Archive for the Drama Category

The Danish Girl

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

 photo danish_girl_zpskpzxg9gw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Danish Girl is a partially fictionalized biography about the very real Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. The account imagines the experience of Einar Wegener, a man living in Europe who underwent a series of procedures from 1930–1931. It is based on a 2000 novel by American writer David Ebershoff. The tale begins in the early 1920s in Copenhagen, Denmark. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a successful landscape artist married to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), also an aspiring painter and illustrator. However Einar is the more well regarded of the two. Gerda just hasn’t found the right muse. One day Gerda asks if her husband would stand in for their ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard) who hasn’t arrived as the model. He dons female stockings and shoes so that his wife can finish painting that part of the picture. Einar is oddly comforted by the experience.

At first, Gerda seems remarkably receptive to her husband’s inclination to dress in women’s clothes. In fact, she promotes it initially, helping him disguise as a woman to attend a society party so he won’t be recognized. To her, it’s a game that she encourages not knowing the extent to which it starts to cement Einar’s feelings. They have fun passing him off as Lili, Einar’s visiting female cousin. However the game goes too far when Gerda catches her husband’s interaction with another party guest (Ben Whishaw). The previously unflappable Gerda, is a bit unnerved.

The production is a gorgeous period piece of costumes and manners. In the 1920s there was no transsexual or transgender vocabulary. Gender identity vs. sexual orientation were not even understood as separate ideas by most of the medical establishment. Einar’s case was unheard of at the time. While the chronicle is ostensibly a drama about the metamorphosis of Einar Wegener, what captivates the mind more is the journey of his wife. Gerda’s realization of how deep her husband’s feelings go is the most compelling thrust of the narrative. Whether that is intentional is perhaps irrelevant if the story is interesting — and it is. However it is at the expense of truly deep comprehension of what makes Einar Wegener tick. The jump from putting on women’s clothes to getting a “sex-change” operation is such a massive leap. The screenplay lacks the required depth to explain the idea in the mind of the viewer. As a result our sympathies start to align with Gerda, trying to wrap our heads around Einar’s struggle that leads to a difficult decision we don’t fully grasp.

Despite the film’s title, Gerda Wegener is the more intriguing presence as the wife. The production begins so tastefully restrained and sensitive that it initially resembles any number of well mounted period pieces that incur respect. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander give compelling performances that sell the narrative. Eddie Redmayne has the showier role. At one point Einar visits a seedy part of Paris to see a peep-show — but not for pleasure. No he is actually there to study the graceful movements of the stripper who performs for him. It’s a memorable vignette. Redmayne ably demonstrates the persona of a man who became a woman with the right mixture of sincerity and uncertainty that the part requires. Yet Vikander slowly seizes our focus. Her journey becomes just as important as that of the title character. Gerda’s gradual understanding that her marriage will forever change is a dramatic story arc. Her strength of resolve to indulge her husband, is kind of incredible. This would be true of any age, but particularly given this era. Yet her support never seems unnatural or anachronistic. We are fascinated by this woman, oddly even more so than her husband’s landmark decision.

11-10-15

Carol

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 30, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo carol_zps8paop2ot.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe story is simple. Carol details a relationship in the 1950s. In this case, between Carol Aird, an elegant society woman who resides in the upscale suburbs of New Jersey and a struggling young salesgirl named Therese Belivet who works in a Manhattan department store. Carol is going through a difficult divorce while trying to maintain custody of her child. In contrast, Therese, who is at least a decade younger, is on the precipice of a new life with her fiancé. This pair couldn’t be more different. In fact Carol is a reflection in contrasts. Certainly there’s the social disparity – that these women from two different worlds would seemingly have little in common. But then, more importantly, there’s the departure from what convention allows and from what their heart compels them to do. The narrative is a study in desire.

