Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
It is surprising that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is based on a novel, “The Little Broomstick” authored by Mary Stewart, because it is neither character-driven nor does it offer a grand adventure that stretches the imagination. For the most part, it provides a tolerable experience with occasional eye-catching details, particularly magical creatures that would fit right alongside the best of Studio Ghibli works, but one yearns eventually for a more involving, emotional, or thoughtful experience, especially since part of the story unfolds in a magic school named Elder College, its existence dating back to the age of dragons.
The story begins with great potential as we come to learn about Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) who is bored in the countryside while staying with her great aunt (Lynda Baron) because she arrived there a week early prior to the start of the new school year. No other kid appears to be around with the exception of a boy named Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who not only teases Mary for her bushy red hair but one who is the opposite of how others perceive her to be. Peter is considered to be hardworking, responsible, and dependable.
Much of the amusement early on stems from Mary attempting to provide assistance to the adults around the estate but her good intentions almost always end up generating more problems. In a way, her own eagerness gets in her way. Because the material takes the time to show the girl’s tenacity for problem-solving and providing services, one suspects that this aspect is going to be the highlight of her adventure. One would be wrong.
The material meanders from one accident to another, whether it be taking a book of magical spells from Elder College’s headmistress (Kate Winslet) out of panic or ending up on an island that appears to be detached from the current timeline. On the surface, it provides an exuberantly lively adventure as it jumps from one setting to another, but more thoughtful viewers are certain to realize eventually that the experience is hollow and empty. As a result, Mary’s growth is most unconvincing; we do not believe by the end that she is a more mature person or someone who is more capable at controlling her emotions in order to accomplish a specific task. Comparing her evolution to Chihiro from “Spirited Away” is inaccurate, perhaps even misleading, because the latter’s evolution is thorough and compelling.
Its animation style is undeniably beautiful; I enjoyed it most when it focuses on the details of the blades of grass or how a cat moves its body as it attempts to communicate a highly specific line of thought. This is an example of a movie having the most stunning animation but the experience ending up substandard overall since the thesis of the story is not fully defined and fleshed out. Action happens simply because it must rather than building up to a climax outside of an action sequence.
Perhaps the film, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, might have been a more engrossing experience had its goals been simpler. For example, instead of taking down a pair of big-personality villains who brazenly throw ethics out the window in order to push the boundaries of their transformation experiments, why not take a more personal approach, certainly a quieter one, and allow Mary to get into situations that are specifically challenging for her, trials that push her to grow on her own terms? In the middle of the picture, I wondered why this story must be told through Mary’s perspective. The answer is it didn’t need to be.
Drinking Buddies (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Though each of them is in a relationship, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) flirt at work occasionally to the point where it is worth asking if they feel something more than what they let on. Their counterparts, Chris (Ron Livingston) and Jill (Anna Kendrick), are not aware of the possible mutual attraction. When Chris invites Kate, Luke, and Jill to his family’s beach house, the flirtatious co-workers, especially when alcohol gets involved, may not be the only ones who might be open to temptation.
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, “Drinking Buddies” is an acquired taste because it immerses feelings and intentions in the mundane while still attempting to say something about the dynamics of romantic relationships. The camera is still as to capture the essence of the unsaid and we observe the four characters navigate through what they think they want versus what they really want. It has moments of genuine fascination.
The problem lies in the fragile line between realism and boredom. One can argue that many scenes, comprising of about half of the picture when taken together, is dispensable drivel. One will not necessarily be wrong. Admittedly, even though I wanted to know more about the characters and if any of them would be brave or foolish enough to cross the line, I found myself tuning out between silences. This should not be the case. If the material were more engaging, silences in relationship comedy-dramas allow the audience to think about what we feel toward a situation and the characters as well as assess what we might do differently if we were in our subjects’ shoes. Here, there is nothing much to the silences. It is often that they are employed to communicate an awkward but superficial situation.
