Call Me by Your Name

Posted in Drama, Romance on December 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

call_me_by_your_nameSTARS4In T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the speaker famously ponders, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” The somewhat pretentious but probably erotic musing hasn’t entered my mind since the poem was first foisted on me in high school. I was reminded again of the oft-studied work while watching this film. That image of eating a peach is both literally and figuratively referenced in Call Me by Your Name. Oh and let there be no misunderstanding — in the case here — it is most definitely a sensual undertaking.

Call Me by Your Name is based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a precocious 17-year-old boy that lives with his parents in Italy. Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a 24-year-old doctoral student that has been invited to come stay with them by Elio’s father, a professor of archaeology.  This happens every year actually.  Professor Perlman invites a different scholar to live with the family for 6 weeks to help out with his academic studies. Elio doesn’t like having to give up his room for the guest every year, but he’s used to it. This saga portrays their burgeoning attraction. Given that description, the locale and the early 1980s time period, one might expect a controversy-filled plot filled with repression, condemnation and/or affliction. Their ages are indeed an undeniably messy matter, much like first love itself.  The screenplay intends this to be a conundrum.  Yet Call Me by Your Name is largely conflict-free. There is unease, however.  The tension is one of emotion, and it depicts a developing friendship that positively aches.

That passion is heightened by an overall milieu of luscious backgrounds.  The setting is a relaxing vacation at a villa in the summer of 1983. A laid-back pastoral village in northern Italy is the exquisite backdrop for a story of first love that unfolds during one memorable summer. Young men and women play volleyball outside in the sun-soaked air.  Families leisurely have their brunch al fresco.  Gentlemen ride bikes along the cobblestone streets past historical buildings to piazzas. “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens is heard on the soundtrack.  His tranquil folk music creates an idyllic mood like Simon & Garfunkel’s music was used in The Graduate. The pace is languid, the environment is gorgeous.  The entire movie advances like one long uninterrupted fantasy.

What makes the drama so effective is the magnetism of the two leads.  Elio and Oliver aren’t sure how to voice their inclinations. Their intentions are hidden under behavior that belies their true feelings. Elio hangs out with his girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel). Oliver is attracted to a local girl named Chiara (Victoire Du Bois). But when Elio endeavors to act as a matchmaker between the two, Oliver reprimands him for getting involved. Later, Oliver’s chaste attempt at giving Elio a shoulder massage during a volleyball game is instantly rebuffed by the young man. Timothée Chalamet has the juicer part, and he downplays his affection throughout. He gives an extraordinarily authentic performance. Armie Hammer, as the older of the two, is even more enigmatic. He is cool, confident and aloof. They don’t always say what they mean. A conversation between the two implies some possibly suggestive ideas but remains so incredibly oblique, it prompts one of them to ask “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” This and other interactions between them illustrate how one’s demeanor can hide real anxiety when experiencing closeted desire.

This is a surprisingly dignified account. The screenplay written by James Ivory moves the romance at a gradual pace. Things evolve so slowly that some viewers may grow hungry for actual events. The lack of conflict establishes Call Me by Your Name as a rather unique portrait. It is what makes these characters tick that that captivate our interest. Elio is Jewish and notices that Oliver is as well from the Star of David he wears. Elio is remarkably well read and can converse on the same level with Oliver. And yet they are separated by objectives in life that make them dissimilar. They each want different things. It is the inscrutable motivations of the two leads keeps us enrapt. They are charismatic to be sure, but also mysterious and guarded. In the end, we the audience are drawn to the two leads as they too are fascinated by each other. For director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), sensuality has been a common theme.  Call Me By Your Name elegantly details a summer affair. The chronicle uncovers both the joy and pain of first love – that longing for another person. In that way, the narrative transcends sexuality and relies on fascination and unspoken longing. Those feelings are universal and Call Me by Your Name beautifully captures our humanity.



Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_last_jedi_ver9STARS4“If you post spoilers, I will unfriend and block you.”  That sentiment was typical of the posts on my Facebook feeds following the release of The Last Jedi this weekend.  I don’t recall seeing such aggressive declarations when either Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman opened this summer. For some reason, people are emphatically wary of Star Wars spoilers, even if it concerns the most banal information. I agree that ruining important plot developments is disrespectful. Rest assured this review is spoiler-free. That’s true of all of my write-ups. Nevertheless, if you’re especially sensitive to the reveal of what a critter is named or the sheer confirmation that lightsaber battles occur, then I suggest you don’t read my (or any) review of this film until after you’ve seen it.

