Archive for the Drama Category

The Post

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller with tags on January 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

post_ver5STARS3.5It’s certainly a tribute to the talent involved that the saga of an entity that “came in second” has been fashioned into a fairly absorbing drama about freedom of the press. The chronicle details a newspaper and their efforts to publish The Pentagon Papers. The New York Times was there first. They are the ones that broke the story initially, but then they were restrained by an injunction from continuing to do so. Their hands were tied, unable to divulge anything more without reprisal. The Washington Post stepped in and picked up the pieces.

The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret study regarding United States’ military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. In a nutshell, the research determined that the Vietnam War was unwinnable by the U.S. I’ll admit, that’s really simplifying things. The report comprised 47 volumes with approximately 7,000 pages of historical analysis and original government documents. Yet that itself was not the pivotal truth, but rather that Lyndon B. Johnson had actually lied to the American public about our ability to succeed in the war. In the recent Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill is depicted as doing the very same thing. Interestingly his actions are portrayed in a far more positive light. In The Post, however, the Pentagon Papers ultimately undermine both the Johnson administration and subsequently Richard Nixon’s as well. His crime was that he allowed things to progress without revealing the lie promoted by the earlier regime. Nixon is featured in a scathing scene at the very end. It’s hardly subtle, although most of the film is considerably more nuanced.

The Post was actually hastily assembled by director Steven Spielberg during some downtime while making his upcoming sci-fi epic Ready Player One. The production feels like a timely response to the current administration and their antagonistic relationship with the press. Tension is constructed around the First Amendment. That makes the representation feel socially relevant and extremely shrewd. The attempt to stifle the press is a key component of this narrative. Curiously, what makes this composition fascinating, isn’t its attack on the presidency and the abuse of power. No, what makes the account compelling is the distinct character of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). She assumed the role of publisher of her family’s newspaper, the Washington Post following the death of her husband.

As interpreted by the inimitable Meryl Streep, Graham is further exalted as a woman making the biggest decision of her life – risking the reputation of her family’s newspaper on whether to publicize The Pentagon Papers. She’s unquestionably good, but it’s hard not to regard her mannered portrayal – as well as that of Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee — as for your consideration bids to win awards. I never forgot that I was watching a talented actor giving a captivating performance.  As Bradlee’s wife Tony, Sarah Paulson is a bit more natural. She delivers a particularly juicy monologue late in the game in which she basically schools her husband as to why Kay Graham is worthy of our respect. Strangely, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) the U.S. military analyst who was directly responsible for releasing the Pentagon Papers, has a surprisingly minor part. In the true-life tale, he played a much bigger role.

The Post is a feminist anthem. As the only woman to hold such an exalted position, Kay Graham had difficulty being taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees. A scene highlighting her as the only woman in an all-male boardroom is notably effective. It’s apparent she was going to have to assert herself to be heard, It is that focus that makes this production unique. I hate comparing one picture with another. Movies should usually be judged independently of one another on their own merits. Nevertheless, it’s virtually inexcusable to not at least acknowledge the similarly themed Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Spotlight, when discussing this feature. That screenplay focused on reporting the information itself. With The Post, it’s more about the figure of Kay Graham as she risks picking up the pieces of what the New York Times initially started and continues on with it. That notion is less imperative by comparison. There are so many ways you could have approached this account. What the New York Times accomplished, what Daniel Ellsberg released, or how the Supreme Court ruled over these events. The meaningful details of these various plot threads demand far more attention than are given here. Nevertheless, in the hands of director Steven Spielberg and actors as talented as Streep and Hanks, it still becomes a pretty entertaining film.

12-01-17

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The Disaster Artist

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

disaster_artist_ver2STARS4I am not a fan of mocking someone’s creative ambitions. The concept of a film like The Disaster Artist was a bit unappealing to me in theory. For those unfamiliar, there’s this filmmaker named Tommy Wiseau see, and he used $6 million of his own (curiously earned ) money to make a movie in 2003 called The Room. He wrote produced, directed and starred in it along with a small cast of actors. This included his good friend, actor Greg Sestero whom he met in San Francisco while in acting class. The Room was first shown only in a limited number of theaters in California. No work of art – it was narratively uneven, had numerous continuity flaws and featured a slew of dubious performances topped only by the eccentric Tommy Wiseau himself. However, it was so bad it was relished as a cult hit enjoying a popularity at midnight showings that continues to this day. There’s a growing list of movies often referred to as the worst ever made. For years, Plan 9 from Outer Space was quite often mentioned. The Room has more recently been the “go-to” citation for the new millennium.

