Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3STARS3In the opening minutes, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is driving by three dilapidated unused billboards on a seemingly deserted rural road. A beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer” sung by opera singer Renée Fleming swells in the background. Mildred is seen contemplating the signs themselves. We soon learn that she’s a divorced mother grieving the recent loss of her teenaged daughter that was raped and murdered 7 months prior. She’s understandably angry and wants justice. Sounds good. I’m on her side. Let’s find the culprit. She rents the ad space for all three billboards and emblazes each with the words “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” separated on each one.

Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of Ebbing Missouri played by Woody Harrelson. He’s a beloved figure in the town who, as the director begins to stack the deck, happens to be suffering from a fatal illness. The townspeople, by and large, aren’t on her side. This is a bit perplexing at first. I mean her daughter was murdered for goodness’ sake.  Apparently, they’re concerned that the huge outdoor signs are insensitive given the sheriff’s condition. Although she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are harassed, Mildred stands firm becoming even more cantankerous and destructive. She ends up doing a lot of really heinous things that make the townsfolk (and us the audience) hate her. She assaults a dentist, kicks school-aged children in the groin, and commits a little felony called arson. We even see Mildred scream at her now deceased daughter “I hope you get raped” in a flashback sequence.  Granted it’s clearly an exchange she regrets. Nevertheless, would your mother ever utter such a thing?

I assume Mildred is the hero. Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic to her plight too but he is shown to be ineffective at best and compassionate to racists at worst. Less sensitive is one of his men Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We’re told he actually tortured a man in custody because of the color of his skin. Yes tortured. We never actually see the abuse in question though. In some ways, this is an even more pernicious filmmaking decision because it indirectly absolves shameful behavior because we do not actually see it.  We’re assured it happened though. “Allegedly” Officer Willoughby jokes. Is that funny? Officer Dixon is a seething irredeemable pile of racism. Or is he? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that creates likable individuals that we end up hating while simultaneously creating loathsome people that we’re asked to snuggle up to.  It’s a moral quandary to be sure. I’m not comfortable with embracing a violent bigot. Are you?

Who am I expected to root for? That is the question in this story. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. We obviously feel sympathy for her but at one point she inadvertently almost kills an innocent man. Well “innocent” of the crime in question but guilty of being a despicable human being. Are we supposed to cheer or jeer? I still don’t know. What I do realize is that no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive. I’m conspicuously in the minority. Three Billboards has gotten universal acclaim. I mean it’s well acted by the entire cast. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson imbue their characters with as much humanity as the script will allow. Although why a southern redneck sheriff is now married to a stunningly gorgeous woman with an Australian accent (Abbie Cornish) is a conundrum that goes unanswered.

Despite the moral dilemmas, Three Billboards is strangely entertaining. I was intellectually fascinated by the utter unpredictably of it all. The capricious turn of events in the plot’s final third is completely incomprehensible. This may be playwright Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic effort to date, but it’s still a lesser version of what the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino do so well.  Martin McDonagh’s point of view is too muddled for me to truly embrace. Is this hilarious comedy or is it a weighty drama? Conspicuously dire circumstances are presented as lighthearted farce. To wit: Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater dating a girl that is of barely legal age (Samara Weaving). Poor Penelope delivers lines that show the audience she’s clearly an airhead. Does that mean her life is any less important? She’s introduced as an object of ridicule but I wanted to save the poor girl from being another battered statistic. Get out of that relationship quick. You’re in danger! I guess those kinds of ethical qualms are a hindrance to enjoying this narrative’s “comedy.”  Sorry. I wasn’t laughing.

11-28-17

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Lady Bird

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

lady_bird_ver2STARS4.5I admire Saoirse Ronan. She impressed me in Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But then she did Brooklyn and I fully realized what a talent she truly was. It earned her a second Oscar nomination. Brie Larson won for Room that year. I loved that film and she was deserving of the award. Nevertheless, with all due respect to Brie, I was rooting for Saoirse. I say this right from the start so you may know that I am biased. I admit that. I was already predisposed to love this picture even before it came out. Then the critics’ voices were heard. Lady Bird actually set a record for the best-reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes — that is, the film with the most consecutive “fresh” notices at 185 so far. Now that I’ve seen it, you can throw my critical praise on top of the heap.

Given the title, I had originally thought Lady Bird was a biopic about the First Lady of the United States from 1963–1969. It has nothing to do with Lady Bird Johnson but it IS a period piece of sorts. It takes place in 2002. This is an episodic saga about one Christine McPherson, a senior student at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. “Lady Bird” is her given name, she maintains, in the sense that “it’s given to me, by me.” As you may have surmised, Christine is a bit quirky. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their theater arts program. There she meets Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) and they start dating. Their romance is detailed, as well as her subsequent relationship with another boy (Timothée Chalamet) she meets while working at a coffee shop. This inspires her to form a new friendship with popular girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush) at the expense of the closeness with her best friend Julie. Through all this,  Lady Bird has a strained connection with her mom (Laurie Metcalf ) and slightly stronger solidarity with her dad (Tracy Letts).  Lady Bird dreams of going to an East Coast college, preferably in New York. Her mom feels UC Davis is much more affordable.  Both parents have fully realized personalities, but there’s a depth to Laurie Metcalf’s performance that perfectly incorporates both the love and despair that only the mom of a teenager could express.

