Never Grow Old


Never Grow Old (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The thing about westerns is that many are revenge stories in their core. And so it is often a challenge to tell a story in a fresh way when ruffians (Josh Cusack, Sam Louwyck, Camille Pistone) arrive in a frontier town and decide to stay indefinitely. It is apparent about a quarter of the way through that “Never Grow Old,” written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, lacks both originality and vision; at one point I wondered why the filmmaker felt this particular story needed to be told. Because if the viewer had seen at least five western pictures, it would be easy to determine its ultimate destination. Does it truly require eighty minutes to get there?

An argument can be made that it is not about the destination but the journey. However, the journey is not interesting either. Emile Hirsch plays Patrick Tate, Garlow’s carpenter and undertaker. He lives just outside of town with his pregnant wife (Déborah François) and two young children (Quinn Topper Marcus, Molly McCann). Soon Patrick meets Dutch (Cusack) in the dead of night, the latter having knocked on the former’s door, asking for directions regarding a man with a bounty on his head. It is made clear that Patrick cannot refuse—not only this favor but also future ones. Hirsch plays Patrick with a constant air of desperation. Despite the inconsistent Irish accent, he is able to meet Cusack’s calm intensity.

But the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with these two forces who must clash—morally and physically. It goes on autopilot as bodies pile up when Dutch decides to open a business—a whorehouse that serves alcohol, considered to be a mighty sin by the devout Christians (led by Preacher Pike portrayed by Danny Webb) of Garlow. Violence is paraded on screen—men being shot, a young girl getting raped by an old man, blood mixing with mud, a hanging, among others—and yet there is only minimal drama. The reason is because we do not care about these disposable characters. Most intrigue is generated when Patrick and Dutch are in a room simply exchanging words.

Patrick’s occupation involves building objects and putting corpses in the ground. There is poetry in lending a hand on creation and destruction yet the writer-director does not take advantage of it. Instead, Patrick is consistently shown reacting to situations—merely a tool in a plot so ridden with clichés—until the protagonist is no longer an enigma. Meanwhile, Dutch disappears for long periods in the middle of the film. He appears from time to time to do or say something would-be philosophical. I grew tired of the charade that the material forces upon us.

I enjoyed the look of the picture, particularly when it employs natural light. Scenes shot at night are appropriately dark and menacing. There is a convincing quiet in the darkness, like anything could step out from it. Not even lamps or torches could allay the danger. When the film is not so plot-driven but rather driven by feeling, one cannot help but wonder whether the work might have been better off as a sensory experience: strip away the heavy-handed plot and let the emotions flow, place us directly in a mindset of having to survive in an 1849 frontier town.

Ad Astra


Ad Astra (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

During the first hour of James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” the picture has the makings of a space epic so engaging, it does not need to show a single flying car to inspire the audience to keep paying attention. Advanced technologies are simply there to be used rather than to be gawked at and so we are forced to adapt—quickly—in the story’s universe. By making futuristic images barely visible and putting the protagonist’s inner turmoil front and center, it is without question that the work will be a ruminative sci-fi film instead of action-adventure oriented. However, once the second hour crawls along, the slow, calculated, informative pacing is no longer utilized to build mystery or raise questions—about ourselves, our connections with others, our place on our planet and in the universe—scenes simply drag. The absence of a meaningful payoff is maddening.

We follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), when he is assigned to travel to Mars to send a communiqué to his father, once believed to have perished on assignment while leading a project in Neptune. By hearing his own son’s voice perhaps the old man would finally respond to SpaceCom’s messages: for senior McBride to put a stop to electrical surges that plague the rest of the solar system. You see, his ship contains anti-matter that works as a catalyst to these fatal surges.

The irony is that despite Roy and Clifford sharing the same bloodline, the two are not at all close. (Yes, outer space is employed as a symbol of how distant the father and son are emotionally—neither new nor fresh.) Pitt is highly watchable as a man who has not found a way to deal with his father’s brazen abandonment. I looked closely at Roy and recognized a person who built himself to be something that his father would be proud of… but he is not his own person. This lack of self permeates through his personal life, specifically when it comes his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler—outrageously underused). It is without question that Roy’s father loved his job—finding proof of extraterrestrial life—more than his own son. And so Roy must come to terms with this reality. The story is not about a space mission. It is about finding a way to live and not simply exist based on somebody else’s expectations.

Although this universal message can appeal to most viewers, I’m afraid it will be lost in translation because the second half does not possess enough energy and vitality in order to underline its humanistic themes. Instead, the movie is plagued with prolonged takes of Roy moving from one place to other or Roy sitting at one spot looking hopelessly morose. (On occasion a well-placed and well-timed tear rolls down Roy’d right eye just in case we don’t get the picture of his struggles.) It leaves the viewers cold. Notice that even moments of thrill—shoot-outs on the moon’s surface, confronting a wild animal in an enclosed space—end up with a whimper.

