Archive for the Biography Category

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

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The Post

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller with tags on January 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

post_ver5STARS3.5It’s certainly a tribute to the talent involved that the saga of an entity that “came in second” has been fashioned into a fairly absorbing drama about freedom of the press. The chronicle details a newspaper and their efforts to publish The Pentagon Papers. The New York Times was there first. They are the ones that broke the story initially, but then they were restrained by an injunction from continuing to do so. Their hands were tied, unable to divulge anything more without reprisal. The Washington Post stepped in and picked up the pieces.

The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret study regarding United States’ military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. In a nutshell, the research determined that the Vietnam War was unwinnable by the U.S. I’ll admit, that’s really simplifying things. The report comprised 47 volumes with approximately 7,000 pages of historical analysis and original government documents. Yet that itself was not the pivotal truth, but rather that Lyndon B. Johnson had actually lied to the American public about our ability to succeed in the war. In the recent Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill is depicted as doing the very same thing. Interestingly his actions are portrayed in a far more positive light. In The Post, however, the Pentagon Papers ultimately undermine both the Johnson administration and subsequently Richard Nixon’s as well. His crime was that he allowed things to progress without revealing the lie promoted by the earlier regime. Nixon is featured in a scathing scene at the very end. It’s hardly subtle, although most of the film is considerably more nuanced.

The Post was actually hastily assembled by director Steven Spielberg during some downtime while making his upcoming sci-fi epic Ready Player One. The production feels like a timely response to the current administration and their antagonistic relationship with the press. Tension is constructed around the First Amendment. That makes the representation feel socially relevant and extremely shrewd. The attempt to stifle the press is a key component of this narrative. Curiously, what makes this composition fascinating, isn’t its attack on the presidency and the abuse of power. No, what makes the account compelling is the distinct character of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). She assumed the role of publisher of her family’s newspaper, the Washington Post following the death of her husband.

As interpreted by the inimitable Meryl Streep, Graham is further exalted as a woman making the biggest decision of her life – risking the reputation of her family’s newspaper on whether to publicize The Pentagon Papers. She’s unquestionably good, but it’s hard not to regard her mannered portrayal – as well as that of Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee — as for your consideration bids to win awards. I never forgot that I was watching a talented actor giving a captivating performance.  As Bradlee’s wife Tony, Sarah Paulson is a bit more natural. She delivers a particularly juicy monologue late in the game in which she basically schools her husband as to why Kay Graham is worthy of our respect. Strangely, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) the U.S. military analyst who was directly responsible for releasing the Pentagon Papers, has a surprisingly minor part. In the true-life tale, he played a much bigger role.

The Post is a feminist anthem. As the only woman to hold such an exalted position, Kay Graham had difficulty being taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees. A scene highlighting her as the only woman in an all-male boardroom is notably effective. It’s apparent she was going to have to assert herself to be heard, It is that focus that makes this production unique. I hate comparing one picture with another. Movies should usually be judged independently of one another on their own merits. Nevertheless, it’s virtually inexcusable to not at least acknowledge the similarly themed Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Spotlight, when discussing this feature. That screenplay focused on reporting the information itself. With The Post, it’s more about the figure of Kay Graham as she risks picking up the pieces of what the New York Times initially started and continues on with it. That notion is less imperative by comparison. There are so many ways you could have approached this account. What the New York Times accomplished, what Daniel Ellsberg released, or how the Supreme Court ruled over these events. The meaningful details of these various plot threads demand far more attention than are given here. Nevertheless, in the hands of director Steven Spielberg and actors as talented as Streep and Hanks, it still becomes a pretty entertaining film.

12-01-17

The Disaster Artist

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

disaster_artist_ver2STARS4I am not a fan of mocking someone’s creative ambitions. The concept of a film like The Disaster Artist was a bit unappealing to me in theory. For those unfamiliar, there’s this filmmaker named Tommy Wiseau see, and he used $6 million of his own (curiously earned ) money to make a movie in 2003 called The Room. He wrote produced, directed and starred in it along with a small cast of actors. This included his good friend, actor Greg Sestero whom he met in San Francisco while in acting class. The Room was first shown only in a limited number of theaters in California. No work of art – it was narratively uneven, had numerous continuity flaws and featured a slew of dubious performances topped only by the eccentric Tommy Wiseau himself. However, it was so bad it was relished as a cult hit enjoying a popularity at midnight showings that continues to this day. There’s a growing list of movies often referred to as the worst ever made. For years, Plan 9 from Outer Space was quite often mentioned. The Room has more recently been the “go-to” citation for the new millennium.

