Dark Tower, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
For a source material filled with incredible imagination by Stephen King, drawing inspiration from old-school fantasy to spaghetti western, “The Dark Tower,” directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a crushing disappointment. Instead of taking risks and really going for the violence and the bizarre, it is diluted and made safe for the sake of mainstream consumption. What results is a marginally interesting story about a boy with the Shine, or psychic powers (an allusion to King’s “The Shining”), named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) discovering another world through his dreams, but the execution lacks energy and long-term intrigue. The protagonists strive to save the universe from annihilation and yet we do not care whether they would make it to the next scene. The screenplay requires major revisions.
Stories of epic scales are defined by the antagonist. Here, it is the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), wielding powers so astounding that he is able to take someone’s life simply by willing it. And yet for a villain who possesses such ability, Walter is a bore. He walks around in his black clothes barely showing any emotion, but there is no air of mystery about him. We learn nothing about his past or background or anything he might value. We learn of his goal about wishing to destroy the titular tower and why, but this is not enough to create a compelling character worth looking into.
The same critique can be applied to one of the main protagonists, a Gunslinger, the last of his kind, named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Like McConaughey, Elba is a charming performer who can usually communicate paragraphs simply by looking or controlling his body language a certain way. We learn that Roland is great with guns and cares about the boy from Earth, but what else is there to him? Both antagonist and protagonist are given superficial characteristics, but they are hollow inside. Discerning viewers will note that the performances are wooden; the actors look bored in their roles.
Special and visual effects are occasionally impressive—but only when it is willing to show the griminess of Mid-World, how unforgiving it can become at a moment’s notice. This is why the attack in the village and the scene in the woods stand out. For a couple of minutes, we feel on our tiptoes the wonder and foreboding nature of the alternate universe. Literally, it is the stuff out of one’s dreams. By comparison, the battle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black in the end is laughable, looking more like a video game in the early-2000s by the second. There is a lack of urgency to this would-be climactic sequence.
If there is going to be an unlikely sequel, and I do want one, the writers need to make a decision that is right for the material. Perhaps most importantly, the content on screen needs to match the level of imagination and the willingness to take risks emanating from King’s “Dark Tower” series. Establishing and building lore is just as important as constructing thrilling action sequences, if not more. Because in order for us to care about what is unfolding, we must understand the worlds, their rules, and the beings who reside in them. Only then could we get a glimpse of their motivations. I did, however, enjoy the casting of Taylor because he seems capable of delivering more than what is on paper.
Liberal Arts (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Jesse (Josh Radnor), working in New York City as a college admissions officer, is invited by his former undergraduate professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend a retirement ceremony in Ohio. Unhappy with the way things are going in his life in the city, Jesse welcomes the opportunity to return to the university he loves. Through Dr. Hoberg, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore majoring in Drama. They hit it off right away, but there is a problem: Zibby is sixteen years Jesse’s junior, an age gap that is not easy to overlook.
The tone of the first half of the film is relaxed—too relaxed to the point where it is almost boring. As a result, there seems to be an absence of a central conflict. Although Jesse hopes to get to know Zibby in a more intimate way, both in an emotional and physical aspect, he begins to feel that it is wrong for him to take their friendship further because she is far too young despite how mature she presents herself. There is a funny scene that involves the college admissions officer writing on a notebook and comparing their ages. When Jesse was sixteen, Zibby had not been conceived yet.
Couple Jesse’s romantic struggle to his fears about becoming old and feelings of disappointment with how his life has turned out, the two almost cancel each other. While the latter feels more important, the screenplay does not spend much time exploring it. Instead, focus is spent on cutesy scenes of Zibby and Jesse writing each other letters and smiling as they read them—with voiceovers, no less. While Radnor and Olsen look good together, the only scene that works completely is when their characters’ opinions are pit against one another. After Zibby admits that she likes to read vampire novels, Jesse looks at her disbelievingly, for not having better taste.
