Archive for 2018

Cold War

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on January 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zimna_wojna_ver2STARS2.5Cold War is a clever title.  Yes, it clearly refers to a time period.  Pawel Pawlikowski’s love story begins in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  However, it could also refer to the chilly relationship at its center.  Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are musicians.  They meet in 1949.  Musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist holding auditions for a traditional folk song and dance troupe.  Music plays an important part in the lives of these entertainers and it often underscores the striking visuals.  Zula isn’t the best singer, but Wiktor is infatuated by the sultry blonde.  He hires her.  The impropriety of an older teacher lusting after his young student is a bit unsettling at first.  Those feelings are somewhat assuaged later when we learn that Zula isn’t the innocent that she appears to be either.  She’s not to be toyed with. There’s a rumor that she killed her father.

This isn’t a sentimentalized portrait but rather a tempestuous affair highlighted by bitter disagreements.  Neither character is what they seem.  As their connection deepens, their show becomes a hit and the state appropriates their production for propagandistic purposes with massive posters of Stalin behind them.  Unhappy with the turn of events, Wiktor and Zula make a pact to flee and reunite in West Berlin.  Then she inexplicably stands him up.  They will meet again but it’s years later.  Incredibly over an efficient 85 minutes, the picture chronicles 15 years of a relationship that traverses across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris.

This tale of star crossed lovers without children is fictionalized but director Pawel Pawlikowski’s based the pair on his own late parents.  His work has received many accolades.  His last feature, Ida, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.  So too has Cold War garnered Oscar nominations in 2019 — 3 to be exact: Foreign Language Film, Directing, and Cinematography.   In an interesting coincidence, it will compete against Alfonso Cuarón’s even more heavily nominated Roma, another black and white movie inspired by the director’s own life.

Cold War is indeed highlighted by stunning black and white camera work by Lukasz Zal. Curiously the format of the presentation is in a boxy 4:3 ratio.  I must assume that widescreen would have only enhanced the visuals.  Perhaps this decision was to recall the past and mimic the way Hollywood movies looked before 1953.  Despite the truncated image, it still looks enchanting.  Yet the rapport between these two enigmatic people is not.  Indeed this just might be the bleakest romance ever given a luminous facade by way of gorgeous black and white photography.  This is the profile of a stormy love.  The justification for the desire that keeps them returning to each other is wholly unexplained.  To make matters more bewildering, the motivations for certain behaviors is frustratingly vague.  For example, please witness a dreamy moment where the couple is lying together in a sunny meadow showing sweetness. Now during that very same scene, Zula suddenly admits to an act of betrayal.  Here and elsewhere, I felt nothing but apathy for these two.   Yes, the cinematography is absolutely captivating.  The on-again, off-again love story at the heart of the drama?  Eh not so much.

1-24-19

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Destroyer

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama with tags on January 18, 2019 by Mark Hobin

destroyerSTARS3I respect Nicole Kidman as an accomplished thespian.  I really do.  As such, I hold the actress in high regard.  Destroyer is a film highlighted by the transformation of its star.  The tall, willowy blonde ditches her signature long tresses for a wispy dirty brown bob with bangs.  Not only does her hair look filthy but her normally fair unblemished skin is wrinkled and pockmarked.  Set in modern-day Los Angeles, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective who is on the hunt for the members of a burglary ring.  When she receives a $100 bill stained from a dye pack, she determines it’s from a bank robbery committed by a California syndicate many years prior.  Erin’s gritty appearance tells us she’s had a rough past.  Via flashbacks, we learn that she and her former partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) had previously infiltrated this organization as undercover officers.  Predictably, these two shared a romantic relationship as well.  At any rate, now it appears the criminals are active again.  Based on an original script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the narrative is the saga of a woman with a score to settle.

Destroyer has a grimy atmosphere.  Early on Erin is shown doing something distasteful to get information from an informant (James Jordan).  I was repulsed by the scummy milieu.  If you’re willing to stick with the unsavory sections, there is a story, although it is confusingly doled out in bits that the viewer must piece together.  Kidman immerses herself in the sordid surroundings.  She admirably gives it her all but physically she seems too frail to be taken seriously in the role.  Her character Erin gets no respect from her contacts.  Everyone seems to treat her as an annoyance.  Her daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) as well as her daughter’s boyfriend (Beau Knapp), along with a lawyer suspect who launders money (Bradley Whitford), all regard her with disdain — initially anyway.   Occasionally she makes inroads.

