Archive for the Drama Category

The Magnificent Seven

Posted in Action, Drama, Western on September 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo magnificent_seven_ver5_zpsj0bruyra.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie remakes have long been Hollywood’s backup plan. In only the last 2 years we’ve received RoboCop, Endless Love, About Last Night, Poltergeist, Point Break, The Jungle Book and Ghostbusters. And there’s a staggering number more in development. I tend to greet each with guarded expectations given the middling success of most of them (The Jungle Book was a notable exception) . Given all the ways The Magnificent Seven could have been corrupted, it’s refreshing to see it got a lot right.

Recycling the past is pretty common these days, but a remake of a remake? Well that’s kind of rare. The Magnificent Seven is a new rendition of the classic 1960 western which was also a reworking of the 1954 Japanese epic Seven Samurai. There are still purists who view the John Sturges version as a pale imitation of the original. Although the 1960 interpretation has grown in such stature over the years that it has now become an accepted exemplar of the American western. The American Film Institute even listed it as one of the 100 most thrilling American movies of all time. So the 2016 adaptation begs the question: why redo it?

I was pleasantly surprised. This reproduction could have been a lot worse. It sidestepped my worst fears. Director Antoine Fuqua has kept the setting in the 1870s. Screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto have preserved the relatively simple narrative. Keeping it as the straightforward western that it is, are among the picture’s strengths.  Don’t fix what ain’t broke. The story concerns evil land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who terrorizes the little mining town of Rose Creek. Townsfolk Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), and her friend, Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) enlist bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) for help. Chisolm, in turn, assembles a team of 6 more gunslingers to help out.

Fuqua assembles a racially diverse, all-star cast. Denzel Washington heads up the company. No stranger to his productions, Washington has worked with Fuqua twice before in his most monetarily successful flicks (Training Day, The Equalizer) when adjusted for inflation. There’s Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a hard-drinking gambler with a talent for explosives. He is joined by the sharpshooter with the coolest moniker Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his assassin-with-a-knife partner, Asian immigrant Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), big burly Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a skilled but goofily unstable tracker, Comanche warrior without a tribe Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and notorious Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Granted, just roll calling the actors like this is a bit methodical, but it’s such an important component. They’re really the best thing about the movie.

The charismatic ensemble is the most compelling argument to see The Magnificent Seven. Every film has the right to be judged on its own merits, but it’s unreasonable not to acknowledge previous versions in a remake. The modern casting is inventive. Simply watching Denzel Washington play the commanding leader of this posse of renegades has an appeal. He’s good in this context. Although the actors distinguish this production, it’s more of a cosmetic change than a substantive one. There’s charisma on display to be sure, particularly in the comedic moments from wisecracking Chris Pratt. “I believe that bear is wearing people clothes,” he says of Vincent D’Onofrio’s character. Yet the performers still come up a bit lacking in the charm department. That would have really put this adaptation over the top. Oh there’s plenty of rip-roaring shooting on display to distract from its deficiencies. However the bare bones story goes on for far too long. I’ll concede the originals were too lengthy as well. Fuqua could have remedied that with his interpretation, but he doesn’t. In contrast, this variant seems to mosey along at a sluggish pace. There’s no reason why we need such a protracted build-up to the final battle. The final confrontation is long and repetitive as well. Oh and really violent. Thousands are slaughtered in this shoot ’em up . The PG-13 rating just might be the funniest joke of the movie. If you watch this first, having never seen the John Sturges’ classic, you should enjoy it. It’s fine, but it’s not fresh or innovative or memorable or necessary. It’s disposable entertainment for a lazy afternoon matinee. The Magnificent Seven succeeds in that way.

09-22-16

Sully

Posted in Biography, Drama on September 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sully_ver2_zpsgo7sqnzo.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s get right to the point. Sully bored me to tears. The movie that is, not the pilot for whom I have the utmost respect. I have to make that abundantly clear so I’m not misunderstood. This production is simply not artfully designed to maximize entertainment value. At least not as far as this reviewer is concerned.

But what do I know? Sully continues to astound as the #1 film this weekend with another $22M. I shouldn’t be surprised by its success. This is an old-fashioned tribute to an American hero by director Clint Eastwood starring Tom Hanks. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing subject with a starring role that couldn’t miss pressing all the right buttons if the drama had been constructed out of a marketing focus group. In some ways, that feels like part of the problem.

