Archive for the Drama Category

Doctor Sleep

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2019 by Mark Hobin

doctor_sleep_ver2STARS3Doctor Sleep vacillates between trying to please two factions.  Some audiences will come for the adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel which the author wrote as a sequel to his 1977 bestseller The Shining.  Then there are the fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie that arguably has an even more devoted following.  King himself was famously not a fan of Kubrick’s vision.  The now-classic was a gorgeous evocation of horror that relied on visual imagery, not on detailed explanations.  Conversely, Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) has directed an account that offers a lot of exposition for people hungry for answers.  This chronicle is more plot-driven with lots of folklore to deepen your understanding of what “shining” is.  Doctor Sleep tries to schizophrenically appease both camps.

The story concerns Danny Torrance, now Dan, (Ewan McGregor), best remembered as the little clairvoyant son of his mad father, Jack.  He has become an alcoholic, desperate to forget the events at the Overlook hotel.  He comforts the terminally ill while working at a hospice where the patients give him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”.  He meets another psychic, a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and they band together to fight a malevolent clan called the True Knot.  The group is killing children with special powers and feeding off the steam that they emit.  It’s just as gruesome as it sounds and there’s one death in particular (Jacob Tremblay) that is extremely hard to watch.  I suspect the methodical depiction of what befalls him could be a deal-breaker for some people.  A couple of other individuals with close relationships will be introduced and then summarily killed off as well.  The tale has an uncomfortable disregard for the lives of characters whose deaths should mean more than just another offhand development.

This presentation is largely missing the stately grandeur of its precursor.  So in that respect, it will not appease the die-hards of Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric reworking.  However, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who thought Kubrick’s version should’ve adhered closer to King’s original text.  If you crave exposition and plot, this is the production for you.  It’s a convoluted follow-up that attempts to give lots of unnecessary details about Dan’s extrasensory “shining” power.  The bulk of the narrative isn’t a continuation of the events from the first film but rather a saga about what Dan encounters after he grew up.   The focus is on his interactions with the True Knot, the aforementioned nomadic group of evil visionaries.  In that sense, Doctor Sleep becomes a superhero origin story of nefarious mutants with psychic powers and goofy names.  There’s Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken) and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), among others.

Doctor Sleep is a mixed bag.  It ultimately can’t escape the shadow of the 1980 film.  “This also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining,” director Mike Flanagan has said.  He leans heavily on imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation in several key scenes, particularly in the third act.  This might have been more thrilling if Steven Spielberg hadn’t already exploited the same iconography in 2018 with Ready Player One.  There are roughly 30 minutes of developments that include sets that tastefully recreate the Overlook Hotel.  Additionally, lookalike actors are cast playing the parts of Dan’s younger self (Roger Dale Floyd), his parents Wendy (Alex Essoe) and Jack (Henry Thomas) and Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) the cook.  When this appropriates the visuals of its predecessor, it can be distracting.  Also, at 2 and a half hours it’s far too long.  Nevertheless, this movie has some good points.  Chief among them is Rebecca Ferguson who is great as the central villain Rose the Hat.  True to her moniker, she wears a top hat and exudes this Stevie Nicks vibe of beautiful witchery.  She clearly enjoys the fun of being the baddie and its a compelling performance.  When Doctor Sleep isn’t overly wrapped up in mythology and explanation and simply focuses on the performances of the main characters, it can be fitfully entertaining.

11-07-19

Jojo Rabbit

Posted in Comedy, Drama, War with tags on November 11, 2019 by Mark Hobin

jojo_rabbit_ver2STARS4.5You wouldn’t think a comedy about a pro-Nazi boy that looks upon Adolph Hitler as a hero would be one of the most heartwarming movies of the year, but Jojo Rabbit has proven otherwise.  The inspiration for the adaptation is based upon the 2008 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.  Charlie Chaplin found humor in the Third Reich with The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks did the same with The Producers.  Now writer/director Taika Waititi just may have joined their ranks with equally successful results.  I loved this film and I’m happy to say it’s one of the very best of 2019.

