Archive for 2018

First Man

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_manSTARS4What captivated me most about First Man is how it transformed the conventional into the unique to tell this story. That is to say, the difference between what I was expecting and what I got, was unusually fascinating. I’ve seen The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures – movies that touch on achievements in space travel in different ways. One thing that unites them all is scope – each production details the stories of multiple people to tell their respective accounts. First Man in contrast is told from the exclusive perspective of a single astronaut. Writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) adapts from James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. The screenplay isn’t concerned with the inner workings of NASA or details of the Apollo 11 mission. It simply presents the personal point of view of Neil Armstrong.

In light of the current cultural conversation, First Man has a surprisingly traditional point of view. Recent portrayals (Hidden Figures) might contend otherwise, but this representation of NASA is overwhelmingly white and male. There has been a reactionary controversy regarding director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to illustrate the physical planting of the American flag on the moon. True it isn’t depicted, but it’s a moot point. The idea that this is a U.S. success is visually well documented in the film. The American flag is seen on the surface after it has been planted as well as visibly sewn on all of the astronauts’ uniforms. The words “United States” are clearly emblazoned on the side of the rocket ship. A coda highlights an interview with a French citizen who speaks highly of U.S. resolve. The outrage against a perceived left-wing agenda is ironic. The mood for most of the drama is practically a commemoration of a bygone era when men were men and women stayed home and minded the kids. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have this relationship. Oh and let’s start with the fact that that the very title of the picture is First MAN.

It’s interesting that Chazelle acknowledges that not everyone was a fan of the space program. There were those who felt that the billions spent could be put to better use. Actor Leon Bridges portrays revolutionary musician Gil Scott-Heron as he recites his spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon” – a searing indictment of the space program and conservative values. This appears right after vintage footage of author Kurt Vonnegut questions the cost of the American space program in light of a country with citizens that still didn’t even have food to eat or a place to live. It’s a valid argument. A cabin fire during the Apollo 1 mission kills astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) Ed White (Jason Clarke ) and Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) on board. At this point I started to question, should we even be doing this?  I mean is the value of the knowledge you gain from space travel worth the grievous loss of human lives?

Despite these moments, there is no question that the narrative means to idolize its subject and his purpose as an American hero. As Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is a very interior individual. He’s a man of few words, relying more on expression than language. Honestly, it’s the kind of “quiet” performance that Gosling has been doing his entire career.  From his starring role in Drive to Officer K in Blade Runner 2049, Gosling has always been a bit of an enigma when he isn’t in a comedic role. Neil Armstrong is stoic man’s man that is an emotionally distant husband. It’s suggested that the agony he experienced from the death of his 2-year-old daughter from cancer drives him to focus his repressed grief into the space program. Regardless, Neil is admirable in his role as an explorer. He’s completely immersed in his patriotic work. Yet, as a human being, he is the idealized portrait of macho blankness. His feelings are suppressed to the point that he is an emotional void. There’s little in this individual with which the viewer can identify.  For example, if someone were to bring a cassette of their favorite music in 1969 most people would probably bring something along the lines of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, a little Motown perhaps? Not Neil. He brings an orchestral piece called “Lunar Rhapsody” by Les Baxter.

Although this is clearly Neil’s story, there is room for a few supporting characters. His fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) has more personality. The script paints Buzz as a bit of jerk, but there’s no denying that he has a lot more charisma. Watching him bound up and down in the distance is so different from Armstrong’s more reserved behavior on the moon. I secretly longed for an account about Buzz actually. Interestingly the emotional weight of the narrative rests on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy). Foy’s performance is so subtle and of so little dialogue that it didn’t affect me until after the chronicle was over. However, upon reflection, her acting is rather notable. She galvanizes our emotions. Her eyes speak volumes even when she isn’t given anything to say. Her achievement is impressive. She is the emotional center.

