The Irishman

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on December 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

irishmanSTARS4The Irishman has been a labor of love 10 years in the making for Marin Scorsese.  What’s not to like?  You’ve got an esteemed filmmaker working within his wheelhouse of gangster movies.  This is a genre the filmmaker does very well.  Despite the superlatives you may have heard, it’s not his best work, but it is still very compelling.

The Irishman highlights a trio of great performances.  There’s the irresistible opportunity to watch Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci reunite with director Martin Scorsese.  They last worked together in Casino.  Now let’s add Al Pacino to the cast, an actor who has surprisingly never worked with Scorsese.   The chronicle is a sprawling epic about Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who was an American labor union official.  The story is told from his insider’s point of view as we follow his trajectory from World War II veteran to truck driver to hitman for the Philly mob and eventual union leader.  His personality is focused and driven in brutal behavior but oddly detached.  He has very little qualms about his murderous actions.

Sheeran meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family.  Joe Pesci is back in his first major screen role in almost a decade.  Here he gives a very un-Pesci like performance.  He made a name for himself playing flamboyant individuals in Goodfellas, Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny and Lethal Weapons 2,3, & 4.  Here he subverts expectations with his understated display.  He’s reserved but powerful.  There’s a subtle brilliance to the performance.  Bufalino subsequently introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the forceful President of the Teamsters Union.  For me, this is where the production really takes off.  Once Al Pacino shows up portraying the labor union leader, the film gets its focus.  He is unquestionably the MVP of this production.  The chronicle becomes more engaging, particularly in the last hour where it builds to its conclusion.

The Irishman presents itself as a narrative account of history.  The movie is a fascinating tale that begins with Frank Sheeran as an old man reflecting on the details of his life.  Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts the drama based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by investigator Charles Brandt.  The book was based on his interviews with Frank Sheeran.  Given its $150 million budget, this is Martin Scorsese’s most expensive production.  For that you can thank costly CGI that de-ages these septuagenarians over the course of their lives.  Much has been written about this decision.  I noticed it at first, then accepted the technique after a while.  It was never an issue after that.  I don’t see it as any different than using prosthetics and makeup to artificially age an actor.  It’s just that we now have the technology to this in reverse.  Having these three actors playing the same role over the course of a lifetime gives their characters an added weight and poignancy.  That emotional gravitas wouldn’t have been present if distinct actors had been cast at various stages.  It adds to the extensive, all-encompassing nature of the saga.

The narrative recounts the events over 50 years.  Whether Sheeran’s confessions are the gospel truth is certainly up for debate, but they do make a gripping — albeit taxing — tale.  Given its three and a half hours, the aggressive runtime puts this squarely in the company of legendary works like Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.  Those films justified their extreme length in a way that this film does not.  I blame lots of little extended comedic vignettes that pop up occasionally.  While amusing, the inclusion of so many doesn’t vindicate the extended runtime.  However I still highly recommend this feature.

How you watch this movie will undoubtedly affect your enjoyment.  In the past, cinema of this length was originally shown with an intermission.   When The Irishman received a limited theatrical release on November 1, 2019, it was exhibited with no break whatsoever.  Then it was subsequently made available on digital streaming through Netflix on November 27,  less than a month later.  I saw The Irishman on Netflix which is appropriate.   That’s how the majority of the world will see this film.  My experience was not confined to a seat for nearly four hours but rather over the span of two nights where I had the option of using a pause button.  Seeing it at home provides the freedom to use the restroom, grab something to eat, or the opportunity to confirm just how many gangster movies Marin Scorsese has actually directed.*   I thoroughly enjoyed it in that way.

11-27-19

* It’s six by the way (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Irishman).

Knives Out

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 3, 2019 by Mark Hobin

knives_out_ver13STARS3.5At first glance, Knives Out would appear to be a retro throwback to the classic whodunit-style mysteries that Agatha Christie wrote.  Additionally, it appears to suggest the kind of thrillers that made Hitchcock famous.  That certainly raises the bar with me.  I adore both of those things and so I was primed to enjoy this.  Filmmaker Rian Johnson both writes and directs this feature, which is something he has always done on his films.  He also serves as a producer for the first time.  He’s a clever individual.  Perhaps too clever.  By that, I mean that the production is extremely meta.  It’s fully aware of TV shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote as well as movies like Sleuth, Deathtrap, and Clue.  Rian wants to exploit that knowledge but subvert the audience’s expectations at the same time.

