Belle endormie, La (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When Anastasia is born, a witch (Odile Mallet) puts a curse on her, condemning the child to die at the age of sixteen. Three fairies are unable to dispel the hex but are capable of altering it. Instead of her life being taken away, Anastasia will fall into a deep sleep at age six (Carla Besnaïnou), wake up a hundred years later, and will look like a sixteen-year-old (Julia Artamonov). Meanwhile, as the child is in a coma, her mind enters a world that appears to resemble reality at first glance but is actually ruled by fantastic creatures like an evil Snow Queen, aristocratic dwarfs, and a giant covered in boils.
It takes a bit of time to get into the groove of the way “La belle endormie,” directed by Catherine Breillat, is told perhaps because many of the characters’ actions are performed without explanation. For instance, we aren’t informed why the witch decides to put a spell on an innocent child other than a fairytale-based assumption that old women in black cloaks are born bad and therefore must act bad. After the witch casts her magic, we never hear from her again. Though its template is that of a fairytale, this is far from a conventional story where the heroes or heroines must face the lead villain before living happily ever after.
In its own strange way, it works. One of its quietest but most important scenes is the six-year-old Anastasia reading a dictionary as her hobby. She claims that it takes her on all sorts of adventures because each vocabulary word feels like an entire story. This scene stood out to me because I used to read the dictionary as a kid (nerd alert!) and I understood what she meant by being so immersed or entertained by a word, subconsciously her imagination is pushed to expand in countless directions.
In my opinion, when most of us read a definition of a word in a dictionary, we have a superficial understanding of what is communicated but we are often blind to its underlying meanings (and multiple meanings) and assumptions. This is because we have a proclivity to focus on the words on the page. Unless we really think about it, we tend to overlook the complexity of a foreign word. The interactions between the characters in the film is similar to this in that they talk to each other about their goals but there isn’t much content in their exchanges. They talk as quickly as they move on. It wouldn’t be unfair for someone to criticize the dialogue for being wooden or hollow.
The part I enjoyed significantly less is when Anastasia wakes up as a teenager. The technique of superficiality feels inappropriate given the fact that Anastasia meets Johan (David Chausse), someone who might be interested in her sexually. Because it chooses not to delve deeply into their psychologies, there is a detachment between us and the subjects. It works in the first half because we do not want to see harm befall a child during her adventures. In the last act, however, it doesn’t work. Instead, it feels like watching a bad play where the actors act rather well but there’s no substance behind their torment.
“The Sleeping Beauty” blends fantasy and reality seamlessly so it is engaging as a visual experience. It is also unpredictable because the screenplay is not at all concerned about tying up loose ends. So loyal to its vision, I wondered at times who its target audience might be. It certainly isn’t for family and children. But perhaps it is for people wishing to flood their taste buds with an experimental flavor.
★★ / ★★★★
At least Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s “Replicas” cannot be criticized for offering too few ideas. On the contrary, the problem is the opposite: it touches upon so many fascinating subjects—artificial intelligence, human cloning, copying a person’s memories onto a chip and then transferring them either into a machine or the human brain, the fragility of consciousness, not to mention the value (or lack thereof) of what we come to know as the soul—that the work has enough content fill a television show’s entire season. As expected, it comes with an important cost. In its attempt to cover so much ground, given that the medium is film and, typically, movies are between ninety to one hundred twenty minutes, not one topic is explored in a meaningful way. What results is shallow entertainment that fails to reach its potential.
About halfway through, I caught myself smiling at the ludicrous developments in plot. A part of me admired its bravado. Twists are delivered fast and hard to the point where, within a span of ten minutes (I kept track), it offers at least three surprises. I admired its enthusiasm to give even the wildest soap operas a run for their money. I found solace, too, in the fact that the performances are capable even though the characters are written in the most unbelievable ways at times.
For instance, Will (Keanu Reeves), a scientist who works in a cryptic biomedical company with a beautiful wife (Alice Eve) and three children (Emily Alyn Lind, Emjay Anthony, Aria Lyric Leabu) waiting at home, appears to have years of experience within his chosen field, obviously incredibly smart, but when there is great pressure on him to perform, he seems barely able to handle it like a professional. For the most part, inconsistencies as such are hidden by the relatively fast pacing—although the charade cannot keep up during the picture’s more sensitive and dramatic moments. There are a handful of them.
