Motel Life, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) wakes his brother, Frank (Emile Hirsch), in the middle of the night and tells him that something terrible had just happened: He had accidentally struck a kid on a bike with the car. Although he had tried to pick him up and take him to the hospital, it was of no use. The boy was already dead.
Frank and Jerry Lee are inseparable, partly because they wish to honor their dying mother’s wish which was expressed to them back when they were still teenagers. Now in their thirties, the duo choose to remain in Reno with hopes of riding out the investigation. If they were to disappear suddenly, suspicion would surely arise.
“The Motel Life,” directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky, is more a story about the love shared between two brothers than it is about guilt, not having enough money, or the past although these three elements are major driving forces that continue to shape trail of their journey. It is a moving story, heartbreaking in some ways, and yet it is also about hope. No matter what happens, Frank and Jerry Lee are there for each other no matter what the cost.
The lead performances sizzle with stifled emotions. Hirsch gives Frank a level of strength that is almost unexpected because he looks much younger than Dorff, who injects Jerry Lee with so much pathos that we forget sometimes that he has committed a hit-and-run. I would have guessed that Dorff would play the stronger character—the protector—and Hirsch would play the guilt-ridden half.
Nevertheless, what ultimately ends up on screen is the correct decision. Since the casting choice is less obvious, those familiar with the performers’ repertoire will be fascinated because they manage to thrive in a relatively new territory. Meanwhile, those who are less familiar with Hirsch and Dorff can still enjoy the relationship of the two brothers by discovering, slowly, how their dynamics work.
The best scenes involve Frank telling Jerry Lee stories of their imagined great adventures. The wonderful animation employed vary in style and content but not so much that they come across detached from one another. On the contrary, there is fluidity in the drawings and plots and so we learn about what goes on in Frank’s mind: his inspirations, disappointments, his values, his hopes for the future. He is a man who does not speak a lot. It is easier to grab a bottle of alcohol than a shoulder of a friend—especially when he is not very social in the first place.
There are two people in Frank’s life that I wished were fleshed out a bit more. Kris Kristofferson plays a man named Earl who sells cars. In a way, he is a father figure to Frank. They share two scenes: One when Frank is a teenager (Andrew Lee) and the other when older Frank needs a car. Another person of importance in Frank’s life is a former girlfriend named Annie (Dakota Fanning). They have lost touch for years only to cross paths again under very different circumstances.
Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “The Motel Life” shows a portrait that may not be pretty or convenient but one that is worth looking at and thinking about. It made me feel glad that I have a brother who I believe will do anything for me when it really counts. Perhaps that is the reason why I was so moved by the brothers’ bond. Though we come from completely different backgrounds, I still saw a reflection of myself and my sibling in Frank and Jerry Lee.
Big Bad Wolves (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Three children play hide-and-seek. The boy starts a countdown against a tree and the girls run toward an abandoned house. While inside, one of them chooses to hide in a wardrobe. The other changes her mind and dashes outside, desperate to find any hiding place. The boy finds the latter girl without much effort. However, when they open the wardrobe, their friend is no longer there. The only trace of her is a red shoe she had been wearing just a few minutes prior. Someone must have taken her.
Written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, “Big Bad Wolves” is like a confident would-be singer who happens to be tone deaf. The intention is to create a hybrid of dark comedy and thriller but the ideas on paper and execution rarely mix in a manner that is synergistic. What results is a picture that dares to push envelope but severely lacking in dramatic push that is designed to get us to care about the fates of its characters. It requires more effort than what is usually required to get into its story.
The plot is not about the children but the adults involved in the aftermath. Micki (Lior Ashkenazi) is a cop who is convinced that Dror (Rotem Keinan), a schoolteacher, is a pedophile and the man responsible for the missing girl. In a constantly evolving plot that stops about halfway through, it is most bizarre that I found the suspect more fascinating and—get this—more sympathetic, especially for a suspected creep, than the cop who wants some kind of justice.
“Justice” is an operative word because his definition may not match that of someone who wishes to know all the facts before arriving at a conclusion. It makes one wonder wether the intention of the writer-directors is to make the viewers feel uneasy when it comes to who to care more about. There are more than a handful of scenes where we observe Micki doing the wrong thing—and yet a few viewers might argue he is simply following his gut.
