Archive for the Crime Category

Cruella

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on June 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you seen Disney’s 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians lately? It is perhaps the least pretentious tale the Disney factory has ever concocted: evil woman hires criminals to steal puppies so she can make a fur coat. It also has one of the greatest Disney villains ever. Voiced by radio star Betty Lou Gerson, her raspy voice addressed everyone as “dahling” like theater legend Talulah Bankhead. The character preened about the room ensconced in a huge fur that hides her skeletal frame while chain-smoking from a cigarette holder. She was a sight to behold. Like actress Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the villain didn’t have a lot of screen time. Yet when she appeared, her charisma was such a force of nature it loomed over everything else. You remember her to be a bigger presence than she actually was.

Cruella is another live-action Disney concoction that investigates the origins of this character in the form of a prequel. Reinvent the story from the villain’s perspective. This was similarly accomplished (from a profitability angle anyway) with Maleficent. However, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo have all recently mined the live action remake idea. I admit it is with much cynicism when I say the raison dêtre for all of these interpretations is business first. The art (hopefully) will follow. I still contend their 2015 masterful achievement Cinderella is the gold standard. Cruella is nowhere near that level, but it’s too beautiful to be a train wreck.

Some people are evil because they are born that way. In the cartoon, the character was driven by selfish greed — a refreshingly simple idea that needed no explanation. Nevertheless, the screenwriters here do not share that point of view. They seek to expand on why Cruella de Vil is the way she is. The protagonist is conflicted by two sides of a dual personality. Her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) notices this in her daughter. There’s nice girl Estella but that only gets her so far. Hence why she creates the Cruella persona. She’s not really bad. It’s all an act. Cruella doesn’t smoke. Nor does she want to skin puppies. She doesn’t even wear furs. Sheesh! How did this nice girl become the Cruella de Vil we know?

This origin tale is hampered by unnecessary plot threads in a convoluted 134-minute backstory. The pile of unresolved details is a snooze fest. I’d excise the first 30 minutes at least. A better more efficient movie would have begun when Estella is employed by the Baroness. Estella first arrives in London as an orphaned child of the late 60s. It’s at this time that Cruella meets two delinquents who will become her cohorts. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry will play Horace and Jasper respectively as adults. Cruella cobbles her childhood from the iconography of Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie. Sadly Cruella doesn’t come close to the beloved musicals inspired by those works.

Cruella isn’t a musical, although it does feature a lot of music. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I, Tonya) appropriates 33 songs (yes 33 I looked it up) mostly from the 60s and 70s that emphasize the image on the screen. From Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” or “She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones – the song selections are overused needle drops you’ve heard a million times before. The musical cues are so on the nose they are more likely to inspire eye-rolls than admiration.

Cruella is another case of “too many cooks.” The saga has five credited writers: Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from a story by Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis, and most tellingly — Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada. At its core, Cruella reveals itself to be just a remix of that classic. A bad screenplay is a mortal sin in the world of filmmaking. Despite this most major transgression, I did not hate this.

The film delivers in several key areas that kept me enrapt. As a showcase for an opulent parade of gorgeous fashions it flourishes. Occasionally costume design can elevate an entire production. Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mirror Mirror) could do this. So can Jenny Beavan (A Room with a View, Mad Max: Fury Road). The costumes are the movie. She’s been nominated 10 times (2 Oscar wins) and her work here deserves an eleventh. At the Baroness’ Black and White Ball, Cruella arrives covered in a white cape that goes up in flames to reveal a vintage red dress. Cruella manages to steal from…er uh excuse me…pay homage to pop-culture history and the career of Vivienne Westwood. It presents the hero as an aspiring fashion designer with a punk style that usurps her boss.

Cruella is a mixed bag. The performances are satisfying even when the writing is not. Emma Stone’s manic energy is captivating. Her boss is Baroness von Hellman. Emma Thompson is doing a riff on Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Thompson is exquisite. She looks and acts the part. The Baroness affects a dismissive attitude. However, her appetite for delivering disparaging remarks isn’t as beautifully realized. She tries. Oh, how she tries! Unfortunately, her words aren’t as clever. It is her physical embodiment of the role where the comedy succeeds. The Baroness’ lack of concern when she pops a champagne cork into a poor waiter’s eye gets the biggest laugh. Furthermore, it never fails visually. Come and gorge on the opulence. Hey, if you can’t feel good, at least look good.

