Archive for March, 2013

The Sapphires

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Musical with tags on March 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Sapphires photo starrating-4stars.jpgIs it possible for a drama that documents the rise of a music group to follow all of the standard tropes, falling victim to clichés of the genre, and still manage to charm the viewer? The answer, in the case of The Sapphires, is an unequivocal YES. Engaging début feature is directed by Australian Wayne Blair. Keith Thompson wrote the screenplay that he adapted from Tony Briggs’ play. The playwright was inspired by his own relatives, the true story of 4 Aboriginal sisters who form a girl group in 1968 Australia. A personable geek of a talent scout played by the always delightful Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) discovers them performing country-western songs in a competition. He re-fashions them into R&B singers and promotes them as “The Sapphires” to entertain American troops in Vietnam. They’re kind of like The Supremes except they sing cover songs and there’s 4 of them.

Occasionally The Sapphires succumbs to the routineness of the proceedings. The period film infuses music and comedy in an overly familiar way. We’ve seen this blueprint countless times recounting the rising popularity of a vocal group. The four women fall into set archetypes. Julie is the talented lead singer, who was actually a runner-up on Australian Idol in real life. Cynthia, a pretty vocalist with spunk is the comic relief. Kay, their estranged sister, is conflicted – torn between her English and indigenous heritage and Gail is the overprotective mama bear of the siblings. All four are solid portrayals with Deborah Mailman as tough talking Gail being the most fully formed character.

Despite the common trappings, there are definitely elements that make The Sapphires a unique take on a ordinary subject. It touches on the children of Aboriginal descent who were removed from their families by the Australian government from approximately 1909 to 1969. This underscores the girls’ childhood when they were living in a remote mission together. Kay’s extraction from their family and the subsequent trio’s evaluation in a singing competition before a bigoted judge further references this theme. Equal rights informs the underlying politics of their early lives but it’s not really the focus. The script does a nice job of juggling the various forces that threaten the success of the group. It intersperses two love stories with a lot of rousing 60s Motown hits that are beautifully sung. I thoroughly enjoyed their versions of soul classics that included “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” If these characters appear a bit timeworn, the milieu is so uplifting and joyous, I didn’t mind a bit. I cheered these girls on as if this was the first time I had ever seen someone take a chance in pursuit of a dream in showbiz. The Sapphires is a toe tapping, heart singing good time.

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Spring Breakers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on March 26, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Spring Breakers photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgFour college girls want to spend their spring break vacation in Florida. A bevy of teen beauties, they are played by Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife). Seemingly the only students left on their college campus, they’re desperate to join the rest of their friends in Florida. They want to have fun but there’s a problem. They have no money. Brit, Candy, and Cotty (minus “good girl” Faith) decide their sole outlet for quick cash is to rob a diner so they can afford their trip. At first the jump from college coed to hardcore criminal seems like a stretch. However Spring Breakers also functions as a character study of wayward youth. At times I was reminded of films like Thirteen or Alpha Dog in its view of teens gone wrong. This seemingly incongruous behavior actually belies latent tendencies that will be brought to the surface in a horrifying display.

Spring Breakers would appear to be a fun in the sun escapade full of carnal hijinks and randy shenanigans among older teens. Director Harmony Korine’s view of these creatures is decidedly nihilistic. What else would you expect from the screenwriter of Kids? His take is unique. What Korine does is take the “Girls Gone Wild” template and thoroughly turn it on its ear. The cinematography is stylish. It’s appears like an MTV video – a candy colored vision of sun soaked beaches, golden tan bodies, techno music and beer. Yet this is as much a biting comment on pleasure seekers in Florida as it is a cautionary warning for the youth of today. Korine lulls the viewer into a false facade of good times. Montages are frequently utilized to create hallucinogenic sequences that act as sort of a narrative shorthand. These are extremely well edited. They are accompanied by random bits of dialogue, creating a building sense of anxiety and dread. Listen to James Franco intoning “Spriinnnnngggg breaaaakkkkkk.…Spriinnnnngggg breaaaakkkkkk.” The mantra becomes the spoken word equivalent of an earworm you cannot forget.