Jojo Rabbit is the saga of a 10-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler.  People call him “Jojo”.  He lives in Nazi Germany during WW2 and he idolizes Adolf Hitler.  So much so that he has created an imaginary friend in him to whom he often speaks.  It’s a childlike interpretation that doesn’t fully comprehend the true nature of the dictator.  Coming to terms with that realization is the underlying basis of this drama.  It’s a comedy so the character of the Führer, played by the director, Taika Waititi, is a sillier, less serious version of him.  The filmmaker himself identifies as a Polynesian Jew so therein lies the subversive nature of this casting.

Jojo Rabbit is an affectionate account of a little boy who wants to be a part of something bigger than himself.  He attends a Hitler youth club that offers boys the validating camaraderie of a scout troop.  Meanwhile, the girls are taught the value of domestic servitude.  One day Jojo is tested on his commitment by his superior who commands him to kill a rabbit.  His inability to execute this task earns him his nickname.  Then after a grenade mishap, he is unable to continue to serve in the group.  Obviously, a child who idolizes Adolf Hitler would normally be a difficult personality to engage an audience’s sympathies.  Part of what sells the movie is the elemental compassion of young actor Roman Griffin Davis as the titular star.  He gives a brilliant performance that manages to make the character seem lovable and yet misguided.

The drama is highlighted by a stellar supporting cast.  First and foremost I must cite juvenile actor Archie Yates, the breakout star who plays Yorki, Jojo’s best friend. He’s an adorable scene stealer. Throughout the story, Jojo keeps a diary of his thoughts and we become aware of these reflections in a key scene when Jojo is confronted by an intimidating Gestapo agent played by Stephen Merchant (HBO’s Extras).  Merchant has never been more terrifying.  Jojo’s fanaticism is not shared by his single mother.  Rosie is lovingly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in a small but important role.  She must keep her anti-Nazi feelings under wraps for fear of reprisal.  Sam Rockwell is also memorable as the Hitler Youth leader Captain “K” Klenzendorf who trains boys to hunt and throw grenades.  One day Jojo meets Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teen.  Their developing relationship is captivating.

Truth be told, I was already predisposed to love this picture.  I am a fan of director Taika Waititi.  His off-kilter but thoughtful sensibilities agree with my own.   Waititi has demonstrated a whimsical flair for humor with a filmography composed of fastidiously produced productions that are obsessively meticulous with visual details.  These include What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  Taika Waititi’s painstaking aesthetic is often compared to the work of Wes Anderson.  Moonrise Kingdom is clearly an influence here because the Hitler youth rally here bears a striking similarity to the Khaki Scout summer camp.  However, Taika Waititi is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. He has been creating pictures like this since the very beginning with his debut feature Eagle vs Shark in 2007.  Waititi has a point of view uniquely his own.  His handling of this material deftly combines real genuine heartbreak with lighthearted glee in a film about Nazis. This is one of the most beautifully realized stories of the year.

People have labeled this as satire but that really isn’t correct.  It certainly is a farce about deadly serious things.  It’s clearly anti-Nazi and anti-hate but the filmmaker’s angle is much more open and straightforward without the latent snark and sarcasm that satire requires.  The movie actually succeeds because of that sincerity.  Jojo Rabbit is a tale about humanity that manages to be an affecting, funny, dramatic and poignant depiction.  I was completely overcome with emotion at one point.  The moment occurs when Jojo is tying someone’s shoes.  When you see the drama you’ll understand why that image is so heartbreaking.  I’ve enjoyed every single production that Taika Waititi has directed but this is possibly his greatest work.

