Archive for the History 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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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

Colette

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

coletteSTARS3.5Keira Knightly and period pieces go together like tea & crumpets. I won’t feign impartiality. I can’t resist the combination of the aforementioned genre paired with this actress. When I walked into the theater to watch a biography of Colette, the French author, I was already primed to enjoy it. I walked out satisfied indeed.

Any period piece worth its salt is initially going to be judged on its visual aesthetic. Colette excels. The production is a sumptuous evocation of France during the turn of the century. The rooms are beautifully appointed, the costumes are suitably detailed. There is an opulence to the surroundings that gently entices the spectator into the walls of this woman’s life and beckons one to luxuriate in her world. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Hell or High Water) does a splendid job. He captures both the soft hues of the indoor scenes with warm light as well as the cool greenery of the outdoors with a crispness that invites the viewer to practically inhale the fresh air. The sophistication of the dialogue only adds to the refined setting.  You’d think all this artifice would render a stuffy biopic, but the production is anything but.  On the contrary, this is a provocative tale, directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) and co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, who passed away in 2015. The life of Collette has a few unexpected detours for those unfamiliar with the historical woman. Apparently, she was an independently minded spirit out of step with the social mores of her time.

To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about the actual woman. The drama begins with a poor and seemingly shy country girl named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.  When she secretly retreats to the barn to meet her lover, we soon learn as that she isn’t so demure after all. She ultimately marries that man, the worldly writer Henry Gauthier-Villars or “Willy” (Dominic West). He happens to be 14 years her senior. Willy compensates ghostwriters to pen books for him. When his finances no longer allow him to pay for their services, he appeals to his wife.  He has realized her facility with words in their conversations.  Her novel, or rather the book she writes for him, becomes a sensation in1900 – a somewhat biographical coming of age tale about a brazen girl named Claudine.  The runaway bestseller leads to a series of stories focused around the young heroine.  Although not depicted in this chronicle, Colette’s best-known work today would have to be Gigi (1944) on which the Oscar-winning Best Picture was based.

Keira Knightley is Colette. Her embodiment of the character contributes tremendously to the success of the overall picture. There is a sort of a simple pleasure in seeing a bold woman surmount the strict confines of 19th century Paris, France.  The film documents her marriage with Willy, which was quite unconventional even by today’s standards. Dominic West plays him as a cad to be sure, but he exudes significant charisma nonetheless.  The two actors have convincing chemistry together.  Even with their various dalliances, it’s easy to appreciate the love that Colette and Willy had for each other.  Without revealing details,  an “open relationship” is perhaps the most chivalrous way to describe their idea of what a marriage should be.  The movie does take on a few too many plot threads for one film.  Colette’s desire to assert herself as the true author of her novels belies her feminist awakening.  This competes for the narrative’s attention as she comes to terms with her sexual awakening as well.  Red-haired Louisiana heiress Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and suit-wearing androgenous Missy (Denise Gough) become paramours.  Despite the somewhat schizophrenic focus, Keira Knightley unites the disparate events of this gorgeous costume drama with a performance that seizes our attention.  Her achievement ranks among her very best.  I couldn’t give the actress higher praise.

09-29-18

The Post

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller with tags on January 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

post_ver5STARS3.5It’s certainly a tribute to the talent involved that the saga of an entity that “came in second” has been fashioned into a fairly absorbing drama about freedom of the press. The chronicle details a newspaper and their efforts to publish The Pentagon Papers. The New York Times was there first. They are the ones that broke the story initially, but then they were restrained by an injunction from continuing to do so. Their hands were tied, unable to divulge anything more without reprisal. The Washington Post stepped in and picked up the pieces.

The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret study regarding United States’ military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. In a nutshell, the research determined that the Vietnam War was unwinnable by the U.S. I’ll admit, that’s really simplifying things. The report comprised 47 volumes with approximately 7,000 pages of historical analysis and original government documents. Yet that itself was not the pivotal truth, but rather that Lyndon B. Johnson had actually lied to the American public about our ability to succeed in the war. In the recent Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill is depicted as doing the very same thing. Interestingly his actions are portrayed in a far more positive light. In The Post, however, the Pentagon Papers ultimately undermine both the Johnson administration and subsequently Richard Nixon’s as well. His crime was that he allowed things to progress without revealing the lie promoted by the earlier regime. Nixon is featured in a scathing scene at the very end. It’s hardly subtle, although most of the film is considerably more nuanced.

