Archive for the Biography Category

The Birth of a Nation

Posted in Biography, Drama on October 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo birth_of_a_nation_zpsayzjohqa.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJust based on the title alone, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation might appear to be a remake of the infamous 1915 silent directed by D.W. Griffith. That picture, though financially successful, was highly controversial upon release and remains so to this day. Though hailed as a masterpiece for its revolutionary filmmaking techniques, it was also criticized as racist propaganda. A highly inflammatory piece of agitprop, the chronicle embraced the Southern cause in the Civil War and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. Hard to fathom in this day and age, but this was a perspective that saw the abolitionist movement as destructive to the fabric of southern society. By “re-purposing” the title of that notorious achievement, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation also seeks to stir controversy. It is a subversive choice. This drama is a response of sorts, but from the viewpoint of one slave, Nat Turner.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was an African American who led a rebellion of fellow slaves and free blacks on August 21, 1831. The uprising in Southampton County, Virginia lasted about 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people. The biography portrays his life. As a child, he displays a self-taught reading ability that impresses his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). She encourages his desire to read, but only from the Bible. As Nat grows older, he becomes a dynamic preacher. When his talents are recognized by white men, he is exploited into performing a role that will eventually change him. Turner’s master (Armie Hammer) profits by taking Nat across the country on a preaching tour to other slaves. We see how the word of God is manipulated to condone slavery. His sermons are meant to quell the workers and keep them in line. Nat’s facility with the Bible grows. He learns that for every line that appears to justify the practice, there is another that soundly condemns it. In his travels, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery, and his experience compels him to become a different kind of leader.

Nat receives preferential treatment for his work, but you can see his anger seething within. The Birth of a Nation is highlighted by some memorable images. The sight of a white girl and a black girl at play with a rope around the latter’s neck is a shocking image that jolts the viewer. When one slave refuses to eat, the horrific solution is too harrowing to even describe here.  An attack on Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is the defining moment that ultimately drives him to action. A quiet performance, actor Nate Parker often lets his face do the talking. He progressively realizes he is being used as a tool by white southerners to subjugate black slaves. Throughout the film, he often registers this through facial expressions and not words. His acting is a triumph of composed rage.

The Birth of a Nation is fashioned as a tale of revenge. It’s a difficult watch. The narrative dedicates very little time to the revolt itself. Instead it mostly dwells on the build-up of appalling events to which Nat Turner is a witness. The events have a galvanizing effect on him. He is transformed from a peaceful preacher into an angry rebel leading the downtrodden into an insurrection. Like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, there is no shortage of atrocities presented on screen. It becomes so relentless that by the end of the picture, you’re so primed to see the oppressed rise up against their captors that the mutiny becomes a catharsis. As such, The Birth of a Nation is not a “slave” movie per se, but a “soldier” movie.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful work, but it’s a disturbing one as well. As a document that challenges racism and white supremacy, it is most assuredly a step in the right direction. Nat Turner was hanged and given no formal burial. We are told (not shown) that he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Soon after his death, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. If you thirst for more of his story, I would suggest that. This film functions as a cinematic memorial that celebrates his memory. It also recounts a historical event and honors the legacy of Nat Turner. He was an early champion of civil rights – in a not-so-civil manner. He deserves a biography. Yet his story is told in broad strokes with plot points invented for dramatic effect (i.e.  Nat Turner’s wife was never gang raped by slave patrollers.  Nor was it the final inhumanity that inspired him to riot). It’s an emotional experience but not necessarily a wholly factual one.

The Birth of a Nation originally debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to thunderous applause and much acclaim back in January 2016. I will attest that it is is indeed a thought-provoking work. However in the ensuing months, rape allegations against the director have hung over this feature like a dark cloud. The Birth of a Nation has gone from “can’t-miss” to “should-miss”.  It tanked at the box office. I’m not here to tell you whether you should see this movie or not. That’s up to you. I can only give my opinion so that you can make an informed decision. Personally, I try to separate the art from the artist. I’ll admit it’s not always easy to do. Here I’ve chosen to review the film itself and in that spirit, I believe the message is worth your time.


