Archive for the Drama Category

Son of Saul

Posted in Drama, History, War on January 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo saul_fia_ver2_zpswqogquod.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgSon of Saul is a Hungarian drama covering a day-and-a-half in the life of one Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He is forced to work as a Sonderkommando, that is – a captive who assists in the disposal of the dead, his fellow people, from the gas chamber. While there he discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son and tries to find a rabbi to give the child a proper burial.

The Holocaust has been the subject of innumerable pictures presented from a variety of different angles. Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, The Reader and Ida are merely a famous few that have won awards and accolades. Son of Saul is critically acclaimed as well and is even up for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards on February 28, 2016. Evidently the topic is ripe for more productions as director Laszlo Nemes approaches the material a little differently.

What separates Son of Saul is the you-are-there vantage point of the main character. Our lead is a prisoner but his own execution has been delayed. A visual perspective from a person thrust into the eye of the storm, so to speak.  The orientation is unique. We see everything from Saul’s viewpoint.  The action is shot in extreme closeup, often slightly behind or right in front of our protagonist. His expression is a blank face of detachment, perhaps immune to the atrocities that inundate him. The events however are often obscured, just out of focus for the audience, and hard to view clearly. We never see the faces of the victims or even their deaths distinctly. That is a blessing. Although the sounds that surround these incidents is horrifying.

Given the theme, Son of Saul is understandably difficult to watch. In many ways it should be. The plot doesn’t follow the traditional narrative that highlights an improbable hero. Its hyper-realistic style addresses the murder directly head on with no relief to alleviate the terror. The brutal efficiency with which the Nazis oversee this evil task is a robotic death camp of mind numbing savagery. A seemingly unending hell on earth from which human life is disposed like a mechanized chore. Even watching prisoners scrub the human blood from the floor of a massive shower can be an overwhelming experience.

Son of Saul is largely a compelling drama. Where the chronicle doesn’t near a masterpiece lies in the conclusion. The fact that Saul and his fellow workers’ days are numbered will inspire questions as the story wears on. Why submit to a ghastly task that only prolongs your inevitable death by days? Some abatement from their chamber of horrors is suggested but after a while Saul’s behavior becomes vexing for viewer. Setting up a brilliant beginning also demands a skillful ending. Son of Saul doesn’t quite deliver at the same level all the way through, but it is still a very powerful film nonetheless.

01-21-16

Mustang

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on January 17, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo mustang_ver2_zpsy2ovvvho.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgMustang is set in a remote Turkish village and depicts the life of five young sisters. Our tale concerns them all but is more centered on Lale (Güneş Şensoy). Her teacher at school is leaving for Istanbul. After saying goodbye, she accompanies her sisters on the walk home during a beautiful sunlit day. On the way, they stop off at the beach. They join some of their male classmates in a water game, fully clothed incidentally, where they sit on the boys’ shoulders trying to knock each other off. A neighbor spies the impropriety and the news of their seemingly innocent game reaches their family. The five orphaned teen sisters live with their grandmother in an isolated town on the Black Sea. She along with their overly protective uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) are shocked.  Their harmless goofing around is viewed as licentious behavior. The incident has lasting repercussions on the girls’ life from that moment forward.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven is a Turkish female director born in that country. However she was raised in France and is currently based there.  As such this picture was nominated as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.  In a broad sense, the chronicle is about freedom. More specifically the accessible subject concerns the unique challenges that girls face growing up in a conservative Muslim society. The narrative does a good job at detailing how their home life transforms after the event. They’re given virginity tests and forbidden to leave the house – even for school.  Soon after their uncle intends to marry every single one of them off as soon as possible. As the 5 sisters band together under the tightening restraints of their domesticity, their sisterly bond is captivating. They exhibit a camaraderie that is touching – a pretty, free-spirited group on the precipice of burgeoning sexuality. However, the group behaves as a unit and that often makes it hard to differentiate one sister from the other. Only the youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy) who narrates the story, truly stands out.