Speaking of unforgettable…James Franco. He gives a supporting performance worthy of an Academy Award. “My name’s Alien. My real name is Al, but truth be told, I am not from this planet y’all.“ The girls first encounter him at a beachside concert where he’s perforating as a rapper for the spring break crowd. Their paths will soon cross again in the future. As the cornrow wearing, teeth grill sporting, drug dealing white rapper with a southern drawl, he completely embodies the individual so perfectly you forget it’s the actor in the role. It is a mesmerizing achievement that is possibly the greatest James Franco has ever committed to celluloid. Yes he got an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours but his work here is even more revelatory. The four girls are quite effective in their parts as well. Viewers familiar with Gomez and Hudgens from their Disney Channel work, might be surprised seeing the starlets in a racy R rated tale. Gomez is the real standout here mainly because she goes through the biggest change. I only wish the other 3 weren’t all blonde (Hudgens dyes her hair) as it’s difficult to differentiate between the other three characters.

Spring Breakers is an intriguing film. What initially starts out as a superficial focus on hedonistic desires evolves (devolves?) into a nightmare come to life. The visual sequences build on repetition to the point where the audience is desensitized to all the wild partying. At first all the attractive young coeds in various states of undress threatens to become a part of what it ultimately condemns. Even when the girls are in a college classroom their minds are focused on less academic pursuits. But just when you acclimate to the debauched surroundings, the director ratchets up the intensity. There are scenes that have such an uneasy feel, they degenerate from a lighthearted good time into horror within seconds. The picture grows dark. It’s that ability to juggle a rapidly shifting narrative that makes Spring Breakers such a fascinating watch. It’s much more than what the trailers promote. It dares to show the consequences and for that reason, Spring Breakers deserves your attention.

The Croods

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Croods photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Croods are a family of Neanderthal cavemen. One day they are forced to leave the protective confines of their shelter when it’s destroyed.  Following an earthquake,  a falling stone is disrupted cleaving their cave in half. Now exposed out in the open they must contend with a strange unfamiliar world and its many inhabitants including a young nomadic cave boy.

Despite an opportunity to delve into some early primordial history given the ancient setting, the gags and attitudes are decidedly modern. The voice cast have conversations that would not be out of place for a family living in 2013. Father Grug (Nicolas Cage) and daughter Eep (Emma Stone) have district personalities, but the rest of the clan are nonentities. Grug hates his mother-in-law. Never saw that in a comedy. Even Guy, a Homo sapien, is like some teen dream out of a soap opera. Eep, the eldest daughter, is one of those stereotypical teens that butts heads with her overprotective father. She yearns to venture out and see the world. Get with the times, Dad! Or instead, why don’t you just, ya know, evolve! Indeed the tone of the script is that she is correct and that father Grug is reactionary and staid in his views. What the screenplay fails to acknowledge is that it’s those very ideals of his that have kept his family alive all these years while everyone else of their kind has been killed.

I couldn’t help but feel the moral of this comedy was a bit misguided. Surely it is ill-advised to encourage children to disregard their parent’s safety warnings, but that’s precisely this saga’s point of view. Your father is smothering you! Talk to strangers! Play in the street! I’m sure the script meant to inspire an adventurous spirit. Don’t be timid! Try new things! Seize the day! But that’s probably not what a 5 year old will understand. Especially when the father is a complete buffoon – an object of derision as he is consistently shown up by the more progressive and intelligent Guy. Ah but have no fear, parents. As expected, the father predictably redeems himself in the end. The Croods is acceptable. The animation is colorful, although the family is mildly grotesque. They are Neanderthals after all. There are some nice slapstick sequences that are enjoyable. There’s a variety of creatures that are nicely animated including a swarm of carnivorous birds that take only seconds to devour their prey, Guy’s pet sloth Belt is a really cute little creation given to singing “Da-da-daaaaaaaa!“ whenever he wants to stress impending doom. It’s funny every time he says it. Belt got the biggest laughs in the theater. While the jokes amuse, the story is primitive. The Croods is safe fun family entertainment with no surprises. It was pleasant. I guess for some that may be enough.

