Archive for the Drama Category

Murder on the Orient Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-09-17

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The Florida Project

Posted in Drama on October 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

florida_projectSTARS4Few of the tourists who visit Walt Disney World will ever stay at the Magic Castle Inn. The name seems to intentionally suggest the Magic Kingdom. It’s a roadside motel in Kissimmee Florida, located just minutes from the theme park but it’s not related in any way, shape or form. It’s painted hot pink exterior somewhat disguises its seedy atmosphere. Most of the tenants actually appear to be long-term residents enticed by extremely cheap rates. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a brash 6-year-old girl who lives there with her mother Halley. Moonee is presumably not in school at the moment. It is summer and so she spends her days hanging out with the children of the other extended stay dwellers.

Director Sean Baker’s debut was Tangerine, a little slice of life about folks on the fringes of the LA community. Pimps and prostitutes are not the kinds of people that we want to embrace, but his unflinching examination saw the humanity within a segment of society most people ignore. Like that film, The Florida Project details the unsavory life that percolates on the ragged edges of Orlando’s sprawling network of family-friendly resorts. “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s working title for his entertainment complex in the greater Orlando area. It would seem to be a tragic irony that an attraction as cheerful and wholesome as Walt Disney World is surrounded by less than grand living situations.

All of this is seen through the eyes of a child. Adults are very much a part of this story, but their reality is an alien universe shrouded in mystery to these kids. Our understanding of what is truly happening sometimes comes across as a bit clouded too. Our protagonist is Moonee, a rambunctious, almost vulgar, holy terror that is allowed free reign to explore the compound. Actress Brooklynn Prince is utterly natural, almost chillingly so. She does mischievous deeds with her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), a downstairs neighbor, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who lives down the road in another motel called Futureland. Despite their flaws, we care about these kids. The narrative grants their existence the same respect producer Hal Roach afforded to The Little Rascals. There’s a big difference though. The kids are outwardly cute in appearance but they sure don’t act that way. We see them cover a car with their spit in a game of target practice. They switch off the power to their entire building from the utility room. Later they accidentally burn down a foreclosed house after lighting a pillow on fire.

Halley (Bria Vinaite) is Moonee’s single mother, a foul-mouthed, tattoo covered, hustler. She sells perfumes to tourists on the street by day and receives gentlemen callers at night. Her parenting skills leave a lot to be desired. The filmmaker doesn’t ask us to sympathize with Halley, but he doesn’t impugn her either. I can appreciate the display of humanity in its many forms, but when she’s responsible for the welfare of a child, the script’s apparent lack of condemnation is somewhat disturbing. What helps is actor Willem Dafoe in the form of motel manager Bobby. He is a force of good in a sea of characters that aren’t. He actively puts his neck out to ensure the safety of these kids.

Director Sean Baker utilized the purity of cinema vérité when he created Tangerine in 2015 and he exploits a similar style again. Gone is the iPhone 5s cinematography. He’s shooting on glorious 35mm film this time around with a traditional camera, but the outskirts of Orlando is presented as anything but conventional. Sun-drenched vistas burst with the crisp colors that stand in stark contrast to a childhood troubled by a grim situation. Moonee’s environment is hardly ideal. However, this is all conferred without critique. The neglect of a minor should probably invite more condemnation.  The atmosphere remains surprisingly upbeat. Baker continues to employ an indie aesthetic. With the exception of Willem Dafoe, these are all unknown actors. Everyone from first-time actress Bria Vinaite — an Instagram discovery and “friend” of musician Drake — to actual non-actors utilized on location, Baker’s presentation has the feel of real life. It is that authenticity that allows us to understand these depressing conditions. Given the circumstances, one might wish for more righteous judgment, but Baker’s observational view is admirable too. Ultimately though he defers to the moral high ground. The emotional ending is a catharsis that is as welcome as it is heartbreaking.

10-12-17

Mother!

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on September 20, 2017 by Mark Hobin

mother_ver5STARS4“World in My Eyes” was a hit song by Depeche Mode back in 1990. The lyics are notably apropos in this context. “Let me take you on a trip” it began, but these words could just as easily been uttered by Darren Aronofsky. He approaches the movie landscape in very much the same way. His cinematic vision is to take the viewer on a trip through a heretofore unexplored world. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan – these are not easily digestible films. His latest is Mother! It’s also an idiosyncratic foray through style right down to the lowercase ‘m’ and exclamation point that usually delineates the title whenever it’s in print. (Not here though. I’m still going to capitalize the title of a film.)  This drama might be his most bizarre and from the online discussion, perhaps the hardest to like. Nonetheless, I found this bold excursion a captivating decent into insanity. It’s such a gradual progression that I was unprepared to where he ultimately took me. It’s not an easy trip but it is a fascinating one.

