Archive for January, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Cutie and the Boxer photo starrating-3stars.jpg“The Boxer” is 80 year old Neo-Dadaist artist Ushio Shinohara. “Cutie” is his long suffering wife Noriko Shinohara. The two live and work in New York City and have ever since they originally met in back in 1973. Both were transplants from Japan. Back then he was 41. She was 19. He was a painter and sculptor – a rising star in the art world. She was a student. They got married and she not only became his wife but his de facto assistant as well. For you see, she put her own vocation on hold so she could support her husband’s career.

Ushio is still producing art. While he struggles to affirm his legacy, Noriko is finally getting some deserved recognition. We see him creating his paintings by punching the canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint. He also creates “junk art” sculptures composed of found objects with garishly colored paint. Motorcycles are a common theme. Her work consists of a progression of whimsical drawings depicting her own life with Ushio entitled ‘Cutie and Bullie’. Light animation has these figures parallel their real life counterparts at appropriate times throughout the documentary. Her voice representing a quietly fuming display of resentment.

Cutie and the Boxer is not so much a story about artists but rather people in a 40 year relationship. The couple is a most curious pair. Ushio is small but physically scrappy. Although his work has been displayed at high profile museum exhibitions, his creations haven’t seen a great deal of monetary success. We see the two converse in a cluttered apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by sculptures, scattered materials and cats. Their marriage comes across like a series of “what-coulda-beens”, “if-onlys” and “I -wish-I hads”. In speaking with the camera, Noriko detail a singular existence obsessively focused on her husband’s art career. She admits it has had an effect on their now 39 year old son. Alex is also a struggling artist and clearly uncomfortable on screen. His uncharacteristic upbringing hampered by his father’s alcoholism which now seems to afflict him.

Cutie and the Boxer is mildly interesting, but it’s a depressing watch. There isn’t a lot of insight, but there is nuance. The director’s POV sides with Noriko for having set aside her own ambitions to take care of essentially two children, her son and husband. Ushio is seemingly oblivious or perhaps indifferent to his wife’s regrets. Her own artistic pursuits only now receiving some attention. Together the couple exhibit a competitive alliance regarding their individual careers. Because of all this, the production has an air sadness to it. Yet it’s a relationship that has endured for quixotic reasons, but there is hope here. Ushio inquires of Noriko, if Cutie hates Bullie. “Ah, Cutie loves Bullie so much,” she responds.

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The Invisible Woman

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Invisible Woman photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBiographical romance spotlights Charles Dickens and his clandestine relationship with English actress Ellen Ternan, or Nelly. By 1857 Charles Dickens had been married to his wife Catherine for over twenty years. They had 10 children together. Dickens meets Nelly, a struggling young actress who is performing in one of his plays, The Frozen Deep. He is 45, she is 18. Immediately taken with the girl, he ever so delicately pursues her in the most gradual way possible. Slow, methodically plotted story truly emphasizes the great lengths that Dickens took to tread lightly in his advances toward the woman. Based on Claire Tomalin’s book of the same name, this handsomely mounted costume drama is actor Ralph Fiennes directorial follow-up to Coriolanus.

In essence the film is about lust. But it‘s presented in the most carefully articulated way so as not to disturb societal conventions. There aren’t obvious displays of tremendous passion. Dickens’ pursuit of Nelly progresses through glances and things not said, but understood. Despite his best efforts, his attraction to the young woman does not go unnoticed by her mother portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas. Mrs. Frances Ternan regards his intentions with a mixture of cautious uncertainty.  Frances is a small role but the inspired casting choice grants Thomas the opportunity to share the screen with the actor with whom she famously co-starred in 1996’s The English Patient.

For half the movie Nelly and Charles refrain from physically acting upon their desires. She initially rebuffs his advances. At a key juncture, Dickens brings Nelly to friend and author Wilkie Collins’ (Tom Hollander) home, where Collins’ lives in an openly unmarried affair with his mistress Caroline (Michelle Fairley). Nelly is visibly appalled that Dickens would take the liberty to expose her to it. They are clearly falling for each other, however, as their slowly growing emotions are perceptible. They keep their feelings hidden from the public sans overt demonstrations of their love. This isn’t the type of love affair we’re used to seeing, but that is what makes this production unique.

