Archive for April, 2014

The Ten Commandments

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History with tags on April 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Ten Commandments photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgLavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic. Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realizes his true origins. Few films have attained such an unqualified level of sheer excess. Over the course of almost four hours, the picture dramatizes the life of Moses. That the script treats this topic with only the most holy reverence, is never a question. A viewing is akin to a religious experience. However it presents its subject with such unrestrained grandiloquence that at times, the exhibition verges on pageantry. Nevertheless the drama is an unqualified success.

Two mesmerizing performances highlight the saga. Charlton Heston is front and center as the main character. He embodies every bit the part with honor and authority. Cecil B. DeMille had been responsible for his breakthrough as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth. As successful as that picture was, The Ten Commandments would prove to be much more iconic. “Let my people go!” he demands in one of his signature lines. Matching Heston for sheer magnetism as his arch nemesis is Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses II. He will not relent seemingly ending every proclamation with “So let it be written, so let it be done.” For Yul Brynner, 1956 was a phenomenal year. The Ten Commandments was sandwiched right between The King and I which had come out 3 months prior and Anastasia which was 2 months away. His subsequent Oscar win for playing the King of Siam overshadowed his work here. It was well deserved but Yul is quite extraordinary as the unrelenting pharaoh. This is Heston’s film but Brynner’s importance cannot be underestimated. He is a charismatic villain yet he engenders some sympathy. One would not expect a ruler who advocates slavery to have any redeeming qualities. A scene where he pleads with a statue of a falcon-headed Egyptian god to resurrect his firstborn son has an unexpected emotional nuance.

Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t know the meaning of moderation and thank goodness for that. Ornate sets, crowds of extras, special effects, it is a magnificent spectacle unlike any other. A director with a well tended ego, he even appears as himself at the beginning intro. Perhaps in an effort to silence critics of the liberties he took with the story, he freely admits that the narrative is compiled from sources that include other ancient texts. Occasionally the script veers into unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Perhaps chief among them, “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” These actual words are uttered by Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, a part enhanced by her lustily exaggerated dramatics. She’s joined by a host of solid supporting performances. These include blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson in a comeback role. He is memorably evil as Dathan, the unethical Israelite who betrays his own people.  There’s sultry Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses’ loyal wife Sephora.  This was before achieving TV fame as Lily Munster.  Joshua, a young slave played by actor John Derek, later known for launching the career of wife Bo Derek, and  Jewish slave girl Lilia, portrayed by 50s starlet Debra Paget. Even Vincent Price and John Carradine show up in minor roles.

The Ten Commandments is certainly extravagant. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point. All exterior shots were actually photographed on location in Egypt. It employs a cast of thousands with 70 speaking parts. In an era where they really had to hire all of those people you see in the background, this was truly an epic undertaking. No computer animation. This is all practical effects. In a surprising bit of restraint, only 3 of the 10 plagues are depicted: the water turning into blood, thunder & hail storm, and killing of the oldest sons. The latter features an Angel of Death imagined as a thick, green mist that creeps through the streets claiming the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons. As memorable as that was, it pales next to one of the greatest special effects sequences of all time that follows the Exodus of over 12,000 extra. The production culminates in Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the climatic scene. Even now it’s a visual feat to be admired. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards winning 1 for Best Visual Effects. To this day, the movie is the sixth most successful ever when adjusting for inflation. It remains the yardstick by which all biblical stories must be measured..

P.S. I’m well aware Ben-Hur is technically set during biblical times but it’s NOT a biblical story.

04-23-14

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Summer 2014 Top 10 Box Office Predictions

Posted in Podcast with tags on April 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Out Now is a weekly movie podcast show with hosts with Aaron Neuwirth and Abe Moua. I (Mark Hobin) and Maxwell Haddad were the guests this week. This is the 3rd Annual Summer Movie Gamble whereby the four of us choose our picks for the Top 10 highest grossing movies of the Summer. I won last year so needless to say I fully expect to repeat the feat again this year.

 

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So click the photo, have a listen.  Afterwards you can bet the farm on my predictions.  (Don’t really do that.)

04-27-14

Only Lovers Left Alive

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on April 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Only Lovers Left Alive photo starrating-3stars.jpgFirstly, if you’re already an aficionado of director Jim Jarmusch, then stop reading and just go see Only Lovers Left Alive right now. He has been a filmmaking pioneer in American cinema. His trippy movies have always been a bit of an acquired taste but there is no denying that Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down By Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989) were influential movies that shaped the independent film movement of the 1980s. The much more accessible Broken Flowers (2005) is the closest thing he’s ever had to a hit, but he’s never really been about that anyway. The Limits of Control (2009), his most recent work until now, was his least well received. Only Lovers Left Alive is a return to form and should be crack to anyone who is a fan of the auteur’s work.

