★★★ / ★★★★
Carlos López Estrada’s directorial debut is an exciting piece of work—certainly ambitious because it attempts to tackle an enchilada of challenging topics from white police shooting unarmed black men, gentrification, a convicted felon’s place in a society with a bias against them, to racial identity and the disparity between how one feels on the inside versus how one is actually perceived. These are elements easily found in dramatic pictures but somehow, almost miraculously, “Blindspotting” is also quite comedic—and, it works. Here is a film in which one does not walk away without an opinion—or, at the very least, a strong impression. It is meant to incite discussion.
Collin (Daveed Diggs) is three days away from finishing his probation. But it will prove to be a long three days after Collin, on his way back home for curfew, witnesses a fellow black man—without a weapon in hand—being shot four times by a white cop. The police gave only one warning and the time span between the warning and the gunshots is less than two seconds. The encounter haunts both Collin’s dreams and waking moments. He begins to have anxiety about every little thing that might send him back to prison. It does not help that his hot-headed best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), has recently purchased a gun and insists on bringing it wherever they go.
The film’s energy is highly infectious. The screenplay by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs is so devoid of storytelling shackles that characters may end up rapping for whatever reason. These need not have a point or contain pointed social commentary. At times it is simply because it would be a fun or funny thing to do. However, these sung poetry almost always provide insight about the character spitting out the words—sometimes during that moment in time and other times how he perceives his place in Oakland, California.
As someone who lives ten minutes away from Oakland, I appreciated that the film is not afraid to show the city as is in 2018. So many movies, television shows, and songs paint Oakland as a dirty, scary place where crime is prevalent. While it may embody these characteristics depending on the neighborhood, Estrada is also willing to show the brightly painted houses, clean streets, people so diverse and multicultural that seeing my reality on screen made me feel proud. Also, it actually shows that people do wish to move to the city, not just a place to run away from. It reminded me how films—to this day—still represent or portray the San Francisco Bay Area in general with one scoop of truth and two scoops of lies because it needs to be more digestible by vanilla America.
Its comic moments aside, it works as a dramatic piece. This is a work in which the viewer can capture the moment when one character’s opinion of another changes. Strong impressions are not expressed right away; as in life, we keep what bothers us to ourselves until a seemingly small trigger breaks the dam and all of it comes pouring our of mouths. Tension-building is a required ingredient in strong dramas—the filmmakers are always aware of this. Sometimes more is said in extended silence than sitting through a barrage of words.
Although it does not compare to Spike Lee’s great social dramas (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus”), it is apparent that “Blindspotting” is inspired to function on a similar wavelength. By comparison, it is not as confrontational to the point where it threatens to offend more than handful of viewers. Personally, it could have used a bit more spice, particularly when it broaches the subject of gun violence, but I was disarmed by its flavor.
Jihad for Love, A (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
“A Jihad for Love,” directed by Parvez Sharma, gives us a peek into the lives of Muslims who happen to be homosexuals. Since it widely believed, from the common people to high scholars, that the Quran forbids homosexuality, Muslims who love and are devoted to their religion, Islam, who also consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ community are marginalized, punished, and condemned. Others are put to death.
I do not know much about Islam or what is or is not stated in the Quran, but what I do know is that the Muslims that I have met are kind people. So when I learn about acts of violence toward homosexuals and other minorities related to the Islamic culture in the news, I cannot help but wonder and ask questions. How is life really like for LGBTQ people on the other side of the world? When confronted with questions about homosexuality, how will people who have studied the Quran for many years respond to them?
The documentary lays out the essence of the religion and its followers but only to an extent. Its main focus is on the struggle of those who are treated as outcasts as well as their personal endeavors when it comes to reconciling their theology and being gay.
Particularly memorable is Muhsin Hendricks. He is out of the closet in a very public way and we listen to the radio broadcast of people calling in and expressing their outrage. Some say he, an embarrassment, has no right to be calling himself a follower of Allah. Others demand that he receive physical punishment or be put to death. When he asks his daughters, aware of their father’s homosexuality, if they think gay people should be put to death, the way they answered, not necessarily the content of their responses, is heartbreaking. They are torn from having to choose between their inherent feelings for their father and what they are taught to believe is right or true. A lot of us are not required to make a choice.
