The Last Days of Disco

The Last Days of Disco (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent Hampshire College graduates who work in the same publishing house in Manhattan. At night, they often go to an exclusive disco club with hopes of meeting bachelors who might provide them romance. Although Alice and Charlotte are constantly around one another, one might argue they are not exactly good friends. You see, when men enter the equation, the foundation of their tenuous relationship is almost always stretched and bent near the breaking point. And yet somehow they think they need each other so their fights do not last for long.

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, the great contrast that “The Last Days of Disco” offers is between the vibrant music that is disco—so full of energy, life, and rhythm—and the young New Yorkers who are very intelligent but whose lives have flatlined. Although one can claim that the characters, or the archetypes they represent, are being satirized, one might also argue that the writer-director loves his subjects on some level because there is always a level of complexity to each of them. They are never treated solely as punchlines of a joke or a situation gone bad.

It does not mean any of them have to be likable. In fact, there is only one I found myself being able to sympathize with. The central characters, Charlotte and Alice, are snobs on different levels even if their personalities are almost polar opposites. Sevigny does a good job in making a quiet girl seductive. I enjoyed the scenes where Sevigny allows Alice to slink across the room to get a man’s attention, accompanied by her sultry bedroom eyes, but at the same time it is almost like the character is trying too hard in order to hide the fact that she is not very confident. Beckinsale, on the other hand, plays an aggressive character. Charlotte is the more confident half. She represents that girl who is so popular but the more one spends time with her, one wonders if she really has any true friends.

Most fascinating is the character named Josh (Matt Keeslar) whom Des (Chris Eigeman) often labels as a loon for having had a mental breakdown when the two were in college. Their relationship is interesting because just about every time Des says something even remotely derogatory, whether it be a name or an implication that Josh does not deserve to have the jobs he often gets, there is an undercurrent of envy. One of the most hysterical lines in the film is Des claiming that perhaps the reason why he is so happy is because he is not envious of anyone. It is a funny scene because we know better: We have grown to know him better than himself.

The romance between Josh and Alice is downplayed—but I was not entirely convinced such is the most appropriate avenue. Arguably, they are the two characters who are the best fit for one another. Perhaps a bit of genuine sweetness to penetrate the otherwise sour and sardonic tone might have made the movie feel more alive. But then the film is less about romance and more about how a certain era is romanticized.

“The Last Days of Disco” entertains through dry humor and private thoughts often being expressed in one’s attempt to become the center of attention. I did not like most of the characters, but I found myself always anticipating what they might say next. The group discussion about the underlying meanings embedded in the film “Lady and the Tramp” is most hypnotic. They talk about big ideas but they remain sitting on the couch, just waiting for time to pass.


Hellboy (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is no doubt about it: Neil Marshall’s “Hellboy” is an exercise in futility. It has no reason to exist other than to make money. The most important difference between this reboot and Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 picture of the same name is that the latter possesses a sense of wonder. It is inviting; we wish to know more about its world not just because of the handful of strange characters on screen but because the material promises that it would provide constant surprises. Here, it is pedestrian right from the opening sequence that unfolds during the Dark Ages all way through an exhausted finale. Closing your eyes for two hours while wide awake is less punishing than having to sit through this rubbish.

The CGI is cheap and ugly. The main villain, a sorceress named Vivian Nimue (Milla Jovovich), has the power to unleash a plague across the world. Look at the unconvincing boils, how the flesh melts right off victims’ faces. They look so fake that it is impossible to feel horrified or disgusted. A combination of masks and cosmetics would have been preferred, but that would have taken longer, you see. Observe the monsters that await her return to power. They all look similar: golem-like, gray, scaly, nearly all a certain height. It is maddening that the film had a budget of fifteen million dollars and yet it does not even bother to make the monsters appear to look different from one another. The stench of the filmmakers’ laziness reeks. The work is in dire need of inspiration.

