Archive for September, 2014

The Boxtrolls

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on September 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Boxtrolls photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgOregon-based Laika Animated Studios is best known for the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Each one is an impressive feature that blends an engaging story with stop-motion artistry. Quite simply, they’re extraordinary works of entertainment. In fact, both were such successes they each made my Top 10 in the respective years they came out. Given that, The Boxtrolls was among my most eagerly anticipated releases of the year. It goes without saying that my expectations were very high. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report that Laika’s latest offering is a crushing disappointment.

The Boxtrolls are a community of odd creatures that dwell underneath the cobblestone streets of Victorian era Cheesebridge. Legend has vilified them as evil bandits that prey on the town’s most precious resources: their cheeses and their children. The two things are not necessarily listed in order of importance. The Boxtrolls are a curious sort. They wear recycled cardboard boxes the way turtles inhabit their shells and have names designated by the cover of their box. Fish, Wheels, Bucket and Shoe are some examples. I’d be hard pressed to discern the personality of one from another. Their nonsensical babble-speak begs comparison to the Minions from Despicable Me. The Boxtrolls are a sharp contrast from those similar though much more successful critters. I mean those delightful little rapscallions are getting their own movie. One would think these oddballs were meant to be endearing given they inspired the title of this movie. However the Boxtrolls have been relegated to the sidelines in favor of two other human characters.

Laika’s latest is based on Alan Snow’s 2005 book “Here Be Monsters!” but the real protagonists of the film are two human children. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is a boy that, was given to the Boxtrolls to raise. He’s later discovered by Winnie (Elle Fanning), an overbearing young girl that becomes Eggs’ first friend from up above. Apparently she is there to berate him that he’s a human boy and not a troll at all. Ok, you’re technically correct, but seriously, could you please just shut up?  She’s such a killjoy. Their shenanigans didn’t amuse or interest me in the slightest. On the baddie side we have Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as the main antagonist. He’s also got three henchman Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Gristle voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan. They provide what little humor there is. Mr. Snatcher is out to exterminate every last Boxtroll so that he can become a member of the White Hats, an elite club of cheese aficionados that serve as Cheesebridge’s city council. Yes, he’s essentially advocating genocide with his bizarre Steampunk fashioned metal contraption. Heavy stuff that feels out of place. It’s important to infuse the macabre with some emotion. This doesn’t. Side note: his allergic skin reaction to his beloved cheese is pretty disgusting.

It pains me to say this, but The Boxtrolls is a charmless, tedious bore. The picture attempts to be something that it is not, an American attempt at British humor. Aardman Studios, excels at this. Remember Chicken Run? Of course you do because it was enjoyable fun. The Boxtrolls in contrast has a meandering plot largely devoid of laughs. It’s hampered by stock characters that fail to enchant. The story and the personalities are thoroughly uninvolving. Sadly generic to the core. Despite all that, the technique is gorgeous. Visually the production is a WOW. The beautifully rendered world with remarkable attention to detail, does captivate the senses. It’s easy to forget this is not computer assisted. These puppets have been painstakingly moved one frame at a time. Although the movement is so seamless, I can’t help but question whether some trickery is being employed. Regardless, it looks stunning. The hand drawn closing credits sequence which encapsulates the entire tale, is beautiful too. It’s even accompanied by a lovely cover version of the Pete Seeger hit “Little Boxes” by Portland band Loch Lomond. Additionally a brief post-credits scene highlights the painstaking process of stop motion animation. I suggest sticking around to enjoy it. It’s the most fascinating display in the whole film.

09-25-14

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Posted in Drama with tags on September 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby photo starrating-3stars.jpgA woman strolling along a New York bridge walks out of frame. We hear her climbing up the cyclone fence enclosure. A man in the distance calls out to her and runs to her aid. The next scene she is being rescued out of the water below, cold and wet. An attempted suicide is a dramatic way to get the audience’s attention. This chronicle concerns a couple, once deeply in love, now forever changed by tragedy. The interrelated stories of husband and wife are woven together as they cope with a devastating loss.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is actually a combined edit of two separate movies, each with the same title: one subtitled Him the other designated Her. They both screened individually at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 as works in progress. The third premiered at Cannes earlier this year when it competed for the Prix Un Certain Regard. The story unfolds a bit like a mystery. We know the pair were in love way back when, but what caused their relationship to fall apart isn’t confirmed until roughly halfway through the picture. Then it becomes more about how different people react in a crisis and what our expectations are of that person.

