Archive for 2018

Hereditary

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on June 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hereditary_ver2STARS3.5Horror is a genre in which many entries rely so heavily on blood and gore for thrills, that when a story is varnished in a veneer of class and sophistication it appears almost revolutionary.  Hereditary opens with a tracking shot of a dollhouse from far away. As the camera pans in closer it centers on a bedroom where the father (Gabriel Byrne) enters bringing a blazer for his sleeping son (Alex Wolff) to wear at his grandmother’s funeral. It’s a bewitching introduction because it conveys so much.  Mother Annie (Toni Collette) makes miniatures, small-scale versions of things influenced by her own life. That’s merely one reason why the beginning is so apropos. This production is highlighted by sleek cinematography, atmospheric music, and good performances. One is truly great. I’m talking Oscar nomination. More on that in a moment. But strip away all the stylish flourishes and you’re left with a screenplay that seems like it was cobbled together after a night of watching Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and the 1976 composite they inspired: The Omen.

I mean if you’re going to steal, might as well rob from the best right? Hereditary is a very effective flick. It’s just that any horror aesthete even mildly versed in the classics of the medium is going to find this drama a bit reductive. Annie and her husband Steve have two children, Peter and their 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). They’re attending the funeral of Annie’s mother, Ellen. There’s a bit of foreshadowing that bad things are afoot. We learn that Annie and Ellen had an estranged relationship, the family suffers from mental illness and little Charlie attends special education classes. A pigeon dies after flying into her classroom window with a “sudden loud bang” designed to startle the audience as well as the students.  We later see Charlie on the playground pocketing the head of that lifeless bird after she has removed it with a pair of scissors. That’s pretty freaky, right?  It’s only the first beheading we’ll see. I used to think the decapitation scene in The Omen was pretty dreadful, especially for its time, but this film actually tops it for sheer shock value.

Hereditary is so impressive in producing fear that it deserves to be raised up as a new touchstone. Much of the credit goes to Toni Collette in a portrayal that is certain to remain among the very best of the year. She is a mother shaken to her very core by the events around her. It is a flawless achievement so raw and unhinged that I literally started to tear up at her desperate pleas in the climax. It would seem the role is custom made for her.  Collette famously played the mother of a child that “sees dead people” in one of the most successful horror films of all time (The Sixth Sense). She is so memorable that it stands out even among the other remarkable performances.  Actors Alex Wolff as her teen son and Milly Shapiro as her little daughter are convincing in exhibiting the undoing of their characters as well.  Ann Dowd is an upbeat presence as Joan, a chatty friend Annie meets in a support group for the bereaved.  Hereditary is an emotionally compelling experience. The feature from writer/director Ari Aster is a notable debut. He proves he can creatively mold cinematic influences into an entertaining movie. Looking forward to his next production that hopefully charts a more innovative course.

06-14-18

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Incredibles 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Drama, Superhero with tags on June 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

incredibles_two_ver11STARS4As far as this animation fan is concerned, The Incredibles is still the greatest Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made as well. I mention this because it helps to appreciate my mindset as I entered the theater to watch Incredibles 2. This was 14 years in the making. I had high expectations and I greeted this sequel with breathless anticipation. Did it deliver?

In a word, yes. It’s an absolute joy. The kid in me was delighted. It’s entertaining and colorful and funny and all the things that a good feature should be. The action embodies the peaks of Whiz! Bang! Pow! spectacle. The score by returning composer Michael Giacchino is profoundly compelling. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a good film. That’s everyone obviously. However, and this is why I opened my review with where my head was at, this doesn’t even come close to the heartfelt emotion of the previous story. Part of that lies in the inherent qualities of original vs. sequel. The first was blessed with the grace of purity. The Parr family was realizing their abilities right before our eyes and the mere exploration of that was a simple pleasure. In a follow-up, that novelty is gone. Now there is an expectation to expand upon the world and deepen our understanding.

As such, this is a more complicated production. The chronicle picks up where The Incredibles ended. After failing to stop the Underminer from robbing the bank with his massive drill, the authorities are worried. The destruction caused to the city has forced the Incredibles and other “supers” to retire from duty for the moment. I initially thought of the Sokovia Accords that regulated superhero powers in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Although Pixar was first. The theme of assimilating powerful individuals into normal society was present in the studio’s 2004 entry as well.  Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who leads DEVTECH, a telecommunications company, with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  She is voiced with the world-weary sarcastic knowingness of Catherine Keener sporting a cartoon face that looks hyperrealistic — especially when compared to her brother’s ridiculously long face.  Winston is a fan and wishes to reignite public support for “supers”.  Since Winston deems Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the least destructive, he advises her to fight crime as part of a publicity stunt.  It is during this period we are introduced to a new villain, Screenslaver, a baddie who hijacks screens by flashing hypnotic images that brainwash civilians.

