Archive for the Biography Category

Green Book

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on December 7, 2018 by Mark Hobin

green_bookSTARS4.5Green Book is the compelling chronicle of black pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) 1962 music tour of the deep south.  He hires white bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard.  I admit I was skeptical. I had heard grumblings from a very small but vociferous group of detractors.  Right from the get-go, the interracial synopsis sounds like a calculated set up that promises a feel-good story about how people from contrasting cultures were able to come together and becomes friends.  In its most simplistic essence, that’s what you get. However, the sleek craft with which this road movie is assembled is a masterclass in creating an audience-pleasing feature.  It establishes characters you simply want to love. I enthusiastically embraced this picture.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Green Book is directed by none other than Peter Farrelly, one-half of the Farrelly brothers that brought the world such ribald comedy classics like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Those are well-crafted movies and this is clearly assembled by a competent artist as well. Green Book has comedic elements too, but this represents a definite shift for the filmmaker.  Green Book is a serious drama first.  A powerful work that has a respectful reverence for its subjects.  The title references a guidebook that gave recommendations to African-American travelers to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.  You see, under the era of Jim Crow laws of the Confederacy, racial segregation was actually enforced by legislation.  In short, black people weren’t allowed to stay or eat at certain establishments. The manual was published up until 1966.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Don Shirley was the son of parents who emigrated from Jamaica.  He was an accomplished classical musician. However after a manager told him that American audiences were not ready to accept a “colored” pianist in classical music, he reverted to the more popular jazz genre.  During the 1950s and 1960s, he performed in nightclubs where there were more opportunities.  Don Shirley was a musical prodigy since the age of 2.   An intellectual, he spoke eight languages fluently.   He held a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts.  Don decides to go on a risky concert tour of the Deep South.  We learn that he could be handsomely paid playing safer concert venues in the North.  That would have been a more comfortable living.  Yet he wanted to play for audiences that might benefit more from his talents.  He would need a driver though who could also provide some security.

Frank Anthony Vallelonga is nicknamed Tony Lip because of his ability to talk his way out of anything.  He’s the son of Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx.  He works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.   Early in the account, Tony is seen disposing of the drinking glasses that black repairmen had used while working at his home.  Tony stands in marked contrast to his employer.  Don lives in a luxurious apartment above Carnegie Hall.  When Tony arrives there to apply for the position of his driver, Don appears to be sitting on what looks like a throne wearing an elegant robe.  He is a dignified man that refuses to eat with his hands.  Don and Tony are markedly dissimilar personalities.  Don Shirley, in particular, doesn’t fit within an established archetype.  At one point, Don exasperatedly cries into the rain “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough and I’m not man enough, then what am I?”  Their respective lifestyles and customs influence who these individuals are.

The screenplay does a deft job at depicting the point of view of each fellow.  This is a true story after all.  Green Book is based on an original script co-written by Frank’s son Nick Vallelonga with actor Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly.  Tony Lip and Don Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013.  Before that happened, Nick told the pair he wanted to make a movie based on their experiences.  According to Nick, Dr. Shirley gave his blessing with one provision “not until after I’m gone.”  There are similarities to previous works.  A chauffeur driving a passenger of another ethnicity from their own has an obvious parallel to 1990 Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy. That’s about where the comparisons end.  The stakes are much higher in Green Book. No one in Driving Miss Daisy was in danger of being lynched.

What really sets Green Book apart is the utter sincerity in detailing the lives of two very contradictory people.  Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen imbue their characters with such depth that we embrace them as fully formed people.  The narrative does a deft job at giving each person equal focus.  Despite how the studio has promoted their performances for Academy Award consideration, this is a dual affair with two equally pivotal performances at the center.  These larger than life personalities couldn’t be more different from each other.  Little details are presented that help us understand where these individuals have been and how they’ve changed. Their friendship with each other develops organically in a way that makes sense.  Each man gained from knowing the other.  Yes, it’s easy to dismiss the saga as a manipulative narrative that features a “white savior” or a “black savior”.  Yet it’s so much more than that.  At heart, Green Book unfolds like an authentic portrait of two unlikely souls that became friends.  The film is emotionally satisfying with a lot of heart.

11-29-18

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The Favourite

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Dance, Drama, History with tags on December 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

favourite_ver2STARS4.5Way back on January 21, 1989, one of the highlights on Saturday Night Live’s 14th season occurred during the 10th episode.  John Malkovich was the host plugging his work in Dangerous Liaisons, an obvious forebear of this film.  One of the skits in which he starred, was a bit I affectionately remember as “Mocking Lord Edmund.”  In it, Malkovich portrayed an 18th-century aristocrat who suspects all the wrong people of insulting him.  “You mock me,” he would disdainfully rebuke.  Each admirer was bewildered at his scorn for their honest praise.  Malkovich’s deadpan delivery in a haughty accent was comical in itself.  But the main joke was that his two servants (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey), whom he didn’t suspect, were actually mocking him behind his back.

