Archive for August, 2013

The World’s End

Posted in Comedy, Science Fiction with tags on August 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The World's End photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgFive middle-aged men who were boyhood chums reunite to take part in a pub crawl they never finished when they were in high school. FYI: The legal drinking age is 18 in the UK for shocked American readers. Known as the Golden Mile, the 12 pubs are situated in Newton Haven. You see it’s really eternal man-child Gary King (Pegg), the self appointed leader of the group, that has re-assembled the old gang. Having grown up and moved on, the group has begrudgingly acquiesced after being tricked into showing up. They haven’t hung out simultaneously since their school days. Gary and Andy have actually been estranged because of an accident on that fateful night.

This is the third entry directed by Edgar Wright and written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also star. The 3 films were nicknamed The Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. For the uninitiated, the word “Cornetto” is a brand of ice cream in the UK similar to Nestlé’s Drumsticks. Shaun of the Dead presents strawberry signifying blood and gore, Hot Fuzz features classic Cornetto with a blue wrapper representing the police and The World’s End highlights green mint chocolate chip with a nod to sci-fi. None of this is important to appreciate this tale. I only mention it because I’ve yet to read a review that explains this bit of obscurity for the audience.

The World’s End is a humorous romp that suitably entertains on its own merits. It’s probably the least funny of the three, but that’s comparing it to two very enjoyable classics. It percolates with a refreshing wit rarely seen in run-of-the-mill comedies. And it’s not necessary to have seen the other two films. Still, for those who are familiar, this entry is sure to hold more gratification. For example Simon Pegg, who usually represents the straight man to Nick Frost’s wild displays, switches temperaments this go around. There are in-jokes that connect each of these pictures together. Aficionados of Edgar Wright’s will delight in the kind of repartee with which followers have become accustomed. At first much of the humor depends on Gary’s inability to grown up as contrasted with the other four’s more responsible, conventional mentalities.

The World’s End spotlights some nuanced character-building immersed in a story shift that had my eyes wide, mouth agape. The fab five mesh well as an ensemble. There is a genuine camaraderie here as it initially unfolds out like a reunion of old friends and nostalgia. They are eminently believable as reunited buddies hanging out. There are some nicely affecting moments where these individuals are fleshed out. Then a midway reveal flips the script to a complete 180 genre switch. The focus expands from nostalgic drama to science fiction. It’s an amusing disclosure that subverts expectations. I won’t explain more than that but if you’re interested in being surprised, don’t watch the trailer. This allows our “Five Musketeers” to display their impressive athletic skills in lively fight scenes. I loved the shock but here’s where things deteriorate. Subsequent uneven pacing had me checking my watch during the final third. It can even drag a little near the end. However all in all this is an entertaining comedy with a solid screenplay. Fans of the trilogy will be quoting the witty one liners with joy.

“A man of your legendary prowess drinking f—ing rain! It’s like a lion eating hummus.” –Gary King after his friend Andy orders tap water in a bar.

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You’re Next

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on August 27, 2013 by Mark Hobin

You're Next photo starrating-halfstar.jpgThere’s really no point in reviewing You’re Next for fans of this kind of thing. The reasons why I disliked, no HATED it, aren’t going to matter to devotees of slasher films. If you want to satiate your bloodlust, regardless of plot, script, sense, character development or standards, then You’re Next should fit the bill nicely. It’s a contrivance knowingly designed for an audience that wants to see people murdered and voice their approval/disapproval of what’s happening on screen at the top of their lungs in a crowded theater for the entire film. I won’t hold that against it, but that perfectly describes my cinema experience.

You’re Next is a lazily made product that doesn’t hold up to intellectual scrutiny. Our story concerns a wealthy married couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in an isolated mansion in the woods with their kids and respective plus ones. Naturally the estate in the woods is in some remote area. Doesn‘t anyone ever vacation in the city anymore? It gets more idiotic. Assassins start shooting people from outside the cabin with crossbows. Was a catapult not available? The killers wear silly animal masks with tiny slits for eyes. They are impossible to see out of and therefore should give all the victims a distinct advantage in a fight. It doesn‘t (with one exception). The body count begins to escalate. Idiots blissfully enter dark rooms even though they know there are psychopaths roaming the house. Mom is taken upstairs and left to lie alone in a bedroom where strange noises were heard. Why continue to stay inside the house when it’s obvious the lunatics are inside? Because this movie is stupid, was the only answer I could come up with.

