washed-up starlets that want to remain relevant at any cost. It’s easy to see Julianne Moore as sort of a amalgamation of former stars like Lindsay Lohan or Kim Richards. The authenticity of her performance is never a question. She portrays this fading actress like a woman who has already lived the experience.  Moore is brave, but at times the determination to shock the audience reeks of desperation. Too often the atmosphere devolves into crudeness without purpose. The offenses are many. Julianne Moore’s big moment occurs while sitting on the toilet. Her demand to her PA for laxatives augmented by sound effects. Incest is a recurring theme. At one point, Havana’s dead mother takes the place of the other woman in her ménage à trois.  When Dr. Stafford started punching Agatha on the floor of his meticulously decorated living room, I could’ve sworn I saw that same scene in Mommie Dearest. I get it. In Hollywood, everyone is a mess. Unfortunately so is this production.

10-14-14

Pride

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Pride photo starrating-4stars.jpg“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old proverb that can be traced back to a concept that has been around since at least the 4th century BC. The sentiment is particularly apropos with Pride, a feel-good drama about a group of gay and lesbian activists who join forces with the miners during the lengthy Mineworkers strike that began in the summer of 1984.

But first a little history. Our tale is set in the UK during the Margaret Thatcher era government.  The conservative Prime Minister was intent on free market reform at the expense of unions. Rising tensions between the two sides was exacerbated when the administration announced on March 6,1984 their intention to close 20 coal mines or “pits“. The British coal industry ultimately decided to strike led by the National Union of Mineworkers. The government subsequently seized all union funds, making official donations to the NUM impossible. The necessity for a more grassroots campaign was required. Sensing a common threat, an alliance of lesbians and gay men (LGSM) rose up to raise money to support the striking miners and their families. The NUM was reluctant to receive help from the group and so a faction of London activists decided to take their donations directly to Dulais, a small mining village in Wales. This is their story.

A hand picked ensemble acts this earnest saga with real heart. Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) is a charismatic young lad who galvanizes his reformist friends to back the working class strikers by making a connection between the oppression felt by the miners with that of the gays and lesbians under the current political climate. Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine represent the traditional families in the Welsh mining town. Dominic West, Fay Marsay and George MacKay are the liberal activists in the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) coalition. These diverse groups are thoughtfully represented by a colorful cast. Everyone makes an impression. Veteran thespians Staunton as a stern but understanding matriarch and Nighy as the miners’ shy treasurer, are especially memorable. Despite a fairly large assemblage of speaking parts, the characters are clearly delineated individuals with unique personalities. There are a lot of plot threads, but the production handles them with interest so each one seems necessary to the overall picture. It makes the implausible accord that actually happened seem like the most logical association in the world. Politics makes strange bedfellows, as they say.

Pride is an uplifting heartfelt film constructed to appeal to the masses in the most entertaining way.  Tony Award-winning director and dramatist Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage) directs from a script by Stephen Beresford. It simplifies in the clearest possible approach to present a feel good tale that effectively manipulates the emotions. By focusing the struggle on a small, but distinct circle of people, the audience can connect to the intimate human drama that played out in the much larger public arena. The lightness of tone when dealing with heavy issues is appreciated. In the process it sidesteps the pitfalls that could’ve made this account preachy or didactic. This might alienate some seeking more hard hitting controversy, but the script fashions a narrative much in the way a powerful sports movie works. It creates a David and Goliath story and invites you to cheer for the underdog.

10-01-14

Gone Girl

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on October 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gone Girl photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgFor those unfamiliar with my reviews. I do NOT reveal spoilers. Never have and I never will. And let me tell you, if ever there was a production that could be ruined by the reveal of pivotal developments, it’s this picture. Rest assured the review that follows will only affirm that there are plot twists that make Gone Girl exceptionally engrossing. What those developments are will remain a mystery. The discovery of those surprises constitute the joy of an exciting thriller.

At its core, Gone Girl is about the union of two people. It concerns Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair who met, courted each other and fell in love. Theirs was a storybook romance. But as any married couple will attest, marriage isn‘t all smooth sailing. Life gets difficult when both Nick and Amy lose their jobs. Then Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer. In order to care for his mom, they move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the sedate existence of Nick’s hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. Relying on Amy’s trust fund, they buy a bar which eats up more of their money than it earns. Nick seeks solace in an affair. He’s the classic example of the philandering husband. Nick is growing increasingly miserable and Amy subsequently fears for her safety. When the tragedy begins, Amy is already gone. We learn this in flashback. For you see, on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find a smashed coffee table and a missing wife. The police are called in only to discover a perplexing crime scene that solicits more questions than it answers.

