Tag: drama

Ash is Purest White


Ash is Purest White (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a story of woman who gave five years of her life in prison all for her boyfriend. She is convinced that their love is so strong, he is certain to be there waiting for her when she gets out. But when she is finally released, he is nowhere to be found. Jia Zhangke’s gangster romance “Ash is Purest White” chooses to be far more observant and insightful about the big picture idea of love, what it means to us as observers, and what it signifies for its specific and well-written characters than a typical romantic film with the all too familiar plot and an exhausted dramatic parabola. At its core, the film is about human weakness and so we cannot help but be drawn to it like moth to a flame.

The story of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) takes place over sixteen years. Divided into three sections—before prison, release day and the following days, a decade after prison—each one is equally compelling and curious. I admired the way the writer-director wallops us over the head with time jumps and gives us time to orient ourselves instead of spoon-feeding us information by employing the usual title cards regarding how many years passed or what happened during the years not shown. It moves forward with conviction, confidence, and purpose. So following a major event, which is often surprising, we cannot wait to discover how might Qiao summon the strength to take a step forward in a world that inherently values men over women, both in terms of traditional Chinese culture and the underworld culture that she is only really marginally a part of—if that.

Although a gangster picture, it is drenched in melancholy colors, heavy atmosphere, and music—not of gunshots and bullets ricochetting but of ballroom music, disco, droning of electricity, mahjong tiles, the rain. Instead of overt violence, its focus is the violence within, what we consider as love does to a person who bought into it hook, line, and sinker. In order to appreciate the picture fully, it is required that we embody the headspace of Qiao.

There are many silent sections in the work that trusts the audience to observe: Qiao at contentment, survival mode, when required to be resourceful, to give and be selfish. Zhao creates a thoroughly believable character with every passing chapter. Also notice how Qiao acts or behaves differently depending on the person she is with. This is a character who cannot—not for one second—afford not to be the smartest, most adaptable, most resourceful person in the room. For good reasons.

Another special trait: it is a romance picture that poses the question of what happens after love fades. The answer is not apathy or feeling nothing at all. Zhangke makes a point that it cannot be described and so it must be shown. It is a prime example of why movies matter because sometimes words are not enough to describe a feeling or a specific situation. Qiao and Bin’s relationship is so complicated yet by the end of the story we have an appreciation of why their special connection evolved the way it did. It’s strange because the movie ends in an open-ended fashion but at the same time there is a finality to it, as if to say we have seen and known the characters well enough that whatever we think might happen next can happen.

“Ash is Purest White” is achingly beautiful, layered, without having to be opaque or obtuse with images, characters, or way of storytelling. It simply trusts that the viewers have the desire to see because we have our own definitions of what love is. So we take those definitions and measure them alongside or against what the movie is trying to show or say. It unfolds like a great novel; I wanted it to go on for another two hours.

Teen Spirit


Teen Spirit (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Anyone familiar with Cinderella’s story will know the precise trajectory of Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit,” a musical drama that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In its attempt to embody a quiet independent drama as well as a commercial piece of work, especially since the majority of the songs are pop hits (renditions of songs like Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” and Ellie Goulding’s “Bright Lights” are nothing special), its identity is lost in the process. I realize what it is trying to be, but what it is about is unclear. The reason is due to its lack of perspective: Does it wish to make a general statement about talent competitions? The many colorful personalities of contestants that one might encounter in a high-stakes contest? The cutthroat nature of the music industry? It’s all up in the air, and it’s shouldn’t be.

Elle Fanning transcends an otherwise generic picture. Whether her character, Violet, is dancing, singing, engaging in conversation with someone who doesn’t understand—and doesn’t care to understand—her passion for singing, or communicating a deep loneliness in the dark by herself, Fanning sells every single beat with every fiber of her being. It is so commendable, and it is further proof why the performer is certain to have a career decades from now. And so when the writer-director makes bizarre stylistic choices, it is incredibly frustrating. For instance, when we are in the early stages of getting to know Violet and her voice, her performance is shot like a music video: quick cuts, energetic dancers, energetic lights, overproduced music—empty.