Out of the four, Kate is the one I kept my eye on. In my opinion, she is an alcoholic—albeit a functional one—and so she has the tendency to imbibe when she is unhappy, when things do not go her way, and when she feels the pangs of loneliness. I found it interesting that sometimes a part of me wanted to think of her as the villain—the woman who gets in the way of a relatively happy relationship between Luke and Jill. On another hand, Luke flirts with her, too. He gives Kate a reason to be more attracted to him. In that way, I felt sorry for Kate. One can argue that she is given the most complexity.
The weakest link, regrettably, is Kendrick. She makes a decision not to play a character who radiates positivity and enthusiasm, but it some ways it backfires. Unlike her co-stars, who have the necessary angst to make us want to get to know their characters, her approach makes the character neither lovable nor detestable. Since Jill falls smack-dab in the middle, she becomes the least interesting. It does not help that she is so nice and agreeable. Whenever the spotlight is on Jill, I was bored. Maybe Luke has a reason for noticing Kate. At least there is an excitement to her.
The film is not for everyone but I understand what it has tried to accomplish. Movies of this type are challenging not only because the characters have to be interesting—which means the actors must be on point all the time—but also since the standard is very high. Louis Malle and Richard Linklater have made pictures that share the same bloodline and, quite frankly, “Drinking Buddies” pales by comparison.
It Stains the Sands Red (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Here is the kind of zombie picture where the heroine falls on the ground for no reason when faced with an immediate threat and we are supposed to believe somehow that this is thrilling rather than silly or downright idiotic. For much of its ninety-minute running time, which actually feels at least an hour longer, the plot fails to take off. Boredom grips the mind and when it finally does get somewhat interesting, the twist is dropped so quickly in exchange for standard zombie film clichés. The material is in desperate need of rewrite.
Directed by Colin Minihan, “It Stains the Sands Red” is set in a universe where the undead has taken over Las Vegas. Molly (Brittany Allen), an exotic dancer with drug addiction, is with her boyfriend (Merwin Mondesir) while on their way out of the city when their car gets stuck on the side of the road. Since they are in the middle of the desert, no help can be found nearby for miles. However, there is a zombie (Juan Riedinger) on the hunt for its next meal and it is closer to the couple than they realize.
Much of the picture involves Molly walking around the desert while being followed by the flesh-eater. Painfully obvious is the fact that the situation is metaphor for the heroine literally being followed by the demons of her past. Writers Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz fail to assume that the audience is intelligent enough to see past the various symbolisms. Instead, the material adopts a repetitive cycle of a small chase between the woman and the zombie, Molly getting away somehow, day turning into night, a flashback into Molly’s life, rinse and repeat. No tension is accumulated because the situation is watered down by various attempts at dark comedy—only the humor is equally predictable as the metaphor.
There is a twist involving a change in relationship between predator and prey that I thought paved the way for an interesting avenue. I wondered that perhaps the film is not supposed to function mainly as a horror film but an experimental think piece. But this proved to be giving the filmmakers too much credit too soon because just when it starts to get interesting, it moves onto a path so uninspired, so oft tread upon, that one wishes for the experience to be over immediately. Right then we know exactly where the movie is heading.
Creating a badass heroine is especially difficult to accomplish. For one, a performer with range must be hired for the job. Second, the writing must be so on point yet so subtle that we believe the evolution without question whatsoever. Third, the story usually commands a standard arc but with enough fascinating pieces added throughout that we do not mind the typical dramatic parabola so much. But the film does not possess any of these qualities. Notice how the movie ends. There is no closure. Clearly, the writers do not understand what the movie is about. If they did, they would have realized that closure would have completed the character’s journey. Perhaps they were hoping for a sequel?
The quality of “It Stains the Sands Red” is captured perfectly with a scene involving Molly attempting to fight a zombie with a rock. Enough said.
T2: Trainspotting (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting a duplicate of the original modern crime-comedy classic “Trainspotting” are likely to be disappointed with Danny Boyle’s follow-up. While it retains some of the energy of the original, in many ways this installment is more mature, more thoughtful, less concerned about delivering swagger and attitude than it is in telling a story about familiar characters having the opportunity to reconcile with their common past.
I argue that the picture’s main weakness is its willingness to give into fan service. While parallel scenes and flashbacks are quite neat and at times able to draw a smile on my face during the first third, I grew tired of this technique during the latter half, especially when the tone shifts toward a more serious note and there is a genuine dramatic gravity in the center. These winks distract rather than enhance the experience—kind of like having a security blanket when the owner is no longer a child.