Yes, there is violence and torture. They are prevalent in the second half and I found them unnecessary at times. We see a character breaking another person’s fingers. And then a hammer gets involved. And then a plier. And then a blowtorch. You get the picture. About thirty minutes into the scenes involving torture, I started to feel bad about what I was seeing. It isn’t that these scenes are not well made. They just are not for me. I found them pointless and redundant.
For example, let us take a group of scenes where comedy and thrill fail to reach a fruitful partnership. The character being tortured in the chair is pretty much mutilated. The man inflicting the pain holds up a tool and the camera settles in a certain angle as to create anticipation. There is a beat or two. We look at the tool and the body part about to be dismembered. Then a timer goes off. Or the doorbell rings. Or there is a phone call. These occur in a cycle and I began to suspect that the filmmakers were simply buying time. There is no reason for the picture to run for almost two hours.
I enjoyed the final fifteen minutes of “Big Bad Wolves” even though the series of scenes offer nothing new or groundbreaking. I liked it because there is emphasis placed on the consequences of one’s action or inaction. If Keshales and Papushado had minimized the repetitiveness of scenes involving physical torture and actually written more scenes that communicate bitter irony, the work would have had more substance. Instead, what we are handed is a story with an interesting premise that eventually gets mired in what it is arguing against. The screenplay is confused.
Walking Out (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith’s “Walking Out” unfolds like a beautiful adventure novel, so willing to detail the interior lives of its characters while showing what happens to the father and son, Cal (Matt Bomer) and David (Josh Wiggins), while out in the wilderness during a hunting trip. It is a survival story, certainly, but it works as a drama first and foremost. It makes for a compelling watch, made for lovers of nature and intimate portraits of relationships in which the plot serves to explore the surprising bonds between family and their arresting but unforgiving environment.
Flashbacks are too often misused as a tool to plug in the missing pieces of the screenplay. It is a rare occasion when it is utilized effectively, as it is here, because the memories we come to see serve to enhance an already rich material. Because the filmmakers do not use flashbacks as a crutch, the viewers look forward to the retrospectives since these either highlight a theme or reveal surprising information about why, for example, Cal insists on teaching David how to hunt even though his son is apparently not into it initially.
These flashbacks involve young Cal (Alex Neustaedter), who was around David’s age, and his hunting expeditions with his father (Bill Pullman). The images are majestic, especially when the camera gets as close to an animal as possible, but at the same time the film is unafraid to show that being out in the mountains is often cold, dirty, frustrating, and requires a colossal amount of patience. There is a wise but amusing line regarding the key difference between hunting and shopping.
Bomer and Wiggins share solid chemistry even though there are times when it feels as though we are watching two brothers rather than a father and his son. While it is not necessary to make Bomer look older, it might have helped if the performer had adapted a body language that is a bit more worn or experienced. Or perhaps a certain way of walking. At the same time, however, perhaps the father’s youth is the point, one of the reasons why he connects deeply with his son during moments when he isn’t a teacher or guide.
Meanwhile, Wiggins fits the role as a teenager so used to constantly holding technology in his hands that he forgets his visit to his father in the remote wilderness of Montana is one to be cherished, not just for the views but also when it comes to time to be shared. (We assume his parents are divorced and David only sees his father perhaps once or twice a year.) His growth throughout the picture is thoroughly convincing; it is the correct decision that the final shot be of David looking at a distance.
“Walking Out” is based on a short story by David Quammen. It is efficient but filled with details and so we are entertained by the drama that unfolds. Particularly impressive is the second half in which the dialogue becomes uncommon and the slow pacing dominates. It is meant to capture a particular experience so we are left listening to shuffling feet as it struggles against inches of snow, the call of wild animals, and the muffled sloshing of a river underneath inches of ice.
★★★ / ★★★★
Those who may try to dissuade others from seeing the action-thriller “Skyscraper” may claim that its offerings have been done bigger, better, and more realistically in other films—and they are not wrong. Yet despite combined familiar templates of one-man missions and disaster flicks, it does not take away the fact that the highly energetic work, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, is entertaining, ludicrous, and highly watchable. This is big summer blockbuster that is not a superhero picture done just right.