Queen of Katwe

Posted in Biography, Sports on October 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo queen_of_katwe_zps5vheippe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgUnderdog sports stories are a dime a dozen, so it’s a small wonder that despite the prevalence of that theme, Queen of Katwe is an impressive feat. Yes, the narrative is structured in a way that feels familiar to anyone acquainted with the conventional design of these accounts. Call it a rags to riches or coming of age or triumph of the spirit or whatever-you-want-to-call-it fable. All those characterizations apply in theory, but labels are a disservice to the sheer distinction of this inspirational drama. Make no mistake, Queen of Katwe is something special.

Queen of Katwe tells the unconventional story of a young illiterate girl from the slums of Uganda who develops into a chess champion. Reflect on that sentence for a moment and consider the unlikelihood of that idea. It would sound contrived if it weren’t actually a true tale.  Phiona Mutesi grows up in Katwe which is a neighborhood in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Her father has died and now she is solely raised by a single mother, Harriet Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o). Too poor, Phiona has been forced to drop out of school because her family cannot afford to send her there any longer. Now she sells maize.  One day, she is invited to join a chess program by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He runs a local Christian ministry, the Sports Outreach Institute. Phiona picks up the game quickly and he soon discovers she has a gift.

Queen of Katwe uncovers a side of rural resolve not often depicted in motion pictures. This is Uganda – a movie about African life and its people. Katwe is a community full of humanity with homes made of plywood and tin that sit alongside a lumber yard and a trash dump. It is unapologetic, unglamorous, gritty and yet dynamic and full of spirit. It presents Phiona’s journey in such vivid detail that the experience becomes immersive. Mira Nair brings a remarkable verisimilitude to her work. The Indian director burst onto the scene in 1988 with Salaam Bombay! Then followed it up with Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding. She is a distinctive artist with an ease for the rhythms of various cultures. That’s a refreshing contrast to the abundance of movies set in the U.S. Admittedly the story arc arrives at a redemptive place. This is expected, yet the account never seems “Hollywood”.

All this authenticity would merely be window dressing without charismatic personalities to captivate our interest. Recognizable stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o do have key roles and they’re both mesmerizing. However, it’s Ugandan Madina Nalwanga in her very first role that is the central star. She has a naive, unaffected presence. In fact, her attendance of the movie’s premiere at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood was only the 2nd time the actress had ever seen a movie in a cinema. (The first was during filming.) Nair surrounds Madina with local young folks that have never acted as well. The unvarnished charisma of Phiona’s brother (Martin Kabanza) sister (Taryn Kyaze) and chess friends are their virtue. The non-actors add to the authenticity of this portrait. Queen of Katwe is such a vibrant depiction of reality in Uganda that the fascinating chronicle about a chess champion becomes a bonus.

You cannot resist the allure of Queen of Katwe and if you can, then please allow me to pray for your soul. This is a tale that nourishes the heart without saccharin or sentiment. That’s not easy. Chess is such an allegory for life and the movie draws compelling parallels between Phiona’s existence and the politics of the game. The lowly pawn’s promotion to a queen is an attractive rule to which the young girl particularly responds. We understand Phiona’s love of the game and it becomes our affection as well. Chess is probably the least cinematic “sport” I can think of and yet the chess matches are fun, exciting and full of energy. The children have a galvanizing charm when they’re playing that is infectious. If there is a quibble, it’s only that the plot does reach the very conclusion you anticipated even before you sat down to watch. I mean let’s be real. This is a Disney production. Nevertheless, the way it plays out is still a pleasure. The narrative keeps uplifting the heart right down to the delightful end credits. Watching the actors walk out one by one joined by their real-world counterparts is one of the purest joys I’ve had at the cinema all year.



Posted in Biography, Drama on September 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sully_ver2_zpsgo7sqnzo.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s get right to the point. Sully bored me to tears. The movie that is, not the pilot for whom I have the utmost respect. I have to make that abundantly clear so I’m not misunderstood. This production is simply not artfully designed to maximize entertainment value. At least not as far as this reviewer is concerned.

But what do I know? Sully continues to astound as the #1 film this weekend with another $22M. I shouldn’t be surprised by its success. This is an old-fashioned tribute to an American hero by director Clint Eastwood starring Tom Hanks. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing subject with a starring role that couldn’t miss pressing all the right buttons if the drama had been constructed out of a marketing focus group. In some ways, that feels like part of the problem.

