Tag: chiwetel ejiofor

2012


2012 (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Although a portrait of the end of times, disaster flick “2012” is meant to be fun and entertaining. But what results is a work that is over reliant on CGI, coupled with wafer-thin characters with nothing of interest to say or do other than flail around when the occasion calls for it, to the point where it is impossible to believe—let alone emotionally connect—in whatever is unfolding on screen. The movie boasts a budget of 200 million dollars, but it proves unable to buy deep imagination, genuine excitement, and a wellspring of creativity. All it manages to offer is empty spectacle: giant crevices dividing grocery stores in half, massive tidal waves engulfing the Himalayas, state-of-the-art ships capable of housing a hundred thousand individuals. What makes the movie special?

The screenplay by Roland Emmerich (who directs) and Harald Kloser is not without potential. It requires sitting down, thinking about, and discussing which elements are worth delving into and which aspects should be excised altogether. An example: The material wishes to make a statement about how we as a society can so easily turn against one another in life-or-death situations. But notice the work’s failure in showing specific examples that make a lasting impression. In a movie with a running time of nearly a hundred and sixty minutes, it is not asking a lot to show regular folks fighting for resources. The camera is almost always on the powerful, the rich, and the brains working for the government. Worse, like clockwork, these people have the tendency to deliver tedious speeches about survival, heroism, and importance of coming together. It lacks a dramatic anchor.

Our anchor, I guess, is a work-obsessed author named Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) whose most recent novel tells the story of how humans deal with the apocalypse. His work was panned by critics for being too naive and optimistic. Jackson must now face a real-life apocalypse. If you think his naïveté and optimism are bound to be challenged by a dead screenplay, think again. Naturally, the way he perceives the world is solidified. The writers have failed to ask themselves how drama can be mined from a character whose ideals are not challenged.

You know it’s coming: Jackson is divorced, but he still loves his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and two young children (Liam James, Morgan Lilly); he would do anything to make sure they survive. Despite the Jackson character being provided a lengthy (and boring) exposition, Cusack is given nothing substantive to work with. This character’s trajectory is predictable from the beginning all the way up to the moment when the two former spouses lock eyes and fall in love again. And can you believe it? This is not the only romantic angle proposed by the script. The other one, between a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the president’s daughter (Thandie Newton), is so undercooked that had it been removed completely, it wouldn’t impact the story in any way.

Back to what most viewers likely signed up for: the special and visual effects. Sure, they look expensive at first glance but look closer: when performers are placed amidst the destruction, there is a glaring disconnect because it is obvious they’re acting in front of a blue or green screen. Consider the scene where Jackson must escape Los Angeles with his family on a limo. Homes, small businesses, landmarks, and gargantuan skyscrapers collapse all around, the score is booming, and there is deafening yells and screams. It drags for so long that near fatalities are reduced to running gags eventually. Suspense and tension devolve into physical comedy. Control—of effects, of timing, of editing—could have turned the sequence around. It were as if everyone in charge of helming the picture fell asleep at the wheel. It’s depressing.

Although science is thrown out the window, I enjoyed how the filmmakers find the time to explain how solar flares (releasing particles called “neutrinos”) lead to the destabilization of the earth’s mantle. Yes, it’s ridiculous. That’s not a question. But I think those who have little or no knowledge of geology and physics can follow the movie’s logic because the animation is presented in a clear and precise manner. This short segment reminded of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” specifically the computer model that showed how water moved from one compartment to another which led to the sinking of the purportedly unsinkable ship.

Z for Zachariah


Z for Zachariah (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After a nuclear war, the majority of the planet became uninhabitable. One of the exceptions is the valley that Ann (Margot Robbie) resides in which was somehow protected by the nuclear fallout and quite possibly has its own weather system. Although Ann has lived with family, it has been a year since the rest of them attempted to find survivors outside of the valley. To her surprise, while doing her usual chores and rounds, Ann crosses paths with a man named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a research engineer wearing a suit designed to protect from radioactivity. Soon enough, despite their initial but important differences, they decide to live together.

“Z for Zachariah,” directed by Craig Zobel, is a contemplative piece that works as a chamber drama and barebones science fiction. Credit to the casting directors for choosing actors that are comfortable portraying many different emotions very often in one scene. This is because, aside from the main plot involving faith and science, the film is also about the images the characters paint in the viewer’s mind as they recollect traumatic memories.

