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Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A common complaint is the lack of sexual and romantic chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, the former portraying a Russian ballerina who becomes an asset for the Russian intelligence after a career-ending injury and the latter a CIA contact who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government. After all, their relationship, however it is defined, revolves around the idea of what sacrifices one is willing to make to do what is right toward a moral obligation. But to criticize the film from this point of view is informative in that the person does not understand what the movie is about.

It is not supposed to be sexy, alluring, or romantic. Rather, it is supposed to be the opposite: methodical, clinical, and cold. Their world of espionage, double-crosses, and violence is meant to horrify and intrigue. On this level, “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the novel by Jason Matthews, is a success. It is able to weave together complex strands with enough precision that by the end it all makes perfect sense. The material demands that the audience is capable of paying close enough attention through several twists and turns of plot, including motivations that undergo constant states of evolution. It is not for those simply wishing to sit back and be entertained by generic action sequences. There is no explosion to be had here.

Implosions occur within our heroine. They take their toll. We observe the many horrifying events that unfold in and around Dominika, wondering at some point whether her strength, intelligence, and resolve would finally dissolve. We are meant to wonder if we have the same capacity to endure and think on our feet. I admired that Justin Haythe’s screenplay does not shy away from the struggles Dominika must tolerate so she can play the long game. She is raped, humiliated, and tortured. Early in the film, our protagonist is given a choice between death or attending what she refers to as “whore school,” led by an older woman simply called Matron (Charlotte Rampling—perfect for the role), where potential Russian assets are trained to seduce and manipulate targets using their bodies. Yes, we even watch the character being humiliated—sometimes because it is a part of her job.

Although different types of violence occur, these are never gratuitous since each one is relevant to the plot. The story is not simply an exploitative exercise of what filmmakers can get away with. Emphasis is placed on the effects of trauma and what it requires to overcome. Credit to Lawrence for playing the character with unwavering pluck and grace. (I wished, however, that her voice is dubbed at times given her inability to maintain a consistent Russian accent.) It is critical that she portrays Dominika in such a way that even though nearly everything is looking grim, there is always hope, even though it is minuscule, that she might regain control of the situation eventually. I enjoyed that Dominika’s political loyalty is a challenge to read while her personal loyalty is clear as day.

“Red Sparrow” invites viewers into a stressful world of espionage from the perspective of a woman who just wants to be able to provide for her ailing mother. It tackles a handful of subjects like fighting for personal freedom in a country that considers there is no such thing, the power of a woman’s body and intuition, what strength means for people who hold certain job titles or positions, and the like. These elements are there to be recognized, but they are never so ostentatious to the point where they distract from the project’s elegant, tension-filled entertainment.


I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Although nearly everyone should be able to stand behind the life-affirming messages that the film attempts to impart about self-confidence and positive body image, it cannot be denied that “I Feel Pretty,” written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, offers nothing of value other than an amusing premise involving a woman, initially highly self-conscious about her body, suddenly regarding herself as a most beautiful specimen after a head-knocking freak accident. It is exasperating to sit through at times because for a movie that preaches the idea of being proud to be different, off-centre, and unconventional, it fits exactly into the mold of a generic, forgettable comedy. There is nothing inspiring about it.

The picture even fails to take a risk in showing how the subject looks at herself in the mirror. At this point many viewers are aware that Amy Schumer, who plays the main character named Renee, excels at playing a brash, boisterous, inappropriate figure. She can tell a dirty joke simply by looking at another a certain way with her head titled at a certain angle. It would have been a fresher choice, then, to highlight her dramatic potential. Early in the film, Renee looks at herself in the mirror and sees disappointment, someone who is too fat, too plain in the face to capture the looks of men—or of anybody—when she enters a room.

There is a sadness to this scene but it is important that it be captured with honesty and grace because we all have something that we are insecure about. In other words, this moment is so personal, it must be presented as raw as possible. Instead, the most disruptive soundtrack booms in the background. Because the noise contradicts and dilutes a private moment, the viewer is not given a chance to connect fully with a woman who wishes she had another face, another body, another self. A comedy, too, must work as a drama because the human angle, the reason we care about the story, is embedded there.

