Tag: jacob tremblay

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan


The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018)
★ / ★★★★

There is a curious drama hidden underneath “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” written by Xavier Dolan and Jacob Tierney, a story that involves correspondences between an eleven-year-old boy who aspires to become an actor (Jacob Tremblay) and an adult television actor on the verge of superstardom (Kit Harington), but its fancy touches—like where a camera is placed in order to show a scene in a “unique” way, how characters tend to break into speeches when emotions run high, on-the-nose songs playing suddenly on the radio designed to underscore how a person is feeling just in case the audience doesn’t quite “get” it—bog it down. For a film about crippling loneliness, it seems afraid or unwilling to get to the point. There is a minefield of unnecessary decorations here. Sometimes less is more.

It is all the more disappointing that the film is filled to the brim with wonderful supporting performances, from Susan Sarandon as the titular character’s alcoholic mother, Natalie Portman portraying a former actress whose promising career perished when the father of her child decided to abandon them, to Thandie Newton as a journalist, typically covering politics, who is thrusted, much to her dismay and exasperation, into interviewing an actor named Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer)—the boy, now a man, whose idol died due to drug overdose in 2006.

But out of these veteran performers, Kathy Bates and Michael Gambon shine brightest, the former playing John’s no-nonsense manager and the latter as a grandfather whose grandson is a big fan of John’s. They stand out for two reasons: 1) strong performances that demand the viewers to look at the screen without blinking and to listen deeply and 2) their ability to put into context what writer-director Dolan fails to accomplish. The Bates character underlines that in order for John to live a life of happiness and fulfillment—and they are two different things—he needs to live an honest life. Meanwhile, the Gambon character highlights the fact that sometimes we forget what we know we deserve. Dolan’s story involves dreams, Hollywood, and celebrity, but Bates and Gambon reminds us of the humanity of the people who choose to live a life in front of the camera—that John and Rupert’s stories are relevant to yours and mine.

John keeps a secret that the fact he is a homosexual. But there is no drama. Does he wish to keep it a secret because he fears it would extinguish his blossoming career? (He is shown to be a heartthrob, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio in the ‘90s.) Or does he simply hate the fact that he is gay? Is it a mix of both—or something else entirely? The viewers are left to make numerous assumptions based on stories—better stories—from other movies—better movies—we’ve seen before. But this is a mistake because we are supposed to learn about and empathize with a specific character, not some vague idea or archetype. It is supposed to be a personal story, perhaps even autobiographical, but it lacks flavor and specificity. It doesn’t work.

The drama is dead dull. It has nothing new or special to say about modern celebrity, idolatry, or public and private spheres. And yet it has the bravado to cover itself with stylistic pretensions. I was so detached from it, that, at one point, childhood bullying is happening front and center… yet I caught myself trying to read texts of various posters in the classroom.

Good Boys


Good Boys (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is way to make a raunchy tween pseudo-sex comedy for adults, but Gene Stupnitsky’s “Good Boys” misses the mark completely. The reason is because it is a one-trick pony when it comes the would-be comic moments: Put six-graders Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon)—collectively known as the Beanbag Boys—in adult situations (buying drugs, stealing beer, spying on neighbors, and the like) and allow their innocence to shine through. The formula is lazy, repetitive, and, for the most part, unfunny. Notice how there is minimal flow to the comedy; just a parade of one wacky scenario after another with no dramatic pull. Cue the boys screaming when things go awry. Just because the tweens utter curse words like sailors does not automatically mean the material is effective. Two-thirds of the word through, the work undergoes a forced and unconvincing tonal shift. However, there is a lack of convincing drama in the boys realizing they will not be best friends for life precisely because the screenplay by Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg has treated these characters as cardboard cutouts for the majority of the picture.

Before I Wake


Before I Wake (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Before I Wake” combines dark fantasy and horror with mixed results.

On the one hand, there is an interesting story involving a foster child, Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has the ability to turn his dreams into reality, but he is not yet able to control it. There is a curious dynamic between the boy and his most recent foster parents (Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane) because there is immediately a question in our mind whether the couple would choose to use Cody’s double-edged gift so that they could see and interact with their recently deceased son (Antonio Evan Romero). The screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, the former directing the picture, does not shy away from human nature—even at the expense of putting a child in danger.

The picture invites the viewer to look at it closely, especially during dream sequences. We are provided peaceful images of butterflies fluttering about in well-lit, well-decorated rooms yet the tone can pivot just as quickly toward darker territory. This is where horror elements come in. Silence is used effectively, particularly during tension-building early in the picture when the audience does not yet have an idea of the threat Cody mentions: The Canker Man, how it appears in his nightmares sometimes and eats people. Notice the careful use of shadows to prevent the viewer from seeing too much too soon. Flanagan has an understanding of how horror pictures work—not a surprise considering he helmed the excellent but largely undiscovered “Absentia.”

