Hotel Artemis


Hotel Artemis (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Take the cool concept of hotel-exclusively-for-criminals from “John Wick”—but turn the posh setting the opposite way: as grubby as possible without losing the foreboding mood—and set it amidst a political backdrop that involves rioters’ violent uprising against the privatization of clean water in Los Angeles 2028. The result is “Hotel Artemis,” written and directed by Drew Pearce, an action-thriller that offers a few neat ideas but quite underwhelming as a whole. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been better off as television show.

Part of its lack of cinematic appeal is the standard disparate characters having to converge at one place. Given that the titular hotel is meant to heal criminals, many of them killers, we already expect for them to drop like flies. It is all a matter of when and in what order. Since it takes on this level of predictability, dramatic gravity must be enhanced to such an extent that we overlook the final destination. Its attempt goes as far as to provide flashbacks of the nurse (Jodie Foster) who runs the hotel, how she found her son dead at the beach due to a drug overdose. Since then she has been in a state of grief—it has gotten so bad that she has developed agoraphobia over the years. She blames herself so much that she has made Hotel Artemis her personal prison, to exist to serve till the day she dies.

Meanwhile, we get snippets of snappy banter among a slate of criminals, from bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown), arms dealers (Charlie Day), to hired assassins (Sofia Boutella). All of them are convincing in their respective roles with the exception of Zachary Quinto as the hotel owner’s volatile son. Every time he utters a line, I felt as though the performer was taken from a completely different picture. It is distracting at best, laughable at worst—especially when the character is supposed to be taken seriously as a major threat against everyone in the hotel. The angry son is given no character development.

The picture is shot against a curious political backdrop but the anger swelling outside of the hotel is used merely as a device. News coverage is shown on televisions inside the Artemis, we hear bombs going off in the distance, and rooftop scenes show aircrafts crashing on nearby buildings. These images are meant to amplify the tension from the outside in, perhaps even aiming to paint a picture of a hellish near-future, but the social commentary, while present, is completely lost. Like its underdeveloped characters, its ideas, too, are undercooked. I felt no excitement or enjoyment from these images.

A cursory approach almost always does not work with high-concept action-thrillers. The point of having ambitious ideas is to explore them in a way that is thoroughly entertaining—that if one were to strip away the action altogether, the viewers would still want to know what would happen because the drama is rooted in something real. “Hotel Artemis” fails to invest emotionally and so only a shallow experience is offered. While not necessarily bad or unbearable, nearly everything about it is forgettable. If there were to be a sequel, which the material nudges by mentioning other hotels with a similar purpose, ideas must be explored first and foremost. Otherwise, what would be the point?

The Face of Love


The Face of Love (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since her husband (Ed Harris) has passed five years ago, Nikki (Annette Bening) has been unable to move on from his death. She gives away his clothes. She hides his photographs. She avoids places that hold significance for them.

They frequently visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She finds it to be particularly difficult to be around this place, but one day the widow feels compelled to go inside. She regards the artworks with fascination and solemnity—but it isn’t the same. She turns around and there she spots a perfect replica of her late husband. She later comes to know him as Tom (also played by Harris) and, like the late husband, he is passionate about art.

“The Face of Love,” written by Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin, is a hard sell. The story involving a person’s double and playing it with a straight face? Isn’t that within the realm science fiction and fantasy? But that is exactly what I admired about it: Instead of executing the plot with tinges of silliness, it is brave enough to dare to suspend us in disbelief nearly throughout. We know that Tom will learn about Nikki’s late husband eventually and that he looks exactly like him. That is not the interesting part. It is in how he responds to the knowledge he is provided that tells us everything about his character.

In movies with similar premise, it is too easy to categorize the protagonist. He or she must either be crippled by grief or the person is likely to be suffering from a mental illness. Not here. Bening makes an excellent decision to embody both categories but she avoids her character from being defined by them. She makes a lot of fresh choices. Notice how Nikki is like when indoors. Compare her body language to when she is out in the open. It is two different performances. The unhurried pacing allows us to appreciate the subtleties in her performance.

We feel the love between both characters. Only understanding what Nikki feels toward her late husband’s double would have been severely erroneous. It would have made the character less compelling. Certainly, an irrational obsession would have been the point as opposed to an imperfect but believable relationship. It just so happens that there is a big elephant in the room and to acknowledge it might just ruin everything.