Sully is a biopic about the actions of one Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549. Back in Jan 2009, the airliner hit a flock of Canada geese only 100 seconds into the flight, disabling both engines. Determining that no airports were within a safe distance, He made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The entire dilemma occurred and was resolutely solved in 208 seconds. All 155 passengers and crew aboard were saved. Sully was immediately hailed as hero. The incident came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”. Case closed. End of story, right? Not so fast.

How do you create meaningful tension in a tale with a central issue that was quickly solved and with a happy ending to boot? Clint Eastwood is often captivated by downfall and redemption themes. Therefore, he has retrofitted his aesthetic to manipulate a story where there really is no conflict. I’ll admit there’s excitement in a crash landing, or what could have been a disaster. Drama resides in human fear. Except that’s not how Mr. Eastwood approaches this topic. The crisis has already happened when the chronicle begins. Instead of concentrating on the incident itself, Eastwood tries to mine thrills by fashioning the plot around an inquisition by the National Transportation Safety Board. They believe Sully had enough power to safely return the plane to LaGuardia or land at Teterboro airport in nearby New Jersey. The movie flashbacks to the roughly 5 minute ordeal over and over again as details emerge. Each side contends their own side of the truth. I thought of Inherit the Wind and the way “right vs. wrong” was amusingly portrayed in a courtroom setting. It’s all about the “I bet you feel like an idiot now!” moment.

I’m not here to debate whether the NTSB really was the villain in this ordeal. (For the record, they gave Sullenberger high marks in their accident report and publicly credited his quick action that saved lives.)  I just want an engaging flick. Sully, however, is a deferential hagiography that manufactures the final payoff out of a series of dreary flight simulations in a room full of people talking. This becomes the weak climax of an account where the ultimate showdown is a big yawn of a discussion.  Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is unquestionably a hero. No one disputes that — or no one but the NTSB according to this script. In any case, this feature chose to depict a 5-minute event that had a happy ending. It’s not easy to make that exciting. This film proves that. Even at a scant 96 minutes, the drama feels overstuffed with filler.

09-15-16

Florence Foster Jenkins

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on September 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo florence_foster_jenkins_zpsglvvlopw.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWho knew that a historical drama starring Meryl Streep would elicit the loudest and most sustained laughter I’ve heard in a theater this year? Certainly not I. Chalk it up to matching the right audience with the perfect film. Florence Foster Jenkins is old-fashioned in its construction, but it’s so lovingly composed and well acted that you can’t help but appreciate the craft that went into making it.

The 2nd week of August saw a flurry of new movies. Florence Foster Jenkins is a picture I initially passed on back in August because I chose to see wider releases instead, namely Pete’s Dragon and Sausage Party.  This biopic tops them both. Florence Foster Jenkins was an actual New York City heiress and socialite who loved to sing but didn’t let her lack of vocal talent stop her. In the face of substantial shortcomings, she attracted a considerable fan base. She sang at the parties of the various clubs and societies she supported, amassing a fervent following of affluent New Yorkers. Her popularity and reputation grew during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Florence Foster Jenkins makes a comprehensible case as to how such a bad singer could become such a sensation. People relished her awfulness. This fascination with failed crooners isn’t a peculiarity of the 1940s. The success of William Hung’s American Idol audition or the 2011 song “Friday” by YouTube personality Rebecca Black are recent examples of this phenomenon. Whether Florence was aware of the “mockers and the scoffers” is not altogether clear. To be fair, she had her genuine adherents too.

As you’d expect, Meryl Streep is flawless. Yet the production features not one but three bravura performances. St. Clair Bayfield was her husband and a minor Shakespearean actor, to boot. He devoted decades to protecting the soprano from the critical voices that might silence her enthusiasm. It’s Hugh Grant’s juiciest role in almost a decade. An important side character through all this was her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame. His double takes and incredulous stares are priceless.

Director Stephen Frears has given us successes like Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen, so he obviously knows how to produce a tale that is perceptive as well as crowd pleasing. Despite the costume drama milieu, Florence Foster Jenkins is not some staid period piece. This is a comedic farce that relies heavily on Meryl Streep’s hilarious ability to sing really really badly. Indeed, there are scenes where most directors would have cut the song short, but Frears gives us extended takes that revel in just how truly awful she is. In the hands of Meryl Streep, the character becomes larger than life with a predilection for ornate costumes and flamboyant flair for the theatrical show. It’s a spectacle to be sure but a rather amusing one at that. Although there’s nothing funny about the deeper notion of idealistic dreams. The narrative is equally uplifting. A fearless spirit has the capacity to transcend one’s limitations.

