Archive for August, 2016

Hell or High Water

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Western with tags on August 29, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hell_or_high_water_zpshgdreiqe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgI’m pleasantly surprised. David Mackenzie’s neo-Western wasn’t even on my radar. I generally don’t expect much from the second week of August. That’s kind of a dead period for movie releases. The summer is winding down. Kids are gearing up for back-to-school and most major film studios have already issued their heavy hitters. Lionsgate is not one of the “Big Six” studios, so maybe it’s not surprising that such an awards-worthy production (and potential blockbuster) would have such an atypical release date. However Lionsgate IS the largest and most successful mini-major studio in North America, so I wouldn’t exactly classify them as an indie either. Regardless, I was prompted to watch this on a good recommendation. I’m so glad I did.

Since the traditional Western takes place in the later half of the 19th century, I probably shouldn’t place Hell or High Water in that genre. The setting is present-day West Texas. The American frontier setting certainly confuses things. It’s unquestionably a heist picture. On that everyone will agree. The story is simple. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster respectively) plan a series of robberies targeting various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in an effort to buy back their family farm. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in hot pursuit along with his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The narrative details a series of stick-ups like you’d find in an old western but set in today’s modern day Texas. Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material. He is brilliant at establishing characters. His last movie, the underseen British prison drama Starred Up, also excelled in this area. Naturally a lot of credit should also go to the crackerjack script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Gradually the screenwriter reveals layers to these brothers, Toby and Tanner. At first the two appear to be one and the same – bank robbers. As the chronicle develops, we’re given motives and backstories and emotional temperaments that play out in little dialogues with various people along the way. Each vignette uncovers more depth to these people. A flirtatious conversation with Toby from a waitress (a noteworthy Katy Mixon) in a diner, is deceptively mundane taken at face value. Yet her wistful exchange exposes a heartbreaking yearning for so much more in her life.

She’s merely one component in an incredible ensemble. Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton. The grizzled, old fashioned Texas ranger is not such a stretch for the veteran actor anymore. Still, he’s wonderful. Ditto his partner Alberto Parker, a marshal whose half-Comanche/half-Mexican roots are subject to his constant teasing. The focus revolves around their pursuit of the brothers. The younger duo is united in the same dirty business, but they are rather different. Ben Foster has always been a bit of a chameleon. He’s mesmerizing. His portrayal is just as intense as you’d expect. However Chris Pine’s soulful work is the performance of his career. His understated achievement is so quietly expressive. I thought I knew the actor. He’s a revelation.

In this account, no one person is all good or all bad. Toby and Tanner are clearly in the wrong. Yet we are given valid reasons to hate these financial institutions – the source of foreclosed houses and crushed dreams. Are these brothers a modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not exactly, although you’d be forgiven for making the connection. Rooting for these guys is similarly problematic, but this is a tale with even deeper shades of gray. There are so many surprises. One violent altercation inadvertently provides a cogent defense for carrying a concealed weapon. The mentality of the vigilante perspective is presented so rationally, I was a bit taken aback. There’s sort of an odd mix of emotion that fluctuates wildly between compassion and disgust for these lawbreakers. Sympathy turns to aversion over the course of the narrative. It’s the way these little unforeseen vignettes plays out that make this character study so captivating.  One of the most noteworthy dramas of 2016.

08-27-16

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo kubo_and_the_two_strings_ver13_zpstii1y4fz.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA new production from Laika Entertainment is something to celebrate. They’re the creators behind the Oscar-nominated features Coraline and ParaNorman, animated films I adored. Unlike rivals Pixar or Walt Disney, the studio specializes in stop-motion animation in which an actual object is physically manipulated one frame at a time to create a moving image. The advent of computer animation has currently replaced the once ubiquitous traditional hand-drawn approach. Their technique is a unique and specialized art. Characters have the look of moving puppets. When it’s done well, it’s transcendent. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a welcome addition to Laika’s growing oeveure.

