Archive for the Drama Category

Downhill

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

downhillSTARS3.5I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Downhill is not a comedy.  It may appear to be one given the presence of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  It’s also from writing/directing duo—Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who previously made the sweet summer comedy The Way Way Back.  Even the misguided marketing campaign promised frivolity by highlighting the amusing bits with lighthearted music underscoring the trailer.  As a result, hoodwinked audiences saddled the movie with a “D” Cinemascore.  Critics haven’t been very kind either.  I will confirm that this is an uncomfortable experience.  Yes, that much is true, but it’s also the entire point.  It is, in fact, a compelling profile of a marriage in free fall.

The Stauntons are an American family on a ski vacation in the Alps.  The plot is set in motion when an explosive charge sets off an avalanche that comes dangerously close to burying Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Dad (Will Ferrell), and their two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) while having lunch on an elevated patio.  The shocking event is the impetus for an existential crisis.  The argument which ensues causes the married couple to reevaluate their relationship and how they feel about each other.

Downhill is a remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film I adored in 2014.  One might argue that the picture was perfect and didn’t require a redo.  Downhill doesn’t achieve the same heights.  I’ll concede that.   Nonetheless, Faxon and Rash have done more than simply translate the dialogue.  They’ve shifted the focus away from the husband, whose fraying masculinity was the focus in the original.  Downhill is about the wife.  She must come to terms with a marriage that isn’t in great shape to begin with.  The avalanche exposes a rift that’s already there.  That’s different. 

There’s a distinction in the way the two protagonists interact with other people at the resort as well.  Casting Americans as opposed to Swedes contrasts Scandinavian and American identities within a French setting.  There’s a complete personality shift to this family that gives the proceedings a singular feel.  When Billie goes down to complain to the mountain safety patrolman (Kristofer Hivju – who was also in Force Majeure) about the way the controlled avalanche was handed by the hotel, the narrative heightens a culture-clash between Americans and Europeans that was not present in the original production.  There’s also Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an oversexed concierge and a suave ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulo Berruti).   The contrast in their behavior with the Stauntons is a droll riff on American sensibilities.

However the #1 reason to see Downhill is a stellar performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as wife Billie Staunton.  It’s no wonder the actress currently has a record-breaking 8 Emmys, the most wins for any performer (she’s tied with Cloris Leachman).  It’s rare for the actress to do a theatrical feature so when she commits to a project like this, it’s something to cherish.  Her last was the delightful Enough Said in 2013.  Billie is a structured bundle of exasperation slowly coming apart at the seams.  To observe her is to witness the gradual shock of a woman that has been betrayed.  Downhill is indeed messy and awkward and hard to watch.  That’s part of the experience.  I get why audiences have savaged this movie.  If viewed through a lens of needing laughs, it will come up short.  This is no more a comedy than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Noah Baumbach’s more recent Marriage Story.  There are some funny bits to lighten the mood.  There is a certain humor in Pete’s character flaws or Billie’s irritation, but at heart, this is a portrait of pain.  It feels honest and genuine and that’s uncommon.  The achievement is something to champion.

02-18-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Drama, Shorts with tags on February 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

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

Live-Action

Let’s hear it for Tunisia!  The North African country actually figures in two out of the five films nominated in 2020.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  I really enjoyed my top two picks a lot.  I would be happy if either of those won.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

The Neighbor’s Window
USA/20MINS/2019
Director: Marshall Curry
190426-neighbors-window-tease_bjkrab
The lives of Alli and her husband are affected when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move into the apartment across from theirs.  Large expansive bay windows without curtains conceal nothing.  Soon they’re immersed into the daily doings of the couple across the street like a TV show.   Actress Maria Dizzia gives an affecting performance as a new mother fascinated by her neighbors’ behavior.  This account was based on a true incident that occurred in San Francisco.  Few portraits can turn from lighthearted comedy into heartfelt drama on a dime and this does it as beautifully as any I saw last year. A real charmer. I teared up.

