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All Nighter

All Nighter (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Despite two charismatic co-leads, the would-be comedy “All Nighter,” written by Seth W. Owen and directed by Gavin Wiesen, disappoints with a deafening thud. Just about every attempt at comedy comes across as sitcom-like, played out, devoid of inspiration. About halfway through, one cannot help but wonder what performers of J.K. Simmons and Emile Hirsch’s calibers saw in the script to sign up for a movie with barely anything going for it.

The plot revolves around a missing woman named Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton), a character whom we barely get to know, let alone care about. Her father (Simmons), a workaholic who is often overseas, contacts her ex-boyfriend, the good-natured, banjo-playing underachiever Martin (Emile Hirsch), for possible information regarding her whereabouts. Mr. Gallo has gotten increasingly worried since it is so unlike Ginnie to not to pick up calls or return them on a timely manner. The title promises misadventures but the events that transpire are neither funny nor fun. The movie exists simply to pass the time.

It is strange that the picture is at its strongest during the more dramatic scenes, its quieter moments of admission and confession. Whether it be at the dinner table on a mid-level fancy restaurant or in a car in the middle of the night, when the protagonists sit down and simply speak with and look at one another, we recognize the raw potential of the material. This is because Hirsch and Simmons know how to carry a scene. They are not afraid of introducing pauses and silence. They have the ability to extract every little emotion from the words their characters say and feel. These moments of gravitas are never earned, however. We get the feeling that characters are revealing something about themselves simply because the plot requires it in order to create a semblance of character history or development.

Supporting characters are so extreme at times that they are almost cartoonish, caricatures. The couple constantly at each other’s throats (Taran Killam, Kristen Schaal), the barista who couldn’t be bothered (Stephanie Allynne), and the drunk party girl (Xosha Roquemore) quickly come to mind. Sure, eccentric people do live in Los Angeles but is it truly necessary to paint nearly every character encountered as one-dimensional freak show?

A standout is a woman named Lois because she is actually normal. More importantly, however, she is played with winsome energy by Shannon Woodward. As soon as the picture was over, I had to look up her body of work because she knows how to get our attention without leaning on creating an exaggeration. I couldn’t believe I had never seen her before.

“All Nighter” could have used several dosages of fun and authenticity. With a cast of recognizable names and faces, it is unfortunate that the material isn’t willing to take enough risks by trying on different types of comedy to attempt to find which works best for itself. What results, for the most part, is a forgettable and occasionally soporific romp.


You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

It is not often that I walk away from a film not knowing what it is about exactly but at the same time feeling like the ride is somewhat worth it. “You Were Never Really Here” is based on the book by Jonathan Ames and it is directed and adapted to the screen by Lynne Ramsay, a writer-director who is no stranger when it comes to uncompromising pictures that show violence externally and, perhaps more intriguingly, internally. Her familiar approach is present here but the structure of a hitman going on a mission that he is eventually blindsided by is twisted and manipulated in such a way that it becomes almost poetic.

It is difficult to recommend the picture because it not made for everyone—or even most people. It is, I think, for viewers who are open to what cinema can be or provide outside of a typical three-arc structure in which we know exactly where it is going, what is going to happen, and how it will end. The action is interlaced by flashbacks, imaginings, and traumas so detailed that it is never necessary for the material to stop and explain what is unfolding. Based on our life experiences, what we see in the movies or television shows, what we read in books or hear in music, it is up to us to construct what we believe is happening, and I think there is power in this approach.

Joaquin Phoenix plays an enigmatic man named Joe who is tasked to rescue a girl from a sex trafficking ring. The performance looks effortless but that is what’s brilliant about it. There are extended sequences here in which the viewer simply gets the chance to observe a consummate actor exercising his craft. Joe comes from such a violent and troubled childhood that the man who grew up from such toxicity is angry, violent, unpredictable. And yet notice Phoenix’ level of control. For instance, when the character is agitated by an external factor, the first response is almost always extreme violence. Now watch how Phoenix reels that monster back in toward a more calculated rage. A wise director, Ramsay ensures that the camera captures the performer’s eyes—they turn from monstrous to a child riddled with fear but does not know what to do with it.

