The Favourite


The Favourite (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

As an admirer of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ palate for the bizarre, I found the period comedy “The Favourite” to be impressive only during the second half, when fortunes have been turned upside down and inside out. It is then we get a chance to observe characters attempt to wriggle themselves out of very sticky situations, to scoff at them, to laugh at them, to consider their unhappy fates to be both ironic and well-deserved. It is clear, as he has shown in his previous pictures, that Lanthimos’ strength lies in looking at human nature through fractured lens and within those tiny crevices is a chance for us to see ourselves and ponder over the world around us.

The first hour is a waiting game as the initial moves of a long chess game are executed. I found them not uninteresting but not superbly inspired either. I liked the casting of Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, in charge of governing state matters given that Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is almost always plagued with illness, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Lady Sarah’s cousin whose family has fallen on hard times and so she asks for employment within the estate. Weisz and Stone navigate the barbs of the warring cousins with a certain grace despite the ugly and delicious schemes. Meanwhile, Colman plays a queen who is so pathetic nearly every time we see her and yet the seasoned performer hits a different and fresh note with vigilance and purpose.

Despite the stellar performances, however, I found the machinations of early plotting to be rather generic. For instance, Lady Sarah’s nature of possessiveness and thirst for maintaining power is established right from the moment we meet her. And so when someone younger than her, certainly more likable, moves into the palace, her response is predictable. The same goes for the smart new resident who yearns to climb the social ladder. The standard writing is alleviated by performers who find ways to wrinkle the vanilla characterization. And take away Lanthimos’ proclivity toward awkward camera angles and habit of lingering at a shot for an extra second or two—sometimes ten—the content, at least during the first hour, is not all that special. The exposition is something I have seen from countless period films. The main difference is that the characters make no qualms about expressing their most inappropriate thoughts.

But when the consequences of Lady Sarah and Abigail’s competition is finally brought out to light, it becomes wonderful entertainment. The audience is not required to feel sorry for any of the players. However, we must understand them in order to have a more robust appreciation of double-edged ironies. With the exception of one figure, everyone else is proven to bite off more than what they are able to chew. They are convinced they are so intelligent and so experienced in navigating their way through labyrinthine gambles, the joy comes from seeing their big plans explode in their faces. Lanthimos, with his penchant for well-timed close-ups, ensures to capture the most minuscule facial expressions, at times in succulent slow motion.

The darkly funny farce “The Favourite” might have befitted from bolder screenplay decisions right from the get-go. One can argue that because the content is already for an acquired taste, it might have been stronger work overall had the writers been kind enough to spare us the usual motions and go straight for the jugular, to splash blood on posh, royal costumes.

Arctic


Arctic (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

With less than three pages of dialogue, “Arctic” delivers entertainment on the gut level. Many of us have encountered this plot before: a plane crashes on the icy mountains and the protagonist struggles to survive. However, what separates this film from its less impressive contemporaries is a lack of ostentatious display. We are not shown the plane crash that sets the story in motion. No breaking out of unconsciousness and the confusion that results afterwards. There is not even one subtitle that informs the audience how long it has been since the crash. We are simply and quietly encouraged to make assumptions based on the numerous details around the site.

Mads Mikkelsen is perfect in role a like this. He has the gift of being able to take one emotion and change it completely within two to three seconds using only his eyes. Notice the close-up when he sees a helicopter and it appears that those inside have noticed his need for rescue—just as quickly, hope turns into despair. But he excels not only when he looks into the distance. Early scenes involve his character, Overgård, looking, studying, pondering over the objects in his hands, whether it be a fish flopping about, a pile of rocks, a map. We do not need dialogue because his entire being—although silent—communicates clearly and with purpose every step of the way.

It assumes that the audience is intelligent. A great example is when the camera shows a map. We know the location of Overgård’s camp site because it is circled with a black marker. However, everything else around it is in black and white; there are various depictions of height due to hills and mountain ranges. Marked, too, is a path from the crash site to another familiar location. There is a legend with shapes and names next to each one. It is likely that those with a limited understanding of how a seemingly simple map works are likely to be lost or confused.

