Archive for 2021

The Lost Daughter

Posted in Drama with tags on January 10, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Olivia Colman is simply one of our greatest actresses. She has been steadily working for two decades. Olivia began by appearing in a ton of British TV shows and came to prominence with the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show in 2003. Her talent entered my radar with a recurring role on the TV series Fleabag (2016–2019). She famously portrayed Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix period TV drama The Crown from 2019 to 2020. Academy Award nominations for the movies The Favourite and The Father cemented her status. Incidentally, she won Best Actress for The Favourite over American acting legend Glenn Close (The Wife) no less. Her latest tour de force is a psychological drama called The Lost Daughter. She’s fantastic and (I’m predicting) will likely garner her third Oscar nomination in four years. Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, please welcome Olivia Colman to the fold. She is a national treasure.

The Lost Daughter is the chronicle of a middle-aged divorcee. Leda is a literature professor on holiday by herself in Greece. She has a very prickly rapport with motherhood. During the account, she reveals she has two adult children, aged 23 and 25. Leda has a passive-aggressive relationship with this large, noisy family that’s also on vacation there. She is constantly irritated by the family’s behavior. When Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) asks her to move from her spot on the beach, she declines. Callie, who is pregnant, later comes over to apologize. Leda has an uncomfortable conversation with the first-time mother. Leda awkwardly concludes with, “Well you’ll see. Children are a crushing responsibility.” Then promptly leaves.

We gradually learn more and more of this woman’s past as the drama unfolds. She is fascinated by another woman in the group named Nina. American actress Dakota Johnson embodies the individual with a disquieting vagueness. Johnson is proving to be quite a talented thespian herself. Nina is a young mother with a toddler girl. At one point the story concerns a missing doll. This development causes Leda to think back in time to when she was an inexperienced mother. The present-day flashbacks to a younger Leda played by Jessie Buckley.

At the center of The Lost Daughter is the fully realized and understated performance by Olivia Colman. It’s an achievement that’s sure to garner awards. Her interactions with this family and other people on the island can be unsettling. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is making her impressive directorial debut. She wisely keeps things intimate and intense. There’s a sinister mood that percolates beneath the surface. It is a most compelling narrative that meticulously lays the groundwork for a boffo conclusion. Sadly the denouement elicits the inevitable discontent of a promise unfulfilled. This fascinating depiction is resolved with an ending that is as ambiguous as it is supremely unsatisfying. I had developed so much admiration for the intensity of this chronicle. The saga begs for some definitive epiphany. Unfortunately, it tarnished my enthusiasm.

01-01-22

Nightmare Alley

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Film noir” is a term used to describe the genre of stylish crime dramas released between 1945 and 1960. Subsequently, “neo-noir” was a loosely defined term created to describe pictures that advanced the same sensibility but came after the classic period. Nightmare Alley is a novel by William Lindsay Gresham published in 1946 and subsequently became a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power. Now Guillermo del Toro has adapted the same story (with Kim Morgan). Truth be told, my expectations were substantially restrained. I wasn’t a fan of his last release, The Shape of Water. However, color me surprised. I was completely captivated by this adaptation. Some of my favorite neo-noirs of the past 25 years include L.A. Confidential (1997), Match Point (2005), Brick (2005), Drive (2011), and Nightcrawler (2014). Nightmare Alley is an outstanding addition that ranks highly on that list.

The crime drama begins within the shadowy world of a second-rate carnival. Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as Stan Carlisle, a charismatic man of questionable character. Stan takes a job in a traveling carnival owned by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). The occupants consist of the usual hustlers, grifters, and various sideshows including the unfortunate circus geek (Paul Anderson). Stan begins working with a clairvoyant act that comprises “Madame Zeena” (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn). Pete becomes something of a mentor to Stan and begins teaching him the tricks of the trade. These methods incorporate cold reading techniques used to extract information from their marks. However, Pete warns never to use these tricks to put on a “spook show” which means channeling the dead. Meanwhile, Stan is attracted to Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), a fellow carny whose schtick is to allow electrical charges to run through her body. He makes suggestions that improve her act. They form a connection. Then he proposes they leave the carnival together and start a new routine on the road exploiting the craft he has learned. As his approach becomes more and more sophisticated, Stan enters the pantheon of high society. Things get progressively more complicated from there.