The Post was actually hastily assembled by director Steven Spielberg during some downtime while making his upcoming sci-fi epic Ready Player One. The production feels like a timely response to the current administration and their antagonistic relationship with the press. Tension is constructed around the First Amendment. That makes the representation feel socially relevant and extremely shrewd. The attempt to stifle the press is a key component of this narrative. Curiously, what makes this composition fascinating, isn’t its attack on the presidency and the abuse of power. No, what makes the account compelling is the distinct character of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). She assumed the role of publisher of her family’s newspaper, the Washington Post following the death of her husband.

As interpreted by the inimitable Meryl Streep, Graham is further exalted as a woman making the biggest decision of her life – risking the reputation of her family’s newspaper on whether to publicize The Pentagon Papers. She’s unquestionably good, but it’s hard not to regard her mannered portrayal – as well as that of Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee — as for your consideration bids to win awards. I never forgot that I was watching a talented actor giving a captivating performance.  As Bradlee’s wife Tony, Sarah Paulson is a bit more natural. She delivers a particularly juicy monologue late in the game in which she basically schools her husband as to why Kay Graham is worthy of our respect. Strangely, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) the U.S. military analyst who was directly responsible for releasing the Pentagon Papers, has a surprisingly minor part. In the true-life tale, he played a much bigger role.

The Post is a feminist anthem. As the only woman to hold such an exalted position, Kay Graham had difficulty being taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees. A scene highlighting her as the only woman in an all-male boardroom is notably effective. It’s apparent she was going to have to assert herself to be heard, It is that focus that makes this production unique. I hate comparing one picture with another. Movies should usually be judged independently of one another on their own merits. Nevertheless, it’s virtually inexcusable to not at least acknowledge the similarly themed Oscar Winner for Best Picture, Spotlight, when discussing this feature. That screenplay focused on reporting the information itself. With The Post, it’s more about the figure of Kay Graham as she risks picking up the pieces of what the New York Times initially started and continues on with it. That notion is less imperative by comparison. There are so many ways you could have approached this account. What the New York Times accomplished, what Daniel Ellsberg released, or how the Supreme Court ruled over these events. The meaningful details of these various plot threads demand far more attention than are given here. Nevertheless, in the hands of director Steven Spielberg and actors as talented as Streep and Hanks, it still becomes a pretty entertaining film.

12-01-17

Darkest Hour

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on December 11, 2017 by Mark Hobin

darkest_hour_ver3STARS3I always watch historical dramas with a skeptical eye. Especially in dramatizing events in which few individuals were present. I like to ask, “Did this really happen?” “What is the filmmaker’s point of view?” “Where am I being led?” In that vein, there’s a moment in Darkest Hour when I realized I was watching a work of pure fiction. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) purposefully takes the London subway, known as the Underground, in order to commune with the people. The good multitude are positively beaming with humanity.  On his trip to Westminster, he has a magnificently fanciful discussion in which he summons an informal poll of the commuters and concludes what he must do.  With forceful determination, they tell him to “Fight On!” in no uncertain terms. “Never surrender!” they all say. Churchill begins to recite the poem, “Horatius” by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  A spirited black passenger completes the quotation flawlessly. Winston extends a hand to the young man, with tears streaming down his cheeks. He gathers all of their counsel and acts accordingly. It’s a completely fabricated piece of hokum, but darn it all, this bit of hogwash sure feels cinematic.  This is the very definition of artistic license. I fully expect to see the clip on Oscar night.

In Darkest Hour, Director Joe Wright (Atonement) has wisely limited his focus to a single month in the early days of WWII. This includes the decisions leading up to the evacuation of soldiers stranded at the coastal town of Dunkirk. This would make a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s movie that came out earlier in the year. That story didn’t feature Churchill or even the Nazis for that matter.  In contrast, this production is completely fashioned around the Prime Minister. A title card informs us that Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway.  It’s now May 1940 and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is being ousted as Prime Minister, leaving Winston Churchill to step up, He must now defend Britain against the onslaught of Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Europe. Churchill is presented as a rabble-rousing firebrand that united the Nation. His speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance where they apparently stood alone in active opposition to a madman.

