Floating Skyscrapers


Floating Skyscrapers (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), training as a swimmer for a decade and a half, meets Michal (Bartosz Gelner) outside a gallery and two share a joint. There is certainly a romantic connection there but it just so happens that Kuba has a girlfriend, Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz), and they are living together. Eventually, Sylwia catches on what might be going on between the two men but she cares for Kuba too much to let go so easily.

“Floating Skyscrapers,” directed by Tomasz Woszczynski, is so lacking in energy that it never gets a real chance to become an interesting drama. There are plenty of shots of geometric figures, people sitting around saying nothing and naked bodies in bed, but the emotion the picture manages to capture is monotone, bordering on soporific. It is an LGBTQ dramatic film that fails to appeal to anybody outside of the community.

The three lead performers are physically attractive but there is nothing particularly poignant about their characters. The central plot revolves around the two men wanting to be together while everyone else disapproves. There is a hint of social commentary about the Polish culture’s current attitude toward homosexuality but it is not expounded upon in a rich and rewarding manner. The subplot is typical and expected: Kuba and Michal coming out to their families and we observe how the parents respond. The same subplot have been done in similar pictures and much more effectively.

There is only one scene that is executed just right. It involves Kuba, Sylvia, and Michal sharing a meal. Each of them knows exactly what is going on with whom but not one bothers to bring up the source of each of their frustrations. We have all been in a situation like this. It is awkward and uncomfortable—the scene perfectly captures Sylwia’s seething animosity, Michael’s embarrassment, and Kuba’s disbelief that his two lovers are in the same room and breathing the same air.

The ending is a severe miscalculation which underlines the weakness of Tomasz Woszczynski and Tomasz Wasilewski’s screenplay. For all the three characters’ misery, they—and the audience—deserves an answer as to what might happen among them. Instead, the movie simply ends just when it is becoming interesting for having presented game changers that might alter the rest of the principal characters’ lives.

“Plynace wiezowce” need not be colorful or even vibrant to be worthy of our time. However, it is expected, as in any other movie, that themes be ironed out without having to revert to old-fashioned treatment of gays and lesbians on film. The writers should have strived to make the characters fresh to the point where we are curious about them despite the love triangle. This is neither a modern nor a forward-thinking film.

In the Tall Grass


In the Tall Grass (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Cal, where are you? …Becky?! …CAL?? …I’M HERE, BECKY! …WHERE ARE YOU??? …OVER HERE! …WHERE??? If watching and listening to people get lost in a field for over half the film is your idea of entertainment, then “In the Tall Grass,” based on the novella by Stephen King and written for the screen by Vincenzo Natali (who also directs), receives a most enthusiastic recommendation. But should you demand more from a horror film with a curious concept surrounding a piece of land with supernatural powers then stay far away. Spearheaded by an undercooked and misguided screenplay, there is no reason for this movie to be over thirty minutes, let alone a hundred minutes. It is an experience to be endured.

The best horror stories that just so happen to possess science fiction elements tend to have one thing in common: the rules are so watertight that although we are aware of them, we are entertained when they are broken or if they happen to come with crucial footnotes. By providing the audience a set of rules, there is an unwritten contract between the film and the audience. We are tasked to participate. We know, or think we know, what we are in for and so there is a higher chance for us to believe in the universe the filmmakers put forth.

This soulless, brainless, lazy film, on the other hand, is not concerned whether the audience has understanding of the rules. Its approach is to muddle the playing field so often and so brazenly that we find ourselves blindsided by the would-be brilliant twists. I found not one of them to be compelling; in fact, when examined using the picture’s own logic, these fail to make sense.

The opening scene shows siblings Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted) driving to San Diego. Becky is very pregnant and nauseous and so Cal pulls over next to a field facing a church. They hear a boy’s voice (Will Buie Jr.) from the tall grass, begging for help since he is unable to find the way toward the road. It sounds as if he’s been there for hours. Becky and Cal decide to lend a hand, but they, too, find themselves in the same predicament once they are among the grass. They get separated. It seems impossible for them to find one another because the source of their voices does not remain in one spot—even when they are standing still. They become convinced something is terribly wrong. Day turns into night and the supposedly horrific happenings continue. We grow tired of this formula even before the second act begins.

Eventually, we learn there is a mysterious stone in the middle of the field. A father (Patrick Wilson) who also got separated from his family claims that it is ancient, perhaps already there even before the earliest Ice Age. He has touched the stone and is stimulated every time he makes physical contact with it. There are carvings on the stone, but notice that the camera provides only a millisecond glimpse of them. You see, the images hint at what might happen later on should our subjects continue to make terrible mistakes regarding their situation. These carvings are only shown fully once the characters are at their lowest points. This choice, and others like it, stands out to me because it reeks of the filmmakers’ lack of confidence in the material. Or worse:

It is assumed that the audience are idiots, or that we have never seen a horror movie where curious figures actually prove to be important. The correct choice is to show the carvings front and center outright. Once we are equipped with this knowledge, tension is generated almost immediately because we wish for the characters to avoid what appears to be their fates. The lack of common sense from behind the camera is astounding. I found no willingness to embrace creativity from a storytelling point of view. In fact, the work feels like a bad TV movie.