Therein lies the problem: despite the fancy tech talk, curious biological questions, and philosophical musings, the core is supposed to be a convincing human drama. After all, our protagonist is a man so desperate to save his family from death, in addition to his fear of being alone, he proves all too willing to cross numerous ethical and moral lines. Despite Reeves’ commitment to the role, the writing does not function on a high enough level. To do so would mean having to provide specificity nearly every step of the way and an expert control of presenting, exploring, and underlining themes. I wondered if a surgical approach to the character might have been a fresher avenue.
As a person who works in science, I do not require, for instance, that the details of human cloning be correct or even believable. Clearly, the work is not meant to be a documentary. But I do expect for the project to connect a scientific tool or technique to a specific character’s motivations in a way that is compelling, not just because it would be a neat idea to touch upon but not actually explore. Had the screenplay by Chad St. John been trimmed and focused, the film could have been a more potent and memorable sci-fi thriller.
★★★ / ★★★★
For a story about a severely disfigured survivor of a Nazi Germany concentration camp who must return to her former life with a new face, “Phoenix,” loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel “The Return from the Ashes” and directed by Christian Petzold, surprised me because I was not more emotionally invested in it. I was confused by this at first. By the halfway point, however, I considered that perhaps this is precisely the intention.
It is not an emotional film. There is an absence of sweeping revelations and realizations. It is silent for the most part. When something does change in a person’s thinking or belief, it can be missed easily. Hence, his or her actions tend to surprise. At which point does he or she manage to put two and two together? The work requires unwavering attention, patience, and empathy—especially because characters choose to take the long way in order to achieve their end goals. That journey forces us to understand them a little more. Isn’t that what movies are all about?
Certainly it has the template of a revenge-thriller: a reconstructed face, almost unrecognizable even to those who know her best, means a chance to get vengeance on the people who might have betrayed her to the Nazis, especially the husband who, curiously, was released from interrogation mere hours prior to our protagonist’s arrest. She is played by the luminous Nina Hoss, making one fresh decision after another as Nelly, who finds it unthinkable that her spouse, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), willingly gave crucial information that led to her capture.
Subtly, Hoss delivers two performances: as Nelly the survivor but is highly traumatized by what she had experienced in the concentration camp and as “Esther” pretending to be Nelly when she is with Johnny. He makes it clear to Esther that his goal is to acquire all of Nelly’s wealth (he believes her to be dead). Should they succeed, Esther would be compensated with $20,000. Observe Hoss’ eyes when Johnny tells her this. There is no anger there nor a hint of slyness. It is clear that the picture is not interested following the path of violence or thrills.
There is a lot of sadness here but the type that is not overt or melodramatic. It is the kind that sticks, lingering like a stubborn sickness. Notice, for example, shots of bombed-out buildings of postwar Berlin. The camera is not utilized as a magnifying glass. They just are, and there is a freshness to this decision. Instead of giving rise to emotions in obvious ways, the film’s mood is numb, in mourning over the loss countless lives. At times Nelly does not even feel like herself when she looks in the mirror. She may have lived through the concentration camp, but she feels dead inside.
It is apparent that a lot of deep thought is put into the execution of “Phoenix,” an elegant drama about identity, the illusions we create for others as well as the ones for ourselves, and people who no longer feel like they belong—in their own countries, in their own bodies. Particularly memorable is a supporting character named Lene who is played by Nina Kunzendorf. She makes a shocking decision about two-thirds of the way through that we are forced to think back—all the way to the first scene—on who she is, her motivations, her anger toward Germany, the Nazis, and those who chose to collaborate with evil.
