Archive for the Mystery Category

The Gift

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 22, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Gift photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgSimon is a highly competitive, status-conscious go-getter. His wife Robyn is interested in restarting her successful architect business. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall are the Callums, a well-to-do couple who have recently moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles. They’ve bought a sleek glass-walled home in the hills near where Simon grew up. They seemingly have the perfect life. However a recent miscarriage hangs over them. Then one day while out shopping for furniture for their new home, a man approaches Simon and claims to know him from high school. Simon doesn’t recognize him until he says his name is Gordon Mosely, or Gordo.

Their exchange is pleasant, but soon after, he begins dropping by their home unannounced, usually when Simon is at work. Then there’s the series of escalating presents that Gordo bestows on the pair: a bottle of wine, koi fish for their outdoor pond. His presence starts to make them uncomfortable. Dismantling the peaceful tranquility of the wealthy suburban upper-class is a genre unto itself. Call it the “home-invasion” thriller. Fatal Attraction, Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and Unlawful Entry have all done the broad category justice. The Gift is an impressive addition.

The cast is uniformly excellent. I generally consider Jason Bateman to be a comedic actor, but he plays against type occasionally.  Once again, he is outstanding in a serious role. Rebecca Hall is his equal as yes, his sympathetic wife. But she’s a complex individual in her own right. They don’t always see eye to eye. Together they must contend with this intruder in their lives. Joel Edgerton (WarriorThe Great Gatsby) strikes the perfect balance between menacing and amiable as Simon’s classmate from the past. Edgerton is also the writer and director. He delivers an extremely self assured directorial debut with this finely crafted feature.

The Gift is a suspense thriller that hews close to the grand tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. The chronicle commences with a predicable frame, but it doesn’t end that way. What energizes the story is how Edgerton’s screenplay extracts tension from the unknown. That queasy feeling you get when things are a bit off kilter but you’re not really quite sure why. That lack of privacy is at the heart of the horror exploited here. Their personal refuge is being infringed to the point that it becomes unsettling. What makes Gordo tick is a question you’ll immediately have once he becomes part of the narrative. The script takes it’s time not to answer this question immediately. The drama allows the audience to simmer for awhile in this sinister stew. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy being on edge. By the shocking climax, The Gift pushes you to the absolute brink.

08-13-15

Mr. Holmes

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on July 30, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Holmes photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s set the record straight. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character that was featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mr. Holmes then is a fabrication that envisions the imaginary sleuth as a 93-year-old reflecting back on how a case ended his career 30 years ago. The thing is, the picture is so meticulous, so deliberate and so…uh…well sluggish that you might be inclined to actually believe that this is the carefully studied profile of an authentic man. This is the latter day experiences of an erudite detective where entertaining embellishments are frowned upon in service of reverent restraint.

Writer-director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen have worked together before in Gods And Monsters. There the chronicle also centered on a life story. The difference is then it was director James Whale, an actual person. This time we’re detailing a make-believe guy. Mr. Holmes is a handsomely mounted production to be be sure, but one whose sole joy rests in watching a talented thespian act. Sir Ian McKellen, that English Academy Award nominated star of stage and screen, beautifully embodies the role of the agent in this dignified feature. He has a certain presence, but why so serious? This is a fantasy, not a biography where slavish attention to detail is a must. We could have used a little more fun perhaps. Accompanying McKellen are Laura Linney doing her best Emily Watson impression as his housekeeper and young Milo Parker who evokes Freddie Highmore as her son Roger. The allusions to other actors are in no way meant to negate their fine work here.

