Bad Boys for Life

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_boys_for_life_ver2STARS3 I was skeptical.  When they unearth and dust off some long-done franchise for another sequel, it’s very easy to simply view it as a cash grab.  Bad Boys II was released in 2003.  17 years have passed and now we get this entry.  Surprise!  The result is a lively diversion.  Jerry Bruckheimer is back again to produce but Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are helming the film.  The ambiance is calmer and more coherent than the previous movies directed by Michael Bay.   However, fans will appreciate this.  Critics have already hailed it as the best of the trilogy.  (Side note: a fourth episode is planned).

Bad Boys for Life is entertaining.  Sometimes going back to the well can yield engaging results.  I was one of the few that enjoyed Men in Black: International, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fundamental difference with this release is the original stars have returned.  The pairing of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is the reason to see this.  They ground the film with their considerable charisma.

The comedy smartly acknowledges that they are indeed older.  Although can they rightly be called “boys” at this point?  They’re quinquagenarians.  Nevertheless, Will Smith doesn’t seem to age.  As Mike Lowrey, he’s the straight man while Martin Lawrence gets to be the comic relief as Marcus Burnett.  Marcus just wants to retire and spend time with his newborn grandson.  It’s a formula but hey it works.  This conventional action movie coasts on the affable charm of its stars.  The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan has given some depth to the backstories of these characters. Actors Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio portray antagonists that are better than the run of the mill kingpins that have blighted this franchise in the past.   One individual has prior ties with a villain.  That connection adds some interesting insight into these relationships.

Bad Boys for Life is undemanding fun.  That is — it has little value beyond providing an evening’s worth of amusement.  If anyone should be enriched the most from this exercise it’s Sony Pictures.  This was a surprise hit.   People often bemoan the fact that Hollywood likes to recycle old properties.  The success of this picture is a prime example of why studios rely so heavily on the practice.  It’s perfectly fine.  Aficionados of the earlier flicks will be satisfied and those seeking 2 hours of distraction should be appeased as well.  I was.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I wrote this review shortly after I watched the film.  I doubt I’ll remember much of it by next week.

01-16-20

Just Mercy

Posted in Drama with tags on January 14, 2020 by Mark Hobin

just_mercy_ver2STARS2.5Just Mercy is a straightforward saga for people who don’t want to be burdened by individuals who show more than one side to their personality.   If you like your villains twirling a mustache and your heroes as pious do-gooders then Just Mercy will fit the bill quite nicely.

The drama concerns attorney Bryan Stevenson as he takes the case of Walter McMillian, a man wrongfully imprisoned for the 1986 murder of a woman in Alabama and sentenced to death.  The crusading lawyer is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan.  He’s the one looking beatifically toward heaven on the movie poster.  Jordan is a charismatic actor and he brought so much to roles in Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther.  Meanwhile,  actor Jaime Foxx portrays the man on trial and he also brings genuine humanity to the part.  They’re both compelling, skillful actors.  It’s a credit to the abilities of Michal Jordan and Jaime Foxx that they bring gravitas to their characters.

It can be tricky criticizing an account that denounces a shocking miscarriage of justice.  Screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham have their hearts in the right place.  This is a true story that Cretton and Lanham have adapted from Bryan Stevenson’s book published in 2015(!)  Stevenson wrote this account about himself.  It’s unfortunate that an important tale on race and discrimination is given such a formulaic and uncreative treatment.  There’s no mistaking who’s right and wrong.  Southerners and the police are all seething racists while the accused and the defender who fights for him are candidates for sainthood.  I’ve seen some pretty simplistic dramas in my day but this screenplay underestimates the moral decency of its audience by fashioning a narrative that’s so obvious it’s condescending.

There are works that handle this material with more subtlety.  The obvious inspiration is To Kill a Mockingbird which is coincidental because the murder committed here in Monroe County, Alabama is the very same place where Harper Lee wrote her much-celebrated novel.  Every resident here seems extremely proud of this fact and yet no one seems aware that their racial attitudes haven’t changed since the book was published in 1960.

