Tag: charlize theron

The Old Guard

The Old Guard (2020)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that involves immortal mercenaries, it is incredibly frustrating that “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novels and screenplay by Greg Rucka, only takes off during the final act. The majority of the picture is a dirge: philosophical musings galore about what it means to live forever, having to endure seeing loved ones get old and die, the lack of purpose outside of their identity as a unit, questioning when their lives would end—if ever. When the action dies down, the work is a potent sleeping pill; why isn’t it any more fun?

The answer lies in a screenplay that never stops beginning. We meet the original four mercenaries: Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). We observe them perform a job, particularly at how effective they are in what they do. For them, to shoot a man dead is like exhaling—it is second nature. But before we get to know each individual, a new immortal emerges. She is named Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. Marine who “died” after getting her throat slit during a mission. The movie then becomes a montage of showing the ropes. Cue the Andy the leader bonding with the new recruit. Of course there must be a hand-to-hand combat between them. In a plane, no less. Just to show who’s boss. Guess who wins?

For the most part, I couldn’t help but feel bored during the first half because it feels too much like an origin story. Potentially interesting characters are at play but they are saddled with repetitive dialogue which lacks both dimension and conviction. Notice how the lines uttered tend to describe thoughts and feelings instead of simply showing us. A work being an action film does not justify a reductive approach. As a result, the film fails to become a thoroughly enveloping experience, a project that feels special, different, or unique every step of the way.

If these aren’t enough to test the patience, the picture is also saddled with flashbacks. While the content of the flashbacks is curious at times—far more intriguing than the five mercenaries sitting around waiting to be captured by men who work for a pharmaceutical company, led by the archetypically evil scientist Merrick (Harry Melling) whose goal is to make billions and prolong human lives… in that order—these are mere asides. Images of centuries past are so eye-catching, at one point I wished that the story, for instance, focused on Andy, her partner Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), and their adventures together. Rescuing women who have been accused of being witches in Salem is far more interesting than mopey immortals in modern times.

Like the dialogue, action scenes are painfully standard. The highly stylized choreography did nothing for me because I felt like I had seen them all before–quick cuts, long takes, sounds of bones being crushed. It works in the “John Wick” sequels because its universe, plot, and main character function on a high level. Here, the energy feels flat. It doesn’t inspire the viewers to want to lean closer to the screen and absorb all that’s happening.

“The Old Guard” is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it might as well have been directed by an A.I. that had been fed with the most wan and generic action movies. I felt no purpose in this, no passion, no deep thought or even a modicum of originality. It’s just junk food—not even the tasty kind but one that’s flavorless, leaving a chalky taste in the mouth. It promises a sequel, but the foundation is off to such a rocky start that not one element manages to gain a strong footing. Its frothy decorations are not entertainment but an insult to the intelligence.

The Addams Family

The Addams Family (2019)
★ / ★★★★

This adaptation of “The Addams Family” is dead in the water. Clearly lacking imagination, surprises, and energy, it appears that screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler have little to no understanding of what makes the Addams special. (I’m not convinced they were aware that the source material was meant to be a satire because this movie seems reluctant to take risks.) Yes, every member of the clan is in fact a caricature, but each person is not given a brand of humor or even (a black) heart. Instead, the movie relies on puns throughout its entire ninety-minute duration and it is stuck regurgitating one expository sequence after another. Content-wise it is boring and so are its visuals.

The animation is truly ugly to look at—like some cheap knockoff Dreamworks animation. Take note of the Addams mansion: it looks just like any other abandoned haunted house in a generic animated film. Cue the dark clouds and thunderstorms. It is supposed to be big, palatial even, but we see no more than five rooms. And in each room there is nothing especially memorable—not one macabre figure or creepy painting. Instead, the film busies itself with delivering unfunny visuals that it forgets to establish a believable atmosphere.

Not even the character designs are inspired. You look at Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) or Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and see animated models wearing clothes. Their eyes, postures, or the way they move command no personality. When in action—like Wednesday being whisked away by a tree branch or Pugsley maniacally throwing explosives at his father—observe how their expressions are devoid of even the slightest changes. It’s like watching mannequins… only mannequins appear to look creepier the longer one stares at them. These models look like first drafts that require further revisions in order to become alluring in a darkly comic way. I don’t think children would find the characters enticing in the least.

Its plot is also forgettable: Reality TV host Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney) wishes to sell houses, but since the Addams mansion is such an eyesore (she prefers bright colors like pink and yellow), she takes it upon herself to remodel their gothic home free of charge. In order to be liked by their neighbors, Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) welcome the obnoxious homemaking guru into their home. In a nutshell, the movie attempts to impart lessons regarding acceptance—that it is all right to be weird or different. But it comes off as trite and disingenuous because the material fails to show examples of why negative stereotypes or prejudice can be harmful or flat out wrong. The movie offers not one heartfelt scene. It is because it possesses no emotional intelligence.

