Archive for the Drama Category

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

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

brittany_runs_a_marathon_ver3STARS2.5Given the title, Brittany Runs a Marathon sounds like an uplifting tale of how a woman tackles a lofty goal she has set for herself.  The nicest thing I can say about the production is that it means well.  It’s not predictable.  I’ll give the saga points for subverting expectations.   However, it’s also not particularly enjoyable.  It didn’t make me feel good.  I liked the main character even less when it was all over.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on director and writer Paul Downs Colaizzo’s former roommate Brittany O’Neill.  Kudos to him for an account that doesn’t follow the formula of a traditional narrative.  Brittany has more problems than the mere inability to run a marathon.  She’s a hard-partying, drug-taking, 28-year-old with no direction in her life.  She visits a doctor (Patch Darragh) hoping to score a prescription for Adderall so she can take it recreationally.  He isn’t fooled.  Instead, he confronts Brittany with the news that her body mass index falls within the obese zone.  He recommends that she lose 50 pounds for her own health.  Given the fat acceptance movement has only gained more adherents over the years, the script takes a controversial stance – sort of.

The production tries to straddle the line between advocating the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while still affirming body positivity in equal fashion.  The belief that all human beings should have confidence regardless of how they look is predictably asserted, especially in the beginning.  Fat-shaming is a definite no-no.  Meanwhile, the script champions Brittany for losing weight anyway.  Her ability to get thinner is promoted as a good thing.  It’s a schizophrenic perspective that obscures the clarity of whatever message this film is attempting to champion.

The story is presented as a comedy and not a drama.  That helps.  Comedies can often get away with things a drama can’t.  Events normally seen as painful can be depicted as humorous.  Even within that framework, the characterization of this woman is so odd.  Have you ever had a friend that completely sucks the life out of a room?  Brittany Runs a Marathon is a biography of such a person.  She is a human being undone by her own critical self-view.  She is fueled by self-hate and in turn, her negative outlook punishes the audience.  It’s a tribute to the talent of Jillian Bell that she imbues the role with humanity and wit.  She starts out nice.  As the pounds are shed, however, so too does the lightness of Brittany’s personality.  Unfortunately, Bell must act within the confines of a screenplay that continues to keep her character within a place of despair.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is highlighted by a charismatic cast.  They’re so appealing that they misdirect our compassion away from the lead character.  Brittany makes two new friends while running.  The first is Catherine played by Michaela Watkins (Season 34 of Saturday Night Live).   She appears stuck up at first but shows herself to be a warm and compassionate human being.  The other is Seth portrayed by Micah Stock (Netflix series Bonding).  He amicably fulfills that old standby – the supportive gay best friend.   She alienates both when they offer her financial assistance.  Later she rejects the awkward affections of directionless Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a fellow house crasher/sitter who bonds with Brittany in the middle of her transformation.  Their atypical relationship is rather compelling initially.  People want to be her friend and she responds by pushing them away.  There’s also narcissistic best friend Gretchen, played by Alice Lee who is written as a one-dimensional stereotype.  I imagine Grethen’s existence is meant to make Brittany’s nasty disposition seem justifiable.  Actress Lee is saddled with a completely thankless role.  When Gretchen expresses remorse, Brittany dismisses the friendship with “I’m tired of being your fat sidekick.”  I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for.  In almost every interaction that Brittany has with another person, I rarely took her side.

I’m a big fan of star Jillian Bell.  I think she is extremely talented.  My hard take is somewhat provoked by my disappointment from a star that I know can do better.  She was the high point of 22 Jump Street.  Her recurring roles on Comedy Central’s Workaholics and HBO’s Eastbound & Down are amusing.  Even her January 2019 appearance on Match Game with Alec Baldwin was a pure delight.  Yes, I even saw that.  I told you I was a fan.  The fact that Brittany Runs a Marathon works at all is due to Jillian Bell’s performance.  She’s the star as well as the executive producer.  This was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival.  I had very high hopes.  It has performed less well since it debuted in theaters.

