Miseducation of Cameron Post, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The title of the film suggests that the protagonist will take an active role in the story, but it turns out Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is more like a ghost that just so happens to be walking through a gay conversion therapy centre. It is most bizarre and bewildering that for a subject matter that is so important—that is, that such institutions are not only ineffective in “curing” homosexuality, these morally corrupt places actually teach their victims how to hate themselves—the screenplay by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, directed by the former, chooses a passive, often boring, approach. What results is a drama that never takes off, only occasionally saved by performers who know how to captivate the screen with seemingly little effort.
God’s Promise is led by a strict therapist played by Jennifer Ehle. According to Dr. Marsh, homosexuality does not exist because God does not make mistakes. Some people merely have “gender confusion” and those struggling with it are the ones to blame. She is an interesting character because Ehle does not play the devout Christian as a straight-up villain; we get the impression that she is genuine in believing, or has trained herself to believe, that the program (i.e.: brainwashing) actually helps the residents. Dr. Marsh creates a big echo chamber, if you will, and those who do not bend to the rules, regulations, and expectations are likely to break. I appreciated that the experience in God’s Promise is specific enough so that it stands out among familiar places in other films that tackle a similar subject.
The picture is a challenge to get through, however, because the main character is often a bore. There are flashbacks that show snippets of Cameron’s history as a teenager who might be a lesbian (the material leaves open the possibility that she is willing to experiment sexually with other females—she just happened to get caught), but not a single one is so effective that it leaves an imprint about the character, who she is outside of her attraction to females. We even get to meet one family member but there is no dimension to her. It is the typical religious figure who does not understand homosexuality but it is convenient to dump a loved one in a place that promises a remedy and redemption.
And while I enjoyed that it is a different role for Moretz, I was unconvinced she is a good fit for the role. There is often romance on her face when a certain occasion calls for anguish, for example. When tears do come, I did not believe the emotions that triggered them. Cue the well-lit room and the somber score meant to make us feel gloomy. It is all so predictable—but it should not be since there are not that many pictures that take place in a gay conversion therapy program.
Humor is the saving grace of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and is often filtered through Cameron’s interactions with the “disciples” she befriends (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck). The comedy is not always obvious or riotous but subtle and sarcastic. Sometimes when you find yourself stuck in a desperate situation, there is no choice but to laugh or make fun. It is a survival mechanism. And it is ridiculous, the “disciples” being in that horrid place, forced to change when there is nothing wrong with them in the first place. The chemistry among Moretz, Lane, and Goodluck is so convincing, I was at a loss why their friendship is not delved into further.
I admired the material’s compassion, but the execution is lacking.
Equalizer, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Antoine Fuqua’s interpretation of the television-based “The Equalizer” is a type of action-thriller that offers no surprises, but it works anyway because of a script that strives to tell a story instead of presenting one breathless action sequence after another and a magnetic lead performance by Denzel Washington. It is certain to entertain fans of vigilante justice movies because the line between good versus evil is so thick and the two camps being a mile apart, it leaves little moral ambiguity in between. And sometimes that’s good enough.
Washington, as expected, delivers a character who is worthy of our curiosity. Aided by carefully calibrated opening scenes that highlight McCall’s isolation, perhaps even loneliness—a trait that we never really hear him admit himself, as a widowed man whose purpose in existing relies on his every day habits, there is plenty to unearth about the protagonist. This is why later scenes that touch upon his past, particularly Washington’s short but rich conversations with Melissa Leo, are obvious standouts.
Action pieces are appropriately brutal and beautifully choreographed. There is a sense of humor mixed in with violence, especially in how McCall employs common household items to render his enemies incapacitated or dead. When one thinks about it further, however, it is sort of a mixed bag because our hero’s quest for justice is dead serious but the manner in which conflicts are resolved is quite tongue-in-cheek which sends a conflicting message. I got the impression eventually that the screenwriter Richard Wenk chose this approach in order to remind the audience that the experience is supposed to be fun. But it is already fun—bad guys getting their comeuppance. Just because the villains get pummeled with a hammer doesn’t mean the audience should, too.
There are story elements that come across rather episodic. Perhaps it is intentional, but from a cinematic point of view, it is jarring at times. For instance, McCall works at a hardware store and he helps a portly co-worker to lose weight and gain confidence to become a security guard. The tone of this subplot is comical and when placed side-by-side with Russian mafias and corrupt cops, it is a strange combination. Still, there is amusement to be had in these scenes and it creates a portrait of McCall as approachable and human. Perhaps the film might have improved if there had a bridge between such extremes.
