Wind River (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
While not the most exciting mystery-thriller, “Wind River” excels in mood and atmosphere, successfully capturing the essence of how it might be like to live in an Indian reservation in Wyoming during the dead of winter. It is for the patient, detail-oriented audience. Those willing to look closer are rewarded with a specific experience. Credit goes to writer-director Taylor Sheridan for choosing not to make the material so pedestrian that the mystique is diluted to the point where an otherwise intriguing story becomes dull, just another case-of-the-week to be solved and then forgotten.
The case involves a possible murder of an eighteen-year-old Native American (Kelsey Asbille) whose frozen body is found by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an experienced tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to the nature and location of the potential crime, Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent by the FBI to assess the scene and determine whether a murder, in fact, had been committed. But Banner must swim upstream because Wind River, as a community, has rules of its own and a unique idea of justice, too. Not everyone is impressed simply because one has a badge.
Although a mystery-thriller in its core, the screenplay provides plenty of attention when it comes to the partnership between the tracker and the outsider. For a while, admittedly, I found the manner in which Banner is written to be off-putting, distracting at times. Clearly lacking in experience, especially in snowy terrain, there is such a great imbalance in the supposed partnership that I felt Banner needed Lambert more than he needed her. In movies like this, I tend to weigh the reasons why the partnership works and what characteristics either person are able to bring to the table so that they are able to reach logical conclusions.
Eventually, however, details about Lambert’s past is revealed, involving a family tragedy of his own, that slowly it begins to make sense as to why he is so patient with the rookie FBI agent. In a way, it communicates that perhaps we, too, should be more patient with Banner. As the material unfolds, particularly during the latter half, we start to see why the pair is a solid match despite Banner remaining green. The more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed the dynamics because most films within the genre tend to make or create an impression that the partnership equal. This time, and upon closer inspection, Lambert and Banner’s inequality itself makes the dynamics interesting.
The cinematography is also a standout. There are numerous shots of the land being blanketed by snow which serve as punctuations between moments of puzzle pieces being put in their rightful places. These images provide an overall feeling that although the reservation has its beauty, it also has something foreboding and a certain unwelcoming feeling about it. I enjoyed that some similarities are drawn between the reservation and the outside world. For example, the level of brutality in terms of crimes committed and how family members, in their own way, respond to devastating news regarding their deceased loved ones. There is no one correct way to mourn.
“Wind River” may unfold slowly and the tone is rather languid. Clearly, it is not for the common public consumption. But I argue that because of this approach coupled with an intelligent script and solid performances, the film offers a transportive experience. At one point, I caught myself feeling cold because the camera is so willing to transfix on certain images like the snowy mountains, how domesticated animals gather together when hungry predators are around, the hardened ice around the mutilated corpse being cut with a chainsaw. Peer closer and appreciate the level of imagination within a seemingly conventional crime-thriller.
Ingrid Goes West (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is a challenge to pull off dark comedy with people’s unhealthy obsession with social media being the subject to be prodded, but “Ingrid Goes West” manages to excel at it because it knows what it does not want to become. Credit goes to writers David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer for being aware that in order for black comedy to work, the story must have a dramatic core, not just parading a series of vignettes in which viewers must simply recognize the joke on the surface without looking within and asking what it is telling us or, even better, how it is criticizing us and how effectively. After all, movies function as a mirror of our society. Had the film been written less sharply, the ultimate joke could have been itself—being just another part of the idea or concept it wishes to skewer.
It is obvious that the screenwriters wish to communicate that there is a sickness in our modern society that cannot be solved by prayer or medicine. Ingrid is a representation of this ailment and the character is played with wonderful electric energy by Aubrey Plaza. Those saucer eyes command the screen with manic intensity. She dares you to watch her to the point where you feel uncomfortable. We stare at the screen as Ingrid prostitutes her worth.