I think films like “The Addams Family,” directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, should not be shown to children because it has no entertainment value, just emptiness and noise in order to pass the time. Here is a strange family ostracized by their community. And the Addams are also guilty of self-isolation. Why not explore these ideas in meaningful ways? Aren’t the writers adults capable of complex thinking? Instead, the material inspires its viewers to watch passively. The bar for animated pictures has been raised considerably over the past two decades and what this work offers is simply not good enough.

Long Shot

Long Shot (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Odd couple comedy “Long Shot” is a one-note joke elevated by charming performances by Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, she a beautiful and statuesque U.S. secretary of state who intends to run for president and he a progressive journalist who looks like Regular Joe. Polls predict he will not be good for her numbers. Peppered with light chuckles due to occasionally sharp jabs at our current political climate—the systemic corruption, money in politics, the idiots in office—there is a hint of a merciless romantic comedy here. Instead, we are handed a diluted satire meant for mainstream consumption. When a joke is considered to be too smart or hitting too close to the gut, the strategy is to show slapstick or gross-out humor. As the film drags somewhere in the middle of its two-hour running time, accompanied by awkward tonal shifts, one cannot help but consider a better alternative: a deeper exploration of the clash between ideals of two people on the same side of the political spectrum and less focus on how they would be perceived by the public as a couple. Written for the screen by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Directed by Jonathan Levine.


Tully (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a project determined to provide a raw portrayal of pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a child during its early weeks post-birth that we rarely see in the movies. We do not see the pregnant woman emitting a perfect radiant glow, a silly panicked rush to the hospital once her water breaks, nor do we come across a miraculous instantaneous recovery once she has been discharged from the hospital. Instead, it is interested in showing the reality of many ever day mothers, particularly the exhaustion that takes over as they struggle to maintain the stability of the household. Although it shows the less than sunny side of how it is like to be a mother, it is a love letter dedicated to them nonetheless. It reminded me of times when I would simply observe my mother as she juggles cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, vacuuming, and making a list for the next day’s trip to the supermarket—all of it after a long day at work while standing most of the time.

“Tully” is directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Their partnership results in a savagely funny work that speaks multiple truths even with just a simple shot, a line of dialogue, or the precise timing between action and inaction. They trust that viewers are not only intelligent but that their life experiences are valuable, unique, but also universal. Not once do they cheapen the material by inserting an uncharacteristic turn of event just for the sake of making people laugh. We laugh not because there is hilarity unfolding in front of us but because we recognize a part of ourselves in the images and feelings on screen.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three who not only looks haggard on the outside but one who is actually wilting on the inside. It is smart for Theron to choose to play her character with a muffled strength even though Marlo is falling apart. For example, the protagonist is quick with to employ her wits when joking or being sarcastic even though her body suggests she is weak, ready to fall over from fatigue. Because we are reminded of the fire inside of her from time to time, instances when she summons unexpected vigor—when she must confront, confess, make a stand—are not only believable. These moments feel exactly right for this particular character that we must examine. We learn to appreciate her complexity as a mother who wants to do it all but is unable to, as well as a mother who decides to seek help eventually from night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).

The centerpiece is the relationship between the two women, one being at least forty years of age while the other is twenty-six. Cody’s screenplay does a tricky thing by using Tully and Marlo as a sort of mirror into the past and future—but not so completely that their relationship ends up becoming just another cliché.

Theron and Davis share excellent chemistry as their characters open up to one another about their personal lives, their thoughts regarding where they are now, what they have or have not achieved thus far, where they think or hope they will be in the future. Their exchanges command a wonderful ear for dialogue. We lean in a little closer in order to dissect and understand what they mean exactly, not just with words but the manner in which words are expressed. But like Elio and Oliver’s unexpected bond in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” we know that their relationship—as employer and employee—comes with an expiration date. It is as clear as day that this is a comedy that works as a drama.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the film is its willingness to show how adults relate to children. For instance, the opening scene shows Marlo gently brushing the body of her son “like a horse,” according to Marlo while conversing with Tully, because it is believed that this makes the “quirky” boy less reactive to various external stimuli. (It is never said outright that the child might have a mild form of autism.) Notice how Tully holds the baby in a seemingly awkward position but the infant is at ease. How Marlo performs a duet with her daughter during a birthday party. How the father (Ron Livingston) looks at his three children after a long day at work. The keen eye from behind the camera and the performances underline the humanity of the material. It is most beautiful during nuanced moments, moments that can be easily overlooked.