Anyone who was living in the U.S. and old enough to remember 2003 will make the connection. One can easily point to the Scott Petersen case as a possible real life inspiration for this chronicle. Scott and Laci were an attractive couple in their late 20s that appeared to be in love. Laci disappeared on December 24, 2002. At first, he was a sympathetic individual. Then he grew seemingly more insensitive. His reluctance to talk to the press fueled a disinterred persona that turned him into a public pariah. His numerous extramarital affairs would later surface. She was eight months pregnant with their unborn child. Scott was charged and ultimately convicted of murdering his wife and their unborn son.

The Gone Girl ensemble mesh like the movement of a precision timepiece. There’s no denying that Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as the lunkheaded doofus of a husband. He’s a douchebag that is more concerned with preserving his own skin than the welfare of his wife. His glib behavior reads as insincere. He maintains he didn’t kill his wife.  The evidence starts to prove otherwise.  The very first line of the film is a voiceover that states he’d like to bash her head in and pick her brain apart to see what secrets come spilling out. As remarkable as he and the rest of the male company are, it’s the women who truly shine in Gone Girl.

Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy signals the arrival of a star. Until now, she was probably best known as Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002). Using the pages of her diary, we flash back to a time before her disappearance. She is the central focus of the production. She’s beautiful and so we’re initially drawn to her for superficial reasons. Then we question our own perceptions. She exhibits a bit of the ice queen mentality. She is a complex person that becomes more fascinating the deeper we get into the details. Rosamund embodies Amy as a woman losing her handle on a situation and then regaining it. We feel sorry for her, then we hate her, we sympathize again, then we are disgusted. Back and forth over and over. It’s a dizzying balancing act that makes her an endlessly compelling personality.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with so many formidable women in key roles. Actress Kim Dickens is Detective Rhonda Boney, the person entrusted with investigating the disappearance of Amy. A suspicious cop, her scenes where she interacts with Ben Affleck accentuates an intelligent mastery of control of the situation.  She’s joined by Detective Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) but she’s clearly in charge. Then there’s Margo. Nick’s wise-alecky twin sister whom he affectionately calls Go. A rather sarcastic type, she is brilliantly played by Carrie Coon. As his twin, Margo is 100% devoted to her brother. Perhaps blinded by their familial bond, she believes him implicitly. They are extremely close. So close in fact that their relationship is misrepresented as “twincest” by a flippant news media. Then his infidelity surfaces and her doubt multiplies ten-fold.

At heart Gone Girl is a marriage fable. But this isn’t the fantasy of an idealized romance. It’s the tale of the institution as a prison. A jail that locks two people in a dungeon of souls desiring to break free. The dialogue attempts to present both sides of their failed union. It’s a he said/she said account. If the saga has a failing, it’s that the portrait of their artificial wedded bliss seems to favor Nick’s side to the detriment of Amy. The script raises some red flags. The narrative elucidates his motivations more clearly than hers.  It doesn’t make the drama any less imperative. It’s still a crackerjack thriller.  It also has some salient points to make about the role the scandal obsessed television plays in the presentation of a prefabricated tale of consumption for the masses. Talking head tabloid reporters are epitomized by Sela Ward and Missi Pyle. The latter’s character is amusingly pattered after Nancy Grace. The two actresses are extraordinarily good in minor parts. The lie and the truth are simply ideas that the news manipulates to create a shared perception for the masses. This theme infuses the storyline throughout her entire picture. What initially appears to be important is made irrelevant. What seems insignificant is made crucial. The reality is always deeper than what is readily apparent. Gone Girl highlights this fact. And by doing so, not only entertains, but also educates us in how truth is merely a moldable concept of the modern media age.

10-02-14

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Posted in Drama with tags on September 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby photo starrating-3stars.jpgA woman strolling along a New York bridge walks out of frame. We hear her climbing up the cyclone fence enclosure. A man in the distance calls out to her and runs to her aid. The next scene she is being rescued out of the water below, cold and wet. An attempted suicide is a dramatic way to get the audience’s attention. This chronicle concerns a couple, once deeply in love, now forever changed by tragedy. The interrelated stories of husband and wife are woven together as they cope with a devastating loss.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is actually a combined edit of two separate movies, each with the same title: one subtitled Him the other designated Her. They both screened individually at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 as works in progress. The third premiered at Cannes earlier this year when it competed for the Prix Un Certain Regard. The story unfolds a bit like a mystery. We know the pair were in love way back when, but what caused their relationship to fall apart isn’t confirmed until roughly halfway through the picture. Then it becomes more about how different people react in a crisis and what our expectations are of that person.

