Archive for 2012

Not Fade Away

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on January 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Not Fade AwayPhotobucket1960s coming of age memoir concerns three best friends from New Jersey who decide to form a rock band. Television writer-director David Chase is best known for creating the influential and critically acclaimed HBO drama The Sopranos. Here he makes his feature film début after having worked in television for 30 years.

Not Fade Away is somewhat hampered by a collection of characters that are hard to like. Our script focuses on an Italian-American adolescent named Doug growing up beginning in the year 1964. It affirms the evolutions in music that began with the British invasion of groups like the Beatles and more importantly in this story, the Rolling Stones. That musical onslaught also heralded a transformation in fashion and hairstyles which our young star adopts as he becomes the lead singer of a teenage rock and roll band called the “The Twylight Zones”. He is a good singer, but he is an uninteresting shell of a protagonist. He constantly mopes in a sullen disposition. I don’t recall him ever having smiled once in the entire film. He’s bland too. Ditto his inexplicably too-pretty-for him girlfriend played by Bella Heathcote. The Twiggy-eyed Australian is an unearthly beauty at least, but she was more appealing in Dark Shadows.

Douglas lives with his insufferable parents – a father with the standard-issue intolerance for social change and a perpetually distraught mother who overreacts to everything: ‘Why me, God?’ Douglas’ initial desire to join the army diminishes as he gets caught up in the artistic movement. Needless to say his dream to start a band doesn’t sit too well with his father who constantly challenges his son’s choices in life. Challenges is too nice a word – bullies is better – he’s really overbearing. Douglas fights with his parents, he fights with his band mates, he fights with his girlfriend. For a movie supposedly portraying the unbridled abandon of rock and roll, this is kind of depressing.

Not Fade Away is a trip through the 60s of various clichés. The rock and roll tale is highlighted by some rousing musical numbers and nice period detail. Unfortunately the chronicle isn’t particular innovative. It’s liberally sprinkles in 60s buzzwords like JFK, the Summer of Love, sexual revolution, civil rights, Vietnam, and Martin Luther King with the depth of someone who skimmed a Wikipedia article on the subject. You’ve seen this before. It’s trivial observations on the life of a teen interested in starting a band is rather generic right down to the disapproval of his reactionary parents. The memoir is unfulfilling. It has its moments, but the narrative kind of meanders with little regard toward the attributes of a plot. Events just occur lacking a traditional story that should rise to a climax and then fall to a satisfying dénouement. That’s the only thing about this hackneyed drama that didn’t follow the rules.

Zero Dark Thirty

Posted in Action, Drama, History, Thriller, War with tags on January 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Zero Dark ThirtyPhotobucketZero Dark Thirty is an effective blend of logic and emotion, fact and fiction in depicting the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is another drama concerning the military, likewise based on a script by Mark Boal. It starts with a black screen and real recordings of people taken from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Not that we need to rouse feeling for that unforgettable event, it is nevertheless an opening that seizes attention at once. Zero Dark Thirty is the subsequent search for the man behind that terrorist plot.

The thriller filters the saga through the efforts of a young CIA Officer named Maya. Jessica Chastain gives an inspiring performance and one through which the developments are filtered. In this document, we are hit with jargon and technical detail. When she’s first introduced, she appears to be a side character, an observer of Dan, her CIA mentor and Navy Seal, memorably played by Jason Clarke. In a movie where methods are emphasized over personalities, he’s one that stands out. He employs “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a detainee to extract information. As the story progresses we realize Maya is our main protagonist. Her unwavering drive to find the terrorist is her focus. The movie turns into the ultimate procedural, in which various clues must be investigated involving computer work, photographs and informants.

“Enhanced interrogation techniques” is a euphemism that includes torture, specifically waterboarding but also entails tactics such as sleep deprivation and humiliation. I wont debate on whether these methods were used because it’s a controversial question with different answers depending on who you ask.. However I will say they are merely presented without support or opposition. To concentrate solely on waterboarding or other coercive techniques that were used by the CIA is really to discount the many other leads and bits of intelligence that the CIA used in determining the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That’s a very small part of this story.

