Archive for the Drama Category

Begin Again

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Begin Again photo starrating-4stars.jpgBegin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.

Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.

The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.

Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.

Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.

07-02-14

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

06-24-14

Jersey Boys

Posted in Biography, Drama, Musical with tags on June 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jersey Boys photo starrating-2stars.jpgGod help the filmmaker that attempts to adapt a jukebox musical from the stage into a filmed movie. At its most basic, that type of production relies on previously released popular songs for its score. A success will enthrall a music lover who wants to hear a lot of beloved songs strung together in service of a loosely defined plot. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is sort of an example of that, but it originated as a film first. The jukebox musical on Broadway is a newer phenomenon. Examples date back to the 70s but it wasn’t until the 90s that the phenomenon really exploded. The triumph of Mamma Mia!, both as a performed play and as a movie really caused the trend to break out. Despite the film‘s huge box office, I still find it absolute torture to sit through. And I enjoy ABBA‘s music. Ditto the movie version of Rock of Ages, another bit of theater based on 70s hair metal bands. What works in a live Broadway show setting doesn’t usually translate so well into the film medium.

The Broadway smash Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. From working class roots to hit making sensation on the charts, their story made for a lively, if somewhat predictable musical detailing an Italian-American success story. How a nice sweet boy named Francesco Castelluccio became Frankie Valli. John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony award winning role. Joining Frankie are local bad boys Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The group finally reaches its hit making potential with the addition of keyboardist-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). They’re guided under the direction of producer Bob Crewe (played by Mike Doyle).

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation is so devoid of life it would be better suited to a mausoleum than a cinema. There is no joy in the narrative, just a mundane checklist as it applies one cliché after another on the group’s rise to the top: angry wife at home, check, infighting within the group, check, conclusion at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame complete with (horrible) old age makeup, check. Everything is presented at arm’s length as if the audience is observing an accident from afar. The Four Seasons rise to popularity is presented in the most blasé fashion as if the group expected to become a household name. Where is the joy in becoming stars? Even their parents, who play an important part in the early scenes, are never involved once they become famous. Later the Four Seasons appear on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Each event is presented like just another gig. It doesn’t help than the acting is rather bland, only really coming alive during those musical numbers. The best performances here are interesting for their camp value. Mike Doyle as flamboyant record producer Bob Crewe, gives a particularly swishy performance and Renée Marino as Frankie Valli’s wife is unintentionally funny when arguing with her husband. They’re both animated at least which is a lot more than I can say for the rest of the film.

It’s clear that Clint Eastwood doesn’t understand the first thing about making a musical. He grossly mishandles the source material. What made the original such a joy was the wonderful plethora of hit songs from the Four Seasons, not the generic Behind the Music-style story. Eastwood highlights the weakest aspects of the play while de-emphasizing the music. The elephantine length clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it feels twice that long. It is a laborious chore to sit through. It’s a full hour before we even hear a recognizable Four Seasons song. Granted the singing is the best part. That’s because the music is inherently good. But the musical numbers are realized with all the excitement of a trip to the dentist. They should be lively and innovative. Instead the actors come out, hit their mark, sway while they sing and leave. This is a movie for goodness sakes. You could do things here with color, lights, effects, to punch up the production that you can’t on the stage. Music videos take advantage of this fact, why can’t this movie? There’s one example of that spirit in the whole picture. It happens at the end as they are rolling the credits. Oh what Bill Condon or Baz Luhrmann could have done with this material.

06-22-14

Ida

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

Ida photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRoad movie about a religiously minded woman who joins forces with a skeptic. The two travelers are on a quest to uncover a truth obscured by a scandalous history. If that sounds like I’m describing 2013’s Philomena, you‘d be making the same associations as I. Yet there is a major difference. That Best Picture nominee was like a sentimentalized fabrication of Hollywood by comparison. Ida is the story of an orphaned teenager (Agata Trzebuchowska) in 1960s Poland on her away to becoming a nun. Before Ida’s vows can be taken, however, she is instructed to first pay a visit to her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Her only living relative has served Poland’s Stalinist regime as a former justice with an infamous reputation as a hanging judge.

A stark environment boldly highlights Ida’s introduction into a world she has never experienced. Through it all we are mesmerized by her face, a quiet 18 year old who has been fairly sheltered thus far in her young existence. Ida’s reactions are rather dependent on visual cues. Her beautiful but stoic countenance barely registering the range of varying emotions you know she deeply understands. Her devout behavior is a contrast to Wanda, a woman who smokes, drinks, and enjoys the company of men. Wanda reveals notable details of Ida’s life with an unblinking pragmatism.

