Archive for December, 2018

My Top Films of 2018

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

On this, the last day of 2018, I reflect back on 365 days of movie watching and pick the 10 films I enjoyed the most (PLUS an additional 10 that basely missed that list). I re-read all of my reviews to jog my memory, but it can be a bit arbitrary when deciding between two films that each got 4 stars and you have to place one above the other.  Needless to say, I enjoyed everything on my “Best of” list very much.

Click the link to present…

* MY TOP FILMS OF 2018 *

It has been great seeing all of these movies, but it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have an audience with whom to share my passion. To all who read my blog, like my posts and keep the conversation going, I am truly grateful.

Thank you!

Wishing you a HAPPY NEW YEAR in 2019!

2019

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Game Night

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery with tags on December 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

game_night_ver4STARS4Pssst….I’m going to let you in on a little secret that few people realized in 2018.  Game Night was one of the funniest (and best) movies of the year.  It’s hard for broad farce to be taken seriously.  I mean its raison d’être is to make you laugh by being silly.  But this production is so inventively funny and wonderfully acted that it fitfully entertains to the very end.  Last year wasn’t good for R-rated comedies.We got Girls Trip sure but then we also got Snatched, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.  Into that wake came this picture.  It got released without much fanfare in February of 2018 – one week after Black Panther – the biggest hit of the entire year.  Game Night got lost in the shuffle.

The story employs a brilliant ensemble cast. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as Annie and Max, a married couple who were made for each other.  They are super competitive.  The chronicle begins during one of their regular game nights which includes dim bulb buddy Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who brings an even dimmer date, along with another wedded couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).  Oh and there’s also creepy police officer Gary portrayed by actor Jesse Plemons.  He’s Max and Annie’s neighbor who used to attend their social gatherings when married to their friend Debbie (Jessica Clair Lee).  Now that Debbie and Gary are divorced, they just find him awkward.  Much to their dismay, he’s still interested in hanging out with them.  He’s absolutely perfect.  I’m talking Oscar nomination.  It won’t happen, but I’m putting it out there.  Meanwhile, Max has always lived in the shadows of his slick, handsome, more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) a venture capitalist.  So when Brooks shows up driving the car of Max’s dreams, a Corvette Stingray, and then invites them all to the ultimate game night at his place, they accept the challenge.  This is where the plot takes off.

Game Night is an increasingly outrageous but good-natured, comedy.  That amiable spirit goes a long way into having us embrace these characters into our hearts.  We care about them.  This group of friends gets together for a night of fun.  Things spiral out of control from there.  This develops into a murder mystery party which keeps begging the question. “Is this real or just pretend?”  In that respect, it’s kind of reminiscent of David Fincher’s thriller The Game which was inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  This is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015’s Vacation) from an efficient script by Mark Perez.  Perez co-wrote Herbie Fully Loaded back in 2005 and followed that minor success with the Justin Long/Jonah Hill vehicle Accepted back in 2006.  Those credits wouldn’t prepare you for how well crafted this film truly is.  Perez hasn’t ever really ever been on my radar before, but he’s in my sights now.  Every scene propelled the movie forward.  Not a single line is wasted.  Occasionally things get violent, hence the R rating.  Most of it is played for chuckles.  Getting sucked into the blade of a jet engine is more Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner than Tarantino.  The carefully calibrated silliness never lets up.  It’s a hilarious delight from beginning to end.

02-26-18

Blindspotting

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

blindspotting_ver2STARS4.5Blindspotting is a carefully crafted meditation on moral concerns, that is, what it means to be human and exist in this world.  On the surface it’s a consideration on the gentrification of the Bay Area — a condemnation on the way housing costs have skyrocketed.  The reason for this has a lot to do with the success of tech companies that have lured young wealthy transplants from places like Seattle and Portland.  The influx has had a considerable effect on life in Northern California.  But it’s so much more than that. In a larger perspective, it’s a dissertation on race and class.  Yet the milieu is not didactic. Blindspotting loves the Bay Area and everything that makes it one of the most diverse intersections of cultures in the world.