Initially, Carol’s chance encounter with Therese occurs while buying a gift in the toy department. What follows is a tastefully polite discussion that belies an attraction that is hinted at but not acknowledged, at least not immediately. The conversation ignites a spark that draws them ever closer. Cate Blanchett is beautifully vague at first. A refined creation with curved blonde hair styled in waves, bright red lips against her porcelain skin, wearing a scarlet dress and hat to match, ensconced in fur. Rooney Mara is waifish and shy. Doe-eyed and timid, her beauty suggests Audrey Hepburn in the face, but frostier in temperament. Perhaps the delicate visage of a young Jean Simmons exuding a curious intensity that hides a pain she cannot discuss. Given the two leads, the scene, as well as the entire film, is also a contemplation on etiquette between the mores of society and the amorous impulses that cause people to deviate from what is considered accepted behavior.

Carol is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) bestseller. The Price of Salt was the renowned author’s second publication. Although back in 1952, it was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan due to the book’s unconventional content. Sold in drugstores and mass-marketed as pulp fiction, it was priced at $0.25 and branded with the tagline “The novel of a love society forbids”. The idea was actually motivated by an incident in the author’s own life while working at Bloomingdale’s, a job that lasted a mere two weeks. The inspiration was real, the subsequent relationship however was a fabrication. Nearly forty years would pass before Patricia Highsmith would even admit to being the publication’s true author.

Todd Haynes’ sumptuous adaptation is a luxurious rumination that defines cinematic art. The director is truly in his element. This is very much a companion piece to his 2004 period drama Far From Heaven, a film that grafted a modern theme onto the kind of movies that Douglas Sirk made. What made those “women’s pictures” so evocative was the way they mined feeling as some sort of majestic gesture. Those grand, gorgeously expressive melodramas were ardent soap operas.

Carol is an exquisite drama that manages to capture a moment in time, not as it really was, but how we romanticize it to be. The polite nod, the gracious smile, the unspoken thought, all confirm a cultivated behavior that complements a rich visual tableau. Whether it be costumes so luxe, you can almost feel the fabric’s texture or a set design so vibrant, you believe you could step right into the frame, the display is presented with such incredible detail the screen positively bursts with the spirit of the age. Composer Carter Burwell’s score creates an elegiac mood with strings and woodwinds. Jazzy tunes of the era are peppered throughout. The whole experience is that you’ve actually unearthed some long lost work, rather than watching an idealized recreation.  All of this would be for nothing if it didn’t have personalities to give the production life. Blanchett and Mara own the drama. They alone carry the thrust of the chronicle on their talented shoulders. The picture belongs to both of them. While they occasionally behave as if what they’re doing is no big deal — odd given the time period — they both captivate the viewer with their bewitching performances. The film positively aches with their emotion.

11-05-15

Creed

Posted in Drama, Sports with tags on November 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo creed_zpsdktsugdb.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBefore this picture, the need for another “Rocky” movie was right up there with the urgency for another Friday the 13th installment. Creed is the latest entry in the franchise following 2006’s Rocky Balboa. The series stopped using numbers after Rocky V because well it’s more classy I suppose. This is the first Rocky movie not written by Stallone, but judging from the story, it may as well have been. Creed (or Rocky VII, let’s be honest) is essentially a note for note remake of the original Rocky. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad. On the contrary it’s surprisingly solid. It’s just that this is a tried and true formula. It has worked before and I’m happy to report it works again.

In this episode, Michael B. Jordan portrays Adonis Creed or “Donny” as the son of Rocky’s late rival/friend Apollo. He’s the titular star, an underdog with a shot at the big time and something to prove. Sylvester Stallone is still Rocky but now he’s in the manager capacity, kinda like Burgess Meredith as Mickey. There’s also Tessa Thompson as love interest Adrian, er uh excuse me, Bianca. She’s a singer but suffering from hearing loss. Instead of Apollo, it’s “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the title holder that Donny must challenge. Phylicia Rashād is the extended family member of the narrative. Mary Anne is Apollo’s widow but not Donny’s biological mother. Donny was apparently the illegitimate son of Rocky’s former opponent, a confusing detail that isn’t very clear at first.

