Manchester by the Sea

Posted in Drama with tags on November 30, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo manchester_by_the_sea_zpswck8zl5f.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Manchester of the title is a coastal town along the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay, about 30 miles northeast from Boston. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a dejected man with a tragic past. A beleaguered soul, he is withdrawn, almost surly. He works as a handyman for a Boston apartment building complex. Early on, his grumpy interactions with building tenants are presented as a series of vignettes. It’s kind of amusing at first. We’ve come to expect humor in our cinematic tragedies so in the beginning these seem like comic relief. They aren’t. Lee possesses a thoroughly depressed spirit. In the opening scene, we see the past. He is an upbeat uncle, joking around with his young nephew (Ben O’Brien as young Patrick). They’re on a boat with Lee’s brother / Patrick’s father Joe (Kyle Chandler) off the coast of Massachusetts. Life is good. Flash forward to the present and things are a much different picture. How Lee became this way isn’t revealed until about halfway through. Our present story is set in motion when Lee receives a call that his brother Joe has died, forcing him to return to his hometown and confront demons he’d rather forget.

Lee Chandler is something of an enigma. He’s all pent up emotion. Uncommunicative, aloof, he has shut out the world. It’s easy to embrace someone who’s asking for help, but what about the individual who refuses to engage? Because he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, Lee is isn’t a very likable guy.  Outwardly, he’s placid. Yet that doesn’t mean he isn’t tormented by a tornado of sadness. A maelstrom of pain surging inside that gives rise to violent outbursts. He talks with his fists, coming out swinging just because someone looks at him funny. One keeps expecting a tearful collapse that never arrives. The narrative is all about relationships minus the requisite sentimental displays of the main protagonist. It’s a “chick flick” for dudes. Casey Affleck gives a most uncharacteristic performance for this genre. The chronicle is all the more innovative because of it.

There’s a more conventional version of Manchester by the Sea. Its core of “family coping with loss” is a common story. This could’ve easily been a weepy tearjerker. It isn’t. Lonergan makes some uncommon choices in how to depict the tale that elevates it into something extraordinary. Casey Affleck is the core of the plot, but he’s supported by an amazing ensemble that also subverts our expectations. Actor Lucas Hedges is Patrick Chandler, Joe’s now teenage son and perhaps the second most important person in this account. Father Joe has made his brother Lee sole guardian of son Patrick in his will. I’ve seen these melancholy tales with kids before and I figured I had this Patrick character pegged even before we were introduced. His personality is nothing like I expected.  I could explain how but that would spoil the impact of his disposition. If this drama does have that predictable emotional breakdown, it belongs Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. Her impassioned plea is the movie’s one concession to a giving the audience a catharsis. It’s my favorite moment in a film full of many.

Director Kenneth Lonergan received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his debut screenplay for the drama You Can Count on Me, which he also directed. The Academy bestowed another nomination on him for co-writing Gangs of New York for director Martin Scorsese. Then almost a decade of no output. He directed Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, as his second directorial feature in 2005, but the troubled production was mired in multiple lawsuits. It didn’t get released until 2011. As one of the most critically acclaimed pictures of the year, Manchester by the Sea must certainly be a validation, but it’s a reminder as well. Kenneth Lonergan is a unique talent.

Manchester by the Sea is highlighted by a brilliant script, also penned by the director. The narrative advances a progression of captivating conversations, as Lee deliberates on the past in flashbacks, as well as in the present day. The reflective piece is edited together like a shuffled deck of cards. The style mimics our own free association with the past as we converse with people in the present. These exchanges provide a deeper understanding of Lee Chandler. Sometimes it’s even more powerful by what it doesn’t say. The indefinable power of the silence in between what people actually express.

Music is an important component that changes with each segment. There’s an original score by Lesley Barber, but the soundtrack also features classical music. Handel, Poulenc, Albinoni, and Massenet are occasionally played loudly over scenes where dialogue would normally be heard. The technique is used frequently and periodically you feel the director’s hand guiding the viewer. Lonergan overtly pushes feelings that are already there. However, more often than not, the choice can be particularly compelling. A gathering of family and friends at the funeral home comes to mind. We imagine what the people are saying. We focus on their expressions in the absence of talk. The result makes the experience more dreamlike but also alien because the sophistication of the classical piece is so foreign to the blue collar aura of our central character.

Manchester by the Sea is like a mournful symphony gently guided under the masterful direction of its conductor. The adagio pace of the film unfolds as a contemplative composition. At 2 hours 17 minutes, it’s leisurely pace can tax the viewer’s patience, but the rewards are great. It’s a work marked by the modulation of sensitivity as we witness an evolution of poignant discussions. Happy, sad, angry – our undulating emotion crescendos with a heartbreaking conversation. The account ultimately continues on to the gentle sublime cadence.  This is a movie about self-discovery. As such, we learn more about our character as the chronicle develops. It’s that gradual reveal of the narrative that keeps the audience captivated. Lee isn’t noticeably that much different at the end than he was at the beginning. Yet our appreciation for this man has developed. It’s an ending that plays out like life. This saga isn’t finished but we understand so much more now than we did when we started. I was enriched by the ride.