As a detective drama, Destroyer is merely adequate.  Kidman doesn’t have the gravitas to play an intimidating police officer.  Destroyer is helmed by Karyn Kusama who directed Michelle Rodriguez in her feature debut Girlfight way back in 2000.  I couldn’t help but think Rodriguez would have been a better choice to play this part.  Kusama recently created a sinister but captivating mood in The Invitation (2015), an innovative thriller.  Destroyer is less inventive.   Most of Destroyer simply wallows in the muck as if to prove that Nicole Kidman can be rugged.  I admire her ambition I suppose.   The actress received a lot of positive mentions for her work here.  It’s an exaggerated performance from a veteran performer that’s clearly begging for an Oscar nod.  Unfortunately, that’s all there is.  The screenplay is rooted firmly in genre clichés.  I only wish the drama had been more interesting.

01-01-19

If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

if_beale_street_could_talk_ver2STARS3Writer James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is lovingly adapted into a beautifully filmed love story about a Harlem couple in the 1970s.  The last feature director Barry Jenkins made won the Oscar for Best Picture so expectations are understandably high.  If Beale Street Could Talk is about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), newly engaged to her boyfriend Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny.  We are presented with scenes that show they grew up together.  They have known each other since childhood.  This is fashioned as a romance for the ages.  However, conflict has entered the sanctity of their lives which threatens to upend everything they hold dear.  Fonny has been falsely identified for a crime he didn’t commit.  We see Tish visit Fonny in jail to deliver some major news.  She is pregnant. Cinematographer James Laxton lingers on faces like they’re masterpieces carved in marble.   These images cast a spell that gently invites the viewer to reflect on the disparity between the beauty of their relationship and the ugliness of what has befallen them.  Barry Jenkins screenplay is a somber contemplation of a love fret with hardship.  There are many elegantly composed scenes that convey a feeling in the absence of dialogue.  Indeed the deliberate pace comes at the expense of action.

There is an early moment in Beale Street that tempts the viewer with what might develop into an electrifying ensemble piece.  Tish must break the news of her pregnancy to her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).  They are shocked but supportive.  Now how to tell Fonny’s family? There’s his religiously sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), more easygoing father (Michael Beach), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).  Sharon invites them over to their home for drinks.  Then the verbal fireworks start.  It’s a memorable scene.  Occasional flashbacks throughout show us how Tish and Fonny’s life was before he was arrested, then contrast it with their lives in the present.  Yet nothing matches the sheer drama of the earlier showdown.

If Beale Street Could Talk is compelling in fits and starts.  I call those moments Regina King.  The actress has been picking up awards left and right for her work.  She’s extraordinary.  Sharon’s drive to prove her son-in-law’s innocence ultimately necessitates a trip to Puerto Rico.  It’s the portrait of a mother who only wants justice and truth.  The halcyon days of Tish and Fonny’s romance are idealized with gauzy cinematography highlighting two pretty young people.  Fonny is a sculptor and he works amidst cigarette smoke swirling around a piece he’s creating with a saxophone wailing in the background.  They gaze longingly at each other and the dreamy display is not unlike the sculpture he’s creating — a precious objet d’art to study and appreciate from afar.  A grave injustice underlies their lives and yet there’s no there there.  The action, or lack of it, concerns what appear to be in the details.  How can the reflective inertia of the rest of the film compete with mother Sharon’s emotional fire?  Every time actress King is on screen I was riveted and every time she garners accolades for her achievement, I get it.  I simply wish there was more of her.

