Archive for October, 2019

Official Secrets

Posted in Drama, Thriller, Biography with tags on October 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

official_secretsSTARS3There have been many: Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Mark Whitacre, Linda Tripp, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden.  You may not know all their names, but what they did had a profound effect.  A whistleblower can change the course of history.  The current presidential administration is now dealing with one.  A C.I.A. officer has alleged Ukraine interference in the American elections.  No doubt that’s the topic of another production in the future.   Needless to say, the subject has never been more timely.

The tale of this film set in 2003 concerns British translator Katharine Gun who worked at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.  She comes across an e-mail directing the GCHQ to dig up dirt on members of the U.N. Security Council.  The information to be used as blackmail so as to encourage a positive vote approving the U.S. push for war against Iraq following 9/11.  I wasn’t familiar with her account.  That may have made this chronicle a more exciting experience for me.

Katherine leaks the memo and the drama hinges on whether this whistleblower is a hero or a traitor.  The main character is played by Keira Knightley so you can probably predict how the audience is supposed to feel about this woman.  As the events unfold her life becomes more and more fraught with turmoil.  These political thrillers can be very dry and this one is paced is like a police procedural.  It’s not flashy.  However, I’ve always found Keira to be a compelling actress so her predicament becomes quite interesting.   She brings an urgency to the role that makes the movie feel important.  I was indeed invested in the story of Katharine Gun.

09-24-19

The Addams Family

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

addams_familySTARS3The characters who first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, in 1938, wouldn’t be christened “The Addams Family” until the 1964 TV series.  Charles Addams’ comic strip also spawned wildly successful movies in the 1990s.  Given the passage of time, these are probably how most people know these individuals today.  Incidentally, there was a Broadway show back in 2010 as well.  The execution of this current animated film is actually the closest rendering to the cartoonist’s original creation.  It acts as a nice introduction for kids to the ghoulish clan.

Our tale begins in the past with the marriage of Gomez and Morticia voiced by Oscar Isaac Charlize Theron.  Flash forward to the present where they move to New Jersey, in a particularly amusing gag.  There are a few plot threads.  An oppressive neighborhood busybody and reality TV host named Margeaux Needler (Allison Janney) threatens to make the Addams’ life miserable.  More on her later.  Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) prepares for a coming of age ritual involving swordplay.  Finally, their daughter, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) is curious about life outside her home and so she enrolls herself in junior high school.  There she befriends a girl named Parker (Elsie Fisher), who happens to be Margaux’s daughter.

The Addams Family isn’t an expensive effort and picky animation fans raised on Pixar and Disney may balk at the modest appearance of the production.  This cost a mere $24 million to make.  Compare that to Toy Story 4 which had a budget of $200 million.  However, this uncluttered simplicity is part of its charm.  Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan brought us the raunchy R rated Sausage Party back in 2016.  This bears absolutely no resemblance to that endeavor.  Depending on your point of view that could either be a good thing or a bad thing.  (Personally, I was pleased.)

First the bad news: The Addams Family won’t win any awards.  As a stroy it’s kind of a scattershot affair that keeps hammering the same lesson– it’s OK to be different.  Promoting the virtues of uniformity is Home And Garden (HAG) TV maven Margeaux.  She’s building a planned community known as Assimilation near the Addams’ mansion.  She has this ridiculously large bouffant of blonde hair.  It looks like a gigantic plastic headpiece.  She’s the villain obviously and she’s hilarious.  The moral is heavy-handed but its heart is in the right place.

That’s the good news: As a piece of animated entertainment, it’s a pleasant diversion that stays true to the spirit of Charles Addams’ cartoon strip.  The artwork and his quirky sense of humor are intact.  These folks remain the appealingly oddball personalities that we know and love.  They’re all here: Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) Grandmama (Bette Midler), Wednesday, Pugsley, their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg) and Thing, a disembodied hand.  Their eccentricities are on full display and they provide laughs aplenty for children and adults alike.  Monochromatic Wednesday Addams and her school chum Parker (Elsie Fisher) are talking about which Instagram filter to use for their photo and Wednesday dismisses making a choice. “I still appear black and white in all of them.”  It’s these little throwaway comments that made me chuckle.  The Addams Family is a spirited bit of fluff with inspired atmospheric touches.

