Archive for October, 2018

The Hate U Give

Posted in Crime, Drama on October 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hate_u_giveSTARS4One doesn’t normally expect a thoughtful rumination on the Black Lives Matter movement to be the topic of a young adult novel, but The Hate U Give is exactly that. The media has certainly made the issue a focus. Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Danroy Henry – these are just a few of the innocents whose lives have been taken. Fruitvale Station capably handled the topic back in 2013. Sadly, police shootings of unarmed black citizens have become a prevalent fixture in the news. Perhaps a lot of you dear readers feel inundated. The very fact that the subject already feels like a cliché is really more a sad comment on how pervasive the problem has become. The Hate U Give handles the matter with sensitivity and grace.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a 16-year-old black girl obsessed with 90s pop culture. She lives in Garden Heights, a black, mostly poor, neighborhood. However at the behest of her mother Lisa (Regina Hall), she attends the much safer Williamson Prep., a school made up of affluent, mostly white, students. Lisa wants her daughter to get a good education. Audrey Wells’ screenplay skillfully delves into the dichotomy of Starr’s two lives. At home she hangs with her pals, wears hoodies, goes to parties and bestows a relaxed temperament. At school, she dons fancier clothes, rids her language of vulgarity and purposefully renders a more sophisticated air so as not to appear difficult. It’s ironic because her white classmates conversely infuse their speech with street slang to affect a persona they determine is “cool”. The proper story is initiated after a party Starr is attending is broken up by the police. She is driven home by her best friend from childhood, Khalil (Algee Smith) who is black. On the way, they are stopped by a police officer (Drew Starkey) who happens to be white. After a verbal argument, the officer has Khali exit the car. While the officer is on his radio, Khalil reaches for his hairbrush. The officer mistakes it for a gun and fires upon Khalil, killing him. The moment is as gut-wrenching as it sounds.

The title The Hate U Give was inspired by something rapper Tupac Shakur once said. The letters form the word T.H.U.G. which when paired with L.I.F.E. are an acronym for the phrase “The hate you give little infants f—-s everybody.” He believed that “what you feed us as seeds, grows, and blows up in your face.” The novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is sharply directed by George Tillman Jr. The story details what happens when Starr’s two worlds collide after the life-altering death of her pal Khalil. She has compartmentalized her life up to this point. Before you cast judgment on her spurious personalities, look within yourself. Who among us hasn’t been guilty of adopting a different identity around different people? The galvanizing moment causes her to rethink everything in her current life. That challenges her relationship with Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) her friend at school, as well as her relationship with boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa).

There are a lot of narratives at work here. The screenplay by Audrey Wells attempts to incorporate everything for everyone – read black and white audiences. Certainly, a big part charts how Starr’s life changes after the incident. This is complicated by an activist (Issa Rae) that persuades Starr to speak up. There’s also Anthony Mackie who plays a local drug dealer. At times there are so many threads to the plot, that some get short shrift. Especially near the end when the story needs to tidy everything up. A late scene between Chris and Starr in their limo at the prom presents a clumsy conversation that doesn’t quite feel fully resolved. The script’s desire to present all of the different sides can be a bit awkward.  Lisa’s brother, Carlos (Common) is a cop that gives a late in the game speech presenting the feelings of a police officer. The hurriedly inserted declaration rang false. Specifically meaning that the screenwriter didn’t give his cop character the same depth she gave to everyone else. Yet it’s a minor quibble because the script is largely superb. It brilliantly handles the complexities of her life. It’s a tribute to the intensity of the screenplay that I have to nitpick.

The performances are extraordinary. They make the picture. As the central figure, actress Amanda Stenberg grounds the drama. She is extremely compelling as the high school student conflicted by two worlds. However, it is her mom and dad that ultimately amplify this family as a household to truly treasure.  Regina Hall as Starr’s mother and Russell Hornsby as her father present one of the most loving, supportive, positive and honest examples of a family I have seen in a film. They are richly drawn portrayals that captivate the heart. The manifestation of their family is so welcoming. This is a depiction rarely seen in movies. They’re truly different people. Lisa is a mature, responsible presence with an understanding heart. Maverick is a reformed drug dealer who has a son (Lamar Johnson ) with another woman (Karan Kendrick). He has some obvious flaws. Yet they both captivated me with their genuine concern for their family. There’s a lot of great performances in this. Algee Smith as Khalil Harris, Starr’s childhood best friend, is of note as well. He manages to convey a profound connection to her that is deeply felt by the audience. The fact he’s only briefly seen makes the achievement even more impressive. The Hate U Give takes on a complex subject and somehow manages to expertly weave in comedy, drama, tragedy, and sadness all within the framework to create a fully realized portrait a young woman’s life.

