Archive for the Crime Category

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

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

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