Ida is an anti-movie in today’s world of visually enhanced 3D, color saturated computer generated imagery. Austere, black and white cinematography utilizes a 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s not in widescreen folks. Did I mention it has subtitles? It’s slow moving and subdued, but still a deeply felt contemplation. The production is full of beautifully composed compositions in somber detail. I sensed the inspiration of director Ingmar Bergman. You might perceive Roberto Rossellini.  Ida’s spiritual expedition is an awakening. But it’s also an examination of her aunt. This is actually the study of two women: the worldly vs. the innocent.  Their pilgrimage, both a physical and mental one, plays out over a scant 80 minutes. It definitely feels longer given the deliberate pace of the narrative. Still, the picture is never boring as Ida’s journey of self discovery is consistently compelling.

06-18-14

The Immigrant

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on June 11, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Immigrant photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s 1921. Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) sail to New York from their native Poland. They’re escaping their bleak homeland in search of a fresh start. Unfortunately Magda is quarantined at Ellis Island because of suspected lung disease. Meanwhile Ewa is almost deported due to an “incident” on the boat ride over. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) notices her ability to speak English and bribes an officer to let her go. Bruno runs a burlesque show and he hires Ewa to do the sewing. From that point on, their lives intertwine and they will never be the same. Bruno also manages a side business where he arranges, shall we say, appointments with the female performers in the show. Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician who performs at the burlesque house, becomes infatuated with Ewa. Could he be her knight in shining armor? But he also makes waves. This triggers a dark jealous streak in Bruno whose fondness for Ewa has grown over time.

Director James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night) has such a way with these character based dramas. The Immigrant is another fine example. The screenplay details the wants and needs of dissimilar people at odds with one another. James Gray and co-writer Ric Menello previously worked together in 2008 on Two Lovers. The Immigrant is the saga of what three disparate people must do in order to survive. The drama is so affecting. Ewa is that most exquisite of personalities. Seemingly plain and unkempt but with genuine allure, both physically and emotionally. Her beauty shines through. She needs to raise money to get her sister out of the infirmary on Ellis Island. It isn’t long before she succumbs to doing things she’d rather not do. The script reflects upon her moral struggle. How far is she willing to compromise her virtue in exchange for a noble goal? The idea is handled in a fascinating yet respectful way.

Marion Cotillard portrays such sincere yearning. If she is the heart of The Immigrant then Joaquin Phoenix is the soul. In their 4th picture together Director James Gray extracts another brilliant performance from his frequent collaborator. Phoenix is riveting as the morally troublesome Bruno. His behavior includes distasteful business ventures. Yet there is a positive nuance to this mortal that gently persuades the audience to forgive him. His elemental desire to do the best thing for Ewa underlies a palpable tragedy. Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) complicates matters for him considerably. They both pursue Ewa.

The Immigrant is a beautifully realized period film that presents a knotty tangle of ethical decisions. It’s rather understated and probably why director James Gray’s work charms critics over mainstream audiences. The three protagonists are fully realized creations that captivate. What superficially appears like a love triangle is actually much deeper and morally complex. Gray has a talent for extracting raw emotion. Additionally, the production has a nice feel for time and place. Costumes and cinematography superbly add to the historical detail. The filmmaker grew up in New York City and it’s a place he returns to again and again in his movies. This is a story that upholds the promise of America, but doesn’t deny the cold harsh reality.

06-04-14

The Fault in Our Stars

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on June 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Fault in Our Stars photo starrating-4stars.jpgDespite her protestations, a sixteen-year-old girl is forced to attend a support group. Hazel suffers from stage IV thyroid cancer and her parents have determined she is depressed. That emotion would most certainly be a reasonable one, but melancholy would probably be a more apt description of her state of mind. One day seventeen-year-old Augustus Waters walks into the group. He used to play basketball before he was fitted for a prosthetic leg. Though he is a bone cancer survivor, he is merely there to encourage his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff).

In support group Gus worries about “oblivion” – that is not being remembered – after he has passed on. Hazel is an acerbic pragmatist.  She feels his fear is unimportant and tells him to get over it. Their little exchange is cute and it lights the spark for a friendship. Possibly more. While some advancements in the narrative can be predicted, others are rather unexpected. For example, they each recommend their favorite book to one another. Her chosen novel leads to an encounter with its reclusive author (Willem Dafoe). It is just one of several fascinating developments.

