Archive for January, 2013

Fist of Legend

Posted in Action, Drama, Foreign, Martial Arts with tags on January 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Fist of Legend photo starrating-3stars.jpgFist of Legend is a Hong Kong action film set in Shanghai in 1937 when the city was occupied by Japanese forces. Chen Zhen (Jet Li) learns that his Chinese martial arts teacher Huo Yuanjia has died in a battle with a Japanese fighter. Distraught he leaves for China immediately to avenge his death. Upon arriving he beats Ryoichi Akutagawa, the man responsible, with such ease, he suspects foul play and this prompts an investigation that leads to, what else? More combat. This is a 1994 remake of 1972’s Fist of Fury, which starred Bruce Lee.

Fist of Legend is really highlighted by some impressive fights that favor realism over wire-driven choreography. However the plot is still your standard issue mix of escalating racial tensions between the Japanese and Chinese, differing methods of rival martial arts schools, and good old fashioned revenge. This barely made a dent in Hong Kong’s box office when it was first released. I didn’t find the story to be particularly revolutionary but connoisseurs of the genre have since labeled this as one of the greatest martial arts pictures of all time. It certainly paved the way for Jet Li’s launch into Western cinema. The bouts are admittedly pretty spectacular. One especially exciting scene occurs when Jet Li visits the Japanese dojo to challenge the assailant who killed his master teacher. His many students attempt to stop him but Jet Li’s talent proves too formidable and he defeats the entire class, even taking a moment to tie his shoes in the process. Later Jet Li challenges a surprisingly sympathetic Japanese Karate Master in a field…blindfolded. And finally there’s the climatic battle where he goes against General Fujita, the Supreme Killer. Any one of these would be an incredible set piece, but taken together it’s a lot of bang for your buck. If a martial arts film is judged by the quality of its fight scenes then Fist of Legend is worth checking out.

Blu-ray Notes: In the original multi-lingual movie, Cantonese and Japanese is spoken by different actors. Unfortunately there is no original language option. All 3 audio choices on the Blu-ray are dubbed: Cantonese, Mandarin or English. You’re going to get weird synchronization issues regardless of which version you chose. I can’t speak for the Chinese options, but the English voiceovers are hopelessly wooden and unnaturally stilted. I found Cantonese with English subtitles to be the most acceptable.

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Quartet

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on January 25, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Quartet photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s virtually impossible not to discuss Quartet, without mentioning The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Director Dustin Hoffman’s (yes the actor) drama is an amiable lark about four aging opera singers in Beecham House, an old folks home for retired British musicians. It’s a pretty tony place with satin sheets and gorgeous vistas. Residents lounge around the opulent grounds while sipping tea and playing croquet. It’s a decidedly different view of old age from Michael Haneke’s Amour of the same year. This is sweet comfort food that doesn’t aim too high. It merely seeks to entertain with the charisma of our seasoned stars. There’s sophisticated but slightly gloomy Reggie (Tom Courtenay), sweet but slightly daffy Cissy (Pauline Collins) and cheeky but slightly oversexed Wilf (Billy Connolly). They actually sang together in a famous performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” a long time ago. They’ve been friends forever. But this is a quartet after all and thrust into their midst is new arrival Jean (Maggie Smith), the irritable old biddy who still carries the torch for our dear damaged Reggie.

While I was watching Quartet I was charmed by the trifling observations and banter of our four main stars. I chuckled occasionally at the “I can’t believe an old person just said that” one-liners, mostly from Billy Connolly’s character. I’ll also single out Michael Gambon as kaftan-wearing Cedric who rules their impending musical production with an iron hand. He’s rather amusing. But days later as I reflect upon what I saw, I can barely remember any of it. Perhaps you have to be of the septuagenarian set or older to truly appreciate this. It certainly is gentle. Even Cissy’s encroaching senility is treated as a sweet personality quirk. If you’re looking for entertainment that doesn’t rock the boat and is content to simply be cute, then you should enjoy Quartet quite a bit. The company unquestionably elevates this material into something that’s worth your time. It’s an effervescent little piffle. Nothing wrong with that. Given the talent involved, I guess was hoping for something more.