12-13-18

Vice

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on January 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

viceSTARS3I love a good transformation and there’s no other actor working today that can physically alter himself like Christian Bale.  American Psycho, The Machinist, Batman Begins, The Fighter, and American Hustle are among the most dramatic.  He looks like an entirely different person in each.  Vice just may be Christian Bale’s most incredible because of all his roles, he portrays a man with whom we are familiar.  His impersonation of Dick Cheney is pretty amazing.  Now you have to ask yourself, do I really want to see a biopic of the 46th vice president of the United States?  Let’s face it, he’s not a popular guy.  He was downright polarizing.  He drew a 63% disapproval rating 2 months after he left office in January 2009.  I was open to it as long as I’m going to watch an enjoyable film.  Vice is only mildly engaging in spurts.

As you expect, Vice is not complimentary to Dick Cheney.  It seems reverent for a while. At first,  Vice is the profile of a man driven to succeed.  Cheney was kicked out of Yale for drinking too much.  An angry pep talk from his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) slaps some sense into the ne’er do well drunk from Wyoming.  (This is the 3rd feature that Adams and Bale have done together following The Fighter and American Hustle.)  Cheney becomes a congressional intern and starts working for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  They become close and when Rumsfeld is appointed Secretary of Defense under President Ford, Dick becomes Chief of Staff.  The presentation of his rise to power by failing upward is a bit glib.  This is from the mind of director Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, The Big Short) after all.  He finds the humor in Cheney’s tenure.  A fateful meeting with a young Antonin Scalia clues him into a legal doctrine called Unitary Executive Theory, which means that anything the president does is legal simply by virtue of his title.  This won’t come into play until years later when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) desperately wants Cheney to be his Vice President.  Side note: As authentic and nuanced as Christian Bale is, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are complete caricatures of their real-life counterparts more suited to an SNL skit than a serious biopic.  Anyways, Cheney will concede to Bush’s request under the conditions that he grant him extended powers which oversee major departments.  Bush agrees.  Then 9/11 happens.

How fair and accurate is Vice?  The movie begins with a jokey disclaimer that it’s “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history.  But we did our f—ing best.”  That essentially absolves them of presenting the truth.  That’s going to (rightfully) annoy a lot of people right from the get-go.  If you have the stomach for politics, it’s satisfying to a point.  That playful attitude permeates the film and it honestly helps enliven a portrait that few were demanding.  As decisions are made and we see the political process play out, Vice gradually becomes the denunciation of a Vice President who used the attacks of 9/11 to justify a war with Iraq.  This is a controversial period in American history.  He didn’t do it alone.  Adam McKay’s screenplay also wants us to condemn the entire American political system that allowed his Machiavellian rise to power.  These events led to the justification of torture on detainees and unprecedented surveillance by the U.S. Government on its own citizens.  Yet it continues to elevate him as a family man who loved his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary Cheney (Alison Pill ) unconditionally.  The respect of Cheney in his private life, when juxtaposed with vilifying of the man in his public life, drives this comedic drama. The point of view can be a bit contradictory at times.  I suppose that gives it a semblance of balance.  It humanizes a man before eventually driving you to hate him. Given the subject matter, Vice does its best to both entertain and stir the pot.  Now I ask my earlier question again, do you really want to watch a biopic about Dick Cheney?  Unfortunately Vice doesn’t warrant a strong ‘yes’ to that question.

12-17-18

Game Night

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery with tags on December 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

game_night_ver4STARS4Pssst….I’m going to let you in on a little secret that few people realized in 2018.  Game Night was one of the funniest (and best) movies of the year.  It’s hard for broad farce to be taken seriously.  I mean its raison d’être is to make you laugh by being silly.  But this production is so inventively funny and wonderfully acted that it fitfully entertains to the very end.  Last year wasn’t good for R-rated comedies.We got Girls Trip sure but then we also got Snatched, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.  Into that wake came this picture.  It got released without much fanfare in February of 2018 – one week after Black Panther – the biggest hit of the entire year.  Game Night got lost in the shuffle.

