Archive for April, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

Posted in Drama with tags on April 24, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Clouds of Sils Maria photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgClouds of Sils Maria is a provocative film. The gamut of topics that pass through the consciousness of screenwriter (and director) Olivier Assayas are plentiful and diverse. It considers youth vs. age, life vs. death, the past vs. the present, art vs. commerce, and fame vs. anonymity. Good heavens! Any one of these would’ve been enough fodder for an entire script, but Assayas touches on all of these topics. The complexity of Clouds involves trying to figure just what heck the narrative is actually about. It’s arty to the point of ambiguousness. Regardless Assayas clearly delineates a deep poignancy amongst women.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an international star that is on her way to accept an award on behalf of world renowned playwright Wilhelm Melichior. In her early 20s, she played Sigrid, the ingénue in a play he directed called The Maloja Snake. While en route by train, she receives word that the man to be feted has died which turns the celebration into a memorial. When she arrives she meets another director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger). Her assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) has set up this appointment. Klaus is interested in directing a revival of The Maloja Snake. However this time, he wants her to play Helena, the woman twice Sigrid’s age driven to suicide from their destructive love.

Reality and fiction have a way of intertwining uncomfortably for the respected actress. Juliette Binoche playing the part of an esteemed thespian in her 40s is not such a stretch. She beautifully immerses herself in the portrayal as expected. More surprising is Kristin Stewart who gives an extremely self possessed performance. As her personal assistant Val, she motivates Maria to secure the role. Maria subsequently prepares for the play with Val who runs the lines of the adolescent social climber. The play is endlessly rehearsed throughout the movie and at times, the line between their true character and the persona they’re playing become blurred. The idea of playing the opposite part intrigues Maria.  Though she becomes conflicted because the role forces her to confront her own mortality. Further confusing things is the setting of Lake Sils, an area in the Maloja district of the Swiss Alps. There they witness mysterious cloud formations that slither through the mountain scenery. This is the real-life Maloja Snake after which their fictional play is named.

Controversial wild child actress Jo Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is chosen to play Sigrid, the role that was originally Maria’s. When Maria finally meets the young upstart, her flattery of the venerable actresses immediately recalls the association between Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. I’m sure the comparison was intentional. Maria has many more interactions with her assistant Val than actress Jo-Ann. However the unbalanced relationship between the characters in the play is definitely a bone of contention for the older actress.

It’s safe to say that Clouds of Sils Maria is a character study. Beyond that though I’m not exactly sure how to label what Oliver Assayas is trying to say with this piece. That is to say, it’s a bit dramatically gray. Val enjoys working for Maria, a famous actress. Maria treasures Val’s youthful energy. Kristin Stewart inhabits a woman that almost seems tailored made to suit her own temperament. She’s at her very best. When Val pleads with her employer to look past the veneer of a rising starlet’s goofy superhero role to the talent beneath, you can actually hear Stewart justifying her own work in the Twilight movies. She is every bit Binoche’s match in these conversations. Stewart’s work here is a reminder of just how great she can be. In the end, one can at least say Clouds simply concerns time, or the passage of it and how it affects us. Director Assayas understands women. With this production, he has created a richly textured examination of individuals with three juicy female parts. There are a few men in the picture too, but they are inconsequential additions merely there to support the girls. Ah yes, Clouds of Sils Maria is that rare meaningful film where women are the sole purpose of the tale. Yes for those familiar with the Bechdel Test, this passes with flying colors.

04-21-14

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Ex Machina

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 19, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ex Machina photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe story is simple. A young programmer wins the opportunity to spend a week at the private mountain retreat of his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive billionaire and internet search-engine mogul. When he gets there, he’s asked to sign a non disclosure agreement before they can even proceed. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) has actually won the chance to evaluate the aptitude and consciousness of a beautiful and sophisticated robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). But robot seems almost like an outmoded term in this case. For you see, the capabilities of Ava far exceed the intellect of any mere machine. Caleb will determine whether she has the competence to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from that of a human.

