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In a World…

In a World… (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Since the death of Don LaFontaine, whose voice was used in thousands of movie trailers, Sam (Fred Melamed) has booked one gig right after another. Because of his talent, a lot of people might say he is a very worthy successor. His daughter, Carol (Lake Bell), also knows a thing or two about voices and makes a living as a freelance voice coach. Though she wishes to lend her voice in movie trailers, her father is less than supportive. He is convinced that the industry simply does not crave a female sound. He is proven wrong, however, when Carol’s voice becomes the frontrunner in the upcoming epic quadrilogy called “The Amazon Games.”

“In a World,” written and directed by Lake Bell, is not without laughs. It has occasional fits of chuckles and giggles but the story meanders just enough, perhaps because of the many supporting characters that are worthy of more screen time, to take away from Carol’s story: a woman who wants to make it in a business that is dominated by men.

It is not scathing enough. When it does eventually deal with real pain, like the rivalry between father and daughter that makes the final third engaging, it is too late. It wants to be a very light comedy but one can almost feel the material begging to be sharper. There are not enough scenes, overt and subtle, that feel honest about how women are treated in this field. We get only a scene or two that depicts the real struggle and complications in the business—one of which involves an intense interaction in the ladies’ restroom.

Bell has a great charm about her. I enjoyed how expressive she is and how she knows how to make a throwaway joke or line sound inspired enough. Some of these lines verge on sitcom but I laughed at them—most of them anyway. Even a romantic possibility between Carol and a co-worker named Louis (Demetri Martin) is almost too cute, but there is enough fine touches—quirky ones—that make their interactions quite delightful.

For me, the star of the picture is a married couple who seem to almost always argue. Just about each time Moe (Rob Corddry) and Dani (Michaela Watkins) are on screen, I wished the camera would stay with them for the rest of the day. They argue a lot but we feel the love between them. This is not to suggest that their subplot is fully developed. The central conflict between the two sort of just ends. I understood what they are going for but the resolution is not executed in such a way that feels satisfactory or complete.

“In a World” is filled with a range of voices, from those that are silky smooth to those that, well, silence could not arrive any sooner. But the movie might have benefited from having real fangs. There are cameos to be discovered here. At some point I wondered: Is the film’s priority to be likable or does it want its subject to be taken more seriously?


Fahrenheit 11/9

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those familiar with Michael Moore’s hilarious, razor-sharp, educational, and occasionally sensationalistic approaches when it comes to framing and tackling topics that all Americans should care about are certain to be entertained, fascinated, and maddened by the documentarian’s recent work. This time, however, instead of focusing his critiques on, for example, guns and violence in the United States (“Bowling for Columbine”) or the American health care system (“Sicko”), we are presented an amalgamation of social issues, particularly the choices made by those with power in politics and the media, that led up to the presidency of Donald Trump.

There is plenty to admire in “Fahrenheit 11/9,” but utilizing clips in most effective ways is not one of them. For example, while it is appropriate to draw comparisons between the way Donald Trump addresses his rabid supporters with that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, I found it unnecessary, even distracting, to use archival footages of the latter making a speech while dubbing in the former’s voice. It cheapens Moore’s point because the resulting the partnership of image and sound comes across cartoonish, almost like a joke—when the critique is anything but. Another weakness, although to a lesser extent because Moore does it only once, is reminding the viewers of the creepy way Trump sexualizes his daughter Ivanka. I failed to appreciate how this angle is relevant to the film’s thesis.

Yet despite these weaknesses, the documentary is thoroughly eye-opening. It is well-paced, readily able to create a sudden surge of urgency in a matter of seconds, and capable of playing the audience like a piano—especially those not especially informed when it comes to American politics, those who still believe that there is a clear demarcation between Democrats and Republicans. Being aware of these parties’ ties with corporate money, I could see some of Moore’s punchlines coming from a mile away. Still, the film almost plays out like a darkly comic satire, filled with valleys and mountains, of despair and hope.