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute delight in the title role. It is a flawless performance that utterly embodies the lovable angst of a teenager. She is all earnest excitement. Eager to assert her point of view but unsure of the most effective way in which to do it. This ostensibly autobiographical drama is the directional debut from actress Greta Gerwig. I say “ostensibly” because while all the events may not be entirely factual, Greta did grow up in Sacramento in the early 2000s.  She gets the emotion.  It’s not hard to picture the actress in the lead, at least when she was a younger girl.  Gerwig has written before. Most notably she co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America with longtime boyfriend Noah Baumbach (since 2011).  He helmed both. Now Gerwig is writing and directing on her own here and the lack of a collaborator really suits her.  Lady Bird is a most self-assured debut. Warm, witty, full of insight and humor.

Lady Bird is a cinematic devotion to her mother and a valentine to Sacramento. I came away with a greater appreciation for both of these things. No, it’s not all roses and caviar. It gently pokes fun at various targets with an amiable ribbing. This is a comedy after all and it’s really funny. There are a lot of detailed observations about what it’s like to attend Catholic high school. I should know. I am the proud product of a Catholic education myself. Gerwig gets the atmosphere just right. It’s hard to predict these things, but I suspect many of the witty one-liners will transcend the ages far beyond 2017. It’s clear that Greta means to embrace her adolescence and warmly detail the trials and tribulations within. You’ve seen the chronicle of a youth entering adulthood before. However, Lady Bird elevates the medium. Gerwig has taken the well-worn narrative of the coming of age tale and made it all her own. No one could have managed a tale quite like this. It is unique, fresh, vibrant and fully alive. I fully expect that when the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday, January 23, Lady Bird is going to get a slew of them. Here’s hoping Saoirse Ronan doesn’t go home empty-handed this time.

11-30-17

Coco

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

coco_ver7STARS4.5Pixar has a knack for extracting emotion. Do you recall the first 10 minutes in Up that depicted the married life of Carl and Ellie? Yeah, it had me bawling like a baby too. Ditto when WALL-E doesn’t recognize Eve or when Andy gives his toys away in Toy Story 3. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Coco strums the heartstrings as well as any Pixar film has ever done.

In fact, Coco is one of the most touching odes to family that I have ever seen. I don’t bestow such high praise lightly. There’s an undeniable joy in discovering the sentimental depth of this drama. I’ll describe the chronicle at its most basic so as not to ruin the joyous revelation of what happens. Our saga concerns Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician. He plays the guitar and serenades like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous Mexican star of 1930s/40s cinema. Ernesto is somewhat reminiscent of actual stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Unfortunately, Miguel’s late great-great-grandmother and matriarch of the Rivera family, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) had long ago banned music for future generations. You see her husband left her to pursue a music career. That also included their daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). His face has been removed from the family photo that is displayed during the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead also known as Día de Muertos. When living grandmother Elena (Renée Victor) destroys Miguel’s guitar, he journeys off to find another instrument so he can enter a talent show.

The voice cast includes stars Benjamin Bratt and Gael García Bernal. Bratt’s voicing of Ernesto de la Cruz makes the singing idol a commanding presence. Even more affecting is a comical trickster named Héctor (Bernal) that little Miguel meets on his pilgrimage. He is a poor soul that is in danger of being forgotten — a personality full of humor and charm. I really enjoyed him. I didn’t realize that both Bratt and Bernal could sing, like really well in fact. They’re equally good at voicing their characters. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez is suitably moving as the star, Miguel Rivera.  Melodies are an essential part of this feature. As such, this is the closest Pixar has ever come to making a full-on musical. Song selections infuse the narrative. “Un Poco Loco” and “Proud Corazón” are two highlights but the likely Oscar nominee is “Remember Me” which shows up in several renditions. The one sung as a lullaby near the end is the version that made me cry.

The importance of honoring your loved ones that have passed on encompasses The Day of the Dead, a celebration that forms the central focus of Coco. The idea that we are connected to our family members of the past and how present generations commemorate their memory is an integral component of the plot. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3) upholds an emotionally complex chronicle while still keeping things refreshingly simple in the way the account unfolds. That’s not easy to do. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich elevates feeling over plot details. There is a supernatural element when Miguel penetrates the “other side.” This would be a bit bewildering for me to explain how it occurs and what actually happens in this odyssey, but it’s simple as it plays out.  If I had a criticism, it would be that Pixar has an issue with extended final acts where the narrative contains elements that aren’t quite as magical as the stuff before it. We see it in great movies like Wall-E and Up. The concluding act in Coco is somewhat weakened by multiple endings. I started to think I was watching Return of the King. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed this segment. It’s a minor quibble in an overall stunning achievement.