Scenes that stand out involve characters simply sharing a meal or standing in a room and talking to one another. Particularly moving is when Ann opens up about her extremely isolated existence in the farm, what she had to go through before meeting John. We get a taste of her lifestyle during the first ten minutes as she trudges forward during her usual routine, a dog being her sole companion. Although the word “suicide” is never uttered, the subject is brought up with an elegance and a sadness. One cannot blame her for considering such an action and yet one ought to commend her strength for ultimately continuing to live, to keep fighting.

The pacing is slow and deliberate which is most appropriate in a story like this. Thus, the material is successful is building a lot of sexual tension between John and Ann. It is critical that we believe they are eventually drawn to each other, despite their differences especially when it comes to believing in God, because their feelings for one another—whatever it is exactly—is challenged later, upon the arrival of Caleb (Chris Pine), who claims that he is on his way south due to news that there is a colony of survivors there.

On some level, the picture works as a thriller in the final third as we begin to question how far a character, or characters, is willing to go in order to defend or upend the status quo. The ambiguous ending is wonderfully executed because clues are laid out for further dissection. It is up to us to decide which avenue to believe. In the wrong hands, it could have been simplistic, too fixed, altogether too clear, offering no sense of mystery or questioning. More importantly, the ending shoves us into the mindset of its characters.

Loosely based on the novel by Robert C. O’Brien, “Z for Zachariah” is a piece of work that is polished, certainly shot beautifully, but has enough roughness around the edges—its ability to take risks to be exact—to keep it fascinating. It is made for a more contemplative, empathetic audience.

Doctor Strange


Doctor Strange (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite impressive visual effects and capable performances, “Doctor Strange” lacks the emotional depth and heft that modern superhero films now require. If it were released back in the mid-1990s or early-2000s, it would have been considered first-class, but given that the bar had been set quite high by other Marvel films, viewers with a critical eye are likely to consider the picture to be entertaining in parts but average as a whole. Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, perhaps the material might have been improved upon given a fuller characterization of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), both as a fallen top neurosurgeon who decides to seek alternative medicine after modern science had failed to fix his injuries and as a believer of the mystic, eventual savior of the planet.

Pay close attention to the way people speak to one another. There is a reductive approach to the script, a nasty habit of explaining how a person feels or thinks about rather than showing and trusting the audience to be empathetic enough to relate to the plight of its characters—not just toward Strange’s circumstances but also to those around him. For example, I found the romantic interest, Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, to be overwritten. Scenes which depict the two arguing feel as though they are stripped off a bad melodrama. Good melodramas tend to have implications, the script thriving off the unsaid and long silences. Here, just about everything has to be vocalized just in case the audience doesn’t get it.

The writers’ attempts at humor feel misplaced at times. Perhaps it is because I wish so badly to be engaged with the core drama of an arrogant man unable to come to terms with his broken self that all efforts which change the tone come across rather disingenuous. Or maybe the script does not command a strong grip on the story’s identity and thus its inability to control tone effectively. Having not read Stan Lee’s comics, it made me wonder if the source material had the same type of humor or if the humor was tacked onto the film make the work more palatable, relatable to mainstream audiences. Either way, no viewer should have to wonder.

There are neat visual effects in which skyscrapers and busy streets fold into—or out of?—one another as characters battle it out using their limbs and summoned magic. There is an urgency to the chases that allows it to work in an action-fantasy film. Still, such high-level energy fails to continue once the action stops and people start talking or relating to one another. For instance, the subplot point involving Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange’s contrasting approaches—the former’s steel willfulness at following rules to a tee and the latter’s versatility to follow and bend rules when necessary—comes across as rushed and undercooked during the latter half.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, “Doctor Strange” is watchable and entertaining at times, but one gets the feeling there is more to the character and the mythology. And had the filmmakers been willing to take more risks and trust that the audience is capable of understanding the more cryptic aspects of the title character’s universe, they might have created a film that aimed to set an example rather than simply following an oft-traversed path.

Secret in Their Eyes


Secret in Their Eyes (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the masterful film “El secreto de sus ojos” by Juan José Campanella, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the execution of plot, pacing, and tone, but it is anchored—somewhat—by three highly watchable performances. If one had already seen the modern-classic Argentine thriller, there is not much to see or learn here.

