Archive for the Mystery Category

April and the Extraordinary World

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Mystery with tags on April 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo April_zpsy42kot9y.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgJacques Tardi’s graphic novel is turned into a striking animated feature by the producers of Persepolis. This hypnotic sci-fi adventure is set in Paris, 1941, in an alternate steampunk universe where electricity hasn’t been discovered. As a result, society never advanced beyond coal and steam power. The mysterious systematic disappearance of the world’s top scientists is the cause.

Our tale concerns April (voiced by Angela Galuppo, in the English language version). She lives with her dear cat, Darwin, who was scientifically imbued with human intelligence and a sarcastic voice to match. The majority of April and the Extraordinary World takes place 10 years after she loses touch with her scientist parents. April still hopes to find them one day. Meanwhile she secretly continues their experimental work. They were doing research on a longevity serum, which would grant immortality. The convoluted plot even has time to scold humanity for the damage caused by their evil coal driven industries.

To be honest, the story is rather perfunctory. Ecological message movies preaching to save the planet are a dime a dozen. However beautifully hand drawn 2D animated features like this are not. Directors Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares have fashioned a glorious universe in which the viewer can just get lost. Its strengths lie in visual delights that dazzle. They captivate the eye. My mind and emotions were less enthralled. The characters are cold and aloof, even the heroes. It’s creative fun though. The action employs the character DNA of Japanese anime mixed with the science fiction of Jules Verne. Although a couple of humanoid lizards wearing robot armor were reminiscent of reptilian creatures in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Aesthetes who worship at the altar of the aforementioned passions will find themselves in cartoon nirvana. More casual fans of such things (this critic, for example) should be entertained as well, but on a somewhat lower level.

Note: I saw the U.S. English-language dub, featuring a voice cast of Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon. The original French-language release utilizes the voice talents of Marion Cotillard and Jean Rochefort.


10 Cloverfield Lane

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ten_cloverfield_lane_zpse8bhkrgw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes from a car accident and finds herself in a concrete room chained to a wall with a saline IV in her arm. A heavy-set man named Howard (John Goodman) tells her that he is her solitary chance for survival. You see, it was he that “rescued” her and is now keeping her alive. Panicked, she tries to escape, but Howard sedates her. When she comes to, Howard explains that some kind of attack has already occurred in the world and the air up on the surface is now unbreathable. He speculates either the Russians, Koreans or maybe even aliens. His bunker is the only sanctuary left.

The title 10 Cloverfield Lane is supposed to recall the sci-fi monster movie Cloverfield from 2008. That picture was directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard and produced by JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk. But just forget about any connection to that earlier picture. All of those guys are indeed back, as producers this time, but aside from some mutual personnel and the horror angle, this story has essentially nothing to do with that earlier production. Think of this as a spin-off of the Cloverfield universe. The sooner you let go of finding ties to that prior film, the more you’ll enjoy this one on its own terms.

If 10 Cloverfield Lane has a spiritual ancestor, it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the 1948 psychological thriller based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton. This debut feature from director Dan Trachtenberg virtually takes place entirely in a single enclosed space underground. The success of this three-character chamber piece rests on the charisma of its principal players as they interact with one another. John Goodman is suitably creepy. He’s memorable in a rare dramatic role. Yet he’s so visually iconic in comedic portrayals that I never forgot that I was still watching John Goodman, the actor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an appealing presence as a woman in a stressful situation. She radiates a mix of helplessness and moxie that snares our full attention and compassion. A sympathetic cellar-mate named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) appears to be a fellow ally.

The atmosphere of this nail-bitter vacillates between a spirit of unease and relaxed camaraderie. The majority of the action is claustrophobic suspense that creates tension out of the unknown. What happened to the earth? Is life up there actually worse than their existence in the bunker? Can Howard be trusted? Questions of this variety fuel the narrative and warrant serious consideration as the drama plays out. We’ve seen this genre before. M. Night Shyamalan is a director that has built a career on this sort of thing. The fragments designed as a foundation on which to build a denouement that hopefully answers all of these questions and more.  The build-up is bit protracted, but don’t worry. Everything will indeed be explained by the time the credits roll. And let me affirm, I was more than satisfied by the resolution.