11-01-19

Parasite

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Thriller with tags on October 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

parasite_ver2STARS4Over the past decade, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival hasn’t exactly set the U.S. box office on fire.  You have to go back to 2011 just to find a Palme d’Or winner that made over $10 million (The Tree of Life).  That low bar will most certainly be crushed this year by a South Korean entry that is arguably the festival’s most accessible winner since Pulp Fiction.  Internationally Parasite has become a box office sensation and it’s likely to become a U.S. success also.

The Kims are a South Korean family of four consisting of Dad Ki-taek ( Song Kang-ho ) mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik who was also in Okja) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam).  They’re very poor.  They live in a small dark underground apartment where stink bugs dwell and a local drunk frequently relieves himself within full view of their tiny window.  They have a tiresome job folding pizza boxes and they steal Wi-Fi from their neighbors.  Well, that is until the nearby residents change the password.

Their fortunes begin to change when a school chum of Ki-woo, recommends him as a substitute tutor for the high school daughter of the affluent Park household.  Ki-woo cons his way through the interview with fake teaching papers.  The mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) is impressed and soon he’s charmed Mrs. Park into hiring his sister Ki-jung as an art teacher for their little boy.  That’s merely the beginning.  One by one the rest of the Kim clan begins working for the well-to-do Park family who have no clue that each additional hire is actually related.  It’s a home invasion of sorts but one where the owners are willing — albeit duped — participants.

The first half is an outstanding account of carefully laid plans.  After an hour had passed, I was convinced this was going to be the best movie of the year.  The way the Kim household ever so slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of the Parks is fascinating to watch.  It happens coincidentally at first and then as each new family member is welcomed into the fold, the Kim’s methods become more and more aggressive.  Then the original housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) returns.   From that point on the developments are somewhat less, uh shall we say, systematic.  It’s important to pay attention to the little things the wealthy Parks say and do because they will have a profound effect on the struggling Kims — the father especially.  The sad sack dad Ki-taek is portrayed by actor Song Kang-ho who is a frequent collaborator in this director’s efforts.   He’s excellent in turning in a performance that is a gradually building focus of resentment.

Parasite is a genre-shifting tale from the mind of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho who mainstream audiences may know from The Host and Snowpiercer.  It has comedy, drama, thrills, and gore.  Put simply, it’s a dark comedy about classism.  He has dealt with these themes before.  Inequality amongst different classes was a major theme of the riveting Snowpiercer so it’s clearly a topic the director is particularly fond of.  There’s a reason for this.  In the past 50 years, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest societies in the world to becoming an advanced industrialized economy.  As a result, the wealth gap there has widened exponentially.  Class warfare proves to be a gripping subject complete with wild tonal shifts and abrupt story changes.  The various plot machinations that occur can feel a bit convoluted.  The way people behave isn’t always rational either.  Still, the events are so unpredictable that they seize our attention.  It’s intriguing to see what occurs next.   No specifics though.  I wouldn’t even think of spoiling them.  I will only assert that the metaphor of upstairs/downstairs class distinctions gets more heavy-handed and therefore less clever.

What else can I say?  I’m optimistic about the Oscar chances.  South Korea has never been nominated in the Foreign Language Film category, let alone for the highest honor, Best Picture.  For the first time, a submission has the potential to compete in both.  This is a production where the joy of where the narrative will go next means I can’t give any more details.  I will offer a random but humorous aside.  At one point the Kims return home. It has been raining non-stop and they come to find their apartment flooded with rain and sewage.  Their bathroom is essentially an open toilet inexplicably mounted on a high ledge with no door to separate it from the rest of the living room.  Parasite features the most disgusting commode I can remember in a movie since Trainspotting.

