Archive for the Drama Category

Magic Mike XXL

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Magic Mike XXL photo starrating-3stars.jpgOn paper, a sequel like Magic Mike XXL shouldn’t work. It has no plot and no conflict. The director of the original surprise hit has changed (Steven Soderbergh is editor and cinematographer), and major star, Matthew McConaughey, is gone. This is simply a road trip movie with a bunch of guys hanging out, who also happen to strip for a living. They’re on their way from Florida to Myrtle Beach for the annual strippers’ convention. They have conventions? None of them are getting any younger, so this is seen as their last hurrah together. Their vehicle, an old ice cream truck, makes stops along the way. Friends are made in different locales.

Magic Mike XXL stars men, but it’s really about the women. Those they meet on the trip and those for whom they entertain. There’s Nancy (Andie MacDowell) who hosts a group of well-to-do Southern ladies sipping wine at her luxurious estate or Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the proprietor of a ladies’ club that caters to an African American clientele. At a beach party Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard), an acerbic love interest in a truly expendable character. In between getting from point A to point B they perform shows.

The gang’s routines relied on the “classics” in the first film – the fireman, the cowboy, the military number. This time Mike (Channing Tatum) seeks to reinvent their show so that it’s more fun for them to act. He hopes their renewed passion will invigorate the show. Joe Manganiello as Richie steals the spotlight, not once, but twice. In the finale, Joe Manganiello outfitted in a tux, mock proposes to a girl in the crowd. He walks her through a wedding ceremony while Donald Glover sings Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” in the background. (Oh Matt Bomer sings a couple times too and it’s shockingly good.) Then comes the wedding night and “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails plays. The performance is prurient, but it’s also creative. There are some genuinely hilarious moments too. The guys dare Richie to walk into a gas station and make the unhappy plain jane behind the counter smile with a dance routine to the Backstreet Boys. The scene has a sexual bent but its overall gist is one of sweetness. The scene is shot to amplify the energy of the club.

Star Channing Tatum is charismatic and he can dance. Now I’m not talking the smooth elegance of Fred Astaire or the dazzling technique of Gene Kelly. But Channing exhibits an athleticism that draws on the bump and grind mentality of the tradition. The choreography employs enough gravity defying flair with physical lifting to make what he does seem difficult. His earnest “let’s-put-on-a-show” ethos is infectious and he heads up a cast of dudes that really just want to entertain. Their heart is in the right place, even if their chosen profession is a bit salacious. They enjoy hanging around each other almost as much as they enjoy being onstage. It’s their friendship that unites the spaces in between musical numbers. These are nice guys who happen to be in great athletic shape. In most movies they would be stereotyped as greasy jerks. But these buddies don’t put anybody down and they never act in a mean-spirited fashion. The boys have a relaxed, easygoing camaraderie that is contagious.

What elevates the production is the utter feeling of positivity. Good vibes surround the film. The boys are charming. They have big hearts and they want to make the audience feel good about themselves. Their performances are highlighted by spectators that are average everyday women. These are not gorgeous models picked out of central casting, but average girls who are missing something in their lives. The analogy is made that the dancers are like shrinks catering to “queens who need to be worshiped”. They’re selling a fantasy. The bros are manipulative, but so is the drama. The picture never pretends to be anything less. Magic Mike XXL is such a pure film, it’s practically revolutionary. It’s a surprisingly lighthearted production given the subject matter. The whole thing has an uplifting view of humanity that I wasn’t expecting. Yes the narrative is a (ahem) skin deep examination of this lifestyle, but it’s still a better movie than it has any right to be.

06-30-15

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on June 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl photo starrating-4stars.jpgGreg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high schooler in his senior year. Despite being on good terms with virtually every social clique there is, he doesn’t deeply connect on a personal level with any of them. OK so there’s his “co-worker” Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler) with whom he remakes classic films into parodies, redubbing them with titles like “2:48 PM Cowboy”, “A Sockwork Orange”, “Eyes Wide Butt”, “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” and “The 400 Bros”. I savor the day the DVD is released and I’ll be able to pause the frame to see every pun-worthy title that sits on that shelf. Together the duo eat lunch in the office of their hip, heavily tattooed history teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal).

