Logan Lucky

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama on August 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

logan_luckySTARS3When auteur Steven Soderbergh announced that he was retiring from making theatrical films back in 2013, he never said he was quitting the business entirely. Side Effects was to be his last feature, but he was going to keep working. The most notable projects being the HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, serving as cinematographer / editor on Magic Mike XXL and directing the Cinemax TV series The Knick. So it’s perhaps not too big of a surprise that he’s back in front of the camera helming another theatrical movie again. However, you’d think the property that could coax him out of “retirement” would have to be pretty vital. Logan Lucky is well produced and competently organized. Even so, the material is a lightweight entry befitting of its end-of-the summer release date.

The comedic drama revolves mainly around siblings Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). Relegated to a bit part is their sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough). They plan a heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Oh but not on just any day – during the biggest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600. They need a safecracker and so they enlist the help of John Bang (Daniel Craig). Minor issue – Bang is in prison so that complicates things considerably. Let’s face it, what these guys are doing is a crime, but Jimmy is such a sweet guy at heart so we’re on his side right from the beginning. He has a growing list of problems that sort of justifies his actions. He’s trying to reverse the Logan family curse. He lost his construction job at the NASCAR stadium and now his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is planning to move out of state taking his cutie pie daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) with her.

The actors sell their parts with accents and wardrobe.  The ensemble cast meshes together in the most delightful way. Soderbergh has an established association with Tatum having also directed him in Haywire, Magic Mike, and Side Effects.  Actor Adam Driver looks nothing like Tatum, but their relationship as brothers is still credible. Actress Riley Keough, who plays his sister, was in Magic Mike as well.  Soderbergh directed them both in that so there’s a built-in chemistry that already exists.  Daniel Craig is particularly memorable as a wacky safecracker. With his bleached buzz cut hair and pale appearance, he almost looks like someone with albinism. Furthermore, he’s about as animated as I’ve ever seen him.  The actor is clearly having fun and he’s part of the many highs. There are lows. An unnecessary subplot featuring an arrogant British mogul/NASCAR sponsor (Seth MacFarlane) could have been excised completely. And everything comes to a grinding halt to present a saccharine moment at a beauty pageant that is so at odds with the rest of the picture, that it almost works in spite of itself. It serves to remind us how Little Miss Sunshine managed such gimmicks with ease.

Those frequent allusions to other movies are what keeps this from achieving greatness in its own right. The heist story is so “been there done that.”  This is basically Soderbergh’s own Ocean’s Eleven with a southern twist. One character actually makes reference to “Ocean’s 7-Eleven” when ambushing a convenience store. Gags don’t get more meta than that. As with any tale about people we’re supposed to like, the comedy is lighthearted and not derisive. The script is careful to make sure you’re laughing WITH these southerners, not AT them. They may be country bumpkins but they’re pretty smart about executing the complex details of this caper.  Jimmy Logan could be a criminal mastermind. The burglary involves a pneumatic system of hydraulic tubes for moving money at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s hard to explain but enjoyable to watch. There’s a comic zaniness to the hillbillies-in-hardship which recalls the Coen brothers Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Steven Soderbergh has and always will be a craftsman. Logan Lucky is nicely photographed, efficiently made and constructed with quality. It’s a pleasant little piffle but somehow I’ve come to expect a bit more from the director.

08-17-17

Step

Posted in Dance, Documentary with tags on August 10, 2017 by Mark Hobin

stepSTARS3Director Amanda Lipitz is well aware that the city of Baltimore has an image problem. TV shows like The Wire (2002 – 2008) portray a city troubled by urban blight, underachieving public schools, drug abuse and violent crime. What happened to Freddie Gray didn’t help the city’s reputation. The black American man’s death from spinal injuries while in police custody led to protests and civil unrest. Lipitz’s film was recorded in the months following his passing in April 2015. The film acknowledges this event but then goes on to more uplifting matters.

Step would appear to be a documentary chronicling a step team’s progress toward winning a state competition.  This is probably a good point to explain the title.  Step or step dancing is a style in which the dancer’s entire body is used as a percussive instrument.  A complex set of rhythms and sounds are produced using footsteps, shouts, and hand claps. But Step is just as much a movie about a community as it is about the pupils that go to the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.  BLSYW is a small all-girls, college preparatory, and charter high school. Anyone who believes the raising of a child requires the active involvement of the entire community in order to succeed will be heartened by this account.  These women are surrounded by a lot of encouragement in their lives. Their teachers, counselors, coaches, fellow teammates and families all seem to be there pushing the students forward.