It gets better somewhat in the second half, but the characters most worthy of attention are not given enough dialogue. Jesse meets Dean (John Magaro), a student on a full scholarship but happens to be on all sorts of medication due to an emotional disorder. He confesses to the alumnus that he is “aggressively unhappy” in the university. At one point Dean asks, “Why did you love it here so much?” There is impact because for the first time we see Jesse scrambling for an answer. As a college admissions officer, he has gotten used to asking the difficult questions during interviews. With Dean, he finds himself on the other side. That is interesting.
And then there is Dr. Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse holds her in high regard since he loved her class so much. Despite many compliments he sends her way, she gives him a look of disdain, almost disgusted by a pining former student. Dr. Fairfield’s story is touched on but never delved into. It is unfortunate because there are morsels of truth in her cynicism.
But it all goes back to what Jesse and Zibby have. I just could not buy it. This may sound like an odd critique but I felt Olsen is more intelligent than the character she plays. It is distracting. The script forces her to say words like “whatever” and “like” but it comes off forced, a constant reminder that she is still very young. Now, if Zibby had been written as smarter and more insightful than Jesse, the situation might have been more complex, more interesting. However, that is not what is up on screen.
They Look Like People (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Many horror pictures and psychological thrillers tend to employ mental illness as a source of fear by perverting to the point where it is unrecognizable. Cue the cheap jump scares, exaggerated violence, superfluous gore, and shrill screaming. But here is a picture that belongs under these genres and yet its approach toward the subject of mental illness is entirely different. Instead of providing the audience the expected, it is willing to take numerous surprising turns. Before we know it, we wonder how it might be like if we, our friends, our loved ones suffered from schizophrenia. How would we react?
Writer-director Perry Blackshear should be proud of his first full feature film. It reminded me of Lodge Kerrigan’s highly underrated “Keane,” also about a man also struggling with schizophrenia in New York City, in that we follow the protagonist as he hears strange voices warning of people being taken over by evil, as he struggles to decide what is real and what isn’t, as he chooses certain courses of action that are downright questionable, certainly concerning. The story being told with such a deliberate slow pacing, we are put into the mind of someone who is increasingly unable to tell between the rational and irrational.
MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel are terrific as friends who find themselves in an unexpected reunion. Andrews and Dumouchel play Wyatt and Christian, respectively, the former attempting to hide his mental illness and the latter struggling to maintain a facade of masculinity. Both are afraid to be seen exactly as they are. The performers share great chemistry; we believe their characters shared a past through the many amusing, awkward, and touching occurrences that transpire in that small apartment.
We root for them to help each other out and succeed, even though they themselves are in no position to help anybody. Sometimes the meaning is in the attempt and it is beautiful how Christian and Wyatt try to navigate through what they do not fully understand. What they do understand completely, however, is that they have each other’s backs. I admired how the writer-director’s screenplay handles male friendship and the love that tethers that friendship without going for easy, cheap laughs as can be seen in a handful of independent comedy-dramas. It is not interested in going for the lowest hanging fruit.
The hallucinations are terrifying because these are handled with tact. Special and visual effects are used sparingly. Instead, we hear more curious sounds—like “ringing” of the cell phone when it is obviously turned off, voices on the other line, random scratching noises, sound of thunder when it is sunny outside—than we see ostentatious, standard horror imagery. Clearly, “They Look Like People” is a first and foremost sympathetic study of a specific abnormality of the mind than it is yet another splatter film.
Beach Rats (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
With so many films for the LGBTQ community being so broad, often through the scope of silly-minded comedy, it is most refreshing when a work comes around that dares to be specific and treats its subject with utmost respect and sincerity. Here is a film that captures the crippling loneliness of a closeted young gay person—such a state of mind so overwhelming that every day people who happen to fall outside the heteronormative sphere decide to end their lives instead of having to endure another second of it.
Although “Beach Rats” does not involve suicide, writer-director Eliza Hittman is interested in capturing intense long-term emotions and states of mind that may contribute to such an action. The protagonist is a most desperate character—desperate to be seen for who he truly is by others, desperate to find a way to accept his sexuality, desperate to just be himself. And parallel to his desperation is a cycle of self-destructive behavior, every step leading to the opposite direction of what he hopes to achieve. But there is no judgement. The camera merely asks that we observe.
