Archive for October, 2013

The Bling Ring

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on October 30, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Bling Ring photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRebecca: Did you speak to any of the victims?
L.A. Detective: I’ve spoken to all of them.
Rebecca: Really?! What did Lindsay say?

A gang of 5 wealthy L.A. teenagers begin breaking into the homes of celebrities. They’re driven by a dual obsession with fame and desire for new clothes. The group of four girls and one boy targets celebutantes and starlets. The reason being they own clothes the girls want to wear. Sounds like a satire dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter, an indictment of entitled LA teens not satisfied with the level of their affluence. But truth is stranger than fiction. The reality is, it did happen during the latter half of 2008 and beginning of 2009 when Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge and the homes of various other personalities were burglarized in the Hollywood Hills.

As we watch the crimes committed, the details are a real eye-opener. We see how the band reads gossip magazines to determine when their victims would be out of town, then use the internet to discover their addresses. Once there, they climb over fences without effort and virtually walk in undeterred. At one point they access a house through a doggy door, at another they find the keys lying under the doormat. Director Sofia Coppola was intrigued after reading an article in the March 2010 Vanity Fair titled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” The movie features newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard as the main duo and includes genuine stars Emma Watson as Nicki, one of the vapid teens, and Leslie Mann as her airhead mother, Laurie. The cast is uniformly excellent in conveying their shallow yet passionate rapacity for material possessions.

The action is filmed almost as if the audience is the 6th member of their little clique. There are some delicious quotes sprinkled throughout: “Girls, time for your Adderall!” mother Laurie shrieks to her daughters one morning; or the way lead burglar Rebecca chirps, “Let’s go shopping!” before she robs someone’s house. The tone of The Bling Ring is surprisingly egalitarian. It presents without moralizing. As such, the script isn’t particularly deep, but it‘s compelling viewing nevertheless. The superficial approach actually befits its subject. There is a noticeable unwillingness to delve into their celebrity based fame-whore mentality. That’s because there is no depth to the machinations of these youths. They’re an American tragedy. They believe in absolutely nothing but their own satisfaction. Therefore, the peripheral examination gently rebukes these kids by giving their lives a trivial treatment. Despite the heinousness of their crimes, I suspect they relish the fact that a film was made about their escapades. Perhaps that’s the saddest tragedy of all.

Advertisements

All Is Lost

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama with tags on October 27, 2013 by Mark Hobin

All is Lost photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgAll Is Lost is a drama about a yacht floating aimlessly in the Indian Ocean. We do not know the name of the sailor. Suddenly his ship has been punctured by an enormous metal shipping container adrift loose in the sea. The resulting hole is the start of where this man’s problems begin.

All Is Lost is a most peculiar little picture. Other than some narration in the beginning, this is a nearly wordless production. Our man, as he’s listed in the credits, recounts his dire written message directed at some unnamed people. He has given up. Then we flashback 8 days. We observe how our hero’s situation has deteriorated up to that point. Without conversation, we must rely on the character’s actions to communicate his predicament. Robert Redford offers a fascinating portrayal, one that will undoubtedly earn an Academy Award nomination. It’s the kind of understated achievement that usually goes unnoticed. However I predict this will win him tons of awards. Surprisingly Redford has been nominated just once for an acting Oscar in his entire career (The Sting). Admittedly that makes him a sentimental choice, but this performance also happens to be among his very best. He does great work here.

Yet despite his incredible accomplishment, I did not enjoy this movie much. For the full 106 minute runtime, we simply watch a character’s fate grow from bad to worse. We see our man repair damages, pump water out of the main cabin, distill drinking water and shoot a flare gun – all in wordless silence. It’s all quite methodical and emotionally cold. There are only the sound of the waves and the musical score to direct our feelings. There is no history, no reasons for his trip, nor family we can connect to this man. We know only random bits than we can glean from tiny clues of the narrative. Part of the “fun” is putting the evidence together to assemble the background of this man’s life. He’s rich obviously. He owns a yacht. Or does he own it? That’s not clear. We are able to tell he has loved one(s) given the opening voice-over. Or is that directed to friends? Ok, we can see he is an old man, possibly in his late 70s. That’s really all we can deduce.