06-01-21

Army of the Dead

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s about quality not quantity in art. There is a power to simplicity. Most movie genres benefit from efficient storytelling. In particular, I’ve always thought comedies and animated films are better when they’re 100 minutes or less. After watching this 2 hour and 28-minute chronicle, I’m ready to add zombie movies to that list. The 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead adhered to that rule. Even Zack Snyder’s first foray into this genre qualifies. His feature debut was a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Ok, so I’ll concede the 1978 original was 126 minutes. There are exceptions to every rule.

Complicated epics may benefit from longer runtimes. However, this saga is rather simple. The zombie apocalypse has left Las Vegas separated from the rest of humanity. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former war hero who’s now flipping burgers. Casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) tasks him with retrieving $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip. Slight complication: In 32 hours, Las Vegas will be nuked by the government as a solution to its infestation. Scott accepts the challenge and assembles a team of experts for the heist. There’s little time to waste. The clock is ticking.

The narrative highlights a flamboyant band of mercenaries. Characterization isn’t a highlight, other than to emphasize tough guys and gals in its lively cast of personalities. Scott and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) have unresolved issues that are shoehorned in for ersatz sentimentality. I remember Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). The latter looking like a sturdier version of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Their prickly interactions at the outset predictably develop into a friendship by the end. French actress Nora Arnezeder as Lily suggests Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels with her short blonde hairstyle. Then there’s Zeus (Richard Cetrone ) the alpha male, and his queen (Athena Perample) in this society of the undead. Question: Can an intelligent entity with emotions and highly evolved problem-solving skills still be considered a zombie?

This is a Zack Snyder movie through and through. He’s not only the director but also a producer, and one of the screenwriters. This also marks the first time that the director has been his own DP. Much of the cinematography has a “unique” look. The actors in the foreground are often clear but the background is blurry. Occasionally even the stars are out of focus too. This was a conscious choice the director made, but it didn’t improve the experience in my living room. In a theater (this played on 600 screens) one might be more forgiving. On a TV it comes off like a visual glitch. It’s a strange decision in this 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray age. Incidentally, Tig Notaro was digitally added post-filming, although the late addition doesn’t stand out from anyone else.

Army of the Dead has its moments. The high points occur when the adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously and calls attention to how — let’s face it — stupid it is. I especially enjoyed all the “on the nose” needle drops. They are a welcome reprieve from the heavy-handed gore. Snyder ends his saga with the most literally titled song you could imagine. The Cranberries’ protest anthem “Zombie” has absolutely nothing to do with reanimated corpses but here it is, appropriated out of context for your listening pleasure. “Night Life” and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley can be heard. However, the version of “Viva Las Vegas” that opens the film is a campier rendition by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. A cover of “Bad Moon Rising” by Theo Gilmore, “The End” by The Raveonettes, and Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” also pop up at amusing points.

Army of the Dead is a straightforward story undone by its interminable length. You could depict two heists in this ridiculously long zombie apocalypse tale. Is it too early to start championing a new hashtag on Twitter? “Release the NON-Snyder cut!” I’d prefer a version where the studio boldly makes the deep cuts necessary to edit this distended tedium into a compelling piece of entertainment. There’s a decent movie buried somewhere amongst all the excess.

05-22-21

The Woman in the Window

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on May 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Woman in the Window apes the work of Hitchcock so superficially that the word “derivative” doesn’t seem to do it justice. Perhaps forgery is more apropos.

This glossy thriller stars Amy Adams as a former child psychologist living in Manhattan named Anna. She’s recently separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie), who has custody of their nine-year-old daughter Olivia (Mariah Bozeman). Nevertheless, they periodically talk on the phone. Anna rents her basement to a boarder named David Winter (Wyatt Russell).

