Archive for the Drama Category

Mary Queen of Scots

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_queen_of_scots_ver4STARS3It really is a testament to the talent and charisma of Saoirse Ronan that Mary Queen of Scots is still worthwhile viewing.  The star is bloody good as the titular heroine.  Her achievement kept me enrapt.  I can’t say the same for the rest of the picture.

After the death of her husband Francis II, King of France, Mary Stuart returns to her native Scotland.  Both Scotland and England are under the realm of Mary’s cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  Yet she asserts her claim to the English throne.  Elizabeth regards Mary’s actions a direct threat to her ruling authority.  The largely Protestant government there has outlawed Catholic mass.  Mary preaches tolerance of both religions.  She immediately incurs the wrath of Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) who is her vocal critic.

The colorful ensemble boosts a flawed production.  Diverse casting choices include Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick, Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio, and Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph.  These aren’t historically accurate decisions, but they distinguish this interpretation as a contemporary tale, so there’s that.  Naturally beautiful Margot Robbie is cast as the heavily made up Queen Elizabeth I.  She is suffering from smallpox under what looks like pounds and pounds of foundation. Director Josie Rourke cuts back and forth between the two monarchs to contrast their differing points of view.  Robbie is very good too. Her appearance pops up here and there, but this is Ronan’s movie.  As ancient history (16th century), nothing I discuss here should be considered a spoiler, but the two don’t even share the screen until the very end.  Even then, history teaches us they never even met at all.

I am a sucker for a stately well-done period piece. This isn’t it.   History buffs are likely to go into conniptions over the inaccuracies and even fans of tawdry soap operas are likely to find the events questionable.   I won’t get into details but certain developments surrounding Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) compelled me to research their veracity. Some of this is pure fantasy at worst and loose conjecture at best.  The costumes are sumptuous. The production design is heavenly and as mentioned earlier, Saoirse Ronan anchors it all with a captivating performance.  I say if you’re already obsessed with biographies about monarchs, this should satiate your fix.  Although the timing of this release couldn’t be worse.  There’s already an irreverent film about a queen currently playing at the multiplex right now (The Favourite).   It’s so much better.

12-18-18

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Mary Poppins Returns

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_poppins_returns_ver2STARS3.5Mary Poppins Returns answers the question: Is it still possible for a movie of today to promote sweetness and joy with unadulterated sincerity?  The response is a resounding yes.  This is an enterprise without guile or sarcasm.  It simply exists as a bit of wholesome entertainment, exactly as the 1964 version did.  54 years may separate these two films, but you’d never know it from this production.  The time is 1935 Depression-era London.  Jane (Emily Mortimer ) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the children from the original, are now adults.  Michael is a widower with three young children of his own: John (Nathanael Saleh) Annabel (Pixie Davies) and adorable star-in-the-making Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Since his wife’s death, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments.  He has been informed by the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (Colin Firth) that he has until Friday to pay off the entire loan, or he will lose the house. Jane and Michael remember their father had given them shares in the bank which would provide enough money to repay the debt.  The certificate would be the proof.  It has disappeared.  If only they knew where it was.

Mary Poppins Returns utilizes the blueprint of the first feature to fashion its tale.  The barely-there story is eerily similar, although plot is not really the point.  The drama basically concerns a missing piece of paper.  Its whereabouts are a nonentity for most of the picture.   The adventure highlights musical interludes.  This is a musical enchantment of wit and charm.  As the title has promised, Mary Poppins is back.  She’s exactly the same person and she hasn’t aged a day.  In Emily Blunt’s capable hands she is a walking, talking facsimile of Julie Andrews’ creation.  Not a unique achievement mind you, but a grand impression that trades on glorious nostalgia.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is Mary’s friend Jack.  He doesn’t work as a chimney sweep as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the earlier incarnation but as a lamplighter.  Miranda is delightful and his cockney accent is thankfully more subtle.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a sequel so much as a remake.  A magnificent remix of the 1964 version that mimics its every song, character, story beat, and style.  Instead of helping the kids tidy their nursery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) Mary encourages them to take a bath (“Can You Imagine That?”).  Rather than jumping into a painting (“Jolly Holiday”), Mary, Jack, and the kids enter a ceramic bowl (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”).  Meeting cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her “Turning Turtle” song is like bumping into Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) when he bellows “I Love To Laugh”.  Jack croons “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” with the other lamplighters and it harkens back to the chimney sweeps’ “Step In Time” number.  My side by side comparisons may sound like a carp but the production numbers are so beautifully realized that I embraced the happiness.   They succeed by exploiting the euphoria of wonder and color.  The very idea that a movie in 2018 would reproduce the very same aesthetic as a picture from the 1960s is a fairly risky venture.  I was transported to an earlier era when movies were different.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mary Poppins Returns has just paid the original film the most awesome compliment imaginable.