Harris Dickinson plays Frankie with an armor so thick at times that less observant viewers will likely miss the performer’s level of control. A one-dimensional approach to a stoic character might have proven toxic, but Dickinson is wise to allow just enough flittering moments of lightness, optimism, and romanticism to pierce the armor. These small but critical glimpses give the viewers a chance to imagine an alternate reality: How Frankie might have ended up a different person entirely had he the courage to come out and had he been provided unconditional support to help him get through any challenge that life bestows.
The picture’s photography is so beautiful. It is not shiny or glamorous—in fact, it appears to look grainy at times—but there is a timeless look and feel about it that is exactly right for the type of story being told. With the exception of images like fireworks and amusement park rides on Coney Island, the colors are, for the most part, dull, suffocating, giving the impression that existing rather than living is the norm.
Numerous shots of extreme close-ups, whether it be a corner of someone’s face or a body part, communicate the fractured or incompleteness of Frankie’s every day existence. We follow him doing the same thing when things go bad and not doing a thing that might steer his life in another direction. However, the screenplay ensures that we empathize with the main character even though some of his actions can be questionable. Like any other person, Frankie is capable of unnecessary cruelty. Sometimes cruelty comes in the form of doing nothing when doing something is morality right.
It is worth noting that “Beach Rats” is never meant to be titillating—a standout because many LGBTQ pictures feel the need to entertain such an avenue even though it does not have anything to do with their thesis. Here, observe how nearly every sexual encounter is something that just has to be done rather than to be enjoyed. It usually involves Frankie having to prove to others he is one way rather than another, to prove that he is something else other than what he knows to be true. It is a sad story and I admired Hittman’s focus when it comes to delivering what the film wishes to convey.
★★ / ★★★★
Suddenly struck by the death of their two-year-old son, Michael (Andrew Ramaglia) and Sara (Emily Cline) have a decision to make: to stay together or to walk away with their losses. It is not as if the possibility of a separation is a complete surprise—not to us anyway. Sara feels her husband does not care about her aspirations of becoming a nurse and helping to build a better life for their family. Meanwhile, Michael is difficult to read; he seems to be the type to live his every day in his head—a toxic quality when open line of communication is essential.
Written and directed by Joe Mitacek, “Morning” is not afraid to embrace the darkness of what it might be like to walk in the shoes of grieving parents. The first third of the picture is fascinating in that the screenplay avoids to explain anything. It simply shows a life that is—a relationship at a critical tipping point where small things said or done are all the more amplified. It is a drama in its rawest—uncompromising, unblinking.
But the material loses a lot of its emotional power just beyond the halfway point. With the exception of one scene in the latter half, the events that occur are nothing particularly memorable or special. One can argue that perhaps that is the point: Sara or Michael—or both—is tired of having to mend the pieces and then the effort amounting to nothing the day after. I found it repetitive and dull. By the third of fourth time Sara goes to see an ex-boyfriend from college (Ryan Cooper) and Michael turns to yet another bottle of beer, the point is already made clear: they both lack a healthy coping mechanism—not in terms of grieving over the loss of their son (because I do not believe there is a “proper” way to cope after a death of a loved one). I refer to the crumbling marriage.
Though the two are linked, some aspects of the anger and frustration are separate. The death, in a way, is a catalyst and I was not convinced the screenplay has probed enough. What is it about this relationship that is worth salvaging? Why should we care?
There is one scene I found to be exceptional. Staying at a friend’s house over the weekend, Michael and Sara go to the backyard that overlooks a lake or pond. It stands out because we finally get to hear them laugh. After all the doom and gloom, the very sound of laughter pushes away the dark clouds effortlessly—even for only a moment—and we see a glimpse of why Sara and Michael decided to get married in the first place. Many movies about couples or romantic relationships lack a subtle scene where we recognize—for ourselves sans music or cheesiness or awkwardness—the truth of what makes a specific relationship worth watching. I hoped that such a level of freshness drove the whole picture forward.