On the surface, one might view The Fault in Our Stars as just another chronicle of star-crossed lovers. The thought-provoking title was inspired from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Cassius says to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Here the title has apparently the exact opposite meaning, that our stars, or destiny, can be cruel through no fault of our own. While the drama concerns the ups and downs of suffering from an illness, it actually has a much more philosophical appeal as a tale that captures the awkwardness of adolescence.

John Green’s 2012 teen lit best seller The Fault in Our Stars is faithfully adapted by Scott Eric Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They are the talented writing team behind young adult successes (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. Fault is another shining example of the genre. The saga is ambitious for the depth of feeling explored within their relationship. The screenwriters have a nice facility for extracting genuine emotion that doesn’t ever seem forced or overwrought. Gus and Hazel‘s exchanges are funny, intelligent, and insightful. But what truly separates an account that tackles a subject as inherently manipulative as cancer, is the sincerity of the performances.

Shailene Woodley (Hazel) and Ansel Elgort (Gus) are an extraordinary team. At times Augustus seems too good to be true. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Hazel asks. Augustus half smiles “Because you’re beautiful. I enjoy looking at beautiful people.” Cue the biggest contented “Aw!” from my mostly female audience. To be fair, that corny dialogue is taken directly from the book. Gus pontificates in soliloquies. His undeniable charisma sometimes drifts into ersatz charm. Occasionally the cuteness quotient beaks the scale and the preciousness seems like it might derail the production. It never does though. The two remain an engaging pair. Their effortless rapport details passion, doubt, and insecurity. The way their relationship unfolds is particularly affecting. The couple exudes a substantial amount of chemistry together that is, pardon the pun, “faultless”. It is organic and natural. Their considerable heart is a rarity these days. That is what separates this from other romantic dramas of the past. Equally touching as the bond between Jenny and Oliver from Love Story. Perhaps even more so. I always felt Jenny was a bit caustic for my tastes anyway. Hazel and Gus are a memorable twosome. The Fault in Our Stars is a love story for the ages.

06-07-14

The Lunchbox

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on May 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Lunchbox photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA lonely housewife lovingly cooks a spectacular lunch for her husband at work. Regrettably he has lost interest in her and her attempt is meant to rekindle a spark. The feast is accidentally delivered to an accountant who regularly has his order made by a local restaurant. After her husband comes home, he offers no reaction to the delectable lunch and she realizes he never even received the meal that she prepared. However she’s intrigued that the metal tins have come back completely empty. This inspires a correspondence with the stranger via messages passed back and forth in the containers.

The Lunchbox is dependable comfort food that still manages to be a little unconventional. Our tale takes place in Mumbai, India.  We’re introduced to their historically reliable delivery system where a network of 5,000 dabbawalas deliver lunches to office workers so they can eat a home cooked meal.  The picturesque culture adds a uniqueness to the story at hand.  Actor Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spider-Man, Life of Pi) is Saajan, a withdrawn widower and actress Nimrat Kaur is Ila, the lonesome woman with whom he converses through notes. They’re two yearning souls and they engage our emotions. In this age of social networking and email, the quaint reliance on handwritten notes is rather poetic.  Their interaction touches the heart. The emotion feels fresh and innovative despite the fact that the narrative concept really isn’t. This subject has been done before. Most famously with The Shop Around the Corner which in turn was the basis for You’ve Got Mail.   It’s worth mentioning the supporting players as well. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh, his replacement at work that Saajan must train. Shaikh’s passion for learning is infectious. There’s also Ila’s hilarious friendship with her never seen, but loudly heard upstairs neighbor.  Ila affectionately calls the woman “Auntie” and her advice is good as gold.

For a movie that relies heavily on the seductive qualities of food, The Lunchbox rarely dwells on the culinary delights prepared. It’s hard not to think the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity to seduce the audience with the wonders of Indian cuisine. After all, in this parable food speaks louder than words ever could. What we do get is a nice romance that unfolds in a very delicate and deliberate manner. Ila is melancholy but radiant. Saajan is a stoic sourpuss. Both mature as a result of knowing each other. There’s real drama in their interaction. At times it’s so subtle and precious, we have to fill in the blanks as to what people are feeling. This translates into what they ultimately do. I won’t spoil the conclusion, but it’s as if the screenwriters think a tidy resolution is too predictable. Still, there’s a lot to love, particularly the sensitive relationship that evolves among the principals. It’s just that the desultory ending is a serious letdown after such a promising buildup. I found it frustratingly unsatisfying. The finish left me hungry for more.