As Brittany nears the date of the marathon, she grows more and more contemptuous until she becomes insufferably sanctimonious.  There are a lot of uncomfortable interactions where people are poorly treated.  Brittany moves in for a bit with her sister (Kate Arrington) and brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery).  They throw a BBQ and it’s there that a drunk Brittany projects her own self hated on an overweight woman (Sarah Bolt).  She asks the woman if she met her slimmer husband when she wasn’t fat.  The screenplay understands that this question is beyond the pale.  However, we shouldn’t be so repulsed that we resent the main character.  Brittany has become tiresome at this point. This shocking display signals the moment I was done with her.  Brittany later sends the woman she insulted a note with some flowers to apologize for the ugliness of her behavior. The gesture is inadequate. So is this feature actually. There are bits of insight and humor. Jillian Bell’s one-liners are indeed hilarious.  The best scenes detail her personal progress.  Brittany finally starts to love herself and in turn love others.  Good for her!  Sadly, coming to this realization occurs far too late.  It’s merely one obstacle in an attempt to present a satisfying film.   The picture still has many hurdles to overcome.

08-29-19

Luce

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on September 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

luceSTARS3What’s worse: a movie that never shows any potential to be good in the first place or a feature that begins with an intriguing setup and then squanders that opportunity?  I can definitely attest the latter is more disheartening.  That’s the experience you’ll get if you watch this provocation of a film.  It sets up an intriguing premise meant to provoke but then carelessly dismisses all those ideas with more questions than answers by the end.

Luce (pronounced loose) is all about Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), all-star athlete, accomplished debater, and an academically gifted high school student.  He is also a black teen adopted at the age of seven by a wealthy white married couple Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts).  He came from impoverished war-torn Eritrea in East Africa.  There as a child soldier he was taught to fight at a young age.  None of this violent background is immediately apparent from the calm, upstanding child we see here.  He appears to be an affable teen, popular with students and teachers alike.  He is an inspiration at assemblies with his stirring speeches.  He’s seen addressing his classmates at the beginning of the movie and once again at the end.  You’d think life would be all roses for Luce.  His teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) views him as “an important example to the school”.  However, his relationship with this woman is strained.  He feels an overwhelming pressure to be the ideal representative of his race.  There’s unresolved conflict bubbling beneath the surface of his personality.  His conduct will arouse many questions.

Octavia Spencer is one of our finest actors working today.  She was mesmerizing earlier this year in the underrated Ma.  Here again, she imbues this role with such gravitas that I was absolutely riveted to her whenever she was on screen.  As Luce’s history teacher, she is unnerved when she reads the paper he turns in.  The assignment was to write from the perspective of a historical figure.  Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, a 20th-century revolutionary and writer who believed violence by the oppressed was necessary for the struggle against colonialism.  When Harriet finds a bag of illegal fireworks in his locker, she views him as a potential terrorist threat.  Is he being judged fairly?  There’s a powerful dichotomy between this teacher who wants to do the right thing and the confident Luce who is exceptionally glib.  He’s a slippery chap and actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. is very good in the role.  He has an answer for everything.  It’s hard for the audience to truly determine who is in the right.  That set-up is indeed compelling and Octavia Spencer elevates this woman to seem more astute than her character has been written.

Luce is directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  He also adapted the script with JC Lee who wrote the original play on which this film is based.  They are constantly playing with the audience’s perception.  This is a highly theatrical work where people say and do things that wouldn’t occur the same way in real life.  When Harriet makes her discovery in Luce’s locker, she goes out of her way to hand the fireworks over to his mom first rather than simply going to the principal.  Her decision is not prudent.  This will have negative repercussions for her later but it acts as a conduit to create other manufactured situations for the purposes of contemplation.

Luce, the film, is ultimately a frustrating experience.  The screenplay introduces many fascinating ideas.  Then smugly neglects to make a lucid point about any of them.  It creates well-intentioned people for whom we sympathize.  Then later “pranks” the audience by giving the people behaviors to stimulate our contempt.  Luce’s liberal parents have given him an opportunity to shine.  That’s commendable but then they point to his success as a testament to how virtuous they are.  Later we learn that because mom Amy couldn’t pronounce Luce’s original name, his parents gave him a new one so they could.  We discover ex-girlfriend Stephanie was sexually abused at a party but by the end, it is implied that she actually can’t be trusted.  Harriet has a sister named Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) that lives with her.  Their relationship is an engaging plot point that humanizes Harriet.  Rosemary will later exhibit a needlessly exaggerated display that is uncomfortable to watch.  Luce himself is a big question mark too.  He seems like a model student, but maybe he has everyone fooled.  Could he be a sociopath that has perfected the ability to code-switch depending on the listener?  You’ll never know and the movie doesn’t provide enough info to make that determination.  Luce is an unfinished thesis that considers race, privilege, prejudice, tokenism, and adoption.  It merely exploits those subjects to incite a fire, then irresponsibly leaves without making any attempt to quell the flames.

