Archive for 2012

Kon-Tiki

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama, Foreign with tags on May 23, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Kon-Tiki photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgKon-Tiki, the Inca god of Sun and storm, was the name of the balsa-wood raft used by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. The primitive vessel was instrumental in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. The purpose was to show that the South American people could have settled Polynesia in the pre-Columbian era using only the simple materials and technologies available to them at the time. I kept thinking that just because they could doesn’t necessarily mean they did but that’s never addressed. Incidentally most anthropologists now believe they did not but that‘s another discussion entirely. There’s no denying that Heyerdahl was a brave and admirable trailblazer who basically just wanted to prove that you couldn’t rule the possibility out. Their mission was presented in a non fictional account in 1950 that actually won the Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature the following year. Now it’s been made into a historical drama, which was subsequently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Amour received the award).

Kon-Tiki is a pleasant but very conventional movie. The plot is mostly made of the 4,300 nautical mile-journey from Peru to Polynesia aboard a flimsy raft. Heyerdahl is a tall blonde tanned Norwegian. His staff is also made up of the same, well four Norwegians and a Swede, but they all posses the same handsomely pale features, indistinguishable from each other. These characters are really generic. That even includes the intrepid star who should’ve been more exciting. Over three months, the team’s scientific voyage is met with a few small setbacks but it’s largely uneventful. Oh there’s storms, a shark gets on the boat, a whale almost topples the raft. Those developments are gripping so those moments engage. The cinematography is pretty too. But more often than not, the action focuses on the humans. Unfortunately their humdrum conversations are boring. The occasional infighting amongst the team does not a film make.

Paranormal Activity 4

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on April 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Paranormal Activity 4 photo starrating-2stars.jpgSuburban teen Alex and her little brother Wyatt live in Henderson, Nevada with their mom and dad. One night, Alex and her boyfriend discover a young neighbor boy Robbie hiding in the tree house of their backyard. When Robbie’s mother falls ill, the family takes him in. Then creepy things start happening. For those who still care, Paranormal Activity 4 picks up several years after the events of PA2. (PA3 was a prequel to both the first and second films).

Story fatigue had already crept into this series well before this installment. Once again we are presented with lots of found footage from computer webcams. Shots of seemingly empty rooms, doors that close by themselves and loud bursts of noise following a period of silence. A couple jolted me awake. The script’s contribution this time is to introduce the camera from a Microsoft Kinect video game console with the infrared tracking dots bathing the room in an eerie green light. The outline of an unexplained figure is about as scary as this gets. The human star is Alex, a teen girl played by Kathryn Newton. She is an appealing presence and conveys the natural vibe of a real teen. The same goes for actor Matt Shively who plays her boyfriend Ben. They are understandably freaked out by the strange goings on while the rest of the family inexplicably dismiss flying knives and possessed children as nothing, natch. The Featherston sisters, Katie & Kristi, have historically been the focus of the supernatural activity in this franchise. Kristi appears only in flashback and Katie is relegated to a minor character. The drama isn’t advanced in any meaningful way. We’re merely left with more of the same parlor tricks you’ve seen in 3 installments before. Except this time they’re done with less enthusiasm. Despite the lackluster performance at the box office, PA5 is coming this October.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on April 5, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Place Beyond the Pines photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIt starts with a shot of a guy displaying his impressive skill with a butterfly knife. As the tracking shot continues, it follows him as he walks through a carnival fairground. We discover he’s on his way to a show where he proceeds to mount a motorcycle and ride it into an enclosed spherical cage made of steel. He’s joined by two additional men on bikes and the resulting display is greeted with applause from the small audience. The guy is Luke Glanton and he’s a stuntman. Haphazardly covered in tattoos that almost look like doodles, he is a man of few words. It’s a brilliant start because it establishes so much about this man simply from visual clues. After that deceptively simple opening we are introduced to a former acquaintance, Romina (Eva Mendes) and her boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali). The two are taking care of her infant son. This cluster of individuals is a fascinating subject for a picture. Ah but that’s merely the beginning.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a stunning multi-generational saga that has two other stories in addition to the one that makes up the film’s first third. This dramatic triptych continues on to detail the life of policeman Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) and two teens (Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen). The latter two struggling to keep their head above the tricky waters of high school. All the aforementioned actors pull off incredible performances worthy of mention. Newcomer Cohen is like the re-incarnation of Brad Renfro. He’s surprisingly good given I’ve never even heard of him. Who these various people are and how their lives fit together is something best discovered by experiencing the film. Director Derek Cianfrance‘s script which he co-wrote with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, does a masterful job at managing multiple parts. Despite an ever-shifting narrative, each person is a fully formed human being with a separate focus. Even a role as seemingly one-dimensional as Cross’ wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) has a distinct purpose that we can identify with in the one major scene she has. Ray Liotta and Ben Mendelsohn further contribute in key supporting parts that significantly alter the story. It’s only April, but this should rank high amongst the ensemble casts of 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious tale you’ll remember long after the credits have rolled. Cianfrance masterfully presents a carefully balanced epic of guilt, sin and redemption amongst fathers and sons. But he also provides car chases, guns and cop corruption. It’s got it all in a magnificently sweeping chronicle. The script’s handling of good vs. evil isn’t too subtle.  However the morally questionable motives of these people often belie honorable intentions. That’s what gives these characters a depth that makes them compelling. At times it’s a bit overwhelming to process all the themes that are being addressed. If Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine could be called an elaborate composition then The Place Beyond the Pines must be considered a grand opus of breathtaking proportions. If this is a logical progression, I can’t wait to see what the director does for an encore.

