Archive for the Drama Category

Get on Up

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 5, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Get on Up photo starrating-3stars.jpg1988 – A man in a green tracksuit arrives at a strip mall that he owns. He realizes someone has been using the bathroom without his permission. With shotgun in hand he enters a room and points it at the small gathering of people demanding to know the guilty culprit. He accidentally fires a shot in the ceiling amidst shrieks of the people now cowering on the floor, frightened out of their minds.  Police sirens are heard approaching in the distance. James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, is that man.

The practice of digitally encoding music and reusing it as part of another song is common practice today. They claim that James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. In that vein, director Tate Taylor (The Help) gives us haphazard excerpts of a life. These vignettes are selected from different years at various intervals as if chosen from a buffet of life experiences. A detailed handling of the life of James Brown would be a formidable enterprise no doubt given the amount of material the man’s life would entail. Perhaps the filmmakers realized the task of accurately recounting the biography of a man with a long and complicated life would be too daunting. Nevertheless the disregard for chronology is odd. Get On Up is a biographical drama about the life of James Brown, where telling a traditional chronological tale is rejected in favor of emotional touchstones grouped by feeling.

As a result, the saga never has a chance to build momentum. We start near the end where James Brown is already a legend in his own lifetime. People are chanting his name as he walks down a concert hall. As he reflects upon his life, we get the aforementioned run-in with the law. We see a sketch during the 60s where he’s nearly shot down, right before he’s entertaining the troops in Vietnam. 1939 – He’s a little boy running in the woods of South Carolina with his mother, Then he’s performing at a gig in 1964 with his singing group The Famous Flames preceding The Rolling Stones. Jill Scott plays Dee-Dee Jenkins, James Brown’s second wife. One minute they’re handing out gifts as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The next he’s beating her within an inch of her life. Before we can process what‘s happening, the narrative has moved on to another year. Flashback and flash forward. Back and forth, all over the place.

The technique becomes particularly frustrating on the occasion where James is celebrating in his dressing room at the Apollo theater after a show. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen in years, walks in smiling. The power of that scene dissipates as it abruptly ends right there and we skim a myriad of other time periods instead, detailing different relationships with assorted women. All the while an alert viewer is wondering what exactly was the outcome of that fateful reunion of James Brown and his mother. We finally get the answer but it’s over 30 minutes later. In the interim, we come to realize how James Brown could be an effective mediator. A concert at The Boston Garden following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is nearly cancelled for fear of riots. In an effort to diffuse a situation that has an excitable police presence on edge, he appeals to the crowd for order. James calms an excitable crowd whose dancing members keep getting up on stage. It’s a powerful moment.

One thing is for sure. Get on Up is highlighted by some great acting. Let’s start with the supporting parts. Dan Aykroyd as his manager, Viola Davis as his mother, and Octavia Spencer as the Aunt who raised him – they’re all memorable. But none more so than actor Nelsan Ellis (TV’s True Blood) who matches Chadwick Boseman’s work for unadulterated emotional heft. While in prison, James Brown met the man that would change his life, Bobby Byrd. Wives and band members would come and go but his long suffering sidekick stood by his side through the best and worst times of his life. As one of the most moving relationships in James Brown career, it’s a poignant performance that lingers after the music has faded.

Chadwick Boseman is impressive as James Brown. He fully embodies the man in vocal inflections, attitude and behavior. Boseman gets James’ signature raspy voice spot on, extending beyond mere mimicry. And when James sings! The musical performances are the best part. All of his hits are here including “Get Up Offa That Thing”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Pt. 1″, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. The presentation relies on lip synching to actual James Brown tracks and personally I’m glad that decision was made. The singer’s idiosyncratic musical style would have been extremely difficult to duplicate. Chadwick Boseman gets the electricity of James’ delivery down pat, complete with the dancing, the splits and the sheer athleticism. People in my theater actually got up and danced. I’ve never seen that happen. Get on Up isn’t a deep film. It samples from the highlights of a very intricate life with a slapdash approach. I suppose the disjointed sampling is appropriate in an ironic way. It’s how his music is often manipulated today. However, it doesn’t lend itself to a dramatically affecting story arc, just a well acted one.  Chadwick Boseman is indeed an actor to watch.

08-03-14

A Most Wanted Man

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on July 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Most Wanted Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgA Most Wanted Man is a dense, elaborate adaptation of the 2008 John le Carré espionage novel of the same name. The particularly timely subject matter concerns The War on Terror but the film will probably be best remembered as the final starring screen role of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not surprisingly he turns in another stellar performance. He is truly missed.

