Archive for December, 2013

The Wind Rises

Posted in Animation, Drama, Foreign with tags on December 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wind Rises photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgYoung Jiro fantasizes about being a pilot. But the boy’s nearsightedness makes that impossible. Instead he joins a major Japanese engineering company in 1927 and starts designing airplanes to satiate his desires. The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Mitsubishi A5M and its famous successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Both fighter planes were used by Japan during World War II. When Jiro is focused on designing aircraft and pursuing his dreams, the movie is an uplifting portrait of a man with a purpose. Jiro is motivated by his idol, Italian aviation pioneer Giovanni Caproni who appears to him in hallucinations. These anecdotes help flesh out a character that remains somewhat enigmatic. The narrative later finds our protagonist consumed by his devotion for Naoko, the woman who would become his wife. Their relationship is less captivating. What starts as a fascinating chronicle of a visionary sort of falters in its gooey love story of a romance affected by the onset of tuberculosis. There are still many beautiful images that highlight this graceful presentation of flight.

Hayao Miyazaki has announced that this is his final film. The 72 year old director is a legend in the world of Japanese animation. He was largely unknown in the West until Princess Mononoke was released in 1999. Then came Spirited Away which won the Academy Award for Best Animated feature of 2002. Both were breathtaking fantasies filled with magic and mystical creatures. This is Miyazaki’s first to be inspired by an actual figure. Intertwined into the plot are historical events leading up to Japan’s entry into WWII. The Wind Rises is not dependent on supernatural elements like Hayao Miyazaki’s other works. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of gorgeous visuals. A simple sequence of Jiro contemplating the path of a paper plane as it takes to the sky is hypnotic. The spectacle of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is a stunning feat of both sight and sound. Throughout it all, Jiro remains the picture of a pacifist. History buffs might pause at the placid portrayal of the guy responsible for the very machines that kamikaze fighters would use to kill people. Although never really addressed, the depiction implies that his nonviolent passions were exploited by the military.

The Wind Rises is a fitting swan song for legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki. With its slow pace and developing love story, the drama almost comes across like a live action film. Despite some lighthearted vignettes, the tone is decidedly serious. In that respect, the production is not aimed at children. Its deliberate pace and extreme length do tend to tax viewers who are not already devotees of anime. However there is a lot to recommend about The Wind Rises. Its poetic style and luminous imagery are beyond compare. Additionally the careful attention to an authentic time and place makes this unique amongst the stridently hip, modern anachronisms found in most cartoons of today. I appreciated its history of real events like the Great Depression and the rise of fascism woven into a rosy reflection of an innovator captivated by airplanes and flight. It’s all gorgeously hand drawn in the anime style so fans of Studio Ghibli will most definitely be in heaven. The imaginative production is clearly the lovingly crafted work of a talented director driven by passion.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Inside Llewyn Davis photo starrating-3stars.jpgOn the surface, Inside Llewyn Davis would appear to be the Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? mode. And it is to an extent, but the display of somber misanthropy makes this more of a spiritual cousin to their 2009 comedy A Serious Man. The picture is the portrait of a man in despair. The setting is the folk music scene of the early 1960s in Greenwich Village. The period right before Bob Dylan hit it big and changed things forever. Llewyn (pronounced Loo-Win) was half of the folk duo Timlin & Davis. But his singing partner, Mike Timlin, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He’s clearly grieving the loss of his buddy, but he’s got a lot of other reasons why he’s pretty ticked off too.

Lleyen Davis is a skillful performer, although his career is an epic fail. He’s down and out with no permanent address of his own. He sleeps from couch to couch. A moocher relying on friends, crashing at one house after another. To say that Lleyen Davis is a bit insufferable is an understatement. Some Upper West Side types give him a solid meal and provide a place to stay. However when they ask if he’ll grace them with a song, he screams at them “I’m not a trained poodle!!” His talent remains impressive but his personality is not. I mean the movie starts with him getting beaten up in an alleyway by a patron. It isn’t until the end that we find out why. Llelyn Davis is a first class performer but he’s also a first class jerk.

