Archive for the Crime Category

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

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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

Murder on the Orient Express

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery on November 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

murder_on_the_orient_express_ver3STARS2I just witnessed the murder…of a classic. It shouldn’t have been difficult. Take Murder on the Orient Express, an entertaining whodunit by Agatha Christie. Cast a lot of A-list stars in the roles. Then ensure you have extravagant production values, nice costumes, picturesque cinematography and a lush score. Audiences love this sort of thing. They always have. Back in 1974, Sidney Lumet directed an adaptation of the famous novel. It was among the Top 15 highest grossing films of that year. Not only was it wildly successful at the box office but it was also nominated for six Academy Awards. Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Now jump to 2017 and Kenneth Branagh has taken an acknowledged delight and misdirected the joy out of it.

I guess it doesn’t help that he starts with a stuffy script by Michael Green (Green Lantern). Agatha Christie’s words are inherently light and witty but in Green’s hands the words roll off the actors’ tongues like they’re quoting some ancient manuscript. The property feels dusty and old. He’s omitted the buoyancy and wit and made it dull and lethargic. The suspense has been expunged from the story as well. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ convoluted camera angles often capture the action from overhead or from outside while zooming past the train windows. The discovery of the murdered body is filmed from the ceiling without showing the actual body. This key scene is rendered confusing. What are we witnessing exactly? Was someone killed? The people on screen attest to the fact so we can only assume from their words that someone was.

Kenneth Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. In fact triple duty, because he’s a producer as well. Focus, man, focus. As Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, it’s his mustache that makes the biggest impression. He’s more urbane than previous incarnations but less interesting. He’s missing that spark of a personality that makes him so magnetic. Granted he’s got some big shoes to fill. Albert Finney was pretty iconic in the 1974 release, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. David Suchet earned a BAFTA nomination playing the character on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a TV show that had 13 seasons between 1989 and 2013. Still, Branagh is the only actor that has the opportunity to shine. The rest of the cast are given short shrift. They all blend in together, indistinguishable from the next. Nobody makes an impact. Some of the passengers are supposed to have a connection to each other right from the beginning. These aren’t spoilers. In the novel, this is merely the introduction of the group. Are Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in an affair? Do Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Mr. Masterman (Derek Jacobi) work for Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp)? The answer is yes to all of the above but you’d hardly know it from the careless way their relationships are presented here.

The all-star ensemble includes such luminaries as Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. Yet there is no one to root for. No one to excite our emotions. It would be challenging since barely anyone, with the exception of Branagh, has the chance to give a performance. Poirot treats the passengers as suspects but we have nothing invested. Each traveler is brought forward for but only a moment and then he’s on to the next person. The dialogue is an afterthought without a propulsive thrust to drive the narrative forward. Someone is killed but the actors seem indifferent. The passengers are suddenly entangled in a murder case and their lack of interest is closer to the reaction you’d exhibit for an overdue library book. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Do you even care? The answer is a resounding no.

Director Kenneth Branagh has taken a thriller and abandoned the thrills – a dramatic mystery minus the suspense. The production looks good. Score, set design and costumes are exquisite. It’s nice seeing so many actors I respect in the same film. And yet, their star presence evaporates like water on a hot stove. They are bored performing their lines with the passion of reciting a grocery list. They can barely contain their apathy. The ultimate revelation is so lethargic when it’s revealed that it induces sleep. They all inexplicably assemble at a long table in perfect alignment “Last Supper” style in a tunnel outside in the snow. It’s a ridiculous end to an interminable movie that runs shorter than the 1974 version but ends up feeling much longer. As my review comes to a close, I must say I resisted the urge to fall back on obvious quips to describe this adaptation. I’m talking phrases like “jumps off the track,” “goes off the rails” and “runs out of steam.” Such puns felt a little too glib and I wanted to rise above such facile jokes. Please forgive this one indiscretion, but yikes, what a train wreck!

11-09-17

Good Time

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on September 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

good_time_ver3STARS4Good Time doesn’t waste any time getting started — although it begins quietly enough. Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is in a therapy session with a psychiatrist (Peter Verby). He has an intellectual disability, but the doctor’s series of questions have an unnecessarily patronizing tone. Just as the discussion gradually causes Nick to get agitated, his brother Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) bursts into the room and takes him away from the environment. Next thing you realize, the two boys are robbing a bank.

Good Time is a production that feels alive. It’s a dynamic experience of dialogue and mood. A dark electronic soundtrack is provided by Daniel Lopatin, better known as Oneohtrix Point Never. If you need a descriptive reference point, think Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. Hand-held but steady camera work by Sean Price Williams reinforces an immediacy to the proceedings. I was so immediately immersed into the world of Good Time that the moment the opening credits finally began flashing across the screen, they felt like an interruption. I was fully engrossed in the crime thriller from the get-go.