Period pieces are inherently hilarious.  The Favorite is an extraordinary work that takes an absurdist view of the strange reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century.  England is at war with the French.  The ruler is attended to by her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah encourages her to fund the ongoing war with France so that her husband can claim victory.  Into this mix arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant with designs on bettering her own station in life.  The liaison between these three develops into a genuine love triangle. There’s no evidence that Queen Anne had a romantic relationship with either of these women.  Although speculation at the time did fuel court gossip.  Yet historians do agree that Sarah Churchill’s personal friendship with the Queen afforded her a lot of power and influence in the monarch’s decisions.   Regardless, historical accuracy is clearly not director Yorgos Lanthimos’ focus.  The bitter rivalry between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne is the central conflict.  And oh what a competition!

The centerpiece of The Favourite is a trio of flawless performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who form the central trio of strong women.   Queen Anne is a frail woman physically afflicted by ill health.  Olivia Coleman embodies the ruler as a woman plagued by insecurities.  She screams irrationally at a young attendant for staring at her.  She feels ugly.  She gorges on cake.  Vomits.  Then continues to gorge.  One moment she is a timid monarch afraid of choosing sides between the Whigs and Tories in Parliament.  The next minute her mind is fixed and she refuses to allow anyone to sway her.  Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough, her close confidant.  She is a woman fiercely driven by her own political desires.  Abigail appears to enter the picture as sort of a wide-eyed innocent.  Anne Baxter in All About Eve anyone?  Emma Stone has one of the most expressive visages in all of Hollywood. The mere look of her face as she turns away in one flirtatious scene elicited guffaws at my screening.  As time wears on, the pursuit of her own selfish goals consumes her every thought.  Her poor husband Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is frustrated by her lack of attention, even on their wedding night.

This is a visual spectacle that captivates our attention even when nothing is being said. The costumes and sets are lavish.  Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes stand in stark contrast to the candlelit halls of the palace.  The powdered wigs are piled ridiculously high.  And I’m talking about the males.  They wear more makeup than the women.  The beauty marks applied like stickers to the face.  Even the palace is a character itself with its massively high ceilings, cavernous hallways, and luxuriously appointed spaces.  Tapestries, art, and furniture dominate some rooms.  There is a definite sense of scope.  The cinematography by Robbie Ryan captures every inch of the spectacle mixing fisheye lenses with spinning camera angles.  It can get overwhelming.  At times we’re more focused on the way the scene is shot, not what is being shot.  But more often than not, the photography creates a sense of isolation that matches the mood of the characters.  Visually it’s an emotional experience.

Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have a playful ear for dialogue.  It’s also the first feature Lanthimos directed that he did not co-write with regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  I dare say it is the most quotable film of the year.  The catty one-liners abound in an artificial air of high camp.   There is an affected pomposity to these people that makes them amusing.  The script exploits the lexicon of our modern era to humorous effect.   The c-word is joined with the word struck to describe a man impossibly bewitched by a woman. The idioms of past costume dramas are subverted as well.  Abigail fawns obsequiously over Queen Anne’s hair.  “Stop it. How you mock me” the queen responds.  The screenplay recognizes how a retort delivered with withering contempt can be an exquisite joy.  At one point Sarah Churchill derisively chides crafty House of Commons dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  “I can’t take you seriously when your mascara is running.”

The Favourite exaggerates what makes period pieces so fitfully entertaining.  In doing so, it becomes an artistic work of art.  There’s a lot of idiosyncratic details.  Sarah and Abigail shoot pigeons.  A splatter of blood unexpectedly covers Sarah’s face after Abigail hits one dead on.  Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits as pets symbolically representing each one of her children that didn’t survive due to various maladies.  Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) races ducks in his spare time for fun.  A hapless Tory endues fruits thrown at him as some sort of parlor game.  I didn’t understand the point, but it conveyed decadence nonetheless.  Lady Marlborough’s choreographed dance scene with her companion at the ball is a riot for its anachronistic dance moves.  It’s a fabulous spectacle lit with candles.  Ok, I’ll admit The Favourite is about as historically accurate as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yet for my money….it’s just as funny.

11-27-18

Boy Erased

Posted in Biography, Drama on November 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

boy_erased_ver2STARS2.5Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir Boy Erased has been adapted into a rather static film by writer/director Joel Edgerton.  Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of Marshal (Russell Crowe), a methodical pastor who speaks softly, and bright upbeat Nancy (Nicole Kidman) with big bleach-blond hair.  Living in Arkansas, Jared is raised in the Baptist faith.  His parents are distraught to learn their son is gay after a fellow classmate pretending to be a counselor, outs the boy.  Upon confronting him, he admits that he “thinks about men”.  He is subsequently sent to conversion therapy.