First Man is a most intimate affair. This is a personal account seen through the eyes of one Neil Armstrong.  The selling point is that director Damien Chazelle reproduces the “you are there” feeling that astronauts experienced during their flights. The movie opens with Neil flying a single-person jet in a test voyage. The camera shakes as the aircraft throttles uncontrollably. The view fixates on his eyes that remain wide open and alert. The plane sounds like it’s about to break away in pieces. The feeling of vertigo is almost paralyzing for the viewer. Yet Neil is the picture of calm. Chazelle shoots a few vignettes that rely on this visceral experience. Each display is a claustrophobic portrayal of a rickety vehicle barely held together by rivets and a nickel-steel alloy almost falling apart. Each punishing spectacle delivers an unforgettable sequence. It is both intense and authentic. The adventure ultimately climaxes with the Apollo 11 mission, It’s telling that Justin Hurwitz’ triumphant score is noticeably silent when they land. Chazelle dutifully recreates moments of the moon landing we’ve witnessed a million times. That includes Neil’s iconic statement “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet Josh Singer’s screenplay is more interested in Neil Armstrong the man, than in detailing what the rest of the world was thinking. That gives First Man a unique perspective on this story.

10-11-18

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A Star Is Born

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on October 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

star_is_bornSTARS4It’s been 42 years since the last adaptation of A Star is Born.  I suppose we were about due.  The original script by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell has proven to have a quality that transcends time as the narrative evolves to suit the tastes of the current generation.  The core remains the same.  It’s rags-to-riches!  It’s got romance! It’s got tragedy!  Yes, it’s full of showbiz clichés.  That’s because good stories never go out of style, especially one with a charismatic female lead as its central focus. The 30s had Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actress who surpassed a fading movie actor depicted by Fredric March.  The 50s transomed the property into a musical as Judy Garland was the ingenue taken under the wing of a former matinée idol played by James Mason.  The 70s version had Barbra Streisand as a nightclub singer plucked out of obscurity by a rock star played Kris Kristofferson.  Bradley Cooper’s adaptation adheres most closely to this one.  The actor directs, writes, produces and acts. Anyone tabulating the years will notice the 90s should have gotten their own rendition.  Flash forward to the present and we have Lady Gaga as Ally, a woman who waits tables by day and croons “La Vie en Rose” by night in a drag bar.  Bradley Cooper portrays the established artist, Jackson Maine, a country music superstar that performs to sold-out arenas.  Jackson stumbles upon Ally’s show while searching for a bar to drink booze.

Lady Gaga can act.  She happens to already have a Golden Globe for TV’s American Horror Story, so perhaps not a shock.  Some might contend that she’s essentially playing what she knows – a singer.  However, Ally the unknown cabaret performer unsure of herself is decidedly different than Lady Gaga the confident multi-platinum selling celebrity.  The pop star-turned-actress naturally captures that mix of fear and elation a novice has in front of a crowd.  There’s a moment where she crystallizes this feeling so perfectly, that I was overcome by the experience  It occurs early on about a third of the way in when Jackson Maine is giving a huge arena concert for his fans.  He flies Ally out to the gig.  She is brought backstage ostensibly to watch the show.  He finishes his tune, then addresses the audience.  He strides over side stage up to Ally and asks her to duet her own song with him.  The look of shock on her face is so genuine, we feel her terror as well.  She declines.  “I’m going to sing your song with or without you,” he asserts and then proceeds to do just that.  As he begins, she’s left standing there obviously conflicted, an anxiety of emotions bubbling up until she’s inspired to take the stage.  It’s a masterful scene.  I got goosebumps.

Lady Gaga’s outstanding achievement is somewhat expected.  Bradley Cooper is even more surprising.  As the fading arena rock musician, he affects this comfortably lived in existence.  His voice, a deep, gravelly mummer exists all in the lower register.  He instantly recalls grizzled actors like Kris Kristofferson (star of the 1976 version) and Sam Elliott, who actually plays his older brother Bobby in this.  Perhaps it’s a bit of an in-joke when Bobby, who is also his manager, criticizes Jackson the artist for stealing his “voice”. Cooper’s world-weary exterior is a physical transformation as well.  His complexion is weathered with a ruddy texture.  His skin blighted both by the sun and years of drugs and drinking.  Bradley Cooper isn’t afraid to look messy.

A Star is Born delights with the highs and lows of a melodrama that is a nothing less than solid entertainment.  The tale of these two people is a bewitching saga that allows the two actors to exhibit considerable chemistry as their connection develops over their love of music.  Their relationship is collaborative and fosters a more supportive connection than in previous iterations.  The first half is endlessly compelling.  The second is a bit less so.  Yet there are subtleties to the drama that make this interpretation of the classic chestnut something to discuss.