Robin Williams plays Roger, Nikki’s neighbor and with whom he hopes of eventually sharing a romantic connection. Roger is underwritten, functioning more like annoyance rather than a genuinely sad man who also lost someone who is dear to him. Their commonality is loss, but the screenplay fails to hone in on that trait in meaningful ways. Instead, they are given a few conversations that outwardly refer to their dead spouses. Surely there must have been a less obvious way to explore that angle.

Directed by Arie Posin, “The Face of Love” will likely surprise those who choose to have an open mind. Going into it, I looked forward to Bening and Harris’ performances most. They do deliver and share wonderful chemistry, but I was surprised that their characters’ situation resonated with me. The final scene is superlative.

The Black Stallion


The Black Stallion (1979)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If there were more movies released on a yearly basis which dare to be on the level of ambition, imagination, craft, and execution of “The Black Stallion,” I am convinced there would be more intellectually curious children who would grow up to love and respect animals, the environment, and nature. The work, directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the novel by Walter Farley, without question, is cream of the crop, providing one astonishing visual right after another with seeming ease and endless amount of energy. It invites us to look at every frame and appreciate each choice as one would a most engaging book about adventures, life’s mysteries, and longings.

Right from the opening sequence the camera communicates that it understands children. It involves an American boy named Alec (Kelly Reno) observing men speaking a foreign tongue who are forcing a black desert horse into a tiny stable aboard a ship. Notice the placement of the camera: how it is on the level of the child’s eye coupled with how efficient it is in capturing every emotion from the boy’s freckled and expressive face. He is curious, afraid, excited, and entertained by the level of danger unfolding before him. Despite the foreign language, there is no subtitle. It trusts whoever is watching to be able to read the scene simply by listening closely to the emphases and intonations of words of phrases and by observing that the body movements are filled with purpose. It effectively sets the tone for the rest of the picture.

Eventually, the boy and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Words are rarely used and this is the point when the film is required to hold the most universal appeal—and it does. The images must speak for themselves. Achingly beautiful are sequences involving the two beings having to learn to trust one another. It is done with suspense, humor, and, yes, even horror. I admired the decision to show that the wild horse is incredibly dangerous: one simply should not run up to one with the intention of petting it, expecting it would be friendly.

Sound effects are utilized in such a way to highlight the dangers: the panicked neighing of the animal, its hooves bashing onto various objects and destroying them, the weight of its humongous body being thrown about. Couple these sounds and accompanying images as the boy slowly approaches Black… it is near impossible not to hold one’s breath. There is no special or visual effects. At times the confused horse and the boy are literally only three feet apart. I found it scary, concerning, and, admittedly, highly entertaining. At one point, I found myself throwing instructions at the screen (“No, don’t do it. Just please walk away!”).

Casting Reno is the correct choice because he has grown up with horses; he gives Alec a certain calm that cannot be edited or constructed or bought. It is amazing how the young performer is able to ride the horse as it runs along the shore without a saddle, strap, or stirrup. He must simply hold onto the mane of the horse as his tiny, fragile human frame bounces about. It must be seen to be believed; I had never seen anything like it.

“The Black Stallion” does not tell the entirety of its story on the island. Most refreshing is that the work does not become about trauma or mourning. It remains to possess a high level of drama, but the emotions behind them are optimistic, full of hope and possibilities. Still, there are unexpected moments when characters get a chance to recognize their losses. Again, words need not be utilized; silence is enough. The camera resting on a face as memories come to the foreground accomplishes more than having to explain how one feels or what one thinks about the preceding action. Here is a movie aimed for children that does not condescend—not even once.

Out of the Dark


Out of the Dark (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the number of scares is on the low side, “Out of the Dark,” directed by Lluís Quílez, is a horror film that works because there is consistent tension-building, it actually uses its Colombian setting rather than keeping it in the background, and there is intrigue within its core mystery involving a family from London moving into a spacious but haunted home. This is a work for audiences who enjoy storytelling that just so happens to have horror elements in it. It has more in common with movies released fifty to forty years ago than it does with today’s run-of-the-mill parade of empty jump scares.

The house is another character in that over time we become familiar with its layout. So when a character, expectedly, goes off to investigate a strange noise coming from inside the walls, when an object comes rolling down the stairs, when the power goes out due to the storm, these scenes are almost always effective. Because we know each turn, what each room offers, and other seemingly unimportant details like the color of the staircase, the relative size of the backyard, the texture of curtains dancing as violent winds enter the house, we feel we have become a part of this home. The place is lived in, it doesn’t look like a studio. We recognize when something is out of place.

Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman play parents of a Hannah (Pixie Davies), a little girl who begins to exhibit symptoms of a disease. While Sarah and Paul are not entirely believable as parents who have gone through a lot together prior to the events within the scope of the film, Styles and Speedman share believable chemistry as parents who would do anything to find answers. For me, the best scenes involve Sarah and Paul going their separate ways to investigate and finding different aspects of the same answer. A number of American movies, mainstream and independent, attempt to do this sometimes but they are often less successful. I think the Colombian setting contributes to the intrigue of the mystery.

Significantly less effective is its CGI-ridden finale. The quality of these computer graphic imageries is not exactly first-rate and points should not be given for being proud of it regardless. But more importantly, such an exhibition of visual effects does not fit the smallness and intimate nature of the story. Sometimes restraint is the wiser choice.

“Out of the Dark” is beautifully shot by cinematographer Isaac Villa. As someone who grew up in a country with a number of similarities with Colombia, its climate, and its people, I appreciated how it shows outdoor markets, how people make a living in the streets, where people live, the obvious divide between the privileged and the less privileged. There is more to appreciate here than what goes on during the hauntings.

Brightburn


Brightburn (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The question of what might have happened had Superman grown up evil instead of good is not at all new, but “Brightburn,” written for the screen by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, had the opportunity to burst the door open for the superhero horror sub-genre with an exclamation point. Instead, the picture is, for the most part, dramatically inert, choosing shock over suspense, violence instead of creeping terror. I felt the actors—every single one clearly capable of so much more than what the reductive screenplay offers—longing for deeper, more challenging material. Over time, I grew disinterested in its lifeless parade of villainous young Clark Kent.

Top-tier superhero films command a sense of wonder. It does not matter whether one’s power is innate, transferred, or achieved through creativity, technology, and hard work, superhero movies that successfully capture viewers’ imagination treat as though the powers in their respective stories are new, wonderful, potentially scary and dangerous, eye-opening.

In this project, notice, for instance, there is a flatness in tone and mood as twelve-year-old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) discovers his super-strength and indestructibility. He need not be overtly thrilled given his laid back personality, but a more intelligent screenplay would have found ways to communicate his delight, alarm, or confusion—perhaps a mix of all three—for being a special freak. Brandon, after all, despite his extraterrestrial origin, is raised by human parents (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) and so, naturally, he must respond in human ways. Otherwise, we fail to relate to his muted reactions.

Conflicts surrounding Brandon lack depth. At school, he is made fun for being too smart, too quiet, too different. The script does not bother to introduce any of Brandon’s peers (or teachers) in a meaningful way, whether the supporter character becomes a friend or foe. Without the requisite context surrounding Brandon’s challenges outside his home, the individuals he interacts with simply exist as as sheep lining up for the slaughter. It is without question that the writers are not interested in the interactions between social and abnormal psychology within the conditions of a superhero flick. Scenes at school should be highly informative given there is no other pre-teen Brandon can socialize with at the Breyer farm.

Like forgettable horror movies, it appears as though “Brightburn” is more interested in how to make violence and mangled body parts appear beautiful or realistic. Sure, pulling a sharp object from one’s eyeball, for instance, makes the audience wince but that is all there is to it once the scene is over. Slasher elements do not work here because little effort is spent on the chase or tease. There is minimal patience from behind the camera; it moves so quickly and so often as if self-conscious that viewers would notice less-than-perfect images. It does not help either that the score is relentless in signaling audiences how to feel. Clearly, it does not understand the difference between an evanescent jump scare and horror that lingers.

Floating Skyscrapers


Floating Skyscrapers (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), training as a swimmer for a decade and a half, meets Michal (Bartosz Gelner) outside a gallery and two share a joint. There is certainly a romantic connection there but it just so happens that Kuba has a girlfriend, Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz), and they are living together. Eventually, Sylwia catches on what might be going on between the two men but she cares for Kuba too much to let go so easily.

“Floating Skyscrapers,” directed by Tomasz Woszczynski, is so lacking in energy that it never gets a real chance to become an interesting drama. There are plenty of shots of geometric figures, people sitting around saying nothing and naked bodies in bed, but the emotion the picture manages to capture is monotone, bordering on soporific. It is an LGBTQ dramatic film that fails to appeal to anybody outside of the community.