Sully is a biopic about the actions of one Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549. Back in Jan 2009, the airliner hit a flock of Canada geese only 100 seconds into the flight, disabling both engines. Determining that no airports were within a safe distance, He made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The entire dilemma occurred and was resolutely solved in 208 seconds. All 155 passengers and crew aboard were saved. Sully was immediately hailed as hero. The incident came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”. Case closed. End of story, right? Not so fast.

How do you create meaningful tension in a tale with a central issue that was quickly solved and with a happy ending to boot? Clint Eastwood is often captivated by downfall and redemption themes. Therefore, he has retrofitted his aesthetic to manipulate a story where there really is no conflict. I’ll admit there’s excitement in a crash landing, or what could have been a disaster. Drama resides in human fear. Except that’s not how Mr. Eastwood approaches this topic. The crisis has already happened when the chronicle begins. Instead of concentrating on the incident itself, Eastwood tries to mine thrills by fashioning the plot around an inquisition by the National Transportation Safety Board. They believe Sully had enough power to safely return the plane to LaGuardia or land at Teterboro airport in nearby New Jersey. The movie flashbacks to the roughly 5 minute ordeal over and over again as details emerge. Each side contends their own side of the truth. I thought of Inherit the Wind and the way “right vs. wrong” was amusingly portrayed in a courtroom setting. It’s all about the “I bet you feel like an idiot now!” moment.

I’m not here to debate whether the NTSB really was the villain in this ordeal. (For the record, they gave Sullenberger high marks in their accident report and publicly credited his quick action that saved lives.)  I just want an engaging flick. Sully, however, is a deferential hagiography that manufactures the final payoff out of a series of dreary flight simulations in a room full of people talking. This becomes the weak climax of an account where the ultimate showdown is a big yawn of a discussion.  Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is unquestionably a hero. No one disputes that — or no one but the NTSB according to this script. In any case, this feature chose to depict a 5-minute event that had a happy ending. It’s not easy to make that exciting. This film proves that. Even at a scant 96 minutes, the drama feels overstuffed with filler.


Florence Foster Jenkins

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on September 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo florence_foster_jenkins_zpsglvvlopw.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWho knew that a historical drama starring Meryl Streep would elicit the loudest and most sustained laughter I’ve heard in a theater this year? Certainly not I. Chalk it up to matching the right audience with the perfect film. Florence Foster Jenkins is old-fashioned in its construction, but it’s so lovingly composed and well acted that you can’t help but appreciate the craft that went into making it.

The 2nd week of August saw a flurry of new movies. Florence Foster Jenkins is a picture I initially passed on back in August because I chose to see wider releases instead, namely Pete’s Dragon and Sausage Party.  This biopic tops them both. Florence Foster Jenkins was an actual New York City heiress and socialite who loved to sing but didn’t let her lack of vocal talent stop her. In the face of substantial shortcomings, she attracted a considerable fan base. She sang at the parties of the various clubs and societies she supported, amassing a fervent following of affluent New Yorkers. Her popularity and reputation grew during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Florence Foster Jenkins makes a comprehensible case as to how such a bad singer could become such a sensation. People relished her awfulness. This fascination with failed crooners isn’t a peculiarity of the 1940s. The success of William Hung’s American Idol audition or the 2011 song “Friday” by YouTube personality Rebecca Black are recent examples of this phenomenon. Whether Florence was aware of the “mockers and the scoffers” is not altogether clear. To be fair, she had her genuine adherents too.

As you’d expect, Meryl Streep is flawless. Yet the production features not one but three bravura performances. St. Clair Bayfield was her husband and a minor Shakespearean actor, to boot. He devoted decades to protecting the soprano from the critical voices that might silence her enthusiasm. It’s Hugh Grant’s juiciest role in almost a decade. An important side character through all this was her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame. His double takes and incredulous stares are priceless.

