Archive for January, 2017

Fences

Posted in Drama with tags on January 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo fences_zpswaxvpikf.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWhat playwright August Wilson presents in Fences is a portrait of the African-American experience. This is an ensemble piece as seen through the eyes of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). The setting is 1957 in the backyard of an urban home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy toils as a waste collector along with his friend Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy once played in the professional Negro Leagues many years ago but never graduated to playing baseball in the Majors. This is still a bone of contention with him. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) also lives in the same neighborhood. He is mentally impaired from a head injury he received in WWII. Troy’s adult son (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship occasionally drops by.

August Wilson’s Fences is indeed a seminal work. The screenplay here is solely credited to the author who passed on in 2005. Fences originally began as a staged reading in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. By 1987, the theater piece was received with thunderous acclaim. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award. August Wilson’s words need no correction. The script is already focused. Wilson takes a much broader, almost unwieldy subject, and then examines it in a more manageable arena. There really isn’t much plot. Just a series of compelling vignettes. Ah but those sketches are gold.

If there is a failing, it’s that this is not very cinematic. The drama benefits from the immediacy of a live performance. The entire production takes place either in his home or out in the backyard. Star Denzel Washington, who also directs, makes no attempt to disguise the play from its stage-bound origins. Granted that would have required some creative changes. The source material has an extremely limited setting.  Sometimes that can work to an advantage but here it’s a liability. The inherent separation of a movie keeps the audience’s engagement a bit more remote. It’s still a fascinating watch, but it loses something in its translation from stage to screen.

What really elevates Fences is the acting. This is a richly written ensemble pieces that heavily relies on powerful performances. Denzel and Viola are reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. [Incidentally, the original 1987 cast featured James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in those parts.] Needless to say, Washington and Davis know their characters inside and out. Denzel is extremely good and Viola is extraordinary. A woman so fully formed that I was even more drawn to trying to understand this individual. She fascinated me. It may be Troy’s story in that every part exists to reflect his personality. However, I found myself sympathizing with her plight a lot more than her husband’s. She seizes attention whenever she is on screen. The studio may have marketed her achievement as a supporting role to secure an Oscar nomination (and possible win), but she is no doubt equally important in this context. It’s her authentic portrayal, as well as the subdued work of Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s friend Jim, that I will remember long after having seen the film.

12-29-16

The Founder

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo founder_ver2_zpsnrgspsta.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgMcDonald’s is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to believe that at one time the very concept of fast food was a revolutionary idea. Today the global foodservice retailer employs 1.9 million people. It’s the second world’s largest private employer after Walmart. The humble beginnings of a multi-billion dollar empire would be a compelling saga in any industry, but it’s particularly amazing that it happened from selling something as cheap and simple as hamburgers. The creators of McDonald’s were Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1940 but the originator of the McDonald’s Corporation was Ray Kroc in 1955. The difference between those two entities is the underlying concept for a fascinating story.

The Founder starts out as the glorification of a pioneer and becomes a critique on capitalist greed. For the entire duration, it’s a galvanizing watch. Time and again, history has shown that the most successful people in business aren’t necessarily the ones that invent the item, it is those that know how to take that idea and market it properly to masses. We should all know that Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile but he made it a viable option for the public.  That concept was more recently portrayed in the Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs (2015) as well as in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). Here it is again.

It’s essentially the biography of Ray Kroc, a milkshake mixer salesman from Oak Park, Illinois. One day he gets an order for a large number of mixers from a small burger joint in San Bernardino, California. He makes the trek out there to see what’s going on and finds a popular diner that offers delicious, quickly prepared food wrapped in disposable packaging, served without the need for waiters or carhops. The lines are huge. Intrigued, he talks with hard-working Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and business minded Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman). Proud of their prosperous establishment, the brothers give Ray (and us) a detailed explanation of what makes their assembly line operation so unique.

