Archive for the Drama Category

Beyond the Lights

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Beyond the Lights photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgShowbiz melodramas get a bad rap. Rags to riches stories are a cliché but they’re a good one. An emotional drama detailing the rise to fame from humble beginnings to massive exposure can be captivating. It’s why the 1937 film A Star Is Born has been remade twice, so far that is. Warner Bros. has plans for another remake. It’s also why the chronicle can be seen as the blueprint for a host of other movies that happen to have female leads: Funny Girl, Mahogany, The Rose, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Bodyguard, Dreamgirls. Now add Beyond the Lights to that list. It’s not the most innovative work of art, but it does take something hackneyed and update the model with enough flair for the 2010‘s.

What elevates Beyond the Lights is the acting, particularly of the lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw, This is the second time I’ve seen the aspiring actress in 2014. She was also the star of Belle which came out in May. If these two roles are representative of what is to come, we are witnessing the arrival of an exciting new talent. Here Gugu plays Noni Jean, a rising R&B singer that has just had a hit with heavily tattooed white rapper Kid Culprit (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). The song is called “Masterpiece” and it’s steadily climbing up the charts with her featured performance. Gugu actually does her own singing when performing, although other artists perform the background music.  “Fly Before You Fall” for example is beautifully sung by Cynthia Erivo. The soundtrack is mostly written and produced by R&B super-producer Terius “The Dream” Nash.

All would seem right in Noni’s life but she is not happy. A attempt at ending her own life is failed by a handsome cop (Nate Parker) assigned to guard her. Kaz Nicol has political ambitions that should preclude his association with the racy pop star.  Minnie Driver is Noni’s agent and stage mother, Macy Jean. A fiercely loyal but overbearing presence in her life that puts her daughter’s career first and her own well being second. At times Macy seems so driven by success as to be inhuman, but you can see the desire she has for her daughter to be successful. She’s been there since the beginning and it’s her “us against the world” mentality that humanizes Macy. A touching early moment is when young actress India Jean-Jacques (Noni as a little girl) sings “Blackbird” at a talent competition. Her mom is a most exasperating character, but it’s obvious she does love her daughter.

Beyond the lights is a tale that inhabits the contemporary R&B realm of artists like Rihanna. Noni feels pushed by her domineering mother into fronting a hyper-sexual image with which she doesn’t feel comfortable. Her musical style sports vocals that are technologically enhanced by Auto-Tune and deep percussive bass. She wishes to retreat to a more simple style of her artistic idol Nina Simone. These portraits of the music industry often lambaste the pre-fabricated, highly choreographed pop star, but one look at the Top 40 will show that is what people want. As her momager’s behavior widens the divide between them, Noni escapes to a island resort. Here the narrative takes on a poignancy I didn’t expect. Lamenting the way people are marketed for a mass audience is old hat, but Gugu renders her sorrow with distinction. As she literally strips away the long colored strands of straight hair woven into her own, she symbolically reveals her true self. Her subsequent triumph of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” in a karaoke bar becomes a declaration. It’s an affecting transformation and Gugu makes the metamorphosis seem fresh and new.

11-19-14

The Theory of Everything

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance with tags on November 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Theory of Everything photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Theory of Everything is a Stephen Hawking biopic. But more specifically, it is the story of Stephen Hawking as it pertains to his relationship with Jane Wilde, who became his wife. As such it is based on her memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This makes the tale more than just a mere biography of the scientific genius. It is that to be sure, but the chronicle is also a romantic drama. This is a most unique approach to the profile of a man more famous for being an astrophysicist and cosmologist than for whom he fell in love with. The method humanizes the man in a way that is altogether unexpected.

Most of us know Stephen Hawking after he was stricken with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the motor neuron disease that causes muscle weakness and impacts physical function. The brain however remains unaffected. But the production starts well before he was stricken with that ailment. In the introductory scenes Redmayne suggests a socially shy but intellectually confident young man. It is the 1960s and Hawking is pursuing a doctorate in physics at Cambridge. Felicity Jones is stirring as Jane Wilde, the language arts major (medieval Spanish poetry) he meets while there. As the presentation juggles Stephen’s work and illness, she is the romantic connection that unites the two intensifying the already emotional thread throughout his life. An early conversation between Jane and Stephen’s father warning her that she might not be prepared for what is to come is particularly affecting. Director James Marsh inserts beautiful montages that glow with the warmth of people in love. These extravagantly shot interludes could have become glossy affectations. Yet inserted amongst the events taking place on screen, they help to highlight the passage of time and make the film’s visceral high points resonate more clearly.