I place emphasis on this example because it is a microcosm of what is essentially wrong with a work that should appeal to everyone. What should have been highly relatable moments are almost reduced to afterthoughts because there is almost always something extra, something busy, that is either seen or heard. This is why numerous modern comedies tend to fail from a humanist, certainly dramatic, point of view: They do not possess the ability to the trust the audience to connect to an image or a situation without having to add flowery fluff like pop music, in-jokes in the background, or narration.

There is nothing wrong with the performances. I liked Michelle Williams who plays the CEO of a cosmetic company; Busy Philipps and Aidy Bryant as Renne’s best friends; and Rory Scovel as the eventual boyfriend of the now-supremely confident protagonist. They sell the subpar script with enthusiasm to spare. I wished, however, that another fresh choice were made by the writer-directors: no drama whatsoever between Renee’s friends and herself after her “transformation.” The forced conflict between friends offers the audience nothing special other than an additional, and most unnecessary, twenty minutes of boredom.

I think “I Feel Pretty” might have turned out to be a far more interesting project had it been written and directed by filmmakers with a solid amount of experience when it comes to shaping independent comedy-dramas, those who are used to having a very limited budget to make every aspect work. A far more efficient, savagely funny, and fiercely intelligent risk-taking picture would have resulted since the filmmakers could not rely on tools such as playing the soundtrack to invoke certain feelings or having the perfect lighting so performers remain looking beautiful. Telling a story about embracing one’s flaws should not be this sanitized.


Beast of Burden

Beast of Burden (2018)
★ / ★★★★

It has been said that the best way for a filmmaker to criticize a movie is to make one’s own, but the would-be thriller “Beast of Burden,” written by Adam Hoelzel and Jesper Ganslandt, is a failure compared to the far more impressive “Locke,” as both pictures mostly take place inside a particular mode of transport—a small plane in this instance—as the expressive lead is required to tell a seemingly straightforward story using only his rawest acting abilities. While Daniel Radcliffe does what he can with the role, there is no script to work with here.

Sean (Radcliffe) is tasked to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. Unbeknownst to his employers, Sean is also working with the DEA to take down the drug cartel. While the setup is familiar to action-thrillers and may excite some, the execution is botched beyond repair. For more than half the film, Sean simply retrieves phone calls as if he were a telemarketer stuck in a backdrop of an action-thriller. It is boring, repetitive, and commands no tension whatsoever. In the middle of it all, I wondered if better material might have been made had the premise were scrapped altogether and instead I were watching a documentary, a day in the life of a top-ranked telemarketer in which he or she must persuade the person on the other line to buy products they likely won’t need. At least in this scenario, the situation and the voices behind the phones would be real, not some unconvincing fabrication.

Flashbacks are employed and they are designed to elucidate Sean’s situation, particularly how desperate he became to agree on taking the job in the first place. However, these instances that are meant to shed light end up confusing the viewer. The reason is because these flashbacks offer no context, let alone details and specificity, on top of not lasting very long. How can we make assumptions and therefore form our own conclusions when we are not given time to absorb whatever is supposedly going on? Eventually, attempting to put the pieces together feels like a colossal waste of time, that the joke is on us for even attempting.

Radcliffe is a capable actor, equipped with many interesting techniques to create convincing characters. I admire that he takes on numerous and varied roles, even willing to push himself physically to deliver exciting performances. However, this film reveals that he cannot rely on charm alone to carry a film. He disappears completely in the role—and not in a good way, particularly during moments in which he appears to be ad-libbing in order to communicate the great distress his character undergoes. Because the screenplay offers nothing to back him up, not once do we forget that we are watching an actor act.

The photography is most unappealing. I would even go as far to say that it is downright ugly. The story takes place at night and so everything is awash in shadows and darkness. But there is a lack of artistry in how the film is shot. The small space that Radcliffe sits in, for example, looks like a cramped booth in a cheap studio. Not one of the buttons on the plane looks real or even functional. And, finally, when the character makes it out of the plane during the final act, we are supposed to be in Mexico but it looks like the setting is some random swamp in the middle of nowhere.



