Archive for the Drama Category

The Art of Self-Defense

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19

The Farewell

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

farewellSTARS4“Based on an actual lie.”  That how The Farewell begins – with a bit of levity.  It’s a true story culled from director Lulu Wang’s own experiences in hiding the truth.  Her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Since Chinese law does not require doctors to disclose such determinations to patients, her relatives didn’t divulge the news to the terminally ill woman.  They meant well.  They didn’t want to spoil her final months.  They carried on as if everything was fine so that her final days would be stress-free.  According to the filmmaker, this is a Chinese tradition.

In just her second feature, director Lulu Wang has fashioned a very personal film based on her own experience.  In the movie, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has only a limited time left to live.  The family has hatched a plan.  Under the deception of a fake wedding for Hao Hao (Chen Han), Nai Nai’s grandson, everyone will travel to China to see the matriarch one last time.  Nai Nai thinks they have arrived to plan and attend the wedding when in reality they are simply there to see her.  In this way, they can personally pay their respects.  Awkwafina plays Billi, a fictionalized version of the director.  Wang was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6.  That mix of cultures shapes Billi’s point of view as well.  Her American desire to truthfully break the news is at odds with this Chinese custom to shield their beloved grandmother from this heartbreaking prognosis.  Billi’s mom (Diana Lin) and dad (Tzi Ma) have advised Billi to remain at home in the U.S.  They know she will be unable to hide her feelings and promote the ruse.  Billi shows up unannounced anyway and her entrance is one of many awkwardly amusing scenes.

Awkwafina is a fascinating actress and the identity with which the audience can most relate in this account.  The Queens-born rapper initially had a viral rap success on YouTube before she was cast in the ensemble Ocean’s 8 in 2018. She later appeared in Crazy Rich Asians that same year.  In both, she was a flamboyant, extroverted individual.  She was funny and likable.  She is no less captivating here but her personality is notably dialed way down.  Awkwafina bridges the cultural divide between Billi’s New York home and her Chinese roots.  There are mentions that Billi’s ability to speak Mandarin isn’t very good so that struggle to fit in remains an underlying subtext.  Awkwafina’s acting is extremely unaffected and understated in its sophistication.  She incurs our empathy without sentimentality.  Her amazing achievement stands out because of (despite?) the exquisite subtlety of the performance.

The Farewell brilliantly details familial bonds in a most personal and honest way.  We’re detailing the impending death of a loved one.  This is pretty serious stuff but Lulu Wang’s screenplay somehow combines real comedy amongst the tragic circumstances.  “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die,” her mom proclaims early on.  An idiosyncratic blend of humor and solemnity pervades the atmosphere.  The Farewell is a heartfelt and touching picture.  What makes it so powerful is the utter veracity with which the household comes together to deal with the news.  The different ways in which a family grieves is a big part of the narrative.  It invites the viewer to reflect on their own relatives and how one would handle the situation. This may detail a Chinese family but the human emotions on display are universal.

The Farewell contains moments of great insight and poignancy. At times the screenplay is quite subtle because it suggests things without overtly expressing them. Given the melancholy mood surrounding the wedding, you start to wonder if perhaps Nai Nai doesn’t suspect something is amiss.  When we learn that Nai Nai also kept her own husband in the dark about his terminal illness, that suspicion intensifies but is still not confirmed.  As in life, ambiguity delicately informs this tale from beginning to end.  A movie about dying that shuns conventional rules where everyone must explicitly confess what they are thinking – what a refreshing take!  Every once in awhile an authentic reminiscence can capture our attention without requiring a complicated plot or melodramatic performances.  It’s the depth of emotion that charms our heart. The Farewell is just such a film.

07-28-19

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_ver7STARS2.5A new Quentin Tarantino film is an event.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been billed as his ninth picture.  So apparently Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 are now considered one film.  The auteur has declared his plans to retire after he has made 10 total.  Much of the critical establishment has worshiped at the altar of this much-lauded filmmaker.  Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of the way he succumbs to his excessive impulses.  His last production, The Hateful Eight, was a mean-spirited tale of truly reprehensible individuals.  To its credit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is decidedly more good-natured.  It’s a tale that longs for a bygone era.  But that isn’t for the Golden Age of directors like William Wyler, Frank Capra, and George Cukor.  No Tarantino reveres the men of 1960s Hollywood like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and John Sturges who made manly movies.