The action sequences are surprisingly meticulous despite chaos and violence unfolding inside and outside the burning building in Hong Kong. Fistfights, for instance, are well-choreographed; they last long enough so that we appreciate every bone-crunching hit; and they are edited sharply but precisely so that the viewer always has a complete idea when it comes to what is happening to whom. Because the material bothers with the details, although the story is standard and uninspiring, it creates an impression that is worth investing our time and attention on it.
Although the dialogue is not its strong point, it goes out of its way to provide details about the tallest building on the planet, named The Pearl, such as its capability to generate and sustain its own energy, that it is three times as tall as the Empire State Building, the complex security and safety systems, its exact number of floors, how it is divided in half—its upper floors for residents while the lower floors for sightseeing and shopping. The script could have gotten away with simply stating—or showing a simple graphic—that the fictional building is the tallest man-made structure and no one would blink an eye. And so it is fresh, then, on two fronts: that it bothers with details and it uses some of these attributes to reward those who paid attention with words and graphics during the expository sequences.
Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer who is hired to assess The Pearl’s various levels of security before the owner (Chin Han) opens the upper-half for public residence. A stolen bag while on his way to an off-site facility escalates to an explosion, which appears to be a terrorist attack from the outside, on the floor where Will’s family (Neve Campbell, Noah Cottrell, McKenna Roberts) is staying. The security assessor must find his way back to the building to rescue them after his face is shown on television for being the prime suspect.
A misstep lies in the utilization of amusing one-liners—there simply isn’t enough of them. This could have been easily solved by having another pass at the script and noticing that they are so sporadic, when it is time to deliver the chuckles, it disturbs the tension in a negative way rather than giving us a chance to inhale while laughing at the silliness. While it is not meant to be an action-comedy, spacing moments of relief in action-thrillers is also critical. John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” is a classic because comedy and tension depend on one another that is almost a balancing act on a tightrope.
“Skyscraper” functions on a lower level than the best of the genre, but it gets the job done. Its special and visual effects are convincing; particularly suspenseful are action sequences that unfold at great heights, especially when Will—prosthetic left leg and all—attempts to break into the burning building with the help of a construction crane’s hook. It’s preposterous and you can’t look away.
Appropriate Behavior (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
After breaking up with her girlfriend, Shirin (Desiree Akhavan) attempts to explore her sexuality by going on dates with men and women. These encounters often lead to sex. Still, she can’t quite place what is missing or put her hand on what she needs. This leads to more confusion, frustration, and willingness to meet strangers who may or may not offer answers she is searching for.
Written, directed, and starring Desiree Akhavan, “Appropriate Behavior” is not quite a riotously funny comedy but it does have enough moments of joy and honesty that many young people, especially in their twenties, despite one’s sexuality, can relate with. At times it is sharp in finding the pulse when it comes to being a twentysomething or on the verge of becoming a “real adult” and feeling uncertain about the future. However, it is limited by important but unexplored strands like the protagonist’s disconnect with her highly traditional family.
Akhavan’s face is able to express a gamut of subtle emotions which makes her interesting to watch. It would have been easier to show obvious highs and lows, but the material is unafraid to traverse the middle ground—without turning into a bore. Shirin is often thrusted into embarrassing situations and it is almost always accompanied by shame. Because she is someone who doesn’t quite learn from her mistakes the first or second time, we come learn the pattern of the way she thinks to the point where we can eventually sense the lightbulb going off in her head when things go wrong.
And yet we root for her. Akhavan plays the character with a certain level of charm and effervescence. Even though the protagonist is at a crossroads in her life, there is more to her than confusion and being heartbroken from a breakup. She exudes an energy that is relatable. She acts and talks like a good friend instead of simply some character from a movie who is given superficial problems eventually to be solved cleanly after ninety minutes.
What works less effectively are Shirin’s encounters. It would have been fresh if we had a chance to get to know some of them. They are treated exactly as one night stands which takes away some of the intrigue in what they come to share. They are simply bodies instead of personalities which is a problem because we never really get a chance to understand why Shirin becomes attracted to them in the first place. When she is treated well or badly, there is little emotional impact. Then it is onto the next one.
