First Reformed

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_reformed (1)STARS2Filmmaker Paul Schrader has long been fascinated with characters hell-bent on a self-destructive path. Time and again whether it be the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his own directorial works like American Gigolo, Hardcore, or Affliction, difficult themes infect his work. In a nutshell, First Reformed is the chronicle of a religious man’s crisis of faith. Yet the narrative covers a lot more than that as Schrader endeavors to explore religion, spirituality and one’s existence beyond the physical body. Oh yes, there’s a flying sequence over mountains and stars and a whole lot more in one of the few cinematographic moments contained within that does not rely on a static shot. A cinephile, Paul Schrader has long cited the work of the great French director Robert Bresson. Schrader is deeply influenced by his minimalist style, particularly Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest which is clearly a major influence on this production.

The account introduces Ethan Hawke as a Protestant minister of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He keeps a journal which allows him to mournfully narrate the story with his entries heard in voiceover. The Reverend Ernst Toller is not a happy man. A divorcé, he still contends with the death of his only son Joseph whom he encouraged to go off and fight in the Iraq War.  Currently, Toller also struggles to even get a scant few to attend his services. The pews are mainly empty. This historical edifice is now more of a tourist attraction as the chapel was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In his spare time, he gives visitors tours of the grounds that conclude in the gift shop where they can purchase a souvenir hat.  When he’s alone, he drinks.  It’s these little details that serve to underscore his growing despair. This is all in stark contrast to the nearby parent megachurch, Abundant Life, from which his parish receives financial support. Its evangelical ministry is 5,000 strong and headed up by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer – billed as Cedric Kyles here). He’s confident, upbeat, and life-affirming.   The man inspires hope. Toller arouses hopelessness. I mean let’s be honest, whose church would you rather attend?

The story is set in motion when Toller is visited by a lay person named Mary, a woman pregnant with child.  Her husband is named Michael (not Joseph — that was Toller’s son, remember?) Oh but do take note of these names. Their biblical allusions are not an accident. Side note: Esther (Victoria Hill) is the choir director with whom he has a past relationship. Anyway back to Mary. She is seeking help regarding her spouse who is consumed by radical environmentalist beliefs. Michael is apparently prone to violent acts that promote his cause. His anguish over the ecological state of the Earth is so strong he doesn’t even wish to bring his child into this world. We’re talking abortion mixed with eco-terrorism – two topics guaranteed to derail even the most pleasant dinner party. Toller’s rather dispassionate response is that the trauma of taking a life is much worse than having to endure the trauma of the world.

Over time, Michael’s climate-change opinions have a negative influence on Toller’s religious faith. That’s not to say the screenplay presents Michael’s secular misery as something to admire. Plainly he is mentally ill with deeply rooted emotional problems. His wife, on the other hand, is the optimism at the center of this trio. She may share her husband’s respect for the planet, but not his dire methods. As the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, she resists her husband’s immoral discontent. Toller, on the other hand, does not. He is the preacher who has chosen a devotion to God as his raison d’être.  Toller’s existential crisis is his complete undoing.  Yet the reason for Michael’s profound effect on the pastor never seems clearly delineated. Toller becomes obsessed with the corporations responsible for the most damage to the Earth. However, it’s more than mere environmental matters at the root of his ennui.  The Abundant Life Church, with its acceptance of donations from one of those same powerful polluting corporations, is his downfall as well.  The system is broken. Yet he makes no attempt to fix it in any meaningful or constructive way.

First Reformed is the depiction of a man unhinged. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, he grows more and more despondent.  It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus’ agony there was so deep he sweat blood.  In a genial display of concern, Jeffers lightly admonishes Toller. “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”  Thank you.  Can I get an amen up in here?  First Reformed is a bleak film that subdues the viewer with fixed shots and minimalist style. The grim portrait is unyielding for most of the narrative and then at the eleventh hour offers something to contemplate with its parting image.  The abrupt “resolution” is a bit of a head-scratcher but perhaps a rare moment of hope in a drama about despair.

