Archive for the Crime Category

Destroyer

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on January 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

destroyerSTARS3I respect Nicole Kidman as an accomplished thespian.  I really do.  As such, I hold the actress in high regard.  Destroyer is a film highlighted by the transformation of its star.  The tall, willowy blonde ditches her signature long tresses for a wispy dirty brown bob with bangs.  Not only does her hair look filthy but her normally fair unblemished skin is wrinkled and pockmarked.  Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective who is on the hunt for the members of a burglary ring.  When she receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack, she determines it’s from a bank robbery committed by a California syndicate many years prior.  Erin’s gritty appearance tells us she’s had a rough past.  Via flashbacks, we learn that she and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) had previously infiltrated this organization as undercover officers.  Predictably, these two shared a romantic relationship as well.  At any rate, now it appears the criminals are active again.  Based on an original script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the narrative is the saga of a woman with a score to settle.

Destroyer has a grimy atmosphere.  Early on Erin is shown doing something distasteful to get information from an informant (James Jordan).  I was repulsed by the scummy milieu.  If you’re willing to stick with the unsavory sections, there is a story, although it is confusingly doled out in bits that the viewer must piece together.  Kidman immerses herself in the sordid surroundings.  She admirably gives it her all but physically she seems too frail to be taken seriously in the role.  Her character Erin gets no respect from her contacts.  Everyone seems to treat her as an annoyance.  Her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) as well as her daughter’s boyfriend (Beau Knapp), along with a lawyer suspect who launders money (Bradley Whitford), all regard her with disdain — initially anyway.   Occasionally she makes inroads.

As a detective drama, Destroyer is merely adequate.  Kidman doesn’t have the gravitas to play an intimidating police officer.  Destroyer is helmed by Karyn Kusama who directed Michelle Rodriguez in her feature debut Girlfight way back in 2000.  I couldn’t help but think Rodriguez would have been a better choice to play this part.  Kusama recently created a sinister but captivating mood in The Invitation (2015), an innovative thriller.  Destroyer is less inventive.   Most of Destroyer simply wallows in the muck as if to prove that Nicole Kidman can be rugged.  I admire her ambition I suppose.   The actress received a lot of positive mentions for her work here.  It’s an exaggerated performance from a veteran performer that’s clearly begging for an Oscar nod.  Unfortunately, that’s all there is.  The screenplay is rooted firmly in genre clichés.  I only wish the drama had been more interesting.

01-01-19

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Game Night

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery with tags on December 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

game_night_ver4STARS4Pssst….I’m going to let you in on a little secret that few people realized in 2018.  Game Night was one of the funniest (and best) movies of the year.  It’s hard for broad farce to be taken seriously.  I mean its raison d’être is to make you laugh by being silly.  But this production is so inventively funny and wonderfully acted that it fitfully entertains to the very end.  Last year wasn’t good for R-rated comedies.We got Girls Trip sure but then we also got Snatched, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.  Into that wake came this picture.  It got released without much fanfare in February of 2018 – one week after Black Panther – the biggest hit of the entire year.  Game Night got lost in the shuffle.

The story employs a brilliant ensemble cast. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as Annie and Max, a married couple who were made for each other.  They are super competitive.  The chronicle begins during one of their regular game nights which includes dim bulb buddy Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who brings an even dimmer date, along with another wedded couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).  Oh and there’s also creepy police officer Gary portrayed by actor Jesse Plemons.  He’s Max and Annie’s neighbor who used to attend their social gatherings when married to their friend Debbie (Jessica Clair Lee).  Now that Debbie and Gary are divorced, they just find him awkward.  Much to their dismay, he’s still interested in hanging out with them.  He’s absolutely perfect.  I’m talking Oscar nomination.  It won’t happen, but I’m putting it out there.  Meanwhile, Max has always lived in the shadows of his slick, handsome, more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) a venture capitalist.  So when Brooks shows up driving the car of Max’s dreams, a Corvette Stingray, and then invites them all to the ultimate game night at his place, they accept the challenge.  This is where the plot takes off.

