Archive for February, 2016

Eddie the Eagle

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on February 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo eddie_the_eagle_ver2_zpsqj4hb05e.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgEddie “the Eagle” was the nickname of the British skier born Michael Edwards.  For most American moviegoers, the next response to that would be, “Um excuse me, who?”  In the absence of challengers, the record holder was the first person to represent Great Britain in the sport of ski jumping at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. But he wasn’t a gold winning athlete. Far from it in fact. The plasterer by trade had a surprising lack of aptitude for an Olympian.

Eddie’s saga actually began in the competitive world of downhill skiing but he switched to ski jumping when he realized it was easier to qualify. You see, there were no other British ski jumpers to rival him. He attracted publicity thanks to an upbeat can-do attitude that captivated the hearts of his fellow countrymen, much to the chagrin of the discipline’s purists. Coincidentally this was the same Olympics at which the Jamaican bobsled team famously made their debut. That much more familiar tale (to Americans anyway) was recounted in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, an underdog story with which Eddie the Eagle shares a very similar narrative structure. The film’s essence can be summarized in one sentence: “You don’t have to win, to be a winner.” Taron Egerton affably portrays Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards as an unlikely hero.

Actor Egerton was nominated for the Rising Star Award at the 69th British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs) in 2016. He didn’t win. John Boyega of Star Wars: The Force Awakens received that honor. But if Egerton had, he would have been deserving of the accolade. He auspiciously came to widespread attention in the hit Kingsman: The Secret Service, then followed up with a supporting role in the Tom Hardy movie Legend. Now he’s back in the lead with this biopic. It’s almost as if each character was played by three different actors. The depictions couldn’t be more dissimilar from one another. As Eddie, Taron exudes earnest passion.  Even prickly Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), after several refusals, finally accedes to coach him – won over by Eddie’s enthusiasm.

Eddie the Eagle is so guileless in its composition, that at times it’s hard to tell whether the concoction is winking at the audience or simply just that incredibly straightforward. I suspect the latter in most cases. The uncomplicated drama clearly seeks to uplift the subject. I have to give the script credit for such cheerful goodwill. It has a lot of heart. Yet the film itself is kind of artificial. At one point it uses Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” in a training montage without a hint of sarcasm. The 80s styled font titles announcing the height of each jump and Matthew Margeson’s cheesy synth-heavy score dovetail nicely with Edgerton’s demeanor.

Eddie the Eagle all works together in a rather campy, but loving tribute. My lack of familiarity with the actual man is a benefit because Edgerton’s performance never rang false. It’s an odd characterization. Taron Edgerton dons big glasses and affects an underbite to play the gawky athlete. He mercilessly hams it up playing up Eddie’s little eccentricities. Occasionally the portrait verges on caricature. However Eddie is so likable and sweet that you forgive the affectations. What comes through is a genuine soul who just wanted to compete so badly. That Edgerton makes us understand this man without resorting to ridicule is kind of miraculous. His sincerity, much like the real life Eddie the Eagle, won me over.

02-21-16

The Witch

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on February 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo witch_ver3_zpsv3zoodmn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgBleak supernatural horror about a Calvinist household in 17th-century New England. Faith is an important part of their life as father frequently cites scripture. Right at the start, he dismisses those in the community as false Christians and so he and his family are banished from the village. The specifics of the disagreement over beliefs is never explicitly stated, but given the family’s devout commitment we can only assume they were too strict. Was that even possible in Puritan society? The clan is comprised of Father William (Ralph Ineson) his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). After a time they welcome the arrival of a fifth child, baby Samuel.

Initially the narrative suggests that their lack of money and failed crops could be the reason for their downward descent. But as time wears on, more definable tragedies torment the group. These events give rise to the idea that oldest daughter Thomasin could be an evil presence. These allegations, made by family members, have an effect on her psyche. The first sign that things are amiss is the fate of infant Samuel. While under Thomasin’s care, the baby vanishes from sight the moment her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo. Later her frustration with the unruly twins’ behavior causes her to make an assertion she later regrets. The film’s main protagonist seems to fluctuate at first but Thomasin ultimately emerges as the lead.

The Witch is a beautifully realized period piece. A carefully constructed, deeply researched drama that utilizes the language of the time. A postscript informs the audience that the dialogue was inspired by court transcripts of the 1630s. To the contemporary ear it sounds just like Shakespeare. That would be the vocabulary of the Elizabethan era, but Jacobean is more accurate since this is the early 17th century. The spirit of the prose keenly enhances the atmosphere. Yet the isolation of their existence speaks louder than any words. The eerie hostility of the early American frontier is as nasty as a villain. The gloom of the surrounding forest takes on a malevolent nature. Even the animals like a goat they’ve named Black Phillip, and a beady-eyed rabbit who pops out of the forest, take on demonic overtones.