Bryan Stevenson is a counselor dedicated to pro bono work for death-row inmates and other prisoners needing representation.  These also include Herbert Richardson played by actor Rob Morgan. Richardson is incarcerated for the pipe-bomb killing of an 11-year-old girl.  His psychologically troubled Vietnam Vet is able to register a little nuance.  Despite his arrest Walter McMillian (Foxx) is innocent.  The evidence against him is entirely based on a questionable witness, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a much lighter sentence for his testimony.   His blatant perjury is simply presented as an indisputable fact early on.  Nevertheless, the police and the townspeople refuse to acknowledge what is conspicuously a grave injustice.  One side is thoroughly ethical.  The other is completely corrupt.

Just Mercy is a tale of good vs. evil vs. good storytelling.  A lot of people will enjoy this movie.  Its uncomplicated narrative of clearly delineated personalities highlights a true and egregious case that is important to know.  Many will appreciate seeing the oppressed ultimately triumph in the face of overwhelming racial inequality.  Their righteous anger validated by the display of what transpires here.  However, I wanted to know more.  Why do these southerners continue to hold such narrow-minded beliefs in this day and age and how could the accused and his family be so passive and understanding?  You won’t find those answers here.  The characters have no development through the picture.  What you see is what you get.  There are no shades of gray.

01-09-20

Uncut Gems

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

Little Women

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

little_women_ver10STARS3.5Little Women has been adapted to film 7 times.  That includes two silent entries.  Then there’s the myriad of productions for television.  The Houston Grand Opera even commissioned a piece in 1998. Needless to say, it’s been a beloved tale since Louisa May Alcott published her novel in 1868 and then 1869 in two volumes.  At this point, her work been covered so many times that you assume they’d have to include some new twist to make it fresh for a modern audience.  In the newest (and surely not the last) version, Greta Gerwig does indeed make several directorial choices to modify this timeworn saga.

The 2019 account of Little Women is self-referential.  In the beginning, writer Jo March is seen submitting a manuscript to a publisher (Tracy Letts).  That text is the very movie that we are watching right now.  Little Women is seen as a work of semi-autobiographical fiction so the line between main character Jo and real-life author Louise May Alcott has always been kind of blurry.  I guess the mere choice to go meta with the story is not exceptionally radical.  However, it also adds an ongoing conversation between the publisher and author as a commentary on the developments.  There’s a memorable discussion about the ending that introduces ambiguity from a contemporary perspective.

Gerwig assumes you’re familiar with the chronicle and begins 7 years later and then cuts back and forth between parallel timelines.  One is of the young girls living at home with the family and the other is of them all grown up and pursuing different paths in life.  It’s basically Jo’s memoir and actress Saoirse Ronan is a charismatic presence but the other sisters get significant consideration too.  In particular, Florence Pugh as Amy has an illuminating arc.  I found the nuance to her bratty temperament rather fascinating as her personality develops over time.  Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) get somewhat less attention, but I found all of their interactions to be compelling as well.  All the girls come across as interesting individuals.  The rest of the cast is dependable.  I would be remiss if I didn’t cite Laura Dern as matriarch Marmee March and the legendary Meryl Streep in a minor role as their aunt.  It’s a quibble but I was less enamored with Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Laurie.  The actor is usually captivating but he’s kind of bland here.

Ok, so I’ve been keeping a secret.  Truth be told, I’ve never read the book nor seen any of the movies so I walked into this one completely fresh.  Forgive my lack of familiarity in this area, but naïveté can be a positive.  I am not beholden to the source in the way an adherent may be.  Yet I admit it could also be a drawback.   This gets confusing.   I found the shifting timelines weakened the clarity of a simple narrative.  The chronological flip-flops occur frequently and without warning.  You just have to sort of gather it from the manner of people’s dress and how they’re acting and the subtle color palette changes of the cinematography.  I didn’t appreciate these stylistic choices as a first-time initiation to the material.  Although I can see where it may enhance one’s understanding if you’re already acquainted with the text.  Other than the nonlinear structure, it is a respectful adaptation.  This could have been a staid period piece but the traditional dialogue flows effortlessly from their lips with the natural cadence of modern conversation.  It’s quite lively.   That ultimately elevates this as a distinguished interpretation.  Furthermore, the presentation looks and sounds amazing (costumes, production design, score).  As I mentioned before, the performances are a commendable achievement.   There’s a lot to recommend.   I was entertained but ultimately I wasn’t WOWed.

