Archive for the Drama Category

Miracle in Cell No. 7

Posted in Drama with tags on April 5, 2020 by Mark Hobin

AAAABejpIjwz9WyEgq1SUjZ95U4wh91IEjzTDKt2Pp9s1bA001yE4IqyBGehb8RlMRTN2rbBz3skQpNc0c57C6nRU5ynqG21STARS3.5Back in February, Netflix starting publishing a list to recognize its most popular movies and TV series.  Recently a 2019 production from Turkey somehow crept into the streaming service’s Top 10.  Miracle in Cell No. 7 is a remake of a 2013 South Korean film.   History has shown it to be a crowd-pleasing story.   The original also spawned Philippine and Indonesian versions as well.  However, the Turkish version is the adaptation that became a hit with Netflix audiences.

The drama concerns a father named Memo (Aras Bulut Iynemli) with an intellectual disability who has a young daughter named Ova (Nisa Sofiya Aksongur).  He’s wrongly implicated in the death of another little girl.  This was the daughter of a high ranking official and so the penalty is death.  He is sent to jail before his eventual hanging.  Ova is now being raised by Memo’s grandmother.  Actress Celile Toyon Uysal is quite compelling in that role.  Separated — Ova desperately wants to reunite with her dad, but more importantly, can Memo prove his innocence before he is executed?

Miracle in Cell 7 is a melodramatic feature that I suspect more jaded viewers will eschew because of its conspicuous sentimentality.  I was reminded of two previous works: Life Is Beautiful and I Am Sam.  If you appreciate those movies, there’s no reason to even question whether to see this.  You will enjoy because it’s cut from the same cloth.  There’s also a scene where Memo is coerced into signing a confession for something he didn’t do.  I immediately thought of In the Name of the Father.  That outstanding film is significantly more understated but I’ll give director Mehmet Ada Öztekin and writers Özge Efendioglu and Kubilay Tat a lot of credit.  They are referencing from the very best.

Miracle in Cell 7 creatively draws on a variety of inspirations to engage the emotions.  The screenplay is so overt in its intention to cull emotion.  In that respect, it’s extremely manipulative.  Some may resist its more obvious charms.  Yet the presentation is rather poetic.  There is a choice one particular prisoner decides to make near the end and it honestly touched me.  I got caught up in the emotional stakes.  The father/daughter relationship is key, but many of the side characters in the prison make an impression as well.  This is a portrait of humanity.  The film’s ability to consistently make people cry has currently fueled a shared cultural experience on social media.  The spirit of our age has embraced this flick.  I can understand why it captured the attention of the nation.  The tale is an uplifting piece of entertainment, especially in these uncertain times.

03-30-20

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Posted in Crime, Documentary, Drama with tags on April 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

tiger_kingSTARS3.5America loves Tiger King.  Most of us are confined to our homes.  265 million citizens — about 80% of the US population— are currently under stay-at-home orders.  Needless to say, movie theaters across the U.S. are closed.  As a result, state mandates have no doubt contributed to the popularity of certain TV shows. The U.S. population has made Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness a bona fide hit.  It has captured the nation’s attention.  Not a traditional film per se, but a true-crime documentary TV series.  Actually “true-crimes” would be a more accurate description because there is an inestimable myriad of infractions here on display.  This was actually released on Netflix back on March 20  (2 weeks ago) but it took a little time for it to enter my radar.  I don’t usually review television shows on this site but with cinemas shuttered, I figured might as well review what the people are watching.

Tiger King has captured the zeitgeist of 2020 America.  This is a tale complete with a cast of bizarre personalities and sinister plot twists that even the most creative mind couldn’t concoct in their wildest fantasies.  Honestly, if this was a work of fiction, I would fault it for too many plot twists.  The title technically refers to one man: Joe Exotic.  He’s a rather — shall we say — unsavory soul.  Spending time with him is a dispiriting experience.  After the first episode, I didn’t want to continue.  Yet I persisted because I had to understand how this piece of pop culture had become such a phenomenon.  Further chapters in this saga changed my perception.  The chronicle isn’t just about him.  The movie essentially details a circle of individuals associated with a small but deeply interconnected society of big cat parks.  Along the way, there’s a panoply of subjects we will touch upon: murder for hire, polygamy, political elections, drugs, and a “missing” husband.  It loses focus occasionally.  Part 5 contains Joe’s run for both President and state Governor.