Why not simply allow us to hear, listen to, and process the rawness of Violet’s voice? The best approach is simplicity; an act of trusting the audience of evaluating the subject’s possible star power. Because the filmmaker fails time and again early on to establish convincing reasons why Violet should and will become a superstar eventually, the character’s later performances are not as impactful; it feels as though we are watching a product rather than a real young woman with deep feelings who came from a humble background, a small village off the coast of England. In other words, Minghella neglects to give the audience strong reasons why the subject is special and therefore why her story is worth telling.

There is an intriguing but undercooked relationship right in the middle of the film which is shared by Violet and Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging drunk who lives in his car. Vlad used to be an opera singer and he considers Violet to be the potential he himself lost when he was at the top of his game. There is real tension in the relationship—not a combative one but a curiosity in whether the gentleman past his prime would be able to keep Violet on the right track so she is able to meet her goal of getting a record contract and get her family’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) financial situation sorted. There are sweet and effortless moments of the two of them simply talking and finding commonalities even they are so different—in looks, in personality, their definitions of success. A highlight of the film involves Vlad supporting Violet during the early rounds of Teen Spirit, an “American Idol”-esque singing competition that may lead to superstardom.

In the end, “Teen Spirit” is just another auto-tuned piece of work—glossy on the surface but it lacks heft, substance, juice. In reality, it is not enough to simply “follow one’s dreams,” as they say. There is no emphasis placed on hard work, making the right connections, sacrifices, or taking risks. We see Violet dancing, singing, meeting people, and pretending to be sick so she can skip work and go to an audition—but these remain superficial level drama.

It presents the “what” of Violet’s challenges as a green talent who knows next to nothing about showbiz but not the “how.” It doesn’t give itself a real chance to break out of the usual clichés and expectations using sharp and well-observed specificity. I felt a level of self-consciousness here. Perhaps it is because the film is Minghella’s directorial debut.

The Face of Love


The Face of Love (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since her husband (Ed Harris) has passed five years ago, Nikki (Annette Bening) has been unable to move on from his death. She gives away his clothes. She hides his photographs. She avoids places that hold significance for them.

They frequently visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She finds it to be particularly difficult to be around this place, but one day the widow feels compelled to go inside. She regards the artworks with fascination and solemnity—but it isn’t the same. She turns around and there she spots a perfect replica of her late husband. She later comes to know him as Tom (also played by Harris) and, like the late husband, he is passionate about art.

“The Face of Love,” written by Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin, is a hard sell. The story involving a person’s double and playing it with a straight face? Isn’t that within the realm science fiction and fantasy? But that is exactly what I admired about it: Instead of executing the plot with tinges of silliness, it is brave enough to dare to suspend us in disbelief nearly throughout. We know that Tom will learn about Nikki’s late husband eventually and that he looks exactly like him. That is not the interesting part. It is in how he responds to the knowledge he is provided that tells us everything about his character.

In movies with similar premise, it is too easy to categorize the protagonist. He or she must either be crippled by grief or the person is likely to be suffering from a mental illness. Not here. Bening makes an excellent decision to embody both categories but she avoids her character from being defined by them. She makes a lot of fresh choices. Notice how Nikki is like when indoors. Compare her body language to when she is out in the open. It is two different performances. The unhurried pacing allows us to appreciate the subtleties in her performance.

We feel the love between both characters. Only understanding what Nikki feels toward her late husband’s double would have been severely erroneous. It would have made the character less compelling. Certainly, an irrational obsession would have been the point as opposed to an imperfect but believable relationship. It just so happens that there is a big elephant in the room and to acknowledge it might just ruin everything.

Robin Williams plays Roger, Nikki’s neighbor and with whom he hopes of eventually sharing a romantic connection. Roger is underwritten, functioning more like annoyance rather than a genuinely sad man who also lost someone who is dear to him. Their commonality is loss, but the screenplay fails to hone in on that trait in meaningful ways. Instead, they are given a few conversations that outwardly refer to their dead spouses. Surely there must have been a less obvious way to explore that angle.

Directed by Arie Posin, “The Face of Love” will likely surprise those who choose to have an open mind. Going into it, I looked forward to Bening and Harris’ performances most. They do deliver and share wonderful chemistry, but I was surprised that their characters’ situation resonated with me. The final scene is superlative.