The narrative arc succumbs to the standard story beats that would be clichés to anyone who has ever caught an episode of Behind the Music on VH1.  As Ally’s popularity rises, Jackson’s declines.  The reason for the awkward growing tension between the two is a fascinating mix of factors.  Certainly drugs and alcohol derail Jackson’s career but his growing dissatisfaction is more complex.  Success changes Ally’s musical style.  Her appearance on Saturday Night Live performing “Why Did You Do That?” is presented as a pop-oriented betrayal of her authentic self, complete with outré makeup and hair.  I found the critique ironic since Lady Gaga the artist has never been one to tone it down. Jackson’s growing frustration with her success is certainly a reaction to this persona but there’s some jealousy in there too.  Jackson is torn because he’s losing the woman he knew to her growing fame, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of her success.  A slick manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) hammers this point even further.  There’s a lot to consider and the screenplay does a nice job at handling the many facets of a challenging relationship.

This is quite simply a love story.  It turns out the utter simplicity of A Star is Born is perhaps its greatest strength.  Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have a chemistry together that is so palpable it carries the film.  Throughout it all, Lady Gaga sings.  Even Bradley Cooper manages to effectively deliver a few tunes (the Jason Isbell penned “Maybe It’s Time” is quite good).  Lady Gaga further solidifies her talent as an electrifying performer. She has a voice.  The soundtrack is full of memorable songs that highlight a captivating tale.  “Shallow” is the first single.  It’s wonderful, but there’s a handful of numbers that really catch the ear.  “Always Remember Us This Way”, “Is That Alright”, and the finale “I’ll Never Love Again” really stand out amongst a solid collection.  In the movie’s weaker 2nd half, the music is what keeps us enrapt.  Still, following the ups and downs of the melodrama is solidly entertaining.  Melodrama isn’t a bad word.  It simply appeals to the emotions while relying on tried and true plot developments.  A Star is Born does it well. The production manages to capture our heart while dazzling the ear.

Colette

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

coletteSTARS3.5Keira Knightly and period pieces go together like tea & crumpets. I won’t feign impartiality. I can’t resist the combination of the aforementioned genre paired with this actress. When I walked into the theater to watch a biography of Colette, the French author, I was already primed to enjoy it. I walked out satisfied indeed.

Any period piece worth its salt is initially going to be judged on its visual aesthetic. Colette excels. The production is a sumptuous evocation of France during the turn of the century. The rooms are beautifully appointed, the costumes are suitably detailed. There is an opulence to the surroundings that gently entices the spectator into the walls of this woman’s life and beckons one to luxuriate in her world. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Hell or High Water) does a splendid job. He captures both the soft hues of the indoor scenes with warm light as well as the cool greenery of the outdoors with a crispness that invites the viewer to practically inhale the fresh air. The sophistication of the dialogue only adds to the refined setting.  You’d think all this artifice would render a stuffy biopic, but the production is anything but.  On the contrary, this is a provocative tale, directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) and co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, who passed away in 2015. The life of Collette has a few unexpected detours for those unfamiliar with the historical woman. Apparently, she was an independently minded spirit out of step with the social mores of her time.

To be honest, I knew virtually nothing about the actual woman. The drama begins with a poor and seemingly shy country girl named Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.  When she secretly retreats to the barn to meet her lover, we soon learn as that she isn’t so demure after all. She ultimately marries that man, the worldly writer Henry Gauthier-Villars or “Willy” (Dominic West). He happens to be 14 years her senior. Willy compensates ghostwriters to pen books for him. When his finances no longer allow him to pay for their services, he appeals to his wife.  He has realized her facility with words in their conversations.  Her novel, or rather the book she writes for him, becomes a sensation in1900 – a somewhat biographical coming of age tale about a brazen girl named Claudine.  The runaway bestseller leads to a series of stories focused around the young heroine.  Although not depicted in this chronicle, Colette’s best-known work today would have to be Gigi (1944) on which the Oscar-winning Best Picture was based.

