Archive for the Drama Category

The Favourite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-27-18

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Widows

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

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

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

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

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

11-17-18

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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

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

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

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

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

11-15-18

Boy Erased

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-08-18

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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

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

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

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

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

11-05-18

Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on November 5, 2018 by Mark Hobin

bohemian_rhapsodySTARS3.5Never underestimate the power of music…or a great performance for that matter. Bohemian Rhapsody has both. The production is a biopic of the British rock band Queen focused mainly around the life of Freddie Mercury at the point they formed the group. The soundtrack features most of the band’s well-known hits. The inspiration for a few of the band’s signature songs is depicted. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” each receive little background stories. All of these vignettes are united by a truly mesmerizing performance. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar (now Tanzania). His introduction to the band, their subsequent stardom, and fractures within the band are all portrayed. Malek is truly extraordinary as the Queen frontman. He may not actually sing but he lip syncs so convincingly through his physical performance that you believe he is. He channels the legend and I never doubted the manifestation for a second.

Bohemian Rhapsody was a troubled production from the beginning.  It was announced in 2010. Originally set to star Sacha Baron Cohen, the picture went through development hell. The comedian and remaining members of Queen couldn’t agree on what type of picture they wanted to make. Brian May (lead guitar, vocals) and Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), are listed as executive producers. This probably explains why their characters get plenty of lines and bass guitar player John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) is basically an afterthought. Various directors were attached including Stephen Frears. Cohen exited and Rami Malek was ultimately cast. Tensions between the new star and director Bryan Singer led to Singer’s replacement near the end of principal photography with director Dexter Fletcher. Singer is still credited as sole director but Fletcher received an executive producer credit. Bohemian Rhapsody was a huge hit with audiences opening to a rather robust $50M on its opening weekend. Its success makes the negative press the film received, even sweeter.

Like most biopics, Bohemian Rhapsody takes liberties with people, dates, and events for dramatic effect. From my perspective, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan doesn’t subvert the salient details to an extent that negates the experience. Early reports that this would be a sugarcoated biopic were exaggerated. The fact that Freddie Mercury was suffering from AIDS is revealed as is his relationship with manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). I suppose every movie needs a villain and Prenter definitely fulfills that role here. The presentation feels a bit glib. He must have been a supportive guy for a while because he was close to the band for nearly a decade. Freddie rebuffs his advances in an early encounter but they seem to have this on and off again affair. The point at which their relationship went from professional to personal is ambiguous. In real life Prenter died from AIDS complications in 1991, the very same year Freddie Mercury passed, so Prenter can’t refute this portrayal. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) were not fond of the guy. Reportedly they weren’t pleased with his influence on Freddie and the changing musical direction of Queen. His villainy culminates with a tell-all TV interview.

There are moments in this saga that feel unfinished or unclear. When Freddie comes out to his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) as “bisexual”, she responds matter-of-factly with “I thought you were gay.” Then they move on to the next scene. That’s it? I wanted more detail. When did she come to this conclusion? Did she know that before they moved in together? If so, then why did she promise to wear his ring forever? They break up soon after this revelation, but they still remain friends. Growing frictions between Freddie and the band are not delineated with any real depth either. He throws a lavish celebration that has a carnival-like atmosphere. It’s extravagant but there’s nothing offensive about it. Yet the band members sitting around looking like a bunch of sticks in the mud. Apparently they were family men who didn’t like to party or flirt or do any of the typical things other rock stars did. Incidentally, it’s at this event that Freddie meets Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), one of the servers at the party. Jim would become his companion from 1985 until the end of his life.

Those seeking an outrageous tell-all R-rated depiction of Freddie Mercury’s rumored wild escapades are going to be disappointed. Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody is a more uplifting PG-13 rated biopic of the singer’s life. In that respect, it compares favorably to other music biopics like The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba (Richie Valens), and What’s Love Got to Do With It (Tina Turner). It’s all about the music. “We will Rock You”, “We are the Champions”, “Somebody to Love” and of course the title track all make an appearance. Perhaps most surprising is the emotional weight of the song “Radio Ga-Ga”. I’ve always considered the song a throwaway ditty but sung here during the climax at Live Aid it is an audience-pleasing, sentimental high point. Live Aid was a concert held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. I wasn’t physically there but like 1.9 billion other people across 150 nations, I watched the live broadcast on TV. This captures music’s ability to unite the world. That’s the joyous feeling you get as you leave the theater. Bohemian Rhapsody may wobble in parts, but it finishes strong and with touching resonance. Watch this film with your heart.