Episode 7 – The Force Awakens – set the stage for a new group that would transition our allegiance from the previous cast (Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill) to an ever-expanding ensemble.  Han Solo was an important figure in Part 7.    Now it’s Luke Skywalker’s turn to inform the narrative.  Although Luke seems like a completely different person here. Obviously, he’s older, but he sports a salt and pepper beard like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. The young hotshot of the original trilogy now seems like a peaceful Buddhist living off the land on an island retreat. He speaks differently too, in verse like quoting the scripture of some sacred text.  Mark Hamill has done a lot of voice work over the years and it really shows. He sounds imposing even when he doesn’t always carry himself in that manner.

The Force Awakens introduced Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  They all get their moments here.  The once-named Ben Solo continues to struggle with the dark side.   Meanwhile, Rey’s growing influence concerns her journey to the remote planet of Ahch-To in an effort to recruit Luke into helping the cause.  The Force Awakens implied that she might be a Jedi which would beg the question, to whom does the title of this movie refer, her or Luke?  I won’t comment, but I’d love to hear your thoughts after watching this. I wish we could’ve spent more time with them.  The Last Jedi continues to add characters to a constantly growing ensemble.  Poe, Finn, and Rey must share a lot of screen time with a host of unfamiliar personalities that may or may not become central.  A welcome addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who fights alongside the Resistance. She is introduced by way of her relationship with Finn. Their developing partnership is a key component of the chronicle. Her oddball sweetness is charming. Less delightful is Benicio del Toro as DJ, an underworld individual who specializes in computer hacking. His affected stutter is really the only thing memorable about him. Given the fact that this production is 2 hours 32 minutes long, his existence is where I would’ve started to do some serious editing. Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) impressively juggles a lot of disparate plot threads. Still, this is a long, and frequently meandering film, particularly in the introductory slog. Yes, it takes a while to get started, but once it does, oh boy, does it dazzle the senses.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge that the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher adds an air of melancholy to her scenes.  Her role is expanded here and it’s nice to see her featured in several segments. As General Leia Organa, she leads the military effort against the First Order. She receives support from purple haired, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). The two are old friends and Amilyn steps in to support her.  Amilyn is not quite as friendly with Poe, however, as a conversation they have will attest. Their confrontation is memorable. Women rule in this world.  Beside Leia and Amilyn, there is also Commander Larma D’Acy (Amanda Lawrence) and Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd – daughter of Carrie Fisher). They have key roles here too.  Conversely, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), a female Stormtrooper, is regrettably given very little screen time.

The Resistance faces off against an onslaught led by the overbearing General Hux.  Actor Domhnall Gleeson is easily the most over-the-top campy performance in this entire series.  General Hux always comes across as a child who snuck into daddy’s office and is playing pretend takeover of the world.  I was kind of amused by his theatrics, but it’s definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of achievement.  His authority is only exceeded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).   Kylo Ren’s relationship with the Supreme Leader continues to be a major element of the plot.  Yet this is the second appearance of Snoke and I still don’t know anything about him. It’s really not important I suppose.  He’s a bad guy — a motion capture CGI fabrication.   That’s all you need to know.

This is probably a good time to mention all the computer graphics employed in this outing. General Snoke was an excess of CGI in the preceding spectacle. Now we have adorable wide-eyed sea-bird creatures called Porgs that scream and bellow in cutely animated glee.  I think I know what’s going to be the hot Christmas toy this year. There’s also the Vulptices, crystalline foxes that live beneath the salt surface of Crait.  Then there are the Fathiers, space horses with long ears like rabbits. They race in a metropolitan center where people place their bets in a casino world that features the Monte Carlo-ish city Canto Bight. I wasn’t a fan of this backdrop. It feels like an unnecessary appendage to the primary tale. The environment is somewhat of an analog to the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars but much less captivating in my opinion. Oh but I digress — back to the creatures. My favorite of them all are the Caretakers, fish-like nuns on the planet Ahch-To. Their completely random appearance was probably the most laugh out loud moment in the entire picture.