12-19-18

Roma

Posted in Drama on December 17, 2018 by Mark Hobin

roma_ver2STARS4.5Roma is a portal into the past, a cinematic observation that relocates you to another time and place.  Director Alfonso Cuarón has taken us on an odyssey before. Whether it be children’s viewing (A Little Princess), a coming of age tale (Y Tu Mamá También), a fantasy episode (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), dystopian thriller (Children of Men), or science fiction (Gravity), he transports us.  Roma is no different in that the filmmaker brings us on another expedition.  Yet this one is a deeply personal account inspired from his own childhood.  He is also the writer, co-producer, co-editor, and cinematographer.  The film is nothing more than an observation in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City during the early 1970s.  It is the point of view that makes this portrayal so unique.  For it is all seen through the eyes of the domestic servant, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).

Cleo works for mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira ) and Sofia’s rarely seen doctor husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).  Is there some tension between the married couple?  It’s suggested but not altogether clear.  They have four young children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta) in the household, along with Sofia’s mother (Verónica García) and their other maid named Adela (Nancy García).  Cleo has a boyfriend named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  He’s a revolutionary that gets involved in the Corpus Christi massacre.  Adela has a suitor as well named Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza).  That extended cast sounds like the beginnings of a telenovela.  Yet this is a decidedly more unvarnished depiction of life.

Right from the start, Cuarón makes it known that this is going to be a visual feast.  Water splashes across a stone driveway.  The camera immobile as the fluid advances and recedes over the screen.  A broom emerges to wash the surface.  This continues for a while.  The languid intro highlights the drudgery of her chores but it also provides a lovely backdrop on which to show the names of the cast and crew.  The images all in black and white immediately puts you in the past, but it also features a stark contrast that captivates the viewer throughout the drama.  This is a good time to mention that there is no soundtrack to Roma, but it has a sonic essence that includes diegetic music from people listening on radios, along with indistinct chatter and background murmurs. The movie debuted on Netflix December 14, but PLEASE if at all possible see it in a theater where the exquisite sound design immerses you into the fabric of every scene. I’ve only described the intro, mind you.  That is merely the beginning of an impressive collection of images and sounds that stimulate the senses.

Roma is such a thoughtfully filmed project.  The day to day developments of Cleo’s life are detailed.  She cleans the house, cooks their meals takes the kids to school, tucks them into bed and wakes them up in the morning.  It seems deceptively mundane, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Water is introduced during the opening credits but the transparent liquid is a tableau that will turn up over and over again.  Whether it is utilized during her daily chores, a sudden hailstorm, a pregnancy or a climactic trip to the beach, the appearance each time highlights the spectacle.  This is the lovingly assembled portrait of a life.  Roma refers to Colonia Roma which is a neighborhood in Mexico City but it also conveys the Italian name for Rome.  I suspect then the double meaning is no accident. Cuarón works in the visual vocabulary of Italian directors like Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica, particularly their work during the late ’40s/early ’50s.  Uniting all of these artistic elements is leading lady Yalitza Aparicio who is an indigenous Mixtec woman.  Earlier I mentioned that the size of the cast was reminiscent of a Spanish soap opera.  Yet her dark brown skin at odds with the fair-skinned actresses that usually play the housekeeper in telenovelas.  She gives an utterly authentic performance.  There’s a reason why she is so genuine.  I’m told, with the exception of Marina de Tavira, the actress who plays the family matriarch, Cuarón used an entire cast of non-actors.  It’s risky, but the gamble pays off.  He makes a lot of stylish decisions in this beautiful record of his youth.  Roma is the very story of humanity and as such, it moved me.

12-11-18

Burning

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on December 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beoningSTARS3Director Chang-dong Lee’s work over the past two decades has defined the Korean New Wave.  Burning, his first production in eight years is no different.  The sheer number of Top Ten lists on which this South Korean drama has appeared, practically compels every critic to see the picture in 2018.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and it’s the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 91st Academy Awards.  South Korea has submitted entries since 1962. Despite this, no South Korean movie has ever even been shortlisted or even nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar.  That may change this year.  Now having said that, my flattering buildup is an ironic segue into my lack of enthusiasm for this picture.