11-03-18

Beautiful Boy

Posted in Biography, Drama on November 3, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beautiful_boySTARS2.5There’s are things to admire in Beautiful Boy, Felix Van Groeningen’s (The Broken Circle Breakdown) English language debut.  At the top of the list is Timothée Chalamet’s performance.  He’s nuanced, affecting and natural.  He reaffirms that his amazing turn in Call Me by Your Name wasn’t some fluke. The rising star is someone to watch.  But that is not the attitude I ultimately had while exiting the theater.  There’s an overwhelming feeling of “But why?”  That could be the point. People can turn to drugs even when everything in their life is perfectly peachy. The take may be mildly unique.  It still doesn’t form the basis of a compelling drama

Beautiful Boy is based a true story.  In fact, the saga actually manages to incorporate two memoirs into its tale: Beautiful Boy, an account penned by father David Sheff (Steve Carrel) and Tweak, the recollection of son Nic Sheff embodied here by the aforementioned Timothée Chalamet.  Luke Davies and Van Groeningen adapted both works into one screenplay.  The narrative has this repetitive cycle that begins with a drug-induced ordeal followed by a period of sobriety and then relapse.  Nic comes from an affluent family.  They live in San Francisco.  He’s loved by his Dad who has remarried. His wife Karen (Nic’s stepmother) is cautiously concerned, but compassionate.  Nic’s mother and David’s ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan), lives in Los Angeles.  David and Vicki argue long distance over the phone about what is to be done.  Vicki does what she can and provides tangible support when things go wrong.  Nic is surrounded by a lot of loving, supportive people.

There’s a diaphanous glaze of good intentions that infuse the drama.  Steve Carrel is the stereotypical epitome of a wealthy white parent that disciplines by empathetically expressing his disappointment.  It’s not depicted in the film but he seems like one of those parents who punished his toddler by giving them a “timeout”.  His casual parenting style is so laissez-faire that I found it hard to sympathize with him.  At one point Nic feels comfortable enough to offer his father a joint and suggest they smoke it together.  I can honestly say this certainly wasn’t the experience I had growing up.  I think one’s acceptance of the kind of father Steve Carell represents, will cut across a cultural divide.  David expresses frustration with his son’s behavior but without a solution or a means to success.  He’s clearly defeated, but he is so depressingly impotent that he sounds whiny.  This is going to sound glib, but it’s hard for me not to go psychology 101 and prescribe a little tough love in this scenario.  Steve Carell’s character is supremely frustrating.

There’s a lot of good about Beautiful Boy. Its heart is in the right place.  Nic, as portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, seems like a genuine person.  He conveys the heady effect that drugs provide for him.  We get why he keeps relapsing.  That’s not easy to do when every advantage in life has been handed to you on a silver platter.  We understand the intoxicating stranglehold that drugs have on him.  Marijuana leads to cocaine then ecstasy and eventually, crystal meth.  His simple desire to experience that euphoric feeling is a never-ending cycle that leads to a greater high.  Unfortunately, though, we are presented with a repetitive narrative without a compelling point.  There is no satisfying resolution.  Nic fails, says he’s sorry and then he is forgiven.  This occurs several times during the story.  Over and over again.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of “Lather, rinse, repeat.”

10-25-18

The Hate U Give

Posted in Crime, Drama on October 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hate_u_giveSTARS4One doesn’t normally expect a thoughtful rumination on the Black Lives Matter movement to be the topic of a young adult novel, but The Hate U Give is exactly that. The media has certainly made the issue a focus. Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Danroy Henry – these are just a few of the innocents whose lives have been taken. Fruitvale Station capably handled the topic back in 2013. Sadly, police shootings of unarmed black citizens have become a prevalent fixture in the news. Perhaps a lot of you dear readers feel inundated. The very fact that the subject already feels like a cliché is really more a sad comment on how pervasive the problem has become. The Hate U Give handles the matter with sensitivity and grace.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a 16-year-old black girl obsessed with 90s pop culture. She lives in Garden Heights, a black, mostly poor, neighborhood. However at the behest of her mother Lisa (Regina Hall), she attends the much safer Williamson Prep., a school made up of affluent, mostly white, students. Lisa wants her daughter to get a good education. Audrey Wells’ screenplay skillfully delves into the dichotomy of Starr’s two lives. At home she hangs with her pals, wears hoodies, goes to parties and bestows a relaxed temperament. At school, she dons fancier clothes, rids her language of vulgarity and purposefully renders a more sophisticated air so as not to appear difficult. It’s ironic because her white classmates conversely infuse their speech with street slang to affect a persona they determine is “cool”. The proper story is initiated after a party Starr is attending is broken up by the police. She is driven home by her best friend from childhood, Khalil (Algee Smith) who is black. On the way, they are stopped by a police officer (Drew Starkey) who happens to be white. After a verbal argument, the officer has Khali exit the car. While the officer is on his radio, Khalil reaches for his hairbrush. The officer mistakes it for a gun and fires upon Khalil, killing him. The moment is as gut-wrenching as it sounds.

