Archive for November, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy

Posted in Drama on November 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It is a true sign of our fractured times that a work as inoffensive as Hillbilly Elegy has inexplicably become one of the most polarizing films in recent memory. Critics hate it! Audiences love it! Dissension between egalitarian pleasures versus the opinions of the elite is nothing new. This is merely the latest work to expose the current cultural divide. A cursory glance uncovers that the swath of negative reviews is rooted in politics that have been shoehorned into a saga that is nonpartisan. Perhaps pundits are conflating the movie with the bestselling memoir by J. D. Vance on which this is based. His comment on class, family, and the American dream is culled from his own experience. In this adaption, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) sidestep those issues directly.

Hillbilly Elegy is simply about succeeding in America from difficult circumstances. If director Ron Howard is guilty of anything, it’s that he has dared to show compassion for unlovable people. Although J.D. Vance has predictably cast himself as the admirable center of his biography, it’s the women in his life that make the strongest impression. Howard’s straightforward portrait miraculously empathizes with irresponsible and immature adults. Chief among these is J.D.’s mother Bev played by Amy Adams and Glenn Close as his grandmother Bonnie who is affectionately known as “Mamaw.” The two actresses give authentic performances that draw you into this family and provide a basis for his upbringing. Mamaw’s fondness for Terminator 2: Judgment Day is just one random but amusingly honest detail. I was emotionally invested in these people. Actor Gabriel Basso plays the adult J.D. but Owen Asztalos emodies him as a child. You wholeheartedly believe Asztalos is the younger version of this character. He’s exceptional. The ensemble is united in its conviction to present the undeniable warmth within a family affected by profound hardship.

This is J.D.’s life and it’s his story to tell. Hillbilly Elegy is a moving chronicle of a dysfunctional clan of eastern Kentucky natives. It’s part of a larger tradition. Frank Capra was a filmmaker whose populism often heralded the everyman. These “pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” ideals unify audiences. One would think the concept of a poor individual who triumphs over modest beginnings to find success would be a quality that anyone could champion. Close and Adams are especially good. Thanks to their engaging performances, the “rags-to-riches” drama is compelling, even uplifting at times. This is admittedly a clumsy account. One simplistic scene is set at a dinner at Yale with a bunch of Ivy league types. J.D. runs to the phone to ask his girlfriend which fork to use and what white wine to order. This can be melodramatic and corny but it is very entertaining nonetheless. Certainly far from the “poverty porn” epithet that detractors have used to dismiss it. Hillbilly Elegy clearly wasn’t made for the critics. It’s an affecting profile of the common man. In that spirit, I embraced their humanity.



Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance on November 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Let me just begin by saying that if Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are starring in a movie together, I’m already on board. The two are among the best actresses of our time. I am an avowed fan. Given my predisposition to appreciate the talent involved, you’d think I would be awarding Ammonite at least four stars. Then I saw it. I struggled to maintain even a modicum of interest in this story. Precious little happens.

Ammonite is loosely based on the real Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), an acclaimed paleontologist whose explorations in the Jurassic marine fossil beds along the Southern English coastline yielded an abundance of scientific finds. Ammonites were among the fossils she discovered. Yet this is not about her glory days as a researcher but rather pure conjecture as to how she spent her later life. She currently supports both herself and her dying mother (Gemma Jones) by selling common fossils to wealthy tourists. Things get — shall we say — interesting when Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives and entrusts his sickly and fragile wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to Mary’s care. Mary begrudgingly accepts because the pay is good. Although the two women have a somewhat antagonistic relationship at first, they develop a deep bond. They amble about looking for fossils and ever so slowly fall in love.

This is the kind of experience that inspires earnest critics to consult a thesaurus. One must interestingly describe an account with a more creative word than “boring.” “Inert” is a favorite of mine. The definition includes “chemically inactive” which perfectly describes the scientific reaction this presentation had on my physical state. “Lethargic” and “listless” work too. Any comparable vocabulary word would effectively convey this saga — any except perhaps “impotent” due to its sexual connotation. This does in fact feature two sex scenes, one explicit. Yes, I realize I’ve now inadvertently recommended this to some of you. The lovemaking incongruously pops up in such direct contrast to the rest of the tepid tale. Maybe it’s not so shocking, however. Their seemingly schizophrenic personalities are rooted in an idiomatic cliché: “A lady in the streets and freak in the sheets.”

19th-century lesbians find love by the Ocean. The subject, time, and locale have all converged to be very hot in the art house circuit as of late. The well-reviewed Portrait of a Lady on Fire got a widespread U.S. theatrical release back in February. Meanwhile, Ammonite has likewise garnered critical acclaim. I won’t be adding my praise to the heap. It’s not for lack of trying. Kate and Saoirse do their capable best to imbue these characters with humanity. The actors radiate sincerity, heart, and pathos. But their thespian skill can only carry this chronicle so far. Ammonite is the follow up to British director Francis Lee’s feature debut, God’s Own Country. I’m not faulting Ammonite for its similarities to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s is a thoroughly dreary film judged on its own terms — visually drab and narratively aloof. Quite bewildering that the characteristics of both works are so similar, though. Comparisons are inevitable. If you haven’t seen either and the subject interests you, the choice is blazingly clear.