But this isn’t to suggest the material is not without potential. There are hints surrounding the protective brother, Cal, possibly loving his sister, Becky, as more than a sister. It is not unimportant that the mysterious field just so happens to be situated in front of a church (according to the sign its entire name is “The Church of the Black Rock of the Redeemer”). Those who get lured in the field, with the exception of the boy, possess qualities that could be considered sinful. However, not one of these ideas is explored in a meaningful way. The movie would rather show visual effects of grass moving on their own, the sky turning blood red, corpses in various states of decay—CGI of the poorest quality.

Shoplifters


Shoplifters (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the subjects of “Shoplifters” are crooks, they are not defined by any one action, or thought, or intention. And just when we think we have any of them all figured out, we are reminded that there is no way to understand them completely because these are fully realized people who, one way or another, despite their age, have lived. Like real people, the characters in this sad and occasionally amusing story are complicated, they have secrets, they are motivated not always by what others see but sometimes by pasts so painful and tragic that the idea of straying from a self-destructive path is as impossible a reality as winning the lottery. The plot moves forward but the focus is on the inertia of its specimens.

Intelligently written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, it tasks the observer to appreciate the every day life of the subjects. It is a family composed of five: an elderly female (Kirin Kiki), two adult females (Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsuoka), one adult male (Lily Franky), and one boy (Jyo Kairi) who is about eleven or twelve. The curious thing is that they are not related by blood but by desperation, whether it be as a means to escape a former life, to battle loneliness, or simply to make ends meet. Their foundation is shaken—then strengthened—when it is decided that they will “adopt” a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), whose parents abuse her. It is not important whether we agree with the family’s lifestyle or decisions, but it is required that we pay attention and consider.

The family’s desperation is captured in overt and subtle ways: the types of food they eat, the state of their clothing, the size of their living space, the decorations and disorganization in their home, the way they respond when their job is threatened. But also take into account that their household offers happiness and comfort. I appreciated that Koreeda has the sagacity to simply allow the camera to capture small, seemingly insignificant moments like a daughter figure laying down comfortably next to grandmother who sews, a boy playing with toys in his fort, a woman taking a bath. Not every moment is designed to further the plot—necessary because we must acquire a taste of this particular family’s life in order to have a chance of understanding them.

The children are encouraged and taught by the older male to shoplift. The larger and more expensive the item, the bigger the risk. There is danger in the action but there is sense of humor, too. Heartfelt moments ring true. A standout involves a shopkeeper having known all the while that the boy has been stealing small knickknacks from his place of business. He has not said anything… until he notices that the boy is teaching his “sister” how to steal.

I wondered about this man, why he tolerated the boy’s indiscretion, possibly for months or years. Does he see himself this boy? Is he aware about the boy’s home life considering that the shop is located around the neighborhood? Is he friends or in good terms with his “parents”? Or is he simply a wise man who knows that the boy would find his way eventually? The picture makes a point that from time to time kindness, like a helping hand or a guiding force, juts out from where you least expect it.

“Shoplifters” is filled with potential situations from which superficial drama could grow. Koreeda avoids them because he is not interested in hyperbole but rather the poetry of life that so happen to be told through this particular family. It is one of those films that is difficult to describe because an argument can be made that not much happens on the surface. Like the dried up small pond situated within the family’s place of living, it is teeming with life and activity should you bother to look a little closer.

The Mustang


The Mustang (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s elegant and affecting “The Mustang” tells the story of an inmate on his twelfth year in prison who joins a rehabilitation program wherein participants must train wild horses for twelve weeks. The mustangs will then be auctioned off to various government agencies and the proceeds go to the preservation of the horses that roam free. Viewers looking for a poignant and intimate character study should look no further. The picture is quiet, but the emotions it stirs create a memorable experience.

Equine lovers will appreciate the photography. Scenes shot outdoors often drenched in natural light, it is clear that the director has great respect for these creatures as he underlines their effortless beauty, whether they are at peace in their natural habitat or as they grow nervous and angry inside cramped cages. We are given time to observe these creatures simply taking up space, eating, galloping about. There is no hurry to further the plot. Words between horse and trainer need not always be expressed. Sometimes a hand gesture or a raising of arms is enough to show the relationship between the two.