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Some movies exist as an exercise of style over substance and David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, is clearly an example of such an approach. One way to enjoy this surprisingly visually impressive film is this: tune out during the would-be mysterious verbal exchanges since it is clearly not the material’s forté (which can be concluded about thirty minutes in) and pay close attention during the flinch-inducing action sequences—not just on the violence but how they are executed. They must have taken weeks to plan out, choreograph, and execute. In the middle of all the wonderful chaos, I could not help but wonder how many perfectly good pieces of furniture they destroyed just for the sake of our entertainment.

The familiar plot, inessential if one so chooses, involves an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being assigned to Berlin to acquire a watch that contains invaluable information regarding the identities of secret agents working from both sides of the wall. Before her departure, her superiors warn that she trusts no one during this most sensitive assignment. From the moment she steps outside the airport, KGB agents ambush her. Viewers experienced with the genre will smell a mole hunt from a mile away, but the visual style of the film keeps it fresh.

There is a look of detachment to the picture which is interesting because it wishes to pique our interest in its world of spies and secrecy. Scenes shot outdoors almost always look cold and gray. Bluish shades dominate, pale skins nondescript, emotionless. Appropriately, East Berlin looks depressing, a hole of misery and corruption. It is only slightly better indoors, whether it be inside a hotel room, a club, or a warehouse, there is an aura of impersonality. Even the living space of Lorraine’s contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), despite being filled with books, magazines, and other collectibles, many of them considered illegal in East Berlin, these items do not look to have been touched or read. Except for the alcohol bottles. Percival’s relationship with spirits likens that of fish in water.

But the centerpiece is clearly the well-executed action sequences. Most impressive is perhaps the drawn-out scene involving Lorraine and a bleeding man being stuck in an apartment complex as protests for freedom rage on outside. The seemingly interminable line of thugs entering the facility, the lack of score or soundtrack, the shattering of glass and numerous appliances, crushing of bones, bullets to the face, chokeholds… all build up to an intense and exhausting visual splendor of violence. I enjoyed that it is strives to deliver Class A entertainment but does not sugarcoat the fact that violence is extremely ugly, gory, and painful. Characters simply do not walk away unharmed. I admired that the film is willing to show Lorraine bruised and battered when it would have been far easier to keep Theron physically beautiful and alluring all the time.

“Atomic Blonde” is a kinetic, hyper-physical, muscular action-thriller. It might have been a stronger work overall had screenwriter Kurt Johnstad taken more of a risk either by minimizing or removing altogether the official meeting between agents and superiors and focused on the protagonist navigating her way through her increasingly complex assignment. It is particularly challenging to establish a suffocating air of paranoia when the picture is divided into two timelines: before and after the mission. During these meetings, on occasion, they tell more than show and this is toxic to aspiring adrenaline-fueled action pictures. But because nearly everything else about the film is strong, it manages to rise above such shortcomings.

Dark Places

Dark Places (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, “Dark Places” is a mystery-thriller that offers many secrets but it does not come together as tightly as it should have. A major reason is the screenplay’s attempt to cover too much ground too quickly. As a result, the cursory characterizations fail to build up to anything substantial. We never get to know them in meaningful ways. So when a secret is revealed eventually, it is usually met with a shrug rather than with genuine surprise, horror, or something that resonates.

It has been twenty-eight years since the murder of Libby’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters, which means that her brother, Ben (Tye Sheridan, Corey Stoll), has been in prison for almost three decades. Ben was the primary suspect although evidence against him were inconsistent at best. Libby (Charlize Theron), still haunted by the trauma of the past, is approached by a young man named Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) who claims to be a part of The Kill Club, a group of people who dedicate themselves to solve murder mysteries and other crimes. They believe Ben is innocent, but they need Libby’s help in order to exonerate the man.

The story’s structure requires careful attention because it jumps between the past and the present. Although the look between the two periods is distinct enough, there is often a lack of flow from one scene to the next. This is inappropriate because critical pieces end up being overlooked as we acclimate between eras. There are many names, faces, and motivations to remember so it is critical that the audience is never lost in the process. The material ought to have been approached as a procedural.

Furthermore, Libby’s narration enters and exits seemingly without control. I felt the narration should have been more consistent with its presence because Libby, although solidly performed by Theron, does not get enough personal scenes that allow us to understand that depths of her thoughts and therefore her actions. This is a woman who is supposed to be so plagued by guilt that she is unaware she is living in her own prison but we never realize this until another character provides an expository dialogue. It lacks the elegance of well-written mystery.