Blindspotting is the tale of two friends: Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). The two work for a moving company.  Collin’s association with Miles is deep but it can be challenging.  They have been close all their lives.  They are of the same class but of a different race.  Collin is black; Miles is white.  The fact is unimportant in their relationship but relevant in the way they are perceived by others.  Miles is a father with a young child.  He is fiercely loyal to those close to him but unstable and prone to violent outbursts.  Collin is on probation for one year.  He has an 11 p.m.curfew.  The nature of his crime won’t be answered until much later.  Oh, but when it is, know that vignette is a reveal that is both hilarious and lamentable at the same time.  The important thing is he’s completed 11 months and 27 days.  He is literally just a few days away from finishing his term.  Collin is a good guy desperately trying to live his life on the straight and narrow.  So when Dez (Jon Chaffin) and best buddy Miles (Rafael Casal) show up carrying guns, Collin is visibly unnerved by the sight.  Later that night, Collin is stopped at a red light.  He’s past his check-in time.  All of a sudden a young black man (Travis Parker), runs in front of his truck.  Before Collin can proceed, a cop (Ethan Embry), runs in front of him and guns down the runner in the back.  Collin is stunned. Another officer pulls up and orders him to move.  When he arrives home, Colin has missed his curfew by nine minutes.  This will present a moral dilemma.  Does he speak up and endanger his impending freedom or keep quiet and live with the guilt?

Stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have an enduring friendship in real life too.  Casal is a white-Hispanic spoken-word artist.  Diggs is a biracial rapper.  He’s best known for his role as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton on Broadway.  They have a relaxed easy going chemistry.  They also wrote the film together.  Working from their script, director Carlos López Estrada expertly juggles together drama, comedy, and hip-hop in his debut feature.  The developments of the story don’t always play out as you expect.  Blindspotting introduces tense moments only to subvert them.  A few times I tensed up at what looked like a violent resolution to the scene I was watching only to have the tension defused.  That’s not the expected development, but it is the more mindful one.  The screenwriters give us something to ponder.  They’re talented with words as well as in performance.  Diggs, in particular, is a charismatic presence.  If there’s any justice, he will be a star one day.

Blindspotting is a thoughtful reflection on the changing population of a city.  That diversity is something to celebrate.  Yet the disparate points of view that can lead to conflict.  The changing landscape a society of transplants can have a major effect on a region.  The drama can be serious when dealing with weighty topics but it also maintains a sense of humor as well.  Miles resents the upscale Whole Foods grocery corporation that now inhabits their hood.  “They have great produce” Collin offers.  Their local fast-food joint from back in the day has surrendered its menu to health-conscious elements.  The default burger is now vegan.  So please specify MEAT when you order a hamburger.  Fries have become potato wedges.  The community has now succumbed to establishments that subscribe to the religion of craft cocktails and food that promotes sustainability with only locally sourced ingredients.  It all comes to a head when Colin and Miles attend a trendy party at a sleek Oakland townhouse thrown by an affluent tech entrepreneur hipster – the symbol of everything Miles hates.  Miles wears a T-shirt that reads “Kill a hipster/Save your hood.”  When his natural way of speaking is mistaken as cultural appropriation by a guest, it hits a nerve.  The social commentary is surprisingly lighthearted at times.  Other times it is as grim as a heart attack.  It’s always incredibly entertaining.  Blindspotting gets it right.  It understands the city of Oakland., It appreciates the human condition. It gets the very fabric of humanity.

8-14-18

Mary Queen of Scots

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_queen_of_scots_ver4STARS3It really is a testament to the talent and charisma of Saoirse Ronan that Mary Queen of Scots is still worthwhile viewing.  The star is bloody good as the titular heroine.  Her achievement kept me enrapt.  I can’t say the same for the rest of the picture.

After the death of her husband Francis II, King of France, Mary Stuart returns to her native Scotland.  Both Scotland and England are under the realm of Mary’s cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  Yet she asserts her claim to the English throne.  Elizabeth regards Mary’s actions a direct threat to her ruling authority.  The largely Protestant government there has outlawed Catholic mass.  Mary preaches tolerance of both religions.  She immediately incurs the wrath of Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) who is her vocal critic.