The title The Hate U Give was inspired by something rapper Tupac Shakur once said. The letters form the word T.H.U.G. which when paired with L.I.F.E. are an acronym for the phrase “The hate you give little infants f—-s everybody.” He believed that “what you feed us as seeds, grows, and blows up in your face.” The novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is sharply directed by George Tillman Jr. The story details what happens when Starr’s two worlds collide after the life-altering death of her pal Khalil. She has compartmentalized her life up to this point. Before you cast judgment on her spurious personalities, look within yourself. Who among us hasn’t been guilty of adopting a different identity around different people? The galvanizing moment causes her to rethink everything in her current life. That challenges her relationship with Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) her friend at school, as well as her relationship with boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa).

There are a lot of narratives at work here. The screenplay by Audrey Wells attempts to incorporate everything for everyone – read black and white audiences. Certainly, a big part charts how Starr’s life changes after the incident. This is complicated by an activist (Issa Rae) that persuades Starr to speak up. There’s also Anthony Mackie who plays a local drug dealer. At times there are so many threads to the plot, that some get short shrift. Especially near the end when the story needs to tidy everything up. A late scene between Chris and Starr in their limo at the prom presents a clumsy conversation that doesn’t quite feel fully resolved. The script’s desire to present all of the different sides can be a bit awkward.  Lisa’s brother, Carlos (Common) is a cop that gives a late in the game speech presenting the feelings of a police officer. The hurriedly inserted declaration rang false. Specifically meaning that the screenwriter didn’t give his cop character the same depth she gave to everyone else. Yet it’s a minor quibble because the script is largely superb. It brilliantly handles the complexities of her life. It’s a tribute to the intensity of the screenplay that I have to nitpick.

The performances are extraordinary. They make the picture. As the central figure, actress Amanda Stenberg grounds the drama. She is extremely compelling as the high school student conflicted by two worlds. However, it is her mom and dad that ultimately amplify this family as a household to truly treasure.  Regina Hall as Starr’s mother and Russell Hornsby as her father present one of the most loving, supportive, positive and honest examples of a family I have seen in a film. They are richly drawn portrayals that captivate the heart. The manifestation of their family is so welcoming. This is a depiction rarely seen in movies. They’re truly different people. Lisa is a mature, responsible presence with an understanding heart. Maverick is a reformed drug dealer who has a son (Lamar Johnson ) with another woman (Karan Kendrick). He has some obvious flaws. Yet they both captivated me with their genuine concern for their family. There’s a lot of great performances in this. Algee Smith as Khalil Harris, Starr’s childhood best friend, is of note as well. He manages to convey a profound connection to her that is deeply felt by the audience. The fact he’s only briefly seen makes the achievement even more impressive. The Hate U Give takes on a complex subject and somehow manages to expertly weave in comedy, drama, tragedy, and sadness all within the framework to create a fully realized portrait a young woman’s life.

10-22-18

First Man

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_manSTARS4What captivated me most about First Man is how it transformed the conventional into the unique to tell this story. That is to say, the difference between what I was expecting and what I got, was unusually fascinating. I’ve seen The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures – movies that touch on achievements in space travel in different ways. One thing that unites them all is scope – each production details the stories of multiple people to tell their respective accounts. First Man in contrast is told from the exclusive perspective of a single astronaut. Writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) adapts from James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. The screenplay isn’t concerned with the inner workings of NASA or details of the Apollo 11 mission. It simply presents the personal point of view of Neil Armstrong.

In light of the current cultural conversation, First Man has a surprisingly traditional point of view. Recent portrayals (Hidden Figures) might contend otherwise, but this representation of NASA is overwhelmingly white and male. There has been a reactionary controversy regarding director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to illustrate the physical planting of the American flag on the moon. True it isn’t depicted, but it’s a moot point. The idea that this is a U.S. success is visually well documented in the film. The American flag is seen on the surface after it has been planted as well as visibly sewn on all of the astronauts’ uniforms. The words “United States” are clearly emblazoned on the side of the rocket ship. A coda highlights an interview with a French citizen who speaks highly of U.S. resolve. The outrage against a perceived left-wing agenda is ironic. The mood for most of the drama is practically a commemoration of a bygone era when men were men and women stayed home and minded the kids. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have this relationship. Oh and let’s start with the fact that that the very title of the picture is First MAN.