Yes the narrative is twee, almost stridently so. There’s the coming-of-age plot coupled with the sardonic male lead – actually everybody here is pretty cynical. There’s Greg’s voiceover – a style device which lets you know the inner monologue of this artistic fellow. How arty? Well, he goes beyond watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and onto Burden of Dreams, the 1982 documentary about the making of that picture. Then there’s the manic pixie dream girl. The one he didn’t want to pursue but did so out of duty. She just so happens to suffer from a fatal disease. Obviously given the title, right? The tragically doomed teen invites recent comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars but this has a quirkiness as filtered through the eyes Wes Anderson.  Film aesthete Greg Gaines is cut from the same angst-ridden cloth as Max Fischer in Rushmore. Rejecting those allusions to other works, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl still stands on its own, an ode to a generation, perhaps even becoming a classic in its own right over time.

The plot concerns a local girl named Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. When Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) discovers that she is a classmate of Greg’s, she forces her son to make a date to go hang out with Rachel for a day. After some prodding, he agrees. This is the beginning of what he calls his “doomed friendship.” There’s no faster shortcut to give a narrative weight than death. The construct threatens shameless sentimentality but the way the drama unfolds, it never succumbs to that. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon keeps the conversations intimate and involving. He’s directing from an honest script by Jesse Andrews which is based on Andrews’ own 2012 novel of the same name. The story slowly works its way into your heart to become a delightful charmer. Greg and Rachel are essentially forced to be together, neither particularly wanting the other’s company. It’s their accidental relationship that forms the heart of the picture.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes with a notable pedigree. It premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and took top dramatic honors with the U.S. Grand Jury Prize. It’s easy to see why. The chronicle is a sincere slice of adolescent life. Alright so it’s a bit precious too. The account integrates a triad of performances that alternates between cutesy and clever. But the story rises above indie movie clichés to give the viewer a genuinely heartfelt portrait. I embraced this trio. The friendship between Greg, Earl and Rachel isn’t as calculated as it seems on paper. Greg is a wistful lad while Earl is much more pragmatic. Their seemingly incongruous personalities are united by their enthusiasm for cinema. Occasionally their obsessions threaten to disrupt credibility with their “adorable” idiosyncrasies. Yet the saga ultimately hews closer to real life. Their quirks serve the tale, enriching its themes with visual flair rather than derailing it. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejona got his start as a second unit director on films like Babel, Julie & Julia, and Argo. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is only his second feature but his experience shows a talented director with a facility for different genres. He clearly has something to say and now I am listening.

06-18-15

Inside Out

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family on June 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Inside Out photo starrating-4stars.jpgPixar’s ode to the emotions of a little girl, Inside Out is a sophisticated journey into the physical expression of the psyche. Sounds pretty philosophical for a cartoon, right? However Pixar brilliantly distills the idea into an interpretation that is surprisingly lucid.  It manages to be gracefully enlightened in what it conceptualizes too. OK but just how many emotions are there really? In the 4th century BC Aristotle came up with 14: Anger, Calm, Friendship, Enmity, Fear, Confidence, Shame, Shamelessness, Kindness, Pity, Indignation, Envy, Emulation, and Contempt. Whew! That’s a lot of characters. Experts say it’s your facial muscles that tell the real story. As a result, many scientists have since agreed to reduce the core number all the way down to 4. Well Pixar chose 5: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader) and then granted Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) their own separate entities.

In the physical world, a girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is born to a loving mother (Diane Lane ) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) in Minnesota. When her dad gets a new job, the family must relocate to San Francisco. Moving is a particularly troublesome experience for the by now 11 year old: new home, new school, new people. On the outside, we see the facial expressions that belie her feelings. On the inside, we see the emotions argue, persuade, pressure and praise in the “Headquarters” of Riley’s mind. Joy is an effervescent pixie with a haircut to match. She is most often in control of Riley’s memories which are housed in glowing color coded orbs. Each one the shade of their overriding emotion. The spheres considered the most relevant are known as “core memories”. These power five “islands” in Riley’s subconscious, each highlighting a different aspect of her personality.