I enjoyed the scenes when Shirin is around her family. The humor comes in the form of our heroine feeling like the black sheep especially when compared to her brother (Arian Moayed) who is a medical doctor, not to mention about to get married. Shirin neither has a career nor a special someone with whom she can potentially spend the rest of her life with. As expected, her parents are concerned where her future is headed. Although enjoyable, these scenes needed to have a more specific Iranian perspective in order to stand out from other Asian-American or Middle Eastern-American coming out stories out there.
“Appropriate Behavior” contains the elements necessary to become memorable but they are not put together in such a way that makes a truly compelling comedic story. There are times when the material relies on mainstream, superficial trivialities—silliness that one can expect from a television show. These cheapen an otherwise good material with unrealized potential.
24 Hours to Live (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another action fare that offers standard shootouts and vehicular crashes propelled by a curious premise that dips its toes on sci-fi territory. Although this type of material can work, it is not effective in this instance because the idea is treated like a plot convenience rather than one to be explored either as is as a neat idea or as a metaphor for something else—like how our time is currency, for example. What results is a mindless action picture that fails to challenge the viewer. We deserve better.
Ethan Hawke leads the cast as Travis, a contract assassin who remains in mourning over the death of his wife and child. At the night of their passing’s anniversary, the killer on extended vacation is approached by a friend (Paul Anderson), now working for a multi-billion-dollar firm, for a job that would pay a million dollars. The assignment involves the assassination of a whistleblower (Tyrone Keogh), protected by an international agent (Qing Xu), who is about to deliver a deposition to the United Nations against the firm. The task appears to be straightforward and so the hitman-for-hire accepts the job.
Hawke attempts to elevate the material by committing thoroughly to the role. He utilizes his dramatic chops to generate interest in a generic screenplay, to give the poorly written character a semblance of dimension, and to make the sudden shifts between drama and action appear fluid. Despite his efforts, it is obvious that the work is without inspiration. Its aim is to deliver shallow entertainment simply by showering the screen with bullets, crashes, intense masculine stares, and explosions supported by rather decent sound design.
There is not one wrinkle in the screenplay that is surprising or particularly moving. In the middle of it, I wondered what compelled the filmmakers to make the movie. Surely they did not expect the project to be embraced by the mainstream without taking bold risks. When Hawke is not on screen, one gets the impression the film is made for cable TV, if that.
It is further crippled by exhausting hallucinations and quick flashbacks. While the former is written into the script with some context, both elements hinder the forward momentum of the material. Notice that in the middle of an action sequence, these appear out of nowhere. Instead of gathering much-needed tension, the situation is reduced to a deflated balloon. I would argue that even if the action sequences were especially creative, disrupting the flow of what is supposed to be a visceral experience would render the material ineffective. The inherent miscalculation in the screenplay is nearly impossible to overcome in this case.
Directed by Brian Smrz, at least “24 Hours to Live” is not so manically edited that we are either unable to figure out what is going on or the choppiness gets under the skin. The staging of the action, particularly those set on narrow roads and highways, is well done. When the excitement stops, however, there isn’t much to grab onto.
Alex Strangelove (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen to twenty minutes into the picture, I was convinced that “Alex Strangelove,” written and directed by Craig Johnson, would have nothing to offer other than Disney Channel-like conflicts, characters, and sense humor—but not from the creative and daring Disney shows from late 1990s and early 2000s… Rather, from those shows released during the mid- to late 2000s that inspire viewers to roll their eyes due to cheese overdose. But something unexpected happens during an expected high school party—thrown by the drama kids, no less. As it begins to unbox the central conflict of the story, the main character discovering that it is possible he might be bisexual, the picture suddenly comes to life.
There are plenty of coming out stories but not too many stand out. One of the main reasons is a lack of authenticity. In order for this type of story to resonate, it must be believable, from the look of the high school environment and the cast playing certain types of teenagers to the variegated conflicts the characters must grapple with, especially when it comes to the person coming out of the closet and those within his or her inner circle.
