Archive for the Drama Category

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

Midsommar

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery on July 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

midsommar_ver2STARS4How do you analyze a movie like Midsommar?  On the one hand, it’s an effective psychological drama that induces dread in a unique way.  It’s an impressive achievement.  On the other hand, it details an extremely unpleasant and often disturbing horror that will shake you to your very core.  Ok well, I can’t speak for everyone, but it rattled me.  This wasn’t a pleasurable experience.  Yet there is so much to recommend.

To start, I adored the central performance of actress Florence Pugh.  Dani Ardor is not in a happy place.  Our heroine has suffered an unspeakable family tragedy.  She is affected by grief.  The intensity causes a traumatic breakdown.  Dani must face agonizing sorrow more than once in this film.  Her primal screams recall the pain Toni Collette’s character endured in director Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary.  Pugh’s ability to exhibit extreme anguish is difficult to watch because it’s so genuine.  Her emotional state mirrors the tangible horror of what’s happening around her.  It’s almost cathartic because Dani’s pain seems so primal.  The tangible process of acting in this production must have been physically draining.  My heart went out to the actress herself.  It doesn’t happen often.  I had this reaction when watching Shelley Duvall in The Shining, as well as Isabelle Rossellini in Blue Velvet.  Florence Pugh as Dani exhibits emotional hell in a way I’ve rarely felt in a movie.

Anxiety riddled Dani looks for support from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but their relationship is not in a happy place either.  Christian has a trip to Sweden planned with his buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).  They’re going to attend a rare Midsommar festival that only occurs once every 90 years.  They’re traveling to a commune in Halsingland, a village where Pelle grew up.  They expect a little rest, relaxation and perhaps to meet women.  We the audience know that Christian was about to break up with Dani just before the tragedy.  Of course the timing couldn’t have been worse because now he can’t bring himself to sever ties with her.  When Dani finds out about the trip, she is rightfully hurt and so Christian begrudgingly invites her along.  He continues to exhibit increasingly distant behavior that incites our disdain.  He couldn’t be more disconnected.  Dani has no support system on which to fall.  His grad school friends aren’t much better.  They’re less than thrilled to have her tag along, although Pelle does reach out to comfort Dani at one point.

The Swedish word “Midsommar” predicably translates to Midsummer but specifically describes the first day of summer or the summer solstice.  Pagans have celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years.  The tradition includes weaving wreaths and crowns, eating herring and strawberries, playing folk music and singing songs, and dancing around the maypole.  The maypole is a mast garnished with flowers and ribbon to symbolize a tree.  It may seem like a children’s game but the giant phallus in the middle of the village clearing also holds an earthly significance of fertility to adults.  It highlights a memorable scene.

Midsommar is a hallucinogenic fever dream that blurs the line between delusions and reality.  The citizens rely on psychedelics to enhance their existence.  To reach this remote location, the friends must drive for 4 hours from Stockholm. Right before they reach their final destination, the group is offered magic mushrooms to help them acclimatize to the festivities.  Dani declines.  Then is made to feel like a killjoy for her decision.  If you’ve ever been forced to indulge in something that made you uncomfortable, you know how troublesome that experience can be.  It’s subtle, but things deteriorate from there.  The group spends most of their time in a psychedelic haze.  The long daylight hours coupled with drug trips make it difficult to determine the passage of time.  Occasionally you forget these people are under the influence.  Much later on when the flowers in her crown star to pulsate, it’s so bizarre because we the audience feel like we’re on drugs as well.

When they ultimately arrive, they encounter a big wooden sunburst which they walk through as a portal to a clearing in the woods.  There they meet a mysterious group of Swedes called the Harga where the adherents dress in embroidered white garments.  Later the women adorn their hair with floral headdresses.  The blonde and blue-eyed community has the feel of a cult.  Yet everyone appears benevolent and inviting.  There’s a young oracle named Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith) whose drawings comprise a theological text that is interpreted and then assimilated into their lives.  They’re taken to a huge barn where the ceiling is adorned with primitive art depicting various animals and people.  One glimpse of a banner posted outside depicts degenerate acts that detail a love story.  It’s ever so briefly seen, but long enough to convey the perversion.  The sleeping arrangements consist of a series of twin size beds arranged all along the perimeter of the edifice.  Midsommar is fascinating because it mines terror in the perpetual daylight of a Scandinavian summer.  It’s a daydream where warm sunlight bathes the festival.  The film is visually light.  Henrik Svensson’s production design coupled with superior cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski creatively establishes a mood that is both idyllic but sinister.

