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.
★★★ / ★★★★
Pixar’s animation style is as beautiful as ever and “Coco” delivers the expected twists and turns as well as emotional highs and lows that have become the brand’s signature. It is interesting that this time around, however, the target audience skews away from six- to seven-year-olds and toward nine- to ten-year-olds—a correct decision because the story requires some understanding of death and what it might mean to be forgotten. In a way, Pixar takes a step toward a more mature subject. This comes at a cost.
Notice the middle section still involves chases and adventures within an unfamiliar or strange world. Upon closer inspection, these action sequences are not adrenaline-fueled with verbal and visual jokes firing on all cylinders. Also take note that these do not last more than a minute at a time. While this approach keeps us interested in the story, the picture is never becomes thrilling. Perhaps it is because this relaxed avenue is meant for us to take the in details of the land of the dead. For instance, as in life, the dead, too, have a class system. There is bureaucracy, reliance on technology, and celebrities being celebrated in gargantuan stadiums. Certainly there are amusing details to be appreciated, but the pacing takes a rather unhurried turn. This will test the patience of younger children and viewers who prefer not to think too much while watching an animated film.
I loved that Pixar takes a specific culture and treats a Mexican tradition with respect. Coming from another culture that also celebrates the dead annually, it is wonderful to see on screen the importance of such an event instead of serving merely as background of a Hollywood action film. While the plot revolves around an aspiring young musician named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) standing up to his family of shoemakers, who just so happens to have banned all music because of a certain ancestor having committed an act of betrayal, it remains in touch with specific details such as what should be placed on the ground, and how, so spirits can find their way home during Día de Muertos, how cemeteries look like during the holiday, the overall mood of people partaking in the event. It is done well and with such class that I believe people not familiar with the concept will have a good, general understanding of what it is and why it is done.
My main criticism of the picture is its lack of characterization when it comes to the dead whose pictures are placed on the ofrenda, an altar where food, candles, religious items, and other memorabilia are placed. While we meet these characters when Miguel reaches the land of the dead, most of them are reduced to surface characteristics with one-dimensional personalities. For a film that touches upon the importance of remembering a person, presenting only his or her quirks is a mistake. Considering the talent of screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, I believe they could have found a way to incorporate these ancestors into the plot in a more meaningful and rewarding way. Perhaps providing them with more dialogue rather than quick reaction shots might have been a way to go.
“Coco,” directed by Lee Unkrich, is a step in the right direction for Pixar. It is amusing and heartfelt at all the right moments without sacrificing eye for detail. I hope that in the future the studio would remain willing to take inspiration from other cultures and tell interesting stories that could prove entertaining and educational.
Lady Bird (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those who’ve grown up poor will likely find more than a handful of truths in “Lady Bird,” a strong directorial debut from Greta Gerwig who is known for starring as quirky but highly relatable characters in independent comedies. Here, our heroine named Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who calls herself Lady Bird in order to assert her independence, is an extension of the type of characters Gerwig has played, but she is also an original creation because the screenplay defines her needs and yearnings through her numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. She may not be likable all the time but she is endlessly fascinating.
A mother-daughter relationship holds the center of the film. It is appropriate that each time Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), share a scene, there is a fiery energy flickering underneath their interactions. Although they tend to point out one another’s differences—sometimes differences so superficial we wonder why one bothers to bring them up at all other than to incite something—they are more alike than they realize or care to admit. Notice that even when they agree about a particular topic in general, Lady Bird and Marion find one perspective from which they disagree which leads to either ferocious arguments or deafening silences.
Despite these clashes, however, the screenplay manages to underline the love shared between parent and child without coming across syrupy or soap-like. Relationships that Lady Bird forges throughout the picture may change but we are certain right from the opening scene that the title character’s bond with her mother, as dysfunctional as it is, will remain unchanged, for better or worse.
A stark difference can be noted in how Lady Bird chooses to interact with her peers in Catholic school. She is readily able to try on new skin, is occasionally vulnerable to what they might say or think about her, and so badly wishes to be accepted in some way. This is where Ronan’s intelligent performance comes in. Less experienced performers might have painted the character in extreme brushstrokes depending on whether she is at home versus school. Instead, as the picture goes on, Lady Bird’s contradictions begin to bleed into one another in a way that makes sense and specific to a character who thinks she knows it all but one who is actually just trying to figure it out as life unfolds before her. This is a story about a teenager about to learn how it is like to put on the mask of being a young adult.