The animated tale takes place in ancient Japan. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives with his single mother. She has taken ill. At night, when she becomes active, Kubo attends to and cares for her. By day, he journeys to the local village square where he plays his beloved shamisen, a Japanese three string guitar. His performances magically summon origami creatures to life as they act out the legend of his father, Hanzo, a great warrior who died while protecting him. Unfortunately shadowy figures from his past, Kubo’s witch-like aunts (both Rooney Mara), discover his whereabouts and he is separated from his mother (Charlize Theron). He is offered help from Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with the appearance of a beetle-like man. Together they must find the three components of his father’s armor to use as protection from his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns Kubo in the very first line of spoken dialogue. And indeed there is so much to appreciate visually. The spectacle positively dazzles the eye. Each acquisition in their quest is a marvel to witness. The extraction of The Sword Unbreakable from a humongous skeleton, The Armor Impenetrable, a breastplate, hidden below the sea in the Garden of Eyes, and the of the location of The Helmet Invulnerable revealed in a dream. That last revelation leads to the climatic showdown.

Kubo and the Two Strings has all the attributes of classic folklore – an account that has been passed down from one generation to the next. But don’t go looking for this fantasy in some sacred text. The original screenplay was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, with a “Story By” credit for Shannon Tindle. Given the contemporary origins of the saga, I suppose I can forgive the Hollywood movie star voices in the place of actors that could have better conveyed the authenticity of feudal Japan. Despite the somewhat generic “hero’s journey” trappings of the adventure, the drama touches upon some weighty themes. You have to admire a cartoon that challenges younger viewers to consider the nature of humanity. Is death really the end of someone’s life when one is still held in the hearts of those that loved them?  Along the way, the chronicle never ceases to be anything less than captivating. The style is so crisp, colorful and vibrant, that it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the craft. This picture is simply a joy to behold.

08-23-16

Pete’s Dragon

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 17, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo petes_dragon_ver2_zpsi7ubdra4.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgPete’s Dragon is a difficult movie to review for me. On the one hand, it’s sweet and pleasant and the kind of wholesome entertainment that you can bring the whole family to see. What makes this a bit of an anomaly is that it’s live action and rated PG. All too often pictures classified as such, are solely cartoons. Pete’s Dragon is refreshing.  It satisfies a niche that often goes unfulfilled in today’s marketplace. The Jungle Book and The BFG were other films that came out this year that also fell into this category. I enjoyed them both equally. Which is to say, they’re fine, but they didn’t wow me. The big reason being that there just isn’t much story to captivate the mind. Interestingly enough, the same issue plagues Pete’s Dragon as well.

Pete’s Dragon is actually a remake of the heretofore forgotten 1977 Disney musical that starred an animated beast. I only mention the original because the filmmakers have chosen to bestow this movie with the same title. Despite the fact that the chronicle concerns the friendship between a child and a dragon, the two have very little in common. In contrast to the previous 70s musical incarnation, the current reimaging of the tale is a dark, almost moody piece about a sullen youngster who loses his parents in a car crash in the thick of the woods of the Pacific Northwest. That child is 10-year-old Pete and he’s played by Oakes Fegley. Pete is a curious personality. Nat King Cole once sang “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…” and he is indeed something of a nature boy, having to fend for himself amidst the forest environment. It is there he meets Elliot. This is the name he gives the dragon that lives there. They become close friends.

Pete’s Dragon develops into a sentimental bit of fluff. It certainly helps that young actor Oakes Fegley is extremely natural and the CGI creature is realistic as well. Elliot is not your typical dragon. Instead of scales he has fur. He can even disappear when he deems it necessary to hide from danger. He’s also exceptionally loving and protective. Their relationship is not unlike that of a boy and his dog. It’s this bond that forms the foundation of the drama. The two unquestionably have a warm rapport but it’s a wispy premise on which to build an entire production. Oh sure once other humans discover Elliot, they threaten his safety, but you knew that was going to happen 20 minutes into this fantasy. Everything unfolds in a predictable fashion. This “boy meets pet” fable was released to near universal acclaim. I expected a saga with a much higher level of creativity.  I liked Pete’s Dragon, but I didn’t love it. I really wanted to love it.

08/16/16

Captain Fantastic

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_fantastic_zpsmej8s5nl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe trials and tribulations of a family clan is the subject of this domestic comedy-drama. But this isn’t your typical household. They’re headed up by patriarch Ben Cash – a father to his six children ranging in age from about 6 to 18. Each is bestowed with a unique made up name: Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai. His wife, their mother, has spent the past few months hospitalized for bipolar disorder. Their lives have continued on while she recuperates. They subsist in the untamed wilderness of the Pacific Northwest by living a rugged, self-sufficient lifestyle. Home schooled and shunning modern conveniences like supermarkets they have learned to fend for themselves by living off the land. That means hunting, fishing and growing their own food. It also means being homeschooled and even eschewing time-honored holidays of Christianity like Christmas.  Instead, they celebrate Ben’s invented festivals honoring leftist ideologues like Noam Chomsky Day. They’ve gone further than reject civilization, they live in complete isolation.