Stoker

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on March 19, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Stoker photo starrating-2stars.jpg“You know I’ve often wondered why it is we have children, and the conclusion I’ve come to is we want someone to get it right this time. But not me. Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”

So says Nicole Kidman as the unbalanced Evelyn Stoker in the opening minutes in the trailer. But she doesn’t really simply SAY anything in this movie. Her affected display of high camp is full of histrionics. If it’s possible to whisper loudly, Kidman accomplishes that feat numerous times in Stoker playing the role somewhere between overwrought and mannered. She speaks in a halting tone as if Every. Word.  Is.  Its.  Own.  Sentence.  Her ridiculously over the top theatrics emphasize every declaration with an exaggerated stare or arched brow.

She‘s not alone. Kidman mourns her late husband for the duration of a funeral then immediately starts making goo-goo eyes at her brother-in-law who pops up out of thin air to stay with them. One would think in a mystery the antagonist would be ambiguous suggesting a hidden agenda. But Charlie is clearly a creep. His perverted smile is uneasy right from the start. Obsequious and insincere he exudes evil because he is evil. Mia Wasikowska is a talented young actress that usually conveys a depth beyond her 23 years. But there is no subtlety to her performance either. Here her sullen, depressed demeanor depicts a girl named Wednesday Addams…er uh I mean India Stoker. She’s particularly fond of wearing saddle shoes and dressing like someone from the early 20th century. I almost thought the film was set in that era as well, until one unnecessary line unequivocally dates the events in the modern day. Her father has died so that would account for the moodiness but her mental state goes way past that emotion to the extent where she exhibits hatred towards everyone. Do her male classmates tease her because she is mean or is she mean because they tease her? It’s never explained and the script is too shallow to even care.

One thing Stoker has going for it are the visuals. It’s technically dazzling with a true sense of style. But it’s over-stylized. Director Chan-wook Park shoots the hell out of scene to the point where the artifice become the story.  Light and shadows move when India pushes a swinging overhead lamp, a close-up of a blister oozes pus when pierced with a pin, white flowers become red when splattered with blood, a girl with 16 pairs of shoes carefully surround her as she lays on a bed.  At one juncture, Evelyn’s brushed hair morphs into the tall grass in a field where India and her father are hunting in flaskback. Is that last example a nice effect? Yes.  Does it take the place of a coherent story? Not on your life. But the tricks are not merely visual. Chan-wook Park amps up the soundtrack to 11 to heighten the sound of a spider climbing up a girl’s skirt or the cracking shell of a hardboiled egg being rolled across a table.  Scenes are self consciously arty that seem to imply a lot more than what is really going on. That’s kind of how the entire production unfolds at a lugubrious trudge. But peer beyond those luxurious velvet drapes and we’re left with the story equivalent of furniture from IKEA. That is to say it’s cheap and disposable.

Let’s not mince words. This screenplay is a rational thinker’s worst nightmare. Stoker marks the screenwriting debut of Wentworth Miller. Yes, the actor that was once the star of the television series Prison Break. India, Charlie & Evelyn – their motives are superficially justified up to a point, but no one behaves or reacts with any kind of meaning. Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker is a most confounding creature. Multiple people are killed at an alarming pace with minimal to no consequences. India is confronted with these deaths. Yet she inexplicably remains apathetic to the escalating murder rate around her. Personally I would’ve called the police if I discovered a dead body in my freezer, but hey that‘s just me. She meets a sweet boy who is the one lone classmate who shows her some respect. They tenderly make out. She violently bites his lip. Her anti-social behavior is perplexing. Then he incongruously tries to rape her. Huh?!