All four characters are equally fascinating when apart and when they finally cross paths. To me, despite this film and its predecessor’s generous images when it comes to drug use, its stance is without a doubt anti-drugs. Here, it shows how drugs has ruined the lives (and continues to ruin the lives) of those who have developed a habit. Each character falls on a different spot within the spectrum and the material makes a subtle case about personal responsibility’s role in how each person’s life has ended up the way it did.
The plot involving a man having to return to his hometown and triggering a sequence of events is surely familiar. However, the four former friends are interesting because each has his own demon to battle. Renton (Ewan McGregor) must face his friends after betraying them in the worst way possible. Although twenty years has passed, that feeling of shame doesn’t simply go away. Spud (Ewen Bremner) attempts to lead a drug-free life by channeling one addiction onto an healthier alternative. Admittedly, I wished for him to succeed but somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced he would relapse.
Meanwhile, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is cooking up a plan to take revenge on Renton, his former best friend. Can a person whose bark is more powerful than his bite actually pull off such a scheme or will his soft spot get in the way of his purpose? And then there is Begbie the sociopath (Robert Carlyle) who has found a way to escape from jail. Having learned that Renton is in town, he plots to kill or seriously injure—at the very least. It is quite amazing that years have failed to erode the cast’s chemistry. Sure, there are more wrinkles on their bodies and faces, their postures are more worn, they move a little slower, but tension builds up the moment one looks at another a certain way and starts to dig up the past.
The strength of “T2: Trainspotting” lies in its ability to adapt to the age of its subjects. Because we have learned about them from a certain angle during their youth, the material remains fresh since we get to know them from a different perspective this time around. Credit to writer John Hodge for striving to deliver something of value and not simply rehashing what has worked before.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a project determined to provide a raw portrayal of pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child during its early weeks post-birth that we rarely see in the movies. We do not see the pregnant woman emitting a perfect radiant glow, a silly panicked rush to the hospital once her water breaks, nor do we come across a miraculous instantaneous recovery once she has been discharged from the hospital. Instead, it is interested in showing the reality of many ever day mothers, particularly the exhaustion that takes over as they struggle to maintain the stability of the household. Although it shows the less than sunny side of how it is like to be a mother, it is a love letter dedicated to them nonetheless. It reminded me of times when I would simply observe my mother as she juggles cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, and making a list for the next day’s trip to the supermarket—all of it after a long day at work while standing most of the time.
“Tully” is directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Their partnership results in a savagely funny work that speaks multiple truths even with just a simple shot, a line of dialogue, or the precise timing between action and inaction. They trust that viewers are not only intelligent but that their life experiences are valuable, unique, but also universal. Not once do they cheapen the material by inserting an uncharacteristic turn of event just for the sake of making people laugh. We laugh not because there is hilarity unfolding in front of us but because we recognize a part of ourselves in the images and feelings on screen.
Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three who not only looks haggard on the outside but one who is actually wilting on the inside. It is smart for Theron to choose to play her character with a muffled strength even though Marlo is falling apart. For example, the protagonist is quick with to employ her wits when joking or being sarcastic even though her body suggests she is weak, ready to fall over from fatigue. Because we are reminded of the fire inside of her from time to time, instances when she summons unexpected vigor—when she must confront, confess, make a stand—are not only believable. These moments feel exactly right for this particular character that we must examine. We learn to appreciate her complexity as a mother who wants to do it all but is unable to, as well as a mother who decides to seek help eventually from night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).
The centerpiece is the relationship between the two women, one being at least forty years of age while the other is twenty-six. Cody’s screenplay does a tricky thing by using Tully and Marlo as a sort of mirror into the past and future—but not so completely that their relationship ends up becoming just another cliché.