Game Night is an increasingly outrageous but good-natured, comedy.  That amiable spirit goes a long way into having us embrace these characters into our hearts.  We care about them.  This group of friends gets together for a night of fun.  Things spiral out of control from there.  This develops into a murder mystery party which keeps begging the question. “Is this real or just pretend?”  In that respect, it’s kind of reminiscent of David Fincher’s thriller The Game which was inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  This is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015’s Vacation) from an efficient script by Mark Perez.  Perez co-wrote Herbie Fully Loaded back in 2005 and followed that minor success with the Justin Long/Jonah Hill vehicle Accepted back in 2006.  Those credits wouldn’t prepare you for how well crafted this film truly is.  Perez hasn’t ever really ever been on my radar before, but he’s in my sights now.  Every scene propelled the movie forward.  Not a single line is wasted.  Occasionally things get violent, hence the R rating.  Most of it is played for chuckles.  Getting sucked into the blade of a jet engine is more Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner than Tarantino.  The carefully calibrated silliness never lets up.  It’s a hilarious delight from beginning to end.

02-26-18

Blindspotting

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

blindspotting_ver2STARS4.5Blindspotting is a carefully crafted meditation on moral concerns, that is, what it means to be human and exist in this world.  On the surface it’s a consideration on the gentrification of the Bay Area — a condemnation on the way housing costs have skyrocketed.  The reason for this has a lot to do with the success of tech companies that have lured young wealthy transplants from places like Seattle and Portland.  The influx has had a considerable effect on life in Northern California.  But it’s so much more than that. In a larger perspective, it’s a dissertation on race and class.  Yet the milieu is not didactic. Blindspotting loves the Bay Area and everything that makes it one of the most diverse intersections of cultures in the world.

Blindspotting is the tale of two friends: Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). The two work for a moving company.  Collin’s association with Miles is deep but it can be challenging.  They have been close all their lives.  They are of the same class but of a different race.  Collin is black; Miles is white.  The fact is unimportant in their relationship but relevant in the way they are perceived by others.  Miles is a father with a young child.  He is fiercely loyal to those close to him but unstable and prone to violent outbursts.  Collin is on probation for one year.  He has an 11 p.m.curfew.  The nature of his crime won’t be answered until much later.  Oh, but when it is, know that vignette is a reveal that is both hilarious and lamentable at the same time.  The important thing is he’s completed 11 months and 27 days.  He is literally just a few days away from finishing his term.  Collin is a good guy desperately trying to live his life on the straight and narrow.  So when Dez (Jon Chaffin) and best buddy Miles (Rafael Casal) show up carrying guns, Collin is visibly unnerved by the sight.  Later that night, Collin is stopped at a red light.  He’s past his check-in time.  All of a sudden a young black man (Travis Parker), runs in front of his truck.  Before Collin can proceed, a cop (Ethan Embry), runs in front of him and guns down the runner in the back.  Collin is stunned. Another officer pulls up and orders him to move.  When he arrives home, Colin has missed his curfew by nine minutes.  This will present a moral dilemma.  Does he speak up and endanger his impending freedom or keep quiet and live with the guilt?

Stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have an enduring friendship in real life too.  Casal is a white-Hispanic spoken-word artist.  Diggs is a biracial rapper.  He’s best known for his role as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton on Broadway.  They have a relaxed easy going chemistry.  They also wrote the film together.  Working from their script, director Carlos López Estrada expertly juggles together drama, comedy, and hip-hop in his debut feature.  The developments of the story don’t always play out as you expect.  Blindspotting introduces tense moments only to subvert them.  A few times I tensed up at what looked like a violent resolution to the scene I was watching only to have the tension defused.  That’s not the expected development, but it is the more mindful one.  The screenwriters give us something to ponder.  They’re talented with words as well as in performance.  Diggs, in particular, is a charismatic presence.  If there’s any justice, he will be a star one day.

