Archive for February, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima

Posted in Drama with tags on February 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Bless Me, Ultima photo starrating-3stars.jpgAntonio is a 6 year old boy who forms a special relationship with an enigmatic woman who comes to live with his family. Her name is Ultima and she’s a curandera, which is a traditional folk healer with ties to the supernatural realm. Labeled as a witch by some, she becomes a mentor of sorts to the young Antonio who gives him a new perspective while living in the highly volatile environment of his village.

There’s a lot to recommend in Bless Me Ultima. The cinematography is beautiful and some of the vignettes are charming. When the school kids stare at little Antonio for bringing a burrito to lunch instead of a sandwich, you can empathize with his insecurity. Director Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) nicely captures period detail in this document of Chicano culture of rural New Mexico in the early ’40s. The drama does a nice job at explaining why the child is torn by conflicting ideologies. Ultima is shunned by the townspeople as a witch, yet whenever someone is sick, they appeal to her for help. His father wants him to ride the open plains but his mother wishes him to be a priest. Strangely, despite all this, his crisis of faith doesn’t quite captivate the emotions as it should.

Bless me Ultima is based on Rudolfo Anaya’s widely read and critically acclaimed 1972 novel. A major work of Mexican-American literature in classrooms, it has been contested at times due to its adult language and sympathetic view of the occult. Although the themes of religion vs. mysticism are addressed, the conflict doesn’t really resonate. Actress Miriam Colon is appropriately mysterious and benevolent as Ultima but young actor Luke Ganalon is vague as a character. Given to blank stares as events happen, he fails to truly engage as our lead protagonist. His spiritual development is key to the narrative, but his odyssey seems kind of perfunctory. I suspect the story will probably resound more with people who have read the source text and can fill in the book’s deeper handling of Antonio’s cultural and ideological struggle. This coming-of-age tale is pleasant enough, but it could’ve been so much more.

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Dark Skies

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on February 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Dark Skies photo starrating-3stars.jpgLacy and Daniel are the Barretts, a married couple with two boys, Jesse a teen, and Sam their youngest. Father Daniel has lost his job and is trying to find employment. Mother Lacy is a real estate agent desperately attempting to sell houses in disrepair as fixer-uppers. Jesse hangs out with an older boy they deem to be a bad influence and little Sam is experiencing sleepwalking fits. Then strange things begin happening. Someone starts sculpturally stacking food in the kitchen, family photographs vanish from their frames, false alarm sensors are tripped throughout their home at the same time. Apparently mounting stress and piling bills are the least of their problems. PG-13 presentation mines the territory of a suburban nightmare.

At first when I heard the ads marketing Dark Skies as from the producers of Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister, I rolled my eyes. Yeah those were good movies, but the writer and/or director is a more accurate indicator of quality. Scott Stewart also wrote and directed the execrable Legion so I wasn’t optimistic. The thing is, Dark Skies is indeed closer in spirit to those horror pictures than to that apocalyptic action film. Admittedly, this doesn’t break new ground. Despite the fact it has nothing to do with ghosts, anyone who had seen Poltergeist will feel this is awfully familiar. It’s a fairly rote horror story, but there are some twists. The narrative interestingly exploits the idea that the parents are being made to look unfit due to the escalating afflictions the family publicly endures.

The cast is solid. Acting in horror can be difficult because the circumstances can be a bit ludicrous. Josh Hamilton is a sympathetic father. He’s likeable. Slightly less warm, but more sensible is Keri Russell as the mom who puts the pieces together as to what’s occurring well before her husband. A horror cliché is the character who has already figured everything out, but must now convince those who will not listen or believe – deliberately adding to the audience’s frustrations. Though I question whether Russell appropriately conveys the fear the average mother would exhibit. Hearing that her youngest is having conversations with someone who visits him at night should’ve prompted more panic. Oh and I almost forgot to mention a memorable cameo by J.K. Simmons who plays Tangina er uh I mean Edwin Pollard, the resident expert on supernatural phenomena.

Dark Skies isn’t innovative, but thankfully it sidesteps tired genre conventions at least. The blood/gore factor is virtually non-existent. The lazy technique relying on loud bursts of noise to cause jump scares, is kept to a minimum. Even the “Gotcha! It was all a dream” gag is intelligently toyed with in an early scene. The script seems aware of overused plot devices. It’s extremely spooky in parts. Furthermore, it never shows more than it should, so the threat always feels mysterious. No this isn’t original, but it manages to create a pretty evocative mood. What it lacks in creativity, it makes up for in creepiness.