Theron and Davis share excellent chemistry as their characters open up to one another about their personal lives, their thoughts regarding where they are now, what they have or have not achieved thus far, where they think or hope they will be in the future. Their exchanges command a wonderful ear for dialogue. We lean in a little closer in order to dissect and understand what they mean exactly, not just with words but the manner in which words are expressed. But like Elio and Oliver’s unexpected bond in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” we know that their relationship—as employer and employee—comes with an expiration date. It is as clear as day that this is a comedy that works as a drama.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the film is its willingness to show how adults relate to children. For instance, the opening scene shows Marlo gently brushing the body of her son “like a horse,” according to Marlo while conversing with Tully, because it is believed that this makes the “quirky” boy less reactive to various external stimuli. (It is never said outright that the child might have a mild form of autism.) Notice how Tully holds the baby in a seemingly awkward position but the infant is at ease. How Marlo performs a duet with her daughter during a birthday party. How the father (Ron Livingston) looks at his three children after a long day at work. The keen eye from behind the camera and the performances underline the humanity of the material. It is most beautiful during nuanced moments, moments that can be easily overlooked.
Bad Samaritan (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is the kind of movie where the detestable antagonist ends up crawling on the ground by the picture’s final chapter and we root for the protagonist to “Hit him! Hit him!” in order to minimize the possibility of the psychopath from getting up and regaining the upper hand. Although far from an impressive thriller, “Bad Samaritan,” based on the screenplay by Brandon Boyce and directed by Dean Devlin, gets the job done as an entertaining genre exercise. Once the first domino is tipped forward, it is near impossible to want to look away because the stakes only increase from there.
In straightforward psycho-thrillers, it is a common technique to make the antagonist appear nearly impossible, certainly improbable, to beat. David Tennant plays a son of a billionaire who has a sick hobby of breaking people’s spirit by keeping them in his home and torturing them. Tennant plays Cale with unrelenting intensity that notice it is unnecessary for the character to say more than ten to fifteen words at a time. He communicates plenty by looking at his prey a certain way, like he is superior to them, how he moves with urgency and purpose, how he tilts his head in such a way when sick thoughts brew in his mind.
Cale’s secret is found out early in the picture during a nail-biter of a sequence. Sean (Robert Sheehan) and Derek (Carlito Olivero) are valets at a restaurant who break into customer’s homes as they enjoy their meals—assuming, of course, that they live nearby. The deception goes horribly awry for the duo when Sean discovers a battered woman who is tied up to a chair in Cale’s posh home. Sheehan plays Sean almost like an anti-hero in a romantic comedy: very likable despite the rough edges, willing to show his emotions at the right time, charming. These are necessary traits that must be communicated with clarity in order for the audience to get behind the protagonist and not simply regard him as the lesser of two evils: murderer versus scam artist. It is apparent that the performer is a dramatic actor because he sells specific emotions with seeming ease.
There are several threads that might have elevated the work had the screenplay taken the time enrich supporting characters that tread such avenues. I found the figures of authority to be marginally interesting here. For example, the detective who is willing to listen to Sean’s improbable claims and an FBI agent who has been following a case that had gone cold. It would have been interesting to get an inside look into their jobs in addition to a samaritan’s perspective. In standard thrillers, it is often frustrating that authority figures show up only after the criminal had been defeated. While such an element is present here (accompanied by a joke), a fresher choice might have resulted had the screenwriter been willing to put in more work in creating interesting characters who happen to have specific means due to their occupations.
Although not the most inspiring picture of the genre, “Bad Samaritan” entertains on the most basic level. It is the kind of movie that a person would decide to watch while browsing through channels because both its content and its murky tone snags one’s curiosity. It moves in a forward direction with utmost urgency. However, be warned that it is not for viewers hoping to understand the mind of a psychopath and how he ended up that way. It is quite bare even for a modern thriller, but I enjoyed its simplicity.
Girl Most Likely (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Dumped by her Dutch boyfriend (Brian Petsos) and fired from her job shortly thereafter, Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a failed playwright, stages a fake suicide—which snowballs into, due to her deep-seated sadness, actuality. The hospital signs her off to Zelda (Annette Bening), Imogene’s mother. The problem is, she and Imogene have not seen or spoken to each other in years. Imogene has always hated her roots and believes that New York City is where she can thrive even if the cards in her hands say otherwise.