Maryam is a lesbian who, in my opinion, clings onto semantics and contradictions in order to be able to live with her sexuality. According to the sacred writing, sexual relations between people of the same gender, specifically between men (never mind the intended context from when it was written), is forbidden. She says she allows herself to love another woman without the physical act—sex—that comes with the relationship. In essence, because she abides by the technicality, she is not committing a sin in the eyes of God.
We may not understand or agree with her point of view completely, but the film does a good job capturing her sadness. We are allowed to sympathize with her. We recognize that she is trapped and perhaps will remain that way for the rest of her life.
The film stays away from showing physical violence committed against homosexuals. The daggers are embedded in the words, the intonations, and the looks given by a respected elder to the homosexual sitting a couple of feet from him. Gay Muslims having to find refuge in other countries out of concern for their safety, as well as their families’, and then later talking about how they miss home and their loved ones via telephone pack a sting, too.
One of the subjects asks, “Why do [people] think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?” It is an excellent question. But I think the reason is this: a lot of people define their lives by following the “right” thing even if a part of them feels that a longstanding rule or belief might be wrong. It is more convenient to overlook or to ignore or to lash out than to consider a challenge, to think about it critically, and to engage in a calm and fair evaluation. Such is the dark side of blind faith.
Rouille et d’os, De (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), having had experience in boxing and kickboxing, gets a job as a bouncer in a nightclub. A fight breaks out between a man and a woman, the former calling her a whore as the latter ends up on middle of the floor with a bleeding face. Concerned for her safety, Ali drives Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) to her place, only to be met with a scowling and jealous boyfriend. Ali gives her his phone number just in case she needs someone to talk to. They will meet again some time later when Stéphanie no longer has her legs.
Though not the most tightly constructed drama, “De rouille et d’os,” based on Craig Davidson’s short stories, is loyal to the fact that life is often messy and unbalanced. Sure, the story can be summed up and interpreted as an odd romance between a fighter and an amputee, but the circumstances that surround them demand more urgency on the gut level. It is more accurate to consider the film as a story about two people who happen to meet each other at the right time.
Stéph and Ali are interesting together as when they are apart. Emphasis is placed on Ali’s physicality, not just in the things he does, like pummeling someone’s face into bloody mush or using his limbs to knock an opponent off-balance, but also in his stature, how wide he is even when he is simply standing there. In contrast, Stéph, at least initially, underscores a lack of dominance. There is a frailty about her—an emotional and psychological withering—the anger, frustration, and denial she goes through after learning that both of her legs—and perhaps a chance to live a life of normalcy—are gone.
Because they are so different, when they are within physical reach of each other, it is a most fascinating concoction. It is almost as if they feed off one another’s strengths. The careful screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bigegain is key in allowing us to understand the mutualism between the characters without coming off trite. When Ali decides to help Stéph, we do not discover a layer of sensitivity in him but are simply reminded of it due to the early scenes. It is easy to forget someone’s softer side when the person seems most comfortable in violence. Meanwhile, when Stéph is more willing to accept what has happened to her, we are with her in her quiet victory.
The issue of sex is brought up eventually. Stéph wonders if “it,” her plumbing, still works. Naturally, Ali is willing to help out. There is a layer of amusement without touching upon comedy, a welcome change from the heaviness of their circumstances. We have seen Ali engage in sex with other women. He is rough, almost violent (or it seems violent) though in a different arena. Will that approach work for Stéph? Whether if it does or does not, how will their friendship change?
Clearly the point that “Rust and Bone,” directed by Jacques Audiard, wishes to address is that there is a life after losing an important part of us. It may not seem that way for a while but as rust invades metal and broken bone heals, time gives way for an opportunity. The protagonists’ lives are a series of ups and downs, but their story is one that we can choose to believe as hopeful.
Bird Box (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Bird Box” is an unsettling horror-thriller with a solid budget and yet it is not spent on CGI to parade creatures that, when seen, inspires the onlooker to commit suicide. Instead, it is spent on hiring strong performers who are capable of underlining the dramatic gravity of this specific story and delivering the necessary emotions at a drop of a hat. It is also spent on showcasing mass chaos where vehicles crash onto one another, people being set on fire, and other gruesome ways to die. The creature or entity remains invisible throughout the film’s running time but they remain to be a threat. It is the antithesis of M. Night Shyamalan’s dreadful “The Happening,” another film with an invisible enemy, because there is convincing humanity at the core of it.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Josh Malerman. There is a literal bird box and a metaphorical bird box. In the literal bird box, birds go crazy when the mysterious entity is around. In the metaphorical bird box, a house, people panic and make jaw-dropping mistakes—on purpose or by accident—when, too, the creature is nearby. Mistakes cost lives and we are reminded of this fact nearly every step of the way.