11-29-16

Moana

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on November 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo moana_ver4_zpshihqyz6h.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIf there’s an archetype that Disney is most known for, it’s the princess. Snow White, Cinderella Sleeping Beauty – these are the classics. In recent years we’ve added ones from Tangled and Frozen. The studio’s latest offering is Moana (voiced by Hawaiian teen Auli’i Cravalho). Ok so she’s actually the daughter of her tribe’s Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), not royalty as she herself points out for us, but she fits the princess mythology. The paradigm has always been loosely defined, but if the movie is a success, then she’s adopted into the tradition. If there’s any justice, this movie deserves to be a huge hit.

Moana is all about a quest. She hails from the fictional island of Motunui. Although that is indeed the name for a settlement in New Zealand, the location is set on an unspecified archipelago. This could be also Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii or any peninsula in the South Pacific. Moana is intrigued by the sea. However, her love for the oceans is sternly repressed by her father. The world is a dangerous and scary place he tells her. Those feelings are rooted in his own personal trauma. Yet we’ll discover, Moana’s longing has a basis in her cultural destiny. Her island is slowing declining. Crops are dying, coconuts are rotting, and fish are becoming scarce. According to legend, there’s a reason for this. Many years earlier, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. This was a glowing green, jade-like stone. The absence of Te Fiti’s heart will continue to bring hardship. So, inspired by her Grandma Tala (Rachel House) Moana sets out on a journey to find the ancient gem and restore her world to its original magnificence.

The leading ladies of Disney have undergone a personality overhaul over the past three decades beginning with Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The classic princesses have been criticized for being too simplistically innocent. On the other hand, the modern ones can be a bit self-centered in their rebellion against a repressive society. I know it’s technically Pixar (owned by Disney) but Merida from Brave actually turned her mother into a bear. She was downright mean. Yes, Moana rebels in predictable fashion too, but she feels a little different. For the first time in quite a while, she exudes more humility than I have seen from Disney’s recent heroines. Simply put, she is a nicer person. Additionally, she has no love interest. It’s lamentable that we’re at a point where even a minor deviation from the rigid princess blueprint is considered revolutionary but here we are. Moana is refreshingly different.

You’ve got a spunky, can-do explorer at the center of a bright shiny musical with a positive message. Moana may be set between 2000 and 3000 years ago, but she’s still a contemporary heroine tailor made for a 2016 audience. Whether it’s Jasmine, Pocahontas, Esméralda, Mulan or Tiana, Disney has included more ethnically diverse protagonists for quite some time now. This time the formula is gently tweaked to include a Polynesian setting and people. Moana isn’t tall and stick thin but she’s still attractive. Certainly an athletic type. Disney has yet to really get subversive and create a leading lady that doesn’t look like she could model. Legendary demigod Maui has a wildly expressive face and a giant physical presence when compared to Moana. The juxtaposition of her tiny physique with his massive frame is amusing. The art direction draws heavily from Samoan culture incorporating the architecture, statues, even body art. The adult characters sport tattoos. Maui even interacts with a figure on himself that pantomimes advice like his sidekick.

Moana finds Disney working very much within their wheelhouse. The production is immeasurably enhanced by songs written by Opetaia Foa’i of the New Zealand group Te Vaka, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s Hamilton fame, and American composer Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan), who also composes the musical score. Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go” is the obvious bid for a hit single in the vein of “Let It Go” from Frozen. However, there are many others that stand out. The Rock sings “You’re Welcome” and it’s instantly catchy.  The tribal chant “We Know the Way”, partially sung in Tokelauan, is great too. Oh and “Shiny” sung by a villainous coconut crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement) is completely unexpected – like early 70s era David Bowie. The music is great. I think the sheer number of memorable songs is higher than any of their animated features since perhaps the 90s.

Young girl wants to realize her destiny by breaking free from the strict confines of her society. We’ve seen the hero’s journey story before. It gently recycles elements of The Little Mermaid, Mulan and half a dozen other of their own creations. Even the way the chronicle presents fluctuating happy and sad events won’t surprise anyone over the age of 5. Moana and Maui’s rocky relationship are highlighted by ups and downs that I would warmly describe as haphazardly predicable . Yet the production is carried out in such a proficient manner that the appropriation is still incredibly entertaining. The soundtrack is filled with one transcendent song after another. The animation is vibrant and appealing. The evocation of paradise is stunningly beautiful. Even the water is a translucent character that protects our young hero. Her pets, a pig (Puanani Cravalho) and a rooster (Alan Tudyk), each provide wonderful comic relief. Moana happily employs an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mentality that includes the sum total of what makes a Disney film entertaining.  You want colorful animation, music, sidekicks, a comic villain, humor, a moral?  Well how about an army cuddly cute coconut warriors?  You get all that and more and it’s skillfully presented in an artistically appealing way.