Philomena


Philomena (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.

When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.

But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.

What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.

I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.

The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.

The Souvenir


The Souvenir (2019)
★ / ★★★★

More vanilla than vanilla, “The Souvenir” tracks a film student’s struggles in maintaining a romantic relationship with a man who is addicted to heroin. We are supposed to care about the couple eventually but the screenplay by Joanna Hogg, who also directed the picture, provides no compelling reason why the participants are worth following—together or apart. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is too passive a protagonist, too sheltered and naive, barely reacting to events unfolding around her. She’s not a fast learner. Anthony (Tom Burke), on the other hand, is an unlikable drug user, a leech, an abusive partner with no redeeming quality. It is only natural that the latter continues to prey upon the former because she fails to learn from her past mistakes. Eventually, we grow to expect the numerous punishments Julie chooses to endure. Lacking both tension and common sense, there is something terribly wrong when we find various artworks hung on walls to be far more intriguing and beautiful than the personalities supposedly clashing in the middle of the screen. This is an example of a story that demands nothing from the audience, not even to stay awake.

On Chesil Beach


On Chesil Beach (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sometimes love is not enough. I admired the ferocity of this picture because it begins like a generic romantic drama where newlyweds spend their honeymoon on a hotel by the beach. Their backgrounds, when together and apart, are told in flashbacks, carefully calibrated by director Dominic Cooke. A comic moment here and a touching moment there—yet every time we look into the past, he provides just enough detail to keep us wanting to know more. All the while there is a growing suspicion that he isn’t telling us everything, especially when close-ups become more dominant as the couple start to consummate their marriage.

The couple is played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle who share an awkward but interesting chemistry—which makes for a fascinating watch. Florence and Edward’s moments of warmth are certain to make the audience feel good, but perhaps more powerful, and more intriguing, are instances when they fall into intense arguments, one culminating at the beach which involves a devastating confession and a life-changing decision. In particular, Ronan is at her element here as she is able to change the shape of her face depending on the emotion the scene is about to lay out before us, further proof she is one of the greatest performers of her generation.

But the centerpiece of this slow-moving but most surprising picture is the screenplay by Ian McEwan. He is not interested in creating a boring, picture-perfect couple only to be regarded or envied from afar (or through the screen). Instead, he allows the subjects to be human, flawed, by daring to open up the dialogue toward extremely hurtful situations. They are allowed to be petty, to deliver blows so low that at times we feel ashamed for them. This couple, like real-life couples, is able to use words like daggers and actions like explosives. Because of their sheer chemistry, we wish for them to be together, to work through their problems somehow, to push blame and anger to the side, to start anew. Because the material ultimately makes us feel this way, that is what makes it a romance, not necessary through the lens of the story—or type of story—presented.

Perhaps its weakest portion is the jump in time to 2007. (The story begins in 1962.) Instead of casting age-appropriate actors, it becomes another example of a drama that suffers from ridiculous cosmetics. It is so bizarre when we see heavy makeup on a face (which is unconvincing in the first place) and yet we look down on the actors’ hands only to recognize youth. When I noticed this common mistake, I felt angry because I taken out of a film that I found myself to be emotionally invested for the most part. Overlooking details like the hands being flawless, not having a single age-related spot, is such an amateur mistake. Do not get me started on how the ace performers are so buried in cosmetics that they find themselves unable to control their facial expressions. Even the eyes do not look old or experienced.

“On Chesil Beach” is based on the novella by Ian McEwan. It helps that the creator of the original work is also the screenwriter because it feels as though not a thing is filtered upon its translation from text to screen. Especially interesting is the theme regarding ignorance, how at times such ignorance is actually motivated by societal norms of a specific time period, what is expected of a certain sex, of how a married couple ought to live together. There is beauty and searing honesty that I fear might easily be overlooked because the story begins one way. But I trust the more discerning viewers will find something worth pondering over.