Knives Out is unquestionably a fun film.  It flies by over its extended 130-minute running time.  The production design is a character in itself.  The setting is a palatial Victorian mansion in Massachusetts.  This allows us to have the most amazing art direction.  This includes quirky antiques, weird sculptures, giant paintings, bear rugs, and an impressive knife collection that is arranged as a huge circle that looks like a halo pointing at the head of anyone who steps in front of it.  Never underestimate the power of an exquisite estate.  The digs are pretty swanky and the gorgeous environment infuses the trappings with enough style to gloss over any lulls in the chatty proceedings.

The production is distinguished by a charismatic cast.  There’s the murder victim Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  A trio arrives to investigate: two police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and more importantly, one private detective portrayed by Daniel Craig.  He’ll take center stage in the investigation.  He chews the scenery with a ridiculous accent as Detective Benoit Blanc to learn the truth.  His animated vocal inflections call to mind Foghorn Leghorn — that larger than life cartoon rooster.  I say boy I say… I do declare that his performance is an enjoyable display.

There’s also a colorful house of suspects which include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette.  They’re all great in their own unique ways but I could watch Toni Collette read the phone book and appreciate her oratory skills.  Here she’s portraying a Paltrow-esque head of a beauty company called Flam.  Later Chris Evans shows up performing the part of a villainous playboy named Hugh Ransom Drysdale.  He seizes our attention playing a spoiled brat in his luxurious white cable knit sweater.  I don’t know if a movie can get an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design simply based on an article of clothing but given the buzz on social media, this film could set a precedent.  Ana de Armas is the acting newcomer as Harlan Thrombey’s nurse.  Her immigrant status is a very calculated and conscious choice to suit the political zeitgeist in 2019.  Regardless, she solidly holds her own in a pivotal role amidst a much more experienced cast.

Rian Johnson is keen on undermining expectations.  He deconstructs the whodunit in a way that plays with convention.  It’s not just about who did it, but also why and how.  These tidbits are revealed in a way that feels like the script is oh-so-very pleased with itself.  It’s snarky and knowing.  I suppose this is obligatory in 2019.  We have to up our game to account for our modern sensibility.  What I expected and what I got were somewhat different things.  You ultimately have to ask yourself this question: Does Rian Johnson’s vision improve upon the time-honored sophistication of a straight-ahead mystery?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s offbeat.  Although it’s hard to warmly embrace the smug self-satisfaction that emanates from the proceedings.  Still, I admire the unconventionality of a winking screenplay so beautifully dressed up in a lavish production.

11-22-19

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

beautiful_day_in_the_neighborhoodSTARS3Fred Rogers was an American icon.  He hosted Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a TV show directed at preschool-aged children.  Considering both the movie poster and the title, you’d think that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would be about that man.  You’d be wrong and that idiosyncrasy is what makes this production so strange.  This is, in fact, a story about a cynical somewhat misanthropic journalist named Lloyd Vogel portrayed by Matthew Rhys (FX TV’s The Americans) as seen through the eyes of American children’s host Mister Rogers played by Tom Hanks.

Lloyd Vogel works for Esquire magazine and he’s been assigned to do a profile on Mister Rogers that he doesn’t want to do. Incidentally, Vogel is based on a very real journalist named Tom Junod who wrote an article entitled “Can You Say…Hero?” published in November of 1998.  Lloyd isn’t a happy man and much of the drama explains why he is the way he is.  We are introduced to the various people in his family, his personable wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), their baby son Gavin and Lloyd’s father Jerry (Chris Cooper).  Mister Rogers assumes the role of a therapist to the writer as he tries to gently help him repair the damaged relationship that he has with his dad.

Tom Hanks is America’s sweetheart, sort of a modern-day James Stewart and watching him portray Mister Rogers is odd because he’s so famous that it is impossible for him to disappear into the role.  Hanks doesn’t look like the actual man either.  Although he does affect his beatific demeanor.  It’s a peculiar performance that has received critical acclaim but it left me cold.  He seems almost alien or otherworldly.  Fred Rodgers was unquestionably a unique personality but at least his singularly placid disposition felt natural.  Hanks’ movements, in contrast, are jerkier and appear like studied behavioral traits.  He’s so affected that the demonstration becomes an amiable parody rather than a manifestation of the individual.