Any discussion of The Theory of Everything must focus on the lead, Eddie Redmayne. Up until now, best known for playing Marius in the cinematic version of Les Misérables. Granted he was extremely good in that, but somehow I would never felt him qualified to play this part. Oh how wrong I would’ve been. Somehow Eddie Redmayne, who had never suggested a visual similarity to Stephen Hawking before, completely inhabits the role. There have been many many great performances at the movies, but a significantly smaller number where the actor chosen for the part so perfectly resembles the individual in speech, behavior and physicality that you indeed forget you’re watching an actor. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi comes to mind. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is another.

If one is to judge a movie by the way it makes us feel, by the emotion that it elicits, then The Theory of Everything has got to be considered an unqualified success. After the disease takes hold, Stephen Hawking embarks on a transformation whereby the deliberate degradation of his body manifests itself. Slowly, painfully, we watch as this brilliant man succumbs to the affects of this disorder. Actor Eddie Redmayne bends his frame in ways that look as if he truly is suffering from the actual condition. At no time does the performance every feel exploitative,. Nor does his achievement ever read like he is showing off. Redmayne simply is, progressively contorting his body while battling the increasing difficulty with which he is able to speak. Gradually that ability disappears as well. The effect is heartbreaking and yet it is a testament to the strength of will that Hawking had to summon in order to overcome his disability. It is a flawless triumph that celebrates the man’s success with respect and dignity.

11-16-14

Foxcatcher

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on November 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Foxcatcher photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThere’s something very disturbing about Foxcatcher. It’s more than a mere biographical drama. It is a multilayered character study detailing 3 personalities – an expose on humanity so raw, that it becomes uncomfortable viewing. On the one side we have John Eleuthère du Pont, an heir to the family fortune of the chemical company. On the other we have Mark Schultz, Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and younger brother to the even more celebrated wrestler David Schultz.

Foxcatcher highlights career best performances by the three principals. Steve Carrel, outfitted with a prosthetic nose and old age makeup, is unrecognizable as John du Pont. He is a multimillionaire, philanthropist ornithologist and most importantly, wrestling enthusiast. He aims to fund the U.S. team and get Mark to the ’88 Olympics. But he is a peculiar fellow. He lives in the shadow of his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and indirectly seeks her blessing in his endeavors. Regrettably his prodigious net worth obscures his lack of expertise. When she appears at a practice one day, he immediately leaps to his feet, taking control of the class with his awkward directions as she looks on. As he continues to address the class in his mock coaching effort, she exits the room unimpressed. For all his wealth and privilege, an air of melancholy surrounds him. His philanthropic efforts notwithstanding, he is someone to be pitied more than admired.

Mark eats fast food alone in his car. Later he heats instant noodles in his spartan apartment. These scenes are shortcuts that establish a grim milieu. Despite his athletic titles and awards, Mark’s life isn’t that spectacular. Channing Tatum may look like a wrestler but he is cast against type as the callow youth seeking approval. His ever increasing despondency is a concern. Then he is invited by du Pont (Steve Carell) to help form a team to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics at his new state-of-the-art training facility. Schultz jumps at the opportunity. Du Pont wants his brother Dave too, but he is unmoved by the offer at the moment. Family comes first in Dave’s life. When Mark checks into a cottage on his estate, things seem too good to be true. It seems that Mark has finally stepped out from under his more successful sibling, Dave.

Mark Ruffalo has perhaps the most difficult role as Dave Schultz. It is the slightest of the three parts and the least awards bait-y. Yet his positive presence helps alleviate the tension. He conveys such admirable devotion to his younger brother in simple gestures. The brothers engage in sparring fights intended to sharpen their wrestling skills, but even those have a tender intimacy. Their competitive affiliation goes through several stages during the course of the film. Their bond is exacerbated when du Pont makes an offer Dave can’t refuse. As the events unfold to the inevitable conclusion, there is an anxiety that hangs over the surroundings like a thick fog of fear. Sounds like I’m describing a horror movie. Indeed, this rumination transpires not unlike a tale of dread. If you are unfamiliar with the true life story, you should keep it that way until after you’ve seen the production. Though not vital, the saga is best appreciated without prior knowledge.

Foxcatcher is about insecurities, validation and obsession. As such, the dark drama relies heavily on mood. The narrative is quiet, insidious even. As it sneakily unfolds you never quite know where the focus lies. Certainly this is an attack on how wealth can buy standing in arenas to which you don‘t belong. John du Pont and Mark Schultz are two dejected souls that initially needed each other. The screenplay logically makes connections between the various characters and ties them together. As du Pont seeks support from his mother, so too does Mark seeks the same from du Pont. Their interdependence is a portrait of unease. Additionally the genuine fraternal love amongst brothers is contrasted with the oppressive demands that du Pont puts upon Mark. Du Pont is needy to the point of being unstable. His complicated rapport with Mark is rooted in unrealized hopes. Undoubtedly he lives vicariously through the success of these developing athletes. But the full extent of those desires are cryptic and belie a tortured personality. The script subtly hints at things that are implied but never explicitly stared.  Foxcatcher brilliantly handles all of these emotionally complex relationships in a skillful way. Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher – Director Bennett Miller has established a knack for these fables based on fact. It is a deeply troubling film and I mean that in the most profound way.