Parental Guidance

Posted in Comedy, Family with tags on January 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Parental Guidance photo starrating-3stars.jpgBilly Crystal and Bette Midler play Artie and Diane, grandparents that cling to the old guard of parenting. Artie isn’t above using the threat of a spanking. Marisa Tomei is Alice, their daughter. She and her husband Phil played by Tom Everett Scott, are new-agey parents in their 40s. Their kids are named Harper, Turner and Barker for goodness’ sake! They promote hip, contemporary child rearing ideas. Instead of acting up, they offer ‘use your words’. Rather than saying ‘no’ they try ‘consider the consequences’. Both parenting styles clash when Phil wins an award and the couple must travel out of town to accept it. Alice asks her mom and dad to watch their overly coddled kids and of course problems arise. I will admit that on paper, Parental Guidance sounds like a recipe for disaster and indeed the critical reviews would support this. However I had a much different reaction. This is a light hearted frolic concerning family that upholds traditional values in a refreshing and yes, very funny commentary about raising kids.

The nicest surprise is that everyone is extremely likable. Despite opposing points of view each individual comes across as a human being with valid concerns. No one is used as the butt of jokes, treated as buffoon to be ridiculed. The two older kids are a somewhat bland, but at least they’re not the typical precocious little brats that usually populate these types of pictures. Special mention should go to Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as Barker, the youngest child. He’s a red headed imp that wrings laughs simply from his goofy demeanor. He could stand some discipline. There’s a subplot of sorts involving the ultra modern “smart house” in which the younger parents live. Father Phil is a high-tech inventor and has created a prototype domicile with a command center that announces guests in a robotic voice. It also seems to have a personality with full rein of the various appliances. I legitimately laughed out loud when the house loudly inquires if Grandpa Artie would like to continue watching R rated horror movie Saw with little Turner just as Mom walks in the room.

Parental Guidance is a sweet, warm family friendly comedy. Director Andy Fickman has built a solid career on directing these kinds of films. Like The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain, Parental Guidance has been successful with audiences, if not the critics. Granted it isn’t innovative. If you’re looking for Hitchcockian twists and turns, I’d have to challenge why you’d choose a PG rated comedy from Walden Media in the first place. You sort of know that the assorted contrivances will predictably work out in the end. But the journey in getting there is amusing and therein lies the fun. The story mines humor from the generation gap. The subject of parenting is explored in a humorous and delightful way. The tone is cheerful and comforting. I was surprised at how balanced the screenplay is too. The evenhanded script goes to great lengths to present an objective view of each adult with faults as well as virtues. They all are united in the fact that they want what’s best for the kids. There’s a genuine respect for these characters that rarely panders to the lowest common denominator. Alright when Billy Crystal’s crotch meets a child’s baseball bat, that’s kind of an exception.

A Few Good Men

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on January 21, 2013 by Mark Hobin

A Few Good Men photo starrating-5stars.jpgWhat a cast! Two U.S. Marines, are on trial for the murder of William Santiago, a fellow private in their unit. Were the men acting under orders or was it a pre-meditated decision of their own?  Aaron Sorkin adapts his own 1989 Broadway play. His script crackles with intelligence as it entertains simply with words that fly fast and furious. Nowhere is this more true than in the courtroom arena. Jack Nicholson’s famous line in the climatic scene is pretty much the stuff of movie legend. He got the showiest role and the Academy Award nomination. He’s genuinely excellent as the proud and supercilious Colonel Nathan Jessup. But the rest of the company matches his talent. Tom Cruise and Demi Moore exhibit a witty repartee as the defense, Kevin Pollack rounds out their team with sagacious support, Kevin Bacon exudes confidence as the prosecutor and Kiefer Sutherland is all seething hostile aggression as Lieutenant Kendrick, Jessup’s right hand man. Everyone is in fine form. Sorkin’s writing is brilliant. A literate examination of the Marine Corps and their code of honor is at the heart of this expose. The actors give his language the dramatic weight that elevate this production into a document of military life that feels essential. 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Few Good Men. These are the reasons I love courtroom dramas.