While there is plenty of entertainment to be had—backed by sound effects designed to dig the dagger a little deeper… and then twisting it—in revisiting the results of 2016’s Election Night, especially in how the mood changed in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s respective camps as later electoral votes poured in, most captivating to me is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Many of us have heard of the city’s residents—a large percentage of them being African-Americans, which is no coincidence—not getting clean drinking water. The water was so poisoned with lead that more than ten thousand children had been poisoned by the time of filming. Many of these kids have been permanently damaged—the proof can be found in their genes and will remain in the genes of generations after them.

Moore is an ace documentarian when he is with his people, simply sitting back, asking questions, and allowing the people of Flint, Michigan to speak. There is no need for archival footages, no need for musical cues, no need for humorous dramatizations. Because when a person being poisoned by the water coming out of the faucet or shower head, everybody can empathize and relate with her. Regardless of the viewer’s socioeconomic status, race, or politics, it is only natural to be able to identify with anyone who just wishes to have clean water for his or her community, especially for the children. Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, should be in prison. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

There is plenty to be angry about—this review does not scratch the surface. I could go on about, for instance, how the so-called Democratic Party had blatantly cheated Bernie Sanders of the presidency, but I won’t. I admired Moore for introducing hope in a seemingly hopeless quagmire that is the American politics today: the grassroots movement, regular teenagers and school shooting survivors who organize record-setting national rallies using social media, and everyone else who is willing to take action for the changes he or she wishes to make. Based on the film’s thesis, the real enemy is not Donald Trump, or Rick Snyder, or racist white America. These are echoes, byproducts of American complacency and inaction.


L’affaire Farewell

Affaire Farewell, L’ (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a member of the KGB who hopes to induce drastic changes in the U.S.S.R, is sent to meet with Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a Frenchman living in Moscow with his family during the Cold War. Sergei has important information that he wishes to relay to the French government, but when he discovers that Pierre is just an engineer with no prior experience in espionage, he insists that further partnership is not a possibility. However, he realizes later that the engineer is the perfect liaison: no one will suspect him of being a spy.

Adapted from Sergei Kostine’s book, “L’affaire Farewell,” directed by Christian Carion, is a thriller that is downplayed for the most the part, turning part of its attention on the mechanics of passing on information: from an unofficial Russian spy who hopes that his action will make a better tomorrow for his son, French officials so willing to earn approval from higher-ups, to the Americans who wish acquire advantage over their rivals. What does not work is when the material focuses on Sergei and Pierre’s problems at home. The suspense is impeded by melodrama.

The picture surprised and tickled me in that information being transferred from one group to another does not involve plans of political assassination, which areas will be bombed and when, or who is hiding where. Instead, considered highly valuable are things like notes on space shuttles, blueprints of a plane, scientific research, and the like—intellectual pursuits, a competition of knowledge, rather than of killing.

Though the Cold War is now the past, it remains fascinating. If anything, the film reminded me why I was fascinated with this specific time in history when I learned about it in high school. Also, though it is very relevant today, it made me consider that maybe I am getting a little bit tired of watching movies about the war in the Middle East. About eight times out of ten, they are indiscernible: played for entertainment rather than attempting to make a genuine presentation of the elusive truth and the horrors of war.

Suspense is embedded in the small moments: being followed by members of the Soviet party in the subway, being stopped and asked for papers, and sneaking into an office to acquire crucial files. It is likely that many of us are unfamiliar with Sergei and Pierre’s real-life counterparts, their stories, so it is unpredictable. In addition, the picture establishes an atmosphere of paranoia that it feels like that the duo can be caught at any time. Maybe there is a reason why their accomplishments are not known universally.

I just did not care for Pierre and Sergei’s personal lives. Scenes involving who is cheating, which father feels like his son is drifting away, whose wife is upset when she discovers her husband’s extracurricular activities—these are executed with not enough urgency. As a result, shots that might work—a close up, for example, designed to highlight the fears and desperation of the men and as well as their wives—feel like they are ripped right out of daytime soaps. If the professional and the personal spheres had been given opposite tones, exploring them might have felt more natural. Instead, what we have is a picture that is an effective thriller but an ineffective drama.


Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As a visual exercise, it cannot be denied that “Isle of Dogs” excels. Its stop-motion animation is a dream to observe even without sound, the dogs are aww-shucks adorable (even the ones that bite), images unique to Japanese culture inspire curiosity, and there is courage in employing different styles of animation when, for example, we are watching something through a television or looking into someone’s memory. And yet, like a typical Wes Anderson film, the technical excellence is unable to overshadow the fact that it left me cold emotionally. While not an intolerable experience, I was not invested in its core story.

The picture is supposed to be a love letter to dogs, why dogs are a man’s best friend. In a world where all dogs are exiled to a place called Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu, it is bizarre that the material offers minimal emotion. Dogs and people shed tears during would-be moving situations but instead we end up studying how the tears look rather than actually feeling the moment. This cerebral approach might have worked given a sharper a screenplay with something important to say about humans’ relationship not just with domesticated dogs but all animals that we must share the planet with. The elements are there: bureaucracy, the media, politics, science, and rebellion. But they are not put together in a way that tells a grander story of why there is a natural bond between man and dog.

The voice cast is impeccable. Particularly enjoyable are the dogs that Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) meets when he crash-lands his plane onto Trash Island in the attempt to locate and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). It is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog who does not trust humans. Cranston plays the role not as a voice but as a consciousness, so to speak. I felt he really embodies the sadness and loneliness of a dog who survived in the streets following a tragic incident with his former owners. Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum round up the ragtag team who end up aiding in the boy’s mission.

Most distracting is a near pointless subplot involving a girl from Ohio named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who is compelled to expose Mayor Kobayashi’s devious plan (Kunichi Nomura) in order to get re-elected. I found the girl’s look to be odd and unpleasant. Perhaps the point is for the American exchange student from Ohio to stand out visually, but I felt her extreme look neither fits nor complements her surroundings. Her headstrong personality matches her extreme looks, but nearly every time the attention is on her and away from the dogs, the material verges on boredom. This character is classic Anderson: it must exist simply because it is quirky without necessarily being of service to the story. Take away Tracy’s scenes and recognize we can get to the same destination.

I give credit to the writer-director for creating a work that I know he is happy with. Sometimes you just feel that a filmmaker loves his project, and I feel it is the case here. Visually, there are hundreds of details worth putting a magnifying glass over, studying, and appreciating. Many filmmakers of poorer caliber settle for skeletal details—even within the realm of animation. For me, however, I require another level of quality. In this case, it is the emotional kind because the point is to tell a story of man’s relationship with dogs. Predictably, because I am familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre, it is most frustrating that his latest work is so unfeeling still.


American Animals

American Animals (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Bart Layton tells the story of an actual crime planned and executed by four university students with such joie de vivre that I couldn’t help but feel electrified by the images, feelings, and psychology emanating from the screen. It is strange, incredible, and fascinating—that Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) actually managed to convince themselves that they could get away with stealing extremely rare and valuable books, some of which date back to the eighteenth century, in broad daylight… and then actually sell them without the authorities knowing about it.

The young men gambled their futures simply because they were bored with the present. And so there is undeniable power in putting the real people portrayed in the film in front of the camera to tell the viewers directly what they thought about at the time, how they felt while planning the heist, and learning about what happened to them following the inevitable prison time. There is delicious irony particularly in Spencer’s case, the artist who found himself uninspired or dispassionate toward the craft he had chosen while in university. In a way, a compelling argument can be made that it is almost poetic, or karmic, or destiny that the heist would fail just so he would find his calling.

Layton plays with the story’s form like an expert juggler, shuffling between reenactment and documentary with buttery ease. There is an engaging flow in his approach, always propulsive, even when the pacing slows down at times, but not once painting his subjects using sentimental brushes or colors. On the contrary, his approach touches upon darkly comic moments, but never cruel, especially when the writer-director highlights the thieves’ sheer stupidity. They talk big but their actions are desperate, messy. They learn first-hand that heists are not like the movies where robbers simply slip in and out, despite sudden left turns, after excellent planning. We are meant to feel tickled by watching the quartet squirm and struggle under the pressure of possibly getting caught.

