Archive for March, 2018

Unsane

Posted in Horror, Thriller on March 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

unsaneSTARS3.5Unsane now marks Steven Soderbergh’s 2nd theatrical feature since the director announced his retirement back in 2013. No rest for the wicked I suppose. Logan Lucky arrived in the summer of 2017 and now — for anyone who thought that heist movie was merely a one-shot deal — in the Spring of 2018 we get this new offering. The filmmaker is still keeping a lower profile though. To begin with, this isn’t a Hollywood studio undertaking. Like Logan Lucky, it’s distributed by Bleecker Street – a little independent film company based in New York. Secondly, it was entirely shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. Back in 2015, the game-changing Tangerine was notably filmed with an earlier version of the mobile device. Unsane further proves that the format can be a liberating option for any burgeoning (or established) artist with a creative story to tell.

Unsane details the mental collapse of a businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). Sawyer has recently started a new job in an unfamiliar city after moving away from her mother (Amy Irving). Following a panic attack during a blind date, we learn that Sawyer is not well. She visits Highland Creek, a mental-health facility and answers a few questions with the counselor on duty. After admitting she has contemplated suicide on occasion, she is presented with some forms to sign. Let this be a warning: ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT. As a result, Sawyer inadvertently commits herself to spend 24 hours in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. Her belligerent behavior quickly upgrades her stay to a full week.

Unsane is a nifty little thriller. In time she is confronted by a man (Joshua Leonard) working at the facility that she believes to be her former stalker. But what is real? Is Sawyer actually insane? Is she really in a mental institution? Is this nurse really her stalker? Savvy audiences are used to having the rug pulled out from under them. The screenplay by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein skillfully exploits the mystery to great effect. Giving life to their efficient script is a masterful performance by English actress Claire Foy (TV’s The Crown) sporting an American Accent and long bob. She’s very convincing the role. In fact, she’s oddly reminiscent of Kristen Stewart. I’d love to see the two play sisters in some diabolical thriller, preferably directed by Olivier Assayas or David Fincher. Just take my money.

You might rightly classify this drama as a “woman-in-peril” potboiler. This is a B-movie at its most elemental core. Yet Steven Soderbergh is much too talented a director to succumb to clichés of the genre. The director keeps the action taut and suspenseful. There’s a lot of working components to stimulate the proceedings. Actors Jay Pharoah and Juno Temple portray two of Sawyer’s fellow patients. He is sympathetic. She is hostile. The primitive cinematography is assisted by a fisheye lens. The format lends a claustrophobic air to the proceedings. It’s an uncomfortable watch causing distress to the viewer. I can’t say I exactly “enjoyed” the experience but it effectively captivated my interest for 98 minutes. That’s a recommendation in my book.

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Love, Simon

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on March 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

love_simon_ver2STARS4Love, Simon has all the hallmarks of a conventional teen romantic comedy. There’s the attractive cast of young adults that form a group of friends, the well-meaning parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) that want to be hip, and the principal (Tony Hale) that unsuccessfully relates with the students. We get setpieces at all the predictable locations: the big house party, the football game, the local diner. There’s the thread of gossip that informs the main plot, the poppy soundtrack, and voiceover from the main character to narrate the story. It’s about a boy coming to terms with love for the first time. On the surface, this would appear to be another typical coming of age tale. The difference is that boy is struggling with feelings for the same sex.

Interestingly, Love, Simon isn’t revolutionary for the subject matter itself. The portrait of a gay youth has been tackled before. Most recently by notable art-house hits Call Me By Your Name and last year’s Moonlight. No, what makes this production so groundbreaking the manner in which this idea is presented. This is a coming-of-age tale reimagined in the style of a John Hughes’ film from the 1980s. I’m talking movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. That easy accessibility is unlike anything that has ever come out before.  No pun intended.  We’ve seen independent art house offerings that can be difficult for the masses to appreciate and then there are the mainstream efforts where that individual is relegated to the role of the sassy best friend. This is the first of its kind to put that teen as the central character and put out by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox).

Our narrative begins rather matter-of-factly when Simon (Nick Robinson) begins to talk about his family. His account is a loving portrayal of a traditional upper-middle-class suburban life. The chronicle is set in motion when an anonymous fellow classmate calling himself “Blue” confesses he is gay on the school’s blog. Intrigued, Simon decides to e-mail “Blue” directly. The two strike up a pen pal relationship via e-mail. This is the 21st century after all. They each reveal bits and pieces about themselves without ever divulging who they are. Simon calls himself Jacques (“Jacques a dit” is French for Simon Says). Over time, their bond deepens and Simon begins to have feelings for him. But who is Blue? This is the central conundrum of the saga.

Despite the familiar trappings, Love Simon is ultimately elevated by a fresh and appealing cast. Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer, Jurassic World) stars as the titular character. Compassionate and affable, he’s a likable presence. Much of the fun is derived from determining Blue’s true identity using clues in the e-mails. There are a few potential candidates. This all occurs in between hanging out with his classmates who are none the wiser about his secret. His 3 best pals are Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp ) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). Their interactions with each other are a charming feature of the movie. They have a palpable camaraderie. Conflict arrives when class clown Martin (Logan Miller) inadvertently discovers Simon’s e-mail correspondence.