Moving at a breezy pace with numerous snappy dialogue, the picture has a certain glow about it that makes one think of coming-of-age movies from the ‘70s. Strip away references to September 11 terrorist attacks, Alanis Morissette playing on the radio, and bulky cell phones, the story could have been set in any decade post-‘60s. The writer-director’s goal might have been to create images that would pass as if one were looking inside an important memory, events that have great influenced a person’s perspective or lifestyle. Or it might be the filmmaker’s attempt to capture a dreamy, sunny, suburban area of Sacramento. It works either way.
“Lady Bird” understands the hardships of being an ordinary teenager who yearns for more—more love, more acceptance, more money, more freedom. Captured beautifully is the every day of being reminded consistently, sometimes not so subtly, that she will likely fail to do anything spectacular or noteworthy. Yet despite an ordinary protagonist who thinks she can do better than those who have become merely byproducts of Sacramento living (“the Midwest of California,” as she claims), the writer-director treats her with love and respect anyway. Clearly, the picture has affection for young people.
Personal Shopper (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Personal Shopper” is kind of a ghost story in that it plays with the possibility of the paranormal, there are discussions about the soul and the afterlife, and the main character is a medium waiting for a sign from her twin brother who had died of a heart attack. Although certainly not for everyone, especially those in the mood for clear-cut answers, the picture paints a steady hypnotic rhythm in which the experience is akin to peering through a thick fog. There is a figure just beyond a certain distance but it is difficult to discern whether such a figure is the living, just a life-like statue, or something else entirely.
Kristen Stewart is nearly in every scene of this curious film and she commands attention even if, or especially when, her character does not say a word. We get to know Maureen not through words but the manner in which Stewart puts on a certain mask depending on which persons Maureen is interacting with. It is a controlled and calibrated performance and yet the actor is fluid in communicating the subtleties of every action and reaction. For instance, take note of scenes where she is alone in a dark house and attempting to communicate with those that have passed on. A trite situational horror is imbued with fresh energy exactly because Stewart’s approach is reacting in a dramatic film rather than that of a horror picture.
The plot is quite easy to describe but the work is a challenge to categorize. This is because there are several machinations that complement and contradict each other at times. For example, as stated earlier, elements of the paranormal is introduced, but numerous scenes unfold in expensive shops and posh boutiques. Clearly, the material is making a statement about the beautiful but empty world of celebrity and fashion, but what is it saying about ruminating the afterlife? I think it might be suggesting that both are silly because neither focuses on what is important in life, especially what is happening now—that both are distractions from the bigger picture. But another person can easily disagree and make an equally strong case that it all depends on one’s perspective. The film inspires discussion.
Criticism will be focused on long takes where “nothing much happens.” But that is exactly what I enjoyed about it. Although, there is a lack of dramatic peaks, there are payoffs because for a while the material takes its time to build. We form questions in our heads, we wonder whether there are logical answers to everything that is going on, and we reevaluate our suspicions and conclusions once pieces of the puzzle reveal themselves. It engages in the way that typical horror-thrillers do not. It walks the line between cerebral and emotional. For a while I did not know from which lens I should look at it from—I saw it as a challenge rather than a source of frustration.
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, “Personal Shopper” will appeal to those with an open mind, those who welcome unexpected beats in plot and story. Enter this world like a fallen leaf and allow the wind to carry you through most unexpected places. Remnants of classic filmmaking appear here such as ending scenes right in the middle of conversations.
Love or Whatever (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Written by Dennis Bush and Cait Brennan, “Love or Whatever” makes an assumption that just because its target audience is the LGBTQ community, it can get away with sophomoric characterizations, an unbelievable plot, and badly executed jokes that either are not funny or downright stupid. The film will appeal, if one were optimistic, to those with an IQ lower than fifty or those who would rather sit through a movie with nothing to say rather than read something that might prove educational.
The clumsy plot is this: Corey (Tyler Poelle), a counselor, has bought engagement rings three months ago but since then is unable to find the courage to propose to his boyfriend (David Wilson Page). Jon comes to discover the rings eventually and is rattled because he does not at all feel ready to be in a committed relationship. He thinks he may be attracted to women as well and comes to the conclusion that it may be worth exploring that route. When Corey does propose to Jon eventually, the cat is out of the bag.
