Archive for 2011

The Hidden Face

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Hidden Face photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAdrián, the young orchestra conductor of the Bogota Philharmonic is distraught by the breakup of his girlfriend who has recently left him. Belén has split but not before imparting with a filmed farewell video message for Adrián. “I’m leaving… don’t look for me and don’t hate me.” She resented his flirtations with another woman. They were having relationship problems so perhaps it’s not so surprising. It’s just that she has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. Where did she go and was Adrián responsible for her disappearance? His new sweetheart (that didn‘t take long), the local barmaid Fabiana senses an uneasy presence in his dwelling. She becomes convinced that his ex-girlfriend is haunting the residence and possibly trying to make contact.

The Hidden Face unfolds like a typical ghost story in an eerie haunted house. For the first half, it basically is. However there is more to this picture than meets the eye. Director Andrés Baiz, who co-wrote the screenplay, has fashioned a fascinating fable. The modern mansion is photographed with an appreciation for its beauty, but also evokes something sinister. Actor Quim Gutiérrez who portrays our lead protagonist is pretty bland unfortunately. A more dynamic personality would’ve been preferable, but Martina García and especially Clara Lago are attractive support that engage the emotions. The drama plays with expectations and has at least one surprise that is completely unforeseeable. Warning: Don‘t watch the trailer. It spoils everything. It’s a most unusual love triangle built on insecurity, mistrust and jealousy. An enjoyable thriller that entertains with its creepy twists.

Note: Review posted August 17, 2013. This movie was recommended to me by Gary Lee over at With a Friend Like Gary movie reviews. Please check out his blog and his review of this film.

Kaboom

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Mystery with tags on September 10, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketGregg Araki is a polarizing filmmaker. He’s guaranteed to alienate at least slightly conservative tastes even before we begin to make sense of the plot. On the one hand, Kaboom is a frivolous comedy highlighted by the warm glow of a brightly colored visual palette. The enthusiastic, youthful cast engenders a playful mood that attracts interest. But anyone familiar with the director by way of his 2004 dramatic high point Mysterious Skin, will undoubtedly be disappointed in this wandering meditation on the sexual exploits of this group of college students. Their adventures are mixed with some nonsense concerning how an undergrad’s destiny holds planet Earth in the balance. Yes, you heard that right. It’s an end of the world story.

Of course most of the film is an excuse to show promiscuous students in a pansexual world of carnal escapades. I’m trying to write about this in the most urbane manner possible but it’s rather difficult. Thomas Dekker is our main protagonist Smith. The teens have a chilly indifference to their surroundings, none more so than his best friend Stella portrayed with sassy, nothing-fazes-me attitude, by Haley Bennett. Her presence gives the story some much needed direction. Her odd relationship with a witch gives focus to the directionless plot. She’s very amusing and a nice comic foil to 18 year old Smith, who is preoccupied by his all consuming lascivious desire and little else in this world.

The narrative does have some mental quests thrown in. Smith witnesses the apparent murder of a red headed woman by men in animal masks after a late night party. In a drug addled haze, he’s not quite sure if he didn’t just hallucinate the whole thing at first. But then he discovers a disc drive in his pocket left by the unknown victim that points to a mysterious online cult. Here’s where the tale starts to get interesting. Unfortunately director Gregg Araki is more interested in the sexual experimentation of teens and the story collapses under the weight of wanton pursuits. These interludes appear kamikaze style throughout and they’re neither sensual nor funny.

Kaboom is a schizophrenic melding of two different films. It presents a mildly entertaining, bizarro apocalyptic fable that is buried under a lot of drek. What a shame that everything is ultimately explained in a hastily executed wrap up in the last 10 minutes. The explosive streams of vernacular coming from the mouths of the entire cast is a recklessly spoken explosion of words meant to clarify what we‘ve been watching. It renders the whole account as arbitrary and meaningless. I couldn’t possibly do justice to the ridiculous conclusion. Perhaps the producers were running out of money and Araki had to quickly end this mess. I know you pretty much get what you deserve when you choose to watch a Gregg Araki flick, but good heavens, Kaboom is really out there, even for him.