The making of The Room was apparently as peculiar as the film itself. In 2013, Greg Sestero (with Tom Bissell) wrote a memoir about his experience in the making of The Room. James Franco, being a big admirer of the book, bought the film rights. The text was then adapted by the writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. The undertaking has clearly been a labor of love for the actor. Franco is director, co-producer, and star of the picture. As Tommy Wiseau he gives a veritable tour de force performance. Perhaps it might be the greatest irony that James Franco is acquiring legitimate Oscar buzz for a portrayal of a man whose acting style was ridiculed. Franco mimics the actor’s affected way of speaking perfectly. For some, the depiction might be well considered more of an impression. That’s a valid critique. Be that as it may, I am inclined to champion what Franco has achieved here.

While the tone is most definitely a comedy, the thing that elevates matters is perspective. Franco treats Tommy with an underlying respect. The script’s view of The Room isn’t malicious or contemptuous. Where Wiseau is originally from or how he obtained his huge fortune is never addressed. Given the mystery, there could possibly be a darker story there, but the screenplay doesn’t delve into that. The screenplay keeps the drama lighthearted. It presents him as a passionate man with ambition. By all accounts, Wiseau’s thespian abilities were questionable. The chances of him making it as a successful actor were delusional at best. I’ll admit that this production exposes his cinematic endeavor as less than sophisticated, but there’s an honest love here for the art of filmmaking, even if the end result isn’t particularly accomplished. That upbeat angle makes a big difference.

I have never seen The Room, although I am familiar with its existence. I have watched snippets as highlights on YouTube. I thought that my lack of having seen the original movie on which this was based, would negate my appreciation of this picture. It does not. The Disaster Artist is another captivating chronicle that details the craft of filmmaking. I’m talking a diverse list of features. Naturally Ed Wood (1994) is the most obvious comparison because it concerns a talent like Tommy Wiseau, that isn’t held in high esteem. I’d also include Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Boogie Nights (1997) and Son Of Rambow (2007). The Disaster Artist is a fine addition to that list. They say the truth is stranger than fiction. There’s a slacked jawed bewilderment that the story teases out of the bizarre goings-on during the production of The Room. That disorientation keeps the viewer enrapt. The humor utilizes mockery but there is an undeniable sincerity here. Tommy Wiseau is a man driven by the perseverance to realize a dream. Who among us can’t identify with that idea? He ultimately garners the audience’s favor. It is that viewpoint that raises this achievement into something that uplifts the spirit.

12-22-17

Call Me by Your Name

Posted in Drama, Romance on December 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

call_me_by_your_nameSTARS4In T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the speaker famously ponders, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” The somewhat pretentious but probably erotic musing hasn’t entered my mind since the poem was first foisted on me in high school. I was reminded again of the oft-studied work while watching this film. That image of eating a peach is both literally and figuratively referenced in Call Me by Your Name. Oh and let there be no misunderstanding — in the case here — it is most definitely a sensual undertaking.

Call Me by Your Name is based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a precocious 17-year-old boy that lives with his parents in Italy. Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a 24-year-old doctoral student that has been invited to come stay with them by Elio’s father, a professor of archaeology.  This happens every year actually.  Professor Perlman invites a different scholar to live with the family for 6 weeks to help out with his academic studies. Elio doesn’t like having to give up his room for the guest every year, but he’s used to it. This saga portrays their burgeoning attraction. Given that description, the locale and the early 1980s time period, one might expect a controversy-filled plot filled with repression, condemnation and/or affliction. Their ages are indeed an undeniably messy matter, much like first love itself.  The screenplay intends this to be a conundrum.  Yet Call Me by Your Name is largely conflict-free. There is unease, however.  The tension is one of emotion, and it depicts a developing friendship that positively aches.

That passion is heightened by an overall milieu of luscious backgrounds.  The setting is a relaxing vacation at a villa in the summer of 1983. A laid-back pastoral village in northern Italy is the exquisite backdrop for a story of first love that unfolds during one memorable summer. Young men and women play volleyball outside in the sun-soaked air.  Families leisurely have their brunch al fresco.  Gentlemen ride bikes along the cobblestone streets past historical buildings to piazzas. “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens is heard on the soundtrack.  His tranquil folk music creates an idyllic mood like Simon & Garfunkel’s music was used in The Graduate. The pace is languid, the environment is gorgeous.  The entire movie advances like one long uninterrupted fantasy.

What makes the drama so effective is the magnetism of the two leads.  Elio and Oliver aren’t sure how to voice their inclinations. Their intentions are hidden under behavior that belies their true feelings. Elio hangs out with his girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel). Oliver is attracted to a local girl named Chiara (Victoire Du Bois). But when Elio endeavors to act as a matchmaker between the two, Oliver reprimands him for getting involved. Later, Oliver’s chaste attempt at giving Elio a shoulder massage during a volleyball game is instantly rebuffed by the young man. Timothée Chalamet has the juicer part, and he downplays his affection throughout. He gives an extraordinarily authentic performance. Armie Hammer, as the older of the two, is even more enigmatic. He is cool, confident and aloof. They don’t always say what they mean. A conversation between the two implies some possibly suggestive ideas but remains so incredibly oblique, it prompts one of them to ask “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” This and other interactions between them illustrate how one’s demeanor can hide real anxiety when experiencing closeted desire.