I admire what director J.C. Chandor is trying to do with All Is Lost. He also directed the studious financial study Margin Call, which was nothing but talking. In All Is Lost, Chandor admirably tries to convey helplessness in the most subtle manner possible, sans dialogue. So insubstantial, it barely registers as a film. Its adherence to minimalism is remarkable. It’s a noble exercise, but it doesn’t resonate as entertainment. It feels like an experiment. You can argue, we don’t need a backstory to be invested. We should care because he is human. His will to survive is the plot. But without the context of a face of someone he misses or even a personality for the man himself, our sentiments are not fully engaged. He is a completely inscrutable protagonist. He rarely shows emotion except in one exasperated release where he utters one loud obscene word. Additionally for the majority of the movie, our man is presumably such an expert seafarer, he appears cool and collected. He’s calm so we’re calm. The stakes don’t seem that high. That changes but by then it’s too little, too late.

Bad Grandpa

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

Bad Grandpa photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe “story” concerns an 86 year old man driving his grandson across the heartland of America. Young Billy needs to stay with his father while his mother is in jail. But Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is not a movie in the traditional sense. This is a compendium of skits whereby a 42 year old Johnny Knoxville is made up to look like an elderly man, ageing lothario Irving Zisman. He’s paired with 9 year old actor Jackson Nicoll who plays Billy, the little boy. He’s a cute tyke and his obvious chemistry with Knoxville is genuine. Over the next 92 minutes we’re treated to a sequence of hidden camera stunts.

I’ve never been much of a fan of the Jackass franchise whose sole purpose was to simply show numskulls doing dangerous pratfalls. Bad Grandpa differs from the rest of the series in that there is the loose connecting thread of a plot mixed in with the silly high jinks. Many will be quick to compare this to Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 hidden camera trick movie. But let’s face it. They both owe their existence to Allen Funt’s long running TV show Candid Camera. The formula entertains in a similar fashion. The humor is based more on real people’s responses than the ridiculous antics themselves. The added component allows Bad Grandpa to triumph where the other Jackass pictures fell short.

Bad Grandpa is definitely not a film I would recommend to everyone. Things can get pretty crude. It pains me to say this, but I laughed a lot. The surprise is the gags successfully mine comedy at its most basic form. Watching what appears to be an old man hurtle through the air on a malfunctioning coin operated kiddie ride is hilarious in the same way that slipping on a banana peel is funny. Even funnier than the actual stunt, however, is the bystander’s reaction to those shenanigans. Watch the horrified faces of attendees at a mock funeral as they eavesdrop on a discussion grandpa and mom have over who’s going to take care of little Billy. It’s gut-busting. Occasionally the stunts aim even higher. Dressing the boy up like a girl and crashing a child beauty contest is amusing in the obvious sense, but it pokes fun at those questionable contests as well. I’m not saying this is a satire. This is lowbrow humor, but hey, that can be enjoyable too. I mean those sophisticated cartoons in the New Yorker are kind of overrated anyway.

Wadjda

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on October 23, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Wadjda photo starrating-4stars.jpgSaudi Arabia has no movie theaters. Clerics oppose public screenings because they encourage mingling of the sexes. Small wonder that it has taken until 2013 to get Wadjda, the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. In a country where a film industry is virtually absent, this fact alone would make its existence commendable. However this is also the first feature-length picture made by a female Saudi. That makes it an extraordinary accomplishment even before a single frame is viewed. Although I’m happy to proclaim that the production is a laudatory achievement in its own right.

