Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on October 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maleficent_mistress_of_evil_ver6STARS2.5First off, let’s clarify one point right away.  Maleficent the “Mistress of Evil” is NOT a villain.  This is a sequel to the 2014 live-action feature which was a revisionist take on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Maleficent wasn’t bad in that film either, just misunderstood.  Here she’s actually bordering on virtuous because there’s another character that becomes the main antagonist.

You may recall that Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is Princess Aurora’s fairy godmother.  Aurora (Elle Fanning) Queen of the Moors wants to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson).   Their vacant personalities are dull.  Perhaps it shouldn’t matter since this young couple in love isn’t the focus, but I felt no sympathy for them.  In fact, I couldn’t relate to any living thing in this film.  That includes all of the whimsical assemblages of flora and fauna that are aggressively thrust into the audience’s face.  Problems arise during an awkward family dinner.  Aurora’s parents are King John and Queen Ingrith played by Robert Lindsay and Michelle Pfeiffer.  They invite their prospective in-law Maleficent over to dinner to ostensibly welcome her into the family.  However, the Queen has ulterior motives and starts an argument with Maleficent that turns really ugly.

Angelina Jolie brings true movie star charisma to the role.  It’s nice to see her acting again.  Jolie has only appeared in one picture since the last installment — the box office bomb By the Sea in 2015.  She’s at her best when she’s desperately trying to make nice with the royals and failing miserably.  The costumes (Maleficent got an Oscar nomination for this) are spectacular and the production design is luxurious.  However, the sheer amount of CGI in this concoction is almost too much for the human eye to comprehend.  The technology rendering various elves, nymphs, sylphs, sprites, and pixies infects every frame.

I lost track of how many artificially rendered side characters exist in this world.  The three pixies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville are an abomination.  Their manifestation hasn’t changed from the 2014 entry.  These fairies don’t resemble anything even remotely organic.  Their shrunken faces, squeezed into diminutive bodies are merely graphical displays.  The nadir is when one of them utters the colloquial expression: “I see what you did there.”   A chattering Sonic the hedgehog-like critter named Pinto speaks in a cutesy high pitched language that I can only describe as Ewok.   There’s a mushroom fairy named Button that gets captured by an evil goblin scientist with big ears named Lickspittle (Warwick Davis).   He resembles Yoda.  There are also tree creatures that evoke Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (or the Ents in Lord of the Rings – take your pick).  On-screen, it’s just a visual assault of random stuff.

The story is a bloated mishmash that superficially draws more from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings than the animated classic from 1959 on which this was inspired.  Only shapeshifter Diaval, Maleficent’s right-hand man, is able to register some presence.  You’d think a confrontation between Michelle Pfeiffer (bedecked in pearls) and Angelina Jolie (at her vampiest) would be a captivating showdown.  Nope! Maleficent: Mistress of Evil bungles even that.  A lot of the blame can be placed at the doorstep of screenwriter Linda Woolverton who wrote a better screenplay for Maleficent (2014). The script is simply awful. Though the multimedia artists are definitely working against her.  The movie is more concerned with digitally enhanced special effects than actual drama.  There’s no emotional weight to their interactions.  I was numb watching this tale play out.  Back in 2007, Michelle Pfeiffer appeared in a Matthew Vaughn directed fantasy called Stardust.  That award-winning delight is infinitely superior to this dreck.  If this review can have a positive effect, it will inspire someone to go watch a good film.

10-17-19

Official Secrets

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on October 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

official_secretsSTARS3There have been many: Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Mark Whitacre, Linda Tripp, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden.  You may not know all their names, but what they did had a profound effect.  A whistleblower can change the course of history.  The current presidential administration is now dealing with one.  A C.I.A. officer has alleged Ukraine interference in the American elections.  No doubt that’s the topic of another production in the future.   Needless to say, the subject has never been more timely.

