Archive for 2019

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

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Captain Marvel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on March 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

captain_marvel_ver2STARS3It’s hard to believe, but after 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel is the first to star a female lead.  I still don’t understand why we didn’t get a Black Widow movie back in 2010 when that character was introduced in Iron Man 2.  The DC Extended Universe beat Marvel to the punch by two years with Wonder Woman, a critical and box office hit in the summer of 2017.  Much has been made of Captain Marvel‘s trailblazing status.  I mean it was released on International Women’s Day.  The drama is so retro.  Ok so yes, the feature is set in 1995 but it actually feels like it was made back then.

Captain Marvel is a prequel to the entire MCU.  The adventure concerns an officer in the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers.  This is the saga of how she became Captain Marvel through a series of events, Yup it’s another origin story.  The problem is she has amnesia. We know who she is.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t, so she wanders through a large part of the film on an “emotional journey” with her mind in a funky haze.  That makes her personality kind of nil.  She interacts with a youthful looking Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury minus the eyepatch.  For once the de-aging technology looks pretty amazing.  Jackson gets to see out of both eyes and he has a nice repartee with Brie Larson.  He helps her unravel the mystery of her past.  Also of note is Ben Mendelsohn who plays a shapeshifting Skrull villain named Talos.  As of late, he’s been playing underwritten parts that could simply be labeled as “old evil white guy” (Rogue One, Ready Player One).  Here he gets a part with depth worthy of his talents.  He rises to the challenge.  Talos is not all that he seems and he’s a highlight in a movie in desperate need of them.

The best scenes of Captain Marvel take place on Planet C-53.  That’s Earth to you newbies. Before we can get there, the production is saddled with the worst 20-minute intro ever to grace an MCU film.  It all takes place in space.  Carol Danvers, who thinks her name is Vers, reports to commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who is a Kree.  She believes herself to be one as well.  She ends up on Earth which is the site for a galactic conflict between these two alien populations, the Skrulls and the Krees.  Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are a filmmaking duo known for indies (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story).  It’s the quieter moments where Captain Marvel shines.  Carol meets her longtime friend from the U.S. Air Force, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  The two women have a conversation about something other than a man.  Bechtel test, check.

I hate to invoke a cliché like “been there done that” but it’s too fitting to reject.  The overall sensibility of the presentation is conventionality.  As you’d predict for a film set in the 90s, there are nods to the trappings of the era.  Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Blackberry cell phones, CD ROMs that take forever to load are all visual gags.  The 90s infused soundtrack means we can listen to tunes like No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” while she engages in combat or hear Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” as she enters Mar-Vell’s (Annette Bening ) quarters.  Brief musical snippets pop up here and there.  However, their presence is far less memorable than the way Guardians utilized songs from the 1960s and 1970s.  The problems go deeper than the timeworn habit of invoking familiar references to elicit laughs.  Captain Marvel is encumbered with a narrative that is surprisingly old hat. Expectations in 2019 demand a plot with more innovation than the formulaic story beats presented here.

Captain Marvel was a highly anticipated production. The ending of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War teased the introduction of this character.  She is clearly going to be an important part in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. I still believe this is an acceptable amuse-bouche for the upcoming main course.  The world has been waiting with bated breath.  Sadly this is not the significant episode we imagined.  We waited over a decade for this.  Had this film come out back in 2008 when the MCU began, the simple novelty of a female-led superhero movie would have been enough.  A decade later and things have changed.  Now we also need the thrills to be extraordinary too.  Instead, they’re rather ordinary.  For the first time, Marvel is struggling to keep up with the spirit of the times.

03-07-19

Greta

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

greta_ver2STARS3Neil Jordan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated directors.  He’s the auteur known for helming Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair.  All the aforementioned received widespread critical acclaim.  He actually won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (The Crying Game).  He’s talented to be sure.  However there’s also the director who has directed High Spirits, We’re No Angels and In Dreams, less enthusiastically received pictures of questionable artistic merit.  That’s the director that showed up to direct Greta.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a naive ingenue.  How innocent?  Well, she finds an unattended handbag on a New York subway and proceeds to take the item into her possession.  She means well, she only wants to find its rightful owner.  I don’t know about you, but an abandoned bag in a New York subway screams bomb threat to me in this post 9/11 world, but OK, I’ll accept her lack of judgment.  When she returns the purse she meets one Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a lonely widow who teaches the piano.  Now if art-house thrillers like The Piano Teacher and Elle have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with Isabelle Huppert.  Here the French actress trades on that persona by playing a seemingly kind woman.  Greta reminds Frances of her own recently departed mother. They strike up a rapport.  The female bonding that evolves is not unlike any number of Lifetime movies that center on female friendships. Unfortunately, Greta is not all that she seems.

