The Vast of Night

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vast_of_night_ver2STARS3The camera slowly enters a black and white TV set.  We overhear a familiar-sounding narration and are presented with opening titles that recall Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  The narrative gradually morphs into color.  It mostly stays this way, but every so often it turns black and white again as an affectionate reminder of the homage.  Director Andrew Patterson retro ode recreates a 1950s mood that concerns a mysterious sound that bewilders two teens.  There’s switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and the comparatively more worldly DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) at local station WOTW.  The Vast of Night is set in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico and it’s certainly an impeccably fashioned period piece.  The portrait has been lovingly put together.  Although I’m surprised no one associated with this production realized that call letters for radio stations west of the Mississippi begin with a ‘K’.

The Vast of Night has a beguiling approach.  All of the events take place after dark.  The initial dialogue is delivered at a breakneck pace and it can be hard to follow at first.  During the first 30 minutes, the meandering introduction felt especially unfocused.  Stick with it though because this is superfluous exposition.  The proper story doesn’t even begin until half an hour later when Fay hears a bizarre audio frequency coming through the electronic circuits.  She forwards the intonations to Everett who plays it on the air.  The strange humming noise is identified by a disabled veteran named Billy (Bruce Davis).  The phone caller conveys his experiences in an extended auditory sequence.  Later on, the duo travels to meet an elderly woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer).  She too recounts her experiences with the same sonic vibrations in another static shot.  Her verbose monologue is a long-winded sequence that may test the patience of most viewers.

The Vast of Night is a gloomy drama built solely around an enigmatic reverberation.  Evidence suggests a conspiracy theory involving a military experiment.  Most of what makes this saga compelling is its commitment to a B movie atmosphere.  However — save for a few showy unbroken tracking shots — the assemblage is not particularly cinematic. The film is regrettably centered entirely around the recollections of two loquacious individuals: Billy and then Mabel. Their lengthy monologues would be perfect vignettes for a popular radio program. That is before TV became the dominant entertainment medium in the 1950s. The interludes are not the most visually captivating. Some have labeled this release science-fiction but honestly, this extremely low budget tale is more mystery than anything else. It isn’t until the final 10 minutes that the feature ultimately succumbs to a spectacle that deems it as sci-fi. It’s unquestionably a powerful ending to a protracted buildup but its effectiveness also serves to underscore another insight. It’s at that moment we the audience suspect the film’s lo-fi aesthetic was more due to a lack of finances than art.

05-29-20

The Wretched

Posted in Drama, Horror with tags on May 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

wretched_ver2STARS3If nothing else, this movie will be an answer to the trivia question: What was the highest-grossing film in the U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic?  The Wretched is a box office hit.  Theaters are still mostly closed in the U.S.  But thanks to around 60 drive-ins that have been allowed to operate across the nation, it has earned nearly $700,000 to date.  That’s pretty impressive.

This horror offering doesn’t really dwell on grotesquerie.  It’s more of a supernatural coming of age tale about a lonely teen named Ben (John-Paul Howard) whose parents are getting a divorce.  He’s currently staying at his father’s home.  While there, he gets a summer job working at the marina.  There he makes a friend in Mallory (Piper Curda).   Then the neighbor’s child Dillion (Blane Crockarell) doesn’t show up for his sailing lessons.  Things get more disturbing when his whereabouts become a mystery.   The family clearly had a son but now the father Ty (Kevin Bigley) denies ever having one.  He’s seemingly under the spell of his wife Abbie (Zarah Mahler).  She has been acting extremely weird.  Ben suspects the woman might be a witch.

The Wretched is a decent amalgamation of scary movies and journey into adolescence.  This is one of those stories where the protagonist is trying to reconcile his ability to fit in while also having to deal with some mystical shenanigans at the same time.  Puberty is hard enough!  I’ll admit the screenplay isn’t particularly innovative.  It’s a throwback to teen flicks like Fright Night, The Faculty, and Disturbia.  Let’s face it.  Even those pictures aren’t that original either so this is like a copy of a copy.  Nevertheless, among horror films being released in 2020, it holds up.  The production is stylishly attractive.  The practical effects are refreshingly subtle while remaining creepy nonetheless.   Additionally, the leads are rather likable.  That goes a long way in propelling this release into something worth watching.

