Archive for September, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on September 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 photo starrating-3stars.jpgCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a bright, enthusiastic follow-up to its predecessor. Like the first, the story is aimed mainly at pre-teens. Vibrant visuals and broad humor is the recipe. There’s an inanity that corrupts the proceedings. Nevertheless the production is so cheerfully goofy that after awhile it manages to still entertain.

Part 2 picks up right where the last picture ended. You might remember Flint Lockwood’s invention capable of converting water into food. Once it became self aware and evil, the invention was destroyed. But it miraculously survived. Known as the FLDSMDFR, it persevered on the mostly evacuated island of Swallow Falls where it continued to make more mutated food. It must be stopped again! They do a quick recap so it’s not necessary to have seen that movie. It does aid in appreciating the humans in the movie though.

Cloudy doesn’t bother with exposition for its large cast. The people in Flint’s life return: his girlfriend, his widowed father, Brent McHale, Officer Earl Devereaux, Manny, etc. The script depends on the fact that you’re already familiar with these people. Remember them? They’re back, is the understanding. No need to explain who they are or what makes them tick. Chester V (Will Forte) is one of the few new characters that is explained. He‘s a super-inventor and head of Live Corp. Overseeing the cleanup of the island, Chester has invited Flint to help . Chester is a most peculiar fellow, a tall skinny man with a round lightbulb shaped torso in an orange vest. He talks with calm reassurances of “Namaste” while moving his arms about like a voguing mime. He’s kind of hypnotic when he talks and I found him to be a welcome addition: equal parts disturbing and hilarious.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 isn’t the most original tale or even the funniest, but it is pleasant. The narrative ramps up the frivolity by extending the capabilities of the FLDSMDFR. It now creates bizarre living breathing food-animal hybrids or Foodimals. They’re the best thing about the story. Creatures called Hippotato, Shrimpanzee, Mosquitoast, and Tacodile Supreme are a pure delight. Their existence on the island is presented very much in the same vein as Jurassic Park. Strawberries have achieved an even more sentient personality. They speak in an affected baby talk like, well really like a little army of minions. The entertainment relies on the imaginative hybrid of Foodimals and not on an involving story. That’s not a problem in a silly cartoon, but that’s all this is, a silly cartoon. The lack of foundation keeps this from attaining the emotional depth of a Pixar film. It’s nonsensical fun, nothing more, and that’s okay.

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Rush

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on September 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Rush photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgI should come clean right now. You can debate whether NASCAR vs. Formula 1 racing is better till blue in the face. The whole discussion is rather uninteresting to me I must confess. Car racing has always remained a fringe sport in my eyes. Not that I don’t admire the skill involved, because I do believe it takes remarkable talent (and money) to succeed. It’s just that there are so many other sports I’d prefer to watch than blurry cars zipping around a track. That’s kind of the attitude to which I approached Rush, the new Formula 1 racing movie regarding two drivers of which I knew nothing. I’m happy to announce that this is an extraordinary film – a firing on all cylinders, exhilarating sports drama.

At heart, Rush is an account concerning two bitter rivals. Niki Lauda is an Austrian perfectionist. He’s portrayed by Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!, Inglourious Basterds), a German actor still relatively unknown to most Americans. Lauda is a driven (excuse the pun) individual that enters the sport like an outsider crashing an exclusive party. A standoffish intellectual, he is nevertheless extremely gifted. Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) is James Hunt. He’s a Brit, equally accomplished – but more charismatic and handsome in contrast. He’s also an arrogant womanizer who goes through women like boxes of Kleenex. Given Hemsworth’s marquee name, it might seem like you could guess how the screenplay might gently guide one to take sides. But you would be wrong. In recounting the saga of Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt, the production does the unexpected. Director Ron Howard working from a script by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen) brilliantly introduces the tale as two separate fully formed individuals. Instead of taking sides and having a narrow point of view, it proffers both with their various strengths and shortcomings in equal measure.

Rush is quite simply the greatest movie about auto racing ever made. It combines the best of both worlds: adrenaline pumping, intense action sequences featuring the sport along with an emotionally engaging character study between two fierce rivals. The mix is intoxicating as the viewer is constantly encouraging each man at different parts of the production. An evenhanded, nuanced portrait, both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl give heretofore career defining performances. They perfectly embody these two passionate adversaries. In presenting these Formula 1 race car drivers that outwardly hate one another, the script makes the brilliant case that they are actually deeply indebted to their opponent. They each push the other in their pursuit of the World Championship. I was prepared to root for Hunt, but walked away rooting for Lauda. You might see the story differently and therein lies the brilliance of this film.