On the other hand, the film can be quite repetitive. Jessie and Mark trying to stay awake in the living room by drinking loads of coffee just in case Cody dreams of their son suffers from diminishing returns. Must we really endure yet another discussion regarding how much the couple misses their son? Must we look at yet another family picture with the smiling dead child in it? Perhaps the point is to establish a molasses-like pacing in order to communicate the crippling depression of the household. Repetition can work but the wrinkles in the formula must be introduced with great energy to keep the material from becoming stale.

Although the screenplay gets to it eventually, there is not enough investigation into Cody’s interesting past in order for the mystery to be resolved. For example, the reason why Gore Verbinski’s interpretation of “The Ring” works so well is because it works as a detective story. Time is utilized to soak us into its deepest secrets. Here, only about fifteen minutes is dedicated to stealing official documents, talking to the right creepy people, and going through red tape. As a result, the final third comes across as rushed and superficial.

With a few more passes of revision, “Before I Wake” might have offered a superior experience. The right elements are there, but fat needs to be shed in order to make room for meaty details. As is, it is tolerable but not particularly memorable.

The Predator


The Predator (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Predator” is a marginally entertaining but unmemorable action sci-fi flick that offers a welcome change in scenery. This time, instead of people being hunted in the jungle, the action, for the most part, takes place in the suburbs and a military research facility. However, a different setting does not save the picture from being generic. Although Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s screenplay attempts to infuse some level of characterization behind sheep to be slaughtered, there is a lack of a central presence strong enough to hold the picture together. While this approach can work, as if to build an impression that anyone can drop dead, the project is not helmed in such a way that the danger is constant and convincing.

Boyd Holbrook is given a challenging task of portraying a badass action star. I liked the casting choice because of the contrast between what we think a classic action figure ought to look like—sinewy, tanned, inclined to overact—but Holbrook is the antithesis. Clearly, he is a dramatic actor who just so happens to be very capable of being in action films because he can look good while shooting guns—or, in this case, sniper riles. One gets the impression that he has gotten so used to supporting roles that he does not feel the need to play it bigger than life. As a result, notice that when the performer is in a scene with the likes of Trevante Rhodes (who is so interesting here that I wished to know more about his character) and Thomas Jane, Holbrook almost blends into the background.

This is a weakness because the plot revolves around the sharpshooter who comes across alien technology that he then ships to his son (Jacob Tremblay) prior to learning that its owner would like to get it back. Note the lack of logic of this one-sentence plot description. Those looking for holes will find them—and will grow bored of the exercise. It is a true Hollywood blockbuster in that more thought is put into creating perilous situations than creating an intelligent roadmap of character motivations and the larger power—whether it be terrestrial or extraterrestrial—they fight against. Observe the presence of government personnel and how they are there only to amp up the body count.

The action sequences are standard but watchable. It is surprising that humor is used to allay some of the more hardcore images such as profuse gushing of blood from a gunshot, intestines spilling out of the gut, limbs being torn off completely. While humor does create a reaction, it is noticeable that the approach is double-edged in that because there is comedy embedded between terrifying encounters with the Predator, tension does not build as consistently. It does not help that the plot is pretty much an ordinary rescue operation. It offers no surprises when it comes to character deaths, revelations, or even the resolution.

I walked away from the picture with a marginally positive impression—not because of the action, the characters, or the special and visual effects. Rather, I was surprised by the picture’s willingness to utilize politically incorrect humor, especially in this hypersensitive day and age. It is directed by Shane Black, no stranger to taking risks as writer-director. If only he took more risks with the material, perhaps by subverting it completely, instead of succumbing to Hollywood expectations. After all, the work is meant to revive the franchise which requires a massive jolt. This work is but a nudge.

Wonder


Wonder (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Once in a while a family film like “Wonder” comes along to remind everybody that the sub-genre is plagued by awful and generic movies, often so loud, obnoxious, and busy that they end up saying absolutely nothing, forgotten about even before the end credits roll. Here is a film imbued with expected lessons regarding kindness and empathy, but what makes it special is director Stephen Chbosky putting his finger on the pulse of what makes this particular story worth telling, about a fifth grader with a facial deformity attending school with other children for the first time. It is willing to show kids as living, breathing, complex young people rather than wooden caricatures surrounded by slapstick humor and crude jokes involving bodily functions. The film has plenty of heart and a brain, too.