The narrative brilliantly uses judiciously placed action to galvanize your outrage. One particularly intense scene involves CIA agent Jessica played by Jennifer Ehle and her discovery of a mole, a Jordanian doctor. The breakthrough develops into something that highlights the constant danger that these CIA operatives were under. Their big break becomes a galvanizing incident for the audience. It furthers the anger that 9/11 provoked. Granted there is a definite desire to stop further attacks, but there’s also an acknowledged element of revenge that the moment stirs within the viewer. It allows us to share in Maya’s defeats and increase our understanding of what drives her.

Naturally the struggle to find bin Laden was a 10 year objective that encompasses hundreds of people. Maya is important because she gives the fight a face with which to identify. When she finally feels she has a solid lead on bin Laden’s actual location, she urges the military to strike with an elite force. But the argument of whether they can follow that revelation is a measured discussion rooted in the possible uncertainty that could have dire repercussions if they’re wrong. She’s relatable because she doesn’t seem superhuman, although she has the resolute strength of her convictions. We completely understand her motivation in making these terrorist acts stop immediately. There’s a running gag where she writes the number of days elapsed since they’ve extracted this vital information and nothing has happened. Her frustration is understandable and so we are drawn to her. She’s human and likable.

History has already shown how this mission ends. Yet that doesn’t lesson the tension or excitement. It’s telling that despite the fact that we know this was a success, we are still fascinated by the way it unfolds. Through a blending of action sequences interspersed with data gathering and policy, we get a nuanced portrait. Zero dark thirty is a military designation for an unspecified time after midnight but before sunrise. Here it refers to the time in the dead of night that the raid of Navy SEALs invaded Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.  The final third of this procedural culminates in the pulse pounding depiction of that raid on the building . It’s an incredibly satisfying ending to everything we’ve watched leading up to that point. This is a movie not a documentary. As with a subject that is shrouded in a high level of secrecy, one must approach the film with a healthy level of skepticism. CIA officials have admitted to conferring with film-makers on the project but insist that the finished picture is a dramatization as opposed to a historical record. And while Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t quite delve as deeply into personalities, the thriller’s information based structure is endlessly entertaining in presenting this fascinating story.

Rust and Bone

Posted in Drama, Foreign, Romance with tags on January 1, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Rust & BonePhotobucketAli is a penniless man with his five-year-old son Sam to take care of. While crashing at his sister’s place, he gets a job as a bouncer at a local nightclub, relying on his abilities as a former street fighter. Stéphanie is a woman who works as a killer whale trainer at a marine mammal amusement park. They meet at the club where he works after she is attacked in a bar brawl. Nothing of consequence occurs between the two. He leaves his number and they part ways. Then, following a tragic accident that leaves her disfigured, she calls up the derelict man out of the blue and the two enter into a relationship of sorts.

On the surface Rust and Bone is an uplifting drama detailing the triumph of the spirit, but that horribly clichéd phrase doesn’t even come close to doing this movie justice. It’s raw, sexual and completely without pity, much like our male protagonist Ali. Impoverished and nomadic, he is a brute force that inexplicably meshes with the more emotional and financially secure Stéphanie. Although both have imperfect lives that need fixing, she would appear to have little in common with Ali. But at this very low point in her existence she reaches out to him and his response gives her renewed faith and a will to live.

At the heart of Rust and Bone are two really powerful performances from Marion Cotillard and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. The nature of their relationship is akin to something Tennessee Williams might write about. Marion Cotillard tries to subvert her beauty to embody the grit behind a woman who has all but given up on life. She’s incredible, we’ve come to expect that from her at this juncture in her career . What’s surprising is relative newcomer Schoenaerts who matches her for intensity. He garnered indie praise as the star of Bullhead which was the Belgian nominee for best foreign film in 2011. That picture raised his profile, but this should be an even bigger breakthrough. He’s charismatic in a way that has people already inviting comparisons to actors like Tom Hardy or Jason Statham. The story is equally focused on him, actually more so, and his shocking lack of sympathy, but undiminished desire, is reassuring to her.