06-04-18

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

Deadpool 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero on May 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

deadpool_two_ver15STARS3Deadpool 2 is a comedy first and then a superhero movie second. Now that we’ve established that, let’s proceed. The latest installment within the X-Men universe is a difficult feature to criticize because the issues that kept me from wholeheartedly embracing this film would actually be considered the strengths by its adherents. In other words, take my measured critique with a grain of salt. I don’t speak for card-carrying members.  I gave the original a marginal pass because I enjoyed it in parts. I found its meta-awareness to be humorous. I hadn’t ever seen a superhero production quite like it. It was so completely self-aware, the point of view was rather novel. Obviously, with a sequel, a lot of what made the introduction of his personality fresh and witty is gone. In its place, is more of the same. Deadpool really doubles down this time on the self-referential style. I’ll admit this pastiche of stuff still made me chuckle, but what was once unique and innovative has now become smug and tiresome.

Deadpool 2 offers more of the same meta-humor that made its predecessor a huge hit. In that sense, it delivers lots of gags, but creatively it offers nothing new.  It’s a mildly diverting collection of tributes to entertainment loosely connected by a meaningless plot. The story, such as it is, is set in motion when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) a.k.a Wade Wilson is spending the evening with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). She is killed when a criminal breaks into their home. This occurs as they are celebrating their anniversary and it’s one of the few moments I think the screenwriters actually want you to react with an emotion other than glee. However, in a film that is constantly cracking wise, that’s a problem. It’s just so cavalier about everything, it’s difficult to care.

The screenplay (by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds) keeps feelings at bay. Since Deadpool’s regenerative qualities make it impossible for him to die, the stakes are never very high. Deadpool is so distraught he attempts to commit suicide but is put back together by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic). Then Deadpool does a lot of stuff. He reunites with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) from the first episode. He rescues a 14-year-old boy named Russell Collins, aka Firefist from an abusive orphanage. Firefist is portrayed by the wonderful Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A mutant from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) later materializes to destroy Firefist. Deadpool assembles a team called X-Force to aid in protecting the boy.  They include a charismatic Zazie Beetz as Domino and comedian Rob Delaney as the hilarious Peter. The superficial developments are an excuse to make more allusions to contemporary tastes.  The mood is so glib and affected. Woe unto the audience member that even dares to feel something, anything, for these people.

Nothing is sincere. Even the soundtrack of Deadpool can only appreciate music in a post-modern ironic way.  “Ashes” is a newly recorded ballad by Celine Dion. It sounds like the anthemic wannabe theme from a James Bond flick. It’s genuinely sung well although in this context it sounds cheesy. “All Out of Love” (Air Supply), “9 to 5” (Dolly Parton), “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher) and many other tunes appear as pop cultural appropriation. They underscore scenes where their incongruous appearance is the actual joke.

Every mention of another property, whether it be a song, a movie, a TV show or something else, is presented as humor. For example, numerous actors show up in cameos. Look fast when the identity of Vanisher, an invisible mutant, is revealed. But what is the joke exactly? Introducing something familiar out of context is an imitation of wit.  This is simply an opportunity to exclaim “Hey! I know that thing!” Sharknado, My Little Pony,Fox & Friends, Basic Instinct, Say Anything, DC vs. Marvel, the list of targets is extensive. I did laugh. There are some legitimately intelligent observations that have some thought behind them. When our hero Wade notes the melodic similarity between “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from Frozen, it’s a definite moment of insight. Those are few and far between, however. Most of the A-ha moments are merely playing musical ditties like “Take on Me” in the background.