Director Amanda Lipitz’s feature debut follows three likable seniors.  First is Cori Grainger, the senior class valedictorian and hopeful candidate for a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University.  Then there’s Tayla Solomon, the daughter of a correctional officer who also happens to be a bit of a helicopter mom.  And last but certainly not least, the step team captain and film’s breakout star, Blessin Giraldo, whose academic struggles threaten her ability to remain on the team.  Her charismatic personality captures the viewer’s attention more than any other.  Now and again, this can feel like her story.  The three young women deal with homework, apply to various colleges and fill out financial aid forms.  The Lethal Ladies step team strives to accomplish two things: finish first in the Bowie State step championship and more importantly, get accepted into college.

That last piece is the unexpected spotlight of this presentation.  Despite the title, Step isn’t really focused on dancing at all.  It’s about things like sustaining a minimum 2.0 GPA and daily class attendance.  The extracurricular activity is merely a reward for maintaining these requirements.  A little more step dancing would’ve been nice actually.  The most electric moments occur when the girls rehearse for the climactic match.  They are extremely talented.  The culminating tournament is an exhilarating exaltation of joy that comes at the end of the production.  Would actually showing more than one full routine in its entirety be too much to ask?  Still, these seniors are driven individuals in all that they do.  They are trying to get into college and it’s that pursuit that motivates this feature.  Teamwork / sisterhood / integrity – Lipitz emphasizes these themes over and over to an audience already open to the charms of these inspirational women.

Step makes a moving documentary.  If this was a fictional story the plot would most charitably be described as predictably safe.  There are few surprises.  Step joins a lofty tradition of dramas about scrappy kids from humble beginnings that find solace in extracurricular activities.  We’ve seen movies that feature basketball, cheerleading, marching band and chess.  Those are the ones that immediately come to mind.  However, the fact that these protagonists actually exist makes the chronicle much more powerful. Amanda Lipitz’ film is polished, positive, and promising.  The developments are designed to make you feel good and it does the job.  In these stories, the plucky heroes usually overcome numerous obstacles to ultimately win the day in an electrifying final showdown to the adulation of their fans.  The idea has been tackled many times.  I’m happy to say it’s just as effective here as it has been in the past.  These girls are champions in more ways than one.

08-03-17

Detroit

Posted in Crime, Drama, History, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2017 by Mark Hobin

detroit_ver2STARS4Detroit is such an all-encompassing title.  This story might perhaps more appropriately be called the Algiers Motel incident. The narrative essentially begins with the onset of the 1967 Detroit riot. The 5 days remain one of the most destructive protests in the history of the United States. Only the New York City draft riots during the Civil War in 1863 and the L.A. Riots in 1992 caused more damage. The events were precipitated by a police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours bar on 12th street. Many were arrested. The uneasy mix of white law officers and black patrons created a combustible flash point. The city became a war zone and tensions were high on both sides. On the third day of the uprising, the multiple firings of a shot gun from the Algiers Motel compelled the Detroit police department to storm the facility to investigate.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have produced a powerful film fashioned around an intense nightmare of questioning. It does this in a way that demands your attention even when it’s hard to watch.  The police mistakenly believe the discharge of a starter pistol was sniper fire.  Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates the police had justifiable cause to determine a gun had been fired. However, the reaction and subsequent night of questioning is an absolute horror that portrays the utter desecration of civil rights. The Michigan State Police are the first responders, but the National Guard and a private security agent were also on the scene at various junctures. When cops and soldiers pulled away from the motel two hours later, they left the bodies of three dead teenaged civilians: Carl Cooper, 17; Fred Temple,18 and Aubrey Pollard, 19 – all black – and nine survivors, two white females and seven black males, that were badly beaten and humiliated by members of the Detroit Police Department.

The screenplay wisely affords us the chance to know these people. The victims are given detailed backstories. Larry (Algee Smith) is the lead singer of the Dramatics, an R&B group. Fred (Jacob Latimore) is his agent and friend., When their concert is canceled due to the riots, they end up at the Algiers Motel where they meet two white women at the pool, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever).  They invite the men back to one of the hotel rooms where they find Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.). A young veteran of the Vietnam War named Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie) shows up later. Although real names are used for the victims, the name of the antagonists have been changed. The movie’s main villain is Officer Krauss (Will Poulter).  He still has the face of a child but wields control like an authoritarian drunk with power. Two of his followers are Officer Flynn (Ben O’Toole) who espouses clearly racist beliefs and Officer Demens (Jack Reynor), who gets caught up in the peer pressure mentality to impress his fellow partners.

It’s not fair but sometimes the most shocking reaction isn’t caused by the bad people committing atrocities, but the good people who stand idly by and allow it to occur. One especially memorable individual is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard from a nearby store who shows up to maintain order. He is a character that inspires particularly extreme emotions. He inspires sympathy, yes, but also frustration from his actions, or lack thereof. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have worked before on both The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), where methods utilizing torture were used to extract information. It should be noted that those films involved whole countries at war. Conversely, Detroit only affected the U.S., a city under siege where a police force, designed to protect its citizens, becomes the very opposite.

