Sweet Virginia (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curious dramatic-thriller “Sweet Virginia” is so sparse in its look and content that the viewer is compelled almost immediately to consider not only where it is heading but also what the point of it is, if any. Is it a genre exercise? A character study? One of those thrillers that pivots halfway through when we least expect it? One thing is certain: It is the story of two damaged men, Sam (Jon Bernthal) and Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a former rodeo champion turned motel manager and a sociopathic killer, respectively, who must meet simply because destiny requires that they do. I found it poetic in its simplicity.
The casting choice is inspired because one looks at the physicality of its lead actors and one might assume that Barnthal ought to play the murderer-for-hire and Abbott the motel manager. Given the former’s body frame is quite large and muscular, that he commands a domineering presence, it feels appropriate—it fits—that he portrays the person who commits a triple homicide in the opening scene. On the other hand, Abbott’s physique, by comparison, is smaller, his face angelic at times depending on the lighting. The default state of those eyes communicates a certain loneliness, like that of a bird yearning to be free of its wounded wings. By playing upon the less expected, our curiosities are piqued. Note how both performers play their characters with quiet desperation. It is an intelligent choice because without this similarity, the drama would not have been as potent.
One might critique the work for simply being composed of one buildup after another. While I do not disagree, in my eyes, it is not a shortcoming but a fresh choice to tell a story. The rising action is done well: it is suspenseful, always intriguing, and nearly every scene makes a statement about how complex humans are… even if they happen to be monsters. I admired the camera’s willingness to keep still, particularly when two people are facing each other, both in profile relative to the viewer. We may see only half of their faces, it is likely they have something to hide, but their body language communicates everything.
The look of the picture is foreboding because nearly all colors have been sucked out of their vibrant energy, the element that makes them stand out. It encapsulates the lifestyles of these characters and the small Alaskan town they live in—the inhabitants know that the ennui of the every day is draining the life of them but most of them either do not have the means to make a change or have surrendered to the way life has been for generations. I enjoyed that the folks in the background look like regular people; as they make their way to the foreground from time to time, they may not say anything but their accessible presence made me curious about their stories.
Directed by Jamie M. Dagg, “Sweet Virginia” is not for those who cannot tolerate deliberately slow pacing. Although the premise promises violence, and once in a while we come across it, it is not so much about violence but rather why people result to violence and the aftermath of it. Although not the most exciting thriller, it is full of suspense. There is a difference and this film wields an understanding of it.
★★ / ★★★★
“Filth,” based on the screenplay and directed by Jon S. Baird, commits one big miscalculation: By the end, it tries to convince us that deep down the main character is a good person. He simply is not, despite his circumstances—which, one might argue, are the results of his actions—and there is nothing wrong by leaving the protagonist as is. It is the brave thing to do. No, it is the right thing to do for this kind of material.
A promotion to become detective inspector is up for grabs and Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) wants it so badly that he has already put several plots in motion designed to humiliate his co-workers (Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Emun Elliott, Gary Lewis, Brian McCardie), preferably as publicly as possible. He is convinced that if he gets the job, his family will be one again.
The script is dirty, alive, and full of energy. Though it fails to create a convincing work environment, especially since there is murder case is involved, there is anticipation in what might happen next, who will be used—willingly or not—to set certain vehicles in motion, and what sort of lines Bruce chooses to cross just so he can get a smidgen of an advantage over the rest of his competitors. This is a portrait of a man who is always checking if he is ahead of the game. If he thinks he is second place, his aim would be to destroy the competition.
But watching a series of bad behaviors begins to get exhausting about halfway through. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Bruce had been a rotten person but is actually great in his line of work—so good at it that if he did end up snagging the promotion, we would, ironically, feel relieved about the fact? Instead, the screenplay is superficial in that it appears to be stuck in showing how “bad” he is: alcoholic, addicted to cocaine, misogynistic, homophobic. It fails to show Bruce as smart, pragmatic, quick to think on his feet when shoved into a corner—the very qualities necessary, in theory, to earn a higher supervisory rank.
Dream-like sequences and short hallucinatory shots do not work. These techniques are used as crutches—shortcuts—to communicate Bruce’s mindset as quickly as possible. As a result, there is neither depth nor dimension in how or what we come to discover about him. This proves problematic during the final quarter of the picture because we are asked to sympathize with him. It does not work because not enough time and effort is put into creating a whole person with whom we may grow to care about over time. Thus, the practical decision would have been to let Bruce be bad to the bone through and through especially since that is the material’s strength in the first place.
Based on Irvine Walsh’s novel, the core of “Filth” is quite soft when it should have been as hard as a diamond. There are all sorts of profanities but they are nothing new. Remove them from the equation and what remains is a standard picture with enough attitude to keep it barely afloat. The same cannot be said about better movies of its type, like Danny Boyle’s fast-talking “Trainspotting” and Martin McDonagh’s swaggering “In Bruges,” because there are more layers to them.
Solitary Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Six and a half years ago, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a successful and influential man in the car business, had a physical examination. His doctor expressed concern about his EKG and recommended that he returned for further tests. Ben never went back. Fast forward to the present, the man pretty much lost everything: he is no longer a magnate of his profession, he has lost all his money in order to avoid jail for being a grifter, and his relationship with his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Jenna Fischer) has essentially fallen apart. Ben has a girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), very rich and loyal, but he just cannot help but sleep with women in their twenties. Ben leads a life not worth living—a life of unhealthy addictions and bad decisions—only he is unaware of it.
Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Solitary Man” takes an aging character who is difficult to like, despite his smooth words, due to his overconfidence and bouts of overcompensation and convinces us, even just a little bit, that he, too, deserves a bit of happiness. The many dramatic elements avoids in drowning the film in syrupy romance or possibility of family reconnection. Its positive messages about redemption, or least an attempt at redemption, are in small, sometimes muted, ways.
Douglas’ performance is hypnotic. I enjoyed the way he carries his character with pride when Ben is surrounded by people, especially young adults (Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby), but he is a complete mess when there is no one around to impress. In some ways, he is a bit like you and me, only more exaggerated to the point of emotional self-destruction.
The best scenes involve Ben taking Allyson (Imogen Poots), his girlfriend’s daughter, to her college interview in Boston and the two of them having to spend the night together. Their flirtation over drinks feels so wrong, obviously because of the wide age difference and, more importantly, that they are potentially each other’s step-father and step-daughter, but I wondered and was excited about how far the filmmakers will be willing to go to explore their relationship, whether it be physical, emotional, or both.
The way it plays out is handled with a satisfying balance of elegance and sadness. Poots does a great job holding her own. She looks like a French fashion model who is completely aware that she looks good and that she can have it all, but she injects her character with many insecurities like feeling the need to get back at her mother for reasons so vague, I could not help but wonder if she, too, has the makings of becoming a vindictive and very unhappy adult—a female version of Ben.
I wished, however, that the protagonist is given more time to interact with his girlfriend and ex-wife. Both women have less than three scenes each which is unfortunate because knowing them a bit more is necessary to understand why Ben feels the need to go back to them and, since they have known him for some time, what they saw in him in the first place. His relationship with the two women and how he is with them might have provided us different information compared to when he is with much younger women.
Though Ben has successfully avoided prison for committing fraud, he has allowed himself to become a prisoner of his own age. With some, like Ben’s wife, aging is a freeing experience. But for him, aging is a constant upstream battle and he is deluded enough to think that he can win against time if he tries just a little bit harder.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.