The colorful ensemble boosts a flawed production.  Diverse casting choices include Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick, Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio, and Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph.  These aren’t historically accurate decisions, but they distinguish this interpretation as a contemporary tale, so there’s that.  Naturally beautiful Margot Robbie is cast as the heavily made up Queen Elizabeth I.  She is suffering from smallpox under what looks like pounds and pounds of foundation. Director Josie Rourke cuts back and forth between the two monarchs to contrast their differing points of view.  Robbie is very good too. Her appearance pops up here and there, but this is Ronan’s movie.  As ancient history (16th century), nothing I discuss here should be considered a spoiler, but the two don’t even share the screen until the very end.  Even then, history teaches us they never even met at all.

I am a sucker for a stately well-done period piece. This isn’t it.   History buffs are likely to go into conniptions over the inaccuracies and even fans of tawdry soap operas are likely to find the events questionable.   I won’t get into details but certain developments surrounding Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) compelled me to research their veracity. Some of this is pure fantasy at worst and loose conjecture at best.  The costumes are sumptuous. The production design is heavenly and as mentioned earlier, Saoirse Ronan anchors it all with a captivating performance.  I say if you’re already obsessed with biographies about monarchs, this should satiate your fix.  Although the timing of this release couldn’t be worse.  There’s already an irreverent film about a queen currently playing at the multiplex right now (The Favourite).   It’s so much better.

12-18-18

Mary Poppins Returns

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_poppins_returns_ver2STARS3.5Mary Poppins Returns answers the question: Is it still possible for a movie of today to promote sweetness and joy with unadulterated sincerity?  The response is a resounding yes.  This is an enterprise without guile or sarcasm.  It simply exists as a bit of wholesome entertainment, exactly as the 1964 version did.  54 years may separate these two films, but you’d never know it from this production.  The time is 1935 Depression-era London.  Jane (Emily Mortimer ) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the children from the original, are now adults.  Michael is a widower with three young children of his own: John (Nathanael Saleh) Annabel (Pixie Davies) and adorable star-in-the-making Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Since his wife’s death, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments.  He has been informed by the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (Colin Firth) that he has until Friday to pay off the entire loan, or he will lose the house. Jane and Michael remember their father had given them shares in the bank which would provide enough money to repay the debt.  The certificate would be the proof.  It has disappeared.  If only they knew where it was.

Mary Poppins Returns utilizes the blueprint of the first feature to fashion its tale.  The barely-there story is eerily similar, although plot is not really the point.  The drama basically concerns a missing piece of paper.  Its whereabouts are a nonentity for most of the picture.   The adventure highlights musical interludes.  This is a musical enchantment of wit and charm.  As the title has promised, Mary Poppins is back.  She’s exactly the same person and she hasn’t aged a day.  In Emily Blunt’s capable hands she is a walking, talking facsimile of Julie Andrews’ creation.  Not a unique achievement mind you, but a grand impression that trades on glorious nostalgia.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is Mary’s friend Jack.  He doesn’t work as a chimney sweep as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the earlier incarnation but as a lamplighter.  Miranda is delightful and his cockney accent is thankfully more subtle.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a sequel so much as a remake.  A magnificent remix of the 1964 version that mimics its every song, character, story beat, and style.  Instead of helping the kids tidy their nursery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) Mary encourages them to take a bath (“Can You Imagine That?”).  Rather than jumping into a painting (“Jolly Holiday”), Mary, Jack, and the kids enter a ceramic bowl (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”).  Meeting cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her “Turning Turtle” song is like bumping into Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) when he bellows “I Love To Laugh”.  Jack croons “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” with the other lamplighters and it harkens back to the chimney sweeps’ “Step In Time” number.  My side by side comparisons may sound like a carp but the production numbers are so beautifully realized that I embraced the happiness.   They succeed by exploiting the euphoria of wonder and color.  The very idea that a movie in 2018 would reproduce the very same aesthetic as a picture from the 1960s is a fairly risky venture.  I was transported to an earlier era when movies were different.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mary Poppins Returns has just paid the original film the most awesome compliment imaginable.