Mama

Posted in Horror with tags on January 18, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Mama photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgA father driving too fast down an icy street, swerves off the road hitting a tree on an embankment below. Still alive, he and his two toddler daughters Victoria and Lilly escape with their lives and find shelter in an old deserted cabin in the woods. But all is not right in this shack. Something evil seizes the father, leaving the little girls to fend for themselves. Abandoned and living alone they become feral in behavior.

If Jessica Chastain was embarrassed by this film she could’ve just said no. She’s virtually unrecognizable in a short jet black wig and abundant tattoos. She’s in a rock band and kind of recalls Joan Jett. Her boyfriend (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the girl’s uncle and he agrees to take these wild children into their home. Surprise! Surprise! The entity that was responsible for their father’s disappearance seems to have followed the girls. Naturally mayhem ensues.

Mama has a lot going for it before it ultimately falls apart in the final third. There’s a brilliant opening credits sequence that uses the toddler’s drawings to depict life in that cabin from their perspective. The drawings of the children on all fours are chilling and prep the audience for what is to come. That’s a great start. The problem is Mama doesn’t present anything you haven’t seen hundreds of times already, in better movies I might add. The first occasion I saw a person contort their body into a spider-like stance and walk on the ceiling I was totally freaked out, the 10th time it put me to sleep.

Mama is a lazy amalgamation of kids in peril, overprotective mothers, haunted houses and supernatural forces.  Initially the quick glimpses and faraway shots of the entity are very creepy. The soundtrack by Fernando Velázquez is lush and sophisticated in a way that really elevates this material into something elegant. But eventually you realize the only trick this story has up its sleeve is one loud burst of noise after another. Even the sinister moths, yes moths [The Silence of the Lambs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Mothman Prophecies] sound like a flock of pigeons when they fly by. Furthermore what was once a mysterious creature becomes more and more visible until it is literally right in our faces. In brief snatches it was scary, but with the lights on in full view it looks like a bad CGI effect. Director Andrés Muschietti expanded his 3 minute short into 100 and it shows. It drags, oh how it drags! There’s not enough here to justify the prolonged running length. Mama is a classy horror film, I’ll give it that. For some, that may suffice. But when the proper remedy is applied to placate this spirit in the climax and it doesn‘t stick, I gave up. I only hope this doesn’t make people forget Jessica Chastain’s fine work in Zero Dark Thirty. That would be the scariest thing.

Gangster Squad

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 17, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Gangster Squad photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIt’s Los Angeles in 1949. Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is an officer that operates outside the law. But don’t get the wrong idea. He’s a good guy, an honest cop. He merely acts illegally in order to serve justice every now and then. That’s especially true when it comes to apprehending Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), an infamous hoodlum that has become the most powerful figure in the Jewish mafia. His rise is unstoppable due in part to controlling the majority of law enforcement with bribes. O’Mara is placed in charge of a special police unit devoted to putting an end to Cohen’s reign in the criminal underworld. The gangster squad is an elite team of incorruptible cops, but it’s obviously an opportunity to hire a lot of acting talent as well: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña and Robert Patrick comprise this noble team. They talk and act like stock characters (the black guy, the nerd, the Mexican, the old guy) from 2013 traveled back in time. Oh and what would any period detective drama be without a sexy dame so Emma Stone is on hand as the notorious mobster’s girl, who falls for Ryan Gosling (natch) because, uh well he lit her cigarette in a nightclub of course.

Gangster Squad has all the depth of a rain puddle. There’s no denying that it looks incredible. 1940s Los Angeles is recreated with stylish color and finesse. The production design is first rate and if that were all that mattered, this movie would earn 5 stars. However the narrative unfolds like a two-bit crime thriller. Given Sean Penn’s ugly prosthetics and accent he seems to be channeling Al Pacino in Dick Tracy. In fact I thought of Dick Tracy on more than one occasion while watching this. Warren Beatty’s far superior film was based on a comic book so its two dimensional facade worked in its favor. Here the artificiality works against the story. Sadly, the writing is hopelessly laughable. I frequently chuckled at dialogue that in retrospect was clearly meant to be serious. My favorite is when Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) looks up from a newspaper with a huge headline in bold type calling for the police chiefs resignation and then loudly announcing “They’re calling for my resignation!“ You don’t say?! Oh and count how many times a character breaks/throws something in a fit of rage. If renting with friends at home, the number of occurrences would make a great drinking game. On second thought, that’s a better idea. Just wait for the DVD/Blu-ray. Spending $10 to view this in a theater would be a crime.

