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 Predator (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Predator” is a marginally entertaining but unmemorable action sci-fi flick that offers a welcome change in scenery. This time, instead of people being hunted in the jungle, the action, for the most part, takes place in the suburbs and a military research facility. However, a different setting does not save the picture from being generic. Although Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s screenplay attempts to infuse some level of characterization behind sheep to be slaughtered, there is a lack of a central presence strong enough to hold the picture together. While this approach can work, as if to build an impression that anyone can drop dead, the project is not helmed in such a way that the danger is constant and convincing.
Boyd Holbrook is given a challenging task of portraying a badass action star. I liked the casting choice because of the contrast between what we think a classic action figure ought to look like—sinewy, tanned, inclined to overact—but Holbrook is the antithesis. Clearly, he is a dramatic actor who just so happens to be very capable of being in action films because he can look good while shooting guns—or, in this case, sniper riles. One gets the impression that he has gotten so used to supporting roles that he does not feel the need to play it bigger than life. As a result, notice that when the performer is in a scene with the likes of Trevante Rhodes (who is so interesting here that I wished to know more about his character) and Thomas Jane, Holbrook almost blends into the background.
This is a weakness because the plot revolves around the sharpshooter who comes across alien technology that he then ships to his son (Jacob Tremblay) prior to learning that its owner would like to get it back. Note the lack of logic of this one-sentence plot description. Those looking for holes will find them—and will grow bored of the exercise. It is a true Hollywood blockbuster in that more thought is put into creating perilous situations than creating an intelligent roadmap of character motivations and the larger power—whether it be terrestrial or extraterrestrial—they fight against. Observe the presence of government personnel and how they are there only to amp up the body count.
The action sequences are standard but watchable. It is surprising that humor is used to allay some of the more hardcore images such as profuse gushing of blood from a gunshot, intestines spilling out of the gut, limbs being torn off completely. While humor does create a reaction, it is noticeable that the approach is double-edged in that because there is comedy embedded between terrifying encounters with the Predator, tension does not build as consistently. It does not help that the plot is pretty much an ordinary rescue operation. It offers no surprises when it comes to character deaths, revelations, or even the resolution.
I walked away from the picture with a marginally positive impression—not because of the action, the characters, or the special and visual effects. Rather, I was surprised by the picture’s willingness to utilize politically incorrect humor, especially in this hypersensitive day and age. It is directed by Shane Black, no stranger to taking risks as writer-director. If only he took more risks with the material, perhaps by subverting it completely, instead of succumbing to Hollywood expectations. After all, the work is meant to revive the franchise which requires a massive jolt. This work is but a nudge.
Very Good Girls (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerri (Elizabeth Olsen) are best friends who live in New York who one day meet and fall for the same guy named David (Boyd Holbrook). Written and directed by Naomi Foner, although “Very Good Girls” is unrealistic in terms of how young people are actually like today, within the confines of the story being told, the picture works because it is able to employ a nostalgic tone and continually attempts to establish the characters beyond the premise of the film: two girls who wish to lose their virginity before they go off to their respective universities in the fall.
Given its premise, how does one make the story not come across tacky? The casting of Fanning and Olsen is key because these are performers who can communicate more than one emotion at once even without speaking. It is expected that Lilly and Gerri are opposites—the former coming from a well-to-do family but having no laughter in their home and the later from a sort of bohemian family and they are very open to one another—but as we spend more time with them, we learn why the girls are very close. When they hold conversations, they do not always have to explain what could be wrong. Sometimes all they have to do is look at one another’s eyes and form an understanding given that they know each other’s families well enough.
Less interesting is the girls’ relationship with David. Although Holbrook does an all right job in general, part of the problem is that the character is poorly written compared Gerri and Lilly. As a result, he comes across as dull most of the time. We eventually come to learn about his interests and hopes for the future but we never get a real sense of his inner drive to get to where he wants to be. So, other than a physical attraction, what else does Gerri and Lilly see in him?
There is a subplot involving Lilly’s parents (Ellen Barkin, Clark Gregg) being on the verge of a separation because of an infidelity. It is supposed to draw some parallels in terms of how Lilly feels or thinks about when David and Gerri are together. Although the writer-director connects the dots for us, the subplot does not always work because we do not get a complete picture of how the marriage is really like. In the end, more discerning viewers will likely recognize that the marriage and the friendship are not comparable.
Halfway through the picture, I expected a shift in perspective: the first half being about Lilly and David and the second about David and Gerri. This does not occur, which is a pleasant surprise, but I wished that it did. This is because the film touches upon the subject of betrayal. The material makes a case that silent betrayals can sometimes hurt more than having to have a confrontation about them. It would have been a stronger picture if we were given a chance to understand the two girls equally and why they felt they needed to make certain choices that they knew would hurt the other.
Despite its shortcomings, I appreciated “Very Good Girls” for its mature approach of two girls wishing to lose their virginity. Under another filmmaker’s reigns, it could have turned exploitative—especially in terms of Lilly’s relationship with a much older co-worker (Peter Sarsgaard). Fanning and Olsen share an interesting chemistry and they make good decisions on a consistent basis so their characters remain fresh in familiar material.