As in all John le Carré novels everyone has an important part in the wide-ranging chronicle. The real focus of our tale is one Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who seeks asylum in Germany after he is half beaten to death. As the son of a notorious Muslim terrorist he is heir to his father‘s wealth. The authorities have labeled him a militant jihadist as well. However his true allegiances are still a bit of an enigma. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann a German counterterrorist expert based in Hamburg. He heads up a secret intelligence team working within the Islamic community to stop radical organizations. He’s a hard drinking, unkempt sort, disheartened by his life experiences. Yet he remains an intelligent man guided by principle. He is still willing to pause and see the big picture first before rushing in to act. Rachel McAdams is Annabel Richter, a young German human rights attorney. She’s an altruistic type fighting in the interest of the downtrodden. Nonetheless, in Bachmann’s eyes she’s a social worker for terrorists. Also a foil to Bachman is corrupt British banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) whose bank holds the fortune of Karpov’s father. Brue forms an association with Annabel and these two comprise a coalition of sorts with Karpov.

There are no good guys in A Most Wanted Man. There are decent people, yes, but they’re caught up in a maze of moral ambiguities that can compromise their ethics. It’s a dreary but well acted critique concerning a global military campaign in a post 9/11 world. The saga is highlighted by a plethora of memorable characters beautifully rendered with studious care as layered personalities. Like a chess game you never know what one person’s next move will be. The sympathetic becomes insensitive, the heartless becomes merciful. Everything comes to head when the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge in a climax that literally involves a man initialing papers at a desk. Of course the issue being addressed is deeper than that, but like most John le Carré stories, the narrative remains emotionally cold and the milieu is bleak. It succeeds despite an overworked set up that somewhat wanes in the middle. For a movie that runs over two hours, not a whole lot happens to be quite honest. At times it’s an indictment of bureaucratic incompetence. Nevertheless this carefully modulated character study ultimately ends on a powerful note.

07-30-14

Boyhood

Posted in Drama with tags on July 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Boyhood photo starrating-5stars.jpgRichard Linklater’s sprawling 2 hour and 45 minute magnum opus details 12 years in the life of a family, and principally that of a young male lead, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a six year old boy when our drama begins. Mason is like many juveniles. He happens to live in Texas in a typical town like many others. He has a sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) who is older by one year and a Mom played by Patricia Arquette. Olivia is a divorced single parent. A struggling working class woman, Olivia is raising her children the best way she knows how. We see Mom’s choices revolve around her family at the expense of being able to go out and have fun. Mason does have an absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). He doesn’t appear right away but then shows up rather unexpectedly one day to take the kids bowling. Once he is introduced to the audience, his presence becomes a bit more familiar. Given the narrative breadth, Boyhood could have just as easily been called Motherhood, Fatherhood or simply Childhood.

As the story progresses, the principals grow older. In most movies this would involve casting different people to represent the kids at various stages as they got older. Makeup would probably be used to age the adults. Instead, Boyhood was actually filmed over the course of 12 years so as the characters mature, so do the actors. It’s a fascinating development that infuses the tale with an allure not found in the way a traditional picture is shot over a few months. Richard Linklater not only utilizes the appearance of his performers to inform the passage of time, but also little cultural touchstones in each era. These present the minutiae that makes up our everyday lives. Mason ogles the women in the underwear section of a department store catalogue, is annoyed by his sister’s rendition of “Oops! I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, and attends a book release party for the latest Harry Potter novel. These non-events are what compose a life. Individually they mean very little, but added together they represent the sum total of an existence.

Boyhood has an astounding level of characterization. The depiction of the four principals is deceptively simple. Yet it isn’t until after you contemplate the full scope of the chronicle that you fully comprehend the complexity of the portrait. The production was shot over 39 days beginning in the summer of 2002 and completed in October 2013. Mason gets taller, his voice deepens. His personality matures before our very eyes. But even more than the physical changes is the emotional evolution of a life. Linklater isn’t content to merely gives us Mason’s reality. Mom Olivia has a compelling dramatic arc as well. Incidentally, Patricia Arquette is extraordinary. This is the single greatest performance of her career. She registers fear, pain, sorrow and joy with absolute veracity. At different points, her depiction details two marriages to men of questionable character. A scene where her husband Bill interrogates the kids about their mother’s whereabouts is chilling but it gets increasingly intense when he starts checking their cell phones for calling history. Conversely there are moments that are quite moving as well. An offhand comment by Olivia to a handyman replacing their home’s water pipes will have major repercussions later. All of these vignettes immediately make an impression but they must meditate in the mind well after the saga is over. The drama advances organically and the actors perform naturally. Rarely has an individual’s developmental transitions been dramatized so imaginatively on film. Boyhood is an outstanding achievement and a magnificent paean to the simple brilliance of the human experience.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.

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

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