Archive for the Drama Category

Lion

Posted in Drama with tags on January 5, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo lion_zpsymamcksn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgLion wrecked me. More specifically, it captivated my feelings by extracting genuine emotion. Although he’s directed some TV (Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in the U.S.), Lion is the first feature film from Australian director Garth Davis. His impressive supervision guides this remarkably well-composed debut. It helps that he’s working from a masterful screenplay. The heartfelt adaptation penned by screenwriter Luke Davies is based on the autobiographical book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (with Larry Buttrose). So yeah it’s a true story. That adds to its grandeur. But this adventure about family and identity would be a powerful saga regardless. The account is divided into two distinct halves. Both need to exist to properly tell what happened, but one is a bit more affecting than the other.

The tale concerns Saroo, a 5 yeard old Indian boy who is separated from his sibling. One night, his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) goes out to look for work and Sarro begs to come with. He agrees to take him, but Saroo becomes too tired to walk. Guddu tells him to rest on a bench at the train station platform and he’ll come back for him. Hours pass and when he awakes, Guddu is nowhere to be found. Thinking his brother is on a train stopped nearby, he climbs aboard. After awhile, he falls asleep and the train takes off. He is transported nearly a thousand miles away from his home. When it finally stops, he is in an unknown world. He can’t read. He doesn’t know the name of his hometown. He can’t even speak the local Bengali dialect, only Hindi.

In the more absorbing first half, the narrative perfectly captures the panic of being lost in a strange place. India’s homeless children roam the streets in groups. Their instant camaraderie is touching but a circumstance that is borne out necessity. The many dangers these homeless children face is highlighted, a child kidnapping ring for one. It’s an unsettling portrayal of a real problem. Young Saroo Brierley is played here by actor Sunny Pawar and he’s a natural. I cannot fathom how scary it was for Saroo to endure such a terrifying odyssey away from home and family, but Pawar’s scrappy performance perfectly captures his struggle. He seizes your attention as the main protagonist in the first half.

The second half is where all the famous thespians show up. Yet interestingly it’s less effective. Of note is Dev Patel. He shows up to play the adult version Saroo, now living in Austrailia. Patel is an actor transformed. His obsequious hotelier in the Marigold Hotel films was a cloying stereotype. Lion sees the long haired bearded performer reborn as a more rugged looking leading man. His swarthy good looks paired with a more somber demeanor. He hides a longing for the mother and brother he lost years ago with his head buried in academic studies. Patel is supported by a couple of well-known stars: Rooney Mara as his girlfriend/fellow student and Nicole Kidman with David Wenham as an adoptive couple. I’m purposefully sidestepping the details of how Saroo got to this point because I think the movie is more compelling the less you know. Needless to say, details about his former life remain in his mind. He begins to research whatever became of his family. Those scenes dramatically unfold in a section that somewhat plays out like an advertisement for Google Earth.

There was a time when a picture like Lion would have easily won Best Picture. Beautifully shot and lovingly told, this is a grand epic that spans continents and decades. Changing tastes have maligned these kinds of dramas with derisive adjectives like sentimental, melodramatic or, heaven forbid, old fashioned. The production is none of those things. What it represents, is one man’s exquisitely composed reminiscence of his life on this earth, a journey that takes him from India to Australia. The narrative builds to a conclusion that had me weeping at the end in an uncontrollable catharsis. It highlights a lot of concepts with sensitivity: the importance of family, the considerations of adoption, one’s own identity, the wonders of the internet and love. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

10-25-16

High-Rise

Posted in Drama with tags on December 29, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo highrise_ver4_zpsank6urye.jpgEvery December 31st, I put together a Top 10 list. As an obligation to tradition, I also highlight a few of the absolute worst as well. In assembling my worst, I realized that I never wrote a review for my least favorite production of 2016.

At the time, it was such a horrible experience that I just wanted to forget I ever even saw it. However, if I’m going to castigate the film, I do owe it the courtesy of presenting why I hated it so much. I still have no desire to pontificate about the drama. but I did discover a critique by Rex Reed that kind of summarized my disgust. His brand of criticism often verges on vitriolic hyperbole. In this case, he got it completely right.

And so, I offer his appraisal of my least favorite movie of the year:
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Rex Reed reviews the cinema.