Director’s Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s harsh critique of an oppressive patriarchal society is straightforward, but it isn’t subtle. The saga descends from the carefree optimism on the beach into the dark corruption of a community prone to gender bias. The essential “house arrest” of these 5 teen girls approaches the totalitarian conditions of a jail.  The nightmare that is their homelife is clearly evident. Their subjugation is infuriating. As Westerners we are forced into a judgmental corner and are predictably outraged. The cultural portrait is nicely presented. This makes the decision to further stack the narrative by also making the uncle sexually abusive, a bit ham-handed. The focus isn’t just about the tyranny of a culture unjust to women anymore. Now we’re dealing with sexual assault. The approach is unnecessarily embellished. We feel the forcible pull of a screenplay, co-written by the director and Alice Winocour, overstating its case. However as the debut feature from an up-and-coming filmmaker, there’s still a lot to admire here.

01-07-16

Concussion

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on January 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo concussion_ver2_zpsn7swvjsa.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgBefore I launch into my review of Concussion, I thought a little primer on biology might help. So the brain floats inside the skull surrounded by something called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). When the body is suddenly stopped after a blow to the head, like after being tackled for example, the brain continues to move in the CSF until it hits the next solid surface – the inside of the skull. Sure a helmet will protect the skull, but it cannot protect the brain. If this happens enough times, the nerve fibers break off and proteins start to build up in the brain leaving scar tissue. That’s bad.

Concussion is a medical drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He works for the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office in Pittsburgh. A forensic pathologist, Omalu conducts the autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster – legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had not been well. He was suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression and died from a heart attack at only 50 years old. What Omalu finds, leads to his discovery of a new disease that he names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in 2005. The complications of which somewhat resemble Alzheimer’s, however they occur much earlier in life. The depression, memory loss and erratic, aggressive behavior experienced by ex NFL players, continues to this day. Concussion does a nice job at emphasizing the severity of these symptoms.

Given the subject matter, this could’ve been a much more incendiary film. The research calls the very sport of professional football into question. (I assume athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, rugby and wrestling would be at risk as well.) As you might expect, the publication of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research is viewed as extremely controversial by the National Football league. The NFL had a choice. Join Dr. Bennet Omalu and try to solve the problem, or use their considerable power to discredit him. The NFL choose the latter and they certainly do not come off well. They’re presented as this monolithic corporate entity as headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

Dr. Omalu’s fight to get people to acknowledge he is right, becomes a veritable David-vs.-Goliath match. He was born in Nigeria. Dr. Omalu earned his degree in medicine there before coming to the U.S. where he completed his residency. Despite all of his education, he is seen as an outsider. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” he has said. Not only is Dr. Omalu an immigrant, he is indifferent to that quintessentially American of pastimes called football. Nevertheless he does gain a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

I really wanted to love this movie. Concussion has the best intentions. It dramatizes a serious story that needs to be told. At the heart of this biography is a compelling performance by Will Smith. Historically he has often had a difficult time disappearing into the persona of another person. We see mega celebrity Will Smith – the brash movie star, not an actor fading within a role. Here however, he manages to convincingly present a different personality – accent and demeanor included. It’s his most impressive achievement since The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, the diffuse narrative spends way too much time on tedious details involving his personal life which includes love interest and eventual wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is far too great an actress to be saddled with this expendable role. Concussion is at its best when it’s delving into the science of Omalu’s work, chronicling his study and the ensuing struggle to get his important research acknowledged. The production ends unresolved. According to the film, his research still has yet to be taken seriously by the NFL. Although some concessions have been made, very little about the sport has changed. Apparently the issue is far from over. Stay tuned.

12-29-15

The Revenant

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Thriller, Western on December 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo revenant_ver2_zpsqfyjk4tb.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgFrom Amores Perros to Babel to Biutiful to Birdman, director Alejandro González Iñárritu deals in dark, sometimes cruel subject matter. His latest is no different. The Revenant recounts the tale of real-life 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman who who became sort of a folk hero after surviving a bear attack. Then he is left to die by the two the men assigned to take care of him [John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter)]. Hugh sets out to find his way back to their outpost under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s mainly trying to stay alive, but he also seeks retribution. Hugh Glass has been documented in numerous books and was the subject of the feature film Man in the Wilderness (1971) starring Richard Harris. This production is based on a fictional 2002 novel by Michael Punke, inspired by real events.