This is a surprisingly dignified account. The screenplay written by James Ivory moves the romance at a gradual pace. Things evolve so slowly that some viewers may grow hungry for actual events. The lack of conflict establishes Call Me by Your Name as a rather unique portrait. It is what makes these characters tick that that captivate our interest. Elio is Jewish and notices that Oliver is as well from the Star of David he wears. Elio is remarkably well read and can converse on the same level with Oliver. And yet they are separated by objectives in life that make them dissimilar. They each want different things. It is the inscrutable motivations of the two leads keeps us enrapt. They are charismatic to be sure, but also mysterious and guarded. In the end, we the audience are drawn to the two leads as they too are fascinated by each other. For director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), sensuality has been a common theme.  Call Me By Your Name elegantly details a summer affair. The chronicle uncovers both the joy and pain of first love – that longing for another person. In that way, the narrative transcends sexuality and relies on fascination and unspoken longing. Those feelings are universal and Call Me by Your Name beautifully captures our humanity.

12-21-17

I, Tonya

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Sports with tags on December 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

i_tonyaSTARS3.5Anyone born before 1990 should remember when figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee by an assailant. The Tonya, of the title, was Tonya Harding, of course – Kerrigan’s rival and Olympic teammate. The 1994 scandal and their subsequent showdown at the Olympics that took place one month later was a defining moment in American TV.  It’s easily the most attention that a women’s figure skating event has ever received either before or since. The details, however, have sort of gotten lost in murky recollections of the past. I’ve encountered some who incorrectly think Tonya Harding was actually the one who hit Nancy Kerrigan. That would’ve made Tonya’s ensuing participation in the 1994 Winter Olympics even more unbelievable. Before all that though, people forget that at one point, Tonya was a darn good athlete winning gold medals at the international competition Skate America in 1989 and 1991. This reminds us of the champion she once was but through a dark comedic filter.

The Nancy Kerrigan attack is why Tonya Harding’s name still persists in the public consciousness. That event is ostensibly why the average viewer might come to see this movie. Midway through, the script even acknowledges the fact. Tanya screams directly at the audience, “I mean it’s what you all came here folks, the f—–ing incident!” However, the drama begins much earlier in her life as a 4-year-old working with a professional coach. In that sense, the film is more of a biography.  This is, in essence, an argument to explain why Tonya Harding was the way she was.

The presentation involves an overly theatrical tone and comical atmosphere. We’re told at the outset that this “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews…” This is Harding’s side of the story filtered through mockumentary-style conversations. These include herself (Margot Robbie) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), but also her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and others. Robbie puts forth a performance you simply cannot ignore.  The slimmer, significantly taller actress looks virtually nothing like the actual person, although I can’t help but think Tonya didn’t have a problem with the casting choice.  The figure skater comes across as a crude, foul-mouthed woman who also happened to be incredibly talented.

The exhibition is far more sympathetic to its subject than expected. It cultivates a world in which Tonya was surrounded by less than savory characters. The account maintains she was beset by people who physically and mentally abused her. It recounts key relationships in her life including a volatile relationship with her mother. Actress Allison Janney seizes your attention. It’s not a pleasant portrayal but it is memorable. The developing romance with an explosive Jeff Gillooly is also detailed. It’s shown that his association with buddy Shawn Eckardt, who became Tonya Harding’s bodyguard, would have detrimental effects on her career. The abuse, both verbal and concrete, that occurs on screen would normally be grounds for prison time but here they’re offered as macabre humor. Her “sweetheart” and mom do not come off well. Both are depicted as horrible people. Jeff at least seems to have her best interests at heart, but LaVona, being a parent from which we assume love, comes across as particularly wicked. Tonya is conspicuously beaten, shot at, stabbed and verbally degraded. Given the seriousness of what she endured, the campy style can be off-putting.

I Tonya relies heavily on music to uplift its heroine. At the 1986 Skate America in Portland, Maine, we see a fellow competitor skate a graceful classical routine to “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. Then Harding takes the ice and performs a flawless, much more athletic set, to “Sleeping Bag” by rock band ZZ Top. The message is clear. She is a talented badass that doesn’t follow the rules. Her lower than expected scores frustrate her and she berates the judges. We’re invited to side with her given the apparent difficulty of her achievement. We don’t just hear music in competitions though. Musical selections underscore everything that’s occurring on screen. They are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times. Tonya Harding’s mother is introduced to the song “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard. ::eye roll:: Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” is played at the announcement of divorce proceedings from her husband. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is for sad times. “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Feels Like the First Time” and “Little Girl Bad” underscore her fierce competitive spirit.