10-22-18

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Halloween

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on October 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

halloween_ver3STARS3.5We’ve waited 40 years for this. That’s how long it has been since that fateful Halloween night when Michael Myers unleashed his reign of terror on the inhabitants of Haddonfield, Illinois. Now he’s back having been incarcerated in a maximum-security mental health facility for all that time. There have been 7 sequels to that first film, a Rob Zombie remake (2007) which was also followed up with its own sequel (2009). Jaime Lee Curtis has appeared in three of the previous installments: Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween: Resurrection. Despite all that, this current incarnation conveniently disregards everything that has happened before. Halloween (2018) purports to be a direct continuation to the 1978 feature ignoring 4 decades of convoluted and sometimes conflicting backstories. The takeaway is, you don’t need to have seen any of the previous installments to appreciate this production. In fact, it’s probably better if you haven’t.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) didn’t endure the events of that fateful night very well. She has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Sporting long wild unkempt hair, she lives in a remote area on the outskirts of town. Twice divorced and having lost custody of her daughter, Laurie believes the world is an evil place. Her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer), now an adult, isn’t convinced of that.  She resents the way she was brought up.  Karen is married to Ray (Toby Huss) and they have their own teen daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  Allyson is more sympathetic to her grandmother’s trauma.  Laurie has built a heavily fortified home equipped with booby traps.  She has prepared for what she believes to be Michael’s (Nick Castle) inevitable return.  Of course, her suspicions are correct.  The bus transporting Michael and several other patients from the facility doesn’t look secure enough to hold a class of kindergartners.  It certainly isn’t strong enough to hold violent mental patients.  Naturally it crashes and of course Michael escapes.

Halloween essentially takes the bare bones plot of the 1978 classic and simply reproduces it for an audience that is primed to feel nostalgic for the 1978 picture.  I mean even the title is exactly the same — not even a number to differentiate it from the original.  Over the years, slasher flicks have developed their clichés.  Typically oversexed teenagers are the victims.  In the new film, however, Michael begins his serial killings with the murder of a couple of podcasters (Jefferson Hall & Rhian Rees) who want to study him.  Director David Gordon Green also co-wrote the script with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley.  They liberally sample from the first movie.  When police officer Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) discovers a body sitting in a ghost-sheet costume — it recalls the same one Michael wore just before he killed babysitter Linda (P.J. Soles) in the first Halloween.  Hawkins goes downstairs to find someone pinned to the wall with a knife in the identical way that Linda’s boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) was slain in the 1978 Halloween.

Director David Gordon Green relies heavily on the spirit of the original. Even John Carpenter’s iconic score is heard. It’s only slightly modified with the help of collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.  Slasher films aren’t generally known for their complex plots and this one keeps things refreshingly simple.   When the picture deviates from the blueprint of Halloween (1978) is when this version becomes satisfying.  The most innovative addition is that the hunted Laurie isn’t a helpless victim, but rather a tenacious woman ready for her adversary.   In the past, the killer’s point of view was voyeuristic.   The Boogeyman preyed on promiscuous young teens.   However, this is a horror film for the #MeToo era.   The audience never doubts for a second that Laurie isn’t able to take care of herself.   She is like Linda Hamilton in The Terminator or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.   The narrative develops into a revenge thriller depicting a powerful heroine that is perfectly capable of handling herself, thank you very much.   As such, it’s not particularly scary.   It’s more like a catharsis for fans of the original.   Still, there is a winking sense of tension that recalls the earlier movie.   Fans will call it an homage. Critics might say rip-off.   I kind of fall somewhere in the middle.

10-18-18

First Man

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_manSTARS4What captivated me most about First Man is how it transformed the conventional into the unique to tell this story. That is to say, the difference between what I was expecting and what I got, was unusually fascinating. I’ve seen The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures – movies that touch on achievements in space travel in different ways. One thing that unites them all is scope – each production details the stories of multiple people to tell their respective accounts. First Man in contrast is told from the exclusive perspective of a single astronaut. Writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) adapts from James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. The screenplay isn’t concerned with the inner workings of NASA or details of the Apollo 11 mission. It simply presents the personal point of view of Neil Armstrong.