The story begins as a simple boy meets girl tale.  Aspiring writer Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) runs into a girl named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) that he knew when he was young.  She is dancing outside a store to attract customers.  Over coffee, he learns his old acquaintance is studying pantomime and she pretends to eat a tangerine by peeling it.  He is impressed but she downplays her talents.  “Don’t think there is a tangerine here…but rather that there isn’t one”.  She seduces him and they sleep together that night.  Later when Jong-su never sees the cat that Hae-mi has asked him to feed while she is away in Africa, your mind starts to wonder.  Is there even a cat at all?  Director Chang-dong Lee drops lots of little perplexities that solicit a closer examination of details throughout the story.  Things get more complicated when Hae-mi returns from her trip with a new beau named Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow.  A possible love triangle of sorts is formed.  Although even that’s up for debate.  Who is this guy?  What does he do?  Are they a couple?  One individual confesses to enjoying a strange hobby.  Another character goes missing.  Or do they?  You will have many questions amidst the speculation. Few will ever be answered.

Burning is clearly assembled by an artisan that likes to deliberate over his craft.  The slow build is carefully put together.  The performances by a trio of actors further draw you in.  Actor Yoo Ah-in is Jong-su, the protagonist.  He has an unexpected everyman quality that belies a seething resentment in his ineffectual character.  More memorable is actor Steven Yeun, as the enigmatic Ben.  As the wealthy antagonist, he is an ambiguous alpha male that inspires jealousy in our hapless lead.  His blissful confidence will inspire your hostility too.  Somewhat more disconcerting is the character of Hae-mi portrayed by newcomer Jeon Jong-seo.  She seems to simply exist as the object over which Jong-su can obsess.  Her self-initiated disrobings become rather troubling.  It inspires our irked hero to remark, “Why do you undress so easily in front of men? Only whores do that.”  Jong-su’s slowly mounting jealously builds over the course of the mystery.  Your ability to identify with his confusion and escalating frustration is key.  How this beta male will respond or even if he will respond, is an ongoing provocation.

Burning is based on the brief short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1992.  Although “inspired by” is far more accurate.  Screenwriters Jung-mi Oh and director Chang-dong Lee have decided to be much more specific.  Their chronicle contains additional details not contained in the original work.  For one, the class differences between underprivileged Jong-su and affluent Ben is an underlying theme that is emphasized in the movie.  Jealousy is a major exploration of the film as well.  The repression of these feelings is cultivated by Jong-su.  This provokes a slowly building animosity of Ben. There’s a lot to chew on here.  I was moderately intrigued, particularly in the first half. The narrative meanders for two and a half hours before culminating in a violent climax. The story ends without ever answering THE “burning” question.  I suppose open interpretations can be fun, but the whole exercise left me rather….cold.

12-09-18

Green Book

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on December 7, 2018 by Mark Hobin

green_bookSTARS4.5Green Book is the compelling chronicle of black pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) 1962 music tour of the deep south.  He hires white bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard.  I admit I was skeptical. I had heard grumblings from a very small but vociferous group of detractors.  Right from the get-go, the interracial synopsis sounds like a calculated set up that promises a feel-good story about how people from contrasting cultures were able to come together and becomes friends.  In its most simplistic essence, that’s what you get. However, the sleek craft with which this road movie is assembled is a masterclass in creating an audience-pleasing feature.  It establishes characters you simply want to love. I enthusiastically embraced this picture.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Green Book is directed by none other than Peter Farrelly, one-half of the Farrelly brothers that brought the world such ribald comedy classics like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Those are well-crafted movies and this is clearly assembled by a competent artist as well. Green Book has comedic elements too, but this represents a definite shift for the filmmaker.  Green Book is a serious drama first.  A powerful work that has a respectful reverence for its subjects.  The title references a guidebook that gave recommendations to African-American travelers to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.  You see, under the era of Jim Crow laws of the Confederacy, racial segregation was actually enforced by legislation.  In short, black people weren’t allowed to stay or eat at certain establishments. The manual was published up until 1966.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Don Shirley was the son of parents who emigrated from Jamaica.  He was an accomplished classical musician. However after a manager told him that American audiences were not ready to accept a “colored” pianist in classical music, he reverted to the more popular jazz genre.  During the 1950s and 1960s, he performed in nightclubs where there were more opportunities.  Don Shirley was a musical prodigy since the age of 2.   An intellectual, he spoke eight languages fluently.   He held a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts.  Don decides to go on a risky concert tour of the Deep South.  We learn that he could be handsomely paid playing safer concert venues in the North.  That would have been a more comfortable living.  Yet he wanted to play for audiences that might benefit more from his talents.  He would need a driver though who could also provide some security.