The making of The Room was apparently as peculiar as the film itself. In 2013, Greg Sestero (with Tom Bissell) wrote a memoir about his experience in the making of The Room. James Franco, being a big admirer of the book, bought the film rights. The text was then adapted by the writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The undertaking has clearly been a labor of love for the actor. Franco is director, co-producer, and star of the picture. As Tommy Wiseau he gives a veritable tour de force performance. Perhaps it might be the greatest irony that James Franco is acquiring legitimate Oscar buzz for a portrayal of a man whose acting style was ridiculed. Franco mimics the actor’s affected way of speaking perfectly. For some, the depiction might be well considered more of an impression. That’s a valid critique. Be that as it may, I am inclined to champion what Franco has achieved here.

While the tone is most definitely a comedy, the thing that elevates matters is perspective. Franco treats Tommy with an underlying respect. The script’s view of The Room isn’t malicious or contemptuous. Where Wiseau is originally from or how he obtained his huge fortune is never addressed. Given the mystery, there could possibly be a darker story there, but the screenplay doesn’t delve into that. The screenplay keeps the drama lighthearted. It presents him as a passionate man with ambition. By all accounts, Wiseau’s thespian abilities were questionable. The chances of him making it as a successful actor were delusional at best. I’ll admit that this production exposes his cinematic endeavor as less than sophisticated, but there’s an honest love here for the art of filmmaking, even if the end result isn’t particularly accomplished. That upbeat angle makes a big difference.

I have never seen The Room, although I am familiar with its existence. I have watched snippets as highlights on YouTube. I thought that my lack of having seen the original movie on which this was based, would negate my appreciation of this picture. It does not. The Disaster Artist is another captivating chronicle that details the craft of filmmaking. I’m talking a diverse list of features. Naturally Ed Wood (1994) is the most obvious comparison because it concerns a talent like Tommy Wiseau, that isn’t held in high esteem. I’d also include Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Boogie Nights (1997) and Son Of Rambow (2007). The Disaster Artist is a fine addition to that list. They say the truth is stranger than fiction. There’s a slacked jawed bewilderment that the story teases out of the bizarre goings-on during the production of The Room. That disorientation keeps the viewer enrapt. The humor utilizes mockery but there is an undeniable sincerity here. Tommy Wiseau is a man driven by the perseverance to realize a dream. Who among us can’t identify with that idea? He ultimately garners the audience’s favor. It is that viewpoint that raises this achievement into something that uplifts the spirit.

12-22-17

I, Tonya

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Sports with tags on December 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

i_tonyaSTARS3.5Anyone born before 1990 should remember when figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee by an assailant. The Tonya, of the title, was Tonya Harding, of course – Kerrigan’s rival and Olympic teammate. The 1994 scandal and their subsequent showdown at the Olympics that took place one month later was a defining moment in American TV.  It’s easily the most attention that a women’s figure skating event has ever received either before or since. The details, however, have sort of gotten lost in murky recollections of the past. I’ve encountered some who incorrectly think Tonya Harding was actually the one who hit Nancy Kerrigan. That would’ve made Tonya’s ensuing participation in the 1994 Winter Olympics even more unbelievable. Before all that though, people forget that at one point, Tonya was a darn good athlete winning gold medals at the international competition Skate America in 1989 and 1991. This reminds us of the champion she once was but through a dark comedic filter.

The Nancy Kerrigan attack is why Tonya Harding’s name still persists in the public consciousness. That event is ostensibly why the average viewer might come to see this movie. Midway through, the script even acknowledges the fact. Tanya screams directly at the audience, “I mean it’s what you all came here folks, the f—–ing incident!” However, the drama begins much earlier in her life as a 4-year-old working with a professional coach. In that sense, the film is more of a biography.  This is, in essence, an argument to explain why Tonya Harding was the way she was.