08-30-16

The Light Between Oceans

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on September 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo light_between_oceans_zpspo3k7olj.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLabor Day weekend is the very last weekend of the summer season. It’s not a desirable date on which to have a movie released. Unfortunately this is the slot onto which The Light Between Oceans was unceremoniously dumped by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures . This being the final DreamWorks film distributed by Disney through its Touchstone label, might have had something to do with that. I can’t say, although I do know that this production deserved a better release date. The adaptation is based on a bestselling novel by author M.L. Stedman, directed by the critically acclaimed Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), and features two white-hot stars of the moment: Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. The drama is admittedly not cutting-edge. It’s proudly old-fashioned. Still, this feature is far superior to the promotion it got.

The Light between Oceans is the kind of grand sentimentality we seldom see anymore. Weepy, dated, hopelessness old fashioned – these may sound like digs but that’s only because most people don’t value such things. As a matter of fact, I do and thus, I mean no disrespect. There is a real need for this type of picture because it so rarely exists in the current cinematic climate. This is a love story – fully realized by a production design with a loving eye for period detail, beautiful cinematography, and a gorgeous score by Alexandre Desplat.

But what of the specifics of this saga? Well, that’s where the luster of this highly polished vase of a film does lose a bit of its shine. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a lighthouse keeper living on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Western Australia, post World War I. Tom’s job is a lonely task. Luckily he soon makes the acquaintance of one Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). She is a forthright girl who tenaciously pursues Tom. Her sense of purpose is one I haven’t seen in period pieces from women that portray this era. Isabel’s behavior may be anachronistic, but it’s unexpected too and that’s refreshing. They return to Janus Rock as husband and wife to begin their new life as a married couple. Two miscarriages later and we’re already experiencing her deep emotional pangs from the loss of her children. Then one day a small boat washes ashore. Inside they find a baby girl, still very much alive, and the body of her father, presumably, who didn’t survive the journey.

The Light Between Oceans deals with tragedy and ‘what if’ scenarios in a fascinating way that will have you weighing in on the “right thing to do” vs. “what feels right”. The moral quandary is heightened by a series of events that veer dangerously close into melodrama. Yet screenwriter Derek Cianfrance masterfully weaves an ethical dilemma to keep the viewer’s attention enrapt. It’s also acted to perfection by Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, both fresh from recent Academy Awards nominations last year. She won. He didn’t. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the two are amorously involved off screen as well. So yeah, they have chemistry together. That’s pretty important in a love story and a key element as to why this romance works. There are some irksome developments. A frustrating resolution could have easily been averted with a simple conversation or two. But ah, such is life! The real world can be troublesome. The Light Between Oceans has flaws, but it will also make you feel. More often than not, that emotion comes naturally. We need more experiences like that at the cinema.

09-03-16

Hell or High Water

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Western with tags on August 29, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hell_or_high_water_zpshgdreiqe.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgI’m pleasantly surprised. David Mackenzie’s neo-Western wasn’t even on my radar. I generally don’t expect much from the second week of August. That’s kind of a dead period for movie releases. The summer is winding down. Kids are gearing up for back-to-school and most major film studios have already issued their heavy hitters. Lionsgate is not one of the “Big Six” studios, so maybe it’s not surprising that such an awards-worthy production (and potential blockbuster) would have such an atypical release date. However Lionsgate IS the largest and most successful mini-major studio in North America, so I wouldn’t exactly classify them as an indie either. Regardless, I was prompted to watch this on a good recommendation. I’m so glad I did.

Since the traditional Western takes place in the later half of the 19th century, I probably shouldn’t place Hell or High Water in that genre. The setting is present-day West Texas. The American frontier setting certainly confuses things. It’s unquestionably a heist picture. On that everyone will agree. The story is simple. Two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine, Ben Foster respectively) plan a series of robberies targeting various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank in an effort to buy back their family farm. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is in hot pursuit along with his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

The narrative details a series of stick-ups like you’d find in an old western but set in today’s modern day Texas. Scottish director David Mackenzie has an uncanny feel for this material. He is brilliant at establishing characters. His last movie, the underseen British prison drama Starred Up, also excelled in this area. Naturally a lot of credit should also go to the crackerjack script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). Gradually the screenwriter reveals layers to these brothers, Toby and Tanner. At first the two appear to be one and the same – bank robbers. As the chronicle develops, we’re given motives and backstories and emotional temperaments that play out in little dialogues with various people along the way. Each vignette uncovers more depth to these people. A flirtatious conversation with Toby from a waitress (a noteworthy Katy Mixon) in a diner, is deceptively mundane taken at face value. Yet her wistful exchange exposes a heartbreaking yearning for so much more in her life.