Why this happened is a bit more perplexing.  Kathryn Bigelow takes the time to illustrate how circumstances spawned a feeling of unease between police and civilians. Things had gotten so bad that by day 3 the National Guard had been called in. It was a war zone. The police were tasked with maintaining public order but tensions were heightened given the conditions of an escalating riot. The account could have been even more exploitative.  There is care to show that some officers were concerned with preventing bloodshed using nonviolent methods.  Granted the task to keep the peace was almost impossible, but there are situations that become exasperating.  There are specifics that seem missing.  Lawlessness was increasing and the abuse of civil rights was getting worse. Early on, Krauss shoots an unarmed looter (Tyler James Williams) in the back as the man is running away from him, obviously not a threat.  Investigators later found the man dead.  An outraged detective (Darren Goldstein) informs Krauss he’ll be charged with his murder and then — inexplicably — sends him back to the streets. This unsupportable behavior demands an explanation if for no other reason than to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of his actions.

Detroit is a powder keg of a film. It will push buttons. Some of the developments defy comprehension. At one point the National Guard arrives to patrol the streets of Detroit as the riots continue. One little girl looks out her window to see the commotion that transpires outside. An officer shouts “It’s a sniper!” and a shotgun blasts away at the window.  Mark Boal talked with the survivors who recounted experiences that took place 50 years ago.  Given the passage of time, reminiscences are understandably based on recollections that may not be entirely factual.  At the end, we do get a title card that notifies us that some events have been fabricated and may be fictionalized. Granted weighty issues have been simplified. There is no other way. It’s a 2 hour 23 minute movie and they simply have to be. But what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have done is extraordinary. Time gives us a clearer perspective. They have employed a controversial incident from our nation’s past and presented it to a new generation that now prompts more consideration to illuminate an ongoing issue. I was angry, horrified, sad — but mostly infuriated at what I saw. It’s a visceral production that recreates a crisis. It is violent, but the details of what befell that night almost demand that the savagery must be portrayed. The subject of police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter currently dominates the discussion on newspapers, TV, and social media platforms. Detroit seems more relevant today than ever. It’s not an experience you will enjoy, but it depicts a reality you must see.

07-30-17

A Ghost Story

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on July 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

ghost_story.jpgSTARS2.5If nothing else, writer and director David Lowery’s new feature is a curiosity. A tale without a distinct narrative to understand so much as to experience. In that respect, this meditation on life is a difficult movie to review. The chronicle is not about events per se, but rather a feeling you appreciate while watching it.

David Lowery has reunited the two stars from his 2013 crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  At the center is a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.  A Ghost Story is a chronicle indifferent to details.  The characters aren’t given names for example.  The credits list Casey Affleck as ‘C’ and Rooney Mara as ‘M’ but even those letters aren’t expressed in the script.  They’re just two people.  We can infer a few things from what we observe.  They’re human.  They’re married.  He’s a musician but not making a lot of money doing that.  Suddenly he’s bloody, sitting motionless behind the wheel of a smashed car.  We can assume he has just died in car accident.  The collision itself happens offscreen.  We do however see the aftermath.  Then we see him at the morgue.  He’s lying down on a table for an uncomfortable length of time.  His body is covered by a clean white sheet.  Minutes pass by with no discernible change in the room.  At one point I thought the film had been paused.  Then he slowly arises, still under the sheet.

Casey Affleck wanders the halls under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. He does this for the entire duration of the picture.  The openings are deep black and empty.  They offer no hint of a human face underneath.  It caused me to wonder if Affleck’s eyes were edited out in post production.  Ah but I digress.  It soon becomes apparent that no one can see him.  He walks to the end of a hallway and a luminous portal of light opens up. He stares at it without entering.  After awhile, the shimmering gateway closes.  That a ghost is embodied in the most cliched representation possible is really the only predictable thing about this film.  The set-up is merely a construct in which to present a mood piece.  That is, it’s not plot or character driven, but rather a reason to luxuriate in an elegiac tone.  The saga as it exists is constructed as a reflection on life, or more appropriately, death.

Rooney Mara grieves looking forlorn and despondent. In one scene, we watch her eat most of a whole pie for what feels like an eternity. It’s a static shot, not particularly well lit and she’s sitting on the floor. I read somewhere that it’s only 9 minutes long but the very manifestation is an endurance test of artistic license. It’s an unconventional exhibition to be sure but upon reflection, it comes across as a self-conscious choice.  I saw it as an indulgence motivated by the ego driven impulses of a director unrestrained. Some might praise Lowery’s choice to film an activity so mundane as audacious and bold.  Yet I didn’t see a woman grieving.  I saw a filmmaker shooting a scene.