Identity Thief

Posted in Comedy, Crime with tags on February 19, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Identity Thief photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIdentity Thief is a second-rate comedy with superlative talent. Why second rate? Let’s start the mostly uninspired script. Its lazy cribbing from the blueprint of the infinitely superior Planes, Trains and Automobiles is pretty shameful. Replace Steve Martin with Jason Bateman and John Candy with Mellissa McCarthy. Then shake up the circumstances that justify why this pair must travel together. In this case, a victim of identity theft, Bateman as Sandy Patterson, must actually find, apprehend and bring into custody, the criminal himself in an effort to clear his good name. McCarthy plays the proverbial thief who goes by the name Diana at one point. It’s a setup with potential, but the script just doesn’t have enough laughs to sustain the 108 minute running time.

There are too many scenes where nothing of interest happens.  Perhaps that explains why the plot has been made needlessly complex. There’s enough conflict amongst our star duo during their road trip together, so it’s perplexing why the screenwriters felt the compulsion to add not one, not two, but three baddies in relentless pursuit. Robert Patrick is a skiptracer that has been hired to locate Diana after she jumped bail. Then there are a couple of thugs played by Génesis Rodríguez and T.I. who are also hot on Diana’s trail because she gave their boss some bad credit cards. It’s hopelessly contrived. The characters are completely unnecessary because they barely even interact with our star twosome. Their presence is simply a distraction from the story at hand. Whenever these pursuers are on screen, the comedy comes to a crashing halt.

Despite all this, Bateman and McCarthy do have chemistry. Not as a romantic couple, but as a comedic duo. Their repartee is the ONLY reason that this buddy comedy has any merit whatsoever. I challenge you not to chuckle during McCarthy’s rendition of ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis or giggle at Bateman’s escalating exasperation. Without them, this road trip would have never even left the garage. With that said, her character’s behavior is wildly inconsistent. McCarthy is forced to play the fraud from Florida with a fluctuating personality that is bordering on schizophrenic. She vacillates between an unrepentant fiend and a misunderstood outsider. I suppose the latter portrayal makes the saccharine ending that tugs on your heartstrings a little easier to accept. Unfortunately, as much as I love the two stars, I cannot in good conscience give this film a pass.

The B.A.N.G Show

Posted in Podcast with tags , on February 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Beast, SheMovieGeek and Mark Hobin give a recap of the UK and US box office (Feb. 1–3 weekend). Les Misérables, Warm Bodies and Side Effects are among the many movies discussed.

MGCTv – The B.A.N.G Show

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The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Live Action & Animated

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Oscar Shorts 2013 photo starrating-4stars.jpgShort films have been a part of the Oscars since 1931. Until recently, getting to actually see all of the live action, animated, and documentary shorts categories was a challenge for the average viewer. Now it’s possible to see them in theaters on a big screen throughout the U.S. This is the 3rd year in a row that I’ve had the opportunity to see The Oscar Nominated Short Films in this manner. The following represents the 5 shorts nominated in each category in alphabetical order for the Live Action and Animated portions. (The Documentary portion, presented in separate program, was unavailable at my theater.)

  • Live Action

Asad
South Africa/USA/18min/Director: Bryan Buckley
An all-Somali, refugee cast star in this story concerning a boy torn between the dishonorable life as a pirate and a respectable living as a fisherman. Touching and sweet this is a warm tale that has a tender ending despite the oppressive environment that surrounds our young protagonist.

Buzkashi Boys
Afghanistan/USA/28mins/Director: Sam French
Tale of two boys shot on location of Kabul set against the backdrop of the national sport of Buzkashi a brutal variation of polo played with a dead goat. It’s a superficial rumination on childhood that left me cold. The weakest of the bunch.

Curfew
USA/19min/Director: Shawn Christensen
Suicidal Richie gets a call from his estranged sister asking him to look after his nine-year old niece Sophia, for the evening. They cram a lot of story in a brisk 19 minutes and the surprisingly emotionally involving tale had me wanting more. Young actress Fátima Ptacek dances in a bowling alley. I was charmed. My pick for the win. I loved it.

Death of a Shadow
Belgium/France/20mim/Director: Tom Van Avermaet
A mysterious collector has imprisoned the shadow of a solider (Rust and Bone’s Matthias Schoenaerts) from World War I. However, he has a second chance at romance with the woman he fell in love with before he died. Interesting premise blending science fiction has promise. Somewhat clichéd ending clouds this overall winning tale.

Henry
Canada/21min/Director: Yan England
French-language Canadian picture about what happens to an elderly concert pianist when the wife he deeply loves, disappears mysteriously. Not hard to guess what happened to her within the first 5 minutes. Preachy and predictable – begging to win the award.