In light of the current cultural conversation, First Man has a surprisingly traditional point of view. Recent portrayals (Hidden Figures) might contend otherwise, but this representation of NASA is overwhelmingly white and male. There has been a reactionary controversy regarding director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to illustrate the physical planting of the American flag on the moon. True it isn’t depicted, but it’s a moot point. The idea that this is a U.S. success is visually well documented in the film. The American flag is seen on the surface after it has been planted as well as visibly sewn on all of the astronauts’ uniforms. The words “United States” are clearly emblazoned on the side of the rocket ship. A coda highlights an interview with a French citizen who speaks highly of U.S. resolve. The outrage against a perceived left-wing agenda is ironic. The mood for most of the drama is practically a commemoration of a bygone era when men were men and women stayed home and minded the kids. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have this relationship. Oh and let’s start with the fact that that the very title of the picture is First MAN.

It’s interesting that Chazelle acknowledges that not everyone was a fan of the space program. There were those who felt that the billions spent could be put to better use. Actor Leon Bridges portrays revolutionary musician Gil Scott-Heron as he recites his spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon” – a searing indictment of the space program and conservative values. This appears right after vintage footage of author Kurt Vonnegut questions the cost of the American space program in light of a country with citizens that still didn’t even have food to eat or a place to live. It’s a valid argument. A cabin fire during the Apollo 1 mission kills astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) Ed White (Jason Clarke ) and Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) on board. At this point I started to question, should we even be doing this?  I mean is the value of the knowledge you gain from space travel worth the grievous loss of human lives?

Despite these moments, there is no question that the narrative means to idolize its subject and his purpose as an American hero. As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is a very interior individual. He’s a man of few words, relying more on expression than language. Honestly, it’s the kind of “quiet” performance that Gosling has been doing his entire career.  From his starring role in Drive to Officer K in Blade Runner 2049, Gosling has always been a bit of an enigma when he isn’t in a comedic role. Neil Armstrong is stoic man’s man that is an emotionally distant husband. It’s suggested that the agony he experienced from the death of his 2-year-old daughter from cancer drives him to focus his repressed grief into the space program. Regardless, Neil is admirable in his role as an explorer. He’s completely immersed in his patriotic work. Yet, as a human being, he is the idealized portrait of macho blankness. His feelings are suppressed to the point that he is an emotional void. There’s little in this individual with which the viewer can identify.  For example, if someone were to bring a cassette of their favorite music in 1969 most people would probably bring something along the lines of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, a little Motown perhaps? Not Neil. He brings an orchestral piece called “Lunar Rhapsody” by Les Baxter.

Although this is clearly Neil’s story, there is room for a few supporting characters. His fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) has more personality. The script paints Buzz as a bit of jerk, but there’s no denying that he has a lot more charisma. Watching him bound up and down in the distance is so different from Armstrong’s more reserved behavior on the moon. I secretly longed for an account about Buzz actually. Interestingly the emotional weight of the narrative rests on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy). Foy’s performance is so subtle and of so little dialogue that it didn’t affect me until after the chronicle was over. However, upon reflection, her acting is rather notable. She galvanizes our emotions. Her eyes speak volumes even when she isn’t given anything to say. Her achievement is impressive. She is the emotional center.

First Man is a most intimate affair. This is a personal account seen through the eyes of one Neil Armstrong.  The selling point is that director Damien Chazelle reproduces the “you are there” feeling that astronauts experienced during their flights. The movie opens with Neil flying a single-person jet in a test voyage. The camera shakes as the aircraft throttles uncontrollably. The view fixates on his eyes that remain wide open and alert. The plane sounds like it’s about to break away in pieces. The feeling of vertigo is almost paralyzing for the viewer. Yet Neil is the picture of calm. Chazelle shoots a few vignettes that rely on this visceral experience. Each display is a claustrophobic portrayal of a rickety vehicle barely held together by rivets and a nickel-steel alloy almost falling apart. Each punishing spectacle delivers an unforgettable sequence. It is both intense and authentic. The adventure ultimately climaxes with the Apollo 11 mission, It’s telling that Justin Hurwitz’ triumphant score is noticeably silent when they land. Chazelle dutifully recreates moments of the moon landing we’ve witnessed a million times. That includes Neil’s iconic statement “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet Josh Singer’s screenplay is more interested in Neil Armstrong the man, than in detailing what the rest of the world was thinking. That gives First Man a unique perspective on this story.

