Triple Frontier (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Planning and executing a heist in order to steal over seventy-five million dollars from a drug lord in the middle of the Colombian jungle is only about a third of the fun in “Triple Frontier,” co-written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, an adrenaline-fueled and entertaining action picture saddled with occasional dialogue regarding guilt and morality. The attempt to humanize the characters, all of whom are former Special Forces, is appreciated, but the work is most enjoyable when guns are armed and the men must depart hurriedly before they are outnumbered and flanked by the enemy.
The star-studded cast is made up of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal, and Garrett Hedlund. Each one is able to bring something special to the table, not relying simply on their looks or celebrity persona to cruise through the material. The screenwriters ensure to communicate why each member of the heist team is critical to the mission. Particularly important is why Santiago (Isaac) is the leader even though he is not the strongest, or smartest, or even the most technologically savvy. More generic action films tend to reduce team leaders as archetypes. Here, we are given a chance to appreciate specific moments when our central protagonist, for instance, is being pragmatic, weak, emotional, empathetic. He holds himself accountable when things go right and, perhaps more importantly, when things go south.
There is a wonderful rapport among the cast which makes us believe that the soldiers have shared a strong history. When they get together, although there is the expected hugging and patting on the back, we are able to capture recognition in their eyes. This is where Chandor’s direction comes into play. He gives time for the men acclimate to one another after years of separation instead of simply parading one breathless action piece right after another. It shows that we are in the hands of a patient filmmaker, the helmer of high caliber works—“All is Lost” being one of them.
Shoot ‘em up scenes command tension because we care for the soldiers who decide they now want a big piece of the pie after years of hardships yet not having much to show for it. Another reason is that suspense is allowed to build and swell until it can no longer be sustained. An excellent example is the well-planned robbery. There is far too much money to be put in bags but so little time. We can almost hear the clock ticking because every second counts. Every room entered that contains no money feels all the more disappointing. But when finally faced with stacks upon stacks of cash, the characters we think we know change almost instantaneously. It becomes one of those movies where the viewer is compelled to yell instructions at the screen—in a good way.
Another element that separates the work from other action flicks is its use of setting. Instead of relying on action scenes that take place indoors—a house, a building—it takes advantage of the beautiful South American landscapes: jungles, mountains, farms, beaches. In a way, doing so adds a level of thrill because being out in the open space constantly puts our protagonists at a disadvantage. They could be seen from afar and wouldn’t know it until a rain of bullets come flying.
Captive State (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Social commentary-heavy “Captive State,” based on the screenplay by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt, is an interesting lo-fi science-fiction picture on paper. Instead of engaging in ostentatious display of special and visual effects through action sequences or focusing on elegant character development, a detached approach is employed as the story follows a group of insurrectionists who wish to destroy a Chicago-based “Closed Zone,” a location where aliens known as Legislators reside (aptly named because they have made and enacted laws ever since humanity’s surrender nine years prior.) It is expected the attack would inspire everyone else around the world to rebel against and usurp the aforementioned extraterrestrial invaders from stealing Earth’s natural resources. The execution leaves a lot to be desired, however.
On the surface, there is tension: we have no attachment to the various insurgents, only their main mission. As a result, we get the feeling that any one of them can drop dead at any second. The camera follows them—a medical student, a mechanic, a father, a soldier, among others—being courageous, afraid, and desperate with little regard to their histories or who they leave at home. A sense of realism is created, from information written on a piece of paper being passed around to the hi-tech bomb capable of camouflage that must be activated and placed at an exact location at the right time. This is when the film is at its best.
However, when the material turns its attention on the three “main” characters—in quotations because we spend a little bit more time with them than the others—the pacing screeches to the halt. In the opening scene we see two brothers whose parents perish in the hands of the invaders. Years later, the elder brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), is presumed to be a deceased terrorist, and the younger brother, Gabriel (Ashton Sanders), works in an assembly line where electronics are analyzed for information that could be used against the creatures. Although Majors and Sanders have the versatility to communicate a range of emotions, the screenplay fails to get us to care about them as brothers and as individuals with different end goals.