War of the Arrows

Posted in Action, History, Thriller with tags on August 11, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketA skilled archer and his sister are the sole survivors in a family that has been branded traitors. Nam-yi’s singular purpose in life is to keep his sister safe from harm. 13 years later, on the day of his sister’s wedding, their village is attacked by the Qing Dynasty of China. His sister Ja-in is taken away and he sets out to take down the Qing army and rescue her. Nam-yi’s plodding pursuit of the kidnappers is the entire thrust of this plot. Other than the accomplished costume design, there’s really not much to highlight this action thriller. Despite its extremely limited release in the U.S., this grossed $50 million in South Korea and became the 11th most attended film ever there.

Our fable is set during the second Manchurian invasion of Korea in the 17th century, but you’d never get any of that by watching this movie. Superficial tale is more concerned with endless POV shots of flying arrows in slow motion going back and forth in a display of archery prowess. There is scant historical context or even dialogue for that matter to give depth to the narrative. Even the romantic subplot is forgettable. I suppose there’s drama in cheering a single man going on the offensive armed with nothing more than a bow and arrow. There’s a few mildly interesting battle sequences, but none of them rise above the action of a decent TV show. At one point we are introduced to Jyu Shin-Ta, the leader of Qing Dynasty’s troop. At least he gives a human face to the enemy that solicits some much needed excitement. Unfortunately it’s too little, too late. Only in the final confrontation do we truly get the emotional connection the story lacks. I dare say there’s more character development in the animated Kung Fu Panda.

We Bought a Zoo

Posted in Drama, Family with tags on August 6, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketMatt Damon is Benjamin, a widower who is grieving over the loss of his wife. He struggles to nurture a happy family with his two kids: perky and precocious 7-year-old daughter, Rosie and moody, 14-year-old son Dylan who registers one emotion, annoyance. Benjamin looks for a fresh start in a new home by purchasing one in the country with 18 acres. Additionally it happens to house a zoo that comes complete with its own staff. The agreement stipulates the owners must care for all of the animals on the property. If only Matt and his family can return the neglected zoo to its former glory, then perhaps they can all be happy again. I know that doesn’t follow, but just go with it.

Much of the story involves our sweet kindly, dear old Dad, trying to get the zoo open and ready for business on time. It’s a setup so manipulative, you’d swear it was a screenwriter’s device. But We Bought a Zoo is actually adapted from the autobiographical memoirs of writer Benjamin Mee. The based on fact undoubtedly adds some credibility to the events. Unfortunately the production is so annoyingly twee. The swelling melodies that hammer the emotional cues of every scene doesn‘t help. Apparently the director thinks the audience needs assistance in understanding that when positive things happen, it’s a good thing. This is the mistake of a rookie, not an established talent like Cameron Crowe who was once a rock journalist for Rolling Stone during his teen years. His knack for meaningful song selections is well-established which makes the overbearing musical numbers even more depressing. There’s also mean old Walter Ferris, the zoo inspector, who’s responsible for administering a strict zoo inspection before they can open to the public. The costume designer forgot to give him a handlebar moustache to twirl each time he does something nasty. And let’s not forget that cute moppet of a daughter who cheerfully chirps “We Bought a Zoo!” like she knew it would be the title for this film.

Cameron Crowe is a respected director of renown. I’ve seen his engaging best work: Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous and then I behold something like We Bought a Zoo.  I’m shocked this is the creation of the same filmmaker, the narrative steeped in cliché and mediocrity. It’s exceptionally cloying and sentimental.  I suppose if you insist on adding a few heaping teaspoons of sugar to your maple syrup pancakes, the script might not seem so overly sweet.   We Bought a Zoo isn’t a horrible picture. It’s heart s in the right place as it seeks to entertain through a schmaltzy family friendly PG film. But it falters in even doing that, The movie could’ve easily been rated G, but at one point his 7 year-old daughter tells the inspector “You know, everybody here thinks you’re a d—.” Out of the mouths of babes.

