Hold the Dark (2018)
★ / ★★★★
The picture begins with a curious mystery involving a boy (Beckam Crawford) being taken by wolves. At least this is what his mother, Medora (Riley Keough), claims to have happened. This is the third child that had been abducted in their Northern Alaska village. She is so desperate and so afraid that her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier currently overseas, would come home without any facts to offer him that she requests the help of Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a man with extensive experience of tracking down wolves.
Although based on the novel by William Giraldi, screenwriter Macon Blair and director Jeremy Saulnier fail to translate the story from page to screen in a way that is entertaining or enlightening. Mildly curious at times because the mythos of the village, the people who live there, and the animals within the vicinity are so alive, it is such a disappointment then that the majority of the film is a soporific experience, moving slower than molasses for no reason other than to test the patience. Perhaps the intention is to drench the audience in atmosphere and mood, but it is ineffective because it does not give us reason to remain emotionally invested. A slow pacing does not generate interest out of thin air.
Halfway through the film, I caught myself feeling appalled that it is directed by Saulnier, a filmmaker no stranger in establishing a calculated pace and then breaking it by sudden bouts of violence (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”). While the approach is present here, unlike his previous work, the feeling behind the strategy is lifeless. It is like someone else attempting to make a poor imitation of Saulnier. I wondered if he has gotten tired of his usual tricks.
It is like clockwork. For instance, prior to the explosive violence, we are asked to endure the characters speak to one another in either monotone or whispers. It is a requirement that they look miserable or sad. Notice there is no reason for them to speak in this manner. Most of the time it comes across as a performance rather than a genuine moment in time of simply being. As a result, we grow detached from the characters being put onto the canvas. A scene or two after such conversations, somebody shoots another with a gun point-blank, or someone is stabbed, others are shot with an arrow. Another employs an assault rifle to mow down local police. I found the charade to be painfully predictable.
“Hold the Dark” is most frustrating because it is an amalgamation of ideas that, at first glance, do not or should not fit together: animals are behaving strangely, there is talk about being possessed by demons when masks are worn, American Indians reference their folklores to try to explain or hint to an outsider what is possibly going on, and the community tending to have its own unspoken rules. It is the writer and director’s job to put these pieces together in a way that is presentable and welcoming—especially for viewers who many not be interested initially with these occurrences.
The failure of the film, I think, can be attributed to the filmmakers’ lack of understanding of the source material. Because if they did thoroughly understand, joy and excitement could be felt even from the most depressing or bleakest story. The viewers would have a complete understanding of themes, character motivations, and the reason why this story is special to this Alaskan village. Instead, the work is opaque for the sake of being opaque.
★★★ / ★★★★
Henry Alex Rubin’s “Disconnect” crafts three intertwining stories about the pitfalls of the internet, but it is no Lifetime movie of the week. It bothers to go beyond the idea that although the internet is a wonderful tool that gives us a chance to connect with others in many ways, there is a trade-off in that some of us tend to grow further apart from loved ones closest to us physically and emotionally.
Having only three main plot lines benefits the picture because the material by Andrew Stern is able to hone in on some of the characters’ psychology. Because of one’s relationship with the internet, a person ends up losing something that is significant enough to disrupt the equilibrium of his or her life. Further, one’s loss is like a infection: slowly invading, eating away at its host, and then spreading. Its subject matter is heavy but one worth sitting through.
Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgård) are still grieving over the loss of their infant. When they discover that their credit cards and other accounts have been used by a second party, they go to great lengths to get answers. Meanwhile, a reporter, Nina (Andrea Riseborough), is on the lookout for a latest hot scoop. She finds one in a website where underaged teens get paid to go on sex cams. She chats with one of them, Kyle (Max Thieriot), who appears to enjoy what he does. Lastly and one that is arguably the most gripping involves Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein) one day deciding to pull a prank on a classmate (Jonah Bobo)—a joke that eventually ends up going way too far.
Ensemble pictures require balance and the filmmakers are up to the task. Though a drama in its core, the rising action consists of thriller-like elements. It jumps from one strand to another with confidence during the buildup but it never feels choppy. We are given a clear idea about what is at stake and so we are willing to wait for a crucial development as others are given a chance to unfold and reach a similar level of tension. It helps that all of the stories have something interesting to show or say.