Then one day, Riley’s emotional world falls apart. Everything comes to a head on her first day of school. Sadness is a blue bespeckled awkward girl with bad posture. Sadness inadvertently touches a happy memory and turns it “sad”.  So Joy tries to eliminate the negative recollection.  Complications arise causing Riley’s 5 core memories to get knocked from their container. Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked through a tube and displaced along with Riley’s essential thoughts into the far reaches of Riley’s mind.  Disgust, Fear, and Anger become the de facto masters at the control of decisions that could ruin her life.

As a saga, Inside Out is The Incredible Journey or it’s Fantastic Voyage. Joy and Sadness must navigate their way across this bizarro world back to the command center. Indeed navigating the subconscious mind is pretty surreal. It’s not unlike the Beatles trying to get to Pepperland in Yellow Submarine. Inside Out isn’t anywhere near as psychedelic, but it still includes the realm of Abstract Thought, an Imagination Land, Dream Productions, and a dizzying labyrinth of Long Term Memory. Denizens include a clown, a unicorn and Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from early childhood. Voiced by Richard Kind he is a cotton candy colored creature that fuses the trunk of an elephant with the tail of a cat and the squeal of a dolphin. A fun loving fellow wearing a porkpie hat and a purple bow tie, this hybrid creature is one of the more surreal entities on the Pixar roster. Anyone remember Jeremy Hillary Boob? That’s another reference to Yellow Submarine, a character that was also a bit of a nowhere man. Now a forgotten friend, Bing Boing consistently radiates joyful exuberance, although his selfless act later in the narrative has an elegiac quality.

Inside Out is a dazzling manifestation of the emotional mind, both visually and aurally. Last time director Pete Docter and composer Michael Giacchino collaborated, it earned them both Oscars (for Up). It could easily happen again. Pixar has long been the animation studio that combines the weight of poignant drama with dazzling visuals. Inside Out’s greatest gift is the presentation of the psyche as a landscape for which thoughts and memories are accounted and sorted. I realize Pixar didn’t invent this construct. The early 90s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head (It followed Married… with Children on Sunday nights) did a variation on this theme over 2 decades ago. But Pixar gets credit for expounding on the abstraction in a way that makes you question the way you experience your own life. The “Personality Islands” are a nice touch in making concepts tangible. That’s just one example of an idea that could be taught in the field of psychology.

After a series of perfectly adequate films that began in 2011, Inside Out is a welcome return to cinema par excellence for the Pixar studio. First and foremost, the adventure is an affecting story. Anthropomorphic emotions in red, yellow, green, blue and purple hues articulated as individual characters we can embrace. Joy and Sadness are the real stars here. They dominate the narrative with their odyssey back to the central hub. Call it Journey to the Center of the Mind. However Disgust, Fear and Anger all have their their moments too. Every emotion is key to a well adjusted human being. Pixar staddles the line between presenting it all as something a young child can comprehend but allowing just enough depth to captivate the adults in the audience. It’s still pretty straightforward, but there’s beauty in simplifying a complicated subject. Inside Out makes it all seem effortless.

06-18-15

Love & Mercy

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on June 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Love & Mercy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCo-founder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson gets the biographical treatment in Love & Mercy. Taking its name from a song off his 1988 self titled solo album, the picture is an engrossing portrait of a complicated man. A complex man deserves a likeminded biography and as such, the production submits his life as two halves, each played by a different person.

