Archive for April, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on April 30, 2011 by Mark Hobin

One of a kind documentary about Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for The New York Times. More of a cultural anthropologist, he documents style as it happens out on the streets of New York City. His impromptu pictures have become a regular series of the newspaper for over 30 years. Half of the time we are treated to his fascinating snapshots that capture the true expression of a metropolis better than any runway show every could. The photos are of real people, stylish and flamboyant, captured for all the world to see. They are a celebration of the urban inhabitants, as well as the city itself. The other half of the time, we are presented with the portrait of a man, unassuming and utterly without pretension. He is distrustful of money, shunning monetary reward to a fault, riding from place to place on a Schwinn bicycle. He lives in a cramped studio apartment in Carnegie hall, packed to the ceiling with file cabinets of his negatives. A man who finds utter joy in his work capturing fashion and strangely little else it seems. His passion is remarkable. So exhaustive is his document that director Richard Press subtly suggests Cunningham’s equal importance among more celebrated luminaries like Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton in the field of fashion photography. To enjoy this film, you needn’t be fond of New York, nor do you have to appreciate photography. You don’t even need to have an interest in fashion. You simply must have a love for humanity. In other words, you should be human.

Water for Elephants

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on April 24, 2011 by Mark Hobin

A young veterinary student jumps aboard a moving circus train and is subsequently hired to care for the animals.  Rather pedestrian tale of forbidden love is instantly predictable when the three main characters in this love triangle are introduced.  That’s not necessarily an issue if we’re presented with believable personalities.  Robert Pattinson is Jacob Jankowski, the young veterinarian at the center of the story.  A vacant performance, Pattison has got James Dean’s squinty introspective pout, but none of the legend’s magnetism behind it.  The character is shockingly passive, an almost lifeless shell of a man.   Or make that a boy.  All male model style, but little passionate substance.  His stoicism is in direct contrast to August, the violent, abusive owner of the circus assertively played by Christoph Waltz.  Every time August is onscreen we cannot look away from his personality.  Frequently wicked, occasionally charming, he has a commanding presence.  A violent man, he routinely has circus workers thrown off the moving train in the middle of the night to avoid paying them.  Which begs the question, why do these people stick around?  Why doesn’t someone fight back?  That those questions are not addressed are but two of many that belie the characters inexplicable behavior.  That brings us to Reese Witherspoon as Marlena.  Her relationship with August never really adds up and her romance with Jacob lacks the needed chemistry required for us to believe she has fallen deeply in love.  It’s telling that the most credible character with any depth is played by an animal.  She has more chemistry with Rosie the elephant, than with any of her human co-stars.  Rosie is the single most likable character in the film. The atmosphere is captivating as well.  The cinematography is beautiful.  Director Francis Lawrence nicely captures the retro charm of a circus in the 1930s.  James Newton Howard’s lush score is enchanting.  Its fanciful quality captures the romantic mood of a bygone era.  Nice mood is not a justification for a 122 minute epic, however .  The slow moving story lacks the dramatic thrust or romantic fire needed to sustain the story’s bloated running time.  At best, an exquisite disappointment.

Scream 4

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags on April 19, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Slasher comedy is the fourth installment and the self acknowledged reboot of the Scream anthology. The barely-there plot involves Sidney Prescott returning to Woodsboro after ten years as part of her self-help book tour.  Actress Neve Campbell is back along with Courteney Cox and David Arquette. For fans of the series, it’s nice to see the old gang again. It helps if you’ve seen the other episodes because you’ll care more for these people. The action also integrates a new group of kids. Despite the fresh faces, the characters don’t really change mentally or emotionally in #4, they exist more as a body count. The Ghostface killer is particularly efficient this time around.  He has an almost workmanlike approach to killing people, stabbing one victim after another without much creativity or even surprise. The scariest scene is when the girls drive through a stop sign. When it happens you’ll understand why.

The series has always spoofed its knowledge of horror genre conventions, but it reaches an apex in this chapter. The story starts out with two teen girls discussing the movie Saw 4, which one dismisses as terrible because it had no character development and a bunch of dismembered limbs. Could the writer be making fun of this picture perhaps?  I guess that’s the point/joke. Later friends gather at someone’s home to watch “Stab 7” on TV, a film within this film, based on the murders that took place in a previous installment of the Scream franchise. “Stab 7” is how this movie opens so we the audience are actually re-watching the same fake movie  for the second time. All the self-awareness can get a bit tedious after awhile. The actors endlessly discuss who’s going to die next, or when the killings are going to end due to the rules of the horror reboot. All this removes any tension the story is trying to build. It does cause a headache however, and that’s kind of frightening, right?  In fact, I’d have to say this is the least scary, horror film I have ever seen. There is no suspense and it isn’t particularly inventive either. Watch it as a comedy and there are some laughs, but as horror, it fails.