Blindspotting is a thoughtful reflection on the changing population of a city.  That diversity is something to celebrate.  Yet the disparate points of view that can lead to conflict.  The changing landscape a society of transplants can have a major effect on a region.  The drama can be serious when dealing with weighty topics but it also maintains a sense of humor as well.  Miles resents the upscale Whole Foods grocery corporation that now inhabits their hood.  “They have great produce” Collin offers.  Their local fast-food joint from back in the day has surrendered its menu to health-conscious elements.  The default burger is now vegan.  So please specify MEAT when you order a hamburger.  Fries have become potato wedges.  The community has now succumbed to establishments that subscribe to the religion of craft cocktails and food that promotes sustainability with only locally sourced ingredients.  It all comes to a head when Colin and Miles attend a trendy party at a sleek Oakland townhouse thrown by an affluent tech entrepreneur hipster – the symbol of everything Miles hates.  Miles wears a T-shirt that reads “Kill a hipster/Save your hood.”  When his natural way of speaking is mistaken as cultural appropriation by a guest, it hits a nerve.  The social commentary is surprisingly lighthearted at times.  Other times it is as grim as a heart attack.  It’s always incredibly entertaining.  Blindspotting gets it right.  It understands the city of Oakland., It appreciates the human condition. It gets the very fabric of humanity.

8-14-18

Widows

Posted in Crime, Drama on November 23, 2018 by Mark Hobin

widowsSTARS3.5Widows is director Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated follow-up to the Oscar-winning best picture 12 Years a Slave.  It might seem odd that he would follow an exploitative history lesson with a genre picture that seems more suited to the multiplex than the arthouse.  Truth?  It is unexpected because Widows is simply that, a heist film, albeit a very competent one.  Steve McQueen is a thoughtful filmmaker with an eye for exploring gender, race, and politics.  Those topics are here if you choose to explore the subtext.  Windows is an extremely compelling adaptation by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Steve McQueen.  The source is writer Lynda La Plante’s British crime series of the same name that aired on the ITV network in 1983 and 1985.  This is clearly a labor of love over a TV show that held a special place in the heart of a 13-year-old. In his words: “I was a person at that time who was deemed not to be capable….people assuming things about me because of my appearance.  I could relate to those women.”

The widows of the title are Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon).  All 4 lose their husbands when their mates are killed attempting grand theft.  The men were escaping in a van, a S.W.A.T. team shot up their vehicle and the car exploded. Before she even has a chance to mourn the death of her spouse, Veronica is confronted by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a crime boss and politician. He wants the $2 million that her hubby owed him. He’s clearly a baddie because he grabs her little dog by the neck.  Hurting an animal is the fastest shortcut to telegraph a villain.  Frantic, Veronica contacts her fellow widows for help in finishing the job their partners could not.  Linda and Alice are in.  Amanda is not.  They conspire to finish off their husbands’ final job.

Widows is aided by a strong cast.  It should go without saying that Oscar winner (and 3-time nominee) Viola Davis enhances the film with another one of her strong, grounded performances.  If there’s a star to this ensemble, Viola is it.  Michelle Rodriguez is solid and relative unknown Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki shines brightly as well.  Debicki is one of two actresses whose career should be most helped by this production.  Assisting them in their task is Belle (Cynthia Erivo). She’s the other newcomer to watch. Not a widow, but rather a single mother working as the babysitter to Linda’s children. The British stage actress is a commanding presence in her 2nd feature.  Daniel Kaluuya, Lukas Haas, Jacki Weaver, and Liam Neeson all complement the cast in key roles.  Some are more pivotal than others.

Widows is an ambitious drama. The action is set against the backdrop of the racial politics of Chicago.  Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is running for the alderman position of the 18th ward.  He’s the son of the powerful incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Jamal Manning just so happens to be running against him.   Manning needs that $2 million from Veronica to help finance his electoral campaign.  You see this tale is an intricate puzzle with various connections and alliances.  It sounds complex but thanks to the clean editing of film editor Joe Walker, the action is coherent.  The motivations make sense.  People may show defects of character but you’ll always understand why they behave in the manner they do.  It’s an engrossing feature.  One plot twist made the audience gasp.  The production manages to be entertaining while weaving a socially aware story into its fabric.  At times the somber atmosphere can get a bit self-serious.  It lacks the giddy joy of the con that elevates the most exciting heist movies (Riffifi, Ocean’s Eleven, Inception).  Widows is still pretty enjoyable and it goes great with popcorn.