The story employs a brilliant ensemble cast. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as Annie and Max, a married couple who were made for each other.  They are super competitive.  The chronicle begins during one of their regular game nights which includes dim bulb buddy Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who brings an even dimmer date, along with another wedded couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).  Oh and there’s also creepy police officer Gary portrayed by actor Jesse Plemons.  He’s Max and Annie’s neighbor who used to attend their social gatherings when married to their friend Debbie (Jessica Clair Lee).  Now that Debbie and Gary are divorced, they just find him awkward.  Much to their dismay, he’s still interested in hanging out with them.  He’s absolutely perfect.  I’m talking Oscar nomination.  It won’t happen, but I’m putting it out there.  Meanwhile, Max has always lived in the shadows of his slick, handsome, more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) a venture capitalist.  So when Brooks shows up driving the car of Max’s dreams, a Corvette Stingray, and then invites them all to the ultimate game night at his place, they accept the challenge.  This is where the plot takes off.

Game Night is an increasingly outrageous but good-natured, comedy.  That amiable spirit goes a long way into having us embrace these characters into our hearts.  We care about them.  This group of friends gets together for a night of fun.  Things spiral out of control from there.  This develops into a murder mystery party which keeps begging the question. “Is this real or just pretend?”  In that respect, it’s kind of reminiscent of David Fincher’s thriller The Game which was inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  This is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015’s Vacation) from an efficient script by Mark Perez.  Perez co-wrote Herbie Fully Loaded back in 2005 and followed that minor success with the Justin Long/Jonah Hill vehicle Accepted back in 2006.  Those credits wouldn’t prepare you for how well crafted this film truly is.  Perez hasn’t ever really ever been on my radar before, but he’s in my sights now.  Every scene propelled the movie forward.  Not a single line is wasted.  Occasionally things get violent, hence the R rating.  Most of it is played for chuckles.  Getting sucked into the blade of a jet engine is more Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner than Tarantino.  The carefully calibrated silliness never lets up.  It’s a hilarious delight from beginning to end.

02-26-18

Blindspotting

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

blindspotting_ver2STARS4.5Blindspotting is a carefully crafted meditation on moral concerns, that is, what it means to be human and exist in this world.  On the surface it’s a consideration on the gentrification of the Bay Area — a condemnation on the way housing costs have skyrocketed.  The reason for this has a lot to do with the success of tech companies that have lured young wealthy transplants from places like Seattle and Portland.  The influx has had a considerable effect on life in Northern California.  But it’s so much more than that. In a larger perspective, it’s a dissertation on race and class.  Yet the milieu is not didactic. Blindspotting loves the Bay Area and everything that makes it one of the most diverse intersections of cultures in the world.

Blindspotting is the tale of two friends: Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). The two work for a moving company.  Collin’s association with Miles is deep but it can be challenging.  They have been close all their lives.  They are of the same class but of a different race.  Collin is black; Miles is white.  The fact is unimportant in their relationship but relevant in the way they are perceived by others.  Miles is a father with a young child.  He is fiercely loyal to those close to him but unstable and prone to violent outbursts.  Collin is on probation for one year.  He has an 11 p.m.curfew.  The nature of his crime won’t be answered until much later.  Oh, but when it is, know that vignette is a reveal that is both hilarious and lamentable at the same time.  The important thing is he’s completed 11 months and 27 days.  He is literally just a few days away from finishing his term.  Collin is a good guy desperately trying to live his life on the straight and narrow.  So when Dez (Jon Chaffin) and best buddy Miles (Rafael Casal) show up carrying guns, Collin is visibly unnerved by the sight.  Later that night, Collin is stopped at a red light.  He’s past his check-in time.  All of a sudden a young black man (Travis Parker), runs in front of his truck.  Before Collin can proceed, a cop (Ethan Embry), runs in front of him and guns down the runner in the back.  Collin is stunned. Another officer pulls up and orders him to move.  When he arrives home, Colin has missed his curfew by nine minutes.  This will present a moral dilemma.  Does he speak up and endanger his impending freedom or keep quiet and live with the guilt?

Stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have an enduring friendship in real life too.  Casal is a white-Hispanic spoken-word artist.  Diggs is a biracial rapper.  He’s best known for his role as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton on Broadway.  They have a relaxed easy going chemistry.  They also wrote the film together.  Working from their script, director Carlos López Estrada expertly juggles together drama, comedy, and hip-hop in his debut feature.  The developments of the story don’t always play out as you expect.  Blindspotting introduces tense moments only to subvert them.  A few times I tensed up at what looked like a violent resolution to the scene I was watching only to have the tension defused.  That’s not the expected development, but it is the more mindful one.  The screenwriters give us something to ponder.  They’re talented with words as well as in performance.  Diggs, in particular, is a charismatic presence.  If there’s any justice, he will be a star one day.