Director David Lowery is unconcerned with time.  Time passes, first days, then years, then centuries.  Certain scenes play out in real time.  In others, the years go by in the blink of an eye.  People move on. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt, but Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a disconnected soul remains.  What Lowery is saying and how much that affects you is probably where you’ll derive your enjoyment from this.  Adherents should find it hypnotic, surreal and deep while detractors will find it affected, empty and inert. Let’s just say they both have a point.  I would’ve liked to have seen A Ghost Story on a flat screen TV mounted to the wall of a museum.  There its artistic passions could be celebrated.  It’s an evocative rumination on which to deliberate.  In that respect the production triumphs as an objet d’art.  Without the expectation of plot or character development, Lowery’s introspection piece succeeds, but as a movie, this disembodied account left me unfulfilled.

07-27-17

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets_ver3STARS4Every now and then a film coasts by on a visual aesthetic that is so visionary in its daft mentality that it captivates the mind beyond all sense and reason. We’re talking about a production that’s fully formed from its costumes, creature designs and a cheerfully bonkers dedication to an artistic style. It’s like a drug. You actually feel a sense of giddiness simply by watching it. Of course, it relies on the prerequisite that you are open to the creative pleasures of an optical nature. There are those that require more intellectualism and sense in their sci-fi epics. I am not one of those people. Back in 1997, Luc Besson gave audiences the wonderful gift of The Fifth Element. The wildly imaginative space opera became a cult classic (and incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). Now 20 years later, Luc Besson has returned with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s happening all over again because this is a joy.

Our story is set in motion when a race of humanoids on the futuristic planet Mül suffers a life threatening attack. The iridescent silvery people have been living a pastoral life in a bright tropical paradise. A willowy princess wakes up on a beach. They harvest space pearls for energy. She rises to the dawn and washes her face in a bowl full of the white lustrous spherical jewels. A cute little critter called a Mül Converter is used duplicate them. Ok to be more specific, it actually poops what it eats. Their idyllic life is forever affected when they are attacked by an enemy force. The event inspires the race to kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) for mysterious reasons. This act compels Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline. The two basically operate as police officers in space. They are a romantic couple (natch) but bicker like a pair of people that can’t stand each other. He’s a roguish player. She’s a sharp-tongued intellect. I suppose their sexual chemistry is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I found their interactions amusing, albeit a bit reductive. DeHaan’s surfer dude accent is sort of a riff on Keanu Reeves’ character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Attractive Cara Delevingne, with her thick brows, kind of physically recalls Brooke Shields circa 1980. When we first meet the two they’re relaxing on a sunny beach like some marooned island couple out of The Blue Lagoon. Turns out it’s just a visual reality simulation.

Laureline is forever rebuffing Valerian’s advances in a way that’s reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that feels Star Wars-ish. Remember the cantina scene, that bar where are all the otherworldly visitors gathered to merely hang out? Well, that’s kind of like Valerian for 2 hours 17 minutes. Besson’s production is based on the comic Valerian and Laureline by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. That series was launched in 1967, ten years before the first Star Wars film was released. George Lucas has freely admitted he was influenced by director Akira Kurosawa when assembling his space opera. The similarities to Valerian have been noted by other people. [Side Note: Artist Jean-Claude Mézières collaborated with director Luc Besson on The Fifth Element.]

The action is centered around Alpha, an International Space Station where millions of immigrants from different planets gather amicably and exchange their knowledge and cultures. The opening sequence presents this as an array of meet and greets involving various individuals underscored by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The uplifting presentation of a peaceful world is such an exaltation of goodness, I was kind of overcome by the display.  The very idea that such a naive concept could become a reality was made so emotionally resonant. The vignette is among the best introductory scenes that I’ve witnessed all year. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has another. It was the perfect primer to begin this movie. The dizzying opening is pure cinema. I was captivated from the get go.

The creature designs are the strongest part of the film. A lot of it is accomplished using motion capture and CGI. An overreliance on computer graphics is usually not something I appreciate, but here it feels so organic that I enjoyed the creativity. Some of my favorites include three platypus-like aliens called the Doghan-Dagui who offer help…but only for the right price. There’s the Boulan Bathor Couturier that presents Sergeant Laureline with a series of outfits to wear. A chubby little intradimensional species seems pretty harmless but you don’t want to anger its mother. John Goodman voices the massive pirate captain that runs the Big Market Bazaar. Ethan Hawke plays Jolly the Pimp who introduces a shape-shifting species known as a Glamopod. Her name is Bubble. She’s portrayed by pop singer Rihanna in her human form. Her performance is more a feat of CGI and Cirque du Soleil than acting, but the manifestation is unadulterated eye candy at its finest. I was hypnotized by her character.

