Summerland

Posted in Drama, War with tags on August 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

summerlandSTARS4I like surprises.  Particularly when a movie exceeds my expectations.  Summerland is one of those films.  I am a big fan of British period dramas.  I admit I was already primed to enjoy this but I must’ve had my expectations set low.  I figured I was getting a pleasant period piece set against the backdrop of World War II.  It IS that but it is so much more.  This is a drama in which characters are routinely surprised.  So too will viewers be, happily.

Gemma Arterton portrays a reclusive writer named Alice during the 1940s. She lives alone in a coastal cottage in Kent.  The actress has been in a lot of middling action fantasies: Clash of the Titans (2010), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Her breakthrough as Bond girl Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace is perhaps her best-known role.  Summerland may be her most accomplished performance to date.  Arterton is still a young actress in her 30s, but her portrayal of an ill-tempered spinster is very convincing.  She’s merely an independent woman, but then again, admirable qualities often go unappreciated.  The local children think she’s either a witch or a spy.  Then she is entrusted with taking care of a 14-year-old evacuee during the London Blitz.

This is a deep and moving depiction of a complicated soul.  The rapport with charming curly-haired Frank (Lucas Bond) inspires her to open up.  A motherly connection develops and the two become close.  As her friendship with Frank deepens, warm recollections of the past are rekindled.  There are memories of someone Alice knew back in the 1920s named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Their tender relationship is another detail loving portrayed in flashbacks.  Summerland is the feature debut of writer-director Jessica Swale who clearly fosters genuine chemistry amongst this ensemble of actors.  Swale’s direction is so assertive, you’d swear this was her tenth film.

Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing.  The screenplay values tenderness for the commendable trait that it is.  There is sort of an otherworldly quality to this hopeful account of the past.  Summerland is an expressive portrait.  This extends not just to emotional details but also in the exquisite cinematography by Laurie Rose that underscores every scene.  The picturesque landscapes are bathed in sunlight.  They practically beckon the audience to visit these stunning locales.  This is really a movie about humanity though.  It’s about people first. The gorgeous locations simply amplify the feelings.  Incidentally, I’m ready to book a trip to Kent, England right now.

08-04-20

An American Pickle

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 7, 2020 by Mark Hobin

american_pickleSTARS2.5So I did laugh during An American Pickle.  The saga concerns Herschel Greenbaum, A struggling Jewish laborer who emigrates from Schlupke, Poland to New York in 1920 with hopes of building a better life.  He gets a menial job at a factory and accidentally falls into a vat of pickles.  Apparently, no one realizes this has occurred.  A lid is placed on the cask and then the warehouse is condemned immediately after.  100 years later, he wakes up alive in present-day Brooklyn and hasn’t aged a day.  He was perfectly preserved in that salty brine.  You’ve heard of magical realism?  Well, this is that component taken to the tenth power.  Herschel’s existence is a wonder of science.  He is promptly placed on television where he is interviewed.  An expert is asked how such an unbelievable event could have happened.  His inaudible response makes complete sense to all who hear it, or so we’re told through voice-over narration.   THAT writer’s construct made me chuckle.  The rest of the film, unfortunately, did not.  When the story isn’t unfocused, it’s uninteresting.

After a clever setup, the fable coasts gently downward from there.  Herschel learns his only surviving relative is a great-grandson named Ben, also played by Seth Rogen.  Rogen’s ability to play dual roles is indeed convincing.  It’s easy to forget that each character is played by the same person.  However, that doesn’t mean that they are both are appealing.  I appreciated the plight of old-world Herschel who wakes up disoriented à la Rip Van Winkle in contemporary society.  However, I didn’t warm up to Ben.  He’s such a jealous sourpuss of a personality.  First, he calls the authorities to destroy his great-grandfather’s business, then purposefully gives him bad advice for navigating social media, and later asks him a difficult question in a public forum to trip him up.  Ben is a thoroughly reprehensible human being.  And yet relationships improve simply because Hershel finds a drawing Ben made as a child.  Huh?!

