Encanto

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2021 is alive with the sound of musicals! I submit exhibits A through G as evidence: In the Heights, Annette, Cinderella, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story. Disney’s latest is a notable addition to the genre this year.

Encanto is a saga about a sprawling family and the matriarch who controls it all with an iron hand. Alma (María Cecilia Botero) whom everyone affectionally calls “Abuela”—uses an enchanted candle to create a magical house in the hills of Columbia for the Madrigal family in which to live. These include her three infant children Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno. The magical protection allows an entire village to flourish around the “casita” and this same magic imbues the clan with exceptional powers. Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal others with her cooking, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, and Bruno (John Leguizamo) can see the future. However, Bruno’s visions — which contradicted Abuela’s “everything is wonderful” vibe — weren’t appreciated. He is mysteriously missing when the main story begins.

After an initial setup, the main chronicle centers around Julieta’s daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) depicted with a visual anomaly. This is never acknowledged, but I will. She wears glasses. Oh sure, for years many men have worn them in Disney’s canonical animated features: Doc, Gepetto, Mr. Smee & John from Peter Pan to name a few. But a female protagonist sporting spectacles is virtually nonexistent. The internet informs me that Anita Radcliffe, a supporting character in 101 Dalmatians, occasionally wore them. Mirabel is a splendid addition to an animated transition that includes icons like Velma, Edna Mode, Meg Griffin, and Daria. Sadly she is not blessed with supernatural abilities like older sisters Isabela (Diane Guerrero ) who can make flowers bloom and Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) superhuman strength. Although Mirabel has an undeniable kinship with their sentient house. She is a warm and empathic fifteen-year-old that may have accepted her lack of a gift, but it weighs on her. Nevertheless, she seems well-adjusted with a maturity that supersedes most of the adults. This includes Abuela, an enigmatic individual with a temperament that grows angrier as the tale develops.

Of course, any musical must be judged by the music, and the production reigns supreme in this area. Encanto features a buoyant score with music and lyrics by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns). His familiarity with Broadway elevates the production. I cannot minimize how captivating a melody can be when also accompanied by bright colorful visuals. The whole songbook is stellar: “The Family Madrigal” is a toe-tapping delight, “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is joyful and Luisa’s lament “Surface Pressure” all rank highly, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” really stands out. That “…no, no, no.” refrain is so memorable. I haven’t been this wowed by a Disney tune since “Let It Go” in Frozen.

Everyone is special in their own unique way. The moral is timeworn but conveyed with sincerity and style. I’m impressed by a screenplay by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush that can deftly handle such an expansive cast of characters. Everyone has a well-defined and engaging personality. They gradually each begin to feel the stress of living in the Madrigal household. There is a nuanced idea percolating beneath the surface. People who outwardly appear to be successful may carry a private pain. Those rifts within this “perfect” dynasty begin to manifest themselves as cracks within the physical building of their Casita. The metaphor is so obvious, but it feels fresh within this presentation. Encanto means “charm” in Spanish and it is indeed charming.

11-25-21

House of Gucci

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on November 29, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Any movie pushing three hours should have a reason to be that that long. I once thought 120 minutes or less was the standard, but 2021 seems to be upping that tradition. A few anecdotal examples: F9: The Fast Saga (143 min), In the Heights (143 min), Respect (145 min), Army of the Dead (148 min), Dune (155 min), Eternals (156 min), No Time to Die (163 min), Zack Snyder’s Justice League (242 min). The thing is, while I enjoyed most of the aforementioned films, every single one of them would have benefited from some judicious tightening of the narrative. House of Gucci is a breezy 90-minute picture buried in a 2 hour and 38-minute slog.

The chronicle depicts Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), a social climber who meets Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a party. They have a whirlwind romance and she marries her way into the organization of the Italian luxury label. This is to the disdain of his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) who initially disowns him. Al Pacino plays his more flamboyant brother, Aldo, and Jared Leto is Aldo’s wayward son, Paolo.

The screenplay written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna is adapted from the book by Sara Gay Forden. This story begins in the 1970s and while the label is respected, the luxury fashion house is seen as a little stale and old-fashioned. Tom Ford (Reeve Carney) will change that perception. Aldo and Rodolfo currently each possess 50% of Gucci and Patrizia pushes her husband to gain control of the company. This could’ve been a delightful romp of a soap opera that recounts the custody of an empire but it gets bogged down on the banalities of marriage, the details of who controls what, and other financial matters that aren’t particularly interesting.