Keira Knightley is Colette. Her embodiment of the character contributes tremendously to the success of the overall picture. There is a sort of a simple pleasure in seeing a bold woman surmount the strict confines of 19th century Paris, France.  The film documents her marriage with Willy, which was quite unconventional even by today’s standards. Dominic West plays him as a cad to be sure, but he exudes significant charisma nonetheless.  The two actors have convincing chemistry together.  Even with their various dalliances, it’s easy to appreciate the love that Colette and Willy had for each other.  Without revealing details,  an “open relationship” is perhaps the most chivalrous way to describe their idea of what a marriage should be.  The movie does take on a few too many plot threads for one film.  Colette’s desire to assert herself as the true author of her novels belies her feminist awakening.  This competes for the narrative’s attention as she comes to terms with her sexual awakening as well.  Red-haired Louisiana heiress Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and suit-wearing androgenous Missy (Denise Gough) become paramours.  Despite the somewhat schizophrenic focus, Keira Knightley unites the disparate events of this gorgeous costume drama with a performance that seizes our attention.  Her achievement ranks among her very best.  I couldn’t give the actress higher praise.

09-29-18

Lizzie

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on September 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

lizzieSTARS3“Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”

On paper, the idea of a Lizzie Borden biopic would appear to be a slam dunk. As the main suspect in the murder of her father and stepmother, the woman’s notoriety continues even to this day. Despite being exonerated of the charges, speculation on her guilt persists more than 125 years later. Her legend has only grown over the years as a true figure of American folklore. For the modern equivalent, she was the OJ Simpson of her day. Those old enough in 1995 will remember that fateful trail. This should have been a similarly mesmerizing tale. The movie, however, is surprisingly inert.

Lizzie is assembled as a character based drama that chronicles the home life of Lizzie Borden. At 32 she is still single and doesn’t even have the prospect of a suitor. She still lives with her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and her stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw). As expected, her relationship with them is strained. Andrew is a domineering type, constantly at odds with her headstrong ways. Mother is emotionality cold. Lizzie believes Abby to be more preoccupied with the Borden family fortune than a deep devotion to her family. Lizzie’s older, more obedient sister Emma (Kim Dickens) is also unmarried. The two of them are old maids by that era’s standards. Their uncle John (Denis O’Hare) introduces further tension into the household.

Chloë Sevigny does have a fire within her that asserts Lizzie as a bold but stubborn woman. The best moments are when the determined rebel stands up for beliefs. She is self-assured, yet desperately seeks some shred of affection from those around her. Enter Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) a young woman who comes to live with them as their housemaid. When her dad catches the two of them in a compromising position, he declares “You’re an abomination, Lizzie.” Lizzie’s unusually confident retort is “Then at last we are on equal footing, father.” The declaration is humorous, but it also brightly illuminates the mind of a very frustrated woman. This was clearly a labor of love for Sevigny who commissioned the script and then produced the film.

I suppose a big part of how I enjoy this story is rooted in the expectation of what a Lizzie Borden biopic should be and what the production actually is. The narrative is constructed as sort of a melancholy atmospheric tale portraying the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are bewitching. The most captivating episodes highlight the psychology of the titular subject and clarify her point of view. Some of the most memorable dialogue is when Lizzie asserts herself with a harsh quip that cuts down the recipient. There are flashes of insight. The well researched original screenplay is by Bryan Kass. This feature was edited down from what was first proposed as a 4-hour miniseries on HBO. This is rather shocking because even at one hour and 45 minutes, hardly anything happens.

The remarkably impartial handling of the protagonists is one of the movie’s strengths. Kass attempts to get into the mind of Lizzie Borden so we the audience can understand her motivations. It is indeed masterful Nevertheless all of this is undone by a sluggish ambiance that severely hinders the audience’s passion for this inherently interesting material. This is essentially a dour modulated mood piece. You’d think that her chronicle would be more compelling, but director Craig William Macneill seems almost unconcerned by the famous murders. By the time we get to the key event, it occurs so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. The crime is depicted again with more detail, even with gratuitous nudity. but by then the film is nearly over. We’re brought a little closer to what made this woman’s heart tick. Too bad the production is lacking a pulse.