Jackass 3D

Posted in Comedy, Documentary with tags on April 15, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Third theatrical venture based on the MTV show. No plot, just a compilation of Johnny Knoxville et all, performing various dangerous, crude, ridiculous, and self-injuring stunts and pranks. Emphasis on crude as these gags are a bonafide modern day freak show. Other times the antics seems to threaten lives. One ugly sketch has the participants using a beehive filled with angry bees as a tetherball. Every once in a while there is something ingenious that makes the effort worthwhile. Phantom high speed cameras which shoot at 1,000 frames per second are frequently used to record the action at jaw droppingly slow speeds. The opening and closing sequences (as well as many of the stunts) were filmed this way. These bookends are moderately interesting shorts of visual style. Later, one fascinating stunt uses the force of a powerful jet engine to launch random items (shoes, fresh produce, people) at mind-blowing acceleration. It’s a spellbinding mixture of science and idiocy, the coolest thing in the whole 94 minutes. If more of the exploits were of that variety this could have been more entertaining. Instead we get acts so hazardous they court death, threatening to turn the proceedings into an actual snuff film. In other parts we are presented with gags so repulsive they literally make you gag. That this is a mainstream movie is a shocking document on what is now socially acceptable. I’ll spare you any details of what you’ll encounter, but trust me, it‘s disgusting. I suppose there is honor in warning people from seeing it, however. It was a loss of innocence for me.


Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on April 6, 2011 by Mark Hobin

A family begins to experience strange occurrences in their new home in this supernatural horror film. Soon after, their son falls into a coma and the episodes intensify. Like the greatest scare fests, Director James Wan wisely highlights creepiness and mood over outright gore. Rather surprising since he was also responsible for directing the original “torture porn” movie Saw. Novel twist on the haunted house film is an extremely convincing, old fashioned throwback to the classic ghost stories of the past. Yes the second half bears more than a passing resemblance to Poltergeist, but it builds suspense so effectively, you’ll forgive the theft.

So what makes this film so good?  Let’s start with the truly unsettling score. All screeching violins and discordant piano tones, its menacing feel creates a sonic aura of dread. The script is distinguished too.  For example, very early on in the story, as soon as bizarre things start to happen in their home, the family actually moves out of the house. Finally!  It’s nice to see someone behave intelligently in a film like this.  And most important of all, the narrative is intensely scary.  It earns its chills honestly, mining real fear out of seemingly simple things: a pair of shoes sticking out of some curtains, a shadowy figure outside the window, unidentifiable voices whispering through the baby monitor. The filmmakers realize that what’s most disturbing isn’t a face that bites your head off, it’s a visage that malevolently stares at you directly from beyond the darkness.  Even after you notice the figure, it continues to stare at you, unblinking and unconcerned by your presence.  It’s the kind of feeling that will cause you to jump many times throughout the picture.

Source Code

Posted in Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Decent thriller about a soldier who wakes up in the body of a commuter on a train about to blow up in 8 minutes.  His objective?  Determine who is responsible for the explosive.  Overly cerebral suspense deals with time travel and parallel realities.  Solid actioner has science fiction elements which allow him to repeat the mission seemingly without end.  I must say I did find it a bit exhausting reliving the same 8 minutes 7 times throughout the course of the film.  Sort of the sci-fi equivalent of Groundhog Day.  Jake Gyllenhaal’s personality isn’t particularly charismatic either.  To wit, there is zero chemistry between him and his love interest played by Michelle Monaghan.  Granted it’s pretty hard to build much romance in 8 minute increments, but still.  Mostly a high concept exercise, there are some intriguing details and the race against time is tense and exciting.  Just don’t try to analyze the scientific explanation for it all.  The head trip story is probably best enjoyed if you put your brain in neutral.  The ending still leaves a lingering confusion.  This won’t be addressed for fear of spoilers, but they’re the kind of frustrating questions ripe for debate.  What else would you expect from Duncan Jones?  He also directed the intellectual conundrum Moon.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on April 1, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Gut-wrenching documentary about Dr. Andrew Bagby, a resident in family practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania who is shot to death by Shirley Turner, his unstable girlfriend.  Soon after his murder, it is discovered that she is pregnant with his unborn child.  This document would then serve as a memorial honoring the father little Zachary never knew.  At first this record suggests a home movie made to commentate a loved one, something very intimate to be shared only with close relatives. Haphazard and awkwardly constructed, the amateurish style actually contributes to its immediacy.  Many relatives, friends, and associates attest to their love and admiration for Andrew and support for his parents, David and Kathleen.  There is hope within this loving and dedicated group.  Although it includes numerous testimonials, it becomes much more than a tribute.  The memoir soon shifts focus from Andrew to his parents as they seek to gain custody of grandson Zachary, from the woman they suspected of killing their son.  As we are further drawn into the Bagby’s world, we sympathize with their terrible plight and share in their cause. The intestinal fortitude shown by Bagby’s parents is unbelievable.  They display a strength of character I doubt few people could muster in the midst of such despair.  It’s admirable.  My heart goes out to them and I was touched by the devotion they had for their grandson.

Ultimately, I think what makes the account so difficult to endure is what happens next could have been prevented.  Because Shirley fled from the United States to Newfoundland before she was charged, the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Canadian courts first to extradite her so she can face a U.S. trial.  To reveal anything more would be to rob the documentary of its power, but it highlights extreme failures of the legal system, instilling an utter hatred for the process.  No evidence is ever given to explain the outrageous miscarriage of justice that occurred.  We understand WHAT happened, but not WHY.  Director Kurt Kuenne wants you to experience the same pain the parents feel and it hurts.  It would have helped if psychiatrist Dr. John Doucet and Justice Gale Welsh, both from Newfoundland, had agreed to be interviewed.  It is not surprising they declined, but their behavior is so mind numbingly egregious, it screams for an explanation.  How could they have behaved the manner in which they did?  Their conduct is quite simply, infuriating.  By the end of the film, you will be filled with grief and anger.  The disturbing resolution will haunt you for days.