Outcast (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Mother and son, Mary (Kate Dickie) and Fergal (Niall Bruton), are on the run, currently taking refuge in a squalid apartment complex in Scotland. Since Mary is from an ancient Celtic race with magical powers, she is able to cast a spell designed to hide their new home from those who seek her and Fergal any sort of harm. Cathal (James Nesbitt), temporarily acquiring powers of his own due to tattoos drawn by an elder on his back, wishes to hunt and kill the mother and son even though he is only assigned to get rid of the latter. Liam (Ciarán McMenamin) is assigned to be his guide as well as to ensure that Cathal abides by what he is sent out to do.

The premise of “Outcast,” written by Colm McCarthy and Tom K. McCarthy, inspired me to stifle a laugh, at least initially, but it just goes to show that a solid execution goes a long way. Before I knew it, I was very much into the story and the performances that help to drive it forward. However, what limits it most is its own ambition. In its desire to cover so much ground, one gets the feeling that the most interesting plot points and characters are only superficially touched.

Although its leading characters are able to cast dark spells, the story is anchored to a strong enough reality that the impossible feels possible enough. The conflict between Mary and Cathal takes place in a world where there is poverty all around and cultures clash, the latter not restricted to difference in creed or the color of one’s skin but also taking into account one’s socioeconomic place. There is a woman from Social Services (Christine Tremarco) introduced in the first half who is obviously not from that side of the city. A glimpse of her prejudice is seen and felt but she is underutilized. Her violent fate feels right with respect to the film’s universe, but it might have made more impact if she had been more fleshed out, if you will.

The story revolves around the protection and destruction of Fergal, not allowed to have anything to do with girls or any sort of pleasure involving the flesh, but the most fascinating character is his mother. Dickie does such a fantastic job in portraying an overprotective, almost domineering, mother. I liked that she allows herself to look haggard in order to communicate that her character’s mistake has haunted her for the past decade and a half. Each time it is only mother and son in an enclosed space, her desperation is felt down to her pores. And yet there is love there. I imagined that had a happier circumstance surrounded them, they would have had a relationship that many could possibly envy.

I enjoyed that the casting director picked an actor who looks like a real teenager: pimples, awkward posture, and all. It is easier to believe that Fergal is young, unpredictable, and on the verge of significant change. However, the eventual romantic relationship he has with the girl next door, Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge), does not have much depth. ‘Nella is used either as the responsible sister who takes care of her brother or the girl who wants to have sex with Fergal. I found it amusing and slightly offensive, give-or-take, 70-30.

Directed by Colm McCarthy, “Outcast” has a lot of energy and at times it shows through the movement of the camera. Take the scene when Fergal tells ‘Nella that he is from a world different than that of what she is accustomed to. The camera revolves around the characters who are sharing a very intimate moment as if it were capturing an exciting action sequence. Like Fergal, the director ought to have known the value of self-restraint.



Jungle (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on a true story survived by Yossi Ghinsberg’s harrowing ordeal in the Amazon rainforest in 1981, “Jungle” is a highly watchable picture, filled to the brim with horror, beauty, and curiosities that come with adventure. Although occasionally hindered by dramatic techniques, such as the utilization of repetitive hallucinations and sudden flashbacks, which lessen the raw power of being stuck in a life-threatening and increasingly impossible situation, the escalating tension and solid acting overcome its limitations.

Greg McLean directs the picture with an understanding of similar films from the 1970s in which the jungle is itself a character but not one that is meant to be conquered or comprehend. It is the correct decision to preserve its mystique. However, the filmmaker ensures that we are confronted by the place by focusing on its beauty, at least initially, and then shoving us suddenly so that are face-to-face with its many threats. The nature of the material forces the viewer to wonder if one could survive in the wilderness for weeks.

The picture is shot beautifully, particularly the wide shots of small villages where residents are shown simply going about their day. I enjoyed how the pacing takes its time so that the viewers can have an appreciation of a place. For example, we spend a good amount of time in the market where tourists frequent. As a result, we get to learn a bit about the relationships with locals and foreigners; what visitors choose to see, or do, or photograph; the wide selections of street foods; the wonderful cacophony of business as usual. It is teeming with life, so colorful that one can almost taste the various spices in the air, so the setting is most inviting. This serves a great contrast against the horrors about to unfold in the Amazon jungle.