The last time Guillermo del Toro directed a production it won the Oscar for Best Picture. That feat is unlikely to happen again. Nightmare Alley hasn’t been as warmly embraced. However, as far as I’m concerned, this is a far superior work. Guillermo del Toro has built a solid reputation on stories about monsters. Although his latest chronicle doesn’t feature any mythical creatures, it still details monsters of humanity. The story may involve unsavory people but it’s gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. At the same time, production designer Tamara Deverell recreates a 1930s carnival with authenticity and style. The tale unfolds with the complexities of a carefully plotted saga helmed by a director who knows exactly what he is doing. Every filmmaking decision informs the account which features an extraordinary ensemble of actors, all of which give performances worthy of acclaim. It’s incredible I’ve gotten this far and haven’t even mentioned Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett. The character is a femme fatale in the most classic tradition. I’ve purposefully kept the specifics of her involvement secret so as not to spoil any of the twists and turns of the narrative. The second Lilith challenges Stan at one of his shows, I was enrapt. Every scene in which she is featured is mesmerizing. Ok so honestly, I was engaged throughout. That is the barometer of an entertaining movie. This also happens to be a work of art.

12-23-21

Licorice Pizza

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 30, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Never underestimate the power of a simple story exquisitely told by a passionate filmmaker. The year is 1973 and the setting is the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine is a 15-year-old teen but with the confidence of a man twice that age. Actor Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s got personality to spare. It’s school picture day at his Tarzana high school and he’s smitten by the photographer’s assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane. Actress Alana Haim is memorable in her feature film debut. In real life, Alana is a musician in the pop/rock band Haim. Her familial group also includes her two older sisters, Este and Danielle who play her siblings in this movie.

Gary and Alana are an odd couple romance. She’s the yin to his yang. I wouldn’t say they exactly hit it off. He flirts and she fends off his persistent verbal advances. He’s a decade her junior after all. I’ll concede their age difference seems inappropriate. However, they look about the same age and she still lives at home so they seem compatible on a maturity level. His persistence pays off. She agrees to meet him for dinner at this bar/restaurant where he’s a regular. Thus begins a fascinating relationship with many ups and downs.

Gary is a hustler that gets by on sheer determination. His mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) works for an advertising company that Gary created. He’ll start a water bed company and open a pinball palace during the chronicle. Gary boasts he’s an actor. At first, it sounds like something he simply made up to impress Alana, but we soon discover it’s the truth.

Licorice Pizza is a brilliant movie that flawlessly weaves reality with fiction into a compelling tale. The character is based on Gary Goetzman, a Hollywood producer who was a former child actor. Goetzman’s presence in the comedy Yours, Mine and Ours inspires a most delightful production number. In a personal appearance, Gary performs on stage with a shrewish star named Lucille Dolittle — a thinly disguised portrayal of Lucille Ball. In a year where Being the Ricardos exists, who knew the funniest depiction of the comedienne would come from Christine Ebersole? That’s not the only tie to the real world. Sean Penn portrays a highly fictionalized version of William Holden, Bradley Cooper hams it up as hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters and Benny Safdie is Joel Wachs, an LA politician running for mayor.

This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature and his fifth to be set largely in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived most of his life. It’s a place the director knows well. The title refers to a bygone chain of record stores in southern California. The Glendale-based business flourished in the 1970s. The words “Licorice Pizza” are never uttered or referenced but its aura informs the narrative. Cherry-picked tunes are catchy selections you haven’t heard a million times. They perfectly convey the laid-back ambiance: “Stumblin’ In” by Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro, “Peace Frog” by The Doors, “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and “Life On Mars?” by David Bowie are just a few. The music truly enhances the mood.

I love a director that has done his homework. Licorice Pizza is an engaging dive into the early 70s aesthetic. This is an auteur working at full capacity and the results are an absolute joy. The finely tuned ensemble piece highlights a series of captivating vignettes. On the surface, it’s a meandering saga with a lackadaisical plot. Yet the journey back in time is perfectly realized. I was amazed at the detail. Honestly, the portrait is so convincing, I question whether Anderson used a time machine to film this picture. In a word, it’s immersive.

