Archive for the Drama Category

Nomadland

Posted in Adventure, Drama with tags on February 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century was published by journalist Jessica Bruder in 2017. She wrote a non-fiction book detailing the phenomenon of nomads which significantly increased after 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession. Older, adventuresome types adopted a transient existence, taking to the road in RVs, vans, and campers. These so-called “workampers” combine work and camping, traveling around the United States in search of full or part-time employment. Vagabonds form a growing community that number in the tens of thousands.

Life is about the journey. The chronicle is ostensibly about a woman named Fern. Her trek begins when the U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down in 2011. It had been there for 88 years. The mine’s closure led to the town’s economic collapse and the cancellation of its zip code. Her husband has recently died. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings. She uses the money to purchase a van and travel the country searching for jobs. This character is brilliantly realized by Frances McDormand. The actress melts into her surroundings. She impresses the viewer not as a thespian playing a role but as the authentic embodiment of a soul. McDormand has won 2 Oscars, one for Fargo in 1997 and another for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018. It’s not so far-fetched that she just might win her third. Her personification is yet another testament to her talent.

Nomadland cleverly blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The ability to present a person’s experiences, honestly, without artifice is indeed a gift . This is director Chloé Zhao’s third feature, having previously directed Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017). McDormand works in the Hollywood realm. So does actor David Strathairn who pops up in a supporting part here as a potential love interest. However, a fundamental component is the casting of non-actors who were also portrayed in the text. The story is elevated by the actual individuals depicting somewhat fictional versions of themselves. Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells are three examples. This is a heartfelt achievement that empathizes with these wanderers. Their humanity is a big reason why this film is so effective.

Nomadland highlights the landscape as much as it honors people. Fern’s expedition across the American West not only offers a glimpse of gorgeous vistas and stunning sunsets but also unforgiving cold climates and harsh conditions. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is a key element of director Chloé Zhao’s portrait. I’m ready for a coffee table book that highlights images from the production. The narrative is not plot-driven, so it may take some time to embrace its gentle rhythms. Some vignettes are more compelling than others. This is a leisurely-paced account that gently drifts along. Like the movie, the central protagonist ambles through life. Initially, it presents a depressing tale of an economy in decline — vagabonds who have sacrificed the comfort of an established residence in order to survive. Nomadland ultimately celebrates strength and adaptability — the resilience and creativity of the indomitable human spirit. These Americans may have given up a permanent home but they have not given up hope.

11-25-20

I Care a Lot

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

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

02-19-21

Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on February 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A 1968 memo issued within the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation once stated that one of their goals was to “Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify … the militant black nationalist movement.” The messiah of this title is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago. The Judas is William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a career criminal who had been masquerading as an FBI agent to steal cars because “a badge is scarier than a gun.” Genuine FBI operative Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) must have admired his ingenuity. After Mitchell apprehends the thief for grand theft auto and impersonating an FBI agent, he makes O’Neal an offer he cannot refuse. In lieu of serving jail time, O’Neal is extended an opportunity to infiltrate the Black Panthers and become an informant by reporting on their activities. He accepts.

There’s an interesting dichotomy at work here. Director Shaka King seeks to recontextualize the historical depiction of this Black Power organization by the US government. There was the political party created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale that was a heavily armed group that relied on open-carry laws to launch neighborhood police patrols. The FBI considered them an ultra left-wing institution. This led to their designation as a “Black-nationalist hate group.” Then there’s the record presented here that portrays them as a hub of free social programs for the community. There’s breakfasts for children, health care clinics, and legal aid — all for people in need. Those activities makes them sound like they’re competing with Mother Theresa. Nevertheless, King doesn’t shy away from some of Fred Hampton’s more polemical speeches. In one intense moment, Hampton urges an audience “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction. Kill some more pigs, get some more satisfaction. Kill ’em all and get complete satisfaction!”

