Archive for 2019

Hustlers

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on September 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hustlersSTARS3.5Hustlers is the candy table at a wedding reception – a glittery, blingtastic buffet of cake pops and assorted sweets wrapped in colorful shiny wrappers.  Nutritional content is of dubious value.  As the girls’ fortunes rise so does their wardrobe budget.  There’s rhinestones, chinchilla coats, Chanel sunglasses, Gucci handbags, and Louboutin shoes.  This film knows how to fetishize consumer-driven luxury.  There’s no question the story is captivating too.  It’s impeccably written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, best known for penning the screenplay of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and directing both Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler.  This is the picture that finally (and rightfully) puts the filmmaker on the map with the mainstream.

The account concerns a single mother turned stripper named Dorothy (a.k.a. Destiny at the club) played by Constance Wu.  We begin in the present as she recounts her reminiscence to a reporter (Julia Stiles).  Flash back to 2007.  Destiny lives with her ailing grandmother (Wai Ching Ho) in Queens.  She begins performing at the club to help support her daughter.  There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a dancer with the proverbial heart of gold.  Actually, all of these strippers have hearts of gold in that they truly care for one another.  Maybe not pure 24 karat though.  They desperately want to get paid.  Times have been good.  The guys on Wall Street have been making tons of money.  Many are spending their paychecks at the clubs.  Then the financial crisis of 2008 occurs and the women need to find a way to survive by exploiting the male patrons that are no longer stopping by.   As the morality of the women’s behavior grows more and more questionable, their devotion to one another grows stronger.  The positive side is that this representation is a testament to female empowerment.  Loyalty to each other is their code of ethics.  It may be indefensible but it’s human.  Hey, the mob may kill people Monday through Friday, but they still find time to attend church on Sunday.  It’s these conflicting dichotomies that make people so fascinating.

Hustlers is a well-crafted saga.  Lorene Scafaria adapted the script from “The Hustlers at Scores” a 2015 article published in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.  Strip clubs may not be a setting known for their in-depth presentation of the human condition.  However, Hustlers is a surprisingly provocative and beguiling tale of humanity.  There’s a significance to these shenanigans.  Bringing considerable charisma and dramatic weight to her role is Jennifer Lopez.  She’s also one of the producers as well.  Lopez is perfectly cast as Ramona Vega, a veteran who mentors Destiny.  When the economic bubble bursts, the women’s prosperity is affected in turn.  Ramona may be a stripper but she’s financially savvy.  She treats the men in her life as a business from which to extract money.  Hence the title.  Ramona initially befriends Destiny by taking the girl under her wing.  This literally occurs in a scene up on the roof of a chilly New York winter.  Like a mother bird, Ramona directly invites Destiny to sit beside her within the protective layer of her fur coat.

The uplifting power of sisterhood is the core of this tale.  Soon Destiny is learning the ropes from Ramona in a strip routine that would physically tax a woman of 20, let alone the woman of 50 that Jennifer Lopez is.  The superstar has always been a triple threat so I suppose her ability to tackle strenuous pole-dancing choreography shouldn’t be a surprise.  Still, I was amazed by her impressive core strength.  She extends into a horizontal plane supporting her entire body by only her thigh muscles.  Meryl Streep may be our greatest living actress, but I doubt she could have ever accomplished THAT.  Additionally, there are two major supporting roles of note.  Keke Palmer is Mercedes, a woman who uses her salary to pay the legal fees for her incarcerated boyfriend and actress Lili Reinhart portrays Annabelle, an exotic dancer who is prone to involuntary vomiting whenever she feels stressed out.  The Brittany Murphy lookalike gets anxiety often.  The movie posters/trailers also feature Lizzo as Liz and Cardi B as Diamond, other strippers who also work at the New York joint.  They each have memorable but oh so brief appearances.  Let’s put it this way, don’t leave the theater for a refill on that popcorn or you just might miss their best parts.   Another performance worth mentioning is the club mother whom the girls call Mama personified by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King).   Her screen time is contained to a few fleeting glimpses but the notion of family amongst these women is emphasized by her presence.

Hustlers takes crime and dresses it up in a flashy veneer that makes the transgressions seem not so bad.  The men that these women fleece are involved in the dirty dealings of Wall Street.  Millions of Americans lost their jobs and/or homes during this period.  The U.S. plunged into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Before that occurs, there are scenes that feature how life was good when the cash flowed freely.  When a surprise celebrity guest shows up at the establishment, music & cinematography combine to create this feeling of euphoria.  R&B idol Usher (playing himself) arrives and the manifestation is a 1990s MTV styled video of pure bacchanalia.  Gorgeous girls dance amidst hundreds of dollar bills that rain down on the nightclub.  The moment is a perfect illustration of how sexuality and greed combined to fuel the girls’ capitalist aspirations.