Not even the great John Goodman, playing a commander in charge of capturing rebels, is able to save the material. He is wonderful in communicating with words but his face tells a completely different story. There is subtlety is how Mulligan carries his power and how he exercises it. But I think the writers’ intention is to create a character who is a master chess player. To me, there is not a shred of mystery on what it is he wishes to attain ultimately. Even I was able to stay one step ahead in regards to the details of his job and the reasons behind his manipulations.
I enjoyed the way it is photographed. “Captive State” offers a near-hopeless future where gray and neutrality is in everyone’s hearts and minds. Bright colors are nowhere to be seen. Garbage is not collected and so they pile up in the neighborhood. The sun always appears to be hidden behind clouds. When we hear music, it is quite depressing and never longer than ten seconds. When it is silent, we hear violence from a distance. Sometimes it is of screaming from horror or pain. Even the spacecrafts look lived-in, decaying.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt, “Captive State” might have benefited from further revisions because some elements are already strong. While an impersonal approach is ambitious, I felt as though the age of drones, lack of privacy, and our every movement being tracked is already here. It is true that we do not have to care deeply for the characters. However, emotions or ideas must be amplified somewhere else. For instance, the screenplay might have attempted to create outrage from communities being forced to live in a police state, the way they are starved to keep them weak physically and mentally, and the brainwashing that occurs to create a semblance of peace.
Été brûlant, Un (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Frédéric (Louis Garrel) crashes his car into a tree on purpose for reasons unknown other than he appears dejected as he speeds through a zig-zag road in the middle of the night. More than a year prior to his suicide attempt, Frédéric is happily married to Angèle (Monica Bellucci), an actress on the verge of receiving her big break. The couple rents a posh apartment in Rome and thinks it would be nice to have Paul (Jérôme Robart) and his girlfriend, Élisabeth (Céline Sallette), both aspiring thespians, stay with them for a couple of weeks. Enamored with such a lavish lifestyle that seems free of earthly worries, Paul quickly grows attached to Frédéric.
Written by Marc Cholodenko, Caroline Deruas-Garrel, and Philippe Garrel, although something seems to be brewing just beneath the topsoil of “Un été brûlant,” it is disappointingly anemic in dramatic surges required in order to give the feeling that the time invested by its audience toward the characters’ differing levels of lamentation is worthwhile.
The narration is partly to blame because it is used as tool, almost as a crutch, to tell what is happening during a scene right in front of us. Worse, at times it informs us of what is going to happen instead of simply giving us a scene, allowing it to unfold, and trusting us to evaluate the reality, including the emotions behind them, contained in its universe. This is a critical misstep because most effective relationship dramas tend to flourish in showing both important and unimportant events in the lives of the people we are supposed to observe. As a result, the film is consistently confusing and the bond between the characters and us is tenuous at best, if any.
Imagine being a math teacher and you give a student a multi-step equation to solve. On the paper that is handed back, although an answer is present, it is incorrect. No work is shown. As an instructor, it is impossible to determine where exactly the student went wrong. The same principle can be applied to this story because, in a way, we are supposed to look closely and gather clues as to how Frédéric and Angèle’s relationship goes sour. We are handed clichés like a person being involved in an extramarital affair but the emotions behind their actions hold very little weight so it takes a great deal of effort to care for them.
I got the impression that the film, like the student, is guessing blindly, reaching in the dark for the pieces of a shattered relationship. The apparent lack of control prevents the picture from becoming more than a mild curiosity. For instance, under Philippe Garrel’s direction, Paul being attracted to Frédéric’s lifestyle of wealth and privilege should feel more vibrant, almost desperate, reflecting Paul’s need to be around his new friend during his stay. There are moments when I speculated about Paul in terms of which element he is really attracted to: the luxury or the man who seems to have it all? Because of the tired and perfunctory distractions in the plot, by the end it can be either way.
“A Burning Hot Summer” fails to focus on envy and jealousy being the driving forces of its subjects. Its tone is so stale at times that I wondered if the camera was simply recording between takes.
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a frustrating mix of satire and supernatural horror—riotously funny at its best, soporific and pedestrian at its worst. The reason is because the screenplay’s connective tissue between comedy and terror is, for the most part, malnourished. As it vacillates from one end to the other, like staring at a metronome, the longer we look at the images, a sense of surrender can be detected—the antithesis of an experience that is meant to grab you. The film suffers from a lack of urgency which is the very element that the smartest, wittiest, and most creative comedies and horror films possess. It is a misfire of a black comedy.