Fight Club

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

Fight Club photo starrating-4stars.jpgAn everyman, let’s call him “Jack“, is discontent with his life and pretty much with life in general. Jack begins attending support groups for problems from which he doesn’t suffer, in an effort to make his personal existence seem better by comparison. At first it works until the presence of another fraud, Marla Singer, disrupts his healing process. Then he meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman with a mutual distaste for consumerist culture. The two embark on a journey of doctrine to mutually improve their lives.

At heart Fight Club rests on the relationship between its central trio. Edward Norton capably embodies the loser emboldened by fighting. He is at once pathetic, but mesmerizing. His all consuming quest to lift himself out of the mire of his life, is captivating. As the film progresses, he becomes more and more debilitating in outward appearance, while manifesting a more confident attitude. Brad Pitt is the guy through which Jack finds strength, His worldview is nihilistic, rejecting everything of value. Yet, Tyler’s ability to inspire his mental turnaround through fist fights is completely believable. Helena Bonham Carter is Marla the girlfriend that comes between them. Marla is a rather unpleasant woman whose personal style can best be described as heroin chic. After starring in the stately costume drama, The Wings of the Dove, just 2 years prior, the casting choice was surprising at the time. She is memorable, although I can’t say I was particularly taken with her character. She is nevertheless an important construct which heavily influences Jack’s behavior.

Jack’s friendship with Tyler is predicated on the desire to eliminate an emasculation he feels in his own life. The opportunity to engage in fisticuffs with willing strangers as a means to feel powerful is the origin of the fight club. As their social organization takes off, there is a giddy wallowing in nihilism that could easily be taken as the glorification of violence. But look closer. Things do not improve for dear Jack. He moves in with Tyler Durden who lives in an absolute hovel of a building that seemingly grows more filthy. Similarly his physical well being actually deteriorates over time.

Highly controversial upon its release, Fight Club is sort of a spiritual cousin to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Like that picture, Fight Club is based in a novel. When the movie was originally released in the Fall of 1999 it sparked a debate amongst critics who gave positive and negative reviews in equal measure. Audiences weren’t really sure what to make of it either. A financial disappointment, only grossing $37 million against a cost of $63 million. Indeed it remains director David Fincher’s least attended production after Zodiac. However time has softened the story’s dark subtext. Critical and popular opinion has grown decidedly positive during the last decade.

Fight Club is one of those in-your-face, take-no-prisoners manifestos that has something say and does it with style and panache. The cinematography is visually arresting. His initial dehumanization at the start of the drama is borne out of the melancholy that happiness has not followed from material possessions. The script has a point of view and doesn’t kowtow to delicate sensibilities. It’s easy to take the idea of hand to hand combat as an endorsement to violence. I won’t spoil specific plot developments, but the success of their fight club cannot be viewed as a mandate to brawl. Despite being the protagonist, Jack is not someone to be admired. Yes, his anguish is abated at first but it leads to anarchy. The fight club becomes more successful and increasingly violent. I’ll admit the milieu is depressing. All the muck and brutality can get a bit oppressive. While the script never really presents a viable solution to Jack‘s dissatisfaction with life, it presents an interesting concept that gives the viewer something to think about. You are not the contents of your wallet.

Prisoners

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Prisoners photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgPrisoners is a tale of a grief-stricken father that decides to take the law into his own hands when his 6 year old daughter goes missing. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife (Maria Bello) are enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner at their neighbors, who have a 6 year old daughter as well. After dinner the two girls go outside the home to play but they do not return. With their children missing, this leads them to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has never had an unsolved case. Suspects are questioned, leads are followed and the trail runs cold.

Prisoners has been marketed as a thriller with Hugh Jackman as the angry father at the center. He is key, but there is a dual protagonist with Jake Gyllenhaal as the beleaguered detective attempting to figure out a difficult case. Jackman is competent in expressing Dover’s rage borne out of anger and frustration. He is a rough-hewn Christian survivalist who works as a carpenter with various materials at his disposal. Despite the fact that few would follow down the same dark path, his vigilante methods are somewhat understandable given what he has endured. He’s certainly effective at engendering our sympathy as the devastated father out for revenge. However the real surprise here is Jake Gyllenhaal. He perfectly embodies the kind of world weary, but stern personality of a policeman. He’s exceptional and his focus provides a ray of hope throughout the oppressive milieu. To say that Prisoners is dour is an understatement. This is every parents worst nightmare. The subject is decidedly grim and the production has visuals to match. Cinematographer Roger Deakins complements the depressing atmosphere of a cold Pennsylvania winter. The bleak rain-soaked suburb is highlighted by a palette of washed out blues and grays that enhances the drama unfolding on screen.