10-10-19

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Abominable

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

abominable_ver4STARS3This site is called “Fast” Film Reviews so I’ll get right to the point.  I’m giving Abominable a marginal pass because it’s vivid entertainment that will undoubtedly charm 8 years olds and under who haven’t been corrupted by as many movies as I.  My mind, however, went to a lot of other flicks while watching this tried and true tale.   It suffers by comparison.  The adventure is about a Yeti.  It begins in Shanghai, China.  One day a girl discovers a cute roly-poly creature with a loving disposition on her rooftop.  He has escaped from his holding cell in a laboratory at the sinister Burnish Industries.  The two bond and she names him Everest.  She vows to bring him back to that highest mountain on earth where he lives.  The problem is that they’re pursued by authorities who want to apprehend him.  With her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and his selfie-obsessed cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), the four individuals undertake an epic journey.

Despite the setting, the experience succumbs to an Americanized milieu.  This is a joint effort by DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.  With the exception of her diminutive grandmother Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), the entire cast sounds as if they were assembled from a Hollywood casting call of local talent.  The central character is a teenaged girl named Yi.  Given the flat tonal quality of her voice, she recalls Miley Cyrus (Bolt) to this untrained ear.  I checked the credits and saw it was in fact actress Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).  Yi plays the violin which allows for a few expressive pieces that genuinely enhance the soundtrack.  However, hearing London based Coldplay’s song “Fix You” takes you right out of that atmosphere.  A pop ditty entitled “Beautiful Life” by Brooklyn born Bebe Rexha doesn’t add to the mood either.  English Eddie Izzard and American Sarah Paulson voice the antagonists.   Ok so the visual backgrounds are culled from Far East locations but there’s nothing about this production that would have substantially changed if it had been set in a large American city like New York.  In a year where The Farewell truly presented Chinese culture with depth and nuance, you’re going to have to do better than simply having your characters eat a few pork buns.  Abominable was also released with a far more evocative Mandarin-language translation for Chinese-speaking moviegoers.  Personally, I would’ve appreciated that version, with English subtitles of course.

Abominable meets the acceptable standard of children’s entertainment.  It’s pleasant enough. The visuals are indeed colorful and the saving grace of this picture.  A highlight occurs when huge blueberries rain down a hill toward our protagonists in a tsunami.  Vast sweeping fields of canola flowers are appropriately stunning.  Shanghai is a glowing neon metropolis, the Gobi desert is pretty and the giant mountainside Buddha in Leshan is an impressively rendered landmark.  The principal critter is a smartly designed plump ball of fur.  He doesn’t resemble an abominable snowman but as a stuffed animal to be manufactured and produced for the masses, he’s adorable.  The animation is adventurous.  The screenplay by writer-director Jill Culton is not.

The “girl makes an unlikely friend” chronicle is stridently average.  Substitute Everest for an alien or pet or dragon and you have the blueprint of countless (better) tales that have come before.  Additionally, the pacing is unbearably slow.  There is surprisingly very little humor to break up the monotony.  A full third of the drama must elapse before they even begin their journey, which is the main thrust of the narrative.  The final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy came out just 7 months ago.  That far superior release was also from DreamWorks, so the company is actually offering pale imitations of their own movies now.  This story is rote and unoriginal.  The noteworthy thing about Abominable is that it’s is the 7th movie from Universal to top the box office weekend in the U.S. this year (8 if you include Downton Abbey).  The studio has the most #1 films in 2019.  At a time where Disney’s dominance over the market is unprecedented, I love to root for the underdog.  Kudos to Universal for still being a competitor.  I just wish it could do so with a less conventional product.

10-01-19