An American Pickle is neither a tale where people behave rationally nor one where things develop in a coherent manner.  The slapdash nature of the story is irksome.  Case in point: how many different ways can you make a joke about androgynous people?  I counted three but there may have been more.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for this.   The feature debut from cinematographer Brandon Trost was written by Simon Rich—based on his novella Sell Out.   If you’ve ever joined a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish then you may appreciate how the chronicle honors certain traditions.  The screenplay has a reverence for Judaism as well as maintaining personal ties with our ancestors.  Although I did find it amusing that when Herschel first meets Ben.  1920s Herschel is the inquisitive one, eager to learn all about his great-grandson’s modern time.  Meanwhile self-absorbed Ben surprisingly has not one question to ask regarding Hershel’s experiences in the past.  Ben’s lack of interest in anything but himself, matched my lack of enthusiasm for this movie.

08-06-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast on August 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Hello! I was a guest on talkSPORT radio with Martin Kelner to discuss the latest movies. On this week’s movie segment, hear my thoughts on THE OLD GUARD (Netflix), GREYHOUND (Apple TV), and PALM SPRINGS (Hulu). My segment begins 18 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 12 minutes from the end). Enjoy!
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Yes, God, Yes

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Adobe Photoshop PDFSTARS3“Guys are like microwave ovens and ladies are like conventional ovens.  Guys just need a few seconds, like a microwave, to get switched on, while ladies typically need to preheat for a while.”  So says Father Murphy (Timothy Simons) as he addresses a class of high schoolers in their morality class.  I had 8 years of Catholic schooling and I can honestly say I never had any instructor, priest or layperson ever compare sexual arousal to the workings of a kitchen appliance.  As a matter of fact, my teachers rarely even addressed sexuality at all, and when they did it was from a biological context (secondary sex characteristics and stuff like that).  I get that this is a movie though.  Humor is more entertaining than reality so I’ll accept writerly dialogue that feels invented.

Alice (Natalia Dyer) is a 16-year-old Catholic from Iowa during the early 2000s.  Yes, God, Yes is a sensitive portrait about the teen who is currently experiencing a sexual awakening.  After an AOL chat turns racy, Alice grapples with the guilt by signing up for a four-day retreat.  While trying to suppress her natural burgeoning sexuality, she inadvertently becomes the victim of a scandalous rumor concerning her and fellow student Wade (Parker Wierling).  It’s completely untrue.  Although Alice’s attraction to camp counselor Chris (Wolfgang Novogratz) is indeed genuine.  The adults have no nuance or depth.  They are hypocrites all.  In particular, the Father presiding over the event hides an embarrassing secret.  The teens however are a bit more nuanced.  Some even express an earnest and uplifting devotion to God.  When fellow student Nina (Alisha Boe) testifies at the retreat, it’s a sincere moment

The “big reveal” of Karen Maine’s screenplay is that those who profess to be Christian actually succumb to temptations as well.  Surprise!  Priests and teachers and peer youth leaders are human.  No points for the stating the obvious but at least she speaks from experience.  Writer-director Karen Maine is an ex-Catholic.  As such she intends to expose what she deems as hypocrisy.  This is her gentle send-up of religion.  The satire is pretty lighthearted and reminded me of my own experiences once or twice.  There’s one scene where Father Murphy plays Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and he instructs the kids to imagine the song is about Jesus.  That is amusing but it also rings true.  I can attest ministers have indeed quoted current songs of the day as ways to make their talks more relevant to kids.  I still recall a lector who ardently cited the lyrics of “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics during a homily for a mass when I was in high school.