The Trouble with the Truth


The Trouble with the Truth (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Jenny (Danielle Harris) reveals to her father that she is engaged, Robert (John Shea) is less than ecstatic. He expresses his disappointment by claiming that the man she wants to marry is a doorknob, a pencil sharpener—painfully ordinary through and through. Although the news is about Jenny, the scene quickly becomes about Robert. His current attitude toward marriage is defined by his divorce with Emily (Lea Thompson), a successful writer who had since gotten married to a prosecutor. Shaken by his daughter’s news, Robert calls Emily. She happens to have a trip to Los Angeles the next day and so the former husband and wife decide to have dinner.

Written and directed by Jim Hemphill, “The Trouble with the Truth” is intelligently written and executed with a seemingly real understanding of what it means to be married, divorced, and to reconnect in a different way. The key word is “seemingly” because although I can admit to the picture’s technical proficiencies, I found myself unable to connect to it emotionally and psychologically in a deep way. Perhaps I do not have yet the maturity and experience that are necessary to appreciate all of its subtleties.

Shea and Thompson create believable adults who are once married but are entertaining the possibility of getting together again. I was surprised by the screenplay because instead of making Robert and Emily as likable as possible in order for us to root for them to get together, it seems more interested in revealing their flaws slowly then suddenly, the unanswered questions they have for one another, and the lingering insecurities that have latched onto them despite a period of time of not seeing or talking to one another.

The picture is designed for those who are regaled by observing one event unfolding in real time. Here, the couple discuss a range of topics over dinner at a relatively classy restaurant, from the impersonal to wounds that are only beginning to scab. It is quite beautiful and enthralling how Thompson and Shea are able to create characters with distinct, if not polar, personalities and yet the more they speak, the more we come to understand why they decided to get married in the first place: Despite their many differences, they are willing to meet each other halfway. Conversely, we come to understand why they separated.

And yet maybe the point is not in seeing the trouble to rekindle the romance they once shared. One can argue that it is about a couple getting some sort of closure from one another. Though they are able to speak with other openly, the material really gets interesting when a character moves a little closer and fishes for certain details that he or she has been unsure about for years. The question of how many affairs each had been involved with while they were married is an obvious example.

Shot in warm colors and relaxed pacing, “The Trouble with the Truth” features characters with a lot contradictions and that is exactly what makes them so interesting. They may preach one thing but the real challenge is in figuring out which part of it they really believe. We are placed right there at the dinner table, constantly evaluating the situation, what they are thinking, what they are really saying.

Dallas Buyers Club


Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

An accident at work leads Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) to the hospital. After going through his blood work, the doctor tells Ron that he has AIDS and it is estimated that he has only about a month to live. Ron responds with outrage and insists the diagnosis is a mistake. He is, after all, not a homosexual and has never had homosexual encounters. Though he later decides to take treatments in the form of experimental and high dosages of AZT, he becomes convinced that AZT is not a good solution. It made him feel very sick. When Ron hears about alternative drugs in Mexico—drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration—he goes there to obtain the medications.

Based on the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” captures the confusion and desperation of people in the ‘80s who lived with AIDS. Forget a typical character arc in which the main character embraces valuable lessons along the way. Ron learns a thing or two but that is far from the point. We just so happen to see the story through his eyes. It could have been told from the perspective of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and Ron’s eventual business partner, and the story would still be interesting.

The picture falls a bit short on providing sufficient specifics regarding Ron’s drug deals abroad. We see large paintbrushes of what he must do—contacting the necessary individuals, putting on a disguise, taking the plane, bribing—but there are not enough conversations that detail the business deals. Sometimes the material leans too much on images to convey an idea. While a good framework, it is not always the best way to amp up the drama in a subtler way.

McConaughey and Leto provide solid performances. The relationship of their characters snuck up on me because I thought I saw them only as partners in running the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that offers a person a variety of drugs, proteins, and vitamins—less deadly than AZT that hospitals use—for four hundred dollar per month membership. But then the second half comes around and we realize how they have learned to help each other not just from the financial side but also in sharing an experience of carrying a disease that will kill them eventually. We know they will die because there is no cure, only treatment that prolongs.