Toy Story 4 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pixar proves yet again that they understand their audience. Sure, the computer animation is more spectacular than ever. No detail is considered as too small or insignificant even during a most exciting chase or action sequence. The score is consistently on point: carefully calibrated depending on specific emotions being conveyed at a particular moment. But when it all comes down to it, notice that the standout works from this superlative studio are those that possess the most humanity; the medium just so happens to be animation. And “Toy Story 4,” written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, is one of Pixar’s most entertaining works, a welcome installment to an illustrious series.
The screenwriters make the intelligent choice not to tell just another adventure story that unfolds throughout a road trip. Instead, it focuses on an existential note that harkens all the way back to the original “Toy Story”: what happens when a toy is no longer needed, or wanted, by its owner? (What happens when parents recognize that their children no longer needs them?) College-bound Andy handed over Woody (voiced by the inimitable Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) at the end of the previous film and this next chapter proves interested in exploring—not just showing—what happens next. The masterstroke, I think, is that although the gang has found another home, not all of them feels at home. This is when the drama comes in.
Respect is given to longtime fans by not showing a strong bond between Bonnie and Woody. Although Bonnie’s name is written on the underside of Woody’s boots, we all know his heart will forever belong to Andy. This can be a complicated concept, both for young children and those who are new to the series, but I admired that the writing is sharp and patient enough to provide morsels of how important it is for every toy—not just Woody—to find a place where they feel like they are loved. And these universal examples are applied to the cowboy character’s psychology. It is clear that the writing strives to provide more than just surface entertainment. It is so refreshing given the poor caliber of animated movies aimed at children that release annually.
But what about those who are interested in surface entertainment? (There is nothing wrong with that.) Well, the movie has that covered, too. Its type of humor will appeal to the young, old, and everyone in between. The reason is because most jokes are kid-at-heart. They are creative and often delivered with such vivacity that even when an attempt at humor is not that funny, you find yourself laughing anyway. It is a movie filled to the brim with smiles.
There is not one joke involving poop, fart, or pee but there are jokes about body parts of specific toys—how they react, for example, after seeing another toy with a similar body composition having been cut in half. We get the impression that the filmmakers had put in the time to observe each character’s physicality and find ways to make us laugh out loud—or giggle at the very least. Notice that many jokes presented here cannot be used in other generic animated movies. Conversely, jokes involving bodily functions are all the same when used in said films. It goes to show that specificity goes a long way.
“Toy Story 4,” directed by Josh Cooley, provides a most joyous and emotional experience—a wonderful summer movie when children are out of school and have all the time in the world to play with their toys, to pretend like cowboys, princesses, monsters, gooey invaders from another planet. And for those of us who are grown, well, for about a hundred minutes the picture makes us feel like we are kids again. That’s indispensable.
Silence, The (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
As one sits through the increasingly disappointing creature feature “The Silence,” one begins to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to tell this particular story after the outstanding “A Quiet Place” has got everyone talking. The plot is familiar: A family attempts to survive in a world overrun by monsters that are sensitive to sound. A big difference, however, is in the effectiveness of execution. John Krasinski’s picture is told with great focus and alacrity while John R. Leonetti’s work does not appear to know where to go. And given if it did, it possesses minimal conviction.
At least the creatures are somewhat interesting from a visual standpoint. At first glance, they appear to look and sound like bats, particularly when they are discovered in a cave that has been hidden for quite possibly thousands of years. Upon closer inspection, they are orange-yellow, about the size of an eagle but featherless. They have sharp teeth and hunt in groups. As expected for having lived in the dark for so long, they have no eyes. We are shown webpages and newsreels about how they are quite similar to wasps. They look menacing indeed and the screenwriters find ways for the characters to trigger loud noises—even if it means making them seem as though they have minimal survival instinct. The violence of the attacks are occasionally, and appropriately, horrific. These creatures eat their meal to the bone.
But one of the elements that separates solid monster movies from merely passable ones is from which perspective the audience experiences the story. The Andrews family is, for the most part, a bore. Stanley Tucci and Miranda Otto play the vanilla parents; Kate Trotter as the grandmother who hides her lung cancer from the children; and Kiernan Shipka and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as the elder sister and younger brother who emote a whole lot. Shipka as Ally is supposed to be the central protagonist but we only know this because she is given narration and no one else.