5-17-18

Tully

Posted in Comedy, Drama on May 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

tullySTARS3I do consider myself a bit of a cinematic egghead. I don’t go into any film uninformed. I was excited to see Tully. Apparently I was alone. This picture barely made more than $3 million this weekend. I can understand why. It’s the summer and people want to see fun flicks. Avengers: Infinity War is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. Still, I was pretty excited for this. This is the seventh directorial feature from the son of director Ivan Reitman. I only make reference to Jason’s father because Ghostbusters is still one of my favorites. It is in no way to negate the younger’s contributions to cinema. Jason Reitman is no slouch. He established himself to the masses with Juno. He also directed a movie in 2011 I quite liked called Young Adult and it is that achievement on which I was reflecting when entering the theater to see this. Reitman is once again working with screenwriter Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron. I had very high expectations. Though this effort is admirable, they sadly weren’t met.

Tully is first and foremost a chronicle about motherhood. Not the glowing profile of a parent’s unconditional love for her children as reflected through rose-colored glasses. This is the difficult somewhat frustrating version that most real-world mothers know to be true. Charlize Theron is Marlo, a mom who has just given birth to her third child. Theron is a gorgeous actress. She looks as beautiful as anyone on this planet. She has been a brand ambassador for Christian Dior as recently as 2016. That is as good a validation of one’s physical beauty as any I suppose.  Yet Theron delights in making herself ugly. Doing so won her an Oscar in the 2003 film Monster where she portrayed a serial killer. Here, she is embodying a mom in all of its unfettered ugliness. That means we get to see the realities of motherhood: the weight gain, the sleepless nights, the breast pump issues. Her son Jonah appears to exhibit signs of autism, although that word is never uttered. He’s merely “quirky”. Marlo accidentally drops a cell phone on her newborn’s head. She is notified of his cries at all hours through a baby monitor. She walks away from an open bag of breast milk — only to then watch it topple over and spill out all over the counter. These scenes were all shown in the trailer so you potentially have already witnessed the highlights.

The saga concerns a somewhat inept mother who is given the “gift” of a night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) by her affluent brother Craig (Mark Duplass). Mackenzie Davis is a spirited vision as the titular nanny. Tully succeeds is no small part due to her charismatic performance.  Craig sees her struggling and he wishes to help his sister through the difficult early months following the birth of her newly born third child. Her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) is no help at all.  He is a reactionary creation out of a 1950s melodrama — a wholly unbelievable personality. Drew almost exists as a separate entity from Marlo and as the narrative develops you’ll grow to understand why.  By day he is focused on work and by night he is seen playing video games on their bedroom TV.  In another era, he would have been depicted preoccupied with his head buried in a newspaper.  With regard to his fatherly duties, he is perfectly unsupportive. Set in the conservative past this construct might seem acceptable but in 2018 it seems like an entirely fanciful fabrication. In other areas, Tully attempts to mine humor out of the bougie mentality of her brother Craig and his wife Elyse (Elaine Tan). The problem here is that they are genuinely trying to help her out, so if you find them ridiculous (as Diablo Cody ostensibly wrote them to be) perhaps you simply find helpful people laughable. Diablo Cody does find Marlo and her struggle to be a mother worthy of our sympathy so that’s nice.

Tully is Mary Poppins for Generation X. For awhile the tale is kind of uplifting. The skill with which director Jason Reitman can bring a screenplay to the screen is never in question. However, acclaim must also go to cinematographer Eric Steelberg (500 Days of Summer) for basking Reitman’s work in the shadowy hues of a twilight glow. There is one moment where the girls venture into Manhattan for a girls’ night out of drinking.  The soundtrack literally samples the sum total of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album from 1983. In that singular moment director Jason Reitman is specifically speaking to millions of kids born in the 1960s and 1970s that are now having kids of their own (Charlize Theron was born in 1975 incidentally). At that moment I thought this is a great film. I enjoyed the camaraderie of Tully and Marlo.  Then there’s a twist.  It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone familiar with a now well regarded 90s classic. I’ll remain vague because I won’t spoil the “surprise”. It’s a whimsical choice that belies a lack of faith in its own established premise. The story could have simply existed as originally presented without silly tricks. Tully is still fairly enjoyable. The narrative will undoubtedly speak to the millions of women that struggle with postpartum depression. It should strike a chord with certain viewers. That is if they ever actually see this movie.