Ex Machina concerns the philosophy of artificial intelligence. The chronicle is built around the monitored conversations that Caleb has with Ava. The first day, Caleb questions Ava, but on the second day, Ava questions him. The insightful script plays with the way humans talk and then how a computer would glean information from that interaction. “Does Ava feel?” is a key question. Ex Machina does a great job and presenting a lot of interesting topics for discussion. Caleb’s sessions with Nathan when he reports his findings are equally important. Of course Caleb’s interactions with Ava are being watched, but what Nathan observes is not as important and the way Caleb reports on it. Occasionally power failures affect the means with which Nathan can monitor these sessions. That’s when the exchanges between Ava and Caleb get really juicy.

Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is an arrogant tech tycoon with a bit of a God complex. With his shaved head and bushy beard, He wants to present himself as this approachable laid back guy, but we immediately realize he is anything but. He’s an über control freak that works out incessantly throughout the day and parties even harder at night. There’s an intensity to him that is unsettling. Take Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), the Japanese servant girl he employs. He values her inability to speak or understand English. In this way he can freely talk trade secrets around her. His insulting disregard for her borders on misogyny. Even when he’s ostensibly just boogieing down to a disco ditty with her, there’s still something menacing about the act.

That brings us to his technological creation Ava: a very female entity. She has the face, hands and feet of a human woman but the body of a cyborg, although still shapely. As manifested by actress Alicia Vikander, she is a hypnotic creation. The Swedish dancer trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm for nine years. With her lithesome movements and graceful placement, she suggests a very carefully studied decision to move. The fact that she is female is a very deliberate component to her creation. After all, an artificially intelligent computer need not have a sex. The objectification of the female body courtesy of her creator. This idea is found elsewhere in the narrative, but to reveal more would be to spoil the discovery.

Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s feature debut as a director. But he’s no newbie to film. The English novelist has been writing for years. His first novel The Beach was turned into a movie by Danny Boyle. It would mark the beginning of several partnerships between the two. He most successfully penned the post-apocalyptic horror film 28 Days Later. In 2007 he wrote the screenplay for Boyle’s Sunshine and then they executive produced 28 Weeks Later together. But perhaps the director Garland more closely references this time, is the work of Mark Romanek. With its austere environment and smooth shiny surfaces the film occasionally recalls his glossy music videos “Scream” (Michael & Janet Jackson) and “Bedtime Story” (Madonna). The two collaborated when Romanek directed Never Let Me Go which Garland adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian sci-fi novel.

Artificial Intelligence is the topic at hand. Given the heady subject matter, I was surprised with the very basic way in which the idea is handled. Ex Machina is entertaining, though the narrative doesn’t tread any new ground. Some interesting concepts are brought up, but nothing particularly innovative is resolved. This is a glorified episode of The Twilight Zone. However the stripped down, simple design is visually attractive. Nathan’s subterranean compound is a modern architectural wonder in the middle of a forest. His lair is both richly appealing and menacingly claustrophobic. The style makes the story seem weightier than it really is. There’s precious little depth, but heck if the whole thing isn’t entertaining. Caleb, Ava and Nathan form an emotional triangle of sorts that seduce, attack, argue, persuade and sympathize. Ultimately, the tale is a triumph because I was captivated throughout.

04-16-15

While We’re Young

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

While We're Young photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgNoah Baumbach has a unique outlook on life. The director has always had precocious ideas to the point where they become precious. He belongs to that rare club that dares to present quirky New York angst of the white middle to upper class. Woody Allen is the patron saint of these hyper-intellectuals – Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson are the disciples. Those latter two veer closer to a rosy Norman Rockwellian angle where Baumbach, up until recently, was decidedly more pessimistic. The Squid and the Whale was downright nasty. But his attitude changed with Frances Ha and now I feel that Baumbach has taken another leap forward with his worldview. It’s measured and much more layered.

While We’re Young is ostensibly a story about getting older. Noah Baumbach presents us with an aging couple in their 40s. Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentarian who has been struggling with his obtuse 7 hour documentary for a decade. Naomi Watts is Cornelia, his wife who is struggling to come to terms with her inability to have children. They’re in a rut. Then they meet a catalyst for change in hipster couple Jamie (Adam Driver) & Darby (Amanda Seyfried). They’re vibrant, laid back and spontaneous. Jaime & Darby are down to earth, but they’re nutty too. They have 70s movie posters up on the walls, watch movies on VHS tapes and listen to Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” on vinyl. There‘s a little subtext here in appreciating something because you actually experienced it as opposed to enjoying something in an ironic sense from afar.