Once again, Iñárritu has reunited with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The partnership is integral to the success of the picture. Set in the American Rockies in the 1820s, the shoot stretched over 9 months in the inhospitable Canadian Rockies northwest of Calgary often in subzero temperatures. However the ending was photographed in Argentina after the weather became too warm. No computer graphics or green screen technology was used to simulate the environment. These are actual people suffering barbaric conditions. The atmosphere has a physicality you cannot fake.

The Revenant has some of the most ravishing cinematography I have ever seen. Lubezki or “Chivo” shot on location using only natural light. He presents these snow covered vistas with a visual grandeur that is never less than breathtaking. With this work of art, Emmanuel Lubezki now ascends the shortlist for greatest cinematographer of all time. With his back to back wins at the Oscar, a 3rd would be unprecedented but equally well deserved. The quiet majesty present in his work here makes violent events and a harsh weather look strikingly beautiful. By all accounts, this was not an easy shoot. He, like Hugh Glass, tames the wilderness. He brings out the panoramic beauty of this unforgiving climate. I want develop stills from this movie and make a coffee table book.

However his effort would be in service of nothing if not for the human presence at the narrative’s center. Leonardo DiCaprio captivates the viewer’s attention with a physically demanding role. After one particularly memorable scene, his achievement becomes an almost wordless performance. Early talk focused around the scene where he is mauled by a bear. It is a stunning achievement that combines CGI with stunt people to create a visceral episode like no other. You will feel what it’s like to come face-to-face with an animal of that magnitude. It’s an immersive demonstration that will have you gripping your armrests in the theater. It’s that vital authenticity that makes this the emotionally compelling spectacle that it is.

The heart of The Revenant is centered around an absolute pedal to the metal performance by Leonard DiCaprio as the dirty, rugged mountain man. His survival odyssey is an emotional and physical journey conveyed without words. Hugh Glass travels some 200–300 miles often on his stomach clawing at the ground,. He forages for food, floats down rapids, jumps off a cliff and is followed by hostile Native American Arikara Indians across present day South Dakota,. At three hours, it’s pretty exhausting, but it never feels tedious. At one point, his quick thinking allows him to stay warm in a most ingenuous way that you have to see to believe. It’s creative touches like this that elevate the production into something we want to embrace. The punishing cold, the festering wounds – you will feel every brutal hand that this poor fellow is dealt. The movie is primal. The Revenant isn’t just a film, it’s an experience.

12-06-15

The Hateful Eight

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller, Western with tags on December 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo hateful_eight_ver10_zps13r4ig4p.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgBefore I begin my review, I must commend Quentin Tarantino for his commitment to cinematic style. The director has always been a student of film. He loves the medium and is well versed in its history. His latest was photographed using Ultra Panavision 70, a widescreen process usually preceded in print by the adjective “glorious”. It employs an anamorphic camera lens that allows for an extremely expanded aspect ratio of 2.76:1. The technology became obsolete due to cost. Most 70mm movies were also simultaneously released on 35mm for broader distribution. The format was only used on 11 pictures during the 1950s and 60s including Ben-Hur (1959) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The last being Khartoum in 1966. That is until now.

The Hateful Eight was initially released on Christmas Day to 100 theaters in a special “Roadshow” prestation complete with overture, an intermission and a souvenir program. For two weeks people could see the picture as Tarantino had originally intended. In this age of digital projection systems, This meant that the Weinstein Company had to equip theaters with 70mm projectors just so they could play the print. Then they had to train staff so they could properly monitor the projector as it was being shown.