Blindspotting is a thoughtful reflection on the changing population of a city.  That diversity is something to celebrate.  Yet the disparate points of view that can lead to conflict.  The changing landscape a society of transplants can have a major effect on a region.  The drama can be serious when dealing with weighty topics but it also maintains a sense of humor as well.  Miles resents the upscale Whole Foods grocery corporation that now inhabits their hood.  “They have great produce” Collin offers.  Their local fast-food joint from back in the day has surrendered its menu to health-conscious elements.  The default burger is now vegan.  So please specify MEAT when you order a hamburger.  Fries have become potato wedges.  The community has now succumbed to establishments that subscribe to the religion of craft cocktails and food that promotes sustainability with only locally sourced ingredients.  It all comes to a head when Colin and Miles attend a trendy party at a sleek Oakland townhouse thrown by an affluent tech entrepreneur hipster – the symbol of everything Miles hates.  Miles wears a T-shirt that reads “Kill a hipster/Save your hood.”  When his natural way of speaking is mistaken as cultural appropriation by a guest, it hits a nerve.  The social commentary is surprisingly lighthearted at times.  Other times it is as grim as a heart attack.  It’s always incredibly entertaining.  Blindspotting gets it right.  It understands the city of Oakland., It appreciates the human condition. It gets the very fabric of humanity.

8-14-18

Mary Poppins Returns

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_poppins_returns_ver2STARS3.5Mary Poppins Returns answers the question: Is it still possible for a movie of today to promote sweetness and joy with unadulterated sincerity?  The response is a resounding yes.  This is an enterprise without guile or sarcasm.  It simply exists as a bit of wholesome entertainment, exactly as the 1964 version did.  54 years may separate these two films, but you’d never know it from this production.  The time is 1935 Depression-era London.  Jane (Emily Mortimer ) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the children from the original, are now adults.  Michael is a widower with three young children of his own: John (Nathanael Saleh) Annabel (Pixie Davies) and adorable star-in-the-making Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Since his wife’s death, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments.  He has been informed by the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (Colin Firth) that he has until Friday to pay off the entire loan, or he will lose the house. Jane and Michael remember their father had given them shares in the bank which would provide enough money to repay the debt.  The certificate would be the proof.  It has disappeared.  If only they knew where it was.

Mary Poppins Returns utilizes the blueprint of the first feature to fashion its tale.  The barely-there story is eerily similar, although plot is not really the point.  The drama basically concerns a missing piece of paper.  Its whereabouts are a nonentity for most of the picture.   The adventure highlights musical interludes.  This is a musical enchantment of wit and charm.  As the title has promised, Mary Poppins is back.  She’s exactly the same person and she hasn’t aged a day.  In Emily Blunt’s capable hands she is a walking, talking facsimile of Julie Andrews’ creation.  Not a unique achievement mind you, but a grand impression that trades on glorious nostalgia.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is Mary’s friend Jack.  He doesn’t work as a chimney sweep as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the earlier incarnation but as a lamplighter.  Miranda is delightful and his cockney accent is thankfully more subtle.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a sequel so much as a remake.  A magnificent remix of the 1964 version that mimics its every song, character, story beat, and style.  Instead of helping the kids tidy their nursery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) Mary encourages them to take a bath (“Can You Imagine That?”).  Rather than jumping into a painting (“Jolly Holiday”), Mary, Jack, and the kids enter a ceramic bowl (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”).  Meeting cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her “Turning Turtle” song is like bumping into Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) when he bellows “I Love To Laugh”.  Jack croons “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” with the other lamplighters and it harkens back to the chimney sweeps’ “Step In Time” number.  My side by side comparisons may sound like a carp but the production numbers are so beautifully realized that I embraced the happiness.   They succeed by exploiting the euphoria of wonder and color.  The very idea that a movie in 2018 would reproduce the very same aesthetic as a picture from the 1960s is a fairly risky venture.  I was transported to an earlier era when movies were different.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mary Poppins Returns has just paid the original film the most awesome compliment imaginable.