Hustlers cagily justifies illegal behavior.  These women were in dire financial straights.  This is a tale of them simply trying to survive, not just for themselves, but for their families as well.  These individuals equally straddle the line between saint and sinner.  The narrative doesn’t highlight people who behave honorably but it does portray people with heart.  As these scenarios play out, it’s hard not to root for them to succeed in their scams.  This eventually leads to drugging wealthy men.  It’s clearly reprehensible but the drama isn’t justifying their ethics.  Remember Goodfellas?  That was a chronicle about guys who operated outside of the law.  Well, this is a fable of gals who do the same – a depiction of how life is a series of moral dilemmas fraught with ethical gray areas.  Nobody ever said life was fair.  Hustlers is a thoughtful and extremely entertaining movie about that concept.

09-12-19

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on September 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

brittany_runs_a_marathon_ver3STARS2.5Given the title, Brittany Runs a Marathon sounds like an uplifting tale of how a woman tackles a lofty goal she has set for herself.  The nicest thing I can say about the production is that it means well.  It’s not predictable.  I’ll give the saga points for subverting expectations.   However, it’s also not particularly enjoyable.  It didn’t make me feel good.  I liked the main character even less when it was all over.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on director and writer Paul Downs Colaizzo’s former roommate Brittany O’Neill.  Kudos to him for an account that doesn’t follow the formula of a traditional narrative.  Brittany has more problems than the mere inability to run a marathon.  She’s a hard-partying, drug-taking, 28-year-old with no direction in her life.  She visits a doctor (Patch Darragh) hoping to score a prescription for Adderall so she can take it recreationally.  He isn’t fooled.  Instead, he confronts Brittany with the news that her body mass index falls within the obese zone.  He recommends that she lose 50 pounds for her own health.  Given the fat acceptance movement has only gained more adherents over the years, the script takes a controversial stance – sort of.

The production tries to straddle the line between advocating the benefits of a healthy lifestyle while still affirming body positivity in equal fashion.  The belief that all human beings should have confidence regardless of how they look is predictably asserted, especially in the beginning.  Fat-shaming is a definite no-no.  Meanwhile, the script champions Brittany for losing weight anyway.  Her ability to get thinner is promoted as a good thing.  It’s a schizophrenic perspective that obscures the clarity of whatever message this film is attempting to champion.

The story is presented as a comedy and not a drama.  That helps.  Comedies can often get away with things a drama can’t.  Events normally seen as painful can be depicted as humorous.  Even within that framework, the characterization of this woman is so odd.  Have you ever had a friend that completely sucks the life out of a room?  Brittany Runs a Marathon is a biography of such a person.  She is a human being undone by her own critical self-view.  She is fueled by self-hate and in turn, her negative outlook punishes the audience.  It’s a tribute to the talent of Jillian Bell that she imbues the role with humanity and wit.  She starts out nice.  As the pounds are shed, however, so too does the lightness of Brittany’s personality.  Unfortunately, Bell must act within the confines of a screenplay that continues to keep her character within a place of despair.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is highlighted by a charismatic cast.  They’re so appealing that they misdirect our compassion away from the lead character.  Brittany makes two new friends while running.  The first is Catherine played by Michaela Watkins (Season 34 of Saturday Night Live).   She appears stuck up at first but shows herself to be a warm and compassionate human being.  The other is Seth portrayed by Micah Stock (Netflix series Bonding).  He amicably fulfills that old standby – the supportive gay best friend.   She alienates both when they offer her financial assistance.  Later she rejects the awkward affections of directionless Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a fellow house crasher/sitter who bonds with Brittany in the middle of her transformation.  Their atypical relationship is rather compelling initially.  People want to be her friend and she responds by pushing them away.  There’s also narcissistic best friend Gretchen, played by Alice Lee who is written as a one-dimensional stereotype.  I imagine Grethen’s existence is meant to make Brittany’s nasty disposition seem justifiable.  Actress Lee is saddled with a completely thankless role.  When Gretchen expresses remorse, Brittany dismisses the friendship with “I’m tired of being your fat sidekick.”  I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for.  In almost every interaction that Brittany has with another person, I rarely took her side.