Creed announces its focus up front. This isn’t a tale about Rocky. Michael B. Jordan personifies a restless spirit in the finance world that quits his job to pursue a love of boxing. Deep down he’s always been a combative fighter, a product of the LA foster care system. Donny heads to Philadelphia and coaxes Rocky Balboa out of retirement to train him as a professional boxer. There’s no question that Michael B. Jordan can physically embody the part. The actor has packed on so much muscle since 2012’s Chronicle it’s ridiculous. Substantially he’s a completely different person. Yet he never breaks out into a fully realized and unique character that subverts expectations. Rocky drank raw eggs, trained in a meat locker and awkwardly pursued an even more socially awkward girl from the pet store. Donny is simply a smart guy. However he’s an incredible athlete too and the pugilistic displays do pack a punch. Director Ryan Coogler stages two fight scenes and the results are mesmerizing. You experience every connect as if you felt the punch yourself. I wish they had been longer.

Creed is a perfectly enjoyable flick. It should really score with audiences unfamiliar with the 1976 film. Rocky was a landmark. I mean c’mon it was nominated for TEN Academy Awards and won 3 including Best Picture. Subsequent entries were less critically exalted but no less crowd-pleasing. What made Rocky III and Rocky IV so entertaining was the charismatic opponents that cast a legendary shadow. Remember when Clubber Lang told Adrian to come to his apartment to “come see a real man” or when Ivan Drago uttered “I must break you” in his thick Russian accent. Those villains were iconic in their mythic evil. Tony Bellew is the nasty opponent in this entry, a Liverpudlian bruiser. While the individual, who is a cruiserweight prizefighter in real life, has an authenticity, he’s not enough of that larger than life personality that can carry a production. Nonetheless, the picture utilizes enough mythology to curry our favor. The effort is impossible to hate. There’s the “Rocky Steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Apollo’s red, white & blue trunks, Bill Conti’s soaring theme during the climax and most importantly, Sylvester Stallone. The 69 year old actor settles into the mentor role like a comfortable pair of shoes. He’s a wise, old soul and his presence in this film feels like a comforting hug. Stallone’s performance is worth the price of admission.

11-19-15

Brooklyn

Posted in Drama, Romance on November 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo brooklyn_ver3_zpsdyjwt9ge.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgMovies concerning the cultural assimilation of an immigrant into American life are rare. Nostalgic period pieces about the experience are rarer still. Into this atmosphere comes Brooklyn. In stark contrast to the current zeitgeist, it’s like a invigorating breath of positive air. That’s not to say her new country is a bed of roses. However opportunity does exist for those with an indomitable resolve. The drama is a paean to the spirit of new beginnings, a fresh identity in a foreign land. It’s unapologetically old fashioned and I mean that in the most grand, romantic, heartwarming sense of the word.

On paper, the plot is perfectly ordinary. Eilis Lacey is around 20 years old and living in 1950s Ireland. Things could be better as her life has become stagnant. She journeys to the U.S. searching for better opportunities. Eilis deals with simple problems: the boat trip across, her accommodations in America, starting a new job, going to school, the people she meets, homesickness. A chronicle so straightforward, the sum total of which could be summarized in 2 sentences. The relationships she develops and her conflicting feelings regarding her past and her current experience come into play. I won’t spoil with specifics. We’ve seen this material before.  What makes Brooklyn so affecting is the fully realized portrait of American life, as seen through the eyes of an outsider.  The entire composition is rather profound. Brooklyn is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín. The screenplay is adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley (Boy A). Brooklyn somehow presents the subject in a way that feels innovative and new. The depiction is honest, sweet, lovely and sincere.