Many have gone so far as to say this is inspired by Hitchcock, but that is to completely disregard the director’s facility with wit, nuance and decorum. The script is pointless, classless and vulgar. Ok so those last two are the same thing, but I want to really stress that. This is about as similar to Hitchcock as Kim Kardashian is to Audrey Hepburn. If Shadow of a Doubt is the bon vivant that teaches English literature at the University level then Stoker is the drunk and disorderly younger brother (with a slavish devotion to designer labels) that didn’t finish high school. Need another example? Mia Wasikowska’s shower sequence comes to mind. No it’s not like the one in Psycho but it is memorable and not in a good way.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone photo starrating-3stars.jpgBurt Wonderstone and his partner, Anton Marvelton are headlining magicians at the top of their game. Their Bally’s show in Vegas has become one of the top draws on the strip. Unfortunately, as their fortunes climb, their friendship sours. Further complicating matters is the arrival of a new street performer named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). As his interpretation of magic grows in popularity, it threatens the future of these two fixtures on the Las Vegas strip.

For anyone who grew up watching Doug Henning (remember him?) and later David Copperfield, this is a valentine to the classic illusionists who achieved their feats of wonder on television specials during the 70s. There is a genuine love for the time-honored magicians of yesteryear. Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi have all the flamboyant charisma of Siegfried & Roy, but in a strictly platonic version. Their early years as children are memorable. They’ve been best friends since they were kids. Anton is a particularly sickly little boy who takes a variety of medication including testosterone because he’s ‘dangerously close to being a girl.’ Outcasts at school, they bond against bullies over their shared mutual passion for magic. Burt and Anton are really likable as kids. In many ways, I wish these scenes went on longer because they’re very amusing.

The narrative alternates between involving and routine. The story drags in the middle, but it’s saved by an impressive supporting performance that invigorates the film. As Steve Carell gets older and his reputation grows, he exhibits progressively temperamental behavior. He makes petty complaints, treats his friend like a servant, and expects the women he chooses from the audience to sleep with him. It’s meant to be a caricature obviously, but the character becomes a bit insufferable. Things change however with the introduction of a street magician played by Jim Carrey. His parody is clearly inspired by talents like David Blaine and Criss Angel. As the stringy haired, t-shirt wearing Steve Gray, he comes across as more of a lunatic than a sane performer. His brand of magic emphasizes masochistic stunts involving pain. They keep getting increasingly ridiculous. I mean he describes himself as a brain-rapist. Carrey is absolutely fearless and it’s his funniest portrayal in years.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a mixed bag. What originates as a sweet ode to magicians of yore, falls apart in the center before regaining momentum for a surprisingly hilarious finish. There’s such a difference between the razzle dazzle excess of the 70’s with the low key street performers that started in the late 90s. When the script exploits that, it’s quite entertaining. “The Incredible Burt and Anton” act is a cheesy delight.  They open every show with the same musical intro: Steve Miller Band’s ‘Abracadabra’.  Carell sports a wild mane of hair.  They wear spangly costumes. They’re influenced by Rance Holloway, an aging legend played in a nice turn by Alan Arkin. They all embody the old guard.  Contrast that with bizarro torture tricks of street magician Steve Gray. His hard to watch stunts are so disgusting it becomes a biting critique. When he’s on screen, the comedy zings. When it focuses on Steve Carrel’s fall from favor, it gets boring. Still there are some very funny moments in this send-up of modern magic. And those final minutes where we witness the reveal of a major trick, is worth the price of admission alone.

Happy Pi Day! 3.14

Posted in Podcast with tags , on March 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Happy Pi Day!!  The date is 3.14 today.  In honor of this once a year occurrence, please do enjoy our Life of Pi podcast in which ArcturusToken and Mark Hobin discuss the film.  Spoiler – We do not agree.

Life of Pi – Podcast Review

Life of Pi

Oz the Great and Powerful

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on March 10, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Oz the Great and Powerful photo starrating-3stars.jpgOscar Diggs, a magician/con man, leaves Kansas in a hot air balloon, gets sucked into a cyclone and winds up in the Land of Oz. Here he encounters various personalities, including Evanora who promises all the wealth of the king if he kills the Wicked Witch by destroying her wand, the source of her power. This sends our fearless hero on an odyssey where he meets a couple of characters who join him. The action is all well and good, but the plot merely apes the events of the Victor Fleming version with less inspired results.