In theory, the format allows for an unmatched experience of wider dimension, resolution and artistry that should make for a richer cinematic experience. An experienced projectionist is clearly a rarity these days because complaints of screening problems at the Roadshow engagements have been rampant on the Internet. Indeed at my showing, the movie was interrupted no less than 5 times during the presentation. At one point the film actually stoped and you could see it literally burn on the screen. Whoopsie! Additionally focus problems infested the entire picture, with parts of the image being crystal clear and others being incredibly blurry.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the feature, but it certainly doesn’t help that The Hateful Eight is (wait for it) a hateful film. I don’t even know what constitutes the worst offense, but let’s start with the story. This dark comedic riff on the Western takes place post-Civil War. Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are traveling by stagecoach to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming. Along the way they encounter another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be the sheriff of that town (Walton Goggins). These four must soon seek shelter from a blizzard. It is there, in a little general store called Minnie’s Haberdashery, that they meet four more degenerates (Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight is a step back for Tarantino in the storytelling department. Bill Desowitz over at Indiewire noted the plot suggests Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as well as the films Stagecoach and The Desperate Hours. That’s fairly apt, although the manner in which the script cobbles those inspirations is an absolute bastardization of far superior references. For the first half, everything unfolds in the tiny compartment of a covered wagon. Things culminate at a rest stop when Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) taunts General Sandy Smithers (Dern) with a tale of what transpired when he met the former Confederate general’s son. The speech is memorable but it’s the lone highlight of a nearly 90 minute intro that is all talk. Well that, and frequent jabs to the face of Daisy Domergue. She enters the movie with a black eye and things only get worse. She seems to relish each assault she endures with a smile of masochistic glee. I guess we’re supposed to view her battery with apathy because she’s such a nasty person. Actually everyone is despicable. Hence the title. Daisy uses the N-word so many times I grew desensitized to its meaning.  After awhile she might as well been calling Samuel L. Jackson a nincompoop.

The proper story begins in the second half when the ongoing talk-fest is punctuated by bursts of cartoonish violence that are clearly meant to be funny. Sadly they aren’t. Or rather thankfully, if you think deriving joy from murder is a bad thing. This is nothing new for Tarantino. There will be blood. You know what you’re going to get, but here it feels childish and immature, like a 5 year old that has only recently discovered that there’s a red crayon in that box of Crayolas and has decided to cover every page in red wax. People projectile vomit blood. A character is shot in the groin. Someone’s head is playfully blown off in cartoon fashion without any warning whatsoever. Can you build a whole comedy around shock death? I’m not laughing.

Quentin Tarantino has a lot of power. How many studios would give a director carte blanche to make a film this empty. The plot of this simple drama could’ve been the basis of a brisk 90 minute chamber play. Instead the chronicle is stretched to the elephantine length of over three hours.  That includes a 12-minute intermission. That’s fine if we’re talking epics like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. However it’s the height of Ultra Panavision 70 irony that the majority of the production takes place in the single room of a dark claustrophobic den of a set. Add to that narrative a complete cast of characters we couldn’t even give a care about. These people talk so much that when the bodies start dropping, it’s a relief because that’s when they stop yapping. Don’t get me wrong. A long winded drama can be enjoyable if it has substance, but even the script lacks the snappy zing that usually typifies Tarantino’s work. These are awful people that say ugly things. The Hateful Eight is the soulless work of an auteur that has set the majority of a 3 hour production in a dark room, but then filmed it all in a “gloriously” expensive widescreen process, simply because he can.

12-28-15

Anomalisa

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Uncategorized with tags on December 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo anomalisa_ver2_zpses0g7amc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgAnomalisa is unlike any animated movie I’ve ever seen. Past the muddled din of inane chatter, the picture opens to a cloud bank. A plane is flying through the sky. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is traveling to Cincinnati. A successful writer, he’s going there to give a motivational speech on customer service. It’s not immediately apparent at first but something is amiss. Right from the get-go we’re confronted with an angry letter from what appears to be an ex-girlfriend. As he reads the note we hear the words in voiceover from a male speaker (Tom Noonan). It’s an bitter missive full of expletives. The F-word repeatedly used over and over. Once on land, he picks up his iPod and plays the “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé. Observant viewers will notice the portable player says sung by Dame Joan Sutherland, but it’s clearly not her. That man’s voice again, overdubbed several times, intones the melody. It doesn’t end there. Every articulation is an exact duplicate of the next. The passenger on the plane, his cab driver, the desk clerk at the hotel, the waitress in the lounge. After awhile we figure out it’s not just auditory. Although people appear as male and female individuals of various shapes and sizes, they all have identical faces too. Every last one.