Part of the humor is that Llewyn sees himself as the real deal while everyone else are pretenders. Yet to his bewilderment, they are all more successful. On one hand there’s pleasant sounding but generic folk singer/army guy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). Then there’s clean cut singing pair Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Why does the audience at the Gaslight Cafe respond to them so enthusiastically? Sellouts! They’re all just simply existing while he’s living. Jim actually gets him a job playing session guitar on a song that he wrote “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” “Hey look, I’m happy for the gig, but who wrote this?“ Llewyn sincerely asks unaware. It’s implied he thinks Jim is just a novelty-song-writing hack. Personally I thought the song was kind of catchy.  Incidentally that very song is being promoted in “For Your Consideration” ads for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.

Ever wonder why someone with a lot of ability never becomes a star? Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t answer that question, but it does reflect upon it. The chronicle is the meandering tale of an unpleasant man with a lot of talent. A week in the life. It’s not an easy movie to love, but it is worth seeing. Two things set the production apart. (1) One, the music is outstanding . The soundtrack is filled with covers of old folk songs most of which are sung by actor Oscar Isaac who also plays the guitar. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “The Death of Queen Jane” are particularly bewitching. (2) Two, the cinematography is stunning. A great cinematographer can take a really bleak subject and evoke an exquisite mood. Bruno Delbonnel does that. He makes dark smoky nightclubs and cold, bleak winters look positively inviting. But he doesn’t merely create mood, he creates emotion. I didn’t care for Llewyn Davis as a human being but it’s not necessary or even required to like him. In fact therein lies the comedy. I was oddly transfixed by the film. Throughout it all he encounters a cadre of oddball characters that never seem quite as odd as the man himself.

White Christmas

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Holiday, Romance with tags on December 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

White Christmas photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s Christmas Eve, 1944. Two entertainers in the army are giving a show to the troops of the 151st Division somewhere in Europe. In the midst of the program, an enemy attack causes a large stone wall to fall toward Bob Wallace. Phil Davis is able to push him out of harm’s way, but not without sustaining a minor injury to his own arm. After the war, Phil uses his good deed to convince Bob to form a singing duo. They make it big in nightclubs, radio and then Broadway where they launch a hit musical. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are the army buddies, Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt) and Vera-Ellen are the sisters they hire into the act. Everyone has chemistry to spare.

White Christmas is a perennial favorite of the holidays. Of course the title for the movie is from the enduring hit, the best-selling single of all time. Originally written for the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, White Christmas was a belated follow up to that hit movie. This is another excuse to weave a lot of Irving Berlin songs into a simplistic plot. “Blue Skies”, “Snow”, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me.” They’re all here. The song “Sisters” is particularly entertaining – in 2 different versions sung by both sexes. Bright colorful production is beautifully filmed in the widescreen format VistaVision. White Christmas also spotlights some really splashy dance numbers including “Choreography”, “Abraham” and “Mandy”. The latter of which features dresses and tuxes in such blazing reds and greens, the color is simply bursting from the frame. The spectacle was syrupy sweet when it came out, but feels even more corny today.  A less secure critic might be embarrassed to concede that he actually delights in this sort of hokum. I freely admit I enjoy this film without one iota of shame. There’s a sugar-coated artificiality to the proceedings, but that’s what makes the old fashioned display so heartwarming. There’s a reason why this has endured for 6 decades.

Drinking Buddies

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

Drinking Buddies photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Mumblecore film movement was kept alive in 2013 with the releases of Frances Ha, Computer Chess and this lo-fi utilitarian rom-com. Drinking Buddies is a four character study of two pairs in relationships. Director Joe Swanberg’s script captures the poetic rhythms of adults trapped in limbo between security and instability.