Keoghan, Peters, Abrahamson, and Jenner do share chemistry but it is not the kind that is pleasant—which is the correct decision. They must not come across as friends but accomplices. Instead, each performer brings something different to the table. For instance, we are able to recognize with ease which one is the most intelligent, the most practical, the most uncertain, the one most willing to take risks just so the plan becomes reality. I found it interesting that although each character embodies a certain archetype, the writing, as with everything else, consistently leaves enough room for uncertainty. (At one point, I doubted whether the purported real figures were truly the actual people involved in the heist.) Thus, not one of them is ever boring or one-dimensional. Although they are criminals, we are reminded they are still people who care about the ramifications of their actions.

“American Animals” is a success for the most part because it dares to tell a truly bizarre story in a strange way—combining the dramatic genre with that of a documentary approach. Although some level of suspense is sacrificed due to the handful of interruptions between reenactment and recollection, the film, as a whole, offers a compelling experience nonetheless because it inspires those watching to create our own interpretation of the truth. Heist films usually just… are. This film, on the other hand, leaves enough room for curiosity.


A Demon Within

Demon Within, A (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s dreadful “A Demon Within” challenges the audience to check out early, do laundry, go grocery shopping, walk the dog, nap… basically anything else rather than to have to endure another second of sub-par, F-grade material. Although there is a plot involving a haunted house and demonic possession, the film does not have a strong screenplay from where to lift off and so the story fails to go anywhere interesting.

The opening scene shows an exorcism in 1914, but the rest of the picture has only a tenuous connection with the flashback. The spirits involved, revealed during the climax but the material is so predictable that viewers with an IQ of over 30 can glean what’s about to occur from the first “scare,” are the more modern variety, one of which involves the town doctor, Jeremy (Clint Hummel), drowning his sorrows in alcohol—spirits (get it?)—for having failed to get his daughter to the hospital as she begins to succumb to her bizarre illness. Meanwhile, a mother and her daughter, Julia (Charlene Amoia) and Charlotte (Patricia Ashley), move into Dr. Miller’s former home without being aware of its history.

Dialogue between so-called horrific moments, which are almost always driven by cheap visual effects, are an assault to the eardrums and the intelligence. For instance, the priest (Michael Ehlers) is not at all believable. Perhaps the intention to portray Father Donald as concerned for his community but the words he uses, in addition to the acting, paint him to be more of an annoying busybody. As a result, the religious practitioner may don a robe and carry a bible, but not once do we forget that what we are seeing is an actor playing a part. There is minimal subtlety in the portrayals across the board.

Scares are cheap and formulaic. A girl investigates a strange noise upstairs when she is alone in the house. When the camera is slightly off-center, we know that when the character turns around, there will be someone, or something, standing there. Cue the sudden loud noise designed to make the viewer jump… A trashy technique employed when the filmmakers are not convinced themselves that the images on screen are scary enough. Just in case that isn’t adequate, a character exclaims, “Don’t do that!” or “You scared me!” Our eyelids grow heavy.

The bedroom exorcism is ripped right out of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” but without the ambition, vision, precise execution, subtle elegance despite ostentatious display of violence, and genuine terror that results from staring directly into the darkness. Instead, what we see is cheap cosmetics on the face (but the body looks perfectly untouched), confusion regarding where actors ought to stand, and bad lighting to the point where it is a challenge at times to see what is unfolding. Even the priest’s pronunciation of Latin is questionable. When asked about details regarding exorcisms, he does not provide answers.

Clearly, the film was not ready to be made and yet it was.


The Predator

Predator, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Predator” is a marginally entertaining but unmemorable action sci-fi flick that offers a welcome change in scenery. This time, instead of people being hunted in the jungle, the action, for the most part, takes place in the suburbs and a military research facility. However, a different setting does not save the picture from being generic. Although Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s screenplay attempts to infuse some level of characterization behind sheep to be slaughtered, there is a lack of a central presence strong enough to hold the picture together. While this approach can work, as if to build an impression that anyone can drop dead, the project is not helmed in such a way that the danger is constant and convincing.