The Croods: A New Age

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I wasn’t especially fond of The Croods back in 2013 when I saw it. I railed against its modern attitude and the antagonistic relationship between father and daughter. I still gave it a passable review because it was mostly pleasant. Now I haven’t re-watched it since, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or if The Croods: A New Age is indeed a better movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is not deep. It basically coasts on physical comedy. Nonetheless, it’s such a sunny upbeat delight that it was enough to charm me into believing this is an improvement.

It helps that the story is more elaborate than merely “daughter butts heads with an overprotective father.” Everyone in the Crood household is back including Guy (Ryan Reynolds) — the boyfriend of Eep (Emma Stone) — who now lives with the clan. This time the so-called “threat” is a seemingly innocent family who has advanced beyond the Croods in intelligence and evolution. They’re the Bettermans. Psst…..their name is allegorical. Get it? Actors Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann really bring their A-game in voicing these fussy characters. There’s something acutely absurd in the contrast. Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener) Crood are so thoroughly unrefined while Phil and Hope Betterman are upscale types that act like they’re ready to lead a yoga class. They welcome the Croods into their beautiful home and Grug brings the havoc. Grug can’t seem to understand the concept of a wall.

This is a very funny movie. There are plenty of laughs to be mined simply in that dichotomy. Then the narrative develops a little further. The adventure revolves around the Betterman’s daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) who is comparatively down to earth for a Betterman. She admires Eep and they forge a fast friendship. The fact that they aren’t depicted as rivals is a refreshing surprise. Also, the Bettermans already know Guy. That previous connection makes relationships a bit complicated. The New Age is still a slapstick affair at heart but the zaniness is intelligently introduced and then focused. There’s a glee here that recalls the work of animation legend Tex Avery for Warner Bros and MGM. For example, when Dawn’s hand is stung by a bee it swells to such a puffy cartoonish size it looks like an inflatable balloon. It’s not a profound film. I’ll probably forget the details in a week or two. However, I frequently laughed while watching this, and in 2020 that counts for a lot.


The Life Ahead

Posted in Drama on November 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’m always amused when I see a critic heralding an actor’s appearance in a new movie as a comeback. It’s such a backhanded compliment either implying that they haven’t been working or that the stuff they’ve been doing for years isn’t good. In the last decade, Sophia Loren was the Rob Marshall-directed musical Nine, the Italian TV miniseries My House Is Full of Mirrors, and an Italian short-film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play The Human Voice. Now granted the screen icon doesn’t act very often and her work of the past certainly overshadows her modern output, but in the immortal words of LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback! I’ve been here for years.” The Life Ahead has received significant buzz for Sophia Loren’s performance. She is indeed the main reason to see this.

The story concerns a 12-year old immigrant from Senegal named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye). A street kid living in coastal Italy, he snatches the shopping bag from elderly Rosa (Sophia Loren) at the market one day. After her possessions are returned, the tenacious woman reluctantly agrees to take him in. She attempts to mentor him to be a better person and they develop a deep connection. This isn’t the first child she has given shelter. Rosa is both a Holocaust survivor and an ex-prostitute who now cares for the children of other sex workers.

The chronicle may sound familiar. It is based on the French novel The Life Before Us by Romain Gary which has been adapted a few times before. The most notable one being Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret in 1977. That subsequently won the Academy Award for Best International Feature. This version is directed and co-written (with Ugo Chiti) by Edoardo Ponti who is in fact Loren’s son with her husband producer Carlo Ponti Sr. I think it’s safe to say that director and star have a warm rapport. It comes through on the screen.

The Life Ahead is a perfect vehicle for Loren. The motherly bond that develops between her and Momo is basically the narrative here. As you can probably surmise from the setup, the saga is a little treacly and manipulative. Yet it can be captivating too. Furthermore, it’s nice to see the legendary actress in a feature film again. She exudes charisma. Will she garner another Oscar nomination? There has been serious talk. If Sophia is cited in 2021, it would mark a 56-year span since she was last nominated. This would make history as the longest gap ever. Incidentally, the current record holder is Henry Fonda who went 41-years between nominations. Sophia makes this genial account something worth watching. For that reason, I’m hoping she is included.


Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on November 12, 2020 by Mark Hobin

I’m on the radio! The show is talkSPORT with Martin Kelner where I discuss movies. We chat about THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (Netflix) and THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix). Click below. My segment begins 22 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 section (about 8 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

Source: The world’s biggest sports radio station | talkSPORT

On the Rocks

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on November 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Has anyone noticed this? As the sheer drama of the everyday news gets more fantastical and bizarre, the storylines in movies seem more and more rooted in reality. On the Rocks reflects that trend to the point that it is merely a chronicle that details someone with a suspicious feeling. Hollywood has long relied on science fiction and fantasy for its big-budget tent-poles. The New Mutants and Tenet are recent examples. I get that Hollywood hasn’t released much over the past nine months but where are the low-cost science fiction and fantasy flicks? Vivarium, Sputnik, and Possessor immediately come to mind, but those are the exception in an industry where it used to be the rule. Ah, but I digress. On the Rocks came out in October to AppleTV. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, it stars Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. Coppola famously worked with Murray in Lost in Translation back in 2003, so devotees of that film may appreciate this as a reunion of sorts.

A simple deliberation on humanity can be refreshing. The story concerns Laura (Rashida Jones), a wife who suspects that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating. Bill Murray portrays her father Felix who wants to trail the husband detective style with his daughter by his side and determine beyond any doubt whether Dean is in fact disloyal. Laura is a sweet and likable novelist who is struggling to finish her latest book. Felix is a successful art dealer and a bit of a lothario. Perhaps Laura’s husband is somewhat like her dad? The script gets a lot of humor from the exasperated reactions from his daughter. Murray and Jones have lovely chemistry together. They do indeed make a nice team. The New York locations add a cosmopolitan feel to the narrative and Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography beautifully exploits that.

This is a slight account built around an extremely thin storyline. Not a lot happens. It essentially coasts on the considerable charm of its stars. I’m not saying it’s bad. However, the wistful but conventional tone wasn’t enough to captivate this particular viewer. It’s never a good sign when a 96-minute movie is so inconsequential that you have to watch it in two parts. I watched a full hour before checking out and returning the next day to finish it up. On the Rocks has gotten positive reviews. It’s unquestionably well-acted. Both Murray and Jones imbue their characters with genuine pathos, but the subject is surprisingly mundane for a Sofia Coppola screenplay. She directed the less old-fashioned Somewhere back in 2010. I suppose if you’re a fan of that film and its leisurely pace then I’d recommend this one to you as well.


The Dark and the Wicked

Posted in Horror with tags on November 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Not today Satan, not today!” I quietly whispered while watching this rumination on the devil. It was drag queen Bianca Del Rio who popularized this famous declaration on season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race back in 2014. Since then the phrase has become so ubiquitous that I doubt many people are even aware of its origin, but I like to educate as well as entertain with my reviews.

Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) are siblings whose father (Michael Zagst) is slowly dying. The two arrive at their childhood home in Thurber, Texas to help support their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone). Mom has been caring for their father alone in a large ranch house on an isolated farm. She is overwhelmed by grief. Instead of welcoming their assistance, she seems agitated by their arrival. The home has been possessed by a dark and wicked (hence the title) entity and she had wanted to spare them the trauma. Now that they’re here, they too have become victims to the spirit’s heinous presence.

The chronicle is a very grim tale that mines a growing hopelessness. Even the religious nurse (Lynn Andrews) isn’t immune to the evil lurking within the home. Louise and Michael are detached and distant — not the kind of likable protagonists we usually want to embrace. The two have drifted apart. Granted, they are human beings. We have a basic kinship with their characters and situation. Although far from enemies, they aren’t particularly supportive of one another. Their relationship is almost antagonistic. Perhaps they’re racked by the guilt of having abandoned their parents to a lonely existence. This tension adds to an already unsettling environment.

This is essentially a haunted house flick. Director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) relies on tropes famously implemented in films like The Exorcist and The Shining. This isn’t as good as either of those classics but the filmmaker is smart enough to take inspiration from the best. The events play out during one week and title cards break up the chapters by reminding the viewer what day it is. These waking nightmares grow more threatening over that period. At first, it’s suggested the disturbing visions are merely the product of a troubled psyche. Their frequency and intensity soon proves otherwise. Something malevolent is seizing the family. The creativity of the shocks along with the aggressive nature of the demon make this story quite compelling. There is something genuinely sinister here.

The devil is (literally) in the details. Jump scares can be effective. Sound designer Joe Stockton is the MVP. Creaky floorboards have never seemed as frightening as they do here. Every sound effect is terrifying. Every manifestation of the demon is alarming. Its potency will depend on your own experiences and taste. I appreciate subtlety and restraint in my horror. The first half worked a lot better than the second where the gore becomes more overt. Also, I’m not a fan of abrupt endings where a situation goes unresolved. Put that misstep in the negative column as well. Still, the anxiety culled from this atmospheric piece is pitch-perfect manifestation of dread. Its ability to extract a visceral fear is masterful. I’m saying that yes, I was scared….a lot….by this film.