The series is divided into 7 segments each roughly about 45 minutes long.  The first episode “Not Your Average Joe” introduced the character of Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage (nee: Schreibvogel) who runs the Greater Wynnewood (G.W.) Zoo in Oklahoma.  In his own words, he’s “a gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.”  He’s often seen wearing a sequined top.  Animal rights activists don’t like him very much.  He has a well-defined conflict with a woman named Carole Baskin who is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal “sanctuary” near Tampa, Florida.  Every good story needs a villain and she is his chief rival.  Their antagonism toward each other is rooted in distrust — that the intentions of the other person are less than admirable.  Before it’s all over, someone will be sentenced to jail for 22 years because of a murder-for-hire scheme.

This is a portrait of an eccentric group of Americans who are obsessed with the power that comes from owning large felines.  The tale is set against the practice of private zoo keeping and ownership of large wild cats.  It’s like a religion and this documentary sheds a light on their practices.  Are these businesses exploitative zoos or conservationists or sanctuaries?  Good question.  I’m convinced each business is inherently the same.  It’s just a matter of marketing more than anything else.  I suspect you’ll come away with the same conclusion after having watched all of this.  Because this presentation is spread out over 7 installments, you will get a pretty deep and detailed snapshot of many different people and the parks to which they’re attached.

Everything kind of revolves around the rivalry between Joe Exotic vs. Carole Baskin.  Their relationship is merely a springboard into other larger-than-life characters involved in a host of other true-crime tales.  At times, it’s a bit hard to keep track of all of the individuals.  Some of the most important include Carole Baskin’s former husband — Don Lewis — who simply vanished without a trace.   There’s Carole Basin’s third and present husband Howard.  He is deeply devoted to her and to running Big Cat Rescue.  There’s also fellow private zookeeper Doc Antle who is the founder of “The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species” (T.I.G.E.R.S.).  He runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina which is staffed by his girlfriends…wives?  There also Mario Tabraue, a former drug kingpin who now runs the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in Miami.  He was reportedly the inspiration for “Scarface” Tony Montana.  Then there’s the current GW Zoo owner — Jeff Lowe — who is introduced as a wealthy investor.  Initially, he’s seen as a beacon of hope willing to bail Joe out of financial trouble.  Things don’t go so well for Joe.  Jeff currently owns the zoo as of this writing.  Nevertheless, there are a few people that appeared to have Joe’s best interests at heart.  The GW Zoo General Manager — John Reinke — who lost both legs in a bungee jumping accident.  He remained loyal to Joe through the good times and the bad.

Joe Exotic’s personal life is a soap opera in itself.  He has had four husbands, some simultaneously.  John Finlay was Exotic’s second.  Then there’s Travis Maldonado who he met in 2013 when the young man was only 19 years old.  Maldonado and John Finlay married Joe in a three-way ceremony.  Apparently, Travis was straight but was so addicted to methamphetamines and marijuana that he entered into a relationship that provided convenient access to drugs.  You can’t make this stuff up.  There’s so much more.  I couldn’t possibly detail all of the ins and outs of this drama but let’s just say that Travis Maldonado is a truly tragic figure.  Two months after their marriage ended, Joe married another young man named Dillon Passage.

So who is the moral center of this saga?  That is a question you will ask yourself over and over again throughout this chronicle.  In the first episode, it appears to be Carole Baskin.  However, the questionable disappearance of her husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis, in 1997, will definitely give you pause.  Joe Exotic stoked the rumors surrounding Don’s disappearance with a music video to a song entitled “Here Kitty Kitty.”  In it, a spot-on lookalike of Baskin is ostensibility feeding pieces of her husband to a tiger.  Was she guilty?  She was never charged but I’ve seen the entire series and I still don’t know who to root for.  I’ll tell you right now, my ultimate take is there is no saint in this whole sordid mess.   That is part of what makes the machinations icky and yet so oddly fascinating.