She tells us about having recently gone deaf due to an auto accident. We see her being bullied by some boys at school. Clearly, these situations are introduced in order to win our sympathy. Do not be fooled. Look closely. Notice she is not given anything special or memorable to do—an opportunity to show why she is our heroine in this story. Contrast this with the Regan character in “A Quiet Place” (she is also deaf). It is abundantly clear which of the two is the more compelling figure. Which one would you rather have on your side during a time of crisis?
A group of characters are introduced late into the film. Their tongues are cut off and so they do not utter a word. They are creepy, how they are dressed in black or brown clothing. The leader focuses on Ally. It is thematically inappropriate to introduce human villains so late into the story and then disposing of them just as quickly in a most uninspired way. I felt as though they are used only to extend a film already running on fumes.
Although many might argue that the real enemy are the ancient creatures, I claim it is more about our limitations to adapt quickly and efficiently in life or death situations, especially when loved ones are involved. The enemy is our lack of understanding of, or the lack of willingness to understand, what is initially unknown. But the screenplay by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke are not interested in the more curious philosophical musings. I wager they themselves do not know what makes their story special and worth telling.
Hole in the Ground, The (2019)
★ / ★★★★
Here is a picture that takes an actual psychiatric disorder called Capgras Syndrome—the delusion that loved ones have been replaced by impostors—and attempts to construct a horror movie around it. It is not an original idea (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), but it is a curious and inspired choice nonetheless because the disorder is so creepy, it has great potential to scare or, at the very least, cause unrelenting unease. But “The Hole in the Ground,” written by Lee Cronin and Stephen Shields, directed by the former, is not only low on terror, it fails to expand upon ideas it introduces, like the massive hole in the middle of the forest located several yards away from a house that a mother and son move into.
Its best attraction is the atmosphere. There is a heavy gloom to the picture but not for a moment the look comes across as depressing. Notice not one person wears bright clothing. Sun shines but it is constantly hidden behind clouds. Smiles and laughter are rare. Happy chirping of birds cannot be heard despite the story being set on a countryside. There is no excitement in people’s eyes, whether it be the mother-son we follow to the friends and strangers they come across. Because of these carefully considered choices, we cannot help but get the feeling that there is something strange about this particular town. There are talks about the crazed woman (Kati Outinen) who wanders around looking like death. We meet her during the film’s opening sequence.
After the expected beats involving the son deciding to explore the sinister forest, Sarah (Seána Kerslake) begins to suspect that Chris (James Quinn Markey) is not really Chris. She notices small details about her son that seemed to change overnight. There are a number of these moments of realization but the screenplay proves reluctant to push the plot forward. Characters written smart would not only be quick to catch on, they would just as quickly find ways to do something about it. Not here. It is a shame because Kerslake and Markey share solid chemistry. I believed Kerslake as a beleaguered mother who is afraid that no one will believe her suspicions once vocalized and Markey as a possible evil impostor.
Notice I used the word “possible” because the material plays upon the idea that the horrific incidents are all happening in Sarah’s head. After all, these strange occurrences seem to start only after she begins to take prescription drugs in order to calm her anxiety. We are given several lines of dialogue that alludes to Sarah protecting her son from an abusive father and husband. Sarah has a scar on her forehead that acts up once in a while. The doctor asks her about it. She claims it is due to an accident. We know better. To me, this is the story’s Achilles’ heel. The supernatural phenomena is so potent, so thoroughly convincing, that the psychological angle feels more like a lame charade, a way to buy time in order to meet the standard ninety minutes.
A decision that enraged me is a technical choice—but one that proves to be so important. In the middle of the film, the mother decides to install a camera in the boy’s room in order to record what it is that he does there when she isn’t looking. Eventually, she gets a chance to see what it is in that recording. A neighbor gets a chance to see it, too. What he sees disturbs him. But not for one second do we get to see what was recorded. There is vague talk about the boy not being seen or that he’s not really there—a head-scratcher.