Headhunters

Posted in Crime, Drama, Foreign, Thriller with tags on July 12, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Every now and then a film comes along so quietly, without fanfare, that when it manages to entertain in such a consummate way, I walk out of the theater like a zombie shocked at how great it was.  Headhunters is one of those pictures. Not only is it one of the best of the year, it’s also a reminder that sometimes, the most exciting stories aren’t being made in Hollywood or even the U.S. at all. The white knuckle ride is based on Norwegian author, Jo Nesbø’s bestselling novel of the same name. The thriller furthers the rise of Scandinavian crime fiction. It follows in the recent success of the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson of which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the most famous entry. The production was such a success in its native Norway, there’s already an American remake in the works. Please see this first.

Roger Brown lives a dual life. Within the law he works as a corporate recruiter, finding talented people who work for other companies and making them lucrative offers to join the firm with which he‘s currently employed. Roger sort of looks like a healthier blonde version of Steve Buscemi. He’s married to a ridiculously tall gorgeous blonde who exacerbates his crushing insecurity that he isn’t good enough for her. You see at 1.68 meters tall (about 5’5”) he’s got a bit of Napoleonic complex. He’s got a mistress as well. In order to keep them both happy he showers them with expensive gifts. That obviously costs a lot of money and so he has taken on a second job of sorts. Here’s where he operates outside the law stealing rare works of art.  Then one day he interviews a job candidate who seems to be the perfect match for a new CEO position. He’s a handsome but ruthless technical expert named Clas Greve, played by actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The actor is evil on TV as well as brutal swordsman Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones. Coincidentally Clas Greve is likewise in possession of a rare and priceless masterpiece by Peter Paul Rubens which Roger would desire to own. Upon learning of this, Roger realizes his two worlds are about to collide. Little does he know how catastrophic the merger will be.

What makes Headhunters so ridiculously engaging is how the narrative develops in a way that you cannot guess the outcome. That’s precisely the fun. Like classic suspense of the past, this has the kinds of twists and turns that would make Hitchcock proud. There’s one surprise after another and the developments are innovative in that way. However I can attest, Headhunters is very much an example of modern storytelling that resembles something by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers. It’s bloody and raw. Think Pulp Fiction or Fargo. If you think those are lofty comparisons, you haven’t seen this movie. Yet there’s a humanism present that sets this apart from those classics and makes this distinctly different. These are people with insecurities and weaknesses that are altogether apparent. In between the action, there is a declaration of love that’s incredibly touching. They still long to be loved. The violence never seems gratuitous, only necessary to emphasize the absolute nightmare of which Roger becomes a part. It’s a drama that starts slowly but as the tale unfolds it seizes the viewer with brute force. It’s pretty over the top. There’s a depiction of an auto accident where I literally forgot to breathe for 60 seconds. But that’s the standard set piece prevalent here and that’s what makes this thriller so exhilarating.

The Intouchables

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Foreign with tags on June 26, 2012 by Mark Hobin

There’s scene in The Intouchables where unlikely caregiver Driss lets loose to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” in front of a staff of domestic workers and classically trained musicians. The display is such an expression of joyful abandon, it was at that moment I fell in love with this movie. Granted it’s a bit calculated. Remember that scene where Julia Roberts is singing off key in the bathtub in Pretty Woman? Well yeah it’s kind of like that. But nevertheless it’s the instant that I realized that this is a wonderful French film and Omar Sy should be a star.

