Archive for January, 2019

Cold War

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on January 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zimna_wojna_ver2STARS2.5Cold War is a clever title.  Yes, it clearly refers to a time period.  Pawel Pawlikowski’s love story begins in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  However, it could also refer to the chilly relationship at its center.  Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are musicians.  They meet in 1949.  Musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist holding auditions for a traditional folk song and dance troupe.  Music plays an important part in the lives of these entertainers and it often underscores the striking visuals.  Zula isn’t the best singer, but Wiktor is infatuated by the sultry blonde.  He hires her.  The impropriety of an older teacher lusting after his young student is a bit unsettling at first.  Those feelings are somewhat assuaged later when we learn that Zula isn’t the innocent that she appears to be either.  She’s not to be toyed with. There’s a rumor that she killed her father.

This isn’t a sentimentalized portrait but rather a tempestuous affair highlighted by bitter disagreements.  Neither character is what they seem.  As their connection deepens, their show becomes a hit and the state appropriates their production for propagandistic purposes with massive posters of Stalin behind them.  Unhappy with the turn of events, Wiktor and Zula make a pact to flee and reunite in West Berlin.  Then she inexplicably stands him up.  They will meet again but it’s years later.  Incredibly over an efficient 85 minutes, the picture chronicles 15 years of a relationship that traverses across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris.

This tale of star crossed lovers without children is fictionalized but director Pawel Pawlikowski’s based the pair on his own late parents.  His work has received many accolades.  His last feature, Ida, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.  So too has Cold War garnered Oscar nominations in 2019 — 3 to be exact: Foreign Language Film, Directing, and Cinematography.   In an interesting coincidence, it will compete against Alfonso Cuarón’s even more heavily nominated Roma, another black and white movie inspired by the director’s own life.

Cold War is indeed highlighted by stunning black and white camera work by Lukasz Zal. Curiously the format of the presentation is in a boxy 4:3 ratio.  I must assume that widescreen would have only enhanced the visuals.  Perhaps this decision was to recall the past and mimic the way Hollywood movies looked before 1953.  Despite the truncated image, it still looks enchanting.  Yet the rapport between these two enigmatic people is not.  Indeed this just might be the bleakest romance ever given a luminous facade by way of gorgeous black and white photography.  This is the profile of a stormy love.  The justification for the desire that keeps them returning to each other is wholly unexplained.  To make matters more bewildering, the motivations for certain behaviors is frustratingly vague.  For example, please witness a dreamy moment where the couple is lying together in a sunny meadow showing sweetness. Now during that very same scene, Zula suddenly admits to an act of betrayal.  Here and elsewhere, I felt nothing but apathy for these two.   Yes, the cinematography is absolutely captivating.  The on-again, off-again love story at the heart of the drama?  Eh not so much.

1-24-19

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Stan & Ollie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on January 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

stan_and_ollie_ver4STARS3This biopic is a somber reminiscence on the legendary comedic duo.  Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) first rose to fame through in a series of silent shorts during the 1920s, the early days of Hollywood.  Their popularity would grow exponentially until they became one of the most acclaimed comedy duos ever.  Stan & Ollie isn’t about their glory days, however. The script by Academy Award-nominated writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) focuses on their later years.  This sad little feature deals with a rather low point in their history when they were no longer making films in the U.S.  There’s talk about doing a Robin Hood parody movie.  It never materializes.  It’s 1953 and the pair is on a music tour of the UK.  Way beyond their prime, they struggle to fill seats in run-down theaters and cheap hotels.  Hardy’s failing health becomes a concern.  They also bicker about the past.  A 1937 contract dispute with the studio, depicted in the intro, is dredged up in the present timeline.