No

Posted in Drama, Foreign, History with tags on March 5, 2013 by Mark Hobin

NO movie photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgChile’s very first nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a political drama about the country’s national referendum held in 1988. The plebiscite concerned whether Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should extend his rule for another eight-years in office. The vote is simply ‘Yes’ in favor of the idea and ‘No’ for anything else. René Saavedra, an adman played by Gael García Bernal, joins the fight against Pinochet. Saavedra eschews exposing the abuses of the dictator’s regime in his commercials. His revolutionary concept is to pitch the ‘no vote’ much in the same way that he advertises soft drinks. Instead of fear mongering he wants to use catchy jingles, happy people, and rainbows to incite people to come out and make their voice heard.

Director Pablo Larraín shoots the production like a documentary. He utilizes U-matic video tape, the kind used by newscasts in the 80s, to give the film the look from that era. At times it’s a bit too grubby as the production almost looks ugly.  He doesn’t even utilize widescreen so news footage from 1988 is interspersed with fresh material. It’s integrated so perfectly I often didn’t notice the difference. He even showcases actual anti-Pinochet commercials with new scenes of them shooting the ad. The clips are full of people dancing and clapping urging the viewer to vote “No” in cheerful song. These displays are surprisingly light, particularly when contrasted with the reality of Pinochet’s administration. The unexpected lighthearted tone is part of the film’s brilliance but it’s also the way it contrasts with an underlying climate of terror.

No largely succeeds because it makes us understand and care.  Naturally the choice of whether one would want a tyrannical dictator in power seems like an obvious decision. However when that dictator controls the media and every other aspect of society, one’s ability to vote freely is encumbered for fear of retribution. This is especially clear when it comes to Saavedra’s relationship with his young son Simón.  Saavedra starts experiencing escalating threats from pro-Pinochet forces as his ‘No’ ads grow in popularity. Afraid for his child’s life, he leaves Simón in the custody of his estranged wife. The stakes are high. The script really resonates when it exposes just how much danger surrounds this election. It allows us to identify with any country trying to break free from a totalitarian state. It also makes us value and appreciate what a blessing free elections truly are.