The account does present the subject honestly and amicably without being acerbic.  The overall message does not condemn religion but rather promotes individuals to respect yourself as well as others.  Who can’t get behind that?  It’s a heavy topic but the narrative ultimately feels pretty slight.  The secret weapon is actress Natalia Dyer.  Her performance is at once shy, heartfelt, and authentic.  She’s markedly different from the more confident character she portrays on TV’s Stranger Things.  Alice evokes our sympathy because of innocence.  She is sexually naive and yet she understandably has questions.  Catholic guilt is powerful.  Regardless of your upbringing, the audience can relate and appreciate her struggle to do the right thing.  Couple that with normal teen angst and you got a coming of age story that is like navigating a minefield.

07-30-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast on August 2, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on talkSPORT radio with Martin Kelner to discuss the latest movies. On this week’s movie segment, hear my thoughts on RELIC (steaming on all VOD platforms), MUCHO AMOR: THE LEGEND OF WALTER MERCADO (Netflix) and SHIRLEY (Hulu). My segment begins 19 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 11 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

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She Dies Tomorrow

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

she_dies_tomorrowSTARS1.5Not one feature in 2020 was inspired by the COVID‑19 pandemic.  After all, movies this year were made well before our current situation.  Oh, I’m sure at some point in the future a ton of releases will be directly influenced by our dystopian state of affairs.  Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped us critics to carelessly reinterpret everything as a metaphor for Coronavirus disease.  This is the umpteenth film to be analyzed this way.  That may help make it seem more of the moment, but it also serves to emphasize that the narrative is extremely weak.  The constant threat of death we have faced over the past year coupled with state-mandated restrictions and economic shutdowns are so much worse than anything these entitled individuals have to endure.  Their life is a blissful utopia by comparison.

So a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) thinks she’s going to die tomorrow.  Amy expresses these feelings to her friend Jane (Jane Adams), who thinks she’s crazy at first.  Then Jane too thinks she’s going to die.  Jane likewise confides this to her brother Jason (Chris Messina) and his friends at a birthday party he’s throwing for his wife Susan (Katie Aselton).  Like a virus, soon they too are consumed by the same feeling.  This continues.  That’s the story.

Some readers may notice a similar preoccupation with how death spreads with esteemed titles like The Ring and It Follows. Those films are infinitely more interesting.  She Dies Tomorrow is burdened with a very low budget aesthetic.  The focus shifts from one character to another so we are introduced to several sullen types.  The personalities all suffer from an overwhelming sense of ennui and are largely depressing.  Everyone acts in a very naturalistic style without any concern for advancing the plot.  Knowledgeable fans may recognize actors Chris Messina, Josh Lucas, and Michelle Rodriguez who all appear in brief cameos, so I guess director Amy Seimetz must have called in a few favors.

Given the fact that not much of anything happens, conversation and mood are the whole point.  These are successful souls agonizing over a self-centered existential crisis.  People whine about insignificant problems they have intellectually created within their minds.  These thoughts have caused Amy to drink.  She also has just moved into a new home.  Poor thing!  She replays an oppressive version of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa (Reprise)” by Mondo Boys on a record player.  Yes, a vinyl record so she’s a privileged hipster.  She plays it over and over again to the point of irritation.  The characters mumble their dialogue.  Much of the script feels improvised.  Hallucinogenic flashing lights and overbearing sound design attempt to add interest.  Unfortunately, while the idea of death escalates, there’s no explanation as to why any of this is happening.  No resolution either.  Inexplicably, critical reaction has been positive.  I was completely bored by the entire affair.  When I wasn’t disinterested, I was slightly amused.  At times the production is so ostentatiously experimental, it borders on parody.   Despite the laughs, the experience was mostly tedious.

07-22-20

The Rental

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on July 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

rentalSTARS4You’ll reconsider the next time you decide to stay at an Airbnb after watching The Rental.  I mean when you think about it, moving into a stranger’s abode, even if only for a few days, is awkward.  It’s an intimate experience that requires trust.  This portrait presents insidious behaviors I may never shake.  But isn’t that what effective horror does?  Introduce fears that now haunt you.  I mean Hitchcock made the simple act of taking a shower scary.  2020 has had no shortage of horror films and wouldn’t ya know it.  This is a review for yet another.  Don’t write this off as an average release from the genre.  This one is quite good.