WARNING: This is the type of movie that plays better the less you know. Conversely, the more you read, the less befuddled you’ll be. With that said, I certainly won’t explicate the chronicle in detail. I don’t believe there is a definitive explanation anyway. I’ve heard several interpretations and honestly, they all have merit. Besides, this is a film review, not a thesis. Yet Mother! is just the kind of achievement on which you could write a dissertation. As such, to review it properly, I will make allusions to other works that may take away some of the mystery. If you prefer to go in cold (and you like the same movies I like) then stop reading now and just go see it, because this earns my recommendation.

Mother! tells the story of an unnamed couple who are refurbishing a Victorian mansion in the countryside. He (Javier Bardem) is a poet and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), is a homemaker. She is the mother of the title, renovating the home and making it beautiful. Their tranquil existence is soon disturbed by the arrival of a man (Ed Harris) looking for a place to stay. He thinks their home is a bed and breakfast. The poet is accommodating and mother defers to her husband’s wishes. The next day, the man’s wife shows up also looking to stay. Their presence is an irritant to the mother but the poet seems to welcome their company. Apparently, the strangers are fans of the poet’s writing. Nevertheless, they impose a possessive influence over their home. Their occupation becomes even more irritating when the two sons of their guests show up as well. From there, things begin to deteriorate rapidly.

Mother! initially, unfolds like a play with the four principals forming sort of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? quartet in the first half. Jennifer Lawrence is the doting wife. Javier Bardem is her distant, moody husband. At first, he is suffering from writer’s block. He’s seemingly insensitive to his spouse’s objections to these intruders. Things only get worse as his character becomes more and more celebrated. He takes and takes from his wife in a way that makes the observer uncomfortable. Yet Jennifer Lawrence continues to acquiesce to her husband’s wishes. Her doe-eyed demeanor may irritate viewers who judge her behavior through a feminist lens. I was reminded of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Ed Harris is a bit of an enigma as the man that enters their life. Michelle Pfeiffer is deliciously entertaining as his inquisitive wife. She asks intrusive questions, then makes herself at home with a familiarity that is vexing.

Mother! is a production that gets under your skin and it’s meant to be troubling and confusing. Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique creates an unsettling vision for his protagonist. Jennifer Lawrence is frequently shot in close up. Other times the camera follows over her shoulder for 360 degree shots that put us in her shoes. The camera feels permanently attached to her. We see her point of view as she makes her way throughout this living space. Her disorientation is our own. In the first half, the setting is bereft of vibrant colors. The environment is gray and washed out, but as things escalate the hues steadily grow more vivid. Interestingly, there is no music. Initially, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson did compose a score. However, Aronofsky ultimately decided a lack of musical cues was preferable. Instead, the pair worked together in creating what they called a sound design. The absence of musical cues obfuscates our perception. How are we to feel? Without the score, it forces you to rely on Jennifer Lawrence’s character for narrative direction.

At a superficial glance, Mother! is a horror film, but it’s not scary in the classic sense. It’s unsettling. Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby, it reveals the painful undoing of a woman and her psyche. Even the film poster recalls the latter work.  Although as things devolve it’s clear there are larger issues at play. What begins as spare and spartan becomes dense and elaborate. An orderly tranquility is replaced by a surreal nightmare. The narrative transforms into a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. The pastiche of images gets a bit chaotic but it’s never less than a visually arresting work of grandeur. Mother! is a rich tapestry of images that will haunt your dreams. A blazing inferno is the very first image and it ends in a similar fashion. In between, we get a beating heart that bubbles up in the toilet bowl, a sickly man with an open wound, and floorboards that ooze blood. Everything converges in a chaotic finale that will leave some viewers exhilarated while others will jeer the screen. Mother! doesn’t “play well with others.” As a narrative, it’s socially ill-tempered. It’s also a meditative examination open to analysis.  It’s ideologically abstract enough to allow for many interpretations. Therein lies the genius of this tale.  It’s something to see with other people so you can discuss. It’s a cerebral experience and one that I appreciated for its audacity.