The Maltese Falcon

Posted in Crime, Drama, Film Noir, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo maltese_zpsesvbe4as.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgSan Francisco, 1941. A gorgeous but distraught woman named Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) enters the detective agency of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She says she’s looking for her missing sister. Apparently the woman ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Something about Miss Wonderly’s story doesn’t quite ring true. Is that even her real name? But the monetary compensation is so good, why challenge a solid paycheck?  After Archer and Thursby are found murdered, Spade realizes circumstances are a lot risker than he had originally presumed. That Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (Gladys George) doesn’t help the situation. That’s merely the beginning of his problems.

For many historians, The Maltese Falcon is considered the first major film noir, a cinematic term primarily used to describe those stylish Hollywood crime dramas of the early 1940s to the late 1950s, roughly the decade after World War II. The strict definition of what makes a film noir can be a bit abstract. It’s more of mood or a point-of-view than an easily definable category. The lesser known 1940 picture Stranger on the Third Floor actually predated this film. However director John Huston’s masterpiece presented the detective drama in a more definitive way. It in fact was the third adaptation of the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett. The first released in 1931 and the 2nd titled Satan Met a Lady in 1936. That one starred Warren William and Bette Davis. The exalted reputation of the 1941 interpretation trumps them both making this arguably one of the greatest remakes ever made.  It set the bar extremely high for later classics of the genre like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and The Third Man.

The Maltese Falcon is highlighted by a character study of contrasting personality types. People wrestle with greed, deception, and loyalty. Humphrey Bogart is conflicted by darker desires. He’s more of an antihero as the lead.  Cynical and hard-hearted – he doesn’t seem overly troubled by his partner’s death, removing his fellow associate’s name on the business door while the body is still warm. Nevertheless Bogart exemplifies cool collected style as the self-assured gumshoe.  Mary Astor is captivating as the requisite femme fatale. She initially appears fragile, but looks can be deceiving.

Then there’s a colorful trio of shady individuals. 61 year old stage actor Sidney Greenstreet surprisingly making his feature debut here as “The Fat Man”. He was Oscar nominated for his supporting role. Yet Peter Lorre is just as iconic as the effete Joel Cairo. Joel is no match for Spade. “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it,” Spade rebukes him. Elisha Cook, Jr. is the lightest heavy of the three. He provides some much appreciated comedic relief. At times, the set-bound action almost resembles a play. The movie is talky to say the least. Scenes are inundated with words, overstuffed even. But oh what dialogue! John Huston’s Oscar nominated screenplay is so meticulously composed, you’ll marvel at its construction.  It demands repeat viewings to take it all in, but it only gets better with age.

A whole review and I haven’t even answered the titular question. What is the Maltese Falcon anyway?

Why it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” of course.


The Witch

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on February 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo witch_ver3_zpsv3zoodmn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgBleak supernatural horror about a Calvinist household in 17th-century New England. Faith is an important part of their life as father frequently cites scripture. Right at the start, he dismisses those in the community as false Christians and so he and his family are banished from the village. The specifics of the disagreement over beliefs is never explicitly stated, but given the family’s devout commitment we can only assume they were too strict. Was that even possible in Puritan society? The clan is comprised of Father William (Ralph Ineson) his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). After a time they welcome the arrival of a fifth child, baby Samuel.

Initially the narrative suggests that their lack of money and failed crops could be the reason for their downward descent. But as time wears on, more definable tragedies torment the group. These events give rise to the idea that oldest daughter Thomasin could be an evil presence. These allegations, made by family members, have an effect on her psyche. The first sign that things are amiss is the fate of infant Samuel. While under Thomasin’s care, the baby vanishes from sight the moment her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo. Later her frustration with the unruly twins’ behavior causes her to make an assertion she later regrets. The film’s main protagonist seems to fluctuate at first but Thomasin ultimately emerges as the lead.

The Witch is a beautifully realized period piece. A carefully constructed, deeply researched drama that utilizes the language of the time. A postscript informs the audience that the dialogue was inspired by court transcripts of the 1630s. To the contemporary ear it sounds just like Shakespeare. That would be the vocabulary of the Elizabethan era, but Jacobean is more accurate since this is the early 17th century. The spirit of the prose keenly enhances the atmosphere. Yet the isolation of their existence speaks louder than any words. The eerie hostility of the early American frontier is as nasty as a villain. The gloom of the surrounding forest takes on a malevolent nature. Even the animals like a goat they’ve named Black Phillip, and a beady-eyed rabbit who pops out of the forest, take on demonic overtones.