Jacques Audiard, who was responsible for 2009’s much lauded A Prophet, wisely knows when to have his stars minimize theatrics and let the moment speak for itself. One of my favorite scenes is indicative of the attitude of the film. In one particularly brutal bare knuckle fight, Ali is badly beaten on the ground, face bloodied from being hammered. Sitting on the sidelines, Stéphanie watches helpless from the car. As he’s being pummeled, his eyes catch the sight of her stepping out from the protection of the van. One anticipates her to come barreling from the parked vehicle, hysterical and sobbing uncontrollably. You foresee Stéphanie throwing herself over the combatants in order to stop the bout. But she does none of these things. The lower half of her legs are in view as they step forward out of the car. She walks calmly toward the two men, and then stands, like an inspiration to her man. Galvanized by her presences, he is inspired to summon what little strength he has left to fight back.

Rust and Bone is the most unsentimental sentimental picture I saw this year. It’s also the most romantically unromantic. It’s a tale of contrasts and it’s those contradictions that make the chronicle so unpredictable. It’s a narrative that is not easily categorized because its outlook is rather unconventional. It subverts the conventions of a traditional (read Hollywood) romance at every turn. Theirs is not a typical love story. However it emphasizes the need to be loved and the physical passion that goes along with that love. As the melodrama begins to pile up near the end, one setback after another almost – almost! – threatens to derail a saga shaded in nuance. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen. This remains a thoroughly engaging portrait of two disparate people who oddly need each other.

Les Misérables

Posted in Drama, Musical, Romance with tags on December 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketLes Misérables is an achievement, the cinematic realization that fans have waited almost 3 decades. The stage musical is a global sensation. It opened in London on October 1985 and has run continuously since. The Broadway rendition debuted 2 years after the West End debut and became the fourth longest-running show in U.S. history. The road from stage to screen has been a long journey with a storied development beginning in the late 1980s. It’s safe to say expectations were very high. Under the direction of Tom Hooper, the production is realized as a thrilling success, with minor caveats.

It is the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant who serves 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving family. He’s prisoner 24601! With the blessing of a sympathetic Bishop, Valjean breaks parole to start a new life as an honest man. He makes good on his promise and becomes a benevolent factory owner and mayor full of kindness and understanding. Unfortunately he is still relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert who is beholden to the law. We’re also introduced to a large company of various individuals all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution .

In any drama with a large ensemble, there is a danger that the production can become cumbersome or scattered as more individuals begin to pop up. What impresses is that director Tom Hooper deftly handles the large ensemble of actors giving us an intimacy with each one that benefits their character and our sentimental attachment to each story. He makes the questionable decision to film the singing live ostensibly to make the story’s emotional component more of the moment. There’s definitely an immediacy to the proceedings, but at times the vocals suffer. The time-honored movie musicals have always relied on the perfect take. As this is a movie musical and not being performed on stage, why not take advantage of that fact. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to studio record and enhance the clarity of the vocals? Nothing against Anne Hathaway’s stunning portrayal of Fantine, but when she’s sobbing uncontrollably all throughout the famous number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ it really is a bit of a buzzkill. I usually tear up every time I hear that majestic song with it’s high notes and sweeping strings. Yet when she sang it, I didn’t. As a performance she’s incredible, however.

And speaking of performances, Hugh Jackman is quite simply extraordinary. Rarely have I seen an actor combine the vocal chops with acting ability to create a moving achievement that is among the most accomplished in film musical history. What’s so extraordinary is that he finds a vibrancy that immediately draws you into his story as if you’ve known him all your life. Russell Crowe isn’t anywhere close to his match as Javert, his nemesis, but he does provide a counterpoint to Jean Valjean. I’ve seen the play twice performed on the stage, in 1990 and again this year 2012. I understood Crowe’s character arc better in this production than I ever have before. What he lacks in vocal strength, he more than makes up for in raw emotion.

They’re skillfully energized by a strong supporting cast. There’s much too many parts to detail individually, but I should mention Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen who provide wonderful comic relief as corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the student revolutionary, whose vocals are just as powerful as they need to me. And I most assuredly must highlight Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius is surprisingly one of the narrative’s most affecting moments. Her song ‘On My Own’ was a floodgate of emotion for me. The ‘In My Life/A Heart Full Of Love’ is another high point, both of them singing along with Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, the harmony of their voices overlapping like some heavenly trio. Their hymn, one of love discovered, the other of love lost, is heartbreaking.