Like the man himself, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is supremely gentle and restrained.  I was fascinated by how passive the whole exercise was.  Visually the feature is enchanting.  Production designer Jade Healy has used miniatures to recreate cityscapes and little vehicles like jets taking off to signify when people travel.  This mimics the look and feel of his original children’s TV program.  The set of the TV show Fred Rogers occupied is perfectly recreated at WQED in Pittsburgh, where the original series was filmed.  The “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” also makes an appearance.  This fictional kingdom populated by hand puppets is beautifully brought to life.

Director Marielle Heller is a talented filmmaker responsible for the audacious The Diary of a Teenage Girl and the even more accomplished Can You Ever Forgive Me?  I am a fan. Here she makes a lot of creative decisions that are easy to admire but hard to enjoy.  The fragments fixated on Mister Rogers are fascinating because he’s an interesting man.  The portions centered on the inaccessible Lloyd Vogel aren’t compelling.  His transformative journey goes exactly to the place to which I expected.  The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster triggered unexpected flashbacks to when I saw Julie & Julia a decade ago.  When the comedic drama featured Julia Child the chef, it was a delight.  When Julie Powell the blogger became the focus, it was significantly less so.  Likewise, Fred Rogers is inherently appealing.   When the film concentrates on him it’s captivating.  Unfortunately, this is a biography about Lloyd Vogel.

11-21-19

Frozen 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on November 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

frozen_two_ver8STARS3.5Truth be told, I enjoyed Frozen just fine in 2013, but I didn’t think it was the be all and end all of animated cinema.  I was in the minority because somehow it ended up making $1.2 billion worldwide and winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  I was rooting for Despicable Me 2 that year incidentally and yes I’m 100% serious.  Now we have Frozen 2, a sequel to the Disney megahit.  Coming on the heels of Ralph Breaks the Internet, I suspect that Disney is in the early stages of producing many followups to their successful properties.  Pixar has been doing this for years.  I could be snarky and say you could almost throw anything up there on the screen and it would be a hit but the filmmakers didn’t play it safe.  They have put in considerable work to deepen the drama with a complicated backstory.  I appreciate the attempt, but it’s an effort that feels unnecessary.

Before we get to the adventure, however, let’s starts with the basics.  It’s not hard to see how Frozen 2 checks off the ingredients in a recipe: bring back familiar personalities we know, introduce new characters which can be marketed as great toys, pre-package girl power messaging and highlight a musical with original show tunes.  Not a problem.  I was prepared for that.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) return.   A magic water horse called the Nokk, a cute salamander named Bruni and a family of giant rock monsters are newly added merchandising opportunities.  It also grants us an entire soundtrack of new songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  There seems to be some debate, but I contend that “Show Yourself” is the one designed to mimic “Let it Go” musically and visually in the film.  “Into the Unknown” is the ballad they’re pushing as the hit though.  The best ditty, however, is not when the soundtrack is trying to rewrite the melodies from the previous chapter.   It happens when our expectations are subverted.  Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) 80s influenced “Lost in the Woods” is the greatest power pop ballad that REO Speedwagon never sang.

More isn’t always better.  The story presented here proves that.  Sometimes more is just more.  The chronicle is a needlessly convoluted fantasy with more subplots.  It offers answers for questions you never thought to ask but are going to receive anyway.  Some people will adore that level of mythology.  Are you one of those people?  You have to ask yourself this question: What do you require of a cartoon?  If simplicity and clarity are what you crave, you are likely to be a bit perplexed by the elaborate exposition.  However, if you prefer more legends and fabrications, then your curiosity will be satiated.  You’re going to get a lot of expounding.  For example, the narrative will produce explanations as to why Elsa has magical abilities, and what happened to her and Anna’s parents.  I didn’t need that level of detail, but thanks for the info…I guess.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough.  The production is beautifully animated and features some nice music.  It’s a formula but it’s a formula that works.  Frozen 2 did $127 million in the U.S. during its opening weekend so be ready to take your children to a movie they will beg you to see.  That is if you haven’t seen it already.