Side Effects

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Side Effects photo starrating-4stars.jpgThere is a growing obsession for a panacea for all ills that will make life better – or easier at least. Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a deceptively simple parable that exploits society’s reliance on pills as the basis for this top notch psychological thriller. Emily’s husband has recently gotten out of jail for insider trading and has returned home. Their once perfect life shattered 4 years ago. They are now left to reconstruct the pieces of their once idyllic existence from the ground up. Despite her husband’s release, Emily still suffers from depression. She even has suicidal thoughts. One day while sitting in her car in the garage of their apartment building, she stares at the brick wall ahead of her and drives full speed right into it. Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who consults with Emily after her suicide attempt. He’s a psychiatrist and begins seeing her to help treat her depression. He prescribes Ablixa, a new antidepressant drug. Initially she responds positively to the supposed miracle cure. Then she suffers some unexpected, you guessed it, side effects.

Director Steven Soderbergh is working from an original script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) Burns wisely captures the zeitgeist regarding our obsession with pharmaceuticals. The medication here in question here is called Ablixa, a fictional drug that could easily be a stand-in for Zoloft or Prozac or any other anti-depressant remedy in a pill. In a brilliant bit of marketing, there’s a clever viral video for Ablixa at http://www.tryablixa.com/ It features an ad that convincingly mimics the soothing music and happy people that are so often used to market medicine like this. You can even take a free evaluation of whether Ablixa is right of you. However the fact that it’s conducted by none other than Jude Law himself should clue you in that this is for entertainment purposes only.

And let’s talk about Jude Law. He’s extraordinary in Side Effects. As Emily’s psychiatrist, his character undergoes a sort of crisis of conscience at first. He’s responsible for prescribing a drug that has negative consequences on his patient’s well being. Just how responsible is he? The film addresses ethics, accountability and the legal system. Rooney Mara is at the center of the drama. I think this is quite possibly the most detailed performance we’ve seen from her yet. She’s a sympathetic soul for whom you feel compassion, but she’s also cold and aloof. She conveys a deeply nuanced character that becomes more complicated as the saga progresses. As Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Catherine Zeta-Jones provides delightful support in a role that taps into the kind of hammy exaggeration she clearly relishes. Channing Tatum is the husband.  He’s so busy out trying to re-establish his career again, his presence is less ubiquitous but still crucial to the narrative.

This nifty little thriller is a doozy. A slowly building, twisty little conundrum that exposes layers of intrigue that gradually get revealed just when you think you’ve got things figured out. It originates as sort of a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of prescription drugs, but the screenplay expands on that and then takes things in an entirely different direction. I won’t explain further because that would spoil the fun. While things are unfolding, an almost Hitchcockian scope is revealed. Admittedly, the plot developments really ask a lot of the audience.  A healthy suspension of disbelief is required to accept everything that this story puts forth. I might even go so far as to say they’re preposterous.  Yet it was so addictive, I didn’t mind any of that. Rooney Mara and Jude Law have an undeniable charisma that seize our attention whenever either one is on screen. I was entranced from beginning to end. They say this is Soderbergh’s “last” theatrical film. That would be a shame.  But one thing’s for sure. If that’s really the case, at least he went out with a bang.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on February 2, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Pirates! Band of Misfits photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWhen the Academy Award nominations were announced for Best Animated Feature of 2012, I think 4 of the 5 selections were foregone conclusions. Most predicted that Rise of the Guardians would be the 5th nominee. When that film was snubbed, I think everyone was a bit surprised that The Pirates! Band of Misfits made the cut instead. It didn’t really make much of a splash at the box office in the U.S., barely earning over $30 million. Plus Aardman Animations wasn’t the marketing behemoth that DreamWorks is. I am happy to report Pirates is indeed a very worthy nomination.