Tiger King delineates a dramatis personae that would rival the cast of a Shakespearean novel.  I have barely touched the surface in this review.  Over five years, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin assembled these presentations.  THAT is what elevates this profile into something approaching artistic merit.  It’s the sheer depth and variety of the characters involved.  I dare say, this makes the regrettable guests you used to see on The Jerry Springer Show seem tame by comparison.  Yet you can’t help but fixate on the array of humanity presented.  It’s an honest and captivating depiction of our modern times.  I try not to rely on cliches….but yes, this is your classic train wreck.

 

03-27-20

Emma.

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

emma_ver2STARS3.5“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.” — Jane Austen

Emma is like a piece of candy wrapped in colorful cellophane placed in a silver box covered in shiny paper, affixed with a bright bow and then placed on a pedestal.  Given the sumptuous demonstration, it’s not the most substantive endeavor, but it is easily appreciated for its frivolous charms.  Even the title has been stylized with a period at the end — because it’s a period piece –according to director Autumn de Wilde.

This is indeed an adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel.  The esteemed author is celebrated for literary works that include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.  However, Emma is not some stuffy scholarly chore.  This is a diversion about an impertinent girl who likes meddling in the affairs of other people.  Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a doe-eyed beauty with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.  She was rather memorable in  The Witch back in 2015.  Taylor-Joy does a convincing about-face here embodying a completely different kind of individual with believable conviction.  Emma is a bit spoiled and conceited with shallow concerns.  She fancies herself as a matchmaker but she really isn’t very good at it.  Furthermore, Emma has no desire to get married or even fall in love herself.  Ah but we the audience know better, don’t we?  Her gradual and changing realization is a developing theme of the story.

This is a gorgeous spectacle that is more readily enjoyed for the pleasures of presentation over content.  I do not mean that as a bad thing.  You don’t drink a Mimosa for its nutrients but because it’s a sparkling gem of a cocktail.   There’s a fizzy superficiality to this production that actually endears itself to the audience because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  The movie is playfully divided into sections by title cards that highlight the seasons.  The cast is sprightly and fun.  Besides the aforementioned Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, there’s also Johnny Flynn as her brother-in-law – George Knightley, Bill Nighy as her father Mr. Woodhouse and Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, the object of Emma’s matchmaking schemes.  This is a carefully choreographed portrait that exercises great care, not only in the placement of characters within any given frame but in the studied manifestation of opulent tableaus.  Filmmaker de Wilde is known for her portraiture photography and her talent shows.   The thinness of the plot is greatly augmented by visual detail.

Emma has been adapted a few times, most famously as Clueless in 1995.  Amy Heckerling’s reworking was a coming of age comedy classic about contemporary teens.  Any fan of that film (I am a proud one myself) will relish matching these personalities with their Clueless counterparts.  I realize this practice may sound a little reductive but it makes me value the source even more in fact.  Emma is perhaps the most stylish variation yet and a worthy addition to the cinematic canon of Jane Austin.

02-27-20

Downhill

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

downhillSTARS3.5I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Downhill is not a comedy.  It may appear to be one given the presence of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  It’s also from writing/directing duo—Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who previously made the sweet summer comedy The Way Way Back.  Even the misguided marketing campaign promised frivolity by highlighting the amusing bits with lighthearted music underscoring the trailer.  As a result, hoodwinked audiences saddled the movie with a “D” Cinemascore.  Critics haven’t been very kind either.  I will confirm that this is an uncomfortable experience.  Yes, that much is true, but it’s also the entire point.  It is, in fact, a compelling profile of a marriage in free fall.

The Stauntons are an American family on a ski vacation in the Alps.  The plot is set in motion when an explosive charge sets off an avalanche that comes dangerously close to burying Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Dad (Will Ferrell), and their two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) while having lunch on an elevated patio.  The shocking event is the impetus for an existential crisis.  The argument which ensues causes the married couple to reevaluate their relationship and how they feel about each other.

Downhill is a remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film I adored in 2014.  One might argue that the picture was perfect and didn’t require a redo.  Downhill doesn’t achieve the same heights.  I’ll concede that.   Nonetheless, Faxon and Rash have done more than simply translate the dialogue.  They’ve shifted the focus away from the husband, whose fraying masculinity was the focus in the original.  Downhill is about the wife.  She must come to terms with a marriage that isn’t in great shape to begin with.  The avalanche exposes a rift that’s already there.  That’s different. 