I wished it had shown more images of how AIDS wreck havoc on the body. We see a bit of McConaughey’s near emaciated frame and some blood being coughed out, but I got the impression that the film is not willing to go all the way and show the true ugliness and tragedy of the disease as in Friedman and Joslin’s “Silverlake Life: The View from Here.”

Regardless, “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is worth seeing mainly for the strong performances by McConaughey and Leto as well as successfully showing a time in which information that we know now about AIDS is not yet known.

Vincere


Vincere (2009)
★ / ★★★★

Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) met in 1907 in Trent, as the former attempted to escape from a group of men. They reunite in 1914 in Milan and get involved in a romantic relationship. For a while, Ida chooses to support Mussolini because he is without a job. However, when his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, takes off and he becomes an influential political figure, he no longer wants anything to do with Ida and their son. To hide his marriage, Mussolini pulls some strings to put Ida in a mental institution while their son is attended by the Church.

For those who do not know much about the former Italian leader’s personal and political history, like myself, “Vincere,” based on the screenplay by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli, is likely to be a very confusing movie. The first hour moves quickly without apology as it jumps forward in time and back. We are forced to make too many assumptions about the relationship and not enough specific details we can hang onto. It only becomes somewhat bearable when Ida is placed in the mental asylum—the pacing has slowed and we get a chance to understand Ida’s motivations.

The historical backdrop prior and during Mussolini’s dictatorship is rather tedious. The picture is rife with repetition involving citizens yelling out whether the country should or should not go to war. I wanted to know about the two differing stances, but the screenplay fails to introduce characters from either side that serve as conduits for us to understand. In addition, using black-and-white footages are heavy-handed and self-important. To hide the fact that the politics on paper is not very well thought out or executed, the filmmakers use real images from the past as band-aid.

Though the relationship is supposed to go sour, not once did I feel that Ida and Mussolini are into each other. We watch one scene of them having great sex, but there is a lack of context with regards to how much Mussolini cares for Ida. Instead, there are plenty of shots of him looking stern and angry. While this is mainly Ida’s story, it is necessary that we get at least a small glimpse of Mussolini’s psychology given that what he ends up doing to his family is so extreme. In order words, here, there is not much to Ida’s husband other than he is obsessed with politics and hates his family. There is no intrigue.

There is one scene that hints at the power of the subject had the material been well-written. During Ida’s institutionalization, a psychiatrist, who is likely aware that there is no reason to keep her in the facility, tells her that if she hopes to be released someday, she must learn to be a good actor—for her and her son’s sake. The camera is placed very closely on the characters’ faces so there is a lot to absorb. Their conversation touches upon complex issues like sacrifice, betrayal, determination, and why it is smart to delay presenting the truth until time is right. It is the most empowering scene in the film.

Directed by Marco Bellocchio, “Vincere” is not accessible even though its cinematography is stylish and the costumes look wonderful. It should have been considerably more involving given that what has been done to Ida is morally wrong. Maybe it might have been a better biopic if the story had been told without pretension.

Mosquita y Mari


Mosquita y Mari (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is a high school sophomore with parents (Laura Patalano, Joaquín Garrido) who push her to excel so that she can have a shot at attending college. Though Yolanda has friends, it does not seem as though she cannot connect with them completely, so when a girl named Mari (Venecia Troncoso) moves into the house across the street, the prospect of having a new friend, one with whom she can get close to, excites her. Yolanda is ecstatic when she learns that Mari is in her Geometry class.

Writer-director Aurora Guerrero captures a genuine Mexican-American experience, one that is complex, subtle, involving, and, in its own way, touching. I grew up with girls similar to the title characters and it is so refreshing to see what I know is real, so beautifully portrayed on screen. Though a small picture, “Mosquita y Mari” is leaps and bounds ahead of many independent films because it knows exactly what to communicate without relying on the usual cinematic tactics of blossoming female friendship.

Pineda and Troncoso’s lack of experience works. I liked that at times they seem to be unaware of where to put their bodies or how to angle them just so in order to look “good” on camera. There were even moments when I felt their nerves as they work toward certain lines that are not natural to them. In a lot of movies, these are qualities I find rather undesirable. In here, however, I found such traits endearing because the story is about the two young women trying to be comfortable in their own skin as well as around one another—as friends and perhaps something more.