The performances all around are cartoonish, even histrionic at times, and so it makes that much harder to believe the already outlandish situations the movie presents. Jon is a child stuck in a muscular man’s body, Kelsey (Jennifer Elise Cox) is the loudmouth lesbian who sleeps with everybody she makes eye contact with, even Corey is portrayed as an anal retentive geek whose success is very much attributed to such qualities.
There is one rather likable character played by Joel Rush. Pete is a pizza delivery guy who becomes Corey’s romantic interest after Jon reveals he might be bisexual. Casting Rush is a good move because he looks like a stereotypical muscle head but the character is written as sensitive, intelligent, and compassionate. Over time, we understand why the protagonist comes to fall head over heels with Pete. However, the screenplay commits an important omission: The positive qualities that Pete sees in Corey so as to be convincing that the two really are a good fit.
Great romantic comedies rely on the audience fully connecting or relating to both people involved. Here, it does not work because we have an understanding of one but not the other. In the end, take wishful thinking aside, it would be reasonable to assume that Corey is simply an easy lay, desperate after a messy breakup.
Directed by Rosser Goodman, “Love or Whatever” is a cheap-looking, interminable bore with very low ambitions. It does not even get the love scenes right. The camera angles are awkward, almost pornographic, with a groan-inducing pop song playing shamelessly in the background.
★★ / ★★★★
Some audiences will claim that “C.O.G.,” based on the essay by David Sedaris, is surprisingly bleak for a comedy. But I say it is a matter of perspective. Taking into consideration the character’s evolution from a post-grad who has a tendency to romanticize rural life to someone who is a little wiser about how people might actually be like out in the world (as opposed to fictional characters he encounters by reading the classics), I think the film ends on a positive note despite dramatic hues in plot development. This is because the character has come out of the other side more enlightened than before. In the beginning, he thought he knew how the world worked. But by the end, he’s had practical experience with the people and the work he could only romanticize about.
Jonathan Groff plays David with such magnetic charm that it is difficult to look away from him despite the various colorful characters on screen. His approach is interesting in that even though at times he is not the focus of the scene, he remains in character while in the background. David is the kind of person who tends to overthink and Groff has found a way to communicate that his character is thinking even when he is apparently doing nothing. Not many performers can pull this off but Groff manages to do so with elegance and grace. Another layer of challenge is that for a while we are not certain whether David is someone whom are supposed to like based on how he exercises his privilege.
This comedic picture is not about big laughs. The laughs come in a form of sharp criticism. At times these criticisms might hit the viewer directly and trigger a bit of soul-searching. In other words, the comedy is specific and one that takes chances. So many comedies are broad, harmless, often to be forgotten the moment the jokes are seen or heard. In this film, I found myself thinking about certain character interactions that have occurred thirty or forty-five minutes prior based on later scenes designed to highlight or establish a set of patterns directly tethered to human flaws or shortcomings.
For instance, just about every person that David encounters is lost in some way—even though it appears these people have found their passion, their calling, their God. It makes a statement that perhaps no one really has it all figured out even though it may appear otherwise on the surface. The story, I think, is about putting a magnifying glass on insecurities, how people react when these insecurities are triggered or challenged. David is, appropriately, the center of the film because, essentially, he ends up being the punching bag.
Indeed, tonally, the film is all over the place and the plot meanders. It could have been a more concise picture by trimming at least fifteen minutes. It might have improved its flow. While these technical shortcomings are present, I can almost overlook them because I enjoyed how the movie made me think and feel. I often wondered and lamented why or how people can be so cruel to one another over petty or trivial things.
Written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, “C.O.G.” is certainly an acquired taste, but I do recommend it marginally because of what it chooses to say about the human condition. It is a kind of comedy that makes fun of every character while at the same time pointing out that there is a disgusting side to each one of them. It is the antithesis of mainstream comedy.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Once in a while a family film like “Wonder” comes along to remind everybody that the sub-genre is plagued by awful and generic movies, often so loud, obnoxious, and busy that they end up saying absolutely nothing, forgotten about even before the end credits roll. Here is a film imbued with expected lessons regarding kindness and empathy, but what makes it special is director Stephen Chbosky putting his finger on the pulse of what makes this particular story worth telling, about a fifth grader with a facial deformity attending school with other children for the first time. It is willing to show kids as living, breathing, complex young people rather than wooden caricatures surrounded by slapstick humor and crude jokes involving bodily functions. The film has plenty of heart and a brain, too.