The drama takes place in Los Angeles circa 1969 which was a turning point in the entertainment industry.  Easy Rider, Medium Cool and The Wild Bunch all came out that year.  The studio driven era of the past was giving way to a slew of cinematic revolutionaries that were pushing the envelope in what types of behavior could be portrayed on film.  Studios had always kept a tight reign on what could be depicted on screen.  That standard was quickly eroding due to a social conflict that was playing out in real life.  The Best Picture of 1969 was a whimsical musical – Oliver – the last G-rated movie to win the award in fact.  In 1970 it was the X rated Midnight Cowboy.  Contrasts don’t get more conspicuous than that.  This is all mere subtext however but it helps to appreciate the social environment that this film details.

Tarantino’s attention to detail in fabricating Los Angeles circa 1969 is visually flawless.  He favors practical effects over CGI.  There is exhausting attention to period detail and production designer Barbara Ling is the MVP on this picture as far as I’m concerned.  The time is lovingly recreated with painstaking accuracy.   The vehicles, the storefronts, the clothing, Hollywood Boulevard – it is an immersive and palpable atmosphere.  The movie employs a soundtrack of Top 40 hits and vintage radio commercials in an aural pastiche that recalls American Graffiti.  To Tarantino’s credit, he’s depicting a generation that occurred a whopping 50 years ago whereas George Lucas manifested a past that transpired a mere 11 years from his fabrication.  Still, American Graffiti was positively hypnotic compared to this formless rambling.  If set design were the whole movie, this would be the best film of the year.  However, movies also rely on pacing and that’s a major problem in this nearly 3-hour endurance test.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like a patchwork quilt of interconnecting characters.  This is the saga of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a fading actor, and his close buddy/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was once a successful star of TV westerns of the 50s and 60s but has seen his career decline as of late.  He’s currently guest-starring as the villain in an action series.  In contrast, the more level-headed Cliff, who also doubles as Rick’s valet, is more resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him.  Cliff hasn’t been able to get much work due to speculation surrounding his wife’s death.  The central relationship is loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his buddy Hal Needham, a stuntman as well as director, actor, and writer.   There’s also a superfluous story that involves actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newlywed to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).  Her chronicle simply revolves around going to the cinema to watch herself in the Dean Martin spy comedy The Wrecking Crew. Her vacuous but beautiful face is enrapt at the sight of her own visage.  Except she’s watching genuine footage of the actual movie with the real Sharon Tate.  It’s an odd juxtaposition because Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate are clearly not the same people.

That’s the set-up, but what exactly is the story?  In this 3 hour tale, the account plods along at a leisurely pace that seems in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.  The fable operates as sort of a meandering series of vignettes in and around Los Angles.  The account largely focuses on the slumping career of Rick Dalton.  His interaction with a precocious young co-star named Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) is a high point.  Her obsessive allegiance to her craft actually causes Rick to question his own dedication.  Another is Cliff’s bizarre run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who was starring in The Green Hornet at the time.  Tarantino is a fan of martial arts.  Cliff implausibly humiliates the Asian star in hand to hand combat.  I didn’t take this biased fantasy of Quentin’s as truth, although that doesn’t make the deceit any less compelling.  Moh’s portrayal is so over the top that the martial artist star still remains the most captivating presence on screen.  Actors Moh and Butters were my two favorite cameos in a sprawling cast that has many of them.  Well, human ones anyway. Brandy, the pit bull that plays Cliff Booth’s pet, bears a mention as well.  The drama has little narrative thrust so any one of these scenes could be excerpted and enjoyed independently or even excised completely and not affect the story.

The movie briefly springs to life in a fascinating diversion which concerns Cliff Booth and an underage teen hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley).  She invites him back to the ranch of George Spahn (Bruce Dern).  This is the desert commune/cult where she lives and works.  She invites him to stay and meet their friend Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Booth is clearly distrustful of the hippies.  He insists on seeing the 80-year-old almost blind George for himself to make sure he isn’t being exploited.  It’s a captivating segment.