12-27-19

My Top 10 Films of 2019

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

On this, the last day of 2019, I reflect back on 365 days of movie watching and pick the 10 films that affected me the most (PLUS an additional 10 that just missed that list).  I keep a ranked list throughout the year, but it can be a bit arbitrary when deciding between two films that each got 4 stars and you have to place one above the other.  Needless to say, I enjoyed everything on my “Best of” list very much.

Click the link to reveal…

* MY TOP FILMS OF 2019 *

It has been great seeing all of these movies, but it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have an audience with whom to share my passion. To all who read my blog, like my posts and keep the conversation going, I am truly grateful.

Thank you!

Wishing you a HAPPY NEW YEAR in a fresh decade that begins with 2020!

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Waves

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on December 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

wavesSTARS4Waves is a drama that gradually becomes an epic.  It concerns a typical suburban family as they navigate that roadmap of emotional complexities that we call life.  The chronicle begins rather deceptively as a simple melodrama.  Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high school senior. He’s a smart kid and a star athlete with a bright future.  Depending on your age, he could be your best friend or perhaps your son.  But things aren’t always what they seem.  As we are introduced to the characters that populate Tyler‘s reality, there is an inherent sense of foreboding.  He’s constantly pushed to be better by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown).  His stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is less domineering and more compassionate.  His younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is also a calming presence.  He spends time with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).  Things appear stable but soon that will change.  Tyler begins to suffer some setbacks.  The way he deals with misfortune will have a profound effect.

Director Trey Edward Shults masterfully illuminates how the choices we make can affect what happens to us for the rest of our lives.  That would be enough.  What augments the film into something more is the about-face that he takes in the middle of the story where a major event completely shifts the spotlight from one character to another.  A dreadful act appears to signify an end but in fact, the narrative is taking on a new beginning.  It is that transfer of focus where the movie becomes something much greater.  We now see the scope of action from a different angle – how the decisions of one can alter the lives of another.  The intensity of the portrait is magnified by the stunning cinematography by Drew Daniels and an abstract score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  Both intensify an elegiac mood.

Waves is an ambitious tale.  Yet director Trey Edward Shults makes it seem effortless.  That elevates his achievement into something even more affecting.  The human experience is multilayered and deep.  A split-second decision can affect the rest of our existence.   Here, an impulsive choice made in the heat of the moment is the impetus for a demoralizing change.  A life filled with joy can transform into one filled with unendurable pain.  Shults’ camera is like a voyeur lingering on the interactions of a family in places where we should not be.  His unflinching gaze presents a snapshot that is both heartbreakingly beautiful and extremely ugly.   The depiction will inspire an individual to reflect on their own behavior.  We may consider ourselves good people at heart.  Yet we can behave in unforgivably grotesque ways.  Director Schultz beautifully realized account details that idea in the extreme but in doing so he brilliantly ruminates over the idea of what it means to be human.

12-05-19

The Mustang

Posted in Drama with tags on December 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

mustangSTARS4There’s a poignant simplicity that elevates this tale of redemption.  Sometimes an uncomplicated, straightforward account about human change can profoundly move the heart.  The Mustang is just such a film.

Roman Coleman is a convict at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center who has trouble controlling his anger.  He’s currently serving a 12-year sentence for a shocking burst of domestic violence against his wife.  The result of which had tragic consequences.  He’s given a second chance at social rehabilitation when he’s admitted into the Wild Horse Inmate Program.  There he’s entrusted with the care of a crazed mustang that has been extremely difficult to restrain.  It’s not hard to see the spiritual connection drawn between man and beast.  His efforts to “break” the savage animal are the subject of powerful scenes with a visual grandeur sans dialogue.  Their relationship is merely composed of gestures and expressions.  It is here that Roman begins to come to terms with his own failings.

Matthias Schoenaerts is a star in the classic Hollywood tradition – a time when men conveyed forceful resolve simply through a strong, stoic silence.  They didn’t talk a lot. They didn’t have to.  They dominated without speaking.  These rugged individuals obviously had feelings but it was buried beneath a veneer of stoicism and it added to their mystique.  The less we knew, the more charismatic they became.  John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen – These durable icons were the definition of cool.  Matthias Schoenaerts has the physicality of a tough guy but that determination belies a deep unspoken sensitivity.  In films such as Bullhead, Rust and Bone and Far from the Madding Crowd, Matthias Schoenaerts has given one arresting performance after another.  The actor propels The Mustang into a fascinating character study.