Personas to be skewered have found a career in the art world, from receptionists, gallery owners, representatives of buyers, the artist themselves, down to the punctilious critics whose reviews can not only make or break a show, they can determine the artists’ future. The story revolves around three central figures: Morf the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal), Josephina the receptionist (Zawe Ashton), and Rhodora (Rene Russo) the gallery owner. Each has a unique perspective about what art is, the perception surrounding the art, and the art business. These figures are not meant to be liked but they must be interesting throughout. But I saw nothing else to their deadpan shallowness. Perhaps a director of Robert Altman’s caliber, for instance, might have done something more interesting.
Although the performers prove they are willing to try anything to get a reaction from the audience (Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette are standouts), at times I found myself turning out from the histrionics and wondered, for example, about the costume and wardrobe department’s inspiration regarding the type of clothing each character wears—the colors, the patterns, the instructions on how they must be worn or carried. When the clothes have more intrigue than the characters, there is a problem. It should not be this way when watching a first-rate satire since the sub-genre is a critique of ourselves. The story may take place in the art world, but it must say something about us, especially those who may not be a part of the sphere being examined.
Scenes that are supposed to be creepy or scary are neither. CGI involving paint dripping off the canvas and attacking people is ludicrous and laughable. (For some reason, the paint cannot be felt as it moves up one’s body.) Figures depicted on sketches or paintings suddenly moving their eyes or facial expressions are generic. Cue the sinister score and jump scares like clockwork. At times I felt like I was watching a horror film made in the early 2000s when just about every horror movie wants to try to use computers in order to create convincing visual effects. The irony is that although these effects are meant to create life-like illusions, in actuality, the more they are utilized the less convincing the overall experience becomes. As is the case here. Notice that as the writing wanes, characters exploring dark corners becomes more prevalent.
I get it: “Velvet Buzzsaw” wishes to comment on the soullessness of the art world. Still, the film itself should create an experience that is neither bland nor blasé. Just because the art world is shallow and pretentious does not mean that the work should render itself blind to the humanity of its subjects. It takes the easy way out one too many times.
There is a point in the film when a woman is brutally murdered in a gallery. Her body is found by people who open the building—and they do not know much about art. It is assumed that the corpse, the puddles blood on the floor, and blood spatters on walls are all part of the exhibit. Visitors come in and out of the gallery. They, too, assume it is all for show. It isn’t until hours later when someone who is actually familiar with the pieces immediately realizes that something is terribly wrong. If only the picture functioned on this level throughout the near interminable two-hour running time.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Propelled with a dreary but realistic look of early ‘90s New York City, a caustic sense of humor, and surprisingly affecting turns, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the true story of a biographer, Lee Israel, who impersonates once famous and now deceased writers through witty correspondences and sells the forged letters—nearly four hundred of them before she got caught by the FBI—from fifty to several hundreds of dollars at a time. It is a fascinating story that is truly of its time. Perhaps most importantly, even though the character we follow is—on the surface—unpleasant, boorish, and prideful, clearly there is love and care put into the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty because we are invited to look beyond behavior and try to understand the motivations behind Israel’s criminal proclivities. We do not have to like the character because the film proves she, like her forged documents, is worth putting under a magnifying glass.
Melissa McCarthy portrays Israel with such plainness in terms of physicality that at times I’d forgotten I was a watching a performer known mostly for her comic roles. In a way, this is McCarthy’s strongest work to date because she is able to scrub off her previous personas—a number of them quite memorable (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy”)—and deliver a character worthy of being taken seriously despite the crimes the protagonist commits.
She is savagely efficient, for instance, when Israel makes a sharp retort against another (a friend, an agent, a potential lover), perhaps even one that is mean or unfair, and then changes her expression a certain way as if incite us to penetrate through that small window of vulnerability. And yet—we are not meant to feel sorry for the subject. After all, she knowingly jeopardizes jobs of people who are trying to make an honest living. However, we are asked to ponder over her desperation on several levels: as a writer who fears for her failing career, as an aging woman who is single and lonely (she claims she loves her cat more than other people), and as a human being who is unable to recognize her true worth because she often gets in her own way.