There is a lack of balance between past and present. It is strange that we learn more about the characters in the past rather than the present where the actual investigation is occurring. Thus, when the picture jumps to the present, it gives the impression that the answers are merely given as opposed to excavated. There is a glaring lack of tension in the present which is most disappointing because the present offers great performers like Theron, Stoll, and, to some extent, Hoult. Take note of the final time Theron and Stoll meet in prison. It is the best scene in the movie. The film lacks scenes that command emotional weight and catharsis.

And what about The Kill Club? We are given very limited knowledge about the group which is unexpected, in a negative way, because the script makes a big deal about it in the beginning. The writer-director’s screenplay has a nasty habit of introducing characters and potential avenues worth exploring and dispensing them just as quickly.

Perhaps “Dark Places,” based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, might have turned out to be a more effective piece of work if it had a writer who appreciates the most minute details as well as a director who has a patience of a sphinx. A slow-burn approach is perhaps most appropriate and so when revelations are thrown in our laps, we are jolted eyes wide open.

The Fate of the Furious

The Fate of the Furious (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

The increasingly over-the-top, car-smashing, bone-crunching action franchise continues to entertain, but it is apparent that “The Fate of the Furious,” directed by F. Gary Gray, is a step down from its direct—and quite excellent—predecessor. This time, the central villain, played by Charlize Theron, is a brainy hacker who prefers to fight from a distance and behind a computer. It would have been a great opportunity for the series to change it up either by turning its focus on the more techno-savvy members of the “Fast” family (Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel) or a different way to defeat an enemy who is capable of flipping the board with a mere touch of button. Instead, we get more of the same action scenarios—satisfying superficially but one cannot help but consider the possibilities had the studio been willing to take a real risk on their billion-dollar series.

There are two-and-a-half central action sequences in this two-and-a-half-hour adrenaline run. Clearly, the showdown in the busy streets of New York City is best—not because it is the most drawn out, loudest, or most expensive-looking, but because it shows the venom of this installment’s antagonist. Cipher (Theron) can control just about any technology as long as a computer can hack into it; the sequence shows how increasingly reliant we are when it comes to automated technologies and it also shows how all of it can go horribly wrong in an instant when such technologies are accessed by the wrong hands. This action scene would not have been as effective had it been released back in the early 2000s or even five years ago. It is a statement of our current times and where we might be heading.

The chemistry among the cast is there, as always. Dom (Vin Diesel) “betraying” his chosen family is a forced plot point but it provides an opportunity to show how the family members function when their leader is AWOL. However, the script is lacking in wit, intelligence, and creativity when it comes to specific exchanges between the family members. Look closely and take notice of how too often the material relies on Roman the funny guy, played by Tyrese Gibson, to make ill-timed and hilarious remarks without first building the necessary tension—and emotions—behind the possibility of fighting a great former ally.

Action sequences are capably executed and edited but unlike the superior three films that came directly before, this one is more reliant on shaking the camera to induce a sense of realism—particularly during hand-to-hand combat. The prison fight scene is an example that quickly comes to mind. While infectious energy and sense of momentum are established so that we pay attention through every beat, make no mistake: these are not refreshing action scenes. They are expected and standard, offering an overall experience that we can encounter in any action flick sans head-spinningly fast, ludicrously expensive cars.

I am not tired of “The Fast and the Furious” series because it has proven that it is capable of changing, adapting, and evolving. They may be ridiculously over-the-top, but they are also entertaining to see unfold. The cast it has amassed is charming—every one of them commands attention when he or she speaks. And who doesn’t enjoy the gleeful sounds the engines make prior to sudden acceleration? But in order for the series to move forward and reach another peak as it did during “Furious 7,” not only do the stunts need to get bigger, the filmmakers must come up with fresh ways to deliver messages it wishes to communicate. A tinge of complacency can be detected here.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A horrifying number of animated movies these days are not for smart children. Rather, they exist to sell products, to be cute, to be loud, to entertain and then to be forgotten the moment the story ends—sometimes even before since such endings must be happy and frothy. Cue the annoying dance sequence as the credits roll. “Kubo and the Two Strings,” directed Travis Knight, offers an alternative: although the medium is animation and, historically, animated pictures are usually aimed at children, it has the ambition to appeal to viewers across ages, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds because of what it is really about—elements that define our humanity.