Daniel Radcliffe plays the tourist Yossi, a young man whose parents expected him to attend university but instead deciding to take a year off to travel and experience what the world has to offer. Credit goes to casting director Ben Parkinson for selecting a character actor for the role. Because in order for the ordeal to be convincing, the performer must deliver a gamut of thoughts and emotions both during scenes of desolation and desperation as well as in how he connects with those he meets along the way (Alex Russell, Joel Jackson), kindred spirits who yearn for adventure outside of the familiar. A performer who always commits to his roles, I was surprised to have seen another side of Radcliffe’s craft that I have not seen before. It makes me want to see him partake in more physically demanding roles.

The picture might have been stronger had screenwriter Justin Monjo found a way to communicate Yossi’s psychological breakdown outside of the standard moments of delirium. Perhaps a fresher route is to have focused solely on behavior. We do not need to see inside person’s mind when his actions clearly exhibit a level of increasing irrationality. An argument can be made that focusing on behavior is more terrifying because it leaves the remaining factors to the imagination. The heart of most survival pictures, after all, is horror.


Prince Avalanche

Prince Avalanche (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) must paint traffic lines on a long stretch of highway that was once consumed by wildfire. While the former thinks that the job is an excellent opportunity for him to be one with nature and further get to know himself through solitude, the latter finds himself unable to deal with loneliness. With the weekend coming up, Alvin decides that he is going to stay in the woods while Lance plans to go home, attend a party, find a girl, and have his “little man squeezed.”

“Prince Avalance,” a remake of Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s “Á annan veg,” is consistently beautifully photographed, especially for a comedy about two men who are sort of losers in their own way, but I found the languid tone of the picture to be inert and soporific at times. Just when we are about to slip into a coma, it turns up the soundtrack to jolt us into paying attention until once again our eyelids start to get heavy.

The picture is not without core strengths. The script has such a good ear for dialogue, a three- to five-minute scene that mostly consists of the camera staring at a face inspires us to paint an entire story in our minds. Particularly memorable is the conversation between Alvin and an older woman (Joyce Payne) who is going through the rubble of her former home. I wondered if the performer on screen had experienced losing her house in fire because it does not feel like she is acting at all. Instead, she seems to be sorting through the memories of her former home and then telling us what she is feeling through her body language. Unfortunately, the scene that comes right after, in which Rudd is allowed to act silly with his body language, dilutes the power of what we had just seen.

Furthermore, director David Gordon Green makes good use of wide shots as he is able to show nature in its rawest form, from a group of desolate old trees which reflects the physical isolation of the subjects to animals in search of food or shelter. He appears to have an eye for which behavior is worth putting in the final product and against which complementary color or specific texture. I will be very interested to see the result if Green decided to make a nature documentary.

The humor is, for the most part, quite understated. There are times when Lance and Alvin are unaware they are funny. However, I was unable to buy into the chemistry between the two leads completely. Instead of being convinced that Lance is forced to put some effort into liking Lance because one just so happens to be dating the other’s sister, much of my energy was put into trying to convince myself that I was supposed to be observing characters rather than actors playing their respective parts.

There is a difference between minimalism and plain. To its credit, “Prince Avalanche” dares to walk along that line. It is understandable why a select audience will be drawn to some of the poetry of the material, but it lacks a certain energy that allows it to stand above other comedies that share similar bloodlines.


By the Sea

By the Sea (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Despite the setting of the picture being right by a body of water, its content—until just about the final act of its interminable, miserable two hours—is desert-dry in intrigue, genuine emotions, and sense of urgency. Writer-director Angelina Jolie has failed to demand and earn the viewers’ attention; there are numerous stretches here where it is essentially a waste of film, so monotonous that it becomes maddening. If one were to point to an example of how to make a marriage drama dull, “By the Sea” should instantaneously come to mind.

Part of the problem is the material’s reliance on showing beautiful people looking sad. We feel every inch of forced emotions, from the languid body language to carefully framed close-ups designed to capture a performer’s best angle. It is the antithesis of romance—not in a romantic sense but in the effortlessness of showing a relationship as is, whether it is currently strong, floundering, or somewhere in between. While it does make us wonder why the couple, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), is experiencing a great turmoil, the answer is revealed too late—when the picture has already exhausted the viewers into not caring.