  • Animated

Adam and Dog
USA/16min/Director: Minkyu Lee
Hypnotic fable of a dog and the very first man. The story follows their interatction, bond and the introduction of a 3rd party. Quietly beautiful, it‘s almost Zen-like. 2012 Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject

Fresh Guacamole
USA/2min /Director: PES (Adam Pesapane)
Various objects like grenades are turned into guacamole using stop motion animation. I hear this is the shortest film ever nominated for an Oscar. Agreeable, but very slight. Nothing special.

Head Over Heels
UK/10min/Director: Timothy Reckart
A married couple has drifted apart.  These crude stop motion puppets putter around a very bizarre home.  Case in point: Walter lives on the floor, Madge lives on the ceiling. Their wordless interplay is curious but largely uninvolving.

Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”
USA/5min/Director: David Silverman
Maggie and Baby Gerald, go toe to toe over a cocoon at the Ayn Rand Daycare Center. This amusing tale without speaking is refreshingly simple, but not simplistic. Light and uplifting tale has a point. It’s a humorous delight.

Paperman
USA/7min/Director: John Kahrs
Cheerfully old fashioned tale regarding a lonely man in 1950s Manhattan who take s a shine to a lovely woman he meets on the way to work. They become separated and their brief encounter seems lost until he spies her in the high-rise across the street from his own office building. His efforts to get her attention will enchant and entertain. This black & white short was originally shown before the animated feature Wreck-It Ralph in theaters. It’s arguably the most mainstream, but it’s my favorite of the 5 nominees.

Side Effects

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Side Effects photo starrating-4stars.jpgThere is a growing obsession for a panacea for all ills that will make life better – or easier at least. Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a deceptively simple parable that exploits society’s reliance on pills as the basis for this top notch psychological thriller. Emily’s husband has recently gotten out of jail for insider trading and has returned home. Their once perfect life shattered 4 years ago. They are now left to reconstruct the pieces of their once idyllic existence from the ground up. Despite her husband’s release, Emily still suffers from depression. She even has suicidal thoughts. One day while sitting in her car in the garage of their apartment building, she stares at the brick wall ahead of her and drives full speed right into it. Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who consults with Emily after her suicide attempt. He’s a psychiatrist and begins seeing her to help treat her depression. He prescribes Ablixa, a new antidepressant drug. Initially she responds positively to the supposed miracle cure. Then she suffers some unexpected, you guessed it, side effects.

Director Steven Soderbergh is working from an original script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) Burns wisely captures the zeitgeist regarding our obsession with pharmaceuticals. The medication here in question here is called Ablixa, a fictional drug that could easily be a stand-in for Zoloft or Prozac or any other anti-depressant remedy in a pill. In a brilliant bit of marketing, there’s a clever viral video for Ablixa at http://www.tryablixa.com/ It features an ad that convincingly mimics the soothing music and happy people that are so often used to market medicine like this. You can even take a free evaluation of whether Ablixa is right of you. However the fact that it’s conducted by none other than Jude Law himself should clue you in that this is for entertainment purposes only.

And let’s talk about Jude Law. He’s extraordinary in Side Effects. As Emily’s psychiatrist, his character undergoes a sort of crisis of conscience at first. He’s responsible for prescribing a drug that has negative consequences on his patient’s well being. Just how responsible is he? The film addresses ethics, accountability and the legal system. Rooney Mara is at the center of the drama. I think this is quite possibly the most detailed performance we’ve seen from her yet. She’s a sympathetic soul for whom you feel compassion, but she’s also cold and aloof. She conveys a deeply nuanced character that becomes more complicated as the saga progresses. As Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Catherine Zeta-Jones provides delightful support in a role that taps into the kind of hammy exaggeration she clearly relishes. Channing Tatum is the husband.  He’s so busy out trying to re-establish his career again, his presence is less ubiquitous but still crucial to the narrative.

This nifty little thriller is a doozy. A slowly building, twisty little conundrum that exposes layers of intrigue that gradually get revealed just when you think you’ve got things figured out. It originates as sort of a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of prescription drugs, but the screenplay expands on that and then takes things in an entirely different direction. I won’t explain further because that would spoil the fun. While things are unfolding, an almost Hitchcockian scope is revealed. Admittedly, the plot developments really ask a lot of the audience.  A healthy suspension of disbelief is required to accept everything that this story puts forth. I might even go so far as to say they’re preposterous.  Yet it was so addictive, I didn’t mind any of that. Rooney Mara and Jude Law have an undeniable charisma that seize our attention whenever either one is on screen. I was entranced from beginning to end. They say this is Soderbergh’s “last” theatrical film. That would be a shame.  But one thing’s for sure. If that’s really the case, at least he went out with a bang.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Family with tags on February 2, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Pirates! Band of Misfits photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWhen the Academy Award nominations were announced for Best Animated Feature of 2012, I think 4 of the 5 selections were foregone conclusions. Most predicted that Rise of the Guardians would be the 5th nominee. When that film was snubbed, I think everyone was a bit surprised that The Pirates! Band of Misfits made the cut instead. It didn’t really make much of a splash at the box office in the U.S., barely earning over $30 million. Plus Aardman Animations wasn’t the marketing behemoth that DreamWorks is. I am happy to report Pirates is indeed a very worthy nomination.