The Witch is a dark tale of foreboding. The austere, almost grim, daily existence is maintained throughout. Most modern viewers have a mixed understanding of Puritan society. Life in New England was a completely different world over three hundred years ago. It was a harsh reality. The Witch is set some 60 years before the Salem witch trials famously dramatized in The Crucible. Certainly the story recalls those historical events, but there are distinct differences. Arthur Miller’s play revealed how paranoia can spread to create mass hysteria in a community. Writer/director Robert Eggers chooses to depict the growing fear as it affects only one family – a close-knit group, separated from civilization. Another contrast is that the conspicuous rise in bizarre occurances would seem to justify their fears. There is definitely something sinister afoot, although the lies that follow undeniably tear them further apart. Director Eggers doesn’t rely on the traditional tools of the horror genre. This is more of a thought-provoking mood piece rooted in the Jacobean dialect of the times. As such, the deliberate pace won’t charm today’s audiences raised on physical shocks. However those partial to slavish attention to detail will find much favor here. This engrossing saga of a Puritan family’s worst nightmare is extremely artistic. That makes the thiller rather unique in this day and age.

02-18-16

The Lady in the Van

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on February 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lady_in_the_van_ver3_zpsthjsprwh.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgMiss Mary Shepherd is an aging homeless woman struggling with physical decline. Her home is a broken down van which she parks in the neighborhood of Camden, in London.  BUT Mary isn’t some lovable scamp.  No, far from it. She’s a cantankerous old shrew to be quite honest. Eccentric and ill tempered, she isn’t the first person to whom you’d want to give a warm hug.

The Lady in the Van has a sweet quality that will delight some and irk others. It’s self consciously precious and finds humor in the little mundanities of life. The tale is based on English playwright Alan Bennett’s own reminiscence of an elderly woman who lived out of her car in his London driveway for 15 years. Bennet is well acquainted with adapting his plays for the screen (The Madness of King George, The History Boys). Director Nicholas Hytner has experience with handling the film versions. Maggie Smith has portrayed this part twice: the original stage production in 1999 and later a radio program on the BBC in 2009. Alex Jennings is the other component as the exasperated author that effectively matches Smith in their verbal exchanges. It’s clear everyone is very at ease with the material.

Now if the casting doesn’t already pique your interest, as it did me, then perhaps your enjoyment of The Lady in the Van will be a bit more of an uphill battle. Maggie Smith, that grande dame of the British acting world, has made a career of late playing cold, judgmental types. Her irascible demeanor somewhat softened by the biting quips she can deliver with her uniquely styled sardonic wit. Although she’s rude, the audience is still willing to embrace her spunky temperament. It’s not an easy task but Maggie Smith has perfected the trait. She embodies the role with flamboyant flair making full use of her considerable acting talents.

The Lady in the Van is first and foremost a star vehicle (no pun intended) built around Maggie Smith’s performance. She puts on the part like a comfortable old sweater. That describes this trifling slice of life to a T. It’s cozy. The joy is watching thespians Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in one amusing tête–à–tête after another. Their personalities clash and mesh at various points – she a grouchy curmudgeon, he a finicky chap that talks to himself. The discovery is what we learn about these two characters as the years pass. The drama is slight, charming and oh-so-British.

02-17-16

Deadpool

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Superhero on February 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo deadpool_ver8_zpsxm3xv2hl.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgDeadpool is really funny. As a story, it gets by on a lot of witty one-liners. Hey they charmed this guy — a reviewer that doesn’t care about the comic book origins of a Marvel superhero. The comedy is obscene at times, but that’s not the part that lands. Mostly it’s the meta material that breaks the 4th wall, when it knowingly pokes fun at the idea that everything we’re watching is just fiction. Take the opening credits for example. It’s like the title sequence version of Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailers”. The camera crawls through a frozen-in-mid-air car crash amid stopped bullets. Dismissive descriptions pop up as stand ins for names. The cast features “Hot Chick,” “Some Idiot,” “Moody Teen” and “British Villain.” I give it numerous points for making fun of itself, but I deduct a few for the fact that it actually succumbs to those stereotypes.