We experience the story through Sandra Bullock who plays the pregnant Malorie. After a terrible car accident, she ends up in a house with a group of strangers (John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, to name a few) with many opinions of what they should do next given that help is unlikely to come to them. Those familiar with survival, post-apocalyptic stories already know that they must perish before she does. It is all a matter of order. Still, there is the tension because director Susanne Bier takes enough moments to humanize big personalities. It requires a confident juggling act. Even the pessimist (Malkovich) is given a short but precious opportunity to connect with our protagonist in a meaningful way.
Another layer of complication is the current timeline in which Malorie must make her way down a dangerous river with two children in tow. All three must wear blindfolds because one glance at the creature means certain death. Events inside the house occurred five years prior to the desperate trip downriver. And yet both timelines are engaging in different ways. For instance, the horror inside the house is a slow burn, really highlighting the conflict among the cast of survivors. The horror out in the wilderness is immediate and even gut-wrenching at times. Because the material is so unforgiving, we believe eventually that not all three may live before the end credits.
The picture’s weakness is its insistence on pushing smaller personalities to the side. A case can be made that it is necessary given the time constraints of the medium. Perhaps it is better off as a mini-series so that every character can get the spotlight. In the middle of it, I wondered more than once whether the overall work might have been stronger if certain
characters were omitted for the sake of flow and truly streamlining the dynamics of the survivors in the house. For instance, Danielle Macdonald plays a pregnant woman named Olympia, but unlike her counterpart with child, she is less strong in mind, spirit, and physicality. This fact is acknowledged between them, but I would have appreciated more depth in their friendship. Perhaps having less characters could have paved the way for further exploration of this important relationship.
Still, “Bird Box” offers consistent mid- to high-level entertainment. In less intelligent and risk-taking hands, it could very well have turned into a bore less than halfway through. We have all seen horror films where characters end up being stuck in a house because of some killer or creature, and many of them ending up truly awful. This one moves forward at a good pace. Dull moments are uncommon but almost always carried by capable performances.
Mule, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Mule” attempts to deliver a moving family drama and a suspenseful dance between a ninety-year-old drug courier (Clint Eastwood who also directs the picture) and a hotshot Drug Enforcement Agency agent (Bradley Cooper), but it succeeds at neither. The reason is because the material lacks the necessary subtlety so that lessons about family and personal responsibilities seep through both strands in a way that surprises us. As a result, although the film offers strong performances, especially by Eastwood and Dianne Wiest, the latter portraying the former’s ex-wife who has had it with decades of the man’s absence as a husband, a father, and a grandfather, the work offers neither excitement nor freshness.
Nearly every point about Earl Stone, a Korean War veteran, is handled with a hammer, from the way he treats his family—and the manner in which they treat him—to the rapport he builds with various members of the cartel. Initially, it is entertaining because the man lacks a filter. For instance, he makes pointed racial jokes so often that we wonder whether eventually a person might take it the wrong way and decide to put a gun on his face. But there are jokes about him, too. His age is a source of humor but so is his obstinacy. Pardon the pun but the usual tricks grow old eventually.
Halfway through, one cannot help but realize that the screenplay by Nick Schenk has gone on autopilot. While I enjoyed that the film actually takes the time to establish the subject’s usual patterns of drug transport, it grows repetitive by the fourth or fifth run. It gets interesting only when wrinkles are introduced such as Earl getting handler (Ignacio Serrichio) because the boss (Andy Garcia) is so impressed that the old man is able to deliver over a hundred kilos of cocaine every run without arousing suspicion. (The man has never gotten a speeding ticket—impressive especially given the fact he has driven across forty-one states.) The relationship between Earl and the handler is interesting at times, but it never gets a chance to take off since the plot is too busy juggling Earl’s family problems and the DEA closing in.
Regarding the investigation, there is not much of it—lukewarm at best. Cooper’s character is shown taking pictures from afar, putting pressure on a metrosexual informant, and keeping his cool when mistakes or misinformation lead to relatively small arrests. But we never see the man pushed to his absolute limit. I was not convinced of his formidability as a person without the badge. So when Agent Bates and Earl finally meet, there is only minimal tension. Performance-wise, Eastwood steamrolls over Cooper not because the latter is incapable of holding his own but because he does not have much to play with. As Earl must remain interesting whether he is on the job or with his family, the man hunting him must be equally absorbing as well.