11-22-16

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on November 21, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver4_zpsqgp7sexh.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s been 5 years since the Harry Potter series ended in 2011. That saga may be over and done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t revisit the world. In 2001, J.K. Rowling published what was purportedly one of Harry Potter’s textbooks from Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. The plotless tome was attributed to one Newt Scamander. He’s a wizard with special knowledge in magical creatures. From that slender 128-page volume comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Four additional sequels are in the works as well. Harry Potter addicts, come get your fix!

Fantastic Beasts is actually set in a time well before a lad named Harry Potter ever even existed in a land far removed from the UK – New York city in the 1920s to be exact. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives there to drop off an animal that rightfully belongs in the U.S. His mysterious briefcase is actually filled with a coterie of enchanted critters. A mix-up at the bank switches his suitcase with a hapless man seeking a loan there named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As a result, some of the creatures are released into the world and it’s up to our timid hero to try and round them up. Assisting him are Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror and current member of the wizard police. There’s also her big-hearted sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).

Fantastic Beasts wastes no time in laying the groundwork for a new cast of wizards and witches. But what can you say about a film where the side characters are more interesting than the leads?  Newt is certainly a peculiar little man. He arrives with disheveled hair cascading down his forehead and a sheepish grin. Eccentric, shy, no wait, make that painfully introverted. The wizard is so soft spoken he tends to mumble his words. It’s an idiosyncratic performance and one that’s a bit hard to warm up to. I honestly couldn’t understand about half of what he said. That’s pretty frustrating when he’s the star of your picture. I wasn’t particularly taken with the businesslike personality of Porpentina either. She’s ho-hum. Her younger sister Queenie, on the contrary, is another story.  Actress Alison Sudol’s wide-eyed, Betty Boop style floozy is a joy. She is a free-spirited woman who can read minds. The singer-turned-actress is such a pleasure. Ditto her romantic rapport with wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski played by Dan Fogler. An ordinary man with no magical ability – he’s what the Brits call a “muggle”. Ah but we’re in America now so we’re told the term here is a “No-Maj”. Ok, whatever. He’s great regardless of what vocabulary you use define him. The two have palpable charisma together. Whenever they were on screen I was captivated. Can these two get a spin-off?

The leisurely paced narrative is not in a hurry to get anywhere. That’s fine because it’s the creation of a fictional world that is this production’s strong point. The meandering account is introduced when Jacob Kowalski and Newt Scamander accidentally switch luggage. The event is more of a conduit through which to introduce a menagerie of various living things that escape from his bag. I loved the Niffler. A mischievous critter that looked like a platypus but roughly the size of a mole. He’s a tiny scamp. There’s also a Bowtruckle named Pickett. He’s a pocket creature that resembled a twig-like man. Think mini-Groot from Guardian of the Galaxy. There are other animals and they’re all rendered beautifully. I don’t know if CGI is just getting better or I’ve been beaten down by such a reliance on these special effects in modern movies that I’ve just come to accept them. The phantasmagorical displays are easy on the eyes.

At best, the unfocused production is a visual delight. At worst, the dark developments are tonally odd . There’s a tiresome subplot about repressive fascists. Crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is head of an extremist group against wizards and magic. She thinks children should muzzle their magical gifts. It’s like X-Men but for toddlers. This makes them quietly go crazy. Ezra Miller is Credence Barebone, her troubled adopted son. Miller is normally a dynamic presence. I’ve enjoyed his work since the very beginning of his career. Yet here he is given little to do other than sleepwalk through the chronicle as a catatonic creep. Colin Farrell as Percival Graves is better but not by much. His poorly defined character is tasked with tracking down Newt. He changes in a way that is both confusing and dispiriting. I could say more, but I consider spoilers to be verboten.

There’s a lot to recommend. This should satisfy both Harry Potter fans and fantasy enthusiasts as well. Director David Yates is back. He brings his quirky aesthetic to this new film and the touch is welcome. He directed the last four installments of the Harry Potter series and he will direct all 5 of these films as well. On the other hand, Steve Kloves, who adapted every Potter movies except Order of the Phoenix, is only a producer here. This time the script is penned by none other than author Dame J. K. Rowling herself. This is her first screenplay. She pretty much had free reign to adapt her work any way she saw fit. We get a wandering two-hour plus movie from a meager story thread. Fantastic Beasts is a suitably accomplished escapist adventure. However the attempts to mix upbeat fantasy with something more sinister, fall flat. At best, the tale is a fanciful stroll through a dreamlike world. Nicely photographed, with a lush score and special effects galore; these all unite to create an occasionally bewitching imaginary universe.