Over the Moon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on November 5, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Over the Moon is an early frontrunner for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Oscars. The hype doesn’t help. Unrealistic hope can affect your enjoyment and this set mine unnecessarily high. Netflix has made it a habit of buying up animated movies and releasing them as originals. Recent titles include The Little Prince, I Lost My Body, Klaus, The Willoughbys, Fearless, A Whisker Away, Animal Crackers, and Pets United. They run the gamut in quality, so I usually temper my expectations.

The production has a pedigree too. It’s co-directed by Glen Keane, the legendary Disney luminary who worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and many others. He won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for the fawning Dear Basketball co-written and narrated by Kobe Bryant. This release is actually put out by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio who brought us Abominable in 2019. Given the talent involved and the positive buzz, I expected a lot more.

The story sounds culturally adventurous and otherworldly. The tale is adapted from a fable about the Chinese goddess of the Moon. It concerns a 14-year-old girl in China named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). She believes in the Moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) because of stories her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) told her. Unfortunately her mom is terminally ill. After Ma Ma passes on, Fei Fei yearns to travel to the heavens in a rocket ship and prove to everyone that Chang’e is not a myth and that she does truly exist.

Over the Moon is a mixed bag. On the plus side, this is a beautifully animated saga full of colorful designs and expressive creatures. The impressive spectacle is the production’s greatest asset. Fei Fei does indeed fly to the moon. There she meets a wacky world of alien critters. Yet their personalities would be more at home on an American sitcom. It heavily relies on successful works of the past too. There’s goofy sidekick Gobi (Ken Jeong) with the temperament of Olaf the snowman from Frozen. Meanwhile, the Moon goddess is revealed to be less of an ethereal being and more of a spoiled pop princess. Can you feel my disappointment?

The account begins as sensitive handling of death and remarriage, then presents an unrelated adventure that tidily resolves complicated emotional issues at the end. It’s not hard to see the DNA of other films. The aforementioned Frozen, but also Up, Alice in Wonderland, Mulan, the Pixar short Bao. Chinese culture has been superficially inserted as atmosphere to infuse a very bland and generic screenplay. I sound like a broken record because I made the same “Americanized” critique of Abominable. It’s worth noting the voice cast is Asian American. Representation in storytelling and casting is more important than ever. However, Mulan supported Asian actors (Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga, BD Wong, Pat Morita, James Hong, George Takei) way back in 1998 and still managed to promote unique and interesting characters as well. Mulan highlighted some very catchy songs to boot. I appreciate the effort it took to make this a musical. There is a smattering of tunes but nothing is memorable. This is a passable time-filler for adults and a 100-minute babysitter for young kids.


His House

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The greatest horror films have something more percolating beneath the surface than what is readily apparent. His House begins as an immigration drama about a married couple from South Sudan named Bol (Sopé Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) who are seeking asylum in Britain. As refugees, they’re given an expansive but dilapidated flat to live in for the time being. Soon after they discover a demonic presence within the home. Are these problems part of the residence itself or have visions of their very difficult past come to haunt them in this new setting?

The year 2020 can only charitably be described as a colossal mess. Perhaps that is the reason why the past 10 months have conspicuously released more horror films than I’ve ever seen. His House is yet another addition to the genre. There are deeper elements at work. The lives of this pair have been affected by unfathomable tragedy. Their daughter (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba) drowned in a boat accident while they were trying to escape. To make matters worse, they’re working with a caseworker (Matt Smith) who reminds them they’re on probation and need to “fit in” to remain in their new environment. Bol buys clothes to match the photograph of a happy white family in an in-store display. He also joins the locals at the pub in a song about footballer Peter Crouch and starts eating with a knife and fork. Rial can’t abide by the utensils. “All I can taste is metal,” she complains. Their attempt to assimilate isn’t successful. Meanwhile, the evil spirits only seem to intensify.

Writer/director Remi Weekes’ first feature is basically a haunted house tale. Yet it’s a bit more. He presents a character study of well-developed characters. We care about the victims being terrorized which is always a good thing in any story. Remi Weekes explores some interesting ideas about how sometimes the terrors we’ve had to confront within our own lives are just as — if not more than — nightmarish as supernatural forces. Despite the artistic milieu, there are several effective jump scares that will entertain fans.

If only the conclusion had been afforded the same intellectual consideration. Peel back the layers of a complex foundation and you’re left with the essence of a scenario we’ve seen before. OK, sure, there’s a surprising plot twist thrown in, but to what end? The fantastic setup promises a dissertation on racism, xenophobia, and colonialism then devolves into a generic fable about guilt. A violent act suddenly provides a quick and easy solution. The disparity between the emptiness of what ultimately happens and the depth of what came before is vast. A clever metaphor needs a brilliant climax and this one sadly falters. Still, a fascinating effort that is well worth checking out.