Tag: ed oxenbould

Wildlife


Wildlife (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Upon meeting the Brinsons, we cannot help but to get the impression they are the typical happy, middle-class American family: there is warm food on the table; every member is laughing or smiling; sports announcements are being broadcasted on the radio. But by the end of this story, based upon the novel of the same by Richard Ford and adapted to the screen by Paul Dano (who directs) and Zoe Kazan, the Brinsons as a unit have all but collapsed. Although the story takes place in 1960, echoes from the past reverberate to our modern times with stunning puissance because the work’s strength lies in specificity and details. I think those who have experienced divorce—as adults who were once married or as children whose parents decided to separate—will find a number of honesty and truths in “Wildlife,” a terrific debut film about change.

The fulcrum of the story is seen through the eyes of the son. He has an ordinary name, Joe, and he is portrayed with quiet power by Ed Oxenbould. Joe does not say much, but his actions communicate that he loves his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), that he is gentle, observant, and gears in his brain are always rotating. He seems innocent, but we know precisely what he is thinking and/or feeling when there is sudden silence between arguing parents, when father is fired from a job he excels at and enjoys, the implications that come when mother suggests that maybe it would help the family if she took on a part-time job. Oxenbould emotes in an inward manner—precisely the correct approach in a heavy drama like this one. Not once does Joe cry, but we can hear him screaming on the inside.

Like Joe, the remaining three important characters are never defined by one thing that they say or do. When Jerry decides to take on a menial and low-paying job involving putting out forest fires, we are forced to wonder why. The director, coupled with Gyllenhaal’s thoughtful performance, ensures we know enough about the character to be able to put the pieces together. In my eyes, Jerry has an idea of what it is like to be a man: the breadwinner, the provider, the one who sacrifices every bit of himself for his family. When one aspect of his definition is taken from him, he feels a part of himself has been ripped away. He has no purpose and so he goes up to the burning mountains to find it. To him, this is a sacrifice that must be done.

But for Jeanette, to leave is an act of selfishness. Mulligan’s face is so expressive, she wears at least three emotions in every scene she’s in: what her character wants others to see, what she really feels, and her subconscious wants and needs. Here is a woman who feels she has done all that she could to be supportive of her husband whose nature is to run when life becomes challenging. Although we see the story unfold from Joe’s perspective, an argument can be made Jeanette is the most complex out of everybody.

It is reductive to say that Jeanette is tired of being poor. Yes, on some level, she is. After all, she eventually goes after a man who is wealthy even though he is twice her age (Bill Camp). But I take it a bit further. I think Jeanette is tired of being disappointed; that no matter what she does, she cannot change the very nature of the man she married. In her mind, she is a fighter in important ways that he is not. She regrets to have overlooked this fact prior to marriage. Or it’s possible she thought she could fix him somehow. And so when her husband leaves, she seizes the opportunity to break free from the shackles of having to be let down yet again.

Intensely character-driven, “Wildlife” is a film for intelligent and thoughtful viewers. You get what you put into it; it is required that you look characters in the eye and consider how they think or feel given a set of details that the screenwriters provide. No blame is placed; it is not necessary. There are no easy solutions. There are, however, repercussions for actions taken. The ending works as a litmus test on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty.

Better Watch Out


Better Watch Out (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting an effective hybrid of horror and dark comedy are certain to be disappointed with “Better Watch Out,” a weak attempt at wringing terror and uncomfortable laughs from the audience. It is a beautifully photographed film, the story taking place in a house seemingly taken right off a high-end furniture ad which works as great contrast against the would-be grizzly goings-on inside, but nearly everything about it comes across forced and unconvincing. I doubt that even viewers who have little to no experience with the sub-genre of Christmas horror would be impressed by it.

The premise involving a babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) having to protect a pre-teen (Levi Miller) from home invaders is nothing new, but writers Zack Kahn and Chris Peckover, the latter directing the picture, manage to deliver a few unexpected twists. The first third shows potential to genuinely entertain. I enjoyed that the big twist is not revealed somewhere in the middle or during the final fifteen minutes. Even I caught myself leaning toward the screen, wondering what else the film has under its sleeves. However, once such surprising turns are taken, look closer and realize there is no substance behind them. As a result, the twists, including the work as a whole, fail to leave a lasting impression.

Although a horror film with supposedly suspenseful sequences, the building of tension is wildly inconsistent. For example, when a character is tied to a chair, there is so many dialogue between predator and prey that drags. Obviously designed to establish a semblance of character development, the problem is that the characters are not interesting in the first place. It does not help that the pauses are empty, ill-placed, awkward. This is not a horror film told through dramatic lens occasionally and so silences function merely as nails on a chalkboard rather than creating moments of rumination or giving us the opportunity to connect the dots.

Horror pictures and dark comedies usually thrive on exaggeration, pushing the envelope to such an extent that they either offend or confuse the viewer about the messages to be conveyed. And so it is curious that the approach here is rather prepubescent, undeveloped in that it is neither pushed to be too scary nor too darkly comic. I found that the material is afraid to pummel the viewers into feeling extreme emotions. Were the filmmakers afraid that if the material were too bleak it would not make money? And if so, why bother to tackle this mishmash of genres at all?