08-21-19

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on August 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

peanut_butter_falcon_ver2STARS4The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those films I like to recommend to people who say “They don’t make movies like they used to anymore.”  Sweet, innocent, and traditional – it’s all those things.  Furthermore, the film isn’t a remake, a sequel or a comic book adaptation.  It’s the very antithesis of what’s popular at the megaplex these days.  The fact that it even got financed at all is something of an anomaly.  For some, that description won’t be enticing.  However, I most definitely mean that as a strong endorsement.  This, despite the fact that the plot isn’t particularly innovative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the straightforward account of a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from a retirement home.  He longs to become a professional wrestler.   The bizarre title refers to the stage name that Zak ultimately adopts.   He idolizes a fighter named The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  It is Zak’s dream to locate his hero and attend his wrestling school.  This is advertised on a timeworn VHS tape that Zak has watched hundreds of times.  His roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) wants to help him accomplish that goal and so Carl helps him escape.  Zak stows away on a boat owned by crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).  Tyler is on the run too after setting fire to the business of rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and his sidekick heavy Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf).  Zak and Tyler are both runways.  They have this in common, but that’s the only thing.  The unlikely duo team up for an epic adventure beginning in the Outer Banks and drifting south down the stagnant swamps of North Carolina.  Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is a sympathetic social worker at Zak’s nursing facility that goes in search of her missing resident.  Co-director Tyler Nilson (also boasting the same first name as Shia’s character) is originally from the Tar Heel State.  The love for his childhood home comes through in the atmospheric details of the production.  This fable set amongst these backwood swamps and marshes has a fully realized languid quality that is assisted by the picturesque cinematography of Nigel Bluck.

At the heart of this simple tale is actor Zack Gottsagen who has Down syndrome.  He gives a convincing performance that is both warm and natural.  The background of how this picture got made is an uplifting anecdote in itself.  Writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met their leading man at Zeno Mountain Farm, an acting camp in Southern California.  Gottsagen had studied his craft for many years.  The filmmakers were captivated by his talent that had gone unfulfilled.  They were inspired to write a starring vehicle for him.  What started out as a short story ultimately developed into a feature.  The chronicle entertains by appealing to the emotions.  Far more jaded types will describe this as manipulative and sentimental.  True, the relationships do progress in ways that are easy to predict.  The saga of Zak and Tyler is a classic buddy movie of a burgeoning friendship.  The portrait could be superficially criticized for that quality, but there’s something really authentic about the way the narrative mines emotion.  As the old adage goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  This is a composition made up of human interactions and the way those people emotionally connect on an elemental level.  There’s a purity to the setup that shares a commonality with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Simply watching their rapport evolve is the account.  It doesn’t get more complicated than that.  Yet it is that very simplicity that makes this flick so poignant.

The rest of the cast is equally affecting.  These established professionals were perhaps motivated by the guileless sincerity of the lead.  Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) aren’t exactly the first names you’d associate with a production that is so decidedly wholesome.  Yet they both bring a genuine warmth and humanity to their characters.  Together this trio forms a closeness that is as engaging as any relationship I’ve seen this year.  Additionally, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church appear in supporting parts that deeply benefit the little scenarios that occur throughout the drama.

There has been no shortage of heartwarming movies in 2019: The Upside, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Blinded by the light, and Good Boys are just a few of the titles that could be classified as such.  In a year filled with many inspiring movie choices, The Peanut Butter Falcon just may be the “heartwarming-est” production of the year.  Indeed it won an Audience Award at South by Southwest back in March and its long journey to achieve a widespread release has finally arrived.  Please do enjoy this wonderful film immediately.

