Archive for January, 2023

To Leslie

Posted in Drama with tags on January 30, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s an appealing lo-fi aesthetic to this immersive character-driven drama. Screenwriter Ryan Binaco (3022) was allegedly motivated to pen a tribute to his mother’s life. He reportedly drew inspiration from the 1970 movie Wanda by Barbara Loden as well. However, this portrait of a troubled American mother experiencing questionable mental health also suggests other films of that decade: A Woman Under the Influence and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Accomplished TV director Michael Morris (Bloodline, Better Call Saul, 13 Reasons Why) directs.

Leslie Rowland is a single mother from West Texas. Right at the beginning, we see TV news footage of her winning $190,000 in a local lottery. Leslie’s numbers were her son’s birth date. She happens to be an alcoholic and squanders the winnings on liquor and drugs. Six years later, Leslie is penniless and living a nomadic lifestyle without a permanent home. After being kicked out of a derelict motel, she returns to her hometown, ostensibly intending to rebuild her life. Leslie reunites with her estranged 20-year-old son James (Owen Teague). He’s currently in construction. The tall, slender Teague recalls a working-class John Travolta circa the Saturday Night Fever era. James agrees to take her in temporarily, provided she doesn’t drink. Unfortunately, she has difficulty making good on that promise.

Redemptive dramas about alcoholism can feel a bit manipulative. Yet To Leslie supersedes its histrionic subject with authenticity. Leslie soon alienates her son and is forced to move back in with bitter ex-friends (Allison Janney and Stephen Root). That soon falls apart. A chance meeting with Sweeney (Marc Maron), the manager of a rundown motel, might prove to be a blessing. Sweeney’s co-worker is an idiosyncratic man named Royal (Andre Royo), who owns the property. These thoroughly realized characters confirm that a complicated plot is unnecessary when you sincerely detail human emotion. This is a compelling study of addiction in blue-collar Middle America. The emotional saga captivates at every turn.

When we talk about the depth of an actor’s work, it’s hard not to consider the disparity between an actor’s background and the personality of their role. Andrea Riseborough is a British actress born in Wallsend, near Newcastle. She attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2005. Riseborogh completely embodies this hard-drinking West Texas woman. You’d swear the producers simply picked up a local barfly from “The Lone Star State” and cast them in a movie. Riseborough is that convincing. Playing a drunk can feel like a “rite of passage” for an actor. However, her depiction here is elevated beyond common portrayals.

Andrea Riseborough has always been a chameleon. It’s easy to forget she’s been acting for two decades. She made her feature debut in 2006 with a small part in Venus starring Peter O’Toole. She has had prominent roles in many films, including Oblivion, Birdman, Nocturnal Animals, Battle of the Sexes, The Death of Stalin, Mandy, Possessor, Amsterdam, and Matilda The Musical. She often looks and acts like an utterly different individual. She gives a transformative performance here. A grassroots campaign amongst Riseborough’s fellow actors heralded her work in this picture few had seen before January 24. When the Oscar nominations were announced that morning, she earned a nod for Best Actress. Her nomination may have been a surprise, but her achievement is most assuredly deserving of acclaim.

To Leslie is available to rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.



Posted in Drama with tags on January 26, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Aftersun is a moisturizing lotion applied to the skin to soothe sunburn and avoid peeling. The symbolic title announces a deceptively simple movie with significant depth. It opens with rewinding home video footage of a vacation at a modest resort in Turkey during the summer of 1999. The videotape reignites the memories of that trip for an adult woman (Celia Rowlson Hall). 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) is a precocious and perceptive youth on the cusp of adolescence. She’s on holiday with her dad. Calum Paterson is about to turn 31, so there is an age difference of less than 20 years between them.

Calum is a loving and supportive presence in his daughter’s life. The saga presents a series of seemingly random and inconsequential events. The account is a study in simplicity. They swim in the Mediterranean, play a game of pool, shop for a rug, and eat ice cream. In these warm interactions, we gradually explore the dynamics of this father-daughter duo. However, something is amiss. It’s subtle. At one point, Sophie tries to get Calum to join her on stage for a karaoke version of “Losing My Religion,” but he isn’t feeling it. It is implied they used to sing this together on holidays in the past. You’ll have to look closely to identify clues suggesting melancholia.