Director Stephen Frears has given us successes like Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen, so he obviously knows how to produce a tale that is perceptive as well as crowd pleasing. Despite the costume drama milieu, Florence Foster Jenkins is not some staid period piece. This is a comedic farce that relies heavily on Meryl Streep’s hilarious ability to sing really really badly. Indeed, there are scenes where most directors would have cut the song short, but Frears gives us extended takes that revel in just how truly awful she is. In the hands of Meryl Streep, the character becomes larger than life with a predilection for ornate costumes and flamboyant flair for the theatrical show. It’s a spectacle to be sure but a rather amusing one at that. Although there’s nothing funny about the deeper notion of idealistic dreams. The narrative is equally uplifting. A fearless spirit has the capacity to transcend one’s limitations.


The Man Who Knew Infinity

Posted in Biography, Drama on June 16, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo man_who_knew_infinity_ver2_zpsdhy0zicy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) should be the subject of a compelling movie. He was an accomplished Indian mathematician.  In this school of thought, people like Sir Isaac Newton or Professor Stephen Hawking are household names to anyone over the age of 12. Ramanujan, however, still remains somewhat of a mystery. That is until now. His lack of recognition with the general public makes this document of his life even more crucial.

Born in utter poverty, Ramanujan possessed a brilliant mind for analytical theory but had no university training. At one point he decided to send some of his written formulas to a well-known professor at Cambridge University during World War I. At first G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) thought the correspondence from the unknown sender was a joke, but in time Ramanujan was invited to come study at Cambridge. This occurred in 1914.  He would ultimately become a pioneer in mathematical principles under the guidance of professor G. H. Hardy, his advocate and sponsor.

A fascinating man inspires this production but it’s buried under the formal structure of a staid biopic. Dramatizing the study of theorems is not easy to do and the drama (perhaps wisely) doesn’t even try. Instead, the best parts of The Man Who Knew Infinity deal with the push and pull between Ramanujan and Hardy. They butt heads over differing ideological views. Ramanujan is a devout Hindu while Hardy is openly atheist. Hardy demands proofs. Ramanujan relies on intuition. Their battles of wills is the engaging conflict at the heart of this rather academic and somewhat superficial picture. It’s their love of mathematics that unites them.

Two talents elevate this script. Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel play off one another. To say that this is Dev Patel’s greatest performance since Slumdog Millionaire sounds a bit like damning with faint praise. After all the actor has struggled since that breakthrough in films like The Last Airbender and Chappie. Patel gives the part a sweet determination that honors the man’s accomplishments while giving us an appreciation for all the sacrifices he had to make. The Man Who Knew Infinity isn’t a great movie. Yet let’s consider the fact that it exists to honor the contributions of an unsung hero. That alone makes the biography worthwhile.


Eddie the Eagle

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on February 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo eddie_the_eagle_ver2_zpsqj4hb05e.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgEddie “the Eagle” was the nickname of the British skier born Michael Edwards.  For most American moviegoers, the next response to that would be, “Um excuse me, who?”  In the absence of challengers, the record holder was the first person to represent Great Britain in the sport of ski jumping at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. But he wasn’t a gold winning athlete. Far from it in fact. The plasterer by trade had a surprising lack of aptitude for an Olympian.

Eddie’s saga actually began in the competitive world of downhill skiing but he switched to ski jumping when he realized it was easier to qualify. You see, there were no other British ski jumpers to rival him. He attracted publicity thanks to an upbeat can-do attitude that captivated the hearts of his fellow countrymen, much to the chagrin of the discipline’s purists. Coincidentally this was the same Olympics at which the Jamaican bobsled team famously made their debut. That much more familiar tale (to Americans anyway) was recounted in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, an underdog story with which Eddie the Eagle shares a very similar narrative structure. The film’s essence can be summarized in one sentence: “You don’t have to win, to be a winner.” Taron Egerton affably portrays Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards as an unlikely hero.

Actor Egerton was nominated for the Rising Star Award at the 69th British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs) in 2016. He didn’t win. John Boyega of Star Wars: The Force Awakens received that honor. But if Egerton had, he would have been deserving of the accolade. He auspiciously came to widespread attention in the hit Kingsman: The Secret Service, then followed up with a supporting role in the Tom Hardy movie Legend. Now he’s back in the lead with this biopic. It’s almost as if each character was played by three different actors. The depictions couldn’t be more dissimilar from one another. As Eddie, Taron exudes earnest passion.  Even prickly Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), after several refusals, finally accedes to coach him – won over by Eddie’s enthusiasm.

