Hotel Artemis


Hotel Artemis (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Take the cool concept of hotel-exclusively-for-criminals from “John Wick”—but turn the posh setting the opposite way: as grubby as possible without losing the foreboding mood—and set it amidst a political backdrop that involves rioters’ violent uprising against the privatization of clean water in Los Angeles 2028. The result is “Hotel Artemis,” written and directed by Drew Pearce, an action-thriller that offers a few neat ideas but quite underwhelming as a whole. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been better off as television show.

Part of its lack of cinematic appeal is the standard disparate characters having to converge at one place. Given that the titular hotel is meant to heal criminals, many of them killers, we already expect for them to drop like flies. It is all a matter of when and in what order. Since it takes on this level of predictability, dramatic gravity must be enhanced to such an extent that we overlook the final destination. Its attempt goes as far as to provide flashbacks of the nurse (Jodie Foster) who runs the hotel, how she found her son dead at the beach due to a drug overdose. Since then she has been in a state of grief—it has gotten so bad that she has developed agoraphobia over the years. She blames herself so much that she has made Hotel Artemis her personal prison, to exist to serve till the day she dies.

Meanwhile, we get snippets of snappy banter among a slate of criminals, from bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown), arms dealers (Charlie Day), to hired assassins (Sofia Boutella). All of them are convincing in their respective roles with the exception of Zachary Quinto as the hotel owner’s volatile son. Every time he utters a line, I felt as though the performer was taken from a completely different picture. It is distracting at best, laughable at worst—especially when the character is supposed to be taken seriously as a major threat against everyone in the hotel. The angry son is given no character development.

The picture is shot against a curious political backdrop but the anger swelling outside of the hotel is used merely as a device. News coverage is shown on televisions inside the Artemis, we hear bombs going off in the distance, and rooftop scenes show aircrafts crashing on nearby buildings. These images are meant to amplify the tension from the outside in, perhaps even aiming to paint a picture of a hellish near-future, but the social commentary, while present, is completely lost. Like its underdeveloped characters, its ideas, too, are undercooked. I felt no excitement or enjoyment from these images.

A cursory approach almost always does not work with high-concept action-thrillers. The point of having ambitious ideas is to explore them in a way that is thoroughly entertaining—that if one were to strip away the action altogether, the viewers would still want to know what would happen because the drama is rooted in something real. “Hotel Artemis” fails to invest emotionally and so only a shallow experience is offered. While not necessarily bad or unbearable, nearly everything about it is forgettable. If there were to be a sequel, which the material nudges by mentioning other hotels with a similar purpose, ideas must be explored first and foremost. Otherwise, what would be the point?

The Face of Love


The Face of Love (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since her husband (Ed Harris) has passed five years ago, Nikki (Annette Bening) has been unable to move on from his death. She gives away his clothes. She hides his photographs. She avoids places that hold significance for them.

They frequently visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She finds it to be particularly difficult to be around this place, but one day the widow feels compelled to go inside. She regards the artworks with fascination and solemnity—but it isn’t the same. She turns around and there she spots a perfect replica of her late husband. She later comes to know him as Tom (also played by Harris) and, like the late husband, he is passionate about art.

“The Face of Love,” written by Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin, is a hard sell. The story involving a person’s double and playing it with a straight face? Isn’t that within the realm science fiction and fantasy? But that is exactly what I admired about it: Instead of executing the plot with tinges of silliness, it is brave enough to dare to suspend us in disbelief nearly throughout. We know that Tom will learn about Nikki’s late husband eventually and that he looks exactly like him. That is not the interesting part. It is in how he responds to the knowledge he is provided that tells us everything about his character.

In movies with similar premise, it is too easy to categorize the protagonist. He or she must either be crippled by grief or the person is likely to be suffering from a mental illness. Not here. Bening makes an excellent decision to embody both categories but she avoids her character from being defined by them. She makes a lot of fresh choices. Notice how Nikki is like when indoors. Compare her body language to when she is out in the open. It is two different performances. The unhurried pacing allows us to appreciate the subtleties in her performance.

We feel the love between both characters. Only understanding what Nikki feels toward her late husband’s double would have been severely erroneous. It would have made the character less compelling. Certainly, an irrational obsession would have been the point as opposed to an imperfect but believable relationship. It just so happens that there is a big elephant in the room and to acknowledge it might just ruin everything.

Robin Williams plays Roger, Nikki’s neighbor and with whom he hopes of eventually sharing a romantic connection. Roger is underwritten, functioning more like annoyance rather than a genuinely sad man who also lost someone who is dear to him. Their commonality is loss, but the screenplay fails to hone in on that trait in meaningful ways. Instead, they are given a few conversations that outwardly refer to their dead spouses. Surely there must have been a less obvious way to explore that angle.

Directed by Arie Posin, “The Face of Love” will likely surprise those who choose to have an open mind. Going into it, I looked forward to Bening and Harris’ performances most. They do deliver and share wonderful chemistry, but I was surprised that their characters’ situation resonated with me. The final scene is superlative.