08-20-19

Ready or Not

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ready_or_notSTARS2If Ready or Not is the question, the answer most assuredly is “not”.  I didn’t much care for this umpteenth variation on The Most Dangerous Game.  It is a violent hunt where the audience’s pleasure is extracted from the way in which various characters are murdered.  Will they be bludgeoned, shot, or crushed to death?  Oh please don’t keep me in suspense! Somewhere, buried underneath this blood-soaked free for all, there is a seed of inspiration that could have sparked a more intellectual consideration that dealt with issues of classism.

Penniless Grace (Samara Weaving) is a bride about to marry her beloved.  By contrast, Alex ( Mark O’Brien ) the groom is exceedingly rich.  He is of the Le Domas family who made their fortune through board games.  Their impressive wealth has also afforded them the ownership of four professional sports teams.  They are a dynasty.  “We prefer dominion” the patriarch offers.  Grace is a foster child with no friends or relatives of her own.  This conveniently relieves the writers of having to give this poor woman any sort of backstory.  Tradition states that any new addition to their wealthy empire must randomly pick a card on their wedding night and play the game selected.  This has been decreed by the clan’s original benefactor, a mysterious figure named Mr. Le Bail.  Games in the past have included Old Maid, Checkers, and other ordinary selections.  But when Grace selects “Hide and Seek” the room grows silent.  This is the one card you do not want to draw.  She is unaware but soon she will be literally hunted to death through the halls of the estate by the rest of the household.  Crossbows, spears, axes, and muskets will be the weapons of choice.  Oh, and if I may quote Paul Thomas Anderson, there will be blood.

The superior cast disguises this B movie dross in a sheen that can camouflage the muck.  Lead heroine Samara Weaving is gamely athletic as Grace.  Naturally, we want her to live.  Yet this woman’s ability to continually evade her captors suspends disbelief to the point of exasperation.  She’s restricted to a mansion, not an entire country.  Eliminating her shouldn’t be this hard.  The affluent Le Domas clan includes some recognizable name actors.  Adam Brody (FOX TV’s The O.C.) is alcoholic brother Daniel.  Aunt Becky is portrayed by Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day) and patriarch Tony is embodied by old standby Henry Czerny.  He memorably played a bureaucratic jerk in Clear and Present Danger and has been reliably playing slimeballs ever since.  Melanie Scrofano (Syfy TV’s Wynonna Earp) is indelible as the fluttery, pill-popping Emilie.  Her theatrical character delivers lines that would sound a lot funnier on a stage.  “Why does this keep happening!” Emilie whines after she unintentionally kills the wrong person yet again.  Her lack of compassion is hilarious.  It’s just that the loss of human life amidst such gory details makes Emilie’s disinterest a lot less funny.  Her flippant reaction should be the punchline, not the brutal slaughter.

Ready or Not had the potential to be so much more.  As I watched this grisly pursuit unfold, I pictured the production reimagined as an unconventional play — an intricately plotted comedy of manners that satirized the upper class with a macabre sense of humor.  The screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy obviously means to skewers the well-to-do as a godless class prone to murder and mayhem.  Yet there is no wit or subtly.  “They’re just trying to figure out if you’re a gold-digging whore,” one family member tells Grace early on.  It’s pretty heavy-handed.  Rich people are jerks is what passes for insight.  In time, various people will accidentally die in grotesque ways.  In a play, we’d only have to imagine the carnage.  The emphasis on the cruel deaths is at odds with the lighthearted feel of the script.  Violent murder isn’t funny in any era but when mass shootings seemingly occur on a weekly basis, the depiction is especially ill-timed.  In the hands of Busick and Murphy,  Ready or Not clumsily devolves into a ghastly and oppressive product.  The drama takes place in an ornate manor which suitably lends the setting an elegance.  The cinematography, however, wallows in dark tones which ultimately sabotage any feeling of lightness.  Grace’s wedding dress is completely covered in blood and guts by the end.  Thank goodness this is only 90 minutes long.  Under the auspices of a more capable writer, classism, not killing would be the raison d’être of this piece.  There are much more talented writers who could do this type of material justice.  Is John Guare available?