With Elastigirl out fighting crime, the adventure reverses the traditional gender roles of mom and dad.  Thanks to DEVTECH corporation’s plan, Elastigirl is now the public face of superheroes while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) stays home to take care of the kids. It’s not easy for him.  We’re so far past thinking this notion is a revolutionary concept that it’s positively quaint when the screenplay presents the idea as if it’s treading new ground. Look! Women can go to work.  Men can take care of their own children.  The basis for the plot is positively retro like a sitcom still firmly rooted in another era.  Even the obstacles with which Mr. Incredible must contend while being a stay-at-home dad seem like issues out of the past. While assisting his son with his arithmetic, he exasperatedly exclaims in frustration “This is Math! Why would they change Math?” There’s even a part where the Incredibles are given a space aged home filled with technological advances. I was reminded of the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled with similar issues.

I’m nitpicking mind you. Despite its inferiority to the original, Incredibles 2 is still the second best “Part 2” that Pixar has ever put out. The best sequel being Toy Story 2. We love this family. Their wholesome relationship is just as captivating as before. Older sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) and her brother Dash (Huck Milner) complete the family dynamic.  Bob’s best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back too.  Fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) is wisely inserted into the drama again but she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The revelation of each unique personality is gone, but it’s nice to see everyone return nonetheless.

The character that really gets his due is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The baby has an entire cadre of various superhero powers and much of the fun/laughs is discovering what this tiny tot will do next. His fight with a raccoon is a specular tableau, one of several in this film.  Writer/ director Brad Bird really knows how to frame an action set piece and there are many to dazzle you here. Once again, an Incredibles film out marvels Marvel. Amazingly this particular one all takes place within the confines of the backyard of their home. It’s telling that simplicity is its strongest asset. It’s that restraint that is missing from a somewhat more cluttered narrative.  The motivation for the villain is a bit convoluted too.  This doesn’t achieve the sheer feeling of Pixar’s very best works.  Instead, I will remember Incredibles 2 mainly for the spectacular action, music and style….but oh what style!

06-14-18

Beast

Posted in Drama, Romance, Thriller with tags on June 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beast_ver4STARS4Beast is a hard movie to characterize. Pundits often label this as a psychological thriller. I suppose the designation works because the account deals with the emotional state of a person. Yet it really doesn’t adequately embody the gorgeous mood of the film. That’s what makes this picture so affecting. Let’s call it an atmospheric thriller. One might even say dreamy. This is a character-based drama about two people who need each other. Although this is not your conventional love affair. There are elements to the romance that might make this seem like more of a horror flick. It’s those conflicting dichotomies that make this feature so enthralling.

Beast is about a repressed 27-year-old woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley). She lives on Jersey.  Not the U.S. State — the UK location.  The Bailiwick of Jersey is the largest island in the English Channel. Moll works as a tour guide and lives with her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James). Her family is celebrating Moll’s birthday but she’s not having a very good time. It’s meant to be her day, but her older sister (Shannon Tarbet) steals her thunder by announcing that she’s having twins. Mother’s demand that Moll fetch champagne for the guests is the last straw.  Frustrated, Moll leaves her own party. She goes to the local watering hole and dances the night away. She later absconds to an isolated area with a guy she meets at the club. Their date grows sinister when his flirtation becomes increasingly hostile. Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who happens to be illegally hunting game in the area, rescues her from the scoundrel. The only problem is there’s been a rash of murders in the area and her “savior” appears to be a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

Beast is the debut feature from British director Michael Pearce who also wrote the script. It had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Platform Prize (Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country won). It was released in May with a limited run in U.S. theaters to critical acclaim.  Peace was born on the island of Jersey so he obviously has an affinity for this location. The events were inspired by the real-life case of a serial attacker known as the “Beast of Jersey” back in the 1960s. The setting is an asset because the remote location gives the production a timeless feel. It seems almost otherworldly. The sumptuous cinematography from Benjamin Kracun helps to heighten the mood. The movie kind of burrows its way into your consciousness. Moll and Pascal’s love is a slowly mounting anxiety that creeps up on you. These two have incredible chemistry.

