Archive for the Drama Category


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.



Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on July 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo bfg_ver2_zps109o0kyc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgSophie is an unhappy girl who lives in an orphanage. One night she sees a giant walking about carrying what looks like a large trumpet. He spies her as well. In an effort to keep his existence a secret, he reaches in and snatches the young girl from her bed. Back to his place he takes her. While he may appear to be big and scary, his true nature is quickly revealed. For you see, the BFG stands for “Big Friendly Giant”. The two develop a fast friendship.

With Steven Spielberg directing and Melissa Mathison penning the script, expectations are high. The two have only worked together twice before: Twilight Zone: The Movie and more spectacularly, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The latter hit still remains the 4th highest grossing film of all time (when adjusting for inflation). So chances are you’re aware of its legendary status. The BFG pales in comparison.

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill are certainly up to the task. Their portrayals are wonderful. Rylance fresh from his supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, shows that his Academy Award was no fluke. He embodies the titular creature with a twinkle in his eye and palpable warmth . His mixed up vocabulary is kind of cute too. The giant is manifested through a liberal use of CGI mixed with Rylance’s motion capture performance. The visual effect doesn’t look real, but it does feel magical.

The problem is that The BFG is an awfully slight adventure. The fantasy is adapted from a 1982 novel by Roald Dahl. The book is barely 200 pages, so a 2 hour drama is really pushing things. For almost 90 minutes, The BFG is just a “hang out” movie. Little Sophie and the BFG merely get to know each other for the major part of the narrative. He reads her a book, she falls asleep. Then he gives her a dream. Instead of eating humans, he cooks up snozzcumbers which are these repugnant vegetables. The word suggests a portmanteau of snot and cucumbers. Oh he also drinks a carbonated beverage called frobscottle where the bubbles go down rather than up. That’s how the gas is emitted from the body as well. In place of burps we get what the BFG calls “whiz-poppers”. This information laying the groundwork for the most protracted setup to a fart joke I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty amusing I’ll sheepishly admit. It includes a couple of corgis.

Roald Dahl is the same author of classics like James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. An undercurrent of evil is usually a common theme in his stores. The potential for death is a most definite possibility. In The BFG we’re told hideous giants are responsible for the disappearance of children. They regularly raid the cities under the cover of night to eat “human beans”. The BFG would rather spend his time on other things. Sophie follows him on one of his runs to harvest dreams. He then gives the good ones to children with the aid of his trumpet. This talent is later utilized in a section involving Queen Elizabeth II. This is where story developments finally take place, but they form the last 30 minutes of the plot. For most of the chronicle we have essentially watched these two make small talk and chill. The lack of action plainly begs for a musical number or two at the very least. A bit of judicious editing would have helped tighten the tale’s languid rhythms. I can’t recommended this to everyone but I will to a select few. The BFG is a cult film – a production whose leisurely charms will undeniably delight a passionate, though very small, audience.


The Man Who Knew Infinity

Posted in Biography, Drama on June 16, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo man_who_knew_infinity_ver2_zpsdhy0zicy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) should be the subject of a compelling movie. He was an accomplished Indian mathematician.  In this school of thought, people like Sir Isaac Newton or Professor Stephen Hawking are household names to anyone over the age of 12. Ramanujan, however, still remains somewhat of a mystery. That is until now. His lack of recognition with the general public makes this document of his life even more crucial.

Born in utter poverty, Ramanujan possessed a brilliant mind for analytical theory but had no university training. At one point he decided to send some of his written formulas to a well-known professor at Cambridge University during World War I. At first G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) thought the correspondence from the unknown sender was a joke, but in time Ramanujan was invited to come study at Cambridge. This occurred in 1914.  He would ultimately become a pioneer in mathematical principles under the guidance of professor G. H. Hardy, his advocate and sponsor.