11-21-19

Ford v Ferrari

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama with tags on November 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ford_v_ferrariSTARS4There’s something refreshingly retro about Ford v. Ferrari.  A traditional well-written tale about fast cars, friendships among men and their competitive spirit.  It’s the type of macho entertainment that used to feature actors like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, and James Garner.  The pictures made beaucoup bucks at the box office and still managed to get a nomination or two at the Academy Awards.  That just may happen again this year because audiences have embraced this (A+ Cinemascore), critics truly love it (92% on RT) and Oscar pundits are all abuzz.  I’m truly delighted by its popularity because I agree.  This is an enjoyable movie.

Ford v Ferrari is set in the 1960s and that time-honored sensibility makes this chronicle feel like it was made in the same period.  The saga centers on two charismatic individuals whose chemistry together sells the entire film.  There’s Matt Damon who plays Carroll Shelby, an American automotive designer and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, an English race car driver.  Together they work for the Ford Motor Company in its effort to beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race.  A cantankerous relationship is stirred between Ford and Ferrari.  This is created when the vice president, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), has a meeting in Italy with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone).  There’s a variety of other assorted developments that lay the groundwork in the beginning.  It takes nearly an hour in this 152-minute production to get to the proper story.  However, every minute feels necessary because it makes what happens later that much more emotionally compelling.

There is such irony (and genuine hubris) in casting a mammoth American entity like Ford as an underdog David while portraying the significantly smaller Italian Ferrari company as the arrogant and conceited Goliath that must be defeated.  Perhaps that’s why it’s called Ford v. Ferrari in the U.S. but Le Mans ’66 everywhere else in the world.  That rivalry means more here I suppose.  However, there’s also conflict within the Ford team.  This sets up Ford as this bureaucratic corporation represented by a lot of men in suits.  The key figures are represented by CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas ) a Ford executive who insidiously becomes more of an antagonist than their fellow racing competitors.

The antagonism between Ford and Ferrari is less interesting than the battle of wills between Ford the corporation vs. Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles.  The two mavericks are trying to support a company that runs on committee.  Shelby and Miles appear to be quick-witted experts when it comes to decision making.  I have no idea whether the actual men behaved as they are portrayed here, but their interactions are extremely fascinating to watch.  Together these two actors give colorful performances that bring these personalities to life.  Ken Miles is quite a character and Christian Bale’s achievement is especially noteworthy.  Director James Mangold and Bale have an established rapport having worked together before on 3:10 to Yuma.  They clearly bring out the best in each other.

This is the ultimate Dad movie.  It’s a conventional tale about manly things.  Furthermore, it features Miles’ close relationship with his son Peter (Noah Jupe).  Their bond is a key component and a true source of emotional depth.  Sometimes true life is stranger than fiction.  The account details one development that had me consulting the history books.  I had to verify that what I saw really happened.  I like pictures that do that although situations in real life don’t always play out in a way that is as satisfying.  Nevertheless, we are still presented with some of the best car racing car sequences ever put on film.  They’re perfectly edited pieces of thrills bursting with loud and adrenaline-fueled excitement.  Special mention to editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland who know how to edit an action sequence to maximum effect.  The racing scenes are spectacular but in the end, it’s the performances that make this drama transcendent.  This classic narrative beautifully highlights male camaraderie.  It has all the qualities of a bygone era but it’s old fashioned in the best sense of the word.  It’s the human element that provides the most sparks.

11-14-19

Doctor Sleep

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2019 by Mark Hobin

doctor_sleep_ver2STARS3Doctor Sleep vacillates between trying to please two factions.  Some audiences will come for the adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel which the author wrote as a sequel to his 1977 bestseller The Shining.  Then there are the fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie that arguably has an even more devoted following.  King himself was famously not a fan of Kubrick’s vision.  The now-classic was a gorgeous evocation of horror that relied on visual imagery, not on detailed explanations.  Conversely, Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) has directed an account that offers a lot of exposition for people hungry for answers.  This chronicle is more plot-driven with lots of folklore to deepen your understanding of what “shining” is.  Doctor Sleep tries to schizophrenically appease both camps.

