Archive for the Drama Category

Belle

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

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

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

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

05-11-14

The Railway Man

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

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

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

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

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

05-04-14

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgI’m exercising restraint when I say that The Amazing Spider Man 2 (TASM2) is a staggeringly disorganized, senseless drudgery of a picture. The production is an expensively produced, techno-spastic, headache inducing mess. It’s populated by undeveloped roles that merely exist as a prelude to future chapters. TASM2 is not concerned with telling a coherent tale. The narrative is more focused on cramming multiple threads of various origin stories in preparation of the main event later. Apparently these fragments will have meaning not just in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (2016) but also in spin-offs Venom (in development) and The Sinister Six. This recipe for disaster is comprised of 3 parts: A) cluttered action B) multiple narratives left unresolved for later sequels and C) too many antagonists.

When you get right down to it, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t really about Spider-Man at all. It’s about the villains, 3 main ones in my estimation. We’ve got Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) who becomes the Rhino, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who becomes the Green Goblin, and nerdy Max Dillon (a criminally miscast Jamie Foxx) who becomes Electro.  They’ll (presumably) comprise three of the members in the all-villain superteam known as The Sinister Six. Sony is clearly trying to beef up their stake in their Marvel property in a nod that seeks to compete with Disney and their Marvel universe centered around The Avengers. There are numerous other characters too. I have neither the strength nor desire to list them all here but surprisingly few exhibit any originality or nuance. Case in point, actor Marton Csokas weirdly channels Dr. Strangelove to play Dr. Ashley Kafka, the founder of the Ravencroft Institute. A notable exception is Sally Field as Aunt May who is a refreshing ocean of calm in a sea of madness.

Spider-Man is on somewhat more solid ground when he is allowed to be Peter Parker and not some CGI blur zipping across the screen. A technological exhibition doesn‘t engage the emotions like a personality. Scenes invoking humanity are preferable, although it’s really stretching credibility to have a man in his 30s pretending to graduate high school.  Garfield portrays Peter Parker as a smug hipster. He even self-knowingly whistles the Spider-Man TV theme. Unfortunately his supposedly spontaneous witticisms come off as shtick and not as the lighthearted banter I believe was written to endear us to the superhero. His interactions with girlfriend Gwen Stacy feel like manufactured affectations that cause the couple to conventionally fall in love, break up, get back together at various intervals for the sole purpose of romantic conflict. Their ersatz charm is sheer torture to anyone who values sincerity. A heinous screenplay derails even quiet moments that should be making us give a care in between explosions.

The whole production is a labor intensive chore to watch. We are presented with a visual and aural assault on the senses. The over-abundance of special effects are so chaotic at times that the brain cannot even reconcile what is happening. Take the fight sequences between combatants. The battles are computer generated imagery where people are irrelevant. Spider-Man is wearing a mask. Electro is a glowing blue humanoid. They’re thrust into a cacophonous light display of sound and fury that is an animated nightmare. A significant portion of the movie holds literally nothing organic on screen. There are bolts of lightning, crashes and pyrotechnics. The destruction of Times Square should be an awe inspiring experience but the event barely incites any concern from the audience. It gets lost in the annihilation of all the public property – the financial repercussions of which are never addressed. Of course you’re not meant to think about such things. This is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, a holding pattern if you will, that connects parts 1 and 3. The film is a glorified advertisement for upcoming installments. TASM2 is not a movie, it’s a 142 minute trailer, and very unsatisfying one at that.

05-01-14

The Ten Commandments

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History with tags on April 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Ten Commandments photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgLavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic. Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realizes his true origins. Few films have attained such an unqualified level of sheer excess. Over the course of almost four hours, the picture dramatizes the life of Moses. That the script treats this topic with only the most holy reverence, is never a question. A viewing is akin to a religious experience. However it presents its subject with such unrestrained grandiloquence that at times, the exhibition verges on pageantry. Nevertheless the drama is an unqualified success.