I’m a big fan of star Jillian Bell.  I think she is extremely talented.  My hard take is somewhat provoked by my disappointment from a star that I know can do better.  She was the high point of 22 Jump Street.  Her recurring roles on Comedy Central’s Workaholics and HBO’s Eastbound & Down are amusing.  Even her January 2019 appearance on Match Game with Alec Baldwin was a pure delight.  Yes, I even saw that.  I told you I was a fan.  The fact that Brittany Runs a Marathon works at all is due to Jillian Bell’s performance.  She’s the star as well as the executive producer.  This was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival.  I had very high hopes.  It has performed less well since it debuted in theaters.

As Brittany nears the date of the marathon, she grows more and more contemptuous until she becomes insufferably sanctimonious.  There are a lot of uncomfortable interactions where people are poorly treated.  Brittany moves in for a bit with her sister (Kate Arrington) and brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery).  They throw a BBQ and it’s there that a drunk Brittany projects her own self hated on an overweight woman (Sarah Bolt).  She asks the woman if she met her slimmer husband when she wasn’t fat.  The screenplay understands that this question is beyond the pale.  However, we shouldn’t be so repulsed that we resent the main character.  Brittany has become tiresome at this point. This shocking display signals the moment I was done with her.  Brittany later sends the woman she insulted a note with some flowers to apologize for the ugliness of her behavior. The gesture is inadequate. So is this feature actually. There are bits of insight and humor. Jillian Bell’s one-liners are indeed hilarious.  The best scenes detail her personal progress.  Brittany finally starts to love herself and in turn love others.  Good for her!  Sadly, coming to this realization occurs far too late.  It’s merely one obstacle in an attempt to present a satisfying film.   The picture still has many hurdles to overcome.

08-29-19

It Chapter Two

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on September 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

it_chapter_two_ver3STARS1.5Warning: It Chapter Two is almost 3 hours which doesn’t translate into “better”, just “more”.  That means objectionable situations, jump scares, blood, and gore in perpetuity.  Director Andy Muschietti takes everything awful about his first film and significantly increases that unpleasantness exponentially.  I will say this. If you thoroughly enjoyed part one, I should think you’ll enjoy part two as well because it’s more of the same.  That’s about as ringing an endorsement I can give this turgid mess.

In 1989, the group of kids known as “The Losers” made a blood pact to return to the town of Derry if the entity known as “It” ever came back.  It Chapter Two begins in 2016 – 27 years later.  The picture opens with the shocking depiction of a vicious assault on Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and Don (Taylor Frey), a gay couple.  The men are mercilessly beaten by a group of homophobic thugs.  Then Adrian is thrown over a bridge into the water below.  He has an asthmatic attack and nearly drowns.  Suddenly the poor man is pulled out of the water by a scary looking clown.  He is then eaten alive.  His boyfriend Don watches in horror.  Few will realize that the violent hate crime that unethically sets off this intro is based on the real-life murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor, Maine in 1984.  Unbelievably this killing is thoughtlessly used to signify that Pennywise is back.

This act sets the story in motion.  Mike (Isiah Mustafa aka the Old Spice Guy), is now an adult and still living in Derry as the town librarian.  He alerts his childhood friends that they must once again fight IT.  We proceed to catch up with the other Losers in adulthood.  The original screenplay reduced these kids to basic simplistic traits.  That’s what passed for characterization in the first movie and so I’m obliged to use those same descriptive adjectives here.  There’s stuttering writer Bill (James McAvoy), sexually abused Beverly (Jessica Chastain), overweight turned hottie Ben (Jay Ryan), foul-mouthed comedian Richie (Bill Hader), hypochondriac risk assessor Eddie (James Ransone) and Jewish accountant Stanley (Andy Bean).  Neighborhood bully Henry (Teach Grant) is back again too.  He kills a guard and escapes a mental institution so he can continue to terrorize.  What, the clown isn’t enough?  As a secondary antagonist, his presence is completely unnecessary.  This isn’t a production that relies on acting.  However, Hader delivers the most recognizably human performance of someone with genuine feelings.  Also kudos to the casting director for hiring actors that perfectly suggest grown-up versions of their youthful selves.  The chronicle employs frequent flashbacks to the past and the similarity of the child actors to their adult counterparts is uncanny.  There aren’t many compliments I can bestow, but the optics of the cast are on point.