She’s merely one component in an incredible ensemble. Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton. The grizzled, old fashioned Texas ranger is not such a stretch for the veteran actor anymore. Still, he’s wonderful. Ditto his partner Alberto Parker, a marshal whose half-Comanche/half-Mexican roots are subject to his constant teasing. The focus revolves around their pursuit of the brothers. The younger duo is united in the same dirty business, but they are rather different. Ben Foster has always been a bit of a chameleon. He’s mesmerizing. His portrayal is just as intense as you’d expect. However Chris Pine’s soulful work is the performance of his career. His understated achievement is so quietly expressive. I thought I knew the actor. He’s a revelation.

In this account, no one person is all good or all bad. Toby and Tanner are clearly in the wrong. Yet we are given valid reasons to hate these financial institutions – the source of foreclosed houses and crushed dreams. Are these brothers a modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Not exactly, although you’d be forgiven for making the connection. Rooting for these guys is similarly problematic, but this is a tale with even deeper shades of gray. There are so many surprises. One violent altercation inadvertently provides a cogent defense for carrying a concealed weapon. The mentality of the vigilante perspective is presented so rationally, I was a bit taken aback. There’s sort of an odd mix of emotion that fluctuates wildly between compassion and disgust for these lawbreakers. Sympathy turns to aversion over the course of the narrative. It’s the way these little unforeseen vignettes plays out that make this character study so captivating.  One of the most noteworthy dramas of 2016.

08-27-16

Captain Fantastic

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_fantastic_zpsmej8s5nl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe trials and tribulations of a family clan is the subject of this domestic comedy-drama. But this isn’t your typical household. They’re headed up by patriarch Ben Cash – a father to his six children ranging in age from about 6 to 18. Each is bestowed with a unique made up name: Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai. His wife, their mother, has spent the past few months hospitalized for bipolar disorder. Their lives have continued on while she recuperates. They subsist in the untamed wilderness of the Pacific Northwest by living a rugged, self-sufficient lifestyle. Home schooled and shunning modern conveniences like supermarkets they have learned to fend for themselves by living off the land. That means hunting, fishing and growing their own food. It also means being homeschooled and even eschewing time-honored holidays of Christianity like Christmas.  Instead, they celebrate Ben’s invented festivals honoring leftist ideologues like Noam Chomsky Day. They’ve gone further than reject civilization, they live in complete isolation.

In the hands of actor Viggo Mortensen, the profile is a mesmerizing character study of a bizarre family while maintaining the humanity of the people within. In layman’s terms, he’s a radical hippie dad. They’re unorthodox but at the same time, they seem well adjusted in their own way. Ben’s teaching style is honest and straightforward. He doesn’t believe in mincing words. Questions about “The birds and the bees” for example are answered in a frank fashion. He gives it to his kids straight with an approach that would make most moms and dads bristle. Alex Comfort’s book The Joy of Sex is probably not an appropriate gift for a 6-year-old, but Ben is not a traditional dad. When a life-altering event forces the family to enter the big city, his progressive parenting skills are called into question, particularly by his father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) who doesn’t think his grandkids are being raised properly. He suspects they may even be in danger. The conflict accentuates the positives and negatives of Ben’s child rearing technique with grace and subtlety.

Front and center in Captain Fantastic is Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) the father of this eccentric brood. Even a parent with the best intentions can be flawed — and he is — in some pretty major ways actually. Yet deep down he still truly wants to do the right thing. His children are given a thorough education in science, history, and the arts. They read voraciously. They can not only recite knowledge but also apply it to real world situations. A memorable head to head challenge featuring his daughter Zaja (Shree Crooks), highlights the superior success of his educational approach. The methods of conventional schools have clearly failed the sons of their Aunt Harper and Uncle Dave (Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, respectively). The script is intelligent enough to value Ben’s take on life but there’s also a lot wrong with it as well. His oldest – slim, ponytailed Bodevan (George MacKay) is socially awkward and he himself knows it. Bodevan yearns to attend a university where he can learn in a traditional setting and socialize with other people. The portrait is not perfect.  Father Ben can be so stridently overbearing that he loses our sympathy.  It’s the nuance that gives this sincere story a soul. Viggo Mortensen is the heart of the drama.  He’s incredible, and the 6 youngsters are the veins. Together they unite in a manner that will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