05-24-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on May 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on Will Gavin’s talkSPORT radio show to discuss the latest in entertainment. “Extra Time” is a program broadcast from London to the UK.

On this week’s movie segment on talkSPORT radio, hear my thoughts on THE PHOTOGRAPH (LaKeith Stanfield, Issa Rae) and THE WAY BACK (Ben Affleck).

My segment begins about 3 minutes into the 2:00-2:30 section.

Click the link below and hit play:

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

The Way Back

Posted in Drama, Sports with tags on May 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

way_back_ver2STARS3In 2010 there was a release called The Way Back about a POW who walked 4,000 miles to freedom during WWII.  The Way Way Back was a 2013 coming-of-age comedy with Steve Carell.  Now comes this 2020 athletic drama starring Ben Affleck.  The oft used title is as generic as this feature.  I’ll concede this isn’t a bad flick.  The chronicle is fitfully entertaining.  As part of a long hallowed tradition of sports movies, many rely on a standard blueprint to tell a story.  This is no different.  It employs a familiar narrative with a corny redemption arc.  Only a newborn or an alien from another planet unaccustomed with the concept of cinema would find this plot inventive.  Yet, this is well-acted and emotionally compelling in parts so I wasn’t immune to its charms.

I’m not going to pretend that the saga isn’t a hackneyed setup for a sports tale.  It is.  Jack Cunningham is a construction worker and an alcoholic.  His glory days are long behind him.  Once the star player on his high school basketball team, he is being recruited as the head coach at that very same high school.  The team hasn’t made the playoffs since Jack attended.  A messy divorce and addictive behaviors are a major part of Jack Cunningham’s existence.  It’s to the film’s credit that the screenplay is careful not to elevate basketball as the be-all and end-all remedy of the ails from which the protagonist suffers.  Although coaching basketball gives him something to do, his issues run deeper.

Ben Affleck is the MVP of this production.  It’s hard to ignore that the troubles of the actor himself unfolded upon a public stage.  The fact that his real-world experience may have overlapped here and there with the character he plays is key.  He delivers a poignant performance.  Having an intimate understanding of those weaknesses first-hand needn’t be a prerequisite for an actor to play an individual with the same qualities.  Nevertheless, it probably doesn’t hurt.  The part gives Affleck a distinct advantage.  Luckily he is more than up to the task as he exemplifies Jack.  The role feels lived in and honest.  That lays the groundwork into propelling this conventional fable into something that I ultimately embraced.

05-18-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on May 21, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on Will Gavin’s talkSPORT radio show to discuss the latest in entertainment. “Extra Time” is a program broadcast from London to the UK.

On this week’s movie segment on talkSPORT radio, hear my thoughts on BAD EDUCATION (HBO) and THE LODGE (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, and Hulu).

Forward 16 minutes to where there are 12 minutes left in the 1:00-1:30 section to hear my segment. It cuts me off at the end but it continues in the 1:30-2:00 segment, so you’ll have to tap the black downward arrow to select that part as well after it stops.

Click the link below and hit play:

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

The Photograph

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on May 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

photographSTARS2.5The Photograph is living proof that a compelling story matters.  Gorgeous cinematography, a soothing jazz score (by Robert Glasper), and a pair of charismatic stars are indeed appreciated.  Yet, all of those lovely ingredients ultimately come up short.  The screenplay is the most important component of a movie.   A drab tale can tank a film no matter how many sophisticated and artistic elements are employed.  This production has the look of quality.  I’ll admit that director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) is a talented individual.  She is nothing if not prolific.  The Photograph is her fourth feature since 2016.  There is so much to admire here.   Nonetheless, the script that director Meghie also wrote for this drama isn’t one of them.   It’s stridently humdrum although it’s not distasteful at least.   For some, that will be enough to recommend this lifeless flick.   I — however — am not one of those people.   30 minutes in and I was already checking my watch.

Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a reporter from New York City is captivated by a portrait of a beautiful woman he inadvertently discovers named Christina (Chanté Adams). His investigation uncovers the mother has a daughter Mae (Issa Rae). She happens to work as a curator at the Queens Museum.  His intern Andy (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) sets up an interview.  Michael and Mae meet and they chat about a variety of topics including rap. He likes Kendrick Lamar.  She prefers Drake. Nevertheless, sparks fly between the potential couple.

The Photograph is a romance built upon a foundation of wistful stares and longing looks.  This is a decidedly light and gauzy affaoir.  Thankfully the leads have chemistry.  That’s significant because the plot is a complete snooze.  Director Stella Meghie employs a non-stop playlist of R&B classics to underscore every scene.  I love listening to legends like Chaka Khan, Al Green, Anita Baker, and Whitney Houston as much as the next person.  Honestly, I probably cherish those artists more because (statistically speaking) I’m likely older than most of the readers of this column.  I’m OK with that because with age comes wisdom.  The music undoubtedly serves to enlighten the mood but a greatest hits of Quiet Storm ballads can only go so far.  The stakes here are pretty low.  Meanwhile, there’s precious little passion to engage our emotions.  It’s hard to give a care about whether two fashionable professionals with fabulous wardrobes and impeccable smiles get together or not.  Sorry, but I prefer more substantial pursuits.

05-14-20

The Lodge

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

lodgeSTARS3When horror movies are bad, they are intolerable.  For me, that includes slasher flicks that solely exist to show blood and guts.  On the other hand, when they appeal to our psychological fears, they can be fascinating.  The Lodge comes from directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.  They seem to specialize in what aficionados call arthouse horror:  Under the Skin (2013), The Witch (2015), and Midsommar are recent examples.  The genre is not for all tastes but if you enjoyed the Austrian filmmaking duo’s admittedly far superior feature debut Goodnight Mommy (2014) then this is a decent followup to that production.

This is a portrait that capitalizes on the emotional state of a person.  The tale concerns two children Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh).  They have been forced to spend Christmas at the family’s remote chalet in the mountains of Massachusetts with their father Richard (Richard Armitage) and his girlfriend Grace portrayed by an excellent Riley Keough.  The mood is grim because the kids’ mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) has recently committed suicide upon learning that Richard intends to wed Grace.  While at the cabin, Richard the father responds to a work obligation, insensitively leaving Grace alone with the kids.  Empathy is clearly not one of this guy’s strong suits.  The “evil” stepmother is a trope, but Grace seems nice.  However, the children are understandably antagonistic toward her.  This stranger has ostensibly replaced their mom in their father’s life.  Some additional backstory, Grace was raised within a cult when she was a child.   She happens to be the only survivor of a mass suicide carried out by that group.  The underlying unease — inspired by that disturbing event — plays a significant part in the ensuing drama.   Let’s just say Grace is still dealing with some unresolved issues.

The inability to interact with our fellow man is genuinely lamentable.  As we currently shelter in place for the third month, the horror of social isolation has become a reality.  Whether it’s been enforced upon us by the state (COVID-19) or in a situation in which we have inadvertently placed ourselves (this movie), confinement can divide families.  Stepmom Grace (Riley Keough) is simply trying to coexist with her fiancé’s progeny.  The Lodge also involves physical deprivation.  Their dwelling soon loses power and heat.  That further adds to the ongoing tension.  Is this merely a matter of faulty utilities or is there something more sinister lurking beneath the surface?

Arthouse horror takes its time to progress.  It relies less on violent circumstances and more on a deliberate pace to intensify despair.  What I most appreciate about The Lodge is you can’t predict what’s going to occur at any moment.  The chronicle effectively exploits a creepy and unnerving atmosphere.  I truly admire that quality.  The narrative style captivates the viewer much in the same way that slow-burn storytelling snags an audience.  Plot developments unfold ever so slowly.  These characters aren’t keen on conversation but rest assured it’s all gradually building toward an explosive finale.  Before that happens, the anxiety is nerve-shredding.  I’ve purposely kept the specifics vague because more details would spoil the fun.  However, I will admit the account is seriously flawed.  There are some unexplored ideas the story could have considered.  The Lodge is a film of missed opportunities to be sure.  However, I was captivated throughout the saga and that’s saying something.