There are two good reasons to see Stan & Ollie: its stars. Steve Coogan is very good as Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly is even better as Ollie Hardy.  They ascribe such sincere sympathy to their characters and invest that with tenderness.   Stan and Ollie make personal appearances and incorporate their schtick into these everyday interactions.  The public greets their shenanigans with enthusiasm.  The antics of Coogan and Reilly come across as a genuine achievement, more than just an impersonation.  The actors truly get the mannerisms down, clearly the result of work that has been well researched.  Their work matches the production.  The attention to period detail is exquisite.  The makeup beautifully supports the superior performances.  At first, the reflective tone seems to benefit this admirable effort.  Over the course of the entire runtime however, it becomes depressing.  The atmosphere is surprisingly bleak for a team known for making people laugh.  I admired Stan & Ollie but I wasn’t enthused by it.  I can’t help but think all of this meticulousness might have better served a screenplay that centered on their earlier, more celebrated era.

01-07-19

Destroyer

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on January 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

destroyerSTARS3I respect Nicole Kidman as an accomplished thespian.  I really do.  As such, I hold the actress in high regard.  Destroyer is a film highlighted by the transformation of its star.  The tall, willowy blonde ditches her signature long tresses for a wispy dirty brown bob with bangs.  Not only does her hair look filthy but her normally fair unblemished skin is wrinkled and pockmarked.  Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective who is on the hunt for the members of a burglary ring.  When she receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack, she determines it’s from a bank robbery committed by a California syndicate many years prior.  Erin’s gritty appearance tells us she’s had a rough past.  Via flashbacks, we learn that she and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) had previously infiltrated this organization as undercover officers.  Predictably, these two shared a romantic relationship as well.  At any rate, now it appears the criminals are active again.  Based on an original script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the narrative is the saga of a woman with a score to settle.

Destroyer has a grimy atmosphere.  Early on Erin is shown doing something distasteful to get information from an informant (James Jordan).  I was repulsed by the scummy milieu.  If you’re willing to stick with the unsavory sections, there is a story, although it is confusingly doled out in bits that the viewer must piece together.  Kidman immerses herself in the sordid surroundings.  She admirably gives it her all but physically she seems too frail to be taken seriously in the role.  Her character Erin gets no respect from her contacts.  Everyone seems to treat her as an annoyance.  Her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) as well as her daughter’s boyfriend (Beau Knapp), along with a lawyer suspect who launders money (Bradley Whitford), all regard her with disdain — initially anyway.   Occasionally she makes inroads.

As a detective drama, Destroyer is merely adequate.  Kidman doesn’t have the gravitas to play an intimidating police officer.  Destroyer is helmed by Karyn Kusama who directed Michelle Rodriguez in her feature debut Girlfight way back in 2000.  I couldn’t help but think Rodriguez would have been a better choice to play this part.  Kusama recently created a sinister but captivating mood in The Invitation (2015), an innovative thriller.  Destroyer is less inventive.   Most of Destroyer simply wallows in the muck as if to prove that Nicole Kidman can be rugged.  I admire her ambition I suppose.   The actress received a lot of positive mentions for her work here.  It’s an exaggerated performance from a veteran performer that’s clearly begging for an Oscar nod.  Unfortunately, that’s all there is.  The screenplay is rooted firmly in genre clichés.  I only wish the drama had been more interesting.

01-01-19

On the Basis of Sex

Posted in Biography, Drama on January 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

on_the_basis_of_sexSTARS2.5The old adage states “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Admittedly, that’s a brutal way to begin a movie review that’s mildly indifferent. It is somewhat apropos though. On the Basis of Sex is the very definition of a well-intentioned drama. It’s adequate as a superficial biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story idealizes her as a champion for equal rights, yet it fails to captivate. The script is penned by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter. He just so happens to be the subject’s nephew. If you’re an avid fan in need of a reverential memoir depicting the Associate Justice’s formative years, then this should suffice.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward), this by the numbers drama merely covers the beginning of how RBG came to be.  Slick meticulous production shows how Ruth graduated at the top of her law school class.  Unable to find a job because no law firm would hire a woman, she becomes a professor at Rutgers Law School. On the Basis of Sex mainly focuses on one tax law.  In 1970 her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), brings a case to her attention.  It concerns Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) a Denver man who was caring for his elderly mother.  Unmarried, he was denied a dependent-care tax deduction.  A single woman, however, would have received the advantage.  RBG saw this situation where a man had been disadvantaged, as an opportunity to bring sex-based discrimination to an appellate court.  She believes the male judges might be more sympathetic to his plight.  In this way, she anticipates that a favorable decision would open a gateway to attack more gender-based legislation.  Indeed this has been a focus of her entire career.