08-22-19

Blinded by the Light

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on August 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

blinded_by_the_light_ver2STARS4Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a teen living a humble existence in the city of Luton, England.  It’s the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.  Javed is a poor Pakistani immigrant whose family came here for a better life.  It has been hard.  The economic times are blighted by mass unemployment.  Apparently, skinheads and neo-Nazis roam the streets.  Amidst these political and racial tensions, he attends high school.  He longs to be a writer finding solace in composing poetry.  However, his devout father pushes his son to seek a more lucrative career.  He means well.  He only wants the best for his son but his strict Muslim traditions clash with the boy’s desires.  Right now Javed simply longs to be a kid.  His buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring synth-rocker, invites him to parties to which Javed is forbidden to attend.  He’s also smitten by Eliza (Nell Williams).  One day, a fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) turns his ear onto the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.  He is transformed.  The words play off of the cassette tape and into his heart.  An unlikely fandom is the focus of this winning film.

The subject is so quirky it almost feels like the construct of a writer but this is indeed based on a very real journalist – Sarfraz Manzoor.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. There are so many personal and offbeat touches.  His life clearly resonated with the director.  Manzoor’s saga is a labor of love.  That heartfelt touch comes through every scene and it will resonate with an audience unfamiliar with the time period or his religious upbringing.  Chadha has often approached her subjects from the perspective of Indian women living in the UK.  As an immigrant, they must reconcile a traditional background with their modern society.  Our passions can motivate us.  The equally wonderful Bend It Like Beckham is her most famous work.  The enthusiasm that Chadha evoked from soccer, so too does this extract that same feeling from the music of Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve ever been an obsessive adherent of a particular artist, this portrait will ring true.  There are moments of despair, but the overall tone is uplifting.  The cast is populated by charismatic individuals which includes an intimate depiction of Jared’s strict but positive Muslim family.  Everyone is wonderful, but young actor Viveik Kalra is particularly appealing as the star.  We genuinely hope his dreams are realized despite the stress it places on his father (Kulvinder Ghir).  It’s not necessary to be an admirer of Bruce Springsteen but I do think it helps.  Much of the drama capitalizes on his lyrics in musical vignettes.  The charming numbers are amusing because of their sloppy choreography and guileless lack of precision.  Surprisingly the more compelling sequences just feature the lyrics of “The Boss” literally swirling around Javed’s head.  We are instantly made aware of how the words of a working-class hero from Jersey could galvanize this British Pakistani fan.  Rapturous and exuberant but also unfailingly cheesy.  That’s Blinded by the Light in a nutshell.  Occasionally the sweetness is so overbearing it can get a bit twee.  This is a sincere celebration of how art can inspire us.  Is there such a thing as being too earnest?  For most, the answer would be no.  Blinded by the Light is overflowing with joy.

08-18-19

The Art of Self-Defense

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19

The Farewell

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

farewellSTARS4“Based on an actual lie.”  That how The Farewell begins – with a bit of levity.  It’s a true story culled from director Lulu Wang’s own experiences in hiding the truth.  Her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Since Chinese law does not require doctors to disclose such determinations to patients, her relatives didn’t divulge the news to the terminally ill woman.  They meant well.  They didn’t want to spoil her final months.  They carried on as if everything was fine so that her final days would be stress-free.  According to the filmmaker, this is a Chinese tradition.

In just her second feature, director Lulu Wang has fashioned a very personal film based on her own experience.  In the movie, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has only a limited time left to live.  The family has hatched a plan.  Under the deception of a fake wedding for Hao Hao (Chen Han), Nai Nai’s grandson, everyone will travel to China to see the matriarch one last time.  Nai Nai thinks they have arrived to plan and attend the wedding when in reality they are simply there to see her.  In this way, they can personally pay their respects.  Awkwafina plays Billi, a fictionalized version of the director.  Wang was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6.  That mix of cultures shapes Billi’s point of view as well.  Her American desire to truthfully break the news is at odds with this Chinese custom to shield their beloved grandmother from this heartbreaking prognosis.  Billi’s mom (Diana Lin) and dad (Tzi Ma) have advised Billi to remain at home in the U.S.  They know she will be unable to hide her feelings and promote the ruse.  Billi shows up unannounced anyway and her entrance is one of many awkwardly amusing scenes.