The brutal attack of the opening scene is merely one regrettable vignette.  Unfortunately, it kicks off the entire movie.  I was willing to get past that and still give this a chance.  Sadly, we’re assaulted by more heavy abuse that is exploited to inject superficial weight to a script that has no respect or understanding for the gravity of the issues it so carelessly desecrates.  Writer Gary Dauberman returns to adapt Stephen King’s novel.  When we’re introduced to Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as an adult, she’s married to an abusive husband named Tom (Will Beinbrink).  Beverly tells her husband that she must travel to Derry to visit friends.  However, he now thinks she is cheating on him because he heard Mike’s name.  Tom starts to physically beat Beverly and then attempts to rape her.  This is yet another really ugly spectacle.  Luckily she fights back and runs away, but the feeling that lingers is pure ick.  It casts a pall over this production.  This feeling never goes away.  Stanley (Andy Bean) is so scared to hear the news that he commits suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub so he doesn’t have to endure any more nastiness.  Dear Lord, please forgive me for saying this, but I envied him at this point.

I already hated this film 30 minutes in and it had only barely begun.  Remember it’s 3 hours.  The rest is just as appalling.  It Chapter Two is an absolute dumpster fire.  The piecemeal tale is manufactured from a conventional attempt to string together a lot of expensive special effects and jump scares.  The saga revisits the Losers as children in a protracted and convoluted sequence in the second hour.  This dump of a narrative throws everything it can at the audience including the kitchen sink.  The drama is so sloppily constructed, ultimately it doesn’t feel like a story but rather a highlight reel for the visual effects teams at Method Studios and Atomic Arts.  The impressive technology grows increasingly ubiquitous.  To make matters worse, the screenplay has no sensitivity for the sincere loss of human lives and suffering that it depicts.  There is no emotional connection to the depravity.  But I’ve grown tired of my rant as I’m sure you have too.  I needn’t continue to list this movie’s many offensives.  If I did, my review would be 10 pages long.

09-05-19

Luce

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on September 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

luceSTARS3What’s worse: a movie that never shows any potential to be good in the first place or a feature that begins with an intriguing setup and then squanders that opportunity?  I can definitely attest the latter is more disheartening.  That’s the experience you’ll get if you watch this provocation of a film.  It sets up an intriguing premise meant to provoke but then carelessly dismisses all those ideas with more questions than answers by the end.

Luce (pronounced loose) is all about Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), all-star athlete, accomplished debater, and an academically gifted high school student.  He is also a black teen adopted at the age of seven by a wealthy white married couple Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts).  He came from impoverished war-torn Eritrea in East Africa.  There as a child soldier he was taught to fight at a young age.  None of this violent background is immediately apparent from the calm, upstanding child we see here.  He appears to be an affable teen, popular with students and teachers alike.  He is an inspiration at assemblies with his stirring speeches.  He’s seen addressing his classmates at the beginning of the movie and once again at the end.  You’d think life would be all roses for Luce.  His teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) views him as “an important example to the school”.  However, his relationship with this woman is strained.  He feels an overwhelming pressure to be the ideal representative of his race.  There’s unresolved conflict bubbling beneath the surface of his personality.  His conduct will arouse many questions.

Octavia Spencer is one of our finest actors working today.  She was mesmerizing earlier this year in the underrated Ma.  Here again, she imbues this role with such gravitas that I was absolutely riveted to her whenever she was on screen.  As Luce’s history teacher, she is unnerved when she reads the paper he turns in.  The assignment was to write from the perspective of a historical figure.  Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, a 20th-century revolutionary and writer who believed violence by the oppressed was necessary for the struggle against colonialism.  When Harriet finds a bag of illegal fireworks in his locker, she views him as a potential terrorist threat.  Is he being judged fairly?  There’s a powerful dichotomy between this teacher who wants to do the right thing and the confident Luce who is exceptionally glib.  He’s a slippery chap and actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. is very good in the role.  He has an answer for everything.  It’s hard for the audience to truly determine who is in the right.  That set-up is indeed compelling and Octavia Spencer elevates this woman to seem more astute than her character has been written.

Luce is directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  He also adapted the script with JC Lee who wrote the original play on which this film is based.  They are constantly playing with the audience’s perception.  This is a highly theatrical work where people say and do things that wouldn’t occur the same way in real life.  When Harriet makes her discovery in Luce’s locker, she goes out of her way to hand the fireworks over to his mom first rather than simply going to the principal.  Her decision is not prudent.  This will have negative repercussions for her later but it acts as a conduit to create other manufactured situations for the purposes of contemplation.