Source: The Class War of ‘High-Rise’ | | Observer

Sing

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_zpskxzncfte.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBuster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a plucky koala who owns a music theater. Lately, his productions have bombed and now he is in financial trouble. He loves the concert hall for it has a rich history. In an effort to save his failing business he decides to hold a singing contest, not unlike American Idol. He starts by holding auditions and we’re introduced to an interesting assortment of animal critters. Sing is the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the animation company owned by Universal Studios. They scored big this Summer with The Secret Life of Pets and it looks as though they’ve got another major hit on their hands.

Sing gets a lot right, starting with juggling a colorful cast with ease. The screenplay wisely takes the time to thoughtfully delve into the backstories of various individuals. We become emotionally invested in these critters. Five leads emerge: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who is a devoted wife and loving mother. She longs to return to the entertainment spotlight of her teenage years. Mike the mouse croons like Frank Sinatra and has got the confidence to match. Ash is a porcupine who comprises one-half of a punk rock duo with her arrogant boyfriend Lance. She can belt it out, but hasn’t been given the chance. Meena is a shy teen elephant with an incredible voice. Unfortunately her crippling stage fright holds her back. Lastly, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a British mountain gorilla. He longs to perform, but his father wants him to take part in the family’s criminal escapades. These characters occasionally touch on ambitions that can be a bit clichéd. They may follow conventional tropes but they manage to engage. These are reasonably well-developed personalities with some unexpected depth. The narrative could have easily worked as a live action movie with human actors.

“Sing, sing a song / Sing out loud / Sing out strong…” sang Karen Carpenter in a 1973 hit song penned by Joe Raposo. Oddly enough, that similarly titled ditty is NOT included in Sing. This jukebox musical contains over 85 tunes ranging from 1940s standards by Frank Sinatra to current pop singles. These are heard throughout both in the background of scenes or sung in competition by the contestants. The compositions work and many actually feel as though they were written for the drama. Katy Perry’s “Firework” as sung by Rosita (Witherspoon), and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” sung by Johnny (Egerton) as his climatic number at the end, are galvanizing pop hits that pluck your heartstrings. Johnny’s incarcerated father discovers his son’s vocal talent from the TV in his jail cell. I can’t explain why I got choked up, but I did gosh-darn it! There’s a lot here that feels familiar. I mean did we really need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Please retire that ballad immediately. Nevertheless, I freely admit that it’s beautifully sung here by Tori Kelly. 2016 has been a stellar year for animated films. The bar has been raised incredibly high. Sing doesn’t reach the heights of the year’s very best (Zootopia), but I still left the cinema with a smile.

12-22-16

Jackie

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jackie_zpsnphjqkwp.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgJackie is a film that almost dares you to enjoy it. It’s never dull, but it’s so acutely focused on dramatic posturing that it completely ignores the kinds of things that normally compose a movie. This is an account that is less interested in action, drama or a plot. The chronicle focuses acutely on technique. It’s less a movie and more of a work of art to be viewed. The performance as an expression of method. Come see the newest biographic installation! It’s Jackie Kennedy as embodied by Natalie Portman!

The “plot” concerns the days and weeks following the assassination of her husband. Jackie is a character piece in which a devastated woman makes the first steps to engineer her own legacy. According to the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, she was obsessed with image. How will she and her husband be remembered? She’s worried about perception, not reality. The same could be said of this movie. It begins with the interview Kennedy gave to Life magazine reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) in Hyannis Port, Mass a week after the assassination. The film alternates between the day itself, the state funeral, and frequent flashbacks to various events when her husband was alive. Oh, she also argues a lot with her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (a shockingly miscast Peter Sarsgaard).

At times the circumstances are horrifying. Mica Levi’s (Under the Skin) discordant score punctuates this. The violins swell and plunge so as to emphasize her overwhelming sense of dread. More of an intrusion with the action on screen than an underscoring of it, they interrupt the scene, calling attention to itself. She steps off the plane in Dallas and the music drowns out the sounds of the crowd. It rises to the point where it supersedes what the people are saying. At first, they merely hint, but midway through they have taken over, hijacking the narrative and sabotaging the participants. It’s an edgy choice and one that would beautifully frame a horror movie. For a biographical drama, it’s distracting.