11-17-18

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

The Hate U Give

Posted in Crime, Drama on October 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hate_u_giveSTARS4One doesn’t normally expect a thoughtful rumination on the Black Lives Matter movement to be the topic of a young adult novel, but The Hate U Give is exactly that. The media has certainly made the issue a focus. Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Danroy Henry – these are just a few of the innocents whose lives have been taken. Fruitvale Station capably handled the topic back in 2013. Sadly, police shootings of unarmed black citizens have become a prevalent fixture in the news. Perhaps a lot of you dear readers feel inundated. The very fact that the subject already feels like a cliché is really more a sad comment on how pervasive the problem has become. The Hate U Give handles the matter with sensitivity and grace.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a 16-year-old black girl obsessed with 90s pop culture. She lives in Garden Heights, a black, mostly poor, neighborhood. However at the behest of her mother Lisa (Regina Hall), she attends the much safer Williamson Prep., a school made up of affluent, mostly white, students. Lisa wants her daughter to get a good education. Audrey Wells’ screenplay skillfully delves into the dichotomy of Starr’s two lives. At home she hangs with her pals, wears hoodies, goes to parties and bestows a relaxed temperament. At school, she dons fancier clothes, rids her language of vulgarity and purposefully renders a more sophisticated air so as not to appear difficult. It’s ironic because her white classmates conversely infuse their speech with street slang to affect a persona they determine is “cool”. The proper story is initiated after a party Starr is attending is broken up by the police. She is driven home by her best friend from childhood, Khalil (Algee Smith) who is black. On the way, they are stopped by a police officer (Drew Starkey) who happens to be white. After a verbal argument, the officer has Khali exit the car. While the officer is on his radio, Khalil reaches for his hairbrush. The officer mistakes it for a gun and fires upon Khalil, killing him. The moment is as gut-wrenching as it sounds.

The title The Hate U Give was inspired by something rapper Tupac Shakur once said. The letters form the word T.H.U.G. which when paired with L.I.F.E. are an acronym for the phrase “The hate you give little infants f—-s everybody.” He believed that “what you feed us as seeds, grows, and blows up in your face.” The novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is sharply directed by George Tillman Jr. The story details what happens when Starr’s two worlds collide after the life-altering death of her pal Khalil. She has compartmentalized her life up to this point. Before you cast judgment on her spurious personalities, look within yourself. Who among us hasn’t been guilty of adopting a different identity around different people? The galvanizing moment causes her to rethink everything in her current life. That challenges her relationship with Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) her friend at school, as well as her relationship with boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa).

There are a lot of narratives at work here. The screenplay by Audrey Wells attempts to incorporate everything for everyone – read black and white audiences. Certainly, a big part charts how Starr’s life changes after the incident. This is complicated by an activist (Issa Rae) that persuades Starr to speak up. There’s also Anthony Mackie who plays a local drug dealer. At times there are so many threads to the plot, that some get short shrift. Especially near the end when the story needs to tidy everything up. A late scene between Chris and Starr in their limo at the prom presents a clumsy conversation that doesn’t quite feel fully resolved. The script’s desire to present all of the different sides can be a bit awkward.  Lisa’s brother, Carlos (Common) is a cop that gives a late in the game speech presenting the feelings of a police officer. The hurriedly inserted declaration rang false. Specifically meaning that the screenwriter didn’t give his cop character the same depth she gave to everyone else. Yet it’s a minor quibble because the script is largely superb. It brilliantly handles the complexities of her life. It’s a tribute to the intensity of the screenplay that I have to nitpick.

