Tag: bruce dern

Freaks


Freaks (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, “Freaks” is unable to shake off the feeling of an extended television pilot despite offering mid- to high-level enthusiasm during its creative final third. The story involves a seven-year-old girl named Chloe (Lexy Kolker) who is raised to be fearful of the outside world by her father (Emile Hirsch) due to her unique powers. People like Chloe are referred to as “Abnormals”—hunted and killed by the government (Grace Park) because of their potential as walking weapons of mass destruction. A curious premise does not save the picture’s slow and laborious first half which takes place inside a suffocating house—which is the point—boarded up from top to bottom (even the mail slot is blocked with duct tape eventually) in which ideas are repeated like clockwork. The point, I suppose, is to show Chloe’s budding powers, and her occasional lack of awareness when using her abilities, but after three to four incidences which communicate the same information, one cannot help but to feel as though the material is in desperate need of push and forward momentum. An efficient setup is just as important as the landing.

The Mustang


The Mustang (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s elegant and affecting “The Mustang” tells the story of an inmate on his twelfth year in prison who joins a rehabilitation program wherein participants must train wild horses for twelve weeks. The mustangs will then be auctioned off to various government agencies and the proceeds go to the preservation of the horses that roam free. Viewers looking for a poignant and intimate character study should look no further. The picture is quiet, but the emotions it stirs create a memorable experience.

Equine lovers will appreciate the photography. Scenes shot outdoors often drenched in natural light, it is clear that the director has great respect for these creatures as he underlines their effortless beauty, whether they are at peace in their natural habitat or as they grow nervous and angry inside cramped cages. We are given time to observe these creatures simply taking up space, eating, galloping about. There is no hurry to further the plot. Words between horse and trainer need not always be expressed. Sometimes a hand gesture or a raising of arms is enough to show the relationship between the two.

We learn a few things about the work required to train a horse. I wondered how I would fare given I am not always patient. Neither is the main character, Roman, wonderfully played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who has a habit of turning angry and violent when things do not go his way. There is a horrifying scene early on when his horse refuses to listen to his directions. He gets so enraged that he begins to attack the innocent animal as if it were punching bag. This is not a straight story about a horse and its trainer. Nor is it a story that leads to Roman being released before the credits. This picture is about the journey toward rehabilitation, not freedom.

Schoenaerts delivers further proof that he is one of the most effective but underrated performers working today. He tends to embody his roles so completely that at times he becomes unrecognizable. This role is no exception. His approach to the character is domination. His fearsome sense of being makes you want to look away at times. Myles (Bruce Dern), a rancher who leads the Wild Horse Inmate Program, advises Roman not to make eye contact with the wild mustang during his first time training it. The same can be applied to Roman. To look him in the eye is, at the very least, an act of inviting a kind of mental disruption—ironic because this is a man who wishes to be seen as more than a violent thug who turned his wife into a vegetable.

Particularly moving are the exchanges between Roman and his pregnant daughter. Martha (Gideon Adlon) wishes to be emancipated from her father so she could sell the house and provide for her child. There is deep anger—and regret—between these two. Co-writers Brock Norman Brock and Mona Fastvold are smart in limiting their dialogue. So much more is communicated in the unsaid. But not once do we feel that genuine reconnection is hopeless—highly unlikely but not impossible. I imagined being in Martha’s shoes, having to care for her mother for years after her father was sent to prison. I don’t think it would be easy for me to forgive either, if at all.

“The Mustang” offers an ineffective subplot surrounding the smuggling of horse tranquilizers. Roman shares a cell with Dan (Josh Stewart); the latter threatens the former that if he failed to provide ketamine, his daughter would be harmed. The work would have been leaner had this awkward appendage been removed altogether. Still, however, the rest of the work is so strong, an enthusiastic recommendation is well-deserved.

Coming Home


Coming Home (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★

Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a captain in the Marines, is to leave for the Vietnam War. He tells his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda), who has learned to accept her husband’s duty, that he feels like he is going to the Olympics, so very proud and eager to represent his country. When he leaves, Sally figures she needs to do something to pass the time so she volunteers at a VA hospital nearby. There, she crosses paths with a high school classmate, Luke (Jon Voight), who has been sent home due to paralysis from the waist down. Soon, the two begin an affair, but reality must be dealt with when Bob returns.

While its attitude toward the Vietnam War is crystal clear, “Coming Home,” based on the screenplay by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, is atypical in that a love story is sandwiched in between political statements that are heard and seen. It does a good job in telling a story specific to its time period but still giving the romance an air of universality.