What the production does have are some charismatic performances. Lady Gaga and Jared Leto are both affecting exaggerated accents in the movie I enjoyed – a campy escapade that is a lot of fun. They’re giving us personality – Leto in particular. He’s unrecognizable as the paunchy and bald underdog who wants to prove his ability as a designer in his own right. One may not appreciate his theatrical achievement as much as I did, but at least he’s memorable. Salma Hayek is Patrizia’s fortune-telling confidante and she is also an amusing character. Meanwhile — dull by comparison — are Adam Driver and Jeremy Irons giving us dependable acting in a completely different movie that’s more of a dour drama. Energizing the mood are the often anachronistic needle drops. For example, Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” is heard at a soiree in 1978 and George Michael’s “Faith” at a wedding which cleverly begins with the song’s cathedral organ intro.

Passion! Betrayal! Greed! Jealousy! A true-crime epic about fashion and wealth should be a celebration of wicked excess. There’s a reason why prime-time serials like Dynasty and Dallas ruled the Nielsens in their heyday. House of Gucci could have lifted a lesson or two from those TV shows. I wanted glamour and opulence but director Ridley Scott is more interested in the boardrooms and backroom discussions of business. It’s not a spoiler that the saga ultimately concerns a highly publicized murder. That sensational event should have been placed at the center of the drama. Here the deed is pushed near the end like an afterthought. A title card informs us of a trial that would’ve been a riveting sight to see. Instead, we suffer through an account that’s mostly concerned with who owns what shares. There’s an entertaining film contained within that some clever (and gutsy) editing could have extracted from the distended runtime of House of Gucci. Sadly audiences will have to “separate the wheat from the chaff” to experience it.

11-23-21

Tick, Tick… Boom!

Posted in Biography, Drama, Musical with tags on November 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Jon’s 30th birthday is approaching. He is suffering an existential crisis because of his lack of success. “Stephen Sondheim was already composing for Broadway at the age of 27!” he whines. Meanwhile, Jon is toiling way in obscurity as he attempts to write his magnum opus. This “rock monologue” has a very elaborate structure. It is confusing, fabricated with convoluted plot devices and various story threads. The best way to describe Tick, Tick… Boom! is that’s it’s a messy play about a composer who writes a messy play. It’s very meta.

Andrew Garfield portrays Jonathan Larson, the real playwright who died in 1996 the night before Rent would have its first performance. The rock musical became a sensation on Broadway. He would posthumously receive three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. This production, however, is not about that triumph. It concerns a play that Larson wrote well before that called Superbia — a sci-fi musical that was never fully produced. He invested six years tirelessly working on that ill-fated piece. Tick, Tick… Boom! was written by Larson in 1991 as a response to that disappointment and the difficulties of being a struggling artist in general.

Director Lin Manuel Miranda in his feature debut as a director embraces the theatrical setting. He starts the action on a stage where a fictional version of Larson and two singers (Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry) are performing. Later it dramatizes the same action in the real world with the 20/20 hindsight of what came next. It certainly is a bold choice, but picking out a coherent narrative in this mess is an exercise in frustration. The torturous construction employing these affected trappings didn’t stimulate a desire for me to “give a care” about the various developments. Sadly a depth of feeling is neither extracted nor displayed. The musical is emotionally vacant and the songs aren’t memorable either. That is what ultimately makes this saga so hard to get into. It couldn’t captivate my attention.

This is a heavily stylized display for theater kids who live and breathe the theatricality of the stage. It’s self-aware and indulgent. “I’m the future of musical theatre,” Jonathan answers when asked what he does for a living. He excessively contemplates himself. His neurotic need for constant validation becomes an exasperating study of narcissism. He argues with his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and buddy Michael (Robin de Jesús). The former’s dance career is taking off. The other has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Yet Jonathan is consumed by an overwhelming fog of self-interest. When each one symbolically slaps the self-absorbed artist with their coherent and passionate wake-up calls, I cheered for them both. I felt their anger.