12-25-21

Don’t Look Up

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on December 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It’s never a good sign when you’re rooting for the end of humanity in a movie. Nevertheless, I did experience gleeful anticipation as an impending comet loomed ever closer to destroying all life on Earth — a planet filled with a complete bunch of dum-dums.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two astronomers who discover a comet is plunging toward the planet. They soon determine that the celestial sphere is extremely dangerous. It will kill all life as we know it in 6 months. Naturally, they contact the authorities. NASA scientist Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) is totally on board, but President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is not. Meryl Streep is doing a version of Donald Trump in a female form complete with a nitwit son Jason (Jonah Hill) who also happens to be her Chief-of-Staff. At first, President Orlean avoids doing anything about the problem. Then decides with mid-term elections approaching, a response would benefit her campaign.

This is a heavy-handed parable with a lot of stars working extra hard to portray unpleasant people to elicit laughs. The central conceit is that the scientists speak the truth, but no one listens or cares. A raft of celebrities inhabit incidental subplots. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play perky TV personalities on a Morning Joe-style TV show. Ariana Grande noticeably flexes her acting muscles to play a vacuous pop star that sings a soaring ballad about our imminent doom. Timothée Chalamet embodies a directionless teen who has a fling with Jennifer Lawrence’s character. Ron Perlman yells a lot as a general who will pilot the spacecraft that will divert the trajectory of the cosmic snowball in question. Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwood, the placid CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company. His Elon Musk-ish billionaire steps in to help out when it’s discovered that the comet can be mined for valuable resources.

Subtle political satire is difficult to pull off. Why address grave concepts like climate change or the pandemic head-on when a physical object hurtling toward the world is so much easier to grasp? The filmmakers exploit that obvious metaphor by repeatedly hammering the same point using different actors in assorted situations for a mind-numbing 138-minutes. This sanctimonious sermon would have been so much more effective (and enjoyable) if presented in half that time. Honestly, there are plenty of funny jokes that land. I would have given this a recommendation if 50 minutes of the repetitive tedium were excised. Writer and Director Adam McKay is working from a story by David Sirota. McKay applies the same haphazard but smug approach he used in The Big Short and Vice. Hard to believe, but this is the same guy that once gave us the breezy comedy triumvirate of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. Oh, how I miss that guy.

Don’t Look Up is a clashing hybrid of drama and comedy. We can cite the inspirations of the past. Dr. Strangelove or Network are the acknowledged classics. As a matter of fact, when Leonardo DiCaprio loses it on the air, he seems to be channeling Peter Finch’s famous meltdown. The screenplay is more potent as a silly comedy. There are occasional laughs. A running joke which cites Kate’s inability to get over the fact that General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) charged her for free snacks is so random, it’s amusing. There are many hilarious lines. Indeed I chuckled throughout. However, Adam McKay’s method grows increasingly didactic over a punishingly long runtime. The tone is irritable when the narrative would have been better served by a lighter touch. Mike Judge’s brilliant Idiocracy also exploited a similar vibe in its sendup of human nature. Where that lighthearted parody had many targets, this oppressive spoof has one: America is one big country of stupid people. Thanks. I already get that perspective from the news (and it’s delivered in under 30 minutes to boot!).

12-26-21

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Spider-man has had a long and varied history on film. It all began rather inauspiciously in 1977 with a made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man series on CBS. That starred Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music). Since then, we’ve gotten productions with a considerably higher budget: the Sam Raimi directed pictures (2002–2007) starring Tobey Maguire and those helmed by Marc Webb (2012–2014) with Andrew Garfield. Sony’s Licensing agreement with Marvel Studios then allowed a group of movies featuring Tom Holland to officially become a part of the MCU. There was Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), then Far From Home (2019), and now the latest No Way Home. The recurring word “home” appearing in every title has always made differentiating these titles a little difficult for this reviewer. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed them. The latest is no exception.

The story is refreshingly succinct at heart. After Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveals Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man, Peter appeals for help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to conjure a spell to make people forget his true identity. Complications arise.

What makes the 8th Spider-Man entry different in yet another SONY-produced installment is the way it effectively embraces nostalgia. Peter Parker must contend with a panoply of villains in this episode. These include the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). This then is the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album if you will. Still using that analogy, I will offer there are a few bonus cuts as well. The additions will delight longtime fans of the franchise. It’s a superficial pleasure, but a genuine one.