The title character is played by David Harbour and he has fun with the role. I enjoyed the character’s sarcasm, but there is no depth to him. There is a would-be drama between Hellboy and his father, Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), particularly the former’s discovery that his father was sent to kill him, a demon baby, instead of taking him in to be raised as one of the good guys in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), but the conflict does not work because there is no convincing foundation in the relationship between father and son. The two feel more like colleagues than family—if that. In addition, while the two actors are good on their own, I felt no chemistry between Harbour and McShane when their characters are required to connect in a meaningful way.

More interesting are supporting characters Ben and Alice (Daniel Dae Kim, Sasha Lane), a secretive member of the B.P.R.D. with military background and a spirit medium, respectively. Like Hellboy and his father, they are not given in-depth background information but the actors have memorable personalities; one can feel them attempting to elevate a material that is dead on arrival. Ben and Alice’s respective abilities, however, are diluted by yet even more visual effects. Every time CGI moves toward the center of the action, it were as if the movie is on a mission to put the audience to sleep. Eventually, gun shootings, skull bashing, and broken limbs go on autopilot.

Notice I have not touched upon the plot. It is because it doesn’t matter. Despite the flashbacks to several hundreds of years ago and heavy narration, the plot is as lifeless as a wooden plank. For instance, in order for the immortal Nimue to reclaim her original power, her severed body parts were locked in boxes and dispersed around the country by King Arthur and his knights. But these boxes are gathered so quickly, tension or suspense is not given a chance to build. Yes, it is inevitable that Nimue will rise again, but the material is still required to try to entertain.

More attention is put on showing people getting cut in half, or impaled, or their brains bashed in. There is blood by the bucketloads, as if it were a horror film. I found it pathetic in its attempt to come across shocking or cool. Its brazen approach to remain subpar is nauseating.

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

In his never-ending quest to secure the perfect acorn, Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge in the cutest grunts and various expressions of surprise) manages to fall into the Earth’s core and accidentally triggers extremely fast tectonic shifts that eventually leads to the formation of the seven continents. The sudden movement of land masses separates Manny (Ray Romano) from his family, Ellie (Queen Latifah) and Peaches (Keke Palmer), and the only way for them to reunite is to catch a specific current. However, the mission is made more difficult when Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a power-hungry ape, and his motley crew seize Manny and his friends to try to force them to join piracy.

Based on the screenplay by Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, credit must be given to “Ice Age: Continental Drift” for still trying to be creative with its images and dialogue despite being the fourth film of the series. It provides a fun, harmless adventure for children and kids-at-heart who like to watch extinct animals interact and get into all sorts of trouble.

The picture balances slapstick humor with lines of dialogue propelled by great delivery. Although the characters we are more familiar with do not break any new ground, so to speak, the new ones are welcome additions because each has a distinct personality coupled with jokes specific to their species and why they did not survive over time such as anatomical structures that simply do not match the changing environment. The voices behind the animation are present and excited even if they are playing a villain. There is often a danger of being one-note from wanting to be taken seriously. Instead, there is an equal mix of menace and joy so it is enjoyable to hear all of the characters speak.

The images grab our attention especially during its action sequences. As an alternative from showing us a pirate vessel that we come to expect, Captain Gutt’s ship is a huge chunk of ice. It looks sturdier than a typical ship with rotting insides, masts, and sails. Meanwhile, the battle scenes between the good guys and bad guys are allowed to unfold with feverish energy. I highly enjoyed looking at the weapons utilized by the pirates. For example, since they are pirates, most of us expect them to use arrows and swords. They do not. When the weapons make contact with wood or ice, the camera lingers for a second at what has just been thrown or swung and we are reminded of how much our brains rely on archetypes.

What works less effectively is Peaches’ struggle to be accepted by a crew of mammoths, one of which is her crush. The lesson about friendship and staying true to oneself are not only preachy, they lack any special dramatic gravity because such scenes are inconveniently inserted between Manny and the pirates. When it comes to the pirates, Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a sabertooth, is predictably played as the eventual romantic interest of Diego (Denis Leary). Their subplot traverses similar elements from the first film about belonging to a pack versus a herd. Whenever Peaches and Shira are front and center, the story feels slow and the immediacy of the action is lessened, respectively.

