Hold the Dark (2018)
★ / ★★★★
The picture begins with a curious mystery involving a boy (Beckam Crawford) being taken by wolves. At least this is what his mother, Medora (Riley Keough), claims to have happened. This is the third child that had been abducted in their Northern Alaska village. She is so desperate and so afraid that her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier currently overseas, would come home without any facts to offer him that she requests the help of Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a man with extensive experience of tracking down wolves.
Although based on the novel by William Giraldi, screenwriter Macon Blair and director Jeremy Saulnier fail to translate the story from page to screen in a way that is entertaining or enlightening. Mildly curious at times because the mythos of the village, the people who live there, and the animals within the vicinity are so alive, it is such a disappointment then that the majority of the film is a soporific experience, moving slower than molasses for no reason other than to test the patience. Perhaps the intention is to drench the audience in atmosphere and mood, but it is ineffective because it does not give us reason to remain emotionally invested. A slow pacing does not generate interest out of thin air.
Halfway through the film, I caught myself feeling appalled that it is directed by Saulnier, a filmmaker no stranger in establishing a calculated pace and then breaking it by sudden bouts of violence (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”). While the approach is present here, unlike his previous work, the feeling behind the strategy is lifeless. It is like someone else attempting to make a poor imitation of Saulnier. I wondered if he has gotten tired of his usual tricks.
It is like clockwork. For instance, prior to the explosive violence, we are asked to endure the characters speak to one another in either monotone or whispers. It is a requirement that they look miserable or sad. Notice there is no reason for them to speak in this manner. Most of the time it comes across as a performance rather than a genuine moment in time of simply being. As a result, we grow detached from the characters being put onto the canvas. A scene or two after such conversations, somebody shoots another with a gun point-blank, or someone is stabbed, others are shot with an arrow. Another employs an assault rifle to mow down local police. I found the charade to be painfully predictable.
“Hold the Dark” is most frustrating because it is an amalgamation of ideas that, at first glance, do not or should not fit together: animals are behaving strangely, there is talk about being possessed by demons when masks are worn, American Indians reference their folklores to try to explain or hint to an outsider what is possibly going on, and the community tending to have its own unspoken rules. It is the writer and director’s job to put these pieces together in a way that is presentable and welcoming—especially for viewers who many not be interested initially with these occurrences.
The failure of the film, I think, can be attributed to the filmmakers’ lack of understanding of the source material. Because if they did thoroughly understand, joy and excitement could be felt even from the most depressing or bleakest story. The viewers would have a complete understanding of themes, character motivations, and the reason why this story is special to this Alaskan village. Instead, the work is opaque for the sake of being opaque.
Ides of March, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic thirty-year-old campaign manager, working right below a powerful senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is hired to help Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) win the state of Ohio and secure a presidential nomination.
Recognizing Stephen’s suave confidence and talent for spinning stories, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the opposition’s senior campaign manager, gives him a call and suggests they meet in private: Tom wants to offer Stephen a job, one that he should accept because Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) is ready to give them his endorsement which means a certain victory for Senator Pullman (Michael Mantrell) and a loss for Governor Morris.
Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March” is not so much about the politics but the figureheads, seemingly impersonal and cold, that oil the machine. The center of the ruckus is Stephen and how circumstances force to open his eyes and how he learns to play dirty in order to have a career in a field that he is very passionate about.
Gosling is quite impressive in portraying Stephen, a man of ambition, drive, and a specific set of ideals. The film often reaches a creative zenith when Gosling must spar against acting titans like Giamatti and Hoffman—chameleon-like and fluid in portraying every nuance of emotion and intention. It is a tricky role because Gosling must find a way to come off as somewhat submissive due to his character’s comparable lack of experience in politics yet dangerous enough to pose as a real threat, both as an unstable ally and enemy as well as an eventual blackmailer since he has invested so much in the campaign.
Directed by George Clooney, the tension tightens when the behind-the-scenes drama is intercut with Morris’ speeches about how he intends on steering the country toward progress. While Morris’ supporters eat up his every word, there is a growing sense of unease as things start to go wrong in the campaign—slowly at first then like a landslide in strength and speed.
Although the dueling campaigns are both liberal in stance, the picture is a critique about politics as a whole. While it may seem glamorous and important, especially with all the press conferences and media coverages, the film reminds us that, at the end of the day, being a senator, a governor, a campaign manager, or an intern is still a job. And like certain jobs, the workplace can be a competitive environment where betrayal is like the common cold: it can happen to anybody and reactions to the infection tend to vary. Just because Stephen is smart, charismatic, and hardworking, it does not make him immune to the sickness.
Based on the screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March,” equipped with excellent monologues, may be interpreted as having a cynical message. Regardless, I found it fascinating—which surprised me because politics is not something that captures my interest as readily as, say, science or the movies. Experiencing the film is like closely observing a tight chess match. Some moves are easily foreseen but it has enough genuine surprises meant to inspire contemplation.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Oskar (Thomas Horn) of Schell & Son Jewelers had always been close. Both were intellectually curious about their surroundings and they nurtured this passion by throwing a Reconnaissance Expedition, a game where Oskar’s father would leave clues all over New York City and Oskar would follow them until he reached the final nugget of knowledge in his journey. When Thomas died in the September 11 attacks, Oskar found himself on a permanent state of grief. A year later, while reaching for his father’s camera, he accidentally broke a blue vase which contained an envelope with the name Black written on it. Inside the envelope was a key and Oskar made a personal promise that he would find whatever the key opened. Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” tried so hard to be moving, I found myself focusing on its techniques in order to amplify the drama, like the perfectly timed melancholy score and facial close-ups right when someone was about to be reduced to tears, instead of being really immersed in the story. I was interested in what was going on, especially during the parts where Oskar met with various New Yorkers whose last names ended with Black. Unfortunately, such scenes that promised multiculturalism and possible unique perspectives in terms of interpreting and dealing with life and death weren’t given enough screen time to reach emotional honesty. Instead, the picture relied on shallow quirks through images. While I remembered Abby Black (Viola Davis) and her husband (Jeffrey Wright) because of the high-profile actors who played them, I couldn’t remember much about the woman with the five noisy kids, the man who gave hugs every other second, or the elderly people who lived by themselves or in care homes. I began to wonder whether I would’ve remembered Abby and her husband if they were played by actors who were not as recognizable. The filmmakers quickly flew over the potentially interesting supporting characters yet they were brazen enough to summon flashbacks later on to get an emotional response from the audience. On that level, I did find it somewhat emotionally manipulative which I wouldn’t have felt otherwise if we were allowed to spend more time with them and get to know their stories. After all, one of the lessons that the film attempted to impart was the universality of grief and although we may deal with the emotion differently, we could all relate to one another because we’ve all lost someone. Instead, the majority of the running time was dedicated to cementing Oskar’s inability to relate to others like spending copious amount of time in his room and specifying his fears. He mentioned that he was tested for Aspergers syndrome, a form of autism, but the tests weren’t definitive. It explained why only a very select few, one of them his father, truly understood him. Those he didn’t feel close to, like his mother (Sandra Bullock), were pushed to the side. Although some of the images summoned when Oskar felt trapped were quite impressive, the pacing slowed down considerably due to repetitiveness. It tested my patience; it was and it felt like over two hours long. Based on the screenplay by Eric Roth and directed by Stephen Daldry, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was a lesson in the importance of prioritizing. While I understood Oskar’s detachment and why he might come across as irksome because of his autism, it couldn’t be denied that Horn’s acting at times was a bit green. It was another reason why the filmmakers should have dedicated more time on Oskar’s encounters with the people he hoped to hold an answer.
Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.