On the Basis of Sex is a traditional biopic, rather conservative in style for such a liberal subject.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents with the majority ruling have only grown more forceful with time.  They’ve given rise to memes where she’s affectionately referred to her as The Notorious RBG (a riff on late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.).  As such, she has become a pop-culture icon for young liberals.  That profile of an intimidating firebrand is not on display here.  Felicity Jones sweetly radiates hope and resolve as a crusader for equal rights.  Armie Hammer is her supportive husband, an accomplished lawyer in his own right.  Martin actually comes across as more charismatic.  This is even addressed by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), legal director of the ACLU in their mock trial practice sessions.  Those looking to see her appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993 on through her current tenure will have to wait for the sequel. I’m kidding. (Sort of.)  By focusing on a tax case, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t stir the emotions as it should.  The chronicle doesn’t seem vital enough for anyone other than her most ardent admirers in need of an idealized portrait.

01-03-19

If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

if_beale_street_could_talk_ver2STARS3Writer James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is lovingly adapted into a beautifully filmed love story about a Harlem couple in the 1970s.  The last feature director Barry Jenkins made won the Oscar for Best Picture so expectations are understandably high.  If Beale Street Could Talk is about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), newly engaged to her boyfriend Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny.  We are presented with scenes that show they grew up together.  They have known each other since childhood.  This is fashioned as a romance for the ages.  However, conflict has entered the sanctity of their lives which threatens to upend everything they hold dear.  Fonny has been falsely identified for a crime he didn’t commit.  We see Tish visit Fonny in jail to deliver some major news.  She is pregnant. Cinematographer James Laxton lingers on faces like they’re masterpieces carved in marble.   These images cast a spell that gently invites the viewer to reflect on the disparity between the beauty of their relationship and the ugliness of what has befallen them.  Barry Jenkins screenplay is a somber contemplation of a love fret with hardship.  There are many elegantly composed scenes that convey a feeling in the absence of dialogue.  Indeed the deliberate pace comes at the expense of action.

There is an early moment in Beale Street that tempts the viewer with what might develop into an electrifying ensemble piece.  Tish must break the news of her pregnancy to her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).  They are shocked but supportive.  Now how to tell Fonny’s family? There’s his religiously sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), more easygoing father (Michael Beach), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).  Sharon invites them over to their home for drinks.  Then the verbal fireworks start.  It’s a memorable scene.  Occasional flashbacks throughout show us how Tish and Fonny’s life was before he was arrested, then contrast it with their lives in the present.  Yet nothing matches the sheer drama of the earlier showdown.

If Beale Street Could Talk is compelling in fits and starts.  I call those moments Regina King.  The actress has been picking up awards left and right for her work.  She’s extraordinary.  Sharon’s drive to prove her son-in-law’s innocence ultimately necessitates a trip to Puerto Rico.  It’s the portrait of a mother who only wants justice and truth.  The halcyon days of Tish and Fonny’s romance are idealized with gauzy cinematography highlighting two pretty young people.  Fonny is a sculptor and he works amidst cigarette smoke swirling around a piece he’s creating with a saxophone wailing in the background.  They gaze longingly at each other and the dreamy display is not unlike the sculpture he’s creating — a precious objet d’art to study and appreciate from afar.  A grave injustice underlies their lives and yet there’s no there there.  The action, or lack of it, concerns what appear to be in the details.  How can the reflective inertia of the rest of the film compete with mother Sharon’s emotional fire?  Every time actress King is on screen I was riveted and every time she garners accolades for her achievement, I get it.  I simply wish there was more of her.