We all know the importance of family and so when a mature drama comes along, especially one based on an incredible true story, it is expected that the lesson be explored in meaningful ways rather than simply resting on platitudes. While not short on personality, “The Mule” lacks specific details that help to turn the work into something memorable and special.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Aquaman” brings to mind Playstation RPGs in the ‘90s: a reluctant protagonist with a calling, journeying across vast landscapes, nail-biting boss battles, fetch quests, and an impending war between worlds looming in the background. But what elevates the material from becoming a video game under the guise of a superhero film is James Wan’s energetic direction. He embraces groan-inducing jokes, silly one-liners, and ludicrous scenarios like a couple deciding to kiss in the middle of a battlefield with aplomb. What results is a work with a distinct personality—certainly entertaining—even though there are moments when plot developments fail to command a lick of sense.
It is said that a superhero movie is only as good as its villain. Patrick Wilson plays King Orm, half-brother of Arthur/Aquaman (Jason Momoa—clearly having a blast with the role) who wishes to unite four underwater kingdoms before raging war against those who live on land. To my surprise, I found his motivation to be practical—humans have trashed and polluted the oceans so badly over the years that it is a fact that our activities have negatively impacted marine populations and biodiversity. Orm is not painted to be evil for the sake of having an antithesis to our hero; he simply wishes to do right for those whom he represents and doing so requires absolute force. Orm is a curious antagonist, somewhat undeveloped, but I wished he, too, like the title character, were given an equally colorful personality.
The screen is filled to the brim with overwhelming visual effects. There is almost always something to gawk at, from hundreds of sea creatures making their way toward Atlantis, stumbling across a hidden kingdom underneath the Sahara, to a bizarre but inspired moment in which an octopus is shown playing drums. A character may stand still but her thick red hair is always flowing beautifully. And these are the calmer moments. Busy action sequences take place underwater, in the air, and even underground.
Particularly impressive is the rooftop chase in Sicily where Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard), the latter betrothed to Orm but knows her future husband is not fit to be a king and a leader, are located by the enemy while in the process of searching for a legendary trident that would grant great powers to the person who wields it. This sequence is particularly challenging for two reasons. First, it must balance thrill with comedy. Look closely and realize there are slapstick jokes thrown about—appropriate because the water-based hunters are not accustomed to moving on land.
Second, we follow two protagonists that have been separated—one dealing with a handful of weaker enemies and the other faced with one incredibly formidable foe. With the former group, it is impersonal. But with the latter group, it is personal because for one of them, it is about revenge. Each confrontation must be directed and edited differently. And I admired that the filmmakers are aware of the importance of keeping things fresh. It is not about delivering violence and explosions but the entertainment created during the buildup.
The film offers a good time, not a smart time or even a sensible one—and there is nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed “Aquaman” because those who shaped the project prove knowledgeable of the genre’s weaknesses… and strengths. Perhaps more importantly, the director puts his own stamp on the work. Keep in mind that Wan specializes in horror films. Watch carefully as Arthur and Mera reach The Trench—a place where sea creatures are sent to be sacrificed for their crimes. Note how numerous horror imageries—the storm, monsters increasing in numbers at an alarming rate, how these creatures move, how hungry they look—take over the screen. It is a literal descent to hell. It is clear that without the director’s vision, creativity, and execution, the final product would have been just another DCEU blockbuster with little to no personality.
Simon Killer (2012)
★ / ★★★★
This is what happens when a lead actor is given the monumental task of creating an intriguing character out of a malnourished screenplay. “Simon Killer,” written and directed by Antonio Campos, is an exercise of boredom and futility, a movie that begins but never stops beginning, stuck in a loop of malaise of dour imagery. At one point, the viewer is forced to question the point of it. Is this a deeply personal story that the filmmaker needed to exorcise out of himself or is it merely self-masturbatory, certainly self-congratulatory, fluff that ought not have been made in the first place? Perhaps it is both, but I lean toward the latter.