Judas and the Black Messiah is an incredible fable anchored by two compelling performances. The one that first seizes focus and screams “Give me an Oscar!” comes from Daniel Kaluuya. That’s not to disparage his performance. He is bursting with fiery charisma as Fred Hampton. The black leader is such an incendiary presence that it is impossible not to take notice. It’s wholly believable that people would follow this man. His oratory skills are superlative when addressing a marginalized crowd, already disaffected by police brutality. He is the quintessential “angry young man” but he alternatively displays compassion and tenderness when interacting individually with people, particularly fellow member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) who would become his girlfriend. The picture successfully humanizes him as an individual.

What lingers in the mind well after you’ve finished watching is the life of one William O’Neal. Given this is a drama that is ostensibly about Fred Hampton, that U-turn is perhaps the most unexpected cinematic surprise of 2021 thus far. Some may label O’Neal, “the villain”. This is a lot more complex than that. The film handles his existence with humanity. Actor Lakeith Stanfield imbues the man with a benevolence that presents him like the heartbreaking figure in some Shakespearean tragedy. He emerges as the spotlight as well as a personality that bookends the chronicle. Portions of actual interviews with William O’Neal from the second part of the acclaimed documentary Eyes on the Prize, are included here. I would highly recommend you seek this documentary out if you are even remotely intrigued by what you see here.

If Daniel Kaluuya is the soul, then Lakeith Stanfield is the heart. You’d assume a messiah would be more important than Judas. I find it surprising that an account that has been largely promoted to be about Fred Hampton, ultimately evolves into a chronicle of his betrayer. When (yeah not IF but WHEN) Daniel Kaluuya gets an Oscar nomination for Best SUPPORTING Actor, it will highlight this fact as further proof. O’Neal’s life is indeed astonishing for the way he must come to terms with and then justify what he is doing. He is conflicted. Agent Roy Mitchell as Bill’s handler isn’t all bad either. He is shocked — at least initially — by some of the FBI’s lawless methods which include outright murder in the line of duty. As the saga unfolds Mitchell becomes far less sympathetic. The one element that is not nuanced is that of J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) performing under (what I hope is) pounds of pancake makeup applied to his pockmarked face . He is the clear-cut, hissable villain. Hoover is an absolute monster here that makes all previous incarnations of him seem saintly by comparison.

I’ll end my review with how the movie begins. Director King introduces his creation with the title card “Inspired by true events.” These disclaimers always irk me. They come across as carte blanche to make stuff up. Granted most, if not all, movies must use a certain amount of creative license. There are too many conversations where few people were actually in the room. There’s also the filmmaker’s point of view. That’s entirely fair. Whenever I see those ubiquitous retractions, it just makes me want to read up on the actual history. That is — when I am intrigued enough — and trust that these events are uniquely disturbing. Obviously, I am a film critic, not a historian so I am not here to fact-check the narrative. I am going to assess the entertainment value of the picture. King worked with screenwriter Will Berson and comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas to pen a tale that I found fascinating. In an interview, Kenny and Keith Lucas pitched the idea of a Fred Hampton biopic as “The Conformist meets The Departed.” That’s such a perfect description, I simply had to quote it. Similarly, Judas And The Black Messiah is a taut and exciting 1960s period thriller that compares favorably with those classics.

02-12-21

Saint Maud

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I was starting to think this movie didn’t even exist. Saint Maud was one of the most promising premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. Shortly thereafter A24 acquired US distribution rights and planned to deliver it to theaters in April 2020, but then cinemas were shut down. A24 ultimately shelved the picture with no proposed US released date. It was finally dropped on the premium cable network EPIX on Feb 12, 2021. Hallelujah! Saint Maud has been freed from purgatory.

So the story concerns Maud (Morfydd Clark), a nurse who has recently become a devout Roman Catholic. There is a suggestion that the traumatic death of one of her patients prompted this conversion. She’s no longer employed at St. Afra’s hospital, however. Now she’s working as a personal home care nurse for a hospice patient (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is a former dancer and understandably depressed in her current state. She does have friends that visit. She has a lover named Carol (Lily Frazer) as well. Maud doesn’t approve of these hedonistic interactions nor for the the fact that Amanda is an atheist. Maud comes to believe that God has called upon her to save Amanda’s soul.