The object of Simon’s desire does make this profile of growing up distinct. However, that difference alone wouldn’t mean anything without a compelling story. Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger of TV’s This is Us fame, skillfully adapt the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. They capture the general hardships of growing up that are a part of every teen’s journey into adulthood. The awkwardness of adolescence is universal and that is the part that will ring true for all audiences, It’s surprising how natural everything plays out.  Director Greg Berlanti keeps the atmosphere lighthearted and comedic. The screenplay never feels like it has any ulterior motive other than to entertain. It’s merely another well-written teen romantic comedy, but from a slightly different perspective.

03-15-18

A Wrinkle in Time

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wrinkle_in_time_ver2STARS2.5Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a high school girl who takes a journey across time and space to rescue her scientist father. Four years prior Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) discovered a tesseract, or a wrinkle in time, that allowed him to travel through the universe. A malevolent force known as the Black Thing now holds him prisoner on a distant planet. Meg is accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and (rather pointlessly) by her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller). Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time is a classic for teens and pre-teens. First published in 1962, it won the Newbury Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I read it in junior high and I loved the book. Its blending of science and theology was mysterious, provocative, deep, and yes even inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be a most difficult publication to adapt.

Right from the beginning, A Wrinkle in Time is hindered by weak character development. The behavior of some of these individuals doesn’t make sense. It’s common for the central hero in an adolescent story to be sad, lonely and socially awkward. Meg Murry is cut from the same cloth. Yet she doesn’t really look like an outcast. We’re presented with a girl who acts shy but with her gorgeous ringlets of cascading hair, she is too beautiful to truly believe she’d be treated as a misfit. The reason why her classmates tease her? Because her father has disappeared. Children are socially unaccepted in high school for the way they dress or act or look, but a missing father? Hmmm, that’s a new one. Once the mean girls’ teasing extends to her younger brother, a line is crossed and she hurls a basketball at the face of one them.  Makes sense.  She is being bullied and lashing out at your oppressors is an understandable reaction.  Apparently, this concept is too hard for her principal (André Holland) to grasp.  He isn’t the least bit sympathetic to her predicament. Neither is her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

A Wrinkle in Time has deeper problems than just characters with implausible behavior. The production is high on style but low on substance. L’Engle’s source material dealt with the timeworn battle of good vs. evil too, but there was a lot more bubbling under the surface to sink your teeth into. The film maintains an uplifting moral but screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have discarded the book’s allegory for Communism, science, and religion in favor of easily digestible platitudes that young minds can understand. The novel’s complex themes are distilled down to the singular idea that Meg must learn to appreciate her own uniqueness as an individual. That idea is hammered home throughout the feature.  The dogma of the movie is moving in the way that a Hallmark card can make you feel good about yourself. Pop hits on the soundtrack contain lyrics that easily summarize the underlying message: “There’s someone in the world, lovely as you” (Sade), “You can find the magic in an everyday night, night, night (Sia), “I just wanna believe in me” (Demi Lovato). The subtle complexities of the enduring text are largely trounced by a bright, cheery, CGI-laden manifestation that is very much a product of our age.

Author Madeline L’Engle was never exalted by conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, some even condemned her for what they felt promoted witchcraft. However, her strong Christian faith did gently infuse her writing. The text’s more thought-provoking theology was influenced by her Episcopalian background. Fans of the book’s admittedly religious pluralism will be disheartened to hear the screenwriters have scuttled the mention of Jesus and Christianity in favor of a more all-encompassing humanism via the teachings of Oprah Winfrey. The “Queen of All Media” looms large, quite literally, in the first half embodying one of three astral travelers that accompany the kids on their journey. As Mrs. Which, she initially towers above them all like a God. I can see why the actress/producer/talk show host/philanthropist was drawn to this part. Replete with blonde hair, rhinestones affixed to her brows, and ever-changing shades of lipstick, she beams down on them with a beatific smile. She constantly espouses mottoes that resolutely affirm how wonderful Meg is. Her didactic affirmations are so incessant they actually grow tiresome. She can’t seem to help Meg find her father but she can remind the child just how truly admirable she is. Oprah is playing Oprah.  Note to those who worship at the altar of the media mogul – I highly recommend this picture.

Interestingly the other two visionaries Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are not particularly engaging either. Their identities are vague. Mrs. Whatsit — played by Reese Witherspoon — is sort of an upbeat scatterbrain that hurls insults with a smile.  The actress exaggerates her vocal delivery and facial expressions as if she’s doing community theater. At one point she turns into a flying leaf creature and the fabrication of CGI is so poorly executed it’s laughable in this age of technological perfection. Though it did give me a craving for those delicious lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s. And no, I don’t get paid to say that. Actress Mindy Kaling plays Mrs. Who, an introverted (!) idealistic sort who recites quotations from the likes of Shakespeare and Rumi and the rap group Outkast. I told you this was a product of our age. She was actually my favorite of the three because she talked the least. The three of them are an ever-shifting display of bulky gowns, and bizarre hairstyles whenever they haphazardly zoom off to somewhere new, which brings me to the adventure’s biggest problem.