The Lighthouse

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror with tags on October 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lighthouse_ver2STARS3I loved director Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch back in 2015.  His follow-up really doubles down on the lo-fi art house pretensions of his directorial debut.  Not only is it shot in black and white but it also presents a 1.19:1 aspect ratio reducing the screen down to an almost perfect square.  Furthermore, it’s another period piece this time set more than 200 years later in 1850 and it relies on the dialect and colloquialisms of the era.  Eggers co-wrote the script along with his brother Max Eggers.  The screenplay was heavily influenced by the 19th-century writings of author Sarah Orne Jewett.  The thick drawl of the dialogue can get a bit impenetrable to our 21st-century ears.  Lastly, this two-hander stars current indie idol Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis, Good Time) as well as eccentric indie notable Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project, At Eternity’s Gate).  Each actor often gravitates toward inscrutable fare.  This film is a prime example.  As two bona fide movie stars should, they fully commit to their characters by bringing their A-game.   If nothing else, their performances are intense.  It’s still a challenging watch.

The Lighthouse has been described as psychological horror which is a nice description for a movie that traffics in an unsettling milieu without actually being scary.  On the surface, it’s a story about two co-workers forced to live together in a remote lighthouse on a tiny New England island.  They’re supposed to be there for four weeks until their replacements show up.  Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are roommates that don’t get along and their deteriorating relationship is the plot.  Thomas Wake is the old salt in charge and he makes life absolutely miserable for his young protege.  For the most part, the taciturn Winslow does what he is told.  The abusive Wake burdens Winslow with an inordinate amount of chores, forces him to drink, frequently passes gas and spends time with (ahem) himself.  Wake’s repulsive behavior offends Winslow.   Wake seems completely unstable — a taskmaster obsessed with power.  At one point Wake angrily demands that Winslow make the lighthouse “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker!”  The line reads as ridiculous as it sounds.  It was then that I realized I was watching a comedy albeit one inspired by the visual style of Sven Nykvist.

The pictorial tableau is crammed with haunting images.  They compel the viewer to remain riveted to the screen.  Indeed the cinematography is the most attractive feature of the spectacle.  Director of photography Jarin Blaschke makes bad things look beautiful. There’s a seductive mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), an impending storm, and claustrophobic quarters tainted by an unendurable stench.  Emptying a chamber pot filled with feces proves especially frustrating on a windy day.  Thank goodness this movie doesn’t utilize the 1960s innovation Smell-O-Vision because the odor would be intolerable.  The sound design is just as important as the visuals as a constantly blaring foghorn adds to the tension.  The spell of this film is to lull the audience into a state of unease and for a while, that’s enough.

The effect of extreme loneliness on the psyche is a theme.  As such, there’s a feeling that much of what we see isn’t real.  Are the consequences of their seclusion a product of their environment or the result of supernatural forces?  There is no definitive answer.  The film is playfully vague which cleverly provides a reason for people to discuss what is real and what is fantasy.  Oh did I mention that a bird steals the show?  Much as the goat Black Phillip in The Witch was an animal of malevolent evil, there’s a seagull here that traumatizes our protagonist.  I could have adored an entire conflict focused around him but alas our feathered friend is but a minor interlude.  The further along we go, the more we realize that the “story” is simply about creating a mood of despair.  Sticking the landing — so to speak — is so difficult in these productions high on atmospherics and low on substance.  That can be disheartening for people who crave a point – a final thought to think about as you leave the theater.  Sadly the narrative is “resolved” in a way that leaves even more doubt than resolution.  Admirers will defend, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” Fans and detractors alike should happily agree on this point.

10-22-19

Official Secrets

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on October 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

official_secretsSTARS3There have been many: Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Mark Whitacre, Linda Tripp, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden.  You may not know all their names, but what they did had a profound effect.  A whistleblower can change the course of history.  The current presidential administration is now dealing with one.  A C.I.A. officer has alleged Ukraine interference in the American elections.  No doubt that’s the topic of another production in the future.   Needless to say, the subject has never been more timely.