The writing by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, the former directing the film, is patient. It does not wish for the audience’s minds to go on autopilot—so unlike adventure movies these days. The map is shown at least ten times—and yet not once does it comes across as repetitive. The more we look at it, the more understanding we have of it. With every note that Overgård makes on that map, we gain an understanding not only of his path or his plans, we begin to understand how the map works in general. On top of this, we gain an appreciation of how the protagonist thinks and the strength of his fighting spirit. Eventually, the map is opened and we do not only look at the places he is labeling. We become confident of our ability to read this map and so we search for alternate routes should the plan fail to go as as expected. (It is a survival film. Of course it won’t.)

“Arctic” is offers numerous small surprises should one is willing to look closely and carefully. I wished that the score were less prominent at times or had been removed altogether because silence tends to amplify the sense of isolation. Note the instances when Overgård suspects he may not be alone in a place he thought was safe. Silence underscores the sound made not by him. Still, the work offers a riveting experience, one that we want to cling onto until the very last shot.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood


Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)

Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.

Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.

The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.

Under the Silver Lake


Under the Silver Lake (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Beware: “Under the Silver Lake” is a hundred forty minutes of writer-director David Robert Mitchell masturbating on film and then dunking the viewer’s head onto the pretentious bodily fluid. It is polarizing and perplexing… and yet the same time an argument can be made it is a passionate amalgamation of genres tied together by a central mystery. There is a saying that one man’s trash is another’s man’s treasure. To me, this is trash. Let me tell you why.

I found no enjoyment out of it. The question to be solved involves what really happened to a neighbor (Riley Keough) whom Sam (Andrew Garfield) developed a crush on over the course of one meeting. Sam’s initial investigation suggests that she perished in a car explosion along with two other women and a man. The story takes place in Hollywood and so it is insinuated that the neighbor is some sort of call girl. Throughout the picture the viewer is required to read in between the lines. At times we have no choice but to make assumptions based on other media we had consumed. While not a negative quality, the picture is filled to the brim with bizarre coincidences, many of them leading nowhere. One wonders eventually why the story must be told in a protracted manner. There is no reason for it but to punish even the most patient watchers.

Even Garfield’s performance is awkward and strange. Although I found it fresh that he has chosen to play a boyish loser who has five days left to pay his rent before getting evicted instead of yet another hero or some sort of genius, I did not believe his portrayal. There is not one second when I was not reminded that I was watching Garfield acting. The character’s sense of being changes from one scene to the next—so much so that at one point I wondered that perhaps Sam is a manic-depressive. Here is a man so desperate to find the girl that he wills himself to find clues that may or may not be there to discover. Sam is defined mostly through irrational behavior, but it is a critical miscalculation that the screenplay fails to move this figure beyond that.

It is supposed to be a neo-noir mystery-thriller with a sprinkling of comic touches. Way before the halfway point I caught my mind drifting toward Rian Johnson’s excellent “Brick.” In that film, the investigation is tightly paced, every character we come across matters, and the central mystery is so potent, we get the sneaky suspicion that it may not end well—for anyone. Yet it is not without a sense of humor. They talk funny, they act funny, even the pauses in between are funny. Together, these elements make all the difference. In Johnson’s film, the world is a living, breathing microcosm. In this film, on the other hand, nearly everything feels like plastic decoration. If this is the point, then the commentary is shallow. It is important to change gears once in a while.

If I wanted to watch a series of freaky moments that do not add up to anything significant, I’d log on YouTube. Despite the colorful eccentricities of “Under the Silver Lake,” the overarching message is that there is an insanity to Los Angeles (the mystery to be solved) and yet people all over the world (our protagonist) are drawn to its enigma and/or promise of a better life. But this is obvious, nothing new, certainly not fresh. Neither is its approach. It fails to command tension even in the most rudimentary manner. Then what are we left with as intelligent consumers?

Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy (Sam Rockwell) is in the “dog-borrowing” business. He observes from afar, steals the dog, and once a big reward is posted by a desperate owner, Billy’s partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns the canine. It is a scam that works… until Billy ends up stealing a Shih Tzu owned by an irascible gangster (Woody Harrelson). Charlie is out for blood and will do absolutely anything to get his dog back. Caught in the middle is Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter with a drinking problem. His most recent project is writing a script titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem: he has nothing else written down except the title. But it seems that the events about to unfold is the perfect panacea for his writer’s block.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Seven Psychopaths” may have borrowed elements from tough guy flicks, stories of unsuspecting writers in need of stimulation suddenly being thrusted into ridiculous adventures, and typical bromances in forgettable comedies, but it puts all of these elements into a blender, loony ingredients are added, and shaken once more to create a rather original material that works for itself despite its occasional distracting self-awareness and criticisms of its own inspirations.

Most enjoyable is the fact that the story is willing to go in many directions. While the main strand involves the kidnapping of the Shih Tzu, what makes the material memorable are the colorful imaginings and retrospectives. Many supporting characters enter and egress but they never feel disposable even though a lot of them are killed. They are consistently given something important to do or funny quip to say so it is thrilling when a new face is introduced. The attention is not in the violence or deaths but in our curiosities of how someone might alter the course of the game.

Its off-beat sense of humor is coupled with good performances. Walken does his usual slithery menace but it works given his character’s history. The scene that tickled me most is one that takes place in a hospital where the gangster and the dognapper finally face each other. It is given appropriate beats to solidify the tension. The reward is small compared to the larger surprises later on but it makes a lasting impact. What is a surprise, however, is Farrell deciding to play Marty straight. As the picture goes on, it is increasingly clear that Marty must almost be a blank canvas, somewhat bland with sporadic quirks, in order for us to be absorbed in the more flamboyant personalities.

There are few movies that come out within a span of a year where the audience can feel a filmmaker’s love and passion for his or her work. “Seven Psychopaths” is one of them. It is in the dialogue, the images, and silences that separate a flicker from a full-blown flame. The number of things it wishes to address matches the quantity of its twists and turns. Although there are some problems with its pacing as it reaches the climax, I guess one can consider it a part of its own funky groove.

Climax


Climax (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

An argument can be made that there is no movie here, let alone a strong story that is worth the emotional journey. But leave it to shock maestro Gaspar Noé to create an unadulterated sensory experience from a near-nothing. I found “Climax” to be hypnotic, brave, and free. We are not meant to care about any of the characters on screen so long as they move their bodies and create amazing shapes and contortions. It cannot be denied that it is exactly the film that the filmmaker wanted to make. And for that, it is certainly worth seeing.

The work is divided into two halves: a relatively tame party after a successful dance rehearsal followed by the aftermath of drinking sangria spiked with LSD. But before the first half begins, we sit through various interview tapes of the dancers who may or may no live through the night in question. We learn about their attitudes about sex, sexuality, sensuality, drugs, country of origin, and America. We get a strong impression of how much they value being able to express themselves through dance. One of the dancers claims that if she could not dance any longer, she would commit suicide. As we see her dance for the first time, we realize she is dead serious.

It is apparent there is a strong partnership between Noé and choreographer Nina McNeely, proven by the first dance sequence seemingly shot in one take. It is amazing how every performer is ready to shuffle in and out of the shot as they execute eyebrow-raising moves. It is a joy and a surprise to watch because, for example, a dancer who comes across a bit stiff thirty seconds prior can suddenly return to the middle of the frame so soft and pliant. It makes the viewer question whether potentially erroneous moments were actually done on purpose in order to subvert expectations. Furthermore, notice that although the dance is focused on limbs and torsos being thrown about, performers always have strong emotions on their faces. This sequence alone requires repeated viewing; it is that impressive.

