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18
Feb

Isn’t It Romantic


Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The more popular the genre, the more difficult it is to skewer or subvert it effectively. The reason is because there are so many elements to acknowledge and then material must turn them inside out and upside down in a way that is fresh or, at the very least, entertaining. Although the highly self-aware “Isn’t It Romantic,” written by Todd Garner, Grant Scharbo, and Gina Matthews, is enjoyable on a surface level, the longer one thinks about the different moving parts and how they work together, it is all the more apparent that the façade is a but a mere reiteration of what it is poking fun of. In other words, it is not as daring or smart as it purports to be.

Rebel Wilson plays Natalie, an architect in New York City who is not respected at her place of employment even though she is good at her job. A former admirer of romantic comedies when she was a little girl, the years gone by and life experiences have inured her to romantic gestures and happenstances. Some may consider her to be a realist while others might regard her as jaded. When a mugging at the subway station goes terribly wrong and leaves her unconscious, Natalie wakes up not just in the emergency room but an alternate universe where life is a romantic comedy.

I found the real NYC to be more interesting than the fantasy even though the latter is filled with bright colors, massive advertisements with occasionally clever in-jokes, and happy smiling faces that could rival even the best toothpaste commercials. Natalie’s actual life, although drab and a bit pathetic, is not only relatable but the screenplay must compensate on the level of entertainment value by providing sharper, more urgent writing. When the story shifts to the fantasy world about fifteen minutes in, it becomes more of a visual experience rather than an interior one. As the story moves toward its finale, there are lessons to be imparted about self-love—ironic because these come across as mere empty gestures. I wished the screenwriters had found a way to make both worlds to be equally fascinating in different ways.

At least the material is aware of the major landmarks of romantic comedies: the heroine having to choose between two men (Adam DeVine, Liam Hemsworth—the former playing the ordinary-looking chap but one who is clearly right for Natalie and the latter portraying a wealthy billionaire with perfectly tailored suits and rock-hard abs but is obviously wrong for her), the offensively flamboyant gay best friend who must exist simply to tend to the protagonist’s every need (Brandon Scott Jones), the office rival whose looks could kill (Betty Gilpin). However, look beyond these elements and realize that there is nothing much to them. Is this the point or is it the film’s shortcoming?

I say it is the second option. Consider for a minute that the movie’s goal is to satirize the romantic comedy sub-genre. In order for it be successful, not only must it point to things that are ridiculous or have gone stale, or both, the material must find a way to fix them, for instance. Time and again the film proves to be interested only in the former. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the lovers, the gay BFF, and the rival were given dimensions especially within the scope of the fantasy world? Of course, the writing would have to be more ambitious and the filmmakers must not be afraid for the material to break out of the ninety-minute running time. Look at how nicely everything is tied together in the end so quickly; it provides no genuine catharsis because the journey given to us is not only cursory but it commits only half-heartedly.

Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, there are some laughs to be had in “Isn’t It Romantic” despite its staunchness to deliver mediocrity. Without a doubt, its ace is Wilson. She has the ability to turn cringe-worthy moments into a genuine good time. I have always admired that she dares the viewers to look at her physicality, specifically her weight, and force us to recognize her talents as a risk-taking performer. If only the writing were as audacious as the lead.

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17
Feb

Happy Death Day 2U


Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The sequel to the surprisingly creative and entertaining “Happy Death Day,” both pictures directed by Christopher Landon, is correct to bring up “Back to the Future Part II” if only because both works are noticeably inferior to the original. Initially, there is great promise because it is apparent that “Happy Death Day 2U” is less interested in slasher elements and more so in exploring science-fiction ideas such as doppelgängers and multiverses. However, only ten minutes into the film, the writing proves it neither has the intelligence nor the energy, not to mention the focus, to deliver a modern twist on the genres from which it hopes to extract entertainment value.

It is wonderful to see the entire cast again. Each of them is charismatic, from Jessica Rothe as our heroine named Tree who must die repeatedly in order to get to the bottom of the new mystery, Israel Broussard as the geeky-chic romantic interest, Rachel Matthews as the “fun bitch” sorority leader, to Ruby Modine as a homicidal medical student/Tree’s roommate. The problem is, however, that their characters are not given anything compelling to say or do. There are a few wrinkles introduced, particularly in Modine’s formerly villainous character, but the changes are superficial at best. And because the story tackles multiple dimensions, it is strange to ask us to invest in new relationships that do not have the proper background or context within the universe we are visiting.