The structure of the film is fascinating, especially for a sub-genre notorious for playing it safe. Although Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is in the center of it, the story is not just about him. It shows how one person’s struggle affects nearly everyone in his orbit, especially those who love and care about him. We get small glimpses of how, for example, Auggie’s elder sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), must, in a way, shove her personal struggles in the backseat when at home so her parents (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson) can instead turn their complete attention to her brother who is having a very difficult time adjusting to his new routine.
And yet Via is not shown merely as a saintly sister. She has yearnings and needs as a daughter and as a teenager. We even root for her to be selfish once in a while because she is a part of the household, too. Each character who receives a title card before we see the story through his or her eyes is intriguing in some way. I wished the film were three hours or longer because I wanted to get to know every one of them thoroughly.
It takes great talent and discipline to be able to communicate the necessary subtleties of thought and emotion while wearing a mask or prosthetic. Even adult actors usually have trouble with such a task. Tremblay is an A-level performer in the making and I hope that throughout his young and promising career, he would choose to take on a range of characters who may not necessarily be likable so long as they are interesting.
Here, he makes it look so easy to perform through heavy makeup and prosthetics. I applaud him for not relying on being cute but one aspiring to deliver a believable boy who just so happens to have a genetic mutation. Another performer worth looking out for is Noah Jupe, playing Auggie’s friend Jack Will. He takes a typical “nice boy” character and gives it a bit of edge through minute, sometimes subtle, facial expressions. It is the correct approach because the movie, is seen through various perspectives. We wonder whether there might be something else to this character that is worth looking into. We await his title card.
Based on the novel by R.J. Palacio and helmed for the screen by Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne, I admired that the material loves and respects children. As someone who has worked with kids, I found its honesty to be refreshing in terms of how intelligent and perceptive children can be. Even those who are mean are shown to be aware of their cruelty. It makes the audience look beyond behavior and consider why certain characters choose to take action that might hurt others. It is rare when films for families touch upon potentially confronting realities. So many are too safe and forgettable. It is because they fail to inspire discussion.
Time will tell whether “Wonder” will become a modern classic. This might come across as a ridiculous claim, but I choose to stand by it because it possesses numerous elements that just might boost it to such a status. For instance, it is a feel-good film but it is unafraid to put the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions on top of strong performances all around. Many of us relate to the underdog story. Some of us may still remember how it is like to feel ugly in school, to be stared at, to be laughed at, to be bullied. And if does stand the test of time, well, that’s a wonderful thing.
Justice League (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although not as polished, lean, and emotionally satisfying as Marvel films that have found strong footing in terms of establishing a specific tone while juggling a team where every member stands out, Zack Snyder’s “Justice League” is a step in the right direction. Perhaps the most important change in this expansion of the DC universe is the decision to make room for moments of levity. What results is a superhero picture that is actually enjoyable rather than one that is drowning in its misery, grim look, and would-be philosophical musings about what it means to be a protector of mankind.
Fans of the genre will likely check in for the action, but I found that one of the film’s strengths is when two characters simply connect either by sharing memories or challenging one another’s ideals. An example of the former involves Lois Lane (Amy Adams) being visited by Martha Kent (Diane Lane) at the Daily Planet and eventually the two women touch upon how Clark Kent’s death (Henry Cavill) has changed their lives. Neither is as strong as she thought she would be or could be, making their grieving process believable and relatable. As for the latter, at one point Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) find themselves at odds in terms of how to use a powerful but dangerous technology. A clash of ethics turns personal real quick and suddenly we see them as Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince rather than their counterparts. It goes to show that with the right script exploring the right themes, this universe has a chance to become compelling.
The villain requires more work to be interesting, especially when it is a CGI character. Although the goal of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) is clear, hoping to reduce the planet to its primitive state by acquiring three energy-filled boxes hidden across the planet, it is yet another antagonist who wishes to end the world. It is a oft-tread path and at this day and age, having so many superhero films come and gone, it is not a good enough motivation. The best modern superhero films of the genre offer villains that function within the morally gray. The most recent example is Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) in Jon Watts’ earnest and energetic “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The man simply wishes to provide his family a good life. We relate to his goal; we may or may not relate to the path he chooses to take to get to that goal.