The supporting characters are more interesting than the main players. Particularly curious is the cafe owner (Niels Arestrup) whose wife has passed away. Arestrup plays Michael in such a natural way that we believe immediately we may come across an old gentleman like him while on a tropical vacation. The way he portrays the character eclipses Pitt’s go-to of preserving masculinity in the face of great inner struggle. Other standouts include Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, a happy couple on their honeymoon who just so happen to be staying in the room right next to the depressed wife and husband whom we are supposed to care about.

It neglects to make the most out of its environment, a small coastal town in France where the beach is within ten feet of the road that houses boutiques, hotels, and convenience stores. When the writer-director is willing to showcase the beauty and elegance of the town, the images come roaring to life; it makes us wish to jump into the screen and lay out under the sun. An argument can be made that keeping us inside the hotel like prisoners is the point: it is a way of suffocating us, making us feel sick of seeing the usual furnitures and hearing the same conversations, urging us to want to scream. We adopt the headspace of the central couple. It does not change the fact that the rewards are few and far between.

“By the Sea” is not meant to be enjoyable—and that is perfectly fine. But the material must tap into the nuances of a crumbling marriage and it is required that emotions behind the performances be throughly convincing, not just another high fashion spread in a magazine. Although supposedly a drama in its core, I found the experience it offers is cheap decoration.


Truth or Dare

Truth of Dare (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Horror movies can transcend silly premises, but they have to be willing to go to extremes in order to elicit strong responses from the audience. For instance, Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” sounds like a one-note joke that involves three people being connected from mouth to anus, but when one truly looks at the film, it is sick, disturbing, and so concerned with the most minute details, the material—as a whole, not just its provocative images—ends up being lodged in our brain somewhere. It drenches us in a particular experience that we feel dirty by the end of it. “Truth of Dare” is an example of an underachiever. It never takes off from its one-note premise.

Perhaps it is because the intention is to deliver as commercial a product as possible. After all, most of us have played some version of truth or dare at one point in our lives so the picture must be accessible. As a result, the truths and dares are too frivolous to be taken all that seriously; each one revolves around either the threat of damaging one’s social relationships or an injury that can be solved by a quick trip to the emergency room. And because the characters get a choice, or some semblance of it, of choosing either option, the tension that is required to build deflates about every other scene. It does not provide a breathless experience; in fact, it allows the audience to breathe too much and too often because there are stretches here where pretty much nothing of importance happens.

I enjoyed the young cast of potentially doomed pre-college graduates (Lucy Hale, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane, Sophia Ali, Nolan Gerard Funk, Hayden Szeto, Sam Lerner) even though more than half of them are unable to translate their techniques that prove to work on television into something more subtle and cinematic. Line readings and intonations are rather predictable, at times bland, but there is an energy or enthusiasm about them that is consistently watchable. Perhaps if the screenplay by Michael Reisz, Jillian Jacobs, Chris Roach, and Jeff Wadlow had been elevated, these performers might have been inspired to tap into more interesting interpretations of their characters.

Somewhere in the middle of its soap opera-like truths and dares, I began to wonder if the picture might have commanded more intrigue had truths and dares been grander, actually willing to be as sick or twisted as possible. If the writers had been more ambitious, free from pressures of commerciality and getting a PG-13 rating at all costs, the picture could have been a different beast entirely. In an alternate universe, the movie, I think, might have worked as a statement piece about exhibitionism in our modern world for the sake of nourishing one’s self-importance or desperation to achieve evanescent fame or celebrity status. When a concept is fun or universal, sometimes a horror movie is required to become more than a genre exercise.

Still, as is, “Truth or Dare,” directed by Jeff Wadlow, is just another generic horror film that no one will remember past the year of its release date. It is neither scary nor thrilling, just a nice and safe entertainment for about a hundred minutes. The characters do not say or do anything thoughtful or surprising; they simply are meant to react to the supernatural conundrum they find themselves in. Within the film’s self-drawn confines, at least it does itself a favor by taking itself seriously enough because no one else will.



Rampage (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is too bad that Brad Peyton’s “Rampage” does not aspire to become anything more than a brainless giant monster movie. While it does deliver the expected destruction that the title promises, those who have experienced the sheer madness and imagination of modern monster films such as “Shin Godzilla” and “Pacific Rim” are likely to walk away disappointed, for its numerous generic images escape the mind like trash to be taken out by the end of the day in order to make room for healthier, better alternatives. The screenplay is helmed by four individuals—Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel—but not one of them bothers to steer the story, the source material being a video game, toward more daring and interesting directions.