It is easy to feel cynical toward “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” directed by Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, because one might think a fourth entry is tantamount to cashing in. On the contrary, the images are more alive than ever even though select aspects of its story could have been sharpened or given more originality.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hypnotic, tense, and with numerous tricks up its sleeve, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” tells the story of six members of a militia who gather at a warehouse following a gunman who opened fire at a police funeral. They realize that the perpetrator is among them given the fact that one of the automatic weapons in their stock is missing in addition to some grenades, bullets, and bulletproof vests. Going to the police as a group is not an option—it is certain that every one of them would get the blame. So it is up to Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former cop who specializes in extracting confessions, to determine which of his peers is the gunman (Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler). Put your seatbelts on.

It is proud to be a film for cinéphiles. Right from its excellent opening scene in which we observe Gannon hunting an animal but instead the quiet, meditative moment is interrupted by a muffled but terrifying assault rifle going off in the distance, followed by well-paced opening minutes in which the curious faraway event feels as though it is encroaching toward Gannon’s isolated existence, writer-director Henry Dunham proves to be in complete control of all the gears and machinations of his material. For instance, he is fully aware that men gathering in an enclosed space and pointing fingers is not fresh, and so he is quick to unearth character details—to show from the get-go why his subjects, and therefore his story, are special. This is Dunham’s first feature film. And I suspect, should he continue to deliver high caliber work, it will be one of many.

Gannon is neither the toughest nor the smartest man in the room. But we get the feeling he is most principled, the one who is likely to do what is right. Dale plays the protagonist with quiet but commanding charisma; he evinces a certain goodness, trustworthiness. As our kind-of moral compass, we bond with Gannon as he interviews those who may have done the crime. By asking questions, and the manner in which he asks them at times, not only do we learn about the suspects, we also learn about the interviewer. It is most fascinating when he—inevitably—loses control of the interview process. There is not one dumb person in the group, but some are certainly smarter than others. A few are quite cunning, particularly the one who treats J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as his bible. He does not speak.

The dialogue-heavy script is fun to listen to, to drill into, and to look back on and connect the dots. On this level, the script is worthy of being in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino for it inspires those who love words and conversations to lean closer and listen a little more heavily, to determine whether something is being said in the unsaid. Each character has a specific voice, a perspective we may not agree with but nonetheless fascinating. Furthermore, those who are well-versed in good mysteries are certain to catch red herrings. The challenge, however, is determining how each “misplaced element” fits into the plot. There is not one wasted image here. Each one has its place. Even quick flashbacks usually treated as throwaways in lesser hands. I admired that.

I found “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” to be riveting from start to finish. Even when I knew, for example, that a certain thing simply could not happen because doing so would betray the material’s themes, I caught myself feeling anxious anyway because what if turning certain themes inside out could end up more revealing than what is already in front of us? And therein lies Henry Dunham’s ability to play the audience like a piano. On the surface, the film is Tarantinoesque. But I’ll take it a step further and claim that, on the inside, it is Hitchcockian.

Two Family House

Two Family House (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) could have been a successful singing sensation. Invited by a popular TV personality to appear on his show during his military service, Buddy chose to refuse the once in a blue moon offer because Estelle (Kathrine Narducci), his wife of eleven years, disapproved.

Buddy’s thirst to make something of himself does not wane, however. After several failed business attempts—pizza delivery, house painting, and limo service—Buddy’s most recent venture involves buying a dilapidated two-story house and turning the first floor into a bar. But there is a problem: the current tenants on the second floor, drunkard Jim (Kevin Conway) and very pregnant Mary (Kelly Macdonald), would not move out.

Written and directed by Raymond De Felitta, “Two Family House” is a surprisingly funny, delightful, sometimes sad but always engaging peek at a 1950s Italian-American community in Staten Island, New York and how one man repeatedly attempts to break out of the stifling limitations of his culture in order to reach his goal of opening a bar.

Rispoli is magnetic in playing a character who effortlessly oozes so much goodness, watching him made me wish Buddy was my uncle so we could hang out and discuss the things he could do to make his bar stand out from his competitors. Because he is so determined to achieve his dream, brimming with energy as if a switch had been flicked on in his head whenever the bar becomes the topic of conversation, I found myself on his corner even if there are moments when I felt that he is doing someone wrong.