Luce, the film, is ultimately a frustrating experience.  The screenplay introduces many fascinating ideas.  Then smugly neglects to make a lucid point about any of them.  It creates well-intentioned people for whom we sympathize.  Then later “pranks” the audience by giving the people behaviors to stimulate our contempt.  Luce’s liberal parents have given him an opportunity to shine.  That’s commendable but then they point to his success as a testament to how virtuous they are.  Later we learn that because mom Amy couldn’t pronounce Luce’s original name, his parents gave him a new one so they could.  We discover ex-girlfriend Stephanie was sexually abused at a party but by the end, it is implied that she actually can’t be trusted.  Harriet has a sister named Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) that lives with her.  Their relationship is an engaging plot point that humanizes Harriet.  Rosemary will later exhibit a needlessly exaggerated display that is uncomfortable to watch.  Luce himself is a big question mark too.  He seems like a model student, but maybe he has everyone fooled.  Could he be a sociopath that has perfected the ability to code-switch depending on the listener?  You’ll never know and the movie doesn’t provide enough info to make that determination.  Luce is an unfinished thesis that considers race, privilege, prejudice, tokenism, and adoption.  It merely exploits those subjects to incite a fire, then irresponsibly leaves without making any attempt to quell the flames.

08-21-19

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama with tags on August 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

peanut_butter_falcon_ver2STARS4The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those films I like to recommend to people who say “They don’t make movies like they used to anymore.”  Sweet, innocent, and traditional – it’s all those things.  Furthermore, the film isn’t a remake, a sequel or a comic book adaptation.  It’s the very antithesis of what’s popular at the megaplex these days.  The fact that it even got financed at all is something of an anomaly.  For some, that description won’t be enticing.  However, I most definitely mean that as a strong endorsement.  This, despite the fact that the plot isn’t particularly innovative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the straightforward account of a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from a retirement home.  He longs to become a professional wrestler.   The bizarre title refers to the stage name that Zak ultimately adopts.   He idolizes a fighter named The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  It is Zak’s dream to locate his hero and attend his wrestling school.  This is advertised on a timeworn VHS tape that Zak has watched hundreds of times.  His roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) wants to help him accomplish that goal and so Carl helps him escape.  Zak stows away on a boat owned by crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).  Tyler is on the run too after setting fire to the business of rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and his sidekick heavy Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf).  Zak and Tyler are both runways.  They have this in common, but that’s the only thing.  The unlikely duo team up for an epic adventure beginning in the Outer Banks and drifting south down the stagnant swamps of North Carolina.  Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is a sympathetic social worker at Zak’s nursing facility that goes in search of her missing resident.  Co-director Tyler Nilson (also boasting the same first name as Shia’s character) is originally from the Tar Heel State.  The love for his childhood home comes through in the atmospheric details of the production.  This fable set amongst these backwood swamps and marshes has a fully realized languid quality that is assisted by the picturesque cinematography of Nigel Bluck.

At the heart of this simple tale is actor Zack Gottsagen who has Down syndrome.  He gives a convincing performance that is both warm and natural.  The background of how this picture got made is an uplifting anecdote in itself.  Writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met their leading man at Zeno Mountain Farm, an acting camp in Southern California.  Gottsagen had studied his craft for many years.  The filmmakers were captivated by his talent that had gone unfulfilled.  They were inspired to write a starring vehicle for him.  What started out as a short story ultimately developed into a feature.  The chronicle entertains by appealing to the emotions.  Far more jaded types will describe this as manipulative and sentimental.  True, the relationships do progress in ways that are easy to predict.  The saga of Zak and Tyler is a classic buddy movie of a burgeoning friendship.  The portrait could be superficially criticized for that quality, but there’s something really authentic about the way the narrative mines emotion.  As the old adage goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  This is a composition made up of human interactions and the way those people emotionally connect on an elemental level.  There’s a purity to the setup that shares a commonality with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Simply watching their rapport evolve is the account.  It doesn’t get more complicated than that.  Yet it is that very simplicity that makes this flick so poignant.

The rest of the cast is equally affecting.  These established professionals were perhaps motivated by the guileless sincerity of the lead.  Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) aren’t exactly the first names you’d associate with a production that is so decidedly wholesome.  Yet they both bring a genuine warmth and humanity to their characters.  Together this trio forms a closeness that is as engaging as any relationship I’ve seen this year.  Additionally, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church appear in supporting parts that deeply benefit the little scenarios that occur throughout the drama.