During the picture’s closing scene, the mother—again—records the boy… This time, we see the photos. But what does it actually tell us? Absolutely nothing. The reason is because we have nothing to compare against. We are made blind to it. It is like an experiment with results… but no control group. We cannot—and should not—make a conclusion.
Somewhere Between (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Having just adopted a baby from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton is aware that her daughter will come to ask questions about her roots eventually. In order to help and guide her child in creating a strong sense of identity, Knowlton feels she needs to further her understanding when it comes to the struggles of being adopted. So, the director turns her camera on four teenage girls who are raised by white American parents.
One of the subjects is Jenni, living in Berkeley, California, who, as a child, was found roaming the streets and later sent to an orphanage. Out of the four girls, she is perhaps the most relatable or accessible because she has a way of explaining how she is feeling or what she is thinking in a way that is beyond her age. At one point, she tells the camera that no matter where she is—whether it be visiting China or living in the Bay Area—everyone knows she is foreign.
She delivers this in such a matter-of-fact way that in about a minute or so I realized that there are times when I feel exactly the same about being an immigrant: that no matter how much I’ve assimilated in the “American” culture, characteristics that are ingrained in me—whether it be how I look, how I’ve been raised, how I perceive and process information—can never really be ignored or erased.
Jenna of Murburyport, Massachusetts is an interesting case as well. Being one of the very few Chinese people in her town, she tends to describe herself as being “yellow on the outside and white on the inside” to her friends and to the camera. I dislike descriptions like that but, admittedly, that was exactly how I—and a few friends—described myself during the early years of high school. I think that deep down the commonality is the need to belong. Like Jenni, Jenna—even though she may not admit to it—does not feel good enough in her own skin sometimes. This explains why she feels she has to be best or be in control of whatever task she is given. I know that feeling, too.
The final two girls are Ann from Pennsylvania and Haley from Tennessee. They meet through a program that gives Chinese adoptees a chance to be able to connect with one another. The two are almost complete opposites: the former has little interest in wanting to meet her biological parents while the latter embraces the idea. The film does not judge whether one course of action is better than another. What we do see is how the girls deal with excitement, wrestle with disappointments, and what it is they hope to accomplish in the future with respect to their roots.
I hope to adopt a child one day. Whether or not he or she will come from the same culture as me, I believe the documentary does a good job in raising questions I would not have considered otherwise. The picture makes a point that the answers that each of the subjects comes to terms with are specific to every one of their stories.
Nobody’s Fool (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Having to sit through “Nobody’s Fool,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, should be considered a form of punishment. For a comedy in general, it is deeply unfunny, lacking comic rhythm, and filled with empty silences simply added to take up time. (This brand of torture lasts for nearly two interminable hours.) For a romantic comedy, there is minimal chemistry between the man and woman with whom we are supposed to want to get together. And for a female empowerment picture, its contradictory messages are not only confusing, they are downright offensive at times. Here is an example of a comedy that is dead on arrival.
I felt embarrassed for the performers who chose to participate in this disaster because they are not without talent, from the highly energetic Tiffany Haddish who plays the motormouth hood sister who has been just released from prison, Whoopi Goldberg as the pothead mother with wise-sounding lines to impart during dire times, to Tika Sumpter as the financially successful sister struggling to find the perfect man. There are individual scenes that showcase the star power of these women, but the poor writing consistently lets them down.
Nearly every scene, for instance, must end with an exclamation point even when it is completely inappropriate. Observe closely as the Sumpter’s character, for example, begins to realize late in the picture that perhaps she is to blame for her own impossible expectations when it comes to romance. (She has a list of what a man must offer her in order to be considered boyfriend-worthy.) The moment of self-assessment is almost immediately eradicated by a desperate attempt at comedy. Observant viewers will be quick to catch that the writer-director is not interested, or even remotely curious, of the human condition that his project attempts to tackle.
Instead, Perry proves to excel in regurgitating appallingly familiar scenarios: sisters with opposite personalities having to live together, a romantic interest overhearing a private telephone conversation and feelings getting hurt, one’s career being in danger because her love life is in turmoil. It is all so tired. One gets the impression that the filmmaker could not be bothered to create intelligent characters with something real to say, do, or fight for just as long as there are images moving on screen. I found its pessimism to be quite insulting. What results is a limp piece of work that is not even worth showing on cable. Or even on the Lifetime channel. Yes, given that it is a Perry picture, you can bet there are melodramatic turns that are both ludicrous and unearned.