As a mater of fact, Ian’s McKellen’s scenes with budding star-in-the-making Milo Parker are the highlight of this production. The child has a precocious air that is quite endearing and never grating in the way some youngsters can be encouraged to act. Roger is the inspiration for Holmes to re-remember a mystery from his past: his last assignment. Roger is fascinated by the private investigator and his emotion captures the audience’s interest. Numerous flashbacks recall these details. There’s a lot of jumping around – first to a recent trip to Japan – then 35 years into the past. This for little apparent reason other than to utilize old age makeup on McKellen for the modern setting. Honestly the change isn’t all that dramatic. The real problem is, the case at hand isn’t very interesting. Mr. Holmes has its moments, but if I may quote another English literary character: “Please, sir, I want some more”. There just isn’t enough here to sustain a film. Ultimately it feels more like the studious artifact of bygone history than the fanciful re-imaging of a fictional super sleuth.

07-20-15

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

Rear Window

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Rear Window photo starrating-5stars.jpgThe story is simple. Photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. His broken leg injury is temporary thanks to an accident during an on the job assignment. He remains at home while he recuperating. His rear window overlooks a small courtyard where he can see into the rooms of other apartments. The view is a microcosm of humanity at various stages in their relationships. It’s voyeurism at its most enthusiastically unrestrained. As he peers into the private lives of his neighbors, we are disturbed and intrigued all at the same time. Though he doesn’t know them, he creates nicknames for some residents based on his observations. Among them, there’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso, Miss Hearing Aid. There’s also the songwriter, the newlyweds, the couple on the fire escape, the traveling salesman and his invalid wife. Then one day he firmly believes one has committed murder. He hasn’t actually seen the act, though, so how will he prove it?

First and foremost, Rear Window is a thriller, but additionally bubbling beneath the surface we’ve got this captivating love story between Jeff (James Stewart) and Manhattan model and socialite, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who wants to marry him. Despite her exhortations for them to tie the knot, he is reluctant to commit. Stella (Thelma Ritter), in a great supporting role as his wisecracking nurse, thinks Jeff’s fear is ridiculous.

“When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, “ she says, “they ought to come together – wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”

Jeff’s profession and his love of travel literally mean the world to him. Lisa loves expensive clothes and attending parties. You aren’t made for that kind of a life,“ he contends. Yet Kelly plays the character in a way so that she never seems materialistic or vain. On the contrary, we agree with Jeff. She is perfect. At one point he sends her out to go investigate. As she climbs up the railing to go into a suspected murderer’s apartment, we realize something: She truly is too good for him.

When we talk about the golden age of Hollywood and I mean the period covering the late 1920s to the early 1960s, Grace Kelly must certainly be included in the greatest sirens of the silver screen. She is positively luminous in this picture. Jeff awakes to a full close-up of her coming towards him for a kiss. It’s a memorable shot. Kelly is introduced wearing an $1100 dress “fresh from the Paris plane” and it’s spectacular. It’s the first of many outfits she wears throughout the production and each one just as stunning as the next. Legendary Edith Head was the costume designer so we expect nothing less.

Rear Window is regularly listed with the greatest movies ever made. Certainly one of Hitchcock’s finest. In addition to the exceptional chemistry between star James Stewart and a radiant Grace Kelly , there’s Raymond Burr as salesman Lars Thorwald with his hair dyed white to make him appear older. When his invalid wife disappears, Jeff suspects foul play might be involved. The setting is a fascinating tableau. Virtually the entire feature is shot from Jeff’s gaze looking out into the open courtyard into the many windows of his neighbors. Each residence is a set within itself, fully furnished. With few exceptions, the camera never leaves the confinement of Stewart’s apartment. The setting can get a bit claustrophobic. Nevertheless it’s a brilliantly assembled theatrical piece right down to the heart-pounding climax . Hitchcock’s brilliance as a director has never been questioned and with Rear Window, his abilities as a visual storyteller remain unparalleled.

03-22-15

Predestination

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 22, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Predestination photo starrating-3stars.jpgOw! My head hurts. After watching Predestination, my brain is trying to come to terms with the conclusion of this wackadoodle film. It’s actually kind of nifty at first. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling agent who attempts to prevent an elusive terrorist before he strikes. The thug is known as the “Fizzle Bomber” and his deadly explosive, if successful, will kill thousands of people. Right from the start we see our hero is badly burned in an attack. After reconstructive surgery he is sent back in time to March 1975 to stop the criminal.