On the surface, perhaps the movie is about channeling one’s trauma (“bad”) into a service (“good”)—rescuing an underage girl and punishing those who deserve it. But, looking closely, I believe it is not that simple because the performance communicates that the service provided does not function as therapy. On the contrary, as the goes pictures on, there is an increasing number of opportunities for us to glimpse into his fractured mind. Clearly, he is not made healthier by his actions. Note how slowly he moves, as if he were sleepwalking, and the state of his unkempt body. This is a man on the path of self-destruction.

There are stretches of great frustration for me, particularly in the contrast between tension-filled scenes but the protagonist moving as slow as molasses. Had the story been more straightforward by amplifying its action-thriller elements, for example, it could have been a crowd-pleaser. But that is not the movie that was made and I appreciate Ramsay’s willingness to deliver upon her specific vision. What results is a work that is probably worth seeing once given that those willing to dive in are in the mood to be challenged.


Choses secrètes

Choses secrètes (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Nathalie (Coralie Revel) and Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou) work in a strip joint, the former being one of the performers and the latter a bartender. After they get fired for having the courage to stand up to their boss, Nathalie invites Sandrine to stay at her apartment. Sandrine expresses her gratitude and, after a couple of drinks, confesses to Nathalie how much she is fascinated by her—not necessarily in a romantic way but in terms of how much power she has over men. Soon, Nathalie strives to teach what she knows to her new friend.

“Choses secrètes” has a comfortable attitude about sex. Specifically, how it can be used to manipulate men into getting what women want. In order to connect with it, we must be comfortable with its daring ideas on some level. And yet it is meant to be an empty experience, I think, because everyone is or learns to be a manipulator. What Nathalie and Sandrine have with men are amusing and cruel but dangerous and exciting at times. One even gets the feeling that what the two women share is tenuous even when they seem to share so much with one another.

The scenes involving explicit sex—two women, a man and a woman, threesomes, masturbation—are impressively acted. Seyvecou is especially magnetic because her character undergoes a believable change from a naive and shy little thing to someone who really knows how to play the game. It is interesting in that she allows us to get to know her character but only up to a point. Over time, it is increasingly more difficult to read what is going on in Sandrine’s head. There is a scene in the beginning in which she pleasures herself in front of Nathalie. After she has reached a climax, she asks her friend is she thinks the orgasm is faked. That is the foundation of the story.

The camera commands an eerie stillness that at times it is almost uncomfortable. It seems to stare at one person touching herself or couples sharing something that is supposed to be intimate. I do not consider it pornographic for two reasons: the nudity and sex are integrated to the story’s sexual politics and I was not titillated by it. On the contrary, it tends to highlight the beauty of a woman’s body, how people can be drawn to it and want to be with it. I was more curious in trying to figure out the repercussions of a character sleeping with another or how someone discovering a conspiracy changes the game. It is cerebral rather than sensual.

The three men in Sandrine’s education in power play work in the same firm. There is Cadene (Olivier Soler), one of her bosses in headquarters, Delacroix (Roger Miremont), one of the two men who founded the firm, and Christophe (Fabrice Deville), the CEO’s son. Though Sandrine is able to climb the corporate ladder through seduction, it is only a matter of time until she meets her match. Sandrine jumps into the game out of curiosity, thinking that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Written and directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau, “Secret Things” is beautifully made and it works in bits and pieces. It is consistently interesting and believable until the ending touches upon surrealism which feels atonal. Also, the men could have been written more fully, as real people rather than objects with only one thing on their minds: sex, love, or power. In reality, whether it be men or women, a combination of such things are desired—which is no secret.


The Meg

Meg, The (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is something inherently wrong about the way some critics and reviewers criticize this picture. That is, they claim that it would have been a better film, or more enjoyable, had it been dumber. This ludicrous way of looking at the work—any work—is wrong on two fronts. Would we have gotten the likes of “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “Alien,” “The Fly”—now considered to be classics of the genre, to name a few—had they simply strived to be dumb but entertaining? Of course not. They stand the test of time exactly because they are entertaining and smart. Behind them are concrete ideas. In addition, looking at the film as is, its dumber moments—all action, no substance—are actually weakest points of this creature-feature.

Notice how the first forty minutes or so are not interested in showing needless kills. Instead, screenwriters Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber wish to inspire a sense of wonder in the audience by taking us within the deepest trenches of the ocean. With director Jon Turteltaub at the helm, he allows the camera to capture strange creatures of the deep. The split-second shots that linger just enough elevates the material. The tease allows the audience to wish to look at the various living things just a little longer. We stare into the darkness, we marvel at the quiet stillness, and we consider the fatal pressure that threatens to crush submersibles like an empty soda can. This is a hallmark of great science-fiction.