In a nutshell, The Last Jedi is the continuing adventures of the most iconic space opera of all time.  Simply put, our heroes of the Resistance, square off against the villains of the First Order. The Force Awakens brilliantly manipulated the legend of Star Wars into a thrilling fable for a new generation to consume.  Much in the same way, this script expands on things using the same approach that The Empire Strikes Back did nearly 4 decades ago. It’s a darker production that creatively enhances the fundamental mythology of the franchise. It deepens the backstories of the characters with which we are familiar.  It’s also funnier with several bits at which you will either enjoy or roll your eyes. I was pleased for the most part, although watching Luke milk a beast and drink its green formula was definitely a WTF moment.  This is a perfect segue into my next observation.

By now I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a formula. We want nostalgia, but we expect something new, bring back the favorites with which we are familiar, add a few new ones we can embrace. Don’t forget cute creatures and sprinkle in bits of humor. I dare say a couple gags are the most full-on hilarious bits I’ve ever seen in this franchise. At 8 episodes and counting, that’s really saying something.  By the end, you’ll want to stand up and cheer. The final 30 minutes are as exciting as any in the series. It totally sticks the ending.  Modern action films are often a succession of the fight extravaganzas that we crave, separated by speechifying portions that we don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how sensational action set-pieces have become or that the dialogue that screenwriters compose in these flicks often isn’t particularly compelling.  Either way, this is the nature of the beast.  The movie starts out frustratingly slow but ends with a bang. The narrative is a bit of a tangle in the middle, but each action set piece is an event. We get not one, but two, epic lightsaber battles. This is what we expect of the middle entry of a Star Wars flick. The Last Jedi does all of these things and it does them rather well.


I, Tonya

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Sports with tags on December 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

i_tonyaSTARS3.5Anyone born before 1990 should remember when figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee by an assailant. The Tonya, of the title, was Tonya Harding, of course – Kerrigan’s rival and Olympic teammate. The 1994 scandal and their subsequent showdown at the Olympics that took place one month later was a defining moment in American TV.  It’s easily the most attention that a women’s figure skating event has ever received either before or since. The details, however, have sort of gotten lost in murky recollections of the past. I’ve encountered some who incorrectly think Tonya Harding was actually the one who hit Nancy Kerrigan. That would’ve made Tonya’s ensuing participation in the 1994 Winter Olympics even more unbelievable. Before all that though, people forget that at one point, Tonya was a darn good athlete winning gold medals at the international competition Skate America in 1989 and 1991. This reminds us of the champion she once was but through a dark comedic filter.

The Nancy Kerrigan attack is why Tonya Harding’s name still persists in the public consciousness. That event is ostensibly why the average viewer might come to see this movie. Midway through, the script even acknowledges the fact. Tanya screams directly at the audience, “I mean it’s what you all came here folks, the f—–ing incident!” However, the drama begins much earlier in her life as a 4-year-old working with a professional coach. In that sense, the film is more of a biography.  This is, in essence, an argument to explain why Tonya Harding was the way she was.

The presentation involves an overly theatrical tone and comical atmosphere. We’re told at the outset that this “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews…” This is Harding’s side of the story filtered through mockumentary-style conversations. These include herself (Margot Robbie) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), but also her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and others. Robbie puts forth a performance you simply cannot ignore.  The slimmer, significantly taller actress looks virtually nothing like the actual person, although I can’t help but think Tonya didn’t have a problem with the casting choice.  The figure skater comes across as a crude, foul-mouthed woman who also happened to be incredibly talented.

The exhibition is far more sympathetic to its subject than expected. It cultivates a world in which Tonya was surrounded by less than savory characters. The account maintains she was beset by people who physically and mentally abused her. It recounts key relationships in her life including a volatile relationship with her mother. Actress Allison Janney seizes your attention. It’s not a pleasant portrayal but it is memorable. The developing romance with an explosive Jeff Gillooly is also detailed. It’s shown that his association with buddy Shawn Eckardt, who became Tonya Harding’s bodyguard, would have detrimental effects on her career. The abuse, both verbal and concrete, that occurs on screen would normally be grounds for prison time but here they’re offered as macabre humor. Her “sweetheart” and mom do not come off well. Both are depicted as horrible people. Jeff at least seems to have her best interests at heart, but LaVona, being a parent from which we assume love, comes across as particularly wicked. Tonya is conspicuously beaten, shot at, stabbed and verbally degraded. Given the seriousness of what she endured, the campy style can be off-putting.