As a comic who is aware of the importance of subtlety, even in a comedy, Plaza is in full control of every little emotion obsessive Ingrid must convey, whether she is looking at her phone for the latest evanescent trend or looking through a person because her mind is somewhere out there in the dreamscape of cyberspace. The titular character is fascinating because although she has convinced herself that she wants interesting experiences, it is ironic that she is rarely in the present moment. What is an interesting experience but a person being fully present with the very activity or person with which she is involved?
The most accessible level of comedy in the film involves Ingrid stalking an Instagram “star” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). While the situation likens that of a sitcom, Plaza and Olsen elevate the material when their characters interact. Plaza and Olsen trust that the viewers will be entertained by the situation and so they choose not to always exaggerate a line or how it is delivered. The quieter moments between them are surprisingly alluring… and yet somewhere in the back of our minds we know or suspect that their connection isn’t real since time and again both characters show, by action, that they are false. How do we connect completely with characters who appear unable to be honest with themselves?
But I admired the more dramatic moments even when these verge on silliness. Director Matt Spicer ensures that, without them, Ingrid would have been a one-note joke, artificial, robotic, detestable. I found it a strange feeling that even though Ingrid needs serious help, I still cared about her. I wished her happiness, to find a way to not get involved in one-sided friendships. In order words, the material has touched upon something real. That is, we all know how it feels like to be lonely sometimes. It’s just that some of us are lucky enough to recognize, or learn, that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be lonely sometimes because it gives us the opportunity to focus our energy, to weigh what’s important, and to plan our next action. Ordinary comedies do not bother with the more difficult emotions or states of mind.
Liberal Arts (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Jesse (Josh Radnor), working in New York City as a college admissions officer, is invited by his former undergraduate professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend a retirement ceremony in Ohio. Unhappy with the way things are going in his life in the city, Jesse welcomes the opportunity to return to the university he loves. Through Dr. Hoberg, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore majoring in Drama. They hit it off right away, but there is a problem: Zibby is sixteen years Jesse’s junior, an age gap that is not easy to overlook.
The tone of the first half of the film is relaxed—too relaxed to the point where it is almost boring. As a result, there seems to be an absence of a central conflict. Although Jesse hopes to get to know Zibby in a more intimate way, both in an emotional and physical aspect, he begins to feel that it is wrong for him to take their friendship further because she is far too young despite how mature she presents herself. There is a funny scene that involves the college admissions officer writing on a notebook and comparing their ages. When Jesse was sixteen, Zibby had not been conceived yet.
Couple Jesse’s romantic struggle to his fears about becoming old and feelings of disappointment with how his life has turned out, the two almost cancel each other. While the latter feels more important, the screenplay does not spend much time exploring it. Instead, focus is spent on cutesy scenes of Zibby and Jesse writing each other letters and smiling as they read them—with voiceovers, no less. While Radnor and Olsen look good together, the only scene that works completely is when their characters’ opinions are pit against one another. After Zibby admits that she likes to read vampire novels, Jesse looks at her disbelievingly, for not having better taste.
It gets better somewhat in the second half, but the characters most worthy of attention are not given enough dialogue. Jesse meets Dean (John Magaro), a student on a full scholarship but happens to be on all sorts of medication due to an emotional disorder. He confesses to the alumnus that he is “aggressively unhappy” in the university. At one point Dean asks, “Why did you love it here so much?” There is impact because for the first time we see Jesse scrambling for an answer. As a college admissions officer, he has gotten used to asking the difficult questions during interviews. With Dean, he finds himself on the other side. That is interesting.
And then there is Dr. Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse holds her in high regard since he loved her class so much. Despite many compliments he sends her way, she gives him a look of disdain, almost disgusted by a pining former student. Dr. Fairfield’s story is touched on but never delved into. It is unfortunate because there are morsels of truth in her cynicism.