There is one casting misstep that I felt diminished the picture—problematic because the performer pushes the central plot forward. Chloë Grace Moretz plays a teenage prostitute for the Russian mafia and she is most unconvincing. Watching her play a whore with dreams of becoming a singer is like pulling teeth. The way she relies upon behavior and cosmetics is thoroughly distracting; not for one second do we believe that the character is desperate to leave her occupation. Washington steals their scenes right from under her. Unlike Moretz’ approach, Washington knows that one of the surefire ways to convince the audience is the eyes.
Brain on Fire (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Beware: those who expect a high-class medical drama are likely to be disappointed with “Brain on Fire,” based on a true story of a healthy young woman who finds herself suddenly plagued with an enchilada of terrifying symptoms, from auditory and visual hallucinations to intense seizures and huge gaps of memory loss. But those with a penchant for disease-of-the-week television shows are equally likely to be engaged with the mysterious case at hand.
One might argue that the film’s greatest limitation is a barebones screenplay which makes the story feel rather non-cinematic. In its attempt to trim the fat completely and focus on the rare disease, it excises nearly everything else, particularly the complexities of the subject’s work life (Tyler Perry, Jenny Slate), love life (Thomas Mann), and family life (Carrie-Anne Moss, Richard Armitage). In a story like this, personalization is most critical because extra details lead to substance which helps to put a face on a particular disease.
Despite its occasional lack of subtlety, a few cringe-inducing dialogue, and familiar beats inherent to medical dramas, I found the work to be thoroughly engaging otherwise. While I craved to look closely at the medical charts and X-rays, especially exchanges filled with medical jargon, the screenplay by writer-director Gerard Barrett breezes through them because it is not his goal to create a first-class medical drama. And that is perfectly fine. I think the point of the project is two-fold: to make an easily digestible work for the more casual viewers and to shed light on a rare disease, and perhaps others like it, that is often misdiagnosed by the brightest professionals. On this level, it works.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays twenty-one-year-old Susannah Cahalan, a journalist for the New York Post. Her debilitation from a very lively woman to a catatonic vegetable is convincing and, at some point, genuinely touching. Perhaps the strongest moments are instances when the camera takes its time to show the subject’s pallid limbs, how her fingers liken that of old branches, how she can barely stand let alone put one foot in front of the other. Showing the effects of a disease is so important not just because it is frightening or sad but because it underlines the fact that every human disease has a cause and therefore an effect. We forget this fact sometimes, especially groups that choose to turn a blind eye on science.
While Moretz is front and center nearly throughout the film, it is Slate who steals the spotlight every time the two performers share a scene. Slate is known mostly as a comedian, but she proves once again that she can be equally effective in dramatic roles (“Obvious Child,” “Landline”). Look closely when Margo, played by Slate, visits her co-worker at the hospital. Margo is not used to seeing Susannah in such a vulnerable, wilted state and it devastates her. Notice the way Slate starts the scene with a comic weapon compared to how she ends it with a completely different technique. It’s impressive.
“Brain on Fire” can be criticized for being formulaic, but there is a reason why formulas exist. It is because when a formula works, it gets the job done. Such is the case in this curious picture. As someone who works in the field of science, it never ceases to amaze me how much we’ve learned in the past fifty to a hundred years—and also how much we have yet to learn. Imagine diseases out there with no correct answers yet—but are given “answers” anyway because some pieces, not all, seem to fit. It goes to show that our knowledge is still limited and we have work to do. Keep in mind, too, that certain diseases evolve over time.
5th Wave, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
“Love’s not a trick. It’s real. I know because of you.”
Groan-inducing down to its marrow, “The 5th Wave,” directed by J Blakeson and based upon the novel by Rick Yancey, is the worst kind of dystopian film: The script is not only superficial, bland, and predictable, but at the centerpiece is a forced romance in which the performers suffer a shortage of chemistry. Although the first twenty minutes promises material that might hint at a universe that is worth exploring, it begins to fall apart the moment our heroine, Cassie (Chloë Grace Moretz), meets a handsome stranger (Alex Roe).
The first four Waves are engaging because they are increasingly terrifying. I enjoyed that they, shown within the first third of the picture, vary in terms of execution. A few of them are driven by visual and special effects—like massive earthquakes, floods, and tidal waves—while others rely on something as common as a viral infection. It is most disappointing then that the Fifth Wave is as dull as tap water. The writing fails to spin it in an interesting way.
