Archive for the Mystery Category

Murder on the Orient Express

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery on November 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

murder_on_the_orient_express_ver3STARS2I just witnessed the murder…of a classic. It shouldn’t have been difficult. Take Murder on the Orient Express, an entertaining whodunit by Agatha Christie. Cast a lot of A-list stars in the roles. Then ensure you have extravagant production values, nice costumes, picturesque cinematography and a lush score. Audiences love this sort of thing. They always have. Back in 1974, Sidney Lumet directed an adaptation of the famous novel. It was among the Top 15 highest grossing films of that year. Not only was it wildly successful at the box office but it was also nominated for six Academy Awards. Ingrid Bergman won her third Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Now jump to 2017 and Kenneth Branagh has taken an acknowledged delight and misdirected the joy out of it.

I guess it doesn’t help that he starts with a stuffy script by Michael Green (Green Lantern). Agatha Christie’s words are inherently light and witty but in Green’s hands the words roll off the actors’ tongues like they’re quoting some ancient manuscript. The property feels dusty and old. He’s omitted the buoyancy and wit and made it dull and lethargic. The suspense has been expunged from the story as well. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ convoluted camera angles often capture the action from overhead or from outside while zooming past the train windows. The discovery of the murdered body is filmed from the ceiling without showing the actual body. This key scene is rendered confusing. What are we witnessing exactly? Was someone killed? The people on screen attest to the fact so we can only assume from their words that someone was.

Kenneth Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. In fact triple duty, because he’s a producer as well. Focus, man, focus. As Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, it’s his mustache that makes the biggest impression. He’s more urbane than previous incarnations but less interesting. He’s missing that spark of a personality that makes him so magnetic. Granted he’s got some big shoes to fill. Albert Finney was pretty iconic in the 1974 release, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. David Suchet earned a BAFTA nomination playing the character on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a TV show that had 13 seasons between 1989 and 2013. Still, Branagh is the only actor that has the opportunity to shine. The rest of the cast are given short shrift. They all blend in together, indistinguishable from the next. Nobody makes an impact. Some of the passengers are supposed to have a connection to each other right from the beginning. These aren’t spoilers. In the novel, this is merely the introduction of the group. Are Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) in an affair? Do Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad) and Mr. Masterman (Derek Jacobi) work for Mr. Ratchett (Johnny Depp)? The answer is yes to all of the above but you’d hardly know it from the careless way their relationships are presented here.

The all-star ensemble includes such luminaries as Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. Yet there is no one to root for. No one to excite our emotions. It would be challenging since barely anyone, with the exception of Branagh, has the chance to give a performance. Poirot treats the passengers as suspects but we have nothing invested. Each traveler is brought forward for but only a moment and then he’s on to the next person. The dialogue is an afterthought without a propulsive thrust to drive the narrative forward. Someone is killed but the actors seem indifferent. The passengers are suddenly entangled in a murder case and their lack of interest is closer to the reaction you’d exhibit for an overdue library book. Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Do you even care? The answer is a resounding no.

Director Kenneth Branagh has taken a thriller and abandoned the thrills – a dramatic mystery minus the suspense. The production looks good. Score, set design and costumes are exquisite. It’s nice seeing so many actors I respect in the same film. And yet, their star presence evaporates like water on a hot stove. They are bored performing their lines with the passion of reciting a grocery list. They can barely contain their apathy. The ultimate revelation is so lethargic when it’s revealed that it induces sleep. They all inexplicably assemble at a long table in perfect alignment “Last Supper” style in a tunnel outside in the snow. It’s a ridiculous end to an interminable movie that runs shorter than the 1974 version but ends up feeling much longer. As my review comes to a close, I must say I resisted the urge to fall back on obvious quips to describe this adaptation. I’m talking phrases like “jumps off the track,” “goes off the rails” and “runs out of steam.” Such puns felt a little too glib and I wanted to rise above such facile jokes. Please forgive this one indiscretion, but yikes, what a train wreck!