There’s a poetic realism that underlies this depiction.  The Wild Horse Inmate Program detailed here is a real thing.  It provides an effective setting where violent criminals interact with barbaric creatures and the alliance can effectively tame them.  Ah, but who is pacifying who?  Part prison drama, part traditional western, director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre in her feature debut, deals with timeworn themes but reinterprets them in a way that feels fresh and invigorating.  Humans and animals often share an implicit bond.  Sometimes that association can be quite stirring.  De Clermont-Tonnerre explores that connection with unsentimental but deeply moving style.   The Mustang will speak to that spirit.  I was captivated by the portrait.

04-05-19

1917

Posted in Action, Drama, War with tags on December 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

nineteen_seventeen_ver2STARS5It’s no secret that films set during the Second World War far outnumber ones about other wars.  Since 1998, the more well-known ones include Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, The Pianist, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk.  There are so many others.  My apologies if I missed your favorite.  But what about pictures concerning the Great War?  Some WWI movies rank among the greatest classics of all time: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory and Lawrence of Arabia.  I wouldn’t immediately include a movie that just came out in the same company.  Likewise, I would never describe a current release using the M-word*.  A certain amount of time must pass.   I’d say at least 10 years.  However, 1917 is a good candidate to be considered both of these things in 2029.

1917 is an epic about two British soldiers entrusted with a mission.  The story is based on an account told to director Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes.  Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are two lance corporals that must deliver a message across enemy German territory to an Allied front line.  The British are preparing to launch an ambush but the problem is, it will lead to many many deaths on the side of the Allies.  The soldiers have a false sense of security.  The Germans are in fact ready for the British and therefore should not attack.  Blake and Schofield must convey an order to stand down.  Their journey is the movie.

1917 is filmed in one continuous shot.  When I first heard that, I regarded the decision to use this technique as a pretentious affectation.  Birdman did this rather famously in 2014.  No, cinematographer Roger Deakins didn’t really shoot without stopping.  If he had, filming would have only taken one hour and 59 minutes.  However, the narrative has pieced together that way and the approach is indeed a very intrinsic part of the story that lends the adventure an immersive quality.  I forgot it was filmed this way because  I was fully engrossed in the feature.  It is brilliantly shot and expertly staged.  The scenes are occasionally shot 360 degrees as it moves around the action and it brought me to the feeling that I was right there with them on this expedition.  There are stretches where I watched with held breath.  I didn’t feel as though I was watching a movie.  I was a solider on this mission with them.

This is, in fact, a good time for movies about World War I.  Peter Jackson’s gloriously spellbinding documentary They Shall Not Grow got a limited release at the tail end of 2018.  It too was magnificent but I wasn’t prepared for another tour de force.  1917 is an absolutely penetrating albeit manipulative achievement about courage.  Our two heroes travel through a landscape that invokes anxiety and fear on a scale of biblical proportions.  The chronicle is directed and produced by Sam Mendes with a screenplay he wrote withy Krysty Wilson-Cairns.  It features stellar cinematography from the aforementioned Roger Deakins and a rousing score by Thomas Newman that already feels iconic.  Together they combine to form this artistic success.  It’s horrific and beautiful, mesmerizing and immediate.  If cinema is an emotional experience — a portal that transports us to another time and place — then 1917 inspired the most visceral reaction of any picture I saw in 2019.  The majesty of it all blew me away.

 

 

*  “masterpiece”.

12-03-19

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver4STARS3.5Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker might have set a record for the number of spontaneous bursts of applause I’ve ever experienced during a theatrical screening.  I stopped counting when it reached double digits.  It was an absolute love fest.  My reaction was less enthusiastic but I can appreciate why the crowd embraced this so gleefully.  The chronicle is heavy on scenes and displays that are specifically designed to appeal to longtime fans of the Star Wars franchise — especially admirers of the first set (and best) of three films often referred to as the classic trilogy.  Director J.J. Abrams is a master at giving people exactly what they want.  That is both boon and bane to the grand narrative arc of the three most recent Star Wars episodes.