One can tell that there is a lot going on inside Mari and Yolanda’s minds, the latter nicknamed “Mosquita” by the former during the early stages of their relationship for looking “like a little fly.” Though they share the same heritage, their respective home lives are very different. Through their dominant personalities and actions, we come to learn what they value. Perhaps Yolanda thinks about not having many friends, the spark that remains in her parents’ marriage, and her prospects of going to college. On the other hand, Mari thinks about getting a job to help her single mother pay rent and if completing high school is the right path for her. Guerrero treats us as smart audiences; there is no explosive scene that shows the major stresses of both teens just in case it isn’t obvious enough.

Though there is an undercurrent of a lesbian story, it feels right that it is underplayed. At least when I was fifteen, it was difficult for me to verbalize my exact feelings, let alone act on my desires with someone who may or may not be interested—or brave enough—to reciprocate my feelings. The screenplay touches upon how it is like to be curious and insecure, how a mixture of the two can lead to a whole world of frustration.

The core of “Mosquita y Mari” is friendship. I found it a surprise that when two girls get jealous or have a disagreement, they express their emotions, sometimes reluctantly, but they are never made into a big deal. Not every teenager’s life is a soap opera. Instead, the characters are allowed to speak to each other about things that are important to them and what they will do or where they hope to be in ten years. Even though they are optimistic, there is a tinge of sadness there. Because they are so different, it is possible that they may no longer be friends—or at least not as close—by graduation.

Blindspotting


Blindspotting (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Carlos López Estrada’s directorial debut is an exciting piece of work—certainly ambitious because it attempts to tackle an enchilada of challenging topics from white police shooting unarmed black men, gentrification, a convicted felon’s place in a society with a bias against them, to racial identity and the disparity between how one feels on the inside versus how one is actually perceived. These are elements easily found in dramatic pictures but somehow, almost miraculously, “Blindspotting” is also quite comedic—and, it works. Here is a film in which one does not walk away without an opinion—or, at the very least, a strong impression. It is meant to incite discussion.

Collin (Daveed Diggs) is three days away from finishing his probation. But it will prove to be a long three days after Collin, on his way back home for curfew, witnesses a fellow black man—without a weapon in hand—being shot four times by a white cop. The police gave only one warning and the time span between the warning and the gunshots is less than two seconds. The encounter haunts both Collin’s dreams and waking moments. He begins to have anxiety about every little thing that might send him back to prison. It does not help that his hot-headed best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), has recently purchased a gun and insists on bringing it wherever they go.

The film’s energy is highly infectious. The screenplay by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs is so devoid of storytelling shackles that characters may end up rapping for whatever reason. These need not have a point or contain pointed social commentary. At times it is simply because it would be a fun or funny thing to do. However, these sung poetry almost always provide insight about the character spitting out the words—sometimes during that moment in time and other times how he perceives his place in Oakland, California.

As someone who lives ten minutes away from Oakland, I appreciated that the film is not afraid to show the city as is in 2018. So many movies, television shows, and songs paint Oakland as a dirty, scary place where crime is prevalent. While it may embody these characteristics depending on the neighborhood, Estrada is also willing to show the brightly painted houses, clean streets, people so diverse and multicultural that seeing my reality on screen made me feel proud. Also, it actually shows that people do wish to move to the city, not just a place to run away from. It reminded me how films—to this day—still represent or portray the San Francisco Bay Area in general with one scoop of truth and two scoops of lies because it needs to be more digestible by vanilla America.

Its comic moments aside, it works as a dramatic piece. This is a work in which the viewer can capture the moment when one character’s opinion of another changes. Strong impressions are not expressed right away; as in life, we keep what bothers us to ourselves until a seemingly small trigger breaks the dam and all of it comes pouring our of mouths. Tension-building is a required ingredient in strong dramas—the filmmakers are always aware of this. Sometimes more is said in extended silence than sitting through a barrage of words.