The movie captivates your attention rather quickly. The proper drama really begins with Ethan Hawke assuming the role of a bar keeper. He strikes up conversation with an odd young man named John. Whether this gentleman is the Fizzle Bomber or not isn’t really clear. He is a writer that writes confession stories under the pen name Unmarried Mother. John tells the barkeep that he’s got an incredible story. He’s heard a lot and so the two make a bet over whether it tops everything he has heard before. When John begins with, “When I was a little girl…” you know it’s going to be a doozy.

That there’s something a bit off about this “man” (Sarah Snook), is immediately obvious. John’s revelation appears just 15 minutes into the picture so it‘s not a key plot point. However his tale will unite the two on a quest that will eventually lead them to a finish that will have not one, not two, but three revelations dropped in the final third. This reveal is so preposterous that it feels as if the writer came up with the convoluted ending first and then thought backwards as to how they could make this head trip a reality. Predestination is based on a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein called  ‘—All You Zombies—’.  I suppose we might credit the author known for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) as the root of this silliness, but ultimately the blame must rest with brothers Michael & Peter Spierig who not only adapted Heinlein’s work but also direct.

Predestination is the belief that everything that will happen has already been decided by God/fate and cannot be changed. The film utilizes this idea intelligently. The carefully constructed tale that Jane tells the barkeeper is a fascinating narrative that draws the viewer in for most of the adventure. The Spierig Brothers have fashioned a nifty little drama. “The most incredible story you ever heard” is indeed pretty bizarre. Yet the script thinks it’s smarter than it really is. A turn of events in the final third undoes an intelligent account until it becomes almost a parody. I wish I could explain it because it makes me laugh just taking about it, but trust me, it’s pretty ridiculous. Michael & Peter could have manipulated the source material utilizing any method they saw fit. As the resolution is presented here, it doesn’t earn these revelations honestly, but rather in a way that is desperate to shock more than it is trying to tell a coherent tale. True, these time travel sagas never add up upon close scrutiny but this aggressively exploits a gimmick ending. As a result the narrative falls apart to problems that other time travel movies do not. Watch Back to the Future or Looper for the gold standard.

02-20-15

Gone Girl

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on October 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gone Girl photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgFor those unfamiliar with my reviews. I do NOT reveal spoilers. Never have and I never will. And let me tell you, if ever there was a production that could be ruined by the reveal of pivotal developments, it’s this picture. Rest assured the review that follows will only affirm that there are plot twists that make Gone Girl exceptionally engrossing. What those developments are will remain a mystery. The discovery of those surprises constitute the joy of an exciting thriller.

At its core, Gone Girl is about the union of two people. It concerns Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair who met, courted each other and fell in love. Theirs was a storybook romance. But as any married couple will attest, marriage isn‘t all smooth sailing. Life gets difficult when both Nick and Amy lose their jobs. Then Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer. In order to care for his mom, they move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the sedate existence of Nick’s hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. Relying on Amy’s trust fund, they buy a bar which eats up more of their money than it earns. Nick seeks solace in an affair. He’s the classic example of the philandering husband. Nick is growing increasingly miserable and Amy subsequently fears for her safety. When the tragedy begins, Amy is already gone. We learn this in flashback. For you see, on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find a smashed coffee table and a missing wife. The police are called in only to discover a perplexing crime scene that solicits more questions than it answers.