It’s lamentable that these performances kind of got lost in the awards season shuffle because these three are all worthy of consideration. These actors form a triad that is really engaging. Ray wants to franchise the store. Needless to say, the trio begins to work together. Ray makes frequent visits to franchise owners instilling in them the discipline to adhere to the values of what sets McDonald’s apart from the competition. As Ray and the brothers’ relationship develop there are many debates, often by phone, on how the company should be run. The script by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) is extremely entertaining, but it also gives insight into what made McDonald’s different from similar diners in that era. Some of their discussions are amusing, but they can get pretty heated too. I lost track of how many times a conversation ended with one of the participants slamming the receiver down.

The Founder is a very thorough depiction of business. As the chronicle evolves, we get a tale that metamorphosizes from a drama about entrepreneurial spirit into a commentary on the sins of capitalism. What emerges is a riveting portrayal of Ray Kroc. He comes across as a very intelligent guy but he can be a ruthless tycoon as well. The brothers are depicted in a more sympathetic light. They place a premium on high-quality ingredients for example. Yet their “stuck in a rut” way of thinking is part of an outmoded business model that has kept their attempts to franchise from succeeding in a big way. Did Ray Kroc exploit the brothers’ geniality or was he the visionary that saw opportunities that they didn’t? It’s an interesting discussion and one that the screenplay encourages. You will both admire and chastise this man. That duality grounds The Founder. I enjoyed every morsel that it served up.

01-19-17

A Monster Calls

Posted in Drama, Fantasy with tags on January 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo monster_calls_zpspvrtiqu5.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgA Monster Calls establishes its narrative with a question. The deep intonations of Liam Neeson articulate “How does the story begin? It begins like so many stories. With a boy. Too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.” If I may paraphrase that preface, this movie is too esoteric for a kid and too jejune for an adult.

A Monster Calls is a dark fantasy about Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is struggling to come terms with his mother’s illness. She has cancer. At just after midnight, Conor is visited by a large tree-like beast who tells him stories. He helps him cope. If this all feels a bit familiar, it’s because the bond between a boy and a fantastical creature has been a recurring theme in the cinema as of late (The BFG, Pete’s Dragon) This film is an adaptation from director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) of the award-winning novel by Patrick Ness.

The chronicle is essentially structured around the three “true” stories told by the giant tree creature. Following these tales, Conor has been instructed to tell a fable himself – the truth behind his own personal ordeal. The way the first two parables are illustrated exemplifies the best thing about the feature. As the monster speaks, his words are brought to life by sequences from Barcelona based animation studio Headless Productions. The luscious textures of watercolor drawings give fervid life to yarns that would have only been merely respectable on their own. The dazzling graphics are so hypnotic, I found myself dreaming about an entire movie done in this aesthetic. I was mesmerized. However, by the third account, artistic images gives way to real life. He is beset by bullies. Heavy handed narration informs us of the “invisible” man that Connor has become. Joy and wonder give way to a lesson of schooling and reproach.

It can’t be easy acting alongside a giant tree creature, but young actor Lewis MacDougall makes it look completely natural in A Monster Calls. The two have an allure that makes their friendship an undeniable delight. Too bad the rest of the ensemble doesn’t inspire the same enthusiasm. Felicity Jones is great – if being a beatific presence over which to grieve is how we measure her achievement. Sigourney Weaver is an odd choice as an icy British grandma. It appears to be more stunt casting than a decision based on the demands of the character. She is appropriately aloof and cold but not an individual we wish to be around. His father (Toby Kebbell ) lives in the U.S. and seems detached from his son. Kebbell (Control, RocknRolla) is a charismatic actor, but all I could think while watching him here is, why aren’t you more interesting?