The story concerns Danny Torrance, now Dan, (Ewan McGregor), best remembered as the little clairvoyant son of his mad father, Jack.  He has become an alcoholic, desperate to forget the events at the Overlook hotel.  He comforts the terminally ill while working at a hospice where the patients give him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”.  He meets another psychic, a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and they band together to fight a malevolent clan called the True Knot.  The group is killing children with special powers and feeding off the steam that they emit.  It’s just as gruesome as it sounds and there’s one death in particular (Jacob Tremblay) that is extremely hard to watch.  I suspect the methodical depiction of what befalls him could be a deal-breaker for some people.  A couple of other individuals with close relationships will be introduced and then summarily killed off as well.  The tale has an uncomfortable disregard for the lives of characters whose deaths should mean more than just another offhand development.

This presentation is largely missing the stately grandeur of its precursor.  So in that respect, it will not appease the die-hards of Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric reworking.  However, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who thought Kubrick’s version should’ve adhered closer to King’s original text.  If you crave exposition and plot, this is the production for you.  It’s a convoluted follow-up that attempts to give lots of unnecessary details about Dan’s extrasensory “shining” power.  The bulk of the narrative isn’t a continuation of the events from the first film but rather a saga about what Dan encounters after he grew up.   The focus is on his interactions with the True Knot, the aforementioned nomadic group of evil visionaries.  In that sense, Doctor Sleep becomes a superhero origin story of nefarious mutants with psychic powers and goofy names.  There’s Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken) and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), among others.

Doctor Sleep is a mixed bag.  It ultimately can’t escape the shadow of the 1980 film.  “This also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining,” director Mike Flanagan has said.  He leans heavily on imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation in several key scenes, particularly in the third act.  This might have been more thrilling if Steven Spielberg hadn’t already exploited the same iconography in 2018 with Ready Player One.  There are roughly 30 minutes of developments that include sets that tastefully recreate the Overlook Hotel.  Additionally, lookalike actors are cast playing the parts of Dan’s younger self (Roger Dale Floyd), his parents Wendy (Alex Essoe) and Jack (Henry Thomas) and Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) the cook.  When this appropriates the visuals of its predecessor, it can be distracting.  Also, at 2 and a half hours it’s far too long.  Nevertheless, this movie has some good points.  Chief among them is Rebecca Ferguson who is great as the central villain Rose the Hat.  True to her moniker, she wears a top hat and exudes this Stevie Nicks vibe of beautiful witchery.  She clearly enjoys the fun of being the baddie and its a compelling performance.  When Doctor Sleep isn’t overly wrapped up in mythology and explanation and simply focuses on the performances of the main characters, it can be fitfully entertaining.

11-07-19

Jojo Rabbit

Posted in Comedy, Drama, War with tags on November 11, 2019 by Mark Hobin

jojo_rabbit_ver2STARS4.5You wouldn’t think a comedy about a pro-Nazi boy that looks upon Adolph Hitler as a hero would be one of the most heartwarming movies of the year, but Jojo Rabbit has proven otherwise.  The inspiration for the adaptation is based upon the 2008 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.  Charlie Chaplin found humor in the Third Reich with The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks did the same with The Producers.  Now writer/director Taika Waititi just may have joined their ranks with equally successful results.  I loved this film and I’m happy to say it’s one of the very best of 2019.

Jojo Rabbit is the saga of a 10-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler.  People call him “Jojo”.  He lives in Nazi Germany during WW2 and he idolizes Adolf Hitler.  So much so that he has created an imaginary friend in him to whom he often speaks.  It’s a childlike interpretation that doesn’t fully comprehend the true nature of the dictator.  Coming to terms with that realization is the underlying basis of this drama.  It’s a comedy so the character of the Führer, played by the director, Taika Waititi, is a sillier, less serious version of him.  The filmmaker himself identifies as a Polynesian Jew so therein lies the subversive nature of this casting.

