Archive for 2018

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

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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

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 26, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ralph_breaks_the_internet_wreckit_ralph_two_ver8STARS3Wreck-It Ralph (2012) was a fine movie but not the Disney animated feature most deserving of a sequel.  In their comparatively short history, Disney subsidiary Pixar has revisited their previous hits quite often.  Walt Disney Animation Studios traditionally has not.  There have only been four (4) follow-ups in the Disney Animated Canon since 1937.  These are not their most oft-remembered films: The Three Caballeros (1944), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000, and Winnie the Pooh (2011).  With Frozen 2, coming out next year, I worry the dependence is becoming a habit.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is currently their fifth.  It’s a pleasant diversion but destined to join the sequel bin as well.  Like the majority of their kind, less delightful than the original.  Wreck-It Ralph detailed an existential crisis of sorts.  It was about a baddie who deep down really was a sweetheart of a guy.  The intellectualism was pitched toward a very young age so while the narrative didn’t stimulate an adult brain much, at least the drama had heart.  Ralph Breaks the Internet is something else entirely.  It’s noisier, more destructive, and amps up the pop culture references.  The heart, however, has been dialed way down.

It doesn’t help that Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) is an even bigger part of this saga.  Wreck-It Ralph was charming before the pint-sized princess showed up.  You may recall she was a pixelated programming glitch in the candy-coated kart-racing game Sugar Rush.  Simply put, she was a brat.  The close friendship that Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope forged in the first entry at least made her tolerable.  Her character hasn’t changed.  If anything, she has become more self-centered.  In this chapter, Vanellope is bored.  She has grown tired of the repetitive nature of her racing game.  One day she ventures off the prescribed track.  This leads to a series of events where the physical steering wheel on the outside of the console that is used to play the game, gets broken. Unable to replace the part, the arcade owner Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill) unplugs the game leaving the denizens inside homeless.  Yet all is not lost.  Litwak has recently introduced Wi-Fi to the arcade.  Ralph and Vanellope can visit the internet via the newly installed Wi-Fi router.  They plan to locate and purchase a new steering wheel for Sugar Rush.

Naturally, a journey into cyberspace is a great set-up for lots of gags.  The real internet is a wild and scary place but here it has been rendered unimaginatively as just a chaotic metropolis.  I’ve said this before, but as long as movies keep doing it, I’ll keep calling it out.  Recontextualizing something you’ve seen elsewhere by simply appropriating it into in your story is a very lazy form of comedy.  Ralph Breaks the Internet has nothing interesting or insightful to say about things like YouTube or Instagram or Twitter.  The script is simply cognizant that these social networks exist and that they can feature vapid things.  For example, the screenplay is aware that people do indeed film themselves eating unbearably spicy foods.  It’s relying on the reaction “Hey! I’ve watched things like that on YouTube before!”  If the idea of seeing such things in a cartoon makes you laugh, then perhaps you will be delighted by the level of humor presented here.

The buzz-worthy scene occurs when Vanellope enters the online hub of the Magic Kingdom and encounters a roomful of Disney princesses.  The spectacle would reek of smug self-promotion if it wasn’t so contemptuous of its own product.  The Disney studio lampoons what its critics have alleged for years, that their princesses are anachronistic shells of an outdated trope.  Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, and many more appear.  They’re all here but they kind of blend together as one insipid personality.  The girl from Brave is somewhat differentiated because nobody can understand the way she talks.  She’s ridiculed for her accent.  I’ve heard of biting the hand that feeds you, but this takes the saying to a whole new level.

Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t as appealing as the first.  It’s bright and colorful as it plays but this fable has a troubling moral.  While in the World Wide Web, Vanellope is seduced by the nihilistic and violent Slaughter Race. It’s a dark and gritty Grand Theft Auto-style action adventure game with cars.  There she meets the strikingly beautiful driver Shank (Gal Gadot) in whom she confides her dissatisfaction with her life and more shockingly, Ralph himself.  This is after the poor chap has been humiliating himself in a series of viral videos for her sake.  He’s been trying to earn enough money through “likes” so he can buy the steering wheel she needs for her game to work again.  That’s gratitude for ya.  Back in 1939, Dorothy famously learned “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz.  Vanellope feels the exact opposite.  She hates where she’s from.  Ralph’s attachment to his dear friend is presented as his flaw.  Simple types that love unconditionally get no respect in this universe.  He’s a bit of an oaf.  Some might even call him a rube.  Vanellope is a woman on the move and this big galoot is holding her back.  She has no use for such provincial types.  I, however, happen to admire that kind of unreciprocated devotion.  (whispers) Psst….hey Ralph, get out of that relationship quick!   She’s toxic.