Dickens is a charismatic presence, particularly in Ralph Fiennes’ hands. In public he commands attention. He captivates a crowd in town who swarm around him like a rock star. Privately however, Dickens was surprisingly insecure and shy. Felicity Jones isn’t as acclaimed as her co-star, but she superbly proves herself every bit his match in the title role. She exhibits a wide eyed innocence that gives way to moral turmoil. Together the couple are static vessels externally hiding powerful emotion kept tightly within. The much lauded novelist, comes up decidedly short as a husband. Joanna Scanlan is quite memorable as Dickens’ wife Catherine. She beautifully conveys the heartbreaking realization of her husband’s infidelity in one devastating scene. The visit she pays the ingénue is mortifying. Catherine’s subsequent declaration to Nelly is heartbreakingly pragmatic.

The Invisible Woman details a specific period of a particular time. The 13 year relationship between Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens is not just a tale of love but of pain and regret as well. Occasionally the focus on this exclusive detail of the author’s life doesn’t always sustain the narrative. But more often than not, the production captures an era when traditional moral attitudes were held dear. Outwardly, Dickens was the passionate defender of home and family. But secretly his heart belonged to another . Even after separating from his wife, he continued to keep his association with Nelly a secret for fear of damaging her reputation. There were rumors, but he consistently maintained in public that Nelly was nothing less than a chaste woman. This endured for the rest of his life until 1870 when he died. These conventions seem archaic to modern audiences, but those social mores made this couple’s guarded behavior necessary. Breaking implied codes of decency would condemn a woman’s standing in the community. The threat forced people at least to maintain the appearance of adhering to accepted societal customs. I can understand why someone wouldn’t appreciate the film’s deliberate pace but that is precisely what I loved about it.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on January 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ferris Bueller's Day Off photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe simple tale of how a high school senior spent one glorious spring day playing hooky after faking an illness. It doesn’t sound like a saga destined for greatness, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has become iconic. Perhaps it’s lead actor Matthew Broderick’s delicate balancing act. He gleefully inhabits a character that is a smug smartass, yet we are delightfully happy to see him succeed.

He urges his buddy Cameron Frye to borrow his Dad’s prized sports car then manipulates the administration into releasing his girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) for the day. News of Ferris’ infirmity grows. We are made aware of the public’s concern for the boy’s health at various moments during the chronicle. Apparently news of his sickness has spread far and wide in the school and throughout the city. People really like this boy. Definitely not in the Ferris Bueller fan club is Dean of Students Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) who makes it his mission to prove the truant boy is not really sick. Ferris’ sarcastic sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is also not taken in by her brother’s shenanigans. Her brother’s ability to go unpunished for his many misdeeds, provokes a hilarious mixture of outage and jealousy in her. Grey also registers considerable chemistry at the police station with a dangerous rebel played by Charlie Sheen.

John Hughes would go on to write bigger hits (Home Alone). But of everything he directed, this was his biggest box office success. It’s easy to see why. Part of what makes this comedy so winning is the utter innocence of it all. Ferris’ indulgences comprise of nothing more than trips to a fancy restaurant, the Sears Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Ferris famously crashes a parade celebrating German-American culture. His lip-synch to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” is a highlight. Indeed the spectacle was enough to push the hit back onto the Billboard Top 40 charts back in 1986. Music figures prominently in inspired bits elsewhere. An instrumental version of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” at the museum is fittingly poetic. And nothing underscores a teen’s desire to drive a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder convertible more perfectly than “Oh Yeah” by Swiss electronic band Yello. The song has become a symbol of want.

For anyone who was in high school when this came out, the production will resonate even more as pure nostalgia. Much of the teen movie is well crafted lightweight fun. But as the film’s final coda unfolds, Ferris’ altruistic motives become apparent. His objective to help his best friend achieve a deeper sense of self-worth resonates long after the movies fades.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Posted in Action, Thriller with tags on January 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe fifth in the Jack Ryan series, stars Chris Pine as a financial analyst who studies market patterns that would indicate terrorist activity. Um ok. Action thriller is different from other entries in that the plot is not based on a pre-existing book by Tom Clancy. That gives the screenwriters carte blanche to do what they want with the narrative. The irony is this spy picture is thoroughly by-the-numbers with very little to distinguish itself from others of its ilk.  In other words, the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises have nothing to worry about.