They say that this is Tarantino’s most personal work, but what exactly is this man idolizing?  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Tarantino was pining for the days when America was bolstered by strong conservative values before the cultural mores were upended by the freethinkers of the “decadent” 1960s.  The production functions as a mournful lament.  These two men bemoan the liberal hippie culture that is infiltrating show business and indeed the rest of society.  At one point 4 young people pull up and park their car in Rick’s driveway.  Rick, who has had enough of these counterculture types, lunges from his doorway like a bat out of hell cursing.  He orders the youths to leave, uttering the word “hippie” almost like it’s a slur.  It’s a surprisingly sympathetic point of view for what these two middle-aged white guys represent in our post-2017 MeToo movement.  The fact that this is Quentin Tarantino’s first film without producer Harvey Weinstein provides some interesting underlying context.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most amiable picture.  There is less bloodshed than you’d expect from a man who routinely fetishizes violence.  It’s only during the climax that this production ultimately submits to slaughter.  I must admit, knowing that Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her unborn child when she was murdered along with coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Polish screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) gave me anxiety about where this movie was headed.  Leave it to Quentin to subvert expectations.  Inglourious Basterds is his most satisfying work.  There are parallels between that alternate take on history and this one.  However, where that film gradually builds toward its conclusion, this one simply meanders without focus or direction.  Only in the last 15 minutes do the characters come together in an action-filled (and yes extremely violent) altercation.  It’s the director’s classic presentation of wish fulfillment.  There is a point I suppose.   I sadly regret that once this movie started to show a pulse, it was all over.

07-25-19

The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19

Midsommar

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery on July 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

midsommar_ver2STARS4How do you analyze a movie like Midsommar?  On the one hand, it’s an effective psychological drama that induces dread in a unique way.  It’s an impressive achievement.  On the other hand, it details an extremely unpleasant and often disturbing horror that will shake you to your very core.  Ok well, I can’t speak for everyone, but it rattled me.  This wasn’t a pleasurable experience.  Yet there is so much to recommend.

To start, I adored the central performance of actress Florence Pugh.  Dani Ardor is not in a happy place.  Our heroine has suffered an unspeakable family tragedy.  She is affected by grief.  The intensity causes a traumatic breakdown.  Dani must face agonizing sorrow more than once in this film.  Her primal screams recall the pain Toni Collette’s character endured in director Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary.  Pugh’s ability to exhibit extreme anguish is difficult to watch because it’s so genuine.  Her emotional state mirrors the tangible horror of what’s happening around her.  It’s almost cathartic because Dani’s pain seems so primal.  The tangible process of acting in this production must have been physically draining.  My heart went out to the actress herself.  It doesn’t happen often.  I had this reaction when watching Shelley Duvall in The Shining, as well as Isabelle Rossellini in Blue Velvet.  Florence Pugh as Dani exhibits emotional hell in a way I’ve rarely felt in a movie.

Anxiety riddled Dani looks for support from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but their relationship is not in a happy place either.  Christian has a trip to Sweden planned with his buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).  They’re going to attend a rare Midsommar festival that only occurs once every 90 years.  They’re traveling to a commune in Halsingland, a village where Pelle grew up.  They expect a little rest, relaxation and perhaps to meet women.  We the audience know that Christian was about to break up with Dani just before the tragedy.  Of course the timing couldn’t have been worse because now he can’t bring himself to sever ties with her.  When Dani finds out about the trip, she is rightfully hurt and so Christian begrudgingly invites her along.  He continues to exhibit increasingly distant behavior that incites our disdain.  He couldn’t be more disconnected.  Dani has no support system on which to fall.  His grad school friends aren’t much better.  They’re less than thrilled to have her tag along, although Pelle does reach out to comfort Dani at one point.

The Swedish word “Midsommar” predicably translates to Midsummer but specifically describes the first day of summer or the summer solstice.  Pagans have celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years.  The tradition includes weaving wreaths and crowns, eating herring and strawberries, playing folk music and singing songs, and dancing around the maypole.  The maypole is a mast garnished with flowers and ribbon to symbolize a tree.  It may seem like a children’s game but the giant phallus in the middle of the village clearing also holds an earthly significance of fertility to adults.  It highlights a memorable scene.

Midsommar is a hallucinogenic fever dream that blurs the line between delusions and reality.  The citizens rely on psychedelics to enhance their existence.  To reach this remote location, the friends must drive for 4 hours from Stockholm. Right before they reach their final destination, the group is offered magic mushrooms to help them acclimatize to the festivities.  Dani declines.  Then is made to feel like a killjoy for her decision.  If you’ve ever been forced to indulge in something that made you uncomfortable, you know how troublesome that experience can be.  It’s subtle, but things deteriorate from there.  The group spends most of their time in a psychedelic haze.  The long daylight hours coupled with drug trips make it difficult to determine the passage of time.  Occasionally you forget these people are under the influence.  Much later on when the flowers in her crown star to pulsate, it’s so bizarre because we the audience feel like we’re on drugs as well.