I can understand why fellow songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda was attracted to this project and why he chose to direct it. He loves Jonathan Larson — perhaps even more than Larson loves himself. I just wish that love translated into a compelling movie. I did have a favorite scene though. There’s a lot of cameos. A sequence set at a writing workshop contains several, but the one at the restaurant was the highlight. By day, Jonathan earns a living by waiting tables at the Moondance Diner. The setting is the backdrop for a captivating ditty called “Sunday.” During the song, he imagines the greasy spoon to be filled with Broadway notables. The number is a tribute to personalities who have done theater. Phylicia Rashad, André De Shields, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, and Bernadette Peters as well as many others populate the eatery. It’s an opportunity to play “Can you name the star?” I sincerely welcomed that delightful bit.

11-19-21

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on November 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One of the biggest highlights at the cinema during my youth was the incongruous reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters (1984). I’ll never forget how shocked and amused I was in the theater by that unholy amalgamation of the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Everyone was. It was a communal event. I’ll forgo further details to avoid spoiling the surprise. Although, one might argue that there’s no one’s experience still left to spoil. The movie is now nearly four decades old and the moment is iconic. However, perhaps to those young readers who haven’t seen it yet: Do yourself a favor and watch it now. This sequel does reference the goofy mascot “s’more” (that’s a pun on the marshmallow treat) as well as a plethora of other ideas from the 1984 classic. Sometimes nostalgia can be an albatross to creativity.

The story of a single mother who moves to a small town in Oklahoma with her two kids doesn’t sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. The daughter’s familial connection to the supernatural events of the past is discovered when she inadvertently uncovers the legacy of her grandfather. This picture is directed by Jason Reitman and is a continuation of both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989). Those were directed by his father Ivan who is the producer here. You may recall there was a female-led reboot in 2016. If you don’t, that’s OK because this chapter doesn’t acknowledge that the picture even exists.

The ending of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is completely indebted to the inspiration of the past. More to the point, the lack of originality in the denouement isn’t endearing. Nevertheless, for the first three quarters, the narrative presents an engaging plot about kids that veers closer in spirit to something like The Goonies. The saga focuses on the 12-year-old granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler who was Harold Ramis’ character. Her name is Phoebe and she is nicely realized with understated charisma by Mckenna Grace. Her mom and brother relocate to an abandoned farm that Egon left behind when he passed away. There, on his dilapidated estate, she discovers some of his ghostbusting tools. She brings a PKE Meter and an electronic trap to school — much to the delight of her classmate. The precocious boy is played by Logan Kim. “I call myself Podcast…because of my podcast.” He is undeniably funny, captivating, and also a real scene-stealer. Phoebe and Podcast form a compelling duo that I enjoyed immensely.

For the significant duration of the picture, the languid drama feels more like an indie picture. The fantasy isn’t as zany or sarcastic as its predecessor. It takes 45 minutes before we even see a ghost. However, there are laughs. The adventure adds additional members to the ghostbusting team. These include Phoebe’s brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and his girlfriend Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), along with their mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and a teacher named Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). The movie charms but with the heart and character development of a leisurely-paced production and a smaller scale. This cost a comparatively low $75 million before promotion and advertising.

Sadly the filmmakers didn’t trust in the beauty of this new innovative direction they had forged. In the final quarter, it’s as if another malevolent director grabbed the steering wheel of this amiable tale, stepped on the gas, and forced it down a path that lazily remixes the climax of the 1984 blockbuster with garish and extravagant CGI effects. Unfortunately, everything from that point on is the exploitation of nostalgia in the most heavy-handed demonstration of the concept. I wasn’t a fan of the closing act. However, the chronicle before that was good. I’ll give it a pass because I was entertained. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a pleasant time-filler. Ah, but it could’ve been so much more.

11-18-21

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on November 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

On Sunday, October 31 (Halloween!) was on talkSPORT radio to discuss Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO and the 3rd season of the TV series American Crime Story: IMPEACHMENT. My segment begins 8 minutes into the 1:30 – 2:00 section (about 22 minutes from the end). Click below and enjoy!

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

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Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on November 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

On Sunday, October 24, I was on talkSPORT radio to DUNE and  Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH — a filmmaker near and dear to my heart. My segment begins 4 minutes into the 2:30 – 3:00 section (about 26 minutes from the end). Click below and enjoy!