Wadjda is a 10-year-old Saudi girl from the capital city of Riyadh. She lives there with her mother (Reem Abdullah). She has a father (Sultan Al Assaf) as well, but her relationship with him is confusing. We grow to understand he is seeking a second wife, which is why he is seldom at home. Wadjda watches the boys ride their bikes in and around town. She yearns to own her own cycle. Every day on the way to school she passes by a store where she spies one beautiful new bike for sale. She longs to buy the expensive vehicle and race against her friend Abdullah, a boy from the neighborhood. This is Wadjda’s effort to raise the money.

Wadjda does more than just tell a compelling story. It is a cultural record. We learn women cannot vote, laugh outdoors, or even be seen by men unless covered. Women are pressured to wear a full-length black covering called an abaya. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Rights are dictated and defined by Sunni Islam and tribal customs. Yes, director Haifaa al-Mansour’s work is politically charged, but not in the way you think. It’s refreshingly subtle. It merely presents society without comment. The viewer is freely allowed to criticize or support what they see. To western audiences unfamiliar with such customs, they will seem intolerable, but the production surprisingly feels charming and light. Credit young actress Waad Mohammed who plays our titular heroine. She embodies sweetness and grace with just a smidge of tomboy. Needless to say, the idea of a little girl riding a bike is something frowned upon here as it is seen as detrimental to a girl’s virtue.

Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour does the impossible. She has produced a film in a country with no film industry to speak of. Add that she is female in a community where women are forbidden to publicly interact with unrelated men. Wadjda is fascinating because it does two things brilliantly. One, it offers a gripping narrative of a captivating character. Secondly it also serves as a document of Saudi society. The director even fashions a climactic Koran recital contest as an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter. We get an expert’s view from the inside. The presentation of culture was a real eye opener for this critic. The strict moral codes might be described as oppressive, yet the milieu never reads that way. Joyful, effervescent and uplifting, this is about the triumph of the human spirit. How one rebellious little girl deals with her innocent desire to simply own a bike. Saudis can still watch movies via satellite, DVD and video in the privacy of their own homes. Perhaps one day they will be able to see this in a cinema. You however don’t have that problem. Please exercise that right and see this film.

Escape from Tomorrow

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror on October 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Escape from Tomorrow photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe last day of a family’s vacation at Walt Disney World goes from horrible to worse. Things get off to a bad start when the father gets a call from his boss that he has been fired. He keeps the news to himself not wanting to spoil their trip. But while on the rides he begins seeing the animatronic faces frowning at him. Then his son gets sick after he takes him on Space Mountain. This leads to a fight with his wife. His only relief from his misery are the sight of two pretty young French girls that he trails throughout the park.

At the very least, Escape from Tomorrow is a triumph of guerrilla filmmaking. Since The Walt Disney Company is fiercely protective of their “intellectual property” director Randy Moore shot the movie on the sly, clandestine style. That means his crew did not obtain permits or permission to film. He shot with hand-held cameras commonly used by visitors and tiny digital audio recorders to capture sound. Given the restrictive environment, the production is an absolute marvel of inventiveness. Many scenes are clearly shot at the complex in full view with real patrons in the background. Perhaps to get around copyright laws, no official Disney music from the park is used. This actually strengthens the sinister atmosphere. Weird, alternate music is substituted that give the attractions an ominous quality. At times the director uses green screens with venue locations for the backdrop of extended takes. The effect gives the picture an almost surreal, hyperrealistic quality. Black and white cinematography also adds to the simulation.