At the heart of Brooklyn is Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant played by Saoirse Ronan. Her talent was famously recognized in 2007 after a supporting part in Atonement for which she received an Oscar nomination. She’s all but assured of another, this time in the Best Actress category. The film’s narrative rests completely on the shoulders of the ingenue. She beautifully upholds the story in every scene with poise and class. She’s supported by a fairly large cast. Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Bríd Brennan all support her in key roles. Every single actor having a chance to shine with their rich performances. But this is Saoirse Ronan’s show and she commands the screen.

It has been said that eyes are the window to the soul. Director John Crowley utilizes this to his advantage. Sometimes the camera simply lingers on Saoirse’s expressive face. Her countenance speaks volumes, but there’s also a sophistication just in the way she carries herself. She recalls classic Hollywood with her hypnotic presence. You’ll marvel that this actress is only 21 years old. The maturity of her performance is nothing less than a flawless achievement that elevates the entire film. A Best Picture nomination somehow eluded Avalon & In America, pleasantly optimistic tales about immigration. I’m hoping that changes with Brooklyn.

11-11-15

Spotlight

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spotlight photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe difference between when a story explodes in the media and the time it actually happens, can be two totally different things. Just ask Bill Cosby. Such is the case with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. On January 6, 2002 the Boston Globe ran the first of many reports detailing a shocking pattern of molestation and cover-ups that had been going on for years. The ignominy went deeper than the actual acts. It was also that the Church knew about the crimes and knowingly shuttled priests to different parishes when incidents would rise. The events in the Archdiocese had local repercussions. Cardinal Bernard Law ultimately resigned as the Archbishop of Boston for his administrative role in the crime. However what originally appeared to be a problem within the local diocese caused other victims to come forward in parishes across the United States. The sheer number of people attested to a pattern that went back decades. The ensuing scandal spread and became a nationwide crisis for the Catholic Church.

Confession: The scandal had far reaching consequences. The victims had been harmed directly but the news also disturbed faithful members of the Church. As a practicing Roman Catholic, the scandal shook me. It was a powerful reminder that a religious organization is not God. Of course I knew what Spotlight was about even before I saw it. This was going to be a painful reminder of a very embarrassing chapter in the Catholic Church. What I didn’t expect, however was the balanced level at which the movie treats faith. At one point in their investigation, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team comes into contact with an ex-priest turned psychiatrist. He was not involved in any wrongdoing, but they wanted his comment on it. Incredulous they ask over a phone call, how he can still be a practicing Catholic. His response, “My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.”

First and foremost, Spotlight is about investigative journalism. The story itself is secondary to the way reporters conduct their procedure. The narrative is fashioned as a finely tuned ensemble piece. It’s fascinating that an entire film can be constructed simply out of conversations. But rest assured, these are extremely eye opening discussions. Liev Schreiber is the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron, presented as a Jewish outsider in the largely Roman Catholic enclave of Boston. At first the exposé appears to be about John J. Geoghan, one former priest found to have a history of abuse, but Marty suspects a systemic problem. Before they publish, he presses the team to dig deeper. Was the hierarchy of the Boston diocese aware of this misconduct? Editor Baron pays a courtesy call to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). Their chat highlights a happily upbeat Law, who mistakenly assumes the Boston Globe will work WITH the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Spotlight is the investigative unit. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James portray the core reporters of the team. As Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., John Slattery oversees them. Spotlight certainly puts the Catholic Church on notice for the way it handled the allegations, but it also has a harsh critique for journalists themselves, even the very ones who finally broke the story. Interestingly, all of the the “Spotlight” reporters admit to being lapsed Catholics. Despite having fallen from organized religion, their lack of desire to offend their readership underlies their hesitancy at first. The way news stories are buried and ignored, sometimes for years, is a very key point of the drama. The information was always there. It just wasn’t reported properly. Lawyers (played by Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are on opposite sides that have represented the plaintiffs and defendants for years. They each have extensive knowledge of the cases and are key to understanding the depth of this problem.