Although it does not compare to Spike Lee’s great social dramas (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus”), it is apparent that “Blindspotting” is inspired to function on a similar wavelength. By comparison, it is not as confrontational to the point where it threatens to offend more than handful of viewers. Personally, it could have used a bit more spice, particularly when it broaches the subject of gun violence, but I was disarmed by its flavor.

Simon Killer


Simon Killer (2012)
★ / ★★★★

This is what happens when a lead actor is given the monumental task of creating an intriguing character out of a malnourished screenplay. “Simon Killer,” written and directed by Antonio Campos, is an exercise of boredom and futility, a movie that begins but never stops beginning, stuck in a loop of malaise of dour imagery. At one point, the viewer is forced to question the point of it. Is this a deeply personal story that the filmmaker needed to exorcise out of himself or is it merely self-masturbatory, certainly self-congratulatory, fluff that ought not have been made in the first place? Perhaps it is both, but I lean toward the latter.

The premise involving a young American who visits Paris after a messy breakup has the potential go in a million directions, but this picture chooses to go nowhere. The criminally underrated Brady Corbet plays the titular character with a level of unease and danger. When Simon looks at a woman, we feel alarmed. We wonder wether his brain processes the person in front of him as another human with complex thoughts, emotions, and motivations or as an object to be possessed under the guise of “love.” And do not be fooled—the story does not involve serial killers or murderers. It is a metaphor. And, for a while, because Corbet is capable of making fresh choices, we grow curious of the pathetic and damaged subject.

But there has to be more than a gripping performance. Circumstances surrounding the protagonist must not only be interesting initially, they must be absorbing throughout. Instead, we are thrusted into a whirlpool of repetition as Simon experiences psychological and emotional troughs that may possibly lead to a mental breakdown. While the writing hammers on the fact that Simon lacks the basic tools to be able to nurture a healthy, long-term romantic relationship—open communication, for instance—the more interesting question is what made him this way. The material offers no explanation, not even a relevant backstory that may lead to a probable explanation. As a drama, this is inexcusable.

While I liked that the material is not a portrait of a monster but that of a user, perhaps even a loser who will always be one because he is stunted, the material comes across as closed off, afraid to genuinely delve into what makes Simon a bit off. As a result, we are tasked to sit through a series of behavior that, while open to interpretation, is too amorphous to be truly specific to Simon who finds himself drawn to be a Parisian prostitute (Constance Rousseau).

Character studies require precise writing—at the very least. Without this prerequisite, the drama remains unconvincing, laughable, perhaps even unbelievable. While I understand what it is going for, particularly in how it employs the soundtrack to create a sensory, almost feral experience, silences must command equal power when the noise dies down. When we continue to feel or think when there is nothing but silence, it is a sign of high-level writing. Here, I felt that the silences are awkward pauses due to having run out of ideas.

To escape my boredom, I thought about how master filmmaker Gaspar Noé might have turned the material into a more potent, unforgettable experience. First off, he probably would have stripped away the dialogue completely for words tend to distract. Secondly, he likely would have made the music more confronting, maybe even ubiquitous, by making the bass reverberate alongside our heartbeats. He would not be afraid to give the viewers a headache—since inducing a physical response means the audience is paying attention.

The Rider


The Rider (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The poetry embedded in every frame and every feeling of “The Rider” is something that mainstream Hollywood pictures can only dream of. It offers a different type of entertainment—one that is quiet, yearning, inspiring the viewer look within, to ponder about one’s place in life and where it is possibly heading, rather than eliciting reductive and evanescent reactions stemming from sudden turns in plot or pacing. From its simple but elegant visual style to its deeply humanist approach of allowing the camera to rest on faces and bodies—including that of animals—writer-director Chloé Zhao has created a work that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. It is a joy that it took me completely by surprise.

One may read plot summaries and jump to the conclusion that the story is boring, perhaps even depressing. But there is nothing boring or depressing about it. Adopting almost a documentary style, even employing real people who play a version of themselves, Zhao ensures that we relate to the drama. The style is so confronting, we look at the physically broken Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) and wonder how we would react when our own bodies are forced to give up our passions. Brady, you see, had just undergone a major operation on his skull because he had fallen off a horse at a rodeo show. Medical professionals advise him never to ride again or risk losing his life.