11-18-16

Nocturnal Animals

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo nocturnal_animals_ver5_zpse44rfy9v.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWithout warning, wealthy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a letter from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He requests that she read his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he has also included in the package. This lure is merely the tantalizing set-up for a crackerjack thriller. We learn that the title was Edward’s nickname for her. In fact, the manuscript has been dedicated to Susan. As she sits down to pore over the novel in her austere modern mansion in Beverly Hills, the wicked tale unfolds before our eyes. This story within a story has painful parallels to Susan and Edward’s failed marriage in the past. Edward was a dreamer. Susan loved that about him but his need to write ultimately became a source of consternation for her. It also resonates with her current situation because her relationship with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), is also less than ideal.

Nocturnal Animals is highlighted by a colorful and diverse cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is essentially playing two roles, Susan’s ex- husband Edward Sheffield, but also Tony Hastings, the central character in the book. Tony is a gentle man driving his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip across a deserted West Texas highway late at night. Incidentally, if you think Amy Adams and Isla Fisher look alike, then you’re already making the right associations. Along the way, Tony is sucked into a nasty road rage duel with a gang of hillbilly rednecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo). These guys look more like the appropriately distressed models for a jeans ad photoshoot than country hayseeds but hey this is a Tom Ford movie after all.

The violent tale becomes uncomfortable viewing but it never ceases to be captivating. Tony is forced off the road and a confrontation ensues. The narrative also manages to feature a mesmerizing performance by the always great Michael Shannon as a detective named Bobby Andes. The juicy role couldn’t be more tailor-made for the actor. He’s certain to garner some attention come awards season. Laura Linney is briefly seen in flashback as Susan’s Dallas-rich mother complete with bouffant hair and the requisite pearls. Her one scene is memorable. Finally, I have to add, that even though the chronicle is pretty dark, Jena Malone’s cameo as Susan’s millennial gallery assistant in the present is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a film all year.

Nocturnal Animals simply oozes with cinematic style. American fashion designer Tom Ford not only directs but adapts the screenplay from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man is even more accomplished, although this production should prove to be polarizing. I mean can we talk about those opening credits? They are a veritable slap in the face.  The visuals are perplexing to say the least. There’s simply no context at first.  These images may open the film, but I still won’t spoil the surprise. I will offer that they concern a video installation on display in Susan’s gallery. If you already think modern art is crass, this won’t change your opinion. Then again, maybe the intro is a biting commentary on the contemporary art world. So many interpretations and that’s just in the first 5 minutes.

Nocturnal Animals brilliantly juggles three different realities. As Susan reads the book we jump across shifting chronologies. There’s the adventure of the text, then forward to the present and then back to her past. The novel is the nifty little suspense within the proper film. In fact, I dare say it’s the most entertaining part of the picture. The clever framing device though is a nice touch because it draws parallels to the real and invented world and invites the audience to make conclusions about Susan Morrow based on the characters within the “fictional” literary work. As the account shifts through the various timelines, we start to uncover what went wrong in Edward and Susan’s marriage.

Tom Ford’s effort is a remarkably proficient saga that spans genres. It’s both a cruel Texas crime drama as well as gauzy middle-age melodrama. It’s not important that you like these people, but you will understand them. It will engender your empathy as you react to the situation of these different individuals. It’s artful sophistication blended with ugly sadism. The mix is tonally diverse but it all makes sense right down to the conclusion. I was initially put off by the final shot. It wasn’t what I was hoping for but then as I deliberated on the piece, I realized the ending actually bested my expectations. Tom Ford has crafted a meta mystery-thriller on which to reflect.

11-04-16

Hacksaw Ridge

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on November 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hacksaw_ridge_ver2_zpshuwhy55u.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt certainly is an amusing irony that one of the most graphically violent war films ever made is in fact about a man who refused to pick up a gun. The subject of Mel Gibson’s heartfelt biography is Desmond Doss, an American pacifist who served in the U.S. Army during World War II . After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Desmond believed deeply in the cause. However, as a devout Seventh-day Adventist, he had also vowed not to take a human life.  Consequently, he decides to become a combat medic. In this manner , he could serve in a unique way. It was during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, on the island of Okinawa in 1945, that he would be put to the test. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. By the end, Desmond would save 75 soldiers all without using a gun. He later would become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor. To be fair, he didn’t refuse to wear the uniform. He was a different kind of “conscientious objector”. Desmond Ross was an unlikely hero. That makes him a powerful focus at the center of Mel Gibson’s drama.

Thou shalt not kill. Desmond Doss took the commandment seriously. His conviction was formed as a young boy growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia. In the prelude, we see the events that lead to his enlisting. While play wrestling with his sibling one day, the young lad nearly kills his brother Hal with a brick. The incident had a profound effect on him. His upbringing was one of contrasts. A religious mother (Rachel Griffiths) paired with an abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who also happened to be a veteran of World War I.  They both molded his personality.  As a young man, he meets a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and she becomes his sweetheart. They get married.