The Pirate Captain (yes that’s his name) yearns to win the Pirate of the Year competition. But he isn’t your typical pirate. He’s actually a rather affable chap and doesn’t possess the anti-social qualities of your average mercenary. He’s backed by an amateur group of clumsy pirates that are pretty unconventional too. I don’t think the word ‘swashbuckling’ is in their vocabulary. They don’t even have proper names. Pirate with a Scarf, Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate are some examples. At least they’re very supportive of their captain. They understand that whoever can plunder the most will be deemed the winner and therein lies their dream. Outside the U.S., The picture was originally titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! That makes sense because during his unsuccessful attempts to raid ships, the Pirate Captain meets Charles Darwin. The scientist spies his parrot “Polly” who is in reality a Dodo. The supposedly extinct bird is intriguing to Charles. This leads the gang to an escapade in the less welcoming atmosphere of London.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits! is a delight. The style is a cheerful throwback to classic stop-motion animation. Given the strong resurgence of titles like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie, audiences seem to be responding to its more organic, tangible quality. Of course the aesthetic beauty of the film would mean nothing without a good script. Indeed, Pirates is an intelligently written production. Witty jokes and funny sight gags abound for the careful viewer throughout the brisk 88 minute running time. The voice cast is wonderful but it’s telling that one of their most amusing doesn’t even speak at all. Mr. Darwin’s assistant is a highly trained chimp named Mister Bobo who communicates by holding up note cards. He’s hilarious, but the rest of the ensemble is quite good as well. Hugh Grant has the right amount of narcissism mixed with geniality as the Pirate Captain and Imelda Staunton is a hoot as the pirate hating Queen Victoria. With its hip soundtrack (The Clash, The English Beat, Jimmy Cliff, Supergrass) and occasional gags that little tykes won’t get, this is pitched more at older kids than the toddler set. Seeing as I am well over 8 year years old, that is just fine with me.

Quartet

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on January 25, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Quartet photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s virtually impossible not to discuss Quartet, without mentioning The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Director Dustin Hoffman’s (yes the actor) drama is an amiable lark about four aging opera singers in Beecham House, an old folks home for retired British musicians. It’s a pretty tony place with satin sheets and gorgeous vistas. Residents lounge around the opulent grounds while sipping tea and playing croquet. It’s a decidedly different view of old age from Michael Haneke’s Amour of the same year. This is sweet comfort food that doesn’t aim too high. It merely seeks to entertain with the charisma of our seasoned stars. There’s sophisticated but slightly gloomy Reggie (Tom Courtenay), sweet but slightly daffy Cissy (Pauline Collins) and cheeky but slightly oversexed Wilf (Billy Connolly). They actually sang together in a famous performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” a long time ago. They’ve been friends forever. But this is a quartet after all and thrust into their midst is new arrival Jean (Maggie Smith), the irritable old biddy who still carries the torch for our dear damaged Reggie.

While I was watching Quartet I was charmed by the trifling observations and banter of our four main stars. I chuckled occasionally at the “I can’t believe an old person just said that” one-liners, mostly from Billy Connolly’s character. I’ll also single out Michael Gambon as kaftan-wearing Cedric who rules their impending musical production with an iron hand. He’s rather amusing. But days later as I reflect upon what I saw, I can barely remember any of it. Perhaps you have to be of the septuagenarian set or older to truly appreciate this. It certainly is gentle. Even Cissy’s encroaching senility is treated as a sweet personality quirk. If you’re looking for entertainment that doesn’t rock the boat and is content to simply be cute, then you should enjoy Quartet quite a bit. The company unquestionably elevates this material into something that’s worth your time. It’s an effervescent little piffle. Nothing wrong with that. Given the talent involved, I guess was hoping for something more.