The Witch is a dark tale of foreboding. The austere, almost grim, daily existence is maintained throughout. Most modern viewers have a mixed understanding of Puritan society. Life in New England was a completely different world over three hundred years ago. It was a harsh reality. The Witch is set some 60 years before the Salem witch trials famously dramatized in The Crucible. Certainly the story recalls those historical events, but there are distinct differences. Arthur Miller’s play revealed how paranoia can spread to create mass hysteria in a community. Writer/director Robert Eggers chooses to depict the growing fear as it affects only one family – a close-knit group, separated from civilization. Another contrast is that the conspicuous rise in bizarre occurances would seem to justify their fears. There is definitely something sinister afoot, although the lies that follow undeniably tear them further apart. Director Eggers doesn’t rely on the traditional tools of the horror genre. This is more of a thought-provoking mood piece rooted in the Jacobean dialect of the times. As such, the deliberate pace won’t charm today’s audiences raised on physical shocks. However those partial to slavish attention to detail will find much favor here. This engrossing saga of a Puritan family’s worst nightmare is extremely artistic. That makes the thiller rather unique in this day and age.


Hail, Caesar!

Posted in Comedy, Mystery with tags on February 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hail_caesar_zps1yertdli.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn the Coen Brother’s latest, Josh Brolin is what is known as a fixer in Hollywood, that is a guy who works to keep actors’ scandals out of the press. The suppression of any information that could damage a star’s reputation was an important part of the studio system in the 1950s. So it’s a period piece. The time period gives the directors an opportunity to create this ode to old Hollywood. But the story is so diffuse and free-form that it evaporates from the mind. Somewhere along the the way, unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) becomes pregnant and star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is abducted, but those story developments are so neglected they barely register.

The Coens have managed to assemble an impressive cast. Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum all appear, many as versions of real life people. Only the Coen Brothers or possibly Wes Anderson could assemble an ensemble quite like this. Star gazers might be amused but, except for Tatum, they’re pretty much wasted. It’s telling when an unknown like Alden Ehrenreich is the actor that gets all the acclaim. Who? you ask. He’s appeared in a couple productions of note (Blue Jasmine, Stoker). However he’s never been so memorable as he is here playing Hobie Doyle, an “aw shucks” singing cowboy.

The Coens get a lot right, There’s send-ups of the escapist fare that Hollywood used to make at that time: westerns, musicals and grand epics with hundreds of extras. The movies within the movie are the purest part because they’re created with a lot of skill and panache. George Clooney is in a massively mounted Roman production that recalls Ben-Hur. There’s also a synchronized water ballet in the style that Esther Williams used to perform. It’s colorful. Channing Tatum even does a song and tap dance routine and the number is the single most enjoyable moment in the whole comedy. Of course it’s not sincere. The song “No Dames” presents a group of tap dancing sailors in a gently twisted spoof of On the Town.

None of the cinematic recreations of classic cinema are better than the real thing. As a recreation of a bygone era, they’re enjoyed as charming fluff. Yet there’s an acerbic aftertaste to the Coens’ view of Hollywood’s Golden Age that keeps this from being a loving tribute. There’s knowing little in-jokes too regarding how motion pictures are made.  A rabbi, a priest and a Protestant minister are hired to weigh in on Capitol Pictures’ depiction of Christ in a biblical epic. The studio wants to make sure the portrayal doesn’t offend. It’s a comical vignette. There are others, but not enough to justify this meandering story in search of a point.

There’s never any indication that this is building toward anything. Nothing of consequence happens. This is just a series of blackout gags stitched together and marketed as a feature film. Edited up and watched individually it might inspire some titters, but as a full-length movie it’s a mess…and a boring one at that. Hail, Caesar! is a largely unfocused affair highlighted by a few bright spots that would be better viewed as clips on a comedy video website like Funny or Die. Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich save this from being a complete waste of time. It’s not the worst Coen brothers picture, but it’s close.


The Hateful Eight

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller, Western with tags on December 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo hateful_eight_ver10_zps13r4ig4p.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgBefore I begin my review, I must commend Quentin Tarantino for his commitment to cinematic style. The director has always been a student of film. He loves the medium and is well versed in its history. His latest was photographed using Ultra Panavision 70, a widescreen process usually preceded in print by the adjective “glorious”. It employs an anamorphic camera lens that allows for an extremely expanded aspect ratio of 2.76:1. The technology became obsolete due to cost. Most 70mm movies were also simultaneously released on 35mm for broader distribution. The format was only used on 11 pictures during the 1950s and 60s including Ben-Hur (1959) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The last being Khartoum in 1966. That is until now.