11-09-17

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Blade Runner 2049

Posted in Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

blade_runner_twenty_forty_nine_ver4STARS4Could we be in a golden age of sequels? I need to rethink my former convictions. Perhaps long-delayed continuations of old movies can be more than crass attempts to make money. Apparently, they can be an artistic triumphs in their own right. Mad Max: Fury Road was a cinematic achievement and The Force Awakens recaptured the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy. Now Denis Villeneuve has taken on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and, if you haven’t figured out from my positive introduction, it’s a magnificent extension of an iconic classic.

Blade Runner cemented the cyberpunk aesthetic that would be utilized for a generation of sci-fi films. Its impact was legendary. This sequel picks up 30 years later but continues this thought. Bioengineered humans called replicants have been integrated into society. They are still being treated like second-class citizens, however. KD6.3-7 or K for short (Ryan Gosling) is one of these synthetic humans who works for the LAPD. Gosling is in Drive /Only God Forgives mode. He’s detached, showing little emotion or feelings. It makes sense. He’s a robot after all. He was created to “retire” older models that have been deemed a danger to civilization. In a routine investigation, K discovers the skeletal remains of what appears to be an android who died while giving birth. The ability for replicants to reproduce was thought to be impossible. This development is considered dangerous by K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). She orders him to find and eliminate the child.

Blade Runner debuted in 1982 with a theatrical cut that has been both embraced and rejected over the ensuing years. The original favored a happier ending than the subsequent one that Scott proffered. There have actually been no less than 7 different versions that have been exhibited over the years. The most notable alternative is the 2007 Final Cut that was overseen by director Ridley Scott himself. His Final Cut eschewed the voice-over narration that clarified the focus of the narrative. Additionally, whether the main character Deckard was a replicant himself, is less ambiguous in The Final Cut. The question was, given the disparate endings, which interpretation would Villeneuve’s movie follow-up?

The brilliance of Denis Villeneuve’s vision is that he honors all of these variants by being purposefully ambiguous in his sequel. (He personally professed his love for the 1982 US theatrical edit in a recent interview.) You could have seen any one of these versions and Blade Runner 2049 will still make sense. In fact, I dare say that it is imperative you do see either the 1982 theatrical release or the 2007’s The Final Cut before seeing this picture. You will understand it regardless. However, it lays the groundwork for you to have an emotional connection to the new extension. What does it mean to be human? The original was a slow moving, meditative rumination on the nature of humanity. It was as exquisite as it was ambiguous. Blade Runner 2049 is a fittingly gorgeous continuation of the same themes. Denis Villeneuve could have delved into explaining unanswered questions from the first film. The famous “Tears in Rain” speech is a baffling mix of prosaic exposition. Nevertheless, Villeneuve wisely forgoes giving us lots of answers. Instead, he focuses on expanding the world. It remains somewhat vague but he imbues it with a deeper consideration. Production designer Dennis Gassner and art director Paul Inglis have expanded on the precursor’s approach in creating something reminiscent yet different. We get the flying cars and video advertising with which we are familiar. I’m happy to say ads for Pan Am and Atari have an enduring presence. And as great as everything looks, it sounds even better.  The setting has been invigorated with a new score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Some echoes of the Blade Runner theme by Vangelis show up though. The climactic fight is so brazenly cacophonous my heart felt the reverberations of the score.

Blade Runner tantalizes with several supporting characters of note. Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard. Not a spoiler. His participation has been well publicized in trailers and posters. He’s not the star, but his relationship with replicant Rachel in the first film becomes a key plot point here as well. His humanity is on full display. Marvel at the martial arts style of Sylvia Hoeks who plays Luv, a killing machine. Meet her boss, replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace. Once again, Jared Leto plays a sociopath character that has less screen time than you were led to believe, but just enough to make an impression. We knew that replicants were outfitted with fake memories, but here we are presented with a visual as to how those memories are put together and assembled. It features Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) a memory maker creating the presentation of a girl blowing out the candles of a cake at a birthday party. It’s a fascinating scene. And finally, there’s Ana de Armas who plays Joi, a digital simulation of a human that plays K’s love interest. She is perhaps the most important addition. Her shimmering outfits change in seconds emphasizing her ephemeral beauty.  One minute she’s K’s live-in girlfriend the next she’s an advertising hologram 20 feet tall in the city square.

Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning looking film. It is a world in which to admire and luxuriate in its style. An urban Los Angeles still looks like a nightmare of neon advertising and endless rain while a bleak and desolate Las Vegas hypnotizes us with a somber spectacle of amber radioactive smog. Rooms with no discernible water source manifest aquatic reflections upon the walls. Holograms are everywhere. Elvis Presley flickers on and off in the interior of a dusty Las Vegas casino. Blink and you’ll miss Marilyn Monroe too. Frank Sinatra appears in a futuristic jukebox singing “One for My Baby.” Director of photography, Roger Deakins captures all this in his usual cinematographic style. At this point, the oft-nominated director of photography has been cited 13 times at the Oscars. It’s a safe bet he’ll be nominated for this as well. At almost three hours, the length of this production is a little problematic. Its melancholy mood has a depressive effect on the viewer. However, it’s never boring. I was transfixed to the screen to see where the story would go as it gradually unfolded. This is not an actioner in the way James Cameron’s Aliens separated itself from the more leisurely paced Alien, (also by Ridley Scott incidentally). Blade Runner 2049 maintains the spirit of the original film. It’s respectful and indebted to the past, but Blade Runner 2049 presents its own identity. It deserves to be a classic as well.

10-05-17

Mother!

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on September 20, 2017 by Mark Hobin

mother_ver5STARS4“World in My Eyes” was a hit song by Depeche Mode back in 1990. The lyics are notably apropos in this context. “Let me take you on a trip” it began, but these words could just as easily been uttered by Darren Aronofsky. He approaches the movie landscape in very much the same way. His cinematic vision is to take the viewer on a trip through a heretofore unexplored world. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan – these are not easily digestible films. His latest is Mother! It’s also an idiosyncratic foray through style right down to the lowercase ‘m’ and exclamation point that usually delineates the title whenever it’s in print. (Not here though. I’m still going to capitalize the title of a film.)  This drama might be his most bizarre and from the online discussion, perhaps the hardest to like. Nonetheless, I found this bold excursion a captivating decent into insanity. It’s such a gradual progression that I was unprepared to where he ultimately took me. It’s not an easy trip but it is a fascinating one.

WARNING: This is the type of movie that plays better the less you know. Conversely, the more you read, the less befuddled you’ll be. With that said, I certainly won’t explicate the chronicle in detail. I don’t believe there is a definitive explanation anyway. I’ve heard several interpretations and honestly, they all have merit. Besides, this is a film review, not a thesis. Yet Mother! is just the kind of achievement on which you could write a dissertation. As such, to review it properly, I will make allusions to other works that may take away some of the mystery. If you prefer to go in cold (and you like the same movies I like) then stop reading now and just go see it, because this earns my recommendation.

Mother! tells the story of an unnamed couple who are refurbishing a Victorian mansion in the countryside. He (Javier Bardem) is a poet and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), is a homemaker. She is the mother of the title, renovating the home and making it beautiful. Their tranquil existence is soon disturbed by the arrival of a man (Ed Harris) looking for a place to stay. He thinks their home is a bed and breakfast. The poet is accommodating and mother defers to her husband’s wishes. The next day, the man’s wife shows up also looking to stay. Their presence is an irritant to the mother but the poet seems to welcome their company. Apparently, the strangers are fans of the poet’s writing. Nevertheless, they impose a possessive influence over their home. Their occupation becomes even more irritating when the two sons of their guests show up as well. From there, things begin to deteriorate rapidly.

Mother! initially, unfolds like a play with the four principals forming sort of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? quartet in the first half. Jennifer Lawrence is the doting wife. Javier Bardem is her distant, moody husband. At first, he is suffering from writer’s block. He’s seemingly insensitive to his spouse’s objections to these intruders. Things only get worse as his character becomes more and more celebrated. He takes and takes from his wife in a way that makes the observer uncomfortable. Yet Jennifer Lawrence continues to acquiesce to her husband’s wishes. Her doe-eyed demeanor may irritate viewers who judge her behavior through a feminist lens. I was reminded of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Ed Harris is a bit of an enigma as the man that enters their life. Michelle Pfeiffer is deliciously entertaining as his inquisitive wife. She asks intrusive questions, then makes herself at home with a familiarity that is vexing.