The truth is stranger than fiction. The genuine facts are so compelling that it would be almost impossible to make a movie out of these developments and not have it at least be interesting. I, Tonya is compellingly watchable, although the tone doesn’t serve the subject as it should.  The production revels in the climate of a poor working-class white girl living in Portland Oregon. It’s unglamorous, at times shocking, but presented as comedy. Not humor as enjoyably hilarious kind, but dark comedy that makes light of a very dire situation. I was more saddened by the negative circumstances in her life than able to laugh at the irreverence of it all. It’s not uncommon for characters to break the 4th wall and speak directly to the audience, even in the midst of being assaulted. Back in 1995, Buck Henry’s screenplay for the Gus Van Sant directed To Die For, made light of the depressing real-life story of convicted criminal Pamela Smart. The matters of I, Tonya don’t involve murder, but her upbringing is bad enough that you marvel at the fact that Tonya is still alive. Through it all, the chronicle always makes sure to let us know what a great skater she was. She was the first woman to successfully execute two triple Axels in a single competition, and the first to complete a triple Axel in combination with a double toe loop. I came away from the film feeling much more sorry for Tonya Harding than I was anticipating. Honestly, I didn’t have much sympathy for her before this. Now I do. In that sense, the memoir is completely unpredictable. I was changed by the experience.

11-23-17

Darkest Hour

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on December 11, 2017 by Mark Hobin

darkest_hour_ver3STARS3I always watch historical dramas with a skeptical eye. Especially in dramatizing events in which few individuals were present. I like to ask, “Did this really happen?” “What is the filmmaker’s point of view?” “Where am I being led?” In that vein, there’s a moment in Darkest Hour when I realized I was watching a work of pure fiction. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) purposefully takes the London subway, known as the Underground, in order to commune with the people. The good multitude are positively beaming with humanity.  On his trip to Westminster, he has a magnificently fanciful discussion in which he summons an informal poll of the commuters and concludes what he must do.  With forceful determination, they tell him to “Fight On!” in no uncertain terms. “Never surrender!” they all say. Churchill begins to recite the poem, “Horatius” by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  A spirited black passenger completes the quotation flawlessly. Winston extends a hand to the young man, with tears streaming down his cheeks. He gathers all of their counsel and acts accordingly. It’s a completely fabricated piece of hokum, but darn it all, this bit of hogwash sure feels cinematic.  This is the very definition of artistic license. I fully expect to see the clip on Oscar night.

In Darkest Hour, Director Joe Wright (Atonement) has wisely limited his focus to a single month in the early days of WWII. This includes the decisions leading up to the evacuation of soldiers stranded at the coastal town of Dunkirk. This would make a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s movie that came out earlier in the year. That story didn’t feature Churchill or even the Nazis for that matter.  In contrast, this production is completely fashioned around the Prime Minister. A title card informs us that Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway.  It’s now May 1940 and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is being ousted as Prime Minister, leaving Winston Churchill to step up, He must now defend Britain against the onslaught of Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Europe. Churchill is presented as a rabble-rousing firebrand that united the Nation. His speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance where they apparently stood alone in active opposition to a madman.

His refusal to negotiate for peace is not without struggle, however. There’s the aforementioned Neville Chamberlain and also Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, (Stephane Dillane), neither of which are given sympathetic portrayals. Chamberlain seems incapacitated. Halifax is contentious. Even King George VI distrusts him initially. The King may be quiet but he’s composed. Side note: Is this the same man whose exaggerated stutter was emphasized in The King’s Speech? A far more measured portrait of the man is given here. Anyway, decision weighs upon Churchill’s mind, “Should Britain enter the war and risk the lives of thousands or submit to the peace terms dictated by Adolf Hitler, a psychopath drunk with power?” This is the film’s driving focus.  “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill hollers defiantly. He screams a lot here in declarations that wouldn’t be out of place in an NFL locker room.

Darkest Hour lionizes Churchill as the great orator that stood up to a lunatic in a dark period of England’s history. That is the predictable angle. Churchill is one of the most revered figures of the 20th century. This is a prestigious British biopic perfectly constructed as a vehicle for Gary Oldman to win an Oscar. He is more than up to the task. Oldman is compellingly watchable, buried under pounds of prosthetics so the lean actor can embody the corpulent frame of the actual man. It’s a fascinating presentation of World War II in which everything takes place in the Parliamentary halls of discussion.  Winston incessantly drinks booze, smokes cigars and occasionally sets aside time to confer with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth (Lily James).