Adam is a comparatively young 500 year old vampire musician who composes music, looks like a rock star and lounges around looking fabulous. Tilda Swinton is his spouse. A brilliant vampire scholar with pale skin, wears silk scarves and sports a shock of white hair that look like dreadlocks. She is a somewhat more mature 3,000 years old. Together they lament the presence of zombies, their pejorative for normal humans. Heavily populated LA is “zombie central” which is probably why they hang out in an abandoned old shell of city like Detroit. These two are a rather sensitive pair getting all their high quality blood from sources that don’t involve killing humans. He from a hematologist played by Jeffrey Wright at a local blood bank and she from her friend Christopher Marlow (John Hurt). Yes the same English dramatist who was a peer of Shakespeare (and apparently not a friend). Adam and Eve are a tormented two that love art, music and all the correct things that hipsters are supposed to like. That includes classic R&B records on vinyl and reading manuscripts in book form.  Oh and they sip their superior hemoglobin like sherry from cut glass crystal stemware.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton make for a striking pair. As the principal duo they have sort of an androgynous charisma that almost sells the picture on sheer mood. They’re detached, emotionally aloof and too-cool-for-you. Just the look of them standing in a dark corner of a Detroit music club with sunglasses is kind of amusing. For me the whole production gets a real shot in the arm when Eve’s undisciplined sister shows up. As played by Mia Wasikowska she is a young free spirit, slightly goofy and wears polka-dot leggings. She’s got personality to spare and still finds humans attractive, particularly to boys her own age in the music industry (Anton Yelchin). That proves to be a bit of a problem later. Once her story arc is over, she leaves and it’s back to moping around and feeling depressed. Adam and Eve represent the rare intellectual with an unquenchable passion for the categories of music, literature and science that hipsters find admirable. You see the “only lovers” in the title are for the beauty of art not sex. They’re tortured individuals. If you share Adam and Eve’s point of view, this film will be catnip to your sensibilities. It’s beautifully written and has an evocative mood. But as they repeatedly bemoan the lack of culture in contemporary society their sulking personalities dangerously straddle the line between suffering…and insufferable.

04-27-14

Transcendence

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on April 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

  Transcendence photo starrating-2stars.jpgYou really have to believe in the narrative thrust of your story to begin a movie with the conclusion. The ending in Transcendence is spoiled at the start by the screenwriter. Without the necessary suspense, everything leading up to that point had better be exceptional. Simply put, it isn’t. In the opening scene we’re presented with the aftermath of a catastrophe in which virtually all power has been lost throughout the entire world. No cell phones, computers or Internet. We meet a man named Max Waters (Paul Bettany) who remembers his friends Will and Evelyn Caster.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play a brilliant husband and wife team of researchers in the field of artificial intelligence. After Will is shot by a terrorist (Lukas Haas) from an anti-technology group called RIFT. Evelyn suggests they upload Will’s consciousness into the sentient supercomputer in their lab.   Although Will’s body dies in the material sense, his mind is kept alive in the mainframe.  Over time he connects himself to energy sources stretching around the country. He grows more powerful and omnipotent. Part of the problem of Transcendence is the tale is unnecessarily complicated. It’s patently ridiculous. That’s okay, but be cognizant of that absurdity. I mean there’s an inherent irony that RIFT’s attempted murder of Will is the very motivation for him to pursue “transcendence” via the computer. This was the precise activity they were trying to eradicate. The chronicle takes itself way too seriously. I mean they’ve even given the supercomputer a boring name: PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network).  Wouldn’t it have been funnier if they named it GOD (Good Orderly Direction)?  Well that was a wasted opportunity.  <sigh>  The dreary script just sucks the fun out of what should have been a whimsical concept.

Transcendence is a chore to watch. It’s an overly elaborate, unconvincing, joyless bore. A lot of really great actors are wasted by standing around not doing much of anything. Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman are particularly useless. Not because they give bad performances but because they are given awful parts. All four could’ve been taken out of the story and it would’ve made matters much simpler and less convoluted. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany fare better. You’d think Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer (The Dark Knight, Inception), would at least have the presence of mind to create a visually impressive film. Unless you enjoy watching numerous scenes of electronically charged water droplets moving in slow-motion, it’s a downer there as well. At the core, the saga is merely a series of uninteresting standoffs between good vs. evil. Ultimately the drama’s big idea is: Technology Is Bad. At the end of this turgid ordeal, I wasn’t even convinced of that. But this movie sure is.

04-18-14

Heaven Is for Real

Posted in Drama with tags on April 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Heaven Is for Real photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgHeaven is for Real is a well meaning drama about parents with a child who has a near death experience. Four-year-old son Colton suffers from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. After father Todd Burpo takes him to the hospital, Colton claims to have visited heaven and comes back to testify about what he saw. Giving his story validity is the details of what his parents were doing while he was on the operating table in a completely separate room. He also gives other extraordinary details of past events in his parents’ lives that were heretofore unknowable to the little boy.