08/08/16

Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Superhero with tags on August 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo suicide_squad_ver24_zpstam6rkzx.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI love the concept of Suicide Squad. The whole movie is predicated on the idea that bringing together a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals would be a great way to fight crime. Fight fire with fire, right? Their lives are expendable so if they don’t succeed it’s no great loss. The collection of a ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells has formed the basis of great films from The Dirty Dozen to Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, the notion of assembling crooks to fight their own is inherently ridiculous. So if you can get past the illogical set up, you’re half the way there into buying this hokum.

The key thing is to set up an engaging group of characters that we want to embrace. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or evil. Give them charisma and we’ll follow their adventure. The assortment of convicts here is also known as Task Force X. “The worst of the worst” as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls them. She’s the high ranking government official who oversees them. At her side is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is responsible for executing her orders. He directs the baddies in the field. But as we find out, deep down they’re really not so bad at heart.  Let’s start with the slightly more interesting people. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), a dangerous assassin with impeccable aim. He also has an 11 year old daughter for whom he’d do anything in the world. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has pyrokinetic abilities. However he is reluctant to use them after accidentally killing his wife and daughter from setting a building on fire.

The best character is Harley Quinn in a star making turn by Margot Robbie. If this superhero movie has any hope for longevity in these seemingly endless comic book adaptations, it will be because of her. Honestly they should’ve called Suicide Squad, The Harley Quinn Show. She is the reason to see this picture and easily the most compelling outcast. She’s the psychiatrist that became a psychopath. Face smeared with pale makeup, she wears her hair in colorful pigtails, wields a baseball bat as a weapon and giggles incessantly. She knows more than her male cohorts but downplays her smarts with a flirtatious wink. She certainly outshines her boyfriend, none other than the Joker (Jared Leto), a former patient now turned paramour.  Ah yes she’s motivated by her love for him.  Given all the advance studio promotion of Leto’s appearance, you’d think he was the star of this joint. He’s nothing more than an expanded cameo here – neither the main villain nor a member of the squad – only Harley Quinn’s boyfriend that pops up briefly to rescue her in a scene. After months of online hype, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated.

Let’s not forget the section I call “and the rest” on the team: Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Rick Flag’s bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) joins the gang too I think. It  wasn’t clear to me whether she’s an official addition or just sort of tags along.  Regardless none of the remaining constituents are able to register a definable personality in this loud cacophonous mess. In an adventure where everyone is a lunatic, the main evildoer should be pretty boffo. Instead we get the Enchantress, an archaeologist who becomes a powerful sorceress when possessed . She’s played by Cara Delevingne. The model turned actress simply doesn’t have the gravitas to play the arch villain that should anchor a production such as this. It’s not apparent at first, but suppressing her ultimately becomes Task Force X’s main objective.

The plot is confusing. We get so many incidental asides that give backstory as to how these felons came to be. A chemical baptism flashback between the Joker and Harley Quinn has some promise, but with so many tangents, it’s easy to lose track of all the random individuals. The film descends into tired action picture clichés with overstuffed commotion. The rapid fire cut and paste edit aesthetic does nothing to uplift this feature. The characters disappear under the weight of discordant madness and haphazard editing. The movie poster promises a colorful psychedelic mushroom cloud extravaganza. Yet in reality the production is actually a dark, dimly lit slog with a surprising lack of color.

I’d fault Suicide Squad for not having a story, but that’s not really the point. Introducing a bunch of characters is the plot. This is an excuse to create archetypes and parade them around for 123 minutes in a gleefully exuberant devil-may-care spectacle. That might have been acceptable. If every member of this battalion had as much pizzazz as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), I’d be loving this flick.  If I had to name one other MVP, it would be Viola Davis as their governmental superior. She is often the voice of calm in a calamitous haze, reciting exposition to clarify the script’s more ambiguous passages. Three installments into the DC Extended Universe and I can see things are improving. The problem is that the rest of the cast is lacking. Not the actors’ fault. Their parts are simply underwritten. Suicide Squad is better than Batman v Superman. I’ll give it that. It’s just that it still has a ways to go.

