Archive for the Drama Category

Sorry to Bother You

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 12, 2018 by Mark Hobin

sorry_to_bother_youSTARS4An unemployed man (Lakeith Stanfield) in his twenties is existing in an alternate reality version of modern-day Oakland, California. He’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and is 4 months behind in the rent His name is Cassius Green and the similarity of that moniker to “cash green” is intentionally ironic I’m sure. He simply wants a job. There’s an opportunity to be a telemarketer with a company called RegalView. He’s even gone so far as to bring a fake “Employee of the Month” plaque that he made himself to the job interview. The interviewer (Robert Longstreet) sees through the facade but hires him anyway because he appreciates the initiative it took to do such a thing. After he’s hired, the manager tells him to “Stick to the Script” or “S.T.T.S.” and amusingly pronounces it as if it’s an acronym. The movie’s title refers to his first line of rehearsed patter. Cassius’ happiness at attaining a job turns to despair however when he realizes how difficult it is to finish his marketing spiel before a potential client hangs up on him. Director Boots Riley has a creative spirit and this cleverness informs the entire film. These interactions are presented with his desk crashing through the floor into the homes of various people he’s calling. It was at this moment I was ready to accept whatever the filmmaker would be throwing down. And let me tell you, he assaults us with a bizarro world of absurdity.

The presentation of Cassius’ mundane workaday milieu will ring true for anyone who has ever held a job they really didn’t enjoy. I would suspect that is pretty much everyone and if that doesn’t describe you, then count your blessings. RegalView is a depressing work environment based in a dingy basement of cubicles surrounded by drab white walls. Things change however when he meets black co-worker Langston (Danny Glover). The aged associate advises him to use his “white voice” which is actually the dubbed delivery of actor David Cross. The incongruity of hearing that nasal tone coming out of the man’s body is perhaps a simple joy but it’s supremely funny nevertheless. Suddenly Cassius’ success rate with clients drastically improves.  One quibble.  Why Langston wasn’t successful at doing the exact same thing is never explained. However, we will soon discover that’s far from the most baffling enigma in this story.  Cassius gains the attention of his superiors who want to promote him up to the high-rise offices as a hallowed Power Caller.

Sorry to Bother You is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. His girlfriend is Detroit, an alternative artist played Tessa Thompson. Her comically oversized earrings displaying messages are a running gag throughout the picture. Unfortunately, her radical performance art, supposedly designed to “take down the system”, was completely lost on me.  How does getting pelted with water balloons filled with sheep’s blood make a point? She also condemns Cassius for affecting a false persona that she too is guilty of as well. I wanted her to acknowledge her own hypocrisy.  She doesn’t.  Back in the business realm, low-level supervisor Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) is an absolute hoot. Her surname looks like “debauchery”.  “It’s pronounced DE-bau-sher-AY” she corrects. To physically get him to those high rise offices she must enter a code into the elevator buttons that look like a touch tone phone pad. The joke is extended for such a long time that it actually goes from tiresome to genius. When he gets to his new employment digs he meets Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick) replete with an eye patch and bowler hat. He’s a black man with his own “white voice” (Patton Oswalt) that’s sort of a bridge between Cassius and the chief executive.  Cassius ultimately meets the shadowy business mogul Steve Lift played by Armie Hammer. Steve is the coke-snorting C.E.O. of a morally corrupt corporation named WorryFree.  His company is liable for questionable business practices although “questionable” doesn’t even begin to describe what they do.  I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.  As a symbol of the establishment, he is the very definition of “The Man”. This all happens at the very same time that Cassius’ peers, which include buddy Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and led by colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun), are inciting to strike due to poor working conditions.  Does he align with his oppressed workers or assimilate into the mainstream corporate world? The drama is successful at presenting this as a conundrum to be sure, but you don’t even know the half of it.  Things get decidedly weirder after that. The political focus spins wildly out of control along with the plot developments.