02-25-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast on May 15, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on Will Gavin’s talkSPORT radio show to discuss the latest in entertainment.

I review the movies TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG and DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL. Both available through Video on demand.

My segment begins 2 minutes in (28:00 minutes from the end) during the 2:00-2:30 section. Have a listen and enjoy!

Click the link below and hit play:

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

Bad Education

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 12, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_educationSTARS4You wouldn’t think a movie whose plot could easily be summarized as “The Bad Superintendent” would be a compelling saga but it is.  Based on the 2004 New York magazine article by Robert Kolker with the aforementioned title, Bad Education is a true-life tale about one Frank Tassone.  This release may have debuted April 25 on HBO but it would’ve made perfect sense to release it during awards season in a theater.  This is indeed one of the best films of the year.  Yeah, I know.  There’s hasn’t been much competition this year, but hear me out.

How could the embezzlement of $11.2 million from a public school — the largest in U.S. History — even happen?  It is the unbelievable foundation for a fascinating film.  Credit a charismatic and talented cast for bringing this story to fruition.  Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a popular and successful superintendent of the Roslyn District in the wealthy enclave of Nassau County, New York.  Roslyn High School became one of the top ten best public institutions in national rankings.  That kind of success creates power.  Jackman is completely believable as someone who uses his own eloquence and charm to dupe gullible staff members and parents.  That includes Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) a much too trusting school board president.  The fact that Frank held a doctorate from Columbia University probably didn’t hurt either.

Frank Tassone didn’t act alone.  The scandal was first discovered in 2002 when Roslyn officials initially assumed that it was Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) who had “only” embezzled $250,000.  Her actual sum later revealed to be $4.3 million.  Pamela was the assistant superintendent and business administrator.  She got her niece (Annaleigh Ashford) and son (Jimmy Tatro) involved as well.  She was Frank’s close confidant and partner-in-crime.  As reported in the original article: “If Tassone was the proud father of the Roslyn family, Pam Gluckin was the fun-loving aunt.”  Nevertheless, the woman is fairly obstinate and headstrong.   Not likable but at least fiercely loyal to Frank.  As embodied by Allison Janney, the chronicle paints a picture of two like-minded individuals united in their quest for more money.  Unfortunately for Pam, Frank immediately threw her under the bus, forcing her to resign and subsequently causing her to lose her license.

Deception was a way of life for this reprehensible man and it ran deep into every facet of his being — both personally and professionally.  Frank appears to be a virtuous paragon of the community.  He eats lunch with the students and attends a book club with the parents.  He still even keeps a photo on his desk of his late wife who passed on in 1973.  It’s unclear whether she ever even existed.  However, he was definitely in a longtime relationship with domestic partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella).  They had been living together for many years in a tawny Park Avenue apartment.  Frank was also involved in an affair with Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), a lover in Las Vegas.  Tom was unaware Frank kept a picture of his wife on his desk or his adultery.

The star of the account is the wrongdoer, not the champion that brought him to justice.  However, this could be looked upon as one of those great films about journalism like All the President’s Men.  The impressive difference is that the reporter was a bright, determined correspondent at the high school’s newspaper — Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan).  She uncovered school administrators had been embezzling taxpayer money.  It’s a surprising twist that the corruption was first uncovered by one of Frank’s pupils.  That gives this account an extra-added dimension that makes it even more appealing.  Rachel first reported the story in the school’s humble journal scooping The New York Times and every other periodical of note.  She is rightfully portrayed as a hero.  Her zealous pursuit of the truth bested all of her supposedly more established peers.

Sometimes style is just as important as content.  The dirty dealings are gripping but director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) presents the subject matter with such artistic elan.  The cover-up of fraud could have been dry material but it’s presented with a healthy dose of levity.  Of course, there’s nothing funny about what happened.  Yet there are amusing details.  The reception Frank receives from the student body upon coming to work after the article is published is a memorable scene.  He is a preening peacock who tried to save his own — allegedly face-lifted — skin.  This is a person more concerned with his superficial appearance on the outside than with the quality of his character on the inside.  Bad Education is a portrait of a fallen individual with nefarious impulses that got exactly what he deserved.  The fact that his comeuppance was served by an undergraduate only makes the account all the more fascinating.  Occasionally reality is stranger — and more satisfying — than fiction.

