Archive for the Drama Category

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

Marriage Story

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

marriage_story_ver3STARS4At first glance, it would appear that Marriage Story is a paean to love given that title.  It begins eloquently, with a wife’s declaration about all the things she loves about her husband.  He too expresses lovely thoughts about her and we hear both of them as voiceover monologues in the respective voice of each writer.  However, this is a narrative from the mind of filmmaker Noah Baumbach who brought us acidic works like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.  It turns out those letters were written under the direction of a therapist.  The two are having a counseling session.  In fact, this account is a tale about a couple getting a divorce.

Marriage Story is a fully realized take on a disintegrating relationship.  Noah Baumbach knows a thing or two about this subject because it’s a fictionalized version of his very real split in 2013 from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.   Since then he has indeed tempered his caustic takes on relationships with warmth (Frances Ha, While We’re Young).  The chronicle evades the upbeat tone of those recent efforts, but it’s in the carefully presented details where he captivates the viewer.  Noah Baumbach’s screenplay acknowledges that separation is painful but the depiction is extracted from a place of affection and understanding.  It’s both intimate and unique which makes this feature refreshingly realistic.

Anyone will tell you that a lifelong union is about compromise. Divorce is about the inability to concede.  A lot of this couple’s disagreements focus on where the family will ultimately live.  Adam Driver’s Charlie is a New York guy.  He’s in the theater and writes plays.  Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole has a TV pilot that’s taking off and so she prefers LA.  They also have an eight-year-old son together.  Obviously, young Henry (Azhy Robertson) can’t live in both places at the same time so this is where their problem lays.

Marriage Story is a fascinating saga where very little happens, but so much is said.  This is simply about getting to know two people and why they can no longer stay married.  This is where the movie comes alive.  The talk is the action.  The dialogue is elegant, witty, sharp, funny, and quick.  Their problems really don’t seem all that bad in the beginning.  I mean, nothing so unsolvable that several good discussions might fix.  But as things develop we get a nuanced snapshot of how their relationship has deteriorated past the point of no return.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to involve outside counsel.  They initially agree to amicably separate without the use of lawyers.  Then Nicole hires one (Laura Dern) and things deteriorate steadily from there.

Marriage Story is highlighted by a whole ensemble of compelling performances.  It goes without saying that the power of this film rests on the authenticity of acting from main stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.  The skill of thespian achievement doesn’t end with them.   I could write a whole paragraph about Laura Dern.  The greatest lawyers must savagely but intelligently manipulate laws.  As attorney Nora Fanshaw, Dern is absolutely brilliant at conveying understanding toward her client and utter contempt for her opponent.  She’s beautifully nasty.  Alan Alda and Ray Liotta also play advocates for Charlie’s side at different points.  One is sensitive (but ineffective) at his profession.  The other is a pit bull.  You can figure out who plays which.

So who is to blame?  The depiction is sure to incite a debate.  Given this is a personal tale from Noah Baumbach, you’d expect a more sympathetic viewpoint for the man.  Yet I found it to be an even-handed presentation of the two sides.  For example, it doesn’t sidestep the ugly fact that Charlie actually cheated on Nicole even though their breakup isn’t due to his immoral act.  At one point, Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) asserts, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”  Noah Baumbach may not have originated that cogent declaration, but he perfectly utilizes it in his crackerjack screenplay.  It’s in the little details where the movie soars.  Charlie and Nicole both have their redeeming features and failings.  Why Charlie’s at fault vs. why Nicole is to be condemned is an interesting conversation.  I could go on and on giving precise details as to why for each,  but that’s why you need to see this film.  Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly effective portrait of how love fades where it once blossomed.

12-06-19

Honey Boy

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

honey_boySTARS1.5Ever since actor Shia LaBeouf was arrested for drunk driving in 2008 the sordid events of his personal life have often overshadowed his work.  He wrote this script based on his own life as a form of therapy while in rehab in 2017.  While it may have helped him face his inner demons, those experiences should’ve remained on paper and never been acted out into an actual film.  Someone once said great art comes from great pain.  That person never saw this movie.