I’ll admit that when it comes to story, Luc Besson is more fascinated by the question “How does it look” not “Why does this happen?” In that respect, Valerian isn’t going to expand your mind with philosophical thought. However, it will dazzle you with the exploration of creative worlds. It’s more about the physical display. When some gentle looking butterflies flutter by, their reveal as a dangerous threat is world building at its most hilarious. The fabrication has a European, no make that international sensibility. This is helped by the inventive casting which, besides all the aforementioned names, also includes English Actor Clive Owen, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, American composer Herbie Hancock, and Chinese-born pop singer Kris Wu. Valerian is a production designer’s dream on a hallucinogenic trip. When our two protagonists go to “Big Market” the mind-bending action is a lot to wrap your head around. The shopping mall is a setting that has other dimensions that can only be accessed when you don virtual reality gloves and glasses. It’s so erratic in the way it switches back and forth between the two realities, it’s a madcap delight. The popcorn flick works on that level throughout the entire film. It’s just so silly. I adored it.

07-21-17

Dunkirk

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War on July 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

dunkirk_ver2STARS3.5Dunkirk celebrates a wartime retreat. As such, it may seem like an odd moment in the history of WWII to dramatize. To Americans whose familiarity with WWII begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it’s an event with which most U.S. citizens are unaware. Yet the battle holds a special uplifting significance to British and French troops. It concerns the evacuation of Allied soldiers that were under fire from German troops. The locale was the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, a city in the north of France. Hundreds of civilian boats carrying survivors were able to make it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again.  The evacuation was such an amazing defense of life that it’s often referred to as the Miracle at Dunkirk. Its importance is best summarized in an eleventh-hour exchange here in the film:  When one well wisher offers a sincere “Well done,” the soldier’s response is “All we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” offers the passersby. The encounter was a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.

As a work of art, Dunkirk is a sensory composition. Christopher Nolan creates an intense optical and auditory experience that feels like the real thing. Sound and visuals combine to give the viewer a wartime understanding unlike any other. The director’s preference for practical effects at the expense of CGI is well documented. The manifestation never once seems like anything less than the real thing.  The cinematography and  the music combine to fabricate a wartime experience like none other. Much of Dunkirk has been shot using IMAX cameras and makes use of the widescreen format. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the 31 cities equipped with such a screen, then I’d strongly advise you to seek out one of these showings as the presentation is much improved. I saw the film twice, in both 35mm and 70mm IMAX and the difference is enough to recommend the latter and condemn the former. The graphics are awe inspiring in both, but the impact is significantly marginalized in the non-70mm format.

Director Christopher Nolan is solely credited with the screenplay. He has fashioned the chronicle as a somewhat confusing muddle of action. Three separate stories that each take place by land, sea and air, transpiring over three different time frames. Title cards in the beginning give the viewer an assist in grasping what will transpire. The auteur is well known for playing with time, but here it works to the detriment of the narrative. Nolan takes risky liberties in telling a linear story. These different timelines are confusingly edited with flashbacks that revisit previous scenes sometimes from a new perspective.  When a character leaves one account and pops up in another tale, interpreting the timelime can get a bit dicey.   Nolan’s technique hinders our ability to comprehend what is happening when.

“The Mole” is a somewhat puzzling title card that refers to the land story. I wonder how many people will realize that a mole is a massive structure used as a pier. Its double meaning as a spy is probably intentional, but I wish I had known that bit of information beforehand. This drama takes place over a week and concerns a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach, who must find a way off this ill-fated stretch of land. The area has filled up with thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander and James D’Arcy is an army colonel.  They search the skies for the enemy Germans and await an air rescue effort that does not materialize.

“The Sea” is one day in the life of Mr. Dawson, as portrayed by Mark Rylance, the only actor allowed to actually give a “performance”. He is a civilian sailor throwing himself into the rescue effort by steering his tiny wooden yacht called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan) eager to take part in something bigger than himself.  Actor Cillian Murphy plays a stranded survivor they pick up along the way.

“The Air” is the third tale and takes place over an hour.  Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are pilots for the Royal Air Force Spitfire.  Fans of Hardy’s handsome features will surely be disappointed. His face is obscured by a mask for almost the entire duration of the picture. Additionally, it’s impossible to understand anything he says. But oh those dogfight sequences!  They are some of the most impressive demonstrations in the entire picture.