05-03-18

Avengers: Infinity War Podcast – “Out Now With Aaron and Abe”

Posted in Podcast on May 5, 2018 by Mark Hobin

I was guest this week on Out Now With Aaron and Abe

From the site:

This week’s Out Now with Aaron and Abe has the gang collecting Infinity Stones to save the universe. Aaron is joined by Jonathan Van Dyke, Mark Hobin, and Terence Johnson to review Avengers: Infinity War, the massive event in the realm of all that’s MCU and superhero movies in general. The group goes over their thoughts on the film in a spoiler-free manner for the most part and then delves further into things after a certain point, which is noted. Plenty of other movie talk as well. Among topics covered, we have a fun round of Know Everybody (4:40), some Out Now Quickies™ (13:30), Trailer Talk for Venom (24:40) and The Equalizer 2 (32:20), the main review (38:38), the spoiler discussions (1:14:10), Out Now Feedback (1:41:10), and Games (1:57:00). We then wrap things up (2:05:20) and end on some bloopers (2:19:48), following this week’s closeout song. So now, if you’ve got an hour or so to kill…

Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

7th Annual Summer Movie Gamble from “Out Now With Aaron and Abe”

Posted in Podcast on April 24, 2018 by Mark Hobin

I was guest this week on Out Now With Aaron and Abe

This year’s summer movies have the potential to be the biggest box office ever. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR kicks off the season this Friday. Then DEADPOOL 2, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY, THE INCREDIBLES 2, JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM and a host of other films will all come out as well.

We challenge each other to correctly pick the Top 10 in the correct order because…we’re competitive that way. Aaron Neuwirth, Abraham Moua, Jordan Grout, Markus Emilio Robinson and I discuss our predictions as well as the picks of other frequent personalities of the show.

The competition will be fierce!

The Death of Stalin

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

death_of_stalinSTARS4The Death of Stalin is a political satire about the power struggle that occurs after the infamous leader (or more appropriately – dictator) of the Soviet Union suffers a stroke and dies. The aftermath has a major effect, plunging the ruling government into a genuine free-for-all where control is seemingly up for grabs. The production had a most curious journey to the screen. Obviously, the characters are based on actual historical figures. However, the property began as a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The screenplay was then adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows.  The film details the events in October 1953 after the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that’s a terrific starting point for any great comedy.  In fact, the resulting power play that occurs is so ridiculous it could only be true. Be that as it may, the details of the ensuing crisis is infused with a bit of whimsical conjecture.

The depiction is a sensational ensemble piece of people who fight over Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) vacant seat. There’s Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), his advisor vs. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. These two are directly at odds. They try to manipulate a coterie of peripheral characters that include Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Deputy Premier, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), originally the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but subsequently placed on his enemies list, and lastly Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), the famed communist’s son. Well-informed history buffs will be in absolute heaven. For others, it can be a lot to grasp. I’ll admit there were times I was a little confused as to who is aligned with whom.

The Death of Stalin is such a literate comedy. So packed with intelligence and wit. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of one-liners and quotable dialogue. It can get somewhat impenetrable, but for those with the right mindset, it is a most rewarding experience. Director Armando Iannucci cleverly utilizes real occurrences and then embellishes for the purposes of parody. In the U.S. the director is probably best known for creating Veep, the HBO TV series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s full of political satire as well. Right from the start, the circumstances here are completely absurd. A live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 has just been broadcast over the radio waves. Stalin requests a recording of the concerto. The trouble is, none was made. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) frantically endeavors to restage the entire concert, including bringing in random people to recreate the commotion of the audience. It’s just as bizarre as it sounds.  Things only get more outlandish from there.