Two mesmerizing performances highlight the saga. Charlton Heston is front and center as the main character. He embodies every bit the part with honor and authority. Cecil B. DeMille had been responsible for his breakthrough as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth. As successful as that picture was, The Ten Commandments would prove to be much more iconic. “Let my people go!” he demands in one of his signature lines. Matching Heston for sheer magnetism as his arch nemesis is Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses II. He will not relent seemingly ending every proclamation with “So let it be written, so let it be done.” For Yul Brynner, 1956 was a phenomenal year. The Ten Commandments was sandwiched right between The King and I which had come out 3 months prior and Anastasia which was 2 months away. His subsequent Oscar win for playing the King of Siam overshadowed his work here. It was well deserved but Yul is quite extraordinary as the unrelenting pharaoh. This is Heston’s film but Brynner’s importance cannot be underestimated. He is a charismatic villain yet he engenders some sympathy. One would not expect a ruler who advocates slavery to have any redeeming qualities. A scene where he pleads with a statue of a falcon-headed Egyptian god to resurrect his firstborn son has an unexpected emotional nuance.

Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t know the meaning of moderation and thank goodness for that. Ornate sets, crowds of extras, special effects, it is a magnificent spectacle unlike any other. A director with a well tended ego, he even appears as himself at the beginning intro. Perhaps in an effort to silence critics of the liberties he took with the story, he freely admits that the narrative is compiled from sources that include other ancient texts. Occasionally the script veers into unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Perhaps chief among them, “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” These actual words are uttered by Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, a part enhanced by her lustily exaggerated dramatics. She’s joined by a host of solid supporting performances. These include blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson in a comeback role. He is memorably evil as Dathan, the unethical Israelite who betrays his own people.  There’s sultry Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses’ loyal wife Sephora.  This was before achieving TV fame as Lily Munster.  Joshua, a young slave played by actor John Derek, later known for launching the career of wife Bo Derek, and  Jewish slave girl Lilia, portrayed by 50s starlet Debra Paget. Even Vincent Price and John Carradine show up in minor roles.

The Ten Commandments is certainly extravagant. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point. All exterior shots were actually photographed on location in Egypt. It employs a cast of thousands with 70 speaking parts. In an era where they really had to hire all of those people you see in the background, this was truly an epic undertaking. No computer animation. This is all practical effects. In a surprising bit of restraint, only 3 of the 10 plagues are depicted: the water turning into blood, thunder & hail storm, and killing of the oldest sons. The latter features an Angel of Death imagined as a thick, green mist that creeps through the streets claiming the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons. As memorable as that was, it pales next to one of the greatest special effects sequences of all time that follows the Exodus of over 12,000 extra. The production culminates in Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the climatic scene. Even now it’s a visual feat to be admired. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards winning 1 for Best Visual Effects. To this day, the movie is the sixth most successful ever when adjusting for inflation. It remains the yardstick by which all biblical stories must be measured..

P.S. I’m well aware Ben-Hur is technically set during biblical times but it’s NOT a biblical story.

04-23-14

Only Lovers Left Alive

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

Only Lovers Left Alive photo starrating-3stars.jpgFirstly, if you’re already an aficionado of director Jim Jarmusch, then stop reading and just go see Only Lovers Left Alive right now. He has been a filmmaking pioneer in American cinema. His trippy movies have always been a bit of an acquired taste but there is no denying that Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down By Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989) were influential movies that shaped the independent film movement of the 1980s. The much more accessible Broken Flowers (2005) is the closest thing he’s ever had to a hit, but he’s never really been about that anyway. The Limits of Control (2009), his most recent work until now, was his least well received. Only Lovers Left Alive is a return to form and should be crack to anyone who is a fan of the auteur’s work.