12-13-18

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Superhero on January 9, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_into_the_spiderverse_ver2STARS3.5How much Spider-Man do you need in your life? Sequels, reboots, so many origin stories – This is the 7th feature film to star the Marvel superhero since 2002 and the first animated movie in the franchise. That’s roughly a new release every 27 months. This chapter has certainly put the other entries in perspective. The cognoscenti extolled this feature as the best Spider-Man ever, some even going so far as to call it the best superhero picture of all-time. Those are some pretty lofty declarations. It’s an enjoyable production to be sure. Just based on innovation alone, this production justifies yet another iteration. At this point, those Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield from 2012 and 2014 are only worth watching if you’re a die-hard completist.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse plays with tradition. I wasn’t up on my comic book history. Those well versed in such lore will be at a distinct advantage. If that’s you, go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph. In fact, go ahead and skip the whole review. This movie was made with you in mind and I can recommend it to you wholeheartedly. Ok now for you casuals and non-superhero fans,  apparently the setting is a shared multiverse called the “Spider-Verse”, which has alternate worlds. This is the first to feature Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn. He was a re-invention of the character in 2011 by writers Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli. Miles admires Spider-Man /Peter Parker (Chris Pine), the classic guy with whom we are familiar. In this realm, Peter Parker is blonde, fit and seemingly perfect. Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider in the very same way and also develops the same powerful abilities.

That’s merely the beginning. Maniacal crime lord, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his top scientist Liv Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), the head of Alchemax, are the baddies. They’ve built a particle accelerator to access parallel universes. Fisk wants to reconnect with his wife and son who died in a car accident. His use of this thing allows various forms of Spider-Man to come into contact with Miles and interact. There’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a more disheveled, brown-haired Spider-Man that sort of acts as his mentor. He’s from another dimension.  There’s teenaged Gwen Stacy, a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a brooding reporter from the Great Depression called Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), an anthropomorphic pig parody called Spider-Ham AKA Peter Porker (John Mulaney), and Japanese-American high school student Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who pilots a robot called SP//dr. Does this sound confusing? Believe me, it’s even more dizzying as you’re watching it. Each one of these versions gets a chance to tell their tale of how they became a “spider-man”. The production boasts three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) and five producers including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind The Lego Movie. They don’t adhere to the past rules of the live-action films. It’s not based in reality. It’s ridiculously bonkers. I suppose that’s part of its charm.

Spider-Verse sets up some emotional stakes. This Spider-Man is still another origin story about a guy coming to terms with his superpowers. In those broad terms, this doesn’t distinguish itself. It’s another hero’s journey.  However, Spider-Verse does a great job at introducing people we care about. We understand Miles. He’s the teenaged son of Jefferson Davis, a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales, a Puerto Rican nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Despite the different surnames, they are married. His uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali ) is a supportive presence who encourages his nephew to express his artistic side. Brothers Jefferson and Aaron have drifted apart, however. At one point Dad pleads with his son not to drift away like his brother did. The conversation occurs while Miles is in his room on the other side of a closed door. It’s very poignant.

Spider-Verse is a built upon the DNA of comic books. I’ve explained how the story utilizes that aesthetic but it also infects the trippy graphics as well. The stunning visual design is what captivated me the most. The computer animation is distinctive. Its bold colors and images almost bleed through the lines. Not constantly, but the effect is noticeable at times. Initially, I thought I had accidentally walked into a 3D showing without the glasses to render the proper effect.  It was an intentional choice. The technique recalls the Ben-Day Dots printing process of old, pulpy magazines on cheap paper.