“Morning” has good, introspective, body language-driven performances but with occasional lines of dialogue that just miss the mark in terms of delivery. Still, I admired that the writer-director ends the story without tying everything up in a neat bow. Imagine a ball being tossed into the air—fade to black. We are not shown what will happen next but life experience proves that we are likely to have an idea.
★★ / ★★★★
An independent suspense-thriller with great potential but ultimately limited by a standard and uninspired setup, “Preservation” is watchable given one is in the mood for ignoring logic, physics, and accepting a bit of silliness. As far as camping trips that go horribly awry, at least this story offers small but genuinely surprising twists that contain dramatic force. It is apparent that writer-director Christopher Denham has thought about his screenplay so that the changes that the protagonist goes through come full circle.
Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), her husband (Aaron Stanton), and brother-in-law (Pablo Schreiber) plan to camp at a state park for a weekend getaway. But when they get there, the park is closed—seemingly for years. Mike and Sean’s last visit was when they were boys. Although the park is off-limits according to the posted signs, the trio go in anyway to hike, hunt, and relax. The next morning, however, they wake up and their possessions are gone, each of them having a black mark on their foreheads—as if they are going to be targeted. Mike assumes it is one of Mike’s pranks… but Mike’s beloved dog, too, is nowhere to be found.
The material is held back by an extended exposition that is obviously only present to provide character background through dialogue. Although this approach can work in slow burn but very tightly-written thrillers, it is ineffective here because the characters are not that interesting and that fact becomes increasingly clear the more they speak to one another. They talk about their pasts and lives back in the city, but they are bland, their outlook or perspective about the world and those around them do not grab or compel us. Still, although a bit flat, the exchanges are never stagnant or pointless.
The picture comes to life the moment the campers realize the next morning that most of their personal items are gone. I enjoyed that at first there is utter shock and then almost immediately there is a tinge of humor in it. After all, who doesn’t wake up from the commotion inevitably made by someone walking around, folding, lifting, and carrying away items of various sizes—especially when sleeping in a new place and out in the wilderness? Our brains are programmed to be sensitive to danger in instances such as this. The writer-director ought to have had more opportunities to play with tone, especially during the action scenes where violence must be employed for survival. Some might work and some may not but changes, good or bad, tend to keep viewers engaged.
Somewhat surprising is the style of violence employed. For a survival film set in the wilderness, many of the scenes involving physical confrontations between or amongst characters come across cartoonish. Perhaps this trait can be attributed to the budget or the editing—likely both—but I found it refreshing that it goes against the visceral type of violence that is expected in the genre. There are even a few moments when I considered whether a few critical tweaks might have made the picture into a comedy-thriller. I liked that it is almost at the cusp of two genres.
Many people will not understand the value of a movie like “Preservation.” Who can blame them when suspense-thrillers are expected to be serious, nail-biting, logical, as tightly written as possible? This picture does not embody any of these characteristics. I liked it enough nonetheless because it bothers to deliver something different. The risks it takes do not always work but it least it takes them. Self-serious thrillers of its type tend to be one dimensional in look, tone, and feeling. Not to mention predictable and boring. I’ve always said that I’d rather see a movie that works some of the time exactly because it takes risks rather than a movie that does not work at all exactly because it is too afraid to even consider stepping out of the box.
★★★ / ★★★★
The psychological body-horror “Raw,” written and directed by Julia Ducournau, is not meant to be enjoyed. Rather, it is to be experienced—to make us feel uncomfortable, to gross us out, to make us think, and, yes, even relate to the protagonist as she discovers she does not fit in her environment and is often forced to retreat to her room, to wallow in her regrets and shame. While not the most entertaining picture, I found myself unable to look away, curious as to how, or if, the first-year veterinary student would find her place in a savage place on top of her growing hunger for human flesh.