Director Ned Benson has assembled an impressive cast: James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain play our central duo. William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert provide emotional support as Jessica Chastain’s parents. Ciarán Hinds is James McAvoy’s sardonic father. Jess Weixler and Viola Davis display strong bonds as Chastain’s sister and professor respectively. All of them elevate this conventional material into something meaningful.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a well acted exercise by a talented ensemble. There are some nice vignettes particularly involving Jessica Chastain that effectively amplify her grief. But the picture often descends into melodrama without scratching below the surface. It’s extremely slow moving too, a melancholy portrait that wallows in depression. There’s not much to hold our attention. Even after two hours, there’s still a number of things left unanswered. Given the paper thin narrative on display, it’s difficult to comprehend that Them is the distilled union of two other films. The Him tale is 89 minutes. The Her version is 100 minutes. Considering the time it took for us to learn what little we did, I cannot even muster up the desire to endure another 189 minutes of this tale.

09-24-14

The Zero Theorem

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Zero Theorem photo starrating-2stars.jpgQohen, pronounced Cohen but often referred to as merely Q, is a reclusive mathematical genius working for a company named Mancom. The job requires he labor over a formula that makes zero equal 100%. In this way they hope to prove the reason for human existence: “everything adds up to nothing”. If you haven’t guessed from that, Qohen lives in a future dystopia. It’s a cacophonous society of advertising where talking adverts actually follow you as you walk down the street. Qohen is suffering from his own existential crisis. He’s searching for meaning in a world run by heartless corporations. Christoph Waltz plays a bloke who is a bit off his rocker. The hairless introvert refers to himself as “we” and constantly waits at home for a phone call he believes will give him the answer he needs.

Apparently The Zero Theorem completes a trilogy. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satires began with 1985’s Brazil and continued on through 1995 with Twelve Monkeys. Similar in spirit, there’s no denying that the production has visually appealing aspects. The atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic as most of the action takes place in Qohen’s cluttered home, a repurposed cathedral that has been abandoned. Gilliam appoints the room with little details like a collage. Director Gilliam surrounds Waltz with seasoned thespians in supporting roles. Unfortunately the parts are too shallow to make much of an impression. Tilda Swinton ends her succession of phenomenal films with a role that feels like a cheap imitation of her dictatorial character from Snowpiercer. The 2nd half improves with the arrival of newcomer Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a seductive femme fatale that could either be his one true love or perhaps just a mere distraction.

Despite my fairly level-headed distillation of the plot, The Zero Theorem has no objective to entertain with a coherent story. It’s a vague rumination of a concept. The lack of specifics makes the disastrous beginning extremely hard to sit through. My consistent thought during the first half: What in the name of Egon Pearson is this movie about?! There are creative features of the society that do captivate. Robin Williams briefly appears on a billboard that promotes “The Church of Batman the Redeemer”. Party-goers dance to music on their own cell phones instead of what’s playing at the party. Terry Gilliam’s world building is impressive. But look past those amusing gags and we’re left with an inkling of an idea unable to support a compelling narrative. It recalls his brilliant Brazil in style but not in substance. The Zero Theorem is a thoroughly uninvolving exercise in abstract thought, and it’s not even a very interesting one at that.

09-23-2014

The Skeleton Twins

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Skeleton Twins photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMilo and Maggie are one of those brother and sister pairs who put the fun in dysFUNctional. The Skeleton Twins are so named because of a couple of toy skeletons their father handed them on Halloween when they were kids. The thirty-somethings have been living angst-ridden lives set adrift since the death of their father many years ago. A strange twist of fate unites the two after a decade of estrangement. A despondent Maggie is contemplating a handful of pills in her hand when the phone rings. “How did you get this number? I’m on the National Do Not Call Registry!” without realizing the severity of the message. It’s the hospital. Her brother has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide and he is currently under their care. The perfect timing means her own suicide will go unsuccessful as well. Look beneath that dark surface and there is an ironic glimmer of hope. There’s humor too. The Skeleton Twins is a movie that touches on pain, but it’s also about that silver lining.

Newbie director Craig Johnson co-wrote the brilliant script with Mark Heyman (Black Swan).  Their screenplay snagged the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. But their words would be nothing without the stellar talents of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They’re at the core of this trenchant drama giving a pair of extraordinary performances.  Hader and Wiig are Saturday Night Live alums who started together in the program’s 2005-06 season. They have genuine chemistry displaying a beguiling closeness in their interactions. They are every bit as believable as twin siblings. This could’ve been “The Stefon and Gilly Show” based on their popular sketch characters but they rein in their frenzied tendencies. Both actors’ portrayals are among the best of the year. Additionally it’s worth mentioning Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson who epitomize crucial supporting roles that are just as beautifully acted as they are written.