I admired that Marielle Heller’s direction does not focus on a typical parabola of redemption. Yes, there are redemptive elements toward the end but notice the emphasis on the excitement Israel finds herself addicted to as she executes her schemes. Having money is secondary; this woman has yearned for so long to feel alive. Prior to her chicanery, her addiction is alcohol. It is curious how that addiction is rerouted when she feels fulfilled artistically—as ephemeral as it is. Note, too, how the performer changes the way the character carries herself and her behavior when being behind on paying bills is no longer the most immediate problem. Many parts change, in subtle ways, as the story progresses and evolves. It is not about plot but rather how it is about the plot.
I wished, however, that more forged letters were shown on screen or revealed via voiceover. The ones presented to us are funny and full of personality, but it is curious that out of hundreds we come across only about ten to fifteen. Even then, out of this handful, most of them are shown so quickly, the viewers do not get enough time to appreciate certain lines and implications. I was so curious about the details of the letters that I noticed even a paragraph break is important when it comes to making a point or delivering the punchline of a clever string of wordplay. Perhaps it was done this way to keep the drama buoyant; I would have preferred a more colorful and risk-taking approach.
Nevertheless, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a successful character study. Part of the reason are the vibrant but believable supporting performances, especially by Richard E. Grant as a drug dealer who becomes friends with Israel and eventual parter-in-crime, who sheds light on the subject’s different sides. I also enjoyed Dolly Wells as Anna, a local book dealer who becomes romantically interested in the forger. As they spend a nice time together, we wonder how it might work between someone who is genuine and someone who deals with literal fabrications.
Time Bandits (1981)
★ / ★★★★
Fascinated by the contents of his books, it is most opportune that Kevin (Craig Warnock) crosses paths with a group of six dwarves on the run from “the supreme being” (Ralph Richardson), insisting that they return the map because they do not understand the full extent of its power. The artifact allows those who can read it properly to be able to visit different times by jumping inside so-called time holes. However, the dwarves, led by Randall (David Rappaport), use it simply to enter different eras and steal riches.
It easy to see why “Time Bandits,” based on the screenplay by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, has ardent fans. It is silly, has a good amount of imagination, quite unpredictable at times, and the visual effects are so retro that I could not help but be reminded of dubbed Japanese television shows I used to watch as a kid. But the film is not very good. Its greatest limitation comes in small sizes and, boy, are they difficult to endure.
The dwarves function as mere decorations and they are allowed to talk too much without actually saying or doing anything of value. Aside from Randall, the one who keeps the map, we learn nothing about the dwarves other than they like their treasures. They think the same way, act the same way, and talk the same way. They are dispensable and when one’s life comes in contact with danger, I found myself rooting for him to stay dead. That way, perhaps there would be one less annoyance stumbling and bumbling about on screen.
The main character is supposed to be Kevin but he is drowned by many distractions. I enjoyed seeing his home life: when he has something to say about what he has just read, how his parents do nothing but comment on the latest gadget or appliance advertised on television. The story is supposed to have been the value of Kevin’s adventure, how a boy with no one to mirror his interests gets a first-hand experience on subjects that captivate him. He meets various figures like Robin Hood (John Cleese), Agamemnon (Sean Connery), Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), among others and watching his reaction upon meeting the people he has read about is magical in itself. Instead, the babbling dwarves are often front and center and they water down his experience.
The sets are quite beautiful even if a lot of them are obviously shot in a studio. I admired the gothic look of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where Evil (David Warner), who wishes to claim the map from the dwarves to rule the universe, resides. By contrast, I liked the brightness of Mycenaean Greece. I could not help but notice the seemingly never-ending desert, how yellow the sand appears and how hot it must have been to be in that environment. It is important that the setting of that period appeals to the audience because Kevin himself wishes to stay there. I wished the screenplay had exploited a level of sadness underneath the child wanting to stay with a stranger, Agamemnon, in a foreign land and time rather than to be reunited with his parents again.
This is another crucial problem with the film: it is unwilling to break away from the expected and stale comedy. The best journeys cover a spectrum of emotions. Here, there is only a thin layer of wonder and attempts—mostly ineffective—to make us laugh. The material would have been much better if Kevin had been left to his own devices so we could measure how smart and resourceful he was. I wanted to see how he could apply the knowledge he had accumulated from books to get himself out of prickly situations.
Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Time Bandits” is appropriately titled in that I felt as though my time had been stolen. It is not all bad but a lot of it feels like a waste of time, recycled material from better, edgier, more thoughtful fantasy-adventures.
Captain Marvel (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
A third of the way through the picture, I couldn’t help but feel like an important ingredient is sorely lacking. The war between Kree and Skrulls is propelled with a high enough level of excitement, the special and visual effects are strong, and there is intrigue in how the events unfolding in 1995 may tie into Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) eventually putting together Earth’s mightiest superheroes. The problem becomes tantalizingly clear when the picture hits its first important dramatic note. Given Brie Larson’s track record of independent dramas, she is most powerful as a performer when the scene is quiet and the camera is still—almost the polar opposite of an action film.
This does not mean Larson does not belong in the picture. In fact, I enjoyed her interpretation of Captain Marvel, who comes to know herself as Vers, a soldier of the Kree Empire, but has fragmented human memories as Carol Danvers. Despite a potentially confusing exposition, Larson has a way of making us care for our heroine not just as a superhero but also as a woman who feels incomplete due to being in the dark when it comes to her very own identity. Notice that for the first forty minutes or so, it is a challenge to invest emotionally into the material because there are far too many attempts at making jokes but not enough convincing dramatic gravity. It would have been such a breath of fresh air if “Captain Marvel,” written for the screen by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, had been a character drama first and an action picture second. Of course, this more inspired avenue would not rake in the big bucks.
Still, this Marvel outing is entertaining enough. I liked how chase scenes on Earth during the mid-90s are photographed and directed almost exactly as similar movies within the genre at the time—clichés included. There is a wonderful chemistry between Larson and Jackson which is necessary because their characters must forge a convincing friendship from the moment they meet at a payphone next to a Blockbuster video store until one of them must leave and travel to another galaxy. (The story’s timeline is about twenty to thirty five hours.) Danvers and Fury share a handful of amusing moments but not once do these come across as forced as bad buddy comedies.
Like many superhero films, this one, too, suffers from a lack of a strong villain with complex motivations. Observe that once Captain Marvel is able to reach her full potential, her enemies, including the main antagonist, are simply thrown about like rag dolls. Because they are no longer a threat, the bright colors, the bubbly soundtrack, and the acrobatics are reduced to an exercise of futility. I was bored by them and I was reminded of what I disliked immensely from “Wonder Woman”—we are handed action with not much context or purpose. It can feel like a waste of time.
Perhaps the most curious relationship is between Danvers and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Both were Air Force pilots and their few but valuable interactions suggest a deep history. The two sitting down and having a conversation can be more entertaining than the big, loud, and ostentatious action pieces. The reason is because, with the former, we know precisely what is at stake. There are times when it is easy to forget that we love or admire our superheroes not because of what they can do but rather who they are despite their powers or abilities, when they are unmasked, vulnerable, one of us.
Tu hijo (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It has the framework of a revenge-thriller: A father (Jose Coronado) receives news that his son (Pol Monen) has been beaten so badly outside a nightclub that he is now in a coma. But instead of going the expected route and exploring familiar themes, “Your Son,” co-written by Alberto Marini and Miguel Ángel Vivas, directed by the latter, turns out to be a character study of a man so used to being in control and respected (he is a surgeon), that when life deals him an impossible hand, certainly a losing hand, he realizes he is a coward. It is a fascinating portrait, one that is worthy of discussion, one that left me shaken but wanting to talk about what I’d just seen.
For about half the picture, it takes its time in feeding us what we come to expect from the familiar template of a grieving parent who becomes obsessed with the idea of getting some sort of retribution for a family member’s honor. We follow Jaime from the moment he gets word that his son is fighting for his life, as he listens to a detective going over video footages that capture the final minutes that lead to the crime, as he returns in an empty home from a sleepless night, and as he finds the first clue that may lead to one of the perpetrators. These scenes are directed with such patience and calculation that I began to think that although am highly invested in the story, there is nothing about it that is fresh.