Les Misérables isn’t perfect, but it’s an absolute joy to anyone who’s a fan of Hollywood cinema on a lofty scale. And why shouldn’t it be grand? The chronicle is based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. Perhaps because it feels as if the musical has always been with us, it’s difficult to imagine a time when adapting the somber tome of French literature into a musical was actually a radical concept. This is rather depressing stuff but in the hands of director Tom Hooper, it is an emotionally involving, monumental saga in the timeless tradition of classic movie musicals. The story is sweeping, the vocals are (mostly) impressive and the lavish production is a marvel – the kind Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s. I love that this version made me see things I never noticed before. Les Misérables is paean to the beauty and romance of Victor Hugo’s well known French tale and indeed of grand filmmaking at its most epic.

Django Unchained

Posted in Action, Drama, Western with tags on December 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketDjango Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s full bodied and bloody take on the spaghetti western with a little 70’s era blaxploitation thrown in. Taking place in the pre-Civil War South, the plot concerns a freed slave who takes revenge on a plantation owner in order to rescue his wife. Our story begins with Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist. He’s now a bounty hunter seeking the Brittle brothers, dangerous outlaws with a price on their heads. Since Django is the only one who can identify the perpetrators, he buys Django, essentially freeing him, and the two set off to find them.

Jaime Foxx is all seething rage with a perpetual scowl across his face as he matures from helpless slave to an avenging superhero. He’s the obvious star but the supporting cast is nothing less than perfection. The movie is stolen by a trio of actors that command attention in every scene they’re in. Christoph Waltz displays a gentle charm as the enlightened German bounty hunter that is both sympathetic and fearsome. Leonardo DiCaprio is the central villain, a hissable plantation owner named Calvin Candie. He’s guilty of a whole slew of offenses, not the least of which includes pitting slaves against each other for gladiator-like competitions to the death. But he spits his declarations with a smooth southern drawl that would just as likely offer his guests a Mint Julep. It’s a spellbinding performance, one that establishes a demented personality. Possibly even more unsettling is Samuel L Jackson as house slave Stephen, obediently loyal to Calvin’s desires but vile and ill-tempered to everyone else. It’s a villain that might trump DiCaprio’s hateful character for selling out his fellow man. He’s respectful to Calvin, but lords it over the rest of the house as an intense individual to be feared. It’s a portrayal of a slave unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Tarantino has an ear for conversation and his comedic instincts are razor sharp. The opening scene in which Dr. King Schultz buys Django from the Speck brothers is a brilliant start. Schultz’s educated manner when contrasted to the more unsophisticated personalities of the Specks makes for a rather lighthearted negotiation in the midst of tense circumstances. Later a scene in which proto-KKK members complain about the poorly cut eye-holes in their white masks is a model of hilarious writing. No wonder it tied at the St. Louis Film Critics Association for Best Scene of the year. And let’s not forget the assertions of Calvin Candie. Once Leonardo DiCaprio turns the tables on our heroes, he offers his misinformed thoughts regarding cranial anatomy. His frightening and pseudo-intellectual ideas are so shockingly bizarre, you are compelled to listen.

It’s Tarantino, so of course we’re going to get anachronistic style choices. But there are some seriously questionable music selections going on. It’s all over the place. Since Django Unchained is inspired in part by Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Italian Western Django, it makes perfect sense he would appropriate Luis Enrique Bacalov’s theme song over the opening credits. Even Jim Croce’s ‘I Got a Name’ has enough country western flair to sound germane to the time period, but rapper Rick Ross’ ‘100 Black Coffins’ is painfully out of place. It takes you completely out of the mid 1800’s and into 2012. Ditto the mashup of James Brown’s ‘The Payback’ and Tupac Shakur’s ‘Untouchable’ called ‘Unchained‘. It’s a rousing rap blast, but it doesn’t’ do the picture any favors.