L. Frank Baum’s introductory novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also the basis for this unofficial prequel. However the 1939 landmark film feels more like the real inspiration than that book. Director Sam Raimi was legally prohibited from replicating certain elements (i.e. ruby slippers) but he clearly references the 1939 classic with deferential respect. Raimi goes from black and white to color to highlight the transition to Oz and simulates the same environment in many scenes incorporating Munchkinland, the yellow brick road, and The Emerald City. The Winkie guards, flying monkeys and The Scarecrow are also among the many allusions. These are welcome touches, but the duplicated story is where the similarities become more problematic.

Ultimately Oz The Great and Powerful suffers in comparison. The human people here lack that same mythic sense of wonder. When Mila Kunis as Theodora first arrives, her modern ensemble appears like she time traveled back from 2013. Her floppy wide brimmed hat looks like something J.Lo would wear. Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch is pretty but bland. She lacks the otherworldly charm (and distinctive voice) that Billie Burke had when she played the part. Rachel Weisz fares better as Evanora but only because we never really knew her in The Wizard of Oz. As Oscar the con man, James Franco relies on the actor’s insincere demeanor to play the role.  His trademark smirk is more than adequate, but less than enchanting. He certainly disappointed me in one scene. There’s a moment where Munchkins start to sing and dance in a lively musical number that got my feet a-tapping. Just as it was hitting its stride, Oscar puts his hand up and tells them to stop.

Oz the Great and Powerful has its moments. Visually it is a delight. The set design is first class with color and special effects combining in attractive displays. The film was shot in 3D, but I hardly think it demands to be seen in that format. It doesn’t contribute much to the already impressive spectacle. The frame is packed with gorgeous visuals that incorporate magical plants and bizarre creatures. A little porcelain China doll is a fragile creature that walks and talks with a cracked, reflective body. These demonstrations incite our fascination. The ending is particularly engaging too. The wizard’s impressive appearance to the people recalls his physical manifestation in the classic work. Oscar’s resourcefulness genuinely gets our emotions. Too bad you must wait to the end to see it. We’re constantly reminded with hints of the infinitely superior original. For most the production, the script simply isn’t unique enough. The narrative rings hollow although the smoke and mirrors just might be enough to entertain.

No

Posted in Drama, Foreign, History with tags on March 5, 2013 by Mark Hobin

NO movie photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgChile’s very first nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a political drama about the country’s national referendum held in 1988. The plebiscite concerned whether Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should extend his rule for another eight-years in office. The vote is simply ‘Yes’ in favor of the idea and ‘No’ for anything else. René Saavedra, an adman played by Gael García Bernal, joins the fight against Pinochet. Saavedra eschews exposing the abuses of the dictator’s regime in his commercials. His revolutionary concept is to pitch the ‘no vote’ much in the same way that he advertises soft drinks. Instead of fear mongering he wants to use catchy jingles, happy people, and rainbows to incite people to come out and make their voice heard.

Director Pablo Larraín shoots the production like a documentary. He utilizes U-matic video tape, the kind used by newscasts in the 80s, to give the film the look from that era. At times it’s a bit too grubby as the production almost looks ugly.  He doesn’t even utilize widescreen so news footage from 1988 is interspersed with fresh material. It’s integrated so perfectly I often didn’t notice the difference. He even showcases actual anti-Pinochet commercials with new scenes of them shooting the ad. The clips are full of people dancing and clapping urging the viewer to vote “No” in cheerful song. These displays are surprisingly light, particularly when contrasted with the reality of Pinochet’s administration. The unexpected lighthearted tone is part of the film’s brilliance but it’s also the way it contrasts with an underlying climate of terror.