I Tonya relies heavily on music to uplift its heroine. At the 1986 Skate America in Portland, Maine, we see a fellow competitor skate a graceful classical routine to “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. Then Harding takes the ice and performs a flawless, much more athletic set, to “Sleeping Bag” by rock band ZZ Top. The message is clear. She is a talented badass that doesn’t follow the rules. Her lower than expected scores frustrate her and she berates the judges. We’re invited to side with her given the apparent difficulty of her achievement. We don’t just hear music in competitions though. Musical selections underscore everything that’s occurring on screen. They are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times. Tonya Harding’s mother is introduced to the song “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard. ::eye roll:: Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” is played at the announcement of divorce proceedings from her husband. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is for sad times. “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Feels Like the First Time” and “Little Girl Bad” underscore her fierce competitive spirit.

The truth is stranger than fiction. The genuine facts are so compelling that it would be almost impossible to make a movie out of these developments and not have it at least be interesting. I, Tonya is compellingly watchable, although the tone doesn’t serve the subject as it should.  The production revels in the climate of a poor working-class white girl living in Portland Oregon. It’s unglamorous, at times shocking, but presented as comedy. Not humor as enjoyably hilarious kind, but dark comedy that makes light of a very dire situation. I was more saddened by the negative circumstances in her life than able to laugh at the irreverence of it all. It’s not uncommon for characters to break the 4th wall and speak directly to the audience, even in the midst of being assaulted. Back in 1995, Buck Henry’s screenplay for the Gus Van Sant directed To Die For, made light of the depressing real-life story of convicted criminal Pamela Smart. The matters of I, Tonya don’t involve murder, but her upbringing is bad enough that you marvel at the fact that Tonya is still alive. Through it all, the chronicle always makes sure to let us know what a great skater she was. She was the first woman to successfully execute two triple Axels in a single competition, and the first to complete a triple Axel in combination with a double toe loop. I came away from the film feeling much more sorry for Tonya Harding than I was anticipating. Honestly, I didn’t have much sympathy for her before this. Now I do. In that sense, the memoir is completely unpredictable. I was changed by the experience.


Darkest Hour

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3STARS3In the opening minutes, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is driving by three dilapidated unused billboards on a seemingly deserted rural road. A beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer” sung by opera singer Renée Fleming swells in the background. Mildred is seen contemplating the signs themselves. We soon learn that she’s a divorced mother grieving the recent loss of her teenaged daughter that was raped and murdered 7 months prior. She’s understandably angry and wants justice. Sounds good. I’m on her side. Let’s find the culprit. She rents the ad space for all three billboards and emblazes each with the words “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” separated on each one.

Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of Ebbing Missouri played by Woody Harrelson. He’s a beloved figure in the town who, as the director begins to stack the deck, happens to be suffering from a fatal illness. The townspeople, by and large, aren’t on her side. This is a bit perplexing at first. I mean her daughter was murdered for goodness’ sake.  Apparently, they’re concerned that the huge outdoor signs are insensitive given the sheriff’s condition. Although she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are harassed, Mildred stands firm becoming even more cantankerous and destructive. She ends up doing a lot of really heinous things that make the townsfolk (and us the audience) hate her. She assaults a dentist, kicks school-aged children in the groin, and commits a little felony called arson. We even see Mildred scream at her now deceased daughter “I hope you get raped” in a flashback sequence.  Granted it’s clearly an exchange she regrets. Nevertheless, would your mother ever utter such a thing?

I assume Mildred is the hero. Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic to her plight too but he is shown to be ineffective at best and compassionate to racists at worst. Less sensitive is one of his men Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We’re told he actually tortured a man in custody because of the color of his skin. Yes tortured. We never actually see the abuse in question though. In some ways, this is an even more pernicious filmmaking decision because it indirectly absolves shameful behavior because we do not actually see it.  We’re assured it happened though. “Allegedly” Officer Willoughby jokes. Is that funny? Officer Dixon is a seething irredeemable pile of racism. Or is he? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that creates likable individuals that we end up hating while simultaneously creating loathsome people that we’re asked to snuggle up to.  It’s a moral quandary to be sure. I’m not comfortable with embracing a violent bigot. Are you?

Who am I expected to root for? That is the question in this story. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. We obviously feel sympathy for her but at one point she inadvertently almost kills an innocent man. Well “innocent” of the crime in question but guilty of being a despicable human being. Are we supposed to cheer or jeer? I still don’t know. What I do realize is that no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive. I’m conspicuously in the minority. Three Billboards has gotten universal acclaim. I mean it’s well acted by the entire cast. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson imbue their characters with as much humanity as the script will allow. Although why a southern redneck sheriff is now married to a stunningly gorgeous woman with an Australian accent (Abbie Cornish) is a conundrum that goes unanswered.