Garance Marillier plays Justine, our mousy and rather plain protagonist who just so happens to have a reputation of being book-smart. Not once does Marillier overact and so even the most ludicrous situations command a grounded feel about them. I found it intriguing that just about every time she must act with another person on screen, there is a hollowness to her performance—her character’s body is there but the mind is not present. This characteristic is increasingly apparent as the character becomes more animalistic both in terms of how she processes what’s unfolding around her as well as her behavior.
The decision to minimize score fits exactly into the type of story being told. Music does not signal toward how we should feel or think. Instead, it employs various extreme images such as actual dead animals that must be cut open, a party involving body paint, hazing rituals that are both amusing and questionable, among others. In one memorable scene, Justine finds herself unable to stop scratching all over her body… even when her skin, already red due to irritation, is beginning to peel off. I was so engrossed, I actually directed “Please stop” at the screen. Notice the style of editing and energy created during this particular sequence.
The story can be interpreted as a metaphor, the blossoming or transformation one undergoes when one goes off to university, away from parents, usual group of friends, the familiar hometown. Notice that the images shown from time to time appear to be seemingly random. Initially, I was confused, almost alienated, by these nonspecific shots. But realize that perhaps this is the point. The writer-director wants us to feel how Justine must feel, especially since the character appears to come from a rather tightly controlled family, a sheltered lifestyle. She is ill-equipped to adapt and we observe her disintegration.
“Raw,” also known as “Grave,” knows how to get under the skin and into the mind of its viewers. It does so by utilizing long takes, resting on faces for an extra odd beat or two, and using slow motion when urgent action is at hand. Clearly, Ducournau is interested in how best to utilize her craft in order to make us wonder rather than giving us concrete answers every other second. While modern horror pictures featuring cannibals aim to terrorize us, this film is refreshing in that it attempts to make us see through their eyes, through their cravings. Would you dare try it?
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The plot of Martin McDonagh’s structurally elegant and emotionally honest “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” involves an unsolved case of a girl who was raped, murdered, and set on fire, but the story is no murder mystery. Instead, it is an exploration, perhaps even an exorcism, of the psychology of some members of the titular small town who are directly involved with the case that has reached a dead end. The characters we meet may not be entirely likable but it is required that they be interesting. McDonagh continues to create work that will stand the test of time. This time around, his work asks us to consider how we might respond in the face of great injustice—especially one that happens to us and our family.
The film is a perfect showcase for Frances McDormand’s astounding range. Playing Mildred, the mother of the deceased, the veteran performer makes it so easy to summon inconsolable rage and disarming vulnerability within a span of seconds. While it is not difficult to empathize with the character as is written on the page, who has grown tired and beyond frustrated for not hearing any progress regarding her daughter’s murder, there are numerous instances where the audience is challenged to stay behind the actions of the protagonist. Like those around Mildred, she is capable of unnecessary cruelty.
Given the character’s wit and intelligence, Mildred has a knack for sniffing out weaknesses, lies, and deceit. This character trait paves the way for exciting, dialogue-driven scenes where power can shift at a drop of a hat. There is build-up, stare downs, and silence which do not follow any sort of rhythm to prevent becoming predictable. Mildred is aware that what she is about to say or do to somebody will hurt deeply and yet she does it anyway so the person she is dealing with would feel a fraction of her pain and suffering. McDormand demands that you do not take your eyes off her because Mildred is a bomb waiting to go off.
It gets the feeling of a small town just right, from the humble but busy streets to the interior decor of gift shops, homes, and local police station. But the relationships among the residents is most intriguing. Take the relationship between Mildred and Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the latter being the lead investigator of the unsolved murder case. The two are constantly butting heads and yet look closer and notice there is mutual respect there. It just appears that respect may not be there all the time, especially when either gets so riled up that they see nothing but red.
Their common understanding is a great contrast when it comes to Mildred’s relationship with the other men in uniform (Sam Rockwell, Zeljko Ivanek) who consider the grieving mother’s decision to rent three abandoned billboards out in the highway as an affront or insult to who they are and what they do for the community. To them and others within the community, why couldn’t she just grieve in private like everyone else? Must the tragedy of their town be publicized constantly? Must everybody be reminded of the traumatic past?