The premise involving a young American who visits Paris after a messy breakup has the potential go in a million directions, but this picture chooses to go nowhere. The criminally underrated Brady Corbet plays the titular character with a level of unease and danger. When Simon looks at a woman, we feel alarmed. We wonder wether his brain processes the person in front of him as another human with complex thoughts, emotions, and motivations or as an object to be possessed under the guise of “love.” And do not be fooled—the story does not involve serial killers or murderers. It is a metaphor. And, for a while, because Corbet is capable of making fresh choices, we grow curious of the pathetic and damaged subject.
But there has to be more than a gripping performance. Circumstances surrounding the protagonist must not only be interesting initially, they must be absorbing throughout. Instead, we are thrusted into a whirlpool of repetition as Simon experiences psychological and emotional troughs that may possibly lead to a mental breakdown. While the writing hammers on the fact that Simon lacks the basic tools to be able to nurture a healthy, long-term romantic relationship—open communication, for instance—the more interesting question is what made him this way. The material offers no explanation, not even a relevant backstory that may lead to a probable explanation. As a drama, this is inexcusable.
While I liked that the material is not a portrait of a monster but that of a user, perhaps even a loser who will always be one because he is stunted, the material comes across as closed off, afraid to genuinely delve into what makes Simon a bit off. As a result, we are tasked to sit through a series of behavior that, while open to interpretation, is too amorphous to be truly specific to Simon who finds himself drawn to be a Parisian prostitute (Constance Rousseau).
Character studies require precise writing—at the very least. Without this prerequisite, the drama remains unconvincing, laughable, perhaps even unbelievable. While I understand what it is going for, particularly in how it employs the soundtrack to create a sensory, almost feral experience, silences must command equal power when the noise dies down. When we continue to feel or think when there is nothing but silence, it is a sign of high-level writing. Here, I felt that the silences are awkward pauses due to having run out of ideas.
To escape my boredom, I thought about how master filmmaker Gaspar Noé might have turned the material into a more potent, unforgettable experience. First off, he probably would have stripped away the dialogue completely for words tend to distract. Secondly, he likely would have made the music more confronting, maybe even ubiquitous, by making the bass reverberate alongside our heartbeats. He would not be afraid to give the viewers a headache—since inducing a physical response means the audience is paying attention.
★★★ / ★★★★
The remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Papillon,” based on the memoir by Henri Charrière, this time directed by Michael Noer, improves upon the original by streamlining the 1973 version’s distracting tonal issues and uneven pacing. However, it comes with a cost: By comparison, the retelling of what happened within the penal system in 1933 French Guiana is less brutal because the filmmakers choose to embrace a more cinematic approach. This is not a complete disadvantage because these two films actually make an interesting double feature due to their stark differences. A case can be made that although neither picture is an exemplary prison break drama, they complete each other.
Two strong performers lead the story—Charlie Hunnam who plays the safecracker Papillon and Rami Malek as the forger Louis Dega. Their approach to the characters, like the original and the remake, are vastly different. But because the two of them often share the same screen, and both are equally charismatic, one cannot help but consider which of the duo is stronger. In my eyes, it is Hunnam simply because he opts not to mimic Steve McQueen’s interpretation of Papillon. By doing so, and perhaps recognizing that McQueen is inimitable, he makes the character his own. On the other hand, Malek does an impression of Dustin Hoffman’s Dega, from the speech patterns to the way he looks at or through the camera. It is the performance that is more forced.
There is a lived in quality in way the penal colony is photographed. In every place shown, from the open spaces that gives an impression of false freedom down to the suffocating room of solitary confinement, it looks and feels as though somebody has lived and died in there. Like the original, the remake’s strongest moments involve the central protagonist being broken in body, mind, spirit by the warden (Yorick van Wageningen) who is, ironically, often dressed in white. These sequences of near silence demand that the viewer pay attention to the passing of time. For instance, this can be observed through the sheer deterioration of Papillon’s once extremely fit body.
It is curious that neither film manages to capture the essence of Papillon and Dega’s friendship in a way that is completely rewarding or convincing. To me, their bond remains fragile and tenuous throughout. The closing moments, bordering on melodrama at times, suggest otherwise.
Looking at the story and character development more closely, perhaps we are not meant to equate their partnership as friendship—at least not on a traditional sense. This is the more compelling route because life is like that sometimes. There are instances when we are required to work with someone, perhaps even get close to them at the time, to complete a project. But once the assignment is over, life goes on not because it is cruel but simply because it must. It does not make the connection any less special.