For what sounds like a harrowing set-up, Boy Erased is a surprisingly dispassionate picture.  The drama is built around Jared Eamons and his tenure at Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy program.  Director of photography Eduard Grau relies on stationary shots.  The colors are drab.  The tone is somber and bleak.  All of which effectively inhibits the drama.  While at this reform school of sorts, Jared is under the guidance of Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton too).  He is the program’s head therapist and cult-like leader.  Victor is assisted by a stern tattooed enforcer named Brandon (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea).  Apparently his responsibility is to intimidate the subjects into heterosexuality with his menacing presence.

Jared attempts to fit within the guidelines of the program.  The group is asked to detail their family tree and associate hardships with each person.  Drugs, alcoholism, gang affiliation, criminal behavior, and pornography are the options.  He struggles to assign problems to his family members.  In group, students are compelled to get up in front of the class and openly confess their sins.  A mandatory exercise requires Jared to talk to a chair as if his father were present and explain why he hates him.  The implication being animosity toward one’s father is the root of homosexuality.  “But I don’t hate my father” he explains.  In other areas, Jared is remarkably adept. The boys line up for a batting cage where they hit baseballs ostensibly to make them more manly.  He has no problem doing this.

While there, Jared meets several other students.  There’s big, quiet Cameron (Britton Sear) who plays football.  The cynical-to-change Gary is played by musician Troye Sivan.  “Fake it till you make it,” he advises supportively.  Jon, portrayed by director Xavier Dolan (Mommy), is a man excessively frustrated to make the treatment work.   There’s also Jesse LaTourette as sad, shy Sara, one of the few women in the program.  We only get very cursory introductions to these people.  Understandably, each individual lacks the opportunity to make an impression as a fully well-rounded individual.  All, that is, except the star.

Lucas Hedges’ performance is genuine. The actor seems to have a knack for choosing films that get Oscar nominations. Since 2016 he’s appeared in 3 Best Picture nominees: Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The 21-year-old actor has a youthful sincerity that keeps us invested.  He’s genuine although there’s an ambiguity to his performance that keeps the viewer at arm’s length.  He’s a soft-spoken but utterly self-possessed young man.  He doesn’t have trouble asserting himself when he must.  The drama is set at therapy.  However, the tale frequently uses flashbacks to detail moments in Jared’s life that give the events leading up to his placement in this facility.  These are the moments that incite emotion.  We get a glimpse of his life in the past.  There’s girlfriend Chloe (Madelyn Cline) who encourages him to go further sexually, a boy named Henry (Joe Alwyn) who would be a negative force in his life and art school student Xavier (Théodore Pellerin) who would be a positive presence.  Each of these vignettes is mildly more interesting than what occurs in his treatment sessions.  Yet – with one exception – very little of it is revelatory.

Boy Erased means well, but dramatically it’s inert.  The counseling meetings aren’t particularly shocking.  Most of it is quite restrained.  A mock funeral where a student’s parents are invited to attend so they can mourn over their still living son’s gay self is admittedly creepy.  That’s a rare instance where this chronicle slapped me awake.  Yet Jared is a well adjusted young man.  He doesn’t seem overly tormented about attending therapy for most of the picture.  He’s emotionally detached.  There’s very little excitement to extract from the events or the main character.  A singular moment where he defaces a bus-stop advertisement of a male model is a cathartic display that says so much without dialogue.  More of that, please.  A display of resistance occurs, but by then it’s too little too late.  Nicole Kidman predictably gets her showcase where she becomes the object of audience applause.  If she does get a Supporting Role nomination, that’s the sequence to highlight on Oscar night.  The biggest twist of the entire picture is ultimately revealed in the notes of an epilogue.  The “what happened to” one major character got an audible response in my theater.  It’s an unanticipated turn of events.  Perhaps that story might have inspired a more spirited film.

11-08-18

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on November 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