While the material does not provide one glorified action scene, especially for a story that touches upon a murder, it is firecracker from start to finish. The characters are so fully realized that we learn about who they are and see them undergoing changes to the point where they become unpredictable. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” takes one left turn after another that it is near impossible not to be regaled by its mesmerizing dance.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Despite the picture being plagued with would-be humor involving various bodily functions, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” based on the children’s book series by Jeff Kinney, will likely fail to appeal even to its narrow age demographic. This is because the material is not in touch with the core of the series. That is, pre-teen Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker) feels like a loser and so he goes on great lengths to shed what he believes others perceive him to be. In reality, however, he is a good kid who just so happens to get in trouble sometimes—and he need not change a thing about himself. It is not about gross-out and slapstick humor.
It is strange because the screenplay is helmed by the book series’ author along with director David Bowers. One gets the impression that in order to commercialize or make the picture more accessible to non-book readers, a lot of the main source’s heart were cut out. Perhaps this decision is driven by a plot involving a road trip where shenanigans are expected to unfold consistently in order to establish a semblance of fast pacing. In reality, however, the film moves quite slowly because the viewers grow tired of the highly repetitive formula of silliness and high jinks. When it does get to the supposedly heartfelt moments, it falls flat. Deep emotions and realizations are not earned at all.
I take no pleasure in pointing out child performers coming across as rather mismatched to the roles they play. However, it must be mentioned that Drucker is not a good fit to portray Greg Heffley. The character is supposed to command a balance of slyness and sweetness, often during the same scene, but Drucker, even though he emotes the best he can with the material he is provided, does not yet have the range to reach such a balance. He pales by comparison to Zachary Gordon who played Greg in the first three “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies. Perhaps Drucker just needs more time to grow accustomed to Greg’s shoes.
The film is completely let down by the writing. This time around, Greg’s parents (Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott) have bigger roles in the story and so it is a perfect opportunity for Greg to learn a bit more about his parents, perhaps even connect with them on a level that the protagonist did not expect prior to being on the road. And yet the screenplay insists on delivering the same old tricks: portraying parents as uptight and lacking the ability to relate to their children. While the picture can have these elements, turning them upside down or inside out once in a while could have paved for more interesting and challenging avenues. Playing it safe is death to comedy.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” lacks freshness as well as a certain verve required to entertain children beyond gross-out jokes. I have a deep dislike toward children’s movies that are adamant in treating their target audience as not intelligent. Kids deserve better than this boring, nonstop barrage of lowest hanging fruit. A better alternative is to allow children to play outside than to have them sit through this incredibly disappointing misfire.
★★ / ★★★★
Mystery-thriller “Solace,” written by Sean Bailey and Ted Griffin, commands an intriguing premise but the deeper the picture gets into the case involving a series of “mercy-killing” murders, it proves unable to sustain and deliver upon the intrigue it promises. Instead, the film is reduced to a final showdown using guns, an uninspired avenue traversed too often by generic thrillers with not much to say so long as the antagonists meet their doom in the end. The first half has potential but the latter half is so pointless, near worthless, that a part of me was surprised it received the go signal to be made.
Anthony Hopkins is immensely watchable as a former doctor/FBI investigator named by John Clancy who is approached by Special Agent Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with the hope of providing insight on an especially difficult assignment. The murders have been executed so well, no DNA has been found on the crime scene, no witness, not even a footprint or sign of forced entry. The MO is the same: a puncture mark on the back of the head, the sharp weapon used believed to pierce the medulla oblongata—resulting in a quick and painless death. Merriwether is convinced Clancy will be able to help given the old man’s special ability to see into the past and future by simply touching a person or an object of interest.
Hopkins injects elegance into material that would have been unbearably standard without his presence. His way of delivering lines, the manner in which he plays with pauses, the ability to communicate using only his eyes tend to elevate the scenes he is in. He creates a creepy feeling by making his character a bit detached from everyone he encounters. At times, however, his performance is diluted by various images shown quickly on screen—a distracting depiction of what John sees in his mind.