Natalie Portman’s rendition can be most equitably described as uncanny. She’s certainly got the look and feel of the character. The fashions are nattily precise. She gets the mannerisms down. Her vocal delivery is a combination of raspy mid-Atlantic accent and breathy whisper.  It is an emotional achievement, but it all amounts to a sort of a ghostly manifestation. The style of her fashion and the lilt of her voice are beyond reproach, but the soul of the woman is oddly missing. Her patrician beauty and poised demeanor belie a chilly personality. We get that Jackie, though stricken with grief, is full of steely resolve, but she remains remote. She stares out zombie-like into space. Her presence is ethereal.

Jackie is particularly cold during the interview segments. She is curt and controlling, dictating which statements interviewer White can and cannot publish. Recreated scenes of her TV special, A Tour of the White House, seem especially artificial with exaggerated smiling and mock enthusiasm. Granted the real thing was a bit of a pretense, but Mrs. Kennedy still seemed sincere. It’s on YouTube. Compare for yourself. Jackie paints a portrait of a brittle, harsh individual, that is so peculiar in its affectations that you cannot look away. The performance will most certainly draw Portman attention come awards season. It’s too conspicuous not to notice.

This is Natalie Portman’s movie. She is Jackie Kennedy. The narrative is entirely composed of vignettes in which she interacts with various people. In that sense, it’s a chamber piece rather than a biography. Jackie is indeed an intimate portrayal, It revolves around her, every line, every scenario, every interaction fills Jackie. There are admirable qualities. The production has an eye for period detail. It looks exquisite. However, a gorgeous facade is not a raison d’être. As she weeps and drinks and smokes and snarls we get an unorthodox depiction. There’s a moment where she washes off the blood from her dead husband in the shower. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain certainly makes bold decisions in his treatment of this icon. I suppose one can admire his desire to innovate. It’s not conventional. Yet the work is assembled like a collage, with bits and pieces coming together but never coalescing into a unified whole. What are we to make of Jackie Kennedy? Who was this woman? What made her tick? I still have no idea.

11-07-16

La La Land

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical, Romance with tags on December 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo la_la_land_ver3_zpssdnqlcs6.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgI want to live in Los Angeles. Not the real LA mind you, but the glittering jewel of a city in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The city often gets a bad rap. There are the oft-mentioned reasons: smog, extreme traffic, insufficient public transportation, crime, gangs, the pseudo-spiritualism, the unchecked vanity, the obsession with celebrities. It kind of seems like everyone is trying to make it into show business there. Easier said than done.  It wasn’t nicknamed the city of broken dreams for nothing. And yet millions choose to call LA home. La La Land makes me understand why.

The city isn’t famous for its culture. Yet Chazelle sees the beauty within. La La Land is a practically a tourism ad making use of many real Los Angeles landmarks. It’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood location tour pops up. There‘s Griffith Park, the Observatory there, Angels Flight Funicular, Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto theater, Hermosa Beach Pier. The “You Are the Star” Mural at Hollywood & Wilcox provides a backdrop. Each location becomes an enchanting setting. Anyone who has ever found themselves in LA’s nightmarish bumper to bumper gridlock would beg to differ. However, even a traffic jam seems like a wondrous delight. In the film’s opening scene, Chazelle makes congestion on the 110-105 interchange exactly that. Again I emphasize that this is not a set and the experience is all the more galvanizing because of it. As the characters slowly emerge from the protective confines of their metals cells, they begin to sing “Another Day of Sun”. Gradually getting on top of their cars in a rapturous display of dancing by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the pop singer turned actress). It’s a fantastic way to start off the picture. It’s so captivating, I was overcome with emotion. The way it harnesses joy out of the everyday is magical.

First and foremost, La la Land is a love story. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) pursue each other. They’ve got palpable chemistry. This is actually the third time the two have been on screen together Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad were the others. Emma Stone is such a pleasure. As the jittery aspiring actress waiting for her big break, she is an anxious bundle of charm. Ryan Gosling plays a confident but frustrated jazz pianist. He dreams of opening his own club but earns a living by playing Xmas songs in a cocktail bar. Deep down he prefers the traditions of the past while being forced to adopt the affectations of the modern era. John Legend is his friend Keith that looks to the future. “Jazz is constantly evolving,” Keith argues. Neither side is wrong according to the film. It’s not being true to yourself that’s the problem. Mia supports this idea. Sebastian accepts a well-paying job playing backup electronic keyboards for Keith’s commercially successful band. “Did you like it?” Sebastian asks of Mia after a very well-attended concert of jazz-pop fusion. “Yes, but did you?” she responds.