Stalker movies are the genre that won’t go away.  Narratives about an unhealthy obsession include exemplars like Fatal Attraction, One Hour Photo, Notes on a Scandal and The Gift.  We seem to be drawn to these tales.  The 1990s were a halcyon decade for of the genre.  1992, in particular, was a banner year producing Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The Bodyguard.  Greta could have been a Hitchcockian thriller.   It’s not.  However, it’s still an entertaining throwback to those trashy, classics of yore.  In fact, the story construction is even simpler.  The plot is ridiculously paper thin.

Frances and Greta form this pseudo mother-daughter bond.  Frances lives in a gorgeous loft with her wealthy roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), a brash party girl.  The much shrewder Erica is suspicious of this relationship right from the get-go.   Sure enough, Frances makes a discovery early on that signals Greta isn’t all that she appears to be.  Rather than gradually enter the realm of speculation, the tale simply flips the crazy switch.  The screenplay co-written by Ray Wright (Case 39, The Crazies) and director Neil Jordan has no time for deep character development or motivation.  “My friends say I’m like chewing gum,” Frances initially informs Greta.  “I tend to stick around.”  The silly dialogue kept me amused, but a scene where Huppert spits an actual piece of gum into Chloë Grace Moretz’s hair made me laugh out loud.  Frances is promptly freaked out and Greta grows instantly clingy.  It’s as if 20-30 minutes of the film is missing.  Rarely have I seen such a stately composition go off the rails so quickly.  From then on, it’s a battle of wills as Greta’s increasingly unhinged behavior escalates.

Greta is a tawdry production.  Neill Jordan isn’t above resorting to nauseating visuals for the sake of cheap gore.  A rolling pin and a cookie cutter are utilized as lethal weapons.  This is followed by the use of a hypodermic syringe in an unsettling image I cannot shake, no matter how hard I try.  Then again, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  There’s an element of exuberant glee to the proceedings.  Huppert’s acting prowess is captivating.  The Oscar-nominated actress is so winking, so obviously aware that the script is beneath her, that she digs in with all fours.  If she played it more serious, the mood wouldn’t have been as fun.  She exhibits a maniacal delight that is equally charismatic and frightening.  A table-flip in a crowded restaurant shows a complete lack of restraint.  The events are beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina).  Never underestimate the power of exquisite cinematography.  Meanwhile, Frances appears to be overreacting to such a degree that she doesn’t elicit our sympathy.  After a while, you sort of enjoy her unraveling demeanor.  It’s rare that we should root for the villain in a stalker film.  The campy theatrics are wholeheartedly a plus.  Isabelle Huppert gives life to an otherwise slight drama.

02-28-19

2019 Oscar Results Special on “Out Now” Podcast

Posted in Podcast with tags , , on February 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

2019 Oscars Post Show Recap on Out Now with Aaron and Abe. Aaron Neuwirth, Abraham Moua, Ana Bosch and I discuss our thoughts.  Recorded immediately after the show.

2019 Oscar Predictions on “Out Now” Podcast

Posted in Podcast with tags , , on February 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

I ‘m happy to announce that I was a guest on a special bonus episode of Out Now with Aaron and Abe. We discuss our predictions for what we each think will win at the 91st Academy Awards.  I, Mark Hobin, and Ana Bosch are guests in a round table discussion with hosts Aaron Neuwirth and Abe Moua.  This should help you win your Oscar pool!

 

 

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts with tags on February 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar© Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Documentary

The documentary short category often relies on certain trends. The Holocaust has historically been a popular subject in this category. Surprisingly, 2019 doesn’t contain a single entry having to do with that theme (neither did 2018 actually).  In fact, the last winning doc to do so was The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life in 2014.

That’s not to say they still can’t be classified. 3 of this year’s finalists [End Game, Lifeboat, and Period. End of Sentence] touch upon humanitarian groups dealing with imperative issues. The other two concern hate groups.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst. In some cases I could have flipped entries next to each other, so don’t get too hung up on the lineup.

 

END GAME
USA/40MINS/2018
Directors: ROB EPSTEIN and JEFFREY FRIEDMAN
end-game
Moving depiction of the final stages of life at two San Francisco Bay Area medical facilities: a hospice and a palliative care center.  Both places comfort and provide for people dealing with end of life decisions.  A handful of patients are profiled.  It’s a poignant examination that forces the audience to deliberate over very difficult choices that we will ultimately have to make some day.  One key doctor B.J. Miller, M.D., is head of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.  He knows a thing or two about tragedy having lost 3 of his own limbs in a freak accident.