Parental Guidance

Posted in Comedy, Family with tags on January 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Parental Guidance photo starrating-3stars.jpgBilly Crystal and Bette Midler play Artie and Diane, grandparents that cling to the old guard of parenting. Artie isn’t above using the threat of a spanking. Marisa Tomei is Alice, their daughter. She and her husband Phil played by Tom Everett Scott, are new-agey parents in their 40s. Their kids are named Harper, Turner and Barker for goodness’ sake! They promote hip, contemporary child rearing ideas. Instead of acting up, they offer ‘use your words’. Rather than saying ‘no’ they try ‘consider the consequences’. Both parenting styles clash when Phil wins an award and the couple must travel out of town to accept it. Alice asks her mom and dad to watch their overly coddled kids and of course problems arise. I will admit that on paper, Parental Guidance sounds like a recipe for disaster and indeed the critical reviews would support this. However I had a much different reaction. This is a light hearted frolic concerning family that upholds traditional values in a refreshing and yes, very funny commentary about raising kids.

The nicest surprise is that everyone is extremely likable. Despite opposing points of view each individual comes across as a human being with valid concerns. No one is used as the butt of jokes, treated as buffoon to be ridiculed. The two older kids are a somewhat bland, but at least they’re not the typical precocious little brats that usually populate these types of pictures. Special mention should go to Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as Barker, the youngest child. He’s a red headed imp that wrings laughs simply from his goofy demeanor. He could stand some discipline. There’s a subplot of sorts involving the ultra modern “smart house” in which the younger parents live. Father Phil is a high-tech inventor and has created a prototype domicile with a command center that announces guests in a robotic voice. It also seems to have a personality with full rein of the various appliances. I legitimately laughed out loud when the house loudly inquires if Grandpa Artie would like to continue watching R rated horror movie Saw with little Turner just as Mom walks in the room.

Parental Guidance is a sweet, warm family friendly comedy. Director Andy Fickman has built a solid career on directing these kinds of films. Like The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain, Parental Guidance has been successful with audiences, if not the critics. Granted it isn’t innovative. If you’re looking for Hitchcockian twists and turns, I’d have to challenge why you’d choose a PG rated comedy from Walden Media in the first place. You sort of know that the assorted contrivances will predictably work out in the end. But the journey in getting there is amusing and therein lies the fun. The story mines humor from the generation gap. The subject of parenting is explored in a humorous and delightful way. The tone is cheerful and comforting. I was surprised at how balanced the screenplay is too. The evenhanded script goes to great lengths to present an objective view of each adult with faults as well as virtues. They all are united in the fact that they want what’s best for the kids. There’s a genuine respect for these characters that rarely panders to the lowest common denominator. Alright when Billy Crystal’s crotch meets a child’s baseball bat, that’s kind of an exception.

The Paperboy

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on January 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketCharlotte Bless is a needy blonde femme fatale who writes to prison inmates. She’s fallen in love with one – Hillary Van Wetter, a criminal on death row for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. Over their correspondence, she believes he’s innocent. In an effort to prove his innocence, she enlists the help of Ward Jansen and Yardley Acheman, two investigative reporters from the Miami Times. Along the way, she also incurs the affections of a young admirer.

The Paperboy is one of those long, hot summer style Southern melodrama’s that sounds like something Tennessee Williams might write but in the hands of director Lee Daniels it becomes a muggy, salacious mess. Don’t get me wrong. There are some genuine moments of acting and tenderness buried under the tawdry hodgepodge. Most of them belong to Nicole Kidman, who gives a better performance that this film deserves. Even Zac Efron is surprisingly charismatic as the shiftless college dropout that lusts over/is in love with Charlotte, the aging blonde Barbie doll.

It seems as if any time a moment of tenderness or drama begins, it’s undercut by some sleazy revelation that completely wipes away the beauty of the scene that came before it. I’ll give an example. Charlotte brings Jack, Ward and Yardley to meet with Hillary in prison. The “paperboys” are there to interview the man charged with murder but Hilary is more concerned with indulging his sexual desire with Charlotte. The guards have insisted the love birds to remain apart. However that doesn’t stop the two from contorting their faces as if in the throes of passion. They moan and quiver all while seated across the room from one another. It’s an embarrassing display that will either provoke laughter or disgust. That’s one scene. There are at least 4 more comparable to that. I won’t even reveal Charlotte’s home remedy after Jack suffers an allergic reaction from a jellyfish sting, but you’ve probably already heard about it since it’s The Paperboy’s most talked-about scene.