There is no narrative flow to the plot. The action is reduced to a series of set pieces loosely strung together in a time-traveling saga. Some of the set pieces work, mainly in the 2nd half when the three supernatural beings leave and the children are left alone to fend for themselves. The action on the evil planet Camazotz is where things finally get interesting. Director Ava DuVernay knows how to frame a shot and her skill behind the camera is evident. Scenes of a suburban world with identical houses with similarly dressed kids all bouncing a ball in unison is a captivating tableau. Conformity is bad. Individuality is good. Got it. A later scene occurs at a crowded beach where people lay about in claustrophobic proximity. It seemingly stretches on forever. The mere image is effective for its utter recognizability to real life. A man with red eyes (Michael Pena) encourages the youngsters to dine on sandwiches, which have never been more appropriately named. The discussion is eerily sinister in just the right way. I wish more of the drama had conversations this engaging.

A better title might be Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. She has put her creative stamp all over this picture. Even before it began we were treated to an intro with a message from the director. In a nutshell, she contends this isn’t a film for critics. It’s a love letter to children, and to watch it as such. Sounds a little defensive, but she has a point. Entertainment, often maligned by intellectuals, can still become classics. Home Alone is a perfect example of just such a work. You can’t encounter any promotion for this release (including this review) without reading that Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a movie with a budget over $100M. She is instrumental in the casting, introducing an ethnically diverse ensemble of characters. Meg is a biracial girl whose father is white and mother is black, with a younger brother who is adopted. The screenplay actually highlights that last detail when Meg expresses anxiety in meeting him for the first time. The three celestial beings were also cast with a nod to their ethnic identity. None of this is intrinsic to the story, these are merely visual cues made for the purpose of representation. Ava DuVernay has emphasized in interviews that these were very deliberate choices.

I think insecure children will identify with Storm Reid as Meg. Her performance is understated and natural. She finds the courage within her fear in a convincing arc. Introducing a black girl as a brainy protagonist that loves science is a unique addition that actually adds nuance to a chronicle that so desperately requires it. However, the production suffers from the plight of the modern blockbuster. A Wrinkle in Time is burdened by poorly defined characters, an overreliance on CGI, well-coiffed youths that look like they stepped out of an LA casting session, and conventional advice.  Indeed the encouragement may be a crucial reminder for impressionable tots. This film was obviously made with them in mind. However cynical children and (most) adults should probably steer clear.

03-08-18

Annihilation

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 3, 2018 by Mark Hobin

annihilationSTARS3.5Annihilation is one of those sci-fi features that doesn’t pander to viewers’ thirst for answers. It is a demonstration of narrative ambiguity. Understand that before you begin to watch and you’ll enjoy the developments more. This is the much-anticipated follow-up to Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed, 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina. Garland is an English novelist (The Beach) turned screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine) turned director. The jack of all trades has seen success in his many efforts. All of which makes the expectations for another sci-fi endeavor like Annihilation even higher. I really liked this film, but I fell short of loving it.

The story concerns Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology. Right from the beginning, she is being cross-examined after having already undergone a government expedition into a scientific phenomenon known as the Shimmer. We know she made it out, but what exactly is the Shimmer? It all began when a meteor crashed into the earth and created a slowly growing otherworldly area. Perceptibly it’s this glistening, sparkling force field that encompasses an area where a lot of unexplained things are occurring. Annihilation is a vividly captivating production that includes fractal designs, gaseous forms, and metallic shapes. There is a biological element to the Shimmer too as its colorful effects are felt upon the flora and fauna within. It involves an amorphous terror we don’t understand. In the U.S. this debuted in theaters where the film’s impressive visual effects and sound design could be appreciated. The spectacle is a major part of the appeal. Internationally the movie went straight to Netflix which deprived those audiences of the full experience.

In flashback, we learn that Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only person that has ever actually returned from entering the Shimmer. He was part of a military excursion a year prior. He becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, he and his wife Lena are ambushed by a government security force and taken into some secret research compound in close proximity to the Shimmer. There she meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist. She’s forming another expedition. After Lena’s husband falls into a coma, Lena agrees to accompany Dr. Ventress’ all-female patrol which also includes Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a surveyor/geologist

Annihilation is a tale where the less revealed, the better. The developmental incidents utilize the building blocks of other pictures: Alien, The Thing, Contagion. Yet Annihilation is different than those features because the screenplay doesn’t clarify much. As a result, director Alex Garland is quite successful in creating an impending sense of dread without me being able to fully explain why.  This is fine.  It is a movie to savor not to reveal.  This is a well assembled creepy adventure.  However, the chronicle is so narratively vague it’s hard to embrace.  Despite the ambiguity, the plot is easy to understand.  Only in the final act do things get somewhat baffling.  The denouement is perplexing. Lena’s plan to escape will ultimately leave you with more questions than answers. Still, I’ll concede that the desire to overanalyze things can be a weakness in genre films. To its credit, the final outcome remains mysteriously uncertain.

02-26-18