The tale of this film set in 2003 concerns British translator Katharine Gun who worked at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.  She comes across an e-mail directing the GCHQ to dig up dirt on members of the U.N. Security Council.  The information to be used as blackmail so as to encourage a positive vote approving the U.S. push for war against Iraq following 9/11.  I wasn’t familiar with her account.  That may have made this chronicle a more exciting experience for me.

Katherine leaks the memo and the drama hinges on whether this whistleblower is a hero or a traitor.  The main character is played by Keira Knightley so you can probably predict how the audience is supposed to feel about this woman.  As the events unfold her life becomes more and more fraught with turmoil.  These political thrillers can be very dry and this one is paced is like a police procedural.  It’s not flashy.  However, I’ve always found Keira to be a compelling actress so her predicament becomes quite interesting.   She brings an urgency to the role that makes the movie feel important.  I was indeed invested in the story of Katharine Gun.

09-24-19

The Addams Family

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

addams_familySTARS3The characters who first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, in 1938, wouldn’t be christened “The Addams Family” until the 1964 TV series.  Charles Addams’ comic strip also spawned wildly successful movies in the 1990s.  Given the passage of time, these are probably how most people know these individuals today.  Incidentally, there was a Broadway show back in 2010 as well.  The execution of this current animated film is actually the closest rendering to the cartoonist’s original creation.  It acts as a nice introduction for kids to the ghoulish clan.

Our tale begins in the past with the marriage of Gomez and Morticia voiced by Oscar Isaac Charlize Theron.  Flash forward to the present where they move to New Jersey, in a particularly amusing gag.  There are a few plot threads.  An oppressive neighborhood busybody and reality TV host named Margeaux Needler (Allison Janney) threatens to make the Addams’ life miserable.  More on her later.  Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) prepares for a coming of age ritual involving swordplay.  Finally, their daughter, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) is curious about life outside her home and so she enrolls herself in junior high school.  There she befriends a girl named Parker (Elsie Fisher), who happens to be Margaux’s daughter.

The Addams Family isn’t an expensive effort and picky animation fans raised on Pixar and Disney may balk at the modest appearance of the production.  This cost a mere $24 million to make.  Compare that to Toy Story 4 which had a budget of $200 million.  However, this uncluttered simplicity is part of its charm.  Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan brought us the raunchy R rated Sausage Party back in 2016.  This bears absolutely no resemblance to that endeavor.  Depending on your point of view that could either be a good thing or a bad thing.  (Personally, I was pleased.)

First the bad news: The Addams Family won’t win any awards.  As a stroy it’s kind of a scattershot affair that keeps hammering the same lesson– it’s OK to be different.  Promoting the virtues of uniformity is Home And Garden (HAG) TV maven Margeaux.  She’s building a planned community known as Assimilation near the Addams’ mansion.  She has this ridiculously large bouffant of blonde hair.  It looks like a gigantic plastic headpiece.  She’s the villain obviously and she’s hilarious.  The moral is heavy-handed but its heart is in the right place.

That’s the good news: As a piece of animated entertainment, it’s a pleasant diversion that stays true to the spirit of Charles Addams’ cartoon strip.  The artwork and his quirky sense of humor are intact.  These folks remain the appealingly oddball personalities that we know and love.  They’re all here: Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) Grandmama (Bette Midler), Wednesday, Pugsley, their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg) and Thing, a disembodied hand.  Their eccentricities are on full display and they provide laughs aplenty for children and adults alike.  Monochromatic Wednesday Addams and her school chum Parker (Elsie Fisher) are talking about which Instagram filter to use for their photo and Wednesday dismisses making a choice. “I still appear black and white in all of them.”  It’s these little throwaway comments that made me chuckle.  The Addams Family is a spirited bit of fluff with inspired atmospheric touches.