The first third offers such a surprisingly ambitious experience that it made me consider that perhaps children might enjoy it. Yes, it is a movie that showcases a prehistoric shark that eats people, just like how “Jurassic Park” has a T-Rex that eats people, but it offers enough quieter moments that tickles one’s curiosity. I was impressed with its patience, its willingness to not treat every character as countdown toward being fish food. This is no “Deep Blue Sea” in that we know exactly who, and how many, are going to survive by the end. At the same time, however, it is neither as tension-filled nor gory as that film.

Perhaps the lack of unwavering suspense is due to the Megalodon not being especially smart. Whenever bait is around, we know precisely how it will behave. Although a formidable villain because of its sheer size and strength, it is not especially cunning or intelligent. Still, the fact that it is capable of capsizing a sizable boat is certain to induce gasps of horror. Even when it is apparently dead, the threat remains that maybe it is merely pretending. Perchance putting your head in its mouth full of teeth for a silly selfie isn’t a very good idea.

Jason Statham leads the cast of deep sea scientists and explorers who discover that the Mariana Trench is deeper than initially expected. Within these deeper levels are creatures unknown to science—including creatures that are believed to be extinct. Statham fits the role like a glove—he is smooth, athletic, charming. He oozes the qualities of a hero destined to save the day. Statham is no stranger to roles like this and so I wished there had been more wrinkles to Jonas Taylor. When we meet him, it is hinted that he drinks a lot. If the writers had given us a hero who happened to be an alcoholic, that might have been an intriguing avenue to explore. But the screenplay is not interested in taking too many risks.

The special and visual effects are impressive—to a point. The research facility, submersibles, and computer screens are beautiful, detailed, and convincing. Again, I wished to examine them for a few seconds more. But when the camera goes underwater, the images look murky at times. It is difficult to see where the ancient shark is coming from, especially during scenes set in deep ocean where it is utterly dark. An argument can be made, however, that it might be done on purpose to create a sense of realism. In the ocean, when you dunk your head underwater and open on your eyes, it is usually murky. (With the exception, for example, of some beaches in Hawaii, especially those that only few tourists visit.) Considering this perspective, I can appreciate it.

This notion that movies—even B-movies—would be more fun if they were dumb is exactly why we consistently get trash from Hollywood. The release of this film, which offers more ambition and brain than the trailers suggest, underlines our lack of consistency. If we do not raise the bar, and raise it consistently, then we have only ourselves to blame when the machine gives us exactly what we claim to want: big and dumb movies with little to no value.


The Limehouse Golem

Limehouse Golem, The (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Victorian London horror picture “The Limehouse Golem,” written for the screen by Jane Goldman and directed by Juan Carlos Medina, is willing to show the grizzly details of murder but this bravado does not get in the way of telling a proper, convincing, and thoroughly engaging story. It is based on the novel “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem” by Peter Ackroyd, and it shows. It is concerned with putting characters under a microscope and studying them. As a solid detective story ought to do, it challenges the viewers to question or grow suspicious of even the most seemingly trustworthy characters. As a result, when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed, we are not surprised. Rather, we understand completely as to why the destination makes sense.

The tale opens with a stinging curiosity. A handful of Londoners have been murdered with seemingly no connection to one another: young, old, rich, poor, Jewish, Christian, respectable men, and whores of the street have been butchered by the titular character. There is a list of suspects and the prime suspect is a dead man (Sam Reid) who had just been killed—by poisoning, it appears, in the hands of his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke)—the night before Detective Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) had arrived in the city to take over the highly publicized case.

Is it possible that the case was already closed even before the inspector had set foot in London? It is most enjoyable that the material actually plays upon this ticklish possibility. Lesser pictures helmed by filmmakers only interested in thrills or buckets of blood rather than building upon a delicious mystery would have likely swiped this potential to the side at the earliest convenience—choosing sensation over a more cerebral, meaningful experience. Not here. It respects the audience’s time and intelligence by approaching the story through the eyes of an experienced investigator. It is a film adaptation that is, in its own way, a page-turner. Is it overstuffed at times? Yes. But is there always something worthy looking at or worth considering? Affirmative.