I’ve never been a fan of torture. I don’t take delight in observing people die and I don’t relish in the physical pain of others. I’m not a sadist so therefore I didn’t enjoy You’re Next. But it’s only a movie! This stuff isn’t real! It’s just make believe! True, but I still question the entertainment value in stomaching pretend carnage that, let’s face it, looks exactly like the real thing. If nothing else, the filmmakers know how to stage a realistic kill. After enduring one graphic murder after another in vivid detail, you’ll swear you’re watching a snuff film. At least this miserable lot are repellent. Their back and forth bickering is irritating. That makes their ultimate demise less painful to endure I suppose. Many cheered in my theater when the matriarch was massacred, her dead body left lying on the bed. Then they laughed with glee as the girlfriend suggests that would be a perfect place and time to indulge in some intimate hanky panky. You’re Next represents the nadir in popcorn entertainment.

Wait Until Dark, The Desperate Hours (1955), Funny Games (1997), Panic Room. The home invasion thriller has been handled before in much more interesting ways. You’re Next debuted at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival then sat around collecting dust for 2 years. Now it has been foisted on the public during the traditional end-of-the-summer dumpage. It feels even more old and outdated. It should’ve just stayed wedged between whatever moldy crevice it had been shelved into. This is an unnecessary film. We’ve made so many strides in horror in the last 5 years, that this just feels like some dated relic from a bygone era. Start with 10 people, then mutilate in gory detail. The instructions are repeated ad nauseum until one is left standing. There is some surprise as to who this is and how it occurs, but after watching 9 nitwits sliced, diced, cut, chopped and shot, do you really even care?

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on August 21, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Lee Daniels' The Butler photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.“ — Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a point midway through The Butler where Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) speaking with Freedom Riders at the Lorraine Hotel in Tennessee, affirms domestic help for being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal. They defy racist stereotypes that plague the black community. Cecil Gaines is just such a person. The Butler recounts the story of a White House butler who witnesses the civil rights struggle as he serves eight administrations from Truman (not portrayed) through Reagan during three decades of history. A reserved presence, he observes passively but quietly encourages a revolution. The very suggestion that one could affect change simply by living unnoticed, not making waves, is perhaps the film’s most subversive suggestion. It’s certainly well executed by Forest Whitaker. While the drama can be simplistic, there’s a dignity to his character. He exudes a subtlety lacking in the rest of the picture. It’s his portrayal that raises this material into something rather unexpected and at times extraordinary.

Whitaker is flanked by an astounding company of thespians. The Butler has one of those casts that is a blessing for anyone playing the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It makes connecting the actor to everyone in Hollywood through this movie that much easier. No, Bacon is not in it, but just about everyone else is: Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda. The cast list is a virtual who’s who of people in the business.

Danny Strong’s screenplay is inspired by Wil Haygood’s article A Butler Well Served by This Election which appeared in the Washington Post a few days after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. This is screenwriter Danny Strong’s fabricated story based on real life White House butler Eugene Allen. The drama “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.” That might give pause to viewers watching a picture that manipulates real people across an epic that spans over 30 years. It clearly has lofty ambitions. The Butler is sort of a smorgasbord that samples various episodes that highlight the civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of this one man. I should note that the best moments actually concern Cecil Gaines’ home life with his family. Oprah Winfrey is surprisingly believable as his unassuming wife. It’s fascinating that a particularly interesting role, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up. Yet the interactions between the reserved butler father and his angry young activist son are impressive. An argument over Sidney Poitier’s acting abilities perfectly highlights the generation gap.

The Butler always remains entertaining. It’s never boring. However the script’s point of view seems to deviate in the final act. It is the biggest irony that Nancy Reagan’s unprecedented invitation to Cecil to the state dinner—the first black butler to receive such an honor—begins a series of circumstances that ultimately prompts the butler to hand in his resignation. What initially seems like a triumph is painted as setback. Despite the mixed messages, and casual breeze through history, The Butler is a stirring film. Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo give able support but this is Forest Whitaker’s show. He is absolutely mesmerizing in the title role. Cecil slowly influences change with a honorable sense of purpose. It quietly maintains that sometimes, good things come to those who wait.

The Spectacular Now

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 18, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Spectacular Now photo starrating-4stars.jpgTeen angst is a tough balancing act to pull off well. You’re dealing with people who have a roof over their heads, 3 square meals a day, yet don’t have to pay for any of it. “What are you complaining about?” is the response from most adults. But think back. Young adults are on the precipice of adulthood and adolescence can be a very difficult time for some. Every so often a movie comes along that captures the experience with such ease, you feel as though you’re watching real life. The Spectacular Now is such a movie.