Winston Churchill’s powerful fortitude is highlighted to glorious effect. Darkest Hour is a glowing display of a man that assumes the role of a saint even when he lies to the British populace about how well the war effort is going. He misrepresents the facts in a radio address to bolster the morale of the British people.  FDR doesn’t come off as well. He is fleetingly referenced in a disheartening phone call where Winston asks for help and FDR can barely offer any assistance at all. The production is a glowing characterization that incorporates things that Winston did and didn’t say. It’s pretty easy for a 2017 audience to now concede that the courage to resist the Nazis was the right thing to do. It also helps that the Allies won the war, but back in 1940, it wasn’t so clear Hitler would lose. This is, as expected, a one-sided exhibition of historical fiction – a flattering representation of the leader of the Conservative Party whose strength of resolve led a country to victory.  The antagonism Churchill faced is depicted as sorely misguided folks at who we can only shake our heads. Hindsight is 20/20.

12-08-17

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3STARS3In the opening minutes, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is driving by three dilapidated unused billboards on a seemingly deserted rural road. A beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer” sung by opera singer Renée Fleming swells in the background. Mildred is seen contemplating the signs themselves. We soon learn that she’s a divorced mother grieving the recent loss of her teenaged daughter that was raped and murdered 7 months prior. She’s understandably angry and wants justice. Sounds good. I’m on her side. Let’s find the culprit. She rents the ad space for all three billboards and emblazes each with the words “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” separated on each one.

Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of Ebbing Missouri played by Woody Harrelson. He’s a beloved figure in the town who, as the director begins to stack the deck, happens to be suffering from a fatal illness. The townspeople, by and large, aren’t on her side. This is a bit perplexing at first. I mean her daughter was murdered for goodness’ sake.  Apparently, they’re concerned that the huge outdoor signs are insensitive given the sheriff’s condition. Although she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are harassed, Mildred stands firm becoming even more cantankerous and destructive. She ends up doing a lot of really heinous things that make the townsfolk (and us the audience) hate her. She assaults a dentist, kicks school-aged children in the groin, and commits a little felony called arson. We even see Mildred scream at her now deceased daughter “I hope you get raped” in a flashback sequence.  Granted it’s clearly an exchange she regrets. Nevertheless, would your mother ever utter such a thing?

I assume Mildred is the hero. Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic to her plight too but he is shown to be ineffective at best and compassionate to racists at worst. Less sensitive is one of his men Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We’re told he actually tortured a man in custody because of the color of his skin. Yes tortured. We never actually see the abuse in question though. In some ways, this is an even more pernicious filmmaking decision because it indirectly absolves shameful behavior because we do not actually see it.  We’re assured it happened though. “Allegedly” Officer Willoughby jokes. Is that funny? Officer Dixon is a seething irredeemable pile of racism. Or is he? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that creates likable individuals that we end up hating while simultaneously creating loathsome people that we’re asked to snuggle up to.  It’s a moral quandary to be sure. I’m not comfortable with embracing a violent bigot. Are you?

Who am I expected to root for? That is the question in this story. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. We obviously feel sympathy for her but at one point she inadvertently almost kills an innocent man. Well “innocent” of the crime in question but guilty of being a despicable human being. Are we supposed to cheer or jeer? I still don’t know. What I do realize is that no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive. I’m conspicuously in the minority. Three Billboards has gotten universal acclaim. I mean it’s well acted by the entire cast. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson imbue their characters with as much humanity as the script will allow. Although why a southern redneck sheriff is now married to a stunningly gorgeous woman with an Australian accent (Abbie Cornish) is a conundrum that goes unanswered.

Despite the moral dilemmas, Three Billboards is strangely entertaining. I was intellectually fascinated by the utter unpredictably of it all. The capricious turn of events in the plot’s final third is completely incomprehensible. This may be playwright Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic effort to date, but it’s still a lesser version of what the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino do so well.  Martin McDonagh’s point of view is too muddled for me to truly embrace. Is this hilarious comedy or is it a weighty drama? Conspicuously dire circumstances are presented as lighthearted farce. To wit: Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater dating a girl that is of barely legal age (Samara Weaving). Poor Penelope delivers lines that show the audience she’s clearly an airhead. Does that mean her life is any less important? She’s introduced as an object of ridicule but I wanted to save the poor girl from being another battered statistic. Get out of that relationship quick. You’re in danger! I guess those kinds of ethical qualms are a hindrance to enjoying this narrative’s “comedy.”  Sorry. I wasn’t laughing.

11-28-17

Lady Bird

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

lady_bird_ver2STARS4.5I admire Saoirse Ronan. She impressed me in Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But then she did Brooklyn and I fully realized what a talent she truly was. It earned her a second Oscar nomination. Brie Larson won for Room that year. I loved that film and she was deserving of the award. Nevertheless, with all due respect to Brie, I was rooting for Saoirse. I say this right from the start so you may know that I am biased. I admit that. I was already predisposed to love this picture even before it came out. Then the critics’ voices were heard. Lady Bird actually set a record for the best-reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes — that is, the film with the most consecutive “fresh” notices at 185 so far. Now that I’ve seen it, you can throw my critical praise on top of the heap.