More important information. Anna suffers from agoraphobia and never leaves the house. She regularly spies on her neighbors, out of boredom I suppose. The Russells — a family of three — move in across the street. She meets their teenaged son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). He is a sensitive soul, and they quickly form a close bond. Then Anna greets his mom Jane (Julianne Moore) when she happily drops over. They have a chat over wine where Jane alludes that her husband Alistair (Gary Oldman) is abusive. A bit later, she sees Jane stabbed to death while staring out her window. She is convinced Alistair is the culprit.

The inspiration for The Woman in the Window is clearly Hitchcock’s Rear Window. THE miracle of 2021 cinema would have been if this even came close to that masterpiece. The feature is directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour). Screenwriter Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) — who also appears as Anna’s psychiatrist — adapted the 2018 novel by Daniel Mallory who writes under the pseudonym A. J. Finn. It’s not a crime to be inspired by a classic film. Borrow from the best and call it an homage, right? Yet shoddy art is still some sort of an offense. I’d like to make a citizen’s arrest. This story is sloppily thrown together.

For one thing, the screenplay doesn’t play fair with the audience. We’re never 100% sure that what Anna sees and does is real. She is frequently drinking wine and in a constant drug-induced haze because of her anxiety issues. She blacks out a lot. Are psychoactive drugs to blame? Is she being psychologically manipulated by the people around her? Maybe she’s just mentally depressed? We can’t take what we are shown at face value.

The Woman in the Window has gotten mostly negative reviews. Yet I didn’t hate it as much as some. It starts out rather promisingly as a slow-burn mystery. However in the last 30 minutes, the narrative hastily dumps all of its revelations. It’s ridiculous. I’ve seen episodes of Scooby-Doo that ended better. Actor Brian Tyree Henry closing dialogue as a detective is particularly bad. Another thing that annoys me is when you insert clips of famous movies in your new production. Anna loves old films. Not only do we see a clip from Rear Window, but also Laura, Spellbound, and Dark Passage. The choice inadvertently mocks the viewer. Thanks for reminding me of all the better motion pictures I could be watching right now.

Monster

Posted in Crime, Drama on May 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In 2004 Charlize Theron famously won an Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. The title was a sincere description of its protagonist. However, it’s far more cynical and not to be taken at face value here. This long-delayed melodrama debuted at Sundance in 2018. Netflix acquired the film and released it on May 7. A team of screenwriters — Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer — adapt the award-winning 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers.

The “monster” of the title is Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a 17-year-old black honors student who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steve now faces life in prison. He’s on trial charged with a felony as an accessory to murder. He was allegedly acting as a lookout for the crime. James King (A$AP Rocky) and Richard “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington) gunned down a store owner during their robbery of a bodega. Osvaldo Cruz (Jharrel Jerome) also stands accused, but like Bobo, he takes a plea deal.

The list of characters continues. Maureen O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle) is the defense lawyer who represents Steve. Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor) is the lawyer for the prosecution. Mom (Jennifer Hudson) and Dad (Jeffrey Wright) are devastated. While in jail, Raymond “Sunset” Green (Nas) is a fellow prisoner who gives Steve advice. The narrative also details Steve’s life before the killing. He is an aspiring film student attending the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Leroy Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson) is Steve’s teacher who attests to his strong character at the trial. We follow the teen as he navigates through a complex legal battle. His very future is at stake.

The chronicle is the portrait of a victim captive to a flawed American judicial system. Steve’s defense attorney has already decided the jury will connect race with guilt. Steve’s public defender laments an unequal system. Even before the trial, she characterizes the mindset of the jury as such: “You’re young. You’re Black. You’re on trial.” She’s preparing her client for an inequitable fight. Meanwhile, Steve’s thoughts can be heard in an awkward voice-over that sounds like text directly lifted from the book. Steve over-emphasizes points of view that are abundantly clear from the action on screen. The narration doesn’t help this heavy-handed saga. The screenplay favors an oversimplification of human beliefs and attitudes. Subtlety and nuance be damned.

A courtroom drama centered on a black teenager’s introduction to American justice could be the basis for a powerful account. At least the ensemble of actors is impressive. Perhaps the idea itself was enough to attract this stellar cast. Many of their careers have only become more distinguished since this movie was originally produced. It’s not hard to see why it sat on the shelf for so long. They do what they can with the material provided. Unfortunately, the treatment of a serious issue is clumsy and simplistic. Filmmaker Anthony Candler is a veteran music video director. He injects his style into the proceedings, but his guidance is amateurish. The pacing and scene transitions call more attention to the director’s hand than to the importance of the story. Monster is a missed opportunity.