10-10-19

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Abominable

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

abominable_ver4STARS3This site is called “Fast” Film Reviews so I’ll get right to the point.  I’m giving Abominable a marginal pass because it’s vivid entertainment that will undoubtedly charm 8 years olds and under who haven’t been corrupted by as many movies as I.  My mind, however, went to a lot of other flicks while watching this tried and true tale.   It suffers by comparison.  The adventure is about a Yeti.  It begins in Shanghai, China.  One day a girl discovers a cute roly-poly creature with a loving disposition on her rooftop.  He has escaped from his holding cell in a laboratory at the sinister Burnish Industries.  The two bond and she names him Everest.  She vows to bring him back to that highest mountain on earth where he lives.  The problem is that they’re pursued by authorities who want to apprehend him.  With her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and his selfie-obsessed cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), the four individuals undertake an epic journey.

Despite the setting, the experience succumbs to an Americanized milieu.  This is a joint effort by DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.  With the exception of her diminutive grandmother Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), the entire cast sounds as if they were assembled from a Hollywood casting call of local talent.  The central character is a teenaged girl named Yi.  Given the flat tonal quality of her voice, she recalls Miley Cyrus (Bolt) to this untrained ear.  I checked the credits and saw it was in fact actress Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).  Yi plays the violin which allows for a few expressive pieces that genuinely enhance the soundtrack.  However, hearing London based Coldplay’s song “Fix You” takes you right out of that atmosphere.  A pop ditty entitled “Beautiful Life” by Brooklyn born Bebe Rexha doesn’t add to the mood either.  English Eddie Izzard and American Sarah Paulson voice the antagonists.   Ok so the visual backgrounds are culled from Far East locations but there’s nothing about this production that would have substantially changed if it had been set in a large American city like New York.  In a year where The Farewell truly presented Chinese culture with depth and nuance, you’re going to have to do better than simply having your characters eat a few pork buns.  Abominable was also released with a far more evocative Mandarin-language translation for Chinese-speaking moviegoers.  Personally, I would’ve appreciated that version, with English subtitles of course.

Abominable meets the acceptable standard of children’s entertainment.  It’s pleasant enough. The visuals are indeed colorful and the saving grace of this picture.  A highlight occurs when huge blueberries rain down a hill toward our protagonists in a tsunami.  Vast sweeping fields of canola flowers are appropriately stunning.  Shanghai is a glowing neon metropolis, the Gobi desert is pretty and the giant mountainside Buddha in Leshan is an impressively rendered landmark.  The principal critter is a smartly designed plump ball of fur.  He doesn’t resemble an abominable snowman but as a stuffed animal to be manufactured and produced for the masses, he’s adorable.  The animation is adventurous.  The screenplay by writer-director Jill Culton is not.

The “girl makes an unlikely friend” chronicle is stridently average.  Substitute Everest for an alien or pet or dragon and you have the blueprint of countless (better) tales that have come before.  Additionally, the pacing is unbearably slow.  There is surprisingly very little humor to break up the monotony.  A full third of the drama must elapse before they even begin their journey, which is the main thrust of the narrative.  The final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy came out just 7 months ago.  That far superior release was also from DreamWorks, so the company is actually offering pale imitations of their own movies now.  This story is rote and unoriginal.  The noteworthy thing about Abominable is that it’s is the 7th movie from Universal to top the box office weekend in the U.S. this year (8 if you include Downton Abbey).  The studio has the most #1 films in 2019.  At a time where Disney’s dominance over the market is unprecedented, I love to root for the underdog.  Kudos to Universal for still being a competitor.  I just wish it could do so with a less conventional product.

10-01-19

Judy

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music with tags on September 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

judy_ver2STARS4Oh sure there’s entertainers Judy Collins and Judy Holliday but a biopic simply called Judy would have to be about Judy Garland.  Any endeavor presenting an account of the stage, screen and television star has an awesome task set before them.  Judy, however, is narrowly focused in scope.   This is not a traditional biopic of an entire life in showbiz.  It’s a highly selective snapshot.  Judy is adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.   It chronicles her life in 1969 when she did a series of sold-out concerts at London nightclub The Talk of the Town.