Aftersun is a gentle wisp of a recollection. A fond reminiscence of happier times. This was one of the most acclaimed releases of 2022 and appeared on over a hundred critics’ top 10 lists. It even garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for star Paul Mescal. He gives a nuanced performance, as does actress Frankie Corio, who plays his daughter. I was impressed by their relaxed chemistry in this thoughtful pastiche of flashbacks. Two things of note: (1) Calum was young when he became a father. (2) He’s now separated from Sophie’s mother. This portrait will affect you more if you identify with Sophie’s situation.

Aftersun is a profoundly personal picture. Charlotte Wells is a talented filmmaker who clearly understands the power of restraint and patience. That this is her first feature makes it one of the most self-assured directorial debuts of 2022. The chronicle perfectly illustrates “show, don’t tell.” As such, the delicacy of the screenplay is the more profound meaning between the lines. This is a profoundly personal picture. The evocation of a mood is compelling. But be forewarned. The nostalgia of this trip is an intimate reflection that builds to an ambiguous conclusion. It may hit you like an emotional ton of bricks or leave you asking a question that does not have a definitive answer.


Fast Film Reviews on talkSPORT radio

Posted in Podcast with tags on January 24, 2023 by Mark Hobin

On Sunday, December 18th I discussed 4-time Oscar nominee and Best Picture contender AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Hear my review on the radio for UK-based talkSPORT. This is a bit late now, but I also discussed the Christmas-themed THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY HOLIDAY SPECIAL, which was a hit on Disney+. My segment begins 3 minutes into the 2:30-3:00 hour (27 minutes from the end). Enjoy!

Source: Live Radio, Breaking Sports News, Opinion – talkSPORT

All Quiet on the Western Front

Posted in Action, Drama, War with tags on January 22, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Author Erich Maria Remarque’s realistic depiction of combat from the perspective of young soldiers in the trenches was a best-selling 1929 novel. As a German veteran of World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front connected with soldiers and civilians across the globe. It sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print. In 1930, the publication became a landmark work of American cinema. Lewis Milestone won the Oscar for Best Director, and the production won Best Picture. It was even reworked again as a TV movie in 1979 starring Richard Thomas.

I didn’t feel like the book needed another adaptation. So this version directed by Edward Berger wasn’t high on my “to see” list. It debuted on Netflix on October 28th and briefly occupied the Top 10 for a couple of weeks. It was overshadowed in popularity at the time by The Good Nurse, a drama starring Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne. Then on Tuesday, January 19th, the BAFTA awards were announced, and this feature got a staggering 14 nominations, more than any other. My curiosity was piqued.

The story follows a teenager named Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends Albert Kropp (Aaron Hilmer) and Franz Müller (Moritz Klaus), who voluntarily enlist in the German army. There they make friends with a more experienced solider named Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). They’re full of patriotism to represent their country, but that excitement soon dissipates as they face the brutalities of war. Witness their youthful, almost angelic faces caked in soot, with only the whites of their eyes shining through. This portrait emphasizes the humanity that shines through the dirt and grime.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a faithful adaptation of a German novel with German actors speaking their native language. It took nearly a century for a German rendition of Remarque’s seminal tome to come to fruition. The fact that the book was banned in Nazi Germany for its anti-war position didn’t make that journey any easier. The production looks good. Cinematographer James Friend offers up breathtaking imagery. It’s a beautifully photographed, handsomely mounted period piece that effectively illustrates the notion that…are you ready? War is Hell.

That sentiment is a timeworn cliche at this point. The production doesn’t have any novel ideas to add. However, it does at least provide an experience. Feel the visceral thrill of combat immersed in the muddy trenches. It has a palpable “you are there” aesthetic. As such, the account repeatedly reminded me of the Sam Mendes picture 1917 in both style and subject matter. Even star Felix Kammerer is a dead ringer for 1917‘s George MacKay. I loved that film, and I likewise appreciate this one too. However, there are long stretches over the course of this 148-minute movie where nothing happens. This narrative is significantly slower and less cinematic than 1917. In the shadow of that epic, this chronicle feels more than a little “been there done that.”

Nevertheless, the upcoming Oscar nominations will be announced on Tuesday, January 24th, and this is becoming a real contender. It’s a German movie, so at the very least, it’s a guaranteed lock for a place in Best International Film, but it’s likely to get cited in other categories. We shall see.


Women Talking

Posted in Drama with tags on January 19, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

From its title, you expect an inspirational tribute to female empowerment. Sadly Women Talking is more frustrating than satisfying. Here’s why.