The screenplay’s attempts at poignancy and significance will resonate more with people who come to this movie already invested. Learning from your mistakes and the link between power and responsibility are imparted as words of wisdom. Another lesson is giving people second chances, even at the expense of making some extremely bad choices. A key plot point is that Peter is conflicted by people who divide over whether he is a hero or a menace to society. J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons ) is a conspiracy theorist with his own news show on the internet. Jameson vociferously speaks out against the web-slinger. The public seems divided, although we the audience are invited to view Jameson as a crackpot.

Then Peter makes a choice. Director Jon Watts is working from a script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers. Up until this point, they had managed to keep me on board with the various machinations of the story. Even the leap required to accept that Doctor Strange would agree to cast that ridiculous spell. Peter’s error in judgment goes against the strict admonitions of Doctor Strange. It is a highly flawed decision that I could never get behind. Quite frankly, it’s indefensible. “You only have yourself to blame!” was my reaction to every bad thing that happens thereafter. This includes someone’s death.

No Way Home is still a sturdy, entertaining flick. You’ll get the requisite battles and they’re fine. More appreciated is the camaraderie between these beloved characters. Actors Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ Jones-Watson), and Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) have a rapport that is deeply affecting. They have a connection. You truly believe in their core friendship. However, I would argue that Holland has become so ultrabuff he looks out of place, especially in one scene where he appears shirtless. Their interactions are what carried me through the standard-issue action scenes. The screenplay seeks to inject sentimentality into the narrative with emotional developments. These efforts are more meaningful because of their chemistry. The relationship of this trio goes a long way into making us care.

To say this picture has resonated with audiences is an understatement. Spider-Man: No Way Home has accomplished what heretofore seemed impossible post-pandemic. At $260 million, it’s the 2nd biggest U.S. opening OF ALL TIME. Only Avengers: Endgame did more with the $357 million it earned in April 2019. Given that the theatrical landscape was a lot more welcoming in 2019, it makes the achievement even more incredible. This made more in just one weekend than the entire gross of any movie since 2019. The last was Rise of Skywalker with $515 million. No Way Home may just top that. Stay tuned.

12-21-21

The Hand of God

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on December 21, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The expression “the Hand of God” could denote the twists of fate that occur in life, but it’s also a phrase that Argentine footballer Diego Maradona used to describe a goal he made at the 1986 World Cup. 17-year-old Fabietto is a big fan of the athlete. There’s a rumor that Maradona might be moving to Naples. This gets the whole town talking, but it’s just one of many details in this coming-of-age tale.

The autobiographical chronicle is set in the 1980s and concerns a young man. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) clearly represents the director as a teen. It’s a study of his family. This meandering collection of vignettes takes place while growing up. Fabietto lives with his parents (Toni Servillo, Teresa Saponangelo) in Naples. Mother Maria enjoys playing practical jokes. However, the first person we meet is his Aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She’s something of a muse to the young boy. The vibrant woman has enchanted all the men of the town with her exhibitionism. Oh, but before you cast judgment, please note she is deeply troubled. Then we are introduced to various other people. There are some odd developments. One stands out. He has an elderly gray-haired neighbor, Baroness Focale (Betti Pedrazzi). The scene begins with her asking for him to get rid of a bat that flew into her bedroom. It ends with an even more bizarre request. He doesn’t seem traumatized by her behavior, but I was.

The Hand of God is a loosely constructed anecdotal collection of random events. The Italian drama is written, directed, and produced by Paolo Sorrentino. This is Italy’s hope for a nomination at the upcoming Academy Awards next March. Given its pedigree, I’d say its chances are pretty good. Sorrentino is best known for the 2013 film The Great Beauty which won both the Oscar and the BAFTA for Foreign Language Film. The first half is fairly happy and then adversity strikes midway through. The second section is sadder as Fabietto deals with his grief. I hoped the tragedy would provide some focus. Plenty happens but the account remains superficial. The seeds for the future director’s interest in cinema are detailed, but it has little else to say. Some praise or condemnation for what transpires might have instilled this screenplay with a point of view. This rambling saga merely presents a lot of stuff. The story is aimless. Some of it captivated me. Naples is a beautiful city. Daria D’Antonio’s cinematography captures that, but I craved more momentum.