This is not a happy tale.  These are the events that occurred during the last year of Judy’s life.  The drama presents the details of her existence at the time.  As such it is the profile of a career in decline.  She has no home, losing one hotel room due to nonpayment and checking into another one with kids Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd) in tow.  She accepts a gig for a 5 week run of shows in London so that she can afford to take care of her kids.  The irony is that by agreeing to the engagement she is physically unavailable to be with them.  And what about those concerts?  Well, depends on what night you showed up.  Sometimes she would come out and deliver that legendary magic in a stellar show greeted by thunderous applause.  Other times she wouldn’t take the stage at all, or if she did, perhaps she’d stumble out in a drunken stupor.

Judy is about one woman.  However, many other personalities affected her experiences.  Director Rupert Goold occasionally cuts to flashbacks of Judy’s childhood (portrayed by Darci Shaw) where we eavesdrop on her interactions with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).  These berating conversations on the set of The Wizard of Oz will foreshadow the insecurities of her adulthood.  There are some lighthearted moments too.  The most uplifting occurs in the present.  Garland runs into two fans named Dan and Stan, an older gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira.  They’re waiting to greet her outside when she leaves the nightclub where she’s performing.  Feeling lonely, she asks to join the stunned pair for dinner.  The characters may be fictional but the warmth of their interaction is genuine.  The film also stars Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft, her third marriage, Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli, Michael Gambon as theatrical manager Bernard Delfont, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant.  All of these individuals encompass the portrait of an artist but make no mistake, they are all in service to the tale of one superstar.

As a story, it’s sad and muted but as the presentation of a singing idol, it’s spectacular.  I admit I walked in rather skeptical but I walked out a believer.  Renée Zellweger channels Judy Garland in a way that is uncanny.  I still can’t believe this is the same actress that played Bridget Jones.  It is a transformative performance.  Renée embodies Judy’s vulnerability, insecurity, and sadness in a manner that is profoundly personal.  Zellweger famously starred in the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago so it shouldn’t be surprising that she actually sings here.  No, Renée doesn’t sound exactly like Judy but this was a period in the legend’s life (let’s be honest)  where she wasn’t at the top of her game.  Renée’s somewhat flawed vocals serve this production perfectly.  It’s hard not to consider the trajectory of Renée herself who received 3 Oscar nominations during the heyday of her career.  She won the award 15 years ago as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cold Mountain in 2004.  She hasn’t been nominated since.  That will undoubtedly change this year.

Renée captures Judy’s soul.  My favorite line is when Mickey Deans greets her at a party with a cocktail.  “You can’t have the world’s greatest entertainer out here without a drink,” he says to Garland.  “Oh Frank Sinatra’s here?” she coyly replies.  Renée Zellweger effortlessly delivers the quip with an impish twinkle but it’s an external facade that glosses over raw emotion deep within.  At best, Renée’s work here is her crowning achievement.  At the very least, her acting is a compelling reason to see this picture.

09-26-19

Ad Astra

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ad_astra_ver3STARS3Heaven knows there isn’t a shortage of movies that use outer space as a metaphor for depression.  That’s because the setting is an exquisite allegory for distance, loneliness and broken relationships.  2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, Moon, Interstellar, and First Man are just a few that exploited these feelings.  It’s impossible not to think of one of these chronicles set amongst the stars when watching this picture.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Ad Astra – Latin for “to the stars” – is part of a hallowed and timeworn tradition.

Our saga concerns Brad Pitt who plays Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with tracking down his father.   Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rebel astronaut who has gone missing for years in the outer reaches of the solar system.   The plot actually evokes a literary classic that has nothing to do with deep space.  A man on a meandering quest to find his symbolic “Kurtz” figure is pure Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by Joseph Conrad which also inspired Apocalypse Now.  McBride must unravel the mystery of recent catastrophic power surges that threaten the very future of the entire planet.  Needless to say, the stakes are high.  The story begins as a thinking man’s exploration of the cosmos.  Although the tale of a son that harbors deeply buried abandonment issues against his dad slowly becomes the focus.  The father complex can get a bit tedious.  Roy McBride seems to be pretty cool and collected at first.  His pulse rate never accelerates.  As the possibility that Clifford might still be alive, the man’s placid exterior begins to crumble.  I greeted this turn of events like the psychoanalysis from a dime-store therapist.  An unhealthy parental relationship is the root of his emotional problems.  I tried hard not to roll my eyes too far in the back of my head for fear I would miss a dazzling set-piece.  Ad Astra presents these conventional ideas with stunning cinematography.