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

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Belfast

Posted in Drama with tags on November 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I saw the 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was a kid. I wasn’t impressed. In fact, it bored me to tears. Now to be fair I saw it on a 19″ TV back in the 1970s. Apparently, director Kenneth Branagh experienced the release in a packed theater when it debuted. He clearly loved it as a child. The entire audience swayed forward and back when the car took flight. They even all joined together to sing. The ridiculously repetitive lyrics of the title ditty are still in my head. I wanted that experience. Could I be wrong? Maybe the picture isn’t so bad. Belfast made me nostalgic for a thing I don’t even like. Even bad stuff from our childhood can seem charming in retrospect. That’s the power of this film.

Teachers instruct to “write what you know.” Belfast is a personal tale written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. A semi-autobiographical saga about growing up in Northern Ireland in 1969. The story uses the backdrop of the Troubles through the eyes of Buddy, a 9-year-old boy portrayed by Jude Hill. But the chronicle isn’t just about that conflict between Protestants and Catholics. This is an episodic coming-of-age portrait. While it contains moments of strife, there are also affirmations of great happiness.

Branagh draws on his own experiences and that passion gives the narrative life and verisimilitude. The drama contrasts the troubling events of rioting in the streets through an uplifting outlook. Happy times include the crush that the Protestant Buddy has on Catholic classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant, the daughter of Doctor Who David Tennant) and evenings with the family at the local movie house. The black and white cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos (Mamma Mia!) adds a burst of color whenever they’re enjoying a picture. I mentioned Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the outset, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and One Million Years BC are also detailed. The wonder of cinema is indeed a recurring theme. An amusing example details a vignette when his mom — nicely played by actress Caitriona Balfe (Starz TV series Outlander) — is eyeing his dad in the theater while Raquel Welch is up on screen prancing about in her furry bikini.

Belfast is an anecdotal memoir through the rose-colored glasses of a devoted family. Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are his “Ma” and “Pa”. The director idolizes his parents like movie stars. A performance of the song “Everlasting Love” is emotionally engaging. Pa croons while Ma dances. Their eyes lock and their joyous affection is palpable. There’s a couple of warm and sagacious grandparents (Ciarán Hinds & Judi Dench) too. However, no discussion of the cast would be complete without highlighting newcomer Jude Hill. As the personification of Kenneth Branagh as a youth, he is captivating in the role. Natural, realistic, and completely adorable. The camera lingers on his cherubic face in closeup. His expressive portrayal captured my heart. I can’t say enough good things about his accomplishment.

Belfast isn’t particularly deep or powerful, but it is sweet and sincere. The reminiscence comes from deeply held memories. Kenneth Branagh does a nice job of detailing his formative years in the later 1960s. Only he could tell the tale from this perspective and it is appealing. I must say, Kenneth Branagh’s output is wildly unpredictable. His talent has given us works that run the gamut from the sublime (Henry V) to the execrable (Artemis Fowl). The director’s one-two punch of Artemis Fowl and then Belfast just might be one of the greatest disparities in the merit of two films to follow each other. I’m open to better examples.

11-12-21

Spencer

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 14, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Spencer presents the most literal version of “clutching the pearls” that I have ever seen. At Christmas dinner, the royals are seated around a banquet table. The setting is opulent but the mood is chilly and austere. Dressed In their refinery, the family begins to dine. Staring at one another, they continue to eat but fail to converse. The violin music swells. The atmosphere is too much for Diana. With a grand motion, She forcibly seizes her necklace as if to strangle herself right there. She yanks with a hard tug and the strand breaks. The pearls come crashing down to the table, some tumble into her soup. No one says a thing. With fiendish delight, she spoons a single bead and inserts the foreign object into her mouth. Lodged in her oral cavity, she bites down hard on the sphere. She runs to the bathroom and vomits. The pearls still noticeably around her neck. Clearly, this didn’t happen. It’s unlikely that much — if anything — happened in this story. A little title card at the beginning tips the viewer off (and absolves the filmmaker): “A fable from a true tragedy.”

Spencer takes place over three days in December 1991 while the royals spend the Christmas holiday at Sandringham — the queen’s country estate –in Norfolk. It’s a jarring fusion of factual people and places reimagined in a contrived work of fiction. The drama dispenses with introductions. The screenplay by Steven Knight ( The Hundred-Foot Journey, Allied) assumes you know these personalities and what they were going through at the time. We get depictions of Prince Charles (Jack Farthing), sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry), Queen Elizabeth (Stella Gonet), and various attendants of the staff. Actor Timothy Spall is particularly memorable as a menacing equerry. He oversees the manor like a vampire with a watchful eye. Even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Emma Darwall-Smith) appears briefly. She doesn’t speak, but she’s giving some knowing glances.