His refusal to negotiate for peace is not without struggle, however. There’s the aforementioned Neville Chamberlain and also Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, (Stephane Dillane), neither of which are given sympathetic portrayals. Chamberlain seems incapacitated. Halifax is contentious. Even King George VI distrusts him initially. The King may be quiet but he’s composed. Side note: Is this the same man whose exaggerated stutter was emphasized in The King’s Speech? A far more measured portrait of the man is given here. Anyway, decision weighs upon Churchill’s mind, “Should Britain enter the war and risk the lives of thousands or submit to the peace terms dictated by Adolf Hitler, a psychopath drunk with power?” This is the film’s driving focus.  “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill hollers defiantly. He screams a lot here in declarations that wouldn’t be out of place in an NFL locker room.

Darkest Hour lionizes Churchill as the great orator that stood up to a lunatic in a dark period of England’s history. That is the predictable angle. Churchill is one of the most revered figures of the 20th century. This is a prestigious British biopic perfectly constructed as a vehicle for Gary Oldman to win an Oscar. He is more than up to the task. Oldman is compellingly watchable, buried under pounds of prosthetics so the lean actor can embody the corpulent frame of the actual man. It’s a fascinating presentation of World War II in which everything takes place in the Parliamentary halls of discussion.  Winston incessantly drinks booze, smokes cigars and occasionally sets aside time to confer with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth (Lily James).

Winston Churchill’s powerful fortitude is highlighted to glorious effect. Darkest Hour is a glowing display of a man that assumes the role of a saint even when he lies to the British populace about how well the war effort is going. He misrepresents the facts in a radio address to bolster the morale of the British people.  FDR doesn’t come off as well. He is fleetingly referenced in a disheartening phone call where Winston asks for help and FDR can barely offer any assistance at all. The production is a glowing characterization that incorporates things that Winston did and didn’t say. It’s pretty easy for a 2017 audience to now concede that the courage to resist the Nazis was the right thing to do. It also helps that the Allies won the war, but back in 1940, it wasn’t so clear Hitler would lose. This is, as expected, a one-sided exhibition of historical fiction – a flattering representation of the leader of the Conservative Party whose strength of resolve led a country to victory.  The antagonism Churchill faced is depicted as sorely misguided folks at who we can only shake our heads. Hindsight is 20/20.

12-08-17

Detroit

Posted in Crime, Drama, History, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2017 by Mark Hobin

detroit_ver2STARS4Detroit is such an all-encompassing title.  This story might perhaps more appropriately be called the Algiers Motel incident. The narrative essentially begins with the onset of the 1967 Detroit riot. The 5 days remain one of the most destructive protests in the history of the United States. Only the New York City draft riots during the Civil War in 1863 and the L.A. Riots in 1992 caused more damage. The events were precipitated by a police raid on an unlicensed, after-hours bar on 12th street. Many were arrested. The uneasy mix of white law officers and black patrons created a combustible flash point. The city became a war zone and tensions were high on both sides. On the third day of the uprising, the multiple firings of a shot gun from the Algiers Motel compelled the Detroit police department to storm the facility to investigate.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have produced a powerful film fashioned around an intense nightmare of questioning. It does this in a way that demands your attention even when it’s hard to watch.  The police mistakenly believe the discharge of a starter pistol was sniper fire.  Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates the police had justifiable cause to determine a gun had been fired. However, the reaction and subsequent night of questioning is an absolute horror that portrays the utter desecration of civil rights. The Michigan State Police are the first responders, but the National Guard and a private security agent were also on the scene at various junctures. When cops and soldiers pulled away from the motel two hours later, they left the bodies of three dead teenaged civilians: Carl Cooper, 17; Fred Temple,18 and Aubrey Pollard, 19 – all black – and nine survivors, two white females and seven black males, that were badly beaten and humiliated by members of the Detroit Police Department.