You’d think the suspense in knowing whether “is he or isn’t he the killer?” would propel the narrative but actually it’s the relationship between Moll and Pascal. Moll projects a spirited intensity that has finally been allowed to breathe after years of oppression. Although a fresh-faced innocent, she doesn’t look like your classic ingenue. Her fiery ringlets of red hair are enough to separate her from the cookie cutter naïfs we typically see in romantic dramas.  It’s easy to see why Moll is drawn to Pascal. He exudes kind of a rakish charm suggesting a more working class Ryan Gosling. He represents a way out from under the oppressive rule of her domineering mother. She rules over her behavior with a passive-aggressive stance. Although Moll expresses regret when she inspires her mother’s ire, you can tell she resents her dominant posture. Her mother’s dislike of Pascal is clearly a plus in Moll’s eyes. Moll and Pascal form a dynamic duo with a charismatic fervor that only the coldest of hearts could ignore. The production is extremely well crafted. That makes the crushing feeling you have when you exit the theater such a heartbreak. The chronicle culminates in a denouement in which the tension just drains away from the picture. The resolution is seriously flawed, but that’s a discussion for people who have seen the movie. Until that point, however, Beast creates a hypnotic experience and that is something to treasure.

05-31-18

First Reformed

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_reformed (1)STARS2Filmmaker Paul Schrader has long been fascinated with characters hell-bent on a self-destructive path. Time and again whether it be the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his own directorial works like American Gigolo, Hardcore, or Affliction, difficult themes infect his work. In a nutshell, First Reformed is the chronicle of a religious man’s crisis of faith. Yet the narrative covers a lot more than that as Schrader endeavors to explore religion, spirituality and one’s existence beyond the physical body. Oh yes, there’s a flying sequence over mountains and stars and a whole lot more in one of the few cinematographic moments contained within that does not rely on a static shot. A cinephile, Paul Schrader has long cited the work of the great French director Robert Bresson. Schrader is deeply influenced by his minimalist style, particularly Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest which is clearly a major influence on this production.

The account introduces Ethan Hawke as a Protestant minister of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He keeps a journal which allows him to mournfully narrate the story with his entries heard in voiceover. The Reverend Ernst Toller is not a happy man. A divorcé, he still contends with the death of his only son Joseph whom he encouraged to go off and fight in the Iraq War.  Currently, Toller also struggles to even get a scant few to attend his services. The pews are mainly empty. This historical edifice is now more of a tourist attraction as the chapel was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In his spare time, he gives visitors tours of the grounds that conclude in the gift shop where they can purchase a souvenir hat.  When he’s alone, he drinks.  It’s these little details that serve to underscore his growing despair. This is all in stark contrast to the nearby parent megachurch, Abundant Life, from which his parish receives financial support. Its evangelical ministry is 5,000 strong and headed up by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer – billed as Cedric Kyles here). He’s confident, upbeat, and life-affirming.   The man inspires hope. Toller arouses hopelessness. I mean let’s be honest, whose church would you rather attend?

The story is set in motion when Toller is visited by a lay person named Mary, a woman pregnant with child.  Her husband is named Michael (not Joseph — that was Toller’s son, remember?) Oh but do take note of these names. Their biblical allusions are not an accident. Side note: Esther (Victoria Hill) is the choir director with whom he has a past relationship. Anyway back to Mary. She is seeking help regarding her spouse who is consumed by radical environmentalist beliefs. Michael is apparently prone to violent acts that promote his cause. His anguish over the ecological state of the Earth is so strong he doesn’t even wish to bring his child into this world. We’re talking abortion mixed with eco-terrorism – two topics guaranteed to derail even the most pleasant dinner party. Toller’s rather dispassionate response is that the trauma of taking a life is much worse than having to endure the trauma of the world.

Over time, Michael’s climate-change opinions have a negative influence on Toller’s religious faith. That’s not to say the screenplay presents Michael’s secular misery as something to admire. Plainly he is mentally ill with deeply rooted emotional problems. His wife, on the other hand, is the optimism at the center of this trio. She may share her husband’s respect for the planet, but not his dire methods. As the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, she resists her husband’s immoral discontent. Toller, on the other hand, does not. He is the preacher who has chosen a devotion to God as his raison d’être.  Toller’s existential crisis is his complete undoing.  Yet the reason for Michael’s profound effect on the pastor never seems clearly delineated. Toller becomes obsessed with the corporations responsible for the most damage to the Earth. However, it’s more than mere environmental matters at the root of his ennui.  The Abundant Life Church, with its acceptance of donations from one of those same powerful polluting corporations, is his downfall as well.  The system is broken. Yet he makes no attempt to fix it in any meaningful or constructive way.