A fascinating man inspires this production but it’s buried under the formal structure of a staid biopic. Dramatizing the study of theorems is not easy to do and the drama (perhaps wisely) doesn’t even try. Instead, the best parts of The Man Who Knew Infinity deal with the push and pull between Ramanujan and Hardy. They butt heads over differing ideological views. Ramanujan is a devout Hindu while Hardy is openly atheist. Hardy demands proofs. Ramanujan relies on intuition. Their battles of wills is the engaging conflict at the heart of this rather academic and somewhat superficial picture. It’s their love of mathematics that unites them.

Two talents elevate this script. Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel play off one another. To say that this is Dev Patel’s greatest performance since Slumdog Millionaire sounds a bit like damning with faint praise. After all the actor has struggled since that breakthrough in films like The Last Airbender and Chappie. Patel gives the part a sweet determination that honors the man’s accomplishments while giving us an appreciation for all the sacrifices he had to make. The Man Who Knew Infinity isn’t a great movie. Yet let’s consider the fact that it exists to honor the contributions of an unsung hero. That alone makes the biography worthwhile.


The Lobster

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction on June 3, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lobster_zpsjfnskqu5.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Lobster concerns a dystopian society where coupledom is key. Set within The City, singles are given 45 days to locate a partner or be turned into the animal of their choice. Upon arrival at the Hotel — more like a prison — guests must make a selection. This happens immediately regardless of whether one is successful at finding a mate. Apparently David (Colin Farrell) has just been dumped.  During his initial interview he chooses a lobster and hence bestows the film its title. “They live for over 100 years, they are blue-blooded like aristocrats, they are fertile all their lives and I like the sea.” At least that’s his reasoning. He’s praised for not choosing a dog because there is a surplus of that animal. I snickered a little at that line. If you actually guffaw, then you may adore this movie. That’s the level of humor.

Bizarre drama honors ambiguousness over detail and extols absurdity over coherence. It’s an intriguing setup for a comedy that creates a surreal environment from which to extract humor. The script succeeds for awhile. Particularly in the beginning where the insanity of it all can be rather diverting. But what is the point?  Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos possibly means to mock the societal pressure to couple up. Also the superficiality of the common interest that ultimately unites one person with another is satirized. Actress Jessica Barden plays a woman who gets nosebleeds. Actor Ben Whishaw portrays a man who has a limp. It appears that the two can only be together if they share the same malady.

Grim farce had me entertained for the first hour where David experiences the rules of the Hotel. His daily routine in which to find a companion is dryly amusing in parts. To prepare them for coupled life, patrons are initially handcuffed with one hand behind their back.  Then they converse with one another employing the stilted dialogue of a robot going through the motions of a conversation.  They have joyless sex with the employees like they were performing a chore.  Later guests hunt their unattached peers in the forest. The tale then takes a disastrous turn in part two after David escapes and experiences solace with a radical group in the wild called the Loners. They promote the exact opposite theology, separateness. It is there that he actually meets a soulmate in fellow Loner Rachel Weisz. Oh the irony! They’re prisoners yet again.

Yorgos Lanthimos also directed the extremely misanthropic comedy(?) Dogtooth. Devotees of that picture should find his disaffected worldview appealing here as well.  Less cynical individuals may discover his malevolent characters a bit harder to endorse. Surprisingly, I was on board. The silly rules at the Hotel are ridiculously wicked. But I checked out during the tedious second half.  Opening segments that fabricate the story should be absolute catnip for anyone who vehemently despises the very concept of a holiday like Valentine’s Day. If there’s such a thing as discrimination against singles, then this satire will surely hit home with any viewer who feels like a victim. Once the script throws the foundation kit and caboodle out the window, the fable emerges merely as an excuse to parade a group of antisocial types around for the viewer’s pleasure. These people are really hard to embrace, especially in the second section where the narrative and the jokes come to a grinding halt. To like these people is clearly not the aim. However after spending 118 minutes with these thoroughly unpleasant people, I wish I was a lobster too.