There’s a distinction in the way the two protagonists interact with other people at the resort as well.  Casting Americans as opposed to Swedes contrasts Scandinavian and American identities within a French setting.  There’s a complete personality shift to this family that gives the proceedings a singular feel.  When Billie goes down to complain to the mountain safety patrolman (Kristofer Hivju – who was also in Force Majeure) about the way the controlled avalanche was handed by the hotel, the narrative heightens a culture-clash between Americans and Europeans that was not present in the original production.  There’s also Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an oversexed concierge and a suave ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulo Berruti).   The contrast in their behavior with the Stauntons is a droll riff on American sensibilities.

However the #1 reason to see Downhill is a stellar performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as wife Billie Staunton.  It’s no wonder the actress currently has a record-breaking 8 Emmys, the most wins for any performer (she’s tied with Cloris Leachman).  It’s rare for the actress to do a theatrical feature so when she commits to a project like this, it’s something to cherish.  Her last was the delightful Enough Said in 2013.  Billie is a structured bundle of exasperation slowly coming apart at the seams.  To observe her is to witness the gradual shock of a woman that has been betrayed.  Downhill is indeed messy and awkward and hard to watch.  That’s part of the experience.  I get why audiences have savaged this movie.  If viewed through a lens of needing laughs, it will come up short.  This is no more a comedy than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Noah Baumbach’s more recent Marriage Story.  There are some funny bits to lighten the mood.  There is a certain humor in Pete’s character flaws or Billie’s irritation, but at heart, this is a portrait of pain.  It feels honest and genuine and that’s uncommon.  The achievement is something to champion.

02-18-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Drama, Shorts with tags on February 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.  To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Live-Action

Let’s hear it for Tunisia!  The North African country actually figures in two out of the five films nominated in 2020.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  I really enjoyed my top two picks a lot.  I would be happy if either of those won.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

The Neighbor’s Window
USA/20MINS/2019
Director: Marshall Curry
190426-neighbors-window-tease_bjkrab
The lives of Alli and her husband are affected when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move into the apartment across from theirs.  Large expansive bay windows without curtains conceal nothing.  Soon they’re immersed into the daily doings of the couple across the street like a TV show.   Actress Maria Dizzia gives an affecting performance as a new mother fascinated by her neighbors’ behavior.  This account was based on a true incident that occurred in San Francisco.  Few portraits can turn from lighthearted comedy into heartfelt drama on a dime and this does it as beautifully as any I saw last year. A real charmer. I teared up.

 

Nefta Football Club
FRANCE–TUNISIA/17MINS/2018
Director: Yves Piat
Nefta-Football-Club4
In the south of Tunisia, two young brothers come across a donkey in the desert on the border of Algeria. Strangely, the animal is wearing headphones over its ears.  Then they make a discovery.   I’ll be honest.  I wasn’t really digging this very sober and meandering chronicle at first.   Then I was on the edge of my seat fearing the worst.  This could’ve gone any number of ways.  It sticks the ending.   By far the funniest entry this year.  The final shot could be enough to actually win this award.

 

A Sister
BELGIUM/16MINS/2018
Director: Delphine Girard
A-Sister
A woman traveling in the passenger seat of a car is in trouble.  She makes a phone call.  Tense thriller doesn’t attempt to detail too much but does exactly what a short should.  This is a simple concept that extracts anxiety from the audience in an efficient way.  I was mesmerized although I had questions.  What kidnapper would let his victim make a 16-minute phone call?  It also loses points for its similarity to Danish crime thriller The Guilty which did this subject first and did it better.