One of the key relationships in the film is the constant headbutting between Buddy and Estelle. It is easy to detest Estelle for several reasons, one of which is her willingness to hide the fact that their savings is on a sudden steep decline as the bar is being built. She figures that if they ran out of money, they would have no choice but to sell the house and they would inevitably move back to her mother’s.

I enjoyed that the screenplay does not simply make her out to be the target of our hatred. In small ways, the material communicates to us some of her needs. For example, during the majority of the time she is on screen, she is shown to be constantly around other people. It makes sense that she is the kind of person whose self-esteem relies on friends and family’s approval. And that is all right. People like her exist. It does not make them good or bad, just easily susceptible to others’ influence at times. She just wants a so-called normal life which, for some people, is a dream in and on itself. This is a fundamental difference between the married couple.

Buddy does not care much about people talking or whispering as long as he is partaking in something that feels right for him. It makes sense that he is eventually drawn to Mary, a pariah for giving birth to a baby who is half black, forming a friendship with her, and perhaps something more. I enjoyed that it is not easy to guess whether Buddy will choose to remain with his wife or start a new life with Mary. Buddy cares about the two women deeply. Is our “right” answer for him parallel to what he considers to be right for himself?

“Two Family House” deals with adult emotions and circumstances with proper dosages of intelligence and heart. I especially admired its mature ending because it shows that decisions are not always as so clear-cut as losing or gaining it all. It is about being at peace with the cards that we choose to have in our hands for one round with hope that the next cards that come our way will change the tide completely.

Giant Little Ones

Giant Little Ones (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Keith Behrman’s “Giant Littles Ones” is not a reductive LGBTQ picture in which the main character simply learns to come to terms with his sexuality by the end of the story. While it does end on a hopeful note, the messages it imparts—about teenage sexuality, friendships, romantic feelings, and even one’s relationship with parents—are far more nuanced than mainstream films that just so happen to have queer elements in them. It is effective precisely because the characters we meet are specific, layered, and flawed. And, like real people, they do not always express what they feel or think even when situations demand that they do.

The main conflict sprouts from two best friends, Franky and Ballas (Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann), who engage in a sexual activity. The latter feels so guilty about it afterwards that he chooses to tell his girlfriend (Kiana Madeira) a lie that inevitably goes around school. The former, on the other hand, does not consider what occurred to be embarrassing or something to feel ashamed about. For the majority of the picture we observe Franky and Ballas’ friendship crumble at first in small ways then in significant ways just as suddenly. Great tension builds as the two formerly inseparable teenagers, both clearly hurt by the snowballing turn of events, learn to find and forge their own paths.

There are times when the screenplay is so sharp that we become convinced that the friendship is possibly forever broken. Yes, we see intense homophobia, ugly words, and violence, but there is a constant message that sometimes a friendship must die in order to give rise to new, healthier ones. Some are played for laughs, like Franky’s connection with Mouse (Niamh Wilson), a classmate who tends to dress in what is considered to be masculine clothes—in addition to wearing a strap-on or tube socks beneath her jeans in order to create the illusion that she has a penis. Not once is she labeled as transgender. It is refreshing; it fits the theme surrounding the teenagers attempting to find themselves.

Others are shown under the light of great sadness. I was particularly moved by Natasha (Taylor Hickson), Ballas’ younger sister, who has a reputation at school for being promiscuous. Derogatory names are written on her locker. Ballas, although a popular athlete respected by his peers, never comes to her aid or to provide emotional support—not even at home. We see her drink alcohol as if it were water; there is a detached look in her eyes. Her parents, although they mean well, seem to be unaware of how incredibly sad and lonely she is. But Natasha is not at all incapable recognizing when somebody needs someone to talk to, to lend a helping hand. Her conversations with Franky are standouts because the words and feelings they share sound and feel real. There are instances when silence communicates more than enough.