The Paperboy

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on January 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketCharlotte Bless is a needy blonde femme fatale who writes to prison inmates. She’s fallen in love with one – Hillary Van Wetter, a criminal on death row for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. Over their correspondence, she believes he’s innocent. In an effort to prove his innocence, she enlists the help of Ward Jansen and Yardley Acheman, two investigative reporters from the Miami Times. Along the way, she also incurs the affections of a young admirer.

The Paperboy is one of those long, hot summer style Southern melodrama’s that sounds like something Tennessee Williams might write but in the hands of director Lee Daniels it becomes a muggy, salacious mess. Don’t get me wrong. There are some genuine moments of acting and tenderness buried under the tawdry hodgepodge. Most of them belong to Nicole Kidman, who gives a better performance that this film deserves. Even Zac Efron is surprisingly charismatic as the shiftless college dropout that lusts over/is in love with Charlotte, the aging blonde Barbie doll.

It seems as if any time a moment of tenderness or drama begins, it’s undercut by some sleazy revelation that completely wipes away the beauty of the scene that came before it. I’ll give an example. Charlotte brings Jack, Ward and Yardley to meet with Hillary in prison. The “paperboys” are there to interview the man charged with murder but Hilary is more concerned with indulging his sexual desire with Charlotte. The guards have insisted the love birds to remain apart. However that doesn’t stop the two from contorting their faces as if in the throes of passion. They moan and quiver all while seated across the room from one another. It’s an embarrassing display that will either provoke laughter or disgust. That’s one scene. There are at least 4 more comparable to that. I won’t even reveal Charlotte’s home remedy after Jack suffers an allergic reaction from a jellyfish sting, but you’ve probably already heard about it since it’s The Paperboy’s most talked-about scene.

The Paperboy is highlighted by a game cast ready to throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately the trashy script is too often fixated on the unsavory details of Pete Dexter‘s 1995 novel. Like the Texans in Killer Joe, this recounts the sordid lives of a group of southerners, this time in Florida. The Paperboy is sort of a companion piece released only two months after that movie.  Both casts include Matthew McConaughey. He’s fine as are the rest of the actors, but the real revelation is Nicole Kidman. She proves adept at conveying this hopelessly lost southern creature with an authenticity that far exceeds the quality of this film. There are some nice moments of genuine realism in the narrative, but they really don’t add up to the sum of their parts. Too often the narrative gets sidetracks on unnecessary deviations that derail the story. A bizarre late development that sheds light on McConaughey’s character is introduced just as things should be wrapping up. People willing to suffer the ridiculousness, should find this kind of fun. Personally, I had had enough by the end. There’s still plenty to delight more forgiving viewers. And any movie that unearths the 1973 chestnut “Show And Tell” by Al Wilson can’t be all bad.

Oscar Nominations Podcast

Posted in Podcast with tags , , , , on January 12, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Arcturus, The Beast and Mark Hobin give their short and sweet reactions to the Oscar nominations announced on Thursday, January 10th.

MGCTv – Oscar Nominations Show

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Amour

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Romance with tags on January 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

AmourPhotobucketAn austere, unflinching portrait of an elderly Parisian husband and wife facing the difficulties that precipitate aging.  Becoming older is the subject of this heartfelt film – specifically the physical and mental breakdown of a man’s spouse as she falls ill. The script treats the issue with sensitivity and there is a surprising warmth to a chronicle with which director Michael Haneke is usually not associated. But the filmmaker, whose oeuvre was described by one author as a “cinema of cruelty”, hasn’t really changed that much. Sentimental accounts are not his bag and true to his sensibilities, there are aspects that highlight this as a drama done in his quintessential style.