The tale of this film set in 2003 concerns British translator Katharine Gun who worked at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.  She comes across an e-mail directing the GCHQ to dig up dirt on members of the U.N. Security Council.  The information to be used as blackmail so as to encourage a positive vote approving the U.S. push for war against Iraq following 9/11.  I wasn’t familiar with her account.  That may have made this chronicle a more exciting experience for me.

Katherine leaks the memo and the drama hinges on whether this whistleblower is a hero or a traitor.  The main character is played by Keira Knightley so you can probably predict how the audience is supposed to feel about this woman.  As the events unfold her life becomes more and more fraught with turmoil.  These political thrillers can be very dry and this one is paced is like a police procedural.  It’s not flashy.  However, I’ve always found Keira to be a compelling actress so her predicament becomes quite interesting.   She brings an urgency to the role that makes the movie feel important.  I was indeed invested in the story of Katharine Gun.

09-24-19

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Judy

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music with tags on September 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

judy_ver2STARS4Oh sure there’s entertainers Judy Collins and Judy Holliday but a biopic simply called Judy would have to be about Judy Garland.  Any endeavor presenting an account of the stage, screen and television star has an awesome task set before them.  Judy, however, is narrowly focused in scope.   This is not a traditional biopic of an entire life in showbiz.  It’s a highly selective snapshot.  Judy is adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.   It chronicles her life in 1969 when she did a series of sold-out concerts at London nightclub The Talk of the Town.

This is not a happy tale.  These are the events that occurred during the last year of Judy’s life.  The drama presents the details of her existence at the time.  As such it is the profile of a career in decline.  She has no home, losing one hotel room due to nonpayment and checking into another one with kids Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd) in tow.  She accepts a gig for a 5 week run of shows in London so that she can afford to take care of her kids.  The irony is that by agreeing to the engagement she is physically unavailable to be with them.  And what about those concerts?  Well, depends on what night you showed up.  Sometimes she would come out and deliver that legendary magic in a stellar show greeted by thunderous applause.  Other times she wouldn’t take the stage at all, or if she did, perhaps she’d stumble out in a drunken stupor.

Judy is about one woman.  However, many other personalities affected her experiences.  Director Rupert Goold occasionally cuts to flashbacks of Judy’s childhood (portrayed by Darci Shaw) where we eavesdrop on her interactions with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).  These berating conversations on the set of The Wizard of Oz will foreshadow the insecurities of her adulthood.  There are some lighthearted moments too.  The most uplifting occurs in the present.  Garland runs into two fans named Dan and Stan, an older gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira.  They’re waiting to greet her outside when she leaves the nightclub where she’s performing.  Feeling lonely, she asks to join the stunned pair for dinner.  The characters may be fictional but the warmth of their interaction is genuine.  The film also stars Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft, her third marriage, Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli, Michael Gambon as theatrical manager Bernard Delfont, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant.  All of these individuals encompass the portrait of an artist but make no mistake, they are all in service to the tale of one superstar.

As a story, it’s sad and muted but as the presentation of a singing idol, it’s spectacular.  I admit I walked in rather skeptical but I walked out a believer.  Renée Zellweger channels Judy Garland in a way that is uncanny.  I still can’t believe this is the same actress that played Bridget Jones.  It is a transformative performance.  Renée embodies Judy’s vulnerability, insecurity, and sadness in a manner that is profoundly personal.  Zellweger famously starred in the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago so it shouldn’t be surprising that she actually sings here.  No, Renée doesn’t sound exactly like Judy but this was a period in the legend’s life (let’s be honest)  where she wasn’t at the top of her game.  Renée’s somewhat flawed vocals serve this production perfectly.  It’s hard not to consider the trajectory of Renée herself who received 3 Oscar nominations during the heyday of her career.  She won the award 15 years ago as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cold Mountain in 2004.  She hasn’t been nominated since.  That will undoubtedly change this year.