Out of the three, the storyline involving a prank appears most developed. We get to see the source of the problem, how it is initiated, and the manner in which it gains momentum until the two kids are no longer in control of it. We are made to see the repercussions with an appropriate level of darkness and sadness. Perhaps most importantly, we get to observe how their parents react to what has occurred. I did not expect the material to invest so much time with the two fathers, played by Frank Grillo and Jason Bateman, thereby providing a different layer on top of what has happened between their sons.
On a personal level, “Disconnect” spoke to me, especially the one involving the high school students, because I did have my share of getting into trouble for having written something about someone on the internet. It happened about a decade ago but it is not the kind of incident one easily forgets—especially one that felt so threatening, you had plenty of sleepless nights wondering if it would ultimately derail a future you had worked so hard to build.
I connected with Jason most because I remember how it was like to feel guilty, ashamed, anxious, and angry about what I had done—that no matter what I did, the fact was that it happened and there was no other (sane) choice but to take responsibility.
★ / ★★★★
A planet named Melancholia, about twice or thrice the size of Earth, was discovered to have been hiding behind the sun and was on its way toward us. Meanwhile, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) were newly married, left the church, and encountered limousine problems. Consequently, they were very late to their own party which reduced Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, and John (Keifer Sutherland), Claire’s husband, barely containing their frustration. The guests had been waiting for the couple to arrive for over two hours. Although Justine had a smile on her face throughout the party, much of her energy was spent trying to keep her major depression hidden. “Melancholia” astounded me in the worst ways possible. Did the end of the world montage prior to the title card needed to be so pretentious? For what felt like eternity, several characters, one curiously observing electricity coming out of her fingers, consistently occupied gorgeous backdrops but everything was in painful slow motion as the orchestra bombarded our eardrums, urging us that we were watching something epic. On the contrary, I found the sequence completely unnecessary not only because it was trying too hard to impress, but because it extirpated our feelings of anticipation. By confirming that Melancholia would eventually hit our beloved planet, I didn’t feel horror or suspense with or for the characters as they eventually faced the reality that they’d been given. Regardless, I enjoyed select scenes during the wedding party. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) was fascinating as an aging woman who despised marriage, its rituals, and the confines it set for its participants. As she moped about in the restroom–darkly amusing because it gave John, only caring about how much he’d spent in order to throw a lavish party for the bride, intense rage–and stood bitterly in the corner while everyone celebrated, I was desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, as Justine’s depression became more unbearable for her, nearly everyone treated her even worse, somehow convinced that she was just being selfish. Justine’s family knew about her condition. It didn’t make sense why they weren’t more understanding especially since it was one of the most important days of her life. If the writer-director, Lars von Trier, had given us more background information about Justine’s relationship with her family, their cold disregard for her could have made sense. Since the screenplay didn’t allow us to understand in which angle each important family member was coming from, whether the sentiment was good or bad, I wondered why they even bothered to show up for the wedding. Halfway through, the film changed perspective. Instead of Justine’s crippling depression, it focused more on Claire’s increasing trepidation of dying. She obsessively checked the telescope and I cared less each time. I began to think about how other people from different cultures and different classes, maybe those who lived in the flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, saw the apocalypse. “Melancholia” was plagued with symbols of depression and doom but they had very little impact. I found myself needing to take Prozac because I began to feel depressed, not because of its subject matter but because I started to suspect that von Trier was eventually blasé with his work. For a movie that contained two planets–and sisters–colliding, it was insipid and, ironically, prosaic.