Though the actors play their characters with conviction, “Girl Most Likely” is ultimately an unsuccessful picture because it never gets the tone just right in order to allow the colorful personalities to really come through and convince us that Imogen’s story is worth telling. Instead of taking the character under a microscope, we see her through a pair of binoculars: we get an impression of her struggle through her body language but we never get a solid grip on what makes her tick.
The material, written by Michelle Morgan, takes risks by incorporating comedy with a dramatic core but much effort is required to humanize its protagonist. In other words, Imogene is not worth rooting for. From the beginning until way past the middle section, she is highly unlikable. She thinks her every need is an emergency. She whines a lot. She considers herself better than everyone just because she lives in NYC. Meanwhile, we grow restless and wonder where the story is going.
When she does begin to loosen up—predictably after putting more than few drinks in her system—by opening up to her mother’s boarder, Lee (Darren Criss), it is the point when we finally get a taste of some sweetness in the script. There are a few missteps involving the friendship but, as a whole, it works. There is something nice about a woman in her mid- to late-thirties finding a genuine—and surprising—connection with someone in his early- to mid-twenties. It could have been sleazy, played for cheap laughs, but it never crosses that line. When the film refrains from trying to wring out laughs from the audience, it works.
But every good scene is almost always followed by an eccentricity. Most off-putting is Zelda’s boyfriend named George Bousche (Matt Dillon), a man who claims to be a CIA agent and a samurai. Each time this cartoon character is on screen, I felt like I was watching a Wes Anderson film—and that is not a compliment. Dillon is a good actor and it shows, but the character has no place in a movie like this. There is a lot of pain surrounding Imogen’s family and I wished that the writer had the courage to deal with it directly.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “Girl Most Likely” has the quirks but it lacks the substance. It shows that good performances can only take the material so far. It is a shame because, if the lead character and her circumstances were written better, I imagine that it could have spoken to many people who fear that they are losers or failures. It takes courage and a willingness to offend to make that type of story compelling.
Swell Season, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Upon the success of their film “Once” and winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová go on tour across the globe. While they are happy and excited to share their music and become a part of something big, “The Swell Season,” directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis, shows how fame takes a toll on the couple’s personal and professional relationship. Though not a sequel to “Once,” the documentary works as one, in a way, because the films share a knack for looking into the souls of their subjects with honesty, embracing the pain in small but important revelations.
To show the documentary in black and white is a wise decision. It creates a dream-like quality, us having to look into the realities of the singer-songwriters and discovering that maybe going on tours is not as glamorous or fantastic as one might assume. Yes, we see them celebrate through small gatherings and drinks, but these are occasional. I enjoyed watching the hard work put into preparing prior to a show, the stresses that may occur when a venue fails to acquire the proper instruments requested by the performers, and the inner struggles specific to Hansard and Irglová, the former having to come to terms with the pressures and expectations of his family and the latter questioning whether fame is right for her. When the two clash, there is no yelling or screaming matches in front of the camera. Instead, the silences and pauses are the ones making deep cuts.
In addition, shooting the film in monochrome tends to highlight the emotions during and outside of stage performances. The reason why I loved listening to the songs is because there is a contradiction. The lyrics are often sad and aching, but there is undeniable power in the voices and the delivery of the words. In that way, it is an uplifting experience—empowering even.
But the picture is not without sense of humor. Especially memorable is the point when Irglová and Hansard look at the poster for “Once” (I believe two versions have been released) and pick out the details that have been Photoshopped. For example, in the actual shoot, Hansard claims that he wore a hat and that his clothes had been changed by the computer in order to make him “look handsome.” But what really bug them about the poster is that the image was manipulated in such a way that it looks like they held hands during the photoshoot. In fact, they never did. The duo may be the ones we recognize in front of the camera, but we are reminded that those in control at times are people we never see.
The one person I wanted to know more about is Catherine Hansard, Glen’s mother. She is just so proud of her son winning that Oscar, but Glen tells her that he does not like the attention. There is a sort of argument between them at some point that really touched me. I was moved because it reminded me of times when I would argue with my mom or dad and sometimes it easier to just walk away and try to let it go. Sometimes it is most frustrating because it feels like the more you put in the effort of explaining something, it seems like the farther both parties are in reaching a common ground.