Mother! is a production that gets under your skin and it’s meant to be troubling and confusing. Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique creates an unsettling vision for his protagonist. Jennifer Lawrence is frequently shot in close up. Other times the camera follows over her shoulder for 360 degree shots that put us in her shoes. The camera feels permanently attached to her. We see her point of view as she makes her way throughout this living space. Her disorientation is our own. In the first half, the setting is bereft of vibrant colors. The environment is gray and washed out, but as things escalate the hues steadily grow more vivid. Interestingly, there is no music. Initially, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson did compose a score. However, Aronofsky ultimately decided a lack of musical cues was preferable. Instead, the pair worked together in creating what they called a sound design. The absence of musical cues obfuscates our perception. How are we to feel? Without the score, it forces you to rely on Jennifer Lawrence’s character for narrative direction.

At a superficial glance, Mother! is a horror film, but it’s not scary in the classic sense. It’s unsettling. Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby, it reveals the painful undoing of a woman and her psyche. Even the film poster recalls the latter work.  Although as things devolve it’s clear there are larger issues at play. What begins as spare and spartan becomes dense and elaborate. An orderly tranquility is replaced by a surreal nightmare. The narrative transforms into a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. The pastiche of images gets a bit chaotic but it’s never less than a visually arresting work of grandeur. Mother! is a rich tapestry of images that will haunt your dreams. A blazing inferno is the very first image and it ends in a similar fashion. In between, we get a beating heart that bubbles up in the toilet bowl, a sickly man with an open wound, and floorboards that ooze blood. Everything converges in a chaotic finale that will leave some viewers exhilarated while others will jeer the screen. Mother! doesn’t “play well with others.” As a narrative, it’s socially ill-tempered. It’s also a meditative examination open to analysis.  It’s ideologically abstract enough to allow for many interpretations. Therein lies the genius of this tale.  It’s something to see with other people so you can discuss. It’s a cerebral experience and one that I appreciated for its audacity.

09-14-17

It Comes at Night

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller on June 15, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo it_comes_at_night_ver2_zpsckbwstrl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCall it psychological horror.  Call it wilderness survival.  Call it a post-apocalyptic tale of the unknown.  It Comes at Night is a bit of all of these things.  The production is assembled from cinematic components with which we are familiar.  It’s easy to think we have the story pegged and our expectations fall into line as to what we’re going to get.  But this drama innovates as it entertains.  It’s not predictable and that’s part of what makes this cleverly crafted piece of intensity so effective.

At its most elemental, It Comes at Night is a cabin-in-the-woods chronicle of survival. Paul, his wife Sarah and their teenage son Travis are holed up in the safe confines of a shack in the forest.  Meanwhile, some outside epidemic has had a devastating effect on the world as we know it.  Society has crumbled and it’s every man for himself.  The movie begins with Sarah’s father who has contracted the disease.  He is terminally ill.  The family has been forced to brutally put an end to his life in order to contain the threat.  It’s an unsettling way to begin a story, but it immediately establishes how dire circumstances have become.  The contamination is serious business and this family isn’t afraid to make some very harsh decisions.  Things grow more complicated when they encounter a man that has broken into their home.  Will (Christopher Abbott ) says he is searching for food for his wife Kim (Riley Keough ) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults is a filmmaker that is still finding his voice but he has presented a unified vision in both of his two features.  2016 saw the release of his debut Krisha.  That drama was about a woman being re-introduced to her family at Thanksgiving dinner after having struggled with addiction.  The narrative was emotional, claustrophobic, and unrelentingly uncomfortable.  Interestingly all of those descriptions apply to It Comes at Night as well.  Both are intimate accounts of human behavior.  In his new work, Shults isn’t really concerned with what is outside the cabin.  It’s what’s inside that counts. The production is photographed to highlight the dark and foreboding hallways in their little shack.  Although we are constantly reminded of the outside risk.  A red door, the only escape in or out, becomes an ominous motif of some unseen peril that lies out there.  