The opening title card mentions the acronym CRISPR, a genetic editing tool that can be utilized with a certain level of precision. While not perfect, generally speaking, it is better than current alternatives when it comes to price and efficiency. Because I work with this technology, the title card excited me. I thought that the picture just might take the opportunity by the horns, despite being a sci-fi action picture first and foremost, to communicate the power and implications of this gene editing tool for the mainstream public. Because let’s be honest: Most scientists, especially scientific articles, do not do a good enough job when it comes to putting scientific information in layman’s terms. But just as quickly all hope is lost; the succeeding scenes show that it is not at all interested in science. And that is all right. However, as a popcorn flick, the film is not that entertaining either.

And so the movie must be evaluated based on what it is interested in achieving: escapism in the form of devastation and loud noises. On some level, it delivers. Special and visual effects are first-rate; when one does not look at them closely, they are passable and occasionally impressive. However, squint just a little and notice how, for example, George the gorilla does not interact with any of the people visiting the zoo as he makes a desperate escape. For a nine-foot agitated primate—that grew a shocking two inches overnight after having been exposed to a man-made pathogen that crashed in the enclosure the night before—it is quite unbelievable that not one person is nudged a little, knocked down, or hurt during his getaway. This is a symptom of a problem.

In other words, the material plays it too safe—preposterous because it is a monster movie after all and everything should be laid out on the table. Its brightest spots are actually instances when, for instance, a gargantuan monster eats a person and the camera shows it front and center, in delicious slow motion. Why not show more of this type of gallows humor so that viewers are constantly surprised? Skyscrapers falling, tanks and planes exploding, and shooting monsters to no avail suffer from diminishing returns. At least thirty minutes is dedicated to this exercise of increasing boredom.

Dwayne Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye and it is shown that he has a friendship, a special bond, with the albino gorilla. While Johnson, as expected, is able to deliver his signature charm and swagger, the problematic screenplay fails to develop their relationship in a meaningful way. After the initial fifteen minutes, the expressive CGI gorilla is reduced to another monster that goes wild and people having to run away from it. Meanwhile, Naomie Harris’ scientist character serves as decoration. She is so talented and it pains me that she ends up playing these thankless roles.

“Rampage” could have used a whole lot of ambition in order to become more memorable. The aforementioned “Shin Godzilla” criticizes the role of self-imposed red tape that the government ends up tripping itself over in the face of national emergencies. “Rampage” could have sharpened its screenplay by aiming to criticize how promising science is eventually perverted by hawk-eyed businesspeople—a subject that concerns every person in our modern world of today. Sometimes it makes more sense for a monster movie to not just be another forgettable monster movie—sometimes a monster movie is a statement piece.


Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa (1986)
★★ / ★★★★

Fresh out of prison, George (Bob Hoskins), with a white rabbit in his arms, goes to see his boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine), with the hopes of continuing to work for him. Though Mortwell is not there to welcome him, the ex-convict is assigned a job as a driver for a call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) who visits rich clients all over the city. Soon, George finds himself falling for Simone because he feels that she considers him as more than a doormat, more than somebody who served seven years in jail.

“Mona Lisa,” based on the screenplay by Neil Jordan and David Leland, is not a successful fusion of the drama and crime genres. The approach is to welcome us into George and Simone’s disreputable worlds through their personal interactions, but it sacrifices the complexity of their relationships. As a result, the big picture is a blur for the most part. This is problematic because the third act, including the climax, involves life or death situations. I found myself indifferent toward who lives or dies.

The picture excels in dialogue and acting. Exchanges between the ex-con and the prostitute are never boring because they can be amusing, spicy, tender, and romantic. There is contrast not only in terms of the physicality of the characters but also in the way they come off to one another. George says what he means and means what he says while Simone is immersed in mystery. It makes sense that the two characters are the way they are because of what they have gone through or are continuing to go through. Their occupations might be very different on the surface but they relate to each other eventually because of the front that must be upheld in order to perform the job.