The movie is skillfully split into three parts. In part two he goes off to boot camp. It is there that he is chastised and ridiculed as a coward for refusing to carry a weapon. The ensemble highlights several soldiers that manage to stand out in brief vignettes. He faces verbal and physical attacks. Not just from his fellow soldiers, but also from his commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). They clearly try to break him. Vaughn is particularly memorable in a small part. He brands the men with nicknames like “Tex,” “Hollywood,” and “Ghoul”. Although his relentless drill sergeant is a stock character (Full Metal Jacket anyone?) Vaughn unquestionably galvanizes the narrative. It’s been years since the actor had a part this invigorating. In the final third, Desmond goes into the combat zone. Here is where the picture presents the battlefield like hell on earth – the deluge of wounded men evokes, for lack of a better word, hamburger meat. When/if you see the film you’ll understand why that description is pretty apt.

Mel Gibson isn’t one for subtlety. He paints with broad strokes, but his simplicity has an emotional component. Gibson has always been moved by blood and viscera. Whether Braveheart or Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, he uses violence like a gut punch to the psyche. And yet here the gore feels earned, almost necessary. The narrative certainly succumbs to exploitative tendencies, but only in the tertiary act. The director’s fervor is so credible the viewer is persuaded by his faith. Andrew Garfield plays the man with an aw-shucks southern mentality that makes him easy to embrace. I understood what made Desmond Doss tick. That’s a major success for any biography.

Hacksaw Ridge is unexpected. I was anticipating another “war is hell” melodrama. Yes ok, it is that. I likewise got a surprising tale of faith as well. A man whose unconventional beliefs made him a social outcast. An inspirational account of heroism presented without qualification, as simply “a true story.” Not based on. In keeping with the nature of the subject, that’s an audacious label. Over time, his determination forced people to accommodate to his eccentricities until he ultimately won them over through sheer ability. The saga of Desmond Doss is a passion project through which director Mel Gibson undoubtedly identifies with the man. The chronicle is pretty inspiring and Gibson extracts the excitement out of the drama in classic fashion. Even when he is delving in clichés, he brings such heart and intensity, you can’t help be won over.

11-06-16

Arrival

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo arrival_ver16_zpsbblz4gnr.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgOh, what hath 2001: A Space Odyssey wrought? Ever since Stanley Kubrick’s trippy, mind-expanding space adventure first unfurled back in 1968, the intersection of extraterrestrial life and the human experience at the movies has never been the same. The original set the bar inspiring a varying degree of diminishing results ever since. The latest sci-fi offering to delve into this concept is Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival featuring a screenplay adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”. Like Robert Zemeckis’ Contact or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Arrival is the “thinking man’s” alien invasion flick. Elevate your consciousness. That means expect lots of existentialist mumbo jumbo and less in the way of action or events.

Villeneuve is a category-defying filmmaker with successes in several genres including mystery (Incendies), thriller (Prisoners), psychobiological head trip (Enemy) and crime (Sicario) . His latest is an ethereal dissertation on what transpires after alien beings land on Earth. Twelve UFOs descend, hovering mysteriously in the sky. Tall, oblong shaped orbs dangling like colossal footballs over random locations across the planet. The one in the U.S. is over a field in Montana, The world is concerned. The key question must be addressed: “What is their purpose?”. In order to make contact, the U.S. Government taps Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in the starring role), a top linguist, and a theoretical scientist (Jeremy Renner in a bit part), to help them to better understand their intention. She will try and establish communication with the extraterrestrial visitors.

Somber, eerie, and virtually devoid of color, Arrival is an atmospheric mood piece that treats the landing of visitors from another planet with the graveness of a heart attack. In the first half, there are moments of dread. The circumstances hold promise for the audience like a dangling carrot tempting a mule to move forward.  Dennis Villeneuve conveys so much on a small budget.  The set design is bleak. The spaceships loom large. The tension is palpable. The life forms are called heptapods . Their presence is frightening. Like huge long-limbed spiders, they present seven squid-like tentacles that emit an inky black substance. The amorphous liquid is their written language which forms circular shapes that Dr. Banks tries to decode. How do we interpret their language? What are they trying to tell us? Are they friend or foe? It’s a captivating set-up. Dr. Banks and her operation argue over whether the information they glean should be kept private or shared with the other teams corresponding with the pods in their parts of the world. The human race stands on the precipice of a global war. Arrival is great when it’s a twisty conundrum….until it isn’t.

To its credit, Arrival eventually answers all of its questions. The problem is that when the enigma is slowly disconnected, then so is the film.  Subplots become red herrings.  The narrative isn’t ultimately preoccupied with the alien threat. It’s fascinated by how language molds who we are. The idea is that people approach the world differently because of vocabulary. Reality varies according to the linguistic tools employed. Terminology frames our understanding. Dr. Banks is changed by the experience. That’s the gist of the account, but I’ve purposefully omitted the closing truth. Your enjoyment of Arrival will derive out of how fascinating you think the final reveal is. Perhaps it will positively blow your mind. It has a philosophical gist. In keeping with the production’s chilly tone, I found the ending too dispassionate. The denouement is rather underwhelming after such a promising introduction. Denis Villeneuve has erroneously created a drama left unfulfilled.