These images can work. But there must be something behind them—consistently—in order for us to feel and appreciate their value. Otherwise these pretty images function merely as decoration; we might as well be staring at a screensaver for two hours.

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” does not hold a candle against movies from which it is inspired by, whether it be thematically or visually—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” are most obvious. A key difference: “Odyssey” and “Solaris” consistently build—or break down—their worlds and the characters within them up until their curious, perplexing, unforgettable climaxes. Here, there is mostly hollowness and soulful staring into the void.

Philomena


Philomena (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.

When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.

But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.

What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.

I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.

The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.

The Domestics


The Domestics (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

There are far too many suspense-thrillers with rather neat premises but ending up sputtering about halfway through. I think it is because screenwriters get so distracted by the shiny new ideas that they end up neglecting to explore them in meaningful ways. And so when the novelty wears off, the work lacks a reason to exist. A twisted road trip picture, for instance, is reduced to yet another shoot ‘em up. “The Domestics,” written and directed by Mike P. Nelson, is guilty of this significant shortcoming.

The U.S. government’s black poison has killed most of the American population. No reason is provided why this was sanctioned, nor is the material required to do so. The survivors, those resistant to the toxic substance, have been divided into two major factions: those who joined a gang—which is divided further based on their moral codes (or lack thereof)—and the so-called Domestics—people who scrape by every day without group affiliation. Married couple Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina (Kate Bosworth) belong in the latter category who decide to make their way to Milwaukee after Nina’s parents cease to communicate via radio. As expected, the spouses encounter various gangs who wish to imprison, torture, or… play with them.

The co-leads do a serviceable job in their respective roles, but the screenplay fails to make them equally interesting. Mark is strong, creative, and vigilant—clearly equipped with survival instinct. On the other hand, Nina is in this constant state of sadness. During the majority of the picture, she is nearly useless, a major liability. I found it to be painfully cliché when the character so suddenly becomes a warrior during the final twenty minutes. The pivot is ineffective because neither character is given enough specific details so that any change that may occur later is thoroughly convincing.

Instead, more effort is put into the action sequences—where the gun is pointed, whose brains are being blown out, blood spatters on walls, sharp objects going though flesh. Notice the manic nature of the editing during these scenes. The violence, while cringe-inducing in a good way, is consistently at the forefront yet there is minimal social commentary in whatever is going on. After all, strong post-apocalyptic films tend to be about something else entirely, from the rousing “Mad Max” films, darkly comic “Delicatesen,” insightful “Children of Men,” down to poetic dirges like “The Road.”

There is a hint, I suppose, of friction between the protagonists. Before the toxins were released, Nina and Mark were on the process of getting a divorce. But the details are both superficial and laughable. Listen to this: Nina confesses to a fellow survivor (Jacinte Blankenship) that they used to be so crazy for each other. She especially swooned at the fact that Mark would leave her cute and romantic notes at home or at work. Eventually, however, the gesture stopped. I couldn’t help roll my eyes and stifle a laugh during this would-be vulnerable moment. Did she really expect such flirtation and playfulness to last for the rest of their marriage? Is she really this short-sighted and shallow? Of course passion wanes. What matters is what you do about it as a couple when it does.

“The Domestics” is not without potential to become a solid thriller. I enjoyed that each gang has a specific personality. The leaders may not have memorable faces, but their monstrous behaviors linger in the mind. Had the screenplay undergone further editing by focusing on the overall message they wish to portray, followed by strong, detailed, and surprising characterizations, it would have felt refresher, more urgent, more relevant in our modern times of politically divided America.

The Souvenir


The Souvenir (2019)
★ / ★★★★

More vanilla than vanilla, “The Souvenir” tracks a film student’s struggles in maintaining a romantic relationship with a man who is addicted to heroin. We are supposed to care about the couple eventually but the screenplay by Joanna Hogg, who also directed the picture, provides no compelling reason why the participants are worth following—together or apart. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is too passive a protagonist, too sheltered and naive, barely reacting to events unfolding around her. She’s not a fast learner. Anthony (Tom Burke), on the other hand, is an unlikable drug user, a leech, an abusive partner with no redeeming quality. It is only natural that the latter continues to prey upon the former because she fails to learn from her past mistakes. Eventually, we grow to expect the numerous punishments Julie chooses to endure. Lacking both tension and common sense, there is something terribly wrong when we find various artworks hung on walls to be far more intriguing and beautiful than the personalities supposedly clashing in the middle of the screen. This is an example of a story that demands nothing from the audience, not even to stay awake.

Dinner with Friends


Dinner with Friends (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell) have just returned from Italy and cannot wait to talk about their adventures with their best friends, Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette). The doorbell rings. There appears Beth but no sign of Tom. She says her husband had to go to Washington, D.C. for business. But the truth comes out before dessert: Tom is leaving her for a stewardess. Karen is furious for Beth and Gabe is at a loss for words—twelve years down the drain.