09-27-18

Three Identical Strangers

Posted in Documentary, Drama with tags on September 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

1532373776411_three_identical_strangers_smSTARS3Three Identical Strangers is stranger than fiction.  That’s because it’s the truth.  Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman were identical brothers that were separated at birth and adopted by three different families.  Each one didn’t know about the other.  That’s the premise.  The story begins when 19-year-old Bobby attends Sullivan County Community College for the first time.  All of a sudden people are slapping him on the back and acknowledging him with an intimate familiarity.  It turns out the students mistook him for Eddy, a very popular student who had dropped out the previous semester. A fellow classmate makes the connection that Bobby was a twin. To hear Bobby tell this anecdote is one of the many pleasures of this feature.  There’s a shared sense of elation with his palpable excitement in coming to terms with the revelation that he had a twin brother. Then after their picture appeared in the newspaper, David saw the photo of his doubles and realized they were a set of triplets.

What happened next was a whirlwind of activity.   Back in the early 1980s, the media had a field day with the news of long lost triplets.  They were living the high life.  They appeared on talk shows,  frequented nightclubs, had a cameo opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  The three young men became the toast of New York society. Everything seemed wonderful.  During this segment, the soundtrack blasts the song “Walking on Sunshine” and I had to chuckle a little.  Director Tim Wardle was obviously setting the stage.  I sensed a precipitous fall, as is usually the expectation when things seem a little too perfect.  Sure enough. A bombshell is dropped. There are a few more twists as the tale develops and slowly the details of their separation become clearer.

Talking about this movie is tricky. I contend that it’s the joy of discovery that holds the entertainment value in this saga. I went in completely cold and I believe this real-life drama is best experienced this way.  Knowing more than what I’ve revealed here can severely lessen the emotional impact.  Why these brothers were separated at birth is something you will learn.  The chronicle gives us quite a few details into that decision and the subsequent aftermath.  Furthermore, a lot of attention is focused on how similar these men were.  Despite their time apart, they had many similar tastes. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, they all had been wrestlers, they were attracted to the same type of woman. The media exaggerated these superficial facts at the time and so does the documentary for the majority of its runtime.  What the picture doesn’t do is spend enough time emphasizing how they were different.  It rarely makes them seem like three separate people, often blurring the distinction between each individual man.  Moreover, it doesn’t hold a lot of resolutions.  As such, there is no finality to this story.

Three Identical Strangers is fascinating, but I still had many questions. The way the boys embraced their newfound fame is highlighted.  This even led to a joint business—they opened a restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side called Triplets. Collectively they were living the dream.  So it makes how each man’s life changes a bit of a head-scratcher.  Current interviews with the subjects somewhat help distinguish their individuality.  To its credit, this documentary was captivating enough to inspire me to do some investigative journalism of my own after I watched the film.  I wanted more clarification. It’s marginally brought up, but apparently, a lot more demons plagued these brothers than this account reveals.  Why is the burning question, but the feature doesn’t leave us with many answers.  The respective background lives of each man should have been given a more detailed consideration.  Near the end, the movie does manage to offer a “hot take” on the parenting styles of each mom and dad.  The blaming of one parent, in particular, is not only glib but irresponsible.  This condemnation is one of the last things we are left with as an audience.  The facile explanation left a bad taste as I left the theater.  Yet I will avow, that for most of the tale, this is a compelling story.

9-20-18

The Wife

Posted in Drama with tags on September 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wifeSTARS3There’s an old adage that states ‘Behind every great man there’s a great woman.’  The ostensibly uplifting quote hasn’t aged well.  The proverb was originally meant to spotlight women not recognized for their talents.  However the image of women following men can be misinterpreted in a negative way.  The success of the women’s movement has made the notion a bit dated. Yet The Wife is an old-fashioned film.  I was constantly reminded of this saying.  This motion picture is essentially that slogan in cinematic form.