The performances are extraordinary. They make the picture. As the central figure, actress Amanda Stenberg grounds the drama. She is extremely compelling as the high school student conflicted by two worlds. However, it is her mom and dad that ultimately amplify this family as a household to truly treasure.  Regina Hall as Starr’s mother and Russell Hornsby as her father present one of the most loving, supportive, positive and honest examples of a family I have seen in a film. They are richly drawn portrayals that captivate the heart. The manifestation of their family is so welcoming. This is a depiction rarely seen in movies. They’re truly different people. Lisa is a mature, responsible presence with an understanding heart. Maverick is a reformed drug dealer who has a son (Lamar Johnson ) with another woman (Karan Kendrick). He has some obvious flaws. Yet they both captivated me with their genuine concern for their family. There’s a lot of great performances in this. Algee Smith as Khalil Harris, Starr’s childhood best friend, is of note as well. He manages to convey a profound connection to her that is deeply felt by the audience. The fact he’s only briefly seen makes the achievement even more impressive. The Hate U Give takes on a complex subject and somehow manages to expertly weave in comedy, drama, tragedy, and sadness all within the framework to create a fully realized portrait a young woman’s life.

10-22-18

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

A Simple Favor

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller on September 15, 2018 by Mark Hobin

simple_favor_ver9STARS2.5Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) has carved out a successful niche in Hollywood.  His female-centric comedies have been both box office successes as well as critically lauded hits.  I consider myself an admirer.  So when A Simple Favor was announced, I welcomed another offering from the filmmaker.  The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (TV’s American Horror Story) is based on a 2017 novel by Darcey Bell.  I was intrigued by ads that led me to believe that he was undertaking something new. The trailer promised a shift into neo-noir thriller, that A Simple Favor would deviate from Feig’s comedy wheelhouse.  While the production attempts to affect a pseudo-serious edge, this material incongruously relies on laughs, sometimes awkwardly in the very same scene.

I was elated by the cast.  I am a Blake Lively fan. The statuesque actress plays Emily, a mysterious friend of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) who goes missing.   Lively got her start in features with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). Then made a splash in the CW television series Gossip Girl (2007–2012). Initially subsequent films (Green Lantern, Savages) followed that didn’t make use of her talents.  I must confess she really didn’t impress until her appearance in The Age of Adaline. The willowy blonde epitomized cool stylish class in that production.  Visually, Lively is a chic throwback to Hollywood heroines like Jean Harlow, Kim Novak, Veronica Lake, or Grace Kelly.  She is undeniably well cast here.  With her designer duds and cosmopolitan demeanor, she is the epitome of a gorgeous sophisticate. The movie adopts a refined air.  Although her character subverts that mood with a vulgar temperament.  Her conversations with Stephanie make it clear.  Emily is a lewd and crude woman.

The rest of the cast intrigued me.  Emily’s husband is portrayed by Crazy Rich Asians newcomer Henry Golding.  He plays it rather straight.  The actor treats the screenplay as if he’s in a sincere drama.  Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, seems to be in a different picture altogether.  As a mother, she hosts her own self-produced internet program for fellow moms.  When she addresses her audience of mommies in her video blog, her strident performance makes sense.  Yet she maintains that same shrill demeanor even while sipping martinis with newly found friend Emily.  Her acting is broad and gratingly self-aware.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the part was originally written with frequent Paul Feig collaborator Melissa McCarthy in mind.  McCarthy was brilliant taking on an uncharacteristic role in Spy so I have no doubt she could have pulled off this part with aplomb as well.  She would’ve been a better casting selection given the way Kendrick is directed to behave.  Miss Kendrick’s constant mugging would be more at home in a Miller-Boyett sitcom.  I have nothing against Full House, Perfect Strangers, Family Matters, Step by Step, et al.  Those 90s hits have their place in TV history.  It’s just that the acting style doesn’t suit an elegant mystery.

