Archive for the Drama Category

The Age of Adaline

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

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

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

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

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

05-07-15

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

Clouds of Sils Maria

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

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

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

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

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

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

04-21-14

Ex Machina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04-16-15

While We’re Young

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

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

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

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

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

04-12-15

Trainwreck

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

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

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

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

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

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

04-09-15

Faults

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

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

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

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

03-28-15

Rear Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-22-15

’71

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller on March 18, 2015 by Mark Hobin

'71 photo starrating-4stars.jpgBelfast 1971. It’s the height of the Northern Ireland conflict. But first, a little background for those unaware. The political war ran from 1968–1998. There’s the Loyalists, mostly Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Then there’s the Nationalists, a Catholic minority, who want to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. ’71 involves a particularly volatile area on Divis Street where the two warring communities live side by side. British solider Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is dropped into the middle of the combat to keep the peace. I suppose if you’re from the UK this conflict needs no introduction, but for the majority of viewers, the lack of info will be a bit confusing. I suppose it’s fitting that we aren’t given any backstory as to what is going on here. Our hero is rerouted from Germany and sent with little knowledge as to what he’s truly getting himself into.

What ‘71 has going for it is tense excitement. The story concerns when Gary becomes separated from his unit during a riot and needs to find his way back. It is an intense journey that is interesting because we desperately hope our young soldier can stay alive. French-born director Yann Demange fashions a tale with stunning immediacy. Shot in part with hand-held cameras, ‘71 has an almost documentary like approach. The style has led some to make comparisons to director Paul Greengrass whose Bloody Sunday (2002) covered a similar topic. It’s not always clear who is on what side in ‘71. Even the Catholic Nationalists have their own internal quarrels with the IRA. It doesn’t help that there are two(?) double agents and they look alike right down to their facial hair. Their shifting loyalties fluctuate throughout the film. An offhand remark by one at the end still leaves one guy’s loyalty in doubt even after the movie ends. In fact both groups of fighting ethnic factions look remarkably similar.

The funny thing is, despite the lack of information, the details are not really important in ‘71. True, the absence of sense prevents those intimately familiar with the situation to totally comprehend what’s going on. The script doesn’t benefit from a coherent distillation of history. However the story succeeds as a tension filled, entertaining film. It’s the dramatic urgency that compels us to watch. With the hazy specifics, we make connections between this and other conflicts. I thought of the Iraq War. You might make other associations. The takeaway is that this is about a man on the run. He simply wants to navigate the streets and alleyways just to make it back to his barracks alive. Viewed from that perspective, this is an extremely exciting, well made thriller.

03-15-15

Cinderella

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on March 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Cinderella photo starrating-4stars.jpgDisney has created a mini industry over the last 5 years in adapting fantasy into live action films: Alice in Wonderland, Oz The Great and Powerful, Maleficent. They have all achieved remarkable box office success. You wouldn’t think that adapting a fantasy would be difficult. After all, these stories have stood the test of time. While each version has had their moments, they’ve always fallen victim to traps of our current age that keep them from feeling like a timeless work of art….until now. The funny thing is, Cinderella should have been the most difficult to adapt. No Disney princess has been more harshly condemned than Cinderella. The criticisms by now legendary: “She’s one-dimensional.“ “She’s bland – too passive.” “She’s reactionary – waiting around for her prince instead of actively doing something to improve her situation.”. And yet the character endures. With Cinderella, the studio has for the first time, created a work that not only respects the classic fable, but still manages to enchant a contemporary audience.

Kenneth Branagh has accomplished something that is revolutionary in 2015. He doesn’t re-invent the fairy tale. He doesn’t modernize it. He doesn’t try to inject winking irony into the proceedings. Those maneuvers, while in vogue, have always negated the original text by descending into camp. Along with screenwriter Chris Weitz, Branagh has done a most inconceivable thing. He somehow cherishes the heart of the 1950 Disney animated movie while elevating the character into someone to admire. That one’s noble heart and unyielding virtue can itself bring reward. If after watching Cinderella, you still think its moral is that lonely girls who wait, will one day be rescued by a handsome prince, then you haven’t been paying attention.

With Cinderella free to just be what it is, the production can concentrate on making the story seem magical again. This is, after all, a fairy tale. It takes what the audience is familiar with and utilizes our modern age to make it better. One of the high points is the magical appearance of her fairy godmother played by Helena Bonham Carter. It’s nice to see the actress look beautiful in a fantasy again. Her pre-ball interaction with Cinderella is a pure delight.  Watching the pumpkin become a coach, mice become horses and lizards become footmen is a marvel of CGI that feels like just the right amount to dazzle the eyes, but not so much that it descends into a garish technological spectacle. The magic continues as Cinderella makes it to the reception at the castle. As Cinderella, Downton Abbey’s Lily James suggests a young Jessica Lange, particularly in her gorgeously made up face. The set piece at the ball is a sumptuous parade of choreographed dancers who spin and turn in unison. The party scene a dazzling display of color and merriment that is every bit as wondrous a moment as you can imagine.

Cinderella is comprised of a cast that perfectly interprets the individuals in the fairy tale. The script preserves the basis of these people while expounding upon them to give motivation for their behavior. The King (Derek Jacobi), The Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård), the Captain (Nonso Anozie), the wicked stepsisters (Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera) all have a depth to them. And what would any great drama be without an entertaining villain? Cate Blanchett makes an iconic Stepmother. She does an admirable job of portraying the exaggerated portrait of a hissable villain – yet believably rooted in the attitudes of a jealous adult who would put her own selfish desires before that of a child.

Cinderella has done the unthinkable – preserved the spirit of the original tale, while promoting an empowering message. Actress Lily James is a fetching heroine – a creature of integrity. The ”love at first sight” relationship between the Prince and Cinderella is kept simple, but clarified in a way to make it more commendable. You understand why Cinderella and the Prince are drawn to each other initially when they meet in the forest under more modest circumstances and then again at the ball. It is her selfless personality that is emphasized. When the Prince (Richard Madden) talks of the mysterious girl he met in the forest, his desire is motivated by Cinderella’s words. There is more to their relationship than mere beauty. The poor girl that has been treated like a maid in her own home, has finally felt what it’s like to be a princess. At the beginning of the story, Cinderella’s mother imparts these words of wisdom on her deathbed: “Have courage and be kind. Where there is kindness, there is goodness and where there is goodness, there is magic.” By holding fast to the notion that Cinderella is first and foremost the epitome of virtue, they have fashioned a heroine of female empowerment that is laudable simply because she is a compassionate human being. The concept is revolutionary.

03-12-15

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