Saint Maud is a striking film that uncannily elicits an ominous mood. Writer and director Rose Glass relies on religion as a motif. Faith in God has been a common theme in some of the very best horror movies. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen are prime examples. This isn’t as narratively strong as those classics but the atmosphere is rather affecting. The dramatic portrayal of a woman conflicted by pious mania can be mesmerizing. Imagine Piper Laurie in Carrie but less overwrought and more sympathetic. Stylishly filmed and strongly acted, the chronicle is provocative and troubling. Maud is unquestionably odd but she remains a fascinating individual. She genuinely wishes to help Amanda. She is sincere in her convictions and that earnestness initially compels the audience to tentatively embrace this mission.

Saint Maud is a compelling study of a woman come undone. It could also have been an inspiring take on theological fervor as well, but it falls short of understanding her beliefs. Maud soon veers into episodes of religious fanaticism that do make her seem a bit unbalanced. In disturbing episodes, Maud inflicts pain upon herself as some sort of absolution. In one scene, she punches several thumbtacks through two prayer cards. She then inserts them into her shoes to be transformed by the agony as she walks around town. As a person of faith, I am prone to regard such behavior as preposterous. However, there is some basis for these acts of spiritual discipline. Although it isn’t common, some ardent practitioners in the Philippines willingly subject themselves to an actual crucifixion. The Catholic Church condemns such acts of self-flagellation. Yet a small sect of believers continue to practice in this manner. Some insight into Maud’s thought process here could have deepened our understanding of this woman and transported the narrative to a higher plane. “It’s not a religion for wusses,” Carla once reductively explained to Sam on the TV show Cheers after he complained about the difficulty of doing a Catholic penance. This is cerebral horror that explores the passion of religion and then how those ideas can be distorted. Indie film distributor A24 also gave us The Lighthouse and The Witch. If you’re looking for that kind of experience, this should satisfy that thirst.

Malcolm & Marie

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on February 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Movies put the fun in dysfunctional. The simple act of an argument between a couple can be an interesting acting exercise. In 1962 Edward Albee published and produced Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the stage. Ernest Lehman adapted it into a landmark picture that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It won 5 Academy Awards and set a slew of Oscar records in the process. I guess it isn’t surprising that other writers might draw inspiration from it. Yasmina Reza’s 2008 play God of Carnage is an example. Malcolm & Marie is another, even down to the black and white cinematography. Yet appearances can be deceiving. That was good. This is not.

A filmmaker (John David Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) return home following a well received movie premiere. Malcolm is ecstatic about his impending fame. What should be a joyous occasion turns sour when Marie brings up the fact that he forgot to thank her in his acceptance speech. From this seed of a beginning sets off over 100-minutes of bickering that grows increasingly tiresome. An all-night debate could be an opportunity to explore some thought-provoking themes. No such luck. Sam Levinson is satisfied watching a couple of privileged, self-involved, narcissists argue in circles. Like the loquacious equivalent of a cat playing with a ball of yarn, Levinson’s script is content to merely banter random topics back and forth without arriving at an apparent resolution to any of them. Malcolm & Marie is a cacophonous explosion of words in deference to a supremely empty experience.

The conversation begins with the common courtesy expected in a relationship but moves on to introduce a litany of aimless thoughts only to discard them so he can advance new ones. Levinson utilizes John David Washington as a device. In one diatribe, Malcolm bemoans the ignorance of a “white lady critic from the LA Times”. If I understand this monologue correctly, he means to assert that black art cannot ever be clearly understood by a white person. Sam the writer and director — who also happens to be the son of successful filmmaker Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man) — is also white. This begs the question: does Levinson mean to impugn his own writing? If so, he might be onto something here.