But it all goes back to what Jesse and Zibby have. I just could not buy it. This may sound like an odd critique but I felt Olsen is more intelligent than the character she plays. It is distracting. The script forces her to say words like “whatever” and “like” but it comes off forced, a constant reminder that she is still very young. Now, if Zibby had been written as smarter and more insightful than Jesse, the situation might have been more complex, more interesting. However, that is not what is up on screen.
Very Good Girls (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerri (Elizabeth Olsen) are best friends who live in New York who one day meet and fall for the same guy named David (Boyd Holbrook). Written and directed by Naomi Foner, although “Very Good Girls” is unrealistic in terms of how young people are actually like today, within the confines of the story being told, the picture works because it is able to employ a nostalgic tone and continually attempts to establish the characters beyond the premise of the film: two girls who wish to lose their virginity before they go off to their respective universities in the fall.
Given its premise, how does one make the story not come across tacky? The casting of Fanning and Olsen is key because these are performers who can communicate more than one emotion at once even without speaking. It is expected that Lilly and Gerri are opposites—the former coming from a well-to-do family but having no laughter in their home and the later from a sort of bohemian family and they are very open to one another—but as we spend more time with them, we learn why the girls are very close. When they hold conversations, they do not always have to explain what could be wrong. Sometimes all they have to do is look at one another’s eyes and form an understanding given that they know each other’s families well enough.
Less interesting is the girls’ relationship with David. Although Holbrook does an all right job in general, part of the problem is that the character is poorly written compared Gerri and Lilly. As a result, he comes across as dull most of the time. We eventually come to learn about his interests and hopes for the future but we never get a real sense of his inner drive to get to where he wants to be. So, other than a physical attraction, what else does Gerri and Lilly see in him?
There is a subplot involving Lilly’s parents (Ellen Barkin, Clark Gregg) being on the verge of a separation because of an infidelity. It is supposed to draw some parallels in terms of how Lilly feels or thinks about when David and Gerri are together. Although the writer-director connects the dots for us, the subplot does not always work because we do not get a complete picture of how the marriage is really like. In the end, more discerning viewers will likely recognize that the marriage and the friendship are not comparable.
Halfway through the picture, I expected a shift in perspective: the first half being about Lilly and David and the second about David and Gerri. This does not occur, which is a pleasant surprise, but I wished that it did. This is because the film touches upon the subject of betrayal. The material makes a case that silent betrayals can sometimes hurt more than having to have a confrontation about them. It would have been a stronger picture if we were given a chance to understand the two girls equally and why they felt they needed to make certain choices that they knew would hurt the other.
Despite its shortcomings, I appreciated “Very Good Girls” for its mature approach of two girls wishing to lose their virginity. Under another filmmaker’s reigns, it could have turned exploitative—especially in terms of Lilly’s relationship with a much older co-worker (Peter Sarsgaard). Fanning and Olsen share an interesting chemistry and they make good decisions on a consistent basis so their characters remain fresh in familiar material.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I heard of news that Gareth Edwards was going to direct “Godzilla,” I was elated because I knew he would be up to the task of creating an effective monster feature with highly defined suspense-thriller elements. After all, he helmed the impressive “Monsters,” a story about a photographer and his boss’ daughter making their way from Mexico to the United States while avoiding giant octopus-like aliens. In my original review of that picture, I cited Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Edwards may not have had the big budget at the time but his work exhibits big imagination.
So what happens when a filmmaker with a sizable imagination is given a generous budget? Right from the opening credits, we are given a taste that the film is shaped by someone who loves images and playing with them. The black-and-white videos that have been spliced together denote curious and bizarre military activities.
Giant, fin-like structures arise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Naval fleets and planes investigate it. There are black markers drawn on highly classified documents. Stern-looking military officials observe through binoculars from afar. There is detonation of a nuclear weapon. As Alexandre Desplat’s urgent soundtrack reaches a crescendo, we realize that the images are already telling a story even before the first line of the script is uttered. It sets up the stage for people like me—someone who has never seen a Godzilla movie.