This is a gorgeously photographed production that demands to be seen on a wide screen.  Writer-director James Gray is known for his portraits of families in crisis (The Yards, We Own the Night) and this narrative also fits within those descriptive confines.  However, this is the first time he’s ever worked with an $80 million budget.  Gray makes excellent use of the increased funds.  An electrical surge causes the International Space Antenna to go haywire.  Roy falls to earth and I gasped at the spectacle.  A lunar buggy chase on the unsettled areas of the moon, where our hero and his men are pursued by pirates, is spectacularly thrilling.  This is the near future and such things are to be expected.  Later, against Roy McBride’s protestations,  the team answers a mayday call.   The discovery aboard the foreign rocket ship contains a surprise that is scarier than anything I saw in the recent horror IT Chapter Two.  These are the moments I remember the most.  Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

Ad Astra is content to luxuriate within the contemplative mood of an introspective study of a man who misses his daddy.  Why oh why did father prefer searching for extraterrestrial life out in the galaxy when he had life right here on earth that loved him?  That is the central dilemma.  The elegant presentation is somewhat undone by intrusive and excessive narration by Brad Pitt’s character.  His reflections are extraneous expository thoughts.   The vocalized inner monologue comes across as self-indulgent.   This is not a device that elevates our enjoyment.  It might have helped if there were other significant personalities to share the load of the drama.  Both Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga pop up briefly but each of their appearances are incidental in nature.  Liv Tyler as “the wife” has minimal dialogue.   I’d say she gets roughly five lines in total and that’s a charitable estimate.   Eve McBride is more of a symbol than an actual role.  This is clearly the Brad Pitt show.  He is indeed good and so are the visuals.  It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but overall the visual extravaganza won out over the stuffy sections.  One day someone will revolutionize storytelling and make a film where the beauty of the cosmos is a metaphor for a happy and well-adjusted life.  Until, then, there’s Ad Astra.

09-19-19

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

brittany_runs_a_marathon_ver3STARS2.5Given the title, Brittany Runs a Marathon sounds like an uplifting tale of how a woman tackles a lofty goal she has set for herself.  The nicest thing I can say about the production is that it means well.  It’s not predictable.  I’ll give the saga points for subverting expectations.   However, it’s also not particularly enjoyable.  It didn’t make me feel good.  I liked the main character even less when it was all over.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on director and writer Paul Downs Colaizzo’s former roommate Brittany O’Neill.  Kudos to him for an account that doesn’t follow the formula of a traditional narrative.  Brittany has more problems than the mere inability to run a marathon.  She’s a hard-partying, drug-taking, 28-year-old with no direction in her life.  She visits a doctor (Patch Darragh) hoping to score a prescription for Adderall so she can take it recreationally.  He isn’t fooled.  Instead, he confronts Brittany with the news that her body mass index falls within the obese zone.  He recommends that she lose 50 pounds for her own health.  Given the fat acceptance movement has only gained more adherents over the years, the script takes a controversial stance – sort of.

The production tries to straddle the line between advocating the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while still affirming body positivity in equal fashion.  The belief that all human beings should have confidence regardless of how they look is predictably asserted, especially in the beginning.  Fat-shaming is a definite no-no.  Meanwhile, the script champions Brittany for losing weight anyway.  Her ability to get thinner is promoted as a good thing.  It’s a schizophrenic perspective that obscures the clarity of whatever message this film is attempting to champion.