It’s interesting that Chazelle acknowledges that not everyone was a fan of the space program. There were those who felt that the billions spent could be put to better use. Actor Leon Bridges portrays revolutionary musician Gil Scott-Heron as he recites his spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon” – a searing indictment of the space program and conservative values. This appears right after vintage footage of author Kurt Vonnegut questions the cost of the American space program in light of a country with citizens that still didn’t even have food to eat or a place to live. It’s a valid argument. A cabin fire during the Apollo 1 mission kills astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) Ed White (Jason Clarke ) and Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) on board. At this point I started to question, should we even be doing this?  I mean is the value of the knowledge you gain from space travel worth the grievous loss of human lives?

Despite these moments, there is no question that the narrative means to idolize its subject and his purpose as an American hero. As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is a very interior individual. He’s a man of few words, relying more on expression than language. Honestly, it’s the kind of “quiet” performance that Gosling has been doing his entire career.  From his starring role in Drive to Officer K in Blade Runner 2049, Gosling has always been a bit of an enigma when he isn’t in a comedic role. Neil Armstrong is stoic man’s man that is an emotionally distant husband. It’s suggested that the agony he experienced from the death of his 2-year-old daughter from cancer drives him to focus his repressed grief into the space program. Regardless, Neil is admirable in his role as an explorer. He’s completely immersed in his patriotic work. Yet, as a human being, he is the idealized portrait of macho blankness. His feelings are suppressed to the point that he is an emotional void. There’s little in this individual with which the viewer can identify.  For example, if someone were to bring a cassette of their favorite music in 1969 most people would probably bring something along the lines of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, a little Motown perhaps? Not Neil. He brings an orchestral piece called “Lunar Rhapsody” by Les Baxter.

Although this is clearly Neil’s story, there is room for a few supporting characters. His fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) has more personality. The script paints Buzz as a bit of jerk, but there’s no denying that he has a lot more charisma. Watching him bound up and down in the distance is so different from Armstrong’s more reserved behavior on the moon. I secretly longed for an account about Buzz actually. Interestingly the emotional weight of the narrative rests on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy). Foy’s performance is so subtle and of so little dialogue that it didn’t affect me until after the chronicle was over. However, upon reflection, her acting is rather notable. She galvanizes our emotions. Her eyes speak volumes even when she isn’t given anything to say. Her achievement is impressive. She is the emotional center.

First Man is a most intimate affair. This is a personal account seen through the eyes of one Neil Armstrong.  The selling point is that director Damien Chazelle reproduces the “you are there” feeling that astronauts experienced during their flights. The movie opens with Neil flying a single-person jet in a test voyage. The camera shakes as the aircraft throttles uncontrollably. The view fixates on his eyes that remain wide open and alert. The plane sounds like it’s about to break away in pieces. The feeling of vertigo is almost paralyzing for the viewer. Yet Neil is the picture of calm. Chazelle shoots a few vignettes that rely on this visceral experience. Each display is a claustrophobic portrayal of a rickety vehicle barely held together by rivets and a nickel-steel alloy almost falling apart. Each punishing spectacle delivers an unforgettable sequence. It is both intense and authentic. The adventure ultimately climaxes with the Apollo 11 mission, It’s telling that Justin Hurwitz’ triumphant score is noticeably silent when they land. Chazelle dutifully recreates moments of the moon landing we’ve witnessed a million times. That includes Neil’s iconic statement “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet Josh Singer’s screenplay is more interested in Neil Armstrong the man, than in detailing what the rest of the world was thinking. That gives First Man a unique perspective on this story.

10-11-18

A Star Is Born

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on October 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

star_is_bornSTARS4It’s been 42 years since the last adaptation of A Star is Born.  I suppose we were about due.  The original script by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell has proven to have a quality that transcends time as the narrative evolves to suit the tastes of the current generation.  The core remains the same.  It’s rags-to-riches!  It’s got romance! It’s got tragedy!  Yes, it’s full of showbiz clichés.  That’s because good stories never go out of style, especially one with a charismatic female lead as its central focus. The 30s had Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actress who surpassed a fading movie actor depicted by Fredric March.  The 50s transomed the property into a musical as Judy Garland was the ingenue taken under the wing of a former matinée idol played by James Mason.  The 70s version had Barbra Streisand as a nightclub singer plucked out of obscurity by a rock star played Kris Kristofferson.  Bradley Cooper’s adaptation adheres most closely to this one.  The actor directs, writes, produces and acts. Anyone tabulating the years will notice the 90s should have gotten their own rendition.  Flash forward to the present and we have Lady Gaga as Ally, a woman who waits tables by day and croons “La Vie en Rose” by night in a drag bar.  Bradley Cooper portrays the established artist, Jackson Maine, a country music superstar that performs to sold-out arenas.  Jackson stumbles upon Ally’s show while searching for a bar to drink booze.