In the 1960s the chronicle shows Wilson as the mastermind behind the unique California sound of the Beach Boys which culminated in the critically revered Pet Sounds in 1966. Actor Paul Dano embodies the very talented young man who endured a rough childhood at the hands of a hard-hearted father (Bill Camp). Music was a creative outlet. The group comprised his two younger brothers Dennis and Carl (Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern), their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). Together they poured their hearts into song with Brian as their primary composer. The chronicle presents the songwriter as a gifted genius struggling to reconcile the “voices in his head” and then put that into music. Wilson had several nervous breakdowns. Paul Dano has a quality that lends itself to Brian Wilson’s off kilter personality.

The other half of his life takes place in the 80s when Brian Wilson was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. From the start, he is already under the care of “psychologist to the stars” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy has an around the clock presence in the musician’s life. Wilson meets car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabath Banks), one day while shopping for a Cadillac. The two strike up a relationship. An actress usually known for playing comedic parts, the dramatic weight is a stark contrast to the roles she usually plays. Banks is a revelation. A nurturing presence, she is a foil to Landy’s svengali like control. Her speechless reactions while Landy barks at Wilson, perfectly conveys her growing unease with the situation. Landy clearly sees Wilson’s burgeoning romance with Ledbetter as a problem. She becomes a calming force. I will admit that the story could have just as easily been told from Landy’s point of view and dismissed Ledbetter as a gold digger. This is not the case, however. Landy is vilified as a doctor with no redeeming qualities. The portrait then begs the unanswered question, how did this particular man obtain so much authority over Wilson’s life?

Love & Mercy wisely narrows its focus. By staging the existence of Brian Wilson as two separate people, we get a richer appreciation for the complexities of the man. It puts distance between two stages of his life. Paul Dano is particularly good as the younger Wilson. It’s easier to accept him as the talent that guided the Beach Boys because he looks quite a bit like the guy. He does a great job portraying his musical obsessions in a very natural way. John Cusack has a harder time because his long face and dark hair deviate so sharply from the physical features of the actual person. It’s an interesting idea though. Cusack’s mannered performance highlights a compelling soul. Two sides that link one man, unite the story as it jumps back and forth between the past and the present. His mental illness compounded by abusive people, first by his father and then his doctor. Through it all we get glimpses into the creative process. Love & Mercy effectively depicts the hidden torment behind some of the 60s most uplifting music. Thankfully it’s not all misery. In the 80s, it’s his bond with Ledbetter that gives us hope with his troubled life. Elizabath Banks is that oasis of calm that compels you to watch.

06-11-15

When Marnie Was There

Posted in Animation, Drama, Family with tags on June 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

When Marnie Was There photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe difference between what this chronicle suggests it might be, and what it truly is, are night and day. Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is a 12 year old girl that has yet to find her place in this world. An orphan, she is being raised by loving foster parents Yoriko (Geena Davis) and her husband. Unfortunately Anna still suffers from the emotional scars of the past. “I hate myself” she cries out early on. Indeed she begins from a very dark place. Her reclusive state lends the narrative a grim context not often associated with animation. One day at school she collapses from an asthma attack. Her parents decide to have Anna spend the summer with her aunt (Grey DeLisle) and uncle (John C. Reilly) in Kushiro, a seaside town with fresher air. There she meets a mysterious girl named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka).

When Marnie Was There has similar national ties that sort of make it a spiritual successor to The Secret World of Arrietty, a 2010 Studio Ghibli film. The story also began as a British young adult novel.  This one published in 1967 by author Joan G. Robinson. Studio head Hayao Miyazaki had it among his recommended list of 50 children’s books. The same director of Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, then adapted it with help from Keiko Niwa and Masashi Andō, into a movie of the same name.

When Marnie Was There is an extremely slow saga but I am reluctant to call it plodding. I admire the gradually unfolding nature of the drama. Its reflective nature allows the viewer to kind of luxuriate in its mood. This is a plot that earns its drama from the heartbreaking turmoil of a teen going through adolescence. At first you want to embrace Anna. She feels isolated and alone. Yet she isn’t beyond reproach for her current circumstance either.  Anna is rather nasty at times, calling one of her new friends a “fat pig” out of nowhere. However Anna responds differently to the beautiful blonde Marnie, a friend her own age who lives in the dilapidated mansion across the pond. Except it isn’t in ruins whenever she visits her. At night there are even parties where Anna is invited to attend disguised as a flower girl. “You look like a girl from my dreams” Anna confides in Marnie.  Does Marnie really exist or is she merely a figment of Anna’s imagination?