05-10-21

The Shadow of Violence

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on April 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Selecting the right title for a film is an artistic decision. In the UK this production was poetically released as Calm with Horses — based on the short story of the same name by Irish writer Colin Barrett. This is what the movie was called everywhere. Everywhere except in the US, where it was changed to The Shadow of Violence. So bland. That generic title always escapes me.

Thankfully the picture itself is anything but forgettable. The debut feature from director Nick Rowland is skillfully composed and self-assured. It deserves a bigger audience. Inexplicably it was dropped in U.S. theaters last year on July 31, 2020, during the economic shutdown. Given that most theaters were closed, it isn’t surprising that few Americans saw it. Then it debuted on Netflix on January 21, 2021. To be honest, this still wasn’t even on my radar until the April 11th BAFTAs where it garnered an impressive four nominations.

The chronicle concerns an ex-boxer (Cosmo Jarvis) who works as the muscle for the Devers, a drug-dealing family in rural Ireland. Despite his rough exterior Douglas — whose nickname is Arm — is a sympathetic soul. He’s trying to break away from the negative influence of his troublemaking chum (Barry Keoghan). Arm wants to concentrate on being a good father to his 5-year-old autistic son Jack. Calm with Horses refers to the peace that Jack finds when he’s engaged in equestrian pursuits. Arm’s loyalties are tested when the Devers clan asks him to kill someone.

Actor Cosmo Jarvis is impressive in the lead. His memorable performance is full of passion and nuance . Arm is a man conflicted between his son vs. his loyalty to violent mobsters. Choosing the right path is complicated. The Devers took him in at a low point in his life. He feels like he owes them. Jarvis is compelling even though he did not pick up a BAFTA nomination. Actor Barry Keoghan did. He portrays his violent buddy Dymphna. Actress Niamh Algar playing his estranged girlfriend Ursula did as well. She is also the mother to his son.

Other cast members may have reaped more accolades, but it’s Jarvis that seizes our attention. Douglas may look like a massive brute, but his appearance belies a sensitive and tender personality. The difference in size between the hulking Cosmo Jarvis and the diminutive Barry Keoghan sort of gave me a George and Lennie vibe from Of Mice and Men. This is exceptionally bleak and depressing, a somewhat atypical view of Ireland. It takes a while for the narrative to take shape. Once it does, it’s a captivating character-driven drama with several authentic performances.

04-14-21

I Care a Lot

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Holy heartlessness! This is a very mean-spirited movie. Rosamund Pike plays a woman named Marla who works as a court-appointed legal guardian for elderly patients. That sounds like she’s a do-gooder but she’s actually running a scam. She’s a grifter abusing the system by separating wealthy senior citizens from their families. Then Marla liquidates their assets after essentially imprisoning them in rest homes. She is a thoroughly repellent sociopath. That loathsome mood only grows as the story develops.

Things perk up when a wrench is flung into her evil plans. Marla makes the mistake of committing one Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) to an assisted living facility. Jennifer’s son is a Russian mob boss (Peter Dinklage). Roman Lunyov is extremely vexed by what she has done. A feeling of hope is introduced. What is there to say when a Russian mobster is the most sympathetic individual in the film? At this point, the viewer is invited to think, “He will make things right. Mom will be rescued and Marla will get her comeuppance.” Unfortunately, the script by writer-director J Blakeson fails to deliver that much-desired satisfaction. The drama is highly frustrating. There is no one to root for in the narrative.

Marla is a character that could only exist in a work of fiction — the figment of a writer’s creation. She’s totally unflappable with the overconfidence to neutralize every setback thrown her way. She has the support of a clueless judge, a crooked doctor, and a disreputable nursing home director that all obsequiously defer to her wishes. Most are in on the take. The cynicism toward the health care system is pervasive, but not particularly clever. It’s a wholly irritating experience because (1) the screenplay is asking us to accept a lot of far-fetched ideas and (2) everyone is so reprehensible that you just want to turn away in disgust.