They’re a pair out of some long lost Hollywood musical of the 1950s. In a previous generation, Ryan would be played by Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Gosling is certainly not a proficient singer/dancer like Kelly. Emma Stone can’t vocalize like Judy Garland either. Stone has what you might call a delicate whisper of a voice. Damien Chazelle is aware they aren’t up to that standard, but that’s OK. In some ways, their inadequacies are part of their appeal. There is a lack of pretense and polish to their numbers that actually makes this more accessible and less artificial. When they burst into song, the expression appears almost naturally – an outpouring of their passion already existing on the screen. What they miss in singing ability, they more than overcompensate for with feeling. Those overly produced pitch-perfect confections on the TV show Glee may be flawless from a sonic standpoint, but they often forget the human element that gives the composition feeling and soul. When these individuals croon they reach for your heart first. Your brain might tell you they aren’t accomplished vocalists, but your heart tells you they’re in love. That is what ultimately matters in a story about human emotion.

We already knew director Damien Chazelle was talented. His last feature Whiplash garnered 5 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including one for its star J. K. Simmons. He briefly appears in a cameo here. However following up success can often be an intimidating task for a newcomer. Damien Chazelle tackled a daunting project. Musicals aren’t common these days. Oh sure there’s Disney’s animated flicks and the occasional Broadway adaptation, but most younger moviegoers are unfamiliar with the idea. When actors break into song it can feel corny. An indifferent viewer rejects the idea with disbelief. How do you stage a production grounded in the past but present it to today’s jaded audiences? What Damien Chazelle pulls off in La La Land is nothing less than miraculous.

In La La Land the “City of Angels” is reimagined through the glorious sheen of the late 40s/early 50s Hollywood musical. For examples, watch An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, or The Band Wagon to see what I mean. What makes Chazelle’s 3rd feature so incredible is how brilliantly he understand how to reference history. He skillfully recontextualizes the vernacular of the American musical for the modern age. The exquisite score by Justin Hurwitz, elaborate production design by David Wasco, those costumes by Mary Zophres, the Technicolor, the romance – La La Land‘s aesthetic borrows from history but the time period and the characters are rooted firmly in contemporary society. 2016 is all here: cell phones, Hybrid vehicles, the part-time job as a barista. Chazelle makes our present era seem so much more magical. There is an exuberant quality I haven’t seen recently.  Mia and Sebastian radiate sweetness too. This uncorrupted pair shares a purity. You want them to be together. Their emotion is real. You fall in love. This why we go to the cinema. If I may paraphrase a famous expression once said by Humphrey Bogart, La La Land is the stuff that [movies] are made of. It is sublime.

12-08-16

The Edge of Seventeen

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo edge_of_seventeen_zpswfnlff2h.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s nice to see that the ongoing plight of the adolescent hasn’t changed. The “major” dilemmas for a pretty, young, well-to-do student from suburban Portland may not add up to much in the grand scheme of things, but they represent the entire world to a 17-year-old girl. The drama opens with our hapless hero Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) informing her teacher (Woody Harrelson), that she’s going to kill herself. She’s clearly being overly dramatic and Mr. Bruner responds with appropriate sarcasm. To be fair, she has real problems. Her father unexpectedly died 3 years ago. However, that is not the focus. It’s all about the awkward social skills, not fitting in with the cool kids, the unattainable crush, arguments with her more popular sibling, a mom that doesn’t get her and an instructor who does. This picture could have come from any era. In 1984 it would have been produced by filmmaker John Hughes. In 2016, it’s a surprisingly self-assured gem from writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

What makes this umpteenth rumination on teen angst so vital is its stark authenticity. Craig manages to sidestep a lot of clichés with her directorial debut. The portrayal surrounds Nadine with all the usual suspects in a young girl’s life: the mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), Darian the brother (Blake Jenner), the best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), Mr. Bruner, the aforementioned teacher (Woody Harrelson), Nick the crush (Alexander Calvert), and Erwin the nerd (Hayden Szeto). The individuals may serve as stock archetypes but their personalities most definitely are not. I’ll admit there are a few artificially manufactured moments for the sake of drama. Hayden Szeto’s Asian nerd is so ridiculously fit and yet painfully sweet that her total disregard of him is a bit eye-rolling, to say the least. This would only occur in a story where a character must make a predictable trajectory. You’re just waiting for this to happen. The thing is, you’re rooting for it because he’s just so winning. So is everyone else in the movie.