Prisoners is a nifty bit of writing that genuinely grabs the audience’s curiosity. By slowly releasing tidbits of information, we assemble the puzzle as the principals do on screen. There is definite interest in trying to decipher the “whodunit” mystery. This is Canadian film director Denis Villanueva’s (Incendies) rendering of an original script by Aaron Guzikowski. He does a good job. One vignette that begins with Jake Gyllenhaal trailing Hugh Jackman’s footsteps is masterfully composed. Indeed the most compelling moments are not boffo set pieces but well acted interplays between key people. Though a discovery involving some snakes is pretty memorable. If I have a quibble it’s that the plot is overly focused on revenge but then that thread doesn‘t yield a satisfying denouement. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid to imply that torture gets results. Plus the 153 minute running time could’ve been tightened up a bit. We probably didn’t need so many scenes of angry Hugh Jackman. Overall Villanueva does a brilliant job of presenting the procedural story in such a way that we might be able to piece things together ourselves. Although I must admit I personally didn’t solve the answer before it was revealed. Prisoners isn’t perfect, but Guzikowski’s screenplay is intelligent, credible and engaging. That begets a recommendation in my book.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on September 18, 2013 by Mark Hobin

To Kill a Mockingbird photo starrating-5stars.jpg“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel is adapted into a milestone of American cinematic entertainment. The townspeople of Maycomb, Alabama as seen through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch or “Scout” as she‘s affectionately known – a little girl living during The Great Depression in the South. As the movie begins, an adult Scout narrates through voice-over regarding her experiences growing up with her family – brother Jem, friend Dill, and father Atticus Finch.

To Kill a Mockingbird is highlighted by stunning performances that are breathtakingly genuine. Young actress Mary Badham epitomizes tomboy “Scout” with the skill of a seasoned pro. The film examines her societal observations beginning as a 6 year old. These include her adventures with her brother, 10 year-old Jem (Phillip Alford) and their friend “Dill” (John Megna). Dill is a peculiarly eccentric boy based on Harper Lee‘s real life childhood friendship with Truman Capote. The three of them pass their summers together preoccupied with a neighbor home that belongs to the hateful Mr. Radley and his reclusive son – the often talked about but never seen – Boo Radley. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch, a lawyer and the children’s father. It has become an iconic role. The actor embodies absolute virtue, both as a father and as a lawyer tapped to defend a man on trial for a serious crime. Peck even won the Oscar (beating Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia). Estelle Evans is their no-nonsense housekeeper Calpurnia and inherent mother figure to the kids. Deeply respected, she provides discipline and love but doesn’t overindulge the children.

Gregory Peck is the personification of goodness in his part as the southern lawyer selected to defend a black man accused of rape. Director Robert Mulligan along with frequent collaborator-producer Alan J. Pakula, brings a classic of modern American literature to the screen in a near perfect masterpiece. To Kill a Mockingbird meticulously captures the reflections of a young girl. It’s hard to imagine a more deft handling of what a child witnesses concerning the residents of a close-knit community. Bigotry is definitely a major subject. However Horton Foote’s Oscar winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, is more importantly a timeless reminiscence about growing up in Alabama during the 1930s. Multiple characters and storylines are effectively managed as a portrait of the American south is painted. The atmosphere of a small southern town is perfectly captured. Russell Harlan’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography has a transcendent quality that rightfully earned an Oscar nomination. His beautifully framed evocation of the south is just as important as the actors that gives spirit to Harper Lee’s words. The entire story climaxes in a entertaining courtroom drama that deals with civil rights but it leads to so much more. As the developments play out, the movie demonstrates how subsequent events have a profound effect on the formative education on a maturing protagonist.

Insidious: Chapter 2

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on September 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Insidious: Chapter 2 photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgLet me start by saying that Insidious Chapter 2 isn’t debased by the torture-porn muck of graphic gore and violence. It still attempts to scare through an eerie mood. For that, I applaud it. However, that is the last positive thing I will say about this movie.

Insidious Chapter 2 assumes you’ve seen the first entry. The chronicle picks up right where the previous one ended without explanation. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are back as the parents, along with Ty Simpkins as their son who sees dead people. It’s nice to see characters we remember, but the workaday script doesn’t take the time to imbue any of them with a personality. These people are ciphers. They aren’t interesting individuals anymore, just bodies reading lines to advance an impenetrable plot.