The Hateful Eight was initially released on Christmas Day to 100 theaters in a special “Roadshow” prestation complete with overture, an intermission and a souvenir program. For two weeks people could see the picture as Tarantino had originally intended. In this age of digital projection systems, This meant that the Weinstein Company had to equip theaters with 70mm projectors just so they could play the print. Then they had to train staff so they could properly monitor the projector as it was being shown.

In theory, the format allows for an unmatched experience of wider dimension, resolution and artistry that should make for a richer cinematic experience. An experienced projectionist is clearly a rarity these days because complaints of screening problems at the Roadshow engagements have been rampant on the Internet. Indeed at my showing, the movie was interrupted no less than 5 times during the presentation. At one point the film actually stoped and you could see it literally burn on the screen. Whoopsie! Additionally focus problems infested the entire picture, with parts of the image being crystal clear and others being incredibly blurry.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the feature, but it certainly doesn’t help that The Hateful Eight is (wait for it) a hateful film. I don’t even know what constitutes the worst offense, but let’s start with the story. This dark comedic riff on the Western takes place post-Civil War. Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are traveling by stagecoach to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming. Along the way they encounter another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be the sheriff of that town (Walton Goggins). These four must soon seek shelter from a blizzard. It is there, in a little general store called Minnie’s Haberdashery, that they meet four more degenerates (Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight is a step back for Tarantino in the storytelling department. Bill Desowitz over at Indiewire noted the plot suggests Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as well as the films Stagecoach and The Desperate Hours. That’s fairly apt, although the manner in which the script cobbles those inspirations is an absolute bastardization of far superior references. For the first half, everything unfolds in the tiny compartment of a covered wagon. Things culminate at a rest stop when Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) taunts General Sandy Smithers (Dern) with a tale of what transpired when he met the former Confederate general’s son. The speech is memorable but it’s the lone highlight of a nearly 90 minute intro that is all talk. Well that, and frequent jabs to the face of Daisy Domergue. She enters the movie with a black eye and things only get worse. She seems to relish each assault she endures with a smile of masochistic glee. I guess we’re supposed to view her battery with apathy because she’s such a nasty person. Actually everyone is despicable. Hence the title. Daisy uses the N-word so many times I grew desensitized to its meaning.  After awhile she might as well been calling Samuel L. Jackson a nincompoop.

The proper story begins in the second half when the ongoing talk-fest is punctuated by bursts of cartoonish violence that are clearly meant to be funny. Sadly they aren’t. Or rather thankfully, if you think deriving joy from murder is a bad thing. This is nothing new for Tarantino. There will be blood. You know what you’re going to get, but here it feels childish and immature, like a 5 year old that has only recently discovered that there’s a red crayon in that box of Crayolas and has decided to cover every page in red wax. People projectile vomit blood. A character is shot in the groin. Someone’s head is playfully blown off in cartoon fashion without any warning whatsoever. Can you build a whole comedy around shock death? I’m not laughing.

Quentin Tarantino has a lot of power. How many studios would give a director carte blanche to make a film this empty. The plot of this simple drama could’ve been the basis of a brisk 90 minute chamber play. Instead the chronicle is stretched to the elephantine length of over three hours.  That includes a 12-minute intermission. That’s fine if we’re talking epics like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. However it’s the height of Ultra Panavision 70 irony that the majority of the production takes place in the single room of a dark claustrophobic den of a set. Add to that narrative a complete cast of characters we couldn’t even give a care about. These people talk so much that when the bodies start dropping, it’s a relief because that’s when they stop yapping. Don’t get me wrong. A long winded drama can be enjoyable if it has substance, but even the script lacks the snappy zing that usually typifies Tarantino’s work. These are awful people that say ugly things. The Hateful Eight is the soulless work of an auteur that has set the majority of a 3 hour production in a dark room, but then filmed it all in a “gloriously” expensive widescreen process, simply because he can.



Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on September 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Phoenix photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgSpare, naturalistic drama about a woman who makes it out of Auschwitz. The setting is Berlin. The time 1945, post World War II. Nelly is a German Jew and a Holocaust survivor. Injured and left for dead by the Nazis. Her face now wrapped in gauze as a result of a gunshot wound to the face. A disfigurement occurring even before the picture has even started. She is accompanied by her good friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) who drives her back into Germany through an American checkpoint. Nelly wants to locate her husband Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld) nicknamed ‘Johnny’, who happens to be a non-Jew. Lene would rather have both of them just leave the country without him, move to Palestine and help establish a Jewish state. However, Nelly is troubled by the past, not the future. To reunite with her erstwhile spouse is her main objective.

Phoenix concerns people picking up the pieces of their lives after the war. German director Christian Petzold has worked in this realm with Nina Hoss previously. This is his 6th movie with her as his muse. In the story, her physical and emotional identity has been obliterated. Her surgeon wishes to “re-create” her, to give her a new face and hence a new identity. Despite his recommendation, she wants to looks exactly as she did. The drastic reconstructive surgery is an unbelievable success. Save for a few minor facial scars, Nina is remarkably beautiful. She looks like herself, but then again she doesn’t. She appears different enough that her own husband doesn’t recognize her. Yet there are still enough similarities to her previous physical appearance to suggest a resemblence. The whole conceit strains credibility, so don’t think about it too hard.

There’s a lot of ambiguity here. Pale and thin, she has returned like a ghost in search of her past. She visits the bombed out rubble of her bygone home like a specter floating over the ruins. Nina was a singer before the war. Her husband, a pianist. As a Holocaust survivor, Nelly has risen from the ashes of the past. Phoenix symbolically describes her progress, but it’s also the name of the club at which she finds her husband working. Kurt Weill’s melody, “Speak Low” is a recurring score that pops up here and there. The tone of the drama is pensive and atmospherically haunting, but it’s very vague. The way these two souls interact is a long drawn out game of deception and remembrance. You’ll have lots of questions as the narrative unfolds. What exactly are these people thinking? Their tentative relationship is based on cryptic intentions. Director Christian Petzold keeps all of these questions unanswered on purpose as Nina goes in search of her former self and for truth. Just simmer for awhile in the pensive mood. The mystery ultimately builds to a perfectly constructed moment of clarity.


The Gift

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 22, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Gift photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgSimon is a highly competitive, status-conscious go-getter. His wife Robyn is interested in restarting her successful architect business. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall are the Callums, a well-to-do couple who have recently moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles. They’ve bought a sleek glass-walled home in the hills near where Simon grew up. They seemingly have the perfect life. However a recent miscarriage hangs over them. Then one day while out shopping for furniture for their new home, a man approaches Simon and claims to know him from high school. Simon doesn’t recognize him until he says his name is Gordon Mosely, or Gordo.

Their exchange is pleasant, but soon after, he begins dropping by their home unannounced, usually when Simon is at work. Then there’s the series of escalating presents that Gordo bestows on the pair: a bottle of wine, koi fish for their outdoor pond. His presence starts to make them uncomfortable. Dismantling the peaceful tranquility of the wealthy suburban upper-class is a genre unto itself. Call it the “home-invasion” thriller. Fatal Attraction, Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and Unlawful Entry have all done the broad category justice. The Gift is an impressive addition.

The cast is uniformly excellent. I generally consider Jason Bateman to be a comedic actor, but he plays against type occasionally.  Once again, he is outstanding in a serious role. Rebecca Hall is his equal as yes, his sympathetic wife. But she’s a complex individual in her own right. They don’t always see eye to eye. Together they must contend with this intruder in their lives. Joel Edgerton (WarriorThe Great Gatsby) strikes the perfect balance between menacing and amiable as Simon’s classmate from the past. Edgerton is also the writer and director. He delivers an extremely self assured directorial debut with this finely crafted feature.

The Gift is a suspense thriller that hews close to the grand tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. The chronicle commences with a predicable frame, but it doesn’t end that way. What energizes the story is how Edgerton’s screenplay extracts tension from the unknown. That queasy feeling you get when things are a bit off kilter but you’re not really quite sure why. That lack of privacy is at the heart of the horror exploited here. Their personal refuge is being infringed to the point that it becomes unsettling. What makes Gordo tick is a question you’ll immediately have once he becomes part of the narrative. The script takes it’s time not to answer this question immediately. The drama allows the audience to simmer for awhile in this sinister stew. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy being on edge. By the shocking climax, The Gift pushes you to the absolute brink.