The chronicle concerns Philippe, a quadriplegic due to a paragliding accident. He’s a millionaire in a palatial mansion and is interviewing applicants to be his caregiver. Driss is a black man from Senegal living in a Paris ghetto. He’s just been released from a six month prison term for robbery and is currently unemployed. The public assistance Driss receives requires proof he is applying for work. Knowing he is unqualified, he merely applies for the job in an effort to satisfy the requirements. I won’t reveal the reasons why Philippe hires Driss over more qualified candidates, but it makes perfect sense. On paper the set up sounds hackneyed and manipulative. It would be easy to dismiss the premise as a superficial examination on race relations. I certainly felt that way upon viewing the trailer. While it’s one of those crowd pleasing culture clash concepts, it fashions a tale that transcends the material.

The narrative explores the friendship between Philippe and Driss with tenderness and depth. The rapport of this implausible duo is explored in little vignettes that uses the structure, sans the love affair, of a romantic comedy. The account is based on a true story, and while the characterizations are unique, the set up is not. This is a buddy picture detailing how human beings want and need the same things regardless of ethnic or social class differences. Through discussions regarding music, recreational activities, even child rearing, we slowly get an impression of two men that have much more in comon than was originally believed. It’s the performances that elevate this beyond the traditional odd-couple plot. The honesty draws the viewer into their situation. There is a genuine chemistry at work here.

The movie’s charms are admittedly obvious, but the cast extracts emotion with sincerity. Driving Miss Daisy, The Blind Side – there are many precedents. What’s amazing is that the two leads make this subject seem fresh. As a quadriplegic, François Cluzet must act with his face only. Physically he suggests Dustin Hoffman. Although he’s not a household name in the States, he’s a veteran actor who’s been acting in French cinema since 1980. 2006’s Tell No One is probably his best known work. Omar Sy is part of a comedy duo in France. He’s nothing less than a revelation. Both were nominated for César Awards (France’s Oscar) in 2011. Sy actually garnered the prize for Best Actor besting actual Oscar winner Jean Dujardin. The drama has become a worldwide smash having already earned $350.1 million as of June 2012. The Intouchables grossed $166 million last year in its native country alone to make it the second most-seen French movie of all-time there. It’s even listed amongst the Top 250 films as voted by IMDb users. Despite these accolades, this has incomprehensibly earned the wrath of a couple American critics in really nasty reviews. They somehow detected ugly attitudes within the script. I briefly mention this because such allegations should be addressed as the distorted misinterpretations that they are. Make no mistake, this is an upbeat story with a lot of heart with two marvelous performances at the center. After all how could 17.5 million French viewers be wrong?

J. Edgar

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on June 12, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Sometimes the free promotional Blu-rays that Warner Brother’s sends, gives me the opportunity to view a picture I have never seen. J Edgar is one such flick. I guess I was more interested in seeing Immortals the weekend this was released. Apparently so were a lot of other people. This only grossed $37 million in the U.S. In the weeks leading up to the January announcement of the 2012 Academy Award nominations, many sources predicted Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor. Although the film failed to get a single nod of any kind, this still remained a picture I wanted to see. Now, 7 months after debuting in theaters, I’m happy to finally cross this off my list.

J Edgar is a meandering biographical overview on the life of the 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s told in flashback as Hoover is dictating his memoirs to various FBI agents chosen as writers.  Let’s face it.   J Edgar is boring.  No two ways about it, the story is laborious. It’s difficult to understand who the target audience was for this hodgepodge. It fails to entertain both history buffs and movie lovers alike. I mean it makes The Aviator seem simple and straightforward by comparison.

Director Clint Eastwood has a lack of passion for his subject. It’s as if he was handed a school assignment regarding a figure he couldn’t care less about. As a result we’re left with a man we have no interest in as well. Eastwood’s condemnatory take is of a man out to destroy people’s reputations while simultaneously trying to hide his own true sexuality. Hoover was a polarizing figure. Great biographies have been made concerning individuals far less likeable or interesting than Hoover, but they had a focus that engaged the mind. The narrative here is disjointed. Clint Eastwood’s bloated opus lacks a defining moment as it trudges on for a seemingly unending 2 hours and 17 minutes. He superficially touches on assorted controversial aspects without ever delving deeper as to why we should be fascinated by this man. Random samples of Hoover’s existence are presented one after the other without any unifying thread other than the man at the center of it all.