Deadpool was introduced as Wade Wilson in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That entry treated the personality like an afterthought. It even went so far as to sew his mouth shut at one point. That definitely isn’t the approach here, where the wisecracking individual seems like a totally different person. Deadpool makes offhand concessions to the same X-Men universe. A couple mutants even show up. They want to recruit Deadpool for a slot in the X-Men. Neither are the ones you were hoping for though. We get Colossus (an entirely CGI creation this time around) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Wait, what, who? Sorry no clue, but then why only two of them? Well that’s all the budget could afford — or so says the script. That line is priceless so I’m not complaining. The takeaway, you don’t need to have seen any of the X-Men films to enjoy Deadpool. It stands on its own and it’s all the better for it.

You cast Ryan Reynolds for two reasons. His sarcastic, comedic delivery and his pretty boy good looks. The first strength is put to great use. Ryan Reynolds’ winking, snotty attitude is a delight and he delivers the consistently amusing screenplay with wit and aplomb. I admit that Robert Downey Jr. has already done the smart alecky shtick to perfection in Iron Man, but Reynolds takes the concept in a slightly new direction. The approach is not cutting edge, but still interesting. However the second attribute is where the movie gives the ultimate middle finger to the viewer.

The action is violent verging on sadism. At the lab, Wade is mercilessly tortured for months by a criminal named Ajax (Ed Skrein). The purpose ostensibly to unleash his powers of regeneration and cure his cancer. However Ajax definitely takes a perverse pleasure in the whole procedure. The process works but the treatment leaves Deadpool horribly disfigured. A face so bloodied and pulverized he dons a red mask and bodysuit to hide his appearance. It’s really gross to be quite honest. “You look like an avocado had sex with an older avocado” opines Wade’s best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). The unnecessary endurance test serves nothing other than to cater to the cruelest sensibilities of a maladjusted adolescent. The off-putting scene is a regrettable detour from the production’s mostly intelligent satire.

Too often Deadpool seems to rely on its gratuitous gore, nudity and language as if it’s inventing something new. This is business as usual for the most part. Anyone who has ever seen Blade, Kick-Ass or Dredd will be familiar with hard R-rated shenanigans in this usually family friendly genre. Of course there’s the knowing, self-aware aesthetic. It’s the humor that sells the film. Although even that doesn’t feel innovative. Heck even affable blokes like Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell or Ferris Bueller have famously addressed the audience directly. Incidentally, stay tuned for a cute after credits segment that satirizes that. This isn’t truly subversive in a way that redefines the genre, but the picture maintains an environment that is consistently hilarious. Deadpool undermines the business of making superhero movies just enough to be interesting and worthwhile.

02-11-16

Hail, Caesar!

Posted in Comedy, Mystery with tags on February 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hail_caesar_zps1yertdli.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn the Coen Brother’s latest, Josh Brolin is what is known as a fixer in Hollywood, that is a guy who works to keep actors’ scandals out of the press. The suppression of any information that could damage a star’s reputation was an important part of the studio system in the 1950s. So it’s a period piece. The time period gives the directors an opportunity to create this ode to old Hollywood. But the story is so diffuse and free-form that it evaporates from the mind. Somewhere along the the way, unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) becomes pregnant and star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is abducted, but those story developments are so neglected they barely register.

The Coens have managed to assemble an impressive cast. Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum all appear, many as versions of real life people. Only the Coen Brothers or possibly Wes Anderson could assemble an ensemble quite like this. Star gazers might be amused but, except for Tatum, they’re pretty much wasted. It’s telling when an unknown like Alden Ehrenreich is the actor that gets all the acclaim. Who? you ask. He’s appeared in a couple productions of note (Blue Jasmine, Stoker). However he’s never been so memorable as he is here playing Hobie Doyle, an “aw shucks” singing cowboy.

The Coens get a lot right, There’s send-ups of the escapist fare that Hollywood used to make at that time: westerns, musicals and grand epics with hundreds of extras. The movies within the movie are the purest part because they’re created with a lot of skill and panache. George Clooney is in a massively mounted Roman production that recalls Ben-Hur. There’s also a synchronized water ballet in the style that Esther Williams used to perform. It’s colorful. Channing Tatum even does a song and tap dance routine and the number is the single most enjoyable moment in the whole comedy. Of course it’s not sincere. The song “No Dames” presents a group of tap dancing sailors in a gently twisted spoof of On the Town.

None of the cinematic recreations of classic cinema are better than the real thing. As a recreation of a bygone era, they’re enjoyed as charming fluff. Yet there’s an acerbic aftertaste to the Coens’ view of Hollywood’s Golden Age that keeps this from being a loving tribute. There’s knowing little in-jokes too regarding how motion pictures are made.  A rabbi, a priest and a Protestant minister are hired to weigh in on Capitol Pictures’ depiction of Christ in a biblical epic. The studio wants to make sure the portrayal doesn’t offend. It’s a comical vignette. There are others, but not enough to justify this meandering story in search of a point.