New faces of the team—The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—are given moments to shine outside of their specific personalities. Although none of them are fully realized characters yet, they command enough intrigue that I wish know more about them in future installments. Out of the three, Miller is most surprising given my knowledge that the performer specializes in playing extreme characters: people who are psychologically out there, some of them downright disturbed. For Miller to deliver a character that is fun and someone with whom one wants to be friends with, Barry Allen is a most welcome addition to his oeuvre. I can’t wait to see where he will take the character.
“Justice League” offers just enough entertaining action sequences. Although they tend to suffer from diminishing returns, especially because the giant CGI bugs are utilized too often (all of them looking the same with zero personality does not help), these scenes create a steady, accessible rhythm with enough camera acrobatics to create some level of urgency. A fresh perspective is that although Batman is the leader of the pack, he is perhaps the most vulnerable physically since he has zero superpower. The material milks a couple of jokes out of this curious situation.
★★★ / ★★★★
There is a scene toward the end of the film that perfectly showcases the effects of the many events we have seen. Indirectly, a boy asks a girl if they should officially label themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. Even though it is apparent they both really like one another, the girl insists that they remain friends. To the boy, even though the girl gave a reason for her refusal, the reasoning behind the reason isn’t exactly clear. It sounds like a lame excuse. But because we are witnesses to her recent experiences, it is crystal clear to us. The story is complete.
Based on the screenplay by Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre, directed by the latter, “Landline” is a perceptive picture about infidelity and how it threatens to derail family bonds. Although a comedy with a rather familiar template involving the children finding out that one of their parents has had or is having an affair, the material rises above the template because the moments of honesty are painful, real, and relatable. Those who have been betrayed one way or another will be able to look into the characters’ eyes and understand precisely what they are going though. The picture commands quiet power.
Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn play the elder and younger sister, respectively. Although the siblings have opposite personalities, the performers are able to build a rapport not through words written on the script but through minute gestures, how Dana sits just so right next to Ali (sometimes to annoy her) or how Ali gives a certain look imploring Dana to stop talking immediately (because one or both of them may get in trouble). We believe they are sisters not only because they look alike from certain angles but also due to the fact that Slate and Quinn are able to capture the essence of what being siblings mean. When the sisters function on the same wavelength, they are very funny together. And when they do not, we still acknowledge the comedic situation yet we are also reminded that although they are sisters, they are individuals first. The film is surprisingly intelligent at times.
The story takes place in ‘90s New York City. Although the setting is not crucial to the plot, since the story is about family first rather than where the family lives in whichever era, some of the amusing moments involve old school computers, having to use a payphone, and brightly colored power suits. To make the work stronger, I felt the screenwriters ought to have found a way to incorporate these nostalgic items to each family member’s idea of traditionalism—what it means to them as a unit, individually, and moving forward.
Mainstream comedies tend to end with a neat bow designed to make the audience feel good. “Landline” is different in that it wears its scars like badges of honor. I enjoyed that subtle communication of strength. In the beginning, the vase is unscratched, untainted in any way. Somewhere in the middle a discovery of infidelity smashes the vase into pieces. By the end, the vase is cobbled together with superglue but the imperfections are readily apparent.
City Island (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Vince (Andy Garcia), a corrections officer, gets the surprise of his life when he recognizes the last name of one of the new transfers. Tony (Steven Strait) is the son he had abandoned twenty-four years ago and had since started his own family in City Island, an old fishing village in the Bronx. Although Tony is eligible for temporary release, he has no family member to claim him. So, Vince decides to take responsibility for Tony and welcomes the unsuspecting young man into his home.
Given that the recurring theme in “City Island,” written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, is secrets, big and small, it is only a matter of time until all the dirty laundry is exposed. It is an amazing feat, however, that even though we know what to expect in the third act, the material remains fresh and exciting for two reasons: there are enough small twists in the screenplay to keep a potentially tired material afloat and the performances, especially by Garcia, are surprisingly heartfelt.
