Archive for the Drama Category

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 A beleaguered soul, he is withdrawn, almost surly.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

Loving

Posted in Drama with tags on November 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo loving_zps8mwdubkg.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt almost sounds like a poetic fabrication that the last name of Mildred and Richard was Loving.  The name also serves as the film’s title. The appellation would seem a bit too precious if it weren’t simply a fact. Adding to the irony of the situation is that “one of the most iconic ad campaigns of the past 50 years” is the tourism slogan: “Virginia is for Lovers.” It wasn’t always this way. It’s probably hard for a contemporary audience to fathom, but in 1958, 24 states, Virginia among them, had what were known as anti-miscegenation laws strictly prohibiting black–white intermarriage. Until the Loving’s case in 1967, it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in some states. (Side note: the last law officially outlawing interracial marriage was repealed in Alabama in 2000.)

On July 11, 1958, newlyweds Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga ) are in their bedroom asleep when armed police officers enter their house led by Sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas). The two are forcibly removed from their home and thrown into jail. Their crime? They are of different races and have gotten married. 5 weeks prior the devoted couple had decided to wed upon learning that Mildred was pregnant, Thanks to something called Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the pair had journeyed to Washington, D.C. where they were able to get married without issue.

Back in Virginia they are brought before a judge and plead guilty. In exchange for their plea, they are sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence being suspended for 25 years on condition that they leave the state. They comply and move to the District of Columbia to raise their children apart from their families who still live in Virginia. Frustrated by these restrictions, Mildred Loving writes a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. This starts a chain of events that affirms their rights have been violated as set forth by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At its core, Loving is a production constructed around Loving v. Virginia, the landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court, which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet Loving subverts expectations. Rather than presenting a courtroom drama in which arguments from both sides are presented, the chronicle is brilliantly fashioned around the life of Richard and Mildred Loving. This isn’t intended as a strident issue-based sermon. It’s a gentle portrait of two people deeply committed to one another.

Director Jeff Nichols’ biggest success up until now has been the coming-of-age tale Mud, a fable that got its official release in 2013. A civil rights piece like Loving might not seem like the most logical subject for the helmer of Take Shelter and Midnight Special, but it is his most obvious bid for mainstream recognition.   The subject turns out to be a nice fit.  It would have been very easy to allow the inherent soap opera of the happenings to descend into melodrama. Instead, writer/director Nichols allows the circumstances to speak for themselves. He sidesteps explicit commentary from the principal actors. This allows the weight of the composition to unfold honestly. Adam Stone’s gorgeous cinematography and David Wingo’s luscious score only underscore these truths.

At the core of Loving are two performances that are flawlessly executed. Joel Edgerton as Richard is not the civil crusader you might expect. He’s strong but quiet, almost stoic, a man who is ill-at-ease with the prospect of becoming famous. Yet his affection for his wife remains his strongest weapon. His late-in-the-film declaration brought tears to my eyes. In contrast, Ruth Negga as Mildred is the one who starts things in motion. She too is a reserved, almost mousy woman who appears to softly defer to her husband one moment but then takes charge of the situation the next. A phone call from Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), the ACLU lawyer assigned to their case, shows her at first hesitant and then decisive. Ruth is emboldened by the chance to better her family’s life. An ordinary woman driven to do extraordinary things. In fact, the duo shows such restraint that their lack of ferocity can be a bit surprising. These two are the least revolutionary types you could possibly imagine and yet their actions changed the fabric of the nation. That’s kind of inspiring. It gives hope to the masses because it means anyone can make a difference. The emotion is intimate and the humanity present within their circumstances becomes more palpable. Sometimes a revolution doesn’t start with a bang.

10-30-16

Moonlight

Posted in Drama with tags on November 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo moonlight_ver2_zps1ikgsjbr.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgComing-of-age tales are so often fraught with cliches that the very label is almost a disservice to films saddled with the description. The common details that unite one coming-of-age story with another are a bit ambiguous. They often concern a central figure who begins as a youth and reaches adulthood by the end. In that sense, Moonlight would appear to be another one of these sagas. Yet what Moonlight does is so dazzling in its construction that it becomes a revelation of truth. In presenting this memoir, legitimate drama is extracted from deceptively simple components that coalesce into a singular vision. This stunningly complex dissection of a life lived is breathtaking.

At the most basic level, this account is a character study about a man named Chiron (pronounced shy-RONE). We follow him through a triptych in which the lead is portrayed by three unique actors in his biography. In the first segment, Chiron is an 11-year-old, played by Alex Hibbert. He’s nicknamed “Little” because of his shy and meek nature. Bullied by the local kids, he is a somber individual affected by a challenging urban environment. He does not receive comfort from his emotionally cold mother (Naomie Harris in all three sections of the chronicle). However, he is befriended by a neighborhood crack dealer (Mahershala Ali in a charismatic performance) who nurtures the boy. Additionally, Little also relies on his friendship with best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner). In part two Chiron is now realized by actor Ashton Sanders. We follow Chiron as a teenager in high school. His close friendship with Kevin still persists. Yet everything in his life has become intensified and more complicated. This episode culminates in a life altering event. The final segment has Chiron now as an adult (played by Trevante Rhodes). Chiron currently goes by “Black”, a nickname Kevin gave to him when they were teens. His current situation is presented as it is now and we see how things have influenced his development.

Barry Jenkins is a thoughtful director. His debut was Medicine for Melancholy, a well-received, low-budget independent feature released way back in 2008. It has taken a whopping eight years for his follow-up feature. The wait has been worth it. Moonlight is his masterpiece. Like the protagonist of Moonlight, Jenkins also grew up poor in the Miami housing projects of Liberty City. It’s a region Jenkins knows well, but his adapted screenplay is actually based on someone else’s experience from the same area. In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Although neither writer knew the other in their childhood, the two actually grew up just a few blocks from each other.  As any child who has ever been bullied knows, there is a pecking order on the playground. Children detect what they perceive as weakness in their peers. They often seize on these qualities and exploit them in various ways that can undermine a child’s life. Sensitivity is considered being “soft” and that is a most undesirable quality as determined by young male peers.