The director gives us more than just repetitive shots of the monster roaring or screeching and destroying landmarks. Edwards’ work is an antithesis of movies like Colin and Greg Strause’s nonsensical and brain cell-destroying “Skyline” and all of Michael Bay’s painfully generic, boring, unambitious, waste of time, and maddening “Transformers” sequels. Here, while we are able to see chaos and destruction, the key is that we are given time to appreciate them. It is done through humor, camera work that does not shake relentlessly when our eyes are supposed to be transfixed on a particular point, and a sense of perspective.
One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place in Oahu, Hawaii. A monster sends a plane soaring and when it crashes onto another plane at the airport, we watch a domino effect with increasing sense of dread—one plane crashing right next to the other on the left side of the screen—slowly catching up to the middle—and then a giant, leathery monster foot appearing suddenly on the right side.
Together, the images make the eyes dance and so the sequence feels like it is in slow motion even though it isn’t. Our sense of perspective is played with using a combination of horror and glee. There is horror due to the total obliteration of the planes mixed with the sounds of screaming observers from behind the glass. And yet there is glee because of the freshness and energy in the manner by which the sequence is executed. We look forward to being dazzled in the next scene. And it does not disappoint.
If one requires a plot summary it is this: A massive skeleton is discovered in the Philippines. But that is not all. Two scientists (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins) visit the site of interest and notice that right above the pit are two pods—clearly of unknown origin. Meanwhile, in Japan, an engineer (Bryan Cranston) of a nuclear plant grows increasingly wary of the signals that his equipments have been detecting. To his frustration, his superiors remain casual to his concerns. His wife (Juliette Binoche) and child (CJ Adams, later played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) look forward to the end of the day for a birthday celebration.
“Godzilla,” based on the screenplay by Max Borenstein, knows how to entertain the eyes, the mind, and our sense of anticipation—qualities that lesser films of its type so often lack that we have grown accustomed to experiencing mediocrity. The director gives us more than what we expect because he knows that we deserve more—that we should demand for more. That is a quality I look for in a great filmmaker and only time will tell if Edwards has a vision big enough to warrant the respect and longevity of his inspirations.
★ / ★★★★
After almost closing a business deal and then derailing it, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), an alcoholic, goes on a drinking binge despite the fact that he ought to be attending—sober—the birthday of his three-year-old daughter. He passes out in the street and wakes up in a motel room that is locked from the outside. He screams for help and demands to be let out. No cigar. Cameras around the room record his every move. Twenty years of living in a confined space with no human interaction and living off Chinese food, he is released. The game has only begun.
Although “Oldboy,” directed by Spike Lee, is a remake of Chan-wook Park’s cult favorite “Oldeuboi,” the former has enough differences in the final third to make the two pictures different from one another. However, that is not to suggest that the differences are particularly effective. On the contrary, I found myself quite passive to the revelations when they ought to be exciting or shocking. In the end, though I was not enraged by the denouement, I still thought the experience was a waste of time.
Lee’s film is well-shot and well-made, but it lacks a sinister mucosa. A sense of danger is a requirement in a story like this because this element pushes the viewers to ask questions, to lean in, to be as bewildered or confused or frustrated as the protagonist. Instead, the screenplay by Mark Protosevich prefers to show behavior rather than the inner workings of minds—the mind of a victim who had a chunk of his life stolen from him as well as the mind of a perpetrator (Sharlto Copley) who believes that his actions are justified.
Delving into the psychology of a person requires not only a slow unveiling of key information but also a sense of control of mood with respect to what is being revealed. Here, the mood, tone, and atmosphere remain constant and flat. As a result, Joe’s investigation, with the help of a nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), is uninteresting for the most part. I felt as though I was watching a pair follow a trail of crumbs—Point A to Point B—rather than starting at Point A and then having a choice to explore multiple paths that may or may not lead to answers that they wish to attain.