Boyd Holbrook is given a challenging task of portraying a badass action star. I liked the casting choice because of the contrast between what we think a classic action figure ought to look like—sinewy, tanned, inclined to overact—but Holbrook is the antithesis. Clearly, he is a dramatic actor who just so happens to be very capable of being in action films because he can look good while shooting guns—or, in this case, sniper riles. One gets the impression that he has gotten so used to supporting roles that he does not feel the need to play it bigger than life. As a result, notice that when the performer is in a scene with the likes of Trevante Rhodes (who is so interesting here that I wished to know more about his character) and Thomas Jane, Holbrook almost blends into the background.

This is a weakness because the plot revolves around the sharpshooter who comes across alien technology that he then ships to his son (Jacob Tremblay) prior to learning that its owner would like to get it back. Note the lack of logic of this one-sentence plot description. Those looking for holes will find them—and will grow bored of the exercise. It is a true Hollywood blockbuster in that more thought is put into creating perilous situations than creating an intelligent roadmap of character motivations and the larger power—whether it be terrestrial or extraterrestrial—they fight against. Observe the presence of government personnel and how they are there only to amp up the body count.

The action sequences are standard but watchable. It is surprising that humor is used to allay some of the more hardcore images such as profuse gushing of blood from a gunshot, intestines spilling out of the gut, limbs being torn off completely. While humor does create a reaction, it is noticeable that the approach is double-edged in that because there is comedy embedded between terrifying encounters with the Predator, tension does not build as consistently. It does not help that the plot is pretty much an ordinary rescue operation. It offers no surprises when it comes to character deaths, revelations, or even the resolution.

I walked away from the picture with a marginally positive impression—not because of the action, the characters, or the special and visual effects. Rather, I was surprised by the picture’s willingness to utilize politically incorrect humor, especially in this hypersensitive day and age. It is directed by Shane Black, no stranger to taking risks as writer-director. If only he took more risks with the material, perhaps by subverting it completely, instead of succumbing to Hollywood expectations. After all, the work is meant to revive the franchise which requires a massive jolt. This work is but a nudge.


Open Grave

Open Grave (2013)
★ / ★★★★

A man wakes up among a pile of corpses and discovers a bite mark on his arm. Disoriented and with no memory of who he is, he comes across a gun and enters a house. There, he discovers five people who appear to be in a similar situation as he is. They decide to work together despite being suspicious that perhaps one of them knows exactly what is going on. While exploring the surrounding area of the house, a little boy calls the man Jonah (Sharlto Copley), the former clearly terrified of the man’s presence.

Movies with an interesting premise but failing to aspire to achieve anything else should not be tolerated by audiences. “Open Grave,” written by Eddie Borey and Chris Borey, is this kind of film—so devoid of horror, intrigue, and rudimentary idea of how to create a steady rising action, I wished the film were over less than halfway through. Almost everything about it is uninspired.

The screenplay lacks life despite a mystery that involves a group attempting to figure out who they are and why they are thrusted in an almost impossible situation. It does not have an ear for dialogue. Listen carefully to how characters speak. Ignore the voices and focus on the words and phrases. Notice that they talk almost in an identical manner. As a result, the characters come across wooden, mere figures on screen who do not inspire us to want to know them.

It relies on flashbacks to create a dramatic arc. This is almost always a mistake because it requires not only a first-class screenplay but also deft direction to make it work. Because so much information relies on flashbacks, the current events surrounding the characters are overshadowed. Thus, why set the film’s plot, including its climax, in the present when, clearly, the past is more important? Miscalculations this significant should not be overlooked—by the audience and the filmmakers themselves.

The confused characters scout the area for possible answers. Instead of the material focusing on answering the mystery, already dramatic scenes are overemphasized further by two characters staring intensely in one another’s eyes. Supposedly, that sort of thing triggers memories. I laughed at it at first but then I grew bored by it just as quickly. By the fifth similar scene, I was convinced it was only biding time in order to keep the mystery covered up. It is a charade designed to waste everybody’s time.

Despite some wide shots involving obvious CGI, I enjoyed looking at piles of dead, rotting human bodies. In movies of its type, I find that there is something beautiful about rotting flesh cobbled together in silence with buzzing of the flies highlighting the effect.