The visuals are gorgeous. The computer rendering gives the faces a photo-realism. It’s incredibly expressive. Their faces emote. Yet it’s still filtered through the style of a comic book. It’s a nice balance. Thought bubbles occasionally pop up. When someone activates his Spider-Sense it’s conveyed through squiggly lines around their head. Then the hyperkinetic action sequences kick in. It can get a bit insane. The interconnected characters from other dimensions start to glitch and become unstable. This random twitching seems to increase when they’re fighting.  At times this mixes with the action on screen and it can be a lot to process for the uninitiated.  “What is happening?!” I thought to myself on more than one occasion. Yet it’s always a wonder to behold. “How much Spider-Man do you need in your life?” I ask.  Spider-Verse proves that when creativity and innovation are fully engaged, there’s always room for one more.

12-28-18

Vice

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

viceSTARS3I love a good transformation and there’s no other actor working today that can physically alter himself like Christian Bale.  American Psycho, The Machinist, Batman Begins, The Fighter, and American Hustle are among the most dramatic.  He looks like an entirely different person in each.  Vice just may be Christian Bale’s most incredible because of all his roles, he portrays a man with whom we are familiar.  His impersonation of Dick Cheney is pretty amazing.  Now you have to ask yourself, do I really want to see a biopic of the 46th vice president of the United States?  Let’s face it, he’s not a popular guy.  He was downright polarizing.  He drew a 63% disapproval rating 2 months after he left office in January 2009.  I was open to it as long as I’m going to watch an enjoyable film.  Vice is only mildly engaging in spurts.

As you expect, Vice is not complimentary to Dick Cheney.  It seems reverent for a while. At first,  Vice is the profile of a man driven to succeed.  Cheney was kicked out of Yale for drinking too much.  An angry pep talk from his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) slaps some sense into the ne’er do well drunk from Wyoming.  (This is the 3rd feature that Adams and Bale have done together following The Fighter and American Hustle.)  Cheney becomes a congressional intern and starts working for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  They become close and when Rumsfeld is appointed Secretary of Defense under President Ford, Dick becomes Chief of Staff.  The presentation of his rise to power by failing upward is a bit glib.  This is from the mind of director Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, The Big Short) after all.  He finds the humor in Cheney’s tenure.  A fateful meeting with a young Antonin Scalia clues him into a legal doctrine called Unitary Executive Theory, which means that anything the president does is legal simply by virtue of his title.  This won’t come into play until years later when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) desperately wants Cheney to be his Vice President.  Side note: As authentic and nuanced as Christian Bale is, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are complete caricatures of their real-life counterparts more suited to an SNL skit than a serious biopic.  Anyways, Cheney will concede to Bush’s request under the conditions that he grant him extended powers which oversee major departments.  Bush agrees.  Then 9/11 happens.

How fair and accurate is Vice?  The movie begins with a jokey disclaimer that it’s “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history.  But we did our f—ing best.”  That essentially absolves them of presenting the truth.  That’s going to (rightfully) annoy a lot of people right from the get-go.  If you have the stomach for politics, it’s satisfying to a point.  That playful attitude permeates the film and it honestly helps enliven a portrait that few were demanding.  As decisions are made and we see the political process play out, Vice gradually becomes the denunciation of a Vice President who used the attacks of 9/11 to justify a war with Iraq.  This is a controversial period in American history.  He didn’t do it alone.  Adam McKay’s screenplay also wants us to condemn the entire American political system that allowed his Machiavellian rise to power.  These events led to the justification of torture on detainees and unprecedented surveillance by the U.S. Government on its own citizens.  Yet it continues to elevate him as a family man who loved his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary Cheney (Alison Pill ) unconditionally.  The respect of Cheney in his private life, when juxtaposed with vilifying of the man in his public life, drives this comedic drama. The point of view can be a bit contradictory at times.  I suppose that gives it a semblance of balance.  It humanizes a man before eventually driving you to hate him. Given the subject matter, Vice does its best to both entertain and stir the pot.  Now I ask my earlier question again, do you really want to watch a biopic about Dick Cheney?  Unfortunately Vice doesn’t warrant a strong ‘yes’ to that question.

12-17-18