The crime-drama revolves around a murdered teenager whose rapist and killer (Joe Cole) goes free after high-ranking men in the FBI determine that he is too valuable an asset, a snitch, within a potential terrorist group—despite the fact that the deceased was the daughter of one of their very own investigators, Agent Jessica Cobb (Julia Roberts). Cobb’s partner, Agent Ray Kasten (Chiwetel Ejiofor), demands that justice be served and so every day for next thirteen years, he devotes himself to looking through endless records with the hope of finding the whereabouts of the killer who had been set free.

The screenplay is not sharply written and so the movement between past and present comes across as jarring, careless. It merely relies on the characters’ different hairstyles and graying hair so audience can discern which timeline is up on screen. Many viewers are likely to end up confused. Such a superficial approach is frustrating especially since the material pretends to be more intelligent or compelling than it actually is. A more subtle picture would have chosen to show how experience hardened the characters over physical characteristics that come across as silly and fake in the first place.

Tension is absent during Kasten’s investigation. There is a scene where Kasten and a fellow cop (Dean Norris, severely underused) sneak into the home of a potential suspect. The failure of the scene is due to the filmmakers not taking the time to get us to feel nervous for the cops for doing something that could potentially destroy their case. The camera moves quickly. Cuts are generously employed. Moving the camera slowly and having minimal cuts would have made all the difference.

It goes to show that the writer-director, Billy Ray, does not thoroughly understand his film’s direct inspiration. “El secreto de sus ojos” is about perspectives. The plot involves a murder, a fierce investigation, and the passions of those people involved. But these elements are not what that picture is about.

The Argentine film plays with perspective as it uses characters like chess pieces. As we observe the chess pieces make their intelligent, risky, nail-biting moves across the board—with each piece always having something interesting or compelling to say or do—we lose track of the possibility that we, too, are getting played. That key understanding separates a great film, one that will stand the test of time, from a project that is mediocre at best.

Still, Ejiofor, Kidman, and Roberts try to do the best they can with the material. Although Ejiofor and Kidman do not share much chemistry, which is a significant problem because their supposedly complex relationship is the heart of the material, at least each of the three gets at least one specific moment to shine. Out of the trio, Roberts is the strongest, particularly during scenes when she must balance a mother’s sorrow and rage alongside a cop’s disappointment of the system that gets more than one chance but consistently fails to provide her daughter justice.

12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After sharing a meal with two men who promised a well-paying job, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up in a dark room with chains around his limbs. As he tries to piece together what happened the night prior, two men he has never seen before go through the door and one of them claims that Solomon is to be sold for the right price. Solomon insists he is not a slave, that he is in fact a free man who has a wife and two children waiting for him in Saratoga Springs, New York. The man chooses not to hear another word and soon Solomon, renamed Platt, is taken to New Orleans to work in a plantation.

Perhaps the most interesting and effective technique utilized in “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen and based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, is a certain level of detachment when it comes to its treatment of the characters. Notice that there is barely a trace of a character arc with respect to the protagonist. Instead, emphasis is placed on the grueling circumstances that Solomon, as well as the other black men and women he comes across, is forced to endure for more than a decade while keeping in mind that there is a psychological complexity to white folks who deem themselves superior. A shameful time in American history is told through a microcosm.

The scenes involving humiliation make a lasting impression. It is most appropriate that the picture concerns itself with details, from naked black men and women standing side-by-side while being examined by potential buyers to being woken in the middle of the night just so their owners can watch them dance. We are encouraged to think about the mindset of a group of American people who once thought it was morally acceptable to treat their fellow human beings as objects or playthings.

To question whether the film’s level of violence is suitable to the story is to miss the point completely. The brutal lashings—which are very explicit, from the sharp snap of the whip to the droplets of blood in the air upon impact on the body—are not meant to be pretty as the subject is not meant to be digestible. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable; it is supposed to be upsetting; it is supposed to make us angry. The level of violence is never gratuitous because it functions as a symbol of the white man exercising his power over his property, the taming of what he considers to be his animal when it does not do what he wishes.

Ejiofor’s face is one I can study for days. His approach to the character is silent indignation. The script requires scenes in which he must emote in big ways that our complete attention is demanded but his performance is most interesting when he is subdued. The decision to compartmentalize Solomon’s suffering is one that feels loyal to an educated character with many thoughts, just waiting for the right opportunity to escape.