There are no characters, but there are personalities. A few standouts include a mother (Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull) of a little boy (Vince Galliot Cumant) who is suspected of having drugged the drinks simply because she was the one who prepared it, the man who would not stop bragging about his sexual conquests (Romain Guillermic) which earns him the title of being a “ticket to an STD,” the siblings who clash (Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle) when the subject of personal freedom is broached, and the woman we see during the opening shot (Souheila Yacoub) as she crawls through the snow while drenched in blood. Every one of these subjects is followed by the camera at some point without compromise. Showing people experiencing a high is one thing—so many filmmakers do this. But to show paralyzing repercussions through the lens of realism is another. At times the movie works as a horror film.

Noé is strongest when constructing a claustrophobic chamber piece. While “Climax” is not his strongest work, it is still a cut above generic filmmaking so often constrained by plot and the need to create characters worth rooting for. Not here. What matters is that we have a reaction to it. If you walk away from this film and finding yourself not having an impression or an opinion, you are dead inside. The movie’s purpose, I think, is to provoke. Get on.

Billionaire Boys Club


Billionaire Boys Club (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

James Cox’s misfire “Billionaire Boys Club” attempts to tell the true story of recent college graduates, Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) and Dean Karny (Taron Egerton), who create a high-risk investment firm—a Ponzi scheme—in order to establish a perception of success. Because in their world during early 1980s Los Angeles, being rich on paper and cash poor is better than the idea of being perceived as what they actually are—struggling, like mostly everybody else, to become financially successful. Although supposedly based on real life, it is plagued with inaccuracies, like softening the characterization of Hunt so he is more sympathetic. With this in mind, the work must be evaluated based on what it has achieved.

The first half of the picture is stronger than the latter. It is interesting that although it attempts to tell a story from thirty years ago, there is a modern feel in the way the picture is put together. The clothes, the makeup, the cars, the influential figures running around the City of Angels are vintage and yet the feelings it evokes are out of its time. This can be attributed to Amy Collier and Glen Scantlebury’s curious editing: it strives to match the manic energy, even the hedonism, of the young men who wish to prove themselves, hungry for money and public admiration but not self-respect. As the resourceful pair manipulates potential investors, an upbeat feeling is generated; the fast climb atop a mountain pregnant with purpose.

Elgort and Egerton make convincing accomplices. They look good in suits even when under extreme pressure of breathing out one lie after another. It is the screenplay, however, that is not up to the level of their talent—which is why the second half is thoroughly problematic. Because the writing is so sloppy, particularly when repercussions must be painted on the canvas, one gets the impression that the film does not know how to be resolved—strange since the final destination is already written by life. The duo’s downfall feels rushed and messy. It is the writers’ responsibility—James Cox and Captain Mauzner—to make sense of every step so that the viewer can have a complete understanding of the crime.

Thus, the film, as a whole, is rendered ineffective. I have no problem in how Hunt and Karny are written or portrayed. The people within biographical crime dramas are stretched or embellished most of the time. But the crime itself—how the subjects get there and the accompanying fallout that sometimes follows—this is something that must be captured with feverish accuracy. What is the point of telling this particular story otherwise? Superior films within the genre even take the material further by connecting the critiques of the past to something similar that is occurring today. This film is uninterested in striving for much.

“Billionaire Boys Club” can be criticized for being shallow—and I do not disagree. On the one hand, that is, I think, part of the point: the young men’s dream of becoming financially secure for life and gaining positive social recognition is indeed quite shallow. On the other hand, the dream of striking it rich fast and being socially respected transcends time and culture. After all, in many people’s eyes, money goes hand in hand with respect. The screenplay ought to have been ironed out in order for this story to command undeniable cultural relevance in modern times. Examples can be found everywhere, from the cars we drive, the brand of shoes we wear, down to the color of our credit cards. I was disappointed by its unwillingness to overachieve.