“Better Watch Out” might have been a more potent film had the writers taken the time to revisit and think about the works of Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé for these great directors know how to craft seemingly ordinary premises and pervert them into unforgettable experiences. Instead, what results is a mere punctuation in the sea of ordinary, unimpressive, factory-sealed horror-dark comedies released annually. Hard pass.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Things have never been better for Alexander’s family: His dad (Steve Carell) just snagged an interview for a video game company, his mom (Jennifer Garner) is up for a big promotion, his elder brother (Dylan Minnette) received news that everyone is voting for him and his girlfriend as prom king and queen, and his elder sister (Kerris Dorsey) is playing the lead on a school musical.

Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), on the other hand, had gum stuck on his hair moments after waking up, almost set the science lab on fire, and received news that no one plans to attend his twelfth birthday party. So, at the stroke of midnight, he makes a wish: for his family to know how it feels like to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Based on the children’s book by Judith Viorst and screenplay by Rob Lieber, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” could have gone very wrong. In the wrong hands, its priorities would likely have been on consistent slapstick humor—the more bodily fluids the better—rather than a balance of that and real emotions of a twelve-year-old who feels marginalized, invisible, like he doesn’t matter. Thus, the picture is a bit of a nice surprise, one that the whole family can enjoy.

The material commands an energy that works actively to lure us in. None of the characters are fully developed but because a series of unfortunate events are stacked together like pancakes, sometimes without a breather, we come to a state where we wonder and look forward what will happen next. I was curious as to what point the day would finally turn around for the family. I was surprised in that with some of the negative turn of events, there is a silver lining to them. Or perhaps it is simply my unwavering optimism reflected from the screen.

Although the lead character wishes for his family to have a bad day, we still root for him. When he realizes that maybe his wish really did come true, he genuinely feels bad. There are plenty of so-called children’s movies out there, not dissimilar to this film, where a boy or girl relishes—even temporarily—the misery of his or her family. Here, Alexander feels guilt almost immediately but there is nothing he can do to undo his wish. Instead, the screenplay makes him an active participant in supporting his family to get through the day.

The Coopers are not written to be especially annoying. On the contrary, even though they have their odd traits individually as well as a group, they are the kind of family you want to be around or be a part of. Many family movies struggle to find the fine line between exaggerating the characters and exasperating the audience. Although the film is harmless fun, it does what it aims to accomplish.

The Visit


The Visit (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

There is mold in the basement so Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are prohibited from going down there. The energetic siblings are visiting Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) in rural Pennsylvania for five days which is special because it is the first time they will meet and get to know one another. A strained relationship between Mom (Kathryn Hahn) and grandparents had led to them to have no communication for fifteen years—for reasons unknown. Becca and Tyler hope to find out, not knowing what is in store for them in that farm house.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, “The Visit” offers low-level terror, mid-level creativity, and a high-level of willingness to impress—which results in, for the most part, a mixed bag. Throughout the picture, humor courses in its veins which I found to be unusual because it is not meant to be a horror-comedy. Most of the time, in successful, straight-faced horror-thrillers, comedy is utilized to relieve tension. Here, it is used in two ways: as a means for us to get to know the siblings when they are together and as a distraction from the secret to be revealed in the final twenty minutes.

“What is really going on here?” is a question that discerning viewers will ask themselves more than thrice. We are given bones of information suggesting real possibilities. Pop Pop is very secretive about the shed. Nana sleepwalks at night in the nude. Pop Pop is caught “only cleaning” a shotgun when a spit-second before he realizes someone is watching, the muzzle of it is in his mouth. Nana stares at walls laughing uncontrollably. She claims she must laugh in order to keep something away. Is this a haunted house film? Is the place atop an Indian burial site? Have Nana and Pop Pop checked-in to the loony bin due to isolation after all these years? Are they simply suffering from dementia?

Strange events pile on top of one another as Tyler and Becca’s visit trickle away. After a big scare—real or false alarm—bold, red text is shown on screen displaying the day of the week—implying how many days left the two must endure in the house of horrors. I was reminded of bold European horror-thrillers like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”—which is perhaps the point because there is a playful but macabre tone underneath it all. Meanwhile, Nana insists on feeding the children cookies and other snacks when she wishes to steer a conversation away from certain topics. Is something in the food? Is Nana trying to fatten up her guests? (I thought about Kevin Connor’s “Motel Hell.”) Where are the neighbors? The possibilities are too delicious not to think about.

The film’s weak point is the hand-held, documentary style. Earlier, I mentioned that the film is willing to impress. This is a negative example of that trait. The found footage style is played out, tired, and rarely surprising these days. I got the impression that the writer-director hopes to reel in audiences—specifically younger audiences—this way. I found it insulting because I think Shyamalan is so creative and talented—despite a few disastrous projects and more than a few naysayers—that he is so much better than to succumb to this particular way of storytelling. He should have known this, too.

The smart decision to have taken is to mix hand-held camera techniques—maybe when Becca and Tyler question their subjects and when the two are clowning around, trying to get in each other’s nerves—and camera keeping still. The latter allows us the opportunity to be able to stare—and appreciate—the more terrifying images head-on instead of us having to struggle to make out what is so scary in the first place. The art of the camera staying still in horror movies has almost become a lost art—and it is a shame because the point of horror movies, in my opinion, is for the audience to be able to face fears rather than to be distracted from the experience.

“The Visit” earns a mild recommendation because there is more than a handful of creativity here. Futhermore, DeJonge and Oxenbould are entertaining as siblings. They each get their moment to shine; the former in the dramatic field and the latter in the comedic and uh… musical field. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing performers who are capable of range and natural charisma rather than just would-be child actors who just have to look cute or afraid. The movie is best seen outside of one’s bedroom after 9:30 p.m.