Escape from Tomorrow sounds like an interesting curiosity and it is. Unfortunately the back-story of how the picture was created is more fascinating than the film itself. The problem is this fantasy really doesn’t go anywhere interesting. The downward spiral of the tale is sort of a hallucinogenic head trip – but it’s incoherent. There’s a buried subtle critique that even Disney World’s sunny happy facade can’t mask true depression. But this has more to do with negativity in this family’s life than a comment on the actual merits of the park itself. For most of the drama I was intrigued where the chronicle would go. Then the movie takes a particularly nasty turn 10 min from the end that dares the audience to keep watching. It devolves into a scatological creepshow. Shame because with some judicious editing and more intellectual mindset, this could’ve been a perceptive commentary on the artificiality of the happiest place on earth. After screening at the Sundance Film Festival, there was some speculation that future audiences would never see Escape from Tomorrow because of legal difficulties. The work most likely falls under the fair-use doctrine as parody and therefore not subject to copyright law. Whatever the reason, Disney has decided to ignore the production so as not to bring more attention to it. You should probably do the same.

Captain Phillips

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on October 13, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Captain Phillips photo starrating-5stars.jpgPerhaps the greatest triumph a movie can achieve is portraying a crisis so honestly, so purely, that it goes beyond the point of mere filmed entertainment. You feel as if you’re experiencing the genuine tragedy of real life. Captain Phillips is that type of film.

Director Paul Greengrass once again proves he is master of the exhilarating docudrama. United 93 (2006) was a flawless piece of filmmaking. This given that stories about 9/11 have an unquestionably high degree of difficulty. Then there was his outstanding early career effort, Bloody Sunday (2002) which addressed the British massacre of Irish civil rights protestors in 1972. Now comes Captain Phillips based on the terrifying true account of a merchant mariner who was taken hostage by Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean in 2009. The 5 day ordeal began with the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship. Captain Phillips is arguably a simpler saga to tackle, but it’s no less overwhelming in scope. As far as I’m concerned, every heart-pounding adventure constructed from a horrifying true incident should be offered to Paul Greengrass first. If he passes, then open the field to other directors.

From the moment Phillips first spies the pirates as a blip on his radar, Paul Greengrass manages to create suspense and not let up until the second the credits start rolling. In between, the stress is so incredible, there are times where you must remember to breathe.  Tom Hanks is brilliant in actualizing a figure we identify with immediately. I’ve often felt the beloved 2 time Academy Award winner is so famous, so recognizable, it’s hard for me to forget that I am watching Tom Hanks the actor. But here he loses himself in the character, giving a nuanced and honest performance. He easily conveys decency as well as fear without even speaking. Hanks acts simply through his eyes in a way that you cannot teach. We imagine what it is like to be him, what we would do in that situation, and marvel at the instances where his carefully chosen words gives indirect directions to the crew on how to proceed. He makes us believe he really is in danger. We lose ourselves in a movie.

Captain Phillips is based on Richard Phillips own memoir. Despite being told from his point of view, the production does an admirable job at lending the antagonists a voice. It would’ve been easy to present the Somali raiders as a simplistic version of evil vs. the good unarmed crew of the Maersk. Though I never had sympathy for the pirates, the director presents enough of their predicament that you see them as human, and not solely as barbaric savages out for a quick score. We come to understand the reasons for the relentless drive in their undertaking. We appreciate how high the stakes are for these pirates to succeed. Actor Barkhad Abdi holds his own as the chief pirate Muse. He is a threatening presence, a gaunt slender wisp of a man that is nevertheless frightening. He is not someone to be toyed with. He’s mesmerizing and his impressive contribution is key to the picture.

Captain Phillips is the perfect combination of a white knuckle thriller coupled with the grounded seriousness of reality. Although it undoubtedly manipulates facts for the benefits of entertainment, this doesn’t play out as a Hollywoodization. There are no perfectly timed witty quips or muscular displays of heroism. The scenes aren’t staged as superficial thrills in the service of a glitzy action picture.  Greengrass frequently employs hand held cameras. The technique is exquisitely effective in creating authenticity. It looks like the actual found footage of a harrowing event. Crew members behave very much in the way you’d expect real people who aren’t trained for combat to act. Tom Hanks comes across as a man, an ordinary man, in extraordinary circumstances. He is forced to act under duress given extreme hardship. By the end, the tension has built to such a level that you’re glad when the intensity is over. The effect is such a release. Captain Phillips is a searing drama of the individual pushed to the breaking point in order to survive.  It’s also one of the very best films of 2013.