Here is an animated film that is unafraid of silence. In fact, it embraces the lack of sound like a warm embrace, highly reminiscent of the more thoughtful, sensitive, and captivating moments of legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”—and appropriate given the influence of Japanese culture in this particular story. Others can and will reduce the plot like this: a one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) goes on a journey to acquire items that would help him defeat the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), Kubo’s very own grandfather who wish to collect his remaining eye. But Kubo’s journey and such items function as symbols for our protagonist’s true journey is an internal one.

Laika is a production company that continues to establish itself as Pixar’s counterpart for its willingness to embrace the bleak, the bizarre, and the difficult—while delivering an absorbing story—through the lens of gorgeous stop-motion animation. One that impressed me particularly involves a scene where Kubo, a determined snow monkey (Charlize Theron), and an insomniac beetle (Matthew McConaughey) must battle a giant skeleton in order to acquire a so-called Sword Unbreakable. I sat in my chair awe-struck as seemingly thousands of elements are juggled at once to create a most exciting and creative battle sequence that is also brimming with surprises. Astonished, I wondered how long the filmmakers took to film such an ambitious sequence.

And yet while it seems as though large strokes appear perfect on the canvas, the closer I looked, I noticed flaws that are intended to be there. An obvious imperfection is Kubo having only one eye. Another one is a rather large scar on the face of our young hero’s mother. Even the monkey has a mark on her face. Later, having been engaged in several violent confrontations, a bruise can be found on Kubo’s face. Our characters tend to move a bit slower as the journey goes on, only to be revved up again when life-or-death scenario arises.

These are interesting choices—fresh choices—because it makes the story and the journey that much more life-like. Here, our characters get tired. They get wounded. They consider their mortality. In return, we genuinely fear for their safety. We feel there is an excellent probability that not all of them would make it to the end. We even get a serious glimpse into their dreams. These elements are largely absent in animated movies which is exactly why “Kubo and the Two Strings,” based on the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, is head and shoulders above their counterparts.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Tired of her cowardly boyfriend being up to the same old schtick, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has decided to break up with Albert (Seth MacFarlane) a sheep farmer who detests living in the Old West. Though he is determined to get her back, just about every time they meet in town presents yet another opportunity to embarrass himself—especially since Louise has taken on a new beau (Neil Patrick Harris). However, when a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) meets Albert, she just might offer a friendship that he needs to move on. Unbeknownst to Albert, Anna is the wife of the deadliest and most feared outlaw in Arizona (Liam Neeson).

“A Million Ways to Die in the West,” written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, is a rambunctious and anachronistic western-comedy, with many jokes ranging from the sexually frank and politically incorrect to desperate. And yet it does not completely work. One of the reasons is because the picture reflects that of various sketch-like scenarios cobbled together to make a two-hour movie. Thus, it becomes a challenge to keep our attention—especially since the jokes are hit-or-miss in the first place.

The other—and perhaps more problematic factor—is the contrived romantic storyline. It is stretched from beginning to end that it eventually gets under the nerves and tests the patience. Similar to bad romantic comedies, the writers never provide a reason why or how the couple who break up in the beginning of the film were together in the first place. Right from their initial scene together, we can tell they are completely wrong for each other. Thus, there is no tension there, no underlying conflict. Thus, we do not care.

Seyfried playing her character completely straight, as if she were in a serious western drama, is a miscalculation. Though she is normally a very charming performer, she does not give her character a chance to be liked here. A little smile here and there or a bit of spice and cheekiness might have turned her character’s b-word persona into someone with a little bit more layer to her. Seyfried playing a straight-up mean girl is no fun.

Even the villain is a bore. Though played with a sort-of danger and growly menace by Neeson, like Seyfried’s character, Clinch Leatherwood also feels out of place. But instead of coming from a serious western drama, it feels as though he is straight off a western revenge-thriller, somewhere along the lines of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” And although that could have been the intention, the character is not exaggerated enough to symbolize true evil in the West. To me, the character is not anything more than a common bandit whose actions have received enough word-of-mouth that he has become a legend.

I laughed sporadically and chuckled somewhat consistently. I enjoyed the scenes when the material gets literal with the title, showing people dying in all sorts of ridiculous ways mixed with some historical truths. It is most disappointing that these do not compromise most of the picture. They are more like punctuation marks in the protagonist’s story of self-pity and broken heart. MacFarlane should have stuck to the jokes even if they do not always land. This would have resulted in a steady momentum—and a shorter running time.

The film is highly commercialized in that it tries so hard to appeal to as many people as possible that it ends up impressing barely anybody. In other words, it spreads itself too thin. Couple such a quality with a painfully ordinary man-wants-to-win-back-his-woman storyline, it becomes a slog to get through. Thus, I have to ask: Can a lack of brain stimulation be another way to die in the West? It sure felt like it.