From a narrative standpoint, Insidious Chapter 2 makes the mistake of thinking we required additional explication to the first film. Insidious was an effective chiller with a refreshingly simple plot. In contrast, Chapter 2 is unnecessarily complicated. Apparently Josh (Patrick Wilson), the father in the first film had a history with seeing an evil spirit as a child too. In that respect, Insidious Chapter 2 is structured very much like the Paranormal Activity pictures with embellishments that complicate the basic plot. Not unexpected since Oren Peli produced both. Apparently there’s a valid reason why the Lambert family is so connected to the spirit world. Thank goodness. Who needs scares? I wanted gratuitous exposition. (Sarcasm)

The most surprising thing regarding Insidious Chapter 2 is the shocking lack of scares. A musical baby walker goes off by itself, an unknown woman dressed in white walks by in the background. Does that make your blood run cold? If so, you might be the audience for this hokum. As things escalate in their home, Josh’s wife and mother confront him with what they’ve seen, but he continues to suppress that anything is wrong. Later we get a dreary séance where they try to contact a paranormal investigator who has passed on. They roll letter dice and the scene is shot with all the excitement of watching paint dry. LOOK! The letters N and O are next to each other. She’s speaking to us!! This ultimately leads them to a hospital where there’s more turgid back-story concerning a man who committed suicide, whose house they visit, where they find newspaper clippings that point to supplementary details involving a dark dimension that exists parallel to our world. There’s even a twisted mother there who wanted her son to be a girl. Great shades of Psycho! None of this is particularly compelling or scary. It’s merely a needlessly complex subterfuge to hide a thoroughly convoluted story. Chapter 2 frequently invokes the respectable name of part 1 and in the process cheapens the value of the original by over-explaining its mysteries. This actually causes the viewer to re-evaluate its merits. If this is only chapter 2, I shudder to think how many more volumes this poorly written book has.

Some Like It Hot

Posted in Comedy with tags on September 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Some Like It Hot photo starrating-5stars.jpg“Look at that! Look how she moves. That’s just like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex!”

So observes jazz musician Jerry as he witnesses Marilyn Monroe sashaying down the street as Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk. It’s one of the most acknowledged lines in the screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. There’s one zinger that surpasses it, but I won’t spoil it here. It comes at the very end of the film and it is perhaps the most perfect capper ever written. Billy Wilder’s time-honored gender bending tale is a landmark. Extracting humor from men dressing up like women is so basic it pre-dates slipping on a banana peel. The idea probably goes back to the prehistoric age. However Some Like It Hot arguably represents the gag at its zenith.

Joe and Jerry are a pair of jazz musicians in the city of Chicago during the Prohibition-era. One day the two of them accidentally witness a particularly brutal mob hit. In order to stay a step ahead of lead gangster “Spats” Colombo. They join an all female band, dressed as women. Now disguised as Josephine and Daphne they travel by train to Miami. The two of them behave awkwardly and look ridiculous. It’s a deceptively simple one-joke premise but nevertheless, a thoroughly entertaining one at that.

Some Like It Hot spotlights a triumvirate of winning performances. Jack Lemmon is positively manic in his portrayal as a woman. He was the only actor to get an Oscar nomination for his performance. In contrast Tony Curtis is notably restrained. I found his depiction to be even funnier in the way he underplays the role. Monroe commands your attention whenever she is on screen. Anyone wanting a quick glimpse into the cult of Marilyn need only watch her rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” She’s all coy sensuality and Betty Boop helium voice. She exploits her blonde bombshell personality at its bubble headed best. How Sugar (or anyone else for that matter) could not determine that Daphne and Josephine are actually men is unfathomable. They are hilariously unbelievable as women, but I suppose that‘s precisely the point.

Some Like It Hot is highlighted by a wit that is surprisingly prescient of modern times. The script mines gender humor with a sophisticated modernity that still seems remarkably fresh even today. The satire is composed of well worn targets, but they’re handled in such a lighthearted way, it entertains through the commentary. Granted this farce is more apt to cause mild giggles than outright guffaws. I wouldn’t call it the funniest comedy ever made, but the plot developments are so captivating, it’s easy to see why this film ranks amongst the finest of the period.