Jojo Rabbit is an affectionate account of a little boy who wants to be a part of something bigger than himself.  He attends a Hitler youth club that offers boys the validating camaraderie of a scout troop.  Meanwhile, the girls are taught the value of domestic servitude.  One day Jojo is tested on his commitment by his superior who commands him to kill a rabbit.  His inability to execute this task earns him his nickname.  Then after a grenade mishap, he is unable to continue to serve in the group.  Obviously, a child who idolizes Adolf Hitler would normally be a difficult personality to engage an audience’s sympathies.  Part of what sells the movie is the elemental compassion of young actor Roman Griffin Davis as the titular star.  He gives a brilliant performance that manages to make the character seem lovable and yet misguided.

The drama is highlighted by a stellar supporting cast.  First and foremost I must cite juvenile actor Archie Yates, the breakout star who plays Yorki, Jojo’s best friend. He’s an adorable scene stealer. Throughout the story, Jojo keeps a diary of his thoughts and we become aware of these reflections in a key scene when Jojo is confronted by an intimidating Gestapo agent played by Stephen Merchant (HBO’s Extras).  Merchant has never been more terrifying.  Jojo’s fanaticism is not shared by his single mother.  Rosie is lovingly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in a small but important role.  She must keep her anti-Nazi feelings under wraps for fear of reprisal.  Sam Rockwell is also memorable as the Hitler Youth leader Captain “K” Klenzendorf who trains boys to hunt and throw grenades.  One day Jojo meets Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teen.  Their developing relationship is captivating.

Truth be told, I was already predisposed to love this picture.  I am a fan of director Taika Waititi.  His off-kilter but thoughtful sensibilities agree with my own.   Waititi has demonstrated a whimsical flair for humor with a filmography composed of fastidiously produced productions that are obsessively meticulous with visual details.  These include What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  Taika Waititi’s painstaking aesthetic is often compared to the work of Wes Anderson.  Moonrise Kingdom is clearly an influence here because the Hitler youth rally here bears a striking similarity to the Khaki Scout summer camp.  However, Taika Waititi is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. He has been creating pictures like this since the very beginning with his debut feature Eagle vs Shark in 2007.  Waititi has a point of view uniquely his own.  His handling of this material deftly combines real genuine heartbreak with lighthearted glee in a film about Nazis. This is one of the most beautifully realized stories of the year.

People have labeled this as satire but that really isn’t correct.  It certainly is a farce about deadly serious things.  It’s clearly anti-Nazi and anti-hate but the filmmaker’s angle is much more open and straightforward without the latent snark and sarcasm that satire requires.  The movie actually succeeds because of that sincerity.  Jojo Rabbit is a tale about humanity that manages to be an affecting, funny, dramatic and poignant depiction.  I was completely overcome with emotion at one point.  The moment occurs when Jojo is tying someone’s shoes.  When you see the drama you’ll understand why that image is so heartbreaking.  I’ve enjoyed every single production that Taika Waititi has directed but this is possibly his greatest work.

11-01-19

Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

terminator_dark_fate_ver3STARS3The story in a nutshell: a malevolent Terminator is sent from the future to terminate a woman from the present. It is believed she will be the mother of a resistance leader in the war against the machines.  The resistance also sends somebody back to fight that Terminator.

There are 2 ways to watch this production.  With your arms folded as you realize the plot is nearly a carbon copy of the original film or with relief that the story in a Terminator movie is actually more concerned with extracting humanity and emotion from a simplified screenplay than special effects.  Deadpool director Tim Miller is at the helm and he mostly keeps things moving.  Although the screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does sag in the middle.  What could have been a brisk efficient 98-minute actioner is stretched to an interminable 128 minutes.  The action sequences are indeed good.  I just didn’t need so many.

Terminator: Dark Fate is the 6th entry in this series.  Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron (Titanic) and Gale Anne Hurd created the franchise back in 1984 with The Terminator.  Then came Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991.  I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, some time passed and then we got this installment in 2019.  I’m ignoring 3 other sequels and James Cameron has wisely decided to do the same.  He’s gotten involved in the franchise for the first time since T2 and has relegated entries 3 through 5 as part of some alternate universe.  Also reuniting after 28 years are Arnold Schwarzenegger as T-800 and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor.