The movie is unsuccessful in other important, albeit less significant, ways. For one thing, it’s unnecessarily dark. Not in mood, but in physical brightness. Many scenes are dimly lit and it’s impossible to see everything that’s going on. Furthermore, Hoover and his protégé Clyde Tolson look positively ridiculous in their old age makeup. The prosthetics are ungainly and unnatural looking. Actor Armie Hammer’s face is covered in liver spots. The makeup is at the very least, distracting. I think a little restraint would’ve been preferable. DiCaprio doesn’t remotely resemble the actual man he’s playing so simply casting an older, more rotund actor for later sequences would’ve been a smarter choice. This is not to take away from his achievement. If there is a high point, it’s in Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura performance as the title character. He’s definitely engaging. It’s not enough to save the film, but it makes tolerating this prolonged chore a little less painful.

The Skin I Live In

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on May 30, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Repulsive portrait of a doctor that is, to put it mildly, without a moral compass. Dr. Robert Ledgard is a renowned plastic surgeon that has just developed a new more durable synthetic skin. He’s testing this breakthrough on an attractive young woman named Vera in his vast mansion.

The movie is puzzling from a dramatic standpoint. Just who exactly is this woman that the doctor keeps locked up in a room? Additionally we’re introduced to a criminal in a tiger suit, a housekeeper who also happens to be Robert’s mother, his daughter Norma and a man who works in a dress shop. Director Pedro Almodóvar reveals things slowly. This admittedly helps keep interest in the story.  As information is uncovered however, the plot becomes increasingly irrational. Once you realize who this mystery woman is and her back-story, it makes the doctor’s obsession with her difficult to fully comprehend. He commits acts that are maliciously evil in nature then shows signs of desire and adoration. He is most assuredly insane, yes, but the narrative doesn’t try to reconcile his maniacal behavior. It only presents his conduct and it’s simply too much of a stretch to accept.

Almodóvar’s fixation on human flesh unsettles and is unsettling. If one asserts that Brian De Palma referenced the sexual ideas in Hitchcock’s Psycho when he made Dressed to Kill, then Almodóvar completely perverts De Palma’s obsessions past the breaking point. Almodóvar has always been concerned with identity, sexuality and gender. But here he has abused his preoccupations into horror. I’ll admit that Almodóvar’s storytelling talents are never in doubt. The film has a gorgeous facade. The set design,  cinematography and music, promote a lush setting that belies something much more sinister. It’s a stylish mix to be sure.  The tale grabs your attention, but then so does a ghastly accident.  Peel back the artistic flourishes and we’re left with a sophisticated version of The Human Centipede with art house pretensions.

Dramatically The Skin I Live In fails to answer key questions. It remains at heart a superficial trip within the mind of a sicko. Given that premise, the motivations and the reactions of the characters should make sense. This isn’t the case. Robert’s desires are hard to believe.  His lack of scruples are further disquieting. How did he develop this personality? There’s precious little insight into his abhorrent behavior. The script really doesn’t have anything to truly explain about this psychopath, other than to offer there are some really messed up people in the world.

Monsieur Lazhar

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on April 24, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Monsier Lazhar is a quiet unassuming little drama. Our story begins after an elementary school teacher commits suicide. She hangs herself in the very classroom where she teaches her students. From that shocking, but tastefully presented event, we are introduced to Bachir Lazhar. He’s an immigrant from Algeria who applies for the position of teaching her class. Due to a lack of candidates, he’s quickly hired to replace her. A guarded fellow, Lazhar is something of an enigma. He connects with his students in the face of the cultural gap between them. But something does not compute. His teaching methods are odd. He gives dictation lessons by reading selections from Honoré de Balzac novels. His suggestion for a future field trip is to take his class to see The Imaginary Invalid, a three-act comédie-ballet by French playwright Molière. Both kind of advanced for grade school, wouldn’t you say?  Although the children are perplexed by all this, they do respond to his emotional support. They confront the death of their beloved teacher encouraged by Monsieur Lazhar as he helps them through that grief. In actuality, this teacher is a man with a past. He likewise has his own issues with which he must deal. A man with life experiences that make him rather well equipped for the job. As these revelations come to light, there is a genuine poignancy that never rings false.