Copley is miscast as the man responsible for Joe’s imprisonment. Though he tries to be dangerous in voice and mannerisms, the whole charade comes off as a distracting performance, almost a caricature. He fails to communicate a level of seething anger. Perhaps a more natural approach might have been better. I wondered how our understanding of the mysterious character would have been different if someone like Mads Mikkelsen had played him.
“Oldboy” is a remake and there is nothing we can do to change that. I am not against remakes as long as I feel they are worth my time. Though a few scenes are well-shot— especially in the first half—its lack of nuance in terms of characterization and how the plot develops is an increasing source of disappointment. I was not convinced that the filmmakers really understood what ought to be extracted from the original and what should be changed in order to create a better piece of work.
Red Lights (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) visit a family that believes their new home is haunted. Seconds after Margaret and Tom step inside, loud banging can be heard from upstairs. The father insists that the noise has been so relentless, his family is unable to get a proper night’s sleep. Once everyone is acquainted, a seance is performed by a medium. The table shakes more violently as the medium’s connection to the spirits intensifies. Meanwhile, as a renowned psychologist and physicist, respectively, Dr. Matheson and Tom know that the seance is a complete sham. They make a living debunking so-called paranormal phenomena and this particular “haunted” house proves to be an easy case.
Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés, “Red Lights” is unwaveringly confident as it moves from the idea that logic offers the best solution for mystifying problems to opening up the possibility that perhaps science, despite being a singularly powerful tool, does not have all the answers.
The interplay between Dr. Matheson and Tom is interesting in that although they believe in science, we are given a chance to understand the subtle differences of their beliefs as well as their approaches to solving problems. Although one’s status and level of experience is higher than the other, observing them interact feels fresh because the relationship feels mutualistic. There is a reason for us to keep watching because the surprises do not depend on scenes where they reveal channelers, healers, and the like as charlatans.
A darker turn is taken, however, when Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), one of the world’s most popular psychic who happens to be blind, suddenly comes out of retirement. Tom becomes desperate to prove to the world that Silver is simply a very talented performer. He does not understand why his mentor is reluctant to go after Silver given that if they are successful, not only will their department get more funding, their lives’ work will be recognized universally.
The screenplay has a few surprises. Instead of a typical showdown of mind games between Dr. Matheson and Silver, it is fascinating how neither share one scene together. Instead, through Dr. Matheson’s recollection, we are given background information about their history in the 70s which eventually explains why she does not want anything to do with the man. The second half is more deeply-footed in its ominous atmosphere, the use of music more sparing, and the images more bizarre. Its pacing, too, becomes more unpredictable. Quick in some, slow in others, and completely stagnant in what can potentially be Tom’s salvation, specifically his relationship with Sally (Elizabeth Olsen), a pupil of Dr. Matheson.
Coincidences pile up like dead autumn leaves as Tom, the lost sheep, obsessively sorts through them with hopes of finding a golden answer. Which “coincidences” does Silver induce and which ones do Tom creates for himself? Sometimes it is challenging to discern and, arguably, it may not even matter–at least for Tom. Do logical answers matter much to irrational minds?
Sharply photographed, smartly written, and well-directed, “Red Lights” brings to mind the beautiful contradictions in Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” and the paranoia of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder.” It may not be as accessible as either but it certainly is as mesmerizing.