There has been no shortage of heartwarming movies in 2019: The Upside, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Blinded by the light, and Good Boys are just a few of the titles that could be classified as such.  In a year filled with many inspiring movie choices, The Peanut Butter Falcon just may be the “heartwarming-est” production of the year.  Indeed it won an Audience Award at South by Southwest back in March and its long journey to achieve a widespread release has finally arrived.  Please do enjoy this wonderful film immediately.

08-20-19

Ready or Not

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ready_or_notSTARS2If Ready or Not is the question, the answer most assuredly is “not”.  I didn’t much care for this umpteenth variation on The Most Dangerous Game.  It is a violent hunt where the audience’s pleasure is extracted from the way in which various characters are murdered.  Will they be bludgeoned, shot, or crushed to death?  Oh please don’t keep me in suspense! Somewhere, buried underneath this blood-soaked free for all, there is a seed of inspiration that could have sparked a more intellectual consideration that dealt with issues of classism.

Penniless Grace (Samara Weaving) is a bride about to marry her beloved.  By contrast, Alex ( Mark O’Brien ) the groom is exceedingly rich.  He is of the Le Domas family who made their fortune through board games.  Their impressive wealth has also afforded them the ownership of four professional sports teams.  They are a dynasty.  “We prefer dominion” the patriarch offers.  Grace is a foster child with no friends or relatives of her own.  This conveniently relieves the writers of having to give this poor woman any sort of backstory.  Tradition states that any new addition to their wealthy empire must randomly pick a card on their wedding night and play the game selected.  This has been decreed by the clan’s original benefactor, a mysterious figure named Mr. Le Bail.  Games in the past have included Old Maid, Checkers, and other ordinary selections.  But when Grace selects “Hide and Seek” the room grows silent.  This is the one card you do not want to draw.  She is unaware but soon she will be literally hunted to death through the halls of the estate by the rest of the household.  Crossbows, spears, axes, and muskets will be the weapons of choice.  Oh, and if I may quote Paul Thomas Anderson, there will be blood.

The superior cast disguises this B movie dross in a sheen that can camouflage the muck.  Lead heroine Samara Weaving is gamely athletic as Grace.  Naturally, we want her to live.  Yet this woman’s ability to continually evade her captors suspends disbelief to the point of exasperation.  She’s restricted to a mansion, not an entire country.  Eliminating her shouldn’t be this hard.  The affluent Le Domas clan includes some recognizable name actors.  Adam Brody (FOX TV’s The O.C.) is alcoholic brother Daniel.  Aunt Becky is portrayed by Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day) and patriarch Tony is embodied by old standby Henry Czerny.  He memorably played a bureaucratic jerk in Clear and Present Danger and has been reliably playing slimeballs ever since.  Melanie Scrofano (Syfy TV’s Wynonna Earp) is indelible as the fluttery, pill-popping Emilie.  Her theatrical character delivers lines that would sound a lot funnier on a stage.  “Why does this keep happening!” Emilie whines after she unintentionally kills the wrong person yet again.  Her lack of compassion is hilarious.  It’s just that the loss of human life amidst such gory details makes Emilie’s disinterest a lot less funny.  Her flippant reaction should be the punchline, not the brutal slaughter.

Ready or Not had the potential to be so much more.  As I watched this grisly pursuit unfold, I pictured the production reimagined as an unconventional play — an intricately plotted comedy of manners that satirized the upper class with a macabre sense of humor.  The screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy obviously means to skewers the well-to-do as a godless class prone to murder and mayhem.  Yet there is no wit or subtly.  “They’re just trying to figure out if you’re a gold-digging whore,” one family member tells Grace early on.  It’s pretty heavy-handed.  Rich people are jerks is what passes for insight.  In time, various people will accidentally die in grotesque ways.  In a play, we’d only have to imagine the carnage.  The emphasis on the cruel deaths is at odds with the lighthearted feel of the script.  Violent murder isn’t funny in any era but when mass shootings seemingly occur on a weekly basis, the depiction is especially ill-timed.  In the hands of Busick and Murphy,  Ready or Not clumsily devolves into a ghastly and oppressive product.  The drama takes place in an ornate manor which suitably lends the setting an elegance.  The cinematography, however, wallows in dark tones which ultimately sabotage any feeling of lightness.  Grace’s wedding dress is completely covered in blood and guts by the end.  Thank goodness this is only 90 minutes long.  Under the auspices of a more capable writer, classism, not killing would be the raison d’être of this piece.  There are much more talented writers who could do this type of material justice.  Is John Guare available?