In the hands of actor Viggo Mortensen, the profile is a mesmerizing character study of a bizarre family while maintaining the humanity of the people within. In layman’s terms, he’s a radical hippie dad. They’re unorthodox but at the same time, they seem well adjusted in their own way. Ben’s teaching style is honest and straightforward. He doesn’t believe in mincing words. Questions about “The birds and the bees” for example are answered in a frank fashion. He gives it to his kids straight with an approach that would make most moms and dads bristle. Alex Comfort’s book The Joy of Sex is probably not an appropriate gift for a 6-year-old, but Ben is not a traditional dad. When a life-altering event forces the family to enter the big city, his progressive parenting skills are called into question, particularly by his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) who doesn’t think his grandkids are being raised properly. He suspects they may even be in danger. The conflict accentuates the positives and negatives of Ben’s child rearing technique with grace and subtlety.

Front and center in Captain Fantastic is Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) the father of this eccentric brood. Even a parent with the best intentions can be flawed — and he is — in some pretty major ways actually. Yet deep down he still truly wants to do the right thing. His children are given a thorough education in science, history, and the arts. They read voraciously. They can not only recite knowledge but also apply it to real world situations. A memorable head to head challenge featuring his daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks), highlights the superior success of his educational approach. The methods of conventional schools have clearly failed the sons of their Aunt Harper and Uncle Dave (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, respectively). The script is intelligent enough to value Ben’s take on life but there’s also a lot wrong with it as well. His oldest – slim, ponytailed Bodevan (George MacKay) is socially awkward and he himself knows it. Bodevan yearns to attend a university where he can learn in a traditional setting and socialize with other people. The portrait is not perfect.  Father Ben can be so stridently overbearing that he loses our sympathy.  It’s the nuance that gives this sincere story a soul. Viggo Mortensen is the heart of the drama.  He’s incredible, and the 6 youngsters are the veins. Together they unite in a manner that will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

08/08/16

Sausage Party

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on August 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sausage_party_zps9nxxlrpb.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe R-rated Sausage Party is an ugly computer animated film – a putrid, gross-out, lowbrow spoof of the kind of quality cartoon features that Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks usually put out. There are so many levels on which to trash Sausage Party. But I’ll start with the most basic. It’s supposed to be a comedy and it simply isn’t funny.

The setting is Shopwell’s, a grocery store where various fruits, vegetables and other assorted products await their time to be purchased. They sing about “The Great Beyond” a wonderful place where they ultimately end up once the “gods” (shoppers) select them. Can we start with the fact that the lyrics to this song are really hard to understand? I don’t know if it was the sound mix or just the singers’ failure to enunciate clearly, but most of the words were unintelligible. I got the gist of it though. “The Great Beyond” is a magnificent place where all food aspires to go. It’s kind of like the afterlife if you haven’t picked up on the not-so-subtle metaphor. The star is Frank (Seth Rogen) a wiener that wants to be paired up with his girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a hot dog bun.

Then one day a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to Shopwell’s with news of his experience.  Once you leave the store, he says, the gods will eat you and your life is over. That’s it. Nothing more. “The Great Beyond” is a lie. After being chosen once again by a different shopper, Honey Mustard, attempts to leap off the cart. Frank tries to save him. This sets off a chain of events where several other products fall off the cart. Besides Frank and Brenda, there’s Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), a flatbread, Sammy Bagel Jr.(Edward Norton), a bagel who does a Woody Allen impression circa 1973, and a Douche (Nick Kroll) who appropriately enough, acts like an obnoxious bro. The display of causalities is like a scene out of Saving Private Ryan.  It’s the sole amusing moment in the entire picture.