J.J. Abrams was faced with an epic task.  First, he had to close out the sequel trilogy which he began with The Force Awakens in 2015, but also cap off the entire “Skywalker Saga” of nine movies.  He only partially succeeds as the three chapters linked do not fit together as a cohesive whole.  I enjoyed Rian Johnson’s subversive take in the 2nd movie because he brought innovation and unexpected change to the franchise.  However, it was not meant to be. From a story standpoint, it now feels like Abrams directed The Force Awakens with an idea of where he wanted the adventure to go.  Then the series was hijacked by filmmaker Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi who introduced plot elements and personalities only to have Abrams either ignore them or explain them away with The Rise of Skywalker as a course-correcting measure.  This is true with the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a mechanic of the resistance that was a huge part of The Last Jedi but now only registers as a gloried cameo typing away at a computer here.  Be warned there will be other adjustments made in the name of retroactive continuity.  What I’m about to say isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the opening crawl.  Somehow a resurrected emperor Palpatine returns (Ian McDiarmid) as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been rendered as a nonentity.

J.J. Abrams’ vision of Star Wars is more focused on the meticulous crafting of visual style at the expense of logical developments. That’s not to say that The Rise of Skywalker isn’t enjoyable.  It’s hugely entertaining.  The audience in my theater were laughing, crying, cheering.  That audience experienced something akin to a religious experience.  There are lots of encounters with fantastic creatures and random humans.  Babu Frik is the baby Yoda of this movie.  Don’t underestimate this little guy’s power to charm the viewer.  Babu Frik reprograms droids and speaks in an incomprehensible but adorable alien language that had my theater enraptured.  There’s a cone-headed droid named D-O that behaves like a rehabilitated puppy.  Porgs, Ewoks, Jawas, droids all pop up intermittently to satisfy your fan lust for more cute critters.  Abrams is adept at manipulating the Star Wars aesthetic in a way that honors the past while fashioning a tale with new personalities.

There’s a dizzying array of human roles too.  Numerous individuals pop up, deliver one line and then frustratingly disappear.  Abrams prioritizes the wants and needs of the fans over plot, characterization and thematic consistency.  Rose Tico has been sidelined.  Yet the writers have added other actors that appear to fulfill the same role but then obfuscate the advancement of a singular narrative.  Jannah (Naomi Ackie) is an ally of the Resistance who is paired up with Finn.  She also has a conversation with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) that’s calculated to tease some sort of relationship.  Oscar Isaac is back as Poe and he hangs out with an old friend named Zorii Bliss played by Keri Russell.  You’d never know it was the actress, however, because she wears a helmet.  You only see her eyes in one scene.  The inclusion of Jannah and Zorii seems rather pointless.  Nevertheless, the cast is filled with beings that all look and sound the part.  The villains continue to be cast like actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde in the First Order looks like a genetic descendant of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin.

Yes, this movie relies on the groundwork that was established long ago.  This entry will lack an emotional impact for the uninitiated.  It feels a bit like a greatest hits reel where everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in.  At one point Rey amusingly utters a declaration that followers will recognize as a variation of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.  My theater was erupting in applause at moments that I didn’t even grasp.  The gang walks into a droid shop and there’s an old guy with a white beard shaking his head.  Everyone started clapping.  It was only after the film was over and I consulted the internet that I found out who that was.  Abrams even finds a way to include original cast members including (but not limited to) Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Billy Dee Williams.  Fisher passed on in 2016 and so her scenes have been cobbled together from outtakes and pre-recorded dialogue.  Her declarations have a vagueness about them but it’s nice to see her.  Another character reappears as just a figment of someone’s memory.

The Rise of Skywalker ultimately delivers the satisfying end to — what I like to call — the nonology.  The chronicle is well-paced but at 2 hours and 22 minutes, it’s overpacked with too much stuff.  It’s messy and incoherent.  However, the central trio continues to be a charismatic bunch.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) bicker like two brothers.  They still have a nice dynamic.  The main hero, Jedi Knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets the lion’s share of the drama.  The idea of “The Force” as an all-powerful almost Godlike solution to difficult problems is further promoted.  Rey now has abilities so advanced that she can control a spaceship flying overhead simply by outstretching her hand while she is safely on the ground.  Apparently, the force can even be manipulated in the same way that Jesus helped Lazarus.