The Meddler

Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo meddler_zpsymwvy5tf.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThese days, Susan Sarandon is more likely to make headlines with her political beliefs than her films. For the record, she was in the minor hit Tammy two years prior in 2014. However that was more of a comedic vehicle for Melissa McCarthy than an opportunity for the Oscar winner to stretch her acting chops. Curiously, this time around she has to share space in equal billing with Rose Byrne on the movie poster. Make no mistake, however, Susan Sarandon is the indisputable star of The Meddler. Byrne, along with the rest of the cast: J. K. Simmons, Cecily Strong and Jerrod Carmichael exist as bit parts in support of the seasoned actress.

Susan Sarandon plays Marnie, a lonely widow who has moved from one coast to the other so she can be with her screenwriter daughter, Lori.   Feeling isolated and heartbroken, Marnie has left her home in New York for LA. Actually that’s New Yawk — spelled that way because she has the exaggerated accent to match.  Marnie’s husband has only recently passed away and so she is adjusting to a fresh restart. As the title conveys, Marnie attempts to get involved in Lori’s life: leaving frequent messages on her cell phone, dropping by with little notice, offering unsolicited advice. When her own daughter proves resistant to her interference, Marnie readjusts her priorities and moves on to encroaching upon the lives of the people she meets. There is Lori’s gal pal, the Apple store clerk and an elderly woman at the hospital. How this “kibitzer” changes the lives of these people is rather unforeseeable.

The Meddler is a production of modest charms. This is an account concerning ordinary people dealing with ordinary things. That makes it somewhat forgettable in a way, but the script is better than what you predict. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria penned Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, one of my favorites from 2008. The Meddler is her 2nd time behind the director’s chair after 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. She does a great job of elevating the tale above the atmosphere of what could have been a routine sitcom. Scafaria’s intelligent screenplay has something genuinely interesting to say about loss, grief and how those issues can affect us as we age.

The Meddler subverts expectations. As the narrative begins to play out, I kept anticipating that Marnie would become the butt of the joke, but she never does. Usually relegated as a background character, Susan Sarandon’s role is reminiscent of a sitcom trope I call “overbearing mom to celebrity comedian”. Yet she is not banished to the background of the story, she IS the story. The plot is lovingly constructed around her saga. She is sweetly sympathetic. She behaves like a caring mom, if perhaps a bit suffocating. If nothing else, the drama is a suitable showcase for the veteran performer. It’s nice to see that in 2016, great actresses of a certain age can still excel in indie films amidst all the FX and explosions of blockbuster Hollywood. This has been a recent trend. Sally Field and Helen Mirren have also scored this year with indie hits. Susan Sarandon’s achievement is more than enough reason to enjoy The Meddler.


The Nice Guys

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on May 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo nice_guys_ver2_zpsk3d3imaa.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBuddy film about Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a hapless private eye and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a paid enforcer. The pair team up to solve the seemingly unrelated disappearance of a runaway teen (Margaret Qualley), and the apparent suicide of porn starlet (Murielle Telio).

The Nice Guys was not only written but also directed by Shane Black.  A celebrated screenwriter, he penned Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With its fast talking, neo-noir stylings, his script here could be inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler. That Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author was known for seminal detective novels like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. However Shane Black’s script isn’t as organized to bear comparison with Chandler’s writing. The plot is made up of various story threads thrown together in a dramatic blender that favors messy incongruity over twisty coherence.

The Nice Guys succeeds best when it’s going for laughs. Crowe is an effective straight man. Gosling is enjoyable as the comic relief. As hired muscle and private eye respectively, they make an amusing duo. Actress Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s 14 year old daughter, Holly March, a nice addition to the mix. Holly desperately wants to help her father out with his business, much to his dismay. She is an appealing presence, but she also brings out the more benevolent qualities of the two men. Their more iniquitous traits are downplayed when she is around. She steals every scene too. In fact, the narrative might have benefited if it had been simplified solely around a father-daughter crime fighting team.