Anyone who was living in the U.S. and old enough to remember 2003 will make the connection. One can easily point to the Scott Petersen case as a possible real life inspiration for this chronicle. Scott and Laci were an attractive couple in their late 20s that appeared to be in love. Laci disappeared on December 24, 2002. At first, he was a sympathetic individual. Then he grew seemingly more insensitive. His reluctance to talk to the press fueled a disinterred persona that turned him into a public pariah. His numerous extramarital affairs would later surface. She was eight months pregnant with their unborn child. Scott was charged and ultimately convicted of murdering his wife and their unborn son.

The Gone Girl ensemble mesh like the movement of a precision timepiece. There’s no denying that Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as the lunkheaded doofus of a husband. He’s a douchebag that is more concerned with preserving his own skin than the welfare of his wife. His glib behavior reads as insincere. He maintains he didn’t kill his wife.  The evidence starts to prove otherwise.  The very first line of the film is a voiceover that states he’d like to bash her head in and pick her brain apart to see what secrets come spilling out. As remarkable as he and the rest of the male company are, it’s the women who truly shine in Gone Girl.

Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy signals the arrival of a star. Until now, she was probably best known as Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002). Using the pages of her diary, we flash back to a time before her disappearance. She is the central focus of the production. She’s beautiful and so we’re initially drawn to her for superficial reasons. Then we question our own perceptions. She exhibits a bit of the ice queen mentality. She is a complex person that becomes more fascinating the deeper we get into the details. Rosamund embodies Amy as a woman losing her handle on a situation and then regaining it. We feel sorry for her, then we hate her, we sympathize again, then we are disgusted. Back and forth over and over. It’s a dizzying balancing act that makes her an endlessly compelling personality.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with so many formidable women in key roles. Actress Kim Dickens is Detective Rhonda Boney, the person entrusted with investigating the disappearance of Amy. A suspicious cop, her scenes where she interacts with Ben Affleck accentuates an intelligent mastery of control of the situation.  She’s joined by Detective Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) but she’s clearly in charge. Then there’s Margo. Nick’s wise-alecky twin sister whom he affectionately calls Go. A rather sarcastic type, she is brilliantly played by Carrie Coon. As his twin, Margo is 100% devoted to her brother. Perhaps blinded by their familial bond, she believes him implicitly. They are extremely close. So close in fact that their relationship is misrepresented as “twincest” by a flippant news media. Then his infidelity surfaces and her doubt multiplies ten-fold.

At heart Gone Girl is a marriage fable. But this isn’t the fantasy of an idealized romance. It’s the tale of the institution as a prison. A jail that locks two people in a dungeon of souls desiring to break free. The dialogue attempts to present both sides of their failed union. It’s a he said/she said account. If the saga has a failing, it’s that the portrait of their artificial wedded bliss seems to favor Nick’s side to the detriment of Amy. The script raises some red flags. The narrative elucidates his motivations more clearly than hers.  It doesn’t make the drama any less imperative. It’s still a crackerjack thriller.  It also has some salient points to make about the role the scandal obsessed television plays in the presentation of a prefabricated tale of consumption for the masses. Talking head tabloid reporters are epitomized by Sela Ward and Missi Pyle. The latter’s character is amusingly pattered after Nancy Grace. The two actresses are extraordinarily good in minor parts. The lie and the truth are simply ideas that the news manipulates to create a shared perception for the masses. This theme infuses the storyline throughout her entire picture. What initially appears to be important is made irrelevant. What seems insignificant is made crucial. The reality is always deeper than what is readily apparent. Gone Girl highlights this fact. And by doing so, not only entertains, but also educates us in how truth is merely a moldable concept of the modern media age.

10-02-14

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.