11-22-18

Bohemian Rhapsody Podcast – “Out Now With Aaron and Abe”

Posted in Podcast with tags on November 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

I was guest this week on Out Now With Aaron and Abe

From the site:

This week’s Out Now with Aaron and Abe has the group under pressure to talk about a killer Queen movie. If only everyone was going radio ga ga for it. Aaron is joined by Joseph Braverman, Mark Hobin, and Markus Robinson to discuss Bohemian Rhapsody. The group a large conversation over whether or not this Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic does proper justice to the legendary rock group. Among topics covered, we have a fun round of Know Everybody (3:28), some Out Now Quickies™ (6:14), Trailer Talk for Rocketman (36:47), the main review (42:24), Games (1:25:30), and Out Now Feedback (1:35:50). We then wrap things up (1:47:01) and have some bloopers (2:07:50) following this week’s closeout song. So now, if you’ve got an hour or so to kill…

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on November 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

can_you_ever_forgive_meSTARS4.5Melissa McCarthy is extremely accomplished and has enjoyed enormous success. She was on two popular TV series Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly.  She has hosted Saturday Night Live on 5 separate occasions garnering an Emmy nomination each time for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. She eventually won in 2017. Her breakthrough in widespread popularity came in 2011 with the crude, but very funny farce Bridesmaids and an uncharacteristically Oscar-nominated performance. Many hugely successful comedies followed including Identity Thief and The Heat, earning millions at the box office. McCarthy has perfected slapstick to an art form, and yet, the cognoscenti still dismiss her brand of humor as low brow. I don’t feel she gets the respect she deserves.  In both St. Vincent and Spy she displayed considerable acting chops for which she didn’t receive near enough acclaim.  However, this time I hope the film is just too incredible to ignore.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biographical drama about Lee Israel.  She was a freelance writer from New York that contributed entertainment articles to The New York Times, Soap Opera Digest and other periodicals during the 1960s.  By the 70s and 80s, she had written biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, journalist / What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen and cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.  Kilgallen even made the New York Times Best Seller list in 1979.  These are not the works by which Lee Israel is remembered.  Our story takes place years later.  Changing tastes have deemed Israel’s writing style and subjects no longer in vogue.  Her literary agent (Jane Curtin) informs her that her writing is outdated.  “No one wants to read a biography about Fanny Brice!” By the 1990s, She has fallen on hard times unable to pay the veterinary bills for her sick cat.  In order to make ends meet she parts with a personal letter written to her from Katherine Hepburn.  Apparently, people are willing to pay for such memorabilia.  Later while at the library doing research, she discovers another letter hidden within the pages of the book she is reading.  This one penned by the actress/comedian Fanny Brice. She sells this letter for a small sum as well.  Israel is told that a higher amount would’ve been paid for more interesting content.  This triggers an idea in the skillful writer.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the profile of a woman who utilizes her talents, albeit in an illegal way, to make ends meet.  She begins by creatively forging letters by notable people like Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, and Noël Coward.  She then passes them off as if written in their voice, to autograph dealers around the country.  The film’s title comes from a passage in a forgery she writes by Dorothy Parker.  It’s clear that her abilities as a witty wordsmith, as well as a historian of these people, allowed her to convincingly pass these pieces off for a couple of years.  Of course, it caught up to her.  It must be an amusing irony that Lee Israel ultimately profited off of her crimes by writing this memoir about them.  Her book was adapted into this screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.  Given that, it’s not surprising that the movie’s tone is sympathetic.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is endlessly compelling.  Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) directs with a light touch.  As a personality, Lee Israel is a grouchy, curmudgeonly presence.  Yet her animosity towards people has a way of endearing herself to the audience as well.  An argument with a bookseller has her later pretending to be his neighbor.  She prank calls the guy to say that their apartment is on fire.  She has a deep love for her cat because a pet doesn’t let you down.  There are some humans that she can stomach.  Actress Dolly Wells portrays a bookshop owner with whom she strikes up a friendship.  She also has a very close friend.  He is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging gay dandy of questionable character. He becomes an accomplice in her dirty dealings.  Together these frequenters of bars form a duo of misfits united in an “us against the world” duo that is heartbreakingly poignant.  Lee is rather cold to Jack, and that’s before he makes a serious mistake that will have dire emotional consequences.  Yet these two need each other’s friendship if only to make life bearable.  It is their chemistry that elevates Can You Ever Forgive Me? from something very good into something pretty great.  I hope to hear the names of both McCarthy and Grant on Tuesday, January 22 when the Oscar nominations are announced.

