Archive for the Drama Category

The White Crow

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

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

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

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

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

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

05-16-19

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Everybody Knows

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

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

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

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

03-08-19

Greta

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

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

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

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

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

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

02-28-19

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

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

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

Live-Action

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

02-16-19

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

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

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

Animation

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

02-13-19

Cold War

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

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

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

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

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

1-24-19

Stan & Ollie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on January 27, 2019 by Mark Hobin

stan_and_ollie_ver4STARS3This biopic is a somber reminiscence on the legendary comedic duo.  Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) first rose to fame through in a series of silent shorts during the 1920s, the early days of Hollywood.  Their popularity would grow exponentially until they became one of the most acclaimed comedy duos ever.  Stan & Ollie isn’t about their glory days, however. The script by Academy Award-nominated writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) focuses on their later years.  This sad little feature deals with a rather low point in their history when they were no longer making films in the U.S.  There’s talk about doing a Robin Hood parody movie.  It never materializes.  It’s 1953 and the pair is on a music tour of the UK.  Way beyond their prime, they struggle to fill seats in run-down theaters and cheap hotels.  Hardy’s failing health becomes a concern.  They also bicker about the past.  A 1937 contract dispute with the studio, depicted in the intro, is dredged up in the present timeline.

There are two good reasons to see Stan & Ollie: its stars. Steve Coogan is very good as Stan Laurel. John C. Reilly is even better as Ollie Hardy.  They ascribe such sincere sympathy to their characters and invest that with tenderness.   Stan and Ollie make personal appearances and incorporate their schtick into these everyday interactions.  The public greets their shenanigans with enthusiasm.  The antics of Coogan and Reilly come across as a genuine achievement, more than just an impersonation.  The actors truly get the mannerisms down, clearly the result of work that has been well researched.  Their work matches the production.  The attention to period detail is exquisite.  The makeup beautifully supports the superior performances.  At first, the reflective tone seems to benefit this admirable effort.  Over the course of the entire runtime however, it becomes depressing.  The atmosphere is surprisingly bleak for a team known for making people laugh.  I admired Stan & Ollie but I wasn’t enthused by it.  I can’t help but think all of this meticulousness might have better served a screenplay that centered on their earlier, more celebrated era.

01-07-19

Destroyer

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on January 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

destroyerSTARS3I respect Nicole Kidman as an accomplished thespian.  I really do.  As such, I hold the actress in high regard.  Destroyer is a film highlighted by the transformation of its star.  The tall, willowy blonde ditches her signature long tresses for a wispy dirty brown bob with bangs.  Not only does her hair look filthy but her normally fair unblemished skin is wrinkled and pockmarked.  Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective who is on the hunt for the members of a burglary ring.  When she receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack, she determines it’s from a bank robbery committed by a California syndicate many years prior.  Erin’s gritty appearance tells us she’s had a rough past.  Via flashbacks, we learn that she and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) had previously infiltrated this organization as undercover officers.  Predictably, these two shared a romantic relationship as well.  At any rate, now it appears the criminals are active again.  Based on an original script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the narrative is the saga of a woman with a score to settle.

Destroyer has a grimy atmosphere.  Early on Erin is shown doing something distasteful to get information from an informant (James Jordan).  I was repulsed by the scummy milieu.  If you’re willing to stick with the unsavory sections, there is a story, although it is confusingly doled out in bits that the viewer must piece together.  Kidman immerses herself in the sordid surroundings.  She admirably gives it her all but physically she seems too frail to be taken seriously in the role.  Her character Erin gets no respect from her contacts.  Everyone seems to treat her as an annoyance.  Her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) as well as her daughter’s boyfriend (Beau Knapp), along with a lawyer suspect who launders money (Bradley Whitford), all regard her with disdain — initially anyway.   Occasionally she makes inroads.

As a detective drama, Destroyer is merely adequate.  Kidman doesn’t have the gravitas to play an intimidating police officer.  Destroyer is helmed by Karyn Kusama who directed Michelle Rodriguez in her feature debut Girlfight way back in 2000.  I couldn’t help but think Rodriguez would have been a better choice to play this part.  Kusama recently created a sinister but captivating mood in The Invitation (2015), an innovative thriller.  Destroyer is less inventive.   Most of Destroyer simply wallows in the muck as if to prove that Nicole Kidman can be rugged.  I admire her ambition I suppose.   The actress received a lot of positive mentions for her work here.  It’s an exaggerated performance from a veteran performer that’s clearly begging for an Oscar nod.  Unfortunately, that’s all there is.  The screenplay is rooted firmly in genre clichés.  I only wish the drama had been more interesting.