At one point, MacFarlane’s character learns how to shoot. He shoots at bottles from a couple of feet away. No luck. So he moves a little closer. Still no luck. Then he walks directly in front of the bottles. Still, the bullets fail to touch the glass. That scene is funny on its own… and because it embodies how badly the film misses the mark at times.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Assigned to drive a massive truck to collect gasoline, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has another plan: once there is a good distance between the vehicle and her starting point, she would veer off-track and return to her homeland—along with five wives of cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byryne). A hot pursuit erupts, with ailing Nux (Nicholas Hoult), chained to a prisoner named Max (Tom Hardy), hoping to impress Immortan Joe so he can be welcomed to Valhalla when he dies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller, is an orgasmic visual exercise of yellow-orange sand, sweltering heat, vehicle acrobatics, dramatic explosions, and deformed, heavy makeup-wearing citizens of a collapsed world bound by no rules. Even without a deep story, it engages thoroughly because the images are so hyperbolic, there is not one film that is remotely like it in the past decade.

The action scenes are inspired and creative. The picture is composed of one long chase sequence but there is variety in the counters between heroes/heroines and villains. With each geographic change, we get an idea about the group of people who live within that area. Particularly memorable is the biker gang waiting atop a narrow canyon. A deal has been made between the gang and Furiosa. Based on how the scene is shot as our protagonists enter the canyon, we know immediately that something is about to go wrong.

Such is the film’s strength: it is shot with a sense of urgency. Although the narration in the beginning briefly describes the circumstances that led to humanity’s decay, we remain curious about its universe nonetheless because it does not spell out every detail. As the characters trek across dry terrains, we discover the journey with them. For instance, the challenge is not only avoiding or eliminating those who try to kill them. All characters must also be wary of and be prepared for the cruel environment that awaits.

At times the picture attempts to do too much. A romantic connection is introduced eventually which does not work at all. The problem is, we have a basic understanding about only half of the would-be couple. Character depth and development is not one of the film’s strengths and so such a desperate attempt to get us emotionally involved, through a romantic scope, comes across as forced and unnecessary. Sometimes less is more.

The two leads, Hardy and Theron, and two supporting actors, Hoult and Keays-Byrne, are a joy to watch because they are unafraid to exaggerate their emotions, to look unattractive physically, to embody their deranged characters completely. Each one commands a high level of creative energy and so he or she is front and center, there is a magnetism and charisma to the performance. We are inspired to learn more about each one of these characters and yet the material has a way of always keeping us at arm’s length. Perhaps we are not meant to get to know these people for their world is so different than ours, they might as well have been of a different species.

Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visual spectacle but there is room for some improvement as mentioned previously. I see potential as a modern franchise—one that is not about superheroes or chosen ones destined to save a dystopian world, but one that is about a decaying world and the degenerates who are struggling to survive in it.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

After the death of Snow White’s mother, King Magnus (Noah Huntley) went to war against an army that consisted of soldiers whose bodies shattered like glass when struck with appropriate force. Claiming a swift victory, the king found a prisoner, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), in one of the carriages and was so struck with her beauty, he decided to marry her the next day. Ravenna proved to be a traitor when she poisoned and pierced the king’s heart with a dagger just when they were about to consummate their marriage. As queen, Ravenna imprisoned Snow White indefinitely just in case she’d be of some use in the future. “Snow White and the Huntsman,” based on the screenplay by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini, showed magnificent promise as we plunged into a medieval world tarnished by dark magic and other curiosities, but it was ultimately unable to sustain its exciting momentum, weighed down by its middle section so bloated and soporific, it was like a poison apple to an otherwise thrilling action-fantasy. Casting Theron to play the evil queen was an excellent decision because she was able to deliver stunning beauty juxtaposed with an intensely ugly shrillness when things didn’t go her way. Theron completely embodied the queen’s desperation, from her intense glares to her branch-like fingers, to capture Snow White (Kristen Stewart) who successfully escaped from the castle. According to the mirror, eating the heart of the fairest in the land would provide Ravenna immortality–forever beautiful and powerful. Less effective were the title characters, especially Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman. While it was fun to watch his physicality in terms of killing and knocking bad guys unconscious, the more sensitive moments, such as the backstory involving his deceased wife, not only felt like footnotes but they felt so muted, I didn’t feel like I knew the character well enough. Halfway through, I found myself expecting him to get killed because his use surpassed its expiration date. On the other hand, while Stewart did an adequate job as Snow White, looking very beautiful and tortured, it was unfortunate that her character was not given enough dimension for us to be convinced that she was a complex character worth rooting for no matter what. Because of this, her so-called moments of valor felt forced which began in the final act when she had to deliver a speech as to why they should lead an assault to her father’s former castle. Furthermore, the picture went overboard with its special and visual effects. At its best, the effects successfully placed us into the mind of Snow White. There was a real sense of dread when our heroine entered the enchanted Dark Forest for the first time and experienced horrific hallucinations. However, the effects eventually took center stage as it introduced fairies, trolls, and the like. While the film had a magical element to it, the introduction of the creatures felt more like empty visual candy–distractions–than tools of progressing the story forward. Lastly, I found the dwarves to be very dull which was a mistake because they are a staple to the mythology. If they had to be introduced, at least the writers ought to have done them the honor of making them memorable. Directed by Rupert Sanders, “Snow White and the Huntsman” had some entertaining action sequences but it needed to have the fat of its middle portion trimmed to make it feel more compact. Waiting for something to happen combined with inadequately established protagonists does not equal escapism.