There’s never any indication that this is building toward anything. Nothing of consequence happens. This is just a series of blackout gags stitched together and marketed as a feature film. Edited up and watched individually it might inspire some titters, but as a full-length movie it’s a mess…and a boring one at that. Hail, Caesar! is a largely unfocused affair highlighted by a few bright spots that would be better viewed as clips on a comedy video website like Funny or Die. Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich save this from being a complete waste of time. It’s not the worst Coen brothers picture, but it’s close.

02-04-16

2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts on February 7, 2016 by Mark Hobin

In honor of the Academy Awards, ShortsHD has once again made all three (animated, live action, documentary) of the the Oscar Nominated Short Film programs available to audiences around the world.

 

Documentary

The documentary short collection was released to theaters on January 29th, a month before the Oscars presentation on February 28th. However its availability is much more limited than the animated and live action categories. Check here to see which of your local theaters is playing them: http://www.shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/theatrical-release/

Three of the features have been acquired by HBO Documentary Films and will also premiere on the cable channel on each of the following dates:

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – March 7, 2016
Body Team 12 – March 14, 2016
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah – May 2, 2016

Chau, Beyond The Lines and Last Day of Freedom are both currently streaming on Netflix.

I’ve ranked the shorts in order of how effective they are in presenting their individual stories. This category always seems to favor depressing subjects. This is a pretty downbeat lot. If you do decide to see these one after another, be sure to go with a loved one so you can hug each other after it’s all over.

__________

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
PAKISTAN/40MINS/2015
Director & Producer: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
 photo River_zpszuadgevf.jpg
This is a disturbing report concerning “honor killings” in Pakistan. The practice is defined as the homicide of a family member due to a dishonor believed to have been brought upon the family by the victim. The murder is seem as a way to restore reputation back to the family.

Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a Pakistani filmmaker whose similarly themed documentary short Saving Face won the award in this category in 2012. This is the story of Saba, a 18 year old Pakistani woman who fell in love with a man. They ran away to get married. She is brutally beaten, shot and left for dead by her own father and uncle. However she miraculously manages to survive and bear witness to what happened to her. In a year with some pretty cumbersome titles, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is the most unwieldy, but it’s also the most affecting. (8/10)

 

Last Day of Freedom
USA/32MINS/2015
Directors & Producers: Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman
 photo Last_Day_zpswydermfy.jpg
The most offbeat of all the documentaries, this account uses filmed footage of Bill Babbitt rendered in black and white animation. He remembers his brother Manny, who suffered brain damage from a childhood accident. Later Manny endured two tours of duty in Vietnam which further compounded his mental health issues.

Not sure if it’s the animated style or his compelling words, but I was transfixed by Bill’s recounting his brother’s story. What happens next is dreadful. Bill struggles between doing the right thing and the familial bond with his sibling. Powerful and heartbreaking. (7/10)

 

Chau, Beyond the Lines
USA/VIETNAM/34MINS/2015
Director: Courtney Marsh
 photo Chau_zpscivbtqeg.jpg
This chronicle begins on a sorrowful note as a story regarding a Vietnamese care center for children born with birth defects. The U.S. use of Agent Orange in Vietnam over 40 years ago is the cause. However the sad narrative develops into an inspirational saga about one particular teenager, Chau, who dreams of becoming an artist.

The record follows Chau for several years and we can see him develop his talent over time. It’s a touching (and ultimately uplifting) portrait. (6/10)

 

Body Team 12
LIBERIA/13MINS/2015
Director: David Darg
 photo Body_team_12_zpsoar4xjf0.jpg
The West African nation of Liberia experienced an epidemic of Ebola virus disease in 2014 and 2015. This chronicle focuses on Garmai Sumo, the only female member of a medical team whose job is to prevent the spread of disease by removing the bodies after they have died.

Director David Darg is a humanitarian first responder known for his documentary work in natural disasters and wars. His approach is to present the outbreak from her perspective and the unique challenges she faces when dealing with this work. For example, the deceased cannot be given a grave without a severe risk of contamination. She must convince family members to allow her to take their dearly departed loved ones. Direct contact with the body is dangerous so we see the precautions she and her team take to protect themselves. It’s a window into a very difficult job. (6/10)

[I could see any one of these nominees taking the award, but this is the apparent front-runner.]