01-01-19

On the Basis of Sex

Posted in Biography, Drama on January 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

on_the_basis_of_sexSTARS2.5The old adage states “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Admittedly, that’s a brutal way to begin a movie review that’s mildly indifferent. It is somewhat apropos though. On the Basis of Sex is the very definition of a well-intentioned drama. It’s adequate as a superficial biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The story idealizes her as a champion for equal rights, yet it fails to captivate. The script is penned by Daniel Stiepleman, a first-time screenwriter. He just so happens to be the subject’s nephew. If you’re an avid fan in need of a reverential memoir depicting the Associate Justice’s formative years, then this should suffice.

Directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward), this by the numbers drama merely covers the beginning of how RBG came to be.  Slick meticulous production shows how Ruth graduated at the top of her law school class.  Unable to find a job because no law firm would hire a woman, she becomes a professor at Rutgers Law School. On the Basis of Sex mainly focuses on one tax law.  In 1970 her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), brings a case to her attention.  It concerns Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) a Denver man who was caring for his elderly mother.  Unmarried, he was denied a dependent-care tax deduction.  A single woman, however, would have received the advantage.  RBG saw this situation where a man had been disadvantaged, as an opportunity to bring sex-based discrimination to an appellate court.  She believes the male judges might be more sympathetic to his plight.  In this way, she anticipates that a favorable decision would open a gateway to attack more gender-based legislation.  Indeed this has been a focus of her entire career.

On the Basis of Sex is a traditional biopic, rather conservative in style for such a liberal subject.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissents with the majority ruling have only grown more forceful with time.  They’ve given rise to memes where she’s affectionately referred to her as The Notorious RBG (a riff on late rapper The Notorious B.I.G.).  As such, she has become a pop-culture icon for young liberals.  That profile of an intimidating firebrand is not on display here.  Felicity Jones sweetly radiates hope and resolve as a crusader for equal rights.  Armie Hammer is her supportive husband, an accomplished lawyer in his own right.  Martin actually comes across as more charismatic.  This is even addressed by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), legal director of the ACLU in their mock trial practice sessions.  Those looking to see her appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993 on through her current tenure will have to wait for the sequel. I’m kidding. (Sort of.)  By focusing on a tax case, On the Basis of Sex doesn’t stir the emotions as it should.  The chronicle doesn’t seem vital enough for anyone other than her most ardent admirers in need of an idealized portrait.

01-03-19

If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

if_beale_street_could_talk_ver2STARS3Writer James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is lovingly adapted into a beautifully filmed love story about a Harlem couple in the 1970s.  The last feature director Barry Jenkins made won the Oscar for Best Picture so expectations are understandably high.  If Beale Street Could Talk is about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), newly engaged to her boyfriend Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny.  We are presented with scenes that show they grew up together.  They have known each other since childhood.  This is fashioned as a romance for the ages.  However, conflict has entered the sanctity of their lives which threatens to upend everything they hold dear.  Fonny has been falsely identified for a crime he didn’t commit.  We see Tish visit Fonny in jail to deliver some major news.  She is pregnant. Cinematographer James Laxton lingers on faces like they’re masterpieces carved in marble.   These images cast a spell that gently invites the viewer to reflect on the disparity between the beauty of their relationship and the ugliness of what has befallen them.  Barry Jenkins screenplay is a somber contemplation of a love fret with hardship.  There are many elegantly composed scenes that convey a feeling in the absence of dialogue.  Indeed the deliberate pace comes at the expense of action.

There is an early moment in Beale Street that tempts the viewer with what might develop into an electrifying ensemble piece.  Tish must break the news of her pregnancy to her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).  They are shocked but supportive.  Now how to tell Fonny’s family? There’s his religiously sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), more easygoing father (Michael Beach), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).  Sharon invites them over to their home for drinks.  Then the verbal fireworks start.  It’s a memorable scene.  Occasional flashbacks throughout show us how Tish and Fonny’s life was before he was arrested, then contrast it with their lives in the present.  Yet nothing matches the sheer drama of the earlier showdown.

If Beale Street Could Talk is compelling in fits and starts.  I call those moments Regina King.  The actress has been picking up awards left and right for her work.  She’s extraordinary.  Sharon’s drive to prove her son-in-law’s innocence ultimately necessitates a trip to Puerto Rico.  It’s the portrait of a mother who only wants justice and truth.  The halcyon days of Tish and Fonny’s romance are idealized with gauzy cinematography highlighting two pretty young people.  Fonny is a sculptor and he works amidst cigarette smoke swirling around a piece he’s creating with a saxophone wailing in the background.  They gaze longingly at each other and the dreamy display is not unlike the sculpture he’s creating — a precious objet d’art to study and appreciate from afar.  A grave injustice underlies their lives and yet there’s no there there.  The action, or lack of it, concerns what appear to be in the details.  How can the reflective inertia of the rest of the film compete with mother Sharon’s emotional fire?  Every time actress King is on screen I was riveted and every time she garners accolades for her achievement, I get it.  I simply wish there was more of her.

12-13-18