11-05-18

Halloween

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

halloween_ver3STARS3.5We’ve waited 40 years for this. That’s how long it has been since that fateful Halloween night when Michael Myers unleashed his reign of terror on the inhabitants of Haddonfield, Illinois. Now he’s back having been incarcerated in a maximum-security mental health facility for all that time. There have been 7 sequels to that first film, a Rob Zombie remake (2007) which was also followed up with its own sequel (2009). Jaime Lee Curtis has appeared in three of the previous installments: Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween: Resurrection. Despite all that, this current incarnation conveniently disregards everything that has happened before. Halloween (2018) purports to be a direct continuation to the 1978 feature ignoring 4 decades of convoluted and sometimes conflicting backstories. The takeaway is, you don’t need to have seen any of the previous installments to appreciate this production. In fact, it’s probably better if you haven’t.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) didn’t endure the events of that fateful night very well. She has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Sporting long wild unkempt hair, she lives in a remote area on the outskirts of town. Twice divorced and having lost custody of her daughter, Laurie believes the world is an evil place. Her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer), now an adult, isn’t convinced of that.  She resents the way she was brought up.  Karen is married to Ray (Toby Huss) and they have their own teen daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  Allyson is more sympathetic to her grandmother’s trauma.  Laurie has built a heavily fortified home equipped with booby traps.  She has prepared for what she believes to be Michael’s (Nick Castle) inevitable return.  Of course, her suspicions are correct.  The bus transporting Michael and several other patients from the facility doesn’t look secure enough to hold a class of kindergartners.  It certainly isn’t strong enough to hold violent mental patients.  Naturally it crashes and of course Michael escapes.

Halloween essentially takes the bare bones plot of the 1978 classic and simply reproduces it for an audience that is primed to feel nostalgic for the 1978 picture.  I mean even the title is exactly the same — not even a number to differentiate it from the original.  Over the years, slasher flicks have developed their clichés.  Typically oversexed teenagers are the victims.  In the new film, however, Michael begins his serial killings with the murder of a couple of podcasters (Jefferson Hall & Rhian Rees) who want to study him.  Director David Gordon Green also co-wrote the script with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley.  They liberally sample from the first movie.  When police officer Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) discovers a body sitting in a ghost-sheet costume — it recalls the same one Michael wore just before he killed babysitter Linda (P.J. Soles) in the first Halloween.  Hawkins goes downstairs to find someone pinned to the wall with a knife in the identical way that Linda’s boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) was slain in the 1978 Halloween.

Director David Gordon Green relies heavily on the spirit of the original. Even John Carpenter’s iconic score is heard. It’s only slightly modified with the help of collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.  Slasher films aren’t generally known for their complex plots and this one keeps things refreshingly simple.   When the picture deviates from the blueprint of Halloween (1978) is when this version becomes satisfying.  The most innovative addition is that the hunted Laurie isn’t a helpless victim, but rather a tenacious woman ready for her adversary.   In the past, the killer’s point of view was voyeuristic.   The Boogeyman preyed on promiscuous young teens.   However, this is a horror film for the #MeToo era.   The audience never doubts for a second that Laurie isn’t able to take care of herself.   She is like Linda Hamilton in The Terminator or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.   The narrative develops into a revenge thriller depicting a powerful heroine that is perfectly capable of handling herself, thank you very much.   As such, it’s not particularly scary.   It’s more like a catharsis for fans of the original.   Still, there is a winking sense of tension that recalls the earlier movie.   Fans will call it an homage. Critics might say rip-off.   I kind of fall somewhere in the middle.

10-18-18

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

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