Who is the audience for this picture? Maybe fantasy fanatics who want to recall their childhood or perhaps anyone who has gone trough a similarly traumatic experience and can identify with this young protagonist. A Monster Calls is artifice fabricated from gorgeous components. The CGI, the musical score, the animated tales are all beautifully put together. It is a visually inventive production. There’s so much to recommend initially that it makes the ultimate denouement such a crushing disappointment., The hackneyed and commonplace ending doesn’t justify all that came before it. We get the tear-jerky finale that we’ve been promised but it feels forced. I was indifferent. It goes through the motions of a sad ending, but we’re missing the humanity.

12-06-16

Hidden Figures

Posted in Drama, Family with tags on January 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo hidden_figures_zpsshrcpaew.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe contributions of three African American women to the U.S. space program in the 1950s is the subject of Hidden Figures. The central protagonist of this biography is Katherine G. Johnson, the mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury when John Glenn made three orbits around the Earth in 1962. She worked in the West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. Her efforts supported the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor agency to NASA. Assisting are her fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Hidden Figures is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. In actuality, this was adapted from a 55-page proposal which would explain why the movie contains a lot of things that were created for dramatic effect. (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hidden-figures/)

The institutionalized racism that Katherine and her colleagues had to face while working in the segregated environment is a significant part of Hidden Figures. The many indignities they suffered are in the details. The production offers a proven amalgamation of drama with light touches of comedy for a mass audience. The movie uses humor to gently push its agenda. We see a black woman in a colorful dress against a sea of conformity: lots of white men in white shirts and uniform ties. Thanks to the costume designer for color coding it for us.  These are her oppressors, particularly in the fictional character of Paul Stafford as portrayed by Jim Parsons. He’s a hissable villain and someone designed for moviegoers to jeer. But white women can be just as racist too. Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, another fictional character, is a condescending supervisor that suppresses Dorothy’s chances for advancement.  Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, is a bit more enlightened. He’s actually based on a real person, well three anyway. Incidentally, Costner is slowly becoming this generation’s Henry Fonda always seeming to be the right side of history in racial dramas (Black or White, McFarland, USA).

For example, the fact that black women had separate bathrooms from white women is shown. For a modern observer of the past, this must seem pretty bizarre. Why this was the case is never explained. “That’s just how things are” is the point of view. Instead, we’re given little montages set to Pharrell Williams’ song “Runnin” while she has to make her dashes to a bathroom seemingly on the other side of town and then sprint all the way back to her desk. When nature calls it might take someone 5-10 minutes, for her it was a brutal part of her day. This all comes to the fore when Kevin Costner as her oblivious white boss, questions her on her absences. She explains. Cut to a scene of him taking a crowbar to the “colored ladies room” sign. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” He says. That he’s the one to right this wrong never actually happened, but the movie chooses to portray it this way. His quick transformation into the noble white savior is a bit exasperating, to say the least.

In other areas, the narrative portrays the contributions of these women as important because the Americans must better the Russians. Their satellite Sputnik is the first to orbit the earth in 1957. Curses, the Reds won again! The script practically shouts this sentiment while a somber room of people watches the event on a TV.  Apparently, some people are worried that the Soviets can now spy on America. If you’re unclear as to how this is supposed to happen, don’t look to this movie for specifics.  Just know that the space race is a competition where we must “beat” the Russians like an Olympic event. Topping other countries with our space program is just supposed to be understood as an inherent desire.

Hidden Figures follows the narrative formula of many sports movies. We get the injustice, the teasing, the dirty looks, the undervalued appreciation for their ability and then that come from behind moment where everyone is proven wrong. It’s all served in a pleasing, well-photographed family friendly creation. The overlooked advances from individuals forgotten by history can provide a cutting edge perspective into a historical event. As a piece of entertainment, Hidden Figures is entertaining enough. However, the sentimental uplift of this Hallmark greeting card of a movie doesn’t scratch beneath the surface to plumb the depths of their experience. I can imagine that these women faced egregious behavior that undermined their human dignity. One would think Langley Research Center would be a place where analysis and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. Apparently not. The screenplay doesn’t examine harder. I wish it had delved deeper and examined why. This cursory study is content to present predictable tropes that are de rigueur for any tale of an underdog. These brave women deserve a powerful story, but Hidden Figures never expands beyond a shallow exploration to get to the heart of their struggle. The screenplay by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi is an inspirational saga of intellect triumphing over racism in a PG-rated tale. Hidden Figures is a feel-good diversion that will hopefully inspire people to study further.