Adam is a comparatively young 500 year old vampire musician who composes music, looks like a rock star and lounges around looking fabulous. Tilda Swinton is his spouse. A brilliant vampire scholar with pale skin, wears silk scarves and sports a shock of white hair that look like dreadlocks. She is a somewhat more mature 3,000 years old. Together they lament the presence of zombies, their pejorative for normal humans. Heavily populated LA is “zombie central” which is probably why they hang out in an abandoned old shell of city like Detroit. These two are a rather sensitive pair getting all their high quality blood from sources that don’t involve killing humans. He from a hematologist played by Jeffrey Wright at a local blood bank and she from her friend Christopher Marlow (John Hurt). Yes the same English dramatist who was a peer of Shakespeare (and apparently not a friend). Adam and Eve are a tormented two that love art, music and all the correct things that hipsters are supposed to like. That includes classic R&B records on vinyl and reading manuscripts in book form.  Oh and they sip their superior hemoglobin like sherry from cut glass crystal stemware.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton make for a striking pair. As the principal duo they have sort of an androgynous charisma that almost sells the picture on sheer mood. They’re detached, emotionally aloof and too-cool-for-you. Just the look of them standing in a dark corner of a Detroit music club with sunglasses is kind of amusing. For me the whole production gets a real shot in the arm when Eve’s undisciplined sister shows up. As played by Mia Wasikowska she is a young free spirit, slightly goofy and wears polka-dot leggings. She’s got personality to spare and still finds humans attractive, particularly to boys her own age in the music industry (Anton Yelchin). That proves to be a bit of a problem later. Once her story arc is over, she leaves and it’s back to moping around and feeling depressed. Adam and Eve represent the rare intellectual with an unquenchable passion for the categories of music, literature and science that hipsters find admirable. You see the “only lovers” in the title are for the beauty of art not sex. They’re tortured individuals. If you share Adam and Eve’s point of view, this film will be catnip to your sensibilities. It’s beautifully written and has an evocative mood. But as they repeatedly bemoan the lack of culture in contemporary society their sulking personalities dangerously straddle the line between suffering…and insufferable.

04-27-14

Transcendence

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on April 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

  Transcendence photo starrating-2stars.jpgYou really have to believe in the narrative thrust of your story to begin a movie with the conclusion. The ending in Transcendence is spoiled at the start by the screenwriter. Without the necessary suspense, everything leading up to that point had better be exceptional. Simply put, it isn’t. In the opening scene we’re presented with the aftermath of a catastrophe in which virtually all power has been lost throughout the entire world. No cell phones, computers or Internet. We meet a man named Max Waters (Paul Bettany) who remembers his friends Will and Evelyn Caster.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play a brilliant husband and wife team of researchers in the field of artificial intelligence. After Will is shot by a terrorist (Lukas Haas) from an anti-technology group called RIFT. Evelyn suggests they upload Will’s consciousness into the sentient supercomputer in their lab.   Although Will’s body dies in the material sense, his mind is kept alive in the mainframe.  Over time he connects himself to energy sources stretching around the country. He grows more powerful and omnipotent. Part of the problem of Transcendence is the tale is unnecessarily complicated. It’s patently ridiculous. That’s okay, but be cognizant of that absurdity. I mean there’s an inherent irony that RIFT’s attempted murder of Will is the very motivation for him to pursue “transcendence” via the computer. This was the precise activity they were trying to eradicate. The chronicle takes itself way too seriously. I mean they’ve even given the supercomputer a boring name: PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network).  Wouldn’t it have been funnier if they named it GOD (Good Orderly Direction)?  Well that was a wasted opportunity.  <sigh>  The dreary script just sucks the fun out of what should have been a whimsical concept.

Transcendence is a chore to watch. It’s an overly elaborate, unconvincing, joyless bore. A lot of really great actors are wasted by standing around not doing much of anything. Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman are particularly useless. Not because they give bad performances but because they are given awful parts. All four could’ve been taken out of the story and it would’ve made matters much simpler and less convoluted. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany fare better. You’d think Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer (The Dark Knight, Inception), would at least have the presence of mind to create a visually impressive film. Unless you enjoy watching numerous scenes of electronically charged water droplets moving in slow-motion, it’s a downer there as well. At the core, the saga is merely a series of uninteresting standoffs between good vs. evil. Ultimately the drama’s big idea is: Technology Is Bad. At the end of this turgid ordeal, I wasn’t even convinced of that. But this movie sure is.