 

Nefta Football Club
FRANCE–TUNISIA/17MINS/2018
Director: Yves Piat
Nefta-Football-Club4
In the south of Tunisia, two young brothers come across a donkey in the desert on the border of Algeria. Strangely, the animal is wearing headphones over its ears.  Then they make a discovery.   I’ll be honest.  I wasn’t really digging this very sober and meandering chronicle at first.   Then I was on the edge of my seat fearing the worst.  This could’ve gone any number of ways.  It sticks the ending.   By far the funniest entry this year.  The final shot could be enough to actually win this award.

 

A Sister
BELGIUM/16MINS/2018
Director: Delphine Girard
A-Sister
A woman traveling in the passenger seat of a car is in trouble.  She makes a phone call.  Tense thriller doesn’t attempt to detail too much but does exactly what a short should.  This is a simple concept that extracts anxiety from the audience in an efficient way.  I was mesmerized although I had questions.  What kidnapper would let his victim make a 16-minute phone call?  It also loses points for its similarity to Danish crime thriller The Guilty which did this subject first and did it better.

 

Brotherhood
CANADA-TUNISIA-QATAR-SWEDEN/25MINS/2018
Director: Meryam Joobeur
Brotherhood
The 2nd of two films from Tunisia. This is the apparent frontrunner of the category but I would be shocked if it won.  Narratively opaque portrait of a callous shepherd named Mohammed living on a farm in rural Tunisia.  His oldest son Malik returns from Syria, with a mysterious new wife covered in a burka.  Director Meryam Joobeur doesn’t play fair with the audience purposefully hiding information so we cannot figure out what is going on.  The viewer (and father Mohammed ) is led to believe Malik became a radical and joined ISIS. Honestly, if father and son had simply had a conversation the misunderstanding at the heart of this drama could have easily been avoided.  Extremely frustrating for its inept depiction of the father’s shameful decision.

 

Saria
USA/22MINS/2019
Director: Bryan BuckleySaria
This true story dramatizes an appalling event that occurred at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala in 2017.  A fire claimed the lives of 41 young women including two friends, Saria and Ximena.   This is a shocking violation of human rights.  The fact that real-life orphans are playing orphans is more interesting than the film itself.   The circumstances surrounding their deaths is clearly a tragedy worth telling so it gets credit for that.  However the film’s slick, unemotional presentation doesn’t feel as powerful as it should.  When the severity of these events comes across like a cliche, something is wrong.  Director Bryan Buckley has helmed over 60 commercials for the Super Bowl since 2000 so the cinematography is stellar.  I’ll give it that.

01-29-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Sports with tags on February 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

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

Animation

Regardless of how expected the rest of the Oscar races are, the shorts programs have always been the most difficult category in which to predict a winner.  They make forecasting interesting.

With the exception of Kitbull, this year’s selections all have to do with familial relationships but even that short is essentially about the connection that forms a family. They have all been carefully constructed to make you tear up — with either joy or sadness — in some way.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Hair Love
USA/7 MINS/2019
Directors: Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith
hair love
A young black girl is desperately trying to style her hair for a special occasion. She consults an online tutorial video for help but is unsuccessful. She then asks her father for help. This warm depiction highlights a loving bond between father and daughter. But where is the mother? That’s the poignant ending to this heartfelt account.

 

Kitbull
USA/9 MINS/2019
Director: Rosana Sullivan
kitbull
Appealing feature about a cat and a pit bull and the unlikely attachment that develops between them. This was produced by Pixar Animation Studios under their SparkShorts umbrella which gives employees the autonomy to create their own independent films. The characters are quite simply drawn, almost abstract, but the movement is spot on. The way the kitten moves is surprisingly realistic. The story adds depressing elements but it’s quite engaging.

 

Sister
CHINA-USA/8 MINS/2018
Director: Siqi Song
sister-oscar-nominated-animated-short-film
A man reflects back on his childhood memories of growing up with his little sister in China in the 1990s.  She is a constant annoyance to him.  This stop motion entry (there’s 3 this year) appears to be a rather simplistic tale at first.  A haunting reveal ends things on a very serious note.  It has a point and it effectively makes it.  This stayed with me.