The presentation involves an overly theatrical tone and comical atmosphere. We’re told at the outset that this “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews…” This is Harding’s side of the story filtered through mockumentary-style conversations. These include herself (Margot Robbie) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), but also her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and others. Robbie puts forth a performance you simply cannot ignore.  The slimmer, significantly taller actress looks virtually nothing like the actual person, although I can’t help but think Tonya didn’t have a problem with the casting choice.  The figure skater comes across as a crude, foul-mouthed woman who also happened to be incredibly talented.

The exhibition is far more sympathetic to its subject than expected. It cultivates a world in which Tonya was surrounded by less than savory characters. The account maintains she was beset by people who physically and mentally abused her. It recounts key relationships in her life including a volatile relationship with her mother. Actress Allison Janney seizes your attention. It’s not a pleasant portrayal but it is memorable. The developing romance with an explosive Jeff Gillooly is also detailed. It’s shown that his association with buddy Shawn Eckardt, who became Tonya Harding’s bodyguard, would have detrimental effects on her career. The abuse, both verbal and concrete, that occurs on screen would normally be grounds for prison time but here they’re offered as macabre humor. Her “sweetheart” and mom do not come off well. Both are depicted as horrible people. Jeff at least seems to have her best interests at heart, but LaVona, being a parent from which we assume love, comes across as particularly wicked. Tonya is conspicuously beaten, shot at, stabbed and verbally degraded. Given the seriousness of what she endured, the campy style can be off-putting.

I Tonya relies heavily on music to uplift its heroine. At the 1986 Skate America in Portland, Maine, we see a fellow competitor skate a graceful classical routine to “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. Then Harding takes the ice and performs a flawless, much more athletic set, to “Sleeping Bag” by rock band ZZ Top. The message is clear. She is a talented badass that doesn’t follow the rules. Her lower than expected scores frustrate her and she berates the judges. We’re invited to side with her given the apparent difficulty of her achievement. We don’t just hear music in competitions though. Musical selections underscore everything that’s occurring on screen. They are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times. Tonya Harding’s mother is introduced to the song “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard. ::eye roll:: Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” is played at the announcement of divorce proceedings from her husband. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is for sad times. “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Feels Like the First Time” and “Little Girl Bad” underscore her fierce competitive spirit.

The truth is stranger than fiction. The genuine facts are so compelling that it would be almost impossible to make a movie out of these developments and not have it at least be interesting. I, Tonya is compellingly watchable, although the tone doesn’t serve the subject as it should.  The production revels in the climate of a poor working-class white girl living in Portland Oregon. It’s unglamorous, at times shocking, but presented as comedy. Not humor as enjoyably hilarious kind, but dark comedy that makes light of a very dire situation. I was more saddened by the negative circumstances in her life than able to laugh at the irreverence of it all. It’s not uncommon for characters to break the 4th wall and speak directly to the audience, even in the midst of being assaulted. Back in 1995, Buck Henry’s screenplay for the Gus Van Sant directed To Die For, made light of the depressing real-life story of convicted criminal Pamela Smart. The matters of I, Tonya don’t involve murder, but her upbringing is bad enough that you marvel at the fact that Tonya is still alive. Through it all, the chronicle always makes sure to let us know what a great skater she was. She was the first woman to successfully execute two triple Axels in a single competition, and the first to complete a triple Axel in combination with a double toe loop. I came away from the film feeling much more sorry for Tonya Harding than I was anticipating. Honestly, I didn’t have much sympathy for her before this. Now I do. In that sense, the memoir is completely unpredictable. I was changed by the experience.

11-23-17

The Lost City of Z

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography on April 30, 2017 by Mark Hobin

lost_city_of_z_ver4STARS2I wasn’t familiar with British explorer Percy Fawcett before I saw The Lost City of Z. Now that I have, I’m still befuddled as to why he merits consideration.  The movie’s very existence implies that Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett was a trailblazer.  The account presents a man who made a series of trips searching the uncharted Amazonian forests in search of Z, a lost civilianization. Although he mapped supposedly unexplored Brazilian territory, by white men anyway, he didn’t really accomplish much more than that. Yet the screenplay unconditionally glorifies its central hero. In short, the ambiguous movie doesn’t make it clear why this guy was important.