When Marnie Was There never fulfills on its grand promise of something profound. Anna and Marnie strike up a friendship and their interactions allow the previously withdrawn Anna to open up. The two frequently abscond away together in clandestine meetings that suggest a rapport that is far more intimate. It reaches an apex when a jealous Anna questions Marnie about dancing with a boy. You’re certain that something more will come of this. But nothing does. Later there is a scary interlude that resembles a Gothic tale involving an old abandoned silo that terrifies Marnie. More suggestions of something grander than what is actually presented. The denouement ultimately ignores all of these plot threads and settles into a resolution that doesn’t effectively address the issues with which this poor kid is struggling. She was really messed up and the reveal is totally disconnected from what this girl had been feeling. Sill, the picture is too visually hypnotic to ignore. The soundtrack, both the music and the sounds of the environment, create a lavish atmosphere that is spellbinding. I liked When Marnie Was There. I just didn’t love it.

06-13-15

About Elly

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on June 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

About Elly photo starrating-4stars.jpgAsghar Farhadi is the master of the emotionally complex human drama. The Iranian director and screenwriter first came to worldwide recognition with his masterpiece A Separation. That picture debuted December 2011 in the U.S. and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for that year. Two years later he helmed The Past, another masterwork that brilliantly explored human relationships. Before those successes however he directed About Elly, a 2009 movie in his native Iran, but ran into difficulties when the original U.S. distributor went bankrupt. New York based Cinema Guild stepped in and gave the film an official limited release in April 2015.

Like Farhadi’s two most recent works, About Elly is composed in very much the same way. The calm of a slowly constructed set-up is shattered by a significant event which propels the drama. This story concerns a group 3 married couples, the single brother of one of the married women, and three young children, reuniting for a weekend outing by the Caspian Sea. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the woman whose stunning visage adorns the movie poster, has also invited Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher. A bit of a matchmaker, Sepideh has brought Elly along in hopes of setting her up with her recently divorced brother Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). For the first 40 minutes, we see the group have a good time. This effectively establishes the relationships, although I’d contend this section could’ve been a little more compelling. They dance, talk, play charades and volleyball. Yet Elly seems somewhat disconnected from the proceedings, a little shy perhaps. Then, as is usually the case with Farhadi dramas, that moment occurs which sets everything in motion.

With About Elly, the less you know the better, so I won’t reveal specifics. I’ll only say that the whereabouts of Elly becomes a problem. This introduces a series of conversations that slowly expose details that were heretofore unknown. The exchanges raise some unusual questions about moral principles and conduct. The toxicity of lies has been the subject of Farhadi’s previous work, and this chronicle is no exception. What makes About Elly even more uncommon is the ethical concerns it raises that are unique to Iranian culture. One lie leads to another. Many arise out of cultural norms that would not be an issue in say the U.S. Farhadi’s screenplay, based on a story created with Azad Jafarian, is brilliant and perfectly acted by an ensemble cast that is asd captivating as they are natural. Actress Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh is particularly good. The narrative rests heavily on her shoulders. When she starts coughing out of worry, you can feel her stress. About Elly further cements Asghar Farhadi’s reputation as one of our finest directors working today.

05-31-15

San Andreas

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller on May 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

San Andreas photo starrating-1star.jpgSan Andreas is a catastrophe. It is a lamentable skill when a disaster film, a piece of entertainment that is routinely met with the lowest of expectations, fails to even meet the basic requirements of simply being “dumb summer entertainment”. This is a genre in which universally panned movies like Dante’s Peak, Poseidon or 2012 can still manage to earn big bucks at the box office. However the popular opinion of which inevitably deteriorates over time in the mind of the American public. Oh there are high minded exceptions. The Birds, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, Contagion. But what makes those productions great is the blending of mass destruction with characters that captivate our attention.