Dunkirk is a film about spectacle. It soars with gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema that is breathtakingly expansive even when it’s detailing claustrophobic conditions of a ship in battle. Seas of young, white British soldiers huddled in the hull of a ship. An unknown assailant begins firing upon their vessel. The scene is indeed intense. Yet these men become almost indistinguishable from each other. We cannot connect to these people individually.  I suppose that’s not the point. Nolan’s study is a film about a war effort that forces us into a mass of anonymity. The profusion of humanity is a wash of gray-brown uniforms. The absence of color is a common motif that comes up over and over. Indeed the only red we see is not blood but the jam on the bread the soldiers eat in the hull of a ship. This makes Dunkirk a saga that’s emotionally distant.  Yet what it lacks in compelling stories it makes up for in bombast. Hans Zimmer’s score is loud and blaring and cacophonous as it emphasizes the visual display being witnessed. It’s rousing to be sure even when it drowns out the dialogue.

Conversation is held to a bare minimum. Dunkirk is a feature built upon the very exhibition of war, not upon the chatty developments that usually compel an adventure forward. The bits of talking here and there are rendered unintelligible by thick British accents that I assume only people familiar with regional dialects will recognize. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. It’s not a deal breaker though. The script is conversationally sparse. Dunkirk is not reliant on discourse It extracts passion out of a circumstance.

Dunkirk’s greatest attribute is how it sidesteps all of the cliches of the “war movie”. This is not a traditional war epic. It’s a film that features very little in the way of exposition. If you’re waiting for a scene where the soldier talks about his girl back home, you’re watching the wrong account. Don’t expect to find a declaration from a disillusioned character outwardly expressing the horrors of war.  Other than distant planes flying overhead, we never even see the enemy. Dunkirk isn’t about dialogue, or performances, or a sentimental bond to people, or even one to emphasize the bloody viscera of war.  Although the action is most definitively a visceral experience. It’s the narrative as a sequence of “you-are-there” action setpieces that begin almost immediately and never let up until the end of the production. First, you’re on the beach, then in the cockpit, now you’re aboard Rylance’s ship. The thrill is so immediate it’s practically physical. It’s explosions and aerial photography and gray masses of huddled individuals trying to survive. You will understand the suspense, fear, and dread of what it would be like to endure war, but without that emotional connection to the actual people.

07-20-17

War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3STARS3War for the Planet of the Apes is Part 3 in the rebooted film series that commenced in 2011. The franchise has been operating as a sequence of prequels leading up to the events of the 1968 classic. Now with the release of this picture, people have been referring to the collection as a trilogy. Whether more installments will follow still remains to be seen.  However if this picture makes enough money, you can best believe that more films will follow.

War is the story of Caesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes.  His army of simian warriors is at odds with Alpha-Omega, a terrorist faction of humans.  Caesar preaches a peaceful coexistence with the homo sapiens. However, the people are led by an aggressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  Apparently these barbaric individuals, can’t be reasoned with.  They’re just so warlike.  Not wanting to suffer any more casualties, Caesar plans to relocate his clan to the desert far away from Muir woods.  The night before they’re supposed to leave, Caesar’s home is invaded by the Colonel and his family is brutally attacked.  Now Caesar has a score to settle. He’s out for revenge.  This goes against everything his character has ever stood for, but hey no conflict no movie right?  Now we’re ready for a showdown.

The apes are anthropomorphic miracles of technology that act with more humanity than people. Ah yes, indeed that is the intention. If you couldn’t tell from the plot description above, War is told from the apes’ perspective. The entire trilogy (thus far anyway) has been developing a personal arc that traces the life of Caesar from a tortured experiment into a commanding leader. You will identify with the apes more than the humans. In this story, apes are better than people. You’ll be rooting for the demise of the human race if this screenplay has anything to say about it. That’s an interesting take, I suppose, but there’s more to creating a compelling narrative than merely affecting a unique point of view.

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s hard not to notice him as (1) he’s got the lion’s share of all the dialogue and (2) the camera lingers on his expressive CGI face for seemingly minutes on end. He’s a fascinating creature to be sure. Caesar rounds up a loyal band of followers. These include his second in command, an orangutan adviser named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a fellow chimpanzee named Rocket (Terry Notary), and a sensitive gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They are a serious lot. The whole production would be a serious downer if not for one individual. Steve Zahn voices a zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” in a bit of comic relief.  The misfit is kind of at lighthearted odds with the rest of the cast.  Yet he’s the only mitigation from all the dreariness.  As such, he’s a welcome reprieve from the bleak narrative.