Spotlight is a pragmatic and clear headed approach to investigative journalism. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win) and his co-writer Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing) do not sensationalize the subject. For example, there are no flashback scenes of the abuse. Discussions with the now adult victims are carefully handled as fact finding interviews. At one point, a man only offers he was “molested” as a boy. Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, gracefully presses that he needs to be more specific as that word can have a variety of meanings to different people. Our witness to the rest of their conversation ends there. In a later scene, Sacha knocks on the door of another former clergy member: Father Ronald H. Paquin (Richard O’Rourke). Their brief, matter-of-fact interaction is one of the most memorable dialogues in the entire film. It stays with you because it reveals so much in mere mommets. The trust we place in trusted figures of authority, the role of journalists to report the news, the way scandals affect our faith, the lasting effects of sexual abuse – Spotlight touches on all of these issues and more in a 128 minute runtime that flies by. It does all this in the guise of a straightforward drama. The account could have been about almost any report, as long as it were true. The nature of this story obviously gives the chronicle an emotional component, but Spotlight is somewhat dispassionate. Yet that weakness of sorts is also its strength. The drama is efficient, objective and direct and that’s exactly what good news journalism should be.

11-09-15

Beasts of No Nation

Posted in Drama, War with tags on November 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Beasts of No Nation photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWar is hell. The idea has been promoted before and here it is presented once again. This time through a series harrowing images that remain in the mind’s eye well after this combat film is over. The tale concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy affected by an unnamed civil war raging in his country. His mother and sisters escape, but his father is shot and killed. Agu is essentially kidnapped by militants who coerce him to join their rebel force. Their mercenary unit is headed up by a megalomaniacal leader only referred to as Commandant (Idris Elba).

Agu’s awareness of evil expands as the conflict rages on. This conversion forms the narrative in the capable hands of newcomer Abraham Attah. He is fascinating, both thoughtful and sincere. It’s a revelatory performance and the most compelling reason to discuss the picture. Idris Elba as the Commandant is also effective as an intimidating presence overseeing this rag tag team of soldiers. His dominant authority over these young men and boys as he molds them into soldiers is chilling. As the full extent of his predatory abuse is revealed, he becomes an even more reprehensible individual. The pessimism inherent in the perspective adheres close to convention. It is his meeting with the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) where the limits of the Commandant’s power are revealed. This is where the script finally explores something slightly more innovative.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has shown a facility with different genres. He has gone from the Mexican gangland adventure Sin Nombre to an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This time he’s adapting another book, the 2005 debut novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Little detail is given as to what conflict this is and for what exactly are these various warring factions fighting. The lack of political context or commentary is a bit of a misstep in a chronicle about people who do indeed pick sides. Our protagonist, however doesn’t pick a side. He’s merely swept up into the maelstrom of violence. The saga revels in one war crime after another. The way people intellectually justify their point of view is clearly not the point. Beasts of No Nation is about a child’s loss of innocence. Not a novel idea, but at least one presented with a pair of laudable performances.

Note: Beasts of No Nation debuted simultaneously on Netflix and to theaters in limited release. It’s a tough watch particularly at a punishing 2 hours 17 minutes. The temptation to break away from this bleak story is pretty high. I admittedly did not see this in one sitting. I do consider my wavering desire to finish the movie, relevant. Definitely more of an immersive experience uninterrupted in a theater.

11-02-15

Suffragette

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Suffragette photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgYou’d think a period piece concerning the women’s suffragette movement in the U.K. would be an uplifting slam dunk. I mean championing a women’s right to vote is not exactly a controversial notion unless, according to the movie’s closing credits, you’re Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of accessible femininism that everybody can get behind. Unfortunately what should have been an unimpeachable drama becomes a tedious chore with a mangled narrative that thwarts an inspiring true story.