12-19-18

Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18

Roma

Posted in Drama on December 17, 2018 by Mark Hobin

roma_ver2STARS4.5Roma is a portal into the past, a cinematic observation that relocates you to another time and place.  Director Alfonso Cuarón has taken us on an odyssey before. Whether it be children’s viewing (A Little Princess), a coming of age tale (Y Tu Mamá También), a fantasy episode (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), dystopian thriller (Children of Men), or science fiction (Gravity), he transports us.  Roma is no different in that the filmmaker brings us on another expedition.  Yet this one is a deeply personal account inspired from his own childhood.  He is also the writer, co-producer, co-editor, and cinematographer.  The film is nothing more than an observation in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the early 1970s.  It is the point of view that makes this portrayal so unique.  For it is all seen through the eyes of the domestic servant, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Cleo works for mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira ) and Sofia’s rarely seen doctor husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).  Is there some tension between the married couple?  It’s suggested but not altogether clear.  They have four young children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta) in the household, along with Sofia’s mother (Verónica García) and their other maid named Adela (Nancy García).  Cleo has a boyfriend named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  He’s a revolutionary that gets involved in the Corpus Christi massacre.  Adela has a suitor as well named Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza).  That extended cast sounds like the beginnings of a telenovela.  Yet this is a decidedly more unvarnished depiction of life.

Right from the start, Cuarón makes it known that this is going to be a visual feast.  Water splashes across a stone driveway.  The camera immobile as the fluid advances and recedes over the screen.  A broom emerges to wash the surface.  This continues for a while.  The languid intro highlights the drudgery of her chores but it also provides a lovely backdrop on which to show the names of the cast and crew.  The images all in black and white immediately puts you in the past, but it also features a stark contrast that captivates the viewer throughout the drama.  This is a good time to mention that there is no soundtrack to Roma, but it has a sonic essence that includes diegetic music from people listening on radios, along with indistinct chatter and background murmurs. The movie debuted on Netflix December 14, but PLEASE if at all possible see it in a theater where the exquisite sound design immerses you into the fabric of every scene. I’ve only described the intro, mind you.  That is merely the beginning of an impressive collection of images and sounds that stimulate the senses.

Roma is such a thoughtfully filmed project.  The day to day developments of Cleo’s life are detailed.  She cleans the house, cooks their meals takes the kids to school, tucks them into bed and wakes them up in the morning.  It seems deceptively mundane, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Water is introduced during the opening credits but the transparent liquid is a tableau that will turn up over and over again.  Whether it is utilized during her daily chores, a sudden hailstorm, a pregnancy or a climactic trip to the beach, the appearance each time highlights the spectacle.  This is the lovingly assembled portrait of a life.  Roma refers to Colonia Roma which is a neighborhood in Mexico City but it also conveys the Italian name for Rome.  I suspect then the double meaning is no accident. Cuarón works in the visual vocabulary of Italian directors like Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica, particularly their work during the late ’40s/early ’50s.  Uniting all of these artistic elements is leading lady Yalitza Aparicio who is an indigenous Mixtec woman.  Earlier I mentioned that the size of the cast was reminiscent of a Spanish soap opera.  Yet her dark brown skin at odds with the fair-skinned actresses that usually play the housekeeper in telenovelas.  She gives an utterly authentic performance.  There’s a reason why she is so genuine.  I’m told, with the exception of Marina de Tavira, the actress who plays the family matriarch, Cuarón used an entire cast of non-actors.  It’s risky, but the gamble pays off.  He makes a lot of stylish decisions in this beautiful record of his youth.  Roma is the very story of humanity and as such, it moved me.