12-17-21

Being the Ricardos

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 16, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I discovered the TV program I Love Lucy when I was 5. I’ve been hooked ever since. I used to watch it regularly when it was broadcast in reruns. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I saw every episode — many more than once. Then the DVDs were gradually released between 2003 and 2007. They afforded me the luxury to see the show whenever I felt like it. At some point, I had seen every single one at least ten times and classics like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” or “Job Switching” on more occasions than I can even count. I’ve bought numerous books on the series and read extensively on the matter. It would be an understatement to say I adore I Love Lucy.

Being the Ricardos is about the creators and stars of that sitcom. Yet the focus is much more fixed. It’s centered on one turbulent week in the preparation of their hit television show. The account revolves around the 22nd entry of their first season, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” which was filmed on January 30, 1952. The episode itself is not particularly memorable, but it features Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons). The narrative compresses a variety of challenging developments into that narrow period. Issues include Lucille Ball’s announcement of her actual pregnancy, accusations that she was a communist, and Desi Arnaz’s alleged affairs. These all veritably happened, just not in the same week.

Being the Ricardos is an intriguing window into the production of their program. Most of the events depicted here occurred in different years. The biopic seeks to educate and entertain but stuffing so much in this cramped time frame can get a little chaotic. An assortment of time hops also includes recreations of two other installments: “Lucy Tells the Truth” and “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” Then flash-forwards depict actors portraying the writers in the present day reflecting back on their show documentary style. It’s a lot to absorb.

This is an intense study of the details in putting on a TV show. A heightened discussion about how the episode at hand should even begin is a bone of contention with the star. Ricky sneaks up behind Lucy as she sets the dining table to play a game of “Guess Who.” The scene doesn’t sit right with her. TV rarely mirrors real life. If your image of Lucy is that of a ditzy redhead, prepare to be shocked. Lucille Ball was one tough cookie. This presentation furthers the idea that she was a demanding woman in charge. She frequently spars with producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) in fighting for what she wants. The writing team of Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy) are also heavily featured as well.

The audience must have a willing suspension of disbelief. The performances are not transformative. I never forgot these were actors portraying Lucy and Desi. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem neither look nor sound like their real-life counterparts. And that’s fine. It may have taken me roughly 30 minutes before I could get past this fact, but once I did, it’s pretty good. I will always favor an in-depth analysis of an individual’s persona in a biopic over a superficial impersonation. That’s what you’ll get here. Both ultimately rise to the challenge. Kidman has brief flashes where her mannerisms eerily channel the legend. The actors give life to Sorkin’s fascinating screenplay. His signature rapid-fire, extended monologues entertained me with an insider’s perspective. As such, this is a movie for aficionados of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, not fans of the comedienne. It’s an edgy portrait, not a loving one. Nicole Kidman embodies the relentlessly determined control freak behind the scenes. Sadly Kidman lacks the brilliant comedic timing that Ball had in front of the camera. This is an engrossing chronicle about one of, if not THE funniest sitcom ever made. The irony is that it’s a largely serious affair, oddly devoid of humor.

11-27-21

West Side Story

Posted in Crime, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’ve got to hand it to Steven Spielberg. In his 50 years of making movies, he has never directed a musical before and when he decides to start, he chooses to remake one of the most illustrious of all time. That takes guts. The 1957 Broadway show was conceived by Jerome Robbins featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It became a landmark 1961 film that made $43.7 million ($400 million adjusted for inflation) and won a whopping 10 Oscars including Best Picture. The soundtrack spent 54 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts, giving it the longest run at No. 1 of any album in history. It was an imposing task. I’m happy to say the gamble pays off.

The beloved tale is a well-known formula of timeworn components. Rival street gangs face off in NYC. It concerns the Sharks who hail from Puerto Rico vs. the nativist white gang the Jets. Side note: actor Mike Faist is a revelation as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and the story isn’t even about him. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a former Jet who went to jail and is now a reformed character. He meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), a beautiful 18-year-old at a community dance. Tony and Maria instantly fall in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. Ah, movies! Complicating matters is that she’s the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Anita (Ariana DeBose) is his assertive girlfriend. More on her later. Trying to keep the peace is Valentina (Rita Moreno), a widow who now runs Doc’s general store. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a doomed romance between star-crossed sweethearts. In this case, from different sides in 1950s Manhattan.