Hoskins and Tyson share wonderful chemistry not necessarily in terms of sexual tension but through George and Simone’s tenuous alliance—a sort of friendship. Hoskins is able to straddle the line between someone who can seriously incapacitate with his fists and rage while attempting to hide a delicate core. On the other hand, Tyson plays Simone with elegance and tenderness. Still, we suspect she knows a thing or two about manipulation though it is not often clear how she is playing the game exactly. She has to be smart and careful to reveal just enough.

An undercooked subplot involves George’s relationship with his daughter. The two share a few secret meetings—since George and his ex-wife do not get along—but there is nothing more to their newly ignited connection other than the fact that George feels uneasy when he sees young prostitutes, some as young as fifteen years old, trying to snag clients in King’s Cross. There is no freshness in the words and sentiments they share.

Perhaps most problematic is our lack of understanding of Mortwell. I suppose we are supposed to assume that he is an influential man, given his position, but the screenplay does not explore him enough. Even though Caine is very good, especially during the first scene we see him—acting with his eyes closed but still delivering the requisite intensity, the majority of the character’s menace fails to translate in later scenes. Mortwell ought to have been equally complex.

Directed by Neil Jordan, “Mona Lisa” gets away with some logic being thrown out the window but rarely does a film, especially when it is a character-driven piece, gets away unscathed without underscoring necessary foils and subplots which make the protagonists’ world go ‘round. Also, since the picture is also part-mystery, discerning eyes cannot help but notice the missing jigsaw puzzles from a distance.



Suburbicon (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is an excellent example of how incredibly difficult it is to pull off a great dark comedy. Get the tone wrong in the slightest and nearly everything becomes displaced in such a way that the entire work trips on its own feet eventually and falls to the ground with a deafening thud. There is potential in this twisty 1950s tale that takes place in an all-white community that is jolted by a black family moving into the neighborhood, but it does not possess the requisite balance of subtlety and obvious—as well as when to shatter such a state of equilibrium and perform truly shocking tonal acrobatics.

The material is written by the Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, and it requires a perspicuous eye and sound judgment considering that it tackles an enchilada of subjects, from the consequences of a home invasion seen through the eyes of a child, a scam gone horribly awry, and the prejudice of a supposedly warm and loving community. The strategy is almost always to hammer the audience with the obvious, afraid that the point will be missed by those who cannot be bothered to pause and think.

What results is an overwhelming feeling that the director can do so much more to tell an enthralling story but choosing the laziest option instead just so the work can be digested much more easily. By doing so, it sacrifices or dilutes what the story is about: the complexity of human motivations and the role of coincidence and irony when we are convinced we are in complete control of a situation. About halfway through the picture, a list of directors made its way on my mind like a marquee: the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé—all uncompromising filmmakers who would rather assume their viewers are intelligent and so they create specific stories without worry that such tales would come across as inaccessible or obscure. In addition, they have a knack for creating images that seep into the mind and their impact is felt days or weeks later.

I enjoyed some of the performances. Noah Jupe is quite wonderful as Nick who becomes suspicious that his father (Matt Damon) and aunt (Julianne Moore) might be up to something sinister right after his mother (also played by Moore) had died. Observe as he holds is own against veteran performers who are more than capable of changing the tone and mood of conversations at a drop of a hat. His terror, never one-dimensional because he adjusts the dial depending on the rhythm of impressions and disclosures, brings to mind a forgotten gem called “Parents,” a story, also set in the 1950s, about a boy who becomes convinced that mom and dad are serving human meat on the dinner table and so he decides to stop eating. With the excellent comedy-drama “Wonder” under his belt and a solid performance here, Jupe is absolutely one to watch.

Another combustible performance is delivered by Oscar Isaac. To describe his role is to spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that he brings a level of humor and wit at a point when the story desperately needs rationality. The character is designed to pester and I wished the character had been introduced much earlier on in the film because the mystery is not really a mystery for those that have seen a handful of mid- to late-1940s thrillers. I grew a bit bored because the material takes its time to dance around the obvious.

Despite numerous symbolisms and foreshadowings, somehow we see right through “Suburbicon” as if it were air—the material being so thin of intrigue, it fails to excite us, intellectually or emotionally, despite some incendiary and relevant topics it dares to tackle. Clooney’s playfulness with tone—and at times his lack of control of it—is an incorrect approach when the story demands that what we see, feel, and think about cut like a scalpel across the throat.