The screenplay wisely affords us the chance to know these people. The victims are given detailed backstories. Larry (Algee Smith) is the lead singer of the Dramatics, an R&B group. Fred (Jacob Latimore) is his agent and friend., When their concert is canceled due to the riots, they end up at the Algiers Motel where they meet two white women at the pool, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever).  They invite the men back to one of the hotel rooms where they find Carl (Jason Mitchell), Lee (Peyton Alex Smith), and Aubrey (Nathan Davis, Jr.). A young veteran of the Vietnam War named Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie) shows up later. Although real names are used for the victims, the name of the antagonists have been changed. The movie’s main villain is Officer Krauss (Will Poulter).  He still has the face of a child but wields control like an authoritarian drunk with power. Two of his followers are Officer Flynn (Ben O’Toole) who espouses clearly racist beliefs and Officer Demens (Jack Reynor), who gets caught up in the peer pressure mentality to impress his fellow partners.

It’s not fair but sometimes the most shocking reaction isn’t caused by the bad people committing atrocities, but the good people who stand idly by and allow it to occur. One especially memorable individual is Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a black security guard from a nearby store who shows up to maintain order. He is a character that inspires particularly extreme emotions. He inspires sympathy, yes, but also frustration from his actions, or lack thereof. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have worked before on both The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), where methods utilizing torture were used to extract information. It should be noted that those films involved whole countries at war. Conversely, Detroit only affected the U.S., a city under siege where a police force, designed to protect its citizens, becomes the very opposite.

Why this happened is a bit more perplexing.  Kathryn Bigelow takes the time to illustrate how circumstances spawned a feeling of unease between police and civilians. Things had gotten so bad that by day 3 the National Guard had been called in. It was a war zone. The police were tasked with maintaining public order but tensions were heightened given the conditions of an escalating riot. The account could have been even more exploitative.  There is care to show that some officers were concerned with preventing bloodshed using nonviolent methods.  Granted the task to keep the peace was almost impossible, but there are situations that become exasperating.  There are specifics that seem missing.  Lawlessness was increasing and the abuse of civil rights was getting worse. Early on, Krauss shoots an unarmed looter (Tyler James Williams) in the back as the man is running away from him, obviously not a threat.  Investigators later found the man dead.  An outraged detective (Darren Goldstein) informs Krauss he’ll be charged with his murder and then — inexplicably — sends him back to the streets. This unsupportable behavior demands an explanation if for no other reason than to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of his actions.

Detroit is a powder keg of a film. It will push buttons. Some of the developments defy comprehension. At one point the National Guard arrives to patrol the streets of Detroit as the riots continue. One little girl looks out her window to see the commotion that transpires outside. An officer shouts “It’s a sniper!” and a shotgun blasts away at the window.  Mark Boal talked with the survivors who recounted experiences that took place 50 years ago.  Given the passage of time, reminiscences are understandably based on recollections that may not be entirely factual.  At the end, we do get a title card that notifies us that some events have been fabricated and may be fictionalized. Granted weighty issues have been simplified. There is no other way. It’s a 2 hour 23 minute movie and they simply have to be. But what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have done is extraordinary. Time gives us a clearer perspective. They have employed a controversial incident from our nation’s past and presented it to a new generation that now prompts more consideration to illuminate an ongoing issue. I was angry, horrified, sad — but mostly infuriated at what I saw. It’s a visceral production that recreates a crisis. It is violent, but the details of what befell that night almost demand that the savagery must be portrayed. The subject of police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter currently dominates the discussion on newspapers, TV, and social media platforms. Detroit seems more relevant today than ever. It’s not an experience you will enjoy, but it depicts a reality you must see.

07-30-17

Dunkirk

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War on July 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

dunkirk_ver2STARS3.5Dunkirk celebrates a wartime retreat. As such, it may seem like an odd moment in the history of WWII to dramatize. To Americans whose familiarity with WWII begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it’s an event with which most U.S. citizens are unaware. Yet the battle holds a special uplifting significance to British and French troops. It concerns the evacuation of Allied soldiers that were under fire from German troops. The locale was the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, a city in the north of France. Hundreds of civilian boats carrying survivors were able to make it across the English Channel, under German fire, and back again.  The evacuation was such an amazing defense of life that it’s often referred to as the Miracle at Dunkirk. Its importance is best summarized in an eleventh-hour exchange here in the film:  When one well wisher offers a sincere “Well done,” the soldier’s response is “All we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” offers the passersby. The encounter was a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit.