Frank Anthony Vallelonga is nicknamed Tony Lip because of his ability to talk his way out of anything.  He’s the son of Italian parents and grew up in the Bronx.  He works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City.   Early in the account, Tony is seen disposing of the drinking glasses that black repairmen had used while working at his home.  Tony stands in marked contrast to his employer.  Don lives in a luxurious apartment above Carnegie Hall.  When Tony arrives there to apply for the position of his driver, Don appears to be sitting on what looks like a throne wearing an elegant robe.  He is a dignified man that refuses to eat with his hands.  Don and Tony are markedly dissimilar personalities.  Don Shirley, in particular, doesn’t fit within an established archetype.  At one point, Don exasperatedly cries into the rain “If I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough and I’m not man enough, then what am I?”  Their respective lifestyles and customs influence who these individuals are.

The screenplay does a deft job at depicting the point of view of each fellow.  This is a true story after all.  Green Book is based on an original script co-written by Frank’s son Nick Vallelonga with actor Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly.  Tony Lip and Don Shirley died within five months of each other in 2013.  Before that happened, Nick told the pair he wanted to make a movie based on their experiences.  According to Nick, Dr. Shirley gave his blessing with one provision “not until after I’m gone.”  There are similarities to previous works.  A chauffeur driving a passenger of another ethnicity from their own has an obvious parallel to 1990 Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy. That’s about where the comparisons end.  The stakes are much higher in Green Book. No one in Driving Miss Daisy was in danger of being lynched.

What really sets Green Book apart is the utter sincerity in detailing the lives of two very contradictory people.  Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen imbue their characters with such depth that we embrace them as fully formed people.  The narrative does a deft job at giving each person equal focus.  Despite how the studio has promoted their performances for Academy Award consideration, this is a dual affair with two equally pivotal performances at the center.  These larger than life personalities couldn’t be more different from each other.  Little details are presented that help us understand where these individuals have been and how they’ve changed. Their friendship with each other develops organically in a way that makes sense.  Each man gained from knowing the other.  Yes, it’s easy to dismiss the saga as a manipulative narrative that features a “white savior” or a “black savior”.  Yet it’s so much more than that.  At heart, Green Book unfolds like an authentic portrait of two unlikely souls that became friends.  The film is emotionally satisfying with a lot of heart.

11-29-18

The Favourite

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Dance, Drama, History with tags on December 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

favourite_ver2STARS4.5Way back on January 21, 1989, one of the highlights on Saturday Night Live’s 14th season occurred during the 10th episode.  John Malkovich was the host plugging his work in Dangerous Liaisons, an obvious forebear of this film.  One of the skits in which he starred, was a bit I affectionately remember as “Mocking Lord Edmund.”  In it, Malkovich portrayed an 18th-century aristocrat who suspects all the wrong people of insulting him.  “You mock me,” he would disdainfully rebuke.  Each admirer was bewildered at his scorn for their honest praise.  Malkovich’s deadpan delivery in a haughty accent was comical in itself.  But the main joke was that his two servants (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey), whom he didn’t suspect, were actually mocking him behind his back.

Period pieces are inherently hilarious.  The Favorite is an extraordinary work that takes an absurdist view of the strange reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century.  England is at war with the French.  The ruler is attended to by her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah encourages her to fund the ongoing war with France so that her husband can claim victory.  Into this mix arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant with designs on bettering her own station in life.  The liaison between these three develops into a genuine love triangle. There’s no evidence that Queen Anne had a romantic relationship with either of these women.  Although speculation at the time did fuel court gossip.  Yet historians do agree that Sarah Churchill’s personal friendship with the Queen afforded her a lot of power and influence in the monarch’s decisions.   Regardless, historical accuracy is clearly not director Yorgos Lanthimos’ focus.  The bitter rivalry between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne is the central conflict.  And oh what a competition!