While this film does not stand strong among teen-centric LGBTQ+ films like “Get Real,” “But I’m a Cheerleader,” “The Way He Looks,” “Beautiful Thing,” and “Summer Storm,” it gets one thing exactly right: It is compassionate toward both the person dealing with his sexuality and those around him. There is no villain here other than one’s crippling shame and fear—two elements so powerful that Alex is unable to ask himself even the most basic questions regarding his sexuality and to answer questions asked by his peers. Perhaps one of the best parts of the film is when his girlfriend confronts him about not having known or even suspected that he might not be heterosexual after seventeen years. Is that even possible?
Alex is played by Daniel Doheny and he turns the smart, kind, and neurotic class president into a believable person. Doheny shares great chemistry with Madeline Weinstein; the latter is not simply the suspicious girlfriend who nags. She, too, has her own set of problems outside of her romantic relationship with Alex. I enjoyed that their connection is written in a way that it is rooted in friendship rather than one that is copied and pasted from a default template of teen romcoms. When one hurts, so does the other. The picture takes its time to underline this recurring theme. There is no doubt in our minds that their friendship would be able to weather the storm. The question is how their relationship is going to be sculpted.
While the film can be unabashedly crude for the sake of generating laughter, especially the gross-out scenes which almost always revolve around parties, notice its approach during the more dramatic scenes. It is quiet, patient, and the camera is still as it focuses on faces. It feels as though the camera is a friend who is there to be present, to listen, to console as the teens face challenges. By having the courage to trust on what silence communicates and to not move the camera in order to avoid distraction, the writer-director is able to create an intimate look into the teenagers’ lives.
“Alex Strangelove” has a few surprises up its sleeve. Even the boisterous best friend (Daniel Zolghadri) is given shadings. For instance, moments when he tells Alex that he can be difficult sometimes will likely remind the viewer of a good friend who does exactly the same when the occasion calls for it. As for Alex’ potential romantic interest, it is so nice that Elliot (Antonio Marziale) is written as a stable figure, one who does not need to change for anything, or anyone, or simply because the plot demands it. There is freshness to be found in this picture if one is willing to look closely.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” may be lacking the epic scale that some of the other Marvel movies possess, but what it has to offer is equally invaluable: terrific entertainment without even lifting a finger. And yet—it tries to engage the viewer every step of the way, whether it be in terms of wacky banters, larger-than-life action pieces, or surprisingly emotional turns of the plot which remind us that our protagonists are fighting for something close to home: to rescue a family member (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the so-called Quantum Realm, a universe composed of worlds in a subatomic scale.
Under Reed’s direction, the film moves at a brisk pace with imagination to spare. Notice that although action scenes almost always involve Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) miniaturized lab being stolen, and it can be argued that one or two of them drag during the latter half, a new setting is consistently utilized to show us interesting ways for Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) to exercise their powers. What results are memorable scenes with distinct flavors. Particularly impressive is the car chase that unfolds in the winding and hilly streets San Francisco which leads to our hero increasing his size to dangerous levels in order to chase a tour boat in Fisherman’s Wharf. Although these scenes are busy and exciting, the effervescent humor runs parallel to them.
There is a running joke about magic tricks but the approach likens that of a juggling act. The rescue mission lies in the center but there are also bits such as the house arrest of Scott Lang (Rudd) following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” in which an FBI agent (Randall Park) attempts to keep a close watch, an enigmatic figure called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who is able to walk to through walls but is in constant nearly unbearable pain, and a black market dealer (Walton Goggins) hoping to steal the lab’s technologies and make a healthy profit. It even has time to inject the humor of the X-Con Security crew (Michael Peña, T.I., David Dasmalchian). Somehow these elements work together not only because of the performances but also due to the screenplay being written smartly, always aware not to wear out a subplot’s running gag.
Like numerous Marvel movies, the “Ant-Man” sequel suffers from an antagonist that ought to have been more interesting. While Ghost is provided a rudimentary background, and it is great that she is not intended to function as a typical villain who wish to end the world or make people suffer, she is not intriguing outside of what she can do to prevent Ant-Man and the Wasp from pulling off their central mission. While John-Kamen is fit for the role, I recognized a common ailment that performers rely on when the material does not inject enough substance into its characters: quirky behavior. More interesting, however, is her relationship with a father-like figure. I wished to know more about them and their work together following Ghost’s orphanhood.