Tom is not well – mentally, that is. By the time he calls his wife, we realize he’s a supremely unhappy man. She wants to put their son on the phone and he greets the prospect like he’s about to undergo a root canal. Life around him is ugly. He looks out the window and spies a man in the building across the way at a computer touching himself. Then he walks past a couple locked in a heated argument in the hallway. More F-words echo down the corridor behind him. All of this informs the misanthropic outlook of his own reality. Then while staring at his own visage in the bathroom mirror, he suddenly hears a different voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) coming though the walls of his hotel room.

The writing is exceptionally smart. I’d expect nothing less from the writer/director of Synecdoche, New York who drew thematic parallels between a figure of speech and the city of Schenectady. Our protagonist is utterly lonely. He talks with a world weariness that is more palpable than the emotion I’ve felt from some live actors. Michael is the author of “How May I Help You Help Them?” and he’s oh-so-much smarter than the philistines around him. Little jokes abound. When he whistles part of the opera Lakmé, the taxi driver “educates” him that it’s the British Airways ad. He checks into the Hotel Fregoli – that’s Fregoli as in the delusional belief that everyone is somehow the same person. He turns on the TV in his hotel room and catches a glimpse of the 1936 classic My Man Godfrey. His date sings “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, first in English, then an Italian version by Sarah Brightman. There’s no such thing….right?

Michael Stone is a miserable person. He’s emotionally disabled from connecting with another human being. That is until he meets Lisa, a woman who may or may not be the love of his life. She is an exception – an anomaly, if you will. She looks and sounds different. However she’s downright clumsy, tripping and literally falling flat on her face at one point. She’s also a bit of a rube. Upon entering his hotel room, she marvels at the way he has prepared his sheets and slippers for bed, only to learn of “turndown service” for the first time. Then she recites the lyrics of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, like it’s her highest aspiration. “I wanna be the one to walk in the sun,” she coos. It’s never quite evident whether her ignorance is supposed to be legitimately charming or if Michael has achieved some level of humanity by being able to look past her provincial charm and see the real beauty within. Regardless he falls in love with her. Then they have sex in an unforgettable scene I cannot even begin to describe. The less said, the better.

On one level it’s impossible not to admire the remarkable craft that went into making this production. The detailed sets create an environment that feels lived in and substantive. Charlie Kaufman has created an extraordinarily realistic setting. The characters inhabit this environment in such a human way that it’s easy to forget we’re watching animation.  His existential ennui is handled in a pretty adult way, but Anomalisa is about routine. Tom has an abnormally misanthropic worldview. He’s bored with life and the public at large. Everyone has the same face. Everyone has the same voice. Their upbeat monotone is pleasant but insincere. Michael doesn’t connect with any of these drones, except one.  Even the object of his affection is intentionally imbued with a two dimensional personality.  The mundanity of his existence is manifested in the banality of the narrative. The abrupt non-ending leaves a unsatisfying finish. An unresolved narrative that is all foreplay, no climax. A spiritual malaise hangs heavy over the film. Michael’s total apathy becomes our boredom too and the experience is disheartening.

12-21-15

Joy

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on December 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo joy_zpsft2v08cz.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Joy of the title is Joy Mangano. For those unfamiliar, she is an American inventor who created the Miracle Mop – a plastic implement “with a head made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton that can be easily wrung out without getting the user’s hands wet.” Although a modest succes initially, it wasn’t until the entrepreneur appeared on shopping channel QVC in 1992, that the invention actually took off. Although Joy is based on a real woman, this isn’t some straightforward, by the numbers biopic. What David O. Russell has done with the saga of Joy Mangano is a visionary appropriation of the facts. The director has creatively imagined Joy Mangano’s memoir as a modern day fantasy.

Fairy tales do come true. Jennifer Lawrence is surrounded by a colorful ensemble that supports her narrative to comical effect. They almost compel her to rise above the depths of her existence. There’s never any suggestion that her family members don’t love each other. However the menagerie of eccentrics that comprise her family are, hmmm shall we say, a little dysfunctional? As the matriarch of a multi-generational household, her environment is constantly in a state of disarray.  Joy is a divorced mother with two small children. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with this soap opera and never leaves her bed. An amusing aside is that the daytime serial she’s watching is a fictitious send-up. It features newly shot scenes starring icons of the medium, including Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard.  It pops up throughout the years hilariously marking the time period.