This is director Boots Riley’s first feature. I predict this will change, but heretofore he’s been best known as the frontman of a radical hip-hop group known as The Coup. Their politically charged songs center around race, class, capitalism, police brutality, the proletariat, and other issues. Those topics inform the group’s biting social commentary. That point of view gently infiltrates the film’s very funny outlook but it doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the insanity that follows. The screenplay satirizes social media, race, class, poverty, television, and rap music in brilliant ways that often have different interpretations. The production is so adventurous and so gloriously bizarre that it won me over. Sorry to Bother You is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen and yet If I had to draw analogies, I could say the work of Mike Judge is a close parallel.  I found elements of both Office Space and Idiocracy in its targets. There’s also the loopiness of Michel Gondry, who is indirectly name-dropped in an absolutely disturbing claymation video. There’s an off-kilter sensibility that influences the narrative that makes this instantly feel like a cult classic that should play at midnight screenings. Despite a chaotic fantasy that careens wildly from political satire into science fiction, this movie remains fun and witty in a lively way that boldly announces its presence. Its freewheeling bonkers mentality is simply too audacious to ignore.

07-06-18

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2STARS3.5Back in 2015, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s lesser offerings in their seemingly never-ending blitz of superhero movies. After Avengers: Age of Ultron of that year, it sorta felt like the cheese course following the main entree. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp functions in very much the same way. At the beginning of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War was a game-changing adventure in the ongoing epic of these champions of justice. Comparatively this agreeable little interlude feels like a dessert. I like dessert. Dessert is sweet and delicious. It’s just that this is like a yogurt parfait and I was craving a baked New York–style cheesecake.

Given the lighthearted atmosphere, the narrative is curiously overcrowded with a massive ensemble of characters. Scott Lang, better known as Ant-Man, has been under house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords by working with Captain America. His home is now a veritable playground so he can entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) when she visits. She’s dropped off by his ex-wife (Judy Greer ) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). The proper story begins when Scott has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, still trapped in the quantum realm. Apparently, the two of them are quantumly entangled after Scott visited the quantum dimension when he went subatomic in the last film. Get used to hearing the word “quantum” a lot in this movie. The screenplay even makes a joke about this. “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang asks.

Scott’s ability to return from the quantum realm is noteworthy. This compels him to contact Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hope shows up, wisely ditching that severe black bob for a much more-practical-for-fighting ponytail. Extracting Janet from the quantum field is the ostensible point of this picture. That’s it. Coming after Infinity War where half of humanity was in danger, the uncommonly low stakes are refreshingly simple here. They all join forces with the help of Ant-Man’s X-Con Security crew Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Luis secures the hilarious high point of the picture during an interrogation scene when he reveals Scott’s location after being injected with truth serum. It’s unquestionably amusing (again) but since we got this same exact joke in the last Ant-Man the charm is somewhat lessened this time around.  The elder Hank must reluctantly seek the help of former friend and partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Incidentally, despite the buoyant tone, Hank affects such a grim, humorless personality, that it feels as if the actual actor, Michael Douglas, is supremely unhappy to be in this movie.

Surprisingly, the narrative never becomes too convoluted despite the sheer number of actors involved in this plot.  Scott, Hope, and Hank are all confronted by a cadre of corrupt people who impede their progress. There’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), also known as Ava Starr.  She has the ability to move through solid matter but has difficulty stabilizing herself.  She requires Janet’s quantum energy at all costs — even if it means Ghost needs to kill her.  There’s a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on Hank’s lab.   Also added to the mix is FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) whose job it is to monitor Scott Lang should he try to break free from the house arrest of his home. He’s also after Hank and Hope as well. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is a college professor and former associate of Hank’s. He shows up too, although I’ll keep his nefarious associations a secret.

This is a stridently pleasant production. The drama along with the assorted villains unfold under a mishmash of silly antics. That means we are presented with less crucial stakes but lots of upbeat humor and a jovial mood. This is an innocuous film about simple pleasures.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching things enlarge and then quickly shrink down. Tiny cars zipping around the streets of San Francisco or watching Hank’s gigantic lab reduced to a rolling suitcase never gets old.  Ant-Man and the Wasp essentially takes what made the original good and fine tunes it to make it a little bit better.  Yes, this is an improvement over the 2015 entry, but it’s still the B side throwaway ditty to the A-side single. This isn’t a story so much as a framework on which to hang a disposable tale with affable gags.  I remember the frivolous jokes.  The plot machinations, not so much.  Honestly, I had to take to the internet to remind me of the details of this saga.  The specific components fade from memory but I remembered the comedy.  Hey, this is a very funny movie.