That Thing You Do!

That Thing You Do! (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

Guy (Tom Everett Scott) spent his days helping out his family to keep their appliance store business afloat. After he’d close up, he’d go down to the basement and play the drums before heading home. One day, his friends came up to him with a last-minute offer to play with their band at a local talent show because the drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) broke his arm. If they won, they’d evenly split a hundred dollars, a good amount of money in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania. Their band, The Oneders, pronounced “The Wonders” but often mispronounced as “The O-need-ers,” won the competition and their song, “That Thing You Do!” was an instant hit. People in the music industry took notice, from the likes of a local-based manager, Horace (Chris Ellis), to the big deal Mr. White (Tom Hanks). Written and directed by Tom Hanks, “That Thing You Do!” was like a really catchy and inescapable pop song. Despite its occasional lack of logic and cohesion, I couldn’t help but welcome whatever it had to offer and see if it could surprise me in some way. Once in a while it did. One of the most exciting scenes was when the band, along with the lead singer’s girlfriend, luminescent Faye (Liv Tyler), heard their song on the radio for the very first time. They ran all over the street and into the appliance store, their energy so infectious, I wanted to join and celebrate with them. That scene drew a really big smile on my face. I could just imagine how much fun the actors had while shooting that sequence. Furthermore, I liked that we got a chance to feel each of the band member’s personality. Guy was the smart one with the puppy dog eyes, Jimmy (Johnathan Schaech) was the serious-minded lead singer, lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) had the great one-liners that bordered silliness and foolishness, and the unnamed bass player (Ethan Embry) was the reticent thinker. I found their lack of depth, at least initially, appropriate because that’s how I come to recognize the members of the bands I enjoy listening to. I may not know their names at first but I’m instantly familiar with their quirks to the point where I could look at the attitude–or lack thereof–in their shadows and match it with a face. It’s about presence and I was convinced that the picture understood that idea. However, some of the strands of the film left a lot to be desired. I didn’t see how Guy’s girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron), was at all necessary. Yes, she had a fling with her hunky dentist, but she was gone from the movie for such large chunks of time, I just stopped caring. I suspected the movie had forgotten about her because it didn’t offer closure between she and Guy. Another romantic angle that didn’t quite work was between Guy and Faye. I wanted to see them get together because the actors were attractive, but I’m afraid there wasn’t much meat in their potentially awkward relationship. Why didn’t they have funnier scenes? The little flirtations they shared were nice and sweet but they failed to match, or offer a different, the level of energy relative to the performances or when the band would just hang out backstage. Whenever the camera turned to romance, the quieter moments, the thinness of the plot and characterization were blinding. It made me consider that, without The Oneders’ zestful performances, it might have been a torturous experience. However, I had fun watching “That Thing You Do!” because it showcased the kind of pop music and time period that I’m a sucker for. It must’ve asked myself ten times why I didn’t grow up in the 60s.


Prometheus (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find yet another cave full of paintings, this time in Scotland’s Isle of Skye, of early people worshipping a tall, human-like figure that points to the sky, which strengthens their theory that the answer in terms of who created us can be found somewhere in outer space. The handful of paintings, when digitally put together, create a map that points to a solar system with a planet and multiple moons surrounding the sun. Four years later, Drs. Shaw and Holloway, along with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the woman assigned to represent the interests of Weyland Corporation, the sponsor of the project, and her crew of engineers and scientists, land on one of the moons, LV-226, with hopes of encountering our Creator.