Like Tarantino’s earlier revisionist history flick Inglourious Basterds was to Nazis, Django Unchained offers a generous helping of comeuppance to slaveholders and their kin. But this isn’t as inventive as that film. Don’t get me wrong. Django is good. It’s filled with great dialogue. And it’s acted to the hilt by the entire cast with Waltz, DiCaprio, and Jackson mesmerizing in their parts, any of which, are worthy of an Academy Award. But the nearly 3 hour running time really meanders. One might argue that this revenge fantasy doesn’t really get started until well past the halfway point where the real purpose of rescuing Django’s wife Broomhilda becomes the goal. Then the whole production climaxes in the most mundane way possible: a shootout. As Django delivers restitution to each baddie, their bodies shot through with holes, blood literally gushing out like fountains. It’s supposed to be visceral. Lighten up, right? It’s a cartoon! But it’s pretty disturbing too and I don’t care how desensitized to violence you are, if you aren’t at least a little disgusted, you might see a doctor for sociopathic tendencies. But even more problematic, it feels like a cheat – a simplistic shortcut in lieu of a more creative ending that would match the subversiveness of everything that lead up to that moment. Make no mistake, Django Unchained is really entertaining. It just could’ve been so much more.

The Impossible

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on December 21, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketOn December 26, 2004 a tsunami occurred in the Indian Ocean as a result of an earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The tragedy was responsible for the deaths of over 230,000 people in fourteen countries. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Those are facts, but they certainly don’t have the sentimental impact of the personal story.

The Impossible is based on the actual chronicle of a Spanish family’s struggle while on Christmas vacation in Thailand at a tropical paradise resort. This then is the story of the subsequent terror from the standpoint of a British couple, Maria and Henry, played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and their three children. They become separated and this account details their arduous journey to reunite.

At the outset what impresses is the sheer spectacle in the epic depiction of the tsunami. Apocalyptic is the only way to accurately describe the utter severity of the catastrophe. We’ve seen natural disasters at the cinema over the last two decades: Twister (1996), Armageddon (1998), The Perfect Storm (2000), The Day After Tomorrow (2004). While those flicks were entertaining, they don’t even come close to the depth contained within this convincing tale. Perhaps that’s partially because The Impossible recounts a true story that millions, myself included, saw unfold on TV. Those images are hard to shake and visually this does a brilliant job in recreating the absolute magnitude of the chaos.

It’s the extraordinary performances that’s separate this from other memorable disaster films. An authentic recreation of a calamity, however accomplished, wouldn’t have been enough to sustain a movie. Ewan McGregor as father Henry, Tom Holland as his oldest son Lucas and most notably Naomi Watts as Maria, his wife, are the heart of this picture. This is a story that wisely focuses on the drama of human feeling. It is largely unconcerned with collective depictions of horrendous misfortune in the various countries affected or sweeping news reports from around the world. The script is concerned with the exclusive perspective of a small group of people, This depicts what an individual would experience – both the physical and emotional effects. The situation is devastatingly real. It’s very easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. There are times where I was overcome with grief. Sometimes in seemingly trivial actions where it’s difficult to explain why it moved me so. At one point, a rescued toddler gently brushes the arm of Maria as sort of an unspoken gesture of gratitude. I can’t explain why, but I actually teared up at the expression. There are many moments like that throughout.

The Impossible takes the adversity of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and wrings genuine emotion from the events. I’ll admit there are a couple instances where I did feel a little manipulated. Do we really need Fernando Velázquez’s score to swell so loudly in scenes where the human drama speaks for itself? But that’s a minor quibble. Overall this is a heartbreaking take on a real life event from the intimate point of view of one family. Director Juan Antonio Bayona manages to tell their story without it ever being gratuitous or resorting to sensationalism. Credit should go to a trio of thespians: Ewan McGregor, young actor Tom Holland and Naomi Watts. Much of the understanding in their roles is hidden in what they don’t say – a look, a reaction, a smile. It’s difficult to convey that kind of expression well. They handle their respective parts with dexterity. Watts gives an especially impressive performance. There is not one false note in her portrayal. Her sincerity, along with her co-stars, strengthen an already powerful film.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy with tags on December 14, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Note: This movie is being shown in select theaters at High Frame Rate 3D which at 48 frames per second supposedly offers a much sharper image. Since (A) I happened to see the film in 24 FPS, the cinema standard for over a century, (B) the vast majority of theaters are showing it in 24 fps anyway, and (C) such discussions have no bearing on whether it’s a good film, this is the only time I feel required to mention it.

PhotobucketJ. R. R. Tolkien’s classic of children’s literature gets a luxurious treatment in Peter Jackson’s reverent retelling of the 1937 fantasy.  Overall it’s a stunning execution of the magical text of Tolkien’s words come to life. It’s an extraordinary rendering full of exciting set pieces, gorgeous tableaus and a fervently involving purpose. If there’s a criticism I can lobby toward this beautifully realized achievement is that perhaps it’s too much of a good thing. I mean J. R. R. Tolkien’s source novel was a relatively brief 310 page children’s book. This is only part 1 of a proposed 3 part series and it’s still almost 3 hours.