07-05-18

Hearts Beat Loud

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on June 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hearts_beat_loudSTARS3I really enjoy movies about music. Specifically, stories that detail the creative process involved in the composition of great songs. I adored last year’s Patti Cake$. The indie drama was merely the most recent example in a long illustrious tradition. I’m talking about pictures like The Commitments (1991), That Thing You Do! (1996), 8 Mile (2002), School of Rock (2003), Music and Lyrics (2007), and Crazy Heart (2009). Special commendation goes to director John Carney. He’s a master. Once (2006), Begin Again (2013) and Sing Street (2016) were all shining examples of the genre. Each one ranked among my favorites in their respective year. I could go on and on. I was primed to love Hearts Beat Loud. While it may not rank up there with the very best, it’s certainly a delightful little film.

Frank is the owner of Red Hook Records in Brooklyn, New York. The store is on the verge of closing up shop for good. He’s a widower whose daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is getting ready to attend school as a pre-med student at UCLA.  They’re both musicians. He’s a guitarist. She’s a keyboardist with a mellifluous voice.  Mom was a singer too actually.  Frank was in a band with his wife but she died in a bike accident when Sam was much younger. Sam actually appears to be the more responsible of the two. She is focused on her studies while her father wants to have fun creating tunes. That he is going to miss his daughter when she goes away to school is emphasized to the nth degree. “We’re not a band!” she exclaims.  Frank winkingly uses that declaration as their band’s moniker. Unbeknownst to her, he uploads their musical collaboration to Spotify, the music streaming service.   The humor remains light and modest.   There’s a really poignant quality in their bond that never resorts to schmaltz.  At times the script emphasizes a mildly acerbic quality to their exchanges.  In fact, Frank comes across as pretty stoic. Maybe it’s because his facial expressions are hidden behind that massive salt and pepper beard of his. There are also some really nice tunes that are beautifully highlighted throughout. It culminates with an impromptu concert at Frank’s record boutique.

Hearts Beat Loud is appropriately named. This is about love whether it be among family, friends or that special someone. There’s a little bit of all three. The drama is dressed up with interesting personalities. Director Brett Haley’s recent prolific output has made him a darling of the Sundance Film Festival. The director has premiered three features there in the past four years.  Haley reunites with Nick Offerman and Blythe Danner who have each acted separately in different movies of his. I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015) featured Blythe Danner as the star. She makes a quirky appearance as Sam’s grandmother here. Offerman played a supporting role in Haley’s The Hero (2017). Other key portrayals include Toni Collette as the really cool landlord of Frank’s music store. It’s always a pleasure to see the actress but I wish she had been given more to do here.  Actress Sasha Lane (American Honey) is Rose, Sam’s love interest and Ted Danson appears as — what else? — a bartender.

Hearts Beat Loud is a heartwarming story about a family’s ties to music. What really elevates the dialogue is the chemistry between Nick Offerman as the father and Kiersey Clemmons as his daughter. Frank and Sam write songs together and that development is a delight to watch. As the artistic process comes together we hear the end product. There’s a nice collection of little ditties by composer Keegan DeWitt that captivate the ear.  The fast version of the title track is probably my favorite. There’s also a ballad version. “Everything Must Go” and “Blink (One Million Miles)” are memorable as well. While agreeable, this crowd-pleasing account is not going to have any lasting impact on your life.  The screenplay by Brett Haley and Marc Basch almost redefines how slight a drama can actually be. All excitement is essentially derived from the sincerity of the performances. Frank seems genuinely impressed by his daughter’s talents. He positively beams with pride. I got a little emotionally choked up with their relationship. Any film that can do that in an efficient 97 minutes gets a stamp of approval from me.

06-24-18

Hereditary

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on June 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hereditary_ver2STARS3.5Horror is a genre in which many entries rely so heavily on blood and gore for thrills, that when a story is varnished in a veneer of class and sophistication it appears almost revolutionary.  Hereditary opens with a tracking shot of a dollhouse from far away. As the camera pans in closer it centers on a bedroom where the father (Gabriel Byrne) enters bringing a blazer for his sleeping son (Alex Wolff) to wear at his grandmother’s funeral. It’s a bewitching introduction because it conveys so much.  Mother Annie (Toni Collette) makes miniatures, small-scale versions of things influenced by her own life. That’s merely one reason why the beginning is so apropos. This production is highlighted by sleek cinematography, atmospheric music, and good performances. One is truly great. I’m talking Oscar nomination. More on that in a moment. But strip away all the stylish flourishes and you’re left with a screenplay that seems like it was cobbled together after a night of watching Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and the 1976 composite they inspired: The Omen.