As in any fable, there are many obstacles to overcome. Her father, and mother’s ex-husband, Rudy (Robert De Niro) comes over to live in her basement after he has broken up with his girlfriend. Complicating matters is the fact that Tony (Edgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, is already living down there and has for the past two years. He’s trying to jump start his stalled lounge singing career. Isabella Rossellini later emerges as Trudi, Rudy’s new girlfriend who becomes the chief financial backer for Joy’s innovative idea. Do I see a ray of light? There’s also Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who runs the QVC shopping network. He’s sort of the male version of a fairy godmother in her life. Joy’s jealous half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) is a negative presence, but her longtime childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) is a positive one. Diane Ladd is Mimi, Joy’s supportive grandmother and the narrator of this fable.

Truth is stranger than fiction. David O. Russell has brilliantly distilled the elaborate narrative to its essence, trimming away the excess fat of unimportant details and highlighted the bonkers mentality of her life. The director has recontextualized the very true story of Joy Mangano into that of a contemporary fairy tale. Like some Cinderella scrubbing up a spill on the floor, she gets cut after wringing out a mop. Her hands bleed from the shards of glass. Inspiration strikes without a hint of cynicism. Joy isn’t some woman waiting for her prince charming . She improves the very mire of her own existence with her entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The chronicle demands that we reconsider how inspirational fantasies from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, are still happening today. The hard working resolve of a single mother with a dream manifested as a glorious paean to female empowerment.

David O. Russell has found his muse. As Katharine Hepburn was to George Cukor or Marlene Dietrich was to Josef von Sternberg, so too is Jennifer Lawrence to David O. Russell. This is his 3rd picture to feature Jennifer Lawrence but the first to star her — or any woman for that matter — as the sole lead in one of his movies. The partnership has yielded yet another fruitful collaboration for all involved. In an era where we routinely bemoan the derth of strong roles for women, Joy quietly enters the discussion and gives us exactly that. It’s a real tribute to the scrappy heroines of the 1940s when female-centric films were common. Think pictures starring Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. Yes those are indeed lofty comparisons but Jennifer Lawrence embodies the fierce spirit of those trailblazing heroines. What’s old seems new again. She’s an uplifting breath of fresh air. A woman with her eyes firmly set on the American dream. This is a defining role where she comes in not aggressively “with a bow and arrow,” as the director has noted, “but with her heart and soul.”

12-03-15

In the Heart of the Sea

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on December 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo in_the_heart_of_the_sea_ver4_zpsnlbtbdyq.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIn the Heart of the Sea is a solemn drama of outmoded style. It concerns the adventure that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Our 19th century sea faring tale begins with the American novelist (Ben Whishaw) visiting old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Thomas was once a cabin boy and is the sole living survivor left from the doomed final voyage of the whaleship Essex. Herman has to bribe him to tell the unvarnished truth so he can commit Thomas’ words to the printed page. We then flashback to the events of his yarn. Why we needed this framing device is a mystery. It’s a construct that seemingly serves no purpose other than to derail the picture at inopportune moments. Every time something exciting starts to happen the narrative abruptly stops in its tracks to remind us we’re still listening to a story. I suppose observing two people talk in a dark room is slightly more interesting than watching someone silently write a book. However it’s less exciting than seeing people fight a whale attacking a ship. I figured a director as talented as Ron Howard would have understood this by now, but apparently not.

The proper tale takes place when the Essex leaves Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819. The chronicle centers around Chris Hemsworth as dashing Owen Chase, the first mate, and Benjamin Walker as the more genteel Captain George Pollard, Jr. The aristocratic Pollard has a family lineage that accords him the position, as opposed to the more qualified Chase, who has the experience. Chase’s lower social status has unfortunately precluded him from commanding a ship yet again. The stacked set-up is a cliché. Nevertheless, their combative relationship is a fairly compelling plot point. Early in their voyage, Pollard tests his crew by ordering them to deliberately sail into a dangerous squall. This is amidst the protestations of Chase. The decision almost capsizes the ship, but somehow Pollard finds a way to hold Chase accountable for the debacle anyway.