The adolescent feeling that “nobody understands me” has been done before. The Edge of Seventeen is a fresh take that adds to a genre already crowded with a lot of great films. Let’s give major props to a star who continues to impress, Hailee Steinfeld. Ever since she was famously introduced as Mattie Ross in True Grit, she continues to make her film presence known. As the teen at the center of this tale, Halle Steinfeld manages to pull off the miraculous. On the one hand, she is rude, crude, and misanthropic. Her misfit high school junior is kind of a jerk. And yet we see the lovable warmth within. She’s a difficult personality but her snark is infused with enough wit that we embrace this youth. Director Kelly Fremon Craig’s vision is an innovative take on a woman’s odyssey through high school. Her screenplay treats each role with fairness and depth. Steinfeld is the MVP of the picture. Naturally, she should be. It’s her chronicle. And yet everyone in the production gets a chance to shine. The surprise is, despite all their foibles, we still embrace these people. When her best friend starts dating her brother, we grasp Nadine’s frustration. Her world logically (and predictably) comes apart. The way it’s handled, however, subverts expectations. You think you know these characters, but you don’t.

12-01-16

Manchester by the Sea

Posted in Drama with tags on November 30, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo manchester_by_the_sea_zpswck8zl5f.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Manchester of the title is a coastal town along the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay, about 30 miles northeast from Boston. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a dejected man with a tragic past. A beleaguered soul, he is withdrawn, almost surly. He works as a handyman for a Boston apartment building complex. Early on, his grumpy interactions with building tenants are presented as a series of vignettes. It’s kind of amusing at first. We’ve come to expect humor in our cinematic tragedies so in the beginning these seem like comic relief. They aren’t. Lee possesses a thoroughly depressed spirit. In the opening scene, we see the past. He is an upbeat uncle, joking around with his young nephew (Ben O’Brien as young Patrick). They’re on a boat with Lee’s brother / Patrick’s father Joe (Kyle Chandler) off the coast of Massachusetts. Life is good. Flash forward to the present and things are a much different picture. How Lee became this way isn’t revealed until about halfway through. Our present story is set in motion when Lee receives a call that his brother Joe has died, forcing him to return to his hometown and confront demons he’d rather forget.

Lee Chandler is something of an enigma. He’s all pent up emotion. Uncommunicative, aloof, he has shut out the world. It’s easy to embrace someone who’s asking for help, but what about the individual who refuses to engage? Because he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, Lee is isn’t a very likable guy.  Outwardly, he’s placid. Yet that doesn’t mean he isn’t tormented by a tornado of sadness. A maelstrom of pain surging inside that gives rise to violent outbursts. He talks with his fists, coming out swinging just because someone looks at him funny. One keeps expecting a tearful collapse that never arrives. The narrative is all about relationships minus the requisite sentimental displays of the main protagonist. It’s a “chick flick” for dudes. Casey Affleck gives a most uncharacteristic performance for this genre. The chronicle is all the more innovative because of it.

There’s a more conventional version of Manchester by the Sea. Its core of “family coping with loss” is a common story. This could’ve easily been a weepy tearjerker. It isn’t. Lonergan makes some uncommon choices in how to depict the tale that elevates it into something extraordinary. Casey Affleck is the core of the plot, but he’s supported by an amazing ensemble that also subverts our expectations. Actor Lucas Hedges is Patrick Chandler, Joe’s now teenage son and perhaps the second most important person in this account. Father Joe has made his brother Lee sole guardian of son Patrick in his will. I’ve seen these melancholy tales with kids before and I figured I had this Patrick character pegged even before we were introduced. His personality is nothing like I expected.  I could explain how but that would spoil the impact of his disposition. If this drama does have that predictable emotional breakdown, it belongs Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. Her impassioned plea is the movie’s one concession to a giving the audience a catharsis. It’s my favorite moment in a film full of many.