The three lead performers are physically attractive but there is nothing particularly poignant about their characters. The central plot revolves around the two men wanting to be together while everyone else disapproves. There is a hint of social commentary about the Polish culture’s current attitude toward homosexuality but it is not expounded upon in a rich and rewarding manner. The subplot is typical and expected: Kuba and Michal coming out to their families and we observe how the parents respond. The same subplot have been done in similar pictures and much more effectively.

There is only one scene that is executed just right. It involves Kuba, Sylvia, and Michal sharing a meal. Each of them knows exactly what is going on with whom but not one bothers to bring up the source of each of their frustrations. We have all been in a situation like this. It is awkward and uncomfortable—the scene perfectly captures Sylwia’s seething animosity, Michael’s embarrassment, and Kuba’s disbelief that his two lovers are in the same room and breathing the same air.

The ending is a severe miscalculation which underlines the weakness of Tomasz Woszczynski and Tomasz Wasilewski’s screenplay. For all the three characters’ misery, they—and the audience—deserves an answer as to what might happen among them. Instead, the movie simply ends just when it is becoming interesting for having presented game changers that might alter the rest of the principal characters’ lives.

“Plynace wiezowce” need not be colorful or even vibrant to be worthy of our time. However, it is expected, as in any other movie, that themes be ironed out without having to revert to old-fashioned treatment of gays and lesbians on film. The writers should have strived to make the characters fresh to the point where we are curious about them despite the love triangle. This is neither a modern nor a forward-thinking film.

Shoplifters


Shoplifters (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the subjects of “Shoplifters” are crooks, they are not defined by any one action, or thought, or intention. And just when we think we have any of them all figured out, we are reminded that there is no way to understand them completely because these are fully realized people who, one way or another, despite their age, have lived. Like real people, the characters in this sad and occasionally amusing story are complicated, they have secrets, they are motivated not always by what others see but sometimes by pasts so painful and tragic that the idea of straying from a self-destructive path is as impossible a reality as winning the lottery. The plot moves forward but the focus is on the inertia of its specimens.

Intelligently written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, it tasks the observer to appreciate the every day life of the subjects. It is a family composed of five: an elderly female (Kirin Kiki), two adult females (Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsuoka), one adult male (Lily Franky), and one boy (Jyo Kairi) who is about eleven or twelve. The curious thing is that they are not related by blood but by desperation, whether it be as a means to escape a former life, to battle loneliness, or simply to make ends meet. Their foundation is shaken—then strengthened—when it is decided that they will “adopt” a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), whose parents abuse her. It is not important whether we agree with the family’s lifestyle or decisions, but it is required that we pay attention and consider.

The family’s desperation is captured in overt and subtle ways: the types of food they eat, the state of their clothing, the size of their living space, the decorations and disorganization in their home, the way they respond when their job is threatened. But also take into account that their household offers happiness and comfort. I appreciated that Koreeda has the sagacity to simply allow the camera to capture small, seemingly insignificant moments like a daughter figure laying down comfortably next to grandmother who sews, a boy playing with toys in his fort, a woman taking a bath. Not every moment is designed to further the plot—necessary because we must acquire a taste of this particular family’s life in order to have a chance of understanding them.

The children are encouraged and taught by the older male to shoplift. The larger and more expensive the item, the bigger the risk. There is danger in the action but there is sense of humor, too. Heartfelt moments ring true. A standout involves a shopkeeper having known all the while that the boy has been stealing small knickknacks from his place of business. He has not said anything… until he notices that the boy is teaching his “sister” how to steal.

I wondered about this man, why he tolerated the boy’s indiscretion, possibly for months or years. Does he see himself this boy? Is he aware about the boy’s home life considering that the shop is located around the neighborhood? Is he friends or in good terms with his “parents”? Or is he simply a wise man who knows that the boy would find his way eventually? The picture makes a point that from time to time kindness, like a helping hand or a guiding force, juts out from where you least expect it.

“Shoplifters” is filled with potential situations from which superficial drama could grow. Koreeda avoids them because he is not interested in hyperbole but rather the poetry of life that so happen to be told through this particular family. It is one of those films that is difficult to describe because an argument can be made that not much happens on the surface. Like the dried up small pond situated within the family’s place of living, it is teeming with life and activity should you bother to look a little closer.