Director Ned Benson has assembled an impressive cast: James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain play our central duo. William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert provide emotional support as Jessica Chastain’s parents. Ciarán Hinds is James McAvoy’s sardonic father. Jess Weixler and Viola Davis display strong bonds as Chastain’s sister and professor respectively. All of them elevate this conventional material into something meaningful.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a well acted exercise by a talented ensemble. There are some nice vignettes particularly involving Jessica Chastain that effectively amplify her grief. But the picture often descends into melodrama without scratching below the surface. It’s extremely slow moving too, a melancholy portrait that wallows in depression. There’s not much to hold our attention. Even after two hours, there’s still a number of things left unanswered. Given the paper thin narrative on display, it’s difficult to comprehend that Them is the distilled union of two other films. The Him tale is 89 minutes. The Her version is 100 minutes. Considering the time it took for us to learn what little we did, I cannot even muster up the desire to endure another 189 minutes of this tale.

09-24-14

The Zero Theorem

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 24, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Zero Theorem photo starrating-2stars.jpgQohen, pronounced Cohen but often referred to as merely Q, is a reclusive mathematical genius working for a company named Mancom. The job requires he labor over a formula that makes zero equal 100%. In this way they hope to prove the reason for human existence: “everything adds up to nothing”. If you haven’t guessed from that, Qohen lives in a future dystopia. It’s a cacophonous society of advertising where talking adverts actually follow you as you walk down the street. Qohen is suffering from his own existential crisis. He’s searching for meaning in a world run by heartless corporations. Christoph Waltz plays a bloke who is a bit off his rocker. The hairless introvert refers to himself as “we” and constantly waits at home for a phone call he believes will give him the answer he needs.

Apparently The Zero Theorem completes a trilogy. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satires began with 1985’s Brazil and continued on through 1995 with Twelve Monkeys. Similar in spirit, there’s no denying that the production has visually appealing aspects. The atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic as most of the action takes place in Qohen’s cluttered home, a repurposed cathedral that has been abandoned. Gilliam appoints the room with little details like a collage. Director Gilliam surrounds Waltz with seasoned thespians in supporting roles. Unfortunately the parts are too shallow to make much of an impression. Tilda Swinton ends her succession of phenomenal films with a role that feels like a cheap imitation of her dictatorial character from Snowpiercer. The 2nd half improves with the arrival of newcomer Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a seductive femme fatale that could either be his one true love or perhaps just a mere distraction.

Despite my fairly level-headed distillation of the plot, The Zero Theorem has no objective to entertain with a coherent story. It’s a vague rumination of a concept. The lack of specifics makes the disastrous beginning extremely hard to sit through. My consistent thought during the first half: What in the name of Egon Pearson is this movie about?! There are creative features of the society that do captivate. Robin Williams briefly appears on a billboard that promotes “The Church of Batman the Redeemer”. Party-goers dance to music on their own cell phones instead of what’s playing at the party. Terry Gilliam’s world building is impressive. But look past those amusing gags and we’re left with an inkling of an idea unable to support a compelling narrative. It recalls his brilliant Brazil in style but not in substance. The Zero Theorem is a thoroughly uninvolving exercise in abstract thought, and it’s not even a very interesting one at that.

09-23-2014

The Maze Runner

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on September 21, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Maze Runner photo starrating-2stars.jpgThomas (Dylan O’Brien ) wakes up in a mysterious community of teenaged boys with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. He soon learns he is in The Glade, a habitat surrounded by a massive maze. Every teen (known as a Glader) has been entrusted with an important purpose within the colony, not the least of which is the Runner. These are the people who explore the Maze in an effort to map a way out of the tiny territory in which they are trapped. Complicating matters are large mechanical spider-like creatures they call Grievers which patrol the maze making escape even harder.

With one exception, all the adolescents look like they are on special diets, work out constantly to maintain a lean frame and have less than 15% body fat. I happen to know The Maze Runner was shot in Baton Rouge, LA, but it feels more like that other LA in California. There’s one departure from the standard selections from Central Casting – a chubby boy named Chuck (Blake Cooper) who, with his more unique appearance, becomes the most interesting personality by default. Oh but brace yourself because his story arc is extremely frustrating. The guys appear to represent ethnicities from every corner of the globe, yet all speak with an American accent. Again there’s one deviation, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who’s like the second in command. Everyone sports nicely coifed hair and clean casual wear that is tailored to fit perfectly. I wouldn’t have noticed any of this had the drama been more compelling. Sadly when the only narrative is simply “boys vs. mechanical monsters”, your mind tends to deliberate over the peculiarities of the film.