Silent House (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to sell their lakeside home, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), were required to clean the place and pack memorabilia they wanted to keep. Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John’s brother, lent a helping hand and the two fixed up the basement while throwing playful insults at each other as most close siblings tend to do. As Sarah lit lanterns and began sorting through boxes, there was a knock on the front door. It was Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah’s forgotten childhood friend, and the two eventually decided that they would hang out and reminisce old times. Sarah got back to her work. There was another knock on the door. There was no one there. Based on Gustavo Hernández’ “La casa muda,” the film followed every step that Sarah had taken from the moment we laid eyes on her as she stared placidly across the lake up until she was finally allowed to walk away from the house–all supposedly taken in one take. I’m not sure if such a claim was true, but even if it was an illusion, it was executed convincingly. The picture demanded prodigious patience. There were no shocks that forced our hearts to jump out of our chests every five minutes. The images were supposed to get under our skin and make us believe there was something odd around the corner. Since there was no electricity, every room looked menacing because boxes, plastic bags, and random pointed objects created shadows that suggested there could be something there if one looked closely enough. There were also plenty of mirrors. In horror movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect our protagonists to pass by a mirror, preferably old-looking, without noticing a ghost or whatnot staring right at them. While I will refrain from saying whether or not that cliché was implemented here, the material was able to construct an increasing amount of dread with every creaking door nearby, strange tapping in the room, and deafening thuds next door. Olsen was required to be more than a girl cowering in fear. While her character was fearful of every little thing, which, admittedly, I found quite annoying in the first few minutes, Olsen had way of combining terrified expressions with confusion and anticipation. Turning the doorknob was a challenge for Sarah. Most of us would find ourselves leaning back just in case something on the other side was waiting to go, “Boo!” Since Olsen’s performance had subtle variations, I believed that Sarah was consistently doing the best she could to try to get out of the house and find help. What I didn’t enjoy about the film, however, was its payoff. Imagine being in a roller coaster as it climbed higher and higher up until you just wished it would just reach the top, finally go down and shrill screaming began. But once it reached the top, the unexpected happened: the descent was languorous and very controlled. It felt unnatural so you couldn’t help but feel out of place. That’s how I felt while watching the final act: there was nothing scary, suspenseful, or thrilling about it. Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Silent House,” at its best, made me gasp once or twice. At its worst, however, I shook my head in frustration that it believed it could get away with a cheap resolution just because the supposed single take style looked impressive.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) made no contact with her family and friends for two years. During that time, she joined a cult, led by the quietly malevolent Patrick (John Hawkes) who renamed her Marcy May, a place where she believed was perfect to reset her life. Unable to endure their way of living any longer, Martha ran through the woods, called her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and asked to get picked up. Lucy and her successful but stressed husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), allowed Martha to stay with them in their vacation house and hoped that she would eventually open up about what happened during her disappearance. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” written and directed by Sean Durkin, captured a traumatized and fractured mind without necessarily showing every violent detail. It focused on the repercussions–how certain things that were done could not be undone. Most of the time, the filmmakers relied on Olsen to deliver subtle facial expressions as she sat in one place, looked around the room as if she was lost or confused, and recalled the terrible things she was forced to do for the sake of the group she formerly belonged in. Every time the film jumped between past and present, Olsen almost played a different character but it worked because the protagonist didn’t have a defined identity. Her first identity was erased after joining the cult. Although we can agree that her decision to go back to the real world was ultimately a good thing, it’s not at all difficult to argue that her decision was unhealthy for her mind. She wasn’t ready to leave. But will she ever be ready to? Martha and Lucy’s interactions were very sad and sometimes unnerving. For example, the sisters would prepare dinner and suddenly Martha would ask, “Where is this? Is this now or is this the past?” It consistently surprised me because something so ordinary, like preparing a meal, was often marred by a strange but very serious question or comment. Lucy, who felt guilty for not being the sister she thought she ought to be, struggled to be supportive by not falling apart. Having her sister under the same roof as her husband proved to be a bad idea but she made the most of it. Yet she was only human. There were times when she would scream at Martha out of frustration because it seemed like no matter what she did, her sister’s condition turned for the worse. Feeling like one’s effort is not appreciated breeds anger and grudge. It didn’t help that she had no knowledge of Martha’s experience in the cult. She was led to believe that Martha had a boyfriend and she was only experiencing a bad break-up. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” purposefully slow in pace but consistently focused on the message it wanted to deliver, was driven by Olsen’s wonderful performance. The glossy blankness in her eyes was haunting one minute, very tragic the next. It was like trying to understand an empty shell. Martha came back in the same body but half of her mind was stuck in that terrible farm, still secretly coming up with ways to achieve freedom.