On the non-simian side, there’s the evil Colonel played with cartoonish excess by Woody Harrelson. He wants to eradicate the world of not only all apes but also virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech. It’s easy to side with animals when this is the example of a human with which we are presented. His bald, deranged character is clearly inspired by  Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.  As a matter of fact, some graffiti on the wall actually says “Ape-ocalypse Now” lest the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle tribute wasn’t obvious.   The whole homage might seem rather clever had it not been for Kong: Skull Island liberally referencing the very same classic a mere 4 months ago.  It’s still pretty fresh in my mind.  News flash: there are other memorable films about war that weren’t made by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable spectacle.  At times it actually feels like a silent movie.  There are very few speaking parts.  Facial expressions are more important than actual words.  The camera fixates on the countenance of Caesar and we are invited to be moved by the way he emotes.  The script gets by on minimal dialogue.  The apes rescue a human orphan girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who doesn’t talk.  She was rendered mute by the Simian Flu.  Most of the apes, in turn, communicate via sign language.  The technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the series began in 2011.  Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin inspire awe with every shot.  This is a gorgeous achievement and the reason I’m giving this production a pass.  The CGI & MoCap apes are a marvel to behold.  It’s hard not to be wowed by the way War looks.  There is a trade-off for all of this visual wonder though.  The atmosphere is lugubrious.  The pacing is sluggish.  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours.  Even though the chronicle builds to a climactic finale, action does not comprise the bulk of the drama.  It’s yet another dismal morality tale that is a punishing watch.  It relies on the oldest of clichés. I’ll summarize: War is hell, but so are you, the human race, that is.  Forgive me if I don’t stand up and cheer.

07-13-17

The Big Sick

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on July 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

big_sickSTARS5I adore romantic comedies.  Good ones, that is. The genre gets such a bad rap nowadays, but when they’re good, they can be transcendent. They capture that most sublime of all human emotions: love. It’s when we, as people are at our most vulnerable. It Happened One Night (1934), Roman Holiday (1953), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Princess Bride (1987), Notting Hill (1999), 500 Days of Summer (2009): these are my very favorites. We’re talking some of the best movies ever made. Let’s add another title to that growing list of rom-coms: The Big Sick.

You’ve heard the old adage before: Write what you know. Screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon really took that to heart. They’ve been a married couple for 10 years now. The Big Sick is the story of their lives fully realized in cinematic form. Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a mildly fictionalized version of himself. Actress Zoe Kazan (Meek’s Cutoff, Ruby Sparks) plays Emily. Kumail is a Chicago-based stand-up comic who first meets Emily, a grad student, at one of his shows. She is in the audience and her heckling, which is more flirtatious in nature, piques his interest. The two chat after the show and you can practically see the physical sparks ignite in the air. What begins as a one-night stand develops into a full blown relationship with deep romantic feelings. It gets the early stages of a courtship perfectly and it’s a giddy experience.

Now if that set-up was all there was to The Big Sick, it would still be a profound paean to love. But there’s a unique point of view that makes this drama unlike any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. Kumail and his parents are from Pakistan. They have emigrated to the U.S and now live here. Kumail is very close to his folks and he visits them regularly. Mom and Dad are conventionally religious Muslims. They believe in arranged marriage. The seemingly endless parade of women that just happen to “drop by” their home is an amusing facade. We know mom is behind all this, hoping that one of them might be a match. Yet there is a very real cultural tradition at play here and it’s presented with sensitivity and compassion. However, Kumail wants no part of that practice. He wants to find his own true love, although he is loath to bring up the subject.  He is afraid to express his actual feelings to them. In fact, his parents know nothing of his association with Emily. Emily’s realization of this fact is a heartbreaking moment that causes a serious rift.

If it feels as though I have described the entire plot, rest assured, I haven’t even come close. The story, as are the ups and downs of any relationship, is a series of setbacks. I still have yet to even detail the biggest one of all. I won’t though. I will only say that it gives us the opportunity to meet Emily’s parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Simply put, they are wonderful. They express grief, pathos, and humor in a way that is absolutely masterful. Their performances blend the gravest of circumstances with a tragicomedy touch. Although they are merely supporting parts, we get a full and rich understanding of their affinity as well. Their bond feels as breathtakingly real and nuanced as any I’ve ever seen put up on the screen. I rarely talk Oscars this early in the year, but both actors are worthy of a nomination. They are so genuine in their portrayals.

The Big Sick embraces all the ideals of what makes the classic romances succeed. It’s a saga about when two people who are truly meant for each other, fall in love. It sounds simple to do but few movies detail the experience with this much soul and authenticity.  What can I say?  Actors Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani captivated my heart. I was emotionally invested in their relationship. The Big Sick is humanity with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies on full display. The screenplay mines humor in the clash of cultures but it also extracts the awkwardness of relatives. The idea that “You don’t just marry a person; you marry into a family” is a concept that frequently comes up. It’s not going to be smooth. Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel produce. Michael Showalter directs. Individually, these people have done a lot of great work. Yet this combination of talent utilizing a script from Nanjiani and Gordon, have produced a masterpiece. It’s a flawless testament to a couple in love. The pièce de résistance is that it’s actually true.