This chronicle is based on a scandal that occurred among the Mennonites of Manitoba Colony. Mennonites are Christians formed during the Protestant Reformation. Neither Catholic nor Protestant, they are often closely associated with the Amish but an entirely separate entity. This particular religious community of European descent resides in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia. Inspired by actual events, the incident was recounted in the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews. Between 2005 and 2009, over a hundred girls and women woke up to discover that they had been raped in their sleep. At first, the men told them it was the work of ghosts or demons. Ultimately the perpetrators were caught in the act. The victims discovered that men in the settlement had sedated them with cow tranquilizer. The felons were eventually arrested by local police and taken to jail.

Women Talking is simply that, a discussion amongst mothers, daughters, wives, grandmothers, and children. Understandably, they were outraged. The unspeakable crimes have mainly occurred before the film’s outset, although we see some individuals waking up with bruises and no recollection of what happened. The remaining men have now gone to town to bail the criminals out. They have instructed that the women must forgive their abusers before they return. If they do not, they will be forced to leave the colony and “denied entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Oh boy. Are you frustrated yet? It gets even more maddening. The female survivors have assembled in a barn. They have three choices, of which they will pick one (1) Do nothing, (2) stay and fight, or (3) leave.

A celebrated cast breathes life into a dreary debate set on a theatrical stage. Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Judith Ivey present a variety of personalities. They imbue director Sarah Polley’s screenplay with confidence. Producer Frances McDormand also appears as a woman less aligned with the other protestors. She’s onscreen for perhaps 5 minutes. Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw portrays a quiet schoolteacher smitten with Mara’s character. He’s also on hand as a sympathetic representative of the patriarchy who can read and write, unlike the women. He’s ostensibly here to take down the notes and indirectly remind us that “not all men.”

The artificial construct of Women Talking is not without precedent. 12 Angry Men famously threw a group in a room and had them argue. That outstanding drama focused on the questionable guilt of an accused. In this account, there is no doubt. The men are clearly guilty, and the dialogue examines what to do. That changes things considerably. The eight endlessly pontificate on their various options. One’s enjoyment will be how much you appreciate listening to indecisive people speak in circles about an issue for 104 minutes but not do anything. I had hoped that “stay and fight” might include securing machine guns and mowing down their violent attackers. I wondered what an actress like Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton might have done in a movie 35 years ago.

The persecuted gather for a well-meaning drama of morally unimpeachable politics. The ladies finally make a decision, but it’s too little too late. It fails to provide the necessary catharsis, a moment where horrific crimes are thoroughly addressed. Dear ladies, actions speak a lot louder than words. Or, to put it another way, “women doing” is more inspiring than “women talking.”



Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on January 9, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The killer doll story has been a subset of horror for decades. Early instances of the well-worn trope can be found in Dead of Night (1945) and TV’s The Twilight Zone (1959). The 1970s reintroduced the concept with Trilogy of Terror (1975), Magic (1978), and Tourist Trap (1979), but it popped up the most during the 1980s in films like The Pit (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Ghoulies (1985), Dolls (1986), Child’s Play (1988) and Puppet Master (1989). Recent additions include Annabelle (2014), The Boy (2016), and Sabrina (2018). It’s time to add yet another entry to the fold. Meet M3GAN (pronounced MEGAN), an innovative life-sized action figure who can walk and talk…and dance, but I wouldn’t expect a meaningful discourse. Her existence adds nothing to the conversation.

M3GAN is a downright lazy interpretation of a basic idea. Gemma (Allison Williams) is a roboticist at Funki, a technological toy company. M3GAN (played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) is short for Model 3 Generative Android. Wide-eyed and girly, the doll is suitably creepy and the production design’s best asset. Gemma is working on this artificial intelligence (AI) robot for children at home. The toy is still in the prototype stage. Gemma’s 8-year-old niece Cady (Violet McGraw), is currently staying with her. Cady is struggling to come to terms with the death of her parents. M3GAN appears to be a good surrogate for her grief. Gemma is pleased by this as she can spend less time being a parent. Kudos to Allison Williams for portraying a cold personality that is, unfortunately, more realistic than people would care to admit. Gemma’s co-worker (Jen Van Epps) and Cady’s therapist (Amy Usherwood) are concerned with M3GAN’s growing presence in Cady’s life. We, the audience, were worried the second we saw the strangely lifelike doll because (ahem) we have seen movies before.