Malcolm & Marie is a hollow interaction. The screenplay is the problem. The lack of purpose to this nonsense is highlighted by a peculiar idiosyncrasy that kept shining through. Writer Sam Levinson is inordinately preoccupied with obscenities, particularly the F-word. I’ve watched many profanity-laced films in my time: The Wolf of Wall Street and Uncut Gems have achieved a modern zenith. Yet, in their favor, they each detailed a world that was less than savory. In contrast, this is the depiction of two attractive people ostensibly in love. Never have I have ever heard a release drop F-bombs in such a short amount of time without any justifiable reason. It’s almost comical as if he recently learned a new vocabulary word and wanted to use it as much as possible. His fascination with it is positively jejune. Wikipedia places this at #23 amongst all films ever to frequently use the word. Pulp Fiction is #30 for comparison. Granted #22 is high but it actually feels a lot worse. It’s an overall mood, but I now consider this the nadir of foul language in my own cinematic experience. Regardless, I’m not about to suffer through this again to confirm whether it should rank higher. I’ll trust Wikipedia.

Much like the movie, this review is a rant. Malcolm & Marie may be tedious but it’s not all bad. It features stylish black and white cinematography by Marcell Rév. Although star Zendaya spends most of the time in various states of undress so visually it evokes a glossy but suggestive Calvin Klein underwear ad. Sam Levinson has worked with the actress before on the HBO drama series Euphoria. This was a side project when production shut down because of COVID. Their familiarity with each other brings out a believable performance. Her achievement here is emotionally authentic. Still, it doesn’t make the liaison depicted in this account any less disgusting. Malcolm and Marie need to stop talking and go to bed immediately. Sleep it off and then break up in the morning. They shouldn’t be together and audiences shouldn’t be subjected to their nasty quarrel.

02-05-21

The Little Things

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

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

02-04-21

Palmer

Posted in Drama, Family with tags on February 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A former high-school football star has been in prison for 12 years. Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is now free and returns to the small town of his youth. He manages to secure a job as a janitor at the local school. There his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him, offers a place to stay. She’s an upstanding church-going woman. Palmer acquiesces to her demand that he attend services along with her. He must readjust to life on the outside. Vivian also frequently watches the neighbor’s kid (Ryder Allen) for extended periods. Sam is a 7-year-old boy who lives a modest life in a trailer with his drug-addicted mother (Juno Temple) and abusive boyfriend (Dean Winters). Palmer is ostensibly a rough-hewn criminal hardened by years in prison. Meanwhile, the boy prefers watching a cartoon about princesses and having tea parties. They have nothing in common. There’s no way these two are going to connect. Can you imagine what happens next?

I can foresee how certain tales will unfold from a mile away Palmer relies on predictable plot developments. However, it isn’t familiarity that can sink a film such as this. It’s artificiality and insincerity. This, on the other hand, is a heartfelt and emotionally resonant account that is assisted by its understated acting. Given that Timberlake was in the boy band NSYNC and has had a wildly successful solo singing career, it may still surprise some people to hear that he’s a talented actor. When he’s good (Alpha Dog, The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis) he’s very good. He wisely underplays the role as a “strong silent type.” He’s a stoic man of few words sporting a Paul Bunyan beard and flannel to visually represent a tough guy here. Initially, he snaps “You know you’re a boy, right?” upon witnessing Sam play with dolls. It isn’t long before Palmer is protecting the boy from bullies. I wasn’t surprised by the turnaround. His pretty-boy features and sweet-natured disposition shine through his gruff exterior. His change of heart should be believable and it is that.

Palmer exceeds expectations. I wasn’t expecting the saga to be so reassuring and wholesome. Credit the presence of actor Ryder Allen as Sam, Eddie’s young neighbor. He pulls off the most challenging piece that is key to the entire project. His character could have been a parody of a confident tyke with catchphrases and overacting. Instead, we are offered a deeply nuanced portrait of a boy that doesn’t adhere to traditional interests. Sam seems like a genuine person and we are invested in his plight. Some recognition for this (and honestly every great child performance) should also go to the director. Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens (The Cove, Crazy Love) deserves kudos. Stevens doesn’t direct fiction often. His comedy Stand Up Guys (2012) wasn’t well-received, but this is surprisingly entertaining. Cheryl Guerriero’s screenplay adheres to reliable story beats that entertain and uplift with a relaxed air of comfort. I will admit I eye-rolled more than once at situations I foresaw well before they occurred. For example, the second Palmer meets Sam’s beautiful and conspicuously available teacher (Alisha Wainwright), I knew it was only a matter of time before they would date. And yet, I was OK with the clichés. Why? Simple old fashioned storytelling and honest portrayals. That is enough to propel a conventional film into an enjoyable experience. Simply put, this movie made me happy.