It’s a shame because Rosamund Pike is rather effective in playing this part. The actress is operating within the same vein as her Oscar-nominated performance in Gone Girl. She’s a psycho with ice in her veins, hell-bent on destroying people’s lives so she can make more money. She’s sporting a razor-sharp bob, wears well-tailored suits and is constantly sucking on a vape pen. Her steely portrayal is good. The movie is vile. Let me clarify. I did NOT care a lot for I Care a Lot.

02-19-21

The Little Things

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on February 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The idea that actors have foolishly turned down roles in classic films is a common Hollywood anecdote. Denzel Washington revealed in a 2002 Playboy interview that he passed on the Brad Pitt role in David Fincher’s iconic Oscar-nominated Seven. He regretted it. It’s hard not to think about that while watching this dated, derivate thriller. Coincidentally it all culminates in a scene that directly recalls that film. The difference is, the ending of The Little Things doesn’t even hold a candle to the impact of the one in Seven.

The tale concerns two police officers (Denzel Washington and Rami Malek) on the trail of a serial killer in Los Angeles. John Lee Hancock reportedly wrote the script 28 years ago and ultimately decided to direct it himself. The saga is set in the 1990s and this actually feels like a production made in that era. I’m specifically talking about Silence of the Lambs and the aforementioned Seven. Obviously, if this was as compelling, it would be a glowing 5-star review. The problem is the police procedural is fairly routine for a significant part of the drama.

It’s also fitting that the narrative is set in the 1990s because it simplifies the action. The chronicle opens with a girl in a car being pursued on a deserted highway by a mysterious driver at night. I wondered “Why doesn’t she just call the police on her cell phone?” before I realized this was set in the past. The retro milieu makes this and other plot developments a lot easier to depict without having to deal with pesky details like advances in cellular communication and forensic evidence.

The Little Things is a lackluster effort. The mood kind of snaps to attention when Jared Leto shows up a bit later. He’s a suspect who enjoys toying with the police. Leto gives a supremely creepy performance. Whenever he’s on screen, I was riveted. Denzel Washington and Rami Malek are talented actors too. Denzel quietly mumbles with intensity. Rami does the same. As cops, they gamely exploit an old school vs. new school antagonism towards each other. It isn’t enough. Both fail to make their characters interesting here.

The story ultimately meanders to a payoff that is supremely unsatisfying. When a movie starts weak and finishes strong, that’s usually forgivable, but end badly and that’s the memory you take away. Jared Leto’s achievement is good enough to make this watchable. So far he’s garnered nominations at both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actor’s Guild awards. If you’re dying to know why, it’s worth checking out.

02-04-21

The White Tiger

Posted in Crime, Drama with tags on January 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The White Tiger is a rags to riches tale set in India about an impoverished young man. I wasn’t going to make a facile comparison to Slumdog Millionaire. The screenplay already does that for me. It occurs late in the movie in a scene where our central “hero” is commenting on the hopelessness of his situation. In the moment he opines: “Don’t think for a second there’s a million-rupee game show you can win to get out.” OK so now that we’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room, let’s evaluate this most absorbing film. It deserves to be considered on its own terms. Yes, there are some obvious similarities to that much lauded Best Picture winner of 2009, but this is a much bleaker and less optimistic account about finding success in life.

The White Tiger is a crime drama about a young man named Balram (Adarsh Gourav) who is a “self-taught entrepreneur”. As the narrator, he recounts his story. Balram was born into a poor rural village and gradually climbs India’s ostensible corporate ladder to become a chauffeur and finally a successful businessman. The highly intelligent Balram is prohibited from obtaining a higher education because of his father’s debts. Instead, he goes around to various houses and begs for a job until he just so happens to stumble upon the residence of the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) — one of the four evil landlords that bullies his town. The Stork hires Balram to become his son’s driver. Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) has just returned from America with his wife Pinky Madam (Priyanka Chopra). At first, Balram is more of a drudge to the family, while another servant, Ram Persad (Ram Naresh Diwakar), has the elevated privilege of driving them. This will change in time. As we see time and again, Balram’s quest for upward mobility is not guided by a moral compass.