Of course, Diana is the central figure. Before Diana met Prince Charles, her maiden name was Spencer. Kristen Stewart is Diana. The whole thing is told from her point of view. You can quibble over whether an American should be playing this icon, but Kristen Stewart is indeed mesmerizing. The actress’s mannerisms and expressions eerily suggest the princess. Diana is married to the first in line to the throne, but she openly wants none of it. She loathes to show up on time, exasperated by their traditions, tortured by the idea of having to wear expensive clothes, irritated by the attentive staff, and other such indignities.

Diana is a victim trapped in a house / marriage / family / dynasty she desperately wants to escape. These are first-world problems of the upper 0.00001 %. As such, the circumstances are not easily appreciable and we aren’t provided the insight to commiserate with her plight. She is detached and petulant, behaviors that render her unlikable. Nevertheless, the situation is designed to engender our sympathy. She is tormented by a predicament that grows progressively more traumatic. This is the portrayal of a woman disturbed. If she has a cinematic parallel, it’s Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. The 1965 classic also detailed a fragile woman falling apart. That’s the assignment and the actress is effective within that context.

Spencer doesn’t cater to your expectations. That’s a compliment of sorts. This is not some stately affair of the British monarchy, but a gothic horror tale. It mixes real people and places in a portrait of an individual coming completely undone. Kristen Stewart gives a highly mannered and stylized performance. She does exactly what director Pablo Larraín has demanded. In Jackie (2016), Larraín detailed the emotional toll on Jacqueline Kennedy immediately after her husband was assassinated. The similarities between the two pictures are evident. You’ll have to be on board for a heavy-handed nightmare that underlines the intention of every event, puts it in boldface, and then italicizes it to emphasize the statement. There’s even a cheesy 80s pop song at the end with lyrics that telegraph what she is feeling with uplifting precision. The production is a unique take, but I can’t say I was delighted by this highly exaggerated version of events.

11-09-21

Finch

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction on November 9, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Dramas don’t get much more intimate than Finch: a chronicle about a man, his dog, and a robot.

So the Earth has become a wasteland after a solar flare has scorched the Earth by ultraviolet radiation and increased the temperatures beyond living conditions. Certified national treasure Tom Hanks plays Finch Weinberg. The guy stays indoors most of the time, but he dons a special protective suit whenever he ventures outside for supplies. Finch is dying from cancer. So he builds a mechanical person (Caleb Landry Jones utilizing motion-capture) to be a companion for his canine Goodyear after he has passed on. When Finch hears of a major storm approaching, he decides to leave in a motor home toward San Francisco with his two companions.

There isn’t much to this story. Most of it centers on the interaction between Finch and the android who is developing a personality. We watch as the robot learns. Hanks gives yet another genuine, understated performance. Finch is cut from the same cloth as the characters Hanks played in Greyhound and News of the World. Meanwhile, the humanoid — who ultimately adopts the name Jeff — is reminiscent of other cinematic portrayals. Your references may vary. I thought of Pixar’s animated Wall-E (2008) but also “Johnny 5” in the 80s sci-fi comedy Short Circuit (1986). I never saw Chappie (2015) but I’ve heard that allusion as well. The post-apocalyptic tale is a serious account and it grows darker. However, Jeff has a cloying temperament throughout. Given the bare-bones plot, I found it hard to sit through.

The sweet, wholesome production is constantly trying to tug at your heartstrings. The nicest thing I can offer is that it’s inoffensive. When the robot isn’t acting cute, there’s also a puppy to melt your heart. This would have been more charming as an efficient 30 minute short. Stretched out to nearly two hours, it wears thin. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks is a star for a reason. He is undeniably likable, so if you are a major fan of his celebrity, then I suppose this will entertain you. The saga has its moments, but I was less enchanted by all the sentimentality.

11-05-21

Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on November 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

On Sunday, October 3rd, I was on talkSPORT radio to review movies with the UK’s Martin Kelner. This week a preview of the James Bond flick NO TIME TO DIE and then a full review of the biggest U.S. box office debut in nearly 2 years: VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE. My segment begins 4 minutes into the 2:30 – 3:00 section (about 26 minutes from the end). Click below and enjoy!

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

Note: This link will expire at some point.