The choice to mix folly with drama is black comedy and when it works, it can be marvelous.  But taking a serious subject and introducing humor is a difficult balancing act.  It’s been done successfully.  David O. Russell achieved the feat with 2013’s American Hustle to cite one recent example.  There has to be a modicum of respect for your own characters so the audience can be invested in their plight.  Quite simply, these characters lack depth.  All of them.  Even Emily’s young son (Ian Ho) comes across like spoiled brat on a bad sitcom.  I consider the moment when the little tyke surprisingly shouts “F— You!” at Stephanie to be the nadir.  With A Simple Favor, what initially begins like as a captivating mystery slowly devolves into superficial farce. Sometimes in mid-scene. The decision to undercut tension with silliness undermines the story’s more lofty ambitions.  I hesitate to mention Hitchcock because invoking his name in the same breath as a sordid piece of entertainment such as this is akin to blasphemy.  However, that’s clearly the aesthetic to which director Paul Feig was aiming.  Unfortunately, misplaced absurdity and then a convoluted denouement with a few too many twists, completely sinks the plot.  The recent Searching had twists too but at least they were coherent.  Perusing the number of one-star reviews on the social book site Goodreads for Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel leads me to believe the problem lies with the source material.  That’s a shame.  The ultimate mystery of A Simple Favor is why they buried an elegant thriller underneath this goofy mess.

09-13-18

Ocean’s 8

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Thriller on June 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

oceans_eight_ver2STARS3.5It’s very easy to roll your eyes when Hollywood decides to take a tried and true movie series and simply tweak the formula in some cosmetic way to make it seem different for a new generation. i.e. “It’s ________ but now with women!” Back in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise famously retooled the recipe with a cast of female comedians. This sparked a much-publicized outrage amongst Internet fanboys. Nevertheless, it was still a modest summer hit in the U.S. Although it wouldn’t have recouped its massive production costs without the benefit of the foreign market. Now Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy gets the gender flip treatment.  I’m happy to report the results are a frothy delight. It’s lighthearted, breezy and effortless.

To be fair, Ocean’s Eleven is merely a blueprint onto which you can tell any heist tale. Here Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s now deceased character. There’s that connective story DNA. Cameos by Elliott Gould and Shaobo Qinbut try to link the series together but they don’t really add any substantive value to their adventure. The plot concerns Debbie Ocean, freshly released from prison for a fraud scheme. She immediately celebrates her freedom by shoplifting fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman within the first 15 minutes of the picture. So much for rehabilitation. In fact, she has been planning a jewelry heist while locked up for the past 5 years, 8 months and 12 days. Lou (Cate Blanchett,) is her confidant and best friend. Their witty exchanges suggest more than a hint of sexual tension between the two. Debbie enlists her help first.  Then Debbie mobilizes the assistance of a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson), a street hustler (Awkwafina), a computer hacker (Rihanna), and a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).  Each one ideally equipped with some special talent in lifting an item valued at $150 million.

Ah but what exactly is the MacGuffin in question? Why that would be the Jeanne Toussaint necklace created by Cartier. I was curious if this ridiculously expensive bauble was an authentic thing.  If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you’d want to know too.  It was created in 1931 for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, an Indian prince.  Since then, the necklace has been dismantled and the individual diamonds used in other pieces. However, the pendant did in fact once exist.  Cartier was hired to create a replica out of natural zirconium and white gold for the movie.  The prop is pretty valuable too, but at a value nowhere near the original obviously. Debbie Ocean wants to steal the treasure.  She insists on only hiring women because they are “invisible”. Then proceeds to plan a heist where the objet d’art will be worn by one of the guests at the annual Met Gala. Oh hell no! I thought.  That’s where the men in a sea of tuxedos are invisible.  The wearer of the adornment is Daphne Kluger, a self-centered celebrity wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway.  In a film stuffed with many charismatic entities, she arguably makes the biggest impression.  It is a fully aware performance that trades on the star’s real-world persona in such a knowing way, that it makes her acting achievement an absolute joy.

Ocean’s 8 succeeds best when it focuses on telling its own story.  People recognize the Ocean’s Eleven brand.  Marketing this as a spin-off is an easy way to sell this film to the public.  Yet Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable romp in its own right.  Honestly, this has less to do with the Soderbergh entries and more in common with other heist movies that feature women like Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Set It Off (1996). Setting the central heist at the Met Gala with its haute couture and luxurious trappings bathes the production in slick style.  The fundraising event is America’s most exclusive, elegant, star-studded party so the atmosphere is stylish and chic.  The stellar ensemble adds immeasurably to the sophisticated, high-class mood of the production.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t have the innovative instincts of Steven Soderbergh but he is a reliable director that knows how to relate an account in an efficient manner. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch.  It doesn’t reinvent the formula.  Nor does it provide much conflict. The women sail through this heist with the greatest of ease.  There’s hardly any struggle in the entire 110 minutes. But there’s something to be said for a fizzy comedy in the early summer months that doesn’t tax your brain. It’s free-spirited fun, has ample charisma from an impressive cast and you’ll have a chuckle or two before it’s all over.  I left the theater in an upbeat mood and that garners a solid recommendation in my book.

