American Made (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Executed with great style and energy by director Doug Liman, “American Made” becomes all the more baffling with each passing second as it tells the story of an airline pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who is recruited by a CIA case officer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures of enemy camps over South America. A quirky premise, one loosely based on a true story, quickly evolves into an entertaining dramatic thriller with both real stakes and enough nuanced comedic touches designed to release our astonishment only to build up again as increasingly tricky situations present themselves. It is for the curious viewer for the material demands the viewer to pay attention and have fun, too.
Cruise fits the role like a glove, banking in on his dependable charm to make the portrayal appear effortless or easy. But imagine a different performer in the role and realize that waking in Seal’s shoes is to traverse a minefield of traps; one wrong note is certain to disrupt the suspense of disbelief that the ace screenplay by Gary Spinelli establishes right from the get-go. While some may cite the fact that Cruise has played similar roles in the past, I argue that it is necessary to have such experiences because the role requires specificity, without leaning on well-worn clichés, in order to come across as believable.
I enjoyed that there is minimal character development. In a way, the story being told does not require it since it is meant to show a risky lifestyle or occupation, one that is not solely motivated by money or luxury but rather excitement and danger. Notice Seal’s reactions when he is about to get caught by authorities. The fear is there—but it is marginal. The realization that it is over and the growing disappointment inch toward the forefront. It is these moments that we get to see Seal not as a smuggler, or a husband, or a father but as a person with an addiction for thrill. Cruise delivers an intelligent performance.
The weakness of the picture, as colorful as it is, both in tone and how it looks, is its lack of willingness to dig more deeply in its supporting characters. For instance, Sarah Wright plays Seal’s wife who knows something is up, Jesse Plemons plays the observant sheriff in a small town in Arkansas, and Caleb Landry Jones plays Seal’s brother-in-law. As the picture goes on, it becomes apparent that any of these three could have done more with their potentially interesting characters. During dramatic moments, Wright appears to have the emotional range to go head-to-head against Cruise. Plemons can give half a suspicious look and it communicates paragraphs. And Jones is such a wildcard that a slight change in body language can turn into a threat. While the material is indeed Seal’s story, it could have been more intriguing had there been more detail regarding the people who surround him.
I found it fresh that at times the film dares to invoke the look and feeling of a music video—certain to alienate viewers who expect a more mainstream way to digest a biographical crime film. Instead, the filmmakers choose to embody the thrilling but dangerous lifestyle of the subject rather than forcing an elegant or restrained tone that is so common within the sub-genre. This gamble pays off because while the content is not especially memorable, its sense of style, its levity, has a good chance of lingering on the mind.
Little Stranger, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
This is not a movie but a dirge. Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Walters, “The Little Stranger” relies on mood and atmosphere to create a dramatic horror film, but substance is nowhere to be found. It is proof that simply parading around sad-looking faces, increasingly dilapidated eighteenth century estate, curious accidents and deaths, along with a melancholy score does not magically conjure up interest. What results is a film that works as an effective sleeping pill even for the worst insomniacs.
I get what it is trying to do. The filmmakers wish to tell a story of a man so desperate to escape his class, one that he is deeply ashamed of, that his presence around the once marvelous and enviable Hundreds Estate triggers a possible supernatural phenomenon. Dr. Faraday’s deep yearning—ever since he was a boy—of wanting to belong in the estate, to own it, inspires the house itself to get rid of its current inhabitants (Charlotte Rampling, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter) by driving them to madness. The story is a metaphor for self-fulfilling prophecies, of childhood dreams and traumas, of insatiable desire for upward mobility. There should have been heft to the material.
It might have worked as a novel because written pages allow for internal monologues. However, translating the original material onto film is a monumental task for a tale like this. Because there is no narration designed to communicate a range of unexpressed thoughts and emotions, it must find or create a source of urgency in order to capture the attention and imagination of the viewer. Instead, we are given one soporific dialogue after another; notice that every other scene is meant to explain the overarching metaphor and so the material does not get a chance to truly take off. I got the impression that Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay does not fully trust the audience to understand the type of story being told and why. And so, due to its constant need to elucidate, boredom is created.
The commoner with a medical degree is played by Domhnall Gleeson. In the middle of it, I began to feel sorry for his efforts. Clearly most comfortable in dramatic roles, notice how he milks the seconds whenever the camera rests on his face. Dr. Faraday need not say a word because we feel him—by carefully observing his face and body language—wrestling with the potentiality that he may in fact be responsible with the recent misfortunes of the Ayres household. He is a man of science but science fails to explain the increasingly bizarre events. In other words, Gleeson’s performance attempts to elevate the material, but the work is so thin that lifting a dead horse proves futile.