12-19-18

Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18

Burning

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on December 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beoningSTARS3Director Chang-dong Lee’s work over the past two decades has defined the Korean New Wave.  Burning, his first production in eight years is no different.  The sheer number of Top Ten lists on which this South Korean drama has appeared, practically compels every critic to see the picture in 2018.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and it’s the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 91st Academy Awards.  South Korea has submitted entries since 1962. Despite this, no South Korean movie has ever even been shortlisted or even nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar.  That may change this year.  Now having said that, my flattering buildup is an ironic segue into my lack of enthusiasm for this picture.

The story begins as a simple boy meets girl tale.  Aspiring writer Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) runs into a girl named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) that he knew when he was young.  She is dancing outside a store to attract customers.  Over coffee, he learns his old acquaintance is studying pantomime and she pretends to eat a tangerine by peeling it.  He is impressed but she downplays her talents.  “Don’t think there is a tangerine here…but rather that there isn’t one”.  She seduces him and they sleep together that night.  Later when Jong-su never sees the cat that Hae-mi has asked him to feed while she is away in Africa, your mind starts to wonder.  Is there even a cat at all?  Director Chang-dong Lee drops lots of little perplexities that solicit a closer examination of details throughout the story.  Things get more complicated when Hae-mi returns from her trip with a new beau named Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow.  A possible love triangle of sorts is formed.  Although even that’s up for debate.  Who is this guy?  What does he do?  Are they a couple?  One individual confesses to enjoying a strange hobby.  Another character goes missing.  Or do they?  You will have many questions amidst the speculation. Few will ever be answered.

Burning is clearly assembled by an artisan that likes to deliberate over his craft.  The slow build is carefully put together.  The performances by a trio of actors further draw you in.  Actor Yoo Ah-in is Jong-su, the protagonist.  He has an unexpected everyman quality that belies a seething resentment in his ineffectual character.  More memorable is actor Steven Yeun, as the enigmatic Ben.  As the wealthy antagonist, he is an ambiguous alpha male that inspires jealousy in our hapless lead.  His blissful confidence will inspire your hostility too.  Somewhat more disconcerting is the character of Hae-mi portrayed by newcomer Jeon Jong-seo.  She seems to simply exist as the object over which Jong-su can obsess.  Her self-initiated disrobings become rather troubling.  It inspires our irked hero to remark, “Why do you undress so easily in front of men? Only whores do that.”  Jong-su’s slowly mounting jealously builds over the course of the mystery.  Your ability to identify with his confusion and escalating frustration is key.  How this beta male will respond or even if he will respond, is an ongoing provocation.

Burning is based on the brief short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1992.  Although “inspired by” is far more accurate.  Screenwriters Jung-mi Oh and director Chang-dong Lee have decided to be much more specific.  Their chronicle contains additional details not contained in the original work.  For one, the class differences between underprivileged Jong-su and affluent Ben is an underlying theme that is emphasized in the movie.  Jealousy is a major exploration of the film as well.  The repression of these feelings is cultivated by Jong-su.  This provokes a slowly building animosity of Ben. There’s a lot to chew on here.  I was moderately intrigued, particularly in the first half. The narrative meanders for two and a half hours before culminating in a violent climax. The story ends without ever answering THE “burning” question.  I suppose open interpretations can be fun, but the whole exercise left me rather….cold.

12-09-18

The Favourite

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Dance, Drama, History with tags on December 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

favourite_ver2STARS4.5Way back on January 21, 1989, one of the highlights on Saturday Night Live’s 14th season occurred during the 10th episode.  John Malkovich was the host plugging his work in Dangerous Liaisons, an obvious forebear of this film.  One of the skits in which he starred, was a bit I affectionately remember as “Mocking Lord Edmund.”  In it, Malkovich portrayed an 18th-century aristocrat who suspects all the wrong people of insulting him.  “You mock me,” he would disdainfully rebuke.  Each admirer was bewildered at his scorn for their honest praise.  Malkovich’s deadpan delivery in a haughty accent was comical in itself.  But the main joke was that his two servants (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey), whom he didn’t suspect, were actually mocking him behind his back.