As a work of art, Dunkirk is a sensory composition. Christopher Nolan creates an intense optical and auditory experience that feels like the real thing. Sound and visuals combine to give the viewer a wartime understanding unlike any other. The director’s preference for practical effects at the expense of CGI is well documented. The manifestation never once seems like anything less than the real thing.  The cinematography and  the music combine to fabricate a wartime experience like none other. Much of Dunkirk has been shot using IMAX cameras and makes use of the widescreen format. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the 31 cities equipped with such a screen, then I’d strongly advise you to seek out one of these showings as the presentation is much improved. I saw the film twice, in both 35mm and 70mm IMAX and the difference is enough to recommend the latter and condemn the former. The graphics are awe inspiring in both, but the impact is significantly marginalized in the non-70mm format.

Director Christopher Nolan is solely credited with the screenplay. He has fashioned the chronicle as a somewhat confusing muddle of action. Three separate stories that each take place by land, sea and air, transpiring over three different time frames. Title cards in the beginning give the viewer an assist in grasping what will transpire. The auteur is well known for playing with time, but here it works to the detriment of the narrative. Nolan takes risky liberties in telling a linear story. These different timelines are confusingly edited with flashbacks that revisit previous scenes sometimes from a new perspective.  When a character leaves one account and pops up in another tale, interpreting the timelime can get a bit dicey.   Nolan’s technique hinders our ability to comprehend what is happening when.

“The Mole” is a somewhat puzzling title card that refers to the land story. I wonder how many people will realize that a mole is a massive structure used as a pier. Its double meaning as a spy is probably intentional, but I wish I had known that bit of information beforehand. This drama takes place over a week and concerns a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach, who must find a way off this ill-fated stretch of land. The area has filled up with thousands of British Expeditionary Force fighting men. The Germans are closing in. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander and James D’Arcy is an army colonel.  They search the skies for the enemy Germans and await an air rescue effort that does not materialize.

“The Sea” is one day in the life of Mr. Dawson, as portrayed by Mark Rylance, the only actor allowed to actually give a “performance”. He is a civilian sailor throwing himself into the rescue effort by steering his tiny wooden yacht called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan) eager to take part in something bigger than himself.  Actor Cillian Murphy plays a stranded survivor they pick up along the way.

“The Air” is the third tale and takes place over an hour.  Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are pilots for the Royal Air Force Spitfire.  Fans of Hardy’s handsome features will surely be disappointed. His face is obscured by a mask for almost the entire duration of the picture. Additionally, it’s impossible to understand anything he says. But oh those dogfight sequences!  They are some of the most impressive demonstrations in the entire picture.

Dunkirk is a film about spectacle. It soars with gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema that is breathtakingly expansive even when it’s detailing claustrophobic conditions of a ship in battle. Seas of young, white British soldiers huddled in the hull of a ship. An unknown assailant begins firing upon their vessel. The scene is indeed intense. Yet these men become almost indistinguishable from each other. We cannot connect to these people individually.  I suppose that’s not the point. Nolan’s study is a film about a war effort that forces us into a mass of anonymity. The profusion of humanity is a wash of gray-brown uniforms. The absence of color is a common motif that comes up over and over. Indeed the only red we see is not blood but the jam on the bread the soldiers eat in the hull of a ship. This makes Dunkirk a saga that’s emotionally distant.  Yet what it lacks in compelling stories it makes up for in bombast. Hans Zimmer’s score is loud and blaring and cacophonous as it emphasizes the visual display being witnessed. It’s rousing to be sure even when it drowns out the dialogue.

Conversation is held to a bare minimum. Dunkirk is a feature built upon the very exhibition of war, not upon the chatty developments that usually compel an adventure forward. The bits of talking here and there are rendered unintelligible by thick British accents that I assume only people familiar with regional dialects will recognize. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said. It’s not a deal breaker though. The script is conversationally sparse. Dunkirk is not reliant on discourse It extracts passion out of a circumstance.