Director Barry Jenkins takes his time constructing a narrative, slowly giving details that subtly pop up later in his story. It’s a visual tableau utilizing color and contrast to create a distinct aesthetic for each of the three chapters. In this way, Jenkins imbues his rough, urban landscape with a gorgeous poetic sheen. The atmosphere has an increasingly dreamlike state. It’s a leisurely paced drama where silence speaks volumes. It’s a meditative reflection where moody rhythms percolate beneath the protagonist’s circumstances. Jenkins touches on poverty, race, gender, sexuality, masculinity and identity. None of this is overt, but rather develops organically as it would when fulfilling one’s own life. Jenkins inspires many questions: Who are we as a person? Are we the product of our environment? Can we rise above these obstacles? How do these events shape us into the adult we become? There are many more. Some appear to have answers. Others are open to interpretation. Chiron’s experiences will touch each viewer in different ways that will encourage reflection for days afterward. His struggle may not be yours. However, it still involves the combustible components that are part of every human endeavor. In this way, Jenkins imparts a movie that speaks for all humanity.

10-28-16

The Birth of a Nation

Posted in Biography, Drama on October 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin


 photo birth_of_a_nation_zpsayzjohqa.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgJust based on the title alone, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation might appear to be a remake of the infamous 1915 silent directed by D.W. Griffith. That picture, though financially successful, was highly controversial upon release and remains so to this day. Though hailed as a masterpiece for its revolutionary filmmaking techniques, it was also criticized as racist propaganda. A highly inflammatory piece of agitprop, the chronicle embraced the Southern cause in the Civil War and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. Hard to fathom in this day and age, but this was a perspective that saw the abolitionist movement as destructive to the fabric of southern society. By “re-purposing” the title of that notorious achievement, 2016’s The Birth of a Nation also seeks to stir controversy. It is a subversive choice. This drama is a response of sorts, but from the viewpoint of one slave, Nat Turner.

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was an African American who led a rebellion of fellow slaves and free blacks on August 21, 1831. The uprising in Southampton County, Virginia lasted about 48 hours and resulted in the deaths of 55 to 65 white people. The biography portrays his life. As a child, he displays a self-taught reading ability that impresses his owner’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller). She encourages his desire to read, but only from the Bible. As Nat grows older, he becomes a dynamic preacher. When his talents are recognized by white men, he is exploited into performing a role that will eventually change him. Turner’s master (Armie Hammer) profits by taking Nat across the country on a preaching tour to other slaves. We see how the word of God is manipulated to condone slavery. His sermons are meant to quell the workers and keep them in line. Nat’s facility with the Bible grows. He learns that for every line that appears to justify the practice, there is another that soundly condemns it. In his travels, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery, and his experience compels him to become a different kind of leader.

Nat receives preferential treatment for his work, but you can see his anger seething within. The Birth of a Nation is highlighted by some memorable images. The sight of a white girl and a black girl at play with a rope around the latter’s neck is a shocking image that jolts the viewer. When one slave refuses to eat, the horrific solution is too harrowing to even describe here.  An attack on Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), is the defining moment that ultimately drives him to action. A quiet performance, actor Nate Parker often lets his face do the talking. He progressively realizes he is being used as a tool by white southerners to subjugate black slaves. Throughout the film, he often registers this through facial expressions and not words. His acting is a triumph of composed rage.

The Birth of a Nation is fashioned as a tale of revenge. It’s a difficult watch. The narrative dedicates very little time to the revolt itself. Instead it mostly dwells on the build-up of appalling events to which Nat Turner is a witness. The events have a galvanizing effect on him. He is transformed from a peaceful preacher into an angry rebel leading the downtrodden into an insurrection. Like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, there is no shortage of atrocities presented on screen. It becomes so relentless that by the end of the picture, you’re so primed to see the oppressed rise up against their captors that the mutiny becomes a catharsis. As such, The Birth of a Nation is not a “slave” movie per se, but a “soldier” movie.

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful work, but it’s a disturbing one as well. As a document that challenges racism and white supremacy, it is most assuredly a step in the right direction. Nat Turner was hanged and given no formal burial. We are told (not shown) that he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Soon after his death, attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. If you thirst for more of his story, I would suggest that. This film functions as a cinematic memorial that celebrates his memory. It also recounts a historical event and honors the legacy of Nat Turner. He was an early champion of civil rights – in a not-so-civil manner. He deserves a biography. Yet his story is told in broad strokes with plot points invented for dramatic effect (i.e.  Nat Turner’s wife was never gang raped by slave patrollers.  Nor was it the final inhumanity that inspired him to riot). It’s an emotional experience but not necessarily a wholly factual one.

The Birth of a Nation originally debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to thunderous applause and much acclaim back in January 2016. I will attest that it is is indeed a thought-provoking work. However in the ensuing months, rape allegations against the director have hung over this feature like a dark cloud. The Birth of a Nation has gone from “can’t-miss” to “should-miss”.  It tanked at the box office. I’m not here to tell you whether you should see this movie or not. That’s up to you. I can only give my opinion so that you can make an informed decision. Personally, I try to separate the art from the artist. I’ll admit it’s not always easy to do. Here I’ve chosen to review the film itself and in that spirit, I believe the message is worth your time.

10-08-16

The Magnificent Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

09-22-16

Sully

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

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

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

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

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

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

09-15-16

Florence Foster Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

08-30-16