On the surface, Coco is a simple tale of a little boy that wants to play the guitar. This is a return to the greatness of Pixar. Inside Out was pretty remarkable too, but Coco tops it for emotional intensity. Not since Toy Story 3 has a Pixar flick touched my heart so profoundly. I know we’re always praising the visuals in a Pixar movie, but this just might be one of their most beautifully animated films. The Land of the Dead is an underworld in which the spirits of the deceased meet their final destination. The manifestation of this realm is stunningly gorgeous as a multi-tiered city of buildings, bright lights, and colors. Bridges extend from out of the city onto which the deceased can travel. In this way, souls may return to the Land of the Living to see their relatives once again. The Day of the Dead is a vivid holiday. The animators have deftly celebrated its tradition in the best possible way for this movie. A non-stop party of lively (not frightening) skeletons dancing to music is a glorious sight to behold. The animators magnificently give life to lovable skeletons —  characters that are inherently scary. I liked seeing the comparison between their current existence as a silhouette of bones and their past life as a human being. I was astonished at how this stirred me so deeply. There was one plot twist that in retrospect I probably should have been able to predict but I was so hypnotized by what I saw, that I didn’t see it coming. Coco made me lose myself in the celebration of a young boy’s odyssey. The humanity completely overwhelmed me. Coco is full of heart and when I left the theater my heart was full.

11-23-17

The Shape of Water

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

shape_of_water_ver3STARS3Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Amélie was sexually attracted to The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If so, then The Shape of Water will be the cinematic revelation to satisfy that curiosity. At heart, The Shape of Water is rooted in the well-worn design of a fairy tale. The idea that two disparate individuals should find their soulmate is a tale as old as time, right? Director Guillermo del Toro’s fable utilizes the structure of classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A human falls in love with something that isn’t human, but The Shape of Water goes farther. This is not a children’s story. This is del Toro’s take on interspecies romance and as such, it has his decidedly adult interpretation.

The setting is early 1960s Baltimore. Not the warm nostalgia for a twinkly bygone period seen through rose colored glasses though. This is the cold intolerant version of that era with a racist, close-minded person in charge.   Our lead character is nothing like that.   Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a shy woman whose vocal cords were slashed when she was a child (ouch!). As such, she is mute. At night, she works as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. One day, the facility receives a new discovery from the rivers of South America courtesy of the heartless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Elisa meets new acquisition, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), she begins sneaking into the enclosure. He’s obviously not human. He’s green, scaly, has fins but he walks upright, is very tall and has a muscular frame. Elisa is immediately drawn to this amphibious beast for reasons that aren’t quite clear. However, their developing connection is plainly shown. She feeds him hard-boiled eggs and plays records on a portable phonograph for him. I felt their friendship. The couple gradually form a special bond that eventually goes — you guessed it — there. I didn’t feel that.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa Esposito, a sort of a melancholy mute plagued by erotic urges. This means the audience is subjected to Elisa pleasuring herself in the bathtub while her naked breasts rest just above the water. The scene feels surprisingly exploitative in what mostly feels like sentimental folklore. Elisa is seemingly modest in other ways. She’s gently timid and reserved at work. Her friendship with the creature is like a couple of lost souls united by love. It’s hard not to feel something for Elisa. A few judicious edits here and there could easily turn this R-rated male fantasy into a PG-rated family film but that would be at the expense of the artist’s creative vision. This is Guillermo del Toro after all, not Frank Capra.

Elisa is surrounded by two charismatic personalities. She lives in the same building as Giles, a closeted commercial artist who pines for a young man that runs the pie shop. Giles is amiable and friendly. His advertising work are like the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Elisa’s co-worker is fellow cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She is Elisa’s good friend and confidant. These three are clearly the archetypal “good” people of the story painted in broad strokes so as not to confuse the viewer.  Despite the formula, there’s still something kind of intriguing about these individuals. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland portrayed by Michael Shannon. He’s the baddie. Strickland views the sea creature as an affront to God because he isn’t made in his image. “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image,” he says. “Some more so than others”, he sneers at Zelda who happens to be black. We know Strickland is an outrage to civil rights, but his characterization as an indefensible piece of garbage is about as subtle as a flying brick.

The Shape of Water is a sumptuous production. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen even captures the glossy surfaces of the government facility with a stylish sheen. Its gorgeous set design and costumes are only matched by its luscious score by Alexandre Desplat. Richard Jenkins’ opening narration beautifully sets the stage for a lush yarn of sweetness and warmth. I was enchanted with the beginning. I desperately wanted to celebrate the elegance of this saga before being shaken by less savory elements. Sex and violence are often about context. Their appearances are awkward here. At one point a man is actually shot in the face and dragged across the floor by the hole in his cheek. You can’t unsee these things. When was the last time you saw that in a Disney movie? The question is fair because del Toro is operating within that vocabulary. At its core, this is a rather simple legend that a child would embrace. Nothing wrong with a straightforward ode to love. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are basic tales of a seemingly mismatched pair and they charm children of all ages. The difference here is that it’s filtered through a clouded lens of decidedly adult sensibilities. The ultimate objective is that by the end you’re transported to a feeling of joy. Some apparently are but I was kinda creeped out.

The Shape of Water is scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8, 2017, after a December 1 limited release in New York.

