Tag: adam driver

The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch takes the familiar idea of us being zombies to consumerism—a metaphor introduced in George A. Romero’s classic “Dawn of the Dead”—and does absolutely nothing new with it. What results is “The Dead Don’t Die,” a would-be horror-comedy without excitement or spark of originality—simply a parade of familiar faces like Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, and Danny Glover, just to name a few, squeezing so hard to extract substance from a screenplay devoid of any. Even scenes of the undead coming out of the ground, lumbering about, and eating the flesh of the panicked living have been done much better in other movies—even those with considerably less budget. In the middle of it, I felt depressed, desperately wishing for the self-referential torment to be over, because I knew a filmmaker of Jarmusch’s caliber should be treading new ground instead of barely making a scratch on an overly familiar one. The material is so desperate by the end that at one point a character breaks the fourth wall. We are meant to laugh or be surprised by this—but I was not at all amused. It failed to earn this moment. Sometimes dead is better, according to the tagline of “Pet Sematary,” which is a most fitting admonition to this film.

Marriage Story

Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.


BlacKkKlansman (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Director Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is correct to be frightening, disgusting, eye-opening, and entertaining all at once because the subjects it broaches and explores, all falling under the umbrella of racism in modern America and our relationship with it, are meant to give us indigestion—so to speak—a strong visceral reaction of having experienced something we are not supposed to because it might be considered not kosher, or that it is offensive, or too extreme. But that’s exactly what I loved about the film, both in its vision and final product, because it strives to paint a complicated portrait of where America is right now through the scope of a real-life investigation that took place in 1970s. You will not walk away from this film without an opinion.

It has been a while since I felt the veteran director being so free with his craft, from the utilization of archival footages, dramatic but out of place music, shots clearly inspired by blaxploitation pictures, to fusing two genres with seeming ease. And yet the material commands cohesion. It does not rely solely on the comedy which involves Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the terrorist organization Ku Klux Klan’s local chapter in Colorado Springs. Instead, for instance, it also touches upon the dichotomy of Stallworth being a cop whose goal is to make real changes in a police station that tolerates racists—one of the cops is so proud of killing an innocent black teenager, he actually brags about it like it is some sort of achievement.

I enjoyed that the material exposes the main character’s blind spots and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that these blind spots need not be changed throughout the film’s duration. It is enough for the screenplay to acknowledge them and then trusting the audience to look inside ourselves and consider our own foibles. For example, at some point, I could not help but think about being an immigrant teenager who yearned to belong in America—white America, to be exact—so much so that for years I felt ashamed of my culture, the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my accent, down the food I took to the school’s lunch table for everybody to see, smell, and ask questions about. To me, the material is so potent that it actually brought me back to when I felt insecure about my cultural identity.

And therein lies its greatest strength: Although it is a film told from a black perspective—in terms of original material, screenplay, and direction—it remains relevant to everyone who has felt like a minority. The institutional racism in America is so pervasive, it is almost inescapable; if it doesn’t erase us, we strive to erase ourselves in order to blend into the white.

Certainly the picture can be criticized over pacing issues, but its energy is taken on such a high gear that awkward pacing that leads to undercooked relationships, like Stallworth’s blossoming romantic connection to Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), Colorado College’s Black Student Union president, remains interesting nonetheless. Washington and Dumas share such smooth chemistry, I wished there were a movie of their characters simply talking about random things, like black music or black films, and perhaps even discussing serious issues like white fears in an increasingly multicultural, multicolored America.

I admired its use of language. It employs nearly every derogatory word and phrase not because it can but because we are meant to react to them. And, if, somehow, you find yourself inured to these defamatory and really vile language, it is a clue to get an education, an appreciation of the history of these words and why they are not okay to use. No, it is not just because people are being “snowflakes” or “the freedom of speech is being threatened.” The internet is at your fingertips.

Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

All is sparkly and happy between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend until Sophie (Mickey Sumner) confesses that she wishes to move out of their apartment and move in with a person called Lisa. The neighborhood is supposed to be nicer than the one they live in now. Sophie is Frances’ anchor and so when they no longer share the same space and have a chance to see each other all the time, Frances must get accustomed to being on her own. To Frances, losing Sophie proves more of a challenge than a recent breakup.

“Frances Ha,” written by Noah Baumbach and Gerwig, reminds me of a high school freshman assignment teachers like to assign in the beginning of the year: an “I Am” poster meant to illustrate the different aspects of oneself. Here, we get a real sense of the main character and I was surprised with how invested I was when it comes to every digression from the main plot. In a way, the film is not about plot. Perhaps it is meant to be a collage.

Gerwig is in every scene and there is not one moment where she fails to snag our attention. She can be jumping about and running around the streets of Brooklyn to search for an ATM or sitting in her apartment looking like her world is about to end. Either way, Gerwig finds ways to make us want to give Frances a big hug. Her positivity is infectious and so we sympathize when things do not go her way—even if she is to blame sometimes—and are uplifted when something nice happens.

Deciding to present the images in black and white feels right. Because the character’s personality is so extreme at times (either one is likely to find her lovable or downright annoying), along with the fluctuations in her mood, the lack of bright colors helps to neutralize or ground what we are experiencing. At one point I wondered if the images were meant to be a series of memories, the character looking back on a not-so-distant past. It might explain why characters we come to meet consistently have a quirk about them—filtered through the lens in which Frances processes those around her.