Rey is a captivating heroine and her interaction with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the sentimental core.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a lightsaber duel between the two of them.  The fact it’s set against a backdrop of stormy ocean waves that rise and crash all around them truly elevate the action.  It ends with a surprising act.  Abrams fills his account with sensational set pieces that delight the viewer.  Also ** news flash ** there will be a massive air battle between the Rebels and the Empire.  Abrams celebrates cinematic history by courting nostalgia but then amps up the spectacle.  And what’s wrong with that?  It’s his ties to the same ideas that fascinated George Lucas where The Rise of Skywalker fitfully entertains as an end to the Star Wars saga.

12-19-19

Marriage Story

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

marriage_story_ver3STARS4At first glance, it would appear that Marriage Story is a paean to love given that title.  It begins eloquently, with a wife’s declaration about all the things she loves about her husband.  He too expresses lovely thoughts about her and we hear both of them as voiceover monologues in the respective voice of each writer.  However, this is a narrative from the mind of filmmaker Noah Baumbach who brought us acidic works like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.  It turns out those letters were written under the direction of a therapist.  The two are having a counseling session.  In fact, this account is a tale about a couple getting a divorce.

Marriage Story is a fully realized take on a disintegrating relationship.  Noah Baumbach knows a thing or two about this subject because it’s a fictionalized version of his very real split in 2013 from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.   Since then he has indeed tempered his caustic takes on relationships with warmth (Frances Ha, While We’re Young).  The chronicle evades the upbeat tone of those recent efforts, but it’s in the carefully presented details where he captivates the viewer.  Noah Baumbach’s screenplay acknowledges that separation is painful but the depiction is extracted from a place of affection and understanding.  It’s both intimate and unique which makes this feature refreshingly realistic.

Anyone will tell you that a lifelong union is about compromise. Divorce is about the inability to concede.  A lot of this couple’s disagreements focus on where the family will ultimately live.  Adam Driver’s Charlie is a New York guy.  He’s in the theater and writes plays.  Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole has a TV pilot that’s taking off and so she prefers LA.  They also have an eight-year-old son together.  Obviously, young Henry (Azhy Robertson) can’t live in both places at the same time so this is where their problem lays.

Marriage Story is a fascinating saga where very little happens, but so much is said.  This is simply about getting to know two people and why they can no longer stay married.  This is where the movie comes alive.  The talk is the action.  The dialogue is elegant, witty, sharp, funny, and quick.  Their problems really don’t seem all that bad in the beginning.  I mean, nothing so unsolvable that several good discussions might fix.  But as things develop we get a nuanced snapshot of how their relationship has deteriorated past the point of no return.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to involve outside counsel.  They initially agree to amicably separate without the use of lawyers.  Then Nicole hires one (Laura Dern) and things deteriorate steadily from there.

Marriage Story is highlighted by a whole ensemble of compelling performances.  It goes without saying that the power of this film rests on the authenticity of acting from main stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.  The skill of thespian achievement doesn’t end with them.   I could write a whole paragraph about Laura Dern.  The greatest lawyers must savagely but intelligently manipulate laws.  As attorney Nora Fanshaw, Dern is absolutely brilliant at conveying understanding toward her client and utter contempt for her opponent.  She’s beautifully nasty.  Alan Alda and Ray Liotta also play advocates for Charlie’s side at different points.  One is sensitive (but ineffective) at his profession.  The other is a pit bull.  You can figure out who plays which.

So who is to blame?  The depiction is sure to incite a debate.  Given this is a personal tale from Noah Baumbach, you’d expect a more sympathetic viewpoint for the man.  Yet I found it to be an even-handed presentation of the two sides.  For example, it doesn’t sidestep the ugly fact that Charlie actually cheated on Nicole even though their breakup isn’t due to his immoral act.  At one point, Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) asserts, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”  Noah Baumbach may not have originated that cogent declaration, but he perfectly utilizes it in his crackerjack screenplay.  It’s in the little details where the movie soars.  Charlie and Nicole both have their redeeming features and failings.  Why Charlie’s at fault vs. why Nicole is to be condemned is an interesting conversation.  I could go on and on giving precise details as to why for each,  but that’s why you need to see this film.  Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly effective portrait of how love fades where it once blossomed.

12-06-19