02-01-21

The Dig

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 31, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You don’t know how badly I wanted to simply title my review: I DUG THE DIG. Aside from the fact that it’s a corny beginning, I had to convince myself that I loved it that much. I did appreciate the film, but “dig” is a slang word that seems to imply more admiration than I truly felt. In short, this is a perfectly fine film, but it didn’t wow me.

The Dig is one of those movies “inspired” by historical events. A 2007 novel by John Preston is the basis for this leisurely paced story. The 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo is the location where a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating from around the 6th to 7th centuries were found. The owner of the land Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has hired Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the large burial mounds on the grounds of her estate. When he discovers an undisturbed 88-foot ship buried in the dirt, national experts take over. It becomes apparent that the site is a significant archaeological find. Edith is very protective of him and her property. She wants to make sure Basil gets credit for whatever he finds.

The drama is sort of an imagined idea of what transpired during their research . The narrative is curious because the account completely shifts the spotlight midway through from Edith and Basil to the marriage of Peggy (Lily James) and Stuart (Ben Chaplin). These are archeologists who have been called in to help out with the undertaking. It does return to the central duo by the end, but why the change in focus? It’s possible that screenwriter Moira Buffini felt there wasn’t enough excitement between Edith and Basil to sustain an entire picture. I liked their chemistry, but perhaps Buffini had run out of interactions between the two. Nevertheless, the first half is better than the second, so the pivot isn’t an improvement.

The production’s greatest asset is the beauty of the exploration itself. I like the details in their unearthing of various objects and the enthusiasm of their discovery. The cinematography is lovely since it’s a beautiful portrait to savor at a gentle pace. I’ll cite director of photography Mike Eley (Made in Italy, The White Crow) as his contribution is important. It’s an understated and relaxed tale, but I enjoyed the quiet simplicity of it. The Dig is a pleasant, if not deep, excavation of the period.

And there’s the pun.

01-29-21

The White Tiger

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

01-19-21

Pieces of a Woman

Posted in Drama with tags on January 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

If nothing else, Pieces of a Woman will be remembered for a home birth sequence that unfolds in a single take less than 10 minutes in. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are having a baby. Their midwife Barbara is currently involved with another birth so she sends another, Eva (Molly Parker), in her place. The next 20 minutes is an agony that culminates in tragedy. What follows is a chronicle about how a mother and her family deal with that grief.

There is an undeniable craft to the construction of this account that is praiseworthy and compelling. The talented Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) has fashioned a saga with artistic flair. It is rooted in Vanessa Kirby’s portrait of a woman undone. Her performance is the best reason to see this. She is utterly disaffected by life after this trauma. Shia LaBeouf is her husband Sean. One’s familiarity with the actor’s personal issues may prove to be a distraction to his credible work here. Then again, it may even help because his character is not likable. The always dependable Ellen Burstyn plays her controlling mother Elizabeth. She elevates the narrative with her presence as well.

Pieces of a Woman is yet another dramatic exercise where a film is an excuse for actors to converge and exhibit their thespian skills. The audience is subsequently invited to marvel at all the acting on display. Like all of these recent efforts, there are indeed impressive performances. Furthermore, this looks like a fully formed piece of cinema. It feels like real life as opposed to a theatrical showcase, but to what end? This is an unpleasant experience that depicts the degradation of a marriage. Martha is understandably wounded. She is cold to everyone, especially her husband. The couple fight. Sean cheats on her [with their attorney (Sarah Snook) no less!] Yes, movies can present the ugliness of life. However, the viewer should feel enriched for suffering along with the protagonist when the credits roll. Pieces of a Woman is a punishment to watch. I suppose if there’s anything to be gleaned from this nasty ordeal, it’s that the death of a child is hard. These actors truly make you endure that awful event and its aftermath. Uh thanks, I guess?

01-13-21