First Reformed is the depiction of a man unhinged. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, he grows more and more despondent.  It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus’ agony there was so deep he sweat blood.  In a genial display of concern, Jeffers lightly admonishes Toller. “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”  Thank you.  Can I get an amen up in here?  First Reformed is a bleak film that subdues the viewer with fixed shots and minimalist style. The grim portrait is unyielding for most of the narrative and then at the eleventh hour offers something to contemplate with its parting image.  The abrupt “resolution” is a bit of a head-scratcher but perhaps a rare moment of hope in a drama about despair.

06-04-18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Posted in Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on May 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

solo_a_star_wars_story_ver17STARS3.5Solo: A Star Wars Story is number two in the Star Wars anthology installments.  2016’s Rogue One was an unqualified success. It earned $532 million in the U.S. alone so expectations were that this would do similar business.  It didn’t come close to even the lowest industry projections.  Where Rogue One earned $155m in its opening 3-day weekend, Solo earned $84.8m. $103m if you want to count Memorial day but coming up short even with an extra 4th day makes its performance seem even worse.  I’m surprised.  I’ll say right off the bat that I enjoyed this adventure. So did most critics according to the aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes where it currently holds a 70% approval rating. However, I think the box office is a necessary introduction to a detailed discussion of the film.

Solo explores the early adventures of Han Solo and how he came to meet the Wookiee Chewbacca, the charming smuggler Lando Calrissian, and acquire the Millennium Falcon.  So yeah it’s another origin story.  Apparently,  one that nobody really needed based on its chilly reception at the box office.  The events precede 1977’s Star Wars. That’s A New Hope to anyone too young to remember the original title. It’s a very dependable production thanks to two veterans: director Ron Howard and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The former stepped in after original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, after having completed at least three-quarters of principal photography, were fired by Lucasfilm.  The latter wrote The Empire Strikes Back so Kasdan’s presence needs no justification.  In fact, both of these stalwarts belie the quality of this solid achievement.

After Han’s love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is captured, he decides to enlist as a pilot for the Empire.  In time, he is apprehended as well and thrown into a pit where the monster there is none other than Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). The two bond over Han’s ability to speak the Wookiee’s language. The two break out together and meet up with three thieves posing as fighters: Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend Val (Thandie Newton), and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). They are working for a well-dressed crime lord named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Han agrees to aid in their efforts to steal a hyperfuel known as coaxium.  Given that the starship gas is being transported aboard a vehicle, the chronicle becomes a high-speed train heist on the ice cold planet of Vandor. Han reunites with Qi’ra who introduces him to Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his sassy politically correct droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She is both Lando’s navigator and apparently companion as well.

Solo is at heart an inessential tale. It plays to those who crave a backstory to one specific character. I’ll invoke the term “fan service” because that is exactly what this is. Crowd-pleasing details for The Empire Strikes Back obsessives. I see nothing wrong with giving aficionados what they want. Granted the focus does limit the potential audience though. I saw Empire in a theater back in 1980 so I consider myself the intended audience.  Both actors Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover do a commendable job of invoking the cadence of their future selves. I appreciated the elementary plot and breezy atmosphere. The meticulous, although dark, production design is quite impressive as well.  The drama will still keep you in suspense. The narrative plays with the allegiances of certain people. It’s not always clear where the loyalties of a supporting cast member may lie. Still, the screenplay keeps things rather straightforward. There is a refreshing simplicity that permeates Solo that makes this saga very satisfying. Our modern era has a tendency to overexplain things.  Compare this to Rogue One if you need an example. Convoluted minutiae, a dense plot and ever-shifting time frames doesn’t add to my enjoyment. The restraint shown here is an admirable feat. This is good old-fashioned fun. Nothing more unfortunately, but also nothing less.

05-24-18

Avengers: Infinity War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 29, 2018 by Mark Hobin

avengers_infinity_war_ver2STARS3.5There’s no denying that Avengers: Infinity War is a most impressive undertaking. The internet recently confirmed this back in March when a series of memes dubbed the movie “The most ambitious crossover event in history” followed by alternate examples of when two other fictional pop culture universes collided. Infinity War is the apex of a decade’s worth of installments. All eighteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been leading up to this picture, or at least that’s what we were promised. A drama in which all, or at least most, of the Avengers would unite against a common threat. You see there’s this evil guy named Thanos. He wants to collect these things called Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of humanity. We’ve already seen this brute pop up in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. But now he’s taken center stage. The antagonist is made to be the central focus around which all of our favorites can unite against.