At least there is a heart to the story and it involves Tree having to choose between going home or staying in the new dimension where her mother (Missy Yager) is alive and well. Exchanges between mother and daughter are mildly touching not because of the script but because of the performances. For instance, when Rothe is required to cry, tears and facial expressions are convincing because her whole being comes alive; we even notice how her hands shake uncontrollably because she is so into the moment. Yager, on the other hand, exudes a maternal strength in every one of her scenes—a quality about the character that Tree sorely misses. And so we understand why our heroine is torn between going back to her world and staying where she doesn’t belong.

The sudden shifts in tone are particularly bothersome. Make no mistake: comedic moments are present in the predecessor. They feel natural to the story, like the utter disbelief and frustration of having to reset the day even when things appear to be going all right. In this limp and uninspired sequel, though, would-be amusing scenarios are so often forced, they are grating on every level imaginable. The sorority sister pretending to be blind in the dean’s office comes to mind. Another example is the romantic interest’s roommate coming across as though he was dropped off from another film altogether. These supporting characters are reduced to boring caricatures.

“Happy Death Day 2U” is a horror film without thrill or suspense. Although it bends toward sci-fi territory at times, there is only minimal commitment to its ideas. One gets the impression that the screenplay had been hurried simply because a sequel must be made as soon as possible out of trepidation that viewers would forget how much fun they had with the predecessor. It is clear that not enough love and effort were put into this project.

16
Feb

Mosquita y Mari


Mosquita y Mari (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is a high school sophomore with parents (Laura Patalano, Joaquín Garrido) who push her to excel so that she can have a shot at attending college. Though Yolanda has friends, it does not seem as though she cannot connect with them completely, so when a girl named Mari (Venecia Troncoso) moves into the house across the street, the prospect of having a new friend, one with whom she can get close to, excites her. Yolanda is ecstatic when she learns that Mari is in her Geometry class.

Writer-director Aurora Guerrero captures a genuine Mexican-American experience, one that is complex, subtle, involving, and, in its own way, touching. I grew up with girls similar to the title characters and it is so refreshing to see what I know is real, so beautifully portrayed on screen. Though a small picture, “Mosquita y Mari” is leaps and bounds ahead of many independent films because it knows exactly what to communicate without relying on the usual cinematic tactics of blossoming female friendship.

Pineda and Troncoso’s lack of experience works. I liked that at times they seem to be unaware of where to put their bodies or how to angle them just so in order to look “good” on camera. There were even moments when I felt their nerves as they work toward certain lines that are not natural to them. In a lot of movies, these are qualities I find rather undesirable. In here, however, I found such traits endearing because the story is about the two young women trying to be comfortable in their own skin as well as around one another—as friends and perhaps something more.

One can tell that there is a lot going on inside Mari and Yolanda’s minds, the latter nicknamed “Mosquita” by the former during the early stages of their relationship for looking “like a little fly.” Though they share the same heritage, their respective home lives are very different. Through their dominant personalities and actions, we come to learn what they value. Perhaps Yolanda thinks about not having many friends, the spark that remains in her parents’ marriage, and her prospects of going to college. On the other hand, Mari thinks about getting a job to help her single mother pay rent and if completing high school is the right path for her. Guerrero treats us as smart audiences; there is no explosive scene that shows the major stresses of both teens just in case it isn’t obvious enough.

Though there is an undercurrent of a lesbian story, it feels right that it is underplayed. At least when I was fifteen, it was difficult for me to verbalize my exact feelings, let alone act on my desires with someone who may or may not be interested—or brave enough—to reciprocate my feelings. The screenplay touches upon how it is like to be curious and insecure, how a mixture of the two can lead to a whole world of frustration.

The core of “Mosquita y Mari” is friendship. I found it a surprise that when two girls get jealous or have a disagreement, they express their emotions, sometimes reluctantly, but they are never made into a big deal. Not every teenager’s life is a soap opera. Instead, the characters are allowed to speak to each other about things that are important to them and what they will do or where they hope to be in ten years. Even though they are optimistic, there is a tinge of sadness there. Because they are so different, it is possible that they may no longer be friends—or at least not as close—by graduation.