Non-Stop

Posted in Action, Mystery, Thriller with tags on March 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Non-Stop photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIn the grand tradition of aviation movies like Red Eye and Flightplan comes Non-Stop. Star Liam Neeson is clearly in his comfort zone playing, what else, a badass. Okay so he’s in fact a U.S. Federal Air Marshal. But Bill Marks has a past. His daughter died when she was 8 and his wife has since divorced him. He’s an alcoholic AND he smokes too. These days smoking cigarettes is pretty much the same thing as shooting up heroin as far as the cinema is concerned. So we’re already wary of him. He even duct tapes the vents in the airplane lavoratory so he can light up without tripping the smoke detectors. Yet he gives us reason to care. Liam Neeson is incredibly charismatic as the lead character. Let’s face it. Taken and Unknown have given the actor enough practice where he can now play a tough, but likable, ultra-cool mofo in his sleep. And I got to hand it to the guy.  He’s in his 60s and he’s carved a nice little niche in these action roles where others have failed at this age.  Sorry Arnold.

Speaking of Unknown, Non-Stop reunites the star with the same director, Jaume Collet-Serra. I like the director’s style. He’s a dependable type that knows how to keep the chronicle moving so we are never bored (or reflect on the plausibility of what is happening). Most of the picture takes place in the tiny cramped, quarters of an airline cabin and you could hardly pick a more tense environment in our post 9/11 world.  Midway on a transatlantic flight from New York City to London, Marks begins receiving cryptic text message on his personal phone. The anonymous intruder demands $150 million dollars to be transferred into a secure account or a passenger will die every 20 minutes.

The screenwriters have stockpiled the trip with a sampling of cultural identities and temperaments to make the guessing game a bit more confusing. Every time someone gives a dirty look (and there are a lot), we’re meant to think, “It’s him! It’s him! It’s totally him!” The shifting blame of who’s responsible is fairly effective.  Neeson is surrounded by an engaging cast. I was surprised to see Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant . This year’s Supporting Actress Oscar winner took the part after filming 12 Years a Slave but before her performance was received with universal acclaim. Her generic role here allows her to utter maybe 3 lines. I suspect she can say goodbye to being cast in this fashion from now on.

As developments happen, and the evidence starts to pile up, Bill Marks himself appears to be culprit. That secure account for example? It’s in his own name. Is this all an elaborate set up to make him appear guilty or is he indeed the villain. Without giving anything away, I was convinced I knew “whodunit” only to be proven wrong in the end. That’s not because this is a smartly written, coherent mystery, but because the story doesn’t really play fair with the audience. It obscures information it doesn’t want you to have, then throws in red herrings that cloud the truth even further. Given that a substantial amount of time involves him receiving text messages from the extortionist, you’d think that all he’d have to do is merely watch the passengers to see who keeps texting him. He actually attempts to do this at one point, but apparently he isn’t thorough enough because it leads to absolutely nothing. I’m being overly critical however. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t entertained. I was, immensely in fact. This is a nifty little thriller that will captivate your attention for most of its running time. It’s very enjoyable. It’s just that by the end when everything is made known, you kind of feel betrayed. The reveal doesn’t really equal the sum total of the clues that we’ve seen. But eh I liked it anyway.

The Past

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Mystery with tags on December 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Past photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe incredible promise that Director Asghar Farhadi demonstrated with 2011’s A Separation has proven to be no fluke with his subsequent follow-up, The Past. He recounts human behavior with the precision of an absolute master. The plot is artfully straightforward. Four years after separating from his ex-wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), an Iranian man from Tehran named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), arrives in Paris to finalize his divorce. Marie has 2 daughters from her previous marriage and is currently in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), an Arab man. Samir’s wife is in a coma and he has a son with her. Director Farhadi’s understanding of the human heart makes the sentimentality of modern movies look like ersatz emotion. The Past is ambitious in its desire to portray human feeling so honestly. It’s ironic because this is about the façades that people put up to mask their genuine desires.