 

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
USA/40MINS/2015
Director: Adam Benzine
 photo Shoah_zpswzxqgel1.jpg
Shoah was a landmark 9+ hour documentary covering the Holocaust released in 1985. This explores director Claude Lanzmann’s arduous 12-year endeavor to put together that seminal work.

This reexamines why it is such an important film about the Holocaust. In essence, a 40 minute trailer that persuades the audience to watch the original feature. (6/10)

2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on February 3, 2016 by Mark Hobin

In honor of the Academy Awards, ShortsHD has once again made all three (animated, live action, documentary) of the the Oscar Nominated Short Film programs available to audiences around the world.

Live-Action

Along with the animated program, the live action collection was released to theaters on January 29th, a month before the Oscars presentation on February 28th.

In addition to the theatrical schedule, the nominated live action and animated shorts will also be accessible online and on VOD/pay-per-view platforms.

Where the animated segment encompasses the gamut of emotion – joy to sorrow, the live action segment is much more mired in misery. This category is arguably the hardest of all the Oscar categories to call. None of the shorts star famous people, as in previous years’ winners like The Phone Call (Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent) or The Shore (Ciarán Hinds). This makes forecasting the winner even more difficult.

I’ve ranked the shorts in order of best to worst in terms of my own personal taste. However I’ll attempt to predict the prizewinner too.

 

Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)
GERMANY/AUSTRIA/30MINS/2015
Director, Writer & Producer: Patrick Vollrath
 photo Everything-Will-Be-Okay_zpsr3jguprm.jpg
The uncharacteristically upbeat title belies a heartbreaking tale. A divorced father picks up his eight-year-old daughter, Lea, for a day of fun. They spend every second weekend together, but after awhile she senses a change in the mood that signifies this outing is different.

I love films where the audience slowly develops an understanding of the situation. The story just pulls you in. It’s rather simple in scope, but it extracts emotion even better than a production that is four times as long. My absolute favorite of the bunch, which means it has absolutely zero chance of winning. (10/10)

 

Stutterer
UK/IRELAND/12MINS/2015
Director: Benjamin Cleary
 photo Stuterer_zpsbypswdae.jpg
Greenwood (Matthew Needham) is a shy typographer with a severe speech impediment but a passionate spirit. His internet relationship with a woman named Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) has progressed nicely. After six months of online chatting, she is ready to meet face to face, but he is loath to reveal the truth about himself. He worries whether she will lose interest.

Irish director Benjamin Cleary recounts a succinct and well crafted fable about self doubt. Who can’t identify on some level with that dilemma? Scores extra points for taking the least amount of time to tell a sweet story. Ends on a clever note that makes everything worthwhile. A real charmer. (9/10)

 

Day One
USA/25MINS/2014
Director: Henry Hughes
 photo Day_One_zpsgovscezi.jpg
American woman who has joined the United States military as an interpreter is on her first mission in Afghanistan. However she’ll be asked to do a lot more than just translate before the day is over.

Director Henry Hughes spent five years as a paratrooper conducting two combat tours in Afghanistan. This film was based on an experience with his own female interpreter. The way gender and religion must dictate behavior in Muslim culture, is addressed. The first hand approach is uniquely told from an insider’s perspective. (7/10)

 

Shok (Friend)
KOSOVO/UK/21MINS/2015
Director & Writer: Jamie Donoughue
 photo SHOCK_zpsw85s6yqo.jpg
The place is war torn Kosovo in 1998. The friendship of two children, Petrit and Oki, is tested when one enters into a dangerous business relationship with enemy Serbian soldiers who now occupy the territory.

Every year it seems there is at least one entry where war and children are united in a depressing narrative. Shok satisfies that niche which is why I’m predicting it will take the award. The drama is competent, but predictably dismal up to and including the extreme “shock” ending. (6/10)

 

Ave Maria
PALESTINE/FRANCE/GERMANY/15MINS/2015
Director: Basil Khalil
 photo Ave_Maria_zpsabgudfgl.jpg
A family of religious Israeli settlers has their car break down in a rural area of the West Bank. They seek the assistance of five nuns in a convent in the middle of the Palestinian territories. The nuns have taken a vow of silence. The Jewish family are forbidden to even use a phone on the sabbath. Culture clash comedy mines humor out of their difficulty to communicate.

Not bad, but it’s essentially a one-note joke built around a convoluted setup. My least favorite which makes it ironic that most prognosticators have selected as the odds on favorite to win. It’s a bit more lighthearted in tone which I suppose makes it stand apart from the more intense stories. (6/10)

01-28-16