I mean if you’re going to steal, might as well rob from the best right? Hereditary is a very effective flick. It’s just that any horror aesthete even mildly versed in the classics of the medium is going to find this drama a bit reductive. Annie and her husband Steve have two children, Peter and their 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). They’re attending the funeral of Annie’s mother, Ellen. There’s a bit of foreshadowing that bad things are afoot. We learn that Annie and Ellen had an estranged relationship, the family suffers from mental illness and little Charlie attends special education classes. A pigeon dies after flying into her classroom window with a “sudden loud bang” designed to startle the audience as well as the students.  We later see Charlie on the playground pocketing the head of that lifeless bird after she has removed it with a pair of scissors. That’s pretty freaky, right?  It’s only the first beheading we’ll see. I used to think the decapitation scene in The Omen was pretty dreadful, especially for its time, but this film actually tops it for sheer shock value.

Hereditary is so impressive in producing fear that it deserves to be raised up as a new touchstone. Much of the credit goes to Toni Collette in a portrayal that is certain to remain among the very best of the year. She is a mother shaken to her very core by the events around her. It is a flawless achievement so raw and unhinged that I literally started to tear up at her desperate pleas in the climax. It would seem the role is custom made for her.  Collette famously played the mother of a child that “sees dead people” in one of the most successful horror films of all time (The Sixth Sense). She is so memorable that it stands out even among the other remarkable performances.  Actors Alex Wolff as her teen son and Milly Shapiro as her little daughter are convincing in exhibiting the undoing of their characters as well.  Ann Dowd is an upbeat presence as Joan, a chatty friend Annie meets in a support group for the bereaved.  Hereditary is an emotionally compelling experience. The feature from writer/director Ari Aster is a notable debut. He proves he can creatively mold cinematic influences into an entertaining movie. Looking forward to his next production that hopefully charts a more innovative course.

06-14-18

Incredibles 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Drama, Superhero with tags on June 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

incredibles_two_ver11STARS4As far as this animation fan is concerned, The Incredibles is still the greatest Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made as well. I mention this because it helps to appreciate my mindset as I entered the theater to watch Incredibles 2. This was 14 years in the making. I had high expectations and I greeted this sequel with breathless anticipation. Did it deliver?

In a word, yes. It’s an absolute joy. The kid in me was delighted. It’s entertaining and colorful and funny and all the things that a good feature should be. The action embodies the peaks of Whiz! Bang! Pow! spectacle. The score by returning composer Michael Giacchino is profoundly compelling. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a good film. That’s everyone obviously. However, and this is why I opened my review with where my head was at, this doesn’t even come close to the heartfelt emotion of the previous story. Part of that lies in the inherent qualities of original vs. sequel. The first was blessed with the grace of purity. The Parr family was realizing their abilities right before our eyes and the mere exploration of that was a simple pleasure. In a follow-up, that novelty is gone. Now there is an expectation to expand upon the world and deepen our understanding.

As such, this is a more complicated production. The chronicle picks up where The Incredibles ended. After failing to stop the Underminer from robbing the bank with his massive drill, the authorities are worried. The destruction caused to the city has forced the Incredibles and other “supers” to retire from duty for the moment. I initially thought of the Sokovia Accords that regulated superhero powers in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Although Pixar was first. The theme of assimilating powerful individuals into normal society was present in the studio’s 2004 entry as well.  Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who leads DEVTECH, a telecommunications company, with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  She is voiced with the world-weary sarcastic knowingness of Catherine Keener sporting a cartoon face that looks hyperrealistic — especially when compared to her brother’s ridiculously long face.  Winston is a fan and wishes to reignite public support for “supers”.  Since Winston deems Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the least destructive, he advises her to fight crime as part of a publicity stunt.  It is during this period we are introduced to a new villain, Screenslaver, a baddie who hijacks screens by flashing hypnotic images that brainwash civilians.