The Maze Runner starts out mildly intriguing. The set up is curious enough that we want to see how things will develop. These youths in the wild get along pretty well for the most part. Everybody seems cool with the distribution of tasks, with sole objections coming from Gally (Will Poulter). It’s a variation of Lord of the Flies minus the commentary that made that novel interesting, the idea that man is inherently barbaric. Unfortunately more substance is sorely needed. As the saga progresses, it doesn’t really develop into anything at all. By the end we’re left with a supremely unsatisfying ending that basically says, this is only the beginning. Stay tuned for the sequel: The Scorch Trials. This adaptation is based on the teen lit bestseller by James Dashner. To the uninitiated, it’s hard to understand how this flimsy plot could sustain an entire book.  In fact, it was so popular he wrote 3 sequels.  Readers that can fill in the many unexplained details, will surely enjoy this more. Not having read the text, the movie could barely hold my attention for part 1, so part 2? Uh no thanks. The thought is anything but a-MAZE-zing.

09-21-14

The Skeleton Twins

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Skeleton Twins photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMilo and Maggie are one of those brother and sister pairs who put the fun in dysFUNctional. The Skeleton Twins are so named because of a couple of toy skeletons their father handed them on Halloween when they were kids. The thirty-somethings have been living angst-ridden lives set adrift since the death of their father many years ago. A strange twist of fate unites the two after a decade of estrangement. A despondent Maggie is contemplating a handful of pills in her hand when the phone rings. “How did you get this number? I’m on the National Do Not Call Registry!” without realizing the severity of the message. It’s the hospital. Her brother has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide and he is currently under their care. The perfect timing means her own suicide will go unsuccessful as well. Look beneath that dark surface and there is an ironic glimmer of hope. There’s humor too. The Skeleton Twins is a movie that touches on pain, but it’s also about that silver lining.

Newbie director Craig Johnson co-wrote the brilliant script with Mark Heyman (Black Swan).  Their screenplay snagged the prestigious Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in January. But their words would be nothing without the stellar talents of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They’re at the core of this trenchant drama giving a pair of extraordinary performances.  Hader and Wiig are Saturday Night Live alums who started together in the program’s 2005-06 season. They have genuine chemistry displaying a beguiling closeness in their interactions. They are every bit as believable as twin siblings. This could’ve been “The Stefon and Gilly Show” based on their popular sketch characters but they rein in their frenzied tendencies. Both actors’ portrayals are among the best of the year. Additionally it’s worth mentioning Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson who epitomize crucial supporting roles that are just as beautifully acted as they are written.

The Skeleton Twins deftly blends savage drama with honest laughs. It’s kind of an odd mix, but stars Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s easygoing familiarity is mixed with such sarcasm, that the irregular tonal shifts work. The highlights of the film are scenes where they just play off one another as a finely tuned comedy machine. Hader’s invitation to Wiig to lip-sync Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” could’ve come across as supremely cloying. But his exaggerated theatrics and amusing gestures to the music are so dead-on that they almost parody the song.  The vignette is so infectious that you can’t help but want to join in. The tune was first featured as the theme to the 1987 hit Mannequin. I will no longer associate the upbeat anthem with that romantic comedy anymore. Wiig ultimately succumbs to his charms no matter how hard she tries to resist. We the audience likewise do the same.

09-17-14

The Trip to Italy

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 17, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Trip to Italy photo starrating-3stars.jpgLike The Trip in 2010, this follow-up was edited down from the series of the British TV sitcom with the same name. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, are enlisted for another restaurant tour in the second series. The inaugural one was in England. This time it’s in Italy with stunning locales from Liguria to Capri. Their destinations follow the Grand Tour of Italy, the beaten path of 19th century Romantic poets like Byron and Keats.

Anyone who has seen the first picture knows what to expect. More fantastic meals filmed in beautiful locations, accompanied by humorous conversations. There’s no denying that the duo has some amusing observations scattered throughout. Although any screenplay that zeroes in on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill as a target of humor two decades after the fact, isn’t aiming for timeliness. There’s an air of melancholy too. Rob Brydon contemplates an affair from his apparently unhappy marriage. Coogan laments his waning sex appeal to young women. The script is witty, but it lacks confidence to add something fresh to the familiar concept. It saunters along with no direction. It’s more of a reflection than a focused film.