This journey of self-discovery was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp. However I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. Not only does the fast talking charmer protagonist in The Spectacular Now form affecting relationships similar to those in the late 80s classic, but star Miles Teller physically resembles John Cusack (mixed with a little Jonah Hill). The story concerns one Sutter Keely, a confident high school senior with an easy going charm, that everyone seems to gravitate toward. Although he’s neither an athletic jock nor ‘A’ student. He’s just a fun-loving dude that people enjoy because of his genial personality. Ok so he’s a party guy. Alright he likes to drink. Into his existence wanders one Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) the quintessential “good girl” that is sweetness personified. Apparently she’s also supposed to be a sci-fi loving social outcast, but her stunning physical beauty betrays that label. She’s clearly movie “geeky” not real world “geeky.” To his surprise, he is taken with this gentle creature despite the fact that he really wants to get back with his ex-girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). To Aimee’s surprise, this guy is giving her the time of day. She falls for him. He falls for her. But their relationship is anything but that simple.

The Spectacular Now is no syrupy story regarding star-crossed lovers. It’s a caustic relationship concerning two people that perhaps shouldn’t be together. They may be technically high school age but their relationship is fraught with the complexities of an adult relationship at its most dysfunctional . He gives her a monogrammed flask as a prom gift. As the audience you want to shake her out of her dedication to this boy who seems all wrong for her. Even he is afflicted with self doubt. I think at its heart, this tale is a love story about how opposites attract. Sutter is plagued by an arrested development. He wants to live in the now without ambition for something more. Aimee on the other hand is generous and sweet. She’s drawn to the “cool” kid, but she’s almost too forgiving – like a case study from Robin Norwood’s mid-80s bestseller Women Who Love Too Much. Their interactions are so mesmerizing, they’re hypnotic. Occasionally the drama succumbs to pat situations. Sutter’s estranged father is written with predictable character flaws seemingly by a first year PSYC 101 student. A few missteps aside, the script is largely unpredictable. Both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are pretty phenomenal. They should be on the cusp of superstardom. That is, provided they continue to get roles that play to their strengths. Their moving portrayals are the reason The Spectacular Now is so engaging.

We’re the Millers

Posted in Comedy with tags on August 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

We're the Millers photo starrating-2stars.jpgDavid is a small time pot dealer. After he is robbed of his entire drug stash and money, his distributor Brad, demands that he go to Mexico to pick up a “smidge” of weed and bring it back to him. In this way he can repay his debt and make amends for the amount he owes. In order to make it across the border without attracting attention, he decides to hire some acquaintances to form a fake family. A stripper that lives in his building is his wife, the nerdy neighbor boy is his son and the runaway girl that he just rescued from being mugged is his daughter.

All aboard the family road trip! The convoluted premise wants to be a variation on 1983’s Vacation with Chevy Chase, but unfortunately exhibits the laughs of RV with Robin Williams. To add insult to injury, the comedy subtracts the love of them actually liking each other and sprinkles in enough F-bombs to make Martin Scorsese blush. If this were a movie depicting organized crime, I might not notice the language, but the film’s combo of saccharine family devotion and vulgar situations is really off-putting. The tender moments the narrative tries to shoehorn in feel forced. These characters despise each other so it‘s unpleasant to be around them. You can’t have these people flipping one another off one moment, then waxing poetically about how close everyone has become by the end of them film. As if!

We’re the Millers isn’t very funny. I can’t say I chuckled while “Dad” encouraged his barely legal “Son” to administer sexual favors on a police officer to get out of a parking ticket or seeing “Son” make out with “Sister” and “Mom” while “Dad” watches. I’m using quotes to emphasize they’re not technically related, but the sleaziness of the situation is still present nonetheless. I realize this won’t matter to many. Comedy is the most subjective genre. All I can say it that this is a comedy in which I rarely laughed. I did enjoy parts though. Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn are a lone bright spot as a pleasant Midwestern couple. They provide the genuine mix of warmth and humor that this comedy is so obviously striving for.

Elysium

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on August 9, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Elysium photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgNeill Blomkamp’s directorial feature debut was entertaining as well as intellectually interesting. District 9 was about a group of sick extraterrestrials in need of help. Its inventive commentary on apartheid was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture. I think it’s fair to say the science fiction thriller heralded a new talent. That’s what makes Elysium largely a disappointment. He has replaced District 9‘s scrutiny of xenophobia and social segregation. In its place is a heavy handed treatment of the growing income gap among classes, along with immigration and healthcare reform. That’s not to say these issues aren’t ripe for critique. It’s just that the conventional approach doesn’t handle it in any meaningful way. It’s kind of a hodgepodge that gets lost in a mélange of stock villains, hackneyed writing and situations that create more questions than answers.