With Elastigirl out fighting crime, the adventure reverses the traditional gender roles of mom and dad.  Thanks to DEVTECH corporation’s plan, Elastigirl is now the public face of superheroes while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) stays home to take care of the kids. It’s not easy for him.  We’re so far past thinking this notion is a revolutionary concept that it’s positively quaint when the screenplay presents the idea as if it’s treading new ground. Look! Women can go to work.  Men can take care of their own children.  The basis for the plot is positively retro like a sitcom still firmly rooted in another era.  Even the obstacles with which Mr. Incredible must contend while being a stay-at-home dad seem like issues out of the past. While assisting his son with his arithmetic, he exasperatedly exclaims in frustration “This is Math! Why would they change Math?” There’s even a part where the Incredibles are given a space aged home filled with technological advances. I was reminded of the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled with similar issues.

I’m nitpicking mind you. Despite its inferiority to the original, Incredibles 2 is still the second best “Part 2” that Pixar has ever put out. The best sequel being Toy Story 2. We love this family. Their wholesome relationship is just as captivating as before. Older sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) and her brother Dash (Huck Milner) complete the family dynamic.  Bob’s best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back too.  Fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) is wisely inserted into the drama again but she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The revelation of each unique personality is gone, but it’s nice to see everyone return nonetheless.

The character that really gets his due is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The baby has an entire cadre of various superhero powers and much of the fun/laughs is discovering what this tiny tot will do next. His fight with a raccoon is a specular tableau, one of several in this film.  Writer/ director Brad Bird really knows how to frame an action set piece and there are many to dazzle you here. Once again, an Incredibles film out marvels Marvel. Amazingly this particular one all takes place within the confines of the backyard of their home. It’s telling that simplicity is its strongest asset. It’s that restraint that is missing from a somewhat more cluttered narrative.  The motivation for the villain is a bit convoluted too.  This doesn’t achieve the sheer feeling of Pixar’s very best works.  Instead, I will remember Incredibles 2 mainly for the spectacular action, music and style….but oh what style!

06-14-18

Beast

Posted in Drama, Romance, Thriller with tags on June 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beast_ver4STARS4Beast is a hard movie to characterize. Pundits often label this as a psychological thriller. I suppose the designation works because the account deals with the emotional state of a person. Yet it really doesn’t adequately embody the gorgeous mood of the film. That’s what makes this picture so affecting. Let’s call it an atmospheric thriller. One might even say dreamy. This is a character-based drama about two people who need each other. Although this is not your conventional love affair. There are elements to the romance that might make this seem like more of a horror flick. It’s those conflicting dichotomies that make this feature so enthralling.

Beast is about a repressed 27-year-old woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley). She lives on Jersey.  Not the U.S. State — the UK location.  The Bailiwick of Jersey is the largest island in the English Channel. Moll works as a tour guide and lives with her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James). Her family is celebrating Moll’s birthday but she’s not having a very good time. It’s meant to be her day, but her older sister (Shannon Tarbet) steals her thunder by announcing that she’s having twins. Mother’s demand that Moll fetch champagne for the guests is the last straw.  Frustrated, Moll leaves her own party. She goes to the local watering hole and dances the night away. She later absconds to an isolated area with a guy she meets at the club. Their date grows sinister when his flirtation becomes increasingly hostile. Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who happens to be illegally hunting game in the area, rescues her from the scoundrel. The only problem is there’s been a rash of murders in the area and her “savior” appears to be a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

Beast is the debut feature from British director Michael Pearce who also wrote the script. It had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Platform Prize (Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country won). It was released in May with a limited run in U.S. theaters to critical acclaim.  Peace was born on the island of Jersey so he obviously has an affinity for this location. The events were inspired by the real-life case of a serial attacker known as the “Beast of Jersey” back in the 1960s. The setting is an asset because the remote location gives the production a timeless feel. It seems almost otherworldly. The sumptuous cinematography from Benjamin Kracun helps to heighten the mood. The movie kind of burrows its way into your consciousness. Moll and Pascal’s love is a slowly mounting anxiety that creeps up on you. These two have incredible chemistry.