Honey Boy is a thoroughly unpleasant film.  If I had to distill this meandering reminiscence into a plot, I’d say it was a random collection of hateful musings concerning a 12-year-old child actor named Otis Lort (Jupe) and his abusive father, James, played by Shia LaBeouf himself.  Dad was once a rodeo clown but now is the child’s guardian.  Together they live in a grubby looking extended-stay motel.  His father has extreme difficulty living a well adjusted life.  He is a convicted felon having served three years for rape.  James has an argument with Otis’s mother (Natasha Lyonne) on the phone but not directly.  He conveys his anger through his son.  It’s an awkward exchange.  He throws his mother’s boyfriend (Clifton Collins Jr.) in the pool.  Later James punches his young son dead on in the face.  A lot of other troublesome things happen too.

These details are randomly doled out without any sense of dramatic thrust.  The ostensible purpose is to present the idea that daddy was a bad man.  However, even that portrait is suspect.  The vignettes are so anecdotal that it’s hard to tell whether we can even trust the filmmakers’ point of view.  We haphazardly learn about his father by putting the pieces of a narrative that is composed of plot threads.  Some of these recollections occasionally jump to an older 22-year-old version of Otis in rehab played by Lucas Hedges.  Incidentally, Hedges and Jupe look absolutely nothing alike but I concede that may have been an intentional artistic choice.

Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, and Noah Jupe are talented actors.  There is a certain amount of emotional nuance and technical craft that shapes these performances, but to what end?  A drama should entertain with a sense of purpose.  If the production mainly functions as an irritation then perhaps the effort is wasted.  Ultimately nothing is resolved.  The whole exercise seems self-indulgent.  That is to say, it isn’t entertaining for us as an audience but it allows Shia to grapple with his psychological problems.  Although I don’t get the idea after having watched this story that Shia has changed in any meaningful way.  In a truly meta moment, the two have a conversation about the picture we are literally watching right now.  Otis promises his dad that he will make a movie about him one day.  “Well alright,” James says, “make me look good honey boy.’”  It would appear that Shia still has some unresolved issues to work through.

11-25-19

The Irishman

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on December 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

irishmanSTARS4The Irishman has been a labor of love 10 years in the making for Marin Scorsese.  What’s not to like?  You’ve got an esteemed filmmaker working within his wheelhouse of gangster movies.  This is a genre the filmmaker does very well.  Despite the superlatives you may have heard, it’s not his best work, but it is still very compelling.

The Irishman highlights a trio of great performances.  There’s the irresistible opportunity to watch Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci reunite with director Martin Scorsese.  They last worked together in Casino.  Now let’s add Al Pacino to the cast, an actor who has surprisingly never worked with Scorsese.   The chronicle is a sprawling epic about Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who was an American labor union official.  The story is told from his insider’s point of view as we follow his trajectory from World War II veteran to truck driver to hitman for the Philly mob and eventual union leader.  His personality is focused and driven in brutal behavior but oddly detached.  He has very little qualms about his murderous actions.

Sheeran meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) the head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family.  Joe Pesci is back in his first major screen role in almost a decade.  Here he gives a very un-Pesci like performance.  He made a name for himself playing flamboyant individuals in Goodfellas, Home Alone, My Cousin Vinny and Lethal Weapons 2,3, & 4.  Here he subverts expectations with his understated display.  He’s reserved but powerful.  There’s a subtle brilliance to the performance.  Bufalino subsequently introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the forceful President of the Teamsters Union.  For me, this is where the production really takes off.  Once Al Pacino shows up portraying the labor union leader, the film gets its focus.  He is unquestionably the MVP of this production.  The chronicle becomes more engaging, particularly in the last hour where it builds to its conclusion.

The Irishman presents itself as a narrative account of history.  The movie is a fascinating tale that begins with Frank Sheeran as an old man reflecting on the details of his life.  Screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts the drama based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by investigator Charles Brandt.  The book was based on his interviews with Frank Sheeran.  Given its $150 million budget, this is Martin Scorsese’s most expensive production.  For that you can thank costly CGI that de-ages these septuagenarians over the course of their lives.  Much has been written about this decision.  I noticed it at first, then accepted the technique after a while.  It was never an issue after that.  I don’t see it as any different than using prosthetics and makeup to artificially age an actor.  It’s just that we now have the technology to this in reverse.  Having these three actors playing the same role over the course of a lifetime gives their characters an added weight and poignancy.  That emotional gravitas wouldn’t have been present if distinct actors had been cast at various stages.  It adds to the extensive, all-encompassing nature of the saga.