08-04-16

Café Society

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo cafe_society_zpsegp6dclo.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgWoody Allen is an auteur. As any director that releases a movie every year (side note: are there any others?), he operates on 2 levels. There is his essential canon and then you have his dispensable curiosities. Blue Jasmine is the last movie I’d place in the former category. Sadly I’d have to say Cafe Society belongs more in the latter category. But I sound harsher than I mean to. Cafe Society is enjoyable in parts. It’s certainly a major step up from Magic in the Moonlight. However this slight tale of woe isn’t as vital as his best.

Cafe Society is a chronicle of missed connections and love lost. This period comedy set in the 1930s details the story of Bobby Dorfman, a nobody that comes to LA and begins doing menial errands for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a very powerful and influential talent agent. Phil has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show Bobby around and get settled in Hollywood. Bobby becomes smitten by her down-to-earth personality and easy going temperament. However she is taken and unavailable to date.  Vonnie is already seeing “Doug”.  Notice I put “Doug” in quotes. That’s not actually her boyfriend’s name. Any guesses as to who the Doug really is in this romantic triangle?

Woody Allen movies are a casting agent’s dream. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart gracefully inhabit their parts. Steve Carell on the other hand, is somewhat less captivating. Yes Phil is a rich powerful man in Hollywood but he still doesn’t seem to convey the charisma that would sweep a pretty young girl off her feet. There’s some nice supporting work here though. Parker Posey is modeling-agency owner Rad Taylor, a sparkling wit of the nightclub scene. The luminous setting in the 2nd half gives the film its title. Carey Stoll plays Bobby’s elder brother Ben as a gangster who resorts to murder to solve every problem. It’s a running joke. There’s also a gorgeous Blake Lively as Veronica Hayes. She is Bobby’s too-stunning-to-be-considered-merely-a-backup-choice girlfriend.

The script is a saga that weaves passion, desire, melancholy, and pathos. Jesse Eisenberg’s dramatic arc from a gabby naive Jewish boy into a worldly nightclub owner is rather improbable. Yet it happens so gradually it’s believable. His stuttering rhythms and affectations are pure Woody Allen in his prime and it’s easy to see the director playing this role in 1977. I can’t remember a time when Kristen Stewart was so fetching. Her makeup and wardrobe beautifully recall screen legends of yesteryear. As the object of Bobby’s affection, she exudes gum smacking sensibility with a brassy charm, but still enough sweetness to be alluring.

Cafe Society is a blast from the past. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have an established chemistry, this being their third collaboration after making both Adventureland (2009) and American Ultra (2015) together. Their synergy is the most exciting reason to see this picture.  There are a few missteps. The account doesn’t end as strongly as it begins. It just sort of fizzles out. Woody Allen also chooses to narrate the story himself. His gravely voice is so awkward when juxtaposed with the beauty of the age. But oh what a time! The cast is bathed in the retro glow of the 1930s. Legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro soaks the film in rich hues. His photography celebrates the spirit of the era.  If you needed more, his work is validation enough to see Cafe Society.

07-27-16

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on July 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hunt_for_the_wilderpeople_ver3_zpssdgunvub.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgTaika Waititi is a major talent. New Zealand already knows this after several of the director’s offbeat films, which include Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, have become hits in that country. The latter comedy was one of my favorites of the year when it was finally released in the U.S. in 2015.  On November 3, 2017, the rest of the world will come to know Taika Waititi’s name when Thor: Ragnarok (Thor 3) is released.

His latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a quirky joy. A movie fashioned with such care and so much warmth that it practically leaps from the screen and gives the audience a hug. It’s based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump. Crump’s semi-autobiographical tales are often comic adventures set in the rugged outdoors. Wilderpeople is no different. The saga stars a famous name in actor Sam Neill as Uncle Hec, a grizzled man. He chases after Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a defiant city boy after Ricky runs away from home into the forest.

But let’s start at the beginning. Sweet Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous Uncle Hec (Neill) are Ricky’s latest foster parents.  Living in the country has been an adjustment for the city kid. Aunt Bella is chipper although her bloody killing of a boar does frighten the child a bit. However Ricky finally seems to have found a family he likes. When Bella abruptly passes away, the authorities threaten to extract the youngster and place him in yet another foster home. Fearing more bad experiences, Ricky runs away into the wild. Uncle Hec follows after the boy. When strict child-services worker Paula (Rachel House) discovers the missing pair, a manhunt ensues.