Our fable takes forever to get started. The chronicle starts out with Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, telling a tale in voiceover to his son Frodo. It’s a ponderous intro that recounts the dragon Smaug’s takeover of Erebor – “the Lonely Mountain”.  This is the dwarves’ ancestral homeland, where they once lived, and sets up the purpose of the subsequent journey. Our proper saga rightfully begins when Bilbo reflects on the day he was first visited by the wizard Gandalf 60 years ago. Gandalf invites a collection of dwarves to Bilbo’s home in anticipation of an adventure to re-claim the dwarves’ homeland and treasure from the dragon. This introduction to the various dwarves including Thorin, their leader, takes up an iodinate amount of time that seems to serve no other purpose than to pad an already slight plot and ultimately create 3 movies to charge admission to instead of one.

Once we get past the worrisome opening, the tale takes root. Peter Jackson does a nice job of elaborating on details to flesh out the script. In one explanatory scene, Gandalf meets with a 3 person council to gain approval for their quest. All three interrogate Gandalf. The discussion gives commentary that not everyone approves of their quest. It’s an interesting footnote. While the company travels, they are constantly pursued by grotesque henchmen called Orcs that are riding Wargs, their wolf-like beasts. Peter Jackson highlights this constant threat as an underlying effective source of dread. There is a magnification of the character Thorin who is the main dwarf that wants to take back his grandfather’s kingdom. He becomes a co-protagonist of sorts. Bilbo’s introduction to Gollum is, as expected, mesmerizing and their interaction is a highpoint of the later half.

Peter Jackson also does a great job at rendering visionary passages from the book into a physical manifestation before our eyes. In one thrilling episode, a storm in the mountains turns out to be not an actual storm, but giant mountain creatures hurdling rocks at each other. As the giants fight, the company becomes separated and the sight of the two factions resting on the crevices of these large stone monsters, accents one of the most exhilarating sequences of The Hobbit. This is a perfect example how modern technology can be artistically employed to dramatize complex sequences from books. It’s like a roller coaster ride.

The movie does a nice job of fleshing out the fundamentals of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world and giving a context for The Lord of the Rings that follows. There is real drama in this motley group of 13 dwarves, one wizard and a very anxious hobbit. Much of the story is more than just a mere quest to get back the dwarves’ treasure, it’s also the introspective trek of one hobbit. His personal journey of self discovery is a sensitive arc that captured me throughout the film. Right from the beginning when Gandalf chooses him, Bilbo claims he’s not the hobbit Gandalf’s looking for. His ultimate willingness to leave the comfort of his home and face his fears of the unknown, make him a most likeable and sympathetic individual. We see a complacent homebody slowly showing the genesis of someone embracing courage within themselves. His changing status in the eyes of Thorin is an emotionally affecting storyline as well. Granted the plot stumbles initially with two unnecessary prologues that drag on the simple narrative. However once the expedition gets underway, it moves at a brisk pace and is consistently entertaining. This is an expedition worth taking.

Holy Motors

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Foreign with tags on December 7, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketIf I were to observe an open heart surgery as a series of procedures sans narration, I might at various moments throughout the process be repulsed, then fascinated. I’d have no idea what would come next and so I would be compelled to keep watching from a curiosity standpoint – spellbound by the procedure in its unfettered access. Then when it was all over and the body had been sewn back up, perhaps I’d remark that it was fascinating. But there would be no drama to engage my emotions. It certainly wouldn’t qualify as a movie with a plot. Just an array of maneuvers connected together by a common operation. Such is the experience of Holy Motors.

Holy Motors is one of those unconventional fantasies that Luis Buñuel or Federico Fellini or David Lynch might direct. Except those directors usually have *ahem* a discernable point. Basically this is a accumulation of sketches strung together that tells the story of Monsieur Oscar who travels to miscellaneous meetings in the back of his white stretch limo. Before exiting his vehicle, he dons assorted disguises for each one. There’s some exposition in the beginning that implies he’s an actor being watched by an audience. The cameras are invisible, an offhand remark informs us. For each assignment, he dons a different costume as these mini movies recall various genres: a melodrama, a gangster flick, a musical, etc. Holy Motors is a series of visual short cuts.