Straw Dogs (2011)
★ / ★★★★
David (James Marsden), a screenwriter for movies, and Amy (Kate Bosworth), a television actress, husband and wife from Los Angeles, moved to the South so David could get some work done. While Amy was welcomed by the people she grew up with, especially Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), a former high school flame, David experienced some friction with most of them. As the two settled in their home over a couple of weeks, Charlie and his friends pushed David bit by bit by implying he wasn’t good enough to land a woman like Amy, that he wasn’t enough of a man for her. David aimed to prove them wrong. Based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams, watching “Straw Dogs,” written and directed by Rod Lurie, I felt an overwhelming lack of dimension from its characters. David was the unaware city boy who overstepped his boundaries by flaunting his hundred dollar bills, Amy strutted around outside without a bra but became upset when men looked at her lasciviously, and Charlie was the two-faced villain who felt inferior whenever he heard David’s classical music. As the events slowly escalated from snide comments to full-throttle violence, we learned nothing much about the three them. Amy became very frustrated with her husband’s passive approach. If David did confront Charlie and his friends, it was her husband’s battle (or life) to lose. If she supposedly grew up with them, she should have been more aware of what they were capable of. If anything, she should be one pulling back David’s leash, not getting upset with him when clearly he just didn’t want trouble. Meanwhile, David decided to go hunting with the boys to prove he was a man. If he was so smart and worldly, as depicted on the day the couple moved into their new home, I wondered how he didn’t catch that it wasn’t even hunting season. “What time of year is hunting season?” was easy to type on Google considering he was on his laptop during most of the day. Furthermore, the film introduced characters such as Tom (James Woods), a former high school coach turned alcoholic, and slow-witted Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), in his thirties, who happened to have a history with underaged girls. When David asked why the latter wasn’t put away, Charlie responded, “We take care of our own.” Far from it. Tom’s daughter (Willa Holland), fifteen years old, was attracted to Jeremy. Despite people constantly telling her to keep her distance from him, she couldn’t help herself. Naturally, the father had something to say with his fist. Although Woods’ explosive antics were attention-grabbing, most of the time, the things he had to say felt independent from the movie. Must he be angry all the time? Again, the script was devoid of depth and good performances couldn’t keep the material afloat. “Straw Dogs,” despite its handful of symbolism involving animals, left nothing much to the imagination. I almost forgot about it as soon as it was over. Except the bare-chested Skarsgård. His glistening pecs were memorable.
★★ / ★★★★
A syndicate of fashion designers assigned Mugatu (Will Ferrell), a fellow successful fashion designer, to find an extremely dim-witted male model and brainwash him to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the man who would be responsible for passing laws against child labor. Mugatu thought Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) was perfect for the job. Zoolander was blessed with great bone structure but he lacked brain power. The poor man-child couldn’t even spell the word “day” (he spelled it “d-a-i-y-e”). Written and directed by Ben Stiller, “Zoolander” was an effective spoof of the fashion industry when its humor wasn’t all over the place. Strangely enough, it had a one-dimensional main character but it worked because he was supposed to be unaware about everything that was happening around him. Much of the film played upon the stereotype about models being dumb and self-centered. For instance, Zoolander claimed he wanted to find meaning in life so he decided that he would establish a center for kids who wished to learn. However, Zoolander didn’t know the first thing about charity or education. His hypocrisy was wild but still amusing to watch because we knew he meant well. There were two scenes that were downright hilarious. The first was Zoolander’s reaction to Mugatu’s model for the children’s center. The man-child was at the forefront; it was as if he had no concept of representation, something that children normally learn during an early age. The other was the walk-off between Zoolander and his blonde rival named Hansel (Owen Wilson). It was cheesy, ridiculous and completely unnecessary, but I couldn’t help but smile because the lead actors and the spectators were obviously having fun. I could just imagine how many takes it must have taken the actors to complete a scene as they struggled to keep a straight face throughout the farce. I do wish, however, that there were more models that were featured. Milla Jovovich was great as Mugatu’s villainous assistant with an edgy haircut and Tyson Beckford milked every second he was given during the walk-off. I wouldn’t have minded crazy Tyra Banks appearing out of the blue and lecturing how important it was to “smize” (smiling with your eyes). There were also some surprising appearances from a young (and barely recognizable) Alexander Skarsgård and David Duchovny, an expert in delivering lines in a monotonous voice but still keeping us interested. “Zoolander” lacked in story and character development but it had memorable lines and manic energy which helped the picture stay afloat. It’s one of those movies I won’t watch for a long time but when I do see it playing on cable while flipping through the channels, I couldn’t help but sit down and enjoy the ride.