Despite the moral dilemmas, Three Billboards is strangely entertaining. I was intellectually fascinated by the utter unpredictably of it all. The capricious turn of events in the plot’s final third is completely incomprehensible. This may be playwright Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic effort to date, but it’s still a lesser version of what the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino do so well.  Martin McDonagh’s point of view is too muddled for me to truly embrace. Is this hilarious comedy or is it a weighty drama? Conspicuously dire circumstances are presented as lighthearted farce. To wit: Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater dating a girl that is of barely legal age (Samara Weaving). Poor Penelope delivers lines that show the audience she’s clearly an airhead. Does that mean her life is any less important? She’s introduced as an object of ridicule but I wanted to save the poor girl from being another battered statistic. Get out of that relationship quick. You’re in danger! I guess those kinds of ethical qualms are a hindrance to enjoying this narrative’s “comedy.”  Sorry. I wasn’t laughing.


Lady Bird

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

lady_bird_ver2STARS4.5I admire Saoirse Ronan. She impressed me in Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But then she did Brooklyn and I fully realized what a talent she truly was. It earned her a second Oscar nomination. Brie Larson won for Room that year. I loved that film and she was deserving of the award. Nevertheless, with all due respect to Brie, I was rooting for Saoirse. I say this right from the start so you may know that I am biased. I admit that. I was already predisposed to love this picture even before it came out. Then the critics’ voices were heard. Lady Bird actually set a record for the best-reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes — that is, the film with the most consecutive “fresh” notices at 185 so far. Now that I’ve seen it, you can throw my critical praise on top of the heap.

Given the title, I had originally thought Lady Bird was a biopic about the First Lady of the United States from 1963–1969. It has nothing to do with Lady Bird Johnson but it IS a period piece of sorts. It takes place in 2002. This is an episodic saga about one Christine McPherson, a senior student at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. “Lady Bird” is her given name, she maintains, in the sense that “it’s given to me, by me.” As you may have surmised, Christine is a bit quirky. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their theater arts program. There she meets Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) and they start dating. Their romance is detailed, as well as her subsequent relationship with another boy (Timothée Chalamet) she meets while working at a coffee shop. This inspires her to form a new friendship with popular girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush) at the expense of the closeness with her best friend Julie. Through all this,  Lady Bird has a strained connection with her mom (Laurie Metcalf ) and slightly stronger solidarity with her dad (Tracy Letts).  Lady Bird dreams of going to an East Coast college, preferably in New York. Her mom feels UC Davis is much more affordable.  Both parents have fully realized personalities, but there’s a depth to Laurie Metcalf’s performance that perfectly incorporates both the love and despair that only the mom of a teenager could express.

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute delight in the title role. It is a flawless performance that utterly embodies the lovable angst of a teenager. She is all earnest excitement. Eager to assert her point of view but unsure of the most effective way in which to do it. This ostensibly autobiographical drama is the directional debut from actress Greta Gerwig. I say “ostensibly” because while all the events may not be entirely factual, Greta did grow up in Sacramento in the early 2000s.  She gets the emotion.  It’s not hard to picture the actress in the lead, at least when she was a younger girl.  Gerwig has written before. Most notably she co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America with longtime boyfriend Noah Baumbach (since 2011).  He helmed both. Now Gerwig is writing and directing on her own here and the lack of a collaborator really suits her.  Lady Bird is a most self-assured debut. Warm, witty, full of insight and humor.

Lady Bird is a cinematic devotion to her mother and a valentine to Sacramento. I came away with a greater appreciation for both of these things. No, it’s not all roses and caviar. It gently pokes fun at various targets with an amiable ribbing. This is a comedy after all and it’s really funny. There are a lot of detailed observations about what it’s like to attend Catholic high school. I should know. I am the proud product of a Catholic education myself. Gerwig gets the atmosphere just right. It’s hard to predict these things, but I suspect many of the witty one-liners will transcend the ages far beyond 2017. It’s clear that Greta means to embrace her adolescence and warmly detail the trials and tribulations within. You’ve seen the chronicle of a youth entering adulthood before. However, Lady Bird elevates the medium. Gerwig has taken the well-worn narrative of the coming of age tale and made it all her own. No one could have managed a tale quite like this. It is unique, fresh, vibrant and fully alive. I fully expect that when the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday, January 23, Lady Bird is going to get a slew of them. Here’s hoping Saoirse Ronan doesn’t go home empty-handed this time.



Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

coco_ver7STARS4.5Pixar has a knack for extracting emotion. Do you recall the first 10 minutes in Up that depicted the married life of Carl and Ellie? Yeah, it had me bawling like a baby too. Ditto when WALL-E doesn’t recognize Eve or when Andy gives his toys away in Toy Story 3. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Coco strums the heartstrings as well as any Pixar film has ever done.

In fact, Coco is one of the most touching odes to family that I have ever seen. I don’t bestow such high praise lightly. There’s an undeniable joy in discovering the sentimental depth of this drama. I’ll describe the chronicle at its most basic so as not to ruin the joyous revelation of what happens. Our saga concerns Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician. He plays the guitar and serenades like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous Mexican star of 1930s/40s cinema. Ernesto is somewhat reminiscent of actual stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Unfortunately, Miguel’s late great-great-grandmother and matriarch of the Rivera family, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) had long ago banned music for future generations. You see her husband left her to pursue a music career. That also included their daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). His face has been removed from the family photo that is displayed during the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead also known as Día de Muertos. When living grandmother Elena (Renée Victor) destroys Miguel’s guitar, he journeys off to find another instrument so he can enter a talent show.

The voice cast includes stars Benjamin Bratt and Gael García Bernal. Bratt’s voicing of Ernesto de la Cruz makes the singing idol a commanding presence. Even more affecting is a comical trickster named Héctor (Bernal) that little Miguel meets on his pilgrimage. He is a poor soul that is in danger of being forgotten — a personality full of humor and charm. I really enjoyed him. I didn’t realize that both Bratt and Bernal could sing, like really well in fact. They’re equally good at voicing their characters. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez is suitably moving as the star, Miguel Rivera.  Melodies are an essential part of this feature. As such, this is the closest Pixar has ever come to making a full-on musical. Song selections infuse the narrative. “Un Poco Loco” and “Proud Corazón” are two highlights but the likely Oscar nominee is “Remember Me” which shows up in several renditions. The one sung as a lullaby near the end is the version that made me cry.

The importance of honoring your loved ones that have passed on encompasses The Day of the Dead, a celebration that forms the central focus of Coco. The idea that we are connected to our family members of the past and how present generations commemorate their memory is an integral component of the plot. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3) upholds an emotionally complex chronicle while still keeping things refreshingly simple in the way the account unfolds. That’s not easy to do. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich elevates feeling over plot details. There is a supernatural element when Miguel penetrates the “other side.” This would be a bit bewildering for me to explain how it occurs and what actually happens in this odyssey, but it’s simple as it plays out.  If I had a criticism, it would be that Pixar has an issue with extended final acts where the narrative contains elements that aren’t quite as magical as the stuff before it. We see it in great movies like Wall-E and Up. The concluding act in Coco is somewhat weakened by multiple endings. I started to think I was watching Return of the King. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed this segment. It’s a minor quibble in an overall stunning achievement.

On the surface, Coco is a simple tale of a little boy that wants to play the guitar. This is a return to the greatness of Pixar. Inside Out was pretty remarkable too, but Coco tops it for emotional intensity. Not since Toy Story 3 has a Pixar flick touched my heart so profoundly. I know we’re always praising the visuals in a Pixar movie, but this just might be one of their most beautifully animated films. The Land of the Dead is an underworld in which the spirits of the deceased meet their final destination. The manifestation of this realm is stunningly gorgeous as a multi-tiered city of buildings, bright lights, and colors. Bridges extend from out of the city onto which the deceased can travel. In this way, souls may return to the Land of the Living to see their relatives once again. The Day of the Dead is a vivid holiday. The animators have deftly celebrated its tradition in the best possible way for this movie. A non-stop party of lively (not frightening) skeletons dancing to music is a glorious sight to behold. The animators magnificently give life to lovable skeletons —  characters that are inherently scary. I liked seeing the comparison between their current existence as a silhouette of bones and their past life as a human being. I was astonished at how this stirred me so deeply. There was one plot twist that in retrospect I probably should have been able to predict but I was so hypnotized by what I saw, that I didn’t see it coming. Coco made me lose myself in the celebration of a young boy’s odyssey. The humanity completely overwhelmed me. Coco is full of heart and when I left the theater my heart was full.