can_you_ever_forgive_meSTARS4.5Melissa McCarthy is extremely accomplished and has enjoyed enormous success. She was on two popular TV series Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly.  She has hosted Saturday Night Live on 5 separate occasions garnering an Emmy nomination each time for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. She eventually won in 2017. Her breakthrough in widespread popularity came in 2011 with the crude, but very funny farce Bridesmaids and an uncharacteristically Oscar-nominated performance. Many hugely successful comedies followed including Identity Thief and The Heat, earning millions at the box office. McCarthy has perfected slapstick to an art form, and yet, the cognoscenti still dismiss her brand of humor as low brow. I don’t feel she gets the respect she deserves.  In both St. Vincent and Spy she displayed considerable acting chops for which she didn’t receive near enough acclaim.  However, this time I hope the film is just too incredible to ignore.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biographical drama about Lee Israel.  She was a freelance writer from New York that contributed entertainment articles to The New York Times, Soap Opera Digest and other periodicals during the 1960s.  By the 70s and 80s, she had written biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist / What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen and cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.  Kilgallen even made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1979.  These are not the works by which Lee Israel is remembered.  Our story takes place years later.  Changing tastes have deemed Israel’s writing style and subjects no longer in vogue.  Her literary agent (Jane Curtin) informs her that her writing is outdated.  “No one wants to read a biography about Fanny Brice!” By the 1990s, She has fallen on hard times unable to pay the veterinary bills for her sick cat.  In order to make ends meet she parts with a personal letter written to her from Katherine Hepburn.  Apparently, people are willing to pay for such memorabilia.  Later while at the library doing research, she discovers another letter hidden within the pages of the book she is reading.  This one penned by the actress/comedian Fanny Brice. She sells this letter for a small sum as well.  Israel is told that a higher amount would’ve been paid for more interesting content.  This triggers an idea in the skillful writer.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the profile of a woman who utilizes her talents, albeit in an illegal way, to make ends meet.  She begins by creatively forging letters by notable people like Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, and Noël Coward.  She then passes them off as if written in their voice, to autograph dealers around the country.  The film’s title comes from a passage in a forgery she writes by Dorothy Parker.  It’s clear that her abilities as a witty wordsmith, as well as a historian of these people, allowed her to convincingly pass these pieces off for a couple of years.  Of course, it caught up to her.  It must be an amusing irony that Lee Israel ultimately profited off of her crimes by writing this memoir about them.  Her book was adapted into this screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.  Given that, it’s not surprising that the movie’s tone is sympathetic.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is endlessly compelling.  Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) directs with a light touch.  As a personality, Lee Israel is a grouchy, curmudgeonly presence.  Yet her animosity towards people has a way of endearing herself to the audience as well.  An argument with a bookseller has her later pretending to be his neighbor.  She prank calls the guy to say that their apartment is on fire.  She has a deep love for her cat because a pet doesn’t let you down.  There are some humans that she can stomach.  Actress Dolly Wells portrays a bookshop owner with whom she strikes up a friendship.  She also has a very close friend.  He is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging gay dandy of questionable character. He becomes an accomplice in her dirty dealings.  Together these frequenters of bars form a duo of misfits united in an “us against the world” duo that is heartbreakingly poignant.  Lee is rather cold to Jack, and that’s before he makes a serious mistake that will have dire emotional consequences.  Yet these two need each other’s friendship if only to make life bearable.  It is their chemistry that elevates Can You Ever Forgive Me? from something very good into something pretty great.  I hope to hear the names of both McCarthy and Grant on Tuesday, January 22 when the Oscar nominations are announced.

11-05-18

Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on November 5, 2018 by Mark Hobin

bohemian_rhapsodySTARS3.5Never underestimate the power of music…or a great performance for that matter. Bohemian Rhapsody has both. The production is a biopic of the British rock band Queen focused mainly around the life of Freddie Mercury at the point they formed the group. The soundtrack features most of the band’s well-known hits. The inspiration for a few of the band’s signature songs is depicted. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” each receive little background stories. All of these vignettes are united by a truly mesmerizing performance. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar (now Tanzania). His introduction to the band, their subsequent stardom, and fractures within the band are all portrayed. Malek is truly extraordinary as the Queen frontman. He may not actually sing but he lip syncs so convincingly through his physical performance that you believe he is. He channels the legend and I never doubted the manifestation for a second.

Bohemian Rhapsody was a troubled production from the beginning.  It was announced in 2010. Originally set to star Sacha Baron Cohen, the picture went through development hell. The comedian and remaining members of Queen couldn’t agree on what type of picture they wanted to make. Brian May (lead guitar, vocals) and Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), are listed as executive producers. This probably explains why their characters get plenty of lines and bass guitar player John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) is basically an afterthought. Various directors were attached including Stephen Frears. Cohen exited and Rami Malek was ultimately cast. Tensions between the new star and director Bryan Singer led to Singer’s replacement near the end of principal photography with director Dexter Fletcher. Singer is still credited as sole director but Fletcher received an executive producer credit. Bohemian Rhapsody was a huge hit with audiences opening to a rather robust $50M on its opening weekend. Its success makes the negative press the film received, even sweeter.

Like most biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody takes liberties with people, dates, and events for dramatic effect. From my perspective, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan doesn’t subvert the salient details to an extent that negates the experience. Early reports that this would be a sugarcoated biopic were exaggerated. The fact that Freddie Mercury was suffering from AIDS is revealed as is his relationship with manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). I suppose every movie needs a villain and Prenter definitely fulfills that role here. The presentation feels a bit glib. He must have been a supportive guy for a while because he was close to the band for nearly a decade. Freddie rebuffs his advances in an early encounter but they seem to have this on and off again affair. The point at which their relationship went from professional to personal is ambiguous. In real life Prenter died from AIDS complications in 1991, the very same year Freddie Mercury passed, so Prenter can’t refute this portrayal. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) were not fond of the guy. Reportedly they weren’t pleased with his influence on Freddie and the changing musical direction of Queen. His villainy culminates with a tell-all TV interview.