05-28-14

Chef

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on May 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Chef photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgChef is about following your passions. I love the fact that writer/director/star Jon Favreau still has time for these pet projects. An executive chef drama doesn’t exactly scream mainstream Hollywood blockbuster.  Jon Favreau started out writing more intimate ventures in the beginning of his career. Swingers is a classic to people of a certain generation. After Jon Favreau’s achievement directing Iron Man 1 & 2, it would seem sensible to continue with big budget Hollywood fare. Let’s face it, that is where the money is. Perhaps it was the middling success of Cowboys & Aliens that prompted this return to his roots. The narrative thrust could easily be taken as a metaphor for his own life.  Chef is clearly a personal project. It concerns rekindling your lust for life. Certainly making a living doing what you genuinely love, but also placing an emphasis on things that matter like family.

When Ramsey Michel, an important food blogger announces his visit to a popular LA eatery, head chef Carl Caspar sees it as his opportunity to get creative and dazzle him with new creations. But restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) will have none of it. He wants to rely on their old standbys, dishes that have long been a staple of the popular restaurant. Carl follows orders. The result gets a nasty review that reads more like a personal attack. It’s interesting to note that there is a subtlety to this critic character portrayed by Oliver Platt. We’re obviously meant to not like him. However his negative review is borne out of a frustrated disappointment from eating uninspired cuisine. In truth, Ramsey Michel deeply believes chef Carl to be talented. Anyways, the bad experience has repercussions. Carl is inspired to make some changes in his life.

You need not be a foodie to appreciate the merits of Chef. The film was surely made by people who appreciate culinary delights, but this passion translates on screen to the regular movie-goer. One of the things that Chef gets really right has nothing to do with food at all. Our digital media age and the power of social networks, in particular Twitter, is perfectly represented. Carl’s feud with the aforementioned food critic begins online. The ability for news to travel throughout the Internet and go viral, that is spread in seconds to the masses, is exploited with humorous results. Jon Favreau is sort of an innocent and his ignorance to the service is humorously explained by his tech savvy son. His awkwardness to the technology and its effect on his business are fun to watch. Emjay Anthony’s performance as the smart tyke is refreshing. He’s precocious but not in an annoying way.

And then of course there’s the food. Chef is the latest in a long line of food porn movies. I’m talking Babette’s Feast (1987), Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Big Night (1996), Ratatouille (2007) Julie & Julia (2009). Movies that lovingly present the beauty of food so that it elicits a physical reaction from an audience. The creations are so seductive you feel as though you could almost taste them. If I need to further my case, right after seeing this movie, I felt compelled to visit La Bodeguita Del Medio, a local hangout in Palo Alto and ordered the Cuban sandwich, one of many dishes highlighted. I suggest going to the movie hungry because you will want to eat immediately after, even on a full stomach. If there’s a quibble, it’s that his success all comes too easily. I would’ve preferred a bit more conflict. The story doesn’t yield many surprises. The script encourages one to do what they love. Good luck will follow. Maybe not pursuing what we truly love is motivated by a fear of failure. Chef is a dear statement from Jon Favreau and I loved what he was putting down. It’s a unique picture, particularly for the Summer. We need more movies like this. You should seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

05-17-14

Belle

Posted in Drama with tags on May 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Belle photo starrating-4stars.jpgBelle is the story of a bi-racial woman who was the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy officer. Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) is a well meaning man, who wants to do the right thing after the death of Belle’s mother, a slave of African ancestry. Apparently people were aware that this sort of thing happened, they just didn’t talk about it. While off to fight, he leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Chief Justice, at his estate of Kenwood House. He and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) are also raising another niece, Elizabeth Murray, and so the two will be raised as sisters of sorts. Surrounded by wealth and privilege, her upbringing is going to test the social mores of the day. On the surface, Belle is one of those well meaning period dramas that seeks to educate while it entertains.