The Shape of Water

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

shape_of_water_ver3STARS3Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Amélie was sexually attracted to The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If so, then The Shape of Water will be the cinematic revelation to satisfy that curiosity. At heart, The Shape of Water is rooted in the well-worn design of a fairy tale. The idea that two disparate individuals should find their soulmate is a tale as old as time, right? Director Guillermo del Toro’s fable utilizes the structure of classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A human falls in love with something that isn’t human, but The Shape of Water goes farther. This is not a children’s story. This is del Toro’s take on interspecies romance and as such, it has his decidedly adult interpretation.

The setting is early 1960s Baltimore. Not the warm nostalgia for a twinkly bygone period seen through rose colored glasses though. This is the cold intolerant version of that era with a racist, close-minded person in charge.   Our lead character is nothing like that.   Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a shy woman whose vocal cords were slashed when she was a child (ouch!). As such, she is mute. At night, she works as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. One day, the facility receives a new discovery from the rivers of South America courtesy of the heartless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Elisa meets new acquisition, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), she begins sneaking into the enclosure. He’s obviously not human. He’s green, scaly, has fins but he walks upright, is very tall and has a muscular frame. Elisa is immediately drawn to this amphibious beast for reasons that aren’t quite clear. However, their developing connection is plainly shown. She feeds him hard-boiled eggs and plays records on a portable phonograph for him. I felt their friendship. The couple gradually form a special bond that eventually goes — you guessed it — there. I didn’t feel that.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa Esposito, a sort of a melancholy mute plagued by erotic urges. This means the audience is subjected to Elisa pleasuring herself in the bathtub while her naked breasts rest just above the water. The scene feels surprisingly exploitative in what mostly feels like sentimental folklore. Elisa is seemingly modest in other ways. She’s gently timid and reserved at work. Her friendship with the creature is like a couple of lost souls united by love. It’s hard not to feel something for Elisa. A few judicious edits here and there could easily turn this R-rated male fantasy into a PG-rated family film but that would be at the expense of the artist’s creative vision. This is Guillermo del Toro after all, not Frank Capra.

Elisa is surrounded by two charismatic personalities. She lives in the same building as Giles, a closeted commercial artist who pines for a young man that runs the pie shop. Giles is amiable and friendly. His advertising work are like the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Elisa’s co-worker is fellow cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She is Elisa’s good friend and confidant. These three are clearly the archetypal “good” people of the story painted in broad strokes so as not to confuse the viewer.  Despite the formula, there’s still something kind of intriguing about these individuals. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland portrayed by Michael Shannon. He’s the baddie. Strickland views the sea creature as an affront to God because he isn’t made in his image. “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image,” he says. “Some more so than others”, he sneers at Zelda who happens to be black. We know Strickland is an outrage to civil rights, but his characterization as an indefensible piece of garbage is about as subtle as a flying brick.

The Shape of Water is a sumptuous production. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen even captures the glossy surfaces of the government facility with a stylish sheen. Its gorgeous set design and costumes are only matched by its luscious score by Alexandre Desplat. Richard Jenkins’ opening narration beautifully sets the stage for a lush yarn of sweetness and warmth. I was enchanted with the beginning. I desperately wanted to celebrate the elegance of this saga before being shaken by less savory elements. Sex and violence are often about context. Their appearances are awkward here. At one point a man is actually shot in the face and dragged across the floor by the hole in his cheek. You can’t unsee these things. When was the last time you saw that in a Disney movie? The question is fair because del Toro is operating within that vocabulary. At its core, this is a rather simple legend that a child would embrace. Nothing wrong with a straightforward ode to love. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are basic tales of a seemingly mismatched pair and they charm children of all ages. The difference here is that it’s filtered through a clouded lens of decidedly adult sensibilities. The ultimate objective is that by the end you’re transported to a feeling of joy. Some apparently are but I was kinda creeped out.

The Shape of Water is scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8, 2017, after a December 1 limited release in New York.


Justice League

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

justice_league_ver9STARS1.5A good film introduces us to interesting people. It provides exposition as to what motivates them as characters so we can empathize with their plight. The tale should essentially lay the groundwork for an account that will feature enriching individuals that develop over the course of an adventure. Their inner journey is part of a larger narrative that we can follow and enjoy. In this way our emotions are captivated and we can feel some emotional component to what’s happening on screen. Justice League is not one of those films.