When they ultimately arrive, they encounter a big wooden sunburst which they walk through as a portal to a clearing in the woods.  There they meet a mysterious group of Swedes called the Harga where the adherents dress in embroidered white garments.  Later the women adorn their hair with floral headdresses.  The blonde and blue-eyed community has the feel of a cult.  Yet everyone appears benevolent and inviting.  There’s a young oracle named Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith) whose drawings comprise a theological text that is interpreted and then assimilated into their lives.  They’re taken to a huge barn where the ceiling is adorned with primitive art depicting various animals and people.  One glimpse of a banner posted outside depicts degenerate acts that detail a love story.  It’s ever so briefly seen, but long enough to convey the perversion.  The sleeping arrangements consist of a series of twin size beds arranged all along the perimeter of the edifice.  Midsommar is fascinating because it mines terror in the perpetual daylight of a Scandinavian summer.  It’s a daydream where warm sunlight bathes the festival.  The film is visually light.  Henrik Svensson’s production design coupled with superior cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski creatively establishes a mood that is both idyllic but sinister.

Midsommar isn’t about whether something bad will happen.  If you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you know that danger is afoot.   This is a chronicle about the way things unfold and evolve.  It’s a psychological journey.   Midsommar is a slow burn of a film and it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long.  It gets oppressive.  The viewer is transported to this pastoral community where we are incorporated into customs we don’t understand.  Their ritualistic traditions are based on the cycle of life as it relates to how a year is divided.  Life is differentiated into four 18-year segments that correspond with spring then summer, fall, and ultimately winter.  Their godless beliefs worship the season themselves.  It may sound poetic but Ari Aster doesn’t make their devotion attractive.  This voyage down the rabbit hole is a disquieting descent.  Several setpieces detail things that are extremely unsettling.  There are moments where director Ari Aster presents something shocking.  Conventional filmmaking dictates that you cut away but Aster lingers on the image.  Then brutally doubles down on it.  He condemns the sight but crosses the line in order to enforce a point of view.  This is a movie that wallows in dark forces.  It’s masterfully put together.  Though I can’t say I technically “enjoyed” Midsommar, I truly admired it.  It is an authentic presentation of evil in cinematic form.  Now real talk:  I’m concerned.   Can someone please give director Ari Aster a hug?

07-03-19

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted in Drama with tags on June 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

last_black_man_in_san_francisco_ver2STARS4The way a booming tech industry can negatively affect the changing Bay Area landscape fuels the art of some really great films.  Just a year after 2018 gave us both Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You,  we have The Last Black Man in San Francisco – another story that mines the subject of gentrification in “The City by the Bay”.  To call it a story is a bit imprecise, however.  This is not a plot-heavy drama but merely an elegiac reflection with a wistful nod towards creating a mood.  It washes over you like an emotional embrace with a love for a city that is slowly morphing into a much different community.  Dorothy once proclaimed “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  This movie most assuredly asserts that expression.

This is the feature-length debut from filmmaker Joe Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who directs his longtime friend in the lead role.  Jimmy Fails is an S.F. native who plays a fictionalized version of himself.  Fails and writer Rob Richert collaborated on the script with Talbot.  This is a fully realized work from a director and star who have deeply experienced this lamentation.  The tech industry has been both a boon and bane to a population.  At the very least, it has created a vast income disparity.  In turn, this has propelled S.F. to be the most absurdly expensive real estate in the entire U.S.  Only the richest 1% can afford.  Fact: according to the Cost of Living Index, The median home price is $1.6 million in S.F. and the average rent for an apartment is $3,821 a month.  That has had an effect on businesses too.  Places like La Victoria, a historic Mexican bakery in the Mission, had to shut down after 70 years in business in 2018.  In Joe Talbot’s words, this is rapidly altering the very fabric of a city which is pushing out “some of the people who made San Francisco so great.”

At the center of the account is a tender relationship between Jimmie and his idiosyncratic best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors).  They ride skateboards and wear thrift store duds.  Their rapport is not unlike the bond between two much younger boys.  They’re uncommonly close.  Jimmie currently lives with his buddy in the tiny house of Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the city’s Bayview neighborhood.  It’s here on the streets that Jimmie and Montgomery are taunted for their close bond by tough outspoken locals credited as the “Greek Chorus”.  These two close friends struggle in the outskirts of the city in which they can no longer afford to live.  The vulnerable pair are united by a quest to find their place in an area that seems to have left them behind.