The Trip to Italy is more of the same. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a funny comedy team. Their dueling Michael Caines were a standout in the original. This time however the shtick comes across as a bit desperate. The movie has barely begun and they’re already going back that well again. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” Steve Coogan shout at the top of his lungs. The obvious Caine quote from 1969’s The Italian Job. Then the pair discuss The Dark Knight Rises and who is less understandable – Tom Hardy as Bane or Christian Bale as Batman. Do you like the impressions? Then I have very good news for you – a whole slew of celebrities are mimicked: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Humphrey Bogart. Some are good (Woody Allen). Others are just awful (Al Pacino). Perhaps that was the point. Most of these are done by Brydon who once again plays the irritant to Coogan’s agitated fellow. So how do you say déjà vu in Italian?

09-10-14

Starred Up

Posted in Drama with tags on September 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Starred Up photo starrating-4stars.jpgJack O’Connell (the lead in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken) plays Eric, a troubled 19 year old youth from London reassigned to an adult prison for his aggressive behavior. While making enemies of the guards as well as his fellow inmates, he comes face to face with the one man who may be able to soften him — his dad. Eric’s father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is a powerful person in the prisoner hierarchy. Also trying to get through to the boy is a psychiatrist named Oliver (Rupert Friend). A man whose peaceful “let’s talk it out” methods aren’t entirely embraced by the authorities in charge.

Starred Up is written by Jonathan Asser, a real therapist turned screenwriter. The account is based on his “encounter groups” for problem cases at Wandsworth Prison in London where he attempted to pacify violent criminals. Right from the beginning, our protagonist is manufacturing a shank only seconds after entering his jail cell. Shortly thereafter he brutally assaults an innocent inmate. Director David Mackenzie does two things really well. First perfectly establishes the character. Then he details his temperament to everyone around him. It’s a captivating watch, Yes it’s a gritty portrait, but Starred Up isn’t the most brutal display of incarceration I‘ve ever seen. (The HBO TV series Oz and those jail sequences in American History X come to mind.) Although it could possibly be the most corrupt view. There are a lot of unchecked abuses going on in this joint.  At first I thought the penitentiary’s main kingpin Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) was an employee there because he had so much power. Convicts regularly get in altercations with nary a warden in sight. Perhaps that’s just as well since the guards seem to be more of a threat to the inmates than their fellow detainees.

Starred Up is extremely solid. The validity of Jonathan Asser’s screenplay comes through in every scene. Not just in handling the atmosphere with sincerity, but for extracting genuine emotion. Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell are extraordinarily good. Their interaction is infused with subtlety and nuance. As his estranged father, Nev tries to give his son some life lessons to help him from becoming a permanent resident there. It’s a real father-son relationship as opposed to a metaphorical one. I don’t see that often in this setting.  They act the roles to perfection. I suggest a primer on British prison slang prior to watching, however, starting with that title. Starred up refers to young offenders whose conduct is so violent that they’re prematurely transferred from a juvenile institution to an adult one. Gwap is money, prison officers are kangas, and to mug off is to show disrespect. All of this makes the dialogue a little inscrutable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The authenticity is appreciated and it adds to what makes Starred Up the credible drama that it is.

09-14-14

Around the World in 80 Days

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on September 10, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Around the World in 80 Days photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn 1956 Around the World in 80 Days was a luxurious bubble bath – a warm comforting experience. It was pleasant and enjoyable. As time wore on though that tub water deteriorated. The bubbles dissipated, the water got cold and the qualities that initially made it such a joy were no longer present. The production that apparently charmed audiences in 1956 has aged horribly. Today the Technicolor phenomenon now remains a long, bloated curiosity that stands as one of the most shocking peculiarities to have ever won Best Picture.

The feature is a distended 175 minute bore based on the 1873 Jules Verne classic and that’s not even including the 10 minute intermission. Our story begins with a long introduction by Edward R. Murrow seated behind a desk discussing the” fantastic fiction” of Jules Verne, including the novel From the Earth to the Moon, which was the basis for the 1902 Georges Méliès silent A Trip to the Moon. Murrow lectures on the advances we‘ve made in space travel since then. After that disastrous opening, the main story opens on a scene in London, England, in 1872 about Phileas Fogg, a Victorian gentleman who bets his friends at the Reform Club that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (roughly £1.6 million today) . Accompanied by his newly employed valet Passepartout he visits many locations as he interacts with various people along the way.