There are moments in this saga that feel unfinished or unclear. When Freddie comes out to his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) as “bisexual”, she responds matter-of-factly with “I thought you were gay.” Then they move on to the next scene. That’s it? I wanted more detail. When did she come to this conclusion? Did she know that before they moved in together? If so, then why did she promise to wear his ring forever? They break up soon after this revelation, but they still remain friends. Growing frictions between Freddie and the band are not delineated with any real depth either. He throws a lavish celebration that has a carnival-like atmosphere. It’s extravagant but there’s nothing offensive about it. Yet the band members sitting around looking like a bunch of sticks in the mud. Apparently they were family men who didn’t like to party or flirt or do any of the typical things other rock stars did. Incidentally, it’s at this event that Freddie meets Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), one of the servers at the party. Jim would become his companion from 1985 until the end of his life.

Those seeking an outrageous tell-all R-rated depiction of Freddie Mercury’s rumored wild escapades are going to be disappointed. Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody is a more uplifting PG-13 rated biopic of the singer’s life. In that respect, it compares favorably to other music biopics like The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba (Richie Valens), and What’s Love Got to Do With It (Tina Turner). It’s all about the music. “We will Rock You”, “We are the Champions”, “Somebody to Love” and of course the title track all make an appearance. Perhaps most surprising is the emotional weight of the song “Radio Ga-Ga”. I’ve always considered the song a throwaway ditty but sung here during the climax at Live Aid it is an audience-pleasing, sentimental high point. Live Aid was a concert held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. I wasn’t physically there but like 1.9 billion other people across 150 nations, I watched the live broadcast on TV. This captures music’s ability to unite the world. That’s the joyous feeling you get as you leave the theater. Bohemian Rhapsody may wobble in parts, but it finishes strong and with touching resonance. Watch this film with your heart.

11-03-18

Beautiful Boy

Posted in Biography, Drama on November 3, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beautiful_boySTARS2.5There’s are things to admire in Beautiful Boy, Felix Van Groeningen’s (The Broken Circle Breakdown) English language debut.  At the top of the list is Timothée Chalamet’s performance.  He’s nuanced, affecting and natural.  He reaffirms that his amazing turn in Call Me by Your Name wasn’t some fluke. The rising star is someone to watch.  But that is not the attitude I ultimately had while exiting the theater.  There’s an overwhelming feeling of “But why?”  That could be the point. People can turn to drugs even when everything in their life is perfectly peachy. The take may be mildly unique.  It still doesn’t form the basis of a compelling drama

Beautiful Boy is based a true story.  In fact, the saga actually manages to incorporate two memoirs into its tale: Beautiful Boy, an account penned by father David Sheff (Steve Carrel) and Tweak, the recollection of son Nic Sheff embodied here by the aforementioned Timothée Chalamet.  Luke Davies and Van Groeningen adapted both works into one screenplay.  The narrative has this repetitive cycle that begins with a drug-induced ordeal followed by a period of sobriety and then relapse.  Nic comes from an affluent family.  They live in San Francisco.  He’s loved by his Dad who has remarried. His wife Karen (Nic’s stepmother) is cautiously concerned, but compassionate.  Nic’s mother and David’s ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan), lives in Los Angeles.  David and Vicki argue long distance over the phone about what is to be done.  Vicki does what she can and provides tangible support when things go wrong.  Nic is surrounded by a lot of loving, supportive people.

There’s a diaphanous glaze of good intentions that infuse the drama.  Steve Carrel is the stereotypical epitome of a wealthy white parent that disciplines by empathetically expressing his disappointment.  It’s not depicted in the film but he seems like one of those parents who punished his toddler by giving them a “timeout”.  His casual parenting style is so laissez-faire that I found it hard to sympathize with him.  At one point Nic feels comfortable enough to offer his father a joint and suggest they smoke it together.  I can honestly say this certainly wasn’t the experience I had growing up.  I think one’s acceptance of the kind of father Steve Carell represents, will cut across a cultural divide.  David expresses frustration with his son’s behavior but without a solution or a means to success.  He’s clearly defeated, but he is so depressingly impotent that he sounds whiny.  This is going to sound glib, but it’s hard for me not to go psychology 101 and prescribe a little tough love in this scenario.  Steve Carell’s character is supremely frustrating.

There’s a lot of good about Beautiful Boy. Its heart is in the right place.  Nic, as portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, seems like a genuine person.  He conveys the heady effect that drugs provide for him.  We get why he keeps relapsing.  That’s not easy to do when every advantage in life has been handed to you on a silver platter.  We understand the intoxicating stranglehold that drugs have on him.  Marijuana leads to cocaine then ecstasy and eventually, crystal meth.  His simple desire to experience that euphoric feeling is a never-ending cycle that leads to a greater high.  Unfortunately, though, we are presented with a repetitive narrative without a compelling point.  There is no satisfying resolution.  Nic fails, says he’s sorry and then he is forgiven.  This occurs several times during the story.  Over and over again.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of “Lather, rinse, repeat.”