We learn a few things about the work required to train a horse. I wondered how I would fare given I am not always patient. Neither is the main character, Roman, wonderfully played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who has a habit of turning angry and violent when things do not go his way. There is a horrifying scene early on when his horse refuses to listen to his directions. He gets so enraged that he begins to attack the innocent animal as if it were punching bag. This is not a straight story about a horse and its trainer. Nor is it a story that leads to Roman being released before the credits. This picture is about the journey toward rehabilitation, not freedom.

Schoenaerts delivers further proof that he is one of the most effective but underrated performers working today. He tends to embody his roles so completely that at times he becomes unrecognizable. This role is no exception. His approach to the character is domination. His fearsome sense of being makes you want to look away at times. Myles (Bruce Dern), a rancher who leads the Wild Horse Inmate Program, advises Roman not to make eye contact with the wild mustang during his first time training it. The same can be applied to Roman. To look him in the eye is, at the very least, an act of inviting a kind of mental disruption—ironic because this is a man who wishes to be seen as more than a violent thug who turned his wife into a vegetable.

Particularly moving are the exchanges between Roman and his pregnant daughter. Martha (Gideon Adlon) wishes to be emancipated from her father so she could sell the house and provide for her child. There is deep anger—and regret—between these two. Co-writers Brock Norman Brock and Mona Fastvold are smart in limiting their dialogue. So much more is communicated in the unsaid. But not once do we feel that genuine reconnection is hopeless—highly unlikely but not impossible. I imagined being in Martha’s shoes, having to care for her mother for years after her father was sent to prison. I don’t think it would be easy for me to forgive either, if at all.

“The Mustang” offers an ineffective subplot surrounding the smuggling of horse tranquilizers. Roman shares a cell with Dan (Josh Stewart); the latter threatens the former that if he failed to provide ketamine, his daughter would be harmed. The work would have been leaner had this awkward appendage been removed altogether. Still, however, the rest of the work is so strong, an enthusiastic recommendation is well-deserved.

In the Shadow of the Moon


In the Shadow of the Moon (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

A bus driver, a cook, and a pianist drop dead in 1988 Philadelphia with copious amount of blood having leaked out of their eyes and nostrils. Initial observations point to bioterrorism as the city is plunged into chaos by an unknown threat. Police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) is determined to become a detective and so he, alongside his less enthusiastic partner (Bokeem Woodbine), dives head first in solving the mystery despite his brother-in-law (Michael C. Hall), the actual detective in charge of the case, warning him against such reckless action. Lockhart, after all, has a pregnant wife (Rachel Keller), waiting at home. The eager police officer is not yet aware that this case will become his obsession for decades.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” is a highly engaging, eye-catching sci-fi mystery-thriller so filled with intrigue, urgency, and wonderful action set pieces—until about halfway though when nearly all these positive elements are thrown out the window in order to make room for ponderous philosophical musings about fate and possessing the power to change the future. The change in tone, pacing, and quality is so drastic that by the end of the picture, I felt compelled to look up the number of writers who helmed the screenplay (Geoff Tock and Gregory Weidman). Such level of confusion is usually attributed to having too many writers being unable to narrow down their ideas and explore them in meaningful ways that fit one particular story. What a letdown.

The story unfolds across decades. The high energy of the film’s first hour runs parallel to Locke who has something to prove, convinced that there must be a simple answer to the serial murders. Holbrook excels in the physical demands of the role. When his character is taking notes of the crime scene using only his eyes, running after a person of interest, or holding a suspect at gunpoint, we believe Locke’s determination. He is a man of the law not just in uniform but also in spirit. And that makes him a character worth putting under the magnifying glass. We grow curious at which point he will break—if he ever does.

However, notice as the actor gets increasingly buried in hair and cosmetics that signify passing of the years, his power to maintain a compelling character is weakened—a common problem when it comes to weak writing coupled with heavy makeup. For example, observe closely during Locke’s interactions with his teenage daughter (Sarah Dugdale; Quincy Kirkwood plays Amy at age nine). These moments of longing are supposed to be sad or touching because the two have lost a special connection. Case first, daughter second. It is a challenge to feel something genuine for three reasons: the dialogue is flat and expository, the little facial ticks that make all the difference in dramatic moments are buried underneath the maquillage, and the pacing stops dead in its tracks. The screenplay is not written in such a way that the human drama functions to move the action forward. It drags.

The philosophical questions are neither deep nor new to the genre. Themes that touch upon going back in time and changing the future is explored better with more thought and consistency in movies like James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” and Rian Johnson’s “Looper.” At least in those films, their worlds are so defined that the drama and musings feel natural. They even have room for a sense of humor. “In the Shadow of the Moon” has ambition surely, but it fails to deliver all the way not to compete against its great inspirations but to stand strong on its own.