The story is presented as a comedy and not a drama.  That helps.  Comedies can often get away with things a drama can’t.  Events normally seen as painful can be depicted as humorous.  Even within that framework, the characterization of this woman is so odd.  Have you ever had a friend that completely sucks the life out of a room?  Brittany Runs a Marathon is a biography of such a person.  She is a human being undone by her own critical self-view.  She is fueled by self-hate and in turn, her negative outlook punishes the audience.  It’s a tribute to the talent of Jillian Bell that she imbues the role with humanity and wit.  She starts out nice.  As the pounds are shed, however, so too does the lightness of Brittany’s personality.  Unfortunately, Bell must act within the confines of a screenplay that continues to keep her character within a place of despair.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is highlighted by a charismatic cast.  They’re so appealing that they misdirect our compassion away from the lead character.  Brittany makes two new friends while running.  The first is Catherine played by Michaela Watkins (Season 34 of Saturday Night Live).   She appears stuck up at first but shows herself to be a warm and compassionate human being.  The other is Seth portrayed by Micah Stock (Netflix series Bonding).  He amicably fulfills that old standby – the supportive gay best friend.   She alienates both when they offer her financial assistance.  Later she rejects the awkward affections of directionless Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a fellow house crasher/sitter who bonds with Brittany in the middle of her transformation.  Their atypical relationship is rather compelling initially.  People want to be her friend and she responds by pushing them away.  There’s also narcissistic best friend Gretchen, played by Alice Lee who is written as a one-dimensional stereotype.  I imagine Grethen’s existence is meant to make Brittany’s nasty disposition seem justifiable.  Actress Lee is saddled with a completely thankless role.  When Gretchen expresses remorse, Brittany dismisses the friendship with “I’m tired of being your fat sidekick.”  I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for.  In almost every interaction that Brittany has with another person, I rarely took her side.

I’m a big fan of star Jillian Bell.  I think she is extremely talented.  My hard take is somewhat provoked by my disappointment from a star that I know can do better.  She was the high point of 22 Jump Street.  Her recurring roles on Comedy Central’s Workaholics and HBO’s Eastbound & Down are amusing.  Even her January 2019 appearance on Match Game with Alec Baldwin was a pure delight.  Yes, I even saw that.  I told you I was a fan.  The fact that Brittany Runs a Marathon works at all is due to Jillian Bell’s performance.  She’s the star as well as the executive producer.  This was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival.  I had very high hopes.  It has performed less well since it debuted in theaters.

As Brittany nears the date of the marathon, she grows more and more contemptuous until she becomes insufferably sanctimonious.  There are a lot of uncomfortable interactions where people are poorly treated.  Brittany moves in for a bit with her sister (Kate Arrington) and brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery).  They throw a BBQ and it’s there that a drunk Brittany projects her own self hated on an overweight woman (Sarah Bolt).  She asks the woman if she met her slimmer husband when she wasn’t fat.  The screenplay understands that this question is beyond the pale.  However, we shouldn’t be so repulsed that we resent the main character.  Brittany has become tiresome at this point. This shocking display signals the moment I was done with her.  Brittany later sends the woman she insulted a note with some flowers to apologize for the ugliness of her behavior. The gesture is inadequate. So is this feature actually. There are bits of insight and humor. Jillian Bell’s one-liners are indeed hilarious.  The best scenes detail her personal progress.  Brittany finally starts to love herself and in turn love others.  Good for her!  Sadly, coming to this realization occurs far too late.  It’s merely one obstacle in an attempt to present a satisfying film.   The picture still has many hurdles to overcome.

08-29-19

It Chapter Two

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on September 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

it_chapter_two_ver3STARS1.5Warning: It Chapter Two is almost 3 hours which doesn’t translate into “better”, just “more”.  That means objectionable situations, jump scares, blood, and gore in perpetuity.  Director Andy Muschietti takes everything awful about his first film and significantly increases that unpleasantness exponentially.  I will say this. If you thoroughly enjoyed part one, I should think you’ll enjoy part two as well because it’s more of the same.  That’s about as ringing an endorsement I can give this turgid mess.