You’d think the suspense in knowing whether “is he or isn’t he the killer?” would propel the narrative but actually it’s the relationship between Moll and Pascal. Moll projects a spirited intensity that has finally been allowed to breathe after years of oppression. Although a fresh-faced innocent, she doesn’t look like your classic ingenue. Her fiery ringlets of red hair are enough to separate her from the cookie cutter naïfs we typically see in romantic dramas.  It’s easy to see why Moll is drawn to Pascal. He exudes kind of a rakish charm suggesting a more working class Ryan Gosling. He represents a way out from under the oppressive rule of her domineering mother. She rules over her behavior with a passive-aggressive stance. Although Moll expresses regret when she inspires her mother’s ire, you can tell she resents her dominant posture. Her mother’s dislike of Pascal is clearly a plus in Moll’s eyes. Moll and Pascal form a dynamic duo with a charismatic fervor that only the coldest of hearts could ignore. The production is extremely well crafted. That makes the crushing feeling you have when you exit the theater such a heartbreak. The chronicle culminates in a denouement in which the tension just drains away from the picture. The resolution is seriously flawed, but that’s a discussion for people who have seen the movie. Until that point, however, Beast creates a hypnotic experience and that is something to treasure.

05-31-18

Ocean’s 8

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Thriller on June 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

oceans_eight_ver2STARS3.5It’s very easy to roll your eyes when Hollywood decides to take a tried and true movie series and simply tweak the formula in some cosmetic way to make it seem different for a new generation. i.e. “It’s ________ but now with women!” Back in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise famously retooled the recipe with a cast of female comedians. This sparked a much-publicized outrage amongst Internet fanboys. Nevertheless, it was still a modest summer hit in the U.S. Although it wouldn’t have recouped its massive production costs without the benefit of the foreign market. Now Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy gets the gender flip treatment.  I’m happy to report the results are a frothy delight. It’s lighthearted, breezy and effortless.

To be fair, Ocean’s Eleven is merely a blueprint onto which you can tell any heist tale. Here Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s now deceased character. There’s that connective story DNA. Cameos by Elliott Gould and Shaobo Qinbut try to link the series together but they don’t really add any substantive value to their adventure. The plot concerns Debbie Ocean, freshly released from prison for a fraud scheme. She immediately celebrates her freedom by shoplifting fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman within the first 15 minutes of the picture. So much for rehabilitation. In fact, she has been planning a jewelry heist while locked up for the past 5 years, 8 months and 12 days. Lou (Cate Blanchett,) is her confidant and best friend. Their witty exchanges suggest more than a hint of sexual tension between the two. Debbie enlists her help first.  Then Debbie mobilizes the assistance of a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson), a street hustler (Awkwafina), a computer hacker (Rihanna), and a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).  Each one ideally equipped with some special talent in lifting an item valued at $150 million.

Ah but what exactly is the MacGuffin in question? Why that would be the Jeanne Toussaint necklace created by Cartier. I was curious if this ridiculously expensive bauble was an authentic thing.  If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you’d want to know too.  It was created in 1931 for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, an Indian prince.  Since then, the necklace has been dismantled and the individual diamonds used in other pieces. However, the pendant did in fact once exist.  Cartier was hired to create a replica out of natural zirconium and white gold for the movie.  The prop is pretty valuable too, but at a value nowhere near the original obviously. Debbie Ocean wants to steal the treasure.  She insists on only hiring women because they are “invisible”. Then proceeds to plan a heist where the objet d’art will be worn by one of the guests at the annual Met Gala. Oh hell no! I thought.  That’s where the men in a sea of tuxedos are invisible.  The wearer of the adornment is Daphne Kluger, a self-centered celebrity wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway.  In a film stuffed with many charismatic entities, she arguably makes the biggest impression.  It is a fully aware performance that trades on the star’s real-world persona in such a knowing way, that it makes her acting achievement an absolute joy.

Ocean’s 8 succeeds best when it focuses on telling its own story.  People recognize the Ocean’s Eleven brand.  Marketing this as a spin-off is an easy way to sell this film to the public.  Yet Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable romp in its own right.  Honestly, this has less to do with the Soderbergh entries and more in common with other heist movies that feature women like Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Set It Off (1996). Setting the central heist at the Met Gala with its haute couture and luxurious trappings bathes the production in slick style.  The fundraising event is America’s most exclusive, elegant, star-studded party so the atmosphere is stylish and chic.  The stellar ensemble adds immeasurably to the sophisticated, high-class mood of the production.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t have the innovative instincts of Steven Soderbergh but he is a reliable director that knows how to relate an account in an efficient manner. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch.  It doesn’t reinvent the formula.  Nor does it provide much conflict. The women sail through this heist with the greatest of ease.  There’s hardly any struggle in the entire 110 minutes. But there’s something to be said for a fizzy comedy in the early summer months that doesn’t tax your brain. It’s free-spirited fun, has ample charisma from an impressive cast and you’ll have a chuckle or two before it’s all over.  I left the theater in an upbeat mood and that garners a solid recommendation in my book.