Given the title, I had originally thought Lady Bird was a biopic about the First Lady of the United States from 1963–1969. It has nothing to do with Lady Bird Johnson but it IS a period piece of sorts. It takes place in 2002. This is an episodic saga about one Christine McPherson, a senior student at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. “Lady Bird” is her given name, she maintains, in the sense that “it’s given to me, by me.” As you may have surmised, Christine is a bit quirky. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their theater arts program. There she meets Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) and they start dating. Their romance is detailed, as well as her subsequent relationship with another boy (Timothée Chalamet) she meets while working at a coffee shop. This inspires her to form a new friendship with popular girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush) at the expense of the closeness with her best friend Julie. Through all this,  Lady Bird has a strained connection with her mom (Laurie Metcalf ) and slightly stronger solidarity with her dad (Tracy Letts).  Lady Bird dreams of going to an East Coast college, preferably in New York. Her mom feels UC Davis is much more affordable.  Both parents have fully realized personalities, but there’s a depth to Laurie Metcalf’s performance that perfectly incorporates both the love and despair that only the mom of a teenager could express.

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute delight in the title role. It is a flawless performance that utterly embodies the lovable angst of a teenager. She is all earnest excitement. Eager to assert her point of view but unsure of the most effective way in which to do it. This ostensibly autobiographical drama is the directional debut from actress Greta Gerwig. I say “ostensibly” because while all the events may not be entirely factual, Greta did grow up in Sacramento in the early 2000s.  She gets the emotion.  It’s not hard to picture the actress in the lead, at least when she was a younger girl.  Gerwig has written before. Most notably she co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America with longtime boyfriend Noah Baumbach (since 2011).  He helmed both. Now Gerwig is writing and directing on her own here and the lack of a collaborator really suits her.  Lady Bird is a most self-assured debut. Warm, witty, full of insight and humor.

Lady Bird is a cinematic devotion to her mother and a valentine to Sacramento. I came away with a greater appreciation for both of these things. No, it’s not all roses and caviar. It gently pokes fun at various targets with an amiable ribbing. This is a comedy after all and it’s really funny. There are a lot of detailed observations about what it’s like to attend Catholic high school. I should know. I am the proud product of a Catholic education myself. Gerwig gets the atmosphere just right. It’s hard to predict these things, but I suspect many of the witty one-liners will transcend the ages far beyond 2017. It’s clear that Greta means to embrace her adolescence and warmly detail the trials and tribulations within. You’ve seen the chronicle of a youth entering adulthood before. However, Lady Bird elevates the medium. Gerwig has taken the well-worn narrative of the coming of age tale and made it all her own. No one could have managed a tale quite like this. It is unique, fresh, vibrant and fully alive. I fully expect that when the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday, January 23, Lady Bird is going to get a slew of them. Here’s hoping Saoirse Ronan doesn’t go home empty-handed this time.

11-30-17

The Shape of Water

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

shape_of_water_ver3STARS3Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Amélie was sexually attracted to The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If so, then The Shape of Water will be the cinematic revelation to satisfy that curiosity. At heart, The Shape of Water is rooted in the well-worn design of a fairy tale. The idea that two disparate individuals should find their soulmate is a tale as old as time, right? Director Guillermo del Toro’s fable utilizes the structure of classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A human falls in love with something that isn’t human, but The Shape of Water goes farther. This is not a children’s story. This is del Toro’s take on interspecies romance and as such, it has his decidedly adult interpretation.

The setting is early 1960s Baltimore. Not the warm nostalgia for a twinkly bygone period seen through rose colored glasses though. This is the cold intolerant version of that era with a racist, close-minded person in charge.   Our lead character is nothing like that.   Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a shy woman whose vocal cords were slashed when she was a child (ouch!). As such, she is mute. At night, she works as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. One day, the facility receives a new discovery from the rivers of South America courtesy of the heartless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Elisa meets new acquisition, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), she begins sneaking into the enclosure. He’s obviously not human. He’s green, scaly, has fins but he walks upright, is very tall and has a muscular frame. Elisa is immediately drawn to this amphibious beast for reasons that aren’t quite clear. However, their developing connection is plainly shown. She feeds him hard-boiled eggs and plays records on a portable phonograph for him. I felt their friendship. The couple gradually form a special bond that eventually goes — you guessed it — there. I didn’t feel that.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa Esposito, a sort of a melancholy mute plagued by erotic urges. This means the audience is subjected to Elisa pleasuring herself in the bathtub while her naked breasts rest just above the water. The scene feels surprisingly exploitative in what mostly feels like sentimental folklore. Elisa is seemingly modest in other ways. She’s gently timid and reserved at work. Her friendship with the creature is like a couple of lost souls united by love. It’s hard not to feel something for Elisa. A few judicious edits here and there could easily turn this R-rated male fantasy into a PG-rated family film but that would be at the expense of the artist’s creative vision. This is Guillermo del Toro after all, not Frank Capra.