09-14-17

Patti Cake$

Posted in Drama, Music, Uncategorized with tags on September 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

patti_cakesSTARS4Allow me to sing the praises of a film nobody saw. I’ll play a little defense first though. Patti Cake$ doesn’t present an original plot and chances are if you’ve seen any showbiz tale, you’ll know where this is headed. I could summarize the premise with a sentimental slogan: rags to riches, a triumph of the spirit, follow your dreams. Take your pick.  They all apply. Even the hip-hop milieu doesn’t really make this unique. Hustle & Flow and 8 Mile did this too. That still doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. We already know pizza tastes good and yet we still keep eating it. It’s all about the ingredient and Patti Cake$ is made from dope fresh ingredients.

A New Jersey woman seeks fame and fortune as a rapper. As Patti Cake$, one of her many aliases, this heavyset white girl comes from humble beginnings. She’s a bartender at the local watering hole. Actress Danielle Macdonald is the arrival of an exciting new talent. As Patricia Dombrowski, the Australian actress slips into the role of this American girl like she’s lived it all her life. Patti has a facility for rhyming. She is a naturally charismatic performer. An impromptu rap battle in a parking lot is a lively game of one-upmanship. Her vocal defeat of a bully in a war of words is truly rousing. It’s fun to watch this plus size talent put one over on her critics. We truly care about her and that’s perhaps the key component as to why this film is so successful. She also can rap with style and skill throwing down beats with the facility of a pro. You never question her authenticity as an artist.

Patti is surrounded by an appealing cast. Her best friend is Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). His announcement of her entrance over the loudspeaker at the pharmacy where he works is an amusing bit. He calls her Killa P but her local haters call her Dumbo, a cruel shortening of her last name. Nihilist punk performance artist Basterd, the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) unexpectedly becomes a member of their inner circle later on. He conveys a lot by saying very little. There’s also Patti’s mother Barb. She often drops by the bar where Patti is working.  She always has a few shots and then she sings for the patrons. New York cabaret performer and comedian Bridget Everett plays a part that invites both admiration and pity.  You see she also once had dreams of being an entertainer as well.  Barb has a great voice but her musical sets usually end with her in the bathroom, head over the toilet bowl.  Barb’s mother, who Patti’s calls Nana, lives with them as well. She’s memorably portrayed by Cathy Moriarty, who was Vicki LaMotta in Raging Bull.

There’ a reason why these inspirational stories keep getting made. When they’re good, they inspire the soul. Patti Cake$ has heart, joy, and emotional heft.  This is simply a heartwarming story about woman becomes a rapper. The tale is predictable, but it’s done as well as any I’ve seen detailing this kind underdog tale. A key element is the music. The songs are fantastic. Her rag tag group of friends come together to make her debut CD, yes a CD, this girl is old school. The film does a great job at showing the creative process. The way the songs come together is very organic. Even her grandmother has some input. “PBNJ” is the standout cut but “Tuff Love” is the climactic song that underscores an emotionally poignant finale. I will concede rap may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, it’s difficult not to get caught up in this young woman’s journey. There’s something rather affecting about this unassuming hero. It’s hard not to root for the longshot. I was really taken by Danielle Macdonald as this young woman. I hope to see much more from this remarkable actress.

8-31-17

It

Posted in Drama, Horror with tags on September 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

itSTARS2The sentimental nostalgia for the childhood age has often been romanticized to edifying effect in the movies. Take a group of charismatic kids in a small town and have them bond during the summer united over a common objective. They’re linked by their “loser” status and a distrust of adults that don’t support them. The Netflix TV series Stranger Things mined this construct recently. Certain classics like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Goonies, and Stand By Me, did this incredibly well. The latter, appropriately enough, was also based on a story by Stephen King. Other films do this really badly, which brings us to the latest Stephen King adaptation.

It is a chronicle frustratingly lacking in substance. Who or rather what “It” is, is kept somewhat ambiguous. There isn’t any explanation as to how he came to be. He simply exists. He appears as a circus clown named Pennywise to six-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) when the paper boat he’s floating sails down the gutter. The clown peering from the sewer as a set of glowing yellow eyes. It’s an effective image and the most creepy bit in the whole doggone story. Soon after little Georgie goes missing. His brother Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) ends up leading a gang of outsiders who go in search of the missing boy. As it shuffles along, each child will each have their own encounter with Pennywise.