There is something inherently satisfying about taking the exemplars of pure evil and making them buffoons. The film makes a lot of concessions in the name of comedy. For example, no Russian is spoken. The actors don’t even attempt a fake accent. They speak English as they would in their everyday life, cockney diction included!  It’s a bold but welcome choice. Elsewhere the screenplay wisely references the egregious sins of Lavrentiy Beria without unnecessarily dwelling on their legitimate horror. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he commands at one point. The execution ordered with all the calm demeanor of selecting an entree off a dinner menu.  Despite the subject, it remains comical, even when dramatizing the physical demise of Stalin. The exhibition of his body falling to the ground produces a loud thud. Hearing the noise, the two bumbling guards outside his room debate whether they should investigate. Too afraid, they don’t. When they finally realize he is ill, it would make sense to find a doctor. Ironically all the good physicians have either been killed or sent to the gulags. No one wants to treat him for fear of reprisal by the state. I could go on and on and on with more hard to believe examples. The funeral scene is my favorite, but I’ve said enough. I’ve tempted you with the history, now see the way it’s been exploited for laughs. The script shrewdly mixes what literally happened with some creative augmentations for the sake of humor. The amazing thing is the root of these events actually transpired. How it all played out is another story, but that’s where the fun of this chronicle begins.

04-16-18

Blockers

Posted in Comedy on April 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

blockers_ver2STARS2.5The marketing team behind Blockers must not have had much faith in the movie they were selling. The ad campaign is the most frustrating form of bait and switch. Specifically, the ads promised a raunchy sex comedy but instead, they delivered a mawkishly sentimental drama about self-empowered teens. Now I know what you’re thinking. They actually marketed it as something that is less respected? I know. I’m confused too. There’s nothing particularly noble or admirable about a bawdy picture fixated on human beings attempting to have sex. Yet that idea has been the inspiration for a lot of films. Some admittedly hilarious ones as a matter of fact.  Maybe that’s the lofty standard to which screenwriter (Pitch Perfect) and first-time director Kay Cannon aspired.  The “illustrious” genre arguably started back in 1978 with the granddaddy of all teen comedies Animal House and has continued on through American Pie, Superbad, The Hangover and even 2017’s Girls Trip. I’m casting a wide net because those last two examples were most definitely about adults, not teens, but the focus is the same. As long as people are trying to get their groove on, there will always be a movie to make light of it.

Yet Blockers really isn’t akin to those films. Only on paper does the chronicle seem similar. The plot is simple. Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) are unrelated parents each with a different child. Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) are their respective daughters. The guardians are goofballs. Their offspring are self-serious killjoys.  Nevertheless, the girls make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. The parents find out and try to stop them. Mayhem ensues. I’ll give the script points for flipping the script and making this about female teen horniness instead of the tractional male libido but that’s about where the innovation stops.

The funny thing is, or rather ironically, Blockers is NOT very funny.   It’s rather heavy-handed unfortunately.   That’s where I cry “Foul!”  It’s essentially a girl power drama about parental responsibility and how teens empower themselves to rationally make the so-called right choices. That sounds like an improvement but then the third act descends into cloying melodrama. Mom and each dad pontificates to the audience on what they learned. Yawn! This isn’t a comedy at heart. It’s a preachy, after-school special about making the right life choices with some crudities thrown in.   Oh sure there are a few clever jokes here and there. One extended vignette involves the adults hanging out in mother Lisa’s home after having sent each of their three children off to prom. Lisa’s daughter Julie accidentally leaves her computer on. Some noises from Julie’s laptop compel them to convene in her room. Once there, they eavesdrop on the adolescents’ emoji-filled group chat from their phones as it is displayed on the computer monitor. Don’t question whether this is possible. It’s 2018. Technology allows everything. The subsequent parents’ conversation over what they read is possibly the funniest scene that I will see in all of 2018. Their deciphering over what a drooling face means vs. the significance of an eggplant is the kind of dialogue this movie needed more of.