The Past is an intensely intimate drama concerning 3 key people: Marie, Samir, and Ahmad. As was the case with A Separation, everyone’s point of view is displayed. No one is a villain. We tend to identify with ex-husband Ahmad since that is the person through which most of the action is filtered. However each character has their own merits. Bernice Bejo is quite moving as mother Marie. She is a sympathetic, maternal presence that is immediately affecting. She has two daughters from an even earlier marriage before Ahmad. One is a little girl, the other a 16 year old. Bejo portrays an intelligent woman that seems to have everything in order. Then the cracks begin to show. Older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) has the warmest regard for her former step dad. The bond with her mother is strained because Lucie disapproves of her mother’s current boyfriend Samir. You’ll find yourself vacillating between the various characters trying to decide whose side you’re truly on. What originally appears as the picture of accord, is a woman gently unraveling at the seams.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a knack for extracting fervid passion from our everyday lives. His talent for constructing a fascinating tale from a deceptively simple scenario is nothing less than genius. He starts with routine domestic problems. Then offers an endlessly compelling saga with unflinching honesty. The criteria by which we judge human drama has been elevated. It sets the new emotional high bar by which all other movies must now aspire. Director Asghar Farhadi presents the narrative unencumbered by elaborate devices. Sans music, costumes, special effects, flashbacks, nonlinear storytelling and other stylistic flourishes, he strips the production bare and serves it up to an audience for perusal. Much of the true feeling that percolates beneath the surface is evident not from dialogue, but from body language and gestures. The chronicle considers how we put up walls that impede effective communication. Once again, you think you know the story. As it unfolds, layers are exposed. As developments are revealed we’re drawn deeper into their crumbling relationships. Then the daughter reveals something that threatens to change everything. This is humanity and you cannot look away.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on September 18, 2013 by Mark Hobin

To Kill a Mockingbird photo starrating-5stars.jpg“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel is adapted into a milestone of American cinematic entertainment. The townspeople of Maycomb, Alabama as seen through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch or “Scout” as she‘s affectionately known – a little girl living during The Great Depression in the South. As the movie begins, an adult Scout narrates through voice-over regarding her experiences growing up with her family – brother Jem, friend Dill, and father Atticus Finch.

To Kill a Mockingbird is highlighted by stunning performances that are breathtakingly genuine. Young actress Mary Badham epitomizes tomboy “Scout” with the skill of a seasoned pro. The film examines her societal observations beginning as a 6 year old. These include her adventures with her brother, 10 year-old Jem (Phillip Alford) and their friend “Dill” (John Megna). Dill is a peculiarly eccentric boy based on Harper Lee‘s real life childhood friendship with Truman Capote. The three of them pass their summers together preoccupied with a neighbor home that belongs to the hateful Mr. Radley and his reclusive son – the often talked about but never seen – Boo Radley. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch, a lawyer and the children’s father. It has become an iconic role. The actor embodies absolute virtue, both as a father and as a lawyer tapped to defend a man on trial for a serious crime. Peck even won the Oscar (beating Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). Estelle Evans is their no-nonsense housekeeper Calpurnia and inherent mother figure to the kids. Deeply respected, she provides discipline and love but doesn’t overindulge the children.

Gregory Peck is the personification of goodness in his part as the southern lawyer selected to defend a black man accused of rape. Director Robert Mulligan along with frequent collaborator-producer Alan J. Pakula, brings a classic of modern American literature to the screen in a near perfect masterpiece. To Kill a Mockingbird meticulously captures the reflections of a young girl. It’s hard to imagine a more deft handling of what a child witnesses concerning the residents of a close-knit community. Bigotry is definitely a major subject. However Horton Foote’s Oscar winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, is more importantly a timeless reminiscence about growing up in Alabama during the 1930s. Multiple characters and storylines are effectively managed as a portrait of the American south is painted. The atmosphere of a small southern town is perfectly captured. Russell Harlan’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography has a transcendent quality that rightfully earned an Oscar nomination. His beautifully framed evocation of the south is just as important as the actors that gives spirit to Harper Lee’s words. The entire story climaxes in a entertaining courtroom drama that deals with civil rights but it leads to so much more. As the developments play out, the movie demonstrates how subsequent events have a profound effect on the formative education on a maturing protagonist.

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