Sausage Party is a movie in which the filmmakers seemingly started out with a question, Wouldn’t it be amusing if cute animated characters dropped a lot of F-bombs?  Then proceeded to beat the idea into the ground. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s 2016. If this is your interpretation of pushing the boundaries of comedy, you haven’t watched a film in the past 50 years.  The joy of hearing the F word coming out of the mouths of cuddly figures is already pretty debatable.  For me, it lost its luster when I graduated from the 4th grade, but hey – to each his own. Great writers can make anything humorous, even a cartoon tangentially about atheism. Sausage party is co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and like all their works (Pineapple Express, The Interview, The Night Before), their drug-addled mentality is probably funnier if you’re already half baked. Me? I was stone cold sober and apparently so was the entire audience I saw this with. You could’ve heard a pin drop at any time throughout its running time. That is until the very end when a food orgy did elicit some guffaws from a few theater patrons.

This production presents the skimpy plot of an 8 minute short, not an 88-minute feature. The screenwriters toss in some jokes along the way – mostly ethnic stereotypes. Let’s see, a German tub of sauerkraut with a Hitler ‘stache wants to exterminate the “juice”. The lavash and the bagel are mortal enemies who bicker over their occupied territory in the grocery aisle. Craig Robinson plays a jive talking box of grits who’s got a problem with crackers. A lot of weak gags, but there’s little story.  Just a lot of bickering: “Things get better!” vs. “No they don’t!”  As short as it is, I was squirming in my seat for it to be over. If bad words still make you giggle, you’ll be in heaven with this script. If you want witty food-related puns, then go watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. There’s a better party than a sausage party ’cause this Sausage Party do stop.

08-11-16

Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Superhero with tags on August 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo suicide_squad_ver24_zpstam6rkzx.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI love the concept of Suicide Squad. The whole movie is predicated on the idea that bringing together a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals would be a great way to fight crime. Fight fire with fire, right? Their lives are expendable so if they don’t succeed it’s no great loss. The collection of a ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells has formed the basis of great films from The Dirty Dozen to Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, the notion of assembling crooks to fight their own is inherently ridiculous. So if you can get past the illogical set up, you’re half the way there into buying this hokum.

The key thing is to set up an engaging group of characters that we want to embrace. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or evil. Give them charisma and we’ll follow their adventure. The assortment of convicts here is also known as Task Force X. “The worst of the worst” as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls them. She’s the high ranking government official who oversees them. At her side is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is responsible for executing her orders. He directs the baddies in the field. But as we find out, deep down they’re really not so bad at heart.  Let’s start with the slightly more interesting people. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), a dangerous assassin with impeccable aim. He also has an 11 year old daughter for whom he’d do anything in the world. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has pyrokinetic abilities. However he is reluctant to use them after accidentally killing his wife and daughter from setting a building on fire.

The best character is Harley Quinn in a star making turn by Margot Robbie. If this superhero movie has any hope for longevity in these seemingly endless comic book adaptations, it will be because of her. Honestly they should’ve called Suicide Squad, The Harley Quinn Show. She is the reason to see this picture and easily the most compelling outcast. She’s the psychiatrist that became a psychopath. Face smeared with pale makeup, she wears her hair in colorful pigtails, wields a baseball bat as a weapon and giggles incessantly. She knows more than her male cohorts but downplays her smarts with a flirtatious wink. She certainly outshines her boyfriend, none other than the Joker (Jared Leto), a former patient now turned paramour.  Ah yes she’s motivated by her love for him.  Given all the advance studio promotion of Leto’s appearance, you’d think he was the star of this joint. He’s nothing more than an expanded cameo here – neither the main villain nor a member of the squad – only Harley Quinn’s boyfriend that pops up briefly to rescue her in a scene. After months of online hype, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated.

Let’s not forget the section I call “and the rest” on the team: Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Rick Flag’s bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) joins the gang too I think. It  wasn’t clear to me whether she’s an official addition or just sort of tags along.  Regardless none of the remaining constituents are able to register a definable personality in this loud cacophonous mess. In an adventure where everyone is a lunatic, the main evildoer should be pretty boffo. Instead we get the Enchantress, an archaeologist who becomes a powerful sorceress when possessed . She’s played by Cara Delevingne. The model turned actress simply doesn’t have the gravitas to play the arch villain that should anchor a production such as this. It’s not apparent at first, but suppressing her ultimately becomes Task Force X’s main objective.