Songs and music being allowed to bleed from one scene to another is a stroke of genius. It is not simply done for the sake of flow, as a lesser film would have, but to remind us that the horrific occurrences from one moment in time is carried through the next—just as how the body may heal from physical wounds but the memory of how one gets that injury and how it feels afterwards, a psychic scar, is remembered with clarity. The events of the past are placed in a modern context: that slavery in America is one that should never be forgotten.

Every year, there are only but a few movies that ought to be remembered—despite whether it should win accolades or whether it ultimately did (or did not)—and “12 Years a Slave,” based on the screenplay by John Ridley, is deserving of that honor. It is admirable because it is uncompromising, unrelenting, and a rewarding piece of work.

Salt


Salt (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A Russian defective (Daniel Olbrychski) arrived at a CIA facility accusing of Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) of being a Russian sleeper agent whose role was to assassinate key political figures in order to spark a war between the United States and Russia. CIA officers (Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor) wanted to take precautions by detaining Salt but she attempted to break out of the facility to try to get to her husband (August Diehl) and prove her innocence. I liked that this movie actually went beyond the trailer’s question about whether or not Salt really was a mole. At times even I was unsure whether we were observing a good guy or a bad guy but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen because Jolie played her character with such gravity and conviction. Although the film did not have anything particularly new to offer the action-thriller genre involving spies and mistaken identities, its willingness to entertain by delivering high adrenaline, often nail-biting, fast-paced action sequences was enough to take the material to an above average action flick. However, its technique of constantly throwing plot points and twists was ultimately its downfall. In the middle of the picture, I wanted it to take a couple of minutes and just breathe. In the end, I was not quite sure who Salt really was other than she was really good at jumping on and off trucks and essentially an effective killer. A little bit of character development and exploring her relationship with her superiors and husband would have gone a long way. Another problem I had was its weak ending. I’m not sure if its aim was to leave the door open in hopes of starting a franchise–a femme version of the “Bourne” saga considering both are about finding out about the main character’s true identity. It did not quite work because it left me wanting more in a negative way. When the screen cut to black, I felt like I was still in the middle of an action sequence and I felt a bit cheated for its lack of falling action and resolution. Even if the filmmakers were trying to make a franchise, like “The Bourne Identity,” it should have been able to stand on its own by having a completely satisfying story arc. Written by Kurt Wimmer and directed by Phillip Noyce, “Salt” was at its best when building tension and releasing it by having Jolie’s character construct her own way out of very tricky situations. Watching it was not brain surgery but I wished it had more complexity in terms of the relationships between the characters and what it felt like to have your country turn on you when you’ve dedicated your life trying to protect it.

Dirty Pretty Things


Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
★★ / ★★★★

Written by Steven Knight and directed by Stephen Frears, “Dirty Pretty Things” is about two illegal immigrants (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou) who work in a fancy hotel in London and get caught in an underground business run by their boss (Sergi López). This was supposed to be a thriller but I didn’t find anything particularly thrilling about it. I think it tried too hard to hide its secret underground happenings to the point where I found myself not knowing where the story was going. After it introduced particular events that could potentially drive the plot forward, it was followed by uneventful fifteen- to twenty-minutes. One of the few things I liked about it, however, was the way it showed illegal immigrants in the work place. While It was an effective drama, it considerably weaker in its thriller aspect. A third variable was the potential romance between Ejiofor and Tautou. It’s strange because I don’t know what to think of it. They didn’t exactly have chemistry together but it was nice to see them interact either when they were just talking or were sitting in silence. Overall, I think this film was misdirected and miscast. Not to mention it tried way too hard to inject various storylines; it made me feel like it simply did not have enough courage to tackle the main issue head-on. If it had focused on the underground activities that not many people know about, I think I would have been more interested. With two main characters who were easy to root for, if they had been placed in more dangerous situations, the script would’ve popped instead of imploding upon itself. I’ve heard a number of critiques regarding this picture and more than half of them were impressed with the “surprise” ending. Personally, I wasn’t that surprised because it was not particularly original. I’ve seen such an ending from a lot of similar but better films so I was not at all impressed. It left me unsatisfied but I was glad to see Tautou play someone who was a little more damaged and vulnerable than her other roles.