As part of Cinemark theaters practice of digitally restoring classic movies, Some Like It Hot represented a golden opportunity for me to see a revered masterpiece as it was originally shown. No, it doesn’t feature gorgeous panoramic vistas or special effects, but seeing the beautiful Marilyn Monroe this way is kind of a special effect in itself.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Posted in Crime, Drama, Romance, Western with tags on September 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Ain't Them Bodies Saints photo starrating-3stars.jpgFor all its artistry, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is saddled with one of the worst movie titles in recent memory. Watching the film will not shed any light on what that cryptic title means. Apparently director David Lowery misheard the lyrics in an old folk song many years ago but liked the sound of the phrase anyway. They have absolutely no significance other than interesting sounding words to convey a time period. In many ways that’s appropriate because David Lowery’s meditation on a western is more concerned with milieu than meaning anyway.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are engaging. They play a couple kept apart after a getaway gone wrong from a botched robbery.  Bob agrees to take the fall for a violent act for which his wife Ruth is in fact responsible. This then is the emotional chronicle of outlaws whose exalted devotion is made more relevant than what they’ve actually done. Their romance is boiled down to its essence. We learn Ruth is pregnant with their daughter. Bob vows to reunite with his wife, prison sentence be damned. His undying dedication to her is a key theme. That Bob and Ruth love each other is obvious. There is a pure naturalism to their behavior. They express a lot with very few words. Conversation is secondary as the atmosphere is what’s important. Matching them is Ben Foster who plays the deputy who warms up to Ruth oblivious that it was she who indeed shot him. He’s memorable as a third wheel. Keith Carradine also gives a notable performance as their neighbor who has become sort of a father figure to Bob.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a stunningly beautiful picture with a score to match. The drama is set against the backdrop of 1970s Texas Hill Country. However there’s a timelessness that makes this saga feel as if it could’ve happened even further in the past. Their homestead takes on an ethereal beauty far beyond the modest farmhouse where they live in reality. The aura at once recalls depression era photographs of Dorethea Lange or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”.  But it’s even more hewn from Terrence Malick’s Badlands and to a lesser extent Days of Heaven. David Lowery is unquestionably a director to watch, yet he’s fashioned a film that’s easy to admire but a hard one to truly enjoy. Lowery exploits the neo-western ethos in a way that luxuriates in ambience but at the expense of a strong narrative. If you champion appearances over depth, you‘ll find much to cherish here. The elegant lyricism will charm anyone more captivated by a mood than well-defined storytelling. Its melancholy tone will seduce style mongers into heaven.

In a World…

Posted in Comedy with tags on September 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

In a World... photo starrating-3stars.jpgCarol Solomon is a struggling thirtysomething trying to eke out a living as vocal coach in Los Angeles. She’s always lived in the shadow of her father Sam Soto (Fred Melamed). He has been a leader in the world of voice-over work for movie trailers. Then one day she decides to make a play for the male dominated universe of her dad.

Quirky romantic comedy concerns people who make a living doing voice-over narration. The title refers to a phrase that real life legend of the field Don LaFontaine, used to start many movie ads. Writer Lake Bell gets originality points for mining an interesting occupation and examining the female component. Subtract points however for a somewhat disjointed tale that loses focus along the way. Bell even throws in a romantic subplot that isn’t particularly involving. Shy nerd Louis (Demetri Martin) is crushing on her hard. Carol becomes one of those clichéd woman-child personalities that we’ve seen male comedians do 100 times before. Their dialogue is entirely stammering nervous banter. It’s obvious to everyone but themselves that they like each other. Just kiss already! There’s also her sister (Michaela Watkins) and her sister’s husband (Rob Corddry) who are experiencing marital woes. Their story forms a pretty sizeable chunk of the plot. It really has nothing to do with the main issue at hand. Furthermore, the problem is introduced then solved without much fanfare. Guess they needed to pad out the already short running time.

There’s an utter novelty to the subject that In a World… explores. As star, writer, director, and producer, Lake Bell is clearly talented. She he has a knack for clever situations that will serve her burgeoning writing career. There are some nice scenarios scattered throughout with a host of amusing people. Bell has an ease for creating a character piece. A bit where she helps Eva Longoria with her Cockney accent was rather humorous. As a champion for female empowerment, the narrative is mostly effective. Given the point of view, you want to love this film. However a late development delivered by Geena Davis in the last act, undermines her accomplishments. It renders her triumphs meaningless and leaves a bad taste. Despite that questionable denouement, the chronicle has some enjoyable vignettes. Bell’s facility with familial relations is raw and honest. Her father’s loyalties are surprisingly unexpected for example. In a World… is a slow climb up the ladder of success with more good elements than bad.