As it the material gathers power, however, it dares to test the viewer’s patience. Why is it that although Jaime has found one of the suspects, he simply would not—or could not—concoct a plan to isolate the person of interest, nab him, get more information out of him, and finally punish him? After all, isn’t inflicting punishment what he wants? Or is that we what we want to see? The reason is because the film is not interested in the usual points of catharsis. Showing violence when we expect it is to create entertainment out of something that should not be entertaining especially given the film’s recurring themes. Clearly, there is discipline in the screenplay; it trusts us to try and figure out how the pieces actually go together when they do not fit with our initial assumptions.
Coronado’s face is front and center for nearly half of the picture. We see him devolve from a tired but relatively happy man to someone rather unrecognizable in thought and action. There is irony in the fact that despite the son being the one whose face became disfigured, it is the father who undergoes a more horrifying transformation. Like the best performers, Coronado’s eyes are able to communicate at least two emotions at any given moment. The manner in which Jaime looks into the void and then suddenly being forced to focus on a person or a matter at hand is masterclass. His extensive experience shines through every beat which makes watching him quite mesmerizing.
“Tu hijo” is not interested in a tidy or happy ending as long as the journey is complete. More films should follow its example since the approach leaves something for the viewer to think about. The final few minutes is maddening but appropriate—an excellent way of unveiling what the story is really about rather than what we hope for it to be about. The work is helmed with intelligence and class.
Signal, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
On their way to California to drop off Haley (Olivia Cooke), Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are contacted by a hacker whose code name is Nomad. The two guys are able to track Nomad’s IP address in Nevada—which is a coincidence because they are just above hundred miles away. Soon, they come across a seemingly abandoned house and there is no sign of the man they wish to meet. While in the basement, Nic and Jonah hear Haley screaming from outside.
“The Signal,” written by Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio and William Eubank, is a science fiction film that shows promise but ultimately does not deliver. The first half is unusually strong because the screenplay capitalizes on the viewers’ curiosity; details are presented like jigsaw puzzle pieces and it is up to us to try to make sense of whatever may be going on. The final thirty minutes, however, is a bore. Despite the noises, special, and visual effects, the picture fails to provide answers that are worthy of the rising action.
Its carefully calibrated pacing is a perfect fit for its mystery. A morbid curiosity is created as Nic sits in a white room on a wheelchair as he is questioned by the creepy Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne). There is talk about him being “extremely contagious” and yet he is never provided the details of the disease or, if it is a disease that is not fully understood, the symptoms one might expect. Nic finds numerical tattoos on his wrist. He is given exams like matching words with shapes. Nic is given surface information but not the details. This angers him and he wishes to break out of the research facility because there is a chance the whole thing could be a charade.
Director William Eubank knows how to frame faces, especially his lead. Because Nic does not trust anyone in the facility, Thwaites is required to communicate most of the time using his facial muscles. Thus, when the character is alone in a room, the camera tends to showcase the performer from the neck up. As a result, we wonder what might be going through Nic’s mind. How does he gain the upper hand knowing the fact that he is clearly valued? Is he plotting escape? Given that his body is compromised, how does he go on about rescuing Haley and Jonah?
Once the story begins to take place in a desert town, the picture loses curiosity and momentum. Although questions are still being raised—Why is everybody so strange? Why are the phone lines always down?—we get the feeling that it is about time we are provided answers… Not just any answers but ones that come across concrete. Alas, as expected, the answer is revealed in the final shot—which I found lazy and unimaginative.
Visually stylish, “The Signal” is likely to impress some. It is clear that some thought is actually put into it. But for those expecting that its potential will reach maximum capacity will be disappointed. Perhaps a rewrite or two might have turned this into a gem that may not be embraced by the mainstream but is valued by viewers seeking for something refreshing—even ten or twenty years from now.
Heure d’été, L’ (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hélène (Edith Scob) invites her three grown children, along with their partners and children, to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday at the family estate. But that isn’t the only reason for the reunion. Hélène is dying and she feels as though she might pass away at any time so she talks to her eldest, Frédéric (Charles Berling), about the preparations she had made as well as some of her wishes. Also, she informs Frédéric that, after she dies, it is up to him, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) to determine what should be done to the estate, the extremely valuable paintings inside, and other items that museums and collectors from all over the world wish to have.
“L’heure d’été,” written and directed by Olivier Assayas, is a delightful surprise because even though it is about a group of people closing an important chapter in their lives, speckles of positivity and hope radiate amidst the indecisions, resistance, and sadness that the characters go through, from the moment their mother dies until their once regal but intimate home turns into an empty shell ready for its next inhabitants.