Good Time is a powerfully constructed character study from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. The latter of whom portrays the aforementioned Nick. The Safdie brothers are rising talents amid the indie film scene of New York. Despite their still relative anonymity in the mainstream, they have a slew of credits to their name. I was surprised to learn this is actually their fourth movie. Their output also includes numerous shorts as well as the documentary Lenny Cooke. Good Time is the follow-up to their 2014 drama Heaven Knows What. You are forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. That feature showed in a mere 14 theaters at its widest distribution.  Granted they aren’t household names like the Coen brothers yet, but given their flair for telling a captivating story, that distinction would seem like an eventual inevitability.

Robert Pattinson is perhaps forever linked to the Twilight series, but with Good Time, he does more to make you forget the role of Edward Cullen than he ever has before. He looks offbeat – gaunt with sunken eyes and pasty skin.  He sports ragged, greasy hair.  First it’s brown, then dyed blonde.   He acts different too. His rabid performance as Connie Nikas is an actor reborn as a personality motivated by an all consuming devotion to his brother. When their bank heist goes awry, Nick is arrested while he is not. Connie’s focus becomes raising bail for his sibling so he can get him out. What follows is the personal odyssey of an individual that encounters one setback after another. The narrative is driven forward by the sympathetic objective of a desperate criminal with cunning street smarts.

Robert Pattinson is mesmerizing as Connie. He propels the adventure, but his interactions with other people are key. Connie’s frenzied desire to free Nick from jail has a galvanizing effect. Connie is a user and his loyalty to brother Nick inspires his manipulation of other people. This brings us to the supporting cast, an ensemble almost as engrossing as the lead protagonist. There’s Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) as his girlfriend, Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) as a night shift Security Guard, Taliah Webster (in her film debut) as a helpful teenage girl, and Buddy Duress (the Safdie brothers’ own Heaven Knows What) as a fellow criminal who is inadvertently ensnared into Connie’s plight. All of these people become enmeshed in his turbulent web of emotional desperation. Connie Nikas may not be someone to admire, but he’s someone with which to be fascinated.

8-26-17

Logan Lucky

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama on August 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

logan_luckySTARS3When auteur Steven Soderbergh announced that he was retiring from making theatrical films back in 2013, he never said he was quitting the business entirely. Side Effects was to be his last feature, but he was going to keep working. The most notable projects being the HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, serving as cinematographer / editor on Magic Mike XXL and directing the Cinemax TV series The Knick. So it’s perhaps not too big of a surprise that he’s back in front of the camera helming another theatrical movie again. However, you’d think the property that could coax him out of “retirement” would have to be pretty vital. Logan Lucky is well produced and competently organized. Even so, the material is a lightweight entry befitting of its end-of-the summer release date.

The comedic drama revolves mainly around siblings Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). Relegated to a bit part is their sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough). They plan a heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Oh but not on just any day – during the biggest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600. They need a safecracker and so they enlist the help of John Bang (Daniel Craig). Minor issue – Bang is in prison so that complicates things considerably. Let’s face it, what these guys are doing is a crime, but Jimmy is such a sweet guy at heart so we’re on his side right from the beginning. He has a growing list of problems that sort of justifies his actions. He’s trying to reverse the Logan family curse. He lost his construction job at the NASCAR stadium and now his ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is planning to move out of state taking his cutie pie daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) with her.

The actors sell their parts with accents and wardrobe.  The ensemble cast meshes together in the most delightful way. Soderbergh has an established association with Tatum having also directed him in Haywire, Magic Mike, and Side Effects.  Actor Adam Driver looks nothing like Tatum, but their relationship as brothers is still credible. Actress Riley Keough, who plays his sister, was in Magic Mike as well.  Soderbergh directed them both in that so there’s a built-in chemistry that already exists.  Daniel Craig is particularly memorable as a wacky safecracker. With his bleached buzz cut hair and pale appearance, he almost looks like someone with albinism. Furthermore, he’s about as animated as I’ve ever seen him.  The actor is clearly having fun and he’s part of the many highs. There are lows. An unnecessary subplot featuring an arrogant British mogul/NASCAR sponsor (Seth MacFarlane) could have been excised completely. And everything comes to a grinding halt to present a saccharine moment at a beauty pageant that is so at odds with the rest of the picture, that it almost works in spite of itself. It serves to remind us how Little Miss Sunshine managed such gimmicks with ease.

Those frequent allusions to other movies are what keeps this from achieving greatness in its own right. The heist story is so “been there done that.”  This is basically Soderbergh’s own Ocean’s Eleven with a southern twist. One character actually makes reference to “Ocean’s 7-Eleven” when ambushing a convenience store. Gags don’t get more meta than that. As with any tale about people we’re supposed to like, the comedy is lighthearted and not derisive. The script is careful to make sure you’re laughing WITH these southerners, not AT them. They may be country bumpkins but they’re pretty smart about executing the complex details of this caper.  Jimmy Logan could be a criminal mastermind. The burglary involves a pneumatic system of hydraulic tubes for moving money at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s hard to explain but enjoyable to watch. There’s a comic zaniness to the hillbillies-in-hardship which recalls the Coen brothers Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Steven Soderbergh has and always will be a craftsman. Logan Lucky is nicely photographed, efficiently made and constructed with quality. It’s a pleasant little piffle but somehow I’ve come to expect a bit more from the director.

08-17-17