The most memorable of these vignettes is a rumination on the fairy tale, Beauty & the Beast. French director Leos Carax has only made 5 features (and a few shorts) since 1984. As an elaboration of his own segment from the cinematic triptych Tokyo! Lavant plays a monster named Monsieur Merde (even non-French speakers understand that word). He’s a red haired and bearded creature that recalls a satyr from Greek mythology. Here he kidnaps a beautiful model (Eva Mendez) on a fashion shoot, from Père Lachaise Cemetery and absconds with her deep within the catacombs of Paris. What happens next is sort of symptomatic of every tale. We’re captivated with what might take place, then led through each story simply to find it goes nowhere. Each narrative starts out with promise and then deteriorates into a non ending. This one is particularly sad as it is desperate to shock. It ends stirring feelings of embarrassment by the viewer for actress Eva Mendes. How did she get roped into this? I wanted to rescue her from the ugliness.

Much has been written on Holy Motors as this hard to classify, visionary art piece, but it really doesn’t seem all that innovative unless you consider stringing a collection of short films together a radical concept.  Holy Motors contains little that is pretty or joyful.  Leos Carax directs his frequent alter-ego, actor Denis Lavant. The 51-year old French star reluctantly journeys from appointment to appointment with nary a smile. He wears disguises with an unemotional professionalism not because he wants to, but because he has to. In a succession of vignettes, Monsieur Oscar assumes 11 characters including a beggar woman, an alien by way of a motion capture suit, a lecherous monster, a disappointed dad, an accordionist, an assassin, a dying man, and a former paramour in a perplexing bit in which pop star Kylie Minogue sings. Even her song is joyless. Lavant plays a mostly misanthropic bloke in each piece. He’s rather unlovable and kind of repulsive. Slowly over time we grow sorry for this individual. If we are to presume that Holy Motors is a movie about the making of movies, then I can only deduce director Leos Carax’s viewpoint is that they’re a drudgery to perform. While some have championed the images as a celebration of film. I see it more as a wake.

Rise of the Guardians

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on December 4, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketRise of the Guardians involves four characters from fairy tales: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman who appeal to Jack Frost to stop the Boogeyman from engulfing the world in darkness. It’s kind of a pan-holiday movie that takes place in the days leading up to Easter. It specifically concerns whether children still believe in these individuals. Anyone concerned that they might actually be confronted with something vaguely religious given, you know, the themes of faith in a higher power that this deals with, need not worry. The script has been purged of God or anything remotely theological. We do get the mysterious moon as sort of this inanimate object, however who has chosen Jack Frost to be a new Guardian. They each look to it for direction and guidance, the moon that is. Jack also wrestles with his greatest fear – that children won’t believe in him. Gee whiz. Self obsessed much?

I think the biggest problem with the Rise of the Guardians is that it flounders from a storytelling perspective. The plot throws these four fictional people together because, hey why not? One would’ve been enough, but four makes the narrative needlessly complex and overstuffed with backstories. There is no sense or charm to these oddballs. They’re recognizable portrayals, but then they aren’t. Jack Frost, our main protagonist, is a whiny teen consumed by the fear that people don’t affirm his existence. He sports a hoody and sounds like one of the kids on Wizards of Waverly Place. Santa has a Russian accent and is built like a bodybuilder with “naughty” and “nice” tattoos on his forearms. Huh? The tooth fairy flits around hummingbird-style, but talks akin to some over-enthusiastic mom. The Easter Bunny is a six-foot-one Australian and master of Tai Chi, as he’s quick to explain. Doesn’t seem to be helping because he’s a rather cantankerous fellow at that. Then there’s the Sandman. He was actually my favorite. He doesn’t speak at all.