The cast is far too good for the average script. Actor Chris Pine makes for a handsome, but bland, Jack Ryan. He’s not as charismatic as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. Kevin Costner underplays nicely as his CIA handler – a part James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman have exemplified in previous installments. Kenneth Branagh who also directs, saves the plum role of “the villain” for himself. He does a nifty Russian accent as Viktor Cherevin. I am a big Keira Knightley fan and her presence in this was initially greeted as a blessing. The sad thing is, she really isn’t given much to do. Essentially reduced to playing “female love interest” her talents are kind of wasted here. Her bit is more deserving of some rising starlet than an Oscar nominated actress of Knightley’s caliber. She still shines brightest in period costume dramas.

With that said, I will somewhat contradict myself when I contend that the best moment in the entire film involves her. The scene occurs when Viktor takes Jack and his fiancée Cathy Muller to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Cathy demands her husband-to-be walk off his drunken stupor after the couple feign a lovers’ spat. “This is geopolitics, not couples therapy.” Now Cathy must keep Viktor occupied in conversation by charming him. Apparently he has a weakness for women with odd American accents. Meanwhile, this allows Jack to infiltrate Viktor’s office so he can download his computer files. The segment includes a thrilling level of tension sorely missing from the rest of the movie.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an efficient, serviceable thriller. A decent watch, but it’s not essential viewing. Our hero is hired as a covert operative on Wall Street. While there the undercover CIA agent unearths a nefarious foreign plot to shatter the U.S. economy. Making the Russians the baddies is a refreshing retro throwback to Cold War movies from 1985–1991. The production is polished. The story is stylish, well photographed and speeds by in a brief 105 minutes. The tale is entertaining enough, but it’s pretty formulaic nonetheless. Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow the film is that it’s an improvement over the character’s last appearance, The Sum of All Fears in 2002.

The Princess Bride

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Family, Romance with tags on January 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Princess Bride photo starrating-5stars.jpgCinemark theaters’ Classic Series has become an easy way for people to see older films on the big screen. I recently watched 1987’s The Princess Bride. Rob Reiner’s glorious comedy adventure is a delightful tribute to vintage fairy tales of old. Almost 30 years later and the picture has lost none of its luster.

The production captures lightning in a bottle with each actor arguably giving the most memorable performance of their film careers. Mandy Patinkin deserves a lot of credit for his noble Spaniard out to avenge the death of his father. His famous oath: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” is the stuff of movie legend. Wallace Shawn is particularly funny as a delusional criminal genius. Joining the two is André the Giant perfectly cast as, what else, their giant friend Fezzik. The three of them form a wandering outlaw trio with camaraderie to spare. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright perfectly embody the quintessential romantic duo. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane are amusing as a forest dwelling troll doctor and his wife. “Have fun stormin’ da castle.”  Even Peter Falk as Grandpa who narrates and Fred Savage as his grandson provide a wonderful framing device through which the story is told. In this way, developments are halted at opportune times where jokes can be inserted for comic effect.

What makes The Princess Bride so enjoyable is Rob Reiner’s ability to send-up traditional fables without descending into acerbity. Novelist and screenwriter William Goldman brilliantly adapts his own 1973 novel of the same name. It gently pokes fun at the sentimentality of fairy tales while still genuinely capitalizing on their innocence. There’s a modern sensibility but it never threatens to contaminate the sincerity of the proceedings. Mandy Patinkin’s declaration is the most well known, but iconic dialogue abounds. “Inconceivable!” The Cliffs of Insanity, the Pit of Despair, the Fire Swamp where the Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.) dwell – each location highlights another hilarious set piece. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer, you’ll thrill to every recognizable line and action spectacle. Its one lone Oscar nomination for Best Original Song is a complete headscratcher today. Although it wasn’t a huge hit in its day ($61.9 million in today’s dollars), the film has since gone on to achieve classic status. I’ll choose long term longevity to instant gratification any day. “As you wish.”

August: Osage County

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on January 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

August: Osage County photo starrating-4stars.jpgAugust: Osage County won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2008 It’s an actors showcase. The cast assembled is a veritable who’s who of great thespians. Meryl Streep is 65 year old Violet Weston, an aging mother and matriarch. Because she suffers from mouth cancer, she is taking a variety of medications. Prone to mood swings, it’s unclear just how much of her argumentative personality can be blamed on her prescriptions. After her husband Beverly goes missing for five days, several generations of the Weston family converge on the house to offer support.

I enjoy saying that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts put the “fun” in dysfunctional families. There’s some truth to that as there are laughs in Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his own play. His screenplay is amusing but the humor exploits the darkest observations. He mines a most acerbic wit. It can be depressing and touching in equal measure as it focuses on the strong-willed women of the Weston clan.