 

BLACK SHEEP
UK/27MINS/2018
Director: ED PERKINS
BlackSheep
Looking directly into the camera, Cornelius Walker recounts his childhood as a black teenager growing up in the largely white London suburb of Essex.  Blending his own firsthand account with reenactments, he describes his dealings with the local neighborhood of racist peers.  Rather than combat them, he details his desire to fit in with the reprehensible group.  He becomes like them and his transformation, both physical and mental, is chilling.  The extreme lengths he employed to earn their friendship is unsettling.  Points for honesty though and sympathy for the obviously difficult environment to which he was exposed.

Hard to predict which of these five nominees will ultimately win, but most buzz surrounds this one.

 

LIFEBOAT
USA/34MINS/2018
Director: SKYE FITZGERALD

thenewyorker_lifeboatVolunteers from a German nonprofit called Sea-Watch conduct rescue missions in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya.  Many of these North African refugees are fleeing to Europe to escape barbarous conditions at a human trafficking prison.  It’s not entirely clear that their life, after being rescued, will be great.  However, at least they are alive in a much better place than before.  The superior cinematography and music are definitely at a higher level than the other submissions.  The visual spectacle of these unsafe vessels overcrowded to the point that people are literally hanging off the sides, is something you won’t soon forget.

 

PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE.
USA/26MINS/2018
Director: RAYKA ZEHTABCHI
period
In a rural village outside Delhi, India, the discussion of feminine hygiene is so taboo that few have access to sanitary pads.  Let’s face it, a documentary about this subject might even be off-putting to some in the U.S.  Interviews suggest that the men in this remote area don’t have a clear understanding of the female reproductive system.  Many women just use an old cloth and discreetly bury it afterward.  We hear personal stories from ladies who have had difficulty pursuing an education or holding a job.  A female-led startup seeks to change all that by producing and selling (it’s a business after all) affordable pads.  A product that Western society takes for granted becomes a major life-changing commodity in the lives of these women.

 

A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN
USA/7MINS/2018
Director: MARSHALL CURRY
German.jpg
Archival film concerning a 1939 rally of Nazi supporters astonishingly held in New York City at Madison Square Garden.  The gathering drew a crowd of 20,000 people in 1939; two years before America began its involvement in World War II.  This frustratingly brief documentary presents jaw-dropping footage inspiring numerous questions.  Much-needed narration would have been appreciated to provide some context.  The throng is addressed by Fritz Kuhn the leader of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization.  This isn’t revealed, but my own curiosity led me to discover that Kuhn was deported in 1945.

02-16-19

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Drama, Shorts with tags on February 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar© Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Live-Action

The Shorts (live-action and documentary specifically) have a reputation for presenting only the most depressing subjects for public consumption.  I’m sorry to say this year is no exception.

The unintended theme is “boys in peril”.  Marguerite is the sole nonconformist.  As my friend Jonathan Van Dyke observed – you’re likely to need a therapist after watching all of these bleak nominees.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst.

 

SKIN
USA/20MINS/2018
Director: GUY NATTIV
skin
This allegorical drama of just desserts plays out like a 1960’s Twilight Zone episode.  The film’s overall subject is the oft detailed theme of racism.  However, this tale is unique in that you initially meet the child’s father through his supportive eyes.  He appears to be a warm and loving parent at first.  Then a fateful encounter reveals the man to have deep-seated personality flaws.  Tales of revenge are morally questionable but they can be cathartic too.  This particular saga is an efficiently told chronicle with an ultimate twist of comeuppance.

 

FAUVE
CANADA/16MINS/2018
Director: JEREMY COMTE
fauve-film-court-metrage-jeremy-comteRather disturbing tale of two boys’ (Félix Grenier and Alexandre Perreault) game of one-upmanship.  Their back and forth play culminates in a shocking event at an open pit mine.  The story ultimately devolves into terrorizing consequences.  It’s one of those portraits detailing behavior that critics conveniently describe as “toxic masculinity”. That assessment is far too facile.   There’s a lot more at work here that begs deep contemplation.   I was shook.

 

MARGUERITE
CANADA/19MINS/2017
Director: MARIANNE FARLEY
margauritte
This is the story of an aging woman who is being taken care of by a younger caregiver. Marguerite comes to learn that her female nurse, Rachel, has a girlfriend. This becomes a stepping off point for our lead to reflect on her life.  She too longs for a woman in her past.  This is a poignant tale.  Particularly interesting because it’s the only nominee that’s uplifting and diverges from the theme of “boys in peril” that defines every other nominee.   Perhaps that’s why pundits have picked this as the odds on favorite to win.