The youngsters aren’t personalities so much as archetypes. There’s Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight boy, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the hypochondriac who believes he has asthma, Richie (Finn Wolfhard) the foul mouthed one who wears glasses, the Jewish kid Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and the lone girl, Beverly ( Sophia Lillis), on whom Eddie has a crush. Homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the only black kid. He’s the last to join the group when the gang saves him from local bullies in a rock fight. These seven misfits eventually band together and refer to themselves as “The Losers Club.” It’s sad that each one can so easily be reduced to a physical trait but that’s the depth of characterization this screenplay affords us. The story lacks the desire to slowly develop characters with nuanced personalities that engender our sympathy.  Interestingly three people (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman) are credited with this adaptation.

There’s a good reason that the title is denoted as “It” and not “Him” for Pennywise is actually a shape-shifting entity that manifests itself as whatever scares you most. For most of the adventure, we get the clown, a part embodied by Bill Skarsgård that also relies on CGI and sonically enhanced vocals. At various times, the creature becomes other things: a headless boy, a creepy painting come to life and a rotting leper that chases Eddie. One particularly bizarre scene has Beverly’s own hair pulling her toward the sink drain as she is covered in an eruption of blood that coats the bathroom. A roomful of blood recalls The Shining. That was scary. It is not. For all his shape-shifting tendencies, we rarely see Pennywise kill anyone which makes him pretty ineffective. Tim Curry’s portrayal in the made for TV movie is iconic at this point. Bill Skarsgård’s version, by comparison, is sorely lacking.

It is a fable about children. So if you can’t be frightening, why not go for the emotion? Set in 1989 in the town of Derry, Maine, the setup would be the perfect setting for a PG rated nostalgic amalgamation of amiable moppets who triumph over a bad clown in an uplifting tale. Except it’s an R rated trudge through the muck of very real world evil. The little ones are surrounded by a distressing lot of sociopaths with behavioral disorders. The town bullies are disturbingly sadistic. Their leader Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) carves his initials in Ben’s portly stomach. The parents are either apathetic, callous or abusive. Beverly’s father is prone to lustful advances that suggest he is a pedophile. A leering pharmacist makes lascivious comments toward the same girl. If only Pennywise the clown was half as scary as the congregation of adults in this community. What a collection of reprobates.

It is supremely unfocused. Apparently, Argentine film director Andrés Muschietti thinks more is more. This dismal account is a disorganized jumble of stock characters and situations. The developments are strung together loosely without the willingness to captivate the audience. As a result, the vignettes just feel like an assemblage of horror cliches haphazardly thrown together. The narrative lacks the patience to allow the plot to slowly evolve organically – a key component in establishing an engaging story.  It becomes an episodic sequence of “so this happened and then this happened” and on to the end. As a result, this so-called “scary movie” never becomes anything even remotely terrifying.

Where It truly works best is in the humor department where the jokes do add a much-needed levity. A running gag involving boy band New Kids on the Block is very funny. Unfortunately, the laughs are a temporary respite from a mostly dour tale. It is a really ugly film. A stridently R rated, kid cussing, blood gushing mess with innocent children at the center. The juxtaposition makes you feel dirty. I get that it’s supposed to detail unpleasant things. It’s a horror movie. But even the scariest flicks contrast all the negativity with a glimmer of optimism underneath. The saga fails to gives us enough hope. I wasn’t scared but the atmosphere did make me feel icky though. I wanted to take a harsh shower when I got home to scrub off the contamination.

09-07-17

Good Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-26-17

Logan Lucky

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

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

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

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

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

08-17-17

Detroit

Posted in Crime, Drama, History, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2017 by Mark Hobin

detroit_ver2STARS4Detroit is such an all-encompassing title.  This story might perhaps more appropriately be called the Algiers Motel incident. The narrative essentially begins with the onset of the 1967 Detroit riot. The 5 days remain one of the most destructive protests in the history of the United States. Only the New York City draft riots during the Civil War in 1863 and the L.A. Riots in 1992 caused more damage. The events were precipitated by a police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours bar on 12th street. Many were arrested. The uneasy mix of white law officers and black patrons created a combustible flash point. The city became a war zone and tensions were high on both sides. On the third day of the uprising, the multiple firings of a shot gun from the Algiers Motel compelled the Detroit police department to storm the facility to investigate.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have produced a powerful film fashioned around an intense nightmare of questioning. It does this in a way that demands your attention even when it’s hard to watch.  The police mistakenly believe the discharge of a starter pistol was sniper fire.  Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates the police had justifiable cause to determine a gun had been fired. However, the reaction and subsequent night of questioning is an absolute horror that portrays the utter desecration of civil rights. The Michigan State Police are the first responders, but the National Guard and a private security agent were also on the scene at various junctures. When cops and soldiers pulled away from the motel two hours later, they left the bodies of three dead teenaged civilians: Carl Cooper, 17; Fred Temple,18 and Aubrey Pollard, 19 – all black – and nine survivors, two white females and seven black males, that were badly beaten and humiliated by members of the Detroit Police Department.