“Open Grave,” directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego, is insufferable. It makes one too many elementary mistakes that we wonder if the filmmakers had any inspiration to draw from. The characters are confused. More importantly, we are confused because the persons behind the camera fail to plan and execute a story that comes together in such a way that is adroit or even remotely original.


The Secret of Marrowbone

Secret of Marrowbone, The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a horror film that is more interested in telling a story than scaring the wits out of its viewers. Those familiar with the name Sergio G. Sánchez will not be surprised by this claim considering he was the screenwriter of “El orfanato,” another horror film in which the scares are byproducts of the mythos to be told. This time, putting on the shoes of writer-director, he helms “Marrowbone” like a drama that just so happens to have a secret at its center. Sánchez intends for the viewer to care about the characters first and foremost so that revelations during the final minutes make sense and the emotions that come with them are earned.

For the most part, the risky experiment works. Although apparently not for a typical modern audience who wishes to encounter jump scares every five minutes, those willing to peer closer into the mystery will be rewarded by a beautiful-looking picture, so atmospheric even during daytime when it is supposed to be safe. Notice the way Sánchez captures the open landscapes—meadows, seashores, a small town—and how he uses their majesty as contrast against the cramp indoors in which underaged siblings (George MacKay, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg) must hide themselves after the death of their mother (Nicola Harrison). All they have to do is wait for the eldest, Jack (MacKay), to turn twenty-one so authorities would no longer have the legal power to separate them.

There is a convincing romantic subplot between the eldest sibling and a librarian (Anya Taylor-Joy). It is handled with care, simplicity, and authenticity. Not once does it get in the way of the core story. In fact, the relationship between Jack and Allie serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise increasingly dark material in which the threat of being found out looms over like having to exhale eventually. In a story like this, we know it is only a matter of time until the siblings’ secret is found out. A jealous porter (Kyle Soller), for instance, who takes a special interest in Allie cannot help to put his nose in places where it doesn’t belong.

A wonderful chemistry is shared among the siblings. Although they do not share numerous dramatic moments, plenty is communicated, for example, when they play board games, frolic along the beach, or decide what to do with the aforementioned porter who wishes to collect the two hundred dollars in addition to the deceased mother’s signature. Money is a problem… but actually acquiring signature from a dead person is another matter entirely. We watch in careful anticipation as the siblings attempt to extricate themselves from tricky situations. Meanwhile, the youngest, Sam, is convinced there is a supernatural force in their mother’s childhood home. Noises can be heard from the attic.

I admire “The Secret of Marrowbone” for its bold vision and confident execution. While most horror filmmakers are out to terrorize their viewers, Sánchez wishes to envelop us in a creepy atmosphere and build a strong sense of place. To me, it is a superior approach because the strategy requires some level of specificity, an emotional investment. By contrast, in order for jump scares to work most of time, all that has to happen is to suddenly show a figure in front of the camera accompanied by the breaking of silence with a deafening noise. The result is evanescent. In this film, on the other hand, we cannot help but think about what we had just seen or experienced as the credits roll.


August: Osage County

August: Osage County (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

When their father (Sam Shepard) took off without warning, a note, or a telephone call, a rarity occurs: the Weston daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—are all under one roof with Violet (Meryl Streep), the drug-addicted, cancer-stricken matriarch. It isn’t long until old wounds are rubbed with salt and the pain, anger, frustration are exorcised to the surface. There are good reasons why the women meet only during dire occasions. Every little thing turns conversations turn into arguments.

Based on a play and written for the screen by Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County” offers big and often entertaining performances. If you like to see emotionally self-destructive characters yelling at each other until others hurt as much as they do, then look no further. However, it is a bit of a disappointment because it feels too much like a play in that we rarely feel that these characters have inner monologues or have inner lives. Just about everything must be expressed verbally which is simply not very cinematic.