15
Feb

Dirty Dancing


Dirty Dancing (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

His first vacation in years, Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) takes his family up on the Catskills to spend a couple of days at a luxurious hotel resort. It seems like just another summer of fine dining and outdoor activities until Baby (Jennifer Grey) lays her eyes on Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a dance instructor, while snooping around a staff meeting. Soon, it becomes a summer of learning and growing, as a tyro dancer as well as a young adult, when Baby volunteers to be Johnny’s last-minute dance partner.

If taken under a scope of a serious drama, “Dirty Dancing,” written by Eleanor Bergstein, seems forced and phony. The conflict between the rich (the guests) and the poor (the workers) does not have a strong enough core that we can gravitate toward. When it forces us to feel something, the melodrama is cringe-inducing at times. However, as a dance picture, it is impressive, romantic, playful, with a whole lot of verve to spare.

It dives into showing the dancing almost immediately. The scene where older men and women dancing is not particularly well-choreographed—and I don’t think it is meant to be—but it helps to get us into the mood by giving us a sense of place and time. The summer of 1963 is filled with great music, optimism, and a certain openness—to a degree—for the new.

The film captures female sexuality with a precise subtlety. Particularly memorable is the end of the scene when Baby and Johnny dance for the first time. When the song ends, he leaves the dance floor but she is so into the moment that she remains to dance for a couple more seconds. When they are together, we take notice of their body language—individually and as a pair.

But from the moment Johnny steps off, our attention is less on the steps and more on the fact that Baby is turned on by the way her partner touches her, guides her, and encourages her. It is sensual, never sleazy. She looks like a woman underneath the warm lights. And when she finally does realize that he is no longer in front of her, she stops dancing, looks around, and is embarrassed. Not for dancing alone. But for having shown that she is excited sexually by her crush. She is back to being a girl.

I think that is why the material works. For the majority of the time, instead of watching a blossoming relationship between two equals—equal in age, maturity, and status—they seem an unlikely fit. Not only is Johnny at least three to five years older, but Baby, seventeen years of age, does not have the maturity and life experiences of an adult. She gains some throughout the picture, a believable evolution, but they are never on the same level. So when the story ends, it leaves us wondering how it will (or will not) work out.

When the material tries to deal with its subplots, it feels too much like an after school special. A father’s high expectations, an abortion headache, a boring suitor, among many others are not only tired but also atonal. They might have had room in the picture if the writing had given the characters—and their situations—more depth and dimension.

Directed by Emile Ardolino, “Dirty Dancing” is a fun time with great dancing and music. Even the extras watching the detailed dancing have big smiles across their faces. The central performances by Grey and Swayze are magnetic because the actors have palpable chemistry. They manage to be sultry without hamming it up.

14
Feb

Think Like a Man Too


Think Like a Man Too (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Candace (Regina Hall) and Michael (Terrence Jenkins) are getting married in Las Vegas which means that the night before the big day is a bachelor and a bachelorette party. The best man (Kevin Hart) and the main of honor (Taraji P. Henson) take control of the parties, respectively, which means a wild night is in store for their friends—until it is not because the screenplay by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman fails to inject anything new, fresh, or exciting into this limp sequel.

With such a talented roster of performers, I was at a loss why I didn’t laugh more. Looking closely, part of the problem is the jokes not lacking punchline but lacking build-up. For instance, although Hart, who plays Cedric with pure energy, is able to hit our funny bones from time to time, his motormouth approach to the character never changes gears. It isn’t that he is wrong for the character or he is front and center too often. The fault it is the writers not coming up with ways for us to care about the character. As a result, Cedric is reduced to a caricature and caricatures cannot sustain a whole picture.

There is a subplot involving Michael and Candace’s friends being anxious to commit. For a while, I was entertained by Zeke (Romany Malco) being recognized by so many of his former girlfriends—many of them still very upset with him—while his current girlfriend, Mya (Meagan Good), is shocked by her beau’s… popularity. While Zeke’s womanizing past is a good enough template to launch the couple questioning whether or not they ought to get to know each other more before getting serious, we get only a scene at the end where Zeke tells her how committed he is to Mya. Why not show it instead? Because it would have required the writers to put in a little effort.