Our tale concerns two couples vacationing together for a weekend.  There’s Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and then there’s Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand). Josh and Charlie are brothers.  Mina and Charlie are business partners.  It sounds a little convoluted but as developments unfold, the relationships feel organic.  The connections help explain the familiarity that everyone has with each other.

The “rental” of the title refers to a glorious ocean view estate along the Oregon Coast.  The property is available to rent for anyone looking to get away.  Well, actually Mina’s application to lodge there is denied until Charlie’s is approved.  Did the fact that her full name is Mina Mohammadi have anything to do with that?  The group wonders.  That’s the first, but certainly not the last, disconcerting situation our foursome encounters.  Josh insists on bringing his bulldog even though there is a distinct no-pets rule.  That doesn’t bode well either.  Upon arrival at the house, they meet their host, a good ol’ boy named Taylor (Toby Huss).  The creepy passive-aggressive conversation they have with him has unsettling undercurrents that set the tone for their stay.

The Rental is the directorial debut from actor Dave Franco (21 Jump Street, Now You See Me) and it is a surprisingly assured and accomplished effort.  Beautifully filmed, effectively acted, and well-plotted ….up to a point.  This horror saga is an efficient 88 minutes.  I dare say the first two-thirds had me thinking this was more of a psychological thriller along the lines of something Hitchcock might do.  A lot of the credit must also go to the king of mumblecore Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) who brings his talent for natural dialogue to the screenplay he co-wrote with Dave Franco.  An interesting schism is introduced after a disagreement arises over whether to take recreational drugs that first evening.

The cracks that exist within their respective relationships underscore the subsequent events.  College dropout Josh has already expressed reservations that he feels he isn’t good enough for wildly successful tech entrepreneur Mina.  These thoughts weigh on his mind.  Co-workers Charlie and Mina are back at the mansion dealing with a hangover from the previous night.  Meanwhile, Josh and Michelle have a deep discussion while the two are out walking together in the woods that same morning.  Josh drops some revelations.  Michelle begins to doubt Charlie’s faithfulness after being confronted with a disturbing pattern in his past relationships.

The Rental holds a brilliant set-up that could have gone any number of ways.  I must tread lightly for fear of spoilers but the uneasy feelings are further compounded by a shocking discovery they make on the property they are renting.  Unfortunately, the end isn’t — shall we say — as intellectually sophisticated as the beginning.  In fact, the narrative devolves into a completely different film.  I admit I enjoyed both of them.  What ultimately happens is still exciting.  Just a wee bit anticlimactic after the impressive setup I relished before.

Palm Springs

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance with tags on July 27, 2020 by Mark Hobin

palm_springsSTARS4So I’ll just cut to the chase and start off by saying that Palm Springs made assembling my Top 10 list for 2020 a little easier.  I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly enjoyable this tale would be.  Romantic comedies are often given short shrift when it comes to discussing great cinema but when they are done well the genre can hit emotional highs in a way that few stories can.

The amorous entanglement concerns two strangers who are both guests at a wedding in Palm Springs.  They meet and then promptly get stuck repeating the same span of time over and over.  It’s obviously similar to Groundhog Day.  I cherish that classic and I dare say Palm Springs is a close 2nd in all films featuring a time loop.  That may seem like a narrow bar but there’s a surprising number of choices that qualify: Source Code, About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Naked and Happy Death Day are but only a few.  This is a story about how Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) become an unlikely couple in the midst of bizarre circumstances.

Palm Springs has a breezy screenplay that doesn’t take itself very seriously.  Yet it’s smart and coherent when it needs to be.  Nyles and Sarah aren’t about love at first sight.  He’s actually there with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) who one of the bridesmaids.  Oh, it’s OK he flirts with Sarah.  Misty has been cheating on Nyles and he knows it.  Sarah isn’t some demure heroine.  In fact, she’s kind of edgy and bitter. Meanwhile, Nyles isn’t a suave leading man. He can be a goofball but he’s still charming nonetheless.  Neither Sarah nor Nyles wants to be a guest at this wedding.  So they have that in common and are united by this feeling.  That’s enough.  Then the temporal loop shenanigans begin.