In the year 2154, Earth is a compete slum. Los Angeles looks suspiciously like Mexico City. The 1% have hightailed it out over to an opulent space station that sits above the planet, called Elysium. There they live a life of luxury blissfully unconcerned with the unmitigated squalor that traumatizes their fellow man. It would be helpful to illustrate why they aren’t concerned. Except for an occasional shot of someone walking around a pool, we don’t spend much time with these people. They’re the 1%. We hate them, right? Why bother to understand them? We learn that there are machines on Elysium that can cure all sickness with the mere push of a button. Since they only take seconds to use, anyone can operate them, and they’re plentiful, why aren’t they manufactured and shipped to Earth? This is never addressed either.

The performances are widely scattered across varying levels of aptitude. First the positive. Matt Damon is great. He extracts every ounce of humanity from the vague outline of the assembly line worker he’s been entrusted to play. Damon instills Max Da Costa with a spirit. The evolution of his role is affecting. He draws us into his plight as the main protagonist. Jodie Foster on the other hand is awful. As the Secretary of Defense, she executes her duties with a cold, calculating jurisdiction, frequently disobeying the orders of the President. Physically she resembles that Australian hairstylist from the Bravo reality series Tabatha Takes Over. Speaking in deliberately exaggerated tones with a fluctuating French accent, there is no motive or reason for her malevolence other than the movie needs a villain. Her dastardly plan made absolutely no sense to me. She personifies evil for the sake of being evil. Apparently Foster’s Achilles’ heel is portraying her take on a conservative as anything but a caricature. Quite possibly the worst histrionics I’ve ever seen from an actor of renown. I’m sorry, but her acting is appalling. Not that we needed additional antagonists but there are two more lowlifes to contend with: William Fichtner as John Carlyle, one of the few Elysium citizens that spends time on Earth. He’s the CEO of Armadyne, the corporation that was contracted to build Elysium. Then there’s Sharlto Copley as the South African mercenary that Secretary Delacourt employs to do her dirty work of eliminating illegal immigrants. I didn’t understand his ill defined sleeper agent either. His character is pretty bizarre.

Elysium is a confusing muddle. The effects are extraordinary. I’ll give it that. Blomkamp has visualized a world in such beautiful detail, you’ll swear it actually exists. Matt Damon is effective and as the star, that’s important. His brief exchange with a robot parole officer dummy was the highlight of the entire film for me. Hooray for humor. However the rest of the cast are painted in broad strokes. The villains might as well be twirling a moustache. Jodie Foster is shockingly bad. William Fichtner acts with an affected manner as well. They speak and behave so mechanically, I was sure they would be unmasked as robots by the end. No such luck. Elysium starts out with a mildly promising premise than descends into utter chaos by the third act. Let’s face it, a dystopian future society is cliché at this point. We require innovation. The action becomes just another climax between robotically enhanced humans in a shoot ’em up that would probably even irritate Michael Bay. By then we’ve realized there’s nothing original up the script’s sleeve and we’ve ceased to care. What a shame. Elysium began with remarkable promise.

The Hunt

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on August 7, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Hunt photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe avant-garde filmmaking movement known as Dogme 95 was started in 1995 by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Their goal was to focus filmmaking techniques on actual story and performances and eschew expensive special effects. Perhaps The Hunt doesn’t adhere to the strict guidelines of a Dogme film, nevertheless, the emphasis on stark reality and raw human emotion is undeniably present.

In this account a beloved day care worker is wrongly accused of sexual abuse by one of his students. Mads Mikkelsen is Lucas, a teacher who is well liked and has many good friends in the tight close-knit community. The rising star won Best Actor at Cannes in 2012 for his understated work here. Recently divorced, he divides his time between his job and taking care of his teenaged son. Due to a recent school closure he is currently working as a kindergarten assistant to Grethe, another teacher. Then one day a disturbing remark is made to Grethe by one of the kids at the school, a little girl portrayed by incredibly natural young actress Annika Wedderkopp.