10-11-18

A Star Is Born

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on October 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

star_is_bornSTARS4It’s been 42 years since the last adaptation of A Star is Born.  I suppose we were about due.  The original script by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell has proven to have a quality that transcends time as the narrative evolves to suit the tastes of the current generation.  The core remains the same.  It’s rags-to-riches!  It’s got romance! It’s got tragedy!  Yes, it’s full of showbiz clichés.  That’s because good stories never go out of style, especially one with a charismatic female lead as its central focus. The 30s had Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actress who surpassed a fading movie actor depicted by Fredric March.  The 50s transomed the property into a musical as Judy Garland was the ingenue taken under the wing of a former matinée idol played by James Mason.  The 70s version had Barbra Streisand as a nightclub singer plucked out of obscurity by a rock star played Kris Kristofferson.  Bradley Cooper’s adaptation adheres most closely to this one.  The actor directs, writes, produces and acts. Anyone tabulating the years will notice the 90s should have gotten their own rendition.  Flash forward to the present and we have Lady Gaga as Ally, a woman who waits tables by day and croons “La Vie en Rose” by night in a drag bar.  Bradley Cooper portrays the established artist, Jackson Maine, a country music superstar that performs to sold-out arenas.  Jackson stumbles upon Ally’s show while searching for a bar to drink booze.

Lady Gaga can act.  She happens to already have a Golden Globe for TV’s American Horror Story, so perhaps not a shock.  Some might contend that she’s essentially playing what she knows – a singer.  However, Ally the unknown cabaret performer unsure of herself is decidedly different than Lady Gaga the confident multi-platinum selling celebrity.  The pop star-turned-actress naturally captures that mix of fear and elation a novice has in front of a crowd.  There’s a moment where she crystallizes this feeling so perfectly, that I was overcome by the experience  It occurs early on about a third of the way in when Jackson Maine is giving a huge arena concert for his fans.  He flies Ally out to the gig.  She is brought backstage ostensibly to watch the show.  He finishes his tune, then addresses the audience.  He strides over side stage up to Ally and asks her to duet her own song with him.  The look of shock on her face is so genuine, we feel her terror as well.  She declines.  “I’m going to sing your song with or without you,” he asserts and then proceeds to do just that.  As he begins, she’s left standing there obviously conflicted, an anxiety of emotions bubbling up until she’s inspired to take the stage.  It’s a masterful scene.  I got goosebumps.

Lady Gaga’s outstanding achievement is somewhat expected.  Bradley Cooper is even more surprising.  As the fading arena rock musician, he affects this comfortably lived in existence.  His voice, a deep, gravelly mummer exists all in the lower register.  He instantly recalls grizzled actors like Kris Kristofferson (star of the 1976 version) and Sam Elliott, who actually plays his older brother Bobby in this.  Perhaps it’s a bit of an in-joke when Bobby, who is also his manager, criticizes Jackson the artist for stealing his “voice”. Cooper’s world-weary exterior is a physical transformation as well.  His complexion is weathered with a ruddy texture.  His skin blighted both by the sun and years of drugs and drinking.  Bradley Cooper isn’t afraid to look messy.

A Star is Born delights with the highs and lows of a melodrama that is a nothing less than solid entertainment.  The tale of these two people is a bewitching saga that allows the two actors to exhibit considerable chemistry as their connection develops over their love of music.  Their relationship is collaborative and fosters a more supportive connection than in previous iterations.  The first half is endlessly compelling.  The second is a bit less so.  Yet there are subtleties to the drama that make this interpretation of the classic chestnut something to discuss.

The narrative arc succumbs to the standard story beats that would be clichés to anyone who has ever caught an episode of Behind the Music on VH1.  As Ally’s popularity rises, Jackson’s declines.  The reason for the awkward growing tension between the two is a fascinating mix of factors.  Certainly drugs and alcohol derail Jackson’s career but his growing dissatisfaction is more complex.  Success changes Ally’s musical style.  Her appearance on Saturday Night Live performing “Why Did You Do That?” is presented as a pop-oriented betrayal of her authentic self, complete with outré makeup and hair.  I found the critique ironic since Lady Gaga the artist has never been one to tone it down. Jackson’s growing frustration with her success is certainly a reaction to this persona but there’s some jealousy in there too.  Jackson is torn because he’s losing the woman he knew to her growing fame, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of her success.  A slick manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) hammers this point even further.  There’s a lot to consider and the screenplay does a nice job at handling the many facets of a challenging relationship.