While We’re Young is a movie based on existential discussions. Josh & Cornelia are drawn to Jamie & Darby’s carefree but irresponsible perspective on life. The narrative is sensible and even-handed in a way that endorses everyone’s point of view. The chronicle doesn’t take sides. Their relationship with these free spirits reacquaints them with commendable qualities they no longer possess and forces them to come to terms with how they have changed. These loquacious New Yorkers can be trying at times, but they’re funny too. We see people we know and then we see the qualities of people that annoy us. We see ourselves in Josh and Cornelia as well. I don’t care who you are. Anyone who has ever felt old while observing twenty-somethings as another life form can relate.

Baumbach can make the behavior of these bohemian intellectuals admirable and childish all in the same scene. That’s kind of brilliant. Whether Josh and Cornelia are attending an invite to an impromptu “street beach” event in Brooklyn or an Ayahuasca ceremony, I found myself thinking, “That might be cool” at the idea but when confronted with the reality thinking, “Ok that looks unpleasant.” That’s probably because I have grown up and my perspective is closer to the director’s than the youthful hipsters that populate these parties. Baumbach’s greatest contribution is the way he subverts your expectations. Nobody is the butt of the joke here. While We’re Young isn’t perfect. What drives Josh as a filmmaker is completely unrelatable – to me anyway. But then that’s part of the humor now isn’t it? These are multidimensional people that have genuine good qualities – each and every one of them. They also have components to their personalities that can make them a little insufferable too. In other words they’re human. These characters are more lovable than any I have ever seen in one of the director’s films. Baumbach really has something interesting to say with While We’re Young…and I’m listening.

04-12-15

Trainwreck

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on April 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Trainwreck photo starrating-4stars.jpgTrainwreck is a romantic comedy with a different point of view – Amy Schumer‘s. She isn’t interested in settling down. Part of the humor is her knee-jerk reaction to leave quickly after every one-night stand before it develops into a relationship. This is regardless of how sweet, sincere or handsome her date is.  This is especially true when she meets Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader).  It’s difficult at times to comprehend why she acts the way she does. That’s the beauty of the screenplay. We view her so-called male sensibility with fresh eyes. There’s some insight into her worldview in the very first scene – a flashback of her father giving Amy and her younger sister Kim some advice when they were little girls. His “monogamy isn’t realistic” speech draws an analogy the little ones can understand: “What if you were told that you could only play with just one doll for the rest of your life?” Twenty-three years later we see the results of those words. Amy took the lesson to heart and has never looked back. However her sister (Brie Larson), resisted the suggestion and has settled down into a happy existence of domesticity with her husband (Mike Birbiglia) and their son. Kim is a nice counterpoint to her sister. Larson makes the most of a portrayal that could’ve been the target of jokes but the presentation of her reality, while sedate, is one of happiness.

Actually Trainwreck is populated by a supporting cast of really well written side characters that make a strong impression. Amy works as a writer at a dopey men’s interest magazine called S’NUFF that publishes articles like “The Ugliest Celebrity Children Under 6″. Her place of employment is the setting for some very clever material. Tilda Swinton stands out in a supporting performance as Amy’s editor. To be honest, at first I didn’t recognize the British actress with her long tresses and heavy eyeliner. I thought, “Who is this hilarious woman that kind of resembles Tilda Swinton?“ The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, and now this – once again she really shines. Tilda Swinton is like bacon. She makes everything better. In addition the production reunites Tilda with Ezra Miller, her co-star from We Need to Talk About Kevin. Miller plays an odd intern.