Chris and Kate are boyfriend and girlfriend. Ditto Luke and Jill. At a party, Chris invites Luke and Jill to join him and Kate for the weekend at his family’s cottage by the lake. Complications develop. One guess what those might be. Apparently writer director Joe Swanberg was inspired by 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. That implies lots of risqué shenanigans but that is far from the case. Someone kisses someone else, but that is the extent of the indiscretions. Most of this observational drama is focused on pleasant unrehearsed conversations. The emotions feel genuine and the developing story is authentic. These are real people with real desires. However it all builds to much ado about nothing. I get it. This chronicle celebrates the journey, not the destination, but even the way the drama unfolds is pretty lethargic. I should film the laughs, tears, arguments and pain amongst my own friends. With the assistance of a great editor, I could probably fashion a more interesting saga. That’s not to say this is a terrible picture. It’s just insignificant.

Drinking Buddies is highlighted by some nuanced acting, but the whole production is underwhelming. Minimalism can be refreshing, but nothingness is distressing. Occasionally the dialogue sounds as if they’re making it all up as they go along. You keep hoping they’re going to say something insightful about relationships, but that revelation never arrives. It sounds genuine and awkward at different times intermittently. I suppose part of the curiosity here is seeing attractive actors like Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston look so utterly disheveled in appearance. They portray hazily defined hipsters that will make your own friends seem like scintillating conversationalists by comparison. Watching this gang have a drink or two is a bit of a provocation. Drinking Buddies suggests alcohol is a motivator to act on one’s true feelings. Watching the mundanity of these proceedings, it’s probably only a matter of time before you’ll start reaching for the bottle.

The Book Thief

Posted in Drama, War with tags on December 1, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Book Thief photo starrating-4stars.jpgIn 1938, at the age of 11, Liesel is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Molching, Germany, near Munich. She has been given up by her mother following her brother’s death. At first, life in the small town seems carefree to her. However the Nazi presence gradually grows increasingly oppressive. Liesel begins acquiring books that the party has deemed forbidden. At one point, the couple also take in a Jewish refugee named Max. She shares her books with Max and they develop a deep friendship not unlike an older brother to a younger sister.

At its most basic genre, The Book Thief is a war drama, but it’s oh so much more. Little Liesel is played by extraordinary French-Canadian Sophie Nélisse. I took note of her movie debut back in 2011’s Monsieur Lazhar. Here the young actress is given the lead and she is outstanding. In addition to the relationship with her foster parents, Liesel also makes friendships with the young man in hiding, a neighbor boy her own age and the Bürgermeister’s wife. These richly detailed connections provide a way for the script to detail the horrors of the Nazi party. It is Liesel through which these interactions occur. Nélisse is positively hypnotic in the role and I would follow her on any adventure. A large part of why the chronicle succeeds is because of her charisma.

The Book Thief is beautifully adapted from Marcus Zusak’s beloved 2006 best seller. A majority of the action takes place within the narrow world of Himmel Street, the road on which she lives. That serves the plot a unique focus to explore themes that affect a specific time and place. The movie doesn’t shy away from the truth: book burnings, air raids, and violent deaths all contribute to the narrative. It would have been very easy to ratchet up thrills by showing lots of atrocities. Yet the PG-13 family film takes the creative route by portraying the action with a alternative point of view. The portrait examines Nazi Germany through a child’s eyes and what they encounter.

The Book Thief is a real throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking for the entire family. It becomes more powerful for its handling of a difficult subject in an innovative way. There are moments where the production lags a bit, but the majority of wonderful characters makes up for the occasional lull. These include people like blonde haired Rudy, the 10 year old boy whose Olympic idol is Jesse Owens or Max who paints over the pages of Mein Kampf to create a blank book in which Liesel can write. Sometimes an innocent sees the beauty of their surroundings first and slowly becomes aware of the ugliness underneath. In time, Liesel realizes the Nazi are in fact responsible for her brother’s death and mother’s disappearance. She doesn’t necessarily understand the reasons why, but just that it has happened. She comes to the same conclusions as an adult, but from a different perspective. The Book Thief is an important drama that celebrates freedom of thought and love of humanity from the refreshing viewpoint of a child.