 

Brotherhood
CANADA-TUNISIA-QATAR-SWEDEN/25MINS/2018
Director: Meryam Joobeur
Brotherhood
The 2nd of two films from Tunisia. This is the apparent frontrunner of the category but I would be shocked if it won.  Narratively opaque portrait of a callous shepherd named Mohammed living on a farm in rural Tunisia.  His oldest son Malik returns from Syria, with a mysterious new wife covered in a burka.  Director Meryam Joobeur doesn’t play fair with the audience purposefully hiding information so we cannot figure out what is going on.  The viewer (and father Mohammed ) is led to believe Malik became a radical and joined ISIS. Honestly, if father and son had simply had a conversation the misunderstanding at the heart of this drama could have easily been avoided.  Extremely frustrating for its inept depiction of the father’s shameful decision.

 

Saria
USA/22MINS/2019
Director: Bryan BuckleySaria
This true story dramatizes an appalling event that occurred at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala in 2017.  A fire claimed the lives of 41 young women including two friends, Saria and Ximena.   This is a shocking violation of human rights.  The fact that real-life orphans are playing orphans is more interesting than the film itself.   The circumstances surrounding their deaths is clearly a tragedy worth telling so it gets credit for that.  However the film’s slick, unemotional presentation doesn’t feel as powerful as it should.  When the severity of these events comes across like a cliche, something is wrong.  Director Bryan Buckley has helmed over 60 commercials for the Super Bowl since 2000 so the cinematography is stellar.  I’ll give it that.

01-29-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Sports with tags on February 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Animation

Regardless of how expected the rest of the Oscar races are, the shorts programs have always been the most difficult category in which to predict a winner.  They make forecasting interesting.

With the exception of Kitbull, this year’s selections all have to do with familial relationships but even that short is essentially about the connection that forms a family. They have all been carefully constructed to make you tear up — with either joy or sadness — in some way.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Hair Love
USA/7 MINS/2019
Directors: Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith
hair love
A young black girl is desperately trying to style her hair for a special occasion. She consults an online tutorial video for help but is unsuccessful. She then asks her father for help. This warm depiction highlights a loving bond between father and daughter. But where is the mother? That’s the poignant ending to this heartfelt account.

 

Kitbull
USA/9 MINS/2019
Director: Rosana Sullivan
kitbull
Appealing feature about a cat and a pit bull and the unlikely attachment that develops between them. This was produced by Pixar Animation Studios under their SparkShorts umbrella which gives employees the autonomy to create their own independent films. The characters are quite simply drawn, almost abstract, but the movement is spot on. The way the kitten moves is surprisingly realistic. The story adds depressing elements but it’s quite engaging.

 

Sister
CHINA-USA/8 MINS/2018
Director: Siqi Song
sister-oscar-nominated-animated-short-film
A man reflects back on his childhood memories of growing up with his little sister in China in the 1990s.  She is a constant annoyance to him.  This stop motion entry (there’s 3 this year) appears to be a rather simplistic tale at first.  A haunting reveal ends things on a very serious note.  It has a point and it effectively makes it.  This stayed with me.

 

Mémorable
FRANCE/12 MINS/2019
Director: Bruno Collet
image-louis-alzeimer_court-metrage-animation-memorable-bruno-collet-vivement-lundi_le-blog-de-cheeky
A painterly representation of one man’s descent into dementia.  The stop motion is an artistic manipulation of post-impressionism.  The characters look like living portraits by Van Gogh, Picasso, and other masters.  It holds an undeniably hypnotic quality that verges on calculated preciousness.  Alzheimer’s disease was the theme of last year’s Late Afternoon.  Do I sense the beginning of a trend?

 

Daughter
CZECHIA/15 MINS/2019
Director: Daria Kashcheeva
Daughter_Daria_Kashcheeva
This wordless recollection details the strained relationship between a young woman and her father.   The abundance of silence doesn’t help this obtuse chronicle.  The animation is stop-motion but then a handheld camera is used to heighten the movement so hey that’s different.  However, the pointless grudge this woman held her entire life could have been easily solved with a simple conversation.  Try talking to your father.  Narratively frustrating.

01-24-20

Bombshell

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bombshellSTARS2.5I wasn’t planning to review Bombshell.  I saw it weeks ago.  When it went wide on December 20, it did rather poorly at the box office.  Apparently, a drama about sexual harassment wasn’t what people wanted to see right before Christmas.  Go figure.  I assumed it would be forgotten.  Then on Monday, January 13, it was unduly rewarded with three Oscar nominations.  Seven weeks later it’s still hanging on for dear life in theaters.