Trainwreck is full of random people that defy conventions. These include pro wrestler John Cena as a sweet musclehead that is closest thing she has to a boyfriend. He only wants to settle down with Amy. There’s professional basketball player LeBron James as Aaron’s effusive best friend who doesn’t want to see his buddy get hurt. Did I mention he’s a big fan of Downton Abbey? The fact that LeBron is supposed to be playing himself makes his unexpected personality quirks even more random. His counterpart in Amy’s life is Nikki, Amy’s best friend played by Vanessa Bayer. “Why would he call? You guys just had sex.” More role reversal. And that’s merely the beginning. Amy has written a production with parts that allow a whole cast to shine. There are a ton other cameos. No more disclosures. They’ll be more amusing when you discover them for yourself.

Is Judd Apatow the directorial successor to James L. Brooks? Kind of looks that way. Trainwreck is as funny & poignant as Brooks in his prime. Judd Apatow directed but Amy Schumer wrote the script and this movie has her fingerprints all over it. The generic romantic comedy model tells the chronicle of a man who dates a lot of women. He can’t be tied down. He doesn’t want the commitment of a relationship, simply the superficial pleasures that serial dating affords. Then one day he meets the woman that challenges his expectations and nothing will ever be the same from that point on.

Trainwreck follows that romantic comedy blueprint. The difference? Amy Schumer is the “man” who shuns commitment. Heck. It goes far beyond that. She doesn’t even want a second date. Then she meets successful and charming sports doctor, Aaron Connors. Comedian Bill Hader is the “woman” that challenges her approach to relationships. If this was Trainwreck’s only contribution, it might not have been so innovative. But Amy Schumer amplifies the folly of such attitudes with the role reversal. Her character, also named Amy, is such a strange bird. The behavior doesn’t exactly make her endearing. As the story progresses and Dr. Connors becomes almost saintly, you just want to shake Amy to her senses. But the conduct makes her funny and there are laughs, insightful ones that belie her hedonistic perspective. Even when she is making fun of her sister’s domesticity, you can sense a little jealousy behind her barbs. It’s that bitterness mixed with sensitivity that comes through and makes her personality someone we want to embrace.

04-09-15

Furious 7

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Furious 7 photo starrating-4stars.jpgOver the course of seven films, the raison d’être of the Fast & Furious movies has been car chases, explosions and epic fights. The movies have laid this groundwork. I didn’t make the rules but that is how they must be judged. Using this barometer, I have always found the Fast & Furious franchise to be mildly entertaining. The first one is almost quaint by today’s standards. A variation of Point Break but with cars instead of surfboards. Parts 2-4 were of irregular quality with mixed results. But then the saga got a shot in the arm with parts 5 & 6. They both exceeded expectations. However they still never quite hit that sweet spot where the rightfully lively crossed over into the magnificent. That is until now. With Furious 7, director James Wan has produced a sequel that is so insane, so giddy to just throw the rules out the window, that the merely exciting has now crossed over into the ridiculously sublime. Regardless of your evaluation, this entry is unlike any that has come before. It is completely bonkers and the established drama is all the better for it.

Furious 7 evokes the best camaraderie from the gang. A huge cast is beautifully integrated into a story that has multiple events constantly going on at any given time. In a nod to the original film, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) gather with the neighborhood for race wars. Is that Iggy Azalea congratulating Letty for her win? Brian (Paul Walker) adjusts to a quiet family life with his wife Mia (Jordana Brewster) and son. Meanwhile Federal Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds a new villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) hacking away into his computer. Shaw has vowed to take revenge on behalf of his brother Owen (Luke Evans) who now lays in a coma amongst the ruins of a hospital on fire. Shaw is a human killing machine and Hobbs ends up in the hospital with a broken arm after he is hurled out of a second story window. He contacts Dom who vows to take down Shaw for good. Dom assembles the old gang which includes Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris). They embark on a mission to try and locate Shaw using a surveillance system called God’s Eye which can spot anybody from anywhere in the world. The story also has parts for Kurt Russell, Djimon Hounsou, a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), Bollywood actor Ali Fazal, martial artist Tony Jaa and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. Even Lucas Black from Tokyo Drift shows up briefly.