Jimmie still obsesses over the elegant Victorian home his grandfather built in the now-gentrified Fillmore District – a section once nicknamed “Harlem of the West.”  His unending drive to reclaim his childhood abode drives this narrative.  The ornate edifice with its stained-glass windows, wood-paneling, and witch’s hat turret—is a character in itself.  The estate’s current value has made his birthplace financially out of his reach.  Various vignettes clarify his mindset on a San Francisco odyssey.  Tichina Arnold pops up as Jimmie’s aunt and Rob Morgan appears as his father, Jimmie Fails Sr.  One poignant moment occurs on a public transit bus where he casually bumps into his own mother, whom he hasn’t seen in some time.  She’s played by Jimmie’s actual mother in real life.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco doesn’t overtly promote an agenda.  It’s far more subtle than that.  This is a deeply felt contemplation that appeals on a purely sentimental level.  The film’s lack of a narrative thrust may irk some.  Indeed at times, I wished for a little more momentum.  This feels like a funeral that honors the past with a profound love that pines for a bygone era.  Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra presents a languid tribute to a forgotten age.  The images beautifully underscored by a majestic score by composer Emile Mosseri making his feature debut.

This quirky city once comprised a cultural diversity that included bohemians, musicians, artists, and other counterculture dreamers.  In recent years the metropolis has morphed into a playground for hipster transplants with six-figure salaries.  Yes, I acknowledge I’m simplifying a community that still remains remarkably diverse.  However, a key scene has our protagonist, Jimmie on a Muni bus when he overhears two young women dissing the place that he treasures – “I’ve been saying for months, let’s just move to East L.A.,” one woman says to the other. “This city is dead.”  In a moment of clarity Jimmie directly addresses her point blank: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco.  You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”.  The declaration spews from lips with a passion that got me choked up.  Perhaps because I call the Bay Area my home, this rumination really struck a chord with me.  It clearly comes from an emotional place, so I hope anyone can appreciate the depth of the meditation.  This is a movie that comes from the heart.

06-14-19

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19

The White Crow

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on May 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

white_crow_ver2STARS3The White Crow could be about anything.  The cryptic title is explained in the very first frame.  It’s a Russian term for someone “unusual, extraordinary, not like others, an outsider.”  I suppose I should realize by now that color + bird = ballet movie.  Black Swan and Red Sparrow also wove the same discipline into its storyline.

The White Crow concentrates on famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko)  during his young adulthood.  Most acknowledge him as the greatest male ballet artist of his generation.  He was also the first major Soviet artist to defect to the West during the Cold War.  This contemplative film leisurely advances towards a captivating conclusion.  The account depicts his humble birth on a moving train in 1938, becoming a sensation with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky) in the late 1950s and the rising acclaim surrounding his early career.

These episodes aren’t depicted in order but rather shifting back and forth. I’ve often felt that haphazard embellishments are utilized when a director doesn’t have enough faith in his tale to tell it in a normal fashion. As if chronological order is too conventional. However, the drama’s clarity is obfuscated by this narrative device as I was often unclear whether certain events occurred earlier or later.  Rudolf Nureyev was a man with a fascinating story.  To wit, most of the focus is on a fateful 6 week trip to Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961.  The developments of his life would certainly make an interesting production without the stylistic devices employed here.

Written by two-time Oscar nominee David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) and directed by also twice Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, this biopic has prestige oozing from every cinematic pore.  Hare was inspired by Julie Kavanagh’s book: Rudolf Nureyev: The Life.  Nureyev was a temperamental man and director Ralph Fiennes doesn’t attempt to make his subject likable.   Fiennes also appears in a small role as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher and mentor in Leningrad.  The cast also benefits from the presence of Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), who portrays Clara Saint, a 21-year old French woman who ends up playing a key element in Nureyev’s personal revolt.