Another relationship worth further examination is the titular characters’. Scott and Hope’s more romantic moments are reduced to awkward dialogues (mostly executed and dragged on by Scott without losing a percentage of charm) and googly-eyed exchanges. While the romantic chemistry between Rudd and Lilly is strong, we do not experience genuine growth in their relationship nor do we recognize that, following their struggles in this film, they come to see one another under a new light, that they appreciate one another more. I suppose something has got to give when the action and comedy must be at the forefront. Yet one can argue that we should expect more exactly because the writers and filmmakers are so talented in juggling disparate elements.
Despite its secondary shortcomings, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” offers great fun. It is always visually dazzling whenever the film showcases images from a miniaturized point of view, particularly during the action sequence at a hotel kitchen. Even more daring images are found within the Quantum Realm, the pavonine colors almost overwhelming the senses.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
One can tell that “Sorry to Bother You” is made by a first-time writer-director because it is willing to utilize a variety of techniques, from claymation and voiceovers to hallucinatory imagery and coming into contact with an entirely different genre, to get a range of laughs—big laughs—from the audience. Even though these tools do not always work, sometimes the courage to employ them is what counts because they shake the boredom out of some of the more familiar avenues of the plot, particularly in portraying the rift between our protagonist and his friends as he begins to climb the corporate ladder of telemarketing.
The picture is written and directed by Boots Riley who possess an exciting eye for detail. Shot on location in Oakland, California, he is willing to show the more unsightly areas of the city, how colors and life dominate even the poorest of neighborhoods. Graffitis on walls often have a political message, signs on the streets are clever, and even jewelries worn offer their own personalities. Notice how the extras who must utter a line or two of taunts while off-camera sound exactly like residents of Oakland. So, you see, although certain images are initially unattractive, like unmowed laws and unpicked garbage on sidewalks, there is beauty in its honesty and simplicity. The film is a comedy in which the setting is vibrant and real.
This is important because the material is a satire, often embracing extremes in order to deliver a punchline. The setting, more than the story or the performances, anchor the film in something that is true and relatable. And so when the plot and tone undergo wild fluctuations, viewers are less likely to feel lost, confused, or frustrated. Unlike Hollywood mainstream comedies without flavor or ambition, those designed solely to pass the time, perhaps a chuckle here and there, Riley’s work is able to take big risks while retaining the viewers’ interest.
It is a challenge to describe the plot without revealing its wonderful, bizarre surprises. It is best to dive into it blind. Just know that it starts off with a black man named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) who lands a job as a telemarketer. He discovers that by employing a “white voice,” callers are more likely to stay on the line and make a purchase. His recent successes capture the interests of upper-management. From there, the screenplay commands intoxicating energy as it satirizes corporate culture, the media, and politics.
What I admired most about it, however, is its willingness to show how it is like for a person of color in a country that values whiteness. The “white voice,” for example, is played as a joke, but it is sharp commentary, too. After all, when there is implication that “white voice” is valued over brown or black voices, what does that say about how brown or black skins are actually seen? Still, despite what it has to say about a range of topics, the film is entertaining first and foremost.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Despite living in a totalitarian state where independent thought is considered a crime, Winston Smith (John Hurt), whose job is to edit newspaper articles in accordance to what the Party tells him to alter, thereby rewriting history, keeps a journal, most of the time hidden behind a wall of his sleeping area, of his supposed transgressions. He is fully aware that if he were to get caught by the Thought Police, punishment would be severe.
Written and directed by Michael Radford, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an enveloping shroud of misery, a vision of a future so hopeless and fully realized that it is almost like we are Smith, hovering from above during his every day yearning to break out of the passionless routine.
It is appropriate that the color scheme of the picture looks denatured. Although we see colors that pop out against the boring gray, such as tranquil blue and celebratory red, they are more or less suppressed, muted as if even a color standing out can be considered by the state as a crime. When we are allowed to look inside Smith’s dreams and fantasies, we feast our eyes on verdant green but is almost always interrupted by an unpleasant thing—almost as if we were a part of a behavior modification program.