11-10-14

Nightcrawler

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on November 3, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Nightcrawler photo starrating-5stars.jpgWhen film historians look back on the career of Jake Gyllenhaal, his portrayal of Lou Bloom will always be a role that is mentioned. He is nothing less than extraordinary in Nightcrawler. Like on the level of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver kind of incredible. Now this is a bold pronouncement because the movie has only been out three days, but I am confident in making this declaration. He’s that good.

Director Dan Gilroy’s drama is surprisingly complex for a first time director. Heretofore he has been a writer (The Fall, Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) but none of the aforementioned work could’ve prepared me for the flawless execution of his directorial debut. Based on the title and the release date, Nightcrawler sounds like a horror film about killer earthworms that come out at night to feed on human flesh. It’s funny because I didn’t realize how eerily close in spirit that description really was. Lou Bloom is a petty thief and a loser at the moment. But he’s a driven young man who knows how to take advantage of a situation. While out driving at night looking for opportunities to make money, he comes across some cops assisting people trapped in a flaming car on the side of the road. Also at the scene is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) a man who videos violent incidents at night for profit – sort of an independent agent for local news programs that need footage. Lou gets an idea. With the money he receives from a stolen bike, he buys a camcorder and a police scanner. His latest scheme is born.

The drama achieves so much in the span of 117 minutes. It’s a brilliant meditation on an individual who has always lived on the fringes of society. Jake Gyllenhaal is Oscar worthy as the small-time criminal desperate to make a quick buck with his videos of accidents, fires and other violence. But he is not the only fascinating individual. Riz Ahmed is Rick, a destitute man with no job experience who is hired as his assistant, although exploited is a more apt description. Rick’s story is exceptionally emotional for a mere side character. Things change when Lou meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo, the director’s wife) a TV news director. Russo is memorable in a welcome return to her juiciest part since The Thomas Crown Affair. Her career lives and dies by ratings. Violent crime in wealthy suburban areas is her preference and she makes no bones about it. She is a piece of work. In that capacity the script also serves as a scathing attack on sensationalized tabloid news journalism.

First and foremost, Nightcrawler is a compelling character study. Jake Gyllenhaal manages to embody a thoroughly loathsome but intriguing character that you cannot look away from. He’s got nerve. He talks with a calm reserve even when he’s saying something rather disturbing. He’s creepy to make people uneasy and yet he’s driven by a plucky resourcefulness that‘s somewhat admirable. Although let‘s be clear, he’s insane. They should lock him up and throw away the key. The usually robust actor lost 30 lbs to appear more gaunt in the role. He also grew his hair out into an oily mane. Certainly the execution in his performance is his greatest achievement, but his appearance has the effect of physically transforming him into a completely different person. Perhaps Nightcrawler’s greatest accomplishment is to educate us in the ways of a sociopath. He makes us understand how that quiet, nice boy who was so polite, is capable of such evil.

10-31-14

Dear White People

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on November 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dear White People photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgPerceptive satire focusing on race relations as seen through the eyes of 4 black students at a fictional Ivy league college.

African American students are a distinct minority at Winchester University but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice. Enter Sam White (Tessa Thompson) a deejay at the campus radio station and host of the popular program “Dear White People”. Her inflammatory rhetoric infused with humorous observations informs as it entertains with witty aphorisms like the following: “Dear White People, please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?“ She runs for head of house railing against a Housing Act that would force African American residence hall Armstrong/Parker to diversify. The incumbent is Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), her ex-boyfriend. He is the good looking wealthy son of the dean. Then there’s fellow undergraduate and video blogger Colandrea Conners (Teyonah Parris). She goes by Coco and leans more toward the white students. And lastly there’s Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), an aspiring journalist who happens to be gay. His love of Robert Altman films and outdated style are at odds with the rigidly-defined cliques of both the blacks and whites. He doesn’t fit in with either. His socially awkward outcast is perhaps the most fascinating individual of them all.

As evidenced by that plot description, the archetypes are not easily defined. They have complicated attitudes with aspirations that change as the movie plays out. You think you have someone pegged, only to have those assumptions subverted. Occasionally the motivations behind a character’s thoughts isn’t entirely clear. While rabble-rousing against the white establishment, Samantha secretly sees white boyfriend Gabe (Justin Dobies) on the side. Colandrea calls herself Coco, wears blue contact lenses and a straight weave. She is embarrassed by her Southside Chicago roots. Yet she portrays the angry black woman on her YouTube channel to gain more followers. She actually makes some of the most trenchant observations in the film. But what drives Coco and how she truly feels is somewhat inconsistent with her behavior. Troy Fairbanks is handsome, athletic and dating the white daughter of the university president. His more conservative beliefs are at odds with Sam, his opponent for head of house. Are these various people behaving the way they do because they’re simply trying to fit in or is it because they do indeed hold those views? It’s a bit ambiguous. But then, in a movie where students are still trying to establish their own identity, perhaps inconsistency is the most consistent trait of all.