It took seeing both versions of the same story for me to appreciate this particular angle. And that is why, in this review, I found it nearly impossible to avoid bringing up the original. Certainly more polished, this modernized “Papillon” is easier on the eyes and there is a more mainstream flow to it. It does not feel as long, and it is able to stand as a complete work. An argument can be made that a prison break movie need not be realistic, even if it is based on a true story, so long as it is entertaining. Well, it certainly fulfills this prerequisite.
Short History of Decay, A (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Erika (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is tired of her boyfriend’s lack of forward momentum in life and so she decides to break up with him. It turns out her timing could not be any worse because the very next day, Nathan (Bryan Greenberg), a writer who put his first novel on hold to work on a play, receives news that his father (Harris Yulin), who lives in Florida with his wife (Linda Lavin), has had a stroke and is in the hospital. Nathan takes the next flight out of New York City and begs his girlfriend if they could put their relationship problems on pause.
Written and directed by Michael Maren, “A Short History of Decay” is a nice domestic comedy-drama—and instances when I am forced to describe that a movie is “nice” is almost always not a compliment. It is slightly amusing, even moving at times, but it is too relaxed, bordering on bland, with what it is attempting to communicate.
Look at the title and then consider whose perspective the story is being told. Already there is a disconnect. Is it supposed to be ironic? It may be. But is it effective? I was not convinced entirely. The reason is because Nathan’s problems with his girlfriend taken side-by-side with his struggles with being a writer who lacks focus and inspiration simply pale compared to topics like dealing with mortality. The picture attempts to excel at both but the screenplay does not function on a high enough level.
The word “decay” comes in many forms in this story. Most obvious are the feelings that our protagonist holds toward his parents—more specifically, slowly realizing that they will not be around forever. His father is beginning to have serious health problems. His mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, has started to exhibit middle phase characteristics of the condition. Decay: his father’s body, his mother’s mind. Nathan wonders if it would be better for him to stay indefinitely.
The deterioration of Nathan and Erika’s relationship is present but not dealt with fully. The early scenes in NYC are effective because we get the impression that Erika has a good reason to feel the way she does. One of the things I dislike in bad comedies is simply reducing one of the partners to a horrible human being. Here, though we are supposed to side with Nathan, Erika does not come off like the relationship she is walking away from holds no value to her. I would like to have known more about the couple.
Decay also applies to Nathan’s dream of being a writer. There is a key conversation in the latter half of the film when Nathan goes on a date. The woman tells him that men his age, thirty-five, should already have a career—or at the very least a stable job. The scene can be enjoyed because instead of the material taking a catty or defensive route, Nathan responds as though deep down inside he already knows this. And yet it is not entirely clear. At that moment in time, we get a taste of how lost he is with respect to what he really wants to do or become.
In the end, I think I know what the material is hoping to communicate—and that is the problem. Due to a lack of connective tissue among subplots compounded with a main character who is genuinely lost, we are left with an undefined point of view. In other words, it is up to the viewer to invest in the characters through his or her own experiences. For instance, I was able to relate to it on some level because I have known people with dementia. That aspect I found fascinating. Still, it is highly likely that young and/or people who have yet to experience life will not find anything particularly interesting or challenging in this benign comedy.
★★★ / ★★★★
Surrealistic revenge thriller “Mandy,” written and directed by Panos Cosmatos, is to me, both a coal and a diamond in that, in a sense, it is equally student film and metal rock—bizarre and frustrating but cathartic and oddly compelling. After the final frame, I felt as though it is the movie that the writer-director wished to make and, although a trial to sit through at times, I cannot help but respect the final product. This is a project that will not appeal to most audiences, especially the modern variety, and it is self-aware that it isn’t for them. More filmmakers should follow suit.
The presentation is forceful and off-putting. For instance, it has the tendency to employ extreme coloring—particularly shades of red—to the point where the viewer is forced to wonder whether we are peering into a nightmare or hallucination. Wholly appropriate because, in a way, the story is supposed to embody a feeling of one descending into the depths of hell as the main character attempts to complete his gory vengeance, the wild use of color palettes eventually fuses into the marrow of storytelling. I found it surprising that the approach somehow manages to complement the cartoonish violence—sometimes shocking, occasionally funny—that is heavily influenced by the more unpleasant but endearing ‘80s sci-fi flicks.