Let’s not underestimate the sheer joy of rejoining these two on-screen.  OK, so the producers have decided to introduce a whole new cast as well.  I won’t discount the contributions of characters Grace (Mackenzie Davis) the modified human-cyborg sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) from evil Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).  Incidentally, the advanced Rev-9 can separate the skin from its body and act as two units at once.  I guess that’s what passes for innovation in this screenplay.  It was a little confusing at first because I don’t recall an explanation in the movie as to why he was doing this.  It just sort of happens.

The new additions to the cast are serviceable, but the real spotlight belongs to seeing Linda Hamilton again and to a lesser extent, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Yes, their relationship arc admittedly copies what happens in T2 but that was nearly 3 decades ago.   I think enough time has passed that you can now choose to label their interaction as an homage.   Linda Hamilton is especially good.  She adopts this world-weary “seen it all before” persona.   She’s so grizzled and tough that the portrayal almost borders on parody.   I enjoyed her much in the same way it was nice having Jaime Lee Curtis return in the Halloween movie from 2018.  That follow-up also chose to ignore a collection of inferior sequels too so it’s very similar in spirit to this film.  Still, did we really need a sixth chapter in the Terminator franchise?  Simply put, no.  However, this is the best entry since T2 so there’s that.  It could’ve been a lot worse.

10-31-19

Parasite

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Thriller with tags on October 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

parasite_ver2STARS4Over the past decade, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival hasn’t exactly set the U.S. box office on fire.  You have to go back to 2011 just to find a Palme d’Or winner that made over $10 million (The Tree of Life).  That low bar will most certainly be crushed this year by a South Korean entry that is arguably the festival’s most accessible winner since Pulp Fiction.  Internationally Parasite has become a box office sensation and it’s likely to become a U.S. success also.

The Kims are a South Korean family of four consisting of Dad Ki-taek ( Song Kang-ho ) mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik who was also in Okja) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam).  They’re very poor.  They live in a small dark underground apartment where stink bugs dwell and a local drunk frequently relieves himself within full view of their tiny window.  They have a tiresome job folding pizza boxes and they steal Wi-Fi from their neighbors.  Well, that is until the nearby residents change the password.

Their fortunes begin to change when a school chum of Ki-woo, recommends him as a substitute tutor for the high school daughter of the affluent Park household.  Ki-woo cons his way through the interview with fake teaching papers.  The mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) is impressed and soon he’s charmed Mrs. Park into hiring his sister Ki-jung as an art teacher for their little boy.  That’s merely the beginning.  One by one the rest of the Kim clan begins working for the well-to-do Park family who have no clue that each additional hire is actually related.  It’s a home invasion of sorts but one where the owners are willing — albeit duped — participants.

The first half is an outstanding account of carefully laid plans.  After an hour had passed, I was convinced this was going to be the best movie of the year.  The way the Kim household ever so slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of the Parks is fascinating to watch.  It happens coincidentally at first and then as each new family member is welcomed into the fold, the Kim’s methods become more and more aggressive.  Then the original housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) returns.   From that point on the developments are somewhat less, uh shall we say, systematic.  It’s important to pay attention to the little things the wealthy Parks say and do because they will have a profound effect on the struggling Kims — the father especially.  The sad sack dad Ki-taek is portrayed by actor Song Kang-ho who is a frequent collaborator in this director’s efforts.   He’s excellent in turning in a performance that is a gradually building focus of resentment.

Parasite is a genre-shifting tale from the mind of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho who mainstream audiences may know from The Host and Snowpiercer.  It has comedy, drama, thrills, and gore.  Put simply, it’s a dark comedy about classism.  He has dealt with these themes before.  Inequality amongst different classes was a major theme of the riveting Snowpiercer so it’s clearly a topic the director is particularly fond of.  There’s a reason for this.  In the past 50 years, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest societies in the world to becoming an advanced industrialized economy.  As a result, the wealth gap there has widened exponentially.  Class warfare proves to be a gripping subject complete with wild tonal shifts and abrupt story changes.  The various plot machinations that occur can feel a bit convoluted.  The way people behave isn’t always rational either.  Still, the events are so unpredictable that they seize our attention.  It’s intriguing to see what occurs next.   No specifics though.  I wouldn’t even think of spoiling them.  I will only assert that the metaphor of upstairs/downstairs class distinctions gets more heavy-handed and therefore less clever.