Emphasis is placed on the process. I appreciated that the writer-director has the patience to allow a scene to play out without relying on sentimentality to get the script’s point across. For instance, as Hélène reveals to Frédéric her wishes and recommendations involving the items in the house, the camera glides along with her movements instead of focusing on her face. She steps toward an area of the room, points to an object, tells some facts about it, gives her opinion, and finally onto the next area. It all feels very business-like but we empathize with her because we can understand that if she had approached the idea of letting go from a mother or matron’s perspective rather than that of a realtor, she probably wouldn’t have had the strength to finish what she started.
The siblings, too, are required to think and act outside of sentimentality. The material gives us quick but clear ideas about where they are in their lives. Because of their age differences and they live in different parts of the world, it is only natural to expect that they have different wants and needs. Although I expected otherwise, no one is a villain; no one is so unlikable that we wish for them to get the short end of the stick. These are people who are practical enough to look out for themselves and their families but at the same time are sensitive to each other’s thoughts and feelings. It would have been easy to push these characters to be at each other’s throats, possessed by greed and malice especially since a whole lot of money is involved. Instead, it chooses to pursue a more insightful and quiet avenue. It reminds us that although holding onto a piece of land and keeping rare items is smart from an investment point of view, you are eventually forced to give it all up because no one is allowed to live forever.
Even though I don’t own an estate or have a painting I can show off during posh gatherings, I found the story to be relatable. As a person who likes to save his money more than spend it, my dad always asks me, “How is money going to do you any good when you’re dead?” This question echoed in my head as I observed at Hélène’s aging body, imagined her history (she must’ve been quite a gal—refined, intelligent, but not without a sense of humor), and measured how strongly she has allowed her attachment to things to have defined her identity. I wanted to ask her, given that she has lived a life of privilege, if she had managed to live her entire life on her own terms. We are given clues to formulate our own answers.
★★ / ★★★★
As far as vigilante action-thrillers go, “Peppermint” is as generic as they come. It should not have been because the lead is the highly underrated Jennifer Garner, no stranger when it comes to balancing drama and thrills given her extensive experience in the excellent television series “Alias” which wrapped up more than a decade ago. One would think that the screenplay by Chad St. John ought to have aimed higher, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. Tell a cathartic revenge story first and foremost, then perhaps strive to launch an unapologetically violent film series with a strong female lead. Wouldn’t that have been something?
Riley North is looking to serve justice for the murder of her husband and daughter (Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming). Corrupt judges and cops shielded members of the cartel from prison time and so North decided to spend the last five years in Asia and Europe to train her body and hone her skills before attempting to take down a massive drug operation. It is most frustrating that we are not shown much during the five-year gap (with the exception of a three-second cage fight video) because showing the character’s struggle, and her seething rage, during that time could have provided much-needed insight into her psychology, to imply that the real North died during the drive-by alongside her family.
Numerous bullets fly and there is a smorgasbord of firearms, but the photography leaves a lot to be desired. The picture looks drab. Thus, although action sequences unfold in different locations, they tend to blend into one another both in terms of look and feeling. It does not help that the central villain, too, is painfully pedestrian, a typical cartel boss who talks tough but when the lights go off and compound is broken into, he ends up hiding behind his tattooed bodyguards. In other words, the antagonist is not equal to, or nowhere near, North’s level of intensity. It might have helped if the character were written with a more colorful personality—make him extreme, insane, anything other than coming across as another thug to be bulldozed.
The material touches upon a mildly interesting topic: the public’s response, specifically through social media, when a person decides to take it upon herself to correct what she perceives to be wrong. For instance, we are shown Tweets and message board responses on television screens, but these glimpses are too quick for us to get a chance to read and appreciate the comments. If something like this happened in real life, you can bet that clever, amusing, cruel, and ignorant responses would get hundreds of likes and responses. Especially when the vigilante is female. And so it is bizarre that the film neglects to pursue a potentially worthwhile avenue. Action movies can have a brain but this work seems incurious to make the story relevant in modern times.
There is nothing wrong with providing violent escapism in the movies. But it has to be absorbing every step of the way, not dead or dying when guns are nowhere to be found and people are simply required to speak with one another. After all, even the best action movies are rooted in drama.