While “The Swell Season” touches upon the topic of celebrity and what it means to its subjects, it remains to be a highly personal work. Hansard and Irglová are Academy Award winners, but we relate to them because it is made clear that the things they consider important are what we value, too: family, friendships, personal happiness, being and remaining enthusiastic to our passions.
★★ / ★★★★
Here is a prime example of a film wishing to have its cake and eat it, too. It strives to deliver an entertaining survival thriller as it sheds light on an often forgotten problem we have in our country which generates billions of illegal funds annually: women being kidnapped and forced to become a part of human trafficking rings. A serious subject matter requires an intelligent and precise screenplay. Credit to writer-director Deon Taylor for trying, but one gets the impression that “Traffik” might have been stronger if it had focused on providing entertainment instead of education.
Brea (Paula Patton), a reporter, and John (Omar Epps), a mechanic, head to the Northern California mountains for a weekend getaway. Not only is it Brea’s birthday but John plans to propose to his longtime girlfriend. But on the way to the posh but remote estate, Brea encounters a woman in a gas station; she gets the feeling that the harried stranger is desperately asking for help based on her behavior. Later, when the couple have reached their destination, the same woman rings the doorbell and asks for her cell phone back—one she had purposefully placed inside Brea’s bag. This phone contains extremely sensitive information—pictures, bank accounts, telephone numbers—of those involved in the sex trafficking ring and the leader (Luke Goss) needs it back.
The picture takes its time to establish characters to be terrorized by those who run the illicit activities. While necessary so that viewers grow to care about the potential victims, it is repetitive and superficial. We do not learn anything particularly interesting about Brea and John as a couple, only that they love one another—which isn’t fresh at all in a movie of this kind. It would have been far more interesting if their flaws as a couple had been amplified, that we had to root for them to survive despite their imperfections. While Patton and Epps deliver their usual charming personalities and physical magnetism, these are not enough to provide dimension in a lacking screenplay.
I liked that it is willing to show a high level of brutality, not only in the physical assaults between the bikers and their prey but also in terms of non-moving images. One of the most chilling scenes involve the characters looking at photos on the phone of interest. We are forced to look at each image in horror so that we have a clear mental picture of the anguish of the women being held against their will. It is written all over their miserable facial expressions, the bruises and wounds all over their bodies, and the manner in which they are posed—like meat to be sold at the supermarket. It made me feel uncomfortable—which is the point.
Taking the time to show these pictures in this way is the correct decision. It is something that many crime shows on television, with the exception of premium cable and satellite television networks, do not show at all or do not show enough because it is considered to be too graphic. But that is what film is for: to show the ugly sores and then having the courage to rub it on our faces. I wished that this attitude were consistent throughout the film.
Chase sequences are less exciting both in content and photography. In the middle of it all, I wondered if the filmmaker understands the difference between shooting a thriller versus a slasher film. Some shots, especially when Brea and John attempt to make their escape, liken that of a thriller. However, when they are cornered or down on the ground, the camera takes on the perspective of a horror film. This disconnect distracts the overall experience. Thinking about it more closely, however, perhaps casual audiences might not notice the difference. Still, it does not change the fact that the formula regarding such chases does not offer enough variations so that we are constantly on our toes.
Into the Abyss (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were teenagers, they broke into Sandra Stotler’s home, killed her, and attempted to dispose of her lifeless body in a nearby lake. The two teenagers were eventually caught by the police and convicted of the murder. Perry and Stotler were also suspected of murdering Adam Stotler, Sandra’s son, and Jeremy Richardson, Adam’s friend, but were never convicted. Director Werner Herzog had the unique opportunity to interview Perry, due to be executed via lethal injection in eight days, and talk about what had occurred in the Stotler home as well as his thoughts about being put to death by the state of Texas.
“Into the Abyss” could have easily taken an obvious path of being about the crime because it certainly has the necessary elements to make a completely engrossing material: the crime scene videos, the lieutenant in charge of the case, Perry and Burkett, as well as the victims’ families, and residents around town. However, under Herzog’s thoughtful direction, it is actually more about the emotions experienced by those affected by the sudden and irrevocable loss of lives. It also works as piece on why perhaps capital punishment is never the right choice.