The screenplay has fashioned the UK suffrage crusade around a fictional group of working class women. If your knowledge about their struggle is centered around actress Glynis Johns singling “Sister Suffragette” in Mary Poppins, then this movie should be quite an education. Yes they do in fact wear those sashes and bonnets, but they aren’t interested in peaceful protest. These women are violent. First it starts with throwing rocks at store front windows. Then it’s on to blowing things up, first mailboxes, then the prime minister’s home.

Meryl Streep pops up briefly to inspire the masses as a leader of the British suffragette campaign. And by briefly, I mean if you use the restroom, you’ll miss her. She plays political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the few roles literally based on a real person. Women have been fighting for more representation in Parliament for some 50 years, she laments. Civil disobedience has now given way to a radicalized cause prone to violence as the sole route to change. She inspires Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to go from law abiding housewife to rabble rouser. “We break windows, we burn things, because war’s the only language men listen to” she cries.

A great actor can rise above conventional, even bland, filmmaking. I thought this as I watched Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. She is convincing as Maud, a working wife and mother, who is indirectly recruited into the movement. This occurs when she is asked to read a speech detailing horrible conditions at the laundry to a cabinet committee, on behalf of her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud does this because her friend’s face is badly bruised after having been beat by her husband. It would seem that condition would actually lend more power to Violet’s words, but that idea is never even considered. Carey Mulligan as Maud is barely concerned about the vote at the beginning, but her transformation into a raging extremist becomes a compelling character arc.

Maud’s conversion from mild mannered housewife into left wing revolutionary is effective in Carey Mulligan’s hands. She transcends the material. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. The film is filled with clichés not people. Meryl Streep’s part is too small to make a difference. Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai all portray fictional composites that represent types. Natalie Press, on the other hand, is the very real Emily Davison. It’s unfortunate she’s more of a plot device than a person. She provides a climax of sorts. Oh but the men fare even worse. Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband as an unforgiving man who’d rather kick his wife out into the street and give up his only child for adoption, than have a conversation with his wife. Maud’s boss (Geoff Bell) is a snarling sexual predator and shop-floor tyrant that does everything but twirl his mustache. Meanwhile the police bash lady demonstrators senseless with batons.

Suffragette is a pedestrian account that fails to be incisive. The screenplay by Abi Morgan paints their experience in broad strokes. These are supposed to be our mothers and daughters, but they aren’t human, they’re shortcuts to character development that short change a powerful saga. It’s interesting to note that Abi Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady which was another narratively weak script. Maud loses her husband, child, job, home, basically everything in her life. She’s even thrown in jail and force fed with tubes in a particularly hard to watch scene. On paper, this chronicle should’ve been a soft sell for today’s viewer. It’s the ultimate indignity to the struggle of these brave women that you unwittingly start to question Maud’s decisions. Was becoming a domestic bomber and arsonist really the correct path? This shouldn’t happen in a tale about courageous women fighting for equal rights, but strangely it does.

10-24-15

Room

Posted in Drama on October 24, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Room photo starrating-5stars.jpgJack lives with Ma in a single-room that contains a bed, a bathtub, a small kitchen, a wardrobe, and a TV set. This is Jack’s world. It is all he has ever known. He has never set foot in the outside world. As such, he believes that Room and everything it contains are what’s real. The breadth of nature is an illusion that exists only on television. Ma indulges these fantasies because this is their life. She loves Jack with all her heart and provides a comfortable atmosphere in the most honorable manner she can. She ensures he lives a fulfilling life — physically active, mentally sound, healthy diet, limiting TV-watching time and good hygiene. She bakes him a cake to celebrate his 5th birthday. From that point on, however, things are about to change.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is an Irish filmmaker who caused indie waves in the U.S. in 2014 with Frank, a somewhat inscrutable rock & roll tale about a band whose lead singer permanently wears an oversized fiberglass head. Where that movie fabricated a setup that was avant garde and somewhat inaccessible, Room is totally the opposite. Room details the touching relationship between a parent and her child under difficult circumstances. Here Abrahamson deftly handles the scenario, keeping it from succumbing to the easy extremes of oppressive cruelty or overt sentimentality.