Bombshell is based on the accounts of several women at Fox News who decided to bring a case against chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.  It features a triumvirate of star power in the form of three actresses.  Charlize Theron portrays the very real news anchor Megyn Kelly and Margot Robbie plays a fictional associate producer named Kayla Pospisil – a character based on a composite of witnesses.  Pospisil’s uncomfortable private meeting with Roger Ailes is the acting reel highlight of the entire picture.  Both actresses garnered regrettable Oscar nods.  Either slot could’ve been filled by a host of far more deserving candidates: Awkwafina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, Zhao Shuzhen…I could go on.  Ironically the Academy actually failed to honor the best performance in the production.  That would be Nicole Kidman as “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson.  Her no-nonsense portrayal is the heart of this film that sets everything in motion.

I will defend one of Bombshell‘s nominations to the hilt, however.  The MVP is makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji who won an Academy Award for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for The Darkest Hour.  He’s responsible for the uncanny physical modifications of this production too.  John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes under pounds of old age fat makeup.  Charlize Theron, in particular, looks eerily like Megyn Kelly.  She is changed but in an intangible way.  You don’t realize her subtle alteration is due to makeup.

Bombshell is a moderately captivating piece of entertainment.  Nevertheless, you won’t feel you’ve learned anything new or that the subject has been explored with even a modicum of depth.  It’s is a slick movie with no teeth.  This story deserved a deeper and more intelligent handling.   This is directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) and written by Charles Randolph who was a co-writer on The Big Short.  The atmosphere here has that same comedic style — giving you details at a snappy pace but without the complexity that the subject demands.  The tone is flippant and irreverent.  Fans of Fox News won’t enjoy being mocked and people seeking a hard-hitting takedown aren’t going to feel any satisfaction either.  Just who exactly is the audience for this movie?

12-15-19

Just Mercy

Posted in Drama with tags on January 14, 2020 by Mark Hobin

just_mercy_ver2STARS2.5Just Mercy is a straightforward saga for people who don’t want to be burdened by individuals who show more than one side to their personality.   If you like your villains twirling a mustache and your heroes as pious do-gooders then Just Mercy will fit the bill quite nicely.

The drama concerns attorney Bryan Stevenson as he takes the case of Walter McMillian, a man wrongfully imprisoned for the 1986 murder of a woman in Alabama and sentenced to death.  The crusading lawyer is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan.  He’s the one looking beatifically toward heaven on the movie poster.  Jordan is a charismatic actor and he brought so much to roles in Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther.  Meanwhile,  actor Jaime Foxx portrays the man on trial and he also brings genuine humanity to the part.  They’re both compelling, skillful actors.  It’s a credit to the abilities of Michal Jordan and Jaime Foxx that they bring gravitas to their characters.

It can be tricky criticizing an account that denounces a shocking miscarriage of justice.  Screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham have their hearts in the right place.  This is a true story that Cretton and Lanham have adapted from Bryan Stevenson’s book published in 2015(!)  Stevenson wrote this account about himself.  It’s unfortunate that an important tale on race and discrimination is given such a formulaic and uncreative treatment.  There’s no mistaking who’s right and wrong.  Southerners and the police are all seething racists while the accused and the defender who fights for him are candidates for sainthood.  I’ve seen some pretty simplistic dramas in my day but this screenplay underestimates the moral decency of its audience by fashioning a narrative that’s so obvious it’s condescending.

There are works that handle this material with more subtlety.  The obvious inspiration is To Kill a Mockingbird which is coincidental because the murder committed here in Monroe County, Alabama is the very same place where Harper Lee wrote her much-celebrated novel.  Every resident here seems extremely proud of this fact and yet no one seems aware that their racial attitudes haven’t changed since the book was published in 1960.