San Andreas on the other hand eschews originality in favor of series of tropes uncreatively strung together by CGI effects. The plot can be summarized in a sentence: When the San Andreas fault triggers a 9 plus magnitude quake up the West coast, a search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) make their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). A plot so simple it might be refreshing. But oh the cliches! Most disaster films rely on a few timeworn shortcuts to tell a story but that’s all San Andreas is – literally a checklist of hackneyed tropes and nothing more. How does San Andreas conventionalize? Let me count the ways…

Brad Peyton is the brains behind such movies as Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Kid friendly doesn’t have to mean intellectually vacant, but I’ll let his filmography speak for itself. Ray and Emma are a divorced couple that are still amicable toward each other. This gives them the awkward sexual tension when they band together to save their daughter trapped in San Francisco. Clearly the narrative wants you to think Ray is a stand-up guy. Clumsily inserted amongst the CGI mayhem we get the occasional “quiet dramatic scene”. In flashback, Ray reflects on his greatest failure: he wasn’t able to save his younger daughter when she tragically drowned in a rafting accident. He obsesses over the daughter he couldn’t save while the living daughter suffers in need. His behavior gets more egregious. Here we have an active-duty LAFD pilot who ignores orders by abandoning his job in the middle of the greatest natural emergency in American history. Instead he goes AWOL on a personal mission with one of the department’s helicopters. He intends to save his wife and daughter but no none else – leaving thousands to die as a result. To emphasize the point further, he drives past an elderly couple on the side of the road leaving them in the dust. The only reason he ultimately turns around is because they were trying to warn HIM before he drove into a chasm. Ray’s dereliction of duty is disgusting.

However according to the script, the truly reprehensible human is Emma’s rich boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). Naturally he is revealed to be an unctuous jerk who cowardly abandons Blake in her hour of need. This an obvious setup to make his inevitable death by a falling building all the more gratifying. Daniel’s sister Susan (Kylie Minogue) dies too but that’s OK because she made an insensitive comment. Death karma to people who are rude. But good people die as well. You almost have to admire a film with the audacity to kill millions but then conveniently neglects to show a single dead body. Buildings will fall, tides will raise, but there’s nary a casualty in sight. The death and trauma that follow a major earthquake are nonexistent here. That would interrupt the viewer’s enjoyment of the pristine beauty of CGI served up for visual consumption.

There are some impressive effects. Behold the brilliant shards of glass raining down upon people as they narrowly make their escape. Narrowly is the operative words here. Nobody escapes a discernible threat unless it is barely by the skin of their teeth. Time and again the audience is led to believe that every major character is just within a hair’s breadth of losing their life only to escape within an inch of life. This includes a scenario where the pilot of a helicopter tempts fate by saying “we’re only 90 minutes away” and then seconds later, the engine fails. Meanwhile Ray’s daughter Blake is trapped in a San Francisco parking garage. There she encounters Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). The meet-cute allows her to rescue him. Girl Power! They’re all such a bore though. The one lone individual that is mildly interesting is Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) a seismology professor at Caltech who detects the quake and warns everybody about their impending doom. He’s the “I told you so!”

San Andreas has a lot of faults. A narrative disaster that falls apart under the weight of a thousand cliches. In a few years this DVD should find a permanent home in the 99 cent bin at your local Walmart. Until then crowds will flock to see pretty CGI . The chronicle’s lazy reliance on tropes from other disaster pictures is pretty shameful. Did the real script get destroyed in the quake? LA and San Francisco are decimated and millions have died. But a happy ending rests on whether our “hero” Ray and his family are reunited. The countless souls that have their lives extinguished is presented as a mild inconvenience. The final minutes lovingly feature the courageous efforts of FEMA, the National Guard, and the UN. Please note the giant American flag draped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. As Emma ponders, “What now?” Ray looks up to the heavens and says without irony “We rebuild.” I wouldn’t say the picture was forgettable because  that would have been a blessing. San Andreas is so hopelessly bad, I just can’t stop thinking about its miserableness.