Ricky is an orphan that has been shuttled around in the foster care system. Raised on hip-hop and affecting a gansta lean (that is if he was actually old enough to drive) he’s been labeled as a bad egg. Nothing could be further from the truth. With dog Tupac by his side, he is disarmingly charismatic. The elderly geezer and the young whippersnapper, thrown together by fate, united by friendship. The idea sounds clichéd but in the hands of Sam Neil and especially novice actor Julian Dennison, the idea is fresh and delightful. Dennison is the secret weapon of the chronicle, bringing a fresh interpretation to a character that charms us almost immediately. A heavy set kid of about 12, there’s a physicality to his performance that makes his precociousness all the more amusing.

Hunt of the Wilderpeople is a beautiful blending of a road movie and a coming of age tale. Like the novel, the production is divided into chapters, each with its own title. The whimsical adventure fashions amusing vignettes that, like delectable morsels, are easily digestible in bite size pieces. With gorgeous scenery as a backdrop, a musical score charms with a retro 80s feel courtesy of the band Moniker . “Trifecta (Ricky Baker Song)” is a highlight. Musical interludes are inserted amongst sharp, witty moments between Uncle Hec and the tender lad. If there is a quibble, it’s that the plot drags on a bit too long when a tighter narrative might have made the ending pop a bit more . By the time the story finally wraps up, we’re more than ready for things to end.  Still, there’s a preciousness that touches the heart without ever being overtly twee. It recalls the work of Wes Anderson. Believe me,  that’s a compliment of the highest order in my book.  Actor Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison have an odd couple chemistry that makes this “hang-out” yarn thoroughly enjoyable. The veteran actor is good but the rookie is even better. Julian Dennison steals the film and probably your heart as well.

07-17-16

Wiener-Dog

Posted in Comedy, Drama on July 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo wiener_dog_zpsbwumiqbq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThey don’t call Todd Solondz “The King Of Feel-Bad Cinema” for nothing. Few directors expose the horror that exists beneath the well manicured facade of the suburban dream as frightfully as he. Wiener-Dog is only his 8th feature since 1989. A prolific filmmaker he is not. Welcome To The Dollhouse was the 1996 picture that put the New Jersey native on the indie map. It still remains his biggest success to this day. While subsequent releases have seen less box office, most have achieved a certain level of critical acclaim. All are informed by his cruel, albeit multi-layered take on the human condition.

In Wiener-Dog, four tales are linked together by the presence of the same dachshund. As she inhabits the lives of four different individuals, we come to learn the details of the families within. There’s Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a sensitive little boy who is a cancer survivor, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), an awkward young woman who runs into an old crush, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) a screenwriting professor disregarded by his students, and Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly woman visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). You can see the director’s alter ego in the lead protagonist as the focus of each story gets a little older. The spirit of every principal beaten down by the inequities of life.

Mortality is a fact of life. Death isn’t a cheerful idea, but it is real. Because Todd Solondz deals in these themes, he is not an easy director to like. His worldview is bleak and pessimistic. Oh and did I mention this is a comedy? A very funny one at that if you can cuddle up to the movie’s prickly charms. The absurdity of the conversations within can be laugh out loud hilarious at times. There’s even an intermission scored to an original countrified song called “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog”. It adds just the right amount of levity before embarking on the production’s even more somber 2nd half. Aided by gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, he lends a hyper surreality to these mundane settings.

The pup in Wiener-Dog features heavily in each episode. Yet despite the title, this is really about people, not the canine. The beloved pet is merely a construct that gives us an excuse to follow an assortment of characters. There’s a world weary tone to these sagas, but there’s also the soul of humanity as well. For example the relationship between Remi and the dachshund is pure and sweet. They share a friendship to which his parents are immune. We sympathize with the various heroes in their respective vignettes, even though they may have serious flaws. There’s an authenticity to that. I mean we are flawed too, right? As the film marches to its inevitable conclusion, we brace ourselves. Todd Solondz has contempt for the Hollywood happy ending. Wiener-Dog is typified by a grisly finale that hits you like a slap in the face. Then the camera lingers on the event. There’s a palpable rage against society here.  The experience may sting, but the script still makes a sincere plea for mankind. I saw hope amidst the despair. That’s kind of powerful.

07-08-16