Equally boring are the would-be exciting action sequences that might as well been ripped off from another monotonous shoot-‘em-up flick in order to have saved some of the budget. There is an outstanding lack of imagination when only guns are used as weapons especially during moments of desperation to survive. For instance, there is an extended scene where a group of children, trained by the military (Liev Schreiber), are assigned to execute aliens that appear to look like humans in a decrepit compound.
The approach is so glossy, so militarized, so standard that no tension is built. Notice how everything looks so dark and yet the camera moves so quickly. We can hardly see a thing. There is no joy put into the craft. In addition, never mind the fact that we know close to nothing about the young people, aside from Cassie’s high school crush named Ben (Nick Robinson), that have been forced to risk their lives. Why should we care about any of them when do not know who they are and what they are fighting for?
Many of the emotions come across as disingenuous. The romance between Cassie and Evan is very reminiscent of the “Twilight” series because whenever the two are in the same frame, are conversing with one another, or are looking into each other’s eyes, it comes across as though they had lost twenty I.Q. points only to become marginally intelligent when they are reminded of the big picture. I could not help but guffaw during some of the exchanges because the lines are so cheesy and elementary. Erotic novels contain more convincing lines compared to the so-called romantic interest here.
Written by Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner, “The 5th Wave” commits the egregious error of not establishing a complex but convincing character development so that the viewers feel invested into those undergoing a specific plight and thus getting us excited for the next installments. Just about everything here is mere decoration.
★★ / ★★★★
Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz), having been homeschooled until her deeply religious mother (Julianne Moore) was forced to send her to school, gets the shock of her life when she notices blood coming out of her while showering in the girls’ locker room. In total fear that she is dying, she screams for help but instead of her peers trying to help her out, they laugh at her confusion. Chris (Portia Doubleday) even goes as far as to record the incident and posts it online for the rest of the school to see. Carrie becomes a laughingstock. Chris gets suspended and is out for blood.
Is Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” based on the novel by Stephen King, a necessary one? No, it is not. However, it does not mean it is without anything worthwhile or entertaining to offer, from a pair of characters with surprising human elements to them to gruesome deaths that left my mouth agape.
Despite special and visual effects being allowed to run amok, Gabrielle Wilde and Ansel Elgort, playing a popular high school couple who grow to care about Carrie, steal the show. There is a humanity to Sue and Tommy that not even the title character possesses. Because Sue feels guilty for contributing to Carrie’s misery, she convinces Tommy to ask the shy girl to the prom. Though Tommy insists on taking his girlfriend, taking Carrie is not a chore because he knows—and we know he knows—that his alternative date is a person of substance. If this had been a straight-faced high school drama, I would have been equally engaged—perhaps more so. I like it when teenagers who happen to be popular in high school are given some depth; it is too easy to put a target on their backs. The paranormal aspect, in some ways, functions as a distraction.
Floating books, levitating beds, and other psychokinetic displays are a bit overdone. This comes at a cost. For instance, during the first scene, Carrie’s powers are already front and center: objects moving by themselves, lights flickering when the girl gets upset. The story is set during modern times. Are we really supposed to believe that no one is able to put two and two together? That is, that Carrie has special abilities?
This piece is critical because Carrie is supposed to be an outcast. However, if I had seen someone moving objects using his or her mind, I would want to be his or her friend. In other words, the picture, despite being connected to paranormal phenomena, lacks logic. Therefore, it might have been better off having Carrie’s powers start off in subtle way and then a gradual escalation until the famous prom scene.
The final twenty minutes had me engaged. I found it amusing that even though I knew what to expect, I remained excited to see certain people getting their comeuppance. Still, though Moretz does a good job portraying loneliness and fear, she never achieves the necessary level of menace to make a real fearsome character. What makes Sissy Spacek such a great Carrie in the 1976 version is that we completely buy her as someone who is vulnerable but slightly dangerous, perhaps even off-kilter. The gap in performance is so vast that it is like comparing a flustered kitten to a lioness.
“Carrie,” based on the screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is light entertainment if nothing else is playing or if one is doing chores around the house. There is a sweetness to what Carrie and Tommy come to share but nothing else is especially noteworthy.
Texas Killing Fields (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), homicide detectives, one local-based, the other from the city, respectively, are assigned to investigate kidnappings and murders of teen girls in rural Texas. Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a homicide detective from Texas City and Souder’s ex-wife, asks for their help because their murders seem to be related.
Inspired by a true story, “Texas Killing Fields,” written by Don Ferrarone and directed by Ami Canaan Mann, strips away all the glamour from what we expect of movies when it comes to the way cops track down serial killers. First, there is a lot of dirty work being portrayed like Stall having to slap around potential witnesses for the sake of information that might lead to the identity of the killer. Her officers look on like it is standard procedure. Heigh relies on someone from a telephone company to track down a cell phone signal without proper authorization. Meanwhile, Souder is unable to see beyond stereotypes which tinges his supposedly objective judgment.