The film commands two timelines and both are executed with elegance and seeming ease. At times I didn’t know which was more interesting: the post-murder spree or the flashbacks involving a daughter of an unmarried mother who finds her calling in a music hall. These are beautifully photographed, atmospheric, and specific—there is never any question whether what we are seeing on screen is the past of the present. As connections between them grow stronger, so do our conclusions regarding the identity of the killer. Because the material takes its time to show the history of those who survived through the Golem murders, it must be one of them. It just can’t be random stranger… Right?

All performances are carefully calibrated, from Nighy who portrays an aging but determined investigator, Cooke who must balance vulnerability and resilience, to Douglas Booth who plays a clown, essentially, on stage and a curiosity but very human off-stage. As Goldman’s screenplay juggles various strong personalities and how they fit into the main puzzle to be solved, nearly each scene strives—and succeeds for the most part—to reveal something new or surprising about every one of them. One can feel the filmmakers’ efforts in elevating a story with an ordinary premise to another level that is actually worthy of pondering over.


Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante

Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

When Thomas was a very young child and Patrick was still an infant, their mother, Julie (Sophie Cattani), left them to fend for themselves for four days because she and her friends had found a way to make a lot of money. It was only natural that social services got involved and took away the children from their mother’s care.

Thomas and Patrick are eventually adopted by a couple (Christine Citti, Yves Verhoeven). Eventually, after many years, Thomas manages to track down his biological mother because he wishes to have some sort of a relationship with her. It is not until when Thomas is around twenty years of age (Vincent Rottiers) when he finally gets the courage to knock on Julie’s door, reveal himself to be her biological son, and try to reconnect.

Inspired by true events, “Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante” manages to capture the inner turmoil of someone who has been abandoned and never gotten a chance to find closure since the ordeal. Although the elements are in place to make a compelling drama, the execution meanders at times especially during the first act, that its rawness is spoiled somewhat. The material is kept afloat, however, by realistic performances.

It requires a bit of time and effort to get into the rhythm of the storytelling. We get a glimpse of the face of Tommy the hardened young man, but it quickly jumps to scenes of Tommy as a child and Tommy as an angry prepubescent. Disparate moods and characterizations weave in and out each other which lacks a level of focus that helps to keep the material together. Instead of being engaged in the drama, when a scene ends and another begins, the question is not what is going to happen next but which time period we are observing. The technique distracts and the tension that has built collapses on itself.

Its strongest point is the performances. Rottiers does a commendable job encapsulating a character who is very angry and troubled but tries to keep the lid on the fact that he is. He plays Thomas with a fragile level-headedness and part of the suspense is at which point he is going to break. Functioning as a magnifying glass to Thomas’ feelings of inadequacy, Cattani tackles the difficult job of portraying a character that is unlikable mainly because of the decisions of her past. She makes us want to know more about Julie by playing her soft in body movements but hard during some verbal exchanges. Rottiers and Cattani’s acting styles complement each other well since both characters struggle to maintain the façade that things are all right between them.

It is interesting that “I’m Glad My Mother is Alive,” directed by Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, has a certain level of reluctance in fully getting to know its characters. In a way, it matches the psychology of its key players. Still, I wished that the couple who adopt the brothers are given more screen time. Not knowing much detail about them proves problematic at times. For example, there is a scene placed near the end of the picture between the biological and adoptive parents. It is supposed to be dramatic but since we are not knowledgeable enough about one side, the meeting comes off as a contrivance.


The Spy Who Dumped Me

Spy Who Dumped Me, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Here is a movie that might have been tolerable, perhaps even deserving of a marginal recommendation, given that it had ended around the one hour mark. But then it continues for another hour even when the screenplay, written by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson, does not have enough fresh content to entertain a spectrum of viewers. The death march that is the latter hour is so desperate for laughs that it forgets it is a parody of spy flicks, chick flicks, and action-comedies. As a result, the joke ends up being itself.

Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon play two best friends who get thrown in the middle of an international plot involving governments and terrorists that wish to get their hands on a device. While the co-leads share convincing chemistry at times, there are numerous instances when McKinnon overshadows Kunis—particularly difficult to pull off because the latter makes it look as though exuding charm and variegated emotions is effortless.

McKinnon’s approach is tank-like: do and say whatever it takes to be the funniest person on screen. She has numerous facial expressions in her arsenal—and she is not afraid to look silly or stupid as long as she is remembered, especially when she is not on screen. I admired her strategy and it works for a one-woman show, but the director, Susanna Fogel, seems to forget that there must be a constant partnership on screen. Because I kept noticing McKinnon’s firecracker physicality and energy, I caught myself wishing that the film was solely about her character, Morgan with too strong of a personality, instead of Audrey, the woman dumped over text by her boyfriend who happens to work with the CIA.