Another subplot—although “afterthought” is a more accurate term—is Kristen (Gabrielle Union) and Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) trying to conceive a child. Although they both are beautiful together, they are reduced to a one-note joke: Jeremy complaining that he is having too much sex because Kristen really wants to get pregnant. Are these two ready to have a child? Such an elementary question is never answered. Have they ever considered alternative options if they could not conceive? However, they do have one hilarious scene which involves a nudge to “Game of Thrones.”

The all-night party for both camps should have been more fun. Naturally, there is dancing, alcohol, and getting into trouble with the cops but none of it comes across as effortless. As the film goes on, I got the impression that it is merely scratching items off a checklist. There is a stereotype of a Vegas experience and the material rests on reflecting that. Some of my visits to Vegas are much more fun than what this picture offers—and I do not consider myself to be that wild.

Directed by Tim Story, “Think Like a Man Too” is as bland as poorly baked tofu. This is most surprising because its characters are mostly people of color. As a person of color myself, I really wanted to see a culture represented accurately on screen—even if it is from a comedy that you can forget ten minutes after it is over. Because being shown on screen accurately in a bad movie is still better than being showcased as bland wallpaper in a bad movie.

13
Feb

The Miseducation of Cameron Post


Miseducation of Cameron Post, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The title of the film suggests that the protagonist will take an active role in the story, but it turns out Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is more like a ghost that just so happens to be walking through a gay conversion therapy centre. It is most bizarre and bewildering that for a subject matter that is so important—that is, that such institutions are not only ineffective in “curing” homosexuality, these morally corrupt places actually teach their victims how to hate themselves—the screenplay by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, directed by the former, chooses a passive, often boring, approach. What results is a drama that never takes off, only occasionally saved by performers who know how to captivate the screen with seemingly little effort.

God’s Promise is led by a strict therapist played by Jennifer Ehle. According to Dr. Marsh, homosexuality does not exist because God does not make mistakes. Some people merely have “gender confusion” and those struggling with it are the ones to blame. She is an interesting character because Ehle does not play the devout Christian as a straight-up villain; we get the impression that she is genuine in believing, or has trained herself to believe, that the program (i.e.: brainwashing) actually helps the residents. Dr. Marsh creates a big echo chamber, if you will, and those who do not bend to the rules, regulations, and expectations are likely to break. I appreciated that the experience in God’s Promise is specific enough so that it stands out among familiar places in other films that tackle a similar subject.

The picture is a challenge to get through, however, because the main character is often a bore. There are flashbacks that show snippets of Cameron’s history as a teenager who might be a lesbian (the material leaves open the possibility that she is willing to experiment sexually with other females—she just happened to get caught), but not a single one is so effective that it leaves an imprint about the character, who she is outside of her attraction to females. We even get to meet one family member but there is no dimension to her. It is the typical religious figure who does not understand homosexuality but it is convenient to dump a loved one in a place that promises a remedy and redemption.

And while I enjoyed that it is a different role for Moretz, I was unconvinced she is a good fit for the role. There is often romance on her face when a certain occasion calls for anguish, for example. When tears do come, I did not believe the emotions that triggered them. Cue the well-lit room and the somber score meant to make us feel gloomy. It is all so predictable—but it should not be since there are not that many pictures that take place in a gay conversion therapy program.

Humor is the saving grace of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and is often filtered through Cameron’s interactions with the “disciples” she befriends (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck). The comedy is not always obvious or riotous but subtle and sarcastic. Sometimes when you find yourself stuck in a desperate situation, there is no choice but to laugh or make fun. It is a survival mechanism. And it is ridiculous, the “disciples” being in that horrid place, forced to change when there is nothing wrong with them in the first place. The chemistry among Moretz, Lane, and Goodluck is so convincing, I was at a loss why their friendship is not delved into further.

I admired the material’s compassion, but the execution is lacking.

11
Feb

Night School


Night School (2018)
★ / ★★★★

It is amazing that although many types of comedy are employed to wring out laughter from the audience, not one of them lands. It is even more amazing that despite employing two highly energetic and charismatic performers (Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish), they are not funny in it. There is without question that the writing is to blame, or the lack of it. The approach is familiar and depressing: throw anything at the screen and see what sticks. When this strategy fails, and it does, simply allow the actors to yell and scream—as if to mask the picture’s deeply unfunny and lazy nature. A trip to the dentist would be preferred than to have to sit through “Night School” again.