05-28-15

Far from the Madding Crowd

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

Far from the Madding Crowd photo starrating-3stars.jpgHandsomely mounted adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel regarding one Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and the romantic interest that she sparks in three very different suitors. There’s Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a poor shepherd; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing soldier; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), her neighbor – a wealthy bachelor.

Mulligan fully inhabits the character so that she is a genuine person. However I can’t get past the fact that throughout this 2 hour movie, it takes the entire duration to arrive at a conclusion that was obvious 10 minutes into the story. Bathsheba is a very independent woman with headstrong ways that make her a compelling individual in this Victorian melodrama. Nevertheless she is also a capricious woman given to romantic whims that don’t always endear her to the viewer. All through the production Bathsheba entertains the options of her situation. Yet she remains perplexed by her circumstance. The glaring choice so clear to everyone but her. Such are matters of the heart. Her inner working are a bit inscrutable. She is real though. I guess being fickle is a human weakness. The narrative concerns unrequited love. It’s just a matter of time before the right two people feel the same way about each other.

Far From the Madding Crowd is an exquisitely produced period piece. The cinematography, costumes and music are the accoutrements from which Academy Awards are bestowed. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen beautifully evokes the rural culture of the English countryside portrayed in Thomas Hardy’s novel. The chronicle is well acted. Carey Mulligan makes a fetching Bathsheba Everdene. The Oscar nominated actress (An Education) has proven herself a capable leading lady. Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge all do well by their parts as her admirers. I couldn’t help but think that Aaron Taylor-Johnson would’ve embodied the qualities of Sergeant Francis Troy a little better but otherwise well cast. Schoenaerts is the standout. With the right future roles, the actor could easily become a star. And yet, despite all these accolades, I was largely unmoved by Bathsheba’s dilemma. I couldn’t sympathize with her plight. Her decision is so evident it’s ridiculous. The consensus is that Director Thomas Vinterberg’s interpretation is preferable to the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger. I’ll buy that, but I suppose there’s the respected text if you really need more depth. If you keep score about such things it’s still Book: 1 – Movie: 0.

05-14-15

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Posted in Drama on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 

I participated in a “Decades Blogathon” hosted by movie review pages: Three Rows Back & Digital Shortbread. Please check out their sites.  Their task was to pick a movie released in the 5th year of any decade (1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, etc.) I chose 1975 and wrote about ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.
 
 
 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest photo starrating-5stars.jpgDepending on my mood, I have about 5 films from which I often choose to give as my favorite of all time One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is invariably the answer I cite most often. It is simply as perfect as a movie can get. Unlike cinematic works that achieved their classic status over many years, audiences immediately knew what they had with this one. It was a huge box office success, second only only to Jaws that year.  [1]  The film earned 9 Oscar nominations and made a “clean sweep” of the top 5 categories: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay (Adapted). It is only the second of three pictures to accomplish this distinction. It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are the other two.

Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, its adaptation to screen took over a decade. Actor Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962 and spent years trying to get a film version off the ground. Ultimately his son Michael purchased the rights from his father and then produced with Saul Zaentz. Czech émigré Milos Foreman directed this take of one Randle Peter McMurphy. Convicted of statutory rape, he has been sentenced to a fairly short prison term. However, at the start of our story he is being transferred from the Pendleton Work Farm to the Oregon State Hospital because he has feigned insanity. McMurphy assumes his time spent there will be much easier than the hard labor he’d experience in jail. Sometimes things don’t always work out the way we plan.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher star. They epitomize a perfect pair of combatants. The head administrative caretaker of the psychiatric hospital is Nurse Ratched. She is a formidable woman. This is her ward and she exercises complete authority over it. “Medication time. Medication time, gentlemen,” she intones over the loudspeaker from the nurse’s station. She dispenses drugs to her patients waiting in line like a priest administering communion to his congregation. Fletcher is the antagonist, but she is no traditional villan. She is a nurse after all, someone who takes care of people. She seems well meaning at first but her calm demeanor hides a stern ugliness beneath. She rules with an iron hand, but she rarely raises her voice. Her tyrannical nature is aroused when things go awry. Cold and calculating, her words are like grenades that she carefully lobs with intent to destroy. Her quiet presence is largely felt even when she isn’t talking. The woman is inhuman, but Fletcher never reduces the character to parody. Hers is among the greatest performances in cinema.