I must admit, I am a sucker for a good costume drama. A British screenwriter of Nigerian ancestry, Misan Sagay was inspired by a real 18th century painting that currently hangs at Scotland’s Scone Palace. It presents the racially mixed Dido Elizabeth Belle as an equal with her white sister/cousin, Elizabeth Murray. At first, the drama concerns Belle’s place in society. Her race and class have different dictates than that of her sister, In theory, these period pieces often become victims to anachronistic sensibilities as colored through the historical revisionism of modern views. We can watch from a enlightened distance with 300 years of history on our side. Belle is good enough to fit comfortably with the works of Jane Austen. If the social consciousness seems a bit 2014, rest assured the melodrama has a genuine feel for time and place. That these qualms never really become an issue while watching Belle is testament to the stirring performances of the main cast.

Where Belle really gets interesting is when it delves into the history of the era. The details of the Zong slave-ship massacre becomes a landmark case in the courts. Lord Mansfield is the Chief Justice presiding over the case when the insurance company refuses to pay for the loss of the human cargo. He must determine whether the slave trading company can collect on the slaves that were deliberately thrown overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. Will Belle’s influence have an effect on him? Woven into this account is a would-be suitor (James Norton) whose mother is tempted by Belle’s sizeable dowry. After all she is still heir to her father‘s fortune. His brother is a hissable villain played by Malfoy, er uh pardon me, Tom Felton. There’s also an idealistic abolitionist (Sam Reid) of a lower class who provides some romantic spark. The cast is uniformly great, but none better than Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a British woman of South African descent. She embodies the title role with dignity and grace. Her personality is restrained, yet resolved. A gorgeous countenance highlighted by her remarkably expressive eyes which convey all manner of emotion without words. Belle is captivating and presages the arrival of an exciting new talent.

05-11-14

The Railway Man

Posted in Biography, Drama, War with tags on May 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Railway Man photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgEric Lomax was a British Army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. He subsequently wrote a book entitled The Railway Man. In it he recounted his horrific persecution on the Thai-Burma Railway during World War II.  The same setting detailed in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Remember that film? If not, then go rent that profoundly better movie instead. Seriously. Just go. I command you.

The Railway Man begins in 1980 where Scottish World War II veteran Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets pretty Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) for the first time on a train in a scene that is meant to be delightfully adorable. Kidman does what she can.  However given her stature, we keep expecting the star to become a more integral part. The underwritten role would’ve benefited form a lesser known actress because it’s more of a accessory than a fully formed individual. They both settle into a comfortable existence together as a married couple, but wouldn’t you know it, trouble looms on the horizon. As biopics are often wont to do, this idyllic life is only presented to contrast with the real point of the story. You see Lomax is tortured by repressed memories of his time spent as a Japanese POW. Cue the flashback sequence, a dependable device to be sure, but the bane of every manufactured biopic that has ever been made.

The Railway Man suffers from erratic pacing. These flashback sequences comprise the bulk of the second half of the film. They’re set at the POW camp with actor Jeremy Irvine portraying Lomax as a younger man. He does what he can with a pretty sizeable role, but there is a disconnect. The disturbing events of the past juxtaposed with the placid view of him as an adult don’t jive well. The back and forth is jarring and doesn’t flow into the overall narrative. He builds a radio which the Japanese Army believes he is using to transmit signals. As a result, he must endure the horrors of an abusive prison which include waterboarding.  I get that it’s told from Lomax’s POV but his captors might as well be cardboard cutouts because they have no depth or personality. They merely serve one purpose, to be the antagonists from which Lomax must suffer.   They’re somewhat given a face in actor Tanroh Ishida as Takashi Nagase, an interpreter.

Languidly paced biography is handsomely mounted and well acted but this period melodrama is inert. Colin Firth exemplifies respectful reverence in his depiction of Eric Lomax as a soft genteel man haunted by the past. His posttraumatic stress disorder continues to weigh on him. That sets the stage for the climax. Lomax learns that that Takashi Nagase is now employed as a tour guide. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada is him as an adult. The Japanese soldier who oversaw his torture in 1942 now works at a museum on the very grounds of the prison camp where the two men first met. In an effort to reconcile his feelings, Lomax re-visits Burma several decades later. On paper the developments sound fascinating, but what is undoubtedly an important account is given a very conventional treatment. The film builds to this meeting as a highlight of sorts. Will he find peace or revenge? Colin Firth’s portrait of restrained passivity is both admirable and frustrating. The biopic engages at irregular intervals but it’s so carefully modulated that it feels like an artifact from a bygone era. The Railway Man is ultimately a positive tale and I suppose it gets some sympathy points for that.

05-04-14

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