This is a saga about what happens when good faces off against evil in a series of combat scenes. The action is connected by quieter moments in which people discuss things. The good news is, these moments of conversation are well written. Let’s give credit to a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America films – The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier and Civil War) that manages to juggle a ridiculous amount of speaking parts and still captivate our interest. The best parts of Infinity War are the opportunities to see allies that have never shared the screen, interact with each other. Instead of a wild open-ended free-for-all, it deftly commands some organization by compartmentalizing like-minded personalities into vignettes.

Certain individuals really get their moment to stand out. Watching alpha male Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) go toe to toe with another dominant spirit like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in a heated exchange is a comical delight. The same goes for when megalomaniac Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) converses with the egotistical temperament of sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). During another encounter in Wakanda, the Scarlet Witch has her back up against the wall in a clash with Proxima Midnight, one of Thanos’ crew. Black Widow and Okoye come to her aid in a rousing display of female sisterhood. Unfortunately, the script must reduce some characters to surprisingly lackluster personalities in their designated scenes. With his beard, Chris Evans feels more like Paul Bunyan than Captain America in his limited appearance. On the other hand, Thanos as the villain of the piece is given an incredible amount of attention. He’s fully a CGI creation with a facial motion capture performance by Josh Brolin. Granted the entire plot is built around Thanos but I would have reduced his role for the opportunity to give some other people a chance to shine – Black Panther for example. His screen time is frustratingly restrained.

In many respects, Infinity War is fashioned around the Guardians of the Galaxy and it is these heroes, along with Thor, that are utilized the most. In particular, Thanos and Gamora have a prior history that informs much of the storyline. I’m not sure if I completely bought into his inner turmoil, but I’ll give the script points for trying to inject some emotional stakes. What ultimately keeps me engrossed is a sense of humor. This often takes the form of memorable one-liners that touch our funny bone. Star Lord has always been good for some hilarious observations. I’m not saying it’s the wittiest thing he’s ever said, but once Star Lord calls Thanos’ chin a giant ball sack, I couldn’t unsee it for the rest of the film. #unsettling. Another nagging feeling that affects me in all these pictures, is when some character suddenly manifests an unexpected burst of power that makes you wonder why they waited so long to do just THAT. Okoye gets perhaps the funniest quip when the Scarlet Witch finally decides to join the confrontation in Wakanda.

If you’re already invested, as millions already are, you won’t be disappointed. Avengers: Infinity War does not present a self-contained, single-part story.  It wasn’t advertised as such, but this is essentially part 1 in a five-hour movie.  Part 2 is ostensibly due May 3, 2019, when Avengers 4 will be released. What can you really say about a simple narrative where who lives and who dies is the ultimate spoiler? That’s not what captivates our attention. You came to a production like this to see the camaraderie of champions you love, amusing jokes and big fantastic battles. It delivers in that realm. As a bombastic piece of entertainment that unites at least 27 characters with speaking parts along with an assortment of other entities, it’s miraculously enjoyable. In an adventure where the stakes are the very existence of the entire universe, it’s hard to take anything very seriously. You know things aren’t always as they seem. The ending is a somewhat less than satisfying experience, but I suppose that’s the price you pay for a cliffhanger. Avengers: Infinity War promises a doozy. Bring on Avengers 4!

04-26-18

The Death of Stalin

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

death_of_stalinSTARS4The Death of Stalin is a political satire about the power struggle that occurs after the infamous leader (or more appropriately – dictator) of the Soviet Union suffers a stroke and dies. The aftermath has a major effect, plunging the ruling government into a genuine free-for-all where control is seemingly up for grabs. The production had a most curious journey to the screen. Obviously, the characters are based on actual historical figures. However, the property began as a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The screenplay was then adapted by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows.  The film details the events in October 1953 after the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that’s a terrific starting point for any great comedy.  In fact, the resulting power play that occurs is so ridiculous it could only be true. Be that as it may, the details of the ensuing crisis is infused with a bit of whimsical conjecture.