The centerpiece of The Favourite is a trio of flawless performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who form the central trio of strong women.   Queen Anne is a frail woman physically afflicted by ill health.  Olivia Coleman embodies the ruler as a woman plagued by insecurities.  She screams irrationally at a young attendant for staring at her.  She feels ugly.  She gorges on cake.  Vomits.  Then continues to gorge.  One moment she is a timid monarch afraid of choosing sides between the Whigs and Tories in Parliament.  The next minute her mind is fixed and she refuses to allow anyone to sway her.  Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough, her close confidant.  She is a woman fiercely driven by her own political desires.  Abigail appears to enter the picture as sort of a wide-eyed innocent.  Anne Baxter in All About Eve anyone?  Emma Stone has one of the most expressive visages in all of Hollywood. The mere look of her face as she turns away in one flirtatious scene elicited guffaws at my screening.  As time wears on, the pursuit of her own selfish goals consumes her every thought.  Her poor husband Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is frustrated by her lack of attention, even on their wedding night.

This is a visual spectacle that captivates our attention even when nothing is being said. The costumes and sets are lavish.  Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes stand in stark contrast to the candlelit halls of the palace.  The powdered wigs are piled ridiculously high.  And I’m talking about the males.  They wear more makeup than the women.  The beauty marks applied like stickers to the face.  Even the palace is a character itself with its massively high ceilings, cavernous hallways, and luxuriously appointed spaces.  Tapestries, art, and furniture dominate some rooms.  There is a definite sense of scope.  The cinematography by Robbie Ryan captures every inch of the spectacle mixing fisheye lenses with spinning camera angles.  It can get overwhelming.  At times we’re more focused on the way the scene is shot, not what is being shot.  But more often than not, the photography creates a sense of isolation that matches the mood of the characters.  Visually it’s an emotional experience.

Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have a playful ear for dialogue.  It’s also the first feature Lanthimos directed that he did not co-write with regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  I dare say it is the most quotable film of the year.  The catty one-liners abound in an artificial air of high camp.   There is an affected pomposity to these people that makes them amusing.  The script exploits the lexicon of our modern era to humorous effect.   The c-word is joined with the word struck to describe a man impossibly bewitched by a woman. The idioms of past costume dramas are subverted as well.  Abigail fawns obsequiously over Queen Anne’s hair.  “Stop it. How you mock me” the queen responds.  The screenplay recognizes how a retort delivered with withering contempt can be an exquisite joy.  At one point Sarah Churchill derisively chides crafty House of Commons dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  “I can’t take you seriously when your mascara is running.”

The Favourite exaggerates what makes period pieces so fitfully entertaining.  In doing so, it becomes an artistic work of art.  There’s a lot of idiosyncratic details.  Sarah and Abigail shoot pigeons.  A splatter of blood unexpectedly covers Sarah’s face after Abigail hits one dead on.  Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits as pets symbolically representing each one of her children that didn’t survive due to various maladies.  Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) races ducks in his spare time for fun.  A hapless Tory endues fruits thrown at him as some sort of parlor game.  I didn’t understand the point, but it conveyed decadence nonetheless.  Lady Marlborough’s choreographed dance scene with her companion at the ball is a riot for its anachronistic dance moves.  It’s a fabulous spectacle lit with candles.  Ok, I’ll admit The Favourite is about as historically accurate as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yet for my money….it’s just as funny.

11-27-18

Widows

Posted in Crime, Drama on November 23, 2018 by Mark Hobin

widowsSTARS3.5Widows is director Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated follow-up to the Oscar-winning best picture 12 Years a Slave.  It might seem odd that he would follow an exploitative history lesson with a genre picture that seems more suited to the multiplex than the arthouse.  Truth?  It is unexpected because Widows is simply that, a heist film, albeit a very competent one.  Steve McQueen is a thoughtful filmmaker with an eye for exploring gender, race, and politics.  Those topics are here if you choose to explore the subtext.  Windows is an extremely compelling adaptation by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Steve McQueen.  The source is writer Lynda La Plante’s British crime series of the same name that aired on the ITV network in 1983 and 1985.  This is clearly a labor of love over a TV show that held a special place in the heart of a 13-year-old. In his words: “I was a person at that time who was deemed not to be capable….people assuming things about me because of my appearance.  I could relate to those women.”