Rise of the Guardians fails as an interesting story. Characters pop up at random times, do their thing then disappear. There isn’t any rhyme or reason to this mess. The dialogue is full of bland pronouncements that are so boring they don’t even register: “It is our job to protect the children of the world.  For as long as they believe in us, we will guard them with our lives,” says Santa at one point.  Zzzzzzzz. “Why me?” Jack asks when they select him. “You have something special inside. I can feel it… ” says Santa. That’s about as deep as it gets. There’s some breathtaking visuals to be sure and there are a few chuckles here and there, but the action is way too cluttered and frantic to truly appreciate the animated details. There’s lots of dazzling displays that the latest 3-D computer technology can muster, but it does nothing for the story other than to show how much money DreamWorks has to spend. I’ve always been a fan of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Pitch Black, the Boogeyman, kind of recalls a male version of Maleficent, the evil sorceress from that film (and the best Disney villain ever incidentally). I was really rooting for him in fact. There’s even a climatic battle featuring a sand glitter vs. black dust face-off between the Boogeyman and the Sandman. It was pretty at least.

Anna Karenina

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 30, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketSalt & pepper, peanut butter & jelly, Keira Knightly & period pieces. These pairings go together as if they were designed to be united. I must admit I’m a bit biased in Keira’s favor when it comes to these types of costume dramas. She has a timelessness that seems to fit theses epics like hand in glove. Alright enough with the similes. Anna Karenina is an adaptation of the 1877 Leo Tolstoy classic, a tour de force of Russian literature. It’s a book of enduring popularity, beloved the world over.  Having been dramatized many many times, most famously in a 1935 version starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March, the question must be asked. How to make the text appear fresh and new for a modern audience?

Joe Wright has a singular vision. The English director has made the fascinating decision to lens the film in its virtual entirety on a single soundstage in an old abandoned theater. You might think this would be severely limiting, but surprisingly this is far from the case. The achievement is a set designer’s dream. The colors, costumes and cinematography complement a production that is so deliberately lavish in its presentation, I stopped breathing at moments it was so impressive. Italian composer Dario Marianelli composed the score, and it’s suitably lush romanticism complements the gorgeous visuals. I dare say, there is a carefully studied artistic expression here that I have rarely seen since Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. High praise that I do not bestow lightly.

This is director Joe Wright’s third collaboration with leading lady Keira Knightly following Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). By now the two clearly have a simpatico relationship that benefits the other. He utilizes her to full effect taking advantage of her strengths in the title role. She has a quality that suits any age, perfectly conveying the emotional depth the part requires. She isn’t the most likeable heroine. In fact I didn’t sympathize with Anna much. Given the hypocrisy on display, I think I was supposed to. However she is mesmerizing. The idea to cast Jude Law as Alexei Karenin, her stodgy husband, is an inspired choice. Normally Jude Law would be too young and handsome to depict a man 20 years her senior, but he sports a tremendous moustache and beard to hide his countenance. I quite enjoyed his portrayal as he comes across as rather sympathetic and not as stuffy as Karenin is often portrayed. He actually seems a pretty forgiving chap the way he puts up with her infidelity. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the dashing Count Vronsky. There is a slight narcissism in his performance. His posturing suggests he just might be as enamored with himself as he is with Anna. The youthful actor is virtually unrecognizable in blonde hair and blue contacts as the affluent rogue who sweeps her off her feet.  It wasn’t until after seeing the picture that I googled his (new) name and realized this was in fact the same star of KickAss and Savages.

Anna Karenina is a cinematic feast. Director Joe Wright’s re-envisioning of the cherished novel treats the material with the reverence it deserves, but represents the production in a hyper-realized theatrical treatment that beautifully befits the story. Wright does a masterful job at condensing Tolstoy’s 800 page monolith into a manageable 2 hour feature. He expertly juggles a large cast of characters giving each the time they’re due without taking away from the central plot at hand. I was completely wrapped up in Anna’s story. And the way he renders the narrative, is genius. It is a sumptuous sight to behold that embraces the super-stylized construction of a play. Office workers stamp papers in staccato unison to the music like percussion, and then uniformly stand and sit in succession. When Count Vronsky and Anna first waltz on the dance floor of an elegant ballroom, the resulting movement is a meticulously choreographed ballet. The dancing couples remain frozen then move when Anna and Vronsky pass by them. Its conceptual style may not enrapture some, but the cinephile in me was entranced. I enjoyed every shrouded whisper, every conspicuous glare, and every angry declaration. Anna Karenina is a celebration of the medium. It is the very reason why one escapes into the fantasy of a movie and out of the reality of everyday life.