Director’ Justin Simien has a surprisingly confident voice for a feature debut from a new filmmaker. His multiple protagonist, many layered web of interconnecting stories is Altmanesque. In fact, Lionel Higgins’ love for the maverick director of the 70s makes his role seem autobiographical. Simien articulates a subject for a lot of interesting conversations. What makes Dear White People so affecting is the authenticity of the various personalities in the cast. The script is particularly intelligent as it develops a cast that is both enlightened & foolish, likable & rude, admirable & flawed. They are developed human beings that have nuance and depth. This holds true for the white and black characters alike. It all comes to a head at an ill advised themed party thrown by a white fraternity. Yes the story is ostensibly about racism but it delves deeper. This is a film about students that are conflicted. They’re trying to find themselves. Every so often there are discrepancies in what they may say and what they legitimately believe. When or if it is appropriate to assimilate? And when is it important not to compromise your own identity. It is in the handling of those questions that the movie’s excursion into these thoughtful subjects, truly shines.

10-26-14

Birdman

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Birdman photo starrating-4stars.jpgVivid, flashy meditation on fame has Michael Keaton as a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson, once known for playing a superhero character named Birdman in the movies – three times in fact. Now he is desperately wanting to re-invigorate his career with the mounting of a Broadway play. He is both directing and starring in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The parallels between Keaton’s real-life celebrity as Batman and Riggan’s role as Birdman are just as overt as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Keaton is perfect in the part because he IS this guy. And the opportunity to send-up his own reputation allows the actor to give the finest performance he’s possibly ever given, or at least since Beetlejuice. The production is a dizzying look into the backstage shenanigans of the theater, from rehearsals, to previews, to opening night. Truly Birdman is the best film “All About” Broadway since that movie with Bette Davis.

Riggan is supported by a coterie of oddball characters. On the day before previews, the co-lead is injured and he must quickly scramble for a replacement. Riggan’s slightly off-kilter female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, theater critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). He turns out to be a completely bonkers method actor that has an ego unchecked by his unrelenting bravado. It’s a masterful performance – one that cleverly draws on the star’s own notoriety gained after starring in The Incredible Hulk in 2008. Idiosyncratic actress (and Riggan’s girlfriend) Laura also stars in his play. She is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. Emma Stone is Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter who now works as his assistant. Then there’s Riggan’s best friend and theatrical producer Jake. When Zach Galifianakis embodies the most sane person in the ensemble, you know you’re surrounded by a zany lot indeed.

What really sets director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tour de force apart is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The film is shot, or made to appear like it was shot, in one single long take with no edits over the course of a few days. The result is a you-are-there heightened sense of realism.  The proceedings have an immediacy that is exhilarating. Iñárritu directs his cast like a symphonic piece, each one carefully entering and exiting the scene at various parts of the 119 minute movement.  It’s similar to a musician awaiting their cue in an orchestra. The locale is almost exclusively set inside the St. James theater in New York City.  The lens navigates the cramped cavernous halls of the Broadway institution.  The camera swoops and turns, doubles back and around through the stage show separately focusing on assorted conversations at different times throughout the venue.  The display occasionally induces claustrophobia in the observer but the effect can be breathtaking as well. It’s a spectacular feat that could have become a gimmick, but the manipulation here is so effortless that it is a welcome and, dare I say, vital component of the production. The achievement makes this Iñárritu’s most accessible work since Babel.

Birdman is a densely layered comedy that is open to numerous interpretations. It’s a dissertation on acting vs. celebrity. It’s a rumination on show business and the fleeting nature of fame. And it’s a satire on the acting profession. Regarding that last one, this is a pretty savage portrait on the existence of an actor. There is an element of fantasy to this too. Michael Keaton as Riggan has a constant interior monologue in the guise of his alter ego Birdman. These Shakespearean soliloquies add to the experimental feel of the spectacle. The drama opens with him meditating, seated in the lotus position, floating in midair. Later he’s moving objects with his mind. The drum heavy score by jazz artist Antonio Sanchez, accentuates many scenes with a thudding percussion beat. The stylish flourishes are to subvert reality. It adds to the manic tension that continues all the way to the ending. It’s one of those head scratchers that leaves the audience with a big question instead of closure. That’s ok because with Birdman it’s about the journey. The chronicle takes the viewer on a wildly inventive and smartly written ride. Hold on tight because once it starts, it doesn’t stop.

10-23-14

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

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