In 1989, the group of kids known as “The Losers” made a blood pact to return to the town of Derry if the entity known as “It” ever came back.  It Chapter Two begins in 2016 – 27 years later.  The picture opens with the shocking depiction of a vicious assault on Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and Don (Taylor Frey), a gay couple.  The men are mercilessly beaten by a group of homophobic thugs.  Then Adrian is thrown over a bridge into the water below.  He has an asthmatic attack and nearly drowns.  Suddenly the poor man is pulled out of the water by a scary looking clown.  He is then eaten alive.  His boyfriend Don watches in horror.  Few will realize that the violent hate crime that unethically sets off this intro is based on the real-life murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor, Maine in 1984.  Unbelievably this killing is thoughtlessly used to signify that Pennywise is back.

This act sets the story in motion.  Mike (Isiah Mustafa aka the Old Spice Guy), is now an adult and still living in Derry as the town librarian.  He alerts his childhood friends that they must once again fight IT.  We proceed to catch up with the other Losers in adulthood.  The original screenplay reduced these kids to basic simplistic traits.  That’s what passed for characterization in the first movie and so I’m obliged to use those same descriptive adjectives here.  There’s stuttering writer Bill (James McAvoy), sexually abused Beverly (Jessica Chastain), overweight turned hottie Ben (Jay Ryan), foul-mouthed comedian Richie (Bill Hader), hypochondriac risk assessor Eddie (James Ransone) and Jewish accountant Stanley (Andy Bean).  Neighborhood bully Henry (Teach Grant) is back again too.  He kills a guard and escapes a mental institution so he can continue to terrorize.  What, the clown isn’t enough?  As a secondary antagonist, his presence is completely unnecessary.  This isn’t a production that relies on acting.  However, Hader delivers the most recognizably human performance of someone with genuine feelings.  Also kudos to the casting director for hiring actors that perfectly suggest grown-up versions of their youthful selves.  The chronicle employs frequent flashbacks to the past and the similarity of the child actors to their adult counterparts is uncanny.  There aren’t many compliments I can bestow, but the optics of the cast are on point.

The brutal attack of the opening scene is merely one regrettable vignette.  Unfortunately, it kicks off the entire movie.  I was willing to get past that and still give this a chance.  Sadly, we’re assaulted by more heavy abuse that is exploited to inject superficial weight to a script that has no respect or understanding for the gravity of the issues it so carelessly desecrates.  Writer Gary Dauberman returns to adapt Stephen King’s novel.  When we’re introduced to Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as an adult, she’s married to an abusive husband named Tom (Will Beinbrink).  Beverly tells her husband that she must travel to Derry to visit friends.  However, he now thinks she is cheating on him because he heard Mike’s name.  Tom starts to physically beat Beverly and then attempts to rape her.  This is yet another really ugly spectacle.  Luckily she fights back and runs away, but the feeling that lingers is pure ick.  It casts a pall over this production.  This feeling never goes away.  Stanley (Andy Bean) is so scared to hear the news that he commits suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub so he doesn’t have to endure any more nastiness.  Dear Lord, please forgive me for saying this, but I envied him at this point.

I already hated this film 30 minutes in and it had only barely begun.  Remember it’s 3 hours.  The rest is just as appalling.  It Chapter Two is an absolute dumpster fire.  The piecemeal tale is manufactured from a conventional attempt to string together a lot of expensive special effects and jump scares.  The saga revisits the Losers as children in a protracted and convoluted sequence in the second hour.  This dump of a narrative throws everything it can at the audience including the kitchen sink.  The drama is so sloppily constructed, ultimately it doesn’t feel like a story but rather a highlight reel for the visual effects teams at Method Studios and Atomic Arts.  The impressive technology grows increasingly ubiquitous.  To make matters worse, the screenplay has no sensitivity for the sincere loss of human lives and suffering that it depicts.  There is no emotional connection to the depravity.  But I’ve grown tired of my rant as I’m sure you have too.  I needn’t continue to list this movie’s many offensives.  If I did, my review would be 10 pages long.

09-05-19