10-25-18

First Man

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_manSTARS4What captivated me most about First Man is how it transformed the conventional into the unique to tell this story. That is to say, the difference between what I was expecting and what I got, was unusually fascinating. I’ve seen The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures – movies that touch on achievements in space travel in different ways. One thing that unites them all is scope – each production details the stories of multiple people to tell their respective accounts. First Man in contrast is told from the exclusive perspective of a single astronaut. Writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) adapts from James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. The screenplay isn’t concerned with the inner workings of NASA or details of the Apollo 11 mission. It simply presents the personal point of view of Neil Armstrong.

In light of the current cultural conversation, First Man has a surprisingly traditional point of view. Recent portrayals (Hidden Figures) might contend otherwise, but this representation of NASA is overwhelmingly white and male. There has been a reactionary controversy regarding director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to illustrate the physical planting of the American flag on the moon. True it isn’t depicted, but it’s a moot point. The idea that this is a U.S. success is visually well documented in the film. The American flag is seen on the surface after it has been planted as well as visibly sewn on all of the astronauts’ uniforms. The words “United States” are clearly emblazoned on the side of the rocket ship. A coda highlights an interview with a French citizen who speaks highly of U.S. resolve. The outrage against a perceived left-wing agenda is ironic. The mood for most of the drama is practically a commemoration of a bygone era when men were men and women stayed home and minded the kids. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have this relationship. Oh and let’s start with the fact that that the very title of the picture is First MAN.

It’s interesting that Chazelle acknowledges that not everyone was a fan of the space program. There were those who felt that the billions spent could be put to better use. Actor Leon Bridges portrays revolutionary musician Gil Scott-Heron as he recites his spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon” – a searing indictment of the space program and conservative values. This appears right after vintage footage of author Kurt Vonnegut questions the cost of the American space program in light of a country with citizens that still didn’t even have food to eat or a place to live. It’s a valid argument. A cabin fire during the Apollo 1 mission kills astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) Ed White (Jason Clarke ) and Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) on board. At this point I started to question, should we even be doing this?  I mean is the value of the knowledge you gain from space travel worth the grievous loss of human lives?

Despite these moments, there is no question that the narrative means to idolize its subject and his purpose as an American hero. As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is a very interior individual. He’s a man of few words, relying more on expression than language. Honestly, it’s the kind of “quiet” performance that Gosling has been doing his entire career.  From his starring role in Drive to Officer K in Blade Runner 2049, Gosling has always been a bit of an enigma when he isn’t in a comedic role. Neil Armstrong is stoic man’s man that is an emotionally distant husband. It’s suggested that the agony he experienced from the death of his 2-year-old daughter from cancer drives him to focus his repressed grief into the space program. Regardless, Neil is admirable in his role as an explorer. He’s completely immersed in his patriotic work. Yet, as a human being, he is the idealized portrait of macho blankness. His feelings are suppressed to the point that he is an emotional void. There’s little in this individual with which the viewer can identify.  For example, if someone were to bring a cassette of their favorite music in 1969 most people would probably bring something along the lines of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, a little Motown perhaps? Not Neil. He brings an orchestral piece called “Lunar Rhapsody” by Les Baxter.

Although this is clearly Neil’s story, there is room for a few supporting characters. His fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) has more personality. The script paints Buzz as a bit of jerk, but there’s no denying that he has a lot more charisma. Watching him bound up and down in the distance is so different from Armstrong’s more reserved behavior on the moon. I secretly longed for an account about Buzz actually. Interestingly the emotional weight of the narrative rests on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy). Foy’s performance is so subtle and of so little dialogue that it didn’t affect me until after the chronicle was over. However, upon reflection, her acting is rather notable. She galvanizes our emotions. Her eyes speak volumes even when she isn’t given anything to say. Her achievement is impressive. She is the emotional center.

First Man is a most intimate affair. This is a personal account seen through the eyes of one Neil Armstrong.  The selling point is that director Damien Chazelle reproduces the “you are there” feeling that astronauts experienced during their flights. The movie opens with Neil flying a single-person jet in a test voyage. The camera shakes as the aircraft throttles uncontrollably. The view fixates on his eyes that remain wide open and alert. The plane sounds like it’s about to break away in pieces. The feeling of vertigo is almost paralyzing for the viewer. Yet Neil is the picture of calm. Chazelle shoots a few vignettes that rely on this visceral experience. Each display is a claustrophobic portrayal of a rickety vehicle barely held together by rivets and a nickel-steel alloy almost falling apart. Each punishing spectacle delivers an unforgettable sequence. It is both intense and authentic. The adventure ultimately climaxes with the Apollo 11 mission, It’s telling that Justin Hurwitz’ triumphant score is noticeably silent when they land. Chazelle dutifully recreates moments of the moon landing we’ve witnessed a million times. That includes Neil’s iconic statement “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet Josh Singer’s screenplay is more interested in Neil Armstrong the man, than in detailing what the rest of the world was thinking. That gives First Man a unique perspective on this story.