 

Mémorable
FRANCE/12 MINS/2019
Director: Bruno Collet
image-louis-alzeimer_court-metrage-animation-memorable-bruno-collet-vivement-lundi_le-blog-de-cheeky
A painterly representation of one man’s descent into dementia.  The stop motion is an artistic manipulation of post-impressionism.  The characters look like living portraits by Van Gogh, Picasso, and other masters.  It holds an undeniably hypnotic quality that verges on calculated preciousness.  Alzheimer’s disease was the theme of last year’s Late Afternoon.  Do I sense the beginning of a trend?

 

Daughter
CZECHIA/15 MINS/2019
Director: Daria Kashcheeva
Daughter_Daria_Kashcheeva
This wordless recollection details the strained relationship between a young woman and her father.   The abundance of silence doesn’t help this obtuse chronicle.  The animation is stop-motion but then a handheld camera is used to heighten the movement so hey that’s different.  However, the pointless grudge this woman held her entire life could have been easily solved with a simple conversation.  Try talking to your father.  Narratively frustrating.

01-24-20

Bombshell

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bombshellSTARS2.5I wasn’t planning to review Bombshell.  I saw it weeks ago.  When it went wide on December 20, it did rather poorly at the box office.  Apparently, a drama about sexual harassment wasn’t what people wanted to see right before Christmas.  Go figure.  I assumed it would be forgotten.  Then on Monday, January 13, it was unduly rewarded with three Oscar nominations.  Seven weeks later it’s still hanging on for dear life in theaters.

Bombshell is based on the accounts of several women at Fox News who decided to bring a case against chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment.  It features a triumvirate of star power in the form of three actresses.  Charlize Theron portrays the very real news anchor Megyn Kelly and Margot Robbie plays a fictional associate producer named Kayla Pospisil – a character based on a composite of witnesses.  Pospisil’s uncomfortable private meeting with Roger Ailes is the acting reel highlight of the entire picture.  Both actresses garnered regrettable Oscar nods.  Either slot could’ve been filled by a host of far more deserving candidates: Awkwafina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, Zhao Shuzhen…I could go on.  Ironically the Academy actually failed to honor the best performance in the production.  That would be Nicole Kidman as “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson.  Her no-nonsense portrayal is the heart of this film that sets everything in motion.

I will defend one of Bombshell‘s nominations to the hilt, however.  The MVP is makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji who won an Academy Award for transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for The Darkest Hour.  He’s responsible for the uncanny physical modifications of this production too.  John Lithgow plays Roger Ailes under pounds of old age fat makeup.  Charlize Theron, in particular, looks eerily like Megyn Kelly.  She is changed but in an intangible way.  You don’t realize her subtle alteration is due to makeup.

Bombshell is a moderately captivating piece of entertainment.  Nevertheless, you won’t feel you’ve learned anything new or that the subject has been explored with even a modicum of depth.  It’s is a slick movie with no teeth.  This story deserved a deeper and more intelligent handling.   This is directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) and written by Charles Randolph who was a co-writer on The Big Short.  The atmosphere here has that same comedic style — giving you details at a snappy pace but without the complexity that the subject demands.  The tone is flippant and irreverent.  Fans of Fox News won’t enjoy being mocked and people seeking a hard-hitting takedown aren’t going to feel any satisfaction either.  Just who exactly is the audience for this movie?

12-15-19

Just Mercy

Posted in Drama with tags on January 14, 2020 by Mark Hobin

just_mercy_ver2STARS2.5Just Mercy is a straightforward saga for people who don’t want to be burdened by individuals who show more than one side to their personality.   If you like your villains twirling a mustache and your heroes as pious do-gooders then Just Mercy will fit the bill quite nicely.

The drama concerns attorney Bryan Stevenson as he takes the case of Walter McMillian, a man wrongfully imprisoned for the 1986 murder of a woman in Alabama and sentenced to death.  The crusading lawyer is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan.  He’s the one looking beatifically toward heaven on the movie poster.  Jordan is a charismatic actor and he brought so much to roles in Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther.  Meanwhile,  actor Jaime Foxx portrays the man on trial and he also brings genuine humanity to the part.  They’re both compelling, skillful actors.  It’s a credit to the abilities of Michal Jordan and Jaime Foxx that they bring gravitas to their characters.