Jack Nicholson is McMurphy, a hero but not in the classic sense. He’s a cocky, self assured rebel that rails against the establishment. Full of swagger, he makes it his mission to flout the rules. That most of the patients are there voluntarily is a revelation that doesn’t sit well with McMurphy. He’s a gambling man and he makes a bet that he can cause Nurse Ratched to lose her temper within a week. In this way he seeks to liberate the others from her grip. His confrontations with her are entertaining for the patients and for us the audience as well. He challenges the norms, slowly fortifying the group with his lack of regard for her authority. A simple plea to watch the 1963 World Series becomes a moment of desperation. The discussion is a mesmerizing battle of wills. The role solidified Nicholson as a cinematic icon and rebel superstar. This is arguably his very finest moment, of many, on film.

A telling highlight of the narrative are the group meetings over which Nurse Ratched presides. They are a nightmare, ostensibly designed to be helpful therapy sessions, but they are anything but. The mental patients, all male, are encouraged to reveal each others’ secrets to the public. The embarrassing gatherings are belittling. Her psychologically manipulative program designed to weaken their self-esteem and bolster her own authority. The dialogues of the group meetings are fascinating. You often don’t realize their insidious nature until the session is over. Jack Nicholson represents a savior of sorts to the patients that have been victimized under Nurse Ratched’s rule.

And let’s talk about those patients. The supporting cast of predominantly unknown actors form a masterpiece ensemble. Every single one of them a fully realized individual in their own right. Even a silent performance shines through. That’s Chief (Will Sampson), a towering 6’7″ tall Native American. He delivers a heartbreaking achievement with just body language and gestures. The scene where Randle teaches Chief how to play basketball is priceless. There’s Harding (William Redfield), an intelligent married man who feels emasculated by his wife and Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who is prone to temper tantrums. Brad Dourif received an Oscar nomination for Billy Bibbit, a timid, almost childlike 31 year old. Yet virtually any one of these actors could’ve been recognized. Among the smaller patient roles are docile Martini (Danny DeVito) and belligerent Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). Three years later those two actors would be reunited on the TV show Taxi. William Duell, Vincent Schiavelli, and Delos V. Smith round out the group. Their assemblage meshes in a brilliant way that make their therapy sessions hypnotic.

At first, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would seem a depressing film. The setting is a mental institution. The colors are drab. The milieu is bleak. Many of the patients look unkempt wearing robes. This is most assuredly a condemnation of psychiatric institutions as an emblem of compassionless bureaucracy. The chronicle contributed to the departure of electroshock therapy from mainstream mental health care for example. However Randle is a strong-willed individual bucking the system. He represents hope in a place where there seemingly is none. He can snare an audience with a cocked eyebrow and a winking glance. He charms the patients in the asylum like he does the viewer. His foil is the equally strong-willed Nurse Ratched, an emasculating presence portrayed by Louise Fletcher. The two play a game of one-upmanship while we sit and watch, basking in the glory of their finely tuned characters. That the atmosphere can go from tense to hilarious to unrelentingly grim, all in the same scene is a tribute to the script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Their screenplay highlights the complexity of the dual nature of the narrative. It builds to an emotionally shattering conclusion that could either be considered the saddest or the most inspiring ending in the history of film.

 


[1]  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, largely ignored in 1975, became a success over the years due to midnight showings. It now ranks as the 2nd biggest hit of the year due to the phenomenon that it ultimately became.

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

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