Without strong central performances, the film would have been preachy and phony. Voight is especially effective as a war veteran who is required to go through a thoroughly convincing emotional and psychological transformation. By learning to accept the limitations of his lower-body paralysis, he is making a statement that he is not shackled to his past—an important difference between the two men in Sally’s life, why she is willing to put her marriage in jeopardy. When we meet Luke, we feel his rage in every waking moment, from the simmering sarcasm to explosive fits. When we leave him, though anger remains, it is channeled in a healthy way. We are hopeful about his future.

The audience is always on the outside looking in as characters with no experience in the war make comments or take courses of action that underline a lack of understanding or a willingness not to understand. For example, Sally’s friend, Vi (Penelope Milford), wonders what her brother (Robert Carradine) could have gone through that was so bad when he was in Vietnam for “only” two weeks. She says it in a way that is insensitive but at the same time we realize that she does not mean anything malicious by it. Scenes similar to this make the picture rise above a schmaltzy love story between two people since supporting characters are allowed to face real concerns and questions in their own lives.

The third act coming down to Bob finding out about the extramarital affair is not as disappointing as how it is handled. There are shouting that neighbors can hear, a threat of violence, Sally comforting her husband and expressing her love, and an effort to convince someone not to succumb to feelings of anger. It feels as though the writers set aside what makes the story worth telling in order to focus on the melodrama, the very element that it needs least.

Directed by Hal Ashby, “Coming Home” flourishes most during conversations between two people, the tug-of-war between wanting to challenge one another and a willingness to reach a middle ground. It is also very good in showing how current and former servicemen’s faces change when conversations turn to the topic of war or what they had experienced. Though the pain, the frustration and the anger are muffled at times, they are there and will be there until one’s memory is no longer.

Twixt


Twixt (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), author of a novel about witchcraft, makes a stop for a book signing in a small town called Swann Valley, famous for its clock tower and a mass murder. Though he is ready to sell and sign some books, it seems like no one has heard of him, let alone having read his work, until Sheriff LaGrange (Bruce Dern) approaches his table and asks for an autograph. As a fan of a good mystery, the cop invites the writer to the morgue and shows him a corpse with a massive wooden stake through it. There is talk about evil and vampires amongst the residents.

Despite an interesting premise, one that could work as a campy, fun, B-movie shenanigan, “Twixt,” written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, insists on being so serious about the horror-mystery that it bores the living daylights out of the mind. At best, it is like a TV movie adapted from a Stephen King novel only the good stuff are drained out of it. It is all beautiful visuals and moody glowering but not enough pull to get us to invest.

Kilmer is not a bad choice at all to play a writer whose career is on a nosedive. He plays Hall almost in an off-kilter way, retaining a sense of humor even if the character’s alcoholism consistently gets in the way of his work. The way he interacts with people around town has a whiff of detachment—like he is not a hundred percent present. We wonder if he is fit to be doing any kind of investigation to solve a mass murder.

There is a sadness to the protagonist as well but the screenplay fails to drill deeply into its core. An accident is mentioned twice or thrice and his relationship with his wife is about to reach a boiling point. There is not enough exploration of his home life—problems that he cannot fix on a whim—to make us believe that he feels he must solve the mystery in Swann Valley in order to gain a certain of level of control in his personal life. Instead, his main motivation becomes about writing a book involving the murders which, looking at the big picture, does not solve his feelings of inadequacy as a man who is losing his family.

Several dream sequences comprise of about a third of the picture. There, Hall meets a famous writer (Ben Chaplin) and a girl with bucked teeth named V (Elle Fanning). While nice to look at because colors like red and yellow are allowed to pop out and all other colors are dulled, the visuals do not add much to the table. You would want to look at it for about two minutes to admire the aesthetics, but once the novelty wears off, it fails to pull us in consistently. Dreams are often symbolic but everything here is literal which takes away some of the necessary intrigue.

“Twixt” does not have a third act. It just ends. Instead, we are given a title card that informs us what happens to the characters. As a veteran filmmaker, Coppola should know better than to submit unfinished work. He has cheated his audience of their time and that is a crime that he should be forced to revisit in his dreams.

Nebraska


Nebraska (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing which claims that he has won a million dollars. Since he is not allowed to drive and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), refuses to take him, every day Woody attempts to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. But he is not a winner. One of his sons, David (Will Forte), explains to him that the letter is a scam. The aging man remains unconvinced. So, in order to put an end to his father’s dangerous disappearance acts, David elects to drive Woody to Nebraska.