If this is meant to be a definitive experience of a twenty-something, I am a stranger to it. Maybe it is due to the fact that I do not live in a big city like NYC or LA. I never struggled to pay rent or had to borrow money from my parents. Perhaps it is due to the people I’m drawn toward naturally or a select few of whom I’ve chosen to keep in my life. Or maybe it is because I don’t know how it’s like to pursue a career related in the arts.

Whatever it is, in theory, I should not be able to relate to any of these characters—or at least not that much. But I do—with Frances anyway. I liked that she is a decent person who does not necessarily always do what is right—for herself and those she loves. Sometimes she’s selfish. She’s immature. But she’s learning.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” directed by J.J. Abrams, is a massively entertaining mainstream science fiction fantasy picture filled with many familiar elements and small but required twists for old and new generation of fans. It is highly accessible, from the well-placed, rapid-fire banters to its crescendoing epic score during key moments, and so one can sit back and enjoy the plethora of wonderful images and action sequences.

A new threat known as the First Order has risen from the ashes of the fallen Galactic Empire. It is led by a mysterious figure named Snoke (Andy Serkis), working for him are two generals Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the elimination of the final Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), is critical to the group’s universal reign. But Skywalker is nowhere to be found. According to some sources, a pilot (Oscar Isaac) who works for the Resistance has just gotten hold of an important clue that may lead to the Jedi’s whereabouts.

The new characters are interesting and worth getting to know further. The partnership between a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a scavenger (Daisy Ridley) is inspired even though the placement of seeds involving a possible romantic connection comes across as a bit forced at times. I enjoyed that the former, Finn, is thrusted into the war between the First Order and the Resistance almost out of guilt while for the latter, Rey, it is almost as if it is her destiny. It is wise that the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt keeps the eventual duo apart for as long as possible. When they are separate, we can feel the pulse of the new myth being born.

It offers a strong sense of place and community. There is a breath of excitement with each environment, from the seemingly endless desert of Jakku to the lush green planet Takodana. Perhaps more importantly, the various creatures we encounter almost always have a personality to them, whether it is through exchange of dialogue, grunt-like noises, or beep-beep-boop. I found myself wanting shots to linger a little longer especially when an interesting-looking creature is shown on the side or the background. I wanted to look at their faces or skins a little closer; I wanted to examine the clothes they wear and the weapons they carry. With some, I even noticed their postures. There is no doubt that we are in the hands of a most capable visual storyteller.

One can argue that a little bit more creativity might have elevated the picture. For instance, the Starkiller Base, capable of destroying entire solar systems with the help of the sun, is too similar to the Death Star encountered in the previous films, only bigger. The young Jedi storyline, too, is a retread. While this is not an unreasonable criticism, it can also be argued such examples—and others like them—are merely plot device. What matters more is the energy and small changes behind the expected elements.

I argue that this is an attempt to revitalize a franchise. And it works. Diverting too much from familiarity might have done more harm than good. But expansion and new ideas are exactly what I will be looking for in the inevitable sequel. This time, playing it safe should be overlooked. But safe does not equal boring. On the contrary, this is an exciting chapter with action sequences that at least rival the originals.

While We’re Young

While We’re Young (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) meet a couple in their mid-twenties, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), an aspiring documentarian and an ice cream maker, respectively, and the former are reminded of their age—how they have lost track of the many things they wanted to accomplish because life had gotten in the way. Hoping to relive the spirit of their youth, the middle-aged couple spends more time with Jamie and Darby, unaware that these two are not exactly what they seem.

“While We’re Young,” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a struggle to sit through not only because of its standard, dull storyline but also because of its sluggish pacing. At one point there is a scene in the film where Stiller’s character is pitching a documentary—one that is charmless, dry, and convoluted—to a potential financial backer (Ryan Servant) and the latter just sits there feeling bored and wanting to play around with his cell phone. I imagine that the audience, including myself, is that man personified on film.

A few bits are amusing. Cornelia and Josh trying so hard to be young again is shot and performed with effervescence and a bona fide sense of humor. I never knew that Watts has a knack for physical comedy, especially the scene when her character tries hip-hop dancing. I can’t wait to YouTube that scene again. However, there are not enough of these surprising moments dispersed throughout the picture.

Pretty clever is the sequence that highlights the disparity between the two couples. For instance, Josh and Cornelia play games on their iPad while Jamie and Darby play board games. Jamie and Darby listen to records, Josh and Cornelia listen to CDs. The comedy works because we expect for the younger couple to lean toward technology while the other is more into “old-fashioned” things like reading an actual book than on a screen.

What does not work entirely is the forced drama between Josh and Cornelia. Just about every time they get into an argument, I noticed myself becoming increasingly frustrated because it almost always comes down to them not having much success with having a baby. Although Stiller and Watts try the best they can with the material, the lines often feel too script-like—which is not at all foreign to a Baumbach film but it is very jarring in this movie because the story is supposed to be a convincing comedy-drama.

Jamie and Darby not given depth prior to the turning point is a miscalculation. I was never convinced that they were as interesting a couple as Josh and Cornelia thought they were. This disconnect is a problem because the screenplay attempts to make them more human or relatable toward the end, but the entire thing comes across as disingenuous, all too convenient for the plot. These characters needed to be rewritten.

“While We’re Young” is likely to impress those who have not seen very many films— dramatic, comedic, or a mix of both—about aging as well as the concerns and awkwardness that come with it. The picture is not without good ideas but the execution lacks heft and power. Clearly this work is not made by Baumbach at the top of his form.