The screenplay wisely affords us the chance to know these people. The victims are given detailed backstories. Larry (Algee Smith) is the lead singer of the Dramatics, an R&B group. Fred (Jacob Latimore) is his agent and friend., When their concert is canceled due to the riots, they end up at the Algiers Motel where they meet two white women at the pool, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever).  They invite the men back to one of the hotel rooms where they find Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.). A young veteran of the Vietnam War named Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie) shows up later. Although real names are used for the victims, the name of the antagonists have been changed. The movie’s main villain is Officer Krauss (Will Poulter).  He still has the face of a child but wields control like an authoritarian drunk with power. Two of his followers are Officer Flynn (Ben O’Toole) who espouses clearly racist beliefs and Officer Demens (Jack Reynor), who gets caught up in the peer pressure mentality to impress his fellow partners.

It’s not fair but sometimes the most shocking reaction isn’t caused by the bad people committing atrocities, but the good people who stand idly by and allow it to occur. One especially memorable individual is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard from a nearby store who shows up to maintain order. He is a character that inspires particularly extreme emotions. He inspires sympathy, yes, but also frustration from his actions, or lack thereof. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have worked before on both The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), where methods utilizing torture were used to extract information. It should be noted that those films involved whole countries at war. Conversely, Detroit only affected the U.S., a city under siege where a police force, designed to protect its citizens, becomes the very opposite.

Why this happened is a bit more perplexing.  Kathryn Bigelow takes the time to illustrate how circumstances spawned a feeling of unease between police and civilians. Things had gotten so bad that by day 3 the National Guard had been called in. It was a war zone. The police were tasked with maintaining public order but tensions were heightened given the conditions of an escalating riot. The account could have been even more exploitative.  There is care to show that some officers were concerned with preventing bloodshed using nonviolent methods.  Granted the task to keep the peace was almost impossible, but there are situations that become exasperating.  There are specifics that seem missing.  Lawlessness was increasing and the abuse of civil rights was getting worse. Early on, Krauss shoots an unarmed looter (Tyler James Williams) in the back as the man is running away from him, obviously not a threat.  Investigators later found the man dead.  An outraged detective (Darren Goldstein) informs Krauss he’ll be charged with his murder and then — inexplicably — sends him back to the streets. This unsupportable behavior demands an explanation if for no other reason than to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of his actions.

Detroit is a powder keg of a film. It will push buttons. Some of the developments defy comprehension. At one point the National Guard arrives to patrol the streets of Detroit as the riots continue. One little girl looks out her window to see the commotion that transpires outside. An officer shouts “It’s a sniper!” and a shotgun blasts away at the window.  Mark Boal talked with the survivors who recounted experiences that took place 50 years ago.  Given the passage of time, reminiscences are understandably based on recollections that may not be entirely factual.  At the end, we do get a title card that notifies us that some events have been fabricated and may be fictionalized. Granted weighty issues have been simplified. There is no other way. It’s a 2 hour 23 minute movie and they simply have to be. But what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have done is extraordinary. Time gives us a clearer perspective. They have employed a controversial incident from our nation’s past and presented it to a new generation that now prompts more consideration to illuminate an ongoing issue. I was angry, horrified, sad — but mostly infuriated at what I saw. It’s a visceral production that recreates a crisis. It is violent, but the details of what befell that night almost demand that the savagery must be portrayed. The subject of police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter currently dominates the discussion on newspapers, TV, and social media platforms. Detroit seems more relevant today than ever. It’s not an experience you will enjoy, but it depicts a reality you must see.

07-30-17

A Ghost Story

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on July 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

ghost_story.jpgSTARS2.5If nothing else, writer and director David Lowery’s new feature is a curiosity. A tale without a distinct narrative to understand so much as to experience. In that respect, this meditation on life is a difficult movie to review. The chronicle is not about events per se, but rather a feeling you appreciate while watching it.