It has been years since I have seen Nicolas Cage utilize his crazy facial expressions in an effective film. In the past five to ten years, I have preferred to watch him in quiet dramas where his emotions are controlled and captivating. Here, the veteran actor is allowed to run wild and just about every second of his performance works. He makes us believe that his character, Red, is so willing get even with his wife’s killers (led by the cult leader Jeremiah Sand played by Linus Roache) that his own life is of no value. Red died in that same fire that consumed his wife (Andrea Riseborough).
So many independent movies use drug-induced images to shove audiences into particular mindsets, especially when the screenplay is so limited, like lacking the ear for dialogue or the means to unspool more demanding action sequences. Cosmatos takes it a step further by subjecting us into experiencing specific feelings. When a character is afraid, for instance, images are hallucinatory but the editing is quite fractured. When someone dreams, we observe wordless animation. When someone’s rage takes over, these feverish images fade away. Tension builds just as quickly as embellishments fade way. Clearly, careful thought is put into how various styles ought be used to create a specific experience that makes sense.
I am more than willing to call bad art as trash, but “Mandy,” even though it can be a challenge to sit through at times due to its languid and uneven pacing, does not belong under such category. It works for the most part because there is conviction behind the strange images and circumstances, supported by a solid lead performance. In the middle of it, I wondered about Cosmatos’ versatility as writer-director. It would be interesting to see what kind of movie he would make should he be forced to abstain from psychedelic images to support his storytelling. I think he has it in him to create, for instance, a straight-faced drama; the decorations, like the visual kind, simply must be channeled in a different way. He’s one to keep an eye out for.
Summer of 84 (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
There is a great film somewhere in “Summer of 84,” and it can be found during the final fifteen minutes. But the journey to the uninspired finale is lackluster, deathly slow, and relying on nostalgia—like parading around toy and clothing brands that used to be popular in the mid-eighties. For a mystery-thriller to be effective, it must build and build until the pressure is no longer sustainable. Here, the tension intensifies and dies down like clockwork. In between would-be curious discoveries regarding a neighbor (Rich Sommer) suspected of being a serial killer, who just so happens to be a cop, are moments of bonding among four fifteen-year-olds with superficial and bland personalities.
As a group, Davey (Graham Verchere), Woody (Caleb Emery), Eats (Judah Lewis), and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) have the archetypal look of teenage friends growing up in the ‘80s. However, just because they have the look does not mean it is enough for the viewers to want to invest in them. They hang out a lot, but it does not feel as though we are hanging out with them. The viewer cannot be blamed for wondering why they are even friends in the first place.
These are not well-written characters, just cardboard cutouts of the figures we had come across before in better films. For instance, unlike the characters in “The Goonies,” “Stand by Me,” and “Explorers,” the boys’ interactions come across as superficial. They banter, but there does not seem to be a strong chemistry among them. It might have helped if the screenplay by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith had given each character a twist or perhaps making them smarter, sharper, more knowing than their eighties counterparts.
Even the manner in which this mystery-thriller is shot is uninspired. Look at how terrible and off-putting it looks as the camera goes for a close-up. The closer it gets to a face, shadows overwhelm the performers’ faces. These scenes needed to be reshot because more than a handful of them are not only ugly, they are downright distracting. Notice how dark the picture looks as characters break into houses and go down basements. Yes, it is supposed to be dark… But it is supposed to be a movie first and foremost. The viewers must have an appreciation of the surroundings like the creepy pictures on walls or suspicious objects scattered about. At one point, I wondered whether the filmmakers had the budget for enough lights.
There is an unnecessary and cutesy romantic subplot between the leader of the boys, Davey, and the girl who lives across the street, Nikki (Tiera Skovbye). Like the boys, there is barely any substance to Nikki. In fact, she is objectified so often to the point of distraction. And when she isn’t, the writers try so hard to force her to be a part of the amateur sleuthing. Meanwhile, we listen to her talking about her parents on the verge of divorce. How can we care when we do not even see her home or even her parents? It is most unconvincing and a waste of time because Nikki is made to look sad only when the plot requires it.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of fun in “Summer of 84.” Memorable mystery-thrillers are entertaining; it takes the viewers on a rollercoaster ride of suspicions and false alarms. Here, notice how there is a palpable flatness to every goings-on. The directors of this picture—François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell—have failed to translate the energy of ‘80s teen flicks into something modern and urgent. Although it proves to have bite during its final act, I felt as though nearly everything that comes before it is a cheap act of playing dead.