“Dinner with Friends,” based on the play and adapted to the screen by Donald Margulies, appears to be just another standard marriage drama where one couple’s break-up forces another to reflect upon their relationship. While it embodies that quality on the outside, the film is actively interested in the human condition and how painful truths about love, friendship, and companionship can be confusing, exhausting, and surprising. And yet it works on another level, too. In my eyes, the message is that an evaluation of a relationship may not be pretty or convenient at times but it is an important part being together for it forces a couple to appreciate what they do have—even if everything may not be perfect.

The performances are consistently on a high level. The first few scenes are deceptive in that it appears as though what we are seeing on screen are caricatures: Karen the perfectionist, Gabe the husband with not much to say, Beth the victim, and Tom the jerk. But the more the characters speak, even though we may not agree with their opinions or courses of action, the more we want to get to know them. In just about every scene, a layer or several layers of complexity is added to the characterizations. We are constantly getting to know the characters.

In addition, the script has captured the rhythm, mood, and tone of white, middle- to upper-middle class dialogue. While the film is interested in exposing their flaws as people, it abstains from judging them. The judging is left to us and so we are engaged. At time same time, it is difficult to judge them because they are relatable. I found a piece of myself in every one of them.

The latter half is most impressive because it manages to capture the sadness of potentially broken relationships. No, I am not necessarily referring to just the marriages. Most interesting is how the friendships are portrayed between the men and the women. In two key scenes that unfold over lunch, we feel two people sharing a meal slowly drifting away even though physically they are only an arm’s length away. They feign as if there is nothing wrong but we—and they—know that things have gotten difficult and awkward. How do you continue to love someone when you recognize that the person that you thought you knew for years has suddenly turned into someone you can no longer relate with?

Directed with perspicuity by Norman Jewison, “Dinner with Friends” captures a critical moment in time when four people must evaluate where they stand. Sometimes the scariest thing is taking a moment and asking ourselves whether we are happy with the way things are. Karen, Tom, Beth, and Gabe assumed that nothing would ever change among them because they were so close. We are all guilty of that assumption and so when changes do occur in special friendships, sometimes it’s the most difficult task to accept and let go.

Blood Money


Blood Money (2017)
★ / ★★★★

There are not enough plot twists in Lucky McKee’s “Blood Money” to justify having to endure extremely irritating characters who come across four bags full of money, each containing two million dollars, while hiking in the wilderness. In the middle of it, I found myself rooting for the white collar villain, an embezzler, a man named Miller played with cool by John Cusack, because then the movie would have been over. Despite a running time of less than ninety minutes, the material is so generic, it feels closer to two hours.

Attempts at character development inspire epic eye rolls. Notice how it tells rather than shows. Three college friends—Victor (Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald), and Jeff (Jacob Artist)—sit around a campfire spewing expository dialogue that details their histories, current thoughts, and hopes for the future. None of the dialogue rings true; it is so superficial—like one feeling jealous that his former girlfriend is now with the other guy—that the whole charade feels like a teen soap opera. It does not help that not one of the performers is particularly compelling to watch or listen to. The awful dialogue is worsened by the constant, interminable whining. If I were around that campfire, I would have called it an early night by pretending to be unwell because staying would actually make me feel unwell. It is unbelievable that the trio have convinced themselves to remain friends with one another. Every one of them is vile. Maybe that is their commonality, their sick bond.

The manner in which the sound is put together is most irritating. Of particular struggle is when actors speak their lines while standing next to a river. Dialogue is barely audible. It is worsened by the fact that the score is almost always present during these exchanges. So no matter how passionate or angry a person becomes during an increasingly complex task of towing four heavy bags full of cash across a forest, the experience—their suffering, our catharsis—is muffled. At one point I wondered if it was the director’s intention to make a bad movie because some mistakes are so elementary. It is like reading an essay plagued with spelling errors.

Chase scenes are standard and edited haphazardly. It does not even bother to stop once in a while to show us the beauty or danger of the setting. It feels like amateur hour when at times you feel as though could take any old camera and capture more effective shots of predator attempting to catch its prey. Cue close-ups of performers not looking remotely tired, let alone breaking a sweat, for supposedly sprinting about half a mile. Time and again the picture fails to establish elements that make up a convincing survival thriller.

“Blood Money” is a near complete waste of time, but there is one fresh quirk about it. Miller does not wish to kill those who stumbled upon his money. He asks for them to simply hand the bags over. It is the students’ greed, one of them in particular, that allows an awkward situation to snowball. There is minimal entertainment to be had here despite the numerous unintentional humor. We should be laughing at their stupidity, but we are reminded time and again that the filmmakers do not even bother to make a passable movie.