The Lost City of Z is based on New York journalist David Grann’s 2009 bestselling nonfiction book of the same name. Its subtitle: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, suggests nonstop excitement with charismatic individuals. This saga has neither. Charlie Hunnam looks the part of a dashing hero. He speaks his lines with clear conviction often shouting them to show passion, but he remains a vague personality. He’s joined by various companions on different expeditions. Of note are Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett’s trusted assistant, biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) and Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland), who joins his father on his last trip. I mention them because they are known actors with lines but they don’t elevate this tale. His wife Nina (Sienna Miller) is written as a burgeoning feminist with dialogue seemingly written with a 2017 audience in mind.

There is no cohesive thrust to the narrative. He travels through the rain forest, then comes back home, to the jungle again and back to England he returns. At times, he seems to magically appear in the forest and then back home again so abruptly we lose the appreciation for how difficult the journey to those destinations must have been. This occurs a few times over the course of 2 1/2 hours. In the midst of all this, we get the outbreak of World War I. The film’s taxing length is a killer. The languid middle is only debilitated further by the lack of a satisfying end. What actually transpired in real life doesn’t help, but there are certainly ways to creatively tell a story. The screenplay doesn’t pull that off.

The search for the lost city of Z took up Fawcett’s entire life. The chronicle is ostensibly about obsessive quests. Fawcett kept returning to the jungle in a repetitive fashion. But to what end?  Each meandering journey is marked by a shortage of excitement. We’re looking for inspiration but there’s nothing here to captivate the mind. Instead we get “this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The drama is recounted with all the joy of a 7th grader reciting a book report. James Gray is a talented director I have long admired. His most seen film was We Own the Night, the 2007 crime drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. I really enjoyed The Yards (2000) and The Immigrant (2014) too. This is his first piece set outside his native New York. The Lost City of Z represents a departure for the director and judging from this, it was a risk that didn’t pay off.  It looks good. Credit goes to cinematographer Darius Khondji for that. It’s a supreme letdown that the gorgeous facade far exceeds the content within.

04-27-17

The Founder

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo founder_ver2_zpsnrgspsta.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgMcDonald’s is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to believe that at one time the very concept of fast food was a revolutionary idea. Today the global foodservice retailer employs 1.9 million people. It’s the second world’s largest private employer after Walmart. The humble beginnings of a multi-billion dollar empire would be a compelling saga in any industry, but it’s particularly amazing that it happened from selling something as cheap and simple as hamburgers. The creators of McDonald’s were Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1940 but the originator of the McDonald’s Corporation was Ray Kroc in 1955. The difference between those two entities is the underlying concept for a fascinating story.

The Founder starts out as the glorification of a pioneer and becomes a critique on capitalist greed. For the entire duration, it’s a galvanizing watch. Time and again, history has shown that the most successful people in business aren’t necessarily the ones that invent the item, it is those that know how to take that idea and market it properly to masses. We should all know that Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile but he made it a viable option for the public.  That concept was more recently portrayed in the Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs (2015) as well as in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). Here it is again.

It’s essentially the biography of Ray Kroc, a milkshake mixer salesman from Oak Park, Illinois. One day he gets an order for a large number of mixers from a small burger joint in San Bernardino, California. He makes the trek out there to see what’s going on and finds a popular diner that offers delicious, quickly prepared food wrapped in disposable packaging, served without the need for waiters or carhops. The lines are huge. Intrigued, he talks with hard-working Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and business minded Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman). Proud of their prosperous establishment, the brothers give Ray (and us) a detailed explanation of what makes their assembly line operation so unique.

It’s lamentable that these performances kind of got lost in the awards season shuffle because these three are all worthy of consideration. These actors form a triad that is really engaging. Ray wants to franchise the store. Needless to say, the trio begins to work together. Ray makes frequent visits to franchise owners instilling in them the discipline to adhere to the values of what sets McDonald’s apart from the competition. As Ray and the brothers’ relationship develop there are many debates, often by phone, on how the company should be run. The script by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) is extremely entertaining, but it also gives insight into what made McDonald’s different from similar diners in that era. Some of their discussions are amusing, but they can get pretty heated too. I lost track of how many times a conversation ended with one of the participants slamming the receiver down.