It can be tricky criticizing an account that denounces a shocking miscarriage of justice.  Screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham have their hearts in the right place.  This is a true story that Cretton and Lanham have adapted from Bryan Stevenson’s book published in 2015(!)  Stevenson wrote this account about himself.  It’s unfortunate that an important tale on race and discrimination is given such a formulaic and uncreative treatment.  There’s no mistaking who’s right and wrong.  Southerners and the police are all seething racists while the accused and the defender who fights for him are candidates for sainthood.  I’ve seen some pretty simplistic dramas in my day but this screenplay underestimates the moral decency of its audience by fashioning a narrative that’s so obvious it’s condescending.

There are works that handle this material with more subtlety.  The obvious inspiration is To Kill a Mockingbird which is coincidental because the murder committed here in Monroe County, Alabama is the very same place where Harper Lee wrote her much-celebrated novel.  Every resident here seems extremely proud of this fact and yet no one seems aware that their racial attitudes haven’t changed since the book was published in 1960.

Bryan Stevenson is a counselor dedicated to pro bono work for death-row inmates and other prisoners needing representation.  These also include Herbert Richardson played by actor Rob Morgan. Richardson is incarcerated for the pipe-bomb killing of an 11-year-old girl.  His psychologically troubled Vietnam Vet is able to register a little nuance.  Despite his arrest Walter McMillian (Foxx) is innocent.  The evidence against him is entirely based on a questionable witness, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a much lighter sentence for his testimony.   His blatant perjury is simply presented as an indisputable fact early on.  Nevertheless, the police and the townspeople refuse to acknowledge what is conspicuously a grave injustice.  One side is thoroughly ethical.  The other is completely corrupt.

Just Mercy is a tale of good vs. evil vs. good storytelling.  A lot of people will enjoy this movie.  Its uncomplicated narrative of clearly delineated personalities highlights a true and egregious case that is important to know.  Many will appreciate seeing the oppressed ultimately triumph in the face of overwhelming racial inequality.  Their righteous anger validated by the display of what transpires here.  However, I wanted to know more.  Why do these southerners continue to hold such narrow-minded beliefs in this day and age and how could the accused and his family be so passive and understanding?  You won’t find those answers here.  The characters have no development through the picture.  What you see is what you get.  There are no shades of gray.

01-09-20

Uncut Gems

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

Little Women

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

little_women_ver10STARS3.5Little Women has been adapted to film 7 times.  That includes two silent entries.  Then there’s the myriad of productions for television.  The Houston Grand Opera even commissioned a piece in 1998. Needless to say, it’s been a beloved tale since Louisa May Alcott published her novel in 1868 and then 1869 in two volumes.  At this point, her work been covered so many times that you assume they’d have to include some new twist to make it fresh for a modern audience.  In the newest (and surely not the last) version, Greta Gerwig does indeed make several directorial choices to modify this timeworn saga.

The 2019 account of Little Women is self-referential.  In the beginning, writer Jo March is seen submitting a manuscript to a publisher (Tracy Letts).  That text is the very movie that we are watching right now.  Little Women is seen as a work of semi-autobiographical fiction so the line between main character Jo and real-life author Louise May Alcott has always been kind of blurry.  I guess the mere choice to go meta with the story is not exceptionally radical.  However, it also adds an ongoing conversation between the publisher and author as a commentary on the developments.  There’s a memorable discussion about the ending that introduces ambiguity from a contemporary perspective.

Gerwig assumes you’re familiar with the chronicle and begins 7 years later and then cuts back and forth between parallel timelines.  One is of the young girls living at home with the family and the other is of them all grown up and pursuing different paths in life.  It’s basically Jo’s memoir and actress Saoirse Ronan is a charismatic presence but the other sisters get significant consideration too.  In particular, Florence Pugh as Amy has an illuminating arc.  I found the nuance to her bratty temperament rather fascinating as her personality develops over time.  Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) get somewhat less attention, but I found all of their interactions to be compelling as well.  All the girls come across as interesting individuals.  The rest of the cast is dependable.  I would be remiss if I didn’t cite Laura Dern as matriarch Marmee March and the legendary Meryl Streep in a minor role as their aunt.  It’s a quibble but I was less enamored with Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Laurie.  The actor is usually captivating but he’s kind of bland here.