Dunkirk’s greatest attribute is how it sidesteps all of the cliches of the “war movie”. This is not a traditional war epic. It’s a film that features very little in the way of exposition. If you’re waiting for a scene where the soldier talks about his girl back home, you’re watching the wrong account. Don’t expect to find a declaration from a disillusioned character outwardly expressing the horrors of war.  Other than distant planes flying overhead, we never even see the enemy. Dunkirk isn’t about dialogue, or performances, or a sentimental bond to people, or even one to emphasize the bloody viscera of war.  Although the action is most definitively a visceral experience. It’s the narrative as a sequence of “you-are-there” action setpieces that begin almost immediately and never let up until the end of the production. First, you’re on the beach, then in the cockpit, now you’re aboard Rylance’s ship. The thrill is so immediate it’s practically physical. It’s explosions and aerial photography and gray masses of huddled individuals trying to survive. You will understand the suspense, fear, and dread of what it would be like to endure war, but without that emotional connection to the actual people.

07-20-17

The Founder

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 23, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo founder_ver2_zpsnrgspsta.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgMcDonald’s is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to believe that at one time the very concept of fast food was a revolutionary idea. Today the global foodservice retailer employs 1.9 million people. It’s the second world’s largest private employer after Walmart. The humble beginnings of a multi-billion dollar empire would be a compelling saga in any industry, but it’s particularly amazing that it happened from selling something as cheap and simple as hamburgers. The creators of McDonald’s were Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1940 but the originator of the McDonald’s Corporation was Ray Kroc in 1955. The difference between those two entities is the underlying concept for a fascinating story.

The Founder starts out as the glorification of a pioneer and becomes a critique on capitalist greed. For the entire duration, it’s a galvanizing watch. Time and again, history has shown that the most successful people in business aren’t necessarily the ones that invent the item, it is those that know how to take that idea and market it properly to masses. We should all know that Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile but he made it a viable option for the public.  That concept was more recently portrayed in the Danny Boyle directed Steve Jobs (2015) as well as in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). Here it is again.

It’s essentially the biography of Ray Kroc, a milkshake mixer salesman from Oak Park, Illinois. One day he gets an order for a large number of mixers from a small burger joint in San Bernardino, California. He makes the trek out there to see what’s going on and finds a popular diner that offers delicious, quickly prepared food wrapped in disposable packaging, served without the need for waiters or carhops. The lines are huge. Intrigued, he talks with hard-working Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and business minded Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman). Proud of their prosperous establishment, the brothers give Ray (and us) a detailed explanation of what makes their assembly line operation so unique.

It’s lamentable that these performances kind of got lost in the awards season shuffle because these three are all worthy of consideration. These actors form a triad that is really engaging. Ray wants to franchise the store. Needless to say, the trio begins to work together. Ray makes frequent visits to franchise owners instilling in them the discipline to adhere to the values of what sets McDonald’s apart from the competition. As Ray and the brothers’ relationship develop there are many debates, often by phone, on how the company should be run. The script by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler) is extremely entertaining, but it also gives insight into what made McDonald’s different from similar diners in that era. Some of their discussions are amusing, but they can get pretty heated too. I lost track of how many times a conversation ended with one of the participants slamming the receiver down.

The Founder is a very thorough depiction of business. As the chronicle evolves, we get a tale that metamorphosizes from a drama about entrepreneurial spirit into a commentary on the sins of capitalism. What emerges is a riveting portrayal of Ray Kroc. He comes across as a very intelligent guy but he can be a ruthless tycoon as well. The brothers are depicted in a more sympathetic light. They place a premium on high-quality ingredients for example. Yet their “stuck in a rut” way of thinking is part of an outmoded business model that has kept their attempts to franchise from succeeding in a big way. Did Ray Kroc exploit the brothers’ geniality or was he the visionary that saw opportunities that they didn’t? It’s an interesting discussion and one that the screenplay encourages. You will both admire and chastise this man. That duality grounds The Founder. I enjoyed every morsel that it served up.

01-19-17

Jackie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-07-16

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