The Founder is a very thorough depiction of business. As the chronicle evolves, we get a tale that metamorphosizes from a drama about entrepreneurial spirit into a commentary on the sins of capitalism. What emerges is a riveting portrayal of Ray Kroc. He comes across as a very intelligent guy but he can be a ruthless tycoon as well. The brothers are depicted in a more sympathetic light. They place a premium on high-quality ingredients for example. Yet their “stuck in a rut” way of thinking is part of an outmoded business model that has kept their attempts to franchise from succeeding in a big way. Did Ray Kroc exploit the brothers’ geniality or was he the visionary that saw opportunities that they didn’t? It’s an interesting discussion and one that the screenplay encourages. You will both admire and chastise this man. That duality grounds The Founder. I enjoyed every morsel that it served up.

01-19-17

Jackie

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jackie_zpsnphjqkwp.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgJackie is a film that almost dares you to enjoy it. It’s never dull, but it’s so acutely focused on dramatic posturing that it completely ignores the kinds of things that normally compose a movie. This is an account that is less interested in action, drama or a plot. The chronicle focuses acutely on technique. It’s less a movie and more of a work of art to be viewed. The performance as an expression of method. Come see the newest biographic installation! It’s Jackie Kennedy as embodied by Natalie Portman!

The “plot” concerns the days and weeks following the assassination of her husband. Jackie is a character piece in which a devastated woman makes the first steps to engineer her own legacy. According to the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, she was obsessed with image. How will she and her husband be remembered? She’s worried about perception, not reality. The same could be said of this movie. It begins with the interview Kennedy gave to Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) in Hyannis Port, Mass a week after the assassination. The film alternates between the day itself, the state funeral, and frequent flashbacks to various events when her husband was alive. Oh, she also argues a lot with her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (a shockingly miscast Peter Sarsgaard).

At times the circumstances are horrifying. Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) discordant score punctuates this. The violins swell and plunge so as to emphasize her overwhelming sense of dread. More of an intrusion with the action on screen than an underscoring of it, they interrupt the scene, calling attention to itself. She steps off the plane in Dallas and the music drowns out the sounds of the crowd. It rises to the point where it supersedes what the people are saying. At first, they merely hint, but midway through they have taken over, hijacking the narrative and sabotaging the participants. It’s an edgy choice and one that would beautifully frame a horror movie. For a biographical drama, it’s distracting.

Natalie Portman’s rendition can be most equitably described as uncanny. She’s certainly got the look and feel of the character. The fashions are nattily precise. She gets the mannerisms down. Her vocal delivery is a combination of raspy mid-Atlantic accent and breathy whisper.  It is an emotional achievement, but it all amounts to a sort of a ghostly manifestation. The style of her fashion and the lilt of her voice are beyond reproach, but the soul of the woman is oddly missing. Her patrician beauty and poised demeanor belie a chilly personality. We get that Jackie, though stricken with grief, is full of steely resolve, but she remains remote. She stares out zombie-like into space. Her presence is ethereal.

Jackie is particularly cold during the interview segments. She is curt and controlling, dictating which statements interviewer White can and cannot publish. Recreated scenes of her TV special, A Tour of the White House, seem especially artificial with exaggerated smiling and mock enthusiasm. Granted the real thing was a bit of a pretense, but Mrs. Kennedy still seemed sincere. It’s on YouTube. Compare for yourself. Jackie paints a portrait of a brittle, harsh individual, that is so peculiar in its affectations that you cannot look away. The performance will most certainly draw Portman attention come awards season. It’s too conspicuous not to notice.

This is Natalie Portman’s movie. She is Jackie Kennedy. The narrative is entirely composed of vignettes in which she interacts with various people. In that sense, it’s a chamber piece rather than a biography. Jackie is indeed an intimate portrayal, It revolves around her, every line, every scenario, every interaction fills Jackie. There are admirable qualities. The production has an eye for period detail. It looks exquisite. However, a gorgeous facade is not a raison d’être. As she weeps and drinks and smokes and snarls we get an unorthodox depiction. There’s a moment where she washes off the blood from her dead husband in the shower. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain certainly makes bold decisions in his treatment of this icon. I suppose one can admire his desire to innovate. It’s not conventional. Yet the work is assembled like a collage, with bits and pieces coming together but never coalescing into a unified whole. What are we to make of Jackie Kennedy? Who was this woman? What made her tick? I still have no idea.

11-07-16

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.

10-08-16

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.

10-04-16

Sully

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.

09-15-16