The environment would seem to be fairly restrictive at first, but the claustrophobic setting gives way to a boundless examination of human emotion. I dare say there is surprising nuance in the ways these conversations with Ma and Jake play out. Little 5 year old Jack is the film’s cheerful narrator. As embodied by Jacob Tremblay as her son, he radiates utter naiveté. Completely trusting and sincere, he is a wide eyed innocent. A boy with hair that has never been cut, the source of his strength he says. He has an unexpectedly sunny disposition as he explains his limited understanding of the world to us. It would be an incredible performance for anyone, but particularly impressive coming from such a young actor. He undergoes a transformation of character. That subsequent cognizance is so perfectly realized, I was floored. Brie Larson is no less extraordinary as Ma. At 25, she too registers a surprisingly mature performance as a mother with infinite devotion for her son.

Room is based on the 2010 book of the same name by writer Emma Donoghue. The Irish born-Canadian citizen adapted her own novel to pen the screenplay. In it she has done something quite remarkable. This is a meditation on love, to ponder how a parent takes the best of a bad situation and makes it presentable for their child. Rather than exploit the experience for the obvious emotional pain, she celebrates their close relationship. Impressively it doesn’t succumb to mawkishness either.

There are indeed scenes that pack a wallop, but the feelings are earned organically as the chronicle progresses. I was tearing up at various points throughout, almost sobbing at one point because the intensity of what was happening was too much to bear. As the narrative develops there’s suspense, excitement, tears and joy. I haven’t even revealed a major component of the story. I admire the production’s finely crafted restraint and have acted in kind. However know this, happiness and terror exist side by side. Author Emma Donoghue has found a unique way to detail the tender bond between a mother and her son. Room‘s exploration of love is so heartbreakingly original, it’s cathartic.

10-22-15

The Walk

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on October 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Walk photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe tale was famously told onscreen once before in James Marsh’s Man on Wire, an Oscar winner in 2009 for Best Documentary Feature. On the early morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He completed the death-defying stunt 1,350-feet above the ground, making 8 passes on the wire for 45 minutes. The story behind this unauthorized feat was a carefully planned exploit that he referred to as “le coup”.

At first glance, Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) might appear to be an odd fit for this fairly introspective little dramatic piece. But upon closer inspection, the concept doesn’t seem like such a random subject for the director. This is the saga of a dreamer, and as such, it feels like a labor of love for the wildly successful auteur who helmed Forrest Gump. The cinematic valentine comes across as both an ode to the idealistic spirit of Philippe Petit as well as a tribute to the memory of those impressive buildings that once towered above New York City.

A large part of the picture is merely setup to his celebrated act. The planning and organization of the caper is presented with all the anticipation of a heist. Robert Zemeckis frames the movie with charismatic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the similarly charming Petit speaking right into the camera while atop of the torch in the Statue of Liberty. Petit narrates his chronicle. That’s a whimsical touch. I suppose Zemeckis makes all of the prelude as interesting as possible, but it’s not unlike someone clearing their throat before giving an oratory address.

Zemeckis surrounds Gordon-Levitt with a colorful cast of accomplices. These include a photographer portrayed by Clément Sibony and a math whiz played by César Domboy. There’s also James Badge Dale as an American who speaks French, Steve Valentine as an American admirer with a WTC office, and Charlotte LeBon as a fellow French street performer/love interest. Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel are the final two conspirators. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what purpose they serve. Oh and there’s Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a circus performer who inspires Petit in his native France.