Eddie the Eagle is so guileless in its composition, that at times it’s hard to tell whether the concoction is winking at the audience or simply just that incredibly straightforward. I suspect the latter in most cases. The uncomplicated drama clearly seeks to uplift the subject. I have to give the script credit for such cheerful goodwill. It has a lot of heart. Yet the film itself is kind of artificial. At one point it uses Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” in a training montage without a hint of sarcasm. The 80s styled font titles announcing the height of each jump and Matthew Margeson’s cheesy synth-heavy score dovetail nicely with Edgerton’s demeanor.

Eddie the Eagle all works together in a rather campy, but loving tribute. My lack of familiarity with the actual man is a benefit because Edgerton’s performance never rang false. It’s an odd characterization. Taron Edgerton dons big glasses and affects an underbite to play the gawky athlete. He mercilessly hams it up playing up Eddie’s little eccentricities. Occasionally the portrait verges on caricature. However Eddie is so likable and sweet that you forgive the affectations. What comes through is a genuine soul who just wanted to compete so badly. That Edgerton makes us understand this man without resorting to ridicule is kind of miraculous. His sincerity, much like the real life Eddie the Eagle, won me over.


The Lady in the Van

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on February 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lady_in_the_van_ver3_zpsthjsprwh.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgMiss Mary Shepherd is an aging homeless woman struggling with physical decline. Her home is a broken down van which she parks in the neighborhood of Camden, in London.  BUT Mary isn’t some lovable scamp.  No, far from it. She’s a cantankerous old shrew to be quite honest. Eccentric and ill tempered, she isn’t the first person to whom you’d want to give a warm hug.

The Lady in the Van has a sweet quality that will delight some and irk others. It’s self consciously precious and finds humor in the little mundanities of life. The tale is based on English playwright Alan Bennett’s own reminiscence of an elderly woman who lived out of her car in his London driveway for 15 years. Bennet is well acquainted with adapting his plays for the screen (The Madness of King George, The History Boys). Director Nicholas Hytner has experience with handling the film versions. Maggie Smith has portrayed this part twice: the original stage production in 1999 and later a radio program on the BBC in 2009. Alex Jennings is the other component as the exasperated author that effectively matches Smith in their verbal exchanges. It’s clear everyone is very at ease with the material.

Now if the casting doesn’t already pique your interest, as it did me, then perhaps your enjoyment of The Lady in the Van will be a bit more of an uphill battle. Maggie Smith, that grande dame of the British acting world, has made a career of late playing cold, judgmental types. Her irascible demeanor somewhat softened by the biting quips she can deliver with her uniquely styled sardonic wit. Although she’s rude, the audience is still willing to embrace her spunky temperament. It’s not an easy task but Maggie Smith has perfected the trait. She embodies the role with flamboyant flair making full use of her considerable acting talents.

The Lady in the Van is first and foremost a star vehicle (no pun intended) built around Maggie Smith’s performance. She puts on the part like a comfortable old sweater. That describes this trifling slice of life to a T. It’s cozy. The joy is watching thespians Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in one amusing tête–à–tête after another. Their personalities clash and mesh at various points – she a grouchy curmudgeon, he a finicky chap that talks to himself. The discovery is what we learn about these two characters as the years pass. The drama is slight, charming and oh-so-British.



Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on January 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo concussion_ver2_zpsn7swvjsa.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgBefore I launch into my review of Concussion, I thought a little primer on biology might help. So the brain floats inside the skull surrounded by something called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). When the body is suddenly stopped after a blow to the head, like after being tackled for example, the brain continues to move in the CSF until it hits the next solid surface – the inside of the skull. Sure a helmet will protect the skull, but it cannot protect the brain. If this happens enough times, the nerve fibers break off and proteins start to build up in the brain leaving scar tissue. That’s bad.

Concussion is a medical drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He works for the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office in Pittsburgh. A forensic pathologist, Omalu conducts the autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster – legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had not been well. He was suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression and died from a heart attack at only 50 years old. What Omalu finds, leads to his discovery of a new disease that he names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in 2005. The complications of which somewhat resemble Alzheimer’s, however they occur much earlier in life. The depression, memory loss and erratic, aggressive behavior experienced by ex NFL players, continues to this day. Concussion does a nice job at emphasizing the severity of these symptoms.