David Lowery has reunited the two stars from his 2013 crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  At the center is a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.  A Ghost Story is a chronicle indifferent to details.  The characters aren’t given names for example.  The credits list Casey Affleck as ‘C’ and Rooney Mara as ‘M’ but even those letters aren’t expressed in the script.  They’re just two people.  We can infer a few things from what we observe.  They’re human.  They’re married.  He’s a musician but not making a lot of money doing that.  Suddenly he’s bloody, sitting motionless behind the wheel of a smashed car.  We can assume he has just died in car accident.  The collision itself happens offscreen.  We do however see the aftermath.  Then we see him at the morgue.  He’s lying down on a table for an uncomfortable length of time.  His body is covered by a clean white sheet.  Minutes pass by with no discernible change in the room.  At one point I thought the film had been paused.  Then he slowly arises, still under the sheet.

Casey Affleck wanders the halls under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. He does this for the entire duration of the picture.  The openings are deep black and empty.  They offer no hint of a human face underneath.  It caused me to wonder if Affleck’s eyes were edited out in post production.  Ah but I digress.  It soon becomes apparent that no one can see him.  He walks to the end of a hallway and a luminous portal of light opens up. He stares at it without entering.  After awhile, the shimmering gateway closes.  That a ghost is embodied in the most cliched representation possible is really the only predictable thing about this film.  The set-up is merely a construct in which to present a mood piece.  That is, it’s not plot or character driven, but rather a reason to luxuriate in an elegiac tone.  The saga as it exists is constructed as a reflection on life, or more appropriately, death.

Rooney Mara grieves looking forlorn and despondent. In one scene, we watch her eat most of a whole pie for what feels like an eternity. It’s a static shot, not particularly well lit and she’s sitting on the floor. I read somewhere that it’s only 9 minutes long but the very manifestation is an endurance test of artistic license. It’s an unconventional exhibition to be sure but upon reflection, it comes across as a self-conscious choice.  I saw it as an indulgence motivated by the ego driven impulses of a director unrestrained. Some might praise Lowery’s choice to film an activity so mundane as audacious and bold.  Yet I didn’t see a woman grieving.  I saw a filmmaker shooting a scene.

Director David Lowery is unconcerned with time.  Time passes, first days, then years, then centuries.  Certain scenes play out in real time.  In others, the years go by in the blink of an eye.  People move on. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt, but Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a disconnected soul remains.  What Lowery is saying and how much that affects you is probably where you’ll derive your enjoyment from this.  Adherents should find it hypnotic, surreal and deep while detractors will find it affected, empty and inert. Let’s just say they both have a point.  I would’ve liked to have seen A Ghost Story on a flat screen TV mounted to the wall of a museum.  There its artistic passions could be celebrated.  It’s an evocative rumination on which to deliberate.  In that respect the production triumphs as an objet d’art.  Without the expectation of plot or character development, Lowery’s introspection piece succeeds, but as a movie, this disembodied account left me unfulfilled.

07-27-17

Dunkirk

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War on July 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

dunkirk_ver2STARS3.5Dunkirk celebrates a wartime retreat. As such, it may seem like an odd moment in the history of WWII to dramatize. To Americans whose familiarity with WWII begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it’s an event with which most U.S. citizens are unaware. Yet the battle holds a special uplifting significance to British and French troops. It concerns the evacuation of Allied soldiers that were under fire from German troops. The locale was the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, a city in the north of France. Hundreds of civilian boats carrying survivors were able to make it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again.  The evacuation was such an amazing defense of life that it’s often referred to as the Miracle at Dunkirk. Its importance is best summarized in an eleventh-hour exchange here in the film:  When one well wisher offers a sincere “Well done,” the soldier’s response is “All we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” offers the passersby. The encounter was a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.

As a work of art, Dunkirk is a sensory composition. Christopher Nolan creates an intense optical and auditory experience that feels like the real thing. Sound and visuals combine to give the viewer a wartime understanding unlike any other. The director’s preference for practical effects at the expense of CGI is well documented. The manifestation never once seems like anything less than the real thing.  The cinematography and  the music combine to fabricate a wartime experience like none other. Much of Dunkirk has been shot using IMAX cameras and makes use of the widescreen format. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the 31 cities equipped with such a screen, then I’d strongly advise you to seek out one of these showings as the presentation is much improved. I saw the film twice, in both 35mm and 70mm IMAX and the difference is enough to recommend the latter and condemn the former. The graphics are awe inspiring in both, but the impact is significantly marginalized in the non-70mm format.