Period pieces are inherently hilarious.  The Favorite is an extraordinary work that takes an absurdist view of the strange reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century.  England is at war with the French.  The ruler is attended to by her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah encourages her to fund the ongoing war with France so that her husband can claim victory.  Into this mix arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant with designs on bettering her own station in life.  The liaison between these three develops into a genuine love triangle. There’s no evidence that Queen Anne had a romantic relationship with either of these women.  Although speculation at the time did fuel court gossip.  Yet historians do agree that Sarah Churchill’s personal friendship with the Queen afforded her a lot of power and influence in the monarch’s decisions.   Regardless, historical accuracy is clearly not director Yorgos Lanthimos’ focus.  The bitter rivalry between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne is the central conflict.  And oh what a competition!

The centerpiece of The Favourite is a trio of flawless performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who form the central trio of strong women.   Queen Anne is a frail woman physically afflicted by ill health.  Olivia Coleman embodies the ruler as a woman plagued by insecurities.  She screams irrationally at a young attendant for staring at her.  She feels ugly.  She gorges on cake.  Vomits.  Then continues to gorge.  One moment she is a timid monarch afraid of choosing sides between the Whigs and Tories in Parliament.  The next minute her mind is fixed and she refuses to allow anyone to sway her.  Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough, her close confidant.  She is a woman fiercely driven by her own political desires.  Abigail appears to enter the picture as sort of a wide-eyed innocent.  Anne Baxter in All About Eve anyone?  Emma Stone has one of the most expressive visages in all of Hollywood. The mere look of her face as she turns away in one flirtatious scene elicited guffaws at my screening.  As time wears on, the pursuit of her own selfish goals consumes her every thought.  Her poor husband Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is frustrated by her lack of attention, even on their wedding night.

This is a visual spectacle that captivates our attention even when nothing is being said. The costumes and sets are lavish.  Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes stand in stark contrast to the candlelit halls of the palace.  The powdered wigs are piled ridiculously high.  And I’m talking about the males.  They wear more makeup than the women.  The beauty marks applied like stickers to the face.  Even the palace is a character itself with its massively high ceilings, cavernous hallways, and luxuriously appointed spaces.  Tapestries, art, and furniture dominate some rooms.  There is a definite sense of scope.  The cinematography by Robbie Ryan captures every inch of the spectacle mixing fisheye lenses with spinning camera angles.  It can get overwhelming.  At times we’re more focused on the way the scene is shot, not what is being shot.  But more often than not, the photography creates a sense of isolation that matches the mood of the characters.  Visually it’s an emotional experience.

Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have a playful ear for dialogue.  It’s also the first feature Lanthimos directed that he did not co-write with regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  I dare say it is the most quotable film of the year.  The catty one-liners abound in an artificial air of high camp.   There is an affected pomposity to these people that makes them amusing.  The script exploits the lexicon of our modern era to humorous effect.   The c-word is joined with the word struck to describe a man impossibly bewitched by a woman. The idioms of past costume dramas are subverted as well.  Abigail fawns obsequiously over Queen Anne’s hair.  “Stop it. How you mock me” the queen responds.  The screenplay recognizes how a retort delivered with withering contempt can be an exquisite joy.  At one point Sarah Churchill derisively chides crafty House of Commons dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  “I can’t take you seriously when your mascara is running.”

The Favourite exaggerates what makes period pieces so fitfully entertaining.  In doing so, it becomes an artistic work of art.  There’s a lot of idiosyncratic details.  Sarah and Abigail shoot pigeons.  A splatter of blood unexpectedly covers Sarah’s face after Abigail hits one dead on.  Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits as pets symbolically representing each one of her children that didn’t survive due to various maladies.  Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) races ducks in his spare time for fun.  A hapless Tory endues fruits thrown at him as some sort of parlor game.  I didn’t understand the point, but it conveyed decadence nonetheless.  Lady Marlborough’s choreographed dance scene with her companion at the ball is a riot for its anachronistic dance moves.  It’s a fabulous spectacle lit with candles.  Ok, I’ll admit The Favourite is about as historically accurate as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yet for my money….it’s just as funny.

11-27-18