Bryan Stevenson is a counselor dedicated to pro bono work for death-row inmates and other prisoners needing representation.  These also include Herbert Richardson played by actor Rob Morgan. Richardson is incarcerated for the pipe-bomb killing of an 11-year-old girl.  His psychologically troubled Vietnam Vet is able to register a little nuance.  Despite his arrest Walter McMillian (Foxx) is innocent.  The evidence against him is entirely based on a questionable witness, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a much lighter sentence for his testimony.   His blatant perjury is simply presented as an indisputable fact early on.  Nevertheless, the police and the townspeople refuse to acknowledge what is conspicuously a grave injustice.  One side is thoroughly ethical.  The other is completely corrupt.

Just Mercy is a tale of good vs. evil vs. good storytelling.  A lot of people will enjoy this movie.  Its uncomplicated narrative of clearly delineated personalities highlights a true and egregious case that is important to know.  Many will appreciate seeing the oppressed ultimately triumph in the face of overwhelming racial inequality.  Their righteous anger validated by the display of what transpires here.  However, I wanted to know more.  Why do these southerners continue to hold such narrow-minded beliefs in this day and age and how could the accused and his family be so passive and understanding?  You won’t find those answers here.  The characters have no development through the picture.  What you see is what you get.  There are no shades of gray.

01-09-20

Uncut Gems

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

Little Women

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

little_women_ver10STARS3.5Little Women has been adapted to film 7 times.  That includes two silent entries.  Then there’s the myriad of productions for television.  The Houston Grand Opera even commissioned a piece in 1998. Needless to say, it’s been a beloved tale since Louisa May Alcott published her novel in 1868 and then 1869 in two volumes.  At this point, her work been covered so many times that you assume they’d have to include some new twist to make it fresh for a modern audience.  In the newest (and surely not the last) version, Greta Gerwig does indeed make several directorial choices to modify this timeworn saga.

The 2019 account of Little Women is self-referential.  In the beginning, writer Jo March is seen submitting a manuscript to a publisher (Tracy Letts).  That text is the very movie that we are watching right now.  Little Women is seen as a work of semi-autobiographical fiction so the line between main character Jo and real-life author Louise May Alcott has always been kind of blurry.  I guess the mere choice to go meta with the story is not exceptionally radical.  However, it also adds an ongoing conversation between the publisher and author as a commentary on the developments.  There’s a memorable discussion about the ending that introduces ambiguity from a contemporary perspective.

Gerwig assumes you’re familiar with the chronicle and begins 7 years later and then cuts back and forth between parallel timelines.  One is of the young girls living at home with the family and the other is of them all grown up and pursuing different paths in life.  It’s basically Jo’s memoir and actress Saoirse Ronan is a charismatic presence but the other sisters get significant consideration too.  In particular, Florence Pugh as Amy has an illuminating arc.  I found the nuance to her bratty temperament rather fascinating as her personality develops over time.  Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) get somewhat less attention, but I found all of their interactions to be compelling as well.  All the girls come across as interesting individuals.  The rest of the cast is dependable.  I would be remiss if I didn’t cite Laura Dern as matriarch Marmee March and the legendary Meryl Streep in a minor role as their aunt.  It’s a quibble but I was less enamored with Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Laurie.  The actor is usually captivating but he’s kind of bland here.

Ok, so I’ve been keeping a secret.  Truth be told, I’ve never read the book nor seen any of the movies so I walked into this one completely fresh.  Forgive my lack of familiarity in this area, but naïveté can be a positive.  I am not beholden to the source in the way an adherent may be.  Yet I admit it could also be a drawback.   This gets confusing.   I found the shifting timelines weakened the clarity of a simple narrative.  The chronological flip-flops occur frequently and without warning.  You just have to sort of gather it from the manner of people’s dress and how they’re acting and the subtle color palette changes of the cinematography.  I didn’t appreciate these stylistic choices as a first-time initiation to the material.  Although I can see where it may enhance one’s understanding if you’re already acquainted with the text.  Other than the nonlinear structure, it is a respectful adaptation.  This could have been a staid period piece but the traditional dialogue flows effortlessly from their lips with the natural cadence of modern conversation.  It’s quite lively.   That ultimately elevates this as a distinguished interpretation.  Furthermore, the presentation looks and sounds amazing (costumes, production design, score).  As I mentioned before, the performances are a commendable achievement.   There’s a lot to recommend.   I was entertained but ultimately I wasn’t WOWed.

12-27-19