This bright, uplifting musical got my emotions going. Each production number is a big rousing larger-than-life event. “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “Somewhere” – I’ve loved these tunes for years. Every fan will cite a favorite. For me, the highlight has always been the spirited “America” sung by the Puerto Ricans that pits the women who list all the things they champion about their adoptive country against their male counterparts who play up all the negative aspects. I appreciate the mixed meter of a chant that espouses pro-American views but is rooted in vibrant Latin rhythms and Spanish guitar. It’s both funny and athletic. When the women start twirling their dresses as the men leap and jump while the camera zooms in and out, I thought, THIS is cinema. I was enthralled. The singing is stellar across the board. In a cast of many highlights, the MVP goes to Ariana Dubose as Anita. She has some pretty big shoes to fill. Rita Moreno famously received a well-earned Oscar for that role. Ariana is more than up to the task.

In a word, West Side Story is spectacular. This grand production is a perfect marriage of old and new. There is such respect for its iconic predecessor. Composer David Newman arranges Bernstein’s timeless score with passion and verve. Meanwhile, Justin Peck updates Jerome Robbins’ influential dance routines. Peck is the resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet. They honor the source material but gently modernize the piece for a 2021 audience. The balletic moves are more realistically violent when depicting the fights. Additionally, screenwriter Tony Kushner spends extra time fleshing out the Puerto Rican personalities. Many have called this the “greatest musical ever made.” * I walked in arms folded with the attitude, “Why are we remaking this classic?” and I left the theater thinking, “Did that just top the original?” The leads as written in the play have never been the most captivating characters. The supporting parts have so much more charisma. That’s true once again, although I’d argue Tony and Maria are slightly more compelling here than their 1961 equivalents. Apologies to Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Whether this tops that version overall is debatable. I can’t give a decisive answer because I’m still not sure. However, just the fact that I’m even entertaining the idea, speaks to the immense talent that is Steven Spielberg.

12/09/21

*Not a definitive list, but offhand I know I enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and The Sound of Music more.

The Power of the Dog

Posted in Drama, Romance, Western with tags on December 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The “power of the dog” can be those physical and psychological forces that come to destroy us. Jane Campion’s latest is a western of sorts, but given the output of the iconoclastic director, you know this won’t be a straightforward actioner with cowboys and gunfights. She’s helming a feature film for the first time in 12 years. The New Zealand filmmaker’s last was Bright Star (2009), but she is best known for The Piano (1993). Her current feature is a character-based drama that she adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Call it an anti-western.

This tale set in the 1920s concerns the Burbank brothers. Ranchers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) live together on their parents’ sprawling ranch in Montana. Phil is a spiteful man consumed by personal demons. Unloveable and seemingly incapable of love. He is a bully, dominating others before he can be dominated. On the other hand, George is considerably more civilized: quiet and polite. He still affects the air of a gentleman. To put it more simply, George takes baths. Phil doesn’t bathe. Despite being less intellectually inclined than Phil, George handles the paperwork of the ranch as the businessman.

The languid story begins to take shape at the Red Mill restaurant. During a cattle drive, they stop at the establishment run by a fragile widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Soon after meeting, George reveals that he and Rose have married. Their relationship will prove to be a thorn in Phil’s side. Phil’s bitter dislike of Rose festers over time. His behavior has a detrimental effect on her well-being. She also has a son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a frail teen the oppressive Phil insults. These interactions will weigh on his mother.

A sample of one antagonism that really got under my skin. When Phil and Peter first meet, the boy is waiting tables at the restaurant. Phil is a patron. The intricate paper flowers Peter has created adorn the tables. We’ve seen the care he puts into making each one. The exquisitely made decorations embody delicacy and beauty. “I wonder what little lady made these,” Phil taunts. He casually sets one afire to light his cigarette in front of its creator. The callous act is the gleeful destruction of hard work, and it’s unnerving in a way that’s hard to explain. The sinister gesture perfectly clarifies his outlook more than pages of words ever could.

The Power of the Dog is an impressive ensemble piece concerning individuals with ambiguous motives. Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all contribute memorable performances. But it’s the nuanced achievement from Benedict Cumberbatch as the tragic figure at the center of it all that unites the chronicle. He exposes the compelling depths of the human psyche within this multi-faceted soul. The narrative can be seen from more than one point of view. The aching void of loneliness has reduced Phil to a hateful shell. George is trying to eke out a happy life in a savage frontier. Meanwhile, Peter wants to save his mother’s descent into alcoholism brought on by a pernicious presence in her home. The three form a triad that engages the viewer. These are impressively complicated personalities. For example, Peter is capable of creating exquisite centerpieces from paper, but can also unemotionally dissect a cute bunny rabbit in his desire to become a surgeon.