The plot is confusing. We get so many incidental asides that give backstory as to how these felons came to be. A chemical baptism flashback between the Joker and Harley Quinn has some promise, but with so many tangents, it’s easy to lose track of all the random individuals. The film descends into tired action picture clichés with overstuffed commotion. The rapid fire cut and paste edit aesthetic does nothing to uplift this feature. The characters disappear under the weight of discordant madness and haphazard editing. The movie poster promises a colorful psychedelic mushroom cloud extravaganza. Yet in reality the production is actually a dark, dimly lit slog with a surprising lack of color.

I’d fault Suicide Squad for not having a story, but that’s not really the point. Introducing a bunch of characters is the plot. This is an excuse to create archetypes and parade them around for 123 minutes in a gleefully exuberant devil-may-care spectacle. That might have been acceptable. If every member of this battalion had as much pizzazz as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), I’d be loving this flick.  If I had to name one other MVP, it would be Viola Davis as their governmental superior. She is often the voice of calm in a calamitous haze, reciting exposition to clarify the script’s more ambiguous passages. Three installments into the DC Extended Universe and I can see things are improving. The problem is that the rest of the cast is lacking. Not the actors’ fault. Their parts are simply underwritten. Suicide Squad is better than Batman v Superman. I’ll give it that. It’s just that it still has a ways to go.

08-04-16

Café Society

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo cafe_society_zpsegp6dclo.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgWoody Allen is an auteur. As any director that releases a movie every year (side note: are there any others?), he operates on 2 levels. There is his essential canon and then you have his dispensable curiosities. Blue Jasmine is the last movie I’d place in the former category. Sadly I’d have to say Cafe Society belongs more in the latter category. But I sound harsher than I mean to. Cafe Society is enjoyable in parts. It’s certainly a major step up from Magic in the Moonlight. However this slight tale of woe isn’t as vital as his best.

Cafe Society is a chronicle of missed connections and love lost. This period comedy set in the 1930s details the story of Bobby Dorfman, a nobody that comes to LA and begins doing menial errands for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a very powerful and influential talent agent. Phil has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show Bobby around and get settled in Hollywood. Bobby becomes smitten by her down-to-earth personality and easy going temperament. However she is taken and unavailable to date.  Vonnie is already seeing “Doug”.  Notice I put “Doug” in quotes. That’s not actually her boyfriend’s name. Any guesses as to who the Doug really is in this romantic triangle?

Woody Allen movies are a casting agent’s dream. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart gracefully inhabit their parts. Steve Carell on the other hand, is somewhat less captivating. Yes Phil is a rich powerful man in Hollywood but he still doesn’t seem to convey the charisma that would sweep a pretty young girl off her feet. There’s some nice supporting work here though. Parker Posey is modeling-agency owner Rad Taylor, a sparkling wit of the nightclub scene. The luminous setting in the 2nd half gives the film its title. Carey Stoll plays Bobby’s elder brother Ben as a gangster who resorts to murder to solve every problem. It’s a running joke. There’s also a gorgeous Blake Lively as Veronica Hayes. She is Bobby’s too-stunning-to-be-considered-merely-a-backup-choice girlfriend.

The script is a saga that weaves passion, desire, melancholy, and pathos. Jesse Eisenberg’s dramatic arc from a gabby naive Jewish boy into a worldly nightclub owner is rather improbable. Yet it happens so gradually it’s believable. His stuttering rhythms and affectations are pure Woody Allen in his prime and it’s easy to see the director playing this role in 1977. I can’t remember a time when Kristen Stewart was so fetching. Her makeup and wardrobe beautifully recall screen legends of yesteryear. As the object of Bobby’s affection, she exudes gum smacking sensibility with a brassy charm, but still enough sweetness to be alluring.

Cafe Society is a blast from the past. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have an established chemistry, this being their third collaboration after making both Adventureland (2009) and American Ultra (2015) together. Their synergy is the most exciting reason to see this picture.  There are a few missteps. The account doesn’t end as strongly as it begins. It just sort of fizzles out. Woody Allen also chooses to narrate the story himself. His gravely voice is so awkward when juxtaposed with the beauty of the age. But oh what a time! The cast is bathed in the retro glow of the 1930s. Legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro soaks the film in rich hues. His photography celebrates the spirit of the era.  If you needed more, his work is validation enough to see Cafe Society.

07-27-16