There are six screenwriters credited, Hart among them, and it partly explains the material’s lack of focus. Perhaps they all have an idea of what makes an effective comedy and so what results is a Frankenstein’s monster of awkwardly put together jokes that lumber about for a while only to fall apart right before the punchline. But the material requires discipline, to tell a focused story of a man who must go back to high school and deal with unfinished academics, not to make everyone feel included. The film’s running time is almost two hours when it could easily have been an hour and fifteen minutes. The amount of padding here is astounding. Observe the drawn-out exposition.

At times scenes are so exaggerated that the movie makes Sunday comic strips look like a documentary. Notice an early scene that takes place in a restaurant. It is actually somewhat amusing when Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who has worked hard to create an image—and only an image—of financial success, gets stuck with an $800 bill. But the writers could not help themselves. They felt the need to show us the character being nasty, to the point where a server loses his job, just so Teddy could have a redemption arc. Sometimes it is enough, even appropriate, to show a problem and allow the viewers to imagine solutions when the film cuts to the next scene. This way, we are engaged, catching up to the material rather than every single beat and punctuation being spoon-fed to us.

There is no subtlety, from the human relationships to the struggles that come with having learning disabilities. It easy to see what the writers are going for: Teddy getting his GED as a way to exorcise the shame he felt when he was in school. Because his learning disabilities had gone undiagnosed, he did not get the help he needed. And so he was perceived by his peers, his teachers, and even by his family as stupid or dumb. They may not say it, but it is in how they look at him and how they treat him. Would-be hilarity ensues during night school: from colorful classmates equipped with their own sob stories (Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Fat Joe, Anne Winters—all of them playing dull caricatures) to sneaking into the principal’s office (Taran Killam) to steal a practice exam.

Malcolm D. Lee’s “Night School” is a missed opportunity. For one, it could have been an incisive critique of those inspirational teacher or gifted student movies. I felt Haddish craving to do more with the role. I liked that the premise looks at the marginalized, those who did not get their high school diplomas because life got in the way. But a work cannot stand on its premise alone. Like its protagonist, it must actually put in the work to be funny, smart, and entertaining.

10
Feb

Cold Pursuit


Cold Pursuit (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The opening chapters of action-thriller black comedy “Cold Pursuit,” a remake of Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance” (“Kraftidioten”), both works directed by Hans Petter Moland, leads the viewer to believe that it is a revenge picture told solely from the perspective of a father, Coxman (Liam Neeson), who is convinced that his recently deceased son was not a drug addict—but that he had been murdered in cold blood and his killers made it appear as though the young man’s death was due to overdose. But the self-aware screenplay by Frank Baldwin functions on a much higher plane; it works as a critique of both vengeance films and how drug underworlds are often depicted on film. The humor stems from our knowledge of commonly traversed themes.

While it is able to deliver bursts of violence in an effective manner, the film is less interested in providing raining bullets than exploring the circumstances that lead up to small eruptions. More specifically, it is willing to put a magnifying glass on the various colorful personalities we come across: our protagonist who just so happens to be a snowplow driver (Neeson), the rule-obsessed local drug lord (Tom Bateman) who looks at his son and recognizes only weakness, the Native American (Tom Jackson) drug lord from Denver, the overzealous cop (Emmy Rossum) who wishes to save the Rocky Mountain town, to name a few. The pot is stirred with preternatural patience until each subplot’s flavors meld into one another. At its best, it reminded me of the skillful writing and overall savagery of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s masterful “Fargo.”

The body count is high. Every person who dies gets a title card after the fact—kind of like reading a gravestone. It commemorates their demise, in a way, which hilariously ties into the film’s opening quote by Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” The assassinations have seasonings to them, too. While many are very much deserved (the majority of the men are cold-blooded killers), most are ironic, cruel even, and a few have a slight tinge of sadness to them. The manner in which bodies are disposed are purposeful and repetitive—yet it gets funnier each time. I will never look at chicken wires the same.