The depiction is a sensational ensemble piece of people who fight over Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) vacant seat. There’s Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), his advisor vs. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. These two are directly at odds. They try to manipulate a coterie of peripheral characters that include Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), First Deputy Premier, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the most celebrated Soviet military commander of World War II, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), originally the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but subsequently placed on his enemies list, and lastly Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend), the famed communist’s son. Well-informed history buffs will be in absolute heaven. For others, it can be a lot to grasp. I’ll admit there were times I was a little confused as to who is aligned with whom.

The Death of Stalin is such a literate comedy. So packed with intelligence and wit. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of one-liners and quotable dialogue. It can get somewhat impenetrable, but for those with the right mindset, it is a most rewarding experience. Director Armando Iannucci cleverly utilizes real occurrences and then embellishes for the purposes of parody. In the U.S. the director is probably best known for creating Veep, the HBO TV series starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s full of political satire as well. Right from the start, the circumstances here are completely absurd. A live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 has just been broadcast over the radio waves. Stalin requests a recording of the concerto. The trouble is, none was made. Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) frantically endeavors to restage the entire concert, including bringing in random people to recreate the commotion of the audience. It’s just as bizarre as it sounds.  Things only get more outlandish from there.

There is something inherently satisfying about taking the exemplars of pure evil and making them buffoons. The film makes a lot of concessions in the name of comedy. For example, no Russian is spoken. The actors don’t even attempt a fake accent. They speak English as they would in their everyday life, cockney diction included!  It’s a bold but welcome choice. Elsewhere the screenplay wisely references the egregious sins of Lavrentiy Beria without unnecessarily dwelling on their legitimate horror. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he commands at one point. The execution ordered with all the calm demeanor of selecting an entree off a dinner menu.  Despite the subject, it remains comical, even when dramatizing the physical demise of Stalin. The exhibition of his body falling to the ground produces a loud thud. Hearing the noise, the two bumbling guards outside his room debate whether they should investigate. Too afraid, they don’t. When they finally realize he is ill, it would make sense to find a doctor. Ironically all the good physicians have either been killed or sent to the gulags. No one wants to treat him for fear of reprisal by the state. I could go on and on and on with more hard to believe examples. The funeral scene is my favorite, but I’ve said enough. I’ve tempted you with the history, now see the way it’s been exploited for laughs. The script shrewdly mixes what literally happened with some creative augmentations for the sake of humor. The amazing thing is the root of these events actually transpired. How it all played out is another story, but that’s where the fun of this chronicle begins.

04-16-18

A Quiet Place

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

quiet_placeSTARS3.5In the climax of a thriller, tension is often extracted when the main character is hiding from a dangerous threat lurking nearby.  It could be another person, an animal, an alien, whatever. You name it. As long as they don’t make noise, they’ll be OK. We hold our breath praying that our hero doesn’t give himself away. The menace looms closer. The protagonist’s heart beats faster. Our hearts beat faster in the audience. The stress can be unbearable. A Quiet Place is extremely clever. The story takes the crucial element of a horror film and makes that apex the entire picture. The anxiety is non-stop for the duration of the production.  It’s extremely compelling.

Things are hushed right from the beginning. A Quiet Place doesn’t waste time with exposition, but we can sort of gather info as things develop. We’re in the very near future. Earth has been taken over by some really scary looking aliens that prey on human beings. As long as people remain silent, they are safe. Make a sound, and individuals run the risk of being discovered. The Abbotts are a family simply trying to stay alive. You’ll find out within the first few minutes how hard that is. There’s Lee (John Krasinski), the father, mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds). She happens to be deaf, both in the drama and in real life. Regan has two brothers as well: Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward). Complicating matters is when Evelyn becomes pregnant.   Psst….babies are kind of noisy.

A Quiet Place is an effective horror tale that entertains as it plays. To this fan, actor John Krasinski will forever be Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office. Clearly a man of many talents, he directed and co-wrote this screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. He directed his real-life wife Emily Blunt who plays his fictional wife in the story.  That makes the role easier.  They’ve been married since 2010.  No need to feign onscreen chemistry.  They’ve had plenty of practice.  They’re the couple at the center of a very interesting but uncomplicated idea. For long stretches, there is virtually no sound at all. The tension is unbearably intense at times. The experience will require absolute silence in the theater too.   It will certainly be a most demanding test of a modern audience to not make a peep while watching a horror film. Obviously talking and cell phones are always forbidden but I’d recommend no food or drink as well. Loud popcorn eating and rusting candy wrappers were present at my screening, along with some hilariously exaggerated gasps as well. I could’ve done without the distractions. I’m not usually obsessive about such things, but go see this particular movie in a packed theater and then tell me I was wrong.