The narrative recounts the events over 50 years.  Whether Sheeran’s confessions are the gospel truth is certainly up for debate, but they do make a gripping — albeit taxing — tale.  Given its three and a half hours, the aggressive runtime puts this squarely in the company of legendary works like Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.  Those films justified their extreme length in a way that this film does not.  I blame lots of little extended comedic vignettes that pop up occasionally.  While amusing, the inclusion of so many doesn’t vindicate the extended runtime.  However I still highly recommend this feature.

How you watch this movie will undoubtedly affect your enjoyment.  In the past, cinema of this length was originally shown with an intermission.   When The Irishman received a limited theatrical release on November 1, 2019, it was exhibited with no break whatsoever.  Then it was subsequently made available on digital streaming through Netflix on November 27,  less than a month later.  I saw The Irishman on Netflix which is appropriate.   That’s how the majority of the world will see this film.  My experience was not confined to a seat for nearly four hours but rather over the span of two nights where I had the option of using a pause button.  Seeing it at home provides the freedom to use the restroom, grab something to eat, or the opportunity to confirm just how many gangster movies Marin Scorsese has actually directed.*   I thoroughly enjoyed it in that way.

11-27-19

* It’s six by the way (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Irishman).

Knives Out

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 3, 2019 by Mark Hobin

knives_out_ver13STARS3.5At first glance, Knives Out would appear to be a retro throwback to the classic whodunit-style mysteries that Agatha Christie wrote.  Additionally, it appears to suggest the kind of thrillers that made Hitchcock famous.  That certainly raises the bar with me.  I adore both of those things and so I was primed to enjoy this.  Filmmaker Rian Johnson both writes and directs this feature, which is something he has always done on his films.  He also serves as a producer for the first time.  He’s a clever individual.  Perhaps too clever.  By that, I mean that the production is extremely meta.  It’s fully aware of TV shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote as well as movies like Sleuth, Deathtrap, and Clue.  Rian wants to exploit that knowledge but subvert the audience’s expectations at the same time.

Knives Out is unquestionably a fun film.  It flies by over its extended 130-minute running time.  The production design is a character in itself.  The setting is a palatial Victorian mansion in Massachusetts.  This allows us to have the most amazing art direction.  This includes quirky antiques, weird sculptures, giant paintings, bear rugs, and an impressive knife collection that is arranged as a huge circle that looks like a halo pointing at the head of anyone who steps in front of it.  Never underestimate the power of an exquisite estate.  The digs are pretty swanky and the gorgeous environment infuses the trappings with enough style to gloss over any lulls in the chatty proceedings.

The production is distinguished by a charismatic cast.  There’s the murder victim Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  A trio arrives to investigate: two police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and more importantly, one private detective portrayed by Daniel Craig.  He’ll take center stage in the investigation.  He chews the scenery with a ridiculous accent as Detective Benoit Blanc to learn the truth.  His animated vocal inflections call to mind Foghorn Leghorn — that larger than life cartoon rooster.  I say boy I say… I do declare that his performance is an enjoyable display.

There’s also a colorful house of suspects which include Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette.  They’re all great in their own unique ways but I could watch Toni Collette read the phone book and appreciate her oratory skills.  Here she’s portraying a Paltrow-esque head of a beauty company called Flam.  Later Chris Evans shows up performing the part of a villainous playboy named Hugh Ransom Drysdale.  He seizes our attention playing a spoiled brat in his luxurious white cable knit sweater.  I don’t know if a movie can get an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design simply based on an article of clothing but given the buzz on social media, this film could set a precedent.  Ana de Armas is the acting newcomer as Harlan Thrombey’s nurse.  Her immigrant status is a very calculated and conscious choice to suit the political zeitgeist in 2019.  Regardless, she solidly holds her own in a pivotal role amidst a much more experienced cast.

Rian Johnson is keen on undermining expectations.  He deconstructs the whodunit in a way that plays with convention.  It’s not just about who did it, but also why and how.  These tidbits are revealed in a way that feels like the script is oh-so-very pleased with itself.  It’s snarky and knowing.  I suppose this is obligatory in 2019.  We have to up our game to account for our modern sensibility.  What I expected and what I got were somewhat different things.  You ultimately have to ask yourself this question: Does Rian Johnson’s vision improve upon the time-honored sophistication of a straight-ahead mystery?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s offbeat.  Although it’s hard to warmly embrace the smug self-satisfaction that emanates from the proceedings.  Still, I admire the unconventionality of a winking screenplay so beautifully dressed up in a lavish production.

11-22-19