06-07-18

First Reformed

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_reformed (1)STARS2Filmmaker Paul Schrader has long been fascinated with characters hell-bent on a self-destructive path. Time and again whether it be the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his own directorial works like American Gigolo, Hardcore, or Affliction, difficult themes infect his work. In a nutshell, First Reformed is the chronicle of a religious man’s crisis of faith. Yet the narrative covers a lot more than that as Schrader endeavors to explore religion, spirituality and one’s existence beyond the physical body. Oh yes, there’s a flying sequence over mountains and stars and a whole lot more in one of the few cinematographic moments contained within that does not rely on a static shot. A cinephile, Paul Schrader has long cited the work of the great French director Robert Bresson. Schrader is deeply influenced by his minimalist style, particularly Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest which is clearly a major influence on this production.

The account introduces Ethan Hawke as a Protestant minister of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He keeps a journal which allows him to mournfully narrate the story with his entries heard in voiceover. The Reverend Ernst Toller is not a happy man. A divorcé, he still contends with the death of his only son Joseph whom he encouraged to go off and fight in the Iraq War.  Currently, Toller also struggles to even get a scant few to attend his services. The pews are mainly empty. This historical edifice is now more of a tourist attraction as the chapel was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In his spare time, he gives visitors tours of the grounds that conclude in the gift shop where they can purchase a souvenir hat.  When he’s alone, he drinks.  It’s these little details that serve to underscore his growing despair. This is all in stark contrast to the nearby parent megachurch, Abundant Life, from which his parish receives financial support. Its evangelical ministry is 5,000 strong and headed up by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer – billed as Cedric Kyles here). He’s confident, upbeat, and life-affirming.   The man inspires hope. Toller arouses hopelessness. I mean let’s be honest, whose church would you rather attend?

The story is set in motion when Toller is visited by a lay person named Mary, a woman pregnant with child.  Her husband is named Michael (not Joseph — that was Toller’s son, remember?) Oh but do take note of these names. Their biblical allusions are not an accident. Side note: Esther (Victoria Hill) is the choir director with whom he has a past relationship. Anyway back to Mary. She is seeking help regarding her spouse who is consumed by radical environmentalist beliefs. Michael is apparently prone to violent acts that promote his cause. His anguish over the ecological state of the Earth is so strong he doesn’t even wish to bring his child into this world. We’re talking abortion mixed with eco-terrorism – two topics guaranteed to derail even the most pleasant dinner party. Toller’s rather dispassionate response is that the trauma of taking a life is much worse than having to endure the trauma of the world.

Over time, Michael’s climate-change opinions have a negative influence on Toller’s religious faith. That’s not to say the screenplay presents Michael’s secular misery as something to admire. Plainly he is mentally ill with deeply rooted emotional problems. His wife, on the other hand, is the optimism at the center of this trio. She may share her husband’s respect for the planet, but not his dire methods. As the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, she resists her husband’s immoral discontent. Toller, on the other hand, does not. He is the preacher who has chosen a devotion to God as his raison d’être.  Toller’s existential crisis is his complete undoing.  Yet the reason for Michael’s profound effect on the pastor never seems clearly delineated. Toller becomes obsessed with the corporations responsible for the most damage to the Earth. However, it’s more than mere environmental matters at the root of his ennui.  The Abundant Life Church, with its acceptance of donations from one of those same powerful polluting corporations, is his downfall as well.  The system is broken. Yet he makes no attempt to fix it in any meaningful or constructive way.

First Reformed is the depiction of a man unhinged. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, he grows more and more despondent.  It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus’ agony there was so deep he sweat blood.  In a genial display of concern, Jeffers lightly admonishes Toller. “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”  Thank you.  Can I get an amen up in here?  First Reformed is a bleak film that subdues the viewer with fixed shots and minimalist style. The grim portrait is unyielding for most of the narrative and then at the eleventh hour offers something to contemplate with its parting image.  The abrupt “resolution” is a bit of a head-scratcher but perhaps a rare moment of hope in a drama about despair.