“Every woman needs makeup,” Violet instructs her ordinary looking daughter Ivy. “The only woman pretty enough to go without makeup was Elizabeth Taylor, and she wore a TON.”

Everyone puts in a fine performance with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts at the forefront. Their back and forth banter is whip-smart. They wield words as weapons to verbally attack one another. As Violet, Meryl Streep saves her revelations when they can hurt the most and then unleashes them at unexpected times. She calls it “truth telling” but she is an absolute shrew of a woman whose nasty temperament is unyielding. Sometimes the malevolence can almost get a bit excessive. Right when you think things can’t get any more dysfunctional, another revelatory bomb is dropped and family members are left to pick up the pieces. Some roles are meatier than others, but there isn’t a weak link in the entire company. A few characters bear special mention: Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson as Violet’s other daughters and Margo Martindale as her sister.

August: Osage County is not a heartwarming drama about family. It’s bitter and caustic, but yes funny too. Tracy Letts’ play is a distant cousin to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the vitriol multiplied by 10. It can get cruel, but there is just enough humor and honesty mixed in to make this script palpable. There is a is a lot of skill at work here. In the hands of lesser actors, this might leave the audience emotionally cold, but watching this group of incredible acting talent work together is a joy. This ensemble meshes as a well oiled machine. The lines are delivered with such conviction, it becomes mesmerizing. There are moments where people give it back as good as they get it. That fiery intensity keeps you watching, like a horrible accident from which you cannot turn away.

P.S. My pick for best movie poster of 2013.

The Act Of Killing

Posted in Crime, Documentary, History with tags on January 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

The Great Beauty

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on January 5, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Great Beauty photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Great Beauty is director Paolo Sorrentino’s ode to finding the beauty in one’s own existence. The production reunites the filmmaker with his frequent lead star (and muse) Toni Servillo in a character study. We’re presented a contemporary version of Rome through the eyes of Jep Gambardella. The aging bon vivant once wrote a masterpiece novel in his twenties. However he hasn’t written anything of note in the 40 years since. Now the well dressed playboy has retired to infrequently writing cultural columns, and is living the good life in an incredible apartment overlooking the Coliseum.

There is a euphoria to the party scenes that is captivating. Rome is a stunning backdrop——the cathedrals, the museums, the amphitheaters. I’d almost defy any filmmaker to make an ugly movie here. These stately monuments of the old world contrast with the vacuous people of the new world. Jep is cultured, intelligent and parties until dawn nearly every night with the country’s well-to-do. Their lives an intoxicating mix of celebration, superficiality and emptiness. We first meet Jep as he’s celebrating his 65th birthday. He experiences reality as an observer lamenting his current situation. He’s searching for that intangible revelation. The script contrasts Jep’s despondency with the enthusiastic zeal of party revelers. The opening soirée is a dazzling mélange of music and merriment. It presents an energy that is palpable.

There’s little substance, only style to this beautiful looking film. I suppose that’s the point. It’s not about narrative thrust, but more of a feeling, a vibe. The plot is just a running account of what Jep sees and says during his often surreal urban wanderings. He surrounds himself with various oddballs: a nun with two crooked teeth, a clever stripper, a self-described “dwarf”. We see a young girl unhappily creating avant-garde paintings by throwing herself at a canvas in front of an audience. Through wisecracks and cynical smirks, Jep breezes through life. “The best people in Rome are the tourists” he offers casually. You’re meant to hang on his every word, but he’s a bit self involved. Occasionally he says something great. He tells a pretentious performance artist exactly what he thinks of her work and it’s refreshingly pragmatic. Unfortunately his lamentations put him in a melancholy state. Of course he doesn’t have any real problems and that lack of conflict tugs at your brain throughout the 142 minutes. For the most part, The Great Beauty is more of an art house feast for the eyes than the mind.

My Top Films of 2013

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2014 by Mark Hobin

On this, the first day of the new year, I reflect back on 365 days of movie watching and pick the films that were among my favorites. And now without further ado…

(Drum roll please)

* MY TOP FILMS OF 2013 *

This is a perfect time to also say thanks to you for reading my blog. I so very much appreciate the comments. We don’t have to agree, but what I love is the dialogue. The interaction between my fellow movie lovers is the very reason I was inspired to start this site. That is why I still make an effort to respond to each and every one of your remarks.

Wishing you all a healthy and prosperous New Year!!

Hope 2014 is your best year ever!

Happy-New-Year-2014