The dialogue is minimal but it is used in great effect. Since Oceania’s citizens are expected to behave like toy robots, the way they move collectively communicates more than lines being uttered. In the first scene, for instance, although people yell various proclamations and profanities at the screen, more attention is paid to the fact that they are in rage as a group. The anger is communicated not only in the sounds produced by their larynx but in the fire smoldering in their eyes and their potential to perform mass violence.
Conversely, when the picture does turn to one-on-one conversations between Smith and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), his lover; Smith and O’Brien (Richard Burton), a member of the Inner Party who takes an interest in Smith’s work; and Smith and Mr. Charrington (Cyril Cusack), owner of the pawnshop Smith visits frequently in search for remnants of the past that provides him evanescent hope, the interactions are filled to the brim with paranoia of getting caught. Hearing them speak at times feels like deciphering code. Although they use words we can easily understand, the intentions behind them are often obfuscated. It makes creates a taut and compelling experience because not only do we wonder how much the other really knows, we also cannot help but wish for Smith to be smart enough not to assume.
Based on the novel by George Orwell, “1984” may have messages about love but they are not lessons we come to expect. Love is used as an act of rebellion and to serve as reminder of one’s fading humanity, not for the sake of making us feel good. Although some may spit at the film’s several full-frontal nudity, it is never exploitative. In fact, it is very appropriate given that choosing to be naked in front of someone—and in front us an audience—accomplishes two things: a message of self-empowerment within the film’s context as well as a critique against groups nowadays that are too quick to jump into the idea that all nudity is some sort of a moral crime without putting into consideration a work’s artistic intent or merit.
Miss Meadows (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Karen Leigh Hopkins’ “Miss Meadows” is the kind of picture that leaves the audience completely baffled, perhaps even deeply frustrated, by the time it is over. Although obviously a character study of a woman with a fixed idea of what is right versus wrong and anything that challenges her beliefs drives her closer to the edge of madness, the material does not know whether it is a satirical dark comedy or a serious meditation of morality and of violence, how complex it is for one to have a code and one must live in a world that may not abide by such code.
What results is a misfire of a film project, one that comes across as embarrassed to dig deeply into human psychology and face the horrors of what is in front of us, the unconscious, and the subconscious. Notice how the title character, played Katie Holmes, is often reduced to behavior, immediately observable during the moment we meet her, even during personal and revealing moments. Although tears fall from the performer’s communicative eyes, we simply do not believe the character’s pain, suffering, and whatever she is going through. This is because the drama, even though it is willing to embrace hyperbole at times, is not rooted in any reality, let alone one that is relatable. There is a wall between the material and the audience.
The look of the picture is dull and uninviting—a miscalculation because some of the uneasy topics it brings up, like vigilante justice and mental health that goes unchecked, are already repellent. Perhaps a point can be made that the romance between Miss Meadows, a substitute grade school teacher, and the town’s sheriff (James Badge Dale) is meant to be inviting because the performers share solid chemistry, but the script fails to take the relationship anywhere remotely interesting. The most tension it commands involves the cop possibly having to arrest his new romantic interest because she is a suspect to the recent murders around the neighborhood.
I looked at Holmes in this film and realized that it must be a passion project for her. She attempts to enrich the skeletal material by emoting to the point of near-satire but there is barely anything to work with. I watched the character closely and wondered if perhaps, given a far richer material, it would have been more intriguing had Miss Meadows’ histrionics been downplayed, portrayed as someone who looks and acts “normal” when out in public but one who is revealed to be deeply disturbed the more we get to spend time with her. It certainly could have been a more haunting approach to paint the character this way. I appreciate, however, that Miss Meadows is not depicted as a clear-cut anti-heroine.
“Miss Meadows” offers misguided social commentary—and one that isn’t even interesting. Long stretches of the project are downright boring, so tedious and repetitive that one is challenged not to look at the clock or check how many minutes left to be endured. Quirky or flashy behavior does not make a movie and this work is a prime example.