The Power of the Dog is an unrelenting depiction of sadness. The saga can be difficult to embrace. However, there is so much to appreciate here. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (True History Of The Kelly Gang) beautifully highlights the visual sweep of the American West. The expansive vistas evoke the work of legendary directors John Ford and George Stevens. Johnny Greenwood’s (Phantom Thread) uneasy score is the aural manifestation of impending danger. The methodic pace of the gradually unfolding account builds. I kept second-guessing the intentions of the characters at every turn until the very end. The narrative takes quite a while to get started but things get pretty intense in the final 30 minutes. The ending is a shocker that will undoubtedly inspire conversation. I’m still thinking about these people and their motivations. Our contempt and disdain are elicited throughout the picture. Yet these people have humanity which means sometimes our gut reactions may not be justified. Jane Campion’s meticulous portrait ends in tragedy. Where the tragedy truly lies, however, is open to interpretation.

12-02-21

Encanto

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

2021 is alive with the sound of musicals! I submit exhibits A through G as evidence: In the Heights, Annette, Cinderella, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story. Disney’s latest is a notable addition to the genre this year.

Encanto is a saga about a sprawling family and the matriarch who controls it all with an iron hand. Alma (María Cecilia Botero) whom everyone affectionally calls “Abuela”—uses an enchanted candle to create a magical house in the hills of Columbia for the Madrigal family in which to live. These include her three infant children Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno. The magical protection allows an entire village to flourish around the “casita” and this same magic imbues the clan with exceptional powers. Julieta (Angie Cepeda) can heal others with her cooking, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán) can control the weather, and Bruno (John Leguizamo) can see the future. However, Bruno’s visions — which contradicted Abuela’s “everything is wonderful” vibe — weren’t appreciated. He is mysteriously missing when the main story begins.

After an initial setup, the main chronicle centers around Julieta’s daughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) depicted with a visual anomaly. This is never acknowledged, but I will. She wears glasses. Oh sure, for years many men have worn them in Disney’s canonical animated features: Doc, Gepetto, Mr. Smee & John from Peter Pan to name a few. But a female protagonist sporting spectacles is virtually nonexistent. The internet informs me that Anita Radcliffe, a supporting character in 101 Dalmatians, occasionally wore them. Mirabel is a splendid addition to an animated tradition that includes icons like Velma, Edna Mode, Meg Griffin, and Daria. Sadly she is not blessed with supernatural abilities like older sisters Isabela (Diane Guerrero ) who can make flowers bloom and Luisa’s (Jessica Darrow) superhuman strength. Although Mirabel has an undeniable kinship with their sentient house. She is a warm and empathic fifteen-year-old that may have accepted her lack of a gift, but it weighs on her. Nevertheless, she seems well-adjusted with a maturity that supersedes most of the adults. This includes Abuela, an enigmatic individual with a temperament that grows angrier as the tale develops.

Of course, any musical must be judged by the music, and the production reigns supreme in this area. Encanto features a buoyant score with music and lyrics by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns). His familiarity with Broadway elevates the production. I cannot minimize how captivating a melody can be when also accompanied by bright colorful visuals. The whole songbook is stellar: “The Family Madrigal” is a toe-tapping delight, “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is joyful and Luisa’s lament “Surface Pressure” all rank highly, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” really stands out. That “…no, no, no.” refrain is so memorable. I haven’t been this wowed by a Disney tune since “Let It Go” in Frozen.

Everyone is special in their own unique way. The moral is timeworn but conveyed with sincerity and style. I’m impressed by a screenplay by Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush that can deftly handle such an expansive cast of characters. Everyone has a well-defined and engaging personality. They gradually each begin to feel the stress of living in the Madrigal household. There is a nuanced idea percolating beneath the surface. People who outwardly appear to be successful may carry a private pain. Those rifts within this “perfect” dynasty begin to manifest themselves as cracks within the physical building of their Casita. The metaphor is so obvious, but it feels fresh within this presentation. Encanto means “charm” in Spanish and it is indeed charming.

11-25-21