The picture is surprisingly violent—which I enjoyed. However, this element of surprise is not enough to elevate the generic material. Yes, it is a parody of pictures that follow a certain formula, but it does not command an identity of its own. This is problematic, especially during the second hour, because when bullets fly and the characters go on the run, we know exactly how each sequence will play out. It becomes predictable—and isn’t one of goals of parody supposed to point to what is wrong or tired about a subject and attempt to subvert it? It relies on exaggeration—which parodies are supposed to do—but employing this strategy and nothing else prevents it from becoming a standout of the genre.

I dive into movies like “The Spy Who Dumped Me” not to ascertain the contents of its plot, but to see if it could really outsmart the genre it attempts to parody or skewer. While I chuckled sporadically because McKinnon and Kunis manage to sell their lines with verve to spare, the unambitious screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. In addition, notice its wildly fluctuating tone, how out of control it is to the point where would-be amusing moments are placed right next to occurrences that are deadly serious, or vice-versa. Clearly, the screenplay would have benefited from further redrafting.


Cabin Fever

Cabin Fever (2016)
★ / ★★★★

It couldn’t even get the gross-out leg shaving scene right.

Nearly a scene-by-scene recreation of Eli Roth’s horror-comedy of the same name, Travis Zariwny’s “Cabin Fever” is pointless, worthless, and a colossal waste of time. It exhibits no understanding of why the original works and, for some, like myself, why it holds up upon repeated viewings. One of the main reasons is the 2002 picture being rough around the edges. Clearly made with a limited budget, Roth, an ambitious writer-director at the time, is able to turn rather cheap-looking sets into a believable setting that is a cabin in the middle of the woods where flesh-eating bacteria has been working its way up the food chain.

Here, however, notice how the environment looks so sanitized, from the well-decorated interiors of the cabin to the freshly mowed lawns of the picture-perfect surrounding area. It does not fit the dark and foreboding mood of the film that just so happens to have comic moments due to the sheer ignorance or stupidity of the characters. Yes, the characters are meant to be one-dimensional and daft, but Randy Pearlstein’s script, for some reason, is not at all willing to skewer them. Instead, it wants us to like the characters without providing good reasons why we should care for them in the first place. The five friends are as boring as tap water (Gage Golightly, Matthew Doddario, Samuel Davis, Nadine Crocker, Dustin Ingram).

Its second failure is the lack of convincing gore. Let us focus on the famous leg-shaving scene, perhaps the most disgusting—and disturbing—moment in the original. Take note of how the scene in this film unfolds. It is often interrupted by an uninteresting action scene that is taking place outside. Instead of focusing on what is unfolding in the bathtub, distraction is thrown on our faces.

Notice how loud it is rather than settling in the quiet. It is only appropriate that we hear the flesh being rippled by the razor. Worse, take a close look at the leg; it looks so fake that it is offensive. Even the blood does not have the correct color or consistency. So, I suppose, the scene is supposed to be disturbing because of how horribly it is conceived and executed.

Forget that it is a remake for a second. Remakes happen. But just because a movie is supposed to be a modernized beat-for-beat duplication does not mean that ambition should be thrown out the window. On the contrary, the work must be so driven to surpass the original that we feel the filmmakers’ passions in our bones. This can be accomplished by presenting more details than what is necessary.

For instance, they could have made the scabs so realistic that it is actually interesting—instead of just stomach-churning—to inspect them with a magnifying glass. They could have used an extremely well-trained dog during the animal attacks instead of using an unconvincing mannequin. They could have taken more time in the editing room and noticed that random loud noises actually take away not only from the action but also from the dialogue that is barely there in the first place.

Clearly, the horror is in the details and “Cabin Fever” missed the memo. Nearly every moment is forced and half-baked, truly a struggle to sit through. Although the performances, too, leave a lot to be desired, strong performances can rarely save a disaster. Around the fifteen-minute mark I wondered, “Who is this for?”

I’m still waiting for an answer.