08-22-19

Blinded by the Light

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on August 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

blinded_by_the_light_ver2STARS4Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a teen living a humble existence in the city of Luton, England.  It’s the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.  Javed is a poor Pakistani immigrant whose family came here for a better life.  It has been hard.  The economic times are blighted by mass unemployment.  Apparently, skinheads and neo-Nazis roam the streets.  Amidst these political and racial tensions, he attends high school.  He longs to be a writer finding solace in composing poetry.  However, his devout father pushes his son to seek a more lucrative career.  He means well.  He only wants the best for his son but his strict Muslim traditions clash with the boy’s desires.  Right now Javed simply longs to be a kid.  His buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring synth-rocker, invites him to parties to which Javed is forbidden to attend.  He’s also smitten by Eliza (Nell Williams).  One day, a fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) turns his ear onto the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.  He is transformed.  The words play off of the cassette tape and into his heart.  An unlikely fandom is the focus of this winning film.

The subject is so quirky it almost feels like the construct of a writer but this is indeed based on a very real journalist – Sarfraz Manzoor.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. There are so many personal and offbeat touches.  His life clearly resonated with the director.  Manzoor’s saga is a labor of love.  That heartfelt touch comes through every scene and it will resonate with an audience unfamiliar with the time period or his religious upbringing.  Chadha has often approached her subjects from the perspective of Indian women living in the UK.  As an immigrant, they must reconcile a traditional background with their modern society.  Our passions can motivate us.  The equally wonderful Bend It Like Beckham is her most famous work.  The enthusiasm that Chadha evoked from soccer, so too does this extract that same feeling from the music of Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve ever been an obsessive adherent of a particular artist, this portrait will ring true.  There are moments of despair, but the overall tone is uplifting.  The cast is populated by charismatic individuals which includes an intimate depiction of Jared’s strict but positive Muslim family.  Everyone is wonderful, but young actor Viveik Kalra is particularly appealing as the star.  We genuinely hope his dreams are realized despite the stress it places on his father (Kulvinder Ghir).  It’s not necessary to be an admirer of Bruce Springsteen but I do think it helps.  Much of the drama capitalizes on his lyrics in musical vignettes.  The charming numbers are amusing because of their sloppy choreography and guileless lack of precision.  Surprisingly the more compelling sequences just feature the lyrics of “The Boss” literally swirling around Javed’s head.  We are instantly made aware of how the words of a working-class hero from Jersey could galvanize this British Pakistani fan.  Rapturous and exuberant but also unfailingly cheesy.  That’s Blinded by the Light in a nutshell.  Occasionally the sweetness is so overbearing it can get a bit twee.  This is a sincere celebration of how art can inspire us.  Is there such a thing as being too earnest?  For most, the answer would be no.  Blinded by the Light is overflowing with joy.

08-18-19

Good Boys

Posted in Adventure, Comedy with tags on August 20, 2019 by Mark Hobin

good_boysSTARS3.5If you saw the red band trailer for Good Boys, you will probably expect a version of Superbad with an underage cast.  It has the same producers (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg).  Even the co-star of that film, Jonah Hill, is a producer here.  These pre-teens say and do the kinds of crude things that you’d associate with much older kids.  It looked awful.  The trailer featured non-stop F-bombs and it came off as puerile attempt to simply shock.  It was all raunch and nothing more. That is not this movie. True, there is the occasional curse word, but this comedy is considerably sweeter in tone.  The surprise isn’t that these prepubescent “good boys” are bad.  That revelation would have been a conventional irony.  No, the twist is that they really are well-behaved lads that want to do right.  These are naive youths trying to prepare for a party where spin-the-bottle will be played.  They are sweet and sincere fellows at heart.

Good Boys is a hilarious “one-day-in the life-of” type comedy.  Best friends Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) get invited to their first kissing party.  The invitation is extended by the school’s coolest kid, a little Asian American baller named Soren (Izaac Wang) — an inspired casting choice.  All their female classmates will be in attendance, including Brixlee (Millie Davis), Max’s crush.  The problem is, these 12 year olds are kind of clueless when it comes to the opposite sex.  They have never kissed a girl.  Max decides to use his dad’s drone to spy on neighbor Hannah (Molly Gordon).  The boys want to observe her make out with dimwitted boyfriend Benji (Josh Caras).  Hannah also has a BFF named Lily (Midori Francis) over as well.  The girls see the drone, get angry and things spiral downward from there.  The various misadventures of three sixth-graders involve adult toys, drugs, alcohol, and cops.  Some of their escapades are wrong, but other bits are so right.  A highway of bumper to bumper traffic transforms into a high-speed freeway in seconds.  As their situations grow increasingly convoluted, I relished the absurdity of it all.