The most compelling performance on screen is delivered by Kyle MacLachlan, Franky’s gay father who lives with man. We are reminded more than once that Ray is an observer who has more than a handful of things to say—he wants to protect his son so desperately—but must restrain because his relationship with his family is precarious. For one, his former wife (Maria Bello) still feels betrayed for having married a woman who turns out to be attracted to other men. (Notice it is rare for the two to make eye contact.) Secondly, Franky, too, disapproves that his father is gay. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is because he feels abandoned due to Ray choosing live with someone else and lead a non-traditional lifestyle. Or that maybe he feels such a close connection to his mother that he, too, feels her feelings of betrayal. Or maybe it is all of these things. Therein lies the strength of this film: it is complicated, messy, painful, and real.

The writer-director makes the correct decision to leave the story on a satisfying note without succumbing to the pressure of solving every conflict in a way that is neat or proper. It is not a straightforward coming out story like “Love, Simon” but the two would make a strong double feature because they are so different—in look, mood, feeling, the characters we come across—that they beg to be compared side-by-side.

More discerning viewers, however, would recognize that, in a way, they complement one another. Both contain beautiful details. In this film, for instance, a genuine moment of connection occurs between father and son in a walk-in closet—the father just outside of it and the son standing inside wearing blazer—a gift from Ray—that might as well be a suit of armor.

6 Souls

6 Souls (2010)
★ / ★★★★

In the middle of the would-be supernatural horror picture “6 Souls,” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Julianne Moore, playing psychiatrist Cara Harding who is presented a bizarre case of what appears to be dissociative identity disorder (DID), because despite her efforts of elevating the material, the screenplay by Michael Cooney falls flat every step of the way. Whether it be discussing ideas within the realm of science, particularly abnormal psychology and behavior, or craft when it comes to scaring the audience witless, the approach is painfully pedestrian, lacking in energy, creativity, or even a modicum of personality.

It suffers from an identity crisis. On the one hand, because our protagonist is a woman of science even though she believes in God, the first third of the film attempts to be somewhat realistic. We spend a lot of time in an interview room where Dr. Harding asks David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) a range of questions meant to trigger a response. During these scenes we are supposed to gauge how the patient with DID processes information, but the writer forgets that these sequences, too, are an opportunity for us to observe how good Dr. Harding is at her job. Although Moore excels at emoting even the most minute emotions since she is a dramatic performer first and foremost, nothing interesting is revealed about her character until an hour into the picture. Instead, she is reduced to just another career woman who becomes obsessed with cases. Boring.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Meyers. I did not believe any of the “personalities” that take over. At first I thought it was due to Meyers’ limited range of facial expressions. Notice that when a personality of a different gender or vastly different age is in control, he relies on changing his voice without an effective body language to go with it. Eventually, however, it becomes obvious that there is a deeper problem: Because each personality is introduced only on a surface level, the changes that unfold before our eyes are neither interesting nor horrifying. I am convinced the filmmakers are aware of this shortcoming because nearly each time something “scary” occurs, we are pummeled by loud music as if the intent were to beat us into submission. It is an annoyance.

The special and visual effects are third rate at best. The supposed spirit that floats in the air and goes on attacking people looks like it is made using a computer program in the ‘90s. It looks so grainy, almost unfinished. In order to hide the more laughable textures and other subpar qualities, a lot of shadow is employed. As a result, not only do these scenes look ugly and uninspired, it becomes a struggle to appreciate the images on screen. At least B-movies are proud of what they have to offer. In this film, one that is meant to be taken seriously, the filmmakers appear to be ashamed of what they paid for. If so, then why showcase the effects in the first place? The reason is because it takes more work on a script level to leave something in the viewers’ imagination.

“6 Souls,” directed by Björn Stein and Måns Mårlind, offers a hollow and depressing experience. There is not one effective scare, let alone one that is memorable or inspired at the very least. The picture can be summed up by its ending: nonsensical, frustrating, lazy, entirely predictable. Perhaps the filmmakers were not convinced themselves that their work is anything more than a straight-to-DVD endeavor. Maybe they just needed to make something—anything—to pay the bills.