11-10-16

Doctor Strange

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo doctor_strange_ver11_zpso25d43em.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgComic-book productions currently entertain as large a share of the overall film audience as they ever have. Moviegoers are inundated with product. This is the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) alone. I’m not even counting other features based on Marvel fiction like X-Men or Spider-Man and then there’s DC and all of its iterations. As with any series, some of it’s major (The Avengers) and some of it’s minor (Ant-Man). It’s just that there are so many origin stories. There is a template and they’re all so similar. There’s sort of a generic sameness that many of these superhero flicks fall into. The best redefine the genre and set their own course. Doctor Strange doesn’t raise the bar. However this creative fabrication does inundate the viewer with visual stimuli and to that end, the movie entertains.

Doctor Strange is thwarted by repetitive story beats. Brilliant/wealthy genius becomes helpless then discovers magical powers/suit after meeting a powerful entity. Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) are rather iconic at this point so it’s hard not to feel a little been there done that as this thin plot unfolds. In this case, our hero is an acclaimed neurosurgeon but loses the use of his hands in a car accident. He hears that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic rather than Tibetan mystic) might be able to help him and he journeys to an isolated community in the Himalayas to meet her. The Ancient One shows Dr. Stephen Strange her powers. He pleads for her instruction, and she eventually agrees, despite his arrogant disposition. Some time later, Strange encounters a sentient cape and he dons it for protection.

The accomplished cast delivers their lines with all the gravitas of a Shakespearean drama. Star Cumberbatch has the serious demeanor to make all this silliness seem thoughtful. Jedi-like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his Morpheus-like master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), stand out as well. They make their preposterous lines seem credible. But Strange’s love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), is a particularly thankless role. Granted she’s not the proverbial damsel-in-distress. In fact, she’s even less important than that stereotype because her role is completely superfluous. Elsewhere Strange has learned to spin fire circles in the air that create doorways to escape to other places. It all builds to an expected showdown between good and evil as preordained by these fables. But Strange’ character arc makes no sense. First, he’s a jerk, then suddenly he’s not. Where did his climatic act of selflessness come from? The fact that it takes place in an alternate time-loop dimension is different at least.  Points for that I guess.

Doctor Strange is a formulaic origin story with dazzling computer-generated imagery. Director Scott Derrickson adheres closely to the superhero blueprint. He makes sure to add humorous quips that are indeed genuinely funny. After he accepts a card from Mordo, Strange asks, “What’s this? My mantra?” “It’s the wi-fi password,” Mordo responds. “We’re not savages.” Where filmmaker Derrickson steps outside the box is in the hallucinogenic head trip effects. The kaleidoscopic metropolis is rendered as if designed by M.C. Escher. Master of the mystic arts, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his minions chase after Strange and Baron Mordo through 3D manipulated landscapes that delight the eye. As one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius is a stock villain. Unfortunately, he’s a snooze. His dialogues with Dr. Strange are completely ridiculous.  Virtually everything he says is gibberish, but the visuals aren’t. It’s fun to watch.  It isn’t innovative though. The Matrix or Inception did these ideas earlier and did them better. It’s still fun to look at though. Doctor Strange is a dubious trendsetter – the first MCU movie where spectacle outshines a boilerplate adventure.

11-03-16

Loving

Posted in Drama with tags on November 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo loving_zps8mwdubkg.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt almost sounds like a poetic fabrication that the last name of Mildred and Richard was Loving.  The name also serves as the film’s title. The appellation would seem a bit too precious if it weren’t simply a fact. Adding to the irony of the situation is that “one of the most iconic ad campaigns of the past 50 years” is the tourism slogan: “Virginia is for Lovers.” It wasn’t always this way. It’s probably hard for a contemporary audience to fathom, but in 1958, 24 states, Virginia among them, had what were known as anti-miscegenation laws strictly prohibiting black–white intermarriage. Until the Loving’s case in 1967, it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in some states. (Side note: the last law officially outlawing interracial marriage was repealed in Alabama in 2000.)

On July 11, 1958, newlyweds Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga ) are in their bedroom asleep when armed police officers enter their house led by Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas). The two are forcibly removed from their home and thrown into jail. Their crime? They are of different races and have gotten married. 5 weeks prior the devoted couple had decided to wed upon learning that Mildred was pregnant, Thanks to something called Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the pair had journeyed to Washington, D.C. where they were able to get married without issue.

