Archive for 2017

I, Tonya

Posted in Drama, Comedy, Sports, Biography 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.

11-23-17

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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.

12-08-17

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.

11-28-17

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.

11-30-17

Coco

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.

11-23-17

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.

11-13-17

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.

11-16-17

Blade Runner 2049

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-05-17

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Thriller with tags on September 30, 2017 by Mark Hobin

kingsman_the_golden_circle_ver22STARS3I believe 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was fine. I gave it a marginal recommendation but I wasn’t shouting my praise from the rooftops. I won’t rehash my thoughts but you can read them here. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the sequel to that hit. It stars Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Yes you read the right, Firth is back. Mild spoiler if you haven’t seen the first film, but it shouldn’t have been possible for his character to appear in another film. This kind of underscores the screenwriters’ relationship with logic and reason: we don’t give a flying fig as to what makes sense. Director Matthew Vaughn is back as well and he’s co-writing the screenplay once again with Jane Goldman, the identical team that wrote the first. Given that this features the same cast and crew, it makes sense that The Golden Circle is equally enjoyable.

Matthew Vaughn’s aesthetic is to take the spy thriller, à la James Bond, and subvert it with sarcastic gloss drenched in nihilism. Let’s give credit where it’s due first. Both movies are based on the comic book series Kingsman, created by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar. It’s a category already known for absurdity but Vaughn takes it a step further. He doesn’t present the genre seriously. He’s a cheeky adolescent-minded rascal that gets his kicks through shock value. One’s pleasure is going to rely on how much you share his point of view. Those who delight in parody will be captivated. Moviegoers searching for depth won’t find it here. Expect well-choreographed fight sequences, extreme violence, vulgar discourse, and far-fetched gadgets. It’s a silly overblown hyper-violent fun fest that entertains as it plays. Yet it quickly evaporates from the mind a week later.

I’m already halfway through my review and I haven’t even mentioned what the story is about. The capricious details of the plot are merely an excuse to present random acts of mayhem but I’ll elaborate. It’s a year later and our superspy hero Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) must do battle with Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a billionaire drug lord looking to decriminalize her enterprise by bullying the United States into legalizing drugs. She’s an over-the-top personality who commands a couple of robotic dogs while championing a love for campy 50s style. She obtains the names and addresses of everyone in the UK Kingsman organization. You may remember that the undercover headquarters of the team of spies was housed as a society of Savile Row tailors. The film opens with a major attack from rejected Kingsman recruit, Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft). Virtually everyone is eliminated leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) left. Oh and his mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who has apparently survived. Nothing is what it seems. The dead can be brought back to life. This is essentially a cartoon after all. In their quest to save the world, they discover U.S. allies and meet agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). Together they join forces and attempt to stop the villainous Poppy Adams and her evil plans.

If you subscribe to the mantra that bigger is better, then The Golden Circle may just be what you crave. As far as action is concerned, director Matthew Vaughn is always operating at 100%. There are fight scenes galore and they feature enough brutality to highlight 3 or 4 spy films. There’s a cast of new stars in this too. Julianne Moore, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Elton John, Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges all show up. Each has a varying degree of involvement. Julianne Moore is in it so much that this could have been called “The Poppy Show.” She might even have more screen time than Taron Edgerton. Conversely, Channing Tatum is in it so briefly that if you use the restroom during his scene, you might miss his appearance. There’s a lot going on here. The mere sight of Elton John is enough to elicit at least a few chuckles. At 2 hours 21 minutes, it is overstuffed. It starts to wear out its welcome before it’s over. However, there’s still a great deal to enjoy. It doesn’t break any new ground, but if you’re looking for a louder, more expensive spectacle, then you’ll be comfortably entertained.

9-21-17

Mother!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09-14-17