Midsommar isn’t about whether something bad will happen.  If you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you know that danger is afoot.   This is a chronicle about the way things unfold and evolve.  It’s a psychological journey.   Midsommar is a slow burn of a film and it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long.  It gets oppressive.  The viewer is transported to this pastoral community where we are incorporated into customs we don’t understand.  Their ritualistic traditions are based on the cycle of life as it relates to how a year is divided.  Life is differentiated into four 18-year segments that correspond with spring then summer, fall, and ultimately winter.  Their godless beliefs worship the season themselves.  It may sound poetic but Ari Aster doesn’t make their devotion attractive.  This voyage down the rabbit hole is a disquieting descent.  Several setpieces detail things that are extremely unsettling.  There are moments where director Ari Aster presents something shocking.  Conventional filmmaking dictates that you cut away but Aster lingers on the image.  Then brutally doubles down on it.  He condemns the sight but crosses the line in order to enforce a point of view.  This is a movie that wallows in dark forces.  It’s masterfully put together.  Though I can’t say I technically “enjoyed” Midsommar, I truly admired it.  It is an authentic presentation of evil in cinematic form.  Now real talk:  I’m concerned.   Can someone please give director Ari Aster a hug?

07-03-19

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted in Drama with tags on June 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

last_black_man_in_san_francisco_ver2STARS4The way a booming tech industry can negatively affect the changing Bay Area landscape fuels the art of some really great films.  Just a year after 2018 gave us both Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You,  we have The Last Black Man in San Francisco – another story that mines the subject of gentrification in “The City by the Bay”.  To call it a story is a bit imprecise, however.  This is not a plot-heavy drama but merely an elegiac reflection with a wistful nod towards creating a mood.  It washes over you like an emotional embrace with a love for a city that is slowly morphing into a much different community.  Dorothy once proclaimed “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  This movie most assuredly asserts that expression.

This is the feature-length debut from filmmaker Joe Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who directs his longtime friend in the lead role.  Jimmy Fails is an S.F. native who plays a fictionalized version of himself.  Fails and writer Rob Richert collaborated on the script with Talbot.  This is a fully realized work from a director and star who have deeply experienced this lamentation.  The tech industry has been both a boon and bane to a population.  At the very least, it has created a vast income disparity.  In turn, this has propelled S.F. to be the most absurdly expensive real estate in the entire U.S.  Only the richest 1% can afford.  Fact: according to the Cost of Living Index, The median home price is $1.6 million in S.F. and the average rent for an apartment is $3,821 a month.  That has had an effect on businesses too.  Places like La Victoria, a historic Mexican bakery in the Mission, had to shut down after 70 years in business in 2018.  In Joe Talbot’s words, this is rapidly altering the very fabric of a city which is pushing out “some of the people who made San Francisco so great.”

At the center of the account is a tender relationship between Jimmie and his idiosyncratic best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors).  They ride skateboards and wear thrift store duds.  Their rapport is not unlike the bond between two much younger boys.  They’re uncommonly close.  Jimmie currently lives with his buddy in the tiny house of Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the city’s Bayview neighborhood.  It’s here on the streets that Jimmie and Montgomery are taunted for their close bond by tough outspoken locals credited as the “Greek Chorus”.  These two close friends struggle in the outskirts of the city in which they can no longer afford to live.  The vulnerable pair are united by a quest to find their place in an area that seems to have left them behind.

Jimmie still obsesses over the elegant Victorian home his grandfather built in the now-gentrified Fillmore District – a section once nicknamed “Harlem of the West.”  His unending drive to reclaim his childhood abode drives this narrative.  The ornate edifice with its stained-glass windows, wood-paneling, and witch’s hat turret—is a character in itself.  The estate’s current value has made his birthplace financially out of his reach.  Various vignettes clarify his mindset on a San Francisco odyssey.  Tichina Arnold pops up as Jimmie’s aunt and Rob Morgan appears as his father, Jimmie Fails Sr.  One poignant moment occurs on a public transit bus where he casually bumps into his own mother, whom he hasn’t seen in some time.  She’s played by Jimmie’s actual mother in real life.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco doesn’t overtly promote an agenda.  It’s far more subtle than that.  This is a deeply felt contemplation that appeals on a purely sentimental level.  The film’s lack of a narrative thrust may irk some.  Indeed at times, I wished for a little more momentum.  This feels like a funeral that honors the past with a profound love that pines for a bygone era.  Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra presents a languid tribute to a forgotten age.  The images beautifully underscored by a majestic score by composer Emile Mosseri making his feature debut.