Good Boys is a hopeful ode to friendship.  These chums call themselves the Bean Bag Boys for no other reason than they like hanging out in bean bags with each other.  Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Bad Teacher, Year One) emphasize this camaraderie at every turn.  These buddies deal with the age-old problems of middle school: bullying, peer pressure, and annoying younger siblings,  This pre-teen bromance ultimately transcends because of a talented ensemble.  These are genuine characters for whom we truly care.  Max is the most worldly of the three.  He’s into girls and one in particular.  He also cares about his standing in the social hierarchy.  Thor, on the other hand, has no interest in dating yet. He’s a theater geek more concerned with singing in the school play.  Lucas is into role-playing card games, has a high pitched scream, and wears his goodie-two-shoes lifestyle like a badge of honor.   Actor Jacob Tremblay may be the most famous of the three, but Keith L. Williams is the breakout star.   Their innocence is poignant.  “I’m already a social piranha!” Thor laments at one point.  Max takes a single sip of beer and immediately declares that he’s “already feeling something”.  The laughs frequently rely on the characters’ mistaken or uninformed understanding of the adult world.  It’s that naiveté that affirms the humor and makes it touching.  This is a very heartwarming film.

08-15-19

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSTARS2It’s Halloween night, 1968.  In the Mill Valley suburb of Pennsylvania, a group of misfit teenagers seek refuge in the abandoned mansion where Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) once lived.  The legend contends that the vengeful woman held a terrible secret.  There in her room, they discover a haunted journal of individual tales.  The book contains scary stories of the past but there are blank pages as well.  When nerdy horror novelist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) carelessly recites an incantation from the tome, Sarah’s spirit is unleashed.  Soon new chapters begin to magically appear on the previously empty pages.  Each one will have a dire consequence for a person trespassing in her home.  The appealing cast includes Stella’s friends, intellectual Auggie (Gabriel Rush), mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and an enigmatic teen drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza).  Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a dumb blonde stereotype, shows up later along with her date Tommy (Austin Abrams), a football player/bully at the school.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of children’s books that were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991.  Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is a producer and co-writer.  The books were a horror compendium of urban legends and folk tales.  The movie interpolates several of the short stories by weaving them into an overall feature.  The film can easily be broken apart into pieces.  “The Haunted House”, “Harold” The Red Spot”, “The Big Toe”, and “The Jangly Man” are all episodes within the narrative.  The pale lady of “The Dream” is a high point.  It’s the only time I was ever creeped out.  Still, the interlude is effective only because it produces a haunting image.  The simple story is merely about an obese woman that wants to hug you.  Some fables are lifted directly from the text.  Others are composites.  They’re all dull and perfunctory.  Although the drama presents this all as one united saga, it’s obvious from its episodic nature that this account has been cobbled together from disparate yarns.  It still has the divided feel of an anthology.  There are thematic parallels to Creepshow (1982).  There’s even a gross-out tale that resembles that flick’s cockroach scene.

The kids are ostensibly here to unravel the mystery of why Sarah Bellows, even in death, is still so ticked off.  They are frustratingly ineffective for the duration of the picture.  The kids watch in terror as one new chapter after another writes itself in blood on the page before them.  There’s a Spielbergian mood.  Properties like the TV show Stranger Things and the adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) are very much in vogue.  This production clearly wants to exploit that same demographic.  Each youthful victim is eliminated one by one.  The remaining survivors seemingly learn nothing from the previous death.  I mean if they did then the film would be over a lot faster, right?  There is a solution to stopping these casualties but it’s about as generic as something like telling the truth.  Until that occurs, bad things just keep happening to these people Final Destination-style so the writers can justify a nearly 2-hour running time.  Oh, and the chronicle makes sure to isolate each character when they face their demise.  That also adds to the disjointed, fragmentary nature of this story.  The screenplay by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman is extremely poor.

There are some positives.  The setting is small-town America, 1968, so it’s an evocative period piece.  It uses the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the presidential election of Richard Nixon as background elements.  The atmosphere is more picturesque than say a film set in our modern-day.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with those ideas.  It simply uses them as window dressing.  For fans of the series, I do think director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has done a nice job at visually embodying the original freaky illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  However, your imagination is always going to be scarier than something manifested so literally in gross detail.  The movie employs copious amounts of CGI.  Some scenes are eerie.  One concerning a pimple is too disgusting for words, but none of it is particularly scary.

The Art of Self-Defense

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on August 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19