12-11-18

Burning

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on December 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beoningSTARS3Director Chang-dong Lee’s work over the past two decades has defined the Korean New Wave.  Burning, his first production in eight years is no different.  The sheer number of Top Ten lists on which this South Korean drama has appeared, practically compels every critic to see the picture in 2018.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and it’s the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 91st Academy Awards.  South Korea has submitted entries since 1962. Despite this, no South Korean movie has ever even been shortlisted or even nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar.  That may change this year.  Now having said that, my flattering buildup is an ironic segue into my lack of enthusiasm for this picture.

The story begins as a simple boy meets girl tale.  Aspiring writer Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) runs into a girl named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) that he knew when he was young.  She is dancing outside a store to attract customers.  Over coffee, he learns his old acquaintance is studying pantomime and she pretends to eat a tangerine by peeling it.  He is impressed but she downplays her talents.  “Don’t think there is a tangerine here…but rather that there isn’t one”.  She seduces him and they sleep together that night.  Later when Jong-su never sees the cat that Hae-mi has asked him to feed while she is away in Africa, your mind starts to wonder.  Is there even a cat at all?  Director Chang-dong Lee drops lots of little perplexities that solicit a closer examination of details throughout the story.  Things get more complicated when Hae-mi returns from her trip with a new beau named Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow.  A possible love triangle of sorts is formed.  Although even that’s up for debate.  Who is this guy?  What does he do?  Are they a couple?  One individual confesses to enjoying a strange hobby.  Another character goes missing.  Or do they?  You will have many questions amidst the speculation. Few will ever be answered.

Burning is clearly assembled by an artisan that likes to deliberate over his craft.  The slow build is carefully put together.  The performances by a trio of actors further draw you in.  Actor Yoo Ah-in is Jong-su, the protagonist.  He has an unexpected everyman quality that belies a seething resentment in his ineffectual character.  More memorable is actor Steven Yeun, as the enigmatic Ben.  As the wealthy antagonist, he is an ambiguous alpha male that inspires jealousy in our hapless lead.  His blissful confidence will inspire your hostility too.  Somewhat more disconcerting is the character of Hae-mi portrayed by newcomer Jeon Jong-seo.  She seems to simply exist as the object over which Jong-su can obsess.  Her self-initiated disrobings become rather troubling.  It inspires our irked hero to remark, “Why do you undress so easily in front of men? Only whores do that.”  Jong-su’s slowly mounting jealously builds over the course of the mystery.  Your ability to identify with his confusion and escalating frustration is key.  How this beta male will respond or even if he will respond, is an ongoing provocation.

Burning is based on the brief short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1992.  Although “inspired by” is far more accurate.  Screenwriters Jung-mi Oh and director Chang-dong Lee have decided to be much more specific.  Their chronicle contains additional details not contained in the original work.  For one, the class differences between underprivileged Jong-su and affluent Ben is an underlying theme that is emphasized in the movie.  Jealousy is a major exploration of the film as well.  The repression of these feelings is cultivated by Jong-su.  This provokes a slowly building animosity of Ben. There’s a lot to chew on here.  I was moderately intrigued, particularly in the first half. The narrative meanders for two and a half hours before culminating in a violent climax. The story ends without ever answering THE “burning” question.  I suppose open interpretations can be fun, but the whole exercise left me rather….cold.

12-09-18

Green Book

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on December 7, 2018 by Mark Hobin