The picture does not try too hard to be funny. For instance, Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) having a penchant for feeding large women crazy amount of food could have been most sleazy, not to mention mean-spirited, if pushed too much. Instead, the subplot involving the youngest son is executed with a gentleness despite his rather crude—but nonetheless hilarious—personality. In addition, the only daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), tries to hide the fact that she had been kicked out of school, lost her scholarship, and since been working as a stripper. Although less amusing and equally underdeveloped as Vince Jr.’s subplot, we still care about her and how her secret will be digested by the parents.
Surprisingly, the heart of the picture comes in the form of the patriarch’s shame of really going for his ambition. That is, Vince so wishes to pursue acting, pretending to attend poker games with his buddies when he is actually taking an acting class, but he thinks his wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), would laugh in his face if she knew. Garcia is excellent as someone who seems tough on the outside but is actually emotionally wounded. Each time the camera captures only his face, I could feel Vince’s sadness from having to hide a big part of himself from his family. It is a silly situation, perhaps even sitcom-like, but the writing is able to discern between the reality that we—as the audience—and the characters see versus the reality in someone’s mind. Good comedies work as a drama.
I loved it every time the Rizzo household gets really loud because it reminded me of my family. It didn’t matter if they were trying to annoy each other playfully or yelling out of sheer rage. There is a love that can be felt through the walls and the sharp words. It feels like a real family, not some boring group of automatons where everyone insists on holding it all in until the script forces them to explode. Therefore, when the rather typical third act comes around, it is easy to embrace the reactions incited by awkwardly presented revelations.
“City Island” has a most tender layer involving Vince and a woman he has met in the acting class. Their instructor (Alan Arkin) gives them an assignment about secrets. Vince and Molly (Emily Mortimer) often meet at night and quickly discover that they are attuned to each other’s needs. In a way, she becomes his secret. A lesser screenplay and direction might have turned the whole thing into a dirty affair. What they share proves to be more romantic.
★ / ★★★★
Staff and patients of Mercy Falls Children’s Hospital, located in the Isle of Wight, are supposed to evacuate the building and move to a more conveniently located hospital in the middle of the island, but a recent train crash leaves St. James little room for the merge. So, for the time being, they are to remain where they are despite very strange occurrences in the building. For instance, while a boy (Lloyd F. Booth Shankley) with one broken femur is getting his X-Ray done, somehow a second break occurs even though no one is in the room with him. Is it caused by a rare a disease, a form of witchcraft, or an unknown entity?
“Frágiles,” written by Jaume Balagueró and Jordi Galceran, directed by the former, is a most underwhelming experience because although the story takes place in a creepy children’s hospital, not much is done with it on the script level as well as on the level of performance. When the would-be scares finally arrive, they are as typical as they are draining. We’ve all seen horror movies that depend on special and visual effects during the last act because they offer little else prior to that point. This work belongs under this category.
Amy Nicholls (Calista Flockhart), a replacement night nurse, is a complete bore of a protagonist. While Flockhart is good at evoking sadness mixed with fear, especially when Amy walks down dark hallways during her shift, Amy is written to be untrustworthy. She is a confusing rather than a conflicted figure because her tragic history is often veiled. Her superiors walk around the “terrible thing” that happened prior to her being hired. Since we are kept in the dark so consistently, how are we supposed to understand her as a person who works with children as well as how she thinks and reacts when her patients are in mortal danger?
The supporting actors are less convincing. Elena Anaya who plays one of Amy’s fellow nurses plays her character without consistency. In one scene she seems to care a lot about the work she does. In the next scene, she is cold and afraid of everything. There is no explanation as to what triggers these sudden changes. Halfway through, I began to think that she has a mood disorder even though she is not the one taking medication.
On the other hand, Richard Roxburgh as the lead doctor is deathly one-note. I wondered if he did actual research so that he is able to put a special stamp to his character or he simply watched how soap operas portray doctors. This is because Dr. Marcus neither exudes intelligence nor practicality. He’s just a nice guy, probably well-built under that white coat, designed to console when things are hard for Amy and when Amy asks him to look through files.
Everyone keeps talking about how spooky the place is but nothing special happens. (Although one good sequence involves an elevator.) While there are annoying throwaway shots like a shadowy figure walking across the foreground when our protagonist is not looking, most frustrating is the fact that the writers seem to depend on one thing to get us to care: the potential victims are sick children. Of course no one wants to see them get hurt or die. There is barely an active attempt to involve the audience in its mysteries.