The Nice Guys is at heart, a simple B-movie thriller dressed up as a period piece. The feature is a loving evocation of 1970s excess. Polyester suits, bom chicka wah wah guitar riffs and Playboy mansion style parties uplift the environment with a kitschy retro sheen.  That’s fun, but then there’s a lot of extraneous story nonsense here that is wholly unnecessary.  Less is more.  A basic tale is obstructed with a convoluted plot involving the mistaken identities of two lookalikes, the porn world, government corruption, and a whole lot of murders. One, in particular, is especially depressing because the victim gets away from the killer only to be murdered by him minutes later while hitchhiking to escape. Zany comedy mixed with violence is a difficult balancing act. The uneven tone can be off-putting. Still, there’s enough jokes and charisma to make up for the unsavory stretches that occasionally bring this production down. The slapdash recipe is generally a tasty one.


Decades Blogathon – The Ten Commandments (1956)

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History with tags on May 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

The Decades Blogathon (2016) is an online event hosted by Mark (not me – another one) at Three Rows Back and Tom at Digital Shortbread. Two great movie review sites that invite like minded cinephiles to write about any particular film of their choosing. The only provision: choose a picture from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016). That’s it.

It began on Monday, May 16 and contributions were limited to 20 so I feel honored to have been able to participate. Here’s my reflection on an old favorite:

three rows back

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May 17, 2016

Decades Blogathon – The Fountain (2006)

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1956Welcome to day three of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the one and only Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and today we feature this excellent contribution from Mark at Fast Film Review – Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments.

This lavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic.

Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realises his…

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Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 16, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo Dough_zpsuhvg2vma.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgUndemanding little piffle that concerns the elderly Jewish proprietor (Jonathan Pryce) of a struggling Kosher bakery in London’s East End . Nat has continued the vocation of his father. However his little business has fallen on hard times due to local competition. Rather than follow in Nat’s footsteps, his own married son (Daniel Caltagirone) has become a lawyer. He encourages Nat to sell the shop. To add insult to injury, Nat’s sole employee has recently quit to go work for what can only be referred to as his evil competitor, a grocery-store chain called Cotton’s. In a bind, he hesitantly hires Ayyash (Holder), a young Muslim immigrant (Jerome Holder) from Africa.

Dough is just as cliched as it sounds. Ayyash is a troubled teen who also happens to deal marijuana. Trying to juggle both jobs is not easy. Wacky shenanigans ensue. I won’t spoil a specific plot point because it is the only thing that occurs that is mildly unpredictable. Although even the trailer gives that away. Sprinkle in a villainous corporate type (Philip Davis), a local drug kingpin (Ian Hart), a love interest (Pauline Collins) and a story that wildly careens from sensitive drama into a zany heist movie. The store’s problems are ultimately fixed with a happy solution that seemingly solves all their woes out of thin air. The remedy is cheekily independent of all the convoluted developments we have endured. It renders everything we watched irrelevant, but then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

Dough is pleasant enough. If you’re looking for a sweet British confection that doesn’t tax your brain, you should be entertained. Jonathan Pryce and Jerome Holder are working with cardboard characters but they give them life. They are captivating despite the utter predictability of the narrative. I mean, how much do you wanna bet that these disparate individuals will eventually learn to embrace each other’s differences by the end? This is essentially one of those culture clash sitcoms from the 1970s with a few minor tweaks. Anyone remember Chico and the Man? I miss that show.


Sing Street

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical with tags on May 8, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_street_zpsduq0wmav.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA new film from director John Carney is reason to celebrate. The filmmaker specializes in low-budget indie pictures where music plays an integral part. He knows a thing or two about constructing a compelling romance too. Sweetness, optimism and soul – he includes all the things that turn a movie into something you want to keep close to your heart. Once won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for 2007. In 2013 Begin Again was nominated for the very same award. Now comes Sing Street and if there’s any justice, one of these tunes will get nominated too. Honestly I’d be happy if the entire Oscar category was made up of choices from this film. May I suggest “The Riddle Of The Model”, “Up”, “To Find You”, “Drive It Like You Stole It”, and “Girls”.  The songs are exuberant. What a delight that the substance of the emotional story, matches the music for sincerity and charm.