04-18-14

Heaven Is for Real

Posted in Drama with tags on April 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Heaven Is for Real photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgHeaven is for Real is a well meaning drama about parents with a child who has a near death experience. Four-year-old son Colton suffers from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. After father Todd Burpo takes him to the hospital, Colton claims to have visited heaven and comes back to testify about what he saw. Giving his story validity is the details of what his parents were doing while he was on the operating table in a completely separate room. He also gives other extraordinary details of past events in his parents’ lives that were heretofore unknowable to the little boy.

With one exception, the performances don’t extract much emotion from the audience. Little actor Connor Corum is a beatific little tyke with blonde hair and blue eyes. He’s certainly cute but he doesn’t quite register the personality it takes to anchor a film like this. He’s a bit of a blank slate. Much better is Greg Kinnear as his father. He perfectly embodies everything this part requires. He is likable, sensible and sympathetic. He expresses the kind of genuine excitement tempered with doubt that a real parent would have in this situation.

The biggest issue I had with this story is the Christian church’s reaction to the little boy’s message. Todd Burpo doesn’t quite know how to explain what his child has seen or knows, but at least he registers some happiness. As a pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church he has an audience to which he can recount his son’s visions. You’d think the members of a Christian church would embrace such news with open arms but such is not the case. Leading the opposition is Nancy Rawling as portrayed by Margo Martindale. She worries that his account will turn their parish into a circus. I had to wonder. Is that a problem? The added attention could be a wonderful jumping off point for a parish to discuss the hereafter with believers and non-believers alike. Instead the boys stories become a worrisome thorn in the side of everyone from Todd’s wife (Kelly Reilly) to his close friend (Thomas Haden Church). Only Todd Burpo, his father has the desire to explore further.

Heaven is for Real is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Todd Burpo and best selling conservative writer Lynn Vincent. It was a true story so maybe the negative reaction that Connor’s chronicle received from the congregation at the time was what actually happened, Yet it was a #1 New York Times hit so it obviously touched a lot of hearts outside the religious world. The boy’s experiences should prompt more probing questions. He saw Jesus for goodness sakes! At least he believes he did, why aren’t people in the Church more excited? Regardless of your personal beliefs in the afterlife, it seems like this bestseller should have inspired a more uplifting tale. This could have been the seed for a galvanizing discussion that Christians, non-Christians, atheists and agnostics could have regarding the concept of heaven. The 1977 picture Oh, God! dealt with this subject in a much more innovative way. In contrast here we are nearly 4 decades later and we’re presented a fascinating story that is handled in the most utterly routine fashion. It doesn’t probe enough to inspire the faithful, the skeptics or anyone in between.

Under the Skin

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Under the Skin photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.

This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.

The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.

There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.

Noah

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on March 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Noah photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNoah is Paramount Pictures indefatigably middle-of-the-road biblical fantasy. Anyone expecting a theological epic with the dramatic heft of something like The Ten Commandments will be mostly disappointed. There’s an innate difficulty in expanding a tale that comprises 4 brief chapters in the Book of Genesis into a 138 minute movie. A big budget biblical production utilizing the full extent of technology of today could be the recipe for a huge success. Visually the spectacle is impressive. Watching the large assemblage of animals march in line to board the ark is an awe-inspiring scene. The narrative even explains logistical details. For example it answers how these creatures could co-exist without eating each other. But elsewhere the story feels padded with vignettes that utilize spectacular special effects but add no emotional drama. Cue The Watchers, angels cast out of heaven who have fallen out of favor with The Creator. They have become encased in mud and dirt on Earth and are now gigantic stone creatures not unlike something found in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

At first glance one might think Darren Aronofsky, a self-professed atheist, to be an odd choice to helm a big-budget, A-lister epic based on scripture. However individuals driven by obsessive quests have long been a tenet of his work, so the religious subject mater isn’t as foreign as it seems. A man driven by obsession could be the focus of a fascinating film, but this drama doesn’t cut beneath the surface to delve deeply into the emotional concepts present. There is inherent drama in this story. We’re talking about God’s displeasure with the sum total of mankind. This is angry vengeful Old Testament God. Noah experiences visions or dreams that he believes are messages from the Supreme Being. The Creator, as he’s called here, apparently wants to not only wipe out all of humanity that currently exists, but to end it completely with his family, never to continue again.