This is quite simply a love story.  It turns out the utter simplicity of A Star is Born is perhaps its greatest strength.  Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have a chemistry together that is so palpable it carries the film.  Throughout it all, Lady Gaga sings.  Even Bradley Cooper manages to effectively deliver a few tunes (the Jason Isbell penned “Maybe It’s Time” is quite good).  Lady Gaga further solidifies her talent as an electrifying performer. She has a voice.  The soundtrack is full of memorable songs that highlight a captivating tale.  “Shallow” is the first single.  It’s wonderful, but there’s a handful of numbers that really catch the ear.  “Always Remember Us This Way”, “Is That Alright”, and the finale “I’ll Never Love Again” really stand out amongst a solid collection.  In the movie’s weaker 2nd half, the music is what keeps us enrapt.  Still, following the ups and downs of the melodrama is solidly entertaining.  Melodrama isn’t a bad word.  It simply appeals to the emotions while relying on tried and true plot developments.  A Star is Born does it well. The production manages to capture our heart while dazzling the ear.

Colette

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

coletteSTARS3.5Keira Knightly and period pieces go together like tea & crumpets. I won’t feign impartiality. I can’t resist the combination of the aforementioned genre paired with this actress. When I walked into the theater to watch a biography of Colette, the French author, I was already primed to enjoy it. I walked out satisfied indeed.

Any period piece worth its salt is initially going to be judged on its visual aesthetic. Colette excels. The production is a sumptuous evocation of France during the turn of the century. The rooms are beautifully appointed, the costumes are suitably detailed. There is an opulence to the surroundings that gently entices the spectator into the walls of this woman’s life and beckons one to luxuriate in her world. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Hell or High Water) does a splendid job. He captures both the soft hues of the indoor scenes with warm light as well as the cool greenery of the outdoors with a crispness that invites the viewer to practically inhale the fresh air. The sophistication of the dialogue only adds to the refined setting.  You’d think all this artifice would render a stuffy biopic, but the production is anything but.  On the contrary, this is a provocative tale, directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) and co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, who passed away in 2015. The life of Collette has a few unexpected detours for those unfamiliar with the historical woman. Apparently, she was an independently minded spirit out of step with the social mores of her time.

To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about the actual woman. The drama begins with a poor and seemingly shy country girl named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.  When she secretly retreats to the barn to meet her lover, we soon learn as that she isn’t so demure after all. She ultimately marries that man, the worldly writer Henry Gauthier-Villars or “Willy” (Dominic West). He happens to be 14 years her senior. Willy compensates ghostwriters to pen books for him. When his finances no longer allow him to pay for their services, he appeals to his wife.  He has realized her facility with words in their conversations.  Her novel, or rather the book she writes for him, becomes a sensation in1900 – a somewhat biographical coming of age tale about a brazen girl named Claudine.  The runaway bestseller leads to a series of stories focused around the young heroine.  Although not depicted in this chronicle, Colette’s best-known work today would have to be Gigi (1944) on which the Oscar-winning Best Picture was based.

Keira Knightley is Colette. Her embodiment of the character contributes tremendously to the success of the overall picture. There is a sort of a simple pleasure in seeing a bold woman surmount the strict confines of 19th century Paris, France.  The film documents her marriage with Willy, which was quite unconventional even by today’s standards. Dominic West plays him as a cad to be sure, but he exudes significant charisma nonetheless.  The two actors have convincing chemistry together.  Even with their various dalliances, it’s easy to appreciate the love that Colette and Willy had for each other.  Without revealing details,  an “open relationship” is perhaps the most chivalrous way to describe their idea of what a marriage should be.  The movie does take on a few too many plot threads for one film.  Colette’s desire to assert herself as the true author of her novels belies her feminist awakening.  This competes for the narrative’s attention as she comes to terms with her sexual awakening as well.  Red-haired Louisiana heiress Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and suit-wearing androgenous Missy (Denise Gough) become paramours.  Despite the somewhat schizophrenic focus, Keira Knightley unites the disparate events of this gorgeous costume drama with a performance that seizes our attention.  Her achievement ranks among her very best.  I couldn’t give the actress higher praise.

09-29-18