Ok, so I’ve been keeping a secret.  Truth be told, I’ve never read the book nor seen any of the movies so I walked into this one completely fresh.  Forgive my lack of familiarity in this area, but naïveté can be a positive.  I am not beholden to the source in the way an adherent may be.  Yet I admit it could also be a drawback.   This gets confusing.   I found the shifting timelines weakened the clarity of a simple narrative.  The chronological flip-flops occur frequently and without warning.  You just have to sort of gather it from the manner of people’s dress and how they’re acting and the subtle color palette changes of the cinematography.  I didn’t appreciate these stylistic choices as a first-time initiation to the material.  Although I can see where it may enhance one’s understanding if you’re already acquainted with the text.  Other than the nonlinear structure, it is a respectful adaptation.  This could have been a staid period piece but the traditional dialogue flows effortlessly from their lips with the natural cadence of modern conversation.  It’s quite lively.   That ultimately elevates this as a distinguished interpretation.  Furthermore, the presentation looks and sounds amazing (costumes, production design, score).  As I mentioned before, the performances are a commendable achievement.   There’s a lot to recommend.   I was entertained but ultimately I wasn’t WOWed.

12-27-19

Waves

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on December 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

wavesSTARS4Waves is a drama that gradually becomes an epic.  It concerns a typical suburban family as they navigate that roadmap of emotional complexities that we call life.  The chronicle begins rather deceptively as a simple melodrama.  Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high school senior. He’s a smart kid and a star athlete with a bright future.  Depending on your age, he could be your best friend or perhaps your son.  But things aren’t always what they seem.  As we are introduced to the characters that populate Tyler‘s reality, there is an inherent sense of foreboding.  He’s constantly pushed to be better by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown).  His stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is less domineering and more compassionate.  His younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is also a calming presence.  He spends time with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).  Things appear stable but soon that will change.  Tyler begins to suffer some setbacks.  The way he deals with misfortune will have a profound effect.

Director Trey Edward Shults masterfully illuminates how the choices we make can affect what happens to us for the rest of our lives.  That would be enough.  What augments the film into something more is the about-face that he takes in the middle of the story where a major event completely shifts the spotlight from one character to another.  A dreadful act appears to signify an end but in fact, the narrative is taking on a new beginning.  It is that transfer of focus where the movie becomes something much greater.  We now see the scope of action from a different angle – how the decisions of one can alter the lives of another.  The intensity of the portrait is magnified by the stunning cinematography by Drew Daniels and an abstract score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  Both intensify an elegiac mood.

Waves is an ambitious tale.  Yet director Trey Edward Shults makes it seem effortless.  That elevates his achievement into something even more affecting.  The human experience is multilayered and deep.  A split-second decision can affect the rest of our existence.   Here, an impulsive choice made in the heat of the moment is the impetus for a demoralizing change.  A life filled with joy can transform into one filled with unendurable pain.  Shults’ camera is like a voyeur lingering on the interactions of a family in places where we should not be.  His unflinching gaze presents a snapshot that is both heartbreakingly beautiful and extremely ugly.   The depiction will inspire an individual to reflect on their own behavior.  We may consider ourselves good people at heart.  Yet we can behave in unforgivably grotesque ways.  Director Schultz beautifully realized account details that idea in the extreme but in doing so he brilliantly ruminates over the idea of what it means to be human.

12-05-19

The Mustang

Posted in Drama with tags on December 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

mustangSTARS4There’s a poignant simplicity that elevates this tale of redemption.  Sometimes an uncomplicated, straightforward account about human change can profoundly move the heart.  The Mustang is just such a film.

Roman Coleman is a convict at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center who has trouble controlling his anger.  He’s currently serving a 12-year sentence for a shocking burst of domestic violence against his wife.  The result of which had tragic consequences.  He’s given a second chance at social rehabilitation when he’s admitted into the Wild Horse Inmate Program.  There he’s entrusted with the care of a crazed mustang that has been extremely difficult to restrain.  It’s not hard to see the spiritual connection drawn between man and beast.  His efforts to “break” the savage animal are the subject of powerful scenes with a visual grandeur sans dialogue.  Their relationship is merely composed of gestures and expressions.  It is here that Roman begins to come to terms with his own failings.