You’d think that this might be cause for alarm. Sadly the chronicle rarely explores that concept deeply. Noah has been entrusted with a major task. He must build an ark and take 2 of every creature so that they may thrive after a great flood kills every living thing. Except for a few worried glances, Noah doesn’t seems conflicted enough by what he’s been asked to do. That is where the narrative should mine his complex struggle. Obviously he wasn’t completely successful because humanity continued to thrive, but that conflict happens at the very end. We lack an outlet for the sheer magnitude of his emotional struggle that demonstrates his problems/fears/stress. As a result the character remains a vague representation of a man in crises with whom we never truly connect.

Director Darren Aronofsky’s point of view is just so blandly neutral. Noah isn’t a terrible picture. There are moments of greatness. At one point, the flood has consumed the world, yet there are still some mountain peaks exposed. A scene with the huddled masses wailing out to the ark, while Noah and his family enjoy safety within, highlights this concept brilliantly. Unfortunately it’s one of the few moments we experience that anguish. It’s as if he was asked to comfort the religious with a perfect portrait of Noah’s unwavering devotion but also placate movie goers looking for a CGI extravaganza. Early test screenings back in October of 2013 to determine which version of the film would “please” the most people is not the way to make great art. This is the product of a talented director being kept under reins. The end result is that it’s not inspirational enough to inspire the faithful and it’s not innovative enough to entertain Aronofsky’s fans. By trying to stay neutral and satisfy everyone, he ends up pleasing no one.

Enemy

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Enemy photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpg“Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”

So begins Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s confusingly twisty but oh-so-stylish ode to David Lynch. The brew is a head trip of a cocktail that goes down deliciously smooth but will no doubt disorient you for days afterwards. Imbiber beware! It’s a refreshingly tight 90 minutes but has enough style to populate 2 additional movies directed by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg. Its visually stark set design, champagne-hued color palette, cinematography, and score make watching every minute of this little perplexity a cineaste’s delight. By the end, however, I really didn’t know what I had actually witnessed. This will irritate some and enchant others. If you haven’t guessed by now, I happily claim to be a member of the latter group. I totally dug the film.

Enemy was adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a mild mannered history professor. One day a colleague recommends a movie, which he subsequently rents from a video store soon after. Do those still exist? While watching late at night he notices an anonymous extra in the background that looks eerily like himself. Pausing the frames reveals a similarity that appears identical. Fascinated, he researches the actor and learns his pseudonym is Daniel St. Claire (real name Anthony). The curiosity becomes an obsession as Adam rents the performer’s other films. Next he finds out where Anthony lives. Then Adam uncovers his phone number and calls his home. Anthony’s wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers and mistakes Adam’s voice for her own husband’s. And that is only the beginning.

The whole production has this unrelenting feeling of dread. There’s something sinister looming you can’t quite put your finger on. Enemy plays with the conventions of doppelgangers. Adam Bell is the humdrum one, emotionally distant with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). He teaches history with languid enthusiasm to college students.  Anthony St. Claire on the other hand is more confident. He’s an actor who rides a motorcycle. His wife is expecting. For some reason his existence proves unsettling to Adam’s identity. The atmosphere instills Adam’s discovery with a sense of alarm. The narrative grows more fascinating with each new development.

Director Dennis Villeneuve worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on 2013’s Prisoners. That was a solid Hollywood studio picture, but this little independent is far better because it’s so bizarrely original and unexpected. The Canadian filmmaker knows how to exploit Gyllenhaal’s strengths. Jake gives two powerfully nuanced performances here, each one masterful in their own right. It’s a complicated balancing act because both guys must look identical in every way, yet remain two separate people. Even the physical similarities between the women in their respective lives are uncannily alike as well. An inquiring mind can be a dangerous thing. Adam’s visit to his mother (Isabella Rossellini) provides hazy details to an individuality that feels increasingly threatened. Bits and pieces of evidence of various sorts are offered up to the audience to help formulate an explanation as to what exactly is going on – that opening scene in a nightclub, for example.   You might think you’ve already guessed how it ends. Let me tell you, you aren’t even close.

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