The Pirate Captain (yes that’s his name) yearns to win the Pirate of the Year competition. But he isn’t your typical pirate. He’s actually a rather affable chap and doesn’t possess the anti-social qualities of your average mercenary. He’s backed by an amateur group of clumsy pirates that are pretty unconventional too. I don’t think the word ‘swashbuckling’ is in their vocabulary. They don’t even have proper names. Pirate with a Scarf, Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate are some examples. At least they’re very supportive of their captain. They understand that whoever can plunder the most will be deemed the winner and therein lies their dream. Outside the U.S., The picture was originally titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! That makes sense because during his unsuccessful attempts to raid ships, the Pirate Captain meets Charles Darwin. The scientist spies his parrot “Polly” who is in reality a Dodo. The supposedly extinct bird is intriguing to Charles. This leads the gang to an escapade in the less welcoming atmosphere of London.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits! is a delight. The style is a cheerful throwback to classic stop-motion animation. Given the strong resurgence of titles like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie, audiences seem to be responding to its more organic, tangible quality. Of course the aesthetic beauty of the film would mean nothing without a good script. Indeed, Pirates is an intelligently written production. Witty jokes and funny sight gags abound for the careful viewer throughout the brisk 88 minute running time. The voice cast is wonderful but it’s telling that one of their most amusing doesn’t even speak at all. Mr. Darwin’s assistant is a highly trained chimp named Mister Bobo who communicates by holding up note cards. He’s hilarious, but the rest of the ensemble is quite good as well. Hugh Grant has the right amount of narcissism mixed with geniality as the Pirate Captain and Imelda Staunton is a hoot as the pirate hating Queen Victoria. With its hip soundtrack (The Clash, The English Beat, Jimmy Cliff, Supergrass) and occasional gags that little tykes won’t get, this is pitched more at older kids than the toddler set. Seeing as I am well over 8 year years old, that is just fine with me.

Warm Bodies

Posted in Comedy, Romance with tags on February 1, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Warm Bodies photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWarm Bodies is a “paranormal romantic zombie comedy film.” I know what you’re thinking, “oh great, another one of those.” But jokes aside, there is very little here that is original or clever despite the genre mashup of the premise. The story concerns a zombie teen that goes by ‘R’ because that’s all he can remember of his name. R is on a constant search for human flesh from the still living humans. He’s a particular connoisseur of brains as they allow him to experience the memories of the former owner. You see even though he is a zombie, he yearns to be human again. One day he meets non-zombie Julie and a bunch of her friends, including her boyfriend, Perry. R kills Perry, eats his brain and becomes immediately attracted to her. Instead of killing her, R rescues her from the attack. Can you guess what happens next?

The zombie twist notwithstanding, this basically plays out like the umpteenth variation of Beauty and the Beast. Except Belle didn’t take up with the Beast right after he killed her boyfriend. That troubling bit of logic is part of the reason why this romance doesn’t really work. Julie and R never function as more than a writer’s construct of what young impetuous kids in love are supposed to do in these films. We get lots of dewy-eyed stares from actor Nicholas Hoult.  Actress Teresa Palmer conveys sympathetic anxiety. There’s a ton of musical selections that intrude on the action at inappropriate times on the soundtrack too. The movie could easily be chopped up into sections and run as videos on MTV. I mean, that is if MTV still played videos. One “wacky” music montage actually has the two adolescents trying on different pairs of sunglasses. I wish that was meant to be satirical, but sadly it’s done with utter sincerity.

Warm Bodies is pleasant but not perceptive. William Shakespeare did this way back in the 16th century when he wrote Romeo & Juliet (another influence). Even The Bard of Avon was borrowing from earlier traditions. “Love Conquers All” is the timeworn concept. Simply adding zombies to the mix is just a lazy technique to make this generic material seem fresh. “We’ve kind of done vampires to death so let’s concentrate on zombies now,” is the impression I get from the way the story pitch went. Additionally the illogical plot contrivances further irritate matters. If someone killed my sweetheart, I’d run in the other direction, not date them. Warm Bodies is based on the debut novel of author Isaac Marion. Not having read the source text, I’m not sure how much of the script contains the root of Marion’s ideas. Unfortunately the screenplay adaptation feels more like the result of a focus group than the outcome of genuine inspiration.