None of this preposterous — albeit inspired — nonsense would work if the two stars weren’t so charismatic.  The saga stars Andy Samberg who got his start on the long-running late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2005.  He’s part of a contingent with a persona like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon in the ensemble.  Pete Davidson currently holds that casting slot.  This may sound like I’m negating actor Samberg’s individuality.  I’m not.  In fact, he is probably the most appealing member that has ever held that niche.

Nyles has met the woman who will change his life in Sarah.  Cristin Milioti is probably best known for her role in the final season of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  She’s featured in one of my favorite scenes in this production.  Sarah is hardcore studying quantum physics to figure out how to end this infinite time loop in which she’s stuck.  The inspired montage is set to “The Brazilian” by Genesis.  Another endearing musical vignette involves the couple’s impromptu dance in a bar while “Megatron Man” by Patrick Cowley blasts in the background.  These displays aren’t rare occurrences but representative of the many delightful moments contained within.  It’s been a while since a romantic comedy captivated me this much.  It’s funny, sweet, and a little acerbic.  I loved it.

07-11-20

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast on July 26, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on talkSPORT radio with Martin Kelner to discuss the latest movies. On this week’s movie segment, hear my thoughts on HAMILTON (Disney+), EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA (Netflix), and 7500 (Amazon Prime). My segment begins 16 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 14 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

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First Cow

Posted in Drama on July 24, 2020 by Mark Hobin

first_cowSTARS3.5First Cow opens with a quote from the poet William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”  That sets the tone for this poetic rumination on the deep accord that develops between two men.

Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a sensitive man of few words who works as a chef for a band of unruly fur trappers.  Then one fateful day he encounters a runaway Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee) and the two form a strong bond that will also yield financial results.  The “first cow” brought to the territories by a rich landowner named Chief Factor (Toby Jones) inspires them to steal her milk to make “oily cakes”.  They’re made with a little honey and a pinch of cinnamon and they look delicious.  They then sell these to the locals for a profit.   Coincidentally Chief Factor is quite taken by the biscuits the men are selling.  “I taste London in this cake!”  However, he is oblivious as to where they are acquiring milk for their baked goods.  In an amusing development, he hires the duo to make an elegant french tart called a clafoutis —for a special meeting with a visiting captain (Scott Shepherd).

Director Kelly Reichardt has a minimalist style.  In movies such as Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women her reliance on slow static takes is meant to be savored as one would appreciate a delicately balanced wine.  She is presenting the truth.  I adored the solidarity that unfolds over time amongst these close allies.  I wholeheartedly enjoy the sincere depiction of humanity in film.  She can get a bit indulgent though.  I must admit that I found some parts to drag.  The production has a painfully long introductory credits sequence.  Then it commences with a wide, fixed shot of a barge easing slowly down the Columbia River.  The director is in absolutely no hurry to take the narrative anywhere quickly.  She defiantly establishes this fact at the outset.  However, the situation grows infinitely more compelling from there.  Those with the patience to luxuriate within a deliberate pace will be handsomely rewarded by this thoughtful tale.

Can we talk about that ending, though?  Rest assured I won’t give details.  I’ll be completely abstract.  The late great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman once declared: “The film is made in the editing room.”  Truer words were never spoken.  I am reminded of his quote as the final scene of First Cow faded from the screen and the credit rolled.  The feature opens with a seemingly random episode of a woman (Alia Shawkat) who happens upon — thanks to a curious dog — something buried in the dirt earth beneath her feet.  Then the proper story begins with a flashback to the 1820s in the Oregon wilderness.  I contend Reichardt’s deeply realized portrait of friendship would have been even more powerful had the intro been the outro.

07-15-20