I was quite enjoying the acrimonious affiliation between the Captain and his first mate . It sort of reminded me of Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, although I admit I am being very charitable when I say that. But then the whale shows up and the focus shifts to CGI spectacles. The whaling scenes pitting man against beast are jampacked but strangely, not thrilling. The action is undone by choppy editing that obscures what is happening exactly. The presentation has a colorful 2D aesthetic but it gives the visual spectacle a simulated muddy quality that lessens the excitement. As a result we’re less invested in their plight.

In the Heart of the Sea is constructed as an old fashioned epic that is anything but. Lots of details about the whaling industry are present. Few scenes stand out, but one features cabin boy Thomas (the narrator of our story, played as a youth by Tom Holland) entering a narrow hole cut into a dead whale’s head, to extract the supply of sperm oil inside. During the 2nd half, when the gang gets shipwrecked, so does the plot. Chase and Pollard promptly make amends and lose the personality that made their antagonistic relationship engaging. Watching the crew, which includes second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), just waste away,  is pretty tedious. They do what they must in order to survive. This includes behavior that should be disturbing, but the environment is so dignified, it barely registers. Honestly, you could say the same thing about the entire film. It’s not awful, but it is awfully forgettable.

12-09-15

The Big Short

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 10, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo big_short_ver2_zps2a2vcozo.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Big Short seeks to educate as well as entertain. The subject is the credit crisis of 2008 brought on by the build-up of the housing and credit bubble during the 2000s. In other words, it’s about a group of guys who saw a chance to bet against the risky business loans being offered by American fiscal institutions and profit from it. Are phrases like subprime mortgage, credit default swaps (CDS) and collateralized debt obligation (CDO) part of your everyday vocabulary? Don’t worry because the script has already assumed they’re not and dumbed things down as an irreverent primer on the topic. This breezy tale details a economic armageddon that wildly vacillates between comedic and dramatic extremes. The Big Short is based on the 2010 book of the same name by Michael Lewis. The successful journalist also wrote the books on which Moneyball and The Blind Side were based.

The screenplay focuses on some key people who predicted the bubble would burst and then bet heavily on that conclusion. These speculators believed that the U.S. real estate market was a house of cards. According to this account, “shorting” a financial institution was an unheard of idea at the time. The men that wanted to do this are seen as fools by the mortgage brokers. Their suggestion was greeted with amusement. However the banks were more than happy to oblige them with what they saw as easy money. The concept is still misunderstood by many today, so I’ll give the chronicle points for trying at least. We know how this ends so observing these events is analogous to ancient historical figures laughing at Pythagoras for saying the world is round. We gleefully watch the economy fall apart from a position of smug awareness.

The story highlights a huge number of parts in a dizzying juggling act. This all-star comedy production is built around a collection of crucial players involved. In particular, the saga features 3 main financial experts portrayed by Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Bale portrays real life hedge fund manager Michael Burry, walking around barefoot in his office and rocking out to heavy metal music. The other two are fictionalized versions based on speculators Steve Eisman and Greg Lippmann. Brad Pitt also shows up disguised with beard and spectacles. His take on Ben Hockett is more of a glorified cameo. You see the script never develops any depth to any of these people. That’s apparently by design because the account is so desperate to keep moving for fear you might get bored. Steve Carell makes the best impression. Although he must also express anguish for all the millions he earned at the expense of people who lost everything. I didn’t buy that narrative arc, but it’s a random suggestion tacked on at the end. Whether it’s true is kind of irrelevant to the overall story.