Naturally the plan involves five of our heroes dropping out of a jet plane sitting in their cars equipped with parachutes. In this entry a car behaves more like a spaceship than a vehicle meant for land. The action set piece ends with a bus teetering on the edge of a cliff with Paul Walker inside. Aw heck a cliff never stopped anybody in this. Vin Diesel willingly drives himself off another cliff and he miraculously survives. Oh wait till you see the skyscraper scene in Abu Dhabi. This comes after a lavish party which is possibly the film’s only lull. There’s lots of music video edits and color at least. Then there’s a combat scene where Vin Diesel goes mano a mano with rival Jason Statham. “Thought this was gonna be street fight?” Diesel shouts holding a gun at an unarmed Statham. “You’re damn right it is” he says tossing the gun aside. The quips usually aren’t much more cutting than that, but they’re always perfectly timed and delivered with such confidence that they invariably land like the most eloquently tossed off wit.

Furious 7 is the best chapter in the Fast & Furious franchise. This is a fact. It’s not even up for discussion. The production is all about raising the stakes to top the others. It succeeds. It’s bigger, faster, funnier and yes, more touching. Furious 7 has the craziest stunts, the campiest dialogue, and the warmest, most amiable fellowship of any entry yet. The sequels have grown progressively sillier. This has been to the benefit of the series. The way this gang cheats death in this world is closer to the rules that govern cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Side Note: Their first Looney Tunes appearance was actually a short called Fast and Furry-ous in 1949. I kid you not. Anyway, it‘s the no holds barred, gleefully outrageous stunts that make this installment so transcendent. Nobody ever said these films were emotionally deep. Yet Furious 7 ends ups being a surprisingly touching tale concerning family – not necessarily people united by blood, but by loyalty and friendship. The camaraderie here is stronger than it has ever been. Furious 7 is a fitting coda not just to the series, but to the life of the late Paul Walker as well. By the end, I challenge you to keep the tears at bay.

04-02-15

Get Hard

Posted in Comedy, Crime with tags on April 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Get Hard photo starrating-1star.jpgComedy Is Not Pretty! was a 1979 album by Steve Martin. But he might as well been talking about the directorial debut effort from writer Etan Cohen. And I use “effort” in the loosest definition of the word. The plot concerns a filthy rich stockbroker named James King (Ferrell) who is arrested for embezzlement. His gold digging fiancée (Alison Brie) also happens to be the boss‘ daughter. Her father Martin Barrow (Craig T. Nelson ) was going to make James a partner in his company Barrow Funds. Despite his assertions to the contrary, the judge finds James guilty and sentences him to ten years at San Quentin, with only 30 days to get his affairs in order. During this time he relies on his boss to prove his innocence. Meanwhile James contacts his car washer, Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) to teach him how to toughen up so that he will be able to survive in prison.

In Get Hard, Ferrell and Hart are the worst comedy duo since Clooney and O’Donnell in Batman & Robin. It doesn’t help that the premise is artificially fabricated for laughs without a lick of sense. Rather than trying to prove James’ innocence, Darnell just decides to prepare him for prison life by transforming his luxurious estate into a prison. This leads to a lot of really lame bits that simply rely on the stars’ personas to nail the joke. Instead of exploiting conventions, the screenplay wallows in them never rising above hackneyed stereotypes that were already tired in the 80s. The scene at an outdoor L.A. cafe with an all-gay clientele is the nadir. No wait, make that the moment that follows in the restaurant’s bathroom.  It reminded me that Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt did a forgotten buddy comedy in 1982 called Partners. That was bad. This is worse.

Ok I’ll admit there are a few scattered jokes that are amusing. At their engagement party, James’ fiancée introduces John Mayer as the surprise entertainment and her father leans over to her and asks, “Who’s John Mayer?“ In another bit, Kevin Hart impersonates several personalities in a prison exercise yard. As he jumps around in a frenzy changing his voice and demeanor to suit various characters, I saw talent.

Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart can be funny but you’d never know it from this lazily written time waster. Even the title is a double entendre that sounds like a 5th grader made it up. Ok hold up. That’s not fair, I’m underestimating the wit of a 10 year old. Get Hard is based on the stale conceit that if you combine a tall uptight white guy with a short streetwise black guy then laughs will follow. This is a bloated vehicle for two stars to just act silly and film what happens. A paper thin premise is stretched to fill 100 minutes that has fewer chuckles than a visit to the dentist. In this case, multiplying two positives actually equals a negative.

03-31-15