I found the picture to be uplifting and moving despite the subject matter. This is because the writer-director has a way of catching deeply personal moments that ring so true, I was actually reminded of beautiful moments in my own life, especially the impressions that have made an imprint in my mind and my heart.

One sequence that I found to be unforgettable is Brady training wild horses. Errors in hand placement, pulling the rope a little bit harder than one ought to, or making sudden movements makes the horse react. You can tell that Jandreau has been around horses all his life, that he respects and loves these creatures deeply, because of the way he puts even the most temperamental animals at ease. At times he does so simply by making eye contact with them. I found the psychic connection, or whatever is, so poignant. Meanwhile, Zhao commands control of the camera by simply capturing a person doing his job. As a result, we learn plenty about horse training—what to do, what not to do, and the importance of instinct—by observation. The approach is romantic rather than analytical.

There is even poetry in keeping us at arm’s length. An incredibly touching scene involves Brady having to say goodbye to a white horse named Gus. Observe how the two of them riding across the prairie is shot. Initially, there is no wide shot in which the rider and the horse can be seen together completely. We see images of the horse’s powerful legs galloping across the land. We notice Brady’s exhilaration of being on a horse again after his skull surgery. He doesn’t smile but he holds the experience with pride.

We see the rider, the horse, and the pale light background—but the framing is executed in such a way that there is no full body shot. The incompleteness, so to speak, is done on purpose, you see, because Zhao, I think, wishes to preserve the final intimate moment between the horse and his owner. We are welcome to observe… but we cannot share their moment on the level that they are sharing it. And when finally do see a full body shot of them together, we are still kept at a good distance. So, as you see, there is a lot of thought put into how its images are put together. It makes a world of difference.

“The Rider” is best discovered and so I made sure to touch only the surface in this review. Those with a penchant for deeply humanist stories are certain to be spellbound by its seemingly simple premise and execution. There is a wealth of insight to be found here.

I Used to Be Darker


I Used to Be Darker (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Taryn (Deragh Campbell) calls her aunt and uncle to inform them that she is on the bus to Baltimore. She sounds desperate and says she has nowhere else to stay. But Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), musicians, are in the process of separating. Still, they welcome Taryn into their home until she figures out what to do next. Her situation is not made any better when Kim learns that her sister’s daughter is supposed to be in Wales.

Movies like “I Used to Be Darker,” based on the screenplay by Amy Belk and Matthew Porterfield, which use realism as a central device to propel a story, are a challenge to pull off gracefully. It is often that the camera lingers, seemingly without purpose, to capture whatever is going on—even if what is caught is not necessarily interesting or engaging. Such is the problem in this picture: a series of scenes that feel like anybody could have shot. As a whole, the events feel very scattered and it begs one to consider the point the filmmakers are trying to convey, if any.

Taryn is, for the most, a bore to have to endure. Perhaps the only moment when she demands attention is when she admits that she thinks she is not very smart. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her lack of self-esteem? I must say I did not disagree with her self-assessment. Halfway through, she remains to be vapid, hollow shell who sleepwalks through the days. When she takes action, it is because she is pushed. How did this person manage to get on a plane from Europe and find her way across the East Coast?

I suppose the point of the film is that Taryn must function as a catalyst for the couple in transition. However, it does not work because, for the reasons cited above, the protagonist is a lump. There is no vitality to her. Putting an incorrect or non-functional catalyst in a chemical reaction is tantamount to not having one at all.

It a shame because Kim and Bill do not get enough screen time. When they end up in the same room, we feel their hurt, anger, and frustration. These emotions are still raw and the wounds are opened when they interact. Even though they no longer wish to be around one another, it is apparent that they remain to have feelings for each other. And since they are both musicians, they express the things that cannot be said through songs. When the camera fixes on a character with only his or her voice and an acoustic guitar, it has moments of genuine emotion. It becomes a movie worth investing in.

Directed by Matthew Porterfield, “I Used to Be Darker” is, for the most part, a trial to sit through. The main character lacks extreme or magnetic qualities that force us to want to get to know her and her circumstances. I would rather have observed the fallout of a marriage without any distraction than a dull girl who carries a secret.