Matthias Schoenaerts is a star in the classic Hollywood tradition – a time when men conveyed forceful resolve simply through a strong, stoic silence.  They didn’t talk a lot. They didn’t have to.  They dominated without speaking.  These rugged individuals obviously had feelings but it was buried beneath a veneer of stoicism and it added to their mystique.  The less we knew, the more charismatic they became.  John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen – These durable icons were the definition of cool.  Matthias Schoenaerts has the physicality of a tough guy but that determination belies a deep unspoken sensitivity.  In films such as Bullhead, Rust and Bone and Far from the Madding Crowd, Matthias Schoenaerts has given one arresting performance after another.  The actor propels The Mustang into a fascinating character study.

There’s a poetic realism that underlies this depiction.  The Wild Horse Inmate Program detailed here is a real thing.  It provides an effective setting where violent criminals interact with barbaric creatures and the alliance can effectively tame them.  Ah, but who is pacifying who?  Part prison drama, part traditional western, director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre in her feature debut, deals with timeworn themes but reinterprets them in a way that feels fresh and invigorating.  Humans and animals often share an implicit bond.  Sometimes that association can be quite stirring.  De Clermont-Tonnerre explores that connection with unsentimental but deeply moving style.   The Mustang will speak to that spirit.  I was captivated by the portrait.

04-05-19

1917

Posted in Action, Drama, War with tags on December 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

nineteen_seventeen_ver2STARS5It’s no secret that films set during the Second World War far outnumber ones about other wars.  Since 1998, the more well-known ones include Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, The Pianist, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, Hacksaw Ridge, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk.  There are so many others.  My apologies if I missed your favorite.  But what about pictures concerning the Great War?  Some WWI movies rank among the greatest classics of all time: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory and Lawrence of Arabia.  I wouldn’t immediately include a movie that just came out in the same company.  Likewise, I would never describe a current release using the M-word*.  A certain amount of time must pass.   I’d say at least 10 years.  However, 1917 is a good candidate to be considered both of these things in 2029.

1917 is an epic about two British soldiers entrusted with a mission.  The story is based on an account told to director Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes.  Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are two lance corporals that must deliver a message across enemy German territory to an Allied front line.  The British are preparing to launch an ambush but the problem is, it will lead to many many deaths on the side of the Allies.  The soldiers have a false sense of security.  The Germans are in fact ready for the British and therefore should not attack.  Blake and Schofield must convey an order to stand down.  Their journey is the movie.

1917 is filmed in one continuous shot.  When I first heard that, I regarded the decision to use this technique as a pretentious affectation.  Birdman did this rather famously in 2014.  No, cinematographer Roger Deakins didn’t really shoot without stopping.  If he had, filming would have only taken one hour and 59 minutes.  However, the narrative has pieced together that way and the approach is indeed a very intrinsic part of the story that lends the adventure an immersive quality.  I forgot it was filmed this way because  I was fully engrossed in the feature.  It is brilliantly shot and expertly staged.  The scenes are occasionally shot 360 degrees as it moves around the action and it brought me to the feeling that I was right there with them on this expedition.  There are stretches where I watched with held breath.  I didn’t feel as though I was watching a movie.  I was a solider on this mission with them.

This is, in fact, a good time for movies about World War I.  Peter Jackson’s gloriously spellbinding documentary They Shall Not Grow got a limited release at the tail end of 2018.  It too was magnificent but I wasn’t prepared for another tour de force.  1917 is an absolutely penetrating albeit manipulative achievement about courage.  Our two heroes travel through a landscape that invokes anxiety and fear on a scale of biblical proportions.  The chronicle is directed and produced by Sam Mendes with a screenplay he wrote withy Krysty Wilson-Cairns.  It features stellar cinematography from the aforementioned Roger Deakins and a rousing score by Thomas Newman that already feels iconic.  Together they combine to form this artistic success.  It’s horrific and beautiful, mesmerizing and immediate.  If cinema is an emotional experience — a portal that transports us to another time and place — then 1917 inspired the most visceral reaction of any picture I saw in 2019.  The majesty of it all blew me away.

 

 

*  “masterpiece”.

12-03-19