Back in Virginia they are brought before a judge and plead guilty. In exchange for their plea, they are sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence being suspended for 25 years on condition that they leave the state. They comply and move to the District of Columbia to raise their children apart from their families who still live in Virginia. Frustrated by these restrictions, Mildred Loving writes a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This starts a chain of events that affirms their rights have been violated as set forth by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At its core, Loving is a production constructed around Loving v. Virginia, the landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court, which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet Loving subverts expectations. Rather than presenting a courtroom drama in which arguments from both sides are presented, the chronicle is brilliantly fashioned around the life of Richard and Mildred Loving. This isn’t intended as a strident issue-based sermon. It’s a gentle portrait of two people deeply committed to one another.

Director Jeff Nichols’ biggest success up until now has been the coming-of-age tale Mud, a fable that got its official release in 2013. A civil rights piece like Loving might not seem like the most logical subject for the helmer of Take Shelter and Midnight Special, but it is his most obvious bid for mainstream recognition.   The subject turns out to be a nice fit.  It would have been very easy to allow the inherent soap opera of the happenings to descend into melodrama. Instead, writer/director Nichols allows the circumstances to speak for themselves. He sidesteps explicit commentary from the principal actors. This allows the weight of the composition to unfold honestly. Adam Stone’s gorgeous cinematography and David Wingo’s luscious score only underscore these truths.

At the core of Loving are two performances that are flawlessly executed. Joel Edgerton as Richard is not the civil crusader you might expect. He’s strong but quiet, almost stoic, a man who is ill-at-ease with the prospect of becoming famous. Yet his affection for his wife remains his strongest weapon. His late-in-the-film declaration brought tears to my eyes. In contrast, Ruth Negga as Mildred is the one who starts things in motion. She too is a reserved, almost mousy woman who appears to softly defer to her husband one moment but then takes charge of the situation the next. A phone call from Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), the ACLU lawyer assigned to their case, shows her at first hesitant and then decisive. Ruth is emboldened by the chance to better her family’s life. An ordinary woman driven to do extraordinary things. In fact, the duo shows such restraint that their lack of ferocity can be a bit surprising. These two are the least revolutionary types you could possibly imagine and yet their actions changed the fabric of the nation. That’s kind of inspiring. It gives hope to the masses because it means anyone can make a difference. The emotion is intimate and the humanity present within their circumstances becomes more palpable. Sometimes a revolution doesn’t start with a bang.

10-30-16

Moonlight

Posted in Drama with tags on November 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo moonlight_ver2_zps1ikgsjbr.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgComing-of-age tales are so often fraught with cliches that the very label is almost a disservice to films saddled with the description. The common details that unite one coming-of-age story with another are a bit ambiguous. They often concern a central figure who begins as a youth and reaches adulthood by the end. In that sense, Moonlight would appear to be another one of these sagas. Yet what Moonlight does is so dazzling in its construction that it becomes a revelation of truth. In presenting this memoir, legitimate drama is extracted from deceptively simple components that coalesce into a singular vision. This stunningly complex dissection of a life lived is breathtaking.

At the most basic level, this account is a character study about a man named Chiron (pronounced shy-RONE). We follow him through a triptych in which the lead is portrayed by three unique actors in his biography. In the first segment, Chiron is an 11-year-old, played by Alex Hibbert. He’s nicknamed “Little” because of his shy and meek nature. Bullied by the local kids, he is a somber individual affected by a challenging urban environment. He does not receive comfort from his emotionally cold mother (Naomie Harris in all three sections of the chronicle). However, he is befriended by a neighborhood crack dealer (Mahershala Ali in a charismatic performance) who nurtures the boy. Additionally, Little also relies on his friendship with best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner). In part two Chiron is now realized by actor Ashton Sanders. We follow Chiron as a teenager in high school. His close friendship with Kevin still persists. Yet everything in his life has become intensified and more complicated. This episode culminates in a life altering event. The final segment has Chiron now as an adult (played by Trevante Rhodes). Chiron currently goes by “Black”, a nickname Kevin gave to him when they were teens. His current situation is presented as it is now and we see how things have influenced his development.

Barry Jenkins is a thoughtful director. His debut was Medicine for Melancholy, a well-received, low-budget independent feature released way back in 2008. It has taken a whopping eight years for his follow-up feature. The wait has been worth it. Moonlight is his masterpiece. Like the protagonist of Moonlight, Jenkins also grew up poor in the Miami housing projects of Liberty City. It’s a region Jenkins knows well, but his adapted screenplay is actually based on someone else’s experience from the same area. In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Although neither writer knew the other in their childhood, the two actually grew up just a few blocks from each other.  As any child who has ever been bullied knows, there is a pecking order on the playground. Children detect what they perceive as weakness in their peers. They often seize on these qualities and exploit them in various ways that can undermine a child’s life. Sensitivity is considered being “soft” and that is a most undesirable quality as determined by young male peers.