Such an approach is a miscalculation. It doesn’t work in many high-caliber thrillers and it doesn’t work here either. Having such a consummate performer like Hopkins at the helm, why not simply allow the camera to rest on his face and so we are forced to observe the minuscule changes in his facial expressions? Why do we need to see the images the character sees in his mind? The answer is, we don’t. Showing such images is simply a crutch—a technique to spell out nearly everything for the audience. The material treats us like we are neither patient nor intelligent.
The look of the picture is bland in that there is no personality in each of the environment we visit, whether it be a police station, a crime scene, or a murder victim’s home. Notice that even a solid episode of “Criminal Minds” tends to deliver a certain look or feel to it. And that is on television. In other words, the film does not come across cinematic. If this were playing on TV and I just so happened to come across it, after a few seconds I would likely think it was a show doomed for cancellation. There is a lack of an artistic eye here—disappointing because the filmmakers could have taken inspiration from David Fincher’s “Se7en,” for example. In that movie, the unsub has a twisted sense of morality, too.
Directed by Afonso Poyart, “Solace” offers a few clever moments and solidly watchable performances, especially by Hopkins, but the writing lacks focus, a highly analytical nature despite clairvoyance added to the mix, as well as a powerful visceral punch, essential elements to create a memorable and chilling crime-thriller.
Assignment, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
With a ludicrous premise that is sure to turn heads, it is a disappointment that Walter Hill’s “The Assignment” fails to aspire to become more than what is ultimately delivered. As an action film, it is tiresome and uninspired, composed merely of shooting guns and almost always the target being hit. As an exploitation picture, the more interesting route, it is neither dark nor pulpy enough to pass as an entertaining bad movie. Its look, tone, and overall feel resembles that of many forgettable works with an interesting plot but boring execution.
Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman named Frank Kitchen who is forced to undergo a gender reassignment surgery in the hands of Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver), desperate to avenge her brother that Frank had killed. While it is commendable that Rodriguez chooses to take her role seriously, allowing her to play a man during the first act of the picture is a mistake so dire, it derails any level of believability in a plot that already demands the audience to take a leap of faith.
The filmmakers ought to have realized that simply slapping a beard on Rodriguez does not work at all. Although the performer has a charming masculine presence, her frame is feminine, the way she moves is quite soft, and her posture whether standing up or sitting down is not at all masculine. The filmmakers realize this, I think, and so eventually there is a walking-out-of-the-shower sequence spotlighting Rodriguez with chest hair and a prosthetic penis. The whole charade is so ridiculous that I don’t think anybody who’s paying attention would be able to keep a straight face. I certainly couldn’t.
A storytelling technique that is mildly interesting involves Dr. Jane in a psychiatric hospital after Frank had gotten his revenge on the person who butchered him. Since we already know whether or not the “villain” would get her comeuppance, we cannot help but question why we are spending time with this particular character. Clearly she is up to no good. Or is she? I enjoyed the dialogue between Weaver and Tony Shalhoub, a medical doctor who is assigned to assess whether the disgraced doctor is fit for trial. Unlike Rodriguez’ laughable scenes, we feel something boiling between two sharp minds. Weaver elevates this D-level misfire.
For an action picture, there is minimal suspense or thrill to be had here. The formula is as follows: Frank enters an establishment, narration is heard to provide some background, minions spot our protagonist, he starts shooting with great accuracy, bodies stack up until his main target is found. Of course, said target must die. Onto the next shoddy location.
I find it ironic that there is controversy surrounding “The Assignment” and yet the work is standard in all the wrong ways. If one were to look at good B-pictures and exploitation flicks, one would realize that such films were so often willing to push the envelope that the wrongs, weirdly enough, end up feeling right for the material. They own themselves. On the other hand, this work comes across self-conscious when it could have thrown all inhibitions to the wind and made strong statements about gender versus identity through the guise of solid popcorn entertainment.