11-13-17

Justice League

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

justice_league_ver9STARS1.5A good film introduces us to interesting people. It provides exposition as to what motivates them as characters so we can empathize with their plight. The tale should essentially lay the groundwork for an account that will feature enriching individuals that develop over the course of an adventure. Their inner journey is part of a larger narrative that we can follow and enjoy. In this way our emotions are captivated and we can feel some emotional component to what’s happening on screen. Justice League is not one of those films.

To be fair, this picture concerns superheroes with which a large portion of the moviegoing public has some previously built-in awareness. Icons like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman already have a recognizability factor, yes. You’re granted a certain amount of shortcuts when detailing familiar characters. Still, that doesn’t absolve the screenwriter or the director from presenting something coherent. Justice League is an absolute mishmash of unfocused plot threads and pointless mayhem. Given the basic elements of what normally constitutes a story, I struggle to even define it as such. It’s a visual chaos of color and activity with dreary conversations sprinkled throughout to give the appearance that something interesting is developing.

The first 30 minutes are as bad as any in the entire 120-minute runtime. The chronicle bewilderingly opens with what appears to be archival camera phone footage of two kids talking to Superman. “What’s your favorite thing about earth?” one asks. The clip stops short before we can get an answer. Now cut to Batman chasing an unknown man on a rooftop that has just committed a robbery. Batman dangles the man over the edge and apparently his fear lures some flying monster out of the shadows. The creature inexplicably explodes moments later leaving 3 boxes. I immediately had questions. Who is the robber? What is that monster? What’s in those boxes? Some of these are answered later while others linger on well after the movie is over. But first some arbitrarily inserted scenes of Superman’s earthly mom (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) pontificating on how they miss Superman. He’s dead of course, but you already knew that, right?  If not too bad because the screenwriters have assumed you do.  Cut to the city of London where Wonder Woman is stopping a bank robbery. Then abrupt edit to Batman journeying to Iceland to recruit what looks like a long haired bodybuilder with tribal tattoos that cover his body. It seems that this is Aquaman. He declines. Bruce is sad. He’s trying to assemble a team. He wants Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) too. Cut to hastily inserted scenes featuring those people as well. The narrative is so haphazard. Plot elements are distributed to viewers like the shuffled deck at a blackjack table. The only difference here is that there is no winner.

Justice League doesn’t resemble a story so much as the random insertion of recognizable characters doing puzzling things. Without any meaningful focus, we’re left to try and appreciate the visual spectacle. Computer generated imagery infects every frame of the film. Action set pieces are grotesque displays of blurry images. The action is confusing and uninvolving. We’re missing the human element. The human visage can charm an audience. Yet even Superman’s face doesn’t look natural in his opening vignette. Here’s where a little background information might be helpful.  You see, actor Henry Cavill had to come back late in production for reshoots.  At that point he was sporting a mustache that he was contractually obligated to keep for another picture. CGI was used to erase the facial hair. Hence the bizarre unnatural look to his face in this scene.

The film has bigger storytelling problems than ugly CGI though. It’s characters we couldn’t care less about. Batman (Bruce Wayne), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are unlikeable protagonists that are dour at best. Their interactions gave me the impression that they hate each other. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) at least smile occasionally but the screenplay limits their chances to connect with the audience. What a comedown from this summer’s far superior Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is mainly in action mode and Henry Cavill merely occupies the final quarter of the picture. Only The Flash (Ezra Miller) has that spark of a personality that engenders warmth. His plight is emotionally involving. Ezra Miller was well utilized. Oh well him and the personal trainers of Jason Momoa & Henry Cavill. The cinematography makes sure you notice how physically fit they are. Duly noted. Everyone else was wasted. The rest of the actors are meaningless ciphers – stand-ins for where charismatic people are supposed to be.

I really wanted to love Justice League. The idea of these superheroes all joining forces and fighting crime together is an inherently exciting idea. Any child of the 70s like me will remember the animated Super Friends Saturday morning TV series. I loved that show. Yet the joy of that concept is completely subjugated under the helm of Zack Snyder. Sadly the director had to leave due to a most regrettable family tragedy. Joss Whedon stepped in to finish things up. I can’t ascertain as to whether the change helped or hurt the movie. I can only offer that the final product is an absolute travesty to anyone who values an intelligible narrative. At this point, the central villain doesn’t even matter, but even he is a non-entity.  He registers not as a personality but as a plot device.  His name is Steppenwolf and comprises the whole reason the Justice League must assemble. The monster isn’t even portrayed by an actor but a completely fabricated creation using CGI and motion capture technology. Ciarán Hinds’ body movements were utilized for reference. However it’s telling that the poor actor never even met the rest of the cast. He’s merely an afterthought in a production that treats the humanity of a human actor as an inconvenience when telling a story. That kind of sums up the viewpoint of the entire film.