Sometimes good people do bad things. Balram is actually a sweet and humble guy. That likable quality endears him to Ashok and his wife so they trust him. In fact, his obsequious manner incurs the condemnation of the couple who implore him not be so deferential. Nevertheless, you will later see that Balram’s inclination for exploiting the negative beliefs and corrupt tendencies of others, will ultimately help him climb the ranks of Indian society. For example, he abuses the fact that the Stork is openly hostile to Muslims in order to further his own career at the expense of a fellow worker. The film is filled with political commentary on the caste system of India. This is a fascinating fable and I was riveted by the twists and turns. It’s an epic of sorts and a lot transpires. The overriding lesson is that the freedom to succeed isn’t free. It must be taken.

American director Ramin Bahrani is no stranger to depictions of misery. His 99 Homes was a vicious excavation of the American housing market. This likewise is a bleak adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 picaresque novel of the same name. Incidentally, the first half is rather brilliant. Regrettably it’s in the second half where this chronicle loses steam. Balram’s social-climbing saga is pretty grim. Given that, Slumdog Millionaire comparisons are somewhat misleading. I saw more parallels to a crime drama like Scarface or perhaps the protagonist of a Patricia Highsmith thriller. Let’s not forget the Best Picture winner of 2020 either. They are all in there and yet The White Tiger is compelling without ever reaching the sublime heights of any of those influences . On the whole, it’s still extremely entertaining and incidentally my #1 recommendation when considering new offerings on Netflix at this moment.

P.S. I recommended His House back in November and that’s still available on Netflix.

01-19-21

Promising Young Woman

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller on December 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Promising Young Woman is a film that seizes the zeitgeist. That means the actions of the lead have an underlying social-political subtext that transcends the genre. Its brand of female empowerment incorporates the spirit of the “Me Too” movement. It is a bold and slightly polemical statement on our current times. Now before you dismiss this film as “not for you,” let me be clear. Those ideas may bubble underneath our protagonist’s behavior, but they’re not explicitly stated. The narrative’s first focus is to simply entertain. I submit this release as the latest addition to the feminist canon. I’m talking about a wide range of cinematic classics that include His Girl Friday, Alien, 9 to 5, Thelma & Louise, and Erin Brockovich.

Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) once had a bright and hopeful future. She was attending medical school but dropped out under mysterious circumstances. She now lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and works in a coffee shop with friend Gail (Laverne Cox). Every weekend she goes to bars and pretends to be severely intoxicated. Inevitably some man (with less than honorable intentions) will take her home and try to take advantage of her. Before things get out of hand, she becomes alert and lowers the boom. Why does she do this? That is an enigma delightfully explained by the movie.

This is in essence a revenge fable. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, she is an actress, having appeared in supporting parts in many critically acclaimed films (Albert Nobbs, Anna Karenina, The Danish Girl). She was also Camilla Parker-Bowles on the Netflix show “The Crown.” Perhaps her most impressive resume highlight is as the showrunner for the 2nd season of the BBC America TV series Killing Eve. She’s already shown her genius before. However, this is a surprisingly self-assured debut with a well-defined perspective. If you were sleeping on Emerald’s talent before, then this feature most assuredly heralds the arrival of a “promising” new director. She exploits a distressing truth that is part of the cultural conversation then articulates it as a piece of compelling entertainment. The saga is like medicine that tastes like peppermint candy. It’s delicious but it’s also good for you.

Cassie Thomas is a likable woman that has rationalized her vicious takedown of “nice guys” acting with ill intent. She may outwardly look like a cutie pie but an inferno rages beneath her pretty exterior. She embodies an assertive woman fully in charge of her capabilities. All the while she radiates a femininity that belies the humanity at the heart of her character. She is vulnerable. Deep down she would still like to meet a genuinely sweet guy. Cue Ryan Cooper portrayed by Bo Burnham at his most bumbling and genteel. Her reunion with this former med-school classmate sets the chronicle off in another direction . He also has a sense of humor that is as sarcastic as hers. It appears this tale of vengeance has suddenly shifted gears with his introduction as a redemptive character.