The Black Stallion


The Black Stallion (1979)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If there were more movies released on a yearly basis which dare to be on the level of ambition, imagination, craft, and execution of “The Black Stallion,” I am convinced there would be more intellectually curious children who would grow up to love and respect animals, the environment, and nature. The work, directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the novel by Walter Farley, without question, is cream of the crop, providing one astonishing visual right after another with seeming ease and endless amount of energy. It invites us to look at every frame and appreciate each choice as one would a most engaging book about adventures, life’s mysteries, and longings.

Right from the opening sequence the camera communicates that it understands children. It involves an American boy named Alec (Kelly Reno) observing men speaking a foreign tongue who are forcing a black desert horse into a tiny stable aboard a ship. Notice the placement of the camera: how it is on the level of the child’s eye coupled with how efficient it is in capturing every emotion from the boy’s freckled and expressive face. He is curious, afraid, excited, and entertained by the level of danger unfolding before him. Despite the foreign language, there is no subtitle. It trusts whoever is watching to be able to read the scene simply by listening closely to the emphases and intonations of words of phrases and by observing that the body movements are filled with purpose. It effectively sets the tone for the rest of the picture.

Eventually, the boy and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Words are rarely used and this is the point when the film is required to hold the most universal appeal—and it does. The images must speak for themselves. Achingly beautiful are sequences involving the two beings having to learn to trust one another. It is done with suspense, humor, and, yes, even horror. I admired the decision to show that the wild horse is incredibly dangerous: one simply should not run up to one with the intention of petting it, expecting it would be friendly.

Sound effects are utilized in such a way to highlight the dangers: the panicked neighing of the animal, its hooves bashing onto various objects and destroying them, the weight of its humongous body being thrown about. Couple these sounds and accompanying images as the boy slowly approaches Black… it is near impossible not to hold one’s breath. There is no special or visual effects. At times the confused horse and the boy are literally only three feet apart. I found it scary, concerning, and, admittedly, highly entertaining. At one point, I found myself throwing instructions at the screen (“No, don’t do it. Just please walk away!”).

Casting Reno is the correct choice because he has grown up with horses; he gives Alec a certain calm that cannot be edited or constructed or bought. It is amazing how the young performer is able to ride the horse as it runs along the shore without a saddle, strap, or stirrup. He must simply hold onto the mane of the horse as his tiny, fragile human frame bounces about. It must be seen to be believed; I had never seen anything like it.

“The Black Stallion” does not tell the entirety of its story on the island. Most refreshing is that the work does not become about trauma or mourning. It remains to possess a high level of drama, but the emotions behind them are optimistic, full of hope and possibilities. Still, there are unexpected moments when characters get a chance to recognize their losses. Again, words need not be utilized; silence is enough. The camera resting on a face as memories come to the foreground accomplishes more than having to explain how one feels or what one thinks about the preceding action. Here is a movie aimed for children that does not condescend—not even once.

Fractured


Fractured (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Is there something deeply sinister going on in the country hospital or is the man who claims that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped by the hospital staff simply exhibiting psychosis? Brad Anderson’s “Fractured” offers a familiar premise and is almost immediately elevated by a sympathetic lead performance. But with an ending so uninspired, maddening, and predictable, one is left to wonder whether the journey is worth it by the time end credits appear.

The picture’s strongest quality is its patient build-up. As it lays down the foundation of Ray’s relationship with his wife and young daughter, we empathize with the man who feels that his family is slipping away. He is desperate to keep things together since a prior loss of a loved one continues to haunt him. Ray, played with convincing vulnerability and desperation by Sam Worthington, is a former alcoholic. We meet him having an argument with Joanne (Lily Rabe) in the car while on their way back home from Thanksgiving celebration. Worthington and Rabe share solid chemistry as a married couple on the verge of divorce. Words are used like daggers but the moments of silence, too, are just as sharp. The opening scene, rooted in drama, hints at a better than average thriller.

From the way scenes are shot, especially once the family of three set foot at the questionable hospital, viewers are jolted into paying attention. Notice the fond use of close-ups. Nearly every hospital staff encountered is a source of suspicion, from clerks at the front desk who must deal with patients who are tired of waiting, security personnel who walk down the halls with pride, to doctors who come across little too friendly. The camera is used as a magnifying glass to reveal possible secrets. Are they all in on it? Only a few of them? Is there something going on in the first place? Nearly each face is memorable and so there is a good possibility we will meet them again under a more confrontational context. No one enjoys being accused as a liar.

The work introduces the possibility that Ray might be an unreliable protagonist. This is when the film falters because it falls into the usual trappings of fast cuts, hallucinatory and discombobulated imagery, and irksome sound effects. There is an elegant way to create a character we are supposed to distrust without using cheap and tired tricks from terrible movies.

It requires, for instance, an astute screenplay so in love with dialogue and of the human condition that it becomes a challenge to discern among truth, lies, and half-truths. For a movie in which the lead character is deathly afraid to lose his family, reductive dialogue becomes more prevalent the deeper we get into the story. More interested in delivering immediate sensations, it might have elevated the work had a more cerebral approach been chosen from time to time. In thrillers, tricks must be changed once in a while or else their effects may likely suffer from diminishing returns—as they do here.