05-09-20

Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on May 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

disappearance_at_clifton_hillSTARS3After her mother’s death, a troubled young woman named Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.  She has recently inherited the Rainbow Inn, a family-owned motel in the city’s tourist trap town of Clifton Hill.  While there, the experience dredges up some long-suppressed memories from when she was 7-years-old and witnessed the kidnapping of a boy with a bandaged eye.

Sounds like the basis of a fascinating film, right?  It should’ve been.  However, too many developments prevented me from embracing this complicated tale.  Let’s start with the fact that Abby now finally decides to investigate this crime 25 years after she was aware of it.  That’s the first of many unexplained situations.  One or two is a mysterious curiosity, but ten or more becomes a muddled head-scratcher.

Director Albert Shin is clearly influenced by the work of David Lynch.  It’s a bit unfair because the work of his idol can be so unbelievably abstract that it almost defies critique.  On the contrary, Shin’s endeavor is rooted much more in traditional storytelling.  Because of this, we expect a certain amount of coherence.  The mystery is pretty convoluted.  A traumatic memory triggered by the return to one’s hometown is a solid foundation to sustain any great thriller.  I was immediately drawn into the production and enjoyed it up to a point.

Interestingly, Albert Shin along with co-writer James Schultz introduces one embellishment on top of another.   While in Clifton Hill, Abby is reunited with her estranged younger sister, Laure (Hannah Gross).  Apparently, Abby is a compulsive liar.  Laure understandably doesn’t believe a single word her sister says.  This is something we discover for ourselves when Abby arrives in town.  She immediately picks up some random man (Andy McQueen) in a bar.  Their awkward exchange results in a failed connection.  Nonetheless, they unexpectedly meet again when she contacts the police department.  Surprise!  He’s a police officer too.

Matters then become more tortuous.  Abby’s investigation turns up an array of various personalities.  Another person of interest is a bizarre character named Bev Mole (Elizabeth Saunders) who mysteriously holds her incapacitated husband (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) like a prisoner.  How’s about an additional complication?  We’re informed that Abby had been in Phoenix, Arizona for the past 18 months while pretending to have retrograde amnesia.  This is about the time I checked out of this perplexing mess.

These ongoing concerns about Abby’s psychological stability are such a distraction.  The mind tends to wander when faced with an incoherent plot.  I couldn’t help but notice how Tuppence Middleton is similar in appearance to actress Rooney Mara who happens to have a sister (Kate Mara) who also acts.  This would’ve been a perfect project for the two of them.  That’s neither here nor there.  Tuppence Middleton is talented and a solid thespian in her own right.

Some of the characters are pretty exceptional.  There’s a couple of cheesy magicians that are fond of tigers.  The Magnificent Moulins are portrayed by Paulino Nunes and a stellar Marie-Josée Croze.  Her overtly theatrical achievement belongs in a campier feature.  Let me be clear, Croze’s performance is an absolute joy.   She injected some much-needed levity in this pseudo serious drama.  Oh, and speaking of iconic directors like David Lynch, how about a different David — Cronenberg that is — who pops up as Walter Bell, one of the longtime residents.  He portrays a local historian, deals in conspiracy theories, and hosts a podcast.  He delightfully enters the flick while scuba diving for sunken relics at the bottom of the falls.  He also owns a diner called Flying Saucer Restaurant that is just about the kitschiest eatery I’ve ever seen.  Turns out it isn’t a set but rather a genuine place.  If I’m ever in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I plan on stopping by.

It would appear the screenwriters didn’t know where they wanted the narrative to go.  Let’s simply throw in everything but the kitchen sink.  Music and mood are the movie’s considerable strengths.   What elevates this neo-noir is the eerie and immersive ambiance that sustains the piece.  As weird as it is, I kind of wanted to visit Clifton Hill.  The original score by Alexander Sowinski and Leland Whitty is an avant-garde jazz piece featuring woodwinds and brass to create a creepy atmosphere.  It’s so effective. I would begrudgingly give this release a pass.  However truth be told, most people will probably be frustrated by the disjointed story.

05-05-20