Given the subject matter, this could’ve been a much more incendiary film. The research calls the very sport of professional football into question. (I assume athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, rugby and wrestling would be at risk as well.) As you might expect, the publication of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research is viewed as extremely controversial by the National Football league. The NFL had a choice. Join Dr. Bennet Omalu and try to solve the problem, or use their considerable power to discredit him. The NFL choose the latter and they certainly do not come off well. They’re presented as this monolithic corporate entity as headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

Dr. Omalu’s fight to get people to acknowledge he is right, becomes a veritable David-vs.-Goliath match. He was born in Nigeria. Dr. Omalu earned his degree in medicine there before coming to the U.S. where he completed his residency. Despite all of his education, he is seen as an outsider. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” he has said. Not only is Dr. Omalu an immigrant, he is indifferent to that quintessentially American of pastimes called football. Nevertheless he does gain a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

I really wanted to love this movie. Concussion has the best intentions. It dramatizes a serious story that needs to be told. At the heart of this biography is a compelling performance by Will Smith. Historically he has often had a difficult time disappearing into the persona of another person. We see mega celebrity Will Smith – the brash movie star, not an actor fading within a role. Here however, he manages to convincingly present a different personality – accent and demeanor included. It’s his most impressive achievement since The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, the diffuse narrative spends way too much time on tedious details involving his personal life which includes love interest and eventual wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is far too great an actress to be saddled with this expendable role. Concussion is at its best when it’s delving into the science of Omalu’s work, chronicling his study and the ensuing struggle to get his important research acknowledged. The production ends unresolved. According to the film, his research still has yet to be taken seriously by the NFL. Although some concessions have been made, very little about the sport has changed. Apparently the issue is far from over. Stay tuned.



Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on December 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo joy_zpsft2v08cz.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Joy of the title is Joy Mangano. For those unfamiliar, she is an American inventor who created the Miracle Mop – a plastic implement “with a head made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton that can be easily wrung out without getting the user’s hands wet.” Although a modest succes initially, it wasn’t until the entrepreneur appeared on shopping channel QVC in 1992, that the invention actually took off. Although Joy is based on a real woman, this isn’t some straightforward, by the numbers biopic. What David O. Russell has done with the saga of Joy Mangano is a visionary appropriation of the facts. The director has creatively imagined Joy Mangano’s memoir as a modern day fantasy.

Fairy tales do come true. Jennifer Lawrence is surrounded by a colorful ensemble that supports her narrative to comical effect. They almost compel her to rise above the depths of her existence. There’s never any suggestion that her family members don’t love each other. However the menagerie of eccentrics that comprise her family are, hmmm shall we say, a little dysfunctional? As the matriarch of a multi-generational household, her environment is constantly in a state of disarray.  Joy is a divorced mother with two small children. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with this soap opera and never leaves her bed. An amusing aside is that the daytime serial she’s watching is a fictitious send-up. It features newly shot scenes starring icons of the medium, including Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard.  It pops up throughout the years hilariously marking the time period.

As in any fable, there are many obstacles to overcome. Her father, and mother’s ex-husband, Rudy (Robert De Niro) comes over to live in her basement after he has broken up with his girlfriend. Complicating matters is the fact that Tony (Edgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, is already living down there and has for the past two years. He’s trying to jump start his stalled lounge singing career. Isabella Rossellini later emerges as Trudi, Rudy’s new girlfriend who becomes the chief financial backer for Joy’s innovative idea. Do I see a ray of light? There’s also Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who runs the QVC shopping network. He’s sort of the male version of a fairy godmother in her life. Joy’s jealous half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) is a negative presence, but her longtime childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) is a positive one. Diane Ladd is Mimi, Joy’s supportive grandmother and the narrator of this fable.