Despite its gallows humor, suspense constantly courses just underneath the plot’s sclera. Consider Coxman: Unlike the men he must interrogate in order to get to the truth of his son’s death, he proves to be no professional hitman. Even we can recognize his mistakes: his timing, how he gets too close to the enemy, a tendency to give pause when constant reaction is clearly the wiser route. At one point, a friend (William Forsythe) who finds it miraculous that Coxman is still alive despite having pummeled members of the cartel suggests that the grieving father hire an assassin—someone who does it for the money, someone who takes killing as impersonal, a mere job… a perspective that Coxman does not have—cannot have—since his boy’s body has gone cold. Meanwhile, the local drug lord is on the hunt for the person who has punished his associates. Naturally, every second gets him closer to Coxman.

Ferociously funny in parts, consistently entertaining, and propelled with forceful pacing, “Cold Pursuit” stands out from most revenge and gangster pictures because the story is told through an off-kilter angle which results in landing on unexpected territory. It makes an excellent double bill with Henrik Ruben Genz’ hidden gem “Terribly Happy,” a Danish noir thriller as twisty as a pretzel.

9
Feb

Berlin Syndrome


Berlin Syndrome (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Cate Shortland’s “Berlin Syndrome” is an intriguing portrait of a man and a woman in a rather… complicated relationship, the former being a psychopath (Max Riemelt) and the latter a tourist being held captive in an isolated apartment (Teresa Palmer). Although the picture is deliberately paced with something curious happening just about every other scene, it suffers from a lack of catharsis which is particularly difficult to pull off in a thriller. At times it is particularly trying to sit through because we wonder if or when Clare will finally decide to fight back against her delusional captor.

Palmer and Riemelt deliver highly watchable performances. Palmer has a knack for playing a character whose wings had been clipped. The picture’s early scenes showcasing Clare’s freedom in a foreign country in contrast against having to survive in a limited space where not even windows are capable of being opened, Palmer touches upon the loneliness and desperation of the character. The performer is at her best when emoting in a scene by herself. She reminds me of lite-Kirsten Stewart, a bit more versatile in her body language and not relying on facial contortions too much.

Meanwhile, Riemelt expertly balances being charming and sinister. It is eerie how Andi is shown as a teacher by day and a creep, to say the least, during his free time. Sometimes we can read every expression on his face and each thought that crosses his mind. But there are instances, too, when he is completely unreadable and this is when the monster reveals itself. Unlike Palmer, Riemelt is in his element when reacting with a co-star, whether it be Palmer or Matthias Habich who plays Andi’s father. I wish Andi’s relationship with his father had been explored further considering that there are hints in the dialogue that Andi’s life at home might have contributed to shaping Andi’s pathology.

It is both admirable and frustrating that the material is consistent on making a conscious choice to avoid the expected trappings of a story involving a kidnapped woman. On one hand, because it adopts an unconventional rhythm and pacing, occasionally the story is quite unpredictable. Initially, I was certain that Clare would it make it out of the apartment alive. Over time, however, I began to doubt a little since the character’s inner fire gets weaker. On the other hand, although the captive deserves her revenge, the final few minutes is uninterested in this. Indeed the choice to end the story where it did, despite it being quite unsatisfying, is a logical one.

Beautifully photographed especially when contrasting between indoors and outdoors, adventurous viewers are likely to appreciate “Berlin Syndrome” because there is a freshness to it when it comes to the writing and directorial choices, but casual audiences are probably going to dismiss it outright since it does not hit the usual or expected beats. I respect its vision and confidence.

8
Feb

The Equalizer 2


Equalizer 2, The (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is clear from the opening scenes of “The Equalizer 2” that director Antoine Fuqua is not interested in regurgitating what had come before. Compared to the predecessor, this story is an attempt to explore Robert McCall, former Marine and intelligence agent turned Lyft driver, in new ways, to open him up, and to make our protagonist’s world feel a little bigger. By comparison, it is faster-paced, more suspenseful, and certainly more entertaining. Look at the way the director stages action scenes. Instead of going for standard shootouts, the journey from setup to catharsis unfolds like a thriller; it actively works to immerse the viewer in an experience—even through the experience offers nothing new—by finding creative ways to hit familiar notes.