With one exception, the performances don’t extract much emotion from the audience. Little actor Connor Corum is a beatific little tyke with blonde hair and blue eyes. He’s certainly cute but he doesn’t quite register the personality it takes to anchor a film like this. He’s a bit of a blank slate. Much better is Greg Kinnear as his father. He perfectly embodies everything this part requires. He is likable, sensible and sympathetic. He expresses the kind of genuine excitement tempered with doubt that a real parent would have in this situation.

The biggest issue I had with this story is the Christian church’s reaction to the little boy’s message. Todd Burpo doesn’t quite know how to explain what his child has seen or knows, but at least he registers some happiness. As a pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church he has an audience to which he can recount his son’s visions. You’d think the members of a Christian church would embrace such news with open arms but such is not the case. Leading the opposition is Nancy Rawling as portrayed by Margo Martindale. She worries that his account will turn their parish into a circus. I had to wonder. Is that a problem? The added attention could be a wonderful jumping off point for a parish to discuss the hereafter with believers and non-believers alike. Instead the boys stories become a worrisome thorn in the side of everyone from Todd’s wife (Kelly Reilly) to his close friend (Thomas Haden Church). Only Todd Burpo, his father has the desire to explore further.

Heaven is for Real is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Todd Burpo and best selling conservative writer Lynn Vincent. It was a true story so maybe the negative reaction that Connor’s chronicle received from the congregation at the time was what actually happened, Yet it was a #1 New York Times hit so it obviously touched a lot of hearts outside the religious world. The boy’s experiences should prompt more probing questions. He saw Jesus for goodness sakes! At least he believes he did, why aren’t people in the Church more excited? Regardless of your personal beliefs in the afterlife, it seems like this bestseller should have inspired a more uplifting tale. This could have been the seed for a galvanizing discussion that Christians, non-Christians, atheists and agnostics could have regarding the concept of heaven. The 1977 picture Oh, God! dealt with this subject in a much more innovative way. In contrast here we are nearly 4 decades later and we’re presented a fascinating story that is handled in the most utterly routine fashion. It doesn’t probe enough to inspire the faithful, the skeptics or anyone in between.

Under the Skin

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Under the Skin photo starrating-5stars.jpgA mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.

This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.

The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.

There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.

Oculus

Posted in Horror with tags on April 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Oculus  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe words ‘intelligent’ and ‘horror’ don’t follow one another too often but Oculus is the rare example where they do. Oculus concerns two siblings returning to face the torment of their youth. Kaylie and her younger brother Tim are now adults with a dark past. Their parents were murdered, the mysterious details of which are best left unexplained. They make a vow as children to validate the real reason behind their parent’s death. Kaylie has a theory that involves an antique mirror – an ornate heirloom with a miserable history dating back 4 centuries.  She affirms the mirror houses a supernatural force responsible for 45 deaths affecting the previous owners. Tim, whose recollection has been corrupted over time, is skeptical of Kaylie’s outlook. The narrative documents her endeavor to prove the mirror is evil through an elaborate test to document the power of the malevolent object.

The success of any horror picture is reliant on the believability of the actors. They must behave as if they are genuinely in danger and then we have to actually care that they are in peril. Let me say, Kaylie, as played by Karen Gillan, is the MVP of this story.  She not only registers credibly and resourcefulness, but she is appealing. Early on she explains the history of the mirror to her brother in an expository scene that is obviously meant to bring the audience up to speed at the same time. She commands the screen with her charisma. Her brother (Brenton Thwaites) is also likable. Their younger selves are portrayed by exceptional young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Regardless of which timeline we’re in, the characters remain admirable. We presume these siblings like each other because they show respect.  We sympathize with them and worry for their safety. This is rarely the case in horror as of late. Their propriety is such an anomaly that they don’t quite register as American teens, at least not in the way they are usually depicted in this genre. Surprise! Karen Gillan is Scottish. Brenton Thwaites is Australian.  Although you’d never guess. Their accents are flawless.