To be fair, this picture concerns superheroes with which a large portion of the moviegoing public has some previously built-in awareness. Icons like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman already have a recognizability factor, yes. You’re granted a certain amount of shortcuts when detailing familiar characters. Still, that doesn’t absolve the screenwriter or the director from presenting something coherent. Justice League is an absolute mishmash of unfocused plot threads and pointless mayhem. Given the basic elements of what normally constitutes a story, I struggle to even define it as such. It’s a visual chaos of color and activity with dreary conversations sprinkled throughout to give the appearance that something interesting is developing.

The first 30 minutes are as bad as any in the entire 120-minute runtime. The chronicle bewilderingly opens with what appears to be archival camera phone footage of two kids talking to Superman. “What’s your favorite thing about earth?” one asks. The clip stops short before we can get an answer. Now cut to Batman chasing an unknown man on a rooftop that has just committed a robbery. Batman dangles the man over the edge and apparently his fear lures some flying monster out of the shadows. The creature inexplicably explodes moments later leaving 3 boxes. I immediately had questions. Who is the robber? What is that monster? What’s in those boxes? Some of these are answered later while others linger on well after the movie is over. But first some arbitrarily inserted scenes of Superman’s earthly mom (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) pontificating on how they miss Superman. He’s dead of course, but you already knew that, right?  If not too bad because the screenwriters have assumed you do.  Cut to the city of London where Wonder Woman is stopping a bank robbery. Then abrupt edit to Batman journeying to Iceland to recruit what looks like a long haired bodybuilder with tribal tattoos that cover his body. It seems that this is Aquaman. He declines. Bruce is sad. He’s trying to assemble a team. He wants Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) too. Cut to hastily inserted scenes featuring those people as well. The narrative is so haphazard. Plot elements are distributed to viewers like the shuffled deck at a blackjack table. The only difference here is that there is no winner.

Justice League doesn’t resemble a story so much as the random insertion of recognizable characters doing puzzling things. Without any meaningful focus, we’re left to try and appreciate the visual spectacle. Computer generated imagery infects every frame of the film. Action set pieces are grotesque displays of blurry images. The action is confusing and uninvolving. We’re missing the human element. The human visage can charm an audience. Yet even Superman’s face doesn’t look natural in his opening vignette. Here’s where a little background information might be helpful.  You see, actor Henry Cavill had to come back late in production for reshoots.  At that point he was sporting a mustache that he was contractually obligated to keep for another picture. CGI was used to erase the facial hair. Hence the bizarre unnatural look to his face in this scene.

The film has bigger storytelling problems than ugly CGI though. It’s characters we couldn’t care less about. Batman (Bruce Wayne), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are unlikeable protagonists that are dour at best. Their interactions gave me the impression that they hate each other. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) at least smile occasionally but the screenplay limits their chances to connect with the audience. What a comedown from this summer’s far superior Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is mainly in action mode and Henry Cavill merely occupies the final quarter of the picture. Only The Flash (Ezra Miller) has that spark of a personality that engenders warmth. His plight is emotionally involving. Ezra Miller was well utilized. Oh well him and the personal trainers of Jason Momoa & Henry Cavill. The cinematography makes sure you notice how physically fit they are. Duly noted. Everyone else was wasted. The rest of the actors are meaningless ciphers – stand-ins for where charismatic people are supposed to be.

I really wanted to love Justice League. The idea of these superheroes all joining forces and fighting crime together is an inherently exciting idea. Any child of the 70s like me will remember the animated Super Friends Saturday morning TV series. I loved that show. Yet the joy of that concept is completely subjugated under the helm of Zack Snyder. Sadly the director had to leave due to a most regrettable family tragedy. Joss Whedon stepped in to finish things up. I can’t ascertain as to whether the change helped or hurt the movie. I can only offer that the final product is an absolute travesty to anyone who values an intelligible narrative. At this point, the central villain doesn’t even matter, but even he is a non-entity.  He registers not as a personality but as a plot device.  His name is Steppenwolf and comprises the whole reason the Justice League must assemble. The monster isn’t even portrayed by an actor but a completely fabricated creation using CGI and motion capture technology. Ciarán Hinds’ body movements were utilized for reference. However it’s telling that the poor actor never even met the rest of the cast. He’s merely an afterthought in a production that treats the humanity of a human actor as an inconvenience when telling a story. That kind of sums up the viewpoint of the entire film.


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!