Horror films work when they can shock or scare us. M3GAN fails in this regard. We’ve had at least 80 years of the cinematic trope, so it’s astonishing to see a picture in 2023 do so little with the formula. M3GAN has been programmed to protect Cady emotionally and physically. Her AI grows more advanced as she bonds with Cady until — surprise! — the doll becomes sentient. The toy exhibits hostility whenever she spies a danger to her human companion. Naturally, this progresses into her killing the people and animals she deems a threat. The plot shuffles down a predictable path. As a result, there’s no tension or suspense other than waiting for the current scene to end so we can see the next obvious development.

M3GAN is spooky but lacks scares. However, that isn’t the raison d’être of this PG-13-rated fluff. It’s trying to be funny, but having a robot use words like “bitch” when she gets angry is just scraping the bottom of the barrel for wit. M3GAN inexplicably swaying to a pop song in the trailer inspired a TikTok trend. The marketing team wisely capitalized on this situation and hired a troupe of eight dancers dressed like M3GAN to move in a choreographed routine at the premiere and other random events. This makes the much shorter 10-second blink-and-you-miss-it dance in the actual film seem even more like a missed opportunity.

M3GAN isn’t campy enough. This is surprising because screenwriter Akela Cooper wrote Malignant, which had a zany sensibility you couldn’t predict. See the infinitely superior Bride of Chucky for an example of true outrageousness. The fourth installment in the Child’s Play franchise took doll-on-doll relations to the next level. Now that’s camp! And while we’re at it, the concept of an electronic device designed to entertain and mentor children isn’t even outlandish anymore. Count how many tots at the mall have their eyes glued to an iPad and not their parents. I know, 20 years ago, it would’ve been a TV at home. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Speaking of the status quo, the first month of the year has traditionally been the dumping ground for Hollywood studios. M3GAN is indeed a movie released by Universal Pictures on January 6th.


Emily the Criminal

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 6, 2023 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Emily Benetto is facing a mountain of crippling debt from student loans. She also has a felony conviction, preventing her from getting a regular job. The details are sketchy. We hear it’s from an assault. She mentions she fought a lot with an ex-boyfriend. That ambiguity helps us side with her. Longtime best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) pledges to get Emily an interview at a prestigious ad agency, but those promises keep going unfulfilled. Emily falls more easily into a credit card scam where she poses as a “dummy shopper.” We’re introduced to a nefarious Los Angeles underworld that includes a mentor named Youcef Haddad (Theo Rossi).

As the title suggests, Emily the Criminal is a character study — at least initially — about a crook. Not one that is born and raised but recently brought about by her plight. She is a scrappy young woman, defined by her current situation. Emily’s ability to adapt is impressive. As her circumstances become ever more dangerous, she meets them head-on. The situations continue to escalate, but so does she. She refuses to be a victim. Despite her less-than-savory behavior, she isn’t a figure that incurs our hatred. Although she doesn’t incur respect, either.

Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, Ingrid Goes West) is fascinating as the main protagonist. The individual occupies this gray area where we know her actions are wrong on an intellectual level, but we want her to succeed from an emotional standpoint. To inspire that nuance of feeling is rare. The actress continues to make an impression. When this drama became available on Netflix on December 7, it promptly entered the Top 10. At the same time, she was portraying Harper Spiller, a straitlaced lawyer in a marriage fraught with tension, in the vacation drama The White Lotus on HBO Max.

Emily the Criminal is also a competent thriller. Any discussion of the most promising directorial debuts of 2022 would include John Patton Ford. He has fashioned a compelling tale. In detailing her journey, Emily will meet a cadre of various individuals. It will get intense. Her self-defense weapons expand from pepper spray to a taser to a box cutter. The last of which is considerably more lethal. There is a dubious lack of guns, however. Some of the interactions could have gone much worse. Take a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief before enjoying this view of LA. Aubrey Plaza keeps us enrapt. The actress maintains a blank stare, a face inexplicably conveying both fear and indifference to everything around her. That keeps us a bit detached, too, but we still feel compassion. Ford’s screenplay pleads for understanding. This is an unvarnished portrait of humanity. It may not be inspiring, but it is real.


Emily the Criminal is on Netflix (since December 7). It originally premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on January 24 and was released to theaters on August 12.