Georges and Anne are retired music teachers in their 80s.  They’re attending a recital of one of their previous students near the beginning of the picture. When they return home, they discover they have been robbed. The minutiae of their conversation informs us that they have a comfortable ease with each other that only a long-time married couple would have. The next morning as they’re sitting down to breakfast, Anne begins staring off into space and doesn’t respond to his questions. Georges is concerned and he arranges for her to see a doctor. He determines she requires surgery. It isn’t successful once completed. This all happens in the first 15 minutes. As the narrative develops her capabilities slowly deteriorate over an extended time span. We are essentially confined to their apartment. With the exception of a few scenes featuring their daughter played by Isabelle Huppert, these two carry the entire movie. The action is claustrophobic and agonizing. At one point about halfway through, he’s getting ready for bed for the night. There’s a knock at the door. Let’s just say what happens next is a good example of one of those intense moments.

At the heart of Amour are two engaging performances that are tantamount to our connection to this story. Jean-Louis Trintignant is an internationally recognized French film star with films darting back as early as 1956. Anyone who has ever seen A Man and a Woman will remember him in his 30s. Ditto Emmanuelle Riva who starred in Hiroshima, mon amour back in 1959. As Georges and Anne These two actors are essential to our “enjoyment” of this production. I use quotes because enjoy is such a strong word.  The actors are warm and genuine, but the mood is chilly and remote. The central couple are equally genial and sweet. They could be our grandparents. We are drawn into their plight because we care about them. Once you do, there is no turning back as you descend a path of gradually building despair. Haneke’s traditional use of extremely long static takes is particularly effective here. They present the developments as real life, without artifice. There’s no score, another Haneke attribute. These qualities lull the audience into a state of depression. It is startlingly unsentimental. The lack of visual or audio cues is refreshing in it’s presentation of an idea often manipulated with such indicators. This is Haneke’s version of a disease-of-the-week TV movie. It’s not a reassuring portrayal, but it is sobering and honest.

Not Fade Away

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on January 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Not Fade AwayPhotobucket1960s coming of age memoir concerns three best friends from New Jersey who decide to form a rock band. Television writer-director David Chase is best known for creating the influential and critically acclaimed HBO drama The Sopranos. Here he makes his feature film début after having worked in television for 30 years.

Not Fade Away is somewhat hampered by a collection of characters that are hard to like. Our script focuses on an Italian-American adolescent named Doug growing up beginning in the year 1964. It affirms the evolutions in music that began with the British invasion of groups like the Beatles and more importantly in this story, the Rolling Stones. That musical onslaught also heralded a transformation in fashion and hairstyles which our young star adopts as he becomes the lead singer of a teenage rock and roll band called the “The Twylight Zones”. He is a good singer, but he is an uninteresting shell of a protagonist. He constantly mopes in a sullen disposition. I don’t recall him ever having smiled once in the entire film. He’s bland too. Ditto his inexplicably too-pretty-for him girlfriend played by Bella Heathcote. The Twiggy-eyed Australian is an unearthly beauty at least, but she was more appealing in Dark Shadows.

Douglas lives with his insufferable parents – a father with the standard-issue intolerance for social change and a perpetually distraught mother who overreacts to everything: ‘Why me, God?’ Douglas’ initial desire to join the army diminishes as he gets caught up in the artistic movement. Needless to say his dream to start a band doesn’t sit too well with his father who constantly challenges his son’s choices in life. Challenges is too nice a word – bullies is better – he’s really overbearing. Douglas fights with his parents, he fights with his band mates, he fights with his girlfriend. For a movie supposedly portraying the unbridled abandon of rock and roll, this is kind of depressing.

Not Fade Away is a trip through the 60s of various clichés. The rock and roll tale is highlighted by some rousing musical numbers and nice period detail. Unfortunately the chronicle isn’t particular innovative. It’s liberally sprinkles in 60s buzzwords like JFK, the Summer of Love, sexual revolution, civil rights, Vietnam, and Martin Luther King with the depth of someone who skimmed a Wikipedia article on the subject. You’ve seen this before. It’s trivial observations on the life of a teen interested in starting a band is rather generic right down to the disapproval of his reactionary parents. The memoir is unfulfilling. It has its moments, but the narrative kind of meanders with little regard toward the attributes of a plot. Events just occur lacking a traditional story that should rise to a climax and then fall to a satisfying dénouement. That’s the only thing about this hackneyed drama that didn’t follow the rules.