green_bookSTARS4.5Green Book is the compelling chronicle of black pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) 1962 music tour of the deep south.  He hires white bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard.  I admit I was skeptical. I had heard grumblings from a very small but vociferous group of detractors.  Right from the get-go, the interracial synopsis sounds like a calculated set up that promises a feel-good story about how people from contrasting cultures were able to come together and becomes friends.  In its most simplistic essence, that’s what you get. However, the sleek craft with which this road movie is assembled is a masterclass in creating an audience-pleasing feature.  It establishes characters you simply want to love. I enthusiastically embraced this picture.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Green Book is directed by none other than Peter Farrelly, one-half of the Farrelly brothers that brought the world such ribald comedy classics like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Those are well-crafted movies and this is clearly assembled by a competent artist as well. Green Book has comedic elements too, but this represents a definite shift for the filmmaker.  Green Book is a serious drama first.  A powerful work that has a respectful reverence for its subjects.  The title references a guidebook that gave recommendations to African-American travelers to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.  You see, under the era of Jim Crow laws of the Confederacy, racial segregation was actually enforced by legislation.  In short, black people weren’t allowed to stay or eat at certain establishments. The manual was published up until 1966.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Don Shirley was the son of parents who emigrated from Jamaica.  He was an accomplished classical musician. However after a manager told him that American audiences were not ready to accept a “colored” pianist in classical music, he reverted to the more popular jazz genre.  During the 1950s and 1960s, he performed in nightclubs where there were more opportunities.  Don Shirley was a musical prodigy since the age of 2.   An intellectual, he spoke eight languages fluently.   He held a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts.  Don decides to go on a risky concert tour of the Deep South.  We learn that he could be handsomely paid playing safer concert venues in the North.  That would have been a more comfortable living.  Yet he wanted to play for audiences that might benefit more from his talents.  He would need a driver though who could also provide some security.

Frank Anthony Vallelonga is nicknamed Tony Lip because of his ability to talk his way out of anything.  He’s the son of Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx.  He works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.   Early in the account, Tony is seen disposing of the drinking glasses that black repairmen had used while working at his home.  Tony stands in marked contrast to his employer.  Don lives in a luxurious apartment above Carnegie Hall.  When Tony arrives there to apply for the position of his driver, Don appears to be sitting on what looks like a throne wearing an elegant robe.  He is a dignified man that refuses to eat with his hands.  Don and Tony are markedly dissimilar personalities.  Don Shirley, in particular, doesn’t fit within an established archetype.  At one point, Don exasperatedly cries into the rain “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough and I’m not man enough, then what am I?”  Their respective lifestyles and customs influence who these individuals are.

The screenplay does a deft job at depicting the point of view of each fellow.  This is a true story after all.  Green Book is based on an original script co-written by Frank’s son Nick Vallelonga with actor Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly.  Tony Lip and Don Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013.  Before that happened, Nick told the pair he wanted to make a movie based on their experiences.  According to Nick, Dr. Shirley gave his blessing with one provision “not until after I’m gone.”  There are similarities to previous works.  A chauffeur driving a passenger of another ethnicity from their own has an obvious parallel to 1990 Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy. That’s about where the comparisons end.  The stakes are much higher in Green Book. No one in Driving Miss Daisy was in danger of being lynched.

What really sets Green Book apart is the utter sincerity in detailing the lives of two very contradictory people.  Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen imbue their characters with such depth that we embrace them as fully formed people.  The narrative does a deft job at giving each person equal focus.  Despite how the studio has promoted their performances for Academy Award consideration, this is a dual affair with two equally pivotal performances at the center.  These larger than life personalities couldn’t be more different from each other.  Little details are presented that help us understand where these individuals have been and how they’ve changed. Their friendship with each other develops organically in a way that makes sense.  Each man gained from knowing the other.  Yes, it’s easy to dismiss the saga as a manipulative narrative that features a “white savior” or a “black savior”.  Yet it’s so much more than that.  At heart, Green Book unfolds like an authentic portrait of two unlikely souls that became friends.  The film is emotionally satisfying with a lot of heart.

11-29-18

The Favourite

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Dance, Drama, History with tags on December 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

favourite_ver2STARS4.5Way back on January 21, 1989, one of the highlights on Saturday Night Live’s 14th season occurred during the 10th episode.  John Malkovich was the host plugging his work in Dangerous Liaisons, an obvious forebear of this film.  One of the skits in which he starred, was a bit I affectionately remember as “Mocking Lord Edmund.”  In it, Malkovich portrayed an 18th-century aristocrat who suspects all the wrong people of insulting him.  “You mock me,” he would disdainfully rebuke.  Each admirer was bewildered at his scorn for their honest praise.  Malkovich’s deadpan delivery in a haughty accent was comical in itself.  But the main joke was that his two servants (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey), whom he didn’t suspect, were actually mocking him behind his back.