In its very essence, “Nebraska,” written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, is a story of letting go: Woody must relinquish the fact that the piece of paper he so desperately cherishes is a disappointing dead end and David, in a way, must deal with the reality that his father will soon no longer be around. At one point, a woman asks the son if his father has Alzheimer’s. David says that the old man gets a little confused sometimes. We know better. Especially with Woody’s history of alcoholism.

I admired the director’s decision to showcase the picture in black and white. It is the correct route to tell this story. On one level, it highlights the austereness of forgotten America: farming communities, very small towns, folks who stare into the television all day as if watching an exciting alternate universe. And yet, on another level, it allows small emotions and possible thoughts to stand out more ferociously.

Given that the relationship between David and Woody is largely defined by small stings—a dismissive comment one moment, an expression of disappointment the next—it matters that faces are lit up—front and center—and the background is almost fading away, almost far away than it ought to be. In other words, though the core deals with real issues like the disconnection among family members, the environment embraces a dream-like quality which creates an interesting contrast. Unlike many pictures, the feeling behind the images on screen is not flat.

It bothers to keep a little bit of mystery. With films that touch upon family dynamics and generational gaps, it is easier to relay all of the information in order for the audience to be able to understand or appreciate everything that is going on at once. Here, it holds back a little. Of particular interest to me is a woman named Pegy Nagy (Angela McEwan), Woody’s former girlfriend. Though she and David interact in only two scenes at most, it is a meaningful connection because we are asked to participate. As Pegy tells David about the romantic history between she and Woody, we try to imagine how they must have been like as a couple. Images I constructed by my mind were worlds away between what Woody and Kate share. Still, I wondered if Pegy and Woody would have worked out in the long run.

“Nebraska” is an effective drama because it does not rely on words or obvious explanations to paint a complete portrait. Sometimes love is an unspoken thing—which can be difficult if it is not expressed at all—and that reflects the relationship between father and son. And yet it is surprisingly funny, too. The director has a tendency for embracing ironic flourishing without being mired in them.

The Hole


The Hole (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dane (Chris Massoglia) is not exactly thrilled when his mother (Teri Polo) decides to move their family of three from Brooklyn to the suburbs. While playfully roughhousing in the basement, as brothers often do, Dane and Lucas (Nathan Gamble) discover a trap door with several locks underneath a rug. Although they manage to open it, they can’t see anything below but darkness. When items are dropped, there is no accompanying noise that suggests the hole’s relative depth. Soon enough, bizarre things start to occur in the boys’ home and the small town.

“The Hole,” written by Mark L. Smith and directed by Joe Dante, is like a highly satisfying two-part “Goosebumps” episode: a proper dosage of pre- to mid-teen dialogue, scarier parts balanced with instances of humor, and cheesy special and visual effects that hearkens back to the 80s.

The story is entertaining because the script knows how to play with the audience. It is the right decision to spend a good amount of time exploring the mysterious hole in the ground. I had a mental checklist of what I would have done if I were in the brothers’ shoes and I was glad that they are smart enough to have different strategies of approaching the problem. And yet the longer the characters stay around it, the level of danger seem to increase in increments minute enough for it to become a big threat by the time the young people run out of avenues.

Some scenes that have nothing to do with the mystery also work, from Dane being shy and awkward around Julie (Haley Bennett), the girl next door, having its share of light chuckles to simple shots of Lucas sitting like how a normal kid would sit on a couch while playing video games. It is in the small details that the film flourishes; it feels like watching realistic young people who happen to stumble upon an amazing but dangerous thing.

One aspect of the film, however, leaves much to be desired. The adults become unimportant which does not feel right for its storyline. For instance, it might have been so much more interesting if Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), former owner of the Lucas and Dane’s new home, is given more meat to bite into. The mother being typically unaware of whatever is going on in the house because she is too busy working at the hospital, the protagonists at times need an adult figure that they can bounce ideas with. Creepy Carl has an idea of the evil inside the hole and it is frustrating that he is only given two scenes that could easily have been excised which would have made little impact to the arc of the story.

In terms of an adult figure outside the horror elements, another character that seems worth looking into is Mom’s co-worker and potential boyfriend. It quickly becomes apparent that Dane and Lucas have issues in terms of not having an active male role model in their lives. If the screenplay had not ignored the adults altogether, certain details about Dane and Lucas could have been brought to the forefront. Other than the fact that we did not want to see them get hurt physically by the evil that clawed its way out of the darkness, a more engaging relationship between youth and adults might have provided deeper reasons to root for the good guys.