Enough Said

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on October 9, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Enough Said photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe late James Gandolfini makes one of his last appearances in director Nicole Holofcener’s rumination on divorced empty nesters looking for love. Eva, a single mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), braces for her daughter’s upcoming departure for college. Albert, a single Dad (James Gandolfini), is likewise coming to terms with his daughter leaving home. Eva spends her days working as a masseuse but dreading her daughter’s impending farewell. She meets Albert (James Gandolfini) – a lovable, funny and like-minded man also facing an empty nest. They bond unexpectedly over their similar circumstances. Then there’s Catherine Keener who plays Eva’s newest client, Marianne. She is a divorced woman whose own dissatisfaction in her previous marriage begins to weigh on Eva in her current relationship.

Director Holofcener is recognized for her tales of modern, professional women. Her 5th effort, Enough Said unsurprisingly features a delightfully gentle performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus. More surprisingly is that it spotlights a meaningful and nuanced role for a man – James Gandolfini.  She is pretty and petite. He is a big bear of a guy. Yet he encompasses a heart larger than his belly. Enough Said evokes a couple other flicks. I hesitate to invoke the name of Marty, one of my favorite films of all time, but there is a vague similarity with that story with respect to James Gandolfini’s character. Conversations form much of the narrative and the script handles the awkward interaction between these two unlikely lovers with a deft skill. There’s a somewhat Woody Allen-ish mood to the proceedings as well. That’s not surprising given that Holofcener’s stepfather produced Woody Allen pictures when she was growing up. The two principals interact frequently and their courtship is disarmingly tender and engaging.

Enough Said is a fairly slight production, a plot that owes a major reveal to sitcom humor and conventions. Nonetheless that should in no way to take away from the thoughtful work from Gandolfini and Louise-Dreyfus. They take a good screenplay and make it great by breathing life into characters that feel as real as anyone you might actually meet.  It’s nice to see people in their 50s represented in movies. The audience who bemoans the lack of non-teen romances needs to check this out. Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus are a delight. Their interactions as a pair will have you believing they really have fallen in love with each other. Both exude a sweetness rarely seen from these actors. I must admit Gandolfini’s passing lends the matters an added level of poignancy, but he is charming regardless. It highlights a depth of sensitivity contrary to which The Sopranos star is normally known – a fitting capper to an esteemed career.

Gravity

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 6, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Gravity photo starrating-4stars.jpgGravity is 2013’s most visually impressive feature. Right from the beginning, director Alfonso Cuarón seizes attention with jaw dropping views of the cosmos. Astronauts lazily float in space suits while the big glowing blue sphere of Earth looms in the background. Only the sounds of human breathing and electronic blips of communication can be heard. The spectacle is akin to actually floating in space along with our protagonist. There is a feeling of paralysis, of dizziness and weightlessness simply from the cinematography. It’s a dreamy experience. The production’s greatest triumph is that it puts you there, in the moment, and the effect is exhilarating. Let me be clear. This movie absolutely positively demands to be seen in a cinema on a huge screen, preferably on the largest IMAX available. 3D doesn’t hurt either. Yes, I have admittedly not cared for 3D technology in the past. Indeed 99% of the time it is a cash grab to jack up ticket prices to gouge the viewer for more money. Gravity is that rare exception that justifies the format.