The biographical drama madly fluctuates between cheeky comedy and deadly serious reality check. The gimmick is haphazard, almost chaotic, jumping from one scene to the next. The goofy atmosphere isn’t completely obnoxious but it isn’t entirely “winning” either. Director Adam McKay is mostly known for his comedies with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) Here he injects a silly sensibility into a dry and depressing subject. There’s a huge menagerie of oddballs, all with speaking parts.  They arbitrarily pop up to clarify what they’re doing in verbose detail so we can conveniently eavesdrop on their conversation. The spoon feeding of information is intense. After a while, the drama is so unrelentingly didactic that the tone becomes wearying.  A lot of facts and figures are thrown at the audience like informational diarrhea. The script does everything but put Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain what a “subprime” loan is. Oh wait…they do that too. Ryan Gosling even narrates by talking directly to the camera with a cocky swagger that says “I’m better than you.” But with his unnaturally dyed hair and colorful spray tan, his brash style is more amusingly tragic than intimidating. The irreverent attitude comes across as flippant and self-satisfied when it wants to be charming and humorous. It’s a little off-putting. It’s akin to listening to a lecture by a hip college professor that likes to juice up his lessons about macroeconomics with saucy tales of what he did last night.

11-13-15

Youth

Posted in Drama with tags on December 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo youth_zpsms70uyzu.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgYouth is the latest claptrap from director Paolo Sorrentino. I’m sorry, we’re already off to a bad start. Would “pretentious nonsense” be more charitable? This is the filmmaker’s followup to The Great Beauty, the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2013. I tolerated that picture. It was gorgeously photographed but its lack of a strong narrative made it a chore to watch. Honestly that’s exactly the problem with Youth, but multiplied by 10. If I can say anything nice about this production, it’s that Sorrentino has found a cinematographer par excellence in Luca Bigazzi. Luca deserves to work, and often. Everything else is an endurance test that taxes the very limits of patience.

The story is structured around a luxurious European spa in the Swiss Alps where random episodes occur. Commenting on all this are lifelong friends in their 70s. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a composer and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a director. It was actor Lewis Stone who wryly observed that “People come and go. Nothing ever happens” in Grand Hotel, 1932’s Best Picture winner. The sarcastic joke was, things really DO happen in the Grand Hotel. I wish someone had said that here, because at least I’d give the script some points for truth in advertising.

Shall we talk about that screenplay? It’s a positively horrendous creation full of stilted dialogue and unfocused ideas. The conversations are so unnaturally awkward it sounds as if people are literally reading the words for the first time from a teleprompter off stage. Incidentally this is Sorrentino’s second English-language film. My theory is that it was originally written in Italian and then translated by a high school intern. It does no favors to the famous cast. British pop star Paloma Faith is playing the part of British pop star Paloma Faith and she’s not very convincing in the role.  Michael Caine, Rachel Weisz, and Paul Dano do their best, but poor Harvey Keitel, who I truly respect as an actor, fares the worst.

This rarely happens, but I genuinely felt sorrow for the actors in this movie. I shouldn’t because it appears some awards will come of it anyway. Which brings me to Jane Fonda, who pops up in a shameless cameo 2/3rds of the way in. She’s portraying this grande dame of the cinema, an aging actress in s blonde fright wig and heavy pancake makeup. Your go-to reference is “Norma Desmond” but I mean no disrespect to Gloria Swanson.  She was flawless in that role. Jane however delivers a desperate, attention grabbing performance that screams “Give me another Academy Award!” Dear Jane, you’ve been nominated 7 times before and won twice. Was the lure of the spotlight that irresistible? Ultimately what makes her performance notable is that she manages to say “sh–” half a dozen times in the span of a mere 7 minutes. Impressive.

Youth is precisely the kind of pompous film that gives arthouse a bad name. There is no plot. Only a coterie of quirky individuals. There is a lot of naked elderly people. Two people fornicate against a tree. We get a grotesquely obese footballer in a tiny bathing suit and an insanely gorgeous Miss Universe from Brazil wearing nothing at all. Caine and Keitel lust over her in the pool and you can feel the director ogling her as well. Everyone laments their dreary future through uninteresting monologues. You see existentialism isn’t just a philosophical theory, it’s a self absorbed way of life. This pseudo Fellini-esque satire pontificates about aging like the script just granted you with some noble truth. Now it’s impatiently waiting for a thank you. I won’t reveal who, but someone does commit suicide. Anything to get out of this production, right? I will say this. Jane Fonda carps that “Human beings really know how to be pathetic when they want to be”. Bless her. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

11-27-15

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