The structure of the film is fascinating, especially for a sub-genre notorious for playing it safe. Although Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is in the center of it, the story is not just about him. It shows how one person’s struggle affects nearly everyone in his orbit, especially those who love and care about him. We get small glimpses of how, for example, Auggie’s elder sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), must, in a way, shove her personal struggles in the backseat when at home so her parents (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson) can instead turn their complete attention to her brother who is having a very difficult time adjusting to his new routine.

And yet Via is not shown merely as a saintly sister. She has yearnings and needs as a daughter and as a teenager. We even root for her to be selfish once in a while because she is a part of the household, too. Each character who receives a title card before we see the story through his or her eyes is intriguing in some way. I wished the film were three hours or longer because I wanted to get to know every one of them thoroughly.

It takes great talent and discipline to be able to communicate the necessary subtleties of thought and emotion while wearing a mask or prosthetic. Even adult actors usually have trouble with such a task. Tremblay is an A-level performer in the making and I hope that throughout his young and promising career, he would choose to take on a range of characters who may not necessarily be likable so long as they are interesting.

Here, he makes it look so easy to perform through heavy makeup and prosthetics. I applaud him for not relying on being cute but one aspiring to deliver a believable boy who just so happens to have a genetic mutation. Another performer worth looking out for is Noah Jupe, playing Auggie’s friend Jack Will. He takes a typical “nice boy” character and gives it a bit of edge through minute, sometimes subtle, facial expressions. It is the correct approach because the movie, is seen through various perspectives. We wonder whether there might be something else to this character that is worth looking into. We await his title card.

Based on the novel by R.J. Palacio and helmed for the screen by Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne, I admired that the material loves and respects children. As someone who has worked with kids, I found its honesty to be refreshing in terms of how intelligent and perceptive children can be. Even those who are mean are shown to be aware of their cruelty. It makes the audience look beyond behavior and consider why certain characters choose to take action that might hurt others. It is rare when films for families touch upon potentially confronting realities. So many are too safe and forgettable. It is because they fail to inspire discussion.

Time will tell whether “Wonder” will become a modern classic. This might come across as a ridiculous claim, but I choose to stand by it because it possesses numerous elements that just might boost it to such a status. For instance, it is a feel-good film but it is unafraid to put the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions on top of strong performances all around. Many of us relate to the underdog story. Some of us may still remember how it is like to feel ugly in school, to be stared at, to be laughed at, to be bullied. And if does stand the test of time, well, that’s a wonderful thing.

Room


Room (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The power of “Room,” based on the novel and screenplay by Emma Donoghue, lies in its many specific moments where we recognize an exact thought, feeling, or motivation within a material that is supported by many rich layers of complexity. For example, we are able to recognize the precise moment when a mother (Brie Larson) has decided that it is time to concoct a plan for her and her son (Jacob Tremblay) to escape from their several years of captivity, locked in a shed with no view of the outside world except for a skylight.

Larson and Tremblay are very convincing in playing mother and son forced into an impossible situation. There is a sweet tenderness to Ma but at the same time there is a constant fierceness and fearlessness that ignite when elements change just a bit. At the same time, Jack’s innocence is balanced with a sense of wonderment, especially his heartbreaking narration during their continuous struggle, inside and outside of the room.

Like many great dramatic pictures, the filmmakers understand how to employ silence as a tool to highlight a spectrum of emotions. We are able to relate easily because sometimes we get so angry or so frustrated toward a situation or circumstance that there is nothing left to say. There are instances when we choose to let the emotion build—which can either force us later on to take action toward a positive direction or destroy us slowly but surely. The material is interested in exploring these two extremes.

Under the guidance of director Lenny Abrahamson, the picture commands an assured pacing, a distinct look, and a tone that demands attention. His work is exciting because he knows exactly when to focus on a face and for how long, when to pan the camera around a room to highlight its contents or lack thereof, and when to get us to pay attention on the characters’ body language when a face appears blank. There is always something going on and the audience is compelled to want to understand or dig deeper.

There are plenty of opportunities when the material could have turned into a cheap suspense-thriller. It could have been all about two characters trying to escape from an enclosed space. Instead, it is more than that. We get a chance to see the two protagonists in vastly different worlds. We watch them struggle and root for them to make it through for one another.

“Room” makes the case that experiences do not necessarily leave a person and some of them end up carving psychic scars so deeply that there are constant reminders of what one has gone through. And yet the film is life affirming, too. Ma made a choice so that her son could have a chance to live a better and more fulfilling life. The story, in its purest form, is about making a choice—to choose the uncertainty of life over the certainty of four walls and chains.