Sing Street is the sweet tale of a teen boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) in 1980s Dublin who likes a girl (Lucy Boynton) and forms a band just to impress her. The drama and their group, is named after Synge Street, an all-boys Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers that lead vocalist Conor attends. Largely autobiographical, it’s also the same school that director John Carney attended back in the corresponding decade. One day our young hero spies beautiful Raphina standing on the street. He starts a conversation. She seems disinterested. He invites her to be in their music video. She accepts. Just one problem. He doesn’t have a band.

The initial preparations sound like a set-up for failure, but we’re living in the 1980s where a little bit of know-how and a whole lot of confidence is all you need to succeed. Conor, who decides to call himself Cosmo, gradually assembles a rock group selected from his classmates. Truth be told, these kids have a lot of talent. I only wish we got to know their personalities a little better. I have never seen actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo before, but he is positively winning. Lucy Boynton is Raphina his love interest who stars as the model in their video. Her influence is felt. She introduces the guys to hair gel and eyeliner, styling them in the New Romantic movement of inspirations like Haircut One Hundred and A Flock Of Seagulls. Their look gleefully straddles the line between amateurish and cool.

“The Riddle Of The Model” is the first single of their newly formed band. The accompanying video they shoot is pure joy. Fun and infectious, it’s edited like those primitive MTV videos of the early 1980s. It’s a testament to the quality of the arrangements that the original songs stand up alongside actual 80s hits by Hall & Oates, Duran Duran and The Cure. Their melodic style sort of imitates the new wave/pop hits of the era. They flourish but not without first encountering the requisite challenges that you know they’ll overcome by the time the drama is over. Conor deals with a tough classmate and an even tougher principal. No the narrative isn’t the most innovative thing in the world, but it sure is entertaining. Released in April and steadily expanding into May, this is the kind of little production that can easily get lost in a summer of superheroes, alien attacks and talking fish. Hopefully it will ultimately find a place in the hearts of the masses over the passage of time. It’s among the best movies I’ve seen this year.


April and the Extraordinary World

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Mystery with tags on April 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo April_zpsy42kot9y.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgJacques Tardi’s graphic novel is turned into a striking animated feature by the producers of Persepolis. This hypnotic sci-fi adventure is set in Paris, 1941, in an alternate steampunk universe where electricity hasn’t been discovered. As a result, society never advanced beyond coal and steam power. The mysterious systematic disappearance of the world’s top scientists is the cause.

Our tale concerns April (voiced by Angela Galuppo, in the English language version). She lives with her dear cat, Darwin, who was scientifically imbued with human intelligence and a sarcastic voice to match. The majority of April and the Extraordinary World takes place 10 years after she loses touch with her scientist parents. April still hopes to find them one day. Meanwhile she secretly continues their experimental work. They were doing research on a longevity serum, which would grant immortality. The convoluted plot even has time to scold humanity for the damage caused by their evil coal driven industries.

To be honest, the story is rather perfunctory. Ecological message movies preaching to save the planet are a dime a dozen. However beautifully hand drawn 2D animated features like this are not. Directors Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares have fashioned a glorious universe in which the viewer can just get lost. Its strengths lie in visual delights that dazzle. They captivate the eye. My mind and emotions were less enthralled. The characters are cold and aloof, even the heroes. It’s creative fun though. The action employs the character DNA of Japanese anime mixed with the science fiction of Jules Verne. Although a couple of humanoid lizards wearing robot armor were reminiscent of reptilian creatures in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Aesthetes who worship at the altar of the aforementioned passions will find themselves in cartoon nirvana. More casual fans of such things (this critic, for example) should be entertained as well, but on a somewhat lower level.

Note: I saw the U.S. English-language dub, featuring a voice cast of Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon. The original French-language release utilizes the voice talents of Marion Cotillard and Jean Rochefort.