With at least ten films under his belt prior to this movie, Perry should be further along now when it comes to delivering entertainment that works even in the most elementary level. While I appreciate that he casts mostly black actors to tell black stories and thereby selling black entertainment, must he be reminded that his target audience deserves better? I could not help but feel angry while watching “Nobody’s Fool” because he treats the audience exactly like one.
★★ / ★★★★
In the middle of the camp-lite psychological thriller “Ma,” directed by Tate Taylor and written by Scotty Landes, I wished the focus were on the adult characters instead of the teenagers. The reason is because veteran performers like Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, and Allison Janney can effortlessly elevate a tired plot toward a legitimate good time simply by injecting a fresh line reading, giving out pointed looks, and controlling body movements a certain way. These are qualities that the young cast is lacking. They provide passable performances, but their characters are clearly, and quite simply, lambs lining up for a slaughter.
It is apparent that Spencer is having a good time with her role. As Sue Ann, known by the party-loving teens as Ma because she allows them to lay back and let loose in her basement, she is almost always creepy and quite diabolical when triggered. And yet at times we are provided glimpses of her lonely life at home and how powerless she is at work. When she is humiliated, it is difficult to determine how she will react. Following this woman over the course of one day might have made a curios short film: veterinarian’s assistant by day, stalker and deadly killer by night. She is as quick to give a smile as she is at slitting someone’s throat with a scalpel.
Flashbacks involving Sue Ann being tormented by her peers in high school are uninspired. It might have been the wiser choice to remove these completely and focus on enhancing the script. Simply referencing traumatic details from the past could have been enough given the caliber of its experienced actors. Notice the power of reunions. For instance, we feel Erica’s embarrassment of having to cross paths with a former classmate after it was believed that she moved to California to live a life of success. Erica’s sense of failure is written all over Juliette Lewis’ face. Her body does not want to be on that casino floor, skimpy clothing and all. Even though she is a mother who is strong and proud to raise her daughter by herself, at that very moment she feels like trash.
Maggie, Erica’s daughter, is played by Diana Silvers, the new girl that the popular crowd (McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown) welcomes into the their group. She has a memorable face, but the screenplay fails to create a memorable heroine. For too long she is shown as a passive observer; she begins to notice strange things at Sue Ann’s home and yet she continues to return and party in the basement. When the third act rolls around, we are supposed to care about her fate simply because she is the main girl and nothing else. Never mind the familiar horror tropes of being drugged and waking up to be tormented.
It is rare when solid performances manage to save a generic screenplay. “Ma” is no exception. While entertaining on the surface, I found little value—or excitement—in it. It is one of those movies that you allow to play in the background as you perform chores, check texts, or browse social media while occasionally looking up as decibels begin to rise.
On Chesil Beach (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sometimes love is not enough. I admired the ferocity of this picture because it begins like a generic romantic drama where newlyweds spend their honeymoon on a hotel by the beach. Their backgrounds, when together and apart, are told in flashbacks, carefully calibrated by director Dominic Cooke. A comic moment here and a touching moment there—yet every time we look into the past, he provides just enough detail to keep us wanting to know more. All the while there is a growing suspicion that he isn’t telling us everything, especially when close-ups become more dominant as the couple start to consummate their marriage.
The couple is played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle who share an awkward but interesting chemistry—which makes for a fascinating watch. Florence and Edward’s moments of warmth are certain to make the audience feel good, but perhaps more powerful, and more intriguing, are instances when they fall into intense arguments, one culminating at the beach which involves a devastating confession and a life-changing decision. In particular, Ronan is at her element here as she is able to change the shape of her face depending on the emotion the scene is about to lay out before us, further proof she is one of the greatest performers of her generation.