07-02-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17

Baby Driver

Posted in Action, Crime, Music, Thriller with tags on July 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo baby_driver_ver2_zpswm3g3gkq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgOk, can we get one thing out of the way first? Baby Driver is a terrible title. It sounds like either (1) a frivolous comedy about a chauffeur who works for a rich baby or (2) about an infant who can literally drive. Perhaps the follow-up sequel to DreamWorks’ animated hit The Boss Baby. None of this is correct. Baby, as it turns out, is the nickname of Ansel Elgort’s character, but he isn’t a baby. He’s a young man. He is a motorist though, a getaway driver actually. That much is true. Baby suffers from hearing loss. He incurred this ailment as a child when he was in a car accident which killed both his parents. To cope with the constant humming in his ears, he listens to music…all the time…on his iPod. That’s the set-up but it’s really just a great excuse to play a lot of classic songs.

Baby is a man of few words. He’s cool, laid back – a soft faced James Dean for our era. He’s a bit of a mystery, but we know he’s good at what he does. We’ve seen him in action. In the opening scene, he skillfully maneuverers the car that bank robbers Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) jump into after their heist. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1995 single “Bellbottoms” blasts away in his headphones. Baby is employed as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an intimidating crime boss that plans heists. Not entirely by choice. Baby is indebted to Doc for having stolen one of his cars. He’s currently working off the debt he incurred. Baby rarely speaks, often retreating into the world of the tunes playing on his iPod. You see, his music is our music. That is, what he hears and the score of the film, is exactly the same thing.

The movie is a cinematic construct, a heart-stirring, toe-tapping production in which diegetic music is synchronized to the action on the screen. Think of it as a jukebox musical in which director Edgar Wright has decided to assemble a playlist of 30+ songs that just so happen to have a story attached. Selections run the gamut from various eras but they mostly favor oldies before the 1980s. The Beach Boys, Carla Thomas, Queen, Barry White, The Commodores, Simon & Garfunkel, who provide the movie’s title, all have their moment. However, a few comparatively later compositions from the likes of Young MC, Beck, and Blur pop up too. “The Harlem Shuffle” is a particularly breathtaking set piece. We’re talking the 1963 original by Bob & Earl, not the Stones version. Sorry, it’s my age, but I can’t detect those opening horn blasts without thinking I’m about to hear “Jump Around” by House of Pain. The minor R&B hit underscores the second scene after the first heist, where Baby walks through the town while the city life happens in sync with the music. It’s a beautifully realized vignette that has to be seen multiple times to appreciate the complexity of its many details. Check out the graffiti on the walls that match the lyrics of the number.

The plot is kind of incidental but it provides the framework for a charismatic ensemble that meshes together like a finely tuned automotive machine. Baby’s foster father is a deaf man in a wheelchair named Joseph (CJ Jones) whom he cares for. They communicate via sign language. Baby goes to Bo’s Diner where he meets a pretty young waitress named Debora (Lily James), spelled exactly like a ditty by English glam rock band T. Rex. Then there’s the aforementioned Doc (Kevin Spacey), the crime boss for whom Baby works. Doc is capable of murder, but he’s frighteningly calm. You know that beneath his placid exterior there lies an evil temperament. “Your waitress girlfriend is cute,” he says to Baby. “Let’s keep it that way.” Doc assembles a rotating crew for each job. Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) comprise the first team. Eddie No-Nose (Flea), JD (Lanny Joon), and Bats (Jamie Foxx) form another. Somewhere along the line, Paul Williams pops up as an arms dealer known as The Butcher. Unifying all the disparate parts is Baby, a criminal with a heart.

Baby Driver is a whole lot of action, a little comedy and a touch of romance. It’s a classic heist flick that conveniently builds to “one last job”. The screenplay weaves a simple story amidst a profusion of pop culture tunes. This amalgamation of constant music. quick cut editing and swooping cinematography is extremely showy. At times, it’s oppressively so. I was keenly aware of the director’s hand more than once. The unrelenting style subverts genuine emotion for an illustration of love. Ansel Elgort and Lily James are more like the symbol of an on-screen couple than the genuine article. But we’ve got elaborate chase sequences choreographed to music. If action bang for your movie buck is what you want, then you’ll get your money’s worth. I simply can’t overstate how exhilarating this whole exercise is. The flashy production is presented with technique and panache. It’s like a shiny new sports car — albeit one built with some previously available parts. The director himself has cited The Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Point Break, Heat and The Blues Brothers as influences. While it may have been assembled from the building blocks of previous films, there’s certainly no denying the craft that went into making it. In a summer of sequels and franchise installments, Edgar Wright’s vision is a distinctly welcome breath of fresh air.

07-01-17