The documentary offers powerful physical images and it isn’t afraid to use them. One of the saddest involves a cemetery containing rows upon rows of graves in which the crosses that protrude from the ground have no names inscribed on them, just numbers, as if to imply that the convicted men and women, once living, had no identities and not at all important to be remembered. I wondered if this was a right thing to do even if none of the families of the deceased wanted nothing to do with them. The more haunting images come from the crime scene videos. There is a real sense of dread in seeing the blood smeared across the floor, furnitures, and ceiling. It is almost like placing us in a set of a grizzly horror movie only the blood and the violence that had occurred there were real.
The film provides powerful mental images, too. So much detail is included in the crime scene videos that it is possible for us to create a relatively accurate mental image of what had happened there. That mental picture is shaped continually by listening to the interviews. In turn, the material succeeds in allowing us to become almost like secondhand detectives, trying to wade through the facts and opinions and formulating our own conclusions of what might have happened.
Furthermore, by allowing the people being interviewed to speak freely in the sense that the conversations don’t always have to be about the crime or one’s reaction to it, we learn a little bit about the interviewees as living, breathing individuals such as how they think, what they value, and their perception of themselves. The first interview with Revered Richard Lopez, for instance, is surprisingly moving because he starts to talk about what he does on his spare time which eventually leads to his opinion about the death penalty. It is admirable that Herzog is willing to ask the difficult and awkward questions, sometimes pushing just enough to get a more precise answer, but he always treats his subjects with respect.
Insightful and full of purpose, “Into the Abyss” takes a controversial topic that is capital punishment and makes it accessible—humanistic—by showing us that being incisive and showing sympathy need not be mutually exclusive. Everyone in the film demands our attention because all of them are given a fair chance to express their pain.
★★ / ★★★★
On their way to Patagonia to reopen a hotel, a family is approached by a physician named Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl) to ask if he could follow their car through the desert because he is not at all familiar with the area. The patriarch, Enzo (Diego Peretti), agrees to lend a hand to the stranger, but little does he and his family know that the man right behind them is a war criminal from Nazi Germany whose real name is Josef Mengele.
Written and directed by Lucía Puenzo, “The German Doctor” is heavy on atmosphere, sleuthing, and looks pregnant with implications, but it fails to evolve into an effective dramatic thriller because the requisite powerful forward momentum does not get introduced until the final fifteen minutes. As a whole, it is about sixty-percent exposition, thirty-percent rising action, and five-percent climax. It is a struggle to sit through at times.
It is most compelling when we are provided pieces of the puzzle in terms of the monster that is Mengele. The contents of his little book, which contains scientific notes and detailed illustrations, is of particular interest because looking carefully at the material written and drawn there is a glimpse inside a brilliant mind without a care for what may be considered unethical. He gets his hands on whatever might be of interest and the rest is collateral damage. The way he observes the twelve-year-old girl named Lilith (Florencia Bado), the only daughter of Enzo, is creepy and curious. What does the doctor have in store for her?
Less interesting are the scenes depicting the bullying that happens at Lilith’s new school. Because she has the bones of an eight-year-old, born two weeks premature, she is often picked on by her classmates for being a “dwarf.” Although we might feel sorry for her (I didn’t), there is very little about the character that is interesting or worth knowing. Her motivation is one-dimensional: To get taller means no more bullying. This is problematic because, for the most part, the story is told through her eyes. Preadolescents are much more interesting in actuality than what the story provides.
There is a photographer named Nora (Elena Roger) who suspects Helmut being Mengele. I wished that the writing had focused a little bit more on her undercover work. The men and women around the exiled former German SS appear to be willing to do whatever it takes to protect his identity and so the few scenes where Nora is trying to connect the dots hold a solid level of suspense.
“Wakolda” is a picture that is half-asleep. While I appreciated that the writer-director downplays elements that could have predictably been hyperbolic, a much-needed breath of fire from its belly is needed about halfway through to reward us for hanging in there. Instead, it saves all of the catharsis for its finale when the audience has long gone weary.