Human behavior is the focus.  Shults is fascinated with people and their conversations. The screenplay, which the director also penned, ratchets up the tension to the point where things become oppressive.  He assembles the composition like a play of human interactions.  The screenplay succeeds because of the believable work of the ensemble cast.  Actor Joel Edgerton is the most famous name.  He has the biggest role as Paul and he’s just as commanding a presence as you’d expect.  However up and coming actor Christopher Abbott (James White) is particularly noteworthy.  As the intruder that disturbs the safety of their world, he’s mysterious and vague in just the right way.  Also of note are Carmen Ejogo as Paul’s wife Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their son Travis. They perfectly capture a palpable fear.  Our experience is heightened because we empathize with their unrelenting dread.

It Comes at Night is brilliantly constructed.  The mood is dire, barren, desolate.  As things get more intense, director Shults plays with perception, paranoia, and reality.  The saga is thrilling for his developing technique.  As in every movie, there’s a moment where the picture ultimately ends, the credits roll and the lights come up.  I sheepishly admit my immediate reaction was disappointment.  However, this is a film for discussion.  As I reflected on what I had seen, it gets clearer.  Director Trey Edward Shults has taken a visionary approach.  This is a thoughtful fable about humanity.  It’s about so much more than what is physically represented.

06-11-17

Get Out

Posted in Horror, Mystery with tags on March 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo get_out_ver2_zpsfkozcn69.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA young black man has anxiety about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Get Out, with its race-baiting premise, would seem a bit outdated in 2017. Interracial dating is nothing new.  Rest assured director Jordan Peele knows this. Rose (Allison Williams) can’t wait to introduce Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to her parents. They arrive at the Armitage estate. Rose’s mom (Catherine Keener) and dad (Bradley Whitford) are quite genial, excessively so in fact.  Yet something is amiss. There’s the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), their maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a guest at their party named Logan (LaKeith Stanfield). All African American and all exhibit an odd demeanor. What initially felt like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner now seems closer to The Stepford Wives.

Jordan Peele merely raises the issue of race but doesn’t delve too deeply. It’s left to the moviegoer as to what they will take away from this story. A less introspective viewer may simply see “white people are evil” but look deeper and there’s an ample minefield of racial tension to explore. The director begins with the surface level awkwardness felt between a black man in a sea of affluent white people. It’s not just about Chris’ racial unease. It’s about how the townspeople try to empathize with Chris in that situation. They want to be seen as altruistic people. Those feelings manifest into socially inept behavior. They attempt to atone for his experience with overly polite, almost pandering conversation.

The screenplay capitalizes on this notion with artlessly misguided remarks at first. At the outset, Rose insists her liberal parents are really cool. She tries to ally Chris’ fears with “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” Later there’s a party scene where Chris must navigate a maze of warm pleasantries, tinged with passively racist undertones. One guest enthusiastically extols the athletic achievements of Olympian Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. Another who plays golf goes out of his way to tell Chris that he’s a big fan of Tiger Woods. The overcompensating comments come across like white guilt. That’s funny but then the narrative exploits this nervousness into the fear felt by an outsider. The entire audience ultimately feels it too.

Get Out strikes a nice balance between terror and comedy. There’s a satirical edge to the proceedings that elevates this horror flick into something rather intelligent. Most of the scares are psychological. Hypnosis is introduced as a frightening state of consciousness. That the clicking of a teacup could be a weapon more powerful than a loaded gun is a concept that is both amusing and disconcerting at the very same time. A trigger with the ability to render a person powerless. Ok, there is some blood in the third act, but there’s very little viscera. The R rating is mainly for language. As Get Out unfolds to its inevitable conclusion we the audience understand this environment from Chris’ perspective, The final twist is the perfect cap to a tale that has toyed with race for the entire duration. By the end, the script confronts the issue in a way that is both subversive and unique.

02-23-17

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.

04-21-16

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.

03-10-16

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.

02-24-16

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.

02-18-16

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.

02-04-16