A Quiet Place is a sharp thriller made on a shoestring budget for only $17 million. Judging from the grosses this weekend it looks like it will ultimately reap at least 10 times that amount. I especially love when inexpensive productions (that I like) make a huge profit.  It proves you don’t always have to spend a great deal of money to earn a lot of money.  You simply need a good idea.  It doesn’t even have to be totally original either.  Director John Krasinski’s influences are simple and unmistakable. Like 1979’s Alien, these monsters are really big and ugly. Also like that feature, part of the giddy apprehension is how they’re introduced ever so carefully over time.  Just a glimpse of one here, another flash of one there.  These beasts cannot see, but they have extremely sensitive hearing.  The beautifully abhorrent details of the creatures become more and more familiar as the story wears on. “Don’t make a sound” was a gimmick recently used in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. That was good too, but A Quiet Place is more elegant and family friendly.  It’s rated PG-13.  It’s also incredibly exciting. Do go and enjoy it right now. Just please shut your trap when you do.

04-05-18

Ready Player One

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on April 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ready_player_one_ver2STARS3It has been nearly a decade since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was the last time Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) actually directed the kind of live-action adventure that made him THE highest-grossing director worldwide.  That alone makes Ready Player One something to be excited about. The production is an adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. His novel was set in a dystopian future 2044 about a teenaged protagonist that simply wants to solve a 3 part quest in a virtual reality video game.

In Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is from “The Stacks.” The name denotes a decaying trailer park where vehicles are stacked on top of one another so more people can live in the same space.  This is apparently because of overpopulation problems and possibly economic ones as well. Existence is a bummer and so to escape, citizens turn to the OASIS, a hyper-realistic 3D virtual reality video game. The game itself is presented as something of a paradise. People enjoy the OASIS. The real world may be a dystopia, but virtual reality is not. Within the OASIS, you can literally be anyone. For reasons I still don’t understand, Wade chooses to look like a frail teen named Parzival. He’s the expression of an unexceptional anime character. Within the game, he frequently interacts with Aech (Lena Waithe), a huge muscular mechanic, as well as the samurai Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Never having met any of these people, Wade only knows them from their chosen avatar.  Their physical appearance in the real world is a mystery…initially.

The OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Eccentric billionaire Halliday is no longer with us.  However before he died, he announced that he had hidden an Easter egg within the OASIS that would be accessible after three keys were found. Collect the keys and his fortune (and control of the OASIS) is yours. Holy shades of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory! This mission forms the crux of the story. Everyone wants to win. Wade and his friends want to escape the very mire of their existence. The main antagonist is the evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Sorrento has rounded up a number of players to find the keys for him. He seeks to take over the OASIS and exploit it to augment his already massive fortune. To be honest, he and Wade ostensibly want the same thing but Sorrento is willing to murder to get what he wants so that’s where the narrative makes it OK to root for Wade and not Sorrento. I’m not sure if Sorrento’s personal style was supposed to recall Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club but given the film is all about the pop culture of a certain era, I’ll assume the casting choice was intentional.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent two paragraphs detailing the backstory for a movie in which the plot is so weak. The aforementioned set-up is merely an excuse to present a CGI fest of various challenges. The viewer is invited to stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed as we marvel at the technological curiosity before us. Don’t get me wrong.  This is a visual wonder to behold. Each quest involves obtaining a key. The first may be obtained when our fearless hero must finish a race. We see him drive a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a Hot Wheels-style course with jumps and loops. It’s seemingly impossible to even finish. King Kong manages to stop him in his tracks. The competition is run more than once. It’s during the revisit where we’re dazzled by some fantastic perspective shots. It’s a dizzying spectacle. It’s here where he meets love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She laments that her avatar is much more attractive than her real appearance. Then we meet her and she’s actually gorgeous. Oh sure she has a birthmark on her face, but she’s still very pretty. Her despair that he won’t find her beautiful is somewhat annoying.

Screenwriter Ernest Cline co-adapted the screenplay from his own book with Zak Penn. A big part of his novel were pop culture allusions.  Cline has a fondness for very particular things.  The author was born in 1972 and suffice it to say that the closer your birthdate matches his, the more likely you will identify with his points of reference. He occasionally acknowledges more recent things: the spaceship Serenity from the TV show Firefly for example. Though examples from 2000 on are rare. His treasured memories are mostly focused on the late 70s early 80s. His fiction was a love letter to fellow fanboys that obsess over comics (Superman, Batman), music (Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran) movies (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant) and video games (cartridges for the Atari 2600) of his childhood.