Director Kenneth Lonergan received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his debut screenplay for the drama You Can Count on Me, which he also directed. The Academy bestowed another nomination on him for co-writing Gangs of New York for director Martin Scorsese. Then almost a decade of no output. He directed Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, as his second directorial feature in 2005, but the troubled production was mired in multiple lawsuits. It didn’t get released until 2011. As one of the most critically acclaimed pictures of the year, Manchester by the Sea must certainly be a validation, but it’s a reminder as well. Kenneth Lonergan is a unique talent.

Manchester by the Sea is highlighted by a brilliant script, also penned by the director. The narrative advances a progression of captivating conversations, as Lee deliberates on the past in flashbacks, as well as in the present day. The reflective piece is edited together like a shuffled deck of cards. The style mimics our own free association with the past as we converse with people in the present. These exchanges provide a deeper understanding of Lee Chandler. Sometimes it’s even more powerful by what it doesn’t say. The indefinable power of the silence in between what people actually express.

Music is an important component that changes with each segment. There’s an original score by Lesley Barber, but the soundtrack also features classical music. Handel, Poulenc, Albinoni, and Massenet are occasionally played loudly over scenes where dialogue would normally be heard. The technique is used frequently and periodically you feel the director’s hand guiding the viewer. Lonergan overtly pushes feelings that are already there. However, more often than not, the choice can be particularly compelling. A gathering of family and friends at the funeral home comes to mind. We imagine what the people are saying. We focus on their expressions in the absence of talk. The result makes the experience more dreamlike but also alien because the sophistication of the classical piece is so foreign to the blue collar aura of our central character.

Manchester by the Sea is like a mournful symphony gently guided under the masterful direction of its conductor. The adagio pace of the film unfolds as a contemplative composition. At 2 hours 17 minutes, it’s leisurely pace can tax the viewer’s patience, but the rewards are great. It’s a work marked by the modulation of sensitivity as we witness an evolution of poignant discussions. Happy, sad, angry – our undulating emotion crescendos with a heartbreaking conversation. The account ultimately continues on to the gentle sublime cadence.  This is a movie about self-discovery. As such, we learn more about our character as the chronicle develops. It’s that gradual reveal of the narrative that keeps the audience captivated. Lee isn’t noticeably that much different at the end than he was at the beginning. Yet our appreciation for this man has developed. It’s an ending that plays out like life. This saga isn’t finished but we understand so much more now than we did when we started. I was enriched by the ride.

11-29-16

Nocturnal Animals

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo nocturnal_animals_ver5_zpse44rfy9v.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWithout warning, wealthy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a letter from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He requests that she read his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he has also included in the package. This lure is merely the tantalizing set-up for a crackerjack thriller. We learn that the title was Edward’s nickname for her. In fact, the manuscript has been dedicated to Susan. As she sits down to pore over the novel in her austere modern mansion in Beverly Hills, the wicked tale unfolds before our eyes. This story within a story has painful parallels to Susan and Edward’s failed marriage in the past. Edward was a dreamer. Susan loved that about him but his need to write ultimately became a source of consternation for her. It also resonates with her current situation because her relationship with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), is also less than ideal.

Nocturnal Animals is highlighted by a colorful and diverse cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is essentially playing two roles, Susan’s ex- husband Edward Sheffield, but also Tony Hastings, the central character in the book. Tony is a gentle man driving his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip across a deserted West Texas highway late at night. Incidentally, if you think Amy Adams and Isla Fisher look alike, then you’re already making the right associations. Along the way, Tony is sucked into a nasty road rage duel with a gang of hillbilly rednecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo). These guys look more like the appropriately distressed models for a jeans ad photoshoot than country hayseeds but hey this is a Tom Ford movie after all.

The violent tale becomes uncomfortable viewing but it never ceases to be captivating. Tony is forced off the road and a confrontation ensues. The narrative also manages to feature a mesmerizing performance by the always great Michael Shannon as a detective named Bobby Andes. The juicy role couldn’t be more tailor-made for the actor. He’s certain to garner some attention come awards season. Laura Linney is briefly seen in flashback as Susan’s Dallas-rich mother complete with bouffant hair and the requisite pearls. Her one scene is memorable. Finally, I have to add, that even though the chronicle is pretty dark, Jena Malone’s cameo as Susan’s millennial gallery assistant in the present is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a film all year.