Awkwafina is a fascinating actress and the identity with which the audience can most relate in this account.  The Queens-born rapper initially had a viral rap success on YouTube before she was cast in the ensemble Ocean’s 8 in 2018. She later appeared in Crazy Rich Asians that same year.  In both, she was a flamboyant, extroverted individual.  She was funny and likable.  She is no less captivating here but her personality is notably dialed way down.  Awkwafina bridges the cultural divide between Billi’s New York home and her Chinese roots.  There are mentions that Billi’s ability to speak Mandarin isn’t very good so that struggle to fit in remains an underlying subtext.  Awkwafina’s acting is extremely unaffected and understated in its sophistication.  She incurs our empathy without sentimentality.  Her amazing achievement stands out because of (despite?) the exquisite subtlety of the performance.

The Farewell brilliantly details familial bonds in a most personal and honest way.  We’re detailing the impending death of a loved one.  This is pretty serious stuff but Lulu Wang’s screenplay somehow combines real comedy amongst the tragic circumstances.  “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die,” her mom proclaims early on.  An idiosyncratic blend of humor and solemnity pervades the atmosphere.  The Farewell is a heartfelt and touching picture.  What makes it so powerful is the utter veracity with which the household comes together to deal with the news.  The different ways in which a family grieves is a big part of the narrative.  It invites the viewer to reflect on their own relatives and how one would handle the situation. This may detail a Chinese family but the human emotions on display are universal.

The Farewell contains moments of great insight and poignancy. At times the screenplay is quite subtle because it suggests things without overtly expressing them. Given the melancholy mood surrounding the wedding, you start to wonder if perhaps Nai Nai doesn’t suspect something is amiss.  When we learn that Nai Nai also kept her own husband in the dark about his terminal illness, that suspicion intensifies but is still not confirmed.  As in life, ambiguity delicately informs this tale from beginning to end.  A movie about dying that shuns conventional rules where everyone must explicitly confess what they are thinking – what a refreshing take!  Every once in awhile an authentic reminiscence can capture our attention without requiring a complicated plot or melodramatic performances.  It’s the depth of emotion that charms our heart. The Farewell is just such a film.

07-28-19

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_ver7STARS2.5A new Quentin Tarantino film is an event.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been billed as his ninth picture.  So apparently Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 are now considered one film.  The auteur has declared his plans to retire after he has made 10 total.  Much of the critical establishment has worshiped at the altar of this much-lauded filmmaker.  Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of the way he succumbs to his excessive impulses.  His last production, The Hateful Eight, was a mean-spirited tale of truly reprehensible individuals.  To its credit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is decidedly more good-natured.  It’s a tale that longs for a bygone era.  But that isn’t for the Golden Age of directors like William Wyler, Frank Capra, and George Cukor.  No Tarantino reveres the men of 1960s Hollywood like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and John Sturges who made manly movies.

The drama takes place in Los Angeles circa 1969 which was a turning point in the entertainment industry.  Easy Rider, Medium Cool and The Wild Bunch all came out that year.  The studio driven era of the past was giving way to a slew of cinematic revolutionaries that were pushing the envelope in what types of behavior could be portrayed on film.  Studios had always kept a tight reign on what could be depicted on screen.  That standard was quickly eroding due to a social conflict that was playing out in real life.  The Best Picture of 1969 was a whimsical musical – Oliver – the last G-rated movie to win the award in fact.  In 1970 it was the X rated Midnight Cowboy.  Contrasts don’t get more conspicuous than that.  This is all mere subtext however but it helps to appreciate the social environment that this film details.