The Skeleton Twins deftly blends savage drama with honest laughs. It’s kind of an odd mix, but stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s easygoing familiarity is mixed with such sarcasm, that the irregular tonal shifts work. The highlights of the film are scenes where they just play off one another as a finely tuned comedy machine. Hader’s invitation to Wiig to lip-sync Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” could’ve come across as supremely cloying. But his exaggerated theatrics and amusing gestures to the music are so dead-on that they almost parody the song.  The vignette is so infectious that you can’t help but want to join in. The tune was first featured as the theme to the 1987 hit Mannequin. I will no longer associate the upbeat anthem with that romantic comedy anymore. Wiig ultimately succumbs to his charms no matter how hard she tries to resist. We the audience likewise do the same.

09-17-14

The Trip to Italy

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 17, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Trip to Italy photo starrating-3stars.jpgLike The Trip in 2010, this follow-up was edited down from the series of the British TV sitcom with the same name. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, are enlisted for another restaurant tour in the second series. The inaugural one was in England. This time it’s in Italy with stunning locales from Liguria to Capri. Their destinations follow the Grand Tour of Italy, the beaten path of 19th century Romantic poets like Byron and Keats.

Anyone who has seen the first picture knows what to expect. More fantastic meals filmed in beautiful locations, accompanied by humorous conversations. There’s no denying that the duo has some amusing observations scattered throughout. Although any screenplay that zeroes in on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill as a target of humor two decades after the fact, isn’t aiming for timeliness. There’s an air of melancholy too. Rob Brydon contemplates an affair from his apparently unhappy marriage. Coogan laments his waning sex appeal to young women. The script is witty, but it lacks confidence to add something fresh to the familiar concept. It saunters along with no direction. It’s more of a reflection than a focused film.

The Trip to Italy is more of the same. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a funny comedy team. Their dueling Michael Caines were a standout in the original. This time however the shtick comes across as a bit desperate. The movie has barely begun and they’re already going back that well again. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Steve Coogan shout at the top of his lungs. The obvious Caine quote from 1969’s The Italian Job. Then the pair discuss The Dark Knight Rises and who is less understandable – Tom Hardy as Bane or Christian Bale as Batman. Do you like the impressions? Then I have very good news for you – a whole slew of celebrities are mimicked: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Humphrey Bogart. Some are good (Woody Allen). Others are just awful (Al Pacino). Perhaps that was the point. Most of these are done by Brydon who once again plays the irritant to Coogan’s agitated fellow. So how do you say déjà vu in Italian?

09-10-14

Starred Up

Posted in Drama with tags on September 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Starred Up photo starrating-4stars.jpgJack O’Connell (the lead in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken) plays Eric, a troubled 19 year old youth from London reassigned to an adult prison for his aggressive behavior. While making enemies of the guards as well as his fellow inmates, he comes face to face with the one man who may be able to soften him — his dad. Eric’s father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is a powerful person in the prisoner hierarchy. Also trying to get through to the boy is a psychiatrist named Oliver (Rupert Friend). A man whose peaceful “let’s talk it out” methods aren’t entirely embraced by the authorities in charge.

Starred Up is written by Jonathan Asser, a real therapist turned screenwriter. The account is based on his “encounter groups” for problem cases at Wandsworth Prison in London where he attempted to pacify violent criminals. Right from the beginning, our protagonist is manufacturing a shank only seconds after entering his jail cell. Shortly thereafter he brutally assaults an innocent inmate. Director David Mackenzie does two things really well. First perfectly establishes the character. Then he details his temperament to everyone around him. It’s a captivating watch, Yes it’s a gritty portrait, but Starred Up isn’t the most brutal display of incarceration I‘ve ever seen. (The HBO TV series Oz and those jail sequences in American History X come to mind.) Although it could possibly be the most corrupt view. There are a lot of unchecked abuses going on in this joint.  At first I thought the penitentiary’s main kingpin Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) was an employee there because he had so much power. Convicts regularly get in altercations with nary a warden in sight. Perhaps that’s just as well since the guards seem to be more of a threat to the inmates than their fellow detainees.

Starred Up is extremely solid. The validity of Jonathan Asser’s screenplay comes through in every scene. Not just in handling the atmosphere with sincerity, but for extracting genuine emotion. Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell are extraordinarily good. Their interaction is infused with subtlety and nuance. As his estranged father, Nev tries to give his son some life lessons to help him from becoming a permanent resident there. It’s a real father-son relationship as opposed to a metaphorical one. I don’t see that often in this setting.  They act the roles to perfection. I suggest a primer on British prison slang prior to watching, however, starting with that title. Starred up refers to young offenders whose conduct is so violent that they’re prematurely transferred from a juvenile institution to an adult one. Gwap is money, prison officers are kangas, and to mug off is to show disrespect. All of this makes the dialogue a little inscrutable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The authenticity is appreciated and it adds to what makes Starred Up the credible drama that it is.

09-14-14

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