Lady Gaga can act.  She happens to already have a Golden Globe for TV’s American Horror Story, so perhaps not a shock.  Some might contend that she’s essentially playing what she knows – a singer.  However, Ally the unknown cabaret performer unsure of herself is decidedly different than Lady Gaga the confident multi-platinum selling celebrity.  The pop star-turned-actress naturally captures that mix of fear and elation a novice has in front of a crowd.  There’s a moment where she crystallizes this feeling so perfectly, that I was overcome by the experience  It occurs early on about a third of the way in when Jackson Maine is giving a huge arena concert for his fans.  He flies Ally out to the gig.  She is brought backstage ostensibly to watch the show.  He finishes his tune, then addresses the audience.  He strides over side stage up to Ally and asks her to duet her own song with him.  The look of shock on her face is so genuine, we feel her terror as well.  She declines.  “I’m going to sing your song with or without you,” he asserts and then proceeds to do just that.  As he begins, she’s left standing there obviously conflicted, an anxiety of emotions bubbling up until she’s inspired to take the stage.  It’s a masterful scene.  I got goosebumps.

Lady Gaga’s outstanding achievement is somewhat expected.  Bradley Cooper is even more surprising.  As the fading arena rock musician, he affects this comfortably lived in existence.  His voice, a deep, gravelly mummer exists all in the lower register.  He instantly recalls grizzled actors like Kris Kristofferson (star of the 1976 version) and Sam Elliott, who actually plays his older brother Bobby in this.  Perhaps it’s a bit of an in-joke when Bobby, who is also his manager, criticizes Jackson the artist for stealing his “voice”. Cooper’s world-weary exterior is a physical transformation as well.  His complexion is weathered with a ruddy texture.  His skin blighted both by the sun and years of drugs and drinking.  Bradley Cooper isn’t afraid to look messy.

A Star is Born delights with the highs and lows of a melodrama that is a nothing less than solid entertainment.  The tale of these two people is a bewitching saga that allows the two actors to exhibit considerable chemistry as their connection develops over their love of music.  Their relationship is collaborative and fosters a more supportive connection than in previous iterations.  The first half is endlessly compelling.  The second is a bit less so.  Yet there are subtleties to the drama that make this interpretation of the classic chestnut something to discuss.

The narrative arc succumbs to the standard story beats that would be clichés to anyone who has ever caught an episode of Behind the Music on VH1.  As Ally’s popularity rises, Jackson’s declines.  The reason for the awkward growing tension between the two is a fascinating mix of factors.  Certainly drugs and alcohol derail Jackson’s career but his growing dissatisfaction is more complex.  Success changes Ally’s musical style.  Her appearance on Saturday Night Live performing “Why Did You Do That?” is presented as a pop-oriented betrayal of her authentic self, complete with outré makeup and hair.  I found the critique ironic since Lady Gaga the artist has never been one to tone it down. Jackson’s growing frustration with her success is certainly a reaction to this persona but there’s some jealousy in there too.  Jackson is torn because he’s losing the woman he knew to her growing fame, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of her success.  A slick manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) hammers this point even further.  There’s a lot to consider and the screenplay does a nice job at handling the many facets of a challenging relationship.

This is quite simply a love story.  It turns out the utter simplicity of A Star is Born is perhaps its greatest strength.  Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have a chemistry together that is so palpable it carries the film.  Throughout it all, Lady Gaga sings.  Even Bradley Cooper manages to effectively deliver a few tunes (the Jason Isbell penned “Maybe It’s Time” is quite good).  Lady Gaga further solidifies her talent as an electrifying performer. She has a voice.  The soundtrack is full of memorable songs that highlight a captivating tale.  “Shallow” is the first single.  It’s wonderful, but there’s a handful of numbers that really catch the ear.  “Always Remember Us This Way”, “Is That Alright”, and the finale “I’ll Never Love Again” really stand out amongst a solid collection.  In the movie’s weaker 2nd half, the music is what keeps us enrapt.  Still, following the ups and downs of the melodrama is solidly entertaining.  Melodrama isn’t a bad word.  It simply appeals to the emotions while relying on tried and true plot developments.  A Star is Born does it well. The production manages to capture our heart while dazzling the ear.