Renée captures Judy’s soul.  My favorite line is when Mickey Deans greets her at a party with a cocktail.  “You can’t have the world’s greatest entertainer out here without a drink,” he says to Garland.  “Oh Frank Sinatra’s here?” she coyly replies.  Renée Zellweger effortlessly delivers the quip with an impish twinkle but it’s an external facade that glosses over raw emotion deep within.  At best, Renée’s work here is her crowning achievement.  At the very least, her acting is a compelling reason to see this picture.

09-26-19

Ad Astra

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ad_astra_ver3STARS3Heaven knows there isn’t a shortage of movies that use outer space as a metaphor for depression.  That’s because the setting is an exquisite allegory for distance, loneliness and broken relationships.  2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, Moon, Interstellar, and First Man are just a few that exploited these feelings.  It’s impossible not to think of one of these chronicles set amongst the stars when watching this picture.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Ad Astra – Latin for “to the stars” – is part of a hallowed and timeworn tradition.

Our saga concerns Brad Pitt who plays Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with tracking down his father.   Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rebel astronaut who has gone missing for years in the outer reaches of the solar system.   The plot actually evokes a literary classic that has nothing to do with deep space.  A man on a meandering quest to find his symbolic “Kurtz” figure is pure Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by Joseph Conrad which also inspired Apocalypse Now.  McBride must unravel the mystery of recent catastrophic power surges that threaten the very future of the entire planet.  Needless to say, the stakes are high.  The story begins as a thinking man’s exploration of the cosmos.  Although the tale of a son that harbors deeply buried abandonment issues against his dad slowly becomes the focus.  The father complex can get a bit tedious.  Roy McBride seems to be pretty cool and collected at first.  His pulse rate never accelerates.  As the possibility that Clifford might still be alive, the man’s placid exterior begins to crumble.  I greeted this turn of events like the psychoanalysis from a dime-store therapist.  An unhealthy parental relationship is the root of his emotional problems.  I tried hard not to roll my eyes too far in the back of my head for fear I would miss a dazzling set-piece.  Ad Astra presents these conventional ideas with stunning cinematography.

This is a gorgeously photographed production that demands to be seen on a wide screen.  Writer-director James Gray is known for his portraits of families in crisis (The Yards, We Own the Night) and this narrative also fits within those descriptive confines.  However, this is the first time he’s ever worked with an $80 million budget.  Gray makes excellent use of the increased funds.  An electrical surge causes the International Space Antenna to go haywire.  Roy falls to earth and I gasped at the spectacle.  A lunar buggy chase on the unsettled areas of the moon, where our hero and his men are pursued by pirates, is spectacularly thrilling.  This is the near future and such things are to be expected.  Later, against Roy McBride’s protestations,  the team answers a mayday call.   The discovery aboard the foreign rocket ship contains a surprise that is scarier than anything I saw in the recent horror IT Chapter Two.  These are the moments I remember the most.  Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

Ad Astra is content to luxuriate within the contemplative mood of an introspective study of a man who misses his daddy.  Why oh why did father prefer searching for extraterrestrial life out in the galaxy when he had life right here on earth that loved him?  That is the central dilemma.  The elegant presentation is somewhat undone by intrusive and excessive narration by Brad Pitt’s character.  His reflections are extraneous expository thoughts.   The vocalized inner monologue comes across as self-indulgent.   This is not a device that elevates our enjoyment.  It might have helped if there were other significant personalities to share the load of the drama.  Both Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga pop up briefly but each of their appearances are incidental in nature.  Liv Tyler as “the wife” has minimal dialogue.   I’d say she gets roughly five lines in total and that’s a charitable estimate.   Eve McBride is more of a symbol than an actual role.  This is clearly the Brad Pitt show.  He is indeed good and so are the visuals.  It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but overall the visual extravaganza won out over the stuffy sections.  One day someone will revolutionize storytelling and make a film where the beauty of the cosmos is a metaphor for a happy and well-adjusted life.  Until, then, there’s Ad Astra.

09-19-19

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Brittany Runs a Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08-29-19