The Paperboy is highlighted by a game cast ready to throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately the trashy script is too often fixated on the unsavory details of Pete Dexter‘s 1995 novel. Like the Texans in Killer Joe, this recounts the sordid lives of a group of southerners, this time in Florida. The Paperboy is sort of a companion piece released only two months after that movie.  Both casts include Matthew McConaughey. He’s fine as are the rest of the actors, but the real revelation is Nicole Kidman. She proves adept at conveying this hopelessly lost southern creature with an authenticity that far exceeds the quality of this film. There are some nice moments of genuine realism in the narrative, but they really don’t add up to the sum of their parts. Too often the narrative gets sidetracks on unnecessary deviations that derail the story. A bizarre late development that sheds light on McConaughey’s character is introduced just as things should be wrapping up. People willing to suffer the ridiculousness, should find this kind of fun. Personally, I had had enough by the end. There’s still plenty to delight more forgiving viewers. And any movie that unearths the 1973 chestnut “Show And Tell” by Al Wilson can’t be all bad.

Amour

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Romance with tags on January 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

AmourPhotobucketAn austere, unflinching portrait of an elderly Parisian husband and wife facing the difficulties that precipitate aging.  Becoming older is the subject of this heartfelt film – specifically the physical and mental breakdown of a man’s spouse as she falls ill. The script treats the issue with sensitivity and there is a surprising warmth to a chronicle with which director Michael Haneke is usually not associated. But the filmmaker, whose oeuvre was described by one author as a “cinema of cruelty”, hasn’t really changed that much. Sentimental accounts are not his bag and true to his sensibilities, there are aspects that highlight this as a drama done in his quintessential style.

Georges and Anne are retired music teachers in their 80s.  They’re attending a recital of one of their previous students near the beginning of the picture. When they return home, they discover they have been robbed. The minutiae of their conversation informs us that they have a comfortable ease with each other that only a long-time married couple would have. The next morning as they’re sitting down to breakfast, Anne begins staring off into space and doesn’t respond to his questions. Georges is concerned and he arranges for her to see a doctor. He determines she requires surgery. It isn’t successful once completed. This all happens in the first 15 minutes. As the narrative develops her capabilities slowly deteriorate over an extended time span. We are essentially confined to their apartment. With the exception of a few scenes featuring their daughter played by Isabelle Huppert, these two carry the entire movie. The action is claustrophobic and agonizing. At one point about halfway through, he’s getting ready for bed for the night. There’s a knock at the door. Let’s just say what happens next is a good example of one of those intense moments.

At the heart of Amour are two engaging performances that are tantamount to our connection to this story. Jean-Louis Trintignant is an internationally recognized French film star with films darting back as early as 1956. Anyone who has ever seen A Man and a Woman will remember him in his 30s. Ditto Emmanuelle Riva who starred in Hiroshima, mon amour back in 1959. As Georges and Anne These two actors are essential to our “enjoyment” of this production. I use quotes because enjoy is such a strong word.  The actors are warm and genuine, but the mood is chilly and remote. The central couple are equally genial and sweet. They could be our grandparents. We are drawn into their plight because we care about them. Once you do, there is no turning back as you descend a path of gradually building despair. Haneke’s traditional use of extremely long static takes is particularly effective here. They present the developments as real life, without artifice. There’s no score, another Haneke attribute. These qualities lull the audience into a state of depression. It is startlingly unsentimental. The lack of visual or audio cues is refreshing in it’s presentation of an idea often manipulated with such indicators. This is Haneke’s version of a disease-of-the-week TV movie. It’s not a reassuring portrayal, but it is sobering and honest.

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