 

MADRE (MOTHER)
SPAIN/19MINS/2017
Director: RODRIGO SOROGOYEN
live_2
A parent’s worst nightmare. The story concerns Iván, Marta’s 7-year-old son, who calls his mother while vacationing at the beach with her ex-husband.  The entire drama takes place over the duration of one phone call, interrupted by a disconnection at one juncture.  We never see the little boy at the other end, but we do see the mother’s response.  Her terror as she comes to realize the intimate danger that her son faces is palpable.  Loses major points for having absolutely no resolution whatsoever.  This feels like a snippet taken out of context from a much longer horror film.  Frustratingly unfinished.

 

DETAINMENTT
IRELAND/30MINS/2018
Director: VINCENT LAMBE
06_B-2
Detainment is far and away the most controversial all the shorts nominees.  Inspired by the real-life Liverpool murder of James Bulger,  it concerns two boys who kidnapped, then subsequently tortured and killed a 2-year-old child in 1993.  The incident was so stomach churning that despite their young age, the assailants were tried and convicted as adults in the UK.  This particular nominee has attracted dubious attention because Denise Fergus, the actual mother of James Bulger, was “disgusted and upset” by this film.  She’s not wrong.   The narrative is tolerant of the antagonists since it is done from their perspective.  The account seeks to solicit sympathy.  The attackers break down and cry as they come to grips with the severity of what they did.  The short itself is not graphic, but if you’re acquainted with the substantive case, the sympathetic point of view to the aggressors’ situation is extremely unsettling.

02-16-19

Alita: Battle Angel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Romance, Science Fiction with tags on February 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

alita_battle_angel_ver2STARS3.5Alita: Battle Angel is an immersive sci-fi fantasy that plunges the viewer into an imaginary world.  I really enjoyed this production, but no amount of complicated exposition can disguise the fact that it’s essentially a cyberpunk update of 1975’s Rollerball.  It certainly doesn’t start out that way.  It’s the future (naturally) – 2563 to be exact and a cyberphysician (Christoph Waltz) who repairs people with android parts discovers the discarded remains of a female robot in a junkyard.  He takes the head, which houses a still active brain, back to his laboratory and rebuilds her.  He names her Alita, after his deceased daughter.  She is of youthful age and this only cements the fatherly attachment he forms to her well being.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm. The titular cyborg is portrayed by Rosa Salazar.  The actress is in her thirties but she is made to look like a teenager here.  Her appearance is actually a mix of CGI and human performance.  With her somewhat vacant uncharacteristically wide eyes, she resembles a Margaret Keane painting.  She’s got a spark to her personality though.  Her burgeoning attraction to Hugo (Keean Johnson) is more captivating than what you’d expect out of the obligatory love interest role he fulfills.   Hugo also functions as her introduction to this gladiator-style game called Motorball which is a mishmash of football, basketball, and roller derby.  Turns out Alita has quite the talent for the game.

This is fundamentally a martial arts/sci-fi B-movie but it’s given vibrant life with an A-list cast.  Christoph Waltz is the fatherly Geppetto, er uh I mean Dr. Dyson Ido, a cybernetics mastermind.  The seemingly ageless Jennifer Connelly is his ex-wife Chiren, who now works for a nefarious businessman named Vector played by Mahershala Ali.  Fashion-wise he makes a very strong case for a Blade reboot.  Vector hires malevolent cyborgs for the Motorball matches in an attempt to kill Alita for reasons I didn’t completely understand.  His identity is somewhat ill-defined.  He’s definitely a villain and that’s apparently what they do in a dystopian society.  CGI is liberally used to re-imagine scenery and in many cases, the actors as well.  Many figures in the movie are a mix of both organic and fabricated elements.  Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeff Fahey, Edward Norton, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jai Courtney all appear.  Some more recognizably human than others.

The screenplay by James Cameron (Avatar) and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) is fairly standard issue.  When good people do bad things – that’s the level of innovation.  A few characters have this moment.  At times, the narrative morphs in needlessly convoluted ways that are uninteresting.  The crux of the plot is about playing a futuristic sport.  The lively action consistently returns to Motorball time and again, even ending at the arena.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s artistic value in simplicity.  Alita manages to recall both Frankenstein and Pinocchio by way of creating life from a once lifeless body.  This is a story for children.  Director Robert Rodriguez was responsible for Spy Kids and this should charm the same audience.  However, the writers still felt the need to throw in one, and only one, prominent use of the F-word.  The visuals are fun as you’d expect when James Cameron is the producer.  The classic battle of good vs. evil is presented under a pretty veneer of special effects and charismatic actors.   There’s a pure joy here and with a little judicious editing, this could’ve been quite spectacular.  As it stands, it’s fitfully entertaining.

02-14-19