Glenn Close stars as Joan Castleman as the titular spouse of Professor Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce).  Where he is self-absorbed, forceful and celebrated.  She is self-effacing, elegant, and overlooked.  He is an author who is set to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.  It should be a happy occasion for the two of them and it is at first.  The news arrives from a late night phone call.  The two celebrate with unadulterated glee together.  Nevertheless, that announcement ignites a spark that sets off a series of confrontations between the longtime couple.  Their marriage gradually unravels before our eyes.  She accompanies her husband to Stockholm.  When Joe compliments her in his public speeches, she registers subtle disdain for the conspicuous display that appears more for show than sincere gratitude. We observe them now, but we examine them in the past as well.  Flashbacks chronicle Joe (Harry Lloyd) and Joan’s (Annie Starke) relationship in their younger days.  His rise as a successful writer is depicted.  The thinly plotted tale involves a traditional stay-at-home mom and a husband that succumbs to adulterous indiscretions.  The details couldn’t be more mired in cliches.  Even the big reveal is foreseeable.  Still, these particulars give an elaborate background to their history together.  This is a portrait of a marriage that is buckling under long-suppressed emotions.

The Wife doesn’t hold many surprises.  Even the title, with its lightly repressive connotation, telegraphs the tone.  Consider the difference between when a husband refers to “my wife” as opposed to “the wife”.  The screenplay was written by Jane Anderson who adapted Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name.  It’s almost as if the author started with the question “How can I fashion a story around a subjugated woman?”  The Wife is pure Oscar bait – a movie seemingly created with the intention of giving 6-time nominee Glenn Close that elusive Academy Award.  She’s undeniably brilliant in the role.  Close masterfully conveys the nuance of a character that both loves and resents her companion in equal measure.  She hides a slowly building tornado of emotion behind a mask of dignified restraint.  It’s an exquisite achievement. Jonathan Pryce holds his own as “the husband” and Christian Slater is fascinating as a journalist looking to write a possibly sensationalized biography of Joe.  Less effective is Max Irons as their adult son that comes across like a petulant brat.  Also less compelling are the hackneyed elements of a soap opera that undercut the sophistication of Glenn Close’s performance.  Director Björn Runge understands his star is the main attraction. She is the reason to see The Wife. Close is the entire film and she simply shines.

09-06-18

7th ANNUAL SUMMER MOVIE GAMBLE RESULTS – A Box Office Predictions Contest from “Out Now With Aaron and Abe” Podcast

Posted in Podcast with tags on September 5, 2018 by Mark Hobin

I was a guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe.

This week they get down to business with some important results. Aaron and Abe along with Brandon Peters and I go over the results for the 7th Annual Summer Movie Gamble. It’s a mix of bragging, reflecting, and consideration for what went on this summer at the movies, as well as at the box office. Among topics covered, we go over the summer in general (6:33), the results of the Summer Gamble (24:33), Out Now Feedback and our thoughts of the various bests, worsts, and surprises of the summer (51:41), then wrap things up (1:45:15) and a fun blooper (1:58:27).

Searching

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on September 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

searching_ver2STARS3.5Searching is a tale about what happens when a father (John Cho) discovers his 16-year-old daughter (Michelle La) has gone missing after a late night study group. David’s hunt for Margot completely relies on the internet in his quest to uncover her whereabouts. He soon realizes that she had a whole other life he never knew.

Searching is the debut feature from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty. The drama is shot from the point-of-view of computer screens.  Oh, it might be relevant to mention that Chaganty used to work for Google.  The presentation is innovative, however, he didn’t invent the idea. The approach is not unlike the technique used in Leo Gabriadze’s 2014 horror movie Unfriended. Nonetheless, Searching should definitely get kudos for exploiting the idea in a captivating manner.  Not surprisingly Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov is a producer on both films.  Using an integration of Apple’s FaceTime and iMessage through his computer and then employing other social networking services like Facebook and Instagram, David tries to piece together the details of what happened to her.  All the while we witness his investigation via his monitor.

Searching brilliantly lays the emotional groundwork for our connection to this family right from the start.   Within the opening minutes (à la Up) we learn that mom Pamela (Sara Sohn) had been suffering from lymphoma.  She has recently passed on leaving father and daughter still grieving her loss.  Their dynamic is key, as there appears to be a somewhat uneasy relationship between the two.  Father’s constant admonitions for her to take out the trash gently underscores a hovering mentality.  Then, late one night her phone calls to him go unanswered while he sleeps.  The next day he returns her missed calls with no response.  This inspires a fear that is every parent’s worst nightmare.  He needs to determine who saw her last.  Her study group confirms she left early.  Then he calls her piano teacher and is shocked to learn she quit her lessons months ago.   Apparently, she had deposited the money for those classes in a secret bank account instead.  This is but the beginning of several revelations that the daughter he thought he knew was a stranger to him.  He contacts the authorities.  Officer Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is the detective that takes his case.