The production was American theater producer Mike Todd’s crowning achievement.  The theatrical impresario who had produced 17 Broadway shows during his career had never produced a theatrical feature. This was his first…..and last. He would tragically die in a plane crash a couple years later on March 22, 1958. He was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. It was her only marriage that didn’t end in divorce.  The drama was filmed in a high resolution widescreen format called Todd-AO first used successfully in Fred Zimmerman’s Oklahoma! (1955). Mike Todd developed the 70mm print format with the American Optical Company in the mid-1950s.

If nothing else, Around the World in 80 Days is a spectacle. The period piece was shot extensively in thirteen different countries, utilizing 70,000 extras and 8,000 animals. Areas from all around the world were represented including such distant spots as Paris (France), Chinchón (Spain), Bangkok (Thailand), Calcutta (India), Hong Kong (China), Yokohama (Japan), and the USA (Colorado). These locales provided the setting for various vignettes, none of which are particularly exciting. For example the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain go on for far too long. Perhaps the promise of actual location shooting was enough to sustain a film at that time. Air travel was a luxury of the wealthy in the 1950s. Travel to far flung places wasn’t common. Regardless, these days any locale can easily be rendered via blue screen and computer, so the extravaganza doesn’t fascinate in the way it might have in 1956.

Then there’s the stunt casting. David Niven’s distinctly British (read fastidious) portrayal of Phileas Fogg is a saving grace. Ditto the appearance of Mexican movie star Cantinflas. The latter makes his American screen debut as Fogg’s sidekick Passepartout. The screen legend gets a comic bullfighting sequence created just for him, not in the text. But Shirley MacLaine, in only her 3rd screen role, is forgettable. She is perplexingly cast as a princess from India heroically rescued from being sacrificed by our heroic duo. Robert Newton is a Scotland Yard detective who mistakenly thinks Fogg is a bank robber. His presence is charitably best described as an amusing annoyance. For star watchers there are nearly 50 cameos from then famous personalities, many of which are unknown today. I watch a lot of old movies and even I didn’t recognize a lot of these stars. However a few stood out including Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton and Frank Sinatra. This isn’t a quality film. It’s a sightseeing excursion with a chance to play “spot the star”. Call it an unfunny version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or a cinematic version of the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland.

There’s no other way to say it. Around the World in 80s Days is nothing more than a bland travelogue. What must’ve seemed like an grandiose marvel in 1956 doesn’t translate to the modern era. Our technologically advanced age makes this once epic period piece seem like an old dated relic.  It still has value. Anthropologists should study this as a faded artifact of a bygone era. How this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture must certainly be one of the great anomalies in the Academy’s illustrious history. Now reflect on the fact that it beat The King and I, The Ten Commandments and Giant and the win seems even more egregious. But the accolades didn’t stop there. It snagged 5 Academy Awards out of its 8 nominations. The mind boggles. The only one it seems remotely worthy of consideration was for Best Cinematography and I would still argue it was up against stiffer competition. David Niven and Cantinflas make an entertaining duo. I liked them and the cinematography is pleasant. Oh and then there’s that animated end credits sequence titled “Who was seen in what scene…and who did what” created by Saul Bass. The whimsical cartoon is most delightful thing in the whole production.

09-07-14

Ghostbusters

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on September 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ghostbusters photo starrating-5stars.jpgHard to believe, but 2014 is the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters. 1984 was a magical summer for me. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid and The Last Starfighter were all movies I saw that year. And that June 8th weekend was a historic one because it not only marked the debut of Ivan Reitman’s comedy classic, but of also another big hit. Gremlins was in fact THE major release that weekend. It was opening in many more theaters and it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg who was red hot from directing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial two years prior. Even Beat Street, now a little remembered music drama about a newly emerging dance style called breakdancing, was launched in more theaters. Despite debuting on fewer screens, the picture would ultimately become the 2nd highest grossing film of the year. Beverly Hills Cop, opening at the end of the year, would be #1.

It wasn’t easy to find. My local cinema that only charged $2 wasn’t showing it, but me and my buddies desperately wanted to see it.   I was too young to drive so we had to beg my friend’s mom to take us so we could make the trip out of town. $5 for a matinee which in 1984 was outrageously expensive. That would be like $12 today. Unbelievable! I can remember sitting in that darkened theater wide eyed at the special effects, laughing at the gut-busting one-liners. I was captivated by what I saw and it immediately became a treasured favorite. I still cite it any time I’m asked to list my top movies. I’ll admit my love is influenced by nostalgia, but I find it has lost none of its luster.