11-16-17

Murder on the Orient Express

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery on November 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

murder_on_the_orient_express_ver3STARS2I just witnessed the murder…of a classic. It shouldn’t have been difficult. Take Murder on the Orient Express, an entertaining whodunit by Agatha Christie. Cast a lot of A-list stars in the roles. Then ensure you have extravagant production values, nice costumes, picturesque cinematography and a lush score. Audiences love this sort of thing. They always have. Back in 1974, Sidney Lumet directed an adaptation of the famous novel. It was among the Top 15 highest grossing films of that year. Not only was it wildly successful at the box office but it was also nominated for six Academy Awards. Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Now jump to 2017 and Kenneth Branagh has taken an acknowledged delight and misdirected the joy out of it.

I guess it doesn’t help that he starts with a stuffy script by Michael Green (Green Lantern). Agatha Christie’s words are inherently light and witty but in Green’s hands the words roll off the actors’ tongues like they’re quoting some ancient manuscript. The property feels dusty and old. He’s omitted the buoyancy and wit and made it dull and lethargic. The suspense has been expunged from the story as well. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ convoluted camera angles often capture the action from overhead or from outside while zooming past the train windows. The discovery of the murdered body is filmed from the ceiling without showing the actual body. This key scene is rendered confusing. What are we witnessing exactly? Was someone killed? The people on screen attest to the fact so we can only assume from their words that someone was.

Kenneth Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. In fact triple duty, because he’s a producer as well. Focus, man, focus. As Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, it’s his mustache that makes the biggest impression. He’s more urbane than previous incarnations but less interesting. He’s missing that spark of a personality that makes him so magnetic. Granted he’s got some big shoes to fill. Albert Finney was pretty iconic in the 1974 release, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. David Suchet earned a BAFTA nomination playing the character on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a TV show that had 13 seasons between 1989 and 2013. Still, Branagh is the only actor that has the opportunity to shine. The rest of the cast are given short shrift. They all blend in together, indistinguishable from the next. Nobody makes an impact. Some of the passengers are supposed to have a connection to each other right from the beginning. These aren’t spoilers. In the novel, this is merely the introduction of the group. Are Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in an affair? Do Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Mr. Masterman (Derek Jacobi) work for Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp)? The answer is yes to all of the above but you’d hardly know it from the careless way their relationships are presented here.

The all-star ensemble includes such luminaries as Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. Yet there is no one to root for. No one to excite our emotions. It would be challenging since barely anyone, with the exception of Branagh, has the chance to give a performance. Poirot treats the passengers as suspects but we have nothing invested. Each traveler is brought forward for but only a moment and then he’s on to the next person. The dialogue is an afterthought without a propulsive thrust to drive the narrative forward. Someone is killed but the actors seem indifferent. The passengers are suddenly entangled in a murder case and their lack of interest is closer to the reaction you’d exhibit for an overdue library book. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Do you even care? The answer is a resounding no.

Director Kenneth Branagh has taken a thriller and abandoned the thrills – a dramatic mystery minus the suspense. The production looks good. Score, set design and costumes are exquisite. It’s nice seeing so many actors I respect in the same film. And yet, their star presence evaporates like water on a hot stove. They are bored performing their lines with the passion of reciting a grocery list. They can barely contain their apathy. The ultimate revelation is so lethargic when it’s revealed that it induces sleep. They all inexplicably assemble at a long table in perfect alignment “Last Supper” style in a tunnel outside in the snow. It’s a ridiculous end to an interminable movie that runs shorter than the 1974 version but ends up feeling much longer. As my review comes to a close, I must say I resisted the urge to fall back on obvious quips to describe this adaptation. I’m talking phrases like “jumps off the track,” “goes off the rails” and “runs out of steam.” Such puns felt a little too glib and I wanted to rise above such facile jokes. Please forgive this one indiscretion, but yikes, what a train wreck!

11-09-17

Thor: Ragnarok

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on November 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

thor_ragnarok_ver2STARS4A lot has happened since 2013, the year Thor’s last standalone film came out. Eight, count ’em EIGHT Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entries have separated Thor: The Dark World and the current Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps that’s why the difference between the two chapters is like night and day. Where The Dark World was a ponderous, needlessly complicated dirge through exposition, Ragnarok is a light, breezy comical fun fest. I’ve always been a fan of humor in my superhero flicks. I mean the idea of people dressing up in costumes and fighting crime is inherently silly so any narrative that understands this idea is a favorable one. It’s the reason why the Guardians of the Galaxy adaptations are so wonderful. New Zealand director Taika Waititi brings a lighthearted take to the proceedings. His interpretation of the MCU is a hysterical delight.

Thor: Ragnarok does have some supplementary explication if you’re needing that sort of thing. We’re told that the kingdom of Asgard will soon be destroyed in the prophesied Ragnarok, the final destruction of the world. Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is dying. His passing will allow his firstborn daughter — and Thor’s half-sister — Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from a prison. She is an evil badass and a serious threat to peace. She’s so powerful in fact that she forces Thor out of Asgard. He is soon apprehended by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) a servant of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As the ruler of the planet Sakaar, the Grandmaster holds gladiator tournaments. Holy shades of Flash Gordon! Unfortunately, the advertising spoiled who Thor meets in that tournament. It should have remained a mystery so if you haven’t seen the trailer, I won’t ruin the surprise here. Anyway, Thor still wants to save Asgard and prevent Ragnarok from happening. The script plays fast and loose with the hallmarks of the character. Thor sports a different outfit, his golden tresses are shorn and his hammer Mjolnir is shattered. The fact that these things happen isn’t a spoiler but knowing how and why would be. Therein lies the joy. The way things unfold is enjoyable and always served with a heaping cup of frivolity.