Period pieces are inherently hilarious.  The Favorite is an extraordinary work that takes an absurdist view of the strange reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century.  England is at war with the French.  The ruler is attended to by her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah encourages her to fund the ongoing war with France so that her husband can claim victory.  Into this mix arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant with designs on bettering her own station in life.  The liaison between these three develops into a genuine love triangle. There’s no evidence that Queen Anne had a romantic relationship with either of these women.  Although speculation at the time did fuel court gossip.  Yet historians do agree that Sarah Churchill’s personal friendship with the Queen afforded her a lot of power and influence in the monarch’s decisions.   Regardless, historical accuracy is clearly not director Yorgos Lanthimos’ focus.  The bitter rivalry between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne is the central conflict.  And oh what a competition!

The centerpiece of The Favourite is a trio of flawless performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who form the central trio of strong women.   Queen Anne is a frail woman physically afflicted by ill health.  Olivia Coleman embodies the ruler as a woman plagued by insecurities.  She screams irrationally at a young attendant for staring at her.  She feels ugly.  She gorges on cake.  Vomits.  Then continues to gorge.  One moment she is a timid monarch afraid of choosing sides between the Whigs and Tories in Parliament.  The next minute her mind is fixed and she refuses to allow anyone to sway her.  Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough, her close confidant.  She is a woman fiercely driven by her own political desires.  Abigail appears to enter the picture as sort of a wide-eyed innocent.  Anne Baxter in All About Eve anyone?  Emma Stone has one of the most expressive visages in all of Hollywood. The mere look of her face as she turns away in one flirtatious scene elicited guffaws at my screening.  As time wears on, the pursuit of her own selfish goals consumes her every thought.  Her poor husband Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is frustrated by her lack of attention, even on their wedding night.

This is a visual spectacle that captivates our attention even when nothing is being said. The costumes and sets are lavish.  Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes stand in stark contrast to the candlelit halls of the palace.  The powdered wigs are piled ridiculously high.  And I’m talking about the males.  They wear more makeup than the women.  The beauty marks applied like stickers to the face.  Even the palace is a character itself with its massively high ceilings, cavernous hallways, and luxuriously appointed spaces.  Tapestries, art, and furniture dominate some rooms.  There is a definite sense of scope.  The cinematography by Robbie Ryan captures every inch of the spectacle mixing fisheye lenses with spinning camera angles.  It can get overwhelming.  At times we’re more focused on the way the scene is shot, not what is being shot.  But more often than not, the photography creates a sense of isolation that matches the mood of the characters.  Visually it’s an emotional experience.

Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have a playful ear for dialogue.  It’s also the first feature Lanthimos directed that he did not co-write with regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  I dare say it is the most quotable film of the year.  The catty one-liners abound in an artificial air of high camp.   There is an affected pomposity to these people that makes them amusing.  The script exploits the lexicon of our modern era to humorous effect.   The c-word is joined with the word struck to describe a man impossibly bewitched by a woman. The idioms of past costume dramas are subverted as well.  Abigail fawns obsequiously over Queen Anne’s hair.  “Stop it. How you mock me” the queen responds.  The screenplay recognizes how a retort delivered with withering contempt can be an exquisite joy.  At one point Sarah Churchill derisively chides crafty House of Commons dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  “I can’t take you seriously when your mascara is running.”

The Favourite exaggerates what makes period pieces so fitfully entertaining.  In doing so, it becomes an artistic work of art.  There’s a lot of idiosyncratic details.  Sarah and Abigail shoot pigeons.  A splatter of blood unexpectedly covers Sarah’s face after Abigail hits one dead on.  Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits as pets symbolically representing each one of her children that didn’t survive due to various maladies.  Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) races ducks in his spare time for fun.  A hapless Tory endues fruits thrown at him as some sort of parlor game.  I didn’t understand the point, but it conveyed decadence nonetheless.  Lady Marlborough’s choreographed dance scene with her companion at the ball is a riot for its anachronistic dance moves.  It’s a fabulous spectacle lit with candles.  Ok, I’ll admit The Favourite is about as historically accurate as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yet for my money….it’s just as funny.

11-27-18