This quirky city once comprised a cultural diversity that included bohemians, musicians, artists, and other counterculture dreamers.  In recent years the metropolis has morphed into a playground for hipster transplants with six-figure salaries.  Yes, I acknowledge I’m simplifying a community that still remains remarkably diverse.  However, a key scene has our protagonist, Jimmie on a Muni bus when he overhears two young women dissing the place that he treasures – “I’ve been saying for months, let’s just move to East L.A.,” one woman says to the other. “This city is dead.”  In a moment of clarity Jimmie directly addresses her point blank: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco.  You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”.  The declaration spews from lips with a passion that got me choked up.  Perhaps because I call the Bay Area my home, this rumination really struck a chord with me.  It clearly comes from an emotional place, so I hope anyone can appreciate the depth of the meditation.  This is a movie that comes from the heart.

06-14-19

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19

The White Crow

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on May 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

white_crow_ver2STARS3The White Crow could be about anything.  The cryptic title is explained in the very first frame.  It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”  I suppose I should realize by now that color + bird = ballet movie.  Black Swan and Red Sparrow also wove the same discipline into its storyline.

The White Crow concentrates on famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko)  during his young adulthood.  Most acknowledge him as the greatest male ballet artist of his generation.  He was also the first major Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War.  This contemplative film leisurely advances towards a captivating conclusion.  The account depicts his humble birth on a moving train in 1938, becoming a sensation with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in the late 1950s and the rising acclaim surrounding his early career.

These episodes aren’t depicted in order but rather shifting back and forth. I’ve often felt that haphazard embellishments are utilized when a director doesn’t have enough faith in his tale to tell it in a normal fashion. As if chronological order is too conventional. However, the drama’s clarity is obfuscated by this narrative device as I was often unclear whether certain events occurred earlier or later.  Rudolf Nureyev was a man with a fascinating story.  To wit, most of the focus is on a fateful 6 week trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.  The developments of his life would certainly make an interesting production without the stylistic devices employed here.

Written by two-time Oscar nominee David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and directed by also twice Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, this biopic has prestige oozing from every cinematic pore.  Hare was inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life.  Nureyev was a temperamental man and director Ralph Fiennes doesn’t attempt to make his subject likable.   Fiennes also appears in a small role as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad.  The cast also benefits from the presence of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who portrays Clara Saint, a 21-year old French woman who ends up playing a key element in Nureyev’s personal revolt.

Rudolf Nureyev’s mercurial character is highlighted by first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko, a real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer.  There are brief snippets showcasing his prowess but little in the way of performances.  I wanted to see more of that talent and less brooding.  Ivenko does a good job at conveying his rebellious mood, however.  Nureyev is not a warm person but that’s not required to enjoy this movie.  The saga ultimately builds to a memorable scene with a mesmerizing climax.  While Nureyev’s ballet troupe was to continue on to London, he was being summoned back to Moscow.  The real reason is unclear but his arrogant disdain for company regulations certainly played a part.  The request was enough to send him into hysterics.  The defection is a seemingly impulsive decision that makes perfect sense.  If only it didn’t take so long to get there.  At 127 minutes, the film’s distended length doesn’t do its subject any favors.  Some thoughtful editing would improve the drama immeasurably.  Chop 20 minutes out and just get to the “pointe”.

05-16-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

Greta

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

greta_ver2STARS3Neil Jordan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated directors.  He’s the auteur known for helming Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair.  All the aforementioned received widespread critical acclaim.  He actually won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (The Crying Game).  He’s talented to be sure.  However there’s also the director who has directed High Spirits, We’re No Angels and In Dreams, less enthusiastically received pictures of questionable artistic merit.  That’s the director that showed up to direct Greta.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a naive ingenue.  How innocent?  Well, she finds an unattended handbag on a New York subway and proceeds to take the item into her possession.  She means well, she only wants to find its rightful owner.  I don’t know about you, but an abandoned bag in a New York subway screams bomb threat to me in this post 9/11 world, but OK, I’ll accept her lack of judgment.  When she returns the purse she meets one Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a lonely widow who teaches the piano.  Now if art-house thrillers like The Piano Teacher and Elle have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with Isabelle Huppert.  Here the French actress trades on that persona by playing a seemingly kind woman.  Greta reminds Frances of her own recently departed mother. They strike up a rapport.  The female bonding that evolves is not unlike any number of Lifetime movies that center on female friendships. Unfortunately, Greta is not all that she seems.