Streep is mesmerizing to watch as usual but it is Roberts that grabbed me most. I was interested in the character she plays because Barbara is so blind with rage that she fails to realize she no longer has anybody. Her daughter (Abigail Breslin) does not respect her. Her husband (Ewan McGregor) seeks emotional and physical comfort somewhere else. She is not very close with her sisters. Forget about having any relationship with her mother. At one point, I wanted to ask her directly if she was tired—tired of being alone, being so undesirable to be around, being so into her head that she neglects to see the big picture.

I wished the picture had shown more of the landscape where there is only farms, yellow grass, and mountains for miles. Being in that dark house takes a toll eventually and I began to get tired of the incessant whining and barking. When characters drive through the highway or step outside the vehicle, I imagined the scent of the wind, how it caresses the skin, and what it must feel like to walk barefoot on dried grass. Director John Wells fails to take advantage of contrast: the elegance of open space against the unpleasant quarreling in the household.

The characters confronting each other is a claustrophobic and uncomfortable experience. The dinner is one to be remembered, for better or worse, because it builds for an extended amount of time. Just when we think it has hit the highest mark, the next minute shows that the previous one is only a warm-up. While it has its share of histrionic lines, it entertains in a campy sort of way.

About halfway through, I asked myself what “August: Osage County” wishes to say—about family, the idea of unconditional love, generational gaps—but cannot come up with any. And that is a problem. Though the seeds are there, none of them are given the chance to sprout and thrive. Like many plays that have been translated onto film unsuccessfully, perhaps this one should have remained on the stage.


The Nun

Nun, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Something has to be done with these horror movies that are so reliant on CGI, the filmmakers who helm these projects forget that the horrific experience they strive to create must be rooted in something genuine and convincing. It goes without saying that “The Nun,” written by Gary Dauberman and directed by Corin Hardy, is yet another generic would-be fright flick, a product created simply because “The Conjuring 2” was successful financially. There is nothing scary about; it merely offers a series of loud noises designed to make the viewer jump but they prove ineffective because those in charge do not understand how to build suspense and tension.

It is unfortunate because Taissa Farmiga, who plays a Catholic novitiate accompanying a priest (Demián Bichir) in a Romanian abbey following a nun’s apparent suicide, is quite watchable in the role. Those saucer eyes are so mysterious, they are perfect in a film that takes place inside a dark castle where bizarre events occur come sundown. But the writing does not give the performer any sort of justice. Sister Irene is reduced to yet another heroine to be terrorized and nothing else. I’m still waiting for Farmiga’s breakout film role because I am convinced she has the makings of a performer who can do great work for decades.

The supposed scares are as typical as they come. There is a strategy so played out, that by its third or forth execution, viewers with an IQ of above fifty can predict when the jump scare will materialize. For instance, the camera’s subject encounters a hooded figure from a few feet away. In order to get a better look of the figure’s face or countenance, the subject reaches for an object, like a candle or a lantern. Naturally, the camera’s perspective follows where the subject is looking. When the camera returns to the spot where the figure was found originally, it is no longer there. Three beats pass. There goes the deafening noise. Of course the jump comes from behind the subject. It is boring and uninspired.

Given such ineffective repetition, I wondered if the filmmakers became bored of themselves. I wondered if they still considered themselves artists when they fail to even strive to create something new or exciting. I wondered if they were in it only for the money or experience. Yes, giving us bottom-of-the-barrel material should be considered a personal affront. It is an insult to us because they waste our time, money, and attention.

They even fail to create a convincing sense of place. Here is a story that takes place in a castle, commanding such a Gothic style of architecture from the outside that even when it is daylight there is a foreboding feeling about the milieu. And so we cannot wait for the characters to explore inside. But what happens? The characters end up being in the same place. We get to see only about ten percent of castle—which is a mistake not only because the scares are redundant, the images themselves become repetitive, too. Furthermore, these same rooms look like a set. Look at the candles closely. Those are electric, those cheap ones from the dollar stores.

“The Nun” is so uninteresting to me, I began counting how many times I yawned throughout the film: twelve times. It is so dull, I began to count how many hours of sleep I had the night before: eight hours. And it is so devoid of artistry, of craft, of intelligence, I lost track of the number of clichés it dared to commit. I stopped at about fifteen.