There’s a hip self-awareness that savvy fans will appreciate. A key element of the Ready Player One novel was specialized geek culture.  However, Steven Spielberg has wisely opened up that narrow focus and cited things that nearly everyone with a casual awareness of mainstream tastes can enjoy.  We’ve seen this done before in the movies. The Cabin in the Woods played with the manipulation of various tropes perhaps even more successfully, but the joy is similar. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the second key concerns an extended walkthrough of a certain movie. This is a departure from what happens in the book but it’s my most favorite setpiece. It practically justifies the entire production.

Ready Player One is a fine film. It’s entertaining enough but it doesn’t have the organic components of Spielberg’s very best work. I get that it’s all about virtual reality and so there’s very little that is tangible about this story. The frenzy keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We observe individuals in action but we never feel like we understand the experience or the intimacy of these people. It’s a technologically manufactured CGI amusement park ride, not an actual narrative motivated by plot and characterization. It’s no masterpiece, but it isn’t a disaster either. I’ll admit the 140-minute runtime can occasionally be exhausting. Yet there should be enough thrills here to satisfy most viewers. I was appeased.

03-29-18

Love, Simon

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on March 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

love_simon_ver2STARS4Love, Simon has all the hallmarks of a conventional teen romantic comedy. There’s the attractive cast of young adults that form a group of friends, the well-meaning parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) that want to be hip, and the principal (Tony Hale) that unsuccessfully relates with the students. We get setpieces at all the predictable locations: the big house party, the football game, the local diner. There’s the thread of gossip that informs the main plot, the poppy soundtrack, and voiceover from the main character to narrate the story. It’s about a boy coming to terms with love for the first time. On the surface, this would appear to be another typical coming of age tale. The difference is that boy is struggling with feelings for the same sex.

Interestingly, Love, Simon isn’t revolutionary for the subject matter itself. The portrait of a gay youth has been tackled before. Most recently by notable art-house hits Call Me By Your Name and last year’s Moonlight. No, what makes this production so groundbreaking the manner in which this idea is presented. This is a coming-of-age tale reimagined in the style of a John Hughes’ film from the 1980s. I’m talking movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. That easy accessibility is unlike anything that has ever come out before.  No pun intended.  We’ve seen independent art house offerings that can be difficult for the masses to appreciate and then there are the mainstream efforts where that individual is relegated to the role of the sassy best friend. This is the first of its kind to put that teen as the central character and put out by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox).

Our narrative begins rather matter-of-factly when Simon (Nick Robinson) begins to talk about his family. His account is a loving portrayal of a traditional upper-middle-class suburban life. The chronicle is set in motion when an anonymous fellow classmate calling himself “Blue” confesses he is gay on the school’s blog. Intrigued, Simon decides to e-mail “Blue” directly. The two strike up a pen pal relationship via e-mail. This is the 21st century after all. They each reveal bits and pieces about themselves without ever divulging who they are. Simon calls himself Jacques (“Jacques a dit” is French for Simon Says). Over time, their bond deepens and Simon begins to have feelings for him. But who is Blue? This is the central conundrum of the saga.

Despite the familiar trappings, Love Simon is ultimately elevated by a fresh and appealing cast. Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer, Jurassic World) stars as the titular character. Compassionate and affable, he’s a likable presence. Much of the fun is derived from determining Blue’s true identity using clues in the e-mails. There are a few potential candidates. This all occurs in between hanging out with his classmates who are none the wiser about his secret. His 3 best pals are Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp ) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). Their interactions with each other are a charming feature of the movie. They have a palpable camaraderie. Conflict arrives when class clown Martin (Logan Miller) inadvertently discovers Simon’s e-mail correspondence.

The object of Simon’s desire does make this profile of growing up distinct. However, that difference alone wouldn’t mean anything without a compelling story. Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger of TV’s This is Us fame, skillfully adapt the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. They capture the general hardships of growing up that are a part of every teen’s journey into adulthood. The awkwardness of adolescence is universal and that is the part that will ring true for all audiences, It’s surprising how natural everything plays out.  Director Greg Berlanti keeps the atmosphere lighthearted and comedic. The screenplay never feels like it has any ulterior motive other than to entertain. It’s merely another well-written teen romantic comedy, but from a slightly different perspective.

03-15-18