Mr. Holmes

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on July 30, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Holmes photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s set the record straight. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character that was featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mr. Holmes then is a fabrication that envisions the imaginary sleuth as a 93-year-old reflecting back on how a case ended his career 30 years ago. The thing is, the picture is so meticulous, so deliberate and so…uh…well sluggish that you might be inclined to actually believe that this is the carefully studied profile of an authentic man. This is the latter day experiences of an erudite detective where entertaining embellishments are frowned upon in service of reverent restraint.

Writer-director Bill Condon and actor Ian McKellen have worked together before in Gods And Monsters. There the chronicle also centered on a life story. The difference is then it was director James Whale, an actual person. This time we’re detailing a make-believe guy. Mr. Holmes is a handsomely mounted production to be be sure, but one whose sole joy rests in watching a talented thespian act. Sir Ian McKellen, that English Academy Award nominated star of stage and screen, beautifully embodies the role of the agent in this dignified feature. He has a certain presence, but why so serious? This is a fantasy, not a biography where slavish attention to detail is a must. We could have used a little more fun perhaps. Accompanying McKellen are Laura Linney doing her best Emily Watson impression as his housekeeper and young Milo Parker who evokes Freddie Highmore as her son Roger. The allusions to other actors are in no way meant to negate their fine work here.

As a mater of fact, Ian’s McKellen’s scenes with budding star-in-the-making Milo Parker are the highlight of this production. The child has a precocious air that is quite endearing and never grating in the way some youngsters can be encouraged to act. Roger is the inspiration for Holmes to re-remember a mystery from his past: his last assignment. Roger is fascinated by the private investigator and his emotion captures the audience’s interest. Numerous flashbacks recall these details. There’s a lot of jumping around – first to a recent trip to Japan – then 35 years into the past. This for little apparent reason other than to utilize old age makeup on McKellen for the modern setting. Honestly the change isn’t all that dramatic. The real problem is, the case at hand isn’t very interesting. Mr. Holmes has its moments, but if I may quote another English literary character: “Please, sir, I want some more”. There just isn’t enough here to sustain a film. Ultimately it feels more like the studious artifact of bygone history than the fanciful re-imaging of a fictional super sleuth.


About Elly

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Mystery with tags on June 4, 2015 by Mark Hobin

About Elly photo starrating-4stars.jpgAsghar Farhadi is the master of the emotionally complex human drama. The Iranian director and screenwriter first came to worldwide recognition with his masterpiece A Separation. That picture debuted December 2011 in the U.S. and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for that year. Two years later he helmed The Past, another masterwork that brilliantly explored human relationships. Before those successes however he directed About Elly, a 2009 movie in his native Iran, but ran into difficulties when the original U.S. distributor went bankrupt. New York based Cinema Guild stepped in and gave the film an official limited release in April 2015.

Like Farhadi’s two most recent works, About Elly is composed in very much the same way. The calm of a slowly constructed set-up is shattered by a significant event which propels the drama. This story concerns a group 3 married couples, the single brother of one of the married women, and three young children, reuniting for a weekend outing by the Caspian Sea. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the woman whose stunning visage adorns the movie poster, has also invited Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher. A bit of a matchmaker, Sepideh has brought Elly along in hopes of setting her up with her recently divorced brother Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). For the first 40 minutes, we see the group have a good time. This effectively establishes the relationships, although I’d contend this section could’ve been a little more compelling. They dance, talk, play charades and volleyball. Yet Elly seems somewhat disconnected from the proceedings, a little shy perhaps. Then, as is usually the case with Farhadi dramas, that moment occurs which sets everything in motion.

With About Elly, the less you know the better, so I won’t reveal specifics. I’ll only say that the whereabouts of Elly becomes a problem. This introduces a series of conversations that slowly expose details that were heretofore unknown. The exchanges raise some unusual questions about moral principles and conduct. The toxicity of lies has been the subject of Farhadi’s previous work, and this chronicle is no exception. What makes About Elly even more uncommon is the ethical concerns it raises that are unique to Iranian culture. One lie leads to another. Many arise out of cultural norms that would not be an issue in say the U.S. Farhadi’s screenplay, based on a story created with Azad Jafarian, is brilliant and perfectly acted by an ensemble cast that is asd captivating as they are natural. Actress Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh is particularly good. The narrative rests heavily on her shoulders. When she starts coughing out of worry, you can feel her stress. About Elly further cements Asghar Farhadi’s reputation as one of our finest directors working today.