Carey Mulligan is excellent in every role she plays but she tops herself here. She has received a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars once before. It happened for An Education back in 2010 (Sandra Bullock won that year for The Blind Side). Mulligan has been doing consistent work ever since. Mudbound and Wildlife were recently popular with critics. If there is any justice, Carey will be nominated again. Incidentally, Emerald Fennell should be cited for her trenchant screenplay as well. A lot of things happen in this story. I haven’t even explained how a former school friend (Alison Brie), a med-school dean (Connie Britton), and a repentant lawyer (Alfred Molina) from her past all play an important part in her present plans. I’ve barely scratched the surface. Yet I’ve said enough. The dramatic twists and turns is a pleasure I will not spoil. An ideal review should never reveal too many plot details. It should merely stoke your desire to see it. Now go see it.

12-05-20

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in Crime, Drama, History with tags on October 19, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the most significant film of 2020. No, not really, but that’s how this solemn melodrama is presented. Incoming attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) and his justice department have cooked up a case against a list of Richard Nixon’s enemies. To underscore the point, Mitchell even describes the litigation to prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as “the most important trial of your lifetime.” This is a gloomy and academic courtroom drama from writer Aaron Sorkin who is a talented writer who knows a thing or two about such things. Nearly 3 decades ago he gave us A Few Good Men which is a classic I truly adore. I was primed to love this. Alas, this is my reflection on a disappointment.

Chicago 7 has value because it’s a true story. However, as the chronicle is detailed here, it wouldn’t exist solely a fictional work to be enjoyed. This is the depiction of an event from the past that seeks to instruct and enlighten. The account is based on the prosecution of a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters. They were charged with conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This timely tale “ripped from the headlines” seizes the current zeitgeist. As such, it’s been hyped as a major awards contender this year.

Aaron Sorkin is an exceptional writer. Of that, I am convinced. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Social Network which is brilliant. Although that picture was directed by David Fincher who imbued its aesthetic with spectacular style. This is only Sorkin’s 2nd time directing (Molly’s Game was the first) and I truly wish someone else had taken over those duties. While he has an ear for crackerjack conversation, he’s less attuned to what makes a compelling movie. He’s famous for fast-paced dialogue and extended monologues. The saga runs 130 minutes so you’re going to get a lot of those. Nevertheless, the delivery of those speeches is so traditional and dated. This feels like something you’d watch in school. There’s a frustratingly long opening montage that clumsily introduces the characters. Then there’s the actual lawsuit which is the bulk of the movie. Flashbacks are peppered into the narrative. These interstitials illustrate why these defendants are before the court. None of it is innovative or emotionally galvanizing. It simply exists to educate. This is your standard-issue Hollywood legal drama with the good guys clearly defined on one side and the bad guys on the other.

The sprawling cast is composed of unique casting choices. The “saints” include Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale. They all have vignettes that will play well in the highlight reel on Oscar night — should they get nominated, that is. That clearly is the goal. Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler who defends the Chicago Seven is the designated hero so he has several moments. Actor Mark Rylance sporting long hair, is quite affecting in the role. Now for the “sinners.” If there’s a performance that’s begging for a prize, it’s Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman. Initially, I was inclined to hate him as the villain of the piece. His grumpy old man character glaringly represents the establishment. However, I gradually regarded his over-the-top histrionics as a reactionary as a welcome comedic break from all the serious talk. I savored his cranky behavior in his verbal exchanges with William Kunstler.

It all climaxes with a conventional checklist of some of the most hackneyed elements ever put forth on film. The ending literally features a slow clap with the music swelling and a stirring speech. I mean it’s as cliched as anything I’ve ever seen and it’s the last thing you’re left to think about before the credits roll. Some will relish the theatrics. Overall Chicago 7 has some great writing about a historical milestone, but as entertainment it came up short for me. Be that as it may, it is just the type of didactic, politically left learning portrait that Hollywood adores. Its heart-tugging specifying is designed to win accolades. I suspect this will be recognized when nominations are announced on March 15th. It is a wee bit amusing when lesser-known defendant John Froines (Danny Flaherty) wonders aloud as to why he and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) have been included. “This is the Academy Awards of protests,” Lee deadpans. “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” At least the movie is self-aware.

10-16-20