06-07-18

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3STARS3In the opening minutes, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is driving by three dilapidated unused billboards on a seemingly deserted rural road. A beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer” sung by opera singer Renée Fleming swells in the background. Mildred is seen contemplating the signs themselves. We soon learn that she’s a divorced mother grieving the recent loss of her teenaged daughter that was raped and murdered 7 months prior. She’s understandably angry and wants justice. Sounds good. I’m on her side. Let’s find the culprit. She rents the ad space for all three billboards and emblazes each with the words “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” separated on each one.

Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of Ebbing Missouri played by Woody Harrelson. He’s a beloved figure in the town who, as the director begins to stack the deck, happens to be suffering from a fatal illness. The townspeople, by and large, aren’t on her side. This is a bit perplexing at first. I mean her daughter was murdered for goodness’ sake.  Apparently, they’re concerned that the huge outdoor signs are insensitive given the sheriff’s condition. Although she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are harassed, Mildred stands firm becoming even more cantankerous and destructive. She ends up doing a lot of really heinous things that make the townsfolk (and us the audience) hate her. She assaults a dentist, kicks school-aged children in the groin, and commits a little felony called arson. We even see Mildred scream at her now deceased daughter “I hope you get raped” in a flashback sequence.  Granted it’s clearly an exchange she regrets. Nevertheless, would your mother ever utter such a thing?

I assume Mildred is the hero. Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic to her plight too but he is shown to be ineffective at best and compassionate to racists at worst. Less sensitive is one of his men Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We’re told he actually tortured a man in custody because of the color of his skin. Yes tortured. We never actually see the abuse in question though. In some ways, this is an even more pernicious filmmaking decision because it indirectly absolves shameful behavior because we do not actually see it.  We’re assured it happened though. “Allegedly” Officer Willoughby jokes. Is that funny? Officer Dixon is a seething irredeemable pile of racism. Or is he? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that creates likable individuals that we end up hating while simultaneously creating loathsome people that we’re asked to snuggle up to.  It’s a moral quandary to be sure. I’m not comfortable with embracing a violent bigot. Are you?

Who am I expected to root for? That is the question in this story. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. We obviously feel sympathy for her but at one point she inadvertently almost kills an innocent man. Well “innocent” of the crime in question but guilty of being a despicable human being. Are we supposed to cheer or jeer? I still don’t know. What I do realize is that no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive. I’m conspicuously in the minority. Three Billboards has gotten universal acclaim. I mean it’s well acted by the entire cast. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson imbue their characters with as much humanity as the script will allow. Although why a southern redneck sheriff is now married to a stunningly gorgeous woman with an Australian accent (Abbie Cornish) is a conundrum that goes unanswered.

Despite the moral dilemmas, Three Billboards is strangely entertaining. I was intellectually fascinated by the utter unpredictably of it all. The capricious turn of events in the plot’s final third is completely incomprehensible. This may be playwright Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic effort to date, but it’s still a lesser version of what the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino do so well.  Martin McDonagh’s point of view is too muddled for me to truly embrace. Is this hilarious comedy or is it a weighty drama? Conspicuously dire circumstances are presented as lighthearted farce. To wit: Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater dating a girl that is of barely legal age (Samara Weaving). Poor Penelope delivers lines that show the audience she’s clearly an airhead. Does that mean her life is any less important? She’s introduced as an object of ridicule but I wanted to save the poor girl from being another battered statistic. Get out of that relationship quick. You’re in danger! I guess those kinds of ethical qualms are a hindrance to enjoying this narrative’s “comedy.”  Sorry. I wasn’t laughing.

11-28-17