06-04-18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

Tully

Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

tullySTARS3I do consider myself a bit of a cinematic egghead. I don’t go into any film uninformed. I was excited to see Tully. Apparently I was alone. This picture barely made more than $3 million this weekend. I can understand why. It’s the summer and people want to see fun flicks. Avengers: Infinity War is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. Still, I was pretty excited for this. This is the seventh directorial feature from the son of director Ivan Reitman. I only make reference to Jason’s father because Ghostbusters is still one of my favorites. It is in no way to negate the younger’s contributions to cinema. Jason Reitman is no slouch. He established himself to the masses with Juno. He also directed a movie in 2011 I quite liked called Young Adult and it is that achievement on which I was reflecting when entering the theater to see this. Reitman is once again working with screenwriter Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron. I had very high expectations. Though this effort is admirable, they sadly weren’t met.

Tully is first and foremost a chronicle about motherhood. Not the glowing profile of a parent’s unconditional love for her children as reflected through rose-colored glasses. This is the difficult somewhat frustrating version that most real-world mothers know to be true. Charlize Theron is Marlo, a mom who has just given birth to her third child. Theron is a gorgeous actress. She looks as beautiful as anyone on this planet. She has been a brand ambassador for Christian Dior as recently as 2016. That is as good a validation of one’s physical beauty as any I suppose.  Yet Theron delights in making herself ugly. Doing so won her an Oscar in the 2003 film Monster where she portrayed a serial killer. Here, she is embodying a mom in all of its unfettered ugliness. That means we get to see the realities of motherhood: the weight gain, the sleepless nights, the breast pump issues. Her son Jonah appears to exhibit signs of autism, although that word is never uttered. He’s merely “quirky”. Marlo accidentally drops a cell phone on her newborn’s head. She is notified of his cries at all hours through a baby monitor. She walks away from an open bag of breast milk — only to then watch it topple over and spill out all over the counter. These scenes were all shown in the trailer so you potentially have already witnessed the highlights.

The saga concerns a somewhat inept mother who is given the “gift” of a night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) by her affluent brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Mackenzie Davis is a spirited vision as the titular nanny. Tully succeeds is no small part due to her charismatic performance.  Craig sees her struggling and he wishes to help his sister through the difficult early months following the birth of her newly born third child. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is no help at all.  He is a reactionary creation out of a 1950s melodrama — a wholly unbelievable personality. Drew almost exists as a separate entity from Marlo and as the narrative develops you’ll grow to understand why.  By day he is focused on work and by night he is seen playing video games on their bedroom TV.  In another era, he would have been depicted preoccupied with his head buried in a newspaper.  With regard to his fatherly duties, he is perfectly unsupportive. Set in the conservative past this construct might seem acceptable but in 2018 it seems like an entirely fanciful fabrication. In other areas, Tully attempts to mine humor out of the bougie mentality of her brother Craig and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan). The problem here is that they are genuinely trying to help her out, so if you find them ridiculous (as Diablo Cody ostensibly wrote them to be) perhaps you simply find helpful people laughable. Diablo Cody does find Marlo and her struggle to be a mother worthy of our sympathy so that’s nice.

Tully is Mary Poppins for Generation X. For awhile the tale is kind of uplifting. The skill with which director Jason Reitman can bring a screenplay to the screen is never in question. However, acclaim must also go to cinematographer Eric Steelberg (500 Days of Summer) for basking Reitman’s work in the shadowy hues of a twilight glow. There is one moment where the girls venture into Manhattan for a girls’ night out of drinking.  The soundtrack literally samples the sum total of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album from 1983. In that singular moment director Jason Reitman is specifically speaking to millions of kids born in the 1960s and 1970s that are now having kids of their own (Charlize Theron was born in 1975 incidentally). At that moment I thought this is a great film. I enjoyed the camaraderie of Tully and Marlo.  Then there’s a twist.  It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone familiar with a now well regarded 90s classic. I’ll remain vague because I won’t spoil the “surprise”. It’s a whimsical choice that belies a lack of faith in its own established premise. The story could have simply existed as originally presented without silly tricks. Tully is still fairly enjoyable. The narrative will undoubtedly speak to the millions of women that struggle with postpartum depression. It should strike a chord with certain viewers. That is if they ever actually see this movie.

05-03-18