The widows of the title are Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon).  All 4 lose their husbands when their mates are killed attempting grand theft.  The men were escaping in a van, a S.W.A.T. team shot up their vehicle and the car exploded. Before she even has a chance to mourn the death of her spouse, Veronica is confronted by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a crime boss and politician. He wants the $2 million that her hubby owed him. He’s clearly a baddie because he grabs her little dog by the neck.  Hurting an animal is the fastest shortcut to telegraph a villain.  Frantic, Veronica contacts her fellow widows for help in finishing the job their partners could not.  Linda and Alice are in.  Amanda is not.  They conspire to finish off their husbands’ final job.

Widows is aided by a strong cast.  It should go without saying that Oscar winner (and 3-time nominee) Viola Davis enhances the film with another one of her strong, grounded performances.  If there’s a star to this ensemble, Viola is it.  Michelle Rodriguez is solid and relative unknown Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki shines brightly as well.  Debicki is one of two actresses whose career should be most helped by this production.  Assisting them in their task is Belle (Cynthia Erivo). She’s the other newcomer to watch. Not a widow, but rather a single mother working as the babysitter to Linda’s children. The British stage actress is a commanding presence in her 2nd feature.  Daniel Kaluuya, Lukas Haas, Jacki Weaver, and Liam Neeson all complement the cast in key roles.  Some are more pivotal than others.

Widows is an ambitious drama. The action is set against the backdrop of the racial politics of Chicago.  Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is running for the alderman position of the 18th ward.  He’s the son of the powerful incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Jamal Manning just so happens to be running against him.   Manning needs that $2 million from Veronica to help finance his electoral campaign.  You see this tale is an intricate puzzle with various connections and alliances.  It sounds complex but thanks to the clean editing of film editor Joe Walker, the action is coherent.  The motivations make sense.  People may show defects of character but you’ll always understand why they behave in the manner they do.  It’s an engrossing feature.  One plot twist made the audience gasp.  The production manages to be entertaining while weaving a socially aware story into its fabric.  At times the somber atmosphere can get a bit self-serious.  It lacks the giddy joy of the con that elevates the most exciting heist movies (Riffifi, Ocean’s Eleven, Inception).  Widows is still pretty enjoyable and it goes great with popcorn.

11-17-18

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on November 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

fantastic_beasts_the_crimes_of_grindelwald_ver14STARS2It’s easy to dismiss the Fantastic Beasts franchise as a desperate attempt to extend the Harry Potter universe.  I mean there’s a precedent.   Warner Brothers had the chutzpah to take the original 7 books and expand them into 8 movies.  There are a lot of fans out there that live for this sort of thing.  Confession time: I am not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong. I think the Harry Potter films creatively built a rich fantasy world.  If you fall within a certain age, this was your childhood and I respect that.  It’s just that the adventure was so episodic.  A loosely connected series of events that unfolded cinematically like: “So this happened, and then this happened, and then this happens…”  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was even more meandering but at least it had some nice CGI effects and a couple of star-crossed lovers in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).  Unfortunately, we’ve reached a low point with The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What is this chronicle even about?  I don’t know where to begin because I couldn’t figure it out.  Somewhere in this mishmosh of stuff, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) contacts Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for help.  The dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped and he intends on amassing an army of wizards to follow him.  I assume this is all laying the groundwork for a Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald showdown during some unspecified sequel in the future, but not here friends.  This is a movie about expository details.  There are a lot of characters.  My favorites Jacob and Queenie are back, but they have less room to be enchanting here.  They’re crowded out by a distended cast that highlights the troubled you-thought-he-was dead-but-he’s-really-not Credence (Ezra Miller).  In smaller, less important roles there’s also half-blood witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror, along with pure-blood witch Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) who is engaged to Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), MACUSA employee, Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie ), French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) and a freak show attraction named Nagini (Claudia Kim).

It’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald but the only crime I could see was the utter debasement of a sensible plot.  It’s incoherently edited.  The drama has no structure.  The saga is overcrowded with people.  Their introduction to this story isn’t organic. Each individual forcibly inserted into the narrative.  One appears after another as a clumsy means to explain various alliances that only the most minutia-obsessive fan would even care about.  I’m sure some of this confusing exposition relates back to the original Harry Potter world but this casual observer couldn’t make the associations required to enjoy this mess.  Mind you, I’ve seen every single installment in this blessed oeuvre.  People pop up, get a complicated character explanation and then *poof* it’s on to the next identity.  There are simply far too many personalities.  Few get a chance to make an impression, so we have no reason to be invested in their assorted plights.