10-11-18

Colette

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

coletteSTARS3.5Keira Knightly and period pieces go together like tea & crumpets. I won’t feign impartiality. I can’t resist the combination of the aforementioned genre paired with this actress. When I walked into the theater to watch a biography of Colette, the French author, I was already primed to enjoy it. I walked out satisfied indeed.

Any period piece worth its salt is initially going to be judged on its visual aesthetic. Colette excels. The production is a sumptuous evocation of France during the turn of the century. The rooms are beautifully appointed, the costumes are suitably detailed. There is an opulence to the surroundings that gently entices the spectator into the walls of this woman’s life and beckons one to luxuriate in her world. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Hell or High Water) does a splendid job. He captures both the soft hues of the indoor scenes with warm light as well as the cool greenery of the outdoors with a crispness that invites the viewer to practically inhale the fresh air. The sophistication of the dialogue only adds to the refined setting.  You’d think all this artifice would render a stuffy biopic, but the production is anything but.  On the contrary, this is a provocative tale, directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) and co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, who passed away in 2015. The life of Collette has a few unexpected detours for those unfamiliar with the historical woman. Apparently, she was an independently minded spirit out of step with the social mores of her time.

To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about the actual woman. The drama begins with a poor and seemingly shy country girl named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.  When she secretly retreats to the barn to meet her lover, we soon learn as that she isn’t so demure after all. She ultimately marries that man, the worldly writer Henry Gauthier-Villars or “Willy” (Dominic West). He happens to be 14 years her senior. Willy compensates ghostwriters to pen books for him. When his finances no longer allow him to pay for their services, he appeals to his wife.  He has realized her facility with words in their conversations.  Her novel, or rather the book she writes for him, becomes a sensation in1900 – a somewhat biographical coming of age tale about a brazen girl named Claudine.  The runaway bestseller leads to a series of stories focused around the young heroine.  Although not depicted in this chronicle, Colette’s best-known work today would have to be Gigi (1944) on which the Oscar-winning Best Picture was based.

Keira Knightley is Colette. Her embodiment of the character contributes tremendously to the success of the overall picture. There is a sort of a simple pleasure in seeing a bold woman surmount the strict confines of 19th century Paris, France.  The film documents her marriage with Willy, which was quite unconventional even by today’s standards. Dominic West plays him as a cad to be sure, but he exudes significant charisma nonetheless.  The two actors have convincing chemistry together.  Even with their various dalliances, it’s easy to appreciate the love that Colette and Willy had for each other.  Without revealing details,  an “open relationship” is perhaps the most chivalrous way to describe their idea of what a marriage should be.  The movie does take on a few too many plot threads for one film.  Colette’s desire to assert herself as the true author of her novels belies her feminist awakening.  This competes for the narrative’s attention as she comes to terms with her sexual awakening as well.  Red-haired Louisiana heiress Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and suit-wearing androgenous Missy (Denise Gough) become paramours.  Despite the somewhat schizophrenic focus, Keira Knightley unites the disparate events of this gorgeous costume drama with a performance that seizes our attention.  Her achievement ranks among her very best.  I couldn’t give the actress higher praise.

09-29-18

Lizzie

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on September 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

lizzieSTARS3“Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”

On paper, the idea of a Lizzie Borden biopic would appear to be a slam dunk. As the main suspect in the murder of her father and stepmother, the woman’s notoriety continues even to this day. Despite being exonerated of the charges, speculation on her guilt persists more than 125 years later. Her legend has only grown over the years as a true figure of American folklore. For the modern equivalent, she was the OJ Simpson of her day. Those old enough in 1995 will remember that fateful trail. This should have been a similarly mesmerizing tale. The movie, however, is surprisingly inert.

Lizzie is assembled as a character based drama that chronicles the home life of Lizzie Borden. At 32 she is still single and doesn’t even have the prospect of a suitor. She still lives with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw). As expected, her relationship with them is strained. Andrew is a domineering type, constantly at odds with her headstrong ways. Mother is emotionality cold. Lizzie believes Abby to be more preoccupied with the Borden family fortune than a deep devotion to her family. Lizzie’s older, more obedient sister Emma (Kim Dickens) is also unmarried. The two of them are old maids by that era’s standards. Their uncle John (Denis O’Hare) introduces further tension into the household.

Chloë Sevigny does have a fire within her that asserts Lizzie as a bold but stubborn woman. The best moments are when the determined rebel stands up for beliefs. She is self-assured, yet desperately seeks some shred of affection from those around her. Enter Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) a young woman who comes to live with them as their housemaid. When her dad catches the two of them in a compromising position, he declares “You’re an abomination, Lizzie.” Lizzie’s unusually confident retort is “Then at last we are on equal footing, father.” The declaration is humorous, but it also brightly illuminates the mind of a very frustrated woman. This was clearly a labor of love for Sevigny who commissioned the script and then produced the film.