Elisa is surrounded by two charismatic personalities. She lives in the same building as Giles, a closeted commercial artist who pines for a young man that runs the pie shop. Giles is amiable and friendly. His advertising work are like the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Elisa’s co-worker is fellow cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She is Elisa’s good friend and confidant. These three are clearly the archetypal “good” people of the story painted in broad strokes so as not to confuse the viewer.  Despite the formula, there’s still something kind of intriguing about these individuals. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland portrayed by Michael Shannon. He’s the baddie. Strickland views the sea creature as an affront to God because he isn’t made in his image. “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image,” he says. “Some more so than others”, he sneers at Zelda who happens to be black. We know Strickland is an outrage to civil rights, but his characterization as an indefensible piece of garbage is about as subtle as a flying brick.

The Shape of Water is a sumptuous production. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen even captures the glossy surfaces of the government facility with a stylish sheen. Its gorgeous set design and costumes are only matched by its luscious score by Alexandre Desplat. Richard Jenkins’ opening narration beautifully sets the stage for a lush yarn of sweetness and warmth. I was enchanted with the beginning. I desperately wanted to celebrate the elegance of this saga before being shaken by less savory elements. Sex and violence are often about context. Their appearances are awkward here. At one point a man is actually shot in the face and dragged across the floor by the hole in his cheek. You can’t unsee these things. When was the last time you saw that in a Disney movie? The question is fair because del Toro is operating within that vocabulary. At its core, this is a rather simple legend that a child would embrace. Nothing wrong with a straightforward ode to love. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are basic tales of a seemingly mismatched pair and they charm children of all ages. The difference here is that it’s filtered through a clouded lens of decidedly adult sensibilities. The ultimate objective is that by the end you’re transported to a feeling of joy. Some apparently are but I was kinda creeped out.

The Shape of Water is scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8, 2017, after a December 1 limited release in New York.

11-13-17

Murder on the Orient Express

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery on November 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

murder_on_the_orient_express_ver3STARS2I just witnessed the murder…of a classic. It shouldn’t have been difficult. Take Murder on the Orient Express, an entertaining whodunit by Agatha Christie. Cast a lot of A-list stars in the roles. Then ensure you have extravagant production values, nice costumes, picturesque cinematography and a lush score. Audiences love this sort of thing. They always have. Back in 1974, Sidney Lumet directed an adaptation of the famous novel. It was among the Top 15 highest grossing films of that year. Not only was it wildly successful at the box office but it was also nominated for six Academy Awards. Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Now jump to 2017 and Kenneth Branagh has taken an acknowledged delight and misdirected the joy out of it.

I guess it doesn’t help that he starts with a stuffy script by Michael Green (Green Lantern). Agatha Christie’s words are inherently light and witty but in Green’s hands the words roll off the actors’ tongues like they’re quoting some ancient manuscript. The property feels dusty and old. He’s omitted the buoyancy and wit and made it dull and lethargic. The suspense has been expunged from the story as well. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ convoluted camera angles often capture the action from overhead or from outside while zooming past the train windows. The discovery of the murdered body is filmed from the ceiling without showing the actual body. This key scene is rendered confusing. What are we witnessing exactly? Was someone killed? The people on screen attest to the fact so we can only assume from their words that someone was.

Kenneth Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. In fact triple duty, because he’s a producer as well. Focus, man, focus. As Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, it’s his mustache that makes the biggest impression. He’s more urbane than previous incarnations but less interesting. He’s missing that spark of a personality that makes him so magnetic. Granted he’s got some big shoes to fill. Albert Finney was pretty iconic in the 1974 release, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. David Suchet earned a BAFTA nomination playing the character on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a TV show that had 13 seasons between 1989 and 2013. Still, Branagh is the only actor that has the opportunity to shine. The rest of the cast are given short shrift. They all blend in together, indistinguishable from the next. Nobody makes an impact. Some of the passengers are supposed to have a connection to each other right from the beginning. These aren’t spoilers. In the novel, this is merely the introduction of the group. Are Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in an affair? Do Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Mr. Masterman (Derek Jacobi) work for Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp)? The answer is yes to all of the above but you’d hardly know it from the careless way their relationships are presented here.

The all-star ensemble includes such luminaries as Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. Yet there is no one to root for. No one to excite our emotions. It would be challenging since barely anyone, with the exception of Branagh, has the chance to give a performance. Poirot treats the passengers as suspects but we have nothing invested. Each traveler is brought forward for but only a moment and then he’s on to the next person. The dialogue is an afterthought without a propulsive thrust to drive the narrative forward. Someone is killed but the actors seem indifferent. The passengers are suddenly entangled in a murder case and their lack of interest is closer to the reaction you’d exhibit for an overdue library book. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Do you even care? The answer is a resounding no.