McCall is once again played by the first-class Denzel Washington. It is smart that screenwriter Richard Wenk provides the actor occasional dramatic moments because the performer is the type to milk silence to his advantage, particularly when McCall’s deceased wife becomes the subject of conversation. A great example occurs early in the picture when McCall gets a visit from a longtime friend (Melissa Leo) who is aware of his past life. As McCall reminisces about his wife, Washington decides to shut his eyes; his body is left with us his but his mind, his spirit is transported to a time and place that is long gone. Subtle but powerful instances like these elevate the material in such a way that is atypical in action-thrillers. Although originally based on a mid- to late-eighties television series, Washington makes the character his own.

Several subplots are juggled in the air with seeming ease: a girl (Rhys Olivia Cote) who has been kidnapped by her father, a young artist (Ashton Sanders) torn between continuing his education and joining a gang, and a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) who hopes to provide enough proof for the courts that the person on a multimillion-dollar painting is in fact his sister. Fuqua allows these subplots to simmer and we wonder how these disparate strands would, or could, come together. Observe closely and recognize that, in a way, each one has something to say about McCall’s personal life, particularly his definition of justice and morality and why each one must be corrected.

A case can be made that at times these subplots do get in the way of providing a smooth and consistent rising action. Although I can acknowledge this shortcoming, I enjoyed that McCall’s journey of solving the aforementioned strands is not a straight line. It would have been easier to set the subplots aside once the central story kicks into full gear. It certainly is the more familiar route. “Revenge is never a straight line. It is a forest,” according to key character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” And indeed, “The Equalizer 2” is a revenge film; justice, or punishment in this case, must be exacted to those who attempt to get away with their crimes. We know what must happen: McCall will set things right. Still, there remains delicious irony in every one of the perpetrators’ deaths.

Those looking for a deep exploration of one man’s morality are likely to walk away from “The Equalizer 2” with disappointment. Although dramatic elements are there, when broken down to its essence, the work remains an action film. And so entertaining action sequences and showing bone-crunching violence—with proper context—matter more than providing a gradient of right and wrong. It is possible that ardent fans of the first film may require to warm up to the sequel because it offers a different personality. And yet—it is still worth seeing exactly for this reason.

6
Feb

Your Sister’s Sister


Your Sister’s Sister (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

As his closest friend, Iris (Emily Blunt) feels that Jack (Mark Duplass) could use some time for himself after the death of his brother so she invites him to stay at her family’s vacation home. He accepts but when he gets there, it turns out that Iris’ half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is also using the place in order so sort things out. Half-mistaken as a peeping Tom, suffice to say that things between Jack and Hannah start awkwardly but the two soon find a connection over a bottle of tequila.

Based on the screenplay and directed by Lynn Shelton, “Your Sister’s Sister” has a great ear for dialogue partnered with winning performances but its weak third act keeps us at arm’s length unintentionally instead of drawing us in and feeling convinced that the ending is right for the specific story being told.

The three performers are able to function on a synergistic wavelength in order to make their respective characters and the emotions they go through believable. Duplass plays Jack with a schlubby vulnerability that is familiar but appropriately comforting, Blunt gives Iris the necessary energy as the mediator between two people she loves, and DeWitt injects Hannah with an edge messy enough to leave us wary of her intentions. We can predict that the relationships will be challenged but there is something about these characters that make us want to know more.

Because it is essentially a three-person show, we get to dive into the dynamics between Iris and Hannah as well as the special friendship between Irish and Jack. There are no big scenes of sweeping realizations. Most of the information they learn from one another are played either through laughs when a story is recalled or a joke is made or silence if a sensitive matter is introduced and using words does not feel right as a tool for comfort. They think and behave like real people making the best out of the cards that have been handed to them.

Three-quarters through, however, the picture drops the ball with a deafening thud. Once secrets are out in the open, the material goes through the usual motions of sad music playing in the background and montages of silence between characters that is so typical, it is comic more than dramatic. With such intelligence and heart that manage to guide the screenplay for more than half of the race, is leaning on clichés really the only way to conclude the story?

The final shot is a dare for critical evaluation. I did not find it annoying, but I found it tripe and too easy. It rings false because the writer-director has not found a way for the audience to get over the awkwardness we feel for them. It feels like a season finale of a sitcom still learning to stand on its feet instead of a film that is complete where we can believe that these characters can go on to live their lives after it fades to black.