But the centerpiece of this slow-moving but most surprising picture is the screenplay by Ian McEwan. He is not interested in creating a boring, picture-perfect couple only to be regarded or envied from afar (or through the screen). Instead, he allows the subjects to be human, flawed, by daring to open up the dialogue toward extremely hurtful situations. They are allowed to be petty, to deliver blows so low that at times we feel ashamed for them. This couple, like real-life couples, is able to use words like daggers and actions like explosives. Because of their sheer chemistry, we wish for them to be together, to work through their problems somehow, to push blame and anger to the side, to start anew. Because the material ultimately makes us feel this way, that is what makes it a romance, not necessary through the lens of the story—or type of story—presented.
Perhaps its weakest portion is the jump in time to 2007. (The story begins in 1962.) Instead of casting age-appropriate actors, it becomes another example of a drama that suffers from ridiculous cosmetics. It is so bizarre when we see heavy makeup on a face (which is unconvincing in the first place) and yet we look down on the actors’ hands only to recognize youth. When I noticed this common mistake, I felt angry because I taken out of a film that I found myself to be emotionally invested for the most part. Overlooking details like the hands being flawless, not having a single age-related spot, is such an amateur mistake. Do not get me started on how the ace performers are so buried in cosmetics that they find themselves unable to control their facial expressions. Even the eyes do not look old or experienced.
“On Chesil Beach” is based on the novella by Ian McEwan. It helps that the creator of the original work is also the screenwriter because it feels as though not a thing is filtered upon its translation from text to screen. Especially interesting is the theme regarding ignorance, how at times such ignorance is actually motivated by societal norms of a specific time period, what is expected of a certain sex, of how a married couple ought to live together. There is beauty and searing honesty that I fear might easily be overlooked because the story begins one way. But I trust the more discerning viewers will find something worth pondering over.
★ / ★★★★
Martín (Javier De Pietro) hurts his eye during swimming class so his coach, Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría), drives him to the doctor. It seems to be only a minor irritation so the teenager is discharged. By the time Martín and Sebastián finish at the hospital, however, everyone has gone home. This is a problem because Martín is supposed to spend the night at a classmate’s house—who did not bother to wait—and his grandmother has already left town. Martín is not given a spare key. After a few hours of exhausting avenues to get rid of the student, it seems as though Sebastián has no choice but to allow Martín to stay in his apartment. Unbeknownst to Sebastián, this is all a part of Martín’s plan so they can be alone.
Written and directed by Marco Berger, “Ausente” is a very confused movie about an adolescent attraction toward someone twice as old and eventual feelings of guilt that surface. It lacks a bridge between the two extremes and so the internal and external conflicts fail to translate in a way that is moving or, at the very least, sensible.
We are supposed to have an understanding of Martín’s attraction to his coach, but he is made to be a master manipulator until well past the halfway point. While De Pietro is strong at exuding a mix of menace and sexual desire with his glances to the point where we can almost feel like his eyes are undressing his victim, his capacity for darkness is not what the film is ultimately about so it is curious why the writer-director spends so much time making him out to be someone he is not. It is confused tonally because the story is a drama at its core but it utilizes thriller elements to capture our interest. As a result, the conflict between Martín and Sebastián appears phony.
The film seems unable to discern between true sensuality and cheap sexuality. For example, when the coach finally invites his student over to his place, as the material attempts to build attention through the neighbors’ prying eyes, there are a handful of shots of Martín’s body parts, from his groin area to his buttocks. If the goal is to titillate, which is fine, it is not handled in a way that feels right to the material. The fact that the student is underage is always in the back of our minds. It is neither sexy nor seductive. It is creepy.
After an awkward night, never mind that the material does not go in any interesting direction. It fails to take off completely. There are at least half a dozen wasted scenes where Sebastián and Martín eye each other from across the room and we are made to wait and wonder whether the screenplay has something else up its sleeve. Since we do not know the two main characters as people, the twists and realizations feel nothing but creaky machinations of a plot that is desperate to end but does not know how.
The problem in experimenting with different genres is that it is easy to create an imbalance with the ingredients. “Absent” tries to do something different but since key elements do not complement each other, it meanders well past the point where we stopped caring.