The ending did not work for me at all—nor so I think would it work for anybody who possesses more than three brain cells. I got the impression that screenwriter Alan B. McElroy wishes so badly to deliver a twist or haunting ending that it does not matter whether it actually fits the story being told. Due to the nature of the denouement, no catharsis that feels exactly right is provided. The payoff is unsatisfying. We feel cheated of our time.

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.

Out of the Dark


Out of the Dark (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the number of scares is on the low side, “Out of the Dark,” directed by Lluís Quílez, is a horror film that works because there is consistent tension-building, it actually uses its Colombian setting rather than keeping it in the background, and there is intrigue within its core mystery involving a family from London moving into a spacious but haunted home. This is a work for audiences who enjoy storytelling that just so happens to have horror elements in it. It has more in common with movies released fifty to forty years ago than it does with today’s run-of-the-mill parade of empty jump scares.

The house is another character in that over time we become familiar with its layout. So when a character, expectedly, goes off to investigate a strange noise coming from inside the walls, when an object comes rolling down the stairs, when the power goes out due to the storm, these scenes are almost always effective. Because we know each turn, what each room offers, and other seemingly unimportant details like the color of the staircase, the relative size of the backyard, the texture of curtains dancing as violent winds enter the house, we feel we have become a part of this home. The place is lived in, it doesn’t look like a studio. We recognize when something is out of place.

Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman play parents of a Hannah (Pixie Davies), a little girl who begins to exhibit symptoms of a disease. While Sarah and Paul are not entirely believable as parents who have gone through a lot together prior to the events within the scope of the film, Styles and Speedman share believable chemistry as parents who would do anything to find answers. For me, the best scenes involve Sarah and Paul going their separate ways to investigate and finding different aspects of the same answer. A number of American movies, mainstream and independent, attempt to do this sometimes but they are often less successful. I think the Colombian setting contributes to the intrigue of the mystery.

Significantly less effective is its CGI-ridden finale. The quality of these computer graphic imageries is not exactly first-rate and points should not be given for being proud of it regardless. But more importantly, such an exhibition of visual effects does not fit the smallness and intimate nature of the story. Sometimes restraint is the wiser choice.

“Out of the Dark” is beautifully shot by cinematographer Isaac Villa. As someone who grew up in a country with a number of similarities with Colombia, its climate, and its people, I appreciated how it shows outdoor markets, how people make a living in the streets, where people live, the obvious divide between the privileged and the less privileged. There is more to appreciate here than what goes on during the hauntings.

Brightburn


Brightburn (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The question of what might have happened had Superman grown up evil instead of good is not at all new, but “Brightburn,” written for the screen by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, had the opportunity to burst the door open for the superhero horror sub-genre with an exclamation point. Instead, the picture is, for the most part, dramatically inert, choosing shock over suspense, violence instead of creeping terror. I felt the actors—every single one clearly capable of so much more than what the reductive screenplay offers—longing for deeper, more challenging material. Over time, I grew disinterested in its lifeless parade of villainous young Clark Kent.

Top-tier superhero films command a sense of wonder. It does not matter whether one’s power is innate, transferred, or achieved through creativity, technology, and hard work, superhero movies that successfully capture viewers’ imagination treat as though the powers in their respective stories are new, wonderful, potentially scary and dangerous, eye-opening.

In this project, notice, for instance, there is a flatness in tone and mood as twelve-year-old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) discovers his super-strength and indestructibility. He need not be overtly thrilled given his laid back personality, but a more intelligent screenplay would have found ways to communicate his delight, alarm, or confusion—perhaps a mix of all three—for being a special freak. Brandon, after all, despite his extraterrestrial origin, is raised by human parents (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) and so, naturally, he must respond in human ways. Otherwise, we fail to relate to his muted reactions.

Conflicts surrounding Brandon lack depth. At school, he is made fun for being too smart, too quiet, too different. The script does not bother to introduce any of Brandon’s peers (or teachers) in a meaningful way, whether the supporter character becomes a friend or foe. Without the requisite context surrounding Brandon’s challenges outside his home, the individuals he interacts with simply exist as as sheep lining up for the slaughter. It is without question that the writers are not interested in the interactions between social and abnormal psychology within the conditions of a superhero flick. Scenes at school should be highly informative given there is no other pre-teen Brandon can socialize with at the Breyer farm.

Like forgettable horror movies, it appears as though “Brightburn” is more interested in how to make violence and mangled body parts appear beautiful or realistic. Sure, pulling a sharp object from one’s eyeball, for instance, makes the audience wince but that is all there is to it once the scene is over. Slasher elements do not work here because little effort is spent on the chase or tease. There is minimal patience from behind the camera; it moves so quickly and so often as if self-conscious that viewers would notice less-than-perfect images. It does not help either that the score is relentless in signaling audiences how to feel. Clearly, it does not understand the difference between an evanescent jump scare and horror that lingers.