I couldn’t divine any focus to this tale.  I gather it’s about Grindelwald because he is namechecked in the title, but your guess is as good as mine.  Johnny Depp has an opportunity to stand out.  He doesn’t enliven the narrative, but he doesn’t ruin it either. It’s the screenplay that sinks this production.  We have J. K. Rowling herself to thank for that.  Her gift for writing novels does not translate to screenwriting.  These are clearly two very different talents.  Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them suffered from a poor script as well.  As bad as this entry is, there are some high points.  The costumes, production design, makeup, and hairstyling are all beyond compare.  Seriously, I noticed how perfectly coiffed everyone was.  My mind had time to wander on several occasions. Unfortunately, those attributes are not the foundation for a meaningful film.  Sense and reason are, but alas, they have no power in this wizarding world.

11-15-18

Boy Erased

Posted in Biography, Drama on November 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

boy_erased_ver2STARS2.5Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir Boy Erased has been adapted into a rather static film by writer/director Joel Edgerton.  Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of Marshal (Russell Crowe), a methodical pastor who speaks softly, and bright upbeat Nancy (Nicole Kidman) with big bleach-blond hair.  Living in Arkansas, Jared is raised in the Baptist faith.  His parents are distraught to learn their son is gay after a fellow classmate pretending to be a counselor, outs the boy.  Upon confronting him, he admits that he “thinks about men”.  He is subsequently sent to conversion therapy.

For what sounds like a harrowing set-up, Boy Erased is a surprisingly dispassionate picture.  The drama is built around Jared Eamons and his tenure at Love in Action, a gay conversion therapy program.  Director of photography Eduard Grau relies on stationary shots.  The colors are drab.  The tone is somber and bleak.  All of which effectively inhibits the drama.  While at this reform school of sorts, Jared is under the guidance of Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton too).  He is the program’s head therapist and cult-like leader.  Victor is assisted by a stern tattooed enforcer named Brandon (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea).  Apparently his responsibility is to intimidate the subjects into heterosexuality with his menacing presence.

Jared attempts to fit within the guidelines of the program.  The group is asked to detail their family tree and associate hardships with each person.  Drugs, alcoholism, gang affiliation, criminal behavior, and pornography are the options.  He struggles to assign problems to his family members.  In group, students are compelled to get up in front of the class and openly confess their sins.  A mandatory exercise requires Jared to talk to a chair as if his father were present and explain why he hates him.  The implication being animosity toward one’s father is the root of homosexuality.  “But I don’t hate my father” he explains.  In other areas, Jared is remarkably adept. The boys line up for a batting cage where they hit baseballs ostensibly to make them more manly.  He has no problem doing this.

While there, Jared meets several other students.  There’s big, quiet Cameron (Britton Sear) who plays football.  The cynical-to-change Gary is played by musician Troye Sivan.  “Fake it till you make it,” he advises supportively.  Jon, portrayed by director Xavier Dolan (Mommy), is a man excessively frustrated to make the treatment work.   There’s also Jesse LaTourette as sad, shy Sara, one of the few women in the program.  We only get very cursory introductions to these people.  Understandably, each individual lacks the opportunity to make an impression as a fully well-rounded individual.  All, that is, except the star.

Lucas Hedges’ performance is genuine. The actor seems to have a knack for choosing films that get Oscar nominations. Since 2016 he’s appeared in 3 Best Picture nominees: Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The 21-year-old actor has a youthful sincerity that keeps us invested.  He’s genuine although there’s an ambiguity to his performance that keeps the viewer at arm’s length.  He’s a soft-spoken but utterly self-possessed young man.  He doesn’t have trouble asserting himself when he must.  The drama is set at therapy.  However, the tale frequently uses flashbacks to detail moments in Jared’s life that give the events leading up to his placement in this facility.  These are the moments that incite emotion.  We get a glimpse of his life in the past.  There’s girlfriend Chloe (Madelyn Cline) who encourages him to go further sexually, a boy named Henry (Joe Alwyn) who would be a negative force in his life and art school student Xavier (Théodore Pellerin) who would be a positive presence.  Each of these vignettes is mildly more interesting than what occurs in his treatment sessions.  Yet – with one exception – very little of it is revelatory.