Director Lenny Abrahamson is correct in not showing ghosts, poltergeists, or apparitions outright. Instead, he employs flashbacks and photographs to underline the fact that people have come and gone in the Hundreds estate. Their memories are the ghosts; maybe they can even see the living through their well-framed photographs. Despite its restraint from showing the literal, there is not enough urgency that propels the drama. For instance, the current residents lack the required character details so that when one of them gets taken out of the equation, we feel his or her absence. Ironically, this is comparable to extremely obvious slasher flicks in which we end up not caring about the characters dropping like flies.
★★★ / ★★★★
While out on a rescue mission over the Pacific Ocean, the engines of the plane that Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic athlete, and his fellow crewmen are on start to fail which meant a certain plunge toward an endless stretch of water. Louis manages to survive, along with Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), but it is a long way till the forty-seventh day until they are to be rescued by the Japanese—with only a box of chocolate and a small container of fresh water.
Based on a true story, “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, is a straight-forward dramatic film about a survivor of World War II. It can be critiqued from the angle of not surprising the audiences enough, whether it be in terms of tone, pacing, or how the story unfolds, but it can be given credit for giving us exactly what we expect. I belong in the latter camp; it is not the most exciting movie from a technical point of view, but I was interested enough in the trials that Zamperini had been through.
O’Connell plays the protagonist with stoicism and dignity. And because he portrays the character in this manner, the moments in which Zamperini breaks down command all the more power. O’Connell has always been ace at playing young men who are a little rough around the edges. What he does differently here is that the performance is a bit more controlled instead of a manic hyperbole. He plays the character tough on the outside but with something to prove on the inside.
The picture is beautifully photographed, whether it be the scenes taking place in the middle of the ocean—hungry sharks and all—or the Japanese detention camps, bathed either in yellow or blue. The flashbacks showing Zamperini’s childhood has a sense of timelessness about them. Each event is important enough to be etched into the boy’s memory and to be remembered during early adulthood.
Less involving are the supporting characters Zamperini meets along the way. None of the American soldiers are especially memorable, from physicality to performance. In fact, a lot of them look so much alike that at times I found myself unable to discern whether a captured soldier in a particular scene is the same one who had a conversation with the protagonist about half an hour ago. Supporting characters need personality especially if the subject is not exactly very expressive. The villain, a cruel Japanese sergeant named Watanabe (played quite nicely by Takamasa Ishihara), stands out but the script does not provide depth in terms of his intentions and actions.
Although I was satiated, “Unbroken” leaves a lot untouched. How is his family like? Other than being encouraging, why does Louis have so much respect for his elder brother? What role does Zamperini’s newfound spirituality play during the horrors that unfold in the detention camps? These are important questions that must be answered because they provide a good amount of substance to the story. Otherwise, one gets the impression that this person’s story is worth telling only because of the things that he had been through.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Brooklyn,” based on the screenplay by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, is able to capture a specific immigrant experience so successfully, just about every moment is honest, yearning, and earned. The story will connect strongest with those who, like myself, have gone through the need to adapt to another place, another land, another way of life.
It could have been just another story of a young, naive girl who moved to America from Ireland and encountered individuals who looked down on her because she seemed provincial. Instead, the material is full of life, dimension, colors, feelings, and thoughts exactly because the writing takes on a humanist approach. It treats the characters like the complex humans that they are. The picture inspires the viewer to read Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name because the details are so rich, we want to know more about everybody on screen.
Notice the screenplay’s fresh choices in terms of drawing the characters. The two girls we meet at a boarding house is an excellent example. The moment we meet them, we are meant to judge them rather harshly. Their clothes are flashy. They giggle a lot. They put on a lot of makeup and the every strand of hair is perfectly groomed. Their chosen topics of conversations point to the idea that maybe they are not particularly intelligent. We make the assumption that these girls are vapid, shallow, and mean—we are certain they will give Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), our protagonist, a difficult time during her already challenging transition.
Sometimes first impressions are most misleading. I loved that the two girls look and act like they do yet they are capable of kindness and are able to laugh at themselves. Over time, even though these are two tertiary characters, we realize something potentially important about them: perhaps they remember not being completely comfortable in a new world—which does not have to be a new country necessarily—where at times you are only as good as how others choose to perceive you, which is usually through the way you look.
The film excels in showing the details of a most heartfelt romantic connection. Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, the latter playing an Italian who likes Irish girls, share chemistry that is so potent, so magnetic, I was reminded of the very first time I met Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” Each moment that Eilis and Tony share is one to be relished. Together, they have a way of communicating a sensual feeling by simply conversing, whether it be during an intimate dinner or walking down the street where life, noise, and hustle and bustle create a dance.
It is rare when a film shows human characters simply being human. We are complex creatures and yet today’s mainstream pictures have a way of reducing us to caricatures. Not here. It understands what makes people interesting and so we can see ourselves, if we look closely enough, in just about every single character, not just one. And that is one of the goals of moviemaking: To allow audiences across the globe to try on different shoes, to become more aware of different cultures, lifestyles, and experiences, to open our eyes and realize that sometimes we are more connected than we and others have allowed ourselves to believe.