Director Christopher Nolan is solely credited with the screenplay. He has fashioned the chronicle as a somewhat confusing muddle of action. Three separate stories that each take place by land, sea and air, transpiring over three different time frames. Title cards in the beginning give the viewer an assist in grasping what will transpire. The auteur is well known for playing with time, but here it works to the detriment of the narrative. Nolan takes risky liberties in telling a linear story. These different timelines are confusingly edited with flashbacks that revisit previous scenes sometimes from a new perspective.  When a character leaves one account and pops up in another tale, interpreting the timelime can get a bit dicey.   Nolan’s technique hinders our ability to comprehend what is happening when.

“The Mole” is a somewhat puzzling title card that refers to the land story. I wonder how many people will realize that a mole is a massive structure used as a pier. Its double meaning as a spy is probably intentional, but I wish I had known that bit of information beforehand. This drama takes place over a week and concerns a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach, who must find a way off this ill-fated stretch of land. The area has filled up with thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander and James D’Arcy is an army colonel.  They search the skies for the enemy Germans and await an air rescue effort that does not materialize.

“The Sea” is one day in the life of Mr. Dawson, as portrayed by Mark Rylance, the only actor allowed to actually give a “performance”. He is a civilian sailor throwing himself into the rescue effort by steering his tiny wooden yacht called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan) eager to take part in something bigger than himself.  Actor Cillian Murphy plays a stranded survivor they pick up along the way.

“The Air” is the third tale and takes place over an hour.  Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are pilots for the Royal Air Force Spitfire.  Fans of Hardy’s handsome features will surely be disappointed. His face is obscured by a mask for almost the entire duration of the picture. Additionally, it’s impossible to understand anything he says. But oh those dogfight sequences!  They are some of the most impressive demonstrations in the entire picture.

Dunkirk is a film about spectacle. It soars with gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema that is breathtakingly expansive even when it’s detailing claustrophobic conditions of a ship in battle. Seas of young, white British soldiers huddled in the hull of a ship. An unknown assailant begins firing upon their vessel. The scene is indeed intense. Yet these men become almost indistinguishable from each other. We cannot connect to these people individually.  I suppose that’s not the point. Nolan’s study is a film about a war effort that forces us into a mass of anonymity. The profusion of humanity is a wash of gray-brown uniforms. The absence of color is a common motif that comes up over and over. Indeed the only red we see is not blood but the jam on the bread the soldiers eat in the hull of a ship. This makes Dunkirk a saga that’s emotionally distant.  Yet what it lacks in compelling stories it makes up for in bombast. Hans Zimmer’s score is loud and blaring and cacophonous as it emphasizes the visual display being witnessed. It’s rousing to be sure even when it drowns out the dialogue.

Conversation is held to a bare minimum. Dunkirk is a feature built upon the very exhibition of war, not upon the chatty developments that usually compel an adventure forward. The bits of talking here and there are rendered unintelligible by thick British accents that I assume only people familiar with regional dialects will recognize. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. It’s not a deal breaker though. The script is conversationally sparse. Dunkirk is not reliant on discourse It extracts passion out of a circumstance.

Dunkirk’s greatest attribute is how it sidesteps all of the cliches of the “war movie”. This is not a traditional war epic. It’s a film that features very little in the way of exposition. If you’re waiting for a scene where the soldier talks about his girl back home, you’re watching the wrong account. Don’t expect to find a declaration from a disillusioned character outwardly expressing the horrors of war.  Other than distant planes flying overhead, we never even see the enemy. Dunkirk isn’t about dialogue, or performances, or a sentimental bond to people, or even one to emphasize the bloody viscera of war.  Although the action is most definitively a visceral experience. It’s the narrative as a sequence of “you-are-there” action setpieces that begin almost immediately and never let up until the end of the production. First, you’re on the beach, then in the cockpit, now you’re aboard Rylance’s ship. The thrill is so immediate it’s practically physical. It’s explosions and aerial photography and gray masses of huddled individuals trying to survive. You will understand the suspense, fear, and dread of what it would be like to endure war, but without that emotional connection to the actual people.

07-20-17