12-19-16

Lion

Posted in Drama with tags on January 5, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo lion_zpsymamcksn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgLion wrecked me. More specifically, it captivated my feelings by extracting genuine emotion. Although he’s directed some TV (Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in the U.S.), Lion is the first feature film from Australian director Garth Davis. His impressive supervision guides this remarkably well-composed debut. It helps that he’s working from a masterful screenplay. The heartfelt adaptation penned by screenwriter Luke Davies is based on the autobiographical book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (with Larry Buttrose). So yeah it’s a true story. That adds to its grandeur. But this adventure about family and identity would be a powerful saga regardless. The account is divided into two distinct halves. Both need to exist to properly tell what happened, but one is a bit more affecting than the other.

The tale concerns Saroo, a 5 yeard old Indian boy who is separated from his sibling. One night, his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) goes out to look for work and Sarro begs to come with. He agrees to take him, but Saroo becomes too tired to walk. Guddu tells him to rest on a bench at the train station platform and he’ll come back for him. Hours pass and when he awakes, Guddu is nowhere to be found. Thinking his brother is on a train stopped nearby, he climbs aboard. After awhile, he falls asleep and the train takes off. He is transported nearly a thousand miles away from his home. When it finally stops, he is in an unknown world. He can’t read. He doesn’t know the name of his hometown. He can’t even speak the local Bengali dialect, only Hindi.

In the more absorbing first half, the narrative perfectly captures the panic of being lost in a strange place. India’s homeless children roam the streets in groups. Their instant camaraderie is touching but a circumstance that is borne out necessity. The many dangers these homeless children face is highlighted, a child kidnapping ring for one. It’s an unsettling portrayal of a real problem. Young Saroo Brierley is played here by actor Sunny Pawar and he’s a natural. I cannot fathom how scary it was for Saroo to endure such a terrifying odyssey away from home and family, but Pawar’s scrappy performance perfectly captures his struggle. He seizes your attention as the main protagonist in the first half.

The second half is where all the famous thespians show up. Yet interestingly it’s less effective. Of note is Dev Patel. He shows up to play the adult version Saroo, now living in Austrailia. Patel is an actor transformed. His obsequious hotelier in the Marigold Hotel films was a cloying stereotype. Lion sees the long haired bearded performer reborn as a more rugged looking leading man. His swarthy good looks paired with a more somber demeanor. He hides a longing for the mother and brother he lost years ago with his head buried in academic studies. Patel is supported by a couple of well-known stars: Rooney Mara as his girlfriend/fellow student and Nicole Kidman with David Wenham as an adoptive couple. I’m purposefully sidestepping the details of how Saroo got to this point because I think the movie is more compelling the less you know. Needless to say, details about his former life remain in his mind. He begins to research whatever became of his family. Those scenes dramatically unfold in a section that somewhat plays out like an advertisement for Google Earth.

There was a time when a picture like Lion would have easily won Best Picture. Beautifully shot and lovingly told, this is a grand epic that spans continents and decades. Changing tastes have maligned these kinds of dramas with derisive adjectives like sentimental, melodramatic or, heaven forbid, old fashioned. The production is none of those things. What it represents, is one man’s exquisitely composed reminiscence of his life on this earth, a journey that takes him from India to Australia. The narrative builds to a conclusion that had me weeping at the end in an uncontrollable catharsis. It highlights a lot of concepts with sensitivity: the importance of family, the considerations of adoption, one’s own identity, the wonders of the internet and love. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

10-25-16