Rudolf Nureyev’s mercurial character is highlighted by first-time actor, Oleg Ivenko, a real-life Ukrainian ballet dancer.  There are brief snippets showcasing his prowess but little in the way of performances.  I wanted to see more of that talent and less brooding.  Ivenko does a good job at conveying his rebellious mood, however.  Nureyev is not a warm person but that’s not required to enjoy this movie.  The saga ultimately builds to a memorable scene with a mesmerizing climax.  While Nureyev’s ballet troupe was to continue on to London, he was being summoned back to Moscow.  The real reason is unclear but his arrogant disdain for company regulations certainly played a part.  The request was enough to send him into hysterics.  The defection is a seemingly impulsive decision that makes perfect sense.  If only it didn’t take so long to get there.  At 127 minutes, the film’s distended length doesn’t do its subject any favors.  Some thoughtful editing would improve the drama immeasurably.  Chop 20 minutes out and just get to the “pointe”.

05-16-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

Greta

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

greta_ver2STARS3Neil Jordan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated directors.  He’s the auteur known for helming Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair.  All the aforementioned received widespread critical acclaim.  He actually won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (The Crying Game).  He’s talented to be sure.  However there’s also the director who has directed High Spirits, We’re No Angels and In Dreams, less enthusiastically received pictures of questionable artistic merit.  That’s the director that showed up to direct Greta.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a naive ingenue.  How innocent?  Well, she finds an unattended handbag on a New York subway and proceeds to take the item into her possession.  She means well, she only wants to find its rightful owner.  I don’t know about you, but an abandoned bag in a New York subway screams bomb threat to me in this post 9/11 world, but OK, I’ll accept her lack of judgment.  When she returns the purse she meets one Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a lonely widow who teaches the piano.  Now if art-house thrillers like The Piano Teacher and Elle have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with Isabelle Huppert.  Here the French actress trades on that persona by playing a seemingly kind woman.  Greta reminds Frances of her own recently departed mother. They strike up a rapport.  The female bonding that evolves is not unlike any number of Lifetime movies that center on female friendships. Unfortunately, Greta is not all that she seems.

Stalker movies are the genre that won’t go away.  Narratives about an unhealthy obsession include exemplars like Fatal Attraction, One Hour Photo, Notes on a Scandal and The Gift.  We seem to be drawn to these tales.  The 1990s were a halcyon decade for of the genre.  1992, in particular, was a banner year producing Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The Bodyguard.  Greta could have been a Hitchcockian thriller.   It’s not.  However, it’s still an entertaining throwback to those trashy, classics of yore.  In fact, the story construction is even simpler.  The plot is ridiculously paper thin.

Frances and Greta form this pseudo mother-daughter bond.  Frances lives in a gorgeous loft with her wealthy roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), a brash party girl.  The much shrewder Erica is suspicious of this relationship right from the get-go.   Sure enough, Frances makes a discovery early on that signals Greta isn’t all that she appears to be.  Rather than gradually enter the realm of speculation, the tale simply flips the crazy switch.  The screenplay co-written by Ray Wright (Case 39, The Crazies) and director Neil Jordan has no time for deep character development or motivation.  “My friends say I’m like chewing gum,” Frances initially informs Greta.  “I tend to stick around.”  The silly dialogue kept me amused, but a scene where Huppert spits an actual piece of gum into Chloë Grace Moretz’s hair made me laugh out loud.  Frances is promptly freaked out and Greta grows instantly clingy.  It’s as if 20-30 minutes of the film is missing.  Rarely have I seen such a stately composition go off the rails so quickly.  From then on, it’s a battle of wills as Greta’s increasingly unhinged behavior escalates.

Greta is a tawdry production.  Neill Jordan isn’t above resorting to nauseating visuals for the sake of cheap gore.  A rolling pin and a cookie cutter are utilized as lethal weapons.  This is followed by the use of a hypodermic syringe in an unsettling image I cannot shake, no matter how hard I try.  Then again, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  There’s an element of exuberant glee to the proceedings.  Huppert’s acting prowess is captivating.  The Oscar-nominated actress is so winking, so obviously aware that the script is beneath her, that she digs in with all fours.  If she played it more serious, the mood wouldn’t have been as fun.  She exhibits a maniacal delight that is equally charismatic and frightening.  A table-flip in a crowded restaurant shows a complete lack of restraint.  The events are beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina).  Never underestimate the power of exquisite cinematography.  Meanwhile, Frances appears to be overreacting to such a degree that she doesn’t elicit our sympathy.  After a while, you sort of enjoy her unraveling demeanor.  It’s rare that we should root for the villain in a stalker film.  The campy theatrics are wholeheartedly a plus.  Isabelle Huppert gives life to an otherwise slight drama.

02-28-19