Virtually every single scene is compelling. The Hunt creates several vignettes in which the characters deal with each situation as it presents itself. An inquiry between an investigator and a student is a textbook example of how NOT to lead an interrogation. Leading questions and false assumptions exist in abundance. An outburst at the Christmas Eve church service is another slack-jawed moment. But the acting is never given to histrionics. The Hunt shows remarkable restraint when detailing this miscarriage of justice. However at times the tension can be a bit frustrating. You keep wanting Lucas to proclaim his innocence more vehemently. His passivity is aggravating. A altercation in a grocery store is admittedly fascinating, but it is also a display in unwise behavior. Lucas, just step outside and call the police already!

The drama that unfolds is an emotional gut-wrenching slow burn exercise in how an investigation is handled in the worst way possible. We know immediately he is blameless so “did he?” or “didn‘t he?” questions are squelched from the start. In this way we side with Lucas and share in his degradation as he becomes the town outcast. Yet the events are never sensationalized. The director allows the audience to carefully examine how a lie becomes the truth. The script constructs a situation that slowly builds into a realistic tragedy of horrific proportions. Misinterpreted remarks and group hysteria are the recipe of this meticulously constructed screenplay. Co-written by director Vinterberg with Tobias Lindholm, the saga deals with similar themes found in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible and its depiction of the Salem Witch trials of the 17th century.  Sometimes the rush to judgment would rather deem a person guilty until proven innocent. It’s a cautionary tale that could’ve been set anywhere, including here in the U.S. True to the difficult nature of the film, even the ending suggests more problems are on the horizon. Uncomfortable viewing at its best.

Blue Jasmine

Posted in Drama with tags on August 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Blue Jasmine photo starrating-4stars.jpgA wealthy New York socialite moves in with her decidedly less well-to-do sister in California after her marriage falls apart. Perennial New Yorker Woody Allen actually began his filmmaking career in San Francisco where he shot his feature debut Take the Money and Run. His star turn in Play It Again Sam also took place in SF but he didn’t direct that. He returns to the city by the bay over 40 years later with the drama of a damaged woman. Cate Blanchett completely embodies this individual. Her consummate manner – including every facial tic, insensitive remark, cry for help – serves to paint a fully realized portrait of this woman. She must adapt from her comfortable existence in financial stability to one of more limited means. Whether she is a victim of circumstance or should be partially blamed for her own situation, is a fascinating question you’ll wrestle with as the story plays out.

Cate Blanchett is neurosis defined. She takes medication, drinks profusely, talks to herself and becomes unhinged in an unfettered depiction that should earn an Oscar nomination if there‘s any justice. A common aspect to Jasmine’s personality is to provoke her sister (Sally Hawkins) into finding a man that she deems more suitable. With Jasmine’s high class affections, Blanche Du Bois from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to mind. She even objects to their boorish behavior, first to ex husband (Andrew Dice Clay) and then current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). But the similarities end there. What makes Blanchett’s work so affecting is she is at once relatable but also inaccessible. She is understanding, yet aloof. We sympathize with her pain while we want to slap her in the face. It’s a difficult balancing act and Blanchett handles the feat with deft precision.

Blue Jasmine alternates between New York and San Francisco, the present day and her past. Uniting these threads is the tale of a woman in crisis. Jasmine’s real name is Jeanette but she decided that didn’t have a poetic ring to it. Right from the beginning as she is coming off a plane jabbering away to her flight companion, Blanchett IS Jasmine. This doesn’t feel like acting. It would be easy to disconnect from this socialite’s fall from high society. At one point she recounts an incident after her collapse while she was working as a sales clerk in NY and one of her affluent gal pals walked in. She describes the experience as such an extreme indignity you’d have thought she was describing prostitution. In less capable hands the character would have been someone to hate or laugh at. But Blanchett’s achievement demands your concerned attention. With a mixture of fierce pride and desolate shame she brings humanity to this woman. Blanchett is an actress who has given her share of exceptional performances over the last 2 decades. I do not say this lightly, but her portrayal here ranks among the very best of her career. Yes she’s that good.

And now for a little insight: As someone who lives in the San Francisco Bay area it’s hard not to take exception to Allen’s view of San Francisco as the ultimate comedown for the upper elite of NY. I had to chuckle at how Ginger’s economical digs are depicted as simple and plain. The interior of her so-called modest apartment in the Mission district was actually filmed at 20th and Lexington. In a city where a driveway is a luxury, her ample space would easily rent for $3,000+ a month. She’s a supermarket cashier, by the way. Not exactly the living quarters of a sister who should be pitied. If that’s hardship, I’m ready to suffer.