The plot is secondary to the fun, but I’ll recount it anyway. There’s this high rise apartment building in New York at 55 Central Park West, see. It’s being haunted by a demonic spirit named Zuul which starts terrorizing poor musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) in her kitchen. Meanwhile compatible demi-god Vinz Clortho the Keymaster attacks nerdy accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) at a party he’s throwing for his clients. Both beings act as loyal minions preparing the way for Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian god of destruction who can manifest itself in different forms. Scientists Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler are doctors of parapsychology. With paranormal activity in New York on the rise, they create The Ghostbusters, an exterminating business of sorts.

Ghostbusters is quite simply one of my most beloved films of all time. The iconic production is a perfect marriage of a special effects extravaganza with spectacular performances to create one side-splitting gem. Bill Murray is the undeniable star and he’s in top form as Dr. Peter Venkman a sly, laid back scientist with deadpan delivery that seems more concerned with dating his pretty client Dana Barrett than actually getting to the bottom of her disturbances. Sigourney Weaver nicely straddles the line between exasperated annoyance and charmed love interest. Bill Murray likewise has great camaraderie with his fellow Ghostbusters Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). Those two are also responsible for writing the finely tuned screenplay. It zips, it pops and it never lets up. Ernie Hudson joins them later as Winston Zeddemore. He delivers my favorite quip after the group is blown away by the lightening bolts of an evil entity from another dimension. There is a slew of funny dialogue and Rick Moranis’ nerdy portrayal of Louis Tully delivers a lot of it. He‘s hilarious. “Okay, who brought the dog?” he grins after hearing the growl from the long horned beast hiding in his closet.

The spectacular special effects support the story, but they never threaten to overshadow the actors. The technology was state of the art at the time, even earning an Academy Award nomination.  But it lost to the mine cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Perhaps time has rendered the optics a bit quaint to a modern audience. The sight of that devil dog leaping from the closet and running around the city is the most dicey. But it’s the comedic interactions between characters that hold our focus, not the whiz bang appeal of the visual displays. Ok so there’s that “monster” near the end that dwarfs everything else. When the Destructor of their choosing threatens the city and their very existence, it’s memorable. That’s the kind of silly moment of brilliance that makes you realize you’re watching a work of creative genius. Oh yeah.  I adore this film.

09-06-14

Love Is Strange

Posted in Drama with tags on September 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Love Is Strange photo starrating-4stars.jpgI have a confession. Once I saw the title, I was truly hoping that Love is Strange would feature John Lithgow and Alfred Molina doing a cover version of Mickey & Sylvia’s classic ditty. Alas, I was to be disappointed. No such luck.

After nearly 40 years together, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have decided to get married. As a result of this act, George loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. No longer able to afford the rent on their Manhattan residence, the two scramble to find living arrangements. George still receives some income from the music lessons he provides locally. In order to stay close to his students, George sleeps on the couch in the small apartment of their sympathetic neighbors. Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez) are two cops. Ben on the other hand stays in Brooklyn with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Their distant residences gives way to a unique set of issues with which each man must deal.

Love is Strange highlights a sterling ensemble cast. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are extraordinarily good. Through the construct of Ben and George’s situational living development, drama from their everyday lives is extracted. George likes classical music and reading books. His desires don’t quite mesh with the hip party loving atmosphere of his hosts. There is an amusing scene of party revelers dancing to bass heavy music filmed in close-ups. I was certain these people were in a club only to have the camera pull back to reveal them just hanging out in a tiny apartment. Meanwhile struggling writer Kate, the wife of Ben’s nephew, politely listens to Ben’s ramblings while trying to finish her novel. Marisa Tomei gives an exquisitely sophisticated performance that showcases the various sacrifices being made by the family.

American director Ira Sachs’ work is clearly a movie made for devotees of reflective film and not mainstream box office. Sachs also co-produced and writes this account of disparate relationships. The fabricated arrangement gives way to some admittedly contrived situations manufactured in the interest of extracting a reaction. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are extraordinarily good as the displaced couple. They lend a gravity to their characters that raise this chronicle to a higher level. Despite the narrative’s handling of the hot button topic of same sex marriage, the real story exploits genuine emotion as it deals with the many-sided personalities in an extended family. This is a subtle production that has universal appeal. Whether they’re singing at a piano to guests at a party or reflecting on what has become of their lives in separate bunk beds, Molina and Lithgow give nuanced performances. Yet the script accomplishes so much more. Love is Strange is a well written drama that beautifully handles the observational insights of a family tree and the way a simple crisis affects its many branches.

08-31-14