The Notebook


The Notebook (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A pair of twin boys (László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) are sent to live with their grandmother in the country because it is too dangerous for them to stay in the city during the war. Mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) hopes to collect them by the time it is over. The boys do not receive a warm welcome. Aside from having demanding chores in the middle of winter, Grandmother refuses to call them by name, only referring to them as “bastards.” She is convinced her daughter does not really have a husband given they have not seen each other in two decades. In the village, Grandmother is infamous for being a witch who lives in seclusion.

“The Notebook,” based on a novel by Agota Kristof, requires a bit of time to set up its tracks but once the foundation is laid out, looking away is almost impossible. The story takes place in a remote Hungarian village during World War II and the focus is on the two boys, once privileged and sheltered, learning how to live without an appropriate adult figure for guidance. What results is a fascinating work, so bizarre and horrifying at times that I became convinced the events shown here actually happened.

The twins do not have a name and they function as one. Having left home and essentially looking out for themselves around the age in which their sense of right and wrong is expected to mature, something goes seriously wrong. The boys eventually develop a fascination with taking lives away—initially toward bugs then the need evolving toward mammals. They read the Bible and know the Ten Commandments by heart, but since it is a time of war, the rules must not apply. They claim they must learn to adapt.

Certainly the picture is worthy of discussion. We wonder if the boys’ actions could be due to abandonment issues. It is also possible that they are born with an inclination to kill. The material does not provide easy answers to our questions—which is a good quality—and so we look closely. From my observations, it does not require them a significant time to feel all right with killing. Maybe it is in them in the first place. However, one can argue that their trauma is so severe, time may be negligible.

Is the culture of the village simply backwards or is there a collective insanity at work? Utilizing violence in order to teach a lesson appears to be the norm. So, the twins believe that they must train their bodies to endure it. They do so by beating each other either with their bare hands or with a belt. Grandmother prefers wet towels. Sometimes she prefers to starve them or leave them outside in the cold.

But the abuse is not solely physical. At times it is sexual. The officer (Ulrich Thomsen) with a neck brace looks at them with lust. People who know him are aware of his amorous advances with other boys and yet they fail to take action. We meet a maid (Diána Kiss), a girl with a cleft palate (Orsolya Tóth), and a shoemaker (János Derzsi). One of these three will make sexual advances toward the twins. We watch in horror because we are convinced that help is not coming.

“A nagy füzet,” based on the screenplay by András Szekér and directed by János Szász, is a war film that does not rely on sentimentality to incite emotions from us. It is confident about the images presented on screen and the difficult circumstances regarding its subjects.

Radius


Radius (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A man wakes up next to an overturned vehicle, head bloody, with no memory of who he is. It is dark, raining, and it appears no one is around given the accident occurred in a rural area. Later he comes to learn his name is Liam (Diego Klattenhoff) and whenever a living creature, human or animal, gets within a certain distance of him, it drops dead. This is the curious premise of “Radius,” written and directed by Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard, a captivating sci-fi mystery-thriller that poses many questions and takes the time to answer every single one of them. Do not miss it.

The story brings to mind Stephen King novels, not because of the genre but its ability to grab those looking in by the throat and never lets go. The curiosity surrounding Liam and his strange unwanted ability is dealt with patience, creativity, urgency, and even a sense of humor. The screenwriters understand that the terrifying situation must have moments of exhalation and so the material is peppered with amusing moments without the tension ever decreasing. Most Hollywood thrillers with big budget, recognizable stars, and experienced writers do not possess this wisdom. Here, it is exercised with confidence, nearly every scene modulated with a clear purpose and feeling.

It bothers to detail specifics such as the maximum distance between Liam and the living in order for the latter to remain alive, what is said in the media when groups of corpses are discovered in a diner, and how the main character attempts to wriggle himself out of tricky situations. Although there is a central mystery that commands high level of intrigue, notice there is constant world building. And so when Liam inevitably comes face-to-face with cops and bystanders, we have a clear understanding of what is at stake for everyone involved. We believe in the reality of the conflict and there is convincing drama in every beat.

The equation is constantly changed and so the viewers are always challenged. There is not a slow or boring moment here. For instance, eventually a woman named Jane (Charlotte Sullivan) and she, too, suffers from amnesia. She claims that she woke up in the scene of Liam’s accident. However, when Liam woke up, we do not see anyone nearby during the opening sequence. It inspires the audience to ask questions and to reevaluate what we see, hear, and process. In order words, it inspires us to become active participants in the story. It is not simply a question of what you may do when a similar situation happens to you. The questions are more specific, layered, painted with moral quandaries. It is so refreshing because too many modern films cater to passive viewers.

“Radius” is one of those rare pictures with high concepts and energetic execution that never runs out of steam. Metaphors—never ostentatious—should inspire conversations. And the ending feels exactly right—it is given to us at right moment. Fans of old school “Twilight Zone” are likely to have a great time with this gem, filled to the brim with surprises big and small.