Searching is masterfully crafted.  Yet, I did find the gimmick of everything taking place on a computer screen to be a contrivance that somewhat hindered the exhibition.  The constraint was unnerving but in a claustrophobic style that didn’t serve the drama.  I would’ve preferred the expansive cinematography of a traditional narrative.  Director Alfred Hitchcock did this sort of thing to perfection.  Still, the screenplay co-written by Aneesh Chaganty and producer Sev Ohanian is clearly inspired by the master filmmaker’s oeuvre.  That’s a compliment of the highest order.  I adore Hitchcock and this production should bear a mention when discussing films he has inspired.  Searching is extremely well designed.  The chronicle gently unfolds slowly disseminating clues as the story sees fit.  The discovery of information is fascinating. At one point he unearths a questionable connection having to do with his brother Peter (Joseph Lee).  Figuratively, a lot of bombs are dropped.  I was riveted throughout the entire saga, but the ending is completely mind-blowing.  I can’t even begin to explain how one explosive revelation subverts another in the final 30 minutes.  I won’t even try.  Just go see Searching.  You’ll be so glad you did.

08-30-18

The Meg

Posted in Action, Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on August 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

meg_ver7STARS1.5In the four decades since Jaws there has been a seemingly never-ending tide (pun intended) of shark-themed dramas. I suppose quality determines whether each offering is considered a rip-off, an homage or perhaps “inspired by”.  I do enjoy these types of stories.  The Shallows is a recent example that was quite good.  Others like Deep Blue Sea or Jaws 3-D — a proper sequel in the original franchise — are so ridiculous that they’re kind of enjoyable anyway. The Meg is neither of those. It’s just awful. This production doesn’t even qualify as adequate entertainment. It’s cut up pieces of fish – a bucket of chum in the sea of movies about killer sharks.

The Meg is actually short for Megalodon which is a now extinct 75 foot long species of fish that lived in prehistoric times.  It was one of the largest and most powerful predators to have ever lived.  First off, The Meg is a stupid title.  It sounds like a romantic comedy about a woman named Megan with a very big ego.  Yes I know it was based on the book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten.  I don’t care.  Lose that title.  That’s why movies are written by screenwriters.  It astonishingly took three writers (Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber) to adapt this story.  Personally, I don’t know why they didn’t embrace the silliness with some fun title like Megalomania! and put an exclamation point at the end to emphasize the fact.  The saga is helmed by Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon, National Treasure).  He’s one of those dependable directors that has been working since the early 90s.  For years he turned out a lot of profitable live-action features for the Disney studio.  Disney in fact picked up the movie rights way back in 1997 but dropped the project a few years later. It languished in development hell for 2 decades. Warner Brothers has finally brought it to the screen.  Given the production budget was between $130–178 million plus $140 million on advertising, it would appear they’re likely to lose money.  At least in the domestic market.  There are overworked clichés, dreary special effects, and a plot so rote it can be summed up in three words: Shark attacks crew.

The Meg could have been so bad it’s good. No such luck. The picture takes itself too seriously to be in on the joke but then not legitimately enough to bother with a decent script.  It occupies that middle ground where it’s conspicuously bad.  The marketing for The Meg has featured Jason Statham. I am a fan of the action star.  He brings a much needed stoic resolve that is required in adventures like these.  He plays a rescue diver and he’s the main figure.  However, there’s a large international cast of actors playing scientists, oceanographers, and Ph.D. holders that take residence up in this underwater research facility too.  They add absolutely nothing to the narrative.  There’s some great talent here.  I won’t impugn their acting craft.  Unfortunately, none of it is on display here.  It’s surprising that in a flick named after a prehistoric beast, the titular animal doesn’t really occupy that much screen time.  This is mainly about the capricious relationships between the various crew members.  In fact, there’s very little to recommend about The Meg. It’s a pretty weak excuse for a film.  This shark movie lacks bite.

08-09-18

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18