Tarantino’s attention to detail in fabricating Los Angeles circa 1969 is visually flawless.  He favors practical effects over CGI.  There is exhausting attention to period detail and production designer Barbara Ling is the MVP on this picture as far as I’m concerned.  The time is lovingly recreated with painstaking accuracy.   The vehicles, the storefronts, the clothing, Hollywood Boulevard – it is an immersive and palpable atmosphere.  The movie employs a soundtrack of Top 40 hits and vintage radio commercials in an aural pastiche that recalls American Graffiti.  To Tarantino’s credit, he’s depicting a generation that occurred a whopping 50 years ago whereas George Lucas manifested a past that transpired a mere 11 years from his fabrication.  Still, American Graffiti was positively hypnotic compared to this formless rambling.  If set design were the whole movie, this would be the best film of the year.  However, movies also rely on pacing and that’s a major problem in this nearly 3-hour endurance test.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like a patchwork quilt of interconnecting characters.  This is the saga of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a fading actor, and his close buddy/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was once a successful star of TV westerns of the 50s and 60s but has seen his career decline as of late.  He’s currently guest-starring as the villain in an action series.  In contrast, the more level-headed Cliff, who also doubles as Rick’s valet, is more resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him.  Cliff hasn’t been able to get much work due to speculation surrounding his wife’s death.  The central relationship is loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his buddy Hal Needham, a stuntman as well as director, actor, and writer.   There’s also a superfluous story that involves actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newlywed to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).  Her chronicle simply revolves around going to the cinema to watch herself in the Dean Martin spy comedy The Wrecking Crew. Her vacuous but beautiful face is enrapt at the sight of her own visage.  Except she’s watching genuine footage of the actual movie with the real Sharon Tate.  It’s an odd juxtaposition because Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate are clearly not the same people.

That’s the set-up, but what exactly is the story?  In this 3 hour tale, the account plods along at a leisurely pace that seems in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.  The fable operates as sort of a meandering series of vignettes in and around Los Angles.  The account largely focuses on the slumping career of Rick Dalton.  His interaction with a precocious young co-star named Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) is a high point.  Her obsessive allegiance to her craft actually causes Rick to question his own dedication.  Another is Cliff’s bizarre run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who was starring in The Green Hornet at the time.  Tarantino is a fan of martial arts.  Cliff implausibly humiliates the Asian star in hand to hand combat.  I didn’t take this biased fantasy of Quentin’s as truth, although that doesn’t make the deceit any less compelling.  Moh’s portrayal is so over the top that the martial artist star still remains the most captivating presence on screen.  Actors Moh and Butters were my two favorite cameos in a sprawling cast that has many of them.  Well, human ones anyway. Brandy, the pit bull that plays Cliff Booth’s pet, bears a mention as well.  The drama has little narrative thrust so any one of these scenes could be excerpted and enjoyed independently or even excised completely and not affect the story.

The movie briefly springs to life in a fascinating diversion which concerns Cliff Booth and an underage teen hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley).  She invites him back to the ranch of George Spahn (Bruce Dern).  This is the desert commune/cult where she lives and works.  She invites him to stay and meet their friend Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Booth is clearly distrustful of the hippies.  He insists on seeing the 80-year-old almost blind George for himself to make sure he isn’t being exploited.  It’s a captivating segment.

They say that this is Tarantino’s most personal work, but what exactly is this man idolizing?  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Tarantino was pining for the days when America was bolstered by strong conservative values before the cultural mores were upended by the freethinkers of the “decadent” 1960s.  The production functions as a mournful lament.  These two men bemoan the liberal hippie culture that is infiltrating show business and indeed the rest of society.  At one point 4 young people pull up and park their car in Rick’s driveway.  Rick, who has had enough of these counterculture types, lunges from his doorway like a bat out of hell cursing.  He orders the youths to leave, uttering the word “hippie” almost like it’s a slur.  It’s a surprisingly sympathetic point of view for what these two middle-aged white guys represent in our post-2017 MeToo movement.  The fact that this is Quentin Tarantino’s first film without producer Harvey Weinstein provides some interesting underlying context.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most amiable picture.  There is less bloodshed than you’d expect from a man who routinely fetishizes violence.  It’s only during the climax that this production ultimately submits to slaughter.  I must admit, knowing that Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her unborn child when she was murdered along with coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Polish screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) gave me anxiety about where this movie was headed.  Leave it to Quentin to subvert expectations.  Inglourious Basterds is his most satisfying work.  There are parallels between that alternate take on history and this one.  However, where that film gradually builds toward its conclusion, this one simply meanders without focus or direction.  Only in the last 15 minutes do the characters come together in an action-filled (and yes extremely violent) altercation.  It’s the director’s classic presentation of wish fulfillment.  There is a point I suppose.   I sadly regret that once this movie started to show a pulse, it was all over.

07-25-19

The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19