Director Barry Jenkins takes his time constructing a narrative, slowly giving details that subtly pop up later in his story. It’s a visual tableau utilizing color and contrast to create a distinct aesthetic for each of the three chapters. In this way, Jenkins imbues his rough, urban landscape with a gorgeous poetic sheen. The atmosphere has an increasingly dreamlike state. It’s a leisurely paced drama where silence speaks volumes. It’s a meditative reflection where moody rhythms percolate beneath the protagonist’s circumstances. Jenkins touches on poverty, race, gender, sexuality, masculinity and identity. None of this is overt, but rather develops organically as it would when fulfilling one’s own life. Jenkins inspires many questions: Who are we as a person? Are we the product of our environment? Can we rise above these obstacles? How do these events shape us into the adult we become? There are many more. Some appear to have answers. Others are open to interpretation. Chiron’s experiences will touch each viewer in different ways that will encourage reflection for days afterward. His struggle may not be yours. However, it still involves the combustible components that are part of every human endeavor. In this way, Jenkins imparts a movie that speaks for all humanity.

10-28-16

The Birth of a Nation

Posted in Biography, Drama on October 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin


 photo birth_of_a_nation_zpsayzjohqa.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJust based on the title alone, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation might appear to be a remake of the infamous 1915 silent directed by D.W. Griffith. That picture, though financially successful, was highly controversial upon release and remains so to this day. Though hailed as a masterpiece for its revolutionary filmmaking techniques, it was also criticized as racist propaganda. A highly inflammatory piece of agitprop, the chronicle embraced the Southern cause in the Civil War and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. Hard to fathom in this day and age, but this was a perspective that saw the abolitionist movement as destructive to the fabric of southern society. By “re-purposing” the title of that notorious achievement, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation also seeks to stir controversy. It is a subversive choice. This drama is a response of sorts, but from the viewpoint of one slave, Nat Turner.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was an African American who led a rebellion of fellow slaves and free blacks on August 21, 1831. The uprising in Southampton County, Virginia lasted about 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people. The biography portrays his life. As a child, he displays a self-taught reading ability that impresses his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). She encourages his desire to read, but only from the Bible. As Nat grows older, he becomes a dynamic preacher. When his talents are recognized by white men, he is exploited into performing a role that will eventually change him. Turner’s master (Armie Hammer) profits by taking Nat across the country on a preaching tour to other slaves. We see how the word of God is manipulated to condone slavery. His sermons are meant to quell the workers and keep them in line. Nat’s facility with the Bible grows. He learns that for every line that appears to justify the practice, there is another that soundly condemns it. In his travels, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery, and his experience compels him to become a different kind of leader.

Nat receives preferential treatment for his work, but you can see his anger seething within. The Birth of a Nation is highlighted by some memorable images. The sight of a white girl and a black girl at play with a rope around the latter’s neck is a shocking image that jolts the viewer. When one slave refuses to eat, the horrific solution is too harrowing to even describe here.  An attack on Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is the defining moment that ultimately drives him to action. A quiet performance, actor Nate Parker often lets his face do the talking. He progressively realizes he is being used as a tool by white southerners to subjugate black slaves. Throughout the film, he often registers this through facial expressions and not words. His acting is a triumph of composed rage.

The Birth of a Nation is fashioned as a tale of revenge. It’s a difficult watch. The narrative dedicates very little time to the revolt itself. Instead it mostly dwells on the build-up of appalling events to which Nat Turner is a witness. The events have a galvanizing effect on him. He is transformed from a peaceful preacher into an angry rebel leading the downtrodden into an insurrection. Like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, there is no shortage of atrocities presented on screen. It becomes so relentless that by the end of the picture, you’re so primed to see the oppressed rise up against their captors that the mutiny becomes a catharsis. As such, The Birth of a Nation is not a “slave” movie per se, but a “soldier” movie.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful work, but it’s a disturbing one as well. As a document that challenges racism and white supremacy, it is most assuredly a step in the right direction. Nat Turner was hanged and given no formal burial. We are told (not shown) that he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Soon after his death, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. If you thirst for more of his story, I would suggest that. This film functions as a cinematic memorial that celebrates his memory. It also recounts a historical event and honors the legacy of Nat Turner. He was an early champion of civil rights – in a not-so-civil manner. He deserves a biography. Yet his story is told in broad strokes with plot points invented for dramatic effect (i.e.  Nat Turner’s wife was never gang raped by slave patrollers.  Nor was it the final inhumanity that inspired him to riot). It’s an emotional experience but not necessarily a wholly factual one.

The Birth of a Nation originally debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to thunderous applause and much acclaim back in January 2016. I will attest that it is is indeed a thought-provoking work. However in the ensuing months, rape allegations against the director have hung over this feature like a dark cloud. The Birth of a Nation has gone from “can’t-miss” to “should-miss”.  It tanked at the box office. I’m not here to tell you whether you should see this movie or not. That’s up to you. I can only give my opinion so that you can make an informed decision. Personally, I try to separate the art from the artist. I’ll admit it’s not always easy to do. Here I’ve chosen to review the film itself and in that spirit, I believe the message is worth your time.

10-08-16