Despite the inevitable plot holes in “Prometheus,” collateral damage when the script is daring enough to ask the big questions about our existence, the film provides entertainment for those who prefer to engage their senses on the level of popcorn entertainment as well as for the ones who enjoy to think beyond what is shown on screen. Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Linderlof, the film has many encompassing themes, from religion versus Darwinism, self-interest versus self-sacrifice, finding answers to questions that perhaps are not meant to be discovered, among others, but what I was most fascinated with is the sense of powerlessness imposed upon the human characters because it allows us to relate to them on a subconscious level.

Given its ambitious scope, there is not enough time to get to know all of their stories–Shaw’s is touched upon once in a while but never delved into–and why they agree to participate in the mission–although it is quite obvious from the tension among them that each has his and her own motivations. It cannot be any simpler that we want to see the explorers survive and go home in one piece because they are human. From the moment we see David (Michael Fassbender), a cyborg created and treated by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) as his own son, taking care of the ship’s crew while they remain in stasis, a period of inactivity because the trip from Earth requires two years, there is a portentous feeling in the air. Perhaps David has too much time on his hands and is becoming too smart for his own good. The lives of the men and women are in the hands of a robot capable of very human qualities like forming its own thoughts and changing its agendas.

Furthermore, not one alien, unless it takes control of a vessel, is ever killed as if what we are watching is a splatter-fest picture. Instead, the majority of the focus is on the exploration within a gargantuan domed structure and the eventual repercussions of not stopping to think whether an action should be done just because it can be done. For instance, just because a character can touch the black liquid substance oozing from a vase-shaped metal, does not meant he should. The picture is clear in relaying the message that an unmanageable human curiosity can sometimes lead to powerlessness. And powerlessness can lead to horror.

“Prometheus,” directed by Ridley Scott with joy and elegance, also preys on our curiosity as an audience. One of the best scenes in the film involves “tricking” a dead thing that it is still “alive.” There should have been a camera recording my face as it changed from excited, gleeful curiosity to contorted horror in a span of ten seconds. It would have been comedy gold. Packed with beautiful cinematography, especially when the camera pulls back and forces us to pay attention to the landscape, the film’s every corner feels vibrant with possibilities. And I think that’s the point. The more questions we come up with, out of frustration, disappointment, or to further immerse ourselves in its mythology, the stronger it ties in to the idea that wanting answers defines us as a species.

Young Adult

Young Adult (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), divorced and currently single, was finding it a bit difficult to focus on finishing her final novel for a formerly popular young adult fiction series. Every time she sat down to write, she found her mouse scurrying its way to her inbox so she could look at an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend in high school, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who just had a baby and was very happily married with Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), a drummer in a local girl band. In Mavis’ mind, the e-mail was some sort of signal that Buddy wanted to rekindle their relationship. So, Mavis packed her bags, dog in tow, left Minneapolis behind, and drove to the sleepy town of Mercury, Minnesota. Written by Diablo Cody, “Young Adult” was another story of an unhappy woman who felt compelled to find love in the most inappropriate circumstances, but what allowed it to feel fresh was Theron’s ability to play with nuance. Mavis was not a likable person. She acted like she was above everyone else because, unlike most of her peers, she made it out of her hometown and succeeded in establishing a life in the city. Most importantly, through her creativity, she was able to make a name for herself by being a ghost writer. Yet there were plenty of moments when it was impossible for us to not feel sorry for her because, despite her ambition and determination, she was deathly short-sighted. A lot of us know people exactly like her: unable to detect if she’s overstepping boundaries, desperate for approval even from those who barely knew her, and living a life like she never had to say sorry. I was supremely embarrassed for Mavis because she had no shame in throwing herself on her former flame. Since she wanted him back so badly, she was more than willing to throw her successes out the window and act like a pimply teen girl with a big crush on a hunky guy. But she was no teen nor was Buddy a stud. Because I felt that Mavis was an exaggerated version of Theron and the actress wasn’t afraid to make fun of herself, I was comfortable laughing at her and with her. A plethora of negative adjectives could describe Mavis but being devoid of a sense of humor was not one of them. Her jabs might be pricked with poisonous needles, but I loved that she was direct and didn’t waste any time thinking about how she was going to get what she wanted. The person who consistently attempted to talk some sense into her, serving as the audience’s voice, was Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky guy carrying a bit of extra weight who was jumped by a bunch of jocks in high school because they mistakenly suspected he was gay. The most striking scenes involved simple conversations between Mavis and Matt; Mavis was the seemingly impenetrable wall and Matt was an untiring hammer that drove nails into it. They clicked because both were stubborn in their own way. Directed by Jason Reitman, “Young Adult” was entertaining because the screenplay was sharp and full of irony. Although there was vitriol in the dialogue, it did not overshadow real human emotions like desire, fear, and shame.