Thor: Ragnarok boasts an impressive cast of A-list talent. Chris Hemsworth’s interactions with the supporting cast are uniformly great. Cate Blanchett is the over-the-top villainess Hela and she is hella good.  She is an effective evocation of a goddess that draws on both the physical and psychological qualities of Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. With her horned headdress, she is like the manifestation of some magnificent elk in human form. Her evildoer is just as much a camp depiction as it is a CGI exhibition of special effects. Jeff Goldblum is a sardonic delight as The Grandmaster. Mark Ruffalo turns up as Bruce Banner/Hulk and his presence is a welcome addition. Ruffalo’s ability to alternately convey both the aggressive and warm tendencies of the character is admirable. Tessa Thompson (Creed) is a tough-talking, hard-drinking Valkyrie. Karl Urban is Skurge, an Asgardian warrior who becomes Hela’s right-hand minion. Idris Elba is back as Heimdall, and Anthony Hopkins appears briefly as Odin. Also returning is Tom Hiddleston as Loki but he gets a deeper mention in the next paragraph.

This is Chris Hemsworth’s fifth portrayal of the Norse deity in an MCU movie and he’s really grown into the role. Honing his comedic sensibilities and embracing the personality in a way that feels more lived-in.  He’s getting more in touch with Thor’s psyche.  The actor has always looked the part but now he seems to embody the mindset. His considerable charisma is at its peak. He’s more engaging than ever. For the first time,  Hemsworth doesn’t feel like he’s guest-starring in his own movie. Tom Hiddleston as Loki has always been a highlight in these ensembles, and he is great here too but now he’s supporting the god of thunder rather than stealing his thunder. The two of them have always had palpable chemistry and their scenes together here are wonderful. Combine that with an extravaganza of sheer excess and you’ve got a bold, splashy color-soaked spectacular. There is probably more eye candy than the human mind can grasp in one sitting. Multiple viewings may be needed to appreciate it all. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t the most thoughtful story in the MCU, but it could be the most visually appealing. I sat back in my chair, jaw agape at the spectacle. It’s also exceptionally comical throughout. Warning: there is a passage through the space-time continuum called the Devil’s Anus. Perhaps not always funny on the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, but pretty close. All of that combines to make this a rousing good time at the movies. It’s entertaining AF.

11-02-17

The Florida Project

Posted in Drama on October 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

florida_projectSTARS4Few of the tourists who visit Walt Disney World will ever stay at the Magic Castle Inn. The name seems to intentionally suggest the Magic Kingdom. It’s a roadside motel in Kissimmee Florida, located just minutes from the theme park but it’s not related in any way, shape or form. It’s painted hot pink exterior somewhat disguises its seedy atmosphere. Most of the tenants actually appear to be long-term residents enticed by extremely cheap rates. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a brash 6-year-old girl who lives there with her mother Halley. Moonee is presumably not in school at the moment. It is summer and so she spends her days hanging out with the children of the other extended stay dwellers.

Director Sean Baker’s debut was Tangerine, a little slice of life about folks on the fringes of the LA community. Pimps and prostitutes are not the kinds of people that we want to embrace, but his unflinching examination saw the humanity within a segment of society most people ignore. Like that film, The Florida Project details the unsavory life that percolates on the ragged edges of Orlando’s sprawling network of family-friendly resorts. “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s working title for his entertainment complex in the greater Orlando area. It would seem to be a tragic irony that an attraction as cheerful and wholesome as Walt Disney World is surrounded by less than grand living situations.

All of this is seen through the eyes of a child. Adults are very much a part of this story, but their reality is an alien universe shrouded in mystery to these kids. Our understanding of what is truly happening sometimes comes across as a bit clouded too. Our protagonist is Moonee, a rambunctious, almost vulgar, holy terror that is allowed free reign to explore the compound. Actress Brooklynn Prince is utterly natural, almost chillingly so. She does mischievous deeds with her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), a downstairs neighbor, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who lives down the road in another motel called Futureland. Despite their flaws, we care about these kids. The narrative grants their existence the same respect producer Hal Roach afforded to The Little Rascals. There’s a big difference though. The kids are outwardly cute in appearance but they sure don’t act that way. We see them cover a car with their spit in a game of target practice. They switch off the power to their entire building from the utility room. Later they accidentally burn down a foreclosed house after lighting a pillow on fire.

Halley (Bria Vinaite) is Moonee’s single mother, a foul-mouthed, tattoo covered, hustler. She sells perfumes to tourists on the street by day and receives gentlemen callers at night. Her parenting skills leave a lot to be desired. The filmmaker doesn’t ask us to sympathize with Halley, but he doesn’t impugn her either. I can appreciate the display of humanity in its many forms, but when she’s responsible for the welfare of a child, the script’s apparent lack of condemnation is somewhat disturbing. What helps is actor Willem Dafoe in the form of motel manager Bobby. He is a force of good in a sea of characters that aren’t. He actively puts his neck out to ensure the safety of these kids.