Stalker movies are the genre that won’t go away.  Narratives about an unhealthy obsession include exemplars like Fatal Attraction, One Hour Photo, Notes on a Scandal and The Gift.  We seem to be drawn to these tales.  The 1990s were a halcyon decade for of the genre.  1992, in particular, was a banner year producing Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The Bodyguard.  Greta could have been a Hitchcockian thriller.   It’s not.  However, it’s still an entertaining throwback to those trashy, classics of yore.  In fact, the story construction is even simpler.  The plot is ridiculously paper thin.

Frances and Greta form this pseudo mother-daughter bond.  Frances lives in a gorgeous loft with her wealthy roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), a brash party girl.  The much shrewder Erica is suspicious of this relationship right from the get-go.   Sure enough, Frances makes a discovery early on that signals Greta isn’t all that she appears to be.  Rather than gradually enter the realm of speculation, the tale simply flips the crazy switch.  The screenplay co-written by Ray Wright (Case 39, The Crazies) and director Neil Jordan has no time for deep character development or motivation.  “My friends say I’m like chewing gum,” Frances initially informs Greta.  “I tend to stick around.”  The silly dialogue kept me amused, but a scene where Huppert spits an actual piece of gum into Chloë Grace Moretz’s hair made me laugh out loud.  Frances is promptly freaked out and Greta grows instantly clingy.  It’s as if 20-30 minutes of the film is missing.  Rarely have I seen such a stately composition go off the rails so quickly.  From then on, it’s a battle of wills as Greta’s increasingly unhinged behavior escalates.

Greta is a tawdry production.  Neill Jordan isn’t above resorting to nauseating visuals for the sake of cheap gore.  A rolling pin and a cookie cutter are utilized as lethal weapons.  This is followed by the use of a hypodermic syringe in an unsettling image I cannot shake, no matter how hard I try.  Then again, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  There’s an element of exuberant glee to the proceedings.  Huppert’s acting prowess is captivating.  The Oscar-nominated actress is so winking, so obviously aware that the script is beneath her, that she digs in with all fours.  If she played it more serious, the mood wouldn’t have been as fun.  She exhibits a maniacal delight that is equally charismatic and frightening.  A table-flip in a crowded restaurant shows a complete lack of restraint.  The events are beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina).  Never underestimate the power of exquisite cinematography.  Meanwhile, Frances appears to be overreacting to such a degree that she doesn’t elicit our sympathy.  After a while, you sort of enjoy her unraveling demeanor.  It’s rare that we should root for the villain in a stalker film.  The campy theatrics are wholeheartedly a plus.  Isabelle Huppert gives life to an otherwise slight drama.

02-28-19

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Drama, Shorts with tags on February 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

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

Live-Action

The Shorts (live-action and documentary specifically) have a reputation for presenting only the most depressing subjects for public consumption.  I’m sorry to say this year is no exception.

The unintended theme is “boys in peril”.  Marguerite is the sole nonconformist.  As my friend Jonathan Van Dyke observed – you’re likely to need a therapist after watching all of these bleak nominees.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst.

 

SKIN
USA/20MINS/2018
Director: GUY NATTIV
skin
This allegorical drama of just desserts plays out like a 1960’s Twilight Zone episode.  The film’s overall subject is the oft detailed theme of racism.  However, this tale is unique in that you initially meet the child’s father through his supportive eyes.  He appears to be a warm and loving parent at first.  Then a fateful encounter reveals the man to have deep-seated personality flaws.  Tales of revenge are morally questionable but they can be cathartic too.  This particular saga is an efficiently told chronicle with an ultimate twist of comeuppance.

 

FAUVE
CANADA/16MINS/2018
Director: JEREMY COMTE
fauve-film-court-metrage-jeremy-comteRather disturbing tale of two boys’ (Félix Grenier and Alexandre Perreault) game of one-upmanship.  Their back and forth play culminates in a shocking event at an open pit mine.  The story ultimately devolves into terrorizing consequences.  It’s one of those portraits detailing behavior that critics conveniently describe as “toxic masculinity”. That assessment is far too facile.   There’s a lot more at work here that begs deep contemplation.   I was shook.