Nocturnal Animals simply oozes with cinematic style. American fashion designer Tom Ford not only directs but adapts the screenplay from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man is even more accomplished, although this production should prove to be polarizing. I mean can we talk about those opening credits? They are a veritable slap in the face.  The visuals are perplexing to say the least. There’s simply no context at first.  These images may open the film, but I still won’t spoil the surprise. I will offer that they concern a video installation on display in Susan’s gallery. If you already think modern art is crass, this won’t change your opinion. Then again, maybe the intro is a biting commentary on the contemporary art world. So many interpretations and that’s just in the first 5 minutes.

Nocturnal Animals brilliantly juggles three different realities. As Susan reads the book we jump across shifting chronologies. There’s the adventure of the text, then forward to the present and then back to her past. The novel is the nifty little suspense within the proper film. In fact, I dare say it’s the most entertaining part of the picture. The clever framing device though is a nice touch because it draws parallels to the real and invented world and invites the audience to make conclusions about Susan Morrow based on the characters within the “fictional” literary work. As the account shifts through the various timelines, we start to uncover what went wrong in Edward and Susan’s marriage.

Tom Ford’s effort is a remarkably proficient saga that spans genres. It’s both a cruel Texas crime drama as well as gauzy middle-age melodrama. It’s not important that you like these people, but you will understand them. It will engender your empathy as you react to the situation of these different individuals. It’s artful sophistication blended with ugly sadism. The mix is tonally diverse but it all makes sense right down to the conclusion. I was initially put off by the final shot. It wasn’t what I was hoping for but then as I deliberated on the piece, I realized the ending actually bested my expectations. Tom Ford has crafted a meta mystery-thriller on which to reflect.

11-04-16

Hacksaw Ridge

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on November 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hacksaw_ridge_ver2_zpshuwhy55u.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt certainly is an amusing irony that one of the most graphically violent war films ever made is in fact about a man who refused to pick up a gun. The subject of Mel Gibson’s heartfelt biography is Desmond Doss, an American pacifist who served in the U.S. Army during World War II . After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Desmond believed deeply in the cause. However, as a devout Seventh-day Adventist, he had also vowed not to take a human life.  Consequently, he decides to become a combat medic. In this manner , he could serve in a unique way. It was during the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, on the island of Okinawa in 1945, that he would be put to the test. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. By the end, Desmond would save 75 soldiers all without using a gun. He later would become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor. To be fair, he didn’t refuse to wear the uniform. He was a different kind of “conscientious objector”. Desmond Ross was an unlikely hero. That makes him a powerful focus at the center of Mel Gibson’s drama.

Thou shalt not kill. Desmond Doss took the commandment seriously. His conviction was formed as a young boy growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia. In the prelude, we see the events that lead to his enlisting. While play wrestling with his sibling one day, the young lad nearly kills his brother Hal with a brick. The incident had a profound effect on him. His upbringing was one of contrasts. A religious mother (Rachel Griffiths) paired with an abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) who also happened to be a veteran of World War I.  They both molded his personality.  As a young man, he meets a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and she becomes his sweetheart. They get married.

The movie is skillfully split into three parts. In part two he goes off to boot camp. It is there that he is chastised and ridiculed as a coward for refusing to carry a weapon. The ensemble highlights several soldiers that manage to stand out in brief vignettes. He faces verbal and physical attacks. Not just from his fellow soldiers, but also from his commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). They clearly try to break him. Vaughn is particularly memorable in a small part. He brands the men with nicknames like “Tex,” “Hollywood,” and “Ghoul”. Although his relentless drill sergeant is a stock character (Full Metal Jacket anyone?) Vaughn unquestionably galvanizes the narrative. It’s been years since the actor had a part this invigorating. In the final third, Desmond goes into the combat zone. Here is where the picture presents the battlefield like hell on earth – the deluge of wounded men evokes, for lack of a better word, hamburger meat. When/if you see the film you’ll understand why that description is pretty apt.