The Remains of the Day

Remains of the Day, The (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Ivory’s subtle but powerful “The Remains of the Day,” based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, tasks the viewer to read between the lines. On the surface, it can be argued that nothing much happens as we observe men of certain pedigree enter and exit the palatial Darlington Hall. But look closely and listen intently at how people—both the men of titles and the servants whose job is to ensure that every little thing during such posh gatherings goes swimmingly—carry themselves and the content of the various exchanges. There is a wealth of information to be had that touches upon duty—to one’s country, fellowmen, career, personal needs, and conscience. Here is a film for those willing to fall under its hypnosis.

The story begins and ends in 1958 post-war Britain, but the majority of its content unfolds throughout the 1930s. Anthony Hopkins plays the butler of Darlington Hall, Mr. Stevens, and he is in charge of every minute detail, from making astute hiring decisions to carefully evaluating whether certain jobs are being performed well, that goes on within the residence. The later timeline involves the butler meeting with the former housekeeper, Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), who decided to leave Darlington Hall so she could get married, while the earlier timeline shows the many years the two have worked together and how their professional relationship and a sort-of friendship change over time.

Tension is ever-present when these veteran performers exchange dialogue. Their characters utilize their words either as shields or weapons, to attack or to disarm, sometimes to attempt to embrace, in a place where feelings, certainly romantic ones, are encouraged to be repressed because not doing so would not only serve as distraction, it would be considered unprofessional. Their struggle is a deliciously ironic, especially through the scope of nobility and decorum, because the owner of Darlington Hall (James Fox) eventually finds himself willing to make a deal with Adolf Hitler in order to prevent Britain from engaging in war. A number of wealthy diplomats, many of them so detached from what their citizens want, frequent the place and we assess their questionable intentions in a place of great beauty, from its internal architectures and sculptures to figurines and artworks hung on walls.

It is amazing how Hopkins is able to convey so much by wearing a rather stoic face and slow but precise body movements. A consummate actor, he is able to communicate plenty, for example, by simply touching someone else’s hand with only his fingertips and letting them rest there for three seconds. Notice the way he controls his eyes when Mr. Stevens is performing an every day task, how it is rather similar to how he regards Ms. Kenton—it is the same look. But it is the correct decision, you see, because the character’s passion lies in his job for it is his life. And so it is most appropriate that he looks at his work and the woman he deeply cares for in the same way. It is such an intelligent and insightful way of portraying a character. Thus, Mr. Stevens qualifies both an enigma and a tragic romantic figure.

Its languid pacing paves the way for viewers to become a part of Mr. Stevens’ lifestyle. Because the protagonist does not say much, especially in terms of what he feels or thinks (he claims it is his job to serve, not to share his opinion or sentiments), it is critical that we are provided a thorough understanding of how he lives. The writing and camera work engage in a steady rhythm, almost like a slow dance, so that almost every scene communicates something important or telling about the character. It is not interested in handholding or spoon-feeding us information; it is there if or when we choose to look.

Here is a melancholic film that engages the mind. It does not attempt to be profound or enlightening, it just is. It simply tells the story in a smart way and it is up to us to extract meaning based on our own education, life experiences, our hopes and fears. It is a very human story lovingly told with perspective, elegance, and grace.


Butterfly Kiss

Butterfly Kiss (1995)
★ / ★★★★

Eunice (Amanda Plummer) goes into petrol stations and tells the receptionists she is looking for a record. She cannot remember the title of the song so she hums it. After getting a response, she proceeds to ask if the person she is speaking with is named Judith. When her guess is incorrect, Eunice gets upset and kills the woman before her. When the disturbed Eunice encounters Miriam (Saskia Reeves), the outcome is different. Miriam takes her home for the night, they sleep together, and they eventually embark on a cross-country road trip.

Halfway through “Butterfly Kiss,” directed by Michael Winterbottom, I began to wonder if the picture was doing anything for me. Is it supposed to be a drama about a killer and her accomplice? A love story between two women? A dark comedy about lust, how it blinds, and how it renders the inflicted incapable of being tethered to her morality? Is it a portrait of two fractured minds meeting, melding, and fracturing? It could be any one, a combination of a few, or all of these things. I just did not care.

Events unfold for the sake of the plot but the film is photographed flatly. There is an umbrage that follows the two characters which grow increasingly monotonous. It does not flinch when the central characters go through emotions such as joy, anger, confusion, or heartbreak. The minds of Miriam and Eunice are obviously detached from reality but it does not mean our relationship with the film ought to be disconnected, too.