Boy Erased means well, but dramatically it’s inert.  The counseling meetings aren’t particularly shocking.  Most of it is quite restrained.  A mock funeral where a student’s parents are invited to attend so they can mourn over their still living son’s gay self is admittedly creepy.  That’s a rare instance where this chronicle slapped me awake.  Yet Jared is a well adjusted young man.  He doesn’t seem overly tormented about attending therapy for most of the picture.  He’s emotionally detached.  There’s very little excitement to extract from the events or the main character.  A singular moment where he defaces a bus-stop advertisement of a male model is a cathartic display that says so much without dialogue.  More of that, please.  A display of resistance occurs, but by then it’s too little too late.  Nicole Kidman predictably gets her showcase where she becomes the object of audience applause.  If she does get a Supporting Role nomination, that’s the sequence to highlight on Oscar night.  The biggest twist of the entire picture is ultimately revealed in the notes of an epilogue.  The “what happened to” one major character got an audible response in my theater.  It’s an unanticipated turn of events.  Perhaps that story might have inspired a more spirited film.

11-08-18

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on November 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

can_you_ever_forgive_meSTARS4.5Melissa McCarthy is extremely accomplished and has enjoyed enormous success. She was on two popular TV series Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly.  She has hosted Saturday Night Live on 5 separate occasions garnering an Emmy nomination each time for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. She eventually won in 2017. Her breakthrough in widespread popularity came in 2011 with the crude, but very funny farce Bridesmaids and an uncharacteristically Oscar-nominated performance. Many hugely successful comedies followed including Identity Thief and The Heat, earning millions at the box office. McCarthy has perfected slapstick to an art form, and yet, the cognoscenti still dismiss her brand of humor as low brow. I don’t feel she gets the respect she deserves.  In both St. Vincent and Spy she displayed considerable acting chops for which she didn’t receive near enough acclaim.  However, this time I hope the film is just too incredible to ignore.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biographical drama about Lee Israel.  She was a freelance writer from New York that contributed entertainment articles to The New York Times, Soap Opera Digest and other periodicals during the 1960s.  By the 70s and 80s, she had written biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist / What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen and cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.  Kilgallen even made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1979.  These are not the works by which Lee Israel is remembered.  Our story takes place years later.  Changing tastes have deemed Israel’s writing style and subjects no longer in vogue.  Her literary agent (Jane Curtin) informs her that her writing is outdated.  “No one wants to read a biography about Fanny Brice!” By the 1990s, She has fallen on hard times unable to pay the veterinary bills for her sick cat.  In order to make ends meet she parts with a personal letter written to her from Katherine Hepburn.  Apparently, people are willing to pay for such memorabilia.  Later while at the library doing research, she discovers another letter hidden within the pages of the book she is reading.  This one penned by the actress/comedian Fanny Brice. She sells this letter for a small sum as well.  Israel is told that a higher amount would’ve been paid for more interesting content.  This triggers an idea in the skillful writer.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the profile of a woman who utilizes her talents, albeit in an illegal way, to make ends meet.  She begins by creatively forging letters by notable people like Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, and Noël Coward.  She then passes them off as if written in their voice, to autograph dealers around the country.  The film’s title comes from a passage in a forgery she writes by Dorothy Parker.  It’s clear that her abilities as a witty wordsmith, as well as a historian of these people, allowed her to convincingly pass these pieces off for a couple of years.  Of course, it caught up to her.  It must be an amusing irony that Lee Israel ultimately profited off of her crimes by writing this memoir about them.  Her book was adapted into this screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.  Given that, it’s not surprising that the movie’s tone is sympathetic.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is endlessly compelling.  Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) directs with a light touch.  As a personality, Lee Israel is a grouchy, curmudgeonly presence.  Yet her animosity towards people has a way of endearing herself to the audience as well.  An argument with a bookseller has her later pretending to be his neighbor.  She prank calls the guy to say that their apartment is on fire.  She has a deep love for her cat because a pet doesn’t let you down.  There are some humans that she can stomach.  Actress Dolly Wells portrays a bookshop owner with whom she strikes up a friendship.  She also has a very close friend.  He is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging gay dandy of questionable character. He becomes an accomplice in her dirty dealings.  Together these frequenters of bars form a duo of misfits united in an “us against the world” duo that is heartbreakingly poignant.  Lee is rather cold to Jack, and that’s before he makes a serious mistake that will have dire emotional consequences.  Yet these two need each other’s friendship if only to make life bearable.  It is their chemistry that elevates Can You Ever Forgive Me? from something very good into something pretty great.  I hope to hear the names of both McCarthy and Grant on Tuesday, January 22 when the Oscar nominations are announced.

11-05-18