I’ll admit it. I laughed. Maybe for a total of 3 times throughout the picture. I wish the rest of the screenplay had been that smart. It’s so not.  One sketch involves something that can only wholesomely be referred to as an “alcohol enema”. The sequence is stupid and lowbrow. There’s no point other than to simply be disgusting. There are a lot of those moments in this picture. Crude bits can be excusable when they show some signs of intelligent life. Moronic bits are unforgivable. When it isn’t gross, Blockers is trying to be positively upbeat and sappy. Nothing wrong with emotion if it feels sincere. When it follows a scene in which everyone projectile vomits, well….it made me want to vomit. Save for the “emoji texting” scene, the jokes aren’t amusing. When you’re calling yourself a comedy, that’s kind of a deal breaker.

04-12-18

A Quiet Place

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

quiet_placeSTARS3.5In the climax of a thriller, tension is often extracted when the main character is hiding from a dangerous threat lurking nearby.  It could be another person, an animal, an alien, whatever. You name it. As long as they don’t make noise, they’ll be OK. We hold our breath praying that our hero doesn’t give himself away. The menace looms closer. The protagonist’s heart beats faster. Our hearts beat faster in the audience. The stress can be unbearable. A Quiet Place is extremely clever. The story takes the crucial element of a horror film and makes that apex the entire picture. The anxiety is non-stop for the duration of the production.  It’s extremely compelling.

Things are hushed right from the beginning. A Quiet Place doesn’t waste time with exposition, but we can sort of gather info as things develop. We’re in the very near future. Earth has been taken over by some really scary looking aliens that prey on human beings. As long as people remain silent, they are safe. Make a sound, and individuals run the risk of being discovered. The Abbotts are a family simply trying to stay alive. You’ll find out within the first few minutes how hard that is. There’s Lee (John Krasinski), the father, mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds). She happens to be deaf, both in the drama and in real life. Regan has two brothers as well: Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward). Complicating matters is when Evelyn becomes pregnant.   Psst….babies are kind of noisy.

A Quiet Place is an effective horror tale that entertains as it plays. To this fan, actor John Krasinski will forever be Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office. Clearly a man of many talents, he directed and co-wrote this screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. He directed his real-life wife Emily Blunt who plays his fictional wife in the story.  That makes the role easier.  They’ve been married since 2010.  No need to feign onscreen chemistry.  They’ve had plenty of practice.  They’re the couple at the center of a very interesting but uncomplicated idea. For long stretches, there is virtually no sound at all. The tension is unbearably intense at times. The experience will require absolute silence in the theater too.   It will certainly be a most demanding test of a modern audience to not make a peep while watching a horror film. Obviously talking and cell phones are always forbidden but I’d recommend no food or drink as well. Loud popcorn eating and rusting candy wrappers were present at my screening, along with some hilariously exaggerated gasps as well. I could’ve done without the distractions. I’m not usually obsessive about such things, but go see this particular movie in a packed theater and then tell me I was wrong.

A Quiet Place is a sharp thriller made on a shoestring budget for only $17 million. Judging from the grosses this weekend it looks like it will ultimately reap at least 10 times that amount. I especially love when inexpensive productions (that I like) make a huge profit.  It proves you don’t always have to spend a great deal of money to earn a lot of money.  You simply need a good idea.  It doesn’t even have to be totally original either.  Director John Krasinski’s influences are simple and unmistakable. Like 1979’s Alien, these monsters are really big and ugly. Also like that feature, part of the giddy apprehension is how they’re introduced ever so carefully over time.  Just a glimpse of one here, another flash of one there.  These beasts cannot see, but they have extremely sensitive hearing.  The beautifully abhorrent details of the creatures become more and more familiar as the story wears on. “Don’t make a sound” was a gimmick recently used in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. That was good too, but A Quiet Place is more elegant and family friendly.  It’s rated PG-13.  It’s also incredibly exciting. Do go and enjoy it right now. Just please shut your trap when you do.

04-05-18