Director Sean Baker utilized the purity of cinema vérité when he created Tangerine in 2015 and he exploits a similar style again. Gone is the iPhone 5s cinematography. He’s shooting on glorious 35mm film this time around with a traditional camera, but the outskirts of Orlando is presented as anything but conventional. Sun-drenched vistas burst with the crisp colors that stand in stark contrast to a childhood troubled by a grim situation. Moonee’s environment is hardly ideal. However, this is all conferred without critique. The neglect of a minor should probably invite more condemnation.  The atmosphere remains surprisingly upbeat. Baker continues to employ an indie aesthetic. With the exception of Willem Dafoe, these are all unknown actors. Everyone from first-time actress Bria Vinaite — an Instagram discovery and “friend” of musician Drake — to actual non-actors utilized on location, Baker’s presentation has the feel of real life. It is that authenticity that allows us to understand these depressing conditions. Given the circumstances, one might wish for more righteous judgment, but Baker’s observational view is admirable too. Ultimately though he defers to the moral high ground. The emotional ending is a catharsis that is as welcome as it is heartbreaking.

10-12-17

Blade Runner 2049

Posted in Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

blade_runner_twenty_forty_nine_ver4STARS4Could we be in a golden age of sequels? I need to rethink my former convictions. Perhaps long-delayed continuations of old movies can be more than crass attempts to make money. Apparently, they can be an artistic triumphs in their own right. Mad Max: Fury Road was a cinematic achievement and The Force Awakens recaptured the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy. Now Denis Villeneuve has taken on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and, if you haven’t figured out from my positive introduction, it’s a magnificent extension of an iconic classic.

Blade Runner cemented the cyberpunk aesthetic that would be utilized for a generation of sci-fi films. Its impact was legendary. This sequel picks up 30 years later but continues this thought. Bioengineered humans called replicants have been integrated into society. They are still being treated like second-class citizens, however. KD6.3-7 or K for short (Ryan Gosling) is one of these synthetic humans who works for the LAPD. Gosling is in Drive /Only God Forgives mode. He’s detached, showing little emotion or feelings. It makes sense. He’s a robot after all. He was created to “retire” older models that have been deemed a danger to civilization. In a routine investigation, K discovers the skeletal remains of what appears to be an android who died while giving birth. The ability for replicants to reproduce was thought to be impossible. This development is considered dangerous by K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). She orders him to find and eliminate the child.

Blade Runner debuted in 1982 with a theatrical cut that has been both embraced and rejected over the ensuing years. The original favored a happier ending than the subsequent one that Scott proffered. There have actually been no less than 7 different versions that have been exhibited over the years. The most notable alternative is the 2007 Final Cut that was overseen by director Ridley Scott himself. His Final Cut eschewed the voice-over narration that clarified the focus of the narrative. Additionally, whether the main character Deckard was a replicant himself, is less ambiguous in The Final Cut. The question was, given the disparate endings, which interpretation would Villeneuve’s movie follow-up?

The brilliance of Denis Villeneuve’s vision is that he honors all of these variants by being purposefully ambiguous in his sequel. (He personally professed his love for the 1982 US theatrical edit in a recent interview.) You could have seen any one of these versions and Blade Runner 2049 will still make sense. In fact, I dare say that it is imperative you do see either the 1982 theatrical release or the 2007’s The Final Cut before seeing this picture. You will understand it regardless. However, it lays the groundwork for you to have an emotional connection to the new extension. What does it mean to be human? The original was a slow moving, meditative rumination on the nature of humanity. It was as exquisite as it was ambiguous. Blade Runner 2049 is a fittingly gorgeous continuation of the same themes. Denis Villeneuve could have delved into explaining unanswered questions from the first film. The famous “Tears in Rain” speech is a baffling mix of prosaic exposition. Nevertheless, Villeneuve wisely forgoes giving us lots of answers. Instead, he focuses on expanding the world. It remains somewhat vague but he imbues it with a deeper consideration. Production designer Dennis Gassner and art director Paul Inglis have expanded on the precursor’s approach in creating something reminiscent yet different. We get the flying cars and video advertising with which we are familiar. I’m happy to say ads for Pan Am and Atari have an enduring presence. And as great as everything looks, it sounds even better.  The setting has been invigorated with a new score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Some echoes of the Blade Runner theme by Vangelis show up though. The climactic fight is so brazenly cacophonous my heart felt the reverberations of the score.

Blade Runner tantalizes with several supporting characters of note. Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard. Not a spoiler. His participation has been well publicized in trailers and posters. He’s not the star, but his relationship with replicant Rachel in the first film becomes a key plot point here as well. His humanity is on full display. Marvel at the martial arts style of Sylvia Hoeks who plays Luv, a killing machine. Meet her boss, replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace. Once again, Jared Leto plays a sociopath character that has less screen time than you were led to believe, but just enough to make an impression. We knew that replicants were outfitted with fake memories, but here we are presented with a visual as to how those memories are put together and assembled. It features Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) a memory maker creating the presentation of a girl blowing out the candles of a cake at a birthday party. It’s a fascinating scene. And finally, there’s Ana de Armas who plays Joi, a digital simulation of a human that plays K’s love interest. She is perhaps the most important addition. Her shimmering outfits change in seconds emphasizing her ephemeral beauty.  One minute she’s K’s live-in girlfriend the next she’s an advertising hologram 20 feet tall in the city square.

Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning looking film. It is a world in which to admire and luxuriate in its style. An urban Los Angeles still looks like a nightmare of neon advertising and endless rain while a bleak and desolate Las Vegas hypnotizes us with a somber spectacle of amber radioactive smog. Rooms with no discernible water source manifest aquatic reflections upon the walls. Holograms are everywhere. Elvis Presley flickers on and off in the interior of a dusty Las Vegas casino. Blink and you’ll miss Marilyn Monroe too. Frank Sinatra appears in a futuristic jukebox singing “One for My Baby.” Director of photography, Roger Deakins captures all this in his usual cinematographic style. At this point, the oft-nominated director of photography has been cited 13 times at the Oscars. It’s a safe bet he’ll be nominated for this as well. At almost three hours, the length of this production is a little problematic. Its melancholy mood has a depressive effect on the viewer. However, it’s never boring. I was transfixed to the screen to see where the story would go as it gradually unfolded. This is not an actioner in the way James Cameron’s Aliens separated itself from the more leisurely paced Alien, (also by Ridley Scott incidentally). Blade Runner 2049 maintains the spirit of the original film. It’s respectful and indebted to the past, but Blade Runner 2049 presents its own identity. It deserves to be a classic as well.

10-05-17

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Thriller with tags on September 30, 2017 by Mark Hobin

kingsman_the_golden_circle_ver22STARS3I believe 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was fine. I gave it a marginal recommendation but I wasn’t shouting my praise from the rooftops. I won’t rehash my thoughts but you can read them here. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the sequel to that hit. It stars Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Yes you read the right, Firth is back. Mild spoiler if you haven’t seen the first film, but it shouldn’t have been possible for his character to appear in another film. This kind of underscores the screenwriters’ relationship with logic and reason: we don’t give a flying fig as to what makes sense. Director Matthew Vaughn is back as well and he’s co-writing the screenplay once again with Jane Goldman, the identical team that wrote the first. Given that this features the same cast and crew, it makes sense that The Golden Circle is equally enjoyable.

Matthew Vaughn’s aesthetic is to take the spy thriller, à la James Bond, and subvert it with sarcastic gloss drenched in nihilism. Let’s give credit where it’s due first. Both movies are based on the comic book series Kingsman, created by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar. It’s a category already known for absurdity but Vaughn takes it a step further. He doesn’t present the genre seriously. He’s a cheeky adolescent-minded rascal that gets his kicks through shock value. One’s pleasure is going to rely on how much you share his point of view. Those who delight in parody will be captivated. Moviegoers searching for depth won’t find it here. Expect well-choreographed fight sequences, extreme violence, vulgar discourse, and far-fetched gadgets. It’s a silly overblown hyper-violent fun fest that entertains as it plays. Yet it quickly evaporates from the mind a week later.

I’m already halfway through my review and I haven’t even mentioned what the story is about. The capricious details of the plot are merely an excuse to present random acts of mayhem but I’ll elaborate. It’s a year later and our superspy hero Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) must do battle with Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a billionaire drug lord looking to decriminalize her enterprise by bullying the United States into legalizing drugs. She’s an over-the-top personality who commands a couple of robotic dogs while championing a love for campy 50s style. She obtains the names and addresses of everyone in the UK Kingsman organization. You may remember that the undercover headquarters of the team of spies was housed as a society of Savile Row tailors. The film opens with a major attack from rejected Kingsman recruit, Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft). Virtually everyone is eliminated leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) left. Oh and his mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who has apparently survived. Nothing is what it seems. The dead can be brought back to life. This is essentially a cartoon after all. In their quest to save the world, they discover U.S. allies and meet agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). Together they join forces and attempt to stop the villainous Poppy Adams and her evil plans.

If you subscribe to the mantra that bigger is better, then The Golden Circle may just be what you crave. As far as action is concerned, director Matthew Vaughn is always operating at 100%. There are fight scenes galore and they feature enough brutality to highlight 3 or 4 spy films. There’s a cast of new stars in this too. Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Elton John, Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges all show up. Each has a varying degree of involvement. Julianne Moore is in it so much that this could have been called “The Poppy Show.” She might even have more screen time than Taron Edgerton. Conversely, Channing Tatum is in it so briefly that if you use the restroom during his scene, you might miss his appearance. There’s a lot going on here. The mere sight of Elton John is enough to elicit at least a few chuckles. At 2 hours 21 minutes, it is overstuffed. It starts to wear out its welcome before it’s over. However, there’s still a great deal to enjoy. It doesn’t break any new ground, but if you’re looking for a louder, more expensive spectacle, then you’ll be comfortably entertained.

9-21-17