Oculus is a character driven story shrewdly written and beautifully acted. It’s nice to bask in the sophistication of an intelligently written screenplay that doesn’t depend on jump scares. In fact it’s not really about shocks at all. Rest assured there are some frightful scenes, but the drama is more eerie mystery than horror. That suits this reviewer just fine. As the climax comes to a head, there’s an ambiguous blending between events back when they were growing up and their current identity.  The editing brilliantly parallels past and present. As appearances gets more confusing, we question whether we can actually trust what we are seeing. Is our perception accurate or is it a hallucination? Oculus has technique that aspires to the same rarified cinematic air as films like The Innocents, The Shining and Poltergeist. Perhaps it is more content to sample from those sophisticated influences than create an innovate style of its own. I won’t fault it for the homage. Virtually all horror movies rely on well worn tropes. What makes Oculus something to be admired, is that the presentation has the good sense to appropriate from the best. It’s the most elegantly told supernatural movie of the last few years.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero, Thriller with tags on April 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Captain America: The Winter Soldier photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCaptain America: The Winter Soldier is the 9th installment in the series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios. The series has been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own acronym MCU. There are in fact different phases designed to apparently conquer the movie world (and your wallet). We’re currently in Phase 2 which will culminate with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I’m only mentioning all this because some people take this stuff with a very straight face. The deeper we get into these franchises, the more they demand that you’ve see the others. I’ve seen everything but even my eyes begin to glaze over when actors start tossing around names and organizations like we’re in the middle of a history lesson. I’m just here to watch a fun flick and I’m happy to say that this is indeed an enjoyable picture. The Avengers and Iron Man are better, but it ranks in the top half of the 9 entries thus far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the events of The Avengers (2012). Following a lot of exposition that extends this movie 16 minutes past the 2 hour sweet spot, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) entrusts Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) with a hard drive containing sensitive information. When he refuses to hand it over to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce.(Robert Redford), Steve is branded an enemy of the very organization he once served. A superhuman agent codenamed the Winter Soldier does Secretary Pierce’s bidding. The Winter Soldier’s identity is a secret so no details on him. Helping Steve get to the bottom things are fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. member Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They’re both quite good. Scarlett Johansson fetchingly straddles the line between friend and flirt. Anthony Mackie has genuine camaraderie with Chris Evans as Steve’s buddy who he meets while jogging. The three of them joining forces makes this feel sort of like an Avengers movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining spy thriller. The story includes lots of rousing action sequences . The hand to hand combat scenes draw heavily from martial arts films in the best possible way. The pace is efficient with a narrative that doesn’t disappoint fans looking for excitement featuring people they already know and love. There’s enough human interaction to satisfy those who savor a little character development in their superhero flicks. Occasionally the overly complex story takes itself a bit too seriously. I welcome the humor of Thor. Fan boys will appreciate the reverence, but anyone unfamiliar with the Avengers universe might not be as captivated. Thankfully the tone shines with the occasional witty quips where everyone in the production can simply lighten up.

P.S. Given Marvel’s history, I shouldn’t have to point out that there are mid-credits and post-credits stingers that you should probably stick around for. That is unless that extra large Coke you drank is playing havoc with your bladder.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Posted in Documentary, Science Fiction with tags on April 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jodorowsky's Dune photo starrating-4stars.jpgJodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating documentary because it posits “what could have been?” Chilean born director Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for his avant garde films. El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) in particular were mainstays of the 1970s midnight movie circuit in the United States. Neither gained widespread distribution, but both became classics of underground cinema. Then in 1975, the cult director optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. He then proceeded to amass an impressive assemblage of talent: artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for character and set design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, Pink Floyd for music, and a cast that would include David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. The group became what he refers to as his “spiritual warriors” – people with whom the director felt a kinship in manifesting what was to be his masterpiece. Douglas Trumbull, in contrast, was considered for special effects first. The director’s personality didn’t gel with the talent behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and he was not hired.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a engrossing document because it provides the history behind a bizarre movie that never came to fruition. In his fertile and uninhibited imagination, the production becomes sort of a no-holds-barred, anything is possible fantasy with limitless possibilities. Whether an unproven director could have successfully produced an opus of this magnitude is unclear. The undertaking soon ran out of funds. Jodorsoksky burned through more than $2 million of producer Michel Seydoux’s money and hadn’t yet shot a single frame. They appealed for more cash. Apparently the studio was not convinced and shut down the project before it had the opportunity to continue.

Jodorowsky’s Dune makes an entertaining case that this is the greatest sci-fi film never made. The massive Dune storyboard book circulated through various studios in Hollywood as the proposal sought financing partners. The blueprints contain attributes which correlate to visual aspects in Star Wars, Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Masters of the Universe, The Matrix and others. Alejandro Jodorowsky is an intriguing personality and it’s fun hearing him reminisce about something in which he is still so passionate. He was able to charm a lot of people into initially believing in him. As charismatic as he is, I am certain the man is also stark raving mad. There’s no way the final product could have possibly lived up to the potential that this feature suggests. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact of this captivating document on filmmaking. Ultimately Dune would reach the screen in David Lynch’s infamous 1984 adaptation. Jodorowsky’s reluctance to see someone else’s vision of a project he was so close to, is understandable. Even his climatic recounting of that story is worth the price of admission.