Mel Gibson isn’t one for subtlety. He paints with broad strokes, but his simplicity has an emotional component. Gibson has always been moved by blood and viscera. Whether Braveheart or Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, he uses violence like a gut punch to the psyche. And yet here the gore feels earned, almost necessary. The narrative certainly succumbs to exploitative tendencies, but only in the tertiary act. The director’s fervor is so credible the viewer is persuaded by his faith. Andrew Garfield plays the man with an aw-shucks southern mentality that makes him easy to embrace. I understood what made Desmond Doss tick. That’s a major success for any biography.

Hacksaw Ridge is unexpected. I was anticipating another “war is hell” melodrama. Yes ok, it is that. I likewise got a surprising tale of faith as well. A man whose unconventional beliefs made him a social outcast. An inspirational account of heroism presented without qualification, as simply “a true story.” Not based on. In keeping with the nature of the subject, that’s an audacious label. Over time, his determination forced people to accommodate to his eccentricities until he ultimately won them over through sheer ability. The saga of Desmond Doss is a passion project through which director Mel Gibson undoubtedly identifies with the man. The chronicle is pretty inspiring and Gibson extracts the excitement out of the drama in classic fashion. Even when he is delving in clichés, he brings such heart and intensity, you can’t help be won over.

11-06-16

Arrival

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo arrival_ver16_zpsbblz4gnr.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgOh, what hath 2001: A Space Odyssey wrought? Ever since Stanley Kubrick’s trippy, mind-expanding space adventure first unfurled back in 1968, the intersection of extraterrestrial life and the human experience at the movies has never been the same. The original set the bar inspiring a varying degree of diminishing results ever since. The latest sci-fi offering to delve into this concept is Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival featuring a screenplay adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”. Like Robert Zemeckis’ Contact or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Arrival is the “thinking man’s” alien invasion flick. Elevate your consciousness. That means expect lots of existentialist mumbo jumbo and less in the way of action or events.

Villeneuve is a category-defying filmmaker with successes in several genres including mystery (Incendies), thriller (Prisoners), psychobiological head trip (Enemy) and crime (Sicario) . His latest is an ethereal dissertation on what transpires after alien beings land on Earth. Twelve UFOs descend, hovering mysteriously in the sky. Tall, oblong shaped orbs dangling like colossal footballs over random locations across the planet. The one in the U.S. is over a field in Montana, The world is concerned. The key question must be addressed: “What is their purpose?”. In order to make contact, the U.S. Government taps Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in the starring role), a top linguist, and a theoretical scientist (Jeremy Renner in a bit part), to help them to better understand their intention. She will try and establish communication with the extraterrestrial visitors.

Somber, eerie, and virtually devoid of color, Arrival is an atmospheric mood piece that treats the landing of visitors from another planet with the graveness of a heart attack. In the first half, there are moments of dread. The circumstances hold promise for the audience like a dangling carrot tempting a mule to move forward.  Dennis Villeneuve conveys so much on a small budget.  The set design is bleak. The spaceships loom large. The tension is palpable. The life forms are called heptapods . Their presence is frightening. Like huge long-limbed spiders, they present seven squid-like tentacles that emit an inky black substance. The amorphous liquid is their written language which forms circular shapes that Dr. Banks tries to decode. How do we interpret their language? What are they trying to tell us? Are they friend or foe? It’s a captivating set-up. Dr. Banks and her operation argue over whether the information they glean should be kept private or shared with the other teams corresponding with the pods in their parts of the world. The human race stands on the precipice of a global war. Arrival is great when it’s a twisty conundrum….until it isn’t.

To its credit, Arrival eventually answers all of its questions. The problem is that when the enigma is slowly disconnected, then so is the film.  Subplots become red herrings.  The narrative isn’t ultimately preoccupied with the alien threat. It’s fascinated by how language molds who we are. The idea is that people approach the world differently because of vocabulary. Reality varies according to the linguistic tools employed. Terminology frames our understanding. Dr. Banks is changed by the experience. That’s the gist of the account, but I’ve purposefully omitted the closing truth. Your enjoyment of Arrival will derive out of how fascinating you think the final reveal is. Perhaps it will positively blow your mind. It has a philosophical gist. In keeping with the production’s chilly tone, I found the ending too dispassionate. The denouement is rather underwhelming after such a promising introduction. Denis Villeneuve has erroneously created a drama left unfulfilled.

11-10-16