The so-called build-up to the shocking kills are formulaic. A new face is introduced. There is a bit of tête-à-tête as words of flattery are thrown in the air. After a stranger engages with Eunice, the countdown begins. We are reduced to waiting for someone to deliver the fatal blow or a person entering the next scene with blood on her clothing. After the third kill, we know that no one will bother to do the right thing.

Miriam speaking to directly to camera, shot in black-and-white, is sandwiched between the gruesome murders and the couple arguing about trust. Her confessions are not revelatory or mesmerizing. They do not provide insight to her actions or inaction. She claims that she sees a goodness in Eunice but where is the goodness in leaving a trail of bodies from one pitstop to another? Eventually, it begins to feel like a bunch of irrational rambling.

If there is one thing that is undeniably strong in “Butterfly Kiss,” written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, it is Plummer’s performance. She demands attention because, through her body language, she is able to construct a reality where Eunice is capable of anything. She is not afraid of rules or repercussions. Every line delivery has a fiery swagger that threatens to turn into a wildfire. Her eyes are razor sharp, willing to tear someone into shreds with a blink. It is unfortunate that the film is an interminable bore because Eunice is a specimen worthy of assessment under a different set of lights.


La vie d’Adèle

Vie d’Adèle, La (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) knows she is more attracted to women than men, but—with a little push from her friends—she decides to date a male classmate (Jérémie Laheurte) who shows genuine interest in her. They get intimate eventually but being with a man fails to satiate her physical and emotional needs. Adèle does the right thing by choosing to break up with the guy before any more of their time is wasted. Later, the high school student meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), an artist with blue hair. Emma is exciting, challenging, and present. Adèle, very young and idealistic about love, falls hard for her new friend.

“La vie d’Adèle,” also known as “Blue is the Warmest Color,” falls short of being truly special due to an unjustified bulky running time. The first hour does a wonderful job in showing a series of scenes that communicates Adèle’s unhappiness through mind-numbing routines that offer little excitement or fulfillment. She is young and alive but not really living. She wants to be loved by another person but she may not be ready because she is anxious—uncertain at times—about acting on her homosexual impulses.

The film captures how it is like to be young and questioning. Exarchopoulos plays the lead character with a nice blend of naiveté and toughness but at the same time one who is undergoing an emotional turmoil so chaotic, we feel Adèle consistently being on edge—that she might explode any second. Adèle has a group of friends but the girls are not the kind to keep secrets. Her parents are very traditional. The works of literature she reads offer no solution. She is alone and we understand her being thrilled when she finally finds someone with whom she feels she can connect with on an honest and deep level.

Adèle is written smart and so is Emma. Seydoux makes fresh choices in playing the girlfriend. Emma is the tougher and more experienced of the two but there is vulnerability to her, too. The early stages of the blossoming romance are most interesting to dissect because it can be argued that Emma is as scared as Adèle to be together. The material suggests that perhaps Emma has been hurt in the past. We feel her weighing if it is worth putting her guard down and allowing a new person—a high school student, no less—into her life and create something healthy, something both of them can be happy with.

The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is fond of close-ups. Such a technique is appropriate in a film like this because it relies on us to interpret a well of tiny emotions drawn on faces. The camera being up close and personal urges us to want to hug the characters when they are weak and have no one to confide in. Conversely, it makes us want to push them away when they have betrayed themselves or each other’s trust. By placing our perspective so close to the characters’ faces, like how their heads are always only inches away from one another, we are, in a way, in a relationship with the two women.

There was a lot of hubbub about the “explicitness” of the sex scenes. I find this frustrating because some discussions make it sound like what is shown on screen is pornographic. Sure, the images leave little to the imagination and the love scene is allowed to run longer than expected, but I found it appropriate. To me, the scene embodies Adèle’s true sexual awakening. It is the time when she—who has yearned for so long to be with someone who understands her emotionally and physically—reaches raw sexual freedom, attaining true happiness with a person with whom she does not have to pretend.

“Blue is the Warmest Color,” based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, takes several missteps some time in the middle—a handful of scenes that take place a few weeks or months within Adèle and Emma’s relationship. I found them repetitive. They bored me. Many ought to have been excised to keep the rhythm going. For instance, I did not see much point in the two women visiting each other’s families other than to incite obvious tonal differences between the two households. As a result, we expect to see parents in the latter half—when several years have passed since the lovers met—to see how they, too, have or have not changed. Alas, there isn’t even a mention of them.