Second, there is something visceral about the look and feel of the film. When a killer attacks and abducts his victim, it is shot sans fancy camera somersaults but every bit of horror is captured. By just allowing us to see what happens without music playing in the background, I felt that the events unfolding before our eyes can happen at any small town.
Lastly, the sense of place contributes to the increasing tension surrounding the mystery. A lot of people the detectives interact with are either poor white families or poor black families. Despite the racial difference, their deeply-rooted commonality is the belief that if they keep secrets from the cops, it is the great equalizer for being underrepresented and misrepresented. Yet the filmmakers find a way, subtle ways, to communicate that not all of the residents are bad or unwilling to cooperate. Sometimes they might be very bad but they are more than willing to go down to the police station for an interview.
However, I wished the film had given us more information about Souder, Heigh, and Stall. While each has a distinct personality and ways of accomplishing goals, I felt as though the material does not go deeply enough into what really makes them tick. A lot of time is dedicated to juvenile Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives with her drug-addicted mother (Sheryl Lee), brother (James Hébert), and mother’s boyfriend (Stephen Graham), getting into all sorts of trouble with the police. While Ann is an important character because she fits the description of the type of girl the killer tends to abduct, I was much more interested when the camera follows the detectives and we watch what they do to find answers.
For the most part, “Texas Killing Fields” sets a good example of how more crime movies should strive to be. It is able to deliver the necessary darkness in its story without having to result to showing us every bit violence that we become inured or desensitized.
Dark Shadows (2012)
★ / ★★★★
In the eighteenth century, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Deep) is cursed by a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) to become a blood-sucking creature of the night because he chooses to love Josette (Bella Heathcote) over her. To further demonstrate her hatred toward him, the scorned sorceress then unveils to the townspeople that a vampire lives among them. She benefits from their fear after a mob captures Barnabas and buries him in a coffin to rot for eternity. Two hundred years later, however, a group of construction workers come across the vampire’s tomb and decide to open it.
If “Dark Shadows” had not been advertised as directed by Tim Burton, I would have assumed that it been under the helm of a young filmmaker who wanted to prove himself and had been given the opportunity to direct his first commercial Hollywood picture because every square inch of the material reeks of potentially good ideas but lacking in narrative focus to give the bland recipe some much needed seasoning.
The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is an exercise of mediocrity. What exactly is the story about? Have you ever played the 1985 Super Mario Bros. game where if Mario or Luigi stays on one platform for too long it collapses? The player then must control the avatar as quickly as possible toward stable ground without falling into the depths. That is the same approach taken here. In its attempt to cover up the plethora of weaknesses in the film, it gives the illusion that it’s about a lot of things and moves through them with nervous energy.
In the end, it’s all subplot and no central story. Although there is talk about the importance of family prior to the opening credits, once Barnabas is let out of his cage and joins his distant family members who are living in his castle, not one scene is constructed with dramatic heft or flow to make us believe that he genuinely cares for his clan, at least on an emotional level. Instead of focusing on developing the story and exploring the characters that inhabit it, the performances take center stage.
Depp sports his now usual weirdness and proves once again that he’s a master technician, from his range of intonations depending on the level of threat his character faces to the way he looks at someone with just enough menace as to not appear as a complete monster. Green, on the other hand, amps up the sensuality by giving intense glares that are perfect for high fashion editorials. They share one funny scene rolling around in a loft and breaking expensive furniture in the process, cheekily suggesting sexual intercourse.
But what about the family? As the head of the Collins clan, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not given enough scenes to show that she is a capable leader of her family as well as the cannery business. Most of the time we see her looking stern, almost constipated, like she’s having a bad day and wanting a strong drink. What is done with Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s hormonal daughter, is depressing throughout because she is only allowed to play two emotions: sexy and stoned. Moretz is a thespian capable of exuding a balance of sensitivity and strength so watching her reduce herself to a would-be sex kitten is embarrassing. I would personally like to ask her what she saw in the role while reading the script because she does not look like she is being challenged here.
The visuals are outstanding especially during the final confrontation between Barnabas and Angelique. I liked watching the transformation of inanimate objects suddenly having a will of their own. Still, it was difficult to care how it would all turn out because we had no understanding of the characters. We have epidermal information about what the winner might gain and the loser might lose but there hovers a deafening emptiness in the squabbles.
★★★ / ★★★★
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.