Revenant, The (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Revenant,” directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is so headstrong in maintaining its high level of realism that at times it feels like we are watching a most captivating nature documentary about a man attempting to survive in the harshest wilderness. In many ways, it is a brave picture, too, because it is unrelenting when it comes to taking its time to follow a character getting from one point to another, how he relates to his environment, and how the thirst for revenge keeps him alive. And yet while the plot is driven by one man’s vengeance, it is not what the movie is about.
Following a most gruesome bear attack, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a trapper, is unable to move, bloodied, verging on death. Although his team tries to take him home, carrying him creates limitations that prevent the group from moving forward. Convinced that there is no other option, the captain of their party (Domhnall Gleeson) asks three to volunteer and stay behind until Glass is dead. In addition, Glass must receive a proper burial. Two boys—Jim (Will Poulter) and Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the latter Glass’ half-Native American son—and a man named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) agree to take on the responsibility. However, a misunderstanding occurs which leads to Hawk’s murder and Glass being left for dead.
A scene that will be seared in my brain for a while is the aforementioned bear attack. Already impressive is it appears as though the scene is shot in one smooth take. On top of it is the actual bear used in the scene. Through the way it moves from the back of the frame to the front, we get a real impression of its size. The sound effects of distinct thuds give us an idea of its weight relative to its prey. I watched in complete horror as the protagonist is mauled, thrown around, and bit. The screams of the man, the deep angry growls of the animal, and the silence that settles in between the savage attacks create an unforgettable experience.
DiCaprio offers a strong performance. Because he does not have very many lines, most of the time he is required to communicate using only his body, face, and eyes. Even more impressive are moments when his entire body is covered and what can be seen is only his face. His character does not undergo an expected arc—and in a film of such high caliber as this, such a predictability is a hindrance.
I argue that more important is the fact that the performer almost takes on the spirit of the animal that tried to kill Glass. Notice the way he moves following the attack. He crawls, limps, grunts, and is consistently covered in grime. Look at his item of clothing, the way he eats raw fish, and the manner in which he is hunted by the Indians. DiCaprio captures the barbaric animalism that is required of his character to survive in the deep forest.
Based in part on Michael Punke’s novel and screenplay by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant,” dreary and devoid of humor but not little ironies, may not appeal to the general public because it leans toward creating a realistic experience rather than easily digestible entertainment, but it is a piece of work that packs undeniable beauty and power. It is, however, for audiences who like to be challenged and to see the medium expand into a territory outside the traditional.
Ex Machina (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer, gets an opportunity of a lifetime when he is informed that he has been chosen to visit his employer’s massive and isolated estate. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a programming prodigy, has a project so secret that Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before he is told a thing. Soon it is revealed to the lucky winner that he has been invited to evaluate whether the artificial intelligence that his boss created is truly conscious. Ava (Alivia Vikander) is the latest and most impressive design yet.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Ex Machina” is an impressive work because, like the great ruminative science fiction pictures that came before, it understands the art of patience. It takes its time to dazzle us with its imagery—particularly the special and visual effects involving the android—to make us think about where the story is going, and to instill a sense of wonder in us despite its limited universe.
The three central characters do not feel like one-dimensional sticks struggling to come out of the page. Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander all have a je ne sais quoi, a presence, that when he or she utters a line, a thoughtful viewer might pick up on certain intonations and wonder if their characters mean something else entirely. The enigma is heightened by Garland’s direction. There are very few sudden camera movements. They simply flow as if it intended to protect us from being pushed out of the film’s mesmerizing, zen-like rhythm.
There are philosophical discussions about what makes a being human but they are never overbearing nor so didactic that it comes across like we are dropping into the middle of a lecture. Instead, certain lines and points come up naturally that feel precisely relevant to a character’s perspective. Particularly engaging are the exchanges between Nathan and Caleb. Both are intelligent young men, but we get to determine exactly which is more clever or more astute when it comes to certain subjects. That is exciting because there are not enough screenplays, within and outside of this genre, where differences among characters are communicated with such vibrancy.
The look of the picture is inviting. Shades of soft lighting and well-lit corners draw us in. Given that Nathan’s estate is both an elegant living space and a research facility, I found myself wanting to control the camera and focus on the little trinkets in various corners. This is why my favorite scene involves Nathan showing Caleb the parts of his AI, particularly the so-called wetware that is homologous to a brain. When the camera is focused on particular objects, I felt like I was in a museum, wishing to know every detail of foreign objects like how they work, what they are made out of, and what could happen to a system if a certain piece were missing.
“Ex Machina” is the kind of film where it is best that one decides to go into it blind. Part of the fun is to discover the little twists and turns as the tension mounts. Although the third act could have used a little bit of rewrite and polish, which makes it a bit less exemplary, I admired that it remained true to itself by taking its time as well as risks.