The plot is simple. The Explorer shuttle is on a mission. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and scientist turned astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are on a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Elsewhere at that second Russia has deliberately destroyed one of its own defunct spy satellites. The resulting debris hurtles through the universe towards our pioneers. The shrapnel hits their shuttle disabling everything leaving Kowalski and Stone stranded. That’s the story.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney essentially portray versions of themselves. Clooney is a confident flirt who audibly plays country music inside his spacesuit. He is a raconteur regaling everyone with his stories. The visuals are so mind-blowing, occasionally I kind of wish he would stop telling anecdotes over the gorgeous scene. Bullock in contrast is sensitive and nervous – unsure of this foreign atmosphere. She’s disarming. We identify with her immediately because she is us. She is the story’s sentimental heart. With the effects vying for our interest, her performance is extraordinary because she captivates our concern. The eye popping displays become secondary when she’s speaking.  We focus on her. It’s a remarkable achievement given the environment.

There are occasions where the director’s hand is evident. A single solitary tear cascades down Bullock’s cheek as a glistening globule and into the crowd watching with 3D glasses. At one point, Bullock strips off her astronaut suit revealing her amazingly toned body. She pauses in the fetal position like an embryo in the safe cocoon of her spaceship. The back-story she volunteers involving her daughter, comes across like a shortcut to emotional profundity. Although it doesn’t attempt the same philosophical depth, Gravity clearly owes a visual debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s in very good company – one of the few instances where space exploration is so tangible as to make us feel as if we’ve honestly been to the outer limits.

Alfonso Cuarón does a virtually flawless job in creating a you-are-there moment in space. Through cinematography, the actor’s movements and special effects, the genuine sensation of weightlessness is achieved better than in any film since, well since ever. Edits are few and far between. More prolonged camera takes do wonders at lulling the audience into a state of euphoria. There’s no sound in outer space, so even explosions are silent. There is a score however and the musical crescendos underscore major events. Sumptuous and beautiful, Gravity frequently makes you lose your breath due to the majesty that hypnotically unfolds before us. Space itself is the antagonist. It is a thrill ride with the human drama of survival at its center. Gravity is an awe inspiring picture and a potent reminder why it still remains preferable to see a film in a theater than on an iPod.

Don Jon

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 2, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Don Jon photo starrating-2stars.jpg“There’s only a few things I really care about in life. My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”

So goes the mantra of Jon Martello, Jr. or “Don Jon” as his friends call him. He’s a working-class Italian American from New Jersey with a way with the ladies. The problem? He is incapable of connecting with a woman on an emotionally intimate level.

Don Jon is a peculiar film. Jon’s belief that online pornography is better than real sex seems to be the main conundrum he wrestles with. But it’s not even an issue for him until it interferes with a genuine relationship. For most of the story, the idea is dealt with in a superficial and crude manner for laughs. Virtually everyone (with one notable exception) speaks in a stereotypical Jersey Shore dialect so thick it feels like a spoof. Glenne Headly and Tony Danza play Don’s bickering parents. They’re enjoyable if taken as a joke – a relic of some dated sitcom relying on ethnic conventions of how people from New Jersey talk and act. Scarlett Johansson hurls a Jersey girl accent that is humorous as parody. Ever catch her in Saturday Night Live’s “You gotta get yourself some marble columns” skit? It’s just like that. These are good actors and there’s some laughs. Then Julianne Moore comes along. Her awkwardly sensitive character changes all that with a tender performance that seems to belong in a completely different, more serious picture. Now you wish the rest of the cast had been written with the same courtesy.

I enjoy Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor, but it’s hard to understand why the star chose this topic as his directorial debut. He even wrote the script so this is clearly a passion project for him. The screenplay wants you to embrace the protagonist as this lovable lug, but flips his issue as something from which he must be cured. At first it’s because his nice girlfriend is understandably upset by his addiction, but then she becomes this shrew of a woman we’re obviously now supposed to dislike. Over the course of the chronicle we get frequent montages of going to clubs, bedding women, visiting naughty web sites, and going to confession with the priest’s dispensing of penance. It’s incredibly repetitive. That’s the point I’m sure, but it‘s so single minded as to be uninteresting. This is a portrait of a man, but it isn’t particularly hilarious or insightful. If this was a 4 minute sketch, I’d say it had some funny moments, but as a feature length movie the subject is stretched far too thin.