 

MARGUERITE
CANADA/19MINS/2017
Director: MARIANNE FARLEY
margauritte
This is the story of an aging woman who is being taken care of by a younger caregiver. Marguerite comes to learn that her female nurse, Rachel, has a girlfriend. This becomes a stepping off point for our lead to reflect on her life.  She too longs for a woman in her past.  This is a poignant tale.  Particularly interesting because it’s the only nominee that’s uplifting and diverges from the theme of “boys in peril” that defines every other nominee.   Perhaps that’s why pundits have picked this as the odds on favorite to win.

 

MADRE (MOTHER)
SPAIN/19MINS/2017
Director: RODRIGO SOROGOYEN
live_2
A parent’s worst nightmare. The story concerns Iván, Marta’s 7-year-old son, who calls his mother while vacationing at the beach with her ex-husband.  The entire drama takes place over the duration of one phone call, interrupted by a disconnection at one juncture.  We never see the little boy at the other end, but we do see the mother’s response.  Her terror as she comes to realize the intimate danger that her son faces is palpable.  Loses major points for having absolutely no resolution whatsoever.  This feels like a snippet taken out of context from a much longer horror film.  Frustratingly unfinished.

 

DETAINMENTT
IRELAND/30MINS/2018
Director: VINCENT LAMBE
06_B-2
Detainment is far and away the most controversial all the shorts nominees.  Inspired by the real-life Liverpool murder of James Bulger,  it concerns two boys who kidnapped, then subsequently tortured and killed a 2-year-old child in 1993.  The incident was so stomach churning that despite their young age, the assailants were tried and convicted as adults in the UK.  This particular nominee has attracted dubious attention because Denise Fergus, the actual mother of James Bulger, was “disgusted and upset” by this film.  She’s not wrong.   The narrative is tolerant of the antagonists since it is done from their perspective.  The account seeks to solicit sympathy.  The attackers break down and cry as they come to grips with the severity of what they did.  The short itself is not graphic, but if you’re acquainted with the substantive case, the sympathetic point of view to the aggressors’ situation is extremely unsettling.

02-16-19

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Shorts on February 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

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

Animation

Last year Dear Basketball – a fawning piece of hagiography that worshiped at the feet of Kobe Bryant – won.  Even my least favorite of this year is better than that egregious work as far as I’m concerned.  Regardless of who wins, we’re guaranteed to top last year in this category.   That’s good news!  Interestingly 4 of the 5 shorts this year explore the very the same theme: child/parent relationships.  That makes this lot feel kind of samey.  None of them are revolutionary,  but they all still offer modest delights.  I’m a little surprised that Bilby, a computer-animated short from DreamWorks Animation, didn’t garner a nomination.  It’s worth checking out.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst.  (They’re all enjoyable.)

 

BAOUSA/8MINS/2018
Director: DOMEE SHI
bao-rgb-s110_19c.pub16.172_wide-fac99c3e9c47382001ee1db485313d5fe8a4a35f-s800-c85 (1)
Pixar is on a roll.  They’ve received a nomination every year since 2015’s Sanjay’s Super Team. Their annual tradition continues with their first female-directed short.  This was originally shown right before Incredibles 2 so if you’ve seen at least one of these nominees, chances are it’s this one.  This is an amiable little delight that details a mother’s love for her son and her resulting feelings when he leaves home.  Back in June 2018 when I first saw it, I didn’t’ fully grasp the allegorical nature of this account, but over time it has gradually grown on me.  I now understand it as a depiction of “empty nest syndrome”.  Given it’s from Pixar, you already know it’s visually stunning.  Even comprehensive food research went into depicting the art of dumpling making.   My most treasured of the five nominees and also my pick for the likely winner.

 

WEEKENDS
USA/15MINS/2007
Director: TREVOR JIMENEZ
Weekends
The story of a little boy who must divide his time between his recently divorced parents. Weekdays are with mother in Ontario.  Weekends are with his father in Toronto.  Director Trevor Jimenez draws on his own childhood.  His unique take clearly has the authenticity of someone who has actually lived through this experience.  That’s not to say the other nominees don’t as well, but his approach to this subject is especially unique.  We get a really nice depth into the life of each parent.