I suppose a big part of how I enjoy this story is rooted in the expectation of what a Lizzie Borden biopic should be and what the production actually is. The narrative is constructed as sort of a melancholy atmospheric tale portraying the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are bewitching. The most captivating episodes highlight the psychology of the titular subject and clarify her point of view. Some of the most memorable dialogue is when Lizzie asserts herself with a harsh quip that cuts down the recipient. There are flashes of insight. The well researched original screenplay is by Bryan Kass. This feature was edited down from what was first proposed as a 4-hour miniseries on HBO. This is rather shocking because even at one hour and 45 minutes, hardly anything happens.

The remarkably impartial handling of the protagonists is one of the movie’s strengths. Kass attempts to get into the mind of Lizzie Borden so we the audience can understand her motivations. It is indeed masterful Nevertheless all of this is undone by a sluggish ambiance that severely hinders the audience’s passion for this inherently interesting material. This is essentially a dour modulated mood piece. You’d think that her chronicle would be more compelling, but director Craig William Macneill seems almost unconcerned by the famous murders. By the time we get to the key event, it occurs so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. The crime is depicted again with more detail, even with gratuitous nudity. but by then the film is nearly over. We’re brought a little closer to what made this woman’s heart tick. Too bad the production is lacking a pulse.

09-27-18

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wont_you_be_my_neighborSTARS3.5In my pre-school days, I must admit I responded a lot more to the work of Jim Henson (Sesame Street, The Muppet Show) than Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers wasn’t hip or cool or particularly funny.  However, he undoubtedly held a sincere, genuine quality that I still find admirable.  He was unlike anyone on TV before or since. His placid, composed demeanor was so incongruous to other hosts that he was almost alien.  The world of children’s entertainment has often relied on wacky escapades, cartoons, frenetic spectacle and animated hosts to captivate kids.  Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was none of those things.

Fred Rogers had a serious agenda but would address it in his own uniquely quiet way.  He simply wanted to affirm that children are “loved and capable of loving.”  He became an ordained minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963 but wanted to work in television because he “hated it so” or at least the kinds of “pie-in-the-face” programming popular at the time.  Documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal) inserts footage to clarify this point.  The decision has a bit of a pompous air as it besmirches stuff like Soupy Sales, Howdy Doody and Bozo the Clown. Fred saw an opportunity to educate young minds in the way he felt they should be spoken to.  Neville includes other clips that illustrate a man not easily categorized. Despite being a lifelong Republican, he famously advocated the government funding of children’s television before a U.S. Senate committee during Nixon’s administration.

This documentary celebrates the man, but it also reminds me just how static his program truly was.  Every episode beginning with him arriving home, singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and changing into sneakers and a cardigan sweater.  Then he’d discuss a theme for that week where he’d just plainly sit and talk directly to the audience.  That theme would later be explored by a trip to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” where puppets King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde would interact.  Mister Rogers didn’t appear in those segments but he’d do the voices.  Through it all, he’d softly and calmly address the viewer almost as if you were the only person in the entire world.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had its official debut on February 19, 1968, on NET. After its first three seasons, it would continue to air on its successor PBS, until August 31, 2001. In that time, the world experienced civil unrest, urban violence, assassinations, wars and global tragedies. Morgan Neville builds a case that Fred Rogers was a peaceful revolutionary.  “I Like You As You Are” Mister Rogers memorably sang in one of the many songs he wrote for the series.  As segregationists demanded swimming pools for whites only, he invited series regular Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons), a black policeman, to join him as he cooled his feet in a kiddie pool on a 1969 broadcast. Clemmons acknowledges he was also gay in one of many talking head interviews recorded for this documentary.   François Clemmons recounts that Fred Rogers was aware of this fact, but asked Clemmons to remain closeted for the purposes of the show.   The two remained lifelong friends as he continued to appear on the show.

Mister Rogers had a distinctive way of connecting with children. This gifted ability is spectacularly demonstrated on an episode from 1981.  He meets with 10-year-old Jeff Erlanger.  A quadriplegic, he explains why he uses an electric wheelchair.  If their subsequent duet of “It’s You I Like” doesn’t move you, then please check your pulse.  The host’s naive sincerity was unparalleled for a person on TV.  I can still remember seeing Fred Rogers as an unlikely guest on the very first season of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC.  It was February 17, 1982, to be exact.  The clip still exists on YouTube.  The clashing of these two diametrically opposite personalities was fascinating but also uncomfortable to watch. Within Mr. Letterman’s cynical atmosphere, Mr. Rogers appeared rather peculiar.  What a difference context makes.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is, as expected, a loving tribute.  A man whose gentle temperament is presented like an elixir for troubled times. The mission is not to drop any bombshells.  No secret life or dark side to this man according to the documentary.  He was goodness personified and that’s the uplifting feeling you’ll get when exiting the theater.

07-12-18