Monsier Lazhar is captivating by presenting an honest account, simple and unadorned. It’s a lyrical drama with the rhythms of a play out of the early 1970s. The screenplay is in fact developed from a one-character play by Canadian actress Évelyne de la Chenelière. It’s a soft focus presentation of the emotional damage a tragedy has on a group of young students and the methods their teacher utilizes to comfort them. He gives them a lot of credit and treats them accordingly. The script has pointed commentary on how children cope with the death in contrast to their parents and the rest of the faculty at the school. Yet, despite the film’s title, the students are the true stars here. There’s not one precocious brat amongst the cast. 2 kids in particular give performances of depth and maturity. Actress Sophie Nélisse is the mature beyond her years Alice. Her straightforward, no nonsense personality feels just like a real child. And then there’s actor Émilien Néron as Simon who seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. His feelings of guilt coming to a head in one particularly cathartic scene. These are highlights in a tale that at times can be vague and underdeveloped. This French Canadian nominee for 2012’s Best Foreign Language Film is a relatively slight production. There are times the whole affair can be a bit underwhelming, but the subtlety and discretion with which the story unfolds is commendable.

The Kid with a Bike

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on March 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote, produced and directed this account of a young boy. Cyril’s bum of a father has placed him in foster care because he doesn’t want to deal with the responsibility of raising his son. Samantha, a woman who works at a beauty salon is touched by his plight and offers to look after him on weekends.  His bike is more than a means of transportation, it’s also the last remaining physical link that connects him to his father. When the bike is stolen, he meets Wes, an older kid with ulterior motives. Cyril’s desire for a parental figure is rooted in the kindness of others.  Samantha attempts to shield him from the negative influence of this teen with questionable objectives. Wes exploits something in Cyril’s personality we haven’t seen yet. Their relationship reveals the film’s most striking development. This French language export from Belgium won the Grand Prix, the second-most prestigious prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.

Coming of age tales heavily rely on the emotional connection that audiences share with the protagonist. If we can’t identify with the star, then the story may not have merit. Even the best child actors can drift into precociousness. This is not the case here, as young actor Thomas Doret is captivating in a natural rendition. The Dardenne brothers get credit for allowing our lead character to just react. When faced with the reality of his situation, he underplays, sometimes in silence, which speaks much louder than any dialogue ever could. His acting is less of a performance than the candidly captured portrait of an actual 11 year old boy. He commands attention.

Doret’s talent makes up for the bare bones details that sometimes remain underdeveloped. Where is Cyril’s mother? Or why does Samantha agree to take care of him so quickly? These are valid questions. Yet the sketchiness of the narrative feels like real life. Often there aren’t valid reasons. For me the hardest thing for me to understand was his dad’s capacity to disassociate from his pre-teen son. How could a father abandon his child after 11 years so easily? The justification he gives doesn’t substantiate the magnitude of his decision. At first the lack of specifics is frustrating. However It provided a justification for Cyril’s subsequent misbehavior. The youngster’s inability to accept his father’s abandonment matched mine. He was an unruly little boy but I felt as he did. Despite his unmanageable behavior, Cyril always remained a sympathetic individual at heart

This heartbreaking tale never suffers from over-sentimentality. It mines emotion honestly from authentic drama. True to the structure of the plot, even the conclusion is profound in its uncertainty. It’s one of those endings where you might ask yourself, well what happens next? Ah but such is life! The brilliance of the story is in its ability to reflect the uncertainly and ambiguity of human existence, all united by Thomas Doret’s honest portrayal of a troubled youth.

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