No largely succeeds because it makes us understand and care.  Naturally the choice of whether one would want a tyrannical dictator in power seems like an obvious decision. However when that dictator controls the media and every other aspect of society, one’s ability to vote freely is encumbered for fear of retribution. This is especially clear when it comes to Saavedra’s relationship with his young son Simón.  Saavedra starts experiencing escalating threats from pro-Pinochet forces as his ‘No’ ads grow in popularity. Afraid for his child’s life, he leaves Simón in the custody of his estranged wife. The stakes are high. The script really resonates when it exposes just how much danger surrounds this election. It allows us to identify with any country trying to break free from a totalitarian state. It also makes us value and appreciate what a blessing free elections truly are.

The B.A.N.G Show: Oscars Edition

Posted in Podcast with tags , on March 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The 85th Academy Awards were last week and Arcturus, The Beast, and Mark Hobin sat down to discuss what went right and what went wrong. We address Seth MacFarlane, Anne Hathaway, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Lawrence, Daniel Day-Lewis and much much more! A mere 25 minutes that will keep you smiling for days!

The 2013 Oscars: After Party Discussion

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Jack the Giant Slayer

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy with tags on March 1, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Jack the Giant Slayer photo starrating-2stars.jpgJack the Giant Slayer is one of those effects-laden 3D eyesores short on excitement and big on CGI. It’s based on the English folk tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” and the lesser known (to this critic anyway) “Jack the Giant Killer.” It’s a story that has stood the test of time so this should’ve been a rousing adventure harkening back to traditional fables. Unfortunately this a largely uninspired effort full of flimsy characters, unexciting situations and copious amounts of CGI that look dated and ugly. Hollywood never seems to learn that simply throwing money up on the screen does not an enjoyable film make.

Given the subject, this anecdote could have been a spirited fantasy with touches of humor, but the oppressive spectacle has no joy. The cast includes formidable acting talent including Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane and Ewan McGregor. But the characters are disposable good vs. evil, rich vs. poor cutouts. Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are particularly forgettable as Jack and Isabelle, the lead couple. I blame the script for the blah characterizations. Only Tucci exhibits the personality necessary for the lighthearted romp this aspires to be. Oh and the beanstalk gave a nice performance actually. Seriously it’s the most animated character of them all.

The adventure takes forever to get started. We all know the basic plot, so why the interminable intro? I struggled to stay awake during the first 30 minutes before the beanstalk gets planted. And when the screenplay isn’t generic, it’s stupid. You’ll question King Brahmwell’s mindset when he orders to intentionally cut down the very beanstalk that his beloved daughter has climbed up. Or her memory for that matter when she doesn’t question him on it later. Incidentally, when Jack and Isabelle do fall from the sky, their ability to remain alive is the most unintentionally hilarious display since the last Twilight picture.

This is a CGI nightmare. The entire race of giants, that live up in the sky are all computer generated. There are so many of them and they occupy such an important role that this becomes an animated film whenever they’re on screen. Many sequences would exist of nothing but simply a green screen without the computer graphics. At times CGI can improve visuals, but here they are badly executed and really ugly. The creations look hopelessly dated and cheap especially when they‘re interacting with real human actors. Why couldn’t the giants been accomplished using human actors and creatively shooting to make them appear larger? Oh how I missed the quaint practical effects of classic Hollywood fare of movies like Jason and the Argonauts. The technology may look antiquated today, but at least it had an organic quality that felt authentic.

There just isn’t enough innovation to Jack the Giant Slayer to justify why this was even made. Uninteresting characters, weak script and bad special effects, do not add up to a good time. It’s a deadly trifecta of bad movie making. The overreliance on poor CGI makes this a distinctly dreary exercise. There are snatches of excitement to be found. When Jack dumps a hive full of bees into a giant’s helmet, there’s gleeful anticipation in what will happen. But more often than not the action is a dull, labored affair lacking the fun of the original fairy tale. Not surprisingly the $195 million production has been a costly bomb. Maybe they should have just included music by Slayer. Guess we can be thankful we were spared sequels like Jack the Giant Megadeth or Jack the Giant Anthrax.