 

LATE AFTERNOON
IRELAND/10MINS/2017
Director: LOUISE BAGNALL
Late
Profile of an elderly woman (voiced by actress Fionnula Flanagan) who copes with dementia.  There’s also room for the adult daughter that cares for her.  The production comes from Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon who brought us the feature films The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner.   All three are beautifully animated gems.  It’s a touching – if simplistic – portrait.   Memories of the past can often be recalled by way of their association to day-to-day occurrences in the present.  This chronicle has a moving conclusion.

 

ONE SMALL STEP
USA & CHINA/8MINS/2018
Directors: ANDREW CHESWORTH and BOBBY PONTILLAS
Srep
Produced by Taiko Studios, this is the story of a father and his daughter who longs to explore space by becoming an astronaut.  Little girl Luna and her loving father Chu have a close relationship that’s worth celebrating.   It’s a saccharine sweet connection for people who like extra syrup, powdered sugar and chocolate sprinkles with their pancakes.

 

ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR
CANADA/14MINS/2018
Directors: ALISON SNOWDEN and DAVID FINE
Animal
This was released in French as Zoothérapie and that’s actually a more clever title.  This is the only one not about children.   Interesting – albeit meandering – take on animals visiting the psychiatrist in a group therapy session.  They seek to rid themselves of innate behaviors that have become a problem in their lives.  For example, a praying mantis can’t keep a man because she eats her mates.  Some chuckle-worthy moments, but it drags after a while.  I suppose the underlying subtext is that we as humans are animals as well.

02-13-19

Cold War

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on January 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zimna_wojna_ver2STARS2.5Cold War is a clever title.  Yes, it clearly refers to a time period.  Pawel Pawlikowski’s love story begins in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  However, it could also refer to the chilly relationship at its center.  Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are musicians.  They meet in 1949.  Musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist holding auditions for a traditional folk song and dance troupe.  Music plays an important part in the lives of these entertainers and it often underscores the striking visuals.  Zula isn’t the best singer, but Wiktor is infatuated by the sultry blonde.  He hires her.  The impropriety of an older teacher lusting after his young student is a bit unsettling at first.  Those feelings are somewhat assuaged later when we learn that Zula isn’t the innocent that she appears to be either.  She’s not to be toyed with. There’s a rumor that she killed her father.

This isn’t a sentimentalized portrait but rather a tempestuous affair highlighted by bitter disagreements.  Neither character is what they seem.  As their connection deepens, their show becomes a hit and the state appropriates their production for propagandistic purposes with massive posters of Stalin behind them.  Unhappy with the turn of events, Wiktor and Zula make a pact to flee and reunite in West Berlin.  Then she inexplicably stands him up.  They will meet again but it’s years later.  Incredibly over an efficient 85 minutes, the picture chronicles 15 years of a relationship that traverses across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris.

This tale of star crossed lovers without children is fictionalized but director Pawel Pawlikowski’s based the pair on his own late parents.  His work has received many accolades.  His last feature, Ida, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.  So too has Cold War garnered Oscar nominations in 2019 — 3 to be exact: Foreign Language Film, Directing, and Cinematography.   In an interesting coincidence, it will compete against Alfonso Cuarón’s even more heavily nominated Roma, another black and white movie inspired by the director’s own life.

Cold War is indeed highlighted by stunning black and white camera work by Lukasz Zal. Curiously the format of the presentation is in a boxy 4:3 ratio.  I must assume that widescreen would have only enhanced the visuals.  Perhaps this decision was to recall the past and mimic the way Hollywood movies looked before 1953.  Despite the truncated image, it still looks enchanting.  Yet the rapport between these two enigmatic people is not.  Indeed this just might be the bleakest romance ever given a luminous facade by way of gorgeous black and white photography.  This is the profile of a stormy love.  The justification for the desire that keeps them returning to each other is wholly unexplained.  To make matters more bewildering, the motivations for certain behaviors is frustratingly vague.  For example, please witness a dreamy moment where the couple is lying together in a sunny meadow showing sweetness. Now during that very same scene, Zula suddenly admits to an act of betrayal.  Here and elsewhere, I felt nothing but apathy for these two.   Yes, the cinematography is absolutely captivating.  The on-again, off-again love story at the heart of the drama?  Eh not so much.

1-24-19