Truth is stranger than fiction. David O. Russell has brilliantly distilled the elaborate narrative to its essence, trimming away the excess fat of unimportant details and highlighted the bonkers mentality of her life. The director has recontextualized the very true story of Joy Mangano into that of a contemporary fairy tale. Like some Cinderella scrubbing up a spill on the floor, she gets cut after wringing out a mop. Her hands bleed from the shards of glass. Inspiration strikes without a hint of cynicism. Joy isn’t some woman waiting for her prince charming . She improves the very mire of her own existence with her entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The chronicle demands that we reconsider how inspirational fantasies from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, are still happening today. The hard working resolve of a single mother with a dream manifested as a glorious paean to female empowerment.

David O. Russell has found his muse. As Katharine Hepburn was to George Cukor or Marlene Dietrich was to Josef von Sternberg, so too is Jennifer Lawrence to David O. Russell. This is his 3rd picture to feature Jennifer Lawrence but the first to star her — or any woman for that matter — as the sole lead in one of his movies. The partnership has yielded yet another fruitful collaboration for all involved. In an era where we routinely bemoan the derth of strong roles for women, Joy quietly enters the discussion and gives us exactly that. It’s a real tribute to the scrappy heroines of the 1940s when female-centric films were common. Think pictures starring Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. Yes those are indeed lofty comparisons but Jennifer Lawrence embodies the fierce spirit of those trailblazing heroines. What’s old seems new again. She’s an uplifting breath of fresh air. A woman with her eyes firmly set on the American dream. This is a defining role where she comes in not aggressively “with a bow and arrow,” as the director has noted, “but with her heart and soul.”


In the Heart of the Sea

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on December 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo in_the_heart_of_the_sea_ver4_zpsnlbtbdyq.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIn the Heart of the Sea is a solemn drama of outmoded style. It concerns the adventure that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Our 19th century sea faring tale begins with the American novelist (Ben Whishaw) visiting old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Thomas was once a cabin boy and is the sole living survivor left from the doomed final voyage of the whaleship Essex. Herman has to bribe him to tell the unvarnished truth so he can commit Thomas’ words to the printed page. We then flashback to the events of his yarn. Why we needed this framing device is a mystery. It’s a construct that seemingly serves no purpose other than to derail the picture at inopportune moments. Every time something exciting starts to happen the narrative abruptly stops in its tracks to remind us we’re still listening to a story. I suppose observing two people talk in a dark room is slightly more interesting than watching someone silently write a book. However it’s less exciting than seeing people fight a whale attacking a ship. I figured a director as talented as Ron Howard would have understood this by now, but apparently not.

The proper tale takes place when the Essex leaves Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819. The chronicle centers around Chris Hemsworth as dashing Owen Chase, the first mate, and Benjamin Walker as the more genteel Captain George Pollard, Jr. The aristocratic Pollard has a family lineage that accords him the position, as opposed to the more qualified Chase, who has the experience. Chase’s lower social status has unfortunately precluded him from commanding a ship yet again. The stacked set-up is a cliché. Nevertheless, their combative relationship is a fairly compelling plot point. Early in their voyage, Pollard tests his crew by ordering them to deliberately sail into a dangerous squall. This is amidst the protestations of Chase. The decision almost capsizes the ship, but somehow Pollard finds a way to hold Chase accountable for the debacle anyway.

I was quite enjoying the acrimonious affiliation between the Captain and his first mate . It sort of reminded me of Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, although I admit I am being very charitable when I say that. But then the whale shows up and the focus shifts to CGI spectacles. The whaling scenes pitting man against beast are jampacked but strangely, not thrilling. The action is undone by choppy editing that obscures what is happening exactly. The presentation has a colorful 2D aesthetic but it gives the visual spectacle a simulated muddy quality that lessens the excitement. As a result we’re less invested in their plight.

In the Heart of the Sea is constructed as an old fashioned epic that is anything but. Lots of details about the whaling industry are present. Few scenes stand out, but one features cabin boy Thomas (the narrator of our story, played as a youth by Tom Holland) entering a narrow hole cut into a dead whale’s head, to extract the supply of sperm oil inside. During the 2nd half, when the gang gets shipwrecked, so does the plot. Chase and Pollard promptly make amends and lose the personality that made their antagonistic relationship engaging. Watching the crew, which includes second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), just waste away,  is pretty tedious. They do what they must in order to survive. This includes behavior that should be disturbing, but the environment is so dignified, it barely registers. Honestly, you could say the same thing about the entire film. It’s not awful, but it is awfully forgettable.