Director Kenneth Branagh has taken a thriller and abandoned the thrills – a dramatic mystery minus the suspense. The production looks good. Score, set design and costumes are exquisite. It’s nice seeing so many actors I respect in the same film. And yet, their star presence evaporates like water on a hot stove. They are bored performing their lines with the passion of reciting a grocery list. They can barely contain their apathy. The ultimate revelation is so lethargic when it’s revealed that it induces sleep. They all inexplicably assemble at a long table in perfect alignment “Last Supper” style in a tunnel outside in the snow. It’s a ridiculous end to an interminable movie that runs shorter than the 1974 version but ends up feeling much longer. As my review comes to a close, I must say I resisted the urge to fall back on obvious quips to describe this adaptation. I’m talking phrases like “jumps off the track,” “goes off the rails” and “runs out of steam.” Such puns felt a little too glib and I wanted to rise above such facile jokes. Please forgive this one indiscretion, but yikes, what a train wreck!

11-09-17

The Florida Project

Posted in Drama on October 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

florida_projectSTARS4Few of the tourists who visit Walt Disney World will ever stay at the Magic Castle Inn. The name seems to intentionally suggest the Magic Kingdom. It’s a roadside motel in Kissimmee Florida, located just minutes from the theme park but it’s not related in any way, shape or form. It’s painted hot pink exterior somewhat disguises its seedy atmosphere. Most of the tenants actually appear to be long-term residents enticed by extremely cheap rates. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a brash 6-year-old girl who lives there with her mother Halley. Moonee is presumably not in school at the moment. It is summer and so she spends her days hanging out with the children of the other extended stay dwellers.

Director Sean Baker’s debut was Tangerine, a little slice of life about folks on the fringes of the LA community. Pimps and prostitutes are not the kinds of people that we want to embrace, but his unflinching examination saw the humanity within a segment of society most people ignore. Like that film, The Florida Project details the unsavory life that percolates on the ragged edges of Orlando’s sprawling network of family-friendly resorts. “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s working title for his entertainment complex in the greater Orlando area. It would seem to be a tragic irony that an attraction as cheerful and wholesome as Walt Disney World is surrounded by less than grand living situations.

All of this is seen through the eyes of a child. Adults are very much a part of this story, but their reality is an alien universe shrouded in mystery to these kids. Our understanding of what is truly happening sometimes comes across as a bit clouded too. Our protagonist is Moonee, a rambunctious, almost vulgar, holy terror that is allowed free reign to explore the compound. Actress Brooklynn Prince is utterly natural, almost chillingly so. She does mischievous deeds with her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), a downstairs neighbor, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who lives down the road in another motel called Futureland. Despite their flaws, we care about these kids. The narrative grants their existence the same respect producer Hal Roach afforded to The Little Rascals. There’s a big difference though. The kids are outwardly cute in appearance but they sure don’t act that way. We see them cover a car with their spit in a game of target practice. They switch off the power to their entire building from the utility room. Later they accidentally burn down a foreclosed house after lighting a pillow on fire.

Halley (Bria Vinaite) is Moonee’s single mother, a foul-mouthed, tattoo covered, hustler. She sells perfumes to tourists on the street by day and receives gentlemen callers at night. Her parenting skills leave a lot to be desired. The filmmaker doesn’t ask us to sympathize with Halley, but he doesn’t impugn her either. I can appreciate the display of humanity in its many forms, but when she’s responsible for the welfare of a child, the script’s apparent lack of condemnation is somewhat disturbing. What helps is actor Willem Dafoe in the form of motel manager Bobby. He is a force of good in a sea of characters that aren’t. He actively puts his neck out to ensure the safety of these kids.

Director Sean Baker utilized the purity of cinema vérité when he created Tangerine in 2015 and he exploits a similar style again. Gone is the iPhone 5s cinematography. He’s shooting on glorious 35mm film this time around with a traditional camera, but the outskirts of Orlando is presented as anything but conventional. Sun-drenched vistas burst with the crisp colors that stand in stark contrast to a childhood troubled by a grim situation. Moonee’s environment is hardly ideal. However, this is all conferred without critique. The neglect of a minor should probably invite more condemnation.  The atmosphere remains surprisingly upbeat. Baker continues to employ an indie aesthetic. With the exception of Willem Dafoe, these are all unknown actors. Everyone from first-time actress Bria Vinaite — an Instagram discovery and “friend” of musician Drake — to actual non-actors utilized on location, Baker’s presentation has the feel of real life. It is that authenticity that allows us to understand these depressing conditions. Given the circumstances, one might wish for more righteous judgment, but Baker’s observational view is admirable too. Ultimately though he defers to the moral high ground. The emotional ending is a catharsis that is as welcome as it is heartbreaking.

10-12-17