What else can I say?  I’m optimistic about the Oscar chances.  South Korea has never been nominated in the Foreign Language Film category, let alone for the highest honor, Best Picture.  For the first time, a submission has the potential to compete in both.  This is a production where the joy of where the narrative will go next means I can’t give any more details.  I will offer a random but humorous aside.  At one point the Kims return home. It has been raining non-stop and they come to find their apartment flooded with rain and sewage.  Their bathroom is essentially an open toilet inexplicably mounted on a high ledge with no door to separate it from the rest of the living room.  Parasite features the most disgusting commode I can remember in a movie since Trainspotting.

The Lighthouse

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror with tags on October 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lighthouse_ver2STARS3I loved director Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch back in 2015.  His follow-up really doubles down on the lo-fi art house pretensions of his directorial debut.  Not only is it shot in black and white but it also presents a 1.19:1 aspect ratio reducing the screen down to an almost perfect square.  Furthermore, it’s another period piece this time set more than 200 years later in 1850 and it relies on the dialect and colloquialisms of the era.  Eggers co-wrote the script along with his brother Max Eggers.  The screenplay was heavily influenced by the 19th-century writings of author Sarah Orne Jewett.  The thick drawl of the dialogue can get a bit impenetrable to our 21st-century ears.  Lastly, this two-hander stars current indie idol Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis, Good Time) as well as eccentric indie notable Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project, At Eternity’s Gate).  Each actor often gravitates toward inscrutable fare.  This film is a prime example.  As two bona fide movie stars should, they fully commit to their characters by bringing their A-game.   If nothing else, their performances are intense.  It’s still a challenging watch.

The Lighthouse has been described as psychological horror which is a nice description for a movie that traffics in an unsettling milieu without actually being scary.  On the surface, it’s a story about two co-workers forced to live together in a remote lighthouse on a tiny New England island.  They’re supposed to be there for four weeks until their replacements show up.  Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are roommates that don’t get along and their deteriorating relationship is the plot.  Thomas Wake is the old salt in charge and he makes life absolutely miserable for his young protege.  For the most part, the taciturn Winslow does what he is told.  The abusive Wake burdens Winslow with an inordinate amount of chores, forces him to drink, frequently passes gas and spends time with (ahem) himself.  Wake’s repulsive behavior offends Winslow.   Wake seems completely unstable — a taskmaster obsessed with power.  At one point Wake angrily demands that Winslow make the lighthouse “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker!”  The line reads as ridiculous as it sounds.  It was then that I realized I was watching a comedy albeit one inspired by the visual style of Sven Nykvist.

The pictorial tableau is crammed with haunting images.  They compel the viewer to remain riveted to the screen.  Indeed the cinematography is the most attractive feature of the spectacle.  Director of photography Jarin Blaschke makes bad things look beautiful. There’s a seductive mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), an impending storm, and claustrophobic quarters tainted by an unendurable stench.  Emptying a chamber pot filled with feces proves especially frustrating on a windy day.  Thank goodness this movie doesn’t utilize the 1960s innovation Smell-O-Vision because the odor would be intolerable.  The sound design is just as important as the visuals as a constantly blaring foghorn adds to the tension.  The spell of this film is to lull the audience into a state of unease and for a while, that’s enough.

The effect of extreme loneliness on the psyche is a theme.  As such, there’s a feeling that much of what we see isn’t real.  Are the consequences of their seclusion a product of their environment or the result of supernatural forces?  There is no definitive answer.  The film is playfully vague which cleverly provides a reason for people to discuss what is real and what is fantasy.  Oh did I mention that a bird steals the show?  Much as the goat Black Phillip in The Witch was an animal of malevolent evil, there’s a seagull here that traumatizes our protagonist.  I could have adored an entire conflict focused around him but alas our feathered friend is but a minor interlude.  The further along we go, the more we realize that the “story” is simply about creating a mood of despair.  Sticking the landing — so to speak — is so difficult in these productions high on atmospherics and low on substance.  That can be disheartening for people who crave a point – a final thought to think about as you leave the theater.  Sadly the narrative is “resolved” in a way that leaves even more doubt than resolution.  Admirers will defend, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” Fans and detractors alike should happily agree on this point.

10-22-19