Like the recent Everest prior to this, The Walk debuted exclusively in 448 IMAX 3D theaters a week before its wide release. What could have been a gimmick becomes a fundamental component of the moviegoing phenomenon. This may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that utilized 3D and IMAX more perfectly than this one. The spectacle is nothing less than revelatory. I’m not saying the first half is expendable, but compared to the spectacular climax, it pales in comparison to the realism of the tightrope performance. You actually suffer the dizzying vertigo first-hand.  The experience truly illustrates the danger of Petit’s achievement. This will scare the heck out of you. The technology elevates the sensation into something unforgettable.

10-03-15

Pawn Sacrifice

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on October 1, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pawn Sacrifice photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s easy to see how a chess match between American Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) became the ultimate Cold War showdown amongst two superpowers. Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union was the defending champion. The Soviet Chess School had long held a monopoly on the game at the highest level and Spassky was the latest in an uninterrupted chain beginning in 1948. The political rivalry separating the Soviet Union from the United States laid the foundation for a clash of mental dexterity that played out in a chess tournament on the world stage. It fascinated America and ignited a widespread chess fever at a height that has never been duplicated since.

Pawn Sacrifice is a handsomely mounted period piece – a fastidiously rendered production with shifting cinematography styles. Director Edward Zwick combines archival footage with shots made to look like the real thing. He uses cinematic tricks like digitally inserting Tobey Maguire into The Dick Cavett Show, as well as using real news reports from the era. When Fischer goes AWOL at the championship, a dozen different news anchors question Bobby’s whereabouts. These filmmaking techniques are showy but they’re never quite as satisfying as good old fashioned conversation between two people. Zwick has assembled an impressive supporting cast including Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard and Robin Weigert as his attorney, his coach, and his mom respectively. Liev Schreiber speaks Russian as Boris Spassky, though his performance is mostly emotive. Each extracts a component of Fischer’s intense intellect.

Ah but Bobby Fischer was one of those marvels tinged with madness. I’d fault the “tortured genius” narrative for endorsing a biopic cliché if it weren’t actually true. Pawn Sacrifice is undoubtedly a skillfully constructed docudrama. However for those hungry for a movie about chess and the intricacies of the game, they will be disappointed. This is a chronicle detailing paranoia, with chess as a backdrop. The filmmakers are more concerned with Fischer’s fragile psychological state than his brilliant mind. The child prodigy that became the youngest international grand master at the age of 15 is merely subtext. Many of the chess matches are kept off screen. Tobey Maguire plays Jewish Brooklyn born Bobby Fischer as a man haunted by demons. He’s a seething ball of neurosis. He tears apart his hotel rooms searching for wiretaps. He complains that his food has been poisoned. The script doesn’t explicitly say chess made him crazy, although the association seems to be that chess exacerbated his mental illness. Why chess became his obsession, and not another pursuit, remains unclear.

Pawn Sacrifice presents Bobby Fischer as a most unlikeable individual. He suffers from moods that fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He avows the Soviets have been cheating by throwing games to create draws. His devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism is presented as peculiar. He is anti-Semitic, even though he himself is Jewish. When Fischer finally gets to Reykjavik for the World Chess Championship, he makes everyone wait, taking the stage at the very last possible minute for his first game. Then forfeits the second game by not turning up at all. His prima donna behavior escalates with one outlandish demand after another. He complains that the audience and the TV video cameras are too noisy, refusing to continue unless the tournament is moved from a public hall to a private room. Save for a few coughs, the room appears quiet to us. When Fischer threatens to quit, Henry Kissinger calls to offer words of encouragement. The organizers relent anyway, giving into his demands. This doesn’t endear Bobby to us. Certainly it isn’t necessary to like the central character in order to appreciate a film. Yet we should feel something for this man. The movie entertains in parts but while showing how Bobby Fischer could be a jerk, it neglects to present his humanity. I was captivated during much of Pawn Sacrifice. I wanted to know more about this boy genius, particularly in his early life. It wasn’t until the climax that finally I realized that, after getting to know fellow American Bobby Fischer, I found myself rooting for Boris Spassky.

09-28-15

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